Author Archives: johnfjeansonne@gmail.com

About johnfjeansonne@gmail.com

Newsday sportswriter emeritus and adjunct professor in the Hofstra University school of communications.

Giants, meet the new boss

Midstream, the New York Giants are changing horses. This defies proverbial wisdom, though it certainly doesn’t go against sporting custom. When a team loses 10 of its first 12 games, as the Giants have, the coach is susceptible to the heave-ho, an incomplete season notwithstanding. But with no guarantee that things will get better before they get worse.

I have seen this movie more than once in my nearly half-century as a sports journalist. Most similar to this week’s developments, there was 1976. Then-Giants owner Wellington Mara declared that “changing coaches in midseason always has been repugnant to me, because I’ve always felt that is a cop-out by management to pin the shortcomings on one man.”

Even as he spoke, Mara nevertheless had given coach Bill Arnsparger his pink slip a week before Halloween. The team was 0-7.

The best rationale for the move, Mara admitted, was that the players might respond to “another personality.” Certainly Arnsparger’s replacement, the personable John McVey, was a breath of fresh air compared to the intense, insecure Arnsparger.

The Giants lost their next two games, anyway, finished the year with four losses in seven games under McVey and won only 11 of 30 over the next two seasons before he, too, was let go. Proving two things: 1) That the Giants needed better players as much as they needed a different coach, and 2) Years of scholarly research and psychological interpretation correctly have predicted that the time-honored mid-season coaching shakeup is a 50-50 bet, at best.

Now we have Steve Spagnuolo, who has just replaced Ben McAdoo to lead a team fairly decimated by injury and deteriorating confidence. And good luck to Spagnuolo.

As just one example, a year-old study in the Economist, with graphs and charts and a numbing collection of numbers, analyzed performance effects of in-season managerial changes over 15 years in soccer’s English Premier League. “We find,” authors of the study wrote, “that some managerial changes are successful, while others are counterproductive. On average, performance does not improve….”

When the New York Islanders switched coaches early in the 2010-11 hockey season, I called sports psychologist John Murray—who has worked with coaches and athletes in all professional sports—for his take on this retooling process and got the same response. “I do believe there are benefits to novelty [of a new boss’ voice],” Murray said. “But you can’t substitute [player] quality.”

As far back as 1963, a fellow named Oscar Grusky, for a Journal of Sport Behavior paper, examined managerial changes in baseball and found a “negative correlation” between replacing the team’s skipper and its won-lost record. Grusky’s interpretation was that the manager/coach replacement process for a struggling team “is also disruptive to the organization. The uncertainty associated with a new leader with a different agenda and new ideas may result in even poorer sport team performance.”

There’s another factor at play. That is, “You can control performance,” Murray said, “but you don’t control the outcome in sports.” Statistics and maximum performance by a team’s players do not necessarily translate into winning.

Neither does a coach’s past success predict the best results in a different situation. Arnsparger had come to the Giants with the reputation of being a “defensive genius” and two Super Bowl rings, but seemed completely lost as a head coach. McAdoo had gotten the Giants’ job last year based on his top-notch work as an offensive coordinator.

A couple of years ago I asked John Mara, Wellington’s son and now half-owner of the team, about the science—or is it art?—of finding a great boss. “Sports is different,” he said, “because the person has to be strong enough for being constantly in the spotlight, having every one of his decisions criticized and talked about on sports talk radio.

“You don’t have to have Albert Einstein, but it’s good to have someone with some intelligence. And not someone who thinks he knows it all.” John Mara quoted the late George Young, five times the league’s executive of the year who had turned the team around in the 1980s after John’s father signed him as general manager.

“You hire somebody with a high energy level. And something to prove.”

And hope the new horse can swim.

(John Mara)

 

Driving myself

(More old-man musings that appeared in Newsday.)

My current car, like the previous eight of my extended time in this land of the freeway and home of the paved, does not drive itself. Nor would I let it, even if experimental autonomous vehicle technology—big news these days—were already perfected.

I will not have my car be the boss of me. I’m not even comfortable with cruise control. I eschew the GPS function.

This does not make me a member of the Flat Earth Society. I accept electric window and sunroof conveniences. I believe in seat belts and—as long as I never experience their deployment—air bags. I love the computer read-out informing me of my average gas mileage. I appreciate satellite radio.

But I’m the designated driver in this human/car partnership. I’m in charge here. I pay for the gas. I foot the service bills. It is the car’s place to do as I order it, without any backtalk. (There is nothing more distracting than those robotic voice commands accidentally activated by a button lurking on the steering wheel.)

