New York Baseball, Dad, and Me

Part I: Early Days…Frenchy, Johnny, Joe D, Josh, Leo the Lip, Fat Freddie, Van Lingle Mungo

By Joe Rini

While covering the New York Mets as a columnist, I’ve been privileged to talk baseball on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the pressroom with players ranging from the unsung to Hall of Famers; yet the most meaningful conversations I had about baseball were with my Dad across the kitchen table in Brooklyn.

My recently departed father was a baseball fan for a long time. Let’s put it this way, when he attended his first game at Ebbets Field on a summer’s day in Brooklyn with his cousin Ned and enjoyed hot dogs and a cold beverage as an 8-year old, President Herbert Hoover was sweating in Washington D.C.’s heat plotting to keep Franklin Roosevelt from taking his job. Hoover’s presidency soon ended while Dad’s love of baseball was just beginning.

My Dad passed away in May and passed along his love of baseball to me. We not only shared the ups and downs of the New York Mets, but I loved hearing him talk about the New York baseball of his younger days. Because of him things like Ebbets Field, barnstormers, Dexter Park, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and The Bushwicks are real to me even though they were gone before I was born.

The Dodgers of Brooklyn were beloved by my Dad. I remember him telling me of Frenchy Bordagaray, a light hitting infielder in the 1930’s who was more renown for sporting a pencil thin mustache or his being at Ebbets Field the day Johnny Cooney, a former pitcher turned outfielder, smacked a a few extra base hits even though he only had two career home runs. Van Lingle Mungo was an ace pitcher before he was a song lyric; Durocher was “Leo the Lip,” Freddie Fitzsimmons of the 1941 NL pennant winners was “Fat Freddie” and I loved hearing how my Dad took “the long way” back from Brooklyn to Camp Campbell in Kentucky while on furlough in World War II because he stopped along the way to follow the Dodgers from Philadelphia to Cincinnati on a road trip. Service men had free entry into the ballparks, a night at the YMCA cost only a few bucks, so the trip was well worth digging the six by six trench for a match when he returned a few days late.

But he followed the other New York teams as well. He and his buddies took the train to “the Yankee Stadium” when Italian pride took them to the Bronx to see new Italian hero Joe DiMaggio as well as other sons of Italy, Frank Crosetti and Tony Lazzeri. Interestingly, borough pride overcame ethnic pride, and he remained a Dodgers fan and put us on course to ultimately root for the Mets.

Even more recently, he told me of a neighborhood kid they called “Cliff” because his ears stuck out like Cliff Melton, a New York Giants starting pitcher in the 1930s and when I googled Melton, sure enough, his ears took up quite a bit of his portrait photo.

My Dad was a very good neighborhood ballplayer. I recall a scrapbook with local newspaper articles and box scores with multi-hit games next to his name in the lineup. I recall neighbors like his friend Louie (you know, Louie…he was “Joe the Painter’s” brother) telling me at the corner candy store as we waited for the New York Daily News to be delivered one night in the 1970s how good a player Dad was. I remember his boyhood friend and former groomsman “Googie” stopping by to see my Dad when he was in the old neighborhood and saying to me, “You should be half the ballplayer your father was!” Dad tried out for the Dodgers and received a callback and if not for World War II, he might’ve been good enough to play minor league baseball. 

However, what is most real about my Dad’s playing ability occurred after he retired about thirty or so years ago. He and I would go to Forest Park in Woodhaven, Queens after dinner; I’d jog and Dad would walk the track. We’d “have a catch” after I finished jogging and it still amazes me how Dad, in his 60’s and somewhat above his “playing weight,” still had the smoothness of his baseball playing youth as he caught the ball and swiftly transferred the ball to his throwing hand and tossed it back as though a day and not 40 years had passed since his competitive baseball days.

However, besides the three New York MLB teams, Dad recalled going to Dexter Park just over the Brooklyn border in Woodhaven, Queens. Where a Key Food supermarket and houses now stand, there used to be a 5,000 seat ballpark that was not only home to the former semi-pro team “The Bushwicks,” but it also hosted night games a decade before the major leagues and where Dad was able to see major leaguers from the world famous Babe Ruth to local hero turned Yankee star Phil Rizzuto barnstorm after the season ended. You could even see the “House of Davids,” a nationally known semi-pro team of long-bearded players.

