The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “Baseball Memories”

On Baseball Gloves, and Girls

It is my probably faulty recollection that parents simply did not exist when I was a teenager.  Sure, someone must have paid the bills on our five-room, one-bath, split-level on Colorado Avenue on Bridgeport’s west side.  A person of the feminine persuasion provided us with relatively healthy meals (I could have done with a lot less canned Le Sueur Peas, though.)  And my grandparents did technically live directly upstairs from us (my grandma watching General Hospital, and my grandpa reading his Slovak edition of Pravda.)

baseball glove

baseball glove (Photo credit: theseanster93)

Yet, in a very real sense, my younger brother and I spent most of our days very much unsupervised.  We could have been famous serial arsonists, but as long as we were home by around 9:00 p.m., that’s all that mattered.

Make no mistake, I hold no grudge against my parents or grandparents.  My parents worked hard all day, and my grandparents had worked perhaps even harder for tens of decades before that.  My grandparents still used the very same salt and pepper shakers they’d received back on their wedding day in the heart of the Great Depression in the early ’30’s.  My dad still took the Barnum & State bus to work.  No one in my immediate family could be accused of flaunting their wealth.

I bought my first baseball glove in the late spring of ’76, the Bicentennial year, with money I’d earned from household chores, or had saved from my First Communion and most recent birthday.  I don’t remember the model, but it was mostly tan with dark brown trim.  Perfect for grabbing hard-hit ground-balls off the sweltering summer pavement, it was clearly an infielder’s glove.  No Mark Belanger, but Buddy Harrelson might have met his match.  Shea Stadium was just about 90 minutes from my house.  Surely, a roving Mets scout would someday spot me accidentally while driving through town.

Those honey-hued summer days were sticky and sweet as the peanut brittle in my grandma’s pantry, and time was a distant concept that smelled vaguely of rubbing alcohol and Tuesday afternoon Catechism classes.  The ship I floated on was devoid of sail, and I would gladly have remained drifting on the current for eternity in those empty lots where sweaty boys in close companionship would induce grounders, line-drives and a form of self-hypnosis broken only by the Earth folding into itself, abandoning orphan Night to fend for herself.

My baseball glove was always the last thing I put away before bed, and first thing I’d take off my closet shelf once I got home from school.  Let me make it clear that football and even basketball, like unannounced visits from cousins, would occasionally spend a day or two with us.  Those events, while not unpleasant, only served to make us appreciate the utter seriousness of our relationship with baseball.  Nothing could come between us and our bats and gloves.  Until it did.

I was invited to my first pool party in July, 1978, when I was 15-years old.  My friend Danny, in his usual fashion, simply showed up one mid-day at my house and told me that some of the girls from our class were having a pool party at their place, and that I should come along.  I had no idea where these girls lived, and if you were raised in Bridgeport in the ’70’s, just going three or four blocks away from home constituted an expedition worthy of Marco Polo.

Danny drove me in his mom’s tan Buick up the interstate and on over to near the Trumbull line.  There were few actual sidewalks out here, and certainly no corner stores.  The mall was nearby, however, and everyone seemed to own at least three lawnmowers.  I even saw a couple of kids kicking around what looked like a soccer ball on their front lawn.  Christ, was I still even in America?

The pool was one of those above-ground jobs that you had to climb a ladder up, and then down, into the over-chlorinated water below.  I’d only been in one like this a couple of times before, and, since I couldn’t swim, I’d had little incentive to seek opportunities to partake of this particular form of recreation very often.  Skinny and self-conscious, I did slowly sink into the chest-high cool soup, and instantly noticed Janice’s butt around eight inches from my face, as she climbed into the pool directly after I’d made a relatively safe landing.  Though not previously a big fan of Janice, she did now hold a certain biological sway over me that no evolutionary chain could break.

The tinny F.M. radio on the picnic table under the back upstairs deck over the driveway churned out tunes of the day, mostly just pop noise designed to hold your attention long enough to sell you that one missing item that would make you, if not quite cool, then at least not as big a loser as that other guy over there by himself with that bad haircut and that awful shirt.

Still, one or two songs (“Surrender,” by Cheap Trick, for example) happened to carve out an odd moment for themselves, to be frozen in time for no reason other than a fortuitous confluence of circumstance heightened by youthful sexual energy, and no obvious alternative to what for me was a pretty damned unique experience.

Chasing the girls around, one of them later stepped in dog-shit in the backyard, and the pool games weren’t quite going anywhere.  One of the moms or dads came over and said something or other that I blocked out while their mouth was still forming the syllables, and the false jauntiness of their eyes signaled an end to our nearly nude mirth and merriment.  Screw’em.

I slept over my friend’s house that night, the last night I would ever do so.  Within a year, he’d become a loud, obnoxious bore, and I’d grown my hair longer while finally landing a job at Carvel Ice Cream on Park Ave.  None of the girls from the pool party became a significant part of my life, though I think of them from time to time, and doubt I’ll ever hear the term “pool party” without thinking of that long ago afternoon.

When Danny dropped me off at my house the next day, I returned a changed young man.  Baseball was no longer the Big Thing in my life.  Within a few days, I sold my baseball glove to a younger kid in my neighborhood for six dollars.  It didn’t have much life left in it anyway, and sure enough, Johnny got mad at me (but didn’t stay mad for long), when the webbing broke a few weeks later.

I no longer owned a baseball glove, and wouldn’t again for a few more years.  And certainly, none of the gloves that I’ve owned in all those years since have logged nearly as many kid-hours as that first glove did in the streets and sandlots of Bridgeport.

This afternoon, after some deliberation, I bought a baseball glove for a friend of mine as a Christmas present.  A few years older than me, and a serious baseball fan, he told me he hasn’t owned a glove in many years.  It’s not for me to know why he has gone so long without one, or to inquire as to whatever happened to the mitts he’s owned in the past.  Such questions might be too personal.

But I’m hoping that with his new glove, he might casually put to closure whatever experience he may have had regarding the end of his last glove.  Unlikely that either of us will be invited over to a pool party anytime soon, perhaps we can, in the near future, simply enjoy a calm, hypnotic game of catch.

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 2 – Jerry Grote

This is the second installment of this series.  You can read Part 1 here.

As a young boy growing up a Mets fan in the 1970’s, I always liked Jerry Grote.  Looking at the back of his baseball card, I realized he wasn’t going to ever win a batting title, but watching him play on WOR-Channel 9, I watched him catch enough to know that he was a true professional behind the plate.

Even with the advances made in modern statistical calculations, including dWAR, it is difficult to put a real value on how much a catcher like Jerry Grote was worth to the Mets while he was their primary catcher from the late ’60’s through the mid ’70’s.  Thumbing through a copy of the 1974 Mets yearbook, I found this entry:

“Fortunes of Mets continued to revolve in great measure around availability of bulldoggish, fiery competitor ranked with elite N.L. receiving corps; Shea troupe’s decline began to set in after Ramon Hernandez pitch fractured his right arm bone in Pittsburgh May 11, while pennant push coincided with return to steady full-time duty July 21.”

Perennial stolen-base leader Lou Brock considered Jerry Grote the toughest catcher he ever tried to steal off of, and Johnny Bench himself once remarked that if he’d been on the same team as Grote, he (Bench) would have been relegated to third base with Grote being the regular catcher.

Joe Torre, who both played for and managed the Mets, once compared Grote to Johnny Bench and Ted Simmons.  He said that while Bench and Simmons were hitters that caught, Grote was a catcher who hit.  While that may have been an oversimplification of the abilities and careers these three fine players enjoyed, it does reflect on the high level of respect accorded to Grote by his contemporaries, especially concerning his defense.

Tom Seaver worked with a total of 25 catchers during his MLB career, including Grote, Bench and Carlton Fisk.  No catcher caught Seaver more than Grote did.  Grote was behind the plate for a Seaver start 239 times.  Bench was a distant second at 94 times.  Mets backup catcher Duffy Dyer caught Seaver 55 times.  Seaver made 395 starts as a Met.  Grote was behind the plate in 60% of those starts.  It’s hard to imagine Seaver developing quite the way he did without the defensive prowess of Jerry Grote.

Grote was the Mets starting catcher 1,105 times during his 11 1/2 seasons as a Met (1966-77.)  During that time, he was named to two All-Star teams, led N.L. catchers in putouts in 1970 and ’71, in Range Factor / Game six times, and in Fielding Percentage once.  He never led N.L. catchers in runners caught stealing largely because most base-runners just wouldn’t test his arm.

