The humble sandlot baseball field behind Waldbaum’s supermarket in East Hampton last Saturday was festooned with pennants, banners and inflatables. Tents were lined up along the third base line. The crowd had assembled. The 65th running of the annual Artist and Writers softball game was about to get underway.
And so it was that I walked up to the table where you pay to get in and when asked to pay the $10 entrance fee, said the same thing I’ve said for the last 30 years.
“I’m the umpire.”
“Oh yes,” the woman behind the table said. “I recognize you. Well, you’ve paid in other ways. I’ve seen it.”
And she waved me through. She was referring to when the game had been halted in years gone so the players on each team could chew me out about a play in public, either separately or together. Beyond the table, I saw them there, the Writers in black uniforms and the Artists in white, just waiting to pounce.
“Thanks,” I said. And I walked in.
Batting practice was still under way. Players from both sides were out in the field, with pitchers lobbing in strikes and balls and batters getting the feel of the clunk of ball hitting the bat. There was something old and there was something new out on that field. The old were the players who had been there year after year for 25 years or more. They have good baseball names like Auletta, Ernst, Hollander, Bernard, Strong, Zuckerman, Singer, Meizlik, Lupica. The new were those here for the first or second or third time, Baer, Tyson, Lauer.
Ed Bleier, on the sidelines, had this to say. “The Writers this year look slightly younger than the Yankees.”
Ceremonies at the pitcher’s mound preceded the throwing out of the first ball. The Mayor spoke. An award was handed out for last year’s player of the game, Jay DiPietro. Members of many local churches, united in chorus, sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” A wounded warrior, Tim Brown, threw out the first ball. And everybody applauded as the artists trotted out onto the field to take their places. Mort Zuckerman, owner of The New York Daily News, came out to the mound and I handed him the ball. But the next order of business, before “play ball” could be announced, was to dust off home plate, trot back out to the mound and get the pitcher on the rubber. The rubber is three inches wide and one foot long. The pitcher has to be standing on it when he throws. There was no rubber.
We wandered around, Zuckerman and I, kicking at the dust, hoping to find it. It must have been walked away with, is what I thought. We were holding up the start of the game, trudging around out there like that.
Finally, I drew a line in the dust.
“Use this line as a rubber,” I said.
Zuckerman balked. “It’s too far from home plate,” he said.
He then moved forward about three feet and drew his own line. But I wasn’t happy with that.
“It’s too close,” I said.
“This is where it has to be,” Zuckerman said.
At that point, Leif Hope, the manager of the game, appeared on the mound, followed by New York State Supreme Court Judge Richard Lowe III. Lowe made a line in the sand partway between my line and Zuckerman’s line, although much closer to Zuckerman’s line.
“Here is where it has to be,” he said.
“How do you know?” Leif asked.
“Because it has to be 42 feet from home plate,” the judge said. “And I paced it off.”
“How big is your foot?” Zuckerman asked.
At that moment, the controversy ended. The judge’s foot struck rubber. It was four or five inches down under the dust. Just where he said it would be. I looked at it. “Archaeology,” I muttered.
And so, in the end, that is where Zuckerman stood when he threw his first pitch, a strike to leadoff Artist Eric Ernst.
In the top of the first, the Artists went down quickly, one, two, three. Over time, the Writers have won these annual meetings more often than the Artists have. So this was an inauspicious beginning for them.
The Writers also batted quickly against perennial pitcher Joe Sopiak, concluding their bats in just 10 minutes, although they did score a run. And it was at this point, at the end of this one inning, that I handed the ball over behind the mound to New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who would take over balls and strikes.
There would be several celebrity umpires in this game. Not only would there be Commissioner Kelly, but there also would be TV anchor Matt Lauer and the aforementioned New York State Supreme Court Judge Lowe. I moved over to umpire first base for a time.
As it happened, it was the middle of the bottom half of the second half of the second inning, with Commissioner Kelly umpiring, that all hell broke loose.
The announcement came over the PA system. “President Bill Clinton is here. He was an umpire years ago. He’s over by the third base line. Perhaps he would love to come over to us at the announcers table and say something.”
Clinton, however, never had that choice. The crowd, having run over to him, was now so thick you could no longer see him in there. It was also all spilling over onto the field by the third base line and left field.
At this point, on the field, the Artists, waiting for the batter to hit, dropped their gloves and trotted over to join the melee of photographers, reporters, Secret Service men, fans and well-wishers. They had created an alternate universe. And they all—well, maybe not the Secret Service men—wanted to either touch or talk to or have their pictures taken with the President, which was something he was willing to do.
I was on first base at the time this began, and I stood there and watched. I did not want to leave my post. But after a while, I did leave. This was now going on almost 15 minutes. The game was completely stopped. This had never happened before.
I looked for our umpire, Commissioner Kelly. Commissioner Kelly was over with the President, his arm around him, the President smiling, and with his Artist-Writers baseball cap askew. “I would just like to say I really am enjoying…” the President said before the microphone dissolved into feedback. You could not hear the rest.
