Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
It was an iconic enough moment to have been included Wednesday in my partner’s recitation of Spring Training episodes that rise above the St. Lucie snooze to become genuine, generally unwanted news: “Right Fielder Punched the First Baseman on Photo Day.” I remember that episode. Everybody seems to remember that episode. I remember that episode for slightly more than Mets reasons.
The RF on March 2, 1989 was, of course, Darryl Strawberry. The 1B was Keith Hernandez. Until I re-read the details in Joe Durso’s piece in the next day’s Times I’d forgotten why, exactly, Strawberry took a swing at Hernandez and launched the hoary (but still hilarious) observation that it was the first time Darryl had ever successfully hit the cutoff man.
Straw was in a snit over his contract negotiations. Mex had been quoted in some stories that Darryl was getting bad advice. Strawberry didn’t need much to wind him up. Neither, by 1989, did Keith. As Bob Klapisch covered in The Worst Team Money Could Buy, the Keith Hernandez of ’89 was no longer the Keith Hernandez of ’84, no longer the rallying point for the young Mets. The Mets weren’t that young anymore. Darryl may have been slow to mature, but he was 26 in early March 1989.
Come to think of it, so was I.
Darryl stormed out of camp that Thursday because he didn’t like his job. I remember hearing about the tussle because I was attempting to storm into a job. The day they had their fight was the day my career would be defined for the next fifteen years, making their melee kind of momentous for me.
I tiptoed into freelance writing after college, a line of work I never really committed to. It represented an incredibly unambitious holding pattern that, like me, was getting old. After nearly four years as something of a timid dilettante, I knew it was time to find something permanent. Maybe not fifteen years permanent, but something steady.
My first interview for a full-time job was that Monday, February 27, in the city at a horrible trade magazine — horrible in the sense that I was bored just by the name. But a job is a job, I figured. The editor who interviewed me was kind of an Al Bundy type. Complained to me that people there didn’t like that he wore corduroy pants to work. I took that as a bad sign because he was wearing a tie when he said it and all I could think was, “Do I have to wear a tie in this place?” He gave me a proofreading test and then sent me to meet the publisher, a woman who acted very put out by my appearance in her office (although I was wearing a suit). The conversation seemed to hinge on the fact that I had been a freelancer and could I possibly transition into a staff job? That’s why I’m here, I said.
We left my future with their magazine unresolved. I eventually got a call offering me a trial: work here for a week and we’ll see if you can handle it. By then, I was en route to what I perceived as better things.
Thursday, Photo Day in St. Lucie, I drove to Great Neck and interviewed at a trade magazine whose bailiwick fascinated me: beverages. Always loved beverages, and not just with food that was too salty. I had a large collection of soda cans that I’d been stockpiling since the end of seventh grade. Brought soda to nursery school because I had a milk allergy. It was in my blood. I drank enough diet cola so it probably was my blood.
I had no idea a magazine devoted to beverages existed, let alone existed on Long Island, until I noticed a classified with the magic word in the title. Even then I didn’t pounce, just kind of filed it away until I figured I should call on spec. Got the editor on the phone and asked if there was any freelance work. Wanna be associate editor? he asked back.
It was just about that easy. Seems I called during a propitious interlude for hiring, just when the previous associate editor was packing up and moving to Chicago. I sent some clips and arranged to come in on March 2. I wore my suit again. I was the only one in the place who was that dressed up.
Nobody gave me a proofreading test in Great Neck. Nobody complained to me about their job or others’ impressions of their wardrobe. The editor who interviewed me likened the atmosphere to a big high school newspaper. I enjoyed my high school newspaper a great deal. About the only drawback I could divine was that when I instinctively peppered the conversation with references to Lenny Dykstra and Bobby Ojeda, the editor returned my Mets talk with a blank stare. He wasn’t a baseball fan. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
On the drive home, I heard on WFAN that Darryl came after Keith in the middle of the Mets shooting their team picture. I was horrified because I wanted (and still want) to believe that teammates all get along. Those Mets may have been “the bad guys” in other teams’ eyes, but did they really think that way of each other? Apparently at least a couple of them did. How discouraging.
Six days later, after Darryl and Keith shook hands, the editor called me and told me the job was mine. I went back up to shake hands on our deal Friday, March 10. The following Monday, March 13, 1989, I began what would become a nearly fourteen-year stay with that magazine. In late 2002, I left to helm a startup in more or less the same field. I didn’t stay at that post nearly as long, only into the second week of the 2004 season. Since that affiliation ended, I have remained involved in the beverage business, some days more than other days.
In honor of my impending twentieth anniversary in and around soft drinks and such, a six-pack (more or less) of salient points:
1) By the end of my first week on the job, I understood completely that teammates do not all get along. I had a particularly obnoxious co-worker to whom I was sorely tempted to give the Strawberry treatment — it took all my self-restraint to not hit the cutoff man. Whatever I’d been thinking of Darryl and Keith acting unprofessionally on March 2, I had to recant on March 16. Fellas, go after each other at will if either of you is really as bad as this guy at the next desk, but shake hands and play ball when it’s over. That’s what me and that twit from twenty years ago more or less did. Otherwise, save for my chronic inability to go to sleep at night and come in bright and early the next morning, I made the transition from freelancer to full-timer just fine, thank you very much.
2) The guy who packed up and moved to Chicago, with whom my relationship consisted of a benign handshake when I came in for my interview…you’d figure I’d never see him again, right? Except he worked in an industry that overlapped with beverages and dropped by to say hello to our staff when we were in the Windy City to cover a trade show en masse. Upon discovering my baseball fandom, he invited me — in that loose way people have of inviting you to do something if they don’t really know you — to go to a game at Wrigley one of these days. Thing is, I’m one of those people who remembers those invites; how many people invite you to Cubs home games? We kept in touch from a distance, became very good friends over e-mail and, yes, took in a Mets doubleheader sweep at Wrigley Field one fine afternoon in 1998.
2a) Of at least equal significance, this fellow became my audience for a series of reminiscences I began writing and mailing (actual snail mail) after leaving that second beverage magazine job in ’04. My “Greatest Baseball Experiences” I called them, borrowing the name from what he said he had — one of his greatest baseball experiences — in 2003 when he showed up at U.S. Cellular Field for the All-Star Game, found no luck with scalpers and then, for no foreseeable reason, somebody simply handed him a ticket, no money asked. I mention this because the Greatest Baseball Experiences were the seminal essays that would morph into Flashback Friday in 2005 and help form the foundation of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets in 2009. Hence, besides being fortunate enough to be friends with this very good guy, I can draw a line from our chance path-crossing in 1989 to this blog and that book.
3) Others with books coming out this spring: Keith Hernandez (ably aided by this accomplished author) and Darryl Strawberry. We each had an eventful first Thursday in March twenty years ago and now we’re all sort of in the same business.
4) Twenty years? Geez. It almost goes without saying that I can’t believe 1989 was twenty years ago. I can’t believe the other years in this series sit as far back from the present as they do, but 1989 in particular seems as much like yesterday as the cliché law will allow. Probably has something to do with me still doing, in some tenuous fashion, what I began doing then.
5) Thirteen years and nine months with that first beverage magazine wasn’t the plan. The plan was give me six good months, let me start making some money, let me find something more rewarding. But I stayed. Whether through laziness or loyalty, I tend to stay. I began grumbling to Stephanie that I really ought to leave in July 1990. Then again around June 1992. Then February 1994. Then pretty much every day for the next seven years starting in November 1995. I have no idea what path my career would have taken had I taken myself up on my threat, but I shudder to think about those I would have not gotten to know if I hadn’t stayed. In kind of a living, breathing Flashback Friday (except it was a Thursday), I threw myself a little tenth-anniversary bash at a bar near our office — by then in Manhattan — in March 1999. Somebody who probably sensed my frustration at never leaving said to me, “I’m glad you stayed.” At that moment, so was I. At this moment, too. It never quite lost that big high school newspaper feeling, while that sense of having found the exact right situation in March 1989 took almost forever to completely dissipate. A blessing and a curse, I suppose.
6) Beverages…there’s more to life and more to writing than beverages. When I was deep in my magazine tenure, I’d grown tired of being The Beverage Guy in social interactions with civilians. “Tell us about…” whatever beverage had penetrated the greater consciousness was a recurring request. Yet these days, when nobody particularly asks, I find myself volunteering bits of know-it-all minutiae about whatever’s being poured. I’m no longer The Beverage Guy, but what’s in your blood has a habit of sticking around.
Though I hear they have shots for that now.
I do my best to pour it on in Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available for pre-ordering now via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.