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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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Pardon Our Mets

A word of thanks is in order to all those who attended Monday night’s Varsity Letters salute to the 2015 National League Champion New York Mets, a program in which I was honored to participate. It was great to meet or get reacquainted with a passel of Faith and Fear readers and wonderful to be on the same bill as David Roth of Vice Sports and Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, two writers whose voices I’ve admired for years.

Available for pre-order, now with cover!

Available for pre-order, now with cover!

I talked about and read excerpts of my forthcoming book, Amazin’ Again, which now seems to have a cover (you can pre-order the whole package here), and after we each had our say at the podium, we were invited to form a panel and answer all manner of Met questions, one of which led me to recall a plan I had in the event the Mets won the World Series.

Which they didn’t, but you already knew that.

The question, which came from a pretty gifted writer in his own right, Brian P. Mangan, concerned how each of us dealt with particular factors that might influence what we write. For a beat reporter like Jared, Brian wanted to know about keeping the confidences of the players he covers. For David and me, the issue veered toward objectivity regarding the team of which we’re obviously lifelong fans.

I’m not quite sure how I found myself talking about it, but Brian’s inquiry got me onto my trying to keep in mind something I’ve learned over nearly eleven years of blogging: people eventually read what you write about them or their family members. Somewhere somebody (probably somebody long out of the public eye) is Googling his or her name or the name of a loved one. It’s been my experience to hear from former players who were delighted to read something nice I had written about them…and once in a while get a good-natured tweak from somebody I might have written something less than nice about.

In essence, I said just because somebody made an error that caused me aggravation when I was in my teens, there’s no reason to go overboard in my smoldering criticism of him decades after the fact. Yeah, we’re fans; and yeah, they were players; but y’know, be respectful.

Unless, I added, it’s somebody like Richie Hebner, a convenient target in the moment since David had invoked his name fleetingly earlier in the evening. For those of you not aware, I said, Hebner was a “miserable” sort who played one year for the Mets long ago and made no secret of his displeasure with being stuck here. Surely we could all agree that taking a shot at Richie Hebner is never out of bounds.

Without malice, Jared mentioned that he covered Richie Hebner when he was a reporter in Norfolk and Hebner was the Tides’ hitting coach (after they’d unaffiliated themselves from the Mets) and, actually, Richie was a really nice guy.

Oh well, so much for my ironclad exception to the rule. Even Richie Hebner, reliable sources were indicating, was a human being.

“It was nothing personal” that Richie held against Mets fans in 1979, Jared assured me after the panel was over. “He just didn’t want to be in New York at that stage of his career.” As a mature person in the present, sure, I could understand that. Hebner had played for nothing but contenders throughout the 1970s, and the Mets of ’79 were anything but. Hell, I kind of understood his objections then, though that was the first time I remember reading a player express his absolute disgust with the Mets upon learning he was going to be a Met (usually they waited a few innings). Hebner snarled during his stay at Shea, played with minimal vigor and didn’t leave behind a sparkling legacy.

Ten years ago, Jason and I took it upon ourselves to populate what we called Met Hell, a repository for those Mets who brought to bear “something that still makes the blood boil, something that made Met fans dread the smirking approach of the Yankee fans in their offices or on their blocks during that player’s tenure. Mental or physical incompetence that stemmed from not being prepared. Being a quitter, a lousy teammate, spectacularly obnoxious to fans or the media, a bad citizen, a traitor.”

Richie Hebner earned the Sixth Circle of Met Hell all for himself. It took me a Part I and a Part II to adequately express my disdain.

That was 2005, and I was still stewing over 1979. In 2014, I found myself in a song parody contest elsewhere on the Internet. You had to come up with something about a Met and set it to a Beatles number. My entry was titled “Richie Hebner Wants Off This Club Bad/Hebner Wasn’t Here To Make Friends”. The tune was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends”.

Sample lyric from the first part:

Richie Hebner wants off this club bad
He can’t believe the deal was made
Richie Hebner wants off this club bad
He’s dying to demand a trade
Richie Hebner’s mumblin’
Richie Hebner’s grumblin’
Richie Hebner wants off this club bad

And from the second:

If you were sent from a team near the top
To a club that was down on the floor —
Would you do your best to help them improve
Or just whine as you raced for the door?
Yo, Richie Hebner wasn’t here to make friends
No…not even with Steve Henderson
Oh, don’t worry, he didn’t make friends

In late 2015, I took a moment from my league championship intoxication to continue publicly harboring a grudge against this vouched-for really nice guy — and I was doing so in practically the same breath that I was insisting I had matured into the kind of fan who would think twice before flagrantly denigrating long-retired players who were just going about their business in the here and now. Truly it is a challenge tough to put aside well-honed animus.

But I would have had the Mets won the World Series. See, I was going to do something very classy (you can tell it would have been classy because I just termed it so). I was going to institute Met Amnesty. Or maybe just a Met Pardon. I’m not clear on the difference, but when President Carter pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, he carefully avoided the word amnesty, so one or the other. The point is that in our hypothetical era of extraordinary feeling, I was going to commit to thirty days of writing only positive assessments of every Met whom we’d never otherwise forgive for having kept us from winning a World Series since October 27, 1986.

I was going to laud Bobby Bonilla’s slugging.

I was going to applaud Vince Coleman’s speed.

I was going to find something pleasant to say about Roberto Alomar’s veteran demeanor.

I was even going to spell T#m Gl@v!ne the way it generally appeared prior to September 30, 2007.

Ambiorix Concepcion? Intense competitor. Guillermo Mota? Always looking for an edge. Gene Walter? The mere existence of his ERA indicates he likely got a batter out at least once. The 2008 bullpen? A unit that made every game exciting. Jason Bay? A .165 hitter only on paper. Armando Benitez? Forget the blowns, cherish the saves. Kurt Abbott? Surely not the most useless shortstop in the history of civilization. Kenny Rogers? Had a real sense of theater.

If we’d won the whole thing, there’d be no reason to be down on any Met who brought us down, at least not until the euphoria wore off. My real hope was to emphasize the contributions each Met made in his journey and to make us think an extra beat before defaulting to our usual venom toward these less than treasured members of our extended baseball family. Eventually we’d get back to cursing out their names, because it’s what we do (and perhaps what we must do), but as world champions, we’d be magnanimous.

Richie Hebner wouldn’t have been eligible for Met Amnesty under my chronological paramaters. He’d have been pardoned in the wake of winning it all in ’86, alongside Joe Foy, Jim Fregosi, Dale Murray and anybody else who symbolized post-1969 frustration and futility. But in the spirit of the gesture we never got to make, I do hereby grant a full, complete and unconditional albeit temporary pardon to Richie Hebner for all offenses against the New York Mets which he may have committed or taken part in during the period from April 5, 1979, to September 30, 1979. The pardon is in effect for the remainder of the calendar year 2015.

He wasn’t much of a Met, but somebody I trust told me the other night that he was a really nice guy. That should be enough to buy him two weeks of grace in the wake of a pennant.

21 comments to Pardon Our Mets

  • Art

    I trust there would never be an amnesty for Vince Coleman?

  • SkillSets

    As you know Mets Hell starts with the one and only M. Donald Grant, who as Dick Young’s Ghost on Twitter says, occupies his Charcoal Room booth in Hell’s Diamond Club.

  • Will in Central NJ

    Great seeing/hearing you, Jared, and David (and Jason) on Monday night, Greg. It was a nice bit of hot stove in its own right, with a distinctive Met flavor.

    I’m a bit of an autograph seeker at the railing of ballparks. I also heard that Hebner could be prickly as a signer, which would be consistent w/ his rep during his 1979 Met tenure. No fear, I thought, as I took up a spot near the visiting dugout in Rochester, NY this past April. Yes, my ‘quarry’ was (among others), any former Met; that day it was Rich Hebner, the Buffalo hitting coach.

    To make a long story short, Hebner blankly ignored all requests except for one guy who was (apparently) a season ticket holder. Autograph seeking is like fishing; I don’t get angry if players/coaches don’t sign. It would be like spiting the fish if they’re not biting. The players are human, as you state. Sometimes they’re biting, sometimes not. The one that gets away today may be ‘in your boat’ tomorrow.

    But it was interesting to hear from Jared and yourself riffing on the multiple sides of Rich Hebner. Nice fellow to some, indifferent to others. Maybe Hebner will lighten up next time and sign my 1970s Topps cards.

  • Dave

    Ah, you’re letting guilt get the best of you. We know Hebner as he was when he was a Met, and I don’t doubt that in some circles at some point in his life, to some people, he can be a nice guy. Our perspective is limited (everyone’s perspective on everything is limited), but that doesn’t make it invalid, and from that perspective the guy was a prick. I mean, Vince Coleman’s mother probably loves him, doesn’t mean he isn’t a complete asshole.

    • Left Coast Jerry

      Robert Shapiro loves Vince Coleman. You may remember that Shapiro was OJ Simpson’s defense attorney before Johnny Cochran took over. Shapiro also defended Coleman in the Dodger Stadium parking lot firecracker incident. I still remember Shapiro on TV saying that Vince was sorry for what happened, but that it was clearly an accident.