A .252 career hitter with just 39 career homers, Grote was never a great hitter, but he always viewed his defense as his primary job.  With Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and, a bit earlier, Nolan Ryan to catch, the question is, was his reputation partly enhanced by having the good fortune to catch those excellent pitchers, or were those pitchers so highly productive at least in part because they were lucky to have Jerry Grote behind the plate?

Certainly, a young pitching staff has a lot to learn, and a catcher as assertive and competent as Grote could only have reinforced their development.

Grote’s toughness behind the plate was legendary.  Out of San Antonio, Texas, Grote was an old school guy who was not afraid to call out Seaver or any of the other pitchers when they made a mistake.  He often had run-ins with umpires who earned his wrath, including one alleged incident when he allowed a pitched ball to hit an umpire in the mask.

Pitchers who shook him off could expect him to come barking out from behind home plate, so it didn’t happen very often.  And in 1988, seven years after he’d retired as an MLB catcher, Birmingham Barons manager Jerry Grote inserted himself into a game as his team’s catcher when no one else was available.  At age 42, it was the final time he suited up for a game.

Perhaps we should allow Tom Seaver to have the final word regarding the career of Jerry Grote.  Seaver once remarked on national television that even having had Bench and Fisk behind the plate at one time or another in his career, the finest catcher he ever enjoyed as a battery-mate was Jerry Grote.

If Jerry Grote  was good enough to win high praise from none other than Tom Seaver, who are the rest of us to judge?

Doubles, More Doubles, and Norm Miller

When I first began collecting baseball cards as a kid back in 1974, it quickly became apparent that the Topps Chewing Gum  Co. had a bit of a problem with quality control.  Not that I understood what that term meant, exactly, but the baseball cards themselves were often off-center, of varying degree of glossiness and / or brightness, and sometimes included print-spots that resembled extra-large zits on player’s faces.

To my young mind, worse than any of the above grievances was the issue of coming across the same faces numerous times, pack after wax pack.  Try as I might to come up with a Johnny Bench or a Reggie Jackson, invariably I would pull a Ray Fosse, a Jack Brohamer, or a Tom House.

Or, most frustratingly, for (literally) my money, a Norm Miller.

Norm Miller Atlanta Braves (Baseball Card) 1974 Topps #439

Norm Miller was a backup outfielder for the Atlanta Braves.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Miller, age 28, was entering his swan-song season in the Majors.  He broke in with the Astros in 1965 at age 19, but whatever the Astros first saw in this presumably hustling teenager, the bloom had long since faded from this particular flower.

The less sagacious Atlanta Braves, however, appeared to believe that there was still reason enough to carry Miller’s light bat at the end of a thin bench.  From that vantage point, at least Miller got to witness firsthand Henry Aaron’s final assault on Ruth’s home-run record.  There are worse ways to earn a living.

Perhaps subconsciously I was also coming to terms with the realization that, an aspiring outfielder myself, and also part of the vast and influential Clan Miller, I might also never amount to anything more than a backup outfielder with underwhelming statistics.

Miller’s citrus-smile mocked me throughout the last half of the ’74 school year, and the entire baseball season.  He looked like a man who wasn’t exactly a ball-player, but was happy enough to be wearing one of those uniforms, anyway.  His non-threatening, every-man demeanor was as reassuring as it was distressing.  Suppose I should strive and aspire to someday be someone — a man of note — only to be revealed to all the vast public as an impostor?

From mid-March, when I began collecting baseball cards, Norm Miller became the one constant in my life.  He followed me into my sleep, and into my dreams.  I was shagging fly balls in a perfect pasture of an outfield, when a Braves bullpen coach shouted at me to get off the field, grab a broom and start sweeping the dugout.  Ralph Garr mocked me as he sauntered over to the batting cage.  Johnny Oates flicked dirt from his cleats onto my little corner at the end of the bench.

Doubles, we called them.  Whenever you got two or more — it didn’t matter how many — of a certain card, we called them doubles.  I think perhaps some people still do.

In school, Miller became the answer to some of my math problems.  12×12?  No sweat.  That’s the pile of Norm Miller baseball cards on my bedroom floor.  If Norm Miller traveled on a train from Atlanta to Cincinnati at 15 miles per hour, and if Rowland Office was traveling from Atlanta to Chicago at 25 miles per hour, and you knew that Miller was going to go 0-4 with two strikeouts in the second game of a double-header, how many times would you play him for the rest of the year?

For my eleventh birthday in May, a Norm Miller birthday cake, not a Billy Miller birthday cake, should have been set on the table for all the children in my neighborhood to enjoy, each little candle a bat splinter from his Louisville Slugger.

Once, I even got two Norm Millers in one pack.  I’m ashamed to admit I began littering the ground that summer with unwanted Norm Miller cards on my way home from the A&G Market, my local grocery store of choice.  I wanted to ask Ann and Gus why they kept sticking Norm Miller cards in every single pack they sold me, but I was too young and still too intimidated by adults to be so rude.

If you were to dig up any section of asphalt on Bridgeport’s west end, I’m confident that even today, you would turn up a soiled and battered Norm Miller baseball card, his smile forever fixed on whatever it was he was focused on at that particular moment in his life.  Had he just finished a nice pancake breakfast?  Were his eyebrows clipped just the way he liked them?  Was there a cute girl waving at a player behind him, and he mistakenly thought she was a fan of his?

Norman Calvin Miller, I estimate that you owe me at least $12.50 for all the dimes I spent on you back in the summer of ’74, and I won’t even figure in inflation.  When you read this, and I know that you are still keeping tabs on my life, please leave the envelope full of dimes on the top of my bureau at my old address in Bridgeport.  I’m confident that it’ll find me.

In his final career at bat, on September 16, 1974 at Candlestick Park, Norm Miller, pinch-hitting against Giants pitcher Jim Barr, struck out.  I like to think he went down swinging, for all of us.

Mediocrity, and Mets Fans Life: Part 4

So you’ve come back for more.  Welcome to the final installment of this series.  Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, should you feel the need to read them.

Now, boys and girls, away we go with Part 4.

1990-92:  Funny how relatively recent history, even personal history, can sometimes seem harder to recall than events of the more distant past.  When I think of the early ’90’s, I mostly recall my days drinking beer in the Old Port in Portland, Maine, my college classes at USM (I hated “Media and Politics” but loved “History of the Middle East”), sporadically dated a girl named ‘Becca (strange relationship, that one), tagged and shipped thousands of items in the L.L. Bean warehouse, and made two trips to the good ‘ole USSR.

Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist ...

Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1958 to 1991 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I could go on for several thousand words about my two trips to a superpower that was on the verge of disintegration.  What I can tell you are three things:  1)  No one saw it coming  2)  The Russian / Ukrainian people are just like us, and, at the same time, couldn’t be more unlike us  and 3)  I brought a Ukrainian girl home with me.

In May, 1990, on a student exchange with Kharkov University, Kharkov, USSR, I got to live with a Ukrainian family in this city replete with 1950’s Stalinist architecture, about twice the size of Atlanta, for one week.  Kharkov is about 280 miles from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone.

A friend of mine lived with a family whose oldest daughter (let’s call her Valentina) often accompanied our little American / Soviet group on bus trips to various sites. (Gotta love those Soviet field trips.  “Please remember not to take pictures of our railroads or infrastructure!”)

The Russians often tried to impress us Americans with the sheer size of everything in their country.  One day, while passing a humongous factory in our railroad car, our Russian handler told us that this was the largest factory of its kind in the world, but, due to a shortage of spare parts, most of the tractors didn’t work.

Another time, we were shown a cannon in Moscow that was the biggest cannon of its time, used to face-down Napoleon in the early 19th century.  Unfortunately, it was so big, and required so much gunpowder, that it’s barrel cracked after the first time it was fired, so could no longer be used.  Then we were shown a replica of the world’s biggest chandelier, a beautiful, ornate monster that must have weighed as much as a T-34 Tank.  It was so big, we were told, that it couldn’t be hung from a ceiling for fear of it falling down and crushing someone beneath it.

This became the basis of a joke that would inevitably lead us to skewer the Soviet political system.  As we joked to ourselves, unkindly mocking our hosts, “We have the biggest cannon, but it is too big to use.  We have the biggest chandelier, but it is too big to use.  We have the biggest factories, but they, too, are too big to use.  And we also have the world’s most liberal Constitution.  Unfortunately, it is so liberal, we can’t use it.”

One thing led to another, and Valentina, a dark and mysterious girl who loved American jokes and jeans, but preferred the fatalism of the Russian soul to what we like to call “American Optimism,” became my girl, for a while.

