I too had hoped for a return by John Olerud, to rid us of the bitter taste of his exile/departure for Seattle and his brief, appalling tenure in the raiment of the Beast. It's amazing how many big moments I remember being bound up with him. I was in L.A. during the Curt Schilling game, and kept watching the scoreboard, which is updated with reassuring regularity. (On the other hand, a fight between the Dodgers and Cardinals broke out, and they played “Bad Boys” — a far cry from Shea's fusty prudery during such things.) I couldn't believe it when the score changed to our favor, then immediately switched to “F.” Bonus points for the fact that the FAN made the finale of that one the climax of the pregame psyche-up for part of the year, and for the shot of a giddy Roger Cedeno drumming his heels on home plate.
Oh, that triple play. It used to be part of my capsule biography as a fan that I'd never seen one. No-hitter? Sure. (Nolan Ryan on the Game of the Week. Think it was '81. He was a tall drink of rainbow sherbet on the mound.) Cycles? Quite a few, including the one you mention, where Felipe Alou* left a young Vlad the Impaler in right despite the fact that his leg had fallen off a couple of innings earlier. But no triple play — the closest was that crazy play with Deion Sanders in the Braves/Jays World Series, which should have been one but was such a You Kids Ain't Goin' to the Tastee Freez screw-up that it might not have felt like it counted anyway. Emily and I were at Shea with our friend Megan, and I was rattling on about the thousands and thousands of games I'd seen on TV and the hundred-odd I'd seen live and no triple play, whereupon Olerud and the Mets turned one. I stared at the field in disbelief. Megan gave a small “Oh!” of surprise and then started to laugh.
But my favorite Olerud moment is one you'll remember too: Sept. 29, 1999. (After all, you were there.) To revel in past horrors, we'd lost seven straight — three to the Braves in Atlanta, three to the Phils, and now one more to the Braves at home. Maddux was on the mound, bidding for his 20th win, ready to rip our hearts out in his infuriatingly calm way. You and I and Emily (and 42,000 others) were too stunned and scared to even cheer acceptably — we kept emitting spastic sounds of defiance, then looking down at our laps and muttering. Brian Jordan (of course) made it 2-1 Braves in the third. Then, the fourth: Hamilton single. Cedeno single. Ordonez single. Leiter single. Henderson single. Alfonzo single. 4-2 us, but nothing had been hit hard, and as Olerud came to the plate we were still tense and muttering and flailing hands generally together and begging. WHAM! Grand slam, one of those that's so obviously gone that you're up and looking for strangers to embrace before the ball even clears the fence. We were still in trouble, but we believed again. Thank you, Oly.
As previously mentioned, Rusty Staub was my favorite player as a little boy, which came from hearing my mother cheer for him and thinking it was hella cool that a grown-up could have a name like Rusty. The lone wrong note of 1986 is that Rusty had hung 'em up — if only he'd had one more year and a place in the pile.
Eleven years before that, though, all I wanted from the world was a Rusty Staub glove. Unfortunately, nobody made a Rusty Staub glove, which may have been the usual conspiracy to ignore the Mets but was probably Rusty not being interested in an endorsement deal. (There were no Staub baseball cards in '72, '73 and '74.) I didn't find this out for years, but my parents bought some generic, signature-free glove, fished a Rusty Staub card out of one of my shoeboxes, and carefully burned a flawless likeness of the signature into the leather before presenting it to me the next day. I never noticed that my glove had a brown signature with a certain depth while other kids' gloves had a black, stamped signature — as with a lot of similar stories, my mother later said she'd lived in fear of me figuring out the truth from the first minute.
Odd postscript: Last year I was standing in a crowd near the starting line of the Tunnel to Towers road race, enduring the usual chin-wagging by semi-dignitaries (Chuck Schumer, Curtis Sliwa, various clergy) and waiting to run when the MC announced “and one of the all-time most-beloved Mets, Rusty Staub!” Wow, I thought, peering around my fellow runners, that's pretty cool. After the race, on the other side of the Battery Tunnel, I saw a big, redheaded man walking up West Street by his lonesome. I hesitated for a moment, then clambered across a median and caught up with him, inanely sticking out my hand before saying anything.
Rusty shook my hand warily; I regained my faculties and said, “Hey, Rusty, I just wanted to say you were my favorite player when I was a kid.”
“Thanks,” said Rusty, quite pleasantly. “That's very nice.” He also kept walking. On top of everything else, Rusty Staub is no fool.
My favorite Jerry Grote story (like so many others that made a deep impression, it's from Joy in Mudville): In July '69 Newsday writer Joe Gergen told some Chicago rag that the Mets had as much chance of winning the pennant as man had of landing on the moon. Grote didn't seem to get the joke: When Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder he was still fuming about Gergen and his smart mouth.
As a kid I liked the story because it wasn't immediately obvious why it was funny and I was proud of myself for getting it. Later, it seemed like mildly amusing evidence that Jerry Grote might not be suiting up for the Mensa Nine. But Grote seemed pretty damn smart in other Mets books, so I chalked it up to the fact that he hated sportswriters. Now, as I grow older and more susceptible to elegy and myth and all that, I like to think it means he was so focused on beating the Cubs, the rest of the NL, the umpires and anyone else in the Mets' way that he wasn't going to be distracted by a bunch of guys in white suits. NASA? Who's he play for? We've got the Reds on Thursday. I'm gonna get out of this slump and beat Jim Merritt like a rented mule.
Several years ago I was in the middle of some big rewrite at work when I saw on the wire that Mookie Wilson was going to be signing autographs and greeting fans at the Winter Garden. When? Right now — if I hurried, I could still catch him. So I did. Mookie was chatting with a couple of beaming business-looking guys; I waited my turn, shook his hand (he has enormous hands) and thanked him for getting me into college. He looked a bit taken aback, so I explained that in '86 I was a senior in high school, going through a rough time, drinking and doing other things way too much and generally walking the edge of getting caught and/or kicked out. The Mets were the only thing that made me happy; when they won the World Series I got my act together for a while, sent my college applications off in good order and made it through, when it could easily have gone the other way. (OK, I did get caught drinking. Let's move on.) So, I said, thanks for that.
Mookie kind of looked at me, and if memory serves he said that was a lot to put on a person, which may or may not be a gentle way of saying, “Christ, are you ever a disgusting preppie brat.” I went back to my office (I didn't get an autograph — I never saw the point of those) and my editor fixed his eye on me and asked where the hell I'd been.
“Mookie Wilson was in the Winter Garden,” I said.
“Really?” he said. He didn't blame me one bit. He'd been a Met fan too.
* Not Frank Robinson, as originally writ. I'm an idiot.