Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Professional

He was the champ. He was the last great sportswriter, boxing in particularly, from the World War II generation. At age 93, W.C. Heinz, known as “Bill,” died of old age yesterday in an assisted-living facility in Bennington, Vt. As a fellow journalist, the one thing I admire most about Heinz, and the first thing that comes to mind when I hear his name, is that he was the professional. The Professional was also the title of his renowned boxing novel. “THE PROFESSIONAL is the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read and an excellent novel in its own right,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a cabled message from Cuba. Heinz’s short, concise prose along with his scrupulous attention to the way each person spoke was very much like that of Hemingway. “My philosophy of professionalism is that if there is a leak in the basement and you are a plumber and you are called in the middle of the night, then you go there and handle that leak and weld that joint or whatever you have to do,” Heinz once said. “And if you’re soaking wet, then you go home and you clean your clothes, and you can sleep knowing that you did what you had to do. If everybody behaved this way, it would be a far better world.”

Heinz practiced what he preached. “Everything he did, he did meticulously,” said Heinz’s daughter Gayl Bailey Heinz to the Bennington Banner, adding that he almost never rewrote his own work, trying to make it perfect on the first draft. “If it was building a rabbit hutch for a pet, every piece of wood was cut exactly, every corner matched, everything was measured to the 16th of an inch. He wanted things done right, and that’s the way he wrote....”

While his body began failing him in the final rounds of his life, his mind remained sharp. I called him on the phone about two years ago asking if I could visit him. (I had called him a few years earlier, but the timing just wasn’t right.) Heinz said he was too weak to meet with anyone because of a second stroke he had suffered a few months earlier. I forgot his exact words, but he made a self-deprecating joke about his health that had me laughing out loud. He also asked about my writing and said he’d look forward to meeting me when he felt better. Although we never met, I feel like I know him and relate to him.

Heinz was born and grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where he loved sports as much as he loved to read. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, he worked for the now-defunct New York Sun. He worked his way up from messenger boy to copy boy to city desk reporter. Then World War II began. As a war correspondent for the Sun, Heinz reported on the front line in foxholes with American soldiers in Europe. This included the invasion of Normandy. He met and befriended Hemingway while covering the war. World War II was a humbling and dramatic experience. It also was a great writing experience. In a piece he wrote for True magazine in 1949 titled “The Morning They Shot the Spies,” Heinz described the execution of three Germans by a firing-squad:

I looked at the ground, frost-white, the grass tufts frozen, the soil hard and uneven. I wondered if it is better to die on a warm, bright day among friends, or on a day when even the weather is your enemy. I turned around and looked down into the valley. The mist still hung in the valley, but it was starting to take on a brassy tint from the sun beginning to work through it. I could make out three white farm buildings on the valley floor, a little yellowed now from the weak sunlight, and I could envision this, in the spring a pleasant valley. This view I see now, I said to myself, will be the last thing their eyes will ever see.

When he returned to the U.S., he was granted his wish to work as a reporter for the Sun sports department. While Heinz wrote about baseball, football, and horse racing, it was boxing that he adored, spending month after month hanging out and befriending boxers in Stillman’s Gym at 919 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

“Boxing has meant so much to me,” Heinz told the Bennington Banner in 2004, having just been inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. “I found in boxing a comradeship much like I found among the G.I.’s in Europe when I was a combat correspondent. When you see two fighters grasp each other in the ring at the end of a fight, it’s genuine.”

One of the best sports stories I’ve read is about a dirty boxer from Brooklyn named Al “Bummy” Davis and titled “Brownsville Bum.” Heinz wrote this piece in 1951, and it begins:

It’s a funny thing about people. People will hate a guy all his life for what he is, but the minute he dies for it they make him out a hero and they go around saying that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all because he sure was willing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was.
That’s the way it was with Bummy Davis. The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe 30 times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy’s bar and tried the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one and then they shot him, and when everybody read about it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said he was really something and you sure had to give him credit at that.

Heinz wrote his best work while living in Stamford, Conn. One of his neighbors and close friends was Red Smith, one of the greatest sports columnists who ever lived. Heinz was great in his own right, writing five columns a week for more than two years at the Sun. When the newspaper folded, he wrote freelance pieces for the major magazines as well as fiction and nonfiction books. He lived in Vince Lombardi’s house for two weeks while working on a biography of the Green Bay Packer coach titled Run to Daylight! Heinz didn’t just write about sports. Also fond of medicine, he co-wrote M*A*S*H, which became a hit movie and television series. Heinz’s father, a salesman, bought him a Remington portable typewriter in 1932. Heinz used it for every piece he ever wrote.

