baseball

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.

Mets Madness

When I sat down to write about the afterglow of the 1986 World Series, I started to consider what it was like to be a fan of a championship-winning team and how that carried over into the 1987 season when I was sure that the Mets would “do it again” as the promos kept saying. But the 1987 Mets were a bit of a letdown (Thanks a LOT, Terry FUCKING Pendelton!) and the afterglow of the 1986 World Series is something that I don’t remember as well as my repeated viewings of 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember had made it seem.

Then, I began to sift through the massive amount of 1986 Mets crap that I own or have owned at one point during the past 25 years, and thought I would simply “catalogue” it.  Partially because I’m lazy and don’t feel like writing anything with an actual point, and partially because even I am amazed at how much stuff there is.

1986 Mets: A Year to Remember.  This is the official team highlight video, which my friends and I rented repeatedly from Video Empire, so much so that it was impossible for anyone to find it because one of us always seemed to have it out.  I do happen to have my own copy because sometime in the late 1990s I rented it one more time and hooked two VCRs together in order to dub the video.

The video itself starts with a highlight of Game Six and then goes month to month through the regular season, with a few montages thrown in, the most famous of which definitely has to be the Len Dykstra and Wally Backman “Wild Boys” video set to the Duran Duran song of the same name, as well as a great clip of Howard Johnson and Roger McDowell telling the audience how to pull the “hot foot” prank on a player.   The playoffs and series are covered as well, with most of the play calling coming from Bob Murphy, the radio voice of the Mets, which I have to say is awesome because as much as I like hearing Vin Scully, Bob Murphy’s voice calling the Mets is one of the best things you’ll ever hear. (more…)

Nails, Gary, and the Greatest Game Ever Played

Mike Scott, the bane of the Mets' existence in the 1986 NLCS

I always hated the Astrodome.

Granted, in my entire life, I have spent an hour in Houston and that was for a layover between Austin and Washington, D.C., so I don’t have any personal experience with the Astrodome, but ever since I sat down and watched the 1986 All-Star Game, which was broadcast from the Eighth Wonder of the World, I hated the stadium, and I still kind of do.  Part of the reason for that is my aversion to outdoor sports being played in domed stadiums, but part of it is that it seemed whenever I watched a Mets game in the Astrodome back when I was nine years old, they were bound to lose.

That certainly seemed the case when I turned on the sixth game of that year’s National League Championship Series in the seventh inning and saw that the Mets were down 3-0 and it looked like they weren’t going to be able to go to the World Series like I had hoped because Bob Knepper had been mowing them down left and right and the starting pitcher for game seven was scheduled to be Mike Scott, a name that I had become as familiar with and angry at as I had with Cardinals ace John Tudor the year before.  Prior to my turning on the game in the late innings, I had been at school, so I had missed the Astros’ three runs off of Bob Ojeda in the first, but I have to say I wasn’t surprised by the lackluster performance in the Astrodome because I’d watched the first few innings of game one, when Glenn Davis had hit a home run off of Dwight Gooden for the game’s only run and an Astros win.

In fact, I don’t think I can talk about that sixth game of the ’86 NLCS without going all the way back to that All-Star Game and my first experience with the Astrodome.  It was the first time I had ever seen a game inside a domed stadium and even though the Tigers’ Lou Whitaker homered pretty early in that game, I remember wondering how anyone ever hit a home run there.   It didn’t seem that visitors fared well offensively because during the next four days, I watched a sporadic amount of Mets-Astros games from Houston and the Mets dropped three out of four, plus three of the Mets were arrested in an infamous nightclub brawl.  Of course, I didn’t know that this particular Mets team was known for its debauchery (and many of the stories of said debauchery would go unknown until I read Jeff Perlman’s The Bad Guys Won! nearly twenty years later); all I knew was that I hated Houston, I hated the Astrodome, and I hated the Astros.

