The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Mets”

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 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.

R.A. Dickey’s Place in Mets History

You’ve probably already heard the news this evening that Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey has won the N.L. Cy Young award, becoming the third Mets pitcher to win the award (Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden being the other two.)  Dickey led the N.L. in strikeouts, led the Majors in Quality Starts, and finished second in the N.L. in ERA.  He also became the sixth 20-game winner in team history.

First, I want to congratulate R.A. Dickey for a fantastic season, and for being one of the few consistently bright spots in yet another disappointing season for Mets fans.

Aside from Cy Young awards, how does R.A. Dickey’s season rate among the best seasons ever by a Mets pitcher?  Before looking at the stats, I would have guessed that it was easily among the top ten seasons ever by a Mets pitcher.  Using WAR as a benchmark, here is where Dickey’s 2012 season actually ranks:

1)  Dwight Gooden – 11.9  1985

2)  Tom Seaver – 10.3  1973

3)  Tom Seaver – 9.7  1971

4)  Jon Matlack – 8.8  1974

5)  Tom Seaver – 7.5  1975

6)  Tom Seaver – 7.1  1969

7)  Johan Santana – 6.9  2008

8)  Pedro Martinez – 6.7  2005

8)  Tom Seaver – 6.7  1968  (Seaver owns 5 of the top 9 seasons in Mets history among pitchers.)

10)  Al Leiter – 6.5  1998 (Bet you didn’t expect to see him here.)

11)  Jerry Koosman – 6.2  1968

12)  Frank Viola – 6.1  1990

13)  Sid Fernandez – 5.9  1992  (Third toughest pitcher to hit ever!)

13)  Tom Seaver – 5.9  1974

15)  Jerry Koosman – 5.8  1969  (Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, what a great staff.)

15)  Jon Matlack  – 5.8  1972

15)  Tom Seaver  – 5.8  1967

18)  R.A. Dickey – 5.6  2012

19)  Jerry Koosman – 5.5  1973

20)  Tom Seaver – 5.4  1970

20)  Craig Swan – 5.4  1978  (Led N.L. in ERA and ERA+ in ’78, with just 9 wins for his efforts.)

22)  David Cone – 5.3  1988

22)  Brett Saberhagen – 5.3   1994  (WAR would have been higher, but for the lockout.)

24)  Dwight Gooden – 5.2  1984

25)  Tom Seaver – 5.1  1976

As you can see, though Dickey enjoyed a fine year in 2012, and, in my opinion, justly deserved the Cy Young award, his was far from the best season in team history.  That’s no slight against him.  It just goes to show that once upon a time, the Mets boasted many very fine pitchers.

But once again, congratulations to R.A. Dickey, and here’s to hoping that 2013 brings similar good fortune to him, and to his team.

Soundtrack for Baseball: May, 2012

Back by popular demand, today I offer you Part 2 of my monthly series,  Soundtrack for Baseball.”  Here’s the link to Part 1 if you missed it, or if you want to go back and have another listen.

A lot has happened in baseball over the past month, and I hope this video soundtrack captures just a bit of the flavor of this season up through the first week of June.

As a Mets fan, I have to say that the first couple of months of the 2012 baseball season have been more fun than I can remember having in years.  At the beginning of the year, my only hope was that the Mets would just play competitive baseball, and lose fewer than 90 games.  As of this writing, the Mets are in a three-way tie for first place in the tough N.L. East, an amazing eight games over .500.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Johan Santana became the first Mets pitcher in the half-century history of this franchise to throw a no-hitter.

Yes, it’s been a truly magical year thus far at Citi Field.  Hopefully this magic bubble won’t burst during the dog days of August.  The question is, do you believe in magic?  Back in 1969, when the Amazin’ Miracle Mets won their first World Series, Jay and the Americans had a hit single with “This Magic Moment.”

One of the teams keeping up with the Mets is the Florida Marlins, who are apparently attempting to steal their way to a pennant.  Generally, I think stolen bases are overrated as a strategic weapon, and most teams that run a lot seldom go on to become World Champions (yes, there have been some exceptions.)

