If you’re flipping through channels and come upon a rerun you haven’t watched in a long time, then it must be Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
No fictional character in the popular culture — not Sidd Finch, not Chico Escuela, not Oscar Madison — has done more to enhance the Metropolitan legend than Keith Hernandez. That Keith Hernandez is technically real shouldn’t detract from his contribution to the canon one bit.
I would think that every Mets fan knows what I’m talking about, though I could be wrong. On DiamondVision during the Delgado-Benitez balk game last week, Keith appeared to ask some lucky fan which Met appeared as himself on Seinfeld. The hint couldn’t have been any plainer than the questioner’s face.
The guy they picked to answer said Tom Seaver. He still won the Uncle Jack’s prize package. I wished they’d have given it to me so I could have poured that steak sauce on his head.
The answer was Keith Hernandez. Of course it was Keith Hernandez! Who doesn’t know that? Did they find one of those people who “doesn’t look at television”? Geez!
On February 12, 1992, Keith Hernandez, his playing days not two years over, made Mets and television history by guest-starring as Keith Hernandez on the then-cult sitcom Seinfeld. He was very convincing in the role. Jerry met him at a health club and developed what we would today call a man crush on him. Elaine dated him until his smoking turned her off. And Kramer? Well he and Newman said they didn’t care for Keith Hernandez.
KRAMER: I hate KEITH HERNANDEZ — hate him!
NEWMAN: I despise him.
What follows is one of the great moments television has ever beamed, a dead-on parody of the film JFK in which Jerry’s neighbors explain in Zapruderish detail why they so loathe the first baseman New Yorkers so loved.
NEWMAN: June 14, 1987…Mets-Phillies. We’re enjoying a beautiful afternoon in the right field stands when a crucial Hernandez error to a five-run Phillies ninth. Cost the Mets the game.
KRAMER: Our day was ruined. There were a lot of people, you know, they were waiting by the players’ parking lot. Now we’re coming down the ramp. Newman was in front of me. Keith was coming toward us, as he passes Newman turns and says, “Nice game, pretty boy.” Keith continued past us up the ramp.
NEWMAN: A second later, something happened that changed us in a deep and profound way from that day forward.
ELAINE: What was it?
KRAMER: He spit on us. And I screamed out, “I’m hit!”
NEWMAN: Then I turned and the spit ricochet of him and it hit me.
ELAINE: Wow! What a story.
JERRY: Unfortunately the immutable laws of physics contradict the whole premise of your account.
Yes, Jerry would prove beyond all reasonable doubt there was no magic loogie — and Keith would come along in the second half of the hourlong episode to reveal the true culprit.
KEITH: Well lookit, the way I remember it I was walking up the ramp. I was upset about the game. That’s when you called me pretty boy. It ticked me off. I started to turn around to say something and as I turned around I saw Roger McDowell behind the bushes over by that gravelly road. Anyway he was talking to someone and they were talking to you. I tried to scream out but it was too late. It was already on its way.
JERRY: I told you!
NEWMAN: Wow, it was McDowell.
JERRY: But why? Why McDowell?
KRAMER: Well, maybe because we were sitting in the right field stands cursing at him in the bullpen all game.
NEWMAN: He must have caught a glimpse of us when I poured that beer on his head.
Wraps it up nicely, no? Except for one nagging detail:
The Mets were not at Shea on June 14, 1987 losing to the Phillies. They were in Pittsburgh beating the Pirates. An immutable law of physics — the one that would specify you can’t be in two places at one time — contradicts the whole premise of everybody’s account.
It’s still a funny episode, but it’s always bugged me that Seinfeld chose this particular date to portray this fanciful incident. I remember June 14, 1987 very well. It was twenty years ago next week and it represented a milestone in a spring full of them.
June 14, a Sunday, was the day Stephanie left town. Not forever but, save for a few visits, for three years. She was in New York to go to plays and museums to earn college credits over six weeks. Her six weeks were up on June 14. We spent the last five of them together, but now it was time for her to go, damn it.
Now what do I do with myself? First thing I did after putting her on a train south to Florida was grab a seat at a bar in Penn Station, order a drink and ask the bartender how the Mets did today. He didn’t know, which I thought was highly irresponsible. The Celtics and Lakers were playing for the NBA championship on his TV. I think the Lakers won the title that day. I’m not sure. I didn’t much care. It was left to Sports Phone to inform me the Mets beat the Pirates 7-3, Sisk going 4-2/3 for the win, Darryl and, yup, Keith homering. We were still floundering in the N.L. East, 7-1/2 in back of the Cardinals and behind the Cubs and Expos for bad measure. But it was something.
