Welcome to the beginning of the second decade of existence for Faith and Fear in Flushing, or to put it in reverse and observe it from the more comfortable perspective of the rearview mirror, today is our tenth anniversary. We signed on the blogging air on February 16, 2005, looking ahead not ten years but maybe ten minutes. That particular Wednesday was the day everybody’s two favorite life forms, Pitchers & Catchers, were reporting to Port St. Lucie. Infielders and outfielders were sure to follow, and we decided it sure might be fun to follow the lot of them as they prepared for the season ahead.
We did that and we stuck with them through the 2005 campaign and we did it again the next spring and the next season and we kept going and in between seasons and games and innings we managed to muse and reflect and recollect and occasionally guess what might reveal itself down the road…though honestly not so much with the looking ahead, because you never know, so why pretend? One game at a time, set against the tapestry woven by 43, now 53 previous Met seasons, was enough for us.
Ten years after the first FAFIF day, I can confirm that this has been fun. It’s been pretty much the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer or, when considered on a going basis, most anything else. Nearly every time you’re reading me here, you’re in on a continual highlight of my life. I have this baseball team that it’s never occurred to me to try to shake and I have this means of communication for expressing my thoughts on their actions and, thanks to you, I have an audience that chooses to read what I have I have to say. That’s as good a deal as a Mets fan could hope for. That’s Parsons-for-Grote good.
How many other places in this universe could I casually reference the 1965 trade of a pitcher who never made it for a catcher who became the Met backbone for a generation and not have to explain it to death? No wonder I like doing this where I like doing this for whom I like doing this.
We didn’t set out toward a decade of blogging. It just happened, the way the Mets kept happening to each and every one of us once we first discovered them. You know how it goes: you find the Mets; then you like the Mets; then you are drawn to others who like the Mets so you can talk about the Mets. Then you don’t stop. If you do stop, you’re not reading this, anyway, so I feel safe in generalizing.
Why stop? Because the Mets have been, shall we say, less than successful? So what? Would we possibly appreciate as we do the periodic better days without the climb up and out from the recurring muck? Granted, we could do with less muck, but maybe we’ll be out of muck and full of luck soon enough. In February, that’s the best guess to make if you’re inclined to guess at all.
And if Met things don’t amount to the paradise we wish them to be once this year’s Pitchers & Catchers and infielders and outfielders sort themselves out, you’ll still have Faith and Fear in Flushing. We just keep happening that way.
Over the course of Spring Training, when we’re not breathlessly analyzing side sessions and agility drills, we’ll fill the inevitable lulls with a series of retrospective pieces revisiting the defining moments, stories and personalities of the past ten Met years, a time — win or lose — I’ve found absolutely fascinating to cover from this perch. And on Saturday afternoon, March 28, we invite you to join us at Foley’s NY for a little tenth-anniversary celebration where we’ll meet, we’ll greet, we’ll eat and I wouldn’t be surprised if we drink. And of course we’ll talk Mets baseball, just like we do on your screen. More details on that little event as we move inexorably forward here in what has slowly yet suddenly become our second decade.
We’re so very glad you were part of the first one. We’re thrilled you’re around to help us get started on the next one.
Saturday was Valentine’s Day, providing those us of who still adore from chronologically afar the occasion’s namesake a moment to recall the improvement Bobby Valentine’s Mets produced in his first full year at the helm. After finishing 71-91 in 1996 (a campaign he took over with 31 games remaining), the 1997 Mets delightfully surprised their loyalists with a Wild Card-contending 88-74 season, setting the stage for postseason runs to come.
Although he has a day named in his honor, it is understood Bobby V wasn’t everybody’s cup of managerial tea, so maybe you’d rather be romanced by consideration of the skippers who led other memorable Met turnarounds.
In 1969, his second year at the helm, Gil Hodges upped the Mets’ record from 73-89 — which itself represented markedly higher ground from the 61-101 squad the relentlessly fascinating Salty Parker brought home — to 100-62 and, of course, a world championship coda.
In 1984, first-year manager Davey Johnson was the turnaround specialist, converting a perennial sub-.420 dud into a 90-72 dream. It was the Mets’ first winning season since 1976 and a delectable appetizer for the main course that was ready to be served in 1986.
In 2005, Willie Randolph assumed the limp Met reins from Art Howe and crisply set the club galloping past .500 and to the cusp of greater things that were only a year away.
You notice a trend among Valentine, Hodges, Johnson and the mostly forgotten Randolph? It’s not just that they transformed perennial losers into certifiable winners. It’s that they did it with minimal delay. Gil: second year. Davey: first year. Bobby: first full year. Willie: first year.
Terry Collins is entering his fifth year as Met manager, the only man besides Hodges, Johnson and Valentine to greet Met pitchers and catchers in as many as five consecutive Februarys. He’s presided over four consecutive losing seasons. He’s not picking up for Westrum/Parker, Bamberger/Howard, Green or Howe. The losing manager’s trend he’s charged with turning around belongs to Terry Collins.
Will entrusting a promising team to the manager who hasn’t led its four immediate predecessors to a single winning record work if the goal this year is to craft a legitimate contender? Should we expect it to work? There is no precedent in Mets history that suggests the same old manager is suddenly capable of generating bright new results. Precedent isn’t everything, but it does have the benefit of having occurred before, and we simply haven’t heard a voice as familiar as Collins’s has become suddenly resonate in an uplifting fashion when it hasn’t done the trick this long.
For a team that tinkered only slightly with its roster en route to Port St. Lucie, is it reasonable to expect the manager who has led the Mets to 77-85, 74-88, 74-88 and 79-83 seasons to lead them much further in 2015?
Every edition of the Mets — even the Collins versions that seem to have played the entirety of their annual slates of 162 games on Groundhog Day — is different. Every set of circumstances can’t help but be unique. So let’s ask our old, anecdotally reliable pal precedent (we are, after all, on the eve of Precedent’s Day) for some background on those aforementioned turnarounds. Specifically, how different did those respective Met clubs appear from the end of the previous year to the beginning of the next?
• The team Hodges was about to elevate to miraculous heights didn’t make any high-profile moves heading into 1969. Mostly, they lost Dick Selma in the expansion draft and selected Wayne Garrett in the Rule 5 draft.
• Johnson showed up to St. Petersburg in 1984 determined to retain the services of 19-year-old, Single-A phenom Dwight Gooden, which more than made up for Frank Cashen’s clumsy deletion of Tom Seaver and overshadowed any minor shuffling that had taken place since October 1983.
• Valentine’s inaugural Spring Training featured one prominent arrival from another organization, that of erstwhile Toronto Blue Jay John Olerud, and an assortment of radar-or-below imports whose collective potential to gel ultimately seemed dependent upon Bobby V’s knack for personnel alchemy.
• Randolph benefited from a spending spree when that sort of thing was in Flushing fashion. He was provided Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran as his foundational building blocks. It would be hard to continue losing with stars like those on hand, though other new Met managers had certainly pulled off such feats despite similar purchases made on their behalves.
Some casts were altered slightly. Some dynamics changed dramatically. All the managers were still fairly fresh in their roles. That’s the part that looks like the common denominator of those four great Met leaps forward.
Terry Collins will not have a hard time putting names to faces in the days ahead. He knows intimately almost everybody who figures to be on his roster come Opening Day. Michael Cuddyer, John Mayberry and perhaps Sean Gilmartin or Duane Below loom on his new-guy radar. Everybody else — including prime recovery candidates Matt Harvey who missed all of 2014 and Bobby Parnell who missed all but one horrible inning of it — should be intensely familiar to him, just as Collins will be a known quantity to them. Familiarity will be reintroduced to familiarity on the heels of a quadrennium when the most familiar element of Mets baseball has been the losing.
Now let’s think back over the World Series-winning managers of this century.
It took Bruce Bochy four seasons to capture a world championship for the Giants, but by his third year in San Francisco, he had them out of the doldrums and up to 88 wins.
John Farrell won a World Series for the Red Sox in his first go-round in Boston, one year after Bobby V finished last at Fenway.
Tony LaRussa had the Cardinals atop their division in year one (1996) after a rare fallow period had disillusioned St. Louis.
Joe Girardi was a world champion manager in his second season managing at an undisclosed location nearby.
Charlie Manuel contended from the get-go as Phillies manager, making the playoffs in year three (sigh) and getting fitted for a ring in year four.
Terry Francona won it all for the Red Sox in his first season there.
