baseball

Paste Goes Yard

Bases Loaded Opening ScreenSo right now, we’re in a massive societal lockdown, which means that all of us are sitting at home and trying to find things to do. It also means that our usual spring distractions and entertainment have been canceled or altered. There’s no NCAA Championship, and no professional sports. Now, I’m bummed that I wasn’t able to fill out a March Madness bracket and watch tournament games during the day, but I didn’t realize how much I would be missing baseball.

I’ve written about my long-standing and oft-frustrating Mets fandom over the years, and that hasn’t changed. I remain loyal to the team even though there have been large chunks of time in the last two decades were I have checked out and stopped paying attention. And I can say with some confidence that there are enough highlight compilations on YouTube to keep me entertained and remind me of what I’m missing, but the thing that has reminded me of the joy of baseball the most has been Bases Loaded.

Released by Jaleco in 1988, Bases Loaded is a Nintendo game that was one of a few games that stepped up that year to take advantage of the dearth of quality NES sports games. Yes, the system had an entire sports category when it premiered a few years earlier, and those games were playable, but the overall quality left something to be desired. Golf and Ice Hockey were probably the better of the selection with the football game 10 Yard Fight at the bottom and Baseball somewhere between. I mean, we played the hell out of that game, but it was a glitchy mess–outs would not be recorded and players would walk off the field at random, so we called it “Gitchball”–but it was the only thing going.

But then I got the first issue of Nintendo Power and that proved to be a–no pun intended–game changer. Really, the whole magazine was, and I’m not alone in saying that it was a landmark moment in the 1980s. For baseball, it was important because that issue featured a preview of three new games: RBI Baseball, Major League Baseball, and Bases Loaded.

BL Poster

The baseball games poster from the very first issue of Nintendo Power.  Notice the Bat Signal in the corner.  This is my copy and it’s seen better days.

This article–which had an accompanying poster (it’s on the back of the overworld map for the second quest of The Legend of Zelda)–was easily the most important thing I read in 1988 because not only did it advertise three different baseball games, it analyzed and compared them. My friend Tom and I spent the entire summer watching the Mets cruise through the NL East and collecting a ton of Topps baseball cards, so finding out that there was not just one new baseball game but three out there was mind blowing and we knew that choosing which one to ask for was going to be incredibly important.

I can’t say much about either RBI Baseball or Major League Baseball except that I played the latter a few times and remember it being a better version of Glitchball and the lineups used actual player names. But Bases Loaded looked completely different, closer to the game Hardball that we had seen on the Commodore 64 (and if you’ve seen The Princess Bride, you have seen it as well), which meant slightly more realistic-looking players. When Tom got the cartridge, we saw that each team had been programmed with strengths and weaknesses, and instead of having to write down our team record if we were trying to play a season (something we’d done the previous year with Glitchball), there was a password after every game. Even at the start, this was awesome, and when we got to the actual game, we were completely blown away, so much so that we immediately sat down and chose teams to play for an entire season.

Now, if you actually know the game, you know that’s quite a task. Bases Loaded has a 132-game “pennant race” one-player function (and a one-off “vs mode” two-player function), although you can clinch the pennant early by winning 80 games. But the trials of life ha not taken over for us as fifth graders and neither had most of the trappings of adolescence, so in 1988 we were ready to go the distance. Tom chose Jersey, the team closest to use geographically; I chose D.C. because their uniform’s colors were blue and gray and therefore as close to the Mets as I would get. The D.C. team had solid pitching and one superstar hitter by the name of Fendy, whose stats on the game were a .356 average with 50 home runs. But Jersey was something else because they had Paste.

Paste Homer

Paste hit a walk-off three-run shot at the end of a recent game.  Here he is high-fiving teammates on the Jaleco Diamond Vision.

With an unreal .467 average and 60 home runs, Paste was the power-hitting first baseman whose shadow loomed like Babe Ruth any time you had to face Jersey in a game. The team’s pitching was marginal at best, but that didn’t matter because you could always count on Paste being able to smash the ball. Many a time, I watched Tom get a runner or two on the bases and then settle in for some sort of monster at bat from his team’s star player, a pixelated baseball god whose home runs were the type that you knew were out of the park the moment you heard the clink of the 8-bit bat. I mean, I could get Fendy to hit a homer or two, but nothing compared to a Paste home run.

That’s not to say that he carried the team. Jersey had a deep order, including Bay, who batted cleanup after Paste and sported 30 of his own home runs, and a bench that had more than just your average schmos. It wound up being a boon to Tom, as he won every game we played in the season, although I don’t think we got past the twenty game mark before our interest faded. I do remember one time he had found some passwords–where he got them from, I don’t know–for both Jersey and D.C. that put us at game 36 or 37 and while Jersey remained undefeated, D.C. had a losing record. I was pretty pissed off about that and vowed to continue playing on my own, eking out a few wins and a couple of losses before finally giving up and throwing in the Ice Hockey cartridge so my fat guy could score 30 goals against Sweden.

