The Almost Official Site of Author Matthew Silverman


February 24, 2008

Happy Birthday, Terry Leach!Topps, 1983

The launching of this site happens to coincide with my birthday. I don’t want any presents or need congratulations about surviving another year. The only thing I really want for year number 43—my Terry Leach Year—is the same thing I wanted for my Ron Hodges/Jackie Robinson year. I should have just made year 42 the Ron Taylor Year and left it at that. Instead, 2007 started out with fire and purpose of Jackie and ended with the extended mediocrity that was Ron Hodges (unless he was playing in the “Ball on the Wall” game in 1973). Since I’ve spent extended stretches working with Jon Springer on a book on Mets uniform numbers and history, I tend to think of all numbers between 1 and 50 as the digitry of former Mets. It all makes sense to the deranged mind of the Mets fan. Though it may be lost to Terry Leach’s kin, who will insist his birthday is actually March 13 and that he’ll soon be hitting his Mark Clark Year at 54.

The only thing I want this year for my birthday is the same thing I wanted from year 42, or the Tom Seaver Year, or the George Stone Year, or the Doug Sisk Year (fittingly, Art Howe was still manager), or the Skip Lockwood Year, or the Casey Stengel Year (also known as the Year of the Bong, which must have made the ghost of the Old Perfesser shake its head in disbelief), or the Year of the Kooz, or the Rick Reed Year (also the last pennant-winning year), or the Bob Apodaca Year (which harshly, was the same year 34 was fired by the Mets’ Machiavellian GM), or the Barry Lyons Year, or the Jon Matlack Year (the serene ’97 season that was like manna in the Shea desert post-Davey Johnson), or the John Franco Year (Years of…count for players who had been Mets at the time said year occurred. In plainer English, a retroactive apology about 31, Mr. Piazza.), or the Nolan Ryan Year, or the Hank Webb Year, or the Year of the Hammer (rest in peace, John Milner), or the Year of the Swan (this year—’92—had higher-profile players than Swannie ever saw at Shea, but the “Worst Team Money Could Buy” made the ’78 Mets look like heroes), or the Year of the Kong (just so you know, every mention of Dave Kingman is preceded by the tossing of rose petals at metsilverman.com HQ), or the Del Unser Year, or the Willie Mays Year, or the Doug Flynn Year (ironically, this ’88 team might as well have played seven centuries as opposed to seven years after Flynn’s last game as a Met), and resting, finally, at Ray Knight, at 22. (We also promise the preceding 286-word sentence will be the longest produced by this site, unless we start creating facsimiles of early 19th-century British novels.)

And Ray Knight is where we begin because in my Cleon Jones Year I was 21 in ’86. And Cleon Jones, as every Mets fan knows—and if you don’t know that, or your dad wasn’t even born in 1969, there’ll be lots of nuggets like this to come—caught the last out of the first Mets world championship. Knight—the World-Series- MVP-winning, Sports- Illustrated-cover-crossing-home-plate-stepping third baseman—was not back when the Mets defended that title in ’87. Needless to say, there was no Mets repeat. Not in the Series, not in the NLCS, not in the division. It was a new and disturbing level of disappointment Mets fans hadn’t experienced since 1970, and no one in ’70 had any right to believe that lightning could strike two years in a row in the same spot. Turned out that 1987 was the beginning of the long climb down from what had seemed like an unassailable perch.

So each winter I take a new number and walk into a new season. The annual hope is the same, only the numbers change: 43, marking 22 since ’86, will end in No. 3. It would be good timing. Why?

First of all, Shea Stadium is in its last year of its existence. Like it or not—and if you don’t like Shea, you may not end up frequenting this site—Shea is the old, grimy, and somewhat smelly heart of the Mets fan. If the Dodgers had liked this piece of land in Flushing, maybe I’m getting ready for my Johnny Antonelli Year instead of my Terry Leach Year (because even in an alternate universe, I just can’t see myself rooting for the Dodgers; I’d be getting ready for the baseball Giants Opening Day in the fifth incarnation of the Polo Grounds, or the North Fork Bank Polo Grounds Presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods).

