Friday, January 12, 2007

Bend it like Bobby

It’s all over the media this morning. David Beckham, the English soccer star, has signed a five year-$250 million dollar deal, to play Major League Soccer with the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team. This means that he’ll roughly make one million dollars a week.

This made me wonder…Do you suppose he complains (like I do) about how much money they take out of his check? I can hear it now:

“Blimey! I made $1,000,000 last week, and I only brought home $650,000! Bloody taxman!”

This mornings reports reminded me of the time (in 1976), when I was drafted by The New York Cosmos, (okay, maybe drafted isn’t the right word.) I was 14-years-old, and playing soccer for my middle school’s team. I had gone to the local Morsan’s Sporting Goods store to buy a new pair of cleats, and while there, I filled out an entry form for a contest to become a New York Cosmos’ Ball Boy. I had never won anything before in my life, and I was shocked when I got a call from the store the following week. The woman on the phone told me that I had won the contest and I should be receiving a letter from the Cosmos.

A few days later, an official letter with a Cosmos letter head arrived. In it, the Cosmos congratulated me on winning the contest and said that I should bring a parent or guardian with me to Yankee Stadium (This was their temporary field, while Giant's Stadium was being built in New Jersey). The letter continued, saying that a Mr. Rooney, a Cosmos representative, would meet me at the press window. He would provide me with an official New York Cosmos’ ball boy uniform, and then give me further instructions.

I was beside myself.

Being a fatherless waif, I enlisted my older brothers: Jimmy, Johnny and Brian to take me to the Bronx. Brian’s friend John Murphy also came along for the ride, (side note: this is the same John Murphy who some 25 years later would challenge me for my “Conductor to the Stars” title.)

I remember being a nervous wreck on our drive down to the city. I had never been to New York City before; in fact I had hardly left West Haven. The antennae on my mother’s roof was able to pick up three New York TV channels, WCBS Channel 2, WNEW Channel 5, and WPIX channel 11. Their 10PM newscast left me with one impression …New York = Crime. I thought for sure that I would be mugged the minute I stepped foot in the Bronx. I expressed my concerns to my brothers, but being brothers, they were less than sympathetic. “Don’t be a baby,” they said, “This is a chance of a lifetime. Maybe, you’ll even get a chance to meet Pele.”

At this point in my life, Pele (probably the most popular sports figure of all time) was one of my heroes. I finally decided that meeting him might be worth getting mugged.

I wasn’t mugged when we reached Yankee Stadium, but I was accosted. The perpetrator was Mr. Rooney, the Cosmo Representative. He was a tall, middle aged, balding, white haired, Irishman, who looked exactly like James J. Kilpatrick, the nasty “point, counterpoint” guy on “60 Minutes.”

Before buying tickets at the ticket window, my brothers dropped me off at the “Press” window. I met Mr. Rooney and told him that I was the Morsans’ contest winner. He wasn't impressed. He threw a cheap green rugby shirt and a pair of white nylon shorts at me. Both were two sizes too big. “Okay,” he said in a thick Irish brogue, follow me.”

I followed Mr. Rooney through a labyrinth of tunnels in the newly renovated Yankee Stadium. I wasn’t much of a Yankee fan back then, so the mystique of the place was lost on me. We finally reached a dressing room where I met three other ball boys. After getting dressed, Mr. Rooney spoke with all of us. His face turned red, when he shouted out orders like a drill sergeant. He told us that we were there to do a job, not to play around. He expected us to be on our toes at all times, and that we’d better not interfere, or in anyway delay the game. We were not to approach the players for autographs or bother them.

I wanted to raise my hand and say that I must be in the wrong place. “I’m a contest winner,” I wanted to say. But I didn’t dare. Rooney’s big Irish face was now bright red, and he was beginning to froth at the mouth. “Okay,” he finally said, “let’s get to work.” We followed Rooney out through another labyrinth of tunnels until we reached the Yankee dugout. I was seated next to three identically clad ball boys, who I believe were getting paid to be there. Each of them had thick New York accents and they laced together a string of profanity like I had never heard before. They had the kind accents the kids did on “Wonderama.”

Unique New Yawk! Unique New Yawk!"

Bob McAllister, the host, ran a contest in which New York kids repeated this phrase ten times fast:

“Unique New Yawk… Unique New Yawk…”

It wasn't like they meant to say New Yawk. It's just that their New York accents prevented them from saying the "R." I used to wonder if McAllister had them repeat this phrase just for laughs.

After we stood for The National Anthem, Mr. Rooney told me to stand on the sidelines, near the 417 marker in center field. This was my turf and I better guard it with my life. While running across the field I heard my brothers screaming my name. They were seated at field level. They were surrounded by a bunch of Mexicans who didn’t know a lick of English. By this time, the whole lot of them had mucho cervezas, and they were shouting to me in unison.

“Hola! Bobby, Hola!!!”

In the first half of the game, I let a ball get by me, and the game was delayed for about two seconds. When I went back to the Yankee dugout at half-time, Mr. Rooney told me that I better pay closer attention to the game. I wanted to shout,…“But I’m a contest winner!,” I felt the words rising in my throat…but I didn’t dare.

In the second half of the game I caught a ball in mid-air and swiftly handed it over to the player on the opposing team. I could hear my brothers and the Mexicans cheering for me from across the field. At the end of the game I returned to the dug out, where Mr. Rooney led us back to the locker room to change our clothes. No paycheck, no “nice job," no "thank you.” No one offered to give me an autograph.

I felt so used.

After I got changed, I was led back to the Press window, where I was reunited with my brothers. I was surprised to find them standing there with two beautiful women. Both of these women were dressed in white jump suits, with big floppy picture hats. They looked like they were dressed for a day at the races in Saratoga, not Yankee Stadium. Apparently my brother John had spotted them sitting a few rows ahead of them. Each of my brothers took turns imagining who they might be. Perhaps they were a player’s wives. Maybe they were a coach’s or an owner’s wife. Finally, John went up to them and basically asked:

“You look rich and famous…who are you?

It turns out that the older of the two women, was the French girlfriend of the artist Leroy Neiman. Neiman was there painting Pele’s portrait. The younger woman, (who was one of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen) was her daughter. The older woman told us to stick around, maybe Leroy could introduce me to Pele, or at least get me his autograph.

With the exception of my brother Jimmy, none of us had ever heard of Leroy Neiman (he is now practically a household name), but by this time, I was tired and disappointed with the whole ball boy experience. I just wanted to go home.

“Suit yourself,” my brothers said. We got in the car and went home.

I wonder… How much a Pele autograph would fetch on Ebay?

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