The reviews of Bases Loaded that I found online are not particularly kind to it. They mention the superiority of Hardball, how slow the game play is, and how the fielding is quite terrible. All of those are valid points, but I don’t think that matters to a generation who gets instantly nostalgic when they see the word “Jaleco” on the spine of a Nintendo cartridge. For many of us, Bases Loaded was the first time we felt that we were playing a real baseball video game.

20200325_155556

Even though the game’s title wasn’t on the cartridge, when you saw the word “Jaleco” told you knew exactly what it was.

Glitchball was a good afternoon distraction; Bases Loaded was a commitment. To win at that game, you had to manage your team and those of us who didn’t have the luxury of a Commodore 64 were excited and impress by the different stances and body types of the hitters (plus the different skin tones) and the throwing styles of the pitchers (I never really got the hang of those Dan Quisenberry-type underhand-style throwers). Plus, your pitchers got tired as the game went on, you could pinch hit, and the game would cut to the Diamond Vision when a home run was hit, showing the pitcher holding his head while the batter pumped his fist behind him. And there was also a bullpen car and when you hit a batter with a pitch, he might charge the mound and we’d see a fight play out on the scoreboard. I am sure that better games came along after or were available for other systems, but to us it was the crown jewel of NES baseball games.

It still has the magic, too. I sat down last week and began a season, this time as Jersey because Tom’s not here and I have my own cartridge, so I can pick whatever team I choose. I swept three games from Boston, the third of which climaxed with a three-run walk-off homer by Paste. Sure, Boston put up a bunch of hits on my pitchers and even 32 years later, I can’t field anything cleanly. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve got endless time at home and a TV in the basement that I can use for 40 minutes a day until I see what’s at the end of the season, and know that Paste’s moon shots are going to be one thing getting me there.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 68: Baseball Like It Oughta Be

1641713TH_ACRO17526022Thirty years ago, the New York Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. For those of us who are die-hard Mets fans, it was an experience that we’ll never forget, and one that we have savored since then, as we patiently (and sometimes even painfully) wait for the Amazins to hoist the World Series trophy once more. Join me and my guest Paul Spataro as we look back on the 1986 season, NLCS, and World Series and share our memories of what it was like to be a kid (in my case) and be at some of the greatest games in Mets history (like Paul).

PLUS … stay through to the end of the show for an exciting announcement about a BRAND NEW PODCAST!!!

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some extras for you …

(more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 31 — The 1994 Grab Bag!

man reaching into grab bagWhat do Beverly Hills, 90210, the 1994 Baseball Strike, and Zima all have in common?  They’re all covered in the latest episode of Pop Culture Affidavit!  As part of my series of posts and episodes called 1994: The Most Important Year of the Nineties, I take a look at ten completely random things from 1994.  It’s movies, television, music, and current events all in one convenient episode!

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

(more…)

Bottom of the Inning: Taking Baseball Personally (Baseball, Part Two)

Baseball 10thIn my last post, I mentioned that watching all of Baseball made me feel like I was in an introductory, or “101” class on the game.  As well-researched and well-crafted as Ken Burns’s documentary was, there were times where I felt like I was getting the history textbook version of the baseball story:  hit the high points, go selectively in-depth, and completely skip over quite a bit.

While that’s a valid criticism, leaving it at that would be giving the work short shrift, especially since it’s a full day’s worth of a documentary.  Furthermore, I spent much of that first part of my look at Baseball on summary and critique and didn’t give much of my personal “story” as it is, or at least my personal reactions while I was watching it.  Which is kind of the whole purpose of this blog, right?

So that’s what I’m going to do.  Inning by inning.

First Inning (“Our Game” 1850s-1900):  This isn’t Baseball, this is seventh grade social studies with Mr. Kerkhof.  We’re talking about the Antebellum period and …  man, the 1800s are boring.  But this?  This isn’t so much because it’s an origin story, the kind I’m fixated on whenever we begin looking at an important event.  What were the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War and how did it progress from there?  Who actually founded the Roman Empire?  When did the  Middle Ages officially begin?  Who played that first game of baseball and what was it like in what seems like the Dark Ages to me–before Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Mantle, and every other name I know?