Mike Scott didn’t make things better.  A rather mediocre pitcher that the Mets had off-loaded a few years earlier (a fact I only knew from a baseball card as it was before I had started following them in 1985), Scott had emerged as a dominant pitching force in 1986 due to his split-fingered fastball, a pitch that destroyed hitters and led to accusations that he was scuffing the ball, something that the Mets seemed a little too obsessed with as he beat them twice in the series–in the aforementioned game one and then game four, which was the only night game in three games played at Shea.  So looking at a 3-0 Astros through seven, and then eight innings and Scott scheduled to pitch the next day, it was safe to say that it was over.  All over.

Or was it?  I certainly couldn’t believe that, even at the age of nine, not after I had watched two insane endings earlier that week. (more…)

Prelude to a Clinch (or Von Hayes, how I hated thee)

Von Hayes's 1986 Topps baseball card.

My memories of my freshman year of college may be a little cloudy at times, but I do remember talking to my roommate Drew about baseball and at one point during our conversation, he mentioned that one of his favorite players from his childhood was Phillies first baseman Von Hayes.  Now, I wasn’t surprised, considering that Drew was from the Pennsylvania and had grown up in the shadow of Philadelphia just as my Long Island childhood was spent in the shadow of New York.

Still, I bristled at the mention of the name.  I shouldn’t have–after all, Hayes retired from baseball in 1992 and we started college in the fall of 1995–because he’s not a name that most baseball fans really know.  It’s easy to not like a Derek Jeter because he commands a huge salary and gets an incredible amount of attention and while I do think he is overrated, I will say that he is a clutch performer, the type of player you’d hate to have at bat against your team in a tight game.

But Von Hayes?  Who, as far as an everyday baseball fan, was going to look at the Phillies and not see Mike Schmidt as the big gun of the 1980s?  Well, it’s not so much that he was a “big gun” for the team, but he was definitely a “Met Killer.”

You probably know what I mean when I say “Met Killer”: the batter who will destroy your hopes and dreams, at least for a win that evening.  Met Killers have come in the forms of players of all positions and have all contributed to my fan angst over the years, and for a while there during my childhood it seemed that there was at least one player that just killed the Mets for that year.  In 1985, it was John Tudor; in 1987, it was Terry Pendelton (oh, Terry Fucking Pendelton, how I hated thee …); in 1988, it was Mike Scioscia; and in 1986 it was Von Hayes. (more…)

The Teamwork to Make a Dream Work

It’s been a few months since I’ve written about the 1986 Mets.  Put simply, it’s been hard to find many memories of the regular season that really are worth the space I usually devote to an entry around here.  My most vivid memories–as I think is the case with most people–center around the postseason, although when I think hard I do remember a few great regular season moments.  For instance, there was a four-game series against the Braves in mid-July where I watched Darryl Strawberry charge the mound after Dave Palmer plunked him after Gary Carter launched one into the seats en route to an 11-0 win.  It was the first time I had ever seen a brawl in a baseball game live on TV, and I didn’t really understand why Straw charged the mound but it was cool to see a fight.

The Sunday game of that series featured a tribute to Rusty Staub, where the team came out during the pre-game ceremony wearing red wigs and a 2-0 victory which featured Gary Carter tagging out Ken Griffey, Sr. at home plate, a tag that was so awesome it wound up in promos for at least another year or so (it shows up in the music video at the 3:30 mark).  But aside from those and the whole mess in Houston where Tim Teufel, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, and Rick Aguilera were arrested for a bar fight, I spent the summer watching games and checking the paper whenever I could to see how far ahead the Mets were.  Then, as August started to drag on, I started checking their magic number and then learning what a magic number and “clinching” meant (I was nine and new to following baseball, so sue me).

There was no magic number in the daily news yet when we went to a game against the Expos on August 2, and I honestly don’t remember much about the game, except that Uncle Lou and Aunt Geri took us, it was the first time I had ever been to a night game at Shea Stadium, and it rained.  My aunt and uncle will at least be able to confirm that–it seemed like it rained every single time we bought a bunch of tickets to go as a family.  But still, sitting in the upper deck, watching the Mets win 4-2 under the lights was pretty cool.  Plus, my dad and I had tickets for another game a few weeks later, against the Cardinals, a team I had hated since last season when they downed the Mets en route to a World Series appearance.

