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Time & Life

When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge — they were all messages of love.
—David, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Love, Actually

Today I turn the age Jenrry Mejia was wearing when he was suspended from baseball for life after testing positive for ingestion of performance-enhancing substances. Jenrry’s still alive and he’s no longer suspended from baseball, so maybe there’s hope for us all.

[1]

Ol’ No. 58. I can relate. (Image by The 7 Line.)

We shall expel 2020 from the present in a matter of hours. Our collective problems will not magically disappear, but we can pretend at least for a couple of days that a new year can alter the course of time. Dick Clark built an additional wing onto his empire by appealing to such Rockin’ Eve thinking.

With the last day of 2020, the one of which I feel most proprietary on an annual basis, I wish to offer a little co-director’s commentary regarding thirty people whose times and lives I also grew a little proprietary about in recent months. Those would be My Guys, as I came to think of them: the subjects of my A Met for All Seasons essays.

You know the series [2]. Gosh, I hope you do. Jason and I offered it up twice a week for thirty weeks, from sometime in April to sometime in November, partly because we’d mulled doing something like it for about nine years, more because in April there was no baseball to write about from a fierce urgency of now standpoint. Looking back was all we could do. I’m comfortable with that direction. When you reach the age reflected on Jenrry Mejia’s most recent Mets uniform top, hindsight beats 2020.

I spent seven months thinking about My Guys. I’ve continued to think about My Guys. I haven’t been out much, so I haven’t had much opportunity to talk about them out loud. It’s my birthday. Indulge me for another thirty paragraphs, would you?

***
My first guy and the first we presented overall, on April 21, was Rico Brogna, representing 1994. Rico was the AMFAS pilot episode in my mind, one I kind of had in the can. I’ve been telling what I think of as my Rico Brogna story since the 1994-95 strike, and it seemed uncommonly pertinent to the present day. He was the midsummer revelation of a year that suddenly stopped and left me wondering when baseball would be back, specifically because I had one thing to look forward to: the return of Rico Brogna. My first recurring theme was embodied by that first AMFAS season as well. I’m fond of the less-remembered Met years and bringing to light what was considered a relatively big deal in its time. “Less remembered” is not to be confused with forgotten (which I don’t think any Met ever is completely) or shall we say obscure (which is more Jason’s beat than mine).

Donn Clendenon, on May 1, came with an agenda. My agenda, that is. I wished to poke a hole in a phrase that had come to bug me. “Without so-and-so, such-and-such never would have happened.” It bugged me because why do we assume we had to do “without” so-and-so? I realize it’s a term of appreciation and acknowledgement, but after a while, it struck me as an unnecessary tic. In 1969, we were with Donn Clendenon. That’s what mattered. His impact on 1969 mattered. His whole life mattered as well, and it was pretty substantial, but I made a conscious decision to not retell it when others had told it more deeply. I was inevitably more about the Season than I was the Met.

Willie Mays, on May 5, was another agenda item, sort of. I had tired of the reflex social media reaction to pictures of players in uniforms with which they are not universally associated. Willie Mays is the subject of a lot of that ironic “legend” stuff, as in “Mets legend Willie Mays,” it’s funny because he was mostly a Giant and, besides, he was old when he ended his career as a Met in 1973 (though sixteen years younger than I am now, and I’m just a kid). I’ve always been defensive on Willie Mays’s Mets behalf, as if claiming perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever as one of your own requires a brief. Also, May 5 was one day before Willie’s birthday, and I’m not beyond a cheap calendar-driven hook.

Al Leiter, on May 15, represented my first challenge. I had him for 2002, which was a mostly crappy year. Al wasn’t crappy in 2002, but it wasn’t exactly “his” year. So I thought about Al Leiter in 2002, and the first thing I thought of was him starting on Opening Day that year and me being there and being satisfied that he and I were together, which led me to check my notes and confirm Al had started with me at a game more than any Met pitcher had. Satisfaction wasn’t guaranteed, but I rarely left Shea disgusted.