Before the days of high baseball salaries and televised games, The Bushwicks were a team that featured high quality players who continued their baseball careers a few days a week while holding “day jobs.” The Bushwicks’ home field, Dexter Park, was a stadium where Dad was also able to see Josh Gibson and other Negro League stars perform, albeit, on a smaller stage than they deserved. I once asked my Dad as he watched the Negro League teams play if he thought they were as good as major leaguers and he said “absolutely.” When I then asked if he ever wondered how good the lowly Dodgers of the 1930s would have been if they signed players like Josh Gibson, he shook his head and said he didn’t. Sadly, it was just the way things were.

New York Baseball, Dad, and Me

Part II: Glory Days of the Brooklyn Dodgers

By Joe Rini

But Jackie Robinson arrived in 1947 and his Dodgers were perennial winners even if they didn’t beat the Yankees in the World Series until 1955 and lost a couple of heart-breaking pennants on the last day of the season in 1950 and 1951. In fact, Dad was at the season finale at Ebbets Field in 1950 when the winner of the Dodgers – Phillies game went to the World Series. I can almost feel like I’m standing up with my Dad in the stands cheering Carl Abrams as he turns for home in the ninth inning only to be thrown out at home plate, an eventual 4-1 loss in extra innings.

Perhaps it’s because Dad was in his mid-40s when I became a baseball fan as a 7-year old, I never saw him take the game too seriously where it soured his mood or cost him any sleep. To be honest, as the years went on, I think I was more upset at the Dodgers losing the World Series in seven games to the Yankees in 1952 and 1956 and I wasn’t born until the 1960s. If he didn’t root for the Yankees of that era, he admired them. He was a DiMaggio fan and steady players like Tommy Henrich and Joe Gordon who were the prototypical Yankees to him; he said the Dodgers would be doing well in a game but if you gave the Yankees a break, they would take advantage of it.

The closest he ever came to criticizing the Dodgers was to say it “ripped my heart out” when they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season; for those four years without a New York National League team, he didn’t follow baseball much.

If there was a moment where I realized how special the Brooklyn Dodgers were to my Dad and his peers, it occurred about 40 years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He and I were visiting my grandmother in her apartment in Brooklyn early on a Summer Sunday afternoon and we were watching the Mets play the Padres. Grandma was nearly 90, her health was declining, and she may have been nodding off when she perked up at the sound of “Padres.” She asked, “Padres? Is that the pitcher?” obviously recalling Johnny Podres, the hero and Game 7 winner of the 1955 World Series. I was amazed that Grandma, who casually followed the Mets on TV would recall Johnny Podres but as she said of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “That was our team.”

I can remember about thirty years ago watching a documentary about the Brooklyn Dodgers with him and as we watched the youthful images of Hodges, Campanella, Snider, Furillo, Erskine, Robinson, and the rest of the Boys of Summer flash across the screen, I recall his face furrowing, perhaps suppressing a tear; he never said so, but I think Hodges and Campanella were his favorite players. Thirty years later, when I was standing behind home plate at Citi Field covering the festivities honoring the team of my younger days, the 1986 Mets, I understood what my father felt as I tried (less successfully than my Dad) at choking back my emotions.

Yet, there were other baseball moments, moments not in the Baseball Encyclopedia, that also made the baseball of his younger days real to me. I can see him and his friends standing along the railing on the first base side at Ebbets Field in the late 1940s as they chat with Gil Hodges because one of his groomsmen served in the Marines with Hodges. I love the image of him chatting with Dodger Hall of Famer, Duke Snider, at of all places, Aqueduct Racetrack, in 1963 after the Mets acquired Snider when the Mets were in their infancy and Snider’s career was near its end. His high school gym teacher, Mr. Robert Berman, was a real-life Moonlight Graham, who as a 19-year old in 1918, caught the great Walter Johnson for one inning without getting an at bat. Away from the major leagues, on a visit to his cousins in Norristown, Pennsylvania in the 1940s, he saw their neighbor from down the street, a young lefthander named Tom Lasorda pitch in a game.

