Friday, September 10, 2021

Nightmare in a Cardboard Box: The September 11 Papers

TWENTY YEARS ON and I can still recall everything I did that day.

To be clear from the outset, I was -- relatively speaking -- outside the zone of physical danger, in an office building in midtown Manhattan. "Still too damn close," my cousin in Florida told me that evening. 

So far away, yet close enough to see from an office window the World Trade Center towers burning and then watch from the same vantage point as the top of the north tower, suddenly enveloped by a billowing cloud of smoke, splintered and sank from view.

In 1975 I had the misfortune of being on a road running alongside New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport when an Eastern Airlines jet on final approach from New Orleans got caught in a microburst and crashed just short of the runway, killing 113 people.

Again, in relative terms, I was outside the zone of immediate danger. I still have nightmares inspired by that day. But it was an isolated, discrete, incident and, more importantly, a genuine accident, whereas the events of September 11, 2001 were not.

I'd arrived from work that morning after voting in the city's primary election. As I walked north on Madison Ave., people on the street were standing still and pointing south. I'd no idea what the commotion was about until I'd gotten upstairs, where my editor greeted me with, "You know what happened, right?"

I didn't until he directed me to a west-facing window, told me to lean out as far as I could then look south. There, the north tower stood, with a smoking hole in its façade.

As a reporter, one's immediate reaction is to observe and report. Not knowing what lay ahead, I ran from the office to the nearest drugstore to buy a disposable camera, believing the fire would be put out, the hole repaired and the incident would become part of the city's lore, like that day in 1945 when a fog-bound B-25 bomber smashed into the Empire State Building.

The cheap camera's pictures turned out poorly, but in my mind's eye -- aided no doubt by the unprecedented media coverage -- they're crystal clear, as are the TV and radio news reports, the first-hand visual confirmation, the deepening dread as events unfolded, the not knowing which blow would be the last.

I pitched in on my newspaper's coverage that day, and on those that immediately followed.

Nearly 3,000 people died on what began as a sparkling clear September morning.

Somehow, those I knew who worked at the complex all survived, one because he found an intact stairway out of the south tower above the point of impact, another because he was fortuitously late for work. 

Among the recognizable names of the dead was someone I'd known back in day camp, where he took an arrow to the eye in an archery accident.

Arriving home in Queens that evening, I found my girlfriend awaiting my emergence from the subway. We held each other tightly, staring westward at the plume of smoke across the sky, trying to comprehend the awfulness. We watched the news, talked and slept fitfully before I woke to head back in.

The Manhattan of September 12 was nightmarishly still. Subway traffic was halted south of Grand Central Terminal. Walking the last dozen blocks to my office, through that silent, desolated midtown at what now wasn't rush hour, was an experience I'll never forget.

In the years since, I've read novels that have tried and failed to capture the feeling of that day, and tried to watch movies that nail it so well I needed to turn them off. The emotions are hard to harmonize. So I fall back on the immediate documentation.

A saver of things since boyhood, a habit or human failing that's provided the backbone for this blog, I reflexively kept the newspapers published on that terribly quiet next day, and periodicals from the days and weeks that followed.

It seemed, and still seems, wrong to discard them, wrong to diminish the record of that terrible day. For 20 years, they've been in a cardboard box, one of many in a closet dedicated to my compulsion to retain printed matter, an urge undimmed by the evaporation of tangible media, newspapers and magazines, movies, music and books.

"Time it was and what a time it was, it was a time of innocence, a time of confidences. Long ago it must be, I have a photograph. Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you." -- Simon & Garfunkel.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Damning Derek Jeter With Faint Praise

AS A BASEBALL FAN, it was easy to admire Derek Jeter's abundant success. As a New York Mets fan, it was hard not to resent it.

The former New York Yankees captain will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today and I'd be dead wrong if I said he didn't deserve it. He played for 20 seasons, accruing 3,465 hits, a Rookie of the Year award, more than a dozen All-Star selections, five Gold Gloves, five Silver Slugger awards and played on five championship teams.

From the 2009 season.

But still, the green eyed envy monster would rather not hear about it.

