So many scandals. Trump and his lap-dog Barr soiling the Justice Department. Senators declining to hear testimony from impeachment witnesses. The government cutting back aid in order to build a wall, while ignoring the infrastructure and climate concerns.
Plus, Major League Baseball going easy on clubs that probably stole pennants, while MLB juiced baseballs last year, and now is plotting to gut the hallowed minor-league system, and threatening to tart up the playoff system with a reality-show gimmick. Has everything gone haywire at once?
So why am I exorcised about Pete Rose? I had mostly forgotten him, skulking around Las Vegas, where the action is. Then I picked up the NYT this morning and found an op-ed article by two professors, with great credentials, I am sure, saying Rose has done his time and needs to be made eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. I found myself sputtering.
In Rose’s time, there were cardboard placards posted on clubhouse walls, warning players that gambling on baseball was expressly forbidden, upon penalty of expulsion. The signs back then were in English and Spanish, now maybe in Japanese, also. But Pete was above all that.
Let me start by saying I was a boy reporter at the Charlie Hustle game in Tampa in March of 1963, when a chesty rookie with the Cincinnati Reds ran from home to first base upon receiving a base on balls. The fat-cat Yankees had won three straight pennants and would win two more, and Mantle-Maris-Berra-Howard-Ford guffawed at the expenditure of so much energy in a spring exhibition, and they bestowed that nickname on him.
Apprised of his new nickname, Rose informed reporters, early and often, that he was a different kind of guy. This was how he was taught to play by his dad, a Cincinnati sandlot legend. He was crude, he was self-centered, he was mentored by Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, and he was talented.
He was fun to be around. He loved to talk about the game, bantering with writers, trading baseball knowledge and strategy. He seemed to be a personification of the old game, the dirty, dusty, nasty, spikes-high game. The Big Red Machine accumulated smoother stars like Bench and Morgan and Perez, but Pete was the home-town boy.
He was a bundle of energy. A teammate, Bernie Carbo, was quoted as saying the funniest thing he ever saw in baseball was Pete Rose’s greenies kicking in during a rain delay in the clubhouse.
We knew Pete had a major gambling jones. On our annual spring sojourn to the dog track or jail-alai fronton near Tampa, we would see Pete, clearly a regular, moving fast, flashing $100 bills. When the Mets visited Cincinnati, he had tips on the daily action at River Downs racetrack.
Fast forward to the revelations that Pete, while managing the Reds, was betting on baseball games – but only on the Reds, to win, or so his story went. By that time, people knew more about gambling addiction – how ultimately there is no limit.
If Rose bet on the Reds one day (when his ace was pitching) but did not bet on them the next day (when a lesser pitcher was starting, or perhaps a star was limited by an injury, which only a manager or a trainer would know), his decision was a tipoff to bookies and others with access to Rose’s bets.
Baseball investigated, got the goods on Pete, and confronted him. He could have admitted reality – but we can surely think of other damaged individuals out there in the world, who cannot process details, who are lacking any trace of conscience, of morality, who think they are above the law.
In a time when people with alcohol and drug addictions were getting treatment, Rose stonewalled investigators, infuriating Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, who banished Rose from baseball. I was there that day. Giamatti was quivering with anger. A few days later, on a vacation Giamatti died of a heart attack. The legacy of that case is: Pete Killed Bart.
Also, baseball had more evidence on Rose’s transgressions than on any one of the stars who used steroids in another epidemic a decade and two later. Baseball has not banned steroid suspects but has left the Hall of Fame question up to the writers who vote.
NYT writers are not allowed to vote for any award, in any field, and in retirement I honor that rule. I feel sentimental about the swaggering home-boy who lit up my first decade in covering baseball. But he broke a rule and has never faced it.
Keeping Pete Rose ineligible sets a standard for the Hall, and now it is up to the voters to make their individual decisions about subsequent stars who were ingesting steroids that allowed them to muscle a ball over a fence.
I don’t think baseball has handled the steroid era well, and I’m not quite sure what more it can do about the bang-the-garbage-can-lid era. Declare the championships “vacated” as college basketball has done in one scandal or another? The personal disgrace to talented players and fired managers are not small steps.
I relish the memories of Pete Rose playing ball and talking baseball in the clubhouse, but I don’t see any reason to reinstate him for membership in the Hall of Fame. Now, more than ever, we need some minimal bottom-line standards of what is acceptable and what is not.
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The case for reinstating Pete Rose:
I've been trying to figure out who left Derek Jeter off the Hall of Fame vote. My inclination is that it is somebody looking for attention, or it could be a reporter who once tried to get a quote from Jeter and received a shrug or a scowl. It happens.
My e-friend Bill Lucey in Cleveland put the vote in perspective: there have been worse shenanigans in previous Hall of Fame elections.
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So, what’s the big deal, that one fearless sportswriter didn’t cast a vote for Derek Jeter, “Captain Courageous,” to the Hall of Fame.
We're not living in Putin's Russia
• In 1953, Joe DiMaggio was passed over on his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, coming in eighth with 117 votes out of a possible 264. Interestingly, It wouldn’t be until 1955 (his third try) when Joltin Joe’ was finally elected to the Hall of Fame with 223 out of a possible 251 votes.
• Mr. Chicago, Ernie Banks was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 with only 83.81 percent of the vote (321 votes on 383 ballots).
• Jackie Robinson entered the Hall with only 77.5 percent of the vote in 1962 (124 of 160), just 2.5 percent over the required 75 percent for induction. In that same class, Cleveland Indians flame thrower, Bob Feller, “Rapid Robert,” received 150 out of 160 votes, 93.75 percent.
• Willie Mays was snubbed by 23 voters in 1979 (94.68 percent); and a whopping 52 members didn’t think Sandy Koufax was worthy of the Hall, giving the Dodger southpaw 86.87 percent of the vote in 1972.
• “The Splendid Splinter,” Ted Williams received only 282 of 302 votes in 1966, giving him 93.4 percent of the vote.
• 11 writers, if you can imagine that, left Babe Ruth, “The Sultan of Swat’’ off their HOF ballots, giving him 95.13 percent of the vote.
• Hank Aaron, who belted 755 home runs in his celebrated career, earned 97.8 percent of the vote with nine members of the Baseball Writers Association opting not to vote for him on the 1982 Hall of Fame ballot.
• Ty Cobb collected 222 of a possible 226 votes, a 98.2 percentage.
Knowing these greats were far from unanimous, I think we can live with one sports writer, one brave soul, deciding not to vote for the former Yankee Captain.
Source: Baseball Reference
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(Lucey works as a researcher-editor and his passion is writing, often about baseball but also finding fascinating subjects in his home town of Cleveland the way I like to think I do about my home town of NYNY. Check out his web site for a baseball-centric view of the world:)
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I am proud the NYT included two excepts of paeans I wrote about Jeter in their well-deserved coverage of his election in Wednesday's paper. The Times dissected Jeter's alert flip to retire Jeremy Giambi at home plate, which was the source of one of my favorite columns. For those of you who can access the NYT website, here is the link to "Slide, Jeremy, Slide."
I’d like to wax moralistic about the baseball scandal that got a manager and a general manager of a championship team fired on Monday.
I feel cheated because I fell in love with that Houston team three-four years ago, so much talent, so much charisma with Altuve and Springer and seemingly admirable guys like Hinch and Cora and Beltrán.
Now, as a Mets fan, I want to know how this scandal affects their new manager, Carlos Beltrán, but according to the commissioner, you can’t really bust a dugout full of players. (Plus, players have a union.)
So it seems Beltrán will be the manager. Just hide the garbage-pail cans.
So many scandals, so much cheating.
I'll admit, I used to think it was funny when ball players I knew were caught with sandpaper or thumb tacks in their pockets to doctor the ball, or a catcher had a sharp edge on his belt buckle so that the two-out, two-strike pitch would swerve downward, game over.
Then, a generation ago, everybody had new muscles all over them, and players were whacking 50 or 60 or 70 home runs a year. Looks to me like burly, wired pitchers were cheating, too.
Then again, out in the Real World, public figures are lying every time they move their lips, and have reputations for not paying their bills and cheating on their wives, while preachers tell their flocks to vote for them.
Just saying. No names mentioned.
After I absorbed the breaking news of suspensions and subsequent firing of Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, I flipped to the news section of the Times and read a piece by the great Michael Kimmelman. He is one of the jewels of the paper, who has morphed from art critic to covering the social implications of architecture over the world.
As described by Kimmelman, that new playground for the 1 per cent, known as Hudson Yards – Heaven forbid New York should try to house its working class – is trying to slip a two-out, two-strike pitch past the city by building a huge garage on the west side of the playpen for the rich. (Never mind that the city is already choking on cars, and trucks and limos, plus amateurs swerving around on rented bikes.)
The new garage would loom right where a much-needed rail tunnel to the American mainland should be rounding into shape – except that big-mouth Chris Christie blew up the project when he was governor of New Jersey. His one-finger salute to society is surely the first thing on Christie’s lifetime resumé.
Now, like some pitchers I used to know, the builder of Hudson Yards was going to slip one by the public. This little surprise would loom over the High Line, the quirky elevated walkway with the great views that has enhanced the city and even encouraged people to get out and walk. The friendly folks at Hudson Yards were going to pour the concrete and block out the view and explain it all later, as builders do all over New York.
Fortunately, Kimmelman and the NYT got word of this Down near the bottom, he included a quote from a state senator about the builder of Hudson Yards:
“The last thing New Yorkers need is a wall, and from all people, Steve Ross.”
That, Kimmelman dutifully noted, was a reference to Ross’s recent fund-raising efforts for, oh but you guessed it, President Trump.
It is not clear whether our public servants can undo the mischief, the trick pitch, from the Vaseline on the back of Steve Ross’ neck.
Meantime, the Astros will find another manager and general manager, and there will be a baseball season.
No matter who is ingesting what, or stealing what signals, the new season will somehow seem more wholesome than just about anything else going down these days.
It has long been my suspicion that the people who own and run baseball do not actually like the sport.
Otherwise, why would they keep meddling with it, almost as if to drive people away?
From my old-timey point of view, I think the self-destruction got worse with the designated hitter, and continued with a glut of interleague play that has demolished the old September pennant confrontations.
The owners’ documented sins have included collusion on salaries, neglect of the steroid evidence, the noise and gimmick bombardment at games, which generally begin so late (on the East Coast) as to make sure young people never get the flow of the game.
(I could rant about the sterile network blather in the recent World Series, but I won't.)