Dad also said you might spot some of the Dodgers frequenting a pizza parlor In East New York named “Tex’s” (if I recall the name and location correctly). He even had a friend in the old neighborhood who became a Brooklyn Dodgers groundskeeper who then followed the team to Los Angeles; this friend came from a family with so many children that the seventh born was named “Septimo” which means “seventh” in Italian. Because of that story, the “Seinfeld” episode where George wanted to name his first born “Seven” after Mickey Mantle’s uniform number didn’t seem so crazy. 

A baseball story my Grandmother loved to tell about my Dad was how my Grandfather wouldn’t let my Dad go to the park to play baseball one day until he was done working in his family’s bread bakery (my Grandfather had a personality worthy of a character in a novel but he wasn’t a baseball fan). The story had a Hollywood ending with my Dad racing to the park to join the game and then being carried back to the bakery as the game’s hero. While no Dodgers were customers of Rini’s Bakery, the Lombardi family was a customer, and their daughter Joan later married Gil Hodges.

New York Baseball, Dad, and Me

Part III: Meeting the Mets

By Joe Rini

My father took me to my first Mets game in July 1969 when I was six-years old after I asked/pleaded/whined my way into being included with him and my older siblings when we drove to the advanced ticket window at Shea Stadium to buy tickets. As the years progressed, given my Dad’s heavy work schedule, we’d go to a game or two a year when he was on vacation. We’d get to the game early to see batting practice and he always kept score though I must admit, his method of keeping score was too complicated for me (eg. three horizontal lines for a triple?) so I learned to keep score from my boyhood friend Rocky (one of three Rocky’s on my block if you’re keeping score at home.).

It’s funny what I remember about those trips to Shea Stadium with him. I remember pointing out to Dad that there always seemed to be someone crazy behind us like the guy yelling “Chico” all game or the family behind us who seemingly spent the game feeding Luigi as in, “Hey Luigi, you want a hot dog…Hey Luigi, you want popcorn…Hey Luigi, you want a beer…” Of course, my Dad pointed out to me that the people in front of us might be saying the same thing about us!

We always remembered going to Shea Stadium and being amazed at Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson hitting home runs in batting practice from the left and right side of the plate (sadly we also saw Gibson injure himself on the mound in 1973 and he was never quite the same pitcher). Perhaps the most historic game we saw was September 1, 1975 when Tom Seaver set the record with eight consecutive 200 strikeout seasons. My Dad memorialized the record setting strikeout of Manny Sanguillen with a circled “K” on his scorecard (that scoring notation I could understand). In later years when my teen friends and I would go to games, he was good enough to drive us to the game or pick us up, to spare us the commute of multiple trains and buses.

Because even the great Joe DiMaggio couldn’t make Dad a Yankees fan, World Series championships by our teams – the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Mets –  were few but memorable. As a first grader, my sister and I arrived home from school in time to watch the Mets win the 1969 World Series with Mom, Dad, and my siblings from our parlor TV (in our house, it was a “parlor” not a living room). I’m sure I would’ve always become a baseball fan, but watching your team win the World Series, seeing the ensuing ticker-tape parade plus the team’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show singing “You Gotta Have Heart” turbo-charged my baseball fandom and by next spring, Mom and Dad bought me my first baseball glove and Dad demonstrated a pitcher’s motion for me.

A decade and a half later, my mother, father, two sisters and I were home seemingly about to watch the Mets lose Game 6 and the 1986 World Series to the Red Sox. I was in despair as the bottom of the tenth inning approached. My Dad and the rest of my family watched from the same parlor (remember, a parlor, not a living room) while I anxiously walked within ear and eyeshot of the kitchen, parlor, and bedroom TVs. I’ll never forget when Mookie Wilson came to bat with the tying run on third base, my Dad called out to me, “Hey Joe, maybe the pitcher will throw a wild pitch,” to which I responded, “Yeah, but knowing Mookie, he’ll swing at it.” Well, you know what happened, the pitcher threw a wild pitch in the miraculous “Game 6” and the Mets won the World Series two nights later. Thirty three years later in 2019, I had the pleasure of telling Mookie Wilson that story in the Mets dugout before a game and we had a good laugh about it.

