If the offseason has your calendar off-kilter already, then it’s Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
My family meant well. They mean well. It’s not their fault they never loved baseball the way I did. But they tried to reach out. Dad bought us tickets to my first game ever for September 23, 1972. I don’t even have to look up Retrosheet to confirm the date from 35 years ago. I remember it because I looked forward to it so intently. My fourth season of being a Mets fan was winding down. “Big Shea” was the most magical-sounding place on Earth. It had to be. Every time Bob or Ralph or Lindsey mentioned it, it beckoned to me. Finally, finally, finally I was going to have my day in the sun, my day at Big Shea.
Then I got sick. No more than a cold, I swear. Yet Dr. Insolera, the lady pediatrician with the foul-smelling house (cats! dogs! rubbing alcohol! and maybe a monkey!) said oh no, he can’t go to a baseball game this weekend. And I didn’t. The Mets beat the Phillies without me. Not like I’m still nursing a grudge about it.
My family meant well. They mean well. They’d rather I remain healthy than tempt greater illness. They hint that maybe I shouldn’t take these games and seasons so seriously, that it’s not good for me. But they’ve never really gotten in the way of my passion. Sometimes they even enable it.
For my 30th birthday, fifteen years ago come December, they threw me a surprise party. I was truly surprised. Dad and Suzan and Mark and Stephanie pulled it off without any awareness on my part. I was thrilled to be showered with the kind of occasion I thought they only had on TV. I was touched so many old and dear friends dropped their New Year’s Eve plans to be on hand. And I was stunned by the greatest gift of all: 30 tickets — fifteen pair — to Mets games for the following season.
They couldn’t have known the following season was going to be 1993. But they had the right idea. Stephanie recently unearthed the videotape from that evening and played it for me after transferring it to DVD. Since I don’t forget much, it wasn’t all that astounding to see my not-yet-middle-aged self and everybody else who was there and what I was fortunate enough to be given. But this I had blocked out:
To my friend Larry who handed me a big-ass bottle of Champagne, I said, “I’ll save THIS for when the Mets win the World Series.”
Gave Summer 2007 me chills to hear December 1992 me imply such an event was bound to happen sooner than later. I couldn’t have known the following season was going to be 1993 either. Or that the following decade-and-a-half would be what it has been. That big-ass bottle was consumed on our next wedding anniversary. After the 1993 season (59 wins, 103 losses), I think I got the idea that waiting on the Mets might not get better with age.
My family meant well. They mean well. Even though they are at a loss to understand what baseball means to me. Even though they will never quite get that I get that there won’t figuratively be Champagne on the table very often where the Mets are concerned. Even when it’s thought there might literally be Champagne on the table once where a Met was concerned.
Like during Thanksgiving weekend thirty years ago.
Thanksgiving had always had an I Love Lucy feel about it in our house. It was wacky! There was the year I was eight and I had been cleared of my poultry allergy, so my mother decided to make a turkey. It wasn’t ready until about a quarter to ten that night. Legend has it that we knew it was ready when “the turkey’s ass jumped out of the oven.”
The next year, Mom got ambitious and invited over her relatives who had had us over once for a picture-perfect holiday. Frightened to death of another rearguard action that would make her look inadequate in the face of her balabusta cousin, she ordered the whole spread from a catering place called, more ironically than I realized at the time, the Happy Hostess. She insisted nobody tell these people she hadn’t cooked the dinner. I didn’t help matters, though I swear I thought I did, by mentioning roughly every five minutes that this turkey you made, Mom, it’s delicious! (Overact much?)
With such mildly amusing but ultimately self-defeating calamities in our family album, my parents must have gotten it in their heads that the place to be for Thanksgiving ’77 was away — away from home, away from relations. They liked the Catskills and my dad noticed that Kutshers, one of the then reasonably thriving resorts up there, found space on its Buddy Hackett/Robert Goulet-type marquee to host a sports weekend. I don’t suppose they have those anymore. For that matter, I’m not sure they have much of anything in the Catskills anymore, but back then, these hotels would lure New Yorkers an hour-and-change upstate with the chance to meet famous athletes, active and retired. Sports stars were just getting rich. The middle class among them could use a few extra bucks. It was a win-win.