In recent years, the owners have avoided hints of technological sign-stealing, and have been complicit in the doctored baseballs that their launch-arc “hitters” try to propel prodigious distances, feeling no shame at striking out.
Now it’s even worse. The owners are planning to strangle the ancient network of minor-league teams and leagues in the smaller cities of America. There is currently a plot to demolish 42 teams in places where people can enjoy baseball for, let’s say, five bucks.
The owners, who have feared anti-trust penalties over the years, are ripe for Congressional oversight with this caper, if Congress were functioning, that is.
The owners -- who by the way spend millions and millions on marginal "major-league" players -- are trying to save a few dollars in minimal salaries to hopeful prospects, the vast majority of whom will never get close to a major-league uniform. But the farmhands perform the game with zest and hope, spitting and scratching and posturing for the home fans in generally balmy weather in the ancient ritual of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
The owners have figured it out that the compliant college system is producing prospects, as are the hard barrios of Latin America and baseball-centric Asian nations like Japan and South Korea. So why subsidize these towns “out there” – when in fact it seems these 42 minor-league teams have subsidized our generous owners?
For a glimpse of how it works, the New York Times dispatched one of its very best writers, Dan Barry, to Lexington, Ky., hardly a backwater town. Commissioner Rob Manfred has targeted Lexington and its league to be dropped off, like an elder left at a dog-track, or a litter of kittens given a sporting transfer to the town dump.
One of the principal tasks in the job description of sports commissioners is the shakedown of towns hopeful of keeping, or gaining, a franchise. Like a thug out of “The Sopranos” or a rogue President menacing a vulnerable nation like Ukraine, commissioners go around putting the squeeze on towns to upgrade ballparks in America’s outback.
“Nice little place you got here,” sports commissioners say. “Be a shame if you lost it because you didn’t have better bathrooms or lights or public-address systems” (or bat racks, for goodness’ sakes.)
Now baseball is going to red-line the minor leagues. The “sport” lives on a history of prospects like Babe Ruth pitching and taking his hacks in his home-town minor-league Baltimore, or a skinny kid pitcher named Stan Musial living in a rented room in Williamson, W. Va,, where the Cardinals sent their hordes of desperate (white) prospects during the Depression. Or fans around Lynchburg, Va., who still remember effervescent young Dwight Gooden in 1983, when he was 18 years old, with his 19-4 record and 300 strikeouts.
The legend of the minors is that almost nobody ever makes it to what Kevin Costner’s character calls “The Show” in the immortal “Bull Durham.” (I never heard that phrase until the movie came out.) But in fact, the Mets’ 1983 roster in Lynchburg contains around a dozen players I recognize as having made “The Show,” including skinny young Lenny Dykstra before he got muscles on his muscles one winter.
The minors are part of our American legend. My friend Jerry Rosenthal played two years in the Milwaukee Braves system; I love his tales of talented teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson, the bus rides, the gritty managers, admirable hitting coaches – Dixie Walker! Andy Pafko! Look ‘em up, kids -- and the weekend he outhit a Cub prospect named Lou Brock. (Jerry has the box scores to prove it.)
The minor leagues are the soul of the sport but the owners do not seem to know this. They should cut a few Analytics Types and let baseball people teach the next wave how to make contact (like Jeff McNeil, the professional hitter who embarrassed the Mets last year -- by succeeding.)
The owners have what you might call their own thing; they control the American sport, and are cutting out the fringe people in the heartland.
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(The great Dan Barry, writing from Lexington, Ky.)
(Dwight Gooden’s stats for the summer of ’83.)
It’s not the playoffs. It’s so much more. That’s the only way to think about the championship of Major League Baseball, grandiosely named The World Series.
I love the World Series because it’s been around since 1903, albeit transferred from the sunlight of early October to the televised darkness of late October.
The World Series deserves a sharp mental click of the brain when the league playoffs end and the World Series begins. It’s different. The Washington Nationals and Houston Astros are playing in the same event graced by Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators and Willie Mays of the New York Giants back in other days, when there were two distinct leagues, no playoffs, but two champions playing each other.
Who will be the Country Slaughter of St. Louis racing home with the winning run of the 1946 World Series or Joe Carter winning the 1993 World Series with a walk-off homer for the Toronto Blue Jays? (I still call the 1946 World Series my favorite because it was the first one I noticed, age 7 -- players back from the war, Musial vs. Williams, two grand baseball cities, epic winning run.)
World Series statistics exist in their separate category:
Q: (Courtesy of my friend Hansen Alexander): What team has the best percentage of championships in the World Series? A: why, it’s the Toronto Blue Jays, 2-0, in 1992-93.
Q: Which star is the first pitcher to lose his first five decisions in the World Series? A: As of Wednesday evening, it is the excellent Justin Verlander of Houston. (Not some palooka, but the two-time Cy Young Award winner with grass stains in an unusual place – on his name on the back of his uniform from diving for a dribbler Wednesday.) I heard that gloomy 0-5 statistic and immediately thought of the admirable Don Newcombe of my childhood team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had an 0-4 record in the World Series (all against the Yankees.
The World Series is not merely part of the post-season. Do younger fans make that distinction? Or is it just another long and noisy event in the October TV calendar?
Speaking of TV, I find it hard to watch these four-hour games, particularly with network breathless overkill of stats and story lines, bringing the world up to speed on these two teams. I am geared to the Mets’ TV and radio crews, speaking to knowledgeable home-team fans. To be fair, Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci have journalism credentials, and John Smoltz is an intelligent former star pitcher, but Joe Buck just wears thin, hour by hour by hour.
It’s easy to root if you have a team in the World Series. Otherwise, there is a void. I was inclined to root for Houston – having fallen in love with that team that won the 2017 Series and is mostly intact, with alert and lean players who play the game the right way – and let the homers come as they will. I love Jose Altuve, my favorite non-Met. (Aaron Judge of the Yankees is second. I loved the clip of the two of them talking during the league series – 13 inches’ difference in height.)
Plus, as a Met fan, I have come to think of Washington as an underperforming franchise, firing wise old managers like Dusty Baker and Davey Johnson, with sourpusses like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, but they let Harper walk last winter, and Strasburg seems to have matured, and the Nationals have, finally, jelled.
There is one other factor to following the World Series when your team has long since scattered to the hinterlands – familiar faces.
During Wednesday night’s marathon, I got an e-mail from my friend Bill Wakefield, who pitched for the 1964 Mets. He referred to “your guy,” meaning Asdrubal Cabrera, the wise old head who gave the Mets several seasons of skill and leadership and joyful noise. Cabrera was the one who ritually removed the helmet from the teammate who had just hit a homer. He made everybody better. Then he moved on.
Cabrera was ticked last summer when the Mets did not bring him back for a stretch run, so he signed with the Nationals. He started at second base in the first two games in Houston (where the designated hitter rule is observed) and drove in three runs Wednesday.
Root for “your guy.” Cabrera or Altuve? Either way, these two teams are adding to the lore and emotion and statistics of that very American stand-alone event called, you should pardon the expression, the World Series.
Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the Chicago White Sox’ winning the seventh game of the 1919 World Series.
Ordinarily, winning the seventh game of the Series is the epic triumph, but for a couple of reasons that victory is not being celebrated, anywhere.
1 – In 1919, baseball saw fit to demand five victories rather than the standard four to win the Series, so the owners could make more money out of the underpaid players. In fact, the Sox were trailing, 4 games to 3 at that point.
2 -- Some of the White Sox were doing their level best to lose the Series, for paltry bribes from gamblers. They promptly lost the eighth and final game.
When uncovered, this became the great scandal of baseball – at least until players began using body-building drugs a generation ago, and top officials studiously overlooked the bulging biceps and massive necks of many players.
The 1919 White Sox were soon known as the Black Sox, after eight of them, with varying degrees of guilt, were banned for life by a hangin’ judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The Black Sox mostly vanished, only to be studied in 1963 in a fine book by Eliot Asinof called “Eight Men Out.” The book was the source for one of my favorite sports movies, also “Eight Men Out,” written and produced by John Sayles in 1988.
Every spring, just before opening day, I watch the movie – not so much for the venality of most participants but also for the humanity of a few players in the scandal. John Sayles knows how to make the spectator feel.
He depicts Buck Weaver, the third baseman, as knowing about the scandal but refusing to take money or limit his efforts. Weaver’s silence would be punished as much as if he were fumbling grounders and striking out on purpose.
(If a director wants to create a sympathetic character, there is no better way than to cast John Cusack, which Sayles did. Weaver/Cusack is kind to a newsboy in his neighborhood who worships him, and then has to confront his idol’s banishment. Tears all around.)
Another sympathetic figure is Ed Cicotte, the aging right-hander who has been promised a bonus if he wins 30 – get this, 30 – games by the penurious owner, Charles Comiskey. When Cicotte, with a sore arm, wins only 29, the owner welshes on the promises.
(Again, Sayles stacks the emotional deck by casting his college pal, David Strathairn, whose aching arm is rubbed by his loving wife. Tears for everyone.)
The movie – more than the book – is an age-old treatment of the callous rich cheating the workers, gamblers exploiting the proletariat.
It’s hard to think along class lines these days, when players make millions of dollars per season, and instead of overlooking the alteration of the body by drugs, the leaders of baseball juice up the ball itself.
My favorite part of the movie comes when the eight players realize the gamblers are cheating them, and even the hard-core dumpers decide to take a little October frolic by…why, yes….playing baseball.
The sunlight brightens and the Dixieland band accelerates and the players pitch and hit and field like the great team Charles Comiskey assembled.
I love watching this cinematic tribute to the game itself – players making the double play, smacking home runs, striking out the opposing Reds, like little kids, not plotters.
Perhaps the most innocent of all is the pitcher, Dickey Kerr, 26 and unapproachable, who won the third and sixth game. In later years, this very same Dickey Kerr would manage the Cardinals’ farm team in Florida, and would convert a sore-armed left-hander named Stan Musial into an outfielder because the lad could hit a bit.
(The movie doesn’t say so, but the Kerrs would be godparents to the Musials’ first child, who would be named Richard, and the Musials would help the Kerrs buy a house in their old age.)
One hundred years ago Tuesday, Ed Cicotte, sore arm and all, pitched a complete game and won.
The gamblers apparently reminded lefty Claude Williams to make nice, and he obediently lost the eighth and final game. A year or so later, all eight were out of baseball.
In the centennial season, the scandal seems to have received minimal attention – a SABR research conference in Chicago in late September, some articles in Chicago, often about whether justice was done for the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played quite well in the series but was banished anyway.