Dad wasn’t able to see too many of my games while I played CYO baseball but when he was able to attend, it meant a lot to me, whether it was the game I doubled twice or the game where my glove oddly repulsed the baseball away from me every time it approached my glove in leftfield (I’m not making excuses but the webbing on that old glove was shot). He never pressured me to play and while he never said it to me, I think he was happy I played the game he loved. Looking back, I wished I’d tried out for baseball in high school but I ran track instead, a sport where I didn’t need to reach first base to run.

The years went by and life happened. My father was able to quit one of his two jobs in the mid-1970s after my brothers married (he joked that a 40 hour work week was like semi-retirement to him) and eventually he retired as he and my Mom became wonderful Grandparents while for me grammar school became high school then college then a career, my own apartment, marriage to my wife, Carolyn, and our two daughters, Alison and Amy. 

However, baseball was a constant connection for us. Whether we discussed last night’s Mets game, or the upcoming season, our connection through baseball flowed like Tom Seaver to Dwight Gooden to Jacob deGrom being ace pitchers for the Mets. Yet in the background, there were always the memories of the long gone Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field, Dexter Park, and The Bushwicks which lived on in him.

Funny, even in the thirty years or so after we no longer lived under the same roof, I loved calling him up to talk baseball especially after a particularly dramatic win or devastating loss. It was especially after a bad loss when I’d call late at night and he’d pick up the phone and knowing it would be me, he’d automatically answer, “Hello Joe” and I would respond in some variation of “What the heck was that manager thinking of leaving that pitcher in the game?” My father handled those losses better than I did but looking back I laugh at those exchanges between us.

New York Baseball, Dad, and Me

Part IV: Final Innings

By Joe Rini

Early this May, the Mets had a long slog of a Sunday night game against the Phillies where closer Edwin Diaz gave up an apparent game-tying ninth inning home run that became a double after replay review allowing the Mets to escape with a win. I wanted to call my Dad during replay review to vent about the game but I didn’t; old age was catching up to my Dad and I figured he’d be resting since it was late, about 11:00 pm. I’d talk to him during the week.

I called my family on Monday night to say hello but Dad didn’t come to the phone; my sister and Mom told me my father wasn’t feeling well. A few hours later, my sister called to say he was in the hospital. Two days earlier, he and I had laughed that he was sharp enough to pick the longshot winner in the Kentucky Derby while I wasn’t sharp enough to place the bet and now he was in intensive care facing surgery in a matter of hours. 

Surgery was performed and while the doctor was hopeful initially about my father’s prognosis, it became apparent in the following days that my father was dying.

When I saw him in the hospital, he couldn’t speak and wasn’t very responsive, except for one eye that opened a slit at times. I was there with my sister and brother and later my wife. What do you say in such a situation? I said things that were mundane and profound; I laughingly said things and choked up saying other things; I reminisced about things we had talked about for years and said other things you’d only say the last time you were seeing someone. While he wasn’t so responsive, I’d like to believe he heard everything I said.

I mentioned Ebbets Field to him and said maybe we’d get to go to a game at a stadium that had been torn down for sixty years. Before seeing him at the hospital, I thought of those Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s and I leaned towards my father in his hospital bed and said: 

“Welcome to Ebbets Field…at first base, number 14, Gil Hodges…at second base, Jim Gilliam…at third base, number 42, Jackie Robinson…at shortstop, number 1, the Captain, Pee Wee Reese…in left field, from Cuba, Sandy Amoros…in center field, number 4, the Duke of Fallbrook, Duke Snider…in left field, the Reading Rifle, Carl Furillo…behind the plate, number 39, Roy Campanella…and on the mound, the pitcher, left hander Johnny Podres…and here’s the pitch…it’s a ground ball to shortstop, Reese fires it to Hodges and the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series!”

My father died on a Monday, the Monday after I called to say hello.

I discovered that it’s easier to be mentally prepared versus emotionally prepared for the death of an aged parent. Intellectually, I could see his physical health had been failing in recent years and knew this day was inevitable; unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate it was also imminent, perhaps because he was still sharp mentally. I was blessed to have him in my life for so long. When you’re the youngest of five siblings born in your parents’ fifteenth year of marriage and then you have both parents in your life until you’re in your late 50’s, then you’re a lucky guy. I’m not only lucky; I’m blessed.

