Author Ralph Carhart’s “The Hall Ball” Is an Odyssey Through Baseball History

If you thought enduring four extra months of channel surfing while waiting for the 2020 MLB season to show up on your TV screen was a journey, think about author Ralph Carhart’s decade long trek through 34 states (plus two trips to Cuba) through baseball card shows and cemeteries with a battered baseball in a quest to unite every Baseball Hall of Famer from Alexander Cartwright of the New York Knickerbockers of the 1840s to 21st century New York Mets tormentor Chipper Jones. Carhart’s odyssey, the infant days of baseball in America, the more than 300 members of the Baseball of Fame, and a baseball found lodged in a stream in Cooperstown, are the subject of Carhart’s new book The Hall Ball : One Fan’s Journey to Unite Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball (published by McFarland & Company, Inc, 2020) and I had the pleasure of interviewing Carhart about his story. 

For Carhart, a 25-year theater veteran and long-time Director and Production Manager at Queens College, the idea of The Hall Ball was born of his interests in early baseball and genealogy and a general curiosity of “what brought us to this place.” A family vacation to Cooperstown that included included fishing a baseball out of a small stream that runs next to historic Doubleday Field and finding the grave of Abner Doubleday’s grandfather (Carhart said that genealogy research involves trips to cemeteries) spawned the idea of this book, namely that Carhart would take a photo of this baseball – the Hall Ball – with every living member and at the gravesite of every deceased member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame. 

Carhart said encountering the living Hall of Famers took him a little out of his “comfort zone.” HIs subject’s reactions ran the gamut of responses from enthusiastic and encouraging to baffled. Some like Lou Brock and the late Ernie Banks were fun to talk to while a small handful were rude; the book’s description of his encounter with Johnny Bench is stunning but Carhart was non-judgmental about it. Having worked with major theatrical stars in his career, he said anyone can have a bad day, and maybe he encountered Bench on a bad day. 

On the other hand, his encounter with Mike Piazza was moving. A native of Troy, New York and long-time New York City resident, Carhart was blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 so Mike Piazza’s home run in the first game after 9/11 affected him deeply as a New Yorker and a Mets fan. As he tried to keep himself composed, Carhart said, “Piazza had a very welcoming energy. His mere demeanor helped me be at ease, considering how important he is to me.” 

The bulk of the project involved photographing the Hall Ball at the gravesite of most of the Hall of Famers. Some gravesites were ornate; a few were unmarked. Given that more than 19,000 individuals have played major league baseball and only about 300 are in the Hall of Fame, I found the occasional unmarked grave a dramatic juxtaposition. To his credit, Carhart was able to help get graves marked for some like Sol White of the Negro Leagues and is involved in a larger project of getting graves marked for all those who played major league baseball in the 1800s. Another rewarding experience Carhart said was being joined by 30 descendants of Pud Galvin, MLB’s first 300 game winner who played from 1875-1892, at his gravesite. 

The Hall Ball also includes a synopsis of baseball’s earliest incarnation in each state visited by the author which Carhart said grew out of his love of 19th century baseball and the unifying theme of “baseball is everywhere.” Carhart gives his due to cities long forgotten as “major league” baseball cities such as Providence, New Haven, and Newark. In fact, Carhart said this experience of researching and writing this book has made him a “legitimate (semi-pro) historian” of baseball who is at work on another book and also an active member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). 

The actual Hall Ball is now housed at The Baseball Reliquary at Whittier College in Pasadena, California. Ralph Carhart manages to project the 200 year history of baseball in The Hall Ball while also portraying the humanity of the people engraved on the plaques at Cooperstown. It’s well worth reading.

April 28, 2020 – NY Sports Day: Brian Wright’s The New York Mets All-Time All-Stars Is Fun for Fans and Benefits Covid-19 Relief

By Joe Rini

With baseball fans wondering if and when the 2020 MLB season will begin, author Brian Wright’s new book The New York Mets All-Time All-Stars (Lyons Press) offers a timeless panoramic view of Mets history and their best players at each position. Chatting with Brian about his selection process and the challenge of debuting a book in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, he said he wanted the book to be “fun and enjoyable especially at a time when we want baseball to return” and hopes the book “starts debates instead of ending them” and with a percentage of the book’s sales having gone to the New York City Covid-19 Response and Impact Fund and now the Hospital for Special Surgery, the book benefits the reader and the public.

