“So you need to put your golf balls in the oven and heat ‘em up,” Charlie explained to me back in
Jerry Seinfeld pretty much nails it with his “we root for the laundry” stand-up bit, but let’s take that a step further. I would say we root for the emblem emblazoned upon the laundry and the collection of memories engaged with that insignia. In terms of a collection of memories, you may not be able to find better fuel for your trip through the Mets time machine than Greg Prince’s The Happiest Recap.
A wonderful first volume tour through the early days of the organization, Prince (who along with Jason Fry, co-authors the Faith and Fear in Flushing blog) keeps it optimistic and cheerful, focusing on his favorite victories from the franchise inception to their near World Series upset in 1973. For me, I really hope we hear more about the Tug McGraw-led Mets this season, its 40th anniversary. They took the dynasty of the decade, the Oakland A’s, to the final game of the post-season and really had no business being there. Throughout the book, Prince paints the portrait of the times, whether it be a spiritual visit to the historic Polo Grounds (Win #2), which most of us never had a chance to explore, to the Moon Landing in 1969 (Win 67) as our Amazin’s were making their way through Baseball’s stratosphere, to some of the darkest days in the American Experiment (Win 124), the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, as our boys from Flushing provided something to believe in at the moment our nation began to earn its cynicism. For most Mets fans raised on a steady diet of "Lets go Mets go," Generation K & vitctory-ending "L.A. Woman" blasting from the stadium’s sound system, Prince allows us to glimpse selected post-game celebrations of yesteryear.
The other day, I chatted with Greg about his specific fan experience in Flushing, some thoughts on the ballclub through the years, and a whole lot of bar-stool speculation. Some opinions you may agree with, some completely against. Either way, with the often-combative but always engaging Mets Twitter universe, the group of Stephen Krane's Eddie Kranepool Society, Mike Silva, Kerel Cooper and his Video blog On The Black through Ed Marcus and the realdirtymets blog, Mets Merized Online, Brian Joura's Mets360.com and of course, Matt Cerrone's Metsblog, along with a host of others, I wanted to jump start a dialogue where everyone could chime in. I also added some clips for you to enjoy. Did my best to steer clear of those we've seen so many times over the past 15 years. No "Behind The Bag." No Endy Chavez. No Orosco chucking his glove to the sky. No Piazza 9/11 HR. Simply a deep-dive labor of love that I hope generates a few smiles, a few memories as well as a bunch of arguments. And it all begins with The Happiest Recap.
INSTREAM: Most every Mets fan of a certain age understands that the title of your book is a Bob Murphy reference. If you spend any time on Twitter, you can find more than your fair share of snarky remarks taking pot shots at announcer catch phrases. Have we gotten to the point with broadcasters where the words and phrases they would repeat in their play-by-play have become too mannered, too practiced? Do you think broadcasters back then were as aware of creating catch-phrases as they are today? Are we as a fan base too cynical to ALLOW a broadcaster to possess an “organic” catch-phrase?
GREG PRINCE: If the catchphrase isn’t the announcer’s entire identity, it can gain currency. Howie Rose rolled through quite a few when he began doing TV. “Put it in the books” is the only one to have endured, possibly because it couldn’t come out to play more than once per game. Gary Cohen’s “It’s outta here!” works because it’s germane to a specific situation. Anything forced will be rightly repelled. That’s when it becomes more about the announcer than what is being announced.
INSTREAM:Regardless of who’s in the booth, do you prefer watching the game or listening on the radio?
GREG PRINCE:It’s hard to pass up television, though that answer is colored by now eight seasons of Gary, Keith and Ron. During the two years when Gary Cohen teamed with Howie Rose, while the Mets were weighed down by Fran Healy on MSG/Fox Sports NY, I didn’t need pictures. The preferable thing about radio is ultimately it’s all about the game. You’re listening to somebody report and describe and it’s up to you to put an image to it. Radio is always there for you as long as you know how to use it. I don’t mean the knobs or the dial, but what the hell they’re talking about. I’m fortunate to have known what baseball announcers are talking about most of my life. My sister once confessed she was dumbfounded that people can hear words and make sports out of them. It’s second-nature to a fan, apparently.
INSTREAM:You get three spots in your ideal Mets broadcast booth, based upon those who have been there, who are they?
