Sunday, December 9, 2012

After 37 years and 14 concerts, Bruce Springsteen finally gave me Incident on 57th Street

Having been blown away by the first Los Angeles show on this tour back in April and knowing that this was the last North American show on the tour, I didn't know what to expect from Bruce Thursday night in Glendale, Arizona. So, when he started off with his acoustic guitar and played "Surprise, Surprise" solo, my reaction was WTF. Why that song? Was Bruce trying to tell us something? We got our answer right away.

Next came an energetic version of "No Surrender", again somewhat of a surprise. Definitely one of the better songs from Born in the USA, and immortalized for the line "We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school", the band absolutely nailed it. It became obvious that Jake Clemons has definitely become more relaxed and confident and the entire band was clearly into it. I realized that on this night anything might be played.

As if to prove my point, next up were two back-to-back River songs, "I'm a Rocker" and "Hungry Heart." Really? I don't think I've heard "Hungry Heart" in the main set since The River tour, it's always been one of the encores, if played at all. And "I'm a Rocker?" I know I haven't heard that since The River tour. Once again, they were both absolutely nailed by the band.

Then came the '78 version of "Prove it all Night," which I guess Bruce has been playing regularly lately. It was great hearing the piano intro from The Professor, and the only word to describe Bruce's playing of the solo is "blistering." I can't remember hearing Bruce play a solo like that before, it's almost like Tom Morello has rubbed off on him. It was incredible. At that point, I was simply in awe, dumbstruck at the setlist so far (this was a show on the Wrecking Ball tour, right? Where the hell were those songs?), and giddy with aniticipation of what might come next.

Next came "Trapped," which I always love to hear in a show. I was lucky to get that on one of the "Magic" shows I saw in Anaheim and it was a major highlight that night. It still amazes that Bruce can nail this difficult vocal, he is 63 years old, after all. When the song ended to the roar of the amazed crowd, I thought now we have to get some Wrecking Ball tunes. Right? I mean, we're six songs in now.

I expected to hear the percussion beginning of "We Take Care of our Own," but instead heard another piano intro from The Professor that seemed vaguely familiar. And then it hit me, and I turned to my brother with a look of shocked wonder, which was mirrored on his face, as I said "Are you fucking kidding me? Lost in the Flood?". Well, I haven't heard that one live since 1975 at my very first Bruce show. What I got in Glendale was a powerful, passionate, explosive and absolutely mind-blowing version of one of Bruce's best and hardly-ever played songs. Once again, the band was nails, they were perfect. And when the song ended, I was completely fried. Blown away. I couldn't believe what I had seen and heard. I started to wonder: could this be the night? More on that later.

The next four songs were standards for the tour: "We Take Care of our Own," "Wrecking Ball," "Death to my Hometown," and "My City of Ruins." All of them great, all of them played with passion and emotion. Bruce then took requests and surprised us once again with "Be True" (did someone really request that?) and "Light of Day." I seem to be on the "Light of Day" track because I get that a lot at the shows I attend. "Darliington County" would have been a good bathroom song, if I had needed to go. It was well done, but I've never cared for it all that much. "Shackled and Drawn" came next with all its power and emotion. Bruce lightened the mood after that with "Waiting on a Sunny Day" and the Apollo medley. Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame was at the show, and he joined Bruce briefly during "634-5789."

Next came "The Rising," which I have never gotten tired of, and then "Badlands." I've heard "Badlands" so many times that I should be sick ot it, but clearly, I'm not. When Bruce sings that "it ain't no sin to be glad I'm alive", he does so with such passion and joy in his voice that it is contagious. I was singing my guts out, as was most of the crowd. I knew we were getting close to the end of the main set and I wondered what song he would finish with. I know what I wanted. And as Bruce played the harmonica intro, I knew my wish was fulfilled. Many people have written on this site and others that "Thunder Road" has become tired and plodding live. I have no clue what they are talking about. On Thursday night in Glendale, it was joyous and triumphant. As I stood there, singing and dancing along with the band, I looked around and saw almost the entire crowd on their feet. I will never get tired of "Thunder Road" live.

As the main set ended, I was clearly exhausted and enthralled. The setlist had been diverse and exquisite. This was my 14th concert of a journey which began 37 years ago when I was a freshmand in college. The one song which I had never gotten from Bruce just happens to be my favorite, "Incident on 57th Street." I've heard many different versions on many different boots, but it had never been performed at any show I had been at. I had resigned myself to the belief that I would never get it. But this concert seemed different. After "Lost in the Flood," it seemed anything was possible.

And so, the encores began with Bruce going over to the piano, giving Roy a break. Everyone around me was breathless, what was he going to surprise us with now. And then came the piano intro, and I suddenly knew my moment had finally come. Bruce began singing the words I knew so well, and I swear, I had tears in my eyes. It was just Bruce alone on the piano. He sang with emotion and power. He sang with longing and tenderness. The crowd was swept up in this amazing ballad writen almost 40 years ago and you could hear a pin drop in the arena, it was so quiet. And when it was over, I was simply overcome with joy. I was drained with emotion and felt a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction that mere words can't describe. And I can never again say I've never had "Incident" played at a concert I attended.

