I either have to thank you or blame you for directing me to file my overdue report on the Hofstra Mets 50th Anniversary conference in this format. That I think it’s as good an idea as any is confirmed by something you wrote in reviewing my book three years ago, wherein you referred to the “inventiveness” of a particular chapter and how it would “remind readers of Greg’s blog of the way in which he loves to use unusual techniques and genres to present the experience of the Mets: lists, dialogues, fantasies, glossaries, etc.” So add to my alleged techniques a letter to the late Dana Brand, co-director of the aforementioned conference that, had circumstances not intervened, you would know all about and therefore wouldn’t need to be briefed. I’ve tried to write a relatively conventional blog post about the experience, but I find myself going on and on (nothing new for me where the Mets are concerned) yet never getting anywhere definitive.
Of course writing a letter to one who is no longer with us carries its own emotionally loaded challenges. This could get mawkish, one of those words I don’t think anybody uses except as a critique against stuff like this if it’s overdone. Thus, I’ll try to step around the sentimental potholes inherent in this format and attempt to stick with my thoughts as they pertain to the conference.
First off, congratulations. Congratulations on coming up with this idea of an academic conference to celebrate the Mets’ fiftieth anniversary, cultivating it from concept to the cusp of reality and seeing it through to the extent you were able. My box score has you down for working 6⅔ effective innings of conference planning. From there, it was a little dicey getting us out of the seventh in decent enough shape to enjoy “Lazy Mary,” but your colleagues at Hofstra made certain the game would go on. After the tarp was rolled up and the field was reasonably dry following the delay caused by your coming out of the game (hope the baseball metaphors aren’t making you cringe, ’cause there a few more en route), we got a bullpen by committee together and somehow patched together the eighth and ninth.
Individually, we may have been no more than Heilman, Schoeneweis, Ayala and Stokes at times, but together we took care of business and put the conference in the books in your honor.
I thought it was a terrific conference, but I’m biased. I’m a Mets fan. I’m supposed to think it was terrific. Something would have been terribly wrong if I didn’t. Also, somebody from your old school called me and asked me to help pitch those final two innings, which makes me even more biased. When you told me you had the idea for a Mets conference, I told you I’d do anything that was needed, including “holding Jerry Grote’s coat” (be it sheepskin, camelhair or Starter satin). You said of course I’d be involved, that Mets bloggers were a part of your plan. For that matter, your plan outlined we were a part of your plan.
Funny the way roads wind, Dana. My well-informed guess is that the only Mets blogger the folks at Hofstra had ever heard of was you. However it happened, by last fall, that title fell to me. Hence, I was drafted to bring bloggers on board for your conference. Not that they weren’t already on board in theory. Ever since you announced this conference was coming, it was a recurring topic of interest, to say the least. When you were compelled to excuse yourself from further event-planning (apologies for my continued uncomfortable use of euphemisms for “died”), the first post-delay question all your friends in the blogging community asked, me included, was is the Hofstra thing still on? Once it was confirmed it was, I had a new baseball metaphor on my hands: the university as manager, me as third base coach relaying the green light to whoever wanted to get involved.
It was your conference all the way, but I got a little bigger piece of it than I was looking for when Jerry Grote’s proverbial coat was all that was at stake. A few people congratulated me for putting on a great show, which was kind yet wildly inaccurate. I was a conduit, liaison, go-between, basically…like I said, the third base coach. But I did flash the “swing away” sign and a whole bunch of bloggers you knew and maybe a couple you would have liked to have known connected with the conference. My bias is obvious here, but I think that part was also terrific.
As for what this conference was intended to accomplish, I have to tell you about a thought I had while it was in progress. It involves another teacher. His name was Mr. Dubin, who held two jobs: principal of my Hebrew school and social studies teacher at Long Beach High School. My older sister had him at LBHS for a class called Jewish Cultural Studies. When I started high school several years later, I discovered that class was no longer offered, though Mr. Dubin was still around, teaching the state-required course Revolution and Nationalism. I had him for Rev & Nat, where somebody else with an older brother or sister must have heard about what had been dropped from the curriculum and thus asked Mr. Dubin how come there was no longer a Jewish Cultural Studies?
