Thursday, July 29, 2010

MR. AYERS GOES TO WASHINGTON

On Monday, the White House held a ceremony commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act commonly known as the ADA.


It was a Rose Garden Ceremony of the type that happens nearly daily where the President greets those responsible for one thing or another, gives a short speech, does the ritual “grip and grin” in the crowd for a bit and then returns to the Oval Office and other business.


On this occasion it was accompanied by picture taking. When that is on the agenda, people wait in the Blue Room until each can have a moment with the President and a picture taken in remembrance of the occasion.


I am a veteran of these mini dramas so I am cynical about them. The people who have the opportunity to participate come from all over the country. They are awed by them. I understand that and happy that they are.


This one was different, for reasons even a cynic could appreciate.


Five and a half years ago, a columnist for the LA Times, Steve Lopez, decided to know more about a small and seedy combat zone near his office and blocks from the magnificent new Concert Hall. It is Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He met a man named Nathaniel Ayers, a profoundly mentally ill man, a dreamer, who slept on the streets, trusted no one, yet stood near an overpass each day, at the foot of the statute of Beethoven, and played passionate classical music on a battered violin with two stings missing next to his shopping cart that contained all his belongings.


The story of their odd, ever evolving and moving friendship was chronicled in Mr. Lopez’s columns and then in his bestselling book, THE SOLOIST, A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and The Redemptive Power of Music (Berkley Books,2008). It is a remarkable story. It continues as Mr. Ayers---as he has always been called by Mr. Lopez---still fights his demons down the long corridors of unexplained behaviors and emotional outbursts. He now lives off the street but still is most comfortable in the small cruel world of LA’s Skid Row. He has also made the decision to take the drugs which he so long mistrusted that help let him function in his societal structure thanks to is unlikely friend. It has modified his behavior, but has not “cured” his disease nor completely made over his personality. He is still profoundly schizophrenic and is capable of uncontrolled behavior. He stills stands by the overpass most days, now with his new violin, viola, and trumpet, entertaining those passing, lost in his own world as he tries to interpret and understand the music of his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven.


Nathanial Ayers grew up in Ohio. His extraordinary musical gifts took him to The Julliard School in New York. His lost is way there, although no one is sure precisely how or why. The pressures of performing at that level or some other force made him lose his sense of balance and appropriate behavior. Besides being a magnificent musician then, by his second year he developed serious social problems and left. Where he has been since is still a part of his vague story but when Mr. Lopez found him at the overpass, competing with the sound of traffic while he played the music he loved hoping he could find a way to replace the two broken strings on his violin.


He has one living relative, a sister Jennifer, from whom he learned a few weeks ago of his improbable trip to the White House. Mr. Lopez admits to being skeptical. Mr. Ayers does not react well to pressure or new situations and he worried for his friend. Yet the dreamer already had the scene firmly in his head and pleaded with Mr. Lopez to go with him.


In the end he agreed but warned he would need new clothes. A longtime friend helped him pick out a new suit. He knew exactly what he wanted. A white suit, white shoes, and a white derby hat and bow tie.


Of course. What else? He was going to the White House.


On that bright and brutally hot Monday morning following a pounding storm, this large man in his splendid vanilla outfit, a nylon wrap keeping his long hair under his new derby and white garden gloves with the fingers cut off, waited to meet the President of the United States. He was awed by the experience. When asked, he said he knew what he would say when they met.


“I’m going to tell him to have a good day and a blessed presidency,” he said.


Soon, he had his private moment and he was beaming when he returned. He said the President greeted him with, “Hello, Nathanial.” He said he was “flabbergasted,” and then mused, “The President of the United States of America. Praise the Lord!”


There were 300 government officials gathered on the lawn outside as well as so many others who had helped make this landmark legislation a reality. They know that there is still much progress to be made in access and employment rights, but this was a day of celebration with performances by Patti La Belle and Mr. Ayers. His longtime friend from Julliard, Joseph Russo would accompany him on piano. After the speeches, Mr. Ayers was introduced and emerged in his dandy suit and walked under the Presidential Seal. Mr. Lopez had told the staff at the White House that you could not always be sure what you would get from Mr. Ayers musically in such circumstances except passion, but they thought it worth the risk.




After an inordinate amount time tuning his violin when Mr. Lopez worried whether he would be able to play after all, Mr. Ayers began to play, found a groove, the audience swayed, and Mr. Ayers lifted their spirits as his music soared, that passion very much on display.


After the President spoke, Mr. Ayers shook his hand again and darted in and out of the White House as if he were a resident. On the lawn, he accepted congratulations and posed for pictures. He would later admit that it was not one of his best performances, but the fact that this man who had made the journey from skid row to the White House was here at all may have been the real performance and triumph his audience understood and applauded.


Later that same night, he returned to his now indoor home on the strip of mean street he knows so well, the White House seemed a million miles away. When Mr. Lopez asked him how he would ever top this trip to Washington, Mr. Ayers had a ready answer.


“We can go to Rome and see the Pope.”


Yes We Can.

Note: Some of the information, and the direct quotes of Mr. Ayers in this piece are taken from copyrighted material in the Los Angeles Times of July 27,2010.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A VOICE OF DISTINCTION

Millions heard his voice. For fifty-one years he was the voice of Yankee Stadium, and now, at 99 years of age, he is gone. Robert Leo Sheppard was the gold standard for anyone who aspired to be a stadium announcer. I have never heard anyone like him and may never again.