Ah, Melvin Mora, May 19, the 2000 entrant. I say “ah,” because nobody left a comment, which tells me either nobody cared or I did a less than compelling job of making people care. Ah, whaddaya gonna do? Melvin occupies a very specific moment in time for the Mets. He was here for two seasons, yet not at the beginning of his first nor the end of his second. They happened to be two of the most momentous seasons in modern Met times: 1999 and 2000. Melvin played a pivotal role late in the first of his seasons and was sent away before he could do more in he second of them. I fell in love with him in the interim, yet didn’t really mourn his departure. We needed a shortstop, and Melvin, who could do it all, couldn’t really play short. Thus, Melvin Mora for Mike Bordick. Which led to a whole other thing I couldn’t get behind: hating the trade that brought us Mike Bordick because Bordick was here, not monumentally effective, then gone, while Mora thrived in Baltimore. As the series went on, I came to hate hating trades. It’s too easy and ultimately pointless to be pissed off all the time.

R.A. Dickey, on May 29, was my first AMFAS from the FAFIF era (so many acronyms!). Anybody I’d already written about a lot as he was being a Met was going to take some thinking. I didn’t want to fully recycle the Best of Dickey or whatever from 2010 to 2012 (his last season was his essay season). I wanted to provide fresh takes by doing this stuff. I split the difference for R.A., repurposing a few lines here and there to celebrate the way the knuckleballer made the language dance. That was what attracted me to R.A. ten years earlier.

Johan Santana, June 2, was, to me, something of a copout. I didn’t tell you anything I hadn’t already told you about the man whose uniform number my age was repping until midnight last night. I tried to do it a little differently than I had before, peeling layer by layer the onion that was Johan’s finest 2008 hour, his last start and our last win at Shea, but I was doing Johan on June 2 for one reason: because I couldn’t get otherwise interested in writing about the Mets during the George Floyd protests. I had planned to do Pedro Martinez on that day, but little seemed more irrelevant than thousands of words on a retired pitcher who did whatever whenever while America was trying to figure itself out in the present. The calendar reminded me we had just passed the anniversary of Johan’s no-hitter, and, like I said, I’m not beyond a cheap hook. I think what I wrote was fine, but my heart was not in the exercise that day.

Lenny Randle, June 12, was the manifestation of a determination I’d made during the preceding offseason that there was something to like about every Mets season, even the seasons we instantly dismiss or smolderingly detest. Lenny’s big year was 1977. I liked that he joined our ranks and flourished and gave me something to root for. I can’t just spit at seasons and eras. There are too many microclimates. Cloudy with a chance of Randle is sometimes all there is to enjoy. Enjoy it, I figure.

Jason Isringhausen, June 16, sort of picked up on the Randle theme in that for nearly a quarter-of-a-century you can’t mention Isringhausen and his running mates of popular imagination Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson without eliciting groans from Mets fans. I think when I began to write about Izzy and 1995, my headspace overlapped with the dismay that Generation K didn’t pan out. But as I got into the story, I found myself grateful for what Izzy (and Pulse) gave us in ’95. They gave us hope. We didn’t know that they wouldn’t engender a whole lot of it down the line. It was just a great scintilla of time to be a Mets fan, that hour when you’re sure something is about to get better. I doubt I’d convince too many people that it’s OK to be happy for what there was rather than rueful for what there wasn’t, but I was happy basking anew in the glow of young Izzy and all that seemed to be transpiring around him. Writing this essay was a turning point of sorts for me as a fan. My cup measured as half-full.

Mookie Wilson, on June 26, became the second of My Guys to bump Pedro Martinez. The schedule for better-late-than-never 2020 had just been issued. It was gonna be a short season, almost as short as the last time baseball jury-rigged itself in miniature, the second half of 1981. The terrain was ideal to go back to that split season and the biggest swing Mookie ever took…until five years later. Before 2020, I had a real soft spot for the less-remembered Met exploits of the shortened seasons. 1981. 1994. 1995. My cup’s not nearly as half-full for 2020.

