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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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Innis, Clines & Life

If you’ve ever met me outside Citi Field to go to a game, I’ve probably added a minute or two to our entrance because I always insist on detouring to check on my brick, the one that reads:

OUR FIRST DATE
METS 8 GIANTS 3
MAY 15, 1987

The brick commemorates the first time my future wife and I went anywhere on purpose. We’d met four nights earlier on the Upper West Side, unplanned. It went so well that by the end of the evening, I heard myself asking her to Friday night’s game. Nearly 35 years later, we’re still going to games in Queens.

I wasn’t counting on meeting Stephanie in the middle of May 1987 and I wasn’t counting on meeting Jeff Innis the very same week. Technically, I never met Jeff Innis in the “Hi, my name is…” sense, but as fans, we don’t let niceties such as an actual introduction get in the way of us feeling familiar with our players.

Jeff Innis had been pitching in Tidewater the first half of that month and during the month before, making the tour we recognized as necessary to becoming a Met. Since 1983, he’d been in Little Falls, Jackson, Lynchburg, Jackson again, then Mecca’s waiting room: Tidewater. If all went well, you’d think, a 24-year-old Triple-A reliever carrying an ERA barely above 2 might be pitching for the defending world champions soon. Actually, all had to not go well for Jeff to get his chance. The gleaming trophy earned the October before was already losing a bit of its shine. The Mets were losing more than they were winning by mid-May and their DL contingent was growing. Sometimes things have to go wrong at large to go right for one individual.

Terry Leach is recalled by Mets fans on the scene in ’87 as the savior who picked up miles and miles of slack for all the pitchers who got hurt. It wasn’t until I looked it up that I was reminded Leach himself got hurt in ’87, absorbing a line drive off his right knee the night before I took Stephanie to Shea. So while we were engaging in that first date at Shea Stadium the brick next to where it used to stand commemorates, Jeff Innis was about to have plans made involving the same destination.

“It was the evening of May 15,” Jeff would remember for Zak Ford, curator of Called Up, a marvelous collection of stories from major leaguers focusing on the moment they became major leaguers, “and I had been pitching really well.” Yet it didn’t occur to the righty with the amazing, disappearing earned run average — even as “the Mets had two or three injuries happen all at once in their pitching staff” — that he was on the parent club’s radar. Jeff hadn’t gone to big league camp. I could have told him his name wasn’t bandied about among Mets fans as a prospect of note up in New York. Nothing personal, it’s just that in the aftermath of 1986, we weren’t too worried about minor league bullpen depth.

But, like Jeff told Zak, the Mets were getting pelted by injuries, like the one to Leach and another to Sid Fernandez, a knee sprain Stephanie and I witnessed chase El Sid from the mound with a no-hitter in progress (a situation I Metsplained to my date was kind of a big deal). All Jeff Innis knows, as a Tide in a motel room in Columbus, is if he’s called to see his manager Mike Cubbage, it must be bad news.

For Al Pedrique it was. Pedrique was the little-used backup infielder who was getting sent down to make room for Jeff Innis. For Innis, from Cubbage, the news was, “You’re going to the big leagues.”

On May 16, one night after my first date with Stephanie, I was back to doing things guys without dates do on a Saturday night. I was out in a bar with my buddy Joel and his buddy Rich and some girl I think Rich knew. It was loud. Jody Watley’s overplayed hit single “Looking For A New Love” was on the jukebox. “Ooh,” the girl with Rich blurted, “that’s my song!”

“You can have it,” I assured her.

On a muted TV, of more interest to most occupying our booth, were the Mets and Giants. We noticed a close game. Given the ambient noise (“I’m looking for a new love, baby, a new love, baby…”), we couldn’t follow it in detail and probably didn’t try, so I’m pretty sure we missed the major league debut of Jeffrey David Innis. Innis, naturally, remembered it very well.

The bullpen phone alert was “the loudest phone ring ever”; the bullpen coach yelling his name “scared me to death”; he couldn’t feel the ball in his hand as he warmed up because “I was numb”; and when Davey Johnson assigned him the ninth inning of a 4-4 game with more than 48,000 in attendance, “the lights were so bright.” Oh, and his first major league catcher is about to be somebody he might’ve seen in a few All-Star games, World Series games or commercials, Gary Carter.

Yet Innis settled down, settled in and pitched a scoreless ninth. The Mets didn’t take the lead in the bottom of the inning, and a storybook finish eluded Jeff. His second batter in the tenth, Jeffrey Leonard, took him deep, and if there’s a commemorative brick outside Citi Field marking the occasion, the score wound up being not as superb as the one etched into Stephanie’s and mine.

