Monthly Archives: April 2010

Penn Relays coverage

I covered the Penn Relays for the Times this weekend, and here and here are the two stories I wrote.

The first story is a feature on Ryan Bailey, who may be the next great American sprinter. How he got there is quite a story.

The second story is a recap of the final day of the three-day event. Usain Bolt was the main attraction, and a record of almost 55,000 filled historic Franklin Field for the chance to see the world’s fastest man. He didn’t disappoint. The stadium went absolutely berserk for those under-9 seconds as Bolt took the baton and sprinted home. Just think: what other athlete – or sport, for that matter – can provide such excitement and drama in 9 seconds?

I’ve never been at such an electric sporting event. They officially call it a carnival, and rightfully so; there are no breaks between races, and you have no time to turn away. As for the main event, the anticipation rose to a tangible crescendo in the 75 minutes from when Bolt appeared to warm up in the infield until the actual race. When he first appeared, the stadium rumbled.

Jamaicans love track and field, and, as I learned from speaking to a few people afterward, they love the Penn Relays. It’s a goal every year for Jamaican high school teams to get there. They grow up hearing and watching the Relays. Consider that Bolt and his relay team were practicing handoffs on a track marked up like Franklin Field’s for two weeks before the event, and the superstar waived his appearance fee to compete there. Outside the Olympics or World Championships, there’s nothing like this competition.

As I wrote in my recap for the Times, the colors of the 116th Penn Relays were green and yellow.

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Stories from the press box: Joe Hintelmann

This is the first post in a series of stories from the press box – the strange, the memorable, the humorous, the divine, and more. These are stories of the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen in my years writing about horse racing. Knowledge of horse racing isn’t required, only an appreciation of the low-life and its wonderful characters.

In the years 2000 through 2002, when I was a beat reporter at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, Joe Hintelmann reliably arrived at the press box at 11 every morning, nearly two hours before first post and ahead of just about any other reporter. If the security guard had not done so already, he would put on a pot of coffee in the kitchen. He was, technically, a reporter, by the loose standards of the turf. Racetracks prove the adage that any press is good press, even if, in the case of Hintelmann, his weekly rag, The Two River Times, didn’t have him write anything. It’s unclear if he ever did. I never saw him type a word – on a typewriter, or laptop, or word processor.  This never seemed to be an annoyance for Hintelmann. He was like a sentry on the Maginot Line who diligently maintained his outpost long after the war was over. It was better to hold onto an old reality rather than give up the perks of the job.

After he put on the coffee, Hintelmann would walk over to his corner seat at the long window and desk of the main room and set down his cherry-brown briefcase. (The view from there was spectacular; the finish line was below and an even a rudimentary pair of binoculars could clearly pick up the horses as they ran down the backstretch.) It was something an accountant might carry in the typewriter age. He’d take out a few papers, scan them slowly, and place them next to his briefcase. Since he hadn’t written a story in years, I could never imagine what mysteries those papers contained.

Hintelmann was tall, six-three or six-four, and had a wild shock of white hair. He was in his early 70s, and although he was friendly he usually kept to himself. What little I knew about him was that he had been a local high school teacher, he was now retired, and he liked to take cruises in the winter. At the start of the Monmouth season, in May, somebody would ask him where he had traveled, and that conversation was about all that Hintelmann said for four months, other than daily pleasantries.

He’d get the day’s scratches early, but his betting strategy was simple and never wavered. He bet on jockey Luis Rivera every time, no matter what. To say this was a losing proposition doesn’t do it justice. Rivera rode longshots almost exclusively. He was, in railbird vernacular, a human anchor on a horse. He was an older jockey and at that time in the twilight of his career. He might win one or two races over the course of four months. Regardless of his chances, however, Hintelmann bet $2 to win on every single one of Rivera’s mounts, which many days were few. I guess Hintelmann had a thing for the underdog.

Hintelmann always ate his lunch early, sometimes before other reporters even arrived in the press box. When they were ordering lunch he was clamoring for an ice cream dessert. And when the best races went off, and reporters watched them intently for their articles, Hintelmann had already left, gone before 4.  It was the same routine every day.

After 2002, I was no longer at Monmouth on a daily basis, but on my regular trips there I’d see Hintelmann and say hello. One of the last times I saw him was in 2005, at the press conference for the $1 million Haskell Invitational, Monmouth’s premiere race. I sat at his table. Other reporters had on their best jeans, but Hintelmann wore a long, light blue polyester blazer, something stored in moth balls particularly for this occasion; it was at least twice as old as me. His white hair was neatly combed. It was charming and nostalgic. He obviously appreciated the invitation, even though his deadline wasn’t pressing.

After the brief press conference, reporters flocked like wild dogs to the free buffet. Crab cakes were always the big draw. Hintelmann had a plate full. As we finished our lunches, he took several crab cakes from his plate, wrapped them in napkins, and slid them in his jacket pocket. Noticing me watching him, he said, sheepishly and with a slight grin, “For the elevator ride to the press box.”