Second, the pieces are in place. Johan Santana is here—in case you somehow missed that—Pedro Martinez and Duaner Sanchez are back (fingers crossed), Carlos Delgado and Oliver Perez need to prove they are worth oodles of money in their walk years, Carlos Beltran wants to take those last steps to Greatest Mets outfielder ever, and Jose Reyes and David Wright desperately want to erase 2007 from all of our collective memories. And the defense will be better, even if the statue of Moises Alou remains standing 30 feet in front of the left-field fence. Catcher Brian Schneider—much as I disagree with the trade that brought him to Shea—is a big difference in terms of handling a staff. Even if he does hit like Ron Hodges.

Third, I have three books out on the Mets. If it’s not all about the Mets, it’s all about me. Kidding. But with three books from three different publishers, this site seems like as good an excuse as any of joining the blogosphere. Besides, competing publishers are going to help out each other’s product as much as the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox would all promote one another because it makes the game better. (To show it’s not all about promotion, I’m not even going to mention the names of Mets by the Numbers, 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know and Do before They Die, and Meet the Mets 2008 in this inaugural post.)

This past year has been the most fun of my life in terms of writing. While the Mets made it as difficult as humanly possible with that epic swan dive (not Craig Swan, mind you), this is a whole different year. Every year is different. Go ask Terry Leach.

February 26, 2008

Doc & MeDwight Gooden, 1986. Photo by Dan Carubia

I used to be angry at Dwight Gooden. Darryl Strawberry annoyed me with the squandering of his stardom, but to me he was just a player—for a Met, an unbelievable player—but when I first caught a glimpse of young Gooden on TV during spring break in 1984, I fell for him hard. There I was, sitting at my parents’ house during my first spring break in college watching a Mets game on a midweek afternoon while the far cooler freshmen were out and about in Fort Lauderdale or St. Petersburg. Kind of like this Gooden kid. He was three months my elder, but it didn’t take more than a few pitches glimpsed on Channel 9 to see that this guy, who age-wise could’ve been in my Sociology 101 class, was the best-looking Mets prospect I’d ever seen. Yet I couldn’t believe he made the Mets out of camp.

I desperately wanted to go to Opening Day. I’d skipped school to go to the Tom Seaver return game the previous April and now far away from Shea, I was jonesing for that season opener in Cincinnati. In 1984, it was still an honor to play that first game of the year in Cincinnati. That game always began before the other games, with no Sunday night game to steal the thunder. And the sad-sack Mets, who to me at this point seemed as if they’d been created in last place or within hailing distance of same, were getting this honor to open the year in Cincy. I tried everything I could to borrow someone’s car to drive from Virginia to Riverfront Stadium—I quickly abandoned the idea that anyone might want to go with me, even in a dorm full of Long Island guys—but no one would spare their vehicle to someone so obviously deranged. I had no credit card and Hertz told me (repeatedly) that there was no way they would rent me a car without one. (And getting a credit card at the time was much harder than merely filling out a form and getting a towel during a slow inning at a ballgame. Paying  for a card remained an entirely different matter.)         Taking the bus wasn’t a feasible option for a kid of the suburbs. Lord knows how many classes I’d miss and I’d still probably be stuck somewhere in Kentucky.  I actually felt a guilty pang of relief when I heard that Mike Torrez was shelled and the Mets were Opening Day losers for the first time since 1975, the year I became a fan. The Mets I’d known certainly hadn’t excelled at winning those games that came after the lid lifter.