Craig Swan, on June 30, got to be 1978’s AMFAS because he won the ERA title when few Mets were winning anything. Because of the ERA title, I’ve carried an image of Swan as one of the best pitchers the Mets have ever had. Was he? Define “best” and “ever” narrowly, and absolutely. He was definitely around a long time and I got a kick out of exploring a Met I hadn’t thought that much about over the preceding 36 years.

Now, on July 10, Pedro Martinez was ready for his closeup. The longer he waited, the longer his essay grew. I’d been wanting to do right by Pedro every fall for the preceding decade, because every fall in presenting the Most Valuable Met winner, I’d list the previous winners — just like the papers would when awards were announced — and I’d be reminded I’d long ago given Pedro one lousy paragraph for his sublime 2005. This is an example of me not getting out much even in non-pandemics because, yeah, I really thought about this. Pedro had kind of a Swan vibe to me; to truly get what he meant at his Met peak, you had to have lived it. I hope what I wrote got that across.

Tommie Agee, on July 14, was essentially written by a seven-year-old, as told to a 57-year-old. I sometimes ghost for others in my day job, so why not ghost for my younger self? The best way for me to present Agee to you was how I processed him in 1970. Plus some later stuff. Call it a collaboration between me at seven and me fifty years later.

Jacob deGrom, on July 24, became the easiest scheduling decision of the series for me. He was pitching on July 24. Ohmigod, somebody was pitching on a day in 2020! In practical terms, the coming of belated Opening Day meant fitting AMFAS around our game stories. I have to admit I felt the Mets of “now” were getting in the way of the Mets of “then,” but I guess it was good to have baseball back. Writing about Jacob deGrom, as I’d been doing since 2014 (his year in our spotlight), wasn’t much of a chore. There wasn’t a whole lot new to say, and I didn’t pretend to try to find a novel truth. It’s always a good day to write about Jacob deGrom. And an even better day to watch him pitch.

Darryl Strawberry, on July 28, is where time came to matter most to me in this series. My season of choice was 1983, and that meant looking at Darryl through the prism of looking forward to his debut, which was a preoccupation for three years as a Mets fan. Had I drawn 1987 or 1990, I would have approached Darryl differently. I liked hanging out with his potential in ’83. I loved knowing we were on the verge of something special with him and his team. I loved that we couldn’t be sure of it then because you can never be sure. I loved not defaulting to something I’ve really come to disdain, the bit where a Mets fan can’t look at the 1986 Mets without grumbling that they should’ve won more. We won in 1986. I would’ve liked more. Who wouldn’t? But that’s postscript. The story was and is Darryl Strawberry was frigging amazing.

What I wrote about Ron Hunt, on August 7, was a year in the making, you might say, though he wasn’t even my original draft choice for 1963 (apologies, Tim Harkness). On August 9, 2019, I had the good fortune to spend a little time in the presence of Ron and his family as he greeted fans at Citi Field. I hadn’t written one word about it here because that was the night Todd Frazier hit his three-run homer off Sean Doolittle, Michael Conforto whacked a walkoff hit, Pete Alonso grabbed Conforto’s shirt, and a rapidly developing playoff chase took precedence. I kept meaning to write about the rest of that night, which was amazing to live through on so many levels, but never got around to it. The Hunt portion, still in my notebook, dovetailed with this assignment, the only one that involved a Met I never saw play as a Met. Instead of it being an academic exercise, I got to take it personally, and I’m delighted I had that opportunity.

I already did meta for Joe Orsulak, AMFAS subject for 1993. As I wrote on August 11, I wasn’t completely certain why I wanted to profile Joe, other than I’d always said he was one of my favorite Mets…except I still wasn’t sure why he so rose in my esteem. And I’m still not, but I do like him and I did like thinking about him again.

