The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Shea Stadium”

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.

“Calico Joe” – A Baseball Book Review

You’re probably more familiar with the works of John Grisham than I am.

I’ve seen a couple of movies based on his books — “The Firm” and “The Client” –but I’d never actually read one of his novels.  Based on my experience reading “Calico Joe,” I will have to go back and rectify that mistake.

“Calico Joe” is a 194-page masterpiece of story-telling that has become one of my favorite fictional baseball tales of all time.  I picked it up on a whim at my local public library.  I sat down with it after my kids went to sleep, and stayed up until almost 2:00 a.m. the next morning enraptured by this stunning story.

Let me tell you about it.  Set in the summer of 1973, as well as the present, the story is told to us through the eyes of Paul Tracy, son of fictitious Mets pitcher Warren Tracy.  The Mets and Cubs are locked in a mid-season pennant race.  Young Paul is a huge Mets fan, and, of course, wants badly to root for his dad.

But Paul’s dad has little interest in what his son Paul wants and needs from him.  Warren prefers the nightlife, and is often abusive to Paul and his mom.  Paul’s tenuous loyalty to his dad is then abruptly tested by Joe Castle, a young phenom just called up by the Cubs due to injuries to some of their other players.

“Calico Joe,” as the press begins to call him, is an immediate sensation like nothing baseball has ever seen before.  He breaks rookie record after record, and baseball fans all over the country become virtual Cubs fans overnight as the nation is riveted by the unbelievable on-field exploits of “Calico Joe,” who hails from a small town in the Ozarks.

Warren Tracy, fighting for his career as the Mets fourth starter behind Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, is also suddenly in a fight for his son’s loyalty, if not for his love.  The inevitable on-field confrontation between the young phenom and the journeyman pitcher yields tragic results, expertly handled by an author at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

Unlike other baseball novels in which the story-line revolves primarily around a father-son axis, this one jettisons all saccharine melodrama from the start.  Told in starkly rendered primary colors of love and hate, there is no ambiguity in how this son feels about his dad.  His entire adult life, as is true for many of us, is irrevocably shaped by the history of his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father.

An aging Warren Tracy, later riddled with cancer, is confronted by his angry, uncompromising son who demands that  his father face his sordid past, and  make amends for it.  The emotional storm between them unfolds like a Gulf hurricane, gathering power slowly and deliberately, before unleashing its fury.

Joe Castle himself is the vehicle through which the story is told.  His character is the tragic center of the universe that mirrors all the hope and ultimate despair that confronts humanity in general, and many young ball players in particular.  His archetype, the handsome young man from nowhere who bursts onto the scene and into the hearts of an adoring public, is classic American mythology.  Yet seldom has this archetype been handled as deftly as it has in “Calico Joe.”

For baseball fans, you will delight in the recreation here of the 1973 N.L. East pennant race, and in the recalling of so many stars of that era, including Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays (who has a “cameo”), Catfish Hunter and so many others.  If you’re lucky enough to still have some of your old baseball cards, you may be tempted to pull them out of whatever shoe-box you’ve stored them in all these years to recapture some of the magic of when you first pulled them out of a Topps wax pack.

Keeping in mind that this is a novel, the dates, schedule and scores in the story are not necessarily accurate to real life, nor are they intended to be.  But you can feel the excitement in the batting cage when the rookie takes his first batting practice, and you can practically hear the crowd in your head during the ultimate showdown between protagonist and antagonist in a mid-summer Shea Stadium sell-out.

There are, of course, obvious parallels between actual young players today like Bryce Harper (and Mike Trout), and the fictitious Joe Castle.  Most of us realize what precious commodities they are to baseball, and, freed momentarily from our ever-present, and not always pleasant, real-life responsibilities, to our ability to dream.

Yet sometimes, as in “Calico Joe,” dreams have the life-span of soap bubbles.

The question, then, is how do move on?  And what role, if any, does the act of forgiveness play when life’s tale is nearly spent? In short, can a son ever really forgive a father for his dad’s utter, ugly humanity?

