NEW YORK, May 28 — The New York Mets blasted the Philadelphia Phillies by a final score of 8–2 on Fireworks Night at Citi Field on Saturday. Fireworks lit up the Citi Field sky after the game while the Mets’ offense lit it up during the game. Their offense displayed a full arsenal of weapons from a bunt single to an upper-deck three-run home run. The NL East division leaders raised their record to 31–17, and look to complete the weekend sweep of the Phillies on Sunday night.
McNeil and Lindor Power Mets’ Offense
Dom Smith’s sacrifice fly plated the Mets’ first run in the second inning. Singling with one out, Eduardo Escobar promptly advanced to third base on a single to right field by Mark Canha. With runners on the corners, Smith’s fly to center field gave the Mets a 1-0 lead.
However, in the fourth inning, the Phillies gained a 2–1 lead on a bases-loaded single by J.T. Realmuto. His soft liner to short right-centerfield, just beyond the reach of a leaping Luis Guillorme, scored the Phillies’ first two runs. Laboring through the fourth inning, Taijuan Walker limited the damage by retiring Kyle Schwarber with the bases loaded.
However, the Mets’ offense quickly regained the lead in the bottom half of the fourth inning. A leadoff walk to Francisco Lindor and a role reversal by Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil scored three runs for the Mets. The power-hitting Alonso lofted a ball to the opposite field, again putting runners on the corners for McNeil. The spray-hitting McNeil promptly pulled a three-run home run into the second deck in right field and the Mets lead stretched to 4–2.
The Mets’ offense pulled away with three runs in the fifth inning. Lindor tripled in two runs after Guillorme and Starling Marte bunt-singled and doubled with one out. Alonso followed with a sacrifice fly to right field and the Mets extended their nice lead to 7–2. Two innings later, Lindor scored Guillorme with a single as the Mets upped their lead to 8–2.
Mets Milestones for Lindor and Alonso
Lindor and Alonso set a couple of RBI milestones for themselves in the game. Lindor set a personal high with RBI in six straight games, while Alonso’s 29th RBI of the month established a new team record for May. Meanwhile, Guillorme reached base four times batting from the leadoff position. Singling three times, he raised his batting average to a season-high .352.
Holderman Boosts Bullpen
Walker gutted his way through five innings for his third win. However, rookie reliever Colin Holderman may have been the pitching star of the night with two scoreless innings. Holderman quickly dispatched the Phillies on 21 pitches in the sixth and seventh innings, striking out three batters. Opening his MLB career with eight scoreless innings in six appearances, Holderman’s boosted the Mets bullpen. Adam Ottavino and Seth Lugo closed out the game with scoreless outings apiece. Zac Eflin took the loss (1–4), allowing seven runs in six innings.
This reporter from “Last Word on Sports” asked manager Buck Showalter about the influence of veterans Ottavino and Lugo on young relievers Holderman and Drew Smith. Showalter said, “They keep them in a sense of reality,” dealing with the “negative feeding frenzy and positive feeding frenzy” of pitching in the big leagues, “because they’ve been on both sides of it.”
Broadcaster Ed Coleman Honored
The Mets honored long-time radio broadcaster Ed Coleman before the game. The recently retired Coleman hosted the Mets’ pre and postgame shows for years. Showalter presented Coleman with a jersey, David Wright sent a video message, and Coleman threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Pignatano was a career .234 hitter for four teams between 1957 and 1962. Despite these modest statistics, he played and coached for several historic major league teams. For instance, his rookie year of 1957 with the Brooklyn Dodgers coincided with their last team in Brooklyn. He called the pitches behind the plate for the final five innings of the final game at Ebbets Field on September 24, 1957. Six months later, he caught the final innings of the Dodgers’ first game in Los Angeles on April 18, 1958. Subsequently, in 1959, he contributed to the Dodgers’ first championship in Los Angeles, batting .237 while backing up starter John Roseboro.
1962 and 1969 Mets Teams
His Mets career included seasons with two historically different teams. Pignatano contributed to the lore of the 1962 Mets by hitting into a triple play in the final at-bat of his career in loss number 120 on September 30. After serving as Hodges’ first base coach for the Washington Senators, Hodges added Pignatano to his Mets coaching staff in 1968. Serving as bullpen coach for the 1969 Miracle Mets, Pignatano joined the Mets singing on the Ed Sullivan Show after the World Series. Duffy Dyer of the 1969 Mets told this reporter in 2012 that Pignatano mentored him as a young catcher.