JEFF’S FIRST GAME
GIANTS 5 METS 4
MAY 16, 1987

It was just the first of many nights for Jeff Innis of the New York Mets. “Even though we lost the game and I got this loss,” he told Zack, “I thought it was an incredible night. I thought, ‘I’ve got this. I can do this.’”

For 288 major league games spread over seven seasons, Jeff’s vision proved accurate. Innis’s entire MLB career was a perfect circle overlaying his entire Mets career. He pitched only for us. Us and Tidewater until 1990, as Jeff, for a while, became the guy who’d get sent down when there was a roster squeeze — he was first optioned to make room for Doc Gooden’s return from drug rehab — but he inevitably got called back. His sidearm or submarine delivery (I’m still hazy on which is which) was fairly unique. The Mets had Terry Leach pitching like that and now they had Jeff Innis pitching similarly. The Mets would send Leach to Kansas City in 1989. They’d keep Innis.

Jeff Innis needed a horizontal card to truly capture his delivery.

One manager after another relied on Jeff. Johnson. Buddy Harrelson. His old minor league skipper Cubbage for a week. Jeff Torborg. Dallas Green. He’d be a small part of some good clubs and a bigger part of, truth be told, some dreadful clubs. Yet you never looked around as the Mets fell out of contention after 1990 and thought the problem was Jeff Innis. If anything, you breathed easily as he trotted in from the bullpen. “This may not be a competent organization”, you could hear yourself analyze, “but this will be a competent outing, because Jeff Innis is a competent relief pitcher.” It wasn’t something you found yourself believing often during Mets games in 1991, 1992 and 1993. If he was the guest pregame or postgame in those years, you paid attention. Jeff came across as friendly, thoughtful and a touch sly. Also, if a middle reliever was getting airtime, it probably meant he’d been pitching well.

When John Franco was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame a decade ago and various teammates of his were introduced as part of the ceremony, I was moved to hearty applause when the name “Jeff Innis” was announced almost from out of nowhere. No Mets public address system has perked up with his name in nearly 20 years at that point. Innis worked his most when the Mets were at their worst, averaging 70 appearances per season during the darkest years. As you get older, you tend to appreciate those who showed up every day when the nights weren’t much to look forward to. I’ve developed a bizarre soft spot for the 1993 Mets in particular. Not their record (59-103) and not those whose antics made for a string of unbearable months — but contemplating those who plied their craft as best they could without making us cringe sometimes causes me to form a smile as wide as that unnecessary tail they wore under the word Mets on their jerseys that year.

Also, last place notwithstanding, I was happy sharing the Mets, bit by sometimes atrocious bit, with my bride. When I was in the process of writing something about 1993 for my Mike Piazza book a few years ago, I read a passage aloud for Stephanie. She heard the names: Jeff Kent, Bobby Bonilla, Anthony Young. I thought she might nod and tell me, uh-huh, that’s nice. Instead, she said it really brought her back…which, in turn, really brought me back. Good year for us, 1993. They’ve all been good years for us, but the summer of ’93 was a moment in time. Cohabitating since the spring of ’90 and wed in the fall of ’91, we had, consciously or otherwise, settled down and settled in, just like Innis once he warmed up on May 16, 1987. Driving around in the first car we bought together. Coming home to the first apartment we’d found together. Doting endlessly on our first pair of adorable kitties. And, in the realm of what was once novel about to become constant, many, many pairs of tickets to see the Mets squad that was about to become the sequel to The Worst Team Money Could Buy. The tickets had been my thirtieth-birthday present from my loving family who didn’t pay attention to the standings and wouldn’t have guessed that as 1993 approached — as much as I appreciated the gesture and especially relished the Opening Day ducats that were the veritable bow on the box — I wasn’t necessarily aching to make regular trips to Shea…not after 162 games of The Original Worst Team Money Could buy, the 1992 Mets (for whom, incidentally, I’ve yet to develop a soft spot).

But of course I used those tickets, no matter how often the Mets lost and inspired bad press in the process. The more I went, the more they lost, yet the more I went, the more I realized I couldn’t stay away. Before 1993, I was a Mets fan who went to Mets games intermittently or on special occasions, like maybe if I had a hot date. From 1993 forward, you knew where to find me if I hadn’t driven home in that car to be with my wife and those cats in that apartment. Somewhere, inevitably warming up amid all of that early 1990s living and rooting I was doing, was the sidearmer/submariner regularly coming out of the bullpen to pitch competently, then speak thoughtfully. He evolved from first Met demoted to a staple of Shea. Jeff Kent. Bobby Bonilla. Anthony Young. Jeff Innis. It used to be his town, too.

