Professional football playoff time is upon us. No Giants. No Jets. Limited interest here, though chances are I’ll turn on whatever game is on wherever it’s on. Earlier, I had one on ESPN (which is a first for professional football playoffs). The best part of this particular National Football League postseason is it furnishes me with an excuse to pass along and delve into something I read a couple of weeks ago.
According to the site Classic TV Sports, the last time the ultimate television sport known as NFL football wasn’t televised is approaching its 40th anniversary. The date on which it wasn’t televised? November 1, 1975. The place from which it wasn’t televised?
Your first guess is correct. The answer is Shea Stadium. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be bothering you with any of this. The occasion wasn’t a Jets game, however.
This was 1975, the year Shea Stadium was Shared Stadium…shared to within an inch of its life. As you probably know, New York’s American League franchise sublet Shea during the summer of 1975, making for a baseball game there practically every day for six months. Then, when the Mets and that other team finished swapping homestands, the Jets could start playing some home games, though not an inning before. That had been the arrangement since 1964, when the AFL followed the National League to the intersection of 126th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. The Mets held scheduling priority and were quite proprietary of it. When the Mets extended their business deep into October in 1973, they kept the Jets on the road until the seventh week of their season.
But in 1975, when there were no baseball playoffs to keep Flushing football at bay for long, the Jets weren’t the only team with autumnal affairs to attend to ’neath the cover of LaGuardia flights. The Giants discovered Queens for the first and only time that year. Their future home in Bergen County was a year from opening (like Shea’s, Giants Stadium’s construction didn’t necessarily align with publicly announced target dates); their previous home in the Bronx was undergoing renovation; their original home in Upper Manhattan was a distant memory; and their most recent temporary home at a less than NFL-caliber way station was a million miles away from New York.
Eighty-two miles by car, actually, but if it wasn’t New York or very nearby New Jersey, it was a schlep. And make no mistake about it: the Yale Bowl, where the Giants played home games most of 1973 and all of 1974, was a schlep. “Our players have never accepted it as a home field,” owner Wellington Mara said of the Giants’ two-year Nutmeg State residency. “I don’t necessarily agree with that…but if a group of athletes thinks it’s bad, then we’re at a competitive disadvantage.”
The Giants, absent from the NFL playoffs since 1963, went 2-12 in 1974. They didn’t need any more competitive disadvantages. They also didn’t need to try their loyal customers’ patience any further. The Connecticut Turnpike, Mara admitted, was a road too far: “I’ve had many fans say, ‘I’m not giving up, but I can’t make the trip.’”
Essentially, the Giants were out of options, so they did what all the outdoor New York teams were doing in 1975: they played at Shea Stadium. If it was good enough for a righthanded-throwing Craig Swan, it was good enough for a righthanded-throwing Craig Morton. But was it shall we say appropriate enough for NBC on the first Saturday in November?
Saturday? Yes, Saturday. As is the case every fall, there are only so many Sundays. Within the matrix of National Football League scheduling, there were weekends when there was no avoiding a Jets game and a Giants game transpiring at Shea. They couldn’t each play at home on Any Given Sunday, so one of them — the newcomer Giants — had to settle for Saturday, providing no day of rest for the Shea grounds crew or its endlessly trampled grass.
But for the television crew that would have otherwise beamed the game that pitted the Giants and Chargers to New York, San Diego and maybe somewhere in between, it was a different story in what was surely a different world. The Giants could play a home game on a Saturday afternoon in November if they absolutely had to, but it couldn’t be televised in what you’d call a normal fashion. The NFL blackout rule had been altered only a couple of years earlier. Before 1973, you wouldn’t have seen any Giants home game in New York…or any Jets home game in New York…or any home game in any home market.
The NFL was so worried that TV would detract from their live gate that they permitted no home games on the local air. They wouldn’t even show sellouts or sold-out playoff games. Such stodgy thinking couldn’t hold forever, even in the pre-ESPN media age, so spurred in part by the Giants briefly putting down stakes in New Haven — where defining the “home market” was going to be a trick play no matter what — the league decided to allow all home games to be televised as long as they were sold out within 72 hours of kickoff.
Packing Shea Stadium wasn’t necessarily an issue for the 1975 Giants. They drew better than 52,000 for the Chargers on November 1 (the Jets and O.J. Simpson’s Bills would play before 58,000-plus in the very same space the very next day), so in theory NBC, which would have held the rights since it was an AFC team’s road game, probably could have shown it in New York. But the Saturday scheduling presented an immutably thorny sticking point. The NFL’s policy was to stay off the air on pre-December Saturdays in cooperative deference to its high school and college competition. As the Times explained in the spring of 1975, “Federal law prohibits the network-televising of pro games on Fridays and Saturdays during the high school and college seasons (roughly Sept. 1-Dec. 1). The law was designed to protect the latter’s gate receipts.”
The Big Blue helmet from 1975 and 1975 only. It’s what the stylish New York Football Giant wore at Shea the final year there were, geographically speaking, New York Football Giants. (Image courtesy of Helmet Hut.)
Networks couldn’t get involved, but the teams were all right selling the rights locally. The 2-4 Giants simply opted not to so as to keep from “running afoul of Federal law” while “lessen[ing] impact” on New York-area high school and colleges. And the 0-6 Chargers? They skipped the chance to telecast a 10 AM PST start on their own steam, too. As the Times had pointed out, Shea’s fall 1975 Saturday visitors, like the home team, “would be running the risk of antagonizing the high schools and colleges” in their markets if they infiltrated Saturday morning TV.
Who knew the NFL was so sensitive?
With nobody except those who entered through the Shea Stadium turnstiles watching, veteran Craig Morton outdueled youngster Dan Fouts to chalk up the Giants’ first home win in Queens. The festival of scoring obscured a poor all-around display of football, according to the Times’s Murray Chass, who wasn’t yet assigned to full-time bacne monitoring. It “wasn’t pretty,” Chass wrote, “but did it have to be a ‘Frankenstein Meets Dracula’ horror show?”
It seems an unfair assessment — hard to believe, I know, coming from Chass — but I can’t say with certainty it isn’t accurate. I didn’t see the game. Nobody without a ticket did.
Morton would ultimately quarterback the Giants to five wins in 1975, or four more than Swan pitched the Mets to that same year. Baseball Craig earned his only win at Shea against the old New York/now San Francisco Giants, while Football Craig would manage one more home victory, versus the terminally inept New Orleans Saints. It was the 5-9 Giants’ final Shea triumph. The Meadowlands was ready for the 1976 season, and even if it wasn’t (completion was considered no sure thing), the Giants had made arrangements to play at the new “Stadium” in the Bronx for a year if it came to that.
Morton, who had once led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl, lasted one more year as a Giant. Then he’d leap off the scrap heap and lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl. It sounds like something that would happen to a Met with a relatively big name: be good somewhere, be far less good in Flushing, get back to being good elsewhere. But that was par for the course for the Giants in their chasm between contention, which lasted a mere 17 seasons. The post-Super Bowl Jets weren’t such hot stuff, either, by then, but at least they knew (through 1983) which stadium to call home.
The last NFL game not televised took place at Shea Stadium two days after perhaps the most famous headline in New York newspaper history fronted the Daily News: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. While financially strapped New York unsuccessfully lobbied the Federal government for a badly needed loan, its sole municipal stadium worked overtime without adequate budgetary support. Though the phrase “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” wouldn’t gain currency for approximately another quarter-century, the strains on Shea’s physical plant couldn’t be hidden when a facility designed for two teams had to make room for four.
Talk about a “Frankenstein Meets Dracula” horror show.
Come 1976, the Giants were ensconced in East Rutherford; the American League was confined to the other side of the Triborough; every NFL game was televised somewhere; Gerald Ford narrowly lost New York’s 41 electoral votes and thus the presidency; and Craig Swan won six games…or three more than the New York Giants of New Jersey did. In 1978, the first season during which the Mets were no longer contractually empowered to lord it over the Jets every September (the football team got to open its season at Shea for the first time), I watched the Jets play a regular-season Sunday game from Baltimore on WPIX that sort of looked like an NBC production but was closer in spirit to an exhibition telecast. I clearly remember a telethon-style crawl running across the bottom of the screen that October afternoon informing viewers that tickets were still available for the Jets-Cardinals game at Shea — a potential blackout candidate, apparently — the following Sunday. I also clearly remember thinking, “Why does this game look like it does and why is it on Channel 11?”
It took me 36 years, or until I found the classictvsports.com article, to discern what was up with that.
It was the same rule that kicked the Shea Stadium Giants off TV. Colts home games back then started at 2 PM, or an hour later than everywhere else in Pete Rozelle’s civilized society. Channel 4 would have shown it most Sundays, except Baltimore’s oddball kickoff time would have sent the Jets encroaching upon the approximately 4:30 first pitch of the World Series game NBC was airing later that afternoon. Yes, a different world: baseball taking precedence over football again…and the World Series not pushed to prime time. WNBC didn’t want to show the Jets because they didn’t want it getting in the way of the New York American League team and their Game Five tilt versus the Dodgers, live from the relatively new “Stadium” in the Bronx. So, as the article explains, when a game was “played outside of the normal network TV windows, the NFL allowed the road team to sell the TV rights to a local station.” It’s what the Chargers didn’t do in 1975 the week they lost to the Giants at Shea. It’s what the Jets did in 1978 the week they beat the Colts at Memorial Stadium.
To sum up, then…
Shea Stadium is gone. Memorial Stadium is gone. Giants Stadium is gone. The renovated “Stadium” in the Bronx is gone. Yale Bowl, older than all of them, remains. Dan Fouts is in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Murray Chass claims he no longer votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame, though he still occasionally writes columns that aren’t pretty. And the Jets on Channel 11 on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of October mystery that had sporadically vexed me since tenth grade has been solved.
Back to your playoffs if you’re so inclined.
When they want a batter
Filled with terror
They call on me
—“Get Metsmerized,” technically a song, 1986
Today is Rick Aguilera’s 53rd birthday, which means it’s my 52nd birthday. We are calendar brothers, born exactly one year apart to different families in different places, but connected by the Brotherhood of December 31. Rick — or Aggie, as he was referred to in his playing days — is the only Met who extinguishes candles the same day as me.
Maybe Rick was as delighted as I was a child to discover, as some stranger put it to me, “the whole world celebrates your birthday!” Or maybe he was as dismayed as I eventually became that on New Year’s Eve people are essentially celebrating that our birthday is ending. Nobody says, “Let’s count down to the moment we can stop wishing Rick Aguilera and Greg a happy birthday!” but they don’t have to say it.
Aggie and I should know the score by now.
Perhaps Rick didn’t think about it all that much as a kid. While I was getting older and philosophizing about months and dates and years, he was keeping his right arm loose and his head free of burdensome thought. Rick’s process took him from Edgewood High School in West Covina, Calif., to Brigham Young University in Provo, Ut., to the third round of the 1983 baseball draft, where the Mets selected him with the 58th overall pick. They could have taken Wally Joyner, who was still on the board nine picks later when the Angels grabbed him. “Wally World” went on to make a more immediate impact in the majors, and one could despair that the Mets missed out on a better player than Aguilera, except a) the Mets had drafted first base prospect Dave Magadan in the second round, so who needed Wally Joyner?; b) the Mets were about to trade for Keith Hernandez, so who needed Wally Joyner?; and c) Wally Joyner’s birthday is June 16, so who needs Wally Joyner?
