In 1989, I really disliked Juan Samuel.
I turned 10 years old the summer the New York Mets traded for Samuel, sending popular centerfielder Lenny Dykstra to the Philadelphia Phillies. Samuel, a former second baseman who was new to the outfield, immediately became the Mets’ everyday centerfielder and Mets fans were incensed. Well, the Mets fans I knew were incensed. Back then, when the Mets made a move, I consulted my dad and grandfather. Neither one of them liked the trade and, as a result, I didn’t like it either. Samuel didn’t help his case by hitting .228 with the Mets and by taking circuitous routes to fly balls in centerfield. The Mets jettisoned him after the season.
Seventeen years later, I was entering my second year as the radio broadcaster and media relations director of the Double-A Binghamton Mets when I learned Juan Samuel had been hired as Binghamton’s manager. I was assigned to write a profile of Samuel for the B-Mets’ game program. By now, my animus regarding Samuel’s Mets tenure had subsided. And, I was hoping to get Samuel to shed some light on his disastrous Mets tenure. At this point, I was no longer a Mets fan or a baseball fan, but more like a journalist seeking a good story.
Sure, I still loved baseball and working for one of the Mets’ top minor league affiliates made it easier for me to follow my boyhood team. However, I looked at the game differently because I’d gotten a chance to work behind the curtain. Now, baseball was no longer some sort of mythical game played by gods as it had been before. After several years of working in baseball and getting to know many of the players I grew up watching and reading about, the sport’s mystique disappeared.
I stopped being a fan in 2003, my second season as a minor league baseball broadcaster. That year was the first of two I spent in Michigan, calling games for the Kalamazoo Kings, a team in the unaffiliated Frontier League. In my inaugural year as a baseball broadcaster, with the 2002 Yakima Bears, I spent more time in fear of the three-man coaching staff and their Major League playing resumes than I did getting to know them. I vowed not to make the same mistake ever again.
The Kings opened ‘03 with a six-game homestand, the last three games against the Florence Freedom. A first-year franchise located in Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, the Freedom were managed by former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Tom Browning. I was very familiar with several details of Browning’s career; his perfect game vs. the Dodgers in 1988, his 20-win season as a rookie in 1985, his 15-win season for the World Series-winning Reds in 1990. However, what intrigued me most about Browning was his place in my personal narrative. Browning was one of the starting pitchers in the first Mets game I attended, on April 13th, 1985. Browning pitched well on Calendar Day at Shea Stadium (oh, what I would give to still have that calendar!), but he exited after seven innings, the game tied 1-1, before the Mets won on Darryl Strawberry’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Not too long after the Freedom arrived at Kalamazoo’s Homer Stryker Field, I cautiously made my way into the visitor’s clubhouse, being careful not to trip over any of the bags of equipment strewn all over the floor. Browning was in the manager’s office. I knocked softly on the open door and Browning waved me in. I introduced myself and, after exchanging a few pleasantries, got down to brass tacks.
“Tom, you pitched in one of the first baseball games I ever attended,” I said.
“Is that right?”
“Yes, I was at Shea Stadium when you started against the Mets in April, 1985. You pitched well, but-”
Before I could finish, Browning filled in the details.
“Strawberry hit a *&^%ing shot!”
Browning went onto talk in more detail about that game, how much he despised those mid- and late-80s Mets teams and a famous brawl between the Mets and Reds in 1986. The following day, I went back to Browning’s office and asked him about another incident during his Reds tenure, when he was fined for allegedly watching part of a Reds-Chicago Cubs game from one of the legendary rooftops across the street from Chicago’s Wrigley Field (Browning said he briefly went on one of the rooftops before a game, during batting practice, just to give his teammates a laugh). Browning and I would go onto have a great relationship during our time in the Frontier League, and I always made sure to stop by his office whenever we were in the same ballpark, just to hear more stories from his playing days.
Not only did my initial meeting with Browning eliminate any fears I had about approaching guys with Major League service time, but it also helped me realize I had a chance to tap into some great stories and insight about my favorite sport and players I’d previously known only from a distance. I’ve talked with former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley about the Mets’ miraculous comeback in the 10th inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, for which he was on the mound. Ex-Mets and Cardinals pitcher Al Jackson has regaled me with tales from his playing days in the 1960s about Bob Gibson, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and other legendary players. Former Royals Gold Glove second baseman Frank White showed me the proper footwork necessary to turn a double play.
By the time I interviewed Samuel, I’d grown accustomed to asking former Major Leaguers about their careers, but I knew I had to be careful with how I approached such questions, especially if they’re about a particularly difficult game or season. Sometimes, I don’t get an opportunity to ask ex-players about something that dicey simply because I don’t get comfortable enough with him to ask.
But, within a few minutes of chatting with Samuel over the phone (it was late February and he was in Florida for spring training), I knew I could ask him just about anything. He was good-natured, gregarious and easy to talk to. Samuel explained that, after the 1988 season, Phillies general manager Lee Thomas approached him about a position changed. Thomas told Samuel that the Phillies had a chance to sign Tommy Herr who, like Samuel, also played second base. Thomas wanted to know if Samuel was interested in moving to centerfield to accommodate Herr. Samuel, whose family had recently moved into a house in the Philadelphia suburbs, agreed to the position switch, since he figured it would make the Phillies better and extend his tenure with the team. However, the Phillies wound up trading him to the Mets less than halfway into the 1989 season, a move Samuel saw as a betrayal. But, Samuel wanted to make the best of the situation, so he asked the Mets if he could move back to second base. The Mets dismissed such a move since they had talented young second baseman Gregg Jefferies already in the fold, so Samuel asked to be traded to a team that would allow him to play second. The Mets obliged, sending him to the Dodgers once the ’89 season ended.
After chatting with Samuel, I realized no Mets fan could possibly dislike him after hearing his side of the story and realizing what a likable guy and good person he was. Of course few, if any, Mets fans would ever get the opportunity that I got to talk with him. There are perks to being behind the curtain and no longer thinking and acting like an unabashed fan. As the years have gone by, I’ve become more and more thankful to meet more people inside the game and to be less and less of a fan.
Well, actually, I’ve become a different kind of fan. Whenever the Phillies do well, I’m happy for Juan Samuel, who’s now their third-base coach. I love watching the young pitchers for the San Francisco Giants, not only because they’re talented, but also because I know Bob Stanley had a hand in developing many of them during his years as a pitching coach in the Giants’ minor league system. I’m proud of Mike Pelfrey, who’s become a solid pitcher for the Mets a few years after I watched his brilliance and experienced his down-to-earth and good-natured personality when we were both with the Binghamton Mets. In other words, I’ve become a fan of people in the game. And, working in baseball has helped me realize how many great people are associated with this great game.Follow @raford3