- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Team Building Exercise '99

Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End [1], 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.

A couple of mornings every week when I’m driving Stephanie to the station, I have to navigate around a line of rumbling sanitation trucks peeling out to keep the streets of our fair village clean. In the dark and in the fog, it can be a little daunting. Sometimes, though, when I’m just punchy enough, the sight of them will inspire me to break out into song.

Was the dark of the moon

On the sixth of June

In a Kenworth pullin’ logs

Cabover Pete with a reefer on

And a Jimmy haulin’ hogs

Yessir, we got a mighty convoy, rockin’ through what’s left of the night.

In that way I have of embracing songs that some consider the aural equivalent of Shea Stadium, I love “Convoy” by C.W. McCall [2]. I’ve always loved “Convoy” by C.W. McCall, from the moment I first heard it in December 1975. For a while there, it made me want to be a trucker or at least use a CB radio. My sister had a pair of Walkie-Talkies that used to pick up local cab calls. By 1976, it was all Citizens Band crosstalk. If I shouted real hard, somebody could hear me. (This was when ten-four was how you signed off, not the score of one of Tim Redding’s starts.)

“Convoy” ranks No. 16 among the Top 500 Songs of All-Time [3], a position that usually stops cold anybody who made it past “Ice Ice Baby” at No. 7. Tough to sell the remaining 484 in polite society when you’re leading with Vanilla Ice and anything that mentions someone named the Rubber Duck. So be it. C.W. McCall always made me want in on that figurative line of trucks that crashed the gate doin’ ninety-eight, even if most mornings I’m scared so witless by traffic that I can’t get it up to thirty.

The desire to be welcomed into a convoy probably stems from how much satisfaction I derive from having aligned myself with a real, live baseball team, the same one of which I’ve felt a part since I was six. I believe in “we” and “us” here, rather than “they” and “them” when it comes to the Mets. That’s my team — not “That’s the team I like from a distance.”

Which is why I’m willing to reconsider my opinion of anybody who is willing to join my team, anybody who wants to wear for a living what I wear out of passion, anybody who is going to put his skill sets to the good use of making me happy.

It’s why I could comfortably embrace Orel Hershiser as a part of our convoy.

Bringing Orel Hershiser to Mets camp in 1999 was theoretically as atonal to the ear as trading for Bill Hands in 1976 or signing T#m Gl@v!ne in advance of 2003. This was probably worse given that Hands and Gl@v!ne were merely enemies. Hershiser was a Nemesis of the first order. He didn’t practice his dark magic in a particularly offensive manner for a very prolonged stretch, but then again he didn’t have to. Nobody compressed his pure evil into a more efficient time frame to worse effect than Orel Hershiser.

Such a nice fellow, too. His persona made it impossible to negotiate my animus for him in 1988. I wanted to hate him. And I did hate him. But then everything you hear about him [4] is he’s an absolute sweetheart — “patience, intelligence, humor and humility,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Steve Wulf in 1988’s Sportsman of the Year profile — total man o’ God, awesome competitor and for one season’s stretch run, completely untouchable. His final 59 innings were record-breaking scoreless in ’88. Then came the NLCS and the Mets got to him just enough — just enough to pull out Game One, just enough to outlast him in Game Three.

Then came Game Four. The Scioscia Game. Let’s skip past the catcher and ahead to the pitcher Tommy Lasorda called on in the twelfth inning, one day after that pitcher started Game Three and threw 108 so-so pitches. It was Orel Hershiser, Lasorda’s sixth reliever of the night, there to save the day: bases loaded, two out, one-run lead, Kevin McReynolds up.

He got K-Mac to pop out to center. It took a little hustle from John Shelby to catch up to it, but it was all Orel all the way on no days’ rest. Once Hershiser put the Mets away to tie the series, the momentum was clearly Los Angeles’s. When we next saw him in Game Seven, he wasn’t the least bit touchable, throwing a five-hit shutout. The last sight of the night was Howard Johnson swinging helplessly and Orel Hershiser thanking his maker before being piled under a sea of blue on the Dodger Stadium mound.

Oh, how I hated Orel Hershiser, pious prick, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I made a point of attending his next start at Shea, in August of ’89. It was Hershiser vs. Cone, with a crowd (46,143 — and it probably undercounted the total in the house) thirsty for revenge. We won 3-2. We were ecstatic. But we still hated Orel Hershiser.

Ten years pass. He’s up and down, battling injuries, relocating to Cleveland, then San Francisco. Has some good years, some fine postseasons. He’s no longer the immortal moral Orel who captivated a baseball-watching nation, or at least those precincts outside of Flushing and Oakland. In March of ’99 comes word that the Mets, needing someone to pick up their traditional springtime rotation slack, have signed Orel Hershiser.

