Posts Tagged ‘New York Mets’

The last baseball game I attended before the strike was at Yankee Stadium. Me and my co-workers for the summer were given complimentary tickets, along with several other youth and teen groups, in the left-centerfield bleachers. I defiantly wore my Mets hat to the game, which pitted the Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing the hat of New York’s National League team proved to be the right move, since former Mets centerfielder Tommie Agee was in attendance, signing autographs in the bleachers; his appearance was part of the program that allowed us to get into The House That Ruth Built gratis. I still have that hat, which Agee signed on the green underside of the bill.

Back then, I lived for baseball. Well, I still live for baseball – make my living in baseball, even – but, in those days, I was obsessed. Every winter, I’d suffer through pangs of withdrawal because there wasn’t any baseball on television; I’d scour Sports Illustrated for any blurb or mention of the National Pastime. I eagerly anticipated the Mets’ first spring training game, which was always televised on WWOR TV. I loved WWOR’s spring training open – which featured a wooden crate filled with oranges that would be hammered shut and, after a time lapse, reopened to reveal that the oranges had turned into baseballs – not only because it was pure genius, but also because it signaled that another baseball season was around the corner.

But now, there was a possibility that the baseball off-season would be longer than ever. The team owners and the players’ union were at an impasse in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement and a strike was imminent. None of the so-called experts seemed to think the strike would be brief, although no one had any idea how long it would last. A few weeks? A few months? Into the postseason? Into the following season? Anything seemed to be possible except, of course, a quick resolution.

The strike deadline set by the players was four days away and in the back of my mind as I watched former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez staked to an early 4-0 lead, only to leave in the sixth with the score tied. I was sitting behind the Orioles bullpen and just missed getting the baseball reliever Jim Poole tossed into the crowd when he entered the game in the 10th. Mark Eichhorn, who had been warming up alongside Poole, teased and tantalized the fans who asked him for a ball; it seemed like poetic justice when Eichhorn gave up Randy Velarde’s walk-off RBI single in the 11th to lose the game for Baltimore.

Three days later, when I turned on my green-and-white radio on August 11th, 1994 to listen to the Mets play in Philadelphia (the game was televised on SportsChannel, and Mom had yet to sign us up for cable television), I was hoping the game lasted forever. It didn’t, but it came close; Ricky Jordan’s walk-off RBI single in the 15th won it for the Phillies. And I turned off my radio and wondered when I’d get to hear Major League Baseball again.

I finished the month at a summer camp in western Massachusetts, where I spent a week and a half canoeing, hiking and pitching tents in the wilderness. We were only allowed to shower every few days and there was no access to television or radio. Occasionally, our travels through the Berkshires and Adirondacks would take us by a newsstand or a newspaper vending machine, which would lead me to check the front page of the paper to see if the strike had been resolved. And, in every instance, there was a front-page headline about the strike. And, in every instance, that front-page headline indicated that the players were still on the picket line. Chris, a Chicago White Sox fan who served as my camp group’s counselor that summer before resuming his studies at a small, liberal-arts college in Minnesota in the fall, picked up on my routine. “Anything?” he would ask, after he saw me peek at newsprint. I’d shake my head. Nothing needed to be said.

The routines and rhythms of my sophomore year of high school helped pass the time, but the strike was never far from my mind. Those of us who are baseball crazed tend to gravitate to other seam heads, and it was all we talked about. I mean, it was all we could talk about, since the strike eliminated typical fall conversations about the postseason – which wound up being cancelled – and free agency. None of us really understood all of the issues at play; we were just hopeless baseball romantics hoping and praying that our beau would return post haste.

I had Biology class with Jonah Parsoff, who loved baseball almost as much as I did. Almost. Jonah also claimed to know more baseball trivia than me, which simply wasn’t possible. So, I offered Jonah a challenge: I would give him five baseball trivia questions every day and I guaranteed he would never get all five of them correct. So, for about two months, I spent the first few minutes of Biology writing trivia questions on a piece of loose-leaf paper, which I would covertly pass to Jonah in the front of the class (I always sat in the back of all of my classes, much to my mother’s chagrin. “You wear glasses” she would ask, “why are you sitting in the back?”). Jonah would attempt to answer my questions and slip the paper back to me. I don’t think he ever got more than three right; I know he never went five for five. I took delight in Jonah throwing his head back in frustration once I gave him the correct answers – a gesture that would prompt Mr. Young, our Biology teacher, to ask “Jonah, is something wrong?” mid-lecture. And, thus, my place atop the baseball-trivia throne was secure.

While I spent most of my time in Biology goofing off, I took Global Studies seriously; I always took great interest in history, which was partially responsible for my love of baseball trivia. However, I was convinced that my teacher, Mrs. Goodman, was assigning us papers at an insane rate that was unprecedented in the annals of high school history. However, I had little issue with one assignment from Mrs. Goodman that allowed us to write a 5-page paper on a current event selected from a pre-approved list when I saw that the list included the baseball strike. I immediately set to work on my masterpiece, in which detailed the follies of both the owners and the players’ union. My heartfelt missive earned me an A, and some unexpected praise from Mrs. Goodman; she told me I was an excellent writer and I should consider working for my high school’s monthly newspaper. I never thought of myself as an above-average writer and seeing my byline in print never occurred to me. But wouldn’t it be cool to write about sports? I thought to myself. And, after approaching one of the sports editors, I became a full-fledged sports journalist, penning important pieces on weighty topics – like the upcoming cross-country season – much to the delight of readers everywhere. At least that’s what I told myself.

