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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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Interim Pleasures

Whether it was out of quaint National League loyalty, appreciation for vanquishing the Phillies, or a fleeting fancy born of the whims of October, I was an Arizona Diamondbacks fan for five nights in the World Series, extending the quick hop I made aboard their slithering bandwagon during the NLCS. An interim fan, you might have called me. It didn’t work out in terms of a burst of vicarious championship satisfaction, but I was glad enough they were my team for a week or two (Brent Strom’s unbecoming September crankiness toward a Ford C. Frick Award nominee notwithstanding). They played good Diamondbacks baseball for as long as they could, moving runners over and the like; they were young and athletic, with a dash of experience to provide a little faith that they knew what they were doing. I didn’t know much about the Diamondbacks before the postseason. I was happy to make their acquaintance until, inevitably, I reverted to not much caring about them.

But it helps to have a rooting interest if you wish to be engaged by a Metless tournament. By Game Five of the World Series as Arizona tried to hang on for dear life, I believe I was rooting less for the D’Backs and more for more baseball. There was a ground ball as the middle innings were becoming the late innings that I really wanted to see reach the outfield but didn’t. C’mon, keep going. That grounder was carrying within its stitches my hope that the postseason would keep going, too. A month since they made their last out, I hadn’t missed the most recent edition of the Mets whatsoever, but I did feel a void when November baseball expired ahead of its allotted time frame.

The Texas Rangers dictated the World Series would last no more than five games, just enough to escalate onlooker interest by a tick. Our last two World Series of surpassing Metsian concern, in 2000 and 2015, teased us during fifth games that a sixth was somewhere between probable and possible, and if we could get a sixth game, who was to say there wouldn’t be a seventh? In 2000 and 2015, it was the Mets’ opposition answering that question. Winners of Game Five who enter said competition up three games to one too often write the history…though we didn’t mind that in 1969.

Despite cheering on their opposition like I meant it, I found nothing to dislike in the Rangers, an affable and talented bunch with a few faces fairly familiar to us lurking in the shadows. Goodness knows those who truly cared about them had waited long enough. An first-time/long-time world championship for a franchise — whether actually its first or the first most any living fan of that team has experienced — should be a cause for sportwide celebration, fans affiliated with the losing side excused if they’re not feeling the love. I watched a bit of the Rangers’ parade through the streets of Arlington. I imagine some in the crowd were simply big proponents of success and celebration, but you know plenty lining the sidewalks had waited what was, for them, forever. In the context of Texas Rangers baseball, transplanted from Washington in 1972 and proceeding ringlessly until Wednesday night, it had been forever.

Although I was on the side of the Diamondbacks, I could not see those shots of the Rangers dugout where their manager stood tall and not be all for Bruce Bochy. I rallied around the skipper during the Giants’ three World Series conquests in the previous decade and never developed any animus for the man despite his sending Madison Bumgarner to shut us out in the 2016 Wild Card Game. “Boch,” as they call him, just seems to have a feel for what needs to be done in any situation, whether it’s leaving a MadBum into finish a seventh game as he did versus Kansas City nine Series ago, or plucking an umpteenth reliever from the mound despite a seemingly unblowable lead and going to his closer to put the hammer down, which he did in Game Four this year when he replaced Will Smith with Jose Leclerc (Leclerc gave up a hit that made things a little closer, but in the end it worked). Every Ranger pointed to Boch’s calmness as the constant that got them through every bumpy moment in the season and postseason, and I could totally see it, especially when Rangers interviewed in the minutes after they eliminated their last obstacle and gained their first ring were cool and collected rather than shouting “WOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”. After Bochy retired from San Fran in 2019, I wondered if anybody in Flushing thought to give him a call on those several occasions we had an opening. He was apparently lurable and was damn well worth a feeler.

Eventually got a callup. Should’ve been called to manage the big club decades later.

