Monday, August 3, 2009

Munson and Melky; Bobby Robson, 1933-2009

August 2, 1979. 6:28 PM. I'm nine years old, and watching Channel 9. I don't remember what program they were airing, only that it was a rerun of some classic show. The Channel 9 News Brief came on, as scheduled, and Sara Lee Kessler came on looking very grim.

"Good evening," she said, looking for all the world like it couldn't possibly be a good evening. "Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was killed today, when... "

I didn't hear any of the rest of it. I literally fell out of my seat.

He wasn't considered good-looking, except maybe by his beloved wife Diane. He was out of shape. He had enough injuries for an entire lineup. He'd been playing first base and DH'ing as much as catching lately.

I've often tried to imagine what his life would have been like if he'd lived, and decided that he would've been done by 1983 anyway, at 36, the writing on the wall being a young first baseman name of Mattingly. Coaching? Managing? A studio analyst in the early days of ESPN? Part of George Steinbrenner's managerial merry-go-round? Back to the Cleveland area as a college coach? If the University of Michigan, with Jim Abbott (but not, since he blew his eligibility by signing with the Yankees, Derek Jeter), could reach the College World Series, why not, with Thurman Munson as head coach, their arch-rivals, THE... Ohio State University?

Even if he had lived and played until he just couldn't do it anymore, he, like another pretty good catcher, Joe Torre, would simply not have had the career stats, and probably would have needed a superb managing career to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Still, Monument Park at Yankee Stadium was his destiny. Just not after dying in a plane crash at age 32. As Mickey Mantle would later say, "When I died, I wanted on my tombstone, 'A Great Teammate.' But I didn't want it this soon." Those words are on Mickey's Monument out there beyond center field, but they can't compare to the words on Thurman's, apparently written by George Steinbrenner himself.


Flash forward 20 years. August 2, 1999. Fresh from my conquest of Fenway Park (and, really, all of New England) the preceding weekend, I decided to go to The Stadium. I figured there would be some sort of special ceremony on the anniversary of Munson's death.

And it was scheduled to be a great pitching matchup: For the Yankees, Andy Pettitte, who has since become the pitcher I've seen more than any other; for the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, David Wells, whom we'd sent over the border along with Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd for Roger Clemens. It was also a chance for revenge: The Jays had ruined my first trip to The Stadium, and three other games since. In 21 years, the Yanks had never beaten the Jays with me in attendance: They were 0-3. (The current record still isn't very good: 2-6, and that's 2-4 in The Bronx and 0-2 in Canada.)

As expected, there was a video tribute to Thurman before the game, and Mrs. Munson threw out the ceremonial first ball. The game was every bit what I'd hoped it would be: Both Pettitte and Wells made it into the 8th, and Derek Jeter homered off Wells -- fittingly, into Monument Park. Final score, Yankees 3, Blue Jays 1. Nice night at the old ball yard.


Flash forward a few years. I don't remember the exact date, but it was almost certainly in 2005 or 2006 -- if it had been in 2004, what was said wouldn't have had nearly the same resonance. But I was in the upper deck, and in front of me were these two young women (I won't call them "ladies") wearing T-shirts with Alex Rodrgiuez's name and Number 13 on them. And when A-Rod came to the plate, they screamed. One said, "Oh my God, he is soooooooo hot."

That ticked me off, because this was after the 2004 Playoffs, with his disappearing act and his dopey slap play. He now officially had a reputation for not winning anything. I said, "Are you kidding? He's never won anything. He's a loser."

One of the women turned around, and gave me a look that could kill, and said, "So what? He's hot!"

At that moment, I looked out toward Monument Park, saw Munson's Number 15, and wondered if he was turning over in his grave.

If memory serves me correctly, the Yankees won that game. But what does it tell you when the defining memory of a baseball game is not who won, but that somebody thought that being sexy was better than being successful?

I've felt bad in stadiums and arenas, and joked about feeling sick as a result of terrible performances. This was the closest I ever came to actually throwing up in one. (Though there was that Devils-Islanders game earlier this year at the Nassau Coliseum where I was actually, literally, barfed on.)


The Yankees played the Chicago White Sox on the 30th Anniversary of Munson's death -- a coincidence, but not an inappropriate one, as the old Comiskey Park was where the Yankees played their last game with Munson. It was August 1, 1979, Yankees 9, White Sox 1, before their emotion-laden 4-game set at home against the Baltimore Orioles, where they lost the 1st 2 before winning the last 2, including the finale, in which they came back from the funeral, and eulogist Bobby Murcer drove in all the Yankee runs in a 5-4 win.