Last time we met was a low lit room / We was close together as a bride and groom”

On a trip to Brooklyn, N.Y. in late 1991, Valentina was in the car with myself and my friend James, and a Russian dude of unknown origin (she had Russian contacts in America through her dad, a well-placed bureaucrat in the Russian government machine.)

“You led me on with those innocent eyes / You know I love the element of surprise”

On our way over the Brooklyn Bridge, she looked over at the amazing skyline of Manhattan, particularly over at the Twin Towers, and declared, as simply as you might discuss your favorite kind of salad dressing, “Someday, those will be destroyed.  All of this will be destroyed.”  By this time, we’d been together for several months, and she was already becoming more than a little weird to live with, so I wasn’t perhaps quite as patient or diplomatic as perhaps I should have been.  I said, “Honey, what the hell are you talking about?  This is Manhattan.  Who the hell is gonna destroy Manhattan?!”

We ate the food / Drank the Wine / Everyone having a good time / Except you, you were talking about the end of the world.”

I knew that she didn’t mean the USSR would be the culprit.  Hell, she and I both knew by that time what a lame fiasco her nation had become.  But that moment came back to me and froze me in place when I saw the news coming out of New York City on 9/11.

“In the garden I was playing guitar / I kissed your lips and broke your heart / You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.”

Valentina has been out of my life now for 20 years.  I heard she moved out west and joined a cult.  It wouldn’t surprise me.  But whenever I hear mention of Russia, or listen to the song featured in the music video below, I still think of her.

It’s easy to forget that amidst all this travel and confusion, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from USM in May of 1992, after five years of study, with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.  Now what?

1993:  After the personal and international debacle that was the Soviet Union, I felt a need to reach out and embrace America in the most impractical way possible, I would drive across the entire country by myself.  I set out a couple of days after a monster March snowstorm that shut down the eastern seaboard from Maine to northern Virginia, arriving in Nashville, TN a couple of days later on a freezing, 25-degree morning.  My brother, Mark, was attending Western Washington State U. at the time in Bellingham, WA, a couple of hours outside of Seattle, and I decided to make the 3,000 mile journey out there to visit him and stay a few days.

Driving along I-40 through Memphis, this was the first time I’d ever crossed the Mississippi River.  The desert southwest, where I visited some relatives I hadn’t seen in ten years, was a revelation.  From the pine trees of Flagstaff, AZ down to the desert below, I had never experienced such a variety of climate and terrain in my life.  Some places, such as Kingman, AZ, Barstow and Bakersfield, CA each seemed to be a place I’d once seen in a movie set, perhaps a Sci-Fi monster movie from the 1950’s, (Them!) or a backdrop for an old Bogart film (They Drive By Night.)  I knew one thing.  I’d never be caught dead in any of those places after sundown.

Eventually arriving in Bellingham (Fairhaven, actually), I met my brother in a local coffee shop with his friend, Steve.  This was one of the coolest, most relaxing vacations I’d ever been on.  We were living virtually at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, we drove into Seattle a couple of times, and one day, we drove all the way on up to Vancouver, where I suddenly remembered that I should probably call my boss over at L.L. Bean to let him know where I was and that I’d probably be away from work for a while.  The conversation, as I recall, from a red pay phone booth in Vancouver, went something like this:

“Hey, Russ.  This is Bill Miller.”

“Hi Bill, you calling in sick today?”

“Ah, not exactly, Russ.  I had to make an emergency trip out-of-state.”

“Oh, you gonna be back tomorrow?”

“Not likely, Russ.  I’m in Vancouver, and I’m gonna need a leave of absence for about a week or so.”

“Vancouver, Canada?  Jesus H. Christ!  (Pause)…So there’s no way you can make it back by tomorrow?  We’re really swamped here, what with fishing season just around the corner.”

“Sorry, Russ, I drove out here, so it’s gonna take a while to get back to Maine.”

“You drove out there?  Well, see if you can make it back by next Tuesday or Wednesday.”

“O.K., thanks, Russ.  I’ll see you in about a week.  I owe you one.”

Russ was a good guy, but would have been in over his head in a glass of water.

Twelve days later, I was back in Maine.  My first day back at the L.L. Bean warehouse, Russ came over and said, “You feel like tagging items upstairs in Zone 50?”  “Sure, man,” I responded.  Just like old times.

Meanwhile, over at Shea Stadium, the Mets were on a journey of their own, from excellence to mediocrity, (why stop there?) and on down to awfulness.

In 1990, led by an unbelievable rotation of Frank Viola (2o wins) Dwight Gooden (19 wins) David Cone (233 K’s), Sid Fernandez (just 6.5 hits / 9 innings) and Ron Darling, the Mets won 91 games and finished in second place in their division.  Recall this is the same year as my first happy visit to Russia.

1991:  Gooden and Viola are now just ordinary pitchers, Cone gets zero run support, and Wally freakin’ Whitehurst replaces El Sid in the rotation.  37-year old former Yankee Rick Cerone is our glossy new catcher.  The wheels have now completely fallen off of the 23-year old Greg Jefferies bandwagon.  Dave Magadan is the most boring Mets player of all-time.  Ho-Jo enjoys a 30-30 season that almost no one seems to notice.  Even Hubie Brooks, once shipped off to Montreal in the Gary Carter trade, has now been reunited with the Mets, perhaps to fully recall and embrace the losing years of the early ’80’s.  Outfielder Kevin McReynolds foreshadows Jason Bay by nearly 20 years.

The Mets win just 77 games, good for 5th place.

1992:  The Mets are now fully locked into their “Lose Now” strategy.  They sign free agent Bobby Bonilla in the off-season to shore up their offense, and he repays the Mets confidence with 19 homers and a .249 batting average.  The grounds crew unearths a pair of fossils on the right side of the infield.  It is later determined by forensic experts that they were once Eddie Murray and Willie Randolph.  The Mets slide down to 72 wins.   Recall that this is the year both the USSR and my relationship with my Soviet-era significant other disintegrate.

1993:  I’m thousands of miles away from Anthony Young, and his 1-16 record, so I consider this year a success on my part, even as it’s an unmitigated disaster at Shea Stadium.  The Mets have hit bottom (again), and my time at L.L. Bean is also nearly done as well.  The good news is that I join my first fantasy baseball league with a couple of friends from L.L. Bean’s.  The league lasts 15 years before finally disbanding.

1994:  Is my last year at L.L. Bean.  To this day, the seven and a half years I spent at Bean’s are the most I have ever worked at any one single location in my life.  I had studied in the ETEP (Extended Teacher Education Program) through USM to be a teacher during the fall / spring of 1993-94.  So in early August, 1994, just as the baseball season ground to a tragic halt due to management-labor strife, I quit L.L. Bean and moved up to a little town called Penobscot along the Maine coast (Northern Bay) to be a sixth grade public school teacher.

As it turned out, one year in a small Maine town far from friends and family, was enough for me.  But I must say that working in a school where nearly every single teacher had a basement bar in their home certainly did help me get through the long winter.  I managed to get food poisoning once from eating a tainted raw clam, and I used up two entire cords of wood heating my small, rented home.  The year was quite an experience, but not one I’d be anxious to repeat.

1995:  A period of general flux and instability.  To continue to teach, or not to teach?  A year away from teaching convinced me that I wanted to get back at it, and as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, through my friend Steve and my brother Mark, I started working part-time at a place called Advanced Systems in Measurement in Dover, NH, overlooking Cocheco Falls, while I was now living in Gorham, ME., about an hour away.  We scored, using a rubric, the standardized tests taken by children in grades four, eight and eleven from various states around the nation.  Coffee, reading, grading, more coffee, reading, grading, etc.  Not a bad deal.  Low-stress work for which we were paid a “competitive” wage.

In a shortened, 144-game season, the Mets finished just six games under .500, but manager Dallas Green was already on his way to destroying the arms of three fine young prospects:  Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen (“Isringhausen”, it turns out, is German for “elbow inflammation.”)

1996-97:  Another year and a half at Advanced Systems.  By the late summer of ’97, I knew two things:  1)  I was going to start teaching again in the fall and 2)  I really liked the girl who kept approaching me to double-check the student papers she was scoring.  She would feign confusion over what to make of a particular paragraph written by a student so that she could come and visit me over at my table two or three times a day.

I was now “Table Leader” of a group of six people, surely the least impressive middle-management job in the nation.  For some reason, this young woman seemed to take a liking to me, and couldn’t quite figure out what to make of me, since I so obviously couldn’t care less about the job, yet seemed to take it reasonably seriously.  (This has been the undercurrent of a good portion of my adult life.)

