King of the Bronx

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The man sitting across from me on the Uptown 4 train looked like an intellectual. A gray wreath of hair crowned his balding head. He dressed in a green shirt, a blue trench coat, jeans, and a Yankees cap. He read the New York Times on the train ride, shaking his head in disappointment as he read one story in the middle of the front page.

As our train exited the underground world for elevated tracks, he got up from his seat and turned toward the sunshine now beaming through the windows. His eyes caught sight of kids playing on a couple baseball fields in a park, then he turned to me and shattered my illusion of him.

“Pisses me off that the real thing isn’t there,” he moaned. “Fucking money.”

The man was complaining about the 2008 demise of Yankee Stadium; Heritage Field, the park that drew the ire of the man on the train, now stood on that land. Just a block north across E. 161st Street, the [New] Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009 waited for fans who would fill the seats for the April 16th matinee between the Seattle Mariners and the Yankees.

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Although the man on the train despised [New] Yankee Stadium, the back of his cap contained a patch commemorating the inaugural season of the Bronx Bombers’ new home.

I followed the man out the doors of the train, down the stairs of the 161st Street station, and across the street into the ballpark. After spending nearly four years in the northeast and attending four soccer games in [New] Yankee Stadium, this was my first MLB game at the facsimile of The House That Ruth Built. In a convenient coincidence, April 16, 2016, also marked the seventh anniversary of the first regular season game played in George Steinbrenner’s palace. C.C. Sabathia, then the ace of the Yankees staff, started that inaugural match against his old club, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians won 10-2, but Sabathia didn’t factor into the decision.

In another convenient coincidence, Yankees manager Joe Girardi named Sabathia the starter for the game against the Mariners, who trotted out ace Felix Hernandez for the start. Although Sabathia is past his prime, the matchup still made for an enticing pitcher’s duel, two Cy Young winners trying to get their clubs back on track after some early season woes.

A sizable contingent of Mariners fans were in attendance for the game, including a loyal band of King Felix’s Court. The Court still wore their yellow shirts, still chanted “K” every time Hernandez had two strikes on the batter, still waved their signs as they chanted, and still sat behind the foul post in left field despite being in the opposite coast of the country.

Despite the support that the King had on hand, the Yankees struck first in the bottom of the third. After getting Alex Rodriguez to ground out, Hernandez walked first baseman Mark Teixeria. At the next at-bat, outfielder Carlos Beltran hit a standup double to left centerfield, driving home Teixeria for a 1-0 Yanks lead as the ball landed in a mess of outfield crosshatching and faded pitch lines used for New York City F.C. games.

The Mariners responded in the fifth inning with their only spurt of offense in the game. Centerfielder Leonys Martin set the tone for the inning with a leadoff solo homer to right field. The Mariners batted around until Robinson Cano — Yankee fans still booed him before each at-bat for trading in his pinstripes for solid Seattle tops — hit an RBI single (and advanced to second on the throw) to score Ketel Marte and put the Mariners up 2-1. In the next at-bat, designated hitter Nelson Cruz lived up to his job title and hit a double along the third base line to make it a 3-1 lead with the insurance run. Girardi gave Sabathia the hook, the fans gave their departing pitcher a kind applause for the effort, but the Mariners did all the damage they needed.

The game continued at a sluggish pace because each team kept getting hits — the teams combined for 20 — without capitalizing on the men on base. Beltran broke the monotony with a seventh inning home run to centerfield, but of course it was a solo shot. The score was only 3-2, but the game was already approaching three hours when Beltran hit his homer.

Drama managed to climb through the sludge of this game and make a grand appearance in the bottom of the ninth. After A-Rod struck out to complete his sterling 0-4 day at the plate and Teixeria flew out, the Yankees got two men on base behind singles from Beltran and former Cub Starlin Castro. The crowd was now on its feet, chanting pro-Yankees cheers, and giving their support to pinch hitter Brian McCann.

In the climactic at-bat, McCann hit an anti-climactic dribbler of a groundout. Third out. Game over, 3-2 Mariners. An audible segment of Yankees fans booed over the recording of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” as they headed to the exits, while the tiny army of King Felix’s Court remained standing in their section, celebrating their king’s first win of the season.

Yankee Stadium was my ninth stop in my MLB ballpark tour; having been there four times already for soccer games, I found it weird to see the pitcher’s mound on the field.