“You know what happened?” Mr. Dubin asked by way of answering. “The Jewish students would take Jewish Studies. The black students would take Black Studies. And so on.” The idea behind these classes in the first place, he explained, was for kids of different backgrounds to learn about each other and understand one another better. That never seemed to happen. What happened instead, according to Mr. Dubin, was somebody would take the class “to appreciate being Jewish or appreciate being black. And so on.”
I remember the way he said “appreciate” with a touch of contempt, as if further insulating yourself into the culture of your heritage was doing a disservice to your innate intellectual curiosity. I could see why my sister wanted to take Jewish Studies (genuine interest blended with the sense that there was probably a pretty gettable “A” in there somewhere), but I could see more why Mr. Dubin got tired of teaching it.
Taking the logic of the discontinuation of Jewish Cultural Studies at good old LBHS to heart, it occurred to me maybe I shouldn’t have spent three days at Hofstra for a conference dedicated so intensely to the New York Mets. Instead, I should have been at Drexel University in Philadelphia to better understand all things Phillie; I should have traveled to Xavier University in Cincinnati so I could identify with the hopes and dreams of Reds fans; I should have made the trip to Arizona State and sat in on seminars that would tell me what I needed to know about the deep meaning of the Diamondbacks.
But of course I wasn’t going to do that. For one, I don’t think any of those institutions has ever put on anything like Hofstra put on last week. Your proposal said this was a first in that regard. And at the risk of wallowing in my appreciation for being a Mets fan, I can’t imagine any other team being the subject of anything quite like what went on at Hofstra.
Oh, you could teach a class in Red Sox. You could offer a seminar on the Cubs. I don’t doubt you could fill a lecture hall with those interested in what the Royals are about. But three days knee-deep in Mets, Mets and more Mets? If you’re one of us, that doesn’t sound the least bit outlandish. Really, the only question to ask isn’t “why a Mets conference?” but rather “why not an entire Mets college?”
Still, I’m already about as appreciative of the Mets experience as a person can be (“this is someone who knows more and cares more about the Mets than anyone else we’ve ever met,” is how you described me in your review of my book), which led me to wonder if I really needed three days dipped, rolled and coated in Mets. Did any of us who are serious Mets fans? When one presenter said he couldn’t remember a particular fact, a dozen voices chimed in with the answer he sought. This is what happens at conferences like these, he said — the attendees always know more than the presenters.
Your proposal to Hofstra hit all the higher-education sweet spots — baseball as a “cultural phenomenon” and “social phenomenon” that had a “significant impact at important moments in the history of the United States” — but as the conference went on, and I found myself listening to this one guy talk about the home run ball he caught off the bat of Dave Kingman and how he devoted himself to bumping into Kingman again and again for the next three decades and borderline-stalking him…well, I wondered was there real value in all this or were we all just able to appreciate being Mets fans more?
My unacademic conclusion was you get out of your experiences what you get out of them, and I felt enhanced by my three days surrounded by Mets fans (peppered by the occasional unbiased Mets observer). This is the stuff we decide we care about. I was at the same game as that guy when he caught the Kingman ball. As he introduced his story, I could tell that was the game he was headed for. I was excited to hear what happened to him at Shea in 1979; where the ball took him; why the notoriously anti-social Kingman didn’t big-league him and instead tolerated his request for an autograph; how Kingman might have been different from his reputation; what their next interaction entailed when he tracked Kingman down at the end of his last-ditch minor league stint in 1987 and showed him the same ball plus the paper he wrote for high school about catching it and meeting him; what an allegedly cranky old ballplayer was like when confronted by unimpeachable fandom in retirement.
The Kingman guy couldn’t have been distilled into a thesis, or he could have but wasn’t, yet I was intellectually engaged in his Met experience — and his was just one experience that had such an effect on me. Not everything at the conference took on the shape his story did. Some of the presentations I heard tried to live up to more scholarly aspirations (just as I might have in college, I sort of half-assed my paper’s approach on a topic I think you would have enjoyed as a listener but demanded more of as a professor), and they had a different kind of value. Your pitch to Hofstra emphasized “diverse” viewpoints and promised that the program would “represent all different possible perspectives on baseball”. What you envisioned in 2008 turned out to be true in 2012. The conference was consistent with your aims.
