The infrastructure of a baseball season encompasses a surfeit of components that don’t show up in the box score, including intramural dustups in March that dissolve into the murkiest of memories by May. They are as much part of the National Pastime landscape as the crack of the bat, the flight of the ball, the layering of convenience fees and the finding of Cuppy. There’s no use in rolling our eyes toward them. If whatever episode we attempt to haught away as a silly controversy didn’t materialize, another seemingly dubious contretemps would come along in its place to grab our inevitably evanescent attention. It’s how things work when we’re relentlessly interested in a subject as broad and deep as our Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ Mets.
A few weeks from now, if an anvil doesn’t quash him from above, Matt Harvey will be diligently rehabilitating his right elbow in one of two geographic locations. Now and then we’ll receive an update whose key takeaway will be “progress” or “setback” and we’ll react accordingly. Then we’ll turn our attention to whoever’s starting that night’s game, as Harvey’s specter recedes in the moment because, unfortunately, he won’t be available to pitch.
Until then, judging by the fascinating-on-several-levels account written by Andy Martino in the Daily News the other day, young Matthew seems intent on tying Mets management in the kind of knots he previously reserved for roving bands of Rockies, Phillies and White Sox. I don’t believe he’s doing it out of malice. Matt Harvey got this far this soon hewing to his competitive nature. Disingenuously dismiss him for possessing a ton of nerve for someone whose major league record boils down to a scant 12-10, but what a 12-10 it’s been.
Besides, his won-lost mark in his year and change as a Met is far brighter than anything the Mets have put up over the past half-decade. When it comes to taking winning seriously, I’m willing to put a wee bit of faith in Harvey’s instincts, whereas the Mets…I’m still waiting to find out what business they’re in exactly.
Harvey will rehab and it will go encouragingly swell or distressingly slow whether it transpires in Flushing or Port St. Lucie. I’m rooting for the former mainly because Port St. Lucie in July — no matter its springtime charms — sounds spectacularly depressing. When I think of a Met serving injury time in PSL, I think of Kaz Matsui literally seeking shelter from the storm, riding out a Florida hurricane in the home team clubhouse. I also think of Keith Hernandez on Tuesday suggesting a player can “die on the vine” when exiled to far-away minor league precincts. It’s worth noting that in his final, hobbled days as a Cleveland Indian, Hernandez resisted a rehabilitation assignment in Winter Haven — and he’s Keith Hernandez.
The ace and his employer will figure it out and put a happy enough face on the decision, but Martino’s column remains fascinating even if we speed ahead to the part where we decide this was much ado about little. When you read it, you’re taken aback by how nervous the Mets are to have their marquee attraction (we’re attracted to him even when he’s technically inactive) speak to a reporter on his own. Spring Training is traditionally the long, languorous stretch when players are blessed with the opportunity to talk at length. It’s when there’s nothing to do but talk once the workouts are over and it’s too late to golf. As antsy as the Mets are to generate interest in their product, it’s strange that they’d so assiduously try to hide one of the best pieces in their inventory from public view.
It’s Spring Training. There’ll be plenty of chances to forget about Matt Harvey once he’s not pitching.
You might also wonder why it took columnist Martino to successfully seek out Harvey and why it took more than a month after Pitchers & Catchers for this story to fully bubble up. I don’t know if Martino was the first media member to directly approach Harvey or the first one to break through a psychological barrier the Mets set up to keep their ace from saying too much to any one reporter, but since when does the vaunted New York press yield to unilaterally imposed prohibitions? I’ve seen allusions throughout the spring to the Mets making Harvey available in only gang-interview settings. I wondered how such a restriction could possibly fly in February and March (as opposed to a postgame setting during the regular season). Apparently Harvey wondered, too.
On a larger scale, I marveled at how the current administration hasn’t really had to withstand any kind of withering assault from those who are paid to cover the team. Oh, there are continual 140-character shots, snarks and snipes at the owners and their enterprise amid a generally almost passive-aggressive portrayal of the Mets as something less than wholly successful, but given that this is New York, and New York has this reputation for unforgiving media focus, you don’t really see anybody take much issue with what those charged with running the baseball operations have produced in the standings. The trees are examined to within an inch of their bark, but the forest tends to go undisturbed.
It’s possible that there is unanimous concurrence among all current and recent members of the Met press corps that the best of a bad situation has been made since 2011 — when there was so much leftover hash left to be cleaned up; and it wouldn’t be fair to fully judge the franchise until 2015 — when its most prized ducks are projected to line up in a row. But it doesn’t seem likely that among a diverse group of professional inquisitors, somebody wouldn’t think to pointedly ask, in so many words, “Why haven’t you guys made this team tangibly better than you have? You’re in your fourth year here, you’ve never put together a winning record and you’re well shy of constructing a legitimate 1 through 8 for this year. Why are your team’s fans left to wonder which least bad option will get the bulk of the playing time at two key positions?” We surely don’t lack for granular coverage of this team, but everybody seems eerily satisfied that the big picture is taking care of itself with all deliberate speed.
It could be that the Alderson group knows exactly what it’s doing and their slow build in the shadow of all the Wilponian mishegas will pay off relatively soon. This ongoing frustrating epoch may yet prove to have been the early stages of Cashen II (even if we’re at least one Strawberry shy of reincarnating 1984 ASAP). Still, it’s odd that nobody on the credentialed side of the divide really pushes the matter. You’d figure someone would bang the drum impatiently if just to generate a little old-fashioned headline heat.
