I want to go to a 2011 Mets game. I can’t wait. I never can. Theoretically, I want to go to them all, but that’s a prohibitive desire, despite all the swell enticements the Mets are offering. Right now, with the days suddenly disgustingly shorter and the air disagreeably colder, I think I need just one 2011 Mets game so see me through the long night of winter.
The Mets are so busy trying to sell season tickets that they’re not officially doing anything yet with single-game sales, still I was hoping I could apply for early admission. Hence, I headed to Citi Field — the advance ticket windows. Go there and you don’t have to pay convenience fees. It’s much more convenient to avoid those, I find. Not surprisingly, there were no lines yet. Lots of windows, my choice.
But which one could sell me tickets? Would it make a difference
“Hello,” I said at the first window. “I know it’s only November, but can you sell tickets to Mets fans?”
“I don’t know if I can,” the vaguely recognizable face replied. “I’m Don Wakamatsu. I used to be manager of the Seattle Mariners.”
“Were you any good at it?” I asked.
“For a while there, I suppose,” he told me. “We had an 85-77 record my first year, 2009. Big improvement over 2008.”
“So what’re you doing here?”
“It didn’t work out in 2010 so good. We were 42-70 and I got canned.”
“And you think you’re gonna sell tickets to Mets fans?” I asked incredulously. “No thanks.”
Next window revealed a face that elicited a glimmer of recognition.
“Hi,” I said, a little more brusquely. “Can you sell tickets to Mets fans?”
“I can do any number of things in baseball,” this face said.
“You bet. I’m Bob Melvin. I was Manager of the Year!”
“You seem pretty proud of that.”
“You bet I am. I won 93 games in Seattle in 2003.”
“That was your Manager of the Year year?”
“No, I didn’t get an award for that. I took over a pretty good club after Lou Piniella left.”
“But going to the playoffs was its own award, I’ll bet.”
“Um, we didn’t go to the playoffs that year. Oakland was pretty good.”
“Then which year did you take the Mariners to the playoffs?”
“I didn’t. I only lasted another season. We lost 99 games and I was gone.”
“So the award…?”
“Oh, that was in Arizona. We had a swell team. Won 90 games in 2007!”
“Not bad,” I said, beginning to fish for my wallet. “You must’ve done some kind of rebuilding job. Who’d you take over for from 2006. Some sap, I’ll bet.”
“No, that was me the year before. And the year before that.”
I shoved my wallet back into my pocket before proceeding, though I allowed, “That’s still a pretty good year.”
“It sure was. We steamrolled Piniella and the Cubs in the division series.”
“Uh-huh. Then what happened?”
“Kind of got swept by the Rockies.”
“Too bad,” I said. “But at least you gained valuable experience and built on it the next year.”
“No,” he admitted. “We slid back to just over .500 in 2008 despite building a big lead in the early going, and they got rid of me in 2009.”
“So two good seasons in how many?”
“Counting the partial year, seven — two in seven. Then I got one of those organizational jobs ex-managers sometimes get, with the Mets. Now — how many tickets can I sell you as a Met fan?”
“Sorry Bob Melvin, I don’t think you can sell any Mets fan any tickets.”
Lots of windows were left from which to choose. Gotta be someone better suited than Don Wakamatsu and Bob Melvin to sell tickets to Mets fans for 2011.
Hey! I know that guy!
“You’re Clint Hurdle, aren’t you?”
“At your service!”
“Wow, Clint, I remember you from the Mets in 1985 and 1987. Always felt bad about your timing, missing 1986 and all.”
“Those are the breaks. I did OK.”
“I’ll say — you managed the Rockies and they went crazy toward the end of 2007.”
“It was crazy,” he beamed. “It was Rocktober!”
“Then more bad timing, huh?”
“You mean the long layoff before the World Series? Yeah, that kind of screwed us up. Still, National League pennant’s pretty impressive.”
I was indeed impressed. Clint’s Colorado Rockies were the only thing that could have drawn me even a little out of my September 2007 funk long enough to be into baseball that Rocktober: 14-1, including a 13-inning thriller to clinch the Wild Card, then sweeps of the Phillies and Bob Melvin’s Diamondbacks — 20 of 21 until the Red Sox took them in four straight.
“Congratulations on that,” I told him. “You should be proud.”
“Thank you. I am.”
“Just wondering, though, Clint…”
“How come none of your other Rockies teams ever did anything?”
“Well, Clint, you managed the Rockies for a long time, and you never so much as had a winning record until 2007. Then your team fell to earth in 2008 and you were bounced out of Denver before 2009 was two months old. The Rockies were so happy to be rid of you, they went on another roll without you.”
Clint didn’t seem so friendly anymore. “Look, can I sell you tickets to see the Mets in 2011 or what?”
“Um, I’ll get back to you,” I muttered as I backed away from his window.
Had to be somebody who wouldn’t make me think twice. Had to be a name, a face that wasn’t just familiar, but got me excited. I’m a huge Mets fan. If the guys they had manning these windows couldn’t sell me on coming to see them next year, how would they get anybody else to line up? I looked down the row of windows: DeMarlo Hale, Chip Hale, Dave Jauss, Ken Oberkfell…I passed them each by without a second glance. I suppose they might be good at this eventually, but here in November? Here when I need something to feel a pulse over? Not really.
At the next window I approached, the guy behind the glass was barking at me.
“You! Over there! Come here!”
“What?” I asked as I approached gingerly. “What do you want?”
