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Nothing Trivial About Us

I hope there won’t be a quiz about the finer points of Thursday night’s Mets-Braves game [1]. I’ve already forgotten most of what happened. I think I forgot it while I was dutifully watching all nine innings. I seem to recall Bartolo Colon not being sharp, then being very sharp, then being so sharp it seemed unsporting to not let him stay in for the ninth despite trailing, 3-1, given that he’ll have extra rest through the All-Star break and where’s Terry Collins’s sense of whimsy, anyway? Or was that used up on batting Bartolo eighth?

The Braves got to Colon, the Mets didn’t get to Aaron Harang and the gap between the two teams remained plenty wide. The Mets’ giddy four-game winning streak did not extend to five and there was no first four-game sweep of the Braves since 1989 (though how many four-game series do you see anyway?).

We can’t definitively answer the most burning question regarding these recently scorching, but even more recently lukewarm Mets, namely are they actually any good? They were considered surefire lousy by the likes of you and me less than a week ago, but then there were runs and wins and towels and it was another dawning of a new era in our starry eyes. Then, last night, it was Harang and Freddie Freeman, and when will this game be over so we can get to the real action?

I refer, of course to The Battle of the Broadcasters, SNY’s attempt at a game show based solely on Mets trivia. The production had many things going for it and wasn’t undermined by the counterintuitive flaw that informed the whole idea. To Mets fans, there is nothing trivial about the Mets. The Mets constitute immense (perhaps mentally unhealthy) portions of our lives, and the tidbits and factoids that are generated in the wake of Mets games, seasons and careers represent a zillion vital notations on the sacred scrolls each of us embed into our brains.

Mets trivia isn’t trivial. It is essential. Fortunately that shone through and made Battle a worthwhile half-hour (as opposed to the three-hour Citi infomercial that enveloped too much of SNY’s game action last night). It couldn’t be anything less than essential given the cast of characters that was convened. You bring Gary Cohen and Howie Rose onto the same set and make the topic Mets information, you know it will be treated with the Talmudic respect it deserves. And you slot Kevin Burkhardt into the role of host…well, that guy could emcee a moon landing if we still had those and he’d be Cronkite-level sensational at that, too. (And whereas Uncle Walter wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power as authority figures plunged us into Vietnam and covered up Watergate, Cousin Kevin totally tickled me when he casually agreed with Josh’s assertion that Frank Francisco’s brief Met stay was a pox on our collective consciousness.)

I love listening to Gary and Howie call Mets games in their respective media. They’re great for a hundred reasons apiece but what makes them ideal is they’re us. They didn’t so much memorize Mets detail from first grade onward; they absorbed it. The only things that they don’t instantly recall haven’t been forgotten as much as purged for memory space. Their true talent lies in expansion and embellishment. I’d have preferred a game show in which Kevin asked everything in two parts.

1) Name the guy on the Mets who did something.

2) Describe your thought process as you contemplate the guy and the something he did.

That’s what makes them top-notch broadcasters. No, that’s what makes them top-notch Mets broadcasters. They think like Mets fans, because they are. They elaborate like Mets fans, except they are professional, skilled communicators, which is why we’d rather listen to them than anybody, even ourselves.

Their respective broadcast partners were along for the ride, and while Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling, Josh Lewin and Seth Everett were not inconsequential to the proceedings (include a talent competition and Josh’s piano-playing might trump even Keith’s ability to pounce on bunts), the showcase aspect at play was Gary’s approach versus Howie’s approach more than it was TV guys versus radio crew.

Gary’s shining moment, I thought, was when his team was asked to name members of the 2000 National League champions, a savvy move on the part of the producers since Ron, in particular, morphs into a total stranger when any Met period that doesn’t cover his playing or broadcasting comes up. I could feel the same fear rising from Ron when he heard the subject matter that I felt boiling in my gut when I realized I was going to have to conduct a brief conversation in Spanish to pass the Regents exam. I’d taken Spanish for six years but little of it stuck. That’s how Ron engages those post-1991, pre-2006 Mets. He’s pretty sure he heard something about them but he wouldn’t swear to it. No wonder Ronnie remembered the Mets’ pennant-winning center fielder as “Gary” Payton (a basketball player, for what it’s worth).

This is where Gary’s particularly Metsian genius came in. Each time it was his turn to name a member of our last World Series team, Cohen went for the least immediately recalled Mets first: Darryl Hamilton; Kurt Abbott; Mike Bordick. Analyzing the game show far more than I bothered to analyze the game that preceded it, my first instinct was to think he was kind of showing off. Then I decided, that’s not what he’s doing at all. He’s either delineating in his mind the Mets who distinguish the 2000 club from its more colorful 1999 predecessors (as if any of us consider Bordick’s tenure here “distinguished”) or more likely he’s grabbing the less obvious answers, thus leaving the “gimme” Piazza types to his less informed teammates.

What a great broadcaster. What a great Mets fan. What a great captain, even.

Before I slobber too much over our rightly beloved lead television announcer, I will take Howie’s side that the Pyramid-inspired part of the program, wherein one guy gave clues and the other two guys had to give answers, was, if not rigged in TV’s favor, then it sure helped them. Three of the clues Gary gave were “was my radio partner” (Bob Murphy); “was your pitching coach” (Mel Stottlemyre); “broadcaster who shares my first name” (Gary Thorne). It reminded me of Cliff Clavin’s Final Jeopardy! entry: “Who are three people who’ve never been in my kitchen?” [2]

Howie, witnessing the ease with which Ron and Keith were able to handle Gary’s clues, playfully but edgily protested that this was a touch ridiculous. “‘Your pitching coach!’ Why don’t you ask him what his father’s name is?”  Then True Howie took center stage in giving his clues to Seth and Josh, offering bits of patter after every answer, which is death to a timed game-show round but very entertaining as a rule. Howie’s knack for weaving Mets anecdotes and Mets history and too many promotional spots and endlessly trenchant observations in and around foul balls, pitchouts and meetings on the mound is what makes him a state-of-the-art broadcaster. For an inning or nine, nobody on earth is going to outbattle Howie Rose behind a baseball microphone.

Alas, the game show format is a different animal and Team SNY, perhaps used to saying less because the pictures already say plenty, outpointed Team WOR. The big winners, as they say, were the charitable organization of GKR’s choice and the home viewers, because we got to spend an additional half-hour with seven top-notch Mets voices and not one second more than necessary having to contemplate the crummy ballgame that served as its lead-in.