Let’s take this another step, to my aversion to automatic transmission. For more than 50 years, I have owned only do-it-yourself manuals, both for reasons of driving enjoyment and practicality. A manual transmission forces the driver to pay better attention. It requires the use of both hands and both feet, which diminishes the urge to eat, drink, shave, text or apply makeup while barreling down the parkway at what have become accepted speeds routinely 10 miles faster than the posted limit.

Also, standard transmission cars get better gas mileage. My current velocipede exceeds 40 miles per gallon on the highway, occasionally peaking at 50 mpg. (I won’t engage in free advertisement by identifying the car, but it may be a VW Jetta and may be equipped with a five-speed Turbo.)

I am aware that manual transmission, once standard in all cars, is steadily disappearing, now present in fewer than three percent of U.S. cars sold. That’s down 25 percent from just 25 years ago. In European and Asians countries, 8 in 10 cars have manual transmissions, so it is possible that my affinity for the stick shift makes me somehow un-American. (I also confess to liking soccer.) The only American car I ever owned was a 1974 Chevy Vega, with an aluminum engine that burned or leaked oil so badly that it seemed to need oil top-ups as often as gas fill-ups. I bid it goodbye after three short years.

Anyway, I’m not alone. Look what’s on the local roads, all those Hondas and Hyundais, Mercedes and Lexuses, Audis and Acuras, BMWs and Volkswagens, Subarus, Kias and Nissans.

But back to future. Isn’t the foundation of self-driving cars—artificial intelligence—artificial? Won’t self-driving cars require some sort of human default position, some need for an override function to respond to emergency vehicles forced to disobey traffic rules, or to changing weather conditions, or to critters crossing the road? Might those situations require back-up people skills more complicated, and necessitating far more training, than present-day drivers’ ed?

And won’t self-driving cars be a lot less fun? When I got my first car—I don’t want this to turn into a free ad, but it might have been a green British-made MGB convertible and it might have had a fake-wood steering wheel and wire spokes; very sporty—I spent the first day of ownership behind the wheel, aimlessly wandering around Columbia, Mo. Probably went through a half tank of gas. (At 25 cents a gallon.)

That was in 1966 and, even then, I suspect that someone out there already was envisioning a car with its own mind and will. Brilliant folks, after all, were only three years from landing people on the moon.

Science is good. Human existence gets better all the time. I’m all for progress. But some fantasies, like one I remember from childhood that a single pill someday might replace a perfectly prepared meal, literally would take the flavor out of life.

So. I am not interested in a car that will drive my car. I’ve got a driver. Me.

Jana Novotna wept. Wouldn’t you?

A single extraordinary thing happens to a prominent person—something weird or appalling or gut-wrenching—and, almost instantly, those of us in the business of chronicling public events think: This will be in her obituary.

Sure enough, former Czech tennis star Jana Novotna was remembered this week for having cried on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder after Novotna’s calamitous collapse in the 1993 Wimbledon final.

Novotna, who died of cancer at 49, won Wimbledon five years after that squirmy ’93 moment and wound up in the tennis Hall of Fame. Beyond the one Grand Slam singles title, she was a 16-time major-tournament champion in doubles and mixed doubles and earned more than $11 million in prize money over a 15-year professional career with far more highs than lows.

She played a bold but risky serve-and-volley game, with an exceptionally high work rate, amid masses of often dull baseliners. Hers was an entertaining and comprehensive fare of net play, lobs, precise returns and footwork, footwork, footwork. She was only 24 in 1993, seeded 8th at Wimbledon, when she surprised—the Czech word is ‘prekvapeni’—former U.S. Open champ Gabriela Sabatini and 18-time Slam winner Martina Navratilova in successive rounds, then found herself seemingly within an inch of shocking top seed Steffi Graf, who already had won 11 major tournaments at the time, in the title match.

Novotna led, 4-1, 40-30 in the decisive third set when her masterly control suddenly and completely deserted her. A double fault, misplayed volley, netted overhead and it was 4-2. A squandered break point and it was 4-3. Three Novotna double faults and it was 4-4. Then 4-5, Graf ahead, and Novotna’s botched volley, bollixed backhand and cupcake backhand set up Graf’s conclusive overhead.

In sports, spectators (and, yes, reporters) who never have dealt with the truth and consequences of sustaining physical and mental perfection under the glare of capacity crowds and international TV audiences—against the world’s best player—can be quick to label such as Novotna’s meltdown a “choke.” As if the presence of an elite opponent weren’t a factor.

It’s a harsh indictment. Bloodless, really. But what came next for Novotna not only gained her sympathy but a large measure of humane treatment. Wimbledon’s formal routine, following the championship final, is a drawn-out, stilted affair with Royals appearing on Centre Court to greet ballpersons, officials and, finally, the runner-up and champion. There is a tedious wait while private conversations are held in full public view—fans have no idea what is being said—until, at long last, trophies are presented.

