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Game of Jones

Your correspondent, taking a whirl at Beating the Booth, for fun and self-flagellation. [1]

Your correspondent, taking a whirl at Beating the Booth, for fun and self-flagellation.

Beat the Booth, the thoroughly Metted game show that pairs Howie Rose and Gary Cohen and therefore offers plenty of reason to watch, is at last coming to an SNY near you. It will air tonight and tomorrow following your regularly scheduled baseball matches. Then it will air periodically every three hours for the next eight to ten months, which may not be enough for some of us. And to everyone who has asked since the promos first aired for it, no, I am not a contestant; I never was a contestant; nor did I audition to be a contestant.

Officially, that is. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

In case you’ve missed the commercials or haven’t heard it brought up by the denizens of the booths themselves, Beat the Booth will bring Howie and Gary, our peerless radio and TV broadcasters, into mentally armed conflict with two teams of two fans, one duo per night. All will be asked questions about the Mets. Cash prizes, charitable donations and, presumably, Metropolitan credibility will be at stake.

If it’s half as good as last summer’s Battle of the Broadcasters, it will be the 29th-best non-Mets game telecast SNY has ever aired. In a 27-way tie for first are every edition of Mets Yearbook, which are unassailable in their ranking. Then Battle, which you’ll recall was hosted by a stick-mic wielding Kevin Burkhardt, who sported a plaid, three-piece suit that strangely does not hang in the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum but should. Messrs. Rose and Cohen were the standout performers [2], but Burkhardt’s wardrobe is what stands out most in the collective memory.

This season’s host is Chris Carlin. This season’s format pays homage to the “most memorable game shows of yesteryear”; one of the games within the game, for example, is entitled Flushing Feud (good answer, good answer!). It sounds like fun, even if word on the street is the mood grew a little intense during the taping.

How could it not? How many tests of one’s Methood is one administered in a given week? And how many are recorded for future broadcast? This isn’t some life-or-death nonsense we’re talking about. This is knowing your Mets.

Perhaps that attitude is why so many well-meaning folks asked me if I was going to be a part of this, other than as a viewer. Perhaps that attitude is why I decided not to be. To me, knowing “Mets trivia” isn’t trivial, because, to me, there is no such thing as Mets trivia. My Mets fandom is a state of being. At the core of that state is an expectation I’ve developed for myself without really thinking about it.

I expect myself to know all there is to know about the Mets. When I learn all there is to know, it becomes my obligation to learn more. This is my perpetual journey of discovery. There are satisfactions in the moment of being able to answer a “who did this when…?” type of question, but my quest is for knowledge, not reward. The knowledge — along with the knowledge that I have come to know something — is, in essence, the reward itself.

This is all very Zen. Or Zen Boswell, if you will.

The one Met question I never know how to respond politely to is, “Why do you know that?” as opposed to, “How do you know that?” The “how” is easy. I know something because I learned it and I remember it. I only know that’s an unusual trait because people tell me it is. The “why” eludes a definitive answer. I perhaps unconsciously at an early age decided it was important to absorb and process all the Mets facts I could. Some of what results informs my writing and my chatting. Some is just stuff that hangs around in my brain or on my computer. It might very well be crowding out other information that I could use in other facets of my life. I may never know, given that my mind is otherwise occupied retaining a random recollection regarding Ron Taylor or Ron Hodges or Ronn Reynolds or Rod Barajas.

So, no, I did not try out for Beat the Booth. But I did think about it, mostly because I was encouraged to. It was nice to be thought of in this realm. Better than there being a game show called What an Idiot and being told repeatedly, “Hey, you should try out for that!” I went as far to touch base with one friend who’d expressed a slight interest in our teaming up (the auditions called for pairs), but he wasn’t fully up for it and I let it go.

Not long after the official audition period passed, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was SNY asking me to, in tones more affable than menacing [3], come out to play. Not as a prospective contestant, but as media. The idea was I’d go through the paces as if actually trying out and would thus be able to better understand (and then communicate) what it’s like to compete on a game show whose categories include Flushing Feud.

That was too good to pass up, so I went for it — alone. I tried to find a partner, but it was a little last-minute to round up someone for a Thursday 9:30 AM call, and, besides, I feared the only person I could work with in this sort of setting was myself.

