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Way To Go

On Saturday afternoon, July 17, 1976, I saw Lloyd Waner hit and Tom Seaver pitch. Same place, different games. Waner appeared in the Old Timers Game at sunny Shea Stadium. At 13, I considered it a hoot that someone from the dusty pages of baseball’s distant past stood in the box and swung the bat, even if it was just for fun. Waner hadn’t played big league ball since 1945. He was born in 1906. How strange that he would attempt to do something even a little physically challenging. I was 13 and failed to understand people didn’t automatically crumple up and blow away once they turned 70. Today people older than 70 run for president and coach pitchers and it’s not that jarring.

I loved Old Timers Day. I loved that somebody like Lloyd Waner — a Hall of Fame ballplayer and holder of the immortal nickname Little Poison, with his similarly Cooperstown-bound brother, Paul, having been known as Big Poison — appeared in our midst once a year. Though I distinctly remember Waner the septuagenarian taking his cuts, he’s not listed in the 1976 Mets Oldtimers Album that was inserted into that day’s Official Program & Scorecard, both of which I still have after all these years. Many of the greats of the game are, though. Like Mort Cooper’s brother Walker and Dizzy Dean’s brother Paul and Vance Law’s dad Vern.

The matchup of the Old Timers Game, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Senior Circuit, was the National League Centennial Squad vs. the National League N.Y. Stars. (Mr. Met was drawn with a handlebar mustache on the cover of the insert.) The Centennials roster contained some names with which I was passingly familiar and some that were new to me. Ralph Kiner, like Lloyd Waner, suited up as a Pirate. Ralph I knew intimately through the TV. Vance Law I wouldn’t hear of until he debuted in 1980, but I knew Vern Law because I had his card from 1967, inherited from my sister, who not only bequeathed me all her Topps the second she lost her passing interest in baseball, but was kind enough to bring me to Shea that day in 1976 despite never having regenerated interest in baseball. Wes Parker was there. I not only had a Wes Parker card, but I actually remembered Wes Parker playing for the Dodgers just a few years before. Ernie Banks, too. I had caught the tail end of Ernie Banks’s career. He was retired not quite five years at this point and was six months from his election into the Hall of Fame.

The N.Y. Stars were a conglomeration of Dodgers, Giants and Mets. Usually if I saw Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, they were in black and white on the printed page. Some of the Mets N.Y. Stars also predated my personal baseball consciousness. Jack Fisher. Frank Thomas. A few others I had known as members of other teams. Jim Hickman. Ron Hunt. A handful of invited-back Mets — I can hear Bob Murphy referring to any one of them as “one of our youngest Old Timers” — were Mets I had seen be Mets. Ron Taylor. Ron Swoboda. Jim McAndrew. Willie Mays, whose coaching duties always seemed secondary to his participation in these kinds of events. I enjoyed that there were a few Old Timers from my time, regardless that my time dated back a scant seven years.

It dates back a lot longer now. Almost every Old Timer introduced at any kind of contemporary baseball function (though “alumnus” has mostly supplanted that classification these days) ran or hit or threw on the fields of my memory. When I see somebody I never saw play stroll to a foul line and wave to the crowd today, I actually get a little more pumped by their presence than I might if he was emerging from my own archives. Old Timers are supposed to be from the past. Old Timers Day was my ticket to the past. The present I can cover myself. The present, to me, is whatever I experienced. My present goes on and doesn’t lop off much at the front end to make room for more.

The present on July 17, 1976, when it finished mingling with the past, moved on to its regularly scheduled programming, the Mets taking on the Astros. That’s where Tom Seaver [1] came in. Like me, Seaver remembered Taylor, Swoboda, McAndrew and Mays as Mets, and Hickman, Hunt, Banks and Parker as Mets opponents. He played with the first bunch and against the second bunch. He had pitched before me on television since 1969. This Saturday afternoon, for the first time, he was pitching before me for real.

He was fantastic. He was Seaver. He went eight innings, struck out eleven and gave up only a solo home run, to Cesar Cedeño. It was hit in the first inning and it barely cleared the left field fence at its most shallow. Seaver trailed 1-0 early and trailed 1-0 late because Houston’s starter Joaquin Andujar was just as effective. I should probably say more so since Andujar went nine innings and gave up no runs, but Seaver struck out six more batters, walked nobody to Andujar’s two and scattered just a pair of singles between the second and the eighth. That darn fly ball of Cedeno’s, however, wound up telling the tale of the game: Astros 1 Mets 0. My sister and I left for home from our only game of 1976 with a loss.