Rick Aguilera signed with the Mets and pitched for Little Falls, Lynchburg, Jackson and Tidewater. On June 12, 1985, in Philadelphia, Aggie pitched for the Mets for the first time. I remember it well not because I’d been eagerly tracking my calendar brother’s progress through the minor leagues but because the night before, the Mets lost, 26-7. You don’t forget when your team loses, 26-7. The Mets needed a solid effort following a 26-7 loss. Baseball teams generally need solid efforts every night, but June 12, 1985, presented a particularly pressing engagement in damage control.
On June 11, 1985, Tom Gorman went one-third of an inning, surrendered six runs and gave way to Calvin Schiraldi, who was somehow worse. The Mets trailed, 16-0, heading to the third. They cut it to 16-7 by the fifth, but Joe Sambito came on and gave up another ten runs. You’d call up a new pitcher after a night like that whether he was born on December 31 or not.
December 31-born Aguilera entered the tenth inning of a 3-3 game on June 12. His first batter was Garry Maddox. You know the old saying: Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water and Rick Aguilera got Garry Maddox to foul out to Gary Carter to record his first out in the majors. Aggie pitched a perfect tenth. The Mets scored three runs in the top of the eleventh, positioning Rick to be pitcher of record. In the bottom of the inning, Aggie walked leadoff man Juan Samuel before retiring Mike Schmidt, Glenn Wilson and Von Hayes to chalk up the win.
Rick Aguilera was exactly one year older than me and had exactly one more big league victory than me.
Aggie was inserted into the starting rotation right away. His fourth start was the same brand of memorable as his first appearance. It came in Atlanta on July 5, 1985, another of those occasions when the Mets needed a solid effort considering what happened the night before. The night before was July 4, 1985, and you don’t have to maintain a Mets memory on the order of some of us born on December 31 to recognize that date as significant. On July 4, 1985, the Mets commenced playing a game that didn’t conclude until July 5, 1985, was close to four hours old. The game itself went nineteen innings. There were a couple of rain delays and enough absurdities to fill Chief Noc-A-Homa’s teepee.
Rick Aguilera and I are old enough to remember a professional sports team employing a mascot named Chief Noc-A-Homa and nobody much stopping to think it might not have been the most enlightened thing to call a person of Native American persuasion.
On July 4 and 5, 1985, the Mets beat the Braves, 16-13. Everybody seems to remember the game ended at 3:55 in the morning. Rarely is it mentioned that less than sixteen hours later the same teams would be required to play another nine innings. In the contest that began July 4, the Mets used seven pitchers, including their two All-Star starters, Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling, for a total of three-and-a-third innings. In the contest that was wholly confined to July 5, the Mets used only Rick Aguilera. He pitched all nine innings as the Mets won, 6-1. One of those runs was doubled in by Aguilera, who brought his batting average to .333 in the course of his complete game.
The July 5 game boosted Rick’s record to 3-1. Two of his wins were destined to be afterthoughts to the epics that preceded them if they were ever thought of again at all. But as anybody born on December 31 can tell you, there’s always a tomorrow. The year might end on your birthday, but people don’t let you forget you and your old year are not the be-all and end-all. They gather in large numbers and shout and toast and blow into things to create noise to remind you that January 1 is about to make that calendar page you share with Rick Aguilera yesterday’s news.
Hell, they throw the entire calendar away when our birthday is over.
When Aggie’s first year as a Met turned to Aggie’s second year as a Met, he honed his knack for not being noticed. In 1986, he was the fifth starter on a playoff team that barely needed four. Rick endured a tough first half. He may have been the Mets’ best pitcher in the second half — 9-4, 2.64 ERA — though but the second half, the Mets were so far out in front they could have started Tom Gorman, Calvin Schiraldi and Joe Sambito and it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Being slotted behind Gooden, Bobby Ojeda, Darling and Sid Fernandez meant Aggie would be a long reliever for the playoff duration.
Rick pitched five scoreless innings in the 1986 NLCS. Nobody remembers. The first two of those frames came in the game Lenny Dykstra won with a walkoff home run. Who’s thinking about solid middle relief when you have Nails taking Dave Smith deep? The next three, innings six through eight in the sixth game of the Houston series, deserve to live prominently in Met memory, except only so much lives prominently in Met memory. Aguilera’s three shutout innings while the Mets trailed, 3-0, and couldn’t solve Bob Knepper were crucial in real time, yet they were instantly obscured by what happened once Rick was pinch-hit for by Dykstra to lead off the ninth.
Dykstra tripled. The Mets scored three runs to tie the Astros. Roger McDowell came on and threw five one-hit innings. He became the pitching hero of that Wednesday afternoon-turned-evening under the Astrodome roof. Then Jesse Orosco became the mythic figure by persevering through three innings, not giving up a tying run a second time, not having to break up a fight between Carter and Hernandez had he thrown a fastball and not catching his glove after firing it in the air.
If Rick Aguilera had given up a run in Game Six of the NLCS, the Mets would have lost and faced the presumably unhittable Mike Scott in Game Seven. Nobody ever frames it that way.
On the other hand, Rick Aguilera was horrible in the World Series, once in Game Two, which was a lost cause by the time he gave up five consecutive singles to Red Sox batters in the seventh inning; and then in Game Six, which was about to be a lost cause after Aggie allowed a leadoff homer to Dave Henderson and another run besides in the top of the tenth. The Mets were about to lose, 5-3, the loss deservedly bound for their last pitcher’s ledger.
The bottom of the tenth redeemed Rick Aguilera through absolutely no doing of his own. With two outs and nobody on, you might have heard, Gary Carter singled. Aguilera was due up next. Rick’s reputation as a good-hitting pitcher was firm after two years in the majors. In 1986, when teams decided to go with 24 instead of 25 players on their rosters, Davey Johnson used Aggie as a pinch-hitter four times (he walked once). As a starting pitcher, Rick homered twice.
But Aguilera wasn’t going to hit for himself with the Mets’ season as literally on the line as it was ever going to be. Per legend, Kevin Mitchell hung up the clubhouse phone, pulled on some pants, pinch-hit for Aggie and singled to continue to the dismemberment of Schiraldi, now very conveniently the Red Sox’ “closer”. Then Ray Knight singled. Then Schiraldi exited, Bob Stanley entered, Mookie Wilson stepped up to bat and so on and so forth and what have you.
You know about the wild pitch that scored Mitchell from third, the less wild pitches Wilson kept fouling off, the fair ball that trickled and got by Bill Buckner…yeah, you know the Mets won, 6-5. It is only the most famous episode in Mets history.
The winning pitcher when the episode was said and done was Rick Aguilera. Few remember that part. No wonder. We December 31ers aren’t used to receiving such gifts on October 26. (Yes, the game was October 25, but ended after midnight, and when you’re born on December 31, you become keenly conscious of the difference between dates when midnight falls in the middle of something.)
When next Rick Aguilera won the sixth game of a World Series, it was five years later. Rick was a Minnesota Twin, having been shipped with four other Mets to Minneapolis in exchange for Frank Viola in 1989. The trade was supposed to catapult the Mets back to a championship. It didn’t. Instead, Aggie developed into a top-notch closer and helped the 1991 Twins to an unlikely American League pennant. One potential run from elimination, they were kept alive in Game Six because Rick Aguilera pitched a scoreless tenth and eleventh, holding the Twins’ fort long enough for Kirby Puckett to take Charlie Liebrandt over the wall to force Game Seven, the one in which Jack Morris didn’t need any relief help to defeat the Braves, 1-0, in ten.
Aggie transitioned to the bullpen his final season in New York. He saved seven games as a Met…and 311 as everything else, pitching for the Twins, the Red Sox and Cubs through 2000. Rick made his retirement official at the outset of Spring Training in 2001 when he was 39 and I was 38. The Twins inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2008 (three years after doing the same for Viola). He finished his career having compiled 318 saves, 86 wins and 3 home runs. I am stuck at zero in all those categories. That one-year head start has apparently been supertough to overcome. Then again, I’m 52 and have yet to announce my retirement.
Happy 53rd, Rick Aguilera. We may never meet, but I’ll always remember your birthday.
Oscar, Oscar…Oscar? We’d recognize his favorite team anywhere.
As another year nears its end, it’s time once again to tip Oscar’s Cap. That is provided it is not stuck under a sea of petrified tuna.
For the third consecutive year, we salute the New York Herald sportswriter who wore his heart on his head. Oscar Madison was a leading columnist in his day, who also wrote a pretty mean Opening Night review with a little help from his friend, yet he never pulled that “I don’t root for teams, I root for stories” nonsense. Oscar regularly wore a Mets cap around the Central Park West apartment he shared with his best buddy/bête noire Felix Unger (née Ungar), commercial photographer, portraits a specialty.
Oscar’s loyalty to his baseball team did not go unnoticed, not on stage, not in the movies and certainly not on five seasons of television as portrayed by the late, great Jack Klugman. Klugman and the Mets were anything but an odd couple.
If Oscar were still on the beat today, perhaps he’d use his platform to shine a light on another pairing that makes all the sense in the world: the Mets and pop culture. Since regrettably he’s not, we will pick up the slack (if not all his slacks off the floor) and proudly present the Oscar’s Cap Awards to those incidences of the Mets showing up in the arts in 2014, whether it was from something that debuted this year, something older we just got around to noticing during the past twelve months or something we were happy to be informed of long after the fact.
As Oscar himself would say in Broadway mode, “move over Oklahoma,” and make room for the year of…
• Sharknado 2: The Next One. It filmed at Citi Field in February 2014. It aired on SyFy, July 30, 2014. It was the MVP of all pop culture things Metsian.
We see fans wait out a snow delay at Citi Field as the title storm approaches.
We see Richard Kind play an otherwise unnoticed ex-Met manager (15 years) and seven-time All-Star second baseman Harland “The Blaster” McGuiness, who grabs a bat in the deserted stands and slugs a shark into the Citi Field sign atop the scoreboard, thus raising the apple and unleashing the organ. (In a flashback, he strikes out against Fernando Valenzuela “25 years ago” to end his career.)
We see Judah Friedlander say, after pounding a shark with an oversized novelty bat on the subway, “Nobody messes with a Mets fan on the 7 train.”
We see characters sit in Section 112. And a cab pull right up to front entrance. And people rush through Jackie Robinson Rotunda. And did we mention it snows?
• If S2:TNO won the Oscar’s Cap division, the first Wild Card went to a perennial award contender, Mad Men. The series that earlier gave us Ken Cosgrove wooing Jane Siegel to a Mets game in 1962, Lane Pryce conducting business under a Mets pennant in 1965 and Don Draper mocking the Mets to neighbor and cuckold Dr. Arnold Rosen in 1968 converged with the Amazins in a period-appropriate manner in 2014…which in Mad Men terms was 1969.
It’s Season Seven, Episode Four (air date 5/4/2014), “The Monolith”. Don is in the late Lane Pryce’s old office, now his. He finds Lane’s familiar Mets pennant tucked away under the baseboard heater. He first seems to discard it but eventually hangs it up where it used to be displayed. Later he gets drunk, calls recovering alcoholic Freddy Rumsen and creates prestige drama history.
KEY METS DIALOGUE:
“Listen, let’s go to Shea. Let’s go see a game, I mean it. Is there a game today? You shouldn’t’ve told me that, ’cause now we’re really going.”
“There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“I want you to Meet the Mets! [sung] Meet the Mets! [spoken]”
“Great idea. Can you walk?”
“Did the Mets win?”
The game in question was, we have deduced, April 21, 1969, a 2-1, 11-inning loss to the Phillies.
