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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Mets Opponents Missing Some Stars

BALTIMORE (FAF) — The squad of World Series opponents who Earl Weaver will bring to New York to face the World Series Mets in the Fall Fantasy Classic won’t be lacking for star power, but the absence of a couple of big names will be conspicuous.

“Do we or do we not have seven Hall of Famers on our roster?” an irascible Weaver asked reporters. “I don’t think talent is a problem here. This may be as good a bunch as I’ve managed since 1969. We won 109 games that year, ya know.”

True enough, Weaver’s Junior Circuiteeers, a team consisting of five members apiece from the clubs that faced the Mets in the 1969, 1973, 1986, 2000 and 2015 World Series, drips with accolades, including five men who captured six Most Valuable Player awards and a trio of Cy Young winners. But the New York tabloids will no doubt make back page fodder from a couple of non-selections.

Weaver could not choose Roger Clemens of the 2000 Yankees, thanks to a ruling from Classic Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert. The Mets petitioned the commissioner’s office for the suspension of Clemens from his “irresponsible behavior” stemming from the infamous bat-throwing incident of 2000 in which the pitcher flung the barrel of Mike Piazza’s bat at Piazza after Piazza fouled off one of Clemens’s pitches. Though no action was taken against Clemens at the time, the Mets asked Eckert to invoke the “best interests of baseball” clause to keep the righthander from participating “in such an important showcase”. Eckert reportedly decided in favor of the Mets after plucking a scrap of paper reading “SUSPEND” from a hat in his office.

Opponent general manager Brian Cashman did not file any sort of grievance in return.

The action marked Eckert’s second suspension in advance of the Classic. Previously, he decided, “sans hat,” to ban longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner from entering any of the ballparks in which the games will be played. A source close to the commissioner said, “that one was just a matter of good taste.” Cashman declined to comment.

Clemens theoretically could have been added to the roster as a member of the 1986 Red Sox, but Weaver resisted the urge to add him to a staff that will include his Boston rotationmate Bruce Hurst and three 2000 Yankees: starter Andy Pettitte and relievers Mariano Rivera and Mike Stanton. While Pettitte is practically synonymous with postseason pitching and Rivera is considered the gold standard for relief, Stanton struck observers as a surprise choice, but as Weaver pointed out, the lefty retired all 13 Mets he faced in the 2000 Series, “and the Mets have some tough lefty bats.”

The other 2000 Yankees on the Mets opponents’ roster are first baseman Tino Martinez and center fielder Bernie Williams, meaning — because of the ironclad limit of five players from each team rule — shortstop Derek Jeter will not play in the Fall Fantasy Classic. “We’ll be fine,” was all Weaver would say in response to questions about how he could leave off the 2000 World Series MVP and such an all-around stalwart of the game. Jeter issued no reaction, but is reportedly “too involved firing people in Miami” to turn his attention back toward the field.

“I admire the way Jeter is running the Marlins,” principal opponent owner Charlie Finley told reporters. “Besides, if Williams is around, we don’t have to hire an extra national anthem singer.”

With Jeter inactive, shortstop will be manned for the American Leaguers by Bert Campaneris, who was a thorn in the side of the Mets during the 1973 World Series. Other Oakland A’s on the roster will be that October’s MVP Reggie Jackson, starting pitcher Catfish Hunter and relievers Rollie Fingers and Darold Knowles. Jackson, Hunter and Fingers are all in the Hall of Fame, each having played a pivotal role in downing the Mets in seven games in ’73. Knowles pitched in all seven contests, impressing Weaver with his durability.

From his own 1969 Orioles, the manager chose two Hall of Fame position players, Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, and his co-Cy Young winner Mike Cuellar, plus a pair of wild cards: left fielder Don Buford and catcher Clay Dalrymple. “I’m not being coy,” Weaver said. “You guys know why those guys are there.” Indeed, Buford left his mark on the 1969 World Series early, belting a leadoff home run off Tom Seaver in Game One, while Dalrymple owns a .500 career average versus the Mets ace, including a pinch-hit single in the tenth inning of Game Four.

“I’m sorry I can’t have more of my guys,” Weaver admitted after a drag on a cigarette. “I had to leave Boog off. I had to leave McNally off. I’ll miss Blair’s and Belanger’s gloves. Palmer’s good, too, but he drove me crazy. Let him go shoot an other underpants commercial.” Weaver added he thought about finding a spot for his second baseman Davey Johnson, but knowing Johnson would be coaching first base for the Mets “made the whole thing too weird.”

Two Kansas City Royals will round out Weaver’s pitching staff: starter Jonny Cueto and swingman Chris Young. Each was highly effective versus the Mets in 2015. Their teammates set to join them on the Fall Fantasy Classic opponents roster are versatile Ben Zobrist, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and World Series MVP catcher Salvador Perez. The selection of Dalrymple and decision to bypass the defensively challenged Jorge Posada likely means Perez will be catching every inning of the Classic, a prospect that doesn’t worry Weaver, who relied on a platoon of Elrod Hendricks and Andy Etchebarren when the ’69 Orioles fell to the Mets.

The rest of the A.L. team will consist of the four 1986 Red Sox besides Hurst: outfielder Jim Rice, his fellow Hall of Famer third baseman Wade Boggs, second baseman Marty Barrett and first baseman Bill Buckner. Bucker’s selection raised a few eyebrows in light of his tenth-inning error that tilted Game Six and perhaps ultimate momentum to the Mets in ’86.

“Ah, I don’t worry about that [stuff],” Weaver said, brushing off Buckner’s moment in the harshest of spotlights. “This is a guy with nearly 3,000 hits and a batting title. What am I gonna do — not take Bill Buckner?”

AMERICAN LEAGUE FALL FANTASY CLASSIC ROSTER

PITCHERS
Cuellar, Mike (LHP) – 1969 BAL
Cueto, Johnny (RHP) – 2015 KCR
Fingers, Rollie (RHP) – 1973 OAK
Hunter, Catfish (RHP) – 1973 OAK
Hurst, Bruce (LHP) – 1986 BOS
Knowles, Darold (LHP) – 1973 OAK
Pettitte, Andy (LHP) – 2000 NYY
Rivera, Mariano (RHP) – 2000 NYY
Stanton, Mike (LHP) – 2000 NYY
Young, Chris (RHP) – 2015 KCR

CATCHERS
Dalrymple, Clay (L) – 1969 BAL
Perez, Salvador (R) – 2015 KCR

INFIELDERS
Barrett, Marty (R) – 1986 BOS
Boggs, Wade (L) – 1986 BOS
Buckner, Bill (L) – 1986 BOS
Campaneris, Bert (R) – 1973 OAK
Martinez, Tino (L) – 2000 NYY
Robinson, Brooks (R) – 1969 BAL
Zobrist, Ben (S) – 2015 KCR

OUTFIELDERS
Buford, Don (S) – 1969 BAL
Cain, Lorenzo (R) – 2015 KCR
Jackson, Reggie (L) – 1973 OAK
Rice, Jim (R) – 1986 BOS
Robinson, Frank (R) – 1969 BAL
Williams, Bernie (S) – 2000 NYY

MANAGER: Earl Weaver
COACHES: John McNamara (Pitching), Joe Torre (Third Base), Dick Williams (First Base), Ned Yost (Bullpen)

NOTE: Fall Fantasy Classic roster must consist of five players apiece from each New York Mets World Series opponent roster. If a player is injured during the Classic, he may be replaced, but only by a member of his year’s World Series roster.

Mets Set All-Time World Series Roster

FLUSHING, N.Y. (FAF) — A near-batting champion, a defending Cy Young winner and the franchise leaders in saves will all be on the sidelines as the so-called greatest New York Mets World Series team ever prepares to take on its American League opponent in the upcoming Fall Fantasy Classic.

While there is much talent assembled on the 25-man roster, it is hard to miss the omissions that remain in the wake of manager Gil Hodges’s excruciating decisionmaking.

“There were more tough calls than you could imagine, and most of this exercise is about imagination,” Hodges said after issuing the roster he will use against an amalgamation of previous Mets World Series rivals. “I had a lot of good players to choose from and only so much latitude.”

Hodges referred to the defining rule of the Fall Fantasy Classic, which states the Mets must play with five players apiece from each of their World Series rosters, those used in 1969, 1973, 1986, 2000 and 2015. In all, 113 different players were named to Mets World Series rosters, with 106 playing in at least one World Series as Mets, eight playing in two and seven never seeing action despite being eligible.