The rest was anticlimactic for me. Oh sure, "Born to Run" was great as always, "Santa Claus is coming to Town" was fun, and "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" was joyous and tender with its tribute to the Big Man. And then it was over. I don't think I could have taken much more.

There's not much else for me to say. The first time I saw Bruce in 1975 at my college in Oswego, New York, was probably the best concert I ever saw, and a life-changing event for me. Other shows I've seen have been almost as great, some may even have been better. But I don't think any of them since that very first time have been as special for me as Thursday night in Glendale was. I didn't know I could still feel that way at the ripe old age of 54. But I was wrong. Thank you, Bruce.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The World Series of Poker

It was seven years ago when I first went to the World Series of Poker.  I played in one of the early events, a thousand dollar buy-in.  I lasted 15 minutes.  I was obviously clueless.  But I knew two things:  I could become a much better player, and I wanted to return.

Since then, I've read poker books, attended poker boot camp, played endless hours online (back when Americans could do that) and I played scores, perhaps even hundreds, of poker tournaments in numerous casinos in Arizona and Nevada.  I'm a much better player than I was, and over the years, when I cashed in tournaments or won money in cash games, I saved some of that money to someday fulfill my dream of returning to the WSOP.

This year, I finally fulfilled my dream.  I went back to the WSOP.  I once again bought into a thousand dollar buy-in no limit hold em tournament, event number 44.  The World Series has changed a great deal since then.  In addition to the bracelet events, there are satellite events, and three different deep stack tournaments every day.  They all qualify as WSOP events, and they are all filled with hundreds, even thousands, of poker players from all over the world.

I had several goals for this year's WSOP.  Goal number one was to last longer than fifteen minutes.  Goal number two was to make it to the first break, two hours into the tournament.  Goal number three was to play smart, but aggressive, poker.  The idea is to accumulate chips, make moves at the right times and when in the correct position, and try to win the tournament, not just survive.  Goal number four was to survive the first day.  Goal number five was to make it into the money, and goal number six was to win the bracelet.

I got to the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas (the permanent home of the World Series of Poker) at about 5:00 Saturday night.  I got settled into my room and went down to do the final registration for the tournament.  I also saw that a Deep Stack tournament was beginning at 6:00.  The Deep Stack tournaments are new events they have at the World Series.  You start off with either ten or fifteen thousand chips, depending on which tournament you play, and the tournament is completed the same day.  I decided to warm up for the big one on Sunday by playing in the 6:00 Deep Stack.  That turned out to be a major mistake.

For some reason, I don't remember much about the Deep Stack, except that I played very badly and had terrible luck.  If I had a pair, someone had a bigger pair.  If I had a big ace (that means an AK or AQ), someone else had a big pair which held up against me.  I chased hands, refused to lay anything down, and before I knew it, I was short-stacked.  I managed to hang on for a while, but I was knocked out at about the three hour mark.  It was a terrible showing, I played like crap and had no luck.  To make matters worse, my confidence was shot.

There was another tournament at 10:00, but I thought it was more important to stay in my room and study my poker boot camp material, and try to refresh myself with everything I had learned with the hopes of playing better on Sunday.  After several hours of study and serious meditation, I once more felt confident the next morning, and I was ready to go to war.

I played better on Sunday.  I waited for big hands and the right moments to make moves.  We only began with three thousand chips (unlike the Deep Stack tournaments where the smallest starting stack was ten thousand chips).  I easily attained my first goal.  I lost a pretty big pot with pocket queens, when a calling station at the table (a numbnuts who will call every hand and never fold even when he has crappy cards) called my preflop raise with just 8-4, and then got two fours on the flop to give him three of a kind.  I lost half my stack there.

I made it to the first break, two hours into the tournament.  I had about two thousand chips.  After the break, there was a hand where the calling station was in the big blind.  Everyone else had folded to me.  I looked down and saw pocket eights.  I figured I would make a move to take the blinds, so I went all in, expecting the two blinds to fold.  The small blind obliged, but the calling station in the big blind called the all-in.  I held my breath, and prayed.  I turned over my eights and he turned over Q-9 suited in diamonds.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  He had no pot odds whatsoever to make the call and yet he still did it with only a Q-9.  The worst thing was I was positive he would hit either a queen or a nine.  I didn't begin to breathe again until all five cards on the board were turned over and there was no queen or nine, and I had doubled up my chips.

A couple of hands later, the guy on my left had to make a move as he was down to almost nothing.  He went all in with about 850 chips.  Everyone else folded and it came back to me.  I looked down at A-Q, a hand that was to become one of my nemeses during the weekend.  However, at that time, I thought I was in the lead, so I called.  He turned over A-10.  He didn't get his miracle ten, and holy crap, I had actually knocked somebody out of a WSOP event.  I finally started to feel good about my play and settled down.  My goal was to concetrate, be patient, and play smart poker.