And that was when Novotna, having snatched defeat from the jaws of sure victory, had her grim tete a tete with the Duchess of Kent, who was there to present the runner-up prize.

“Well, you see,” Novotna said to us traditionally cynical reporters shortly after her demoralizing experience, “I’ve won doubles here twice and I won mixed once here, and I was twice in the final of doubles for the last two years, so we [she and the duchess] kind of know each other, you know. When she came to me and she started to smile and said, ‘Jana, I know that you will do it; don’t worry,’ I just, you know, I just let go. It was very emotional.”

Bursting into tears, Novotna hung her head on the duchess’ shoulder and, after Graf received her winner’s trophy and stood next to Novotna for photographs, Novotna briefly buried her head into Graf’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” Graf asked her.

She was all right, Novotna assured in her press conference. Having upset both Sabatini and Navratilova in earlier rounds, Novotna said, “I have proved that I have the nerves to play and that I have confidence to win on the big occasions, and I don’t see [nerve] has anything to do with this loss.”

Being human did. And, though her many tennis accomplishments might have gotten short shrift in her obituary, compared to that royal shoulder to cry on, it is good to remember Novotna for choking up. Not choking.

 

 

 

 

 

Catalonia and the reign in Spain

A Barcelona waiter told me, “To a lot of people here, there is no Spain.”

That was 25 years ago, during the 1992 Olympics. That was a quarter century before the current confrontation between Spain’s central government and separatists in the country’s autonomous region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital.

At the time, and in the midst of the celebratory Olympic festival, declarations of Catalan identity didn’t sound revolutionary. Rather, they seemed expressions of local pride. We visitors quickly learned that, while Spanish was spoken in that technically Spanish city, the preferred language was Catalan. Residents and businesses displayed the flags of Barcelona and of Catalonia, not Spain.

In Barcelona, there was this hint of Catalan superiority which partly manifested itself in the widespread rejection of bullfighting, a sport the locals considered more appropriate for the barbarians in Spain—that other country. Barcelona saw itself as more European than other cities on the Iberian Peninsula, more wealthy and sophisticated.

Catalans were proud to claim surrealist painter Salvador Dali as one of their own, as well as Art Nouveau architect Antonio Gaudi, whose elaborate, vaguely phantasmagorical designs lend such a unique style to Barcelona’s landscape. The city also took ownership of Picasso, though he was born in southern Spain and a resident of France most of his life, because he spent the productive years of his radical painting in Barcelona.

So the 2017 developments, of Catalan referendums for independence and the backlash of Spanish leaders’ no-negotiation stance against them, feel considerably more serious—and dangerous—than during the ’92 Olympics. Back then, the Catalan-Spanish antagonism didn’t appear more threatening than a sports rivalry, which could be summed up in the way Barcelonans treated two local tennis stars during the Games.

One, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, was cheered because she was born in Barcelona. The other, her brother Emilio, was booed because he was born in Madrid, though he lived most of his life in Barcelona. It was an “us against them” posture, but good-natured enough that the old Saturday Night Live news parody, repeating on a weekly basis that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead,” applied pretty well.

The iron grip of the dictator Franco over Catalonia, his 40-year smothering of Catalan language and culture, in fact had been loosened. It turns out, though, that too much of Franco’s era still lingered. And that century-old resentments, while mostly just below the surface, weren’t so hard to find.

During the Barcelona Olympics’ opening ceremonies, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, was greeted with the playing of Els Segadors, the official national anthem of Catalonia, which had been written 352 years earlier to celebrate the Catalan victory over the 17th-Century Spanish king Philip IV. And Catalans still celebrate National Day on Sept. 11, recalling Catalonia’s loss of independence to Spain in 1714.

To prepare for covering the ’92 Olympics, I had read George Orwell’s 1938 book, “Homage to Catalonia,” a personal account of Orwell’s experiences and observations during the Spanish Civil War. (When, by the way, Els Segadors surged in popularity among Catalans.) Franco, of course, rose to power at the conclusion of that war.

Now I read that, to many in Catalonia, the crackdown by Spain’s central government evokes memories of the dark days of post-civil war dictatorship. As if Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still not dead.

Wink. And a nod to sport’s appeal

There was a parade through downtown Wink, Tex. A marching band with horns, drums, glockenspiel. Baton twirlers. Cheerleaders. Spectators lining the street in that tiny West Texas oil patch. A big deal. Certainly impressive to a 6-year-old, though my older sister couldn’t abide one more example of the constant fuss over the local high school football team.

