The year was 1990. I was 27.
It was a year of transition.
I know, everybody says that about every year. It’s the kind of title NFL Films gives perpetually crappy teams for their highlight reels: Arizona Cardinals…A Year of Transition.
But it was. 1990 was unlike any year in the life.
It was the year I moved out of the house.
It was the year my fiancée moved in with me.
It was the year my mother died.
And it was the last year that the Mets as I knew them for so long were, in fact, the Mets as I knew them for so long.
If there was ever going to be a year when I might have discarded baseball and plead no lo contendre to the charge that I allowed myself to be distracted from the Mets by overwhelming matters of substance, 1990 would have been that year.
But it wasn’t and I didn’t. Amid a seismic personal shift that separated what came before from what came after, I was just doing what I’d always been doing. I rooted for the Mets like it was life and death. I didn’t know how not to.
Maybe being a Mets fan was all I could be sure of that spring. That and knowing I couldn’t hang around the house anymore, not like I’d been doing for the nearly five years since I graduated from college.
The first couple of years were excusable. I got out of USF in ’85 and came home to watch the Mets. Then ’86 was ’86. Who could think of anything else but the Mets?
A year later, I had something new to dwell on.
On Monday night May 11, 1987, the Mets visited Cincinnati. Mookie Wilson led off the top of the third with a homer to put the Mets up 2-0. In the bottom of the inning, Rick Aguilera gave back both runs. I listened to the game get tied in the lobby of a residential hotel called, depending on which sign you looked at, the Lincoln Square or the Parc Lincoln, 75th between Broadway and Amsterdam.
Tony, my college buddy, was staying there. He was still in college and for six weeks, all of New York was his campus. USF had some scam where you could get summer semester credit by coming up here and going to plays and museums. Tony had just broken up with his fiancée and this was a perfect excuse to get away from Tampa. I was working at View magazine downtown that day. It was one of the several freelance gigs (they covered television and I put together their Nielsen and Arbitron charts) that kept me from being totally useless in the late ’80s. Tony, who had a way of seeming like he was up for anything, suggested I come up to the Parc Lincoln/Lincoln Square and we’d hang out. Most Monday nights I just went home to watch the Mets. Sure, I said. I’ll come up.
As Tony neared, I unhooked myself from my headphones and clicked off WHN, saving myself the agony of what would be a 12-2 defeat. Then I controlled the impulse to roll my eyes because Tony was not alone. Tony was always convening little groups…and I wasn’t a fan of little groups.
He brought two girls along. One I immediately figured out because he hadn’t shut up about somebody else who was on the USF trip, so that must be her. It was. Her name was Diane. Diane brought her roommate.
Starting with the end of my sophomore year in 1983, when my first romance faded, right up to that very moment four years later, I couldn’t meet a member of the opposite sex and not instantly size her up and prepare some kind of contingency chat on the off chance that me and her would hit it off. It never got much beyond the imaginary conversation stage. I didn’t get out nearly enough and when I did, I didn’t know what to do.
Only once to that very moment wasn’t I thinking in those terms. And it was, in fact, that very moment. I was thinking “why is Tony always dragging total strangers into our hanging-out time?” and “2-2. Fucking Aguilera.” What I wasn’t thinking was anything pertaining to the second girl Tony was introducing me to, Diane’s roommate.
Therefore, over the course of the next 20 minutes, I didn’t even have boilerplate at my disposal. I ad-libbed. We talked about the weather, but gosh darn it, it was like we were actually talking about the weather. She asked if she needed to go get a jacket. I said, no it was still warm out. We left the hotel and she said she found it a little cool. I loaned her my jacket. She accepted.
The four of us roamed to a video store (so much for all of New York being their campus), but within a block, we were no longer the four of us. We had paired off. Tony and Diane. Me and Stephanie.
I didn’t even know her last name but there’d be time for details. By the end of the evening, I knew she was it. Right away, I popped the question. You know, the big one.
“Do you want to go to the Mets game with me on Friday night?”
It was a group outing, Tony and Diane, me and Stephanie. It was in an upper deck box that I heard the heard the words I never thought I’d hear a girl say to me.
“My first baseball game…neat!”