That all changed in 1984. The Mets won their next six, including Dwight Gooden’s major league debut in the Astrodome. By the time I made it home from school, the Mets were still a winning club…and that was something their predecessors under Torre the Unsuccessful and Bamberger the Uninspired had rarely managed. Davey Johnson’s club full of prospects played inspired ball. Somehow the Mets, despite scoring fewer runs than all but one team in the majors, snuck into the All-Star break in first place. First place! And they had as many representatives at the All-Star Game in San Francisco—Strawberry, Orosco, Hernandez, and Gooden—than they had in the past four All-Star Games combined. I had to work late the night of the All-Star Game, but I used my primitive VCR skills to tape the game from Candlestick. The inning when Gooden came in and struck out the side followed Fernando Valenzuela doing the same, and set a mark of six straight All-Star Ks. I got up, hit the rewind button, poured myself another beer, and watched Doc’s inning again. Then he threw another shutout frame.

At the end of July, the Mets were still in first place with the Cubs in town for a showdown: four games in three days. The Friday night game was as packed as any Mets game I’d ever been to and I’d been going to 10 or more games each year for several seasons now. Retrosheet says 51,102 were at Shea, but they can’t measure the noise. I can still hear the buzz when Gooden took his warm-ups and see the fists punching the air by the thousands as he extricated himself from jam after jam with pure 19-year-old heat. Fans waved the “USA” caps they’d been given in honor of the home country’s imminent pounding of all comers in the Eastern Bloc-less Los Angeles Olympics. But who needed the pentathlon when there was Doc Gooden firing beebees past Cubbies? He fanned eight and walked seven—Rick Peterson would drop dead if he knew how many pitches Doc threw that year—and I can bear witness to how hard he was throwing. Sitting in the first row of the mezzanine, above Kiner and McCarver in the booth, I was in the midst of some Metsian discussion when a Gooden lightning bolt was redirected straight at me from the bat of Ron Cey. My head was turned to talk to my friend, but I caught a glimpse of the ball just before it struck my right collarbone and flew a dozen rows back into a mass of hands. Sure, anyone can have it now that I’d slowed it down. Still wincing in pain, I cheered as Gooden struck out Cey to end the eighth inning and end his night. Orosco took care of the rest in the 2-1 win and the Mets were up by 4½ games.

The next day, bruised but hopeful, I was back. The magic was gone, though. The Cubs blew open the game late. They then swept the Mets in an interminable Banner Day doubleheader. Chicago dominated with Sutcliffe, Sandberg, Smith, and Sarge. Yet Gooden just got better as the Mets stumbled. In four successive September starts, he had a one-hit shutout, consecutive 16-strikeout games, and a pedestrian 6-1 win over the Expos. I read all this in the two sentences allotted the games in the Roanoke Times & World News, which offered the major leagues less coverage than high school field hockey used to get at the paper where I’d gotten my first writing job. One word or a million, I was still bound to Gooden.

Gooden was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as many times in one year as Tom Seaver had in his whole Mets career. But even Seaver—to this day, the one Met I’d go to war with—did most of his greatest work while I was playing army obliviously in my mother’s garden. Gooden was a life-size contemporary (in age only). I was in awe of his whirlwind 1985 season with his record an unfathomable 20 games over .500 and Three-Finger Mordecai Brown-esque 1.53 ERA. Gooden followed that with a seemingly effortless 17-6 season in 1986. I was at his classic NLCS duel against Nolan Ryan, with only about 30,000 people coming out on what was supposed to be washout day, but the sun came out for what became a battle between old and new flamethrowers. Doc didn’t have it in the World Series; the Mets won a world championship despite Gooden losing twice and had their victory parade without Doc after he’d celebrated far too hard on his own. He sat out the first two-plus months in 1987 because of reckless behavior and treatment for cocaine addiction. There was a lot of that in the mid-1980s. Gooden was just one person caught up in it. For that kind of mistake, he could be forgiven. And that part of his past was tucked away in the back of the minds of all who cheered for him on those nights when he showed glimpses of the old Doc and displayed occasional maturity when he earned wins without being the best pitcher in the park.