My Pulitzer still hadn’t arrived in early March, when Dad and I plopped in front of the television to watch the Mets’ first spring training game, against the Yankees. Except it wasn’t the Mets, at least not the Mets with which we were familiar. The broadcast on WWOR opened with Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver explaining that they weren’t going to pretend that the upcoming game featuring replacement players was to the Major League Baseball standards fans were accustomed. Thank goodness, because it would’ve been hard to pretend. Nevertheless, Dad and I were glued to the set because we had no idea what to expect from these people donning Mets and Yankees uniforms. An over-the-hill Doug Sisk, the frequent target of Mets fans’ derision when he was a reliever in the 1980s, started the game and was as uninspiring as I’d remembered.

I don’t recall the score, but I do recall the Yankees led by a narrow margin when the bottom of the ninth dawned and they summoned a pitcher named Mike Pitz to get the last three outs. After we finished making fun of his last name, we watched Pitz load the bases with two outs, bringing up Lou Thornton. The day before, we saw a local sportscast where Thornton proclaimed he didn’t get a fair shake when he was with the non-replacement Mets a few years prior and he became a replacement player to prove he belonged in the Majors.

“Well Lou,” Dad opined as Thornton dug in. “This is your chance.”

Thornton worked the count full before swinging and missing at a pitch that was nowhere near the strike zone. Game over.

I don’t have vivid memories of where I was or what I was doing when the strike ended, probably because the ending seemed so anticlimactic. And it didn’t really end, per sé; future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners, which prevented them from implementing new labor rules and from using replacement players. Thus, the owners lost a significant amount of their leverage and were essentially forced to work something out with the players. Shortly thereafter, a truncated spring training preceded a truncated regular season and the love of my life was back. Unlike many fans, I didn’t hold any animosity toward the players or the owners; even though I didn’t understand all of the issues that led to a strike, I figured both sides were probably each at fault to a certain extent. Regardless, I just wanted to see baseball. The strike was the first test of my passion for baseball and, strangely, it increased my love for the game. If I could still obsess over baseball even after dealing with the postseason being canceled for the first time in 90 years and after months of uncertainty, then nothing would mute my love for the National Pastime. And nothing has.


Read Full Post »

When you grow up a New York Mets fan, you get used to the near-no-hitters. Despite an impressive array of pitching talent throughout its history – 14 pitchers who’ve won a Cy Young Award have donned the orange and blue – Mets fans learn to accept the fact that their organization is star-crossed when it comes to no-hitters. There are, on average, two no-hitters thrown per season, but none of them have been thrown by a Mets hurler. Sure, the Mets have thrown a record 35 one-hitters in their history, but no no-nos. Call it an inconvenient truth or an unfortunate reality, Mets fans grow up knowing that not seeing one of their pitchers throw a no-hitter is their fate.

I grew up watching Mets games on a portable, black-and-white television with a four-inch screen  in my bedroom and, on April 28th, 1992, I watched David Cone mow down the Houston Astros with ruthless efficiency at Shea Stadium. Cone was the Mets’ ace and I was used to seeing him pitch effectively, but that night was different. Even my 12-year-old eyes could see that Cone’s great splitter and slider seemed to have a little more bite, his blazing fastball a little more juice. The Astros couldn’t touch him and, after Cone kept them hitless through five innings, I started to get excited. After six no-hit innings, I convinced Mom to turn the color, 30-inch television in the living room to the Mets game, which was on WWOR that night. Cone got through the seventh with no problem, once again retiring the Astros without allowing a hit. The Mets were already ahead 4-0, and I was rooting for a quick bottom of the seventh so I could see Cone continue his run toward baseball history.

The eighth began with Casey Candaele grounding out. Cone then walked Eddie Taubensee, missing with a 3-2 pitch. The pitcher’s spot in the order was due up next and Benny Distefano was summoned to pinch-hit. The Brooklyn-born Distefano had never hit much at the Major League level, spending most of his career in the minors; the Astros called him up from Triple-A Calgary just three days prior and he was getting just his second Major League at-bat of 1992. Cone’s first pitch to the lefthanded hitter was a ball. The next pitch was a good pitch, a breaking ball down and away, and Distefano managed to hit it off the end of the bat. The baseball rolled slowly down the third-base line where Mets third baseman Dave Magadan watched helplessly; there was no way Magadan was going to throw out Distefano and he had to hope the ball rolled foul. It didn’t. Distefano had his first Major League hit since 1989 and the Mets were still without a no-hitter in their history. Cone settled instead for a two-hit shutout. Even though the Mets won, I remember feeling empty after the game. David Cone was so close! I thought to myself, as I lie awake in my bunk bed that night. And, of all people, Benny friggin’ Distefano was the one who ended it? Who the heck is he? It’s hard to fall asleep when you keep shaking your head.

