Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Gods of Baseball Live Here

© Text & Photos by LeeZard

Tuesday August 27 – New York, NY-Cooperstown, NY
I am leaving New York City via its maze of parkways and expressways, Belt Parkway, Van Wyck Expressway, Whitestone Expressway and the Hutchinson River Parkway, on my way to the New York State Thruway. The Thruway – I-87 – is familiar ground; it is the gateway to the rugged and beautiful Adirondack State Park (2.6 million acres!) where I spent many happy youthful days.
When thinking of New York, most people think of the city and they assume the whole state is like that but heading into Westchester County and away from the tumult of the Big City, the rest of New York State reveals itself, lush and green.
At Albany the Thruway turns west, eventually becoming I-90. After too many miles of freeway I exit onto U.S. 20 west in the town of Waynesburg. The route gently twists through long stretches of forest, dotted by some fine old homes and the occasional farm. At one farm I spot a “Produce” sign and slow down; I am always looking for that elusive, fresh-off-the-vine tomato. When I find them, I eat ‘em like candy.
There they are! I stop; make a U-turn and park beside the stand. There is nary a soul in sight.
I wait a few moments and then start choosing tomatoes. They are all perfectly ripe. I weigh them on the professional scale – four pounds but still, nobody around. It is then that I notice the coffee can with a hand-scrawled sign that says “Pay Here.” At $2.00 a pound I drop $8.00 into the can and immediately reach into the brown paper bag to pull out one of the bright red beauties. It tastes like…WOW it tastes like a tomato!
The road into Cooperstown is County 31. It is much more narrow than the state and U.S roads, the trees nearly forming a canopy with the first red and orange tinges of autumn tickling their leaves. The harsh winter comes early to Central New York; Cooperstown is in the southern part of New York’s Snowbelt, averaging almost 70 inches a year. The average January temperature is 11° Fahrenheit.
A sharp right turn and CR 31 becomes Main St. Even though Cooperstown was established in 1786 (founded by the father of author James Fenimore Cooper <The Last of the Mohicans>) to me it’s like the Baseball Gods dropped this perfect little village from the sky into the dense forest and called it their Valhalla. Apparently they also told the residents to neatly maintain their fabulous colonial homes.

Almost immediately on the left I spot the National Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF). It is a three-floor red brick building that fits nicely with the character of the brick colonials surrounding it. As an aside, the HOF is not affiliated with nor run by Major League Baseball. It is an independent non-profit organization obviously closely associated with the Grand Old Game. Before doing the HOF as the avid fan that I am, I have work to do.

Cooperstown – is there a more intense baseball town on the face of the earth? I think not. Almost every shop and restaurant on Main St. has a baseball theme. But even the Gods of Baseball could not avert The Great Recession.

Thirty-nine year old Brad Horn is the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Senior Director for Communications and Education (I want his job!). He makes no bones about it, “We have seen a significant decline in attendance since 2008. We’ve gone from about 300,000 visitors a year to about 265,000.”
Horn predicts the 2013 numbers will be about the same. It is The Hall’s lowest attendance since the 1980s. He attributes most of the drop to the recession, the rest to what he calls “environmental factors” such as Cooperstown’s remote location, local prices (especially during the recession) and, oh yeah, that steroids thing in baseball.

Interestingly, Horn puts some of the blame on the people who run the Major Leagues. “Their emphasis is more on the here and now than on the history associated with earlier generations.”
What Horn doesn’t know is whether the attendance figures are “the new norm” or just a certain time period. Either way, it affects the way the hall is run. Even as a non-profit they don’t want to operate in the red. Horn admits, though, “We have had financial losses each of the last few years.” He refuses to go into specifics.
“We have to make modifications,” Horn says, “we’ve had a reduction in programs, a reduction of exhibits but no reduction in staff. We do have to look at how we deliver our services and be as efficient as possible.”
As a PR guy, Horn puts on the rose-colored glasses, “We’d like to think it’s not going to go any lower, that this is the bottom of the barrel. We’re hopeful that life in 2014 will look more like it was in the first part of the 21st Century than it has for the past four of five years.”
The merchants who live off The Hall’s visitors sure hope he’s right. Forty-eight year old Kim manages a store that sells and custom-engraves wooden baseball bats. “This is one of three jobs I have,” she says, “I’m also a court clerk and a short-order cook. Because of the recession I had to do anything I could because I wanted to stay in Otsego County.”
She raises an important point; outside of Cooperstown, Otsego County (pop. 62,000) has a median income that is more than $12,000 below that of the rest of the state. Cooperstown (Pop. just fewer than 2,000) fares better with a median income $5,000 below that of the state.
Seventy-one year Dave helps run his great-nephew’s souvenir shop on Main Street. “The shop’s done okay during the recession but it’s also changed. We used to sell 75 percent souvenirs and memorabilia and 25 percent clothes. Now, it’s flipped in the last five or six years; people don’t want to spend on things they can’t really use. Because of that switch to more clothing we’ve been able to at least maintain rather than lose sales.”
Sixty-eight year old Pat is also helping family. She helps out at her daughter’s non-baseball-related boutique that sells children’s toys, games and clothing. “It’s been troublesome,” she tells me referring to the recession, “more than troublesome.”
 “I would say we are down at least 20-to-25 percent and that’s no small thing for a small business.”
Pat says online shopping compounds the problem. “It’s difficult for a ‘brick-and-mortar’ store to generate loyalty and with tourism down that only makes it worse. I work here so my daughter doesn’t have to pay someone to do it.”
Several other stores along Main St. have similar stories; all of them saying their business has dropped anywhere from 20-to30 percent.

Sidebar: Talkin’ Baseball
How could I talk to someone from the Baseball Hall of Fame and not ask some baseball questions?
L: What impact has baseball’s steroids controversy had on the HOF?
Brad Horn: We see it as a period where it has affected the way fans celebrate heroes and moments.  We don’t know what the long-term impact will be but we do know that certain records and milestones over the past decade are under a cloud. Fans have a disdain for steroid users. I’d say five-to-ten percent of our attendance drop could be attributed to that. But we can’t ignore it. We do refer to it in our “Today’s Game” section; it is a part of the game’s history.
L: Will there come a time when the steroid users will be admitted to The Hall?
H: Only time will tell. We have a process, more than 75-years old, by which players are elected to The Hall, the voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America. And, we have specific criteria for election that include character, sportsmanship and integrity. The writers have not seen fit to give any player associated with, or suspected of association with steroids more than 50 percent of the vote (election requires mention on 75 percent of the ballots).
L: I saw Pete Rose’s uniform in The Hall. If you have his uniform, why not have Pete (banned from Major League Baseball for life for gambling on his own team’s games)?

H: You cannot tell the story of baseball history and not mention the all-time hits leader but our rules state that anyone banned by Major League Baseball is not eligible for induction into The Hall.
L: Let me play devil’s advocate. What about Ty Cobb? Amongst other things, he was a racist and an all around sonuvabitch.
H: We set the rules for selection and frankly the selection process is reflective of the times. Cobb was elected in the first class in 1936. Obviously for that era, his crimes were not egregious enough to not be honored in this institution.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Recession? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Recession.