• For the second Wild Card, we go to what we assume was a flight of fancy, even though it was presented as biography. Fact or fiction, kudos to Lena Dunham for the following passage from her 2014 book, Not That Kind Of Girl:
“Randy is my gynecologist. I have had a number of gynecologists over the years, all talented in their own ways, but Randy is the best. He is an older Jewish man who, before deciding to inspect ladies down there for a living, played for the Mets. He still has the can-do determination of a pitcher on an underdog team and, to my mind, that is exactly the kind of man you want delivering babies or rooting around in your vagina.”
Or as Tim McCarver might have exclaimed to partner Ralph Kiner when they starred in the trendiest New York-based show on television, “Oh baby, I love it!”
• Netflix find of the year: Shea Stadium, which hovers like an uncredited actor throughout Chop Shop, the determinedly unsentimental 2007 indie film about life on the other side of 126th Street. Ale, the protagonist, watches one game from the elevated subway extension (that, like Shea, has ceased to exist); swipes a set of hubcaps from the parking lot; and goes about his bleak business in the shadow of the old ballpark. Mets logos are spotted in the lot but the word “Mets” is never uttered and, except for one t-shirt worn by an extra in the Iron Triangle, there is no official merchandise. (We also see a lot of the 7 train, the Roosevelt Avenue bridge and the boardwalk that leads to and from the U.S. Open.) Director Ramin Bahrani said he was inspired by the Banco Popular ad on the back of the scoreboard (2006 season) that hyped the bank as a place “Where Dreams Happen”. For the boy at the center of Chop Shop, the dreams are enmeshed in hustling just to get by.
• As faces in the crowd go, you couldn’t miss Mike DiCenzo on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (and Late Night previously) as Mets Bucket Hat Guy, an audience member who plays word association with whatever the host just said, to the host’s consternation. Backstory? DiCenzo, a writer for Fallon, created the Mets portion of his costume from a Mets giveaway bucket hat with the skyline logo one day when he was running late and grabbed it on his way to work.
• Dillon Gee returns to the Oscar’s Cap circle, hopefully not as prelude to his leaving town. In 2013, he showed up in a hip-hop lyric (“I stay in Flushing like I’m Dillon Gee”). A different realm awaited the righty this year. In his annual year-end poem for the December 22, 2014, edition of the New Yorker, “Greetings, Friends!” Ian Frazier wrote, “Our place is strung with miles of lights/And glittered doves ascend in flights/As from their cabs step Dillon Gee,/Darlene Love, Hermione Lee,/Douglas Preston, Efe Kabba,/And Jack Ma of Alibaba.”
• Another Mets player pop culture double-dipper: Rey Ordoñez. After serving as titular Met for songstress Kate Jacobs a while back, news of normalized relations with Cuba brought forth word of “Ballad of Rey Ordoñez,” a 2011 ditty out of Canada, by the Isotopes, also known as Isotopes Punk Rock Baseball Club. The “Ballad” tells the story of his defection (“Hopped a cyclone fence in Buffalo”), his failure to hit (“They walk the pitcher when I’m on deck”) and his legendary defensive prowess (“Now I’m making highlights like nobody’s ever seen”).
• The Baseball Project paid homage to Lenny Dykstra’s rise and fall in 2014’s “From Nails To Thumbtacks”. They gave the Mets an additional shoutout in “The Baseball Card Song,” wherein the narrator won’t sell his cards but trades them for stock in a startup and now owns the New York Mets. (Oh, if only.)
• Dan Bern put out the CD “Doubleheader,” comprised entirely of songs about baseball. The song “When My Buckner Moment Comes” doesn’t explicitly namecheck the Mets, but their participation is implied.
• Caryn Rose of Metsgrrl fame published the novel A Whole New Ballgame in 2014 and laced it with 2006-2007 references.
• On Maron, May 15, 2014 (Season 2, Episode 2, “Marc’s New Friend”), Marc finds himself in a sports memorabilia store where his showbiz buddy Ray Romano casually purchases a “’68 Seaver” and a “’69 Ryan”. Later Ray shows off an ashtray that once belonged to Casey Stengel, to which sports-challenged Marc asks, “from Casey and the Sunshine Band?”
• Moving from IFC to CBS, in Hawaii Five-O Season 4 Episode 19 (April 11, 2014), “Blood Brothers,” we have been informed Danno (Scott Caan) is pinned under wreckage in the basement of a collapsed building, and to calm his nerves he starts reciting the starting players from the 1986 Mets, listing Backman, Hernandez, Santana, Knight, Foster and Wilson. Later he works his way to 1992, invokes Saberhagen and Bonilla and somehow isn’t soothed.
• An impulsive decision to watch Season 3, Episode 10 of The Patty Duke Show, “Sick In Bed” (11/17/1965) on Antenna TV one day yielded retro gold. A Mets pennant, in which the silhouette of a player is illustrated batting in the middle of the skyline logo, was displayed prominently on the bookshelf of Patty Lane’s bedroom.
• Red Sox überfan Ben Affleck refused his director’s request to wear a Yankees cap in 2014’s Gone Girl. So to signify he was arriving in New York, he went what he called the “Switzerland” route and chose something much better: a black Mets cap…a choice surely worthy of an Oscar’s Cap.
• Mets überfan Jon Stewart wears a black Mets cap in fellow Mets überfan Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Season 4, Episode 5, posted July 17, 2014.
• “This Monday was Opening Day of the new Major League Baseball season, and the reopening of old wounds day for Mets fans.”
—Colin Jost, Saturday Night Live, Weekend Update, 4/5/2014
• A R Kennedy’s Nathan Miccoli 2013-2014 mystery series includes Lily, “a big Mets fan” and “key scenes” that occur at Citi Field.
• One of the co-authors of the Left Behind book series, Jerry Jenkins has named some of his minor characters Tommy Agee, Donald Clendenon, and George Seaver.
• Retro Recollection One: Shea Stadium appeared in a 1964 commercial in which after a close play at home, the umpire does not yell safe or out but rather “Topkapi” — plugging an upcoming movie release — to the stunned looks of the runner and the catcher.
• Retro Recollection Two: The newspaper headline on the sports page read by a construction worker in the 1965 film “How To Murder Your Wife” referred to the Mets fearing Carl Willey had suffered a broken jaw.
• Did you know that in one episode of Friends Joey and Janice went to a Mets game and Janice made it through Bat Day? You do now.
• “Easy Come Easy Go” by Caught In A Trap (2014) was inspired by the 2006 Mets. The theme is coming close and falling short. “They were CLOSE…then they choked!!!” band member Rich Fie told VENTS magazine. Lyrics include: “I thought we had our eyes on the prize/
We were heading towards the promised land/But then you threw it all away/Yet you expect me just to understand”
• Garland Jeffreys revealed his 1992 song, “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” was based on an epithet hurled his way at Shea during a Doc Gooden-Nolan Ryan showdown.
• From the comic books, specifically The New Mutants, April 1987 (Volume 1, No. 50):
“Last I looked the Mets were in first place by miles! I hope they go all the way and win the World Series!”
“Pardon my ignorance, but I’ve been out of touch for a while. Who are these ‘Mets’?”
• From the comic pages, specifically the syndicated Peanuts strip on November 22, 2014, which originally ran in 1967:
LUCY (to Linus, who’s sitting in front of the television): Little brothers should stand when big sisters enter the room.
LINUS (standing): You’re right…I beg your pardon…
[LINUS stands and thinks while sits and watches television)
LINUS: Little brothers are the New York Mets of life!
• “Metropolitans” appears on 45 Adapters’ 2012 album, Collected Works Vol. 1. The track urges “Let’s Go Metropolitans,” samples Gary Cohen’s call of Endy’s catch and namechecks great names and moments in Mets history.
• A kid in a hardware store wears an adjustable Mets cap in Arthur 2: On The Rocks (1988).
• A Mets pennant is visible behind the bar in the 2014 movie The Drop.
• In the 1994 French/American sci-fi film Stargate, Kurt Russell mourns a son he thinks is gone, a young man who appears in a photograph wearing a 1980s-style Mets uniform.
• Dig out your copy of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1971 album E. Plurbus Fun. Turn it over. Look what’s portrayed as if on the back of a silver coin. Why, it’s Shea Stadium!
• “We played Shea more than the Beatles did,” Larry Kirwan of Black 47 told the New York Times. this past November. (Larry meant after Mets games, a half-dozen times, on Irish Night.)
• Playing Shea does eternal wonders for an artist’s reputation. When Supreme Court Justice (and Yankees follower) Sonia Sotomayor presented the Library of Congress George Gershwin Award for Popular Song to Billy Joel, November 19, 2014, she felt compelled to declare, “Tonight we honor Long Island’s favorite son, even if he is a Mets fan.” We forgive Sotomayor her poor off-court judgment considering the heroic save she recorded when she ended the 1994-95 baseball strike. We forgive Joel his pre-2008 indiscretions as well, seeing as how The Last Play At Shea obliterated them.
• Will playing Shea’s successor have the same halo effect? We’ll know someday. In the meantime, consider a photo the Mets recently displayed on their Facebook page. In it the Foo Fighters all hold or wear Mets jerseys numbered 15 to promote their 2015 Citi Field concert.
• “The Mets need speed. The Mets need power. The Mets need pitching. That’s what I’m thinking about right now […] I would take any one of the three: speed, power or pitching.”
—Jim Harper to Maggie Jordan, ignoring her EPA report scoop (as he tended to ignore everything she bothered to say), The Newsroom, “Main Justice,” S3, E3, November 23, 2014.
In the Newsroom universe, the episode took place on April 22, 2013, or three days after Matt Harvey proved the Mets already had pitching.
• And what’s this? In the 1998 sequel The Odd Couple II, a Bruce Stark print of Yogi Berra as Mets manager hangs in Oscar’s apartment. Oscar is also asked if covering minor league ball in Sarasota is comedown after years of writing about “the Yankees and the Mets”.
• And, finally, what could be more appropriate than this? Matthew Perry as Oscar Madison sports a Mr. Met t-shirt in a publicity still promoting the premiere of the rebooted Odd Couple, coming to CBS on February 19, 2015…the very same day pitchers and catchers and perhaps New York Herald columnists report to Port St. Lucie.
A sincere thank you to all Faith and Fear readers, Crane Pool Forum members and everybody else on the Internet from whom we co-opted select Mets pop culture sightings past and present in 2014. We enthusiastically tip our Oscar’s Cap to you, too! And please — if in 2015 you see something Mets (outside SNY, MLBN, et al), say something to us.
“It’s pretty hard to say goodbye to anything.”
—Terry Collins, September 26
On September 28, we were prepared to say goodbye to the 2014 baseball season and one of its featured players. If the Mets were listed like a movie cast, Bobby Abreu would have been presented last, with a generous “AND” preceding his credit. He was a Special Guest Star in our midst, a big name dropped in to provide wow factor. Abreu wasn’t in a position to dazzle us much with his play any longer, but he did come to us with a sparkling Baseball Reference résumé. Five years from now, when he’s being overlooked for Hall of Fame consideration, everybody who wasn’t following the Mets at the end of his career will likely offer a similar take on how his career ended:
“Bobby Abreu was a Met?”
Some Mets fans (most, probably) will eventually paddle the same boat, but on the last weekend of his last season, there was no doubt with whom Abreu was reaching the end of the line. Bobby gave a teary “adios” address to the press on Friday night the 26th. His manager, Terry Collins, the one who’d known him from his first month in the majors eighteen years earlier, let it be known that Abreu would be on the field before it was all over and that he’d “walk off with his head held high”.
So he did. Collins started Abreu in right field in Game 162, batting him second. Come the fifth inning, Bobby did what we in attendance wanted him to do. He connected for a base hit, reached first, tipped his cap and indeed walked off with his head held high. He had been a Met by mutual convenience. Abreu needed a place to conduct his unfinished business and the Mets weren’t beyond relying a little much on a 41-year-old who hadn’t played in the majors since he was 39. If all had truly worked out, Abreu would have proven himself a lefthanded pinch-hitter deluxe on the order of Kranepool and Staub and Lenny Harris. He might produced a legendary bases-loaded line drive like Matt Franco or shocked the house as Marlon Anderson did via inside-the-park home run. Instead, other than serving as a venerable bookend to Bartolo Colon, he didn’t accomplish a load. It took one more favor from the front office to bring him back for September from Las Vegas after he proved ineffective off the bench by midsummer. On Closing Day, though, we decided he was our guy and we sent him off as such.
“Special,” Bobby called his final swing for a single off Houston righty Nick Tropeano. It was “the way that I wanted to end it — on the field.”
Abreu said farewell to the game he loved with Eisenhowerian élan and we, in turn, bid a heartfelt adieu to a player we took to heart at the very last minute of his tenure with us. Yet we never thought to as much as wave across the diamond to Eric Young, Jr. A year earlier on the same basic occasion in the same ballpark EY had reason to take a Closing Day bow. The son of a major leaguer — who grew up in New Jersey rooting for the Mets, for goodness sake — swiped two bases and brought a stolen base crown to Flushing, the only Met besides Jose Reyes to reign with his feet. The first eight bags were accumulated in Colorado garb, but it was as a Met that he broke out. For a while there in 2013, Eric’s alacrity was the catalyst that made the Mets go. Every cliché you remembered from the ’70s and ’80s seemed to come true. Our fastest man led off, got on, ran and we won. Speed didn’t slump.
Then it did. Young’s 2014 didn’t glitter. First the Mets would win with him in the lineup even if his numbers weren’t stacking up. Then they wouldn’t win. Then he didn’t play. By September 28, he was the pinch-runner for Abreu, the ex-Phillie and ex-Yankee who received the parting ovation; he scored in his stead, too, when Lucas Duda doubled him home. Five innings later, the final out of the Mets’ season landed in EY’s glove.
He was non-tendered on December 2, out of our lives as quickly as he’d go from first to third. We never did say goodbye.
No goodbye to or from Eric Young, Jr., save for social media. No goodbye to Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose last appearance as a Met came September 25. Dice-K, who morphed over time (but not as much time as we tended to attribute to him) from the worst of torpid Steve Trachsel to the best of handy Ray Sadecki, converted his free agency into a deal with the Softbank Hawks in Japan. No goodbye, either, to Gonzalez Germen, whose final throw for the Mets was fired in the same Nationals Park nightcap where Matsuzaka let loose his last Met pitch. The middle reliever with the two slightly confusing names, who was pretty good in 2013 and not quite so good in 2014, was sold to the Yankees just the week before Christmas. No goodbyes to Andrew Brown, who homered on Opening Day, or Juan Centeno, who threw out Billy Hamilton, or Buddy Carlyle, who soaked up innings. The sendoff Abreu got was the aberration, not the norm.
One of the strangest aspects of being a diehard fan of a given team is that we invest ourselves in the fortunes of total strangers and then, when they are removed from our laundry, we usually move on without as much as a goodbye. Abreu flashed us the sign that he was going and we executed the clap and run. Young, Matsuzaka, Germen and anybody else we didn’t realize we’d never see again as Mets weren’t able to extend any such hints.
It was just business. We’re cool with that, generally speaking. We get it. In our minds, we tinker with the roster without anybody asking our opinion. We’ll pull for any 25 Mets you put in front of us, but we’ll love the ones who win on a regular basis. The ones who don’t have to have left us with a pretty good reason to care that they’re gone. Attrition and deletion and transactions happen. They have to. It’s how nature renews itself. It’s how 79 wins might become more than 81.
It’s still strange that there’s no formalized separation process, no severance package that encompasses a standard amount of applause and atta-boys. You might luck into being a ticketholder on the day it is clear Bobby Abreu is done being a Met, but otherwise, it’s all very sudden and matter-of-course. Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, as the Billy Joel lyric that accompanied scores of awkward head shots in the Long Island high school yearbooks of my adolescence went, I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again. Except the opportunity to say goodbye to the so many faces in and out of our lives is surprisingly rare.
In 2014, I said goodbye to Bobby Abreu, baseball fan to baseball player. I said a few other scattered goodbyes as well. Those on the other end of my sentiments had no idea that’s what I was doing, but that’s OK. These were for me as much as it was for them.
A POSTHUMOUS SALUTE
Richie the Cop (1964-2013)
A sizable plurality of the inscriptions I collected in my high school yearbook made reference to one of two distinguishing characteristics of my life in the spring of 1981: I had been editor of our school paper and I was the most obvious Mets fan going. If my yearbook was within easy reach (rather than buried in a box underneath a pile of other boxes), I could quote accurately and warmly my favorite bon voyage. As is, I remember the gist pretty well.
“I hope you get to write about the Mets for a big paper company like the Daily News.”
“A big paper company,” but not like Georgia-Pacific. I always liked that. I liked the guy who wrote it, too. He was a Mets fan, which I suppose was why I asked him to sign. We’d been to a game together in 1980, the year the Magic was said to be Back, a week or so after it became clear it had all gone “poof”. The Mets lost to the Giants that night. Mark Bomback pitched all right, but Lee Mazzilli got himself thrown out at home.
Anyway, the guy’s name was Richie the Cop. I could tell you his last name, but it seems superfluous. We all called him Richie the Cop, kind of as a joke, but not exactly. I’m 99% certain he signed my yearbook as Richie the Cop.
Richie the Cop might have wished me luck in a prospective career that meshed with what I’d been doing in high school, but Richie, a year behind me (so I didn’t get to return the favor, yearbookwise), never left any room for doubt as to what his future held. It was all there in his name.
He was going to be a cop. Hell, he might have already been a cop, and he was only sixteen. Seriously, he already had ins with the local police and fire departments; he was organizing a chapter of the Guardian Angels when they were hot stuff; I think he was captain of the Civil Air Patrol. Anytime I had to write a story that touched on school safety or security, I had to go-to sources: our principal and Richie the Cop.
Our shared fondness for the Mets and the time I watched Halloween at his house on WHT (that’s Wometco Home Theater for you young streamers out there) notwithstanding, most of my relationship with Richie was of a friends-in-law nature. He was a friend of a friend, so I can’t say I ever really got to know why he was determined to be a cop. Simply, he was Richie the Cop when I met him, he was Richie the Cop when he signed my yearbook, he was Richie the Cop a couple of times when his name came up in conversation post-graduation, which wasn’t very often.
Last weekend, as news broke about the awful shootings of two New York City police officers, my mind (probably instinctively wishing to avoid the sadly predictable grandstanding that followed) wandered to Richie the Cop. I wondered whatever happened to him. It didn’t take a ton of Googling to discover a) he became a cop — an NYPD detective — and remained a volunteer fireman; b) he threw himself full-bore into the rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center; c) he served 20 years on the force before retiring to Florida; d) he contracted lung cancer from prolonged exposure to the air at Ground Zero; and e) he died from it at 48 in 2013.
I read the truly heartfelt remembrances of him; found he was at the center of a petty homeowners association controversy regarding the flag he chose to fly in front of his house; and listened to him describe to high school students in 2011 what it was like to be smack in the middle of the events of September 11, 2001, and how for him and his fellow first responders it was a date that lasted unfathomably far beyond the day in question. Richie the Cop from high school wound up being Richie the Cop in every sense of the word.
Thirty-three years have passed since he wished me well writing about the Mets for a big paper company like the Daily News. Come to think of it, that may have been our final encounter. Still, when I learned of his passing, I felt like I lost more than a friend of a friend from a very long time ago. As a decent human being, I generated sympathy for his family and sorrow for his suffering, yet as someone who had come into contact with him on a recurring basis as he came of age, I registered little sense of surprise. This man, when he was a kid, was ready to serve when the rest of us hadn’t a clue as to what we were going to do with our lives. He knew what he’d do with his, and, ultimately, he’d give it in service to others.
To have died as a result of what he always wanted to do was a tragedy. To have lived doing what he always wanted to do…let’s just say there was no chance Richie the Cop was going to turn out to be merely a high school nickname.
FAREWELL WITH FAIR WARNING & a side of kasha
Adiós Edison (1980-2014)
Too often you don’t know you’re saying goodbye to the institutions you counted on to always be there. Got a place you like to eat? Maybe not a place you go every week or month but you knew it would be around forever because it had always been around forever? Then one day you hear it won’t be?
Maybe you heard about the Edison. It was tough to miss the coverage, if you were so inclined. Word came down in early November that the Edison — Cafe Edison at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street — was closing. It was the same story anybody who likes any place in Manhattan that isn’t overpriced runs into. Big Nick’s on the Upper West Side, where Stephanie and I continued our first date from Shea Stadium, went out because of high rents in 2013. Smith’s, in the West 40s, where now there’ll never be a plaque on the wall commemorating it as the spot I was offered my first book deal, went out because of high rents in 2014. Inevitably it was the Edison’s turn.
No, thank you, Cafe Edison.
Miles of homages were written to the Edison between the time it was known the doors would close and the time they closed on December 21. All hit essentially the same notes: anachronistically reasonable prices for Times Square; they’d let you sit and talk; locals didn’t feel outnumbered by tourists; Broadway types would casually come and go (we once saw Peter Gallagher chatting up the cashier while Tony Roberts kept to himself at the counter); great matzoh ball soup.
Yes to all that. Yes to a coffee shop that had been in action since 1980 but I would have guessed 1945. No sentimentality needed. When you sat down at the Edison, there were whiffs of disinfectant to be caught. The service was fast but not remarkably friendly. You were better off sticking to essentials than roaming the menu free-range. With all that taken into account, though, there was no need to dismiss it from the hotel to make room for another upscale eatery. But that’s what was going to happen by late December.
Stephanie and I, who’d been dining intermittently at the Edison since 1997 — before Chicago, after Mamma Mia, on the heels of the King Tut exhibit around the corner (geez, who’s a tourist now?) — were determined to make one last pilgrimage. We never thought we’d have to. Who’d get rid of the Edison?
Then again, who’d get rid of the Variety Store? The Variety Store was a staple of my childhood. It was on Park Street a few doors down from the Associated run by Murray the Goniff, as my parents called him. No goniffs at the Variety Store. Need school supplies? You’d go to the Variety Store. Want Colorforms? The Variety Store would hook you up. Overcome with the desire for a little paddleball with the string attached? The Variety Store would take care of you. Gotta blow bubbles? The Variety Store had all the fixings sealed in one handy little container for under a buck. There were adult things, kid things, most things. Maybe they sold carburetors in the back. The mostly infallible Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book gave an unnecessarily hard time to “variety stores completely lacking in variety”. Ours, on Park Street, had variety.
What they had less and less of, I noticed as fourth grade became fifth, was customers. When I made my way inside, which wasn’t as often as I had in first and second grades, I noticed I never had to wait in line. I hadn’t seen a line there in years. Maybe that was why the Variety Store didn’t last to sixth grade. They held a going-out-of-business sale. It was dandy. Oodles of people. Scores of sales being rung up. The store that seemed so sad unshopped brightened up at the end. The mom ‘n’ pop who ran the store never stopped smiling as long they had a bustling clientele.