I had a different feeling on September 29th, 2007 when I watched the Mets battle the Florida Marlins in the season’s penultimate game, accompanied by my girlfriend, a friend of ours and his wife. My 10-year high school reunion was in Manhattan that evening so, through connections cultivated thanks to my job as the radio broadcaster of the Mets’ Double-A affiliate in Binghamton, New York, I was able to snag field-level box seats down the first-base line for that afternoon’s game at Shea. John Maine, a very talented righthander who was having a very good season, was having little problem with the Marlins’ young lineup. The Mets’ lineup had few issues with the Marlins pitchers, knocking out Florida’s starter in the second inning and building an 8-0 lead after three. I’d kept score at every Major League game I’d been to over the previous decade or so but I didn’t keep score that day, content to spend a relaxing afternoon with friends and show my girlfriend around Shea Stadium, which she was visiting for the first time. I even broke what had been one of my cardinal rules and left my seat while the game was in progress because I wanted to take my girlfriend to the Nathan’s Hot Dogs stand and have her partake in their legendary crinkle-cut french fries (she was a vegetarian at the time, so no delicious Nathan’s frankfurters for her). I noticed Maine was keeping the Marlins hitless, but I was conditioned; neither Maine nor anyone else for the Mets was ever going to throw a no-hitter, so no big deal.

My friend wasn’t feeling well, so he and his wife decided to leave during the seventh inning. Just before they departed, he turned to me.

“He’s going to get it,” my friend said.

“No. No he’s not,” I responded.

“Yes he will. It’s going to happen.”

I shook my head. My friend didn’t grow up rooting for the Mets, so how could he know? I hoped he was right, but I knew he’d be wrong.

Maine started the eighth by retiring the first two hitters. Maybe he will do it, I thought. He’s only one out from eight no-hit innings. Maine got ahead in the count against Marlins catcher Paul Hoover, a 31-year-old, September call-up who was playing in just his 15th Major League game. Hoover then beat a 1-2 pitch into the ground and up the third-base line; the ball didn’t go more than 50 feet. However, neither catcher Ramon Castro or third baseman David Wright would be able to get to the ball in time to throw Hoover out at first base. And, once again, the Mets were denied a no-hitter. Mets manager Willie Randolph pulled Maine after that hit, and the fans gave him a rousing ovation. The Mets bullpen didn’t allow a hit in the 13-0 win and I went on with my day and to my high school reunion that evening without giving a second thought to what I’d just seen. I’d long ago accepted that Mets pitchers don’t throw no-hitters, no matter how talented or dominant they are.

That changed on Friday.

I’m not much of a New York Mets fan anymore. I still like them and still want them to do well, but the strong affinity I had for them as a youngster has dissipated, a victim of my career covering baseball for a living. But, on Friday, I became a Mets fan again.

I was at Kauffman Stadium, covering the Kansas City Royals, who were hosting the Oakland Athletics, when I saw on my Twitter feed that Mets pitcher Johan Santana had thrown five no-hit innings against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field. Then six no-hit innings. Once the seventh inning began, I was following along on my iPhone, using Major League Baseball’s At-Bat app. When Santana got through the seventh without allowing a hit, I knew At-Bat would allow the eighth inning to be broadcast free of charge – you normally have to pay a fee to watch the television broadcasts of games – because a no-hitter was in progress. I watched the eighth as a clearly out of gas Santana worked around a walk, but still prevented the Cardinals from getting a hit. I thought Santana – who underwent shoulder surgery that prevented him from pitching in 2011 – would be pulled in the ninth inning in favor of a fresh arm from the bullpen. You don’t like to see pitchers removed when they have a no-hitter going, but I thought that would be the prudent move in this instance.

But, I continued to watch on my iPhone as Santana went back out for the ninth. I breathed a sigh of relief when Matt Holliday lined out. Allen Craig’s lineout was followed by a fist pump. David Freese swinging over an off-speed 3-2 pitch for the final out got me out of my chair and led to more fist pumps. Santana did it! He threw a no-hitter!

And, then, I stood in disbelief. Not only did Santana throw a no-hitter, but he threw a no-hitter for the Mets. This wasn’t Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, the two greatest pitchers in Mets history, throwing no-hitters after they left the Mets – adding insult to injury, Gooden threw his no hitter for the crosstown Yankees. This wasn’t Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan, two hard throwers who never figured it out with the Mets, going to other teams and tossing no-nos – Ryan throwing a record seven no-hitters after departing. This was Santana, whose surgically repaired shoulder hadn’t thrown more than 108 pitches, tossing a career-high 134 pitches and running on empty over the last couple of innings. There were no journeymen catchers or light-hitting utility players to spoil Santana’s moment, the Mets’ moment. The Mets had finally become like every other team (except the San Diego Padres, who still don’t have a no-hitter). Now, when a Mets pitcher takes a no-hitter deep into the game, Mets fans will believe it’s possible for their pitcher to get 27 outs without allowing a hit and, if that pitcher loses the no-no, Mets fans won’t think it’s because their team is cursed. If Johan Santana can do it, then any Mets pitcher can do it.

