The cicadas are preparing to click and clack, as they do every 17 years:
This Is The Year!
Kind of like Mets fans.
I can relate. (1969, 1986, for example.)
But generically, baseball fans are way luckier than cicadas.
We start buzzing maniacally every year at this time.
I was planning a serious rant about baseball being taken over by the analytics mob, and how I don’t trust Major League Baseball after it arbitrarily trash-canned dozens of minor-league franchises.
But with a potentially full season about to start on time, it turns out that great minds think alike: my incoming queue was full of Good Stuff from fans who actually know and care about the game.
---The first stimulant came from my friend Tyler Kepner in the NYT, when he reminded us that the National League is reverting to Real Baseball this season: that is, pitchers will hit. I was happy, thinking of Don Newcombe and Bob Gibson and Madison Bumgarner and other hitting pitchers, but Tyler raised this horrifying scenario of a great pitcher-athlete: “How would a Mets fan like it if Jacob deGrom shattered his fingers on a bunt attempt?” Good point, Tyler. I am now having second thoughts.
--- The next missive was an email from Bill Wakefield, who pitched for the Mets in 1964, and we have remained in touch. He sent a link from the San Francisco Chronicle, which had three – count ‘em, three – savvy baseball columns by my esteemed colleagues Bruce Jenkins, Ann Killion and Scott Ostler.
Scott’s column was about the two Bay Area managers -- Bob Melvin of Oakland and Gabe Kapler of the Giants, both contemporary guys who give thoughtful answers to reporters’ questions and would never, ever, spit tobacco juice on reporters’ shoes.
Wakefield, who still trades Casey Stengel memories with me, wanted to know if I ever had a manager spit on my shoes. I replied, no, but Ralph Houk of the Yankees used to direct neat little sprays in the general direction of a colleague now and then.
Plus, Herman Franks, the absolutely miserable manager of the Giants, (who liked to call reporters demeaning names in Spanish for the amusement of his Latin players) apparently couldn’t spit very far, but he did drool tobacco juice down the front of his undershirt or even his uniform shirt, apparently to hasten reporters to seek more sanitary interviews elsewhere.
--- Next, Wakefield found a photo online of right field in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Having briefly been a teammate of Duke Snider with the Mets in the spring of 1964, Wakefield wrote that after seeing the short porch in right field, he could understand why The Dook hated to leave Brooklyn. I told him how Casey had escorted a rookie named Mantle to right field before a pre-season exhibition between the Yankees and Dodgers in 1951, to show him how to play ricochets off the concave wall. Later, Casey told “his” writers that Mantle didn’t seem to process that Casey had once played right field in that very ballpark. “He thinks I was born old,” Casey said.
-- Then, my man Mike From Northwest Queens sent me a copy of the Mets’ Covid rules for fans planning to attend a game under the 20 per cent limit this season: fans must present written proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for the virus. These rules reminded Mike of the iffy nature of going anywhere right now – sports events, restaurants, theatres, travel. Mike typed: “After reading this, I’m fairly positive I’ll be seated on my couch this year again for baseball.” I hear you, dude.
-- Ebbets Field lives in the souls of ball fans. The aforementioned Mike From Northwest Queens discovered this photo online of the Boys of Summer, standing around the batting cage, just talkin’ baseball. A glossy copy of this photo used to be taped in our house when I was a kid. Just seeing Jackie and Gil and the rest, I feel 12.
---Next, Lee Lowenfish, New York polymath on baseball, jazz, movies, et al, sent along a blog by Steve Wulf, longtime Sports Illustrated star, dissecting every name and reference in the Dave Frishberg jazz song -- elegant riffs about the long-ago Brooklyn pitcher with the mellifluous name of Van Lingle Mungo.
Wulf’s treatise, with photos, is the reason the Internet was invented. He describes how Frishberg “plumbed The Baseball Encyclopedia for the names, some of which are delightful rhymes; Max Lanier and Johnny Vander Meer; Barney McCosky and Hal Trosky, Lou Boudreau and Claude Passeau."
Frishberg chose the names for poetry rather than dismal analytics. May there always be music in the loving associations of baseball, now blessedly emerging from hibernation.
* * *
Steve Wulf’s long and loving assessment of “Van Lingle Mungo.”
Ladies and gentleman, David Frishberg:
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)