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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Golden Hour

The golden hour is upon us, that handful of days preceding the start of the regular season when we no longer require convincing that time hasn’t stood still since the last out of the World Series (or, in our case, the Wild Card Game). We feel the dearth move under our feet. Nothingness is shuffling off this mortal coil. Reasons to be are in bloom.

It’s not actual baseball. It’s actual baseball on the verge. This may be my favorite hour of the year, spiritually speaking.

The uncountable games sputter to a close. The excess players are sorted and bagged. We make educated guesses about what’s going to happen next. They aren’t worth the oxygen we process while we think them through, but we happily commit brain cells to constructing initial rosters, projecting final records and tracking everything in between. Educatedly guess away. Nobody will circle back to check your work.

Who’s the fifth starter? Who’s the last reliever? Who’s at the end of the bench? Who’s out of options, which sounds like a death sentence but sometimes serves as a career reprieve? Who needs to go down so as not to go stale? Who can we say goodbye to without fear of recrimination? Who’s trying on a new number? Who’s found his old fastball? Whose shape, previously deemed the best of his life, will translate to harder hits and quicker jumps?

I’ve got no idea. Well, I have some idea, but it’s subject to revision pending exposure to all the baseball players and baseball activities it hasn’t occurred to me to yet foresee. A year ago at this time, I didn’t know what the season ahead was going to encompass. Same as the year before. The scales tipped decidedly in the direction of pleasant surprise. I didn’t need to know in advance. I still don’t.

As months of impatience reduce themselves under the pressure of calendar and clock, I can be patient. The thing we’ve been waiting for is arriving any day now. All winter long, we couldn’t wait. Now that we almost don’t have to anymore, we can — and gladly. Did I say it’s the golden hour? More like diamond.

J.B. from the Happy Recap Radio Show and I had an in-depth conversation about my book Piazza that went nearly as deep as Mike used to on a regular basis. Take a listen here.

Meeting Miss Shea Liberty

Together once.

Miss Shea Liberty and I go way back, to her New York days.

Together again.

Spring Touches Visitor to New England

Happy one-month anniversary of when the Mets started playing games that didn’t count, don’t count and won’t count until April 3. Spring Training schedules don’t traditionally engender milestones while in progress, but this year, with the World Baseball Classic motivating early birds everywhere, what we call “spring” began in earnest amid the indisputable dead of winter. First Data’s been culled and collected dating back to halftime at the Super Bowl, or so it seems. As ever, we couldn’t wait for Spring Training to arrive, and as ever, we are antsy for it to go away. In a little over a week, hallelujah, it will.

While we’ve been recalibrating our countdown clocks from Pitchers & Catchers to Opening Day, climate change has made it difficult to identify the actual season holding court at any given moment. The Metropolitan Area weather of late winter behaved like a person: some days it was surprisingly pleasant; others it acted unnecessarily bitchy. Baseball beamed from Florida allowed us to pretend winter was over altogether. It always does. The masquerade certainly broke up the monotony. The indecipherable patterns of modern winter went on around us, but now and then baseball dropped by for lunch. Familiar voices seeped through the television and radio. They hosted elaborate talk shows with pitching and hitting as background. All our favorites made brief appearances. Then they hit the showers or alighted for the WBC, and a battalion of youngsters lacking names on their backs took over. A few to whom we were exposed are projected to further stoke our fandom in the near future. Others simply filled uniforms and moved the days along.

My personal Spring Training 2017 highlight, the only one that elicited a visceral charge out of me, was L.J. Mazzilli doubling during a game I was listening to over WOR a few weeks or maybe months ago at this point. L.J. Mazzilli doesn’t get mentioned among top Mets prospects, but his last name is hard not to linger upon when you hear Howie Rose call it as part of play-by-play. I probably cheered out of proportion to the calendar in March of 1977 when L.J.’s dad Lee doubled in an exhibition game, and I did it again for Lee’s son forty Marches later. Cheering for Mets named Mazzilli doesn’t require much training, spring or otherwise.

Lee Mazzilli grew up in Sheepshead Bay. It was part of the legend he brought from Brooklyn: Lincoln High School, speed skater, ambidextrous, basket catch. We knew all that about him by his first March as a de facto regular. L.J. Mazzilli, on the other, singular hand (bats and throws right, not a switch-hitting chip off the old block) hails from Greenwich, in Connecticut. Should he make the majors on our dime, he’ll be in line to be the fourteenth Met born in the inevitably third-mentioned leg of the Tri-State Area.

The other thirteen? I have that information. I put in my pocket in case I needed to cite it on the first full day of actual spring. It seemed worth having.

The first full day of actual spring, in case you didn’t notice, was March 21, this past Tuesday. I was on my way to Connecticut, where I have assumed since childhood it is always cold, dark and snowy. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in Connecticut when it was cold, dark and snowy. Maybe I saw something on TV. Maybe their old blue license plates struck me as chilly. Despite deciding perpetual winter blankets the Constitution State, I also counterintuitively associate the birth of spring with Connecticut. For that, I blame Yankee Magazine, not to be confused with Yankees Magazine.

What’s the difference? The latter is a vehicle devoted to the propagation of a distasteful lifestyle. The former quaintly celebrates leaf-peeping and other regional attractions native to the six states northeast of New York City.

Yankee is the regional magazine I’d neither leafed through nor peeped at until a cover blurb caught my eye in the early ’90s. It promised a feature within about the place where, if memory serves, “Spring First Touches New England.” I was intrigued because I had recently driven into Connecticut via Westchester and wondered if spring first touching New England was as simple as a sign I’d noticed. Indeed it was. The story was about Byram, a.k.a. Exit 2 on the Connecticut Turnpike. I don’t remember much about the article, but as a magazine editor myself back then, I admired the reach attempted by whoever wrote the blurb. “Southernmost turnoff from the highway” doesn’t suggest quaint. “Where Spring First Touches New England” is poetic enough to stop by woods on a snowy evening.

