Friday, February 29, 2008

A Rotten Tradition

Baseball loves tradition and this country has a habit of making mistakes. Congress had no trouble creating something rotten from that.

Congress leads us into so many mistakes and never admits or corrects any of them. And when it comes time to make the same mistake twice – or three times or four times or five times – they jump on people’s throats with both feet.

Hurting people has become a sideshow in this angry mob of a society that we’ve become. We ruined Curt Flood and Pete Rose and then Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. We are always after Barry Bonds and now the focus is on Roger Clemens.

Leading the way are a bunch of corrupt politicians who have already ruined this country and everything it once stood for. But the saddest story lies in us. We have lost our compassion and decency and are led around by a few hateful people that are calling for Clemens to be banished just like the others.

Some even think Clemens shouldn’t help coach or throw batting practice to minor-league players. But he keeps working because that’s the only thing he’s ever done. He has worked for teammates and fans and soldiers and young ballplayers and high-school coaches and poor people in the Bronx.

All that work made Clemens the best pitcher ever and a decent human being. No one has the right to tear that down.

We have already robbed Flood and Rose and McGwire and Palmeiro and Bonds is setup for a fall, too. Some are determined to push us into the same mistake again.

It’s time to break this rotten tradition.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Last Clean Job

Sammy woke up early and hustled over to the Crown Diner. He didn’t want to miss out on the last clean job in the Bronx.

“I was just in time,” he says. “If I had been even a few minutes later someone would’ve beaten me to it. Then I would’ve had to dig through trash looking for bottles and cans.”

A doorman at the local diner doesn’t get a salary, but at least it’s not illegal, yet.

“I work for tips,” Sammy says, “but you don’t have to give me anything.”

The service is simple. Each person gets a “good morning” on the way in and a “have a nice day” on the way out. Hands can stay in warm pockets and no one has to spill their coffee wrestling with the door.

“I get a few dirty looks,” Sammy admits. “It’s just like when I used to wash windshields at the Lincoln Tunnel. Some people will always think you’re trying to rip them off.

“I’m just trying to survive,” he continues. “People give me coffee and donuts and one guy gave me an egg sandwich earlier. I get a dollar here and there. It’s enough to get by for now.”

He lives with his sister and her husband and their three kids.

“I was gonna join the Marines when I got out of high school,” Sammy explains. “My sister begged me not to and promised that I could stay with her until I got a good job and could get out on my own.”

Sammy works at Yankee Stadium during the summer and is a plumber’s apprentice when there is enough work. He spends most of his time opening doors these days.

“There isn’t much out there,” he says. “I’ll have to get by doing stuff like this until baseball season starts.

“Have a nice day.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Same City Hall

Mayor Michael Bloomberg did what he does best yesterday. He struck a blow against some of New York City’s poorest people by raiding stores in Chinatown.

The Office of Special Enforcement seized fake Rolex, Coach and Gucci products, shut down 32 shops and put hundreds of New Yorkers out of work.

The mayor seemed proud of all this.

“Whoever you are, wherever you are, we are going to shut you down,” Bloomberg said at his Canal Street press conference.

This was all done to support multi-billion dollar corporations like Switzerland-based Rolex, which thanked Bloomberg for “recognizing the pervasive crime of trademark counterfeiting and stepping up to the plate.”

I’m sure a custom-made Rolex is on its way to City Hall, but that doesn’t pay the bills in Chinatown. People were back on the streets selling the American-made “fake” watches before the mayor even finished his little speech. New Yorkers have to be industrious to survive in a place where the best interests of a Swiss company are a priority at City Hall.

This is the same City Hall that just cut a tax deal worth $20 million for Major League Baseball to locate its new television network in East Harlem.

The same City Hall that closed the East Harlem Little League field last spring to build another luxury building.

The same City Hall that gives Manhattan’s richest private schools priority use of the baseball fields on Randall’s Island.

The same City Hall that allowed the Yankees to start construction on a new stadium before replacing the parks they took.

The same City Hall that fines people who try to scrape out a living by collecting recyclables off the street.

The same City Hall that allows housing prices to spin out of control and utility companies to rack up record profits while our infrastructure crumbles.

That same City Hall took a shot at people who can’t afford a “real” Rolex yesterday. The mayor got a watch for brokering the deal.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What They Want

Willie starts working the 2 train as soon as he gets on at Gun Hill Road.

“Some guys sit around and wait for customers,” he says. “If you’re gonna make it in this racket you gotta hustle all the time. And it’s important to know the audience and always give ‘em what they want.”

Willie is selling M&M’s and Hershey’s bars this morning.

“They’re good for breakfast,” he announces. “Nothing goes better with coffee.”

“I’m drinking tea,” a woman says.

“They’re absolutely perfect with tea,” Willie counters.

She buys M&M’s.

Willie tries to satisfy everyone so he also offers batteries and decks of cards and little flashlights and naked-lady cigar lighters and gloves and thick wool socks. Earphones and videos and watches are available, too.

