The year was 1995. I was 32.
But after a while, who’s counting? Seriously, you get to a stage in life where you have to stop and think when you’re asked how old you are if you’re asked at all. For that matter, sometimes you’re not sure what year it is. One just blends into the next.
Stephanie and I had stabilized by 1995. Stagnated? A little harsh. We were settled in after a few frenzied years of activity. There was getting engaged in ’89, moving in together in ’90, getting married (by a rabbi) in ’91, buying a new Corolla, moving to a new apartment and adopting our first cat in ’92 and adding a second cat in ’93.
So there we were all in one place (East Rockaway, ten minutes west of our old place in Baldwin), me and Stephanie and Bernie and Casey, our little multispecies family. The kitties became our calling cards. “No kids, just cats” was my answer to everybody who inquired into our parenting status. Actually, they weren’t just cats. They were cats of the highest order, Bernie the black & white American shorthair and Casey the orange tabby. Bernie came first. Casey was older. But they were brothers. Bernie had the insatiable appetite. Casey was neurotically loving. They were mesmerizing. Within minutes of becoming a cat person, I became the kind who wouldn’t shut up about how wonderful his cats were. We started sending out annual holiday newsletters. They were long and they were mostly about Bernie and Casey.
They were great. Stephanie was great. Marriage was great. Television, led by The Simpsons, Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show, was awesome. Our apartment in the upstairs of a house owned by a lovely old couple was fine. But our jobs were old. Stephanie quit hers and enrolled at Hunter for a Masters in Social Work. Said she couldn’t hope to advance without it. I stuck with mine six years after taking it temporarily. The thing I liked best about it was it was a small, family-run company based on Long Island. In September, the same day Stephanie started grad school, we learned it was being bought by a bigger company that planned to move us to the city. Theoretically, I was going to quit any minute. I didn’t. The issue dates changed on my magazine but really, one year churned into the next there.
After turning 30, I guess the only thing that kept me on my toes where the calendar was concerned was baseball. I could always depend on the Mets to change their storyline, to make me notice that one year had ended and a new one had begun. It had now been a quarter-century since I first discovered that baseball began when the players reported to spring training in February and that the season commenced in early April and that everything flowed from those two certainties.
But this formula wasn’t working in 1995. Baseball had been on strike since the August before. So if there was already little on a day-by-day basis to look forward to, except for figuring out the next move Bernie would make on Casey or what Homer would do to Bart next week, what was I going to do without the Mets?
I would wait. I’d been waiting since August 12 when the strike hit. I waited through what would’ve been a pennant race and playoffs and a World Series and winter meetings. The owners were more at fault than the players — you want a salary cap, don’t pay such high salaries — but I wasn’t terribly concerned with who was right or who was wrong. I just wanted baseball.
But not what they tried to give us.
Come February, a new phrase entered the lexicon. Replacement baseball. The owners decided fans were such chumps that they could pull 25 guys off the street, stick them in uniforms and call them your favorite team. It was mostly low minor leaguers, a few veterans dredged from retirement and truck drivers passing themselves off as the real thing. Nothing wrong with any of those people. I just didn’t want to see them masquerade as Mets.
I preferred our own genuinely bad players over the fakes. And ya know what? Despite the four consecutive years of losing records, the ’94 Mets hadn’t been all that awful. They flirted with .500, a figure unimaginable coming out of the wreckage of ’93, the year we lost 103 games and became a national laughingstock. After an amalgamation of Gundersons, Guozzos, Guettermans and Greers had run its course (and despite losing our one and only Gooden once and for all to a second drug-testing violation), the Mets who marched the imaginary picket line in 1994 were worth missing.
Jeff Kent, the second baseman we got for David Cone, had put up some big numbers between the middles of ’93 and ’94. Jose Vizcaino, stolen for historic loser Anthony Young, was about as good an offensive/defensive shortstop as I could ever remember us having. Dependable fourth outfielder Joe Orsulak had my favorite name since dependable spot starter Ray Sadecki. Two young pitchers, a righty from Fresno named Bobby Jones and a lefty of Mexican descent named Jason Jacome, looked like keepers. And I fell in love with a first baseman who came out of nowhere in late June.
I loved Rico.
You know who.
