Archive for category: Commentary

What’s My Line?

01 Feb
February 1, 2016

I wrote this up some months ago, at the time that the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries was broadcast on HBO, but then held the essay back for the simple reason that viewers were still acquiring the narrative. After all, nothing is more distracting to the viewing of any edifice than to stumble through a side door and be confronted by all the interior scaffolding, if not evidence of an architect’s early mistakes and lesser intentions. But as the miniseries has now been airing for six months — and as the DVD release of “Show Me A Hero” is slated for tomorrow — I’m guessing that any little extra attention to detail can only be a good thing. And, oh yeah, SPOILERS:

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Most of the time, writing for film or television – if the writer retains a producer’s title on the set – is a straight, simple negotiation: Here’s the page. Say the lines. Yes, like you mean them, as a good actor would. You’re a good actor, right? Of course you are. That’s why we wanted you. So, you talented, photogenic prick motherfucker, say the fucking lines the way they were fucking written and then we can all go to the bar pretending to be friends.

Okay, so it isn’t quite that totalitarian.

And yes, the actor has to believe in the pages, and yes again, he or she is entirely correct to raise questions when a line or a scene bumps, when something seems emotionally inconsistent or implausibly plotted. Good actors live in those characters, or at least reside in the general vicinity; if they aren’t comfortable in the skin of their intricately created personas, then yes, perhaps, there’s a scene or three that needs rewriting.

Filmed narrative is intensely collaborative. And the script is just a script; until you film the sonofabitch, it doesn’t actually exist in a form that matters to anyone. So it makes sense to stay reasonable, and to open one’s ears to any actor who is thinking carefully about character, or perhaps even story, especially when the questions are selfless, and sincere, and in service of the greater whole. Every now and then, the actor is right.

It’s quite annoying when this happens.

And not because I hate to be wrong any more or less than the next man. Though I do. I hate it more than the next man because the next man is usually not right, and quite often he’s astonishingly and epically incorrect, which is, of course, why he’s The Next Man. If he were right, he’d be this man – me. Which would make me, I suppose, the next man – and if I was that ignorant rube, then okay, I’d shut my pie hole because I’d fucking realize that as The Next Man, my weak-sister argument is no match for this keen-witted fellow who is savaging me intellectually and rhetorically. Understand, I say all of this with the humility of a gentleman who wants at all points to be agreeable and kindhearted, to be yoked in tender harness to any and every soul in our divine human comedy. Seriously, I’d love nothing more than to agree with my Next Man brethren at every point possible. I would. But then we’d both be fucking wrong.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the thing about me letting an actor be right is he damn well better be right. When he makes a choice to go off book or omit some element of the storytelling, he better be servicing not just his character, but the narrative to which that character is in service. He or she better be so sure of the decision and its effect on the entire story that directors and film editors and producers aren’t sitting in a dark room months later cursing some Hobbesian choice in a scene that is missing the necessary elements. I’ve been there. And rest assured, it will not be only the Hobbesian choice that I’m cursing.

On the other hand, the good actors do know their business. And their business is something so ineffable and extraordinary that when they completely understand a role and the purpose of that role in the context of a story, an argument or two about some dialogue or action is probably unavoidable.

And with that preamble, I’d going to tell a story on myself and a couple of actors and a director because, hey, I’m not sure they ever get around to teaching this stuff in film school. Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know having never been within rock-throwing distance of a film school. Regardless, it strikes me as a pretty good primer for anyone interested in the inside baseball of filming. What follows is a bit of how we actually do.

The actors are Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder and the director, Paul Haggis. The project is the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries recently broadcast on HBO. And the scene in question is the culminating, confrontational moment of a storyline involving the characters played by Isaac and Ryder, the ex-mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko and his longtime political ally and friend, Vinni Restiano, respectively.

Cornered at the end of his political career, Wasicsko has decided to run against Restiano for the Yonkers council president, and Restiano, finding him alone at a bar, confronts him with the betrayal.

“I gotta ask you,” Restiano says angrily, “do you actually believe in anything other than yourself?”

After which, in the script, I wrote a line for Wasicsko, at the bar alone, after Restiano has stormed away: “What makes you think I believe in myself.”

It is an overt line. Too much so. And as Haggis pointed out when we were contemplating the script prior to filming, no one actually talks to themselves aloud in a bar in such fashion. Nonetheless, I was determined to hang on to the line – at least through the filming of it. Why?

Because – and here we come to the spoiler, so read on only if you know the end of the story or don’t care to watch the series – in a few subsequent scenes, Nick Wasicsko will take his own life. And singularly among all of human behavior, ending one’s own existence, absent, say, a clear and required act of martyrdom, is a choice that affronts and repels viewers. The compulsion to argue against even a careful established narrative construct for suicide, with all the requisite tells and clues, is so powerful that any story that concludes with a willful act of self-destruction risks a corresponding backwash of disbelief and disconnect by the audience.