Stretching across baseball eras where home runs exploded and complete games receded, Brian analysis is a good mix of the analytical and the subjective. Employing metrics like OPS+, ERA+, and WAR that “try to level the playing field across eras,” Brian said he made an effort to “evaluate the players within the eras they played;” for example, while wins by a starting pitcher are devalued today, they weren’t when Ron Darling pitched 30 years ago. Also, Brian would also ask himself when judging whether to include a player on the all-time team, “Can you tell the history of the Mets without this person on the team?” Using this analysis was especially useful he said when he picked Darling and Al Leiter over David Cone and Sid Fernandez for the last two pitching spots.

While the presence of Hall of Famers like Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza on the Mets all-time roster is no surprise, the book is especially good in reminding even long-term fans about how good and instrumental players like Cleon Jones, Jerry Grote, and Howard Johnson were to the franchise. While Jones’ offensive stats might pale through a year 2020 lens, Brian recognized his impact on the 1969 championship team, the era he played, and where he stood with the team when his career ended in naming him the all-time Mets left fielder. Similarly, although Grote was not the hitter of Piazza or Gary Carter’s stature, he included him on the team given the respect he had of the Mets pitchers, his defensive prowess, and the integral role he played in supplying “strength up the middle” on the 1969 championship team. Unfortunately for HoJo, a “30-30”player twice, Brian said, “His big years came when the team was underperforming.”

Some surprises might be the presence of relatively short-tenured Mets John Olerud and Robin Ventura as reserves but Brian said he judged longevity to be less of a factor than whether a player “was among the best at their position” when they were with the Mets and Olerud’s .354 average in 1998 is still the best by a Met and Ventura was a key cog on the 1999 and 2000 playoff teams. Ironically, having Daniel Murphy as the reserve second baseman even surprised the author but Brian said Murphy’s hitting consistency and his “other-worldly 2015 psotseason” put him over the top. As for players who missed the final cut, Brian has a significant Honorable Mention chapter that recognizes the contributions of players like Ed Kranepool and Felix Millan.

So if you need a baseball fix in the absence of real games, check out Brian Wright’s The New York Mets All-Time All-Stars and perhaps when real games start again, newcomers like Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, and Seth Lugo can start making a case to be included in a future edition by Brian.

November 5, 2019 – NY Sports Day: The Hits and Misses of ex-Mets as Managers

By Joe Rini

In naming Carlos Beltran as the new manager of the New York Mets, it has been much noted that he is the ninth former Mets player to be elevated from the clubhouse to the manager’s office. While the managerial tenures of the previous eight former player has varied between the immortality of Gil Hodges’ 1969 champs to the nearly forgotten seven game interim status of Mike Cubbage in 1991, Beltran brings a certain uniqueness from his predecessors.

Success varied for these Mets managers. Yogi Berra and Bobby Valentine won National League pennants with the Mets while Bud Harrelson fell short of a division title in 1990 and Wille Randolph endured the 2007 collapse following a loss in the NLCS in 2006. Dallas Green won a World Series with the Phillies in 1980 but wilted with Generation K with the Mets in the mid 1990s. Joe Torre’s Mets put them in the position to draft Darryl Strawberry at the top of the 1980 Draft.

However, aside from Harrelson, a Gold Glove winning shortstop in 1971 who played 1,322 games for the Mets between 1965 and 1977 and was an integral part of their World Series teams of 1969 and 1973 before managing the team in 1990 and 1991, the playing careers of the other seven were not notable for their time with the Mets. Managers like Hodges, Yogi Berra, Joe Torre, Willie Randolph, and Roy McMillan finished out their solid playing careers (and in the case of Hodges, Berra, and Torre, illustrious careers) modestly with the Mets while being more identified with their former teams. Cubbage, Valentine, and Green had modest well-traveled careers that included pit stops at Shea Stadium.

Like Harrelson, Beltran spent a significant part of career with the Mets from 2005 to 2011. While the most visual image of his Mets career is unfortunately his called strike three to end the 2006 NLCS with the bases loaded, one can’t really deny he was a standout player for seven years with the Mets. His five All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, and his .280/.369/.500 slash line as a Met are significant qualifications on his resume for possible Hall of Fame induction.

As noted by author Mort Zachter several years ago in his excellent biography “Gil Hodges; A Hall of Fame Life,” the former Mets manager hit more home runs (370) as a player than any other World Series winning manager. Interestingly, should Beltran helm the Mets to their third World Championship, he’ll not only hold aloft the World Series trophy, he and his 435 home runs would claim the top spot in this player/manager distinction. A successful managerial career could also be the factor that tips Beltran’s Hall of Fame credentials in his favor.

Will Beltran be a successful Mets manager? It’s hard to predict. Even the greatest managerial minds can be foiled if closers can’t hold ninth inning leads. However, for a player whose Mets playing career is often marred by the memory of one moment, perhaps a redemption is in the making.

