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The Wilbur Huckle Appreciation Society

The Mets didn’t lose! Coincidentally, they didn’t play — their game against the Nats was washed away by the advance guard of Tropical Storm Andrea, which will also wash away tomorrow night’s game here against the Marlins. We’ve been saying for some time that you should make other plans, but this time we really mean it.

As a franchise the Mets were busy, though — with their first-round pick they selected a 17-year-old kid from Los Angeles named Dominic Smith, who has scouts and front-office types gushing about his sweet left-handed swing and defense and fans ready for him to replace Ike Davis tomorrow. On Twitter, Greg noted [1] that Smith was two days old when he and I attended our first Mets game together [2] — Bill Pulsipher’s debut. Back then the Astros hung a first-inning five-spot on Pulse, who lost; despite being an incontinent newborn Smith probably didn’t misbehave to that extent.

In other news, both of your bloggers are now deplorably old.

I had preloaded a tweet [3] that I thought was amusing in a low-level way: “TRAID [name of draftee here]. I WANTED THAT OTHER GUY I’VE NEVER HEARD OF.” It did pretty well, too, probably because lots of Mets fans and/or baseball bloggers were watching the MLB draft, partially because it was kind of a train wreck and partially because there was nothing else to do.

I really, really love baseball, but it’s a reach to say the draft makes for good television, even when narrowcast on the MLB Network. It was painful to watch Bud Selig squint uncertainly out at the room after the 12th, 21st or 31st intonation of the same announcement from the podium. It was ludicrous to watch swollen former players pretend to be on the phone at desks festooned with team motley. But the real problem is this isn’t the NFL draft, where draftees actually can remake their teams in relatively short order, leaving their fans to exult or despair for good reason. Dominic Smith is quite literally not done growing into his adult body, so predicting what he will mean for the Mets one day is beyond laughable. We won’t begin to have an idea for two or three years, at which point the vast majority of Mets fans will need to be reminded who he is.

Given all this, I wasn’t exactly surprised to find a surplus of  ironic tweets about Smith. And I was reminded of a guy from generations ago, a guy who never got drafted and never played for the Mets.

I was reminded of Wilbur Huckle.

Wilbur Huckle [4]Who’s Wilbur Huckle? First the basics: He was a career minor-leaguer [5] who logged nine seasons, all in the Mets organization, beginning with the Raleigh Mets in 1963 and lasting until his last hurrah with the Double-A Memphis Blues in 1971, when Huckle was 33. After that, he managed the Batavia Trojans of the New York-Penn League for three not particularly notable years; a fan on Ultimate Mets Database says [6] he then became a middle-school teacher in San Antonio, adding that “I must admit that he is one of the finest people I have ever met.”

Huckle has some other claims to fame of a low-level sort. He was Tom Seaver’s first minor-league roommate, and every now and then Seaver pops up on TV or in the pages of a memoir for a Huckle chuckle — he inevitably claims he only saw Wilbur when he was asleep, as the infielder was otherwise either out or taking a long early-morning walk. A few years ago, Keith Olbermann floated Huckle [7] as a member of his Bill Sharman Society, made up of luckless players who appeared on a big-league club’s regular-season roster but never got into a game. Mets by the Numbers then disputed [8] — convincingly, I thought — whether Huckle was actually added to the roster and so really deserved this unfortunate notoreity.

(If you’re curious — and let’s not kid ourselves, you’re long gone if you’re not — the Mets’ all-time ranks can be expanded to include nine “ghosts.” These spectral semi-Mets are Jim Bibby, Randy Bobb, Billy Cotton, Jerry Moses, Terrell Hansen, Mac Suzuki, Justin Speier, Anderson Garcia and Ruddy Lugo. Cotton and Hansen never got into a major-league game, making them the franchise’s ambassadors to the Bill Sharman Society.)

But I wasn’t thinking about any of that when Huckle came to mind. I was thinking about irony, and fandom.

Irony, believe it or not, wasn’t invented when Twitter became the darling of SXSW or our friends at Amazin’ Avenue started mocking WFAN callers with #BlameBeltran and TRAID. It dates back at least a few decades earlier — and it’s always been familiar territory for Mets fans. The so-called New Breed were masterful ironists, bringing their bedsheets and placards to the Polo Grounds, making Marv Throneberry into a cult hero, and merrily proclaiming that they didn’t want to set the world on fire, they just wanted to finish ninth.

Some of this Metsian irony was the Sixties starting to flower, and some of it was long-suffering Giants and Dodgers rooting reimagined as an allergic reaction to the boring, antiseptic Yankees’ occupation of New York City. But it proved catching, and it found a hero in the unassuming Wilbur Huckle. Sometime in late 1964, after Barry Goldwater borrowed Cicero’s line that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, oddball political buttons started popping up at brand-new Shea Stadium. Some proclaimed EXTREMISM IN DEFENSE OF THE METS IS NO VICE, while others pledged fealty to the Metropolitan Party. Both had the same rallying cry: HUCKLE FOR PRESIDENT.

buttons [9]And why not? Huckle was the perfect candidate — he had that marvelous name, an unassuming blue-collar affect and red hair, making him more or less the Justin Turner of his day, except with an ocean of freckles instead of pies and “Call Me Maybe.” And because Huckle was never actually a Met except in spring-training or news briefs, he could be a vessel of hope and possibilities, with the disappointment of reality kept from intruding.

Some say the Huckle buttons were the work of the Mets PR department, which I’d like to believe but doubt — if anything, the team was more square and risk-averse then than it is now. I suspect they were instead the work of some clever, bored fan in one of New York City’s many creative industries — the Darren Meenan [10] of his day. Whatever the case, they’re wonderful — I bought a pair on eBay last year and split them up, one for Greg and one for me. They make me laugh, and they make me admire my Mets forebears, who had to work a lot harder amid similarly depressing standings. It’s easy to be ironic through game threads and tweets, but a lot harder when all you have is buttons and word of mouth and a wink aimed at a kindred spirit.

Irony, of course, can be toxic instead of gentle — it can harden into armor that deflects real feeling and commitment. But that’s not at work with the HUCKLE FOR PRESIDENT buttons — there’s a sunny optimism beneath the laugh line, just as tonight’s jibes about never having heard of Dominic Smith weren’t mean-spirited. Despite the Mets’ meek history and lowly prospects, the fans of September ’64 would have cheered rapturously for Wilbur Huckle if he’d ever made it to the starting lineup; despite the Mets’ fiscal black clouds, the fans of June ’13 happily dream of what Dominic Smith might become. Yes we mock the Mets and ourselves, but we have hope — we laugh through the tough times so we can exult in the better days that we’re sure await us.

Huckle’s still remembered [11], and that makes me happy. Candidates will come and go and the issue of the day will change, but that aw-shucks hope will always be a plank in the platform of the Metropolitan Party.