The solution to Paul’s very valid note was to rewrite the moment so that Wasicsko delivers the line directly to Restiano in reply: “What makes you think I believe in myself?” In such a reading, the line is delivered without belligerence, as a wry attempt to parry the insult with self-effacing humor, to convince Restiano to sit and share a drink and maintain the friendship in spite of all. A line-read such as that is plausible, and while it doesn’t reveal fully the depth of the self-loathing required to take one’s own life, it feeds the storyline by speaking the words aloud and leaving them there to be slowly absorbed by the audience, and to remain in evidence as the tragedy takes its final turn.

Having contemplated the whole of the story for months with great care, Oscar Isaac was nonetheless unconvinced even by this sardonic reading of the line and after revisions were published, he mentioned his concern, to which I replied, with all the manipulative and false equanimity to which an executive producer is entitled: “Okay. We’ll get it both ways.”

Behold, the ultimate argument against committing too early to either a writer’s or actor’s choice. Why decide now? Let’s wait for the close coverage of a line or action in question and then film it both ways. Yours and mine. Then, when film editing the whole of the narrative later, we can assess the storyline and our execution of it, and make the proper choice.

The only problem from the actor’s point of view is, of course, he has to trust in the wit and taste of the director and producer; he won’t be in the editing room to participate in the final decision on which take to use. By offering the variations in the first place, he’s opening the door to differing outcomes. What if the writer is unwilling to kill one of his writerly lines, even if it impairs performance? What if a director is unwilling to kill a more dramatic moment, or worse, a pretty shot, for the sake of a real or authentic one? What if someone’s special, blessed baby needs to be murdered in the crib and no one has the stomach to do the deed?

As seasoned and as talented an actor as we have, Oscar Isaac was working with Haggis and myself for the first time. Trust goes only as far as it does in such circumstances, and on the day of filming – at the rehearsal of the scene, in fact – it became clear enough that he did not want to give up the line.

Paul came to me with the actor’s adamant objections.

“I think we’ll get it in the performance,” the director offered, trying to ameliorate the standoff. “I don’t think we’ll need the line.”

I couldn’t be sure. A subsequent scene involving Wasicsko’s further breakdown as he returned to his home and sat alone with his own thoughts – this had yet to be filmed. Therefore, I couldn’t yet know what Oscar was going to bring to that moment. Would there be enough in that scene – which offered little in the way of dialogue – to convey Wasicsko’s deep rage and loathing, as well as his final resolve? If I walked away from this barroom scene without even a passable read of the overt line, would I be cursing Isaac and Haggis later, trying to vindicate the narrative without all the necessary assets? Get your choices now, or go without them forever.

I went over to Oscar to make my pitch.

“You may be right. I may not need it,” I argued, “but suicide affronts an audience as few other things do.   How are they going to be reconciled to the character’s choice if we aren’t explicit enough?”

Oscar showed real irritation with me for the first and only time in the long weeks of filming: “How?’ he said. “Acting.”

Christ. He was offended by the suggestion that he might not be able to convey the interior of his character’s disjointed and desperate mind — either in the last look of this bar scene, or in the soon-to-be-filmed sequence in the Wasicsko home. I was doubting him. Trust, it seems, runs both ways.

“I’m not saying that line,” he declared with finality.

I went back to the video monitors, frustrated and angry. Haggis tried to carry water for me, going to Oscar and asking for a take or two with Oscar’s best read on the line, if only in the spirit of compromise. But the actor was still ambivalent.

To this point a bystander to the debate, Winona Ryder found me at the monitors and immediately registered my mood.

“Do you think you need it?” she asked of the line.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe not. But this is suicide that we are trying to explain, and if it isn’t selling and we leave here without it, we can never come back for it, can we?”

Winona is as much a pro as Oscar; at this point, she’s had nearly three decades of this stuff. So being as good as she is at her craft, it’s entirely likely that she saw right through what I did next. But hey, maybe not. Because while I’m not an actor by any means, I was, in a previous life, a pretty good newspaperman; ergo my skill-set of honed, manipulative, shit-eating gamesmanship is not inconsiderable. I have talked sealed grand jury reports out of federal prosecutors and story confirmations out the most tight-assed FBI agents. In a pinch, I can get a Northern District desk sergeant to log on to the computer and pull a half dozen full criminal histories of private citizens.

I commenced to pout.

“I don’t know why the fuck I’m even here in Yonkers,” I vented to Ryder. “I might as well be back in Baltimore if the script isn’t the script and if I’m here to be ignored. I mean, why am I even up here every fucking day sitting here at a monitor if this is what it is.”

There’s an old saw that I use on actors about all of this, an easy parable about how we’re all just tools in the box – the writer, the actors, the props, the camera lenses – that none of us actually matter unto ourselves, that it doesn’t matter if one doorway is perfectly plumb, or if the mantle is beautifully trimmed, or the balustrade elegantly finished. What matters is the house we’re building — the whole of the house. It’s all that ever matters.