The ballpark is devoid of any aura because of its young age, except for a tiny museum stationed halfway up along the concourse ramp. This museum contains a number of the Yankees’ World Series trophies on display and baseballs signed by a number of players who plied their trade in the pinstripes, from Joe Borowski to Don Mattingly. The best items on display were a jersey and bat that Babe Ruth used as a player for the Yankees, which made the legendary figure a tangible human being.

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On the flip side, relatively new stadium had plenty of concession stands and bathrooms, so that it was pretty easy to grab something or take a quick restroom break within the two minutes allotted between half-innings. I used one break to buy a pint of Turkey Hill Cookies and Cream ice cream. Although the game itself was a slog, eating that pint of ice cream under a sunny and spotless sky, planes above me buzzing toward LaGuardia or JFK, players below me trying to figure out how to score run made for a perfect day at a ballpark.

Fireworks in Birdland

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The video board out in center field of Camden Yards gave a first pitch temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit for Friday night’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles. However, the majority of the ballpark’s green seats remained unoccupied. The people of Baltimore accounted for the wind chill in the forecast, which made the conditions for sitting outside for three hours feel at least 10 degrees cooler, and decided to watch the game from the comforts of a warm home.

The ushers were the biggest winners from the fans staying away from Camden Yards that night. These employees, all wearing the Orioles’ version of the 9Forty adjustable caps, had the extra responsibility of spraying disinfectant on the seats belonging those fans who showed up, then wiping the chairs down with a towel. It’s customer service that Mickey Mouse would be proud of, hospitality that I imagine the ritzy gyms of Beverly Hills or New York City provide to their members.

For the fans who braved the cold in layers of hoodies and blankets to make their way to Birdland, the Orioles rewarded them with a spotless seat, a home run derby in the fifth inning, and a 6-1 victory over the Rays to make them feel all warm and fuzzy for the trip home. In spite of the Rays and Orioles matching aces — Chris Archer and Chris Tillman, respectively — against each other, five of the seven runs that the two teams combined for came off solo home runs.

Evan Longoria launched the game’s first homer in the top of the first with a two-out, solo home run to left field to score the Rays’ lone run of the game. In the bottom of the second, Chris Davis showed why the Orioles shelled out a 7-year, $161 million deal for the slugger when he hit a solo shot to centerfield to tie the game at 1-1. Davis’s home run came just seconds after the public address announcer promoted the Denny’s Grand Slam giveaway, where a homer hit by the Orioles in the 2nd inning would get everyone in attendance a coupon for a free Grand Slam at participating diners with the purchase of a beverage. Unfortunately, my hunch is that a Denny’s in Connecticut or New York City falls outside the coupon’s definition of “participating.”

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By the middle of the third inning, the sun fully set, the stadium lights above the B&O Warehouse at right field switched on, and The Baltimore Sun advertisement above the centerfield videoboard was now illuminated. Both pitchers got through the third unscathed, but Archer began to show signs of struggle in the fourth. Archer walked Davis with one out in the fourth and then threw a wild pitch with Orioles catcher Matt Wieters batting to advance Davis to second. In his lengthy at-bat, Wieters made Archer pay for his wild pitch with a single that split first and second base, driving home Davis to give Baltimore a 2-1 lead.

Struggle turned into a collapse in the fifth for Archer.

Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop drove Archer’s first pitch of the inning into left centerfield to extend the Orioles’ lead to 3-1. Although Archer appeared to settle down after striking out Ryan Flaherty and inducing Joey Rickard to ground out, the Orioles began their fireworks show with two outs. Nolan Reimold hit a solo shot to centerfield to put the Orioles up 4-1, then Manny Machado made it back-to-back homers when he launched the ball beyond the leftfield wall. Davis drew another walk and Mark Trumbo pushed Davis to third with a single.

Then Wieters put the exclamation point on Archer’s bad day on the mound.

In his at-bat, the Orioles catcher hit a line drive that struck Archer in the arm, before the slowly rolled toward first base; Davis scored with no play possible for the Rays to increase Baltimore’s lead to 6-1. After his coaches examined his arms in an injury timeout, Archer put an end to his nightmare inning by getting Orioles designated hitter Pedro Alvarez to fly out in the next at-bat.

Both teams pulled their starters at the start of the sixth inning and their relief corps dominated the remainder of the game. Rays first baseman Logan Morrison produced the only hit for the rest of the game with a leadoff single in the sixth; the two teams combined for 11 groundouts over that same span.