I made it to the end of the third level.  We were three hours into the tournament.  I was on the button for the last hand of the third level.  The big blind was 100.  The guy after the big blind did a minimum raise to 200.  Almost everyone called the raise.  When it came to me, I looked at my hand and saw AK, the dreaded Big Slick.  It's a hand that can be a monster, if you hit an ace or a king.  If you don't hit, you can lose an awful lot with it.

I re-raised to 850.  The big and small blind both folded.  The original raiser re-raised me to 1800.  Everyone folded to me.  What the hell do I do now?  I was torn.  If I folded, I would have lost about one-fourth of my chips.  I also hated to just lay down the AK without at least seeing the flop.  But if I just made the call. I would have less than half of the chips I had at the beginning of the hand.  Calling made no sense to me.  My choices were fold or go all-in.  I should have just folded.  Of course, I'm saying that now knowing what happened.  At the time, however, I wanted to make a move to try to win.  And I stubbornly thought I had the better hand and he was trying to bluff me off the pot.  I went all-in.  He called.  He turned over pocket jacks.

This is the classic "race" in poker tournaments, a big pair against a big ace.  The player with the big ace either hits or he doesn't.  It's what they call the "all-in moment."  The flop came with a big, beautiful king, and suddenly I'm looking at doubling up in chips and putting myself in a position to go deep into this tournament.  The turn was inconsequential.  And then came the river.  The other guy had only two outs, meaning there were only two cards left in the entire deck which could help him, the other two jacks.  That's it.  And, son of a fucking bitch, one of those two damn jacks showed up on the river, giving the other guy three of a kind, and knocking me right out of the tournament.  I was in shock.  And that, my friends, is what is called a brutal bad beat.  I wanted to cry.

But there's no crying in poker.  I uttered a favorite profanity of mine, and then got up and left.  I was sick to my stomach, disappointed beyond belief.  I could hear one of the faculty at the Poker Boot Camp I did in February saying in my head that if you bust out making a move to win, that's OK.  You've got to do that to win, and you're going to lose 85% of the time, but you will be in a position to win more often.  It's the right way to play.  And after the voice in my head told me all those things, I told him to shut the fuck up.

There was nothing to do but play another tournament.  I signed up for the 6 p.m. Deep Stack.  I won't go into a whole lot of detail.  There were 480 players, and I made it to the six hour mark.  There were about 90 players left.  I had already lost with pocket aces, beaten by pocket tens when a third ten hit the board.  I lost almost every time I had AK or AQ.  But I still managed to hang on.  I won some hands with middle pairs, and just managed to hang in.  I was short-stacked and needed to make a move to hang on.  The guy who had previously beaten my pocket aces (a very nice guy from England) pushed all in about an hour or so later and I looked down at pocket kings.  Time to make my move.  I called the all-in.  He turned over AQ, a hand that I had been losing with all day long.  But not this guy.  He hit his ace.  There was no miracle third king for me, and I was knocked out yet again.

The next day I was ready to put all the disappointment behind me and start fresh in the 2 p.m. Deep Stack tournament.  I thought all the bad beats were behind me and there was going to be nothing but good luck ahead.  Yeah, right.  I was now playing well, making the right moves at the right time.  If I could just avoid bad luck, I would be OK.

About three and a half hours into the tournament, the blinds were 300-600.  I was the big blind with a stack of about 18,000 chips.  I put my 600 in and watched five players call the big blind, or limp in as poker players say.  No one raised.  I looked down at 10-3 offsuit and checked my option.  The flop was J-10-3.  I had flopped two pair.  The small blind checked and I bet out 5 thousand chips.  There were two callers.  The turn was a 3.  I almost jumped out of my chair.  I now had a dominating full house.  Time to make a move and build my stack.  I went all-in, hoping that someone would call.  Someone did, the most obnoxious, arrogant player at the table.  And I was about to put a hurt on him.  We turned over our cards and he was deflated when he saw my full house.  And then came the river.

Somewhere in the poker world, there are poker players who had worse luck than I did over a three-day period.  But I don't believe it.  I've never been so unlucky at any time at any place during my poker career.  The hand that the guy turned over was KJ, meaning he had two pair with the two threes on the board.  The guy had only two outs, only two cards in the whole deck which could beat me, the remaining two jacks.  Does that sound familiar, or what?  Guess what card came on the river.  I couldn't believe it.  He actually hit a jack, ended up with a higher full house than me, and knocked me out.  With a full freaking house.  I lost a hand and got knocked out of a tournament with a freaking full house!  That had never happened to me before.  I was totally crushed.

