Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

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All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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Dave Henderson: RIP

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This hurts.

Saw the immortal ALCS game in real time. Pops, a long-suffering Boston-born Sox fan, had seen this movie before (and would see it again in a fashion even his father wouldn’t fathom), and got up to fire up the grill for dinner before the epic 9th inning. I kept the faith, but didn’t call him inside until Baylor hit his blast. After that I said “You better get in here!” but, being an adult, and having seen this movie before, he was skeptical. I don’t think many fans can truly appreciate the real roller-coaster sports is capable of taking you on, but hardcore Sox fans, especially those of us who were around, then, “get” it like few others can. I mean, to go from the high of Hendu’s impossible shot to the ball dribbling between Buckner’s legs is like a lifetime of emotional extremes in two moments, only weeks apart. (Not to mention history repeating itself as Farce-turned-Miracle, a la ’03/’04.)

And as sorry as I felt for myself, for my father, for Sox fans, for the unfairly maligned Bill Buckner, and (ahem) would-be-MVP Hurst, I thought, even as a teenager: Holy shit, how do you go from hitting 2 of the 3 biggest HRs in Sox history and come THAT close only to have it ripped away from you. Hero for life, highlight reel for eternity, etc. It was enough to make a 16 year old think God was not only a sadistic son of a bitch, but a Yankee fan (the horror). I felt genuinely bad for Hendu, who deserved better. And someone else said something similar upthread, but while I detested those A’s teams in the late ’80s, I simply couldn’t hate Henderson. Wasn’t possible. I was happy he got his ring. And yes, I imitated that inimitable HR trot for many moons after.

RIP, Hendu.

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DUMB Dynasty

First off, the only dynasty involving ducks that I’m interested in discussing is the Duck BOAT Dynasty, also known as the 2013 RED SOX.

Regarding the other item, shouldn’t the real question be why you were watching Duck Dynasty in the first place?

(My only comments, via FB: I mean I’ve never seen it, so I don’t know, but let me see if I’m following the premise and its ostensible appeal: “THESE GUYS ARE *SO* HARDCORE AND LEGIT THEY ALLOW A FILM CREW TO COME IN AND APPLY MAKE-UP AND FOLLOW THEM AROUND ON SCRIPTED ADVENTURES!” #YuppieSlumming)

Also, what Jackson said:

“Well they got a little list of all those things of which they don’t approve/Well they gotta keep their eyes on you –you might make your move!” Well-played, sir.

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The Greek God of Walks Gets An Appropriate Walk-Off

Sometimes the gods smile.

(Speaking of gods and the whole “Greek God of Walks” thing, that of course was a mistake made in the seminal Moneyball, when Youk, because of his name, was assumed to be Greek. He is, of course, Jewish. One of the great moments in modern Sox history –speaking of the gods smiling– occurred when Sox fanatic Denis Leary was in the booth with Don & Jerry. Hilarity, then fortuity, ensued.)

So: getting back to those baseball gods. They seem to enjoy karma, eh? How wonderful for Youk, and the fans, that he was able to crank out a hit in what turned out to be his last at bat. At Fenway, on a hit that epitomized Youk’s tenure in Boston: a nice jolt that he turned from a double to a triple, hustling his never-svelte body down the base-paths (one of my favorite Youk quotes was provided by the beloved and dearly-missed Tito Francona, who once claimed “I’ve seen him in the shower: he’s not the Greek God of anything.”)

Anyway, it was genuinely moving to see Youk get serenaded by the crowd and he got the fondest farewell one could imagine. (Wait until he makes his first return to Fenway: the ovation will be long and loud.)

It sucks to see him go, but it always sucks when sports relationships, which seldom end well, sour and terminate. He still has some ball to play, and I hope he gets a fair chance in Chicago, trying on some white sox for size.

I always loved him and always will. Without him, the ’07 rings would be worn by another team, plain and simple. For that alone, he should never buy a beer in Beantown.

Yes, his intensity irked many. But real fans, and especially underdogs and overachievers can –and should– admire and emulate Youkilis. He has made a career squeezing every smidgen of talent out of his body, equal parts practice, will and a pig-headed refusal to quit. For a culture that correctly laments how many naturally talented individuals (in sports; in all endeavors) squander gifts and spoil opportunities, Youk is a perpetual poster boy for making (or, taking) the most out of whatever you’ve been given.  People who thought Youk couldn’t lighten up need to remember his intensity was focused on one thing: winning. When they won, he lightened up quite nicely, thank you. One of my fondest memories of him will be his demented pas de deux with Papelbon after the Sox clinched the ALCS in ’07.

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Tim Wakefield: Happy Trails to the Ultimate Class Act

We are in an extended post-millennial moment, as so many memorable figures from the 20th Century get older and start to pass away, where it’s both fitting and inevitable to proclaim, once they’re gone: We won’t see another like that.

Sometimes that sentiment is debatable, but when it comes to Tim Wakefield, who made the difficult decision to hang up his spurs today, there is no question that we are saying goodbye to a prototype from another era.

A knuckleballer.

