Blessed be the player who keeps you rooting for your team when your team gives you little on which to root. Not that you’re going to switch to another team or perceptibly scale back your allegiance if you’re any kind of a good fan or a good person, but if you can’t reasonably expect wins, it’s nice to expect something.
From 1994 to 1996, Rico Brogna was something. Maybe not something else, but he was definitely a Met among Mets, certainly by my not altogether stringent standards.
Anybody can fall in love with Tom Seaver when it’s 1969 or Doc Gooden when it’s 1984. I did both. They were the key men on clubs that were getting great. Easy choices. But when your team is on an extended downswing, why do you choose whom you choose? What made Rico Brogna one of my all-time favorite Mets almost immediately?
Gosh, what didn’t? When I recall the Met tenure of Rico Brogna, a gentle breeze brushes my right cheek. It’s so…clean. Refreshing. Rico Brogna was the right man at the exact right moment, a scouting party of one sent ahead from a not-too-distant future to those of us wallowing in a despairing present. He arrived to tell me everything was going to be all right again, eventually. Don’t worry, he said, the Mets aren’t going to be the way they’ve been for too long forever — soon enough you will take pride in all those jackets and caps and t-shirts you bought, soon enough you will tell people “I am a Met fan” and not wait for the inevitable cringe.
Rico Brogna was a prophet without honor in his own time. He didn’t last long enough to more than nibble on the fruits of progress. His three Met seasons each ended with losing Met records. Prosperity was just around the corner, but Rico never made it down the block.
I hate when that happens.
Rico Brogna came to the Mets in a transaction so quiet that it could have been consummated at Joe Robbie Stadium. At the end of Spring Training 1994, the Mets gave up on a former first-round draft pick, Alan Zinter, sending him to the Tigers for Brogna, a minor leaguer. I had forgotten Zinter was even in the system. I completely missed the trade. So when Rico was called up on June 20, replacing the groin-strained David Segui, I thought, “Who?” His first game was two days later at Fulton County Stadium. He went 0-for-3 against Greg Maddux. His first Met hit, a single off the Pirates’ Paul Wagner, was recorded June 26 at Shea.
Two days after that, Dwight Gooden was suspended for violating his aftercare program. Doc tested positive again. Doc was back on cocaine. Doc was through as a Met. The last link to 1986 — the one that had survived firecrackers and bleach and earplugs and rampant surliness and 27-decision losing streaks and rookie hazing rituals gone awry and media boycotts and paranoid managers and miscast general managers and 103 losses and more than one allegation of sexual misconduct — had been severed. Through the misery of the early ’90s, as the Mets got worse as baseball players and human beings, at least there was Doc, my favorite player for a decade. Now there wasn’t.
On the night Dwight Gooden was suspended, Rico Brogna went 2-for-4 against the Cardinals. He was batting .333. He had nothing to do with any of what had come before him. He was utterly detached from the disasters of 1992 and 1993. He was clean. And it looked like he could hit.
I had a new favorite player.
It was a small sample, but the remainder of 1994, which only lasted until August 11, cemented my bond with Rico Brogna. If he wasn’t a classic drop-whatever-you’re-doing slugger, I still tried not to miss any of his at-bats. I loved the line drives. I loved the nifty glovework at first. I loved that he was a nice and polite young man. There was something about him that wasn’t bitter or anonymous, that didn’t point fingers. The best players the ’94 Mets had to offer before him were guys who emitted personal flaws out their tailpipes. John Franco rarely hid his displeasure when plays weren’t made behind him. Jeff Kent wanted to be anywhere but New York. Jose Vizcaino, a decent enough shortstop, had the personality of a turnip. We were finally getting that big season from Bret Saberhagen, but Bret Saberhagen was one snide comment away from another Clorox attack. Bobby Bonilla was still the life of the party. Everybody else was Doug Linton.
Rico wasn’t any of this. He was Rico, or RI-CO! RI-CO! RI-CO! He was the first thing worth chanting at Shea in years. Even an impending strike couldn’t dim the sense of possibility around Rico Brogna. On a Monday night in late July, the Mets played in St. Louis. The game was televised by that monstrosity known as The Baseball Network. Rico went 5-for-5. Swaths of the Midwest, if not the world, were now finding out who this Brogna kid was. He ended the night hitting .377, the shortened season hitting .351. The strike would be hell, but I would not shunt baseball aside as so many others swore they would irrevocably, no way, no how. I had Rico Brogna to look forward to.