The thing about the press box cast was that nothing ever changed. In September we’d go our separate ways and in May we’d return and pick up where we had left off. Conversations about what people had done that offseason usually lasted a day. There was a motley group of reporters, officials, and hanger-ons, those who had somehow become accepted in the press box even though they weren’t press. Everybody loved being there.

Of the people there in my formative years, Hintelmann was the first who didn’t return. This was 2006. He died that July at age 76. From his obituary, I learned that he had been the chairperson of the English Department at Red Bank Catholic High School for 47 years. As the local paper announced, “He proudly served our country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was a great traveler taking cruises to many places in Mexico and the Caribbean. He was an avid Yankees fan. During the summertime, he worked as a sports reporter with the former Red Bank Register covering the Monmouth Park race track, handicapping as ‘Reggie Ster.’ He also reported for the Two River Times at the track and was the sports reporter for the Newark Star Ledger covering Shore area high school sporting events.”

Nobody has since occupied the seat where Hintelmann sat. There are no daily reporters left in the press box. At least Hintelmann showed up for work every day, even after there wasn’t any work left to do.

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The rise of Sal

My apartment building in Cobble Hill, a rather fashionable neighborhood in Brooklyn these days, sticks out like a weed in an otherwise neatly manicured garden. Sitting on perhaps the noisiest stretch of a relatively quiet neighborhood, across from a rowdy high school courtyard where juvenile delinquents fill the air with epithets from morning to afternoon, the building is what might now pass for a tenement. Its brick exterior is a drab brown, the heat and hot water are as temperamental as an unruly toddler, and the croaks and groans of pipes and radiators often pierce the night’s silence. The front door doesn’t lock and Yemeni kids who call the building home loiter on the front stoop, particularly in warm months. Its four floors hold a crowded mix of old-timers, young arrivals to the neighborhood, and large Yemeni families. In spite of everything, though, that mix makes it a pleasant, even charming, home.

The building is part of the real estate empire of a Yemeni man and his family (the name of which I’ll refrain from using), which owns many buildings in the neighborhood (Yemenia Airways on Court St. and Aden News on Smith St., to name a few); the namesake, who has since returned to Yemen, is something of a nobleman there. He once graced the list of the top 25 New York City slumlords. I’ve heard that he lives in a castle in Yemen and keeps several wives.

The namesake’s burly son (whose name will remain anonymous), who must be in his early twenties, has run the show the last few years; until recently, he had been somewhat more responsive than his father in addressing this building’s constant problems. But in the last seven months, things have turned around here, and it’s in great part due to our new landlord, Sal, his half-brother. Sal can’t be more than 16 or 17, but the way in which he’s filled into his role has been fun to watch. Whether planned or not, he was brought into the fold at a time of great distress in the building, and from that crucible he’s emerged as the unlikeliest of leaders.

I’ve lived in the building since September 2008, and around that time Sal (before I knew his name) was just one of the Yemeni teens on the front stoop. He didn’t even live in the building, but the stoop is the meeting place for all of those who live in Cobble Hill. Sal didn’t stand out; he has a baby face, short curly hair, and is hardly taller than five-feet. At times he’s tried in vain to grow a thin mustache. Among the group, he never said much. The boys’ conversations are full of empty bluster – overnight stays in juvenile detention, petty theft, tough talk – but they’re actually pleasant and respectful. They hold the door for you and clear a path when you walk up the front steps. I’ve seen them return from the local Met with groceries in hand for their mothers.

Sal’s coronation arrived last July. There was almost a popular uprising in the building when the gas pipeline went out and we were left without cooking gas. Every day brought more promises of solving the problem, and construction in the basement and inside the apartments became an unnerving daily fixture, but weeks passed with no hope for resolution. Sal’s half brother, the actual landlord, went missing in action. Then, one day, he told tenants that he was sending over his brother to oversee the repairs. Unbeknownst to me, his brother was one of those Yemeni teens; he had been plucked from high school and the stoop for what was his family duty. He introduced himself as Sal, apparently short for Salim, but still I chuckled at his Americanized nickname.

Sal oversaw daily repairs, and, surprisingly for the once-notorious operation, he got things done. Within short time the workers he supervised had installed new pipes in each apartment; the gas, after a month on the lam, had returned. You could see Sal slowly grow into his role. After the problem was fixed, he sat on the stoop, warmly receiving praise from tenants.

Since then, Sal has been the de facto landlord of our building. He quickly responds to any request that goes through his half-brother. (I’ve heard they’re related through their father; their mothers are two of his multiple wives.) The other day Sal himself fixed my leaky shower faucet and radiator. I have seen him fixing the door of one of their newsstands on Court Street. Sometimes he sits on our stoop with his trademark newsies cap turned backwards, like a lord overseeing his fiefdom. One night I saw him walking down Court St. with a few older friends, wearing a suit several sizes too big, ready for a night on the town. And though he no longer spends much time with the other kids on the stoop, when he does, they pay their respects to him like a young Don Corleone.

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