That was the spring of ’87. Stephanie was completing her freshman year at USF. We knew within weeks of that first game — Mets 8 Giants 3, Sid carried a no-hitter through five but left with a knee injury — that we’d eventually marry and that Stephanie would be moving to New York to live with me in sin for at least a little while before we made everything official. In other words, I was on the clock. She would graduate in April 1990, so sometime in the ensuing three years I would have to get my act together and secure a steady income and a residence for the two of us.
I took my sweet time. Part of that was the plague of inertia that continued to infect my career. ’87 went by and I wasn’t doing anything particularly lucrative or enjoyable. ’88 was on the same path until summer. Then, all at once, things got worse.
First off, due to a misunderstanding, I lost my two biggest freelance clients. Apparently they were competitors and neither one of them cared for me writing for the other. Before I knew it, I was without work. Just as I was absorbing that news, my mother began complaining mightily about her chronic bad back. This was more than the usual kvetching. It was bad enough to put her in the hospital in early August. Within days, my father was told it was cancer. He told my sister and somewhere along the way somebody told me. We weren’t supposed to tell my mother, at least not right away, because she didn’t handle that kind of information very well.
No wonder I didn’t have a job in communications. I couldn’t even talk to anybody in my own family.
The Princes were not wired for dialogue. My brother-in-law’s family yelled a lot. It was frightening to be around but at least they weren’t repressed. We were. Or at least my mother did a good job of helping us resist the temptation to speak our minds. Our psyches weren’t particularly healthy, though that now paled in comparison to the condition my mother was in.
I went to the hospital to ostensibly watch a Mets game with her right after the diagnosis. We’d had that together since college ended. When the Mets clinched the division, then the pennant and then the World Series in 1986, she and I were practically Carter and Orosco embracing in celebration. Baseball was the only circumstance under which I gave up the distance I generally kept myself at around her. The rest of the time, I was on edge looking to avoid the wrong sentence or piece of intelligence that would set her off. In his one and only remotely public observation on our family dynamic, my father once told me, “Your mother has free-floating anxieties that tend to put everybody on the edge of hysteria.”
But during Mets games, Mom and I were on the same side.
We didn’t watch the Mets lose to the Expos all that closely in her room at South Nassau. Instead, she brought up Stephanie. She knew things were serious between me and her. Mom claimed to like her but she wasn’t Jewish. In college, Tammy, my first girlfriend, wasn’t Jewish (in fact she had the nerve to be Asian). My mother’s overreaction to that relationship — calling me at school to tell me how much physical pain she was in as a direct result of who I was dating — never left me. Long after Tammy and I went our own ways, I was on guard for what would happen the next time I met somebody who wasn’t Jewish. No matter how many Mets games we watched together, this was an issue that would not fade as easily as Howard Johnson’s batting average.
Before she took ill, she kind of danced around the subject. When it came up, it came with a thud. One Thursday night in February of ’88, around 9:57, I was getting ready to do what I always did. I was going to watch L.A. Law. At that moment, she called me from my room to the top of the stairs to tell me she was very worried that Stephanie and I wouldn’t be married by a rabbi. I could hear “previously on L.A. Law” firing up in the background. Of course, we’ll get married by a rabbi, I told her.
“Absolutely, it’s what we both want to do.”
Total lie. But I had TV to watch.
Six months later, she’s in the hospital and she’s bringing it up again. Not so much the rabbi who will perform the hypothetical ceremony but the general discomfort level she still had about this Jew (not Jew) mix. Was I sure about Stephanie?
“Mom,” I said. “I’m sure. I was sure about 10 minutes after meeting her.”
“Yes.” This time I was telling the truth.
This relieved her a great deal because she claimed that’s how it was for her and Dad when they first met. So from there on out, I no longer had to play defense. At 25, I was free to marry who I wanted.
My mother was in the hospital until early September. Frequent outpatient radiation treatments followed into mid-October (until the Mets were eliminated by the Dodgers in the NLCS). The whole family, plus a nurse’s aide and two ambulette drivers, were enlisted to be on-site for every session. It was an all hands on deck situation, so I didn’t really notice that I wasn’t working. But as my mother went into what seemed like remission, I couldn’t help but notice my bank account was getting mighty lonely. The clock continued to tick. 1989 was underway, leaving me a year and change to be ready for a fully matriculated Stephanie.