Thursday August 22 – Latrobe, PA-New York, NY via Yardley, PA
Yes, I am technically on the East Coast. After all, Pennsylvania is an Atlantic port state. I won’t really feel it, though, until I hit The Philadelphia area and then drive up the New Jersey Turnpike to New York City.
I’m stopping later today in Yardley, PA, just west of Trenton, NJ, to visit my Cousin Roberta, the daughter of my Dad’s brother. A few years older than I, she was my very first boyhood crush and remains to this day an easy audience for my unique sense of humor. I can’t stay long in Yardley; I’ll have to find camping as I near New York City early this evening. The closest camping to the city is 35 miles south of NY at the strangely named Cheesequake (sic) State Park.
My drive from Latrobe to Yardley will be mostly on the Pennsylvania Turnpike/I-76. Getting to the turnpike is a soothing 45-minute drive along the lush and rolling state roads of Western PA. I’m glad it is so soothing; when I reach the turnpike entrance it is a rude awakening.
Even though I grew up in New York City, I’ve been in Seattle since 1974. Toll roads are a rarity in the Pacific Northwest but I remember them well from my younger days; they are the norm on the East Coast. On many turnpikes, instead of toll booths every few exits, you grab a ticket at the freeway entrance and pay accordingly at your exit. As a teenager I took the 90-minute drive on the Jersey Turnpike many times to sustain a brief romance in Philadelphia. In addition to paying the $0.31.9 per gallon of gas in 1965 the toll from the Holland Tunnel to the Delaware Memorial Bridge might have been as much as $3.95.
So you can imagine my sticker shock when I see the $26.95 it will cost me to cross PA on I-76. The next body blow is the $8.80 on the Jersey Turnpike from Trenton to the Holland Tunnel (under the Hudson River into NYC) followed by the $13.00 for the tunnel. YOIKS, that’s $48.75 before the rubber ever hits a New York City pothole.
You may be asking right now, “Wait, what happened the Cheesequake State Park?” Good question; by the time I get there – about 8:30 PM (EDT) – it is dark and the park is locked up like grandma’s jewels. This is a serious problem. My reservation in Brooklyn’s Camp Gateway National Recreation Area doesn’t begin until tomorrow night. Moreover, Camp Gateway doesn’t allow pets, which also irks me. In more than 5,000 miles, camping in mostly county, state and national facilities, this is the first that doesn’t allow pets. I’ll have to board Trooper.
I have no choice; I must tap into my network of New York friends for help. I cannot ask brother Steve. He has done so much already to support my efforts. I have friends in the New York Metropolitan Area I’ve known for more than 50 years. There is no hesitation to seek aid and, sure enough, one of my oldest pals offers to put me up in a hotel for the night.
I want to find a place near Steve’s neighborhood in Brooklyn and as I search I find a new trend. High-end chains have built properties in so-called “transition” neighborhoods. Their room rates are far below those of the average New York City hotel.
I select the Marriott Slum near downtown Brooklyn. There is 24-hour security around the property which is surrounded by graffiti adorned, abandoned apartments and warehouses. It doesn’t matter to Trooper and I; the luxurious bed, bug-free bathroom and large shower stall more than compensate for the view from our seventh floor room.
I get some of my best – and sometimes my craziest – ideas under the spray of a long hot shower. Tonight, as I wash away the last few hundred miles of bodily road grime, I am struck with inspiration.
I’m not planning to interview while in The Big Apple. My plan all along is to concentrate on the smaller cities, towns and villages in America. There is one section in this vast metropolis, however, that I cannot ignore, The Rockaways in Queens.
Hurricane/Super-storm Sandy blasted into America just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey October 29, 2012. While not the most powerful hurricane to strike America it was the second costliest in American history and by far the largest. At one point Sandy’s winds spanned more than 1,100 miles.
If you look at a map of America, New York City and Long Island are really off the coast of New Jersey. Sandy was an equal opportunity storm and did not discriminate between states. As such, both New Jersey and New York, especially The Rockaways, bore the brunt of the initial storm surge and made headlines around the world. Ten months later Rockaway is still rocked.
Before Rockaway, though, I have to secure my campsite and get Trooper into his Pet Hotel – they don’t call ‘em boarding kennels anymore. I had more sticker shock finding a place for Trooper, $50 and up per night. I was ready to dress him up in my clothes, cover his head with a hat and pass him off at the campground as my enfeebled great-grandfather. Luckily, there is a PetSmart in lower Manhattan with a Pet Hotel for only $32.50 a night.
Friday August 24 – Brooklyn-Manhattan-Brooklyn
Today is housekeeping day. I will reluctantly part with my faithful canine companion for four nights so I can cheaply camp using my National Interagency Old Guy Pass for $10 a night and visit with my brother and his family. Sounds simple, right? Nothing is simple in New York City.
I drive mid-morning from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan because traffic supposedly will be light. I am almost correct, except in downtown Brooklyn where traffic is never light. Nonetheless I make decent time. Now all I have to do is find parking. Hahahaha. I only circle for 20-minutes before I actually find a legal spot not too far from PetSmart. I grab Trooper’s file with all his current vaccination papers and head for the “hotel.” Here’s where simple stops.
“Can I see your vaccination papers?” the check-in clerk asks. No problem. Wrong.
As she is going to make copies, the clerk looks over the file, shakes her head and returns to the front desk. “I’m afraid we can’t take Trooper,” she informs me.
“What do you mean?” I ask incredulously, “he’s current on everything.”
‘New York requires that he must be current with Bordatella (Kennel Cough. Uh, Pet Hotel Cough?) for the last six-months,” she says.
“He is current for the past six months,” I explain, “his vaccination is good for one year and he’s had it annually his entire life.”
“No,” she says as if instructing a child, “he has to have a shot every six months.”
“What?” I’m trying not to play irate consumer. “All his shots are current. Listen, I’m camping at Camp Gateway. They don’t allow pets. The nearest other campground is 40 miles away in New Jersey.”
With a not-my-problem look, the clerk has the final word, “Sorry, there is nothing I can do.”
“Crap,” I say to myself, “no way I’m commuting between Camp Cheesecake and Brooklyn.” I start mentally preparing to leave New York without much of a visit. Before acting hastily I decide to call Camp Gateway and beg.
Expecting the worst, I fare much better thanks to Ranger Pat. After listening to my tale of woe, Ranger Pat is beyond sympathetic. “I have two of my own,” she enthuses, “Let me talk to the chief.”