It was only temporary. Just like the Edison when we visited the first week of December. But I picked up the same Variety Store vibe. Everybody was friendly to the point of being festive. We didn’t tell our waitress anything like “It’s such a shame you’re closing.” She knew it. We knew it. All that was worth saying, really, was a cup of matzoh ball soup, please, a matzoh brei and, oh what the hell, a side of kasha varnishkes, even though at the Edison, a side of kasha varnishkes is the metric equivalent of a side of beef.
It’s not that hard to find a good bowl of matzoh ball soup in New York. It’s damn near impossible to track down a matzoh brei. The kasha varnishkes, I’ll freely admit, was pouring it on. Still, as I rationalized to Stephanie, what’s the point of coming for one last meal at the Edison if it’s not going to be your last meal at the Edison? Perhaps if I’d finished every last bite of brei and varnishkes it would have been my last meal, but modest restraint in consumption, like our legs en route to our evening’s entertainment, was exercised.
I left one of my larger tips — if you’re not going to be a sport here now, then when? — and we ambled uptown for a play called “The Oldest Boy,” which was, in its way, also about saying goodbye. Reincarnation was at the heart of the plot. In a related development, the keepers of Cafe Edison suggest maybe they’ll reopen for blintzness elsewhere.
COLI-SEE-YA DOWN THE ROAD
Vaya con Dios Islanders (1972-2015)
For ten years, I’ve lived four miles from a venue where one of North America’s four major professional sports is played. For more than 30 years before that, I’ve never lived all that much farther away. Yet in the 42 National Hockey League seasons that unfolded at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum between 1972 and 2014, I attended exactly one New York Islanders game, on February 24, 1990, primarily at the behest of a friend who grew up in Rockland, moved away and had recently moved back to New York. He’d never seen the Islanders he’d listened to as a kid, the ones broadcast on radio by John Sterling on a station you could actually pick up throughout the Metropolitan Area. Neither had I. What the hell, I figured on that Saturday afternoon not quite a quarter-century ago. We drove over, parked, walked up to the box office and purchased two tickets. The Islanders and the Red Wings tied at three. I was glad to have done it once but, honestly, it didn’t strike me as all that exciting.
I wasn’t fully moved to return until I knew the 43rd season of Islander hockey at the Coliseum would be the last. I’d been thinking about going for a while, though. Caught up in the excitement of the Islanders’ conquest of the Capitals and Penguins in the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, I suggested to Stephanie, “We should go to an Islanders game next year!” I believe the response was tepid.
This exchange was repeated every few winters until last month when between periods one night — “you sure are watching the Islanders a lot lately,” she noted with the accuracy of Mike Bossy in his prime — I finally got her. Well, Bobby Nystrom’s mini-locker got her. It was part of an ongoing promotion. You buy a special ticket to a given game, you get a mini-locker bearing the tiny sweater of a Hall of Fame Islander. They were showing an extended highlight of Nystrom’s game-winning goal from 1980 versus the Flyers, the one that brought Long Island its first of four Cups, which probably wouldn’t have attracted Stephanie’s attention, except a) I was treating the footage with Buckneresque reverence and b) they showed a picture of the mini-locker.
My lady apparently can’t resist a mini-locker. And I could no longer resist the pull of a place I hadn’t visited since Billy Joel rang in 1994. Funny, I resisted it for two decades just fine. We went to Billy’s New Year’s Eve concert in ’93. It was my 31st-birthday present to myself. The tickets had to be bought through a broker who advertised in Newsday. I want to say they cost me 80 bucks apiece, an absurd amount for a concert at the Nassau Coliseum, I thought, except it was my birthday and this was Billy Joel and he and I were both Long Islanders.
The concert was splendid. The Coliseum was frightening. Mostly the getting out. A jammed arena, narrow concourses, preternaturally impatient natives, a parking lot that didn’t easily give up its automobiles. I’d seen the lights go out on Hempstead Turnpike and it wasn’t pretty.
I didn’t need to back there…except for one more Islanders game. Even though it was claustrophobic over there. Even though I was always hearing how the building was falling apart. Even though I had grown to fear and loathe driving and there was no rational public transit route from where I lived. Even though the sight of me watching hockey for more than five seconds at a clip was surprising enough to someone who’s lived with me for more than 24 years that she was moved to comment on the novelty of it. Some nights we have hockey on in the background so much that you could film a Kids In The Hall sketch in our living room.
The Islanders were finally good again, though I’d like to think bandwagoning was only a little of a motivator. It was mostly the goodbye. It seemed not quite right to ignore what was happening four miles away. Here was the descendant of one of the great sporting dynasties of my lifetime, my team (to the extent I’ve maintained one in my fourth-favorite sport), my home turf. Next year, the Islanders break away to Brooklyn to join the Nets. Brooklyn is Long Island like 2000 was part of the last millennium: technically, it’s true; really, it’s not.
No, not quite right. The mini-lockers with Nystrom’s name, the promised appearance of Mr. Islander himself, the resurgence in the standings, the electricity palpable when I watched on MSG+ and listened to Howie Rose and Butch Goring, the accommodating scheduling of a Saturday afternoon game on December 6 because, even though it’s only a four-mile trek, for me four miles of driving can be like 400 for you, the now-or-almost-never aspect, the wife’s curiosity piqued just enough to get a nod of “sure” when I said tickets were available.
So I bought ’em and we went. It rained that Saturday, which automatically makes me extra nervous behind the wheel, but my back roads of choice were familiar enough to nullify the inherent discomfort, and before we knew it — because four miles is 396 fewer than 400 — the Coliseum was in view. I crossed Hempstead Turnpike, made the right I had to make on Earle Ovington Boulevard, gave a fellow in a booth $8, asked if this is where I exit from when the game is over (it was), and found a space with no problem.
I hadn’t driven to a sporting event since 2005. How strange to do something you almost never do, something you might never do again unless you get over your anxieties (or the Mets move to the Town of Hempstead). My driving yips kicked in approximately two decades ago and never departed. Maybe if they hadn’t materialized I’d have driven to another Islanders game sooner. Maybe my lightly used car wouldn’t predate the last good Islanders playoff run, the one from 1993.
From the outside, the Coliseum looked no different from the one I put in my rearview mirror in the early hours of January 1, 1994. It looks no different from the one I saw when I got off the Long Beach Recreation Center bus on November 29, 1974, for my first and only ABA game (Nets 107 Colonels 98). That’s the disconnect I have with the idea that the Coliseum is old and outdated. Hockey types, usually with a mix of affection and resignation, have taken to calling the Coliseum “the old barn”. Barn is a compliment. But old? How could it be old? It looks like it did when it opened in 1972, and when it opened in 1972, it was state-of-the-art. That’s what I always see when I see the Coliseum from the outside. It’s also what I see when I see my 1992 Corolla that I drive as little as possible, thus it has far less mileage than the building next to where it was parked a few rainy Saturday afternoons ago. First impressions are hard for me to shake.
I expected Will Call to be a hassle. It wasn’t. Our tickets were waiting for us there, along with our mini-locker vouchers. I expected the fetching of mini-lockers to be a hassle. It wasn’t. I handed over our vouchers, I was cheerfully given our lockers. I expected to lean against a wall and chew on a pretzel for an hour before game time, but there are actually a couple of sit-down restaurants in the Coliseum basement (establishments that summon the shoehorned spirit of the Casey’s 37 deli in Loge, except with seats). The accommodations helped win Stephanie over since she hates when I bring her to sporting events where we wind up leaning against a wall and chewing on a pretzel for an hour before game time. I usually compound the unattractiveness of those situations by trying to convince her what fun she’s having.
Unlike the Alamo, the Coliseum has a basement. It’s ice level, I gathered, because it’s where everybody who has business on the ice who isn’t a player or a ref seems to loiter. Various youth groups would be ushered on and off the ice through the course of the day to sing patriotic anthems. I saw the first batch ahead of their moment in the spotlight, down in the basement before the game. I like that you can’t hide at the Nassau Coliseum. We’re all in this together.
We had our “bistro” lunch, which was appropriately overpriced but quality, and re-entered the real Coliseum, where there were no cutesy cafes, just concourses that, with a sellout crowd, are presumably designed to squeeze the ever-lovin’ life out of you. It could’ve been Billy Joel New Year’s Eve flashback time, but I think that experience worked to our advantage. We knew how it could get. Plus, Stephanie and I are both longtime Long Islanders now. The missus can throw an elbow or check a hip with the best of them.
Saving grace to the milling masses: many Mets caps dotted the concourse. Orange and blue go very well with blue and orange.
I learned later that one of Stephanie’s hesitations vis-à-vis live hockey was she assumed violence wasn’t confined to the ice or getting through the ladies room line. Maybe at a Flyers-Rangers game in the ’70s, but nah, not here. Didn’t even occur to me. If anything, the Coliseum atmosphere, as taken in once we climbed to our seats in section 309, was as warm as any I’d encountered at a sporting venue. Saturday afternoon in Uniondale. Lots of families, lots of kids, bushels of enthusiasm. Standing O for Bobby Nystrom when he dropped the ceremonial puck. “Jaro! Jaro!” for the hot goalie Halak I won’t pretend to have heard of until this season. The “Let’s Go I-lan-ders!” chant I always appreciated from afar in the dynasty days. Even a polite ripple of applause, us included, for Martin Brodeur when he alighted in a Blues uniform (boos, too, ’cause, c’mon). The only expression of approval I couldn’t get behind was the “YES! YES! YES!” thing that’s caught on after Islander goals because some idiot Phillies fan ruined that for me back in May.
Islander goals were plentiful in the first period, which was outstanding because not only did it appear the home team was going to make us all happy, but it put the whole thing in a sweet light. See, the action said to Stephanie, this is ice hockey at its best. We’re all cheering and chanting and the weirdo in the Blues sweater in front of us can’t say anything and this is the Coliseum being the Coliseum as I’ve always understood it, the way Shea was Shea as I choose to remember it.
The game fell apart in the second period. The Blues matched the Islanders’ three goals in a blink. All the scoring, until John Tavares (no relation to Frank Taveras) grabbed the lead back late in the second, had occurred in our direction, making me think the Coliseum was unfairly titled the way a knock hockey table I recall from Camp Avnet was. But, no, the third period showed the Islanders couldn’t kill a penalty anywhere on this Saturday and St. Louis skated away with a 6-4 win, much to the sickening satisfaction of the weirdo Blues fan in front of me.
I properly despaired of the result because the Isles had been doing so well and I’d been paying attention and now it was all in front of me and maybe I was a jinx. But, y’know, it was just a game, and we had a disproportionate amount of fun compared to how much we know from hockey. I was surprised at how well I followed the action considering I’ve never been more than a dabbler in the sport. A loyal dabbler, to be sure. I’ve cared for the Islanders’ fate since they got off to a swell start in 1974-75 and held my limited allegiance forever after. But, as a friend put it to me when I admitted I could only commit to so much of anything that isn’t baseball, “You have enough on your plate with the Mets.”
A loyal Islanders dabbler makes one last pilgrimage.
True. Over the years, I’ve become reluctant to identify myself as “an Islanders fan” or “a Nets fan” or “a Giants fan,” no matter that those are my favorite franchises in their given endeavors, because I call myself a Mets fan and I know what goes into that. Let’s just say I’m a Mets fan who likes those teams, too, mostly on television. 2014 was the first year I was fortunate enough to see all of them in their respective buildings. When cheering for the Nets at Barclays Center, the Giants at MetLife Stadium and the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, I was legitimately part of the “we,” but still felt like a bit of a guest. These are other people’s habitats and I consciously respected their folkways. At Citi Field, despite its insistence on not being Shea Stadium, I’m in my habitat. I have my own ways.
