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Another Zimmer Night at Wrigley Field

Beautiful Wrigley Field isn’t quite so beautiful when it is lit by electric as opposed to natural means. Ever since the Mets had their lights turned out on August 9, 1988, losing to the Cubs in what became Wrigley’s first official night game (following a rainout the ballyhooed night [1] before), it seems mostly bad befalls them on the Near North Side of Chicago once the sun goes down.

There are exceptions. The Mets executed their most bountiful inning ever [2] in the Wrigley dusk of 2006. A former Brave donned a Mets uniform in 2007 and won himself a 300th game, which seemed like something to revel in at the time [3]. It’s been 26 years since Wrigley stopped hewing exclusively to bankers’ hours, so there’s probably some other enchanted evening that’s not springing to mind immediately, though I can’t think of it right now.

Mostly, Met nights at Wrigley are like the three we’ve just witnessed, episodes in which our cast of characters proves unready for prime time, whether the show begins at 8 o’clock Eastern or 6 o’clock Central. If the Mets aren’t scoring eleven runs in a sixth inning or assisting a Manchurian Brave to a personal milestone, they’re usually doing something along the lines of what they did all this week.

They’re losing. Thursday night they threatened to win, but it was an idle threat. Andrew Brown [4]’s return from Las Vegas was pleasant enough — he performs well on any semblance of an Opening Day — and the roar back from an 0-4 deficit to a 4-4 tie provided a few minutes of false encouragement, but then Anthony Rizzo [5] went deep and the Mets still had runners to strand and, well, the whole thing dissipated [6] as it tends to do after dark in that part of town.

It was probably just cosmic coincidence that, smack in the middle of this sweep at the hands of what is still technically the worst team in the National League, one of the best-known members of what is still legendarily the worst team in the annals of the National League was reported passed away [7] at age 83. Don Zimmer [8], as you’ve been reminded thoroughly by now [9], was an Original Met. Because Zimmer made baseball his business from 1949 forward and his profile in the game only grew with time, he became, by the 21st century, perhaps the most famous of all 45 players who could call themselves 1962 Mets. He’s not in the Hall of Fame like Richie Ashburn [10] and he doesn’t maintain a sensational case [11] for being in the Hall of Fame like Gil Hodges [12] (who would be the last to manage Zimmer in the big leagues, with Washington in 1965), but 52 years after contributing indelibly to a 120-loss maiden voyage, it seems nobody didn’t know his name.

Not bad for an .077-hitting infielder who was swapped to Cincinnati for Cliff Cook [13] and a spare Bob Miller before the franchise was four weeks old. Mind you, the Mets were just one of approximately a bajillion stops in professional baseball for Zimmer, but you can’t start counting Mets until you go around the horn on April 11, 1962, and take note of who the first third baseman in Mets history was. You maybe wouldn’t start anxiously counting Mets third basemen — a popular pastime for much of the ballclub’s existence [14] — if Zimmer had a little more zimmo [15] to his game when he came to the Mets at 31, one year after his sole All-Star selection. There wasn’t much zip left to Zimmer when 1962 rolled around, which put him in very common company on a roster of certifiable used-to-bes. Zimmer’s Met legacy, to be repeated into near-eternity by Ralph Kiner [16], was Don tumbled into an 0-for-34 slump that April, climbed out of it with a double off the Phillies’ Dallas Green [17], and was traded away two days later, just when he was getting hot.

“The way things were going for Don Zimmer,” Post beat man Leonard Shecter would reflect years later, “everybody knew he would soon be gone. It wasn’t only that he was hitting so poorly, it was that he was such a good raconteur that he was too good to last.”

Zimmer would go on telling stories and creating content for another five decades. The Mets would continue replacing him at third with alarming frequency throughout the 1960s. Sportswriters would keep tabs on just how many third basemen the Mets had gone through since Zimmer, with 38 receiving a shot at the hot corner in their first six seasons. For the record, when Eric Campbell [18] shifted from first to third last night after David Wright [19] was double-switched out of the game (stunning to consider [20], but he did make the previous inning’s final out…and nothing but outs the entire series), the all-time total inched up to 153. It doesn’t quite match the Zimmer-born pace set in the franchise’s formative years — thank you, David — but it’s significant enough so that somebody’s still keeping tabs [21].

That the positional progeny of Popeye expanded their ranks in the wake of their progenitor’s passing can be taken as ironic, I suppose, but what I found most moving in terms of time and place was that the Mets were in the midst of playing three night games at Wrigley Field. It was Don Zimmer who was managing the Cubs that night in 1988 when the Mets got off on the wrong, dark foot, and it was Don Zimmer who was managing the Cubs on the night in 1989 that basically defined what the next quarter-century of nights at Wrigley would be like for the Mets.

I think we’d all agree that rooting for a team with a winning record is preferable to rooting for a team with a losing record. Being as practiced as we are lately at rooting for a team with a losing record, and recognizing how we’d prefer anything else already yet, should confirm that hunch. Nevertheless, not every team above .500 is more fun than a barrel of Mookies. Twenty-five years ago, entering the action of June 8, 1989, Mookie Wilson [22] was batting .193 and the Mets were a .527 club overall. They weren’t bad in the sense that we’ve come to understand bad, but they weren’t much good. These were the Mets from whom much was expected, so being only three games over, not to mention 2½ games out, wasn’t the cause for jubilation it would be today.

