I consider the series finale of Parks & Recreation, which aired Tuesday night, to be one of the finest farewells in the history of episodic television. Yet within twelve hours of viewing, I found something even better to watch. It wasn’t a goodbye episode. More like getting reacquainted. The effect was more invigorating, even, than finding safe haven in a warm bathtub full of Duke Silver’s jazz.
Live (on tape) from the crown jewel of the New York City Parks Department and stunningly preserved for the ages, I fell into the Channel 9 telecast of Old Timers Day 1977 at Shea Stadium, perhaps the best Old Timers Day Shea Stadium ever hosted.
Yes, Old Timers Day 1977! Do I have to explain the exclamation point to you? Because I will. I’ll create binders and hand them out to each and every one of you just as Leslie Knope would. From WOR to WAR: Statistical Proof Bearing Out My Assertion That the YouTube Video I Found Is the Greatest Thing Ever.
Perhaps I’m overselling this. No, that’s impossible. This thing truly is the greatest ever. Greatest Mets thing ever, to be sure. I hear waffles are good, too.
Let’s back up and bring you to July 16, 1977, a sweltering Saturday afternoon in the Baked Apple. It has been 31 days since the New York Mets traded, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into on an occasion as festive as Old Timers Day 1977 Video Found Day, their best pitcher and their best slugger in exchange for…it doesn’t matter. The Mets traded Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman and there was no reason to keep living. Also, it was three — three! — days since all of New York City had been blacked out and a good bit of it had been looted. The looters left Shea Stadium alone. Everybody was leaving Shea Stadium alone by July of 1977.
And yet, on this Saturday, an actual crowd, shed of animus, pitchforks and torches (it was too hot for torches and the lights were working again), showed up at Shea to celebrate something. They showed up to celebrate Old Timers Day.
That’s what used to happen every year at Shea Stadium. Before that, it happened at the Polo Grounds. This was the sixteenth year there were New York Mets. In 1977, the Mets hosted their sixteenth annual Old Timers Day. Do the math, as they used to say in schools before math was eliminated: the Mets never didn’t hold Old Timers Day. It was in their bones, their DNA, their mission that they chose to accept. The Mets were born in black & white, determined to live in color, yet never forgetting their roots.
Their roots? They never forgot their fans’ roots. I’m not even talking about the Giants and the Dodgers. I’m talking that everybody who set foot inside Shea Stadium for a Mets game was presumed to maintain an interest in baseball — all of it, including the parts that didn’t unfold in front of their eyes. It was the Mets’ solemn responsibility to deliver baseball history to their patrons. If they could make some more on the field, more power to us.
This, you see, is how we learned. We were introduced to players and stories and accomplishments and it became part of what we knew about the game we had come to love. We put together the glimpse of the past to which we were being treated with all we could glean from the present occurring in our midst and it laid a foundation for our future. We would always be interested in the baseball to come because we were immersed in the baseball that had come.
That’s history, baby. That’s its beauty and utility. That’s what keeps you coming back for more, poising you to turn the page (or keep scrolling) in order to learn what happens next in our great shared chronicle. Do they still teach history in the schools? They do a damn poor job of it at Citi Field, but that’s another story. Let’s stick to our warm bathtub full of Old Timers jazz. Let’s be as cool as Duke Silver as we prepare to meet Duke Snider.
The theme of Old Timers Day 1977 is Memorable Moments from World Series Play. No real reason, except that nothing’s bigger than the World Series, so why wouldn’t you choose that as your theme? As WOR-TV anchor Bob Murphy explains, the Mets could make their claim to World Series lore, having been in two of them, but this isn’t really a Metscentric event. There are several Brooklyn Dodgers and a couple of New York Giants of note on hand, but it isn’t necessarily a toast to their Subway Series feats. And — hold on to your hats — there are Yankees galore at Shea because, let’s face it, their team was in a few World Series, but though there’s a discernible New York accent to the festivities, this isn’t all Gotham all the time.
The Boston Braves of 1948 are represented. The 1946 Cardinals. The Washington Senators of 1933. The 1945 Cubs. Orioles from 1966. The ’60 Pirates. The ’59 White Sox. Why?
Why not? They were in the World Series, every bit as much as the ’69 Mets and ’55 Dodgers and ’54 Giants and far too many Yankees. This is the “romance” of baseball, says Murph. What baseball fan wouldn’t want to be romanced?
Two months before Saturday nights on Channel 7 would become synonymous with The Love Boat, it is Lindsey Nelson who takes the helm and sets a course for adventure, his mind on the old romance of World Series legends. The sailing will be as smooth as Lindsey’s delivery (except when he has to pause for a passing plane, at which point his testiness will seep through the screen). Lindsey’s role as Master of Ceremonies is every bit as important as Captain Stubing’s will be two frequencies down the dial. Nothing’s a click away in 1977, not even on TV (except in Fairfield County, one supposes, where ABC affiliate Channel 8 would be immediately tunable on the same sets as Channel 9 from New York). There’s no Baseball Reference or Retrosheet to look stuff up when you get curious. There’s no Kindle from which to download. Either you have the books, you’ve saved your Sporting Newses or you plan a trip to your local public library. It takes effort to learn things in these days of Stubing and Nelson.
But on this Saturday, July 16, 1977, Lindsey Nelson in a summer suit pale-blue enough to evoke the Pacific, is steering you across an ocean of nostalgia and celebrity. You’re in learned hands when Lindsey’s at the mic in front of the mound.
It’s Lindsey’s show now. Lindsey and the “Diamond Club Girls,” as Murph calls them. They’ll be serving as “hostesses,” clad in dresses that fit the 1890s more than the 96-degree afternoon. But they are issued parasols and the Old Timers don’t try any funny business, so maybe it’s nice to get out of the Diamond Club for an hour, removal from air conditioning notwithstanding. Escorting Carl Erskine from the dugout to the foul line doesn’t look like the worst assignment for a Diamond Club Girl.
As long as we’re focused on design, oh those Old Timers Day uniforms. Nobody called Mitchell & Ness. Nobody reached out to Ebbets Field Flannels. Nobody canvassed Paul Lukas and Uni Watch. Authenticity takes a holiday where many of the men’s suiting up is concerned. Take Phil Maci, for example. He’s the catcher from those 1948 National League champion Boston Braves. As Lindsey’s describing his World Series derring-do (he scored Game One’s only run when Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau botched a pickoff attempt), we give Maci the once-over. He’s clearly dressed as a contemporary Atlanta Brave — and not a very sartorially splendid one, at that. His cap looks like it was fished from the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack.
Maci is at least close. Erskine is introduced in a Mets uniform (and L.A. cap) despite his never having played or coached for the Mets. Lindsey clearly spells out he was a Brooklyn favorite. But Oisk gets a nice ovation, Maci is given a hand and nobody seems to mind that just about everybody is off-model one way or another.
Everybody’s into Old Timers Day. The crowd is the best the Mets will draw for the rest of the season, save for the weekend the Cincinnati Reds will come in with their recently acquired ace pitcher (a different exercise in nostalgia and celebrity). Both dugouts are crammed. The current Mets are watching. The visiting Pirates are watching. Reporters are hanging around. I want very much to believe a young Howie Rose is recording actualities for Sports Phone. He probably is. Old Timers Day at Shea Stadium is the place to be. No wonder the Mets received more than 50 RSVPs to their ceremony. Old Timers don anachronistic uniforms for the chance to tip quite possibly the wrong cap and be, for a few minutes, Timers again. No wonder Bill Wambsganss — billed as 86 years old, which is exotic unto itself — graces the day with his presence.
Wambsganss is known for one thing: he pulled off the only unassisted triple play in World Series history. If you’re gonna be known for one thing, that’s as good as any. By 1977, he’s a name from the quizzes in Baseball Digest. Who would ever expect to see Bill Wambsganss in the flesh? Bill Wambsganss was born in what were known as the Gay ’90s. John McGraw was playing for the Baltimore Orioles in the National League. Those dresses on the Diamond Club Girls were the epitome of the high style.
Gary Gentry, “now a real estate man in Arizona,” is a 1977 Old Timer, same as Bill Wambsganss, defensive wizard of the 1920 World Series. Gary Gentry on July 16, 1977, is 30 years old.
Bill Shea, he of the Shea Stadium Sheas, and Chub Feeney, GM of the “Polo Grounds Giants” and now president of the National League precede all the players, regardless of age. They are left to loiter behind Lindsey in the heat. They don’t line up with the various hitters and pitchers and they don’t take a seat. Wambsganss took a seat. At 86 or so when it’s 96 or so, you don’t stand out under the sun all day. But Shea and Feeney do. The baseball people, Murph has told us, love this day. They love it more than they love shade.
Hall of Famer Monte Irvin appears (the day after the Parks & Rec finale airs turns out to be the day Monte will celebrate his 96th birthday). Cookie Lavagetto, who broke up Bill Bevins’s no-hitter in 1947, appears. Bevins appears. Sandy Amoros robbed Yogi Berra in 1955. His reward? A swell greeting in 1977. Al Gionfriddo gets the same for having taken a long hit away from Joe DiMaggio. Hal Smith, who helped set the stage for the Bill Mazeroski home run, is invited. Bill Mazeroski is invited. Ralph Terry — later a Met, but in 1960 the Yankee who basically put Maz in the Hall of Fame — is invited. They all make their way to Shea. Terry dresses as a Yankee, same as Hank Bauer and Bobby Richardson and Old Reliable Tommy Henrich and the Chairman of the Board Whitey Ford and Don Larsen and Joe Sewell and…I told you there are a lot of Yankees at Shea.
