In her final days at home, Marie DeBenedettis propped herself in the kitchen of the fabled family delicatessen – Mama’s of Corona, Queens – and devoted herself to teaching her kid sister, Irene, how to cook.
Not an easy task, Irene would say. The three sisters had their roles. Carmela Lamorgese was now La Nonna, Grandma, caring for her own family after years of helping run the business. Marie was the chef. Irene had taught school and now her job was to “run around and talk a lot” – that is, coordinate the deli and their awesome throwback pastry shop two doors down.
It revolved around Marie – the sweetest person I have ever hugged, optimistic and positive, but a taskmaster in the kitchen as she tried to impart her knowledge to Irene and a few assistants.
“One day she said to me, ‘Irene, basil, lots of basil in everything, that’s what makes it taste so good.’”
So, that is the secret of life on 104th St. – the reason the tomato sauce, the daily specials, all taste so good.
Irene was trying, knowing their sister was not well, could not easily budge from her perch in the cramped kitchen.
I dropped into the deli in late spring and asked Marie how her protégé was doing.
“All right,” Marie said.
“She’s tough on me and the girls,” Irene said later. “She wants us to know everything.”
The time came for Marie to go to the hospital a month or so ago.
One night Irene counted 17 workers -- younger women with roots in the Bari area of Italy and Latinas from Corona – visiting Marie in a group.
“I didn’t know she had that many people working here,” Irene said.
One of the workers told Irene, “She keeps saying ‘cavatelli, cavatelli’” -- small pasta shells often stuffed with garlic and broccoli or broccoli rabe.
Irene deduced that Marie was reminding the assistant to prepare cavatelli for the regulars who would expect it on Thursday.
“She knew who liked what,” Irene told me the other day at the wake. “She would see somebody coming in the door and she would tell the girls to prepare an egg-and-sausage hero.”
All that love, all that skill that was Marie DeBenedettis passed away on Sept. 4. The funeral was held on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The Mets, a mile away, where Mama’s has an outlet, held a moment of silence before a game last weekend, via Jay Horwitz, PR man and loyal keeper of the Met flame. David Wright, the captain, dropped into Mama’s to offer his condolences. The prince of Corona, Omar Minaya, who introduced me to Mama’s in 2006, is back where he belongs -- with the Mets.
(My first visit with Omar – here.)
Mama’s is a family place – new neighbors speaking Spanish, Italian and English, old neighbors who moved away but come back for mozzarella and cannoli, and a steady clientele from the FDNY, the NYPD, the schools and churches and seminaries, and assistant district attorneys from nearby Kew Gardens. (Mama’s is the safest place in Queens.)
The institution will go on. Mama’s is officially named Leo’s Latticini, for Frank and Irene Leo, who began the dynasty in the 1930s. “Mama” was their daughter, Nancy, who ran the store with her husband, Frank DeBenedettis. Nancy, who passed in 2009, was such a force in the traditional Italian neighborhood that the public school up 104th St. has been named in her honor.
(Please see the lovely article by Lisa Colangelo in that civic treasure, the Daily News:)
The family tradition continues. Carmela's daughter is known as Little Marie....and
she and her husband, Fiore Difeo, named their first-born Gina Marie, followed by Anthony and Dominic.
Mama's has reminded me that I am a Queens boy. I have introduced friends and family to Mama’s, watched World Cup matches (featuring Italy), chatting with my friend Oronzo Lamorgese, Carmela’s husband, as a guest in the private dining room behind the pasticceria – lavish plates, prepared by Marie and staff.
I am sure Marie was as good a teacher as she was a cook. Mama's goes on, with basil. My love and condolences to La Famiglia.
Out of morbid fascination, I peeked at the Mets Friday night.
Much better I should have stayed with the news from the Manafort trial – his wardrobe, his cars, his crooked accountant, his toady work for oligarchs on both sides of the Atlantic. Manafort is going away.
Poor Jacob DeGrom; he should go away, too – but to a ball club on which somebody other than the pitcher can drive in runs. He deserves it. He has turned 30 and his club has no hope, no foreseeable future.
The other day I wrote the foolscap below, hoping the Mets could keep a facsimile of a major-league pitching staff. But watching this great competitor add to his league-leading earned-run average (1.85) but with a 5-7 won-lost record, I realized he has earned time off for good behavior.
With the money they save on his salary, they could sign six or eight other washed-up position players, since they don’t have enough right now.
Have a fun weekend, with the Yanks and Red Sox acting like the ‘70s.
(my previous screed:)
I confess, I was relieved when the Mets did nothing heinous on trading deadline. For Mets fans, this is a plus.
I always get morose about rumors of Mets trades, particularly for pitchers.
There are so many original sins in Mets history that I have stopped counting.
I still hear the voice of my 19-year-old son on the phone, over a certain 1989 trade that will live in infamy. (see below)
“It stinks,” the voice said. “It just stinks.”
Never mind the great deals by Sandy Alderson that got them to the World Series in 2015. Mets fans just shudder at various trade and waiver and salary-dump deadlines.
I was already depressed at the selloffs of Jeurys Familia and Asdúbal Cabrera in the past week. Familia pitched his heart out for the Mets and Cabrera was one of the most professional and social players the Mets have ever had. He was a pleasure to watch. I will mourn him the rest of the season.
I thought I might be mourning Jacob DeGrom. His once-laughing face has hardened into the stoic mask of a good soldier, but he still jokes with his pitcher pals on the bench. The Mets never hit for him. I won’t blame him if he forces his way out after the season. I can’t stand to watch his games any more – Sisyphus with shorn locks. Then his own teammates roll the rock down on him.
So when the front-office troika held on to the four Mets starters, for the moment, I relaxed and decided I could live with the horrors of the rest of this season. There’s always Weeping Wilmer, el hombre de la gente.
Then they lost, 25-4, on Monday. My Mets-text pals Pete W and Brad W and David V all decided that the two-game series would be decided by cumulative scores, like some Champions League soccer playoff. Our sluggers could overcome 25-4, we decided. In fact, they lost, 5-3, on Tuesday.
It’s all part of the Met-fan psyche. Nothing lasts for long. The Gil Hodges era. Doc and Darryl. Yoenis Cespedes’ heels. Curtis Granderson, one of the best people ever to play in Flushing. Enjoy the day. Things fall apart.
One moment you are enjoying Asdrúbal Cabrera, totally into his hitting and his positioning, with his positive impact on his teammates and even opponents, lifting the helmet off the head of Granderson after a home run. Now they are both gone.
The Mets ….to put it simply…are the meaning of life.
* * *
(Just a few horrors, off the top of my head.)
Dec. 10, 1971: Mets trade young Nolan Ryan.
June 15, 1977: Mets trade in-prime Tom Seaver.
June 19, 1989: Mets trade Roger McDowell – and LennyDykstra – for Juan Samuel.
Aug. 27, 1992: Mets trade in-prime David Cone for Jeff Kent in a new-age salary dump.
(Below: Eternal Met slugger with glorious launch arc but no contact.)
In my retirement freedom of being able to root for a team, I found myself cowering under the covers, expressing the new Mets-fan mantra of “Please, not him.”
This was my version of the Friday night horror show, watching Matt Harvey trudge in from the bullpen for a session of morale-building – at the fans’ expense, at the cost of my delayed sleep.
Finally, in advanced age, I am getting to feel what fans around the world experience when the soccer manager posts an obviously irrational lineup or the basketball coach stubbornly sticks with a shooter who has clearly lost the touch.
Fan screams at TV screen….or car radio….or distant figure in stadium: “Please, not that one.”
The Mets – the only club I root for, in any sport – are currently stuck with a former star who has lost it physically and apparently psychically. Harvey was a creature of the media and the fans and himself, who celebrated him as The Dark Knight, a figure out of an action movie or a comic book. He broke some club rules, was seen around town at odd times, and then committed the worst infraction of all: he got hurt.
The new manager, Mickey Callaway, has been preaching accountability, no more star system, and when the post-surgical Harvey failed in his share of starts, Callaway sent him to the bullpen. The Dark Knight insisted he was just starting to get the feel, and he displayed his unhappiness by glowering in what is normally a place of congeniality.
That leads us to Friday night in San Diego, when Jacob DeGrom pitched his third straight masterful start and left with a 5-0 lead in the eighth. In the ninth, Manager Feelgood sent in Harvey as Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen politely noted on tv that a five-run lead is not exactly a lock these days. They could have added, particularly with Jeurys Familia in a slump.
Boom, somebody hit a leadoff homer. Harvey was barely reaching the 90s – with his fastball. He looked lost, and the broadcasters noted it, low key, as Familia warmed up in a hurry. But Harvey got out of it, and DeGrom and the Mets had a victory.
There’s not much the Mets can do with Harvey, who is a free agent at the end of the year, and can decline a trip to the minors, from what I read. But I would like to propose the new manager refrain from character-building for the erstwhile Dark Knight.
May I say: Mopups are when you are behind – way behind.
My advice dispensed into the night air, I could pursue the fitful sleep of the Mets fan, any fan.
Catering to the Thumb Generation (of which I am a fringe member), Major League Baseball disappeared a game from television on Wednesday.
The business that still charmingly thinks of itself as The National Pastime has a new partnership with the dippy kid in the gray t-shirt, Mark Zuckerberg.
I think that means all information on Mets Nation -- all we scruffy, gauche losers who root for one miracle every generation – is now in the hands of Comrade Vladimir in the Kremlin.
Facebook was already chums with something called Cambridge Analytica which seems to have been in cahoots with various apparatchiks during the 2016 election including the possible next national security advisor, Mad Dog Bolton.
Baseball is letting the t-shirt guy put the occasional major-league game on Facebook so people can like or dislike what transpires on the field. The price for one MLB game a week is $30-million for the season – that’s what matters, isn’t it?
In real life, it’s not that hard to tell if baseball fans like or dislike something. Just the other day, Giancarlo Stanton struck out five times in his Yankee Stadium debut and Yankee fans faithfully gave him something called a Bronx Cheer.
Schnooky old baseball managed to distract from Wednesday’s Mets-Phillies game in Queens. James Wagner of the Times appropriately wrote an entire sagacious article about the t-shirt guy’s coup rather than the Mets’ bullpen or the clutch hit. (Tyler Kepner did write a column about the game itself.)
What with all the teeth-gnashing about baseball’s sellout, it seemed the game itself vanished into the dark hole of likes and dislikes.
Not true. I caught most of that game on this strange medium called radio.
The Mets’ game was on WOR – 710 on the AM dial – described by Howie Rose and Josh Lewin. Rose, aware the game had vanished from the tube, offered the observation, “I think radio is here to stay.”
Home-town fans get used to their TV and radio broadcasters. When the national broadcast pre-empts a Met game, I opt for radio. Mets fans don’t need national drop-in experts telling them stuff they already know.
Plus, the sellout by #ShamelessMLB on Wednesday meant that Mets-TV addicts were forever deprived of possible weird dialogues such as the one that ensued during Thursday’s game in Washington, with Gary Cohen monitoring the banter between old teammates from 1986, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling.
Darling to Hernandez on Good Old SNY: Were you this funny when we played together? You’re pretty funny.
Cohen: He was the Prince of Darkness back then.