Ozzie Guillen guided the White Sox to their first modern-era championship in his second season running the South Side show.
Jack McKeon took over a humdrum Marlins outfit in May of 2003 and had them pouring champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium by October.
Mike Scioscia piloted the Angels to the highest of heavens after three years on the job.
Bob Brenly won everything there was to win in his first year managing Arizona.
Joe Torre, you don’t need me to remind you, won a World Series as soon as he took on his initial American League assignment.
You don’t have to mull only world champions to find better results sooner than later where skippers are concerned. Joe Maddon, Clint Hurdle, Ned Yost, Buck Showalter and Bob Melvin all managed winning records in their most recent postings by the end of their third full seasons in those locales, pushing their teams into playoff contention in the same time frame. If a given manager’s ballclub is going to get noticeably better, it gets noticeably better not all that long after he shows up; if it doesn’t, he doesn’t continue to get invited to keep showing up. However much credence you put into in-game strategy and so forth, a manager’s voice can be presumed to have made some sort of impact for the good when a team has turned around its fortunes. Following 1969, 1984, 1997 and 2005, the men who managed those Mets were understood to have effected serious positive change.
If such results haven’t been reflected in the won and lost columns after four full seasons — no matter how positive his reviews have been, no matter how few of his players have expressed disgruntlement while he’s been in charge — what tells us that in his fifth season occupying the Met manager’s office Terry Collins is likely to spark a clubhouse full of essentially the same individuals, whatever their respective talents and ceilings, to substantially greater collective achievements?
A week and a half ago I finished the manuscript for the third book in my Jupiter Pirates series, capping a fairly exhausting run of writing and travel that began last August. (Which is one reason, besides Wilpon-related apathy, that Greg — APPLAUSE!!! — has been a full-time presence at the helm this offseason.) While laboring, I comforted myself with daydreams about what I’d do when I got a break in my schedule. Most of it was the kind of boring stuff you’d expect from a 45-year-old — I’m embarrassed to admit that on the first day of my leisure I got up early and cleaned out a utility closet — but what I really wanted to do was Mets-related.
What I really wanted to do was make some Mets baseball cards.
I tiptoed into this rather strange hobby a few years back when I made nine cards for the legendary Lost Mets, the players who appeared for the Mets but never got a decent Topps card, minor-league card, oddball reprint or anything else. (The members of this forlorn club: Al Schmelz, Francisco Estrada, Lute Barnes, Tommy Moore, Bob Rauch, Greg Harts, Brian Ostrosser, Rich Puig and Leon Brown. More details here.) Originally the idea was that the Lost Nine would then be able to claim their places in The Holy Books. But as with many other hobbies of mine, I wound up falling down a rabbit hole to God knows where.
Before I really noticed I’d done it, my goal shifted from the Lost Nine to a larger though still unfortunate group: the players who played for the Mets but never got a card as a Met, or a good minor-league card with a color picture, or had to share a rookie card with one or more other guys. “Modern” minor-league cards date back to around 1978, so we’re talking Mets from before the Torre era — your Don Rowes and Ron Herbels and Jay Klevens and Doc Mediches. (For whatever reason I don’t really care about modern-era players stuck with other teams’ cards. Maybe I will someday.) That change in focus led me to scour eBay for decent photos, to start buying transparencies of photos shot by Topps over the decades, and to make lists of which players need revisiting.
Making custom baseball cards isn’t particularly hard, but it’s time-consuming — it’s a whole lot of typing stats, scanning and endless tweaking in Photoshop, particularly since I like to work in crabbily analog ways, such as by assembling player names ransom-note style from other cards instead of finding a similar font and simply typing. (I like the funky, imperfect look this gives you — at least for this child of the ’70s, the more digital something is the chillier it feels.) This isn’t to say that making baseball cards isn’t fun if you have the right mindset — it’s the kind of meditative work I like to disappear into. But it’s not something you can budget a hour here and there for. You start and you work, and you work some more, and when you look up hours or even days have been eaten up.
Anyhow, this madness spun off its own sub-madness: I decided The Holy Books needed to include cards for the Mets’ managers, which meant creating custom cards for Joe Frazier (who only ever appeared as a Met on a team card) and for interim skippers Roy McMillan and Salty Parker. (Mike Cubbage had a coach card in an obscure 1990s Topps set — close enough.) Frazier wasn’t too difficult — I bought a transparency of him from Topps, thus answering whatever Topps employee thought “who the hell is going to buy THIS?” McMillan led me to scouring yearbooks for a picture from the 1970s, so far without particular success. (If you can help, holler.) And then there was Parker — a coach for only a year who’d never had a color picture taken as far as I could tell.
Faith and Fear pal Warren Zvon rode to the rescue with a nifty colorization that he was kind enough to share (you can see the finished results and an explanation of how it was done in this post, with my card below) and I decided to make a ’67 Topps manager card for Parker. Such a card never could have existed — Wes Westrum resigned in September and Gil Hodges took over for ’68 — but never mind that.
Oh my God, it’s the Book of Wes.
The front of the ’67 was fairly straightforward, but then I turned over Westrum’s manager card and my eyes popped. Someone from Topps had written a full-card bio of Westrum, waxing positively Proustian. It was nearly three in the morning and I knew basically nothing about Salty Parker. There was no way I was tackling that in the middle of the night — and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to digging into it come morning, either.
But here’s the thing: Salty Parker turns out to be a really interesting guy, one of those lifers who defines baseball more than the All-Stars and MVPs do.
Francis James Parker — the nickname came from the fondness for salted peanuts that a teenaged Salty displayed while working in a grocery store — was born in East St. Louis and grew up in Granite City, Ill. He first played pro ball as a 17-year-old for the Moline Plowboys, a Class D team in the Mississippi Valley League managed by his uncle Riley. To keep his college eligibility, Parker initially played under the alias Charlie Francis. After Moline he played for the Beaumont Explorers in the Texas League, and then for the Toledo Mud Hens.
In 1936 the Detroit Tigers were world champs, having beaten the Cubs in six games. But they weren’t a particularly happy club, and player-manager Mickey Cochrane was threatening to shake things up. In July he put shortstop Billy Rogell in his crosshairs by acquiring the contract of 24-year-old Salty Parker from Toledo.
Salty Parker, 1936
Parker didn’t play for a month, though his arrival in Detroit was still memorable, as we’ll see in a bit. He got into 11 games in all, hitting .280. The Tigers finished second, 19 1/2 games behind the Yankees. And in December they sent Parker to Indianapolis in the American Association as part of a deal for pitcher Dizzy Trout.
In 1937 Parker broke his shoulder playing for Indianapolis, torpedoing his chances of returning to the big leagues as a player. But he still had a lot of baseball ahead of him. He went back to the Texas League, playing for Tulsa and Shreveport and Dallas, and in 1939 asked for his release so he could take a job managing the Lubbock Hubbers of the West Texas-New Mexico League.
The 26-year-old player-manager hit .313 and led Lubbock to the pennant. The next year, he hit .349 as player-manager of the East Texas League’s Marshall Tigers, winning another pennant and a batting title. That got him a ticket back to the Texas League as player-manager for the Shreveport Sports. He stayed there two years, but the Texas League closed up shop because of the war. In ’43 Parker was on to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. St. Paul became part of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system the next year, and Parker had a deal with Branch Rickey to manage the club — but he was drafted and spent the year in the army. In ’45 he returned to baseball, but for the first time in seven years he wasn’t a manager — he was the starting second baseman for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top farm club. Parker hit .298; his replacement on the ’46 club was some guy named Jackie Robinson.
The toast of Dallas. (Salty is front row, center.)
With the war over and the Texas League back in business, Parker returned to Shreveport for six years as manager, his playing time gradually diminishing to a few games a year, and none at all in 1951. From ’52 to ’54 he managed in the Big State League, piloting the Temple Eagles and then the Tyler Tigers. (In ’52 the 39-year-old manager somehow wound up as the starting pitcher in 13 games, amassing a 6.86 ERA.)
In ’55 Parker sought out Carl Hubbell and was given a shot as a manager in the New York Giants’ system. He did well as a skipper for the El Dorado Oilers of the Cotton States League and then for the Danville Leafs of the Carolina League. Which led Parker back to the Texas League as skipper of the 1957 Dallas Eagles. Paced by Willie McCovey and Ernie Broglio, the Eagles won 102 games and the pennant. (Parker collected one at-bat, his last in pro ball.) In 1958 the Giants tapped Parker as third-base coach for their first year in San Francisco. Twenty-two years after his debut in Detroit, Salty was back in the big leagues.