GREG PRINCE:Bob Murphy for avuncularity, constancy and an unmatched well of Mets experience. Gary Cohen for a keen and critical eye and the slyest of wits. Tim McCarver (1983-89 version) for the insider’s view. Two on TV, one on radio, just as it was for the first 17 years; two top-flight play-by-play men along with the best analyst I ever heard (before he became a caricature). Apologies to Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, Howie Rose and Keith Hernandez.
INSTREAM:Is it possible in 2013 for a sports franchise to take on a “loveable loser” moniker?
GREG PRINCE:The Astros seem likely to test that possibility: new ownership, new league, no expectations, almost a debranding. It wouldn’t work in New York the way it did for a couple of years a half-century ago. By 1964, that stuff wasn’t getting old. By 1967, it was intolerable.
INSTREAM:Tell me about your first met memory.
GREG PRINCE:The summer of ’69, the back page of the New York Post, a daily cartoon portraying the adorable duck, representing the second-place Mets, and the mean old bear, a.k.a. the first-place Cubs. I was six and learned to connect them to what was going on in the standings (I was fascinated by numbers more than words as a child), which I in turn began putting meaning to by watching games on Channel 9. It all made sense to me just about the time the duck was surpassing the bear. My first specific game memory is the night the Mets clinched the National League East, September 24, 1969. I was a bit confused, given that the Mets beat the Cardinals to do so, yet it was the Cubs who were our rivals. When I discovered the Cardinals were the 1968 National League champions, I assumed there was some clause about having to defeat the defending champs inherent in winning a title.
INSTREAM:Los Angeles great Tommy Davis cost the Mets Ron Hunt, the club’s first all-star & Jim Hickman, their top run producer. Davis had a nice year for the Mets and then was shipped off in the deal for Tommie Agee. In light of the ballclub dealing R.A. Dickey in what may turn out to be the very top of his value, can you think of another time where the Mets traded someone at their very peak?
GREG PRINCE:Rusty Staub had just set the Mets record for RBIs with 105 in 1975 — eight more than Donn Clendenon had in 1970 — when he was shipped off to Detroit for Mickey Lolich. Staub had plenty of peak left, more than enough to compensate for whatever clubhouse lawyering M. Donald Grant wanted to be rid of. Lolich wasn’t atrocious in 1976, but he had more doughnuts than peak in his future.
INSTREAM:Few people stop to think the Mets were part of the first NLCS series in 1969. Based upon your research, what was overall prediction at the time?
GREG PRINCE:Vegas, which seemed to be quite the barometer in those days, installed the Braves as 11:10 favorites — not as overwhelming as the 100:1 odds that were supposed to keep the Mets from winning the pennant when the season began, but the Mets were habitual underdogs despite compiling a record seven games better than the Braves and featuring the markedly better pitching. On the other hand, Atlanta had Henry Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and Phil Niekro, three future Hall of Famers, plus the very dangerous Rico Carty. It’s a shame almost no footage remains of that first playoff. It’s almost always a footnote between winning the East and upsetting the Orioles.
INSTREAM:Based upon your research, with all the conjecture & umpire remembrances about the National League NOT calling the high strike, do you think the Mets would have ever figured out Nolan Ryan?
GREG PRINCE:The “not a good fit for New York” permeates Nolan’s narrative. He didn’t seem all that thrilled to reunite with his 1969 teammates (for the first time) in 2009, and they were the guys with whom he won his only world championship. Like every Mets starter in those days, his opportunity revolved around Seaver pitching in turn. Between that and the military service (which was about to end), it just didn’t seem the stars were aligned for him, which I grant you isn’t a very sabermetric appraisal.
INSTREAM:It might be heresy to say this, but looking back now (especially through Sabermetric glasses) to the outstanding career of Ken Singleton, one has to re-consider the trade. Using the knowledge of hindsight, would you still trade Singleton, Jorgy & Tim Foli for Rusty Staub?
GREG PRINCE:I’d like to say the Mets made the World Series with Rusty Staub, thus it was worth the price. But the Orioles and Pirates faced each other in a World Series with Singleton and Foli in opposing dugouts, and Singleton was the kind of all-around outfielder the Mets never had. Yet Rusty was so frigging perfect for New York, so I’m gonna go with history over hindsight and say go back, Bob Scheffing, and do it again. Foli was a No. 1 draft pick, but even accounting for Bud Harrelson’s recurring bad injury luck, he wasn’t going to start at short. Millan was a terrific acquisition at second. Can’t see Foli being the long-term solution at third. Jorgy was a good player but between Kranepool in renaissance and Milner at his sluggingest, I don’t think he was an upgrade (except on defense, where he was exceptional). Nope, gotta have Rusty.
INSTREAM:We think back now and remember & admire the icon of Gil Hodges. Going into the 1972 season, it had been two years since the Miracle Mets’ world championship. Based upon your memories and the research you conducted for the book, take us back to that time. How was the media feeling about Hodges, the manager? Did he possess iron-clad security of the skipper’s role or were beat writers and observers beginning to wonder? Was he getting heat?
GREG PRINCE: I didn’t find and don’t recall Gil ever getting any kind of heat in the press, given that the intra-Mets operation was framed as Gil vs. Grant, and nobody liked Grant. But in real time, when no man is a saint, not every player was necessarily a Hodges acolyte. Everybody wanted playing time and not everybody could get it. 1970 couldn’t help but be disappointing given the act it was following. By 1971, they weren’t nearly in the Pirates’ class, so it’s not out of the question that somebody’s patience somewhere might have snapped if things hadn’t picked up in 1972. Plus Gil was, in the parlance of the day, a square, and players in general were itching for the same freedoms everybody sought back then. It’s almost like the jump from Season Five to Season Six of Mad Men when you look at the hair lengths in 1971, Gil’s last year, and 1972, Yogi’s first year. As admired and respected as Gil was — and as deserving of it as he was for what he did in 1968 and 1969 — it’s not out of the realm to imagine a power struggle with Grant going awry if the ’72 team fell apart on his watch as it did on Berra’s. All that (along with “we’ll never know”) said, Gil was a towering figure whose passing wasn’t just tragic for human reasons, but for Met reasons. He was Gil Hodges. That still says it all to me more than forty years later.
INSTREAM:How did you find out about the Willie Mays trade?
GREG PRINCE:Story in the Post, pre-Murdoch. My dad brought it home from the city and there was the story: the greatest player in the world was going to be a Met. Didn’t matter that he was old. He was Willie Mays. It was thrilling.
INSTREAM:The Mets Blogsophere likes to fault Omar for some disastrous signings, Harper & Klapisch wrote about the worst team money can buy. The later years of M. Donald Grant were marked with a serious lack of vision and some terrible moves. Don’t you think the trades where the Mets sent away Amos Otis. Nolan Ryan, Jim Bibby, among others have to be in the running for some of the worst front office moves in the history of the franchise? I know Ryan is considered #1 all-time transaction blunder, but collectively speaking in the early ‘70’s there were some awful decisions.
GREG PRINCE:There was no oversight, no quality control in those days. I think what’s really helped baseball executives in the modern era is that everybody (certainly within “the industry,” let alone the really engaged fans) knows who the prospects are and aren’t, and the statistics are both readily available and interpreted. In the early ‘70s, it seems there was just less sense of who might actually turn into a player if given enough time. The Mets weren’t short on pitching, so they didn’t exactly miss Bibby, but they kind of threw him away (no disrespect to Jim Beauchamp and Harry Parker, contributors to the 1973 pennant winners who came back in that trade). Otis and Ryan are, of course, legendary in their infamy from a Met perspective, though I have to admit at 8 going on 9, my reaction to dealing Nolan Ryan was, “good riddance to Mr. Perpetually Wild.” Then again, my standard was Tom Seaver, so I thought just about every pitcher suffered by comparison. I also wondered why we were getting an All-Star shortstop like Fregosi to play third. Hence, I was only half-ignorant. What was Bob Scheffing’s excuse?
INSTREAM:In your view, what is the most underrated trade in Mets history?
GREG PRINCE:Totally below the historical radar: Gerald Young, Manny Lee and Mitch Cook for future World Series MVP Ray Knight. Two of those guys had MLB careers, but neither performed at the level of, say, Steve Renko, who you had to give up to get future World Series MVP Donn Clendenon. One other swap not mentioned nearly enough in this realm: Tom Parsons for Jerry Grote. A 1-10 pitcher for your catcher of the next decade, a backstop his Hall of Fame teammate swore by.
INSTREAM:What’s the most overrated?
GREG PRINCE:Mets fans never rate anything but outright steals high, so I’m not sure there is one given too much credit. I’ll look at it from this angle: the most overrated trade in terms of impact that I don’t think was quite as big a deal in terms of hurting the Mets as is generally thought was Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano. Not that it didn’t turn out to be a stupid trade but I never really believed it shook the foundations of the franchise to its core and I have a sense that somehow Kazmir would’ve blown his arm out as a Met. Maybe I was haunted by Generation K, but I liked the notion of a proven starter coming over. But I would have loved a more thorough examination of Zambrano’s left arm before pulling the trigger.
