When Part I of our journey ended, we were greeted by a guide who promised to help us find what we were looking for. We now return you to floor 1979 of the Windsor Hotel to discover who resides very much alone in the Sixth Circle of Met Hell.
“Say, you wouldn’t happen to be…”
“That is right. I am Sergio Ferrer.”
It was! It was Sergio Ferrer!
“Hey, I remember you!”
“Yes, I know you do.”
“You’re the guy who me and my friend Joel…” Here I tailed off because I was about to tell him that in high school Joel Lugo and I had adopted Sergio Ferrer as the mascot, the symbol of the Mets as they stood as we ended tenth grade and began eleventh. It wasn’t complimentary.
“It’s all right. I know what you thought of me.”
“Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Ferrer…”
“Call me Sergio.”
“I’m sorry, Sergio. We were kids and the whole team seemed so absurd and futile and…”
“And I was most absurd and futile of all, no?”
“Well your batting average in 1979 was .000.”
“I walked twice. On Base Percentage wasn’t yet in vogue, but I walked twice.”
“Sergio, you batted .000 for the entire year.”
“I had some hard-hit balls. Remember the ten-run inning against the Reds?”
Did I remember the ten-run inning against the Reds? Of course I did. It was the 1979 Mets’ finest hour. It may have lasted an hour. It might have gone on forever except Sergio Ferrer made the last out.
“Ray Knight robbed me. That thing was going down the line.”
“Sergio, you batted .000 for the entire year.”
“I scored a run in that inning.”
“You were pinch-running for Ron Hodges.”
“How many runs you score for the Mets that year?”
“I’ll never forget Steve Albert’s call. ‘Even Sergio Ferrer is going to get a hit!’ But you didn’t.”
“What’s your point?”
“You were practically an object of derision to your own team’s announcer and he was a really bad announcer.”
“Sergio, you batted .000 for the entire year.”
“It was only seven at-bats.”
“And on a team that lost 99 games you only rated seven at-bats.”
“So what does that tell you?”
I felt bad that the conversation had gone this way. I didn’t really blame Sergio Ferrer for 1979. He was right. He was a bit player. He wasn’t why I had come all this way. If anything, I liked Sergio Ferrer then and now. What wasn’t to like? Except for the .000 batting average for an entire year.
“You know, Sergio, you’re right. You were one of the good ones.”
“That’s what I tried to tell them, but I wound up here with the rest of them. At least I tried, y’know? Elliott Maddox couldn’t wait to get out. He was all, ‘I’m really a Yankee, I made a big mistake.’”
“I know. I hated reading that after the fact!”
“And didja see how bored Willie Montañez looked that second year?”
“And Frank Taveras? Sure, he could run, but did he ever run after ground balls?”
“I was at a game where he struck out five times!”
“What about Mike Scott?”
I bristled at the thought. “That cheating bastard.”
“Sure, later. But do ya think he ever thought to try sandpaper when he was a rookie? He never wanted to be in New York. Even though they kept reasonably quiet about it while it was happening, almost none of them did. I don’t know why not. It’s not like there was any pressure. Did you know that we didn’t even draw 800 that entire year?”
This seemed to be a big bone of contention on 1979, that the paid attendance at Shea Stadium was all of 788,905. The largest market in the country, the proud National League tradition and fewer than 800,000 people bought tickets.
“I was four of those 788,905,” I told him as if to regain his trust.
“I know you were.”
“And if I had been older, I probably would’ve been more.”
“I know you would’ve been. You and I may have our differences on what I did then…”
“Sergio, you batted .000 for the entire year.”
“…but I know your heart is true. Not that will do you much good here, eh?”
With that, we arrived at end of the hall, to what Sergio Ferrer said was my destination. No more false starts or dead ends. I was in the deepest, darkest corner of 1979. Time to confront my Demon.
The number on the door read 3. Sergio knocked on it and called inside. “Hey, Digger, man! You got company!” He turned to me and wished me good luck. I was gonna need it. With that, Sergio disappeared from view. He was still batting .000 for 1979, but he was OK in my book.
It was a different story regarding the figure who opened Door No. 3.
This was awkward. The man inside didn’t look too happy to see me. He didn’t look too happy in general. But he wasn’t shooing me away or anything. Looked like he had nowhere else to go.
“Uh, mind if I come in?”
“Suit yourself. I’ve got nothing but time.”
I entered his room. The very first installment of SportsCenter, from September 7, 1979, was on the television. No sound. “TV works,” said the room’s occupant. “But the clicker is broken.”
