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Not As Easy As It Looks

“In ‘reel’ life,” Jeff Merron noted in an ESPN critique [1] of Bull Durham’s depiction of how baseball actually works, “[Nuke] LaLoosh is promoted from A ball to the majors in the span of a few months.” But in reality, “It’s almost unheard of — especially for a pitcher who struggled part of the season in A ball — to make such a jump.”

Nuke LaLoosh was portrayed by Tim Robbins, a real-life Mets fan and the closest I could come up with as a precedent for what 22-year-old Akeel Morris [2] tried to do Wednesday night in Toronto. The differences in their tales, beyond fiction and what actually happened, were stark. For example, LaLoosh walked 18 and struck out 18 in his Bulls debut, the cinematic Carolina League being notorious for its disregard of pitch counts. Morris, meanwhile, wasn’t having such control problems down at St. Lucie. He was having a whale of a season when the bullpen-stressed Mets reached down and called him up for what seemed like the hell of it.

The Mets, trailing by three in the eighth, gave Morris a chance at Rogers Centre. Everybody deserves a chance. The view to Akeel, however, obliterated any chance the Mets had of coming back on the Blue Jays. The kid faced eight batters and retired two. Five of his runners scored. His earned run average, a spiffy 1.69 in 24 Single-A appearances, sits at 997.

Sorry, that’s his chronological rank in the countup toward One Thousand Mets. Morris’s MLB ERA is impolite to mention in public. Hopefully when he comes back — he was dispatched to Double-A Binghamton after the 8-0 loss [3] went final — he’ll cash in on the chance to lower it. (If it goes any higher, he ain’t getting too many more chances.)

The lesson to be derived from the two-thirds of an inning Akeel Morris pitched in the bigs may be pitching in the bigs isn’t as easy as it looks. He’s a young man with good stuff and it got lit up by batters who knew what they were doing against a pitcher who had every reason to develop nervous knots, let alone heebie-jeebies. Perhaps Ron Shelton should have been brought on to consult.

Yes, the movies can make narratives flow with ease. Perhaps a screenwriter as accomplished as Shelton would have a simple time portraying the Met tenure of former chairman of the board Nelson Doubleday, who died yesterday at 81 [4].

The treatment wouldn’t be a problem. We’d pitch as our leading character a rich guy. GWM — Guy With Money, as the joke went in Kiss Me Guido. The hook is he has a famous last name, maybe the most famous last name in baseball. The most mythic, at any rate. The catch is he’s generations removed from his great, great, however many great uncles it was who made the name famous. Our affably clubby leading man is running a company that’s very successful, but he gets involved in baseball despite not having much obvious inclination toward it.

“This is New York,” he declares, “and New York is a bigger deal than any other city. This is a National League city just waiting to be tapped. We feel we are going to do very well with it.”

So he decides to buy a team. To buy the team, he needs a partner. The partner is his diametric opposite. Didn’t come from money, made his own. One has the wealth and bearing. The other fancies himself a scrapper, a hustler. Together they have just enough to take over this team, which is a real fixer-upper. Our protagonist is the front man, the man with most of the scratch, but his partner keeps his hands on the wheel, too. They don’t always get along, but they get things done. They not only begin to fix up their depressed property, but they start to get the goat of their rival across town.

Did I mention there was a rival? There has to be. The antagonist also has money — you need a lot to play at their level — but he’s full of bluster. Our guy doesn’t operate that way. Our guy stays out of the spotlight, but he knows how to write the checks. He hires a sharp fellow to improve his product, he lets his partner do whatever it is he does and he proves to whoever doubted him that he’s a worthy heir to his legendary baseball ancestor.

In the climactic scene, Our Hero has accomplished what he set out to do. His blustery rival has been vanquished. His depressed property has been beautified. His product is the best in the land. He and his partner raise a trophy in unison. They have indeed, as promised at the beginning of the movie, done very well with it. Crowds cheer, confetti falls…roll credits.

If you’re not one for details, that’s more or less how it worked for Nelson Doubleday, who was the lead man in buying the Mets in 1980 and oversaw a complete turnaround of the franchise that culminated in a world championship in his seventh season at the helm. If he did anything wrong prior to that magic moment in October of 1986, we never heard about it. He and Fred Wilpon were, to the rest of us, polite presences who gave Frank Cashen the resources he needed to build a winner, and otherwise won our affection by not doing anything to lose it. Together they weren’t George Steinbrenner, which was considered an enormous asset in those days.

In the popular imagination, it was Doubleday’s team. Doubleday was the name that drew attention in 1980. Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball, but since when did baseball care to separate myth from history? The fact that somebody named Doubleday rode in and rescued the Mets made his participation just that much juicier. The fact that he and Wilpon, however they divided their responsibilities, succeeded ensured we’d always view the two of them as heroic.

Always doesn’t always last. The sequel to the Doubleday story didn’t yield a plot so easily followed. The Mets fell apart in the early 1990s. If it wasn’t necessarily Doubleday’s fault, it’s not like he didn’t own half the team when it happened. It’s also not like there weren’t rather unsavory statements [5] attributed to him behind the scenes. “Behind the scenes” was a compliment in the context of not being Steinbrenner. It also allowed his alleged impolitic words to be sort of wished away. Oh, that’s just Nelson after a cocktail or two, his partner was willing to rationalize. And by then, his partner couldn’t stand him, so how bad could what was said to have been said been?

Doubleday and Wilpon stayed together even as it became well known they wanted no part of one another [6]. They attempted to sell the team to an outside entity, Cablevision, in the late 1990s, but it didn’t happen. Nelson also made improving the team while he owned it a priority. It is the stuff of Abner-ian legend that it was Doubleday, not Wilpon, who demanded every effort be made to acquire a suddenly available Mike Piazza [7] in 1998. Mike was acquired, the Mets moved up accordingly and the next we saw of Nelson Doubleday, he was hoisting a league championship trophy in 2000.

Soon thereafter, the tension between partners became too much to bear. Nelson didn’t want to hang in there. Fred had no intention of going away. Nelson sold to Fred in 2002. Nelson said some more memorable things [8] a little later. These were fun to repeat in mixed company, the best of them being, “Run for the hills, boys,” as his way of warning that his former partner’s son’s increased role in operating the New York Mets might not be good news for all concerned.

Doubleday’s stature grew in proportion to the length of his absence from the club he left. Nobody viewed Wilpon as heroic by the 2010s. If only Doubleday still owned the team was the collective wishful thinking of Mets fans. If was an understandable impulse. Nelson didn’t have to go to a Bernie Madoff. Nelson didn’t seem to place his childhood Dodgers in front of the team he actually owned. Nelson saved the day twice, once by buying the team, once by securing Piazza. Once he was gone, Nelson Doubleday could do no wrong.

I’m not sure how accurate that was in real life, but for today, I’m willing to go with that story.