The Mets would move on from Innis after 1993. When 103 games get lost, Shea is bound to get shaken up. The club would mercifully turn its fortunes upward a few years later, perhaps diminishing the compulsion for anybody to mention Mets who were no longer Mets from when coming to see the Mets hardly guaranteed a heckuva day. By 2008, you could kind of understand that when the Mets were bringing back players from almost every era to “Shea Goodbye,” nobody other than Franco from those anni horribili was summoned to the field — and Franco didn’t really count as their representative, because Johnny endured long enough to win a pennant and have himself associated with better days. But as much as I understood the editorial choice the Mets were making, I quietly resented their de facto excision of history. I was here in 1973 and 1986 and 1999 and 2006, I thought, and I cherish the results and the Mets who brought them to be, but I was here a whole helluva lot in 1993, too, and, per the guy who in July played the last concert in this ballpark, I would not be here now if I never had the hunger.

We didn’t have a chance to clap once more for Jeff Innis at Shea. Our loss. Good for John including Jeff on his Hall of Fame night at Citi. Good for the Mets making Jeff a part of Fantasy Camp festivities since then. Good for Jeff Innis for making a wonderful impression on so many who did make his acquaintance in his years in baseball and years after baseball. When word spread last week than Jeff was terribly ill, it was a shock to those of us who only knew him from afar. When the news hit on Sunday that Jeff Innis had died from cancer at 59, all of us who were keeping the faith when he pitched so often felt we’d lost a constant in our lives. Never mind if we hadn’t seen him lately. Jeff Innis stayed with us.

***
Nobody gave me tickets for Opening Day 1975 the way I was given tickets for Opening Day 1993. Hence, to see the Opening Day I can honestly say I looked forward to like I’d never looked forward to an Opening Day before, I had to make an executive decision. On April 8, I had to cut Hebrew School. I wasn’t going to be a rabbi and I was secure that I’d accrued enough points to merit a Bar Mitzvah the following January.

Because we had a very cool sixth-grade teacher, our class in shall we say regular school was treated to a glimpse of the first inning. That taste, however wasn’t sufficient to sate me for the balance of the afternoon. “I’m not going to Hebrew School today,” I said to my easily persuadable companion and fellow Mets fan Jeff Mirrer as I convinced him to stop at my house when we were supposed to be walking from the bus stop to the temple. “This is Opening Day.” We sat down in front of my parents’ recently purchased color television (the first one we ever had), changed the channel to 9, and lived the dream. Let those schmendricks conjugating verbs in another language find out the score on the 6 o’clock news. We have reached The Promised Land! We are inside The Baseball Season

Aiding my boldness immeasurably was my mother not being home to rescind my executive decision.

Missing Opening Day 1975, from my 12-year-old perspective, would have been a shonda, specifically after the offseason that preceded it. Nineteen Seventy-Four was the first irredeemably crummy year I’d ever experienced as a Mets fan. Once its 91st loss was in the books and its final ember was extinguished, that winter’s Hot Stove had to start flickering ASAP. New GM Joe McDonald got to work so quickly, that he made trades reflected in the following year’s Topps set.

Unlike ’74 and ’76, Topps didn’t have TRADED cards in ’75, but they did have some ace airbrushing interspersed throughout what collectors call the base set. If you gave Topps’s artists enough lead time, they’d account for new destinations. On October 22, 1974, the Mets made a trade with the Pirates. We gave them Duffy Dyer, our stalwart backup catcher who’d been our stalwart backup catcher for as long as I could remember us having a backup catcher, and in return they gave us Gene Clines. Thus, when we opened packs that spring, there was every chance we’d pull from within Gene Clines already dressed and identified as a New York Met.

Airbrushed into actuality, having Gene Clines identified as a Met.

That and all it indicated, no offense to stalwart Duffy, was refreshing. I was aware of Gene Clines as a Pittsburgh Pirate and I was in something approximating awe of Gene Clines as a Pittsburgh Pirate. He didn’t play all that regularly for them, loaded as they were with outfield talent, but when he did, he showed himself to be the kind of player we never seemed to have. “Clines has tremendous speed and a hitting history,” McDonald said when he made the trade, further promising Gene “will get the chance to play”.