In fact, I don’t recall any member of my family having an interest in sports. But the communal hullabaloo over the local lads in that little town, way back then, subliminally recruited me to be a member of the fun-and-games tribe.

It might have been later that day, or the next week, that I sat in the stands and watched a player for the Wink Wildcats—outfitted in orange, head-to-toe—sprint 80 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Woo hoo.

To a first-grader, those players—barely old enough to shave and still too young to vote or shape the world—were herculean. They were Wink’s guardians against the foreign invaders from far-off McCamey and Iraan and Marfa—dusty Texas settlements exactly like Wink but somehow perceived as home to “others.” The Wildcats’ weaving, breathtaking journeys across the gridiron—leaving opponents grasping at air—were heroic.

A year later, my family moved to California. Wink no longer was “us.” But the spectacle and the immutable drama of football, and sports in general, followed me to five more states, through high school, college and a half-century as a journalist. Whether spectating from the bleachers, hanging onto radio play-by-play calls, pouring over newspaper accounts, I was hooked on the grand theater of sports.

I suppose it figures that I took up sportswriting. It was a career choice something like that of a fellow I interviewed at a New York racetrack years ago. Known to almost everyone around the backstretches of the nation as Hee-Haw, he said he had gotten his first taste of betting on thoroughbreds when he was 12 and subsequently took any job he could find—buyer and seller of horses, jockey agent, errand boy for a Triple Crown trainer—simply to stay close to those betting windows.

He followed his passion. Isn’t that the advice we all hear from graduation-day speakers? My vocation of chronicling sports hardly was as financially risky as Hee-Haw’s gambling zeal, and meanwhile I long ago ceased to see jocks as heroes. They are not defending a community’s way or life, or representing some higher moral ground. No connection exists between athletic greatness and personal goodness. It’s safe to say that I soon turned to writers and reporters for my role models.

But athletes do have the entertainer’s stage, upon which they absolutely demonstrate skills to be applauded in their context. It turns out, too, that my fascination with the sports domain came to include how it mirrors everything in the Real World: Splendid accomplishments, disappointing failures, cultural differences, big business, glorification of celebrity, and ugly incidents of cheating and racism and sexism.

I’m still drawn to it. A few days ago, I dropped by the field in my Babylon, N.Y., village to catch the second half of the high school game. Babylon’s school colors, like Wink’s, are orange and black. Babylon, like Wink, has a big cat mascot—Panther as opposed to Wildcat.

As I settled into the stands, a Babylon player took the kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown. And the band played on. Woo hoo.

Homecoming’s birthplace

The alumni association recently emailed a “Guide to Homecoming 2017.” It listed a full week of varied activities. Five-kilometer run. Blood drive. Talent show. LGBTQ happy hour. Campus decoration contest. Library open house. Spirit rally. Parade. And, of course, the Homecoming Game.

I won’t be there. Columbia, Mo., is a serious hike from my digs in the New York City suburbs, so I save my occasional returns for the periodic reunions of our old student newspaper staff. That is not to say I don’t appreciate the whole Homecoming thing. In fact, I am happy to advance the argument that my alma mater invented Homecoming. And I occasionally break out my official University of Missouri 2011 Centennial Homecoming Celebration necktie.

The story is that Chester Brewer, then Mizzou’s football coach and athletic director, feared a serious lack of spectators at the 1911 game against rival Kansas in Columbia. Previously, the annual tilt had been played in Kansas City, geographically handy to lots of old grads from both schools, and a new edict to play all conference games on campus appeared detrimental to drawing paying customers on a 125-mile trip to Columbia in one of those new horseless carriages (top speed: 40 mph) on deteriorating roads designed for equine travel.

So Brewer tried a sentimental ploy, inviting alumni to “come home,” and when a surprisingly large crowd of more than 9,000 showed up, it was said to be the birth of a fall tradition that remains a slice of Americana.

By the 1930s, the Homecoming ritual had spread nationwide, to both colleges and high schools, and soon a specific Homecoming framework took shape.

  • Students painstakingly constructing parade floats, regularly depicting the Homecoming game’s visiting team’s mascot—a panther or bird or some other critter—in various forms of distress: Being fried in an electric chair or prone under a fallen guillotine, with its paper-mache head resting in a bowl of blood-red liquid.
  • Athletic officials scheduling the easiest/least attractive opponent for Homecoming, both to draw extra fans to an otherwise unappealing matchup and to theoretically assure a home team victory. (Coaches of really bad teams have been known to moan, “I should ride on a float. Every doggone team we play is having Homecoming when we play them.”)
  • The crowning of a Homecoming queen. (A favorite iteration of this, witnessed during my half-century as a sports journalist, was the time the Homecoming queen barely arrived in time for her halftime coronation at Augustana College, because she had run in the state cross-country championships on the other side of Illinois that morning. And won.)

