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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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When the Kids Make It to the Ballpark

Willie Mays showed up at the ballpark this week. It doesn’t matter which ballpark, but for the record, it was Oracle Park in San Francisco, convenient in that Willie lives near San Francisco, appropriate because for those privileged to be in his presence, he is baseball’s oracle. Willie has been a regular at Giant games since the club that traded him to the Mets in the 1970s had the good sense to bring him back in retirement in the 1980s and sign him to a lifetime contract in the 1990s. His duties? Be Willie Mays. He was gonna be that anyway. If you’re the world’s greatest living ballplayer, you might as well do it at the ballpark.

A few years ago I met a Giant reliever who had joined San Fran the previous offseason. What amazed him more than anything about his new team was fairly regular access to Willie Mays. Willie just showed up at whatever the ballpark was called then and made himself available to the players, the coaches, anybody who was around the team. Same thing in Spring Training. Willie knows he’s Willie. Willie knows what he offers. Willie offers it to those who ask, provided he can deliver it. Before the pandemic, it was easier for him. It was easier for everybody.

John Shea, the San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter whose beat includes keeping up on Willie Mays, reported that the Say Hey Kid’s trip to the ballpark the other day was his first since last year; and there weren’t too many last year; and last year wasn’t ideal, either, considering the COVID restrictions that were still in place. Maybe this year isn’t the most ideal, with Willie continuing to rehabilitate from hip surgery. No. 24 is 91. It wouldn’t be easy under any circumstance, but from reading Shea’s story, one gets the idea that the best thing in the world for Willie Mays is to be in the best place in his world. “I came to see the guys, not to cause any excitement,” Willie said, knowing full well that he is a carrier. The Giants maintain a room off their clubhouse that is reserved for Willie’s visits. He’s there to talk baseball, then and now. Per Shea, that’s what he did this week.

“I miss all you guys,” Willie told his assembling court of admirers. “I never missed so many games in my life.” He also read the room accurately and honestly. The Giants didn’t come close to repeating their division championship season of a year ago. “You guys need some help, man,” he told the players. According to Shea, “The players laughed and didn’t disagree.”

Even a team that is still vying for a division title this late in the year might need a little help. The other team that retired No. 24 in Mays’s honor pretty clearly understands that. That team, the New York Mets, is making a move a touch reminiscent of what their National League predecessors in town, the New York Giants, did 71 years earlier. They’re calling up the best player they can.

The 1951 Giants didn’t wait for the end of September. By the end of September, the 1951 Giants were tied with the 1951 Dodgers for first place and facing an unprecedented best-of-three playoff for the National League crown, winding down an incredible race that saw New York chase down Brooklyn from 13½ out in the middle of August. The 1951 Giants likely wouldn’t have gotten within spritzing distance of the 1951 Dodgers had they not made their biggest move possible on May 24 and brought up Willie Mays from Minneapolis to start in center the next day in Philadelphia. Willie had been batting .477 for the Millers. The Giants took out an ad in the Minneapolis Tribune practically apologizing for promoting a highly promising baseball player from the second-highest level of organized baseball to the highest.

No apologies necessary to the folks of Minneapolis in 1951, none necessary to anybody in Syracuse in 2022. The S-Mets are done for the year, and for all we know, they’ll get a longer look at the system’s top-ranked prospect in 2023. There are only six games left in the regular season still in progress. Who knows what they’ll prove regarding the newest bona fide New York Met,
Francisco Alvarez?

But, within the context of the six games that remain and however many games follow in the postseason, aren’t you just dying to find out?

Willie was 20 when he was called up, as Francisco is now. As Monte Irvin said when he reflected on Giant personnel maneuvers of the early 1950s four decades later, “What the hell do you care how old he is as long as he can play?” Irvin wasn’t talking about the Giants promoting Mays in 1951. He was remembering that New York wouldn’t bring up Ray Dandridge, then 36, to play third base despite Dandridge being in the midst of his second of three consecutive .300+ seasons at Triple-A. Lest you think this was a case of a player plateauing in the high minors and the big club thinking he couldn’t handle tough pitching, Dandridge had torn up the Negro National League long before 1950. Yeah, now we’re getting to the crux of the matter. Horace Stoneham, like many a major league owner, may have been willing to integrate his ballclub, but not to excess. One or two or three Black players might be fine. No sense overdoing it, though — heaven forbid a team bolster its ranks with the best players possible regardless of race. Hell, when the Giants brought up Mays in ’51, they cleared roster space by sending down Artie Wilson, an infielder of color. Dandridge, like Mays (and unlike Stoneham), is in the Hall of Fame today. He never played an inning in what we used to think of exclusively as the major leagues.