Grisham pushes the reader into some uncomfortable emotional territory, but respects the reader enough to provide his or her own answers to these compelling questions.

If you read just one baseball novel this summer, allow John Grisham’s “Calico Joe” to expertly and efficiently transport you into a time and place as magical as any ballgame you fondly remember, in a world that, for better and worse, looks a lot like our own.

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.

The Best Players I Have Ever Seen (Live)

Tomorrow I will be purchasing a dozen tickets to a baseball game for a group of people I work with.  We will be going to a Greenville Drive (Single A Red Sox) minor league baseball game in early May.  I don’t get to as many games as I used to, and I haven’t been to a Major League baseball game in an embarrassingly long time.

Greenville Drive marquee sign

Greenville Drive marquee sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, baseball is baseball, and Fluor Field here in Greenville is a nice facsimile of Boston’s Fenway Park, complete with a Green Monster of its own in left field.

This got me to thinking of all the players I’ve seen live over the years, in both minor league and major league baseball parks.  So, inevitably, I decided to make a list of the best players I’ve seen in person at each position since my first game at Shea Stadium in 1974.  I’ve included the year and the city in which I witnessed them play.

First Base:  Steve Garvey (Shea Stadium, 1974), Willie McCovey (Shea Stadium, 1977), Willie Stargell (Shea Stadium, 1979), John Olerud (Seattle Kingdome, 1993), Mo Vaughn (Fenway Park, 1998.)

I was lucky to have seen a pair of first baseman, Garvey in ’74 and Stargell in ’79, who would each win their league’s MVP award that season.

Second Base:  Dave Lopes (Shea Stadium, 1974),  Rennie Stennett (Shea Stadium, 1976), Dave Cash (Shea Stadium, 1976), Roberto Alomar (Kingdome, 1993).

Not a lot to offer here.  Alomar was just beginning to reveal his greatness in ’93.

Sorry, fellow Mets fan, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to add Felix Millan to this list.

Fenway Park on June 21, 2008

Fenway Park on June 21, 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Third Base:  Ron Cey (Shea Stadium, 1974), Mike Schmidt (Shea Stadium, 1976, ’77), Lenny Randle (Shea Stadium, 1977), Richie Hebner (Shea Stadium, 1979),  Butch Hobson (Fenway Park, 1979), Robin Ventura (Three Rivers Stadium, 2000).

One Hall of Famer and…Lenny Randle.  Hebner supplemented his income in the off-season by digging graves.  Ventura’s career WAR of 55.5 is right there with several HOF’ers, including Boudreau, Medwick, Herman, Kelley, Terry and Gordon.

Shortstop: Bud Harrelson (Shea, 1974), Larry Bowa (Shea, 1976, ’77), Nomar Garciappara (New Britain, CT, Double-A Minor League park, while playing for the Trenton Thunder, 1995), Nomar Garciappara (Fenway Park, 1998), Edgar Renteria (Portland, ME, Double-A Minor League park, Portland SeaDogs, 1995), A-Rod (Fenway Park,  1999).

Hadlock Field, Portland ME. May 12, 2007 Photo...

Hadlock Field, Portland ME. May 12, 2007 Photo by me, alcinoe 06:36, 25 September 2007 . . Alcinoe . . 1,100×768 (256 KB) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s some real talent to choose from there.  Renteria was just 18-years old when he had a breakout season playing up north for the Portland SeaDogs.  I watched him play there several times in ’95.  I also watched a very skinny Nomar lash a triple and make an outstanding defensive play in Double-A for the BoSox minor league team that same year. He was clearly the star of the show that day.

Catcher:  This is where mediocrity rules the day.  Jerry Grote or Steve Yeager in ’74?  (both fine defensive catchers), John Stearns (at Shea in ’78?)  Stearns set the N.L. record for steals in a season by a catcher (25).  How about Ed Ott (Shea, 1979) of the Pirates?