Baseball came back. So did Rico. The next May, I got his autograph and shook his hand at a meet ‘n greet in the Mets clubhouse store in Manhattan. He struck me as young, small, fit and, most importantly, so nice and polite. I knew I made the right choice stopping by. Rico’s average didn’t soar in ’95, but there was power: 22 homers, 76 ribbies. I knew I made the right choice picking him as my favorite. The Mets were stronger, too, particularly in the second half when they reeled off 34 wins in 52 games to end the season. Rico was the best player on a team that was about to come of age. He was getting help. Isringhausen and Pulsipher were up. So was Alfonzo. And Everett. Hundley was beginning to show what the fuss was about. There was a future, just like Rico said. He was at its forefront. It was only going to get better in ’96.
Actually, it didn’t. The Mets stumbled. Rico hurt. They both regressed. Mets finished 71-91. Rico finished on June 19. He’d been plagued by a chronically bad back and now he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Managed only seven homers, though one of them was of the walkoff variety, winning a game against the Cubs that included the last brawl the Mets ever fought. When our dignity was at stake, I knew he wouldn’t let us down.
I bring Rico Brogna and my fanly affection for him to your attention today, Thanksgiving Day 2006, for a particular reason. It was ten years ago, just before Thanksgiving Day 1996, that the Mets traded my favorite Met to the Phillies for two no-account relief pitchers. I was puzzled, I was livid, I was saddened. The Mets were terrible in 1996, absolutely horrifyingly depressing. Their plan to improve? Trade my main man for Toby Borland and Ricardo Jordan.
Oh the humanity.
Rico would recover from injury and forge a representative career for himself as a Phillie. He drove in 104 runs in 1998 and 102 in 1999. Except when he was in a position to beat us (which he did, 1-0, on a solo homer off Mlicki late in the ’97 season), I always rooted for him. Even as a Phillie, as distasteful as that was. Even as a Brave, as dismaying as that was. When Rico went deep off Kevin Appier in our Home Opener in 2001, I stood and cheered. He wasn’t in a position to beat us, but even if he had been, I probably would have put a hand or two together on his behalf.
I would recover, too. The Mets made a good trade a few weeks after that horrendous one, acquiring John Olerud from Toronto for Robert Person. Olerud was one of those who made the Mets in 1997 what I’d been waiting since 1990 for them to become again: good. I never let how much I loved Rico Brogna get in the way of how much I would love John Olerud. He was one of the most special Mets ever.
Which doesn’t excuse the trade of Rico Brogna. Franchises shouldn’t be allowed to trade your favorite player, but they do. No need to go down the litany of Mets who should have stayed Mets but didn’t. When the litany starts with Tom Seaver, you really don’t need any more examples. No matter how mature you get, they hurt every time.
The Rico Brogna for Toby Borland and Ricardo Jordan trade hurt immediately. I wasn’t thinking about his 36 Met homers, his 126 Met runs batted in or his .291 Met average. I was thinking about what it was like to fall into the player who keeps you rooting for your team when your team gives you little on which to root.
Some people would never get that. Right after Rico Brogna was traded, I had to deal with one of them.
I hadn’t had 24 hours to digest the Brogna bulletin when I found myself a reluctant pilgrim, in a car heading north to Westchester for Thanksgiving. Stephanie and I were in the backseat. My father was driving, his girlfriend of then almost five years was next to him. It was her family — daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, cousins — with whom we’d be sharing the day.
I liked her. I liked her fine. I was glad my dad found somebody when he did, not long after my mother died. It was a good thing all around. But that didn’t mean I had all that much to say to her. Groping for news of any kind, I mentioned that I was kind of bumming because the Mets had just traded my favorite player, Rico Brogna.
She could have said, “I’m sorry to hear that” or “that’s too bad” or even “that’s life”. I wasn’t expecting a dissection of who would be setting up Franco in ’97 or how much time Huskey could anticipate at first. I was just trying to fill the uncomfortable silences.
I sure as hell wasn’t expecting this:
“Well, I don’t want to be mean, but if they’re not very good, maybe they were right to trade him, you know?”
No, I didn’t know. And neither do you, I wanted to say. Rico Brogna has a tricky back but he’s not the reason the Mets went 71-91 this year. He didn’t even play after June. He was hurt. Maybe the Mets would have been better had he been healthy. Maybe a team in a constant state of rebuilding shouldn’t be casting off one of its pillars so recklessly.
AND FUTHERMORE, what the fuck do you know about my team other than it’s my team? That should be all you need to know. I get enough reminders at work, one month after the fucking Yankees won the fucking World Series, that my team isn’t very good. I know I’m practically all alone as a Mets fan in New York and now my favorite Met has been traded to fucking Philadelphia and all you can say is it wasn’t such a bad idea?
That’s what I wanted to say. I didn’t say much. Not in response to Rico, not through the car ride to Westchester, not at the drafty house with the onslaught of people to whom I wasn’t really related. Dissing Rico Brogna was merely the first straw. It was just one thing on top of another (the group Macarena may have been the last straw) that made Thanksgiving 1996, hands down, the most pain-in-the-ass Thanksgiving I ever endured. And that’s sayin’ somethin’ if you’re last name is Prince.