Oh, I played in one more tournament.  I actually shook off my depression and played pretty well.  I lasted six and a half hours, and finished 72nd out of 460.  I had AQ suited twice within a ten minute period and lost both times, the second time knocking me out.  I was 26 places from making it into the money.  I had played a grand total of 21 and a half hours of poker over five different tournaments, and didn't win a damn thing.

Heading out of the tournament area and back up to my room, I ran into Greg Raymer.  Raymer used to be an attorney like I am.  Seven years ago, he came out of nowhere to win the Main Event of the World Series of Poker and forever end his legal career.  He is my favorite poker player, my poker God.  I asked him if he would take a picture with me.  I had earlier asked the same thing of the great Doyle Brunson, who basically told me to get lost.  But Raymer is a gentleman.  We took the picture.  We chatted for a while.  I told him my name and that I was an attorney and that he was my favorite poker player and that I wanted to do just what he did.  I hope he enjoyed our few moments together as much as I did.  At least I was able to stop thinking about all my bad beats.

Being at the World Series of Poker this year was a dream come true.  I loved every minute of it, even with the bad beats.  I'm ready to get back to the tables as soon as I can.  I'm going to stop over-playing AK and AQ.  I'm tired of those hands killing me.  There's something called the Arizona State Championship, which is played at the Talking Stick Casino in Scottsdale in August.  I think I just might try my luck there.  What do you think?  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Passage of Time

Today is my stepdaughter's birthday. She is 17 today, drives herself to school every day, and is thinking about college. She was five when I first met her. Where did the time go?

Nothing makes you feel more mortal than the silent, steady passage of time. Last week, I noted the anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. Like a slap in the face, I realized that 31 years had passed since that horrible night. Little Sean Ono Lennon, who in my memory is frozen as a five year-old boy devestated by his father's death, is now a 36 year-old man. How in the world can that be?

I can go on and on about these things. It's been 25 years since the '86 Mets won the World Series, 36 years since the night I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band for the first time. I've been practicing law for the last 25 years and my biological daughter, at times frozen in my mind as a little girl, turns 20 in February.

I've always been told that people get wiser as they get older. I'm not so sure I believe that. It seems that I've made some pretty stupid decisions in the last ten years, and the consequences have been brutal. But in the long run, maybe they were not so bad after all, and they have led to better things. I'm in a much better place than I was five years ago, both spiritually and physically, and that's clearly a good thing.

I still have my dreams and goals. Someday I will play in the main event of the World Series of Poker. Hopefully, I won't get knocked out in the first fifteen minutes. I look forward to seeing my kids be successful and happy, and yes, I look forward to some day being a grandpa. But not anytime soon.

I'm pretty disgusted at the direction this country has taken. The political mood is so divisive and I think we have lost much of what made our country great. So many people want to tell me how to live my life, and how to think, and how to vote. It makes me angry and pessimistic about the future. Maybe it was always like this, and I'm just looking at the world from a 53 year-old view, and not a 30 year-old view. Maybe not.

The worst thing is that there are too many people I have lost who mean so much to me. I miss them, and not even the passage of time has changed that. I would love to be able to talk to my Dad one more time, and have him give me that good, reasoned advice that he always gave me. I don't think I will ever get over the loss of him. I would love to hear my late brother-in-law sing and play his guitar one more time. And I would love to be able to see my aunt and know that she recognizes me and still loves me. And just once, I would love to hear my grandfather's voice again. But it just doesn't work that way.

We can only move forward. Time keeps marching on, and we can never go back. I can only do the best I can, day by day, to be the best person, the best husband, father, stepfather, son, and brother I can be. I can remember and love all the people who are no longer here, but I don't need to dwell on the past. It's much better to live in the present, and celebrate the wonderful things and people I have in my life. As the holidays approach, I will do my best to enjoy each day as it comes, and not get caught up in the whole getting older thing.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Adios, Mike. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out!

I suppose University of Arizona Wildcat football fans should be grateful to Mike Stoops for lifting the program out of the mess that John Mackovic made and taking the team to three consecutive bowl games. The truth, however, is that the team was competitive in only the first of those games, the Las Vegas Bowl of 2008. The Wildcats never showed up for the Holiday Bowl in 2009, embarassing themselves on national TV 35-0 to Nebraska. Last year, they were 7-1 after the first eight games, promptly lost their next three games to go into the rivalry game with Arizona State with a 7-4 record. The Wildcats scored a last-second touchdown to tie the score with only a few seconds left in that game. Their place-kicking had been abysmal all season, and I just knew as I watched the game from the upper deck that they would miss the extra point. Which they promptly did. Then in overtime, the Cats allowed ASU to score, only to answer with their own touchdown. Once again, they were faced with the conversion. Go for the extra point, and be content with a tie (if they made the kick) or go for two for the win. Coach Mike Stoops opted for the conservative, easy approach, just like he did against the Oregon Ducks in OT the year before. Despite the fact that the kicker had just missed an extra point. And once again, the place-kicker missed, and ASU had an inexplicable, ridiculous victory over the Wildcats at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. I cursed and screamed in my car for two hours as I drove home that night.