Second Inning (“Something Like a War” 1900-1910):  I’m ten years old and my parents have given me a “Baseball’s All-Time Greats” baseball card set, the one I spotted in the Sears catalogue.  There’s Ty Cobb, and there’s Honus Wagner, who has the most expensive baseball card in existence, something I learned on a feature I saw on 20/20 the previous year.  I begin looking at the all-time stats for the old players and am amazed and even though many of their records have been broken, they still are in the top five for many of their most notable categories.  The card set is worth original retail price (and even today it’s not worth much), but what it lacks in monetary value it more than makes up for in facts.

Third Inning (“The Faith of Fifty Million People” 1910-1920):  To me, it’s not the Black Sox scandal; it’s Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams.  It’s “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and the last scene of that softball episode of Married … With Children that parodies the last scene of Eight Men Out.  It’s also the idea that even something as pure as a game I play on Saturday mornings in Little League can be corrupted by outside influences (yunno, beyond the opposing team’s coach being friends with the umpire).

Fourth Inning (“A National Heirloom” 1920-1930):  I’m in the fifth grade and we’re asked to take a biography out of the library for our latest book report/conference with the teacher.  I grab one about Babe Ruth.  He competes with Gehrig.  He is supposedly “stranger than fiction,” which is what one of the chapter titles says.  Despite my being an excellent reader, I have trouble getting through the entire book.  I don’t know if it’s because the book’s badly written or because I don’t find the subject matter as interesting as I thought I would.  In fact, I can’t remember if I ever finished that book.  I do know that when I had my conference with Mr. Schafer about it, I did fine.

Fifth Inning (“Shadow Ball” 1930-1940):  I have no personal context for this.  In fact, if there is any episode that I found myself glued to, it’s this one.  Growing up, my knowledge of the struggle of African-Americans was limited to slavery, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I was not exactly a scholar.  I knew the Negro Leagues existed but I don’t think that what little I read about them in books clued me in to what extent.  If anything, I’m grateful for what I gained from this episode.

Sixth Inning (“The National Pastime” 1940-1950):  It’s 2012 and I’m in a used bookstore on the Downtown Mall.  I’m looking for a copy of As You Like It but am also perusing the small graphic novel section.  On my way to the counter, I pass sports and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.  It sits on my shelf until the start of the 2013 season rolls around.  While Kahn’s biographical retelling of his time becoming a sportswriter is interesting, it’s his visits with former Dodger greats and the retelling of Jackie Robinson’s history that pulls me in.  For years, I knew three things about Robinson:  he played for the Dodgers, he broke the color barrier, and he stole home once in the World Series.  This tells me so much more.

Seventh Inning (“The Capital of Baseball” 1950-1960): I’m twelve years old and my family is throwing one of those big barbecues where everyone–from my mom’s side and dad’s side–is there.  My Uncle Brian, a die-hard Yankees fan, spends a good hour talking to Grandpa Panarese about baseball in the 1950’s.  They talk about the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers.  I don’t interject; I just listen.  It’s one of the best memories I have of these two men and one of the most informative conversations upon which I ever eavesdrop.

Eighth Inning (“A Whole New Ballgame” 1960-1970):  To me, this is where baseball begins; specifically, in 1962, when the New York Mets go 40-120 and set an all-time single-season loss record that still stands.  I cut my baseball history teeth on An Amazin’ Era in 1986 and to me, “baseball history” has always involved Seaver, Koosman, Swoboda, Clendenon, Agee, Grote, Garrett, and McGraw.  Yes, there are more important figures in baseball history and more important events.  But it’s the lovable losers’ transformation into the Miracle Mets that I always remember.

Ninth Inning (“Home” 1970-1993):  It’s fascinating to see Bob Costas tell the story of being in the Red Sox locker room during the Buckner play and watching the champagne get wheeled out as quickly as possible.  It’s also fascinating to see testimony from Red Sox fans who were wounded by the play.  After all, I rooted for “the enemy” in 1986.  My nine-year-old dreams came true when Jesse Orosco threw the last pitch to Marty Barrett (I have a poster on the wall of my classroom), so it never occurred to me that someone might be upset by that night’s events.  Beyond that, there are so many recognizable faces here and I wish he was taking more time on them; I wish he was reminiscing with me the way he was reminiscing with my parents through the seventh inning.

When it ends with a talk about how baseball endures I realize that this isn’t a documentary; it’s a eulogy.  The season was cancelled due to a strike the month before the first episode aired and it doesn’t seem like we’ll get the game back.  Furthermore, it’s hard to pick a side because everyone seems greedy; everyone seems like a villain.  And here, at the funeral, we’re all trying to remember why we came.

Tenth Inning (1994-2010):  I was there.  I remember that.  I watched that.