There is no getting away from how pervasive Homecoming is, how wholeheartedly festive even if thoroughly sophomoric. It’s possible that it may not even be serious, just another college lampoon.

Still, returning to the old campus has a way of putting a ghost on every familiar corner again. And the immutable setting—a football stadium on a golden fall day, with the home team wearing the same colors and the band playing the same tunes—doesn’t so much generate a melancholy nostalgia for youth as a renewed appreciation for those good times in that good place.

Years ago, Sports Illustrated dispatched four of its most celebrated writers to their respective colleges to consider the meaning of Homecoming, calling the reports “four views on whether Thomas Wolfe knew what he was talking about.”

Notre Dame grad Ray Kennedy predictably zeroed in on the football aspect, how he had been shown clips of old teams and the Knute Rockne film his first day as a freshman and how “there never was any doubt everyone would graduate summa cum rah rah.”

Cal’s Ron Fimrite mostly was stirred by memories of drinking and checking out women while Miami’s John Underwood found himself “convinced that Homecomings are mostly positive expressions.”

Finally, there was something of an elitist spoof by Frank Deford. “I don’t know what I’m doing in here with all the football factories,” Deford wrote. “At Princeton, we don’t even call it Homecoming”—rather, “alumni days”—and, furthermore, “If there is one thing you learn with a Princeton education, it is Don’t waste a trip back to the Garden State to watch a rinky-dink Ivy League game.”

Deford called Homecoming “entirely too Midwestern,” and I will second that, but in a more reverential—if more naïve—way. There is a corniness to Homecoming, a narrow but genuine reasonableness, and I think of that great Midwestern novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “all decent sentiments are corny.”

Anyway, about those Midwestern roots. Missouri’s neighbor in higher education, the University of Illinois, has claimed that two of its fraternity brothers—W. Elmer Ekblaw and C.F. (Dab) Williams—dreamed up Homecoming in either 1909 or 1910, prior to Mizzou’s 1911 First Homecoming argument.

It happens that the College Football Hall of Fame has no file on Homecoming and that sports historian Dick Kishpaugh of Parchment, Mich.—in canvassing hundreds of colleges years ago—found that several schools insisted on being Homecoming’s creator. Kishpaugh said that only Illinois had written documentation.

But I’m going with two unassailable sources affirming the matter of Homecoming’s birthplace—Trivial Pursuit and, especially, Jeopardy!

Alex, “What is Mizzou?”

 

 

 

Upside down in Trinidad

This time, the United States needs only a tie in its final World Cup qualifying match in Trinidad.

This time, home-standing Trinidad & Tobago (with only one win in nine qualifying matches) isn’t nearly the threat it was in 1989, when a T&T victory or tie would have sent the Trinboganians to the 1990 Italy-based World Cup instead of the Yanks.

This time, the atmosphere can’t possibly match the frenzy in Port of Spain 28 years ago, when all residents of the dual-island Caribbean nation appeared to be dressed in red; when the week leading up to the game was a wild party of Calypso and reggae music in the streets—“jump-ups,” they were called; when the passionate locals giddily chanted, “We goin’!” and “Bum dem!” (“Burn them” visitors.)

It might have been intimidating to our small group of American reporters if it hadn’t been so downright entertaining and spirited. And good-natured. Amid the cries of “Search and destroy!” smiling T&T natives greeted us—we were easy to spot—with wishes of good luck or teased us with calls of “Yankee Doodle went to town.” Followed by, “Where is your red?”

Red, the national color, was on sale everywhere. Caps, shirts, underwear, scarfs. Schoolchildren had replaced their standard uniforms (some red, but many of other hues) with all red. Songs from Trinidadian Calypso singer Blue Boy’s latest album, all related to the World Cup effort, were booming throughout the capital city: “Journey” and “Football Dance” and “Goal!” and “Trinidad Boys, Tobago Boys” and “Road to Italy,” with the lyric, “When the Yankees come to the stadium/We’re going to beat them like bongos.”

T&T’s team was called “Strike Squad” and prided itself on “Kaisoca”—Calypso soccer—a flowing, fast-paced, dynamic style that seemed superior to the mechanical, defensive methods of a U.S. squad severely limited in international experience.

That was seven years before the first legitimate U.S. professional league, MLS, debuted. The Yanks had not been to the World Cup in 40 years, and their mostly bland play through the ’89 qualifying process had their federation officials worried that the commitment to place the 1994 World Cup in the United States could be rescinded if the team failed to earn a berth in Italy.

