Good thing in this day and age that a farewell column doesn’t have to be definitive. George Vecsey published his in the Times last month, yet he is still writing — for himself and for his old paper on an occasional basis. That’s a pretty good thing, indeed, for Mets fans who like to read.
I’m glad I can still find some George Vecsey if not as much as I had grown used to for the better part of three decades I spent reading him as a featured Sports of the Times columnist. There was a handful of bylines that stopped me cold in sports sections as I fed my newspaper addiction through the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. George Vecsey’s was generally the most delightful stop as I made my daily rounds from the News to the Post (when I wasn’t partaking of one of my periodic anti-Murdoch boycotts, the most recent of which has been in effect since March 2003), Newsday and, saved for last as if I had to earn it, the Times.
Maybe if more people like me hadn’t gotten out of the seven-day three/four-newspaper habit, newspapers wouldn’t be chronically offering buyout packages that longtime newspaper employees — skilled at reading writing on walls as they are — feel compelled to accept. George Vecsey accepted his buyout after 50 or so years of writing for newspapers. Some would call that a good, long run. His devoted readers would say it hasn’t been quite long enough.
I think I looked forward to Vecsey because he seemed so much more like a person who wrote a column about sports than a sports columnist. If he enjoyed his subject matter, he didn’t hide it. If he didn’t, he wasn’t any more cynical about it than he had to be. Vecsey wrote lovingly about sports for which I will never rustle two hoots — say, soccer — and let me know what he thought was wrong with the bigger-time sports the rest of us tend to consumer in mass quantities; as a f’rinstance, he could do without the crushing enormity football represents. After the columns begin to number in the thousands, you pick up on recurring themes. In the wrong hands, the reader’s senses are dulled. With Vecsey, it was a consistently engaging conversation resumed. I would read him on soccer. I would read him on football. I would sure as hell read him on baseball.
In an interview with Gelf Magazine to plug his appearance at Varsity Letters in Manhattan this Thursday night, the professional who abided by the sportswriter’s code to not root for teams the way a fan would did allow to Michael Gluckstadt that, “Deep down, we probably are all National League baseball fans, and I know how to agonize with the Mets. That’s what they are for.”
One’s orange and blue hackles may instinctively rise in the face of such resigned fatalism, but from George Vecsey, I’ll accept it in good humor. The man was present at the creation, for goodness sake. He covered the Mets in 1962. He covered Casey Stengel. Stengel, he wrote a few years ago in an essay for a book called Coach, has never really departed his consciousness:
I can picture him naked, a tough old bird in his early seventies, his Mets uniform lying discarded on the floor of his office, while he pounded his burly chest and proclaimed the entire franchise was “a fraud”.
Casey was doing something no other man in “the baseball business” had ever done — he was managing and performing vaudeville at the same time. He was creating a personality for a bad baseball team in the toughest market in the country. He was inventing the New York Mets on the fly.
Like an unclad Ol’ Perfesser, it may be hard to shake the image of the Mets as what the Mets were when Vecsey first encountered them. When I see them, my instinct is to still LOOK WHO’S NO. 1 as the shot of the scoreboard advised me in September 1969. George sees them and he’s tangled up in empathetic agony. We all filter information in our own way.
Not that the man from the Times doesn’t know the whole story. He wrote one grand book about 1969, Joy In Mudville, before leaving sports for news and features, and another about 1986, A Year In The Sun. The former has been understood as essential to the Mets canon since its 1970 publication, but the latter (on whose cover the author stands among comfortingly familiar orange box seats) captures as well as any contemporary account the excitement that surrounded the Mets in their most overwhelmingly successful season.
Published in 1989, A Year In The Sun is essentially a columnist’s diary. Vecsey tours a momentous year on the beat, offering a veritable commentary track to his ’86 columnic output, the heart of which can be found when he’s writing about the best Mets team ever. One passage finds him at Shea on the day of the Home Opener, where he allows us to meet or better know an array of characters from Frank Cashen to Dick Young to his late father who introduced him to the joy of newspapers and clung to his own foothold in the business (inside Shea’s press box, no less) as long as he could.
Later on, George spends virtually all of October with the Mets, which was a very good month to be a sports columnist in New York. Here he takes us inside the less glamorous aspects of filing on deadline in those pre-Internet days, especially when the lede changes and changes again. Reflecting on the Game Six column he planned to write about the Bambino avenged and the one he actually wrote about Buckner’s unwanted date with destiny, Vecsey — all pro, no fan by then — admitted, “I had thought a Red Sox championship would be the best story of this Series. Show how much imagination I have.”
Yet the best Met story materializes in November of 1986, when George Vecsey is taking his teenage son David (today a Times copy editor) to Boston to visit colleges. Two New Yorkers in Boston a month after the Series to end all Series. The father is not on assignment now. Instead of hewing to objectivity, George and David are all agloat as they walk the back end of Fenway Park, recalling the Game Three leadoff swing that turned the Series away from the Red Sox and toward the Mets:
We are chortling now, looking down at the sidewalk to see if the Greater Boston Historical Society has gotten around to including this historic moment on the footpath for tourists. This is where Cotton Mather preached his fire-and-brimstone-sermons. This is where Paul Revere warned that the Redcoats were coming. This is where Len Dykstra’s home run took off into the night.
George was midcareer then, at least as far as daily newspapering went. He’s now an occasional contributor to the Times sports section and otherwise blogging on whatever moves him. When he started with Newsday in 1960, he was about the same age Casey Stengel was when that young feller was getting his baseball feet wet with Kankakee in the Northern Association. For what it’s worth, Vecsey’s 72 now, or the age Ol’ Case turned in the midst of the Mets’ first season. As the self-described “only journalist I know who has interviewed Casey Stengel, Loretta Lynn and the Dalai Lama” (and was pretty sure he “understood all three of them”) takes flight in a new direction, I look forward to reading George Vecsey reinvent himself on the fly.