I will never tire of watching Barry Bonds fail to throw out Sid Bream.  I always loved how much fun Ken Griffey Jr. seemed to be having–and always wished I had that swing.  I was cheering for McGwire the whole time and have to admit I was disappointed when the PED charges came to light.  I never cheered for Bonds unless he struck out looking.  I want to buy Steve Bartman a beer and talk baseball with the guy–not that game, just baseball.  No, the 2004 ALCS is not overrated and yes, I’ll watch the Yankees choke like that any time, day or night.  My heart was in my throat when Endy Chavez made that catch, only to have the Cardinals rip it out and crush it a few innings later.  You’re really using that Springsteen song, Ken?  Don’t you realize it’s about looking back and realizing how middle-aged you are?

“But then time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.”

You know what?  That’s exactly what this is, isn’t it?  Good job, sir.

Top of the Inning: The 101 Course (Baseball, Part One)

Baseball DVDThis post and the next post is part of the Big League Blog-a-thon, coordinated by Forgotten Films, home to one of the best film podcasts out there, The Forgotten Filmcast, which is about the movies that time forgot.

I discovered early on, after volunteering to sit down and watch Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball, that one simply does not sit down and watch Ken Burns’ Baseball. No, it is something that taunts you from the screen of your Netflix queue, daring you to take it on like a pitcher who’s been throwing heat all night and has only just hit his stride.  And all you can do, really, is step up to the plate, bear down, and let him know that if he’s going to get you out, you’re going to have to work for it.

In other words, challenge accepted.

Bad metaphors and even worse Barney Stinson jokes aside, Baseball was something I had watched when it was originally on back in 1994 but didn’t remember much about except that Burns spent the segment about the 1986 Mets talking about the agony of the 1986 Red Sox and that he must have exhausted every available version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over the course of the documentary.  That I remember the former should not be a surprise–my Mets fandom runs deep, even when they lose–and after re-watching all ten innings, the latter still rings true.

Baseball originally aired twenty years ago as a nine-part documentary, each part appropriately titled an “inning,” with a two-part “tenth inning” being added in 2010.  What this adds up to is a documentary that if one were to sit down and watch without a break, he would be on the couch for nearly a full twenty-four hours.  Burns begins with the  origins of baseball, both real and myth (an urban legend involving Abner Doubleday that has been disproven countless times yet still seems to have legs all these years later) and then moves chronologically through the beginnings of the game up until what at that point was the present.

Through the first five innings, Burns seems to have accomplished what he set out to do, which is given us a full history of the game.  Instead of blowing through the 19th Century, he spends all of the “First Inning” exploring baseball’s evolution and then only moves ten years ahead into the future with the second inning, bringing us only up to 1940 by the end of inning five.

This slow progression works to flesh out the characters of the first half of baseball’s history, men whose names are known and aren’t necessarily forgotten but are definitely overshadowed by the names revered in my parents’ youth.  Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, and Grover Cleveland Alexander were long dead by the time I went to my first baseball game in 1985, existing only  in trivia books like Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book.  Here, there is footage and there are interviews by historians and some of the few people who were, at the time, left alive to talk about playing against or watching those old-timers.

Furthermore, throughout the first half of the documentary, Burns does not shy away from the racism that pervaded the game for decades, telling the story of the Negro League whose history to me when I was a kid growing up on Long Island was a footnote in the Cobbs, Ruths, DiMaggios, and Mantles of books about baseball.  With stories from Negro League players such as Buck O’Neil (who is a delight in every interview throughout the series), you learn more about the racial history of the early 20th Century than you do in most high school history classes, even when that history is overshadowed by a mammoth figure such as Babe Ruth, who gets almost an entire episode to himself.

As Burns moves through the 1940s and 1950s, into an era where baseball really exploded and where he should have his strongest stories–after all, many of the players of those eras were still alive at the time when he was filming–the cracks begin to show and while the documentary doesn’t exactly fall apart by the Ninth Inning, it definitely is a lot weaker than at its beginning.  He relies too much on the same seven or eight different interviewees and we don’t hear directly from very many players beyond Ted Williams and a few others.  I wasn’t expecting every single player or anything, but seeing at least one appearance by Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, or Johnny Bench.  Heck, 1994 was when Tim McCarver was still mildly tolerable.

Which, in a way, brings me to the second major problem with the documentary.  Burns, who is a Red Sox fan, is committing the cardinal sin of sports reporting and being a “homer,” reporting with an incredible Northeast bias.  Walk away from Baseball and you will think that the period between 1957 and 1994 was a complete wasteland (as if the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and New York Giants’ leaving for California stripped baseball of its virginity in a way that the Black Sox scandal or the systemic racism that preceded the Jackie Robinson era never could) and that the only baseball worth happening occurred in Boston and New York and mostly in 1975 and 1986.  And I’ll readily acknowledge that both of those World Series deserve their reputations, as does the career and legacy of George Steinbrenner.  But much like a high school history class where you cover the Vietnam War in a day because the teacher has run out of time, Burns gives short shrift to then-recent history, probably assuming that we were all there and we all remember.