Never being a very good freelancer (I was fine at what I did but was crappy about finding more to do), I decided I needed an actual job. I discovered that right there on Long Island, a magazine existed that was devoted to one of my favorite topics: beverages. That’s true, too. I’d been collecting soda cans since I was in seventh grade.
I called the editor, a man named Alan Wolf. By habit, I asked if he had any need for a freelancer. He asked me if I’d like to be associate editor. Just like in the movies, I got the job.
It wasn’t so bad being among people every day. Beverages were fun enough though I couldn’t imagine writing about them for more than six months or, at most, ’til the end of the year. I was making a living and my mother, despite having to make trips into the city for chemo every six weeks or so, wasn’t doing too badly. That September, I convinced Stephanie, now a USF senior, to fly to New York for the weekend. I surprised her with an engagement ring — a size or two too big. The first people we told were my parents. My mother was so thrilled that from her bed — she had begun feeling back pain again – she strongly suggested I take Stephanie to the jeweler so it could be immediately resized. I told her, no, time is tight. We’re going to a Mets game tonight (at which the 1989 Mets were mathematically eliminated). While Stephanie, whose non-Mom placidity was a big part of what drew me to her, was content to take care of the ring when she got back to Tampa, my mother called me at work after Stephanie left to berate me for not making resizing job one.
First I was doing the wrong thing by getting serious with the shiksa. Now I was mistreating her. Existing in the vicinity of two very different Mrs. Princes promised to get interesting before it got blissfully dull.
But we never found out. Shortly after the engagement announcement, my mother’s back grew worse. She was checked into Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan for an operation in early October. It wasn’t all that helpful. She came home in November but regressed in December. More hospitalization, this time into February of ’90. Fortunately, Alan at the beverage magazine was understanding and gave me the flexibility to deal with my mother’s situation. “Situation” is the best word I can think of. She wasn’t really with it anymore by Christmas. Her lucidity evaporated while her body shriveled. As spring began to bloom, my father, my sister and I were all, essentially, waiting for my mother to die.
Good a time as any to move out of the house, no?
Oy. Like everything else, it was something I didn’t mention to my father. My mother had always veered toward letting it all out. Dad said little, but he was clearly suffering through all this. At the very moment when a family needs to come together, he was unapproachable and I made for a lousy approacher. I’ve always liked him and I know he’s always liked me, but god only knows what either one of us is thinking is at any given moment.
Quietly, around St. Patrick’s Day, I contacted a real estate agent who found a two-room deal upstairs from a 60ish lady in Baldwin. Same town as my sister, only 10 or so minutes from Dad. Instead of feeling as if I had achieved my long-postponed independence, I fought off pangs of guilt. I absolutely had to do this — Stephanie was graduating April 28 — but now I wasn’t going out on my own and setting up a new life. I was abandoning ship. My father didn’t say it to me and I don’t know that he even thought it, but there was little to suggest that he saw it as a positive.
I’d put off the actual moving as long as I could. In fact, the apartment was almost bare until the weekend before graduation, Earth Day weekend. I rented a Ryder van from Hicksville and enlisted the aid of my best friend in the world Chuck to help fill it. Chuck and I would compare and contrast overbearing, over-the-top mothers. His usually won but mine was never far off the pace. That, as much as our knowing each other since the college paper and common interest in sports, bonded us for life.
After Chuck reminded me two or three dozen times that Hicksville was very far from where we needed to be (thus making the extra gas we burned to pick it up and return it decidedly against the spirit of Earth Day), he and I hauled a dresser from the top floor of my house down to the main floor and through the kitchen. From there we had to angle it around a refrigerator and a clothes dryer to get it through the door that would lead us to the basement, the garage and the van. It was a struggle for two men. For three, it might have gone smoother, but I’ll never know. Because while Chuck and I finagled, my father sat about two feet away, head buried in the previous day’s or perhaps the previous month’s Wall Street Journal while the Mets-Montreal game blared away on channel 2. Dad didn’t offer to help and I didn’t ask him. It was like we weren’t in the same kitchen.