That's what Mets fans expect – not twiddling of thumbs.
At least the t-shirt guy hasn’t sold all of baseball to Cambridge Analytica. (Memo to Mark Zuckerberg: when you are hauled into Congress next week, go find a suit. Play dressup.)
* * *
Speaking of Queens and baseball, my friend-the-writer, Rabbi Mendel Horowitz, has written about following baseball in Israel during Passover: Enjoy:
Ed Charles played only 279 games for the Mets but he touched New Yorkers – really, everybody who met him – with his humanity.
This was apparent on Monday at a farewell celebration of Charles in Queens, his adopted home borough. People told stories about him, and I kept thinking of all the ways, Zelig-like, he popped back into my life.
His 1969 Miracle Mets teammate Art Shamsky told how he and Charles and Catfish Hunter and Jack Aker were making an appearance at a boy’s camp “up near Canada somewhere” and how Ed Charles drove – “one mile below the speed limit, always. Ed never went fast. That’s why they called him The Glider.” When they finally got there, the players elected Ed to speak first to the campers. After 45 poignant minutes, Shamsky said they had learned never to let that charismatic man speak first.
Everybody smiled when they talked about Charles, who died last Thursday at 84. His long-time companion, Lavonnie Brinkley, and Ed’s daughter-in-law, Tomika Charles, gave gracious talks, and his son, Edwin Douglas Charles, Jr., made us smile with his tale of playing pool with his dad, and how the old third baseman never let up, in any game.
A retired city police officer alluded to Ed’s decade as a city social worker with PINS – People in Need of Supervision – and how Ed reached them. People talked about barbecues and ball games and fantasy camps with Ed, how it was always fun.
As sports friends and real-life friends at the funeral home talked about Ed’s long and accomplished life, I thought about how we connected over the years, in the tricky dance between reporter and subject.
---The first time was between games of a day-nighter in Kansas City, on my first long road trip covering the Yankees for Newsday, August of 1962. Old New York reporters were schmoozing in the office of Hank Bauer, the jut-jawed ex-Yankee and ex-Marine with two Purple Hearts from Okinawa.
Ed Charles, a 29-year-old rookie – kept in the minors because of race and bad luck – came to consult the manager, maybe about whether he was good to go in the second game. I watched Bauer’s face, once described as resembling a clenched fist, softening into a smile. “Bauer likes this guy,” I thought to myself. “He respects him.” (I looked it up: Ed went 7-for-12 with a homer in that four-game series.)
--- We met in 1967 when the Mets brought him in to replace Ken Boyer at third base. During batting practice in the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor ball park, Ed summoned me onto the field, behind third base, shielding me with his glove and his athletic reflexes.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the erratic hops on the rock-hard "turf" -- one low, one high, a torment for anybody guarding the hot corner. I must have stayed beside him for 15 minutes and nobody ran me off. I have never been on a field during practice since. That was Ed Charles. Easy does it.
--- We had a reporter-athlete friendship, but there are always gradations. During a weekend series in glorious mid-summer Montreal in 1969, somehow there were three VIP tickets for a Joan Baez concert. I went to a brasserie with Joe Gergen of Newsday and Ed Charles and then we saw the concert, with Baez singing about love, and the Vietnam War.
--- The Mets won the World Series and Ed went into orbit near the mound, but then he was released, his career over, with a promotions job with the Mets gone over a $5,000 dispute in moving expenses. But I was walking near Tin Pan Alley in midtown in 1970 and there was Ed, working for Buddah (correct spelling for that company) Records. He was destined for Big Town. He later had some ups and downs in business but patched things up with the Mets and settled into his groove as poet/Met icon.
---When Tommie Agee died suddenly, Ed was working at the Mets’ fantasy camp, and he took calls from reporters to talk about his friend. Ed Charles, as this New Yorker would put it, was a mensch.
--- In 2012, the 50th anniversary of the Mets, Hofstra University recruited Ed to give a keynote talk on his poetry and his deep bond with the Mets. I was asked by my alma mater to introduce him, and I suggested to Ed that I could help him segue into his poems. He smiled at me the same way he had calmed down Rocky Swoboda and all the other twitchy Mets kids back in the day. “I got this, big guy,” he told me – and he did.
--- Last time I saw him, a few months ago, I visited his apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens. Lavonnie was there, and I brought some of that good deli from Mama’s in nearby Corona, plus enough cannoli to last a few days. Ed was inhaling oxygen confined to quarters. I saw sadness and acceptance, He let me know: he knew the deal.
On Monday, The Glider had his last New York moment. There will be a funeral in Kansas City on Saturday and he will be buried, as a military veteran, at the national cemetery in Leavenworth, Kans.
The funeral home Monday was a few blocks from the first home owned by Jackie and Rachel Robinson in 1949. The first Robinson home, on 177 St. in the upscale black neighborhood of Addisleigh Park, has been declared a New York landmark, as written up on the StreetEasy real-estate site (by none other than Laura Vecsey, a sports and political columnist.)
Ed Charles often talked about taking inspiration from sighting Jackie Robinson as a boy in Florida; the proximity of the funeral home and Robinson home was a sweet coincidence, the family said.
The karma was unmistakable. Like Rachel and Jackie Robinson, Ed Charles encountered Jim Crow prejudice, but came to New York and won a World Series, and left a great legacy of talent and character.
(The Charles family has requested that any donations go to worthy causes like: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City or the Jackie Robinson Foundation in New York)
I was going to write about a heinous new development in baseball -- but other events intruded.
As the Mueller investigation demands records from the Trump business, and the porno queen heads to court, the President shows signs of unraveling.
In his pull-the-wings-off-flies mode, Trump had his garden-gnome Attorney General dismiss an FBI official just before his pension was official.
On Friday evening, the retired general Barry McCaffrey issued a statement that Trump is a “serious threat to US national security.”
Gen. McCaffrey fought in Vietnam, whatever we think of that war; Trump had spurious bone spurs. McCaffrey was later the so-called drug czar for the federal government, which is how I came to value his knowledge.
So instead of writing about baseball, I am placing this note atop my recent posting because the ongoing comments are fascinating – from the Panglossian to the dystopian.
I think it is important and life-affirming to be able to spot danger. Gen. McCaffrey has it. The majority members of Congress seem to have lost that ability.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Russian pals keep pummeling the soft midsection of the U.S. while the President tweets and fires people long-distance, the coward.
(This was my previous posting; comments ongoing.)
I haven’t posted anything in 12 days.
Been busy. One thing after another.
On Wednesday I stayed with the Mets-Yankees exhibition from Florida, even when people I never heard of were hitting home runs off people who won’t be around on opening day.
But it was baseball, and really, in ugly times like this, isn't that what matters?
Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling were going on delightful tangents after Darling said Kevin Mitchell had just emailed him.
Kevin Mitchell – the guy the front office blamed for leading poor Doc Gooden and poor Daryl Strawberry astray? That guy. Terrible trade, Hernandez said.
Ron and Keith meandered into tales of a nasty fight in Pittsburgh, started by my friend Bill Robinson, the first-base coach.
The broadcasters recalled how Mitchell was destroying some Pirate, and both teams had to stop their usual jostling and flailing to save a life. The good old days.
I loved the filibustering about 1986. The best impression I took from the three hours was the sight of Juan Lagares playing the sun, the wind and the ball with knowledge, grace, speed and touch.
“That’s a real center fielder!” I blurted.
Curt Flood. Paul Blair. Andruw Jones. Dare I say it, Willie Mays?
Baseball. I was happy.
* * *
I need to write something but I keep getting distracted.
I turn on the tube and think I see a traffic cam of an addled old man trying to cross Queens Boulevard -- the 300-foot-wideBoulevard of Death -- in my home borough of Queens.
Is he carrying a baby as he lurches across 10 lanes of danger?
The wind picks up. His comb-over flies up.
Wait, that’s not any addled old man from Queens.
What’s he carrying?
It’s not a baby. He’s got the whole world in his hands.
I watch with morbid fascination as he lumbers into danger.
* * *
I need to write something but I keep getting distracted.
We’ve had two March snowstorms in a week. On Wednesday we lost power for five hours but my wife made instant coffee via the gas stove, and put together a nice supper, and we listened to the news on a battery-operated radio and then we found Victoria de los Angeles and “Songs Of the Auvergne," one of the most beautiful recordings we know.
The juice went on in time for us to catch up with latest news about the porno queen and the Leader of the Free World.
Gee, we didn’t have scandals like this with George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
I watched for hours.
* * *
I need to write something but I keep reading instead.
My old Hofstra friend, basketball star Ted Jackson, recommended I read “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” by Patrick Phillips about rape charges and lynching and the forced exodus of blacks from Forsyth County, Ga., in 1912.
As it happens, I have relatives, including some of color, who live just south of that county, now re-integrated in the northward sprawl of Atlanta.
The denizens of that county in 1912 sound like the great grand-parents of the “very fine people” who flocked to Charlottesville last summer. It never goes away, does it?
* * *
I need to write something but I keep following the news.
At the White House press briefing Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders spat out, with her usual contempt, the little nugget that the President had won a very, very big arbitration hearing involving the porno queen and $130,000 the President's lawyer shelled out from the goodness of his heart.
Oops, the jackals of the press did not know about that. Thanks to Sanders, now they do. I got the feeling Sanders might be leaving on the midnight train for Arkansas.
I envision Sanders trying to hail a ride on Pennsylvania Ave. but a stylish woman with a teen-age boy in tow beats her to the cab.
That woman is leaving on the midnight plane for Slovenia.
* * *
I need to write something, but stuff keeps happening.
I am ecstatic for Yankee fans, really. Happy they have Giancarlo Stanton to go along with Aaron Judge. More homers in the Bronx. The natural order.
Mostly, I am happy for good friends like Big Al, like Marty, who share their Yankee highs and Yankee lows with me.
Now I read that the Yankees have signed the aging warrior C.C. Sabathia for $10-million for another season. How nice to have owners who spend money like that.
But: it’s that time of year – the holidays, good will to all.
I must admit, I am feeling the opposite emotion of the holidays –deprivation, not getting enough toys.
As a Met fan, cooped up indoors at this time of year, I remember how Mets games helped get me through last season, trying to avoid unpleasant subjects I will not mention.
I rooted for Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce and Neal Walker and the best defensive catcher on the team, René Rivera, and Addison Reed, with his cap cockily tilted sideways after a successful inning. Then they all got shipped out.
The Mets have a new manager I never heard of.
They just signed a long reliever I never heard of.
Now I find myself playing a mental game:
Name one position in the Mets lineup, offense or defense, that is really secure.
C: Travis d’Arnaud tries hard. Kevin Plawecki is big. The Mets are bringing Jose Lobatón into camp, as a non-roster catcher. Adds up to – what?
1B: Dominic Smith showed some power but other times looked like the second coming of Mo Vaughn.
2B: Nobody has mentioned Weeping Wilmer Flores, who is what we Brooklyn fans used to call “The Peepul’s Cherce.”
3B: Asdrubal Cabrera aged five years last year. Jose Reyes is unsigned.
SS: Amed Rosario showed youth and flash. But Ron Darling or Keith Hernandez were often saying (but nicely): “Oooh, he shouldn’t have done that.”