My assessment of Clines probably had more than a little to do with his hitting Met pitching very successfully — between 1970 and 1973, he batted .333 and on-based .426 versus us — and with whom he’d been breaking in and breaking through during that stretch. The Pirates were postseason regulars in the first half of the 1970s. Except for 1973, you could count on them being in the playoffs, yet despite being a division rival, they never wore out their October welcome, at least not with me. I won’t say I loved that team, but I liked them as much as I could with having to face them 18 times per year. Roberto Clemente until his humanitarian mission ended in a plane crash. Willie Stargell pounding so many homers that one summer I’d take swings in my backyard pretending I was vying with him for the league lead (he wound up with 48 to my 35, but I quit swinging by August). Manny Sanguillen with the strong arm and the big grin. Al Oliver eternally overlooked as a hitter. Bob Robertson owning the 1971 NLCS. Steve Blass before he lost the strike zone, nailing down that World Series. Dock Ellis didn’t strike out batters the way Tom Seaver did yet still won as many as 19 games in a season. Even Richie Hebner seemed no worse than a benign presence from a distance.

And now we could have one of those Pirates? Wow!

Clines, despite his ability to hit and run, could win only so much playing time in Pittsburgh. Power-hitting Richie Zisk was on the premises. Dave Parker was on the way up. Clines’s status stagnated with the almost-perennial NL East champs. In his 2021 memoir Cobra: A Life of Baseball and Brotherhood, written with Dave Jordan, Parker revealed Clines’s clubhouse nickname was Angry. It was bestowed with affection, but it had more than a patina of honesty to it. Gene wasn’t happy not getting into games.

The trade to New York could change all that. “Ol’ Angry would at last be getting a real chance to start,” Parker exulted on behalf of his friend and roomie. “Clines was thrilled to tears about leaving the Pittsburgh outfield log jam.” Gene was a young veteran by the time Dave was promoted in ’73 — Clines’s stint on the DL opened up a spot for Parker — but a veteran nonetheless. “He was a good teammate, a great roommate on the road, and someone who taught me stuff like which room service items wouldn’t get cold on the trip up the elevator.”

Unfortunately, the elevator stalled at Shea Stadium, where Gene envisioned putting his defensive skills to good use in center. The winds could be tricky. The acreage was expansive. But Clines had the credentials to take on the challenge. Except the Mets acquired another center fielder that same offseason, a very good one named Del Unser, giving up Tug McGraw to get him (in a package that also brought John Stearns to New York). The deal for Del transpired during the Winter Meetings, after Topps could have airbrushed Unser into his proper clothing. Nonetheless, he was in a Mets uniform on Opening Day, same as Clines, and I was excited to see them both.

Cutting Hebrew School was totally worth it, even if I couldn’t translate that sentence into Hebrew without the help of Google. With the newcomer outfield of Clines in left, Unser in center and Dave Kingman in right — Rusty Staub was out with a sore thigh — the Mets topped Unser’s old team from Philadelphia, 2-1. Kingman homered. Brooklyn’s own Joe Torre, brought over from St. Louis after years of rumors that he’d experience a homecoming, drove in the winning run in a walkoff, delivering the W for incumbent ace Seaver. All these terrific new Mets joining forces with Tom Terrific and several favorites who weren’t traded away — it was the Opening Day fruition of a winter’s worth of dreams.

Gene batted leadoff that afternoon, walking to commence the National League season in New York and instigating a balk from Steve Carlton to move to second. The Mets left him on third. He was 1-for-1 fielding fly balls in left. The Mets won. He was a part of it. Those of us watching on TV instead of being elsewhere were elated. Gene Clines and the Mets appeared ready for big things.

To borrow a phrase Parker enjoyed invoking in Cobra, not gonna lie — 1975 didn’t really work out that great for the Mets and not at all for Clines. He got even less playing time in Flushing than he did in Pittsburgh, batting .227 and making little impact in the outfield or on the basepaths. The culture he encountered was disappointing, too, different from what he encountered previously and different in ways a 12-year-old fan on Long Island who didn’t have to think about these things might not have comprehended. On September 1, 1971, Clines was part of a lineup for the Pirates that consisted of nine players who were either African-American or Latin-American. It had never happened in the National League or American League before. It shouldn’t have been remarkable. It figured it would happen in Pittsburgh, where players of all backgrounds were warmly welcomed beyond lip service. There was “a spiritual mission” to the way those Pirate teams were constructed and operated, according to Parker, “and I’m not just talking about one game in ’71.” GM Joe Brown and manager Danny Murtaugh ran an outfit that “had our backs all the way.”

