What's everybody so down about? Didn't everybody make it with a beautiful MP tonight?
—Russell Ziskey, Stripes
Listen, I'm as mopey as everybody here about Endy Chavez and all the injuries and the three-game losing streak, but…ahem…I was talking to our very own Met the other night and…
What? Doesn't everybody have their very own Met?
Faith and Fear does. Our Met is Steve Springer. I call him Spring. He calls me buddy. And he thinks it's “awesome” that I have his cap.
It is awesome! It is so awesome not only that I have the Tidewater Tides cap worn by Steve Springer in 1986, but it is doubly awesome that the very same Steve Springer, an honest-to-goodness New York Met in 1992, was directed by his son (who was directed by Google) to read about my excitement at receiving his cap from Dave Murray last December. Spring let it be known that I should get in touch with him. So we e-mailed. And then we spoke.
I've met Mets before, some in that “hi, how are ya?” passing in a hotel lobby way, some in that “who should I make that out to?” way, even one in that “this is my friend Greg” way. The meetings were chance or merchandised or through somebody else's good graces because somebody else had their own Met. All those experiences were great. But I've never spoken to a Met because I wrote about him, certainly not because I blogged about him. I never wanted to be a sportswriter because I never wanted to not be excited by the first one-on-one, two guys shootin'-the-breeze chat I ever had with a New York Met.
It worked. I talked to Spring for like 20 minutes last week and I'm still excited. It's still awesome.
Now before you start thinking Steve Springer has nothing better to do than make overgrown small boys with blogs' wishes come true, there was a little piece of business conducted. No, I didn't pay him to talk to me, but I anxiously volunteered that I wanted to let our readers, guys like us who are “nuts” about the Mets and who may have kids who are old enough to benefit, know that he has an instructional hitting CD — Quality At Bats — designed to help budding players improve their game and their chances of today, Draft Day, being one of the greatest days of their lives.
“If the game wasn't mental,” Spring told me, “then every first-rounder would have ten years in the big leagues.” He pointed to David Eckstein winning the MVP in last year's World Series as evidence that it takes more than talent to succeed in baseball. I wished he hadn't used the 2006 Cardinals as his shining example of what works, but I got what he was saying.
It's too late to help me (physically and possibly mentally), but Spring sent me the CD anyway. I listened to it and Spring makes a lot of sense. His whole approach revolves around being mentally sound and not getting hung up on batting averages, simply having quality at-bats. That means going up to the plate with confidence, making your goal hitting the ball hard, attacking the inside part of the ball and helping your team win that day. Sometimes, Spring told me, you're gonna hit the ball on the screws and you're gonna make an out. That's OK. Don't get discouraged. Stick with your plan. The average will take care of itself and the scouts will find you. When you play ball, Spring says, you're always being evaluated.
Dads (and moms), it's a great teaching tool for your kids if they're at all serious about playing baseball, not just watching it like me. And actually, even if all you like to do is watch baseball, it's pretty damn neat to listen to the CD just to hear a major leaguer share a few stories, a few secrets, a few names. Don't take my starstruck word for it, though. College coaches (including George Horton of Cal State Fullerton who swore by Spring's advice all the way to a national championship), MLB personnel gurus, pro players…a lot of people who know what they're talking about talk about Quality At Bats like it's gospel. There are tens of thousands in circulation. It's worth checking out.
Spring knows his baseball. He has the CD, he's been a scout for the Diamondbacks, he's an agent for several current players (one of whom called in the middle of our conversation) and he had a long playing career. The four games with the Mets in 1992 and the four he had with the Indians in 1990 are the extent of his big league dossier (enough to rate him the hundredth invitation to celebrity golf tournaments, he chuckled) but he spent eleven seasons in the minors, most of them in the Met system.
“It could've been a lot better,” Spring told me. “It could've been a lot worse.”
It would figure that his Tidewater cap would seep out of Virginia and become available to the likes of Dave Murray in Michigan then me on Long Island because Spring was a Tide for a long time, a good enough Tide to have been inducted into their Hall of Fame. He was in Norfolk alongside a veritable living, breathing volume of The Holy Books, counting teammates like Lenny Dykstra, Billy Beane and Randy Milligan among the lifelong friends he made in the minors.
“Baseball's a pretty good fraternity,” he says, which is somehow reassuring to a fan like me who would like to believe that these guys are more than just mercenaries. Sure enough, Spring competed good-naturedly with Keith Miller to sign David Wright as a client (Keith got him, but David has the CD), recently hooked up with Rick Aguilera for the first time in 15 years and can't sing the praises of John Gibbons enough. Regarding the tussles the Blue Jays manager had with a couple of his malcontent players last year, Spring is adamant that “if you don't get along with Gibby, trust me you're the idiot. He's the best. He's gold.”