LF: Yoenis Cespedes was dragging in the first television spring exhibition. He kept breaking down. I suspect that football physio from Michigan only made Céspedes worse. Maybe terminally.
CF: Juan Lagares is altering his swing for more power. Three years ago he looked like Curt Flood. What went wrong?
RF: Michael Conforto was having a streaky year. Then he got hurt.
Pitching: Jacob deGrom. The best we have. Thor better stop lifting those freaking weights, or maybe it’s too late. The Dark Knight needs to leave Gotham City.
None of this is any consolation at the onset of bleak winter.
I cannot imagine watching this team, even as distraction from unpleasant subjects I will not mention.
I am happy for pals like Big Al, like Marty. Very happy.
But I am just asking: in the grand tradition of my home town, with all those gift packages heading to Yankee Stadium, would it be so terrible if something happened to, um, fall off the truck?
These are the last few days for Terry Collins to manage the Mets.
He deserves the release, for good behavior.
Collins has served seven years, longer than any other Met manager, and he has upheld the grand tradition of gray-haired, hands-in-back-pocket managers. The skipper.
Now he is 68 and his contract is up and as a writer-turned-fan I want to tell him, “Thanks, man.”
The end of a baseball season is always a gloomy time for fans of most teams, but I suspect a lot of Mets fans are particularly gloomy because we know it wasn’t Collins’ fault that the Mets fell apart this year.
For seven years, his players never exhibited smirks or shrugs, always hustled and seemed to respect what Keith Hernandez calls “the fundies” – fundamentals.
The Mets won a pennant nobody expected. Collins, a stranger to New York, was a throwback to the grand old baseball tradition of “dandy little manager” -- usually a middle infielder of marginal skills who had learned by observing.
In my childhood, writers called Leo Durocher “the dandy little manager” but Leo the Lip was too much of a braggart and popinjay to fit in with the commonfolk.
I grew up with dugout “hold-‘em-while-I-think-of-something” savants like Charlie Dressen of the old Brooklyn Dodgers – short on grammar and school learning and long on experience – and moving on to Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland, guys who loved and respected the game, because it came hard to them as players.
Gene Mauch wanted to come off as cerebral. Joe Maddon -- Collins’ protégé -- is a bit more educated and worldly and fun. Earl Weaver was brash and hid his knowledge well. Buck Showalter is a control-freak lifer. Skippers.
New Yorkers had no reason to know Collins, whose temper had touched off a player mutiny in his wreck of a time with the Angels. But Collins worked in development with the Dodgers, and was a surprise managerial pick by Sandy Alderson.
Not that I have been around the team much lately (having retired at the end of 2011) but Collins’ responses in the televised post-game interview were funny and enlightening.
He stuck up for his players but did not try to sugar-coat their mistakes. He used current tools but did not make me nuts with blather about all those new computer-driven statistics.
Collins had the class to own the most ruinous decision he made -- staying with Johan Santana as he completed the first no-hitter in Mets’ history, but blowing his arm out, terminally. Collins always referred to Santana when asked why he observed pitch counts for young pitchers, who have mostly fallen apart anyway.
When Alderson gave him some players, Collins guided the team to the World Series. It has not been fun for a fan, watching it all fall apart this year.
I give credit to the professionals who never quit – Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce and Neil Walker and Rene Rivera, who had value elsewhere. When Collins finally pulled Asdrubal Cabrera from shortstop, Cabrera complained but never stopped playing hurt and being a good teammate. Jose Reyes accepted his backup role and worked with Amed Rosario like a big brother teaching the kid who had taken playing time from him.
Now the Mets management should let Collins retire gracefully – retain him as a development guy who can coach and teach – and move on to a younger manager.
Collins deserves to be remembered with Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, Davey Johnson and Bobby Valentine, other epic managers in the Mets’ amazin’ history.
As Casey would have said, “He done splendid.”
It has come to this with the Mets. The only reason to watch them is the commercial being played virtually every other inning on the local channel SNY in New York.
Of course, it’s also on Youtube (above) and all over the web.
But for all the dreadful events happening with the Mets, there is the consolation that when the inning ends there could be a visit from four weary monsters heading home for a well-earned weekend.
But work never ends for these four harried guys (what, no female monsters?)
They grumble about working conditions, particularly the werewolf who needs to howl on the weekend. (“A bit of me time.”)
I have seen that guy on the Port Washington line. Same whiskers. Same suit. Same weary grimace.
The Mets are not nearly as entertaining. They’re hurt or old or both, except for Michael Conforto (who is starting to go for that high pitch again) and Weepin’ Wilmer Flores, who in the eyes of the Faithful can do no wrong, even when he does.
Jacob DeGrom, a good athlete and seemingly a nice guy, is inconsistent.
But at least there is the commercial, by a group called Something Different.
Impervious to advertising, I couldn’t remember the product being hawked. Turns out, it is Spectrum. Okay.
Here is some stuff on the web about the commercial:
Somebody writing about the commercial mistook a commuter train (which are hideous enough) for the subway.
Most of the time, the commercial is shortened to a 30-second version, which downplays the werewolf and obliterates the last line (“He’s not waking up.”)
The good news? All four of these guys apparently will be back in three followup commercials. That is nice.
I’m watching Harvey, Reyes, Granderson and Cabrera all deteriorating in front of my eyes, but at least I can look forward to the four commuters. It gives me hope.
I counted on them. Just the thought of them got me through a horrible winter.
Every fan knows what I am saying: the unique place of baseball -- seasonally correct, holding promise of a new spring.
My team happens to be the Mets, already sinking toward the lower depths, but fans of other teams will recognize the angst: for this I dreamed all winter?
I see Curtis Granderson floundering and I see Asdrubal Cabrera falling apart – two of my favorite players, with intelligence and humor and a fine body of work, who were so fine last season. This is hard to watch.
I am allowed to root. One of the liberations of retirement is shucking professional neutrality. I obsessed about the Mets’ pitching staff, all those talented kids, and I saw the Mets beating out the under-achieving Nationals.
I needed the Mets to thrive, particularly since that sickening night in November when a candidate we New Yorkers knew as a damaged charlatan was elected, ick, but I cannot say it.
I tried to get through the winter with partisan television news -- squirmed through rude interruptions of guests, daydreamed through 20-minute rambles with two minutes of content, rolled my eyes at the harmless repetitions of the word “lies,” as if they did any good.
Everybody reacts differently. People I know are developing a cursing syndrome when McConnell and Ryan ooze into view. Tim Egan called Ryan an "Irish undertaker." I think he meant unctuous. With my Irish passport, I laughed out loud. Felt good. For 30 seconds.
I tried behavior modification. I cannot listen to my large collection of rock and folk and country and jazz on my iPod. No mood for The Band or Stevie Wonder or Iris Dement or The Dead.
Songs of lost love and rolling down the highway don’t do it right now.
In mid-winter I listened to chamber music and waited for DeGrom and Céspedes and Familia, when his mini-suspension was over.
Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. It’s all right.
But now we are a month and a half into this season, and the Mets look done. This is not their year. I know, I know, this is not the loyalty of a true fan, but I covered a zillion games of baseball and I can tell a team that has too many flaws. What’s up with the Alleged Dark Knight?
In the same way that I assess my broken ball team, I assess my homeland. I thought the damaged goods would be returned to sender, like some bad Amazon purchase, within 18 months, and it could happen sooner.
But the Democrats look like an expansion team – too old, too callow, no core. I scan the prospects among the majority party for enlightened, idealistic action: I see stirrings of conscience in Graham and Collins. I really like John McCain from having interviewed him once; if you spot him approaching 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a couple of cohorts, let me know.
I watched Ben Sasse – a fresh face, a note of hope, like Michael Conforto of the Mets -- during the hearings the other day and thought, this guy could actually have intelligence and courage.
But I’ve been wrong before. I thought my ball team would give me spring-to-autumn diversion.
Now I peek at them, through spread fingers, like a child, for an inning here or an inning there. (I'm even happy for Yankee fans. First time in my life.)
It’s mid-May and I have lost hope for my team.
Here is yet another poll I don’t want to hear. According to the highly-respected Quinnipiac Poll, residents of New York City prefer the Mets to the Yankees by 45-43 percent.
I’m a Met fan, totally out of the closet since retirement as a thoroughly impartial, you-never-could-tell sports columnist.
I come by my National League/Long Island bias honestly as a boyhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who suffered terribly at the hands of the Yankees (to say nothing of, periodically, the New York Giants.)
Quinnipiac is undoubtedly more correct when it says residents of New York State favor the Yankees by 48-34 percent.
Those are the kind of odds I would have expected, what with all those World Series plus icons from Ruth and Gehrig to Jeter and Rivera.
I have come to assume a lot of perfectly nice people have been swayed by the echoes in the “Big Ball Park in the Bronx” (Red Barber’s alliteration, not Mel Allen’s) and all those championships.
Mets fans see their team as an occasional delightful surprise -- that World Series every decade or so, plus gallant efforts foiled by the 1987 Pendleton home run and the 1988 Scioscia home run and the 2006 Molina home run and the 2016 Inciarte catch – plus, the 2000 World Series when rich Yankee fans bought up huge swaths of Shea Stadium tickets. The gloomy words of George Orwell, personified.
Now some New Yorkers may be swayed by all those fine young arms and the power of Céspedes and the dash of the prodigal son Reyes and the professionalism of Cabrera. Mets fans have expectations? Dangerous.
I still want the Mets to be a minority taste which makes the Swoboda catch and the Mookie grounder all the more special.
Then there is this: I don’t want my life guided by polls. Not anymore.
Last autumn I was reassured by within-the-margin-of-error polls: the rational would squeak past the raging id.
No more polls.
* * *
Play ball. Which the Yankees did, indoors, at Tampa Bay, on Sunday. By the second inning, I was immediately delighted with the fine details of baseball:
-- Rays' LF Mallex Smith took a circular route but caught a fly in foul territory.
-- Then, Smith (new to that team) took a piece of paper out of his pocket to scan the defensive scouting on the Yankees. Don't know that I've ever seen that.
-- Between innings, the immortal voice of Bob Sheppard urged us -- stylishly, of course -- to follow the Yankees on the YES network. Nice touch.
-- As starter Masahiro Tanaka faltered, he was watched intensely by three people in the Yankee dugout -- manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and trainer Steve Donohue. Their faces told me: the real season has begun.
Who thinks about Casey Stengel these days?
Mets fans should, because he basically invented the Amazin's.
Just the other day, a hit rolled into the right-field bullpen and a Braves outfielder flung aside a garbage pail to retrieve the ball -- a garbage pail! -- and I recalled what the Old Man used to say:
"Every day in this game of baseball, you see something you never saw before."
Still I might have thought history contains all it needs about Stengel, the quintessential figure on all four New York teams – “the Brooklyns,” the Giants, the Yankees, and the Amazing Mets.
Casey let a sparrow fly out from his doffed cap as a Dodger; he hit an inside-the-park homer for the Giants in the World Series; he won 10 pennants in 12 years as the Yankee manager; and he managed the Mets for their first four seasons.
Now, my friend Marty Appel has found good new stuff about Casey – and his times – in a new book, “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character,” to be published by Doubleday on March 28, just in time for a new season.