Of all within the Texas traveling party claiming Mets ties — idled pitchers Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, fill-in right fielder Travis Jankowski (whose performance helped his club remained calm following the injury to otherworldly Adolis Garcia), general manager Chris Young and pitching coach Mike Maddux — Bochy’s connection is both the most ancient and the least outwardly consequential. Bruce spent two years in the Mets organization, in 1981 and 1982, mostly with Tidewater. Perhaps he whispered something useful in the ear of a young Orosco or Darling that paid off long-term. Mostly, he was the guy who got written about in his first St. Petersburg Spring Training for having an oversized head and needing to tote his own batting helmet from team to team, where it would be painted whatever color would allow him to blend in. Bruce scored four runs as a Met. He has exactly that many World Series trophies to his credit now.

What a difference a manager makes. Or so we will allow ourselves to assume, considering San Francisco never celebrated a title until Bochy guided them to the promised land in 2010 (and 2012 and 2014), and North Texas wasn’t the capital of baseball until 2023. We will also wish to assume there’s something to this Leader of Men stuff because the Mets believe Carlos Mendoza is their next difference-maker, one who, if he’s as impactful as can be, will add his name to a very short list. Forty years ago at this time, the list of managers who had made all the difference to the Mets from a world championship standpoint contained only one name: Gil Hodges. That fall, fourteen years removed from the only Mets manager who had ever worked a miracle working that miracle, I don’t know if any of us imagined the newest fella hired to fill Gil’s old office was going to lead us toward a doubling of the names on that list.

The Contemporary Baseball Era Committee recently announced which managers, executives and umpires it is considering for Hall of Fame induction next year. Eight people have been nominated. One is Davey Johnson, whose bona fides reflect winning seasons in Cincinnati, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Washington (with all but the Dodgers earning division titles on his watch), but his ultimate selection would serve mainly as acknowledgment of the underrated work he did in New York. If this committee votes Davey in, it will be because 1986 remains A Year to Remember, but it oughta be as much about what faced him when he took over in October 1983 and how quickly he transformed everything around him.

I don’t know if Davey elevating a moribund major league club toward and eventually to the highest of heights will resonate with the voters. The others they’re mulling (Jim Leyland, Cito Gaston, Lou Piniella, Bill White, Ed Montague, Joe West and Hank Peters) are well-credentialed, too, and certainly each manager in the group can claim an element of franchise-spurring. But I’m gonna be parochial here. I know what the Mets were before Davey, during Davey, and after Davey. I know Davey was difference personified. The Mets were never better as a going concern than they were when Davey Johnson managed them. They were never better in a single season than they were when Davey Johnson managed them, and few teams have been better than his 1986 Mets. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Mets haven’t won a World Series since Davey Johnson managed them.

The distance from the mood at Shea when he took over — and introduced himself to the New York media by thanking Frank Cashen “for having the intelligence to hire me” — to the day slightly more than three years later when Davey and his team accepted plaudits at City Hall measured far more than 13 miles. Davey’s presence at the helm in Queens may not have represented the first mile in zooming the Mets from winning infrequently to winning it all, but he sure accelerated the process, and it’s impossible to imagine anybody else guiding the trip. Should the committee recognize Davey Johnson’s role in turning a perennial loser into one of that generation’s most compelling winners, may the rigors of travel to Cooperstown for the acceptance of a plaque not too many spots from Gil Hodges’s be easy on him.

Right before Johnson began to stamp his eternal imprint on the Mets’ story, the manager who immediately preceded him stepped aside about as gracefully as one could fathom. On October 1, 1983, one day before the Mets swept a Closing Day doubleheader to put the best ending possible on their fifth sixth-place campaign in seven seasons, that Mets manager couldn’t announce definitively whether he’d be with the club in 1984, though he probably knew. All he would allow to reporters was, “I’m sure my boss, Mr. J. Frank Cashen, will show sincerity, generosity and compassion in his decision. I’m sure that whatever happens will happen for the best.”

That last part was right as could be. Davey Johnson coming aboard a couple of weeks later was absolutely for the best. As for the rest, the generosity was all Frank Howard’s. The man was about to be fired as manager of the New York Mets, in that way it is said every manager is hired to be fired. When Cashen broke the news to the media on October 2, the GM said “circumstances” did Howard in, with the Mets’ 68-94 final record a circumstance bound to tower over even the tallest of managers, which the 6-foot-7 Howard surely was. Cashen also said he made up his mind to not retain Howard in September, once the all-but-inactive Dave Kingman declined his manager’s invitation to start a game at first base. Kingman felt like he hadn’t had enough defensive reps recently — and hadn’t worked out at the position much since Keith Hernandez arrived — to acquit himself adequately in the field. Howard chose to respect the veteran slugger’s wishes rather than order him to grab his mitt and get out to first. It didn’t go over well in the front office.

No hard feelings? Howard, Swan and Bamberger intimate all is well on the 1982 Mets.

Frank Howard’s title from early June until early October was interim manager. The interim manager was clear on what that meant: “They made me no promises.” Howard was in the job because the permanent manager he served as a coach, the previously retired George Bamberger — who cut short his tenure with the Brewers after heart bypass surgery in 1980 — had enough of the Mets and quit to literally go fishing. Bamberger, a Cashen favorite from their days in Baltimore, never seemed enthused about leading the Mets. He gave it a year and change and, well, never changed. “I was starting to get headaches from the tension,” George said a couple of months later. Howard, on the other hand, never lacked enthusiasm in 1982 and 1983, whether it was running the Jumbo Franks in intrasquad games versus fellow coach Jim Frey’s Small Freys, or setting Craig Swan straight at the end of a road grip when the veteran pitcher griped a little too long and loud about the travel arrangements (Swannie was beefy, but a shoving match with someone 6-foot-7 will make a person who isn’t at least 6-foot-8 change his tone). Frey had managed the Royals to the 1980 World Series, yet Cashen chose Howard, whose managerial record in San Diego was brief and unspectacular, as Bamberger’s successor.

“I have the highest regard for Jimmy Frey,” Cashen said in June, “but felt we needed a strong personality — and that’s why I chose Big Frank.” Translation: somebody who could be described as “jumbo” was more likely to be listened to in a sullen, last-place clubhouse than somebody described as small…even if longtime beat writer Jack Lang sized Howard up as “a giant of a man with the personality of a pussycat”.

With Howard taking over, the 1983 Mets intermittently purred. The young talent, featuring Darryl Strawberry, indicated last place wasn’t going to be the Mets’ residency into perpetuity, and the trade for Keith Hernandez said something about Cashen’s sense of purpose. When he was promoted, Howard said he wouldn’t stand for play that was “indifferent and haphazard”. For a time there was none of that to the team’s approach. Frank Howard’s Mets, at their August best, were vibrant and brimming with promise, as boisterous if not as big as he was, giving a fan the idea that this team was a growth stock. How much Howard and what Lang referred to as his “quiet but driving leadership” had to do with it was in the eye of the beholder. Under their interim manager, the Mets went 52-64, with a little too much coming down to earth to be ignored by September.

Still, the enthusiasm was always in evidence, and when one flashes back to the best parts of the interim summer of Frank Howard, one sees the big man on the top step congratulating his players if they crossed the plate, and clapping for them as long they hustled from home to first. In his 2009 memoir The Complete Game, Ron Darling, a September 1983 callup, recalled his first manager as a “hard charger,” if perhaps a bit over the top. “Frank is pushing for everyone on the club,” young Straw said as he got his feet wet in the majors. “He wants you to give 100 percent. It’s great to see a manager who wants you to give effort all the time” (even if neophyte Darryl didn’t always play as if he fully interpreted that particular message). Howard struck this home viewer as the quintessential upbeat coach in a sport in which people called coaches are assistants; I could never quite wrap my mind around the idea that Frank Howard was The Manager. Maybe his interim status played into that perception. Deciding whether he was genuine managerial timber, redwood stature aside, would be best left to those who got a closer look. Howard never managed again after Cashen removed both “interim” and “manager” from his title. Yet when he was let go, older Mets who’d seen their share of skippers offered only glowing reviews for public consumption.

Tom Seaver: “Frank is a fine man. I can’t think of anybody warmer to play for. His sincerity was tremendous.”

Mike Torrez: “Howard is a good man to play for. He’s an honest man. He gives you the ball and he asks you to give 100 percent.”

Bob Bailor: “I liked playing for Frank. His enthusiasm for the game is unmatched. Especially on a club like this where there isn’t too much electricity in the dugout to start with.”

Rusty Staub: “I enjoyed playing for Frank. I hope something positive happens for him. A lot of people here are going to miss his patience.”

Turns out they wouldn’t have to. Rusty and the 1984 Mets would continue to benefit from whatever Frank Howard brought to the enterprise, as Cashen’s invite to remain in the organization, along with Davey Johnson’s half-throated assent, convinced him to stay on among the new manager’s staff. “I like Frank Howard,” Johnson said about his predecessor. “I like his enthusiasm. I like his energy and I like the fact that he is a good baseball man. I want to surround myself with the best baseball men I can find.” Having apparently taken time out from steering Tidewater to the 1983 Triple-A championship to watch what might affect his 1984 job prospects, Davey couldn’t help but add, “I did not like the way he managed.” When Davey was asked how he’d handle a situation like Big Frank encountered with Kingman, the new sheriff in town responded, “If a player did that to me, I’d tell him to pack his bags and go home.”

Frank Howard kept his bags unpacked for another year in New York, still bringing that trademark enthusiasm, energy and size to the dugout the year the Mets finally turned it around, going 90-72 and finishing 6½ games from first place after leading the division much of the summer. They weren’t quite ready to make the postseason, but they were getting there. When they did, Frank Howard would be in Milwaukee, reunited with Bamberger, who, like Bochy, resisted staying retired from managing. Frank had coached for Bambi when George first ran the Brewers, and baseball men tend to stay in touch with one another.

Clearly, baseball organizations liked having Frank Howard around as a coach, as he’d spend almost every season through the end of the 20th century assisting one manager or another. For three seasons, from 1994 to 1996, he’d be back in Queens, as one of Dallas Green’s Mets coaches. It was an era when the records were losing and the outlook was dim, quite a bit like 1982 and 1983, but Big Frank’s enthusiasm never wavered. Howard had coached for Green in the Bronx in 1989. Like Bamberger, Green knew a good and loyal baseball man when he saw him, and Howard returned the loyalty in kind, not to mention effort. Frank was known, per Newsday’s Marty Noble, as “the foremost workaholic among baseball coaches,” an extension of what Howard asked of his players when he managed them. “The cheapest commodity in our business,” he preached, “is 90 feet.”

Before there was Judge and Altuve, there was Hondo and Buddy.

For someone whose Met contribution is chronologically distant and whose Met footprint is admittedly light — when he died at the age of 87 on October 30, amid the Rangers-Diamondbacks World Series, his time as Mets manager was mentioned in passing at most — it says something that Frank Howard’s career was intertwined at least a little with a whole bunch of Mets managers. Played in Los Angeles with Jeff Torborg. Coached for Green and Bamberger and Johnson, as mentioned. Coached alongside Buddy Harrelson in 1982 (separated by a listed eight inches in height and triple-digits in weight, they made quite a picture together), Mike Cubbage in 1994 and 1995 (they could compare notes on their respective experiences as purely interim Met managers), and Bobby Valentine the first two months of 1983 and all of 1984, with Bobby V serving as his third base coach in between.

“It was an honor to coach with and coach for Hondo,” Valentine tweeted last week, invoking Frank’s most commonly referenced nickname. Howard had a few, including the Capital Punisher and the Washington Monument, nods to not only his prodigious power — 382 home runs, enough hit so high and far to inspire the repainting of several seats at RFK Stadium — but his importance to D.C. baseball when he was essentially the lone star of the Senators in the years before that franchise abandoned Washington for the Lone Star state to become the pre-championship Texas Rangers. In paying tribute to him in the Washington Post, Tom Boswell wrote the region’s undying affection for Hondo and continual invocation of his exploits “were a core piece of what kept Washington fighting to get another team.”

The Washington Senators featured Frank Howard once they traded reliable lefty starter Claude Osteen to the Los Angeles Dodgers to have Hondo as their own. On the Dodgers between 1959 and 1964, Howard played some first base. So did another future Mets manager, Gil Hodges. They were teammates in L.A. before Gil returned to New York to play for the new National League expansion club at the Polo Grounds. When Gil had no more playing left in him, he departed for the District to earn his managerial stripes, running a hopeless club and making them a little less hopeless through the mid-’60s. It was the apprenticeship that paved the way for Gil’s immortal difference-making at Shea in 1969.

That part would come soon if not soon enough for Mets fans. In the interim, in the lower reaches of the American League, Hodges had work to do, and he did it best with Howard, changing the slugger’s perspective on how to think about what pitchers were thinking, and, by Frank’s own reckoning, improving his game. “He’s made me a better ballplayer, no question of that,” Hondo said of Hodges while he was building his Monumental résumé in Washington. Howard expanded further on Gil’s influence decades later for Hodges biographer Mort Zachter: “When you manage a marginal club, you really have to manage.”

Frank Howard went to four All-Star Games as a Senator between 1968 and 1971 — “a line drive by Howard could behead someone” was Seaver’s impression after taking stock of him in the batter’s box during the 1970 Midsummer Classic — and earned a World Series ring with the 1963 Dodgers, setting the stage for L.A.’s Game Four 2-1 clincher with his fifth-inning homer off Whitey Ford. After hitting the last home run ever for the Senators in September of ’71, he hit the first home run ever for the relocated Rangers in April of ’72, months before the Tigers scooped him up for the power boost he could provide down stretch as they outdueled the Red Sox for that year’s AL East title. Yet it was a ballclub that didn’t exist as such when he played, the Washington Nationals, who tended to his legacy in retirement. The Nats unveiled a statue of Frank in front of their new ballpark and inducted him into their Ring of Honor. They would be the ones to announce Howard’s passing, and it was the Nats who made sure Frank was an honored guest when they brought the World Series back to Washington in 2019 after an 86-year absence.

Bogar, Howard and the Met ties that bonded.

As Nationals Park public address announcer Phil Hochberg was taking a moment to direct the crowd’s attention to D.C.’s legend emeritus prior to Game Four, Howard, seated on the field and wearing a Nats jersey, received a visit from the home team’s first base coach, Tim Bogar. Bogar was a Met when Howard coached for the club the second time, in the ’90s. Frank was Tim’s first base coach and everybody’s “attitude coach”. The visit was brief but warm. Their bond, forged well before the Nationals moved from Montreal, jumped off the screen like a homer off Howard’s bat. Those Mets where Bogie met Hondo may have been a marginal club, but you always knew Frank Howard really coached.

5 comments to Interim Pleasures

  • Seth

    OK Texas Rangers yada yada, Bruce Bochy yada yada. Congrats to them all. The maddening thing is seeing two ex-Mets (Max and Jacob), who worked hard for the Mets with plenty of success and no ring, get a ring with some other team for doing absolutely nothing. Good for them — but ultimately it’s the Mets fans that suffer. Oh — and throw in some bench-warmer named Jankowski, who suddenly became Justin Turner. Frustrating.

    • Eric

      It could have been worse. None of the Mets in the 2023 fire sale made a difference for the 2023 championship. In terms of schadenfreude, deGrom and Scherzer contributed little to the Rangers championship while their respective injuries supported the Mets letting them go over their injury histories. On the other side, Pham and Sewald, who were major contributors to the Diamondbacks, lost. Sewald, while he’s been gone for a few years now, has looked Turner-esque as an ex-Met who promptly became good after leaving the Mets for nothing. He was lights-out in the play-offs until he got bombed in the World Series, like maybe there’s a shelf-life for closers who rely on 92 MPH 4-seamers over the plate after all. Down the line, Robertson didn’t help the Marlins, Canha and the Brewers got knocked out early, and Verlander conspicuously didn’t pitch in the ALCS game 7’s ‘all hands on deck’ situation for the Astros which he likely would have done in the past. Verlander performed okay in the playoffs, but not like the ace he used to be, and it’s evident his game’s declining. I expect that decline will continue next season.

      So in the end, I didn’t see much from the ex-Mets in the playoffs to be annoyed about.

  • K. Lastima

    Carlos Mendoza?!?

  • Rumble

    Beautiful piece