But, man, why couldn’t Benny Distefano’s ground ball have rolled foul?

Read Full Post »

For much of the first 10 years of my life, Grandpa was a mystery to me. As opposed to Grandma, who was flamboyant, opinionated, talkative and unforgettable, Grandpa seemed unapproachable, stoic, unemotional and quiet. When Grandpa did speak, it was in a low growl my young ears had difficulty deciphering. Mom and I spent nearly every holiday at my grandparents’ house in Queens Village – two subways and a bus away from our apartment in the Bronx – where Grandpa usually stayed anchored to his chair, eyes glued to the television which, during baseball season, was always showing the New York Mets game. Sometimes, Grandpa read the Daily News in his chair, sometimes he napped. But, he rarely spoke unless spoken to and didn’t rise out of the chair until it was time to carve the Thanksgiving turkey or lead the family in a pre-dinner prayer.

I wasn’t too enthusiastic when Mom suggested I interview Grandpa for a fifth-grade genealogy project that required an interview with an older relative. But, off we went to Queens Village one Saturday, my blue loose-leaf binder and my mini, green and white boom box (so I could record the interview) in tow. All I knew about Grandpa was that he liked – no, loved – baseball. I was just starting to take an interest baseball and the majority of my brief conversations with Grandpa involved the Mets in some way, shape or form. It seemed the only time Grandpa would get animated is when he discussed the Mets or some of the great, black ballplayers of the past. Grandpa was particularly fond of Willie Mays. Mom told me a story once that, when she was a child, Grandpa took the family – Mom is the oldest of four – to a game at Shea Stadium when Mays was playing for the Mets at the end of his career. Every time Mays batted, Mom said, Grandpa stood up and removed his hat.

For the interview, Grandpa sat in his chair and I sat on the couch, my mini boom box between us on the glass coffee table. My nervousness started when I asked the first question, but quickly subsided as I listened to Grandpa. He told me about his childhood in rural North Carolina, growing up with eight brothers and one sister. When he was my age, Grandpa explained, he rode a mule to plow the fields on the family farm, where they grew tobacco and other cash crops; as sharecroppers, the family’s entire livelihood depended on those plants. Grandpa told me about being educated in a one-room schoolhouse, which he attended through eighth grade. He didn’t go to high school. Grandpa talked about moving to New York City to find work when he was 18, followed by several years of working odd jobs and a stint in the Army during the Korean War. Shortly after moving to New York, Grandpa said, he pitched for the Brooklyn Browns, which Grandpa described as a semipro team that served as a farm club for several Negro Leagues teams. He told me his two heroes were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson. Because of Robinson, Grandpa was a Dodgers fan before they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958, four years before the Mets came into being.

After that interview, I realized that, even though Grandpa didn’t speak much, whatever he did say was worth listening to. As I got older, we talked more and more about baseball. He told me about his frustration with Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the one-time Mets phenoms whose careers were dimmed by drug and alcohol abuse. Both of them “could’ve backed their way into the Hall of Fame,” Grandpa likes to say; he took Gooden’s and Strawberry’s failings so personally, you would’ve though they were his own sons (coincidentally, Grandpa’s one son – my uncle – has battled drug addiction most of his life). I began to understand why Grandpa purchased bicycles for all of his children and grandchildren when they were old enough to learn how to ride; he and his nine siblings had to share one bike. Three things stand out from my one and only round of catch with Grandpa, which occurred when I was a teenager and he was in his sixties: the half-smile on his face, his three-quarters throwing motion and the zip on his throws; if Grandpa had a more privileged upbringing that arm could’ve taken him places, I thought. I learned that Grandpa did everything from wash dishes to drive trucks after he left North Carolina before he secured a job with the City of New York; Grandpa helped build and maintain the city’s water and sewer systems, working his way up to supervisor. The work wasn’t glamorous, but it allowed Grandpa to provide for his family and left him with a very good pension upon his retirement a quarter century ago.

Today is Grandpa’s 81st birthday – we think. The people who worked for the census arrived in his hometown to record the latest births and deaths in late April or early May of 1931, Grandpa once explained, and he may or may not have been born on April 30th, the date our family celebrates his birthday; Grandpa wasn’t born in a hospital and doesn’t have a birth certificate, so he may never know the exact date for sure. Regardless of his exact birth date, Grandpa lives alone – Grandma passed away nearly nine years ago – in that same house in Queens Village where he raised his four children. Grandpa loves to brag about not needing a “stick” to get around and he still plans his days around the Mets’ schedule. Ask Grandpa about the Mets and he’ll tell you “they’re doing pretty good” or “they’re not doing too good.”

Grandpa is the man I hope to be. Someone whose action speaks louder than his words but, when he does speak, people listen. Someone who values hard work. Someone who finds a way and doesn’t make excuses. Someone who’s passionate about whatever he does, whether it’s watching baseball or providing for his family.

Happy Birthday, Grandpa. I’m glad I’ve gotten to know you.