Appel uncovered some gems about Casey’s childhood in 19th Century Kansas City and his playing career in a Brooklyn so long ago there were no hipsters.
He has used computerized libraries and files not available to previous biographers of Stengel, including the late Bob Creamer, a luncheon companion of ours.
For example: Appel discovered that the Stengel family lived in the same neighborhood as Charles (Kid) Nichols, a Hall of Fame pitcher who won 361 games from 1890 to 1906. When “Dutch” Stengel was a rambunctious teen-age ball player, the old pitcher advised him to always listen to his managers.
“Never say, ‘I won’t do that.,'" Kid Nichols said. "Always listen to him. If you’re not going to do it, don’t tell him so. Let it go in one ear, then let it roll around there for a month, and if it isn’t any good, let it go out the other ear.”
This is wonderful advice. I spent a lot of time around Casey from 1962 to 1965 -- in his office and late at night in bars – and I never heard him mention Kid Nichols. But I now know that Kid Nichols helped Casey learn as a player – and teach as a manager.
Appel tells a great story (new to me) about a prospect named Mantle, who could run but was slowed down by his habit of looking at the ground. Stengel told Mantle he was no longer playing football in Commerce, Okla., that the major leagues had groundskeepers who created smooth base paths and that he should keep his eye on the ball and the fielders.
It made Casey crazy to see blank looks on players. The Old Man also tried to teach “my writers,” in murky soliloquys very late at night. Just when you were about to give up (or doze off) he would grab you with a stubborn paw and say, “Look, you asshole, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Appel has learned about Casey’s wife, Edna Lawson Stengel through an unpublished memoir made available by Edna’s niece, Toni Mollett Harsh. Apparently, the Stengels considered themselves too old – in their thirties – to start a family, but they were affectionate toward the wives and children of some of the younger players. (He bought a ginger ale for my oldest child, Laura, in the motel bar in Florida after his managing days. She remembers it vividly.)
I learned something else. Appel amends the legend that Stengel’s wealth came through his wife’s family, which owned a bank and businesses in Glendale, Calif. In fact, young Casey paid attention to a teammate from Texas who talked him into buying oil rigs.
Casey often barked, “You make your own luck.”
Marty Appel reminds us all that Casey Stengel made his own luck.
I’m having so much fun with spring training baseball, I’m sticking with it. On Friday I watched two of the Mets’ best prospects, Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario, enter an exhibition mid-way and lash hits (off a shell-shocked kid pitcher, to be sure.) They looked so confident -- the way Gary Sanchez did when he arrived with the Yankees during last season. (How nice for them.) This is the stuff of spring training. Some of them are strictly March pheenoms – who’s old enough to remember massive Clint Hartung of the New York Giants a zillion years ago? But sometimes young players are the real thing. Smith plays first base and Rosario plays shortstop. Gary Apple and Ron Darling on SNY-TV were chattering about how both were being groomed for 2018 – but maybe sooner, depending, etc. What baseball fan does not love this kind of talk? It sustains me in March. For the moment, I can even shut out the image of the blundering lout somebody elected president. Go Dominic Smith. Go Amed Rosario. Go Gary Sanchez.
* * *
We live on a flyway, between two bays. The other morning I went outside and heard honking – hundreds of geese, flying high, moving fast, in a V formation, heading north.
These guys must know something, I thought. And sure enough, the geese were soon followed by ball games, on the radio and on the tube, from a warmer place.
Bread and circuses? It’s time for diversion – baseball, even better than the caloric Hershey Kisses being ingested by the very funny Joyce Wadler in her Sunday column in the Times. (You know whom she blames for her chocolate binge: her mom…and Trump.)
I got something healthier for you. My email from my friend Big Al said:
Yanks-Phils 1 PM on YES. Life begins anew.
Big Al is a Yankee fan. What can I say?
I found the first Mets game on the radio Friday while idling in the horrendous traffic at LaGuardia Airport. The Mets brought mostly a B squad to Fort Myers, but there was Howie Rose with his haimish accent, straight-from-the-upper-deck-at-Shea.
Howie was filling us in on the 11 Mets who will be playing in the Baseball Classic, the world-cup-for-hardball, in March, including Ty Kelly playing for Israel. (Read Hillel Kuttler’s piece: Kelly’s mom is Jewish.)
It was delightful to sit in traffic with something important to think about that did not involve mental health and ineptitude and malice – the depth of the Mets’ system that has decent players like Kelly and T.J. Rivera scrambling for spots. Rooting for underdogs is so very baseball, so very New York.
Time for a viewing of the 2017 Mets. On Saturday, my pal Gary and I sat in his living room and watched on SNY as the Mets played a home exhibition in 86-degree Port St. Lucie.
The first treat was hearing the broadcasters, Gary Cohen and Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, the familiar banter and expertise.
As is only normal we heard about other preoccupations – Seton Hall basketball for Cohen, a delightful 1-year-old son for Darling, and a bad knee that may require replacement for Hernandez. The docs better make sure Hernandez can still scoop up a bunt and fire to third base.
But enough about the main act. There was also the undercard -- the 2017 Mets, a work in progress. Lucas Duda was missing because of injections into his aching hips. Jacob DeGrom was sporting a totally hideous mustache that negates his flowing hair and beatific smile. Good old David Wright, in yet another comeback, hit a fly ball and later beamed as he talked about his 1-year-old son.
Washington brought along some A-List sluggers, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, and lifer manager Dusty Baker in the dugout, working his toothpick.
A moment of terror as the Mets’ Kevin Plawecki had his knee put into reverse in a home-plate collision, followed by at least a dozen horrifying replays and relieved applause as he hobbled off the field, (Update: x-rays negative, better than could have been imagined.)
The broadcasters did what they do best. They digressed, about the new rule that allows an automatic base on balls. Darling pronounced it “nothing.” Better they install a time clock for pitchers.
Hernandez and Darling bickered over the use of colored grease pens for cast-of-thousands exhibitions. Cohen presided with a paternal sigh.
My pal and I watched the entire three-hour marathon. The players. The manager and coaches. The broadcasters. The fans – no politics in evidence – watching the long game. Life under the flyway, enjoying the first honks of spring.
On a murky, rainy Tuesday, I was with a gaggle of baseball-writer types at a friend’s apartment in the city.
Our hostess provided a nice lunch and we celebrated the 96th birthday of our colleague, who saw Lou Gehrig play.
Late in the lunch, I started getting texts from two rabid Mets fans.
“Céspedes back! 4 years!” one wrote.
“Finally, some good news!” the other wrote.
“This could get us almost all the way up to the next election,” the first one added.
I broke the news to the dozen writers, including Mets, Yankees Tigers and Orioles fans.
"Céspedes should play right field,” one of them said. "With that arm, that’s his best position.”
We debated that, and the $110-million price, for four years. Money well spent. (Not our money, to be sure.)
We talked baseball til it was time to go home.
Forty-five minutes later, I was driving through my home borough of Queens, in the dark, in the rain, right past the Mets’ ball park. (I know it has a corporate name, but I hate banks -- more since the crash.)
The huge message board was hawking stuff – probably a hazard for drivers trying to negotiate the shifting lanes and insane rush-hour drivers on the Whitestone Expressway.
But I took a quick glimpse anyway – commercials, some U.F.C. event, season tickets.
Céspedes, I said. Brag that you just locked up Céspedes for four years.
That would have been big-time celebrating – lighting the candle rather than stumbling in the dark, which the Mets have been known to do. But nobody in the Mets' office had pushed the button to tell the Whitestone Expressway about Céspedes.
I kept my eyes on the road but my mind was on April, when Céspedes, that imperfect star, will start swinging for the fences, and catching almost everything hit near him, and throwing out knuckleheads who run on his arm.
The Mets remain a contender particularly if their young pitchers recuperate.
I thought about the ball park buzzing, buying a hero at Mama's stand, watching Cabrera's sure hands and Granderson's smile and DeGrom's and Syndergaard's locks flapping in the breeze.
I felt better than I have in a month. We would get through the winter. Baseball will be back.
I suspect Yankee fans feel the same way about the prospect of the first full season of Gary Sanchez.
Yankee fans are human. They got to live, too. They look forward to driving around with John and Suzyn calling the game, the way Mets fans feel about Howie and Josh.
In the winter, in the red states, in the blue states, in the big markets and the small markets, fans are lying dormant, dreaming their dreams. (What dreams can Cubs fans possibly have, now that their tormented circadian rhythms have been forever disrupted?)
That's baseball. On a gloomy afternoon, somebody sends a text, and the ever-hopeful fan thinks, I can make it through the dark months. We will survive.
In the end, the Mets’ final game had nothing to do with ancient failures and curses on the Brooklyn Dodgers and early Mets. The Mets lost to a great pitcher, a great October pitcher.
I saw Madison Bumgarner’s expressionless face as he trudged out to the mound nine times. I was visiting my friends Gary and Nancy, and I explained to them that he was a mountain man from western North Carolina, neither north nor south but Appalachian. He had a job to do, and he had the tools to do it.
Later, when the job was done, he submitted to an interview, and I could hear the mountain accent; he comes from a hamlet full of Bumgarners, for generations. One tough, self-reliant dude, with great arm, great purpose.
My friend Big Al from Queens, who used to pitch off the scruffy mound in Alley Pond Park, wrote me this morning that as a former hurler he marveled that Syndergaard could bust in 98- mph fastballs, with admirable location, but that Bumgarner’s 92-mph pitchers went even more precisely to the right place, where Céspedes and others could not harm him. Big Al thinks Bumgarner could have gone 11 or 12.
I’m just sorry it was Familia at the end. He’s such a nice guy, gave us such a good season.
Then there is Granderson’s catch. He is already the favorite Met to so many people. (I know a few women who refer to him as “my boyfriend” when he smiles and hits home runs.) On Wednesday night he ran straight to the center-field fence knowing he could make contact, and he held the ball for the third out.
My son David wants to know how Granderson’s catch compares with Endy Chavez in 2006 and Tommie Agee and Rocky Swoboda in 1969, and I say quite equally.
Big Al had to bring up – he always does this – Mantle’s catch off Hodges to preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, and I retort with names like Gionfriddo from 1947 and Amoros from 1955. But that’s old stuff.
Right now it is 2016 and Bumgarner evokes names like Ford and Gibson and Koufax.
For me, la guerre est finie. I got no dog in this fight from here on in. I’ve seen all the baseball I want for this lovely surprising gritty season of the Mets. I’m checking up on the Premiership and Serie A, and books, and classical music.
Big Al suggests Chopin and Schubert. I’m thinking Dvorak and Bartok. As we said in Brooklyn, wait til next year.
(Your comments on the game and 2016 are welcome; my earlier premonitions of gloom and doom are below.)
Brian Savin asks if I have any thoughts about the Mets in the wild-card game Wednesday.
Oh, yes, doctor, I have thoughts. I also have fear and trembling on this 65th anniversary of something terrible.
It happens every October, when I feel that something terrible is going to happen in a ball park near me. I mean, it’s only baseball terrible. Henrich terrible. Thomson terrible. Sojo terrible. Molina terrible.