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Camden Yards was my first stop in a concerted effort this year to make big progress in visiting all 30 MLB ballparks at least once in my life for a game in my life. The visit to Baltimore makes it eight out of 30 ballparks so far.

 

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Camden Yards is one of the most gorgeous stadiums in general that I’ve visited. The Eutaw Street gate is open to visitors before the stadium crew begins gameday prep at around 4 pm for a 7:05 pm first pitch, so my 9 am arrival in Baltimore allowed me to tour Eutaw Street without the crowds, stare out into the fresh outfield of Camden Yards in silence, and admire Jim Palmer’s delivery through the statue of the Hall-of-Fame pitcher in picnic area behind the bullpens. Statues of Cal Ripkin, Jr., Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson — Hall-of-Famers with Orioles caps on their plaques, just like Palmer — were also present in the picnic area. It was a good idea to put all of Baltimore’s Hall-of-Famers in the same picnic area, which made the section of the ballpark feel like a shrine to the club’s past.

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After loading up on two crab pretzels at the neighboring Pickles Pub (so worth the $20), I made returned to Camden Yards for the opening of the gates at 5 pm and explore the rest of Birdland. The similarities between Camden Yards and Dodger Stadium piled up: the walls outside each bathroom contained a painting of a logo from the Orioles’ history, there were life-sized bobbleheads of the mascot for the kids to play with, and the vista beyond the outfield was captivating.

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Sure, nothing can top the San Gabriel Mountains sitting beyond the outfield of Dodger Stadium, but architectural firm HOK Sport’s decision to include the B&O Warehouse in the design of Camden Yards was a stroke of genius. When you see B&O Warehouse sharing space with the downtown Baltimore skyline as the backdrop to Camden Yards, you see a collision of Baltimore’s past and present — the ballpark is the intersection of those eras. Give Camden Yards another 80 years and the B&O Warehouse will be treated with the same reverence as the ivy is in Wrigley Field or the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

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Brothers

A little boy gave a crushing farewell to his older brother a few spots ahead of me in the line to board a Northeast Regional train at Washington Union Station on Sunday.

The older brother, a college-aged kid wearing a red tracksuit and black track pants and complementing the attire with a red Nike duffel bag and black backpack, resembled a young Jimmy Butler. His dad, wearing a red hoodie and hat, was giving him a hug when I first noticed the family. The mother, dressed in a Sunday best of a tan blouse and black pants, talked to her older son while standing still.

As the line continued move up toward the gate, I passed the family and saw why the mom didn’t move during the exchange with her older son. The younger son, wearing a hoodie and a navy hat with adorned with the gray Georgetown “G” in the front was hugging his mom’s left leg. He looked no older than a second grader; he barely reached his mother’s waist as he hugged her leg. The little boy’s sad eyes made palpable the pain of watching his brother slowly walk toward the exit to the platform, but the eyes shed no tears. The little brother just stared toward the exit — eyes wide open, mouth closed without a peep, arms clinging tightly to his mother’s leg, like he was petrified.

But the sadness in his eyes also displayed the depth of affection for his older brother. In spite of an age gap of around 10 years, the younger son’s eyes told me that he looked up to his older brother and that the two sons were probably close with each other.

I felt bad that the younger brother had to ride this emotional roller coaster of seeing his brother in spurts over school breaks, then saying goodbye a short time later when classes resumed at the university. The younger brother’s silent farewell occupied my mind on the train ride until I fell asleep when the train reached the BWI Airport stop. I woke up about a half-hour later when the train came to a halt at the Wilmington station. When I looked out the window to see where the train stopped, I saw the older brother on the platform, looking for the stairwell to the station.

On the Commuter Rail

The last two Saturdays in New York have been oddly reaffirming for being stuck in Connecticut longer than I ever imagined I would be. But because I’m running out of time on my commuter rail ride, I’ll only write about the first Saturday.

Saturday #1 — Holy Saturday — began with a Pikachu electrocuting the crap out of a Gengar.

When I wandered into the Nintendo NYC Store by Rockefeller Center to kill time before the New York International Auto Show, the first floor of the store had two giant screens for some new fighting game called Pokken Tournament — basically Tekken with Pokémon characters. I hadn’t played a video game since summer 2015 and with everyone else in the store browsing the Mario toys, I took a gander at one of the Pokken set-ups.

