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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Big Stage

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.

11 comments to The Big Stage

  • Anonymous

    You really don't want to get me started about Greg Maddux. Not again, anyway. :-( But that press conference was just like him. Rather than hold forth on his almost comical dominance of us over the years–as a certain self-aggrandizing bully who is now rightfully behind Mad Dog on the all-time wins list no doubt would have done–he chose instead to pay tribute to Shea. He is the epitome of class, to the end. Humble, soft-spoken and…
    Don't get me started.

  • Anonymous

    I just can't be okay with Greg Maddux. I just can't. I got bags of respect for him, sure, but I see his face and I'm struck with flashbacks of inning after scoreless inning and seeing that stupid face of his walk back towards the dugout, almost looking bored at making us look so bad.
    God I hated him. If I ever meet Jon Olerud I'm buying him 2 drinks, one for each RBI off Maddux in Game 5. Then I'd probably buy him 2 more for Game 4.
    Anywho… one thing Citi absolutely cannot replace is how towering Shea was. I don't know if there's a way to look this up, but I'm thinking Shea was one of the tallest (if not the tallest) stadiums in all of baseball. I feel like that should have held a lot of weight on how intimidating it could be to an opposing team. Every time I look at its newborn sibling I think, “how can the Mets play baseball in a park so short?” Hopefully the “right on top of the field” aspect/nuisance will translate into a new intimidation factor for us.

  • Anonymous

    Don't take it personally, Kevin. He wore the same non-expression no matter who he was annihilating–or being annihilated by. And when asked about inning after scoreless inning, he would say that he just got lucky that a good team had a bad day, and/or give the credit to his teammates. OK, maybe I'm biased because I worship him, but what I just said is a big reason WHY I worship him. No ego. Just a guy doing his job… and even if he hadn't surpassed Clemens in wins, you know that wouldn't have affected his retirement decision at all… someone would say “but you're just one win away!” and he'd shrug and reply “whatever. No big deal.” Look at the way he retired… purposely did it in the offseason to avoid, as he put it, “the whole dog and pony show” that would have accompanied an announcement during the season. UNLIKE SOME, he didn't want the inevitable accolades at every ballpark. He wanted to leave as he played. Quietly, and with class. CRAP, you went and got me started!!! ;-)
    Re: the towering majesty of Shea… I'd have to agree with you there. The place was huge, as anyone else who routinely walked up to the Upper Deck via ramp, and then made that climb up to Row V can attest.

  • Anonymous

    I didn't take it personally at all. You're entitled to your opinion. My problem is with Maddux, not with people who like him–unless those people are Braves fans, of course.
    I have to say though, as far as Maddux never being selfish, I will always be stuck on the “I'm not pitching past 6 innings” nonsense. It's a damn good thing he was classy, quiet, and didn't pitch in the northeast. Otherwise I imagine the media would have consistently butchered him over that. It's pretty damn amazing he got 350 wins with that attitude. If he had pitched on the Mets the last 2 years, he'd never have gotten a win!

  • Anonymous

    Maddux: 10-1 at Turner Field against the Mets, including what I consider the protoypical Maddux game against us, the 1-0 duel over Masato Yoshii on June 27, 1999. Yosh' pitched the game of his life; Maddux had another day at the office. Time of game? A most un-1999ish 2:06.
    We actually did all right against him at Shea, His career record here: 14-12, 4.06 ERA regular season. That includes the Olerud grand slam affair (3 IP, 7 ER) and the morning-after game that followed the ten-run inning explosion (2 IP, 7 ER), though in that July 1, 2000 contest, I believe he had the flu.
    That Olerud slamfest (following the six singles) was of course most awesome, but the toe-to-toe starts against Seo in 2005 and Duque in 2006, both won by the Mets, were also scintillating to attend.

  • Anonymous

    He never said “I'm not pitching past 6 innings” (and in fact, this past season he pitched more than that 9 times). With him, it was more a question of knowing his limits; putting reality over ego. He could be pitching a no-hitter after 6, and if he sensed he was “losing it,” he'd take himself out of it, rather than implode and take his TEAM out of it. Of course there were many times he DID implode, but that would be more a question of the opposing hitters just seeing him well. It wasn't an “attitude” in the sense you're thinking. He was just someone who knew when he had nothing left or he wasn't on. Remember, this is a guy who had a record walk-free streak going, and still gave someone an intentional pass because it was the right thing to do in the circumstances. That's who Greg Maddux was.
    When I said “don't take it personally,” I meant that his expression was exactly the same coming off the mound no matter who he was playing and how he was doing. It wasn't just us, and it wasn't “boredom.” He just doesn't like to give anything away. After 11 seasons of MLB Extra Innings, watching most of his games, I got to know that pretty well over the years.
    PS: 355 wins… 355 Clemens-topping wins. ;-)

  • Anonymous

    John Olerud is one of the very few people I could forgive for outbursts like that (Mike being another… and actually those two might be it). Anyone else who pulled that crap made an immediate trip to My List.

  • Anonymous

    As someone who's about to plunk down $570 for 2 seats in sec. 532 row 10 — I believe the LF foul pole might be directly in front of me — I'm eternally grateful CitiField isn't as tall as Shea…

  • Anonymous

    Is that for one game? heh

  • Anonymous

    Whoever does a Tommie Agee up there will have hit a pretty good poke, but it won't be quite as impressive.

  • Anonymous

    And I have to come clean: I had to go to my nephew hat -in-hand to see if he'd go halfsies woth me on the seats this year. His father said, “Well, he can't expect them to be free forever…”