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:
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.