October 3, 2019 – RCT: Pete Stands Alone with 53 Home Runs as a Rookie … HR Record for Alonso But Is Callaway Going, Going…?

By Joe Rini

And yet…

Pete Alonso capped off a historic season by hitting a rookie record 53rd home run in Game 161 in Saturday’s 3-0 shutout over the playoff bound Braves. Three days earlier, Jacob deGrom staked his claim to back to back Cy Young Awards with seven more shutout innings over the Marlins en route to his 11th victory. Finally, a weekend of good vibes and second half renewal culminated with the recently reactivated Dominic Smith hitting a two-out, 11th inning walkoff three run homer in Sunday’s 7-6 victory over the Braves, giving the Mets their 86th win of the season, their best season since 2016.

And yet, the Mets did not make the postseason. Despite their exciting mad dash to reach the second wildcard spot, 2019 ended with the Mets a few strides behind the fast closing Milwaukee Brewers, so the question remains, will late season optimism be enough for the Mets to bring manager Mickey Callaway back in 2020?

Alonso entered the final series of the season at Citi Field one home run behind Aaron Judge’s rookie record of 52 in 2017 but his first inning home run cheered every Mets fan except perhaps those still making their way through the turnstiles. Alonso shared the rookie record with the Yankees slugger for barely 24 hours before slugging the record breaker 415 feet from home plate in the right centerfield seats.

Raising his arms in celebration as he crossed home plate, the 24-year old Florida native shed tears of joy as he took his place at first base in the next half inning. “To me, it just means so much,” Alonso said after the game. “I didn’t know I was going to be overcome with all that emotion. At that point, I might as well just let it out.” One year after David Wright played his last game for the Mets, Alonso has become the new face of the franchise with a buoyant personality matched only by his home run prowess. He’s become the leader of a team with high ambitions for 2020.

Whether Mickey Callaway is part of meeting those ambitions in 2020 remains to be decided at press time. While Callaway is driving back home to Florida this week, his fate is to be determined by end of season organizational meetings between the front office and ownership. There are enticing (and expensive) managerial options available, namely a couple of Joes with World Series rings (Maddon and Girardi) and Buck Showalter. The Mets could also go in house and tab the highly regarded (and less expensive) Luis Rojas. While the poor performance of the Mets bullpen is more to blame than Callaway’s in-game decision making for failing to make the postseason, Callaway was hired by Sandy Alderson so the the incumbent GM Brodie Van Wagenen may want to hitch his fate to his own managerial hire.

If Callaway was nervous about his job security, he didn’t betray it at the pregame press conference on Friday. I asked Callaway about what it was like working with 82-year old pitching coach Phil Regan, who ascended to the job in June. Citing Regan’s experience, knowledge, calm demeanor, and communication skills, Callaway said, “He’s outstanding…I run (everything) by him…I want to learn and be a better person, a better manager, a better coach every single day and being around guys like Phil every single day only helps that…what an amazing human being.”

I also played straight man to the 44-year old Callaway when I asked if he could picture himself coaching at 82 like Regan. Callaway joked to much laughter, “When I’m 82? I don’t even picture myself being alive!”

It was nearly 40 years ago when rookies Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks made their Mets debuts in September 1980 and they along with former Met Lenny Harris were at Citi Field this past weekend as part of the popular Mets Alumni visits (even Keith Hernandez dropped by the dugout to say hello). I asked Mookie and Hubie how they were received as much anticipated last seasons call-ups to a then last placed team.

Mookie acknowledged, “It wasn’t that warm. I think a lot of the veterans knew we were there to replace them…it was a challenge. Good thing about it, we came up together…we had each other.”

Hubie agreed that having Mookie and other up and coming players like Wally Backman and Mike Scott also helped the transition. “That was a big changeover,” he said. Having known each other from the minor leagues and winter ball, Hubie said, “We had confidence in each other to be able to make the club and stay here…they gave us a really good opportunity and that was good.”

It’s not often I get to write an article with references to 40 years in the future and 40 years in the past but time flies just like this season has flown by, too. As always, it’s been my privilege to cover the Mets this season and I thank you, the readers, for your support and like Pete Alonso and the rest of the 2019 Mets, let’s look forward to spring training 2020. Be well.

September 12, 2019 – RCT: It’s Miracle or Else for 2019 Mets … Syndergaard and the Quest for a Personal Catcher

By Joe Rini

Are there Miracle Mets every 50 years? The 2019 Mets hope so.

After an amazing 15-1 stretch catapulted the Amazins to within ½ game of a wildcard spot in the National League, a prolonged period of middling play at 13-14 since August 10 has seen the Mets drift 3.5 games from the second wildcard spot in a scrum with the Phillies, the Brewers, and the Diamondbacks as they try to knock the Chicago Cubs off the second wildcard perch.