Mets came and Mets went, but Gooden stayed. That seemed as it should have been. Gooden was injured and he returned. Still the ace. The Mets hit bottom again and Doc remained. By 1994—those 11 seasons flew by—Gooden wasn’t just the lone Met remaining from 1984, he was the only one who’d stayed in a Mets uniform since the 1988 division champs had their season turn to ashes when Mike Scioscia’s homer against Gooden began the fall of the paper dynasty.

I was in Denver after taking in a doubleheader at Mile High Stadium (where a crowd of 50,000 was considered sparse), when a strange announcement emitted from the TV as we packed to head to the mountains. Doc was in trouble again. Cocaine. I couldn’t even listen to the rest. As Paulie told stoolie-to-be Hendry Hill after handing him some loose change, which to him was several 100-dollar bills: “Now I’ve got to turn my back on you.” (That’s Goodfellas to those too young to remember how that film was jobbed for the 1990 Oscar. There’ll be more such references to come.)

I tried to ignore Gooden for the rest of the career he salvaged after serving a year’s suspension. I shook my head at his no-hitter for the Yankees and considered him little better than a pedestrian fourth or fifth starter. But he was still Doc. And he still succumbed to the same demons over and over again. I eventually felt sorry for him, though I didn’t forgive him. I hated the awkward way he made me feel about the 1980s. It was his time. And mine. He won 100 games with fewer losses (37) than any National League pitcher since the 1800s. While I was grumbling about jobs I thought were beneath me, he was on top of the world. Gooden won his 20th game with August 1985 still on the calendar and me in the right-field mezzanine. He was going to be the Met who threw a no-hitter, baffling everyone with Lord Charles or blowing them away whenever he felt like it. So what if you could steal off him? He never let anyone score.

I hear his name now and I think of the philosophy that emits from a plastic seat or a stool at a sports bar, where the half-sloshed talk about the sobriety of others. It’s Doc’s battle and we can only hope he comes out whole in the end. I’m pulling for him again. We’ve all grown older. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it just means that time has just passed you by.

February 27, 2008

Spring Training Rules

Spring training games begin today, although the first televised contest doesn’t occur until February 29. (Once every four years, you’d think they could make leap year day an international holiday; if you live until 120, you’d get one month of holidays in your lifetime.) I think everyone’s ahead of the game this year what with the pitch-by-pitch analysis of the Mets-Michigan game I heard last night on SNY. Go Blue…and orange.

In three-plus decades of watching spring games on TV from Florida—and occasionally in person—I’ve come up with a list of Grapefruit League don’ts (the only do is “take a nap” if possible.) I will pass these pearls of wisdom on here, at absolutely no charge.

1. Never alter plans to watch a spring training game. If you are married, involved, have kids, or really serious about work, you have other things to do when spring training games are on TV. If the game is on and you’re home, watch—or better yet, listen on the radio—while you accrue precious hours of good parenting, spouseness, boyfriendiness, or employeefication. Mark down the date, if need be, because by the third week in April, you may need to say, “Remember on February 29, when I sat at the mall while you tried on bathing suits while I could’ve been watching Jon Niese?” And if you do get stuck at the mall, a discreetly-employed walkman        tuned to WFAN is not a sin.                                                                                                                                                                    Mookie springs eternal as he prepares for the first Mets camp at Port St. Lucie 20 years ago.

2. Never watch an entire spring training game. This one’s kind of a superstition, but it has a purpose. Figure if you watch 100 games during the actual season at a minimum of three hours (all those pitching changes and practice swings take time), you’re talking about 300 hours—not counting additional travel time if you go to a game in person. That’s almost two continuous weeks dedicated solely to the Mets, with lots of spousal shooshing and conversations you never heard a word of. Figure that if you’re reading this, it may mean you’ll be taking in more than just 100 games. Try 150 or more, plus pre- and post-game shows and hours spent listening to the FAN even before Eddie Coleman comes on, as well as scouting other teams, and you’re talking about a solid month of nothing but baseball. That’s a good month, so don’t burn out too soon, big guy.