INSTREAM:Wayne Garrett, leadoff hitter – watching this clip, I forgot the Mets had a leadoff hitter with 16 home runs back then. People talk often about Aaron blasting 40 homers at age 38, Davey Johnson’s otherworldly 43 dingers, basically the entire Braves lineup of that season raking out of their minds, Dave May having a monster campaign in Milwaukee. More of a comment than a question, there really had to be something in the water in 1973. Home Runs increased by over 10% that year, and there’s no DH in the NL to account for this.
GREG PRINCE:And Bonds (Bobby) was close to 40-40 that year. Flintstones Chewables came out around then. Did they test for that? Garrett was second to Milner (23) in Met home runs, just ahead of Staub (15), then a dropoff to Cleon Jones at 11. That great National League power-laden water apparently wasn’t filtered through Shea’s taps until September.
INSTREAM:It’s really a shame that we can’t find the actual studio master tapes of the 1973 NLCS pitting the Mets against Cincinnati. What an exciting series to read about. Imagine if we had a chance to see it again. I asked this question before, but I’d love to hear your answer. Would you say that the LCS and now the League Division Series get the short-shift when we remember great moments in baseball history?
GREG PRINCE:Three postseason rounds may work well in determining a champion, but nine separate series of baseball, including the two Wild Card games, is just too many for the non-aligned fan to sort into distinct memories. Since 1995 and the advent of the LDS as a permanent fixture (thus not counting the one-off of 1981), an LDS or an LCS may yield the great moment of October, but it tends to obliterate the World Series, unless the World Series is fantastic, and then it overshadows what came before. 2012 couldn’t have gotten off to a hotter start, with the infield fly weirdness in Atlanta and then the four fifth games of the LDSes, but the World Series, the sport’s showcase event, limped home in privacy. There are too many teams for it now, but I liked four divisions, 18 and 12 games against your division and non-division rivals respectively, a best-of-five playoff and the World Series. So much neater and it left you with a manageable memory set from any given year. As for the 1973 NLCS, the passion of Mets vs. Reds — no pre-existing rivalry — feels in retrospect like how the 1908 Giants-Cubs race reads. I definitely wish it was on DVD.
INSTREAM:You know, the Mets purchased him for $150k from the financially struggling San Francisco Giants. In later years, he became a Sabermetric punchline, colored in by Grassy-Knoll conspiracies that he was blackballed from the league so he couldn’t reach 500 career Home Runs, getting rode hard the way certain analytical types enjoy smacking Jim Rice in the mouth on the way out the door of their Hall of Fame articles. They didn’t see what we saw, nor feel what we felt. Describe the poetry of the Dave Kingman experience at Shea in 1975 and 1976.
GREG PRINCE:Certain players whose skill set was singular had to be seen to be appreciated. In the Mets’ case, I can think of two like that: Dave Kingman and Rey Ordoñez. So much to not recommend them for the long term, but when they were doing their thing, you didn’t care. Dave was the home run personified. We never had a home run hitter before 1975, not somebody whose sole reason for being was the home run and somebody who actually delivered them. Dave Kingman didn’t hit home runs, actually; he hit massive wallops. He brought Topps copy to life that way. There was so much excitement anticipating them. At 13, in ’76, I distinctly recall telling my then baseball-oblivious mother as she waited in the car for me to run inside the house to get something while the game was on the radio, “listen closely and let me know if the guy who’s about to bat hits a home run.” It sounded so amateurish on my part, but you really thought he was going to hit one out every time up. Of course he struck out mostly, but you barely noticed. Strawberry and Piazza had some of that but they were too good to get bogged down on a home run watch; they could do other things and you were happy when they did. The all-or-nothingness was essential to loving Dave Kingman — plus being 12 or 13 and, I suppose, not actually knowing him personally.
INSTREAM:I had a Twitter conversation the other day with Earl of Totalsportsblog.com, who believes (in most cases), “No one goes to the park to see players. They go to see winning. “ It’s hard to argue that point, because the numbers bare out that the METS out-drew the Yankees from 1964-1975 and then again from ’84 to ’92. That said, I went to see Sky King, I went to see Mookie (especially Mookie), I went to see Straw. Are there any players through your life you made an extra effort to see play?
