Qatar’s World Cup Spectacle Brought to You by Slavery November 23, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Qatar, Sports.
Tags: 2022 world cup, construction workers, fifa, labor, michelle chen, qatar, qatar labor, qatar world cup, slave labor, soccer, sports, teex, texas a&m, worker rights, world cup, world cup facilities
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The big controversies surrounding Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup have been the shady bidding process and fears that the desert heat will ruin the soccer games. But in the past few days, the spotlight has finally begun to move to longstanding concerns over the treatment of the migrant workers who will be building the physical infrastructure for the sporting bonanza.
Throughout the summer, according to an investigation by Amnesty International [PDF] released this week, the future site of the sporting spectacle became a death trap for the Asian workers brought in by Qatar and its booming construction industry to work on the building sites of the planned World Cup facilities, including commercial areas and transportation infrastructure.
Amnesty found that the workers were encamped in sweltering heat, fell from precarious heights and suffered heart failure under the strenuous labor conditions. One Nepalese official described the entire system of indenture as an “open prison,” according to Der Spiegel. In light of dozens of reported deaths, union activists predict that up to 4,000 may die on the sites between now and the 2022 games.
Through interviews with the World Cup construction workers, the Amnesty investigators gathered horrific stories of an array of abuses, including “not being paid for six or nine months; not being able to get out of the country; not having enough—or any—food; and being housed in very poor accommodation with poor sanitation, or no electricity.”
Workers testified that migrants were frequently forced to work for poverty-level wages or sometimes none at all. Often, they said, employers confiscated their identification documents, effectively holding them hostage out of fear of being detained for lacking papers.
Unfortunately, while horrific, these stories are far from unique in Qatar. More than 90 percent of the labor that fuels the country’s oil-slicked economy is imported, typically brought in by recruiters from South Asian countries. Not only are these migrant workers non-citizens; in the eyes of their employers, they are barely human. They live in barbaric, squalid dormitories, their movement restricted, invisible under Qatari law and cut off from their home communities.
Under the transnational migrant “sponsorship” system, according to Amnesty, workers were drawn into the labor trade by recruiting agents who falsely advertised decent, high-paying work abroad–sometimes taking on heavy debt to secure a job. The byzantine residence permit system further disenfranchises workers. When employers illegally fail to arrange permits for workers, as was frequently the case in the shadowy migrant labor market, they generally cannot return home without paying extremely heavy fines. The restrictions on migrant workers’ movement mean that “rather than protecting the rights of migrant workers, the government is adding to their exploitation,” Amnesty contends.
Underlying the whole system are fundamentally weak protections for labor organizing on the part of Qataris and migrants alike, as well as prohibitions on migrants forming trade unions. The lack of organization among workers means many migrants remain in the dark about their labor rights. One Nepalese worker explained to Amnesty, “There are many workers who keep working like donkeys, without asking a question. They don’t understand what is legally our entitlements, what our rights are.”
Some have tried to challenge employers. According to the report, the Labour Ministry and the courts have each received thousands of worker complaints, many related to basic wage and hour and other labor issues. But due to fear of retaliation and the difficulty non-Qataris face in navigating the justice system, most aggrieved workers, according to investigators, probably do not go through with the complaint process in the first place.
One worker with the U.S.-based electro-mechanical engineering contractor Krantz Engineering wrote in a desperate letter to Amnesty in April 2013 about his lack of legal recourse for his abuse:
I am writing this email after lots of pain and struggle … I have complained in several places like Labour court, Indian Embassy, High court, CID and National Human Rights Council Qatar but no any positive response from anyone of them … I don’t have money to eat food from last five days as I didn’t get salary from last nine months.
Not all of the employers using this labor are Qatar-based—the report linked multinationals such as Hyundai Engineering and Construction and OHL Construction to the subcontractors building the World Cup-related facilities. In the case of Krantz, Amnesty discovered that one of the company’s subcontractors was receiving technical training from a company called TEEX, which is affiliated with Texas A&M University. When questioned by Amnesty about the treatment of migrants, Texas A&M argued the firm “does not have any role in the management and supervision of the labor force at the facility.”
Amid international criticism from Amnesty and other organizations like the UN, Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee, a managing body for the preparation for the games, has vowed to address the reported abuses, and FIFA has issued similar comments. In a formal response to the Guardian published in September, the committee cited numerous labor protections available to migrants, including restrictions on passport confiscation.
But Sharran Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation tells Working In These Times via email she is unconvinced by Qatar’s promises. “Qatar continues to announce that it will reform the visa sponsorship system, yet nothing changes,” she says. In the wake of mounting criticism over the human rights issues surrounding the event, she adds, “Unless Qatar reforms its ways, FIFA should re-run the vote for the 2022 World Cup.”
