Ol’ Blue Eyes and Bleeding Dodger Blue
If you don’t like either Sinatra or baseball, this column isn’t for you. You don’t have to like both, but digging one is the price of admission to this special club. The chairman of our board is a life and legend taken from us far too early, at the age of 62. He succumbed to cancer almost exactly 16 years ago this month.
I’m not referring to Francis Albert Sinatra, but rather Mervyn Stuart Rabin, a long-time sales executive and one of our industry’s very best.
When I met him at the San Francisco market, he was managing sales for Kushwood. Despite our age difference — he would be 78 today — and very little obviously in common, we quickly found our mutual passion: baseball. Our conversation quickly turned to the lockout that had just been put into place by Major League Baseball, a work stoppage that would alienate a generation of would-be baseball fans. As I write this, MLB is again back from the brink after threatening with a prolonged lockout to once again tell us all to go f— ourselves.
Merv vowed to take me to a Dodgers game in Chavez Ravine when — if — MLB could somehow extricate its head from its collective ass.
“We must have baseball,” Merv said. “Whatever troubles you, it cannot exist at a baseball game.”
And, of course, Merv was right. Life is a crapstorm, and sometimes baseball is the only reliable umbrella.
‘We’re Dodger blue, through and through’
The next year he made good on his promise, taking me to a Dodgers-Giants game, treating me to a Dodger dog, and seating me next to a baseball lifer who regaled me with tales of having seen the great Mickey Mantle swing for the arches in Yankee Stadium. A resident of L.A. since he was 16, Merv reveled in his role as maestro of a beautiful symphony of friendship, fellowship and another memorable nine innings under baseball’s expansive umbrella.
In 2000, we caught a Giants-Pirates game at then-new PNC Park down by the bay, sitting close enough to where Barry Bonds plied his trade in left field to truly appreciate just how little defense he seemed interested in providing. Baseball gave us another perfect, sun-splashed afternoon, which we celebrated afterward with some down home cooking at the Fog City Diner. I have a tear in my eye remembering his warmth of heart, his electric smile and that perfectly coiffed hair. More on the hair in a minute.
I didn’t get many stories about Kushwood or John Boyd Designs, but, then, our surprising friendship was refreshingly non-transactional. Just two baseball fans who happened to spend a frightfully large amount of time at furniture markets, including the two big ones in High Point, where we had to fight to get a lunch or dinner together into the market mix.
In addition to covering the international home furnishings industries by day, I moonlighted as a sports reporter on weekends and at night – still the best job I’ve ever had. Covering mostly baseball and soccer for the Greensboro News & Record, I couldn’t believe someone would pay and feed me to watch a baseball game from the press box, go into the locker rooms afterward to chat with players and their managers, then memorialize the game with a writeup that people would read the next morning in the newspaper at the breakfast table.
What does any of this have to do with Frank Sinatra? Thanks for keeping score at home. Ol’ Blue Eyes is back.
On May 15, 1998, I reported to War Memorial Stadium in Greensboro for that night’s contest between the Single A Greensboro Bats, a Yankees affiliate, and the Piedmont Boll Weevils. Like the parent club, the Bats played, “New York, New York” after each home game. But this night would be different. The day before, Sinatra died in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a pair of heart attacks and a host of other maladies, including cancer, brought him down. Cancer took Merv from us, too.
Without consulting my editors, I determined to include a tribute to the Chairman of the Board in the game writeup, incorporating as many Sinatra-sung lyrics as, frankly, I could remember on deadline. (This was before Google.) I needed the juke box roll call to seem natural so that my editors would either fail to notice or, noticing, appreciate that the tribute did not cost the game story its natural rhythm and flow.
I’ll let you play along, then I’ll share what happened to the writeup in the good hands of Mr. Rabin. Here are the salient excerpts of the story, word for word, as they appeared in the News & Record that next day:
Greensboro Bats infielders and Piedmont Boll Weevils grounders passed like strangers in the night at wet Memorial Stadium Saturday night, giving Piedmont a 4-3 win in a game sandwiched around an 80-minute rain delay.
Greensboro second baseman Scott Kidd’s second error, a bobbled grounder from Jeff Terrell, set the table for Jason Johnson’s two-out, game-winning double in the eighth. Johnson powered a Chris Wallace (0-3) breaking ball to the wall to bring Terrell home.
Stormy weather extended Saturday night’s game into the wee small hours, but the Bats’ high hopes of being just one game from sea level were dashed. Manufacturing runs, and taking advantage of Greensboro miscues, Piedmont (21-22) avoided a three-game sweep by the Bats.
. . . Greensboro starter Brian Reith turned in five solid if not spectacular innings, scattering three hits and smoothly sailing through the second through fifth frames. But two walks in the first set a tender trap. Only the lonely Johnny Estrada single to right was needed to bring both base-on-balls recipients – Jason Johnson and Bob Van Iten – to the plate.
How many lyrics can you find? My memory tells me there were seven; my song recognition now, in 2022, spots only six. I’m blaming Covid.
That next San Francisco market, I couldn’t wait to take a copy of the game writeup to the Kushwood showroom to give Merv a try. He found all six . . . or seven. Then he asked if he could keep the copy. There was something he wanted to do.
Flash forward three months to the High Point market, and it was Merv’s turn to spring a surprise. First, the hair.
Merv’s always perfectly coiffed hair came courtesy of his stylist, who he happened to share with Nancy Sinatra, Frank’s daughter. Merv shared the story with Mrs. Sinatra, who, in Merv’s loving account, delighted in the subtlety of the tribute. The maestro was back, conducting another magical market moment for someone else.
And that’s what I’ll remember most about Mervyn Stuart Rabin, his humility and warmth of spirit, which were the likely sources of what was always a twinkle in those ol’ brown eyes.
See you at the ballpark. The dogs are on me.