Jen and Gary reintroduce me to their tall friend.

When the vernal equinox kicks in, I suppose Byram is first in line, followed by L.J.’s Greenwich hood; Cos Cob (“the Algonquin word for briefcase,” according to reluctant resident Pete Campbell); and other municipalities off the old toll road. If spring doesn’t get to you elsewhere in Connecticut as soon as it gets to the good folks of Byram, be patient. Like the 5:03 to New Haven, it’s only minutes away.

So was I on the first full day of spring, March 21, 2017. Technically, spring had brushed New England’s right pinky toe the morning before at 6:29, but on Monday the 20th I was home near the South Shore of Long Island, where spring was presumably touching us a scooch ahead of the North Shore. As Tuesday afternoon was turning to Tuesday evening, Connecticut and I were springing into each other’s arms. I hadn’t been up there lately, though as I rode Metro-North and stared out the window once the 5:03 rolled past the general vicinity of Byram, I remembered how frequently I visited Fairfield County in my beverage magazine days. Companies I covered tended to plant themselves in Connecticut. A beer importer here. A soft drink marketer there. A couple of bottled water purveyors in between. The homier or more entrepreneurial outfits tended to require longer trips, back when I didn’t mind driving. The Metro-North eventually became my ticket to ride as applicable. The more corporate types were near New York, yet not in New York. Schleps were required. I once asked somebody, after one of my journeys, why their headquarters was where it was.

“The CEO lives here,” was the answer.

Westport, my stop on the 5:03 out of Grand Central, had nobody of a suit-and-tie nature waiting for me. Instead, promptly at 6:11, one minute before Metro-North said I’d be there, I was texted from someone who let me know he was waiting for me in a green Jeep Liberty, “probably on your left if you come down the main staircase.” The message was delivered by my friend of suddenly many years, Ryder Chasin. He was why my Tuesday night destination was where it was. I stepped off the train and found him ASAP. It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t cold and only some leftover patches of snow gave away that spring wasn’t yet 36 hours old.

Ryder, a junior at Northwestern University and a Mets fan wherever he rests his head, was home in Westport on spring break. He and his parents Rob and Holly had put in motion a plan that sounded both perfectly viable and a little bizarre to my ears. They helped arrange for me to be a guest speaker at Staples High School, Ryder’s alma mater. Someday soon I expect to ask Ryder to be the guest speaker at my alma mater. Until then, we’ll go with the concept of me as a draw.

At Liberty in Westport with the Chasins.

The baseball team’s booster organization, the Diamond Club (no relation to Bill Shea’s old haunt), has speakers you’ve heard of to help get their year going. They’ve had Bobby Valentine, one of the thirteen Connecticut-born Mets. We’ve all heard of Bobby Valentine, more as Met manager than Met player, but he was definitely a Met player. We all know he’s from Connecticut. I assumed few in and around Westport, outside of the Chasins, had ever heard of me. Nevertheless, I embraced the invitation. When you have a book to share, as I do with Piazza, you embrace all invitations. When a Chasin or three is involved, you don’t let geographic distinctions toss up obstacles.

Every article I’ve ever read about Connecticut’s baseball allegiances regards who roots for the Yankees and who roots for the Red Sox and barely mentions the Mets. A symptom of its stubborn affiliation with New England, presumably. Though I anecdotally know Mets fans who have sprouted among the nutmeg, I braced for a certain level of loneliness. A friend who works in Westchester always bemoans the lack of Metsiness in his environs, and that’s within the parameters of New York. I didn’t know if a program devoted to an author talking about the traditionally least popular team in the area was going to draw a fly, let alone a crowd. At worst, I figured, the Chasins and I could have a nice chat.

Sweet scholastic swag.

I needn’t have fretted. The Chasins knew what they were doing. They and the Diamond Club attracted Mets fans alongside politely attentive non-Mets fans. Ryder served as moderator for a vigorous discussion of Mike Piazza’s Mets career and why some guy wanted to write a book about it. Ryder asked sharp questions. I gave long answers. Mets fans from the neighborhood, including some who read this blog, attended. So did my friend who works in Westchester, happy to be surrounded by Mets fans for a change. Pizza was ordered and consumed, partly because it’s pizza, partly because it sounds like Piazza. You can’t argue with pizza…and if you tried to, Angel Hernandez would cloddishly eject you. The Diamond Club presented me with a few Staples Wreckers goodies and I can officially say I now have a strong rooting interest within the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference (apologies to the Greenwich Cardinals, breeding ground for young Mazzilli).

Go you Wreckers.

The whole thing went so well, I never reached into my pocket for my Mets Born In Connecticut material. Since I went to the trouble of extracting this information from Ultimate Mets Database, I might as well identify for you, in descending order of Metsiness, the dozen players born there besides Bobby V. Should any of the talented Staples players on hand Tuesday ascend to a pro career and wind up Mets, I will happily revise the list.

• Matt Harvey
• Tim Teufel
• Bruce Boisclair
• Jimmy Piersall
• Mo Vaughn
• Bill Denehy (traded to Washington as compensation for Gil Hodges)
• Tom Parsons (traded to Houston in the steal of Jerry Grote)
• Soup Campbell
• Goose Gozzo
• And in alphabetical order, because there isn’t much lore attached to their fleeting Met presence, Ricky Bottalico, Darren Bragg and Brook Fordyce.

In case you’re wondering, Rico Brogna, the pride of Watertown, was born in Massachusetts, perhaps proving it’s not where you start but that you finish strike-truncated 1994 batting .351. Rico is still one of my five favorite Mets based primarily on my initial exposure to him and I believe him a credit to all of New England.