Rico Brogna. He was a well-spoken kid from Connecticut who could hit and field and, in short, play ball unlike most of his teammates. Rico went 5-for-5 in St. Louis on a Monday night game telecast by a monstrosity called The Baseball Network. Rico hadn’t done anything wrong. When baseball went on strike, it was Rico Brogna’s face and Rico Brogna’s glove and Rico Brogna’s swing I conjured to give me hope that baseball would be back and that the Mets would be back and that they would continue, at the very least, to be not so bad.
I did my best to ignore the ReplaceMets by crafting my own tribute to baseball in the pages of the beverage magazine where I was senior editor. Every March, we put out a Top 10 issue, summing up the biggest beverage companies and their best-selling soft drinks. At my insistence, we gave it a baseball motif. I had a cartoonist draw each can or bottle in the form of baseball player — diet Coke and 7 UP cans wearing caps. I instructed my art director to take the sales statistics and make them look like the backs of baseball cards. And I churned out page after page of baseball metaphors to indicate that Mountain Dew enjoyed “Jeff Bagwell-ian” improvement in 1994 and that sugar-free volume was “up and away”. My headline for the whole package, over a nifty retro scoreboard iteration, was HIT SIGN, WIN SALES (Replacement Beverages Need Not Apply).
It was the best part of my job. That March, though, it was particularly grueling. The Top 10 issue was a big issue and I had a tendency to want to do as much of it myself as I could, even the number-crunching (inspired by the Elias Baseball Analyst, I invented the Industry Growth Index Factor; can’t say it ever caught on). As deadline neared, I was up around the clock, no exaggeration. I was quite relieved when it was done and I could leave work relatively early.
I left the office, went to the parking lot, got in my car and started driving home. I usually took the Cross Island, but given how tired I was, I decided the slightly friendlier Meadowbrook was the better bet. It was probably six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Nothing mysterious about any of it: Lakeville Road to the Northern State and into the Meadowbrook south to Merrick Road. Did it hundreds of times.
This time, though, something happened. In the two-mile stretch between Hempstead Turnpike and the Southern State, I froze. I wanted to freeze, that is, but this was a busy parkway at the tail end of rush hour.
Stop the road, I want to get off.
All the other cars, doing their usual 65 MPH, probably wouldn’t have understood, so slowly, I changed lanes, center to right and crept along as best I could the last three or so miles to Merrick Road. Geez, that was odd. I really need to get more sleep.
A few nights later, it happened again. It was the Cross Island and much less traffic around midnight — I tended to come in late and work very late — but I couldn’t bring myself to hit the gas more than perfunctorily. I used to drive more or less like everybody else on Long Island. Now I wanted nothing to do with it. I went one exit and found a road I could take to another road that would look familiar until I knew I was heading south. (The good thing about living on the South Shore of Long Island is you can only go so far south before you’re in the water, so it’s hard to get perilously lost).
For a span of several months, it was difficult for me to back out of the driveway and drive down the block. There were nights when I couldn’t go more than a few blocks at a time before I had to pull over to the side of the road and catch my breath. I was sweating profusely. I was going, at best, 30 miles per hour.
It was a suburban nightmare. I had turned into Toonces the Driving Cat. I could drive, just not very well.
In early April, when a federal judge granted an injunction that stopped the owners from putting on replacement games in the regular season, it meant the strike would end. And when that news came down, I celebrated by securing every train schedule I could find and being glad that somebody had the foresight to build Shea Stadium near a railroad and a subway line. Although I would conquer a good deal of what a psychiatrist told me were panic attacks and function pretty well on secondary roads, I would never be completely comfortable behind the wheel again. If I could help it, I would avoid highways altogether for at least the next decade.
However I would get there, I would get to baseball in 1995. The real players were back. The real Mets were back. We would have a shot at the Wild Card given the new players we brought in (new players were all right, as long as they weren’t replacement players; not as fine a difference as it sounds). The Wild Card was a new thing. The year before, baseball split the leagues into three divisions. The Mets were now in a unit with the mighty Expos, the enigmatic Phillies, the expansion Marlins and the Atlanta Braves. I had liked the Braves a great deal when they were in the N.L. West and started winning division titles in dramatic, underdog fashion. I was sorry they were in the East because I guessed I couldn’t root for them anymore.
