Bud Harrelson looked bored.
I looked again, to make sure. Yes, Derrel McKinley Harrelson definitely looked bored.
The Mets icon turned Long Island Ducks co-owner was standing in the parking lot of Citi Field, leaning on a metal barrier set up around a stretch of asphalt that had been turned into a Wiffle ball field. No one was talking to him, or seemed about to. He was just watching Wiffle ball … well, sort of. Actually, I thought, Harrelson looked like he was watching asphalt, his mind somewhere else.
I let him be for a good three minutes, then four.
As has been discussed before, in recent years our blog has changed from an enterprise with no connection to the Mets to one that has an occasional connection. The Mets’ media folks have arranged for us to chat with Bob Ojeda and R.A. Dickey and Dwight Gooden, among others. (Sunday’s event wasn’t organized by the Mets.) Such conversations have always been welcome and appreciated, and they’ve often been fun, but my reaction has always been strangely ambivalent.
It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally able to just admit this: I have no particular interest in meeting current or former Mets.
That’s weird, right? I’m probably the second-biggest Mets fan you know. So why wouldn’t it be a thrill to chat with someone who’s worn the colors I’ve only bled, whose long-ago or very recent successes and failures can still lead me to stare at the ceiling on sleepless nights or walk around in a happy daze on some random winter day?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful for the opportunities. But they’re not things I’ve ever sought. (In similar vein, I’ll resort to deceit to deprive you of a New York-Penn League foul ball but have never had the slightest interest in autographs.)
I think part of it is that I decided years ago to stay a fan rather than becoming a sportswriter — since there was no cheering in the press box, I wouldn’t go in there. Once I made that decision I stuck to it, never guessing that the technological democratization of publishing and my own weird journalistic travels would eventually make me a de facto sportswriter anyway. As I grew as old as the players and then older than them, I was more and more content to keep a distinction between what those players were on the field and who they were on the rest of the planet. The former was my domain; the latter I’d leave to others.
So there I was, waiting to play Wiffle ball for a good cause — Nesquik’s giving $10,000 to the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, as chronicled by our pal Michael Garry here. And there was Bud Harrelson.
But I didn’t have anything to do. And Harrelson looked bored. And dammit, he’s Bud Harrelson. It struck me that not actively seeking chances to talk with Mets was understandable, but working to avoid such chances was a little strange.
So I introduced myself and asked Harrelson if he ever thought they’d build a Wiffle ball park on the site of Shea. He laughed politely and we got to talking — a little awkwardly at first, then less so, until finally we were just talking.
By now Harrelson has endured about a million retrospectives and signings and grip-and-grins and rubber-chicken dinners. He must have an oil well’s worth of Lucite whozits and an art gallery’s worth of framed pictures of folks he can no longer remember. I imagine he’s spent a couple of months of his time on Earth recounting the Pete Rose fight and talking about the quiet leadership of Gil Hodges and the supernatural drive of Tom Seaver and the folksiness of Yogi Berra.
I tried to avoid those things, because I figured he’d switch over to retelling mode and because I knew the answers already, having grown up with them imprinted on my brain. So I asked him what Shea was like for the players. (He has the reverence for Shea you’d expect, but admitted disliking that it was essentially “a football park.”) The conversation drifted to his favorite players growing up (Mantle and Mays), about the perils of Willie McCovey, about the pressures of playing in New York for a country boy like Mantle. He told an entertaining Mantle story or two.
I was wary of monopolizing his time or boring him, but he had nothing to do but watch Wiffle ball, and he seemed happy to chat. I’m not sure how long we talked — maybe 10 minutes — but it was until I had to excuse myself for my own Wiffle ball turn. (Yes, I stopped talking to Bud Harrelson to whack mostly ineffectually at a Wiffle ball in a parking lot. You’re right — it’s ridiculous.)
Anyway, it was fun — not because I was talking to a childhood icon, but because I got to talk baseball with someone who’s got it in his bones, who has a million things he knows about it and was willing to share a few.
Maybe I ought to try it again sometime.