Nancy, who is originally from Long Beach, attended college at Stony Brook, where she roomed with Sue, who married Jeff, a D.C.-area standup comic and Mets fan who read a Mets blog enough to want to reach out to one of its co-authors, Greg…who is also originally from Long Beach. Jeff contacted Greg after Greg veered off format one December day and wrote about the music he really likes, which happened to include some of the same music Jeff really likes. Greg and Jeff soon became very good friends, enough so that when Jeff does standup in New York, Greg comes to see him perform even though Greg doesn’t much like comedy clubs.
Monday night, Jeff did standup in New York and Greg showed up. So did Nancy, who is still very good friends with Sue. Jeff introduced them to each other as people who were both originally from the same town. As will happen when those kinds of stars align above our small world, Nancy confirmed Greg’s last name and asked him if he was related to Suzan. Yes, Greg said, that’s my sister.
Nancy knew Suzan. She mentioned quite casually they were on the same high school newspaper. Suzan was its editor-in-chief (something Greg would be several years later). Greg was rather surprised by this revelation. Maybe revelation isn’t the right word, since this was a tidbit from the distant past, but still, what an odd juxtaposition of degrees of separation, he thought. Two ostensible strangers sitting in a comedy club, waiting for their mutual friend to perform, making small talk, and one knew the other’s sister a very long time ago.
As Greg tends to do when the world proves that small, he ran a quick search of his mental card catalogue and pulled up some names he still associates with Suzan’s high school newspaper days, names that came home with his older sister every day. Greg was just in elementary school then and found her stories as interesting as he’d ever find them. The first name Greg thought of was Phil, who wasn’t just a name to Greg. Greg remembered Phil pretty well. Surely if she was part of that scene, Nancy would remember Phil, too.
Oh yeah, Nancy knew Phil back then and was aware of him more recently via Facebook. Phil, Nancy reported — again fairly casually — died just a few weeks ago.
Greg hadn’t seen Phil in close to four decades, but he was thrown by the news. Phil would’ve been just a little younger than his older sister. These days Suzan isn’t that much older than Greg. Time flattens out as you age, leaving all involved sufficiently advanced no matter the precise vintage of one’s graduation date. Yet we’re all too young for the fate that befell Phil.
Phil’s life went on after Suzan finished high school and the two of them drifted apart. In Greg’s mind on Monday night, however, the four intervening decades cleared out and it was a Saturday afternoon at the end of June 1974…a Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium.
It’s often a Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium in Greg’s mind, but this Saturday afternoon, June 29, 1974, was the first Saturday afternoon he’d ever actually spent there. It was Greg’s second Mets game overall. His first Old Timers Day, which was why he chose the date when he was asked to pick. His first win. His first one-hitter — Jon Matlack’s, technically, but the first of many near-misses Greg would manage to see live before Johan Santana threw the Mets’ first no-hitter and rendered tracking one-hitters superfluous. Suzan, chronically disinterested in baseball but an All-Star as a big sister, offered to take her little brother to his favorite thing he usually only got to see on television or hear on the radio. He asked for Old Timers Day. She asked Phil to come along.
The three of them took the Long Island Rail Road to Shea. Greg doesn’t know for sure, but assumes Phil knew how to do that. Greg didn’t. Suzan couldn’t have — she’d never been to a Mets game before. Phil struck a New Yorker’s air of sophistication, of knowing about things that seemed worth knowing, of knowing more than most high school kids from Long Beach were likely to know, at least from Greg’s perspective. Phil knew about movies. Phil knew about Broadway. When he wasn’t writing for the high school newspaper — succeeding Suzan as editor-in-chief — Phil worked at the Jack In The Box, where, he advised, you didn’t want to know what they did to the fries when no customers were around and the guys who manned the grill got a little bored. Phil was very quick-witted, very funny, certainly to a little brother’s sense of what was hilarious. Phil did impressions of Groucho Marx that reminded Greg of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Of course Phil would know how to get to Shea Stadium by train.
And of course Phil would know what to do at Shea Stadium once inside. This was no small thing to Greg, whose one previous visit was as part of a large day camp group. Greg had loved the Mets long before setting foot inside Shea. He yearned to know what he was doing and do it correctly. He wanted to be all the Mets fan he could be. So he kept an eye on Phil.
