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What Don Cardwell Didn't Mean to Teach Me About Baseball But Still Did

Don Cardwell, one of the Miracle Mets’ elder statesmen, died Monday at 72.

It’s been that kind of offseason: Most of the headlines the Mets make are because there are fewer of them, and not because three or four are headed to Minnesota for Johan Santana. Jim Beauchamp died shortly before New Year’s; now Cardwell. What news do we have otherwise? Well, Angel Pagan has come back to the fold in what Bill Veeck used to call a dog-and-cat trade — I’ll trade my utility guy for your utility guy so the papers will have something to write about and the fans will have something to chew on in the barbershops for a few days.

(Actually I was pathetically excited to hear Pagan was returning — he was the phenom on the inaugural edition of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the one the girls would yell loudest for, with that goofy-in-English name that sounded like something a bunch of suburban punk kids would call their crappy band. I’d been warned, as a newcomer to this short-season A-ball thing, that at most two or three guys might make the big leagues in any capacity. Pagan had some pop and some speed and a certain way of gliding around the bases that made me imagine it would be him. Now, I suppose, it shall be.)

I never saw the ’69 Mets play (OK, I did but I was five months old when they won), so as a geeky Met fan on Long Island I did the only thing I could: I learned them by rote, assembling them from little snippets of biography I read in quickie books borrowed from the library or found in used bookstores. I was a kid, so the portraits I assembled were odd bordering on random: They mixed obvious baseball descriptions with personal stories, and often prominently featured words and concepts I was just learning. For example: Tom Seaver was the phenom, who’d bulked up in Fresno moving boxes (some of which contained big spiders) and in the Marines, played in Alaska, wound up in a lottery, and married Nancy, who was beautiful and blonde and wore something called a tam o’shanter in the stands, where she was not afraid of Orioles fans.

See what I mean? And Tom Seaver was easy, because he was Tom Seaver — still around while I was falling in love with the Mets and devouring every bit of their history that I’d missed. Most of the others were gone, and thus not so simple to fix in memory. Grote was hard-nosed, muttered at umpires and thought the writer who said the Mets had as much chance of winning as men did of landing on the moon had insulted the team. Swoboda had once got a batting helmet stuck on his feet but despite that was smart, had beaten Steve Carlton with two home runs, had a Chinese grandfather and you pronounced his name “Suh-boda” even though that was wrong. Nolan Ryan soaked his fingers in pickle brine and was now very good. Ed Charles wrote poetry and was nicknamed the Glider. Tug McGraw was a flake, which was a baseball term, gave his teammates haircuts, and his brother Hank had been a Met minor-leaguer. Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones were from Mobile. Rod Gaspar’s name had eventually been twisted into “Ron Stupid” by Frank Robinson and the rest of the Orioles, which might have been one reason they got what they deserved. Jack DiLauro was the guy you’d forget the first time around.

Don Cardwell, hmm. He was older, had been a Phillie and a Cub and a Pirate. Swingman. Helpful to the younger pitchers. Bigger than Cal Koonce, with whom I otherwise got him confused. Not a lengthy or terribly flashy biography, but then that’s the life of a swingman as put together after the fact by a child.

And yet, unfairly, Cardwell also became the name I connected with an important and thoroughly unwelcome loss of baseball innocence: These guys wearing the same uniform didn’t always get along.

The root of that is a tiny incident, one the principals invariably laughed off in the retelling: On an airplane in the summer of ’69 (when Bryan Adams was freaking nine, by the way, that Canadian faker), Swoboda — my favorite Met whom I never saw play — and Cardwell got into a dispute over Swoboda’s general Swobodaness and his wearing love beads. (I didn’t know what love beads were when I first read that; truth be told, I’m not sure I do now.) Cardwell objected to the love beads or tore them off, and eventually wound up taking a swing at his teammate.

No harm was done, but for a baseball-obsessed kid it was an eye-opener. How was this possible? Baseball players wore the same uniform, they had road roomies, they went to battle together, they slapped hands and hugged after home runs and once in a very great while they got to cover each other and anyone else in range with champagne, which looked like it would be incredibly fun to do. And now you’re telling me there are guys who do this and don’t get along, who even once in a while try to punch each other over love beads, whatever those are? I was shocked.

To reiterate: Cardwell, by all accounts, was an awfully nice guy. (And he got traded to the Cubs and threw a no-hitter in his first start, which is insanely cool.) It’s ridiculous to have the kind of little disagreement that probably happens all the time on planes and buses during a long season surgically attached to him. But it got wired that way when I was a kid, and I’m powerless to change it: Ever since I read that ages ago in some forgotten book, Don Cardwell has been the face of intramural dust-ups. Whether it’s Rey Ordonez and Rey Sanchez fighting on the bus or Darryl hitting the cutoff man on Picture Day or everybody abusing Gregg Jefferies, when I hear about stuff like that, the first thing that pops into my head, always, is “love beads.”