Thirty years ago this very night, I made my debut on the big stage, or the biggest stage upon which I was ever going to act. I was in my first high school play, “Heaven Can Wait,” playing the key role of Inspector Williams…a key role if you consider eighth lead crucial to telling a story. My scholastic theatrical career came and went without much notice, though the kind mother of a good friend always complimented my performances with, “You have real stage presence.” I took that to mean I was one of the bigger kids in the play.
Maybe it's just those annual mid-December backstage nerves I developed in 1978, but I've been thinking about the subject of stage presence for a couple of weeks. The Friday before last, Stephanie and I were handed great tickets to the current revival of “A Man For All Seasons,” starring Frank Langella and other people. That's what it felt like, not unlike Game 161 this year when it was Johan Santana and a cast of dozens putting on a show in Flushing. Langella — now that guy has stage presence. The theater isn't for everybody, but when you're lucky enough to witness someone dominate a stage (as we were when we saw Johan on September 27), you feel that just by sitting in the audience you're part of a grand tradition. You understand why theater can still thrive despite everything that's been invented to make the act of going to see a play seem antiquated.
Langella's not the only man for all seasons who's crossed my radar of late. His Sir Thomas More is the kind of character you root for. Sir Greg Maddux, on the other hand, was somebody we had cause to root against. He was a Brave and a Cub mostly. Why would he root for him considering the troupes with which he toured? Yet he was a master of his stage and, whatever you think of his late-career innings rationing, not an unlikable sort as opponents go. Let's just say where your recent 300-game winners are concerned, he's the class of the field.
Maddux announced his retirement last week, which is noteworthy unto itself, I suppose, but that's not why he's been on my radar. At his muted goodbye press conference at the winter meetings, SNY's Matt Yallof bothered to ask him about the Mets-Braves rivalry of yore. I expected a little lip service, if that. What I heard confirmed for me why Greg Maddux always struck me as a little classier and a lot smarter than almost all of his peers.
“It was fun. It was always fun going to New York. We had Chipper on our team, and Chipper always used to do big things there. It was fun watching the guys play there and it was also fun being a part of it.
“Shea Stadium was one of the best places to play baseball on the road, and especially when the Mets were good, and there was just a buzz in the air there that you'll never forget. There was a smell there at Shea that you'll never forget. There were just certain things about Shea Stadium, that 'this is a pretty cool place to be' and you're just lucky to be a part of it. Sittin' down there in the bullpen with…the security guard down there, talkin', tellin' war stories until the game starts. You have a lot of memories of every ballpark and it seems like you spend a lot of time in the bullpen at Shea Stadium.”
The practiced cynic can infer Maddux, like Chipper, remembers Shea fondly because the Braves did pretty well for themselves here. But color me impressed by Greg's response to a pretty random query. Maddux got it. Maddux understood what pitching in front of the likes of us was about (as opposed to being lulled to sleep in Atlanta). He could have genericed his reply. But it was thoughtful and, for my biased money, he was on target. He got it. He got that Shea was a big stage — a great stage, a great audience appreciative of the craft of baseball. You can't construct that quality no matter how pretty your building, and you can't fake that kind of perspective without having a lot on the ball.
I doubt 300-game winner Roger Clemens would ever say such things about Shea. I doubt 300-game winner and former Brave/Met (in that order) T#m Gl@v!ne would ever say such things about Shea. Come to think of it, the latter pitched here for five years and never remotely acknowledged that this was a pretty cool place to be.
Too bad, I find myself thinking, Francisco Rodriguez won't ever pitch for the Mets in Shea Stadium. A different mound persona than Greg Maddux, to be sure, but his conference call chat showed me he, too, gets what it's going to be like pitching for the Mets in the Mets' home ballpark. Never mind the “team to beat” nonsense that's a no-win subject. What I liked was this:
“The Mets fans, when I was out there three years ago, they made a lot of noise. I tried to draw energy from the crowd. With the energy and all the noise they make, it's going to be a lot more exciting for me on the mound.”
Of course K-Rod is on the M-Ets because of compensation first and foremost. But I like that he grasps what we're all about. I love that he remembers his experience at Shea (believe me, I remember it, too). I like that he's showing, at least in December, no fear. No fear of National League batters, no fear of his home team fans. He did pretty well for himself in Anaheim, but he characterized Angels fans as “more calm. They're really relaxed when they're watching the game.” He didn't seem to be issuing that appraisal as a compliment.
Mets relievers have heard it from Mets fans en masse for years. But it's encouraging to hear from a Mets closer that he likes what we bring to the stage. Nothing about how modern and spacious his new clubhouse is, mind you. Just the stage he envisions and the patrons of his art who will, one hopes, form with him a mutual appreciation guild.
Reminds me of a quote I just read from a book I have to tell you more about when I get a chance. One of Rodriguez's predecessors, Tug McGraw, on pitching before Mets fans the first time he did so as a Phillie:
“What an emotional thing it is to come back here and do a good job. Shea has a magnitude, an intangible air that other stadiums don't have.”
The greats recognize the great stage when they are fortunate to perform upon it and they embrace its challenges. It's what makes them the greats.