Now what else do I do with myself?
Stephanie and I met on May 11. Our first date, the Mets and Giants, was on May 15. We were spending most available waking hours together by the end of May. Our first fait accompli discussion of marriage was June 4. It was whirlwind, but it was real. Now it was hurry up and wait while she finished her sophomore, junior and senior years of college (she was only 19, for goodness sake) and I did whatever it was I had to do to become a viable member of society by the time she was done at USF.
So what do I do after getting the Mets-Pirates score? I take off to Montreal.
I had a very good friend who facilitated my meeting Stephanie. If he wasn’t in New York on that same arts program (trying to forget his old girlfriend) then I would never have been in the lobby of the hotel where my future wife was staying in May. Now it was June and not only was she riding the rails home but so was her roommate who happened to be the girl my friend got involved with that same spring (got that?). At that very moment, actually, they were broken up and he was all “let’s drink and forget her!” It was his idea to go to the bar in Penn Station.
It was my idea to go to Montreal and see the Mets play the Expos.
My friend had a whole family psychodrama playing out, culminating in his parents flying into Newark the following Friday. From there he and they would drive back to Miami. Or Philadelphia where they were from originally. Or something. I forget what the deal was exactly except he kind of invited himself to stay over at my house between Sunday and Friday, which was fine with me, not such a popular idea with my mother who really didn’t like having houseguests (despite a plenty big enough house to accommodate several). I needed to get me and my friend out of town. And plan a future. But first get out of town for the week.
I know, I said. Let’s drive to Montreal! The Mets will be there! My friend wasn’t a big baseball fan but had this accommodating habit of being into whatever you were into at the precise moment you brought it up. Like Zelig, if you ever saw the Woody Allen movie in which the title character of yore morphs right into the prevailing situation. In my friend’s case, it occasionally seemed insincere and a little desperate, but this time it was very convenient. He was totally into this impromptu sojourn into another country.
I was 24 and sporadically employed. He was 21 and had nothing to do for five days. The loves of our lives had just split. What better remedy than ROAD TRIP!?
So we did it. On Monday the 15th, three of us — me, my friend and another summer-semester castaway who just happened to need a ride to her grandmother’s in Burlington, Vt., piled into my 1981 Corolla and headed north. I barely drive round the block these days if I don’t have to, but kill time in Montreal? Sure! Drop off a virtual stranger in Vermont along the way? Why not?
As is my custom, I didn’t hit the road until late in the day Monday. In those days, I took pride in being a nocturnal animal, and driving at night didn’t bother me a bit. Besides, the summer solstice was fast approaching. It was staying light late and we were going in the general direction of the Arctic Circle. The immediate future was so bright, we had to wear…well, you know.
Day became night and New York became Vermont. The Mets on WHN faded in and out. The first of the four-game series pitted Doc Gooden, recently back from drug rehab versus Dennis Martinez, a recovering alcoholic getting a final shot. It was on Monday Night Baseball. It was also going badly: Martinez pitched a shutout (infer what you will about their respective addictions). Our third wheel guided us over the river and through the woods — or at least across Lake Champlain — to Grandma’s house. We let her out on a quiet Burlington street probably after 10 P.M. We spent maybe six hours together, the three of us, after being casually acquainted since mid-May. We shared an adventure, or part of one. And then I never saw her again.
Montreal lay ahead, but the Canadian border was of more immediate concern. This was my first trip to Canada and I didn’t know what to expect. I was told I didn’t need a passport but I had conflicting reports on whether I needed a special insurance card to drive there (Mom said yes, the Vermont girl said no; KBS Insurance mootly mailed one to the house that arrived after I returned, so I guess no). What I did understand was I was getting tired. My friend and I switched seats and he drove.
Well after midnight, we made it to Canada. A border guard greeted us with a smile. Welcome to Canada, what is your business here? My friend, at the wheel, told him, “We’re here to see a couple of ballgames.” Another smile from the guard. With almost no hesitation, he waved us through. I’m glad the Mets-Expos rivalry carried such weight.