Nevertheless, here I sit 43 years later still feeling good about having seen Tom Seaver in his Met prime. I’d catch two of his starts when he returned to the Mets in 1983 and lucked into seeing him pitch for the White Sox at Fenway Park in 1985 for his 299th career win, but being at Shea when Seaver was unadulterated Seaver — never in another uniform, the idea of him being traded too ludicrous to ponder no matter what occasionally came up in the papers — was as special as a Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium could be. He was my favorite player, my baseball idol. He has yet to be replaced.

I thought about that experience as Thursday afternoon’s Mets game in Philadelphia wound down. After eight innings, the Mets were losing to the Phillies, 1-0, just as they were losing to the Astros, 1-0. Zack Wheeler hadn’t been as dominant as Tom Seaver, but he’d given the Mets six shutout innings, an outing marred only by Bryce Harper’s solo home run, a shot that flew about a hundred feet farther (and perhaps a hundred feet higher) than Cedeño’s off Seaver. I could forgive Zack his flaw. Aaron Nola was playing the role of Joaquin Andujar at Citizens Bank Park, not giving up anything of substance to the Mets across seven scoreless frames. Nola struck out ten and would have been tending a no-hitter if not for Wheeler himself singling in the sixth.

Given the string of chest-clutchingly dreadful endings the Mets had crafted prior to Thursday, I could live with a simple 1-0 defeat in sunshine. Tom Seaver had prepared me to deal with such setbacks nearly 43 years before. Plus the Mets, as they had on July 17, 1976, provided me with a sweet distraction before this game. They gave me 41 Seaver Way [2], the new address for Citi Field, situated on the rechristened thoroughfare that borders the offices where detrimental transactions are conceived and finalized.

I watched the ceremonies from home. They were lovely. The Archbishop of New York, the City Council member from Corona and the Chief Operating Officer from just inside the building each gave well-meaning Wikipedia-style oral reports on the Tao of Tom. Cardinal Dolan cheerfully rattled off the roster of the ’69 Mets, never mind that it included Donn “Clenendon” and 1972 acquisition Rusty Staub. Francisco Moya got in a Terrific shot at Tom Brady. Jeff Wilpon revealed his father took him to Game Five of the 1969 World Series, which served to make him a smidge more relatable. Beyond marking the transition of 126th Street into Seaver Way, Wilpon also announced that the Tom Seaver statue every Met has long pined for will soon be a reality. An artist’s rendering was flashed on screen. Left unacknowledged was the Robinson Cano’s thoughtful seasonlong portrayal of a statue.

The speakers who spoke volumes without having to say much were masterful master of ceremonies [3] Howie Rose — he managed a more heartfelt apology to fans of the number 126 than anybody connected to the Mets had lately to anybody they cursed out or physically threatened — and Sarah Seaver Zaske, who I remembered from my and her childhood as Sarah Lynne Seaver. Sarah Lynne was the baby girl, then toddler, who’d appear with Tom and Nancy in the family section of the Mets yearbook. Those Mets had families. Those Mets were family.

Sarah and her sister Annie are all grown up now, which is not the least bit surprising in light of how calendars work, but still. Little Sarah Lynne, her own sons in attendance, stands at the podium speaking on behalf of her mom and dad. Dad, we know, can’t be here today for this ceremony nor this weekend for the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the 1969 Mets’ world championship, captured against the Orioles, all odds and without Rusty Staub. It was gratifying to pick out Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones, Jerry Grote and Bud Harrelson in the front row of the audience. It was dispiriting understanding why Tom, back in California suffering from dementia, couldn’t and can’t join them. I look forward to the reunion of those who will be there. I will be there standing and applauding for the team that introduced me to the wonders of baseball. But I will miss Tom something fierce.