Ike Davis, on August 21, was a vestige of another age. When I selected him in the AMFAS draft of 2011, I congratulated myself on the coup. I had our future superstar! I’d have so much to write about! That was based on Ike’s rookie season of 2010 and all the expectations it raised. Fast-forward nine years. Ike Davis’s Met career was long over and faded into the background. I’d written probably twice a year about his ultimate shortcomings while Ike was not living up to expectations about his arc. I didn’t want to write about the same damn thing. I remembered that my late friend Dana Brand, who lived only long enough to see Ike fall down in Denver and essentially never get up, was once kind enough to praise my “unusual techniques and genres to present the experience of the Mets: lists, dialogues, fantasies, glossaries, etc.” Well, I reasoned, if it was good enough for Dana, it was good enough for Davis, thus instead of another expository essay, I imagined some wise guy at the track giving me a can’t-miss tip on this kid running in the ’10th. Paired with my epigram of choice that day — the Guys & Dolls number about having “the horse right here” (a favorite of my mother’s) — it allowed me to fashion an old tale in a new light. Thank you, Dana.

When I got to Jose Reyes on August 25, I had a plan. Each of my next four Tuesdays starting with that one would encompass sort of a mini-countdown: second-favorite position player; second-favorite pitcher; favorite position player; favorite pitcher. Events would disrupt my planning, just as events disrupted Jose’s road to unimpeachable Met immortality. I chose 2007 for Jose because it demonstrated the absolute apogee of his abilities and indicated the beginning of realizing he was far from perfect. Still close enough to the innocent Jose of whom I’d grown so fond that I felt comfortable being mostly effusive about Reyes before having to get real. I still love the guy. That might be dangerous.

Tom Seaver was not slated for September 4, but how was I gonna write about any other Met two days after we learned of Tom’s death? Gil Hodges would regularly bump other pitchers to accommodate Seaver, so I guess it was appropriate that Tug McGraw had to wait another few days. I had decided to write about Tom in 1971, but how exactly? By transporting myself back to 1971. There was no point in telling the whole Seaver story that day because for two days we’d all been doing that. Instead, I got very specific. Tom the idol whose number I had to wear in Pee Wee League. Tom the “author” whose book I had to read as soon as my mother bought it for me. Tom the pitcher whose win total had to reach 20 games by the end of the year. That was the Tom Seaver I lived with in 1971. That was the Tom Seaver I called my favorite player then. I realized that was the Tom Seaver I call my favorite player still.

Tug McGraw came in from the bullpen on September 8. Just as his essay was postponed, “his” year was pushed back, at least from where it should have been. He’d have been better slotted in 1973, except we had Willie Mays there. Willie could have fit well in 1972, except we had Gary Gentry there. Gary would have been ideal for 1969, except we had Donn Clendenon there. Donn might have been just as at home in 1970, except we had Tommie Agee there. Tommie came over in 1968, but we had Cleon Jones there. And nobody was touching Tom Seaver in 1971. Musical chairs were a fact of AMFAS life for the Mets who contributed to our most memorable miracles (apologies to the seatless Met greats of the era). Anyway, I was doing the year Tug was traded, 1974, maybe the last Met season for which my detailed memories are fuzzier than they are clear. I do remember the Mets being a big letdown in general, nobody more so than McGraw, which is why when it came to writing about ’74, I pegged Tug to his trade as much as the career that preceded it. That I remember very well and that was the unusual trade in Met history where both teams involved made out pretty well. It also gave me an excuse to say a few words about John Stearns, the one Met I was genuinely sorry I didn’t find a season for in all this.

Mike Vail was September 1975 for me, so profiling him in September 2020 was a must. I noticed that when I wrote about Vail on September 18, I could feel my AMFAS voice changing, just as I suppose it was doing when I was 12 going on 13. My understanding of the Mets was deepening as I moved into adolescence. I was a little less childlike, just slightly more adult. I don’t know that I’ve progressed all that much even at this late date.

