I have so much to tell you. I don’t know where to start.
—Masha to Jerry Langford, The King Of Comedy
He’s just some fan. What do you expect?
—Alison the surly fact checker, Almost Famous
So many games like Tuesday night’s. So many road trips like the one that has wound winless from Miami to Washington. So many seasons like 2013. Too many eras like the current epoch through which we persevere while grasping at distant straws from before and after the short straw of the present as proof that things have been better and that things will get better.
Why are we Mets fans again?
Oh right, because we’re Mets fans, which is my easy and self-evident answer, or as my blogging partner once countered, “What are we gonna do — become Phillies fans?” You pick your team, or your team picks you, and you’re off to the pennant races if you’re lucky, or a long-term rental of fourth place if you’re not.
But you’re in it for the long term. You’re in it for sweeps by the Marlins and blows to the Nationals even if that’s not what you were looking for. Which you weren’t, of course, though sometimes (ofttimes, really) that’s what you get when you fall in love. Your team is your team. You root for them as Chaka Khan might: through the fire, to the limit, to the wall.
And if you were one of the very first Mets fans when you were just eight and you had a predilection for speaking into inanimate objects and pretending you could be heard by people who couldn’t see you when you were only five, you broadcast them that way. If that’s your story, then you’re Howie Rose, who lays out his life and times relatably, navigably and refreshingly in the aptly titled, recently released Put It In The Book!
I love Howie Rose’s book because I have spent more than a quarter-century kvelling that Howie Rose is the Mets fan he is and channels it so professionally. No “we/us” on the air for someone whose formative years quite obviously dripped with first-person plural. That’s OK when you’re a kid whose attachment to a team is as emotional as it is anything. It’s OK for an overgrown kid like me to say “we,” I figure, because I’m sitting here wrapping myself in blue and orange, investing my time, money and soul in a team for whom I’m intermittently answering out on the hustings. “Hey Greg,” I’ve heard once, twice or a thousand times in my life, “what’s wrong with your Mets?”
I never stop to correct my inquisitor that they’re not my Mets. Because they are, give or take a 50.1-percent ownership stake. And they’re Howie’s Mets as much as anybody’s. He made that clear when he introduced himself to me through the radio late in Spring Training 1987 when he voiced promos over WHN promising that his new show, Mets Extra, with its 75 minutes of pre- and 75 minutes of post-game depth, would be a “dream come true” for Mets fans. I could tell by the way he delivered that line that he wasn’t reading from somebody else’s script. Only a lifelong Mets fan would think a cumulative two-and-a-half hours spent dwelling on the Mets before and after at least two-and-a-half hours of a Mets game itself would be nirvana.
Twenty-five years of Mets baseball was in the books by then and another 25 or so have passed since. Howie’s been around for all of it, first as an eight-year-old who quite reasonably inferred in 1962 that they were “a team created just for me,” and for decades as someone charged with communicating that sense of proprietariness to millions infused with the same illusion. None of us is wrong. Your team is your team…your team. You might conjure a fancy reason for it based on your psychological self-profile or you might be the kind of guy Howie and I are, if I may narrowly lump us together: we really like sports and we take our teams within them very seriously.
Listening to Howie in his five-hour nightly slot in WFAN’s early years — a period Rose quite frankly doesn’t miss — I knew I was listening to someone who got it. He didn’t talk down to me or around me. He talked with me. There were no pretensions of experthood and nothing shticky about it. It was informed, it was lively, it was engaging. I never called Howie Rose at (718) 937 et al, but I maintained a running dialogue with him from 1987 to 1995. He’d talk and his thoughts crackled across 50,000 watts. I’d think he’d made an interesting point and come up with one of my own in my head. Maybe I’d say something to the radio. It was never contentious. It was usually in agreement.
That give-and-take returned with Howie’s book. A lot of “yeah, that’s right.” Some “you think so?” Now and then, “no, no way!” It’s as much interaction as I needed amid what’s part fan memoir, part broadcasting manual, part Mets narrative. I already knew the Mets parts, but not exactly where Howie was at crucial stages of the franchise’s development. I knew he had a career in broadcasting before Mets Extra but didn’t know the extent of the ins and outs (particularly fascinating to me was his noting he never left New York to garner out-of-town experience the way young broadcasters from around here are traditionally instructed). I guessed he probably had some intriguing interactions with characters who’ve come and gone from the Mets dugout, and indeed our lead radio announcer shares quite a few insightfully. It’s not that I needed to know more than Howie Rose was a helluva talk show host and the most comforting sound AM radio can beam this side of a warm and sunny five-day forecast, but what a treat to get all that.
And speaking of treats, I finally got to talk to Howie Rose because of this book. Not in my head, not in the car, but by phone — the way Emmis Broadcasting always intended.
This is the fringe benefit of blogging (another discipline Howie expresses some dismay over on page 203, but never mind that right now). A publicist asks if you’d like the opportunity to have a conversation with someone you’ve been listening to for more than half your life. You put on one of those cartoon bursts of speed that lands you in the next frame before the publicist has had time to place the question mark at the end of his inquiry. Hell yes, I’d like to talk to Howie Rose, I essentially said.
My first mission was not to guest-host The Chris Farley Show. You know: “You’re Howie Rose…remember that time you had Lindsey Nelson come on the line to congratulate Bob Murphy on being voted the Ford C. Frick Award in 1994? Yeah, that was awesome!” Believe me, I could’ve done that all day, but I don’t think that would’ve served any purpose amid what I had to approach as a professional media interaction. Give me a wide enough opening and I’d be Sandra Bernhard knitting Jerry Lewis oversized sweaters, though hopefully not as I held Howie hostage while Rupert Pupkin sat in alongside Josh Lewin.