Phil grabbed a few All-Star ballots. Not a hundred, but a few. They let you do that, so Phil availed himself. If you lined them up, Phil demonstrated, you could punch out each desired hole several times at once. He voted fairly, not just for Mets. That’s how Greg voted in theory, and now it was how he voted in reality, the holes punching out efficiently, just as Phil had shown.
Phil bought a program, which was the same thing as a scorecard, something Greg didn’t quite realize all those years watching from home. The program/scorecard came with a small pencil. Phil used it to keep score.
Phil bought a pennant, featuring Mr. Met, Lady Met, another Mr. Met and Shea Stadium, all illustrated, all having a great time. It came on a wooden stick and Phil waved it in good fun.
Phil bought this slide rule-like contraption called the Baseball Brain. Greg had seen it advertised in the Post. It promised all kinds of special statistics attuned to all kinds of situations. It would tell you how Cleon Jones would bat against different kinds of pitchers, what would happen when Harry Parker faced different kinds of hitters. If Yogi Berra had this, the ads swore, the Mets would be in first place. As it was, the Mets were in last place. Greg thought you had to send away for the Baseball Brain. Phil knew how to find it at Shea Stadium.
More than things, Phil knew comportment. He knew you didn’t boo the retired umpires who were introduced on Old Timers Day; that you stood and applauded for the widows of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; that you gave a long, rousing ovation for Casey Stengel when he made his grand entrance. Phil would have known not to jinx Jon Matlack by bringing up the possibility of a no-hitter. But the opposing pitcher, John Curtis of the Cardinals, singled in the third, so it wound up being a pretty suspense-free one-hitter.
After the Mets won, 4-0, with Suzan, Phil and Greg back on the LIRR platform awaiting the train that would take them to Woodside where they’d wait for a train to Jamaica (where they’d wait for a train to Long Beach), Phil gave Greg his pennant, his program and his Baseball Brain. Whatever the scope of his Mets fandom, he apparently wasn’t the kind to keep those sorts of trinkets — but he knew enough to give them to Suzan’s little brother. Greg knew enough to keep them. He still has the pennant and the program. He doesn’t know what happened to the Baseball Brain. He could’ve sworn he’d kept it, too, but somewhere over the decades, his Brain made itself scarce.
Suzan became a college freshman that fall while Phil and Nancy and some other names Greg recalls had one more year of high school remaining. Suzan went to NYU, using a name she didn’t have until just a little before that game at Shea Stadium. Suzan was “Susan” when she started high school, but not when she finished it. As she saw it, there was a surfeit of Susans, and she didn’t necessarily enjoy being one of many. Sometimes “Susan” would be called “Sue,” which works fine for many — Jeff’s wife, included — but wasn’t something Greg’s sister particularly cared for.
One day, in the high school newspaper office, Susan’s name was on the blackboard. Phil looked at it, picked up a piece of chalk and made an edit. Why not, he asked Susan, try it with a “z” where the second “s” now sits?
She did. She liked it. It stuck. Four decades later, it continues to stick. “Susan” is Suzan because of Phil. When Greg let her know what Nancy told him, Suzan was a) saddened and b) transported to that blackboard moment when she became, on the cusp of adulthood, an ever so slightly different person.
Rebranded, at any rate.
Funny thing — and there should be a funny thing here since Phil did a terrific Groucho and Nancy broke the news in a comedy club — is two days before his New York show, Jeff asked Greg something sort of out of the blue after many years of close friendship and constant correspondence. The club where Jeff was performing is owned by a fellow whose last name is Mazzilli. How many Mazzilli families could there be in and around New York? So Greg, while wondering if Comedy Club Mazzilli has anything to do with Lee Mazzilli, felt compelled to mention to Jeff that when Suzan worked at the registrar’s office at NYU, she issued a student ID to Alfred Matlack, the fifth cousin to Jon Matlack, who Suzan saw throw a one-hitter against the Cards during her first Mets game at Shea Stadium.
“She knew enough to ask if they were related,” Greg said. “That was the high point of my influence on my sister.”
“I’m impressed that Suzan did that,” Jeff replied, knowing she’s not a baseball fan. “BTW, explain the odd spelling. Is that her thing?”
Greg recounted the blackboard story as he best as he could remember it second-hand from when he was 11 and she was 17. Phil’s name didn’t come up in the explanation. That was Saturday. On Monday, Greg met Jeff’s wife’s Sue’s college roommate Nancy who went to high school with his sister Suzan who took Greg to his first Mets win, Phil leading the way and giving both the brother and sister something worth keeping four decades after the fact.