      Really, Bob? Did the firecracker suddenly appear in Vince’s hand? Did the fuse ignite by spontaneous combustion? Did some supernatural force cause Vince’s arm to rock back and forth and cause the release of the lit firecracker into the crowd? Some accident!

      I would like to have Robert Shapiro confined to the circle of Met Hell where Vince Coleman resides. Maybe he can get blown to bits by an accidental firecracker.

    • Richie Hebner never exploded a firecracker at a kid. Vince Coleman never waved at a ground ball at third.

      See? This isn’t so hard.

  • open the gates

    …and Bret Saberhagen likes a really clean clubhouse;

    Chris Schwinden actually pitched one good game for the Mets;

    Oliver Perez was pretty good before he signed that contract;

    Frank Francisco…OK, I give up.

  • eric1973

    Sorry he did not sign, Will, but it warms my heart to see that Hebner is still a prick, and that my (our) long-held beliefs have been justified.

    What a downer it would be to see him publicly donate to charity, save a cat from a tree, or perform some other act of kindness.

    When I used to run around getting autographs in the Shea parking lot way back when, the nicest guys in the world were Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and Bob Murphy. They signed for everyone and made small talk as well.

    • Did those guys set the bar high for everybody who followed them or what? Not just as broadcasters but as Met ambassadors. Just seeing their names here makes me feel good. Thanks.

    • Dennis

      Late in the 83 season, my younger sister was getting autographs after the game in Philly and of course Bob Murphy was great. Frank Howard was the nicest of anybody. When she asked for his autograph, he said absolutely, signed and said that the NY Mets thank her for her support.

    • Will in Central NJ

      Eric1973 and Greg, I’ve learned, in years of casual autograph hunting, that one can’t rely on a celebrity’s public/onscreen persona as a barometer for whether or not they’ll accommodate fans with an autograph. Armando Benitez and Mitch Williams, whose public images have sorely needed burnishing over the years, were just terrific and friendly at minor league parks. Bill Buckner could have been excused for brushing off this Met fan, but was very generous with his signature and a smile for my camera.

      An African-American acquaintance of mine who also collects ballplayer autographs at the railings, once showed me autographed cards from, and a photo of herself with, one John Rocker, his arm around her shoulder. Both were smiling broadly in the photo. When I asked my friend why, I was told about her approaching Rocker, “Hey, who am I to judge?”

      On the other hand, there are a few ballplayers who come to mind as being affable on the TV screen as they are in person: Bud Harrelson, Ron Gardenhire, Edgardo Alfonzo, Ron Darling, Nelson Figueroa, Zack Wheeler, to name a few. Others who shall remain nameless were as unapproachable in person as they were surly onscreen and in print.

      So, with expectations properly adjusted and pliable, I thusly approached Richie Hebner in Rochester last April…and was denied. It’s entirely possible, however, he may sign multiple items for me the next time. Because, who am I to judge? Just sayin’.

      • Rob E.

        I would like to second the comment on Ron Darling, who I met two weeks ago at a meet & greet involving a wine he put out (Darling Sonoma Reserve, for the record). I waited on line for an hour and a half, and there was probably another hour and a half behind me, and Ron was shaking hands, patiently taking pictures, signing memorabilia, and chatting up every fan on line, not rushing anybody along or making any fan feel like an underling. You could see he was genuinely appreciative of the turnout, and he was everything you hope these guys would be when you meet them. I was a huge Ron Darling fan before, and an even bigger fan now. Legend upheld!

  • Dave R.

    And Armando Benitez was great from April 1 to Sept. 22.

    • My original “Mets Amnesty” inspiration was Armando. I was in an online discussion elsewhere celebrating Familia tying the franchise single-season saves record when talk swiftly turned to how much the guy whose mark he matched sucked. I know Benitez sucked at the worst possible times, but I thought he deserved to be remembered at least in part for the less than worst possible times, when he was unhittable.

      Not a sympathetic character, not the most inspirational of mindsets, but a helluvan arm there for a while.

  • open the gates

    I was thinking about adding Anthony Young to my previous comment, but I realize that AY doesn’t need a pardon. I don’t think I’m the only Met fan who always liked him in a Joe Shlabotnick kind of way, and was thrilled for him when his gruesome losing streak finally ended. Fact is, he played in some of the worst luck I’ve ever seen for a Met pitcher (and that’s saying something), had zero run support, and actually rung up a bunch of saves simultaneous to the streak. And he was a class act throughout, certainly as compared to some of his teammates. So if some people read this as an amnesty, fine, but AY truly needs no amnesty from me.

  • eric1973

    As a gravedigger, Richie Hebner never got any complaints from those who inhabited the space he created.

    You’re right, Greg. This isn’t so hard!