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An Impression of Marty Noble

Dave Roberts was out of position. Not the David Leonard Roberts who played 16 games at first base and in the outfield as an expansion Colt .45 in 1962, a year ahead of the Houston arrivals of Joe Leonard Morgan and Daniel Joseph Staub. Not the David Wayne Roberts who caught and shifted around the infield for four teams in the ’70s and ’80s, pausing long enough as a Padre to belt 21 homers in 1973, the rookie season for another San Diego slugger and Dave, David Mark Winfield. And certainly not the David Ray Roberts who stole the Red Sox into a World Series in 2004 and steered the Dodgers into two more in 2017 and 2018.

The Dave Roberts who was out of position, context and the blue was David Arthur Roberts, the pitcher. The Dave Roberts whose 2.10 ERA in 1971 was good for second in the National League that year to righty George Thomas Seaver’s 1.76. The Dave Roberts whose 103 wins rank him third all-time among Jewish lefty hurlers, behind a couple of landsmen named Holtzman and Koufax. The Dave Roberts who contributed five of those victories to the 1979 Pirate fam-a-lee. This Dave Roberts could consider himself at home in many places during his 13-season major league career, but the 1984 Mets was not one of them.

A Met, yes. This Dave Roberts was a Met in 1981, though not long enough to go on strike in June. His career was ending without distinction. Wearing Jerry Grote’s old 15 for seven games, David Arthur Roberts generated five home runs, which is fine if your name is David Arthur Kingman, but not so splendid if you’re tasked with not giving them up. Kingman stayed with those ’81 Mets. Roberts was released by the end of May.

Distinction of a sort came to Roberts nearly 40 years later, in 2019, a decade after he passed away at the age of 64 in Short Gap, W. Va. It was via a short note that indicated a rare gap in facts. Marty Noble was writing a remembrance of Seaver in the days after it was revealed Tom Terrific was suffering from dementia. The news came as a surprise to many. Not to Noble, a writer who’d been covering baseball from an array of angles for most of the previous half-century. The reporter was out of position himself. Most recently associated with mlb.com after establishing himself with the Bergen Record and Newsday, Noble took his piece about Seaver to a former colleague from another paper, Murray Chass, erstwhile baseball labor issues columnist for the New York Times. Chass runs a blog-like Web site usually reserved for his own columns. On March 17, he provided it as a platform for Noble to share his stories of Seaver [1].

It was a lucky St. Patrick’s Day for readers who gained 410 feet of insight into No. 41, particularly the relationship between a beat writer who haunted Shea Stadium for an eternity and the Franchise pitcher who represented its spirit. Seaver, Noble acknowledged, could be as difficult to deal with in the clubhouse as he was on the mound. That changed, he said, as years and tears went by, but it didn’t detract from Noble’s Seaver truth.

In 1984, Noble wrote in his Seaver story, he spoke to a couple of young Met pitchers who felt they owed a debt of gratitude to a trio of helpful veteran Met pitchers who had just been let go by the burgeoning contender. Noble listed the excess arms as Craig Swan, Dick Tidrow and Roberts. It was hardly the point of the anecdote let alone the story. But to a reader who remembers Met rosters like Noble remembered Met everything, the inclusion of Roberts jumped out of Marty’s piece like a baseball off of Sky King’s bat. “No,” this reader thought. “Roberts was gone by ’84. Marty’s thinking of Mike Torrez,” the same Torrez who made Bucky Dent a [bleeping] household word in New England. The reader was sure of it but less decisive of what to do about it.

Reach out to Chass? Chass was famously prickly toward bloggers, of which the reader was one. A non-starter, the blogger decided. Noble? The reader/blogger once had Noble’s e-mail address (they’d crossed paths pleasantly a couple of times) but presumed he’d lost it in the great Outlook Express calamity of 2016. Was it worth tracking down Marty through channels? It was such an incredibly moving story, exploring Seaver’s personality transformation and Noble’s reactions to them as they each grew older and ever fonder of their interactions. The reader was bothered that Dave Roberts was in for Mike Torrez. Not because it was inaccurate (though the reader was always bothered by inaccuracies) but because he just figured Marty Noble would want to know and maybe fix it. Marty’s copy was always so good. This copy was exquisite. It would serve as the closest thing baseball would have to the official record of what Tom Seaver was really like from the time he was winding down winding up to the time he devoted himself to only his wine. Nothing should mar it. Not even a slight mistake almost everybody else would likely gloss over.

A week later, the reader learned Noble had died at the age of 70 [2]. No warning, no long goodbye like the one surrounding Seaver, the subject of the last baseball article this grand baseball writer published in his lifetime. No public knowledge of a hospitalization like that which preceded the death of Staub, a life Noble eulogized beautifully [3] and granularly the year before, as literally only Noble could have. The reader felt sadness for Noble’s family, of course, but he had to admit to himself that he also felt sadness for himself because never again having the opportunity to read a fresh Marty Noble perspective was, to him, akin to a death in the literary fam-a-lee.

Nobody knew the Mets like Marty Noble. Nobody wrote the Mets like Marty Noble, even in retirement when his ceaselessly stylish dispatches were usually provoked by the parameters of mortality. From 2019 forward there loomed no conceivable substitute for Noble and his ability to intimately chronicle the lives of baseball personalities who flourished in the latter half of the 20th century. No Gaspar pinch-running for Grote. No Roberts coming in for Millar. Nobody taking Noble’s place on first with the outcome hanging in the balance.

Nobody else had remained so close to baseball, particularly Mets baseball, for so long. Nobody else could tell his kind of Seaver story, his kind of Zimmer, Gibson and Torre story or the Whitey Ford story to end all Whitey Ford stories (specifically Ford’s pre-written obituary, which Noble crafted only to have it outlast its author). Nobody else could inhabit his kinds of stories with his kind of presence. Nobody, even allowing for the occasional Roberts-Torrez lineup card of memory mixup, retained so much detail. Nobody on Earth knew how to insert all of it into the written game for such optimal effect. Nobody seemed to relish putting it all together for publication the way Noble did [4]. When David Wright completed his playing career by asserting repeatedly to an adoring Citi Field crowd, “this is love,” the Captain could have been referring to how Marty Noble approached baseball [5].

Others will reflect on baseball and pay tribute to its characters and they will do it well. But they won’t do it like Marty. That leaves all readers a little out of position.