Parker coached in San Francisco for four years, followed by a year in Cleveland, a season scouting for the Pirates and three years as third-base coach for the Angels. And then in November 1966 his old Giants colleague Wes Westrum came calling and asked him to be part of the Mets’ brain trust.
A Met at last!
Salty signed up, but the ’67 Mets were beyond his help. The combination of contract rumbles and his charges’ ineptitude sent Westrum around the bend — on Sept. 20 he called it quits with 11 games to go, telling reporters that “I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” (Hey, between that and his habitual postgame recap “Oh my God, wasn’t that awful?” the man was quotable.) Mets GM Bing Devine asked Parker to finish up the season — after 17 seasons of managing in the bushes, Salty would be making out a lineup card in the majors.
His tenure began with a doubleheader against the Astros. The Mets lost the first game convincingly, 8-0, as Jerry Koosman (making his second-ever start) failed to retire a batter in the second. But they won the nightcap on a 10th-inning walkoff by Jerry Buchek, then took the next game on a three-hit shutout by rookie Tom Seaver. After Seaver’s start, Jack Fisher suggested Parker retire as the only winning manager in Mets history.
It was good advice — the Mets went 2-6 the rest of the year, leaving Parker with the 4-7 record as Mets manager he’d have forevermore. Which was fine with Salty. He understood that his first job as a big-league skipper wasn’t for keeps — when a Shea clubhouse attendant tried to move his things into the manager’s office he told him not to bother. It was an open secret in baseball that the Mets were eyeing Gil Hodges, then employed by the Senators, though they made noises about Alvin Dark, Harry “The Hat” Walker and Yogi Berra. What were the Mets looking for in their next skipper? According to Devine, it was someone who’d bring the team a pennant. (At the time, this was considered hilarious.)
Parker said that if a club was looking for a coach he’d listen, and one was — for 1968 Salty signed on with the Astros as a member of Grady Hatton‘s staff, kept serving under Walker, and in August 1972 he found himself interim manager again for a single day when Walker was fired and Leo Durocher wasn’t on hand yet. (Salty won his only game as Houston skipper on a walkoff double by Cesar Cedeno.) He went on to coach again for the Angels, serve as a minor-league instructor for the Astros, and in 1976 took up his last managerial gig as skipper of the Cedar Rapids Giants. (He won a title, too.) That lasted a season, but Salty kept going, serving as an instructor for the Giants, the Mariners and finally for Houston’s Karl Young College League. He died in July 1992, less than three weeks after his 80th birthday.
And then there’s the story about the car. Remember the ’36 Tigers? The day Parker got called up, the team was invited to a banquet thrown by Chevrolet. The unhappy veterans wanted nothing to do with it, so pitcher Schoolboy Rowe could only round up six or seven Tigers — one of them the just-recalled busher who didn’t know any better. At the banquet, the Tigers who’d bothered to show were told to turn over their plates — one of them was going home with a new car, courtesy of Chevrolet. That someone turned out to be Parker.
He’d discover that not every day in the big leagues included a free meal and a new car, but what a debut.
“And when the twelfth-largest company in the world controls the most awesome, goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?”
When last we visited with Howard Beale on DiamondVision more than six years ago, he was urging us to get up right now, sit up, go to our windows, open them and stick our heads out and yell LET’S GO METS! DiamondVision was being a little Gary Thorne-ish in its inability to control itself from interrupting during a big moment, but you got Beale’s point at regular Shea Stadium intervals.
Howard Beale, of course, issued slightly different instructions when he was anchoring The UBS Evening News in the middle of the 1970s. Something about being mad as hell and not taking it anymore. Actually, that might have worked at Shea back then, too, except there was no DiamondVision yet erected when Beale’s signature phrase was catching on, and by the end of that decade, only 788,905 patrons were taking the Mets anymore anyway.
Even if you’ve never seen the 1976 classic Network, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the Howard Beale character and the “Mad As Hell” speech. It yielded, by the American Film Institute’s reckoning, the 19th-greatest movie quote of all time, and it was indeed retrofitted to the righteous cause of riling up Mets fans as rallies fomented and Mike Piazza loomed in an on-deck circle near us.
But Network is so much more than one speech. Paddy Chayefsky wrote a whole passel of ’em that can be applied to pressing Met matters (also, they advanced the plot of his movie). I found myself the other day thinking about one in which Beale delivers unto his on-air flock a fiery eulogy of sorts for the just-deceased chairman of the board of the Union Broadcasting Systems, “a rich little man with white hair” named Edward George Ruddy. My thought was that if Howard Beale — or Paddy Chayefsky — blogged the Mets, he might report to us a recent development with similar sermonic fervor:
Bobby Ojeda has left SNY!
Robert Michael Ojeda was the studio analyst of Pregame Live and Postgame Live and he and SportsNet New York parted ways over a reported difference in compensation!
And woe is us!
We’re in a lot of trouble!
So, a world champion Met with a dark, curly hairpiece is gone from cable TV.
What does that got to do with the price of Blue Smoke, right?
And why is that woe to us?
To be honest — a quality I instantly associate with the man formerly of the hour the game ended and the recriminations began — I don’t know that it is, but I liked Bobby Ojeda a lot in the gigs he no longer holds, especially his postgame assignment. When you find yourself looking forward to the postgame show and it’s well after the era when if you didn’t watch Kiner’s Korner, you simply waited for the 11 O’Clock News, somebody must’ve been doing something right.
Bobby Ojeda was Met as hell, but we’re not going to be able to watch him anymore.
The best way to appreciate what Bobby Ojeda brought to Met television analysis from 2009 through 2014 is to consider Homer Simpson’s note to Krustylu Studios that “Poochie needs to be angrier, louder and have access to a time machine.” Poochie, you might recall, was the proposed “dog from hell” who was supposed to add “proactive” edge to Itchy & Scratchy, but was really, as assessed by Lisa Simpson, no more than a soulless byproduct of committee thinking. That iteration of Poochie tested poorly and was literally removed from the second cartoon in which he appeared.
Ojeda, our Minister of Disgustration (that’s disgust plus frustration), could occasionally be loud; now and then express anger; and was brought to us by a time machine from when by his own account Mets were Mets and wins were indisputably plentiful. When it all came together, he was bigger than curly fries.
What a shame that he’s been returned to his home planet.
Bobby O was a truthteller, albeit his truth. Sometimes my and his truths coincided, sometimes they diverged. I don’t mind that he and I sometimes landed on different postgame pages. He was an after-dinner mint of candor, a palate-cleanser of any RSN BS the less honesty-inclined members of the SNY team (basically anybody not known instantly by their initials) might instinctively spread across our screens. If Bobby O hyped something, I had the feeling he believed it. If Bobby O didn’t, then it was probably hype to begin with.
When Bobby O took aim and was on target, it was beautiful. Following defeats, he wasn’t impressed by the Mets’ organizational approach to anything. Neither was I in those moments. It’s a natural reaction. Why were the Mets sulking in their clubhouse, sucking up another defeat? Because, according to Bobby O’s gospel, they weren’t aggressive enough at the plate and/or didn’t let their pitchers throw enough off the mound.
Yes, I thought — exactly!
And when Bobby O took aim and missed wildly, it was just as beautiful. Remember the time he scolded R.A. Dickey for daring to answer a Saturday afternoon question about a planned offseason climb of Kilimanjaro for the folks from Fox because it was April and how dare a ballplayer be thinking about the offseason? It bordered on, in a word that is generally overused but absolutely valid here, insane. But it was coming from the heart of Bobby O, a place where hitters are swinging rather than waiting, pitchers are working into the ninth and nobody thinks about November until they know for sure they’re not going to be playing in the bright-lights portion of October.
You know Bobby Ojeda was at his best in October of 1986 — four Met postseason starts, four Met postseason wins, including the damnedest pair of Game Sixes ever played — but he scaled a different sort of peak in what little October the Mets experienced during his broadcasting tenure. I’m thinking of October 3, 2012, Game 162, the playing out of the schedule between the Mets and the Marlins, both of whom went nowhere that year. The Mets won their final game that inevitably sodden season, locking in their record at a dispiriting 74-88. Still, it was a win. Ike Davis had reached 90 RBIs and Scott Hairston, in a part-time role, blasted his twentieth homer. After wins and milestones, aren’t postgame studio analysts supposed to be upbeat?
