Eye-hand coordination

The Monk, the Mick, and Me

The Monk, the Mick, and Me

I was a far better student than an athlete. But actually discovering that one does not have a great deal of athletic talent is not always so easy to admit.

Having grown up in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s New York Yankees, my love of the team caused me to equally love the sport. This was the era when the game was dominated by the likes of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. It was also a time when it seemed inconceivable for the team never to go all the way every season and ultimately to win the World Series.

A friend who lived up the street, Armand, shared the same enthusiasm for the both the game and the Yankees that I did. He was an overweight affable, good-natured blob known by the neighborhood kids as “Tons of Fun.”

We set up a pitcher’s mound and practiced frequently after school, giving each other mutually positive reinforcement by telling ourselves how great we both were.

What I did not realize was that Armand was fat, slow, not very athletic, that mutual ingratiation is never a substitute for actual talent, and that no matter how good you think you are, there is always someone else out there who is infinitely better.

Thus, when I eventually tried out for the Little League A-teams, I was hopelessly outclassed as a pitcher. I could not believe how hard some of the other boys could throw, had to give it up, and then rotated to second base. It a new problem arose. Since I had received no real formal baseball instruction I also failed at that position, and was told I should go down to the B teams where the disgraced second tier players did not even get uniforms; but only hats.

Life in the minor leagues was equally disappointing as I gave up 12 runs in one inning the first time I ever pitched, was again banished to second base, then yet again to right field, and only then as a bench substitute.

Being in abject fear of getting hit in the face, I was terrible at charging ground balls. I was also unable to judge fly balls because I had to wear glasses that were always bouncing on my nose, which caused distortions in the arc of the fly balls as I ran to catch them. It is difficult enough to follow something traveling through the sky in an arc as you run for it without it also zigzagging in an unfocused blur at the same time.

I lasted two seasons before I realized that I could not hit, pitch, field or catch, so with great sadness about my spastic lack of coordination, hung up my spikes for good.

My brother’s interpretation of how to stay on the A-team was quite more simplified. He maintained that as long as your father was a coach, you got to stay no matter how bad you were, or if nothing else you just sat at the end of the bench. But you still looked good because you had a uniform.

For us this would never be an issue, as our father did not even go to any of our games.

However, I still attended opening day at the A-Leagues, with its hoop-la parade always being very envious of the athletic skills exhibited by the other boys, how their parents were always so proud of them and especially how the girls seemed to gravitate to them with open armed bear hugs at the end of every game. Consigned to the sidelines, I had to be content with becoming expert on charting the scoring hieroglyphics on the inning sheets. Live balls were elusive, but the science and math of what they had already done, I could deal with.

As a young boy I was a baseball fanatic but never got to see the Yankees play at the Stadium because my father, being a New York Giants, fan took me instead to the Polo Grounds where we usually got cheap bleacher seat tickets.

All was not lost however because we always had a bird’s eye view of Willie Mays playing center field.

Except for that, trying to watch baseball action a mile away from the infield was a disappointing bore; including the fact that my own favorite team was not on the field. It was also boring for the pair of fellow bleacher rats sitting in front of us as these two Hispanic macho-men made mutual dollar bets on how long each one or the other could hold out while they tried to set the back of each others hands on fire with magnifying glasses.

My father told me stop watching them and to at look at Wille instead, but statistically speaking how much action during a game does a center fielder really get anyway? It was complete ennui except for Willie’s one-handed basket catches, which I was also told by my father not to try and emulate.

  • Willie can catch those because he’s a pro. Don’t do that in Little League.
  • Don’t worry dad. When all you do is sit on the bench it doesn’t count if you drop them.

This great disappointment however was allayed in a completely unanticipated and surprising way.

When Dan Topping owned the Yankees, he would sometimes bring the players out to the East End of Long Island in a gray twin-engine seaplane for a day of golf at the famous National or Shinnecock Golf Clubs. Shinnecock, being less than a mile away was within easy walking distance from our house.

The seaplane would touch down on Shinnecock Bay, and then come up the Fort Pond channel to finally sweep up onto a concrete landing ramp across the street from my father’s summer cottage. Every time it came in all the children on the street would race over to see who was getting out, then watch various celebrities being picked up to be whisked off in limousines.

One day the guests were Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford.

For me it was a dream come true to actually see my baseball heroes as close as a stones throw away and not like tiny tin soldiers. However, we were always admonished by our parents not to harass the men by maintaining a respectful distance.

  • Those men are coming out here to relax. They don’t need a bunch of little boys pestering after them.

It was too bad for my financial future that I did not disobey my mother and get my baseball trading cards or a new baseball personally autographed by those three heroes. Then again it probably would have made little difference anyway, and a worse catastrophe if the cards or balls had actually been signed, because after I went to college my mother threw out the shoebox filled with a collection of 1950s and 1960s cards. I thought they would be safe if I left them hidden under my bed.

  • Hey, Mom. Where is my baseball card collection?
  • I cleaned up your bedroom and threw out that shoebox. It looked to me like a pile of cruddy cardboard junk.
  • Right then. Mickey, Whitey, Yogi and Willie were consigned to the same fate as Clarabelle’s little loaf of Wonder white bread?
  • What in the world are you talking about?

Much later in life I came to appreciate that throwing out a man’s sentimentally cherished “good stuff” is a phenomenon endemic to the female gender. It is an innately bad trait that can be ascribed not only to mothers, but also to wives.

  • Hey honey. Where’s my favorite Yankee’s World Series t-shirt from 1978?
  • In the Goodwill bin. It had a hole in the armpit. Yellow sweat stains in the armpits too. Yuck.

Another promising baseball adventure turned up when the family owning the summer cottage next door said they were personal friends with Bob Sheppard, the long enduring Yankee Stadium PA announcer, who had been invited to spend a weekend.

My excitement about this visit ended as another great disappointment when the man turned out to be an aloof arrogant snob, leaving me with the feeling that he thought of most children as being nothing more than intolerable annoying nuisances.

He was condescending, extremely full of himself and would not even give me an autograph, because he said he was “on vacation.” Having lost all respect for him, I harbored my own personal contrary opinion, when for the next few decades I would subsequently hear his name touted, lauded or praised on television broadcasts by the booth announcers.

Despite the numerous accolades, I told people that when I had met him as a child he was just an egotistical dick-head.

Much later in life, when I discovered that my father had a friend, “Monk” De Palo, who owned a bar in White Plains, appropriately known as De Palo’s Dugout, I then had the pleasure of at least a few vicarious baseball thrills.

Monk was about six feet tall, stocky; broad shouldered and sported one of those all too lengthy iron grip handshakes that could break your knuckles if you didn’t pull your hand out fast enough. He also spoke in gruff, gravel baritone intonations that highlighted his street talk jargon.

I have no clue where his nickname originated, because there was nothing at all religious about the man’s aura, or persona, or what he actually did for a living.

Even my father did not know the derivation of the name. He was plain, simply and always: The Monk.

When he was standing in front of someone wanting to make a point in a conversation, Monk had the peculiar habit of jabbing the person in the chest with his index finger as he prattled on. The jabs usually hit the same spot between the left second or third ribs, were somewhat painful, and always produced the desired effect of keeping one’s attention; if not to what he was saying then certainly always to force one to continuously back away while still having to face him.

A conversation with Monk could start in the kitchen only to end up on the porch on the far side of the house because of the constantly halting but necessary bruise saving retreat.

Monk would frequently entertain the Yankee players in his establishment, ergo the derivation of its name, and would sometimes even carouse with them when they went on their drinking sprees.

He loved to tell the story of going over to the bars in Northern New Jersey one night with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Billy Martin, then staying out with them to four a.m. on a marathon drinking bender.

The Yankees had a one o’clock afternoon home game the next day after this foray and Monk had meandered his way into the Yankee locker room just before game time. He found Mickey mantle hunched over on the bench in front of his locker with his head in his hands trying to shake off the ravages of the colossal hangover he had procured the night before in the drinking orgy.

The Monk said to him:

  • So Mickey. How do you expect to play today? You can’t even stand up.

The Mick replied:

  • I don’t know Monk. But I have to play. I can’t let the fans or the team down. But I’m too wasted to be able to run the bases, so I guess I’ll just have to go out there and hit homers.
  • Yeah right. You can’t walk and you can’t even see straight.

The Monk walked away incredulously shaking his head, wondering how Mantle had even been able to show up, much less even play. He then went out to see the game, and proceeded to watch his friend go three for three.

Three hits. All of them home runs.

Another story that Monk liked to tell, occurred at a time that the Yankees became interested in foreign players and wanted to bring some Japanese ballplayers over to give them a look and a tryout. They asked Monk if he could put some of them up in his house, to which he readily agreed, but the head count was too high. Monk then called Billy Martin and asked him if he could house a couple of the players.

Billy said:

  • O.K. Monk, but if I take them in, don’t expect to see them at tryouts tomorrow.