Baseball soon had a tighter-wound ball and Babe Ruth “saved” the game with his home runs well into the 30’s.
The moral to the story: when in trouble, tighten up the ball.
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2019; symposium from that great asset, SABR:
Can a season be satisfying if your team doesn’t make the playoffs?
Anybody in uniform will say no, particularly on the last day of the season, when athletes are shedding that uniform for the last time until “next year” – if “next year” ever comes, athletically.
But fans can afford to remember the good times, even as they wish there had been more of them.
My team is going home after Sunday but I will take away memories of Dominic Smith's three-run homer that ended the season with a 7-6 victory in the 11th inning over the Braves, who are going to the post-season.
There were so many moments like this -- Jacob deGrom’s superlative pitching (with shockingly minimal support) and Pete Alonso’s 53rd homer Saturday evening, giving him the most ever by a rookie.
Smith's homer was the perfect way to end a season -- make 'em scream for more. He had missed two months with a foot injury, and spent his time tootling around on a scooter, to take the weight off the mending foot. He was the perfect teammate -- cheering for his mates, including his pal Alonso, who took away Smith's platoon time at first base.
But my biggest cumulative thrill this season was watching Jeff McNeil prove himself as a high-end hitter, despite the mental barricades from the analytics nerds in baseball these days.
Jeff McNeil’s wrist was broken by a pitch Wednesday night, as the Mets were eliminated from the race. .
The wrist will heal, and McNeil has made this a memorable season, in its own bittersweet way.
McNeil finished with 23 homers and a .318 average – and was hit by 21 pitches. With his perfectionism and tossed equipment and grimaces and a major league red ass, he was a latter-day Ron Hunt, an escapee from the minors.
McNeil is a throwback to hitters who hated striking out, who took what the pitcher gave them, and put the ball somewhere. The Mets brain trust was throwing out suggestions that McNeil did not have the proper “launch arc” to be a slugger in these days of the souped-up ball and televised hysteria when sluggers swat the ball over the fence or skip back to the dugout after striking out.
McNeil also played four different positions, switching virtually inning by inning.
The fact is, McNeil might never had gotten a real chance with the Mets if Yoenis Céspedes and Jed Lowrie had been healthy enough to play this season. He might be in the minors, or on some other team. Instead, he put bat to ball, and showed up the stat doofs.
Day after day, the little triangular Jeff McNeil Fan Club was buzzing on my phone – Jerry, my pal who played infield in the minors, saw McNeil as an alter ego, texting me after the latest opposite-field hit or daredevil catch in the corner. Somebody named Dave would text me with similar raves.
Mets fans – like fans everywhere – will look for reasons their team did not make the playoffs. The Mets have one major reason: the bullpen blew 27 saves, three below the league leaders, the Dodgers, who won their division, for goodness’ sakes.
The Mets’ major scapegoat is Edwin Diaz, who has blown seven saves and had a 2-7 won-loss record, although somehow it seems much worse. I cannot summon up any malice toward him. He stunk.
Are they going to bring back Diaz next year? The real question is whether they going to bring back Mickey Callaway, who stayed with Diaz too long, and the reforming agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, who has been taking on-the-job training as general manager? I don’t want to think about it right now.
As a pensioner-geezer, who spent a lot of time watching the Mets, I had misgivings about Robinson Canó but he came back from injuries and was clearly an Asdrubal Cabrera-like leader. Ahmed Rosario improved more than I thought he would. Michael Conforto was earnest and powerful. I liked watching Dominic Smith and Marcus Stroman lead cheers from the top step of the dugout. Wilson Ramos was a liabilty as a catcher but he hit well. Brandon Nimmo still raised his finger to heaven whenever he earned a walk. Seth Lugo was solid in the bullpen.
Right now, there is no next year. Thanks to those Mets who made this year enjoyable, if not often enough.
* * *
(My concept of “wait til next year” comes from the old Brooklyn Dodger annual motto. I remember a sermon by Red Barber, the Brooklyn Dodgers preacher-broadcaster, on the last day of 1950, when I was a tyke. The Dodgers had hoped to tie the Phillies, but Dick Sisler hit a 3-run homer in the 10th and ended the season for The Bums. Barber, on the radio, talked fans like me out of deep mourning by reminding us that you can’t win ‘em all. How did that work out? The next year, the Dodgers’ season was ended by Bobby Thomson of the Giants, in the classic final playoff game.)
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(Let’s give Major League Baseball some respect for the most restricted playoffs – MLB calls it “the post-season” – of any major pro league in North America. The WNBA allows 67% of its teams into the playoffs. The NBA and NHL democratically admit 53%, MLS 52%, and the NFL us 38%
But MLB is a relatively exclusive 33% -- 10 of 30 teams, with two wild-card spots in both leagues keeping marginal teams like the Mets in the hunt until the final Wednesday, making for tense games in September.)
I was busy working on something else when I heard about Alvin Jackson Monday, so I kept going, with a heavy heart. Then I received emails from three pals, one an old ball player from Brooklyn saying, “From what I know, he was a class guy,” and one e-friend from West Virginia saying, “He sounds like a fine fellow,” and one pal at the Times, saying “I’m sure you knew him.”
Yes, I knew Alvin Jackson from April of 1962, knew him from games he won and games he lost, and I also knew him as a wide receiver in touch football. True.
You can read the lovely obit in the Times and learn a lot of the details of his life:
I was a young sportswriter in 1962, first year I traveled. Jackson was a steady pitcher on a team that lost 120 of 160 games. Casey liked him for himself and also because Casey, who was childless, was proud of the Mets' considerable number of "university men," many of them pitchers.
By Casey's standards, Jackson was a university man, but Jackson could also keep the ball low and he never lost his poise. When we interviewed Alvin after losses, he kept it inside, which I attributed it to the caution of a black man from Waco, Tex., who has learned not to show too much of himself. He also had occasional whooping laugh that he allowed to escape.
We never got serious about much, but on Aug. 28, 1963, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech from the Mall in Washington, on the TV in my hotel room in Pittsburgh, and when I went down to catch the team bus to the ball park, I got into a conversation with Alvin and Jesse Gonder, the catcher, and Maury Allen of the (good old) New York Post. We agreed that something momentous had happened that day and I felt we all had gotten a glimpse of the others’ heart.
Alvin was living on Long Island in the off-season, and one of my colleagues at Newsday mentioned that we played touch football once or twice a week at a park in Hempstead. Jackson and most players had the same economic level as reporters, so sometimes he worked at a winter job, but most game days he showed up, ready for a run, ready to break a sweat.
In 1963, another Met, Larry Bearnarth, who was living nearby, joined the game.
They got their tension during the season. What they wanted was a workout. They never big-timed us, tried to call plays or ask for the ball. Joe Donnelly, who had a great arm, and I, who had no arm at all, were usually the quarterbacks. Let me say, it was a trip to be in a mini-huddle, calling a play involving somebody who pitched in the major leagues.
I think Alvin and Larry were in the game on Nov. 22, 1963, when the fiancée of one of the players came running across the parking lot and delivered the terrible news. We all just went home.
By 1964 Alvin was a club elder:
"Wonderful gentleman," Bill Wakefield, a very useful pitcher on that squad, wrote to me in an e-mail. "He was very nice to me. Treated me (a rookie) like I was a veteran of the original Mets vintage. Great smile and laugh! Good pitcher. Not overpowering stuff, but knew how to pitch. Good guy."
Jackson pitched one of the most masterful games of that first Mets era on the final Friday of the season, in St. Louis: He shut out the Cardinals, who were fighting for the pennant, by a 1-0 score, bringing the chill of winter into the city, but the Cardinals survived on the final day.
As Alvin’s career dwindled, he moved on, and then he was a pitching instructor for various organizations, including the Mets in later years. When we ran into each other, he was cordial; not all ball players remember your face. Once in a while, I would see him and make the motion of a quarterback throwing long, and he would give his whooping laugh, not needing to add, “as if you could.”
He stayed on Long Island a long time. I never knew that his wife, Nadine, a lovely presence, was the chairwoman of a business department in a Suffolk high school. I just knew they were a dignified couple -- a university man and woman.
Alvin Jackson brought dignity and discipline that rubbed off on teammates, on reporters in the locker room, and even on fans who could tell, from a distance, that he was indeed a very nice guy.
(I wrote the following Mets/Democrats piece before the horrors of last weekend, and the ensuing hypocrisy in a country that cannot deal with the proliferation of weapons of war, in the hands of racists, surely touched off by the president. Is there room or excuse for musing about reality-show "debates" and a baseball team?)
* * *
I am a Mets fan and I am a Democrat.
I believe these masochistic traits are linked.
The Mets, as I typed this, were on a seven-game winning streak. I was not fooled. This will not go anywhere. The rock will fall down the hill. On our heads. And indeed, they got whacked Friday night in Pittsburgh.
The Democrats are currently not on any kind of winning streak. You saw it.
Both loyalties involve short Dionysian moments of glory and long Appollonian decades of suffering.
In other words, the 1969 Mets were John F. Kennedy and the 1986 Mets were Barack Obama.
This temporary joy goes way back. In the first year of the Mets, 1962, a pitcher named Jay Hook, great guy, pitched a good game and likened it to picking cherries – some are sour, but then you bite into a sweet cherry, and that keeps you going.
In the years to follow, the Mets discarded Nolan Ryan and Amos Otis and Tom Seaver and Justin Turner. They once traded Len Dykstra and Roger McDowell for a mope named Juan Samuel.
At the moment, the Mets are being run by a reforming agent and a former pitching coach. Somehow management avoided the Metsian impulse to blow it all up and start over. At the trading deadline, they kept their good pitchers and have won seven straight. I do not expect it to last.
I was prepared to suffer with the Mets by a childhood rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed Jackie Robinson in 1947. They did the right thing.
I was also raised to believe the Democrats tried to take care of people. They did the right thing.
Now the Dems are trying to find a candidate who can beat The Worst Person in the World. They paraded 20 candidates on stage on Tuesday and Wednesday, like some laboratory experiment involving small furry animals, who immediately set upon each other with teeth and claws.
The worst thing was watching some young wannabes whacking away at old Joe Biden, fair enough, but then linking it to the Obama regime, which I found offensive and self-defeating.
I could not tell how much of that act was posturing and how much was real. It was horrible to watch, but I watched, because…because….I am also a Mets fan. I know how to suffer.
Okay, it was summer TV fare. You know how icky summer TV is. It did not count. It did not happen. (I was relieved to see that the entire country – everybody! – reacts to Mayor de Blasio the way New Yorkers do.)