I chose spunky Pikachu; the CPU randomly selected Gengar. And without bothering to look up the controls to the game for my first battle, I immersed myself in a world of button mashing.

It was the most fun workout my arms had gotten in years.

As I smashed random combinations of the X button (I would later learn that was the “Strong Attack” when I sought the controls after my first game), Y button (“Weak Attack”), A button (“Pokémon Attack”), and B button (Grab), little Pikachu tail whipped and thunderbolted the brains out of the Gengar. When Pikachu successfully executed multiple move combos, the tail whip launched the Gengar into the air, then the Thunder attacks striking the hapless ghost kept it aloft for three or four bolts before falling back to earth.

After I swept the best out-of-five series, the game graded my style. Offense got a perfect 5 stars. The remaining criteria — Defense, Bonus, Technique — all crashed at 2.5 stars. Brute force, baby.

The competitive rush kept me playing for 20 minutes, despite my strained arms and sweaty back telling me to stop and the clock striking 10, the opening of the auto show. The next best-of-five series pitted my Pikachu against a Charizard. (haha tiny Pikachu can’t grab a behemoth Charizard.) Charizard crushed me in fight #1, then the resilient Pikachu swept the next three to win the series.

The clincher came on the equivalent of a buzzer beater. With the Pikachu down to its last two hit points, the mouse somehow landed a launch and shock combo to strike down the Charizard before the flying flamethrower could deliver a finishing blow. If there wasn’T a security guard in the floor, I would have mic dropped that controller and ran a lap around the store.

I should have left the game at that, but I wanted to try out the Charizard for one series. Let’s just say the game got too easy for me at that point.

At 11 am, an hour later than intended, I finally arrived at the auto show. I zipped straight to the Nissan exhibition to see the vintage Skyline GT-R that the press gushed about earlier in the week. A Nissan Product Specialist dressed in a red blazer and skirt delivered the bad news that the vintage cars were only for the press day, but accidental good timing more than compensated for it.

When I turned around to return to the 2017 orange Nissan GT-R on display, I read a sign I completely blew off when I stormed in for the vintage Skylines.

“11:15 am – 12:45 pm: Take a selfie with Usain Bolt and the Nissan GT-R. #BoltAndGTR”

Only a handful of people also caught wind of the Bolt appearance, so by the time I lined up at 11:05, I was within the first 25 people in place to meet the fastest man in the world. Another 30 minutes later, I got my minute and selfie with Mr. Bolt — a chill guy who talked to and shook hands with everyone — and my favorite car.

And that is how a tortoise got to hang out with the world’s fastest man and a fast car.

I closed out Saturday #1 at the Marquis Theater — some tiny production called “Hamilton” is next door at the Rodgers Theater — for the Gloria Estefan jukebox musical, “On Your Feet.” I had no idea what to expect; I only bought the tickets because of a discount and the fact I thought Ana Villafane, who portrays Estefan in the musical, was cute.

What I, and everyone else in the sold out theater, witnessed was an uplifting party.

Granted, except for the stubborn refusal of Estefan’s mom to support Gloria’s early singing career, a spurt of hardball politics from the record industry, and the bus accident that almost killed Estefan, there wasn’t a lot of conflict in the story. But seeing how Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine broke the ceiling for Latin-infused pop music through free performances, radio, and word of mouth support was about as American of a success story as anyone could imagine. I wanted to get up and dance to the songs — and some lucky folks in the aisle seats got to dance with the ensemble when “Conga” closed out the first act of the musical.

(Also, not sure how true this was, but the way that they presented Estefan’s first performance of “1-2-3” blew me away. Confidence is hot.)

The musical convinced me to buy a bunch of Gloria Estefan songs for the iPod, so next time you see me counting with ear buds on, I’m probably singing along to “1-2-3.”

The Old Man and the New Home

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It was Anders Lee Bobblehead Night at the Barclays Center for Monday’s NHL game between the New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers, but the freebie wasn’t my incentive for trekking in the rain from Connecticut to Brooklyn on a weeknight. I showed up see 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr play hockey at a level higher than any of us could hope to reach in our own jobs.

In the end, the Islanders stole the show from Jagr by mounting the craziest comeback in any game I’ve attended, winning 3-2 after scoring all their goals in a six minute flurry in the third period.