At the end of the decade, when the Pirates were on the verge of their next world championship, Parker took stock of the Bucs as they departed Spring Training: “Pops Stargell was leading nine brothers, eight white dudes, three Panamanians, a Dutchman, a Mexican, a Dominican, and [Phil] Garner in a cowboy hat. It was a damn general assembly of baseball.” That’s the way the Pirates rolled throughout the ’70s. If you step back from your baseball allegiances, you can’t help but adore that ethic, and you can’t blame somebody for missing being subject to that vibe. When Clines visited with his former teammates on a road trip to Pittsburgh in ’75, Gene confided in Dave, “I was sitting in the dugout today, and I saw you boys across the field laughing and having a good time. No one’s helping the rookies in New York. They treated Cleon like shit. It’s just me and Milner and Tom Hall. They don’t talk to us at all. No one’s lookin’ out for anybody. No one.”

Topps printed an official Mets card for Clines in the 1976 set, but that owed to the trade that sent him away from Shea happening too late to fit the company’s production calendar. Our erstwhile extra outfielder stayed with the Rangers for a year, then went to the Cubs for three. His playing career ended in 1979, but his career as a respected baseball man went on and on, instructing and advising for a half-dozen organizations. Gene mentored a couple of budding Hall of Famers in Seattle (Ken Griffey and Edgar Martinez) and was the hitting coach in San Francisco when they reached the World Series in 2002.

Gene Clines died on January 27 at the age of 75, three days before Jeff Innis. Proximity in passing is the reason they share this column. Their lives in baseball and their times as Mets are why a Mets fan is moved to remember them a little. That’s all right. There are worse reasons to remember people.

7 comments to Innis, Clines & Life

  • eric1973

    I loved Jeff Innis, and I am happy to hear that so many loved him, too. To me, he was Terry Leach, Jr., and just as effective. And boy, did I love Terry Leach.

    A class act all the way.

    I can remember being excited about getting Gene Clines. After all, any hitter from the Pirates had to be great. Well, except for Gene Clines.

    So long, old friends.

  • JoeNunz

    This is why we read your work.
    Well done. Sir.

  • JoeNunz

    Darn mobile editing..

    Well done (comma) Sir

  • Cobra Joe

    I was so excited when the Mets acquired Gene Clines from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for popular Met catcher Duffy Dyer. Gene Clines was a speedy outfielder with a quick bat, albeit with minimal power. Gene Clines also had good numbers on both the Sports Illustrated and Strat-O-Magic baseball games. And, it was great to have a legitimate center fielder after having to have endured the mediocrity, at best, of the Don Hahn/Dave Schneck center field platoon of 1974. How Met GM Bob Scheffing could have gone into that season with those two big league poseurs is beyond me. I guess it was a case of both hubris and miserliness on the part of Mets management after just barely losing to the Oakland A’s in the Wirld Series.

    Unfortunately, it never quite worked out for Gene Clines with the Mets. And Joe McDonald’s extremely unpopular trade of Tug McGraw, plus Don Hahn and Dave Schneck, (who were quickly released by the Phillies) to Philadelphia for center fielder Del Unser, reliever Mac Scarce and catching prospect John “The Bad Dude” Stearns pretty much spelled the end for Gene Clines’ Met career.

    As to former Met reliever Jeff “The I-Man” Innis, I remember that he had Chris “Mad Dog” Russo in stitches, whenever Jeff did his dead-on impression of Russo doing a radio commercial for a men’s hair replacement company: “If you’re worried about losing your hair, and
    we know that you ARE, then you should call the ‘XYZ Hair Replacement Company.’”

    Requiem aeternam, Messrs. Clines and Innis.

  • Dave

    My birthday is May 15. You don’t invite me to the game with you and Stephanie, you don’t send me a card, nothing. Oh well. Maybe you knew that all would be good 27 years to the day later, when Jacob deGrom would make his major league debut.

    Everybody says that Innis was a great guy. And that delivery…closest thing to Chad Bradford, with the exception of Chad Bradford. RIP. In recent months, with him and Perpetual Pedro, we lost what I suppose are the two pitchers at the top of the list of players who wore no uniform other than the Blue and Orange.

  • open the gates

    Oh, man. I always thought of Jeff Innis as our younger version of Kent Tekulve (which is a huge compliment,
    for those of you unfamiliar with the gentleman). I also always thought of him as a young guy, at least in comparison to Doc, Darling, El Sid, etc. And he was a young guy, too young to die. Anthony Young, Cory Lidle, Pedro Feliciano, and now Jeff Innis. All young Met pitchers, all gone too soon. RIP. And thank you, Greg, for your touching tribute. (Although I could have done without the Jody Watley earworm…)

  • Seth

    I’m starting to wonder what we’ll be doing this summer without baseball, actually.