Baseball has always had its prejudices. The most blatant sort, the kind that that directly affected Wilson and Dandridge, has hopefully melted away; the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice and all that. Others, like those based on age, will probably always be with us, on either end of the spectrum. Being 36 in and of itself, as Irvin said, shouldn’t deleteriously impact the evaluation of a player as long as he can play. Darin Ruf is 36. Darin Ruf was playing pretty well a few months ago for the San Francisco Giants. After a replacement-level career in Philadelphia, Ruf bloomed into a veritable superstar in the KBO after turning 30, blasting 86 home runs across three seasons from 2017 through 2019, driving in more than 100 runs in each campaign.

I suspect “good in Korea” might be baseball code for “I’ve got a girlfriend in Canada,” but Ruf appeared to be a real enough deal. His numbers as a Giant were more than decent in the mini 2020 season and downright valuable in 2021, contributing tangibly to the out-of-nowhere 107 wins San Fran compiled a year ago. Sadly, Ruf has personally returned to nowhere since the Mets traded for him in early August, giving up J.D. Davis and three others to get him. When Mays was in the Giant clubhouse this week, he greeted Davis by asking him how many home runs he’d hit this year. When J.D. told him 11 (7 since leaving New York), Willie — author of 660 himself — generously appraised, “That’s not bad.”

Willie Mays would probably be too polite to tell Darin Ruf what he thinks of Ruf’s home run total as a Met, given that it is zero. Then again, he’s not above diagnosing a team that needs help. And you don’t have to be Willie Mays to realize that when you have a player whose primary job is to hit lefthanded pitching and that player is not hitting any pitching whatsoever, help needs to be summoned.

Help is on its way in the form of Alvarez, who might have gotten a call earlier had he not been so gosh darn young. Just as 36-year-olds aren’t necessarily going to get the benefit of the doubt (even in a sport that has traditionally fetishized Veteran Presence), someone as young as Mays in 1951 or Alvarez in 2022 is going to be handled with care, maybe so much that you’ll keep hands off until they’re old enough to legally drink. The Mets haven’t brought up many 20-year-olds of late. The last Met younger than Alvarez to break in was Dilson Herrera in the latter stages of 2014. The Mets weren’t going anywhere at that moment. You used to be able to expand your roster nice and wide to get glimpses of kids you really wanted to see if you felt compelled to wait through the meat of the season. These days rosters expand only from 26 to 28. Not a lot of room for glimpsing’s sake.

The September callup Alvarez puts me in mind of is Gregg Jefferies. Jefferies famously arrived for good in August of ’88, hit his way into the everyday lineup, and made himself unbenchable by the playoffs. But I’m thinking of the taste we got of Jefferies in 1987, in a September pinch-hitting role amid a divisional battle versus the dreaded Cardinals along the lines of the current one against the Braves, except a) we’re in first place instead of second; and b) neither the Mets nor Braves go home when one among them doesn’t finish first. Gregg was a lad of barely 20 and as highly touted as any Met minor leaguer there’s ever been, save for Darryl Strawberry. Davey Johnson brought his new toy along slowly in ’87 — six plate appearances, good for three hits — before unleashing him on a fully suspecting world a year later. Jefferies lived up to every ounce of hype until he didn’t.

