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Spring Touches Visitor to New England

Happy one-month anniversary of when the Mets started playing games that didn’t count, don’t count and won’t count until April 3. Spring Training schedules don’t traditionally engender milestones while in progress, but this year, with the World Baseball Classic motivating early birds everywhere, what we call “spring” began in earnest amid the indisputable dead of winter. First Data’s been culled and collected dating back to halftime at the Super Bowl, or so it seems. As ever, we couldn’t wait for Spring Training to arrive, and as ever, we are antsy for it to go away. In a little over a week, hallelujah, it will.

While we’ve been recalibrating our countdown clocks from Pitchers & Catchers to Opening Day, climate change has made it difficult to identify the actual season holding court at any given moment. The Metropolitan Area weather of late winter behaved like a person: some days it was surprisingly pleasant; others it acted unnecessarily bitchy. Baseball beamed from Florida allowed us to pretend winter was over altogether. It always does. The masquerade certainly broke up the monotony. The indecipherable patterns of modern winter went on around us, but now and then baseball dropped by for lunch. Familiar voices seeped through the television and radio. They hosted elaborate talk shows with pitching and hitting as background. All our favorites made brief appearances. Then they hit the showers or alighted for the WBC, and a battalion of youngsters lacking names on their backs took over. A few to whom we were exposed are projected to further stoke our fandom in the near future. Others simply filled uniforms and moved the days along.

My personal Spring Training 2017 highlight, the only one that elicited a visceral charge out of me, was L.J. Mazzilli doubling during a game I was listening to over WOR a few weeks or maybe months ago at this point. L.J. Mazzilli doesn’t get mentioned among top Mets prospects, but his last name is hard not to linger upon when you hear Howie Rose call it as part of play-by-play. I probably cheered out of proportion to the calendar in March of 1977 when L.J.’s dad Lee doubled in an exhibition game, and I did it again for Lee’s son forty Marches later. Cheering for Mets named Mazzilli doesn’t require much training, spring or otherwise.

Lee Mazzilli grew up in Sheepshead Bay. It was part of the legend he brought from Brooklyn: Lincoln High School, speed skater, ambidextrous, basket catch. We knew all that about him by his first March as a de facto regular. L.J. Mazzilli, on the other, singular hand (bats and throws right, not a switch-hitting chip off the old block), hails from Greenwich, in Connecticut. Should he make the majors on our dime, he’ll be in line to be the fourteenth Met born in the inevitably third-mentioned leg of the Tri-State Area.

The other thirteen? I have that information. I put in my pocket in case I needed to cite it on the first full day of actual spring. It seemed worth having.

The first full day of actual spring, in case you didn’t notice, was March 21, this past Tuesday. I was on my way to Connecticut, where I have assumed since childhood it is always cold, dark and snowy. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in Connecticut when it was cold, dark and snowy. Maybe I saw something on TV. Maybe their old blue license plates [1] struck me as chilly. Despite deciding perpetual winter blankets the Constitution State, I also counterintuitively associate the birth of spring with Connecticut. For that, I blame Yankee Magazine, not to be confused with Yankees Magazine.

What’s the difference? The latter is a vehicle devoted to the propagation of a distasteful lifestyle. The former quaintly celebrates leaf-peeping and other regional attractions native to the six states northeast of New York City.

Yankee is the regional magazine I’d neither leafed through nor peeped at until a cover blurb caught my eye in the early ’90s. It promised a feature within about the place where, if memory serves, “Spring First Touches New England.” I was intrigued because I had recently driven into Connecticut via Westchester and wondered if spring first touching New England was as simple as a sign I’d noticed. Indeed it was. The story was about Byram, a.k.a. Exit 2 on the Connecticut Turnpike. I don’t remember much about the article, but as a magazine editor myself back then, I admired the reach attempted by whoever wrote the blurb. “Southernmost turnoff from the highway” doesn’t suggest quaint. “Where Spring First Touches New England” is poetic enough to stop by woods on a snowy evening.


Jen and Gary reintroduce me to their tall friend.

When the vernal equinox kicks in, I suppose Byram is first in line, followed by L.J.’s Greenwich hood; Cos Cob (“the Algonquin word for briefcase,” according to reluctant resident Pete Campbell); and other municipalities off the old toll road. If spring doesn’t get to you elsewhere in Connecticut as soon as it gets to the good folks of Byram, be patient. Like the 5:03 to New Haven, it’s only minutes away.

So was I on the first full day of spring, March 21, 2017. Technically, spring had brushed New England’s right pinky toe the morning before at 6:29, but on Monday the 20th I was home near the South Shore of Long Island, where spring was presumably touching us a scooch ahead of the North Shore. As Tuesday afternoon was turning to Tuesday evening, Connecticut and I were springing into each other’s arms. I hadn’t been up there lately, though as I rode Metro-North and stared out the window once the 5:03 rolled past the general vicinity of Byram, I remembered how frequently I visited Fairfield County in my beverage magazine days. Companies I covered tended to plant themselves in Connecticut. A beer importer here. A soft drink marketer there. A couple of bottled water purveyors in between. The homier or more entrepreneurial outfits tended to require longer trips, back when I didn’t mind driving. The Metro-North eventually became my ticket to ride as applicable. The more corporate types were near New York, yet not in New York. Schleps were required. I once asked somebody, after one of my journeys, why their headquarters was where it was.

“The CEO lives here,” was the answer.

Westport, my stop on the 5:03 out of Grand Central, had nobody of a suit-and-tie nature waiting for me. Instead, promptly at 6:11, one minute before Metro-North said I’d be there, I was texted from someone who let me know he was waiting for me in a green Jeep Liberty, “probably on your left if you come down the main staircase.” The message was delivered by my friend of suddenly many years, Ryder Chasin. He was why my Tuesday night destination was where it was. I stepped off the train and found him ASAP. It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t cold and only some leftover patches of snow gave away that spring wasn’t yet 36 hours old.

Ryder, a junior at Northwestern University and a Mets fan wherever he rests his head [3], was home in Westport on spring break. He and his parents Rob and Holly had put in motion a plan that sounded both perfectly viable and a little bizarre to my ears. They helped arrange for me to be a guest speaker at Staples High School, Ryder’s alma mater. Someday soon I expect to ask Ryder to be the guest speaker at my alma mater. Until then, we’ll go with the concept of me as a draw.


At Liberty in Westport with the Chasins.

The baseball team’s booster organization, the Diamond Club (no relation to Bill Shea’s old haunt), has speakers you’ve heard of to help get their year going. They’ve had Bobby Valentine [5], one of the thirteen Connecticut-born Mets. We’ve all heard of Bobby Valentine, more as Met manager than Met player, but he was definitely a Met player. We all know he’s from Connecticut. I assumed few in and around Westport, outside of the Chasins, had ever heard of me. Nevertheless, I embraced the invitation. When you have a book to share, as I do with Piazza [6], you embrace all invitations. When a Chasin or three is involved, you don’t let geographic distinctions toss up obstacles.

Every article I’ve ever read about Connecticut’s baseball allegiances regards who roots for the Yankees and who roots for the Red Sox and barely mentions the Mets. A symptom of its stubborn affiliation with New England [7], presumably. Though I anecdotally know Mets fans who have sprouted among the nutmeg, I braced for a certain level of loneliness. A friend who works in Westchester always bemoans the lack of Metsiness in his environs, and that’s within the parameters of New York. I didn’t know if a program devoted to an author talking about the traditionally least popular team in the area was going to draw a fly, let alone a crowd. At worst, I figured, the Chasins and I could have a nice chat.


Sweet scholastic swag.

I needn’t have fretted. The Chasins knew what they were doing. They and the Diamond Club attracted Mets fans alongside politely attentive non-Mets fans. Ryder served as moderator for a vigorous discussion of Mike Piazza’s Mets career and why some guy wanted to write a book about it [9]. Ryder asked sharp questions. I gave long answers. Mets fans from the neighborhood, including some who read this blog, attended. So did my friend who works in Westchester, happy to be surrounded by Mets fans for a change. Pizza was ordered and consumed, partly because it’s pizza, partly because it sounds like Piazza. You can’t argue with pizza…and if you tried to, Angel Hernandez would cloddishly eject you [10]. The Diamond Club presented me with a few Staples Wreckers goodies and I can officially say I now have a strong rooting interest [11] within the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference (apologies to the Greenwich Cardinals, breeding ground for young Mazzilli).

Go you Wreckers.

The whole thing went so well, I never reached into my pocket for my Mets Born In Connecticut material. Since I went to the trouble of extracting this information from Ultimate Mets Database, I might as well identify for you, in descending order of Metsiness, the dozen players born there besides Bobby V. Should any of the talented Staples players on hand Tuesday ascend to a pro career and wind up Mets, I will happily revise the list.

