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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ruben Amaro, Jr.s long walk from the bull(shit) pen

There's no corporate-speak crying in baseball

Recently fired Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. grew up in the Rhawnhurst section of Philly and should have been perceived as one of us, but he never was. He’d even been a batboy for the Phillies when he was a kid, but fans never saw him as a local guy. He wasn’t. Something was always a bit off about him.
That something was his language. It was fuzzy, so it seemed deceptive. Maybe he spoke a different way at home, or when playing cards with his buddies, but whenever he said something official his words sounded like double talk. His vocabulary bulged with the big, flat, dead words of a public relations expert.
His tone ignored the humble roots of the only sport whose heroes sit and spit tobacco juice and pumpkin seeds on the dugout carpet while waiting their turn to bat. The players’ locker room is the last stronghold for adult millionaires who still think its funny to spray shaving cream at one another.
Ruben Amaro Jr. went to William Penn Charter and Stanford. In college he did not major in business, as one might suspect of someone who tried to turn the muscular English language into creamed corn. He majored in human biology. Afterward he played professional baseball for a handful of years, some of them with the Phillies. When he finished playing, he went to work for the Phillies organization, worked hard and became general manager, the person responsible, among other things, for hiring and firing ballplayers who might help the team win a championship. What we got from Amaro instead was bad teams and dead speeches.
Let’s cue the tape here and offer samples of Ruben Amaro Jr. sound bites: “Aaron had a very consistent year … and he has found his niche with us as a valuable piece of the bullpen mix.” Translation: He pitched well enough, so we signed him as a relief pitcher.
Amaro in a May, 2015 interview on CSN Philly.com: “These guys having success is good for us on all fronts, whether they stick with us and continue to be part of what we’re trying to do moving forward or whether we utilize those assets to improve our club. Them doing well can only help our club.” Attempted translation: “It’ll be easier to trade some of these guys if they get some hits.”
From an August interview with Mike Sielski on Philly.com: “We took a pretty analytical approach as far as what we saw with these guys and where the trends might be. Naturally, as players get older, their ability to function at the same level can dip.” Translation: We finally figured out that our older players are past their prime.
In firing beloved manager Charlie Manuel, Amaro said they were “making a managerial change.” Charlie, famous for his plain speech, said: “Let’s make this clear: I never quit nothin’. And I didn’t resign.”
Charlie Manuel’s speech habits delighted fans because he spoke plainly and always seemed to be speaking honestly. Though he talked to management every day, his speech was never corrupted by phrases like “put a product on the field,” (get good baseball players) or having “pieces that can move us in the right direction” (players who win).
Such abstract language puts a 10-foot wall of cotton batting between the ball club and the fans. It hinders mutual understanding. Heck, it keeps the club executives from knowing their own thoughts. People lose sight of their objectives when they resort to speaking in abstractions. Noisy, loyal, passionate, traditional followers of the team get referred to by them as “the gate,” or the “fanbase.”
The smell of popcorn and hot dogs is noticed only as ancillary income from comestibles. The feel, look, and atmosphere of the stadium gets spoken of as its “ambience.” The heart of baseball is ignored when every aspect of it is described in language taken from a quarterly report to the stockholders.
In that respect, for all his obvious brains, Ruben Amaro Jr. never learned to speak bilingually. He had the language of the boardroom down cold. But he couldn’t speak to the fans. His mind seemed trapped in a place where he could never stop analyzing how his product should be described in the “entertainment business” marketing kit. He was like a drama critic who never really sees what is happening in a play because he’s so busy writing the review in his mind. The problem with such public-relations-speak is that its creators might wind up believing the crap they say. And lose the ability to see what’s happening before their eyes.
People like that think that cleverness with language can help them fool the masses. They think that flattening bad news can make it acceptable. Euphemisms don’t fool anyone, however. Nor does double speak. They simply make the speaker seem to be foolish, or worse, a bullshitter.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A rumba on the beach with Fellini's "la Saraghina"