Read Full Post »

Thanks to my job as a reporter covering the Kansas City Royals for their flagship radio station, I’ve developed quite a following on Twitter. Recently, one of my followers asked me if I was a fan of the Royals. I replied that, while I like to see the Royals succeed, I don’t consider myself a fan. My response led to a lengthy Twitter discussion about why I’m not a fan of the Royals; some suggested I was a traitor for not unabashedly rooting for the Royals and others assumed I don’t care about the Royals if I’m not a fan of the team.

I can’t help that I grew up in New York City rooting for the New York Mets, rather than in Kansas City rooting for the Royals. I suppose I could toss my past aside and pretend the Royals are the only team I’ve ever cared about, but that would be disingenuous. Even though I do a Royals post-game show and have many people who follow me on Twitter because I cover the Royals, I don’t hide my past or present allegiances. I learned about and fell in love with baseball thanks to the Mets and pretending otherwise would be ignoring a key part of what’s made me who I am.

When I first took the Royals reporter job, just before the start of the 2009 baseball season, I scoured the internet for information about the Royals teams of the previous few seasons, taking detailed notes that almost filled up an entire legal pad. Now, in my fourth season covering the Royals, I feel like know as much about the team as anyone who didn’t grow up following them could. I’ve gotten to know many of the players, coaches and executives – past and present – very well. I enjoy interacting with and talking to Royals fans and I feel I have a good grasp of the fan base’s mood. I like to see the Royals do well – it’s easier and more enjoyable covering a winning team than it is covering a losing team – but I still don’t consider myself a fan.

I am a fan of Syracuse University’s teams, especially football and men’s basketball. I am a fan of the New York Giants. I am a fan of the New York Knicks. I will celebrate the successes of those teams and brood over their failures. I will always wear merchandise with the logos and colors of those teams. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I will always care whether Syracuse, the Giants and the Knicks win or lose. However, if I stop covering the Royals, I will no longer follow them closely. Sure, I’ll still be interested in how they do – I occasionally peruse box scores, rosters and schedules for teams I covered a decade ago – but I will no longer concern myself with their day-to-day activities. I no longer consider myself a Mets fan because I’ve spent the last decade immersed in coverage of other baseball teams, making it difficult for me to follow the Mets closely at the Major League level; this is true even though I covered one of the Mets minor league affiliates for four years.

Some say covering a team you aren’t a fan of is a good thing; it leads to more impartial coverage, they say. I think there are advantages to covering a team you grew up rooting for: you’re already familiar with that team’s history, you know what’s important to that team’s fans and you know how those fans think. And, seeing the inner workings and getting to know the on- and off-field members of a team decreases the chances of a fan-turned-media member becoming an unabashed cheerleader. Even the most plugged in fans are prone to speculation about the motives and character of a player, coach or team, speculation that often isn’t very informed or is based on what others have told them. On the other hand, media who cover a team are less likely to speculate because they have a better idea of what’s going on. And, when they do speculate, it’s usually well-informed speculation based on their intimate knowledge of and on- and off-the-record access to a team and its key players. Unlike fans, media who cover a team every day are less likely to run hot and cold about a team or player’s performance because they usually have a better understanding of the big picture. If you are a fan of a team, covering that team every day will make you less of a fan and more of a shrewd observer.

So, no, I’m not a Royals fan and I doubt I’ll ever really be a Royals fan. But, I do enjoy covering them and I hope they succeed in turning things around and eventually make it back to the World Series. Because, who wouldn’t want to cover a World Series?

Read Full Post »

By the time the Mets traded for Mike Piazza, he was a known commodity. National League All-Star in each of his five full Major League seasons, with the Los Angeles Dodgers. A career .331 hitter. Over 30 home runs four times. And, he was 29 years old and in his prime, not some over-the-hill veteran who the Mets were hoping had something left. Provided that they signed him to a long-term deal after the ’98 season, Piazza had a chance to be an anchor in the middle of the Mets lineup for years to come.

Like most Mets fans, I was excited about Piazza’s arrival. The Mets hadn’t had an offensive superstar since Darryl Strawberry departed after the 1990 season, an exit that was followed by several years of mediocrity and a failure to develop – or acquire – an impact run producer. But, after a 1997 campaign in which the Mets surprised much of baseball by contending for a playoff berth until the season’s final weeks, the 1998 season had a chance to be even more fruitful. And, there was a great chance Piazza could be one of the final pieces of the puzzle.

I was at Piazza’s second game in a Mets uniform, against the Milwaukee Brewers at Shea Stadium, and, from then on, I watched him closely. Early in his Mets tenure, he was getting his hits but something seemed off. Sure, Piazza had some outstanding games – a four-hit game in Florida, a two-homer game against the Phillies – but he struggled to drive in runs consistently. I noticed Piazza got most of his hits with no one on base. Through his first 72 games with the Mets, Piazza was hitting a robust .328, but with just 36 runs batted in, a paltry total for someone widely regarded as one of the top run producers in the National League. I’d never watched Piazza on a regular basis before he came to New York, but I could tell something was missing from his game, even though I couldn’t put my finger on it.