My main reaction to this summer reality show is that I like Mayor Pete (“He ain’t failed yet,” as Casey Stengel used to say about The Youth of America, that is, young hopefuls) and that Elizabeth Warren is the most knowledgeable and most passionate candidate. She is 70 and has the energy of a 45-year-old. She is from Oklahoma and has experienced deprivation.
And as somebody wrote in a letter to the NYT today, if Trump stalks Warren on stage the way he did to Hillary Clinton, Warren has the street smarts, the sense of self, to point to his corner of the stage and say, “Down, boy,” or worse.
But one thing I have learned in a life of noble causes: stuff happens.
New York City will clean up the tickertape from the parade for the soccer champions on Wednesday. But who will clean up the Mets?
This is the lament of a Mets fan facing the dog days of summer – jealous as hell about the Yankees’ talented young players starting with that nice Aaron Judge, but not able to switch allegiances.
For a Mets’ fan, what is there? More than half the major-league teams stink, either through ineptitude or lack of money, and the Mets would seem to suffer from both.
They are now going to divest themselves of some players who were supposed to be part of a contending team this season. Now begins the ugly dance of summer for bad franchises – when players get sent away.
The Mets’ TV caught Zack Wheeler skulking in a corner of the dugout the other day, and the knowing commentary was that he might be making his last start as a Met last Sunday (which turned out to be a stinker, surprise, surprise.)
So what does a fan have left? As a Mets fan in my certified old age, I go on line daily to read the New York Post’s fine sports section to find out what is happening with the Mets.
But some things a fan can figure out for oneself. The closest thing to “fun” for the rest of this season could be Jeff McNeil winning the batting title He is currently leading the league with .349, despite the Mets’ brain trust having hoped he would be crowded off the roster by opening day.
If Jed Lowrie – 35 years old, career average .262 – had not suffered some kind of lingering injury (it really doesn’t matter), my feeling is the Mets would have been playing him ahead of McNeil. Even so, McNeil has been banished from his best defensive position, second base, currently deeded to the ghost of Robinson Canó, trying to come back after a suspension for a performance-enhancing drug.
McNeil’s skills are throwbacks to another era – that is to say, Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs, hitters who knew how to stroke a pitched ball to a vacant patch of fair territory. This conflicts with the analytics promoted by techies in a dark room somewhere in New Shea Stadium. Launch Arc! The techies insist. And the Mets’ management seems to go along.
The general manager is a reforming agent named Brodie Van Wagenen, who apparently tossed a chair to demonstrate his manly-man qualities during a post-game tirade with his coaching staff. And the manager is Mickey Callaway, emphatically not from this franchise, who makes me appreciate, more every day, the old-school style of Terry Collins.
What do Mets’ fans have?
The Post’s Joel Sherman praises management for allowing Pete Alonso to make the team on opening day rather than tying him up in the minors to keep a legal hold on him for another season. Alonso won the home-run derby and drove in two runs in the All-Star Game and has 30 homers this season. Sherman compares Alonso’s run with Jeremy Lin’s short, furious spurt with the Knicks a few years ago. He calls Alonso “a rose floating in sewage.”
Jacob DeGrom is looking more and more grim as he faces years of pitching six great innings and watching the bullpen blow it.
And Jeff McNeil, reviving an unwanted art, is hitting it where they ain’t, as Wee Willie Keeler exemplified more than a century ago.
The Mets also have Gary, Keith and Ron in the TV booth. Their informed excellence makes it hard for me to watch network baseball.
That’s it. The dog days.
Where have you gone, Megan Rapinoe?
The 1960 Hofstra College baseball team had the best record in school history – 16 victories, 3 losses, winning the league championship.
However, the school did not participate in the NCAA regionals that year because of final exams.
Because of final exams. That’s what I said. They were my friends and I felt their pain, then and now.
You know what old Brooklyn Dodger fans (like me) used to say every fall? Wait til next year! For Hofstra, this was Next Year. But the athletic department somehow could not arrange for the players to take their exams and play in the regionals, something schools do regularly in these electronic days.
Stuart Rabinowitz, the current president of Hofstra University, told the audience that if he had been president back then, he would have fired somebody.
On Monday night, the school did right by the baseball team.
Eight old players were present as the team was inducted into the Hofstra Athletic Hall of Fame.
The bureaucratic bungling, 59 years ago, capped off a year of frustration for our great sports teams. The football team went 9-0 but was not invited to a bowl game. The basketball team went 23-1 but was not invited to a tournament.
These players won the Met Conference, a great league of local rivals like Manhattan, NYU, Brooklyn, CCNY, Wagner and St. John’s.
For three years I was the student publicist, traveling with the team on the silver Campus Coach charters, sitting on the bench in civilian clothes, sometimes yapping at the other team or the umps. Our biggest rivals, our major tormentor, St. John’s, acknowledged this lowly scorekeeper with the taunt: “Shut up, Pencil!”
The coach was Jack Smith, who had held the football and basketball programs together during WWII – and was still coaching baseball during our time. The players mimicked his New England accent, his old-timey ways, his expressions like “Son, son, you’re eating yourself out of the league.” But Mr. Smith loved the game.
In 1960 I was hired full-time by Newsday and had other assignments that spring. What I missed! This team did not lack for stars. Five players made the Met Conference all-star team:Lefty Dennis D’Oca had a 9-0 record with an earned-run average of 1.84 – one of the best in the country.
Ed Burfeindt was a smooth center fielder, known for timely hits.
Jerry Rosenthal took a pitch over the eye in 1958 – I saw it, it was horrible -- but he willed himself back into the batter’s box in summer ball and was a graceful shortstop, good enough to later play in the Milwaukee Braves farm system. (I love Jerry’s stories about how he batted for Rico Carty or outhit Lou Brock one week.)
George Dempster was the football captain and the star catcher on this team, providing leadership as well as skill.
Brant Alyea was a starting forward in basketball and a pitcher and slugging outfielder. The scouts were sitting in their camp chairs behind home plate, taking notes – and Brant would play five years in the major leagues under famous managers Ted Williams, Billy Martin, Dick Williams.
Tiny Bill Stetson probably could have made that all-conference starting team, for his stolen bases – 20 in 19 games. Regulars like Jim Sharkey and Dan Gwydir and Arne Moi were often the stars. John Canzanella could pitch and hit. Bill Martin and John Ayres pitched valiantly. Andy Muccillo and Jack Hildebrandt were backups.
Another reserve, Tony Major, who became an actor and maker of documentaries, planned to be at the induction Monday but in late May he passed suddenly, and we miss him badly.
As Hofstra held its annual induction at a golf course on Long Island, the old players were still sad at the way their season was truncated in 1960, but their lives and careers are testimony to the education they earned.
The president back then was a Shakespearean scholar, John Cranford Adams, not known as a sports fan. While my guys were having their great college careers, Dr. Adams also attracted Francis Ford Coppola, Lainie Kazan, Susan Sullivan and Madeline Kahn to the stage -- and the classroom.
A lot of my guys sat out games, or semesters, or even seasons, because of grades or discipline. These people had to be student-athletes in the real sense.
My pals, old basketball and baseball players (and one scorekeeper) who meet for lunch occasionally, still feel close to Hofstra because of the friendship of basketball coach Joe Mihalich and baseball coach John Russo (who put up with our ancient tales of "Butch" and "Smitty.")
We could not miss the high level of the other inductees Monday – several loyal members of the athletic department, as well as three thoughtful and charismatic stars: Trevor Dimmie, a powerful running back before football was dropped, now a teacher and a minister in Westchester; Sue Weber Alber, three-time defensive soccer player of the year in her conference; and Shellane Ogoshi, a tiny and dynamic volleyball setter who sported the leis of her native Hawaii.
The prepared video introductions demonstrated their leadership, their moves. There were no women’s sports at Hofstra in our time; we missed something by not having the company of such proud and accomplished competitors.
The final inductee was Jay Wright, who has won two NCAA titles at Villanova since moving from Hofstra. Wright greeted his school friends, his old Rockville Centre neighbors, brought along a contingent of Villanova folks, and talked lovingly about his days at Hofstra. He draws people together.
My pals have been hurting ever since that bittersweet spring of 1960. On Monday evening they heard the applause of hundreds of supporters.
No NCAA tournament? They won. They won.
My Buckner/Mookie column is back in The New York Times today, nearly 33 years after I wrote it….and rewrote it….in a manic press box on a hectic Sunday morning.
Poor Bill Buckner has passed at 69 and the Times paid him the honor of an obituary by Daniel E. Slotnik and a salute by Tyler Kepner and the NYT also resurrected my column through the glories of digital memory.
Having my column back “in print” is also an honor, bringing back memories of that crazy World Series. It recalls a time before the Web when papers had flotillas of sports columnists who were expected to be at major events and be able to type fast, with instant wisdom, for the next deadline for readers who would wonder what daily columnists like Daley or Lipsyte or Smith or Anderson or Berkow (later Rhoden, Araton, Roberts) thought.
This is, as I like to call it, ancient history.*
It seems like yesterday, that Saturday night in the press box. I had written a column for the early Sunday paper (in fact, the bulk of the print run) based on my meandering through New England on Friday, after the fifth game in Boston. My “early” column was written to make sense, no matter what transpired in the game late Saturday night. I was not predicting, merely musing.
So I wrote about how, with a 3-2 lead, the Boston sports radio was squawking and gargling and screaming including how Bill Buckner’s ankles were shot and manager John McNamara should get Dave Stapleton in for defense – tortured Cassandras who saw the truth about to fall on their heads.
I wrote my early column about Boston’s feeling of doom, even with a lead in the Series. I tied it to lingering Calvinist New England gloom, and the historically unfortunate sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918, but at no point in my column did I refer to any “Curse of the Bambino.”
The Red Sox had a lead on Saturday night and I can still see their players edging up the dugout steps, eager to celebrate, and the scoreboard briefly showed a message of congratulations to the visitors, but then the flower pot of history fell off the upper-story window ledge onto Boston’s head and, the assembled journalists commenced pecking away on our rudimentary computers, rewriting whatever we had written about Boston finally exorcising the ghosts of failures past.-xx
Now there was a new failure. The great Dave Anderson compared the Mookie/Buckner moment to Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run off Ralph Branca – Dave knew those guys.
I wrote the version in the NYT today and then a dozen or so Times reporters began breathing again.
A novice news reporter, in the press box to help out, remarked that he was impressed by how fast we had rewritten our stories. Joe Vecchione, our sports editor who was supervising us in the press box, drily said (sounding like Clint Eastwood in the subsequent movie “The Unforgiven”) “We do it every day, kid.”