Charles Johnson of the Sea Dogs was a fine defensive catcher who could hit with some power.  He became the very first draft pick ever for the Florida Marlins in 1992.  I saw him play in Portland a few times in ’94 and ’95.

But I suppose I’ll have to take Jason Kendall who turned in a fine performance for the Pirates back in 2000 (Three Rivers Stadium.)  Ironically, Kendall broke John Stearns N.L. single-season stolen base record for catchers a couple of years earlier.

Three Rivers Stadium

Three Rivers Stadium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I wanted to cheat, I would add Pudge Rodriguez and Mickey Tettleton, both with the Rangers, each of whom I saw play in Spring Training in 1996 down in Florida.

Outfield:  Jimmy Wynn (Toy Cannon came to Shea in ’74), Rusty Staub (Shea, several times throughout the mid-70’s), Dave Kingman (Shea, ’75 and ’76), Del Unser (Shea, 1975), Greg Luzinski (Shea, ’76, ’77), Lee Mazzilli (Shea, 1977-’81), Dave Parker (Shea, ’79), Freddy Lynn (Fenway, ’79)  Jim Rice (Fenway, ’79), Dwight Evans (Fenway, ’79), Bobby Bonds (Fenway, ’79), Ken Griffey, Jr. (Kingdome, 1993, Fenway Park, 1998), Jay Buhner (Kingdome, 1993), Joe Carter (Kingdome, 1993), Brian Giles (Three Rivers Stadium, 2000).

But Vladimir Guerrerro (Harrisburg Senators, Expos AA team, playing at Portland, ME, 1996) is responsible for my favorite jaw-dropping performance.  I watched Vlad take apart the Sea Dogs in a game in the summer of ’96 where he hit a ball so hard to straight away center field, that it was still rising slightly on a line over the raised, distant scoreboard, and it just kept going like a missile until it hit a clump of trees at the base of the railroad track up on an embankment beyond the stadium.

I’d never heard a ball hit that hard in my life.  Neither had anyone else in the park, for as young Vlad rounded the bases, the stadium was just stunned into silence.  It was as if a shotgun blast had just echoed around the park.  I remember turning to my brother after this homer and saying, “Looks like this kid’s got a pretty good future ahead of him, huh?”

Designated Hitter:  I think I’ve seen only about a half a dozen games in American League ballparks, but I have seen three of the best.

Carl Yastrzemski (Fenway Park, 1979), Paul Molitor (Kingdome, 1993), Edgar Martinez (Fenway Park, 1998).  Edgar did not play in the game I went to at the Kingdome in ’93.

Shea

Shea (Photo credit: Kethera)

Pitchers:  Don Sutton (Shea, 1974), Tom Seaver (Shea, 1975), Jerry Koosman (Shea, 1976), Randy Jones (Shea, 1976), Jerry Reuss (Shea, 1980), Dwight Gooden (on Rehab., pitching for Tidewater vs. Maine Guides, Triple-A, Old Orchard Beach, ME, 1987), Al Leiter (Kingdome, 1993), Roger Clemens (Fenway Park, 1996), Tom Gordon (Fenway Park, 1996), Pedro Martinez (Fenway Park, 1998), Al Leiter (Three Rivers Stadium, 2000), Josh Beckett (Hadlock Field, Portland, ME, pitching for the Double-A Sea Dogs, 2001).

So I got to see Al Leiter twice, seven year apart, pitching for two different teams (Blue Jays and Mets.)  I’ve seen five pitchers who have won Cy Young awards.

That’s it.  By my count, I’ve seen nine players who are already in the Hall of Fame.  I’ve also seen several others (A-Rod, Griffey, Jr., Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens) who certainly have a case for future HOF induction.  Also, players like Evans, Staub, Nomar and Edgar Martinez were all among the very best players of their respective eras.

But an entire generation of new, young players has emerged in the last few years, few of whom I’ve had a chance to go out and see perform live.

Guess it’s time to buy those tickets.

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.

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