It’s a World Series kind of day, but the Mets are too kind and generous to not make room for anybody who fits the description of Old Timer. You don’t have to have won a World Series like Gentry, Jim McAndrew, Ron Swoboda, Al Weis and Ed Charles did in 1969 (though they’re there) and you don’t have to have lost a World Series like Chuck Hiller did in 1962 (though Chuck’s here) and you don’t have to bopped not one but two pinch-homers as Chuck Essegian did for the Dodgers against the White Sox in 1959 (though this Chuck’s here, too). You can be Tom Burgess and Denny Somers, first-year Mets coaches in 1977, and you are treated by Lindsey Nelson as if you descended from Mount Ty Cobb to join us.
Mrs. Johnny Murphy, widow of the general manager of the 1969 world champions, is introduced. She’s sitting on the press level and isn’t shown on TV. Mel Allen, who called almost every World Series for a generation — and in 1977 is making himself known to the next generation via the narration of This Week In Baseball — is introduced. He’s sitting in Field Box 13G and is shown on TV. Mel is just hanging out, by himself, enjoying the Mets’ Sixteenth Annual Old Timers Day.
How about that?
Mrs. George Weiss gets a shoutout, if not a first name (tell it to Mrs. Johnny Murphy). According to Lindsey, she’s no doubt looking in on the proceedings from her home in Greenwich…unless she’s flipped to Channel 8.
Our main man the Glider is the only Old Timer to rate two Diamond Club Girl escorts. He literally skips to the foul line. Are the Diamond Club Girls just that lovely or is Ed Charles just that happy to be here?
The answer is yes.
There’s not much explicit hierarchy to Old Timers Day as it goes on. They’re all legends, heroes, gentlemen who’ve come a long way to join us today. Enos Slaughter will be ushered into the Hall of Fame eventually. At Shea, he’s the opening act for Amoros.
Yet a few special slots are reserved. One minute, it’s a steady stream of Weises and Wambsgansses. Then, resplendent in the sleeveless Pirates jersey the Pittsburgh team didn’t wear when he was slugging for them but it looks damn good on him anyway, Ralph Kiner. Ralph never played in a World Series just as he never played in one of those sleeveless numbers. But this is his adopted home field. So Ralph is saved for late in the affair.
You wouldn’t want to be the ballplayer who has to follow Ralph Kiner at Shea Stadium unless you have some serious credentials. Following Ralph Kiner? Roy Campanella. He gets a standing ovation.
Then, because he’s just that adored by Mets fans in the summer of 1977, a place where there’s been little love in the room since June 15, comes someone who “never participated in a World Series as a player. We are confident and hopeful that one day in the not too distant future, he will be managing in one.”
Of whom does Lindsey Nelson speak so fondly? “Here is the Mets’ skipper, Joe Torre.” He will indeed be managing in a World Series or six, albeit in a distant future that is best left unspoken of for now.
So who’s left after so much of The Baseball Encyclopedia has sprung to life and onto the Shea Stadium grass? Who could possibly top the one-two-three punch of Ralph Kiner, Roy Campanella and Joe Torre? Let’s listen to Lindsey for the answer.
“It is certainly safe to say no city has ever had the pleasure of viewing as much talent as New York did about a quarter-century ago. And much of that talent played the same position for each New York club. We consider it a great honor indeed to have with us today four of the greatest center fielders in the history of baseball and appreciate all of them starred on the field right here in the Big Apple.”
And as the center field gates swing open, we meet…
“The Duke of Brooklyn,” Duke Snider…
“The greatest switch-hitter in the history of the game,” Mickey Mantle…
“The most exciting player of this or any other era,” Willie Mays…
“The man chosen as baseball’s greatest living players,” Joe DiMaggio.
The authors of 1,964 big league home runs thrill the stadium built in 1964.
That’s right, my fellow Mets enthusiasts of all ages, Willie, Mickey, the Duke and — because who doesn’t like a surfeit of immortals? — Joe D. The sight of them is stood for and applauded at and roared about. Pictures are taken of all that talent as it strolls from the outfield to the infield. Not long after, a songwriter by the name of Terry Cashman gets a gander at the image of the fearsome foursome and decides to write a song about this quartet, though he admits the Yankee Clipper doesn’t quite fit his musical tableau, so he cuts his inspiration by a quarter and produces a little number called “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)” that takes its spot alongside “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” in the game’s canon.
This happened at Shea Stadium. All of it. The Mets made sure of it. It was their sacred trust to put on an Old Timers Day and they were true to their trust. Maybe they couldn’t keep their biggest current-day stars on the roster, but boy could they round up a posse of all-time greats from the past.
It was glorious. And it wasn’t over! The four center fielders came in and stood in the company of their fellow Old Timers for a “moment of silent tribute” dedicated to essentially everybody who was no longer with us. Mrs. Payson, Mr. Stengel, Mr. Hodges, Mrs. Johnny Murphy’s and Mrs. George Weiss’s respective husbands and the gone-far-too-young Danny Frisella were all named, though Lindsey said we should think of everybody who made the game great. Jane Jarvis played Auld Lang Syne and then the national anthem.
And then the Old Timers who were up for it played a ballgame while Bob Murphy and Stan Lomax — the first New York radio sportscaster, dating back to 1933 — did some light play-by-play. Murph asked Lomax an open-ended question about the past and Lomax gushed forth with anecdotes a sharp fan would know enough to lap up. For example, Stan Lomax could identify the precise loudmouth at Ebbets Field who started calling his favorite team a bunch of “Bums” and tell you all about how it stuck.
With minimal condescension, Murph and Lomax marveled at how these fellas could still swing the bat and so forth. They weren’t kidding. Ralph lined one into the left field corner just foul and the Duke drove one that almost went over the right field wall. Willie Mays, of all people, got caught in a baserunning blunder on Duke’s hit, but that was OK. It gave Bob and Stan a chance to invoke “three men on third” from when the Dodgers were indisputably daffy and every so-called Old Timer was certifiably younger.
When I watched Old Timers Day when I was a kid, it made me feel older. Nowadays it has the opposite effect. Little at Shea ever functioned quite so flawlessly.
Not as monumental a find, but also on YouTube: I join the folks at On The Sportslines for a little Spring Training Mets talk.
The Oscars were handed out Sunday night. Thus, per Monday morning-after tradition, the Academy pauses to remember those Mets who have, in the baseball sense, left us in the past year.
ZACHARY CRAIG “Zach” LUTZ April 24, 2012 – September 28, 2013
I saw Zach Lutz (barely) prevent a no-hitter in the seventh inning and a string of Zach Lutz’s teammates conspire to prevent saddling Gonzalez with a two-hitter. I found Cuppy, too, but who doesn’t?
—September 10, 2013 (Released 6/12/2014; signed with Rakuten Golden Eagles, 6/16/2014)
JUAN C. CENTENO September 18, 2013 – September 28, 2014
Pay attention and you see things. You see a catcher whose name existed on the farthest periphery of your Mets consciousness four weeks ago throw out an instantly legendary basestealing sensation with a ready-made Hall of Fame moniker. Juan Centeno? Gunning down Billy Hamilton? Who had been 13-for-13 in his core competency since coming up to Cincinnati in early September? Who had swiped a typographically correct 333 bases in his last three minor league campaigns? With Dice-K of the notoriously leisurely pace on the mound? Yeah, that thing happened in the fifth…
—September 25, 2013 (Selected off waivers by Brewers, 10/31/2014)
JOHN EDWARD LANNAN March 31, 2014 – April 13, 2014
[W]hen David Wright lifted a two-run homer off Jerry Blevins to pull the Mets to within 9-7, I was jumping up and down, partly for warmth, but mostly because I was delusional enough to think if Curtis Granderson could work his way on, Anthony Recker would tie it up. That would get us only to 9-9, and I wasn’t necessarily anticipating John Lannan morphing into the better long-relief angels of Shaun Marcum — and goodness knows I was cold enough to want to seek shelter inside a room with a roof ASAP — but this was Opening Day. Who wants to see the Mets lose on Opening Day? I didn’t. But I saw it anyway.
—April 1, 2014 (Free Agent, 10/1/2014; signed with Rockies, 11/18/2014)
TAYLOR HILL TEAGARDEN June 10, 2014 – June 21, 2014
[T]he rather amazingly named career backup catcher crashed a grand slam in his third-ever Mets at-bat. Teagarden didn’t do much else in his 25 subsequent Mets at-bats and was gone after less than two weeks, but when you hit a grand slam in your first-ever game, you don’t have to do much else.