You also said plainly enough that “the Hofstra Conference on the New York Mets would be a lot of fun.” Mission accomplished on that count. How could something that included Mr. Met not be fun? I know you wanted the Mets themselves to be involved and that proved tricky, but they did send their literally heaviest hitter to Hofstra (as measured by head weight, of course, though let’s not overlook prominence, either). Mr. Met made no small contribution to the proceedings. To that I can attest.
Mr. Met was sent to make his rounds midday Friday, which coincided with the second of our daily Blogger Bullpen sessions. Those were our free-form discussions that started with a few designated topics, expounded on by members of our blogging community, and then expanded to bring in the audience on either those subjects or wherever the room’s Mets fan instinct took them. Friday, I had, per the outline from which I was working, brought the talk to no-hitters and the Mets’ lack of them. While we contemplated the curse of Phil Humber — remember him starting that miserable game we went to together in 2007? —Mr. Met appeared at the door.
I discerned instantly that I wasn’t going to be moderating a damn thing while Mr. Met was coming to call. Jason told me the same thing happens at Star Wars conventions: stormtroopers arrive, you’re licked, no matter what you’re doing. Of course I turned the floor over to Mr. Met (who I swear was looking at me for permission to interrupt, courteous chap that he is), and he silently — how else? — whipped our crowd into a frenzy.
Fun? Absolutely. It’s Mr. Met. But a lesson to be drawn from his interlude? Well, I tell ya, once you’ve had Mr. Met whip your crowd into a frenzy, it would be counterproductive to return to your regularly scheduled programming. Who wants to talk about the Mets not having no-hitters when your environs have been graced by the Mets’ biggest slugger since Dave Kingman? Besides, as I suggested to the Bullpen audience, I was getting a little tired of hearing for the first day-and-a-half that the Mets’ reputation remains hardened in the image cast by 1962 and intermittent setbacks since. “Lovable losers,” was the phrase tossed around repeatedly.
Let’s change the tenor, I said; let’s open the floor up and hear somebody tell us about their favorite Met win. What followed may have been my favorite half-hour of the conference, with one committed Mets fan after another (is there any other kind?) telling stories of where they were when Duke Snider hit a home run to beat St. Louis 49 years ago; where they were when two World Series and a fistful of improbable games were won; to “yesterday” when Heath Bell imploded (I was in the cafeteria blowing off an entire session so I could listen to the ninth inning). You wanted fun out of your conference? That was fun. That was educational. The human condition demonstrates resiliency. The Mets fan condition —expecting defeat, persevering toward victory — demonstrates it constantly.
I understood that in theory, but a little lunchtime gabfest among Mets fans made it that much clearer.
Clarity was in abundance at your conference, Dana. I was clearer than ever that Casey Stengel was, as one of the reporters who covered him put it, “a great man,” right up there with Ali (as another put it) as a historical figure. The evergreen retired-number debate, I decided, shouldn’t be about who’s good enough to be honored alongside Seaver, but who did as much to match Stengel, who all kinds of witnesses to the creation of the Mets confirmed invented us, nurtured us and leaven us to this day.
Which doesn’t make the Mets eternal lovable losers, no matter Casey’s record. It just makes us lovable. And singular. If I had to disagree with any part of your proposal, Dana, it was the line that explained the Mets were a prime conference subject because “It would be impossible to have a similarly comprehensive conference on New York’s other, older franchise.” The first time somebody scored a laugh referring “to that other team,” I thought it was clever. The twentieth time, I wanted to scream. Let us, fellow Mets fans, stop obsessing on other New York teams that only incidentally inform our narrative. The Giants and Dodgers are part of our story, and nods to their contribution were appropriate and enlightening. But the Yankees? Are we really only about “otherness?” I never thought so. I’d like to think my fellow Mets fans can get past that, too.