I threw some of the house metaphor at Winona. She nodded politely and quickly; she’d no doubt heard it before, perhaps from me earlier in the production, and certainly elsewhere in her time wandering the vast diaspora of filmmaking. The house talk isn’t original to me; not even close. I forget where or when I acquired it, but no doubt it was cribbed it from some other ink-stained screenwriter.

And yet I fired that old chestnut up and then, in a manner that probably conjured for Winona Ryder some of the most amateurish thespianism this side of dinner theater, I looked away from her with what I imagined was a look of wounded, self-loathing commensurate to what Oscar would soon be summoning for this scene. I tried my best to play as wrecked and tortured a writer as might exist.

Winona then went back to Oscar, arguing with her fellow actor that he could find a good, throwaway reading of the line, that it could work, that he could trust us not to use the take if it didn’t. She later told me that she even started to invoke the house-building metaphor, but Oscar looked at her with the weariness of a combat veteran: “Not the house speech,” he said, rolling eyes.

He also chided her for switching sides, with a remark that she later admitted was guilt-inducing: “So now you’re playing for the other team, huh?”

Later, I would find myself amused and a little surprised to hear the dynamic acknowledged so explicitly by an actor, but I’m not really sure why. Every screen or television writer I know tells tales in which the actors are ever portrayed as the Unreliable Other. Why should actors think differently about these games within the game? In any event, Winona Ryder had wandered across the neutral ground, advocating selflessly for the scribblers and shot-listers, and therefore, to some extent, against her own colleague and calling. Learning as much, I felt wrong for having done my backhanded best to enlist her, but here and now, at least, I’ll credit her last, gentle appeal to Oscar with having achieved the outcome.

Because after devouring several takes that omitted the dialogue in dispute – ending each with a look of such deep shame that there could be no mistaking his character’s lethal despair – I found myself startled to hear Nick Wasicsko throw the line back at Vinni Restiano on a read that worked beautifully. It was wounded but flippant, a retort that clearly and credibly sought to make light of a deep insult and maintain the normalcy of an old friendship. The extra line even worked without punching holes in Winona’s opposing and equally marvelous performance; though Restiano had to contain herself long enough to wait on Wasicsko’s reply to her question, her fury at the flippant answer fueled a savage, visceral exit. Oscar’s read of the line and Winona’s reaction to it both made actual sense, and in giving it up, Oscar had granted me an honest choice.

“You won’t need it,” Haggis said again after we had the take.

“Probably not.”

And we didn’t. A week later we shot the ensuing scene in the upstairs bedroom and Oscar Isaac delivered an extended, agonizing nervous breakdown that culminated in a moment of grievous surrender. Everything we needed to make sense of a man’s choice to self-destruct was therefore evident without a scripted utterance. Later, in editing, I watched the alternate take from the bar scene one last time, listening as a great actor landed a clever but unnecessary line. A writer’s line. A beautiful, fatted, blue-eyed baby of a line.

Lose it, I told the editor.

I like to imagine that I’ll work with these fine actors on some future project, that every line and gesture in every future script will be butter, that we’ll go from scene to scene agreeing amiably on every single notion. But, no, that’s impossible and ridiculous. More plausibly, I’d like believe that by carefully enveloping and achieving a line that I actually didn’t need, two actors had earned enough of my trust that I might be more assured of their insight and sense, and too, that by discarding their gift to me once it was given, I’d earned their respect for my own restraint and taste. Next time, I’d like to believe, it isn’t going to be so fraught. Next time, we’ll all know each other better. Next time will be easy.

Yeah, no. They’re actors.  You gotta keep an eye on those fuckers.

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And congratulations to Oscar Isaac for his receiving a Golden Globe Award for his work in “Show Me A Hero.” No, really, I mean that genuinely.  For real.   – DS

 

What I did on my humble-brag trip to Western Maryland

27 Jan
January 27, 2016

For reasons too improbable and esoteric to explain, I was recently invited to a small coterie of vacation shacks in Thurmont, north of the city of Frederick in Western Maryland.  Franklin Roosevelt christened the joint as Shangri-La — in honor of his “Lost Horizon” reference following the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo — and that name stuck until Eisenhower renamed it for his grandson, Daniel or Douglas or whatever.

Anyhow, the rule is that what happens at Camp Daniel stays at Camp Daniel.  When you get an invite, they don’t want you to describe the place on social media, or to relate the goings-on. And the Marines at the gate hold your cameras and smart phones so there’s nothing visual I could or should post here.

It will have to suffice as humble-brag to say that I drank a couple shots of presidential Jose Cuervo and I played a game of presidential darts and tilted a presidential pinball machine in the game room. Then I threw a couple jumpshots into the hole on either end of the presidential ball court, then powered my way down the lane past an imaginary presidential defender for a graceful lay-up. For a finale, I put on a pair of presidential bowling shoes and rolled a game in one of the presidential lanes.  I did not use the presidential ball, which was clearly labeled atop the rack.  They told me that was a definite no-go, and, well, Guantanamo.

