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Same Old & Some New Stories

Clayton Kershaw [1] shutting down the Mets on almost no hits…where have we seen that before? Almost everywhere we’ve run into him, it seems, save for one buoyant October night [2], which attests to fine Met timing, and even then we barely touched his fresh-made turkey on nine-grain wheat with jalapeños, mustard and a little bit of vinegar [3]. A little bit of vinegar was, in fact, all the Met lineup could muster Thursday night while enduring nine whole-grain innings of sliders, curves and effectively spotted fastballs. Every pitch Kershaw threw Thursday night in Los Angeles had mustard on it. After losing authoritatively [4], 5-0, all the Mets could do was tip their caps, gather their buns and move on to Colorado.

It was surely a familiar story, as Clayton Kershaw is essentially Sandy Koufax [5] a few generations removed. I never saw Koufax pitch. Everybody who did will be sure to tell you they did [6]. Koufax, who hasn’t pitched in 50 years, maintains that kind of cachet. So should Kershaw. It’s not thrilling to say we watched a master at work last night since his work was at odds with our preferred outcome, but we might as well own it. As those who filled the stands or turned on the set for Sandy’s starts in 1966 could attest, these things won’t present themselves for our collective witnessing forever.

If you need proof, consider the man who’s called his fair share of Kershaw’s 119 career victories and most if not all of Koufax’s 165. Vin Scully was in the booth for Clayton at Dodger Stadium just as he was for Sandy a half-century ago, just as he was for Sandy at Ebbets Field in 1955, just as he was for Sandy’s future teammates five years earlier. Scully is at 67 years and no longer counting in his major league broadcasting career. This, you no doubt know, is the last season in which Vin will be inviting baseball fans to pull up a chair alongside him [7].

Longevity linkage, which is so much fun to apply [8] to the likes of Bartolo Colon [9] (who found himself overshadowed versus Kershaw, which is a feat on multiple levels these days), is beside the point when invoking Scully. Vin was a legend before Bartolo ever saw the light of day. He’s got everybody beat in terms of service time. Retired players whose sons are players today [10] debuted decades after Vin broke in. A retired player whose son is going into the Hall of Fame this summer [11] was born just as Vin was concluding his first Dodger Spring Training. Our own beloved Bob Murphy, eternally the Voice of the Mets, was preparing for his first big league campaign in Baltimore when Vin had four seasons and a televised World Series under his belt.

Because this is the final season in which Vin Scully is calling Dodger games, he is graciously consenting to sit for interviews in which he reluctantly talks about himself. Both SNY and WOR recorded their own versions. Gary Cohen did the honors on TV, Howie Rose on radio (no disrespect to the sideline and pregame hosts, but who else would you send on this assignment?). Please listen to both. SNY’s is in two parts, here [12] and here [13]; WOR’s is here [14]. If you’ve never heard Scully reflect on Scully, you will be enchanted.

And if you have heard Scully on Scully — and chances are you have, at least a little — perhaps you will marvel as I did and always do when I hear him chatting outside of the context of a ballgame. After 67 years in baseball and 88 years on Earth, Vin has a tendency to tell what might be referred to as the same old stories. I think we would all do that if his stories were our stories. A person has his or her greatest hits, and even the most clever of inquisitors is going to veer to some fairly obvious questions in a limited time frame.

Here’s the thing, though. When you listen to Gary talk to Vin, then Howie talk to Vin, you would think Vin is receiving these perfectly fine questions for the first time in his long, illustrious life, because he answers them with such freshness. You don’t think he’s told the story of working college football from the roof of Fenway Park? The meeting with Branch Rickey [15]? What he learned from Red Barber? Why he lets the crowd speak after an enormous home run? How the Koufax perfect game embellishment came about? His lack of rooting interest between the Mets and Red Sox in 1986 despite what their respective partisans might have believed? The advantages of working alone instead of with a partner?

Of course he has. He was asked more or less the same stuff in each Met interview, as he would be and has been in every interview with every outlet, yet somehow every time it’s as if he’s telling the story for the very first time. He’s full of wonder and awe that he’s gotten to do what he has done. There is not a hint of weariness in his replies. You have been kind enough to express curiosity about some facet of his experience, the least he can do is present a word picture as complete as the game Clayton Kershaw threw at the Mets.

It’s a gift, both what Vin Scully has been blessed with and what he’s shared with us. Perhaps I am particularly attentive to how he proffers it because I have come lately to appreciate the challenges inherent in telling the same stories freshly again and again.

In my comparatively limited case, the story is that of the 2015 National League champion Mets, the subject of my current book, Amazin’ Again [16]. I’ve noticed a dichotomy between the types of interviews I’ve been invited to engage in since its release. If the host is a Mets fan and the setting is Mets-oriented, then I can speak in almost a coded language [17]. I know the host and the audience will get what I mean if I make a reference to “the Kershaw game” from last July, for example, and I don’t have to explain too deeply the contextual significance of John Mayberry [18] (whose major league slugger dad [19] was born in 1949, the same year Scully got his big break in Boston) and Eric Campbell [20] (who can’t hit Kershaw any better in 2016 than he could in 2015). We understand they batted fourth and fifth against the best pitcher in baseball and that the Mets needed to upgrade their offense if they intended to catch the Nationals let alone compete against Kershaw in a potential postseason matchup.

But when I find myself the subject of questioning for a broader readership, listenership or viewership, my role shifts from Mets fan talking to Mets fans to guy charged with explaining who the 2015 Mets were and what exactly they did. The chain of details you and I take for granted — strong start, injuries, teamwide slump, promising pitching, ups and downs, Gomez trade aborted, Upton homer in the rain, Cespedes, Flores and off we go — is not a given. The story I’m asked for is less the story of how the book came together or why I wrote certain passages the way I did and more the actual story in the book, a.k.a. a lot of tick-tock from last year.

That’s splendid. I love being asked anything about the Mets. But it also demands a certain amount of repetition, which, quite frankly, is something I rail against internally. I don’t want to tell the fellow on the phone in Orlando the same exact thing I told the fellow on the phone in Phoenix any more than I want to write the same exact blog post every other day. I feel I’m not giving the station in Orlando my best if all it’s getting is what Phoenix received last week. Never mind that the overlap between audiences is negligible to nil. Never mind that no matter how you tell it, Cespedes is still gonna be traded for on July 31 and Flores is gonna homer that night.

Part of this reluctance comes from the kind of reader, listener and viewer I am. I will consume every interview with somebody whose work I really revere [21]. That person doesn’t know I’m taking in his or her thoughts for the six-dozenth time. He or she can’t be responsible for knowing I’ve heard that charming anecdote 71 times before. I don’t mind hearing it again, necessarily, but maybe there’s some heretofore unuttered nugget you could toss in for the obsessives like myself?

After 67 years of speaking through a microphone to untold millions, it’s probably enough Vin Scully can tell the exact same stories and make them sound as if he’d just broken the seal on them. They’re not talking points in Scully’s voice. They’re just what he has to say.

As for what I have to say, I’ll be at Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine in Rockville Centre on Long Island this Monday night, 7 o’clock [22], to discuss Amazin’ Again, the 2015 Mets and related subject matter. I’ll endeavor to deliver fresh, original material in this, my first appearance before an audience in practically my own backyard, but chances are I’ll tell you a few things you already know. Baseball stories and familiarity tend to gravitate toward each other in unrelenting fashion.

It’s not like you couldn’t have guessed Clayton Kershaw was going to do to do the Mets what he’s done to them so often in the past, but if you were awake, you probably tuned in anyway.