However, for the first two periods, my attention was fixed on Jagr when he was on the ice. Here was this elder statesman of the NHL, sharing the rink with players who were born the same year he won his first Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins — 1991, a mere 25 years ago. (Happy silver anniversary on the championship, dude.) The Panthers limited Jagr’s responsibilities on the backcheck, allowing him to drift near his blue line for an outlet pass while his teammates focused on forcing the turnovers. When Jagr or his teammates had the puck, the afterburners turned on; the burst of speed hid the age gap between him and the other players. Jagr’s penchant for turning on the heat on the forecheck is all the more impressive when the results are considered: going into Monday’s game, Jagr was tied for the team lead in goals scored (21) and led the Panthers in total points (49).

Jagr didn’t have a role in the Panthers taking a 2-0 lead into the third period. For the most part, the game was a slog through the first two periods. Both teams struggled to create scoring chances; the Islanders hit a nadir with the crowd in the second period when the Isles’ power play units spent most of their time chasing the puck than taking a shot on Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo. Boos from the crowd provided the background noise to that listless power play and that negativity clouded the atmosphere until the Panthers’ Reilly Smith — who also happens to be tied with Jagr for most goals on the team — instigated with a fight with bobblehead hero Anders Lee a couple minutes later. The bout ended in a draw, but the crowd showered Lee with praise for being the first Isle to show some fight all game.

I spent the second intermission surveying the Islanders’ new home, that brown spaceship of a Barclays Center. I appreciated the ability to reach the arena by subway, the comfy seating provided by the black padded seats and adequate leg room, and the new bathrooms. The mix of Islanders Stanley Cup banners, the Nets’ ABA championship banners, the retired numbers from both teams (Hey, Dr. J!), and the banner celebrating Jay-Z’s eight consecutive sold out concerts to mark the opening of the Barclays Center made for a humorous hodgepodge of milestones commemorated from the rafters.

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Yet, for all of the hassle that it took to get from Manhattan to the Nassau Coliseum, the one advantage that the Coliseum has over the Barclays Center is the intimacy. Watching the Islanders at “The Barn” was the closest thing in America to attending a soccer game in those old-school English stadiums found in the tiers below the Premier League. The Coliseum was nostalgic in a cheesy way with the outdated doors, murals, and TVs, but the cozy seating and low ceiling made the crowd feel like an extra attacker for the Isles on the rink. The modern amenities of the Barclays Center, though necessary to keep up with other arenas around the country, can’t replicate that with the space it has.

The crowd at the Barclays Center do their best to inject some character into the arena; the Blue and Orange Army — So close to getting the order right on those colors. Go Gators. — reign over Section 229, standing through much of the game with flags and signs hung behind them and a drum to bang for drumming up support from the rest of the arena in chanting “Let’s Go Isles.” The Isles started to give their fans stuff to cheer about when the legendary Mike Bossy was introduced on the Jumbotron in the second period. New York then took a cue from the Hall of Famer in the first half of the third period, testing Luongo with higher quality shots than they had in the first two periods combined, but the goalie would not be denied his shoutout.

Or so it should have been. Then the Isles broke Lu down with a softie, of course.

With about seven minutes remaining in the game Kyle Okposo took the puck just inside the Panthers’ blue line and fired a laser that flew past a butterflying Luongo and into the top left corner of the net. As the Isles’ goal horn wailed, the tires supporting Luongo deflated and he remained in the butterfly, head slowly rising, exasperated at himself for giving up the goal.

As Luongo struggled to pick himself up, the Isles faithful introduced me to a new celebration they picked up since my visit to the Coliseum. In a nod to WWE star Daniel Bryan, the crowd of about 14,000 rose to their feet and chanted “Yes! Yes! Yes!” with their fists pumping in the air in the gap between the end of the horn and the ensuing faceoff. (As an aside, now I know where the Mariners got the cadence for their “K!” chant.)

The Isles smelled blood and continued pelting the Panthers with shots. The crowd knew the second goal was a matter of when, not if, and remained alive with noise after that first goal. A minute’s wait was all that was needed before the fans got the tying goal they craved. Luongo stopped a shot from his right, but he gave a rebound that trickled parallel to him and toward his left. Standing unmarked by the left post was the Isles’ Josh Bailey.

In what felt like the slowest possible reaction to a rebound by everyone on the ice — the crowd seemed to hold its breath as the puck oozed it way toward Bailey — Bailey eventually lunged for the puck and knocked it into the empty half of the goal. More horn. More “Yes!” More Panthers joining Luongo with dejected body language: hands on their knees, head looking down on the ice. Florida coach Gerard Gallant should have called timeout, but opted to let his team play it out.