Among the many people I was delighted to meet at Staples was a Mets fan named Gary. I knew Gary from Twitter, not Connecticut, but it turns out he lives in Westport. He wore his custom-made Bambi’s Bandits cap, the one he conceived when the Mets’ 1982 bench crew was ever so briefly a back-page sensation. Of course it’s custom-made. Do you think stores sold Bambi’s Bandits caps in 1982? Gary’s the kind of Mets fan who would have a cap like that and have kept a cap like that. No wonder we hit it off on Twitter.

Banditball lives.

Gary also has in his foyer a Statue of Liberty painted with the Shea Stadium Final Season logo. I know that because as the event at the high school wound down, he invited me to come see it. I’d seen it once before, in 2008, when it stood sentry over the plaza in front of the old SNY studios near Rockefeller Center. Miss Shea Liberty was one of a corps of such statues that fanned out across the city nine summers ago, part of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game at renovated Yankee Stadium. I took a picture with her in 2008. Gary said I could come over and take another one with her in 2017. The statues were made available to interested parties after they’d done their promotional duty. Gary, owner of a Bambi’s Bandits cap, was surely interested. As a result, the Shea statue now lives in Westport.

Did I want to see it again? Only a little less than I wanted to try on the Bambi’s Bandits cap for myself. So off we all went — me, the Chasins and my up-for-anything-Metsian buddy Kevin, who works in Stamford, lives in Flushing and was kind enough to swing by Staples for my presentation. An address was written down, a few GPSes were programmed and a short while after we left in search of a statue, the five of us were at the house of someone none of us had known until maybe two hours before.

But a stranger who’s a Mets fan is just a friend you haven’t yet Met. Sort of like those guys filling out high-numbered Mets uniforms in St. Lucie. We were greeted by Gary and Jennifer (a first-class Stitch N’ Pitcher resplendent in her WRIGHT 5) along with Duke and Otis, two highly effusive English bulldogs. If they were guarding Miss Shea Liberty, I probably wouldn’t have gotten within 410 feet of her. The pups put up with us. Phones were produced. Group pictures were taken. Me and Kevin. Me and the Chasins. Me and Gary and Jennifer. All of us with the statue.

Yeah, Connecticut has Mets fans. What surveys may say they lack in numbers, I say they make up for in passion. And statuary.

Two of us will be back at Citi Field very soon. The other seems content in Connecticut.

The grand spring night in another state finished up at a Westport bistro where the waiter, noting the commonality of our gear, wished the Mets well in their/our forthcoming campaign. Rob, being Rob, was determined to drive me back to Long Island, but I volunteered Kevin’s passenger seat and he graciously dropped me off in Woodside where I could catch the LIRR home. We listened to Kevin’s one-of-a-kind Mets playlist (the musical version of a Bambi’s Bandits cap) and talked Mets nonstop the entire ride, firming up our plans to watch Bartolo Colon when he returns to town in unfortunate colors, even winding around Citi Field en route to Roosevelt Avenue and 61st Street. Large, grimy clumps of snow were visible under the parking lot lights and it was plenty dark otherwise, yet it really wasn’t cold Tuesday night — not in Queens, not in Fairfield, nowhere where Mets fans gather. The forecast warned us the temperature would plunge by morning, but spring had definitely stuck its foot in the door.

When we got to Woodside, Kevin let me out at the curb downstairs from the 7 train, but then called me back for a second. “Hey,” he said, “I’ll see you in two weeks.” I needed a beat to process what he meant. Then it hit me…yes, the Colon game…we’ll be going to see the Mets play the week after next.

Spring has touched New England and the season is about to high-five Flushing. I can’t wait to high-five it right back.

I joined the Rising Apple crew this week to talk Piazza and a whole lot of other Mets. Listen in here.

Last of the Old School

Dallas Green, who managed the Mets through a lean period of fizzled prospects and bad uniforms, died yesterday at 82.

It’s funny paying tribute to someone whose baseball resume lists more accomplishments for other franchises. Green was most definitely “ours,” a Mets pitcher in the summer of 1966 (albeit for five undistinguished innings) and then a manager for nearly four seasons from May 1993 through August 1996. Yet he’ll be primarily remembered for his work on the field for the Phillies and off the field for the Cubs.

Green managed 512 games for the Mets, which is more than I would have guessed without a peek at the stats. That’s more than he managed for the Phils and Yankees combined. But he won a World Series title in Philadelphia — the first for that perennially bedraggled franchise — using his booming voice, outsized personality and well-practiced whip hand to drive a team with a reputation for summer lassitude past the Astros and then the Royals. The Phillies variously feared, resented and detested him, but they won … with old friend Tug McGraw on the mound for the final out. And so they became immortal together.

The joy wasn’t to last. Green was gone after 1981 and moved on to the Cubs, where he acquired Ryne Sandberg from his old team, built the club that would hold off the Mets in ’84, and drafted Greg Maddux, Mark Grace and Rafael Palmeiro. After he tired of fighting newspaper executives in Chicago he was hired by George Steinbrenner. That proved a match made somewhere south of Heaven, and Green wound up summoned to the other side of New York to clean up the mess left by Jeff Torborg.

If I close my eyes, I can summon up a few things from Dallas’s tenure in Queens. There was that voice, of course — so big that the parabolic mikes behind home plate at Shea could pick up exactly what he was saying to umpires, often to the consternation of squeamish TV viewers. Which wasn’t the fault of the guys in the truck — when Dallas Green was pissed in Queens you could lean out your window in Brooklyn and hear a distant rumble. And at full boil he was a one-man Krakatoa, a challenge to even the most distant of sound barriers.

There was also his habit of staring out of the dugout in open-mouthed astonishment when Mets who should still have been in Tidewater did something particularly stupid on the field, as happened depressingly often during that era. No matter how disgusted I was with those hapless Mets, the sight of hulking, voluble Dallas Green rendered speechless by them would reduce me to helpless laughter. He’d gape at the proceedings until he reluctantly accepted that what had just happened was real, then mount the dugout steps trailed by a cloud of can’t-believe-this-shitness and do … well, most of the time it wasn’t clear what if anything could be done, but by the time Dallas reached the mound or home plate he’d think of something.