My other wish, as long as I’m apparently mentally planning a 51st Anniversary conference, is that facts get checked and rechecked. It’s charming to a point when Marv Throneberry’s baserunning misadventures take on a slightly different tinge — ball hit to center; ball hit to right; Stengel said this; Stengel said that — when they’re told at 9 AM, noon and 3 PM. But it was all I could do to not mutter aloud “PIERSALL, NOT THRONEBERRY” when somebody assigned Marvelous Marv the role of Met who ran the bases backwards when he hit his hundredth home run. Mind you, the presentation that made that historical misstep wasn’t a biography of Marv Throneberry, but it set me on edge just the same. Ditto for the date of the installation of the Home Run Apple. Miss it by a week? Fine. Miss it by a year? Then the landscape and the history you wish to communicate to us necessarily differs from what actually happened.
I’ll bet you were never this pedantic with your classes, Dana, but we all have our hot buttons.
Rest assured, I won’t remember this conference as the place where easily checkable facts got caught in a rundown and tagged out by neglect. I will remember it instead as the place…
• where I silently swooned at being in the same auditorium with Ed Kranepool and Bud Harrelson as they transported us with them to 1969;
• where seven-year-old me couldn’t believe 49-year-old me was sitting at the same dinner table as Art Shamsky and dining out on his story about Tug McGraw telling reporters he couldn’t judge Astroturf’s viability versus grass because he’d never smoked Astroturf (and I didn’t even have to hang Art’s coat);
• where Ed Charles, who had regaled us with his poetry, was sitting back-to-back with me for a couple of hours;
• where I could personally tell Gil Hodges, Jr., that in the eyes of every lucid Mets fan his dad has always been a Hall of Famer — he’s probably heard stuff like that for forty years, but I wanted him to hear it again anyway;
• where Rusty Staub recounted his last meeting with Gil’s dad, having no idea he was about to be traded to Gil, Sr.’s team, and then never actually getting to play for Gil Hodges;
• where I could shake the hand of one of my favorite columnists ever and tell him that amid all these ballplayers, “you’re the one I’ve wanted to meet for thirty years”;
• where I could listen to Rob Emproto explain his theories on the Mets’ chronic failure to rebuild to a roomful of Mets fans the way he’d been explaining them to me for nearly twenty years;
• where I could watch Joe Dubin (no relation to Mr. Dubin the Hebrew school principal) describe the New Breed years as eloquently in his way as you would in your way;
• where I could meet Matthew Callan, who’d been engrossing me for the longest time with his Scratchbomb essays on the Bobby Valentine Mets, and hear him share some of his comprehensive research aloud;
• where three different ladies all but squealed with delight that Buddy let them try on his 1986 World Series ring (now there’s a real third base coach);
• where Eddie still bristled at the drafting of Steve Chilcott and the trading of Amos Otis;
• where my favorite New York historian, Peter Laskowich, detailed how the Giant roots meshed with the Dodger roots to produce the sapling we came to know as Metsie…Metsie;
• where a good guy named Paul surprised me with an original version of the Mets pennant that hangs in Lane Pryce’s office on Mad Men in appreciation for my having turned him onto the show;
• where plenty of good guys and good gals said wonderfully nice things about our blog, about my book, about my half-assed paper, about the Bullpen sessions in general and were simply great Mets fans to be around;
• where a Mookie Wilson bat, donated by the Mets, was drawn as a banquet door prize and was awarded to none other than Sonia Brand-Fisher, who won it fair and square, but I would have been thrilled had the drawing been rigged in her favor;
• where a generous donation of Mets baseball cards (by a Red Sox fan, no less) was turned into generous transactions that generated the proverbial nice chunk of change for the Dana Brand Memorial Scholarship Fund (hat tip to Darren Gurnick of New Hampshire who was glad to help a worthy cause while ridding himself of the Mookie Wilson cards that had been haunting him for a quarter-century);
• and where so many great things happened, but none better from my perspective than Mets blogging getting its due as outlined in your original conference proposal. There were those daily lunchtime sitdowns, as noted, and there was a session Saturday afternoon devoted to the art and craft of the blog, where I had the pleasure of joining in a discussion with Taryn Cooper, John Coppinger and Steve Keane. And as long as we’re calling the roll, Dana, you should know a passel of your fellow Mets bloggers besides participated in one facet or another throughout the conference. In no particular order, they included Jason Fry, Shannon Shark, Matthew Artus, Matthew Callan, Ray Stilwell, Kerel Cooper, Jon Springer, Matthew Silverman, Mark Simon, Howard Megdal, E.J. Stankiewicz, Jason Bornstein, Michael Donato and…this is why shout-outs of this nature are fraught with peril. I dread omitting anyone, and the whole was made whole only by the sum of its parts. Anyway, we were there in force and we did what we could to make this thing happen in the spirit we could best ascertain you intended.