He sort of remedies this in the added “Tenth Inning,” but even then there’s an ESPN-like whitewash, perpetuating the narrative of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saving” baseball in 1998, the Yankees “saving” New York City in the fall of 2001, the Red Sox “saving” the nation’s soul in 2004, and Barry Bonds’ role as some sort of supervillain in the whole thing.  All  of those storylines have legitimacy, but Burns’ coverage only serves to date the film a little–we’ve had so many highlight reels, specials, and shorter documentaries about those specific moments that one wonders if there was a need for him to come back and tell the stories at all.

That’s not to say that this behemoth isn’t worth watching.  Technically, Baseball is carefully made and serves as a perfect “101 Class,” an introduction to a topic that can’t possibly be contained to a single film, no matter how large it is.

In Part Two:  Taking Baseball Personally

Amazin’ Baseball

Mazer CoverUsually when I write posts for this blog, I’ve recently read, watched, or listened to whatever I am writing about; however, I haven’t done my homework this time, choosing instead to set aside the movie I was going to write about and take a few hundred words to talk about Bill Mazer, who passed away earlier today.

Mazer, if you are unfamiliar with him, was a longtime New York sports journalist and commentator, one of the early guard of sports radio hosts, and was a mainstay on WNEW (Channel 5, now WNYW, the New York City Fox affiliate) during the 1980s, kind of the same way that George Michael was a Washington, D.C. mainstay with his “Sports Machine” highlights.  The New York Times has an excellent obituary of Mazer that I highly recommend reading, as I was struck by the extent and longevity of his career.

To be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with Mazer or his career, as I was too young to watch him on television and have only had a passing interest in sports radio (and only then it’s to listen to the occasional game).  But for the last twenty-three years I have had a signed copy of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book on my bookshelf, and when I saw the obituary in the Times, I immediately pulled it off the bookshelf and will be reading it again for the first time since my Uncle Michael and Aunt Clare gave it to me for my thirteenth birthday.

The title page of my copy of Bill Mazer's Amazin' Baseball Book, signed by the author for my thirteenth birthday.

The title page of my copy of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book, signed by the author for my thirteenth birthday.

As noted in my post about the 1988 Mets, when I was in the latter part of elementary school and through most of junior high school, I was a rabid baseball fan.  I’m still a huge Mets fan, but this was a time in my life when I was the encyclopedic sort of fan, the type of kid who read or watched everything about baseball that he could get his hands on and who enjoyed the most minute, trivial details about the history of the game (ironically, however, I found Ken Burns’s Baseball boring but I may give that a re-watch at some point).  Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book was the perfect gift, as it is both a memoir of his life and career in relation to the game along with page upon page of facts and stories about the history of the game itself.  The facts are presented in Q&A format with all sorts of tidbits, such as:

WHICH FORMER LOS ANGELES DODGER PITCHER APPEARED IN SUCH TELEVISION SHOWS AS THE LAWMAN AND THE BRADY BUNCH?

Don Drysdale.

It was questions like these (and their answers) that had me flipping back and forth through the book and poring over every page with my friend Tom in the back of his mom’s Ford Taurus on the way to Shea Stadium, and I think what’s always drawn me to shows and books about sports history, especially baseball history, even if my interest in the subject has waned from time to time, replaced with film, comic books, or whatever other part of popular culture I was obsessing over.  Mazer himself, in the introduction to his book, talks about being a fact-o-phile, a proto-Schwab, the type of guy who could rarely, if ever, be stumped.   In fact, the Times obituary sums it up perfectly:

Mr. Mazer’s boyhood idol, Van Lingle Mungo, became the title of a song by the singer, pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg, consisting entirely of old-time ballplayers’ names. Mungo, who died in 1985, won 120 games and lost 115 with the Dodgers and the Giants, and he led the National League in strikeouts with 238 in 1936. It’s a fair guess that the Amazin’ would have known those statistics without having to look them up.

I’m a fan of experts like that, guys who have extensive knowledge and are experts on topics.  I have always liked having an answer to almost every question and even though it’s becoming a bit passe for people in my field to want to be considered “experts” on anything, I still enjoy just knowing stuff.  I’m sure my fellow sports fans and comics podcasters know exactly how I feel.

But as interesting as all of the facts, figures, and stories contained in Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book are, his passing also reminds me of how many of those in his generation are passing away.  Mazer grew up in Brooklyn during the golden age of the Dodgers’ tenure at Ebbets Field, an era that I’ve only read about in books or heard about in stories that older relatives, like uncles and grandfathers would tell years ago at family functions.  For my money, if I could go back to any era of baseball, it would be the late 1960s so I could see the 1969 Mets, but I remember sitting at many an extended family barbecue listening to Grandpa Panarese talk to my Uncle Brian about the Giants, the Yankees, and whatever other sports stories they had.

