This never had happened before. Look, I grew up a sports fan in the extreme. I was obsessive. And cared way too much. I had my heroes, you bet, and because I’m lucky enough to do the job I do, I got to meet just about all of them at one time or another.
I stood with Tom Seaver as he cried looking at the bust of Gil Hodges inside Citi Field. I heard Joe Namath tell a story from back in the day that was as funny as it was filthy. I once told Chris Mullin how much his St. John’s teams meant to my friends and me, and he smiled and said, “Imagine what they mean to me and my friends.”
They were just people by the time I met them, not idols, not icons. If there is a downside to this job, that’s it: It’s a job. It’s a great job. It’s the best job, if you ask me. But it’s a job, so even the folks you used to place high on a secular altar become guys you approach with a notebook in your hands.
This was a few years ago, and when my cell phone buzzed, I didn’t recognize the number. Most of the time those calls go directly to voicemail. For some reason, this time I picked up.
“Mike,” said a remarkably familiar voice, “Ara Parseghian calling.”
It’s funny: A few years ago, on a Bergen County golf course, I yanked a 5-foot putt 5 feet wide on the 18th hole, completely blowing a match. My partner summed up that inglorious moment perfectly: “I’d like you to think about that putt the next time you call Alex Rodriguez a choker.”
But I’m a lousy golfer. That wasn’t a choke. That was me being a lousy golfer. You want to know when I really choked? In the 10 seconds of silence and stuttering (which felt like 10 minutes to me and probably close to 10 hours to him) which followed Ara Parseghian introducing himself to me.
Finally, I was able to muster, “Hi, Coach.”
He rescued me from my fugue, apologizing that it had been a week or so since I had left a message, explained he had been on vacation. The column I had sought him for already had been written and printed, so I thanked him and told him so, but he found the topic interesting and started sharing his thoughts on the matter.
And for 20 minutes, once I snapped out of it, I had a conversation with Ara Parseghian. And of all the things I’ve been lucky enough to do that 10-year-old me never would have believed possible, this was probably it.
The first sporting event I ever remember truly caring about was the Sugar Bowl on Dec. 31, 1973. Ours was a Notre Dame house, and Parseghian was our secular pope. My father, also a big sports fan, spoke in reverent tones about him. He called him “Coach Parseghian.” On Sundays we would watch Lindsay Nelson calling those classic condense games (“ … let’s move ahead to later in the quarter …”)
I was allowed to stay up late to watch that game, an early birthday present since I would turn 7 the next day. My father, a weekend musician, usually would have been working on New Year’s Eve, but he had been ill that fall. So we watched together as the Fighting Irish beat Alabama, 24-23, wrapping up the second national title of the Parseghian Era. That was a good birthday.
I told Parseghian that story, fully realizing that if there was one down side to being Ara Parseghian, it is that he probably heard 100,000 versions of the same story from 100,000 different people in his life. If it annoyed him, he didn’t let on.
“Thank you for sharing that,” he said before hanging up.
I’ve thought of that call a lot this week, after learning of Parseghian’s passing, at 94. Grateful that I answered that call. Ever more so that sometimes, the people to whom we lend so much of our heart are worth every ounce of that investment. And then some.
The deep thinker who thought it would be a good idea to kill off the wife in “Kevin Can Wait,” a marginally funny CBS sitcom whose charm lies almost entirely in the likeability of its creator and star, Kevin James, had to be the same person who told David Caruso: “You can do better than John Kelly and ‘NYPD Blue.’ Trust me.”
“Electric October,” by Kevin Cook
Two essential summer reads if you’re a sucker for baseball history, as I am: “Electric October” by Kevin Cook, a fascinating deep dive into the unlikely characters that made the 1947 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers a classic (pre-order it now; it is out Aug. 15); and also “Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue,” by Tom Van Riper, a terrific look at what was probably the best rivalry of the ’70s.
By the time he’s done, it may well be that Curtis Granderson will have been the best free-agent signing in Mets history. On Monday he will hold a 10-year anniversary celebration of his Grand Kids Foundation at the New York Public Library, a reminder that he’s really been on of the good guys around here, Bronx and Flushing, for a long, long time.
A couple of colleagues in this department lost a dear friend this week, Richie Leonard of Pompton Plains, N.J., who loved the Rangers and everything about hockey for so many of his 60 years. Godspeed.
Rick Millman: It is scary that Aaron Judge is starting to look like the guy that came up last year. He is on his way to breaking the 200-strikeourt number with plenty to spare.
Vac: I don’t believe in the Curse of Home Run Derby, but I do believe in the smarts of big league pitchers and pitching coaches, which is what’s all on display here, I think.
Doyle Dietz: Obviously these Yankees have an automatic transmission because there’s no clutch.
Vac: Hey, the truth can be funny even as it hurts, right?
@PillaLogic: Question for Sandy Alderson: What is the obsession with Hansel Robles? He’s shown no improvement or growth as a pitcher.
@MikeVacc: Also, note to Robles: If the fingers on your pitching hand are numb, as a rule of thumb YOU SHOULD TELL SOMEONE.
Howie Stern: I agree a 100 percent about Steve Bartman. I’ve often thought how he could have done a million things to make money, or garner publicity, and he never did anything. He didn’t do anything wrong and handled his notoriety with extreme class. Good for him.
Vac: I hope he’s found a semblance of peace. He deserves it.