And you know what? We did do it every day, kid. It was a different world, including journalistically.
The seventh game was postponed when the miasma of rain settled over New York, but the teams resumed Monday night and the Mets rallied (people forget that) to beat the Sox to win the World Series and the legion of Times reporters wrapped it up. The headline on my column was “Babe Ruth Curse Strikes Again.”
Please note: I am not that smart or inventive to pull that concept out of the dank air. Over the decades, people had laid the failures by the Sox upon the sale of Ruth. In October of 1986, this was not new news, was not instant insight.
Eighteen years later, my esteemed colleague Dan Shaughnessy, wrote a book about various Red Sox failures (including Bucky Freaking Dent and Aaron Freaking Boone.) The title was “The Curse of the Bambino,” and the phrase is all Dan’s.
How The Sox have become overlords of the American League is a 21st-Century story of talented ownership, management and players. The club stages magnificent ceremonies to honor the past, even the failures.
Bill Buckner was a gracious and familiar presence at baseball gatherings, as the obituary and Kepner’s column describe. The rising tide of Red Sox success floated Buckner’s rowboat. He deserved more decades, more salutes, as a superb player who had a bad moment.
*- Talk about ancient history. Sports Illustrated was just sold to some other company. It was once a giant that advanced marvelous writing and reporter. I gave up my subscription soon after I retired in 2011 -- didn’t even know it had gone biweekly.
xx- A day or so later, the great Vin Scully -- who had just made the marvelous call of the final play as heard in the video above -- was quoted as saying he had been surprised to hear New York sportswriters cheering in the press box. With all due respect, we were not cheering; we were gasping – oy! – at the Mookie-Buckner turn of events, and how we now had to re-write our earlier gems, which were poised to go out to the waiting world.
(Deconstructing the legend of "The Curse.")
As a rabid fan of only one team – in all sports – I admit I find a perverse pleasure in watching the Mets suffer with Jeff McNeil in the lineup.
This poor franchise has tried hard to marginalize him but in their drunk-stumbling-across-Queens-Boulevard-safely manner, they are stuck with him on the daily batting card.
As of Saturday morning, this late bloomer was batting .363 for the wobbly Mets. They keep stocking infielders and outfielders – Jed Lowrie's fabled arrival seems to be delayed; he’s never hit .300 in his life – while McNeil keeps defying the launch-arc wisdom that the stat wizards in the back room have foisted on managers and players.
The Mets showed a glimmer of hope early in the season when some of the hitters seemed to be listening to the old-school batting coach, Chili Davis, who told them it was really physically possible to flick the bat and make contact with the ball and put it where the fielders ain't (homage to Wee Willie Keeler. Look him up, kids.)
Lately the lads have been locked into their launch-arc stroke but McNeil keeps putting the ball in play in Wee-Willie territory.
The other day, Howie Rose, the Queens boy who has been calling games on the radio for centuries now, was rhapsodizing about McNeil, saying – on the air! – that McNeil is a “throwback” who is more of a credit to the real game than the launch-arc flailers. Good on Howie.
McNeil took a long time to make it through the Mets’ farm system. That happens. But when a guy hits .329 in 63 games in 2018, does he have to be treated like a supersub deep into the new season?
Not only that, but my friend Jerry, who played second base in the minors, tells me that McNeil was quite fine at second base late last season. Then the Mets got Robinson Cano, after his juiced-up years.
Maybe the Mets are still evolving under the strange combination of Brodie Van Wagonen, the reforming agent learning the general manager business, and Mickey Callaway, who comes off in New York as The New Art Howe. (I miss Terry Collins.)
Bear in mind, I am not around the team, don’t know the people or the gossip, but I watch and listen to a lot of Mets games and occasionally look at the web or read the tabloids so I can find the daily news on the Mets. This is essentially a fan’s rant.
Keep slapping the ball where they ain’t, Jeff McNeil.
All championships are miracles, somewhere, if you think about it.
Even if a team assembles a lineup full of Galácticos and runs away with a championship, it seems like a miracle for that time, that place, those athletes, those fans.
But here in New York, the Greatest Little Town in the World, we know that our miracles are bigger and better, more stupendous than any other miracles, just because.
Take 1969 – precisely 50 years ago, when the Amazing Mets won everything, which is why there is a year-long (more, in the planning) of celebrations and evocations and memorials, to say nothing of a one-event boom in the publishing industry, just as there was in 1970.
I have just read – and enjoyed -- two of the lunar tide of books cresting this spring.
One is “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History,” by Wayne Coffey.
See what I mean about New York being the center of the universe?
Coffey’s book is delightful because it replays the surprising surge by a franchise known for its goofy, even charming, failures. (Casey Stengel! Marvelous Marv! Bedsheet banners!)
Coffey also catalogues how the Mets firmed up before our unbelieving eyes under the talents and Marine steeliness of manager Gil Hodges and franchise superstar Tom Seaver. Some reporters (me) never believed it until Cleon Jones caught the last out and went to one knee in what only could be construed as prayer.
But….the very best part of Coffey’s book is the work he did nearly half a century after the fans stopped ripping up the Shea lawn for souvenirs. Coffey, it turns out, was a schoolboy playing hooky, in that scrum, on that day of days. Later he became a good and versatile reporter for The New York Daily News. Now he writes books…and works at them.
I loved, absolutely loved, catching up with people I knew half a century ago. Coffey discloses a previous link between Hodges and the mid-season acquisition, Donn Clendenon, who has posthumously become a more vital part of those Mets. Also, Coffey discloses that Clendenon was mentored at Morehouse College by a graduate named Martin Luther King, Jr., and was often a guest in the King home.
By 1969, Clendenon was also a salty vet who hit the Met clubhouse motor-mouthing, heckling everybody, the way the 60s Pirates had done. He told Gil Hodges, Jr., the teen-age son of the manager, to man up and defy his Marine dad. Gilly was wise enough to tell Clendenon: no way.
Coffey pays attention to the bigger picture – Karl Eberhardt, the self-proclaimed Little Old Signmaker in the stands, and Jane Jarvis, the hip jazz musician who played the Shea organ with wit and talent, and two batboys from my high school (the late, lamented Jamaica High) who were mentored by Joe Austin, Mario Cuomo’s legendary amateur coach.
With Shakespearean breadth, Coffey describes the major players and also the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the Amazing Mets. Yes, it was a miracle.
The other book I have read is “Here’s the Catch: a Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More.” If the book sounds like Rocky, earnestly thundering to epic catches and humiliating gaffes, that is because he has been writing it on his own for a while. He describes himself as an average-IQ human and middle-of-the-pack major leaguer but his curiosity and zest have made him much more, over the years.
Rocky, going on 75 and vibrant, tells about departed teammates and soul mates like Tug McGraw and Ed Charles and Tommie Agee – guys with whom he competed and talked and drank and ate ribs and gallivanted.
Having known him since he was a teen-ager in Met camp in 1965, I know Rocky to be an autodidact (one year of being a jock in college) who often demonstrates his eclectic tastes. He follows the music of the Marsalis Family of his adopted home of New Orleans, and he also mentions classical music…and the Globe Theatre of Shakespearean time….and Jackson Pollock…and Monet….and Don DeLillo and so on. He means it. That is Rocky.
Maybe the best part of Swoboda’s book is growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore – relatives with tempers and guns and wit and opinions, two of them working in the morgue, pulling gory pranks on cops. Then there was the family flasher. Plus, the Chinese cook his earthy grandmother married, who smoked and drank and drove erratically and taught him how to make and eat Chinese food.
Swoboda writes about his lovely redheaded wife, Cecilia, and how Casey and Edna Stengel, childless, fussed over the Swobodas’ first-born, and his active scorn for the Vietnam War and the instant rapport when he visited the troops over there, very close to combat.
He laments behaving like a jackass toward Hodges, who was not just resolute with big hands but also a wily manager. All sports memoirs should be this earnest, this real.
On my incoming table are books by Art Shamsky about 1969, plus Ron Darling’s book, mostly about 1986, which was, of course, another miracle.
They all are, but some are more miraculous than others.
The Old Man.
I found myself thinking about The Old Man Friday night – how Casey Stengel always talked about The Youth of America, which was on its way, in 1962 and 1963 and 1964 and 1965 before he broke his hip, and time ran out on his gig, creating the New York Mets.
Casey would talk about young players as if they were the raffish hitch-hikers of the time, all gone to look for America, with live arms and fast feet and power and eyesight to “hit the ball over a building.”
For every young hopeful who put on a uniform, Casey indulged in wishful thinking that he would be ready to play for the Amazing (But Horrible) Mets.
“They ain’t failed yet,” Casey would say.
Ed Kranepool (above) was one of the first, a New York kid who signed and played a bit in the Mets’ first season, and turned out quite well. But dozens of the Youth of America never got to the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium. Then, in 1969, Gil Hodges managed Seaver and Koosman and Ryan and all the others who won the improbable World Series, which we will celebrate all season.
Full of memories of that infant season, I watched Chris Hayes on MSNBC Friday evening, hosting a “town hall” of sorts, starring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from New York. She is smart and idealistic and impertinent and disarmingly candid, allowing as how the voters might “kick me out in two years.”
AOC – as she is now known – talked up the Green New Deal, which combines ecology with medical care with economic parity. (I recently heard her say that, at 29, she had gained health insurance for the first time when she was sworn into Congress in January.)
When prodded on Friday, she could be realistic about picking the right battles first. She also told some lout in the audience who had heckled another speaker that his words were “unacceptable.”
In that moment of truth, she channeled John McCain rather than the seedy bully temporarily soiling the office of the Presidency.
AOC is the Youth of America. So is Rep. Katie Porter, a freshman from Orange County, Cal. They both have distinguished themselves by being prepared in committee hearings, by asking questions. (Porter is a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Does it show?)
Reps. Porter and Ocasio-Cortez came to Congress unspoiled, able to put together 5-minute skeins of questions, backed up with research and logic and direction. They have not acquired the bad habits of mossbunkers of both parties, who waste their 5 minutes by talking about themselves.
Check out Rep. Ocasio-Cortez as she probed the great new American truth-teller Michael Cohen about the business practices of his former mentor and protector, Donald Trump.
Check out Rep. Porter as she probes the head of Equifax, like the prosecutor she used to be. The guy undoubtedly makes a ton of money for making tons of money for his shareholders, but about 15 seconds into the questioning he got the look of a lazy-minded fish that has bit into the wrong morsel.
