This here’s a story about Charlie Williams, a young pitcher who seemed destined for if not big, then definitely specific things. Consider what can be cleaned about C.W. from his C.V.
• Born in Flushing fourteen years before ground was broken on the stadium that would make that Queens village world-famous.
• Matriculated at Great Neck South High School, a few stops east of Shea as the Port Washington line of the Long Island Rail Road flies.
• Signed by his hometown New York Mets out of a college whose name was the same as the pitcher who was traded for the catcher who would be the first he’d throw to in the majors.
• Celebrated his 22nd birthday the day his parent club commenced their first World Series, though he wasn’t nearly advanced enough to join them yet.
• Spent the following season mowing down hitters in the Double-A Texas League, pitching to a 12-5 record at Memphis, woven among a tapestry of names that make a certain strain of Mets fan swoon: Jim Bethke, five years removed from the time he became the first and only 18-year-old to take the mound as a Met; Les Rohr, the first No. 1 pick the Mets ever selected in an amateur draft; Bill Denehy, who’d been traded by the Mets to the Senators for the managerial rights to Gil Hodges and who’d since been traded back; Don Rose, one of three men assigned to accompany Nolan Ryan to California in the quest to acquire Jim Fregosi; Tommy Moore, who’d later be thrown into the deal that would make Brooklyn’s own Joe Torre a Met; and Lute Barnes, who — like Moore — I’m told is one of the handful of Mets to never have an official baseball card printed with his image during the course of his professional baseball career (though Moore’s picture finally made it into the 1990 Pacific Senior League set via card No. 148 a dozen years after he was released by the Baltimore Orioles).
The most accomplished player, eventually speaking, to perform for those 1970 Memphis Blues, was John Milner, the slugging first baseman/outfielder who blasted 94 home runs as a Met, including 23 during the pennant-winning campaign of 1973. The next-most accomplished player and the pitcher who would come to possess the thickest MLB credentials from that staff?
Charlie Williams, the kid from Flushing.
As Williams’s path would have it, he wouldn’t be known for what he did directly after his promotion from the Memphis Blues to the New York Mets. Hopping over Triple-A Tidewater, Williams made Hodges’s roster in 1971, serving on the same pitching staff as, among others, Ryan, Tom Seaver, Tug McGraw and Jerry Koosman. It was a bad outing by Kooz that paved the way for Williams’s big league introduction on Friday afternoon, April 23. Jerry was trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the third at Wrigley Field when, with one out, he loaded the bases full of Cubs. Gil had seen enough of his top lefty and sent in his rookie righty.
Charlie grounded his first batter, Original Met Jim Hickman, to first, where Donn Clendenon picked the ball up and threw home for a forceout to Jerry Grote — the backstop who was traded to the Mets in 1965 for Tom Parsons, presumably no relation to Parsons College in Iowa, the university from whence Williams was chosen by the Mets with the first pick in the seventh round of the 1968 draft. He grounded out his second batter, too, getting Hal Breeden to roll to Tim Foli at second. Foli stepped on the bag, 4-unassisted, and Williams had gotten through his first two-thirds of an inning as a Met.
Before his major league debut was over, Charlie Williams would give Gil Hodges a one-run fourth and a scoreless fifth. By the sixth, he was pitching with a 5-3 lead, thanks primarily to Ken Singleton’s two-run homer and a couple of run-scoring singles from Grote. Breeden, however, led off the Cub sixth by taking Charlie deep and Johnny Callison soon pinch-doubled in the tying and go-ahead runs. Williams left on the losing end of the score, 6-5. Ron Taylor came on and cleaned up for him as Charlie had cleaned up for Koosman. The Mets tied the game in the seventh and won it, 7-6, in the twelfth when Singleton knocked in Tommie Agee. Ryan, pitching two shutout innings behind McGraw’s four, earned the decision. But Charlie Williams could also be judged a winner. He was now fully part of the team in whose geographic sphere of influence he grew up.
Flushing’s own Charlie Williams, when he was known as a young Met pitcher on the rise.
Charlie would relieve 22 times and start nine games in 1971. There were some standout performances sprinkled among those 31 appearances: 9 K’s versus the Giants on June 11; his first home victory, 7-2 over the Dodgers, on June 16, achieved with a little neighborly help from recently recalled Francis Lewis High alum Mike Jorgensen’s two solo homers; a 3-2 win that came up one out shy of a complete game against the world champion-to-be Pirates on June 22; the opener of the August 3 doubleheader against the Big Red Machine when Charlie went all the way at Shea, scattering eight hits and prevailing, 9-4; and Williams’s final win of the year, at Pittsburgh, noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it prevented the Buccos from clinching their second consecutive N.L. East crown against the Mets; and 2) it was done with the last all-homegrown starting lineup the Mets would field for another 40 years, though Charlie earned the W in relief.
His first full season in the majors, the year Flushing native Charlie Williams came home to pitch, wound up 5-6, with 53 strikeouts in 90.1 innings, and an ERA of 4.78. It had its moments, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee him a spot on the pitching-laden 1972 Mets — even though Topps had certified him otherwise with their No. 388 card during the spring — so he was farmed out to Tidewater.
It was while hurling for the Tides that the from kid from Queens learned what his calling card was going to be for the for the rest of his life.
By dint of birth, native habitat and unfolding circumstance, Charlie Williams seemed destined to pitch for the Mets. Technically, his destiny was fulfilled 31 times over. But that debut against the Cubs, the complete game against the Reds, any of those five wins for the 1971 Mets…that’s not what Charlie Williams would be remembered for. From May 11, 1972 forward, until this past Tuesday — the day he died at the age of 67 following heart surgery that was too much to take atop an array of reported vexing health issues — he lived as one easily digestible line to baseball fans who remained or became aware of him:
Charlie Williams was the player traded for Willie Mays.
With the stunning announcement that Willie was about to, in a sense, do what Charlie had already done — come home to where it all started — Williams was transformed into an instant trivia question. He was now and would forever be in league with the likes of Parsons and Denehy and Rose and Moore, his Memphis moundmates who, however well they might have pitched at the highest level of baseball in a given game, were remembered because they were parts of trades involving men who had bigger names or accomplished greater things.
In Williams’s case, he was the only player the Mets exchanged for Mays, yet he was essentially the throw-in. From the Candlestick Park perspective, this deal that was struck a month prior to the Watergate break-in was best understood by following the money. Giants owner Horace Stoneham needed the $50,000 Mets owner Joan Payson gladly sent him in exchange for the privilege of dressing her and everybody’s favorite old-time New York Giant in a New York Mets uniform. She’d happily take on the top-of-the-line salary he was due (the prorated portion of $165,000 for 1972 plus $175,000 agreed to for 1973) and guarantee him a post-playing coach’s sinecure as well, a gig Willie kept through the end of the 1970s.
Stoneham would say he never actually accepted the $50,000, he just wanted what was best for Willie. His team did, however, take receipt of Williams, who gave the Giants what could best be described as a serviceable seven seasons. There were a few years in the mid-’70s when advanced metrics are retroactively kind to Charlie, with ERA+ rates topping 100 from 1974 to 1976. His lifetime won-lost mark was 23-22, 18-16 as a Giant. He was a better than .500 pitcher during a period when San Francisco produced mostly losing ballclubs.
In retirement, Charlie moved to the east coast of Florida, where apparently he never shied away from his claim to redirected fame. According to one of his golfing companions, he didn’t have a problem not being known as Charlie Williams the pitcher who reached the top with his hometown team or Charlie Williams who possessed a winning lifetime record or Charlie Williams who won 23 more games in the major leagues than mere mortals. He was fine being Charlie Williams who was known for being what Charlie Williams was automatically known for being…not that he didn’t put a little spin on his own pitch, mind you. As friend Harold Glover related to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “He’d actually tell everybody that Willie Mays was traded for him.”
However you slice it, there are worse things to be known for.
The kid who made The Flip, the Say Hey Kid who made The Catch. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Giants)
Is there any better antidote to chilly days than Willie Mays? Is there any doubt that No. 24 could melt the 24 inches of snow projected to blanket our Metropolitan Area if you gave him a bat, a glove and another go with 24-year-old legs? Is there a sunnier thought 24 days in advance of Pitchers & Catchers than that which results when one considers the greatest center fielder there ever was?
Say no to all of the above because, Say Hey, Willie Mays was in town over the weekend, reminding all of us lucky enough to spend a few minutes in his presence that greatness doesn’t grow old. It just gets better with age.
The Willie Mays I saw on Saturday was the Willie Mays who acts as ambassador for the game he made his own a scant 64 years ago. There are many Willie Mayses. Willie the phenom from 1951. Willie the megastar by 1954. Willie the idol of millions forever after. Willie from Uptown, when he lived around the corner from where he worked and played ball at both addresses (stickball on St. Nicholas Place, baseball on Eighth Avenue between 155th and 157th Streets). Willie of the West Coast after he was transferred on business. Willie who left his heart in New York and came back to find it well cared for in 1972. Willie who Said Goodbye to America two weeks before helping bid the Big Red Machine au revoir in the fall of 1973. Willie the living legend, in and out of uniform for decades since.
Yes, there are many Willie Mayses. But when you get right down to it, there’s only one Willie Mays.
The Giants — currently of San Francisco, ancestrally of Manhattan — keep coming up with good excuses to give Willie Mays a ride back to his baseball hometown. They keep winning the World Series. Not every year, which would be gauche, but every other year. Then they take a few days out of their busy California schedule and visit New York with a trophy and an icon in tow. The trophy’s a lovely keepsake, but it’s somebody else’s. When the Giants come around, I don’t greet them in order to relish their spoils of victory.
I come to be near Willie Mays. Success hasn’t spoiled that sensation.
To offer a little background to those of you who haven’t heard it before, I’ll tell you that at the age of nine, when I was already deeply and eternally bound to the fortunes of our Metsies, I became fully aware that they were preceded as “N.Y. (N.L.)” by another outfit, one that even wore the same NY on their caps. This was 1972. I was in third grade and had begun to soak up the history of those larger-than-life New York Giants. There was an article in Baseball Digest that introduced me to John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. There was a biography in the East School library that profiled Mel Ott. Suddenly, there was a trade made by the New York Mets that netted them the greatest of New York Giants.
They…we…got Willie Mays.
Critical mass thus gave me two teams, the Mets in my time, the Giants for all time, or at least the portion of pre-Mets time they spent in New York, which spanned 1883 to 1957. They became my object of historical affection. The San Francisco aspect of their ongoing activities didn’t really register with me. Those Giants, once they kindly sent Willie home where he belonged, were just another Met opponent whose games started inconveniently late. I had no strong opinion of them except that I thought it rather rude that they had absconded with Mays in the first place.
