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Pardon Our Mets

A word of thanks is in order to all those who attended Monday night’s Varsity Letters salute [1] to the 2015 National League Champion New York Mets, a program in which I was honored to participate. It was great to meet or get reacquainted with a passel of Faith and Fear readers and wonderful to be on the same bill as David Roth [2]of Vice Sports and Jared Diamond [3] of the Wall Street Journal, two writers whose voices I’ve admired for years.

Available for pre-order, now with cover! [4]

Available for pre-order, now with cover!

I talked about and read excerpts of my forthcoming book, Amazin’ Again, which now seems to have a cover (you can pre-order the whole package here [5]), and after we each had our say at the podium, we were invited to form a panel and answer all manner of Met questions, one of which led me to recall a plan I had in the event the Mets won the World Series.

Which they didn’t, but you already knew that.

The question, which came from a pretty gifted writer in his own right, Brian P. Mangan [6], concerned how each of us dealt with particular factors that might influence what we write. For a beat reporter like Jared, Brian wanted to know about keeping the confidences of the players he covers. For David and me, the issue veered toward objectivity regarding the team of which we’re obviously lifelong fans.

I’m not quite sure how I found myself talking about it, but Brian’s inquiry got me onto my trying to keep in mind something I’ve learned over nearly eleven years of blogging: people eventually read what you write about them or their family members. Somewhere somebody (probably somebody long out of the public eye) is Googling his or her name or the name of a loved one. It’s been my experience to hear from former players who were delighted to read something nice I had written about them…and once in a while get a good-natured tweak from somebody I might have written something less than nice about.

In essence, I said just because somebody made an error that caused me aggravation when I was in my teens, there’s no reason to go overboard in my smoldering criticism of him decades after the fact. Yeah, we’re fans; and yeah, they were players; but y’know, be respectful.

Unless, I added, it’s somebody like Richie Hebner, a convenient target in the moment since David had invoked his name fleetingly earlier in the evening. For those of you not aware, I said, Hebner was a “miserable” sort who played one year for the Mets long ago and made no secret of his displeasure with being stuck here. Surely we could all agree that taking a shot at Richie Hebner is never out of bounds.

Without malice, Jared mentioned that he covered Richie Hebner when he was a reporter in Norfolk and Hebner was the Tides’ hitting coach (after they’d unaffiliated themselves from the Mets) and, actually, Richie was a really nice guy.

Oh well, so much for my ironclad exception to the rule. Even Richie Hebner, reliable sources were indicating, was a human being.

“It was nothing personal” that Richie held against Mets fans in 1979, Jared assured me after the panel was over. “He just didn’t want to be in New York at that stage of his career.” As a mature person in the present, sure, I could understand that. Hebner had played for nothing but contenders throughout the 1970s, and the Mets of ’79 were anything but. Hell, I kind of understood his objections then, though that was the first time I remember reading a player express his absolute disgust with the Mets upon learning he was going to be a Met (usually they waited a few innings). Hebner snarled during his stay at Shea, played with minimal vigor and didn’t leave behind a sparkling legacy.

Ten years ago, Jason and I took it upon ourselves to populate what we called Met Hell [7], a repository for those Mets who brought to bear “something that still makes the blood boil, something that made Met fans dread the smirking approach of the Yankee fans in their offices or on their blocks during that player’s tenure. Mental or physical incompetence that stemmed from not being prepared. Being a quitter, a lousy teammate, spectacularly obnoxious to fans or the media, a bad citizen, a traitor.”

Richie Hebner earned the Sixth Circle of Met Hell [8] all for himself. It took me a Part I [9] and a Part II [10] to adequately express my disdain.

That was 2005, and I was still stewing over 1979. In 2014, I found myself in a song parody contest elsewhere on the Internet. You had to come up with something about a Met and set it to a Beatles number. My entry was titled “Richie Hebner Wants Off This Club Bad/Hebner Wasn’t Here To Make Friends”. The tune was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends [11]”.

Sample lyric from the first part:

Richie Hebner wants off this club bad
He can’t believe the deal was made
Richie Hebner wants off this club bad
He’s dying to demand a trade
Richie Hebner’s mumblin’
Richie Hebner’s grumblin’
Richie Hebner wants off this club bad

And from the second:

If you were sent from a team near the top
To a club that was down on the floor —
Would you do your best to help them improve
Or just whine as you raced for the door?
Yo, Richie Hebner wasn’t here to make friends
No…not even with Steve Henderson
Oh, don’t worry, he didn’t make friends

In late 2015, I took a moment from my league championship intoxication to continue publicly harboring a grudge against this vouched-for really nice guy — and I was doing so in practically the same breath that I was insisting I had matured into the kind of fan who would think twice before flagrantly denigrating long-retired players who were just going about their business in the here and now. Truly it is a challenge tough to put aside well-honed animus.

But I would have had the Mets won the World Series. See, I was going to do something very classy (you can tell it would have been classy because I just termed it so). I was going to institute Met Amnesty. Or maybe just a Met Pardon. I’m not clear on the difference, but when President Carter pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, he carefully avoided the word amnesty, so one or the other. The point is that in our hypothetical era of extraordinary feeling, I was going to commit to thirty days of writing only positive assessments of every Met whom we’d never otherwise forgive for having kept us from winning a World Series since October 27, 1986.

I was going to laud Bobby Bonilla’s slugging.

I was going to applaud Vince Coleman’s speed.

I was going to find something pleasant to say about Roberto Alomar’s veteran demeanor.

I was even going to spell T#m Gl@v!ne the way it generally appeared prior to September 30, 2007.

Ambiorix Concepcion? Intense competitor. Guillermo Mota? Always looking for an edge. Gene Walter? The mere existence of his ERA indicates he likely got a batter out at least once. The 2008 bullpen? A unit that made every game exciting. Jason Bay? A .165 hitter only on paper. Armando Benitez? Forget the blowns, cherish the saves. Kurt Abbott? Surely not the most useless shortstop in the history of civilization. Kenny Rogers? Had a real sense of theater.

If we’d won the whole thing, there’d be no reason to be down on any Met who brought us down, at least not until the euphoria wore off. My real hope was to emphasize the contributions each Met made in his journey and to make us think an extra beat before defaulting to our usual venom toward these less than treasured members of our extended baseball family. Eventually we’d get back to cursing out their names, because it’s what we do (and perhaps what we must do), but as world champions, we’d be magnanimous.

Richie Hebner wouldn’t have been eligible for Met Amnesty under my chronological paramaters. He’d have been pardoned in the wake of winning it all in ’86, alongside Joe Foy, Jim Fregosi, Dale Murray and anybody else who symbolized post-1969 frustration and futility. But in the spirit of the gesture we never got to make, I do hereby grant a full, complete and unconditional albeit temporary pardon to Richie Hebner for all offenses against the New York Mets which he may have committed or taken part in during the period from April 5, 1979, to September 30, 1979. The pardon is in effect for the remainder of the calendar year 2015.

He wasn’t much of a Met, but somebody I trust told me the other night that he was a really nice guy. That should be enough to buy him two weeks of grace in the wake of a pennant.