He has been lauded by the great writers of his generation and to those of the present, such as Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Smith, who said, “W.C. Heinz’s writing is so powerfully clean, it makes me want to run back and clean up every damn sentence I ever wrote or saw.”

Like all great lives, Heinz’s was not without personal hardships. One of his daughters, Barbara, died of a strange illness in 1964. She was 16. Soon after he moved with his wife to Dorset, Vt., the town that Barbara had liked. Heinz lived there until his wife, Betty, who developed Alzheimer’s, died in 2002. They had been married for 61 years. Then he moved to an assisted-living facility in Bennington, Vt.

W.C. Heinz is the type of man that you don’t have to meet to know how great he was. It showed in his writing and in the way he lived his life. He was inducted into three Halls of Fame: Sportswriters; War Correspondents; and Boxing. He will always be the champ.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Death in the Afternoon

Don’t cry, Angelita. Tonight I’ll buy you a house, or I’ll dress you in mourning.

~ Manuel Benítez, “El Cordobés” (Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre) to his sister on the day of his first encounter with the brave bulls of Spain

There would be only mourning for the bulls this afternoon in downtown Bogotá. Just as the final bullfight of the year was starting inside Plaza de Toros de Santamaría, a group of young protestors chanted their disapproval of the event on the curb of the nearby, busy street. They looked like hippies. They held signs decrying the inhumane treatment of the bulls. Police watched on foot and on horse from the other side of the street. Cars slowed down as they approached the mass of protestors and beeped their horns in agreement. I have talked to many Colombians who despise bullfighting, yet it remains a part of their cultural tradition.

Like watching a cockfight in the Dominican Republic, it was something I wanted to witness. All tickets were soldout in advance. I talked to a scalper yesterday who was asking for five times the face value of his $45 (U.S. dollar) ticket. What a ripoff, I thought. He had reason. In addition to being the final bullfight of the year, it was the final career bullfight (corrida in Spanish) of a bullfighting legend, César Rincón, who is considered one of the greatest living bullfighters. Born in Bogotá, he is a national hero or animal assassin, depending on who you talk to. I didn’t realize who he was or that he was even fighting until I returned home and searched the internet.

There were policemen and barricades on all the various streets and alleys surrounding the stadium. Plaza de Toros de Santamaría is a beautiful bullring, it’s just a shame that it is only used on Sunday afternoons in January and February. It seems like a waste of property. I took a detour to get to a 32-story apartment building behind the bullring. I asked the security guard at the front desk if I could go to the roof to take photos. He said I couldn’t. I persisted and told him I had been to the top before (which I had last autumn), and that it’d only take a few minutes. He finally gave in. I had the feeling he would.

Since this apartment is one of the tallest buildings in Bogotá, and located downtown, its roof provides spectacular aerial views of the bullring and surrounding city. On the balcony just below a resident was drinking whiskey with his family while watching the bullfight. He invited me down to join him, and the security guard left. He treated me like one of his good friends, pouring me a glass of whiskey as we watched the fight below. Because there are a few tall apartment buildings in back of the bullring, virtually every balcony and ledge was filled with spectators. The crowd threw roses and hats at Rincón as they applauded and chanted his name. I didn’t quite understand it all. Because it was my first bullfight, I didn’t have a real appreciation for the bullfighter’s skill. It seemed too easy. Anticlimactic. Then again, I was watching a legendary bullfighter (torero in Spanish), sort of like watching Larry Bird shoot three-pointers at your first basketball game. What’s the big deal? Just throw the ball in the hoop. Or in this case, just wave your cape and get out of the way. After a little while I started rooting for the bull, but for obvious reasons, did not vocalize this. It just didn’t seem like the bull had a fair shot. At least in cockfighting observers couldn’t be certain on who was going to win. I left halfway through the corrida. I had seen enough.

Some bulls are given a reprieve and return to their ranches. Most, however, die during the fight, while awaiting transportation, or days later at their original ranches. After the fight, the bulls die of dehydration, infection of wounds, and loss of blood suffered during the corrida. There are other styles of bullfighting where the bulls’ lives are spared. Although doctors are normally present at bullfights, veterinarians are not. Maybe I’m a hypocrite. I certainly love hamburgers and don’t think about the cow that was slaughtered.