All in all, I was feeling pretty damn special — 118 ain’t shabby when you haven’t bowled in a few years — until I look up on the wall of the lanes and there is a photograph of President Obama, the slightest suggestion of a smile on his face, pointing wryly upward at the tabulated bowling score on the overhead projection.

Two-thirteen.

In between every other mess with which he’s contending, Barack Obama came here to the presidential retreat one day and rolled a 213.

Two thirteen! The man is a beast.

Me, I’ve never been more ashamed of a 118 in my entire gutter-ball-rolling life. And now that weak-ass score, with my name affixed to it, is winding its way to the National Archives or some other federal drain-swirl of historical ignominy.

Anyway, I’m guessing that’s about as far as I can go in terms of discussing my day in the hills of Frederick County. I don’t wanna break the rules. But a cabinet secretary later told me that considering my negligible background and general reputation, everyone thought I behaved myself and my little talk on public housing policy went swell.

Armed with such assurance, I promptly went back to the bar and stuffed the small item you see below into my sweater and made good my escape.  The Marines at the gate probably assumed my conquest to be a gift-shop purchase or some such. Hah! What rubes. As if any chump of a visitor can pull out a credit card at the Shangri-La bar and waltz away from the place with $32 worth of presidential bar gear. As if.

My late father-in-law, Ted Lippman, who specialized in presidential politics for The Baltimore Sun for much of his long career, would have been so damn proud to down a martini from this bad boy. After all, who knows which historical lips savored its chemistry: Ike, or Truman, or Jackie Kennedy; Brezhnev or Sadat or Begin.

And, too, Ted would have been especially proud once I explained to him that they had renamed the entire camp in honor of my visit.

So that’s where it stands, Mr. President. You want this martini shaker back, you’re gonna roll me ten frames for it, double or nothing.  And, to keep it fair, I’ll need a 70-pin spot.

It followed me home.

It followed me home.

Ain’t no justice. It’s just us.

18 Dec
December 18, 2015

March 1992 Twigg Simon Bal Sun Article

In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.

In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored.  In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.

Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.

It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.

A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would.  I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.

The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.

Mr. Privett was white, by the way.  The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.

Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race.  I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone.  And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.

“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.

I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.

Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this.  And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.

I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this.  I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past.  But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.

Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray.  But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.

Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely.  Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him.  His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter.  Privett was The Other.  Some dope fiend. With AIDS.  Fuck him.

And now Mr. Gray.

If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.

 

Old faces and fresh dishonor

25 Nov
November 25, 2015

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Save for the image of a six-year-old Hungarian girl which I do not possess — these are the photographs of 10 of the 11 members of my family who did not escape from Europe in the critical prewar years, when the path for refugees fleeing fascism narrowed, then disappeared. Fear of these people — their otherness, their politics, their faith — was sufficient to close borders and deny safe passage to America and elsewhere. The first six photos are an extended family on my mother’s side lost at Auschwitz, the last four a branch of my father’s clan slain in the woods outside the city of Slonim, in what is now Belarus.

The facelessness of the hundreds of thousands fleeing our time’s great cruelty is in some basic way part of their undoing. In their anonymity, the Syrian refugees running from Assad or the Islamic State appear in our political discourse as mere numbers, abstract and enormous. Save for the occasional photograph of a child’s body on a beach or some video footage of an exhausted woman in a rail station, these lost souls exist for us as an amorphous collective. To our minds, they are a vast multitude of disordered humanity, victims and victimizers, terrorists and those terrorized. Sorting them will be exhausting and imprecise and burdensome. There will be costs. And risks.

And yet every time I begin to listen to someone explain to me the social or political problem of opening our country to this breaking wave of humanity, every time some sonofabitch summons fear or prejudice or uncertainty, I am steadied and restored by my own familial history. Yes, populations are vast, uncontrollable, threatening. Their swell and weight are great enough in our frightened minds to overwhelm systems, or resources. But people are people. Our precious singularity, when at last acknowledged, makes the cowardice of our worst politicians and the fear of those who respond to their rhetoric that much more craven and shameful.

For me, I just have to turn the page of the family photo album and stare at these faces. The people of my blood, the lost branches of my tree — Esther and Solomon, Fanci and Gitel, Leo and little Batia and the others — ordinary mothers and fathers and children who an entire world failed to see as completely and irreplacably human. They, too, were a feared and unwanted wave of chaos and risk, confusion and otherness. And they were butchered on the short end of someone else’s geopolitical equation.

Knowing that much, I can’t look at these lost faces and then succumb to the worst imaginings of a Trump or a Cruz or a Carson. It would be an affront to the memory of my tribal dead, and to the fortunate journey, too, of all of those in my mother’s and father’s family who got out, who got here, or to Palestine, or Australia.