While I think it’s out of print, you can find used copies of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book on Amazon and I recommend picking it up.  It’s truly a trip back in time, one that I’m looking forward to taking again.

The Day the Mets Died

Dwight Gooden holds his head in his hands in the 1988 NLCS.  This just about sums it up.

Dwight Gooden holds his head in his hands in the 1988 NLCS. This just about sums it up.

The night before I wrote this, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2013 National League Championship Series.  I’m not sure if the Cardinals will win the World Series and as a Mets fan with a longtime grudge against the Redbirds, I can tell you that I don’t want them to.  Had the Dodgers made the series it would have been the first time in twenty-five years since they’d been to the fall classic, a series which they won in five games and whose most famous highlight is Kirk Gibson’s dramatic home run off of Dennis Eckersley in the ninth inning of game one.  But as big of a baseball fan as I was when I was eleven years old, I did not watch a single inning of the 1988 World Series because the Dodgers had completely broken my heart.

They weren’t supposed to beat Oakland; furthermore, they weren’t supposed to be there.  All season, the National League East champion New York Mets had cruised to the title much like they had in 1986, winning 100 games, fifteen games more than the Pirates.  The Dodgers won their division handily as well, but they hadn’t even been able to touch the Mets all season, losing ten out of eleven games and losing badly as well.  With the 1987 season (and TERRY FUCKING PENDLETON) behind them, the Mets looked like they were back to the “true form” of 1986 and I was so excited to see them play Oakland in the World Series.  With a solid offense, surging rookie phenom Gregg Jeffries, and a solid backup catcher in Mackey Sasser (don’t laugh–I remember having at least a few conversations about how good he was during that summer), the playoffs (I didn’t refer to the postseason as the Championship Series and World Series, it was “the playoffs and the Series”) were just a formality.  The Mets were going to destroy the Dodgers.  Maybe not in four games because they had to face Orel Hershiser, but definitely in five or six–after all, they’d beaten the mighty Astros and gotten around Mike Scott back in 1986, right?

Now, one of the tougher things about my childhood following baseball was that I had an early bedtime.  Even through junior high school, I had to be in bed by 9:00 on most nights, so staying up to watch every game was out of the question.  I only watched all of games three and four because they were played over Columbus Day weekend, so the rest of the series was seen in bits and pieces and highlights on Eyewitness News the following morning before getting on the bus to school.  On one hand, this was annoying–going into the games I could watch, I had really no perception of how badly the team was underperforming.  Oh sure, I saw the highlights on the news, but without access to the internet, cable, or even a daily newspaper in 1988, I wound up remaining pretty naive that the Mets were as good as they were throughout the regular season and were going to cruise to what was going to be the most awesome of awesome World Series.  They’d lost two games against Boston in the 1986 Series and won that … so they’d take this, right?

Game three kept my hopes up despite the fact that it was pretty messy, but game four?  At eleven years old, I had no idea what it was like to wake up with a hangover and wonder if the previous night was really as bad as it seemed, but  that’s exactly what it was like.  After he settled down, Dwight Gooden started out pitching a pretty solid game, striking out nine, and the Mets went into the top of the ninth with a solid 4-2 lead and it looked like it would only be a matter of another win before taking on the “bash brothers.”

Then, this happened:

Until I watched it while working on this post, Mike Scioscia’s home run was a surreal blur, something that I remember seeing but not seeing as I was half-asleep when it happened and went to bed soon after, not having the stamina to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to see Kirk Gibson knot the series at two.  The Dodgers would win game five and shift the series back to Los Angeles, where the Mets would tie things up in game six.

My friend Tom has quite possibly the most vivid memory of game seven of anyone I know.  He was watching the game at a local restaurant with our friend Evan and I remember him telling me a few years later that after the game was over, they went back to his place and could do nothing else but sit in stunned silence.  I missed the game but went to bed optimistic that my Mets would pull it out and go to another Series.  When I saw footage of Tommy Lasorda celebrating with a champagne bath on the morning news, I began sobbing.  They couldn’t have lost.  They couldn’t have lost.  They just … couldn’t.

The front page of Newsday summed everything up perfectly.  It was a Mets logo on a black background with @#$%! written underneath.  Mr. Lewin, our elementary school gym teacher, put it up in the hallway along with other recent sports headlines that we’d look at whenever we walked by the gym, and I remember him giving me that front page because I liked the headline so much, thought it would be therapeutic in some way, or I was that much of a masochist.  I was eleven and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t capable of many deep thoughts about getting over pain, so it probably was because I liked the cover.

