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:
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.