Bobby Ojeda wasn’t having any of it. His partner, Chris Carlin, kept tossing him regional sports network BP, fluffy stuff about how this was something to feel good about, wasn’t it? Bobby O — my hero that evening — wouldn’t swing at it and wasn’t taking it. To paraphrase, Bobby O insisted, no, there’s nothing to feel good about with this team; this team won 74 games; the idea is to win lots more games and go much further; the Mets didn’t do that.
Yes, I thought — exactly!
Look, as Bobby O would say as he pierced the camera with his smoldering “I can’t believe this team” stare, on nights the Mets perform well and retain a chance to play beyond Game 162, I won’t need a truthteller. The truth will be the Mets are stoking hope instead of inflaming unease. On nights when things are less well-ordered, perhaps whoever succeeds Ojeda (erstwhile proto-Dickey Nelson Figueroa has been mentioned most prominently) will put it in perspective just fine. Or maybe it will be all milquetoast and weak tea served up in the name of minimizing discouraging words. It’s bad enough we’ve lost KB from the sidelines. Now goes Bobby O from the desk. One shudders to imagine the fortress of forthrightness that surrounds GKR crumbling at the hands of Healyesque hypemen serving up bottled dishwater.
Let’s keep our chins up as we wish our Met prophet of the airwaves a smooth ride to the next phase of his personal journey. Let’s err on the side of thinking there won’t be too many troubling trendlines in need of dissection by the last angry postgame studio analyst in 2015 and beyond. Bobby Ojeda, forever Met as hell, won’t be around to take us through them any longer.
This topic and several others came up on last week’s Rising Apple Report, where I was honored to guest. Listen in here.
Heather Quinlan’s 1986 Mets documentary, now titled The Lords Of Flushing, has a sweet five-minute trailer up on YouTube. Keep an eye and ear open for your favorite bloggers. Watch it here.
Seven excellent QBC panels are available for your streaming pleasure on SoundCloud, including those involving your very same favorite bloggers. Check ’em out here.
And that Doc Gooden luncheon on February 21 we told you about here? You can still get tickets here.
You know how every winter of late Sandy Alderson goes to the New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner and makes a modestly clever remark about the financially deprived state of the New York Mets and you either chuckle knowingly or fume disgustedly or perhaps a bit of both? That Alderson’s quips draw as much attention as they do isn’t necessarily because the general manager of your favorite baseball team needs better material off and on the field.
Blame what the BBWAA dinner has become. I’ve never been to one, but I watched some of the most recent edition on MLB Network. Nobody ever thought to televise it before. I can see why. People in formalwear stand and give speeches and present plaques to other people who stand in formalwear and give their own speeches. It reminds me of my father’s annual take on the Oscars:
“It’s like watching a bunch of plumbers give each other awards.”
If you’re a fan of the plumbing industry, that might be mesmerizing, though I’m a fan of what some refer to as the baseball industry and this wasn’t. Only so many handshakes, thank-yous and winking acknowledgements that “oh dear, I forgot to procure a better shortstop” can go toward producing an hour of quality television. Maybe it’s better in person.
Now, the New York Baseball Writers’ dinner in the old days? That’s the stuff of legend. It has to be, in a certain sense, for it was never televised. Yet it strove to be entertaining and it regularly succeeded, a result I gather from having absorbed references through the years to the show the writers put on.
“Baseball writers put on a show?” you may find yourself asking. “You mean one longer than 140 characters?”
Absolutely they did. From reading Keepers Of The Game, Dennis D’Agostino’s wonderful oral history of the press box deans from a bygone (or at least rapidly bygoing) era, I was reminded what a big deal this was. Dave Anderson, in the book’s preface, gave the gist of how it worked.
“If you were a beat writer on a New York paper, you acted in the skits at the annual New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, a theatrical rite of baseball’s offseason that eventually perished…”
Per the late Maury Allen, who covered the local teams for the Post, the production amounted to the social event of the cold-weather months.
“The writers show was Broadway quality. I’ve got to give credit to [Dick] Young — he wrote a lot of the great lyrics. [Leonard] Koppett was sort of the father of the dinner for a lot of years, and [Jack] Lang did the business end. Everyone performed and took it very seriously.”
Since video does not exist, it’s up for interpretation as to what “Broadway quality” meant. In D’Agostino’s book, Pepe remembers parodying “Bye Bye Birdie” in tribute to “Ron Blomberg not being able to hit lefthanders”. It went something like, “Vida Blue…makes such a schmuck of you…bye bye Blomberg.” Not bad in context, I imagine, and as long as Twitter had yet to exist, one assumes no harm, no foul — even if the record indicates Blomberg of the Yankees was a lifetime 0-for-1 hitter against Blue of the A’s.
The writers may have taken the process as seriously as Allen suggested, but, according to Maury, it wasn’t so serious that everybody wasn’t having a blast.
“[Y]ou got up, had your breakfast, and went to the Hotel Americana to work on the show. This went on for three weeks. The ultimate was that, every night after you rehearsed, you went to Shor’s and had free dinner and a few drinks. The night of the dinner was an all-nighter. Even a guy like me, who didn’t drink a lot, stayed there all night because the stories and the tales and the fraternity were so overwhelming you couldn’t walk away from it.”
So why did the writers walk away from the show? Times — and time demands — changed. No matter how wistful he was for it, Allen admitted today’s active BBWAA members “work just as much in January as they do in July.” The masters of the genre were beginning to recede from the scene (Young, Koppett and Lang are all gone and good luck tracking down Toots Shor) and the next generation didn’t pick up on it. Pepe told D’Agostino, “Guys today, for the most part, have no idea how big the dinner was. Sometimes guys with a real sense of history, like Marty Noble or Pete Caldera, will ask about the old dinners and shows. God, I wish I still had the scripts. For a while I was saving them, and then I threw them out!”
The chapter chairman who pulled the plug on the shows was J.G. Taylor Spink Award-winning killjoy Bill Madden in the early ’80s.
“They were very good, very clever, and people loved them. But by the time I took over as chairman, it was like pulling teeth to get anyone to come to the rehearsals. Young would walk in and say, ‘Ahhhh, I’m doing this song,’ hand you the music, and you had to fit it into the show somehow. A couple of the previous chairmen had arranged it so that they would sing the signature song at the end of the show, and it was awful. It just wasn’t working. I made up my mind that we weren’t going to have a show anymore.”
So on some level, blame Dick Young. Mets fans know how to do that.
Madden replaced the show by hiring a standup comedian. I’m not sure if they still bring one in or they decided Alderson’s jokes serve the same purpose. Either way, at least in the retelling, the idea that baseball writers would rewrite musical numbers to lampoon what was going on in baseball sounds like it was a grand tradition.
Did somebody say “TRADITION”?
Without further commercial interruption, we are about to bring you the postmodern revival of the New York Baseball Writers Show, set to the tune of selected musical numbers from Fiddler On The Roof, the long-running 1964 Broadway musical that portrayed so memorably how hard life was in the small Russian village of Anatevka during the time of the czar. Apologies and gratitude to composer Jerry Bock, original lyricist Sheldon Harnick, author Joseph Stein and producer Harold Prince, a gentleman for whom my father — no relation to Hal — occasionally received misdirected phone calls when Fiddler was a smash and Dad had an office in Manhattan. Thanks as well, then, to Charles and Sandra Prince for taking my sister and me to see it when I was eight. David Lipton starred as Tevye; he was no Zero Mostel, I suppose, but I didn’t know the difference.
Also, hat tip to standup extraordinaire Jeff Hysen, as ever, an essential element of the process.
Ladies and gentlemen, Franchise In The Hole.
A franchise in the hole.
Sounds crazy, no?
But here, in our little village of Flushing Meadows,
You might say everyone has put our franchise in the hole.
Trying to scratch out an encouraging 81 or more wins
Without breaking the bank…
It isn’t easy.
You may ask,
Why do we stay down here
If it’s so unfulfilling?
Well, we stay because Flushing Meadows is our home.
And what do we strive for?
That I can tell you in one word:
Because of our desire for contention,
We’ve maintained our faith for many, many years.
Here in Flushing Meadows,
We dream constantly of contention.
When we sleep.
When we eat.
When we work.
When we wear clothes.
We often keep our heads covered
And sometimes wave a little hit towel.
This shows our eternal devotion to contending.
You may ask,
When were we last in contention?