“That’s a large pool and it presents a great deal of possibility,” said chairman of the board of general managers Sandy Alderson, who consulted with Hodges and fellow pennant-winning GMs Johnny Murphy, Bob Scheffing, Frank Cashen and Steve Phillips in shaping the final Fall Fantasy Classic roster. “With the ‘five from each year’ caveat, you won’t be able to make everybody happy, nor should you. You want players who want to play. On the other hand, the requirement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because at the end of the day, this is an entertainment business, and you want to keep fans from each era entertained.”

Certainly the controversy touched off by the construction of this roster — which also had input from the other Mets World Series managers, each of whom will coach for Hodges in the upcoming set of games — will provide conversational fodder in the run-up to the first game of the Fall Fantasy Classic.

“There were many tasty ingredients, but only a few could be added to the stew,” mused Bobby Valentine, the 2000 Mets manager who will take time out from running his Connecticut sports bar and restaurant to serve as Hodges’s third base coach in the Classic. “We all had a say, but the big picture was in Gilly’s hands. You don’t get in the way of the big man.” Alderson confirmed Hodges had final say, acknowledging that their shared background as United States Marines conferred a certain “zone of comfort” on the selection process.

“I don’t think there are too many players who wouldn’t follow Gil into metaphorical or actual battle,” Alderson said.

The Mets who played for Hodges in 1969 were most understanding of their old manager’s ways. Cleon Jones, whose .340 average placed him third in the National League batting race that year, admitted disappointment that he wouldn’t be joining the Fall Fantasy Classic team, but said, “I get it. Gil has his reasoning and I’m better off for it,” before chuckling, “tell him he can use my shoe polish if he likes.”

Jones could have been chosen as a 1969 or 1973 Met, though not both. Luckier in that regard were 1969 selection Jerry Koosman and 1973 representatives Bud Harrelson, Tug McGraw and Tom Seaver, each of whom played for Hodges in ’69 and Yogi Berra four years later.

“Those two had different personalities, that’s for sure,” said Koosman, who figures to join with Seaver, Al Leiter and Noah Syndergaard to form a Fall Fantasy Classic rotation, the order of which Hodges has yet to announce. “But once the game starts, the manager is in the dugout and you’re on the mound.” Berra, one of the great catchers in baseball history, will work as Hodges’s pitching coach in the upcoming series, a new role, but one Berra’s fellow New Jerseyan Leiter is sure the Hall of Famer is suited for.

“Yogi told me throw strikes,” Leiter said. “You can’t argue with that.”

The most notable starter who will not be partaking of Berra’s advice is Dwight Gooden, left off the roster in what Hodges says was a numbers crunch and not a repudiation of a 1986 World Series performance that fell short of his 1985 leaguewide dominance. “I’d love to take everybody,” Hodges explained, “but it’s a seven-game series, and something had to give.” Other starting pitchers who did not make the Fall Fantasy Classic roster cut include Gary Gentry, Jon Matlack, Ron Darling, Mike Hampton, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey. Hodges did opt to add two hurlers who primarily started in their respective World Series years, 1986’s Bobby Ojeda and 2000’s Rick Reed, to his bullpen. “I think both men bring poise and can give us innings if we need them,” Hodges said, noting each had experience throwing in relief. “We need to be flexible.”

The Mets rounded out their Fall Fantasy Classic pitching staff with two arms from 1973 — lefties Tug McGraw and George Stone — plus Nolan Ryan and Turk Wendell. Ryan went on to a Cooperstown career after leaving the Mets, but the Mets stress he is on the roster as his 22-year-old fireballing self. “Nolie can smoke ’em, that’s for sure,” Berra noted.

Missing from the staff are single-season saves leader Jeurys Familia and John Franco, the Mets’ all-time career saves record holder and a Brooklyn native who grew up rooting for the ’69 and ’73 squads. “Ah, whaddaya gonna do?” was Franco’s reaction. “At least I should get good tickets.”

Not every Met who didn’t make the Fall Fantasy Classic roster accepted rejection so matter-of-factly. Nowhere within the Mets championship universe were omissions processed as slights more forcefully than among the 1986 world champions. Because of the five-per-year rule, only five ’86ers could be tabbed. To no one’s surprise, Hodges selected the heart of the 1986 batting order: right fielder Darryl Strawberry, first baseman Keith Hernandez and catcher Gary Carter; it’s unclear how Hodges will divide catching duties between Carter and his fellow Hall of Fame inductee Mike Piazza.

The only other 1986 Met besides the All-Star trio and Ojeda to make the club was Wally Backman, who is projected to see action off the bench. That meant a slew of well-regarded Mets who were vital in earning the franchise its second championship trophy will not be available.

“You know, I did win the Most Valuable Player award in the last World Series the Mets won,” an obviously miffed Ray Knight said when informed he wouldn’t be part of the roster. “I’m not saying there weren’t lots of great options and lots of tough decisions. I love Gil like a second or third father. I love the guys who did make it, but I can’t help the team if I’m not a part of it. I hit a home run in the seventh game of the World Series. I scored the winning run in Game Six, which everybody remembers as one of the greatest games ever played. I’d think there’d be room for someone with those capabilities, but I gotta respect the rules and pull as hard as I can for the guys, even the ones I didn’t play with, the ones who are darn good but didn’t win 108 games.”

Similarly disappointed was 1986 Mets center fielder Lenny Dykstra. “Dude, seriously?” Dykstra asked, before unleashing a string of profanities that concluded with another “dude.”

Harrelson and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo will serve as Hodges’s double play combination, with David Wright, from 2015, manning third base across from Hernandez. Wright’s contemporary, Yoenis Cespedes, will likely start in left, projected to flank 1969 center fielder Tommie Agee. Agee’s selection precluded the inclusion of 1986 hero Mookie Wilson. “That was maybe the hardest one,” Hodges said. “I appreciate Mr. Wilson’s abilities, but Tommie gives us speed and power, and we know his defense.” Wilson, like teammates Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco and Sid Fernandez, declined to comment.

Rounding out the roster are two players Hodges managed to great effect in the 1969 World Series, slugging first baseman Donn Clendenon and utility infielder Al Weis; Berra’s leading hitter from the 1973 Series, Rusty Staub; and two of Terry Collins’ 2015 National League champions, Curtis Granderson and Juan Uribe. Hodges admitted he wasn’t necessarily as familiar with Uribe’s work as he is with his higher-profile players, but he was impressed by his earlier World Series track record, in which he helped the White Sox and Giants to titles, and liked his 1.000 batting average from the ’15 Series. “He went 1-for-1,” Berra added. “You can’t do better than perfect.”

Hodges’s coaching staff will be rounded out by 1986 Mets manager Davey Johnson at first base and Collins, who will handle bullpen duties.

The full squad will work out at Shea Stadium, site of Game One and potential Game Seven, before the beginning of the Fall Fantasy Classic. Games Two and Six (if necessary) will take place at adjacent Citi Field. The three middle games, in which the designated hitter will be used, thus giving Hodges the opportunity to start both Carter and Piazza, are scheduled for the three American League parks: Fenway in Boston (Game Three), Memorial Stadium in Baltimore (Game Four) and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (Game Five). Neither Kansas City’s Kaufman Stadium nor renovated Yankee Stadium were considered as venues.

“These gentlemen are all champions in my eyes,” said Hodges. “Now it’s time for the rest of the world to see it.”

NEW YORK METS FALL FANTASY CLASSIC ROSTER

PITCHERS
Koosman, Jerry (LHP) – 1969
Leiter, Al (LHP) – 2000
McGraw, Tug (LHP) – 1973
Ojeda, Bobby (LHP) – 1986
Reed, Rick (RHP) – 2000
Ryan, Nolan (RHP) – 1969
Seaver, Tom (RHP) –1973
Stone, George (LHP) – 1973
Syndergaard, Noah (RHP) – 2015
Wendell, Turk (RHP) – 2000

CATCHERS
Carter, Gary (R) – 1986
Piazza, Mike (R) – 2000

INFIELDERS
Alfonzo, Edgardo (R) – 2000
Backman, Wally (S) – 1986
Clendenon, Donn (R) – 1969
Harrelson, Bud (R) – 1973
Hernandez, Keith (L) – 1986
Uribe, Juan (R) – 2015
Weis, Al (S) – 1969
Wright, David (R) – 2015

OUTFIELDERS
Agee, Tommie (R) – 1969
Cespedes, Yoenis (R) – 2015
Granderson, Curtis (L) – 2015
Staub, Rusty (L) – 1973
Strawberry, Darryl (L) – 1986

MANAGER: Gil Hodges
COACHES: Yogi Berra (Pitching), Terry Collins (Bullpen), Davey Johnson (First Base), Bobby Valentine (Third Base)

NOTE: Fall Fantasy Classic roster must consist of five players apiece from each New York Mets World Series roster. If a player is injured during the Classic, he may be replaced, but only by a member of his year’s World Series roster.

