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Mookie in Plain Sight

Not long ago I was at a game with somebody who loves the Mets but isn’t necessarily on top of their day-to-day machinations. He noticed from where we stood a very familiar figure he hadn’t noticed previously during the 2011 season.

“Mookie Wilson’s a coach?” he asked with a bit of surprise.

Yes, I said, first base coach. Funny thing was I wasn’t shocked that this particular Mets fan might have missed Mookie’s presence after several months of him standing in the same box night after night. If anything, I gauged my friend’s reaction as fairly savvy in its way. To me, there’s always been something just a little…let’s say off about Mookie Wilson serving as the Mets’ first base coach.

I felt it this year, and I felt it during his first stint in the role, from 1997 to 2002. It’s not a reflection on Mookie’s skills for the job, whatever it is a first base coach does exactly. Mookie coached baserunning as well as outfield play. Apparently he didn’t do it smashingly enough to pass muster with the Mets, for he, along with several of his colleagues, have been dismissed and/or will be reassigned [1]. I couldn’t tell if you if Mookie was great at coaching or not particularly suited for it. During my last on-field visit [2], I saw him doing, if you’ll excuse me using sophisticated baseball jargon, coach stuff. Mookie was hustling in and out of the dugout, hitting grounders, providing tips, carrying gear. He was doing what coaches do.


Mookie, doing what coaches do. (Photo by Sharon Chapman)

Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s that your legends becoming workaday baseball men is at odds with the mind’s eye. Make no mistake: Mookie is one of our legends. Mookie is — not was, is — one of our champions, and I mean that in a more transcendent sense than he was on the roster the last time the Mets won a World Series. Howard Johnson was a coach for several years. As good as he was as a player, and as authentic as his 1986 credentials are, I didn’t find his descending from his lofty status among the Mets’ all-time statistical leaders to work on the swings of mere Met mortals all that strange. When Tim Teufel is third base coach next year, he’ll be Tim Teufel, the old infielder doing what old infielders do. If he gets a runner thrown out at the plate, I won’t find his playing identity trumping his errant decision.

Mookie, however, will always be Mookie. I never needed him to be anything more. His being something that by the nature of the job isn’t legendary couldn’t help but be a letdown. When I’d listen to him talking about pedestrian issues like how a generic runner gets a good jump, or what a youngster like Lucas Duda has to do to craft himself into a legitimate right fielder, I felt a tad disappointed. “You’re Mookie Wilson,” I would think. “Your being Mookie Wilson is plenty. You shouldn’t have to take Chin-lung Hu’s helmet at the end of an inning on those extremely infrequent occasions he’s on base. You shouldn’t have to hit fungoes to the likes of Scott Hairston. You’re Mookie Wilson! Isn’t that enough?”

Actually, I’m sure it wasn’t. Mookie Wilson is a legend to and for us, an avatar of everything we wanted our Mets to be, but ultimately, he’s a person who worked in an industry and wanted (after a hiatus [4]) to make a living in it. Few are the stone immortals who can write their post-athletic ticket on image alone. Mookie wasn’t quite that, at least outside of Queens (and maybe Toronto). He’s a baseball man. Baseball men work in baseball. Coaching first base and baserunners and outfielders at the major league level is a pretty good gig. Of course Mookie deserved a shot at such a job if he wanted it, particularly in a Mets uniform.

And yet…he was Mookie. He was Mookie who streaked down the line, and Mookie who never gave up on fly balls, and Mookie who treated second to home like it was ninety feet and Mookie who ran hard but never appeared overheated…and Mookie who hit the grounder. I was trying to go as far as I could without playing the Buckner card [5], but let’s face it, it’s a helluva card. Yet Mookie’s not Mookie because he hit that grounder. Mookie hit that grounder because he’s Mookie.

Kind of zen, but so is Mookie Wilson, I’ve always believed. Unlimited exposure to Mookie, however, made him seem almost ordinary, as if he was hiding in the coaching box in plain sight. I want him to grace us with his presence reasonably regularly, but at the risk of messing with another man’s money, I didn’t want him held to some boring standard of whether runners ran bases better because of him or outfielders tracked deep fly balls properly because of him. I want Mookie around, but now and then, not as wallpaper. I want him to offer a wave, to tip a cap, to answer a question about what it’s like being Mookie Wilson. That’s worth compensating handsomely in the Mets universe. I never wanted a Mookie Wilson sighting to be rendered ordinary.

He’s too extraordinary for that.