When Sarah spoke for her parents, I felt somewhat better. She assured us Tom and Nancy are still out in Napa Valley diligently taking care of one another and their vineyard. She quoted Tom on the subject of working one’s “rear end” off. As soon as she said that, I heard Tom’s voice and smiled. Then the curtain was pulled off the nameplate at the side entrance to Citi Field. 41 Seaver Way looked so good, so appropriate, as if that’s where the Mets had always resided. Sure, absolutely, this should have been done when Tom Seaver could have been there to take it all in, but, ultimately, the important thing is it’s there for everybody who comes to a Mets game to see now and for as much forever as a ballpark can produce. Same with the statue. The past is baseball’s gift to its fans. Any reminder of the best of its past is eternally welcome. Parents and children, friends and acquaintances, diehards and tourists will all show up at Shea’s successor and pause before a larger-than-life version of the pitcher who was larger than life to a franchise. Who was and forever will be the Franchise. They will see the street signs. They will think about and talk about Seaver Way and Seaver’s ways. Tom won’t be there, but his spirit will come alive.

True, I won’t any longer be able to send a check or money order for $1.50 to 123-01 126th St., Flushing, N.Y. 11368 to receive my copy of the all-new revised edition of the Mets Official Yearbook, which includes a handsome full-color team picture suitable for framing…but I probably wasn’t go to be able to do that anymore anyway.

As I’m fond of noting regularly, I became a Mets fan in 1969. This is my fiftieth anniversary as well. I’ve been thrilled to share it with them. I appreciate that the Mets organization has gone all in on facilitating their 1969 alumni’s visibility in 2019, just as I appreciate men like Art Shamsky keeping what Howie called the greatest New York sports story ever told in full view. Shamsky likes to say [4], “I played thirteen years in baseball, and nobody has ever asked me about the other twelve.” It’s a powerful statement meant to illuminate just what an impact the 1969 Mets have had on anybody it touched directly or otherwise, yet I’m not sure Art isn’t exaggerating to make his point.

I remember Art Shamsky as a 1970 Met. He was one of my favorites during my first full season of fandom. I developed an affinity for Jim McAndrew that year. Rons Taylor and Swoboda, too. Ed Kranepool was a fresh-faced kid in 1962 and a grizzled vet in 1979, which is as much part of his story for us as all he did in ’69. Cleon Jones was every bit as Amazin’ down the stretch in 1973 as he’d been four years earlier. Jerry Koosman warmed all of our hearts in 1976 when, fully recovered from the arm miseries that curbed his ascent post-1969, he got on an incredible roll and won 21 games. I already told you about Tom Seaver and a game from that Bicentennial summer.

Due respect to a good, round milestone, we’ll each calibrate our memories as fits our thoughts. I will miss Ed Charles dearly on Saturday. I only fleetingly saw him play ball on a fairly tiny Sony in 1969, just before he was released and then retired, thus I sort of considered him a figure out of history à la Lloyd Waner until I had the honor (and I do mean honor) of spending maybe an hour in his company [5] in 2015. From then on, he was, to me, the 1969 Met. I wish he had made it to the 50th. I hope Bud Harrelson, a victim of Alzheimer’s, is getting everything he can out of being around his teammates and being told again and again what 1969 meant to so many. Buddy means season after season to me. Tug McGraw, Tommie Agee, Don Cardwell, Donn Clendenon…they are all the past, but the past is always present and it’s always welcome to tap us on the shoulder and tell us about improbable catches, balls flecked with shoe polish, cats that magically materialize by the visitors’ dugout and what have you. The 1969 Mets — individually, collectively, remarkably — are always among us one way or another.

The 2019 Mets are self-evidently here now, necessitating a postscript to their most recent activities.

Despite Zack Wheeler’s best efforts and my desire to draw a perfect parallel, the Mets didn’t lose, 1-0, on Thursday afternoon, June 27, 2019. They lost, 6-3 [6]. Todd Frazier hit a dramatic homer to put them ahead in the top of the ninth, but Edwin Diaz gave up two homers more dramatic (and traumatic) to make Frazier’s for naught. This latest bullpen implosion left the Mets with a five-game losing streak, every component encompassing a blown lead of at least two runs. I could go on a little more about that very recent development, but it constitutes a piece of the present I wish to quickly consign to the past.

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As you’ve probably heard, Ed Kranepool’s quest for a kidney was blessedly successful. Happily, he will be one of the 1969 Mets at Citi Field on Saturday — not to mention the only 1962 and 1979 Met — strolling to a foul line and waving to the crowd. As Eddie continues to mend after his transplant, he also continues to welcome collectors who are interested in checking out and possibly purchasing parts of his vast baseball memorabilia collection to his Long Island home. If this offer intrigues you, please get in touch with Ed’s representative, Marty Gover of Momentum Sports Management, at 212 918 4545.