—November 21, 2014 (Free agent, 10/1/2014; signed with Cubs, 12/28/2014)
DANA JAMES EVELAND June 2, 2014 – September 6, 2014
Everything can look very different very quickly in baseball. For example, if you’d asked me less than a year ago to connect Buddy Carlyle, Dana Eveland and Las Vegas, I’d remember that time in the 1970s when my parents went to Las Vegas for some kind of convention and one night at the Sands, they saw Buddy Carlyle, billed as the Fastest Wit in the West, open for the Chanteuse of the Strip, Dana Eveland. Or, if I wasn’t feeling particularly creative, I’d shrug and tell you I’d heard of Las Vegas, thought maybe buddy Carlyle rang a bell of some sort and as for Dana Eveland, I have no idea who she is. He? OK, he. As recently as the last Super Bowl, I had no idea who Dana Eveland was, whatever the pronoun.
—September 6, 2014 (Free agent, 11/14/2014; signed with Red Sox, 1/21/2015)
JOSHUA BLAKE “Josh” SATIN September 4, 2011 – September 25, 2014
Hitting the ball and running to first […] was a skill set that abandoned pinch-hitter Josh Satin in the ninth. It was a comedy of presumption that unfolded as Josh lofted a fly ball far down the left field line versus closer Jim Henderson. Was it fair? Was it foul? Josh, whose job is to immediately steam counterclockwise to the nearest available base without pausing to ask questions, appointed himself judge and deemed it foul. Except it was ruled fair and in play. The “fair” part was accurate, which became a tad embarrassing for lead-footed Satin to realize since he had already begun to wander away from the plate to clear his head and await the next pitch. When he understood that he swung better than he thought, Josh dash-trudged to first, where he had to stop since he took his sweet time getting going. But the ball shouldn’t have been “in play,” as it actually cleared the fence and bounced back into the outfield. Instant replay cleared up the umpires’ muddle. They emerged from their comfortably appointed video review lounge to signal “home run”. You know the gesture — it’s where you twirl your index finger in the air as if to indicate you’re not impressed…“whoop-de-doo,” in other words. Which was how it felt watching Josh Satin score the reluctant run that turned a 4-1 loss into an eventual 4-2 loss.
—September 27, 2013 (Outrighted, 11/4/2014; signed with Reds, 11/20/2014)
KYLE LYNN FARNSWORTH April 2, 2014 – May 12, 2014
The bullpen’s terrible — and while I’m no scout, something tells me wheeling the embalmed corpse of Kyle Farnsworth onto the mound isn’t going to help things.
—April 3, 2014 (Released 5/14/2014; signed with Astros, 5/17/2014)
ANDREW MARSHALL BROWN May 3, 2013 – June 15, 2014
Mostly, Met nights at Wrigley are like the three we’ve just witnessed, episodes in which our cast of characters proves unready for prime time, whether the show begins at 8 o’clock Eastern or 6 o’clock Central. If the Mets aren’t scoring eleven runs in a sixth inning or assisting a Manchurian Brave to a personal milestone, they’re usually doing something along the lines of what they did all this week. They’re losing. Thursday night they threatened to win, but it was an idle threat. Andrew Brown’s return from Las Vegas was pleasant enough — he performs well on any semblance of an Opening Day — and the roar back from an 0-4 deficit to a 4-4 tie provided a few minutes of false encouragement, but then Anthony Rizzo went deep and the Mets still had runners to strand and, well, the whole thing dissipated as it tends to do after dark in that part of town.
—June 6, 2014 (Selected off waivers by A’s, 10/31/2014)
JOSE RAFAEL VALVERDE March 31, 2014 – May 26, 2014
[O]n Saturday, in the otherwise unmapped Anaheim section of Los Angeles, given how the Mets had already overcome a two-run deficit and the vengeful specter of Collin Cowgill, it didn’t seem out of line to think Valverde would gently tuck in a three-run lead, especially once he got ahead of David Freese one-and-two and needed only one more strike to wish us and the Angels sweet dreams. I apologize for thinking it was as simple as a third strike and resulting third out right there. I neglected to take into account the doom factor I had unleashed. You won’t find “doom factor” on the back of your baseball cards or among your more advanced statistics. No metric properly reflects that when I begin to think a Met closer is certain to escape a danger-fraught scenario with ease, that same Met closer inevitably implodes. It happened to Bobby Parnell on Opening Day. It’s been happening with alarming regularity since at least Skip Lockwood in the mid-1970s.
—April 13, 2014 (Released, 5/26/2014; signed with Padres, 1/7/2015)
OMAR QUINTANILLA May 29, 2012 – July 8, 2012 May 30, 2013 – May 7, 2014
To be fair, I also never want to look at erstwhile Renaissance Met Omar Quintanilla ever again. Have you ever seen a shortstop make more unnecessary leaps for line drives 20 feet over his head? He will strain something before he catches something.
—August 25, 2013 (Free agent, 10/1/2014; signed with Rockies, 1/27/2015)
GONZALEZ GERMAN (Figao) GERMEN July 12, 2013 – September 25, 2014
Gonzalez Germen, to this point no more than a roster rumor set in agate type, makes his major league debut in the bottom of the eleventh of a tie game with McCutchen, Alvarez and Russell Martin due up. He walks the All-Star McCutchen. He strikes out the All-Star Alvarez but McCutchen steals second. He intentionally walks Martin, who won a game against the Mets with a home run in 2012. He strikes out Gaby Sanchez, who produced a .318/.403/.591 slash line in eighteen games against the Mets in 2011. He teases a weak grounder out of Jordy Mercer, but the ball had excellent vision and limped its way into center to score McCutchen from second with the winning run. Gonzalez Germen did what we shall call without irony his Parnellian best to keep the game tied. Parnell, on the other hand, saw as much action Friday night as Germen did all of his life prior to Friday night. When you’ve lost 3-2 in eleven without your best reliever getting the call, that’s deplorable.
—July 13, 2013 (Sold to Yankees, 12/19/2014)
CHRISTOPHER BRANDON “Chris” YOUNG April 2, 2014 – August 7, 2014
And the second we sat down, we sprang up. Chris Young…the same Chris Young at whom we were poking reflexive fun during Kevin Chapman’s trademark top-notch tailgate extravaganza…made us eat our words like we had eaten Kevin’s guacamole. CY launched an absolute bomb that detonated over the left field fence with a man on. Suddenly we were no longer losing. Suddenly it was 4-4. Suddenly the shade of Section 529 was the hottest place we could be.
—July 13, 2014 (Released 8/15/2014; signed with Yankees, 8/27/2014)
JEREMY SCOTT HEFNER April 23, 2012 – August 9, 2013
Hefner, on the other hand, could not have sounded a whole lot more devastated when reporters found him after his Thursday nightmare in which he faced Phillie after Phillie after Phillie and recorded nary an out. Seven batters clad in gray and red came up, not a one of them sat down, unless you count the four who had already scored. Hefner’s brief stay on the mound inadvertently imbued what shaped up as a prototypical meaningless game in September with gobs of meaning. No Mets team had ever taken the field at home and allowed its visitors to grab a quick 8-0 lead. But this one had. All kinds of records related to massive Met ineptitude were en route to being invoked. And for that, Jeremy sounded very, very sorry…even sorrier than he pitched. Hell, maybe he didn’t pitch all that pitifully considering the Phillies bobbed along like a singles sewing machine and stitched together their eight runs on basically no hard hit balls. But to let Hefner off the hook because, gosh darn it, they fell in and found holes — no. I’m not falling for that. Eight runs in the first inning is eight runs in the first inning. I cringed in empathy for a 26-year-old rookie from Oklahoma whose voice I heard cracking and who was clearly trying to rein in his tear ducts when SNY’s cameras arrived at his stall. I thought about how joyful he sounded less than a month ago when he pitched so effectively against the Astros, not just because he had a good game but because his daughter had just been born. Jeremy Hefner’s a person and I don’t like to hear a person in pain. But as a Mets fan who has watched Met after Met after Met wander aimlessly across six soul-crushing Septembers — and seen these Mets hide in plain sight since the middle of July — I’m not feeling remotely so generous of spirit.
—September 21, 2012 (Free agent, 11/4/2014; currently unsigned)
DAISUKE MATSUZAKA August 23, 2013 – September 25, 2014
SNY put a clock on Matsuzaka. And they put Matsuzaka’s face on a clock while the clock ticked away and Matsuzaka didn’t pitch. They didn’t call it the Matsuclocka, but they should have. Earlier in the game, as hard to believe as it is that a nine-inning game that took 3:32 to play had an earlier,” Howie Rose explained Daisuke Matsuzaka’s famed gyroball: In the time it take Matsuzaka to throw one pitch, you can leave your seat, buy a gyro, eat it and return to your seat. Howie’s first-inning exasperation provided an opening for Josh Lewin to invoke “tzatziki sauce” for perhaps the first time in major league broadcasting history. Red Barber almost certainly never mentioned tzatziki sauce while sitting in the catbird seat at Ebbets Field, but he did keep an egg timer handy. It was there to remind the Ol’ Redhead that when its three minutes of sand ran out, he should tell his listeners the score of the game. It was a good idea. Red’s listeners might have just been tuning in or not been paying close attention. Or they might have gone off to purchase and consume a gyro while waiting for Daisuke Matsuzaka to deliver his next pitch. From Red Barber’s egg timer to SNY’s Matsuclocka. Who says baseball is timeless?
—August 29, 2013 (Free agent, 10/30/2014; signed with Fukoka Softbank Hawks, 12/4/2014)
ERIC ORLANDO YOUNG, JR. June 19, 2013 – September 28, 2014
I still think Eric Young, Jr., is more like the player the Rockies didn’t want than the player he’s looked like in a perilously small sample size for us, but when he scored from second last night and leapt halfway into outer space, I laughed out loud on the couch and clapped my hands. Baseball’s fun, and fun’s contagious.
