We didn’t tweet in 1977, but if we had, I’m sure we would have assailed the year we lived in for being #TheWorst for taking from our midst so many beloved icons (and that’s not counting the baseball business conducted on June 15 of that year). Elvis died. Bing died. Groucho and his brother Gummo. Charlie Chaplin. Zero Mostel. Maria Callas. Toots Shor. Guy Lombardo. Joan Crawford. Eddie Anderson (Rochester from The Jack Benny Show). Sebastian Cabot (Mr. French from Family Affair). Diana Hyland (Dick Van Patten’s wife on Eight Is Enough and John Travolta’s true love in real life). Most of these people were transcendent, and they were all going at once.
We didn’t tweet yet in 2003, but we would have hashtagged ourselves into a mourning frenzy that September. Warren Zevon, John Ritter and Johnny Cash went in a four-day span; George Plimpton, Robert Palmer, Donald O’Connor and Althea Gibson joined them in the great beyond before the month was out. It was veritable celebrity carnage.
It’s not a contest, picking the year that packed the most attention-getting passings, but as much as we sadly shook our fist at 2016, it’s not like this sort of thing was invented over the past twelve months, though we certainly endured one of the most overwhelming onslaughts of morbid bulletins where people we’d heard of were concerned. I didn’t quite get why we as a culture faulted 2016 itself — it was a time period, not an actual grim reaper — but we do tweet nowadays, and the habit has led us to adopt and indulge strange customs and catchphrases before we’ve had a chance to road-test them for logic.
Death is a part of life, you might have noticed. Whether it touches us directly or from a distance, it touches off in us the impulse to remember. I believe keeping alive the memories of those no longer with us is a decent thing for the rest of us to do while we’re still here. It’s what I try to do when I pay tribute in this space to the recently deceased, whether I knew them intimately , casually  or not at all but was moved by what they did  while they were around.
With 2016 done doing whatever we decided 2016 did, I’m going to take a few minutes and remember some people who died in the past year, specifically those whose departures I didn’t get a chance to note here even though I’m sure I meant to. Baseball, predictably, is the thread that runs through them, but they weren’t all necessarily baseball people. I’m also going to throw in a name whose passing predates 2016 because it should never be too late to remember another human being…especially one who played for your favorite team.
On September 14, 1984, I had the Mets on my mind. Big surprise, I know. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was driving westbound on Interstate 4, the highway destined to become known at the I-4 Corridor, specifically the segment between Orlando and Tampa. This was early in my senior year in college, when I was the Board of Regents correspondent for my college paper. I had traveled from my campus, USF, to the campus where the BOR was meeting, UCF; did my reporting (dictating a story over a pay phone, as old-timey as that sounds); and now I was returning. The second-place Mets would soon be playing the first-place Cubs at Wrigley Field, beginning a three-game series that represented their last remote chance at possibly pulling out the division. It was a long shot, though. We stood 7½ out and had to sweep. There was a bar I’d pass on my way back to my off-campus dorm, the Copper Top. They had a sign in the window advertising the installation of cable TV and the broadcast of all manner of live sports, which was a pretty exotic proposition for an unwired college student in 1984. Maybe they had WGN. Surely they had WGN. And what other sporting event would they be showing on a Friday afternoon? Yeah, I’m definitely gonna swing by the Copper Top.
My train of determined Met thought was interrupted by the song that came on the car radio, probably from one of the Orlando stations, since they always seemed to be a couple of weeks ahead of Tampa. It was so bouncy, so effervescent, so captivating. I didn’t know what it was called, but I was instantly in love with its jitterbug!s, its boom-boom!s, its out-of-nowhere reference to Doris Day. What’s its name? “Wake Me Up Before You Go”? No, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go ” by Wham…I mean, Wham! Repetition and exclamation fit a song that encompassed more energy in three minutes and fifty seconds than I did in a week. I never did stop by the Copper Top (preferring my bed because I decided I was running on fumes), but for the rest of the fall of ’84, I was so hyped up every time I heard “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, that I was left with little capacity to rue the Mets’ failure to catch the Cubs. How upset could someone be if he lived in a world onto which the sun was said to shine like Doris Day?