For the past two years, we have watched inarticulate and servile slugs like Rep. Devin Nunes doing Trump’s dirty business. Now smart young women have arrived in Congress. They may strike out a lot. They may not last. But right now they are outplaying the sloppy old veterans.
They ain’t failed yet.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning architecture expert, writing about ballparks, past and present?
What a way to start the season.
An advance copy of Paul Goldberger's book, “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City,” to be published by Knopf in May, kept me sane through certain other events in the past week. I learned about ballparks I had never seen, and I learned about ballparks I have loved, or not loved.
Ballparks are quirky, just like ballgames. Each one – at least now that the Cookie-Cutter Era is over – has its own human follies, like the alternating Sun Deck/Moon Deck at the funky (and vastly under-rated, Goldberger tells us) Crosley Field in Cincinnati.
Goldberger, who has graced The New York Times and the New Yorker with his perceptions, says David Remnick, the sports maven who runs The New Yorker, encouraged him to write about the two very different new ballparks in New York in 2009.
This forthcoming book follows the new Yankee Stadium in the “theme park” category and the erratic jumble of references and conceits of the Mets’ ball park, known to me as New Shea.
He manages to give us a primer on urban architecture – how baseball thrived in the 19th Century when new urban dwellers appreciated the rus in urbe of a green spot in a smoky city.
This is not your normal baseball book, not with Goldberger praising urban planners like Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted – my wife’s master’s degree paper -- who dedicated Central Park to leisure and beauty rather than sports. (The softball fields sneaked in later.)
Goldberger follows the urban ballparks that grew bigger, moved from wood to stone and steel, some even having a clue about architecture.
My greatest takeaway from this book is praise for the beauty of Ebbets Field, created by an architect, Clarence Randall Van Buskirk, who had to hide the blueprints in his jacket to keep Brooklynites from sussing out the land grab in a hilly section known as Pigtown.
We Dodger fans had a boisterous inferiority complex, and we compensated with weirdos who played musical instruments wretchedly and spoke in a language called Brooklynese.
Turns out, Goldberger said, Ebbets Field featured “arches and pilasters and large, Federal-style double-hung windows with multiple square panes. There were concrete gargoyles and bas-relief medallions of baseballs, showing a degree of wit…”
He adds that “if Van Buskirk’s well-crafted, carefully wrought façade resembled anything, it was a cross between a civic building and a handsome, turn-of-the-century factory building. In this factory, the ornamental detail made it clear that the product was baseball.”
Who knew? We thought it was a lovable dump.
Goldberger also praises the rather majestic and urbane Shibe Park, later Connie Mack Stadium, in North Philadelphia. I must have covered 100 games there, and never noticed. Goldberger loves the funkiness of Cincinnati, with its 4-foot-high hill in left field, and spacious Forbes Field amidst the museums and campuses of the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. He has good things to say about Tiger Stadium (which I never noticed) and praises the two icons, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, with all the hexes of the teams and the fans. He speaks of a “golden age” of stadiums.
He is not as complimentary of the next stage – utilitarian, lookalike stadiums designed for the incompatible baseball and American football -- but praises the following stage, epitomized by Baltimore’s Camden Yards, with the factory behind right field.
Goldberger sounds downright dubious about the current trend, the Disneyfied faux urban gestures in downtown St. Louis and the new Braves complex, somewhere out there in the white ‘burbs, beyond the minimal Marta train system. Action. Reaction. Just like life, and history.
I was already killing time 'til the opening of the season, and now Goldberger’s book has raised my appreciation for (some of) the ballparks of North America. I haven’t found reason lately to visit the pretentious Yankeeland in the Bronx but I have made a few forays, admittedly closer to home, to the food courts and open spaces behind center field, with fish sandwiches and sausages—even if you can’t see the center fielder making a catch against the wall. Nothing’s perfect, and certainly not the Mets.
I’m looking forward to ballgames – plus paying more attention to ballparks, thanks to the master architecture critic, Paul Goldberger. Play ball.
Do you have a favorite ballpark, or one you couldn't stand, whether past or present?
* * *
About the book:
Here are two pieces I wrote for the excellent NYC real-estate site:
Two thoughts about Ichiro Suzuki, who just retired:
1. I can only speculate what would happen today if a player with similar skills arrived from Japan to the so-called Major Leagues. He might be turned over to the analytics types in their bat cave, who would "suggest" he could have more “pop” if only he had a better “launch arc.”
The numbers guy might see him produce long balls in batting practice – which he could do, any time – and insist he do the same during games.
The analytics crowd is currently retrofitting the new generation of hitters. I see how the Mets are doing their best to minimize Jeff McNeil, a late bloomer who made 74 hits and batted .329 in his debut last season, making him scramble for a utility job in the outfield.
Of course, Ichiro arrived in Seattle with the statistics of the greatest hit-producer in Japanese history. He also had the martial discipline of Sadaharu Oh, the greatest home-run producer in baseball history, who took time out to swing a Samurai sword to help him with his home-run cut.
Ichiro and Oh could do that because they had the security of a culture that prizes ritual and history.
Ichiro arrived in North America with his climate-control bat case and his pre-game snack of a rice ball. He was going to do things his way, and he had the advantage of a Japanese ownership with the Mariners. Nobody messed with him. He was already a force.
But young American hitters are hearing the “wisdom” of the age that is turning Major League Baseball into a dreary home-run derby, hard to watch, with players trudging impassively back from home plate with the secure knowledge they took their launch-angle cut, on orders from on high.
2. Ichiro was a force of his own, who would not have won a popularity contest in the clubhouse or the press box. He got along well with Ken Griffey, who traveled to Tokyo for Ichiro’s farewell -- superstars bonding via their respect for the game.
However, teammates noticed he never dived for a ball in the outfield and noticed his special care and handling in the clubhouse. He could speak street English in the dugout but maintained a reserve through an interpreter with reporters and other outsiders.
From the book "Life from the Press Box" by long-time Mariners beat reporter Jim Street:
“From the day Ichiro arrived from Japan, to the day I retired, he was exceedingly rude to American reporters, whether giving snide answers to good questions or making fun of ---‘s girth. I had one Japanese reporter tell me, ‘If you think he’s rude to you guys, he treats us even worse.’”
That said, Ichiro was a spectacle, to be observed and respected as one of a kind. His arm, his glove, his calculated speed on the base paths, his batting-practice homers and his gametime singles made him a legend.
Fans around the world got to see him excel at the highest level. And the launch-crowd types never got to mess with his swing. There’s that.
Three stories about Ichiro:
Two daughters who adored their fathers.
Julia Ruth Stevens died Saturday at 102. She was the adopted daughter of Babe Ruth and, as long as she lived, referred to him as “Daddy,” as Richard Goldstein notes in his masterful obituary.
Dan Jenkins, one of greatest sportswriters, died Thursday at 90. He was eulogized by many admirers in his business, the best coming from, of course, his daughter, Sally Jenkins, sports columnist at the Washington Post.
Sally, terrific writer that she is, described the hectic and eccentric life of a sports columnist who was usually at a golf tournament or football game when the family gathered for Thanksgiving and other holidays.
Her dad was as glib about the indignities of old age as he was about golfers who mis-read the terrain of the course. Sally tells about her dad wheeling himself down the hallway of the hospital heading toward a presumed quadruple heart bypass.
When he emerged, he was told he had needed only a triple.
"I birdied the bypass," he pronounced.
That’s it. I’m not going to try to duplicate the Jenkins family, father or daughter. Read Sally’s tribute to her dad. The Washington Post has a pretty strong paywall, bless its heart, but you might be able to read it there, or the Chicago Tribune. Or pay for it.
Plus, Bruce Weber’s excellent obit in the NYT:
Babe Ruth’s daughter also receives a brilliant tribute in the Monday NYT. She was the daughter of Babe’s wife, Clare Hodgson, and was adopted and treated royally, as a daughter by the gregarious, larger-than-life Babe.
No doubt she witnessed, and heard about, examples of Babe’s excesses, even after he stopped playing. As subtle as a diplomat, she discussed “Daddy” as she saw him – a man who made egg-and-salami sandwiches and took her golfing out in Queens. And when she started dating, he insisted she be home by midnight. Imagine: The Babe. Enforcing a curfew.
They lived on the Upper West Side, in a 14-room apartment; whenever I am in that neighborhood I envision The Babe, with a cap on his head, walking on Riverside Drive or thereabouts, just another West Side burgher.
She was an ambassador not only for “Daddy” but for baseball itself, waving to adoring crowds at the closing of “The House That Ruth Built,” waving to adoring crowds at Fenway Park, where The Babe first pitched shutouts and hit home runs.
When my alma mater, Hofstra University, held an academic conference on The Babe in 1995, she and her son, Tom Stevens, represented the Babe and gave out Babe Ruth bats to a few lucky people, including me.
But that’s enough from me.
Better you should read Richard Goldstein’s obituary of Mrs. Stevens:
Much has been made – deservedly – about what Don Newcombe accomplished on the field but much less has been written about how he saved lives.
Newcombe, who died this week at 92, put himself out there, as the rugged face of beating back addiction, day by day. He was one of the first public figures to talk about addiction – before Betty Ford, before other prominent people.
Newk was at his most formidable around the Los Angeles Dodgers, his old team. He was the Dodgers’ “director of community relations,” which meant he spoke about race and addiction and good citizenship, offering himself as a prime example, how he had wrecked his career as a pitcher (and pinch-hitter deluxe), by drinking. He gave testimony of how he had gone sober, on his knees, promising his wife he would never drink again.
The amazing thing about this tough guy is that he did it by himself – just stopped. Most alcoholics rely on daily reinforcement, the meetings, the written word, the prayer to a higher power. Newk just stopped. This guy was so tough, he would not take gas or injections at the dentist, to deaden the pain.
He never went to a rehab center, never went to AA meetings for himself, but he did not recommend that path for anybody else. He told other people that rehab worked, and that they should seek it, and sometimes he accompanied them right into the center.
He also stalked players, or at least they thought he did. My friend Bob Welch was having blackouts at 23, destroying a promising pitching career, and his life, during the 1979 season. When I helped him write his book about rehab – “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle With Alcoholism,” Bob told me how he hated Newcombe, was sure Newk was stalking him.
And maybe Newk was. A big man, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, with a prominent jaw and nose making him even more formidable, Newk had the run of the ball park. He wore elegant suits and snappy straw fedoras and would wander through the clubhouse, chatting with people. He was hearing how Bob had passed out in public, how the Dodgers had sent somebody to get him into his hotel room.