Due to circumstances, it was a small wake and funeral. I must admit, as sad as I was to say good-bye to my father, I was happy to see my four siblings, my nieces and nephews, cousins and friends I hadn’t seen since before the Covid-19 pandemic. My father loved family gatherings and this farewell was appropriately, a family gathering.

The night before the funeral, it occurred to me because my Dad was such a baseball fan, perhaps I’d have everyone at the final viewing sign a baseball to my Dad that I’d leave in the casket with him. My siblings went along with the idea and everyone signed this baseball. My sister-in-law joked to me about what my father would’ve said and I could picture him joking, “Sure, give me the ball. I have a game today.”

As a World War II veteran who served in Europe, my father was buried with military honors, and when the color guard soldier presented the flag to my family and said “On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation…” I really felt their gratitude for his service.

New York Baseball, Dad, and Me

Part V: Present, Past, and Future

By Joe Rini

It’s now July and my father’s been gone for two months. His birthday passed and Father’s Day passed since he passed away in May. He was a young baseball fan when the first All-Star game was played in 1933 and the first All-Star game since his passing  was played this week. My Mom, his wife of 72 years, survives him and she still watches the Mets on TV every night with my sister. Sometimes when my Dad would watch the Yankee games, she’d joke to me, “I think your father’s becoming a Yankee fan,” but if the Mets aren’t on TV, she’ll watch some of the Yankee games, too.

My father was blessed with a long life and he was a blessing to the lives he touched. He was grateful for whatever good fortune came his way, whether it was something big like his longevity and family or something small like a really good dish of linguini.

When I think of something that symbolizes the connection baseball had between my father and me, I think of a baseball; not the autographed baseball in his casket but a baseball I haven’t seen in nearly a half century and probably wouldn’t recognize if it was on this desk with the laptop I am typing on.

It’s a baseball that’s barely a speck in a photo in the Rini Family Archives (aka, the closet downstairs with the photo albums). It’s a photo that was taken on the shores of Lake Ontario when my parents took my sister and me to see Niagara Falls in the early 1970s (to quote my Dad, “When Niagara falls, it falls!”) My Dad and my sister swam and played in Lake Ontario while Mom and I stayed on the shore; I wasn’t much of a beach lover as a kid and much to the chagrin of my beach-loving wife, I’m still not.

But after my sister and Dad came out of the water, my father and I “had a catch” on the shores of Lake Ontario. In a photo snapped by my Mom on a 110 Instamatic camera, the photo captures my father, Joe Rini, in his tan bathing suit completing his follow through in the foreground while 90 feet or so away his youngest son’s knees are bent slightly as I track the speck of a baseball in flight between us.

I like thinking of that speck of a baseball, forever in flight between us, as symbolizing the connection between us, linking us forever, in this world and the next, regardless of mortality. I’d also like to think that someday, perhaps in some heavenly realm, my Dad and I will finally get to see a game at Ebbets Field together, and maybe bump into one of the Dodgers as we share a pizza at Tex’s. 

November 9, 2020 – NY Sports Day: Cora’s Back to BoSox but New York Saw Something Crazier in 1948

By Joe Rini

Following the completion of his suspension for his role in the Houston Astros sign stealing scandal, the Boston Red Sox announced the rehiring of Alex Cora as manager, ten months after he and the team mutually agreed to part ways. Sounds crazy, right? A story fit for 2020, right? Well, New York saw something crazier in 1948. Let’s put it this way, imagine Alex Cora topping his rehiring by the Red Sox by becoming the Yankees manager next July.

Baseball in New York in 1947 is most famous for the debut of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers but just prior to the start of the season, baseball commissioner Albert “Happy” (well in this case, not so happy) Chandler suspended Brooklyn’s flamboyantly volatile manager Leo Durocher for associating with known gamblers, among other things. Earlier in spring training Durocher had squelched a mini-rebellion among players protesting the arrival of Robinson, but it would be under interim manager Burt Shotton (later satirized as “Kindly Old Burt Shotton” aka “K.O.B.S.” by Dick Young of the New York Daily News) who navigated Robinson’s debut season and the Dodgers to the NL pennant. Having Shotton replace Durocher was akin to Bob Lemon replacing Billy Martin as Yankee manager mid-season and winning the  World Series in 1978.