At any rate, twenty-five years after the fact, I can point to this series as a loss of innocence when it came to sports.  I’d seen the Mets lose before, but I had spent the summer so ensconced in baseball–looking at stats, collecting cards and stickers, watching as many games as I could–that to have it end this way was crushing and a small part of me died with the dream of another championship.  They were, after all, supposed to win, and soon I would realize that being a Mets fan is less about taking home championships and more about waiting for the other shoe to drop.

America’s Pastime

Page 1 of “America’s Pastime” from the 9-11: Volume 2 collection.

We open on a bar on the night of October 27, 2001.  A Red Sox bar, specifically, based on the Boston pennant on the wall above what I believe is a framed Pedro Martinez jersey (although the jersey is #47 and Martinez wore #45, but anyway …), and the big guy in a Red Sox jacket nursing a beer and watching Game 1 of the World Series.  A moment later, his friend walks in and the big guy, Tommy, notices that his friend, Jimmy, is wearing a Yankees hat (more specifically, he asks, “Who crapped on yer head?”).  Jimmy explains that after all New York has been through, it seemed that rooting for the Yankees was the right thing to do, for both New York and for America.  Tommy reminds him that they’re from Boston and that despite what happened, they do not, under any circumstances, root for the Yankees.  He runs down the list of what their team from Boston–“The Birthplace of America” as he calls it–have been through: Buckner, Mo Vaughn leaving, Clemens pitching for New York, Yankees’ fans cockiness, Derek Jeter, and tells Jimmy, “What happened on 9/11–you can’t let if affect you that way, Jimmy, ’cause that’s what they want.  I’m tellin’ you–if you root for the #@$!! Yankees … the terrorists win.”

Jimmy thinks for a moment, puts his hat down on the bar and says “Go D-Backs.”

That’s the gist of a two-page story entitled “America’s Pastime” written by Brian Azarello and drawn by Eduardo Risso that was published in 9-11 Volume 2, a DC Comics-released collection of short pieces that were done as a reflection on the events of September 11, 2001.  Along with the first volume, which was produced and published by several “indie” comics companies, the profits of the sales of this book went to the 9/11 victims funds, and featured many pieces that were done by both minor and major comics creators and for the most part used ordinary heroes in their stories (although there were a few super-hero-related stories in the DC one).

I briefly mentioned this particular piece last year when I wrote about “This Too Shall Pass,” the Marv Wolfman-penned story that starred Raven of the New Titans, and did say that it is one of my favorite pieces in the book because Azzarello’s script gives us a little bit of levity in a volume that can often get heavy-handed.  But looking at it a little more closely this year as I reread this and other pieces, I wanted to write about it because it made me think of one of the very first posts on my very first blog (which was called “Inane Crap”).  Dated October 24, 2001, it was called “I Guess I Hate New York” and is more or less a rant that is similar to the one in Azzarello and Risso’s story, as I expressed my frustration with the idea that suddenly the Yankees were America’s team and that rooting for them to win the World Series was somehow the “right” thing to do: (more…)

Thanks, Kid.

I’m not a sportswriter; hell, I’m not even a sports blogger.  So sitting down to write anything about an athlete’s death on my part is probably more self-indulgent than anything, especially since I’m sure that come morning there will be at least a few columns on the same topic.  That being said, when my wife told me this afternoon that Gary Carter had passed after a battle with brain cancer, I felt the urge to say something.

As the catcher for the Mets when I began following them in 1985, Carter was one of their sluggers as well as an RBI leader and he became one of my favorite players. I probably, at one point, imitated his batting stance (which was one of those stances that didn’t suggest that he really had any power); I had a poster of him on the wall of my basement; and of course I had quite a number of his baseball cards.  I don’t know if he was a hero in the sense that I ever wanted to “be” like him–after all, nobody would have wanted as terrible a little leaguer as me to get behind the plate–but he was definitely someone I looked up to.

Gary Carter wins game 5 with an extra-inning hit. From the Daily News Scrapbook of the 1986 Mets Season

It seems like I made a good choice in that regard, too, because from what I’ve read over the years about Carter and his career, he had a love of the game of baseball and played that way but if you watch some of his highlights you can tell that he was a true competitor.  I’ll never forget the opening to those Mets games of the 1980s where you could see a highlight of him tagging out Ken Griffey, Sr. on Rusty Staub Day, or his reaction to finally breaking through in game 5 of the 1986 NLCS and getting what was probably the second-most clutch hit of his career (the first being the hit that started the Game Six rally).  It was, to put it simply, genuine joy. I mean, he took his fair share of curtain calls for home runs but I don’t remember the guy as a showboat, on or off the field.  I never had the fortune of meeting him, but a few friends of mine had personalized autographed pictures and I rarely, if ever, heard a bad word about what it was like to actually meet him.