—August 8, 2013 (Non-tendered, 12/2/2014; signed by Braves, 2/13/2015)
BOB KELLY “Bobby” ABREU April 22, 2014 – September 28, 2014
Collins started Abreu in right field in Game 162, batting him second. Come the fifth inning, Bobby did what we in attendance wanted him to do. He connected for a base hit, reached first, tipped his cap and indeed walked off with his head held high. He had been a Met by mutual convenience. Abreu needed a place to conduct his unfinished business and the Mets weren’t beyond relying a little much on a 41-year-old who hadn’t played in the majors since he was 39. If all had truly worked out, Abreu would have proven himself a lefthanded pinch-hitter deluxe on the order of Kranepool and Staub and Lenny Harris. He might have produced a legendary bases-loaded line drive like Matt Franco or shocked the house as Marlon Anderson did via inside-the-park home run. Instead, other than serving as a venerable bookend to Bartolo Colon, he didn’t accomplish a load. It took one more favor from the front office to bring him back for September from Las Vegas after he proved ineffective off the bench by midsummer. On Closing Day, though, we decided he was our guy and we sent him off as such. “Special,” Bobby called his final swing for a single off Houston righty Nick Tropeano. It was “the way that I wanted to end it — on the field.” Abreu said farewell to the game he loved with Eisenhowerian élan and we, in turn, bid a heartfelt adieu to a player we took to heart at the very last minute of his tenure with us.
—December 28, 2014 (Retired, 9/28/2014)
ISAAC BENJAMIN “Ike” DAVIS April 19, 2010 – April 16, 2014
For what it’s worth, Ike, the backup, starts Sunday. Is Ike being showcased for that trade that was supposed to be executed months ago? Is Terry balancing his two heretofore brutally disappointing lefthanded first basemen in perfect harmony? Has anybody seen Josh Satin’s eyebrows lately? Ultimate solutions will have to wait. We won today. We won today on a pinch-hit, come-from-behind walkoff grand slam, which has happened how many times before in Mets history? I’m pretty sure never. Let’s see: Harkness, Hickman, Jorgensen, Teufel, McReynolds, Valdespin…nope, those were either tie scores when things got grand or the walkoff slam-masters were already in the game. Ergo, it’s a first. Ike Davis has done something no Met before him had ever done. Twenty-four hours ago we would have been surprised if the above sentence consisted solely of “Ike Davis has done something.” Now he’s done something else. This game will confirm your deeply held suspicions most of the time but render your assumptions stupid if you give it a chance. Give it a chance. It’s worth it.
—April 5, 2014 (Traded to Pirates, 4/18/2014)
Like my partner, spring training’s barely arrived and I’m already tired of it. It’s been that way for me for a while — pitchers and catchers reporting is a nice hint that spring will eventually arrive, but it’s uplifting for about five minutes until you look out the window and see Antarctica and groan that it’s still getting dark too soon and remember that we’re a long way from crocuses and buds on trees and 1:10 or 7:10. I get a little more pep in my step for the first spring-training game, but honestly that’s mostly about getting to hear Gary Cohen again. That good feeling lasts about an inning, at which point I think, “oh man, none of this matters” and pick up a magazine, looking up only if the St. Lucie wind is blowing another flyout to left into a home run or if I have a chance to make fun of the too-loud guy aiming an attempted Agincourt-intensity heckle at a fifth starter whose only assignment is to work on the change-up. (Seriously, who are these guys?)
The absurdist length of spring training is about one thing and one thing only — damaging pitchers’ arms and shoulders in a calibrated way so that they can repeatedly perform the damaging action of throwing a baseball, but with as little risk as possible that they will damage their arms and/or shoulders in a sudden, catastrophic way that requires a trip to the doctor/surgeon. (And what’s the normal risk level of that happening if you follow protocols? Nobody knows, because every human body is different and the protocols are as much jock folklore and tradition as they are science.)
Hitters? Once upon a time they needed spring training because they’d spent the offseason mucking barns, driving trucks or sitting in offices as corporate ornaments. But that was generations ago. Yeah, hitters talk about needing to get their timing, but hitters are always getting and losing their timing, which is another way of saying whether or not the statistical noise is currently favorable.
These days hitters hit all year, occasionally filling the gaps in their hitting time with thinking about hitting or being told what to do by nutritionists. Genetic outliers aside, pitchers can’t physically pitch all year. So we have spring training, which is a lot of huff and blather constructed around waiting for them.
In a sensible world, pitchers would go to spring training around Valentine’s Day and damage their arms in a supposedly constructive way while no one watched. Hitters would show up around March 10, accompanied by the media. Games would start around St. Patrick’s Day. That would leave us three weeks of stories we’ve read before that have no bearing on what will happen in the regular season, interspersed with genuinely fun features on prospects we’ll probably never hear from again, and the occasional unfortunate breaking news of torn ligaments, cheese-gratered labrums, tsk-tskable speeding tickets and ill-advised debates with pizza delivery boys. And that would be it.
But it’s not, so we all have a job to do. And amid the same-old same-old of the spring-training better-than-anything-else athletic-entertainment industry, two things jumped out at me from the first couple of days.
The first item was the package of declarations that David Wrightwill be just fine and is in the … WAIT FOR IT … best shape of his life. In Wright’s case that hoary old statement might actually matter, as the 2015 Mets’ fortunes in large part depend on finding out if Wright’s recent woes are a product of a loose shoulder joint that’s now been fixed or a product of the inevitable fact that he’s a young man on planet Earth but starting to be an old one as a ballplayer. (I desperately hope it’s the former while suspecting it’s the latter.)
The other thing that caught my eye? It was Jonathon Niese saying positive things about his shoulder, and shedding light on how that shoulder felt last year. There are two times ballplayers and club officials are most likely to tell the truth — the first day of spring training and two days after a player’s no long around. Niese said he probably should have missed the first month of 2014 instead of just the first week and had had sharp, knife-like pain in the shoulder — something he could admit because the shoulder feels really strong now.
Which gets me back to pitchers.
Niese’s remarks immediately reminded me of the May 2010 flap over Dan Warthen saying that John Maine was “a habitual liar” about his own health, which Maine resurrected three years later when asked about it during his brief, doomed comeback with the Marlins. I never understood any of that. All pitchers are habitual liars about their own health, because if they weren’t nobody involved with baseball could in good conscience let them pitch. Right up above you’ll find Niese fessing up to habitual lying last spring. And here’s Bobby Ojeda recounting more than 30 years of habitual lying — an article that every baseball fan should read at least once a month and use as a benchmark whenever anybody says anything.
Pitching is insane, and it makes pitchers insane — most of them would grit their teeth and tell you everything was fine until the moment their ulnar ligament made that awful pop. Warthen’s sin wasn’t calling Maine a liar, but departing from the carefully scripted collective lying needed to let pitchers pitch. We should never forget that — particularly not during spring training, when the whole machine is gearing up and we’re given a look at its component parts.
“If I had to sum up in one word what this campaign is all about, that word would be ‘faith’.” —Jimmy Carter, who came out of nowhere to win, 1976
So the ones who pitch and the ones who catch what they pitch have reported to where they pitch and catch when it’s too cold to catch and pitch where we’re used to seeing them ply their respective crafts. Has your life changed measurably as a result of this much-anticipated occasion? Has the chill wind stopped producing a nonstop wind chill outside your window? Anybody got an advance copy of the National League East standings?
Hmmm…the Mets are still 0-0. Tied for first. Tied for last. Tied for “the mix” it’s been said they will be in, Wild Card-wise. Until further notice, the magic number remains 2015. Unless it’s 2016. If we’re planning on living a spell, next year will be here right after this one. And the year after that? I’d like to believe that by 2017, the three most popular newborn boy names in the borough of Queens will be Matt, Harvey and Matt-Harvey — and the sixth-most popular girl name will be d’Arnaud. I’m playing the long game here. The fierce urgency of whenever will do, provided “whenever” isn’t forever canned, kicked and deemed elusive as it rattles down the road.
I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just want the Mets to finish above .500. More than baby steps are necessary, less than enormous strides are acceptable. Take ’em if you can, of course. Oh gosh, yes, improve all you want. Don’t let my limited expectations deter you. And don’t mistake my limited expectations for limited enthusiasm.
But no more! I haven’t looked forward to a coming Met season with more than nominal eagerness since 2007 — maybe 2008, but then only because the acquisition of Johan Santana provided a deluxe Band-Aid brand bandage to cover the gaping wound in my soul from the previous September. No, 2007 at this juncture was the last time I didn’t have to talk myself into a froth. 2007 at this juncture was also the last time the previous Met season hadn’t either fully imploded or lacked traction from the get-go.
It’s been a while, in other words. But I’m still here. You’re still here. We’re all still here. We are rightly cynical, but we never shake off our innocence. If we did, would we stick with this mishegas for a lifetime as if mandated by the authorities to do so? We are cynnocent, you might say.