• Matt Harvey
• Tim Teufel
• Bruce Boisclair
• Jimmy Piersall
• Mo Vaughn
• Bill Denehy (traded to Washington as compensation for Gil Hodges)
• Tom Parsons (traded to Houston in the steal of Jerry Grote)
• Soup Campbell
• Goose Gozzo
• And in alphabetical order, because there isn’t much lore attached to their fleeting Met presence, Ricky Bottalico, Darren Bragg and Brook Fordyce.

In case you’re wondering, Rico Brogna, the pride of Watertown, was born in Massachusetts, perhaps proving it’s not where you start but that you finish strike-truncated 1994 batting .351. Rico is still one of my five favorite Mets [12] based primarily on my initial exposure to him and I believe him a credit to all of New England.

Among the many people I was delighted to meet at Staples was a Mets fan named Gary. I knew Gary from Twitter, not Connecticut, but it turns out he lives in Westport. He wore his custom-made Bambi’s Bandits cap, the one he conceived when the Mets’ 1982 bench crew was ever so briefly a back-page sensation [13]. Of course it’s custom-made. Do you think stores sold Bambi’s Bandits caps in 1982? Gary’s the kind of Mets fan who would have a cap like that and have kept a cap like that. No wonder we hit it off on Twitter.


Banditball lives.

Gary also has in his foyer a Statue of Liberty painted with the Shea Stadium Final Season logo. I know that because as the event at the high school wound down, he invited me to come see it. I’d seen it once before, in 2008, when it stood sentry over the plaza in front of the old SNY studios near Rockefeller Center. Miss Shea Liberty was one of a corps of such statues that fanned out across the city nine summers ago, part of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game at renovated Yankee Stadium. I took a picture with her in 2008. Gary said I could come over and take another one with her in 2017. The statues were made available to interested parties after they’d done their promotional duty. Gary, owner of a Bambi’s Bandits cap, was surely interested. As a result, the Shea statue now lives in Westport.

Did I want to see it again? Only a little less than I wanted to try on the Bambi’s Bandits cap for myself. So off we all went — me, the Chasins and my up-for-anything-Metsian buddy Kevin, who works in Stamford, lives in Flushing and was kind enough to swing by Staples for my presentation. An address was written down, a few GPSes were programmed and a short while after we left in search of a statue, the five of us were at the house of someone none of us had known until maybe two hours before.

But a stranger who’s a Mets fan is just a friend you haven’t yet Met. Sort of like those guys filling out high-numbered Mets uniforms in St. Lucie. We were greeted by Gary and Jennifer (a first-class Stitch N’ Pitcher [15] resplendent in her WRIGHT 5) along with Duke and Otis, two highly effusive English bulldogs. If they were guarding Miss Shea Liberty, I probably wouldn’t have gotten within 410 feet of her. The pups put up with us. Phones were produced. Group pictures were taken. Me and Kevin. Me and the Chasins. Me and Gary and Jennifer. All of us with the statue.

Yeah, Connecticut has Mets fans. What surveys may say they lack in numbers, I say they make up for in passion. And statuary.


Two of us will be back at Citi Field very soon. The other seems content in Connecticut.

The grand spring night in another state finished up at a Westport bistro where the waiter, noting the commonality of our gear, wished the Mets well in their/our forthcoming campaign. Rob, being Rob, was determined to drive me back to Long Island, but I volunteered Kevin’s passenger seat and he graciously dropped me off in Woodside, where I could catch the LIRR home. We listened to Kevin’s one-of-a-kind Mets playlist (the musical version of a Bambi’s Bandits cap) and talked Mets nonstop the entire ride, firming up our plans to watch Bartolo Colon when he returns to town in unfortunate colors, even winding around Citi Field en route to Roosevelt Avenue and 61st Street. Large, grimy clumps of snow were visible under the parking lot lights and it was plenty dark otherwise, yet it really wasn’t cold Tuesday night — not in Queens, not in Fairfield, nowhere where Mets fans gather. The forecast warned us the temperature would plunge by morning, but spring had definitely stuck its foot in the door.

When we got to Woodside, Kevin let me out at the curb downstairs from the 7 train, but then called me back for a second. “Hey,” he said, “I’ll see you in two weeks.” I needed a beat to process what he meant. Then it hit me…yes, the Colon game…we’ll be going to see the Mets play the week after next.

Spring has touched New England and the season is about to high-five Flushing. I can’t wait to high-five it right back.

I joined the Rising Apple crew this week to talk Piazza and a whole lot of other Mets. Listen in here [17].