The strategy backfired. The Islanders continued pinning the Panthers in their own zone and in typical scrappy underdog fashion, goal-shy Cal Clutterbuck emerged as the hero from the barrage. As Clutterbuck possessed the puck by the faceoff circle to the left of Luongo, the New York winger pulled a little spin move on his defender, flinging the puck toward the net with a backhand in the middle of the twirl. The trajectory of the puck somehow avoided Luongo before swerving inward to just sneak inside the right post and tuck itself into the netting.

Comeback complete. The Barclays Center was a party for the final minutes of the game, confident that their team wrapped up the game in that furious comeback. After the Islanders survived a final onslaught from the Panthers and the final horn blared, the Isles skated to center ice and raised their sticks to the rousing approval of the fans, who had just booed them a period ago.

The fans responded to the stick salute in the only way they knew how: one final chant of “Yes!”

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Rock Bottom

Crystal Palace hit rock bottom when Wayne Hennessey spilled Joleon Lescott’s header to give bottom dwellers Aston Villa a 1-0 lead that the Eagles couldn’t recover from. Then Crystal Palace hit rock bottom when they found themselves down 3-0 in the first half to West Bromwich Albion, the club managed by the man who abandoned Palace two days before the start of the 2014-2015 season. Then Crystal Palace hit rock bottom when Alex McCarthy — in a scene eerily similar to Steven Gerrard’s nightmare two years ago — slipped and fell to gift the ball to Firmino, who repaid the generosity by equalizing for 10-man Liverpool. Then Crystal Palace hit rock bottom when Damien Delaney conceded a penalty in the final minute of the match against that 10-man Liverpool; Christian Benteke scored from the spot to defeat the Eagles 2-1 and extend the Londoners’ winless streak in the league to 12 games.

Palace keep finding ways to dig their own grave, jump in, get someone to fill the gap in the earth with dirt, and then get another person to set the whole plot of land on fire.

As reported by NBC Sports in the build-up to Sunday’s match against Liverpool, Palace have only accumulated four points since the Boxing Day fixtures — three fewer than Norwich and Newcastle, who each have garnered seven points in that same stretch. Regardless of the injuries keeping players off the pitch and the referee injustices and any bad luck on the pitch, it’s an organizational failure from management on down to the players for not winning a single match since the calendar turned to 2016.

The in-game adjustments manager Alan Pardew has made haven’t changed the games in Palace’s favor since that win over Stoke. I don’t know if there are any communication issues between Pardew and his players or if he’s just hit his limit of tactical ability with this roster, but it’s damning on Pardew that he hasn’t solved the riddle of maximizing the personnel he has available over the last three months. It was all on display on Sunday when Andre Marriner reduced Liverpool to 10 men and the play on the pitch looked like Liverpool, not Palace, possessed the extra man.

Pardew should also know that the defending has been the guiltiest party for the last few months, so what has happened to Brede Hangeland and Adrian Mariappa? They’re still in the 25-man roster — start them and shake things up for some fresh energy, even if it’s only for a match to refresh the regular starters.

Even if it turns out that Pardew is in fact failing them, the players need to rediscover their resilience. Yes: it’s understandable that the continuous losing will fester like a disease and gnaw away at the players’ mentalities. It’s just that Palace can’t seem to handle any type of adversity anymore. Except for the fightback for a 2-1 lead against Sunderland — that got squandered in the final 10 minutes, of course — it’s like the first mistake that puts Palace in a hole sends the XI into a tailspin. That tailspin brings out the lack of discipline that Pulis and Pardew contained over the last couple years and takes the form of long balls; rushed passes aimed at the player 20 yards away and marked by a defender instead of the open teammate who is nearby; defenders dragged out of position; and reckless challenges. Composure is no longer in the Palace DNA at the moment.

Delaney’s final minute in Sunday’s match summed up the experience over the last few months. He chose to punt a free kick all the way to Simon Mignolet, which started the attack that led to the penalty. Delaney didn’t even need to slide there; Benteke was already running into the goal line with the ball and Souare would have had the space between Benteke and McCarthy covered. There will be arguments on whether or not the contact made constitutes a penalty or a dive, but Delaney shouldn’t have put the ref and linesman in a position to make that choice in the first place. The defender should have known better — especially at this late stage of the game and in such a tight shooting angle — than to slide.