First time I saw Jeter play, he was penciled in as shortstop for the AA Albany-Colonie Yankees, who were playing the New Haven Ravens at the Yale Bowl on July 30, 1994. 

Rocketing through the Yankees farm system, he was batting .363, with 41 hits in just 113 at bats, 11 of which went for extra bases. He'd also walked 15 times, struck out 16, driven in 13 runs and registered a dozen steals. 

Jeter had started the year in Single-A Tampa and would rack up just nine more at bats -- and five more hits -- for the A-C Yanks before being promoted to AAA Columbus. Somehow he'd spend almost all of 1995 there, stuck behind Tony Fernandez and Randy Velarde on the Yankees' first wild card team.

Appearing in 15 big league games, he was briefly teammates with the man he'd spiritually replace and ultimately follow as the Bombers' captain, Don Mattingly, then in his last season as a player.

Jeter took over as starting shortstop in 1996, winning the American League's top rookie honors, while the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978, an almost unimaginable drought for them that coincided with the powerful Mets teams of the 1980s.

15 years earlier, in New Haven, Ct...

In '96, the Mets had promoted their own snazzy shortstop, Rey Ordoñez. And, while the Cuban-born Ordoñez couldn't hit like his crosstown counterpart, he could field his position like few others ever had.

The New York Times interviewed both for a feature titled My Shortstop is Better Than Yours, but the parity didn't last. 

Ordoñez finished just fifth in National League RoTY balloting but gained instant recognition for his defensive acrobatics, winning Gold Gloves in 1997, 1998 and 1999, before being derailed by broken arm sustained in a mid-2000 season collision, after which he was never the same. 

By that time, Jeter was already being kissed by fate, benefiting from Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier's hauling in a deep fly to right, converting it to a home run, kissing up to his manager, whom he respectfully if not obsequiously called "Mr. Torre," -- as dutifully reported by a fawning press -- and literally kissing pop star Mariah Carey, Miss Universe Lara Dutta and others.

...a rising prospect
The Yankees, who were capturing championships while Ordoñez was collecting his singular hardware, faced the Mets in the 2000 series and took the first two games, each by a single run before the Mets broke their momentum with a game 3 win.

Jeter led off the potentially pivotal game 4 by rocketing the first pitch of the night from Mets starter Bobby Jones into Shea Stadium's left field bleachers. The Yankees, who never trailed in the game, won 3-2, and took the series the next night.

The next season saw the Yankee shortstop make perhaps the signature defensive play of his career, in the A.L. Division Series, a maneuver that came to be known as "The Flip." It seemed the shortstop could do little, if anything, wrong. He'd even starting collecting Gold Gloves some say were undeserved, as well as Silver Slugger honors.

In 2003, he was named the franchise's fifteenth captain, putting him in the company of luminaries such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Mattingly.

From the 2009 game program, a mini poster.

In 2003, the Mets... well, don't ask. In this tale of one city, it was the best of times for Derek Jeter, the worst of times for the team from Queens. The obsequious Bronx mainstay played on, partaking in another Yankees championship and living his charmed life as the Mets' fortunes rose and fell. 

Then his own body betrayed him in game 1 of the 2012 A.L. championship series.

It was a stunning "behold a god who bleeds" moment, and a reminder that for all his exploits, for all the acclaim, for all the objectification, he was only human, exceptionally talented, gifted even and fortunate, but still just flesh and bone. He retired after 2014.

Jeter's Hall election came with 99.7 percent of the vote, the highest ever. He was selected on all but one of 397 ballots cast, a triumph of the hype. Other immortals were at least as deserving. But then why am I writing about him?

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Monday, August 23, 2021

Remembering Rod Gilbert as Rangers Restaurateur

LONG ISLAND has long had hockey players identifying as denizens of the most populous U.S. island.

But long before the birth of the more overtly-named New York Islanders in 1972, the island -- specifically the suburban-sprawling Nassau County -- was New York Rangers territory.
The Come On

They lived among us. Their kids were our classmates. They summered where we summered, trained at an arena where we could skate and ate where we ate.

So it came with much joy and no sense of incursion when Rod Gilbert, one of the greatest Rangers players ever, opened a barbecued ribs joint in Hewlett, N.Y., not far from where I grew up, back in 1981.