All the Way with Callaway

Well, I’m stoked for Mickey Callaway. I was prepared to be stoked to varying degrees for Joe McEwing, Manny Acta, Alex Cora or Kevin Long had any of them been named the next manager of the New York Mets, but I’m probably a little extra excited about Callaway getting the job. Judging from his introductory press conference, Callaway’s a lot extra excited about getting the job. His enthusiasm is infectious, and not in the way you worried what would happen had Ray Ramirez treated the infection.

There was no reason not to welcome any of those whose names were bandied about as serious candidates. None of them had proven they couldn’t be trusted managing the Mets and, besides, there are few marquee managerial brands anymore, no broad contemporary menu of Billys, Whiteys and Weavers to lust after. Theoretically, anybody given the chance could have made the most of it. Callaway’s hiring, however, has proven a negative the least — that is, we really have no reason not to trust him. Not only hasn’t he managed, few of us were familiar with him. He hadn’t played for the Mets or coached for the Mets. We had no storehouse of vague impressions to fall back on, no easy references to that time in 2000 or 2005 or 2010 or 2015 when he did or didn’t do this or that. In context, Callaway’s tabula was as rasa as it got.

Except for word on the street, which was as positive as could be imagined. Everybody loves Mickey Callaway. They love him in Cleveland. They love him wherever baseball people gather to offer endorsements. When they don’t like you in this game, they whisper unattributed. When they think you’re awesome, they put their name to it. The industry signed off en masse on Callaway.

The Mets interviewed him and became convinced everybody wasn’t pulling a fast one on them, signing the former Indians pitching coach and prospective managerial prodigy to helm our team through the rest of this decade and into the next. As such, he looms as an outsize figure in our daily lives as fans. We may never meet him, but he’ll be with us if we’re with the Mets. We’ll see and hear him on pre- and postgame shows. Our eyes will follow him from the dugout to the mound and back. His strategy will indirectly dictate our mood. Before we know it, we’ll be all “Mickey this” and “Mickey that,” just as we threw around “Terry” and, before him, “Jerry”. Managers manage, we react. Mickey may not be experienced, but we know how this works.

We also know that many managers will never look better than on the day their hiring is announced. I tracked down some quotes from some other days in Mets history like Monday, fall days when satisfied general managers heartily endorsed their brand new field managers.

• Joe Frazier “has shown us over the years he can handle men,” according to Joe McDonald in 1975. “He has shown us he can win.”

• George Bamberger “has a deep, abiding knowledge about baseball,” per Frank Cashen in 1981 “and he can communicate it simply and directly. He has an easy but firm manner. He knows what he’s doing.”

• Among myriad qualities considered critical to managing the Mets, Jeff Torborg “knew how to win,” Al Harazin testified in 1991.

• “I truly believe he is exactly the type of person and personality to lead this organization right now” was Steve Phillps’s 2002 assessment of Art Howe. (Add Fred Wilpon’s incandescent “lit up a room” reference to taste.)

A little foreboding there, but to be fair, you wouldn’t expect “eh, we’ll see” to be the company line between grips and grins…though that was pretty much Sandy Alderson’s take seven years ago when he handed the managerial reins to Terry Collins. Different guy, different times (which applies to every manager and every season). For what it’s worth, Alderson didn’t seem merely resigned to Mickey Callaway. He seemed stoked — or as stoked as Sandy gets in public. He pointed to Mickey’s “professional competence” and “personal excellence,” praising Callaway as a “hard worker,” “collaborative,” “patient but decisive,” and “structural but adaptable”. I’m not sure if this fella is a baseball manager or one of those smart fridges that knows when it’s supposed to order more milk.

By all accounts, Mickey knows how to stock a pitching staff and how to keep it running at the proper temperature. A former pitcher and pitching coach as manager? Revolutionary! Granted, Bamberger was a former pitcher and pitching coach who managed (he was better at the latter in Milwaukee than he was in New York), but it’s still something of a novelty. Keith Hernandez has reinforced the ancient notion night after night that pitchers aren’t really baseball players and barely qualify as human beings. Callaway appears poised to upend that notion. Apparently his personal touch will extend past the rotation and the bullpen. He’s ready to embrace an entire roster of Mets.

In Tennessee tones reminiscent of R.A. Dickey and Tim McCarver, Memphis-born Mickey stressed “care” and “love” regarding how he will relate to his charges. Never mind home runs; HR might now stand for human resources in the Mets clubhouse. The 21st manager the franchise has known may be its first truly 21st-century manager in terms of approach. Analytics are a given. Communications are a priority. Age differences have been collapsed. Mickey is 42. He may be way older than Amed Rosario, but he’s way younger than Terry Collins, plus way determined that the Mets will outstrive their competitors. Nobody won’t believe he doesn’t know from what he speaks when it comes to a winning background. During five years as Indians pitching coach, he helped Terry Francona guide the Tribe into the playoffs three times. They almost won the World Series in 2016. They almost knocked off the Yankees in 2017. Perhaps Callaway has been saving successful completion of those vital tasks for us.

Oh, he already loves us. Mets fans, he told the assembled media at Citi Field, are “the best fans in the world”. The Mets are “one of the greatest baseball organizations in the world”. He’s anointed New York “the greatest city in the world” (deal with it, Cleveland). And while he’s chosen to wear Jerry Koosman’s 36, he paid homage to No. 37, Casey Stengel, for good and personal reason. His brother was named for his earliest predecessor, our first skipper. It’s as if the Callaways were planning for this moment all along. Mickey himself was named after Casey’s center fielder from his previous posting, but we won’t hold that parental impulse against him. We had Willie and the Duke toward the end of their playing careers. We have Mickey beginning something altogether new. May it be Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ for him and for us.

103 and Holding

Add ’em all up, from October 1, 1921, a 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia A’s in the first game of a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds, to October 11, 2017, the fifth game of the American League Division Series won, 5-2, over the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field, and you conclude the New York Yankees have clinched something worth clinching on 103 separate occasions. The first time it happened, Damon Runyan characterized manager Miller Huggins’s demeanor as “in happiness or sorrow […] something of a picture of dejection.” Nice to know Joe Girardi does his darnedest to keep stoicism in style.

In ye really olden days, whether at the hand of Huggins or at the behest of Berra, pennants were secured within the parameters of regular seasons. The Yankees commenced their collection as tenants of the Giants in Manhattan 96 years ago and repeated the process the next year, and then another 27 times as the Bronx Bombers through 1964. Divisional play, when the leagues were split in two, meant capturing precursors. The Yankees won four American League East flags (but didn’t dare fly such paltry prizes) between 1976 and 1980 and added a fifth through 1981’s emergency contrivance ALDS. Those five division wins spawned four pennants that further brightened their spacious bank vault.

The segmenting of leagues into three divisions and the addition of extra playoff spots and series added more opportunities for more clinchings and more celebrations. The champagne flowed amongst Yankees almost every October for two decades from 1995 forward, sometimes just once, sometimes a whole lot. There were commemorative caps and t-shirts distributed — available immediately after the last out at your nearby Modell’s! — for winning six Wild Cards, thirteen division titles, eleven League Division Series, seven League Championship Series and even a Wild Card Game when that became a prerequisite for advancement.

Oh, plus the rings. Always the rings. Not always, but often enough, you might have heard. There were 27 sets of those awarded between 1923 and 2009. Actually, the first time the Yankees won the World Series, their players were given pocketwatches. Same difference, though, even if it’s all about the pocketwatches, baby! doesn’t quite have the same shall we say tenor.

Whatever the nature of the bling, the beast was generously adorned. The hearty handshakes, the ebullient embraces, the hooting, the hollering, the sense of success that begot more success…the Yankees did that 103 times across a span of 97 seasons encompassing 53 postseasons.

But they didn’t get to do it Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, and for that we are thankful.

Hail to Houston, champions of the American League in the fifth season of their elaborate student exchange program. Undercover Astros, answer to our prayers. It’s not easy to win an ALCS or an NLCS. As the Washington Nationals could attest, it’s not easy to qualify for an LCS no matter where you put it. The Astros have qualified across league lines. And they’ve never played a dull LCS, regardless of which L they’re vying to represent in the World Series. We know they’re National Leaguers at heart. We’ve seen the birth certificate. We definitely appreciate all they’ve accomplished in their current assignment. (How appropriate that the 2005 N.L. champs were handed their 2017 A.L. trophy by Frank Robinson, still the only player to snag MVP honors in each league.) Glued to the bottom of their class as they migrated from the N.L. Central to the A.L. West, it seemed preposterous three years ago when a widely disseminated magazine strongly suggested we check back around now and see how close they’d be to a world championship.