This, now, is the same moment, with the same stakes. Soon and forever, many more families will have nothing left but names and photographs over which to grieve, just as the names and images of others — today’s Tafts and Coughlins and Lindberghs — will be stained and dishonored by what they say or do in this time. These are men and women who wish to claim the mantle of moral leadership, yet would trade innocent lives for any and all chance for an abject and equivocal safety, or worse, for some immediate political gain. Tether yourself to their ugliest fears and you, too, can embrace the shame that this moment offers.

Or be more.

But know for certain that the history that is happening today — right now — will judge us all.

The frauds of memory, the limits of penitence. And baseball.

19 Nov
November 19, 2015

The following article was published in the Sports Illustrated of October 12, 2015.  It is reprinted here by the kind permission of those who not only commissioned the article, but helped with the logistics of getting Mike Epstein back to Washington so as to wash the sin from my hands. So, hey, when Judgment Day comes, they at least have this going for them.  Thanks, guys.

epstein

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THE STATIC of the broadcast, the AM-band crackle that the cheap transistor spit up every time it swung or bounced—even this I remember. Just as I recall the heat from the water in the hallway fountain, its cooling mechanism never quite functional. And the godawful smell of the secondary wing boys’ room.

It is 1971, and I am new to the fifth grade at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School, a few hundred yards north of the D.C. line in suburban Maryland, where everything is perfectly Proustian, perfectly preserved in memory.

I have been on the playground, playing strikeout with Firestone and Bjellos. It is an April afternoon, after school hours, yet unseasonably hot in my memory. I am wishing the water cooler actually worked, stumbling into the boys’ room to take a leak before drifting back to the game.

On my little Sanyo, Frank Howard launches a grand slam off the Oakland A’s starter, some fella with the improbable name of Blue. It is Opening Day. And though this is Washington Senators baseball, all things are still possible.

Two years earlier, in fact, my Nats, managed by the great Ted Williams, finished above the hated Yankees for the first time in my short life in a season when both played better than .500 ball. These guys are due. They have always been due. This, perhaps, is the year they pay out.

Mike Epstein follows Howard to the plate, and I rest the radio on the boys’ sink. Epstein, my favorite. Superjew—and yes, that is his actual nickname. Thirty home runs in ’69 hitting behind Howard, who had 48 jacks that year. And in ’70, Epstein added 20 more.

Is there a hero more tailored to my existence? Is it possible to overstate the sociocultural and psychological import of a power-hitting Hebrew playing first base for the Washington Senators, the hometown team of a skinny, slap-hitting Jewish runt from Silver Spring, Md.? Surely, Mike Epstein, standing astride my childhood like a colossus for all the Chosen, is a personalized gift from the god of my fathers. To whom I now pray:

“Dear God,” I offer aloud, my words echoing against the drab brown walls of the bathroom. “If you let Mike Epstein hit a home run right now, I will never, ever skip Hebrew school again.”

Whereupon the very next pitch is launched into the rightfield upper deck of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Back-to-back with Howard. The Opening Day crowd cheering wildly because maybe, just maybe, this is the year, with the Nats embarrassing this Blue fella and shutting out Oakland to begin the great exodus from Egypt and bondage.

And here, now, comes the worst and most frightening image in this sequence of memory: That of a mop-headed boychild, arms above him, cheering wildly, his image reflected back from the old oxidized mirror above the school bathroom sink. I can still see that fool kid. Right now, in my mind’s eye, I am looking at him as his moment of delirious joy evaporates into near Biblical loathing and terror.

What did I just promise God?

Oh.

No.

*      *       *

I’M NOT AN IDIOT, or a fundamentalist. A sentient grown-up cannot take seriously the notion of petitional prayer in any sporting contest. Any modernist knows that a divine entity who would intervene in human affairs to hang a curveball or block a field goal is a deity with too much time on His hands. Any god who actually exists has to be playing for larger stakes than a playoff win or, worse, a five-year contract with built-in incentives. The sight of a wide receiver falling to one knee and crossing himself in the end zone is an affront to any theology that can matter. And we must concede that a serious god in whom real purposes abide cannot possibly give himself over to punishing the random collective of northside Chicago baseball enthusiasts merely because they don’t live in St. Louis.

So, O.K., no worries. I made a vow and I broke it. Within three weeks I was again cutting out of Hebrew school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, hanging with friends, creeping down Beach Drive to play basketball in Rock Creek Park. But so what?

God, if He even exists, is good, or at least noninterventionist—an Unmoved Mover, as Aristotle would say, who rules from a heaven with high walls and leaves small matters of athleticism to men. A child’s vow over such nonsense is unheard.

Except a little more than a month after that long-ago Opening Day, Mike Epstein, my favorite player, was traded to the Athletics. And by the following season my entire hometown baseball franchise, the Senators, was shipped to Texas to become the Rangers.

I did the rest of my growing up in Washington without baseball. And when I moved to Baltimore in late 1983, I could in no way enjoy the Orioles’ victory in the World Series that year. The O’s of old were Canaanites, a savage crew of Moloch-worshippers who routinely marched south against my tribe, with the Robinsons and Palmer and McNally and Boog smiting and martyring the Nats at will.

