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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Life Gil Hodges Lived

Buddy Carlyle, baseball professional since 1996 yet a veteran of portions of only eight major league seasons to date, knows from whence he speaks when he says, “Baseball goes on. That’s the hardest thing to realize…it goes on without you.” It will go on with Buddy Carlyle on the Mets’ Opening Day roster Monday, just as it will go on without Eric Campbell, the utilityman who earned a spot two springs in a row but got squeezed out of Day One consideration both times.

The man called Soup understands what it all boils down to: “It’s a business.” Matt Harvey c. 2007 couldn’t have said it better to Jeremy Schaap. Campbell’s not a major leaguer on Monday because Carlyle’s and Sean Gilmartin’s contractual statuses got in the way. Mets baseball will almost certainly go on with Campbell before too long, though. In the past ten Opening Weeks, off the top of my head, I can recall Mike Cameron (2005), Andres Torres (2012) and Bobby Parnell (2014) all hitting the DL before the ceremonial bunting had time to be folded up and put away properly.

We wish everybody on the 25-man roster the best of health and all the success in the world. May they, at the very least, make it difficult for Soup to stir. But Campbell will be back. In the interim, however, the whole thing goes on without him.

Carlyle’s quote resonates beyond the current personnel situation for me in light of a book I recently finished reading, Mort Zachter’s ambitious biography called Gil Hodges: A Hall Of Fame Life. If anybody symbolizes how baseball’s irresistible force ultimately plows through any one person’s place in it, sadly it is Hodges. Nobody could have been a bigger presence for the team he managed than Gil was for the Mets. As a kid, I would have found it impossible to imagine anybody but Hodges as manager. Other teams replaced their skippers. Some were fired. Some resigned. But Gil seemed as permanent as Shea Stadium itself.

Forty-three Easter Sundays ago, we learned different. Word filtered north that Gil Hodges suffered a second heart attack and died instantly in West Palm Beach. Just like that, he was gone. A few days later, once some (but hardly all) of the shock cleared away, we learned somebody else was going to manage the Mets.

Because baseball goes on.

That’s the hardest truth to avoid as you read Zachter’s book. You know what’s coming at the end of Gil’s story. You want a different ending. You want something else to happen on April 2, 1972, yet you can’t have it. It can’t help but cast a pall over your reading.

On the other hand, there’s the life Gil Hodges lived, and that’s something that’s wonderful to visit. Zachter is an able tour guide who commits to his self-appointed duty. The author steers us from Hodges’s Indiana youth to his entry to pro ball to the detour dictated by World War II, all of it us giving the foundation to appreciate the rest of the journey during which Hodges becomes Hodges.

Not a symbol, not a saint.

Not a symbol, not a saint.

Technically, Hodges was always Hodges, which is the beauty inherent in the story Zachter tells. Though he wasn’t comfortable being portrayed as saint or symbol, Gil was held up in his day as an ideal baseball man in and out of the sport. Long before Spike Lee made Brooklyn the setting for Do The Right Thing, Hodges made that his de facto credo during the years he called the borough home, first as the highly decorated first baseman on the championship Dodgers, then as the miracle-working manager of the championship Mets. His is illustrated as a very Golden Rule life, though one gets the impression he treated others well as a matter of course, not particularly worried about what was coming his way in exchange…unless he was being done explicitly wrong. In those instances, including within a marvelous anecdote Zachter recounts about an M. Donald Grant underling’s attempt to mess with Hodges’s box seats, you can be assured Gil didn’t lightly accept shabby behavior.

What is good to be reminded of, via Zachter’s extensive research of his playing and managing career, is Gil Hodges was very much a human being. He wasn’t a great driver, for example. He had a dry sense of humor. He now and then rubbed a player the wrong way. And 1969 notwithstanding, he didn’t manage every team under his authority to a World Series championship. In fact, he lost a lot more than he won overall — not his fault, given the talent he inherited in Washington and the slow development of what preceded him in Flushing, but a very human outcome.

Even saints and symbols sometimes come in third.

We know about Gil’s legendary 1969 and we understand what Gil did in 1968 to alter for the better the trajectory of the franchise. Less discussed since April 2, 1972, is that in 1970 and 1971 the nominally contending Mets fell disappointingly short. Hodges likely wouldn’t hide the fact that he was the manager then, too, and not everything he did was imbued by a magic touch. He preferred certain American League veterans too much and didn’t necessarily communicate optimally with some of the youngsters on his watch. Most of his players swore by him or came to with experience — Ron Swoboda still kicks himself for not processing his manager’s advice more effectively in real time — yet he who serves as boss is going to have his detractors. Gil had his. Zachter even goes so far as to suggest that with ’72 looming as the final year on his contract, it wasn’t a certainty that Hodges would return to manage in ’73 and beyond if his Mets didn’t start winning again ASAP.

Zachter avoids hagiography, instead delivering a legitimately positive portrait, one rich in details if a little short on literary grandeur. I got the feeling the Hodges he gives us doesn’t measure out to larger-than-life proportions because Gil Hodges was most at ease being a man who was simply trying to do his best in a demanding atmosphere. The author certainly gets that sense across.

(I do wish he and his editor had been more careful about spellings. Mike Jorgensen, Rockville Centre, the Gowanus Canal, Jay Horwitz and one reference to Whitey Lockman were all muffed, plus there was a misstatement about where the first All-Star Game played on Astroturf took place. If Gil had proofread the manuscript, I have to believe he would have issued fines for such avoidable errors.)

As for the phrase regarding the Hall of Fame his publisher emblazoned on the cover, Zachter devotes a final chapter to the topic that burns up the Internet and gets our goat every few winters. Not surprisingly, he makes a convincing case for Gil’s induction into Cooperstown, though it was hardly the point of the book. Those who have declined to vote Hodges in might decide otherwise should they read Zachter’s work, but there’s a more important takeaway to be had from Gil Hodges: A Hall Of Fame Life. There’s a reason we still talk about Gil in reverent terms 43 years after his death.

It’s because he deserves it.

If you’re interested in what a Seder plate might have had to do with home plate — and what any of it has to do with Gil Hodges — I’d recommend this article from the Tablet that was recommended to me by an old friend of Gil’s (and more recently mine), David Kaminer. A version of the story is told in Zachter’s book as well.

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