You know who’s on the Mets. Barring some March surprise, most of this roster has been etched in brick since before Thanksgiving. Maybe a poor performance in games that don’t count will unhinge some supporting cast member’s presumed security. Maybe an additional left arm will look enticing around the seventh inning. Maybe Dillon Gee will strike the rest of the industry as a viable low-calorie Max Scherzer substitute. Mostly you know who your Mets are. You know in your heart they’re ready to quit defaulting to dismal. You know in your brain that immediate greatness is probably a pipe dream. Somewhere in between, you know there’s something there, something beyond spring for spring’s sake.
That much is good to know. We’ll find out the rest soon enough.
At the risk of being a killjoy, I’m already sick of Spring Training coverage. The players show up way too soon and their every move is monitored far too closely. We used to get by on a feature, some notes and a picture of somebody swinging in the cage. On Sunday we’d get a column and maybe a sidebar to the feature, the notes and — if we were really lucky — two pictures. Didn’t matter if the Mets were supposed to be good or not so good; it got me going like no thousand tweets do today. The compact package was perfect for an annual ritual in which nobody kidded themselves that anything was actually going on.
Something like this, repeated daily, is all I really need between now and the middle of March…
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Brooklyn-born Pete Falcone is thrilled to be making his homecoming at Shea Stadium this season and expects the familiar surroundings will tap from his left arm the talent that scouts agree has always been there but has been slow to translate to results on the mound.
“It’ll be great to pitch in front of family and friends,” said the 25-year-old southpaw the Mets acquired from St. Louis over the winter in exchange for outfielder Tom Grieve. “I’m really confident that this is going to be a big year for me.
His manager agrees with that sentiment. “Pete’s always intrigued me,” said Joe Torre of his Brooklynite neighbor. “We get Pete on the right track and have him alongside Swannie and Zach, we’ll have some of the most formidable pitching in the division.”
Falcone says pitching coach Rube Walker has already helped him adjust his grip, which he believes will make his signature curveball an even tougher proposition for left-handed hitters.
“It’s just a matter of getting comfortable,” said Falcone, who pitched to a disappointing 2-7 mark with a 5.76 ERA for the Redbirds last year. “We have a great bunch of guys here and I just want to fit in.”
Torre — who laughed when asked if he and Falcone might carpool to Shea together — couldn’t have said it any better himself.
METS ‘N’ PIECES: Doug Flynn is experimenting with a heavier bat…Kevin Kobel is working on a sinker…the club announced Fireworks Night will be in June…Torre promised Kobel and Dwight Bernard will each get a long look this spring…a noticeably trimmer Dan Norman arrived 10 pounds lighter, owing his weight loss to cutting back on potatoes…traveling secretary Lou Niss was bundled up against a particularly stiff wind during the morning workout… Elliott Maddox and Lee Mazzilli are getting over colds…Skip Lockwood shagged fly balls alongside fellow veterans Nelson Briles and Wayne Twitchell…several Mets are sporting mustaches…prospect Butch Benton put good wood on the ball, sending a number of Joe Pignatano’s batting practice tosses to the warning track…Ed Kranepool got a cat…Pignatano suggested Krane name him Smoky for the old Pirate pinch-hitter Smoky Burgess, in recognition of the first baseman’s own excellent pinch-hitting skills, but Kranepool says he hasn’t decided on a name…Willie Mays likes the legs on reserve outfield candidate Gil Flores…Joel Youngblood is nursing a sore rib cage, which he said he aggravated unloading his rental car…Torre is thinking about carrying three catchers, possibly opening a slot for both Ron Hodges and Alex Trevino…Channel 9 will televise the first Mets-Cardinals game from Al Lang Stadium next Saturday…the Cardinals will be the home team, with the clubs flipping roles the next day…the following day’s Grapefruit League action will be broadcast over WMCA (570 AM)…youngster Neil Allen was late for workouts after driving to the Payson Complex minor league HQ instead of Huggins-Stengel Field, where Met big leaguers work out, but Torre said the live-armed righty wouldn’t be fined…“He better not let it happen again, though,” the skipper warned…John Stearns brought three gloves to camp, hoping to increase his versatility…Tim Foli is an uncle for the second time…rookie Kelvin Chapman continues to impress in the infield…third base coach Chuck Cottier won the annual team fishing contest by reeling in a 12-lb. red grouper…Stearns was runner-up…Sergio Ferrer was excused from drills early so he could keep a dental appointment…Bruce Boisclair took a few swings from the right side but cautioned switch-hitting’s probably not in his future…Willie Montanez modeled a sharp new suit in the clubhouse.
Welcome to the beginning of the second decade of existence for Faith and Fear in Flushing, or to put it in reverse and observe it from the more comfortable perspective of the rearview mirror, today is our tenth anniversary. We signed on the blogging air on February 16, 2005, looking ahead not ten years but maybe ten minutes. That particular Wednesday was the day everybody’s two favorite life forms, Pitchers & Catchers, were reporting to Port St. Lucie. Infielders and outfielders were sure to follow, and we decided it sure might be fun to follow the lot of them as they prepared for the season ahead.
We did that and we stuck with them through the 2005 campaign and we did it again the next spring and the next season and we kept going and in between seasons and games and innings we managed to muse and reflect and recollect and occasionally guess what might reveal itself down the road…though honestly not so much with the looking ahead, because you never know, so why pretend? One game at a time, set against the tapestry woven by 43, now 53 previous Met seasons, was enough for us.
Ten years after the first FAFIF day, I can confirm that this has been fun. It’s been pretty much the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer or, when considered on a going basis, most anything else. Nearly every time you’re reading me here, you’re in on a continual highlight of my life. I have this baseball team that it’s never occurred to me to try to shake and I have this means of communication for expressing my thoughts on their actions and, thanks to you, I have an audience that chooses to read what I have I have to say. That’s as good a deal as a Mets fan could hope for. That’s Parsons-for-Grote good.
How many other places in this universe could I casually reference the 1965 trade of a pitcher who never made it for a catcher who became the Met backbone for a generation and not have to explain it to death? No wonder I like doing this where I like doing this for whom I like doing this.
We didn’t set out toward a decade of blogging. It just happened, the way the Mets kept happening to each and every one of us once we first discovered them. You know how it goes: you find the Mets; then you like the Mets; then you are drawn to others who like the Mets so you can talk about the Mets. Then you don’t stop. If you do stop, you’re not reading this, anyway, so I feel safe in generalizing.
Why stop? Because the Mets have been, shall we say, less than successful? So what? Would we possibly appreciate as we do the periodic better days without the climb up and out from the recurring muck? Granted, we could do with less muck, but maybe we’ll be out of muck and full of luck soon enough. In February, that’s the best guess to make if you’re inclined to guess at all.
And if Met things don’t amount to the paradise we wish them to be once this year’s Pitchers & Catchers and infielders and outfielders sort themselves out, you’ll still have Faith and Fear in Flushing. We just keep happening that way.
Over the course of Spring Training, when we’re not breathlessly analyzing side sessions and agility drills, we’ll fill the inevitable lulls with a series of retrospective pieces revisiting the defining moments, stories and personalities of the past ten Met years, a time — win or lose — I’ve found absolutely fascinating to cover from this perch. And on Saturday afternoon, March 28, we invite you to join us at Foley’s NY for a little tenth-anniversary celebration where we’ll meet, we’ll greet, we’ll eat and I wouldn’t be surprised if we drink. And of course we’ll talk Mets baseball, just like we do on your screen. More details on that little event as we move inexorably forward here in what has slowly yet suddenly become our second decade.
We’re so very glad you were part of the first one. We’re thrilled you’re around to help us get started on the next one.
Saturday was Valentine’s Day, providing those us of who still adore from chronologically afar the occasion’s namesake a moment to recall the improvement Bobby Valentine’s Mets produced in his first full year at the helm. After finishing 71-91 in 1996 (a campaign he took over with 31 games remaining), the 1997 Mets delightfully surprised their loyalists with a Wild Card-contending 88-74 season, setting the stage for postseason runs to come.
Although he has a day named in his honor, it is understood Bobby V wasn’t everybody’s cup of managerial tea, so maybe you’d rather be romanced by consideration of the skippers who led other memorable Met turnarounds.
In 1969, his second year at the helm, Gil Hodges upped the Mets’ record from 73-89 — which itself represented markedly higher ground from the 61-101 squad the relentlessly fascinating Salty Parker brought home — to 100-62 and, of course, a world championship coda.
In 1984, first-year manager Davey Johnson was the turnaround specialist, converting a perennial sub-.420 dud into a 90-72 dream. It was the Mets’ first winning season since 1976 and a delectable appetizer for the main course that was ready to be served in 1986.
In 2005, Willie Randolph assumed the limp Met reins from Art Howe and crisply set the club galloping past .500 and to the cusp of greater things that were only a year away.
You notice a trend among Valentine, Hodges, Johnson and the mostly forgotten Randolph? It’s not just that they transformed perennial losers into certifiable winners. It’s that they did it with minimal delay. Gil: second year. Davey: first year. Bobby: first full year. Willie: first year.
Terry Collins is entering his fifth year as Met manager, the only man besides Hodges, Johnson and Valentine to greet Met pitchers and catchers in as many as five consecutive Februarys. He’s presided over four consecutive losing seasons. He’s not picking up for Westrum/Parker, Bamberger/Howard, Green or Howe. The losing manager’s trend he’s charged with turning around belongs to Terry Collins.