Too bad the sound wasn’t on. There was a long, awkward silence as we watched a continuous loop of Pirate and Phillie highlights. I’d once heard the original SportsCenter actually showed no highlights but the Windsor apparently had its own feed.
“Lucky bastards,” my host grumbled.
“Pittsburgh. Philadelphia. Look at ‘em. They’re contenders.”
“What do you care about them?” I was irritated by the tone in his voice and my irritation gave way to emboldenment. “You’re a Met.”
“Don’t remind me.”
At last we got to the heart of the matter. This is why I journeyed all the way to this particular hotel in this particular Circle of Hell — the Sixth — and this particular floor — 1979.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk that way.”
“What’s it to ya?”
“I’m a Mets fan.”
“That doesn’t mean anything to you?”
The nerve of this guy. He grabbed a bat and started swinging as if in the on-deck circle. I thought it was a bat. It was actually a spade, the kind a gravedigger might use.
“Listen, no offense…”
“No offense. Coming from you, what else is new?”
“Hey, that’s a low blow. I led the team in RBIs.”
“You were tied.”
“Nobody had more.”
“You had a lousy 79.”
“Who was I supposed to drive in? Ferrer?”
“Flynn had 61 and he was batting eighth.”
“Whaddaya want from me?”
Yes, what did I want from him? What did I want from the man who stood before me so disillusioned, so down, so damned? He looked so much more comfortable with the shovel than I remembered him being with a bat.
“I want you to apologize.”
“To us. To me.”
“To you? For what? Look, you may not like that there weren’t many men on base for me or that I tailed off dramatically in the second half or that I practically invented The Wave by the way I merely motioned toward hard grounders to either side of me as they traveled to the outfield or that I lost my temper one day when you were there and gave the crowd my special salute…”
“You know, you’re not making a case for yourself here.”
“What I’m getting at is it wasn’t my fault.”
I was incredulous. It was one thing to suck. Sucking was rampant up and down this hallway. Supporting those who sucked became a badge of honor for me and for Joel and for however many of the 788,905 who never gave up more than a quarter-century ago. Well, we gave up but we never gave out. We remained Mets fans no matter how bad things got, through all 99 losses, despite finishing 35 out of first and 17 out of fifth and no matter how dumb and dopey the vast majority of our peers accused us of being.
It was one thing to suck. It was another thing to not own up.
“How can you say that?”
“Well, it wasn’t.”
“You say you have lots of time on your hands here. Explain.”
“First off, we sucked.”
“We’ve established that.”
“Everybody and everything sucked. That fucking mule. The time our game was called for fog. The time somebody called time to go to the bathroom and the game had to be picked up the next day. The way nobody came. The way they couldn’t even have Orosco’s uniform ready for Opening Day. Those crazy ladies. Did you know they wanted to reuse the balls from BP in the games?”
“Do you really think I’d come all the way here if I hadn’t read Jack Lang’s book?”
“It was so goddamn depressing. There was no talent. Haven’t you looked around here?”
Geez, what did he think I’d been doing since I got the Windsor. Joe Torre’s running around the lobby trying to fix everything but he has no clue. Ed Kranepool’s been here too long and Jesse Orosco got here too soon. Mike Scott and Neil Allen and Kelvin Chapman, too. There’s nobody in 41, which is where the problem started. Next door I find all the ex-Reds: Zachry, Flynn, Henderson, Norman, Youngblood. They were lost souls before they ever checked in. Falcone? Never could concentrate. Stearns? Always was chippy. Swannie? Always had a hunch he was more a rolfer than a pitcher, not that he was a terrible pitcher. Mazzilli? He wasn’t Tony Oliva and he wasn’t Tony Manero. Everybody else? It’s like George Washington told the Continental Congress: I begin to notice many of us are lads under 15 and old men, none of whom could truly be called soldiers.
“Yeah, I’ve looked around.”
“So why you picking on me?”
“What? Say it. SAY IT!”
“BECAUSE YOU, RICHIE FUCKING HEBNER, SAID YOU DIDN’T WANT TO BE A MET, NEVER EVEN PRETENDED YOU WERE HAPPY TO BE A MET AND COULDN’T WAIT TO STOP BEING A MET!”
I felt better.
“That’s it? That’s what you’re so pissed off about for more than 25 years? That’s the rock you’ve been carrying on your shoulder since 1979?”
“You think I was the only one?”
