By Joe Rini
Five “old timers” shared their pitching mound memories of playing for the New York Mets with LWOB prior to the Old Timers Day festivities at Citi Field on August 27. Over the course of four decades, they pitched for memorable and barely remembered teams. However, on Old Timers Day 2022, they shared common themes like fraternity and gratitude.
Pitching Mound Memories for Ojeda
Asked by LWOB how it felt to be with all these guys, Bobby Ojeda keyed in on the phrase “all these guys.” Ojeda said, “Across generations, it feels fantastic. There is definitely a bond among guys who wore the same uniform. We’re kindred spirits in that respect. The umbrella of these guys is fantastic. I’m so thankful.” He then joked, “If the fans enjoy this half as much, they’ll buy five tickets (each).”
A “big game” pitcher for 1986 champions, Ojeda embraced that role. “As soon as you play for keeps, it feels different, especially when you have a lead. Winning 1-0 feels entirely different than losing 1-0. There are a ton of guys who can pitch a beautiful game and lose 2-1. But there are guys, not many, who like to win 1-0.”
Ojeda Praises Carter and Knight
Asked about pitching to his former catcher, the late Gary Carter, Ojeda said, “I loved it. Kid was awesome.” Looking skyward, he added, “I wish he was here.” He cited Carter’s leadership and playing abilities in the batter’s box and behind the plate. As a pitcher, Ojeda appreciated that Carter didn’t carry his at-bats to his catching duties. “Gary didn’t like going (zero) for five, but when he went behind the dish, he was all business.”
Praising another former teammate, Ray Knight, Ojeda called him the true leader of the 1986 Mets. “Ray was the man. Ray was no-nonsense. He got you off the trainer’s table and on the field. You did not half-step with Ray around.” He referred to Knight as a “gentleman” because he would never speak of the role he played on that team. When the front office elected not to re-sign Knight after 1986, the magic of that team left according to Ojeda.
Pitching Mound Memories From Fernandez
Former Mets starting pitcher Sid Fernandez pitched his most memorable outing in relief in game seven of the 1986 World Series. His 2 1/3 of scoreless relief provided the lift for the Mets to come back against the Boston Red Sox. Was pitching in relief in the postseason an adjustment after a season as a starter? “It was different,” Fernandez casually recalled for LWOB. “But if you can’t get up for that, there is something wrong with you. It didn’t affect me at all.” Since Fernandez isn’t available in 2022, perhaps lefty David Peterson will seize that role for the Mets this postseason.
Seaver, Koosman, and Matlack
A decade before Ojeda and Fernandez formed a dynamic duo from the left side of the 1986 rotation, lefties Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman anchored the Mets rotation with Tom Seaver. For Mets fans, “Seaver, Koosman, and Matlack” echoes down the decades like “Tinker to Evers to Chance” for fans of the Chicago Cubs. LWOB asked the 72-year-old Matlack what it was like to join stalwarts Seaver and Koosman in the Mets rotation 50 years ago. “It was great because they put my locker right in between the two of them,” he recalled. If he had a question for either one of them, “They were all the time beneficial and forthcoming with information. They helped me progress a lot faster than I would have normally,” said the 1972 Rookie of the Year who pitched to a 1.40 ERA in the 1973 postseason.
Memories and Visualizations by Lockwood
Former Mets closer Skip Lockwood shared pitching mound memories and some very insightful pregame rituals. During a mostly lean era for the Mets, Lockwood was one of the top performers. As a short reliever, Lockwood saved 65 games and had a 2.80 ERA between 1975 and 1979. As part of his pregame routine, Lockwood said he practiced visualization long before it became a popular tool for athletes. Lockwood explained, “A player becomes what they can envision. If you can picture yourself being successful in front of your eyes, it’s a lot better than just letting it happen to you.”
Lockwood said he became acquainted with visualization after studying it in school. Before a game, he’d picture every batter and each pitch he’d make. Additionally, he said visualization becomes more effective if you can make it richer and more colorful. “You can start with a little thing and try to expand it. Hear the pop of the glove and the umpire, the crowd, and see what the catcher is going to give you for a sign.” Lockwood, who received an MBA from the Sloan Business School at MIT after his playing days ended, also wrote about visualization in his book, Insight Pitch: My Life as a Major League Closer (Sports Publishing, 2018).
Dillon and the Early Mets
Steve Dillon packed a lifetime of memories into a brief Mets career in 1963 and 1964. He debuted with the Mets at the Polo Grounds as a 20-year-old in September 1963. While losing 111 games may have been frustrating for veterans like Roger Craig and Duke Snider, Dillon recalled thinking, “I’m glad I’m here and I’m going to enjoy this.”
Dillon enjoyed playing for Casey Stengel, who he said was very knowledgeable. “He was able to teach us the fundamentals of the game. The only problem was sometimes you couldn’t understand him – Stengelese sometimes!” Laughing Dillon said if he was mad at you, “You knew he was mad.”
Dillon pitched in relief in the first night game at Shea Stadium in 1964. After pitching well in his first inning of work, Dillon said he allowed a home run to Vada Pinson that hit the brand new scoreboard in his second inning. Fifty-eight years later, he laughingly recalled Stengel telling him, “Next time the ball hits the scoreboard and breaks the lights, you’re paying for it.” Despite the brevity of his major league career, Dillon is grateful. “In the limited career I had, it doesn’t matter. I had a career. This (day) is the culmination of it,” Dillon said.
Although Dillon didn’t record a major league save, he no doubt achieved many saves as a member of the New York Police Department in his post-MLB career. Incidentally, after pitching in the Old Timers game at Citi Field at age 79, Dillon became the answer to a new trivia question: Name the only Mets pitcher to pitch at the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium, and Citi Field!