Credit where credit is due, though. The San Francisco Giants have become all about the make-good. In the 2010s, they win a World Series every other year and they make certain to share the spirit of those championships with their New York diehards. They honor two groups with which I’ve been happily involved — the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society and the New York Giants Preservation Society — for continuing to honor them. They organize a biennial breakfast and invite the membership and host a black-and-orange love-in that doesn’t turn a person away just because he otherwise bleeds Mets blue.
They’re the three-time World Champion San Francisco Giants. They can afford to be gracious. Same for their Gotham-based fans. In New York Giant-loving circles (which is to say among Giants fans who live in New York and cheer for San Francisco), I’m accepted for my heritage-oriented enthusiasm. I’m welcome to take part in their festivities, given a peek into their folkways, offered the same crack at the same sumptuous buffet as they are.
I’ll be rooting against those Giants when they come to Citi Field in June. In the icebox that is January, however, I can’t think of an organization I like better.
Willie left his heart in New York in 1957. Every time he returns from San Francisco, he finds it’s been well cared for. (Photo courtesy of New York Giants Preservation Society)
The San Francisco Giants bring me Willie Mays every two winters. They brought him to me in 2011 when, truth be told, he seemed a little out of it. They brought him to me in 2013 when he was far sharper and more engaged. They brought him to me on Saturday when I swear that if I had closed my eyes and hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought I was listening to the same Willie Mays from when he wore 24 in Queens.
In 2015, Willie sounded A-Mays-ing. Every time the Giants win a World Series, he gets younger. This youth movement might help explain San Francisco’s autumnal success. They brought their ageless wonder to this breakfast of champions and they brought Joe Panik, who appears to me all of 14. (Joe’s actually…wait for it…24.)
The Giants didn’t need to give us Joe Panik, but what the hell, the kid is from somewhere around here and why shouldn’t he have the chance to visit with Willie Mays, too? He did just help his team win a World Series.
All due respect to the second baseman whose quick thinking in the field turned Game Seven of the most recent World Series around, but the Giant nostalgists, preservationists and fans who filled their third hotel ballroom in five winters didn’t come out in the slush to hear from Joe Panik. He was a swell complement, but Willie Mays was positively papal in his effect on the people. Hundreds rose as one when word filtered in from the hallway that Willie was about to enter. Willie didn’t enter for more than five minutes, but nobody sat down.
You don’t sit down when Willie Mays might walk by.
It was worth the wait. Willie was led in. Standing on the edge of his processional, I was going to try to get a very good picture with my phone. Instead I gave a very good ovation and got a series of blurry photos. That’s all right. There’s no shortage of published images of Willie Mays. To have one in your head of him passing right in front of you as you pay proper homage? That you can leave your phone in your pocket for.
Like I said, Willie did some version of this in 2011 and 2013. He’s plenty loose by now. In 2015, he was ready from the first softball tossed his way.
How did it feel to be back in New York?
“I never left!” Indeed, Willie Mays has maintained an apartment in Riverdale, but the way he squealed his answer and the understanding of how his backstory wound through the Polo Grounds (and Shea Stadium) made it an instant applause line.
“People in New York, when they like you, they love you.” More applause.
When Joe Panik was introduced, there was applause, too — and leading it, on his feet, was Mr. Mays. Willie, recurring youthful aura notwithstanding, is 83. He needs some assistance to get from the back to the front of a ballroom. Yet he didn’t hesitate to stand and salute Panik. He also was plenty ready to discuss what a promising player he was sitting next to. As Willie likes to say (and he said it Saturday), he doesn’t know why he refers to “we” having won the World Series. “I didn’t do anything,” he frankly admits. “They won.”
It struck me that when you hear the phrase “he’s a good baseball man,” we’re conditioned to apply it to someone like Terry Collins. He didn’t excel as a player but he worked hard and he learned things and he accumulated knowledge and he stayed in the game and, after a fashion, others in the industry looked at him and agreed, “He’s a good baseball man.”
We don’t apply that to someone on Willie Mays’s level — which isn’t a very populated level, I grant you. But when I listened to him digress on what Panik had done well last season and postseason, then heard him analyze the trajectory of the 2014 Giants and compare their confidence with his self-confessed bad case of rookie nerves in 1951, I realized that Willie Mays, aside from being the most spectacular of baseball players, is a very good baseball man.
I doubt you’d find better.
Willie addressed a range of topics as wide as CF at the PG. He remembered Ernie Banks as “someone who never got mad…and all of a sudden the ball would go over the fence.” He reported that he and Monte Irvin, soon to turn 96, “talk all the time”. He won a round of loving laughs when he confirmed that when Bobby Thomson hit his pennant-winning homer, he didn’t realize right away what all the fuss was about (Willie was in the on-deck circle and still assumed he was up next). He wouldn’t rank a next-best center fielder, but acknowledged “Junior was pretty good”. He rated as the loudest roar of his career the welcome home he received in the Polo Grounds in 1962 the first time the Giants headed east to play the Mets. He explained San Francisco’s tentative embrace when he and his teammates moved there in ’58: “They soon understood I could play baseball.”
Somewhere along the way, Larry Baer, CEO of the Giants, joined the panel to hail not just Willie and Joe but the audience, a crowd that stayed true to their team, distance be damned. (Panik said something earnest about appreciating the proliferation of Giants fans at Citi Field, which served as another surefire applause line, though I assure you I kept my hands politely folded.) Baer thoroughly tipped his cap to the Giants’ “roots” in New York, though the mere existence of this January morning event testified to his club’s sincerity.
This whole thing was on the Giants: the space in a really lovely hotel; the food that far outpaced your average Holiday Inn Express; the trophy that I’m told is awarded for winning a championship (how would I know?); the transcontinental goodwill; the pairing of the outfielder who made The Catch in New York in 1954 with the New York-born infielder who made The Flip in 2014. Nobody’s charged anything. Nobody’s sold anything. There are no merchandise tables, no “Giants on the Road” packages. Instead, there’s stories and reflections and standing ovations coming and going. There are grateful remarks like “three World Series in five years, I still have to pinch myself,” and reminiscences about having sat in Section 38 for Game One in ’54, left-center, and watching Willie tracking Vic Wertz’s ball all the way, and asides that Section 22 at the Polo Grounds was behind home plate and how you could remember Section 22 by number because, well, Don Mueller wore 22.
For those on hand who lived the New York Giants, this was quite the gathering. For those who had the San Francisco Giants passed down to them as a family heirloom three time zones removed, it was an experience to be cherished. For me, who figures I wouldn’t have my New York Mets without those New York Giants, it was a stolen moment in the sun.
It snowed the night before. It’s snowing all over again two days later. I’ll steal every bit of sunshine I can.
My particular heartfelt thanks to Bill Kent of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society and Gary Mintz of the New York Giants Preservation Society for engineering these three Saturday mornings I’ve been fortunate enough to spend with Willie Mays, or three more than it ever occurred to me to dream possible.
Ernie Banks on a 1969 baseball card shot at Shea Stadium. No way it wasn’t a beautiful day.
We know what Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, had to say about doubleheaders. Yet I thought it might be fitting to remember there was more to the man who passed away Friday eight days shy of his 84th birthday than one admittedly beautiful quote.
Let’s play two? Absolutely. But let’s hear more.
“You have to be happy, and sports does it. What kind of world would this be without sports, without baseball? Why, you’d have people at each other all the time.”
— Ernie Banks, 1969
“I have problems, like everyone else, but it doesn’t do any good to go around spreading bad news.”
—Ernie Banks, 1971
“Some people can’t deal with strange people. I can. For 35 years all I did was deal with people I didn’t know. But the facade was also me. I view people as if they have a sign on their chest which says, ‘Make me happy,’ and I got happy by making them happy. I always view people as feeling worthless, not having self-esteem, and I try to focus attention off myself and onto them to make them feel important.”
—Ernie Banks, 1988
“I see a lot of people today who struggled and went to jail and the dogs were after them, and I’d look at them and look ’em in the eyes and say, ‘God almighty, I wish I’da been there.’ My children, sometimes they think about, ‘Daddy, where were you all the times that the struggle was going on?’ And I could only answer one way: ‘I was playing baseball.’ That was the struggle.”
—Ernie Banks, 2006
I recently found myself in a store called Healthy Alternatives, an establishment that bills itself as a “holistic center and specialty shop”. Amid all the doodads and potions designed to reduce a person’s stress hung a sign:
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
The attribution was “Unknown,” but I assume whoever was quoted had been watching the National League East take shape this winter.
So much for reducing stress.
The Washington Nationals are shooting for the moon, perhaps another planet. They are the Scott Kelly of our division, planning for an extended stay in the stratosphere. They just laid in a supply of Max Scherzer, for heaven’s sake. They have more stellar starting pitching than Neil Armstrong had Tang. You almost get the idea that standing pat isn’t good enough for them.
The moon may seem a prohibitive destination in a division crowded at its crown by the Nationals, but the Miami Marlins, situated somewhere south of Cape Canaveral, don’t seem averse to attempting liftoff. We are conditioned to assume the Marlins are destined to implode on the launch pad and then sell the charred remains of Giancarlo Stanton’s Louisville Sluggers for parts, but as Jonah Keri outlines, they’re trying to be a real baseball team these days. A real contending baseball team. One that builds from a foundation of promise and adds to it.
The Marlins may not win a division title, but they’re trying. For that matter, because nothing is guaranteed, the Nationals may not win a division title, but they’re trying. If you try and fail, then at least there’s a potential fallback position within the space of the National League. There’s the Wild Card. There’s two of them, even.
On the other hand, shoot for a Wild Card and miss, what do you land among? The Phillies and Braves, probably.
There are the teams who are trying to win a lot. There are the teams who are hoping to win enough. There are a few who are taking a raincheck for now. The Phillies and Braves are raincheckers, though I’ve lived long enough to never trust that the Braves can’t make trouble. The Nationals and Marlins are aiming at a lot of wins. The Mets? They seem to hope that “enough” will be enough.
Blame the World Champion San Francisco Giants (touring a Metropolis near you) for making enough look adequate and making adequate look easy. How many games did the Giants win last season? Fewer than the Nationals. Then they proceeded to beat the Nationals, along with everybody who else who blocked their path to ultimate enlightenment. Lesson generally derived: What’s the point of winning a surfeit of games when you don’t need the extras to go all the way?
Lesson that should be derived: Try to win as much as you can because you’re probably not going to have everything turn out as you wish and you could thus use the cushion for when things go wrong.