Four years earlier, during the top of the tenth inning of the sixth game of the World Series, my father got the idea that if he didn’t seem to pay attention to the action that it would help the Mets. With Dave Henderson homering off Aguilera, it was worth a try (when the Red Sox took the lead, I was nervously spooning Grape-Nuts Flakes into my mouth; I never ate that stuff again). He struck the same pose in April 1990 that he did in October 1986, hunched over the table, reading or maybe not reading an old newspaper. In both cases, he decided that if he pretended not to notice what was going on around him, that maybe it wouldn’t happen.
While Chuck and I were moving furniture and my father was staring at stock tables, my mother was in the back room with the home health aide. She had barely said anything intelligible to anybody for three months. Mostly she sweated and shrunk. The baseball season started without her. The last game we watched together was the third game of Oakland’s sweep of the Giants in the Earthquake Series of ’89 from her hospital room. She was amused that I pulled for San Francisco solely because they used to play in New York.
With her on the DL, I couldn’t tell her about the lockout that truncated spring training or how the Pirates battered Doc Gooden on Opening Day or that the Game of the Week was now on CBS instead of NBC or that Tim McCarver (whom she liked) was doing it, instead of Vin Scully (whom she didn’t) or that John Franco from the Reds had replaced Randy Myers as our closer after they were traded for each other. I couldn’t stay up late with her one night in April to point out that Mackey Sasser just materialized in the home dugout wearing a warmup suit and a look of confusion. He had flown home to Alabama for his father’s funeral, flown back into LaGuardia and noticed the lights were still on at Shea. It was the 13th inning. Davey Johnson told him to get dressed and grab a bat. He made the final out. I couldn’t tell her that the Mets were off to a lousy start. I suppose I could’ve told her, but she couldn’t have heard me.
The clock did its thing the next weekend. I flew to Tampa, helped Stephanie pack, watched her graduate and then we flew back. My father picked us up at JFK and, after taking us to breakfast, took us back to Long Beach. He brought us into my mother’s sick room. I’d pretty much avoided it since she came home. I couldn’t stand to watch and I didn’t know what to do with myself. The last time Mom saw Stephanie was around New Year’s when she came up for my birthday. At the time, Mom was in Roosevelt and high on morphine. She told all of us that we should stay for the big New Year’s Eve celebration, that they were bringing in a band. Between the end of December and the end of April, she hadn’t said or recognized much at all.
We go into her room and my father wakes her. “Dear, you remember Stephanie, don’t you?”
This is what my mother said:
“How did your classes go?”
“Your hair looks so beautiful!”
“Does your mother still have that security-guard job?”
My mother had no idea where she was those final months. If she knew any of us, we couldn’t tell. It was all she could do to remain alive. But at that moment, she knew my fiancée (yes, her mother did have a security-guard job) and she was as pleasant a mother-in-law as I ever could’ve hoped for.
Stephanie and I then loaded my car, said goodbye to my father and moved into our apartment in Baldwin. Seven Sundays from that Sunday, a couple of hours after Doc Gooden broke 100 on a radar gun for the first time, Sandra Prince died just shy of 61. Before she was put to rest, I handed Suzan something that I said I’d greatly appreciate her making sure Mom was wearing.
It was a button signifying who won the 1986 World Series. She told Dad and Dad told her he thought that was very nice.
June 17 marked the end of a miserable two-year battle with cancer — it was cancer in a blowout — and the start of a giddy 11-game Met winning streak. By then, my fiancée and cohabitant (we postponed making wedding plans so our marriage wouldn’t come hard on the heels of a funeral) wouldn’t have been surprised that I’d draw such a quick and easy parallel between the final breath of my mother’s life and the Mets’ upward change in fortunes. She knew what she was getting herself into and still signed on. It wasn’t just my choice of first-date venue. About a month into her initial New York stay in 1987, we spoke on the phone. She asked me how my day had been.
“Great,” I said. “Dwight Gooden beat the Cubs. But you probably don’t care.”
“If it’s important to you,” she said. “It’s important to me.”
That was all the permission I needed to be very much myself with Stephanie West. Yes, I eventually learned her last name along with a few other salient details.
Stephanie Nelson West was born in Kansas.