The Wildcats still managed to snag a bowl game, the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State. They were once again massacred on national TV. For the second year in a row, the Wildcats were completely unprepared for the game and humiliated on the field. That was simply not a coincidence. Chalk it up to bad coaching with the responsibility sitting right at the feet of the head coach, Mike Stoops. In retrospect, after finishing the season with five consecutive losses, Stoops should have been fired right then and there.

After eight seasons at the helm, Mike Stoops should have built a power at the U of A. All the pieces were in place two years ago for a Rose Bowl appearance, or even last year. Instead, the team went backward. Quarterback Nick Foles is one of the best in the nation, and he is sure to be playing in the NFL next year. However, the offensive line has been decimated by injuries and Stoops did a terrible job recruiting new talent. The defense is even worse. And the special teams are simply beyond woeful.

This season, the Wildcats faced three games in a row against top ten teams Oklahoma State, Stanford, and Oregon, followed by the always tough USC. After an anything but easy win against non-BCS team Northern Arizona in the season opener, the Wildcats gave up 37 points to Oklahoma State, 37 points again to Stanford, 56 to Oregon, and then 48 to USC. Needless to say, they lost all four games. When they played winless Oregon State this past Saturday, they were amazingly favored to win, but proceeded to give up (what else) 37 points and lost their fifth in a row. It was the tenth straight loss to BCS teams, going back to last season. And it was the final straw. Stoops was fired as head coach yesterday. To which I say, good riddance.

Mike Stoops was simply an embarrassment to watch. His screaming and yelling on the sidelines, his explosions of anger at referees, and his belittling of his players was excruciating. He gave nothing back to the community and had to be one of the least-liked coaches ever in Tucson. Not that such abysmal behavior was necessarily fatal, if he had been able to produce a consistent winner, the bad behavior would have been overlooked. But a total collapse last year, two straight embarrassments in bowl games, and then ten straight losses to BCS teams (and counting) spelled the end for Stoops. Adios, Mike. Why don't you just run back to your much more successful brother at Oklahoma and go back to being a defensive coordinator? The reality is you were in over your head as a head coach.

So the Arizona Wildcats are right back where they started eight years ago, a program in ruins looking at the prospect of going winless in the conference. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. What is that eternal saying of Arizona Wildcat fans everywhere? Oh yes: when does basketball season start?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Boss Does it Again

On Friday morning, I headed to work in a foul mood. It was the last day for me to work in this one particular place and I was not looking forward to it. I bickered with my wife, acted like a jerk, and in general, was not a happy camper. I realize now that the fact it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, had much to do with it. The "High Holy Days", as they are called, make me think of my Dad, who passed away four years ago. I miss him every day, but some days more than others.

I had a 45 minute drive ahead of me and decided to listen to E Street Radio, one of the Sirius XM stations I love the most (big surprise there, right?). It was the time of the morning when they do "Be the Boss." This segment is done every morning and it gives a different Springsteen fan every day the opportunity to play their favorite Boss songs and talk about them or about Springsteen in general. I did it back in March and loved it.

On Friday morning, the "Be the Boss" guy was from Staten Island. He first became a Springsteen fan in September, 1975, when he was a high school senior. I became a fan three months later while I was a freshman in college and the Boss played at my school, as I have described before on this blog. Right away, I identified with the guy.

The Staten Island guy started his segment off with "Jungleland," one of my all-time favorites, and as I listened to this Springsteen masterpiece which I have probably listened to a thousand times before both on record and live at concerts, I was lifted out of my mood. When he played "Born to Run," I was blown away all over again by what I believe is one of the few perfect rock songs. And finally, he finished off his set by dedicating his last song to the only person he knew who was a bigger Springsteen fan, his wife's brother. The wife's brother was a firefighter who died in Tower One of the World Trade Center on September 11th, and the song he played in his memory was "You're Missing," the heartbreaking song about 9/11 from "The Rising."

Wow, after all that, I was in tears. Sure, I still missed my Dad, but he lived a full and happy life, surrounded by children and grandchildren. My troubles are minor compared to lots of other people. And once more, like so many other times before, the Boss was able to lift me out of myself, and put me back in a better frame of mind. That's the power of great music and a great artist. It's why Springsteen is so important to me, and has been for the last 36 years. It's why I'm still a fan.

Thank you, Bruce, once again, for all you have done for me and continue to do for me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Can it really be 25 years?

25 years is a long time. A quarter of a century. Two and a half decades. 25 years ago today, I was still single (although the clock was ticking--I was getting married at the end of August), Ronald Reagan was president, Bruce Springsteen was riding high with "Born in the USA," there was no Internet, no cell phones, no Ipods, none of that stuff that we seem to take for granted these days. I can only speculate how much gas was back then, but it was probably not much more than a dollar a gallon, if that. MTV was big, and other TV channels broadcast music videos on Friday and Saturday nights. People would watch them for hours at a time. I know I did.