I’ll tell you…
I don’t know.
But we still hope for contention.
And because we so crave contention
Every one of us knows who he is
And what it is we are expected to do.
Since Two-Thousand Nine, they’ve finished near the bottom
Stayed under five-hundred, haven’t had a prayer
And yet every night, he ladles out quotations
Never, ever griping; doesn’t even swear
The Captain, the Captain!
The Captain, the Captain!
Who must know the way to fill a lineup card
And all the stats?
Who must communicate with everyone
So his players won’t complain?
The Skipper, the Skipper!
The Skipper, the Skipper!
His background stems from legal school
He rarely makes a trade
He’s running a small-market shop
Here in New York City!
The GM, the GM!
The GM, the GM!
And who’s responsible
For getting us in this fix?
Where when Spring Training starts
Our team no expert picks?
The owners, the owners!
The owners, the owners!
Sandy the Metmaker is coming…
Maybe he’s finally found a good Met for us!
From your mouth to Fred’s ears.
Why is he here now? It’s almost March.
Well, somebody has to make the Mets…
Improve our team
Lower our odds
So we all might beam
Make a few calls
We want to do more than dream
No more Mike Vail
We’ve seen prospects shine
Yet more prospects fail
Text your counterparts who are ready to deal
We want a contender for real
For cents on the dollar
So we can win rings
Won’t make us holler
That we’re stuck again
With Triple-A things
Find a shortstop
One who can lunge
And field a short hop
Every September I’m sitting alone
You’re dormant too long…
Oh, dear Lord!
You made many, many bad ballclubs.
I realize, of course
It’s no shame to be out of contention.
But it’s no great honor, either.
So would it be so terrible
If someone else
Owned our favorite club?
If I were a Wilpon
Oh, I wouldn’t trust a Madoff with my very tidy sum
I wouldn’t obsess upon those Brooklyn Bums
If I owned the New York Mets
I wouldn’t plan my next mall
Or install as my successor my not so charming son
All day long I’d eschew real estate
If I owned the New York Mets
I’d open luxury boxes to kids by the dozen
Invite them to occupy my suite
Promenaders welcome to move to the seats below
Ample escalators to ferry you up
And ramps like at Shea winding down
And Bobby O still on the postgame show
I’d fill our yard with the best and the brightest talent
For our crowds to see and cheer
Playing just as splendidly as they can
Each line drive and strikeout, stolen base and homer
Would knock our opponents on their rear
I’d do it all for every true Mets fan
If I were a Wilpon
I would talk to reporters and not always keep mum
Instead of having lawsuits, we’d be having fun
If I owned the New York Mets
If I were a Wilpon
I wouldn’t stop at Duda, d’Arnaud and deGrom
My customers would not be served the crumbs
October we would no longer shun
You can BET we’d be in contention
If I owned…the New York Mets!
Here’s to our rotation!
Here’s to its depth and youth!
And most important…
He’s back, he’s back!
The Dark Knight, the Real Deal
He won’t be at Ranger games
Canoodling his latest flames
The great Matt Harvey
He’ll win, he’ll win!
He’ll make like
It’s Twenty Thirteen!
Prepare fifth-day liturgy
Dismiss his surgery
Harvey Day’s coming…
Quiet down! Quiet down!
Is this the Virginia kid we drafted?
The Gold Glove who made that barehand play?
He was gonna win five World Series
When did he get to be a veteran?
How did his tenure reach the moon?
Wasn’t it yesterday he’d get here soon?
Dave Wright, one Met
Dave Wright, one Met
Too rarely in first place
Phenoms age overnight past thirty
And no longer slug the other way
Dave Wright, one Met
Dave Wright, one Met
Suddenly a dozen years
One season following another
Laden with devastating tears
He’s still the face of our doomed franchise
He’s signed for the rest of this decade
I hope the right field fence is close enough
By Opening Day
I hope his shoulder holds together
Come autumn, I pray he sprays champagne
It feels his whole career’s been delayed by rain
Dave Wright, one Met
Dave Wright, one Met
Here he goes again
Ever stoic and determined
No wonder they named him Captain
They’re beginning to look like a contender.
On the other hand,
What kind of contender can they be with such a small budget?
On the other hand,
They do have pitching and some defense.
But on the other hand,
They haven’t gone all the way in ages.
On the other hand,
They can only get better.
I think I’m gonna believe.
I’m sorry already.
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles
Teufel shuffled Daniel once again
Shoved him in a shift and miracle of miracles —
Murph caught a ball hit right at him!
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles
They pulled the walls in twenty feet
Granderson swung and miracle of miracles —
The ball he hit went plenty deep!
When McGraw told Grant “you gotta believe”
That was a miracle
When Buckner couldn’t bend to tie his shoe
That was a miracle, too!
But of all Met miracles large and small
The most miraculous one of all
Is despite little having gone our way
We still shout “Let’s Go Mets” today!
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles
Collins brought Lagares off the pine
Sent him to center and miracle of miracles —
Terry figured out Juan would be fine!
When Swoboda robbed Brooks Robinson
That was a miracle
When Melvin Mor’appeared from out of the blue
That was a miracle, too!
But of all Met miracles large and small
The most miraculous one of all
Is the one that we so wanna believe:
The Mets contending in
On Super Bowl Sunday, we like to take our cue from the singular WNYC radio host Jonathan Schwartz and present A Salute To Baseball, though to be fair, we present A Salute To Baseball most every day. We’re a baseball blog. What else are we going to salute? It’s what we do. But it’s not what one of the more authentic football fans I’ve ever known normally does, so I thought I’d yield the floor this Super Bowl Sunday to him…and let him salute baseball.
Our special guest baseball-saluter’s name is Mark Mehler, and he’s a New York Football Giants fan like I’m a New York Mets fan, except maybe more so. He’s certainly been at it longer. You know how, in pre-PSL days (that’s personal seat license, not Port St. Lucie) you used to hear about the Season Ticket Waiting List for Giants games and how you couldn’t hope to move up because Giants fans never gave up their seats? You can blame Mark for that phenomenon. He’s been holding his season tickets since 1964. He’s not giving them up, except maybe to catch the bus back to the Port Authority if he judges the game’s been decided beyond of a shadow of a doubt early enough.
Mark was well into his season-ticketitude when I first discovered the Giants, which was on the heels of discovering the Mets and the Knicks in 1969, except the Giants weren’t nearly as good. I was lucky enough to go to Knicks games when I was a kid (the last time being a Knicks fan felt like a stroke of good fortune) and you know I’ve made it to my share of Mets games since 1973, but as regards my favorite football team, do you when I got to my first Giants home game?
2014, that’s when. It never really occurred to me I could go, what with that long and legendary list of people who got there in front of me, including Mark — whom I didn’t know until 2013 but who’d been going to Giants games since they were ensconced at the first Yankee Stadium, then the Yale Bowl, then Shea for a year, then Giants Stadium and finally MetLife, where a Giants game ain’t quite what it used to be, according to my source, which is Mark, who finds the new place cold and corporate and laments, “Something special’s been lost, forever.” Yet he returns most every Sunday there is a Giants game there because he likes to, “in the poet’s words, live in the along. And I find new friends to join me on a fan’s journey.”
Young Mark Mehler (artist’s approximation).
I got to be that new friend early in the 2014 football season, so early that a Mets game was going on in sync with the Giants game. That, of course, is why the good lord made transistor radios (yes, there are now apps for that, but I’m old-timey that way). The NFL was looking bad last September — Mark wrote a heartfelt protest to John Mara over how the league was handling its domestic-abuse policy and boycotted the season-opener — but since this was an invite 45 or so years in the making, I wasn’t declining. I donned my freshly purchased for the occasion MANNING 10 tee, shoved my radio in my pocket, hoped WOR would come in loud and clear in the swamp and took a seat next to Mark in Section 144 of Cold & Corporate Stadium, the rough equivalent of a nice third base-side view from Field Level.
Got a good look at the game (it sure is violent from up close) and had a great time with a Giants fan who is quicker to invoke the barren years between 1964 and 1980 (0 playoff appearances) as a badge of honor than the bounty of periodic Super Bowl jubilation that followed, though he made clear he’ll always appreciate that shimmering quartet of Lombardi Trophies. Fans are like that, letting you know what’s been tough before getting around to mentioning what’s been beautiful. We who usually take our seats in Queens are like that. One could argue, given the general tenor of Met results from 1987 forward, that we’d be delusional if we weren’t.