GREG PRINCE:Maybe when they first get there it’s a priority, but after a fashion, I just want to see the Mets. I take a certain pride in being on hand for the “first game in Richard Hidalgo’s Met career” and other fleeting oddities, but the unit transcends the individual (Matt Harvey starts this year perhaps transcending that rule). I’d also add I don’t much care who the opponent is. If there’s a big game again some day, then sure, I want to be there. But the key to being a hardy perennial is all comers are “gold games,” or whatever code the Mets use to set ticket pricing these days. So bring on the Padres, the Marlins or whoever. It’s the Mets I’m looking to see.
INSTREAM:July 13th, 1977. Lenny Randle steps to the plate. The lights go out. Where are you?
GREG PRINCE:I’m in my bedroom on Long Island, thankfully unaffected by Con Edison’s problems, and I’m listening to the game on WNEW 1130, which disappears into static. I didn’t think much of it at first because technical difficulties were a fact of life. But when it went on a few minutes, I switched to WINS, the all-news station, and it’s chaos. I trundle downstairs to alert the family that the city is in a blackout. I don’t find out about Randle’s deciding the Lord has come to take him and the Mets pantomiming by automobile headlight until the next day, when I’m delivering Newsday and rustle up a copy of the Daily News that got printed ahead of the outage.
INSTREAM:I think it’s incredible that the Mets could not have rebuilt the ballclub in 1977 with a pitching staff of Koosman, Matlack, Craig Swan & Pat Zachry. Swanie led the league in ERA in ’78, Zachry was selected to the All-Star Team. Matlack would enjoy one of his greatest seasons in terms of ERA+ the following year with Texas and ’78 and Koosman arguably his best season in 1979 with Minnesota. When do you think the Payson family was resigned to begin the process of selling the ballclub, because to me, it seems like they just stopped caring after June 15th, 1977.
GREG PRINCE:There was nothing about that management that indicated rebuilding was a priority. If it were, they not only wouldn’t have they traded Seaver, but they would’ve taken his advice and gone after Gary Matthews in the first free agent class. He was exactly the kind of outfielder they could’ve used. Kooz and Matlack had good years left, but this wasn’t the place to exploit those remaining innings in their respective left arms. Swan and Zachry could’ve been building blocks as No. 2 or 3 starters not unlike Niese and Gee behind Harvey (or Dickey...sigh), but there were no sum of the parts to those late ’70s Mets. There were just parts and a schedule to get through as cheaply as possible.
INSTREAM:How great were those two months in 1980? Mark Bomback, the Steve Henderson walkoff against Allen Ripley. Do you think the 1980 season would have been different had Craig Swan not gotten injured?
GREG PRINCE:Pound for pound, as they used to (and maybe still) say in praise of fighters in the sub-heavyweight classes, I may have never enjoyed a period of Mets baseball as much as I enjoyed the middle of May 1980 to the middle of August 1980, when the Mets compiled a 47-39 record after a 9-18 start. Henderson’s blow came a month into the Mets’ totally unforeseen rise toward relevance, right on top of a great week when they swept the Dodgers, winning one of those games on a walkoff grand slam from Mike Jorgensen. Almost every game they were winning was a stirring comeback. Don Draper couldn’t have arranged for a better payoff to the Magic is Back campaign. It was only a month but it felt like it was forever in developing because those three preceding years were so sad and empty, and the Mets were so persistently invisible as a New York sports entity. In the weeks that followed Henderson’s three-run homer to beat Ripley and the Giants, 7-6 (after trailing 6-0), they got closer and closer to .500 and closer and closer to the top of the division and felt every inch the contender. I was 17 that summer and had no idea how shallow their talent was and that Montreal and Philadelphia were just getting their acts together. I lived and breathed the Mets every day until they got swept by the Phillies in a five-game set at Shea despite having all five of their starters lined up: Swan, Zachry, Bomback, Ray Burris and Roy Lee Jackson. Every one of them got smacked around and down the tubes the illusion of the 1980 Mets went. They lost 38 of 49 and finished a distant fifth, 67-95 overall. But it never dimmed my enthusiasm for what I witnessed during the 47-39 stretch, three months that reminded me and reminded a decent slice of New York what the Mets could again be. And I kept living and breathing the Mets into adulthood quite possibly because of that validating summer. It hinted that being a Mets fan wouldn’t always be about managing decline.
INSTREAM:What would you say to Mets fans who don’t realize it took Frank Cashen four season to turn the team into winners? Alderson is currently in his third year.