3. Do not get excited about stats from young players in spring training. This is also known as the Butch Huskey Syndrome. For those who may have forgotten about the freckled, fated slugger of the mid-1990s, Huskey came into spring training walloping the ball each March, but his Port St. Lucie power translated into a .216 average with five home runs in three Queens Aprils. Since 1972, the Johnny Murphy Award has been given for best Mets spring training rookie. While there have been some legitimate Mets who’ve taken the award, starting with John Milner earning the inaugural honor, others have been, shall we say, somewhat lacking in the long term: Mike Bruhert, Mario Ramirez, Charlie Puleo, Barry Lyons, Darren Reed, Julio Machado, Doug Simons, Anthony Young, Mike Draper, Kelly Stinnett, Steve Bieser, Orber Moreno, and Dae-Sung Koo. (Ironically, Huskey was edged out for the award by Generation K poster boy Paul Wilson in 1996.) In 2000, the year the Mets wound up winning the pennant with a veteran-laden team, country singer Garth Brooks won the Murphy Award when he came to camp to fill a few Port St. Lucie seats with people of questionable musical taste. Johnny Murphy, a great reliever before relievers really existed and the GM of the 1969 Miracle Mets, had to be spinning in his grave…or wondering where Brooks was in 1962.

4. Do not actively root for a win. Needless to say, the games don’t matter. There’ll be plenty of aggravation later. You want stats? In 2001, the Mets won 18 times in March; the Mets won their 18th game that mattered on May 21 that year, which gave the defending NL champs the third-worst record in the NL at the time.

5. Don’t forget to wear sunblock. Even if you’re watching a night game from Kew Gardens. While it’s snowing. You can’t be too careful.

Enjoy spring training for what it is: a time to slowly prepare for the sixth-month hell ride that will have you muttering to yourself before the rotation even goes around one time. And feel free to ignore any and all of these suggestions for the first spring training game you get a chance to see on TV, especially if Johan Santana is pitching. His every start and move will be televised by SNY this spring. Beats watching Mike Bruhert.

February 28, 2008

Canadian Cold Front

It was 31 springs ago when the worst season in Mets history began with a seemingly innocuous moment: the Blue Jays beat the Mets in the 1977 spring training opener, 3-1. It was just an exhibition game, but the Mets were playing a team that had never played an organized game before March 11 in Dunedin…and the Mets were held to one run. The 15-10 Blue Jays were very successful for a brand-new club that spring, and even beat the two-time defending world champion Reds, who played almost their whole All-Star lineup. It goes to show how meaningless spring games are—the Blue Jays lost 107 times when it counted—but the ’77 spring opener foretold to how wrong things would go for the Mets.

The Midnight Massacre was just over three months away. This ticking time bomb could be heard throughout Joe Frazier’s unhappy camp as every Met of worth seemed angry about his contract or about how the Mets had gone stag to the first free-agent party the previous fall and hadn’t even made eye contact with anyone. The explosion on June 15, 1977 would blow apart the franchise, send The Franchise all the way to Cincinnati, and hurl the Mets into the stone age. They would not emerge from the deep recesses of obscurity until four years after they were sold and had brought back Seaver only to lose him again. Being a Mets fan was something most sane people either kept to themselves or didn’t do anymore. The Blue Jays, who averaged 106 losses their first three seasons, even managed to win more games than the Mets between 1977 and 1983. (The Mariners, who also debuted in ’77, were the only major league club to outlose the Mets in this span, 653-641.)

Whenever your mind fixates on the agony of last September, remember that no pennant race stumble—not 1985, 1998, or even 2007—can compare with what happened in ’77 and what didn’t happen at empty Shea Stadium in the years that followed. And as much as the present ownership may drive us nuts at times, remember where we came from. A little bird told us.

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