When my second and Stephanie’s first Islanders game was over, we took our time departing 309. We snapped a few pictures, soaked in all the championship banners, then regained our bearings and visited the team store. We were intentionally pokey partly to let the arena and the lot clear out and partly because I wasn’t in the mood to abruptly sever my relationship with either the cheerful afternoon or the allegedly old barn. Though I briefly envisioned constructing a winter in which I garnered the confidence to make the four-mile trek on a few non-rainy weeknights — because, y’know, I’m so into the Islanders — I knew I wouldn’t. I knew this would be it. A year from now, the team will be situated two counties west in a facility I find promising for basketball but was by no means designed for hockey (though I can’t complain about its accessibility by train). The building we were in, the only one the team and its community have ever known, will attempt to schedule other attractions once the skates and sticks are loaded up and shipped to Brooklyn. Maybe we’ll come back for Ice Capades. Probably not.
The diehards who filled the amenity-deprived joint on this Saturday afternoon and have filed into it in fluctuating numbers but with bedrock passion since 1972 will be left to wonder what the hell was wrong with the way it had been. Fans of the New York Islanders — even those of us on the veritable fourth line of engagement — had just done what fans at a game are supposed to do. We were into it. Unlike my 2014 experience with the Giants and the Nets and the Mets, there wasn’t a lot of getting up and walking around and fiddling with phones. There was nowhere to walk around to. When you’re voluntarily in the middle of nowhere, you don’t really miss what isn’t there. The pedestrian traffic defies regulation and the bathroom capacities are counterintuitive considering the presence of a beverage-consuming public, yet not once in sixty minutes plus two intermissions did I think it would sure be great to be distracted by something else while I’m here. There was hockey. That’s what you paid for. That, and maybe a Bobby Nystrom mini-locker if you paid a little extra, is what you got.
It was a good deal.
A DO-OVER ADIEU
Hello Again, Goodbye Again, 653 (1962-1991)
I went home again in August. Screw you, Thomas Wolfe.
This was a one-shot, a one-off, a make-good, you might say. This was home in both the spiritual and physical sense, but it’s not where I live. Not now.
This was 653 — not to be confused with .653, which was Chris Young’s OPS at one point in late May. This 653 was the number on the door of the house I grew up in. I’ve had no legal entry to 653 since 1991, when my father sold it. I didn’t live there anymore and he didn’t want to live there anymore. It wasn’t in the family anymore.
So why would I be inside it?
I still spent a lot of time there in my dreams. I don’t mean I wistfully wished to while away my days at 653 on the East End of good old Long Beach. I mean whenever I had a dream that involved “home,” it almost invariably played out there. I assume that’s a common phenomenon. Your subconscious doesn’t necessarily receive change-of-address cards. Home doesn’t stop being home. Or so I’ve dreamed.
In my waking hours, 653 was consigned comfortably to the past from 1991 until 2012 when I consciously decided I kinda wanted back in one more time. 2012 was the summer I decided to get all sentimental journeyish about turning 50 and I went back to my hometown and my home street. I walked by once or twice or thrice on a sunny Sunday afternoon while listening to the Mets and Astros play their final National League game. I was like my friend from high school who used to drive by the house of this girl he liked. He wasn’t a stalker, but he acted like one. Like him, I don’t know what I would’ve done had the light been on and somebody stepped outside to issue an invitation in. In his case, the girl was a girl. In my case, the girl was a house.
I acted like a stalker toward 653 in the summer of 2012. I acted like a concerned stalker a few months later, after Sandy. I had to see if she…it was all right. It looked OK. I drove by it on a weekday afternoon. I don’t think anybody was home.
This past August, I found myself in Long Beach for what’s become something of an annual tradition. In 2012, I strolled the boardwalk and stalked the house. In 2013, I inspected the section of the boardwalk that had been rebuilt post-superstorm and stalked the house, though only fleetingly. In 2014, this time with that very same aforementioned friend from high school (who I’m pretty sure has stopped looking for that girl), I casually continued my quest.
Casually, as in we decided it would be nice to get together for brunch and catch up one Saturday morning that became a Saturday afternoon (because neither of us is a morning person) and it was plenty nice. He picked me up and we drove to the Laurel Luncheonette, one of the true culinary icons of Long Beach. I don’t know the last time we ate at the Laurel before that Saturday. It looked sort of different, it smelled exactly the same, it tasted great. We tasted enough so that we needed a full-on boardwalk stroll afterwards.
This year’s boardwalk was the completed version of the in-progress model from 2013. Sandy tore it apart. Our federal tax dollars (mostly) put it back together. In August of 2014, I considered it a fine investment. Like the Laurel, it’s not quite what it was but it’s essentially as good.
We strolled and we caught up and we reached the end of the boardwalk, a long nine blocks east. Our next stop was going to be my friend’s house, where his mother still lived, but since we were in the neighborhood — 653 isn’t far from the boardwalk’s eastern terminus — I said how about we make a little detour to “my house”?
I was stalking again. And this time a figurative light was on. That is to say that for the first time since 1991, I saw somebody sitting on the porch at 653. It wasn’t anybody related to me, but it wasn’t an apparition, either. It was a woman who by all indications lived where I used to live.
Now was my turn to be a Becker…and wouldn’t you like to be a Becker, too? The Beckers, you see, were the family who preceded us at 653. For years we received their junk mail. One time we received a couple of Beckers, maybe just passing through Long Beach, maybe on their own sentimental journey. I don’t remember the details. I just remember people showed up at our door explaining they used to live here, can we come in and have a look around? We were a suspicious bunch, but we said sure. We even did the same for the people who preceded the Beckers, people we wouldn’t have known from a hole in the head. Ever since 1991 and the abbreviated, dissatisfying goodbye I said to 653 — my father was selling because my mother had died the year before and nobody was in the mood to linger one sentimental second longer — I intermittently imagined a Becker moment for myself. It wasn’t really a thing for me until 2012. Not having it happen meant I kept thinking about it and kept dreaming about the house…the house that now had a person on the porch.
Here it was. My innate shyness didn’t stand a chance. This was no time for reticence or fear of rejection. This was 653 and a woman who could let me in so I could have the moment with it I didn’t get 23 years earlier.
“Excuse me,” I said after climbing the stairs. “I know this is going to sound strange, but I grew up in this house and…”
“You’re Prince?” she asked sans surprise, as if she’d been expecting me.
So it wasn’t strange. It wasn’t strange at all. Once a 653er, maybe always a 653er. Not only had Prince returned home, but I learned that somewhere between 1991 and 2014, an actual Becker had made one more sojourn. Home wheedles its way into everybody’s subconscious, I guess. Or maybe it was something in the pipes that affected the water we all drank. It didn’t matter. I didn’t have to produce any ID or scoot to my current digs to dig out an old report card. She took my word that I was a full-fledged member of Club 653.
“Do you want to come inside?”
And there I was. Me and my friend, who’d been in the house plenty when were young but getting inexorably older. He made small talk with the woman. I searched for clues.
Was this really the house that wouldn’t leave my dreams? That I didn’t leave for good until I was 27? That left me when I was 28? The house where I witnessed two World Series being won and who knows how many mundane games being lost? Was this still home or is that sort of thinking nonsense? Would 653 recognize me?
The outside, which I had observed on my periodic walk ‘n’ stalks, had been spiffed up but there was no mistaking it was 653. The inside…that was a different story. This family, the very same one to whom my father sold, had been there a long time. They made their own choices. Lots of choices. Much was different.
It had to be. My mother, the self-styled interior decorator, had her own tastes. They weren’t for everybody. I doubt they were for anybody. I could tell they hadn’t been for these people. I could tell because the woman who let us in more or less said so. She laughed at the memory of the pink cabinets in the kitchen. That was my mother’s call, to match the pink fridge when she went on a painting binge. Little pink cabinets for you and me, apparently, but not for 653’s occupants after 1991.
The kitchen’s tones were more muted and its appliances more modern. Walls had been taken down. Space had been opened up. The living room and dining room were no longer separate entities. The room in the back we occasionally labeled “the den” but was just where all the junk got piled now operated as an actual den.
My friend and I were steered away from the upstairs, site of my room, which seemed appropriate. When the pre-Beckers visited us in the vicinity of 1977, we gave them the full tour. They remembered everything. When they got to my room, they drew a total blank. And now I couldn’t see it. Maybe it never existed except for me. Maybe my childhood, adolescence and deliberately developing adulthood were all figments of my imagination.
We were, however, offered the run of the basement, an area that never fully reached its potential in my day. The woman’s husband was down there, using the space that connected the garage to everything else as an office. I guess they solved the exhaust fumes problem. My friend asked about damage from Sandy (it’s the Long Beach equivalent of “what did you do in the war, Daddy?”). While they compared notes on what was bad and what could’ve been worse, I excused myself to use the basement bathroom. I didn’t need directions. I liked that I knew where things were even if they looked a lot better and therefore not as good in my eyes.
Only the seasoned visitor would feel out what were the constants. A door frame here, a stained glass window there, the cherry blossom tree that had been planted in the backyard when I was a kid and now seemed to expand upward and outward like the Astrodome. The most shocking constant was a rotary phone on the basement wall. It sat down there for 29 years unused in our day. It could have been mistaken for a prop from the Universal Studios tour. These clever people not only kept it but activated it. Go ahead, the woman said, pick up the receiver. There was a dial tone.
Our house was a big house by most standards, but even with three stories and a passel of rooms, it felt small in 2014. I suppose the house you grew up in is supposed to feel smaller when you’re in your fifties, but the more I stood there, the more I felt that if I took one more step, I might crush half a dollhouse. Perhaps 653’s mystique was receding. It still pops into my dreams now and then but not as frequently and usually in a less haunting manner.
When I said my 1991 goodbye to 653, the place was empty in advance of the closing. Dad was already moved out. Those pink cabinets had lost their shine. For the 2014 reunion, the house was simmering. People lived there. People were doing things. The current owners said something about maybe selling in a couple of years and moving down south before another superstorm hits — they had to replace the basement floors and don’t want to go through it again. For the time being, though, they were reassuringly entrenched. I don’t know if 653 recognized me, but it didn’t give me the cold shoulder it inadvertently showed me in 1991.
After saying thank you to these gracious folks and walking away, I was sated by a sense of closure or coda or simple yet overwhelming peace. Only Shea Stadium can challenge 653 for Most Mythic Structure in my backstory. It took me several years to realize I was, at least on a functional basis, over Shea’s demise. I still miss it, but I’ve accepted (grudgingly) that it will never again materialize as the Flushing-bound 7 express hums past 111th Street. Plus I had a genuine opportunity to kiss Shea goodbye in 2008. 653, on the other hand, was the place I didn’t realize how much I missed, not for living, but for leaving. I needed to leave — to say goodbye — on something approaching my own terms.
Delayed but definitive accord in this realm has been reached. My subconscious and I stalk no longer.
If you didn’t get baseball for Christmas or Chanukah or any other occasion of late, don’t fret. It’s coming. And if you don’t mind extending your countdown a bit past 11:59:59 on New Year’s Eve, it’s coming that much sooner.
On the afternoon of January 1, at precisely (more or less) 3:59 PM EST, we will have arrived at the Baseball Equinox. That is the moment when we stand smack between the final out of the last Mets season and the first scheduled pitch of the next Mets season. Once we get to 4 in the afternoon this coming Thursday, we will officially be closer to playing ball in 2015 than we are to having had played ball in 2014. The coordinates are subject to change if television, precipitation or ceremonial hoo-ha gets in the way, but you can use 3:59 on New Year’s Day afternoon as your spiritual guide.
