The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Neil Allen”

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!


The One That Got Away

Where is she today?  It’s better that I don’t know.

Back when I was about 17-years old, when the world lie open before me like a pearled oyster, I once found myself on a green expanse of outfield grass, spring breeze whispering sweet nothings in my ear.

It was as good as it could get.  Better, even.

Though I was no longer the twelve-year old boy who called the shots in the daily drama that was our neighborhood sandlot baseball team, I hadn’t yet been smacked in the face with my grandfather’s sudden death by stroke, lingering on a gurney in a hospital hallway while the nurse sought purple nail polish from a cheap handbag.

I held my glove up to my face, breathing in the scent of hundreds of baseballs and thousands of hours sweating in the summer sun of past seasons.  Not one of them, however,  could compare with this particular moment of present time.

A girl to my right stood in left-center field, oblivious to her role and responsibility as an outfielder, but driving me into the arms of lustful thought and sin.  My girlfriend, Beverly G., (none of your damned business, friend,) wouldn’t know a balk from a goddamned fig newton, but as she propelled herself forward after a sharp ground ball past the shortstop, I could swear I could tell what color panties she was wearing.

The double intoxication of a sweaty leather baseball glove and the promise of post-game frolicking with my girlfriend of six weeks proved too much for me.  For as Aphrodite mesmerized me with her soothing, diabolical charms, a line-drive hurtled toward me like an angry bullet, aiming squarely for the bridge of my nose.

baseball glove

baseball glove (Photo credit: theseanster93)

At the last moment, which would have been my last moment, I got my glove up in time to deflect said missile.  I had never before batted away such an easy chance, or at least not since fifth grade, and the moment of my deep, dark embarrassment destroyed the sexual rapture that had overtaken me since about the second inning.

Two runs scored and one teen’s spirit was ground to dust as, to add insult to injury, Beverly retrieved the deflected baseball as it rolled toward her, picked it up and tossed it more or less in the direction of the infield.  I had no idea what the score was, but I knew that I had already lost the game.

Imagine if Bill Buckner had not only allowed that cue shot grounder to get by him, but then had to watch as his girlfriend picked it up, thereby exposing the inadequacy of his manhood for all the universe to see.

Such was the fate reserved for this broken youth, bereft of spirit, only an R.C. Cola available to mitigate the disaster that was his most recent stint in center field.

But as I stood there on that outfield grass, waiting for the next 60-years of my life to hurry up and go by already, Beverly came up to me and smiled.

“Did you see my throw?  Wasn’t it good?  I got it in almost to the short-man!”

“Shortstop.  You mean the shortstop,” I muttered like someone responding to a question at the scene of a car crash.

“Yeah!  That was so much fun!”

Clearly, this was why I loved her.  There were no clouds in her universe, only darker shades of light.

Pink Floyd in January 1968 Left to right: Maso...

Pink Floyd in January 1968 Left to right: Mason, Barrett, Gilmour (seated), Waters and Wright (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We walked off the field together toward the gravel parking lot where my ’74 Challenger was parked, and the best / worst day of my life concluded with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” trailing behind us on the Post Road heading toward I-95.

But summer was already being seduced by fall, the hot sun dappled a cooler orange about suppertime.  All things born in the summer have a tendency to die faster than their heartier fall and winter counterparts, and our brief summer of fun was no exception.  An Irish boyfriend with a wispy blond mustache reclaimed “his” Beverly soon after she’d returned to high school for the 11th grade.

Attending a different high school in a universe entirely foreign to Bev’s world, I knew I had about as much chance of keeping her as the Mets had of winning the pennant with Pete Falcone and Neil Allen fronting the pitching staff.

Beverly broke up with me two weeks before Halloween.  Another baseball season was clawing its way to a frigid ending, and I was sure I would never play center field again.

Yet there I was just yesterday — a different park, a different state — standing on the outfield grass fifty feet from home-plate on a little league field in Simpsonville, a cool millenium since I’d looked over my right shoulder at Beverly’s brown hair and bare feet.

Now, a little guy, my eight-year old son, shouts at me to toss the ball over to him.

I hold the ball a while, knowing that this moment, too, shall pass away, leaving an imprint visible only to our souls.  These moments and memories are just too delicate to touch; they accumulate like slowly melting snow on a winter’s warm windowsill.

If we are lucky, we love much, and many, but are always haunted by the ones that got away.

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