I know that I’m writing this through the lens of childhood nostalgia, and I know that all he was was a baseball player and didn’t fight and die for our country and all of the other things that true heroes do.  But when I was seven years old, I was thinking about those things when I chose my role models.  He was a guy who was on my favorite team and got hits and hit home runs and I thought of him in the same way that people of the generations before me thought of Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, and even though other players are more famous for wearing number 8, and there have were better catchers before and since, I have to set those aside and tip my hat.

 

Merry Metsmas

So back in October, when I was wrapping up my look at the 1986 Mets with all of the memorabilia that I had collected over the years, I left one particular item out of my list.  At first, I thought that I had forgotten to include it, but then I realized that it actually commanded its own entry, in a way.  That’s because I can’t write about the 1986 World Champions commemorative ornament without writing about Christmas itself.

I received the ornament as a Christmas gift in 1986 and while I am not 100% sure who gave it to me, I’m going to say it was my Uncle Lou because around the same time he also gave my sister and I copies of the 1986 World Series program.  And since we always went to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve, we more than likely hung it on the tree that night before we went to bed.  Soon after, however, I became insistent that every single year it go on the center of the Christmas tree, to the point where I would make sure it was the first ornament on the tree.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This weekend, my wife and I will be putting up our Christmas decorations and our pre-lit artificial tree is in a bag in the basement all ready for us to take it out and put it together.  This is a radical departure from what my sister and I had to go through when we were kids and it was time to put up the tree.  You see, my family was never one to rush a holiday, so we actually waited until after Thanksgiving to think about decorating for Christmas (as opposed to people who start putting inflatables up in September), but once Black Friday hit, we were shopping and were also commencing what was a 42-step process of putting Christmas together:

  1. Go to St. Ann’s church on Middle Road in Sayville.  Find a tree.
  2. Set that tree aside and wander around the lot in search of a better tree.
  3. Re-locate that first three and purchase it.
  4. Put tree in a bucket of water and lean against fence in backyard.
  5. Wait two weeks, during which children ask, “When are we going to put the tree up?  When are we going to put the tree up?  When are we going to put the tree up?”
  6. Decide on a day to decorate.  Wait until late afternoon to get started.
  7. Open attic stairs, do impression of Chevy Chase taking stairs to the face in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
  8. Go up to attic, realize how dark it is.
  9. Go to basement and get droplight.
  10. Hang droplight in attic and plug into bathroom outlight using extension cord that is longer than most “Turkey Trots” run on Thanksgiving weekend.
  11. Locate giant cardboard box that once held case of Luvs diapers but now holds every Christmas ornament that family has owned since the Carter Administration.
  12. Drag box across attic floor, almost fall to death when attic stairs are misjudged.
  13. Carry box down stairs, to den.
  14. Take Tylenol for back pain.
  15. Bring the tree in bucket from the back fence to the deck.
  16. Attempt to pry bucket off with hands.
  17. Give up on hands, start kicking the bucket.
  18. Give up kicking the bucket, use a hammer.
  19. Realize that water poured into bucket has frozen and chisel is required
  20. Chisel ice.
  21. Find tree stand bought during Eisenhower Administration in decorations box.
  22. Spend twenty minutes sawing tree trunk and fitting tree to stand.
  23. Bring tree into the house.
  24. Spend twenty more minutes making sure that tree is straight.
  25. Listen to kids bitch impatiently.
  26. Spend twenty more minutes making sure that fullest part of tree is in front.
  27. Continue to listen to kids bitch.
  28. Put on Christmas music to shut kids up or drown them out.
  29. Listen to kids bitch that Celine Dion’s Christmas album is an affront to the season.
  30. Begin stringing lights.
  31. Discover one strand of lights is not working properly.
  32. Spend twenty minutes finding malfunctioning light.
  33. Replace bulb.
  34. Realize you put in bulb that makes lights flash.
  35. Replace bulb again.
  36. Continue stringing lights.
  37. Continue stringing lights.
  38. Insist that tree is neither straight nor full, which leads to further tree adjustment.
  39. Wash sap off hands from tree adjustment.
  40. Continue stringing lights.
  41. Allow first ornament to be put on tree.
  42. Watch sun rise.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating on that last one but when you’re nine or ten years old and your life during the latter part of the year centers around celebrating Christmas, you have to admit that the process of putting a tree together seems to take an eternity, and every year I would spend that eternity fondling the blue ball that had the classic Mets logo on the front at 1986 World Champions, waiting to place it front and center, usually next to an orange light so that anyone that came by could bask in the awesomeness of the 1986 Mets.