So our little knot of U.S. scribblers was mostly of the belief that the Trinboganians, who clearly cared more about international soccer than the typical American, would have their wishes fulfilled. They chanted, “T&T, we want a goal. On the roooooad, on the rooooad, on the rooooad…..to It-a-ly.” During pre-game festivities, one T&T fan marched around the stadium with a sign, “Even Bush”—George H.W. Bush still was in the White House then—“supports T&T.”

We stayed at the famous “upside-down hotel,” built into the side of a steep hill, with the lobby entered from the top of the hill and the elevators going down. The 10th floor is at the bottom. Everything was just disorienting enough to be memorable.

The game was played on a Sunday afternoon. That morning, we U.S. reporters—there couldn’t have been more than six or seven of us—were invited to have breakfast at the hilltop mansion of then-U.S. ambassador Charles Gargano. He politely welcomed the representatives of such big-time publications as the New York Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. But it was me, from little old Newsday on Long Island, who got the long-lost friendship treatment. Because Gargano had made his fortune in construction on Long Island, and his son recently had built a site in my village of Babylon.

(A few years later, Gargano was in some hot water for iffy campaign contributions, but I can assure everyone that I never saw the man again).

Anyway, from Gargano’s perch above the city, we could look down on the National Stadium, already overflowing with more than 30,000 red-clad spectators more than five hours before kickoff. Among my fellow journalists then was the Times’ esteemed George Vecsey, who noted in his 2014 book, “Eight World Cups,” that then-T&T soccer federation honcho Jack Warner had had 45,000 tickets printed, creating a dangerous overcrowding situation.

Somehow, everything turned out all right, in spite of the Trinboganians’ crushing disappointment when the U.S. conjured an unlikely 1-0 victory. The Yanks’ decisive goal, a looping 30-yard left-footer by Paul Caligiuri in the 30th minute, arguably is one of the two most historic shots in American soccer history. (Joe Gaetjens’ 1950 World Cup goal that shocked England is the other.)

The exact time of the score could be questioned. Because there was no scoreboard clock, my wristwatch served as “official” timer for our handful of scribes. More remarkable than the U.S. victory—and the Yanks’ sudden efficiency after months of bumbling around—was the grand reaction of the T&T crowd.

It sent the American players off the field to warm applause (and more Calypso music). It called the weeping T&T players back for a final lap around the stadium with chants of “We want Strike Squad.” Following a chaotic round of interviews in the sweaty, cramped, celebratory U.S. lockerroom, several of us reporters walked back to our hotel just after sundown and were repeatedly called to by locals along the way.

“Hey, Yankee.” Uhhhh, yes? “Congratulations!”

This time, I won’t be there. But it couldn’t match 1989, anyway.

McCartney: Not Just Yesterday

What Paul McCartney is doing on his current concert tour has got to be some kind of record. At 75, Sir Paul—still not grown out of his rock-‘n’-roll bona fides—continues to conjure a whole range of ballads, anthems, ditties, blues, heavy metal and sing-along stuff.

My wife and I took in his first of two appearances at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center last week, when McCartney cranked out three full hours of non-stop crooning and warbling and belting out of the brilliant material he has composed over more than a half-century.

Of course a good time was had by all in the sellout crowd. Of course the evening was a comfort to those of us who came of age during Beatlemania. I won’t go into my old (probably not winnable) argument that my generation’s music was better than the current fare. (Even though my daughter agrees.) But I will contend that McCartney, the act we’ve known for all these years, never has gone out of style.

Not everybody at Barclays was as, uh, mature as me. That has to count for something, both to legitimize my peer group’s taste and as proof of the Fab Four’s endurance. We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It never gets old. This summer, Sirius XM satellite radio debuted a Beatles channel. I listen a lot (and know most of the words.)

A recital-related sidebar here: A week after the McCartney show, we took in celebrated tenor Jose Carreras’ performance at Carnegie Hall. An entirely different scene, and I won’t pretend to know much about the operatic mix of speech-inflected pieces and more melodic arias, and certainly couldn’t translate the Italian and French lyrics. Still, it was Major League quality, another example of imperishable art. And Carreras, at 70, was another credit to undiminished power in our septuagenarian set.

Anyway, McCartney opened with “A Hard Day’s Night” at Barclays. I was just 17, in high school, when the movie came to Hobbs, N.M., in the mid-‘60s, and the only disappointment was how so many young girls in the theater kept screeching when I was trying to hear the music.

He sang “In Spite of All the Danger,” from the pre-Beatle days of John Lennon’s group, the Quarreymen. He kidded that that was “before my time.” Right. Me, too.

He offered tributes to departed Beatles Lennon and George Harrison, sang “Jet” and “Let Me Roll It” from his Wings’ days, plus recent goodies “Queenie Eye” and “New.” It was a nice time-warp tour.