Getting swept by the Cubs in late August, dropping two of three versus the Phillies at Citi Field this past weekend, and relief pitchers not named Seth Lugo have the Mets dangling off the proverbial plank with only 18 games to play.

After three relievers caused the Mets to blow a six run ninth inning lead for the first time in franchise history (plus causing thousands of disrupted nights sleep for Mets fans) in a disastrous 11-10 defeat at the hands of the Nationals in Washington on September 3, they rebounded to win the rubber match the next afternoon and it was an upbeat Mickey Callaway who greeted the press before Friday’s game against the Phillies, a 5-4 literal walk-off win for the Mets as Pete Alonso drew a bases loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth inning to force in the winning run.

A key second half contributor has been lefty starter Steven Matz. Since returning to the starting rotation in July, the Long Island native has dropped his season ERA by nearly a run and before facing the Phillies for a fifth time in 2019, I asked Callaway how Matz could continue his effectiveness against them.

Acknowledging that there are no secrets between division rivals, Callaway said, “He has to execute better than they execute their at bats.” Citing Matz’s improved performance since the All-Star break, Callaway said, “His cutter has been off the charts” especially to right-handed batters. “He’s very talented. He’s throwing really well at home this year so he has that nugget in the back of his mind, building confidence for him. He’s been pitching great since the All-Star break, so that’s another layer of confidence added on. He’s feeling great, performing great, so he should be able to go out there and throw one of his better games.”

Matz was good enough on Friday, allowing two runs in 5 ⅔ innings, while veterans Todd Frazier and Wilson Ramos provided help on offense. After the game, I asked Callaway about the importance of these veterans during the stretch run. “It’s big. We have a great mix of veteran guys and younger players that are performing….Frazier was probably the MVP of the game…and you figure Ramos will get you a hit a game.” Citing the roles played by Frazier and Ramos in starting rallies and driving in runs combined with Alonso’s walk-off walk, “Big job by our veterans and younger guys.”

There was drama on the field and melodrama off the field on Monday. Alonso hit home run numbers 46 and 47 in Monday’s 3-1 victory over the Diamondbacks with Aaron Judge’s rookie record of 52 within sight while published reports indicated that Noah Syndergaard again requested to management that he not pitch to Wilson Ramos since he has pitched better to backup catchers Tomas Nido and Rene Rivera. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Syndergaard said, “It’s unfortunate that a private conversation I had with the front office and the coaching staff became public, but it is what it is right now.” 144 games into the season, the Mets have been unwilling to placate their 6 foot 6 inch pitcher with a personal catcher, so it’s likely Syndergaard and Ramos will continue to be battery mates through his final starts.

The Mets have struggled against the top teams in the league but they’ll need to reverse that trend quickly as they face the playoff bound Dodgers this weekend before heading to Colorado and Cincinnati for the final road trip of the season. Last decade, the Mets squandered two playoff runs in their final 17 games; perhaps these final 18 will be kinder to the residents of 41 Seaver Way.

August 29, 2019 – RCT: Are the Mets Ready for the Stretch Drive? Callaway: “Anybody Can Contribute”

By Joe Rini

The first six games of the current homestand encapsulated the hopes and fears of fans. The first three featured the Mets sweeping the red-hot AL Central leading Cleveland Indians but the more familiar nemesis from Atlanta, the NL East first place Braves, spoiled the Mets weekend plans of catching up in the wildcard race by sweeping the Amazins. Whereas, the Indians series featured the Mets late-season penchant for late game comebacks, the Braves series included an excruciating 14-inning loss on Friday, sloppy play on Saturday, and the tying and winning runs left on base in the ninth inning on Sunday.

Unfortunately for the Mets, the slumbering lumber continued when they dropped the opener to a crucial series with the Cubs 5-2 on Tuesday. Pete Alonso hit a franchise record 42nd home run on Tuesday but he’s been the lone spark on offense lately. With a month to go in the season, the Mets will hope the bats are taking a brief nap and not a hibernation.

Despite the late-night loss to the Braves on Friday, the Mets seemed in good spirits when I attended Saturday’s game at Citi Field. Prior to the game, I brought up his role as a late-season call-up to the 2002 World Champion California Angels and asked manager Mickey Callaway how he imparts that experience to his current group of young players.

Looking back, Callaway said, “Anybody can contribute. We had a lot of people getting called up later in that season that contributed,” specifically citing how Francisco (“KRod”) Rodriguez “punched out” 13 guys in five innings and then become a postseason hero.

