These are the last few days for Terry Collins to manage the Mets.
He deserves the release, for good behavior.
Collins has served seven years, longer than any other Met manager, and he has upheld the grand tradition of gray-haired, hands-in-back-pocket managers. The skipper.
Now he is 68 and his contract is up and as a writer-turned-fan I want to tell him, “Thanks, man.”
The end of a baseball season is always a gloomy time for fans of most teams, but I suspect a lot of Mets fans are particularly gloomy because we know it wasn’t Collins’ fault that the Mets fell apart this year.
For seven years, his players never exhibited smirks or shrugs, always hustled and seemed to respect what Keith Hernandez calls “the fundies” – fundamentals.
The Mets won a pennant nobody expected. Collins, a stranger to New York, was a throwback to the grand old baseball tradition of “dandy little manager” -- usually a middle infielder of marginal skills who had learned by observing.
In my childhood, writers called Leo Durocher “the dandy little manager” but Leo the Lip was too much of a braggart and popinjay to fit in with the commonfolk.
I grew up with dugout “hold-‘em-while-I-think-of-something” savants like Charlie Dressen of the old Brooklyn Dodgers – short on grammar and school learning and long on experience – and moving on to Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland, guys who loved and respected the game, because it came hard to them as players.
Gene Mauch wanted to come off as cerebral. Joe Maddon -- Collins’ protégé -- is a bit more educated and worldly and fun. Earl Weaver was brash and hid his knowledge well. Buck Showalter is a control-freak lifer. Skippers.
New Yorkers had no reason to know Collins, whose temper had touched off a player mutiny in his wreck of a time with the Angels. But Collins worked in development with the Dodgers, and was a surprise managerial pick by Sandy Alderson.
Not that I have been around the team much lately (having retired at the end of 2011) but Collins’ responses in the televised post-game interview were funny and enlightening.
He stuck up for his players but did not try to sugar-coat their mistakes. He used current tools but did not make me nuts with blather about all those new computer-driven statistics.
Collins had the class to own the most ruinous decision he made -- staying with Johan Santana as he completed the first no-hitter in Mets’ history, but blowing his arm out, terminally. Collins always referred to Santana when asked why he observed pitch counts for young pitchers, who have mostly fallen apart anyway.
When Alderson gave him some players, Collins guided the team to the World Series. It has not been fun for a fan, watching it all fall apart this year.
I give credit to the professionals who never quit – Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce and Neil Walker and Rene Rivera, who had value elsewhere. When Collins finally pulled Asdrubal Cabrera from shortstop, Cabrera complained but never stopped playing hurt and being a good teammate. Jose Reyes accepted his backup role and worked with Amed Rosario like a big brother teaching the kid who had taken playing time from him.
Now the Mets management should let Collins retire gracefully – retain him as a development guy who can coach and teach – and move on to a younger manager.
Collins deserves to be remembered with Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, Davey Johnson and Bobby Valentine, other epic managers in the Mets’ amazin’ history.
As Casey would have said, “He done splendid.”
(Note: This piece was filed Friday morning, just before John McCain announced he could not support this vicious bill. I have had great respect for McCain since I met him years ago. His action Friday may have doomed the legislation -- for now -- but these people keep coming back for their money.)
Lately, I’ve been seeing the image of the Native American with one tear rolling down his cheek.
It was a highly popular commercial, for the ecology, from Earth Day, 1971.
The man had paddled down a pristine river and sighted a modern Apocalypse of debris.
That’s how I feel these days.
It’s not just the natural disasters pounding Texas and Florida and the Caribbean and Mexico, places we know and love.
It’s the vision into the heart of darkness. I have dealt with the election of a cruel, ignorant and disturbed human being, believing he will be out within 18 months. He’s a symptom of something worse.
The teardrop in my mind comes when I see stone-hearted members of Congress preparing to vote to take away health care from millions of people who need it the most -- fellow Americans, whatever that means anymore.
I see politicians – and by that I mean Republicans – lobbying for votes, to stiff the poor and the sick.
They are doing it for their donors, the Koch Brothers and villains like them, who want tax breaks, and do not care how they come, even at the penalty of taking away surgery from the ill and shelter for the aged.