Pending a shootout, the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals should be done with their NHL Winter Classic (which, like Opening Day, will transpire at Nationals Park) and the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl pitting the Missouri Tigers against the Golden Gophers of the University of Minnesota will be winding down. Should you be watching either of those contests or engrossed in SyFy’s Twilight Zone marathon or, y’know, just hangin’ out, maybe think to look at your watch or your phone or the shadow on the floor. As the clock strikes four, you’ll know you have made it more than halfway through what we as baseball fans know annually as the longest winter eever.
Kind of gives you a reason to live, eh?
And what better way to get through the second half of winter than a trip to the Queens Baseball Convention on Saturday, January 10, at Citi Field McFadden’s? Details here.
If you’re the type of Mets fan to read a blog about the Mets in a month when the Mets aren’t playing, then you’re the type of Mets fan who should be attending an enormous Mets event in the next month the Mets aren’t playing.
The Queens Baseball Convention is coming to McFadden’s Citi Field on Saturday, January 10. QBC 15 promises to build on the joy and fun that made QBC 14 such a fantastic baseball oasis in the midst of winter.
Mookie Wilson will be there. Wally Backman will be there. Jason Fry will be there. I’ll be there. So many others will be there. You can check out the whole schedule here.
I’m particularly proud that for this second QBC we will again be presenting the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award, a gesture conceived as a way to a) keep Gil’s name and memory blazing for all Mets fans to see and b) honor a Met who, when we think of him, warms our hearts, brightens our spirits and lights our way — just like the thought of Gil Hodges still does.
Last year, upon dedicating the award, we presented it to Gil’s family as our way of saying we, as Mets fans, are forever proud of what he means to our team. This year, we are thrilled to be able to present it to one of the players Gil managed to a world championship, someone who personifies the parameters of the prize.
Graciously joining us at QBC to accept the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award will be Ed Charles. You may know him as the Glider or the Poet Laureate of Baseball or the Elder Statesman of the 1969 Mets. We know him as someone who crafted a baseball life like no other, dating from his childhood in segregated Florida when he was inspired by the sight of Jackie Robinson in Spring Training (a story portrayed in the movie 42) and winding through an unfairly long minor league apprenticeship. It took a decade for Ed Charles to reach the majors, but once he made it, as a Kansas City Athletic — debuting the very same day the Mets franchise did — it was clear he belonged.
A trade to the Mets in 1967 made him a New Yorker. His presence as a savvy veteran on a team comprised mostly of youngsters proved enormous in developing the team that would become forever known as the Miracle Mets. It is telling, perhaps, that in the famous photo snapped after the final out of the 1969 World Series we see rushing onto the scene to join pitcher Jerry Koosman and catcher Jerry Grote in full embrace is the third baseman.
Ed Charles wasn’t gliding that day.
Winning a world championship marked both the high point and the end point of Ed’s active career. He pursued other vocations over the next several decades — most notably working with New York City youth who could benefit from his help — but he never fully departed baseball. Ed scouted for the Mets, coached fantasy campers (who uniformly express delight remembering their interaction with him), became a welcome guest every time he showed up at Shea Stadium and Citi Field and lent his poetry to numerous commemorative and celebratory occasions.
In short, Ed Charles has been a tremendous gift to baseball and to Mets fans. We are humbled to have the chance to recognize him with the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award.
I hope you’ll be there with us at the Queens Baseball Convention to give him the greeting he deserves. Plus the joy and fun you’ll have on January 10. Find out more about attending here.
On this date in 1982, there was approximately zero-percent chance that the Mets would soon call Keith Hernandez their first baseman. On this same date in 1997, it was maybe less likely (if that’s statistically possible) that Mike Piazza was five months and change from becoming the Mets’ catcher.
But both deals happened and twice this franchise of ours was transformed.
As currently floated by an in-the-know baseball writer or two, the chances of the Mets acquiring Troy Tulowitzki lies somewhere between five and ten percent. So if you believe the laying of odds based on what somebody’s source says to some reporter who may or may not know something’s up, well, meet me at the top of the National League East standings sometime this summer.
It’s probably saner to stay situated in the “nobody knows anything” camp, but what fun is that? At the very least, it’s plausible that the Mets and Rockies have discussed a deal that would bring Tulo, the best all-around shortstop in baseball when healthy, to Citi Field in the right kind of uniform. The Rockies have a contract they’d like to move and the Mets have a hole they’d like to fill. If they’re not talking to one another, there’s massive negligence going on in two time zones.
Is any of this serious? Even if you generously interpret every report you’ve lapped up this morning, you can find, at most, a glint of light that indicates that maybe, if everything and more happens, this has a shadow of a shot in hell of transpiring.
Sounds good to me. If it does happen, then hallelujah, we have — best-case scenario — an amazing upgrade at short, a lineup that can produce steady streams of runs and enough pitching no matter what needs to be sent to Colorado in exchange. If it doesn’t, then except for a few dashed hot stove hopes, we’re back where we started, with Wilmer Flores, who has yet to prove he’s a terrible alternative. Also we keep however many promising young arms we didn’t hypothetically trade, we don’t take on the dollar commitment that might not be onerous to another team’s payroll but apparently is to our team’s, and we don’t have to worry about Tulowitzki staking out a cozy spot on the several-year disabled list.
All this chatter is win-win in a December when the most scintillating development in Metsopotamia to date has been Jeurys Familia donning an elf costume (and that includes the acquisition of John Mayberry). It’s a classic baseball dilemma in theory: Great player joins team that seems ready to rise versus injury risk, financial commitment and unproven talent that may haunt you later. Thing is it’s only theory. It’s five percent, maybe ten, maybe nothing at all.
Would I do it? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t get to do it, so what’s the difference?
But I sure was happy when we got Hernandez and Piazza within six months of never imagining we might.
Children’s voices blended into an angelic choir. Or as angelic as it gets in Queens. Oh, how they caroled. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” they sang as one. They did so inside a ballpark, inside December.
Heresy! Sacrilege! What are they teaching these kids at PS 19, PS 57, PS 89, PS 140, PS 143 and PS 330?!
If it can’t be baseball season, then, yeah, sure, whatever, the second-most wonderful time of the year can be nine days before Christmas. Or nine days after Christmas. Like it matters if there’s no game on. But let us be clear, New York Mets who on Tuesday graciously hosted all those youngsters from all those elementary schools: the most wonderful time of the year commences April 6 and concludes October 4. Or preferably a few weeks later.
Don’t muck up your own script by encouraging confusion as to when the most wonderful time of the year is. You were giving out Christmas presents, but you should always be selling baseball.
“No, little girl, there’s no shortstop in there. Now quit asking.”
The most wonderful time of the year is still a ways off, so if you have to do something with the space between, doing it at Citi Field — while two Mets dress as something other than Mets and bring non-denominational joy to the local chapter of the Youth of America — is as good a way of doing it as there is. I was doing it this past Tuesday, as I have at the Mets’ invitation every December for five Decembers suddenly. Technically, I was covering it. Mostly, I was taking it in.
You couldn’t ignore “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the holiday classic made famous by Andy Williams and belted out by one group of PSers or another. They were loud enough to drown out all conversation. Conversely, Sandy Alderson, conversing with reporters, spoke softly about the Mets’ disinterest in pursuing another big stick. The logistics and acoustics were a bit of a hurdle for your correspondent, who was leaning in from the edge of a media scrum better suited to gather within the most austere of monasteries. “Parties for hosting/marshmallows for toasting,” are all well and good, but does it have to be so loud?
In less festive terms, pipe down, joyous tykes — I’m on the other side of the curtain from where you are, I’m wearing a media credential for a short spell and I’m really trying to hear what Sandy’s saying.
That makes me different from many Mets fans who are probably not trying to hear what the GM is telling them about having pretty much wrapped up his wintertime shopping. He was letting it be known that no other shortstops — American, Korean, Coloradoan — remain on the Metropolitan must-have list, that the job belongs to Wilmer Flores unless some Grinch steals it away from him. And based on current inventory, the Grinch would named Ruben Tejada.
Word of this unsurprising pronouncement zipped around the world so quickly that even the seasoned beat reporters covering every cadence of Sandy’s chat had moved on. Their interview subject was talking low-budget lefties for the to-be-determined portion of the bullpen and they were scrolling through their phones. Maybe another general manager somewhere else was telling another cluster of microphones and cameras something more earth-shattering. GMs from San Diego, Tampa Bay and Washington were likely communicating among each other at that hour, though they’d wait a little while to let the rest of us in on their doings.
After a fashion, the kids out in the Acela Club quit caroling, the media huddle dispersed and I found myself standing next to Alderson just long enough to ask a big-picture question that maybe he hadn’t been asked lately. (Some years the blogging corps gets its own audience, some years you grab what you can get.) What, I wondered aloud, has changed about your job in the four years since you took office?
The “approach” is different, he told me. With the Mets “close” to contending, putting the finishing touches on the big league club is more of a priority than securing prospects and building the minor league system, which is where his efforts were concentrated during the first few seasons. “Not to say it wasn’t before,” he added, but nowadays there’s “more of a short-term perspective” at play. I followed up with a question regarding what, if any, has changed about his own assumptions or perceptions since becoming GM. He thinks the front office, as a group, “works better together now” than it did when he returned to day-to-day baseball operations.
One of my fellow bloggers asked if anything in particular impressed him about the goings-on at the Winter Meetings. Alderson was surprised at how active the White Sox had been and was taken by the number of deals the Dodgers made. I also wrote down that he said “pitching dominates in a short series,” which could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Madison Bumgarner’s postseason or an implication that the Mets are well-equipped to handle a month of high-pressure short series, assuming they get there…which he and everybody else with the Mets seem to believe they might. The operative word I’ve heard over and over since September is “close”.
Except the season isn’t close, so after Alderson excused himself and while the kids giddily accepted gifts from Jenrry Mejia as Santa Claus and Jeurys Familia as Buddy the Elf, I occupied myself by staring out an Acela window and taking in the sight of the newly moved-in fence in right-center. That, like the Mets’ image of themselves, is close. If Curtis Granderson can’t hit 30 homers over that, something’s terribly wrong with geometry. Talk about a gift. Make sure visiting National sluggers know it’s not for them.
I hope the children all became Mets fans because of Mejia and Familia and the toys and games and lunch and singing and, of course, Mr. Met. I hope the children were already Mets fans when they arrived at Citi Field and weren’t faking it when they obliged the MC who drove them into a “LET’S GO METS!” chanting frenzy, but I saw only one kid who thought to wear a Mets cap to the party. It had the 50th anniversary logo patch on the back, implying that kid’s been a fan for at least three seasons of his young life. I hope he got the biggest kick of all out of anybody there, though I also hope he shared my skepticism about what passes, out of season, for the most wonderful time of the year.
Me and that kid, we know better.
My esteem for Familia, reasonably high based on his 2014 output, shot up exponentially because of the holiday gala. Or elfponentially. Usually “Santa’s helpers” at these things are players who wear their jerseys and a Santa hat. That’s how Carlos Beltran did it. Can you imagine Beltran going the Full Elf? Who would imagine such things anyway? But Jeurys did it.
Jenrry as Santa, on the other hand, was a little disconcerting. Not from the suit (splendid) or the demeanor (appropriate), but from the bulk he had to temporarily add to pull the whole look off. One Bartolo Colon on staff is enough. If you didn’t know it was an overstuffed ensemble, you’d be making Mejia an appointment with that new strength and conditioning coach the Mets hired. Especially for the conditioning part.
When the setup man and the closer who combined to give away fewer leads than the number (tons) to which we were accustomed presented the last of their presents, they came back behind the curtain to take questions, still dressed as Santa Claus and Buddy the Elf. I’m sorry they didn’t stay in character.
“How’s your slider coming along?”
“Why, you mean my sleigh, right little boy? Ho ho ho, here’s a Wiffle Ball!”
Nah, they didn’t do that. It was another crush of cameras and mics and mundane inquiries about how well they were recovering from their hernia surgeries, except they were being asked of men dressed in crushed red velvet and key lime green. I found myself on the fringe of this crowd, too, but I did clearly hear Jenrry say something about his two-seamer and his four-seamer. That’s better music for the Mets fan’s ear in December than anything Andy Williams ever recorded. I also caught an all-purpose “whatever job they give me, I have to be prepared” out of Santa. I guess “if Parnell tries to take my role away, he’s the one getting his skinny ass shoved down a chimney” wouldn’t have been in keeping with the spirit of the season.
It’s as good to give as it is to relieve, but either way, Mejia and Familia could use some hydration.
Harvey would have said something of that nature, but he wasn’t at the party. I assume he was down in the bowels of the stadium striking out three Bryce Harper mannequins.
Eventually, the English-language press gave way to the Spanish-language press. Mejia speaks faster in Spanish (who doesn’t?). The recorded Christmas music ceased. The students of the PSes were on their buses, headed back to class, all of them having had the best morning of the current semester. The beat writers, many of them appearing not much older than the students favored with goodies by Mejia and Familia, were on their laptops, transmitting the depth and breadth of what had happened here today, which, honestly, wasn’t much, but it was the semblance of baseball in winter, and who wouldn’t want to fill a stocking with that?
Given the roles the pitchers in costume played when there was a game every day or night, it didn’t seem right that we weren’t up to the eighth or ninth inning of the offseason already. We’ve not even arrived at the Baseball Equinox yet. But it’s coming. I know it is. Just not soon enough.
When I exited through the Stengel entrance, the security guard on duty gave me a broad smile and a cheery holiday greeting. I returned the same, with an addendum that the next time we’d see each other, it would be April. Our smiles broadened even more.
Yes. April. The most wonderful time of the year.
Sad news out of Long Island: Sy Berger, the father of modern baseball cards, died today at 91.
Berger didn’t invent baseball cards — they date back to 19th-century “trade cards” and were first popularized by cigarette companies. But Berger made them the empire they became. In 1947 he started working as a marketer at Brooklyn-based Topps, which had been co-founded by the father of one of his fraternity brothers. Berger’s first assignment was marketing pop-culture cards for the likes of Davy Crockett, but in 1951 he looked to steal an infant market from rival Bowman with a series of baseball cards.
The ’51 cards were a dress rehearsal for what would follow — they were designed to be used playing a mock baseball game, making them more like a forerunner of Magic The Gathering than what we think of as baseball cards, and they came with taffy, which proved excellent at picking up the flavor of the varnish on the cards. (And you thought those square pieces of bubble gum were bad.) But the next year Topps introduced bigger, much better cards — full-color cards with stats on the back, including the now-iconic ’52 Mantle. Nothing would ever be the same — for generations, Topps cards were as much a part of boyhood as toy soldiers and bikes and other kid pastimes. (Berger was a sharp businessman, too — a showdown over photo fees for players was one of the union’s first attempts at finding its footing. The union’s insistence on better terms was a dry run for its ultimately successful attempt to force economic change on a sport that was still run like a medieval barony.)
I discovered the world Berger created in 1976, when I was seven. I’d grown up in a Mets household, but it wasn’t my mother leaping up and down and cheering for Rusty Staub that made me a fan forevermore. (Though that was a good start.) It was really Topps baseball cards, which in the summer of 1976 suddenly and irrevocably replaced dinosaurs as my principal boyhood obsession. For me, each of those Topps cards was a little window into baseball history — you could trace careers through the stats and the bulleted highlights on the back, and piece together an education about the sport from the little cartoon facts chosen by Topps writers.
Here’s what I learned from Topps’ twenty-six 1976 Met cards (plus one team card, a four-panel rookie and a record-breaker) — cards that came, oddly, on yellow and blue cards that would have been more suited for a collector of all things related to the University of Michigan:
- Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia A’s for half a century
- The Boston Braves played their home games in the 1914 World Series at Fenway Park
- Wayne Garrett, despite being a member of the Miracle Mets, apparently hadn’t been very good in 1969
- Jerry Grote had 20 put-outs in a game, specifically on April 22, 1970
- Bud Harrelson was from Niles, Calif., which I pictured as a wildly exotic place
- Jerry Koosman was undefeated in postseason play — 3-0 in the playoffs and 3-0 in the World Series
- Ed Kranepool had somehow hit 16 homers in 1966
- Christy Mathewson threw three shutouts in the 1905 World Series
- Jon Matlack was extremely handsome
- Felix Millan held his bat in a very strange fashion … but had set the Mets’ mark for hits in 1975
- Ken Sanders had been the AL Fireman of the Year in 1971, leading me to expect great things from him
- Rusty Staub had started his career with the Colt .45’s, who no longer seemed to exist
- Wes Westrum caught six foul pop-ups in one game on Aug. 24, 1949
- Craig Swan seemed to do well when he pitched for TIDEWATER, but not so well pitching for METS
- Joe Torre was odd-looking and seemed to like hanging out in the shadows near accumulated helmets
- Del Unser was the son of Al Unser, who’d been a catcher for the Tigers and Reds
- Mike Vail had led the mysterious IL in batting in 1975 and hit safely in 23 straight games for the Mets
- Joe Sewell of Cleveland had fanned just four times in 608 at-bats back in 1925
And that was just one team’s cards. I spent hours with my ’76 cards, piecing together the beginnings of a baseball education and the foundation of a lifelong love of the sport. How long did I spend? Well, a couple of weeks ago, on an insomniac whim, I Google-searched for photos of ’76 team sets and was able to identify at a glance which cards I’d never found during that summer 38 years ago.
From there, I submerged myself in the Baseball Encyclopedia, reading accounts of baseball history and scouring lists of league leaders and just browsing through the statistics of players, stopping to review careers that seemed particularly long or tragically short or otherwise noteworthy. (And how amazing was it that Hank Aaron somehow came first?) I haunted the library, checking out and devouring every baseball book I could find. (Like Greg, one of my favorites was Tug McGraw’s mildly deranged autobiography Screwball.) But my education began with Topps baseball cards, with seeing that Jesus Alou had played for a long time, and wondering what it was like to play for Marion or Visalia or the mysterious Pomp. Bch, and noting that players were drafted.
I stopped collecting baseball cards for a while after the strike, started up again as an adult in strange circumstances, and now collect what I want to collect — which invariably includes both regular Topps series and the update set. I own every Topps Mets card, and every Topps card of everybody who ever played for the Mets (with a few reprints in the mix), and have a trio of binders called The Holy Books that include cards for every Met in team history, in order of their arrival. But that’s not all. I’ve made cards for cup-of-coffee guys who never got a card even as a minor leaguer, and bought unused photos of players from Topps’s Vault eBay auctions. There’s something faintly magical about seeing a photo from the mid-1960s of an obscure Met and imagining it as a ’66 or ’67 Topps card — the photos have a certain saturated glow that identify them instantly and obviously as the work of a Topps photographer, in the same way that art historians can immediately spot, say, a Titian or a Veronese.
And Topps cards remain a happy part of my life. In the offseason, I like to scratch my Mets itch by browsing through The Holy Books, getting reacquainted with the immortals and the forgotten alike. I just did some THB upgrading via eBay, getting an Al Luplow in which he’s actually wearing a Mets uniform and eliminating a Gil Hodges with writing on the front. And I continue to make my own cards for the Lost Mets — somehow, creating a ’72 Rusty Staub or a ’75 Rich Puig feels like you’ve found something that always existed and had been merely lost.
I owe all that passion and knowledge and craziness, ultimately, to Sy Berger. He gave me my first baseball education, followed by literally decades of joy.
Admittedly, that new Cuddyer smell that so intoxicated our nostrils when the Mets made their loud November move has grown faint. What’s that they say about vehicles losing their value as soon as they leave the dealership? Our new (technically pre-owned) right fielder hasn’t rolled up one additional mile since he pulled into our garage, yet by being one of the first big signings of the offseason and not being paired by a second acquisition of significant size since — John Mayberry, Jr. and Sean Gilmartin notwithstanding — it’s tempting to think the Mets have done nothing.
Does loitering at a busy intersection count? Because if it does, maybe the Mets have lurched forward a bit by just standing here watching the wheels go by. Since Cuddyer came on board, look who’s gone from our general midst:
• Jason Heyward, from Atlanta
• Adam LaRoche, from Washington
• Jimmy Rollins, from Philadelphia
Those divisional deletions don’t solve all the Mets’ problems or necessarily not create new ones, given the way rosters evolve, but let’s hear it for no longer regularly seeing guys who’ve been showing up in our nightmares like clockwork for far too long.
Heyward. LaRoche. Rollins. Will SNY be able to air Post Game Live after losses without them? Heyward taking away base hits; LaRoche adding to the wrong half of the scoreboard; Rollins summoning ghosts. Their signature work accounted for a good chunk of the National League East’s anti-Mets propaganda highlight reel.
The rest of that film features Giancarlo Stanton dooming us from another stratosphere. He’s not going anywhere, at least until Jeffrey Loria twirls his mustache just before revealing his usual nefarious loopholes.
Depending on your rivals to melt around the edges is no surefire way to improve your chances, but if the Mets sought upgrades and couldn’t yet find them, then at least there’s the comforting thought that we’ll have to think less about the guys who’ve been killing us at regular intervals in the preceding seasons. Not that the teams they left behind aren’t capable of unleashing other strains of pest we’ve not yet dreamed of — the Nationals are still the Nationals and never underestimate the Phillies or Braves, even as they retrench — but no more Jimmy Rollins “doing what it takes to win”; no more Jason Heyward “diving and coming up with an unbelievable catch”; no more Adam LaRoche “going deep against Met pitching once again”.
LaRoche is tucked away on the South Side of Chicago. Rollins is a newly minted Los Angeleno. Heyward will still be wearing a distasteful uniform, but we’ll run into him relatively infrequently as a Cardinal. Has the neighborhood grown safer?
I don’t know. Too many Nationals roam the top of the division, the Marlins seem more genuinely dangerous than they have since Miguel Cabrera was young and mobile and it’s impossible to count on the Braves destroying the Braves from within. The winter we got Alomar and Vaughn, they got Sheffield and won the East; the winter we got Martinez and Beltran, they got Hudson and won the East; they’ve lately picked up Shelby Miller and Nick Markakis. Tell me for sure we won’t feel a tomahawk in our back at the hands of Shelby Miller and Nick Markakis. The Phillies, meanwhile, still maintain enough aging Rollins teammates so as to inspire reflexive shudders.
The Mets were getting better when 2014 ended, a season when they had no Harvey, no Syndergaard, no Cuddyer and only a small sample of Flores. They should keep trying to get better ahead of April 6, no doubt. But the part where we don’t have to be exposed to overly familiar nemeses for six series a year apiece…I’m marking that down as the first provisional win of 2015.
People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I take refuge inside the Mets Lounge with Taryn Cooper and talk Mets baseball with the Coop. Listen to us staring out the window and waiting for spring here, about 25 minutes in.