It is hard to say it is all good or all bad, just like it is hard to judge the fans of the sport. The man who let me watch the bullfight was very hospitable. He gave me his phone number and said I was welcome to return whenever I wanted. I am sure I’ll return. I am just glad I didn’t buy a ticket.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Caribbean World Series

Though my time in San Pedro de Macorís had turned out better than I had hoped, the main reason I had traveled to the Dominican Republic was to see the Caribbean World Series. Like in San Pedro, I had no specific plans or expectations. A scout I had met at the Cubs academy had given me tickets to all 12 games of the Caribbean Series, which would have sold for $360 on the street. Things seemed to be going my way and every day seemed better than the previous one with welcomed surprises.

I took a bus from San Pedro to Santo Domingo, the capital, and then another one to Santiago, the nation’s second-largest city and host of the Caribbean Series. The first night I paid more than I would have liked at Hotel Colonial, but I had heard that almost the entire city was booked for the baseball tournament. I had made a reservation with a hostel down the street for the rest of the week. I arrived a day earlier than planned because I wanted to scope out the city and see if I could somehow get a press pass. At worst, I still had my tickets.

The next morning, on the eve of the Caribbean Series, I walked to Estadio Cibao, which was on the outskirts of the city. ESPN was setting up its satellite and facilities outside the stadium. A few workers were painting the facade near the front entrance. About 250 workers had spent the previous four months renovating the stadium. In typical Dominican fashion, they were putting on the finishing touches on it all the way until the first pitch. Dominicans as a whole are not punctual.

After walking around the stadium I saw an old man sitting on the wall near the parking lot. He was drinking a big bottle of Brahma beer and was wearing an Águilas baseball cap. The Águilas Cibaeñas are the professional winter baseball league team in Santiago. Anyhow, he had a great face, the type that a photographer notices. I asked him if I could take his picture. He chuckled as I took a few shots while his friends busted his chops. I sat down next to him and we had a long conversation. His name was Fabio Valenzuela, age 73, and he had been the Águilas conditioning coach for 40 years. He had lived near the stadium his entire life. After a while he asked me if I had my own press pass. I told him I did. Because I work independently, I don’t have one, but I made a personalized press pass in Bogotá the day before I left. I wasn’t sure if I would use it or not. Valenzuela said he would help me get a tournament press pass. He walked to the press entrance and talked to the security guard, who wasn’t letting any reporters inside. He told me to wait and started getting animated with the security. Then a stout, gray-haired man walked inside. He began talking to this man. The gray-haired man motioned me to follow him and Valenzuela gave me a big smile. I was in.

The gray-haired man was the longtime Águilas radio and television broadcaster. He had a great deep voice that most broadcasters would envy. He introduced himself and escorted me up to the trophy room. Trophies filled the walls on the left and right side of the room, and plaques of renowned managers and people in the Aguilas organization hung on the walls. Outside the room he introduced me to the Caribbean World Series president. Then we walked to one of the luxury boxes and watched the workers and grounds crew on the field. It was an impressive stadium. I really couldn’t believe this was happening to me. All the other reporters were still outside. They weren’t making press passes at the time so he asked me if I had seen the city. I told him not yet because I just had arrived the previous night. He then chauffeured me around the city in his car as he explained some of the history and culture while pointing out the sights. I had my own personalized tour! He even took me up to the top of Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración. Because this towering monument is on top of a hill in the center of the city, it provides a great aerial view of Santiago, a city of 700,000 surrounded by mountains.

I thought we’d head back to the ballpark. Not yet. He invited me for lunch. He was raising the bar for Dominican hospitality. Before lunch we drank shots of a cream-colored liqueur that had a good anisette flavor. On the wall were pictures of his family and plaques he had won for broadcasting. One photo showed him broadcasting as a teenager. He said he had been doing it for 60 years. Again, my whole morning seemed surreal. Because I told him my last name was Italian, he put in a DVD of André Rieu playing in a concert in his hometown of Maastricht, Netherlands. I’m not sure about the correlation he had made between being Italian and liking André Rieu. It was a bit weird. But as the old saying goes, when in Rome... His wife cooked us pasta and shrimp and rice and beans and chicken. It was a feast. His son and daughter had joined us. I felt like family. After lunch we returned to Estadio Cibao, where I got a press pass. If I hadn’t talked to Valenzuela, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the pass. This story is a microcosm of life in the Dominican Republic ... it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

I was about to meet the man who knew everyone, or at least it seemed that way. Denny Almonte grew up in the same city as me – Danbury, Conn. – and he and his family were good friends with my father. Denny, a few years older than I, had been living in Santiago for the past four years and was saying hello to someone he knew everywhere he went. After getting the press pass I met him outside the stadium. I don’t remember meeting him in Danbury, but his family is among the biggest in my hometown so it’s tough to know for sure. An outgoing and funny guy, we instantly got along well. Before I could say anything, he said I could stay with him for the rest of my trip. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. He lives in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with a nice balcony. We had a great time the rest of the week and we settled into a routine. I woke up and showered and prepared my photography equipment. For lunch we went to a different restaurant he recommended. I was living well. I also was working hard. After lunch he dropped me off at the ballpark.

There was a game at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day, but after talking to the players and coaches in the locker room, I usually didn’t leave until 1 a.m. Denny let me use his second phone and picked me up at the ball park each evening. Then we’d grab a few beers and some food downtown. That was our routine. Because I had a press pass, I gave him my tickets to the tournament.

The Caribbean World Series is a six-day round-robin tournament that normally features the champion from the professional winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. This year, however, the Tigres de Licey of Santo Domingo replaced Puerto Rico, who didn’t bring a team because its professional league was canceled due to financial problems. Santiago’s Águilas Cibaeñas had beaten Licey for the Dominican Winter League title. Less than two weeks later Licey avenged its losses, beating the Águilas twice for its record 10th Caribbean World Series title. I wrote an article and a history piece on the Caribbean Series for the Chicago Sports Review.

My week was so good in Santiago that the only negative thing I can mention is the low attendance throughout the tournament. Many local fans could not afford tickets. Because the greedy scalpers had bought so many tickets and often weren’t willing to lower their prices, the 18,077-seat Estadio Cibao was less full than in past Caribbean Series. Nevertheless, I had a blast and learned a lot while photographing near the first base line and home plate, among other places. It was like a baseball photography seminar. I picked up a lot of new tricks by watching how the more experienced photographers were working. By the sixth day I was taking photos that I didn’t know how to take at the start of the tournament.

All the fun I had wore me out. I couldn’t rest just yet. My departing flight was in the Santo Domingo airport, a good three hours from Santiago. Because I had bought my ticket from CheapTickets, my flight had been changed. Instead of leaving at 9:15 a.m., I was leaving at 7:30 a.m. If I took a bus in the morning, I’d miss my flight. So I took the last bus leaving Santiago at 8:30 p.m. I actually almost missed the bus. I was waiting for a chicken sandwich that took forever to be made at a fast food place across from the bus station. I saw the bus pull in. A minute later I turned my head and it was gone. I figured it’d wait for a few minutes. As soon as I had my sandwich I ran with Denny to his car. He drove like he was John Belushi in The Blue Brothers movie. All that rush so I could wait in an airport all night until I had to check in for my flight. I felt tired going home. It was a good tired.

San Pedro de Macorís

I returned to Bogotá yesterday a bit tired and speaking with a Dominican accent. The Dominican Republic is likely to make a significant impression for any first-time visitor. The accent I picked up isn’t something worth bragging about since many Dominicans chop off the endings on their words and don’t articulate well. This was to be expected as I first witnessed it riding in a guagua (Spanish word for “bus” in the Caribbean) from the Santo Domingo airport to San Pedro de Macorís. A group of women was yapping away in the back of the bus as merengue played from the speakers. If traveling by taxi, bus, or car, music will always be playing and often so high that you have to talk loud to be heard. Then again, it is a very loud country, from the blaring subwoofers in passing cars to normal conversation. I swear most of the people are hard of hearing. However, most people know baseball. That was why I had come to San Pedro de Macorís.

“Here in San Pedro, there are hundreds of teams,” said Pedro González, former Major League Baseball player from San Pedro de Macorís in The Tropic of Baseball. “Every boy grows up with a bat and a ball – it’s the first present a male baby gets in his crib – and every one that wants the chance to play gets it.”