I passed the Bar exam that year, and got married, and was Best Man at my brother's wedding in New York. It was a glorious year for many reasons. But the biggest reason may just have been the New York Mets.

The Mets were created in 1962, filling a National League void in New York that was created by the departures of the Dodgers and Giants a few years earlier. I was brought up a Met fan, I can recall going to games when I was just a little kid, rooting for guys like Ron Hunt and Jim Hickman. Then came the glory years, the creation of a great young pitching staff, anchored by future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, and that wonderful year of 1969 when the Miracle Mets won the World Series. It was great to be a Mets fan, and New York was a Mets town, as hard as that may be to believe today.

Then came the decline. One by one, the beloved stars from the 69 team were either traded, released, or retired. There was one more brief bit of glory, when the 73 team broke out of a very weak NL East, somehow beat the Big Red Machine in the LCS, and went on to the World Series, where they lost to the great Oakland A's dynasty of the early 70's. It was all downhill from there.

By the end of the 70's, the Mets were below mediocre. They sucked in every aspect, pitching, hitting, defense, and most importantly, the front office. New ownership came in the early 80's, and they brought in Frank Cashen to run the front office. He brought a new attitude and a pedigree from the Baltimore Orioles organization. His first task was to re-build the farm teams. It took some time, but talent started to emerge from the minors. Some of these talented youngsters were used to bring in some solid veteran help, others stayed. The turning point came in the off-season of 83-84, when the front office convinced Keith Hernandez, the former MVP and leader of the Cardinals, to stay with the team. They traded for a young starting pitcher named Ron Darling and brought up a youngster from the minors named Dwight Gooden. And they had the 1983 National League Rookie of the Year starting in right field, Darryl Strawberry. Former MVP George Foster was still on the team, and after battling injuries and lethargy in 83, he seemed ready to bounce back with a strong year. Hubie Brooks was a budding star in the infield, and there was fan favorite Mookie Wilson. Things finally looked optimistic for the Mets.

The 1984 Mets were one of the surprise success stories of the National League. They led the division for the first four months of the season, and held on to give the Cubs a run for their money. Too many Cubs had career seasons that year and they were too much for the Mets to overcome, but the Mets finally learned what it was like to win and experienced being in a real pennant race. Dwight Gooden was absolutely phenomenal, pitching far better than his 17-9 record would indicate, and became the second consecutive Met to win the NL Rookie of the Year award. Hernandez finished second to Ryne Sandberg for MVP, and might have had his best all-around season of his career. The front office made a couple of major additons in the off-season, trading five players (including Hubie Brooks) for All-Star catcher Gary Carter and landing former star of the Reds and Astros, Ray Knight. There were big expectations for the 1985 season.

If you look back at that season, it's hard to put together why the Mets didn't win the division. They barely lost out to the St. Louis Cardinals. Whitey Herzog, the Cards manager, was probably worth a couple of wins simply by out-foxing other managers (like Mets manager Davey Johnson), guys like Tommy Herr, Willie McGee, and Jack Clark had career years, and the Mets had some key injuries that limited the effectiveness of Carter, Knight and George Foster. Dwight Gooden put together one of the best years any pitcher has ever had, going 24-4 with an ERA of just over one and a half runs. He was as thoroughly dominant as any pitcher has ever been, and he probably should have won the MVP award, to go with the Cy Young that he did win (the first Met since Seaver to win that award). But it still wasn't enough. Back then there were only two divisions in each league, and no wild card. Once again, the Mets missed out on the postseason.

But in 1986, the Mets were not to be denied. They made a couple of more additions, pitcher Bobby Ojeda from the Red Sox, Howard Johnson from the Tigers, and Kevin Mitchell from their farm system. Lenny Dykstra had been brought up in 85, and now platooned in center field with Mookie Wilson. George Foster eventually lost the left field job to a platoon of Mitchell and Danny Heep. Strawberry anchored right field, Hernandez owned first base and Carter was the starting catcher. Second base was a platoon of Wally Backman and Tim Teufel, shortstop was won by steady Rafael Santana, and third base was supposed to be a platoon of Knight and Johnson. But when the season started and Knight started to hit like Willie Mays reincarnated, he ended up being the every day third baseman.

The pitching staff was unbeatable. Dwight Gooden, the best pitcher in baseball the previous two years, was only the second best on the staff in 86. Ojeda proved to be almost unbeatable. Darling was steady and Rick Aguilera made a solid fifth starter. The best starter in the rotation, though, was young Sid Fernandez. The chubby Hawaiian who had shown glimpses of greatness in 84 and 85 was simply the best starting pitcher in the league the first half of the season. Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell anchored the bullpen, and the Mets simply took off from the first week of the season. They were unstoppable.