Like Cora, Durocher’s suspension ended and he returned to helm the Dodgers in 1948 and this is where the story gets strange. Durocher’s Dodgers started sluggishly, sitting in fifth place at midseason in July at 35-37. Finally, after enduring nine seasons of the mercurial Durocher, Brooklyn’s GM Branch Rickey didn’t just fire Durocher; instead, he “traded” his services to their hated crosstown rivals the New York Giants and replaced him again with his placid pennant winning manager waiting in the wings, “kindly old” Burt Shotton.

To recall the rivalry between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, think Yankee-Red Sox with more beanballs, brawls, and rival fans living in the same neighborhoods not 200 miles apart. The move stunned everyone and even Giants fans didn’t know what to think of the sight of Durocher in a Giants uniform. In fact, Durocher and a disgruntled Giants fan even came to blows in 1949 but in the end it worked out well for both Durocher and the Dodgers. Shotton skippered the Dodgers to another NL pennant in 1949 while Durocher mentored Willie Mays and led the Giants to their Bobby Thompson’s Miracle in Coogan’s Bluff NL pennant in 1951 before winning a World Series in 1954. Ultimately, Durocher and Rickey were inducted into the Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

I doubt the Red Sox shipping off Alex Cora to manage the Yankees in midseason would ever happen…that would be like crowning a World Series winner after a 60 game regular season, right?

Thank you, Tom Brady, You Ruined My Joe Namath Column

By Joe Rini

The New York Jets are really wreaking havoc with my football fandom. Their season has gone so unmitigatingly bad, the games so unwatchable, I’m finding myself rooting for Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (I was even glad when Bill Belichick’s Patriots beat the Dolphins on opening day but that’s another story).

Given that the Jets spared us from another lackluster Sunday by giving us a lackluster Thursday night a week ago, I flipped on the Buccaneers – Chargers game this past Sunday and the Bucs were already down 21-7 in the second quarter and the 43-year old Brady had already thrown a pick-6 and was in the midst of about six incompletions in a row. Wow, I thought, it looks like he’s finally “done” after all the Super Bowl wins and two decades of tormenting the Jets. I actually felt badly for him. He looked like Joe Namath.

But not the Joe Namath I loved in Super Bowl III or even the still formidable Joe Namath of 1972 and 1974. He looked like the Joe Namath of the 1977 Rams. The past his prime Joe Namath who left a bad Jets team for a good Rams team too late in his career.

Like Brady, Namath lost on opening day with the Rams and then won then won two straight. I can still remember watching his fourth game of the season because it was a Monday Night Football game against the Bears. After the Rams scored early, I can still hear Frank Gifford saying, “Joe Namath has come to play tonight,” but as the game progressed, Namath regressed. I probably went to bed at halftime but I know I woke up to discover Namath had thrown four interceptions, no touchdowns, and was replaced by Pat Haden in a 24-23 loss. Namath finished the year with the Rams but never played another game.

The symmetry was there to compare a struggling Brady, whose nickname will never be Tom Terrific, to the man who is forever Broadway Joe. But then something happened. The Bucs recovered a fumble before the half and Brady threw a TD to make the score 24-14. Brady wound up throwing three more TDs in the second half to finish with five TDs on the day and Tampa won 38-31. So much for comparing the Tom Brady of 2020 to the Joe Namath of 1977.

So instead a “done” Tom Brady, there’s still a pretty good Tom Brady in Tampa Bay and I’m actually rooting for him to do well even after he’s crushed the Jets for 20 years. Heck, I might even root for him in the Super Bowl…but only if he plays against the Patriots.

September 30, 2020: A Sentimental Guy’s Mostly Fond Farewell to Fred Wilpon

By: Joe Rini

The fans were desperate for new ownership to take over a moribund franchise and new ownership came to the rescue.

The new owners were Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday.

I admit it, besides being a life-long Mets fan, I’m also a sentimental and nostalgic guy; I left a job I hated 23 years ago and still have the going away cards from those co-workers who I genuinely liked. Like many, with the burnt smell of disappointment still smoldering amidst the embers of another lost Mets season,  I’m looking forward to the Steve Cohen era Mets. But I’m also remembering the promise of the Fred Wilpon Mets in 1980.