Reggie Jackson, the wonderfully talented, often irreverent Hall of Fame outfielder who was known, to himself at least, as “the straw that stirred the drink” and to the rest of us as “Mr. October,” referred to him as Mr. Sheppard and named him “The Voice of God.” His marvelous distinct, polite, and proper speech pattern became a fixture in Yankee Stadium on April 17, 1951 when he debuted as the public address announcer for the New York Yankees. There he remained until 2007. No baseball player who was ever introduced by him will ever forget it. He was that much of a legend, heard by millions, seen by a few, yet known to nearly all who follow the game.

George Steinbrenner, the flamboyant and legendary owner of the Yankees whose own death came  days after Sheppard’s, said, “His death leaves a lasting silence.” He may have been the only employee of the Yankees that Steinbrenner never criticized.

Fifty-one years is a long time to have one job. Yet Bob Sheppard never thought of it as his most important one. He was first a speech teacher at St. John’s High School in New York and later a Professor at St. John’s University. Those were the ones of which he was most proud. Announcing was something he did besides that and perhaps because he saw it that way it was never about him. He believed it was his job at the ballpark to report what was happening and announce what was important. He did so in the same tone as he taught his classes, distinctly and with respect.

A New York Times’ Columnist, Clyde Haberman once wrote of him “he could read Eminem lyrics and make them sound like the Magna Carta.” In his career, he announced more than 4,000 games, 62 World Series Games and two All Star Games. Over the years, he announced the names of more than 70 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When I was a boy sitting in the centerfield bleachers of the old Yankee Stadium, I  heard him and never forgot his voice. He brought composure and a dignity to the mere act of informing the crowd who the next batter was. It was a pleasure to listen to him. His tone never changed. The enthusiasm and drama of the moment--which he said he appreciated--never entered his voice. He was not a cheerleader or a circus barker, he said, just a reporter. He would introduce each player in the same unique way with the same intonation. The first time they came to bat, in deference to those who might be using a score book and had arrived too late to hear him announce the starting lineups, he would include the name, number, position, and place in the batting order the first time the player appeared. After the first time, he would state, in that professional, cadenced style of his, the player’s position, number, last name, and  repeat the number. Whether a Yankee or visiting player, all were introduced the same. He told an interviewer that he came to the stadium, studied the names before the game, called the visiting clubhouse for the correct pronunciation if there was a question, write it phonetically, and practice it again. He particularly enjoyed saying the names of the Latin players, he said, they were more musical. His favorite name, however, was Mantle, he admitted, because he both loved the player and the way the syllables sounded. No one remembers a name he mis-pronounced. 

He never missed an Opening Day until he dislocated his artificial hip in 2006. He had a bronchial infection at the end of the 2007 season, missed the Divisional Series that year, and never returned to work. He was retired when the Yankees left the old stadium for the “new” Yankee Stadium across the street in 2009.

It seems fitting that he never announced there. He was the voice of the “House that Ruth Built” as the old one was known, and not the one built by the Steinbrenner family that replaced it.

On a warm evening in the 1990’s, I sat in a place then known as Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and much to my surprise, I heard The Voice again. Bob Sheppard’s vacations' were what my father would have called “a busman’s holiday.” When he visited friends in San Diego he always announced at least one game for the Padres.

The Padres had a pitcher in those days that had been special in his early career with them by the name of Andy Hawkins. When he became free to negotiate with other teams he signed a very lucrative contract with the Yankees. A country boy from the south, Andy had thrived in the player friendly confines of San Diego. His stay in New York was both brief and brutal. He was bewildered by the press attention, the pressure cooker atmosphere, and the expectations of the big city fans. His performance mirrored his confusion. Soon, he moved on, traded away as so many have been that failed to thrive in that way of life they found so alien. After a time he came back to the Padres, no longer a star but a serviceable extra starter and relief pitcher who could, as  managers say, "give you innings" on the days when the starter faltered early. One night, he was scheduled to start, and Bob Sheppard was in town and at the ballpark with friends. Through a series of machinations only his teammates and coaches could appreciate, Bob was convinced to announce the starting lineups for the two teams. Andy was in the bullpen warming up for his start when he heard the stentorian tones of the voice of the Yankee Stadium announcer issue his signature command:
“Your attention please, Ladies and Gentlemen,”
Hawkins--it was later gleefully reported by the bullpen staff--stopped in mid-delivery, turned violently as if he heard a shot and looked to the press area, stunned by the sound of “The Voice.” He would later tell reporters, amid the laughter in the clubhouse, that somehow he feared he had been transported back to New York. He enjoyed the joke, but not nearly as much as Bob.

The Voice is still now, another of the great ones of baseball gone. Remembered for his quiet dignity, his grace, and dry wit, he enhanced the games he announced and the “Game” he gave those fifty-one precious years  just as Harry Carey, Mel Allen, Red Barber, and Ernie Harwell and a few others have with just the sound of their voice.

Yet, unlike the others, he can still be heard. In 2006, the shortstop for the Yankees and team captain, Derek Jeter, who has been a Yankee his entire long and very talented career, said, “When you think of Yankee Stadium, he’s the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not right playing here unless he’s the one announcing.” On hearing that, Bob recorded his introduction of Jeter and those going to a Yankee home game still hear “The Voice” say these words whenever he comes to bat:
“Now batting for the Yankees, the shortstop, No. 2, Jeter, No. 2.”