Nine Surviving Brooklyn Dodgers
For long-time fans of the Mets and Dodgers, Pignatano’s passing conjures sadness but happy memories, too. He was a Brooklyn boy who lived the dream of playing for his beloved hometown team. Sadly, Pignatano’s passing leaves only nine surviving members of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was also the last surviving member of Hodges’ 1969 coaching staff. Popular for his Brooklyn roots and vegetable gardens, his memory reminds Mets fans of happy times. As 1969 alum Art Shamsky tweeted, “He was funny & tough at the same time. I have great memories of him & all of the others that are gone from that incredible team. RIP Joe!”
NEW YORK, May 14 — Patrick Mazeika channeled his inner Willie Mays and the New York Mets topped the Seattle Mariners 5–4 at Citi Field on Saturday evening. Fifty years to the day after Mays homered for a key Mets win, so did Mazeika. The catcher’s tie-breaking seventh inning blast on a foggy night off losing pitcher Andres Munoz curled inside the right-field fair pole, providing the margin of victory. Mazeika’s heroics capped a 3 1/2 hour game delayed one hour by rain.
Overturned calls figured big in the opening inning of the game. For instance, Bassitt’s inning-ending pick-off of Eugenio Suarez at second base short-circuited a bases load threat. Later, Starling Marte tripled and scored the Mets’ first run on Francisco Lindor’s single. Both the pick-off and triple resulted from replay reversal.
The Mets followed with two more runs in the third inning with run-scoring sacrifice flies to right field by Lindor and Jeff McNeil. Pete Alonso doubled in Marte in the fifth inning to extend the lead to 4-0 but the Mariners responded. After scoring in the sixth inning, Jesse Winker knotted the game at 4–4 with a three-run homer off reliever Chasen Shreve in the seventh inning. Winker’s homer temporarily quieted the raucous crowd of 37,140 (plus singer Shakira!), as Mets fans booed this “fan unfavorite” with each at-bat. However, they rose shortly thereafter with Mazeika’s heroics.
Edwin Diaz struck out the side in the ninth inning, whiffing Winker to end the game. He picked up his eighth save while Adam Ottavino picked up his second win with a scoreless inning in relief. Bassitt allowed one run in 5 2/3 innings in a no-decision. Rookie starter George Kirby pitched before 50 friends and family from nearby Rye, New York for the Mariners. Undermined by the Mariners’ defense, he allowed three runs in four innings but two were unearned.
Showalter Discusses Challenges of the Game
Answering this reporter’s question after the game, Showalter complimented how his team played in adverse weather conditions. Speaking of the rainy conditions that delayed the game an hour, he said, “I know it looks routine what Lindor is doing from deep short. Those are hard plays,” comparing the baseball to a “watermelon seed.”
Before the game, this reporter asked Showalter about preparing for interleague games. “That’s tough,” he said regarding preparation. “It actually started on the day of the last game in Washington. We were on the train for three hours, we had a whole train trying to get ready.” They even prepared Friday morning but then Buck added with a shrug, “And how’d that work out?” as the Mets scored one run on five hits in the 2–1 loss to the Mariners on May 13th. Buck said there’s no substitute for being in the batter’s box. He rhetorically asked, “How do you simulate Randy Johnson’s release point?”
Trading prospects for veterans can be decisive in a team’s title hopes. The New York Mets know the successes and failures of these trades. Such trades for veterans Mike Piazza and Yoennis Cespedes earned trips to the World Series for the Mets in 2000 and 2015. However, the Mets’ trade deadline acquisition of Javier Baez for prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong couldn’t keep them from fading down the stretch in 2021. The Mets hope the Chris Bassitt trade is more in line with the Piazza and Cespedes trades. It looks promising for the Mets now but it’s still a gamble.
Mets Trade Prospects for Veteran Bassitt
In exchange for minor league pitchers J.T. Ginn and Adam Oller, the Mets obtained Bassitt from the Oakland A’s on March 12, 2022. It was a textbook trade between big market and small-market teams. The A’s can’t afford to re-sign Bassitt when he reaches free agency this offseason while the Mets can’t afford to miss the postseason again. The Mets were willing to gamble that Bassitt may leave after only one season in the orange and blue. Meanwhile, the A’s were willing to trade an All-Star in the hope one or both of these prospects will thrive in the MLB.