“I want you! I’m Terry Collins! I’m no nonsense! Don’t let the stories of how the Angels players petitioned to get me thrown out of Anaheim scare you off! Don’t get worked up over how I never won anything there or in Houston! I worked for the Mets and I’m reportedly reportedly popular with ownership! Sandy Koufax reportedly thinks highly of me!”
I turned away as fast as I could. That guy wasn’t going to sell me a single ticket. Hell, I’d be returning my rainchecks last year if it were left to him to sell me on the Mets.
“You reportedly haven’t seen the last of me!” Collins wailed.
Not many windows left. One of them piqued my interest when I saw who was working it.
“Tim Teufel! Is that you?”
“I’ll be darned! What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been with the Mets for a whole bunch of years, actually.”
“Really? I guess I knew that, but it’s easy to forget.”
“You mean because…”
“Yeah, because you were always so easy to overlook as a player. You were the ‘other’ second baseman.”
“I get a lot of that.”
“No offense, but when I think of Met second basemen from that era, I think of…”
“You can’t blame me, can you? I mean you were so, I don’t know, low-key. And he was…”
“Ohmigod, so passionate! My friends and I still talk about him as the ideal ballplayer.”
“Just curious — does my name ever come up anymore?”
“Not really. Nobody says anything bad, it’s just…”
Now I felt bad. I didn’t want to hurt Tim Teufel’s feelings. He wasn’t a bad player, and I assumed he was all right at whatever he was doing these days. So I changed my tone.
“Good to see you, Tim. What exactly have you been up to lately?”
“No kidding! Where?”
“Ya don’t say. For who?”
“Mets. I manage in the Mets minor league system.”
“Wow, who knew?”
“The Mets. I’ve been managing for the Mets in the minor leagues for most of the last decade.”
“I have to tell you, Tim, they never mentioned that.”
“Sigh, I know.”
“Hey, you know who else is managing for the Mets in the minor leagues?”
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen him lately?”
“Sigh, next window.”
“Excuse me, Tim. Um, I’ll be back later.”
Next window, there he was — Wally Backman. WALLY BACKMAN! One of my favorite Mets ever! One of everybody’s favorite Mets ever, at least everybody who saw him in his prime. You knew when Wally was in town. Him you couldn’t ignore. Him you couldn’t forget.
I ran right up to his window.
“Wally! Wally Backman!”
“Wally, you were the best! You really were!”
“Thanks man, I appreciate that.”
“No, really! Lenny would lead off and get on and then you’d hit and he’d run and it would be first and third, and Keith would be coming up, then Kid, then Darryl!”
“Yup. We were something else.”
“Were? To me you’ll always be something else. Whenever the Mets look beaten, my friends and I invoke your name constantly. ‘If only we had Wally Backman out there, this wouldn’t be happening.’”
“Mighty nice of you to say.”
“Seriously, Wally. You’d do anything to win. You wouldn’t take any guff from anybody. The Cubs, the Cardinals, the Astros, the Red Sox…it didn’t matter. You’d give as good as you’d get, and you wouldn’t let anybody in the clubhouse off either.”
“Well, I tried.”
“Tried? You succeeded! Can I see your ring?”
Wally Backman showed me his 1986 World Series ring. It was awesome. I was sold. Out came my wallet.
“Wally,” I said, “I’ll take as many tickets as you have so I can come see you play again.”
“Listen,” he said, “I’d love that, but I’m obligated to read you a warning first.”
“Go ahead,” I said, figuring it was just a formality, like those terms of service agreements you click on when you want to buy a song from iTunes.
Wally cleared his throat. “‘The New York Mets officially notify you that Wally Backman will never play for them again…’”
My heart sank.
“‘Furthermore, while your memories of Wally Backman as a player can continue to glow warmly, please understand that Wally’s success as a player is not necessarily transferable to his abilities as a manager…’”
I was bumming out.
“‘Please understand that Mr. Backman may be a fine manager, but there are no guarantees that he won’t be a terrible manager. The New York Mets wish to remind you Mr. Backman has experienced some severe down moments since taking off his player’s uniform, and that whatever fond associations you have of him from more than two decades ago, he is accompanied wherever he goes by unusually heavy baggage.’”
Wally finished his mandatory spiel.
“Now that I’ve read that reminder,” Wally said, “can I still sell tickets to you?”
I wasn’t absolutely sure anymore, so I politely told Mr. Backman that I’d have to think about it. It was more than I was going to do for the men at the other nine windows, but it wasn’t a definitive yes.
And now I was out of windows. The Mets had lined up ten different candidates to prospectively sell me tickets to see the 2011 Mets, yet when I examined all of them, none of them could close the deal. None of them could get me revved up — not on track record, not on potential, not — except for how I idealized Wally — on personality.
How dispiriting, I thought, as I headed for the 7 to Woodside through the cold and the dark.
“Is this the best they can do?” I asked no one in particular.
“No,” came a voice I’d know anywhere. “They can do much better.”
I turned around. The face was as familiar as the voice.
“They can hire someone who’s won here before,” the voice continued. “They can hire someone who’s turned them around before. They can hire someone who’s acknowledged as one of the finest tactical and motivational minds in the game. They can hire someone who can sell tickets to this fan base, maybe the only person living and ostensibly available who fits that description. They might think he’s a little pricey or a bit of a wild card, but they can at least talk to him, give him a shot. It’s not like he’s doing anything better. And it’s pretty obvious they don’t have anybody unquestionably better.”
“I agree 100% with you,” I told the voice. “I never wanted you to leave. As the years have gone by, I’ve never been completely sure it would be a great idea to bring you back, but why wouldn’t they talk to you?”
Bobby Valentine didn’t know. And neither did I.