At the end of the 1979 season, the Dodgers had a program with a major sponsor, and staged an intervention with Bob, and got him to The Meadows in Arizona.
Bob came back and pitched for more than a decade and won the Cy Young Award with Oakland; he was sober when he passed suddenly in 2014.
Newk was also there for Maury Wills when his life was crumbling and for Lou Johnson, the heart of the 1965-6 team, who came to the Dodgers for help. Newk said: “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Newk made public speeches, represented the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and other outfits dealing with addiction.
In between, he spoke about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, his teammates and would-be mentors in Brooklyn. He told of the night that Robinson got weary of the black hotel in St. Louis with no air conditioning, and said, that’s it, I’m checking in at the Chase, with the white Dodgers, and did just that.
Jackie and Campy died young; Newk carried their flames; he did it his way, as the song goes.
In 1987, just before the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, Al Campanis, the Dodger general manager (who was my friend), made some foolish and meandering statements about how black players lacked the “necessities” to be managers.
This was a chance to say, well, racism is everywhere, you never know about people, but Newk knew Al Campanis, knew how Al had taught Robinson to play second base in the minors in 1946, knew that Al hung out with Latino scouts at the ballpark.
During the uproar, Mike Francesa and Christopher Russo interviewed Newk on WFAN radio. and Newk said Campanis was no racist, he just bumbled a bit, and he labelled the end of Al’s career a “tragedy.” Newk was loyal to the truth as he knew it.
In recent years, whenever I thought of the Los Angeles Dodgers, my last link to Brooklyn was the big man in the elegant suits who had the run of Dodger Stadium. Newk was a staple on old-timers’ day and other days of remembrance but he was as courant as the latest celebrity caught abusing one thing or the other.
We have lost a good one.
* * *
Richard Goldstein’s obituary on Newk:
Newk and Lou Johnson:
Newk and Maury Wills and others:
Newk’s stats: check out the batting average and the home runs. The Dodgers usually have good hitting pitchers – the real baseball, none of this DH foolishness:
Another view of Newk’s work with the Dodgers:
Now the Mets have Jacob DeGrom's former agent working as a general manager, negotiating DeGrom's contract -- with an imposed deadline of opening day. What could go wrong, in a franchise that let Tom Seaver get away?
But at least many of the Mets were in Florida on Monday, stretching and throwing, scratching and spitting, doing what ball players do. We survive vicariously.
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
---"Here Comes the Sun," lyrics by George Harrison, from "Abbey Road," 1969.
Say, what happened that year?
Mets, 1962-63: Ralph Kiner, a star slugger in my youth, was now an amiable broadcaster with the horrid new team in New York. One time in a press room or team bus, Kiner was asked about the great players in the National League in that time – Aaron, Banks, Clemente, Mays, Frank Robinson. He was positive about them all, but added that in the clutch, Robinson could find more intensity, more extra bits of talent, to beat you.
Orioles, 1966: Robinson, traded by the Reds because he was “an old 30,” sparked the Orioles in their first World Series to a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But that wasn’t the most impressive thing. In the Orioles’ clubhouse, the fringe players swigged Champagne and careened around the clubhouse, dousing anybody and everybody – except: In a dry corner, Frank Robinson was talking to the press. He spotted the lead sprayer, a big and boisterous pitcher, who had not appeared in the Series, and held up one index finger – and the reserve skidded to a halt like a cartoon character. Robinson waved the index finger as if to say, “Good boy,” and remained dry, very dry.
Cleveland, 1977: The first black manager became the first black manager to get fired, as Joe Jares wrote in Sports Illustrated. The job was offered to Jeff Torborg, the former catcher and now a coach, but out of loyalty Jeff did not want to replace Robinson. As I have heard it, Robinson told Torborg, and I paraphrase, “Are you out of your freaking mind? That’s the way baseball works. It’s your job. Take it.” And Torborg did.
San Francisco, 1981-84: Robinson got another managing job with the Giants, and I caught up with him at some point, maybe in the visiting dugout at Shea Stadium. Managers still sat around the dugout, pre-game, and talked baseball with reporters. (Few electronics; no instant social-media madness. I call them the good old days.) Musing about great baseball accomplishments, Robinson said that the statistic that floored him most was Joe DiMaggio’s career ratio of home runs (361) to strikeouts (369). I just looked it up: Robinson’s career ratio was 586 homers to 1532 strikeouts, so he was speaking with huge respect and humility. Of course, nowadays, our launch-arc lads are flailing away with total permission from the analytics types in the front office. I would have liked to hear him on that.
New York, 2019: I have a baseball-savvy lawyer friend in a major baseball town, who grew up in Dayton, just up the road from Cincinnati. He remembers the day the Reds traded Robinson, and, to this day, blames the DeWitt family, which owned the Reds back then. The DeWitt family (admirable baseball people, take it from me) now owns the Cardinals, and my friend, true to his Reds boyhood, roots against any DeWitt team, because they traded Frank Robinson because – oh, you remember – he was “an old 30.”
When I was a little kid, my father used to bring home baseball record books from the newspaper office, including photos of the first class of five players elected to the Hall of Fame.
How stodgy and old-fashioned they looked in old photos – faces and bodies and uniforms that seemed clunky by “modern” standards of 1946 and 1947.
Yet there they were, the first “immortals” – chosen in 1936 for the emerging Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.
I saw Cobb and Ruth at the first Old-Timers Game in Yankee Stadium at the end of 1947; Ruth was dying, in his camel’s-hair coat, his voice crackling on the primitive public-address system.
He was an immortal, but he was most surely mortal.
In 1947, we were also living in a time of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial – and Jackie Robinson. More immortals. When I saw them play, did I stop to study them carefully, so I would have an engraved memory of their swing, their mannerisms? Nah. Not smart enough.
We live in the moment, but I was minimally wise enough, as a young sportswriter in the ‘60s, to know I was in the presence of immortals -- Koufax and Gibson, as good as it gets; Mays and Clemente and Aaron and Frank Robinson.
And when I was around the New York Yankees from 1995 to 2013, it was a privilege to watch Mariano Rivera break off that cutter that was equal-opportunity unhittable. He dominated in a modest way, no gestures, no celebrating, because, as he often says, he “respects the game.”
I must add, it was also a privilege to watch Jeter and Williams and Posada and Pettitte, year after year; they soothed the ancient sting of my Yankee-tormented childhood as a Brooklyn Dodger fan. How could I hate a team that had those guys?
I recently met a rabbi on Long Island who raved about a trip he had taken to Israel in the company of the evangelical Christian Mariano Rivera.
I am sure Rivera’s rabbinical admirer is celebrating today, as Rivera has become the first baseball immortal to be elected unanimously. Considerating the cranks and crackpots and purists in my colleagues, this is huge.
I did not have the same surety about Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina (NYT writers are not allowed to vote for awards, and I follow those rules in retirement.) The voters have confirmed Halladay and Mussina as Hall of Fame pitchers, so congratulations.
And did you see Tyler Kepner’s absorbing insider explanation of what Rivera taught Halladay about the cutter? It would cost Rivera a few bucks in a clubhouse kangaroo courthouse.
In Rivera’s first season, 1995, I got to watch one of the best post-season series ever played, a best-of-five division thriller between the emerging Yankees and what seemed to be the emerging Seattle Mariners.
The difference in that series was Edgar Martinez, a designated hitter at the peak of his game. He was unspectacular in demeanor but dominant in hitting a ball.
Just before the fifth and final game, I wrote an “early” column – for the first national edition – quoting Reginald Martinez Jackson, Yankee star and by then Yankee advisor, raving about Edgar Martinez, no relation. Reggie’s raves are best read in context of my revised column, after Martinez had clubbed the Mariners into the next round:
Do I think of Edgar Martinez the way I think of Ruth, or Mays, or Koufax, or Rivera? No, but there are four or five levels of Hall of Fame players. I hate the designated-hitter rule; it has led to the current plague of launch-arc/strikeout flailers. But Edgar was not a launch-arc guy. Read how Reggie dissected his professional swings in that marvelous 1995 division series.
I cannot hold being a designated hitter against Martinez; he played where they told him to play. Designated hitters gotta live, too.
I remember Edgar dominating an epic series, sending Junior Griffey sliding home with a joyous cat-in-the-hat smile,
(Think Buck Showalter ever wonders why the Yanks did not activate young Derek Jeter for the post-season….or why Buck did not keep young Mariano Rivera on the mound after getting two outs?)
That epic coastal series was the time of Edgar Martinez, not Mariano Rivera. Now they go into the Hall together.
Like Johnson, like Mathewson, like Wagner, like Cobb, like the Babe himself – by definition, tightly monitored by baseball fans and players and officials and voters: immortals, all.
There are web sites with the 10 worst Mets trades, the 15 worst Mets trades.
Plenty of space for new ones in the vast reaches of the Web.
We think of the talent this franchise has let get away – Nolan Ryan. Amos Otis. Roger McDowell and Lenny Dykstra.
In their sketchy past, the Mets have gotten expensive and over-the-hill talent like George Foster, Jason Bay and Bobby Bonilla, to say nothing of Juan Samuel for McDowell and Dykstra.
We won’t know where this trade fits until the Mets, maybe, who knows, happen to have a lead in the ninth inning and Edwin Diaz remains the excellent save guy he was in Seattle.
I don’t expect much from Robinson Canó. He is 36 years old, comes with a five-year contract for $100-million.
“And I’ll give you one guess who Canó’s agent is, or was,” a Mets fan in my neighborhood texted me. (Same guy who, in 1989, called home from college and all he could rasp was, “It stinks. It just stinks.” I didn’t have to ask, “Who is this?” or what it was about – the Samuel trade, of course.)
Cano’s previous agent, Brodie Van Wagenen is now the general manager of the Mets. What ever happened to the great Jeff Sessions move of recusing himself?
As for Canó, he was an engaging young guy with the Yankees – named for Jackie Robinson by his dad, alert eyes, nice personality. But he missed 80 games with the Mariners last year after testing positive, which throws his power numbers under huge suspicion.
“But Cano might have something left,” wrote Tyler Kepner in the Times on Monday, adding: “He batted .317 in 41 games after returning from his suspension, and hitting is just what he does.”
Tyler is not a pushover, and neither is he overly droll. This is his judgment, and I am noting it, with great respect.
Plus, it’s nice to know the Mets have $100-million to spend on a 36-year-old post-suspension hitter. Maybe the Madoff Years are over.