From a 55-58 finish in ’94, I could see the new and improved Mets making the leap to a Wild Card. First off, we would be loaded with pitching. Bret Saberhagen, a huge disappointment his first two Met years, had a magnificent ’94. Walked almost nobody. Jones and Jacome were locks for double-figure wins. Pete Harnisch, a Long Islander like me, came in a trade. And sooner or later we were going to see Bill Pulsipher, the talk of the minors (and thus the only baseball talk we had during the strike).
A few years earlier, the Mets signed Vince Coleman. Every Mets fan said the same thing: why did they sign Vince Coleman to bat leadoff when the perfect leadoff hitter, Brett Butler, was available? The Mets, in that better-late-than-never way they had with big-name players, indeed signed Butler to fill the role that had been Coleman’s (until he literally blew it with firecrackers in ’93). Now we would have a great bunter and a dependable centerfielder. Brett said all the right things coming into Port St. Lucie. He said it was his goal to help teach two younger players, Ricky Otero and Carl Everett, enough so they could take his job. You had to love having Brett Butler.
Nevertheless, WFAN and ESPN and the papers were all filled with fans declaring their disinterest in baseball. “They cancelled the World Series! I’m never coming back!” I thought they were all frauds. You didn’t hear me pretending that the strike turned me off to baseball. I came right back. I was waiting at the front door. I was practically sleeping on the welcome mat when Opening Night finally rolled around in late April.
The Mets were the first opponent ever in Coors Field, the Rockies’ great new ballpark and the first Camdenesque yard in the National League (a place I got to see that summer on the beverage magazine’s dime, thank you very much). Better yet, the Mets were going to win the first game ever at Coors Field. Bobby Jones, who Dallas Green selected for the surprise start over Saberhagen, hadn’t done all that well in the thin mountain air, but these Mets could hit. My Rico hit the first homer ever at Coors Field. Todd Hundley, just coming into his own, hit the second, a grand slam. We led 7-6 in the ninth until John Franco gave up the tying run. Damn, Johnny. How many times is that?
No matter. Blas Minor held the Rockies scoreless for three innings and we took an 8-7 lead in the 13th. But the Rockies tied it. So we took a 9-8 lead in the 14th. But the Rockies won. Dante Bichette, a showboat who would make Gary Carter blush, hit one out off Mike Remlinger, dropped his bat and stood in awe of his accomplishment (on ESPN, no less). How embarrassing.
The next day Jacome got hammered. Then the Mets came home to a somewhat surly Opening Night crowd of 26,000 (spare change was thrown on the field; the players didn’t have much post-strike support) and won. They charged a dollar for all seats the next day and won again. And that was the last they saw of .500 all year.
The 1995 Mets were not going to win the Wild Card. It took a little while for it to sink in, but they weren’t really any good. I mean they were terrible. Others noticed even if I was in denial. Steph and I visited Baltimore (as compensation for the Top 10 issue eroding my driving skills, my publisher comped my wife an Amtrak fare so she could tag along on a beverage business trip) and the Sun ran a weekly ranking of every team in the Majors, 1 to 28. Guess who was like No. 27? The pithy remark following the Mets’ spot was “what’s that Hoover sound?”
Hoover? Like vacuum? Like suck? Hey! The Mets don’t suck!
But they did. On our train south over that weekend, I listened to the Mets play the Reds. We built up a nice, big lead on the strength of homers by Rico and a rookie infielder named Edgardo Alfonzo, his first. When the FAN signal began to fade, I could feel secure that our new starter, Dave Mlicki, was going to earn an easy win.
Imagine my surprise to turn on ESPN in the hotel in Washington and find out the Mets blew a 10-2 lead and lost 13-11. I was incredulous. How? HOW? I still wasn’t familiar with the work of Jerry DiPoto. I would grow less incredulous and more resigned to the 1995 Mets diminishing my expectations and only then matching them.
Didn’t mean I didn’t want anything to do with them. This was baseball. No matter how bad the Mets were, no matter how low they were ranked by out-of-town media, they were the Mets. My year was back in gear. I had something to fill in the blanks between April and October; a reason to sneak my Walkman into a theater (as I did when we were roped into watching an abomination called Stomp while the Mets were losing to the Phillies); a desire to stand in line for an autograph (Rico’s at the Mets Clubhouse Shop on 47th and 5th…I nearly missed one of my psychiatrist appointments to do so, but geez, what a nice kid); and an identity to resume: Mets Fan. There were 18 fewer games than usual to roll around in — the strike settlement called for 144 — but it was a season. The Mets are losers? Well let me find out for myself.