They won big and they won small. They came back in the ninth inning and they dominated from the beginning. At the end of April, they came into Busch Stadium to play the defending champion Cardinals for a four game set. Howard Johnson tied the score in the first game with a three-run homer in the ninth inning and the Mets went on to win that game. They won the next three to sweep the four game set. The Cardinals were shell-shocked, and never recovered. They spiraled down and never did challenge the Mets again. Indeed, no one challenged the Mets in the division. On this date, 25 years ago, the Mets were firmly ensconced in first place with a double digit lead.

On Friday night, July 11th, we were at Shea Stadium to see the Mets play the Atlanta Braves. We were celebrating my brother's bachelor party. The Mets were celebrating their dominance over a mediocre team (yes, the Braves sucked back then, as hard as that may be to believe). Gary Carter hit a three-run homer in the first inning. He came up in the second with the bases loaded and hit a grand slam. Strawberry was the next batter, and when he was plunked by the pitcher, David Palmer, he charged the mound, igniting a brawl on the field. We went nuts watching from the upper deck. The Mets ended up winning the game, and cemented their reputation as a bunch of tough, brawling, arrogant sob's who were not going to take any crap from anyone. They cruised to the NL East crown.

In the LCS, they played the tough Houston Astros. Former Met Mike Scott had become a split-fingered pitching master and won the Cy Young award that year. He was almost as dominant as Gooden had been the year before. Another former Met, the ageless Nolan Ryan, had enjoyed a career renaissance that season with the Astros. The Houston lineup was formidable and they were not afraid of the Mets.

That year's LCS was truly classic. The Mets came back to win a game on a walk-off home run by Lenny Dykstra, Scott was unbeatable for the Astros in winning two games, Gooden and Ryan matched up in a classic 2-1 pitching gem in game five which the Mets won in ten innings, and the teams then played one of the greatest games in the history of baseball in game six. Sixteen innings after it started, with the tying and winning runs on base, Jesse Orosco struck out the last Houston batter after Hernandez had threatened to fight Carter if he called for Orosco to throw another ineffective fastball, and the Mets managed to avoid Mike Scott in game seven, and move on to the World Series.

They faced the Boston Red Sox in the Series, a team loaded with stars like Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Dave Henderson and Bill Buckner, a pitching staff anchored by young ace Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst, and a fan base starving for a championship. After losing the first two games at home, things did not look good for the Mets. But they rallied to win games 3 and 4 in Boston, before losing game 5. They came home to New York, down three games to two.

Game 6 has now become legend and a part of baseball folklore. Everyone remembers the Bill Buckner play, but what has been forgotten is all the drama leading up to that play. The Red Sox had men on all night long, and Clemens looked unbeatable. They failed to score inning after inning, with Jim Rice being thrown out at the plate by Mookie Wilson in one of those innings. The Mets managed to scratch across a couple of runs, but the Sox were leading by a run entering the bottom of the eighth. The Mets managed to load the bases, but after Howard Johnson struck out with a foul ball on a bunt attempt (??!!) and Gary Carter hitting a sacrifice fly, the team could only score one run and tie the game. Both teams loaded the bases in their half of the ninth, but neither team scored.

The tenth inning began with Rick Aguilera taking the mound for the Mets. He promptly gave up a home run to Dave Henderson. Henderson had sucked the life out of the California Angels in the ALCS when he had homered with two out in the bottom of the 9th of game 5, tying the score and allowing the Sox to win the game and eventually win the Series in seven games, breaking the hearts of Angels fans everywhere. Now, here he was again, hitting a big home run which just might bring the Red Sox their first World Championship in decades. To make matters worse, the Sox scratched out another run and entered the bottom of the 10th, leading 5-3.

Personally, I'll never forget the sequence of events in that half inning. Backman led off by flying out. Hernandez followed with a long fly out to Henderson at the warning track. Carter came up next and singled. Legend has it that he told first base coach Bill Robinson that there was "no way I was going to make the last fucking out in the World Series." Mitchell came up next and singled to left, moving Carter to second. According to legend, he told Robinson the same thing as Carter did. Next up was Ray Knight. He managed to get his bat on the ball on an off-speed pitch away, and hit it into right-center. Carter came all the way around to score and Mitchell was on third. Shea Stadium was going crazy. Again, legend has it that he told Bill Robinson that he, too, was not going to make the last fucking out in the World Series.

Next up was Mookie Wilson. He quickly got two strikes on him, and then began staying alive by fouling off ball after ball. Then a pitch hit the dirt in front of catcher Rich Gedman, and skipped to the backstop. Mookie fell out of the way and frantically signalled for Mitchell to score. Mitchell skipped home, Knight went to second, and Shea Stadium went ballistic. Mookie hit the next pitch to first base, a slow dribbler to Buckner, and we all know what happened next. The ball dribbled into the outfield behind Buckner, Knight raced all the way home, and a legend was born. It was amazing.

After that, game seven was an anti-climax. Oh sure, it was a great game and the Sox had the lead early. But they were done. They knew it, we knew it, and most importantly, the Mets knew it. Knight and Strawberry hit big home runs, Fernandez pitched three crucial dominant innings in relief, and the Mets were World Champions.