After a few moments, blessedly without audio entertainment or promotion, Ranger Pat is back with the good news. “Chief says it’s alright. Just don’t flaunt it.”
What a relief. While I love seeing my brother and sister-in-law I am jonesing to see my niece. She is three-and-half and I haven’t seen her other than on Skype since her first birthday. I am a sucker for kids, especially those with my blood running through their veins.
It is still early enough to avoid the home commute so my drive from Manhattan to Camp Gateway is a snap. Camp Gateway is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area created on Floyd Bennett Field, a former Naval Air Base at the south end of Flatbush Avenue. Before becoming a military base, Floyd Bennett, named for a Brooklynite Medal of Honor Winner, was New York’s first municipal airport. It opened in 1931 and was decommissioned in 1971. I remember touring the base with my family when I was about nine.
Coming off the Belt Parkway at Exit 11S, the airfield immediately looms on my left. I turn into what looks like a main entrance with a big white arch. Strangely I see no signs either for the park or the campgrounds. Surrounded by playfields and long abandoned runways I drive along the wide runways toward the waters of Jamaica Bay where I saw on an area map the campsites.
There are a few small signs with the names of campgrounds; none of them mine but oddly, no campsites in sight. Finally, after about fifteen minutes of meandering I see a couple of people and ask where the camping registration is. “It’s all the way back there,” one answers, pointing in the general direction of whence I came. “It’s in the Visitor’s Center.”
Retracing my steps by about a mile, I park in front of the obviously restored clean white building that serves as the Visitor’s Center but, still, no signs mentioning camping. Inside, however, is the perpetually cheerful and helpful Ranger Pat who seems genuinely thrilled to meet Trooper and me. After signing us in, Ranger Pat unfolds a map and draws a red line directing us from YOU ARE HERE to site 39 just off Runway 24B.
Twenty minutes later I am still circling up and back on Runway 24B looking for #39. There are no helpful signs. Looking for the umpteenth time at Ranger Pat’s map I notice that her red line turns to dashes and ends at a small side road next to the runway. At the end of the small road I see a battered and branch covered Do Not Enter sign. Having seen no signs to this point I figure this one is left over from the Navy days and I enter. A few hundred feet in, the road narrows to a path and dead ends with trees scraping both sides of the Jeep. I pull a nifty U-turn in the cramped space and slowly work my way back. This is when my day goes from Sunshine Ranger Pat to National Park Police Officer Asshole.
He is standing about fifty feet away from me at my point of entry, legs spread in a commanding posture and a hand raised in the air. Actually, he is a welcome sight; I’m certain he will guide me to my campsite. He will, but not before asserting his absolute authority over me or anyone else within the sound of his booming voice.
As I creep closer I hear his dulcet tones through my closed windows, “STOP THE DAMNED CAR!!” I stop the damned car.
I lower my window, license already in my hand. “Hang on, I’ll get the registration out of my glove box,” I say.
Officer Asshole only speaks in bold letters. “Can’t you read the sign? It says DO NOT ENTER!”
“I’m lost officer. Can you direct me to my campsite? I’ve been circling for almost a half hour.” I say all of this calmly and politely. I am well versed in Traffic Cop 101.
Officer A. ignores me. “That sign says DO NOT ENTER. You are in violation of the VTR.” The last sentence is delivered like Perry Mason nailing the lying witness.
“Uh, VTR?”
“Those are the Vehicle Traffic Regulations (‘you fool’ is the implied end of that sentence). Let me see your proof of insurance.”
“Listen officer, I really thought that sign was outdated. As I said, I’m lost. Can you just point me to my campsite?”
“Don’t you know how to follow MY commands?” His bold letters are nearly upper case. “Show me the insurance!”
By now there is nothing I can say that won’t incite him further so I hand him the insurance ID and stew silently. This is new territory for me, silent stewing.
After I show on his computer warrant and crime free, Officer A. strides back to my open window, hands me my papers and in only a slightly less self-important roar, points down the now-violated lane. “See that trailer at the end of this road? That’s your campground just to the right.”
He turns imperiously to leave, as if he’s just granted me a reprieve from Big Sparky. “Welcome to New York,” I say to the back of his head, certainly loud enough for him to hear. Officer Asshole needs to work on his people skills.
Sunday August 25 – The Rockaways
I cannot count the number of times I’ve driven through the Five Towns of Nassau County, NY to reach the magnificent white sand beaches of Long Island’s South Shore. From my early youth until I moved from the city in 1974, I sunned, swam and socialized in Long Beach, Lido Beach, Atlantic Beach and The Rockaways.
In high school my crowd’s favorite hangout was Beach 32nd Street in Rockaway. Before obtaining driver’s licenses we got there via the subway, The Long Island Railroad or BMT (By My Thumb). On any given hot muggy day five, ten, fifteen or 20 blankets would join to form our own ad hoc beach club sometimes with nearly 100 of us trading screaming teen hormones.
We romped in the frothy waves of the Atlantic Ocean and patrolled the boardwalk, teeming with New York’s ethnic potpourri and concession stands hawking great fries, greasy burgers, kosher hot dogs and a multitude of sugar laden treats. The rides and carnival games were a few miles to the west at Rockaway Playland, the poor man’s Coney Island.
The warm memories are gone in a New York minute, or as Johnny Carson once said, “The time between a NY traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn.” Standing on the boardwalk today is a forlorn, lonely experience.
In days of yore, the crowds started building early in the morning until wall-to-wall blankets hid the beach sand. Now, the beach is empty and the ocean much closer to the boardwalk than I remember, the result of erosion and storms. Instead of the noisy fun-loving crowd on the boardwalk there is an occasional runner or two and no concession stands. In their place are two almost permanent-looking construction trailers mounted on concrete footings.
I walk down the boardwalk for a block or two until there are no boards on the walk. Only their concrete supports remain, my first evidence of Sandy’s wrath. I walk down to the beach without any visions or illusions of yesteryear. Reality sucks.
With nobody in sight, I let Trooper off his leash to romp. His first discovery is the unwelcome taste of saltwater. With that out of the way he takes an introductory roll in the sand and goes off looking for a gnawing stick. As if from nowhere a security guard appears about 150 feet in front of us yelling, “No dogs on the beach!” Of course not. We make our way back to the Jeep on the dry side of the non-boardwalk. It’s time to look for people and their stories.

