The New Jersey Nets have the best record in the NBA East. Have any of you in the rest of the country noticed? We have. Just the other day I heard someone talking about it at a Newark Bears game. And a few days ago, going into Manhattan, I could have sworn I heard someone talk about it right after finishing a long conversation on the Masters. On the whole, I'd say folks around here are pretty excited about the Nets. Not quite as excited, maybe, as they are about the Jersey Devils' chances. And frankly, there's a lot more concern over when Jason Giambi is going to break loose than there is about the Devils' chances in the playoffs.
Still, though, it tops, say, Seton Hall recruiting in the local papers. Some people, most of them in Manhattan, seem to think there's something wrong with us because we're not as collectively nuts about the Nets as they would be if the Nets were a New York team. Which is not to say that the level of crowd enthusiasm isn't greater -- in fact, significantly greater -- out here than at Madison Square Garden. It's just that you have far smaller demand for tickets than at the Garden, largely because we get fewer celebrities out here.
This is partly because it is not particularly chic for celebrities to come to New Jersey, which is just fine with us. We're somewhat blasé about celebrities out here because, in fact, most people from New Jersey are celebrities. I could just say the words "Frank Sinatra" and leave it at that, but the truth is that most of the movie stars, the really significant ones, Susan Sarandon, John Travolta, Michael Douglas, Kevin Spacey (who grew up about two blocks from where I write this), Tom Cruise (who grew up about a mile from here), Bruce Willis, Kirsten Dunst (about half a mile from Cruise's house), Elizabeth Shue (who went to the high school right outside my window), Ray Liotta, Robert Wuhl, Linda Fiorentino, Danny DeVito (who waited on tables two towns over), Whitney Houston (whose mom directs a church choir in Newark), Jason Alexander (who went to Livingston High right down the road) and, oh, maybe a couple of dozen others are from New Jersey. Other celebrity types like Bruce and Bon Jovi and Lauryn Hill (who shops at my Rite Aid) and most significant athletes, current or retired (such as Yogi Berra, who has a museum not far from me), are either from or live in New Jersey. And though it isn't widely known, nearly all truly great American literature was written by writers from New Jersey. (I refer not so much to our greatest man of letters, Edmund Wilson, or our greatest living poet, W. S. Merwin, or even Philip Roth, but to Mark Leyner, whose "The Tetherballs of Bougainville" will dominate next century's best-of lists the way "Ulysses" and "Lolita" did the last one.)
But I digress. My point is that we are not so impressed by celebrities as the provincials in Manhattan because we grew up with it. Celebrities aren't going to come to games in New Jersey because no one is going to fawn over them the way they do in Manhattan. Out here, Tom Cruise is more likely to run into the old high school chum who knew him before the plastic surgery. Another reason is that we're used to winners out here. You did know, didn't you, that New York City has no NFL teams and that the only area team to win a Super Bowl in the last 30 years is the New Jersey Giants -- didn't you? And yet another reason we don't get too worked up is, because, well, simply put, we're very down to earth out here and don't really need the kind of reassurance that some people have to get vicariously through sports teams. Which is not to say we don't want it, sometimes, but that when we do we could easily go get it some other place. Understand, we like having the Nets out here, but we've always been a little bit puzzled as to why the National Basketball Association felt compelled to place a pro basketball team in between the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks. (Yes, yes, I know, they were left over from the old NBA-ABA merger, but wouldn't they be more appreciated in a state that, well, needs its own team? Maybe like Alabama?)
What the people who rule the NBA and Major League Baseball (or at least the portion of it that occasionally talks about building a stadium out here) don't understand is that we no more want these kind of distractions out here in our sylvan-wooded hills than we want Greenwich Village leather bars (not that we aren't glad for the express train that drops you off just two blocks from the Village). If we're going to build a day or night around a game, we'd just as soon cross the river and go into New York. The traffic moves no slower, and the restaurants are better.
But don't misunderstand me: Go Nets! Beat Sixers!
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Written by Mike Rich and directed by John Lee Hancock, whose previous work I'm not familiar with, "The Rookie," starring Dennis Quaid, is one of the most remarkable sports films I've ever seen. Exactly how good it is didn't quite dawn on me until I reflected back on it and started realizing all the things that weren't in the film. The first half, which is the part your kids will probably enjoy the most, is about how Jim Morris, an ex-big league prospect turned high school coach, inspires his team to take their divisional championship. The relaxed no-nonsense approach Morris brings to his baseball coaching is reflected in Rich's unpretentious treatment of the material (and also through Dennis Quaid's hype-free acting). This serves him even better in the second half of the film when the 36-year-old Morris, keeping a bet with his players, gives the major leagues a second chance. ("The Rookie" is based with surprising truthfulness on the story of Jim Morris, who blew out his arm as a 19-year-old prospect and made his major league debut 17 years later with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, appearing just long enough to have, as they say, a "cup of coffee" in the 1999 season and then a couple more the next year.)
By the time Morris actually appears outside of the Texas Rangers' home park in Arlington we're so completely with him that it doesn't matter that the game he gets to pitch in, in front of his family and hometown friends, is completely meaningless. Rich and Hancock could have hoked up the story into a poor man's version of "The Natural," falsifying a real-life story the way Robert Redford desecrated Bernard Malamud's novel. But there are no artificial sweeteners in this big league coffee, and Morris' achievement in simply appearing in a major league game offers a more than valid emotional payoff.
Young viewers, I found, were a little bit lost in the second half of the film. They're spoon-fed so many stories with bullshit heroics that they may not comprehend exactly why it means so much for Quaid's Coach Morris to simply make the team. Of course, they can't appreciate what Morris has done because they're kids; adults will have to explain it to them. But that's why they call them "family movies," right?
Any book that gets endorsements from Ted Williams, Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson and George Steinbrenner deserves some notice, and as far as I know the only book to get cover blurbs from all four is "Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad" by Birdie Tebbetts and James Morrison (new from Triumph Books, $19.95). A lot of old-timers' reminiscences are at best cooked-up justifications for their bad playing or managing and at worst grudge settlers. But Tebbetts' recollections are funny and incisive, and in the end, quite addictive. "Birdie" clocks in at 205 pages, and I honestly could have used a hundred more.