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Words We've Lost

“If they boo, that’s fine. That’s the history they’ve got from not being so good, I guess.”
—Johan Santana

“Who wants to be a Mets fan? There’s no future in it.”
—Miriam Chan

Last week’s New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society triannual meeting [1] was graced by the presence of Frank Deford who was kind enough to come and chat with us about the days of Matty and McGraw, a subject he immersed himself in as he researched his wonderful 2005 book [2] The Old Ball Game (highly, highly recommended if you haven’t read it). In painting a picture of the colorful era during which John McGraw managed, Christy Mathewson pitched and the New York Giants ruled, Deford referred to contemporary accounts and the colorful language that was used as a matter of course by sportswriters of yore. It’s a shame, he said, to consider some of the words we’ve lost, both in baseball and the general vocabulary. Frank picked four in particular that had their day but don’t any longer:





In the context of the coverage of early 20th century sporting life, they all basically seemed to mean the same thing. I’d recommend opening a dictionary and looking for a picture of Lenny Dykstra [3] if you require further elaboration.

How we talk has changed in a hundred years. How baseball is played has changed, too. John McGraw used to grab hold of opponent baserunners’ belts so they couldn’t get a jump off third (until a clever runner simply loosened his belt and left Little Napoleon with nothing but a handful of leather). Everything changes, which is fine and natural no matter how some of us sporadically rage against it. Still, it would be nice to observe a little more spunk, a little more ginger, a little more pluck and a whole lot more moxie these days. Call it whatever you want in 2008, but for the love of Turkey Mike Donlin, ya think we could get a little of that ol’ pepper milling starting tonight at Shea?

The Mets are spunkless, gingerless, pluckless and constitute a completely moxie-free zone. They’re…I don’t know what they are, but I have a pretty good sense that whatever it is, it’s not all that wonderful. The 5-6 record would be a leading indicator, but that’s not it.

What’s missing? What modern-day equivalent of spunk, ginger, pluck and moxie hasn’t been mixed into the stew? Why don’t the Mets as a team add up anymore? Why are the Mets as a concept causing me such a crisis of faith lately?

And why was anybody who wasn’t fall-down drunk booing Johan Santana on Saturday? Is there really so little rope left at Shea that the most coveted offseason acquisition the Mets have ever scooped up can’t be cut some slack for coming up one batter shy of a solid quality start?

Are we that stupid?

Of course it wasn’t all 54,701 of us [4] making such derisive noise. I doubt it was even 5,470. Yet the boos are what stand out and the boos are what get noticed and the boos are what the best pitcher in the universe gets asked about afterwards. If Santana sounded a bit put off by the minority opinion — “I wish we could do everything the way everybody wants, but we’re human beings and we’re going to make mistakes sometimes” — well, he is human. On the days he’s superhuman, the possessors of these same dismal minds that generated disapproval for Johan, bitterly clinging to their rationalizations that these tickets cost a lot, he gets paid plenty and hey-it’s-a-free-country, will be up on their feet and clapping, thinking, perhaps, that their toughlove showed him the way, as if a two-time Cy Young winner needs such motivation, as if Johan Santana is a Venezuelan variation on Scott Schoeneweis.

But I’m not here to kick and screed as regards the poor judgment that informs home-team booing even as I deplore it, because to tell you the truth, I’ve been with it myself. I’ve been booing the Mets inwardly and grumbling about them outwardly. I’m wondering less and less what the fudge is wrong with the current group of players wearing Met uniforms and wondering more and more what’s wrong with the whole Mets thing.

• The Mets thing that ends what shaped up as the best season in twenty years mired in a total hitting slump that culminated in a called strike three with the tying runs on.

• The Mets thing that saps the momentum and the emotion out of a budding golden era by playing indifferently for months and ineptly for weeks and not all come October despite a large September lead.

• The Mets thing that has no obvious representative speaking forcefully for it; the Mets thing that has nobody in a uniform betraying any real concern that cumulative inertia appears to have settled over Shea and Citi like a flat, ominous cloud; the Mets thing that, as discomfited as any individual may be over a mediocre start, has not seemed to have mussed a single hair on the unit’s legendarily level head one little bit.

Comedian Wally Matthews is a moron. We know that. But when he implied Monday [5] that clubhouse buffet tables left literally upright and figuratively undisturbed leave an incongruous impression that twenty-five professional competitors don’t give a damn, I wasn’t dismissive. I would kind of like to see the Chicken a la King go flying after five double plays render fourteen hits and eight walks irrelevant. I would like to hear the skipper tear into one of the inanimate objects lingering on the roster. I would like the captain-in-waiting to be less shucksy self-deprecating every time he opens his mouth, but David Wright’s approach to the postgame (or the game) is the last problem this team has.

Jose Reyes has been underwhelming for a while, but without him in the lineup, it’s quite the ordinary assemblage of players: a couple of stars, some guys on the wrong side of the hill, a few pickups whose talent levels aren’t always going to be up to the sincerity of their respective efforts. Except for payroll, what differentiates a lineup like those we saw penciled in this weekend from anybody else’s? Pedro Martinez has been absent with leave most of the past year-plus, but without him in the rotation, even with one platinum ace on board, it’s like anybody else’s five-man: checkered by youth whose mistakes get in the way of its progress and dotted by journeymen who will be heartwarming one night [6], goodness knows the next. The vets on the bench are admirable and amiable, but they’re vets on the bench. Bullpens are bullpens everywhere. This manager has shown no signs of eliciting great performances from his choir when the group isn’t already singing on key. Plus, without the full Reyes and a measure of Martinez, this team just isn’t that much fun to be around. At this point, I’d accept grim success as a holding action until the whole gang has rediscovered its inner Tug.

So what gives? It’s an average-ish team in an average-ish league. Ownership presumably has a few bucks stashed away to make up the difference between 81 wins and 91 wins should it come to that, but you can’t accuse anybody in charge of a penurious nature. Besides, money doesn’t buy happiness. It bought Johan Santana and the universal happy factor has been trimmed exponentially in some quarters after three measly starts. He may be new here, but he nailed it on Saturday that we’ve got some history from not being so good. And the octogenarian-plus lady profiled in Sunday’s Times [7] — who admittedly wouldn’t be my go-to source given her deeply embedded unfortunate allegiances — may not have been far off the mark either when she convinced her grandson that the Mets weren’t the best bet for a better tomorrow.

Plaid present.

Shady past.

Murky future.


It’s not about winning. It’s never been about winning, not primarily. When I hang with those New York Baseball Giants fans three times a year, I hear a lot of stories and absorb a lot of insights, but I never glean any regret that they hooked onto a team whose grandest days were clearly behind it by the time they were old enough to know better. The Giants won exactly one world championship in their last twenty-four seasons in Manhattan, all of two pennants in their final two decades. Their archrivals grew into a juggernaut during the same period and, as Richard Sandomir pointed out [8], only grew larger in the mind’s eye after leaving Brooklyn. The Giants, in the rooting lifetimes of those still around to recall them fondly, were rarely as good as the Dodgers and never better than the Yankees. Yet they stayed. They stayed New York Giants fans clear through 1957 and they show up at a church rectory to sit and reminisce about them a half-century later. They do dwell on Bobby Thomson and Willie Mays, you can be sure, but it isn’t the success that keeps them coming back. There just wasn’t that much of it.

There hasn’t been that much of it for us either. We’ve had two world championships in 46 seasons. If you’re under 40, you’ve experienced only one of them. If you’re under 25, you’ve experienced none of it. So it’s not the success that keeps our tribe running. If it’s not the success, then I’ve always figured it’s got to be the fun (and the force of habit). But if this team can’t show that it’s having fun, can’t create a little fun, can’t pour on a little spunk, a little ginger, a little pluck and a whole lot more moxie than they’ve dispensed and displayed while plowing drearily through their assigned maneuvers in the early hours of 2008…then I ask you, dear friends, what’s the point?