When the Monk asked why, Billy told him:

  • Those are the bastards who started World War Two. They bombed Pearl Harbor, they killed our boys, and now you tell me they want to play baseball. Baseball is an American game, it’s a game only for Americans and it’s only a game for Americans to play. Yeah. I’ll put ‘em up in my bedrooms, but they won’t be coming down to breakfast, because while they’re asleep I’m going to stand in the door with a flame thrower and roast the little creeps just like they were in a foxhole.

Needless to say, the Oriental players had to put up with cramped quarters, but remained alive and well by staying with The Monk or anyone else other than Mr. Martin.

It’s just a good thing for Billy that he didn’t live long enough to see not only multi-million dollar contracts for Japanese players, but also the Red Sox playing opening day in 2008 in Tokyo. I wonder what he would have had to say about that.

Athletic talent is an elusive, largely innate trait much of which is based on eye-hand coordination and facile muscle memory.

Some individuals are born with these certain exceptional genetic gifts that others simply do not have or can never even cultivate. On the flip side, who knows how many more unidentified people live and die without ever having the chance to be “discovered”, although they too might possess this special gift?

Some fortunate athletes do not have to work at all, or certainly not very much, on their natural talents. The great American golf professional of the early 1900s, John Travis, first took up the sport at age thirty-five winning his first tournament only seven months later. By age thirty-eight he had won the U.S. Amateur Championship.

John McEnroe Senior was a club tennis player when he took is eight-year-old son there to see if he might enjoy playing. The first time John Junior picked up a racket he was able to contact the ball with ease, and within a few years the young lefty had beaten all the teenage players in the organization.

Other athletes such as the golfer Nick Faldo have to constantly work at developing or maintaining their mechanical skills, but nevertheless still have to graft all of that onto an innately gifted predisposition.

Some athletes like Tiger Woods do not know anything other than what they have always done. Tiger started playing golf when he was barely able to stand up. But he also had “the gift.”

The golfer, Bruce Leitzke, rarely practiced, played only half the PGA tour events, yet maintained a ranking as a top ten golfer. He stated in interviews that it was more important for him to spend time with his family than to trudge around on the Tour week after week. He also said that he hated to practice. Ergo, he did not.

Then there are the unfortunate individuals with great innate talent like John Daly, who seem to have little appreciation for their gift and waste it in the clutches of personal demons, addictions or proclivities, almost before they even make a great enduring name for themselves.

For the most part, the rest of us ordinary folk will never develop any talent no matter how hard we work at it, how much time we put into it, how many lessons we take, or how much money we dole out trying and buying the new equipment we believe will automatically make us great. Most hack amateurs and club players of any sport fall into this zone, as did my little league-pitching career.

The general public has a great affinity and admiration for that fractional percentage of individuals who can repeatedly do the marvelous things that the rest of can only dream about.

Subsequently, we pay out enormous amounts of cash for the privilege of actually seeing it so that we can participate at our own vicarious levels.

We make sports heroes into golden idols and then establish love-hate relationships with them.

This outlay of public cash, which has made professional sports a multi-billion-dollar machine as well as the corporate advertising that follows, then recycles this money as it both panders to and then subliminally redirects its consumer’s tastes. Recycling the cash has also made sports into a multi-billion-dollar perverted monster.

I am consistently amused by the “wanna-be” sports fan: The obese armchair couch-potato athlete who in becoming the know-it all critic, takes great delight in constantly castigating or second-guessing his heroes, eating and talking at the same time while beer and hot dog mustard dribbles down his chin.

This is the great irony of the less than capable price gouged ticket holder telling the overpaid ultra capable sports professional how to better perform his job.

  • Look at that play. He stinks. Even I could do better than that.

Fat chance. Literally, because this is the same corpulent guy who can’t even make it up two flights of stairs without requiring oxygen supplements.

Mickey Mantle was a natural born baseball player who although being plagued by the knee injuries that limited his speed and caused him considerable pain, was still able to overcome this obstacle to become one of the greatest who ever played the game.

Team mates like Billy Martin would say that Mantle was also the most powerful hitter to have ever played leaving many people to this day wondering what he could have accomplished if his knees had been healthy.

Today’s power hitters do it with steroids or testosterone supplements while Mantle did it with bad knees and hangovers

He was also the first professional baseball player to make an annual salary of $100,000, which in itself was an enormous milestone at the time, so much so that it made headlines in The New York Daily News.

Unlike today’s players, he was paid for past performance and not given a seven figure prospective contract that paid him simply for showing up at work.

At the same time, he was also one of the greatest examples of a high profile God gifted talent who simultaneously played the game of self-destructive behavior to perfection by batting 1.000 when it came to personally inflicted abuse.