Can it really be 25 years since all that happened? That Met team, so loaded with talent, never did win another championship, and only made the postseason one more time. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, seemingly headed to Hall of Fame caliber careers, fell to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. They were both eventually traded, did time in prison, and never fulfilled anywhere close to their expectations. Carter and Hernandez started to decline and although they were instrumental in leading the Mets to the postseason in 1988, the championship of 86 was clearly the apex of their careers, and their last hurrah. Kevin Mitchell went on to an MVP season with the Giants, and Dykstra and McDowell enjoyed a championship with the Phillies. As the team was broken up, the Mets once more went into decline. They haven't won a championship since, although there have been some good years. There's also been a lot of heartbreak, and chokes, and it's clear that New York is now a Yankees town. The Mets are an afterthought.

Ah, but it wasn't always like that. 25 years ago, the Mets owned New York. They were the toast of the town, the beast of the National League, and the champions of baseball. It was exciting and thrilling, and will never be forgotten. Hard to beleive it's been a quarter century.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rest in peace, Big Man

The Big Man. Clarence Clemons. You either know who he is, or you don't. If you do, it's probably because his music and his contributions to the E Street Band have enriched your life in some way. If you don't, you've missed out.

In the fall of 1975, I was a seventeen year-old freshman at Oswego State University in upstate New York. I had joined the Program Policy Board, a group of students whose job it was to program entertainment at the college. I was on the film committee, but the main buzz that fall came from the concert committee, which had somehow managed to book Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for a concert in December. Bruce had hit it big that fall, appearing on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in October, which coincided with the release of his seminal album, "Born to Run." By some combination of hard work and good luck, our little college programming board had outbid Syracuse and Rochester to land a show on Springsteen's triumphant tour that fall.

I knew very little about Springsteen back then. I had heard "Born to Run" and "Rosalita" and liked both songs very much, but knew very little about any of his other music. I was turned off by the hype and I just wasn't expecting much. I was asked to work security at the concert that night, and it was my job to stand in front of one of the exit doors at Laker Hall gymnasium.

When the band showed up to do their soundcheck, we were asked to leave the gym. We were ushered into a little hallway and the band walked right past us. I could have reached out and touched Bruce, Clarence and everyone else in the band, but I didn't. In retrospect, I wish I had at least tried to shake Bruce's hand.

The show started with Bruce alone, standing in a spotlight, singing a dynamite song to a piano accompaniement. All these years later, I now know that the song was "Thunder Road", and it was destined to become one of my favorites of all time. Then the lights came, and the entire band joined in on the rollicking and wonderful, "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out." And that was my first introduction to the big, black guy playing that amazing sax.

That night 38 years ago changed my life. The music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band has been a constant joy in my life. It has enriched the good times and has helped me get through the bad times. I have seen them 12 times over a span of 36 years, and I have grown into middle age with them.

To me, one of the defining sounds of the band is the Big Man's wailing sax solos. "Rosalita" is powered by the sax, as is "Spirit in the Night." Sometimes the solos are mournful, as in "Drive all Night," sometimes they are triumphant, as in "Badlands." Sometimes they give the songs a special rhythm, like "Born to Run." And sometimes the sax solos are so joyous, like the one that starts off "Sherry Darlin'", that they just bring a smile to your face.

The best, of course, is the "Jungleland" solo. There is so much power and emotion in that solo that some rock critics have called it the best three minutes in rock and roll. I don't need that hyperbole, I just know it as my favorite moment in one of my all-time favorite songs, and Clarence's personal triumph. Experiencing the song live, as I have done many times, is to experience a rock and roll celebration. Whether you're watching Bruce look on in awe as his friend powers through the solo, or pumping your fist in time to the music with several thousand other Bruce fanatics, you are experiencing a moment that you will never forget.

Clarence moved on to other things after Bruce broke up the band in the late 80's. He formed his own band, cut a few albums, and worked with other performers. And when Bruce reunited the band for good to do "The Rising" in 2002, Clarence was right there with him. The last two tours (the "Magic" and "Working on a Dream" tours) were undoubtedly difficult for Clarence, as he had endured some serious physical issues. But he was still there, wailing on that sax, and being the legendary Big Man. No matter how tough it seemed to be for him, you could still see the joy on his face as he performed with the band.

The Big Man was 69 years old when he suffered a serious stroke last Sunday. At first it appeared that he would pull through, but the word came out last night that he had passed away. The news has shocked and saddened those of us who loved him. How could someone like Clarence, so larger than life and so wonderfully talented, actually be dead? I still have a hard time believing it.

Rest in peace, Big Man. Your legacy will live on for many years to come. You have enriched my life and the world has been a better place thanks to you and your music. I will miss watching you perform with the Boss, but I will always have the CD's, the DVD's, the albums, the books, and of course, my memories. Thank you for all you have given me.