He switches to the 1 train at Chambers Street and changes the pitch.

“It’s all about the tourists down here,” Willie explains.

He has Statue of Liberty pens and stickers and postcards and snow globes and yo-yos that flash red, white and blue.

“They’re all big sellers,” Willie says.

But his biggest days come on the 4 train.

“I cleanup when the Yankees are in town,” he explains. “People just can’t get enough of anything with pinstripes.”

And Willie always gives ‘em what they want.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Million Of Them

The stories pile up faster than they can be told in this neighborhood.

Javier is trying to bring the guys up to speed at Juan Carlos’s coffee cart this morning. He starts by spinning the tale of yesterday’s snowball fight over on Gerard Avenue.

“It was a good one,” Javier says. “I was coming out of a bodega up the block and I saw the first shots. Some cars might have gotten banged up, but that’s the way it goes during snowball season.”

Everyone knows that snow on parked cars is the best for making snowballs because there’s little chance that a dog or a drunk has made use of it. The fact that those same cars provide good cover during a fight is a bonus.

“Some things never change,” Javier says. “Kids play the same games and that makes me feel good.”

He quickly shifts to another feel-good story.

“Joba,” Javier says with a big smile. “I’m always hearing something new about that kid. He’s a wisecracking, video-game playing, fastball throwing barrel of fun. I was just like that as a kid.”

“You were a kid once?” someone shoots.

“Yeah,” Javier fires back. “I’m still a damn good kid.”

Javier grabs a handful of snow off a car.

“You want to see my fastball or my slider?”

Nervous laughter comes from the group.

“Just tell us another story,” they all say.

“That’s easy,” Javier says. “I’ve got a million of them.”

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fight Time

A fight breaks out on Gerard Avenue. It is Highbridge against Mott Haven and girls against boys.

Sisi is the leader of the Highbridge gang that has taken cover on the east side of the street.

“Get close to the cars so they can’t hit you,” she tells the rest of the girls.

Carlos – known as Spiderman around the neighborhood for his acrobatic play at shortstop – commands the boys from Mott Haven on the other side of the street.

“Don’t hit ‘em,” he whispers. “Throw at the cars. The noise will scare ‘em and they’ll run.”

He smiles and reaches up to scoop snow off the hood of the car.

Thwack. A snowball whistles over his head and crashes against the building.

“She throws hard,” he says. “Let’s show ‘em what we got.”

Waves of snowballs thump off cars on both sides of the street until someone yells from a building up the block.

“You kids knock that off!”

They scatter up East 153rd Street and across Walton Avenue and up the icy stairs into Franz Sigel Park.

The group totals nine – five girls and four boys – and they are all about 13 years old. Fatoumata is the only one who doesn’t have a Yankee hat.

“My mother made this one,” she says tugging it down over her ears. “It’s nice, but I want one like the Yankees wear.

“I love Derek Jeter,” Fatoumata adds. “He is the best.”

“Hey,” Spiderman shoots. “I’m as great as Jeter.”

“I don’t think so,” Fatoumata says. “You couldn’t even hit a girl with a snowball.”

The fight is back on.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Min Jae Kim was limping and the right elbow was ripped out of his jacket.

“Rough night?” someone yelled as he hobbled down Nassau Street.

Everyone laughed.

Kim laughed with them and then took a bow for the crash on Beekman Street that had quickly become legendary in the neighborhood.

Slippery conditions forced most restaurant deliveries to be made on foot last night, but Kim was determined to ride his bicycle.

“I was making good time,” he said. “The streets just seemed to be wet, but I hit a patch of ice and that was it.”

Kim went down hard on his knee and his elbow smacked the pavement as he extended his arm up.

“I had to save the food,” he explained. “It was brown rice with vegetables, spareribs with black bean sauce, spring rolls, chicken soup and a melon salad.”

“No damage?” someone asked.

“Not to the food,” Kim said shifting on his sore knee.

“The important stuff got saved,” someone fired.

Everyone laughed again.

The ribbing from the other deliverymen is good natured these days. Kim is still the only Korean working at this Chinese restaurant, but he has the respect of his coworkers because he is the fastest rider on the crew.

“We all do our best,” Kim said.

“Don’t let him fool you,” someone shot. “He’s like Mariano Rivera coming out of the bullpen.”

“Yeah,” another chipped in. “But when he comes into the game they give him a bag of food instead of a baseball.”

They all laughed and Kim limped in the door to pick up his first order of the night.

“The streets are just wet,” he said tugging on his Yankee hat. “I’ll take my bicycle.”

Friday, February 22, 2008

Young Again

The snowy sidewalks have everyone else bogged down, but they don’t affect Javier.

“I’m a steady performer,” he says. “People are usually pushing by me, but they are all on my pace today.

“I’m like the pitcher you can count on for 15 wins every year,” he continues. “I may never get 20 and pick up the Cy Young Award, but I’ll always get at least 15.”

