Welcome to Flashback Friday, a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.
Twenty years, 43 Fridays. This is one of them.
I haven’t checked with anybody who emerged from the womb in the thirty seconds on either side of me, so I can’t confirm if I was the sucker born every minute the minute I was born. But after reading this, I think we’ll agree that I was a prime candidate.
To evaluate my suckerish tendencies, we’re going to have get to 1986 by way of 1988, for that’s when the suckering was attempted. 1988 is probably the least well thought of relatively great year in Mets history and, hands down, the least favorite year of my life. It was the year my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was the year I lost just about all of my freelance livelihood. And it was the year somebody attempted to mess with the moment I cherished above all others.
Somebody tried to sell me the Bill Buckner ball. Or Mookie Wilson ball. Take your pick. He had it, showed it to me and named a price.
In the ensuing years, I’d hear the story of how an umpire, Ed Montague, picked up the ball and tossed it to longtime front office fixer Arthur Richman and that Arthur gave it to Mookie but Mookie urged Arthur to keep it and that in 1992, at his cousin’s urging, Arthur auctioned it off and it was bought by Charlie Sheen for $93,500. Sheen got bored with the ball or perhaps needed spare change to pay his prostitutes and it was sold again in 2000, this time for $63,944 (a lot less, but still plenty when converted to hookers) to Seth Swirsky a writer made good — very good, apparently.
That’s not how I understood the path of the ball, though. I got a much different story. My source wasn’t Mookie or Richman or any of the mainstream media that followed the bouncing ball from between Buckner’s legs into auctions and collections, never mind history.
My source was this guy. Yes, we’ll call him This Guy, short for This Guy who ran a baseball card store in the fall of 1988. TG will do.
TG’s shop wasn’t just any baseball card store. It was a counter in the back of a tobacco shop. As I don’t smoke, I don’t generally frequent those establishments, but there was one in Oceanside I’d wander into occasionally to buy the papers — newspapers, not tobacco papers. News to me was that this little baseball kiosk existed in the store; I had never seen it there before. What drew me in was a blue poster on which there were orange letters that expressed the most noble sentiments known to man:
LET’S GO METS!
It was a giveaway from the Daily News, handed out at Shea on Opening Day 1987. The poster was accented by a snipe confirming that the Mets were 1986 World Champions. It also had a drawing of Basement Bertha (before she and Bill Gallo lost their respective minds altogether) jumping up and down with a Mets pennant. I had to have it.
So I went inside and asked the man in the back how much for the poster. He seemed surprised somebody wanted it. Uh, five bucks he said like he was doing me a favor. Though I gathered it was perhaps 15 cents worth of cardboard, I ponied up. Five bucks was a lot of money to me at the time, but the Mets were everything.
Since he didn’t have any customers and I had nowhere in particular to be this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I hung around after we exchanged paper to glance at his other inventory and chat baseball memorabilia. I noticed he was asking way more for a Gregg Jefferies baseball card than he was for Basement Bertha or almost anything else. I knew Jefferies was hot and that rookie cards were a big deal, but I asked that if on the off chance Jefferies didn’t make the Hall of Fame, wouldn’t it not be a great investment?
Nah, said TG. Even if Gregg Jefferies doesn’t have the kind of career we all know he’ll have, the hype surrounding him will forever be such a part of us that of course his rookie card will endure into eternity as one of the icons of the age. According to Beckett right now, I should be able to nab a Gregg Jefferies rookie card for about 50 cents, or far less than TG said it would be worth. And according to the Baseball Hall of Fame, there’s no Gregg Jefferies plaque on order.
I wasn’t interested in buying a baseball card. I only wanted that cardboard with the LET’S GO METS! and I got that. It cheered me up. What a rotten year had it been. My mother sick. My career in tatters. The Mets had gotten nipped by the Dodgers. The Hurricanes had gotten screwed by the refs and Notre Dame (I actually cared about college football then). Dukakis had rolled over and played dead for Bush. Nothing was going my way in the fall of 1988. A little positive Mets reinforcement was just the ticket for momentary happiness. I was vulnerable.
“Hey, what’s that?”
That was me thinking, not talking. I don’t like dealing with salesmen, not those whose job it is to sell things when I’m in their line of sight. When I bought the only new car I’ve ever bought, I practically needed a month in a sanitarium afterwards. Given my trusting instincts, I find the best weapon I have in negotiating sales pitches is ability to recoil, run and hide. So I pretended, amid our Gregg Jefferies chat, not to notice the hand-printed sign whose hand-printed arrows pointed to a plastic case on a shelf behind the counter:
The Ball That Went Through Buckner’s Legs
Oh, is that all that is? Just the near-biblical artifact that two years after it became what it became, I regularly went to bed trying to figure out ways to dream about. That boll rolling where it did and changing the course of history for the better as it did was still the best reality I knew. 1988 wasn’t going to stop sucking for me, but even 1988 couldn’t obliterate 1986. And 1986 would remain 1986 well into the 21st century because of that little item.
Asking price: $175.
I seem to recall TG bringing it up first. He was a low-rent Ricky Roma, the Al Pacino character from Glengarry Glen Ross. Ricky didn’t hard-sell his marks. He talked philosophically with them, about what was good about life, about what wasn’t important and what was. Y’know what’s good, what really lasts?
I want to show you something. It might mean nothing to you…and it might not. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore…but look here: what is this? This is a piece of land. Listen to what I’m going to tell you now…
TG was going on a bit about the hardships of running a baseball card business, about the perceived inauthenticity of his stock and the rampant mistrust he met trying to make an honest buck when he pointed to the shelf behind him, the plastic case on it and the sign with the arrows.