By the end of his Mets tenure it was pretty clear that Dallas was a man from another era. He took heat for a domestic-violence crack that would have had a clubhouse full of (all male) reporters laughing in 1973 but wasn’t so funny in 1993. He chafed at having to teach young Mets things they should have learned before earning a big-league diploma. He scowled at suggestions that he keep such thoughts to himself. After leaving the Mets he never managed again, returning to the Phillies as an adviser.

In 2011, his 9-year-old granddaughter was killed in Arizona by the gunman who targeted Gabby Giffords. Christina-Taylor Green had been born on 9/11 and loved baseball; her grandfather liked to imagine her growing up to become the first woman to play in the big leagues. Green was heartbroken and sought solace in baseball, but he also spoke out about gun control, deftly balancing his love of hunting and support for the Second Amendment with his belief that our gun laws had careened out of balance. But that was no surprise; Green rarely left an opinion unstated, whatever tumult that opinion might cause. His managerial tenure wasn’t much to remember, but the man sure was.

* * *

As a mournful coda to the above, this morning I went through the New York papers looking for the best columns about Green — and found next to nothing.

No memories of one of the four men to manage both the Mets and Yankees? Really? Of the guy who had to deal with an Augean stables of bleach throwers and explosive hurlers? Really?

Really. Even a couple of years ago, Dallas Green’s death would have meant a column in every paper at the very least. But it isn’t a couple of years ago in the newspaper business, which has been stripped of reporting muscle and institutional memory — and there’s no end in sight to the downsizing. Nor are digital outlets immune — the powers that be at ESPN New York have opted to replace Adam Rubin with indifference.

It’s enough to make this former reporter feel like a man from another era himself.

One There Could Write That Team

It was only natural that Jimmy Breslin addressed the Mets’ status at the top of the heap in 1986. Breslin covered the Mets in 1962, when they concluded their affairs eighty games from breaking even. They buried themselves so deeply beneath .500, they’re still trying to dig out in the cumulative sense. Chances are they never will. With their loss to the Phillies last October 2, the Mets regular-season record from April 11, 1962, forward fell to 4,215-4,555. Forty and One-Twenty really set a tone.

In Met terms, 1986 was light years removed from 1962. One-Hundred Eight victories and everybody there playing this game with aptitude unimaginable at the franchise’s origins. Their success was a big story. Breslin, long moved on from baseball and sports, covered big stories. He turned whatever he covered into a big story because it became a big story the second it ran under his byline. He was a big story in 1986, winning a Pulitzer Prize. In theory, that put him in company with the team winning everything in its grasp.

Yet those 1986 Mets didn’t sit right with him. I can’t find the original article right now, because when you Google something specific for somebody who has just died, as Jimmy Breslin has at 88, everything else you’re looking for about him hides behind the wave of news, obituaries and tributes posted in his memory. Breslin, the reporter, wouldn’t poke around the Internet looking for the answers he sought. He’d have his shoes on and be off tracking down what he wanted to know. But on a Sunday night in March, Googling “Jimmy Breslin 1986 Mets” is as far as I’m willing to trek, and it’s taking me nowhere. So you’ll have to trust me when I paraphrase from memory what Jimmy Breslin had to say about the 1986 Mets in 1986.

He didn’t like them. He didn’t go in for how much they won. It was too much. They’re too good, he wrote. Something to that effect. I wish I had the exact quote in front of me, but when it came to the Mets, Breslin proved wholly accurate quotes can be overrated.

Jimmy Breslin embraced the Mets at their worst and had limited use for them when they were the absolute best. Sounds right. As a columnist across the New York decades, Breslin didn’t hide his contempt for those riding unreasonably high and never concealed his compassion for those who needed a hand. The 1962 Mets needed an arm, a leg and a couple of dozen bodies warmer than room temperature.

Question asked, edited and answered for eternity.

They needed a chronicler to cast them out of tenth place and into immortality. They found what they needed in a Queens-bred sportswriter from the Journal-American who saw past the defeats, the dismal batting averages and the objectively measured hopelessness. Jimmy Breslin’s brand of analytics discerned that those Original Mets excelled at absurdity above replacement and led the league in empathetic zone ratings. He got them and, just as importantly, he got us.

“The New York Mets are in existence for a simple reason,” is how he leads off Chapter Two of the book he wrote after a season’s worth of exposure to the depths of blatantly non-competitive baseball: “New York City needed them.” And toward the end of the sixth and final chapter: “So the Mets are a bad ball club. All right, they’re the worst ball club you ever saw. So what? The important thing is they are in the National League and they are familiar. The National League, to a lot of people around New York, is something hard to describe, but important. Like the chip in the table in the living room when you were growing up. It was always there. Sometimes you can buy ten new tables over a lifetime. But the one with the chip is the one that would make you feel the best.”

Here’s how he finishes.

“The Mets lose an awful lot?
“Listen, mister. Think a little bit.
“When was the last time you won anything out of life?”

Anybody who could extract such wisdom from 120 losses wouldn’t figure to be terribly impressed by 108 wins.

Breslin wasn’t the only writer to deftly handle the first edition of the Mets with care, but it is his account that elevates a last-place enterprise to the heights of huggability. His is the one to which we reflexively refer — specifically, implicitly and instinctively — whenever it occurs to us we picked a chronically bizarre team to fall hard for. That applies even to those among us who never caught a glimpse of Marv Throneberry’s spikes not catching an iota of first base. Or a scintilla of second.

The work is called Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, published in 1963 and forever the foundation of every baseball library of a blue and orange hue. The title is ideal because a) the question it asks answers everything you’d want to know about its subject and b) contrary to understandably popular belief, it’s apparently not exactly what Casey Stengel said. Ol’ Case wanted to know if anybody among those he managed could play “this here game”.

Ah, close enough.

Breslin decided to hear Stengel slightly differently, and a legend’s embellishment was underway. Thank goodness it was. Without Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? we wouldn’t have, more than a half-century later, the author’s conclusion, which isn’t his most quoted passage from the text, but deserves to be carved into any spare rotunda the Mets might add to their physical plant when renovations are demanded in the name of keeping up with the latest architectural trends.

“[T]he New York Mets come out as something more than a baseball team as far as an awful lot of people are concerned. The Mets are a part of life. You can start keeping track of time with them.”

For 55 years and counting, millions of us have. That Jimmy Breslin got exactly right.

Thanks to all who came out to Foley’s NY on Sunday afternoon to officially launch my current book about the Mets, which includes an extended rumination on the worst team the franchise ever put forth without the leavening benefit of Casey Stengel’s involvement…plus a beefy section devoted to the period where they get real good and, unlike Mr. Breslin, we don’t mind at all. The book is called Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star. It spans, in its way, the years 1992 to 2016, so it gives you everything save for one of those pesky world championships. If you’re in Connecticut Tuesday night, swing by Staples High School, 70 North Avenue in Westport, at 7, where I’ll be talking about the book, the Mets, being a Mets fan who writes, and anything else that comes up.

I recently took part in an expansive conversation on the book and the upcoming season with the always engaging Gary McDonald of Mets Musings, which you can listen to here.

A Fist Pump in the Morning

I’m guessing the last time I made any kind of directly baseball-related gesture of exultation after sunrise and before noon was March 30, 2000, when Armando Benitez struck out Joe Girardi to seal the Mets’ eleven-inning 5–1 victory over the Cubs in Tokyo, a game best remembered for the grand slam Benny Agbayani launched to put the Mets ahead in the top of the eleventh. Since then, the Mets haven’t played any games in the Far East or in that timeslot. They’ve stayed up awfully late in these United States, but they’ve rarely gotten going that early.

The Tokyo Dome, however, is still up for hosting AM baseball when translated to American clocks, and on Wednesday morning, the stadium where Benny poured one of his most potent Hawaiian Punches served as my field of nonjudgmental yawns. Excuse the yawning. It was too early to be polite. I can’t help that night reigned on the other side of the world.

Israel was playing Japan in the World Baseball Classic, words that even as I type them strike me as Mad Libs answers. Israel? Japan? World Baseball Classic? Is there another month when any of that would flow logically? Then again, is there another month when a Heisman Trophy winner from the previous decade would be handed a Mets uniform and cause a stir every time he looked like he remotely deserved to wear one, even if it’s No. 97? It’s March. It’s the month when traditionally every Spring thing that happens wherever it happens not only stays there but is destined to be 97% forgotten.

Multiply that by four, as in years, for anything that goes on in the WBC. Baseball’s foremost international showcase is the most Brigadoon thing the game has got. It happens as often as a New Jersey governor’s race, though it tends to produce less embarrassing outcomes. March 2017 is for devoting stray thoughts to the WBC. April 2017 to February 2021 is for…well, we should only live so long. Play ’em one day at a time and all that.

But this, right now, is the magical month. This is WBC time, early, late, all night, all morning, depending on where the pools are placed. This was, until Wednesday morning, the month that belonged to Team Israel, never mind that as the WBC proceeds toward its finale, Team Israel won’t be involved. Tough break for those of us who knew a sweet bandwagon when we jumped aboard.

Somewhere around here I have a small Israeli flag. I got it when I was a fervently Zionist kid. I probably didn’t know what Zionist meant, but I was into Hebrew School for a spell, plus I enjoyed a Hebrew National frank on occasion. That was about the peak of my quasi-nationalistic fervor. I wish the Israelis well in geopolitical matters pertinent to their survival, but otherwise don’t think about them very much. Israel competes in Olympic sports. I don’t watch the Olympics. But I watch baseball. Israel crossing baseball’s path — with the Mets in the midst of conducting exceedingly meaningless exhibitions — somehow got my attention.

The Ikes of March, briefly back in fashion.

Israel played three games in Seoul and won them all. One was against host Korea, the other versus the Netherlands. I’ve heard of ballplayers being from those countries and of those backgrounds. Israel, not so much. True, the Team Israel players represented Israel more in the sense that Israeli citizenship is open to them by bloodlines than from being born and raised on the ballfields of Israel (which are mostly nonexistent). But a good story is a good story. This, it was said, stood as a little miracle in the making: a modern David slaying a slew of Goliaths; enough horsehide oil to light the upper deck lamp across an eight-night homestand; Jews hanging in there against overwhelming odds in any setting you choose to reference.

I read an article that said the Israeli players didn’t necessarily care for that interpretation, that they weren’t Cinderella in spikes, that they were plenty good enough to win without divine intervention. Maybe so. The 1969 Mets have always said much the same thing, and they received from Rabbi Hodges the wisdom and confidence to apply their innate baseball skills in the most holy of causes. Still, if somebody wants to infer from you miraculous properties, maybe step into the box and let us have our fun.

Israel winning baseball games in a somewhat worldwide arena hit all the right notes if you ever spent any part of your life learning to read from right to left. Did I mention in addition to my small Israeli flag I also collected a button in my youth that espoused JEWISH POWER, with the Star of David sitting in for the “o” in power? Speaking of Jewish Power, how about that Ike Davis? That’s what I asked seven Aprils ago when Ike landed on Citi Field’s doorstep and made himself essential to us with one mighty swing after another. That’s a while back now, and I’d gotten over my fleeting Ike fixation once his mighty swings created breezes rather than runs. Davis went on to wear other uniforms, some less appealing than others.

Wednesday morning, however, Ike was again in a uniform I could get behind. Neither his presence, nor Ty Kelly’s, nor that of any other Team Israel member was extending the Cinderella storyline. After leaving Seoul 3–0 and taking care of Cuba in the next part of the pool, Israel ran into too much Goliath. The Netherlands crushed them and Japan was doing the same. The second loss was going to remove them (and, pending further developments, my impromptu tournament passion) from the WBC. The ninth inning came around. Israel was down, 8–0. Midnight was approaching between 9:00 and 9:30 AM. I watched anyway.

I watched Kelly, likely my favorite transcontinentally shuttled Las Vegas 51 in the months ahead, get on. I watched Ike drive in the first Israeli run of the morning. Then I watched both Ty and Ike score on a double from the vaguely familiar Ryan Lavarnway. It was 8–3. Israel was forging a comeback. I was raising an arm and pumping a fist. I did that in March of 2000 when the Mets were beating the Cubs because I was then as I am now a Mets fan; and 2000 was the year I was determined to urge the Mets into the World Series they just missed in 1999; and it was never too early to start, not in March, not in the morning.

In March of 2017, I allowed my imagination a thirty-second sprint that five runs down with two outs left was nothing in the face of a miracle gathering strength. Then I called my imagination back into the dugout, because 8–3 in the top of the ninth with one out versus Japan in Japan was a taller order than anything Benny, Armando and everybody else faced seventeen years before. Besides, winning this game, creating a tiebreaker situation and somehow pushing on to the semifinals in L.A. was hardly the point here. Team Israel had already won me over. And I wished no ill on Japan as it went about recording the final two outs. The thing I like best about the WBC is there are no enemies, only opponents. I want everybody to do well and come back in one uninjured piece. As for a surfeit of pride as regards where my or Ike’s or Ty’s people can trace their ancestry, my only quasi-nationalistic fervor since Hebrew School boils on behalf of those who proudly identify as Metropolitan-American. (And I really don’t care for Washington Nationals.)

Nevertheless, replays of the ninth inning will indicate that the hand of mine that wasn’t exulting over a few late runs early in the morning was reaching for a Kleenex or two. It couldn’t have been more surprised with its assignment, but the third base coach stationed in my eyes definitely relayed the sign for an emotional squeeze play. It took all my baserunners by surprise.

Ike Davis. Israel. The Tokyo Dome. The Mets. Miracles. Baseball to feel good about instead of everything else that makes us miserable. There they were, together on my TV and in my mind. Some things that stay with you have a way of rounding your bases when you’re not expecting them to take off on the pitch. As that button I’ve got around here somewhere says, Jewish Power.

I join several other Mets bloggers in previewing 2017 for Cards Conclave. Check it out here.

Good Fundies had me on to talk Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, and it was quite a lot of fun. Listen to the podcast here. (I enter around the 40:00 mark.)

A reminder that my new book and I will be at Foley’s NY in Manhattan on Sunday at noon and Staples High School in Westport Tuesday night at seven. Details for both events are here. I hope to see you out on the promotional trail.

Why ‘Piazza’?

I was very happy when Mike Piazza was elected to the Hall of Fame on his fourth try, though probably not as happy as I was irked when he wasn’t elected on his first, second and third tries. Judging by the real-time reactions that exploded every January between 2013 and 2016, I wasn’t alone in either of those Mets fan emotions. We wanted our guy in the Hall and we wanted him there ASAP, not three years later.

Our guy and our fandom, validated.

Once the deal was sealed, the importance we as Mets fans had placed on Mike Piazza’s ascension into baseball immortality intrigued me. Not just the Hall vote, but the whole issue of how he would be portrayed on his plaque (the “go in as a Met” aspect) along with resolution regarding the fate of No. 31 and whether it would be officially taken out of circulation. We were concerned with Piazza, we were concerned with his cap, we were concerned with his uniform. It represented a lot of care devoted to somebody who hadn’t swung a bat on our behalf in a Koonce age.

But we’re fans that way, and Mike made us only more so. That’s the short explanation of why I decided to write the book that has just been published. Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star strives to answer the question I was asking myself while Mike was being made immortal: why did this matter so much to us? We already loved Mike Piazza as a Met and he left an undeniably deep impression on us. I don’t logically believe we need a Hall of Fame to reinforce our sense of how his accomplishments moved us between 1998 and 2005, but the Hall exists, just as do identifiers on plaques and team number-retirement rituals. If these validations are gonna be around, we sure as shootin’ want a piece of their action. Damned if we’re gonna be left out of having our fandom validated.

Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star (subtitled in a nod to the popular spy novel my father favored) is out now, digital and in print, online and at retail. It was, at heart, written by a Mets fan for Mets fans. Other segments of its prospective audience include anybody who loves baseball; Hall of Fame junkies; ’90s nostalgists; Dodger/Marlin/Padre/Athletic completists; and, to a certain degree, students of the human condition. The book is for anybody who is interested, actually, but a Mets fan wrote it in an undeniable New York state of mind.

The book begins its journey in the late summer of 1992, a moment in time to which its three intertwining elements — our notions of baseball immortality, the contemporary Mets experience and Mike Piazza’s career — can trace their roots. You’ll cross paths with the first Mets Hall of Famer in Cooperstown, watch a franchise sink to its lowest point of esteem in more than a decade and glimpse a largely unheralded September callup get his feet wet. The next steps are into 1993, when the Mets fall and Piazza rises in extreme proportions, then the seasons directly beyond, when circumstances eventually conspire to bring the two parties together for the benefit of a third actor…us.

Once we are all linked in common cause, you’ll be immersed in perhaps the most riveting period in Mets history, the years we remember first and foremost as Mike Piazza’s. Of course Mike had help. His supporting casts come into play, as no team rises only on its catcher, slugger, icon and star. Those teams, steered by Bobby Valentine, came close to winning a different prize every year for four consecutive years: the Wild Card in 1998, the National League pennant in 1999, the World Series in 2000 and a division title in 2001. They didn’t win any of them when each was their immediate aim, but damn they came close, and nearing each of those goals couldn’t have been any more exhilarating had they managed to capture them.

That was Mike’s doing. And Valentine’s. And so many others who made our revolving extended family until most of them were ushered away in that circle-of-life fashion baseball in general and the Mets in particular deploy sans sentiment. The last of the Piazza Mets to go was Piazza himself, amid a farewell unprecedented in the otherwise oblivious annals of Met goodbyes. Mike’s final bow as a Met commenced in 2005 and took a dozen years to complete. Before it was over, we grew eternally grateful, then impatient, then testy, then, at last, rewarded.

That’s more or less the book. I think you’ll like it. I hope you’ll read it. It’s available now. I’ll be appearing in a couple of places in the Metropolitan Area to sign and talk about it in the next few days — Foley’s in Manhattan Sunday 3/19 at noon, Staples High School in Westport Tuesday night 3/21 at 7:00 — with more such dates to be announced. I look forward to seeing you soon and thank you for your consideration as always.

How Did Zack Look?

Friday there was a reason to pay attention to what was going on in Florida. Zack Wheeler was pitching. There was no TV or radio transmitting back to us how Zack looked live, which was too bad, because for a team whose likely composition is largely known, Wheeler’s 2017 isn’t a projection we can reflexively paint by number into the big picture. We needed to get a look at him.

Ever since we were introduced to the concept of Zack Wheeler in the summer of 2011 what Zack has actually accomplished, for one reason or another, has been of less importance than how Zack has looked and, more recently, how Zack has felt. Zack Wheeler, by now, was supposed to be past all of that. Zack was supposed to be doing big things in the major leagues. If the Mets were going to be doing big things, Zack was going to be one of the primary reasons.

The Mets have done big things. Zack is still waiting to pitch in.

None of this is an indictment of a youthful if not quite so young anymore hurler from whom those big things were expected. This is not the story of a Met pitcher failing to live up to expectations and letting us down. Wheeler has made 49 starts for us, yet he’s barely just begun. Or so it feels. Our observation of Zack has always been, more or less, like it was on Friday. We weren’t so much concerned with what Zack did as we were with how he looked.

The first time most of us got a gander at Wheeler was Spring Training 2013, when he’d been the most tantalizing prospect in the Met system for a year-and-a-half. It didn’t matter that few of us had seen him as a minor leaguer. We were told this guy was worth sacrificing the last couple of months of Carlos Beltran, and just about all of us were on board. Naturally, we wanted to see what we were in for. How did Zack look?

We got a better portrait of his abilities before the 2013 season was at its midpoint. The Mets called him up to Atlanta, near his hometown in Georgia, and told him to pitch the back end of a day-night doubleheader in mid-June. He was the youngest Met ever, chronologically speaking, the first to have emerged from a womb in the 1990s. Soon enough, we assured one another, he’d lock right arms with the sensational Matt Harvey and lead us to better afternoons and evenings in the latter portion of the 2010s. How did Zack look?

It was reasonable to show patience with Wheeler for the balance of 2013 and all of 2014. There was nothing else to do but learn and grow and understand that Rome would have to be built tenuously every five days. There were good outings, bad outings, middling outings, a couple more good outings. It was all part of a process unfolding away from anything resembling pressure. These Mets, like their stud under construction, were in the midst of finding their way. How did Zack look?

Then came 2015 and we barely got a look at Zack before he had to get looked at by a doctor. Tommy John replaced Matt Harvey as his companion. Matt came back from similar circumstances. So would Zack, our intuition and the Mets told us. In Zack’s absence, the Mets stepped up, all the way to the World Series. Surely they’d rise even higher in 2016 once Zack stretched out his moneymaker sufficiently. How did Zack look?

Except he never returned in 2016, what with some TJ surgeries working their miracles less miraculously than others, not to mention other issues making themselves nuisances. We were assured the postponements were leading somewhere, to March 2017, to the first time Zack took the mound in something approximating a Mets game in two years. How did Zack look?

He looked all right, according to sources. He threw hard, he experienced no reported discomfort and he didn’t get lit up. Really, who could ask for anything more? By now, we figured we’d be asking of Zack what we’ve routinely leaned on Matt, Jacob, Noah and Steven for, what we are ready to expect on a regular basis from Seth and Robert, thanks to how they filled in last season. Every one of those starting pitchers has thrown in the heat of a playoff race or two. Four of them are veterans of October. A few of them were promoted with the kind of fanfare attendant to Zack Wheeler’s elevation. We are interested in how they look at this stage of the exhibition schedule, partly out of curiosity, partly because the results themselves don’t count a lick, partly because almost everybody on this staff has experienced some kind of physical red flag in the recent past.

Zack Wheeler is still getting going, still needing to look good before we can feel fully confident in insisting that he be fairly great. We continue to root for his progress until we don’t even have to think about it.

I’ve been enthusiastically talking Piazza lately and would love you to listen in. Tune into the Mookiee podcast (hosted by a couple of aces) here and Cannoli & Knish at WNHH in New Haven here. I’ll be signing copies at Foley’s in Manhattan on March 19 and speaking at Staples High School in Westport on March 21, details on both appearances here. Oh, and you can order your copy of my book about Mike’s Mets here.

What If We Had an Opening Day and Nobody (New) Came?

I was going over the Mets’ spring roster the other day because of a suspicion that’s kept bubbling up in my brain.

Tomas Nido’s too young. So are Amed Rosario and Wuilmer Becerra. None of those guys is going to make the Opening Day roster. Travis Taijeron’s been passed over before and the Mets already have 75 corner outfielders. Hmm, non-roster guys. Can’t see P.J. Conlon making it this year. Tom Gorzelanny looks ready for the fork in the back. Tim Tebow … hahahahahahaaaaaaaaa.

Unless there’s a trade or something weird happens (entirely possible since it’s mid-March), the Mets who stroll out to their positions at Citi Field on April 3 will all be guys we’ve seen in blue and orange before. Same for the Mets waiting in the bullpen and on the bench. All 25 of the initial 2017 Mets will be returnees.

Has an all-recidivist Opening Day roster ever been assembled before? It seemed unlikely, so I started digging through Ultimate Mets Database.

I’ll save you the manufactured drama: it has happened before, and in rather amazing fashion. But it’s only happened once in any fashion at all.

The 1973 Mets won just 82 games, yet might have won a second World Series title if not for Yogi Berra‘s overmanaging. The team pursued another bat in the offseason, but passed on potential trades for Jim Wynn and old nemesis Ron Santo. GM Bob Scheffing was reluctant to break up a stellar pitching staff, and no doubt reasoned that the team’s usual combination of plenty of starting pitching and just enough hitting would make it a contender again. It wasn’t to be — the ’74 Mets lost 91 games — but Scheffing can be forgiven for a little optimism. Hadn’t the ’73 Mets taken the A’s to a seventh game despite an absurd run of injuries?

In the first week of April 1974 the Mets made their final cuts before leaving St. Petersburg. They released John Glass and sent down Steve Simpson, Randy Sterling, Ike Hampton, Rich Puig, Benny Ayala and Bruce Boisclair. Those seven departures made it official: the ’74 Mets would begin without a single new player on the roster.

And so it was on April 6 at the Vet, an Opening Day that began with Tom Seaver‘s fastball MIA and ended with Tug McGraw giving up a walkoff homer to a young hitter with a career average below .200 named Mike Schmidt. The Mets trudged through April and May and into June without a single new player, an oddity that became exasperating after Bud Harrelson was kept on the roster with a broken hand, proving you can pinch-run in a cast though not that it’s a good idea.

Stasis was finally broken on June 16, when Jack Aker arrived from Atlanta and took the hill in the ninth at Shea with the Mets getting blown out by the Dodgers. Aker didn’t improve matters, as Steve Garvey hit a home run. Still there was finally a new ’74 Met. And eventually there would be others: Jerry Cram and Ayala in August, then an incoming September Tide of Sterling, Hampton, Puig, Boisclair, Brock Pemberton and Nino Espinosa.

How weird was ’74 for its opening 10 weeks without new Mets? No other campaign comes close. I only found five other seasons in which the Mets didn’t have a new addition to The Holy Books by the end of Opening Day, in fact:

  • In 1976 Mickey Lolich was the first new Met out of the gate, starting the season’s third game against Montreal hurler Dan Warthen.
  • In 1977, Luis Alvarado began his short Mets career on April 13, the season’s fifth game.
  • In 1983 Danny Heep made his debut in the Mets’ second game.
  • In 1986 Bob Ojeda relieved Ron Darling in the season’s second game.
  • In 1988 – a year that saw a record-low four Mets debuts, third-string catcher Mackey Sasser‘s arrival had to wait for the season’s sixth game.

Best I can tell, all of those mentioned above were on the Opening Day roster. Aker wasn’t, and his debut came in Game 60 of the ’74 season. If anything involved with a meh relief performance involving Jack Aker can be called amazing, that qualifies.

As for 2017, one imagines that Rosario and other promising youngsters will be granted a taste of big-league life; an extra catcher will report for duty after something unlucky happens to Travis d’Arnaud; various relievers will need to be run through the Terry Collins Arm Sawmill; extra outfielders will be summoned to further retard Michael Conforto‘s development, and so on. Stuff will happen, as it almost invariably does.

And look, it’s not like any of us would mind if the Mets won the World Series despite not adding a single player to the Holy Books, right?

Hm. Actually, I’d mind.

But I’d get over it.

Taken Out to the Ballgame

The stars aligned for the Mets in the middle 1980s, and in his way, nobody did more to display them than Bill Webb. He caught the rising stars so we could watch them shine on Channel 9. He did for this franchise what Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe as more or less Glenn Frey asked Patrick Fugit as Cameron Crowe stand-in William Miller to do for Stillwater in Almost Famous. Bill Webb made the Mets look cool.

The Mets of the middle 1980s, in turn, made baseball look irresistible, and Bill Webb, who directed their WOR telecasts, was the man behind that sex appeal. Frank Cashen provided the substance. Webb made it sizzle. Bill took an effective product and turned it into a smoking hot brand. Hot, cool, however you choose to identify it, the Mets of those days had it. I know they did because Webb showed it to us that way.

The consensus all-time great director who died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer could also imbue a lukewarm product with genuine heat. He did it for SNY in the years between Shea’s demise and Citi’s coming of age when the Mets never stopped being must-see television despite their failure to play consistently compelling baseball. That was as much Webb’s doing as it was the announcers we regularly praise. The sense of event that came across the screen from the moment SNY infiltrated our cable systems and redefined our viewing habits in 2006 was recognizable to anybody who tuned in two decades before. The names changed. The voices changed. The results weren’t always as sparkling. But the common denominator was Bill Webb’s direction, and he always conducted an unparalleled symphony of sound and vision.

Bill Webb’s name filtered into the Mets fan consciousness while the Mets’ fortunes, like those stars in the Channel 9 jingle, commenced to rise. Tim McCarver regularly told us who Bill Webb was, which was good, since we learned who was responsible for taking us out to so many Mets games without us ever having to buy a ticket. He took us out and he took us into the world the Mets of 1985 and 1986 inhabited. From a television standpoint, he created it for us. We didn’t just see Doc and Straw and Kid and Mex. We sat right down next to them in the dugout. We sensed we were meeting them as Mets and then some. We followed them to the plate and to the mound and wherever the ball was headed. Our front row seat floated all over the field and into the stands thanks to Webb. He crafted the modern visual vocabulary of the sport we embrace. He enhanced it all over again in the new century. The Mets on SNY, from first pitch to last, constitute a first-class production. That’s Bill Webb’s doing and legacy.

I’m so glad we had his time together.