Javier stays on pitching as he pushes through the snow on Walton Avenue.

“The Yankees have a staff full of guys that can win at least 15,” he says. “I’m counting on Pettitte and Moose to be in the 15-win neighborhood, but I think they could each get 20 if everything breaks right.

“Wang can certainly win 20,” Javier continues. “Hughes and Kennedy may be limited by the number of innings they will be allowed to throw, but they can do great things.

“I know Joba will also have a limit on his innings,” Javier goes on. “That kid is still capable of just about anything.”

Those are nice thoughts to carry on a winter day.

“I’ll probably always be a guy that trusts the steady performer,” Javier admits. “These kids really have me excited though.

“They have done something pretty special already,” Javier continues. “They’ve made me feel young again.”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Back To Baseball

Eddie is sometimes too depressed to care about baseball.

“The game means everything to me,” he admits. “But there’s nothing good in my life right now so it just reminds me of what I don’t have anymore.”

He is sitting on a plastic crate and hoping to pick up a few bucks during the morning rush. His sign reads: Looking For Work.

“I’d love a job,” Eddie says, “but I’ll be happy to collect enough for breakfast. I just want to get through the day because people are more generous on their way home.

“That’s easy to understand,” he continues. “I was always in a better mood coming home from work.”

Eddie was a sheet-metal worker. A Union man who helped put heating and cooling systems in buildings all over the city. But the work slowed down and he got behind on his rent and started drinking too much.

It didn’t take long to blow the best job he ever had.

“It was my fault,” Eddie admits. “I didn’t handle the little bumps very well and things got a whole lot rougher. I’ve learned my lesson though. Maybe you can’t really appreciate anything until you’ve had nothing.

“It’s probably like that with baseball, too,” he reasons. “I miss the games at Yankee Stadium and I love following the team day in and day out. I want to get back there.”

It begins with a decision.

“I’m gonna get my life straightened out,” Eddie says. “Spring Training has started and I need to get back to baseball.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Picture Perfect

Carl from Gerard Avenue carries the day-old newspaper under his arm even though he can’t get the picture out of his head.

“It says so much,” he explains. “I guess it’s that one-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words thing. It made an impression on me, but since it was in a newspaper I tossed it.

“Then I woke up in the middle of the night,” Carl continues. “I couldn’t get back to sleep until I got up and fished it out of the trash.”

The picture of Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter was on the cover of The New York Times sports section yesterday. It was taken at Pettitte’s press conference and ran under the headline: Spring Begins With an Apology.

“The headline didn’t stick with me,” Carl says. “I read every word they wrote and all of Andy’s quotes, but nothing mattered more than that picture.”

He holds up the newspaper and smoothes the wrinkles.

“These are teammates that have been through it all and are ready to go through it all again,” Carl explains. “It’s the kind of bond that’s hard to explain. People who haven’t played ball will never understand.”

Carl will never forget.

“I’ve always been a ballplayer,” he says. “I played all through school and at Hostos (Community College) and then in recreational leagues all over the city. I’m still on an over-50 team that plays on Saturday mornings in Red Hook.

“I don’t play with the passion and energy that I used to,” Carl admits. “But that picture reminded me of how wonderfully personal and intense the game can be and how important your teammates are.”

And how powerful one picture can be.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Pitcher’s Best Friend

Andy Pettitte is in Tampa, but still covered some ground in the Bronx. He made an early stop at Juan Carlos’s coffee cart.

“I’ll take a small with cream and sugar, please.”

Javier from Walton Avenue was also there.

“I’m a lefty, too,” Javier said. “I always wanted to be a big leaguer and threw all the time. My arm hurt, but I didn’t stop throwing until I couldn’t lift it anymore. I never made it and that hurts worse than anything.”

Pettitte headed to the Crown Diner and grabbed a stool at the counter.

“Pancakes and some of those grilled potatoes, please.”

Jon from Highbridge takes the spot next to him and orders scrambled eggs and bacon with whole-wheat toast.

“Being on the street is the only thing I fear,” Jon said. “I’ve heard that people who grow up rich aren’t afraid of the same things we are. They want a fancier car and a bigger house and a flatter television.

“We just want a job and a place to stay warm at night,” he continued. “That job is the most important thing in the world because it’s the only thing standing between us and the streets.”

Pettitte rode the 2 train to a downtown construction site that has dozens of safety violations.

“I work here to survive,” said Eduardo, who lives on Ogden Avenue in the Bronx. “My friend Fernando fell a few weeks ago and can barely walk. The boss gave him 50 bucks to keep his mouth shut. The rest of the guys help him out, but he might not be able to work again. The boss doesn’t care because there are still plenty of us left.”

Pettitte ended up back where he started.

Javier crumpled his coffee cup in front of Juan Carlos’s cart. He stepped on the rubber and checked the runner at first. He held the stretch and looked the runner back at third. There’s one out and he’s in trouble.