Among his 40 offerings, he sang “Eleanor Rigby,” and that took me back to a 1995 visit to Liverpool and the Beatles Story exhibition there, built at the restored docks on the River Mersey. We took a stroll on the alley-like Mathew Street, where the Beatles began their rise with lunchtime gigs at the Cavern Club, and took a moment for a quick snapshot of the Eleanor Rigby statue on Mathew Street—dedicated to “All the Lonely People” and looking particularly forlorn in the late afternoon shadows.

Years later, when my daughter was spending a college semester in London, we couldn’t resist mimicking the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover crosswalk stroll. The optics in our picture are all wrong. We’re crossing East to West instead of the opposite direction that was taken by the Beatles, and our camera was shooting to the South instead of North. But there was traffic to dodge. It had to be done.

My wife now has concluded that our rock concert days may be over. It was awfully loud at Barclays, no doubt a function of modern audio capabilities and the need to reach the portion of the 17,000 paying customers in the nose-bleed seats. A smaller room likely would better highlight McCartney’s vocals as well as his skills on the guitar and piano.

Wouldn’t have missed it, though. I thought of some recent McCartney lyrics that fuse the present with the past.

    They can’t take it from me, if they try

    I lived through those early days.

And we’re all still here.

The Islanders: Stranded off the Island?

The people chanted, “Bring them back! Bring them back! Bring them back!”

The New York Islanders were playing at the Nassau Coliseum last Sunday. (The place now identifies itself with one of those bewildering corporate names, but everybody still calls it the Nassau Coliseum.) The game meant nothing—a pre-season skirmish, a one-time-only tease to the traditional fan base more than two years after the team ran away from its home of 43 years.

But the place was packed and it was rocking, alive with the sing-song “Let’s go, Islanders” pleas that go back decades and the more recent, unrestrained “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” goal celebrations. Hours before the game, the Coliseum’s parking lots had been filled with tailgating customers sporting team jerseys.

“Pretty close to what we had in the playoffs,” said the team’s marquee player, John Tavares, comparing the scene to the 2015 post season. “Through the roof for the warmups. The fans here have a tremendous identity and they don’t want to lose hold of that. And the players recognize that.”

That didn’t stop management from opting for greener pastures—that is, greater potential revenue streams—after the 2014-15 season by packing off to Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center. When Barclays’ developer Bruce Ratner subsequently bid to renovate the Coliseum, he secured the lucrative project by promising six Islander games there per season. Soon enough, that bait was switched and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly has declared that the Coliseum is “not an option” in the Islanders’ future.

So what, exactly, was the point of Sunday’s event? To give those old paying loyalists one day of throwback atmosphere? To sell more than 13,900 tickets for an event that typically would have drawn no more than 5,000 or 6,000 on a football Sunday afternoon? To offer a genuine gesture of appreciation to so many abandoned customers?

It would be dangerous to rhapsodize too extravagantly about the Coliseum, opened in early 1972 and forever lacking in frills. It was built with $28 million and, even with its $165 million facelift—the slinky exterior is nice enough and the insides have been cleaned up noticeably—there still aren’t enough bathrooms.

The joint still doesn’t offer what the team wants in terms of modern amenities, more space for the one-percenters to lounge in high-end suites and the kind of luxurious locker room that 21st Century jocks have come to expect. (The New York Giants have a practice site dressing room shaped like an enormous football, pointed at each end and wider in the middle, where 10-yard pass patterns could be executed.)

But Barclays hardly has proven to be a better deal for anyone. The majority of Island residents miss their tailgating ritual at the Coliseum, grumble about the inconvenience of alternative travel by train, hate the obstructed views from hundreds of Barclays seats, mock the arena’s off-center scoreboard. Average attendance last season there was 13,101—well short of Barclays’ 17,732 capacity for hockey and a number able to comfortably fit in the supposedly too-small Coliseum.

The players have been unhappy with Barclays’ below-standard ice surface, and all indications are that new management already intends to leave Barclays more than 20 years shy of the team’s original 25-year lease. The plan is to build a new arena near Belmont Race Track, a mere 15 miles from the Coliseum.

Jilted Coliseum patrons might find some hope in the fact that it took eight years, from the initial proposal to opening day, for Barclays to materialize, so even with a Belmont arena soon approved and in the works, the team could be desperate for a temporary landing spot.

Why not the Coliseum, a building without a bad seat and guaranteed a hard-core spectator following that has been all-in on the identity front? Islander fans, like the original Islanders, are anti-big city elites. And proud to use the Islanders—who had been Long Island’s only big-league professional sports team—as proof that the often nondescript suburban sprawl they call home need not remain constantly in the shadow of the Big Town.