They’re very close, which is great for them. They’ve arrived very close by knocking off the Yankees, which is great for us. Thank you Hinchmen and congrastrolations.

Sportsmanship alert: congratulations to the Yankees as well. Helluva year absolutely, helluva future probably. Feel free to wretch, but they seem worthy of a tip of the hat even as we revel in the aftermath of irritatingly delayed Elimination Day. We didn’t want the Yankees anywhere near the World Series. Their proximity was too tight for comfort, to be sure. I woke up this Sunday morning in a state akin to that felt by Kevin Costner as Kenny O’Donnell at the end of Thirteen Days, knowing an event of untold horrors had been narrowly averted. In O’Donnell’s case it was resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As Mets fans, we assumed another Yankee World Series appearance was a done deal. They won a Wild Card, they came from behind to win their Wild Card Game (albeit at the expense of their patsies the Twinkies) and they overcame an oh-two deficit to take their ALDS from Jay Bruce and the Indians. Those goggles they donned in the clubhouse when the bubbly started to spray were surely going to get another workout. Once the Yankees revved up the comeback machine in the ALCS — down oh-two; up three-two — our impulse was to forget we can’t stand the Hollywood Dodgers and take L.A. to block.

Desperate times call for Dodger measures, but they won’t be necessary. This postseason has been officially elevated to enjoyable (no Yankees) if not ecstatic (no Mets). That’s Houston’s doing. Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers channeled the best of Don Wilson, Larry Dierker and J.R. Richard, while the Astro offense found its pulse. Perhaps all that switching between leagues stirred havoc with their bearings. More likely, you couldn’t keep Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and the rest of the analytically aligned All-Stars down for long. If anybody could quash the Sports Illustrated cover boys of 2014, we knew, by gut, it would be the Yankees. We hadn’t seen that movie where the Bombers destroy all comers, model sparkly new rings and strut up Broadway in eight years, but we never forgot how it works. We assume it’s always on the verge of a harrowing reboot.

So do the Yankees, I suppose. Maybe theirs is way to approach your business. I noticed for all the talk about how the 2017 Yankees were an uncommonly “fun” edition (as if winning something that merits a celebration a hundred times prior wasn’t fun), the coalescing conventional wisdom coming out of their ALCS loss was this was valuable experience for these Yankees, that the disappointment will be fleeting and the learning will be what counts as they go on to their implicit quota of bigger and better achievements. All these wonderful young players of theirs have now been to the Norman Greenbaum Preparatory School, steeling themselves for the Octobers ahead when falling several games shy of a world championship will be considered unacceptable (prepare yourself, you know it’s a must). This, it has been agreed, wasn’t just 2017 for the Yankees. It was another 1995, the implication being another 1996 and so forth necessarily wait directly around the corner. Book the Canyon of Heroes ASAP.

Call it pinstriped privilege, if you like. For teams like ours, we’re generally thrilled to win anything. We’ve had twenty distinct celebrations in our history, including a couple that have followed absolutely hopeless eras. Our first champagne pour, on September 24, 1969, came on the heels of an 89-loss season that was deemed a vast step up from all the seasons that preceded it. Our 2015 division title was a heaven-sent revelation after the plethora of campaigns in which the Mets couldn’t crack 80 wins. When not treating a seven-game ALCS defeat as a trial run for the next dynasty, those who speak for the contemporary Yankees, lacking sports fandom’s otherwise prevalent Long Suffering gene, will tell you what a fantastic and utter surprise getting as far as they did was, taking into account where they’d been and all the rebuilding they had to do.

In the four seasons directly prior to 2017, the Yankees posted only winning records; continually floated on the fringe of Wild Card contention; hosted a playoff game once; and gathered a bounty of young talent. If we — and a majority of major league franchises — did that for four years, we’d label it an accomplishment. For them, it was a fallow period. We should all have such a baseline of misery.

While the Yankee Celebration Count stalls blissfully at 103, another calendar of local interest pushes forward. October 21, 2017, marked 2,085 days since the last New York major professional sports championship was attained. On February 5, 2012, the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Nobody around here has done anything similar since. No Stanley Cups. No NBA titles. One World Series played in — by us — but none fully wrangled. And no Super Bowls. (Caveat: I’m not including soccer in this calculus and likely never will.)

We are closing in on historic as this metric goes. Should neither the Giants nor Jets hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy on February 4, 2018, the count rises to 2,190 days. The modern record between New York major professional sports championships sits at 2,280 days. The Yankees of perpetual dynasty won their last World Series on October 16, 1962. Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis, shortly after which vast cultural upheaval unfolded, transforming the nation as we knew it, leaving New York’s athletic entitlement behind. It took the balance of the Sixties to get the sporting interests of the city and its immediate environs back on the board. The Jets brought us to the top of heap on January 12, 1969. The Mets kept us there on October 16, 1969. The Knicks maintained the new New York status quo on May 8, 1970. Champagne flowed anew. Four Meadowlands Super Bowls. Eight Metropolitan Area visits from Lord Stanley. The ABA Nets twice. Everybody anybody roots for in these parts would get a taste between January 12, 1969, and February 5, 2012.

Now nobody in New York wins it all. Nobody’s edged nearer to absolute victory lately since the 2015 Mets, who fell three games shy. No NHL finals the past three springs. No NBA playoffs the past two. The Giants have reached the vital portion of January once. The Jets have abstained, courteously. Based on current trends, neither football team is poised to snap the streak this February. By the time we discover if we are surprised on the ice or hardwood this June, the wait will have surpassed 2,280 days, leaving the Big Apple and adjacent North Jersey dry for as long as multiple big-time professional sports has existed.

I really wanted the Mets to be the ones to end the drought. I still do. I’m glad that possibility — conceivably under the guidance of Mickey Callaway — remains viable. The Yankees may have gained valuable experience in the ways of winning, but it guarantees them nothing. We gained valuable experience pulling up short in 2015 and 2006 and it guaranteed us nothing.

It was fun anyway. All the years when we celebrated the steps toward a world championship yet wound up without a world championship generated a ton of fun. The journey can be spectacular despite the destination emerging as elusive. When your baseline for misery isn’t 84-78 but 59-103, you learn to savor every drop of champagne, every trip to Modell’s. Maybe not expecting much and being grateful you received anything isn’t the way to approach your business, but unless you’re swimming in a swarm of rings and pocketwatches 27 trinkets deep, it’s probably better for your daily well-being.

We’ll be back with some thoughts on the new manager of the Mets as soon as we gin a few up.

The Dodgers Win the Pennant

As you know, I’ve been a big Dodgers fan ever since it occurred to me the Astros might not win the ALCS, so congratulations to my favorite team of the past 48 to 72 hours on winning their/“our” first pennant in 29 years. It’s been a helluva ride, huh? Congratulations foul-tipper extraordinaire Curtis Granderson. Congratulations third base coach and onetime Rando Commando Chris Woodward. Congratulations Justin Turner, whose transformation from Met castoff to co-MVP is up there with Gordy the Weatherman returning to the WJM newsroom as one of the biggest names in TV journalism. That last example is from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but Turner’s ascent has been no plot device.

Temporary alliances are all the rage in October, though there was legitimately a span when I harbored positive feelings toward the Los Angeles franchise. That was a very long time ago, so long ago that I liked them because they hadn’t won anything in a while. I guess not having won anything in a while — a league championship, anyway — describes the state of my present Blue crush prior to Thursday night, but this was in the early 1970s, when my frame of reference reached back no further than the very late 1960s. The Dodgers had last won a pennant in 1966, three years before I became a lifelong baseball fan. Their most recent success occurred while I was alive but before I was alert.

When I first encountered the Dodgers, they were a pretty good team that didn’t win their division. They seemed to be up there in the standings, but not all the way up there. My instinct was to pull for new teams to replace old teams. The Dodgers were new within that framework. The Reds, three-time N.L. West champs by the time I turned eleven, thus represented the old order. The season I was eleven, 1974, the Dodgers supplanted the Reds. They struck me as both startlingly fresh and comfortingly traditional. Steve Garvey became Steve Garvey as in Steve Garvey Superstar that year. Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey…all young, all bursting onto the scene alongside first baseman Garvey at second, short and third. Walt Alston was still managing. He’d been managing since 1954, in Brooklyn. Vin Scully was still announcing. He’d been announcing since 1950, in Brooklyn. Garvey’s dad had driven the team bus in Spring Training from when the team was, yup, in Brooklyn. Steve said his hero was Gil Hodges. I knew who Gil Hodges was and where he’d played.