No pitchers at Kutshers, but three baseball players:
• Elston Howard, the old Yankee, would be there — I didn’t care;
• Ron Swoboda, the old Met, would be there — I cared less than I would today, maybe because Swoboda hadn’t been a Met for seven years (hell, he’d been a Yankee at one point), maybe because seven years is half a lifetime when you’re 14;
• Lee Mazzilli, the new Met, the centerfielder whose rookie season had just ended, would be there.
That I could get really excited about. Actually, I could get excited about the whole idea of being taken to an event that only I among my father, my mother, my sister and me had interest in, as excited about it then as I am mystified by it now. Why, after such a long period of benign neglect, was my baseball mania being indulged instead of ignored? Was it because I wasn’t such a bad kid after all? Was it because I could have been worse? Was it because, despite my extraordinarily disinterested academic performance that fall (my mother received four pink notices informing her that her son was in danger of failing biology, geometry, Spanish and gym…gym!), I had just that month brought honor to the family and distracation from my grades by winning the Long Beach Junior High School spelling bee — Q-U-A-I-L…quail — as a redshirted ninth grader?
Or was it because they meant well and to this day those who are still here mean well?
I had never been in the same room with a baseball player, let alone a Met, unless you count Shea Stadium as a room. Ed Kranepool came to our class in sixth grade as a surprise (he knew our teacher, somehow) but I had the bad sense to be out sick that day. Virtually all of my face time with the Mets was via TV, most of that on the 5-inch black & white Sony that landed in my room. On the Sony, they all looked very small.
The sports forum was Friday afternoon in one of the hotel ballrooms. My sister, who had no interest in baseball but nothing else to do, came with. The three players plus the twotime heavyweight champion (of boxing, not spelling) Floyd Patterson, a greeter of some sort for the hotel and de facto moderator, sat at a table up front and answered questions. Whatever Howard, Swoboda and Mazzilli said is lost to the mists of time, though I’m confident they all copped to playing hard and living clean. When they were done fulfilling their contractual obligations, we were encouraged to mill about and collect autographs, which I did from all of them, even Howard, even Patterson. I don’t remember a lot of eye contact. Maybe I should have made some.
As the crowd thinned, I positioned myself to walk out of the ballroom with Swoboda, the hero of Game Four of the 1969 World Series, the Met who drove in the winning run of Game Five, one of the very first specific baseball memories I’d ever collected. Ditching Suzan for a moment, I asked him if he would mind if I asked him a question. Hands in his pockets and never breaking stride, he said, sure, go ahead.
“Whatever happened with your comeback?” I asked Ron Swoboda.
In the spring of ’76, Ron Swoboda, who hadn’t played since 1973, announced he would attempt to remake the Mets at the ripe, old age of 31. He had been doing sports on Channel 2 and I remember Channel 2 gamely tracking his return to St. Petersburg. In retrospect, it was almost a template for Chico Escuela’s comeback with the Mets as covered by Bill Murray on Weekend Update.
“I didn’t make the team,” Ron Swoboda told me much as he might have told me he hadn’t seen Close Encounters yet.
I thanked him for his answer, he said sure and he kept walking. At the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable inquiry, almost clever. Hey, nobody else asked it. Today I can’t believe I wasted my one one-to-one Ron Swoboda question on an aborted comeback that was already forgotten a year-and-a-half after it barely happened. Ron Swoboda defined October 1969 and I’m asking him about March 1976. My sister told me it was probably an insensitive question to ask. She didn’t know thing one about baseball, but she certainly understood civility.
She also had a better set of eyeballs on her than I did. For not long after parting ways with Swoboda — maybe we hung around the lobby for a little while — Suzan and I got on an elevator. With us were two young guys. It was a month before Saturday Night Fever opened, but these fellas looked like they could’ve been extras in the 2001 Odyssey scenes. They had this strut about them even as they stood waiting for their floor.