For the ceremonial puck drop at Sunday’s exhibition, it was a nice touch to bring back three members from the Stanley Cup years—Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom and, especially, Billy Smith. When the Islanders’ first of four championships, in 1980, was called New York’s first since the Rangers’ 1940 triumph, Smith shot back, “The Stanley Cup is not in New York. It’s on Long Island.”

On Sunday, one of those 13,000-plus Long Island fans left behind a sticker on a bathroom stall at the Coliseum that featured the Islanders’ logo and the appeal, “Bring Them Home.“

Chasing the total eclipse

Bland, Missouri, is not an adjective. Although it could be. Bland, population 539, has no stoplight. No hotel or motel. No hospital (not even a doctor). No high school. No supermarket. No local radio station. Two restaurants — one open only three days a week. The nearest city with more than 50,000 residents is Columbia, home to the University of Missouri’s flagship campus 60 miles away.

But on Aug. 21, the day of the eclipse, Bland had location. Latitude 38.301713, longitude 91.63294. Smack dab in the solar eclipse’s “path of totality.” And that made it feel as if Bland was the antonym of Podunk.

I was there for the commotion. There were rumors, there in the middle of Missouri — in the middle of nowhere — that so many people would rush into the center of the impending solar darkness that gas stations might run out of fuel in areas surrounding Bland. Schools and colleges for miles around, already in session, were closed for the day. A half-hour from Bland, in Rolla, the clerk at the CVS store said he had been inundated with calls about the availability of eclipse glasses. As far away as the Illinois border, 90 miles to the East, temporary highway signs warned of heavy traffic delays — “Plan Ahead” — on and around Eclipse Day.

In Owensville, 15 minutes from Bland, the priest began his Sunday homily about how we were at “ground zero” for the eclipse. Owensville’s Chamber of Commerce already had sold more than 500 “Midnight at Noon” T-shirts and arranged for Arndt Latusseck, an astronomer from Hildeschein, Germany, to relate his experiences witnessing five previous total eclipses, and how “five is not enough. You get addicted to it.”

It all sounded so apocalyptic. Tales of how people would weep to see the moon “eat” the sun at midday, how their lives would be “changed forever.”

“It is science, yes,” Latusseck said. “But it also is cultural, psychological, emotional and completely mind-boggling.”

But, frankly, while the two minutes of “totality” provided a wonderfully unique experience — nothing in the sky but the black moon and its eerie halo, the corona — our small group of 12 quickly retreated indoors after that brief, spectacular show, out of the smothering Missouri heat and humidity that was intensified by the returning sun.

This whole idea, of trekking 1,500 miles from Long Island to Bland, Missouri, came from my nephew Jeff, a Hewlett-Packard engineer in Houston. My sister, Diane, happens to live in Bland (no Wi-Fi, no TV) on 111 acres of lightly cultivated land with four horses and two cats. In November, Jeff had realized that Bland would be in the “path of totality” and pitched to my brother (his father in nearby Victoria, Texas) how Aug. 21, 2017, would be an ideal time for a family gathering.

My wife and I were alerted of the unfolding plan only days before and were stunned to learn that flights to Missouri were booked, as well as most hotels in the Bland vicinity. When a person is 70-years-old, that person sometimes does not consider all the math. Twenty-two hours of driving over two days to witness two minutes of celestial stagecraft somehow makes perfect sense.

And the fact that Long Island was in line to see only 71 percent of the sun covered that Monday meant it wouldn’t get the sudden weird darkness that came over Bland at 1:14 p.m. on an otherwise searingly bright afternoon. What we experienced comes to the typical person’s hometown on an average of once every 375 years.

So it was worth the trip, including the speeding ticket in Bland (where rarely two cars are on the road at the same time). To a great extent, what struck me about the adventure was the whole exception-to-the-rule excitement in humdrum little Bland, fueled by my pre-eclipse research which included Annie Dillard’s dramatic, almost frightening, 1982 description of the 1979 total eclipse in Eastern Washington State. “I pray,” she wrote, “you will never see anything more awful in the sky.”

Unlike some predictions, my sister’s horses — we joked that their heavy-mesh masks to ward off flies were their eclipse glasses — did not run around in confused circles. Birds did not begin their evening singing hours early. Great winds did not stir.

For more than an hour, as the disc of moon slowly blotted out the sun, we had sat under a shade tree, occasionally peering through out solar glasses for an update, but with no discernable change in atmosphere or brightness.

The totality phase came and went so quickly that it felt a bit like some existential gag. Much appreciated, nevertheless, and a terrific excuse for a reunion of far-flung family members.