But he dug deep and made his pitch. A double-play ball: 6-4-3.

Javier smiled and winked.

“A pitcher’s best friend.”

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fantasy Camp

Jon from Highbridge is the only one with the day off. The rest of the guys gathered around Juan Carlos’s coffee cart look across their steaming cups as he lays out his plans.

“I’ve got a fresh cigar and a newspaper,” Jon says. “I’m gonna find a dry spot in the park and relax. Maybe I’ll play some dominos if the old guys get a game going.”

“Why are you out so early if you don’t have to work?” someone asks.

“I don’t want to waste the day,” Jon says. “I’ve also got big lunch plans later. That guy Lenny who lives on Ogden Avenue is friends with one of the bartenders at Mickey Mantle’s place. We’re gonna grab a sandwich and a beer at the bar just like Mickey and Billy and Whitey used to do.”

“But those guys where usually grabbing breakfast at lunchtime,” someone says.

“We ain’t those guys,” Jon admits. “We’re just gonna make believe.”

“So it’s kinda like a Yankee Fantasy Camp for guys who can sit at a bar?” someone shoots.

“That’s right,” Jon fires back. “Aren’t you late for work?”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sanchez 77

Marcus sells Humberto Sanchez T-shirts on the 2 train because that’s where he got the idea.

“I was on here after a Yankee game,” he explains. “I looked through the crowd and all I saw were names and numbers: Jeter 2, Rodriguez 13, Posada 20, Damon 18, Rivera 42, Abreu 53, Pettitte 46, Mussina 35, Cano 24, Wang 40…

“You know you’ve made it when people buy your T-shirts,” Marcus continues. “I saw a bunch of Chamberlain 62 T-shirts in September. If I’d seen that kid coming I could have made a few bucks.”

That’s when it hit him.

“I knew Humberto was coming,” Marcus says. “He had the elbow surgery so he’s been flying under the radar, but when he gets here it’s gonna be huge. He might be ever bigger than Joba because this is his home.”

Sanchez grew up just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium and came to his hometown team from the Tigers in the Gary Sheffield trade. He last pitched in this neighborhood for South Bronx High School.

“It will be something when he comes to the big ballpark,” Marcus says. “They think he could be ready around July and people are really excited about it.”

So Marcus talked to a guy at a bodega on Gerard Avenue who has a cousin that knows someone who deals in T-shirts.

“We started simple with just his name and number,” Marcus explains. “But I want to add a catchy line like: Joba Rules or Got Melky?

“That will come eventually,” Marcus reasons. “I’m not too worried because business is good. I guess Humberto has really made it.”

Sanchez 77 is on the 2 train.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Twisted Justice

Equal injustices do not equal justice.

William Rhoden of The New York Times knows that. He has long been the voice of reason defending victims from the angry mob of a country that we have become.

That changed with yesterday’s column: Justice Will Be Served Only if Clemens Isn’t Given a Pass.

Rhoden writes:

“If there is fair and equal justice under the law, Clemens should become the next super athlete, after Marion Jones and (Barry) Bonds, to be pursued by (Jeff) Novitzky to the end of the earth. Or at least to a room containing a federal grand jury.”

Rhoden wants us to believe that the path to justice is lined with more injustice. He uses a 955-word column to twist baseball and race and politics into a version of playground revenge.

It is an effort unworthy of Rhoden. I think he honestly believes, as I do, that:

If there is fair and equal justice under the law, Jones will be released from jail and Bonds will just be the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. And men like Novitzky will not be allowed to defile the United States justice system any longer.

I think Rhoden also believes, as I do, that:

If there is fair and equal justice under the law, Clemens will just be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball.

Injustice is injustice. Having Clemens face the same unfair treatment doesn’t lessen what has been done to Jones and Bonds.

That’s just something to feed the mob on the right that is manipulated by slick operators like Henry Waxman and Elijah Cummings and Tom Davis and the rest of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. They throw up a smoke screen of black and white and Democrat and Republican and left and right and when they’re done they have picked justice from our pockets again.

Rhoden is a journalist that anyone interested in fairness has been able to count on.

Don’t quit the game now.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Joba Style

Moussa fills up the 2 train. He is a big man with an even bigger smile and an enormous laugh.

“Some people are afraid of my size,” he explains. “But I let them know that I’m a jolly giant.”

Moussa laughs as he plays a giant by lifting his feet and swinging his arms.

His brother helped him get a job driving a taxi when he arrived from Mali about nine months ago.

“The work is good,” Moussa says. “I meet people and learn about New York. The first guy to ride with me wanted to talk about: Yankees, Yankees, Yankees. I had just arrived from Africa and I didn’t know anything, but I learned fast.”

He now wears a Yankee hat and a Yankee jacket and even Yankee mittens.

“I’m a Yankee down to my underwear,” he says with a laugh. “People get in my cab and say something like: ‘Nice hat.’ Then we start talking about the team. I read the newspapers everyday so I have the scoop.