I rooted for Philly in that Series, and only embraced the Orioles when they began the ’88 season with 21 straight losses. As only a Senators fan will, I came to my second franchise when it was in the basement, and for a long time the elevator did not move.

So note:

It is now nearly half a century since a small boy asked his god to hang a Vida Blue pitch for his hero, and neither team with which he has allied himself has to this moment returned to a World Series.

Lo, the Orioles have wandered like Israelites through Sinai since I took a mortgage in Baltimore, teased from New York by Jeffrey Maier’s mitt and mocked from Chicago by Jake Arrieta’s fastball. And the new Nats, reconstituted a decade ago, have touched the hem of greatness only to collapse at the very edge of every playoff opportunity. They ended the present season, literally, at each others’ throats.

My vow, I have come to believe, was heard. And now I am Jonah, fleeing from my God and Nineveh, unwilling to address my sin. And the Nationals and the Orioles are both ships on a storm-tossed sea, their sickened, seasick fans unwitting victims of the outcast who walks among them.

Every season since 1971, the gaping maw of the whale awaits me. I am to be swallowed, along with the hopes of any baseball team I care about, into the belly of the beast and spit up in time to do it all again when pitchers and catchers report.

I gotta get right with God.

*     *     *

NEVER HAPPENED,” says Mike Epstein.

The phone line goes silent.

“No way,” he adds.

Finally, I say something clever: “What?”

“I never hit a home run off Vida Blue, and I never hit a home run on Opening Day. You got it wrong.”

“But I remember it.”

“Never happened,” he repeats.

I sit there on the other end of the phone, stunned like a cow with a sledgehammer. Me. In the boys’ bathroom mirror. My promise. My sin.

“Listen,” Epstein says finally. “You’re not serious about this, are you? Because, I gotta just say, you realize this whole thing is a bit, ah, egocentric.”

You think? Isn’t everything that constitutes the theology of fandom egocentric? Believers who won’t change their shirts for 16 Sundays if their team is winning? Acolytes who have to walk out of the room on a full count with loaded bases because if they stare at the television screen, the Fates will bring bad juju to the moment? Pilgrims who eat the same thing in the same inning in the same number of bites because the ritual assures the outcome?

Surely a direct appeal to Yahweh, the god of our forefathers, carries more gravitas than mere fate?

And no, I still don’t believe a just god intervenes in professional sports. He does not care if Mike Epstein goes deep against Vida Blue, or whoever threw that pitch on whatever day he threw it. But does He care if a Jewish kid two years shy of his bar mitzvah promises to stop cutting out on Hebrew school?

Think on that for a moment, Mr. Epstein. Maybe this vow wasn’t about baseball. Maybe it was about theology and spirituality and the 6,000-year-old faith of our ancestors.

“You’re serious,” Epstein says wearily.

“You and me, we gotta bury this together.”

And somehow, I get this man to agree. Somehow, I convince him that the two of us hold the future of the Nationals, and possibly the Orioles as well, in our sin-stained hands.

He will come east from his home outside Denver, back to Washington. We will taste the bread of affliction together, share a Passover seder and use the Jewish holiday of liberation to commemorate the long years of wandering in baseball wilderness, to dream anew on a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey and freshly printed playoff tickets. Then, on Opening Day of the 2005 season, we will go to the old RFK Stadium, where the Montreal Expos have just relocated, and we will watch a ball game together.

I know I have Mike Epstein aboard when I can hear him laughing at me through the telephone.

“O.K.,” he says. “You’re nuts, but O.K.”

All that is left for me, other than buying his plane tickets and reserving a hotel room, is to figure out my broken memory. Back-to-back home runs with Howard. Vida Blue. Opening Day. The upper-wing boys’ room at Rock Creek Forest Elementary.

“I’ll work on that,” I tell my childhood hero. “And I’ll see you next April for Passover.”

Except the Old Testament god, He is not so easily appeased.

A few months before Passover in 2005, my brother-in-law, a sailing enthusiast, was caught in a storm off the Florida coast and, when a metal coupling fell from the mast, suffered an injury that would eventually prove fatal. That year’s family gathering was no time to trifle with anything as obscure as baseball voodoo. And by the following season, my father had become invalided; our Passover seders became, for several years, private affairs. I couldn’t follow through with Epstein.

Season followed season. The Orioles slowly improved and made a couple decent runs toward a Series, but last year’s rollover to Kansas City seemed like a high wall. The Nats, for their part, looked weak-willed the year they sat Strasburg, and last season’s playoff performance was so devoid of heart that some supernatural element could be plausibly suspected. In the back of my mind, totaling up the cumulative seasons of Series- less baseball in my wake, I piled up a weight of guilt that only Jews and Roman Catholics can carry.

Verily, my God was still an angry God. So, a decade after I first contacted Mike Epstein, I called him again. He didn’t return the message. Not right away. Who calls a goof like me back a second time in a single life?