Speaking of his own team, Callaway said everyone understands that, “Even though you are still in Triple-A today, doesn’t mean you can’t help us do something special.” He cited recent Mets call-up Paul Sewald and said, “He’s come up and thrown some great innings and he might play a huge role in where we want to get to so everyone going to contribute… with good teams, that’s what happens. Someone steps up and gets the job done.”

During Saturday’s late afternoon pregame drills, I caught up with reliever Seth Lugo outside the Mets dugout. Having pitched two innings two nights in a row, Lugo said he was too sore to pitch on Saturday but overall felt great physically for the stretch drive.

Considering the late night extra inning pitcher’s duel from the previous night, I asked how he felt about the minor league experimentation with having extra innings start with a runner on second and he shook his head and laughed, “Don’t they like baseball?” As for the experimentation of having balls and strikes called electronically instead of by the homeplate umpire, he said it would make his life as a pitcher easier because an automated system would probably call curveballs that drop over homeplate strikes whereas currently they’re called balls because the catcher typically catches them in the dirt.

Noting the long baseball season, Lugo said the team never thought it was out of the race. He enjoys working with pitching coach Phil Regan, someone he worked with in minor leagues. Lugo mentioned enjoying the competitiveness of trying to set up hitters, taking note of each game’s situation and each hitter’s tendencies, something Regan has helped him with since they started working together in 2014. In that sense, he said, the game hasn’t really changed despite the explosion of homeruns this season.

The pregame activities also included JD Davis greeting Little Leaguers from Utah, Brodie Van Wagenan on the field, and Robinson Cano taking fielding and batting practice despite his hamstring injury.

I asked Van Wagenan about the team’s off-season acquisition of Davis and the Mets GM said it was the product of the team’s pro scouting and analytical research team working together to identify Davis as a trade target. Van Wagenen cited Davis’ success in the minor leagues and his knowledge of the strike zone among his attributes when the Mets traded for him, and was happy to see him succeed given how hard a worker he is.

Speaking of player acquisitions, Van Wagenen said despite the success of the Davis trade, player transactions are an “imperfect science.” I asked Van Wagenen about Cano who was starting to hit at the time of his injury, and the GM said he still believes in Cano, calling him a “champion teammate.” As Cano finished his pregame drills, he told me he felt good and wants to be back on the field, but for the moment, is happy cheering on his teammates during this second half run.

August 15, 2019 -RCT: Is Stage Set for Another Mets Miracle in 2019? Surge Feels Like 1969, 1973 & 2015 …Do You Believe?

By Joe Rini

And I thought Ed Kranepool was just being kind.

As the Mets Hall of Famer addressed the fans at the festivities honoring the 1969 champion Mets on June 29, he concluded his remarks by addressing the current Mets. “They can do it, like we did — you got to believe in yourself…Good luck. You have half a season. I wish you the best so that we can celebrate in October when you clinch the World Series and (we) come back when you’re still playing.”

Unfortunately, the 2019 Mets responded that day by dropping their seventh game in a row to the Braves by a score of 5-4, falling to a season high 10 games under .500, 13 games out of first place. By the end of that afternoon, 24-year old Pete Alonso seemed as likely to be playing in the World Series as his first base forbear, the 74-year old Kranepool.

Yet, perhaps, the Bronx-born, street smart Kranepool was planting seeds for another miracle. Seeds need a little time and nourishment to bloom and here six weeks later, the Mets are flourishing. Writing about the modest beginning of the 11 game win streak that catapulted the 1969 Mets, Ron Swoboda wrote in his newly published book, Here’s the Catch, “Something started that no one could’ve predicted,” and that something for these Mets was a 4-0 shutout of the Padres by Jacob deGrom and the bullpen on July 25 leaving the Mets at 47-55, 12 ½ games out of first with six teams and eight games between them and the second wildcard spot.

Zack Wheeler started on Friday July 26 in what many anticipated to be his final start as a Met with the July 31 trade deadline looming. I spoke to Jeff McNeil before the game about the atmosphere around the trade deadline and how to approach the final two months of the season and when he mentioned the team could still get hot and get back into the race, I thought he was being confidently hopeful if not realistic. But before the night was over, McNeil hit a three-run homer, adopted a puppy, Wheeler pitched into the sixth inning and the Mets won 6-3 over the Pirates.

The Mets swept the Pirates that weekend and more surprisingly, they acquired pitcher Marcus Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays. Suddenly, the Mets weren’t selling at the trade deadline. Wheeler was staying. Noah Syndergaard was staying. Todd Frazier was staying.

Credit Kranepool’s karma, McNeil’s puppy, a stabilized bullpen, stellar starting pitching, or clutch home runs, the Mets have amazingly reeled off 15 wins in 18 games (following Tuesday’s 5-3 defeat to Atlanta) and at 61-58, stand in the middle of the wildcard race with an outside chance at winning the Eastern Division of the National League.

In winning six of seven games on the last homestand against the Marlins and Nationals, the Mets received contributions from across the roster with Pete Alonso homering in four straight games while dramatic late-inning game-tying home runs were hit by veteran Todd Frazier (career number 208) and rookie Luis Guillorme (career number 1). Fan excitement was intense at Citi Field as seemingly every game was described as the “loudest” game ever at the stadium.

One of the key players on this run has been catcher Wilson Ramos, who sports a .333 average with runners in scoring position. Ramos cracked a three run homer in the Mets 5-0 triumph over the Marlins on August 6. Much maligned for his handling of the pitching staff earlier in the season, I asked Mickey Callaway after the game about Ramos’ progress in handling the staff.

“It’s about him building those relationships,” Callaway said. “He’s done a tremendous job…When you get to a new team, you get new pitchers. You have to earn their trust and he’s done that. He’s catching fantastic now. He’s preparing well. He’s doing a great job of understanding what our pitchers’ strengths are…they have enough knowledge of scouting report to attack weaknesses…and you can really expose hitters.”

With seven teams fighting for two wildcard spots, the Mets will need to keep winning to qualify for October baseball. While the Mets will lean on their starting pitching, they’ll also need the struggling Edwin Diaz to recover his 2018 form when he led the AL with 57 saves. Also, Jeff McNeil injured his hamstring trying to leg out a hit in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game and as the team and their fans hold their breath in the hope that the All-Star outfielder will not miss an extended period of time to injury, we’ll wonder whether Ed Kranepool’s words will turn out to be not only kindly, but prophetic.

July 30, 2019 – RCT: Deals, Donations, & Dogs at Trade Deadline for Mets … RCT Chats With McNeil & He Gets a Puppy

By Joe Rini

Jeff McNeil’s nickname may be the “squirrel” but unlike those feisty creatures that zig zig and then zig zag again as they crisscross in front of your car as you negotiate the roads of Rockland County, he was cool as a cat in the shade when we chatted on Friday July 26 in the Mets clubhouse…well, at least he until a found a puppy before game time.

McNeil has gone from a little known minor leaguer to NL All-Star and batting title contender in barely a year, yet he seemed to take everything in stride as we chatted before the Mets 6-3 victory over Pittsburgh. With his ability to go the other way and hit behind the runner, he’s a throwback in an era of exit velos yet when I asked him about it, he mentioned how he had to master these skills in college ball in order to get playing time.

The hard work continues at the major league level as McNeil mentioned the use of video, not so much as to study his own swing, but to learn how the opposing pitchers pitch in specific situations. For instance, if a team is going to shift the defense when he’s up, he may look for something off-speed that he can hit to the opposite field. The California native said division teams know each other well, so success “comes down to execution.”

Whereas many players might struggle at the plate when getting used to a new position at the major league level, McNeil has thrived despite being moved to the outfield this season. “I had played it in college. It wasn’t a lot to get used to,” he said although having played only eight games in the outfield in six minor seasons, the 26-year old is probably being a bit modest.

When I asked who’s been instrumental in his success so far, he mentioned Todd Frazier and quality control coach Luis Rojas. Rojas has also coached him at several levels of the minor leagues and helped him with the “mental approach” to the game, including how to handle failure.

Pete Alonso also mentioned to me in May how much Frazier had helped him this season and I had the opportunity to ask Frazier about it outside the Mets dugout after batting practice. He was flattered when I told him how both players had credited his role with their success and the Toms River native said he approaches them the way his father approached him as a young player. Interestingly, rather than dictate to the young players beforehand, if he sees them make a mistake, he’ll ask them, “What was your approach at the plate?” or “Describe your thought process” in a situation.

Later as the team took batting and fielding practice, the North Shore Animal League was on the field with rescued dogs looking for adoption. One of the dogs appeared to be an Alaskan Husky mixed breed, and McNeil enthusiastically video chatted his wife about adopting it. With Mickey Callaway good-naturedly needling McNeil that he’d adopt the dog because he didn’t need to get his wife’s permission and the adoption pending a visit by the McNeils on Saturday, the Mets outfielder slugged a three run homer in the Mets 6-3 win and after the game he joked, “Hitting a home run after holding a puppy, I think that gives me a little bargaining chip. My wife wants more homers, then we have to get a puppy.” Happily, the pup officially joined the McNeil family on Saturday.