The ChiSox almost swept the Yanks 4 straight in Chicago for the first time since 1964, but the Yanks managed a tough 8-5 win that included Melky Cabrera hitting for the cycle (single, double, triple and home run in the same game), a feat that's even rarer than a no-hitter.

The last Yankee to do it was Tony Fernandez on September 3, 1995, before the Torre Dynasty began. It seems so long ago now, and yet the things that Thurman and Reggie and Guidry and the rest did seem like only yesterday. How can the perception of time be so strange like that? As Yankee Fan Paul Simon wrote, "Time, time, time, see what's become of me... "


I was in New York yesterday, watching the big screens at Nevada Smith's as Arsenal defeated Glasgow Rangers to win the Emirates Cup. When I got back to Port Authority, there was this guy wearing a Mets cap and headphones, singing along with whatever he was hearing.

The 1st 2 times I saw him, I couldn't make out what he was singing. The 3rd time, though, I could make it out: "And I try, and I try, I can't get no... I can't get no... " Of course, the Rolling Stones.

Sometimes, God has a sense of humor, and provides you with a glorious chance. I yelled out, "Of course, you can't get no satisfaction: You're a Met fan!"

Best baseball-related moment in Port Authority since that day I was going to The Stadium to see the Yanks play the Minnesota Twins, and a guy in a Twins cap, apparently from Minnesota, saw my Yankee cap and figured I was a good guy to ask, and asked me, "Excuse me, how do you get to Yankee Stadium?"

Ever since I'd first heard the question, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" I'd been waiting for someone to ask me that, and I gave him the answer: "Practice!"

Fortunately, he laughed. So I told him, "Just follow me." Unfortunately, the Twins won that game. That was in 1991, and the Yanks were beginning their long climb back up from the gutter, and the Twins were going from worst-to-first on their way to an amazing World Series.


Speaking of soccer, Bobby Robson died of cancer 3 days ago, at the age of 76. His name wouldn't have meant much to me a year ago, but it certainly does now.

Robert William Robson was born on February 18, 1933 in Sacriston, County Durham, in the North-East of England. The son of a coal miner, he grew up in a house without indoor plumbing. But "football" was a way out of the mines for him, and for so many other young men, just as baseball and American-style football were in this country.

Although such clubs as Sunderland and Middlesbrough weren't much further away, his father took him to St. James Park in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 17 miles from home. He became a fan of Newcastle United Football Club, and, in particular, of Jackie Milburn. He tried to copy "Wor Jackie" ("Our Jackie" in the Newcastle accent, which, like a person from Newcastle himself, is called "Geordie"), and even played the same position: Inside forward.

But it would be a London club, Fulham, that would offer him a professional contract. He played with them from 1950 to 1956, with West Midlands club West Bromwich Albion from then until 1962, and Fulham again until 1967. In 1967 and '68, he closed his playing career in North America, with the Vancouver Royals of the old North American Soccer League.
Robson playing for WBA, a.k.a West Brom or "The Baggies"

He played for England in the 1958 and 1962 World Cups, alongside his West Brom teammate, right back Don Howe. This forged a friendship that would have consequences for future England teams.

In 1968, only 35 years old, Robson returned to Fulham as their manager, but was lured by Suffolk club Ipswich Town only a year later. In 1973, he led "The Tractor Boys" to the Texaco Cup, a competition for teams from England, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who had not otherwise qualified for European play.

In 1978, he shocked England by advancing all the way to the FA Cup Final at the old Wembley Stadium, and beating heavily-favored Arsenal, then managed by Terry Neill, assisted by Neill's former defensive partner, Robson's old friend Don Howe. In 1981, he guided Ipswich to 2nd in the Football League behind Aston Villa, and won the UEFA Cup, beating Saint-Etienne of France in the Quarterfinal, Cologne of Germany in the Semifinal, and the club now known as AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands in the Final at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. It remains Ipswich Town's greatest achievement.

In 1982, after England were knocked out of the World Cup, the FA hired Bobby Robson to straighten out the national side. He chose Don Howe as his assistant, even though Howe was still an assistant manager at Arsenal -- and, from late 1983 to early 1986, full manager.