The very early returns show the Mets have gotten the better of this deal. Bolstering the rotation in the absence of Jacob deGrom, Bassitt has helped buoy the Mets into first place. He’s 4-2 with a 2.45 ERA and his 0.955 WHIP is a whisker behind Max Scherzer’s 0.946. Meanwhile, Ginn has struggled in his first starts in Double-A while Oller’s ERA is 11.17 in his first three big-league starts.
Beware Pete Crow-Armstrong: Trading Prospects for Veterans Is Risky
The Mets traded Crow-Armstrong to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Baez and pitcher Trevor Williams on July 30, 2021. Baez slashed a solid .299/.371/.515 in 47 games as the Mets faded out of the playoff race. He wasn’t the blame for the team’s struggles. Ultimately, they permitted Baez to walk in free agency to the Detroit Tigers, ending his brief Mets tenure.
However, the price of Baez’s two-month Mets career could be a decade of success by Pete Crow-Armstrong for the Cubs. The Mets selected Crow-Armstrong as their number one pick in the 2020 amateur draft. He started his Mets minor league career hitting .417 in 24 at-bats before shoulder surgery ended his 2021 season. Since returning to action in 2022, Crow-Armstrong is performing like someone soon to be promoted from Class A ball. The 20-year-old centerfielder is hitting .373 in his first 25 games with the Cubs’ Class A affiliate, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Crow-Armstrong is probably two years away from the MLB, where success isn’t guaranteed. However, should he become a perennial All-Star, it’ll be a constant reminder to the Mets and their fans of a trade gone awry.
Mets Traded Prospect Kelenic for Diaz in 2018
Bassitt’s next Mets start will be this weekend against the Seattle Mariners at Citi Field. Interestingly, he’ll likely face Jarred Kelenic at some point. The Mets traded Kelenic and four other players, in exchange, for Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano in December 2018. The rebuilding Mariners parted with an elite closer, Diaz, because they received a projected superstar in Kelenic. However, superstar star status eludes the 22-year-old Kelenic. He batted a disappointing .181 in his debut season last year but a good September seemed to have him on an upward trajectory. Unfortunately, he’s batting a weak .140 in 2022 and probably needs more minor league seasoning. It’s too early to dismiss Kelenic. Perhaps, a visit to his almost former home at Citi Field will revitalize his fortunes. Trading prospects for veterans like Bassett is a sound strategy for teams aiming for the postseason but comes with long-term risks.
The New York Mets designated Robinson Cano for assignment this morning. In the end, it came down to numbers. First, mandatory roster cuts for teams to get down to 26 players loomed by Noon on May 2nd. The 39-year-old Cano missed the 2021 season with his second PED suspension. He played well in winter ball and had a decent spring training in 2022. However, his offensive numbers so far in 2022 were meager. Slashing a meager.195/.233/.268, with a noticeable decline in bat speed, Cano became expendable. Perhaps the biggest number in the Cano saga is the reported $48 million the Mets will owe him over the next two years to either watch games on TV or play for someone else. However, the Mets will eat that salary in their attempt to get the best 26 players on the roster.
Cano Acquired by Mets Before 2019 Season
Cano was acquired by then-new GM and former Cano agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, in a blockbuster trade in December 2018. At first, he struggled with the Mets. Shadowed by his first PED suspension in 2018, Cano lagged in an injury-plagued 2019, slashing .256/.307/.428. A second PED suspension marred his apparent bounce-back season in 2020.
Highly regarded by his teammates, Cano will be missed more in the clubhouse than on the field. A career .302 hitter, induction into the Hall of Fame seemed to be Cano’s destination until 2018. However, two PED suspensions later, his future induction is bleak, to say the least. Rather than a Hall of Fame plaque, “Cano designated for assignment” could be his baseball epitaph. It will be very interesting to see what happens to Cano going forward. There aren’t many teams that would want the publicity that comes from having him on their roster. Time will tell if he signs with another team, or if he decides to stay put for the time being.
Time will tell whether 2022 will be a special season for the New York Mets. However, there seems to be no reason to doubt that it will happen if Friday’s events are any indication. April 29th was a special night at Citi Field. 32,416 fans cheered on a chilly night as five Mets pitchers combined to no-hit the Philadelphia Phillies in a 3–0 victory. Coming in the Mets’ 61st season, it was only the second no-hitter in franchise history.