The team the third-place Mets trailed, however, was having itself a party. That was the Chicago Cubs, still managed by Zimmer and far exceeding their limited expectations. The Cubs had trudged along after outlasting the resurgent Mets in 1984 to win their first title of any kind since 1945. In October of ’84, the Cubs’ lack of lights was the talk of baseball, for if the N.L. East champs won the pennant — and how wouldn’t they, up 2-0 over San Diego in a best-of-five NLCS? — NBC wasn’t going to happily air midweek daytime World Series games and call it a paean to tradition. 1945 was long over in Corporate America, no matter what the stubbornly sun-dependent scheduling at Wrigley suggested.

If the Cubs had gone to the Fall Classic, they would have ceded home-field advantage to the Tigers despite it being the N.L. champs’ turn to host. Of course, the Cubs didn’t go (if they did, they wouldn’t be the Cubs the way they still are) and the lights blazed at Jack Murphy Stadium that October. But the fight to light Wrigley Field, led by Cub GM Dallas Green — the same Green who gave up Don Zimmer’s final Met hit in 1962 — intensified and its incandescent conclusion grew inevitable. Thus, the Mets found themselves losing in Chicago on the night of August 9, 1988, and found themselves trying to win in Chicago on the night of June 8, 1989.

That Thursday night, whose silver anniversary arrives Sunday, was a struggle as most nights and days were for those Mets. They were over .500, yes, and they had been the consensus favorites to repeat as winners in the East, but they were losing ground to Zimmer’s Cubs in the standings and on the scoreboard. Ron Darling [23] (4.12 ERA) wasn’t sharp and left after six, trailing, 4-2. Lee Mazzilli [24], pinch-hitting for Kevin Elster [25], doubled home Gregg Jefferies [26] in the seventh to pull the Mets within a run. And with one out in the ninth, Kevin McReynolds [27] tagged Mitch Williams [28] for a solo home run, tying the score at four…same as last night, come to think of it, after Brown took reliever Justin Grimm [29] deep with a man on (something pitcher Travis Wood [30] did to Jacob deGrom [31] earlier in the game).

Unlike last night, though, extra innings beckoned. The contest of June 8, 1989, moved to the bottom of the tenth. With one out and Don Aase [32] — Don Zimmer’s alphabetical bookend on the permanent Met attendance sheet [33] until David Aardsma [34] came along last year — pitching, Jeff McKnight [35], who had pinch-hit for Darling and took over for Elster once Mazz batted for him, booted a Lloyd McClendon [36] grounder in his first-ever game as a major league shortstop. Curt Wilkerson [37] then singled for his fourth hit of the night, moving McClendon to second. Aase then hit Shawon Dunston [38] to load the bases.

For those of you whose only exposure to bases-loaded situations has been how the 2014 Mets offense vanishes during them, it might surprise you to learn that a team’s chance to score a run usually increases when it loads the bases. The contemporary Mets, you see, are an aberration in that regard. Therefore, you had to like the Cubs’ chances in this situation. They had runners everywhere and Aase had nowhere to put the next hitter. Then again, the next hitter was a rookie catcher named Rick Wrona [39] batting .194, or ten points higher than rookie catcher Travis d’Arnaud is batting right now. Behind Wrona was leadoff hitter Doug Dascnezo, who was hitting a sub-d’Arnaudian .152. The Chicago Tribune referred to Wrona as the Cubs’ “forgotten man”.

What to do? The Mets of 2014 would wait for Noah Syndergaard [40] to heal [41], Mike Conforto to develop [42] and varied and sundry nebula to align perfectly. The Don Zimmer of 1989, demonstrating admirable impatience, ordered a bunt.

Yes, a bunt with the bases loaded. The thing nobody does these days and didn’t do that much then. But after Aase’s first pitch was fouled off, Don Zimmer told Rick Wrona to do it.

“If they get me,” the manager who survived 34 consecutive hitless at-bats as a 1962 Met reasoned, “they get me.”

Guess what. They didn’t get him. Wrona squeezed toward first base. McClendon came rumbling home from third base. All Cubs were safe. All Mets had lost, 5-4. “This game probably bothers me more than any other loss this year,” Davey Johnson [43] said afterward.

That same game, though I had to refresh myself on the details, has bothered me longer than most June defeats of 25-year vintage, for the fuzzy memory of “the Mets lost here that night Don Zimmer squeezed with the bases loaded” never fails to shoot through my mind when the Mets are sentenced to night games at Wrigley Field. Wrona bunting home McClendon at Zimmer’s behest is what I can’t help but think of when the lights come on at the corner of Addison and Clark and the Mets are conscripted to serve as the visiting attraction. Wrigley wasn’t built for night games. It’s unnatural. It never feels right and the detrimental Met result usually bears that out.

It’s a feeling that’s too haunting not to last.

Zimmer’s Cubs kept doing stuff like that for the rest of 1989, beating out those endlessly frustrating and soon-to-be Mookieless Mets [44] by 6½ games to win another division title; they played a pair of night playoff dates at Wrigley for the benefit of NBC and lost the pennant in five to the Giants. They still haven’t made the World Series since 1945. Zimmer, though, went a bunch of times as Joe Torre [45]’s bench coach, including the Series when Roger Clemens [46] flung a broken bat at Mike Piazza [47] and Zimmer and hurled some unfortunate invective [48] toward Mike in the aftermath. Eventually, he told George Steinbrenner he could stop writing him checks [49] and moved on to the Rays, where his lovable nature was fully restored for the rest of his life.

Today, no matter the lousy mood we we’re left in from last night and the night before and the night before that, we salute Don Zimmer’s innate Original Metsness [50]…despite his frustrating us in 1989; despite his defense of the indefensible pitcher following 2000; despite his getting in the way of Pedro Martinez [51] in the heat of 2003. We remember him fondly enough at the end of a week when the Mets dropped three night games in a row in Chicago on the heels of taking four of five in Philadelphia.

Just when we were getting hot.