He was able to maintain his performance levels over a long period of time, without having to work very hard at it, being able to quit at the top before the demons, the professional parasites, or the wanna-bes, that always seem to lurk at the fringes of professional sports were able to bring him down and to drag him away across the River Styx.

On May 13, 1955, Mickey Mantle hit three home runs in a single game.

On the night of May 12, 1955 he was out hitting the bars.


The Mick

If I knew I was going to live this long, I probably would have taken better care of myself.

(Mickey Mantle: While waiting for a liver transplant donor)

Photo source http://www.historicaldocuments.com





The Sounds of Summer

The Sounds of Summer

The luxury of spending childhood summers in a place that was primitively developed probably contributed to a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature than most of my peers might have had.Virtually all of the white and black noises of nature have played as songs in my ears including the isolated symphonic sounds of wind in the pine trees, rain falling on roofs, ponds, leaves and lawns, waves lapping, washing or crashing on bulkheads, jetties and beach shores, birds of every size or hue, crickets, bees, cicadas, thunder, hurricanes, lightening and gales.

I have witnessed the silent flights of bats and lightening bugs, the stealthy hunting creep of the fox, the breath taking sight of a billion visible stars on a cloud-free moonless night, and the chaos of a million silver smelts stranding themselves on a springtime beach as they flee large predators. I have felt the cycles of nature in the repeating life of seaside tides, and rowed a boat on a pond with nothing but a full moon to light the way; a moon that could sometimes even seem too bright, as it reflected itself off the surface of the water.

Over a long period of time I have also helplessly witnessed this area of Eastern Long Island become progressively more developed to the point of becoming unrecognizable to me for what it once was, resulting in losing of much of its natural charming beauty.

Crop land is being sold piecemeal for housing developments as farmers make less and less profit working it, yet still have to pay property taxes. Farm children no longer want to work land whose offering prices will make them instant millionaires instead of marginally subsistent sweaty peasants. Most recently the dairy farms have finally capitulated as they walked only two steps behind the numerous duck farms which are now long gone themselves.

The first artificially man-made sounds I remember hearing were those of a midnight train whistle or the relentless distant Doppler drone of the mariner’s foghorn at the Shinnecock Inlet. They were always there, as a soft background intrusion, yet never seemed to be an imposition on auditory sensation.

These sounds have now been replaced by the constant din of mowers, wood chippers; cigarette boat’s thundering engines, wave runners, music blaring from outdoor speakers, continuous construction noise, and the headache producing whining beeps that are programmed into motorized vehicles every time they go into reverse.

Yet even this is only a microcosm of the more general staggering pace of modern development. For example, a friend from my Residency training, Edward, had a grandmother who died in the late 1970s at the age of 90, who could recall the Fordham section of the Bronx being primarily dairy farms.

It has also been a mere century between the first primitive airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, and the ability to put a man on the moon or to land a robot on the surface of Mars.

The Homo sapien is a marvelous species of mammal made unique in all of nature by its ability to stand upright and the evolutionary gift of the opposable thumb. Standing erect freed up the hands with its prehensile thumbs, which then allowed for fine motor coordination and the subsequent evolution of eye-hand coordination. The development of eye-hand coordination then allowed the cerebral cortex to increase in size, to become more intricate and thus became a positive evolutionary feedback loop. The opposable thumb itself is unique to the species, which because it allowed for the fine motor manipulation necessary to make tools and weapons, is the sole reason that man can control and manipulate his environment.

It was only a short step then until the first axe, hoe and spearhead was invented, and for the species to be launched on an inevitable pathway to dominating the planet. Throw in the incidental ability to control fire, the invention of the wheel, iron and dynamite and then you have a truly terrifying creature on your hands.

John Beuttner-Janush, a former college professor at Duke, repeatedly pointed out in his lectures, that as a species we are what we are not because of what we have in our crania but rather because of what we sit on. He used to chide us by saying that if primitive man had never gotten off his ass, he never would have had a brain. That aphorism still holds true for a number of people I know today.

Yet man only differs from the great apes of Africa by a total of four percent in his entire genetic code and like many mammals or apes has his own genetic predisposition to the territorial imperative. Virtually all mammals fight to defend or sometimes to expand their domains and unless programmed to live as solitary hunters, will alwyas find refuge in groups with a common heritage and purpose. It is nothing more than an extension of the survival instinct.

The need to cluster in groups such as clubs, fraternities, tribes, sects, religious orders and nations is as biologically programmed as is the necessity to go to war in order to control or eliminate a competitor or to gain additional resources for oneself.

The problem is that on every level, the pace of man’s physical, material, and technological development has hopelessly outstripped his emotional development, which probably equates on an evolutionary time scale to that of a pre-pubertal teenager. I take that back. It is often more equivalent to that of a five year old.