Will entrusting a promising team to the manager who hasn’t led its four immediate predecessors to a single winning record work if the goal this year is to craft a legitimate contender? Should we expect it to work? There is no precedent in Mets history that suggests the same old manager is suddenly capable of generating bright new results. Precedent isn’t everything, but it does have the benefit of having occurred before, and we simply haven’t heard a voice as familiar as Collins’s has become suddenly resonate in an uplifting fashion when it hasn’t done the trick this long.
For a team that tinkered only slightly with its roster en route to Port St. Lucie, is it reasonable to expect the manager who has led the Mets to 77-85, 74-88, 74-88 and 79-83 seasons to lead them much further in 2015?
Every edition of the Mets — even the Collins versions that seem to have played the entirety of their annual slates of 162 games on Groundhog Day — is different. Every set of circumstances can’t help but be unique. So let’s ask our old, anecdotally reliable pal precedent (we are, after all, on the eve of Precedent’s Day) for some background on those aforementioned turnarounds. Specifically, how different did those respective Met clubs appear from the end of the previous year to the beginning of the next?
• The team Hodges was about to elevate to miraculous heights didn’t make any high-profile moves heading into 1969. Mostly, they lost Dick Selma in the expansion draft and selected Wayne Garrett in the Rule 5 draft.
• Johnson showed up to St. Petersburg in 1984 determined to retain the services of 19-year-old, Single-A phenom Dwight Gooden, which more than made up for Frank Cashen’s clumsy deletion of Tom Seaver and overshadowed any minor shuffling that had taken place since October 1983.
• Valentine’s inaugural Spring Training featured one prominent arrival from another organization, that of erstwhile Toronto Blue Jay John Olerud, and an assortment of radar-or-below imports whose collective potential to gel ultimately seemed dependent upon Bobby V’s knack for personnel alchemy.
• Randolph benefited from a spending spree when that sort of thing was in Flushing fashion. He was provided Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran as his foundational building blocks. It would be hard to continue losing with stars like those on hand, though other new Met managers had certainly pulled off such feats despite similar purchases made on their behalves.
Some casts were altered slightly. Some dynamics changed dramatically. All the managers were still fairly fresh in their roles. That’s the part that looks like the common denominator of those four great Met leaps forward.
Terry Collins will not have a hard time putting names to faces in the days ahead. He knows intimately almost everybody who figures to be on his roster come Opening Day. Michael Cuddyer, John Mayberry and perhaps Sean Gilmartin or Duane Below loom on his new-guy radar. Everybody else — including prime recovery candidates Matt Harvey who missed all of 2014 and Bobby Parnell who missed all but one horrible inning of it — should be intensely familiar to him, just as Collins will be a known quantity to them. Familiarity will be reintroduced to familiarity on the heels of a quadrennium when the most familiar element of Mets baseball has been the losing.
Now let’s think back over the World Series-winning managers of this century.
It took Bruce Bochy four seasons to capture a world championship for the Giants, but by his third year in San Francisco, he had them out of the doldrums and up to 88 wins.
John Farrell won a World Series for the Red Sox in his first go-round in Boston, one year after Bobby V finished last at Fenway.
Tony LaRussa had the Cardinals atop their division in year one (1996) after a rare fallow period had disillusioned St. Louis.
Joe Girardi was a world champion manager in his second season managing at an undisclosed location nearby.
Charlie Manuel contended from the get-go as Phillies manager, making the playoffs in year three (sigh) and getting fitted for a ring in year four.
Terry Francona won it all for the Red Sox in his first season there.
Ozzie Guillen guided the White Sox to their first modern-era championship in his second season running the South Side show.
Jack McKeon took over a humdrum Marlins outfit in May of 2003 and had them pouring champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium by October.
Mike Scioscia piloted the Angels to the highest of heavens after three years on the job.
Bob Brenly won everything there was to win in his first year managing Arizona.
Joe Torre, you don’t need me to remind you, won a World Series as soon as he took on his initial American League assignment.
You don’t have to mull only world champions to find better results sooner than later where skippers are concerned. Joe Maddon, Clint Hurdle, Ned Yost, Buck Showalter and Bob Melvin all managed winning records in their most recent postings by the end of their third full seasons in those locales, pushing their teams into playoff contention in the same time frame. If a given manager’s ballclub is going to get noticeably better, it gets noticeably better not all that long after he shows up; if it doesn’t, he doesn’t continue to get invited to keep showing up. However much credence you put into in-game strategy and so forth, a manager’s voice can be presumed to have made some sort of impact for the good when a team has turned around its fortunes. Following 1969, 1984, 1997 and 2005, the men who managed those Mets were understood to have effected serious positive change.
If such results haven’t been reflected in the won and lost columns after four full seasons — no matter how positive his reviews have been, no matter how few of his players have expressed disgruntlement while he’s been in charge — what tells us that in his fifth season occupying the Met manager’s office Terry Collins is likely to spark a clubhouse full of essentially the same individuals, whatever their respective talents and ceilings, to substantially greater collective achievements?
A week and a half ago I finished the manuscript for the third book in my Jupiter Pirates series, capping a fairly exhausting run of writing and travel that began last August. (Which is one reason, besides Wilpon-related apathy, that Greg — APPLAUSE!!! — has been a full-time presence at the helm this offseason.) While laboring, I comforted myself with daydreams about what I’d do when I got a break in my schedule. Most of it was the kind of boring stuff you’d expect from a 45-year-old — I’m embarrassed to admit that on the first day of my leisure I got up early and cleaned out a utility closet — but what I really wanted to do was Mets-related.
What I really wanted to do was make some Mets baseball cards.
I tiptoed into this rather strange hobby a few years back when I made nine cards for the legendary Lost Mets, the players who appeared for the Mets but never got a decent Topps card, minor-league card, oddball reprint or anything else. (The members of this forlorn club: Al Schmelz, Francisco Estrada, Lute Barnes, Tommy Moore, Bob Rauch, Greg Harts, Brian Ostrosser, Rich Puig and Leon Brown. More details here.) Originally the idea was that the Lost Nine would then be able to claim their places in The Holy Books. But as with many other hobbies of mine, I wound up falling down a rabbit hole to God knows where.
Before I really noticed I’d done it, my goal shifted from the Lost Nine to a larger though still unfortunate group: the players who played for the Mets but never got a card as a Met, or a good minor-league card with a color picture, or had to share a rookie card with one or more other guys. “Modern” minor-league cards date back to around 1978, so we’re talking Mets from before the Torre era — your Don Rowes and Ron Herbels and Jay Klevens and Doc Mediches. (For whatever reason I don’t really care about modern-era players stuck with other teams’ cards. Maybe I will someday.) That change in focus led me to scour eBay for decent photos, to start buying transparencies of photos shot by Topps over the decades, and to make lists of which players need revisiting.
Making custom baseball cards isn’t particularly hard, but it’s time-consuming — it’s a whole lot of typing stats, scanning and endless tweaking in Photoshop, particularly since I like to work in crabbily analog ways, such as by assembling player names ransom-note style from other cards instead of finding a similar font and simply typing. (I like the funky, imperfect look this gives you — at least for this child of the ’70s, the more digital something is the chillier it feels.) This isn’t to say that making baseball cards isn’t fun if you have the right mindset — it’s the kind of meditative work I like to disappear into. But it’s not something you can budget a hour here and there for. You start and you work, and you work some more, and when you look up hours or even days have been eaten up.
Anyhow, this madness spun off its own sub-madness: I decided The Holy Books needed to include cards for the Mets’ managers, which meant creating custom cards for Joe Frazier (who only ever appeared as a Met on a team card) and for interim skippers Roy McMillan and Salty Parker. (Mike Cubbage had a coach card in an obscure 1990s Topps set — close enough.) Frazier wasn’t too difficult — I bought a transparency of him from Topps, thus answering whatever Topps employee thought “who the hell is going to buy THIS?” McMillan led me to scouring yearbooks for a picture from the 1970s, so far without particular success. (If you can help, holler.) And then there was Parker — a coach for only a year who’d never had a color picture taken as far as I could tell.
Faith and Fear pal Warren Zvon rode to the rescue with a nifty colorization that he was kind enough to share (you can see the finished results and an explanation of how it was done in this post, with my card below) and I decided to make a ’67 Topps manager card for Parker. Such a card never could have existed — Wes Westrum resigned in September and Gil Hodges took over for ’68 — but never mind that.
Oh my God, it’s the Book of Wes.
The front of the ’67 was fairly straightforward, but then I turned over Westrum’s manager card and my eyes popped. Someone from Topps had written a full-card bio of Westrum, waxing positively Proustian. It was nearly three in the morning and I knew basically nothing about Salty Parker. There was no way I was tackling that in the middle of the night — and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to digging into it come morning, either.
But here’s the thing: Salty Parker turns out to be a really interesting guy, one of those lifers who defines baseball more than the All-Stars and MVPs do.
Francis James Parker — the nickname came from the fondness for salted peanuts that a teenaged Salty displayed while working in a grocery store — was born in East St. Louis and grew up in Granite City, Ill. He first played pro ball as a 17-year-old for the Moline Plowboys, a Class D team in the Mississippi Valley League managed by his uncle Riley. To keep his college eligibility, Parker initially played under the alias Charlie Francis. After Moline he played for the Beaumont Explorers in the Texas League, and then for the Toledo Mud Hens.