Still, Howie Rose…on the phone…with me…and no microphone or producer between us. It wasn’t a dream come true for this Mets fan because who would have dared dream such a thing?
I behaved myself. I kept it as professional as I could. I did allow myself a little coda to tell him that as much as I enjoy his play-by-play — the thing he always wanted to do — what I really loved was his unfailingly classy talk show hosting — a job he saw primarily as an avenue to a ballpark or arena booth somewhere…and, oh yeah, the thing I really loved about him was something he hasn’t done except in cameos for eighteen years. Maybe tomorrow I can catch Will Smith coming out of a theater and swoon over “Parents Just Don’t Understand” while I’m at it.
Howie was quite gracious about it anyway. The entire exchange was cordial all around. No oversized sweaters in sight, all of my Farleyesque instincts properly tamped (“you remember how you called Steve Somers from your hotel room after the Mets lost Game Seven to the Dodgers in 1988 and sounded legitimately disgusted…that was awesome, too, albeit in an unfortunate context”). I don’t get paid to blog, but I conducted myself like at least a semi-pro.
We talked about Matt Harvey, who at that moment wasn’t far removed from his “HARVEY’S BETTER!” start against Stephen Strasburg. Howie said the scene at Citi Field that Friday night was so reminiscent of Doc Gooden riding high in the mid-1980s that “the only thing missing was Huey Lewis doing the national anthem.” We talked about Citi Field maybe not shaking like Shea Stadium but giving a hint that it can get excited by a big moment. We talked a little about the status of the Mets Hall of Fame, on whose selection committee Howie serves, but he didn’t offer any revelations about who might be considered next and if anything will happen soon.
We talked about a passage in the book involving Billy Wagner and Latin players, with Howie mostly reiterating what he wrote. We talked in what I hoped would be a non-snarky way (on my part) about Wayne Hagin — the challenges of working with a partner who isn’t steeped in Mets lore the way every current Mets announcer is — but I think it came out a little snarky when I invoked Lorn Brown never having heard of Banner Day. We talked about one of my favorite theories of Mets fandom, that we take our team more personally than most other kinds of fans and that Howie deciding at the age of eight that the Mets were invented just for him is emblematic of that phenomenon, but he kind of shot that down with (and I’m paraphrasing), nah, he was just being a dopey kid.
And we talked about the night the Mets went seven over, which is the kind of memory that makes Howie Rose one of us; makes Howie Rose’s broadcasts the aural equivalent of bumping into a favorite old acquaintance; and makes Howie Rose’s Put It In The Book! such a satisfying read.
Howie has repeatedly mentioned the Jimmy Qualls game over the years and he details his presence at Shea for it in the book. He should. It was the milestone of initial Mets contention and, as he put it, the “turning point” toward their miraculous coming of age. There’s been a Mets no-hitter at last, thankfully, but nothing could ever precisely supplant the Tom Seaver masterpiece of July 9, 1969, a game ever so slightly besmirched by an utterly unknown Cub entity (if Jimmy Qualls played in 2013, he’d surely be a Mets outfielder, probably sitting behind Rick Ankiel) yet incapable of being tangibly sullied. It’s a night that lives eternally in the Met bone marrow.
I didn’t want to ask Howie about Qualls. I wanted to ask Howie if there’s another game whose heart goes on for him. Not Seaver’s one-hitter, not Swoboda winning that game in 1966 off Bill Henry, even (another gem from his youth that Howie generously reminisces about in his book). Give me, if you can, a game nobody ever mentions in Happiest Recap form — give me a game that stays with Howie Rose, maybe only with Howie Rose.
So he did. He remembered a Friday night at Shea in 1969. It took place, he estimated, before Qualls, but after Clendenon came over at the June 15 trade deadline. As long as he was sitting by his computer, he checked Retrosheet to confirm. Yup, it was in the time frame he thought: June 20, the Mets playing the Cardinals.
Howie was there as part of a paid crowd of 54,083 to witness Nolan Ryan taking on Bob Gibson. This, he explained, was before Mets fan thoughts had turned to challenging for the division, let alone the pennant or World Series. The question on everybody’s minds was, “Can we actually have a winning record for the first time?” The Mets entered the night at 33-27 and, after Ryan bested Gibson (with two RBIs from Cleon Jones and three relief innings from Tug McGraw), they were exiting it at 34-27. Remember, the Mets had never been anywhere near .500 for the first seven years of their existence.
Remember? Who could forget? Who among Mets fans could have imagined this dream coming true? It was as silly in 1969 as me thinking that at any time since 1987 I could be chatting with Howie Rose. Yet here they/we were, winning record well in hand with a smidge more than a hundred games to go. Howie certainly couldn’t forget.
Why not? Because as Howie waited for the Bayside-bound Q27 at Flushing-Main Street, some kid with his head in the exact same space yelled over to the 15-year-old future voice of the New York Mets, “Seven over!”
“I’ll always remember that,” Howie added. And now so will I.
Because you’re a Mets fan, purchase Put It In The Book! by Howie Rose, available via Amazon and other fine retailers. Give it for Father’s Day. Give it for Graduation Day. Give it to yourself any day. You may sometimes be sorry you hooked up with this team, but as long you’re attached, you might as well enjoy all that Metsdom has to offer. It doesn’t get a whole lot more Metsian than this…in a good way, I mean.