The group’s follow-up single, “Careless Whisper,” made clear the name of the half of Wham! who put the boom-boom into their sound was George Michael. It was inevitable that he’d plan on goin’ solo. Like the Mets of the mid-’80s, George would produce a ton more hits, many of them sparkling and spectacular. None, however, landed on the ear as viscerally or vivaciously as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” which I count to this day as No. 30 on my personal Top 1,000 (and No. 1 among songs that greeted me in 1984). When I learned late on Christmas Day that Michael, my demographic contemporary, had died, my mind found itself speeding along I-4 once more.
The honor roll of musicians who left us in 2016 was, as has been documented elsewhere, staggering. Within that circumstantial supergroup is a subgenre of artists of parochial interest: those whose songs would become inextricable from the Met narrative. Glenn Frey’s “You Belong To The City” scored a montage of the Mets being every bit as big as New York itself in A Year To Remember. David Bowie’s “Changes” resonated through the difficult trades & transition period in An Amazin’ Era. “Volunteers” provided the backbeat to the scenes in which the 1969 Mets took over the world in the Eighth Inning of Ken Burns’s Baseball. The song was recorded by Jefferson Airplane and co-written by Paul Kantner.
Those gentlemen became associated by the Mets by use of their music. A singer just as famous  a generation before them brought his talents to the Mets because he was a Mets fan. Julius La Rosa sang the national anthem at Shea often from the ‘60s into the ’90s, back when it was performed mostly on special occasions (otherwise, Jane Jarvis would play it on the organ or a canned recording would be used). La Rosa was synonymous with big days at Shea, including WNEW Day in 1975, when the Mets celebrated their affiliation with their flagship station. Julius had a second career in progress as a disc jockey at AM 1130, playing records from the pre-rock days when he was as big star in his field as Seaver and Kingman were in theirs.
Annually there is no bigger day in Flushing than Opening Day. Though I’d been watching and listening to Shea lidlifters since 1970 (and had my tickets turn into rainchecks in 1981), I didn’t attend a Home Opener until 1993. None of us among the 53,127 on hand had any idea what was in store for that season — it was all good on April 5. You believed anything was possible, especially when you saw who walked out for a special presentation. It was Dennis Byrd, a cause of Metropolitan Area concern the previous fall when he couldn’t rise on his own power from the slick Meadowlands turf, surfacing as the most hopeful sign related to power of positive thinking and proactive healing.
When Byrd went down in the rain against Kansas City after crashing into a teammate, he instantly became a former Jet defensive end , unable to walk. Rehabilitation was his next game. It proved successful. Though his football career was over, he was up on his own two feet (with the aid of a cane) to welcome the baseball season. The Mets invited Dennis to Opening Day and, as part of the pregame pomp, handed him Mets jersey No. 90, the same number he’d worn in green and white. “A Met for life,” he was deemed. The DE knew his way to Shea, which didn’t used to be anything unusual for New York Jets. He’d served as a Banner Day judge last August. He also knew his way into Mets fans’ hearts.
“If it rains,” he told the crowd on this indefatigably sunny afternoon, “we don’t have to play. And if I hit the ball over the fence, I get to walk around the bases. I can do that.”
The Mets wouldn’t exist had the Giants and Dodgers not abandoned New York, but some Giants and Dodgers stuck around long after those franchises made themselves scarce. The two men who gave the storied rivalry its signature moment were permanent Metropolitan Area fixtures for decades. Bobby Thomson remained on the scene until his death in 2010, leaving Ralph Branca to carry forward the legacy of The Shot Heard Round The World. That Branca was on the wrong end of the most legendary home run ever hit did not hold him back from embodying baseball history, even if it went against him. He was the ultimate good sport in the company of Thomson, the most supportive of teammates to rookie Jackie Robinson, the knowing father-in-law of Bobby Valentine and even the Met pre- and postgame radio show partner to Howard Cosell in 1962 and ’63. Kids like me would see Branca on Old Timers Day and understand that baseball didn’t begin with the Mets.