She went to high school in North Fort Myers, Fla.
She majored in gerontology.
She enjoyed smooth jazz and her favorite movie was Amadeus.
She possessed a marvelously dry wit (“you sure think a lot of people are morons,” she noted when I hurled my favorite m-word at the TV) and a terrific sense of the absurd (“Orrrrlando Merrrrcado” would rrrroll off her tongue every time our backup catcher du jour came to bat on the car radio).
She was a cat person, certainly more than I could ever imagine myself being.
And part of her childhood was spent in and around New York City, a period from which she retained a few vital facts.
We were together the weekend in June ’87 that Tom Seaver announced he would attempt a final comeback with the Mets. Listening to the news on Mets Extra in my Toyota, she asked me why Tom Seaver ever left in the first place.
Whatever I told her, “OHMIGOD! SHE KNOWS WHO TOM SEAVER IS!” is all I could think. “I’VE GOT THIS GIRLFRIEND WHO’S ALL WONDERFUL AND SMART AND BEAUTIFUL AND PLACID AND SHE KNOWS WHO TOM SEAVER IS!”
I automatically assumed she remembered Lee Mazzilli from back then, but no. Just as well. That would’ve been too much. I didn’t need to marry that lady who twirled her arms behind home plate during the World Series. I just wanted to be with somebody who thought it wasn’t silly that I was a big Mets fan. And she didn’t.
She didn’t think it was silly when on our first full night in Baldwin she came into the bedroom to find me yelling at the radio because David Cone, ball firmly in hand, was yelling at the first base umpire while two Braves baserunners crossed home plate unmolested.
She didn’t think it was silly when I stalled all grocery and laundromat trips until Howie Rose got through restating the highlights of the game I just sat and watched for three hours.
She didn’t think it was silly when I took her to a Saturday night game in May that wasn’t nearly as “neat!” because even though the Mets romped over San Diego 11-0, it was chilly and she didn’t know to bring gloves (she would eventually judge that where cold Saturday nights were concerned, staying home would keep her even warmer).
It was of more interest to me than Stephanie that we had just unknowingly witnessed the final win collected by Davey Johnson, the Mets’ manager since 1984. Davey was by far the most successful manager the Mets ever knew, but the team muddled along south of .500 through April and May. Despite or maybe because of his otherwise brilliant career, Frank Cashen apparently hated him.
Davey almost got it the previous October. I had just finished reading The Boys of Summer, wherein Roger Kahn recalled meeting with just-deposed Dodgers skipper Charlie Dressen when he learned that his own father had died. Well, on the day in October 1989 that WFAN was reporting what appeared to be Davey Johnson’s then-imminent dismissal, my sister left an urgent message about my mother at my office: “Tell him it’s a medical emergency.” Of course I thought the worst. Dressen and Angell’s father. Davey and my mother. They both got reprieves but not long ones.
At the end of May, this guy Joe who also worked at the beverage magazine (he’s the one who gave Stephanie and me the tickets for the Saturday night game) told me he heard while at lunch that Davey Johnson was fired. The previous summer, the Mets detached themselves from Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, Rick Aguilera, Lee Mazzilli and Mookie Wilson. In October, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez were allowed to walk. Now Davey. Our own boys of summer were all almost gone.
Bud Harrelson was named manager. Everybody loved good ol’ Buddy, including the players if you go by results. The 1990 Mets snapped out of their maudlin state and took off in June. Everybody got hot.
Dave Magadan tore through the National League and stepped over the rotting carcass of Mike Marshall to take over first base. Gregg Jefferies lived up to all his unreasonable expectations. Daryl Boston and Mark Carreon equaled one really good centerfielder. Mackey Sasser hit the ball well and threw it almost adequately. Frank Viola started and John Franco closed like the All-Stars they were.
Stephanie got a job as a social worker in the city and I got up extra early to drive her to the Baldwin station every morning. On the way home, I’d stop off and buy every paper (including the recently launched National, which one day put a viola-cradling Viola on its cover in honor of all the Sweet Music he was making) and drool over our stats before getting ready for work. The papers were full of us. The stories about the Yankees involved Steinbrenner getting suspended and them finishing last. About the only glaring misstep the Mets made was momentarily assigning No. 24 to a rookie named Kelvin Torve. The mistake was immediately rectified and Willie Mays’ legacy was safe for eternity.