The Giants were a powerhouse in 2014 before they became merely a house. They were in first place by 10 games on June 8, yet vacated first place before August dawned and finished six behind the Dodgers and a tiebreaker in back of the Pirates. Conversely, it took the Nationals a little while to rev up their power. Washington started June under .500 and in third place behind the Braves and the Marlins. They took the division by 17 games anyway. When it mattered most, each team had the requisite number of wins to gain entry into the playoffs. But I never got the impression that the bare minimum was either side’s goal.
The Mets give me every impression that if they have a goal, it is to invest the bare minimum of resources to gain the bare minimum of wins that will get them to what we shall call the Big Five Tournament. They signed Michael Cuddyer in November. They showed off Michael Cuddyer on Thursday. In between…not much. Not much for a team that went 79-83 and needs what went wrong last year to go much better this year and what went right last year to not go terribly wrong this year.
If that process works, then we’ll all enjoy watching the first postseason pitch thrown in Flushing since Adam Wainwright’s curveball of October 18, 2006, on that 62%-larger scoreboard the Mets seem so excited about. If that process doesn’t work, can we really be surprised?
KVELL: To beam with pride and pleasure
KVETCH: To complain
—From “Selected Yiddish Words and Phrases,” courtesy of some considerate landsmen in Santa Barbara, Calif.
A Mets fan generally finds himself kvetching or kvelling. It’s tempting to kvetch about the sleepy offseason that followed the signing of Michael Cuddyer or the way the Mets apparently charge their youngsters to “voluntarily” work out under their indirect auspices so they can someday become Mets who can afford the prices the Mets charge (though if they don’t volunteer, then they must not really want to be Mets, eh?). I can kvetch another day as needed. It remains a long winter.
Today I choose to kvell.
I’m actually choosing to kvell about a week ago today. The statute of limitations hasn’t run out on beaming with pride and pleasure over an event from seven days ago, has it? I can remember when the Mets have won big that, as the next season approached, there was an implicit tendency to “get over it” quickly or “put it behind us” by spring because, well, there was another season to play and you couldn’t rest on your laurels. You had to go out and win again.
The Mets, you might have noticed, didn’t go out and win again whenever they won big. Nor have they won big in quite a while. When you’re short on big wins, there is solace to be taken in the victories of long ago. They teach us something we can use going forward (as opposed to going backward). Or they just mercifully distract us from going nowhere. It’s never too late to retrokvell. That’s what the big wins are for.
So to kvell with it. I’m going to kvell a little more about Ed Charles from last week at the Queens Baseball Convention. That was a big win for all involved.
I have a confession to make about Ed Charles’s playing career. I don’t remember any of it firsthand, not even its late pinnacle. I remember clearly what his final team did and I know he was there when they did it. That fall is the foundation for all my fandom that’s since followed. I just didn’t know anything about him at the time they were doing it. (Yes, I feel sort of guilty about having once been a small child.) Despite my plunging into a lifetime of Mets love in 1969, there’s a cache of 1969 Mets whose contributions I had to catch up on after the fact.
What they all had in common was they were either gone or going by 1970, my first full year as a full-fledged Mets fan. 1970 reinforced 1969. 1969 was the welcoming gift that said you can win like this every year. 1970 was the fine print that mumbled you probably won’t win like that ever again. But 1970 was quite fine by me, actually. Baseball from April onward, maybe we’d win, maybe we wouldn’t, but no doubt it was there everyday. At six, in 1969, I was enthralled. At seven, in 1970, I was engaged. In between, on October 24, 1969, the Mets released Ed Charles. The story was they had to make room on their roster to protect younger players…and he wanted to retire anyway…and they were going to give him a job in their promotions department…which didn’t exactly materialize as planned.
At eight, in 1971, I bought a book that listed everybody who played for the Mets in 1969, not just the stalwarts of ’70, but those whose presence predated or averted my consciousness. It was in the statistical appendix to The Perfect Game: Tom Seaver and the Mets by Tom Seaver with Dick Schaap (which is to say by Dick Schaap) that I first encountered Ed Charles. He was, at initial glance, no more than a name, a strange name among the Swobodas and Joneses and Gentrys and so forth, the Mets who stuck around to make a direct impression on me. This Charles was a Met only in the sense that Tom Seaver’s book said he was.
The 1969 Mets: the Worldwide Leader still.
I had to take it on faith that Ed was as important as anybody else to the so-called Miracle Mets. I had to understand that the man who was first to join Jerrys Koosman and Grote on the mound at the end of Game Five was scurrying on merit. I had to believe Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson whenever they’d bring him up approvingly between pitches. The Glider Ed Charles; the Poet Laureate of the 1969 Mets Ed Charles; the Elder Statesman of the World Champion Mets Ed Charles. He had more titles than the Mets do to this day. He had enough titles to qualify as English nobility.
With more seasoning, I came to comprehend that the Mets I hadn’t known were Mets, too, that they ran and they threw and they fielded and they hit and they hit with power on occasion. I embraced, despite the sense one develops at an early age that the universe couldn’t have possibly existed prior to one’s awareness of it, the concept of there having been Life Before I Came Along. I got that the 1969 Mets were a team like no other, not only for their easily embroidered accomplishments, but for their whole overwhelming the sum of their parts — just as together they overwhelmed Chicago, Atlanta and Baltimore while I was first getting to know them. I read more and I listened more and I looked at the pictures and I watched the film and the videotape and I took it all in as best I could no matter than I wasn’t able to take it in as it happened.
You might say I’d been trying to catch up with Ed Charles ever since I first saw his name listed among everybody who played for the Mets in 1969. You might also say that on Saturday, January 10, 2015, at the Queens Baseball Convention, I finally pulled even.
QBC wasn’t my first encounter with Ed. In 2009, we met in Caesars Club, he a de facto Mets ambassador, me a diehard Mets fan. It was Opening Day. Not the first game at Citi Field, but Opening Day in Cincinnati. A friend affiliated with a sponsor that was hosting a party did me a solid and put me on a list. The same sponsor brought in Charles, Ed Kranepool and Mookie Wilson to sign autographs and be legends. I was suitably impressed (so impressed that I couldn’t bring myself to talk to the Krane). I’m not an autograph hound, so at first I didn’t join the lines that I saw developing for the players. Then, when the queues shortened, I figured why not, and waited to meet the Glider.
The exchange was brief. I told the man I wanted to thank him for all he did for the Mets, for being such a great Met when he played. I didn’t want to say “you were my favorite player” or “I remember the time you…” because he wasn’t and I didn’t. I veer to the literal. Ed said, in so many words, all right, thank you very much. (I said more or less the same thing to Mookie and received more or less the same slightly baffled “so you don’t want an autograph?” look.)
I was quite satisfied with the interaction. He was Ed Charles, 1969 Met, whether I had directly experienced his playing or not. When he discussed and read his poetry at the Mets’ 50th-anniversary conference at Hofstra in 2012, I eagerly listened from the audience but I didn’t need to seek him out. I’d already done it. I was like the cop in the Kids In The Hall sketch who comes back from his European vacation and shows his partner a lone photograph.
“Ya just got the one picture?”
“I took another one, but it didn’t turn out.”
One hello. One view from the back of a college auditorium. Plus the various Old Timers Days and commemorative gatherings and whatever I caught on TV and whatever I kept reading and the dramatization of young Ed Charles in the 2013 movie 42, the highly idealized Jackie Robinson biopic that conveys the spirit of an essential American story even if it takes its sweet liberties with some of the details. As soon as I saw the scene in which a little kid named Ed goes to a Spring Training game and roots his heart out for Jackie, I knew who he’d grow up to be. And for anybody who hadn’t devoted a lifetime to reading about a certain whole and all its parts, the director included this helpful postscript graphic regarding the wonderfully earnest kid from that scene:
Ed Charles grew up to become a Major League Baseball player. He won the World Series with the 1969 Miracle Mets.
They took no liberties with those facts. I knew they were true.
The Queens Baseball Convention was founded to fill a void the Mets themselves probably don’t realize exists. Mets fans want to be together when there’s no baseball, want to talk Mets baseball no matter the month, want to hear about Mets baseball all throughout the year. The people who put QBC together — primarily (though by no means exclusively) Shannon Shark, Keith Blacknick and Dan Twohig from Mets Police — made not just filling but obliterating the void their mission. But there was a sub-mission as well.
Let’s do something for Gil Hodges.
Let’s do something for the memory of Gil Hodges.
Let’s do more than not forget the manager of whom every one of his contemporaries spoke and continues to speak so highly.
Let’s make a point of remembering him and talking about him and emphasizing what No. 14 was all about for any Mets fan who wasn’t certain why we keep talking about him.
That goal resulted in the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award. It was established a year ago when Gil’s son was gracious enough to tell us the idea was OK by him and was thoughtful enough to attend the first QBC to accept the award on behalf of his father. He even brought Art Shamsky. When we did it once, it became real. When it became real, we had to do it again.
We had to choose another recipient. Ed Charles was the first and only name considered. All that had to be done was to let him know he was chosen and ask him to come and accept.
Which, in my role as consulting historian to QBC (a title I made up for myself), it fell to me to do.
Which amounted to e-mailing somebody who I believed had Ed’s contact information, but didn’t.
Which led to e-mailing somebody else who I was told had Ed’s contact information.
Which led to calling that person to get Ed’s contact information.
Which led to being given Ed’s phone number and being told I could go ahead and call him.
Which led to me calling a 1969 World Champion New York Met…at home.
Which led to me putting it off for too many days on top of how long it took me to secure his phone number because as soon as somebody said to me, “Here’s Ed Charles’s number,” I froze. At that instant, I was nobody’s consulting historian. I was instead six and overcome by awe for the idea that I could call somebody on the Mets. Never mind that he hadn’t been on the Mets in 45 years. Never mind that this was a professional obligation. Never mind that in my working life I’ve called thousands of people who had no idea who I was to ask them questions.
In the moment of staring at Ed Charles’s phone number, I was six years old. Every Met was a movie star, an astronaut and a Met and I would never dream I could just pick up a phone and talk to somebody of that ilk. When I was six and missed school, my mother would insist I call another kid in my class to find out if there was homework. I hesitated to do that. I figured the other kid would hang up on me or tell me to go away. I still half-expect that reaction when I call people today. Hooray for the advent of e-mail, y’know? Except Ed Charles didn’t have an e-mail address. He had a phone number. If this Gil Hodges award was going to gain the traction we hoped it would, I had to use it.
So I did. I called Ed Charles. At home.
He didn’t hang up on me or tell me to go away, which I considered a preliminary victory. Someone you’ve never heard of calls you out of the blue to tell you you won an award you’ve never heard of and would you mind dropping by this event you’ve never heard of to pick it up and — if you’re up for it — maybe say a few words, you’d consider ending the conversation before it got much further.
