This Friday in New York, the Mets will be playing at their new stadium, the ponies will be running at Aqueduct and friends of the late Joey Goldstein will be gathering for a memorial service.
The last is by far the most significant occasion, for when Joey died recently at age 81, it pretty much concluded an epoch: the age of the sports PR guy. Joey was the best at that arcane craft that is now dying out, along with, alas, the newspapers that his breed served so well.
It's important to understand, first, that a sports PR guy was definitely not like his more famous, obsequious cousin, the showbiz press agent. A press agent's main job always has seemed to amend or contain the negative. Sports PR guys are positive by nature. They just want to get their clients in the paper, to help let the public know that there's an event out there that could entertain you mightily, if only you would be so wise as to spring for a ticket.
Or, as Joey once declared in his best Damon Runyon argot: "I am not a hustler. I am a practitioner who enlightens the American populace and brings joy to the world."
Generally, such a practitioner dispensed said mirth by regularly visiting newspapers and schmoozing. Ink! Gimme some ink. The glory days for men like Joey were when newspapers yet reigned. Believe it or not, once upon a time, everything was not on television; nobody had heard of "ratings" and the whole of sports was the gate — that's tickets, ducats, pasteboards.
Back when the National Basketball Association was struggling not to be dismissed as a bush league, the Knicks got hot and pro basketball was suddenly the buzz of New York. The Knicks PR aide told me that even The Times of London wanted to cover a playoff game. Thinking that would make an interesting interview, I inquired where I might find that venerable British correspondent. Incredulous at my naivete, the PR guy explained he hadn't issued him a credential: "Hey, Frank, c'mon — how many tickets can I sell in England?" Instead, the would-be Times credential and worldwide attention for the NBA went to something like a weekly sheet in Passaic, N.J. Tickets!
So Joey worked out of his suit, jotting down notes on little pink cards. Nobody turned him away, because when it came to the currency he worked in -— stories -— he was rich. Most famously, a trotting horse from France named Jamin arrived in this country to race. Jamin liked artichokes. But the Department of Agriculture held them up. Joey put out a distress call for artichokes. It made all the papers. The artichokes poured in. Also, the race card sold more than 45,000 tickets. And Jamin, his belly full of donated American artichokes, won. Joey had again brought joy to a cynical world.
Commentator Frank Deford weighs in from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.