“Fuckin’ A right ‘No.’ You found out that Elliott Maddox regretted being a Met, that Mike Scott was never comfortable in New York that Frank Taveras was marking time.”
“Yes, I found that out.”
“So I ask you again, why do you have in for me, Richie Hebner?”
“Because you were the only one who was so fucking obvious about it back when it was going on.”
“Don’t I get credit for honesty? I said I didn’t want to be traded here.”
“You’re not supposed to say stuff like that! Not when I’m 16 years old and still believe the Mets are full of Mets who like being Mets.”
“Look kid…” — suddenly I was ‘kid’ to him — “…sorry to bust your bubble, but that’s life. I grew up in the family funeral business, so I know something about how there are no happy endings. Why waste a lot of breath on happy talk when we’re all gonna die?”
OK, this was getting morbid.
“Jesus, Hebner, will you listen to yourself? Baseball is the annual rite of renewal and spring and all that and you’re sitting here totally plunging me into the morass?”
“Well, how do ya think I felt? I’d been a Pirate for eight full seasons and we won five division championships. Then I signed with the Phillies and we won two more division championships. I was the starting third baseman on the team that won the 1971 World Series. I played with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and then with Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. I was on some of the best teams of my time. I was a winner! And then on March 27, 1979, with like a week to go before Opening Day, I’m traded to the last place New York Mets. Their best player was Chico Escuela. Spring training was almost over! So don’t tell me about how great spring is.”
For a second, he had me going. Everything he said was true. His number had actually been retired by Pittsburgh. Technically, it was retired for Pie Traynor but they took forever to do it so Hebner got to wear it. I had always looked at him as a good player when he was with the Pirates and the Phillies. I was excited when we got him for Nino Espiñosa. I was overjoyed to watch him on Opening Day 1979 when he got four hits and four RBIs and the Mets won for what seemed like the last time all year. I told him this.
“I always looked at you as a good player when you were with the Pirates and the Phillies. I was excited when we got you for Nino Espiñosa. I was overjoyed to watch you on Opening Day 1979 when you got four hits and four RBIs and the Mets won for what seemed like the last time all year. I’m telling you this.”
“So you see what I’m saying.”
“I absolutely do not.”
“All of it. It’s bullshit!”
“What do you mean?”
“If you were a good player, you’d go to the team you were traded to and say, ‘all right, how can I make my new team better?’ Instead, you were like every dick in every gym class who looked pained that the gym teacher assigned him to a team with the likes of me. You don’t whine and sulk and pout and let every fan know right away that you hate being where you are.”
“Well I did hate being where I was.”
“Do you hate being where you are, too? At the Windsor? In the Sixth Circle of Met Hell? Forever trapped on 1979 and in 1979? Do you hate knowing that as far as Faith and Fear in Flushing is concerned, you were never traded for Phil Mankowski and Jerry Morales, two non-prizes to put it mildly but at least they weren’t you? Do you hate knowing that even though I have a baseball card saying you became hitting coach of the Durham Bulls that in fact you will forever be the crappy third baseman on the crappy 1979 Mets and that you can sit in this crappy hotel room with your Pirate and Phillie highlights watching those teams go on and win without you while you finger your gravedigging shovel and stew in your own resentment? Do you hate all that?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Well too fucking bad!”
I walked out and slammed the door behind me. Man, that felt good! I opened the fire exit and it led me right out onto the street. I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take me to Dorval Airport. I was out of Met Hell. Nothing was gonna stop me now. Got my boarding pass, sailed by customs, got on my flight to LaGuardia. Found my row. I was given a middle seat, but the flight was fairly empty, so I wasn’t too worried. They got through reading the emergency instructions and I figured I was home free.
Not so fast. Two large men appeared and told me that they had the respective window and aisle seats. They looked pretty much alike to me. Both pretty big, both kind of obnoxious. One was a few years older and probably a few pounds heavier than the other. They each alternated dopey grins with suspicious grimaces. They literally rubbed me the wrong the way. I hate the middle seat. But I was happy to have emerged from the Sixth Circle of Met Hell, so I tried to make the best of it.
“So,” I asked, “you fellas looking forward to getting to New York?”
“Oh no, this flight isn’t going to New York,” said the window passenger. I gulped.
“He’s right,” the aisle passenger said to me. I breathed hard.
“Uh, where are we headed?”
They both laughed Devilishly and answered in unison.
“This,” they informed me, “is the flight to the Seventh Circle of Met Hell.”