In 1936 the Detroit Tigers were world champs, having beaten the Cubs in six games. But they weren’t a particularly happy club, and player-manager Mickey Cochrane was threatening to shake things up. In July he put shortstop Billy Rogell in his crosshairs by acquiring the contract of 24-year-old Salty Parker from Toledo.
Salty Parker, 1936
Parker didn’t play for a month, though his arrival in Detroit was still memorable, as we’ll see in a bit. He got into 11 games in all, hitting .280. The Tigers finished second, 19 1/2 games behind the Yankees. And in December they sent Parker to Indianapolis in the American Association as part of a deal for pitcher Dizzy Trout.
In 1937 Parker broke his shoulder playing for Indianapolis, torpedoing his chances of returning to the big leagues as a player. But he still had a lot of baseball ahead of him. He went back to the Texas League, playing for Tulsa and Shreveport and Dallas, and in 1939 asked for his release so he could take a job managing the Lubbock Hubbers of the West Texas-New Mexico League.
The 26-year-old player-manager hit .313 and led Lubbock to the pennant. The next year, he hit .349 as player-manager of the East Texas League’s Marshall Tigers, winning another pennant and a batting title. That got him a ticket back to the Texas League as player-manager for the Shreveport Sports. He stayed there two years, but the Texas League closed up shop because of the war. In ’43 Parker was on to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. St. Paul became part of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system the next year, and Parker had a deal with Branch Rickey to manage the club — but he was drafted and spent the year in the army. In ’45 he returned to baseball, but for the first time in seven years he wasn’t a manager — he was the starting second baseman for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top farm club. Parker hit .298; his replacement on the ’46 club was some guy named Jackie Robinson.
The toast of Dallas. (Salty is front row, center.)
With the war over and the Texas League back in business, Parker returned to Shreveport for six years as manager, his playing time gradually diminishing to a few games a year, and none at all in 1951. From ’52 to ’54 he managed in the Big State League, piloting the Temple Eagles and then the Tyler Tigers. (In ’52 the 39-year-old manager somehow wound up as the starting pitcher in 13 games, amassing a 6.86 ERA.)
In ’55 Parker sought out Carl Hubbell and was given a shot as a manager in the New York Giants’ system. He did well as a skipper for the El Dorado Oilers of the Cotton States League and then for the Danville Leafs of the Carolina League. Which led Parker back to the Texas League as skipper of the 1957 Dallas Eagles. Paced by Willie McCovey and Ernie Broglio, the Eagles won 102 games and the pennant. (Parker collected one at-bat, his last in pro ball.) In 1958 the Giants tapped Parker as third-base coach for their first year in San Francisco. Twenty-two years after his debut in Detroit, Salty was back in the big leagues.
Parker coached in San Francisco for four years, followed by a year in Cleveland, a season scouting for the Pirates and three years as third-base coach for the Angels. And then in November 1966 his old Giants colleague Wes Westrum came calling and asked him to be part of the Mets’ brain trust.
A Met at last!
Salty signed up, but the ’67 Mets were beyond his help. The combination of contract rumbles and his charges’ ineptitude sent Westrum around the bend — on Sept. 20 he called it quits with 11 games to go, telling reporters that “I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” (Hey, between that and his habitual postgame recap “Oh my God, wasn’t that awful?” the man was quotable.) Mets GM Bing Devine asked Parker to finish up the season — after 17 seasons of managing in the bushes, Salty would be making out a lineup card in the majors.
His tenure began with a doubleheader against the Astros. The Mets lost the first game convincingly, 8-0, as Jerry Koosman (making his second-ever start) failed to retire a batter in the second. But they won the nightcap on a 10th-inning walkoff by Jerry Buchek, then took the next game on a three-hit shutout by rookie Tom Seaver. After Seaver’s start, Jack Fisher suggested Parker retire as the only winning manager in Mets history.
It was good advice — the Mets went 2-6 the rest of the year, leaving Parker with the 4-7 record as Mets manager he’d have forevermore. Which was fine with Salty. He understood that his first job as a big-league skipper wasn’t for keeps — when a Shea clubhouse attendant tried to move his things into the manager’s office he told him not to bother. It was an open secret in baseball that the Mets were eyeing Gil Hodges, then employed by the Senators, though they made noises about Alvin Dark, Harry “The Hat” Walker and Yogi Berra. What were the Mets looking for in their next skipper? According to Devine, it was someone who’d bring the team a pennant. (At the time, this was considered hilarious.)
Parker said that if a club was looking for a coach he’d listen, and one was — for 1968 Salty signed on with the Astros as a member of Grady Hatton‘s staff, kept serving under Walker, and in August 1972 he found himself interim manager again for a single day when Walker was fired and Leo Durocher wasn’t on hand yet. (Salty won his only game as Houston skipper on a walkoff double by Cesar Cedeno.) He went on to coach again for the Angels, serve as a minor-league instructor for the Astros, and in 1976 took up his last managerial gig as skipper of the Cedar Rapids Giants. (He won a title, too.) That lasted a season, but Salty kept going, serving as an instructor for the Giants, the Mariners and finally for Houston’s Karl Young College League. He died in July 1992, less than three weeks after his 80th birthday.
And then there’s the story about the car. Remember the ’36 Tigers? The day Parker got called up, the team was invited to a banquet thrown by Chevrolet. The unhappy veterans wanted nothing to do with it, so pitcher Schoolboy Rowe could only round up six or seven Tigers — one of them the just-recalled busher who didn’t know any better. At the banquet, the Tigers who’d bothered to show were told to turn over their plates — one of them was going home with a new car, courtesy of Chevrolet. That someone turned out to be Parker.
He’d discover that not every day in the big leagues included a free meal and a new car, but what a debut.
“And when the twelfth-largest company in the world controls the most awesome, goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?”
When last we visited with Howard Beale on DiamondVision more than six years ago, he was urging us to get up right now, sit up, go to our windows, open them and stick our heads out and yell LET’S GO METS! DiamondVision was being a little Gary Thorne-ish in its inability to control itself from interrupting during a big moment, but you got Beale’s point at regular Shea Stadium intervals.
Howard Beale, of course, issued slightly different instructions when he was anchoring The UBS Evening News in the middle of the 1970s. Something about being mad as hell and not taking it anymore. Actually, that might have worked at Shea back then, too, except there was no DiamondVision yet erected when Beale’s signature phrase was catching on, and by the end of that decade, only 788,905 patrons were taking the Mets anymore anyway.
Even if you’ve never seen the 1976 classic Network, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the Howard Beale character and the “Mad As Hell” speech. It yielded, by the American Film Institute’s reckoning, the 19th-greatest movie quote of all time, and it was indeed retrofitted to the righteous cause of riling up Mets fans as rallies fomented and Mike Piazza loomed in an on-deck circle near us.
Robert Michael Ojeda was the studio analyst of Pregame Live and Postgame Live and he and SportsNet New York parted ways over a reported difference in compensation!
And woe is us!
We’re in a lot of trouble!
So, a world champion Met with a dark, curly hairpiece is gone from cable TV.
What does that got to do with the price of Blue Smoke, right?
And why is that woe to us?
To be honest — a quality I instantly associate with the man formerly of the hour the game ended and the recriminations began — I don’t know that it is, but I liked Bobby Ojeda a lot in the gigs he no longer holds, especially his postgame assignment. When you find yourself looking forward to the postgame show and it’s well after the era when if you didn’t watch Kiner’s Korner, you simply waited for the 11 O’Clock News, somebody must’ve been doing something right.
Bobby Ojeda was Met as hell, but we’re not going to be able to watch him anymore.
Ojeda, our Minister of Disgustration (that’s disgust plus frustration), could occasionally be loud; now and then express anger; and was brought to us by a time machine from when by his own account Mets were Mets and wins were indisputably plentiful. When it all came together, he was bigger than curly fries.
What a shame that he’s been returned to his home planet.
Bobby O was a truthteller, albeit his truth. Sometimes my and his truths coincided, sometimes they diverged. I don’t mind that he and I sometimes landed on different postgame pages. He was an after-dinner mint of candor, a palate-cleanser of any RSN BS the less honesty-inclined members of the SNY team (basically anybody not known instantly by their initials) might instinctively spread across our screens. If Bobby O hyped something, I had the feeling he believed it. If Bobby O didn’t, then it was probably hype to begin with.
When Bobby O took aim and was on target, it was beautiful. Following defeats, he wasn’t impressed by the Mets’ organizational approach to anything. Neither was I in those moments. It’s a natural reaction. Why were the Mets sulking in their clubhouse, sucking up another defeat? Because, according to Bobby O’s gospel, they weren’t aggressive enough at the plate and/or didn’t let their pitchers throw enough off the mound.
Yes, I thought — exactly!
And when Bobby O took aim and missed wildly, it was just as beautiful. Remember the time he scolded R.A. Dickey for daring to answer a Saturday afternoon question about a planned offseason climb of Kilimanjaro for the folks from Fox because it was April and how dare a ballplayer be thinking about the offseason? It bordered on, in a word that is generally overused but absolutely valid here, insane. But it was coming from the heart of Bobby O, a place where hitters are swinging rather than waiting, pitchers are working into the ninth and nobody thinks about November until they know for sure they’re not going to be playing in the bright-lights portion of October.