The name I didn't expect Spring to mention (as if I expected to hear any of them) was that of Tom McCraw, the Mets hitting coach when he finally made it to the Mets in '92. If he'd met him when he was 18 instead of 28, Spring might have moved up the celebrity golf tournament ladder, so good was his advice on the mental approach to hitting. “He changed my life,” Spring says. McCraw is why Spring understands the mental side of hitting and can pass it along.
Isn't that something? We watch these games, we see hitting coaches sitting on the bench next to reserve infielders, we see a few words pass between them and we don't think anything of it. This is their lives and their livelihoods playing out in front of us. That, too, is kind of awesome.
As long as I had a former New York Met on the phone, I couldn't resist a couple of topical questions. Since he mentioned Gibby and the Blue Jays, I asked him about that A-Rod play in Toronto last week. It had taken place the night before and Spring hadn't heard about it, so I explained Rodriguez was running from second to third and yelled “I GOT IT!” (or something) and messed up the Jays' infield's attempt to catch it.
Spring was aghast. “I've never heard of that!” he told me. “I've never thought to do that. That's crazy!” There's two things you don't do, he says: you don't fake a tag if the ball's not coming and you don't yell whatever A-Rod yelled on a pop-up. He says Jose Reyes dancing off third to induce Armando Benitez into a balk was fine. That the hidden-ball trick is great. But A-Rod's action does not have Spring's seal of approval.
Since there are only a few MLB boxscores that contain the name Steve Springer to comb, my friend Mark was quick to examine them when I told him I was going to be speaking with Spring. Mark noticed right off (as he tends to) that one of his games, with the Indians, was against the Red Sox, with Roger Clemens pitching. So I asked Spring if it's weird knowing that a guy he faced 17 years ago is about to pitch in the bigs again.
I expected some boilerplate about what a great competitor Clemens is and not a lot more. But like a lot of people, I underestimated Spring. He had a whole story about that game.
Spring went 4-for-17 (.235) in the big leagues, but he told me he should have gone 4-for-13 (.308) because he never should have faced Clemens on June 3, 1990. Spring wasn't in the starting lineup, but Clemens hit Stanley Jefferson (yes, ex-Met Stanley Jefferson) and tensions boiled over and Chris James got ejected and Spring was sent in cold to take his place as DH. His first at-bat, Clemens throws him a fastball and Spring hits it has hard as he can, and it's heading right between the five-hole and the six-hole but Luis Rivera (yes, ex-Met Luis Rivera) “shoestrings me” and “Roger Clemens did not throw me another fastball the rest of the day. He struck me out three times. I busted his fastball.
“I was a like a baby deer taking his first steps. And he's still pitching. He's amazing, obviously.”
Spring's tenure with the Mets lasted all of four games over eleven days. I had hoped he could tell me something about Shea Stadium from a player's perspective, but his entire New York career was one game. “I got there at noon, extra early to work, and I'm pinch-hitting against Mitch Williams at eleven o'clock at night.” Not an ideal National League debut (Wild Thing struck out our Spring) but the road was kinder. His first Met start was August 25 at Candlestick. The second baseman doubled off Trevor Wilson in the second and singled against him in the seventh. The Mets won 2-1.
Two days later, the Mets traded David Cone for “some stiff named Jeff Kent”. Kent, like Clemens, is still active and also possibly en route to Cooperstown (despite Mets fan misgivings in both cases). Spring didn't get brought back in September. He reupped with the organization and told me he was due for an “are you shitting me?” callup early the next year. That, he explained, is when other ballplayers see Steve Springer's name in the transactions box in the newspaper and ask “They called up Spring? Are you shitting me?” Alas, the Mets wound up in an extra-inning duel in Montreal and pitching reinforcements were needed and Spring was in short order off to new adventures.
Roger Angell once wrote about three middle-aged Tigers fans who were a lot like Jason and me and probably you. One of them, named Don, was a dentist who couldn't believe whose teeth were in his hands. He had to call his pal Bert to tell him.
“This is probably a violation of every professional canon, but I can't help it. Guess who I've got in the chair!”
Chet Laabs, Angell kindly explained, was “a chunky, unremarkable outfielder” who played for the Tigers from 1937 to 1939.
Much of my professional work involves interviewing people and writing what they say in a fairly detached manner. I don't mind doing that as a rule. I certainly don't make myself part of their story. But I didn't want to interview Steve Springer per se. I just wanted to talk to a guy who played for the Mets, one whose cap wound up via circuitous route on my head long after he recorded those two hits off Trevor Wilson of the Giants to help Sid Fernandez gain his eleventh win of the 1992 season.
Thus I had one final question for our honest-to-goodness New York Met. Spring, I asked, what do you make of guys like us, me and my buddy who write blogs like this, me and my buddy who got me your cap, me and everybody who goes nuts over what guys like you did for a living?
“I think it's awesome,” Spring told me. “I've never changed. I'm still the guy I was, treating people with respect. Does it hurt to say 'hi' to somebody? It makes people feel good.”
It sure does.