              Since last May most of my Chestnut Hill Local newspaper columns have been about people who were not what they seemed to be. For example, I’ve written about Margaret Wise Brown, the children’s book author (Goodnight Moon) who turned out to be quite neurotic, depressed and misguided. And John Howard Griffin, a white journalist (Black like Me) who passed as a Negro to travel the American south recording the racial oppression he observed. Most recently, I told how the world-famous “Crying Indian” (from the 1970s anti-pollution ads) was really the movie actor Iron Eyes Cody – who was in real life a Sicilian American from Louisiana.
            I hesitate to include today’s illusion, “la Saraghina,” in this series. The woman who played this character in Federico Fellini’s classic movie “8 1/2” never pretended to be anything other than what she was – an actress. Nonetheless, her performance in her one big scene in that movie was so perfect she remains lodged in my mind as the grotesque dancing temptress known as la Saraghina.
            Young cinema buffs can never know how we all awaited and anticipated each new Fellini film back in the 1960s. Fellini and Italy were inextricably linked. His movies were thoroughly original, and terrifically entertaining. He wrote and directed most of his films. What will he do next? was on our collective movie-going minds whenever he released a new movie. They were not classics then; they were modern.
Fellini’s films were heavily autobiographical. “8 1/2” appeared after he had written seven and a half previous films. It is a movie about a middle-aged filmmaker’s struggle to wrestle his script (and his life) into shape. Nearly half the scenes portray current fantasies or flashbacks to his past. In the scene from “8 1/2” I want to relate to you, the main character, Guido, the movie maker, is bored as he listens to a priest lecturing to him in a garden. Distracted, he watches a middle-aged peasant woman with bare feet as she hikes her skirt to her knee while descending a slope. The sight triggers a reminiscence. He is a boy again, about twelve, on the cusp of sexuality. His friends urge him to come with them to the beach and see la Seraghina. He joins them as they run away from the village, to the beach, where they cry out her name, “Saraghina! Saraghina!” Out of the darkness of a beach shed, a figure emerges. The sound track begins with some churchly organ chords that soon morph into what is now known as the famous “Saraghina rumba.” We see her. She is large and mysterious. Her black hair is full and disarrayed, framing her wild, round face. Her astonishing, upward-slanting eyebrows punctuate her knowing eyes and lascivious mouth. She takes a proffered coin from Guido, puts it in her large bosom, pulls her blouse to expose her shoulders, pauses, and begins to dance for the boys. They stand there, howling and hooting, as her hips and bosom roll sensuously for their delight. She picks up Guido and holds him close as she raises him high...
            Too bad we’ll never know what might have happened next. Two priests came running up to the scene. The boys fled. Guido was caught and dragged home. Cut back to present time in the garden, the adult Guido nodding perfunctorily as the priest talks and his boyhood memory fades.
            What a great scene! Indelible. The essence of Italian cinema to me back then when all was new. Funny, thoughtful, offbeat, sensuous, satiric. And la Saraghina: An icon of Italian sexuality to those young, uninitiated boys. All the swells and curves of the female shape widely exaggerated. Made up to seem repellent, but still mysteriously attractive. As though one wandered backstage and learned some truth about women, especially Italian women. Ah, that’s what they’re really like. Raw and irresistible.
            Another unforgettable Fellini character. (For a treat, see “Fellini’s Faces,” a book that contains over 600 headshots of characters Fellini auditioned over the years.) La Saraghina has been blazed into my memory all these years. Enough so, that last month I wanted to know more. I wanted to see the beach scene again and found it easily on YouTube. It was as good as I remembered it. Better in some ways because my accrued maturity allowed me to appreciate her more. Fascinating. But who was the actress? What part of Italy was she from? Did she appear in other Fellini movies?
            The IMDB revealed that la Saraghina, to my complete and utter surprise, to my everlasting amusement, was played by a woman named Eddra Gale. Who had been an opera singer from Chicago! Of Norwegian descent. She was living in Milan in the early 60s, taking vocal lessons. Fellini saw her on the street one day and asked her to audition for “8 1/2.” She had just the look he was searching for. The rest is cinema history.
            And thus it happened that this tempestuous figure, by appearances straight out of classical Italian peasant folklore, was anything but: she was a Scandinavian American from Chicago, of all places. Another cinematic illusion. After this film, she went on to appear in over 100 movies and TV shows including, “The Graduate,” “What’s New Pussycat,” and “Somewhere in Time.” She died in New Mexico in 2001.
Obviously, like the other persons I’ve described in this series so far, Ms. Gale and Sig. Fellini had an intent to deceive us. But in a different way. They presented us with a greater and more memorable truth than any mere press clipping or advertisement ever could. The moral: Always remember, my stage-door nephews, that an actress and the role she plays are two different creatures. A great screen role lives forever.

            I’ll never forget you, Seraghina. Thank you, Eddra.