I had an editor from Sports Illustrated follow up, if only to make my pitch more plausible. And I called the Nationals’ front office, asking about the possibility of honoring one of Washington’s former baseball stars. And in July I flew to Denver, where, finally, seated across from an aging but still athletic man, in a breakfast spot south of the city, I did all I could to assure my boyhood hero of both my sincerity and my sanity. I also told him I had solved the false manufacture of memory, and it was a telling corruption at that:

“When you make a promise to God, a promise that you don’t keep, a promise that you then secretly blame for the trade of your favorite player and then the loss of your entire baseball team, well, you kind of want the home run to matter. And for the Senators, the only way a home run could matter was to have it as close to Opening Day as possible because by May….”

“By April, you mean,” laughed Epstein, remembering. “Those teams were so bad.”

“By April,” I agreed, “the Washington Senators were usually out of contention.”

Mike Epstein and Frank Howard hit back-to-back home runs on Aug. 17, 1970, in the first inning of a 7-0 home win over the Kansas City Royals, off a pitcher named Bob Johnson.

It was summer. A hot day in D.C. My fifth-grade year hadn’t started yet, but the school building would have been open as the staff was preparing for the start of school. In August, we were routinely allowed to use the bathrooms while we hung on the blacktop and played ball. That explained why my memory had no one else in the hallway or bathroom, why I was even allowed to have a transistor radio in school that day.

Ridiculously, I had offered up a vow to God over a single at bat in the first inning of a late-season game for a sixth-place team that was last in the old American League East — that was in no way contending for anything. Not even pride. Biblically, this is the equivalent of Esau trading his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup. Yet over the years, as the baseball fortunes of two cities fell and as I bricked a personal prison cell using mortared blocks of Judaic guilt, I imbued that useless home run with more and more meaning.

The Senators had in fact shut out the A’s on Opening Day in 1971, beating Blue in the same convincing fashion that they had shut out Johnson and the Royals. That, too, was a warm memory, one that I happily conflated with Epstein’s prayed-for homer if for no other reason than to make my plea for divine intervention more purposed and romantic.

“Do you remember what pitch you hit off Johnson?”

Epstein had some memorable dingers in his career. Three in one game. Four in consecutive at bats. And some astonishing artillery salvos to the upper deck of RFK, where they painted the seats blue in Superjew’s honor. But an August home run in a game that meant nothing?

Epstein didn’t remember the at bat, much less the pitch on which he turned.

Only I did. Kinda

*     *     *

Epstein with Ted Williams.

Epstein with Ted Williams.

NEVER MEET your heroes, it has been famously said, and as an old newspaperman, I’ve generally been inclined to credit the adage. A hero is someone far enough away so as not to reveal himself completely.

But the Michael Peter Epstein who has put up with my on-again, off-again courtship these many years, upon our first meeting in Denver, revealed himself to be a fine, if somewhat skeptical, soul.

Now 72, he has shaped a life with successes and pleasures beyond baseball. His wife, Barbara, is a nice Jewish girl he spotted in the stands of a minor league game in Stockton, Calif., and the marriage is now a half-century strong. Three children are grown, successful and happy.

A professional ballplayer from 1964 until he retired 10 years later—just before the rise of free agency and a seller’s market—Epstein was obliged to turn on a dime and embark on a second career as a businessman.

A native of the Bronx, he nonetheless learned about the cattle market, of all things, and would own and operate ranches in Oregon and Wyoming. It is probably safe to say that in meeting the man, you are shaking hands with the only lefthanded Jewish power-hitting cattleman to ever stride this planet.

And for a third act, Epstein returned to the baseball world, developing batting techniques and drills that he describes as rotational hitting—an influential and level-swinging counter-revolution to the Lau-Hriniak school that dominated the game a couple generations ago.

Asked the ageless Talmudic question—”Which is harder: hitting or preventing hitting?”—Epstein doesn’t hesitate before offering his own rabbinical dissent: “Teaching hitting. That’s the hardest.”

It was not something that he particularly wanted to do in life, but when the greatest hitter in modern baseball history prods and pushes repeatedly, you eventually give way. And Ted Williams, having managed Epstein for two-plus seasons with the Senators, had kept a friendship with his former player.

Williams knew hitting as a precise science, of course, but teaching it? He had no patience or vocabulary for explaining himself or his skill. But he would talk hitting with Epstein.

“You gotta do this,” Williams told him on one hunting trip together.

“Why me?”

“Because you’re a smart sonofabitch. I can do it, but you can figure out how to explain it.”

Beginning with a series of 42 articles in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper in the early 2000s, Epstein codified what Williams believed about smacking a baseball with a bat into a coherent, teachable methodology. Today, Epstein Online Hitting Academy—now a second-generation enterprise with Mike’s son, Jake, at the helm—has become an influential font of batting analysis and coaching, based in Littleton, Colo., with 650 certified instructors operating nationally. It is the only hitting curriculum Ted Williams ever endorsed.