Hot Rod BarBQ took out a full-page add in the local Pennysaver, for what I presume was the grand opening of his "Canadian-style" restaurant on Jan. 5. On hand, he said, would be star Rangers goalie John Davidson, former blue shirt stalwart Pete Stemkowski and onetime NYR farmhand Jim Troy

There'd be a free drawing for Rangers tickets, an autographed stick and pucks. And, for the culinarily curious, food. 

Gilbert had starred for the powerhouse teams of the late 1960s and early '70s and was part of the goal-a-game or GAG line with Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. Piling up 406 goals and 615 assists over 18 seasons, earning the nickname "Mr. Ranger," he's still the franchise's all-time leading scorer.

My dad's Rangers fandom dated back to the days of Alex Shibicky, Neil Colville and Muzz Patrick. For him, "1940" wasn't just a chant. It was a conscious memory. Persuading him to go took little effort and so we went.

From Topps NHL hockey cards
We didn't win any sticks or pucks, and I'm pretty sure Troy was either incognito or a no-show. That didn't matter amid the first-magnitude star power that turned out for Gilbert's opening night as restaurateur. Davidson was there, all 6'3" of him, eyes characteristically ablaze. So too was his understudy, Wayne Thomas.

And they brought reinforcements. Oft-injured forward Ulf Nilsson was there, the man whose fateful collision with the Islanders' Denis Potvin -- in which Nilssson sustained a broken ankle -- inspired the deathless Madison Square Garden chant "Potvin sucks!" 

Clockwise from lower left: Thomas,
Gilbert, Tkaczuk upside down, Nilsson,
Stemkowski and Davidson
So too was veteran forward Walt Tkaczuk (no relation to Keith Tkachuk and sons Matthew and Brady), Stemkowski and Gilbert himself. All of them graciously signed the back of a Rangers team picture I'd gotten in a pack of hockey cards. 

Another popular Long Island hockey star appeared that night, Islander Bob Nystrom (whose career earned him the nickname Mr. Islander), less than two years removed from scoring a Stanley Cup winning goal for the Rangers' arch rivals. I kept his signature separate. It seemed the right thing to do.

It was an awesome night. They were there. In person. Answering any witless question I had. Somewhere along the line, my dad and I had dinner, though the food -- 40 years later -- wasn't particularly memorable.
Nystrom, signing solo

Maybe that was the flaw in Hot Rod's business plan. I don't recall his establishment staying open all that long. But I'd like to  think it was nights like that, in close quarters with real live hockey heroes, that helped make Long Island the hotbed it is today. 

The Rangers' Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, Adam Fox, hails from Long Island. So too does the Boston Bruins' star d-man, Charlie McAvoy Jr. The Islanders' Kyle Palmieri is L.I.-born as is Sonny Milano of the Anaheim Ducks and Keith Kinkaid, most recently a goalie for the Rangers, though he grew up rooting for the Islanders.

The Rangers still maintain a connection with the Long Beach arena which features boys' and girls' Junior Rangers hockey programs.

Gilbert, a Hockey Hall of Famer and the first Ranger to have had his uniform number, 7, retired, died on Aug. 22. He was 80 years old.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Canadiens-Islanders Stanley Cup Final 42 Years Overdue

IT WAS EXPECTED TO BE the best vs. the best, the reigning dynasty vs. the rising power.

But something happened on the way to the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, and the series that performance and passion demanded, pitting the defending champion Montreal Canadiens against the National Hockey League's top regular season team, the New York Islanders, was not to be.

Montreal captain Yvan Cornoyer
hoists the Stanley Cup in 1978. 
The Isles. The Habs. Two storied franchises. Together they combined to win eight consecutive cups, monopolizing hockey's big silver chalice from 1976 through 1983 without ever having to defeat one another in a head-to-head fight for its possession.

Now, 42 years later, and midway through the NHL's semifinals, there remains the possibility to reschedule this date with destiny. 

It's an opportunity that exists only by dint of a provisional divisional realignment prompted by a once-in-a-century pandemic, and the resultant closure of the U.S. Canada border that forced the league to abandon its Eastern and Western conference structure, opening the door to an all-Eastern final.