The Brooklyn-L.A. connection didn’t fully click for me (grainy black & white seemed a world removed from living color), but I gathered the Dodgers had been a big deal during the ages that preceded mine. Every syndicated ’60s sitcom set in Southern California seemed to drop in a Dodger reference if not a Dodger guest star. Don Sutton had pitched on the same staff with Koufax and Drysdale (the latter of whom tutored young Greg Brady) and was still pitching for them. Veteran Tommy John was pitching for them, too, though by October he was out with an arm injury that required some sort of surgery. Based on my baseball cards, Jimmy Wynn had been an Astro, Andy Messersmith an Angel and Mike Marshall an Expo, but now they were all sticking it to the Reds, the lot of whom I’d had it in for dating to the previous October and their whiny NLCS appearance at Shea. Marshall was particularly amazing: 106 appearances in relief, his right arm still attached to his right shoulder.

I dug those Dodgers, celebrated their historically overdue 1974 flag and maintained a vague vein of non-Met support for them for a few more years. The West got confusing when Tom Seaver moved to Cincinnati in ’77 and I had to kind of like the Reds because of No. 41. The next wave of new challengers — San Francisco in 1978, Houston in 1979 and ’80 — came to the fore, making the old Dodgers and their ever more ancient infield seem desperately in need of toppling. Worst crime of all, L.A. made a habit of slipping on banana peels in World Series. I could forgive 1974 versus the A’s (speedy outfielder Bill Buckner made a critical baserunning mistake), but they lost to the Yankees in 1977 and again in 1978. The latter really bugged me. Up two games to none, they dropped the next four. Lopes and Russell moaned about the New York fans. I didn’t like the New York fans who attended Yankees games, yet even I was perversely glad those two California kvetchers didn’t win. Once the Fernando-fueled Dodgers returned the favor in 1981, losing the first two before taking the next four from the finally struggling Yankees, I cheered them home, thanked them for their service, and drifted off to other extracurricular clients. Save for a few marriage-of-convenience intervals, I don’t think I’ve rooted at all for the Dodgers in the past 35 years.

But I will gladly do so should they not face Houston in the forthcoming World Series. I gladly did so in the last couple of games of the NLCS against Chicago. Nothing against the Cubs, a shocking development to my younger self, but I let go of my anti-Cub animus in the wake of the 2015 NLCS when the North Siders played perfect hosts to the league champion Mets. Chicago earned what it earned in 2016 and everything else is aftermath until further notice. Gone Cubs Gone, but no hard feelings.

When Cubs fans recall the period of 2015-2017, they probably won’t fume, “Oh great, that was when we lost two NLCSes in three years.” Though maybe not. It’s still nearly impossible to utter or Twitter the year “1988” in the presence of Mets fans without triggering emotional distress. A person tracking the Dodgers’ last steps to their first pennant in twenty-nine years couldn’t help but mention 1988, not out of malice, just to be accurate. I’m aware it didn’t work out well for the Mets that October. I was alive and alert and as dissatisfied as any Mets fan sentient. Yet three decades hence, I compartmentalize the good stuff — division title, 100 wins, a few very admirable postseason performances sprinkled in amid the pain — and also check the calendar. Two years separated 1988 from 1986. The 1988 Mets shouldn’t have lost to the 1988 Dodgers, but I’m willing to retroactively grant them the slightest of period passes. That era was not about coming achingly close several times and missing. That era was about winning the big one once and not losing a ton in the years that surrounded it. I swear it was.

It’s different if you never win the big one. It was different for L.A. post-1988. What’s weird about their pennant drought, longer than any established, stationary National League franchise’s besides Pittsburgh’s, is the Dodgers were rarely horrible from 1989 on. They had a couple of dips, particularly before their current ownership situation coalesced, but mostly they’ve generally functioned as one of the elite operations in baseball. That’s what it was like when I encountered them as a kid. You knew they were glamorous and successful. They just weren’t champions. The Dodgers made the playoffs ten times in between their 1988 and 2017 World Series appearances. They just never scaled the hump, sort of like Cleveland, Oakland and Minnesota. Cleveland, Oakland and Minnesota, however, would revert to stubbornly horrible for discernible stretches. L.A. was no worse than in-n-out of trouble before suffering the heartbreak of being merely glamorous and successful.

Twice, in 2006 and 2015, the Mets expelled the Dodgers from the playoffs, and that was cool. Lately, the Dodgers expel the Mets from just about every game they contest, which isn’t, but they’re up, we’re down, sometimes that happens. I can’t hold the unpleasant side of recurring rivalry against the Dodgers at the moment. I can, but I won’t. Really, seeing the Dodgers and Cubs in two consecutive NLCSes let the taste of us beating them both linger longer than it should have. If you think about it, we are the National League round robin champions of the past three Octobers. We’re two-and-oh against them; they’re one-and-two against us and each other. Plus all this business was settled at Wrigley Field, which makes for a very telegenic setting.

Too bad none of it wins us anything new, but it beats dwelling on Scioscia, Gibson and Hershiser.

Bandwagon to Barricade

I was a temporary Astros fan earlier this month, sort of like I was this month in 1980. Way back then, Houston being in the playoffs was novel and they were playing a team, the Phillies, that I detested. The Mets were nowhere in sight. It was October like it’s supposed to be when you can’t have October like it oughta be. That it didn’t turn out exactly the way I wanted it to be was beside the point. I gravitated to a reasonably appealing entity, I rooted my postseason heart out for it, and I moved on to the next round. Not as good as rooting for the Mets, but I was used to the Mets being nowhere in sight come October.

That was in the National League, where the Astros used to reside. In the American League, my team for the duration was the Royals, a choice that was mandated by the presence of their opponent, the Yankees. I liked the Royals in those best-of-five days, anyway…though mostly because my exposure to them had been from watching them gallantly if futilely battle the Yankees in three previous Octobers. As the exotic t-shirts advertised in the back of Baseball Digest suggested, one of my two favorite teams was whoever was playing the Yankees.

The LCS portion of October thirty-seven years ago shook out as one part mighty satisfying — the Royals sweeping the Yankees three straight; and one part fleetingly heartbreaking — the Astros dropping the fifth and deciding game to the Phillies, 8-7, in ten innings. Houston’s other losses came in extra innings, too. Four of the five games went past nine. Grueling series to watch let alone lose. I felt truly bad for the colorfully clad band of bland ’Stros, that swirl of Puhls and Ruhles and Reynoldses to which I’d grown briefly yet resolutely attached.

Then I moved on, first to the World Series, where I’d feel bad for the futile/gallant Royals and resentful toward the ultimately victorious Phillies, then back to wondering how the Mets would improve themselves for 1981. My interest in Houston, except when they played the Mets, receded. Between 1981 and 2015, the Astros landed in the postseason nine times. Once, in 1986, I was keenly engaged. On all the other occasions, not so much. Twice (1999, 2015), the Mets were in the same postseason, and when the Mets are in the postseason, all action that doesn’t directly involve them tends to be blacked out from my attention span. Six other times, whatever the Astros were doing seemed to occur in the shadows of better publicized series transpiring concomitantly. When the Astros finally made it to the World Series in 2005, I was rooting squarely against them and for the White Sox. The White Sox hadn’t won a title since 1917. The Astros had Roger Clemens. It was an easy call.

I entered this postseason as I have all but nine times in my life as a baseball fan, without an automatic affinity. There were teams I could comfortably root against, but that’s less fun than rooting for (unless and until rooting against pays off). Without necessarily meaning to, I sparked immediately to the Astros as soon as I encountered them in their ALDS versus the Red Sox. They were novel yet familiar, National League alumni who had famously transformed from hopeless to happening. The Sports Illustrated long-term cover cause circa 2014. Altuve. Correa. Springer. Bregman. Beltran. Keuchel. Verlander. They were no longer in those rainbow stripes, but modeled a tasty shade of orange. They offered potential uplift for the people of a city slammed by a hurricane. I have friends in Houston — genuine Astros fans — who were flooded out of their home and had to move. I wanted them and their neighbors to have something to be happy about.

Clemens isn’t pitching for the Astros anymore. Mike Scott isn’t pitching for the Astros anymore. I had no reason not to root for the Astros. So they became my team for the duration. They beat the Red Sox in four. Then they won Games One and Two of their next series. They were exciting, they were intriguing, they were as rewarding to read about as they were to root forward. I was so on board this Astro bandwagon that when my wife asked me what was going on in a game of theirs, I reflexively told her, “The Mets are winning.”

Whoops. The Astros aren’t the Mets. Same expansion litter, but very different bloodlines. Having spent six months glued to Mets telecasts, it was semi-understandable that I’d misspeak, though there was no mistaking the Mets for a team that had made it into this year’s seventh month of baseball.

The real problem is that over their last three games, the 2017 Astros have come to closely resemble the 2017 Mets. They’re not hitting. They’re not pitching. They’re not winning. They are oh-and-three during a span when going two-and-one would have been ideal and one-and-two acceptable. Oh-and-three, given their trajectory and their opponent, presents a problem. I had the actual 2017 Mets if I wanted losing streaks of three going on four against the 2017 Yankees.

I’ll be rooting for the Astros to resume playing like the Astros in Game Six of the ALCS and, I would like to believe, Game Seven. I have little expectation of success, however. When I was seventeen, I would have expected success. I’m older now. I’ve seen many more Octobers, particularly the ones that run neither as they’re supposed or ought to, specifically ones where we are sentenced to choose between the Yankees and Anybody Else.

At the moment, I’m gravitating toward the Dodgers. I don’t much care for them, but I will depend upon them. This is purely transactional. I don’t need a bandwagon. I require a barricade. The Dodgers, even after not quite clinching their inevitable pennant against the Cubs on Wednesday night, are the best World Series bet available among prospective contestants who are Anybody Else. The Dodgers have Justin Turner. That’s gotta be worth a couple of games right there. Their loss to Chicago in NLCS Game Four, I’ve rationalized, was all right. You don’t want your undefeated juggernaut swaggering into the World Series ripe for upset. Should we wind up with Dodgers-Yankees, the Yankees will whoosh in have knocked off the 102-win Indians and the 101-win Astros. The 104-win Dodgers riding a pair of postseason sweeps loom as too juicy a Goliath for the nouveau narrative Davids. A stray loss will properly humble Los Angeles in preparation for the civilization-assuaging assignment that awaits them.

I’m going with that theory for now. And the Dodgers, stain of Buttley notwithstanding. We tolerated Pete Rose in the 1976 World Series, three years after he whaled on Buddy Harrelson, and he played ball, so to speak, helping to stem the pinstriped tide until 1977. We can pretend Chase Utley is a member of decent society two years after he took out Ruben Tejada if it means delaying even for twelve months the impending restoration of the dormant dynasty slightly to the north. I’m also going with the Astros for as long as they’re alive, Verlander willing. I’d appreciate it if they can stop imitating the Mets. I didn’t mean to confuse them by conflating them. I didn’t mean to root solely against during this postseason, either, but sometimes October goes down that way.

Natlessly We Roll Along

What’s red and white and available for dinner the rest of October? Your National League East Champion Washington Nationals, who I have to say aren’t doing a very good job of representing our division on the larger stage. As is their custom in this decade, they went to the NLDS. As is their more noted custom, they did not advance beyond the NLDS.

Not that many of us were rooting for them to carry the NL East banner ever upward, but c’mon, Nats. You’re making us look bad. We lost 92 games this year. We can make ourselves look bad without your help.

There doesn’t seem to be much inclination in baseball to get behind “our” champion if we are not involved in the playoffs. It’s a romantic notion that we would. NL EAST OR DECEASE! Or something of that nature. But it’s not like that. It’s not remotely like that.

Familiarity breeds so much contempt. Were you delighted for the Atlanta Braves when they were winning East after East? Did you Phlip for the Phillies in the midst of their divisional dynasty? I’d invoke the Marlins here, except they’ve yet to win a divisional title despite having socked away two world championships before their eleventh birthday. (Gads, the Marlins are weird.) It’s hard to recontextualize your enemy of six months after six months of active hostility. Nor does it much occur to you to try.

It’s not just the Nationals who’ve been bringing down the average. National League East champions are pretty lousy at going forward. Since 2002, most of them have lost their Division Series. The Braves are 0-for-5. The Nationals are 0-for-4. The Phillies, when they had a heyday, went 3-for-5. The Mets, however, played two and won two, in 2006 and 2015. Give us the right context, and we are selectively unbeatable.

Yet the Nationals’ contemptible familiarity is nevertheless familiar. Of all the teams to have entered this postseason, they’re the ones I knew best, so there was something compelling about their presence. Their players are well known in our circles. Daniel Murphy is estranged, but not so long ago one of us. Oliver Perez holds a special place in our gut. Ryan Zimmerman might as well be the name the David Wright brand is sold under in certain Middle Atlantic markets. We’d know Harper’s resting Bryce face anywhere. We’ve been adding “less” to “Werth” for a generation. We took pride in loudly declaring Harvey better than Strasburg. Scherzer’s eyes. Rendon’s flow. The Lobaton Galaxy of Stars.

I didn’t root for them, exactly, but I was prepared to deal with the idea that they’d be sticking around. And I thought they would be. The Cubs seemed very much like last year’s news, extras in somebody else’s narrative. When Washington went up by three runs early in Game Five, I thought the result was Nat accompli. Their near-death experience was Game Four at Wrigley, the whole Strasburg mold contretemps, wherein the pitcher suspected of being soft threw the bleep out of the ball for seven robust innings and Michael A. Taylor redeemed the whole effort with a grand slam in the gloaming off Wade Davis. That should do it for the Cubs dynasty, I thought. The two teams’ll take this thing back to Nats Park, we’ll make jokes about the last Metro pulling out before the last out and our nominal archrival — or as close as we have to one at present — will move on to Los Angeles where somebody would notice Murphy dueling Turner for the pennant.

But it didn’t happen that way. It never does for the Nationals. Four times in the NLDS in six years, four heartbreaking exits. Maybe not our hearts, but objectively horrifying to watch if you consult your heart a little. You feel sort of bad for certain players after a 9-8 loss like that which ended this postseason’s Washingtonian exercise in futility. Upon further microscopic review, you feel sort of bad for Dusty Baker, who you remember having it in for in 2000 when he managed the Giants and it was our job to snarl that the opposing manager was no Bobby V, but is otherwise considered one of the game’s all-time good guys. You feel bad for the fans who haven’t directly pissed you off or who haven’t gotten on the nerves of your Mets fan friends who live in and around DC and swear to you that, no kidding, Nats fans are the worst. You feel bad more in theory than reality, but the reality was right in front of you: another elimination loss wherein Washington falls ever so short ever so late and the train is pulling out of the Navy Yard station bound for the NLCS without them…again.

That’s pretty bad baseball reality.

Who’s talking Mets in the middle of the playoffs? Gary McDonald and I are on his wonderful podcast Mets Musings. Listen in here.

Viva Leaving Las Vegas

Monday afternoon I was keeping an eye on the Astros and the Red Sox in the fourth game of their American League Division Series, rain spitting on Fenway, Houston trying to close it out, Boston trying to keep it going, both clubs straddling the line between urgent and panicked as they relied on their respective ace starters — Chris Sale and Justin Verlander — to serve as life-saving long relievers when the Turning Stone Resort Casino Turning Point of the Game emerged clear and sunny:

The Mets were reported as moving their Triple-A farm club operations from Las Vegas to Syracuse the year after next.

Never mind ending or extending a postseason series. Our team just improved its organizational logistics. Who was the big Columbus Day winner now?

Well, Houston. They beat Boston, 5-4, in a riveting four hour, seven-minute, nine-inning affair slightly reminiscent of the Wednesday afternoon in October 1986 when the Astros were eliminated by the Mets, who went on to play the Red Sox. Except that game took seven innings longer, yet somehow lasted only an additional 35 minutes — and Hal Lanier resisted the temptation to insert Mike Scott around the fourteenth inning.

Houston’s a winner. L.A., in three over Arizona, is a winner. As of this writing, four other teams remain alive in pursuit of two next-round berths. October baseball in its various highly entertaining iterations has gone on without our participation, but at least we got this. We got Syracuse. We don’t get to be in an LDS. We won’t get to be in an LCS. We didn’t even get to be bounced from a Wild Card game. The World Series as it applied to us sort of lately is fading as recent history. But hot damn, we no longer have to have to have our top minor league affiliate three time zones away.

It’s a victory that won’t show up in any box score. Maybe it will be reflected in some future set of standings. It definitely feels very good in the psyche. We can’t pop champagne from it, but maybe vigorously pour yourself a room-temperature Genesee Cream Ale and toast something no longer going wrong.

Let it be recorded that the 2015 Mets and 2016 Mets did go to the postseason while maintaining a geographically confounding relationship with the Las Vegas 51s. It never made sense on paper that the Mets linked with Las Vegas, and too many of its callups were literally up in the air, flying four-and-a-half-hour flights (or nearly as long as it took for the Astros to oust the Red Sox) to land at Citi Field on few winks of sleep, but it didn’t necessarily directly limit the Mets’ chances to compete.

But it surely didn’t help. We all understand it was never the ideal arrangement. The Mets were shown the door after five fruitless seasons in Buffalo and had to set up Triple-A shop somewhere in North America prior to 2013. Las Vegas qualified as somewhere. Somewhere far away. The heat. The elevation. The distance. Mostly the distance. The drawbacks were familiar and self-evident.

Las Vegas 51s became New York Mets anyway. We asked for Zack Wheeler and we got him. Then Travis d’Arnaud. Noah Syndergaard, too. Jacob deGrom came through Las Vegas without fanfare. Amed Rosario and Dom Smith were hyped and we remain hopeful. There were plenty of others in between. Michael Conforto rose directly from Binghamton, yet found himself deposited in the desert when he was mysteriously deemed not as ready as previously presumed. Matt Reynolds was a walking, talking, frequently flying human timeshare.

Every team has its shuttle. Ours happened to run longer and seem more absurd than any other’s. Generations of Mets fans, let alone streams of Mets prospects, never had to think about this. From 1969 to 2006, if you needed a body or wanted an upgrade, you’d look to Tidewater. Somewhere along the way you learned Tidewater was essentially the same thing as Norfolk. We were told it was in Virginia. How close was Virginia to New York? It never came up. If a Tide couldn’t become a Met by that night’s BP, it wasn’t the system’s fault. The Tidewater-turned-Norfolk shuttle worked without an obvious hitch. It even delivered us a native product, young David Wright, in its latter stages.

I’d heard deposed skipper Wally Backman explain a while back that the Las Vegas inconvenience factor was overblown, that when you consider all the direct flights out of McCarran, shipping a 51 to Queens was no more a chore than landing him from some closer-in Triple-A precinct that didn’t have nearly as much airline service going for it. Maybe that was so. I always wanted to believe Wally knew something the rest of us didn’t, though anything that’s not as bad as it sounds still tends to be somewhat bad, or at least not as good as it could be. (That might describe how the Mets viewed Wally as a potential manager.)

Is Syracuse as good as it could be? When some bench player or bullpen arm is snowbound upstate come April 2019, we’ll likely find fault with our new affiliation. We’re Mets fans. We find fault like other fans find their teams in the postseason. But keeping a cache of if-necessary fill-ins in-state, where the air travel can be measured in minutes and the clocks don’t require resetting, instead of peering westward and waiting?

Let’s call it a win until proven otherwise.

The Coaches You Notice

You really don’t notice coaches in major league baseball until they are pointed out, which isn’t often. Maybe it’s for something benign, like they planted tomatoes in bullpen or exchange particularly sharp low-fives when batters work out walks. Maybe it’s for something pleasant, like how well his advice is being processed by a player on a streak. Usually it’s for when something is going awry. The team isn’t scoring. Fire the hitting coach. Another runner got thrown out at home. Replace the third base coach. The staff earned run average is the franchise’s worst since the year it was founded…and almost all the pitchers got hurt.

Say goodbye to Dan Warthen in the last case, the same Dan Warthen who was the toast of the pitchnoscenti when he had the horses and the horses were healthy. Warthen had been coaching Mets pitchers for nearly ten seasons. The last Met pitcher who hadn’t been coached exclusively by Dan Warthen as a Met was Pedro Feliciano, and he had to return briefly from lucrative exile in 2013 to make that claim. Warthen ushered generations of Mets pitchers into the majors, from Niese and Parnell in September of 2008 to Rhame and Callahan in September of 2017.

You saw more of Warthen than you saw of other coaches because the pitching coach is permitted to wander halfway across the diamond during games. Warthen probably did more of that type of wandering than any Mets pitching coach before him, visiting the mound to take pulses, dispense wisdom and maybe kill time while another of his pitchers warmed until fully heated in the bullpen. Rube Walker and Mel Stottlemyre were Mets pitching coaches longer, but they surely made fewer of those visits. They coached in different times from Warthen when it came to pitching.

Diamond Dan leaves his post on the Terry Collins Plan, having been “offered another role in the organization,” according to the organization itself. Terry, who was offered only the door until it occurred to somebody how bad that looked, is now a special assistant to the general manager. Dan seemed pretty special when his pitchers looked very special. After a season when his pitchers looked worse than ordinary, he gets a press release and a conditional euphemism.

In the same release that covered the respective statuses of Collins, Warthen and persistent soul collector Ray Ramirez, the Mets announced three coaches — Dick Scott, Tom Goodwin and Ricky Bones — are welcome to take a hike (“given permission to speak to other teams, pending the selection of a new manager”), while three others are welcome to stick around. Kevin Long and Pat Roessler coached hitters who hit a lot better than the pitchers pitched. They stay. Long may even elevate; his launch angle vis-à-vis the managerial opening is to be determined. The Mets also said they will “retain” third base coach Glenn Sherlock, who we noticed getting runners thrown out at home now and again. The Mets were careful to note Sherlock has a contract for 2018, the subtext being, yeah, we noticed the runners getting thrown out, too.

We all form semi-informed opinions of whether the manager is a genius or incompetent. We’re mostly guessing when it comes to the coaches. When they are commented upon for nonspecific reasons, it is usually to laud them for being “baseball lifers,” the strange implication being that you could somehow change careers from, say, regional agricultural sales to major league coach on a whim. The baseball life they are pursuing doesn’t automatically transmit clues to their effectiveness. The Mets homered a lot in 2017? Were the long balls really Long balls or was it opposition pitching, atmospheric conditions and a few extra reps in the weight room making the Mets more powerful? Did everything Warthen recommend suddenly come with an expiration date or did the pitchers maybe do something wrong? There are probably highly specific if anonymously sourced answers to be had. Watching from the other side of the protective netting, it’s difficult to discern.

Without cavalierly making glib pronouncements regarding the livelihoods of others, perhaps it is time for a clean or at least cleaner slate. The Mets haven’t begun a season with a fresh manager and a fresh pitching coach since the dynamic duo of Art Howe and Vern Ruhle alighted in 2003. A year later, Rick Peterson broughthis hardwood floor philosophies to Flushing from Oakland, reuniting with Howe. (Howe had played behind Ruhle in Houston; Art may not have won a lot of games for the Mets, but he apparently managed to maintain his relationships.) Peterson survived the GM transitions from Steve Phillips to Jim Duquette and Duquette to Omar Minaya, and remained ensconced when Minaya brought in Willie Randolph, but the Pacific Purge that swept out Willie nabbed Rick, too. His hardwood floor got torn up. Warthen’s Tuscany tile was installed and it stayed firmly in place for the length of Collins’s determined walk across it.

It’s hard to say whether a clean slate effectively clears the organization’s mind. Walker entered Shea with Gil Hodges in 1968; they led the Mets to the pinnacle of baseball a year later. Rube would coach pitchers under Yogi Berra, Roy McMillan, Joe Frazier and Joe Torre, clear through 1981. Stottlemyre arrived with Davey Johnson in 1984; two years later they and their charges were kings of the world. Mel kept at his job under the auspices of Bud Harrelson, Mike Cubbage, Jeff Torborg and the first four months of Dallas Green until being let go at the end of 1993. Their clean slates got filled good — and bad. The only other Mets pitching coaches besides Rube, Mel and Vern to come in at the outset of a new year with a new manager was Bill Monbouqette, who joined George Bamberger on his short-lived Queens adventure in 1982. If you want to, you can also count the first Mets manager and pitching coach combo, Casey Stengel and Red Ruffing. The slate couldn’t have been cleaner, even if it was destined for immediate sullying. Under Stengel’s managing and Ruffing’s coaching, the 1962 Mets’ ERA was 5.04, an unsightly figure not approached again…until 2017’s 5.01.

Stengel is in the Hall of Fame. So is Ruffing. So is George Weiss, who hired them both. None of them made it as far as they did for the results their pitchers generated in 1962. Casey said of one of his championship units in the Bronx, “I couldn’t have done it without the players.” Similar attribution could presumably be linked to the personnel that lost him 120 games.

***

On the same day the Mets made their provisional coaching announcements for 2018, it was reported that the last of the surviving 1962 Mets coaches had passed away the day before. Solly Hemus, 94, died in Houston on Monday. Solly coached third for Casey. Cookie Lavagetto coached first. Solly. Cookie. Casey. Red. Two Reds, actually, when you include instructor Red Kress. Baseball lifers got much more colorful names back then. Yet from what I’ve gathered as a baseball lifer of my own ilk (a fan who likes to read), the coaches didn’t garner much attention in those days, either, certainly not when operating in the shadow of Stengel.

When you absorb Original Met recountings, most of which tend to contain ample wiggle room where exactitude is concerned, Cookie in June tells Casey not to bother arguing the ruling that Marv Throneberry didn’t touch second on a triple because he didn’t touch first, either, and the Mets lose as usual. When you lose yourself further in 1962 lore, Solly in August gets hot and bothered over what he considers a bad strike call, then gets ejected…which then gets Cookie into the third base coaching box…which eventually gets Marv (!) into the first base coaching box, from which he is beckoned to pinch-hit and deliver a walkoff homer, and the Mets win as unusual.

You get the feeling you wouldn’t know who Casey’s coaches were if it weren’t for Marv incorporating them into his legend. Nevertheless, they were baseball men/lifers in their own right. Weiss secured the services of Ruffing months before he signed Stengel to oversee all pitching in the Met system, and he contracted Lavagetto and Hemus as coaches in advance as well because —even though it’s impossible to imagine — George wasn’t absolutely sure he was going to convince Casey to manage the Mets. Lavagetto (the Senators/Twins) and Hemus (the Cardinals) had experience. One could run he show if the eventual ringmaster declined to get involved. Upon his reintroduction to the press in October 1961, Stengel went so far as to suggest either man could be managing by that time next year.

Casey, it turned out, wasn’t going anywhere, and he outlasted both of those lieutenants. Cookie, the old Dodger, would be traded for Wes Westrum, the old Giant, coach for coach, following the 1963 season. Wes was in San Francisco, which was close to Cookie’s home and where he preferred to be after suffering an illness. Lavagetto recovered and lived until 1990. Westrum lasted long enough as a Mets coach to succeed Stengel as manager in 1965. By then, Hemus had moved on, too, assisting Casey only through the Polo Grounds years, yet he would have a significant hand on what would soon develop at Shea Stadium.

In 1966, Hemus managed the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Jacksonville Suns. In that capacity, he was the first man to manage, in professional baseball, a recently inked 21-year-old righthander named George Thomas Seaver.

One start was all it took for Hemus to understand who he was handling with care. “Tom Seaver,” he told reporters in Rochester after the relatively unknown Californian beat the Red Wings for his first pro win, “is the best pitching prospect the Mets have ever signed.” There was no doubt Solly recognized talent when he saw it. He also knew how to convey it (as preserved in John Devaney’s 1974 Seaver biography):

“Tom has a 35-year-old head on top of a 21-year-old arm. Usually we get a 35-year-old arm attached to a 21-year-old head.”

Seaver was on his way, for sure, though not without the occasional setback. Even 21-year-old arms attached to 35-year-old heads are still part and parcel of 21-year-old young men. In one start at the end of a string of bad ones, Hemus managed Seaver by giving him the opportunity to work out of trouble rather than rescue him. It was part of the toughening-up process that led Tom to the majors by Opening Day 1967 and toward the Hall of Fame career that lay ahead of him.

In the media call following the Mets’ comings-and-goings announcement, Sandy Alderson expressed discontent with how the Mets Triple-A players are being prepared for the big leagues and hinted a staff shakeup at that level is very likely. It’s another of those situations where we’re all experts from a 2,500-mile distance, but recalling the impact a minor league manager had on a hot prospect reminds us how important every step of the way can be in giving a player every legitimate chance to become a star.

By the time Seaver was promoted, Hemus was done with baseball on a fulltime basis, the Suns uniform being the last he’d wear for a living. Hence, if you go solely by occupation, Solly was a baseball lifer only for the first fifty-odd years of his life. He left the game for the oil business as Seaver was touching down in New York, though in a sense, once a baseball lifer, always a baseball lifer. The old coach remained active with the Baseball Assistance Team for many years. He attended the B.A.T. dinner in New York in 2010, regaling baseball history writer Nick Diunte with fond memories of the Mets’ beginnings — Stengel was “one of the smartest managers in baseball,” Weiss “an excellent GM” — and expressing a bit of regret that he couldn’t continue to be a part of their immediate future.

“I would have liked to be a part of the ballclub that won the World Series in 1969,” Hemus told Diunte, “because that’s what I had in mind when they hired me. I thought that they would eventually win it and they did just that. It was a fine organization.”

Helping Seaver along the path to immortality probably qualifies has having been a pretty important part of it.

***

The first expansion team to reach the postseason faster than the Mets did was the Colorado Rockies, landing there in 1995, only their third year of existence. Their first manager…their Casey Stengel in a sense…was Don Baylor, an accomplished hitter and coach before taking the reins of the brand new team. Like just about every manager, Baylor led teams to losing records as well as winning ones, and was eventually replaced in Denver. He went back to coaching, stopping off at Shea for two years, serving as bench coach and hitting coach for Howe in 2003 and 2004 (Howe was Baylor’s aide in Colorado in ’95). When Howe was fired by the Mets, so was Baylor. It was off to Seattle from New York, and later other stops. Don Baylor was always in demand.

Baylor died this past August at the too-soon age of 68. I hadn’t thought of him very often since he had been a Mets coach, and to be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten just about everything about his time in the uniform of my favorite team. I’d forgotten that he had to leave the Mets for a while in 2003 to be treated for the bone cancer that would take his life fourteen years later. I’d forgotten that he assumed Denny Walling’s hitting coach portfolio when Walling was blamed for the Mets’ woeful batting partway through 2004. The whole Howe administration was so dispiriting that I might not have committing much about its brain trust to memory in the first place.

Except for one fact I surely learned and continue to hold dearly: Don Baylor was a gentleman. I had planned to share this story in the wake of his passing, but never got around to it. As long as the subject is Mets coaches, this seems as good a moment as any to belatedly give Don his due.

It was during the offseason between 2003 and 2004. The Mets still had a Clubhouse Shop in the East Fifties in Manhattan, their “flagship,” which was very convenient to where my wife worked. One day, she noticed an event was taking place there. Two Mets players and one Met coach were signing autographs and greeting fans.

The coach was Don Baylor, not in uniform, but representing his and my team. Stephanie didn’t know who he was, but figured I would and that I would appreciate his signature on a small slice of cardboard emblazoned with the Mets’ latest marketing slogan, “Catch the Energy!” The players’ signatures, too. My emotional investment in the Mets was at a low ebb (I was still sore that Howe had replaced Bobby Valentine a year earlier), but it was a typically lovely gesture on my lovely wife’s part.

The trio didn’t draw much of a crowd, so she didn’t have much of a wait. Stephanie went up to the first player, who she reported didn’t exactly radiate energy in fulfilling his fan-friendliness obligations, and obtained his autograph for me. She did the same with the second player, who was a little more interactive and perfectly polite about the whole thing.

Then she got to Baylor. Baylor could not have been warmer. He inquired about her, her job, what all it entailed. He showed genuine interest in another human being, like somebody who wasn’t talking to her because somebody told him he had to. When their brief conversation was complete, he stood up, shook her hand and thanked her.

No, you don’t think much about the coaches. But whenever his name comes up, I’ll always think of what a class act Don Baylor was.

The Sick are Healed

Don’t trip over all the casts, crutches, slings and splints scattered along the streets of North America tonight. They were discarded this morning by Met after Met who was magically healed by the news that Ray Ramirez will no longer be training them.

The sick, the lame and the day-to-day are all up on their feet, their hamstrings pleasingly loose, their limbs fully flexed, their ulnas utterly undisturbed. Michael Conforto’s posterior capsule is as smooth and supple as a baby’s bottom. Wilmer Flores’s nose breathes free and easy; just try fouling a ball of that schnozz now. Tommy Milone’s left elbow, which was described as sore in late September, can be referred to as totally mellow in early October.

Once an organization has its Ramirez removed, the rehabilitation program occurs organically. Consider that since the Mets announced their head trainer of thirteen seasons will not return for a fourteenth, they haven’t placed a single player on the disabled list. Nor have they lost a single game. During the final year Ray was spotted continually emerging from the dugout to have a little look-see, what did the Mets do? They lost games and they went on the disabled list.

Yeah, it was all Ray Ramirez’s fault. This just confirms it.