“It’s been fun to learn about baseball,” Moussa continues. “Now it feels like I have known the game my whole life. I bought a ball and glove and I toss it around with my brother and some other guys.

“I would have been a pitcher if I’d grown up in New York,” he goes on. “I think I would have been like Joba.”

He does a Joba-style fist pump and laughs.

“I really love that kid,” Moussa says. “He lights it up, but I would throw harder.”

He winks and smiles and his laugh roars through the train.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Exploited

The exploited are born when they walk out of underfunded high schools and into places like the U.S. Army Career Center on the corner of East 161st Street and Gerard Avenue. It’s a popular spot because fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the only jobs left in this neighborhood.

Those who make it home with all their arms and legs ride the D train to downtown construction sites where buildings rise because the bankers and brokers need new offices and they want fancy condos to replace rent-controlled apartments.

The exploited work all day and come home sore and tired and can’t sleep because they close their eyes and see the war. The people in the offices and the condos never see the war.

The exploited might escape to Yankee Stadium sometimes. Maybe they saw Roger Clemens – the greatest pitcher in history – win some of those 354 games.

Maybe they like to talk about that and tell of the time they saw Clemens when he came to visit the soldiers in Afghanistan. He might have signed an autograph and played catch and showed them something their country never has: Kindness and decency.

Then one day they see Clemens exploited by the same politicians that started the wars and have made sure there are no good schools and no good jobs and no decent housing and no healthcare for soldiers or anyone else.

They are upset and try to sleep, but they only see the war and the politicians that sent them there.

Then they roll over and see the baseball sitting on the shelf: Roger Clemens #22.

He is one of them now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dream Day

A snowy night slammed into a rainy morning and turned the Bronx to slush. That made it a good day to talk about anything other than the weather.

“I’ve always had this dream about Spring Training,” Jon begins. “The field is the greenest green you can imagine and there are palm trees and the sun is so bright.

“Everything is perfect,” he continues. “I have a seat behind the plate and a sack of my Mom’s famous tuna-fish sandwiches. I watch batting practice and they take old-fashioned infield and then play until dark.”

Jon smiles and soaks it in.

“I’ve never been south of Staten Island,” he admits, “And I’ve never even seen a palm tree, but I’ve always had that dream.”

It was born in the Bronx.

“I love baseball so much,” Jon says. “I grew up on Jerome Avenue and have gone to Yankee Stadium all of my life. I’ve see the greatest players and the greatest teams and the greatest games, but the most romantic dream I have is about Spring Training.

“I used to think that was strange,” he continues. “But I guess it’s natural to have these larger-than-life dreams about things you’ve never actually seen before.”

Spring Training will probably stay out of reach.

“I have a wife and a daughter and two jobs,” Jon explains. “The dream will stay a dream unless the D train starts running to Tampa.”

He stops and considers.

“I don’t even want to go anymore,” he resumes. “I prefer to keep the dream.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Neighborhood Secrets

Jose is wearing a new jacket when he gets on the 2 train at 149th Street and the Grand Concourse.

“It’s got thick lining for the cold weather,” he says. “The guy at the store told me that it’s the same kind the Yankees wear.”

“What store?” someone asks.

Jose doesn’t know the man sitting across the train, but he quickly sizes him up – wearing a slick suit and shiny shoes – as a banker or a stockbroker. Either way, he is someone who might call the cops.

“It’s just a store,” Jose deadpans. “I think it might have been uptown. No, it was more downtown. I don’t really remember.”

Some places don’t need to advertise.

This store sells men’s suits one week and women’s dresses the next. They offer sweaters and gloves in the winter and baseball caps and T-shirts in the summer. Sometimes they sell backpacks and bags. Other times they have canned soup and peanut butter and breakfast cereal.

Every once in awhile they get some Yankee merchandise: T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts and maybe even jackets like the players wear.

There are plenty of these stores in the Bronx. They are also on Ditmars Boulevard in Queens and on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn and all along Broadway in Manhattan.

They don’t have signs or set hours, but people depend on them.

“I couldn’t afford this jacket anywhere else,” Jose explains after the slick suit gets off at Wall Street. “That guy could buy anything he wants.

“You do what you can to survive,” Jose continues. “And you try to help the people around you. But I’m pretty sure that guy doesn’t live in my neighborhood.”

He might have a new Yankee jacket if he did.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Everything was hard this morning in the Bronx.

The cold that knifed through the neighborhood yesterday was settling in with the guys gathered around Juan Carlos’s coffee cart.

“My hands barely work even with gloves,” said Javier from Walton Avenue. “By the time I got the lid off my cup there was nothing but a giant coffee ice cube. It was as hard as a rock.”

Reading newspapers is even harder.

“That really has nothing to do with the cold,” Javier admitted. “The newspapers just aren’t very good once you get past the pitching form and the box scores.”

People on the streets have been saying that for years by not buying newspapers. Everyone thought it was the online surge, but Jimmy Breslin is offering something new these days.