Modern civilization is plagued by noise pollution and air pollution, not to mention that the night sky is also visually obscured by artificial light pollution. A person living in the center of a major city or even in the vicinity of a large town may be at risk for progressive deafness; pollution induced asthmatic lung disease and can never even see the stars when looking up on an otherwise clear night sky. Concrete jungles with its sounds of metallic mechanized beasts have replaced woodlands, farms and the sounds of birds and bees. There are probably even some accidental prisoners of the inner city ghettos who have never even heard the beautifully resonating sound of the wind.

There is also the equally sad loss of the sound of silence and the peaceful empty spaces that come between the natural rhythmic noises indigenous to an unspoiled environment.

Running on a parallel track is man’s loss of any direct contact with nature coupled with a species-wide inability to relate to nature’s balances and recurrent cycles; not to mention a perpetual need to go to war or to hate every other culture that does not happen to be ones own. The civilization that grew out of the cultures of Europe, the Middle East and Asia are the cultures that have manipulated the environment to suit its own selfish needs, subsequently leaving behind much of the natural planet Earth devastated, deforested and unrecognizable for what it once was.

Included in this generalized rape of the landscape, animals that have populated these areas have suffered coincidentally by being displaced or eliminated and often to the point of virtual extinction. They are the innocent collateral victims in the great war of perpetual development and mechanized madness.

The human species is the only life form on earth that can artificially alter its environment. It has come quite a long way from its cave dwelling days when superstitious men cowered in fear of ferocious beasts or spent their lives hunting and gathering food in order to survive from day to day. Today, superstition is replaced by scientific fact and we have exterminated most if not all ferocious beasts, while we do our hunting and gathering in super markets and fast food chains.

However, not all cultures were impervious to the need to maintain respect and to live within the boundaries of nature. The American Indian lived in harmony with his universe and respected the world around him. He also re-cycled everything he used. It was easy. Everything he used was organic. Some Native American tribes do not even have words for “jealously” or “greed” in their languages.

Many of the primitive jungle tribes that have recently been discovered in this modern era are of a similar philosophic persuasion and remain free of debilitating unbalanced materialistic drives. Of course they are not free from the genetically programmed bent for tribal warfare, but they do have respect for animals, for natural resources, and for the most part take from nature only as much as needed, while leaving the rest of it alone. They are philosophically fatalistic, believe in the gods of natural forces, and they do not destroy the earth that gives them life. Contrast this with Western cultural philosophies rooted in codified structured religions or in mandates that seem to come with a perverted sense of divinely originated sanction.

When the Book Genesis was written, was it written as a story to explain, to justify, and to rationalize human behavior, or was it really written as an excuse, or possibly only a cover story for the pre-existent ten thousand years of the human specie’s poor behavior. Unfortunately, it just never really seems to apologize for the dark side of humanity. It only castigates and chastises.

Yet then again, if a rationalization ever did become required for collectively poor human behavior, the best retrospective excuse to possibly offer would be to blame it all on a higher authority.

Just call it, God; then lay the blame on him: Halleluiah.

The American Indian did not need the White man’s Bible to redefine his relationship with nature, which to that point in time had stood the test of independent parallel human evolution.

Although Western conquerors forcibly imposed this document on Native American culture, while in doing so simultaneously referring to the Indian as Godless, for some strange reason I have come to realize that the opposite is probably closer to the truth. I cannot bring myself to believe in making the Garden of Eden, which in reality is this very planet Earth, that God in also making Man; gave him a simultaneous carte blanche mandate to go out and subsequently destroy it. God gave man a dominion. He gave it to him to be its steward and its Good Shepherd; but not necessarily to eradicate every plant or animal that ever crossed his path.

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

However, the explanation for why as a species we seem to thrive on destruction may lie in the fact that God changed his mind after Adam and Eve disobeyed him and fell from grace. It may just be a simple case of the worst way to deal with blame: Seek revenge.

“Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.”

I once had a friend who came out from New York City to spend a weekend in the Hamptons. At home in Manhattan, he had no trouble sleeping through the sounds of emergency sirens, traffic, honking horns, apartment neighbor’s din, and bustling noisy crowds.

However, he could not sleep at my house because the sound of wind, rain or crickets kept him awake at night, while the sound of birds chirping and crowing gave him insomnia at dawn.


And the people bowed and prayed  To the neon god they made  And the sign flashed out its warning  In the words that it was forming  And the sign said,

“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls  And tenement halls”  And whispered in the sounds of silence


(Paul Simon)