But Ed Charles didn’t do that. He listened to my spiel, he checked his calendar, he asked for a little more information and he gave me his home address so I could send it through the mail.
Now I had Ed Charles’s phone number and address. Me, a former six-year-old. I suppose this says something good about the way things begin to tumble into place, but I also can’t shake the feeling that something’s a little awry with a world that grants me that kind of entrée to a 1969 World Champion New York Met.
I know I’m no kid. I know I’ve written books and articles and blog posts galore. I know I’ve interviewed plenty of people reasonably famous in their fields, in and out of baseball.
Still, c’mon. It’s me. What am I doing with a 1969 Met’s phone number and address?
Nevertheless, I followed through. I wrote Ed Charles a letter in which I explained the Queens Baseball Convention, the Gil Hodges award and why we wanted to present it to him. I slipped in something about having been six years old in 1969, because a former baseball player has probably never heard an adult invoke his childhood fandom before. Then, the following week, I called him to make sure he received it.
He had. He was good with it. He said he’d be there. That, I said, is wonderful. I told him I’d check back in with him shortly before the QBC to firm up all details.
When I did, let’s just say I got the impression that receiving the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award at the Queens Baseball Convention wasn’t uppermost in Ed Charles’s thoughts. Thus, despite his calm assurance that he would join us, I became convinced he wouldn’t. That he’d forget. That he’d take ill. That it would be too cold. That it would snow. That I had dropped the ball in making certain he found his way there. As late as 5:30 last Saturday, I could hear myself making the lamest of “though our guest of honor couldn’t be here today…” remarks and disappointing everybody who had been waiting for and maybe come only because of Ed Charles.
Then, while participating in a panel nobody would remember I was on because all anybody would remember was that I said Ed Charles was coming and he didn’t, I got the high sign from my wife who had been kindly keeping an eye on the door. Ed Charles had arrived.
I excused myself and bore witness to the entry into the Queens Baseball Convention of Edwin Douglas Charles. The Glider. The Poet Laureate of the 1969 Mets. The Elder Statesman of the World Champion Mets.
Ed Charles was here, resplendent. Everything about him was world championship. The black cane. The silver suit. The tan topcoat that complemented the suit beautifully. The topcoat got my attention in particular because a friend once recalled for me the scene at Shea Stadium on the day in 1970 when the 1969 flag was raised. Ed had been relegated to ex-Metdom before any of his teammates were, which could have put a damper on the festivities the way getting over it and putting it behind us can.
But the residue of miraculous machinations hadn’t evaporated from Shea yet.
“Ed was…back for Opening Day. We in the stands had no idea he was there and thus, as the Mets were getting their world championship rings, we suddenly heard the name Ed Charles announced over the P.A. system and saw him running out of the dugout, wearing an open trench coat, waving both arms high to the fans as he went to get his ring. All the players along the first base line applauded him and I think he got the longest ovation of all the players.”
From wearing a trench coat when the other World Champion Mets were in uniform to wearing a topcoat when so many of the fans at McFadden’s were wearing Mets jerseys. By any outerwear, it was Ed Charles.
Ed Charles, who was portrayed in a major motion picture.
Ed Charles, who rode in the Canyon of Heroes.
Ed Charles, who tossed off light verse on the team bus and recited sacred poetry in Bryant Park.
Ed Charles, who after playing professional baseball for most of 18 years, earned a World Series ring in his very last game.
Ed Charles, whom I was almost too scared to call but did anyway and now he was at QBC and he was looking for me.
There’s a word for when Ed Charles shows up like that.
Logistics ensued. Shannon cut short the last panel of the day. Keith and Dan transformed a humble stage into a worthy podium. Ed asked where I wanted him, as if being right here right now and having been at third against southpaws hadn’t sufficed. I didn’t want to put him out in any way, so I offered him his choice. Sit in the front row alongside Steve Jacobson — the longtime Newsday columnist who showed up specifically to support Ed, one of his very favorite players to cover — and come up to accept the award when introduced; or sit on the chair Keith placed on the podium until it’s time to get up and say a few words if, in fact, you wish to say a few words. I was cognizant of the black cane and wanted to be fully attuned to whatever condition that necessitated it.
It’s none of my business how old anybody is, but baseball’s funny about openly sharing vital statistics. For example, the January 2015 page of the official Mets calendar over my desk tells me, even though I didn’t ask, that Daniel Murphy is 6’ 1”, 215 lbs. and will be 30 years old this April. It’s that sort of openness with data that made it easy for me to know that in the same month Murph blows out his candles, Ed is slated to blow out just as many…plus 52 more. I wasn’t about to make a nearly 82-year-old man stand up any longer than he deemed necessary.
The Glider, forever the Poet. (Photograph by Sharon Chapman.)
You know what Ed chose to do? He chose to stand for the entire duration of the presentation and everything after, which probably added up to almost an hour. He deemed it necessary. He stood while I spoke from a prepared text. He stood while he spoke without notes. He stood while he asked for audience questions. He stood while he answered them. He stood while he read from a revised version of “An Athlete’s Prayer,” the very same poem he read in Bryant Park after he rode in the Canyon of Heroes — references to DiMaggio and Clemente substituting for those hailing Ruth and Cobb, though “Robinson” stayed a staple of both. He stood while the audience stood and applauded. He stood while Mets fans streamed toward him afterwards for, basically, the same reason I went over to him in Caesars Club six years ago: for being such a great Met when he played, though maybe to add “you were my favorite player” or “I remember the time you…”
I can do that, too, now, because I have revised memories of Ed Charles. I remember the time he came to QBC and (all apologies to survivors of the Art Howe administration) lit up the room. I remember the way he knew exactly what to say on the occasion we honored not just him but his manager. I remember that he warmly tailored his remarks to be as much about Gil Hodges as they were about Ed Charles. I remember thinking that he’s no doubt given some iteration of this talk at countless Hot Stove gatherings, but today, in 2015, it felt fresh and new and alive and the embodiment of what a friend who was there called living history. In “An Athlete’s Prayer,” there’s a line Ed wrote that says, simply, “We players perform as best we can.”
Funny, he should say that. As I stood off to the side of the podium after delivering my introduction and kvelled from watching Ed do his thing, the word “performance” came to mind, specifically in the context of a soundbite constant MLB Network viewers might recognize. It’s one you might have heard broadcast in Howard Cosell’s voice, the singular ABC announcer (and original Met pregame radio host) booming, “WHAT A PERFORMANCE!” Humble Howard exclaimed it after George Brett hit the third of three home runs in one Royals playoff game.
Brett played third base for Kansas City (as did Charles, for the post-Philadelphia, pre-Oakland A’s prior to his being traded to the Mets). Brett’s three home runs in Game Three of the 1978 American League Championship Series off Catfish Hunter — future Hall of Famer versus future Hall of Famer — indeed represented a performance worthy of Cosellian exultation.
But this, from Ed Charles, for every Mets fan on hand…this was a performance for the ages.
Oh, and I remember the ring. I’ve never been about the rings (baby), but I gotta tell ya that as I continued to stand and kvell, I caught sight of Ed’s ring…his 1969 World Series ring, that is. I’d seen pictures of the ’69 model, so it was familiar to me, sort of like when I first entered Fenway Park — the first non-Shea ballpark I ever visited — and recognized it because I’d seen it on television. I’d seen one of those rings displayed in Cooperstown, behind glass. I’m pretty sure there’s one in the Mets Museum, too. But at this moment, I was seeing a 1969 World Series ring on a 1969 World Champion Met. A 1969 World Champion Met who talking about 1969 and Gil Hodges to a group of ardent Mets fans because I called him and asked him to and he got a ride regardless of any ball I feared I dropped and because this isn’t the kind of man to not come through with a performance for the ages where there is a critical mass of ardent Mets fans looking forward to seeing him.
Like I said, I’ve caught up with Ed Charles. Now, I’d like to think, we are forever tied.
Also, I may need to revise my All-Time Favorite Mets list.
You can listen to the entire Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award presentation from QBC 2015 here, courtesy of Alternative Sports Talk Radio.
Below is the text of my introduction of Mr. Charles. Embedded audio is posted beneath it.
Last year at QBC, we inaugurated the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award in memory of our late world champion manager — and might I add Hall of Fame human being — to honor those Mets who, when we think of them, will always warm our hearts, brighten our spirits and light our way. We dedicated the first award to Gil himself and were thrilled to present it to his son, Gil, Jr., who sends us his best regards. He really wanted to be here with us again but can’t be. He promises us he’ll join us once more at QBC next year.
For our second year, we are just as thrilled to be able to present it to Ed Charles, New York Met third baseman, 1967 to 1969, world champion forever.
Selecting Ed was not a hard call. His leadership as a player mirrored Gil’s as a manager. The esteem he’s held in sits at that same high level. Every mention I find of Ed since he stopped playing baseball usually goes the like this:
“Ed Charles is one of the nicest people I ever met.”
There’s usually something about a small exchange with you that meant the world to your fans, whether it was from when you were playing or from when you were retired from the game. You sent letters and poems and offered a handshake and a smile and never stopped letting Mets fans remind you how much THAT meant to them and how much 1969 continues to mean to them.
It occurs to me that because your playing career ended with the World Series that you’ve been a quote-unquote “1969 Met” longer than any of your teammates. You were out there carrying the banner on your own until the other guys on the team eventually joined you in retirement. And you’ve done it with a keen awareness of what it means to Mets fans and world-class empathy that’s rare these days.
It’s no small thing, and we appreciate you no end for that.
If you’re keeping score at home, as Bob Murphy liked to say, Ed was the first 1969 Met in professional baseball. He started playing in 1952, approximately six years after that scene in the movie 42 where a young Ed Charles catches the eye of the great Jackie Robinson, who is on his way to eventually joining the Brooklyn Dodgers and changing America for the better.
If I’ve read the background correctly, Ed, in real life, Jackie waved to you as his train was pulling away. In the movie he throws you a ball. I guess that version is more dramatic, but either way, the inspiration was just as real.
Ed is one of two 1969 Mets to begin his major league career the very first day the Mets themselves came into existence; Ed and Ron Taylor each played their first big league game on April 11, 1962. Ron was playing for Cleveland, Ed for the Kansas City A’s.
If you’ve done the math and noticed it took Ed ten years to make the majors after starting in the minors, just realize how much perseverance that required and what a world he was trying to succeed in, one where most ballclubs stuck to a quota system when it came to African-American players. Ed EARNED a much earlier promotion. That he didn’t get it didn’t stop him from making it.
As he told Steve Jacobson in the book Carrying Jackie’s Torch, talking about himself and his contemporaries who were routinely discriminated against through the 1950s in the minor leagues, “Jackie integrated the major leagues. We integrated baseball.” And when you read Steve’s book, you learn all over again that there were plenty of places in baseball that didn’t want to be integrated.
Ed, who of course wore No. 5, is one of FIVE third basemen to lead the Mets in home runs in a season, which helps explain Jerry Koosman’s sound advice: “Never throw a slider to the Glider.” The other third basemen in question: Charlie Smith; Howard Johnson; Bobby Bonilla; and the current No. 5 at third base, David Wright. Ed did it in 1968. And we all know what happened the next year.
Regarding home runs: Ed hit 21 in his not quite three seasons as a Met, but SIX of the home runs came off Hall of Famers: Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Steve Carlton. Just so you understand, beyond his demeanor, determination and grace, Ed Charles could play some ball.
The home run against Carlton and the Cardinals was Ed’s most significant. It followed Donn Clendenon’s on September 24, 1969, and gave Gary Gentry an insurmountable lead that allowed the Mets to clinch their first title of any kind in the National League East. I also like that it came off Carlton, who was still pitching against the Mets as late as 1986 — another pretty good season — and threw a game that year against rookie Jamie Moyer, who pitched against Johan Santana and the Mets in 2012, just about a month before Johan threw the first no-hitter in Mets history.
I think it’s appropriate that Ed has that kind of reach across the generations. They called him the elder statesman of the 1969 Mets. How elder? Ohmigod, he was 36. Yes, ancient. But that’s how young the Mets were then, and gets at a larger point: how much those younger Mets looked up to Ed and how much Gil Hodges trusted him to be the on the field, in the clubhouse leader that a championship team needs. It’s no wonder, as George Vecsey wrote in the aftermath of 1969, that “Ed was the most popular man in the Met clubhouse”.
You’ve no doubt heard Ed referred to as the Poet Laureate of the ’69 Mets. I ask you: how many teams have poet laureates? Ed has taken poetry to heart all his adult life and written some very serious and sensitive verse in his time. But this one, a little lighter in tone, I think is my favorite. It’s from the summer of 1969:
East Side, West Side
Word is goin’ round
When late October comes
The Mets will wear the crown
Ed was the oldest player on that team. The youngest? Wayne Garrett, who shared third base with him in yet another of Gil’s beautiful platoons: Ed facing the lefties, Wayne the righties. In a period where there was a lot of talk about a “generation gap,” those guys joined together and contributed to the ultimate team effort.
As it happened, in Game Two of the World Series, lefty Dave McNally was pitching for Baltimore, so Ed was the third baseman. He started the winning rally that day and scored the winning run. In Game Five, it was McNally again, so it was Ed at third again. The first 1969 Met to make it to the mound after the last out of the World Series who wasn’t the pitcher or catcher? That was Ed Charles. The picture of Ed charging — not “Gliding” that day — is iconic and perfect. Ed was every Mets fan, every New Yorker that day. About a dozen years ago, ESPN used that photo of Koosman and Grote and Charles in an ad campaign whose point was to celebrate sports.
I don’t know that any group of people celebrated anything like Mets fans celebrated and still celebrate those 1969 Mets. For that, we will always thank Gil Hodges and we will always thank Ed Charles.
Some players you take an instant liking to. I took an instant liking to Wilmer Flores when he first came up two Augusts ago. He’s likable. He’s rootable. I’m rooting for him to succeed if indeed he is the Mets’ starting shortstop in the year ahead. I rooted for morning-line starting second baseman Brad Emaus heading into 2011 and presumptive starting center fielder Collin Cowgill in advance of 2013, but that was more about rooting for the Mets and less about the Bill Pecotan entities filling particular roles. I can’t say I worked up a winter passion for either one of them. Flores’s case is different in terms of a mostly unproven commodity being essentially handed a very important assignment and me being enthusiastic about the man in the uniform. I’d love for Wilmer to work out for the Mets because, as I said, I like him.
Look at that face. What’s not to like? (Photo by Sharon Chapman.)
Yet I find myself wondering: Are other general managers calling, texting, e-mailing, faxing and/or Telexing Sandy Alderson to ask into Wilmer Flores’s availability? Shouldn’t they be? Wilmer is 23 years old, plays multiple positions, is heralded for his hitting ability, drove in six runs in two different games in 2014, isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2017 and is under team control for the rest of the decade. It sounds like the makings of a sizzling hot stove commodity.
It may well be that his name has come up in conversations that have completely flown under the rumor radar, but how come you never hear anything about how in demand young, potential-laden Wilmer Flores is? Are the Mets the only team that knows what a gem they’re nurturing? He’s been tabbed the Opening Day shortstop months ahead of the 2015 season by a team widely considered on the cusp of contention. How come some organization among the other 29 hasn’t been reported to be doing its damnedest to pry Flores loose?
If he’s good enough for the New York Mets, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be considered a great get for somebody else. Plus you’d think the Mets’ competitors would want to impede their budding rivals as they approach maturation. What better way to halt the burgeoning Big Met Machine than by poaching their prize shortstop prospect?
Yet we don’t hear about anybody trying to trade for the kid. It seems several shortstops changed uniforms this offseason. Nobody made a play for Wilmer? Teams reportedly come at the Mets dangling their own shortstops — allegedly asking the moon in exchange — but the player or players they want back are never supposedly Flores. These other teams have their own agendas. They don’t care about helping the Mets unless they can help themselves. Yet nobody wants to help themselves to Wilmer Flores, the Met the Mets keep insisting will be the bedrock of their infield?
For someone so likable, it’s strange that more teams aren’t signaling any kind of attraction to him.
You see all sorts of people with an interest in the Mets at the Queens Baseball Convention. This past Saturday, just inside the door and before I could unbundle my topcoat, I ran into the man they called the Rajah — Rogers Hornsby, the club’s first batting instructor in 1962. I recognized him by his strikingly authentic No. 53 home jersey (no number on the front, no name on the back). That Rogers Hornsby’s been dead at the present time since 1963 didn’t stop him from attending, which is a testament to how strong the pull of QBC is in its second go-round at McFadden’s Citi Field. That it transpired in winter, most famously Rogers Hornsby’s least favorite time of year, only burnished the attraction.
I greeted the Rajah like an old friend. At QBC, everybody who seeks out the Mets is an old friend, whether you’re seeing them for the fiftieth time or the first. Rogers Hornsby isn’t used to being greeted like an old friend, given that he didn’t make many in his long and storied baseball life. The last manager he worked for, Casey Stengel, said, “He isn’t a fellow who goes around shaking hands and saying nice things about people unless he means it.”
As with most things, Ol’ Case was quite perceptive. Rogers Hornsby seemed pretty taciturn on contact; rather than shake my hand, he blew on his in attempt to heat them up. Still, he’s Rogers Hornsby, Hall of Famer, career .358 hitter, including a record .424 in 1924. There’s never been a better righthanded batter. I had to greet him.
Rogers Hornsby immediately suggested we get away from the McFadden’s door, seeing as how it was sadistically cold outside and he didn’t bother to wear a topcoat.
Why no coat, I asked.
It’s winter, Rogers Hornsby said, and in winter, he doesn’t need a coat.
How could you not need a coat in winter, I asked, especially when, with the wind chill, it’s like four degrees outside.
Rogers Hornsby zoned in on me like I was a fastball left out over the plate. His most reliable coaching advice was “get a good ball to hit,” and apparently I’d just given him one.
Ah, of course, it dawned on me. It’s winter. And as every baseball fan worth his rock salt knows, Rogers Hornsby had the following to say about winter:
“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
Of course. He doesn’t go outside in winter, so he doesn’t need a coat. Once I realized my faux pas, I asked him why he came out from behind his window where he normally safely stashes himself between the last game of the World Series and the first day of Spring Training. I mean, that’s his thing, right?
Because, Rogers Hornsby spelled out to me as if speaking to the most simple of his 1962 Met pupils, where we are, it isn’t winter. Where we are, it’s baseball. It’s in the name, he said: Queens Baseball Convention.
That I absorbed immediately. It was why I was there. It was why hundreds were there. It was baseball, no matter the month (January) or the weather (brutal). For seven hours, we could ignore the frigidness. We could stop with the staring. We could advance two bases and land on spring.
The Sporting News found Hornsby instructing one of his sharper 1962 pupils, Hodges, during the Mets’ first year.
No wonder Rogers Hornsby once hit .424. His hitting philosophy was simple: “You do or you don’t.” The 1962 Mets rather notably didn’t. With a team average of .240, they hit more like Bruce Hornsby — and fielded with little range — but that’s just the way it is, so I didn’t bring it up to their coach. They must not have gotten many good balls to hit. Besides, he’d already traveled pretty far to be there. Why make him go through 120 losses without a topcoat?
You do or you don’t. You do come to Queens Baseball Convention and bask in the warmth of Metsness or you don’t and you end up staring out the window and waiting through another winter’s day. Hornsby and I went with the “do” and weren’t sorry we did.
We talked baseball, because what else do you talk with Rogers Hornsby? Throughout the day, I talked baseball with all sorts of Mets fans in all sorts of Mets jerseys, though none that I noticed in No. 53 and none with the quite the credentials of Hornsby. Seven batting titles; seventy hits shy of 3,000; led the National League in everything at one time or another; also player-managed the Cardinals to the 1926 title over the Yankees and got himself traded immediately thereafter to the Giants for Frankie Frisch…which speaks mostly to Hornsby and his not shaking hands or saying nice things.
Which, in turn, is probably why it was sort of surprising to hear Rogers Hornsby say such nice things about the Queens Baseball Convention. To be fair, everybody who comes has nice things to say about QBC, but to win over a fellow who was said to have once punched out Branch Rickey is pretty impressive.
I thought maybe Rogers Hornsby might want to hear what special QBC guest Mookie Wilson had to say to his roomful of adoring fans, but once he heard the crowd go wild with their “MOOOOO!” greeting for Wilson, he declined. He said it reminded him too much of the cowtowns he grew up around in Texas. Instead, we sat in on the “Decades” panel, wherein an age-appropriate Mets fan represented each ten-year period in Mets history. Speaking in chronological order, Michael Geus, Louis Mazza, Sean O’Shea, Kevin Connell and Darren Meenan served as collective subconscious for the franchise, hitting the high and low notes of 53 seasons. The Rajah told me the 1962 part was “accurate” and that judging by what he heard about Lance Johnson, Bernard Gilkey and Todd Hundley, he would’ve hit .524 batting behind them in 1996.
That must have been some Murderers’ Row, Rogers Hornsby speculated. Then he asked me how easily the ’96 Mets won that year’s World Series. Before I was forced to answer truthfully, we ran into Josh Lewin, so I introduced them. Josh was on hand to host the Mazzy Awards and used to broadcast Texas Rangers games, so he and Rogers Hornsby hit it off.
Nice young man, that wireless announcer, the Rajah allowed.
I asked Rogers Hornsby if he wanted to go next to the Mets Executives panel, but the Rajah never had much use for baseball executives. I had the feeling he would’ve treated them all like Branch Rickey if he could. “They’re just trying to get the people to leave their seats and buy more beer — buy anything,” he once said of the people who ran ballclubs, and that was without going to games at Citi Field since 2009.
Instead, we took in the panel devoted to the ’86 Mets documentary film that’s in the process of being put together by director Heather Quinlan. Rogers Hornsby shook his head over the whole idea. The Rajah didn’t argue with my contention that the 1986 Mets were a juggernaut — they won 19 more games than his 1926 Cardinals — but he disdained movies in general. As a player, he never went to the cinema, determined as he was to protect the eyesight that made him a .358 lifetime hitter. He avoided theaters clear to 1952, or fifteen years after he quit playing. By then, someone told him, “Movies stopped flickering a long time ago,” and he took their word for it.
Rogers Hornsby didn’t like to do much that wasn’t baseball. In addition to not going to the movies, he didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and didn’t read books (though he did eventually write one). Asked by The Baseball Register to list a hobby, his response was “lobby sitting”. That was how he spent his nights on the road. His days were for baseball. “They didn’t build clubhouses for beer parties and card games,” he said in his memoir, My War With Baseball. “Clubhouses are supposed to be used to talk in about how to beat somebody in baseball.”
In that case, I said, we should go listen to the next special QBC guest Wally Backman. You would’ve liked the way he played. Rogers Hornsby was intrigued until I told him a little more about the ’86 Mets and their fondness for “beer parties”. So while Wally regaled another packed room, the Rajah took a seat and waited out the panel I was moderating on “Meaningful Games in September,” wherein my Faith and Fear partner Jason Fry and Mets Police chief Shannon Shark debated the spirit behind a phrase that lingers on in the consciousness of Mets fan eleven years after Fred Wilpon made it.
When it was over, Rogers Hornsby took me aside and asked me to explain what all that was about. Well, I said, the Mets were coming off a terrible season in 2003, so when they convened for Spring Training, the owner of the Mets said it should be the goal of his team to play “meaningful games” come September. In the decade-plus since, when the Mets aren’t a World Series contender, we always wonder if there’s merit in making that an aspiration.
Yes, Rogers Hornsby said, I heard your panel go over all that, but what were “meaningful games” supposed to mean? As it happened, I had brought a clipping from 2004, wherein several Mets players from that team admitted they had no idea.
Rogers Hornsby shook his head again and muttered something about owners ruining the game.
Adam Rubin asks a lot of questions. On Saturday he generously answered quite a few. (Photo by Sharon Chapman.)
My next assignment was to moderate a Q&A session with Adam Rubin of ESPN as regards baseball beat reporting. Adam is the most diligent, prolific and experienced of all Mets reporters and I found his insights instructive and revealing. Rogers Hornsby sat quietly off to the side throughout Adam’s generous hour-plus of answering questions. When we were done, I asked him if he enjoyed that as much as I did.
The Rajah shrugged. Sitting in lobbies with reporters was good enough for him. One writer who kept him company remembers him that first Spring Training in St. Petersburg, “Sitting tall, his double-breasted suit open to starched white shirt and tie, his icy little eyes, supposedly the sharpest in the game, missing nothing.”
That sufficed for Rogers Hornsby. For the rest of us, there’s Adam Rubin.
Somewhere along the way, the Rajah and I drifted from each other’s company. I had other, friendlier Mets types to chat with and perhaps he deigned to risk his excellent vision and check out the program for himself. There was a jersey parade I didn’t get to see. Perhaps he entered. His 1962 model was pretty sharp.
The next time I noticed Rogers Hornsby was at the “Retired Numbers” panel I participated in alongside Jason, Shannon and Bitter Bill Price from the Daily News. The four of us engaged in one of those friendly, impassioned discussions over minutiae that make being a baseball fan, particularly in winter, so much fun. Of all the Mets numbers we bandied about as candidates for the ultimate honor of retirement, I was probably the only one tempted to bring up 53 in honor of Rogers Hornsby, our first hitting coach, our first certified Hall of Famer. The Rajah was inducted into Cooperstown when the joint was still fairly new, in 1942. Stengel had to wait until 1966, Rickey — Continental League godfather, thus somewhat Met-related — 1967, George Weiss 1971. George Weiss was the executive who ran the Mets in their infancy. I didn’t ask Rogers Hornsby about George Weiss, but I doubt he’d have found many nice things to say about him. He seriously didn’t care for baseball executives. You really should have seen those “icy little eyes” the more I told him about Fred Wilpon, the meaningful games and everything else that’s gone on in Queens since 2004.
Anyway, I didn’t bring up retiring 53. I get enough grief about wanting to retire 24.
Charles, in topcoat. Host, in hoodie.
The grand finale of QBC was the presentation of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award to Ed Charles, our third World Champion Met of the day. I mentioned to Rogers Hornsby that if you were to add up all the players from the 1969 and 1986 Mets who were on the field at the moment the last outs of their respective World Series were recorded, there are fifteen who are still with us. And of those fifteen, a full 20% joined us at the Queens Baseball Convention. First Mookie, then Wally, now the Glider.
Rogers Hornsby agreed that was an impressive proportion and that it was to QBC’s credit that it could bring in that level of Mets talent, but he seemed to take offense at our bias toward the living; after all, he was here, too, and he hadn’t been among the living in 52 years. The Rajah then told me he wanted to understand the significance of the upcoming ceremony I was about to host. He himself won MVP trophies in 1925 and 1929, but wasn’t familiar with the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award. He knew from Hodges — coached him that first year with the Mets — but what was this all about?
I explained that when QBC was first on the drawing board, it was decided one of the things we wanted to do, besides create a wintertime oasis for Mets fans and fill a room with great baseball content and good baseball cheer, was keep as high as possible the profile of the most important manager the Mets ever had. Gil Hodges was a true leader, a true sportsman, a true legend who died too soon. We who had a hand in creating QBC wanted to give the generations who knew Gil Hodges only as a name from the ever more distant past a chance to learn a little more about him. We wanted to do our part to keep his legacy alive.
I told Rogers Hornsby the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award is thus intended to annually honor a man whose memory will always warm our hearts, brighten our spirits and light our way. At the same time, it should pay tribute to a Met figure who embodies the best of what Gil Hodges brought us.
That, I said, is why we chose Ed Charles.
Oh, Rogers Hornsby said, you mean the Glider.
You know from the Glider, I asked Rogers Hornsby.
Rogers Hornsby stared through me like I was a winter window.
Everybody, the Rajah said in no uncertain terms, knows from the Glider.
Rogers Hornsby — who doesn’t go around saying nice things about people unless he means it — was satisfied we made the right call in asking Ed Charles to come to the Queens Baseball Convention to accept an award neither Ed Charles nor Rogers Hornsby had ever heard of. Just as I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see Rogers Hornsby on a January Saturday, Ed Charles said he wasn’t expecting to be asked to spend part of what was by now his early evening with a roomful of Mets fans in the middle of winter.
But Ed Charles accepted the invitation and accepted the award in the spirit in which it was presented. He spoke graciously and thoughtfully. He took us through his career, the lengthy delays imposed upon it in the minors and its overdue major league beginnings in Kansas City. He brought us with him to New York as he dismissed the 1967 team he was traded to (one not markedly better than the 1962 version) and then described what happened when, in 1968, “the Marine came in and took over.”
That’s when the Mets got serious about winning, and Ed Charles grew reflective about how Gil Hodges made all the difference. The Glider remembered the Marine so warmly that it gave you chills. Ed Charles, however, was the warmest man you could imagine listening to on a cold night. He continued to speak, to recollect, to connect (for the Mets are “my team,” too) and, at last, to recite a bit of the verse that earned him the other sobriquet by which he’s known, “The Poet Laureate of Baseball”.
For out there on the diamonds before thousands of fans
We players perform as best we can
Perform we must both day and night
In search of victory with all our might
The Queens Baseball Convention concluded with a standing ovation for the Glider’s performance; the bundling up of topcoats; and the reassurance that spring will arrive soon, if not soon enough. Like the Rajah, we were all about to return to our windows to do in winter what we do when there’s no baseball. At least for one Saturday in the middle of it, though, there was some baseball. There really was.
Before I left, in the midst of the applause for Ed Charles, I could have sworn I saw taciturn Rogers Hornsby, if just for an instant, flash a smile as wide as home plate. But maybe that was just me.
Sincere thanks to all who made the second edition of the Queens Baseball Convention such a delight. You all batted far above .424 across a long and beautiful day.
A late but sincere reminder: the Queens Baseball Convention takes place Saturday at McFadden’s Citi Field, doors opening at 11:30 AM, fun never ending. A great day is planned, not just because Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Ed Charles headline an all-Metsian day, but because you’ll be surrounded by Mets fans of all stripe.
Well, blue and orange racing stripes, but you know what I mean. You don’t? Then you really have to be there. If you come, you’ll see Jason Fry of Faith and Fear in Flushing as well as myself of the very same blog. We’ll be on a couple of panels together, I’ll be moderating a Q&A session with Adam Rubin of ESPN and I also have the honor of presenting the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award to Ed Charles.
So I know it’ll be a great day. But it would be better if you’re there, too. Here’s the information. Come on down. You know what the song says:
Bring your kiddies
Bring your spouse
It’s better at the ballpark
Than it’ll be in your house
The one advanced metric I haven’t seen bandied about much this Hall of Fame winter is HAV: Happiness Above Victory. HAV measures how much sheer joy one derives from the successes of a given player beyond merely being glad that the player contributed to your favorite team’s winning.
On the basis of HAV, just as by the reckoning of the BBWAA, Pedro Martinez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I can’t think of a single Met whose exploits generated more organic excitement or enthusiasm on a per-appearance basis. I was at his first home start at Shea. I was at his last home start at Shea. I was at a dozen of his home starts at Shea in between and, later, his one-off start at Citi Field in another uniform. Fifteen times I saw him as a Met or a recent Met. Fifteen times, before and after debilitating injuries, it was a love-in. Long after the novelty of “We have Pedro Martinez!” wore off, there was still that extra spark to Shea Stadium when No. 45 was announced as pitching and batting ninth. The wins were extra-special because of who authored the opening chapters. The losses somehow stung just a little less because of who was trying his damnedest to keep the wolves at bay.
The glitter never fully faded when Pedro pitched. Every outing always embedded the promise of that first Shea start, April 16, 2005, a sunny Saturday afternoon bursting with symbolism and expectation and, wherever you looked, people. A legitimate 55,351 were on hand for all the undercards of Mets vs. Marlins: Martinez vs. Leiter; Today vs. Yesterday; the team we wanted to be vs. the team we were sick of having been.
“This is my show now,” Bill Murray is said to have snarled backstage at a contemptuous Chevy Chase when the latter returned to host Saturday Night Live in 1978. On a different New York stage, several decades later, the same sort of bravado was on display, New Breed to old guard.
The Florida box score from that day in 2005 resembles, with hindsight, a Met halfway house. Six of the thirteen players Jack McKeon used, from Luis Castillo to Lenny Harris, had been or would be ours. Al Leiter — who “knew Pedro would do his thing” — was the most obvious among them in real time. He’d been the default ace in these parts since 1998. He’d done a solid job of it, but now he was teal and thus no longer spectacular to us. Lee Jenkins of the Times quoted the sentiments of a fan who informed Leiter, “I love you, Al, and I appreciate everything you did, but I’m still going to boo you.”
Pedro was our undisputed ace now. He was the guy we rallied around. He was the guy whose every move we cheered. He was going to make today good and tomorrow even better. “Everything is going to change here,” the home team’s starter declared. “I have a lot of people and they are going to follow me.”
And so we did on April 16, 2005. The Mets of starting left fielder Chris Woodward (sensational running grab), starting second baseman Miguel Cairo (two runs scored), starting right fielder Victor Diaz (2-for-4), reserve catcher Ramon Castro (walkoff single to beat Guillermo Mota) and starting pitcher Pedro Martinez carried the day, 4-3. “The ball was just exploding out of his hand,” according to his catcher, Mike Piazza. Pedro struck out nine in seven innings, giving up only two runs of the manufactured sort, yet left trailing, 2-1. Technically, the other Mets picked him up; Carlos Beltran and Piazza drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth and Castro’s plating of Diaz made up for Braden Looper giving back that short-lived lead in the top of the ninth.
But make no mistake about it: It was Pedro’s show and it was Pedro’s year, his Met season in the sun. The 2005 Mets were as team-in-transition as a ballclub gets. Messrs. Martinez and Beltran accepted gilded invitations to join good old Mike and the kids David and Jose and that nice man, Cliff Floyd, who was fine when healthy but hardly ever healthy before 2005. With varying degrees of comfort, the key Mets melded into something short of a contender but something more than an also-ran. There was an overreliance on the Cairos and Castros and Woodwards along with Doug Mientkiewicz and Mike DeJean and Eric Valent. Looper was a cross to bear as closer. But all told, it worked more often than it didn’t.
Mets came. Mets went. Pedro starred. He either won or pitched well enough to win. When he wasn’t pitching, he was still fascinating. “Not since Dwight Gooden lit up radar guns twenty years ago,” Jenkins wrote, “have the Mets had a starting pitcher who could bring this dingy old ballpark to life.” Now they did. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Every fifth day, “We have Pedro Martinez!” translated to a chance to move up in the Wild Card standings. The other four days were for hoping everybody else did their part and waiting for the MSG/FSN-NY cameras to show us what he was up to in the dugout.
Plenty of images depicting Pedro as a Met from 2005 to 2008 are stored somewhere, yet when word went forth that he was officially a Hall of Famer, most of the file footage used was of Pedro in his Red Sox period. In 2015, that seemed accurate. Baseball mostly remembers Pedro Martinez in Boston. Pedro Martinez in Boston is why Pedro Martinez in New York was so tantalizing. Pedro Martinez in Boston was why “We have Pedro Martinez!” was our pinch-us exclamation remark.
Throughout 2005, however, nobody seemed more suited to Shea. He slipped into his Mets uniform and stuck out as the Mets’ media magnet. By April 16, his third Met start overall, it didn’t matter where he came from. It didn’t matter that someday he’d go. He was here. He was ours. He was beautiful that way.
“Michigan,” Paul Simon once reflected, “seems like a dream to me now.” So does Pedro Martinez in his role as Met among Mets. Yet ten years removed from his arrival, one is moved to wonder. Was he really here? Was he really ours? Was he not, in that way we so craved, The Man for us? Do videotapes and digital archives exist attesting to his presence in blue and orange and omnipresent black from his 31 starts in 2005? His 48 starts that followed between 2006 and 2008?
His last home start came in the rain on September 25, 2008, a gloomy, cold Thursday night. Attendance was 51,174, though the announced crowds of 2008 always seemed a little padded. It was the end of Shea. Many were saying goodbye on any given evening. Many other seats were spoken for by brokers who snapped them up as part of some nefarious plot to secure access to presumably hard-to-get Citi Field tickets come 2009. Whatever. There were a lot of people at Shea Stadium for Pedro Martinez’s last start. His last regularly scheduled regular-season start, at any rate. Hope was held out that there might be something more.
His opponent was the Cubs, packing less emotional symbolism than they should have. Chicago had wrapped up its division. They stubbornly played to win anyway. So, of course, did Pedro. The mantle of The Man had passed to another glamorous import, Johan Santana, in 2008, but if the Mets couldn’t have Johan pitch every night in a playoff chase, they couldn’t do much better than Pedro Martinez.
They really couldn’t. Pedro missed a big chunk of 2006, most of 2007 and selected gobs of 2008. His ERA was up by nearly three runs over 2005. Still, on a staff where the non-Santana options were Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey and scared-witless rookie Jon Niese, you’d take your chances with Pedro Martinez.
The Cubs scored twice in the first. They did more hitting than manufacturing. The Mets got one back off Rich Harden in the bottom of the inning. Micah Hoffpauir, who had homered in the first, doubled in the third to extend Chicago’s advantage to 3-1.
And then Pedro, as he did when he had to do, discerned a route to survival. He struck out the side in the third. He stranded Harden (infield single) in the fourth. He limited the indefatigable Hoffpauir to one base in the fifth and retired everybody else. He grounded out Kosuke Fukudome, struck out Koyie Hill looking and Harden swinging in the sixth. By the seventh, the Mets had made it 3-3 and Jerry Manuel couldn’t help himself. Pedro, who had thrown 90 pitches through six and struck out nine — the same number he fanned against the Marlins in his first home start — was asked to keep going. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but there might not have been a better one in the context of the 2008 Mets bullpen.
So Pedro went out there. Felix Pie singled and stole second. Ryan Theriot walked. Two on, none out, the mighty Micah Hoffpauir due up.
That was that. Pedro was done. Jerry took the ball. Pedro left the Shea mound for the last time as only Pedro could have. He waved to every section of the ballpark, covering left field to right field and maybe the Picnic Area. We 51,174, or however many of us were actually there given the weather and the papering of the house, knew he was saying goodbye. We had risen to say the same and thank him for 2005 and whatever else he managed to give us right up to this point in a span of four seasons, all of which featured winning records and viable playoff contention. We thanked him for the 9 K’s against Florida way back when and the 9 K’s against Chicago tonight. We thanked him for choosing to take his business to New York. It was business, him signing a lucrative four-year deal with the Mets when the Red Sox were offering only three — we weren’t naïve — but Pedro made the relationship feel personal in the best sense possible.
We Mets fans take everything personally. On the day Pedro Martinez was elected to the Hall of Fame, we took quite personally the slight the writers issued Mike Piazza. The average Mets fan, if such a creature exists, was probably more insulted on Mike’s behalf than Mike was. Mike will likely get into the Hall in 2016. The average Mets fan will be at least as exultant as Mike himself.
Pedro intrinsically understood this quality about our essential nature. He recognized the gratitude that cascaded down from the Upper Deck, Mezzanine, Loge and Field Level, and he maintained the presence of mind to return it in kind, 51,174 times over. “I couldn’t pass by without saying thanks to the fans,” he explained.
It was the only wave in the middle of a baseball game that ever made sense.
Because they were the 2008 Mets, rented stranger Ricardo Rincon came on, threw one pitch to Hoffpauir and changed the 3-3 tie to a 6-3 deficit. Because they were the 2008 Mets, we saw Rincon followed into action by Brian Stokes, Scott Schoeneweis, Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith. The five of them searched for nine outs and somehow collected them. Also in the category of “somehow,” somehow the Mets — randomly represented in their do-or-die contest by Robinson Cancel and Ramon Martinez — tied the game at six in the eighth. The final somehow unfolded in a positive fashion in the bottom of the ninth via the actions of more familiar 2008 Mets. Jose Reyes singled and stole second; Carlos Delgado accepted an intentional walk; Carlos Beltran lined a ball past the diving Hoffpauir (5-for-5 with his bat) and scored Reyes.
Just as on April 16, 2005, the Mets won in a walkoff on September 25, 2008 — the last of its kind at Shea, it turned out. There were hugs and high-fives, but the jubilation couldn’t help but be different. In 2005, we were finding our footing on an upward journey. In 2008, we were barely hanging on to our stadium let alone what was left of good times that had been, in all honestly, not superb. By beating the Cubs, the Mets remained tied with the Brewers for the National League Wild Card. The night before, the Mets had lost in ten, wasting a leadoff triple in the ninth. Two nights before that, callow Niese was lit up. Over the previous weekend in Atlanta, the Braves had taken two of three. For the second consecutive September, the Mets were blowing the division and trying desperately, with Ricardo Rincon and Robinson Cancel, to not miss October altogether.
But hanging on beats dropping off, and a win in the bottom of the ninth is a win in the bottom of the ninth. And when Pedro Martinez strikes out nine and centers your attention, it’s his win, no matter who’s identified as the pitcher of record.
The HAV — Happiness Above Victory — was off the charts for both of Pedro’s bookend starts. Shea was his world and we were just standing and applauding in it. I probably didn’t understand that Pedro was essentially on loan to us for four seasons, a temporary exhibit underwritten by the baseball gods. Maybe that’s why the news Pedro is a Hall of Famer felt not quite as splendid as the news Mike still isn’t felt unfair. We continue to take Mike Piazza personally. Mike’s a part of our permanent collection in a way few who’ve been Mets are.
Pedro Martinez wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, be ours forever. But it sure was fun being an extended stop on his tour.
Under the system that’s been in place since 1936, nobody’s ever going to hand me a Hall of Fame ballot. That’s fine by me. I don’t want a Hall of Fame ballot. I really don’t. Not the way the process is set up.
I don’t want to be one of those voters who writes a column every winter describing the terrible torture I’ve gone through choosing between a DH from Seattle and a right fielder from Denver, at least one of whom I probably hardly saw because it’s logistically difficult for even the most dedicated baseball writer to be in two leagues at one time.
I don’t want to be one of those voters who reveals himself as hopelessly shallow, dismissing accomplished careers of 15 or 20 years with a hand wave that accompanies some stale folderol about what an honor the Hall of Fame is, therefore let’s honor as few players as possible.
I don’t want to ride the highest of horses declaring that I will never sully the concept of character by approving the actions of anybody who couldn’t have possibly played the game the right way…or didn’t look like he did.
I don’t want to pass along McCarthyite whispers about players there are “suspicions” about.
I don’t want to stroke my chin in print or online and calmly reassure the reader that more time is necessary to discover whether the “suspicions” that are whispered about are unfounded, especially when instead of stroking my chin I could very well be investigating the subject of those suspicions and reporting my findings.
I don’t want to default to defensive and tell those people who don’t like how I voted — not the truly obnoxious among them who peer over my shoulder and pass Orwellian judgment on how “good” my opinions are, nor even the anti-democratic knee-jerks who demand my vote be rescinded when my and their conclusions don’t mesh — that “you know, for all the complaints, we baseball writers do a pretty good job,” with the implication being that nobody else who watches and cares about the sport as deeply could possibly look at a ballot and check some boxes.
The checking boxes part I like. The thinking about baseball in January I like. The reviewing accomplished careers I like. I can do all that on my own. It won’t help put anybody in a hall, but you can’t have everything.
After this year’s Cooperstown candidates were announced, I came across the full list somewhere with an invitation to click on up to ten names, just like a Hall of Fame voter would (except electronically). What the hell, I thought, let’s see what I do.
First name I sought was Mike Piazza. Click.
Honestly, I could have stopped right there in terms of my interest in the Hall of Fame Class of 2015. I’m a Mets fan. Piazza was the greatest Met of his era, an era I reveled in while it was in progress. Mike was the best part of those days. He wasn’t just a great Met. He was a great player, which sounds a little obvious, but think about it. How many “great players” do we have who are busy being great while being Mets? Not many, not for long. Piazza being that, for us, for a full era and then some, was a joy. Damn right he’s my cause for the Hall of Fame.
Of course I understand why Mike’s Hall of Fame status is still up for grabs after two previous unsuccessful elections.
• There was the way every time he did something great as a Met the accompanying commentary always underscored there was something not quite kosher about his appearance. You know, the way when he hit that homer after 9/11 or capped off that ten-run inning or changed any number of games, the announcers would bring up his widely known pharmaceutical habits and the stories the next day centered on his unsportsmanlike muscle mass.
• There are all those attributed accusations from impeccable sources who have gone on the record confirming all the aforementioned talk that dominated 1998-2005 around New York. It’s hard to ignore all those on-the-record quotes, especially when they’re backed up by certified chemical testing confirming that slew of damning assertions.
• And then there was all that detailed enterprise journalism, the stories that absolutely nailed the “suspicions” that Mike Piazza was a Performance-Enhancement hound. You can’t argue with facts when you have placed before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.
CORRECTION: There was virtually no public discussion of Mike Piazza and PEDs when he played. Mike Piazza played eight high-profile seasons in the media capital of the world and there was more journalistic speculation regarding his sexual preference than there were allegations about PEDs. Nobody has come forth with any compelling let alone solid evidence on the matter. No teammate or coach or disgruntled employee, years removed from clubhouse protocol, has stepped forward unable to keep this horrible secret any longer. Nobody has written a story that does more than speculate in associative, elliptical fashion anything beyond, “well, many were doing something, so maybe Mike Piazza did something…” And there were no positive PED tests that have ever come to light. All told, the “suspicions” too many haughty Hall of Fame voters lean on amount to after-the-fact, precautionary ass-covering.
CLARIFICATION: I understand why Mike’s Hall of Fame status is still up for grabs after two previous unsuccessful elections — but it’s disgusting that it is.
“Mike and whoever” would have been sufficient for my clicking purposes, but the Hall of Fame menu is the Lay’s Potato Chip of documents. You can’t have just one. You could, but what’s the point? I could have nine more. So I indulged.
Pedro Martinez. Click. That he was a Met made it only juicier. He was Pedro Martinez and all that meant as an Expo and a Red Sock.
Randy Johnson. Click. Doesn’t seem worth the trouble of elaborating.
Craig Biggio. Click. Three-thousand hits. When did that not become good enough?
Jeff Bagwell. Click. The National League’s premier first baseman post-Hernandez, pre-Pujols.
Barry Bonds. Click. “He’s the best player I ever saw.” I thought that in 1992. Nothing disabused me of the notion thereafter.
Tim Raines. Click. Every highlight package you see, he’s doing something against the Mets. It really was like that, too. And I know he did similar stuff to everybody else for quite a while.
John Smoltz. Click. On one hand, he was a Brave. On the other hand, he was a Brave. That is to say, as with Raines, I got my fill of a fabulous foe, one who stood out as a starter, then a closer, then a starter again. I’m not thrilled to make it three Braves starters in Cooperstown in two years, but taken all by his lonesome he was quite the formidable opponent.
Smoltz is where the machinations behind the click became cumbersome, the juncture the “it was so hard to fill out this ballot” type of column draws breath. And that, quite frankly, makes the whole Hall of Fame topic a drag in my view. I said I don’t want to be that voter.
Then I remembered I’m not a voter in the BBWAA sense and I’ll never be. I’m a fan without a vote, but with passions and instincts and bias. Loads of bias. The kind of bias an airline or a meticulous editor would tell you you have to check before boarding. Nevertheless, I prefer to schlep my bias with me. If I wasn’t packing too much bias for the overhead bin, I wouldn’t care at all about whose plaque gets shipped to Cooperstown.
It’s that bias that informed my final two clicks.
Gary Sheffield. Click.
Carlos Delgado. Click.
My god, I’m biased!
If I was weighed down by real voting responsibility, I might not check those boxes. But I’m not. That said, I’m not necessarily waving a hypothetical banner for two ex-Mets simply because they’re ex-Mets. Cliff Floyd is an ex-Met on this year’s ballot who I liked a lot more than either Gary Sheffield or Carlos Delgado (who, in turn, I liked a lot more than ex-Met Jeff Kent). Cliff Floyd was fun to listen to and fantastic to cheer for and admirably productive when healthy. If I was just going on context-free personal preference, I’d click Floyd right after Piazza and Pedro. If there weren’t a surfeit of legitimately excellent players on the ballot, I’d find a way to click Floyd. I like the notion of casting a vote to honor an honorable career that wouldn’t otherwise receive an iota of recognition, provided there’s enough wiggle room in a given year.
Sadly, that’s a quaint notion in the backlogged winter of our discontent. I didn’t consider clicking Cliff or Rich Aurilia or anybody of that probable one-and-done ilk. Those were good, likable players but it wouldn’t occur to me for a second to enshrine them upstate.
Sheffield and Delgado struck me as different. These were great players in their day. How great? Great enough that it doesn’t seem crazy to have thought of them in their time as “future Hall of Famers”. The same could be said for any number of players I didn’t click on. But I saw Sheffield and Delgado on an everyday basis. I knew who they were and had an idea of their capabilities when they were elsewhere and reviewed their track record when they arrived among us, but to see them regularly was to get it.
I got what made Sheffield, even at the tail end of a long career, such a dangerous hitter. I saw him work pitchers. I saw him turn on pitches. It was only one season, but in 2009, I remember being so impressed by his approach and thinking that I had hardly seen anybody in a Mets uniform combine this guy’s knowledge of and feel for the game. He was diminished but he wasn’t done. Combined with what we he did on all his other teams and the fear that overcame me when he was batting against our guys in some of those other uniforms, I had no problem clicking on Gary.
I saw Delgado longer. I saw Delgado transform a promising lineup into a powerhouse. I saw him play the determining factor in the fast start of 2006 and I watched him strap a struggling team onto his proverbial back in 2008 to re-create a contender. I marveled at the thunder he wrought almost any time we needed it between June and September. I still wonder how much less worse — and maybe better — 2009 would have been had he avoided injury. He was the one Met who didn’t seem intimidated by Citi Field’s dimensions in the early going. Even in 2007, when he slumped, he showed the ability to snap out of it and find a way to win a game. It wasn’t like I didn’t know who he was in Toronto, but he was mostly a rumor to me. His one year as a Marlin was an eye-opener and his four years as a Met showed me what all the American League fuss had been about. Having been exposed to that much Delgado, I had no problem clicking on Carlos.
It really pays to see some of these guys up close and constantly. Take Edgar Martinez, for example. I saw him now and then. I saw him connect for a huge base hit in the postseason once. I accepted as gospel his primacy among designated hitters. But I was never more than vaguely aware of him. That’s not his fault. He just wasn’t playing in games that I was watching. I have no stake in his legacy. I have no bias for him. It wouldn’t occur to me to vote for Edgar Martinez unless it was my job to really think about it. I was just clicking for fun…fairly but not flawlessly informed fun.
So no click for Edgar Martinez. No click for Alan Trammell, that rare American Leaguer whose reputation I was well aware of; I think I would have clicked on him had I not run out of clicks. No click for Mike Mussina, who is being talked up a lot as underrated and maybe he is. No click for Larry Walker, not because he played in Colorado, but because I had only so many clicks to give. No click for Lee Smith, but also no way I’d want to stand in against him in the ninth inning. No click for Fred McGriff, but also no way I’d want to face him in the ninth inning. No click for Curt Schilling, who sorely tempted me, except he had just been on Twitter stubbornly insisting evolution wasn’t real, and that sorely repelled me. It has nothing to do with postseason pitching and everything to do with the personal element.
No click for Roger Clemens. You couldn’t pay me to check a box next to his name unless it’s to bring him up on charges for assault with a hundred-mile fastball. This is also the personal element. Ask me to make a list of the best pitchers of the past half-century and I’ll write Roger Clemens near the top. I deny neither his talents nor achievements. Ask me to play a part in voting him into the Hall of Fame and I’ll either cringe or laugh.
If I was really a Hall of Fame voter, I couldn’t admit that. I’d obscure my bias in high-minded huffery about Clemens not playing the game the right way. Give me a BBWAA membership for ten years and a ballot and then I suppose you’d be paying me to check a box next to Roger Clemens’s name. So no thanks. I’ll stick with passion and instincts and loads of bias and the hope that sooner or later Mike Piazza crushes those “suspicions” like he used to crush the fastballs Clemens didn’t aim directly at his head.