Just like that, another country. It was still another hour and some to Montreal. Unlike in later years, I planned this not at all. Today, I research hotels and transportation and baseball tickets. Then, I figured, we’ll get there when we get there and we’ll find our way. I was quite spunky then or just became more fretful as I grew older.
As Montreal approaches, you reach a toll bridge. A Canadian toll bridge that wants a Canadian toll. A quarter, at least then. I panicked. Because I panicked, my friend panicked. Who had Canadian change? In fact, back in Vermont when we gassed up, the attendant gave me back Canadian change and I politely asked for real money. The funny thing is I seemed to believe I was the first American who ever entered Canada with only American money. I explained all this to the tolltaker at the bridge at probably two in the morning. He waved us on through. What a country!
We found downtown Montreal in the dead of night. A well-lit dead of night, I should point out, replete with restaurants advertising smoked meat sandwiches. Within downtown, we found a Holiday Inn. Looked good to us. Disheveled, unshaven and dressed nothing like businessmen, the desk clerk, who seemed mildly suspicious of our business in Canada, offered us the businessman’s rate if we could produce some proof that we had some. Business, I mean. My “Freelance Writer” card only confused him. My friend had an expired press credential from a defunct newspaper. That did the trick; we got a room and by 3:45 A.M., we saw it getting light out. I think the rate sounded absurdly high anyway, but that was in Canadian dollars. As I was catching on (and had been clued in ahead of time), it translated to like five bucks American.
That became the running joke the next morning. My friend got up and exchanged some of our money at a nearby bank and ya gotta see the prices. Everything costs like five bucks because, well, it’s Canadian.
We did what any two American guys would do in a bilingual city filled with mystery and intrigue. We went to McDonald’s. Sticking with my weird insistence on not being a stranger in a strange land, I tried to order a Quart de Livre. The girl behind the counter said, “Quarter-Pounder, what else?” Ah, the hell with it. Yes, plus fries and a diet Coke please.
It was all prelude to our business in Canada, the ballgame. The one piece of information I had cobbled together was there was subway service between downtown (which is where I assumed we were staying — it could have been midtown for all I know) and The Big O. In Montreal, you took the Metro to the games. They even talked about it on the Mets’ broadcasts from there. Our hotel was near the line that would take us to Pie IX, the local version of Willets Point. Man, I thought, this is not bad. I’m in some foreign country and I know how to get to the ballpark.
Unlike the way it was painted in the dying years of the franchise, there were Expos fans in Montreal in 1987. Enough of them so they populated a subway car. We followed them the way tourists on the 7 follow me so they don’t get lost. (At least a couple times a year that happens; I kinda dig it.)
It worked. We got off at Pie IX and never had to go outside. Just that season, the Expos finally managed to get a roof on Olympic Stadium. It wasn’t retractable as advertised 10 years earlier when it opened for baseball, but it shielded you from the elements — not a huge concern in June — and kept with the general Canadian ethos of avoiding the great outdoors. The walk from the subway to the ballpark was all indoors.
It included a pass through a lively plaza. People milled and ate and smoked and a band played “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone),” a hit by Glass Tiger from the previous fall. My friend and I looked at each other and laughed out loud. Glass Tiger, we both knew, was a Canadian group and this cover band doing their song played into our concept of Canada as a country with a complex. Listen! It’s the No. 2 hit in the States! And it’s Canadian!
Tickets were easy to get. We produced Canadian money but, again, that wasn’t necessary, just cost-effective. Other Mets fans on their own sabbaticals were here, some buying tickets with U.S. currency. Somehow I felt a little offended that they didn’t make the effort to use Canadian money. (Hmmm…maybe I was the one with the Zelig affliction.)
Box seats were maybe 15 bucks (or like five bucks American). Good deal. We sat on the first base side. I looked around and, gads, what an ugly place! Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to be there. It was exciting. It was a ballpark and the Mets were going to play. But this was everything it was said to be and less. Just because it was half in French didn’t make it slightly charming. So much space, so much of it useless. There was a veritable lumber yard behind the centerfield fence — some wood that had been left over from a construction project that ran out of funding. In the next phase of my career, I’d visit cold warehouses stacked with 24-packs of beer or soda and be reminded of Olympic Stadium.