Five Mets Pitchers Make History
Winning pitcher Tylor Megill (4–0) pitched five hitless innings before handing the ball and the 2–0 lead to reliever Drew Smith. Smith, Joely Rodriguez, and Seth Lugo subsequently combined to keep the Phillies hitless and scoreless through eight innings. With the no-hitter at stake, the sometimes maligned closer, Edwin Diaz, etched this night into the Mets history books. He closed the no-hitter by striking out Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos, and J.T. Realmuto on 13 pitches.
Brandon Nimmo’s defense saved the no-hitter before anyone thought about a no-hitter. His diving catch in right-center in the third inning off the bat of Jean Segura set the stage for the late innings drama. Jeff McNeil singled in two runs in the fifth and Pete Alonso’s sixth-inning home run supplied the offense.
No-hitter? What No-hitter?
Interestingly, Diaz was the only reliever who admitted being aware of the no-hitter at stake. Diaz said, “When I came in the ninth, I was realizing that we got a no-hitter, but at the same time, you gotta make pitches.” Speaking of the combined no-hitter at the postgame press conference, Megill said, “I’m ecstatic. It’s crazy.” However, catcher James McCann drew a laugh when he subsequently commented about the soft-spoken Megill, “Can’t you see how excited he is?”
Johan Santana pitched the first no-hitter in Mets history on June 1, 2012, against the St. Louis Cardinals. He threw 134 pitches on his surgically repaired shoulder may have shortened his career. While 159 pitches were thrown in this no-hitter, they were economically distributed among the five Mets pitchers.
The “opener” starts the “bullpen game.” Baseball purists, longing for the return of Tom Seaver’s complete-game pitching dominance, wince at both terms. However, it’s here to stay in MLB because it works. Therefore, how about a games opened stat?
The Tampa Bay Rays developed the concept of the opener and perfected it. The Rays opened their game on April 23rd with two hitless innings by J.P. Feyereisen. Five relievers later, they closed nine hitless innings against the Boston Red Sox before winning 3–2 in ten innings.
Yes, the opener starts. However, the opener is not a starting pitcher even if he throws the first pitch of the game.
Good-bye Spot Starter and Long Man
The bullpen game with its’ opener and the ensuing parade of relief pitchers has replaced the spot starter. The traditional spot starter and his cousin the “long man” in the bullpen don’t really exist anymore. Long men don’t stick around games that long these days. For instance, Moe Drabowsky pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings as a long man to close Game One of the 1966 World Series. Picking up that Game One win was the greatest day of his 17-year career. However, in 2022, Drabowsky would have been lifted long before the seventh-inning stretch.
A wily veteran or an unproven player typically filled this role. For instance, Nolan Ryan excelled in this role with the 1969 New York Mets as an unheralded 22-year-old. His 25 appearances that season included ten starts and he won the NLCS clincher by pitching seven innings in relief. A generation later, Ramiro Mendoza excelled in a similar role for the championship New York Yankees teams. Also, marathon games of 20 innings or more always included long men in the pen who earned their pay that day. A young Gaylord Perry secured his spot on the San Francisco Giants by pitching ten scoreless innings in relief in a 23 inning victory over the Mets in 1964.
In 2022, a pitcher who throws ten innings in relief is as necessary as a spare tire on a rowboat. Currently, the spot starter is often a pitcher on the shuttle between Triple-A and the majors. For example, the Mets rewarded David Peterson for an effective start on April 22 with a prompt return ticket to Triple-A Syracuse. He’ll return in early May for another spot start.
Games Opened Statistic
By design, the opener is a reliever who starts a game with no intention of seeing the opposing lineup a second time. One can’t argue with this successful tactic if specialization works. However, let’s add a little specialization to the stat sheet to reflect this specialization of strategy. Instead of crediting the opener with a game started (GS), let’s call it a call a “game opened” (GO). It would recognize the unique role of the opener versus a traditional starting pitcher whose intention is to pitch deep into the game. This GO designation may result in certain pitchers earning a cache as an opener much like closers have. Perhaps, the best opener might even open the All-Star Game in the future?
Whether a pitcher gets credited with a start or an open would need to be determined by managerial intent. Also, an opener couldn’t pitch beyond two or three innings. For cases where managerial intent isn’t clear, the official scorer should deliver the verdict. The official scorer already has the power to deny a win to a relief pitcher whose outing was “brief and ineffective” so distinguishing a start from an open wouldn’t be such a radical move. In fact, the Mets’ 5–2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 23rd might have presented such a quandary. Trevor Williams started for the Mets but failed to retire a batter in the third inning. He wasn’t expected to go deep into the game; however, was his outing cut short by a preordained innings pitch or ineffectiveness?