I can still picture riding on the bus with my friend Tom after seeing the movie “The Jerk” starring Steve Martin (yes, that was the intellectual fare we liked in high school) and reading about the new owners of the Mets in the afternoon New York Post and feeling optimistic about the team’s future. The team had been bad for years as the heirs of the late Joan Payson allowed M.Donald Grant to drive Tom Seaver out of town. Wilpon and Doubleday were a breath of fresh air.

I remember just being impressed by literally the new coat of paint on Shea Stadium and the new plastic seats (you could just imagine how impressed I was by the Diamond Vision scoreboard and its replays a couple years later). The 1980 team fought its way back to .500 in August before a late season fade but the season also featured the debuts of Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks and the drafting of Darryl Strawberry. 

We know the rest of the story. The team improved and they won the World Series in 1986. Unfortunately, we also know the rest of the story where the Mets haven’t won another World Series since then. The team struggled for a decade, rebounded in time to win the pennant in 2000, and the Wilpon family bought out Doubleday and became sole owners. Yet, with only three postseason appearances since 2000, their moments of success can sometimes seem like brief interruptions to two decades of disappointment.

Covering the team since 2012, I’ve had occasion to see Fred Wilpon up close before games. Like a friendly uncle, he greets and chats with fans and team employees, not just the players and coaches. I even remember him good-naturedly grabbing reporter Ken Rosenthal from behind during batting practice. I’ve had the good fortune to chat with him a few times. I remember walking under stands, enthused after my first on-field interview with a Mets player (Scott Hairston) in May 2012 and crossing paths with Fred and his wife; Fred walked with a cane at the time and told me about his hip surgery. Seeing him for the first time, I was in awe. Another time seeing him sign autographs with his left hand, I joked with him if he’d be available to get a lefty out in the late innings that night.

Despite the “Freddy Coupon” label, I’m sure he was serious about winning. Seeing him on the field before a game talking with Collins or Callaway, Sandy or Brodie, or any of the players, the team wasn’t an afterthought to him. But perhaps the way pitchers eventually lose a foot off their fastballs or a batter can no longer get around on the high heat, maybe Fred Wilpon lost a step as an owner in 40 years and it’s time for a change. I’m looking forward to what the Steve Cohen Mets can do but I’m also saying, thanks Fred, I’ll remember the good times with those going away cards I saved.

September 10, 2020 – Rockland County Times: A Journey Through Life with Tom Seaver

By Joe Rini

His laughter was a high pitched cackling laugh of joy.

The uniform number 41…the steaming fastball powdered by his locomotive legs with his drop and drive delivery punctuated by a dirt stained right knee..yet to me, the foremost image I have a Tom Seaver is the image I saw on TV as a six year old first grader in Brooklyn, the image of the joyous, boyish man of 24 celebrating in the clubhouse with his teammates the improbable championship of the 1969 Mets.

Tom Seaver was the Mets and the Mets have been a major part of my life since captivating my imagination with their championship in 1969. I never met Tom Seaver yet he has been a part of my life’s journey.

For Mets fans who share a city with the memory of Yankee legends like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle in addition to the legacies of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, Tom Seaver was our legend and all-time great that no one can take away from us, not even death.

My Dad would take me to a game or two on his vacation when I was a kid and Labor Day 1975 found us at Shea Stadium. On this day, Seaver was not only seeking his 20th win but six strikeouts would give him 200 for an unprecedented eight seasons in a row. As we sat in the mezzanine along the right field line, Seaver pitched a four hit shutout and I can still see my Dad’s pumped-first, pencil in hand, and the explosion of the crowd as Seaver fanned Manny Sanguilen in the seventh inning, a strikeout immortalized in my Dad’s scorecard with a circled letter “K.”

I haven’t seen my eighth grade autograph book in years but I still remember what my buddy Tom wrote in my book in June 1977: “A girl for a guy who thought Seaver wouldn’t be trade” a few days after the Mets inexplicacbly had done just that. Full disclosure. I also remember my Grandma Maggie wrote on a blue page, “May you never be the color of this page.”