There is also a question of who is directly responsible for regulating labor issues. Amnesty’s report focused on infrastructure construction related to the World Cup but not just the stadium itself—including transportation and supporting commercial facilities. In any case, the primarily responsibility, argue human rights advocates, lies with Qatar to reform its overall labor laws and to tighten oversight of private sector labor practices, particularly for international-sporting projects aimed at creating a global commercial spectacle.
This is not the first time FIFA has come under political pressure; earlier this year, populist protests erupted over the lavish costs of the preparations for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Though FIFA generally urges host countries to comply with international human rights, the World Cup is notorious for inducing local labor violations. For example, labor activists have condemned FIFA for not taking strong enough action against Russia’s temporary suspension of key labor protections for the migrant workers at the building sites for the 2018 World Cup.
The human rights crises haunting World Cup stadiums reveal global sport’s economic realities: the commercial spectacle that brings the world together is built on vast inequalities.
Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, amir bar-lev, andrew o'hehir, football, irag, jon krakauer, nfl, Noam Chomsky, pat tillman, patriotism, roger hollander, sports, tillman story, war
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Friday, Aug 20, 2010 17:50 ET
The Chomsky-reading NFL star killed in Afghanistan wasn’t who you think he was — no matter who you are
The death of Pat Tillman, the National Football League star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire — or “fratricide,” as the military puts it — in Afghanistan in April 2004, was a strange event in recent American history. On one hand, Tillman’s death was covered far more extensively than those of any of the other 4,700 or so United States troops killed in the Iraqi and Afghan combat zones. To put it bluntly, he was the only celebrity among them.
On the other hand, Tillman’s story remains poorly understood and has little social resonance. As a colleague of mine recently put it, Tillman didn’t fit, either as a living human being or a posthumous symbol into the governing political narratives of our polarized national conversation. That’s true whether you’re on the right or the left. If he struck many people at first as a macho, hyper-patriotic caricature — the small-town football hero who went to war without asking questions — it eventually became clear that was nowhere near accurate. Yet Tillman was also more idiosyncratic than the equally stereotypical ’60s-style combat vet turned longhair peacenik.
Mind you, Tillman might well have become a left-wing activist, had he lived longer. He had read Noam Chomsky’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and hoped to meet Chomsky in person. But as Amir Bar-Lev’s haunting and addictive documentary “The Tillman Story” demonstrates, Tillman was such an unusual blend of personal ingredients that he could have become almost anything. It’s a fascinating film, full of drama, intrigue, tragedy and righteous indignation, but maybe its greatest accomplishment is to make you feel the death of one young man — a truly independent thinker who hewed his own way through the world, in the finest American tradition — as a great loss.
“The Tillman Story” was made with the close cooperation of Tillman’s parents and siblings, who have worked tirelessly over the past six years to expose the circumstances of Tillman’s death and the extensive military coverup that followed it. The film is also meant, to some extent, as an antidote to journalist Jon Krakauer’s 2009 book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,” which the family strongly disliked. (Tillman’s widow, Marie, allowed Krakauer to read Tillman’s journals, a decision other family members apparently regret.) Bar-Lev’s dual goals are to document the family’s long crusade to pry the grisly truth about Tillman’s death and the ensuing campaign of lies from the military bureaucracy, and, perhaps more important, to capture the unconventional background that produced someone as unusual as Pat Tillman in the first place.
To use the Shakespearean cliché, Tillman was a man of many parts, and that goes back to his childhood in a rural California valley south of San Jose, where his parents, Pat Sr. and Mary, encouraged an almost libertarian blend of self-reliance and free thinking in their sons. (The Tillmans are now divorced, but have worked closely together on the campaign to unpack the military’s deceitful behavior.) He emerged as a mixture of qualities that seem simultaneously liberal and conservative, all-American and heterodox. He was a football star and avid outdoorsman who read Emerson; an agnostic or atheist who read the Bible, the Quran and the Book of Mormon out of intellectual curiosity; a man who relished the high-testosterone simulated combat of sports, and excelled at it, while also maintaining an introspective personal journal he allowed no one to read.
As a friend of mine recently observed, many of Tillman’s characteristics would seem completely normal among the metropolitan educated classes: He never went anywhere without a book, and typically rode his bike rather than driving a car. But Tillman wasn’t a bearded, chai-drinking grad student riding that bike to yoga class in Brooklyn or Silverlake or Ann Arbor. He was the starting strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals, and parked his bike next to his teammates’ Porsches and tricked-out Escalades. Bar-Lev’s film is a bit light on Tillman’s football career, and doesn’t include any interviews with teammates. You have to wonder how much they liked or understood him.