Maybe we will have the occasional throwback, but this whole style of pitching does not translate into today’s world. The remarkable thing is, it didn’t seamlessly translate into yesterday’s world either. Just ask the poor suckers who tried to see (much less hit) Wakefield’s fluttering delivery when he was on his game. Having seen dozens of Wakefield starts (and relief performances) over the years, it was difficult to say, game-to-game, when he’d have his stuff and when he wouldn’t. When he did, you knew; when he didn’t, you knew (because balls would sail over the fence distressingly early and often). Even when he didn’t have his A-game, which was increasingly often in the final years, he had built up so much goodwill –as the ultimate team player, as a selfless superstar, as a man who genuinely cared about charity and did much to improve the community– that it was impossible for any true fan to ever dislike him.

The tributes will come, as they should (and the question will be begged: should his number be retired at Fenway? My immediate and considered real-time response: maybe), and there will, and should, be much discussion of his Lazarus-like return from the minor leagues, his brief stay in the Pirates organization and his semi-miraculous career rejuvenation in Boston. He became a fan favorite and he won a lot of games. But above all, he just kept pitching.

I will share probably 100% Red Sox Nation’s opinion when I declare that by far my favorite memory of Wake is when he sacrificed himself for the team during the Game 3 debacle vs. the Yankees in 2004. In a game they ended up losing 19-8, he knew it was a lost cause (the game and likely the series, as they fell into a 3-0 hole) and it was likely this was his last action of the season. But he also knew that if the team had any chance of coming back, or even salvaging some pride, he had to save the bullpen. He did and…well, the rest is history. (More on that here.)

The Sox ended up going to the Series and Wakefield ended up pitching, at home, in Game One. The Sox, you may have heard, won that series, and captured their first championship in 86 years. I was happy for the team, the city, the fans and myself. But after the misery of 2003, where he worried (after giving up the winning homer to Aaron Boone) if he was the next generation’s goat –something he need not have worried about– it was almost too good to be true watching him cry with delight and disbelief on the mound once the Sox won it all. It was a rare instance of the good guys winning (and I don’t mean the Red Sox, I mean the man). It was a pleasure following him and enjoying his unique play all these years.

His legacy is more than secure and one of the all-time fan faves will become a living legend who will never buy a meal in Boston for the rest of his life. Let’s hope he stays local and wallows in the love, admiration and respect he earned so slowly, so well and so honestly over the last two decades.

Happy trails Timmy, you will always be a champion.

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We’ll Always Have Pedro…

Yes, that hurt.

I mean, I shelled out the necessary cabbage to get the MLB ticket so I could catch as many Red Sox games as I desired.

How could I not? It was, after all, going to be a historic season.

Little did I know; little did anyone know (how could anyone know?) it would be historic all right, for all the wrong reasons.

Watching this group of overpaid, under-motivated, oddly heartless and more than a little soulless athletes (never forget: these are grown men playing a little boy’s game and getting paid handsomely, and in the case of Carl Crawford –who might face the indignity of being known henceforth as Carl Crawfraud in New England– paid extravagantly) stumble and lurch toward the inevitable these past 30 days has been many things. Maddening, inexplicable, comical, cringeworthy, embarrassing, futile and more than a few times bordering on masochistic. Why would someone endure such mediocrity night after excruciating night? Because that is what fans do. Because the people who jump ship never understand what it’s like to experience the joys and pains of loyalty. Certainly with the Sox there has been more pain than joy for the better part of a century, but this past decade has done much to make amends for the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune so celebrated in the media (Curse of the Bambino, anyone?). And I know there are few who would (or could bring themselves to) admit it, but even the die-hard folks who jumped ship after Game 3 in 2004 will never understand how truly miraculous and redemptory it was to experience the greatest comeback in all of sports history.

See, nothing will ever be the same after 2004 (not to mention the amazing digestif of 2007). Younger or incredibly myopic fans comparing last night (and this past month) to 2003, or 1986 or 1978 or 1975 have no idea how devastating those not-so-grand finales were, each in their own way. Books could be written and books in fact have been written about it. (Just like books will be written about what we witnessed last night across both leagues in a night that was as close to genuinely surreal as any in baseball history.) To lose in ’86 and then again in ’03 wasn’t just the pain of losing (itself unbearable under the circumstances of each scenario), it was the continuation of a seemingly preordained ritual: all the injustice and awful karma of the universe –athletically speaking, because only the most ill-adjusted fanatics will ever compare sports woes to real life tragedies– seemed aligned against this long-suffering, often pathetic franchise. There were several amazing players who helped change this, but the one man who forever changed the atmosphere in Boston is Pedro Martinez, arguably the dominant pitcher of his generation. Even when he played on mediocre teams (and it was his misfortune to do so when he was at the very height of his inhuman powers circa ’99-’01), he brought the air of possibility to Fenway. Anything could happen. Along with Manny, Schilling and a core group of “idiots” the impossible did happen.

So, what that beloved team accomplished (and the squads in ’04 and ’07 were definitely easy to love, just like the ’03 and, for the most part, ’86 teams) forever provided perspective for real Red Sox fans.

Let’s not kid ourselves: last night was an epic collapse and more than slightly surreal the way it unfolded. Worse, it brought back pre-’04 memories of the sinking feeling, the gradual acknowledgement of the inevitable: We’re going to blow this. And it hurts; it never doesn’t hurt. But not like it did; this past month, without the hindsight of the recent titles, would have been an apocalypse of sorts for all but the bravest or most impregnable Sox aficionados.

(And sidenote: the Sox practically begged the Rays to steal the wild-card slot; the way they played this past month and especially this past week, they not only had no right to assume things would go their way, the more grounded fans understood that even if the Sox were lucky enough to make it to October, their exit was likely to be quick and ugly. Then again, you never know what’s going to happen, in any sport, once the playoffs begin. And speaking of the Rays…it’s pretty hard to dislike a squad that has about one-fourth the Sox payroll, gets little media attention and can’t even come close to selling out its shithole of a stadium, yet still plays as if their fates depended upon it. Even after being down 7-0 in the 8th inning, they kept coming. They were, in many regards, the anti-Sox. If the Boston front office is wise, they will take copious notes.)

Simply put: although it was anything but pleasant to see the Sox sent meekly into the night (and the long, cold winter of Beantown’s discontent), the events of last evening did not make me hate the team or the sport. In fact, last night made me love baseball even more than I already did. This is what you watch for and this is what you hope for: win or lose, something memorable will happen. Just because Sox fans won’t soon forget this recent disgrace, Rays fans, including the ones who didn’t actually exit the stadium during the earlier innings, will remember that comeback for the rest of their lives. And the memory of Longoria hitting his second home run of the night to keep the dream alive will perhaps be invoked as comfort down the road if/when the Rays see a season come to too-early of an end.

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Thanksgiving 2010: Some Things I’m Grateful For

Give it up for old school (and the Oskar Blues brew pub’s vintage arcade room):

 

John Davis for helping make people aware of obscure American treasure, Blind Tom Wiggins (for eight bucks you can download this album at Amazon.com and it might just be the best money you spend this month, and possibly this year).

 

Speaking of American treasures, how lucky we are to have Mark Morford who is like a Mark Twain for our times or a David Sedaris with a political acumen. He slices, dices and souffles our imbecility and hypocrisy, and makes you laugh while you read about it (that itself is a minor miracle). Check him out this week, at the top of his game on the TSA silliness. Sample for your pleasure (and so I can read it for a third time):

Let’s also put aside the assorted political bitching of people like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — never one to pass up an opportunity to whine like a goddamn child and blame Obama for everything, despite how it was the Bush administration that invented the damnable TSA in the first place. Jindal says we should skip the groping and scanners and use some kind of profiling instead. Dear Gov. Jinhal: That’s a fine idea. Of course, you yourself, with your shifty eyes and scary, anti-American Hindu lineage, would be singled out for a hard grope in a millisecond. Just sayin’.

More? Okay!

And let’s ignore the inconvenient truth that a recent ABC poll found that 81 percent of Americans actually support the full-body scanners, at least until it happens to them. Is it not wonderful? Are we not a nation of fanciful hypocrites? Just add it to the list: security cams, irradiated food, red light cameras, handguns in bars? You bet! Except, oh wait, unless you’re talking about something near me.

That artists like David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Hamid Drake and William Parker are making music today that will be studied the way we dissect and savor all those impossibly perfect albums from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s:

William Parker Quartet:

David S. Ware Quartet:

For GQ writers, who continue (along with Esquire and Oxford American) produce the best feature stories year-in, year-out. 2010 is not over yet, but I already know I’m not going to read anything better, or more affecting, than Kathy Dobie’s piece (from the March issue), The Few, The Proud, The Broken. I’m sure the guy sitting next to me on the plane thought I was quietly weeping because my iPod had run out of juice, but it was actually because of the coruscating story I was reading. It got inside me and is still there. I’d suggest you read it, and keep it handy for future debates when your tax-cut-for-the-wealthy fellow Americans are using that shallow, scolding tone to talk about “entitlements”. Our collective willingness to wage war (on future generations’ tab!) and ignore the traumatized soldiers who return home has to rank near the top of topics we need to address.

For air conditioning:

Hey DeLay, how are you enjoying the (long, long overdue) hammer of justice?

For this guy with the Red Sox tat on his SCALP (and for me being able to get his picture without him noticing and beating me up):

For the spider that has lived in my car since this summer.

For having a great Pops, Mom and sister/brother combination.

For John & Holly:

For Arthur Lee and all the gifts he left behind, like this:

For Beethoven and Barenboim:

The collective wisdom of crowds (thank you YouTube!).

And finally (for now), Myron (and his mum), one of the most wonderful, soulful stories I’ve been fortunate enough to see this year.

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Daniel Bard: Sports Porn

Describing what music sounds like is difficult enough.

Trying to articulate what Daniel Bard is capable of doing with a baseball is pretty much impossible. Fortunately, a picture is worth a thousand words; a GIF is worth a million. (That it’s against the Yankees: priceless.)

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