“I don’t know why people don’t believe me about the Buckner ball.”
“Oh yeah,” I confessed. “I was kind of wondering about that.”
Good thinking. Tell the salesman that you are intrigued with his shiniest bauble. I’ll just leave my wallet here and you take what you need.
This was long before the day of Doug Mientkiewicz. Not that trinkets and trash hadn’t already acquired a substantial tag by the late 1980s, but not every baseball connected to every event was automatically assumed to be Tiffany’s material (Tiffany’s the jeweler, not Tiffany the singer; this was 1988). Still, I actually had wondered what happened to the ball Mookie Wilson hit up the line in the earliest hour of Sunday, October 26, 1986. Last pitches usually find logical destinations. Catchers cradle strikeouts. Fielders put away putouts. Walkoff homers are followed over the fence to whomever picks them up from there. But I had never seen where the ball Mookie nubbed landed. The last I saw of it was the right field grass. Buckner didn’t run after it and Dwight Evans didn’t come charging in on it.
TG was happy to fill in my blanks. His uncle, you see, was Uncle Sal, a Shea cop. A “special” — one of those semi-official officers who hops over the stands when the game ends to keep the likes of you and me from rushing the field. Uncle Sal was working the box seats in right. When Mookie’s ball evaded Buckner’s grasp and Ray Knight scored from second, the game ended. Never mind that in a blink it became the single most extraordinary game in Mets history, perhaps baseball history. It was the end of a game. Uncle Sal and the specials had to hit the grass like always.
Ed Montague was the right field umpire in Game Six. He picked up the ball. We all agree on that. But he didn’t seek out Arthur Richman, according to TG. He handed it to his buddy Uncle Sal. Everybody knew Uncle Sal. There were pictures on the back wall of the tobacco shop of Uncle Sal with baseball celebrities like Tommy Lasorda. Managers liked Uncle Sal. Umpires loved him. Not just Montague. All six who worked the 1986 World Series autographed the Mookie ball for him. Could it be any more authentic?
Now Uncle Sal passed the ball along to his nephew TG who was selling it for $175 in the back of a tobacco shop in Oceanside. Four thoughts raced through my mind…
1) That’s a lot of money for me right now.
2) That’s not a lot of money for the greatest baseball in the history of the world.
3) There’s no way THAT’S the greatest baseball in the history of the world.
4) Yeah, but what if that’s really THE BALL?
Listen, I was 25 years old. In Stengelese, I wuzn’t no Ned in the third reader, but I was a little more callow than I’d have cared to let on. I couldn’t let go of the possibility, however remote, that Uncle Sal really was the repository of treasure and that TG’s allegedly airtight story and $175 were all that stood between me and owning the object that had given me the best moment I was sure I’d ever have as a Mets fan and as a human being.
I’ll turn the rest of the story over to my journal entry of November 24, 1988:
There was no legal certification saying, yes, this was The Ball. The guy seemed genuine. But who knows? Still, when he brought it down, took it out of its case and left it out on the counter for me to inspect, it was overwhelming. I could only allow myself to touch it quickly. My eyes were seconds away from watering. Was this really The Ball? The ball that carried me to a height of euphoria I’ll probably never match for intensity and frenzy and suddenness? The Ball that went through Buckner’s legs? The most famous baseball in New York Mets history?
I’d very much like to believe it was. Of course if I were interested in purchasing it, the guy might ask it I’d like to see something in George Washington’s skate key. Who knows how many baseball card store owners in the metropolitan area have Uncle Sals who are friendly with Ed Montague?
What gets me is why this man would sell this one. OK, he’s in business and it is an attractive item. But geez, he’s a Mets fan. If you’re not going to keep it, how could you stick it on a shelf next to a ball signed by Mario Soto (or whoever)? Shouldn’t it be in Cooperstown or at least the Diamond Club? Shouldn’t you present it to Mookie? Even auction it for charity?
Usually, as in the case of the Let’s Go Mets sign, if I see something that sticks in my subconscious and it becomes available at a reasonable price, I snatch it up. Luckily we’re talking about things like soda cans that cost 70 or 80 cents. (I’d rather have [a particular can that I still regretted not buying in North Carolina in 1983] than a Rolex.) If I had $175 to casually lay down on expensive trinkets, I’d buy The Ball if, IF, IF I was sure it was The Ball.
It would be terrible to have it around if it were discovered to be a fraud. Not just because of the obvious. The Ball is the most powerful talisman, the holiest grail I personally could imagine. I could not worship a false idol.
And even if I knew I had the real thing and it came to me any other way than directly, I’d feel funny about it. First off, I’d spend all day staring at it. Second, it would be incomplete unless I could get Number Six’s bow legs to place over it. Finally, I couldn’t deprive the rest of Metsdom from this “national” treasure. I’d have to take it on tour.
Maybe I’ll just go back to the store and take a picture of it. I just want it to wind up in a good, loving home.
I didn’t buy the ball. I didn’t take a picture. I never went back to TG’s concession which was eventually removed from the back of the tobacco shop which may or may not still be there. I’ve never heard anybody cry serious foul over the Montague-to-Mookie-to-Richman-to-Sheen-to Swirsky connection. Buckner once raised a ruckus that Sheen bought a phony but then recanted (troubled man, our Bill). Nobody’s ever come forward on a public stage to claim, WAIT! I have an uncle who worked at Shea and…nothing like it.
Nevertheless, I touched a ball that somebody said was The Ball. Like a second-inning inside-the-park homer erased in a fourth-inning downpour, I suppose it doesn’t count. But I did touch it. And though I knew better, it touched me.