The Giants beat the Texans that day in September, just as the Mets, over surprisingly reliable 710 AM, were definitively takin’ care of Braveness. I represented good luck, Mark told me as he dashed for a beat-the-crowds bus. I was deemed such good luck that I rated a second invite in December, which I approached with a measure of trepidation only because it was December and I maintain a strong aversion to freezing. But it wasn’t a terribly cold Sunday and it wasn’t like the Mets presented a conflict.
Glad I returned so soon. Odell Beckham, Jr., put on a show; the refs did the Giants a solid at the end of the first half when they disallowed a Washington touchdown on the other side of the field from us; and Big Blue pulled away convincingly enough in the fourth quarter that Mark could grab another early bus back to the city. My good-luckishness was apparently certified in advance of 2015. Without me, the Giants went 4-10, which is more or less what they always went between 1964 and 1980. With me on hand twice, they went 2-0. If I’d been on hand for all 16 games, home and away, they’d be preparing to beat the Patriots in yet another Super Bowl today.
If that were the case, Mark’s mind would likely be squarely focused on football. But since it’s not, he graciously decided he could put aside his primary passion for a bit and offer his very own, completely inimitable Salute to Baseball. In the spirit of former Mets pregame radio co-host (with Ralph Branca) Howard Cosell on The Odd Couple, after Howard shoved a play-by-play microphone in antagonist Oscar Madison’s face and Oscar completely froze, he refers to the following as…
EVERYTHING MARK MEHLER KNOWS ABOUT THE NEW YORK METS
Okay, here it is, in no particular order, my all-time live (non TV) Met memories (not necessarily in order of their magnitude). Your memory of these events, even those that took place before you were born, is likely more accurate than mine. But here goes.
1) 9/21/01 — Memory No. 1 with a bullet. I’m still sorting out all my emotions from that night. Doubt I ever will complete that task. Piazza so belongs in HOF.
2) 1963 — Doubleheader vs. Phils. Carl Willey and Tracy Stallard, of all people, pitched masterful complete games and Jimmy Piersall rounded bases backwards on a HR to commemorate his
birthday 100th homer. Simply Amazin’.
3) Home Opener ’63. Razzed Howard Cosell who was trying to interview Duke Snider before game. Ernie Broglio two-hit Mets. About 10 of us cut school to attend. My mother was seriously pissed.
4) 1984 vs. Pirates. Doc struck out 16 in the most dominant pitching performance I’ve ever seen live. Even better than Righetti’s no-hitter on July 4, the year before.
5) 1973 World Series (Game 4 — Matlack beat A’s). The first WS game I ever attended. We got caught in horrendous traffic and I had to resort to public urination on the Whitestone Expressway. But we made it to our seats before first pitch.
6) 1962 — Mets vs. Houston Colt 45s. Mets won something like 13-1. Apart from their first win ever, this was arguably the highlight of their inaugural season.
7) 1964/65 — All those glorious summer days and nights, taking in World’s Fair and a ballgame. Usually sat out in right field and dialogued with Joe Christopher, a favorite of ours
8) 1973 — Was living nearby in Woodside. Went to a lot of late-season games, which have sort of merged into one in my memory. I most remember being awed by the play of Cleon Jones and just everything falling beautifully into place down the stretch. It was easy to believe (check out Tug’s explanation of why he never got nervous throwing a pitch).
9) Coming back from Giants-Redskins MNF ’86, pulling into Times Square and hearing the wild cheers.
10) Marching against war in Oct ’69 in Boston, with a radio playing Game 4 glued to my ear, the Mets on the side of the angels. Your boy pitched great that day.
Mark opted to omit “the bad stuff — i.e. Oliver Perez melting down on last weekend of ’07, etc. Who wants to remember that?” But he did throw in a bonus recollection.
ONE MORE ALL-TIME MET MEMORY
Spring 1978 — taking my ex-wife to see her very first baseball game at Shea. It was like being in the middle of a Bob Newhart routine — the one where he’s Abner Doubleday trying to explain the intricate workings of baseball to a bunch of 19th-century businessmen. It was all quite beyond my ex, but I remember we laughed an awful lot and Mark Bruherd didn’t last through the fifth.
“Mark Bruherd” is actually Mike Bruhert, but he did warn me my memory of these events was likely more accurate than his. Then again, I never razzed Howard Cosell while he tried to interview Duke Snider.
How about lunch? How about lunch with Doc Gooden? How about lunch with Doc Gooden for a compelling baseball cause?
If any or all of the above intrigues you, look into what’s coming three weeks from today, Saturday, February 21, in White Plains. It’s an opportunity to spend some quality time with one of the premier pitchers in Mets history, enjoy some quality food in the process and set the stage for pinching yourself afterwards.
It’s Lunch With Doc, presented by the Baseball United Foundation, an organization devoted to growing our National Pastime at home and abroad. The accent this month is on Ireland, with proceeds from the upcoming luncheon directed toward providing equipment and coaching to youth baseball players on the Emerald Isle. Irish eyes will surely be smiling as they get better acquainted and acclimated to the greatest game ever invented. (The Kensico Little League in Valhalla will also benefit from this fundraiser.)
Thirty years ago at this time, it was Metropolitan eyes that were beaming in anticipation of what twenty-year-old Doc Gooden was going to do in his sophomore season. He had just been named Rookie of the Year and was about to embark on a journey that would take him to the mountaintop, or at least the peak of every mound from Shea Stadium to Chavez Ravine.
You would’ve given your right arm (if not his) to get close to Doc in those days. Based on personal experience, if you had a spare digit to sacrifice thirty years later for a chance to talk to and hear from Doc, you’d think about doing it. With this luncheon, you can keep your fingers and toes intact.
The event will take place at Graziella’s Italian Bistro in White Plains on the afternoon of the 21st, starting at 12:30 and going through 2:30. Tickets — which entitle the bearer to a three-course meal; a choice of beer, wine or soda with which to wash it down; and, oh yes, plenty of Doc (he’ll talk, he’ll answer audience questions, he’ll sign any one item that you bring) — are priced at $150, but you, dear Faith and Fear reader, get your seat at the table for $125 by entering the handy code FaithAndFear when you make your purchase.
How many Saturday afternoons do you get to enjoy in the company of a Met legend? This could be the one.
Full details are here. Tickets are available here.
This here’s a story about Charlie Williams, a young pitcher who seemed destined for if not big, then definitely specific things. Consider what can be gleaned about C.W. from his C.V.
• Born in Flushing fourteen years before ground was broken on the stadium that would make that Queens village world-famous.
• Matriculated at Great Neck South High School, a few stops east of Shea as the Port Washington line of the Long Island Rail Road flies.
• Signed by his hometown New York Mets out of a college whose name was the same as the pitcher who was traded for the catcher who would be the first he’d throw to in the majors.
• Celebrated his 22nd birthday the day his parent club commenced their first World Series, though he wasn’t nearly advanced enough to join them yet.
• Spent the following season mowing down hitters in the Double-A Texas League, pitching to a 12-5 record at Memphis, woven among a tapestry of names that make a certain strain of Mets fan swoon: Jim Bethke, five years removed from the time he became the first and only 18-year-old to take the mound as a Met; Les Rohr, the first No. 1 pick the Mets ever selected in an amateur draft; Bill Denehy, who’d been traded by the Mets to the Senators for the managerial rights to Gil Hodges and who’d since been traded back; Don Rose, one of three men assigned to accompany Nolan Ryan to California in the quest to acquire Jim Fregosi; Tommy Moore, who’d later be thrown into the deal that would make Brooklyn’s own Joe Torre a Met; and Lute Barnes, who — like Moore — I’m told is one of the handful of Mets to never have an official baseball card printed with his image during the course of his professional baseball career (though Moore’s picture finally made it into the 1990 Pacific Senior League set via card No. 148 a dozen years after he was released by the Baltimore Orioles).
The most accomplished player, eventually speaking, to perform for those 1970 Memphis Blues, was John Milner, the slugging first baseman/outfielder who blasted 94 home runs as a Met, including 23 during the pennant-winning campaign of 1973. The next-most accomplished player and the pitcher who would come to possess the thickest MLB credentials from that staff?
Charlie Williams, the kid from Flushing.