Meanwhile in 1996, the Mets win their normal 71 games.  But in 1997, the year I go back to teaching, and, more importantly, begin dating my future wife, Christa, the Mets really begin turning things around.  The ’97 Mets, with Bobby Valentine at the helm (before he completely lost his Goddamned mind), turned it around with a respectable 88 wins.  Better years were ahead.

1998-2000:  Christa and I date for a couple of years, then I propose to her in a little park in the North End of Boston, and we are married in the fall of 1999.  We get ourselves a little apartment in Sanford, Maine, I nearly punch out my redneck neighbor who makes a pass at my wife, and we have one snowstorm that lasts three full days.  I’m a special education teacher at Gorham High School, and Christa is working at the University of New Hampshire in the computer lab.

It’s a good life, and we’re happy.  No kids yet, plenty of money, and enough time to have fun together.  My job as a special ed. teacher is extremely challenging, but I grow to love my kids.  We are saving money for a house, and looking forward to starting a family together.  It took me a hell of a long time to get to this point, but it was worth the wait.

The Mets again win 88 games in 1998, then accumulate an impressive 97 wins in 1999.  They make it to the playoffs in ’99, where they lose to the Braves, 4 games to 2.

In the year 2000, New York has its first Subway Series in many decades.  Unfortunately, only one team comes to play baseball, and it’s not the Mets.  The Mets win just a single game to the Yankees as ‘Roid Rage Roger Clemens throws a piece of broken bat at Mike Piazza after Piazza’s bat shatters and a piece of it nearly hits Clemens.  Piazza looks at Clemens as if Clemens has lost his mind.

If only Piazza had charged the mound that day, it might have lit a fire under the Mets collective asses.  Still, a trip to the World Series, and an N.L. Pennant does not a bad season make.  Who knew that from that day to this, the Mets would enjoy only one more trip to the playoffs (2006), and no more visits to the World Series?

Over the past dozen years, I have been a very fortunate man.  I taught at the high school level for a dozen years.  My own family has grown and prospered.  We moved from snows of Maine to relative warmth of South Carolina about three years ago.  While America has experienced horror upon horror over the past decade, one tragedy almost appearing to lead somehow to the next, I have settled into a middle-aged man’s emotional toolbox of  regret, bemusement, and acceptance over the things I’ve done, the things I’ve left undone, and the short time I may have left to do the things worth doing.

My family is my strength, and my reason for being.  I am thankful for the friends I’ve made, even for the ones I’ve lost along the way, and for the ones I’ve met through this blog.

Thank you, all of you, for reading, for caring just a bit, and for listening.

I hope this series has been worth reading.  It has been, in an unexpected way for me, a necessary and useful investment of time and energy which I intend never to repeat.

Cheers, Bill

Mediocrity, and a Mets Fans Life: Part 3

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, if you need catching up.

1983:  Is a hard year to write about.  Not because anything truly awful happened back then, but because it was such a waste of year.  For the past couple of decades, my best friend, James and I have always maintained that 1983 was the worst year ever.  Neither of us could provide you with specific reasons or examples of this awfulness, yet we definitely felt this in an almost visceral way as ’83 unfolded around us.  In other words, we’d hit bottom.  Tired of ourselves.  Tired of our aimlessness.  Tired of wasting time.  It was fun once, but now we simply hated where it was all headed, which is to say, precisely nowhere.

But, as they say (“they” have a lot of wisdom, and, apparently, a lot of freakin’ time on their hands), you have to hit bottom before you can bounce back up.  So, in keeping with that old adage, I started to do something I’d never done before.  I started to think about going to college.  Frankly, I’d had enough of the Working Class Hero bullshit.  Since Reagan, it was clear there was no money in it anymore.  Now, as the song said, “All you need are looks and a whole lot of money.”  Several people I’d known in high school were now halfway through college, and these folks were not what anyone would call the Kolbe High School Brain-Trust.  So, for the first time in my life, I started to save up money for college.

Apparently, the Mets had also finally had enough of their losing ways.  Sure, they finished the year 68-94, another last place season.  But more importantly, they’d begun to set the foundation for future success.  Rookie Darryl Strawberry, the first excellent position player the Mets had ever developed, enjoyed a fine season, slugging 26 home runs in just 420 at bats.  Perhaps even more importantly, the Mets traded pitcher Neil Allen to the Cardinals for first baseman Keith Hernandez.  Keith instantly gave the Mets a credibility they’d lacked since they’d traded away Tom Seaver several years before.

1984:  Nothing much happened.  It took a year like this to make 1985 possible.  I guess I must have saved up some money.  I worked for most of the year at a light-industrial shop making some sort of things that were sold to the Department of Defense.  All the big money was in defense in those days.  But I was sticking to my plan.

As for the Mets, a shooting star named Dwight Gooden exploded onto the scene.  In his rookie year, he led the N.L. in strikeouts with 276 in just 218 innings.  He just made it all look so easy.  And the Mets, astonishingly, won 90 games for the first time since their improbable 100 win season back in ’69.  Clearly, happy days were here again.

1985:  In the mid-80’s, not a lot of culturally very important moments were taking place, though blues guitarists Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan were shining bright for anyone who cared to notice.  As for me, well, I’d landed a new job at a local bank through a friend of mine.  It was perhaps the coolest, easiest job I’ve ever had.  Automatic Teller Machines were just becoming nearly universal at that time, and the banks decided that they needed a stable of on-call drivers to attend to the simpler tasks of refilling the machines with cash, clearing jammed bills, changing the receipt tape, etc.

The beauty of the job was that we could camp out in a local bar and wait for our beepers to go off before we hit the road.  I worked the late shift from 5:30-midnight with a friend of mine.  We’d drive from Fairfield down the Connecticut coast all the way as far as Greenwich, or as far west as Danbury.  Some of the girls who rode with us were very cute, and, strictly against the rules, sometimes we’d even occasionally pick up a friend and bring him with us.  I was 22-years old, the money was easy, the summer was a lot of fun, and I was still sticking to the plan.

Dwight Gooden at Candlestick Park in San Franc...

Dwight Gooden at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, CA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Shea Stadium, the Mets were having a fantastic season, ultimately winning 98 games, but couldn’t quite catch the damned Cardinals.  New addition Gary Carter, along with Keith Hernandez, Gooden, Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, and pitchers Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez as well as a brash young rookie named Lenny Dykstra, were playing with a swagger never quite seen before in Queens.

Gooden finished the season with 1.53 ERA and lost just four of 35 starts.  In my mind, it was the greatest pitching season I’ve still ever seen in my life.  The Mets were now New York’s team, and it felt great to be a Mets fan.

1986:  An odd and fantastic year.  My gig at the bank continued through the summer, and I now even had a radio show on a college radio station with my friend Dave, WVOF-Fairfield.  It was a college radio station, and we got to play anything and everything we desired, from bits of Monty Python albums, to Classic Rock, Prog Rock, Alternative Rock, and the Blues.  “Take the Skinheads bowling, take them bowling!”  I was also going to make a break for it, escaping southern Connecticut for the comparative wilds of Maine.  But that wouldn’t come until the day after Thanksgiving.  Until then, I got to enjoy the Mets epic adventure of a season.

In the National League, there really was no competition against the Mets in 1986.  The Mets led the league in most offensive and pitching statistics.  They won 108 games.  Gooden became the first pitcher in MLB history to post three consecutive 200-K seasons to begin a career (and he had just turned 21.)  Their clubhouse was a mess, and Davy Johnson, though he did his best and was a very intelligent manager, was probably in a bit over his head with this group.  Game Six of the N.L.C.S vs. Houston is still the greatest game I’ve ever seen played in my life.  It was a roller-coaster ride, an epic 16-inning classic.

For the benefit of any Red Sox fan who might still be reading, I won’t recount the history of the ’86 World Series.  I will say, though, that when Dykstra hit a lead-off home run at Fenway Park in Game Three, my friend Gregor dunked his beeper in a pitcher of beer, and there it remained until the game was over.  Just a few weeks later, I landed in a distant corner of snowy, York County, Maine.

Luther Bonney, Masterton Hall, and the Science...

Luther Bonney, Masterton Hall, and the Science building at USM’s Portland Campus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1987-89:  I combine these years because they were all a bit of a blur.  It seemed like, except for a few short, warm days every year, it was always winter.  Also, I’d never seen so many white people in one place in my entire life.  Being a white guy myself who’d moved from a place where white was just one color in the social fabric, it quickly became apparent that the denizens of York County (and later, Cumberland County, just up the road where they had roads) were of a species I’d never encountered before.