“FONZIE WAS SO GREAT!” and “FONZIE’S TEAMS WERE SO GREAT!” probably would have covered all I had to say on September 22, but I attempted to be a little more articulate than that regarding Edgardo Alfonzo and 1997. Not much more articulate, though. That’s a symptom of how viscerally I cherish Fonzie and that first year when his Mets broke through. Do the Fonzie, indeed.

Pete Alonso on October 2 endured a bit of the Ike Davis syndrome, as doctors call it. When I grabbed Pete in the AMFAS supplemental draft Jason and I conducted in March, I was excited that I was gonna get to write about the most dynamic contemporary Met in captivity. Months later, the Polar Bear had melted a little in the heat. I waited until the 2020 season was over to assess where he stood after two years in the majors. It was more fun doing the part where I revisited the feats of his unprecedented rookie year. This is what you run into trying to take the long view of a career still in progress.

Dwight Gooden was first going to appear in July, adjacent to my mother’s birthday because she liked him so much. But he kept getting pushed back. He was going to appear for sure on September 8 because of that countdown-within-a-countdown plan I described above, but Seaver’s passing changed all that. Getting to Doc on October 6 was fine. He’d completed his singular 1985 in early October. His 1985 was so singular as a whole that, while it’s often cited as the best individual Met season ever, its elements are never really dissected, which is what I set out to do. It’s also impossible to write about Doc without “…and then, he tested positive,” but I swear I don’t see that as the defining episode of Doc’s Met career. I’m Team Half-Full.

Matt Harvey was such a tabloid drama that I thought that was the best way to approach him and his 2016 on October 16. Bringing “Scott Boras” and “Sandy Alderson” into the story — and going as meta as I could get away with — turned a potential frown upside down.

Lee Mazzilli, profiled on October 20, was an outsize figure for someone who was a fairly average ballplayer. Such was the context of rooting for the Mets when Mazzilli was at his best. I’m particularly gratified that Lee had a 1986 coda to his 1980 story. I didn’t write much in this series about the Mets when they were in their larger-than-life phase — Jason covered 1986 through 1992 — but getting to ride along with My Guys of that period in earlier, slighter times (Mookie and Mazz in particular) and feeling them experience the ultimate World Series payoff was vicariously gratifying. I wish the Mets won a lot more than they did as I was fitfully coming of age as what we’ll call an adult, but I gotta tell ya, I wouldn’t trade the journey from the late ’70s to 1986 for anything.

Steve Cohen interrupted what I was deep in the midst of writing on October 30. He also changed my long-term plan for the AMFAS finale. But on the Friday that he was approved by MLB’s owners to buy the Mets, there was no other story I could see me dropping in our readers’ laps. Thus, Steve Cohen became A Met for All Seasons, 2021 edition. My original notion was to give that honor to To Be Determined. It was gonna be a whole thing. I’ll gladly swap the conceptual for the reality.

John Olerud, bumped to November 3 by Cohen, was given room to run. As if Oly (cycle notwithstanding) could run. Then again, we did run to glory with John batting third almost every day in 1999. This was my last chance to really dwell in what may be my favorite era of Mets baseball — though sometimes I think whichever one I’m writing about is my favorite — and I wanted to make it count. Who better to drive us in than Olerud? (Side note: this published on Election Day, and I was determined to get Oly’s essay up before other, more pressing issues distracted even the hardest-core among us from Mets of the past.)

Ed Kranepool had to end the series. Never mind To Be Determined, my initially penciled-in entrant for November 13. Ed was and is the personification of A Met for All Seasons. Though any notion that I had a maximum word count for any given column disappeared back in spring, I really let my Krane flag fly as I traveled to his and the series’s final year of 1979. Midway through I decided I wanted to explicitly mention each year Ed played. When I got to the end, I realized I forgot to specify 1963, so I went back and put it in. I had so much fun doing this one. I had fun doing all of them, really. And I had fun sharing them with you.

Thirty-first paragraph alert: Thank you for your indulgence today, thank you reading year-round. See you in 2021.