Longform Philly

Month: December, 2015

Hope on the Diamond


Mike Sielski | The Philadelphia Inquirer | November 2015

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — Children shuffled toward Jairo Muñoz. They knew nothing about him except what they saw: a 6-foot-5 pitcher, 24 years old, skinny as a snake and smiling at them shyly, his navy-blue-trimmed white uniform drooping off him like a limp flag from a pole. Each of them offered him a cap, or a baseball, or a sleeve of a shirt, and a pen. They said little. He said less.

They had watched Muñoz pitch for the Lakewood BlueClaws, the Phillies’ single-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, and he had pitched well, earning the win in a 12-3 victory over the Delmarva Shorebirds: five innings, six hits, two runs, four strikeouts, his fastball reaching 96 m.p.h., his curveball sharp. It was Labor Day. It was the last game of Lakewood’s season. Fans could wander on to the field at FirstEnergy Park afterward to talk with the players, to get their autographs. It was an event made for kids, and one by one kids approached him.

Hi. Could you. Sign. This. For me?

Si. Hello there.

The boys and girls, none older than 10, might not have been mature enough to comprehend or appreciate what it had taken for Muñoz to be there, to turn each item into a child’s talisman by scribbling his signature on it, to have the chance to pitch in the major leagues someday. The nights alone in that one-room apartment in West Philadelphia, nothing around him but a mattress, some prepaid phone cards, and a Bible. The days on which his only meal had been a bag of potato chips with a lapsed expiration date. The fear that it was only a matter of time before he would have no life in this country at all, that he would return to the Dominican Republic, to the wife and daughter waiting for him there, with nothing but a dream that had turned to dust here. These were grave matters, hard things for innocent minds and hearts to process.

Still, if you were the children’s parents, you would want them to hear Muñoz’s story, because there would be something valuable they might extract from it — a small lesson, perhaps, about the choices and risks and rules and consequences that structure a society and can define a single life, about straining to see light when everything appears dark, about being brave and generous and kind, about never giving up.

“This is the best day of my life,” Muñoz said. “Not everyone gets a second chance.”

It was fitting, then, that five of the people who had helped to give him that chance, who kept steering him along his twisting, oft-treacherous road when he might have careened into despair, were there on the field with him. They were standing in a semicircle around him in the late-afternoon sunshine, looking at him with pride and love as he signed his name again and again and gently shook each child’s hand.

Every pitch I see him throw, one of them had said during the game, is a miracle.

Yes, you’d want a child to hear a story like that.

Writer bio: Mike Sielski, a graduate of Upper Dublin High School and LaSalle University, is a sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote for The Allentown Morning Call, Bucks County Courier Times and The Wall Street Journal before joining the Inky in 2013.

Continue reading the “Hope on the Diamond” series: Parts 1, 2, 3

The Incredible Shrinking Police Commissioner


Noel Weyrich | Philadelphia Magazine | April 2004

Here’s how Sylvester Johnson remembers it.

It is March 1998, and John Timoney has just hit town as the new police commissioner. He needs a first deputy to run the police department day to day, and senior commanders are jockeying hard for the job, pulling on their political strings, putting the squeeze on the new top cop to advance them. Timoney calls in Johnson, the deputy commissioner for narcotics, who hasn’t been lobbying anyone.

“You know what?” Timoney says to him. “I don’t know you. But what I do know is that I got letters from all kinds of politicians. Not one of them was for you. Then I met with the Black Clergy. They mentioned you. But they told me not to make you.”

Politicians, including the Black Clergy, have always had a lot of pull inside Philadelphia’s police department, but Timoney doesn’t need them— he already has the job. What he needs is a capable and credible second-in-command. The neighborhood leaders want Johnson because he’s been fighting the drug trade alongside them. The police union thinks he’s fair and honest. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency— they all say Johnson’s the guy. The FBI tells Timoney that Johnson is the only member of the department it trusts. Johnson himself knows that Timoney needs him— he’s the one who can work with minority neighborhoods, where most violent crimes take place. The perfect, hands-on number-two man.

And so on April 9th, 1998, garrulous and theatrical John Timoney introduced quiet, unprepossessing Sylvester Johnson as the department’s only three-star deputy commissioner, first among equals on Timoney’s command staff. Before that day, most of the public had never heard of Sylvester Johnson. By the time Timoney left town less than four years later, Johnson— who had spent nearly 40 years in a department scarred by corruption and brutality scandals, race riots and rampages; who had risen through the ranks as if through the eye of a hurricane— had become his natural successor.

Johnson is a practicing Muslim, someone dismissive of politicians and ill at ease with public speaking, so he was nonetheless an unusual pick. Timoney always basked in the media’s glow, courting public favor, projecting with that flat shovel of a face that he was a guy who was going places and we were lucky to hold him while we could.

At age 61, Johnson is the Un-Timoney— quiet, impassive, oval-faced. An investigator. A listener. A sphinx. He’s a private person determined to come up with his own answers, which is what attracted him to the controversial Nation of Islam sect in the mid-’60s. As a young Philadelphia cop, he came to terms with the racism in the department— and his own place in it— through Islam’s rigorous attention to self-discipline and responsibility.

Johnson is, literally and figuratively, self-driven. Every Philadelphia police commissioner in recent memory has had a regular driver, a cop to play Sancho Panza, ride shotgun with the boss and rack up untold hours of overtime as Car One idles at the curb. Johnson, though, is so much a loner that he prefers to drive solo. “I don’t have to make small talk,” he explains as he steers Car One down 8th Street toward the Roundhouse. He drives slowly and carefully, with a wary eye on the street, as if he’s still a lowly cop on patrol.