A few of the ’86 Mets lingered, but it was primarily a new bunch of boys of summer terrorizing all comers in the 26-5 stretch that rocketed us from languishers to leaders by early July. This was good in that it indicated the Mets were capable of renewing themselves. If we could turn over most of the roster in four years’ time and still be this good, one could safely guess that we’d remain strong into perpetuity. That’s what I figured, anyway.
Of course none of this would have been possible without a couple of holdovers. Doc was becoming Doc again. Viola was labeled the ace and everybody said Coney had the best stuff, but I never let go of my image of Dwight Gooden as Dr. K. After all, Dwight Gooden did throw 100 MPH the day my mother died and my mother loved Dwight Gooden. And Darryl was totally Darryl in the way we’d waited for him to be since he came up in 1983. It wouldn’t be fair to say he carried the team since the team was holding up its end, but Straw was something else. He hit the scoreboard. He landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a flattering light. He was Darryl Strawberry and we were winning and in the weeks following the saddest event of my life, I couldn’t have been baseball-happier.
All the high-fiving that caused must have taken a toll on me. I developed a searing case of tendonitis in my right wrist. Maybe it was the voluminous typing I was doing at the beverage magazine. I did write a lot and my publisher appreciated my efforts to play through pain. When Alan fretted over my health, the publisher told him, “The kid can always type with one hand.”
Wouldn’t let tendonitis slow me down. I was due in Denver for a recycling conference, part of my beverage beat. Schlepped with me a 400-page book called The Giants of the Polo Grounds which immediately, despite its unwieldiness on my reading hand, became my favorite sports book ever. The New York Giants also became my favorite team that I never got to see play, The Boys of Summer notwithstanding.
I wore all manner of strap and splint on that wrist through the summer. One looked like the thing bowlers wear. Another inspired some dirty jokes around the office. I went to an orthopedist who injected me with cortisone and told me to “go home, relax and watch the Mets.” I hadn’t said a word to him about baseball either. Guess he could see it in my eyes.
Despite receiving the shot heard ’round the wrist, the discomfort continued into late July. I headed east on the LIE to another orthopedist, one whom my mother had seen. He gave me a prescription for another painkiller and a chance to hear what was rapidly becoming a call for the ages. The Mets were home for a twinight doubleheader which meant Howie Rose came on with Mets Extra while I was driving home from the doctor. Howie made much of the way the game ended the night before when the Mets nearly blew a seven-run lead in Philadelphia in the ninth. It went from 10-3 to 10-9 until Tommy Herr, a thorn in our sides from the Cardinal rivalry, lined out to Mario Diaz to end it. Bob Murphy, who had seen it all, had never seen this.
“They win the damn thing!” Murph, exhausted, exhorted. It was stunning — our since-1962 announcer dropping a four-letter word into his game-ending call. Howie was so tickled by it, he played it and asked Bob about it. Murph was, as ever, sheepish. But “the damn thing” took on an existence of its own.
I got a call from Chuck who asked me if I heard it. I was on medication but he was in stitches. Chuck was also “on the bandwagon”. He was good about that. My best friend always took great care to tell me he wasn’t a Mets fan but liked the Mets for my sake. Then he’d tell me what was wrong with them in greater detail than anybody I knew could. But he wasn’t a fan. He and I would spend the next decade-and-a-half referencing “the damn thing” and joking about the “bandwagon,” but I couldn’t have known that then (though I could’ve figured).
Damn thing is the Mets began to lose some damn things. For all the winning and swearing, they never could break free of the Pirates, a young, hungry team featuring two outstanding players, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, a Bronx native who said he grew up idolizing Lenny Randle. Things became more damned when Kevin Elster, our shortstop and matinee idol (Steph dubbed him The Cute One) went down with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Though they tried to treat him by shooting him full of Indocin — “Hey!” I thought. “That’s my medicine!” — he was done for the season. And without a shortstop, well, you lose a lot of damn things.
Due to software limitations, the exciting conclusion of 1990 follows in a separate post.