A little over a week before I was due to leave home to start my sophomore year of college, I went to Shea to watch the Mets play a twi-night doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies. Piazza started the first game, which the Mets won, but didn’t start the nightcap. In game two, the Rockies jumped on the Mets early and had a 3-1 lead. In the bottom of the seventh, the Mets managed to load the bases with two out when Piazza was called upon to pinch-hit. A rousing cheer went up when Piazza’s name was heard over the public address system, and we were hopeful that our hero would come through in a big spot. Which he did, hitting a bases-clearing double that put the Mets ahead in a game they would go onto win. I was happy with the double, but I was even happier with where the double went; Piazza hit the ball into the right-centerfield gap. That’s it! I thought. That’s what was missing! Piazza, a righthanded hitter, had been pulling everything to leftfield, occasionally dunking a single into rightfield or centerfield, usually when he was behind in the count. But, this was Piazza’s first hard-hit ball to the opposite field. He’s figured it out! I thought.

I was right. That double against the Rockies was the start of a strong finish for Piazza, who drove in 40 runs over the Mets’ final 37 games, while hitting an otherworldly .394 with 25 of his 50 hits going for extra bases. During that torrid stretch, Piazza routinely drove balls to right and right-center with authority. I paid a lot of attention to Piazza’s hands; early in his Mets tenure, Piazza seemed jumpy, half-swinging and check-swinging on breaking balls out of the strike zone away. During his hot streak, Piazza’s hands barely moved unless he was offering at the pitch, and he almost never swung at breaking balls that dropped out of the strike zone; he’s seeing the ball really well, I thought.

I celebrated in my dorm room when the news broke that October that the Mets signed Piazza to a seven-year contract worth $91 million. And, over those next seven years I continued to study Piazza. By simply watching his hands and where he hit balls, I could tell whether he was swinging the bat well or in a slump. If I saw Piazza come up with men on base and struggle to check his swing on a first-pitch slider in the dirt, I knew he wasn’t going to come through with a hit. When Piazza would get a fastball in on his hands and foul it straight back – followed by a toothy grimace, because Piazza knew he just missed a pitch he could drive – I knew he was locked in.

Piazza wasn’t the only player I watched closely; I started noticing the tendencies of other Mets players as well. I knew starting pitcher Al Leiter was going to have a difficult day when his delivery ended with his left foot still close to the ground, rather than up in the air, because he wasn’t finishing and following through properly on his pitches. Closer John Franco almost always threw his changeup when he was in a tough spot, but it didn’t matter, because his ball moved so much, most hitters struggled to make good contact. Robin Ventura played closer to the line than most other third basemen because shortstop Rey Ordoñez covered so much ground, allowing Ventura to cover less ground and making the Mets a better defensive team. I started going to a lot more Mets games, which helped with my observations; I could now see beyond what the television broadcast was showing me. After coming home from Mets games, I would watch the highlights on the 11 o’clock news, so I could see if that slider that Brian McRae hit for a home run really did catch too much of the plate. I was watching baseball from a completely different perspective that made me feel like an insider and feel more empowered. I knew that, if I watched closely enough, I’d know why certain players succeeded where others had failed, why positive results could be expected from one player or team and not from another.

My baseball education continued unabated, accelerating when I started working as a minor league baseball radio play-by-play broadcaster. Now, I had the opportunity to talk to players, coaches and scouts about the game, furthering my knowledge of the sport and giving me a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t work for players. I learned that the most effective way to learn about a player was to watch him every day and that statistics – no matter how numerous or detailed – could help paint a picture of a player, but watching him with a trained eye is the best way to understand past results and predict future results. And, even with a boatload of statistical analysis and detailed scouting, the brightest baseball minds are often still wrong about players and make mistakes and poor guesses about their futures all the time. No matter how much learning and studying one does, baseball is an inexact science and it’s impossible to have all of the answers. But, that’s what makes the game fun.

Good thing the Mets traded for Mike Piazza.

Read Full Post »

I had ninth-grade Spanish with James, an Asian kid with straight black hair who wore a New York Rangers Starter jacket. He never wore a hat. I always wore a fitted baseball cap (unless a teacher implored me to take my hat off). For reasons unbeknownst to me, James decided one day that it would be a good idea flip my hat off my head, causing it to fall softly to the ground behind me. James thought this was funny. I didn’t. After several occurrences of James hitting the bill of my hat with the palm of his right hand and me frantically trying to catch the hat before it hit the ground, I decided enough was enough. I let James know that, the next time he touched my hat, I was going to not-so-gently touch him, a warning that seemed to get his attention.

After my threat, James left me alone for a few days. I thought my problem was solved. I was wrong. While leaving homeroom and on my way to Computer Literacy class, I heard a voice behind me just as I was about to descend the stairs.

“Hey Robert, what’s up?”