I was in college six years later and after my last class on April 5, 1983, I headed to Shea Stadium via the subway from Manhattan. Exiting the number 7 train, I joined my buddies Pat and Tom in the upper deck behind home plate just in time to join the roar of the crowd as Seaver made his way to the field from the bullpen in right field. The Franchise was back.

In a match-up with Steve Carlton and Phillies, a team seemingly filled with future Hall of Famers, Seaver struck out Pete Rose to leading off the game and he pitched six shutout innings enroute to a 2-0 Mets victory, with the Mets first run being driven in by Mike Howard, an outfielder as innocuous as Seaver was iconic.

And then suddenly, Seaver was gone again after one season. Instead of the malicious dismissal at the hands of M. Donald Grant in 1977, the new Mets front office lost him in a move that was as bewildering a blunder as a dropped popup.

Seaver was gone but he thrived as his absence from the Mets kept them out of the postseason in 1984 and 1985. Mets fans cheered as he picked up his 300th win in New York City, albeit at Yankee Stadium in a White Sox uniform. That oddness of Seaver winning number 300 at Yankee Stadium was matched a year later as the Mets won the 1986 World Series at Shea Stadium with Seaver in a Red Sox uniform in the visiting team’s dugout.

After an abortive comeback in 1987, Seaver retired and on July 24, 1988, Pat, Tom, and I sat in the Loge section behind third base as the Mets officially retired his number 41. As Seaver ran to the mound to bow to the fans in all corners of the stadium, I shook my head in the presence of his greatness and told my friends we’d never see another Met like him again.

And now days after his death, I find myself at 57-years-old closer to Seaver’s age at his passing, 75, than his age of 24 in 1969, I say again, “We’ll never see another Met like him again.”

He was The Franchise and there will never be another Franchise.

August 27, 2020 – NY Sports Day: Free Jacob deGrom!

By Joe Rini

Jerry Seinfeld famously compared rooting for sports teams to rooting for laundry (different guys but the same clothes) and I have seen a lot of players wear the Mets orange and blue. In the last half century (man, am I getting old) there were great players I never wanted to see leave the Mets like Tom Seaver and Darryl Strawberry and somehow the Mets let them go (they let Seaver go twice!). There have been exasperating players who I wanted off the team and let’s just say I wasn’t broken hearted when they left (I’m sorry, I just didn’t appreciate the talents of Kevin McReynolds as much as GM Frank Cashen). Somehow journeyman Ron Hodges managed to be a backup catcher for over a decade and I didn’t care one way or another.

And then there is two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, arguably the third best pitcher in franchise history behind Seaver and Dwight Gooden. He’s pitching like a potential Hall of Famer. He is clearly a master on the mound. Therefore, I want him gone. I’m not even looking for prospects for the Mets in return. It’s for Jake’s sake. It’s the merciful thing to do.

In his latest start on Wednesday, deGrom allowed one run and two hits and struck out 14 Marlins before handing the ball to the bullpen in the eighth inning with a 4-1 lead. Three relievers later, three runs scored, and deGrom had another no decision before the Mets eked out a 5-4 win.

The sabermetricians say wins for a pitcher don’t matter in this era but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating to see a pitcher not get rewarded for his efforts. Whether it’s a lack of run support or a faulty bullpen, somehow the Mets managed to lose a staggering 36 of deGrom’s 64 starts in 2018 and 2019. Watching deGrom only get credited with a combined 21 wins in 2018 and 2019, one can only wonder how many wins he’d have had on a team with a better bullpen and offense…ahem, like the Yankees. Luis Severino won 19 in 2018 and Domingo German won 18 in 2019 for the team in the Bronx, so it’s easy to imagine deGrom with two 20 win seasons in pinstripes (and a World Series ring, perhaps).

Obviously, I am being facetious about trading deGrom, who has never complained about the lack of support from his teammates, and is handsomely compensated by the Mets for his efforts regardless of his won-loss record. At 32-years old with 68 career wins, maybe one or two more Cy Young seasons might just punch his ticket to Cooperstown, albeit with a modest win total. If deGrom isn’t complaining, neither will I…but it would be nice to see him get a win next time he strikes out 14 in one game.