January 18, 2016-Over the course of The Hall Ball, there have been many missed opportunities. Schedules didn’t line up, notices were overlooked, and public appearances were chaotic and disorganized. Any number of reasons have contributed to why I have not been able to photograph all of the living members, yet.
The first lost chance was Gary Carter. He was appearing at a card show just a few months after I began the project. I was still figuring out how I wanted to approach the living members. I decided to attend the show and give it a shot with this hero of the 1986 World Series.
I don’t remember how much it cost to get an autograph. More than I was willing to spend. From the beginning I knew that if I ended up paying every living Hall of Famer the asking price for his photo the project was going to become untenable. I knew because I wasn’t asking for autographs, the ball was going to have little monetary value. I couldn’t justify the expense, especially in the light of all of the necessary travel.
I lingered around the area Carter was signing. The line was long and I was hesitant to wait all that time only to get to the front and be denied. So, after a while, I simply left. I was determined to come up with a better plan (which I ultimately did) than just showing up cold. I figured that I would get Carter at some point in the future. He was young. There would be time.
Except there wasn’t. Barely 15 months later, Carter was dead. An aggressive form of brain cancer, called glioblastoma, felled this gentle soul at the young age of 58. I would eventually take a photo of Carter’s grave, in Tequesta, Florida, in March of 2015. But, as with all of the Hall of Famers, I wish I had been able to reach him while he was alive. I have regretted my hesitance for almost four years, and have tried to never take for granted the existence of any of the members. Life is too unexpected.
It cannot be said that the death of Monte Irvin this week was unexpected. Irvin was 96 and had been in poor health for some time. But he is another member of The Hall whom I came close to photographing when he was still alive, only to have to ultimately reach him too late.
When I finally decided to approach the producers of the card shows, the first one I reached out to was Brian Coppola with JP Sports. Brian has been indispensable, helping me secure over a dozen of the photos. He mentioned, at the first show I attended with his blessing, that it was a shame that I hadn’t been there at the previous show. Monte Irvin had been there and not only was he generous with his time and likely willing to take the photo, he was “getting on.”
Years later, in January 2014, when I made my pilgrimage to Texas, I thoroughly did my research for the cemeteries I was going to visit. Some of them were in obscure corners and it took a little extra digging. Rogers Hornsby’s grave, for example, is in the most hidden cemetery I have ever explored.
What I failed to do was thoroughly research where all the living Hall of Famers resided. I was in Houston to photograph Willard Brown, who just so happened to have been an opponent of Irvin in the 1946 Negro League World Series, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs against Irvin’s Newark Eagles. If I had only known that Irvin resided just a few miles away, and was apparently receptive to visitors, I might have gotten the photo then. But, alas, I didn’t learn either of those things until I returned home.
The third time The Hall Ball crossed paths with Irvin, it wasn’t so much a lost opportunity as it was an interesting reminder. A signpost if you will. While in Cuba, tour organizer Kit Krieger pointed out that Irvin had actually been a part of the first Cubaball trip. Honorary Krieger brother Tom Hawthorn, writes eloquently of Irvin’s return and it is worth a read.
Throughout my time in Cuba, I kept imagining what it might have been like, to have spent the week with one of the men I wanted to photograph. But, this was in 2004, six years before The Hall Ball was even conceived. It was just a fantastical thought.
Yet, the thought resonated, for good and ill. The fact that Irvin had taken a pilgrimage to the same place as I was another reminder that the Ball is not just the lunatic delusion of a madman, but has become a legitimate homage to the game. But, it also reminded me of other past, and possible, missed opportunities.
Today, I am reminded of them again. One of the greatest stars of Negro League baseball, a giant who could have made an even bigger impact on the major league game if he only were given a chance, has left this earth. He has requested that his body be cremated, and so I hope to attend the public memorial his family will be holding in New Jersey in the spring. I’m sure I will think of some appropriate staging of the ball for the project. But it won’t be the same.
It’s never the same, after a giant leaves us, and the opportunity is gone.
January 6, 2016-The piece below is a section of a longer essay originally written in 2011. It was for a radio show I had produced and featured a collection of stories about the borough of Queens. The first portion of it, which is a little too maudlin for a day of celebration, details my experiences on the morning of September 11th, 2001. It also spoke of the profound depression that I and, seemingly, the whole city of New York felt for seven straight days.
But, joy did come again. It came, for me, exactly one week later. On September 18th, the New York Mets played the Pittsburgh Pirates, in Pittsburgh, even though the game was originally scheduled for New York. The city needed a few extra days to prepare to host a major sporting event and Major League Baseball decided to swap the schedule around. I finally had something to distract me from the endless loop that was being fed to me by the news.
I know that it sounds shallow, and maybe it is. Baseball is a game, a diversion that could never ease the tremendous pain that was suffered that day. But it is also, for some like myself, more than the sum of its parts. It cannot be overstated how, especially in the summer of 2001, baseball is woven into the fabric of my existence. For example, I can tell you with complete confidence that I went to Shea Stadium eight times that summer. I also saw the Mets play once at Yankee Stadium, once at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia and once at Wrigley Field in Chicago. I can also tell you they won five of those games and they lost six. I keep track in an Excel spreadsheet of every game I go to.
Listening to the game on my portable transistor radio was not a diversion, it was a ritual. Not only was the world I had known, lost forever, but there was a hole in my daily life that was instead being filled with the same dreadful footage. Mid-September is the heart of the pennant race and instead of reading in the New York Times about the exploits of the Metropolitans, I was reading the “Portraits of Grief,” the Times’ attempt to publish a short bio of everyone who died that day.
And yet, the great re-awakening that occurred when the Mets faced (and beat) the Pirates on the 18th was nothing compared to what happened three days later. They came home. My Mets came back to Flushing to play a three game set against the hated Atlanta Braves on September 21. They had swept the Pirates and unbelievably, after a dismal, disappointing summer, they were only 5.5 games out of first place, with six to play against the first place Braves. With the return of joy also came the return of hope.
And pride. We New Yorkers were not afraid. Over 41,000 braved the very real threat. If the terrorists were going to attack such American institutions as Wall St., then certainly the good, old American game of baseball was also at risk.
I was not at the game. I was sitting in my little office at the theatre. We opened the play I was working on (originally scheduled to premiere on Sept. 12) a week later than originally planned and the show went on. I spent that night in my cubicle, the transistor turned down low so that the sound of the game wouldn’t drift into the theatre.
I writhed in agony as Atlanta struck first blood in the fourth with a single run. That was quickly countered in the bottom of the inning on an RBI by Tsuyoshi Shinjo. It was a tight, tense game and throughout I listened to the crowd in the background to hear if something horrible, something terrible were happening that had nothing to do with baseball.
Half an inning after Liza Minnelli came out during the seventh inning stretch to sing “New York, New York,” the Braves responded with another run and the Mets trailed 2-1 going into the bottom of the eighth.
And that was when Atlas lifted the world, and set things right again. At least for one night.
The story is pure Hollywood and requires no set-up. Mets demi-god Mike Piazza hit a two-run home run of off native New Yorker Steve Karsay. Karsay was born in Flushing and attended Middle Village High School. It was a majestic shot, straight to center field, and when the ball landed the screams that tore through the night were of ecstasy, and agony.
Grown men wept, myself included, alone in my little office. We wept because in a world that had been sapped of all things good and true, there was still the possibility for magic. And we witnessed the return of magic in the mortal realm. Of course we would beat the terrorists. We could summon home runs from our collective hopes and dreams.
This is the single favorite moment in my personal history with baseball. There have been many, many magical things I have witnessed in the thousands of games I have enjoyed, but none caused such an incredible outpouring of emotion.
Maybe that’s why I cried tonight when I heard Hall president Jeff Idelson rattle off the list of familiar stats before finally saying Piazza’s name. Maybe it’s because I can’t separate the two anymore. The man and the home run.
That’s going to be a stressful picture to take.