An adult like me encountered him once. I was behind him at the sign-in table for a press luncheon years ago. Next to his name, where we were asked to list our affiliation, Ralph wrote “BASEBALL”. I thought that covered it quite comprehensively and accurately. (So does the writeup of someone who knew him well — please see what Matt Silverman had to say about his old friend in his entry of November 24 .)
I’m fond of saying that I’m a New York Mets fan in my heart and a New York Giants fan in my soul, reflecting a deep affinity for the team that represented the city’s National League interests for 75 years, right up until five years before I came along. If the 1883-1957 portion of my soul had a facilitator, it was Bill Kent, founder and guiding light of what became known as the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society, which was a splendid name, but I’ll always remember our little group as “the guys,” which is how Bill referred to us when we first took shape.
Bill did it all for “the guys,” no matter how few or how many we numbered on a given day. Membership fluctuated from the time he first called me in 2004 to invite me to a meeting, having inherited a list of phone numbers from a predecessor organization nobody committed to keeping organized. That was not a responsibility that eluded Bill, a loyal Giants fan who rooted without pause from Mel Ott to Madison Bumgarner, coastal relocation notwithstanding. He was always reaching out, getting “the guys” together whenever and wherever he could find adequate space. A grudging user of e-mail, Bill preferred to call individually with date and locale for our next caucus. I looked forward to picking up the phone and hearing a gravelly voice greeting me with “rackadoolie!” I just assumed it was Bill’s version of “23 skidoo!”
We followed the bouncing Bill from the far West Side of Manhattan to Riverdale to Kingsbridge. He was the gray tornado, disheveled enough to worry you that he wouldn’t remember we were assembling when he said we would, sharp enough to book speakers, order pies and make sure everybody got seconds. When he was up for driving, he’d offer to pick you up from the Spuyten Duyvil train station or drop you off at the 231st St. stop on the 1 line. If you were concerned about traveling from relatively far away, he’d play transportation matchmaker. In between, he’d be happy to tell you about the time at the Polo Grounds that his childhood chum Little Lenny sparked Ernie Lombardi’s ire by taunting him about how slow he was (according to Bill, Ernie was too torpid to effectively chase Lenny down). Bill shepherded us as we grew from a handful of diehards and historical fetishists to a vibrant social club that attracted the attention of WFAN, The New York Times and the San Francisco Giants. Bill made the Giants aware of us and they included us on the New York leg of their three world championship tours.
Eventually, a difference of opinion regarding operating philosophies led to a breakaway group that ultimately proved more popular (and it is definitely a swell bunch), sending Bill’s guys back to meeting in the smallest room a Bronx church had to offer. He was still the essence of servant-leadership the last time I saw him, in the spring of 2015, wrangling our proceedings to informal order; pulling straws from his raincoat pockets in case anybody wanted one for the sodas that came with our pizza, urging us to buy one of our guest speaker’s books; asking our speaker if he could give the guys a break on the price; and forever passing around a sheet of paper to make sure he had everybody’s contact information.
The Nostalgia Society became a thing of the past soon after. Membership received an email from his son explaining that because of health issues, Bill, like the team he loved, had moved from New York to California. The kicker was his destination was Southern California, though we were assured being around all those Dodgers fans wasn’t going to alter Bill’s allegiances one bit. No doubt they stayed solidly orange and black to the end, which, I eventually learned, came October 6, one day after the 2016 National League Wild Card Game, a most unfortunate affair for us Mets fans, but boy do I hope Bill got to see his team win one last game. He deserved to go out a winner.
James Loney hit his first home run as a Met on the same day Muhammad Ali died, the juxtaposition of which won’t necessarily mean anything to you, except it got me to thinking about names. Ali changed his as an adult from Cassius Clay. It was a defining element of his biography. And what does this have to do with James Loney? Nothing, exactly, except as I got used to Loney being a Met, I wondered, in the vein of Ali vs. Clay, why he was James and not Jim. I remembered two decades before that somebody I worked with telling me about a conversation with a man named James, a person with whom he had never spoken before. My colleague, capable of being one of these overly familiar sorts, calls him up and says, “Hi Jim,” only to be told “there’s nobody named Jim here.” This guy was James, and you were to address him as James. Since then, I have known Jims who didn’t go by James, Jameses who didn’t go by Jim, a couple of Jimmys who were pretty free and easy about the whole thing…and one semi-complicated case.