Every team was running some sort of make-good for fans. The Mets did a buy one-get one free bit in May. Go to a game now and get a voucher for a game later. They sliced concession prices from galling to almost reasonable. They were also honoring unused tickets from cancelled 1994 games as rainchecks and I seemed to have quite a few. With deals like those, I was on the next train to Shea more than I’d ever been before.
Despite growing up Mets-intensive, I had never gone to more than seven games in one season at Shea until two years earlier, the beloved season of 1993. I had turned 30 the New Year’s Eve just prior and my family’s thoughtful sop to my mania was 15 pairs of Mets tickets. Nice gesture, wrong year. But it gave me a taste of going to Shea as a matter of course and I decided I liked the course. ’94, between the strike and rain and whatnot, was a dip (only four trips) but in 1995, I was determined to spend as much time at Shea as was humanly possible.
All customers should be so easy.
Stephanie and I came home from Washington and Baltimore, where we took a tour of Camden Yards (a month after I took one of Busch, also on business; beverage magazines take you to places named Busch and Coors), with her unusually hot to go to a ballgame. We went and the Mets lost to the Expos on a Saturday afternoon. It was my third loss in a row at Shea dating back to the previous pre-strike summer.
That’s OK. There was more baseball in May. A game against the Dodgers one night (we lost) and a game against the Giants the next night (we lost). Come June, Rob Emproto, who had recently abandoned me at the beverage magazine by taking a better job with a bank, joined me to watch the Mets play the Phillies. We lost. Days earlier, I met a guy I had only known via America Online, Jace, face-to-face for a game against the Astros. We lost.
The juxtaposition of going with those two guys signified a changing of the guard of sorts. It had nothing to do with the people involved, rather how I came upon each of them. Rob became my friend the old-fashioned way. We were in physical proximity to one another long enough to discuss common interests, discovering pretty quickly that we were both Mets fans. Jace, on the other hand, existed only virtually to me (and me to him, I suppose) for more than year. My office had had AOL since 1992, but I was never curious enough to explore it for more than wire stories about beverages. In the spring of ’94, I looked up “Mets” and found there were other people like me.
But not exactly like me. That was a revelation. Sure, Joel from high school or Chuck from college or Rob from work may have held different opinions from mine on who should close or play short or be traded, but I felt comfortable that we were all Mets fans, that we all saw the world the same way. On AOL’s Mets bulletin board, this assumption was invalid. There were apparently dozens…hundreds…thousands? of Mets fans out there who thought differently, who saw the world differently, who rooted differently than I did.
A lot of them couldn’t spell either.
I enjoyed this new thing, this online Mets world. I liked writing about the Mets and liked that other people liked reading what I wrote. Before AOL, I wrote for a living, but not about the Mets. Before AOL, I loved the Mets, but had never written about them except in a couple of letters to Chuck. Suddenly, because of a modem and some other technology I didn’t understand, I was going on and on about them. The reaction was positive. It made me happy and it made me want to do more.
By 1995, I had grown so used to quoting The Simpsons when I needed an allegory, I couldn’t remember what it was like not having it as a reference point. One year into the online era, I was growing dim over how I communicated my baseball feelings in prehistoric, analog times. Did I just use word-of-mouth? Call people one-by-one? Stand at bus stops to complain about Juan Samuel? I didn’t know anymore. This new interactive age, which I’d pretty much ignored until I found out it had a killer Mets application, was where I decided I wanted to live.
That said, I found it odd actually meeting someone in the flesh as a result of “talking” on a computer. Jace didn’t seem all thrown by it, but he was younger and seemed to have a better handle on this stuff. No matter. By the second inning, with Bill Pulsipher’s Major League debut souring and Brett Butler morphing into Vince Coleman before our very eyes and a sunburn working its way into my unblocked skin, it wasn’t odd anymore. Virtual friends could have the same currency as the other kind. We had the Mets. What else was really necessary?