The Marlins have stolen 62 bases as a team this year; no other team has reached 50.  Emilio Bonifacio leads the Marlins, and the Majors with 20 steals.  Maybe the Marlins will run into a pennant with their speedy legs.  I’m guessing Marlins fans hope their favorite team stays hot, even if it means they’ll have to leg their way into the playoffs.   Hmm, hot legs.  Why does that sound familiar?  Maybe Rod Stewart can help us out.

If, incidentally, some future anthropologist decides to mine Rock n’ Roll for a glimpse into the psyche of late-20th century Western Civilization, he could do worse than to display this video as Exhibit A.  Please excuse the damned commercial that might pop up.

Has anyone noticed what a great year Carlos Gonzalez is having for the otherwise winning-impaired Colorado Rockies? (23-30.)  It took me by surprise that this 26-year old star is having a big year, leading the N.L. in total bases (128), slugging percentage (.634), and runs scored (45) through 50 games.  After an off-year last season, Gonzalez is reasserting himself as one of the top young players in the game.

I wonder what Gonzalez hears in his head when he’s rounding second base, digging for third, and being waved around to score.  Is he thinking just one word, HOME?  How exactly does that sound in his head?  Perhaps something like this:

Back on May 2nd, I picked up this story on CBS This Morning about Roger Clemens’ old friend and teammate, Andy Pettitte, testifying against his former mentor in the trial to decide if Clemens has committed perjury regarding the use of HGH and other banned substances.

One has to consider these drugs a kind of high for athletes who are addicted to success from which they don’t ever want to come down.  Most of us will never know the kind of fame and fortune that was Clemens good fortune at one time, so it is perhaps impossible for us to ever know what it was like to be faced with the end of a brilliant career.  What then?  The broadcast booth.  Endless rounds of golf for the next 35 years?

But worse, how must it feel when your former best friend testifies against you in open court, in front of thousands of witnesses.  One can only guess that Clemens must be feeling that he hopes Pettitte will never let him down again.  Or perhaps it is Pettitte who feels let down by Clemens alleged behavior.  Either way, here’s a song by Depeche Mode called “Never Let Me Down Again” that captures the sinister nature of a friendship turned sour.

But long before the ugly, inevitable breakdowns of age, there is the limitless potential of youth.  For most young people, especially for those who have been marked at an early age for greatness, there is  a tendency to cockiness, a natural inclination to eschew nuance and moderation in favor of the simple and the bold.

Such has been the start of the Washington Nationals’ young star outfielder Bryce Harper.  When Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels pointlessly plunked Harper in the back, the completely unimpressed Harper later stole home off Hamels.  Take that, old man!  (Hamels is 28, nine years older than Harper.)  Harper is part of a new generation of young talent (Angels outfielder Mike Trout is 20) that is ready to very quickly make their collective mark on Major League baseball.

For my money, no song has ever quite captured the brash, emotional intensity of the teenage male the way The Who’s song “5:15” did on the highly underrated album “Quadrophenia.”  Play it loud, and picture Bryce Harper stealing home, or slugging a fastball out of the park.

When Kerry Wood announced his retirement on May 18th after a 14-year Major League career, I think many of us immediately remembered the then 20-year old Wood’s fifth career start when he struck out 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit pitching performance that, at the time, seemed to herald a long, dominating career.

In a way it did, though not exactly as we expected.

Wood struck out the last batter he ever faced in the Majors, the White Sox’s Dayan Viciedo, then left the field to a standing ovation.  After 14 years in the Majors, Wood ranks second all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.317.)  Only Randy Johnson averaged more strikeouts per nine innings.

Yet Kerry Wood finished his career with a record of only 86-75, and he spent most of his career either on the Disabled List or pitching in relief.  The complete game shutout Wood tossed against the Astros as a 20-year old was one of only eleven complete games and just five shutouts he would throw in his entire career.  Wood led the N.L. in strikeouts in 2003 with 266 — one of four 200 K seasons in his career — then was essentially finished as a starting pitcher at age 26.

But boy, in his glory days, he could throw that speed-ball by you (and that curve ball, too.)  Just 34-years old now, Wood should have plenty of years left to tell boring stories of his glory days to his kids and grandchildren.  And maybe he’ll think of himself whenever he hears this Bruce Springsteen classic called, appropriately enough, “Glory Days.”