During the Jerry Manuel era, a fellow named Jim dropped us a line here at Faith and Fear to ask if we would link to a Met story he wrote somewhere. Sure, I said. And we did. We said, in so many words, check out this article by Jim. He expressed gratitude, but added, “One more favor, at the risk of my sounding like a numbskull: Could I ask you to put James (Middle Initial and Last Name) in parentheses, where you list Jim at the link? I actually prefer both names being listed that way, so — only if it’s no bother — that would be perfect.”
It wasn’t a bother, and I assured him he wasn’t a numbskull. It came up a couple of more times over the years. He’d ask for a link, I’d say no problem, Jim, do it and then I’d be asked, hey, could that be James, not Jim? Again, I complied, but since he seemed to go by Jim in real life, I didn’t know what the big deal was. I wasn’t calling him Cassius.
The confluence of Ali’s death and Loney’s arrival made me think of Jim/James a little…and then a lot, because that very same weekend in early June came word that he had died. It didn’t come as a total surprise, since I had seen on Facebook that he had recently been hospitalized, but it was still a shock. He was in his mid-fifties, though you might say he had an older soul. Jim seemed to enjoy giving the impression he went way back — even further back than guys our age already do. If it made him happy, so be it. Ditto for his habit of calling me seeking information that the rest of civilization could and would easily Google. The exchanges would inevitably start something like this:
“Hello Greg, this is Bob Murphy,” said in a voice that didn’t sound very much like Bob Murphy. “How about those Amazing New York Mets?”
“Hey Jim, what’s up?”
“No, this is Bob Murphy.”
“Uh-huh. Hey Bob.”
After asking how authentic I found his Bob Murphy impression and not quite believing I didn’t find it fully convincing, he got to the ostensible reason he called, which was to obtain a data point that allegedly only I could deliver at that moment. He was writing something, see, and he couldn’t remember this or that, and he just knew I would know. Maybe he also wanted to let me know that he’d read something I wrote the other day and he really liked it. From there, he’d instigate a debate on some recent roster move, almost always encompassing an insistence on his part that Nick Evans never should have been let go. There’d be an accusation that some local columnist or broadcaster was using his material without crediting him, and he’s not mad or anything, it’s just that it would be nice if he’d been properly sourced (he was indeed a solid writer). Oh, and there was a problem with an editor who cut the best part of a story. There was a mention of some really old movie that he’d hoped I was familiar with so we could talk about that. And Shea Stadium ushers — he was fonder of them on the whole than I was and proceeded to tell me yet again about one of them now working at Citi Field who was telling him how they were all getting screwed over by management. And you know what he really enjoys eating when he goes to a game? Why, the Premio Italian Sausage, of course. It was his favorite at Shea and it’s his favorite still.
“Hey, do you think I should go to the day game next week?”
“I don’t know, Jim. If you want to go, go.”
Under whatever name he preferred, Jim/James was reaching out, and not in that empty corporate way the phrase implies. He was reaching out for another person, for a connection. Somewhere along the way, he decided I’d be the person he’d reach out to where the Mets were the subject. He was a Mets fan. I was a Mets fan. In theory, it was the basis for a relationship. I tried to reach back. In all honestly, I didn’t always have it in me to meet him halfway. But maybe the Mets did give up on Nick Evans too soon.
Ziggy also died last spring, a little before Muhammad Ali and Jim/James. Another unwelcome Facebook dispatch. I never heard the cause of death. Ziggy was my classmate in Hebrew School, an acquaintance through elementary school, a lockermate in seventh grade and a constant presence on the periphery of my life until I graduated high school. Ziggy, who lived a few blocks from me, and I were heading to Shea Stadium separately on July 17, 1976, but when his dad saw my sister and me walking toward the train station, we were invited into their family stationwagon (a.k.a. the Ziggymobile) and offered a ride. My sister was wary, but I vouched for the Ziggys’ collective character, having been over to their house once and emerging unscathed. We arrived at Shea in fine fettle but Suzan declined Ziggy’s dad’s invitation to meet afterward for a ride home.