Whatever symbolism I might or might not have read into knowing Rob and Jace the way I did at the time, the cold, hard fact was regardless of my companion at any given game, the Mets weren’t winning any of them. I’d endured seven consecutive losses at Shea Stadium. A Fireworks Night involving my baseball-hating (but fireworks-loving) sister saw the Cubs’ Brian McRae tee off on Bret Saberhagen. That made it eight straight defeats. I was 0-6 in 1995 and 38-51 lifetime.
The more I went, the more the Mets lost. Granted, the Mets lost a lot on their own, but this was becoming a nagging issue in my life. Even in 1986, when they were 55-26 at home, they were only 3-3 with me in attendance. Am I really a jinx? Will the Mets ever win in front of me again?
Yes. Despite assuming that whatever’s going on at any given moment (the Top 10 issue, my driving problems, Bernie using the box) is never going to end, losing streaks cease and desist. For me and the Mets, the night to throw off the shackles was July 14, a steamy Friday. At that point, I was doing anything I could to change their luck. For example, I wore a Cardinals cap that I had lying around at home. The Mets were playing the Rockies, so what the hell?
It did the trick. The Mets battered Armando Reynoso, Juan Acevedo and Lance Painter for 13 runs and 20 hits. We won. I won. I was 1-6.
When the All-Star Break had come, the Mets were a dreadful 25-44. It was only four games better than the same juncture in ’93. But the bashing of Bichette and friends was their second win in two games since the break. As July progressed, they got a little better. Pulsipher was pitching pretty well. The drumbeat intensified to bring up his buddy, Triple-A star pitcher Jason Isringhausen. With nothing to lose, the Mets listened and started him in Chicago his first time out. There was uncommon interest in a Mets game. And you can bet a lot of New Yorkers would’ve tuned in had not The Baseball Network determined that it wasn’t the Mets’ turn to be shown in their home market. I don’t remember whose idea The Baseball Network was, but its goal — show as little baseball on television to as few interested people as possible — was being achieved magnificently.
The Mets won Izzy’s first game (and thanks to a rain delay in whatever else TBN wanted to show, we got to see some of it). The Mets actually won a bunch of games, 10 of 23. Yeah, that’s a losing record, but not as losing as it was before. Like I said, they got a little better. If you’re not picky, 35-57 can look pretty good. Did I mention I was still happy just to have baseball back?
My next game was a Sunday in early August versus the Marlins. Stephanie and I were the guests of another Rob, Rob Costa. I knew Rob my senior year in college. He lived down the hall from me. We rekindled our relationship via e-mail the year before. As a rep for Bristol-Myers Squibb, he got free Mets tickets. Rob wasn’t much of a fan. He usually gave them to clients. In fact, he hadn’t been to baseball game since I invited him to Shea nine years earlier for a Mets-Cardinals doubleheader. We sat in the upper deck then, drinking beer and chatting intermittently. The Mets were a million games ahead of everybody. Rob didn’t care all that much what happened, but he was good company.
I didn’t see a whole lot of Rob Costa over the next four years. I got a call out of the blue from him on a Friday night in 1990. He wanted to tell me something. Yeah, Rob, what is it?
Rob was calling to tell me that he was coming out of the closet. He’d told his family and now he was telling me. I would be, he said, the first straight person outside his family who would know.
Stephanie and I got married on November 10, 1991, three days after Magic Johnson made his shocking announcement about contracting HIV. During our reception, I paused by the table where all the place cards were left for our guests. Only one hadn’t been picked up — Rob Costa’s. Boy did I hope he had car trouble.
I called him the next night. He didn’t have car trouble. He had HIV. It was under control, he said. He was going to be all right. He felt terrible about missing our wedding, but he had gotten the news the same day Magic Johnson broke his. He just couldn’t bring himself to come to a wedding. Instead, he became the first friend we had over as a married couple. This Mets game would be the first time we’d see him in four years.
It was a cloudy day but it never quite rained. Bobby Jones pitched and never quite got beat. Rico and Kent homered. The Mets won 7-3. I high-fived Rob a lot, just like I did in college, just like I did at that doubleheader against the Cardinals. I was 2-6. Later the three of us went back to my office and I showed him where I e-mailed him from. We would do something again, the three of us, real soon.
But we didn’t. I never went to another game with Rob Costa and saw him just one more time when he was kind enough to drop off more Bristol-Myers Squibb Mets tickets to a game he couldn’t make at my office. He died from HIV in late 1998 at the age of 33. But I couldn’t have known that then.