Not to be overdramatic, but Stephanie and I found ourselves in essentially a two-against-dozens situation all day and night, with our only natural ally, my father, making like Switzerland and sitting it out. We may as well have spent Thanksgiving in an isolation booth.
OK, that is overdramatic, but not by much. Let’s just say we didn’t fit in and wanted no more part of this particular blended family. Nobody was mean. They just weren’t who we wanted to be with and nobody seemed particularly interested in whether we were there or not. They were courteous enough to have us for my fathers’ sake, but once it became impossible for me to spark a conversation with my dad, what was the point?
So we decided not to be a part of it all any longer. Thanksgiving ten years ago was the last of those mythic Thanksgivings that we took part in. My sister and her husband had already begun fleeing annually for the West Coast every mid-November. My father has remained enmeshed with his other family. Stephanie and I are on our own.
From the first time a teacher told me to trace my hand and pretend it was a turkey, I tried to buy into family-laden Thanksgiving as a great event. Everybody always said so many nice things about it. Yet time and again, these occasions were embarrassing or abrasive or tongue-bitingly non-confrontational and always endless. Amid company in which I am not at ease (which is most people) I am a clench. It is my nature to tighten up when I am not relaxed, no matter how Yogiesque that sounds. I’m self-aware enough of my antisocial tendencies to try and compensate with bursts of warmth and outgoingness, but I am to warmth and outgoingness what Rey Ordoñez was to batting cleanup.
I value nice and polite. If that’s what you want, Rico Brogna or I am your man. You want warm and outgoing? Call Domino’s.
1996 was the culmination of a lifetime of bad Thanksgivings. In the years that followed what we’ll call for our purposes here the Rico Brogna debacle, we mostly hid from Thanksgiving. It is only recently that we have dared to embrace it on our own terms at our own table with our own Oven Stuffer. We have succeeded. So this, you see, is not an unhappy Thanksgiving story. We simply ignored the turkey-family industrial complex and made Thanksgiving our own. Just us and the cats.
The result is a holiday I used to dread and curse — to the point of cackling demonically when high winds interfered with the Macy’s floats — is now one I genuinely look forward to every fourth Thursday in November because it’s cozy and it’s comfy and I can go on about Rico Brogna all I like if the mood strikes. (Just for variety’s sake, my wife and I occasionally do chat about other things, though she does love her some Mets.)
On any given Thursday, we like everybody in our family fine. On this given Thursday…oy. There are 364 other days in the year, 365 sometimes, to commune with our loved ones. I didn’t need this particular Thursday shoved down my throat like a third serving of Stove Top Stuffing just because it’s supposed to be. Thanksgiving togetherness is very touching when we pop in the DVD of Pieces of April or the King of the Hill where everybody gets stuck in the airport. It’s overrated in real life. At least ours.
Hence, nowadays we see my sister and her husband and my father and his girlfriend not because we have to but because we want to. And we do want to…just not on Thanksgiving. It’s not like we held a family meeting to do away with the tradition to which we were all unwillingly tethered. We just stopped conferring on the particulars and there were no evident hard feelings. Funny how that works.
Meanwhile, that ornery Thanksgiving of a decade ago may have also led, in its way, to an unquestionably positive year-round development. It may have made this blog possible. You see, I think that dreadful Thursday was when I decided I’m going to live to do what I want to do at least when nobody’s paying me to do something I don’t want to do. I used to grit my teeth for family get-togethers. That Thanksgiving helped me realize nobody was benefiting from this behavior, not me, not the family.
Where does the blog come in? I guess I also made a semiconscious decision that in general I would seek out those who were passionate for what I was passionate about. I was passionate about the Mets. I began to semiconsciously cultivate the idea of the Mets logo as my coat of arms. Mind you I’m not so delusional to believe that a starting first baseman (not even the beatific Brogna or angelic Olerud) will rush to my aid if harm befalls me. My father or my sister would — as I would for them. I understand family is family. But catastrophes aside, with whom do I want to spend my time, invest my faith, confess my fear? Mets fans. Not exclusively, but mostly. Good Mets fans…good people who are good Mets fans if I could find them.
By Thanksgiving ten years ago, I knew a few well and had, thanks to technology, come to know a few more a little. As the late ’90s proceeded and the Mets at last rode an upswing through the National League (no thanks to Ricardo Jordan or Toby Borland), they became more important to me than they ever were, even when I was a kid. I didn’t plan it that way. It just kinda happened. Concurrently, I came to rely for good company on the good Mets fans and the good people with whom I shared this surpassing interest. One of them writes this blog with me. Another of them, I’d like to think, is you, whether we know each other beyond these pages or not.
So I guess I’m thankful for that.