Ziggy had a more traditional first and last name, but à la Cher and Madonna, he didn’t need them. For as long as I could remember, nearly everybody called him Ziggy, and he seemed to go with the flow, just as I did when Ziggy pulled his signature move of walking up to me, no matter the situation, and telling me, in his low deadpan croak, “Shut up, Greg.” He even signed my yearbook that way.
You might have heard Chris Cannizzaro, one of the Original Mets, died last week. Caught for the Mets from 1962 through 1965, played in the majors clear through 1974. Casey Stengel referred to him as a defensive catcher who couldn’t catch. Casey had a way with words, but Cannizzaro surely proved himself a big league survivor . Not until Ramon Castro returned for a fifth season of backup duty behind the plate was Chris bumped from the Top Ten list for most games caught by a Met. He ranks thirteenth to this day.
Did you hear Phil Hennigan died in June? If you did hear, word almost certainly didn’t reach you until September. Just because a person was well-known a while back, it doesn’t keep him in the limelight forever after. Phil was living his retirement in Texas. That’s where he passed on with relatively little notice outside of his community. That’s how it goes for most of us.
We know Phil Hennigan from his stint as a Met in 1973, which is to say he was a member of the National League champions, albeit before they were champions. In 30 games between April 11 and July 7, the ex-Indian reliever compiled an ERA over 6 and trudged around a record of 0-4. The righty was demoted to Tidewater and never pitched in the majors again. Hennigan became the first Met to end a season with no wins and that many losses since Sherman “Roadblock” Jones in 1962. On the other hand, Phil did record three saves, and given that the Mets won the East by a mere game-and-a-half in 1973, well, You Gotta Believe every little bit helped.
Every time the Mets score an absurd amount of runs and you reflexively place tongue in cheek and ask, “Did they win?” think of Dick Smith. The game — Mets 19 Cubs 1 — from which the old Met chestnut that somebody called a newspaper to ask how many runs the club scored that day and then incredulously asked if they had managed to prevail sprung was earned to a great extent on Dick Smith’s dime. That afternoon of May 26, 1964, at Wrigley, Dick’s bat put the boom-boom into the Mets’ attack, recording three singles, a double and a triple. It was the first five-hit game in Mets history. He scored three and drove in two, having himself the kind of afternoon Kirk Nieuwenhuis enjoyed just before the All-Star break in 2015 when Kirk became the first Met to hit three homers in a home game.
The comparison is apt for temporal reasons. Facebook has a Baseball Player Passings group that tracks when somebody in the game dies. Usually there’s a timely report. Sometimes it takes a while, as we saw with Phil Hennigan. In Dick Smith’s case, the baseball-loving public didn’t become aware of his passing for more than three years. Mr. Smith died in Oregon on February 19, 2012, three days after Gary Carter. We all knew about Carter. Gary went right after Whitney Houston and a couple of weeks before Davy Jones. It was a trifecta of bad tidings. We were probably cursing out that awful 2012 for being so cruel.
It’s not the years that do it, it’s just life. Let’s be glad we have those we had in our lives for as long as we do, whether we consider them bit players or superstars.
Tonight, January 3, at 6:16 PM Eastern Standard Time, set your emotional clocks forward. That very moment marks the arrival of the Baseball Equinox, the instant when we are as close to the scheduled first pitch of next season (1:10 PM on April 3) as we are to the documented last pitch of last season (11:21 PM on October 5). I can’t speak for what else 2017 will bring, but barring the disastrous and unforeseen, it will give us Mets sooner than it won’t. There will be spring; there will be hope; there will new reasons to remember; and there will be metaphorically and maybe meteorologically a sun that shines brighter than Doris Day and Harvey Day combined.
Baseball’s coming. Rejoice.