However, by this time, the Cards were toast and the Mets’ magic number sat at 33.  We had tickets to the first game of an impromptu doubleheader (meaning that one of the games was a makeup of a rainout) and my dad took me and my “cousin” Vic (“cousin” meaning that our families were such good friends we might as well be related).  It was a 2-1 loss and made me concoct a theory that perhaps I’d go to one losing game and one winning game every season.  Anyway, it was a “down” time for the team–Gary Carter had just been placed on the DL the day before with a torn thumb and Ed Hearn hadn’t completely started to rise to the challenge of being the everyday catcher like he would.  Rick Aguilera started the game but wound up leaving with an inflammed right knee (I always thought Aguilera was a decent pitcher with the Mets but not as steadfast as Doc, Darling, and Ojeda … Aguilera would wind up hitting his stride with Minnesota years later), and it was one of those games that just sort of sputtered out.

We intended to leave between the games of the doubleheader (after all, we needed to beat the traffic), but we stuck around because between the games, a guy took the field and made the crowd do all sorts of shouting and cheering and even The Wave.  Yes, we did The Wave.  Why was the guy there?  Well, he was doing crowd shots for “Let’s Go Mets,” the official 1986 Mets music video, which premiered later in the season as the team was gearing up for its playoff run.  Unofficially titled, “Let’s Go Mets Go” (because of the “Let’s go Mets go!” shout throughout the song), the video features the team, its fans, as well as some highlights and is set to a tune written by Shelton Leigh (“Shelly”) Palmer, who lately more notable as a technology columnist for sites like CNN.com and The Huffington Post, but composed several theme songs for television productions back in the 1980s.

It is, more or less, a huge PR piece with better production value than the local television promos.  We begin in one of the parking ramps of Shea where three kids are playing some game where you flip baseball cards and the winner keeps all the baseball cards, which is something I never knew how to do when I was a kid.  I’m pretty sure that a relative once tried to teach me but I never picked up on it.  The rules of the game didn’t matter in the video anyway, because after the two kids lose all of their cards to a bully-type who looks like a cross between Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story and Jason Hervey’s character in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Doc Gooden, Gary Carter, and Kevin Mitchell (because they couldn’t sober up Straw and who is rocking 1980s eyeglasses and a track suit that I can only describe as “Sharpton-esque”) show up.

Garysays, “Go ahead, Doc.”

Doc says, “Do it.” (more…)

Shea Hello

Shea Stadium on August 25, 1985.

If you judge my love of the New York Mets by my first Shea Stadium experience, then it’s no wonder I’ve been a fan for twenty-five years now.  In fact, I don’t really know what it’s like to start following a team when they are really bad, considering that the three pro teams I’ve followed since I was a kid–the Mets, Giants, and Rangers–were all competitive in the mid-1980s. 

Then again, I hold certain members of my family and circle of friends responsible for my Mets fandom.  In the spring of 1985, I was wrapping up my time in Mrs. Holl’s second grade class at Lincoln Avenue Elementary, a class I did all right in even if my best memory is catching shit for zoning out, daydreaming, or getting easily distracted (how was I not labeled ADD?  Seriously …).  In my class was John Purcell, with whom I had spent kindergarten and who would truly be responsible for my love of the Rangers and much of my not-so-storied Swindon Row street hockey career.  But that’s a topic for another post, as he showed up in school one day having been to the previous night’s Mets game and did nothing but rave about how Gary Carter hit a home run and the Mets beat the Reds. 

I was intrigued.  I’d played for the Reds in tee ball and was playing real baseball that year–if you could call it that considering I couldn’t field for shit and spent my time at the plate dodging pitches–so I knew a little about how to play.  And I knew that there were professional baseball teams because my grandfather on my mom’s side was a die-hard Yankees fan.  But unlike my cousin Brian, I hadn’t been sucked into the Bronx vortex and after I expressed interest in the Mets, my Uncle Lou would help make sure that I definitely didn’t.

(more…)