That’s all for tonight, folks.  Hope you enjoyed this particular playlist.  We’ll probably do it again in about a month.

Through the Smoke, Into the Breeze

On a bright, clear morning in April, 1942, 16 bombers took off into the breeze from the U.S.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier dispatched deep into the Pacific Ocean with a message for Imperial Japan:  We can reach you, too.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet laun...

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet launches a B-25 during the Doolittle Raid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After dropping their bombs on Japanese cities, each of the bombers, all low on fuel, either ditched along the Chinese coast or crash-landed in mainland China.  A few of the crew members, captured by the Japanese, were later executed.

On board the Hornet was a young man, a boy really, named Joe Iritsky.  Joe had joined the U.S. Navy, against his mother’s tearful objections, soon after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Just one of thousands of Navy deck hands, Joe played no special role in what became known as the Doolittle Raid.  Once the war was over, he returned home, no longer a boy, now a young man prematurely aged by the experience of war.

Eventually, like thousands of other veterans, Joe went to work in a factory, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and stayed there until his retirement many years later.

Joe was a heavy drinker.  He was also a sports fan, a gambler, and he had a chronic skin condition that made his skin turn red and blotchy.  He would peel the dead skin off his arm while he drank his whiskey, neat.

He was also a chain-smoker.  I vividly remember the constant cloud of smoke, a gray haze fogging the kitchen like a burnt offering to the souls of the dead, silent sailors of his youth.

Joe was my dad’s mom’s third husband, whom she married after dad was already a young adult.  I never called Joe grandpa or pop, or anything remotely endearing.  In fact, I don’t think I called him anything at all.  Usually, I just stood quietly in their kitchen in Black Rock, scuffed linoleum under my sneakers, wondering why my wheelchair-bound paternal grandmother was drinking whiskey at one o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

Joe would give my younger brother and I flat Dr. Pepper in glass tumblers, fingerprints of prior users prominent and clear through the warm, amber liquid.

No one ever offered us a chair; children in those days weren’t allowed to pester adults.  But while my brother and I stood there, uncomfortable in our surroundings, Joe would talk sports, the one subject he must have felt he might possibly have in common with two young boys.

Specifically, he would talk about the Mets, the (football) Giants, and horse-racing.  Eventually, upon subsequent visits, he narrowed it down to the Mets and the Giants.  Both teams stood at the very pinnacle of mediocrity in those days, just one false step away from a steep fall into a dark, bottomless chasm.

I hadn’t yet settled upon a favorite baseball team.  When I played ball in the streets and abandoned lots of Bridgeport, I was just as likely to imagine I was Freddy Lynn or Steve Garvey as Tom Seaver or Rusty Staub.  I had recently read, “The Boys of Summer,” the first grownup book I’d ever read, so I was leaning towards becoming a Dodgers fan. But I lived about 3,000 miles away from L.A., and only about an hour away from New York City.

Then one sweltering, humid August afternoon in 1974, my dad and Joe took my brother and I to Shea Stadium in Queens, across from the site of the 1964-65 World’s Fair.  It was our first trip to a real, live baseball game.  I was eleven years old.

Shea Stadium

Shea Stadium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we walked down the concourse towards our mezzanine seats, I caught my first glimpse of the green outfield grass, and of the grounds crew dragging what appeared to be long rakes over a toffee-colored infield.

Once we had settled into our seats, Joe lit a cigarette and headed for the concession stand to purchase his first of many beers that afternoon.  His cigarette ash, lagging behind, wafted around me for a moment, clinging to my hair and my eyelashes like burnt snowflakes.

Mercifully, in the middle innings, a late afternoon breeze picked up and cooled us off just a bit as Jimmy Wynn and the boys in Dodger blue succumbed to my New York Mets.  It was at that moment that I realized to my surprise that I had become a Mets fan.  It was not a conscious decision.  I simply recognized an inner loyalty that I had not previously discovered.

As Joe came down the aisle and sat next to me, beer in hand, he asked me what I thought of the game.  I have no idea what my answer was, only that he appeared satisfied with my response.  It was the only moment that ever passed between us that would not disappear forever in an instant.

He drank his beer and watched the game, which eventually ended in a Mets victory.  But even as an eleven-year old boy, I could see in his eyes that his thoughts were elsewhere, a place I’d never been and would never wish to go.