I turned. It was James. Before I could answer, my hat was flipped off my head. Again. It hit the third step from the top and rolled awkwardly down to the next landing. I frowned as I stomped down the steps and retrieved my hat, but not before a couple of my fellow hormonally imbalanced classmates inadvertently stepped on it, making me angrier. I spun around. James was just starting to make his way down the stairs. I quickly went back up the stairs, two at a time, until we were face to face. I punched him in the nose. James didn’t fall backward, but I could tell he was hurt, which was good enough for me. Instead of retaliating, James cupped his hand around his nose. As I went down the stairs, I could hear James whining in pain between sniffles. My punch bloodied his nose. James never touched my hat again. I haven’t punched anyone since. No one’s tried to flip my hat off my head since, either.

I take my hats very seriously. For one, they have to be fitted baseball caps; I wear a size 7 ¾, often the largest size you can find, so I stretch adjustable hats to the limits of their fibers, which isn’t a good look. I’m also not a fan of the hats with the elastic sweatbands; I once bought a New York Giants hat with one of those and got a headache because the band was so tight, it reduced the blood flow to my head. I spend the first few days with a new hat bending the bill until it fits perfectly around the contours of my forehead. I never wear my hats backward; I’m too old for that. I’ll never buy a hat with a logo I don’t know or recognize and the more obscure the logo, the better. I love hats with logos of defunct teams or logos that are no longer used; I have hats with the logos of the Montreal Expos, Quebec Nordiques and the early 1960s Baltimore Orioles (a dark blue hat adorned with a block orange B), just to name a few. I own about 15 hats, all with old-school logos, logos of defunct teams, logos of minor league teams or logos of teams I root for.

The baseball-cap logos that catch my eye are the simple ones, which is probably part of the reason I’m a fan of the old-school hats and logos. You can’t beat the simplicity of logos like that of the Hartford Whalers, with a W topped by a whale’s fin that forms the upper contours of an H. Or the Montreal Expos, with a red, lowercase E connected to a blue, lowercase B, which stand for “Expos Baseball.” The best logos are abstract, yet require only a quick glance or explanation to understand. Logos with too many colors, shapes or words never look good on a baseball cap. That’s why I was never a fan of the old Winnipeg Jets logo; it was way too busy. I love the logo of the current incarnation of the NHL’s Jets, which is much simpler.

I’ve always worn baseball caps. Initially, the hats were for practical reasons. I burn easily in the sun, so my parents got in the habit of outfitting me in baseball caps on hot, sunny days. I had all sorts of baseball caps in my early years, ranging from striped train-conductor style caps that matched my overalls to caps with baseball-team logos. I grew up in a family of New York Mets fans, so I had more than a few Mets hats in my youth. I also had a New York Yankees hat or two and, when I was six, a Cincinnati Reds hat. Most of the hats of my childhood had the mesh panels in the back. All of them had adjustable snaps in the back as well.

I was in the fourth grade when I got my first fitted baseball cap. It was late in the baseball season and a talented Mets team was about to fall short in their quest for a division title. So, my dad, tired of supporting underachievers, gave me his Mets hat. It was a size 7 ½ and a little big on me. It also had a black quarter-sized stain on the bill from when Dad accidentally dropped the hat onto a patch of wet tar. The white sweatband was a light brown, the result of Dad’s summer perspiration. To me, the hat was perfect. I wore Dad’s already-worn hat until it was nearly falling apart and replaced by a brand-new New York Mets fitted hat the following spring.

That second Mets hat started a trend that would last well into my teenage years: get a brand-new fitted hat, wear it every second of the day (except when my teachers or my mother told me to take it off) until the logo, sweatband and bill were absolutely filthy, replace with another brand-new hat. My most frequent hat of choice was a royal blue New York Mets hat, since the Mets were my favorite team; at various times I also wore fitted hats bearing the logos of the Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians, Capital City Bombers (a long-gone Mets minor league affiliate), Norfolk Tides (the Mets’ former Triple-A affiliate) and Kansas City Royals (I loved the gray hats they used to wear with their road uniforms). Since the Mets played in the National League and these were the days before interleague play, any American League team’s hat – except for the New York Yankees, of course – was fair game. I also grew to love hats of minor league teams; they were unique and unlikely to be worn by anyone else I knew.

My dream was to one day own several fitted baseball caps at once; that way, I wouldn’t have to wear one cap all the time and I could wear a different hat every day. That dream became a reality late in my teenage years, when I started using some of my summer- and after school-job money to buy more hats. I got my hands on a catalogue for a company that sold the fitted hats for every Major League and minor league baseball team; that company got a lot of my business. Whenever I saw a store selling fitted hats, I had to stop by and see if they had anything in my size that caught my eye – the former being a lot harder to achieve than the latter. Once I got out of college and began working as a minor league baseball play-by-play broadcaster, I started acquiring even more minor league hats. Picking up a hat bearing the logo of the team I worked for was a must and, on the road, if I noticed a team had a hat design I liked, I made sure I got one for my collection. That’s how I picked up hats with logos of the now-defunct Queens Kings, Kalamazoo Kings and Richmond Roosters, among others.

I no longer wear hats all day or even every day; much of the year, I’m covering baseball and a baseball cap isn’t proper work attire. Nowadays, my hats spend more time on a shelf in the closet, folded neatly into one another, than they do on my head. And yet, I still like to acquire hats for my collection whenever possible. When I am wearing a hat, my 21-month-old daughter likes to tug on the bill until she pulls the hat off my head, which I don’t mind. Hopefully, she never tries to flip a hat off my head.