This has nothing to do with Syndergaard vs. Bumgarner, Mets vs. SF Giants. They are on their own and will perform what they perform. I am talking about the miasma of gloom that hangs over an old, I mean old, Brooklyn Dodger fan at this time of year.
Let’s start with Oct. 5, 1949, first game of the World Series (still played in sunlight, before the current long march toward freaking November.) I race home from school, turn on the radio, just in time for the bottom of the ninth, and Tommy Henrich blasts a homer off Don Newcombe, first and only run of the day.
Traumatic? And not just me. Let us fast forward half a century or so. My good friend and Newsday colleague Steve Jacobson is typing in the press room of Yankee Stadium on old-timers day. He sees Tommy Henrich, still spry, heading toward the men’s room.
Steve accuses Henrich of ruining his childhood with that home run. From that point on, Steve laments, he could no longer study, and therefore had to drift into the sordid life of sports columnist.
“Tough shit,” Henrich says genially. “What were you going to be, a doctor?” (Perfect Noo Yawk inflections and gestures.) And like a man taking a trot around the bases, Henrich continues to the men’s room.
Next stop: Oct. 3, 1951. I am in shop class in junior high. The teacher lets us put on the radio. My Dodgers have a lead on the annoying New York Giants in the third game of a playoff for the pennant. A classmate, a Yankee fan, says, “I can’t imagine how you will come to school tomorrow if the Dodgers lose.”
I take the subway home. Bobby Thomson hits a home run. Perhaps you have heard of it. I go to school the next day. Giants fans and Yankee fans jeer at me.
The only good that comes of it is Don DeLillo’s great “Pafko at the Wall” segment of the otherwise murky (to me) novel, “Underworld.”
Later, the New York Mets will be formed, and the collective angst of the Dodgers and Giants will be infused into the Mets’ DNA. The Mets will know glory in October, but also despair, as in 2000 when Yankee fans outnumber Mets fans for World Series games in Shea Stadium and Luis Sojo dribbles a crushing hit up the middle, and in 2006 when Yadier Molina hits a two-run homer as the Cardinals beat the Mets for the pennant.
Now my friend asks if I have any thoughts about the Mets’ game on Wednesday.
This has been one of the most enjoyable baseball seasons I have ever had, with the Mets playing beyond all hopes and expectations in the final six weeks or so. I will always glory in Granderson and TJ Rivera, Cabrera and Familia, and the prodigal son Reyes.
But I am writing this on the 65th anniversary of Bobby Thomson.
The game will be played on the 67th anniversary of Tommy Henrich.
I have thoughts.
Never have I appreciated defense in baseball as much as I do this season.
Watching Asdrubal Cabrera – why did I know nothing about him until this year? – cavort at shortstop (and in the dugout) has been an absolute treat.
(Parenthetically, I am enjoying the mere fact of Gary Sanchez, without even having the time or psychic energy for the Yankees.)
What a fun September for both New York teams, no matter how they ultimately do in their wild-card pursuits – action every day, scoreboard-watching every day, crowding out U.S. Open tennis and soccer and any other sports that might happen to be in season.
* * *
Saturday Update: Defense played a huge role Friday night as Mets did it again in Atlanta -- down, 4-0, winning, 6-4, with some defense from an improbable source.
Skipper Collins used Loney and Flores in logical switches and needed a first baseman in the eighth. Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez were curious who would get the call – and it was Eric Campbell, in the minors since the end of May.
Never known for defense, Campbell stopped one smash in the eighth and another smash in the ninth – “protecting the line in the late innings,” as Hernandez often says.
Campbell is a big guy out of Boston College with a nice attitude, crowded out by more talented players. He saved a game. With his glove. Will we remember those plays in October, or next year?
* * *
Cabrera has been a revelation all year. People are saying how much José Reyes has revitalized the Mets, but in my opinion the Mets were already a better team with Cabrera at shortstop this season.
They have currently won nine of 11 after the comeback Friday. I have not seen the Mets improve so drastically on defense since 1964 (How’s that for dropping a season on you?) when Roy McMillan came over from the Braves. Suddenly, balls that got through for two-plus seasons were being handled smoothly. The Mets still finished last, but they were, finally, respectable, at times.
I never paid much attention to Cabrera in his peregrinations from Cleveland to Washington to Tampa Bay. There are lots of Cabreras and lots of shortstops. But from the first day, he has been terrific.
Recently, Cabrera he gilded his hair. Nice touch. He hits and fields and has appointed himself the greeting committee when a teammate else hits a home run, lifting the helmet off the slugger’s head.
And when it is Cabrera who hit the homer, René Rivera does the honors. Rivera is a career backup, so good defensively that he has been assigned to a quorum of starters. What a joy to watch him throw to second, call signals, take control of jittery pitchers.
Cabrera and Rivera are part of the Latinization of the Mets, a very positive sign, from players who know and respect and love the game. They are leaders the way David Wright and Michael Cuddyer were last year.
Cabrera leads his own way. He acknowledges the fans, a great idea in Big Town. In one game, he made a catch near the stands and patted the head of a kid in the first row.
In another game, he backed up Reyes on a tricky roller past third, and dove to third base, beating the runner. When Cabrera came out for the next inning, my grown son, sitting behind third, applauded, and Cabrera understood it was for him, and tipped his cap, showing all of that golden hair.
The man is not a hot dog, in ball player parlance, but he certainly is a master draftsman, with a flair.
The Mets have also improved at first base with James Loney and second with Neal Walker until his back went out. You could make the case that Reyes is better at third base than the gallant Wright.
Plus, Terry Collins, the dandy little manager, is now one of the best managers the Mets have ever had.
This team has never quit on Collins. Never. I personally quit at least twice this season. Now the Mets are winning with starters up from the minor leagues. I thank Cabrera and his dugout mates for another long and enjoyable season.
Bobby Valentine will honor Shannon Forde, the senior director of media relations for the Mets, who died at 44 from breast cancer last March.
On Monday evening from 7 to 9 PM, the former Mets manager will be at Foley’s Pub at 18 W. 33 St. to sign autographs, schmooze in English and, who knows, maybe even Japanese, given his time spent managing over there.
The proceeds will go to the Forde Children’s Fund. She left behind her husband, John, and Nicholas, 8, and Kendall, 5, and hundreds of close friends including Shaun Clancy, the baseball-centric proprietor of Foley’s.
In a mad world, Shannon was a capable and friendly presence with the Mets. Stars like Keith Hernandez and John Franco and Mets staffers with a heart have helped raise money, and now Bobby V is helping.
He is home in Connecticut these days, working as a TV analyst and athletic director of Sacred Heart University.
Visitors are encouraged to bring their own memorabilia – each autograph is $40, and signed balls are $20 and photos are $10.
Valentine will participate in a Q&A, with Pete Caldera, singer and sportswriter, serving as master of ceremonies at Foley’s the Irish pub devoted to baseball – with thousands of signed balls and photographs and memorabilia covering every square inch.
(NB: The following was written before the Mets had triple bad news on Friday. Well, I said it was frivolous. GV.)
It seems frivolous to be talking about the freaking Mets with all this other stuff going on in the world, but that’s where I am, mostly to preserve my own sanity.
It is very reassuring to watch a prodigal son, José Reyes, and a folk hero, Wilmer Flores, duel for playing time.
Everybody loves a prodigal son (unless, of course, Reyes has lost his edge) and everybody loves a grown man who cries.
“The Ballad of Weeping Wilmer,” David Vecsey wrote in a text message.
Write it, I said. Maybe he still will.
The Mets may have upgraded themselves once again in mid-season, by bringing in Reyes and apparently stimulating Flores to take better hacks.
Upgrades. Everybody needs a Yoenis Céspedes to come along, like last year.
Now that I think about it, the Mets have upgraded their infield defense in at least three of the four positions since last season – Asdrubal Cabrera (where has this guy been?) doesn’t look spectacular at shortstop, but…he is…and clearly a great teammate in the dugout, too.
Neal Walker is consummately professional at second base. And James Loney is so smooth at first base, making plays unseen since Keith Hernandez. When Lucas Duda is healthy, I still want Loney at first base.
With all due respect to Daniel Murphy, the newest Met-killer, having a great year for the Nationals, it had really grown tiresome watching him improvise near second base. Entire games can turn on a ground ball being handled competently. And it is possible that Reyes at third base could be an upgrade to the impaired David Wright.
Have you ever seen a club upgrade at least three quarters of the infield like that?
Then there is Wilmer Flores, who cried last year when he was almost traded, and was in a slump a few weeks ago, but now he is hacking – The Peepul’s Cherce, as we once called Dixie Walker in Brooklyn.
As David Vecsey pointed out, Flores forms a trio of legendary No. 4s in Met history, along with Ron Swoboda and Lenny Dykstra. Don’t forget blast-from-the-past Duke Snider, passing through in 1963.
Weeping Wilmer, energized, is not exactly like Céspedes arriving last summer as proof the Mets were spending money, were serious. But we all need upgrades.
If the Mets could spring for Céspedes before the deadline, other upgrades are possible.
Before it is too late -- for all of us -- the Republicans could pull a yooge deal at their convention and bring in a rational and accomplished candidate, Michael Bloomberg.
And the Democrats could bring in a charismatic and courant candidate, Elizabeth Warren.
Think Céspedes. Think big. Think upgrades.
Gary Cohen was weirdly prophetic Wednesday when he called for the end to the blight on baseball known as the designated hitter.
His Mets television partner, Ron Darling, sounded surprised at the conversational swerve, but Cohen had something to say. .
This was several hours before Matt Albers, a beefy relief pitcher with the White Sox, proved Cohen’s point with a solid double and some footwork on the bases to score the eventual winning run in the 13th inning. Real baseball.
It’s time, Cohen said in mid-game. Let pitchers be ball players. Cohen asserted that Bartolo Colon’s first career home run, at nearly 43, was probably the best single event of this season – a portly American League-type pitching specialist whacking a homer into the left-field stands.
After ludicrous hitting, fielding and running in his first year with the Mets, Colon has worked hard to bunt, make contact, field his position and even chug to first base a little harder -- to play National League ball, that is. His upgrade was behind Gary Cohen’s riff on junking the DH, a couple of hours before the Albers tour of the bases – just what baseball should encourage.
The Mets lost this game when Albers, a well-traveled pitcher, had to bat because the White Sox had run out of hitters and pitchers. Albers slugged a pitch over Juan Lagares’ head in center field – not easy – and rumbled to second base
Wonder of wonders, Albers then took third spontaneously on a wild pitch by Logan Verrett, who was no doubt shocked by the insult from a lodge member. Then Albers scored on a solid fly ball, for the eventual winning run in a 2-1 victory over the Mets.
Baseball the way it used to be, before the DH gimmick began in 1973 -- pitchers reverting to the actual athletes they were when they played high-school baseball and probably hit quite well, in addition to playing other sports.
Hitting pitchers have a long, if somewhat minority, history in baseball. My own childhood was enriched by watching Don Newcombe slug homers – 11 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, four afterward. These days Madison Bumgarner slugs homers – 12 in eight seasons, so far.
Also, National League ball is interesting, with its pinch-hitters for pitchers and other lineup finagling by managers, plus players asked to handle multiple positions.