After all that Palace went through the first two months of 2016, the loss against Liverpool was the most jarring defeat for me since the 4-1 thrashing by Fulham that led to Ian Holloway’s exit. The images that NBC broadcasted of Pardew’s jacket toss for the penalty and his and McCarthy’s grim faces in the post-match walk to the tunnel put on display for the rest of the world just how frustrating this drought has been for everyone at the club. (Heck, Rebecca Lowe’s voice was oddly hoarse when she gave the first post-match comments. Was she yelling in anger at the end of the match like the rest of us?) Yet, for all of the club’s impotent play in 2016, Palace are nine points above the drop and are still on track for safety because the bottom four clubs in the table are as incompetent as the Eagles.

Just get to 40 points, Palace, so that after the season, we can laugh about how this talented iteration of South London’s team has a thirst for thrill. That a search for excitement — in light of the way the Eagles secured safety the last two years — is the reason why they’ve tossed the dream of quiet midtable mediocrity for the adventure of ascending, jumping off, and then climbing back up the mountain that is the Premier League table.

The Charming Life of Nell Gwynn

About 30 minutes into the first performance of Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre, the titular character, one of the first stage actresses in England in the 17th century, protests to the playwright John Dryden that a man can’t just proclaim his love to a woman to win her heart. Gwynn, portrayed by Gemma Arterton, argues to Dryden (Nicholas Shaw) that the male protagonist in Dryden’s new play should prove his love to the woman he desires through actions — even if it means that he has to endure some pain. After Gwynn finishes her point, Dryden acquiesces.

For Arterton, though, taking to a London stage as a character who jolts the male perception of women is nothing new. A year ago, she was portraying Rita O’Grady in Made in Dagenham, the musical based on the 1968 strike of Ford sewing machinists and a 2010 film of the same name. In both the actual strike and in the musical, Ford leadership deemed that the women who sewed the car seat covers worked in a less skilled occupation than the men who manufactured the vehicle frames, which resulted in the women being paid 15% less than their male counterparts. In the musical, O’Grady’s leadership of the striking workers helped apply enough pressure on politicians to pass the Equal Pay of Act of 1970, the real life result of the 1968 strike.

In Nell Gwynn, Arterton’s Gwynn has to go beyond drilling what women want into the thick skulls of the men around her. Gwynn must also prove that women do, in fact, belong in the theatre and can perform the roles of, well, women on stage.

She succeeds on both fronts through her natural charm, wit, and good looks, a winning combination that captures the wandering eye of King Charles II, the Restoration monarch, when he takes in a performance at her theatre. The attraction is mutual: she becomes a mistress for Charles (David Sturzaker) — out of love, not for the material wealth — but it comes at the cost of increased tension with her troupe and with her family.

The play, written by Jessica Swale, is not so much an exact history lesson on Gwynn’s life, but a celebration of the wit and humor that has made her an enduring figure in English history. I saw the first preview performance of the play for its West End run on 4 February, so there have probably been a few tweaks to the script since then. But from what I saw that night, the defining quality of Nell Gwynn will be joy.

That joy hits the audience in quick bursts through the entirety of the play: the double entendres and innuendo that Gwynn and Charles share, Dryden’s ideas for plays that sound oddly familiar (like a love story on a boat strikes an iceberg), a two minute cameo by an unruly puppy, jokes at the expense of the French, the live band lurking on the upper portion of the stage, and much more. While every character gets his or her chance at providing laughs, Nell’s confidante, Nancy (Michele Dotrice), steals most of her scenes through slapstick and lines from out of left field.

Then there is Arterton, who channels the charm and wit of Gwynn with ease — in both English and French. Without giving away too much, the most fun sequence in the play is when Gwynn puts on a bilingual musical act with help from the troupe and the band. Two women seated in front of me were drenched in tears of laughter through that number; my mouth was agape in the shape of a smile over that same period. But just like in Made in Dagenham, Arterton shines the most when Gwynn delivers a monologue that could double as the play’s broader implications for society, namely how women are viewed. No matter what Nell is doing — singing, speaking, smiling, or dancing — Arterton is captivating in the titular role.

In the cliché of life imitating art, I left the Apollo Theatre with my crush on Arterton renewed. More than 400 years later, Gwynn’s enchantment is still finding ways to manifest itself today.