The swings Darryl Strawberry and David Palmer took at each other last night during a bench-clearing brawl in the first inning were sissy swipes compared to the real punch Gary Carter displayed.
Sissy swipes? Did somebody actually use the phrase “sissy swipes” in a baseball game story at some point in the past quarter-century? Without irony?
Yup. That’s how Jack Lang of the Daily News led his report on the Mets-Braves game of July 11, 1986, one in which Palmer “plunked Strawberry in the butt” after surrendering a three-run homer to Carter. Though “Darryl dropped his bat, threw his helmet and started for the mound,” Lang reassured his readers that “no one got hurt and it was all over in a matter of minutes.”
Kind of describes the game story as we knew it when newspapers were our primary conduit to baseball information.
Jack Lang, you’ve probably heard, passed away last week at 85. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have thought Lang was still writing for the News. Or the Long Island Press even.
Without looking it up, I couldn’t remember any particular piece Jack Lang wrote in his more than 25 years on the Mets beat. That’s not a knock on Jack. He had a job to do: sum up the game and, if deadline permitted, gather a few quotes. Rereading his story on the 11-0 drubbing the Mets put on the Braves in their championship season, there are no quotes (Friday night game, late start for NBC, Saturday paper) but I got the flavor of what happened all over again.
By 1986 the reader almost certainly knew the score by the next morning. Lang could sum up the feel of the game in the first paragraph and then get to the meat of the matter in the second and third:
Carter hit a three-run homer and a grand slam his first two trips as the Mets treated Sid Fernandez to a fun festival in walloping the Braves, 11-0.
Carter drove in the Mets’ first seven runs and that was much more than El Sid needed as he rolled to his 12th win — the most by any NL pitcher this season. Fernandez had three hits, two doubles and a single, and Len Dykstra had another three-hit game.
There. The game in a nutshell. Colorful and concise. We know about the fight, we know about the offense, we know about the pitching. Just lay a bed of we’ve got the teamwork/to make the dream work underneath it and it’s 1986 again.
Not having others’ game stories from the July 12 papers with which to compare it, I couldn’t tell you if the reporters from Newsday, the Post or the Times covered it better or worse or if they, unlike Lang, plumbed the depths of David Palmer’s psyche. I don’t recall knowing until I read The Bad Guys Won! that Palmer was nursing a grudge against Carter that dated to their Expo battery days. Wrote Jeff Pearlman many years after the fact:
With bodies piling on top of them, Hernandez turned to Palmer and in a calm tone asked a simple question: “Dave, why would you do that?”
Palmer yelled back: “Carter and all that bullshit! I hate that guy!”
Amid the mayhem Hernandez was unmoved. “Look, if you hate Gary, why hit Darryl?” he said, bodies flying left and right. “It’s not right.”
Palmer had to admit, the man had a point.
The point about Jack Lang is he was a constant for us as Mets fans. Lang started covering the game when television was a novelty and stayed at it until sports talk radio was proliferating, easing up for good a bit shy of the Internet age. He was there when “sissy swipe” was considered neither patently offensive nor wholly outdated and he remained until you could print “butt” in a family paper. He bridged more than a couple of eras and by late in his career could still tell you what you needed to know about last night’s game particularly if you didn’t see it or hear it.
It’s different now. Results seem to get buried in all but wire service game stories, not without cause. Does anybody still wait for the News to get a score? For any paper? If you missed the game you can get the score without really trying. You can get an instant AP writeup on any number of sites minutes after the game is over. You get the likes of us picking it apart and putting it back together. Lang’s paper and its competitors are online like everybody else.
It’s not just sportswriting that assumes you know what you actually need to know and figures it’s role is to tell you something you didn’t know. Political coverage, especially when there’s no election in sight, chooses to dwell on mood and attitude before informing you what the guy or gal running for office actually said. In Sunday’s Times there was an interesting interview with Garry Shandling in which the most newsworthy tidbit — that a collection of The Larry Sanders Show DVDs will be released in April — wasn’t to be found until the reader got well down into the jump page.
No, it’s not just sports that’s written with more latitude than it used to be. But it is sports that we care about here. I wonder if we are truly better served in today’s marketplace than we were when Jack Lang was on duty.
On the face of it we are. The speed and accessibility and range of voices is not to be underestimated. 1986 wasn’t exactly prehistoric times but back then there was no discussion of the game to take you through the night on the radio. There was no ticker flashing scores and details on your cable television. There was no computer connecting you to anything that would help you fill in the blanks on those three hits by Lenny Dykstra. You could catch the score on WINS or WCBS, you could get a few highlights on one of the 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock newscasts or you could call Sportsphone if you were really desperate. WFAN and ESPNews and every dot com we count on did not exist.
We are better off for that. More is very much better in terms of delivery. More is often better in terms of insight and perspective. More is sometimes better in that all these vehicles that weren’t around when Lang was on the beat mean we get baseball news and opinion all year round.
Wally Matthews in Newsday last Wednesday:
Perhaps if Willie Randolph were still a player, and not the manager who led them to within a victory of the World Series, the Mets would show him a little more respect and a lot more money.
The rest of his column (a column, not a news story it should be noted) excoriated the Mets for cheaping out on their manager, for not getting a deal done during the winter, for blaming him for the Mets losing to the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Ken Davidoff in Newsday last Thursday:
A winter of discomfort will not carry over into the Mets’ spring. Willie Randolph will not be a lame-duck manager this season.
Randolph and the Mets agreed in principle yesterday to a three-year, $5.65-million extension, three people familiar with the situation confirmed. The extension will kick in immediately — Randolph’s $700,000 contract for 2007 was torn up — and run through 2009, with a team option for 2010.
Without knowing who was whispering into whose ear in the course of November, December and January, I couldn’t say how serious any “discomfort” became between Randolph and ownership. They apparently entered into something called a negotiation. The negotiation ensued and a resolution, Willie’s contract, was agreed upon.
Willie Randolph got his millions. The Mets got their manager. Wally Matthews got his word quota filled even if it read very shakily before the Randolph deal was announced and as a total waste of space afterwards.
Seriously, read it. There’s nothing in there that any blogger or commenter or poster on any Mets board couldn’t have dreamt up if he or she were so inclined. There is nothing professional about Matthews’ accusations and assessments (“there can be no other explanation…”). There is nothing from sources, even unnamed sources, to suggest the organization and its skipper were heading for the meltdown the columnist implies. It was all just insipid speculation whose shelf life was mercifully short even by the standards of today’s reduced newscycles.
Columns that grasp at any passing breeze weren’t invented with the connection of the first T1 line.
Across the breadth of Lang’s long day on the beat there was bad sportswriting as well as good sportswriting. Yet it’s discouraging to realize that in an era when we the fans are superserved — regularly serving ourselves — we are often badly served by the credentialed media in whom we’re supposed to invest our trust. In Matthews’ case, it wasn’t just an opinion that you could take or leave. He was presenting as fact an impending crisis based exclusively on his innuendo about the Mets’ supposedly unreasonable stance toward Randolph. And if you read or listen enough to the pros, Matthews’ methodology is hardly isolated.
Somehow, especially since I like to believe we become more enlightened the more we progress as a society, I find this more offensive than the most vicious Dick Young broadside against the integrity of a player we loved but he didn’t particularly like. Dick Young died in 1987. Everybody in his profession should know better by now.