NOW LET’S GET something clear before you read any further. I’m no sports enthusiast. I was once a baseball fan, but that was a long time ago, before the Red Sox offered up their final disappointment to me in 1986, a disappointment I vowed never to forgive, and indeed, I have kept that vow. And I confess I was briefly under the spell of professional hockey because who could avoid being beguiled by the magic made by Orr and Esposito on ordinary ice rinks?
Football is one of those sports I’ve never understood. I never had an interest in it, never played it, never watched it, not even under duress when everyone else in the household was watching Thanksgiving Day games. I always found something else to do.
So I was blithely unperturbed and decidedly unmoved by the recent news of Tom Brady’s retirement, an occasion of apparent significance in the entertainment industry. I mean, when it’s the banner headline in the Boston Globe the day after a record-setting blizzard, you know something unusual is going on.
I did wonder about this fellow Brady, who by any objective measure has established himself as a quarterback of unique achievement. I am aware of his celebrity, a fact not lost on me as I recall the long-ago evening (2002) when Brady was at the same Back Bay bar I was at (celebrating a law firm partnership) and, with starstruck patrons and bartenders falling over themselves to have their ephemeral moment with football’s young Galahad, I could not promptly get the dry martini I was hoping to start the evening off with. Alas, martinis on law firm tabs, indeed martinis generally, are a thing of my well-worn past, but I digress.
I can’t speak to the merits of each championship won by the great Brady (was it talent, luck, divine intervention?) but I nod to the sheer weight of the record. But setting records, without more, has as much staying power as yesterday’s Guinness Book of Records. Records are set and are broken (just ask Matt Amodio). What matters, what resists the wear of time, is the magic. And the magic, the “je ne sais quoi,” that’s not something you can achieve by training, diet, or luck.
What I’m referring to is that certain quality the late, great local columnist George Frazier called “duende.”
Duende is that special something, that inherent magnetism, that quality evading easy explanation but achingly obvious to those who lack it. It is, as Frazier would have it, that quality that separates a Frank Sinatra from a Vic Damone, the special quality that Joe DiMaggio had, not Ted Williams; a quality embodied by Marilyn Monroe but not Jane Russell, not in a million years. Brando yes, Pacino not so much. Cheever had it but Updike (as much as I revere his writing) didn’t. Jackie was the mid-century epicenter of duende; Mamie, who had wonderful qualities not to be easily dismissed, scored poorly on the duende meter.
Frazier would put it this way: when you say “Streisand,” no one asks “Which Streisand?” Or consider this, if the name “Sinatra” comes up in conversation, it never sparks the question, “Of which Sinatra do you refer?” Ditto Dietrich. You get the point.
In the local sports arena, it’s what Bill Russel and Red Auerbach and Bobby Orr each had in ample supply, but not Yastrzemski or Bird or Esposito. Again, you get the point. Tom Brady and duende are ships sailing well past one another, and never the twain shall meet. It struck me that since he cannot say this for himself, someone needed to channel the irrepressible Mr. Frazier, saying what must be said – not in anger, and certainly without begrudging Brady’s enduring record.
You will forgive me the indulgence of channeling Mr. Frazier, but in this matter there is no better authority, and the moment seemed to call for objective assessment, however harsh that may come across to the barstool set. And I hope this doesn’t set “the fans” off in any way. I recall too well the kerfuffle that followed Lennon’s offhand remark about the Beatles being more popular than . . . but we need not revisit that episode today. Which reminds me, when it came to duende, it was always John, never Paul.
Farewell, Mr. Brady, farewell and best wishes for a long, healthy retirement. Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Duende thou never wert.
James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary who writes occasionally about football parades and more often about more important things.