Although McNeil said the team hopes to get back in the wildcard race, the Mets were expected to be sellers at the trade deadline. However, after a sweep of the Pirates this past weekend, GM Brodie Van Wagenen and the Mets stunningly acquired All-Star pitcher Marcus Stroman from Toronto for two minor league pitching prospects on Sunday. With the 4:00 PM July 31 trade deadline tick tocking as we go to press, and Jason Vargas dealt to Philadelphia on Monday, questions swirl about whether Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, or Edwin Diaz will be dealt to replenish a farm system that’s dealt three former first round draft picks in the brief Van Wagenen era or whether the Mets will hold onto the veterans for a potential stretch run in 2019.

Finally, there was a ceremony in the pressroom before Friday’s game as Pete Alonso presented $50,000 donations to both the Wounded Warrior Project and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation after Major League Baseball presented him with his $1 million check for winning the Home Run Derby. Sharing the stage with WWP CEO Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mike Linnington, Tunnel to Towers CEO Frank Siller, and beneficiaries of these foundations, Alonso spoke movingly of this nation’s military members and first responders, saying, “I have a very strong passion for those people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice every single day.”

July 11, 2019 – RCT: 1969 Mets Are Champions Forever … 41 Seaver Way Is New Address for Citi Field

By Joe Rini

After a week where nearly everything went wrong for the Mets, on the seventh day, they commemorated a year where everything went right.

After a devastating loss on Sunday June 23 in Chicago, subsequent disappointing play on the field and distractions off it, the Mets and their fans turned their attention to 1969 and paid tribute to the champion “Miracle” Mets, highlighted by the festivities on Saturday June 29 at Citi Field when 15 returning players were honored with a parade, keys to the city of New York, and a ceremony before the Mets – Braves game.

The weekend’s festivities began on Thursday morning when the Mets and New York City officials publicly unveiled the new address of Citi Field as 41 Seaver Way in honor of the greatest Mets player of them all, Tom Seaver. The Mets Hall of Famer was represented by his daughters Sarah and Anne and their families since it was announced earlier this year that the 74-year old Seaver was retiring from public life because he was suffering from dementia.

The key to city ceremony attracted politicians from across the political spectrum including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Congressman Peter King. Along with the moon landing and Woodstock, the mayor recalled a time when, “A team from Queens won the hearts of not just the city, but the heart of America.” A former Brooklyn Dodger fan, Congressman King recalled to me that he (like my Dad and many others) embraced the Mets in 1962 after the Dodgers and Giants moved to California and he followed the 1969 World Series as a young attorney in Manhattan.

The genius of manager Gil Hodges was his melding of stars, platoon players, and role players into a championship team and after they received their keys to the city, I had a chance to speak with a cross section of former Mets, namely Bobby Pfeil, Jerry Koosman, and Art Shamsky, about their experiences.

“We were a team but Gil created that team. Everybody played,” Pfeil, a utility infielder, said to me. Recalling how Gil would ask him questions on the bench, Pfeil said, “I liked that he communicated with the guys who weren’t playing a lot…he made sure you were ready.” Pfeil was initially called up to the majors to replace Bud Harrelson for two weeks after spending eight  years in the minor leagues and when the two weeks were up, Pfeil recalled Hodges telling him, “‘They (the front office) don’t want you here but I do and you’ll be here the rest of the year.’ He appreciated me but I think he appreciated all of the players, but that made me feel special.”

Koosman was one of the stars of the 1969 team and won two World Series games on his way to 222 career wins. In talking about catcher Jerry Grote, Koosman said, “He was the best defensive catcher in the game. He did such a great job defensively, it was like him knocking in a couple of runs every game.” Laughing as he recalled Grote’s prowess at throwing out would be base stealers, “You better get your butt down (as a pitcher) because that ball was coming right by your head.”

“We had a good working relationship,” he said of Grote. Koosman recalled a game where he wanted to throw 10 change-ups and Grote called for 10 change-ups. “We were that close in our thinking.” Koosman pitched 16 complete games in 1969 plus a complete game victory in closing out the World Series so I had to ask if he’d like pitching today when starting pitchers may only go six innings. “No,” the 76-year old lefty laughed, “I’m too old now!”

In recalling the enthusiasm of the fans and the effect the Mets victory had on the city and the country during a time of turmoil, Art Shamsky, who hit an even .300 platooning in rightfield with Ron Swoboda, said, “I’ve had people over the years, people not even wanting an autograph, they just wanted to say thank you,” for how the 1969 helped them as Viet Nam veterans or through financial or health issues. “We made people feel better and you can’t ask for anything more as a professional athlete or a person.”