I showed up at SNY world headquarters at the appointed hour. The place wasn’t unfamiliar to me, having appeared on the old Mets Weekly show several times and having passed through for other reasons over the years. No stage fright, I figured. Still, when I did get on set, I was impressed with how it was dressed. The very same Beat the Booth logo I’d seen in the commercials was all lit and ready to go. The producers treated this — and the second round of authentic auditions that were going on that day — as the real thing.

Before proceeding to the set, I met some other early arrivals, two would-be teams packing a veritable baseball library of research material. I’m pretty sure I saw a 1963 yearbook in somebody’s bag. Since there were no stakes for me, I did no more in the way of homework than glance at a page of all-time leaders in the current media guide the night before. I figured I was invited on based on whatever somebody there assumed I knew, so I would go with whatever I was already carrying around.

I didn’t watch anybody else audition until after I was done. They’d be hearing some of the same questions I would, so that made sense. Just meeting those contestants, however, convinced me that if I was truly trying to make the cut, it would not be easy. These are people who took the challenge very seriously and were working to meet it. They might have known less than me, as much as me or more than me, but I knew (from a Mets fan’s sixth sense for these things) they were capable and committed.

Sure enough, I was informed that one of those teams that went in before me answered every question flawlessly…and if I’ve read the pre-show coverage correctly, those fellows weren’t finalists. SNY told me 60 teams showed up at Citi Field for the initial open tryouts, and there were loads of competent answerers. Factor in those who earned auditions through other channels (answering questions over WOR, for example), and the producers had many qualified candidates from whom to choose. Met knowledge trumped all, but when decisions had to be made, comfort in front of a camera as well whatever qualities make a person “passionate, funny and entertaining” factored in strongly.

I have no idea where I’d have fallen on that scale. The contestants I witnessed all seemed wonderfully watchable. And if they knew from Tim Harkness, well, that’s pretty a formidable skill set.

In the ten o’clock hour I was ushered into the studio, had a microphone attached to my shirt and was told where to stand. From there, I had to put my money where my Zen was.

The questions came in bunches. Seven on general Mets history. Then seven more. Then one of those deals where you have to name as many as you can within a particular subject without getting as many as three wrong. Then, at last, a Pyramid-style bit in which you are given clues and you have to figure out what your partner is getting at. (Since, I didn’t have a partner, a producer filled in.) All of it was timed.

I believe I was asked to answer the equivalent of 46 questions. I got 42 of them right. You may see that and think that’s pretty good. I see that and remain disappointed (if not devastated) with myself that I got four wrong. I only vaguely recall those I got right in three of the four categories. In my mind, I’m supposed to get them all right. My inner Professor Kingsfield [4] glares at me sternly when I stumble.

In the first round, I was asked what Met has scored the most runs in World Series play. That’s something I didn’t know off the top of my head. I’m not automatic on individual Met postseason totals, probably because when those postseasons are in progress, I’m thinking intently of the team and only the team. So this had to be a matter of drawing a conclusion based on the available evidence in my head. I thought, “has to be someone who played in more than one World Series…that means it has to be someone who played a lot in 1969 and 1973…there was Grote…there was Harrelson…Harrelson scored a lot of runs in his career…”

I said Harrelson. I was told it was wrong.

Cleon Jones. Of course. Cleon Jones was hit in the foot by Dave McNally, for Gil’s sake. Then Clendenon homered him in. Overall, Jones scored seven World Series runs for the Mets to Harrelson’s (and Grote’s) three. I needed to think the entire thing through, but you’re on a set, you’re on a roll, you’re conscious of the clock…it’s not so simple once you’re in the game.

In the second round, I was asked what Met pitcher last led the National League in strikeouts. I said Johan Santana, thinking he had done so in 2008, a year when he finished third in the Cy Young balloting. I remember when that season was over being surprised he’d ranked as high as he did in various pitching categories. Mostly I remembered him struggling a bit early and coming on like crazy late.

I was wrong. And as soon as they told me I was, I asked, “Dickey?” And of course it was, in his Cy Young year of 2012 (Johan came in second in K’s in ’08). I knew that in real life. But a game show is not real life. On a game show, you tend to answer a second or two too soon (and in real life, you have Baseball Reference).