Baseball statistics evolve with the game. For example, the save didn’t become an official statistic until 1969. Besides, if games finished (GF) is an official statistic, why not games opened?
The cheers will be a little louder at Friday’s New York Mets home opener at Citi Field versus the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Mets will be sitting in first place in the National East’s standings as they stand for player introductions. The unveiling of the long-overdue Tom Seaver statue at Citi Field will inspire cheers and perhaps, tears, across generations. However, while this week’s sampling of seven games fueled optimism for 2022, struggles by the bullpen raised concerns.
Opening on the road against two division rivals, the Mets won an impressive five of seven games. They won three of four against the Washington Nationals and two of three from the Philadelphia Phillies. The arms of the starting rotation accounted for much of this early success. A week ago, Tylor Megill was the unlikeliest of Opening Day starters in the absence of Jacob deGrom. Two starts and 10 1/3 scoreless innings later, Megill’s record stands at 2-0. Also, Chris Bassitt, who starts the Mets home opener, pitched six scoreless innings against the Nationals in a 5-0 Mets win. Overall, the Mets starters pitched at least five innings in six of seven games. While not herculean, it’s a promising start by the rotation considering the truncated spring training preparing for the regular season.
Yet, even with the good start by the rotation, the Mets called upon the bullpen to obtain a significant amount of outs per game. Unfortunately, outs number 22, 23, and 24, aka, the eighth inning, posed some early-season issues. The bullpen blew saves in consecutive games to the Nationals and Phillies. On Sunday, the Mets bullpen surrendered three runs eighth-inning runs to the Nationals in a 4-2 loss. The next day three Mets relievers surrendered five eighth-inning runs as the Phillies gut-punched the Mets 5-4.
There’s no reason to panic about the bullpen this early in the season. For one thing, the blown saves occurred while Edwin Diaz was on bereavement leave. Also, Buck Showalter is still sorting out the roles each reliever will play this year. For example, he allowed Drew Smith to pitch the eighth inning in the Mets 2-1 win over the Phillies and Smith rewarded that confidence with a 1-2-3 outing. However, with hopes high at Citi Field, the bullpen needs to be reliable all year and not just at the Mets home opener.
For those in a hurry, the 2022 New York Mets are your team. They are the win-now Mets. Steve Cohen opened his checkbook and the hitherto frugal Mets became the newly spending Mets. New GM Billy Eppler signed multiple free agents shortly after reading the Mets’ new employee manual. Breaking trend, the Mets named veteran manager Buck Showalter as their skipper. Whereas managers Luis Rojas and Mickey Callaway won their first career major league games with the Mets, Showalter’s first win with the Mets will be win number 1,552.
The rebuild of the disappointing 2021 Mets traveled on the express track this winter. Their improvements should be sufficient to land a spot in baseball’s expanded postseason. However, potential pitfalls lurk in the bullpen and pitching staff.
On the positive side, Buck Showalter is a strong managerial hire. The Mets are a veteran-heavy team. For instance, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer top the rotation with a combined five Cy Youngs and 70 years of life. Free-agent signees Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar, and Mark Canha are all 33 years old. Such a team needs a manager whose authority walks in through the clubhouse door with him. Showalter has the gravitas to command the players’ respect and the experience not to be awed by New York.
The surprise addition of Scherzer looms even larger with deGrom starting the season on the IL. He’ll anchor the staff until deGrom returns. Speaking of deGrom this week, Showalter chose a positive spin on his absence. “I look at it, think about how strong he is going to be as the season progresses. That’s a pretty good addition instead of a trade, Jacob deGrom.” The addition of right-handed starter Chris Bassitt further fortifies the rotation.
The addition of Marte and Escobar upgrades the Opening Day lineup at the plate and in the field. Power-hitting Pete Alonso fills the cleanup spot in the lineup. The Mets count on Francisco Lindor, Jeff McNeil, and Dom Smith to bounce back at the plate from disappointing 2021 seasons. If they return to form, it will be a major plus for the Mets. Robinson Canó hit well in spring training following his year-long suspension. Showalter will find time for Cano at second base or DH if his bat justifies it.
On the cautionary side, the Mets bullpen is a question mark at the start of the season. Given the short spring training, the relief corps will be taxed in the early going to get 12-15 outs per game. Edwin Diaz begins his fourth season as the closer and has yet to duplicate his success with the Seattle Mariners. The Mets surprisingly allowed Aaron Loup and his 0.95 ERA to leave in free agency, creating a gap in relief. While they acquired Joely Rodriguez this week to fill Loup’s role, they traded reliable Miguel Castro to obtain him. Newly acquired Adam Ottavino is coming off two sub-par seasons while young Drew Smith seeks to expand on his success in 2021. The Mets will need Seth Lugo to return to form after an injury-plagued 2021.
Injuries and the lack of depth could hamper the starting rotation, too. Degrom will miss at least the first two months of the season while Scherzer’s debut is uncertain due to a tight hamstring. Taijuan Walker’s season debut may be delayed by a sore knee, while injuries limited Carlos Carrasco to 12 starts and one victory last season. Moreover, Tylor Megill is the surprise Opening Day starter due to injuries to deGrom and Scherzer. Megill was a surprisingly successful call-up last season in 18 starts until he wore down at season’s end. It will bear watching to see if the increase in workload in 2021 carries over into 2022. Should the rotation get hit with injuries, there isn’t much-starting pitching depth at the Triple-A level, a by-product of the Mets’ win-now mode in trading two pitching prospects for Bassitt.
The Mets should be in contention for a postseason spot in 2022. What happens between the white lines will determine the Mets’ fate, but perhaps the long overdue induction of Mets legend Gil Hodges into the Hall of Fame gives the win now Mets good karma for 2022.
When my Dad passed away this past May, among other things, I thought about the role baseball played in our relationship. His love of baseball reached back into the depths of the Depression in the 1930s when many barely had a roof over their heads and extended into the Covid-19 era when many couldn’t leave the house.
He served his country during World War II and married my Mom a few years later. Together, like so many of their generation, they worked hard and raised a Baby Boomer era family of five children amidst periods of turmoil and calm, war and peace, and prosperity and economic uncertainty in the country.
Through it all, baseball was a key feature in our relationship from the time Cleon Jones knelt down to catch the final out of the 1969 World Series to his last weekend of life when Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil argued whether each had seen a rat or a raccoon in the runway outside the Mets dugout. Yet, even as we discussed an upcoming Mets game or last night’s game, there was always the presence of the baseball of his younger days, be it the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field, or the more locally famous, Dexter Park, which through him, became real to me.
I wanted to write an article called “New York Baseball, Dad, and Me” but the article kept getting bigger so I have broken up my reflections into five roughly chronological segments beginning when my Dad attended his first game at Ebbets Field to the present day.
Part I, “Frenchy, Johnny, Joe D, Josh, Leo the Lip, Fat Freddie, Van Lingle Mungo” covers his early fandom of the Brooklyn Dodgers, his amateur playing days, and the near forgotten Dexter Park, a stadium that featured barnstorming major leaguers, Negro League teams, and “The Bushwicks.”
Part II, “Glory Days of the Brooklyn Dodgers” covers the highs and lows of rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers at mid-century and their cultural significance to the people of Brooklyn but also finding New York baseball at places other than between the lines on the field.
Part III, “Meeting the Mets” describes how my Dad and I bonded over being fans of the Mets from their World Series winning season of 1969 when I was a first grader through my adulthood covering the team as a columnist.
Part IV, “Final Innings” covers my Dad’s final illness and passing with one last look back at the glory of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.
Part V, “Present, Past, and Future” reflects on life since my Dad passed away, and how a game of catch nearly 50 years ago continues in perpetuity.
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, he said, it was just the way things were.
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.
I remember him telling me the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season “ripped my heart out.” Although I don’t remember him ever having any particular animus for the Los Angeles Dodgers, for those four years without a New York National League team, he didn’t follow baseball much. However, when Casey Stengel’s Mets debuted in 1962 with the orange and blue colors of the departed Giants and Dodgers, he happily rooted for the Mets despite their 120 losses in season number one.
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.
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. He enjoyed hearing about my experiences covering the Mets for the Rockland County Times in the last decade, especially my encounters with beloved former Mets like Ron Swoboda, Rusty Staub, and Jerry Koosman. 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.
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, the US Army, and a grateful nation…” I really felt their gratitude for his service.
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 has 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.