Amidst the cheers and happy recollections, there was a twinge of sadness at Seaver’s forced absence and the passing of many beloved members of that historic team, including manager Gil Hodges and players like Tug McGraw, Donn Clendenon, and Ed Charles (all of whom had family members take part in the ceremony). Fifty years may have stooped some of the shoulders or slowed the steps of the 1969 champions at Citi Field on Saturday but for their accomplishments a half century ago, they will forever stand tall and proud in sports history.

June 20, 2019 – RCT: Swoboda’s More Than Just a Guy or a Catch … RCT Chats With Ron About 1969 Mets & Book “Here’s the Catch”

By Joe Rini

To Ron Swoboda, “just a guy,” baseball’s parlance for an average player, made his iconic catch in the 9th inning of pivotal Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. While Swoboda’s career statistics might support the just a guy designation, Ron Swoboda the man is anything but average and this week I had the privilege of interviewing Ron about his baseball career and his newly published memoir, “Here’s the Catch.”

Being just a guy isn’t derogatory and along with stars like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Cleon Jones, Ron said manager Gil Hodges, “Figured out how to make it work with his platooning” of players and bring a championship to Shea Stadium.

“Here’s the Catch” is a book with funny moments (eg. colorful uncles who worked at the morgue and his Chinese step-grandfather “Uncle Arthur”), poignant moments (eg. portraying the humanity of his friend Joe Foy, mostly remembered as a disappointing Met but whose career and life were derailed by substance abuse) but most impressive is Ron’s honesty, humility, and gratitude. Ron shares his World Series triumph along with his struggles in the field that saw him lead the league in errors.

In recalling his iconic catch (literally a leap into baseball immortality), Ron describes it in his memoir as “white space where time, thought, and sound disappear.” Yet, it was the result of a lot of hard work.

Speaking of his quest to become a better rightfielder, Ron said he hated being taken out for late-inning defense. “I wanted to be out there,” despite the difficulty of picking up balls in Shea Stadium’s three tier background.

He continued, “I figured out something as an outfielder that I didn’t as a hitter,” so he had Mets coach Eddie Yost hit fungoes to him for 10-15 minutes before every game.

“I didn’t take flyballs, as such…they were line drives, ground balls, left or right, over my head, in front of me.”

“It was a practice I invented myself…I played it at speed. I went after the ball. If I had to dive, I dove, so you play it like a game and I played it with intensity.”

As for the catch itself, “I worked so darn hard at connecting with the ball with Eddie Yost hitting thousands of balls to me.”

“You’re in the World Series. Man, you’re in a different realm of baseball where everything is more intense and your focus is something you can’t believe. When that happens and you’re off and I ran 3-4 strides and having to make a decision to lay out for this thing.”

“In that memory that you can construct in your mind, it goes just kind of quiet, and it’s just a series of still shots and you’re not aware of anything until that thing comes down in your web and you realize it’s not going anywhere.”

He said it was as though the crowd took a deep breath at his leap before an explosion of cheers. “It was pretty amazing. I experienced it in that one moment, in that mad dash to get it.”

The Mets will be honoring Ron and his teammates on the weekend of June 28-30 at Citi Field. He sees his former teammates Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, and Art Shamsky and he’s looking forward to reconnecting with his former teammates that he sees less frequently.

Of course, there’s a twinge of bittersweetness with the passing of former teammates/friends like Tug McGraw and Ed Charles, and the absence of Tom Seaver due to his battle with dementia.

Speaking of Seaver, “He was good right out of the box as good as he was 2-3 years down the road. Looking back, you saw Hall of Fame stuff, Hall of Fame confidence, Hall of Fame attitude and intelligence. You saw it all Day One. There wasn’t a break-in period for Tom Seaver. He showed up and he was Tom Seaver.”

He spoke regretfully of his failure to always get along with Hodges. Blaming himself for sometimes chafing under authority, Ron said, “Gil wanted you to act like a grown-up and be the best baseball player you could be and help the team win. I could do some of those things some of the time but not all of those things all of the time. Gil was as decent a man who walked the planet.” Years after Hodges’ death, he learned that Hodges and his father both served on the island of Tinian in March 1945 during World War II. “Maybe it would have opened the door to a better relationship. I don’t know.”

Speaking of the upcoming 50th Anniversary celebrations and the effect the 1969 team had on Mets fans, he said, “It thrills me that stuff we were doing as players still sticks in people’s minds as a fun part of their youth…what a privilege to feel this job you worked was doing things that illuminated people’s lives in a little bit of a good way.

Ron Swoboda will be in the New York area for about a week around the 50th Anniversary festivities and with book signings. I highly recommend “Here’s the Catch” as it captures the spirit of the Miracle Mets and the drama of 1960s and 1970s American cultural history.