The Islanders-Tampa Bay Lightning series is tied at two wins apiece, Montreal leads the Vegas Golden Knights, two games to one.

C'est maintenant! This chance may never come again. 

Way back then, the NHL playoffs were a little different. The four division winners got a first-round bye. Those that finished second played a best-of-three preliminary series against one of four wild card teams: those with the highest point totals, that didn't finish in first or second, regardless of their division or conference of origin. Survivors got reseeded for the ensuing rounds. 

The 78-79 Canadiens held up their end, winning the NHL's Norris Division and earning a bye while mayhem played out among the league's hoi polloi. 

The Flower, from the Habs'
1978-79 yearbook
Stacked with Hockey Hall of Fame talent including head coach Scotty Bowman, the Habs rolled up 115 points during the regular season, accruing a 52-17-11 record, second only to that of the Islanders' 116 (51-15-14).

Leading their attack was Guy Lafleur, whose 129 points (52 goals, 77 assists), put him third in the league for scoring. Surrounding Lafleur were sniper Steve Shutt (37G, 40A), Pierre Mondou (31G/41A), Mario Tremblay and Yvon Lambert. Still on the team, though ailing, was their veteran captain, Yvan Cornoyer.

Flashy as the Flying Frenchmen were, defense was their backbone.

Forward Bob Gainey was in the midst of a four-year run as recipient of the Selke Award bestowed annually on the league's top defensive forward. Behind him were a slew of Hall-bound defensemen: Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Rod Langway. And behind them, superlative goaltender Ken Dryden and backup Michel "Bunny" Laroque.

Loaded though they were, Montreal only narrowly escaped dethronement by the Boston Bruins, who led game 7 of their semi-final series 4-3, with just 2:34 left in regulation when they got caught with too many men on the ice.

Lafleur scored on the power play, sending the game into overtime where Lambert slid a goal line pass under Boston net minder Gilles Gilbert for the series winner.

The regular season champion Islanders too were stocked with hall-bound superstars starting with center Bryan Trottier and his wingmen, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies, aka the Trio Grande. Trotts' 134 points (47G, 87A) led the league, capturing the Art Ross trophy as scoring leader and the Hart trophy as MVP. Bossy tallied 69 goals and 126 points, while Gillies added 35 goals and 56 assists.

Sandwiched amid those top scoring forwards was rock solid defenseman Denis Potvin, en route to winning his second straight Norris Trophy as the league's top blueliner, while posting 31 goals and 70 assists. Their head coach was the Hall-bound Al Arbour.

Everything but the Cup.
(From the 1978-79 Islanders yearbook)

Steadily accruing talent since their 1972 incarnation, the Isles lost three straight semifinals before being bounced in the quarters by the '77-78 Toronto Maple Leafs. With a solid supporting cast including goalies Glenn Resch and Billy Smith and that gaudy regular season performance, they seemed primed to take the next step.

They stepped, and fell, over the rival New York Rangers, a wild card team who'd dispatched the Los Angeles Kings and then the Philadelphia Flyers en route to their semifinal clash with their suburban brethren. 

Four of the series' six games were decided by a single goal, twice in overtime -- both Islanders' victories -- but it didn't matter. After knotting affairs at two games a piece, the Isles dropped game five at the Nassau Coliseum and game six at Madison Square Garden. 

Just like that, the NHL's top regular season team was done, or undone, and in any event, finished. Snuffed out. There would be no faceoff with the Habs, who beat the Rangers four games to one, capturing the cup for the fourth straight year.

Had things played out differently, Montreal might have surrendered the cup to the Islanders much in the same way the Isles would lose it to the upstart Edmonton Oilers in 1984, launching that next dynasty. 

Though the Habs and Isles met in subsequent series, most recently the 1993 semis won by Montreal, the potential for a main-à-main struggle for the silver was formatted out of existence, until now.

While there's no replacing that missing bookend to the Canadiens-Islanders-Oilers succession, there is -- as of this writing -- at least the potential for serving up a variation on that NHL finale fans were denied so many years ago.

Now may never come again.

-- On twitter @paperboyarchive