Alvarez in the hours and days marking his debut at Truist Park won’t have time to meet all the hype that surrounds him. A few hits this weekend and next week would be lovely for starters. He’s MLB’s No. 1-ranked prospect, not just in the Met system, but everybody’s system. He’s rated an elite hitter, not a bad catcher, but he’s not here to catch just yet. Tonight he’ll be in the lineup batting seventh as DH against lefty Max Fried. Darin Ruf has been moved to the IL with what’s described as a neck strain, something no pitcher experienced as a result of Darin the Met taking him deep. Intermittently, I’ve wondered if Ruf is injured. I’ve wondered the same about James McCann, somebody else who should eventually see his playing time reduced by the rise of Francisco Alvarez. No way can these guys be this bad unless they’re hurting, I sometimes remind myself, but only sometimes, because I’m too busy being annoyed at how little they’re hitting to seek an explanation. I can be a real fan that way.

Right now, we seek results. We seek them from an extremely confident kid who may or may not be ready, but we are. Just being no worse than Ruf and Mark Vientos have been in the righty DH slot will be a step up. Atlanta is always bringing up kids, and they all seem to burst onto the scene as veritable superstars. The Mets brought up Brett Baty in Atlanta in August and he did a little bursting before getting hurt enough to not play anymore. They brought up Vientos a few weeks ago as Ruf was proving himself not an immediate answer. Vientos has thus far struck out so often that he’s left me wondering how his name isn’t spelled with a K. But he’ll likely have better days. He’s certainly eligible to. He, like Baty, is only 22.

The Mets brought up Jay Payton, as esteemed a position player prospect as they nurtured in the 1990s, in September of 1998. A college man hindered by injuries as he climbed the minor league ladder, Payton wasn’t what you’d call a kid in baseball terms. He debuted at 25. Bobby Valentine inserted him as a pinch-runner on a Friday night the last weekend of the season in Atlanta. The game was must-win. Payton got himself thrown out attempting to advance from first to third in the eighth inning. The Mets lost and would go on to get swept and eliminated. Jay would have better days. He couldn’t have had a worse one.

Regardless of what it looks like when the Braves elevate yet another phenom, hardly anybody makes it to the majors fully formed. Willie Mays’s first dozen at-bats in Philadelphia generated a dozen outs. Willie doubted himself. Leo Durocher stuck with him. Willie homered off Warren Spahn (of the Braves) his first time up at the Polo Grounds. It still took time to gain traction, but Willie eventually got the hang of it all. He started every game in center from May 25 forward, won the National League Rookie of the Year Award, and played in the 1951 World Series after the Giants took two out of three from the Dodgers.

Willie was given time. We’ll give Francisco time. Six games at the moment. More later. Francisco Alvarez is the first Met born in the 21st century. The future has arrived. It always does.

7 comments to When the Kids Make It to the Ballpark

  • Dave

    I guess lucky for Willie during those first 12 AB’s there was no Twitter in 1951.

  • Curt Emanuel

    “Darin Ruf has been moved to the IL with what’s described as a neck strain, something no pitcher experienced as a result of Darin the Met taking him deep.”

    What a fantastic line. Best wishes to Francisco. No more minor league ABs to be had. Now he gets them here, at least presumably when the other guys have a lefty pitching. Too bad tonight is the only projected lefthanded starter in our last 6 games.

    • Eric

      The Braves feature lefties in their bullpen. If Alvarez looks like he belongs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him audition against righty starters, if not against the Braves, then against the Nationals. It’s not like Vogelbach has been a righty destroyer.

  • Eric

    It’s jarring that Alvarez was born after 9/11 (November 19, 2001).

    Learn something new: I had thought because Alvarez wasn’t on the 40-man roster as of September 1st, he wasn’t eligible for the post-season roster. That’s incorrect. Being on the 40-man would have made him automatically eligible. But as long as he was in the organization as of September 1st, the Mets only need to manipulate the injured list to add him to the post-season roster.

    Big games, 156 games in the making. Nervous excitement.

  • Craig Marino

    Greg – it’s pieces like these that draw me back to check in on Faith and Fear regularly. Insightful observations wrapped in entertaining commentary delivered in prose, the quality of which is unmatched in sports writing. Thank you.

  • Eric

    The bad sign of Alvarez’s call-up: Looks like Marte’s not coming back any time soon. I wonder how deep the Mets need to go into the playoffs before Marte’s finger is healed. He’ll be rusty, too.

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