Our memories of the moments that define us are random, yet vivid.  Like an unspoken series of emotional transactions, those that care for us unconsciously embed their hopes, hurts and fears deep within us.  These reemerge as scar tissue on our souls.

Yet, most vividly, I recall the unexpected breeze that carried the cigarette smoke away, perhaps out to sea, thousands of miles and many decades away, to a place where the dead rest, allowing the living to live, love, and remember.

15 Reasons Why (Against All Logic) I’ll Root for the Mets in 2012

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I suppose those of us who are Mets fans often stop to wonder why we continue to support this tragicomedy of a franchise.  I’m guessing that there’s a Charlie Brown masochism to the personality type that chooses to root for the Mets.  Jose Reyes is hurt again?  Rats.  Linus,why do I feel so miserable?  It’s simple Charlie Brown.  You were condemned at birth by the Gods of Baseball.

So here are ten random, pointless reasons why I continue to justify my loyalty to this franchise:

1)  I’m just about as old as the Mets, and, like the Mets, have had a few successes, lots of mediocre years, and a few bad ones.  In fact, with a few exceptions, my best years have generally mirrored the Mets successful years as well.

2)  Piggy-backing on Reason #1, I’ve been a Mets fan now for 37 of their 50 years of existence.  What would be the point of stopping now?  It has always mystified me why couples who have been married for, say, 31 years suddenly decide to get divorced.  What the hell’s the point of that?  You can’t have those lost years back.  Did you think things would be different if only you waited 31 years?

3)  Tom Seaver was a New York Met.  That’s good enough for me.

4)  Mike Piazza’s dramatic home run, just ten days after 9/11, giving the city of New York a huge emotional lift.

5)  Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, one of the greatest moments of my life.

6)  The back of George Theodore’s 1974 Topps baseball card #8 reads, “George loves strawberry milkshakes.”  ‘Nuff said.

7)  Rusty Staub was not only a very good ballplayer, he was an actual chef.  I visited Rusty’s Restaurant in 1976, but Rusty had already been traded to Detroit for Mickey (Fucking) Lolich.  Still, as I sat at a table eating something or other with my parents and my little brother, I scanned the restaurant in vain for any sign of Rusty.

8)  Lindsey Nelson’s sports jackets.  If you know what I mean, you are probably also a Mets fan.

9)  Dave Kingman’s epic home runs, and his even more epic strikeouts.

10)  Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, and David Wright will provide more offense this year than most people will expect.

11)  They’re not the Pirates.  Or the Cubs.  Or the goddamned Yankees.

12)  October 8, 1973, Game 3 of the N.L.C.S.  Bud Harrelson punches Pete Rose at second base after a typically hard, bush-league slide.  This launches a bench-clearing brawl that goes on for several minutes.  The Mets eliminate the Reds in five games.  Take that, ya bastards!

13)  Dwight Gooden’s superhuman 1985 season, the best year I ever witnessed by a pitcher:  24-4, 276 innings, 16 complete games, 8 shutouts, 1.53 ERA, 268 K’s, 0.965 WHIP, 229 ERA+, 11.7 WAR.

14)  My step-grandfather, Joe Iritsky, a Navy veteran of WWII, and a war hero, took me to my first game at Shea Stadium in August, 1974.

15)  Jon Matlack was a better pitcher than Jack Morris.  (Yes, he was.)

Gary Carter, and a Season of Hope

As a Mets fan, the first time Gary Carter came across my radar screen was in December 1984, when the Mets traded third baseman Hubie Brooks and three other “prospects” for the 30-year old catcher from Montreal.

Sure, I generally knew who Carter was; I collected baseball fans and had seen “The Kid” play against my Mets a few times.  But it was out of the realm of what I thought possible at the time that this All-Star catcher would ever play for my lowly Mets.  After all, as a Mets fan since 1975, I’d only experienced two winning seasons out of nine, through 1983.

Gary Carter

Gary Carter (Photo credit: AxsDeny)

Yes, the arrival of Keith Hernandez in mid-season, 1983, gave me some hope (and Keith, not Gary, became my favorite Met of the ’80’s), but after seven consecutive terrible seasons (1977-83) I knew that they would need a lot more than one excellent player to turn this franchise around.