Meanwhile, I had finally enrolled at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham / Portland, Maine.  I was to major in Political Science, though I wasn’t really sure what the hell I was going to do with a Poli-Sci degree.  All I knew was that it felt right to finally be going back to school, long after many of my high school classmates had already graduated.  I had also begun working at L.L. Bean in Freeport.  But we’ll save that story for later.

Next up, a wild ride through the ’90s!

Mediocrity, and a Mets Fans Life: Part 2

If you read Part 1 of this series, you already know what to expect from the next three installments.  If not, here’s the last paragraph of the introduction:

Looking back over the nearly fifty years that I’ve been alive, I can’t help but feel a certain affinity for this extended mediocrity.  What I’ve decided to do is to take a look back at the last 38 years of my life, and compare them to that same year in Met’s history.  I hope you enjoy this casual biography of a man and his baseball team, in four excruciating installments.

When last we met, I was in my final year of high school, had smoked pot for the first time in the bathroom of my Catholic high school, had attended a dance with a girl I didn’t particularly like, and witnessed perhaps the worst pitching staff in the history of the New York Mets.

Shall we proceed on to 1981?  I will do so with mixed feelings of trepidation and nostalgia.  You’re going to want to sit down for this one.

1981:  In October of 12th grade, a yearbook form was distributed to each of us to fill out so that the traditional non sequiturs, meaningless dates, pledges, lyrics from our favorite Rock songs and other forms of generalized nonsense could be included under our final high school picture.  I sat there with a couple of friends of mine, who happened to be Hispanic-Americans, and we brainstormed what kind of junk we could include.

One of my friends suggested the Spanish translation of “My Penis is Itching!”  (something like, Me Pica La Pinga!)  So, of course, I duly noted it on my form, in Spanish.  The lead editor of our yearbook (who was very cute; I asked her to the Prom, but she turned me down), was also one of the Spanish teachers, so I figured this would be a cool way to cause her some minor embarrassment when she inevitably edited out that particular statement.  I assumed she’d come to me in a week or two, form in hand, and kindly request that I write something else to put under my picture.

Except she never came to see me.

As the weeks went by, I completely forgot about what I had written on that form.   Christmas Vacation came and went, and the final countdown to graduation day was upon us.  By the end of March, with the first hint of spring in the air, I was already making plans for summer vacation, except it wasn’t going to be summer vacation, it was going to be the rest of my life, a concept I still couldn’t quite grasp.

Then, sometime in April, my name was called over the school intercom.  I was in the middle of Mrs. Wulster’s English class (I liked her very much; she regularly called us barbarians,) when my name was called sometime around late morning.  Not once in my four years of high school had my name ever been called over the school intercom.  Usually, this was not at all a good thing.  When Sister Jeanette, the principal called you down, the odds were about 1 in 3 that you had spent your last day at Kolbe-Cathedral High School.  Around 30% of the boys I had started Kolbe with were already long gone.

Sitting in Sister Jeanette’s office, I could tell she was not about to ask me to make the commencement speech at our graduation ceremony.  Her face was waxy and her hands seemed fidgety, yet carnivorous.  She looked at me and said, “William, do you know why I called you down here to my office?”  I quite honestly responded, “No.”

“William, the yearbook staff was here until nearly 6:30 yesterday evening trying to undo the damage you’ve done to the yearbook. ”  I looked at her blankly, awareness just beginning to dawn regarding what she was talking about.

“Are you even aware what words appear in Spanish under your yearbook picture?”  I murmured, “I don’t think I remember,” an outright lie at this point.  Easily forty lashes in Purgatory.

I watched her steel herself to tell me, in English, the heinous words that appeared under my picture.  I felt sure that she’d never uttered any words like this before in her life.  Assuming the floor beneath my chair wasn’t about to open up and drop me straight into Hell’s Everlasting Fire, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends.

“William,” she started, then paused dramatically, though perhaps not intentionally, “You wrote, ‘My Penis is Itching.'”

She then informed me that the only reason she wasn’t going to expel me from school then and there was because graduation was just five weeks away.  She told me I had to apologize to each and every member of the yearbook staff, and…that was it.  I apologized to her, the bell rang signaling the end of Third Period, and I went directly to first lunch to tell my friends what had happened.

A week or so later, we all received our yearbooks.  Everyone went directly to the page which included my picture.  Under my picture, in every single yearbook that year, was a little white piece of white-out tape covering the infamous words.  First thing everyone did, of course, was peel off that tape.  Under the tape, the short, four-world declarative sentence had also been inked over by some sort of black marker or felt-tip pen.  Then someone realized that if you held the page up to the light, you could still read it!  After that, I couldn’t walk down the hallways of Kolbe without someone either high-fiving me, or sneering at me, depending on their point of view of the situation.

As you can imagine, I still count this as one of the few outright successes of my life, a true high point if ever there was one.  I also knew that Instant Karma was gonna get me, sure as you can say, “Me Pica La Pinga!”

Fortunately, 1981 also saw a work stoppage in Major League Baseball, so the awful Mets were mercifully allowed to play just 105 of their scheduled 162 games, more than enough as it turned out, as the Mets winning percentage was just .398 in ’81.  The lone bright spot this time was rookie third baseman Hubie Brooks, who batted .307 in Joe Torre’s final season as Mets manager.  I like to think that both Torre and I managed to escape our awkward circumstances the very same year, and we each had a prominent place in a yearbook as well.

1982:  Well, freedom from Catholic high school was not all fun and games after-all.  I had quit working at Carvel Ice Cream during the late summer of 1981, and had gone on to work at U.P.S.  I had no idea what else to do with my life.  Neither of my parents had made it past tenth grade, and we didn’t have a lot of money for college, so I thought I would work for a living, just like everyone who had ever come before me in my family had done.  Only, UPS sucked.  After nearly two years of being harassed by managers who wore brown shirts, black boots and herded us to and from our ten minute breaks under watchful eyes, I’d had enough.

Image representing UPS  as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

On a side note, my cousin Jimmy had bugged me for months to get him in to UPS, because the money was good.  I told him repeatedly that he would hate it there.  He kept pestering me until I finally told a union rep that I had a cousin who wanted a shot at loading the big-rigs from 10:30 pm to 2:30 am, the same shift as me.  Jimmy got his opportunity one late summer night, meeting me in the dirt parking lot out back in his ’78 Camaro.  We were assigned different departments, so I didn’t see Jim again ’till break-time.

At around 12:40 am, I saw him walking towards me, slump-shouldered and defeated.

“I’m done,” was all he said.

I just said, “What?  Man, you’ve only been here for two hours.”

“No, I’m all done.  Your were right, this place is terrible.”  Jimmy walked out of the huge warehouse, and went on to work for Bradlees over at the Dock Shopping Center in Stratford.

On my final night, about a year later, an assistant manager came into my steamy truck, frowning purposefully.

“Miller, you allowed this package into this truck.  The zip code is for Stonington.”

Packages fell off the conveyor belt into the back of the truck at a rate of around a dozen per second.  I had two rigs to load in the next three hours.  I just looked at him and said, “I didn’t ‘let’ in into my truck, it fucking fell on its own,” which was clear even to a douche-bag like him, since he had to step over a mound of packages to come see me.

“Miller, you have to sign this form right here acknowledging that you allowed this unauthorized package into your truck.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Then I’ll have to fire you.”  He was clearly moving in for the kill.  Another notch on his fucking belt.  Clearly pushing for district supervisor some day.  Then he could sit in his fucking little office, going over the days production forms, sipping crummy coffee, day-dreaming of the day he could afford a split-ranch in Trumbull.  Fuck him.

“What happens if I sign it?”

“Then the manager will decide what disciplinary action is appropriate.”

“I want to talk to my union steward.”

“Well, you can’t.  Sign this or you’re fired.”

“I have a right to speak with my union steward.”

“Sign this form, or you’re fired.  Last warning.”

Before I could really think about what I was doing, I threw the small, brown package I had in my hand during this entire conversation at him as hard as I could, narrowly missing his head.  He looked stunned, then said, “You’re fired!”  I burst out of the back of the truck, climbed over the wall of packages that had formed there, and left.  On my way out, I saw my union steward.

“Where the fuck were you when I needed you.”  His mouth opened to respond.  “I just got fired,” I told  him.

“Come to the manager’s office tomorrow morning” he told me.  “I’ll be there.”