Breslin – America’s greatest living journalist and New York’s greatest ever – has been throwing fastballs at newspapers as he promotes his new book The Good Rat.

He issued a challenge just last week:

“Pick up any newspaper in the morning,” Breslin said. “Count the words in the lead sentences. There will be at least 25 in all of them: Guaranteed. The writers just want to tell you how many degrees they have from this college or that university.

“Steinbeck would use 12 words in the first sentence,” Breslin continued. “Mailer 15 words. Hemingway five. That’s because they had respect for their readers. It may sound like I’m being hard on colleges and that’s because I am. None of them have any idea how to teach people to write.”

Mike Lupica – who went to Boston College and covers New York City baseball while living in New Canaan, Connecticut – mentioned The Good Rat in yesterday’s Daily News. His column started with a 47-word sentence.

Breslin could sum that up in one.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cigars And Codfish Stew

The wind barreling along the Grand Concourse picks up a page from a newspaper and slaps Javier in the face.

“It’s brutal today,” he says. “That wind will cut you.”

Javier beats it by stepping into a doorway to light his cigar. It takes several tries, but he finally gets it lit only to have the wind ram the first puff up his nose and down the back of his throat.

“Damn,” he says gagging. “I’d smoke at home, but people complain that I stink up the whole building.”

He tries to be a good neighbor.

“Going easy on the cigars is the least I can do,” Javier says. “They don’t complain too much about my codfish stew.

“That stew is the reason my wife left me,” he continues. “She said it smelled like City Island at low tide.”

Javier draws on the cigar and turns his head to blow a puff of smoke that quickly vanishes in the wind.

“It’s delicious,” he says. “The cigar, of course. But the codfish stew, too. I use them both to celebrate. I have a cigar after every Yankee win and I make the stew after something bigger. I made it last year when they wrapped up a playoff spot. They had a good team, but they’re even better this year with all the kids ready to help.

“I can’t wait to see what they can do,” Javier continues. “I think they’ll have me buying a lot of cigars and the neighbors had better get ready for plenty of codfish stew.”

There will be no complaints.

“Well,” Javier says, “the codfish might complain.”

Saturday, February 9, 2008

No Easy Business

There was a loud pop on Chambers Street this afternoon. Heads turned and eyes darted, but all they saw was Johnny Blevins pretending not to hear anything as he hustled to catch the 2 train.

“I don’t want any trouble,” he said heading down the stairs. “I’m not breaking any laws, but that doesn’t mean some cop won’t hassle me.”

Blevins is delivering balloons. He has three dozen gathered in two huge plastic bags that barely fit into the subway entrance. They are mixed blue and white and each has a New York Yankee logo.

“They’re for a party uptown,” he explained. “I think it’s a birthday, but I’m not sure. It’s hard to keep them all straight.

“We used to get Yankee requests mostly during the summer,” Blevins continued, “but now it seems like we get them all the time. This is my second batch today.”

He makes at least a dozen deliveries on a normal Saturday.

“This is party day,” Blevins said. “We have other decorations, but balloons are the biggest seller.

“Delivering them isn’t as easy as it sounds,” he continued. “They are as light as air, but it’s hard to get them around without an incident.

“The train is the toughest part,” Blevins went on. “I may get one that’s half empty here, but a thousand people will be trying to squeeze on at Times Square. I got pushed off once. Then a lady popped half my balloons with her hairpin another time. It can get pretty crazy out here.”

So the balloon he lost back on Chambers Street is the least of his problems.

“We include an extra balloon per dozen so I could lose two more and still be even,” Blevins explained. “I don’t think there will be much more trouble though.”

He laughed to himself.

“But in this business you never know.”

Friday, February 8, 2008

Any Day

Any day could be your best.

That has kept Nelson Figueroa going through 13 professional baseball seasons.

Any day could be your last.

That has kept Figueroa determined enough to survive 13 professional baseball seasons.

He has done some time in the big leagues with the Diamondbacks and the Phillies and the Brewers and the Pirates. But most of his days have been spent looking out the window of a bus in places like Kingsport and Columbia and Binghamton. There have also been stops in Tucson and Scranton and Indianapolis and Nashville and New Orleans.

He has pitched in the Mexican League. And he has won some big games in the Chinese Professional Baseball League.

Figueroa has always been willing to throw a baseball for any team willing to hand him one.

He spent this winter with the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican League. He helped them secure a title with two big wins in the championship series against the Tigres del Licey.

He pitched for the Yaquis de Obregon – champions of the Mexican League – in the Caribbean Series. He faced Licey again on the second day of the tournament and gave up only a run into the 10th inning. That one eventually slipped away so they called on Figueroa in relief three days later against Licey.

He entered a tied game in the bottom of the ninth with one out and runners on first and third. He held them down and his team scored and then he closed it out.

“I’m not a closer,” said the 33-year-old, “but I’m always ready to do whatever is needed.”

That’s why the soft-tossing righty from Brooklyn always survives to see if the next day might be his best.

Figueroa will be in Port St. Lucie in just a few days trying to win a job with the Mets as a non-roster invitee. It’s another shot at the Major Leagues and you never know when it’s your last.

“I’m just trying to get hitters out,” he explained. “I’m trying to make sure that my family’s going to eat well, trying to make sure that I can get back to the big leagues.”

Figueroa believes his best day is still out there, but he knows his last day is out there, too.

That’s what keeps a ballplayer going.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

All Mexican

Everyone watching the baseball game on television was Mexican.

Javier was Mexican even though he was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and lives on Walton Avenue.

Jose was born in La Romana, Dominican Republic, and lives on the Grand Concourse, but he was Mexican, too.

Mamadou is from Bamako, Mali, and lives on Jerome Avenue, but he was also Mexican.

Jon has lived his whole life in this Bronx neighborhood, but he was Mexican on this day.

We were all Mexican because the Yaquis de Obregon – champions of the Mexican League – are trying to come from behind against the Dominican League powerhouse Tigres del Licey.

Licey was on top in the Caribbean Series and they were leading this game by three runs heading to the ninth.

The Yaquis were winless in the tournament.

We all wished for a rally, but it was Carlos Valencia’s two-RBI triple and Oscar Robles’s game-tying single that gave everyone hope.

Nelson Figueroa – another New Yorker who was Mexican – pitched out of jam in the bottom of the ninth. Then we all wondered if Roberto Saucedo could win the game.

Saucedo homered in the second inning and he came up in the 10th with two on and one out and every Mexican cheered as the ball again sailed into the leftfield seats.

We crept closer to the television as Figueroa closed it out for all of us who were Mexican on this day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Broadway at West 66th Street isn’t the best place to meet Jimmy Breslin. There’s not even a bar on the corner anymore.

“People have serious lives these days,” Breslin says. “They gotta make money to maintain their lifestyles. They’ve got no time for bars and there’s no room for characters either.”

Breslin spent a lifetime as a newspaperman covering a city full of characters. But tonight he’s in a trendy chain store promoting his newest book: The Good Rat.

I gave up a bar stool and the first game of a Caribbean Series doubleheader to see Breslin tonight. I’m not alone. The place is packed with people who look on the upper side of wealthy.

These aren’t the people Breslin wrote about, but he speaks easily with them until I slip him a question.

“Would you be a newspaperman if you were just starting out today?” I ask.

“That’s a good one,” he says. “The game’s changed and there’s probably no room for a guy like me.”

He pauses for a moment and then really gets rolling.

“Pick up any newspaper in the morning,” Breslin says. “Count the words in the lead sentences. There will be at least 25 in all of them: Guaranteed. The writers just want to tell you how many degrees they have from this college or that university.

“Steinbeck would use 12 words in the first sentence,” he continues. “Mailer 15 words. Hemingway five. That’s because they had respect for their readers. It may sound like I’m being hard on colleges and that’s because I am. None of them have any idea how to teach people to write. They have wrecked the business.”

Kicking the dead body of a once great newspaper city isn’t what this night is about so the conversation drifts back to The Good Rat and then the book signing starts.

When my turn comes, Breslin asks:

“How do you want me to sign it?”

“Just your name,” I say. “I’ll be dead someday and no one else would want my name in their book.”

Breslin laughs.

“You’re a real character aren’t you?” he asks.

“Aren’t we all?” I shoot.

He laughs again.

I hit the street with a smile and get to the bar in time to watch the Dominican League champion Aguilas Cibaenas beat the Mexican League champion Yaquis de Obregon.

The place is dark and smells like stale beer and spicy chili.

Breslin should have come along.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

One Pitch And Two Throws

It took one pitch and two throws to get the third out in the top of the seventh inning.

The Tigres del Licey were clinging to a one-run lead against the Aguilas Cibaenas when Tony Pena Jr. drilled a ball off the leftfield wall and Victor Diaz tried to score from first base.

Diaz was out at the plate: 7-6-2.

Licey’s lead was safe.

It may not seem all that important since Licey tacked on four runs in the bottom of the inning and rolled to a 5-2 victory, improving their record in the Caribbean Series to 3-0, but that defensive masterpiece drew shouts in the Bronx.

“A beautiful 7-6-2 putout,” yelled Javier from Walton Avenue. “That was absolutely marvelous.”

The play was magic even a world away on a dusty barroom television.

“It can’t be done any better,” Javier went on. “Marvelous. Just marvelous.”

Licey leftfielder Emilio Bonifacio grabbed Pena’s ball off the wall and fired to Anderson Hernandez who nailed Diaz at the plate with a perfect relay to catcher Matt Tupman.

“That kind of play makes me ache for baseball,” Javier said. “They’ll be doing it across the street (at Yankee Stadium) in a couple of months, but I wish they were here tonight.”

Javier closed his eyes and went through it again.

One pitch and two throws: 7-6-2.


Monday, February 4, 2008

Always Adaptable

Min Jae Kim can hear the pounding from the restaurant where he works. It goes on all day and sometimes deep into the night.

“It’s from the construction site up the block,” he explains. “Some people complain about the noise, but I actually like it.”

Kim often delivers meals to the workers, but that’s not the reason he has grown attached to the pounding.

“I think it sounds like popping baseball gloves,” he says. “You know that scattered rhythm when a bunch of guys line up and play catch along the outfield foul line? If I close my eyes I can almost see it.”

The other deliverymen standing on Nassau Street poke fun at his vision.

Kim laughs along with them because he knows how to adapt.

“I’m a Korean working at a Chinese restaurant,” Kim says, “but my favorite food is spaghetti and I love those Dominican cigars they make up on Church Street. I can fit in almost anywhere.”

But he feels the most comfortable at Yankee Stadium with his friends.

“They are all from Taiwan,” Kim explains. “We met when they sat in front of me at a game that Chien-Ming Wang pitched. I became a big Wang fan that day.”

He lifts his jacket to show off the Wang T-shirt underneath.

“We are going to Opening Day so I hope he’s pitching,” Kim says. “But it wouldn’t be so bad if we had to go to the second game, too.”

He is always adaptable.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Javier settles down on a bench near the highest spot in Franz Sigel Park. From here he can look out across the rooftops and catch glimpses of Yankee Stadium through the trees.

“You can‘t see this all the time,” he explains. “Once the leaves come back on the trees it’s completely different.”

Javier was looking for a fresh angle when he picked up his lunch at US Fried Chicken on Gerard Avenue.

“It’s quiet up here in the winter,” he says. “It’s a good spot to eat lunch and maybe smoke a cigar. You can rest and think and get yourself a whole new attitude.”

Javier digs into his lunch: fried chicken, potato salad, cole slaw and a roll.

“I got french fries, too,” he admits. “I shouldn’t have, but they sure taste good.”

He eats and soaks in the neighborhood on a warm February afternoon.

“It’s gonna be strange when the old Stadium is gone,” Javier says. “I’ve been sitting here for so many years that it’s hard to imagine it not peeking out at me.

“I’m not saying that will be bad,” he continues. “But it sure will be different.”


Saturday, February 2, 2008

Ticket Plan

Rodrigo hates getting up early on Saturday mornings because he works late delivering pizzas on Friday nights. But he is saving for baseball tickets and a guy over at Twin Donuts gave him a tip about a job in Red Hook.

So he dragged out of bed and down five flights of stairs to Jerome Avenue. He cut up East 164th Street and then walked along River Avenue passed the construction of the new Yankee Stadium and down the stairs to the subway near the centerfield bleachers of the old Yankee Stadium.

The D train took him to the Broadway-Lafayette Street station where he switched to the F train that dropped him at Smith and 9th Streets in Brooklyn.

He walked by the baseball fields where he used to play in a summer league on Sunday afternoons. A smile inched across his face as he remembered the little stand that sold guacamole tacos in the park.

“I could eat four or five of them after a game,” he said. “I wish I had one right now.”

He settled for a stale donut that he ate on his way to the Van Brunt Street warehouse.

“Are you here to work?” barked a man near the door.

Rodrigo shook his head and downed the last of the donut.

Nine hours later he was sore from unloading huge wooden crates, but he had 50 dollars for the coffee can in the back of his cupboard.

“I gotta keep saving,” he explained. “The Yankees raised the ticket prices and they’ll probably do the same again next year.”

He is headed straight to his pizza delivery job.

“I hope it’s busy tonight,” he said. “I’ll fall asleep if I sit down.”

Rodrigo hates getting up early on Sunday mornings, too. But he heard about some work up in East Tremont.

“I’m not sure what it pays,” he said. “But every extra dollar counts these days.”

Friday, February 1, 2008

Returning The Favor

Dino – short for Dennis – is the most giving man in the neighborhood.

Sometimes he’ll give you a song:

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things…”

Other times it’s a poem:

“I read in the papers about the Freedom Train.
I heard on the radio about the Freedom Train.
I seen folks talkin’ about the Freedom Train.
Lord, I've been a-waitin’ for the Freedom Train!...”

Or he might give you a line from the Bible he carries:

“Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.”

Dino always gives out books because that’s his business.

“Lay a title on me,” he says. “Lay two titles on me or three…”

“Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle,” you shoot, “and Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis.”

“No problem,” he says. “What about Hemingway? I know where I can get a hardcover second edition of The Dangerous Summer.

Dino has sources. He knows every dealer in the city and gets books off stoops and newspaper boxes and even from the trash.

And he knows what everyone likes.

He digs two books from his bag: Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues by William Brashler and Derek Jeter: Pride of the Yankees by Patrick Giles.

“Pay whatever you think,” Dino says.

You give him more than he would have asked for.

But that’s just returning the favor.