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And Counting

My first numerical obsession as a baseball fan developed in the waning days of the 1969 regular season. There was nothing waning about late September and early October if you loved the Mets, but I did catch on, at age six, to the finite nature of the schedule, so I figured out that the Mets had only so many opportunities to win a 100th game. That became important to me once my first concrete goal for them — clinch the division title — was achieved. As a kid, I had an aversion to the numbers 97, 98 and 99 as totals of anything. Why stop there when you could get to 100?

Thus, I excitedly monitored the standings in Newsday every afternoon when I got home from school as the Mets increased by one a day their number in the W column in the standings. The winning streak that began before their wild celebration at Shea Stadium on September 24 continued unabated by champagne. They were 91-61, 92-61, 93-61…when they got to 96-61, they were NL East champs. And they just kept on winning until they got to 99-61.

On October 1 (though I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn about it until October 2), the Mets did it. They got to 100 wins: 100-61. Making it all the sweeter was they beat the Cubs, their and my archrivals, 6-5, at Wrigley Field. It wasn’t easy. The Mets needed extra innings after Nolan Ryan and Jack DiLauro gave up a hard-earned 5-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth. We didn’t score in the tenth or eleventh, as Chicago called on its most trusted reliever to preserve a shred of Cub dignity. That guy retired the Mets in order in the tenth and eleventh before giving way to a pinch-hitter. In the twelfth, against other pitchers, Buddy Harrelson led off with a double, Tommie Agee advanced him on a grounder to second and Art Shamsky singled him home. Bob Johnson came on in the bottom of the inning to record his first major league save.

It was round and official. We had 100 wins, not to mention nine in a row. Keeping the streak going into infinity would have been splendid, but I’d learn all good things must come to an end when I checked the standings one more time and saw the Mets lost their final game of the season to end 1969 at 100-62. I didn’t mind too badly since it looked so elegant in print. Since we had playoff games ahead in Atlanta regardless of the outcome of Game 162, it didn’t really matter that we weren’t 101-61. Aesthetically, the line was so much better than 99-63. The fact that the Mets were pegged as 100:1 longshots to win the pennant, something I’d learn after the fact, made 100 wins sparkle that much more.

Today, I’d be less picky about 99-63 if it got us into the postseason. Today, for the Mets to be en route to 99-63 or the postseason at any combination of wins and losses, it would take a miracle so extraordinary that the 1969 Mets would appear pedestrian by comparison. Today, the Mets are 35-40 and need all the boost they can get from whatever source can provide it.

That would include the 1969 Cubs reliever who retired the side twice in extra innings on October 1 fifty years ago, for that pitcher is, as of yesterday, the 2019 Mets pitching coach.

Phil Regan’s debut in his new and wholly unexpected role Thursday night at the very same ballpark alluded to above didn’t yield any miracles. Walker Lockett [1] started in place of Noah Syndergaard. For two innings, the Cubs didn’t touch Lockett, just as the Mets couldn’t do anything versus Regan on 10/1/69. Conversely, Pete Alonso reached out and touched the hell out of a Tyler Chatwood fastball for a two-run homer to furnish Lockett with a 3-0 lead heading to the bottom of the third. Perhaps the Cubs were thinking they should have held on to this Regan guy and his timeless magic touch.

Perhaps not, for the simultaneous beginning of the Walker Lockett and Phil Regan eras soon commenced to curdle. Lockett put runners on base. The runners advanced and scored. More runners arrived. Regan trotted to the mound to offer a few words of encouragement and instruction to Lockett. Regan returned to the dugout. Lockett continued to allow runners and runs.

Walker was gone after two-and-a-third, down 5-3 in a flash. One more run would be charged to him when Brooks Pounders [2] uncorked a wild pitch to score Lockett’s final runner, Javier Baez, from third. Walker Lockett. Brooks Pounders. Phil Regan. I wonder what the odds in Las Vegas were that those three would get together in any kind of New York Mets game story in 2019.

Wilmer Font [3], speaking of household names, came on to restore order to the barn whose door had been blown off its hinges. The Mets proceeded to lose [4], 7-4, despite Alonso’s 25th and Todd Frazier’s 200th career home runs. Lockett is 0-1. Regan is 0-1 as well, though I don’t believe anybody really tracks pitching coaches’ won-lost marks.

Regan is the man in the windbreaker at the manager’s side because Dave Eiland isn’t any longer [5]. Eiland, you might recall, coached as Jacob deGrom compiled a 1.70 ERA and captured a Cy Young Award last season. He coached as Zack Wheeler stormed through a second half that was every bit as impressive as deGrom’s. He coached as Noah Syndergaard completed two victories in September and while Steven Matz found consistency that had been eluding him for years. I was going to use more dynamic language and say Eiland coached deGrom and the rest to their successes, but I have no idea if that’s true. Perhaps Dave was integral to Jake’s all-world dominance or at least instrumental. Perhaps the pitching staff made strides in spite of him. Chances are some pitchers benefited more than they didn’t and maybe some were not getting what they needed then or now.

Eiland’s possible genius went missing in 2019 — unless he was the one who straightened out Jason Vargas and elevated Seth Lugo to another level of effectiveness while simultaneously ushering a parade of Fonts and Poundses into the pen. Those games where deGrom looked his old self, that could have been Eiland reassuring the ace of what it took. Or those games where deGrom looked surprisingly off-kilter, that could have been Eiland messing with the best thing the Mets have had since vintage Doc Gooden.