Since 1973, the American League has been using the DH, and so has most of baseball, screwing up the the World Series and interleague play between teams built for different sports.
It’s true, the DH kept gallant old or injured hitters like Tommy Davis in the game, and made life easier for stars who could still play defense adequately like Edgar Martinez in Seattle.
Cohen made the point that the charismatic Boston star, David Ortiz is just about the last of the great career DHs. The position is now a safe haven for aging sluggers (Alex Rodriguez) or journeymen who cannot field or run very well, or regulars who need a rest. As long as Big Papí of Boston is about to retire, Cohen said, let’s retire the DH with him.
Darling more or less laughed out loud. What about the union, he asked, referring to the relatively high salaries earned by veteran DHs. Not so much anymore, Cohen asserted.
Cohen had obviously thought about his position. Let each team add two more spots on the roster, from 25 to 27, he said. That’s 30 more jobs in the majors. That should make the union happy.
Darling sounded dubious. Wouldn’t that just produce more fringe pitchers and reserves? Maybe, but it would also produce pinch-runners or defensive specialists who cannot exist these days in the two-dimensional American League.
With the emphasis on pitch counts and six-inning starters, teams overload on pitchers and often have only four or five reserves, one of them a catcher.
Hours later, Albers was a lumbering advertisement for the dormant athleticism of pitchers.
I totally agree with Cohen. Albers and Colon prove the latent athleticism of pitchers. Time to ban the DH.
* * *
In case you missed Gary Cohen’s call of Colon’s shot:
Pitchers and catchers. Those words raise the temperature 20 degrees.
I hear the smack of baseballs into many leather gloves.
Smack-smack-smack. Like popcorn popping or bluefish jumping in the bay.
A good sound. A communal sound. Nowadays spring camps feel like medium-security prisons, but maybe you can catch the sound, through the barricades
Ball players limbering up. Bringing life back to us.
I’m not the only one. Out in California, Bill Wakefield heard the same smack, in his head, and instantly remembered 1964, the year he made the Mets, pitched very well, too. One year on a baseball card, and a zillion memories of the funky little camp in quaint St. Petersburg, still there, long renamed Huggins-Stengel Field. Very much the same.
Wakefield dashed off his stream-of-consciousness.
# # #
By Bill Wakefield:
Huggins-Stengel. History Channel.
On Google Earth.
Crescent Lake still looks the same as when the Babe hit 'em into the lake in right field.
The water tower stills looms over the batting cage at home plate.
Herb Norman's soup is hot for the break after morning workout.
The lawn still looks the same as when Dick Young would type down the right field line working on his Florida sun tan.
The trees down the left field line are still there where Hot Rod would take a snooze in the shade before Casey said OK guys take a lap around the field.
Catching a ride to the Colonial Inn with Lou Niss. Nervous, smoking, and "The damn bus had better be on time or Casey gets upset."
Larry Bearnarth telling me "You know it is a privilege to be here . Make sure you tell Lou Niss thanks for the nice dinner last night….A lot of guys just complain."
The porch where Barney Kremenko would adjust his hearing aid and ask,
“What did he say?”
Eddie Stanky coming up to me: "Bill, Pepper Martin died last night in Tulsa."
Jesse Owens. All class and pride. "Good morning, gentlemen," addressing zero world class runners in black Wilson baseball cleats -- at the first base line. It was a privilege to rub shoulders with the great man.
I remember it all clearly.
The fans on top of the field right-field line - and players -- no security. It was a different time.
"Hey Casey, how are you doing today?"
The old clubhouse is still there. "Bill. Casey wants to see you in his office." Wooooops!!! Shuffle off to Buffalo.
# # #
Let me annotate Wakefield’s memories:
Herb Norman was the salty old clubhouse man. .
Dick Young, the great baseball writer, would peel off his shirt and pound away at his large portable typewriter.
Hot Rod Kanehl was willing himself into his third major-league season. He adopted the Stanford kid in 1964.
Lou Niss was the road secretary, shuffled as if wearing slippers. Casey did a wicked imitation of The Niss Walk.
Larry Bearnarth, from St. John’s, hung out with Wakefield.
I don’t think Barney Kremenko of the Journal-American had a hearing aid. He just had trouble following Casey’s syntax.
Eddie Stanky, intense old second baseman, joined Mets front office, spring of 1965.
Jesse Owens, Olympic champion, gave running and life lessons in spring training.
Fans sat 10 feet behind Casey at Huggins-Stengel Field. Looie Kleppel, denizen of the Polo Grounds, kept up a rasping, knowing narrative.
Spring of 1965. After a fine rookie season, Wakefield was sent down. Noticed kids named Seaver, Ryan, Koosman, Gentry and McGraw in the pipeline. Went into business..Now roots for Stanford, his alma mater.
Loves to hear the smack of the ball in the glove.
While we were sleeping Friday night, wondering if we would lose power in the storm, the Mets were signing Yoenis Cespedes for one, or three, or five years, depending on how it goes.
Some people think it’s a good financial deal, compared to what some teams have overpaid for sluggers over 30.
But having witnessed Cespedes in the World Series last fall, when he batted .150, I’m just not convinced.
He played at half speed, his brain and will apparently turned off, looking like musical “Damn Yankees,” when Joe Hardy reverts to a stumbling middle-aged man.
Was he hurt? Was he comatose? Or was his sudden reversal the reason he had passed through three teams in four seasons since leaving Cuba?
Then again, I had been comparing his power and agility to Willie Mays after Cespedes shockingly arrived with the Mets in August. He carried the Mets to the World Series as pitchers suddenly had to revise the way they approached the Mets’ lineup. He made every hitter better.
But he regressed in the National League series, coming up with a sore shoulder after being spotted playing golf in Chicago on the day of the fourth game. He was doubled off first base – way too far, way too lethargic – for the last out of the fourth game of the World Series. And he was stumbling around in the outfield.
That performance undoubtedly cost Cespedes a lot of money. The Mets’ front office played it well, waiting, waiting, until other teams had spent on other players, and Cespedes seemed to be hanging back, wanting to return to New York.
Early Saturday morning, Mets’ buff David Wachter sent me a message:
Yoenis Cespedes $75 for three - $57m more for last three years 2019, 2020, 2021.
2006, 2007, 2008 Jason Giambi was paid $60m.
Cespedes sought $132/6 - $75/3 $57.
Mark Teixeira's contract last three years up to age 35?
2014, 2015, 2016: $69,375,000.
$57,000,000 - 2019,2020,2021.... How many tools did those Yanked first baseman have?
Could they be a late inning substitution in left or right, a pinch runner?
No one offered that money ....
As a Met fan I feel like a miracle happened....
Miracle? Good poker by Sandy Alderson? Admirable decision by Cespedes?
Depends who the Mets get – Willie Mays or Joe Hardy.
Before this World Series began, I thought that anything more would be gravy.
No Yankee sense of entitlement, just humility and awe at seeing this team-on-the-fly in the World Series, against a team that plays the game right.
As a Met fan staying home and watching, I could not have wished a game like Friday’s for David Wright, but there it is – a two-run homer that energized the Mets, two more runs on a single later.
And two Jeterian plays in the field – a scramble into the corner to fetch a ball and hold the batter to a single, and a swipe tag that was validated by replay. He didn’t dive into the stands and bloody himself. But he would have.
I wrote about Wright nine days ago, and Tyler Kepner had a lovely column in Saturday’s NYT; I don’t have to go over it again – upstanding leader, solid player, and now, for one manic night, the star of a World Series victory.
Noah Syndegaard’s strong six innings, perhaps you could trace them back to the day in spring training when Wright and Bobby Parnell dumped Syndegaard’s lunch in the garbage.
Friday was the reward for Wright, for Syndegaard, and maybe even for Parnell who ran out of velocity in his comeback.
No idea how the Mets will do, as of Saturday morning. But I would like to quote the eminent baseball sage, Johnny Damon, who on the night the Red Sox fell behind, three games to none, to the Yankees in 2004, stood in the crowded clubhouse at Fenway and calmly told reporters: "Unless I'm mistaken, we've won four straight before." (Turned out they had, eight times.)
The Mets have had their own streaks in this run. And David Wright had a game that he and Mets fans can and should always remember, on its own.
Written before Game 1: Somewhere, sometime, Colon helps win a game in long relief, like Ryan in 69 and Fernandez in 86. Royals play the game right -- good energy, make contact. Mets in 7.
I admit it. I blinked when I saw the title of Steve Kettmann’s book around Opening Day: “Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets.”
It wasn’t the main title. I was willing to find out how Alderson was a maverick (computers, Mr. McGuire?) but what about the subtitle, the “Revived” part?
I was intrigued by Kettmann’s choice of that R-word as the Mets gamely staggered into July -- subs, AAA players, walking wounded, veterans, a few live arms, all playing hard for Terry Collins.
Then in a space of two weeks, darned if they were not revived, by Alderson, by Collins, by Cap’n Wright, by Cespedes, by trades and demotions and recuperations.
But you know all that. Writers care about titles -- and subtitles. I have been blessed with all-stars as book editors over the years, too numerous to mention, except for the most recent. When I was writing my soccer book, Paul Golob of Holt (working with Times Books) noticed my scattered mentions of the dictator of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and his collaborators.
“Don’t forget to include the dark side,” Golob suggested. I agreed, and he came up with the title: “Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer.”
As FIFA's legal charges added up, was I glad the editor had prodded me. I could go on talk shows and intone those book-writer words, “As I say in my book….”
I knew Kettmann, based on the Left Coast, had access to Alderson from covering the Oakland A’s. I asked Kettmann how he came up with his title and subtitle and he replied:
It's funny about subtitles. We tend to think of them as nearly invisible, like the subtitle to "One Day at Fenway," my first book, which was "A Day in the Life of Baseball in America." I'm not sure a single person ever cited that subtitle or made a point of it. Then again, that was 11 years ago, long before the age of Twitter.
I spent a lot of time going over the title and subtitle for my Sandy Alderson book with Jamison Stoltz, my editor at Grove Atlantic. We thought if there was going to be controversy, it would concern the title, "Baseball Maverick," since "Maverick" is a word that can mean different things to different people.
Some, we knew, would picture Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, talking about getting all "Mavericky." But I took the title from a quote given to me by Billy Beane, which he clearly meant as a tribute to his former mentor and to me, the important meaning was the original one, going back to the rancher Samuel Maverick, who left his cattle unbranded, meaning he would end up with all unbranded cattle, and he developed a reputation (rightly or wrongly) for being a free thinker who was just a little smarter than everyone else.
As for the subtitle, I thought then and think now that it was inarguable, at least among people interested in having an actual discussion, as opposed to flinging free association at each other on the Internet in short bursts. Alderson was one of a small group that "revolutionized" baseball and, given where the Mets had been in recent seasons, no question that by 2015 the team had been "revived."
That was the consensus at baseball's annual winter meetings in December 2014, and that was my view: The Mets had too much dominant young starting pitching not to make a major leap forward, and Alderson had always said that when they had enough talent to be competitive in the postseason, they would make midseason upgrades to improve further. I could not have known the Mets would have the magical season they have, but I was sure they'd make the playoffs. I was sure they'd be playing meaningful games into October - now they might be playing them into November.