The quotation above is no exaggeration. I’ve traveled all over the U.S. and Cuba and I can confidently say that San Pedro de Macorís is the mecca of baseball. Granted, I haven’t been to Japan recently and never to Venezuela, but it’s hard to believe that there can be any place on earth with a higher concentration of good baseball players. In a city of less than 200,000 inhabitants, it has produced big leaguers such as George Bell, Alfonso Soriano, and Sammy Sosa. Other than at a big league stadium, I never saw so many people wearing Major League baseball team caps – Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, and Yankees caps could be seen on every street corner. It is hot and sunny year-round so a cap is as necessary as the five-gallon jugs of water that are sold throughout the country.

Besides the weather, it was a significant cultural change from Bogotá. When the guagua dropped me off in San Pedro, a pack of motorcyclists swarmed around me on the curb. Before I knew it, I was riding on the back of a motorcycle, wearing my backpack and shoulder bag. The driver put my large bag, full of clothes, on the handlebars. San Pedro reminded me a lot of Santiago, Cuba, which is the motorcycle capital of the largest Caribbean island. When I arrived at the Río Vista apartments, located on the malecon across from a park for children, about a half dozen girls started shouting at me. They were in the complex’s concrete pool with one guy, who asked me which one I liked. From my experience in the Dominican Republic this was normal. Both men and women were a lot more aggressive and outgoing than in Bogotá or the United States, or Cuba for that matter. It was a Saturday night and they wanted to party. Well, at least they didn’t have to walk far.

The malecon, or seaside promenade, is the place where locals park their flashy cars and drink beer and socialize. As it approached dusk, I met a 6-year-old boy who was playing wiffle ball with his older friend on the scraggly beach as his father watched. I took photos of him swinging his big red bat and then chatted with them as the sun was setting over a group of palm trees on the horizon. I talked about baseball with the father and the son had no problem following along. This experience, like many others on my two-week trip, seemed surreal.

The next day I rode a guagua a few kilometers outside the city to a major league tryout that included scouts from the Mets and Tigers. These types of tryouts occur every day of the year all around the city. I would have never found it on my own. When I got on the bus, I asked a teenage kid wearing a baseball uniform where he was going. He said to a tryout. The ball field was surrounded by sugarcane fields. Local men living under tin roofs and dirt floors gathered near firstbase to watch the tryout. The supervisor was from Puerto Rico, and he had brought a pitcher and catcher from his country to tryout. In Puerto Rico, a baseball prospect can not sign with a Major League team as a free agent. In the Dominican Republic he can sign as a free agent. So the Puerto Ricans who don’t get drafted often come to the San Pedro area to try and sign with a big league club. The players definitely had the grace and ability that is commonplace in this area. If they did sign, their next stop could likely be in “Baseball City” in Boca Chica.

While staying in San Pedro and watching the young local baseball players, I spent my final three days at “Baseball City.” (This name, like several other English words, is known by virtually everyone.) “Baseball City” is the location for several Major League academies in Boca Chica, a small city about twenty minutes from San Pedro. Every Major League Baseball (MLB) team has an academy in the Dominican Republic. As far as I know, Baseball City has the most MLB academies in one location. Young prospects who have signed with a MLB team live and train in these academies off and on throughout the year.

When the bus dropped me off at Baseball City I stood there looking at a power plant next to the main highway from Santo Domingo to San Pedro. Next to it was a dirt road. Nothing else. No people. No buildings. Just normal plants and trees you see on the side of the road. Was I at the right place? Hidden a kilometer down this road was Baseball City. I first stopped by the Minnesota Twins complex but the boss told me he had to call the owner to get permission for me to take photos. While he made the call, I visited the Chicago Cubs academy. The managers and players gave me a warm welcome, so I spent virtually the next three days with them at their two ball fields, eating in their cafeteria, attending their daily English classes, and hanging out in their dorms. It was a simple recipe: eat, play ball, and hang out. There were 64 players. All had signed with the Cubs. Félix Pie, the Cubs centerfielder who grew up just down the road, participated in all the drills and workouts while giving the young prospects guidance. Practice lasted every day until 1 p.m. Then they had English classes before dinner. The classes were directly tailored toward baseball and phrases that will help them make the transition to life in America. Baseball terminology and social niceties were emphasized and repeated on the handout the teacher gave the players, who wore T-shirts and flip-flops. In a few weeks some of these players would be heading to Arizona for spring training. Others would stay at home and try and make their big league dreams happen during camp the following winter. For the latter group, I look forward to hanging out with them again next year.