Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Don't Stop Believing

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, June 5, 2008:
Nine years after a crowning, unique achievement in baseball history, and after two entire seasons spent at home in the Dominican Republic wondering where his career had gone, Fernando Tatis recently returned to the major league scene as an inspired contributor to the dispirited New York Mets. In the space of just a few days, his late-inning hits won two ballgames, the admiration of his teammates, and the adulation of a new fan base. His twelfth-inning walk-off double in the first of these contests overcame a one-run deficit and may turn out to have saved his manager’s job.

On another comeback front, the famous-long-ago rock band Journey, missing the signature tenor of Steve Perry since 1995, kept trying to recover their sound and their audience. Searching for his clone, the band hired and fired a couple of lead singers in the interim until they found one on, of all places, YouTube — and residing in the Philippines, no less. This week Journey, fronted by its new 40-year-old chameleon vocalist Arnel Pineda, issued a new CD to bewildered but favorable reviews. “The album ... is, actually, good,” wrote a clearly surprised Ben Ratliff in the New York Times; “the band seems to have taken rock vitamins: it feels alive.”

Journey’s comeback may have been overshadowed by Pineda’s own: he had struggled along the piers of Manila, where as a boy he had collected scrap metal, bottles and newspapers to survive. As he told a Philippine reporter in January of this year, he always kept a positive outlook, thinking, Gaganda rin ’to, which may be translated as “Things will get better” or even “Don’t stop believing.”

Hillary Clinton ran a valiant if doomed race against time and math yet, conquering neither, kept running as if her power switch was stuck in the on position. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” she offered, echoing Yogi’s tautological wisdom, but what she may have really meant was that it wasn’t over until she said it was over.

Lost in the post-primaries squabble over concession etiquette was her still compelling argument that projecting to the electoral college come November, she appears to win handily while Obama may struggle. Also lost was that her comeback from the political-operative incompetence of the caucus states showed not only relentless drive but also simple courage.

What a long strange week it’s been, with hope and renewal and denial and anger all contending for the top rung. Just hold on, the still, small voice had seemed to say, and the finish line will extend magically ... another day, another season, another tour. These Comeback Kids — Hillary, Fernando, and the members of Journey — have each struggled against what seemed inevitable defeat and, if only for a moment vanquishing it or shoving it to one side, merit at least our grudging admiration.

The pump had been primed for Journey’s return to the top when the Chicago White Sox selected their 1981 anthem “Don’t Stop Believing” as their theme song on the way to winning the 2005 World Series. It became the fire-up music of all Detroit sports franchises, too, for its opening-stanza line “Just a city boy ... born and raised in South Detroit.” But the song’s ultimate return to glory came when, after closing out last year’s final episode of The Sopranos, it catapulted to the top ten of iTunes downloads — a comeback from the dead of perhaps unparalleled dimension.

Unless you think of Tatis, who on April 23, 1999, playing for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Los Angeles Dodgers, did what no one had ever done before and no one is ever likely to do again. He hit two home runs with the bases filled in the same inning ... and against the same pitcher (Chan Ho Park). In that season, when he was a rising star aged 24, he hit 34 home runs and 31 doubles, drove in 107 runs, and even stole 21 bases. He signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract. The road to Cooperstown opened wide.

But he never approached those numbers again, and after four more years of dwindling production with the Cardinals and the Montreal Expos and a failed spring-training trial in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Tatis found himself back at home at San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic waiting for the phone to ring. For two years he stayed home with his wife and five children. After flirtations with the Baltimore Orioles and the Dodgers he landed with the New Orleans Zepyhrs, a Mets farm club for 2007, where he played alongside similarly washed up teammate Chan Ho Park.

Today both are back in the big leagues and contributing big time, Park again finding a home with the Dodgers. The two even faced each other in a single plate appearance of a game last week. What drove Tatis, at age 33, to stick with baseball, despite the indignity of diminished stature, salary, and playing time? His older children told him they wanted to see him play in the majors again. Fernando is now playing the game with a verve that his teammates would do well to emulate. He is happy to be back on the big stage.

So is Journey, whose combined CD/DVD “Revelation” floods into WalMart stores this week (the exclusive retail outlet except for the band’s website, And while there are those who hate the power-ballad era and its fossil remnants, the boomer audience never really left Journey’s side.