On my way out the door, the radio that piped in Rock music for the workers was playing, “Train in Vain,” by The Clash.  It was one of my favorites, and felt right to hear on my last night at UPS.

Next morning, I had already made up my mind that I was all done with this place, but I thought I’d get my say in any way.  Walking in to the manager’s unremarkable office, I was told to sit down.  My union steward was already there, and it was clear that the two of them had been discussing this situation for a while before I got there.

“We’ve decided that, if you sign this form, we’ll give you another chance,” the manager, a half-digested piece of carrion informed me.  Every worker he had ever dug a knife into was a pockmarked scar on his face.  I looked over at my union steward for guidance, though I really didn’t give a damn at this point.  He shook his head no at me.

“Don’t sign it,” was all he said.  Now I was confused.  Clearly, if I didn’t sign it, I’d be all done.

“Sign here, ” the manager said as he leaned forward, pen and paper in hand, acidic coffee breath escaping into my face.  Again, I looked over at the union man, expecting him to explain to me exactly why I shouldn’t sign it.  He said not a work, just stared into space, and shook his head again back and forth.  What the fuck was his problem?  Was he having a mild stroke or something?  I looked back and forth at these two men, each in their thirties, and decided I’d had enough of this pantomime little opera.

“O.K., guys,” I began, not knowing exactly where I was going with this.  I looked at the manager and said quietly, “You can shove that paper right up your ass.”  Then I turned to union man and added, “Thanks for nothing, asshole.”  I got up, walked out the door, which I did not slam behind me, and left that place for good.

I can’t say for sure if I got fired, or if I quit, so I’ll call that entire episode a draw.  Not the best of times, but surely not the worst of times, either.  I was still only nineteen-years old.  I went down to Seaside Park, cracked open a beer, and watched the sun burn away the day.

That same year, the Mets upped their winning percentage to .401.  Thirty-seven of Dave Kingman’s forty-seven extra base hits that year were home runs, but in 607 plate appearances, he hit just .204.  Free agent bust George Foster slugged just 13 homers while posting a .247 batting average.  Staff “ace” Craig Swan managed to win 11 games.

Clearly, over in Queens, things were faring no better for the Mets than they were for me.  Perhaps 1983 would bring better times.

And so, my friends, let’s end this post right here and right now.  I’ve had enough, and in all probability, so, too, have you. We’ll resume this series when I can remember what the hell happened to me in ’83.

Thanks for riding along with me.

Mediocrity, and a Mets Fan’s Life

Mediocrity is nothing to brag about.  We don’t normally start out as kids seeking the truest, straightest path towards mediocrity.  We are proud and happy when, as my older son just experienced, we come home from school with straight A’s on a report card.  We enjoy it very much when our boss gives us a glowing annual review.  And when our spouse is happy, we understand that it’s a good idea to be happy, too.

Yet, if one was to measure one’s life in retrospect in any objective way, it might become all too apparent to many of us that we’ve lived thoroughly mediocre lives.  Surely, we’ve had our high points.  The birth of our first child.  The one time we dated that really hot girl at work.  (Note that the first example is not often a direct result of the second example.)  The moment when we received our high school, or college diploma.  The time when we didn’t forget our boss’s wife’s name at a dinner party.

The failures are there, too, ready to sabotage our happier moments with their dreadful memories.  Dropping what would have been the winning touchdown pass in a high school football game.  Nervously stuttering through a presentation among colleagues at work.  Drafting Bip Roberts instead of Robin Roberts in your all-time fantasy baseball draft.  Mistaking her harmless friendliness for something more personal and intimate.  I’ve got a truckload of those types of memories.

Which brings me to the Mets.

As far as I can tell, (and I wasted nearly fifteen minutes researching this on Baseball-Reference.com), I became a Mets fan on or about August 12, 1974.  Since that date, the Mets have won exactly 3,012 regular season games, and have lost 3,065.  That works out to a .496 win-loss percentage.  That’s just 53 more losses than wins, spread  over 38 seasons.  I will be rooting for the Mets to win their first 53 consecutive games this year just so I can say that they’ve been the most perfectly mediocre team in baseball since I’ve been following the Great Game.

Looking back over the nearly fifty years that I’ve been alive, I can’t help but feel a certain affinity for this extended mediocrity.  What I’ve decided to do is to take a look back at the last 38 years of my life, and compare them to that same year in Met’s history.  I hope you enjoy this casual biography of a man and his baseball team, in four excruciating installments.

Shea Stadium

Shea Stadium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1974:  I am eleven years old, and make a baseball card of myself and my brother.  Apparently I hit .725 that year in sandlot ball.  I sit behind Joanne Beaudry in Math class.  She spends the entire year turning around flirting with me.  Her fingernails are often dirty.  I am terrified of Joanne, and of girls in general.   I’m also terrified of the snarling, frothing dog that is barely contained behind a short metal fence I pass on my way to and from school.  The Mets finish the year with a record of 71-91, in fifth place.  Tom Seaver has a rare off-year, posting a record of 11-11.  John Milner leads the team in runs scored with 70.

1975:  My friends Scott and Johnny have an argument over which member of the Rock band Kiss is the coolest.  Johnny, nearly four years younger than Scott, and a foot shorter, grabs Scott by the mid-section, wrestles him to the ground and pummels him.  Apparently, it turns out that Ace Frehley really was the coolest member of the band.  Tom Seaver rebounds to win his third and final Cy Young award.  The Mets tantalize on a daily basis, finishing the year 82-80, holding out tenuous promise for better things ahead.  Rusty Staub sets a Mets record with 105 RBI, and owns a restaurant in Manhattan.

1976:  My body begins to change in several different embarrassing ways.  I discuss this with no one.  My Catholicism convinces me that everything that I might do, think, or say about this topic would be a mortal sin.  Anna Corrales, three rows and several romantic light-years away from me, never looked so good.  My family and I vacation in Quebec, and I witness an elderly woman getting hit by a car.  Also on that vacation, a small boy at a table next to ours in a restaurant falls and hits his head on the table’s edge, blood all over the place.  Meanwhile, the Mets perform unexpectedly well, posting a record of 86-76.  They wouldn’t have a season that successful again for seven years.  Waive goodbye to Rusty Staub, and hello to 35-year old pitcher Mickey Lolich, who manages to win eight games.

Tom Seaver

Tom Seaver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1977:  I graduate second in my class from junior high school, winning numerous academic awards, then receive the first “D” and the first “F” of my life in my first semester of my first year in a Catholic high school.  I tryout for the school baseball team.  My job is to run a mile or two in the cold March mud, then drag a huge duffel bag full of bats down several flights of stairs to the supply room after each practice.  I decide I hate organized baseball, and quit the lousy team after three weeks.  David Johnson, a kid who sits and draws comics almost all day throughout all of his classes, becomes my best friend through high school.  The bottom absolutely drops out at Shea Stadium.  The Mets trade Tom Seaver for a clutch of Romanian strippers, four Mars Bars, and a case of orange Fanta.  The Fanta is flat.  The Mets fall to last place, posting a 64-98 record.  Lenny Randle, who hits .304 and steals 33 bases, is the sole reason to watch this miserable team.

1978:  Almost every kid in my high school is hooked on disco (except for one girl who dresses like David Bowie.)  My mom gets a job downtown as a secretary, and I visit her sometimes on my way home from school, just four blocks away. We have two major snowstorms that year, and miss around two weeks of school, which is fine with me because I’ve come to the conclusion that Catholic school sucks.  Unfortunately, the public high schools in my town are more famous for their crime reports than their academic records, so I keep my mouth shut and tolerate the experience as one would tolerate a novocaine-free root-canal.  The Mets are completely hopeless as well, finishing 30 games under .500 under manager Joe (It’s All About the Eyebrows) Torre.  23-year old center-fielder Lee Mazzilli becomes the heart throb of Queens.

Remington Arms

Remington Arms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1979:  My dad comes home early one summer day from his job at Remington Arms.  He surprises me by not saying anything at all, going into his room, pulling the shades down, and going to sleep.  It wasn’t until later that I learned that a friend of his had accidentally blown himself in half at Remington Arms where they both worked.  Apparently, some gunpowder had ignited in the heat.  They had given dad a tranquilizer and sent him on his way, half a day off with pay.  See you bright and early tomorrow morning.  I got my first, considerably safer job slinging ice cream at Carvel’s on Park Ave.  At $2.25 an hour, I would now be able to hang out with my friends in style.  The Mets slog through a 63-99-1 season (yes, an official tie, like in hockey.)  Craig Swan is by far and away their best pitcher, going 14-13.  Their roster is littered with the sorry remains of Elliot Maddox, Willie Montanez, Richie Hebner, Kevin Kobel and Dock Ellis.