It should be weirder. Yet it isn’t. He came here voluntarily, just as he volunteered to pitch in Game Four in ’88. Orel would apparently do anything. Eleven years after killing us, he was here to prop us up. Perhaps we were his missionary work. Perhaps at age 40 he just wanted to keep pitching.

And I welcomed him with reasonably open arms. He was far removed from his 1988 prime, but he ate up innings. That was big on a team like the 1999 Mets, for whom nobody amassed more than thirteen victories. The team co-leaders were Al Leiter and…Orel Hershiser. Orel and Al also tied for the team lead in games started with 32. He filed away some clinkers, he turned in some gems. He started the game the Mets couldn’t live without, October 3, 1999, the 162nd contest of that scintillating campaign: Hershiser vs. Benson, old guy vs. young gun. The old guy’s team came out ahead. By the middle of October, a month we wouldn’t have seen without him, Hershiser was our second Mahomes, an indispensable long reliever for a team that found itself in some of the longest playoff games imaginable.

Orel Hershiser was a Met as much as anybody for that one season. When I think of Orel Hershiser today, I reflexively go for the 1999 teammate as opposed to the 1988 nemesis. Orel wore a Mets jacket just like I did. His professional efforts were committed in our name. We were in this thing together. That’s what it means to me for somebody to be a Met. That’s what it means to me to feel like a part of a team.


Yet if Orel Hershiser, Al Leiter or any American-born 1999 Met donned a red, white and blue jersey in 2000 and pitched for the United States Olympics team, I don’t think I would have cared what that team did in Sydney any more than I actually did — which was nil. And today, no matter how much evidence I’m presented that the World Baseball Classic is the cure for March malaise, I can’t get excited or even interested [5].

I love the United States of America, but the United States of America is not a baseball team, no matter how much merchandise they sell to that effect. I know some baseball fans who don’t care about nationality, they just like good games and good stories. I can see the charm in the underdog nations rising up and biting the overcats, but that’s not part of my narrative either. My team is my team. The only time I watch non-postseason baseball intently without my team involved is to cheer on a given day’s enemy of my team’s enemy (physical or psychic). I watch the postseason because it’s the stated goal of my team to get there, so it’s legitimately within my purview. The WBC, the Olympics, the Caribbean World Series, the College World Series…they have nothing to do with my team.

But there’s something deeper that nags at me about the World Baseball Classic and the way it’s put together.

In third grade, a bunch of us were on the basketball court at recess looking for new and creative ways to align our pickup squads. One of the three African-American kids in our class said, “Let’s play coloreds versus the whites.” There was a stunned silence, even for eight- and nine-year-olds. It just sounded wrong and we opted for some other method of choosing up sides. That kid’s idea is what the WBC reminds me of. You’re taking Mets for whom I’ve come to have a genuine affinity and telling me that because of their background, they are no longer on my team.

This one’s from the Dominican Republic, not an American like me. This one’s from Puerto Rico, not an American like me. This one’s from Venezuela, not an American like me. It’s a weird message to be sending, even if it’s not the intent. It’s even weirder when somebody like Frank Catalanatto, of Smithtown, L.I., is playing for the Italy team because of his Italian heritage. It’s saying this one’s Italian-American, not an American like me or the guys on Team USA.

The whole thing instinctively brings me back to the third grade playground. I don’t see it as progress for humanity.

Endy Chavez feels differently [6]. He’s entitled. After October 19, 2006, he’s entitled to whatever he wants. Still, I was a little disappointed when he said, after helping Venezuela qualify for the next round of the WBC, that representing his country in this tournament was a bigger deal to him than the catch…you know, The Catch [7]. Yadier Molina said something similar after getting a game-winning hit for Puerto Rico, that it was more meaningful to him than the homer he hit two innings after Endy’s catch.

My first reaction was “So give back the homer, you bastard.” My next one was even Molina’s entitled to his opinion. As Chavez said, “When we’re in the majors, it’s our job. We are professionals.” True enough, he was reminded of that a few months ago when he was traded from the Mets to the Mariners, the sixth MLB organization to own his rights, which is also part of the narrative as I understand it. Guys become Mets for only a while, even if we hold them dear. Endy’s a Mariner in 2009 because it’s his job, whereas he’ll always be Venezuelan.

And I’ll always be a New York Mets fan.

If the above sentence applies to you, then get yourself a copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets [8], available NOW via Amazon [9], Barnes & Noble [10] and other [11] fine retailers.