It was a June evening, the season before this last one, at Citi Field, by one of those tables out beyond center field where you stand and you chat and you chew. The combination momentarily got the best of me as a crumb went down the wrong way between sentences. I coughed a little. Maybe a lot. Certainly enough to draw the attention of my companion.
“You all right?” he asked with genuine concern. Yes, I said, once the crumb found its path to digestion. Thus relieved, my friend put my brush with mortality in perspective:
“If you’re gonna go, could there be a more appropriate place for you to go than here?”
I realized that if that crumb had gotten the best of me and I had succumbed right then and there, prior to a Mets game versus the Pirates, everybody who knew me would have focused on the “there” and fast-forwarded to the same conclusion regarding my conclusion. “At least he went where he wanted to be,” I imagined it would be said. I suppose anything could be said without my input in that situation. I wouldn’t be around to object.
It’s a romantic notion that an individual would choose to meet one’s end precisely where one chose to spend much of one’s life. It’s also a little presumptuous to believe it. Is that really how I’d want to call it a day, choking on a bite of Shake Shack or Blue Smoke while Dave Racaniello warms up the starter in the bullpen? I wanted to see the Mets win that night, sure. But I also implicitly wanted to see the next morning. I got one out of two  — the one I’d take in a heartbeat, as long as I have a heartbeat.
These thoughts from the night I overcame that rogue crumb have revisited me in the wake of the passing of William Goldman , the screenwriter responsible for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men and a multiplex’s worth of other beloved titles. His credits spanned film, theater, literature. Goldman did a lot of writing about a lot of things in his eighty-seven years.
And one year, he devoted his talents to the Mets.
Well, the Mets and five other teams, all of them playing in and around New York. The year was 1987. Goldman and Mike Lupica teamed up on a book called Wait Till Next Year . The premise was New York was the reigning center of the sporting universe, let’s see how that plays out from the alternating perspectives of a big-time newspaper columnist and an impassioned fan. The Mets were defending a world championship. The Giants were, too. The Yankees and Jets were respectable second bananas. The Nets and Knicks weren’t much, but basketball is the city game and Goldman was known for his courtside presence at the Garden.
Others remember William Goldman for “follow the money,” or “the fall will probably kill ya” or, most famously, “nobody knows anything,” the last of those lines his assessment of how Hollywood works. When I learned of his death, I remembered “Stats for Nuts”. That was Goldman’s idealized take on the sheath of statistics ballclubs compile, now as then, for the media daily. Today, they’re accessible to anybody online , nutty or otherwise. Thirty-plus years ago, if you were a civilian (which Goldman was, despite his celebrity status allowing him to wrangle credentials), they were a revelation. Honestly, on that handful of occasions I’ve entered the Citi Field press box and casually picked up the sheaths put out by the Mets and their opponent du nuit, they remain a revelation.
Goldman marveled at Shea in September of 1987 that this was “something that sportswriters get before every game and don’t think much of, but for us True Believers,” the statistics were “a little bit of heaven…I mean pages of them. All neatly mimeoed. How many pages? The number varies from game to game but for the Montreal opener, I was flipping through close to thirty pages of single-spaced, legal-sized, fact-filled stuff. (I think the Mets — and all home teams for that matter — should put a paper clip on them, call them ‘Stats for Nuts’ or something Madison Avenue-ish, and sell them at the park for a buck; make a fortune.)”
To this day, when I get my hands on the press notes or even open them in PDF form, I think, “Stats for Nuts.” Dude really knew how to make a phrase stick.
Rereading Goldman’s Mets chapters reminded me that, early in the book, he didn’t consider himself a serious Mets fan, confessing he preferred the other team and stadium for some nonsensical reason, but by late September, with only one local team hanging tough in a pennant race, his tune had changed.
“I had, at 2:42 P.M. on Friday, the twenty-fifth of September, 1987 — an epiphany,” he testified. “Do you remember a few pages back when I put in my little aside about me being a Yankee fan? Well, I wasn’t anymore. For the first time in forty-five years I had switched allegiances not for a geographical reason.” Goldman blamed having been “Steinbrennered to death” for his estrangement: “I slogged through it before, telling myself I liked the team but detested the owner,” yet he came to admit that he’d reached a point of no return, finding himself utterly unmoved by Bronx Bomber fortunes. “The Yankees were just the Yankees now,” Goldman swore. “The Mets were mine now. And I had to get them home.”
We know he and we didn’t, but not for lack of trying. Note the ephiphanous date the book’s co-author cited: September 25, 1987. It was a grand day for Goldman professionally. The movie version of The Princess Bride (“my favorite piece of my own writing, my only favorite piece”) opened that day to rave reviews. Two weeks earlier, the Mets were on the verge of closing. Closing ground, that is. On September 11, the Mets were hosting the Cardinals, while Goldman was stuck in Los Angeles on business. As part of his initiation into full Mets fandom, he decided that he must not offend the baseball gods by becoming aware of the score of the game in progress before it was complete. (It was a different technological world in 1987.)
Long story short, Goldman thought he had his bases covered clear up to a phone call he received around twenty of eight Pacific Time, or twenty of eleven in New York. He figured it must be somebody phoning from back east with definitive good news. “I answered,” Goldman wrote. “And heard among the happiest words of the year: ‘They’re partying at Shea.’” Goldman’s pal on the other end of the line filled him in on the glorious details of this Friday night in Queens, particularly how HoJo joined the 30-30 club while the Mets were taking it to the Cards. It was a Stat a Nut of Goldman’s stature reveled in while he calculated the gap the Mets were diminishing. A half-game tonight, then Doc pitching Saturday, then, “at last, after all the injuries and bad luck and bad behavior the Mets were going to be in first place, and rightfully, tomorrow by sunset.”
The caller updated his report on the mood in Flushing. “‘They’re dancing in the aisles at Shea,’ he said, bubbling.” Goldman could picture his fellow fans staying and celebrating long after hard-won victory had been secured. “‘They just won’t leave the ballpark,’ I said. I know the feeling. An event is done, gone, but the texture of the air is so splendid, you just linger.
“‘Not till Willie McGee makes the last out,’ the guy said.”
Whoa. Goldman grasped what he was being told. Not only was his correspondent jumping the gun regarding the “partying” and “dancing” at Shea — a last out still hung in the balance — but he had served to violate Goldman’s deal with the gods to not know anything about the game before the game was through.
“‘As calm as Chamberlain at Munich I said, ‘Uh, you mean the game isn’t quite over?’
“‘As good as. Two outs, two strikes, top of the ninth, Roger McDowell with stuff on the mound. I can’t quite see the set from here, I’m across the room, I thought I’d share the news.’
“‘There really isn’t quite news yet, is there?’ I said. ‘It’s really more of an interim report than news.’”
A little uncomfortable small talk followed between Goldman and his no longer welcome caller. “‘Finally I said, ‘Is Willie McGee still up?’ I heard the phone being put down. Steps. I hear the phone being picked up. ‘No big deal, he singled, Pendleton’s up, no power, four-two, two out, two strikes — ’
“I screamed, ‘Get the fuck off the phone!’ and slammed my receiver down. Agony.”
Yes, agony. For Goldman. For all of us sentient in September ’87. Whatever aisle dancing may have occurred ceased when Terry Pendleton belted a homer to center and halted the party altogether…an update Goldman also hung up on when the guy called back to tell him. From there, he attended to a dinner engagement during which he learned, against his will, that the Mets had gone on to lose, 6-4.
“Reality set in.” Goldman wrote, “I’m a Fan, and I knew the long-range truth: Terry Pendleton was my Titanic. After that liner sank, no one ever felt quite as confident again, not in deep water. And I was in deep water now…”
Yet Goldman hung in there the rest of the way, like the convert turned True Believer he fancied himself. He went to that game against Montreal on the Twenty-Third, where he shuffled like Teufel through his stack of stats. He stressed over El Sid’s chances at besting the Pirates’ Mike Bielecki (whom he referred to as “some typo”) every bit as much as he worried how The Princess Bride would be received by critics on the Twenty-Fifth. He believed as best he could, like any defending World Champion Mets fan.
Yet despite declaring nobody knows anything, Goldman knew something. The Mets may not have been eliminated on the Eleventh , but Goldman sensed something had gone irreversibly awry, same as every Mets fan in September of Nineteen Eighty-Seven. His deal with the baseball gods was null and void the second he answered the telephone in L.A.
I don’t know what was on the man’s mind when he died on November 16, 2018, but Goldman theorized thirty-one years, two months and five days before how his last breaths might unfold.
“On my deathbed,” he wrote, “if I have grandchildren and they ask, ‘Grampa, what does Willie McGee make you think of?’ I would answer that Willie McGee makes me think of this asshole who called me to gloat before the game was over.”
Goldman had one grandson. I kind of hope he asked.