Johnson often seems blind to how his go-it-alone style might undercut his ability to lead (his derisive nickname among disgruntled cops is “Stevie Wonder”; Timoney’s was “Broadway Tim”), and in the past year, the commissioner has been buffeted by one public-relations disaster after another: having his photograph taken with the Mayor and an ex-convict who, it turned out, still had two open drug cases pending; the discovery of the infamous City Hall bug; his outraged reaction to an independent report critical of police discipline; the Mayor holding a press conference to explain why Johnson’s second in command got a gun permit after failing a background check.

Each time, Sylvester Johnson has reacted with clumsy defensiveness or shrugged off the problem entirely. To Johnson, police work is about the work. It’s the only job, he says, where you can save a life, take a life, or give your life. What people say about it comes second. He took this job, his last job, not to burnish his image, but to set right some things in a perennially troubled department he’s belonged to for four decades. Now, as Johnson meanders down 8th Street, questions about him are looming larger— whether he can effectively lead his department, yes, but also just how long a police commissioner who avoids playing the perception game can survive. Since he’s gotten this far without massaging the media, he’s not about to start now. But he’s hardly oblivious to the media’s power. “Every police chief,” he says, “is just one headline away from losing his job.”

Writer bio: Noel Weyrich, a native of Jersey City and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote for local and national publications for more than 20 years. He currently ghostwrites and edits business books.

Continue reading “The Incredible Shrinking Police Commissioner”

4:52 on Christmas Morning


Dan P. Lee | New York Magazine | December 2012

Matt Badger believes that what happened happened for a reason. That his children were born in order to live in order to die the way they did, that out of it something meaningful must come. If at any point it becomes clear to him that he is wrong, that what happened is instead an anecdote of the universe’s brutal indifference, then he will kill himself.

This kind of faith renders all starting points equally as relevant and moot, including that early morning of December 25, 2011, in Stamford, Connecticut, where, on the peninsula of Shippan Avenue, Engine 4 was racing, sirens blaring. Inside 2267 Shippan, a 116-year-old Victorian house, three girls—Lily, 9, and her 7-year-old twin sisters, Sarah and Grace—had wanted to make a fire on Christmas Eve. Michael Borcina, the contractor working on the house for the past year, whose relationship with the owner, Madonna Badger, had recently turned romantic, placed a bundle of wood and two Dura­flame fire-starters in the fireplace in the living room. The fire was warming the newly opened-up first floor by the time Madonna’s parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, arrived from Lomer’s final shift playing Santa Claus at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The artificial tree was lit; the stockings were hung. Earlier in the day, the girls had played outside, riding their bikes in the street. Grace lit electric candles. Madonna cooked a ham dinner. She was, at 47, among the most successful advertising executives in New York City; she had recently divorced her husband and had bought the house the previous December. Renovations were only now finally inching toward completion; despite wishing everything to be perfect for the holidays, Madonna had called off the painters who’d been scheduled to return that morning.

At 10 p.m., the girls were herded up the stairs to their pink-and-white bedrooms on the third floor. They believed that Santa Claus was nearing the air above Connecticut. It was difficult to get them to sleep. Borcina, who’d been staying in the three-car garage out back and was spending his first night in the house, read aloud Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the children. Lily was, despite being the oldest, always the most sensitive, and she made a fuss about not wanting to sleep alone; she and Sarah fell asleep together, in the twins’ turreted room. Grace ended up in bed with her grandparents.

Madonna and Borcina commenced wrapping gifts in the garage out back, where their cache was secreted. It was 3:32 a.m.—Madonna glanced at the clock—when they returned through the kitchen with their arms full of presents. They arranged them under the tree. The fire was long out. Madonna asked Borcina to prepare the fireplace, which was unkempt with spent ashes, for Christmas morning. He separated the partially burned logs, shoveling the ash into a paper shopping bag, running his hands through them to make sure they were cold, then placing the bag inside an empty plastic storage box. He deposited the bag in the mudroom, near 43 unused Duraflame logs Madonna had purchased from Stop & Shop. He washed the soot from his hands in the new, deep sink. They ate apple pie and drank milk and tea. It was late. Rounding the corner to climb the narrow butler’s stairwell off the kitchen, Madonna glanced into the mudroom. She flipped off all the lights.

She lay down in bed with Borcina in the back rear-corner bedroom and accidentally fell asleep, waking sometime after 4 a.m. to his tapping her. She made her way to the second-floor master bedroom that composed the entire front of the house and a corner facing Long Island Sound, slid the pocket doors behind her, and fell into bed.

Outside, it was 28 degrees. A breeze from the northwest blew at six to eight miles an hour. The only sound was of the sea gurgling and hissing and intermittently slapping. Inside, it was dark; near the kitchen, beside the basement stairs, the keypad for the new fire-detection-and-security system, not yet powered, was dark, too. In the mudroom, inside the brown paper bag, it had begun, the process of deterioration favored by all molecules on Earth, now accelerated by combustion, blackness spreading across the surface of the ash like oil pooling, giving way to white wisps of smoke, the suggestion of incandescence, ruddiness, finally: fire.

Writer bio: Dan P. Lee, a South Jersey native, wrote for The Press of Atlantic City and Philadelphia Magazine before joining New York Magazine as a contributing writer.

Continue reading “4:52 on Christmas Morning”