1980:  I am now straddling the line between my junior and senior years of high school.  A kid named Mike, apparently a refugee from Central High School, introduces me to marijuana in the school bathroom.  Well, it was either that or Ms. Ligouri’s English class.  I also attend my first high school dance, and spend most of the evening discovering that while I like slow-dancing, and the physical sensations it creates,  I generally dislike my dance partner, creating an awkward, alternating series of dance-couplings followed by strict and severe avoidance of said date.  Her dad picks us up from the dance at 10:30, and neither she nor I ever speak of this event again.  The Mets successfully avoid 70 wins for the fourth straight season.  Their starting rotation of Ray Burris, Pat Zachry, Mark Bomback, Pete Falcone and Craig Swan might just be the worst in the history of the franchise.  And with youngsters, Roy Lee Jackson, Juan Berenguer and John Pacella in the ‘pen, help is decidedly not on the way.

And that’s all for this installment.  Join me next time, if you can stand it, when I survive the 1980’s with my dignity mostly intact.

Hall of Fame of the Heart

What does reason know?  Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning. -Dostoevsky

If you could build your own Baseball Hall of Fame, what kind of place would it be?

It’s likely that the actual Hall of Fame includes several  players you admired while growing up.  It’s also likely that some of the players you admired the most then, and still do today, were never deemed Hall worthy.

You may not even have any real problem with that.  Intellectually, you probably understand the statistical reasoning that has served to exclude some of your favorite players.

But suppose we were to construct a Hall of the Heart, that is, a place (or, more accurately, an idea), where those players who captured our imagination all those years ago would be enshrined?  In fact, when we use the term “Hall of Fame,” it begs the question, famous to whom?

If fame is the fleeting, fickle standard by which we are to choose our immortals, it is by definition an extremely subjective standard.  Just because the evolution of The Hall has coincided with a revolution in statistical analysis doesn’t necessarily mean that the membership of the former should be almost entirely dependent upon the mathematical equations of the latter.

Or, as the 19th century Russian writer, Dostoevsky, stated in Notes From Underground:

[Man] is fond of striving toward achievement, but not so very fond of the achievement itself, and this is, naturally, terribly funny. In short, man is constructed comically; there is evidently some joke in all of this. But two times two makes four is still an altogether insufferable thing. Two times two makes four–why, in my view, it is sheer impertinence. Two times two makes four is a brazen fop who bars your way with arms akimbo, spitting.

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  This is not a diatribe in favor of the so-called “traditionalist” view of baseball.  Nor am I suggesting that the statistical work that has been done by the modern, progressive wing of the baseball universe has been accomplished by “brazen fops.”   The fact is that the “traditionalists” use stats just as readily to make their particular cases just as often and with as much gusto as those of the sabermetric persuasion.  They just choose to use a different set of (generally older) stats.

What I’m advocating here is a return to the idea of baseball as fun, as entertainment, and as the fount of the dreams of youth.  For that, we have to look inward, into our irrational, passionate selves.     We never cheer a 1.040 WHIP, but we do cheer the unlikely triple hit by the chubby kid that scores the go-ahead run in the home-half of the eighth inning.

What follows, then, is (perhaps inevitably) a list of the players who inspired my imagination as a child, and on into my teens and early twenties.  They are the by-product of time and place, and are of a distant genetic lineage to the gods and immortals of old:  Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Heracles, Theseus, etc.

I will strive for brevity in my comments about each one of my heroes.  My list, after all, is not intended to convince you of anything at all, except of my own vulnerable humanity.

It is also not in any particular order.  Let the imagination do its work, uninterrupted:

1)  Tom Seaver:  My very own Odysseus.  Conquering hero, fated to spend several years away from home ( Queens / Ithaca) eventually to return again, triumphant, however briefly.

2)  Freddy Lynn:  Inspiration in the summer of ’75 for so many backyard dives and catches.  To play so fearlessly, even for one season in the sun, is what it’s all about.

3)  Steve Garvey:  Though it’s not a Steve Garvey model, I bought a first-base mitt to be like him.  I still have it today.  Handsome, dependable, heroic and a star, in the mid-1970’s, he was everything I could ever hope to be.

4)  Rusty Staub:  There was always something mysterious about him.  Rusty sometimes wore a black glove while batting, he came from foreign lands (Montreal, by way of Houston), and he was also a practicing chef.  He was like a secret agent masquerading as a baseball player, and he had a certain swagger about him.  He was like Robert Vaughn in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  crossed with Robert Vaughn in The Magnificent Seven.

5)  The Boys of Summer:  This was the first grownup book I ever read.  I was around ten or eleven years old, and while reading it, I wanted the entire Brooklyn Dodgers team to be my friends and family.  Roger Kahn also made me want to be a writer, if I couldn’t be a ballplayer.

Giants manager John McGraw and pitcher Christy...

Giants manager John McGraw and pitcher Christy Mathewson during the 1911 World Series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Christy Mathewson:  Although he played long before my time, I was struck by his story, his boyish good looks, and his integrity.  Mathewson was college educated.  His manager, John McGraw, was an old-school tough without much formal education.  Yet McGraw loved Mathewson like a son.  It was the sort of relationship I coveted with my father.

Mathewson was gassed in a training accident in 1918 during the First World War.  He would die young, at age 45 in 1925, of tuberculosis.

Like Achilles, he would shine brightly all too briefly.  He was both literally and figuratively a warrior, and the war would contribute to his early demise.

7)  Keith Hernandez:  Keith was, without doubt, the greatest fielding first baseman I’ve ever seen.  He took charge of the infield in a way I’ve never seen a first baseman do either before or since.  Always fearless and accurate when throwing across the diamond, he cut down more base-runners in a week, than I’ve seen some do in a year.

Keith was also a great clutch hitter.  Never a big power threat, Keith would spray line-drives all over the place, usually when they mattered most.

He also had a smoking habit, and, although it never inspired me to start smoking myself, it did make him seem more accessible and human.  He wasn’t some body-building athlete intent on perfecting his physique.  He was a baseball player with the God-given ability, the natural instincts and the competitive drive to succeed in a very difficult sport.

8)  Will “The Thrill” Clark:  An intense southern boy from the bayous of Louisiana, Will Clark was  nothing if not a competitor.  The eye-black he wore made him look like a special forces sniper.  Another first baseman, he helped get me back into collecting baseball cards in the late 1980’s.  I wanted to collect every card that featured him, and I wanted to copy his smooth, left-handed swing.  I was always happy when the Giants came to town so I could watch him play.

If the character, Swan, from the movie, “The Warriors” was a pro baseball player, he’d be Will Clark (and wouldn’t the Baseball Furies just love that?)  Swan is the very first Warrior you see in this clip. The movie is loosely based on Homer’s, The Odyssey.

Eric Davis hit for the cycle in 1989.

Eric Davis hit for the cycle in 1989. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)9)

 9)  Eric Davis:  Eric the Red.  A contemporary of Will Clark, he played with a slash and burn style reminiscent of the Norseman of myth and legend.

I absolutely loved the way Eric Davis, in his prime, made the game of baseball look so easy that he might soon grow bored with it and find another hobby.

He could steal bases, hit homers, range around the outfield, score runs, and he played with just enough of the toughness of the streets of L.A. where he grew up.

Later, in 1998, Davis also made a heroic comeback from colon cancer to play remarkably well for the Baltimore Orioles.

Eric Davis and I also share a birthday, May 29th.  He was born exactly one year before me.

10)  Jeff Bagwell:  Bagwell grew up in my home state of Connecticut and is just a few years younger than I.  Throughout the ’90’s, Bagwell was my favorite player.  He was powerful, he could really run the bases, which was most unusual for a first baseman, and I loved his wide-open stance.  An aggressive player, Bagwell basically had no weaknesses in his game.  If the god Apollo could play baseball, he would be Jeff Bagwell.

These are certainly not the only ten players in my Hall of the Heart.  A random sampling of many others would include Roger Maris, Dwight Gooden, Larry Walker, Bernie Carbo, Jerry Grote, Lou Gehrig, Bill Lee, Jim Bouton, Dave Kingman, Sid Fernandez, Rube Waddell, Jerry Koosman, Mookie Wilson, Jon Matlack, Jimmy Wynn, Bobby Murcer, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Kirby Puckett, Ken Griffey, Jr., Ted Williams, Cal Ripkin, Jr., Gary Carter, David Cone, Mike Vail, Lenny Randle, Mark Fidrych, Ron LeFlore, Sandy Koufax, Smoky Joe Wood, Ron Guidry, Dizzy Dean,  Arky Vaughan, Paul Konerko, Brian Giles, Nomar Garciaparra, Rusty Greer, “Toe” Nash, Sidd Finch, Moonlight Graham, Robin Ventura, Addie Joss, and yes, even Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Oh, and some guy who used to pitch for the Red Sox named Babe Ruth.