I seriously don’t know if Eiland’s overall impact actually tilted so quickly from swell to lousy. Nor do I have a clue as to what Chuck Hernandez was telling the relievers — Lugo and everybody who hasn’t been Lugo — out in the bullpen prior to their mostly flammable appearances and whether their predilection for lighting games on fire could be traced to Chuck, if I may call him Chuck, for I’m pretty sure I haven’t thought let alone written about him since he was named as Ricky Bones’s bullpen coach successor.

Hernandez is now Bones 2.0’s predecessor, just as Eiland is Regan’s. Also stir into Thursday’s coaching staff shakeup the addition of Jeremy Accardo as pitching strategist. Accardo joins Luis Rojas, quality control coach, in holding titles that are vaguely troubling in that you’d figure strategy and quality were already implicit.

Regan’s effect on the wayward Met pitchers is part of the remains-to-be-scenery. I wouldn’t read too much into Lockett’s implosion vis-à-vis Regan’s third-inning visit, just as I will try not to dwell on the fact that an active major league player from 1969 is an active major league coach in 2019. When framed that way, it is a fun tidbit to bounce around in the vein of anything Julio Franco did in 2006 connecting back through his having been a teammate of Tug McGraw’s in 1982, and McGraw having been a youthful charge of Casey Stengel’s in 1965, and Stengel having played for John McGraw, who was a baseball man in the 19th century, which was two centuries before the present one. It’s fun, but not especially relevant after a few bounces.

Players playing deep into their forties inevitably make for intriguing curiosity copy. Julio Franco. Jamie Moyer. Bartolo Colon. They played with some guy from your long-untouched baseball card collection and they are in the game as we speak. They’ve beaten the odds just as the 1969 Mets did. Eventually time wins out because time is always playing with house money.

A coach coaching into his eighties is what we actually have as we speak. In case you missed it every single time his name was mentioned upon his debut Thursday, Phil Regan is 82. He’s “82-year-old Phil Regan,” as if that was his given name. Or as Casey Stengel allegedly said to a shocked Mickey Mantle when Stengel was imparting a bit of advice gleaned from his playing days, “What do you think, I was born old?” At the time, Stengel was nowhere near 82. At no time when Stengel managed was Casey near 82. The Ol’ Perfesser was seven years younger than Regan is now when he bowed out of the game.

Regan has bowed back in during a generation when 50 is hailed as the new 40 and so forth, but 82 still sounds like 82. When we’ve heard about Phil for the past decade, it’s always been in the context of what a revered figure he is in the organization, a fantastic influence on Met minor leaguers like deGrom and Lugo whether as the pitching coach for Port St. Lucie or as assistant pitching coordinator lending a hand throughout the system. It was a big deal in 2017 when the Mets flew him up to Flushing to toss batting practice [6] as an 80th-birthday present. What a feelgood story to see an octogenarian putting on a big league uniform.

Well, now he’ll be doing it daily for however long “interim” means. The novelty aspects of his hiring were understandable from an instant-angle standpoint. Regan pitched for the 1969 Cubs, legendary roadkill for the 1969 Mets, winning 12, saving 17 and, like most everybody Leo Durocher leaned on as their lead melted away, being used to excess (71 appearances, third-most in the league). In 1988, reflecting on what went wrong for those Cubs, Regan told author Rick Talley, “The Mets really played well. Just look back at that pitching staff. They weren’t much on the field, but they really did have pitching.” If nothing else, we know Regan recognizes good pitching when he sees it.

He saw it up close when he pitched for the 1966 Dodgers, in the company of Sandy Koufax, who they don’t make ’em like anymore. While Sandy was giving the last of his left arm to win 27 games, Phil was swooping in vulture-style and picking up 14 victories in relief, one more than Don Drysdale garnered in 40 starts. The Dodgers won a pennant and Phil grabbed a nickname that resonates every time a reliever is credited with a decision that didn’t necessarily require all that much effort relative to the day’s starter. In my first years as a baseball fan, I delighted in Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy periodically invoking “The Vulture Phil Regan” and explaining to me what exactly that meant.

Regan pitched for the 1960 Tigers, too, meaning one of the batters he faced in his first year was Ted Williams in his last year. Teddy Ballgame broke in with Boston in 1939 — the Boston Red Sox, not the Boston Braves, who were a member of the National League in those days. Regan’s first manager was Jimmy Dykes, born in 1896, when John McGraw was a Baltimore Oriole in the National League. The American League was five years from its founding.

Yes, we can Julio Franco-ize Phil Regan for days, just as we can wonder how an 82-year-old pitching coach will click with pupils a half-century or more his junior, especially after Eiland, 52, was considered in some quarters too “old school [7]” to relate to the current Met hurlers. We can also chuckle and worse at the idea somebody of eighty-two years is being asked to do anything except be spoken of benignly in the past tense. I don’t really get the joke. Nobody’s asking him to pitch. He’s being asked to teach. I don’t know if he’ll be as good at it as Eiland was. I also don’t know how good Eiland was at it. When the pitchers are on their games, their coaches are brilliant. When the pitchers aren’t, their coaches need to go.

Eiland went. Regan’s here. Pretty soon we’ll go back to mostly not noticing.