Does the Mets’ path to on-field competence let alone glory really appear that unimpeded to everybody who has a close-up view? If so, clear my next few Septembers for meaningful games.
In any event, kudos to Martino for digging in with Harvey and for having the best spring in St. Lucie of anybody not named Eric Campbell. The News’s “Baseball Insider” has become something of a Met Whisperer of late, eliciting soul-searching stuff from Daniel Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud and now capturing Harvey in mid-smolder. (On the other hand, Martino’s smug defense of anonymous “one Met said” sourcing, in response to Howard Megdal’s enlightening talk with the scorned Justin Turner, was rather dispiriting considering the great work he’s done having players speak on the record this month.) Baseball newspaper columnizing, particularly in this digital day and age, can stand a point of difference.
One night late last season, Howie Rose was moved to bring up the grand tradition of the New York sports columnist, mentioning three names in particular: Vic Ziegel in the News, George Vecsey of the Times and Steve Jacobson at Newsday. I found myself thinking I’d happily read anything any of them had written, but in 2013, I wasn’t going to be reading much new. Jacobson hadn’t penned a regular newspaper column in a decade, Vecsey was primarily blogging whatever struck his fancy (sports or otherwise) on his own and Ziegel passed away in 2010. As someone who heard the same broadcast put it to me a few days later, “Two of those guys are retired and one of them is dead.”
I don’t know if anybody’s around today at any New York daily quite matching the kind of work those gentlemen did. I’m not suggesting talent has taken a sabbatical in the wake of their respective absences from press boxes across America. It’s just a far different media world balancing far different demands. The 800 well-thought words crafted to meet the thinking sports fan’s line of sight first thing in the morning doesn’t serve as the pinnacle of sportswriting anymore. There are still newspapers and there are still columnists, but as a reader who picks up or clicks on a local paper, you rarely experience columns that reflect and consider and breathe…all on deadline, no less. There’s information and there’s immediacy, but within what’s left of the sports pages, there just isn’t as much in the way of elegant engagement.
Granted, a vast array of venues exist to feature writing that fits more or less in that realm, but the general daily sports column in your newspaper isn’t necessarily one of them.
If you want a reminder of how well a general sports column could capture your fancy, you might want to pick up a collection that came out about a year ago called Summers At Shea. It contains the Mets-themed work of one of the contemporaries of the columnists listed above, Ira Berkow, long of the Scripps-Howard’s Newspaper Enterprise Association and later the New York Times.
I’d never particularly identified Berkow with the Mets, but that’s fine. A degree of detachment served his occasional forays into our obsession quite nicely between 1967 and 2007. While by no means naïve about the machinations of professional sports, this columnist didn’t fully tamp down a romantic’s heart when it came to the game and the individuals he was covering. He grew up a Cubs fan and never stopped wishing for their eternally elusive success. It’s refreshing to hear someone in the media confess to a lingering loyalty besides “the best possible story”.
And if you can be a lifelong Cubs fan and still write about the 1969 Mets without snarling, then you’re probably going to do justice to your stories anyway.
The columns featured in Summers At Shea are snapshots that prove worth preserving. There’s Tom Seaver in Rochester in 1970, having recently ascended to the peak of popular consciousness (but having misplaced his overcoat). There’s Willie Mays in St. Petersburg in 1973, doubling off the wall and proving himself viable for one more spring. There’s Rusty Staub battling gastronomical temptations as he would lefty relievers in his final season of pinch-hitting in 1985, the last year his conditioning would be served up for public consumption. There’s Berkow joining Ron Darling on a “dark and leaky afternoon” for the Sunday drive from Manhattan to Flushing for what was supposed to be Game Seven of the 1986 World Series, a little number Darling was poised to start a few hours hence until the leak became too much for the Series to bear. Nevertheless, Ira Berkow got himself in the car with that night’s starter on the biggest day of his life.
Casey Stengel shows up in Summers At Shea, in the book’s introduction. It’s a story about how the then 83-year-old Stengel rejected Berkow’s overture to work with him on a baseball instructional primer of sorts. “Cannot disclose my Future affairs,” the Mets’ first manager advised, but he does wind up a part of Berkow’s tapestry nonetheless. So does Sherman “Roadblock” Jones. So do Tommie Agee and Dave Kingman and Rafael Santana and Kevin McReynolds and, eventually, various millennial Mikes (Piazza, Hampton, Pelfrey). Berkow wrote sports for decades. He came in and out of the Mets’ life intermittently if not exclusively. No wonder he has a couple of similar collections out that focus on the Yankees and the Knicks. That writing a Metsian book — one padded with a frankly unnecessary “formidable rivals” section that includes an ode to Paul O’Neill, for crissake — appears more a box to be checked than a mission to be accomplished shouldn’t be held against him.
Nor should some really egregious editing errors. A pennant race column that quite obviously appeared in September of 1969 is labeled as having been originally published in September or 1968. Another, on the World Series just won, is listed as having been first printed in September of 1969, or a month before the World Series was played. A third, regarding Tom Seaver’s milestone performance of September 1, 1975, is identified with a publication date of September 26, when clearly it saw light on September 2. Berkow’s writing set a high enough standard so that the bar shouldn’t be lowered for historical accuracy.
More appropriate to the tone of Summers At Shea was the column Berkow wrote after covering Seaver’s retirement press conference in 1987. “I guess it’s time now to sit back and reflect on what I’ve done,” he quotes Tom. “It’s been a lovely 20 years. I couldn’t have asked for more.” Double that span for Berkow’s columnist career and the sentiment applies to having read this sampler of what he wrote.