Playing into late October, I think you would agree, qualifies as "Revived." .
Bill Wakefield grew up in Kansas City.
Loves his home town,
The old A's, the "new" Royals.
Pitched for the Mets in 1964.
Had a nice season, first year of Shea.
Wore No. 43 before R.A. Dickey did.
Lives in the Bay Area. Roots for Stanford, his alma mater.
Says he will be in KC for the seventh game of the World Series.
(A decade ago, I wrote a chapter about Casey Stengel for a book named "Coach." I gave credit to Casey for giving the Mets an identity when he managed them in their first ludicrous spring of 1962. He kept waiting for The Youth of America to arrive -- and once a generation it does. He would love deGrom and Familia and Granderson. Casey is in the DNA of the franchise, forever.)
The Old Man
by George Vecsey
The Old Man talks to me every day, in that raspy whisky voice of his.
He would clamp his paw on your forearm, like one of those so-called Denver Boots the police put on the tires of illegally-parked cars. You could not pry him off.
"Wait a minute," he would bellow. "I'm trying to tell you something."
What was Casey Stengel trying to tell us? Usually, something practical relating to baseball, but often it was about the weirdness of baseball, the intricacies of it, like life itself.
The Old Man used to say, "Every day in baseball you see something you never saw before."
Early in the 2004 season, on national television, Roger Clemens of the Houston Astros was pitching to Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. The broadcasters said it was the first time in baseball history that a pitcher with 300 victories had ever pitched to a slugger with 600 home runs.
Right away I thought: "The Old Man."
It happens a lot. A ball takes a squirrelly path, a player commits a gaffe, and I find myself muttering, "I've never quite seen that before."
Strange things happened around Casey, and he was alive enough and alert enough to sputter or laugh about them.
Of all the managers and coaches I've been around, Casey Stengel taught me the most. I was part of that motley band Casey called "my writers." Some of his ballplayers were wise enough to learn from him, too.
"You knew when he was being funny," said Ron Swoboda, who played one season for Casey with the Mets, and still treasured it four decades later. "And you knew when he was serious."
Swoboda was under no illusions, then or now. He was a raw kid with a bit of power, and he was the best Casey had. The Old Man had managed DiMaggio and Berra and Mantle, and now he had a player he called "Suh-boda."
But somehow or other, Casey Stengel, in his four years with the dreadful Mets, performed a more amazing job than he had with the lordly Yankees. For this new franchise he created an image of lovability that has barely eroded decades later.
Managers and coaches are often handed the burden of being role models, doing that job for the rest of society. Molding character was not exactly Casey's goal in life. He was no kindly Mister Chips. He referred to himself as "the slickest manager in baseball" - and he expected others to be slick, too.
Ron Swoboda learned that lesson in 1965. He was a husky rookie out of Baltimore, not yet twenty-one year old, bright and outspoken, but in baseball experience still a busher.
In an early-season game in old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the Mets had a three-run lead in the ninth. Swoboda was playing right field as the rain ended and a strong sun emerged, directly in his eyes.
"The smart thing would have been to call time and get my sunglasses," Swoboda recalled in 2004. "But I figure, 'One more out, I can handle it.' Then Dal Maxvill hits a little flair that either would have been a single or I would have caught it, but I lose sight of it, and I have no clue how to play it, so three runs score and the game is tied.
"I know I screwed up," Swoboda recalled, "and I come up to bat the next inning and I make out and by now I am an emotional bomb. I stomp on my old fiberglass helmet. I'm gonna crush it. But the open end is facing up, and my foot gets caught, and it closes around my foot and I'm jumping around on my other foot."
The description from somebody in the dugout was that Swoboda resembled "a demented chicken."
"Casey comes up the stairs like he's 25," Swoboda recalled, "and he grabs me with his good hand. He had broken his wrist that spring, and I figure he's going to hit me with his cast. He's yelling, 'When you screwed up the fly ball, I didn't go into your locker and break your watch, so don't you break the team's equipment!' Then he said, 'Go sit down!'
"You know the movie, 'A League of Their Own,' where Tom Hanks says, 'There's no crying in baseball?' Bullshit. I sat there and cried. I figured my career was over."
Only later did Swoboda figure out that Casey had affection for him, the way he did for a few of his brighter young players. He could be tough on the Youth of America, but he was preparing them.
It made him nuts if ballplayers didn't listen. He loved to tell the story about when he was managing the Yankees in 1951 and escorted young Mickey Mantle out to right field before an exhibition in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Casey wanted to show Mantle the complexities of the wall, but Mantle mostly stared at him, unable to fathom that his manager had once patrolled this very field.
"He thinks I was born old," Casey muttered to "my writers," who functioned as his Greek chorus. The writers' job was to hum appropriately when he made a good point.
Casey's outlook was based on his experiences. He'd been to Europe and Japan before it was convenient. He was born in the late 19th Century and he still buzzes in my head early in the 21st Century.
People said he spoke in Stengelese, a dialect straight out of Louis Carroll's Jabberwocky. Other times he spoke blunt Anglo-Saxon that had earthy folk wisdom to it.
In his monologues, he called other people "Doctor," so we referred to him as "The Doctor." If we debated him, he would frequently say, "You're full of shit and I'll tell you why." He was the first person I remember you used the term "you asshole" as a debating point, without incurring harsh feelings - no easy trick. And when the umpires' decisions and logic went against the Mets in those early gruesome years, Casey used to say, "They screw us because we're horseshit." And he was right. The umpires did, and the Mets were.
He could ramble on, if he wanted to. In 1958, he captivated a Senate hearing into the fairness of baseball's anti-trust exemption, filibustering until the senators laughingly begged for mercy.
Casey's testimony is an American classic, right up there with Nixon's Checkers speech and Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," well worth worth seeking out with a simple Google search. Somehow, if you listened long enough, you figured it out.
Charles Dillon Stengel (born July 30, 1890, in Kansas City, Missouri) took a circuitous route to being one of the immortal sports figures in his country. He was a quite decent outfielder in the National League and then he was burdened with the stigma of failure as a manager. In nine horrendous seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves, he never once finished in the top half of the eight-team league.
He then managed well enough in the fast Pacific Coast League to earn the Yankees' call in 1949. Joe DiMaggio and many of the older Yankees thought he was a clown, a minor-leaguer, but he soon showed he had enough nerve to run the Yankees his way.
"He had his funny moments with the Yankees, but he wasn't this lovable old clown, either," said Swoboda, who later became a broadcaster and a student of his sport, particularly Casey's career.
"He was a tough old bastard," Swoboda added.
Foisted upon the older Yankees, Stengel showed no fear of improvising and tinkering and taking command. He ran a platoon system at some positions like left field, alternating a left-handed hitter like Gene Woodling with the right-handed Hank Bauer. Neither of these crusty warhorses liked being platooned, except when they cashed their World Series check almost every autumn. He even put the great DiMaggio on first base for one game, just to prove he could.
In World Series games, he was not afraid to go a long way with hot relief pitchers like Joe Page, or use one of his best starters, Allie Reynolds, in relief, or bring in an obscure pitcher like Bob Kuzava in a tight situation. He was utterly fearless, and he answered to no one.
His main disciple with the Yankees was a scrappy little infielder named Billy Martin, who had known Stengel back in the Pacific Coast League.
"I love that old man with the ball in his sock," Martin would say, referring to a lump on Casey's ankle, a souvenir from having been hit by a taxi one rainy night in Boston. (One columnist nominated the cabby as the man who did the most for Boston sports that year.)
Martin loved Casey right up to the moment Martin was involved in a brawl in a nightclub, the Copacabana, along with several more valuable Yankees. The Yankees' front office traded Martin away, but Martin blamed Casey and did not talk to him for a decade.
There was very little parental about Casey Stengel. Casey and his wife, Edna Lawson Stengel, did not have children, for reasons only they knew. People did not discuss such things back then. She had been an actress in New York, but they settled near her affluent banking family in Glendale, California. I remember her as willowy, cultured and friendly, a grand old lady in my youthful eyes, and formidable enough to deflate some of Casey's bluster.
I encountered Casey during his last pennant run in 1960. I was twenty years old, just graduating from Hofstra College, and my boss at Newsday, Jack Mann, thought it was time for me to cover my first major-league game up at Yankee Stadium.
It was a day game, and by 11 AM, Casey was chattering to the writers in the dugout, blending tales from the olden days with fresh insights into the previous night's game. He was in the process of moving Clete Boyer into the regular lineup at third base, benching the veteran Gil McDougald, and he discussed it at great lengths, with apologies to nobody.
The pre-game drill is very different today in the age of the microphone and the camera and the tight security. Joe Torre conducts a useful 15-minute update to the media swarm before the game, seated in the dugout while the Yankee Stadium sound system blares its inanities.
Back then, Casey held court. On my first day covering the Yankees, I was so fascinated with him that I sat in the dugout and gaped, not noticing that I was the only writer left.
Finally Casey turned to me and said, "Young man, you'll have to leave now because otherwise I'll have to put you in the starting lineup." It was about five minutes to game time.
His action revealed the essential Stengel. He could have made me feel like an idiot for staying too long, but he let me off the hook with a joke. He was not like some managers then and now who delight in bullying a newcomer. He saved his best stuff for his bosses, or his stars, or lions of the media like Dick Young or Howard Cosell, or critics like Jackie Robinson.
(Robinson - who had been the favorite player in my Dodger-centric household - criticized Stengel in his Mets years, saying Casey tended to snooze in the dugout. "Tell Robi'son he's Chock Full of Nuts," Stengel blurted, aptly referring to the coffee company Robinson had represented.)
Most of the Yankees kept their distance, judging Casey as one lucky eccentric to be able to manage the Berras, Fords and Mantles.
Casey would not win a popularity contest in his clubhouse. Clete Boyer will never forget kneeling in the on-deck circle in the second inning of the first game of the 1960 World Series.
Then he heard the Old Man shout, "Hold the gun!" Casey was sending up Dale Long to hit for Boyer, because the Yankees had fallen behind, 3-1, and had two runners on base. The Old Man's move was not only unorthodox, it was cold.
The Yankees lost that Series in seven games, and Stengel was blasted for not starting his ace, Whitey Ford, until the third game. Ford wound up pitching two shutouts, in the third and sixth games, and critics said he theoretically could have pitched three times if he had opened the Series.
The Yankees dismissed Casey immediately after the Series. He said he would never again make the mistake of turning seventy.
On his body of work -- ten pennants and seven World Championships in twelve seasons with the Yankees -- Stengel was now one of the great managers in baseball history. He could have stomped off to California and lived very nicely representing his brother-in-law's banks.
However, he was not ready for the civilian world. He still needed "the baseball business" at least as much as it needed him. He was saving up a last act as manager that was, in its own way, more spectacular than his time with the Yankees.
Casey returned to Yankee Stadium in the fall of 1961 to attend a World Series game with the Cincinnati Reds. I remember the buzz as he strode through the cheering crowd of New Yorkers, his formerly gray hair now shockingly reddish. (Milton Gross of the New York Post referred to Casey as "Bixby," the name of a shoe polish of the distant past.)
New York got Casey back in 1962, after the New York Mets had been formed in an expansion draft.