Yes, the young kids Gooden and Strawberry had each just arrived, but there was one missing piece to the puzzle.

Enter Gary Carter.

Carter quickly announced, not with his mouth, but with his bat, that things were going to be different at Shea Stadium when, on Opening Day, 1985, in the 10th inning, he hit a walk-off home run.  It was now clear to all Mets fans that HOPE had truly arrived.

The enthusiasm of the player they called “The Kid” was infectious.  The Mets hadn’t really had a player who contained these personal and professional qualities since Tom Seaver had been unceremoniously dumped (for “prospects”, there’s that word again) in mid-’77.

In his first season as a Met, Carter hit a career high 32 home runs, drove in 100, hit .281, made the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger, and finished 6th in N.L. MVP voting.

The ’85 Mets enjoyed their finest season in many years, finishing with a record of 98-74, but they just couldn’t quite catch Tommy Herr’s Cardinals.  Gooden and Strawberry each had fantastic seasons, as did Keith Hernandez.

Most importantly to me was that the Mets were simply fun to watch again.  Every day, you knew they had an excellent chance to win, and the players assembled on that team (which also included Mookie, Dykstra, Darling, and El Sid) had a rare chemistry.  I hadn’t enjoyed a Mets team this much since the days of Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Staub, Harrelson, Grote, and Cleon Jones.

And even though Keith Hernandez was my favorite player, I was aware that my friend James was right.  Carter was the player that made all of this success possible.  He was the glue that held this disparate, passionate, often profane group of guys together.

But what success?  The Mets still hadn’t won anything yet.

Enter the 1986 season.  Not only did Mets fans like myself expect the Mets to win lots of games that year, we knew this would be OUR YEAR, the year a Championship would finally come back to Queens.  Unlike our rivals over in a certain ballpark in the Bronx (whose box-seats were always full of rich, yuppie suburbanites from Manhattan or Connecticut), the denizens of Queens were primarily working class, and understood that it took a lot of losing to truly appreciate winning.

The ’86 Mets did not disappoint.  They won 108 games against just 54 losses, led the N.L. in both pitching and hitting, and went on to defeat the Astros of Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott in the greatest league-championship series ever played.  (Game Six of that series was the greatest game I’ve still ever seen in my life.)

Carter hit just .148 in that series, and it was clear that at age 32, he was finally slowing down just a bit.  True, he had driven in 100 runs again in ’86, but the wear and tear of, at that point, a dozen seasons as a catcher had begun to take their toll.  It was unclear how effective he would be, in the Mets first World Series since 1973, against Rocket Roger Clemens’ Red Sox.

Led me begin by saying that I did not hate the Red Sox.  After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and it was the Yankees that I truly couldn’t stand (although I always respected certain players like Randolph, Munson, and later Mattingly.)  My brother was a Red Sox fan, so we had a fun, natural rivalry as well.

Through the first five games of the Series, the Mets looked alternately flat and dominating.  Their had been some heroics and some botched opportunities.  And the Mets suddenly found themselves down 3 games to 2 going into Game Six.  Although it was clear that the Mets Could come back and win, it was far from certain that they Would.

The Mets had lost the first two games of the World Series at Shea Stadium, then had taken two of three at Fenway Park (Carter hit two home runs in Game Four.)  So home-field “advantage” had not been an advantage so far in this Series.

Dwight Gooden had already been beaten twice, and Ron Darling once, so it fell to the Mets underrated third ace, Bobby Ojeda (ironically obtained in an off-season trade from the Red Sox) to even the Series three games apiece.

Paid attendance at Shea on this October night topped 55,000, and all of New York (and Boston, of course) was glued to their T.V. sets.  The Red Sox took an early 2-0 lead off of Ojeda.  The Mets got two back to tie the game in the fifth inning.  The Sox chipped another run in the seventh.  The Mets responded with a run of their own in the eight inning.

Neither team scored in the ninth, and we had extra innings.

I can’t imagine how exhausted Gary Carter must have been.  He had caught every game of the Series, and now here he was entering the tenth inning still behind the plate for the Mets.  I was tense, nervous and exhausted just watching the damned game.

In fact, writing this post is the first time I’ve allowed myself to virtually relive this game, more or less in its entirety, in a quarter of a century.

After the top of the tenth inning, it looked all over for the Mets.  The Sox had scored two in the top of the tenth, and how much Mets Magic could be left in the tank?  There are some miracles you just don’t dare ask for.

The Mets were quickly down two outs in the bottom of the tenth.  I looked over at my brother and said, “Congratulations, Mark, it looks like your boys are finally going to win a World Series.”  He responded, “Nope.  It’s not over yet.  They’ll probably find a way to blow it.”

But the Mets were down two runs, and were down to their last out.

Then Gary Carter strode to the plate.  It had to be Carter.  This moment could be reserved for no one else.

Quickly, though, he was down two strikes.  The Mets were down to their last out.  Their last strike.  Just one more pitch.  I couldn’t watch.

In my mind’s eye, I seem to remember Carter fighting off a pitch or two, but I could be wrong.

Then, it happened.  Gary Carter lined a clean single, and the floodgates were opened.  I looked over at my brother.  He had a look of pure doom on his face.

There is no reason to go any further with the play-by-play.  There can’t be a baseball fan over 30-years old anywhere that doesn’t know how the rest of that game, and that Series, turned out.

But I can’t help wondering how different it would have turned out if Carter had not come to the plate in that tenth inning at bat.  How did he do it?  He must have been running on pure adrenaline.  And, of course, he came back the next day and caught Game Seven.  He finished the Series with a pair of home runs, a .276 batting average, and a team-leading nine RBI.

No Met player had come to the plate more often than Carter’s 29 official at bats in this Series, and no player on either team had come up with a bigger hit when it mattered most.

Carter played a total of just five seasons with the Mets, but he solidified not only his Hall of Fame credentials, but his permanent place in the hearts of all Mets fans during his short stay.

Now, at age 57, Gary Carter has passed away, a short stay in a world he made better with his generosity, enthusiasm and dignity, taking a piece of my youth with him.

But what he has left in its place is a profoundly grateful fan’s memories of how Hope is always just around the corner, if you dare to believe in it.

Ten Facts About Mets Third Baseman David Wright

Although I have been a Mets fan since 1975, I seldom focus specifically on the Mets in this blog.  Tonight, however, please allow me to indulge myself.  This post is not meant to imply that the Mets should take a specific course of action regarding Wright in this, the final year of his current contract with the Mets.  These are just the facts.  Let them speak for themselves.

David Wright factoid #1: At age 29, he is already the Mets all-time leader in career Off. WAR: 38.2.

David Wright

Image via Wikipedia38.2

David Wright factoid #2: When he scores his 37th run in 2012, he will become the Mets all-time leader in that category.

David Wright factoid #3: His 171st hit this year will make him the Mets all-time career hits leader.

David Wright factoid #4: He is already the Mets all-time leader in Total Bases: 2,112.

David Wright factoid #5: He is the Mets all-time leader in career doubles… by a wide margin with 281. Next closest is Kranepool at 225.

David Wright factoid #6: With just 9 more RBI, Wright will surpass Strawberry as the Mets all-time career RBI leader.

David Wright factoid #7: With just 46 more walks, Wright will also pass Strawberry as their all-time leader in that category, too.

David Wright factoid #8: Wright’s career OPS+: 134, is the same as HOF’ers Al Kaline, Paul Waner, and Joe “Ducky” Medwick.

David Wright factoid #9: Wright’s 825 Runs Created is the most in Mets history. Jose Reyes, by way of contrast, created 706 runs.

David Wright factoid #10: With just 19 more Extra Base Hits, Wright will become the first Met to reach 500 career Extra Base Hits.

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.

 

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 5 – The Phillies

Let’s begin with a trivia question.

How many Phillies pitchers have ever won a Cy Young Award?

O.K., so you got Steve Carlton (4).  Good.  Anyone else?

Let me give you another minute…

Give up?  How about John Denny in 1983. This is surely one of the Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons of all time.

Let’s talk about John Denny and the ’83 Phils.

In 1982, Steve Carlton won the last of his four career Cy Young Awards.  Apparently, his teammate John Denny was paying attention.  The ’83 Phils were a very good team, going 90-72 that season.  They beat the Dodgers in the N.L.D.S., but lost to the Orioles (remember when the Orioles were good?) in just five games in the World Series.  It was Denny’s first season with the Phillies.

Denny had previously won an ERA title pitching for the Cardinals in 1976, so he did have a history of effectiveness prior to coming over to Philadelphia.  But 1983 turned out to be the best season in his career.  At the age of 30, he posted a record of 19-6 with a 2.37 ERA.  The wins were the most in the N.L.  His ERA was second best.

He pitched 242 innings, had a WHIP of 1.162, fanned a career high 139 batters, and surrendered only nine home runs all year.  His 0.3 home runs per nine innings led the league.

Strangely, he made eight errors, the most of any N.L. pitcher.

Outside of 1983,  Denny was one of those pitchers who never enjoyed a great deal of run support in his career.  In ’76, for example, his record was just 11-9 in 30 starts despite winning the ERA title.  And in 1984, the year after he won his Cy Young, his record was just 7-7 in 22 starts.  His ERA in ’84 was 2.45.

In his 13 year career, Denny posted a modest record of 123-108.  He managed only seven seasons of 10 or more victories.

While some pitchers are just getting started at about age 30 (Dazzy Vance, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer), others hit a wall.  At age 33, just three years after winning his lone Cy Young Award, John Denny retired from baseball.

So who is the only other Phillies pitcher to win a Cy Young Award?

The answer (enjoy an extra one of your favorite beverages tonight on me if you got this one correct) is Steve (Bedrock) Bedrosian in 1987.

Other than to say that this was certainly the single most absurd Cy Young choice in the history of the award, I won’t spend too much time of Steve Bedrosian.  He won the award that year because The Save, the single most overrated stat baseball has ever developed, was just coming into vogue back then.

Bedrosian saved 40 games in ’87, the only time in his career that he would lead the league in saves, and the only time he would ever top 30 saves in a season.  The Phils were just 80-82 that year, so I guess having saved half of his teams wins impressed a great many voters that year.

But we’re not here to talk about Steve Bedrosian.

The (other) player on the1987 Phils who had one of this team’s Best Forgotten Seasons was Juan Samuel.

Sorry, Mets fans.  You can come up from under the table now.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, bringing up Juan Samuel’s name without warning to a Mets fan is akin to a soldier who suffers from PTSD suddenly hearing a car back-firing.

You see, on June 18, 1989 (exactly 21 years ago today), Juan Samuel was traded from the Phils to the Mets for Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell.  This obviously qualifies as one of the worst trades in team history.  Dykstra became an integral part of the Phillies for the next several years, helping lead them to the 1983 World Series.

Roger McDowell was a competent relief pitcher for the Mets 1986 World Championship team.

Juan Samuel was, uhm, Juan Samuel.

Adding insult to injury, Samuel only played on the Mets for the second half of ’89, posted a horrific .228 / .299. / .300 triple slash, then the Mets traded him away to the Dodgers.

So why am I including him here?  Because in 1987, Juan Samuel had one very impressive season.  Playing second base that year (in later years he would move to the outfield), he played in 160 games, leading the N.L. in plate appearances (726), at bats (655), and triples (15).  He also led the league in extra base hits with 80.

His power numbers represented career highs.  He hit 28 home runs and drove in an even 100.  He also scored 113 runs and had 35 stolen bases.  He had 329 total bases, and made the All-Star team.

He also struck out more times than anyone else in the league (162).  The player that Samuel most resembles is a young Alfonso Soriano, when Soriano played for the Yankees.

Samuel was one of those middle infielders who had good range, but who also made quite a few errors.  He led all second baseman in put outs with 374, and his range factor of 5.05 was 4th best in the league.  But his 18 errors were also the most of any second baseman in the N.L.

He led all second baseman in errors three times in four years, which is why by 1989, he had been moved to the outfield.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have much of a feel for that position, either, so the Dodgers moved him back to second for a while in the early ’90’s.

Juan Samuel ended up having a respectable major league career, being named to three All-Star teams, twice leading his league in triples, and stealing almost 4oo bases.  He hit over 160 homers and 100 triples, and scored over 100 runs three times.

Just don’t ever say his name in front of a Mets fan without warning, or it could get real ugly.


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