You know Bobby Ojeda was at his best in October of 1986 — four Met postseason starts, four Met postseason wins, including the damnedest pair of Game Sixes ever played — but he scaled a different sort of peak in what little October the Mets experienced during his broadcasting tenure. I’m thinking of October 3, 2012, Game 162, the playing out of the schedule between the Mets and the Marlins, both of whom went nowhere that year. The Mets won their final game that inevitably sodden season, locking in their record at a dispiriting 74-88. Still, it was a win. Ike Davis had reached 90 RBIs and Scott Hairston, in a part-time role, blasted his twentieth homer. After wins and milestones, aren’t postgame studio analysts supposed to be upbeat?
Bobby Ojeda wasn’t having any of it. His partner, Chris Carlin, kept tossing him regional sports network BP, fluffy stuff about how this was something to feel good about, wasn’t it? Bobby O — my hero that evening — wouldn’t swing at it and wasn’t taking it. To paraphrase, Bobby O insisted, no, there’s nothing to feel good about with this team; this team won 74 games; the idea is to win lots more games and go much further; the Mets didn’t do that.
Yes, I thought — exactly!
Look, as Bobby O would say as he pierced the camera with his smoldering “I can’t believe this team” stare, on nights the Mets perform well and retain a chance to play beyond Game 162, I won’t need a truthteller. The truth will be the Mets are stoking hope instead of inflaming unease. On nights when things are less well-ordered, perhaps whoever succeeds Ojeda (erstwhile proto-Dickey Nelson Figueroa has been mentioned most prominently) will put it in perspective just fine. Or maybe it will be all milquetoast and weak tea served up in the name of minimizing discouraging words. It’s bad enough we’ve lost KB from the sidelines. Now goes Bobby O from the desk. One shudders to imagine the fortress of forthrightness that surrounds GKR crumbling at the hands of Healyesque hypemen serving up bottled dishwater.
Let’s keep our chins up as we wish our Met prophet of the airwaves a smooth ride to the next phase of his personal journey. Let’s err on the side of thinking there won’t be too many troubling trendlines in need of dissection by the last angry postgame studio analyst in 2015 and beyond. Bobby Ojeda, forever Met as hell, won’t be around to take us through them any longer.
This topic and several others came up on last week’s Rising Apple Report, where I was honored to guest. Listen in here.
Heather Quinlan’s 1986 Mets documentary, now titled The Lords Of Flushing, has a sweet five-minute trailer up on YouTube. Keep an eye and ear open for your favorite bloggers. Watch it here.
Seven excellent QBC panels are available for your streaming pleasure on SoundCloud, including those involving your very same favorite bloggers. Check ’em out here.
You know how every winter of late Sandy Alderson goes to the New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner and makes a modestly clever remark about the financially deprived state of the New York Mets and you either chuckle knowingly or fume disgustedly or perhaps a bit of both? That Alderson’s quips draw as much attention as they do isn’t necessarily because the general manager of your favorite baseball team needs better material off and on the field.
Blame what the BBWAA dinner has become. I’ve never been to one, but I watched some of the most recent edition on MLB Network. Nobody ever thought to televise it before. I can see why. People in formalwear stand and give speeches and present plaques to other people who stand in formalwear and give their own speeches. It reminds me of my father’s annual take on the Oscars:
“It’s like watching a bunch of plumbers give each other awards.”
If you’re a fan of the plumbing industry, that might be mesmerizing, though I’m a fan of what some refer to as the baseball industry and this wasn’t. Only so many handshakes, thank-yous and winking acknowledgements that “oh dear, I forgot to procure a better shortstop” can go toward producing an hour of quality television. Maybe it’s better in person.
Now, the New York Baseball Writers’ dinner in the old days? That’s the stuff of legend. It has to be, in a certain sense, for it was never televised. Yet it strove to be entertaining and it regularly succeeded, a result I gather from having absorbed references through the years to the show the writers put on.
“Baseball writers put on a show?” you may find yourself asking. “You mean one longer than 140 characters?”
Absolutely they did. From reading Keepers Of The Game, Dennis D’Agostino’s wonderful oral history of the press box deans from a bygone (or at least rapidly bygoing) era, I was reminded what a big deal this was. Dave Anderson, in the book’s preface, gave the gist of how it worked.
“If you were a beat writer on a New York paper, you acted in the skits at the annual New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, a theatrical rite of baseball’s offseason that eventually perished…”
Per the late Maury Allen, who covered the local teams for the Post, the production amounted to the social event of the cold-weather months.
“The writers show was Broadway quality. I’ve got to give credit to [Dick] Young — he wrote a lot of the great lyrics. [Leonard] Koppett was sort of the father of the dinner for a lot of years, and [Jack] Lang did the business end. Everyone performed and took it very seriously.”
Since video does not exist, it’s up for interpretation as to what “Broadway quality” meant. In D’Agostino’s book, Pepe remembers parodying “Bye Bye Birdie” in tribute to “Ron Blomberg not being able to hit lefthanders”. It went something like, “Vida Blue…makes such a schmuck of you…bye bye Blomberg.” Not bad in context, I imagine, and as long as Twitter had yet to exist, one assumes no harm, no foul — even if the record indicates Blomberg of the Yankees was a lifetime 0-for-1 hitter against Blue of the A’s.
The writers may have taken the process as seriously as Allen suggested, but, according to Maury, it wasn’t so serious that everybody wasn’t having a blast.
“[Y]ou got up, had your breakfast, and went to the Hotel Americana to work on the show. This went on for three weeks. The ultimate was that, every night after you rehearsed, you went to Shor’s and had free dinner and a few drinks. The night of the dinner was an all-nighter. Even a guy like me, who didn’t drink a lot, stayed there all night because the stories and the tales and the fraternity were so overwhelming you couldn’t walk away from it.”
So why did the writers walk away from the show? Times — and time demands — changed. No matter how wistful he was for it, Allen admitted today’s active BBWAA members “work just as much in January as they do in July.” The masters of the genre were beginning to recede from the scene (Young, Koppett and Lang are all gone and good luck tracking down Toots Shor) and the next generation didn’t pick up on it. Pepe told D’Agostino, “Guys today, for the most part, have no idea how big the dinner was. Sometimes guys with a real sense of history, like Marty Noble or Pete Caldera, will ask about the old dinners and shows. God, I wish I still had the scripts. For a while I was saving them, and then I threw them out!”
The chapter chairman who pulled the plug on the shows was J.G. Taylor Spink Award-winning killjoy Bill Madden in the early ’80s.
“They were very good, very clever, and people loved them. But by the time I took over as chairman, it was like pulling teeth to get anyone to come to the rehearsals. Young would walk in and say, ‘Ahhhh, I’m doing this song,’ hand you the music, and you had to fit it into the show somehow. A couple of the previous chairmen had arranged it so that they would sing the signature song at the end of the show, and it was awful. It just wasn’t working. I made up my mind that we weren’t going to have a show anymore.”
So on some level, blame Dick Young. Mets fans know how to do that.
Madden replaced the show by hiring a standup comedian. I’m not sure if they still bring one in or they decided Alderson’s jokes serve the same purpose. Either way, at least in the retelling, the idea that baseball writers would rewrite musical numbers to lampoon what was going on in baseball sounds like it was a grand tradition.
Did somebody say “TRADITION”?
Without further commercial interruption, we are about to bring you the postmodern revival of the New York Baseball Writers Show, set to the tune of selected musical numbers from Fiddler On The Roof, the long-running 1964 Broadway musical that portrayed so memorably how hard life was in the small Russian village of Anatevka during the time of the czar. Apologies and gratitude to composer Jerry Bock, original lyricist Sheldon Harnick, author Joseph Stein and producer Harold Prince, a gentleman for whom my father — no relation to Hal — occasionally received misdirected phone calls when Fiddler was a smash and Dad had an office in Manhattan. Thanks as well, then, to Charles and Sandra Prince for taking my sister and me to see it when I was eight. David Lipton starred as Tevye; he was no Zero Mostel, I suppose, but I didn’t know the difference.
I’d fill our yard with the best and the brightest talent
For our crowds to see and cheer
Playing just as splendidly as they can
Each line drive and strikeout, stolen base and homer
Would knock our opponents on their rear
I’d do it all for every true Mets fan
If I were a Wilpon
I would talk to reporters and not always keep mum
Instead of having lawsuits, we’d be having fun
If I owned the New York Mets
If I were a Wilpon
I wouldn’t stop at Duda, d’Arnaud and deGrom
My customers would not be served the crumbs
October we would no longer shun
You can BET we’d be in contention
If I owned…the New York Mets!
Here’s to our rotation!
Here’s to its depth and youth!
And most important…
The Faith and Fear in Flushing "numbers" shirt has been seen from Verona, N.J., to Venice. You can get yours right here -- price about as cheap as we can make it.
GET THE BOOK!
Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History by Greg Prince (foreword by Jason Fry), is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers.
THE HAPPIEST RECAP
Volume I of The Happiest Recap: 50+ Years of the New York Mets As Told in 500+ Amazin' Wins by Greg Prince is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon. Order a personally inscribed copy from the Team Recap Store on eBay.