As Williams’s path would have it, he wouldn’t be known for what he did directly after his promotion from the Memphis Blues to the New York Mets. Hopping over Triple-A Tidewater, Williams made Hodges’s roster in 1971, serving on the same pitching staff as, among others, Ryan, Tom Seaver, Tug McGraw and Jerry Koosman. It was a bad outing by Kooz that paved the way for Williams’s big league introduction on Friday afternoon, April 23. Jerry was trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the third at Wrigley Field when, with one out, he loaded the bases full of Cubs. Gil had seen enough of his top lefty and sent in his rookie righty.
Charlie grounded his first batter, Original Met Jim Hickman, to first, where Donn Clendenon picked the ball up and threw home for a forceout to Jerry Grote — the backstop who was traded to the Mets in 1965 for Tom Parsons, presumably no relation to Parsons College in Iowa, the university from whence Williams was chosen by the Mets with the first pick in the seventh round of the 1968 draft. He grounded out his second batter, too, getting Hal Breeden to roll to Tim Foli at second. Foli stepped on the bag, 4-unassisted, and Williams had gotten through his first two-thirds of an inning as a Met.
Before his major league debut was over, Charlie Williams would give Gil Hodges a one-run fourth and a scoreless fifth. By the sixth, he was pitching with a 5-3 lead, thanks primarily to Ken Singleton’s two-run homer and a couple of run-scoring singles from Grote. Breeden, however, led off the Cub sixth by taking Charlie deep and Johnny Callison soon pinch-doubled in the tying and go-ahead runs. Williams left on the losing end of the score, 6-5. Ron Taylor came on and cleaned up for him as Charlie had cleaned up for Koosman. The Mets tied the game in the seventh and won it, 7-6, in the twelfth when Singleton knocked in Tommie Agee. Ryan, pitching two shutout innings behind McGraw’s four, earned the decision. But Charlie Williams could also be judged a winner. He was now fully part of the team in whose geographic sphere of influence he grew up.
Flushing’s own Charlie Williams, when he was known as a young Met pitcher on the rise.
Charlie would relieve 22 times and start nine games in 1971. There were some standout performances sprinkled among those 31 appearances: 9 K’s versus the Giants on June 11; his first home victory, 7-2 over the Dodgers, on June 16, achieved with a little neighborly help from recently recalled Francis Lewis High alum Mike Jorgensen’s two solo homers; a 3-2 win that came up one out shy of a complete game against the world champion-to-be Pirates on June 22; the opener of the August 3 doubleheader against the Big Red Machine when Charlie went all the way at Shea, scattering eight hits and prevailing, 9-4; and Williams’s final win of the year, at Pittsburgh, noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it prevented the Buccos from clinching their second consecutive N.L. East crown against the Mets; and 2) it was done with the last all-homegrown starting lineup the Mets would field for another 40 years, though Charlie earned the W in relief.
His first full season in the majors, the year Flushing native Charlie Williams came home to pitch, wound up 5-6, with 53 strikeouts in 90.1 innings, and an ERA of 4.78. It had its moments, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee him a spot on the pitching-laden 1972 Mets — even though Topps had certified him otherwise with their No. 388 card during the spring — so he was farmed out to Tidewater.
It was while hurling for the Tides that the from kid from Queens learned what his calling card was going to be for the for the rest of his life.
By dint of birth, native habitat and unfolding circumstance, Charlie Williams seemed destined to pitch for the Mets. Technically, his destiny was fulfilled 31 times over. But that debut against the Cubs, the complete game against the Reds, any of those five wins for the 1971 Mets…that’s not what Charlie Williams would be remembered for. From May 11, 1972, forward, until this past Tuesday — the day he died at the age of 67 following heart surgery that was too much to take atop an array of reported vexing health issues — he lived as one easily digestible line to baseball fans who remained or became aware of him:
Charlie Williams was the player traded for Willie Mays.
With the stunning announcement that Willie was about to, in a sense, do what Charlie had already done — come home to where it all started — Williams was transformed into an instant trivia question. He was now and would forever be in league with the likes of Denehy and Rose and Moore, his Memphis moundmates who, however well they might have pitched at the highest level of baseball in a given game, were remembered because they were parts of trades involving men who had bigger names or accomplished greater things.
In Williams’s case, he was the only player the Mets exchanged for Mays, yet he was essentially the throw-in. From the Candlestick Park perspective, this deal that was struck a month prior to the Watergate break-in was best understood by following the money. Giants owner Horace Stoneham needed the $50,000 Mets owner Joan Payson gladly sent him in exchange for the privilege of dressing her and everybody’s favorite old-time New York Giant in a New York Mets uniform. She’d happily take on the top-of-the-line salary he was due (the prorated portion of $165,000 for 1972 plus $175,000 agreed to for 1973) and guarantee him a post-playing coach’s sinecure as well, a gig Willie kept through the end of the 1970s.
Stoneham would say he never actually accepted the $50,000, he just wanted what was best for Willie. His team did, however, take receipt of Williams, who gave the Giants what could best be described as a serviceable seven seasons. There were a few years in the mid-’70s when advanced metrics are retroactively kind to Charlie, with ERA+ rates topping 100 from 1974 to 1976. His lifetime won-lost mark was 23-22, 18-16 as a Giant. He was a better than .500 pitcher during a period when San Francisco produced mostly losing ballclubs.
In retirement, Charlie moved to the east coast of Florida, where apparently he never shied away from his claim to redirected fame. According to one of his golfing companions, he didn’t have a problem not being known as Charlie Williams the pitcher who reached the top with his hometown team or Charlie Williams who possessed a winning lifetime record or Charlie Williams who won 23 more games in the major leagues than mere mortals. He was fine being Charlie Williams who was known for being what Charlie Williams was automatically known for being…not that he didn’t put a little spin on his own pitch, mind you. As friend Harold Glover related to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “He’d actually tell everybody that Willie Mays was traded for him.”
However you slice it, there are worse things to be known for.
The kid who made The Flip, the Say Hey Kid who made The Catch. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Giants)
Is there any better antidote to chilly days than Willie Mays? Is there any doubt that No. 24 could melt the 24 inches of snow projected to blanket our Metropolitan Area if you gave him a bat, a glove and another go with 24-year-old legs? Is there a sunnier thought 24 days in advance of Pitchers & Catchers than that which results when one considers the greatest center fielder there ever was?
Say no to all of the above because, Say Hey, Willie Mays was in town over the weekend, reminding all of us lucky enough to spend a few minutes in his presence that greatness doesn’t grow old. It just gets better with age.
The Willie Mays I saw on Saturday was the Willie Mays who acts as ambassador for the game he made his own a scant 64 years ago. There are many Willie Mayses. Willie the phenom from 1951. Willie the megastar by 1954. Willie the idol of millions forever after. Willie from Uptown, when he lived around the corner from where he worked and played ball at both addresses (stickball on St. Nicholas Place, baseball on Eighth Avenue between 155th and 157th Streets). Willie of the West Coast after he was transferred on business. Willie who left his heart in New York and came back to find it well cared for in 1972. Willie who Said Goodbye to America two weeks before helping bid the Big Red Machine au revoir in the fall of 1973. Willie the living legend, in and out of uniform for decades since.
Yes, there are many Willie Mayses. But when you get right down to it, there’s only one Willie Mays.
The Giants — currently of San Francisco, ancestrally of Manhattan — keep coming up with good excuses to give Willie Mays a ride back to his baseball hometown. They keep winning the World Series. Not every year, which would be gauche, but every other year. Then they take a few days out of their busy California schedule and visit New York with a trophy and an icon in tow. The trophy’s a lovely keepsake, but it’s somebody else’s. When the Giants come around, I don’t greet them in order to relish their spoils of victory.
I come to be near Willie Mays. Success hasn’t spoiled that sensation.
To offer a little background to those of you who haven’t heard it before, I’ll tell you that at the age of nine, when I was already deeply and eternally bound to the fortunes of our Metsies, I became fully aware that they were preceded as “N.Y. (N.L.)” by another outfit, one that even wore the same NY on their caps. This was 1972. I was in third grade and had begun to soak up the history of those larger-than-life New York Giants. There was an article in Baseball Digest that introduced me to John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. There was a biography in the East School library that profiled Mel Ott. Suddenly, there was a trade made by the New York Mets that netted them the greatest of New York Giants.
They…we…got Willie Mays.
Critical mass thus gave me two teams, the Mets in my time, the Giants for all time, or at least the portion of pre-Mets time they spent in New York, which spanned 1883 to 1957. They became my object of historical affection. The San Francisco aspect of their ongoing activities didn’t really register with me. Those Giants, once they kindly sent Willie home where he belonged, were just another Met opponent whose games started inconveniently late. I had no strong opinion of them except that I thought it rather rude that they had absconded with Mays in the first place.