At a certain point, Commissioner Kelly, with his own paparazzi surrounding him, sort of flew out of this universe near to me. I grabbed at his arm.
“Mr. Commissioner,” I said, “all hell has broken loose. It’s chaos out there. You need to get out and restore order.”
Kelly nodded at me and finally strode out to the mound, where, after another minute or two, he took control. And once again, the game continued.
In the bottom of the second, Rick Leventhal led off with a single and eventually came around to score. Writers 2, Artists 0. The Writers were winning. All was right with the world. But the Artists fought back and were ahead, 5 to 2, by the end of the fourth. David Baer, the Player of the Game two years ago, came to bat for the Writers in the bottom of the fifth and hit a long home run over the wall. He trotted happily around. The game was tied at 5 to 5.
I have to report that during this game some of the most astonishing catches in its long history were made in the outfield, sometimes even with crashes into the snow fence. Eric Ernst made one huge catch. Richard Weise another. One was made while my back was turned, bending over to talk to a little girl who had come over to the first base line.
A cheer went up.
“Wow!” came the report over the PA system. “I can’t believe it. That was the best catch I have ever seen in the last 10 YEARS!”
I turned. But it was too late to see who had accomplished that.
The play of the game occurred on a pitch thrown by New York Daily News sportswriter Mike Lupica with a man on and one out in the top of the sixth. The man who came to bat was not in the regular batting order, and was not on the list of players. He was big, young and powerful.
“Who is the new guy?” one of the Writers in the infield asked. “I don’t know,” somebody replied. Everyone playing had their name on the back of their baseball game shirt. This one didn’t.
“Come on, New Guy,” an Artist shouted. “New Guy, New Guy!”
He swung awkwardly at the first pitch and missed. It was an odd swing.
On the mound, as relief pitcher Mike Lupica told me after the game, he concluded this man, big as he was, was no batter. Now, he’d throw some off the plate to watch him try to hit them. But they went by and New Guy kept his bat on his shoulder. Ball one, ball two, ball three. Now it was three and one.
Mike was telling this story at a round table in the courtyard of the Race Lane restaurant with myself, Ken Auletta, Richard Reeves, Judge Lowe, ex-cheerleader Susan O’Malley and Ed Hollander in attendance. We were all drinking beer, sorrowfully discussing what happened next, amid the hubbub of this after-game party.
“I just thought, if he can’t hit, I’ll throw him one right up across the plate,” Mike said. “No sense walking him. So that’s what I did. How could I KNOW!!”
KA-BOOM! Mr. New Guy clobbered the ball over the fence and far off into the outer reaches of the tennis court beyond left field. It was a historic, long shot. He trotted around the bases and the whole Artists team came out to meet him as he passed third and headed for home. “New Guy! New Guy!”
A great controversy erupted after that about who he was and why he was playing. But he was legit, as Leif Hope said. This was Jamie Patricof, creator and producer of The Life, an Emmy-nominated documentary series for ESPN, who had broken the game open. His two-run home run had put the Artists ahead 7 to 5, and they were to stay with that lead to win at the end by 8 to 6. Indeed, a rally in the bottom of the eighth came to an end when Mike Lupica himself bounced out to third. Game over.
We talked a bit more for a while at Race Lane. Everyone was still in uniform, hot and sweaty and covered in dust. The beer was Brooklyn Light Ale, the best. “I’m told,” someone said, “that Patricof’s name was already on the Player of the Game trophy when he showed up to play.”
“You know,” someone else said, “there’s no crying in the Artists-Writers Game.”
At the end, Leif Hope, in that courtyard, stood up on a chair and told us the true results of this game. Under the direction of Deb McEneaney and her team of volunteers, a total of $150,000 had been raised for East End Hospice, East Hampton Day Care Learning Center, Phoenix House and the Retreat. It was an enormous accomplishment, nearly 10 times what had been raised in any prior year. A home run.
The Artists: The Writers:
Russell Blue David Baer (MVP ’11),
Peter Borish Carl Bernstein
Pete Cestaro Bill Collage
Michael Doughtry Jay DiPietro
Dennis Duswalt Walter Isaacson
Michael Easton Rick Leventhal
Eric Ernst Jim Leyritz
Ed Hollander Mike Lupica (MVP ’09)
Dennis Lawrence Jay McInerney
John Longmire Lee Minetree
Eddie McCarthy Zack O’Malley
Jeffrey Meizlik Michael Pellman
Matt Montemaro Brett Shevack
Ron Noy Benito Vila
Jamie Patricof Paul Winum
Randall Rosenthal Richard Wiese
Lori Singer Mort Zuckerman
Joe Sopiak (MVP ’07 & ’08)
Neil deGrasse Tyson
The Umpires: Dan Rattiner, Ray Kelly, Honorable Richard Lowe III, Matt Lauer, Ed Bieier
ARTISTS 0 0 2 3 0 2 1 0 0 8
WRITERS 1 1 0 0 3 0 0 1 0 6
Check out photos from the event in our photo gallery.