Later in the second round, I was asked what Met has played the most career games in the outfield. This one I’m kicking myself over more than I am from the aforementioned two because a) if I’d thought it through, I would have gotten it; and b) it’s the same answer as the first one I got wrong. It was Cleon Jones. I said Darryl Strawberry, probably for the same reason I said Johan on the strikeouts question. When I glanced at the media guide the night before, I noticed Darryl’s name and decided I tend to overlook how high Darryl ranks on all-time franchise lists besides home runs. So when I heard “outfield,” I already had Strawberry planted in my brain.

This time I knew I was wrong as soon as I said it. “It was Cleon Jones,” I added as soon as they said Strawberry was incorrect. I feel bad because it was avoidable and I feel worse because Cleon was one of my Met idols as a kid [5]. He was the only outfielder with any staying power, so of course he leads the team in games played (though it’s closer than I would have guessed: Jones 1,101; Strawberry 1,085, according to Ultimate Mets Database [6]).

I’m sorry, Cleon.

In the fourth segment, the Pyramid part, I got everything right. My ad hoc partner did his best but admitted he was having trouble cluing me in on the last one. He said “1986 rookie second baseman…” and I’m thinking there was no 1986 rookie second baseman, unless he means Kevin Mitchell, but Mitch never played there. Then he came up with “swung his bat underwater,” and I got it: Gregg Jefferies (whose first appearance came in September of 1987).

Back to the third segment, the “name all of these” portion. My subject was the 2000 World Series roster, which had 25 answers. I got 24 in the allotted time, the length of which I don’t remember but it wasn’t long. I felt this was too easy because they used this topic on Battle of the Broadcasters, but since we were just screwing around, what the hell?

The one I missed is more amusing than irksome. I failed to name Timo Perez, generally the first name that comes up with ire to explain how the Mets didn’t win that particular Fall Classic. I’d love to say I’d blocked out his identity so as to preserve my sanity, but the real reason I think I missed him stems from a previous segment in which Jay Payton was an answer. Therefore, when this one started, Payton was on my mind; because Payton wasn’t on the field when the 2000 pennant was clinched (he was hit by a Dave Veres pitch and had to leave Game Five against the Cardinals), it was left to Perez to move over to center and catch the final out. In the course of answering the World Series roster question, Payton became Pac-Man and gobbled up Perez.

But as mentioned, I got 24 of 25, including the other immediately identifiable culprit of the Subway Series defeat, which is where things got interesting on the Beat the Booth set.

I listed Armando Benitez. I was told it was incorrect.

Without breaking stride, I told them it was most certainly correct. I calmly recounted Game One, the endless at-bat of Paul O’Neill, how Armando lost him on a walk, how that led to a tie game and extra innings and, well, whatever happened thereafter. I also threw in (because nobody seems to remember much about the lone game the Mets won in that Series) that Armando earned the save in Game Three.

I was told Benitez wasn’t on the list provided by Elias.

I replied I didn’t care, I was right, “and now I’m eating into my time,” returning to rattling off the rest of the names who composed the 2000 Mets bullpen.

Later, somebody went and checked. Yes, Elias had included Armando Benitez on its list. It was somehow copied wrong. I was right.

Of course I was. I say that not out of hubris but, c’mon…Armando Benitez and the 2000 World Series are inseparable. As Tom Kean might acknowledge, they’re imperfect together.

That was my faux-audition. I did well, they said. They liked my poise and were taken my breadth of Mets knowledge. They didn’t understand why I didn’t try out in the first place. I heard their kind words and appreciated them but couldn’t get past not answering Cleon Jones. All this happened more than a month ago and I’m still annoyed.

I’m more annoyed by Timo breaking into a trot and ball four to O’Neill, but you could have guessed that.

I stuck around to watch the next team try their hand (and was reminded six or seven times to not blurt out answers). They were likable but a little overmatched. I felt bad when they answered obviously incorrectly, not so much because I was rooting for them, but because I was rooting for accuracy. Which is what I shall do when Howie and Gary and their competitors appear on SNY tonight and tomorrow night. I want everything answered right by everybody.

It’s Mets knowledge. It should always be handled with the utmost care.