Getting very close to mawkish here, so let me veer quickly to a detour you’d appreciate, given your well-deserved status as our Proustian blogger. This regards sense of place. There was plenty spoken about our favorite ballpark, Shea Stadium, and everybody who volunteered an opinion still misses it (those same Mets fans said they have yet to truly warm to Citi Field, but gosh darn it, every one of them swears he or she is still trying to embrace it), but the place I’m thinking of is your other old stomping grounds, Hofstra University. I’ve thrown around “Hofstra” as shorthand since getting involved in all this, but being there really brought certain things back for me.
Your proposal promoted Hofstra as an “appropriate location for a Mets conference because it is located in the Mets heartland.” I never thought to put the school in that context, but when you grow up on the South Shore of Nassau County as I did, you can’t help but grow up at least vaguely aware of Hofstra University. No disrespect intended toward Molloy or Adelphi or C.W. Post, but Hofstra always loomed in the background of my consciousness when I was a kid as “the local college”. I applied there and was accepted there. I had no intention of attending there, but I knew if I came down with a case of cold feet about going away to school, I’d wind up there, approximately fifteen minutes from home.
My interactions with the campus prior to a couple of weeks ago had been sporadic and brief. A day camp trip to gawk at Joe Namath from hundreds of yards’ remove…tagging along with the family when my sister had a National Honor Society reception…Joel Lugo and I following future music mogul Rick Rubin — Ricky in those days — in ditching the Shakespeare festival field trip (Othello) in favor of haute cuisine at the Jack in the Box down Hempstead Turnpike…aimless Saturday night drives through the campus with Fred Bunz when we were already sufficiently matriculated elsewhere…a sudden need to attend a baseball card show, sated at the tail end of the 1990s (the first time I ever carried a cell phone somewhere)..an impulse visit to the bookstore to buy Stephanie a Hofstra t-shirt for Chanukah one year — we’d always shared a fondness for college t-shirts, so why not one from the local college?
One episode, however, came rushing back to me more than any other. On March 30, 1981, a date that would come very close to red-letter status in United States history, Joel and I represented LBHS at Hofstra in a speech contest sponsored by the American Legion. We were last-minute insertions into the competition, asked by a friendly teacher (who I don’t think really planned this thing through) to speak extemporaneously on the First Amendment…an amendment for which I’m pretty sure each of us expressed our sincere support. Our efforts didn’t win us any prizes, but it did get us out of school for a day.
I hadn’t thought of that contest in ages, but an extended visit to Hofstra sparked a memory of Joel and me sitting in a hallway and waiting our turn, killing time with several games of hangman. I distinctly recall two of the answers Joel provided:
DAVE KINGMAN’S THUMB
SHEA STADIUM WILL HAVE A DOME
What else were we going to hangman about?
Thirty-one years and one month later, I was in that exact same hallway, zipping back and forth from presentations that touched on, among myriad Met matters, the Dave Kingman fielding injury that finished off his shot at breaking Hack Wilson’s home run record and the fanciful promises of Shea Stadium’s forever unbuilt roof — each of them a topic Joel and I had been known to dwell on between and during classes. “Hey,” I thought in 2012 of 1981, “I’ve been here before, and I was thinking about the Mets when I was.”
So yes, Mr. Proust of Mets Bloggers, appropriate location, indeed.
On behalf of every single person who made Hofstra the appropriate place to be for three days in April, thanks again for conceiving and creating this conference. Though the phrase couldn’t be more mundane, it also couldn’t be truer: wish you were there.