For Epstein—successful as a player, as a cattleman and businessman, as a hitting guru—life has been a series of pragmatic, goal-oriented paths and pivots. You show up, you do the work, you wait on the proper result. Stray prayers and divine interventions are not currencies in which such a man generally traffics.

*     *     *

BUT THE OLD TESTAMENT God, the jealous God, the unforgiving God of some improbably chosen tribe of ancient desert wanderers—maybe He’s not interested in your modernist sensibilities, or in your hard-won rationalism. Maybe He’s keeping different stats on this world, and judging mortals by different sabermetrics altogether. And maybe this God is not in the business of cheap forgiveness, either.

Because this ball season, on Sept. 21, the night before Yom Kippur, the sundown commencement of the Jewish Day of Atonement, I arrange to bring Mike Epstein—who remains politely dubious about the entire enterprise—to a stadium in the city of Washington, where the third and present incarnation of professional baseball in D.C. resides. There, just a mile or two down the Anacostia riverbank from the hollowed-out hulk in which Epstein once played, we stand in the Nationals dugout, waiting out a rain delay.

“God,” Epstein assures me, staring at the infield tarp, “is really angry at you.”

It’s an hour past the game’s scheduled start, and Epstein, having done all his interviews for local radio and pregame broadcasts, stands with a team escort at his side. In the escort’s hand are a Nationals jersey with Epstein’s name and number 6 adorning it, and a red ballcap with NATIONALS spelled out phonetically in Hebrew letters. But the rain is unrelenting, and there will be no pregame honorifics for Epstein or anyone else. In the end, a little after 9 p.m., this Monday game between the Nats and the Orioles—yes, my plan was to exorcise the demons from both franchises at once—is called for weather. It will be rescheduled as part of a Thursday doubleheader, a day which will find Epstein back in Colorado.

God will have no apologies from me.

Yea, as it shall ever be written: Man plans, grabs a bat and walks to the plate. God plunks him in the ribs with a nasty slider, and then, two pitches later, picks him off with an omnipotent little move toward first.

*     *     *

To my right, my sister-in-law and brother, to my left, Epstein, walking to Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur.

To my right, my sister-in-law, Vicki, and brother, Gary; to my left, Mike Epstein, walking to Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur this year in suburban Washington.

AT SUNDOWN the next day, Mike Epstein and I find ourselves at Har Shalom Synagogue in the Potomac suburbs of Washington. We are side by side as the congregation rises for the Kol Nidre, the All Vows prayer, in which Jews ask God to forgive them for all of the promises that they, being human and foolish and fallible, will fail to honor in the coming year. Kol Nidre is so elemental to the Jewish ritual of forgiveness that we chant the prayer thrice, slowly, so that the words are given all possible attention and clarity.

As I gather my prayer shawl on my shoulders and turn the page of my prayer book, Epstein shoots me a look and actually smiles. “O.K., you’re up,” he says. “It’s on you now.”

Kol Nidre applies to the unkept vows of the coming year, but I’m asking for a retroactive dispensation. My great sin dates to my 10th year of life, and I know I didn’t even learn the Yom Kippur liturgy until I was 12 or 13. Hey, with all those unexplained absences, I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the Solomon Schechter Hebrew Academy. Sue me.

Yet on this night, I bend to the task. Beside me, I can hear my companion muttering the Hebrew as well; neither of us is particularly observant, but Epstein too has knowledge of the liturgy. But walking out of temple an hour and a half later, he only partially concedes the validity of our mission together:

“I get why you’re here, but explain to me exactly why I had to make this trip? I did my job. I hit a home run. And God, he did his job, right? You’re the only one here who still owes.”

I do my best:

“You’re part of the sin, too,” I say. “I prayed for a home run in a meaningless August ball game, and I got it. But maybe you got something too. Maybe you benefited from the sin.”

He looks at me, ever more dubious.

“Look,” I say, “that year you hit 20 home runs, and early the next season you get traded to Oakland to play on a winning team. The year after that, you win a World Series, right?”

He nods.

“Maybe if you finish 1970 with only 19 home runs, maybe that’s not such a clean, round number. Maybe when the Oakland front office is looking around for a lefty to hit behind Reggie Jackson and play first base, maybe they don’t bite on Mike Epstein. Maybe if I don’t ask God to have that Royals pitcher hang a curveball, you don’t get traded, you don’t hit 26 jacks in ’72 and go to the World Series and get a ring.”

Epstein considers my theories on man and fate for only a moment.

“Weak. Very weak,” he says, laughing.

I drop him at his hotel and we say our goodbyes. And then, before getting back in my car, I shoot a look up at the dark Washington sky.

“C’mon, big guy,” I actually say aloud. “What’s done is done. Let my people go.”

At that moment, the O’s 2015 wild-card run is history, and with some irony, their last series with the Nats will fire the last torpedo into Washington’s hopes as well. But next year might be different. I tell this to myself and drive home with hope in my heart.

Five days later, the Nationals’ closer tries to choke the team’s best hitter in the dugout, for all the world to see.

Oh, God.

*     *     *

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