But there is something else about acquiring Canó. Last year the Mets brought up Jeff McNeil, a late-blooming second baseman who had learned traditional baseball skills in the minors and proceeded to hit .329 in 225 at-bats with the Mets – with seven steals and three homers.
“And he’s a good defensive second baseman,” says a friend of mine who played two years at that position in the minors.
McNeil will be 27 next April. Oh, he is making around the major-league minimum salary. Did I mention that?
By making these moves, the Mets are showing they are mired in the generation of the launch arc – the identical swing in the same damn groove that sends most hitters back to the dugout regularly, with blank looks that say, Well, I did what they want. I took my hacks.
Right. Jacob DeGrom merely won a Cy Young Award by tricking the launch-arc pigeons, pitching up, up, up, inning after inning.
* * *
The Mets roster will continue to change. Jay Bruce was a mensch, a gamer, in his two stints with the Mets. Thanks, man.
As for the young talent, think Nolan Ryan.
Meanwhile, Wilmer Flores has been released. That is baseball, defensible. Wilmer does not have enough power to make up for defensive mediocrity, nor does he have what the broadcasters like to call “foot speed.” Who didn’t cringe when that indecisive third-base coach meditated in real time over whether to send Wilmer? Don’t Do It! we screamed.
Wilmer is a sweet guy, you can see that from the top row. He cried the first time they tried to trade him, now part of Mets lore.
Let’s pause for a chorus of: Don’t Cry for Me, Wilmer Flores.
The moral to the release of Wilmer is: don’t get too attached to charismatic Mets icons wearing No. 4.
Forget about old Dodgers Charlie Neal and Duke Snider in the first two years. Later icons, Ron Swoboda and Rusty Staub and Lenny Dykstra, all beloved, all wearing No. 4, were sent away.
The Mets would have traded Mel Ott (No. 4) of the New York Giants.
The Mets would have traded Lou Gehrig (No. 4) of the New York Yankees.
Wilmer should look at it that way.
Now they are spending $100-million for Robinson Canó, age 36.
As we say in New York, Oy!
We were watching MSNBC Friday evening, when they segued into quickie telephone tributes for George H.W. Bush, followed by Lester Holt narrating the prepared tribute.
One of the film clips was of a little boy in a back-yard rundown, lovingly getting tagged out by the right, gloved hand of an elder, presumably the Bushes we now know as 43 and 41.
It was so sweet, people playing the American game with great big smiles and sweeping tags.
Mister, I’m a baseball man--Ry Cooder.
My conduit to President Bush, the baseball man, came via Curt Smith, a speechwriter during the Reagan-Bush years, who in 1989 invited a gaggle of sportswriters and broadcasters to the White House for a baseball schmooze-fest. I wrote about the President’s glove in his desk drawer.
When I heard about President Bush’s passing, I immediately thought of Curt Smith, and his admiration for his former boss.
It is well known that President George H.W. Walker was a crier. Wept easily. Smith once told how he was assigned to write a speech for the visit to Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attack that kicked off the Pacific war on Dec. 7, 1941.
On Saturday I asked Curt for his recollections of No. 41 – and the speech. This is what Curt Smith wrote back:
Bush truly loved the game: played, coached it in Texas, mentored players, captained his team at Yale. He made the first two College World Series in 1947-48. He accepted Babe Ruth’s copy of the Babe’s memoir in 1948 as Yale’s captain as Ruth was dying of cancer. He coached all four of his sons in Little League. He took Queen Elizabeth to a baseball game, staged a great event at the White House to honor Williams and DiMaggio on the 50th anniversary of their magical 1941, invited Musial and Yastrzemski to the White House as he prepared to go to Poland to, among other things, christen Little League Baseball there, on and on and on. He and I talked baseball, he had my Voices of The Game at Camp David. Our first meeting he told me, “I’d rather quote Yogi Berra than Thomas Jefferson,” and meant it. He knew more Berraisms than I did!
Pearl Harbor evolved from the fact that I generally did “values, inspiration, patriotic” speeches for Bush. I had always read a lot about World War II and was very conversant with Bush’s role in the War. I knew of his great modesty. As I kid he hit a couple homers once. His mother Dorothy eyed him and, referencing the grand Protestant hymn, said, “Now, George, none of this ‘How Great Thou Art’ business.”
Bush was naturally self-effacing and deferential, two of the reasons he drew people toward him. He hated to use the word I in speeches. Try writing speeches that way! In any event, our speech staff was constantly frustrated at how the country didn’t know the Bush we did—because of Bush’s dignity, innate reserve, feeling that the President should set an example. (What a concept!)
I wanted the country to see the man that we did. In talking with the President, I tried to subtly make this point. Bush, on the other hand, had been 17 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a Sunday. He had friends who had died. He had gone next day, a Monday, and tried to enlist. The draft board said, in essence. “Sonny, you’re too young. Come back when you’re 18.” He did, enlisting the day he turned 18.
Bush, at heart a very sentimental, emotional man—a softie, as he and we knew: again, a reason so many of us loved him — was concerned he would not get through the speech. “I don’t want to break down,” he said. I didn’t tell him I wanted him to break down: that would have been unseemly. I did say that “This will be a chance for you to talk about an event that will show the Nation the kind of person you are.”
As things turned out, he didn’t break down, but did choke up; his voice faltered; he was clearly moved. In retrospect, Bush, who almost to the end was unsure whether he could give the speech, was very glad that he did. And in the next 25 years, as a former President, the country came to see almost precisely Bush as we had—sentimental, giving, kind, funny, patriotic—one terrific person.
(With great thanks to Curt Smith)
Curt did not include this Pearl Harbor story in his terrific recent book, “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House,” published by the University of Nebraska Press. Bush, a .251 hitter at Yale, was surely the best player and biggest fan of all presidents who have tossed out ceremonial baseballs on opening day.
They were baseball people, the Bushes, part of the carriage trade that made the New York Giants the elite team of the big city. George Herbert Walker, Jr., uncle of the future No. 41, owned a piece of the Mets, starting in 1962 – a clubby gent who, as I recall, was fine with sportswriters calling him “Herbie.” They were easy to be around, the Bushes.
I was lucky enough to meet No. 41 twice, both in baseball settings. I wrote about my second meeting when Barbara Bush passed last May:
However, I did not get as close to No. 41 as my boyhood pal, Angus Phillips, did for the Washington Post. Invited to a dawn fishing trip on the Potomac, Angus reported to the White House a few minutes early and somehow was ushered into the living quarters where he discovered the leader of the free world padding around a hallway, clearly just out of bed. Angus’s classic tale of the visit…and the fishing….is included here:
George H.W. Bush was the last World War Two veteran to serve as president.
He kept his old George McQuinn mitt in his desk drawer in the White House.
Whatever else he was, he was a softie. And a baseball man.
* * *
The New York Times also prepared a magnificent spread on No. 41:
My friend Jerry Rosenthal was in his first spring training in 1961, being switched from shortstop to second base.
The coaches were swatting grounders during infield practice, concentrating on the double play with a bunch of strangers, trying to claw their way up the Milwaukee Braves’ farm system.
“I was figuring out the steps on my own,” Rosenthal recalls. Get to the base. Turn. Throw to first.
The stranger on line behind Jerry offered his critique: Jerry did not know jack about making the double play, and was going to get killed.
“You’ve got to cheat toward the base,” Ron Hunt told him, while executing his own double-play pivot. “Plant your foot and throw the ball.”
Jerry remembers the stranger as “very acerbic, but not mean spirited.”
It should be noted that the year before at Cedar Rapids, Hunt had batted .191 and committed 37 errors in 121 games. However, he offered advice -- even to a rival.
Hunt also delighted in patrolling the sparse training clubhouse, pulling adhesive tape off the bodies of teammates, but not in a mean way, Jerry Rosenthal adds. (An all-conference shortstop at Hofstra who came back from being hit by a pitch near the eye, Jerry played two years in the minors, admiring teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson and opponents like Lou Brock, and later taught school in Brooklyn, and is great company for his love of the game.)
Ron Hunt became the Mets’ first young star – scrappy and opinionated, the epitome of The Youth of America that Casey Stengel swore was in the pipeline.
Hunt was in the news the other day, in a lovely article and video from Ken Davidoff in the New York Post, detailing how Hunt, now 77, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, quite possibly the toll from being hit by 243 pitches in a 12-year major-league career, and throwing his body around in the field and sliding into bases.
Right here, you could switch over to Davidoff’s depiction of a grouchy but idealistic baseball lifer, now suffering:
I first met Ron Hunt in spring training of 1963 He had inched forward in the Braves’ system and the Mets had drafted him out of AA ball.
In those days, rookies were discouraged from being brash. Show us something, kid. Based in funky St. Petersburg – long before the move to eternally desolate Port St. Lucie -- the Mets played exhibitions on the Gulf Coast and inland Florida. Rookies got to ride the bus, so Hunt was designated for a game in Sarasota. I had already discovered that he was a blunt and willing talker, with opinions on anything.
Pitching for the White Sox was Herb Score, whose career had been disrupted by a line drive that hit him alongside the eye in 1957. Score was trying to hang on. After the game, I asked Hunt how Score looked to him.
“He don’t have shit,” Hunt told me. “He’s just cunny-thumbing the ball up there” – an old baseball expression for a junkballer.
The rook surely did not hold anything back. And he was right. Herb Score never pitched in the majors again. Three weeks later, Hunt jumped ahead of five or six other second baseman to open the season for the Mets, and he became a fixture, first with the Mets, later with four other teams. The Mets enjoyed him, called him “Bad Body” for the way he slouched and slumped his way around, infuriating rivals by getting hit by pitches, sliding hard into bases, bunting with two strikes, and other anti-social acts.
In the age of the Launch Angle, I must add that Hunt was the antithesis of today’s model player, who swings from his butt, every pitch, trying to propel a home run. Hunt hit only 39 homers in 12 seasons and today would surely be scorned by the analytics experts hunched in front of their computers. The Mets have a second baseman named Jeff McNeil who batted .329 in 63 games as a late-blooming rookie last season, and the last I heard the Mets don’t sound convinced he should be a major-league regular. I’d like to hear Ron Hunt’s take on that.
Hunt has opinions on everything. For a decade or two, he ran a baseball program in the St. Louis area, his own funds, his own rules, trying to make tough kids even tougher, while he also ran his farm.
Ken Davidoff catches him perfectly. Ron Hunt, with a nasty condition, sounds just like the opinionated teammate Jerry Rosenthal met in 1961 and I met in 1963. May he have a testy opinion about his illness, and tell it where to go.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: