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Clueless Joe (Morgan)

What obligation does a man have to answer to ignorance?
07/18/2007 1:39 PM ET
By Jerome Preisler / Special to YESNetwork.com

Torre and Sheffield were all smiles early.(AP)
Some years ago, before The Wife and I bought our home in Port Getaway, we'd rented half of a big, old Colonial house in a town called Belfast further up the Maine coast. Belfast is right on the Penobscot Bay, where you can see lobster traps, and harbor seals, and migrating whales out in the deepest waters. It is an old and enduring place with many natural and architectural glories. For the most part, we enjoyed our time there.

Coming from New York City, however, we found Belfast's cultural, racial and ethnic near-homogeneity something of an adjustment. The town's relative geographic isolation makes it slow to change, and unlike the major shipbuilding and commercial port towns in southern portions of the state, it has not historically drawn upon the sort of imported labor force that tends to bring influxes of people from distant and diverse places. Its population is mostly white and Protestant. I am Jewish, and The Wife is of White and Asian descent. Being accustomed to blending into New York's miscellaneous human fabric, we sometimes felt a bit out of place in Belfast. It was the looks we'd get sometimes, and the occasional mildly offensive comments. For the most part, the latter were inadvertent, and people were embarrassed when we reacted to them. We were something new to many of these folks, and we understood that.

One evening, a woman we'd considered a friend invited us over to her home for dinner. She wanted us to meet several of her adult children, who were coming to visit for some sort of family occasion. They were, incidentally, a very affluent and well-traveled clan relative to many around us, with roots that went deep into Connecticut blueblood society. Also incidentally, they professed to have politically liberal leanings.

At the dinner table, our friend's daughter, who was in her thirties, and lived off a trust fund, and who introduced herself as an aspiring bongo player and freeform dancer, asked me about my writing career. Back then, I was doing the TOM CLANCY'S POWER PLAYS novels. As someone who considered herself a pure and independent artistic talent, she wondered why I would want to author a series that bore another writer's name in the umbrella title -- and displayed it far more prominently than mine on the book covers.

I shrugged.

"It's not ideal," I said. "But I pretty much write the same sort of stories I'd be writing anyway. I'm on the bestseller list every year, and millions of readers around the world see my work. And for the first time in my career, I get paid enough to live halfway decently. I might not get the credit I deserve, but that's a tradeoff I can accept."

The daughter looked at me plainly from across the table, and told me she could never accept such an arrangement. Her bongo playing and freeform dancing was her own pure and unique means of artistic expression, she said. She would never play anything but the precise bongo beats she chose, never move her body to a dance that was anyone's but her own.

"I have a question," she said then, taking a bite of her chicken cordon bleu.

"Sure," I said.

"What do Jews believe in?" she asked.

The question would have taken me aback under any circumstances. Coming out of thin air in a social situation, it was a complete jaw-dropper.

"I guess it depends which Jew you're talking to," I said, trying not to choke on my food. "And exactly what you mean by 'believe'."

She shrugged.

"I mean spiritually," she said. Her tone remained conversational, even agreeable. "Do Jews believe in God? Or just making money? Because I had a Jew friend in college, and all she cared about was money. And that seems to be all you care about, too."

I lowered my fork and exchanged glances with The Wife. She was sitting to my left. Then I looked over at our host, a woman we'd considered our friend for almost two years. She was on my right.

"Did she just say what I thought she said?" I asked, nodding toward her daughter.

Our host sat for a moment, shrugged.

"I think it's a fair question," she said.

I looked at her.

"Fair," I repeated.

She nodded.

"Our family is interested in learning about different cultures," she said. "My daughter wants to know what Jews believe in, and you ought answer her and help educate us."

"Answer," I said.

"Yes, answer."

As it turned out, I never had a chance to do that. If I had, whatever would have come out of my mouth wouldn't have been the least bit pretty. But before I could get my tongue working, The Wife wisely excused us from the table, grabbed my arm, and yanked me toward the front door.

"Wait!" our host called out behind us. "Why are you acting like this? All my daughter did was ask a question!"

The Wife turned from the door after pushing me through, and gave her some parting words that would have made a long-haul trucker blush.

I didn't show how much the experience hurt until I was back home. I don't usually let the world see when something hurts the way it did. Growing up in pre-gentrified Brooklyn, I learned how to cover up the soft spots with a pugnacious front.

But The Wife knows me. She saw. Long before we got home.

We didn't speak to our host again. When we bought our Maine home, it was not in Belfast. There were many factors involved in our choice of towns besides that incident, the distance of the trip to New York being one of them. But it would be untruthful of me to deny that the incident played a part in our decision.

Which brings me to announcer Joe Morgan's comments about Yank manager Joe Torre during last week's ESPN Sunday Night Baseball telecast.

I was barely paying attention to the game. The Yanks had won a thriller against the Rays at The Trop earlier that day, and a Phillies versus Cardinals match seemed anticlimactic. The Wife was snoozing on the couch, and I had one eye open. Phillies-Cards was a tough one for us to care about.

Then Morgan the Hall of Fame infielder, former member of the Big Red Machine, and current member -- along with John Miller -- of ESPN's lead baseball broadcast team, decided without prompting to weigh in on some comments Gary Sheffield had made about Torre in an interview with HBO's Real Sports program.

According to ex-Yankee Sheffield, Torre treated African-American players differently than others on the team. Sheffield insisted he was not calling Torre a racist. Sheffield is good at leaving himself wriggle room for backpedaling when he shoots off his mouth, and "racist" isn't a word you can easily step away from once it's been spoken.

"I'd see a lot of white players get called in the office and treated like a man. That's the difference," Sheffield said, contrasting this to what he insisted was Torre's habit of openly calling out black players in the clubhouse.

Sheffield pointed toward Torre's treatment of himself, Kenny Lofton, and Tony Womack as examples of his racial unfairness, and went on to characterized this attitude as being endemic to the Yankees organization. "I think it's the way they do things around there," he said. "Since I was there I just saw that they run their ship different."

When Derek Jeter's closeness to Torre and prominence as the face of the team was pointed out to Sheffield, he was apparently dismissive, saying, "Derek Jeter is black and white."

And in case anyone did not understand this reference to Jeter's bi-racial heritage, Sheffield added that the Yankee captain "ain't all the way black."

Asked to comment on Sheffield's remarks, outfielder Kenny Lofton, who spent an unsuccessful season with the Yanks some years back and is presently with the Texas Rangers, provided this quote to HBO: "All I can say is, Sheffield knows what he's talking about. That's all I'm going to say."

That's some substantive elaboration there, ain't it?

It is impossible to take either Sheffield or Lofton seriously. Lofton was brought to the Yankees as a leadoff hitter and center field replacement for Bernie Williams, failed at both, and grumbled when he found himself spending increasing amounts of time on the bench. In his three years with the Yankees, Sheffield was a mostly successful regular season player who underperformed in postseason play. In 2006, after Sheffield spent most of the season disabled with a wrist injury and was replaced in right field by Bobby Abreu -- a player of Latin ancestry, it might bear mentioning -- Torre and his coaching staff bent over backwards to fit Sheffield into the team's postseason lineup. On his return from the DL in September, he was given a crash course at first base and slotted into the batting order for the American League Division Series, arguably to the detriment of the team. Sheffield hit and fielded the position poorly and later had harsh words about Torre's management of the series, which ended in the Yankees' elimination from playoff contention.

Not that Sheffield, who made his remarks after being traded to the Detroit Tigers in the offseason, had a personal ax to grind.

It's interesting that Real Sports offered no comments about Sheffield and Lofton's allegations from ex-Yanks Daryl Strawberry, Chile Davis, Cecil Fielder, Gerald Williams, or Sheffield's cousin, Dwight Gooden, all of whom are among the many African-American players who have had successful tenures in the Bronx under Joe Torre. It offered nothing from Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, who is one of Torre's closest friends in the world.

If Sheffield and Lofton are correct, Torre's bias must be razor sharp in its racial division. Nevermind his almost paternal relationship with Jeter, Sheffield tells us -- Derek is of mixed race, and thus doesn't count. Nevermind his loyalty to Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera -- they're of Latin heritage and presumably don't count, either. Finally, nevermind that the Yankees team under Torre has been as much a racial and ethnic melting pot as the city it represents, and that Torre has throughout his years as manager earned a reputation for fairness and decency with his ballplayers. If Torre has played favorites with any members of the team, it is those who have consistently produced on the field with hustle and heart.

But I stray from the point. This column isn't supposed to be about Gary Sheffield's latest bit of grousing. Sheffield is as famous for blurting out sensational remarks as he is for wielding a power bat. Soon enough, he'll probably reverse his opinion or say he was quoted out of context. It won't be the first time. It likely won't be the last.

No, this column isn't about Sheffield. It's about Joe Morgan, and his loud insistence on national TV that Torre, and/or the Yankees, are now somehow obliged to respond to Sheffield and Lofton. In this day and age, Morgan said, comments of the sort the players made can't be swept under the rug. Morgan underscored that because not one, but two disgruntled players were quoted on the HBO program, they must be taken seriously.

Thus, Morgan would have Joe Torre defend himself against allegations of bias -- not to say racism -- leveled at him from men who have throughout their baseball careers gained reputations for being disruptive misanthropes while on most of the many, many teams for which each has played.

Morgan has put Torre on the spot. He wants Torre to prove a negative, and defend himself against unsubstantiated allegations, and explain to the world why he isn't biased against African-Americans. Or a racist. Or whatever words you want to use.

It reminds me all too much of when my host at a dinner party asked me to explain whether it was true that Jews only believed in making money. Explain after being rudely insulted, maligned, and served a whopping portion of ignorance along with my chicken.

Explain?

I didn't think so. Not me, not then.

Nor do I think Joe Torre has anything to explain now.

In fact, if anyone ought to make a statement it is Joe Morgan, who gave an air of legitimacy and credibility to Sheffield's remarks on a nationally televised forum.

Torre deserves a public apology. I think next week's Sunday night game might be a good chance for Morgan to offer one.

Jerome Preisler is the author of almost two dozen novels and works of nonfiction, including the New York Times bestselling Tom Clancy's Power Plays series. With co-author Kenneth Sewell, he has completed a narrative history of the USS Scorpion to be published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster in April 2008. Also forthcoming from Pocket Books in June '08 is his original novel CSI: Nevada Rose, based on the long-running CSI television series. Under the pseudonym Suzanne Price, he and his wife Suzanne are the co-authors of SCENE OF THE GRIME, a comedic mystery recently released by Signet Books.
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