On August 6, the day Stephanie and I were Rob’s guests at Shea Stadium, the Mets snapped a five-game losing streak. In fact, they started a six-game winning streak. All kinds of new names were chipping in. Pitchers I’d never heard of before — Don Florence, Reid Cornelius — were getting W’s. The Mets were trying out kid after kid. The veterans were disappearing. Bobby Bonilla, who actually seemed, at long last, pretty good in 1995, was traded to Baltimore for Don Buford’s son Damon and a prospect named Alex Ochoa. He was labeled a five-tool player (a new phrase to me). Bret Saberhagen went to Colorado for the very same Acevedo we slapped around in July plus Arnold Gooch who was supposed to be a find. In short order, we’d send Brett Butler back to the Dodgers right before playing and sweeping them a three-game series.
Whatever the Mets would do, they would do it with youth. Carl Everett, whatever Butler taught him, could hit. Alfonzo, a utilityman, had an innate sense of the right thing to do every time he stepped on the field. Butch Huskey came up and at least looked menacing. Pulse and Izzy were about as good as advertised. The next game I went to, a Monday night against the Giants (it was right after Butler was traded, but they were still selling soda in cups with his face on them), was won in extra innings by another callup, Paul Byrd, his first big-league win. He was 1-0. I was 3-6. I wore the Rockies cap I brought back from Denver. (Whatever it takes.)
The Mets weren’t anywhere near the Wild Card race, but they were no longer in Hoover territory. Izzy was winning. Pulse was winning. The Mets were winning. Dallas Green, who had been a curmudgeon since replacing Jeff Torborg, was now a benevolent father figure. The Mets won games, came into the clubhouse and blasted the Hootie & The Blowfish CD to celebrate. It was reported that even Dallas was singing along. Me, I had adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Better Days” as my personal anthem for what I was witnessing.
My personal winning streak came to an end on September 12 against Donne Wall and the Astros (Biggio was ruled safe on a blown call at the plate), but three nights later, I was back on track. Izzy started, scattered 13 hits (just one run) over 7-1/3 and Franco saved the 4-1 victory. I was 4-7 and the Mets, for the first time since forever, were out of last place.
These were better days. It was so good to have not just baseball again, not just Mets baseball, but Mets baseball that had a whiff of purpose to it. It certainly gave me something to post about on AOL, to e-mail back and forth about — at once cynically and gleefully — with Jace. Such concentration on one alleged diversion came at a price, one I was more than willing to pay. As a functioning married adult with a magazine to put out and a rent to pay and two cats to feed, I had only so much RAM for fun and games. Something had to give.
The better the Mets got at baseball, the less I found myself caring about other sports. In fact, I came to detest the notion of being a sports fan. Addressing themselves to “sports fans” seemed like an excuse by the sports media to not pay attention to the Mets. “Let’s look at all the sports today, but not the Mets. You have plenty without that,” was an easy enough line to throw out there.
I was a baseball fan. One year earlier, September ’94, I gave myself over to the NFL because there was nothing else. Now the Giants were bad and the Jets were worse and I didn’t care. The Knicks had owned New York’s springs of late and the Rangers and Devils had won the last two Stanley Cups, but I wanted to know little to nothing about any of them. I wasn’t surfing AOL (or the World Wide Web, which we had only just been able to access from work) to talk football or basketball. Unless it was after the World Series or before spring training, it would be just baseball for me from here on out. I couldn’t have said that before 1995, but now I could.
I could also enjoy September for the first time in five years. We were practically the hottest team in baseball. On the 20th, we slipped past the Expos into third place, eight games under .500 but only 2-1/2 behind second-place Philly. They had been in first place for a good, long while but had been in freefall since June. Nobody was anywhere near the Braves, but finishing second would be quite an accomplishment for us.
There was a brief stumble. We went to Florida and got swept. Ochoa the five-tool player who grew up in Miami had trouble with the sun in the final game, one I caught in bits and pieces via Walkman in an unoccupied corner of my father’s girlfriend’s daughter’s apartment in Manhattan. It was Rosh Hashanah. I was observing the only religion I had ever trusted.
Due to software limitations, the exciting conclusion of 1995 follows in a separate post.