Now that’s a Hall of Fame for which I would happily pay the price of admission.

Who would you include in your irrational, sentimental Hall of the Heart?

I’d like to know.

Leaving it all Behind: Joe Wood Has a Beer in Ouray

The meals are generally warm and agreeable in this establishment, the last one down here along the highway before you get to Stony Mountain.  They all know me in here; got my table ’round back near the bandstand where all they ever play is goddamned “Waltzing Matilda” over and over, as if they might just conjure up another Gallipoli simply by doing so.  My reflection sits at the bottom of my beer mug, waiting for me to pull it out.  Once, I was of the inclination to do so, but thought better of it.  We each have to learn to make it on our own in this world.

"Smokey" Joe Wood, Boston AL (baseball)

“Smokey” Joe Wood, Boston AL (baseball) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shoulder stiffens in the dry, brittle air of winter’s Colorado.  Jesus died at 33, and I ain’t planning on kicking the bucket just yet, and yes, that crown of thorns must’ve been one sonovabitch, but mister, until you’ve awakened at 4:00 a.m. after a hundred curveballs, and twice as many fastballs, well, all I’m sayin’ is, don’t come cryin’ to me about sin and redemption.  We all get squeezed sometimes.

Flaky Lacy over there says she’s seen my picture in a newspaper brought back from the East.  Says she thinks I was famous, playing some game of Ball or something.  Showed me the headline, and the picture of a dark-eyed, serious looking kid of the age when youth sets, then begins to die.  The camera captured the image the instant before the melting began, when first you lose your heater, then your heart.  Finally, they take your name and put it in a magazine.  Might as well be an obituary.

Tried second-base once.  It didn’t take.

I could hit a little.  Batted .366 years after I couldn’t comb my own hair with my right hand.  They say your body compensates for itself so that one part of it grows stronger when another part shuts down.  Well, the wrong part grew stronger, sir.  The memory of the ball just whistling out of my right hand, effortless as a young girl dancing barefoot in summer’s backyard — all lemonade and perfumed air — gets stronger and sharper.  It cuts and slashes leaving nothing but the wound of youth.

Boston ball grounds - 1912 (1st part of panora...

Boston ball grounds – 1912 (1st part of panorama), 9/28/12 (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Maybe I’ll leave this land of the Ute, and head back East after all.  Got a cousin in Connecticut.  Said I could get a job in New Haven teaching pitching.  I could get down to Boston once in a while, I suppose.  Sit with the old men in the bleachers, talking about the way things used to be.  How the young fellers of today don’t know how to play the game the way we once did.  Clean balls now, and everyone hits a homer, drives a car, and owns a radio.

Ran into a man on my way out of here yesterday.  Said he was a reporter.  Asked me to come back in and have one more for the road.  Said to me, “You was Smokey Joe Wood.”  I said, “I guess I still am, but for the part that refers to my right arm.”  He laughed and shook his head.  “Don’t know how you do it,” he pondered.  “Why, whatever do you mean, sir?” I retorted.  He held off for a moment, bottom jaw cranky with doubt.  Foamy beer clung to his lips and chin, leaving him looking like a bearded Greta Garbo.

“You had the world once,” he started.  “You were literally ‘King of the Hill’, and no one could knock you off your perch.”  He stared at me now, in the same way mortals first came to detest the fallen Gods of old when Olympus would no longer shelter them.  “How do you get on with it at all?”  His question lingered in the air, like the moment after the first drop of rain, but before the second.  It insinuated a dark chasm that I had heretofore generally avoided.

Colorado Meadows

Colorado Meadows (Photo credit: QualityFrog)

“I don’t get on with it at all,” I responded.  “I simply play dead, and it gets tired and moves along on its way.  It is dumb, sir, and spends time fretting over its feces, and pulling thorns from its feet.  Me, I adjust the shadows so they cloak me when I sleep, and when I arrive at a new destination, they always arrive a step behind me, lapping at the sunlit, dappled ground.”

I paid my tab and left that place.  On the way out of Ouray, on a cannonball headed to the Atlantic, I spotted a ballgame out my window.  A barefoot boy, bat on his shoulder, turned to look at the train barreling by his little, brown diamond.  He waved, perhaps not at me, but at the image of speed and power that captured his imagination.

I thought I knew just how he felt.  I waved back, (just in case), head resting against the cool windowpane, eyes closed now, and said goodbye.

Ten Facts About Lenny Dykstra

You may have heard that former Mets / Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra, already serving jail-time

Grand Theft Auto (film)

Grand Theft Auto (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

for Grand Theft Auto, has now had an additional six months added to his prison sentence for bankruptcy fraud, hiding baseball gloves and other souvenirs from his playing days that were supposed to be part of his bankruptcy settlement.

Apparently out to convince the public that he isn’t a one-trick pony, he has also been accused of indecent exposure through the use of Craigslist ads.

Alas, there was a time, not that long ago, when Lenny Dykstra was merely a well-paid baseball player.  Dykstra played in the Majors from 1985-96.  You may recall him as being a fine ballplayer.  That’s how I choose to remember him.

Here are ten facts about Lenny Dykstra, the baseball player:

1)  He was born Leonard Kyle Dykstra in Santa Ana, CA in 1963, and raised in Garden Grove, CA.

2)  He was drafted by the Mets in the 13th round of the amateur draft in 1981.  He was just 18-years old.

3)  Listed as 5’10” and 160 pounds, he was a small but tough (as Nails, hence his nickname) package of speed and surprising power.

4)  In his MLB debut on May 3, 1985, leading off for the Mets, Lenny went 2-5, scored twice, drove in two runs, stole a base, and hit a home run to straightaway center-field off of Reds pitcher Mario Soto.  It would be the only home run Dykstra would hit in 273 plate appearances in ’85, but he would go on to hit 80 more in the regular season in his career.

5)  In the Mets World Championship season of 1986, Dykstra, in his first full season at age 23, finished among the top 20 in N.L. MVP voting.  He was successful in 31 of 38 steal attempts, drew more walks than strikeouts, finished in the top ten in the N.L. in WAR, and posted an OPS+ of 129.

6)  In the ’86 World Series against the Red Sox, after the Mets had lost the first two games of the Series at Shea Stadium, Dykstra led off Game Three at Fenway Park by launching a lead-off home run down the right-field line.  It was one of four hits Dykstra would tally that evening.  The Mets would go on to win the game, 7-1.

7)  In 32 career post-season games for the Mets and the Phillies, Dykstra posted a triple slash line of .321 / .433 /.661, with an astonishing ten homers in just 112 at bats.  He also scored 27 runs, and was a perfect 5-5 in stolen base attempts.

Juan Samuel

Juan Samuel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8)  Dykstra was traded for Juan Samuel in the middle of the 1989 season.  In the one half-season that Samuel played for the Mets, he posted a triple slash line of .228 / .299 / .300.  His OPS+ was 76.  Dykstra would go on to lead the N.L. in hits twice, in runs scored once, in walks once, and in on-base percentage once with the Phils.  In his first four years with the Phils, he would post OPS+ scores of 138, 132, 122 and 144.

9)  In just 1,278 MLB games, Dykstra produced a career WAR of 41.0, higher than former star players Gil Hodges, Don Mattingly, Al Oliver, Carlos Delgado, Curt Flood, Tony Oliva and teammate Darryl Strawberry.

10)  Dykstra retired as a player at age 33 in 1996 after just 40 games.  His no-holds barred style of play resulted in injuries that certainly shortened his impressive career.  Still a young man, Dykstra, lured by the temptation of easy money, fell prey to many of the same influences that have destroyed the lives and reputations of so many others along the way.

Here’s to hoping he is able to salvage the rest of his life someday.  Meanwhile, I prefer to recall Dykstra as the player he was, not the man he was to become.

After I post this, I’ll be taking a hiatus from blogging for a few weeks until after the New Year.  Might be doing some traveling, for a change.  Hope you all have a great Christmas, or whatever it is you celebrate.  Stay safe, and I’ll see you when I get back.

Cheers,

Bill

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