Here it is, frigid February, and I am suddenly feeling peppy again – because I talked with my pal Ron Swoboda down in New Orleans, getting his impressions of two very different managers, Gil Hodges and Gene Mauch.
We were talking baseball, and I was immensely happy, being in touch with a guy I’ve known since spring training of 1964 when he was a bubbly Met farmhand and I was a full-of-myself young sportswriter in spring training.
It is a well-known medical fact that the advent of spring training is an antidote for SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.
When I was a young reporter, as soon as the Super Bowl was over, the wires would run photos of the LA Dodgers working out informally in their pastel playground at Chavez Ravine before going to camp. Winter was on notice.
It’s still that way, in the time of the troubles -- the triple-witching-confluence of dead-soul senators and the lack of Covid shots and the dismal weather all over the nation, including New Orleans where Rocky lives.
But then, presto, in the past week, the Mets released their spring training schedule plus their regular season schedule, brought in two major-leaguers to fill out their roster, and announced that the very reliable pitcher, Seth Lugo, was having chips removed from his elbow -- plus the new owner and yet another new general manager to learn the job on the fly.
That’s a lot of baseball news for a fan to mull.
Swoboda and I were on the phone after a friend sent me a recently-discovered video of Branford Marsalis from NOLA, the saxophone master who plays jazz and classical, recalling his occasional appearances with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. (The video was from 1996, less than a year after Garcia passed.)
Then our conversation swerved to Swoboda’s joy about the kidney transplant that has kept his friend and teammate Ed Kranepool going, and he tossed his usual rave for the tandem of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman in the Holy Year of 1969.
“If we don’t have those two guys, we ain’t in the World Series,” Swoboda exclaimed, not mentioning the diving catch he made that saved a game and maybe the Series. That’s a given.
Then he said he wished the Hall of Fame would get its values in order and find a way to include Gil Hodges – “As a player! As a manager!”
Fifty years after Hodges died of a heart attack, Swoboda is one of his greatest supporters, ruing the times he sassed Hodges when he was young, headstrong Rocky. He has realized – and written – that Hodges was a brilliant manager, often ahead of the action on the field.
Hodges would make strategic decisions that made sense and often turned out correct. He was a Marine who had run the headquarters for his boss after the landing on Okinawa; he knew a thing or two about chain of command. With the Mets, he moved relief pitchers and pinch-hitters and platooned semi-regulars -- basic stuff -- and he made his decisions with his icy Marine stare, as fixed as a bayonet.
Rocky rebelled, and earned himself an exile to another country – Montreal – in 1971 where the manager was Gene Mauch, the intense strategist who, oddly enough, had made his debut with Brooklyn as a teenager, just like Hodges. Two Branch Rickey guys.
Swoboda had played against Mauch’s teams and now he wore the same uniform, watching Mauch make moves that had two or three layers that players (or anybody else) could not have predicted.
One example of managerial maneuvering came on June 21, 1971, with the Expos holding a 2-1 lead going into the eighth inning in Atlanta.
(One more reason I love baseball is that every play in more than a century can be demystified by records, particularly on the invaluable website retrosheet.org.)
Jim Nash, a big righty with the Braves, gave up a leadoff single to Ron Hunt, the old Met. Mauch then sent up Clyde Mashore, a marginal right-handed hitter, to bunt for Mack Jones, a fading veteran. (“Mack might have hit one in the gap,” recalled Swoboda who observed all this from a seat in the dugout.)
Mashore failed to bunt twice, so with two strikes, Mauch yanked him for Jim Fairey, a left-handed hitter who promptly flied to center field.
As a result, Mauch’s machinations added up to nothing, but then Rusty Staub and Ron Fairly, both left alone to swing the bat, made hits, and the Expos scored two runs. But the Braves scored five times in the bottom of the eighth for a 6-4 victory.
Swoboda, liberated for the second game of the doubleheader, went 0-for-3 ….and four days later he was traded to the Yankees. His Mets days were long gone.
Swoboda has stayed with the game – for decades, broadcasting for the New Orleans minor-league team, now relocated, and appearing at Mets’ fantasy camps, and always one of the most popular old-timers to come back to New York.
He suffers with the Mets, and inevitably the talk goes back to his first manager Casey Stengel and his polar opposite Gil Hodges, plus Swoboda’s pals, Ed Charles -- The Glider -- and Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee.
It’s cold in New Orleans, and it’s cold in New York, but both of us are warmed. We are talking baseball.
* * *
The game Swoboda remembers:
Swoboda’s career records:
My NYT column about 1969 with help from Ron Swoboda:
The brilliant interview of Branford Marsalis, recently rediscovered:
"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.)