Credit where credit is due, though. The San Francisco Giants have become all about the make-good. In the 2010s, they win a World Series every other year and they make certain to share the spirit of those championships with their New York diehards. They honor two groups with which I’ve been happily involved — the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society and the New York Giants Preservation Society — for continuing to honor them. They organize a biennial breakfast and invite the membership and host a black-and-orange love-in that doesn’t turn a person away just because he otherwise bleeds Mets blue.
They’re the three-time World Champion San Francisco Giants. They can afford to be gracious. Same for their Gotham-based fans. In New York Giant-loving circles (which is to say among Giants fans who live in New York and cheer for San Francisco), I’m accepted for my heritage-oriented enthusiasm. I’m welcome to take part in their festivities, given a peek into their folkways, offered the same crack at the same sumptuous buffet as they are.
I’ll be rooting against those Giants when they come to Citi Field in June. In the icebox that is January, however, I can’t think of an organization I like better.
Willie left his heart in New York in 1957. Every time he returns from San Francisco, he finds it’s been well cared for. (Photo courtesy of New York Giants Preservation Society)
The San Francisco Giants bring me Willie Mays every two winters. They brought him to me in 2011 when, truth be told, he seemed a little out of it. They brought him to me in 2013 when he was far sharper and more engaged. They brought him to me on Saturday when I swear that if I had closed my eyes and hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought I was listening to the same Willie Mays from when he wore 24 in Queens.
In 2015, Willie sounded A-Mays-ing. Every time the Giants win a World Series, he gets younger. This youth movement might help explain San Francisco’s autumnal success. They brought their ageless wonder to this breakfast of champions and they brought Joe Panik, who appears to me all of 14. (Joe’s actually…wait for it…24.)
The Giants didn’t need to give us Joe Panik, but what the hell, the kid is from somewhere around here and why shouldn’t he have the chance to visit with Willie Mays, too? He did just help his team win a World Series.
All due respect to the second baseman whose quick thinking in the field turned Game Seven of the most recent World Series around, but the Giant nostalgists, preservationists and fans who filled their third hotel ballroom in five winters didn’t come out in the slush to hear from Joe Panik. He was a swell complement, but Willie Mays was positively papal in his effect on the people. Hundreds rose as one when word filtered in from the hallway that Willie was about to enter. Willie didn’t enter for more than five minutes, but nobody sat down.
You don’t sit down when Willie Mays might walk by.
It was worth the wait. Willie was led in. Standing on the edge of his processional, I was going to try to get a very good picture with my phone. Instead I gave a very good ovation and got a series of blurry photos. That’s all right. There’s no shortage of published images of Willie Mays. To have one in your head of him passing right in front of you as you pay proper homage? That you can leave your phone in your pocket for.
Like I said, Willie did some version of this in 2011 and 2013. He’s plenty loose by now. In 2015, he was ready from the first softball tossed his way.
How did it feel to be back in New York?
“I never left!” Indeed, Willie Mays has maintained an apartment in Riverdale, but the way he squealed his answer and the understanding of how his backstory wound through the Polo Grounds (and Shea Stadium) made it an instant applause line.
“People in New York, when they like you, they love you.” More applause.
When Joe Panik was introduced, there was applause, too — and leading it, on his feet, was Mr. Mays. Willie, recurring youthful aura notwithstanding, is 83. He needs some assistance to get from the back to the front of a ballroom. Yet he didn’t hesitate to stand and salute Panik. He also was plenty ready to discuss what a promising player he was sitting next to. As Willie likes to say (and he said it Saturday), he doesn’t know why he refers to “we” having won the World Series. “I didn’t do anything,” he frankly admits. “They won.”
It struck me that when you hear the phrase “he’s a good baseball man,” we’re conditioned to apply it to someone like Terry Collins. He didn’t excel as a player but he worked hard and he learned things and he accumulated knowledge and he stayed in the game and, after a fashion, others in the industry looked at him and agreed, “He’s a good baseball man.”
We don’t apply that to someone on Willie Mays’s level — which isn’t a very populated level, I grant you. But when I listened to him digress on what Panik had done well last season and postseason, then heard him analyze the trajectory of the 2014 Giants and compare their confidence with his self-confessed bad case of rookie nerves in 1951, I realized that Willie Mays, aside from being the most spectacular of baseball players, is a very good baseball man.
I doubt you’d find better.
Willie addressed a range of topics as wide as CF at the PG. He remembered Ernie Banks as “someone who never got mad…and all of a sudden the ball would go over the fence.” He reported that he and Monte Irvin, soon to turn 96, “talk all the time”. He won a round of loving laughs when he confirmed that when Bobby Thomson hit his pennant-winning homer, he didn’t realize right away what all the fuss was about (Willie was in the on-deck circle and still assumed he was up next). He wouldn’t rank a next-best center fielder, but acknowledged “Junior was pretty good”. He rated as the loudest roar of his career the welcome home he received in the Polo Grounds in 1962 the first time the Giants headed east to play the Mets. He explained San Francisco’s tentative embrace when he and his teammates moved there in ’58: “They soon understood I could play baseball.”
Somewhere along the way, Larry Baer, CEO of the Giants, joined the panel to hail not just Willie and Joe but the audience, a crowd that stayed true to their team, distance be damned. (Panik said something earnest about appreciating the proliferation of Giants fans at Citi Field, which served as another surefire applause line, though I assure you I kept my hands politely folded.) Baer thoroughly tipped his cap to the Giants’ “roots” in New York, though the mere existence of this January morning event testified to his club’s sincerity.
This whole thing was on the Giants: the space in a really lovely hotel; the food that far outpaced your average Holiday Inn Express; the trophy that I’m told is awarded for winning a championship (how would I know?); the transcontinental goodwill; the pairing of the outfielder who made The Catch in New York in 1954 with the New York-born infielder who made The Flip in 2014. Nobody’s charged anything. Nobody’s sold anything. There are no merchandise tables, no “Giants on the Road” packages. Instead, there’s stories and reflections and standing ovations coming and going. There are grateful remarks like “three World Series in five years, I still have to pinch myself,” and reminiscences about having sat in Section 38 for Game One in ’54, left-center, and watching Willie tracking Vic Wertz’s ball all the way, and asides that Section 22 at the Polo Grounds was behind home plate and how you could remember Section 22 by number because, well, Don Mueller wore 22.
For those on hand who lived the New York Giants, this was quite the gathering. For those who had the San Francisco Giants passed down to them as a family heirloom three time zones removed, it was an experience to be cherished. For me, who figures I wouldn’t have my New York Mets without those New York Giants, it was a stolen moment in the sun.
It snowed the night before. It’s snowing all over again two days later. I’ll steal every bit of sunshine I can.
My particular heartfelt thanks to Bill Kent of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society and Gary Mintz of the New York Giants Preservation Society for engineering these three Saturday mornings I’ve been fortunate enough to spend with Willie Mays, or three more than it ever occurred to me to dream possible.
Ernie Banks on a 1969 baseball card shot at Shea Stadium. No way it wasn’t a beautiful day.
We know what Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, had to say about doubleheaders. Yet I thought it might be fitting to remember there was more to the man who passed away Friday eight days shy of his 84th birthday than one admittedly beautiful quote.
Let’s play two? Absolutely. But let’s hear more.
“You have to be happy, and sports does it. What kind of world would this be without sports, without baseball? Why, you’d have people at each other all the time.”
— Ernie Banks, 1969
“I have problems, like everyone else, but it doesn’t do any good to go around spreading bad news.”
—Ernie Banks, 1971
“Some people can’t deal with strange people. I can. For 35 years all I did was deal with people I didn’t know. But the facade was also me. I view people as if they have a sign on their chest which says, ‘Make me happy,’ and I got happy by making them happy. I always view people as feeling worthless, not having self-esteem, and I try to focus attention off myself and onto them to make them feel important.”
—Ernie Banks, 1988
“I see a lot of people today who struggled and went to jail and the dogs were after them, and I’d look at them and look ’em in the eyes and say, ‘God almighty, I wish I’da been there.’ My children, sometimes they think about, ‘Daddy, where were you all the times that the struggle was going on?’ And I could only answer one way: ‘I was playing baseball.’ That was the struggle.”
—Ernie Banks, 2006