Now you’re asking the obvious question: If Pat Tillman was such a smart and interesting fellow, why did he walk away from an easy life of fame and money and volunteer for combat on the other side of the world, where he wound up standing on an Afghan hillside and shouting, “I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” at somebody who was shooting him in the head with a machine gun? There’s no easy answer, and in making his film with the Tillmans, Bar-Lev has agreed not to go too far in trying to answer it directly. The Tillman brothers and parents want to respect Pat’s refusal to discuss his reasons in public, so the film never quotes from the journals that Krakauer read.
Nonetheless I think “The Tillman Story” and Krakauer’s book paint roughly the same picture, in that Tillman’s decision to go to war was more personal and philosophical than ideological. He believed that the U.S. was at war after 9/11 — with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, not Iraq or Afghanistan or Muslims in general, Krakauer says — and decided he had a moral responsibility to take part. He believed in an old-fashioned code of masculine honor and valor, but he had also begun wondering whether his life as a professional athlete was shallow and meaningless. You could almost say he joined the Army in a search for personal meaning and moral purpose.
After serving a tour of duty in Iraq, Tillman returned home with grave doubts about the morality and efficacy of that conflict, and began to make contact with people who opposed the war. (This is the Chomsky-reading period.) Bar-Lev makes clear that Tillman could have asked for a discharge at that point to resume his football career; the owner of the Seattle Seahawks was eager to sign him, and the NFL would no doubt have made a big show of welcoming a returning hero. Again that old-fashioned moral code intervened: Tillman disliked military life and thought the war was wrong, but he wouldn’t use his fame to avoid fulfilling his three-year commitment. (He had joined up as an ordinary enlisted man, although he would almost certainly have been given an officer’s commission had he requested one.)
I’m only guessing here, but one of the things the Tillman family hated about Jon Krakauer’s book was probably the author’s tendency to view Pat Tillman’s death as a case study in the evils of war and the limits of idealism. I might incline toward that view myself, but the Tillmans don’t. Right-wing propagandists quickly learned that the Tillman family wasn’t going to stick to the pious, patriotic script. (Pat’s drunken younger brother, Rich, at the nationally televised funeral: “Pat isn’t with God. He’s fucking dead.”) But the Tillmans aren’t interested in starring in an antiwar morality play either. As they see it, Pat Tillman died as he lived, as an American who thought for himself, hewed to his own course and kept his word. It’s the rest of us who have betrayed him.
“The Tillman Story” opens Aug. 20 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider national release to follow.
‘Los Suns’ Set Against Arizona’s Immigration Law May 6, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Human Rights, Immigration, Race, Racism, Sports.
Tags: amare stoudamire, Arizona, arizona racism, dave zirin, Immigration, immigration law, jan brewer, John McCain, los suns, nba, phoenix suns, Race, racial profiling, racism, roger hollander, sports, steve nash
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The Phoenix Suns basketball team takes a public stand against Arizona’s law that promotes racial profiling of immigrants
by Dave Zirin
A battle has been joined for the very soul of Arizona. On one side, there are the Minutemen, the craven state Republican lawmakers, Governor Jan Brewer, and the utterly unprincipled John McCain, all supporting SB 1070, a law that codifies racial profiling of immigrants in the state. On the other are the Sun Belt residents who protested on 1 May, the students who have engaged in walkouts, and the politicians and civic leaders calling for an economic boycott of their own state.
This battle has also been joined in the world of sport. On one side is Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Owned by state Republican moneyman Ken Kendrick, the team has drawn protestors to parks around the US. On the other side, we now have the NBA‘s Phoenix Suns. On Tuesday the news came forth that on Cinco de Mayo, the team would be wearing jerseys that say simply Los Suns. Team owner Robert Sarver said, after talking to the team, that this will be an act of sartorial solidarity against the bill. Their opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, have made clear that they support the gesture.
In a statement released by the team, Sarver said: “The frustration with the federal government’s failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration resulted in passage of a flawed state law. However intended, the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question, and Arizona’s already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them.”
He followed up the statement by saying to reporters: “I looked around our plane and looked at our players and the diversity in our organization. I thought we need to go on record that we honor our diversity in our team, in the NBA and we need to show support for that. As for the political part of that, that’s my statement. There are times you need to stand up and be heard. I respect people’s views on the other side but I just felt it was appropriate for me to stand up and make a statement.”