Read Full Post »

The first New York Mets game I attended ended with Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving the Mets the win and making me a Darryl Strawberry fan at five years old. Once I became immersed in baseball a few years later, I became an even bigger Strawberry booster. He was a man of prodigious talents who was fun to watch whether he was hitting a baseball 400 feet or swinging and missing at a pitch in the dirt – and he did both often. Strawberry was a very good player in the clutch, but he was also prone to lengthy slumps. He had the tools to be a great defensive player, but he seemed uninterested in the field. However, none of Strawberry’s shortcomings muted my ardor for him because I understood he, like every other athlete, has flaws. But, as far as his baseball skills were concerned, I felt Strawberry’s positives far outweighed his negatives.

I was still a fan of Strawberry’s after I learned he was a drug and alcohol abuser, which helped explain his streakiness. Even though I was disappointed to find out about Strawberry’s off-field problems, I still loved him for his on-field excellence. At a young age, I saw Strawberry for what he was: a great athlete and a troubled human being. And, no matter what, I was always in awe of his on-field excellence while bemoaning his off-field issues.

Over the years, I’ve wondered how I developed the rare-for-a-youngster – but healthy – concept of admiring athletes for their playing abilities without expecting them to be flawless. I think it’s because of where and when I grew up. In New York City, two things sell newspapers and get people to watch the news more than anything else: sports and scandals. And, those two things were far from mutually exclusive when I was growing up. Two years after a magical season that won him the 1985 National League Cy Young Award, Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic after testing positive for cocaine and relapses would be common throughout his career. New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was one of the most feared and dominant players in NFL history, but he had several run-ins with the law and his problems with drugs were an open secret. Heck, even New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner got into the act, getting banned from baseball for 2 ½ years after hiring a thug to dig up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield, one of the Yankees’ star players. And those are just a few examples of sports scandals involving New York City athletes and sports figures during my formative years in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. Combine a potential sports scandal with the insatiable and competitive New York City media and no stone revealing an athlete’s bad behavior is left unturned. New York City media aren’t above fabricating or embellishing a scandal either. Thanks to them, I grew up in an environment that looked to tear athletes and sports figures down, rather than build them up and/or keep their misdeeds quiet.

In other words, I grew up in a much different place than State College, Pennsylvania, home of The Pennsylvania State University.

One of the biggest reasons the allegations of child molestation and sexual assault levied against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and the subsequent cover up – in which Joe Paterno, Penn State’s legendary former head football coach, took part – have gotten so much attention is because Paterno is a hero to many in Central Pennsylvania and beyond. Not only has Paterno won a lot of games, but he seemed very committed to the growth of his university as a whole, donating millions of dollars to Penn State and graduating his players at a higher rate than most big-time football coaches, all while helping Penn State develop into a nationally-recognized university academically and athletically. Some have argued Paterno is the most important figure in Penn State’s history, an argument that would be nearly impossible to make for any other college coach, past or present, at any other university. And, unlike many sports heroes – including my beloved Strawberry – Paterno was always very accessible. He and his family have lived in the same modest house in State College, Pennsylvania for decades and, for many years, Paterno would walk from his home to Penn State’s Beaver Stadium on game days. Many Penn State fans felt like they knew Paterno and felt he was a man of unimpeachable integrity, which made the revelation that he chose not to go to the authorities when told of possible inappropriate contact Sandusky had with minors in the Penn State football facilities that much more galling.

No sport provokes more passion, pride or unabashed idolatry than big-time college football – a sport that’s virtually nonexistent in New York City. College football’s invisibility on the New York City sports scene is in part because there are no big-time programs with long track records of national championships or yearly bowl-game appearances in or near the five boroughs (Rutgers University’s football team has had success in recent years, but they’re barely a blip on the New York City sports scene). The invisibility is also in part because unabashed idolatry just doesn’t jibe with the majority of New Yorkers and New York City isn’t a market where media will go out of their way to praise athletes and sports figures or hide their transgressions. It would’ve been impossible for a cover up like the one that occurred at Penn State to occur in New York City, where the media would’ve put pressure on Penn State to  remove Sandusky in 1998, the first time a police report alleging Sandusky molested young boys was filed. The combination of sports and scandal are an irresistible pull to New Yorkers and the New York City media.

Because of when and where I grew up, I never had a romantic, rose-colored-glasses view of sports, but that certainly didn’t dim my passion for sports or for athletes and others involved in sports. And, while I’m not a cynic, I do follow – and, nowadays, cover – sports with my eyes wide open. I admire what I can see and don’t jump to conclusions about what I can’t see. I understand most people involved in sports are good, well-meaning folks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be corrupted by money, prestige or power, just like anyone else. I’ll always enjoy the games but I always keep in mind they’re just that – games. And those participating in those games are just as human and as flawed as everyone else.

And, no matter what happens, Darryl Strawberry will always be my favorite athlete.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »