Thursday, September 29, 2005

Sox and Tigers and a Fine Day at the Ballpark

My trip to Comerica Park on Thursday started with a guy on the street handing me a free ticket and ended high-fiving White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

For a game that doesn't include the Mets, that's about as good as it gets.

I consider the White Sox in kind of a "second tier" favorite team, along with the Marlins and Cardinals, when they're not playing the Mets.

I started paying attention to the Sox when they swiped Seaver in 1984, and cemented the relationship when I attended a game at old Comiskey Park in 1988. I loved that place, and I could relate to how the Sox were treated like second-class citizens in Chicago, kind of like the way the Mets are treated in the Apple. These guys needed someone to give a darn about them, and I could fill that role without interfearing with my Mets devotion.

I make sure I get to a game at Comerica Park at least once a year. I've now lived in Michigan 16 years, and have probably watched the Tigers play in person as many times -- if not more -- than I've seen the Mets.

But I just haven't bonded with the Tigers. I've had some nice moments with the team, especially at Tiger Stadium. I know a lot about them from from living here and talking baseball with co-workers. The Midwest League team here in Grand Rapids -- which I have bonded with -- is a Tigers farm team, so it's always fun to watch familiar names progress through the system.

But for some reason, I just can't claim them as one of my own.

But the detachment allows me to attend Tigers games as a neutral observer, and absolves me of any guilt whatsoever for rooting against them when a team I do like, like the Sox, rolls into town.

And this game, with the American League Central Division on the line, was even more special.

So I used a comp day at work and made the 2-hour trek, donning a Seaver-era road cap. There's good luck in that cap, I was wearing it when Frank Thomas tossed the game ball on the magical, misty night more than a decade ago.

Walking to the box office, I was stopped by a guy offering me free tickets. Sure, I'll take one! He handed me three. I don't know where he got them, but they were marked "comp" where the price should be. I took a couple steps and saw a guy and a small boy walking to the box office and made their day with the other two ducats.

I grabbed an empty seat -- there were many -- behind the Sox dugout, and found myself surrounded by Sox fans.

The Sox all month flirted with stripping the '64 Phillies and -- heh,heh, -- the 2004 Yankees of the shame of being the biggest choke artists. But the team took care of business early, with ex-Met Carl Everett hitting a two-run triple in the first and Scott Podsednik adding a sac fly in the second. Paul Konerko launched a bomb in the sixth, and the Tigers made in interesting by adding a couple late runs.

I was a little disappointed in the Tiger fans. It's pretty much accepted around Detroit that Alan Trammell is getting fired after the season. Tram is beloved in Motown. And when he walked back to the dugout after lifting Jason Grilli, I though it was probably the last time he'll be in uniform at Comerica. I expected some kind of display of affection from the faithful. Nothing.

The Tigers put the tying run on first with no outs in the ninth, but the Sox fans finally exhaled when Bobby Jenks struck out Curtis Granderson and Dmitri Young, and Konerko made a leaping grab on a Placido Polanco line drive.

As the Sox celebrated on the field, I made my way to the first row behind the dugout, where fans who made the trip from Chicago were going nuts. Walking right past me was owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who I've long criticized as being one of Commissioner Bud Selig's main henchmen.

I gave Jerry a pass -- just for today -- given the spirit of the celebration. "Hey, Jerry! Congrats! Way to go," I said, holding up my hand for a high five.

"Hey, I didn't do anything," he said, slapping my hand. Jerry humble? He must have been overcome with emotion.

Amazingly, this is the second time I've seen a team clinch a division at Comerica. The vile Yankees did it in 2002, one time I was pulling for the Tigers with all my might.

There was one more happy tidbit to Thursday's game. Being the last home game of the season, everything in the gift shop was 25 percent off. Some of the remaining All-Star Game items were player t-shirts, and bright orange Pedro, Piazza and Beltran shirts were there for the taking.

It's been a stressful week at work, so I really needed a beautiful day at the ballpark. And this day was just about perfect.

In other words...

Professor Michael Hoban continues his statistical look at who should be in the Hall of Fame on, this time looking at pitchers. You can read it here. He provides hope for all of us who think Bert Blyleven is getting a raw deal.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Some More Possible Names for the Wall...

Tom Seaver on the day his number was retired. Who will be next?

Some folks pointed out some glaring omissions in the last entry, where we contemplated who could be the next players honored by the Mets by having their number retired.

I looked at some of what seemed to be guiding principles teams used in bestowing such a tribute. It comes down to stud Hall-of-Famers, Willie Horton-like beloved players closely identified with a team, a Hall-of-Famer returning to the city where he started his career and some oddball instances where owners and executives are given a number.

A friend on my Mets Listserv pointed out that the Red Sox have strict requirements for retiring a number. A player needs to A) be in the Hall of Fame; B) play 10 years in Boston; and C) retire as a Red Sox.

And unless Roger Clemens returns to Fenway, we'll see how serious they are about those rules. Of course, I fear for the worst, which is that the Yankees retire his number first, prompting the bat-chucker to slap a Skanks cap logo on his eventual Hall of Fame plaque.

And the Yankees apparently have no standards for number retirement, other than plant as many as many people as possible in their monument park. I'm sure Alvaro Espinosa Day is scheduled for next season.

Using the legit, non-Yankee principles for the Mets, I narrowed the field to No. 31 for Mike Piazza and John Franco, No. 8 for Gary Carter, No. 17 for Keith Hernandez, No. 18 for Darryl Strawberry and No. 24 for Willie Mays.

Then friends and fellow bloggers such as Metstradamus, Greg at Faith and Fear in Flushing and Matt Cerrone and his Mets Blog readers weighed in.

There are some players that should have been included in the discussion -- and no offense intended to these fine Mets heroes. They deserve their day in court, so let us take another look.

No. 36: Jerry Koosman

I'm a big Koosman fan. What a classy guy. And sadly, he was forever second in line. He should have been the 1968 Rookie of the Year, although there's nothing shameful about coming in second to Johnny Bench. He pitched in Tom Seaver's shadow most of his career, then played for some dumpy Twins teams, along with the White Sox and Phils. He would have been the ace on almost any other team. He finished with an outstanding 222-209 record and 3.36 ERA Who knows, had some of his mid-70s Mets teams and Twins teams been better he night have ended closer to 250 wins and been given stronger consideration for the Hall. As for the Mets, Koosman remains at No. 3 all-time in wins and strikeouts, and fourth in ERA. He absolutely earned his place in the Mets Hall of Fame. But I think he falls just shy of number retirement. He sets the bar pretty high. If you're not better than Koosman, you're not getting on the wall.

Decision: No.

No. 8: Yogi Berra

OK, like Aaron, Berra returned to the city from which he started but with another team and in another league. What's different is that Yogi actually didn't leave New York -- the poor guy played and managed the Skanks -- and his return as a player was for a couple games. Yogi was a fine coach for the championship team, took the helm under horrific conditions after Hodges died and led the team to within a game of a championship in 1973. And I respect that he boycotted Yankee Stadium after the team mistreated him yet again. Still, I don't think that's enough to get honored with a number on the wall. Although I do want to see No. 8 retired for Gary Carter.

Decision: No.

No. 2: Bobby Valentine

I confess that I thought Bobby Valentine was an awesome manager and a nice guy. I've met him a number of times and he was very kind, even humoring a cub reporter who was rather star struck when he tired to interview him when he was the Rangers manager. And his restaurant in Milford, Conn. was one of my fave haunts when we lived there. His managerial record is pretty impressive, a .534 winning percentage second only to Davey Johnson, two trips to the post-season. A World Series appearance in 2000, and if Kenny Bleeping Rogers can throw a stinking strike to a guy who has no intention of swinging...well, don't get me started. I guess if we're not retiring the number of the World Series Championship manager in Johnson, then we can't hoist Bobby V. on to the wall. I'd still like to see his bust in the Mets Hall of Fame.

Decision: No.

No. 20: Tommie Agee and No. 21: Cleon Jones

I lump the Mets from Mobile together for a couple of reasons. I think they are linked in many ways, the obvious one being they were stars of the 1969 champions. It was a career year for both -- Jones batting .340, which stood as the team mark until John Olerud and Agee with 26 homers in an era when that was still a very impressive number. Both of these players deserve to be in the Mets Hall of Fame. But their numbers would have to be retired using the Harold Baines "beloved player" principle. I'm not sure their Mets careers were long enough or strong enough to merit space on the wall. Agee was a Met for five seasons, and his .255 career average isn't offset by stacks of homers, at least not enough to get to the level required. Jones spent all but one of his 13 years with the Mets -- and his time with the White Sox was short-lived. His career numbers also fall a little short, a .281 average and 93 home runs. But I also think both players suffered because the Mets didn't seem to treat minority players well in those days, another reason to revile M. Donald Grant. Jones was humiliated after a spring training incident that we don't need to discuss here, and Agee was shipped out of town in favor a weak-hitting Rich Chiles (Thank you Greg for the assist here.) Some of that lingers today. Tug McGraw dies and his famous quote is stitched on the Mets jerseys for a year. Agee passes and the Mets wear his number on a patch -- for a day! Both Jones and Agee deserved better. But I don't think they should have their numbers retired.

Decision: No.

There you go! I could discuss Mets history all day and it never gets old. All these guys are heroes, and I do think the team could do a better job of telling its own history and making sure the fans of tomorrow will know about players like these and what they meant to a city.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mike Piazza on the Wall...And Who Else?

Is there any doubt that the Mets will retire this jersey?

There's been a lot of talk about Mike Piazza leaving the Mets after his contract expires at the end of the season, and that the team is preparing some kind of special day to honor him.

And while they might not do it this year, I think the team will retire Mike's No. 31, probably after he is enshrined in Cooperstown.

This got me thinking, usually a dangerous thing. The Mets have only retired three numbers -- the ultimate honor a team can bestow. It's four numbers if you count Jackie Robinson's 42, which was honored by every team.

Casey is the only Met to wear 37.

No. 37 was set aside after first manager Casey Stengel broke his hip and retired. Then No. 14 was retired after manager Gil Hodges died unexpectedly in 1972. Both were probably knee-jerk reactions, but I can support them. Especially for Hodges, who not only led the Mets to their first championship but was a beloved player for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The only Mets player honored is Tom Seaver, and I'm proud to say I was at Shea with my family when No. 41 was unveiled on the leftfield wall.

But that's it for players. I think there should be more. But a lot of care should go into this. You don't want to be like the knuckleheads across town, retiring numbers left and right to inflate their own importance.
No. 14 was retired to honor Gil Hodges, an original Met who later managed the 1969 World Champs.

Basically, retired numbers fall into a handful of categories.

You have your no-brainer, stud Hall-of-Famers, players like Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench and Ted Williams.

You have your mega-studs who finish their career with a different team but in their original city, a club limited to Hank Aaron at the moment.

There are the beloved players who are not Hall-of-Famers, like Harold Baines, who actually came back to the White Sox after his number was retired.

There are managers who won championships.

I was there with my "41 Forever" banner when Seaver's No. 41 was retired in 1988.

Then you have the oddballs, like the Angels retiring No. 26 to honor owner Gene Autry, the so-called 26th player on the team. The worst was the Marlins retiring No. 5 for Carl Barger, a team executive who died before the team played a game. He never played, so No. 5 was for Joe DiMaggio, Barger's favorite player. Thank you, H. Wayne Huizenga for proving once again why you should never have been allowed to own a baseball team.

So using those guidelines, let us look at the Mets who are eligible in number order.

No. 1: Richie Ashburn
Ashburn was an original Met and even the team's first All-Star. But he played just one year and doesn't fall into the Aaron category. Mookie Wilson also wore the number. And while he's beloved, I don't quite think he's wall-worthy. But a worthy selection for the Mets Hall of Fame.
Decision: No

No. 4: Duke Snider
The Duke of Flatbush was on a nostalgia tour when he played for the Mets on his way to Cooperstown, one of the many former Dodgers and Giants added to the team in the early years. Duke hit 14 homers, a fine farewell to the New Yorkers who loved him, but not enough to retire his number.
Decision: No

No. 5: Davey Johnson

The skipper of the 1986 Champions, the best Mets team ever. Davey falls out of favor with ownership for some reason, but the guy's done nothing but win everywhere he's been. He needs to be honored in some way. They've since given his number to David Wright, among others, and based on what we've seen of Wright so far, it might never be issued again.
Decision: No

Here's a collection of Mets heroes: Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones, Al Jackson and Jim McAndrew.
No. 7: Ed Kranepool
Check this out. Steady Eddie hasn't played since the late 1970s, and he's still the Mets' all-time leader in games, at-bats, hits, doubles, singles and even sac flies. He's third in RBI. Playing 18 seasons with the same team will do that, and you're not going to play 18 years with the same team unless you are something special. Clearly he falls into the Harold Baines category. But the number has been in circulation since -- a mistake in my eyes -- and now is worn by Jose Reyes, a worthy heir. I wouldn't have blinked if the Mets retired No. 7 when Eddie retired, but the time has probably passed.
Decision: No

No. 8: Gary Carter
The Kid's a newly minted Hall-of-Famer, was a co-captain and a stud player on the 1986 World Champs. This one's a no-brainer. Perhaps next year, the 20th anniversary, will be the time to hoist No. 8 to the wall. Maybe Yogi Berra, who managed the 1973 pennant-winners and also wore 8, can make the presentation.
Decision: On the wall!

No. 10: Rusty Staub
You laugh, but Staub's number was retired by the Expos -- and they no longer exist!. Le Grande Orange was a key player on the Mets' 1973 pennant-winner, and was a valuable contributor in the team's rise back to respectability in the 1980s. He should never have been traded. I owe Staub. I took my wife to a game in the late 1980s, and as we were buying tickets Rusty walked through the box office. I said "Hey, there's Rusty Staub!" My wife said, "So? Who's Rusty Staub?" Sadly, she said this loud enough that Rusty heard her. Ouch!
Decision: No

No. 12: Roberto Alomar
Robbie's a first-ballot Hall-0f-Famer, but his short tenure with the Mets was anything but glorious. The guy just fell apart. And Alomar played for so many teams, I can't decide which team's cap should be on his plaque, much less which team could retire his number.
Decision: No

Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden in happier days.

No. 16: Doc Gooden
And this is where honoring the 1986 team gets tough. Gooden is probably the greatest tragedy in Mets history. The guy nearly posted Hall of Fame numbers even with the boozing and drugging. And worse, the Yankee-ing. Gooden's still a mess, as his recent arrest shows. But he's still behind only Seaver on the team's all-time wins list. I just can't see the Mets giving him the ultimate honor.
Decision: No

No. 17: Keith Hernandez
Hernandez is probably more important to the success of the 1986 team than Carter, and there are some writers who still vote for him for the Hall. If only Mex had not fallen apart so fast. But he's still active with the team, even appearing in a classic Seinfeld episode. I have no problem retiring No. 17 for Hernandez. I kind of owe Hernandez, too. My grandmother accidently poked him in the stomach with a broom handle in her shopping cart at Publix in Jupiter, Fla.
Decision: On the wall!

No 18: Darryl Strawberry
Another player who would be in Cooperstown today if not for the drugs and booze and Yankee-ing. I get so caught up in how good Strawberry could have been that I forget how good he actually was. Straw is still the team's all-time leader in home runs, RBI, runs and even walks. How do you overlook that? Like Gooden, Strawberry's post-baseball world has been a mess, and that's hard to overlook, too. But can you honor Carter and Hernandez and not Strawberry? I tend to be inclusive with such things.
Decision: On the wall!

No. 21: Warren Spahn
Spahnnie is the best lefty ever. But he was horrible with the Mets, and didn't even last the season. His number has been retired by the Braves, and rightfully so.
Decision: No

No. 24: Willie Mays and Rickey Henderson
My gut says that when the greatest all-around player in baseball history wears your uniform, you should retire it. The Mets have, kind of. The only time it's been worn since Mays hung it up after the 1973 World Series was a brief stint by scrubby Kelvin Torve -- a mistake by someone -- and Rickey Henderson, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. He's Willie Bleeping Mays! His baseball farewell -- "I say to myself, 'Willie, say goodbye to America'" still gives me goosebumps! Greg Prince of the fantastic Faith and Fear in Flushing site did an eloquent job explaining why Mays' number should be retired not just on the Mets, but throughout the Mets' minor league system. and you can read it here.

Decision: On the wall!

No. 30: Nolan Ryan

Ryan's number has already been retired by the Angels and Rangers. He came up with the Mets and got his World Series ring in 1969, but hated living in New York. That's going to disqualify him right there. Plus I'm still bitter that Ryan made baseball's All-Century Team and Seaver didn't. I can't do anything about that, so I must get my revenge in petty ways. Like this.

Decision: No!

No: 33: Eddie Murray

Another first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. I'm forever grateful that Eddie played for the Mets because I was able to go buy Mets jerseys and put my name on the back. Eddie didn't do poorly in his two years at Shea. But he didn't do enough to warrant retiring his number, either.

Decision: No

No 31: Mike Piazza...and John Franco?

I have to tinker with the number order here, because this is where things get tricky. Mikey's going in the Hall as a Met. It's a no-brainer that his number goes on the wall. Now, John Franco, a team captain who was basically Mr. Met in the 1990s and beyond, wore 31 and gave it up for Piazza when he arrived. Franco's departure this year was ugly, but his subsequent release by the Astros shows Omar knew what he was doing. Franco's a New Yorker through and through, and we can assume whatever hurt feelings exist will ease over time. Do you retire No. 31 for both Piazza and Franco, or

No:45: John Franco, Tug McGraw and Pedro Martinez

Do you throw No. 45 up there to salute McGraw, too, and make it kind of a tribute to relievers? The only complication is that Pedro's wearing the number, hopefully for at least four years, and he's a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, too. You can't retire it while Pedro's still got it on his back. These are the problems you run into when you wait too long to do the right thing.

Decision: Throw 31 on the wall for both Piazza and Franco!

There you go! I realize I just took up about half the outfield wall with numbers, but it's still fewer than the Skanks -- and every one more worthy than Phil Rizzuto!

In other words...

Those darn Braves will likely retire Bobby Cox's number after they read Will's column that shows Cox ranks up there with baseball's very best of all time. Read it here.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Every Signature Tells a Story: Losing the 1969 Mets

It's one thing when members of the original 1962 Mets depart to their heavenly reward, players I know only from reading Mets history books.

But when we start to lose members of the World Champion Miracle Mets, it means something entirely different. It means I’m getting old.

The 1969 team was still slightly before my time. I was in kindergarten when the Mets took the series from the Orioles in five games. My first game at Shea was Banner Day in 1971, I got my first baseball cards in 1972 and it wasn’t until the 1973 season that I leaped headfirst into that all-consuming fanaticism.

But a big chunk of that 1973 "Ya Gotta Believe!" team was holdovers from the first pennant-winners — guys like Tom Seaver, Jerry Grote, Jerry Koosman, Bud Harrelson, Kranepool — so I felt bonded to that version of the team, too.

We’ve already lost a number of people associated with the 1969 champs. An Oldtimers’ Day celebration would have some pretty big holes.

Manager Gil Hodges, of course, died in spring training in 1972. I’ll always wonder if the Mets in the mid-70s would have fared better under Gil's firm command.

Reliever Danny Frisella was appeared in just a handful of games in 1969, but was a contributor in the years before and after. He died in a crash in 1977.

Pitching coach Rube Walker died in 1992, just months after Tom Seaver praised him during his Cooperstown induction speech.

Tommie Agee, who made those amazing catches in centerfield, died in 2001.

And we lost charismatic Tug McGraw to cancer last year, as well as announcer Bob Murphy, whose voice was part of the soundtrack of my youth.

Donn Clendenon, who died from leukemia at 70 on Saturday, has been called the final piece of the Mets puzzle. His numbers overall weren’t that impressive — a .252 average with 12 homers and 37 RBI in 72 games after arriving in mid-season. But he was a veteran presence on a team of kids and anchored the lineup with a big bat.

But on a team with two future Hall of Famers — and Koosman, who falls just short — it was Clendenon who was the World Series most valuable player, hitting three homers in the five games.

I forget that these players get on in years after their playing days. To me, they are forever young on baseball cards and in yearbook photos. And when another slips away, as Clendenon did this week, it’s a reminder of how much time has really passed — 36 years — and that I’m getting older too.

I was fortunate to meet Clendenon at a late 1980s gathering of Miracle Mets at a baseball card show in Manhattan, the same one where I ran into Johnny Ramone. Agee was there, too, and he frequently appeared at shows around the New York area. He was always a friendly guy with a big smile.

It was a strange show because as the players were trying to talk to fans — how often does a guy like J.C. Martin get asked to one of those things? — the show promoter was screeching at them to sign these posters she wanted to sell. I remember a lot of eye-rolling among the players, and it kind of "stole the fun" -- my daughter's phrase -- from the fans who paid for a fleeting moment with their heroes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Taking Inventory of Things That Suck

I saw that television commercial where the family is sitting around the dinner table with guests and items start getting pulled into the living room.

"That’s our TV. It sucks," one of the homeowners says.

I believe this is a landmark moment in our lives, when "sucks" is elevated from elementary school taunt and derisive stadium chant to mainstream conversation. Now I’m sure we’ll hear some senator break out with "sucks" during the Supreme Court justice confirmation hearings.

I’m not saying this is good. It’s just what it is.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the poster children of suck.

So we need to take an official inventory of things that in fact do suck and things that do not. And we have to be careful not to overuse the word. There is a big difference between the truly heinous and things that suck. For example, the Yankees are evil but the Devil Rays suck — unless they’re beating the Yankees again, in which case they are my second-favorite team.

So here is a list of things that suck, and feel free to offer suggestions:

1) Beaning Mike Piazza.
Throwing at the coconut of any Mets player is a dastardly deed, but why does it always seem to be poor Mike Piazza? And if Roger Clemens isn’t bonking one off Mike’s helmet he’s hurling bat shards his way. And this week Mike makes his return from the disabled list, launches a bomb and Julian Tavarez nails him in the noggin.

Of course, not all skullings suck. Nailing Derek Jeter is appropriate in many situations. First base open? Blast 'em. Up by a couple runs? Valid. Having a bad hair day? Someone's gotta pay, might as well be Jeter. It's just the right thing to do. I could watch this happen three, four times a game.

2) All-Star Games that end in a tie.

Don’t tell me it’s just an exhibition game. The only thing on exhibit at the 2002 Milwaukee fiasco was the cluelessness of Commissioner Bud Selig and mismanagement of Joe Torre and Bob Brenley.
For goodness sakes, it’s one of the game’s showcase events. Don’t tell me the pitchers would have been at risk if they threw an extra inning or two. Can you imagine a warrior like Bob Gibson coming out of a game like that? And because Bud screwed that up, we’re forced to endure the "This time it counts" nonsense that gives the AL the home field advantage in every World Series. Not even the NHL, the most mis-managed of all major sports, wouldn’t let this happen. And considering that this league allowed someone to name a team after an Emilio Estevez movie, that’s saying something.

Jar Jar sucks, but the whole movie can't be blamed on him.

3) The Phantom Menace

Man, did this movie suck. Going after Jar Jar is to easy. How come Natalie Portman is the queen, but she’s a teen-ager? She’s the queen and she doesn’t have enough money to buy a part so the kid has to win a race to get enough money? Darth Maul was a great-looking character. So why not give him a line of dialogue or two? You can’t just design a costume, let the guy wander into a couple frames and call it a day. Naboo?

The worst ballpark not in the Bronx. No wonder the team moved.

4) Olympic Stadium.

OK, so the tarp-like roof is going to get pulled into the leaning tower by these little cables. The shock here is not that the contraption didn’t work. It’s that somebody thought it would ever work in the first place. This was hands-down, the worst ballpark not in the Bronx.

It's not gray, it's "graphite." And it sucks.

5) Blue Jays uniforms

The tragedy here is that the Jays used to have nice uniforms with an identity unique to the team and it’s Canadian roots. Now they have "graphite" colored caps, and a team with "blue" in its name and a severe lack of blue in its uniforms. The Padres uniforms suck, too. But the Padres have always had sucky uniforms, so it’s more of a tradition at this point and they have no choice.

6) Rockies vests

Since we’re venting about uniforms, what’s the point of having a black vest if you’re going to wear black undershirts? The only thing worse is when they wear the purple undershirts. And what’s with the stripes around the arm holes. Can you imagine the recruiting trip for a free-agent pitcher? "Well, you have to pitch in a stadium that will inflate your ERA by a run and flatten your curveball. Plus, you have to wear a clown suit. But the schools are good." They’re not all as dense as Mike Hampton.

No ring, no's that working for you, Alex?

7) Team-hopping Alex Rodriguez

Freaking A-Rod could have been a Met. Then he could have been a Red Sox. Instead he allows himself to get lured over to the Dark Side and join the Skanks, where he plays second fiddle to the aforementioned Jeter. And he's probably going to lose another MVP, this time to a designated hitter from a team he spurned. Bad kharma, Alex. It's coming back to haunt you. I'd rather have David Wright.

8) An occasional Mets player

A rule of thumb is that anything connected with the Mets can’t suck. Call it blind loyalty. Braden Looper doen’t suck, he’s just not being used properly. Kaz Ishii doesn’t suck, he’s just control challenged. Mike Stanton used to suck, then he became an overused reliever. Now he sucks again. There’s one exception. Jose Offerman sucks. After that monumental screw-up in a close game the other night, he shouldn’t be coming to the ballpark without a ticket ever again.


After Thursday's disaster, I now have to conclude that Braden Looper does indeed suck.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Twenty Years Ago Today...

A couple of crazy kids on a 1989 visit back to the University of Missouri campus. Naturally, I had to show the Mets colors.

There are days that completely change the rest of your life.

Usually you don’t see them coming – or even realize how important they are until a little time has passed.

At least that’s how it was for me on Sept. 12, 1985.

It was a pretty decent day for the Mets, too, taking the rubber game of a series with the Cards. It was tough being a Mets fan and going to school in Missouri at the height of the Mets-Cards rivalry. And this game was important because we were chasing them for the division crown and building for an even bigger showdown later in the month. The Mets took this one 7-6, a patented Jesse Orosco vulture win after he let Willie McGee tie the game in the ninth with a homer. But the Mets came back with a walk-off win.

I’ll have to ask Mark Simon of the amazing Mets Walkoffs site for the details, since I missed the game.

You see, I was a junior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. And all students working on The Missourian, the J-School’s daily newspaper, had to spend six hours a week in the newsroom for what we called “general assignment hours.”

Neff Hall, part of the School of Journalism

The idea is to have reporters standing by for breaking news – fires, crashes and things that happen that aren’t necessarily on your beat but need to be covered. You were at the mercy of the teaching assistant, a grad student who served as the assignment editor during the shift.

Well, this particular night the TA was polishing his brown-nosing skills. Professors serve as the editors for the paper, and they have offices with short, glass walls on the fringe of the newsroom. The top editor’s birthday was the next day, and the TA decided with would be nice to fill his office with balloons. Being the TA, he could actually delegate his brown-nosing to the lowly undergrads, and I was assigned the task of blowing up the balloons and throwing them over the glass wall.

I didn’t mind the job too much because he also assigned it to a pretty girl who I had never met. Her name was Julie. We started talking between balloons -- and I was hooked!

In a bold move, I casually asked her if she wanted to get some pizza after we were done with the GA shift. Shakespeare’s Pizza was across the street and was a de facto extension of the J-School. It was also the best pizza in Columbia, and you know New Yorkers take pizza seriously.
Shakespeare's, a J-School hangout, has awesome pizza.

Over pizza she mentioned she had a boyfriend. I looked at this as a mere speed bump. Patience and persistence would be the plan.

We made it kind of a weekly event through the fall, following the Tuesday GA shift with pizza at Shakespeare’s. By the time we returned from Christmas break, the other boyfriend was no more. As we know, 1986 was a good year for the Mets -- and me too! Yes!

Two years and a month later we were married, and remain happily so today. So I’m pretty grateful to that brown-nosing TA.

This year I realized it was the 20th anniversary of that big day, but I didn’t know what the actual date was, other than that it was the day before the big editor’s birthday and it had to have been sometime in the early fall. Reporters have a fair number of research tools at our disposal, and checks for this professor’s DOB came up dry.

The professor’s still at the school, so I ventured off an e-mail, explaining that I know it’s strange for a long-forgotten student to ask what day his birthday falls on, and told him why I needed to know. He was kind enough to reply, and now I know that Sept. 12 is a day to celebrate.

We couldn’t make it to Columbia for some Shakespeare’s, but the owner said he can ship some frozen pies to Michigan this week, making the day complete.

The occasion is also a reason to thank the Lord for each and every day he gives us. We never know what his plans are for us. He doesn’t follow our script. If a task as dull as blowing up balloons so someone else can surprise his professor can lead to meeting the love of my life, then I know that each and every day can lead to something wonderful.

Photo updates:

Once again, I got carried away with the photos, going back and adding art -- in some cases, more art -- to some of the earliest posts. If you are interested:

Wiffle Balls and-the Meaning of Life

The Major-Leaguer, the Actor and the Truth

Glories of Opening Day

Pop Shortell, Dave Winfield and Richard Nixon

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Flood, the Sandwich Queen, and the Burlington Bees

John O'Donnell Stadium in the Quad Cities was flooded in 1993.

You’re no doubt hearing a lot about the work of Red Cross volunteers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

These people are angels of mercy. I know this from having spent some time with them in 1993, when floods devastated big chunks of Missouri, Iowa and Illinois.

I was finishing a travel story in St. Louis when I got a call from the editors to send my wife home, rent a car and catch up with a team of Red Cross volunteers from Flint who were headed to Iowa.

The flooding was national news, and there was plenty of evidence in St. Louis, where the Mississippi was climbing the steps to the Arch.

Julie, a Mizzou friend and Tony on the steps to the Arch. Look at the flagpoles to see how high the water was in St. Louis.

But I was amazed by the size of the devastation on the outlying farmlands I saw while driving north on U.S. 61 through Quincy and Alton and Keokuk. Take away an occasional tree top, power line or silo, and I would have thought I was passing Lake Michigan instead of miles of crops.

The water level had already started to slip back by the time I reached southeastern Iowa. I’ll never forget the stench of the water, which smelled like rotting garbage. And there were flies everywhere.

Just touching the water was considered dangerous, and tetanus shots were dispensed like breakfast.

It was in this kind of environment that I caught up with the volunteers from the Flint area. Some were based in high schools, helping people get their lives back in order and providing a shoulder to cry on.

I was amazed at how much the Red Cross provided — clothes, food, cleaning supplies, mattresses and hotel space until homes were livable again. All of which is provided through donations from folks like you and me. Two of the Flint volunteers preparing meals.

The goal is to get people out of the shelters as quickly as possible, because there is nothing dignified about sleeping on cots in a high school gym with your possessions stacked around you.

Others volunteers hit the road, bringing meals to National Guard members and ordinary folks stuffing sandbags along the swelling Des Moines and Mississippi rivers.

Two volunteers I helped deliver meals to a fire hall near sand-bagging operations.

Volunteers are asked to stay about three weeks, which is about as long as a person can last before enthusiasm and energy dissolve into depression and exhaustion. And they were largely the kind of people who can take three weeks off from work, a lot of good-hearted retirees, teachers in the summer and people with home businesses.

A helper named Norma was dubbed "The Sandwich Queen" for her ability to quickly turn 80-pound stacks of turkey and seven racks of bread into meals.

Others are kind of colorful. One volunteer from Colorado was teamed with the Flintites, and wanted to talk about writing. He said he made good money writing for a particular kind of magazine — the kind with a lot of pictures and very little writing, if you know what I mean.

The impact on these close-knit small towns is hard to describe. One of them, Wapello, was so small that people not only don’t lock their house, but they leave their keys in their cars. It was so small that my arrival was news, and it was known that I had touched water and not yet had a tetanus shot. A nurse from the local public health department tracked me down and gave me the shot.

Wapello, Iowa. A big chunk of downtown was underwater.

The scariest thing happened when I was driving back to St. Louis, crossing a two-lane metal bridge somewhere near Keokuk. It was one of those bridges with the metal grates for a road, and if your car is stopped you can look straight down into the water.

And I was stopped for a while because a backhoe was stretched over the guard rail to dislodge fallen tree trunks and utility poles that had washed downriver and were stuck against a support pillar.

The was rushing quickly, and was so high that it seemed to be only about five feet under the bridge. And at one point I looked upriver and saw something dark bobbing in the water. As it got closer, I realized it was a tree — not a branch, but a full tree. As it got closer I realized there was nowhere I could go, with traffic stopped in both direction.

It finally struck the bridge with a large KLANG, and it seemed to shake for a second, but that was it, and I could exhale.

Naturally, I attempted to work some baseball into the trip. O’Donnell Stadium in the Quad Cities — not too far north of Wapello — was famously under water.

The home of the Burlington Bees had reopened by the time I was leaving Iowa.

But the Burlington Bees yard was on high ground and not affected. It was locked up tight on the day I had some time to explore. I already had a cool Bees cap anyway. But as I was headed out of town I saw the stadium lights on, a sign that life for these poor folks was slowly returning to normal. As long as there is baseball, things were looking a little better.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Forget Sports Illustrated. Here's the REAL Ballpark Ranking

Shea is so heavenly that St. Peter rips your tickets as you enter.

It’s no secret that Sports Illustrated is a football rag. I think baseball appears on the cover of Popular Mechanics more than it does of SI. And its stable of Yankee-apologist hacks like Tom Verducci ensures that the Mets will get bashed in the rare times they get mentioned at all.

So I wasn’t shocked that the magazine ranked that slice of God’s Country called Shea Stadium as the very worst ballpark in the Major Leagues.

My man Metstradamus posted this nonsense on his awesome site, knowing that all our goats would be gotten. So I mobilized the Thruth Squad to set the record straight with real rankings.

First a couple things to get out of the way. The SI piece ranks ballparks on stuff like food selection, neighborhoods, and the number of toilets. All of that is nonsense.

Hey, if you are going to a stadium for a fine dining, then you’re going to the wrong place. My criteria for ballpark food: Fill my stomach until I can hit the White Castle drive-through on the way home. Or, in the case of a Lemon Chill, occupy my kids when they get a little restless. Those wooden scrapers, er, spoons, keep them busy.

As for neighborhoods, if I want to hang out in some trendy sports bar, I can do it without going to the stadium first. Restrooms? I might care a little more if I was in the other gender, but it’s not like guys require a lot here. I plan to spend as little time in them as possible.

So here is how the stadiums should have been ranked, at least the ones that I have visited.

Elegant and classy Shea Stadium, with tasteful giant neon ballplayers.

1) Shea Stadium: The Mets play here. That negates any kind of shortcoming. Really, what else could you want? The skyline atop the scoreboard is a fine tribute to New York. The apple in the cap is a far better decoration for centerfield than some plaques with dead Yankees on them. And it’s so convenient to have that nice airport across the street, allowing visiting teams to quickly depart the fair city with their tails between their legs. I pretty much go to a ballpark to see a game, and if that game includes the Mets, then everything else doesn’t really matter.

Details like giant baseball cards make PNC a fun place to see a bad team.

2) PNC Park: I was ready to pledge allegiance to this fine yard until I had to pay about $5 for a Diet Coke. Other than that, this is a magnificent ballpark. The view is awesome, our upper deck seats were not ridiculously high and the Bucs do a fine job of celebrating their tradition and history.

3) Fenway Park: Fenway is Wrigley without the idiots. You're never going to get closer to the players. The Green Monster is a cool quirk, the Citgo sign is a classic and the rest of the place was like a museum until they started putting seats atop the wall.

Busch looked cool even before they added real grass.

4) Busch Stadium:I'm a sucker for landmarks, and the view of the Arch from the first base side is just perfect. Add baseball's second-best fans and you have a multi-purpose bowl that still seems like a great night at the ballpark. Sadly, you have less than a month to see Busch, at least this version of it.
I didn't see a game, but they let me take photos.

5) Dodger Stadium: I’ve never seen a game here, but the team allowed me to hit a gift shop and walk around the upper deck one morning when I was attending a conference in Los Angeles. The place was beautiful. I was amazed that at a point I could see the ocean, the Hollywood sign and the mountains. It was also cool that it’s built right into a mountain. I parked and walked right into the upper deck.

Will inspecting Miller Park while it was still under construction.

6) Miller Park: I took in a game at Miller last year, and was greeted by the commissioner of baseball. True story. We had a fun time and the brats with secret sauce actually made me care about stadium food. The roof opened and closed during the game, which was neat, and a massive gift shop was well-stocked with retor cap-and-glovev logo merchandise. And check out the Little League field on the site of old County Stadium.

Coors right before the first exhibition game with real players.

7) Coors Field: One of the first of the retro stadiums, Coors is bricks and steel, pine trees in the bullpens and a line of purple seats at the mile-high mark. And it made Mike Hampton pay for leaving the Mets in 2001 -- though the schools in Denver are really good. Sure, Mike.

We got to see the All-Star Game Home Run Derby at the Jake.

8) Jacobs Field: They passed on the bricks to come up with a modern ballpark that has some of the touches of the retro yards, just not as nice looking from the outside. But this is still a fine ballpark. Execpt, of course, for whatever spell it cast on Roberto Alomar to make him suck as soon as he left it's diamond.
Pay homge to my friend Kelly Gruber at the dome.

9) SkyDome: I'm not calling it the Rogers Centre or whatever the heck they tacked on the sign outside. People whine about this place, but I think it's fun. Not saying I'd want to see every game there, but it's like baseball in a pinball machine. Embrace the Canadian aspects, despite the new owners' attempts to Americanize the place. And the "OK, Blue Jays" song is pretty cool. And it's hard to not keep looking up at the CN Tower.

10) Kauffman Stadium: I went to college in Missouri, but never had the chance to see this heralded yard. But in 1995 I had two hours to kill before a flight out of Kansas City made it a mission to see the stadium. The folks inside were kind enough to open a gift shop and let we wander around taking photos.

Buy your cheese steak sandwich at Pat's, then go to the game.
11) Citizens Bank Park: From outside this must be the most confusing stadium I've ever seen. It looks like a big pile of stuff in the middle of the parking lot. Inside's a different story, a fine yard. And the giant, light-up Liberty Bell that bongs after each home run is a classic.

"Hey kids, I caught a home run ball today!" "Cool! let's see it!" "Ah, some drunks told me to throw it back on the field."
12) Wrigley Field: Wrigley in romantic theory is much better than Wrigley in reality. In theory, it’s got bleachers full of knowledgeable baseball diehards who live for the ups and downs — mostly downs — of their beloved Cubbies. In reality, the bleachers are packed with drunk posers who think throwing home run balls back on the field is a good idea. In theory, residents of the cute houses across the street climb on their roofs so they can peek the action. In reality, the rooftops are owned by corporations that rent them out for mega-bucks. In theory, fans spill out of the stadium to toss back an Old Style with fellow Cubbie devotees at a local watering hole. In reality, the watering holes are tourist traps. I know. I was one. I know, I know...ivy...Harry..the El. It’s just not real. It’s like people going there are following a script instead of stuff just happening.

My view of Charlie Hough throwing the first pitch in Marlins history -- to current Met Jose Offerman.

13: Dolphins Stadium: People wail on this place like it's some hell-pit, and I just don't get it. It's a lot better than some of the other multi-purpose stadiums, and there is some local latin flavor that the team is starting to recognize. Former owner Wayne Huizenga -- who owns the stadium -- seems to go out of his way to make the Marlins seem like second-class citizens in their own home, but I still enjoy going here.

14) Minute Maid Park: I've only been in the gift shop and walked around the building, but I could see they had the train that rides atop the left field wall decorated for Christmas. It looked like a pretty cool place, and I like the hill in centerfield. The statues of Bigs and Bags were OK. As a bonus treat, it was the scene of Roger "Bat-tosser" Clemens' complete All-Star game meltdown.

I drove my rental car right under the Big A!
15) Angels Stadium: This time team let me in the gift shop but would not let me inside to take photos. Disney did wonders by making this a baseball-only stadium again, though I have no idea what's going on with the rocks in centerfield. I like the giant caps and Hollywood-style hands in cement near the entrance. And the former "Big A" scoreboard is a landmark.

This yard should always be called Comiskey Park.
16) U.S. Cellular Field: I don’t care if they lop off a couple rows and add a roof, the upper deck is just plain disasterous. It’s as steep as everyone says — you’re afraid to lean forward — and three, count ‘em, three levels of luxury boxes make it seem so high that the observation deck of the Sears Tower is anticlimactic. The lower level is a different story, and the Sox have enough side attractions and promotions to add to the fun. The team gouges on the parking, knowing that no sane person would park in the projects and walk to the yard. I still have no clue why they painted everything black, but the exploding scoreboard is a treat.

17) The Metrodome: We already know that security at the dome is lax. (Read about it here) It's plastic and ugly, but still a step up from where the Twins used to play.

A tiger choking on a baseball is not the image you want to project.

18) Comerica Park: I took my kids to see a game there in the stadium's first year. I asked for three tickets, and the seller said all he had were upper deck seats for $50. "Three upper deck seats are $50? You gotta be kidding me!" Then the guys said, "No, they're $50 EACH." That made me kind of bitter about Comerica. They've lowered the prices, but I still only go once a year. And if you need a Ferris wheel to keep fans amused, your team must really suck.

19 - 29) Bank One Ballpark, Great American Ballpark, Petco Field, Safeco Field, SBC Park, Newtork Associates Coliseum, Tropicana Dome, Ameriquest Field, Turner Stadium, RFK Stadium, Camden yards: I have not been to these stadiums, though I got a hard hat tour of Camden while it was under construction. So it would be unfair to rank them. Except for one thing -- I can assure you they are better than this dump:

30) Yankee Stadium: Otherwise known as “The House of Shame.” A vile hell hole that serves as a tribute to self-glorification with all the beauty and splendor of the South Bronx. The fact that Steinbrenner periodically threatens to move the team to New Jersey — New Jersey! — tells you all you need to know about this landfill. And no, Derek Freaking Jeter is not some stud because he can loft what would be a shallow fly in any other park into that short porch in left. And is there anything stupider that that "roll call" cheer? It makes "the wave" look intelligent. Watch the ballgame and leave the players alone, darn it! Fans, this is where SI got it so wrong.

Phew, I feel better now.