After Sarver spoke out, the team chimed in against the passage and signing of SB 1070. Two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash, who in 2003 became the first athlete to go on record against the Iraq war, said: “I think the law is very misguided. I think it is unfortunately to the detriment to our society and our civil liberties and I think it is very important for us to stand up for things we believe in. I think the law obviously can target opportunities for racial profiling. Things we don’t want to see and don’t need to see in 2010.”
All-Star power forward Amare Stoudamire, who has no political reputation, also chimed in saying: “It’s going to be great to wear Los Suns to let the Latin community know we’re behind them 100%.”
After the story broke, I spoke on the phone with NBA Players Association president Billy Hunter about the Suns audacious move. “It’s phenomenal,” he said. “This makes it clear to me that it’s a new era. It’s a new time. Athletes can tend to be apolitical and isolated from the issues that impact the general public. But now here come the Suns. I would have expected nothing less from Steve Nash who has been out front on a number of issues over the years. I also want to recognize Amare. I know how strident Amare can be and I’m really impressed to see him channel his intensity. It shows a tremendous growth and maturity on his part. And I have to applaud Bob Sarver because he is really taking a risk by putting himself out there. I commend them. I just think it’s super.” He said that the union would have their own statement out by the end of the week.
This kind of political intervention by a sports team is without precedent and now every athlete and every team has an opening to stand up and be heard. Because when it’s all said and done, this isn’t just a battle for the soul of Arizona. It’s a battle for the soul of the United States. Here come the Suns indeed.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited
Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket) and the newly published A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com, New York Newsday and The Progressive. He is the host of XM Radio’s Edge of Sports Radio. Contact him at email@example.com.
How Sports Attacks Public Education March 5, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Sports.
Tags: arne duncan, berkeley, DAVID ZIRIN, education, education reform, public education, roger hollander, sports, sports riot, student protest, students, tuition
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“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
On Thursday, I was proud to take part in a student walkout at the University of Maryland in defense of public education. It was just one link in a National Day of Action that saw protests in more than 32 states across the country. I am not a student, and haven’t been since those innocent days when Monica Lewinsky mattered, but I was asked to come speak at a post walkout teach-in about the way sports is used to attack public education. It might sound like a bizarre topic, but it’s the world that students see every day.
At the University of Maryland, as tuition has been hiked and classes cut, football coach Ralph Friedgen makes a base salary of 1.75 million bucks, which would be outrageous even if the team weren’t two-steps past terrible. Friedgen also gets perks like a $50,000 bonus if none of his players are arrested during the course of the season.
Ground zero of the student protest movement is the University of California at Berkeley. Over at Berkeley, students are facing 32% tuition hikes, while the school pays football coach Jeff Tedford 2.8 million dollars a year and is finishing more than 400 million in renovations on the football stadium. This is what students see: boosters and alumni come first, while they’ve been instructed to cheer their teams, pay their loans, and mind their business.
The counterargument is that college athletic departments fund themselves and actually put money back into a school’s general fund. This is simply not true. The October Knight Commission report of college presidents stated that the 25 top football schools had revenues on average of $3.9 million in 2008. The other 94 ran deficits averaging $9.9 million. When athletic departments run deficits, it’s not like the football coach takes a pay cut. In other words, if the team is doing well, the entire school benefits. If the football team suffers, the entire school suffers. This, to put it mildly, is financial lunacy. A school would statistically be better off if it took its endowment to Vegas and just bet it all on black.
If state colleges are hurting, your typical urban public school is in a world of pain with budgets slashed to the bone. Politicians act like these are problems beyond their control like the weather. (“50% chance of sun and a 40% chance of losing music programs.”)
In truth, they are the result of a comprehensive attack on public education that has seen the system starved. One way this has been implemented is through stadium construction, the grand substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. Over the last generation, we’ve seen 30 billion in public funds spent on stadiums. They were presented as photogenic solutions to deindustrialization, declining tax bases, and suburban flight. The results are now in and they don’t look good for the home teams. University of Maryland sports economists Dennis Coates and University of Alberta Brad R. Humphreys studied stadium funding over 30 years and failed to find one solitary example of a sports franchise lifting or even stabilizing a local economy. They concluded the opposite: “a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area….Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy.” These projects achieve so little because the jobs created are low wage, service sector, seasonal employment. Instead of being solutions of urban decay, the stadiums have been tools of organized theft: sporting shock doctrines for our ailing cities.
With crumbling schools, higher tuitions, and an Education Secretary in Arne Duncan who seems more obsessed with providing extra money for schools that break their teachers unions, it’s no wonder that the anger is starting to boil over. It can also bubble up in unpredictable ways. On Wednesday night, after the University of Maryland men’s basketball team beat hated arch-rival Duke, students were arrested after pouring into the streets surrounding the campus. In years past, these sporting riots have been testosterone run amok, frat parties of burning mattresses and excessive inebriation. This year it was different, with police needing to use pepper spray and horses to quell the 1,500 students who filled Route 1. In response, students chanted, “Defense! Defense!” At the Thursday teach in, I said to the students that I didn’t think there was anything particularly political or interesting about a college sports riot. One person shot his hand up and said, “It wasn’t a riot until the cops showed up.” Everyone proceeded to applaud. I was surprised at first that these politically minded students would be defending a post-game melee, but no longer. The anger is real and it isn’t going anywhere. While schools are paying football coaches millions and revamping stadiums, students are choosing between dropping out or living with decades of debt. One thing is certain: it aint a game.
© 2010 The Nation
Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket) and the newly published A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com, New York Newsday and The Progressive. He is the host of XM Radio’s Edge of Sports Radio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Restraint for Everything but Sports February 23, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Economic Crisis, Sports.
Tags: Canada, canada budget, Canada Conservatives, canada liberals, Economic Crisis, government spending, harper government, linda mcquaig, olympics, pan am games, roger hollander, sports, Stephen Harper
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No cost has been spared in mounting a giant spectacle of spandex-clad athletes performing dazzling feats in massive public venues.
Certainly, nobody seems to be letting the $6 billion price tag for Vancouver’s Olympic extravaganza get in the way.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against sports. I appreciate the nuances of a fine skeleton performance as much as the next person.
My point is simply to question why goals other than mounting gala sports events are routinely dismissed on the grounds that we can’t afford them.
Of course, sports extravaganzas often have side benefits. We’re told that with the 2015 Pan Am Games coming here, Toronto may finally get its public transit system upgraded.
How’s that? Are the Pan Am countries – an assortment of mostly poverty-stricken Latin American nations – going to chip in to improve Toronto’s subway system?
No. We’re going to pay. So why don’t we just decide to do it without the Games, given the need and the looming climate change disaster?
The conventional explanation is that the public won’t pay otherwise. But is the public the real obstacle here?
We’ve been exhorted to believe in the magic of sports, in the transformative power of the Olympic torch – that no dream is too big to dream, that guts and willpower will bring us glory.
But next week, when Ottawa brings down its budget, all that big-thinking and sky-high believing is to be shelved. We’ll be advised to think small, think restraint, focus on the impossibility of things. Deficits will own the podium.
That’s not because the public only cares about sports. It’s because the corporate world only supports public investments when it comes to sports and war, from which it makes money. But it wants to hold the line on public investment in health care, education, child care, social supports, etc.
So it’s tried to convince us these things aren’t affordable, or that we don’t want to pay for them – as we did in the past.
From the end of World War II, federal spending was almost always above 15 per cent of GDP, until the massive Liberal spending cuts of the mid-1990s brought it way down to about 12 per cent, notes economist Armine Yalnizyan.
Those cuts – made to reduce deficits caused by recession and overly tight monetary policy – became permanent, even after balanced budgets were quickly restored in the late 1990s.
Despite a decade of huge federal surpluses since then, the Liberals and the Conservatives failed to restore spending levels that prevailed during the prosperous early postwar decades, cutting taxes in response to corporate pressure instead.
The Harper government has made clear that once the stimulus package expires, federal spending will return to the historically low levels of the past decade.
But this is disastrous policy. Given the severity of the ongoing recession, what is needed now is massive public investment to put the country back to work and rebuild our crumbling social and physical infrastructure.
For millions of young people, holding a job is a dream just as surely as competing before the hometown crowd.
But we’re supposed to believe that, beyond sports, we can’t afford to meet our needs, no matter how pressing.
Perhaps we could finally get some serious action on climate change if it were a curling bonspiel – rather than simply a crisis that threatens life as we know it on this planet.
© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2010
One of the Boys (a tale of two slides) December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Autobiographical Essays (Roger), One of the Boys (a tale of two slides).
Tags: baseball, dodgers, father, irvington, irvington herald, little league, new jersey, reseda high school, roger hollander, sports
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(For my entire childhood, I don’t think there was anything as important to me as baseball, both as participant and spectator. Who would have thought that this sports crazy youngster would grow up to be a wild-eyed political radical?)
The Boys. The Boys. The Boys. Always the Boys. The Boys this. The Boys that. For Charlie his two boys were everything. There was no mistaking it. Everyone knew it. Everyone said so. My boys, he would say, and then off he would go with one tale or another of their myriad accomplishments. Charlie’s boys.
I was one of those boys.
When Charlie died, my daughter Malika spoke at a memorial held for him for the Toronto family and friends. She said that what was so wonderful about Grandpa was that every moment you were with him he made you feel that you were someone special. We boys surely knew that.
Of course, as much as it is a cliché, there is truth to the notion that everyone is someone special. The problem is that not enough of us feel that way, or are made to feel that way. Without being necessarily conscious of it, my parents made sure I knew that I was someone special. It never bothered me when big brother would tease me about being adopted (I wasn’t) or that they love me more than you, because it was so patently untrue. Mom and Dad always made me feel special, and I suppose it was because I was genuinely special to them. And with Charlie, so much of it was expressed, particularly in my childhood, in the context of our shared passion for sports.
Saturday mornings the three of us (Mom, a 1940/1950s housewife, naturally excluded) would open the sports page and, on a separate piece of paper, one of us would copy down in pencil the schedule of major college football games and add three columns: Charlie, Neil, Roger. Each one of us made our pick for who would win the game, which was duly noted in the appropriate column. Princeton over any Ivy League rival, of course. Those were Princeton’s glory days with triple threat tailback, Dick Kazmier. And only a dodo would pick against Army with Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard or Notre Dame with Johnny Latimer. Then, on Sunday mornings we two boys and Charlie would gather again around the sports page to tally the winners. This was before television had arrived in our home, and none of us had ever seen a college football game on the air, much less a real live game. Nonetheless, I seldom guessed less than three quarters of the winners and usually came out on top, this despite the fact that, with all the irrational loyalty of a diehard Brooklyn Dodger fan, I always picked the hapless Brooklyn College over whatever rival was sure to trounce them.
As a child, I was ahead of my time with respect to my own athletic ability. It just happened that sports enthusiasm resided in my brother’s circle of friends and not very much in my own. So I hung with Neil’s gang, kids two years older than me. Baseball was our métier. Because of good hand-eye coordination, I somehow kept up with the older guys as a hitter, if barely. I played right field or second base on our team, the Lancers, in the Irvington municipal league. Never was I trusted with a more strategic position like first or short. And I always batted ninth, even behind the pitcher, Jimmy DeWitt, who possessed a mean bat to go along with a sizzling fast ball.
In contrast, on those rare occasions that I played with my own peers, I was the star. It felt like swinging three bats (today the pros attach lead disks) while in the on-deck circle so that, when you came to the plate, your bat felt as buoyant as balsa wood against those soft lobs thrown up by pitchers my own age. Playing with the older kids was a weighty challenge that had made me feel as light as a feather when I played with my own kind. In the sixth grade, my class played softball at recess, and, for my drives over off the Augusta Street School chain-link fence into Ball Street (that was its name!), my first ever male teacher, Mr. Palmiotti, had dubbed me “the Bambino.”
My good hand-eye coordination and the honing effect of the age-stretch competition, more than made up for what was almost literally my Achilles heel: I ran as slow as a girl. Well not quite. But slower than just about anyone older or even my own age.
Speed, or rather the lack thereof, was responsible for the two shared stories that my father told at least a thousand times to anyone who would listen and to many who would have rather not. They are true stories, and while they may have gained a bit of artificial sheen from constant polishing over the years, the very fact that these things actually happened to me and were such a bond of love and friendship with my father makes them as precious to me as the most valuable diamond, an apt metaphor you will agree.
The Little League came to Irvington, New Jersey, in 1953, when I was in my twelfth year. It was a dream too good to be true. Uniforms. Team sponsors. Real managers and coaches (Charlie had managed the Lancers, and he did a good job; but having your father as the manager just didn’t feel like the real thing). Little League regulation ball fields that seemed like miniatures to me after the big league regulation sized fields of the municipal league. Box scores appearing in the Irvington Herald. And kids my own age or younger! From playing with fourteen year olds I would now be challenging kids as young as eight. It was to be my year of baseball glory.
At the Little League tryouts I naturally wowed the grown-ups, not only with my hitting and fielding, but also with my throwing arm, which had been only ordinary amongst the two-year-older gang, but which put me on a par with the best of the Little League. A mound whose distance was so short compared to what I was used to with the older kids, that I felt I could whiz the ball right through my catcher’s glove. I was given number 14 for my team, the Amvet Cardinals (sponsored by the “Amvets,” which stands for American Veterans; I was their first “draft pick”), which I was proud to wear along with one of my heroes, the great Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges. 42 would have been better, but I knew that Jackie would understand.
I batted lead-off and pitched every game, with a 6-1 record, losing only to the White Sox, our major rival. No one kept track of my batting average, but I was the best hitter on the team and probably batted well over .400. Our Amvet Cards won the league, and I made the Irvington All-Star team that would compete in the inter-city play-offs that eventually lead to the Little League World Series in Westport, Connecticut.
Now I had come to this point in my baseball career with extensive preparation on the proverbial sandlot, stickball included, but this was supplemented by constant advice and instruction from my father. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t look up when fielding a grounder. Two hands on a fly ball. When on base, always be thinking ahead of what you’re going to do in any possible circumstance. He taught me to bat. He taught me to field. And he taught me an esoteric manoeuvre on the base path that might make up some for my slowness.
My famous hook slide.
The Irvington Little League All-Stars’ first play-off game was against Livingston, on their ball field. I was the number three pitcher on the All-star team behind two of my seventh grade school mates, Arnie Willner, a diminutive right handed twelve year old who already knew how to throw a nasty curve, and Cliff Sermon, a big guy with a blazing fast ball but with control problems. Arnie was to start against Livingston, and I was in left field, hitting second in the line-up because of my prodigious bat.
Arnie was dominating on the mound that evening, and pitched a two-hit shut-out. The Livingston pitcher was just as effective. I got Irvington’s only hit of the game to spoil his no-hitter, a single up the middle in the fourth inning. At that point the score is tied at zip, and I am our team’s first and, it was to turn out, only base-runner. I don’t know what got into me. Maybe it was because in our league most of the catchers had pretty weak and inaccurate arms, and I had stolen my share of bases despite my snail-like speed. But this was against Livingston’s best. What was I thinking when I took off for second base on the very first pitch?
The pitch, a fastball down the middle, was a called strike, and the Livingston catcher made a perfect throw to second base. I was about ten feet from the bag with the ball waiting for me firmly ensconced in the Livingston shortstop’s mitt. It was one of those moments of truth in one’s life when disaster looms a split second away. There is no time to think. One acts out of some primordial instinct. One does what one subconsciously knows to do although one does not know he knows it. What everything in my life up to that time had prepared me for that life-defining moment.
I executed a perfect hook slide.
Doubt me if you will. It was filmed on 8 mm. so I have proof. Had, anyway (this was 1953, for God’s sake). It was the most graceful moment of my life, before or since. I am a rather clumsy guy, but that day you would have thought me a candidate for the Bolshoi. The hook slide Charlie had taught me is a combination of mental and physical deception. Eye contact with the short stop tells him that I am coming directly at him full force, hoping for a collision that will knock loose the ball from his glove. As he lowers his glove in front of the base for a sure tag out, I hit the ground sharply to my left (that is, towards the pitcher’s mound) so that my body is at a right angle to the base, with my right leg curved in a semi-circle dragging along the ground, eluding the glove and catching the southeast corner of the bag. A hook slide that was to go down in history (at least in our family).
What happened next was critical, if anti-climatic. I advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored the game’s only run on a ground out to second. Final score: Irvington 1, Livingston zero. I was a hero, and I thoroughly enjoyed the adulation of my team mates and their parents at the post-game celebration at the local Dairy Queen. Nonetheless, it was a character building lesson for me when the team manager later took me aside and told me that if I ever pulled a dumb stunt like that again – making an unauthorized attempt to steal a base in a close game – I would watch the rest of the play-offs from the bench. But no matter; in the long run it was the hook slide and not the stupidity of the attempt that everyone (at least in my family) would remember.
For the record, we were eliminated from the playoffs in our next game against Orange, where Cliff Sermon started on the mound for us, yielding walks to half the opposing team, followed by a couple of homers, thereby giving them an insurmountable lead in the first inning. I came in to relieve from left field to mop up in a losing cause.
I was a whiz at Math at Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley, but when I got to Berkeley and faced world-class competition, I was cut down to size and had the wisdom to change majors. In like manner it was at Reseda High School, only three short years after my Little League glory days, where my baseball stardom came crashing to its inglorious conclusion. Whatever zip I had on my fastball was gone on a regulation sixty feet, six inches pitcher’s mound, and I never could learn to throw a curve. My hitting impressed no one, and my fielding was even worse. I tried out, but I didn’t even make the Reseda High B team.
Nevertheless, baseball remained my passion. There was no question about it being my destiny. Did not my beloved Dodgers follow me out to Los Angeles from the East coast (our family got there in late 1954, the Bums made it for the ’58 season)? Does anyone really believe this was mere coincidence?
I hung around parks and continued to play sandlot ball, participating in pick up games wherever I could find them. One fine bright sunny Southern California afternoon (excuse the redundancy), Charlie and I happened to be hanging out at Reseda Park to watch a league game when I was asked to fill for a team that was one player short. I believe it may have been American Legion ball; I knew some of the guys and they were of high school age. I was put in right field and slotted to bat ninth in the line-up. Naturally.
I came up to bat for the first time against a pitcher with a good if not overpowering fast ball. I cannot remember what the count was, but he served me up a fat one, straight and fast and right down the middle. I swung for the fences, as was my wont. Like a tennis racquet, a baseball bat (in those days, all bats were made of wood, no aluminum) has a sweet spot, right in the center of its circumference and about four fifths up from the handle. My Louisville Slugger met that buzzing fastball right on that delicious sweet spot, and it was by far the biggest blast of my entire baseball career. A high hard bombshell to left center, a fence clearer in any ballpark in any league.
But this was no regulation ball park, it was Reseda Park, and there was no outfield fence. Left field extended into a patch of eucalyptus trees and then out onto Victory Boulevard. I didn’t have to look to know that the ball had soared well over the left fielder’s head. It had home run written all over it. But there being no fence to clear, I had to run it out. I think that, drunk with overconfidence, I began a slow celebratory trot around the base path; but soon, at the insistent urging of my team mates, I began to hurry it up. My father says the ball rolled all the way into Victory Boulevard, well over four hundred feet plus from home plate. The left fielder, however, was much swifter afoot than I was. He ran the ball down, fielded it, and made his throw towards home plate. The short stop relayed it to the catcher.
The round trip from home plate to home plate consists of four 90 feet stretches, a total of 360 feet, or 120 yards. As I approached third base I was surprised to see my team mate who was coaching there give me the signal to hold up. Forget it. This was to be the greatest home run of all time, and there was no way I was going to let the longest drive ever hit at Reseda Park result in a mere triple. I rounded third and headed for home.
The opposing team’s catcher that day was Joe Castellano, Reseda High’s second string backstop, a short muscular Paisan with varsity experience, and this, unfortunately, included knowledge of how to block home plate from an incoming base runner.
Alas, unbeknownst to me until that second pivotal moment in my life, a hook slide is of absolutely no value coming into home with a catcher blocking the plate. It was a closer play than at Livingston, but I was nonetheless clearly going to be tagged out as I attempted to elude Joe’s tag. The only effect the hook slide had was to put my head instead of my feet in the path of his hands, a costly mistake. I cannot say whether Joe had the ball in his hand or whether he conked me on the head with his glove. But it was a world-class tag, and it knocked me unconscious.
I was “out” in more than one sense of the word.
Since that fateful day in the summer of 1957, I have driven past that park maybe a hundred times, often in the company of my father. No one who has ever had the (dubious) privilege of riding in our car at such a moment has gotten away without hearing about the “shot heard round the world,” second only to Bobby Thompson’s Devil-inspired grand-slam homer in the seventh game of the 1954 National League Playoffs against my beloved Dodgers. When my father told the story, his focus was always on the gigantic blast that had come off my bat and not the eventual tragedy of the outcome. Only privately did he once confide to me that he had been worried sick at the time about my being knocked silly.
I don’t buy that hogwash about baseball being a metaphor for what America is. It was just a coincidence that baseball was the center of my life as a child and thereby an apt medium for creating a bond with my father that I will always treasure. I don’t think my father was ever as passionate about baseball as I was – I can still give you the starting line-up of those amazing 1950’s Dodgers: Campy behind the plate, Hodges on first, Jackie Robinson on second, Peewee Reese, team captain, at short, Carl Furillo, the old rifle arm in right, the Duke (Snider) in center, left field was always up for grabs: Hermanski, Pafko, Cal Abrams, among others; and the greats on the mound: Ralph Branca (the team owner’s son-in-law, whose name will live forever in infamy for that one pitch he served up to Bobby Thompson), Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe; Koufax and Drysdale were to come later. But because it was my passion, it was also my father’s.
Well, there you have it. Two childhood incidents indelibly forged in memory that has absolutely no significance outside of a small circle of family and friends; and, even there, of dubious note. I myself, in fact, probably would have pretty much forgotten them had they not been woven over the years into a narrative tapestry of comradeship and heroism between me and a loving father.
Now this love was not mine to enjoy exclusively. My brother, who connected with Charlie through their shared passion for fishing, amongst others, has similar tales to tell. Neil’s one and only lifetime poetic moment, as a teen-ager he set to verse his passion for the enterprise and entitled it “Trout.” Although, in my humble opinion, not quite as compelling as my hook slides, the poem has parallel standing our family iconography.
In no other area of my life – in work, in political office, in social situations – has it been my bent to aspire towards male bonding, towards being considered “one of the boys.”
But at home, as on the base path, there was no greater honor.