That’s the critique in a nutshell. Too big for its own good. Too deep, too hollow. Too artificially loud thanks to the cheers that echoed all out of proportion to their actual heft. Too bad. This was the fifth ballpark I visited and I immediately decided it was No. 5 among my favorites. That pattern continued right up to the Expos’ death. At this writing, I’ve been to 30 ballparks and Le Stade Olympique is secure at No. 30 — until the 31st park gets visited. Tropicana Field or the Metrodome, long buried on my to-do list, will have to be awfully awful to undercut it.
But I’m not recollecting here to be mean to Montreal. I had a nice time. And if I had a nice time, I’m pretty sure my friend did, too. First off, the Mets took a 4-0 lead by the third and won easily, 7-3. Terry Leach, who was a godsend that season by filling in for all our injured starters, went eight innings for the victory. He was 5-0 at the end of the night. What a bon lanceur he was. I squinted down to the end of the Mets’ long dugout bench to pick out Tom Seaver who was on the comeback trail (it never took; he retired the following week) and may have seen him.
I know I saw No. 25 in the lineup, batting second and playing second. It wasn’t Backman and it wasn’t Teufel. It was Keith Miller, making his Major League debut right there in Montreal with me on hand. Because of that, I always felt proprietary of his career which didn’t amount to much, sad to say (at least before taking up agenting), but he did hustle. In the private baseball lingo another friend and I occasionally chatted in for fun, Stephanie became known as Keith Miller for coming out of nowhere and providing a spark to my life; I was Darryl Strawberry mostly ’cause I wanted to be.
Mets caps dotted the O. I was wearing one plus a Giants Big Blue Wrecking Crew sweatshirt, trying to stretch that City of Champions vibe a little longer (the Mets and Giants would both defend titles ineptly in 1987). Ran into a fellow in the men’s room who was also up from the Metropolitan area, also liked the Mets and Giants. We chatted briefly about both teams and concluded that we had had it pretty good lately in New York.
That was the only game we went to, at least the only Mets-Expos game. My friend and I walked along Rue Ste. Catherine, past the various Smoked Meat signs, and found a park near McGill University the next afternoon where we played Wiffle Ball. We’d had a Wiffle Ball game in progress since November ’85, my first post-college visit to Tampa. We played a few innings in the Albertson’s parking lot then and picked it up every time I came down. I don’t think we did much Wiffle Ball in New York, but made up for it with three innings in the park that day. We concluded the game the following March on the main baseball diamond at USF when I came down for Stephanie’s spring break. I seem to recall the final collective score winding up 43-33 in my favor, but I could be making that up.
We left Montreal Thursday morning, initially following the same path we took, back through Vermont. We got to the border, me driving this time. The United States guard wasn’t smiling when he asked what we were up to. I smiled and said we’d gone to Montreal to see the Mets play the Expos.
He looked us over. Young guys. Florida plates that I still hadn’t switched to New York. Hadn’t shaved. My friend was wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts. Miami Vice was still on the air.
“Please get out of the car.”
The border guard decided were drug smugglers. He didn’t say it, but that was the strong impression he gave. He searched the car, searched our luggage, searched our pockets. He got excited twice, once when he found an empty baggy in my suitcase, once when he found pills in aluminum foil in my jeans. He actually cracked the foil open. Tylenol, I said. I get headaches.
He let us go.
The rest of the trip was uneventful except for me being pulled over for speeding on the Massachusetts Turnpike. I was doing 77 in a 55 zone. Gosh, that makes me smile today. The Mets salvaged a series split while we were in Connecticut. The next day, I drove my friend to Newark Airport (in record time from Long Island, I might add) and he hooked up with his parents. I turned around and went home.
That was it for me and Montreal and for me and grand, unplanned ROAD TRIP!s. I would have assumed this was the sort of thing I’d do from time to time for the rest of my life, but no, that was the only truly impulsive one I ever took off on. As for me and my friend, it was kind of a final flourish for our post-college friendship at least on the scale it existed in the mid-’80s. He and Stephanie’s roommate got back together in Florida and actually beat us to punch marriagewise (neither of them being sticklers about bothering to graduate). We all kind of stayed in touch, on and off, for several years thereafter. For reasons I don’t quite grasp, they and their daughter, born in December 1989, fell off our radar for good in 1996 and us off theirs. Wouldn’t have guessed that could possibly happen in June 1987, but it did.
The Mets arrived home from Montreal as well. They swept a weekend series at Shea from the Phillies in what was judged to be a great pivotal turning point to that frustrating season. No record exists on which player spit on which fans in real life.
Next Friday: The worst date in New York Mets history.