Working my way west and driving up and down the side streets Sandy’s legacy is more evident. Rented dumpsters dot the streets while boarded up and abandoned homes sit silently awaiting their final destruction. Still, there are many buildings that look either untouched by the storm or at least their rehabilitation is complete. In other areas, entire blocks are cleared with new developments changing the feel of The Rockaways created by decades of salt spray, sand and families in the mostly white mostly unchanged rentals and permanent residences.
Moving further west into neighborhoods with more homeowners I see lots of repair and cleanup activity.
Matt Quinby is hard at work swapping between a paintbrush and a broom on the front porch of his grey wood clapboard sided house less than a block from the beach. He defers to his wife Lee for an interview. Both are professors at the City University of New York. As a result, they were living collegial, recession-proof lives until that dark and stormy night. (Damn! I’ve been waiting for years to use that…).
“Sandy changed the nature of my classes,” she begins. “So many of my students were displaced, they couldn’t finish that semester or begin the next.”
“And,” she continues, “It certainly changed things here at the house. We lost everything to the water in the basement, the boiler, heater, the washer and dryer, etc. The most hurtful part of it was we lost mementoes, papers and irreplaceable photographs of the family. It was very difficult.”
The Quinby’s roof was also damaged and the combined financial hit was a hard one. “Insurance is hard to secure here and we had to pay for everything from our savings,” says Lee Quinby. “We spent about $12,000-15,000 dollars to replace everything and we were amongst the lucky ones.”
Becoming more thoughtful, she adds, “The whole thing made me feel more vulnerable. I’ve always had good things happen to me in life; bad things just don’t happen….until this.”
I hear many other stories this day, some similar and others worse. One man who doesn’t want to identify himself is removing debris from his front yard. “We had to leave. The water was at the front door,” he says, pointing to a porch where the door stood about five-to-six feet above the sidewalk.
“I am living with my son now and I come down on weekends to clean up. I’m going to have to tear down the house and rebuild.”
“Do you have that kind of money?” I ask.
“No,” my family will help.”
The most harrowing story I hear comes from 54-year old Ramona Muńo. Like the Quinbys she is less than a block from the beach. “My home was flooded. We had about five feet of water”
“I stayed here during the storm,” she tells me with a small laugh. “It was a little scary no, it was a lot scary. We left for Irene the year before and nothing happened so……. We thought it was going to be the same way.”
“We’re still recovering slowly,” she continues. “I had to take money out of my retirement account to make repairs. I’ll probably have to work three to five years longer now.”
When I ask her how the experience changed her, Ramona Muńo gets to the heart of her story.
“I used to think material things were important,” she starts out. “When you see yourself in a situation where you think you might die, those things become much less important. You realize how much more important are your family, friends and things like that.”
“Wait,” I interrupt, “Go back. You thought you were going to die?”
“We were surrounded by water. We didn’t know how high it was going to go. And there was a fire on the next block to the north. It was randomly jumping from house to house and we didn’t know how far that was going to go, if our house was going to catch fire.”
“Today,” she concludes, “I cherish the people in my life.”