There had been a terrible gap in New York after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season. There was nothing like today's glut of televised games and sports highlight shows to keep up with Mays, Clemente, Aaron and Robinson.
In 1962, the National League stars were coming back to New York to play the Mets, who included some of the worst culls and rejects from other farm systems. Would haughty New York tolerate a dismal baseball team? That was why the man with the rubbery face and the equally flexible syntax had been brought back from California.
"There was a huge longing for National League ball," Swoboda said. "Casey bought time by taking advantage of this."
Casey's job was to teach baseball, win a game here and there, entertain desperate New Yorkers and sell some tickets. He tried the flim-flam approach at times. Dismissing a young pitcher during spring training of 1962, Casey said the Mets wanted to compete for the pennant and could not afford inexperienced players.
This was pure poppycock. Most of the time, Stengel caustically referred to how "the attendance got trimmed," meaning, in his lexicon, that the paying customers had been short-changed.
Casey also fought publicly with his general manager, George M. Weiss, who had been his boss with the Yankees and had now rescued him from enforced retirement. Casey probably was grateful. But whenever the frugal Weiss tried to retain a player in whom he had invested a few dollars, Stengel thundered that the player was "a fraud."
I can picture him naked, a tough old bird in his early seventies, his Mets uniform lying discarded on the floor of his office, while he pounded his burly chest and proclaimed the entire franchise was "a fraud."
Casey was doing something no other man in "the baseball business" had ever done - he was managing and performing vaudeville at the same time. He was creating a personality for a bad baseball team in the toughest market in the country. He was inventing the New York Mets on the fly.
"He sacrificed some of his legend to keep the media and the fans from turning on the team," Swoboda said.
At the same time, Casey was talking baseball to the fans, the writers and the players.
"Why wouldn't ya wanna..?" was Casey's Socratic prelude to a lecture about some nuance of his business.
The writers and fans tended to get more out of Casey than many of his players. Casey discovered this one day during batting practice when he was delivering a lecture on the batting technique he called "the butcher boy" -- chopping downward to knock the ball through a hole in the infield.
Casey looked around at the blank looks of his own players. Then he spotted one pair of alert, intelligent eyes watching his every move, absorbing his every word.
Unfortunately, those eyes belonged to Maury Wills, the shortstop for the Dodgers, the Mets' opponent later in the day. Wills had already won one World Series in 1959 with his resourcefulness, and was not above eavesdropping on Casey's seminar. Needless to say, the Old Man did not run Wills off. He was a baseball man, teaching baseball.
Some Mets appreciated him. One was Richie Ashburn, the feisty old center fielder who ran into walls, fought with umpires, batted .306 and brought out the humorous side of an itinerant first baseman named Marvelous Marv Throneberry, who became the personification of the Mets - inept, but also comical. Ashburn hated to lose, and he understood that the Old Man did, too. Nobody blamed him when he bailed for a broadcasting job after one season.
Another player who totally got Casey was Rod Kanehl, a vagabond utility player whom Casey had once noticed years earlier at the Yankees' minor-league complex. Casey kept him around the Mets for three seasons because Kanehl hustled and would play any position (seven, ultimately). Kanehl also took up Casey's standing offer of $50 for getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
A Midwesterner like Stengel, Kanehl felt the same fascination with the big city that Stengel once had. As a young Dodger, Stengel had enticed teammates into the rudimentary subway system, blithely losing them and forcing them to find their way back to their hotel. Kanehl also acted as subway tour guide to other Mets, who called him "The Mole." Kanel absorbed Casey's wisdom; he just didn't have enough talent to execute the lessons.
Casey did not escape criticism. In addition to the old sleeping-in-the-dugout charge - why wouldn't you want to snooze out of sheer escapism? - Casey was said to confuse players' identities. One former Met has said that Casey once ordered "Blanchard" to pinch-hit and that the coaches had to tactfully tell Casey that Johnny Blanchard was still employed across the Harlem River with the Yankees. More likely, Casey just mixed up names. He had two pitchers named Bob Miller that first season, so he called one of them "Nelson," either by design or accident.
A nap or a wrong name didn't matter much. The Mets won 40 games and lost 120 in that first season, with two games mercifully rained out.
Casey was managing the worst team in the history of baseball. "You could look it up," Casey often said, a phrase he either borrowed from Ring Lardner, or Ring Lardner borrowed from him.
One catch phrase for that 1962 Mets team was created by a boisterous raconteur with a gift for language. I am speaking here not of Casey Stengel but of Jimmy Breslin.
A gifted writer from New York, Breslin showed up on assignment from Sports Illustrated one hot, humid July weekend of 1962. The Mets threw a seventy-second birthday party for Casey in the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel, then the garden spot of St. Louis. (The headwaiter had once pitched batting practice before Cardinals' games; Casey treated him like an equal, even imitating his pitching form.)
Casey spent the reception standing up, drink in hand, commenting on the multi-ineptitudes of his team. Blessed with youthful kidneys, I stayed by his elbow the entire evening.
A year later, a Breslin book came out, entitled "Can't Anyone Here Play This Game?" a plea ostensibly uttered by Casey during his long monologue that evening in St. Louis.
Not long afterward, Breslin called me for a phone number or something and at the end I said, "Jimmy, just curious, I was at that party for Casey, never left his side, and I don't remember him ever saying, 'Can't anyone here play this game?'"
"What are you, the F.B.I?" Breslin asked.
Breslin has since admitted he just might have exercised some creative license. Casey never complained about being misquoted. He would have said it if he had thought of it.
I stuck as close as possible to Casey those years. I wasn't looking for a parent or a mentor but I think I was just wise enough to know I would never meet anybody like him again.
There have been entire volumes devoted to those wonderful early days of Casey and the Mets. (I wrote one myself, long out of print, entitled "Joy in Mudville.") If I could distill the entire four years into one madcap experience, it would be the night of May 4, 1964, in Milwaukee.
By this time, the Mets were marginally better, partially because Casey had spotted a scrappy second baseman named Ron Hunt in spring training of 1963, and installed him at the top of the lineup. On this nippy night in Milwaukee, Hunt tried to score with two outs in the ninth, but was tagged out at home in a rough collision. Then he and the catcher, Ed Bailey, began to mix it up, as both teams milled around home plate.
In the midst of the scrum, a Milwaukee infielder named Denis Menke felt a pair of powerful arms trying to pry him away from the plate. Menke shrugged the man loose. Then he looked down at his assailant and saw the Mount Rushmore profile of the Mets' manager, tangled in a bunch of legs. Menke envisioned the next day's front page: "Menke Kills Casey Stengel," and helped pick up the Old Man, who was still sputtering.
After order was restored, Casey totally denied having been anywhere near the fight. However, a couple of his players raved about the combativeness of the Old Man. Casey's story was discredited when he stripped to take a shower, revealing a few new bruises and scrapes.
After getting tossed around like that, most seventy-three-year-old men might retire to their hotel room and take a long hot bath. Casey went out drinking with his writers. We found some bar, where Casey gave a vivid imitation of a tornado that hit Milwaukee twenty years earlier, his battered body getting blown across the bar room by the imaginary high winds.
When the bar closed, eight of us found a rib joint, which turned out to be the hangout of a motorcycle gang. At first, I was a little concerned we might be in for trouble, until one of the cyclists spotted Casey and came over with his girl friend, who appeared to be sixteen years old, and respectfully asked for an autograph.
Casey, who had gotten bored with his writers, now engaged the motorcyclists in a debate over whether the Braves were willing to trade their brilliant but aging shortstop, Roy McMillan.
"Now, you want to give me McMillan, who is thirty-three, and we don't know if he can throw. Then who do you want, Hook?"
(Jay Hook was a sweet Northwestern graduate with advanced degrees in physics, who could explain why a curveball curved, but could not throw one.)
"Hook has won a lot of games for me and he has a lovely family," Casey told the motorcyclists. "Edna says I can't trade him. Would you like to talk to Edna for me?"
Casey and the cyclists talked baseball for about an hour or so, until the writers began falling asleep on the bar.
The next morning I dragged myself down to the coffee shop around nine o'clock. There was the Old Man, finishing a full breakfast, talking baseball with the customers.
As I think about Casey these days, I am struck by the vast amount of alcohol consumed by him and his traveling chorus. Alcohol had no hold over me but in those days you drank to be sociable. I had not yet figured out that you can sip a club soda and lime rather than a scotch and soda, and will feel much better the next morning.
Casey used to say, "Whiskey makes you sick when you're well -- and well when you're sick,"
He also had an expression for people who lost their composure when they drank too much: "Whiskey-slick." Even with his amazing constitution, Casey could become garrulous or argumentative, might need a friendly arm to get him from the taxi to the hotel elevator.
Having a lot of friends who are alcoholics, recovering or otherwise, I would say that Casey was nowhere near the state of powerlessness that defines alcoholism. The Old Man surely drank a bit, but at the same time he was skillfully ducking or answering questions from his writers.
He kept up his guard, but occasionally you would see a glimpse of emotion. Casey had a great deal of respect for Fred Hutchinson, the burly manager of the Reds, who had once battled the Yankees as a pitcher with the Tigers. I will never forget Casey shuddering when he spotted his friend and rival, emaciated from cancer, being taken around the ballpark on a golf cart in 1964. There was no joking from the Old Man that day. The next year, Hutchinson was dead.
That same spring Casey broke a wrist when he slipped on a wet patch during an exhibition game. Then, late at night on July 25, 1965, Casey fell and broke his hip, and needed an artificial ball inserted in his hip socket. On August 30, he called a press conference to say he would resume managing but would not return the following season. At that conference, he horrified Edna by abruptly crossing one leg over another to demonstrate what a good job the surgeons had done.
"Casey!" she blurted, the way wives will.
They stayed home in Glendale after 1965, although Casey was a fixture every spring training in Florida. My daughter, now a sports columnist with the Baltimore Sun, can recall being a little girl, sitting on a bar stool at the old Colonial Inn at St. Petersburg Beach, holding a ginger ale and chatting with that nice old couple, Casey and Edna.
In 1969, Casey was around to celebrate the Mets' improbable World Championship, with Gil Hodges now the manager. Ron Swoboda, the Youth of America, made an epic diving catch in right field to help win one game.
The final years were not kind. One season Casey visited the Mets and confided that Edna was fine -- "from the neck down," meaning her wit and reason were gone.
Casey died in 1975 and Edna lived three years longer. I see them every day. My wife has made a large montage of our family photographs and she included a photo of Casey and Edna circa 1965, in a hansom cab, he doffing a top hat, she chucking him under the chin, a striking mixture of aging prophet and ageless beauty.
To this day, when I am taking an iconoclastic stance in my column, I remember asking the Old Man why he was not afraid.
"I can make a living telling the truth," he would bellow.
I think of him every day.
* * *
George Vecsey, former sports columnist with the New York Times, covered his first Yankee game in 1960, a month before his 21st birthday. He is the author of over a dozen books, including, "Joy in Mudville," a history of the Mets, published in 1970, with Casey Stengel as its central figure.
COACH: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference (Warner Books, 2005)
Edited by Andrew Blauner
Foreword by Bill Bradley
Preface by David Duchovny
(Reproduced here with permission of Andrew Blauner)
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.