One never knows how loyalty is born.
—Bert Cooper, senior partner, Sterling Cooper
I’ve learned from friends of the recent passings of two former Mets, early ’60s starting pitcher Carlton Willey and 1976 cameo catcher Jay Kleven. I never saw Willey pitch and I remember Kleven more from name than deed, but each man brings to mind the special bonds we share with the players we adopt as ours for eternity.
Carl Willey was coming off about as good a season as a pitcher could have for the 1963 Mets, 9-14 with a 3.10 ERA, and was enjoying a marvelous spring in ’64 (26 consecutive scoreless innings) when a line drive off the bat of future Tigers pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown, then a relatively obscure second-year man, broke his jaw. There, in essence, went Willey’s career. He’d be out ’til June, yet would not be forgotten by the likes of us. Recalled Jerry Mitchell in his outstanding early history, The Amazing Mets:
There must have been Mets fans at Yankee Stadium one midsummer afternoon when Detroit was the visiting club. When Gates Brown, a total stranger, was introduced as a pinch-hitter, Met banners were waved and Brown was lustily booed.
I don’t know that Mets fans ever raised that kind of ruckus on behalf of Jay Kleven, but I can think of one such creature who lit up at the sight of his face. Nine years ago, my friend Jason was laboring to complete his ongoing collection of baseball cards for every Met who ever played as a Met (a corps whose ranks will swell to 870 with Cory Sullivan’s appearance in Washington tonight). As he has explained so entertainingly on several occasions, The Holy Books have run into roadblocks when players played their entire careers without cards being printed up for them on any level. Back in 2000, Jace was still chasing down a few fleeting Mets who did have minor league cards at least, but not copies that were immediately accessible.
When Jason joined me at our seats for the Mets-Brewers game that September 12, I asked him if he got what they were handing out as a giveaway out front. He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about until I handed him an envelope with three 1975 Tidewater Tides: Randy Sterling, Brock Pemberton and Jay Kleven, all on his (and, let’s be honest, nobody else’s) most wanted list. On my first trip to Cooperstown in 1977, I found the ’75 Tides set in a memorabilia shop and, a little shocked that such a thing existed, snapped it up for probably three dollars. Kleven and his cohorts seemed best served by placement in The Holy Books rather than keeping Roy Staiger and Mike Vail rubberbanded company in one of my shoeboxes.
Mets have all kinds of unexpected ways of bringing out our loyalty. Here’s to Carl Willey. Here’s to Jay Kleven. Let’s, as always, Go Mets.
The Carlton Willey collection courtesy of the Bangor Daily News.