Immediately, Bobby let everyone know who was in charge: For his 1st game as England boss, he dropped Kevin Keegan of Newcastle, the country's most glamorous star. England failed to qualify for Euro 84, and Bobby offered to resign, on the condition that the FA hire Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough. They refused, not so much because they believed in Robson, but because they despised Clough, who infamously stated that the FA would never hire him because they thought, correctly, he would do what he, rather than what they, wanted.

But Bobby got England into the 1986 World Cup, and into the Quarterfinal, where they lost to Argentina on a handball goal by Diego Maradona. Dismissing the cheat's description of his action as "The Hand of God," Robson said, "It wasn't the hand of God, it was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it... That day, Maradona was diminished in my eyes, forever."

England crashed out of Euro 88 in the group stage, and, again, Bobby offered his resignation. Again, it was refused -- because the obvious choice to succeed him would still have been his fellow North-East man Clough, whom they still considered unacceptable. It almost paid off: Bobby and Don got England all the way to penalties of the Semifinal at the 1990 World Cup, the country's best performance in any major tournament since the 1966 World Cup -- except this was the opposite result of that one, as they lost to West Germany.

In both World Cups in which he managed, 1986 and 1990, the Captain of the England squad was the Captain of Manchester United, Bryan Robson. And, both times, Bryan was injured and unable to play in the games in which England were knocked out. Bobby and Bryan were not related, although Bryan got his start at one of Bobby's former clubs, West Brom.

Bobby then left the England side, and, with Clough having made himself briefly radioactive with intemperate remarks following the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster of April 15, 1989, former Watford manager Graham Taylor was hired as England manager, with poor results; after this, Clough had taken himself out of the running because he'd lost his touch.

Bobby Robson had not: He won the Dutch league with PSV Eindhoven in 1991 and 1992, the Portuguese cup with FC Porto in 1994 and the Portuguese league with them in 1995 and 1996, and the Spanish Copa del Rey and the European Cup Winners' Cup in his only season managing FC Barcelona, 1996-97. This success made him highly admired in Europe, even more than he already was after the 1990 World Cup (in Italy). Unfortunately, his time at Porto and Barcelona led to the rise of his translator and assistant manager, Jose Mourinho, one of the most despicable men in the history of sport, something Bobby didn't see at the time.

In 1999, Bobby finally got his dream job, managing his boyhood club, Newcastle United. He saved them from what looked like a sure relegation in the 1999-2000 season, and took them to 4th place in 2002 and 3rd in 2003, qualifying them for the UEFA Champions League in back-to-back seasons. He was knighted in 2002.
Apparently, Newcastle owner Freddy Shepherd thought less of him than Queen Elizabeth II did, because Shepherd fired him early in the 2004-05 season. Newcastle have been a troubled club ever since, and, like Jackie Milburn, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, he has achieved nearly godlike status on Tyneside ever since, the most popular manager in the club's history.

What is a club, in any case? Not the buildings, or the directors, or the people who are paid to represent it. It's not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes.

It's the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It's a small boy, clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father's hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him, and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.

He was married for 53 years to Elsie Gray, a nurse and teacher. They had 3 sons: Andrew, Paul and Mark.

Bobby Robson survived cancer 3 times, establishing the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation along the way, before losing his 4th battle, on July 31, 2009. Just 5 days earlier, the Sir Bobby Robson Trophy match was played at St. James Park, between members of the 1990 England and West Germany teams, to raise money for the foundation. Fittingly, the winning goal was scored by a Newcastle legend, Shearer. Ironically, given the teams' respective histories, it was a penalty (although not in penalty kicks). The match was his last public appearance.

Sir Bobby Robson was admired, and even loved, all over the world. Even fans who don't necessarily like Newcastle as a team loved him. His contributions to the game will long outlive him.

UPDATE: There are now statues of Robson outside both Ipswich's stadium, Portman Road, and Newcastle's, St. James Park.


Days until the next Yankees-Red Sox series: 3, this Thursday at The Stadium. Huge series.

Days until the next Premier League season begins: 12.

Days until Rutgers plays football again: 35.

Days until East Brunswick plays football again: 39.

Days until the Devils play hockey again: 61.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 116.

Days until the 2010 World Cup begins: 312.

Days until the World Cup Final: 342.

Days until the Rutgers-Army football game at Yankee Stadium: 831.

1 comment:

Chris@Maugeritaville said...

Great work, Mike. I was 14 in 1979, and remember the tragic August afternoon well. I agree that his playing days were running out at that point, and I doubt he would've coached at the big league level. His dedication to his family would probably have prevented it. I'd love to see his fat old self at Old Timers Days now, though. If only . . .