As long as I was on an insensitive roll, I made a face to Suzan, maybe a gesture to indicate that I, 14 and suddenly a card, thought these guys were too cool for their own good. Heh-heh. When we got off ahead of them, Suzan shot me this “you idiot” look.
“Didn’t you recognize him?”
She had to spell it out for me, the spelling bee champ. “That was Lee Mazzilli!”
Boy was I embarrassed. That and a little concerned that I was going to need glasses one of these days. Wasn’t I just in a room with that guy? No, the Sony really didn’t do him justice. Funny, I recognized Swoboda, but he did the sports on Channel 2…
Hold it — I was on an elevator with the Mets’ centerfielder and made fun of him? Pantomimed and mocked him? First Ron Swoboda finds me insensitive and now I can’t find Lee Mazzilli in an elevator? Sure, I thought it was dopey that Joe Torre sat him down on the last day of the season to protect his .250 average, and that basket catch bit of his made me nervous, but he was a Met. He was Lee Mazzilli. Young, good-looking, a ballplayer in a hotel…why shouldn’t he strut?
Given my keen powers of observation, I may very well have missed that the guy standing next to him was Doug Flynn.
Oy, as they say in the Catskills. We went back to the room and told Mom and Dad what had happened. Dad was amused. Mom said I shouldn’t feel too bad — Lee Mazzilli must have recognized my discomfort with the situation. I’m pretty sure Mazz and his bud didn’t notice me at all. If they were what I thought they were, they were probably checking out my 20-year-old sister.
Dinnertime approached. In a place like Kutshers, everybody ate (and ate voraciously) during the same two-hour window. Meals were on the American plan, which meant your meals were included — and no guest of Kutshers wasn’t going to get his or her money’s worth. Most Catskills vacationers rushed the dining room as soon as it opened for breakfast, lunch or dinner, killing time between sittings in the coffee shop. We, however, were European in our approach to dinner. Our internal clock was set to eat later than most, thus the place was fairly well packed as we were shown to our table.
And whose table should we pass by? That of Lee Mazzilli and his disco dude pal. No doubt he had been recognized by fans more sharp-eyed than me and greeted by dozens of guests since he sat down. But only my mother, upon learning who that young man sitting over there was, felt compelled to tell him, “He’s sorry. He didn’t recognize you.”
Lee Mazzilli nodded, smiled and proffered a half-wave of the hand (I don’t remember which hand — he was a switch-hitter). Lee Mazzilli was polite enough to not ask, “Who’s sorry? Who didn’t recognize me? Who the hell are you?”
We were seated. Directly, a waitress came over with a bottle of champagne. She’d be back to open it in a moment, she said.
Champagne? We ordered no Champagne. There was only one logical explanation for this, my mother divined. Lee Mazzilli, having seen my fallen face moments ago, felt so bad about my embarrassment that he wanted to show us there were no hard feelings over my mugging and smirking and failure to acknowledge him (first I failed gym, now Mazz). Thus, as any 22-year-old professional athlete would do on his off time, according to this hastily concocted storyline Mom fervently believed, Lee Mazzilli, the centerfielder for the New York Mets, sent our family a goodwill gesture. Yes, that was it! Obviously. My mother waved to him again to thank him. A bewildered Mazzilli waved back.
The waitress quickly reappeared and grabbed the bottle. “Sorry. Wrong table.”
So it turned out Lee Mazzilli didn’t send us Champagne on Thanksgiving weekend 1977. So it turned out Lee Mazzilli emphatically didn’t notice me not noticing him in the elevator. So it turned out that me and my family and my team never quite meshed as a unit no matter how well we all meant.
But that’s all right. At least no turkeys’ asses were harmed in the telling of this story.
Next Friday: I take matters into my own hands.
P.S. You’re in on history. Today is the 206th consecutive day of posting for Faith and Fear, a new record for this, the Ironblog of the Metsosphere. I know I speak for my partner in this endeavor when I say with all sincerity: Eat It, Ripken.