A winter’s night like this one? Twenty-five or so years ago? I would be dying for Mets news. I’d surely have checked my favorite blogs, except there were no blogs. I’d have watched MLB Network or SNY in hopes they had some information on their crawls, but there was neither an MLB nor an SNY. Naturally, the inclination would have been to tune in WFAN, but y’know what? There wasn’t even a WFAN before 1987.
Not an outlet was stirring, not even a Tweet.
You wanted live streaming hot stove baseball talk around here, you had one option if you were lucky: Art Rust, Jr. There was no guarantee that Art would be talking baseball. But if he was…oh boy! Maybe he’d have a Met or a Met announcer or a Met beat writer on the phone. Maybe he’d just be taking a call from a Mets fan. You leaned forward, even though you suspected you weren’t going to learn anything.
“Art, do you see the Mets improving their roster by maybe getting some new players?”
“Mark my words, my friend, when Opening Day rolls around, the New York Mets will be ready to go in the National League.”
It wasn’t much, but I can’t tell you how much better it was than nothing.
Art Rust, Jr., who died Tuesday at 82, was the sports talk voice of New York for quite a while. I don’t mean he dominated the field. He was the field. He was it on commercial radio. Generally speaking — which was something Art did with élan — if you wanted a sports fix before July 1, 1987, the date the FAN took flight and forever changed our expectations, you had Art, or you had radio silence. WFUV aired a late-night weekend program, and WINS and WCBS each gave you scores at :15 and :45 each hour, but for most of the 1980s, the only way to surround yourself with sports talk was to keep company with Art Rust, Jr.
We’re spoiled now. We have each other and so many other vehicles to feed our obsession. But when it was just you and Art, you valued Art. I know I did, particularly when I first encountered him one night in the summer of 1980. The Mets game had ended on WMCA (570 AM), and on came a smooth, sharp, unironic voice — apparently airlifted in from one of those radios Bugs Bunny might have been listening to in the ’40s — telling me there was no doubt about it, my friend, the New York Mets are playing great baseball and there’s going to be playoff baseball out at Flushing By The Bay this October, you can count on it.
You could always count on what Art told you. Art dealt in definites. Mark his words, he insisted to almost every caller after those Mets games on ‘MCA in 1980, you’re going to have interleague baseball by the end of this decade…and every team is going to be playing under a dome by then. So he was off by a few years on one prediction and ridiculously wrong on the other one. Art was certain, and that was somehow assuring. In that Magic Is Back summer, when I dared to dream the Mets would catch and pass the Phillies, him telling me the Mets were going to the playoffs was good enough for me.
Other talk radio hosts tell you the way it is and brook no dissent. Art wasn’t that way. He’d let you have your say, no matter how wrong it was. His big sport was boxing, which even in the early ’80s seemed rather old-timey. There was a huge bout coming up. I want to say it was Thomas Hearns vs. Sugar Ray Leonard; might have been Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney. Whichever one it was, Art declared it over in advance. Hearns would beat Leonard…or Cooney would beat Holmes.
Except the guy Rust picked lost. Did it make Art look bad? Not really, because when a tol’-ya-so caller called in to remind Art of his incorrect prediction, Art shrugged, “I got it wrong, sir” and moved on to the next subject. A simple admission, but difficult for so many who talk into a microphone to make.
I remember that. I also remember that Terry Moore was Art’s favorite ballplayer. “My guy — Terry Moore of the St. Louis Cardinals.” Art would talk about Moore, a centerfielder from the ’30s, in the same vein defensively as DiMaggio and Mantle and Mays. He was that good. Was he? I’ve since read that he was, which is neither here nor there. Art said so, which was all I had to know.
Art really was old school. He was just a shade older than my father but his lingo arrived bubble-wrapped from another era. Shea was always Flushing By The Bay. Yankee Stadium was The Big Ball Orchard In The South Bronx. A good defensive catcher could Swish That Leather Behind The Dish, my friend. Circa 1980, that sounded like an impolitic assessment of the nightlife in certain precincts of Greenwich Village, but whatever. Art expanded my vocabulary as he did my horizons. Without him, I wouldn’t have known who the hell Terry Moore was.
The 1980 season ended with the Mets missing the playoffs by a mere 24 games. Art continued to do sports talk on WMCA that winter and then made a well-publicized move to WABC. I listened as much as I could stand to, considering WABC had just become the Yankees’ station. He had plenty of Mets guests nonetheless. One night he reunited, via phone, Cleon Jones and Davey Johnson, parties to the final out of the ’69 World Series. Cleon and Davey were each now working for the Mets in the minor leagues, Art said. (Who knew?) Another night he had on Steve Albert, then partner of Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy. The Mets had been playing surprisingly competently, motivating me, for the only time, to call the Art Rust, Jr. Show.
I asked Steve what that big black thing beyond centerfield at Shea was.
“You mean the scoreboard?” Art and Steve asked in unison.
No, that other thing.
“You mean the batter’s eye?” Steve asked.
Uh, yeah, I said.
God, I felt stupid. I’d heard that phrase all my life and I’d seen that thing all my life, yet I never knew what either of them was. Nobody told me I was an idiot, however. Instead, Art asked me if there was anything else.
“I just want to say the Mets have the best fireman, the best second baseman and the best broadcasters in the National League.”
They chuckled and thanked me for calling. And I stand by those appraisals of Neil Allen and Doug Flynn.