These donors would, essentially, kill for money, and so would their lackeys in Congress.
Lindsey Graham. For a while, I thought he was showing touches of humanity but now he is front and center for the White Citizens Council, some of them doctors, for goodness’ sakes, who shuffle wordlessly behind Head Kleagle McConnell. They want money so they can keep going.
Jimmy Kimmel is wise to this Cassidy guy. I hope Kimmel's rants do some good.
Until McCain made his statement Friday, I could not count on three Republicans in the Senate to vote for the poor. Plus, I can think of a Democrat or two who would shaft people in their own states, for money.
They do not want to care for their fellow humans. And they have the backing of some large and oily religious lobbies.
I can remember when Americans told each other we were the good guys who helped win two World Wars. If you overlooked the Civil War, the war that has never ended, it was a workable image.
This current collective meanness has been coming on for a while. It began when the McConnell-Boehner-Ryan coalition sabotaged Barack Obama for the crime of Presiding While Black.
It’s about race, a lot of it.
I’ve gotten pretty tough in my old age. I ascribe to the Iris Dement song, “No Time to Cry,” about how her father died and she had to keep going.
But now I'm walking and I'm talking,
Doing what I'm supposed to do.
Working overtime to make sure I don't come unglued.
I guess I'm older now and I've got no time to cry.
Then I remember the Native American, so proud, so stoic, seeing what others are doing to his world.
(Footnote: the man in the commercial, who went by the name of Iron Eyes Cody, was actually of Sicilian ancestry, Espera Oscar de Corti, and grew up in rural Louisiana. He portrayed Native Americans in movies, and married one in real life. He looked the part well enough that I remember his tear, 46 years later.)
I stopped watching the Mets a month ago, when they reverted to 1962 ineptitude. I normally don’t watch the Yankees or network broadcasts, but I probably will check out the post-season.
Meantime, baseball remains the best writing/reading sport of all. Here are four new books I recommend, in season or out:
The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic. Richard Sandomir. Hachette Books.
As a young Brooklyn fan and later as a young reporter, I could hear the melancholy echoes of Lou Gehrig’s farewell, echoing under the eaves of the old (the real) Yankee Stadium.
Gehrig remains a phenomenon for his 15 steals of home (all on the back end of a delayed steal but, with his thick legs, quite an accomplishment) and his 2,130 consecutive-game streak as well as the terrible way he died, from a disease that would bear his name.
The latest talented observer to write about Gehrig is Richard Sandomir, a friend and colleague from the New York Times, in his compelling new book, “The Pride of the Yankees,” which Sandomir calls “the first great sports film.”
Sandomir covered sports media for decades and now uses his talents in the prestigious obituary section of the Times. He conveys the man and the movie as a story for the ages, noting that producer Sam Goldwyn wanted to make a love story about a doomed man.
“Goldwyn didn’t see the value in a baseball story – a game he thought was played with twelve bases on a field,” Sandomir notes.
Goldwyn did not care that Gary Cooper looked like a 1962 Met when he tried to swing or throw or run. I learned in this book that Cooper, from Montana, had never played baseball, not once. But Sandomir quotes the noted director, Howard Hawks, as saying, “The grand thing about Cooper is that you believe everything that he says or does.”
Getting people to believe. How courant.
Sandomir brilliantly describes how myth-making is enhanced by bending reality.
Eleanor Gehrig was not the demure lass depicted by Teresa Wright; she was a daughter of privilege from Chicago who had done a bit of roaring in the Roaring Twenties before she met the shy mother’s-boy from a German section of Manhattan.
In real life, Gehrig, after months of stumbling on the field, told the manager in a hotel that it was time for him to stop playing. In the movie, Gehrig is replaced at first base in the middle of a game – because it is more dramatic.
Sandomir is the perfect writer to depict the murky border between reality and art.
Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame That Lasted Forever. Kevin Cook. Henry Holt and Company.
Just as in a Shakespearean play, in a World Series involving Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson, the minor characters are fascinating, too.
Cook depicts six characters in epic World Series – managers Bucky Harris and Burt Shotton, Brooklyn’s Cookie Lavagetto who broke up a no-hit attempt and beat Bill Bevens in the ninth; Bevens, who would never be the same; George Stirnweiss of the Yankees, a war-time regular who managed one good World Series when the stars came back; and Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers, who made a great catch on DiMaggio in left field, the last play Gionfriddo would make in the majors. (I once stood next to Gionfriddo at a reunion in the early 80’s; he was tiny, 5-6 at the most.)
Cook’s best work is researching the rest of their lives, after that antic World Series – faith, failures, early death, and a few ripe old ages.
The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age. Sridhar Pappu. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Wait, 1968 was the end of the Golden Age? Didn’t the Mets win the World Series in 1969? Sorry.
Pappu ably describes year of the pitcher, which forced baseball to lower the mounds from 15 inches to 10. Gibson was driven; McLain was corrupt; both were sensational. (Mickey Lolich became Detroit’s star in the Series.)
Pappu interviewed me at length about Gibson, whom I admire, beyond his testiness (or maybe because of it.)
Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey. Ila Jane Borders with Jean Hastings Ardell. University of Nebraska Press.
Borders managed to play in male leagues into high school, college and an independent league on a team owned by Mike Veeck in the late 90s. She had her moments as a pro and won the respect of most teammates and fans. Borders touchingly describes her personal and family life. I did not know much about her until this book and I have great admiration for her.
Enjoy the rest of the season.
There was so much horror in America from 9/11 that I certainly did not think about David Skepner. But every year when crisp weather reminds me of a lovely morning in 2001, I think about him.
David was Loretta Lynn’s manager-for-life, a Beverly Hills guy come to Music City. He was assigned by the home office of MCA to supervise her career, and he moved to Nashville and helped turn her into a worldwide star.
In 1972 he fielded a request from the New York Times’ Appalachian correspondent – me – for an interview with Loretta, who was already dominating country music on her charm, beauty and voice. He did not invent her but he made sure she got the attention she deserved.
I knew her music, of course, and found out from a two-fisted county judge in Eastern Kentucky that Loretta had pulled her band off the road to play a benefit in Louisville for the families of 38 coal miners blown to kingdom come in the Hyden disaster I covered. I was touched by her zeal to make some money for her people.
Loretta won the Entertainer of the Year award in October of 1972, the first woman to be honored. The next morning, she did the national dawn TV shows and then Skepner ushered me into her room where she was tucked back into bed. I got a great interview – everybody always did – and the great Charlotte Curtis gave it prominent display in the NYT.
Two years later David decided the world needed a Loretta Lynn bio – and he promptly asked Pete Axthelm of Newsweek to write it. Ax had done a great cover story on Loretta but he couldn’t do the book (we would always laugh about that when we met) and so I got the call.
That meant, time on the road with Loretta.
David was the gatekeeper – a big dude, probably 6-foot-3 with matching persona and a big iron on his hip, as the song goes. I don’t believe he was ever in the service but he was a big military buff, who wore olive jackets and blue caps with Navy insignias and belonged to a pilots’ association.
Travelling with Loretta, security was always an issue, particularly when Mooney Lynn, her husband, was not around. I had been around guns in the mountains, but whenever we were indoors David would put the huge pistol (I have no idea what type) on a nearby table. I asked him if he could point it in the other direction – and cover it with his ball cap -- and he laughingly obliged.
David could be officious -- but he made things happen. Her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” leaped from her verbal ability into a best-seller, as David had known it would. And so did the movie, with so many talented people falling into place. A lucky boy, I was along for the ride.
At some point, David and I became friends. I moved from Kentucky back home to New York and we stayed in touch. Whenever I went to Nashville, we would meet at a Thai restaurant near Vanderbilt and he would catch me up.
In 1986, Loretta and David stopped working together – her call. He managed other acts (Dixie Chicks, Riders in the Sky) but whenever she needed professional advice – from somebody she could trust -- she would call David, and he was fine with that.
Weeks after 9/11, I called a friend in Nashville for something or other, and she asked if I had heard about Skepner, which sounded ominous, and she filled me in:
When 9/11 started to happen, David went into emergency mode. As a military guy, he undoubtedly saw this as war, and he wanted to be prepared. All circuits in full-red-tilt operation, he rushed down to gas up his car because…you never know…and as he stood there, pumping his own gas, he fell down, dead before he hit the ground.
Normally, David Skepner’s passing would have been noted in Music City but not in those first horrible days. Eventually, an article said David had one sister, but gave no more personal details.
Loretta went into a shell after Mooney passed in 1996 – so I never talked with her about David’s passing. But I used to call a few friends down there and we would talk about him as a force of life, who kept things together for Loretta.
Now, every year when 9/11 approaches, I think about David Skepner. Of all the people who died that day, I knew him best.
In an age when ball players hold lodge meetings at every base and deliver fist bumps on every random encounter between “opponents,” it is refreshing to see old-fashioned crankiness, animosity – and even knucklehead thinking, as recently demonstrated by the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia.
Sabathia, a competitor and generally rational person, spouted off about the Red Sox’ Eduardo Nuñez, for plunking down a bunt rather than trying to lash the ball into the seats of Yankee Theme Park in the Bronx. The nerve.
Sabathia was quite adamant that bunting on such a fine person as himself was bad form – showing up a colleague.
Nuñez, a former Yankee teammate, pointed out that he was trying to get on base any way possible, a quaint theory long scorned by players unashamed to strike out regularly. Be a man. Don’t bunt.
Where do they get these standards?
Jim Rice, the former Red Sox star, a member of the Hall of Fame, chimed in that Sabathia – listed as 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds – could go easier on the clubhouse food spread and perhaps he would be able to bend down and field his position.
This is wonderful stuff, reminiscent of the Fisk-Munson feud when the Red Sox were emerging as rivals in the Steinbrenner Sucks! Era of the ‘70s. Those were the days, star catchers rolling in the dirt.
Nobody knows what tribal rule Sabathia thought had been violated.
There is an old baseball belief that it is unsporting to lay down a bunt in the very late innings when a pitcher is working on a no-hitter.
Mets fans let Randy Hundley have it for bunting on Tom Seaver just before the Jim Qualls single broke up a no-hitter in 1969. Hundley pointed out, quite rightly, that the Cubs were ahead of the Mets in the division race. Who knows, if Hundley had been able to get to first base, maybe the Cubs would have won the pennant – and not have to wait 47 more years.
Players are so touchy these days.
Pitchers’ feelings are upset when batters “flip” the bat in celebration of some moon-shot homer they have just launched. But that feeling goes back to when pitchers virtually checked their stopwatch as sluggers performed the so-called Cadillac Trot around the bases.
And hitters do not take kindly to pitchers who launch a quick pitch, the way Hansel Robles did to the Phillies Darin Ruf in the 2015 season. To be fair, a hitter could be hurt if he does not know a pitch is coming in his direction. But ultimately, with all the dawdling that extends games, players are responsible for being prepared.
I don’t want to sound blasé about the dangers of flying baseballs, but I covered Bob Gibson in the ‘60s and appreciated his skill – and crankiness, cussing out his catchers for visiting the mound.
I swear I have heard Gibson, Ron Fairly and Joe Torre all tell the same story about the time Fairly dared to make conversation with Gibson, who had just smitten a single, and Gibson just glared at him.
When Fairly came to bat next time, he said to Torre, “I don’t think I’m going to enjoy this at-bat.” At which point Gibson hit him in the ribs – for praising him.
(Some savvy web fans seem to have proven that this never happened in an official game. But it’s still a good story -- indicative of the way the lads played half a century ago.)
The stuffiness by Sabathia can be traced to the gimmick of the American League, where pitchers do not hit for themselves, and bunting has no place. In the National League, pitchers are asked to bunt…and run the bases…and in general be baseball players.
Look, kids, don’t try this at home. Don’t act like the Yankees and Tigers did recently when they obviously threw beanballs and punches at each other – a throwback to the old times. Somebody could get hurt.
Still,the concept of dropping a bunt and trying to run 90 feet fast is a venerable and honored tactic. It is called baseball.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.