Senator Clinton is finding it hard to give up the big stage of Presidential politics. A return to Washington as the junior Senator from New York, with an obstructed view of both the Majority Leader’s chair and that of the Armed Services Committee, seems unpalatable. Negotiating her way onto the ticket will require a position of submission (if only to reality), not strength, and thus is unlikely to prevail. Why she would want the second position is a mystery anyway.

As Hillary considers her next destination, the glowing screen may be a beacon in the dark. “Don’t Stop Believing” was Tony Soprano’s jukebox choice, along with “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” sung by Tony Bennett, selected but not heard before the abrupt blackout (other jukebox options for those who would treat the series finale as a mini-episode of Lost were: “Who Will You Run To,” “Magic Man,” and Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.”) When the Clintons made their celebrated YouTube parody of the Sopranos finale they chose “Don’t Stop Believing” as the background track ... but her jukebox choices for campaign song included “Get Ready,” “Don’t Look Back,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Suddenly I See,” as well as the song ultimately selected for the campaign, Celine Dion’s insipid “You and I.”

Unsolicited advice, from one not unfamiliar with misfortune: Don’t stop believing, but do stop bereaving. Focus on the good times. And as baseball players know, not every hit is a home run, and some days it rains.

--John Thorn

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

Kessler at the Bat

This previously unpublished riff on the immortal "Casey at the Bat" is by Mikhail Horowitz, bon vivant, raconteur, performance artist and, you should be so lucky, friend.

It looked, well, all farcockteh for the Putzville nine that day;
The score—don’t ask—was 4 to 2. You heppy now? Hokeh.
And so when Plotkin plotzed at first, and Schwartz popped up to third,
Already y’hay sh’may rab-boh was in the ballpark heard.

A couple shlumps got up to go, the others shrugged, and stayed
(For box seats on the field, hoo boy! their tuchuses they paid);
They thought, If only Kessler maybe gives the ball a zetz,
We’d shimmy through the shtetl and forget about the Mets!

But Stein preceded Kessler, as did his nephew, Moe,
And Stein a real shmegegee was, and Moe was just a shmo;
So maybe now for Kessler they should bother not to wait—
Moshiach had a better chance of schlepping to the plate.

But Stein, he blooped a bingle, and his mother cried, Mein Gott!
And Moshe clubbed a double, I should drop dead on the spot;
And when they finished running and bent wheezing at the waist,
There was Moe verklempt on second and Stein on third, vershtast?

So now from all those Putzville fans was such a big to-do,
They rose and davened in a wave, a hundred shofars blew;
A host of angels wept to hear a thousand chazzans sing,
For Kessler, Rebbe Kessler, he was coming up to swing.

There was schmaltz on Kessler’s tallis as he stepped into the box,
In his beard were crumbs of matzoh, small piece cheese, a bissel lox,
And when he shook his shtreimel, drenching half the fans with sweat,
No goyim in the crowd could doubt—’twas Kessler at the bet.

And now the mystic, Kabbalistic pitch comes floating in,
And Kessler’s brow is furrowed, and he slowly strokes his chin;
He comprehends that long before Creation had begun,
This pitch existed somewhere . . . but then he hears, “Strike vun!”

From the stands (donated by the Steins) the whole mishpocheh moaned,
A yenta started kvetching and a balabusta groaned;
“Hey, ump!” an angry moyel cried, “I’ll cut you like a fish!”
So, nu? They would have cut him, but Kessler muttered, “Pish!”

With a smile of pure rachmanis, great Kessler’s punim shone,
He stilled the boiling moyel, he bade the game go on;
He yubba-dubba-dubba’ed as the pious pitcher threw,
But he yubba-dubba’ed once too much—the umpire shrugged,
“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

“Feh!” cried the maddened Hasids, and Elijah echoed, “Feh!”
But a puzzled look from Kessler made the audience go, “Heh?”
They saw his payus rise and fall, they saw his tzitzits twitch,
They knew that Rebbe Kessler vouldn’t miss another pitch.

The smile on Kessler’s punim now is more profound, and keener;
He glows with all the preternatural light of the Shekinah;
And now the pishka-pishka pitch so big and fat it gets;
And now the air is shattered by the force of Kessler’s zetz!

Oy. Somewhere in Jerusalem a grandson plants a tree;
A klezmer band is playing—so, the clarinet’s off-key;
And somewhere else a shmoyger with the rebbetzin has flirted;
But there is no joy in Putzville—mighty Kessler has converted.

(“The name is Kelly, if you don’t mind!”)