GREG PRINCE:I’d say hang in there, though I’m not necessarily certain Alderson is the second coming of Cashen or that history repeats itself to a tee every thirty years. Cashen and his deputies had a great eye for amateur talent and the wherewithal to pull the trigger on some incandescent trades. He wasn’t interested in free agents but he had the blessing of Doubleday and Wilpon to retain the big names he acquired: Foster, Hernandez, Carter. We haven’t the foggiest idea what the current Wilpon regime is able or willing to pay. The Mets who entered 1980 were a bigger mess than the ones Alderson got his hands on in 2011. Jury’s still out. But hang in there anyway.
INSTREAM: According to Peter Golenbock’s chronicle of the Mets, “Amazin,” after the ballclub lost Tom Seaver in the compensation draft, Davey Johnson pushed Frank Cashen harder to have Dwight Gooden on the opening day roster. You think it’s fair to say if Seaver’s a Met in 1984, Doc opens the season at Tidewater?
GREG PRINCE: Maybe. Hard to project, given Johnson’s headstrong desire to have Gooden and how good the 19-year-old looked in Spring Training. I’d like to believe Seaver and Gooden could’ve shared time in the rotation, while Mike Torrez could have been given his walking papers sooner. Based on his 1983 performance, Torrez was an expert when it came to walking.
INSTREAM:I’ve heard in a number of places that Darryl Strawberry, not Roger McDowell, was supposed to appear in the classic SEINFELD episode, “The Boyfriend” as “The Second Spitter,” but was replaced due to his well-reported off-the-field issues,. How much different do you think the Keith Hernandez legend has been enhanced by his appearance on the show?
GREG PRINCE:Keith without SEINFELD is like his old Just For Men commercial partner Clyde Frazier without his wardrobe. There’s a whole extra layer of mystique to Keith because of that appearance. He’s not just the Mets’ revered championship first baseman/No. 3 hitter in retirement...he’s Keith Hernandez. It’s by far the most famous and greatest pop culture appearance of any Met and it comes on in repeats about every three weeks on some channel almost without fail. McDowell seems to fit the supporting role better than Straw. Darryl wouldn’t have bothered to spit at Kramer and Newman. He saved his bile for Wally Backman.
INSTREAM: Do you think Los Angeles native Darryl Strawberry would have personally collapsed as bad as he did had he stayed with the New York Mets?
GREG PRINCE:Sooner or later, Darryl was due. It might have taken longer or another form, but he seemed destined for trouble. He never got through a homestand without expressing discontent over something as a Met, even when he was producing and starring and being loved. Given Doc's and Darryl's respective journeys, the Mets could have kept Kevin Mitchell.
INSTREAM: Outside of the post-season, what is your most memorable, most exciting Mets regular-season, non-playoff implications win of all time?
GREG PRINCE:Though I considered everything from Opening Day onward in 1985 laced with playoff implications, I’ll go with the 19-inning game in Atlanta that July 4-5. The stories usually boil down to Rick Camp’s home run, and understandably so, but it was a lunatic game before it got to extra innings. Rain cost Davey the use of Gooden. A double-switch went awry and he lost McDowell, who at the time was a rookie revelation. They blew a 7-4 lead in the eighth and then they stuck it to Bruce Sutter to tie it at eight in the ninth. Howard Johnson hits a huge home run in the thirteenth to put us up, 10-8, which I remember as much for Ray Knight standing at the plate to greet him, an incredibly classy move considering Knight was losing playing time to HoJo. And Hernandez cycles. And Strawberry is ejected. And Carter catches every inning. And Gorman, who was mostly awful that year, puts the clamps on the Braves after giving up the tying homer to Terry Harper, who collects five hits that are completely obscured by Rick Camp hitting that home run in the eighteenth...though how could everything not be? And then the Mets score five in the nineteenth and the Braves score two in the bottom of the inning and Camp actually comes up as the tying run and Darling is pitching in relief and gets him out for the 16-13 Mets win. And the fireworks after the game at four in the morning. That night was the only time I ever closed down a bar. They let me and my friend watch until like the seventeenth (we showed up in the middle innings), but then, as the saying goes, we didn’t have to go home but we couldn’t stay there. When Camp hits that homer, we’re on a main drag that is totally and completely deserted. Bob Murphy admits some games you’re just not meant to win. When he said that, I just stopped the car in the middle of what was usually a busy road because if Bob Murphy can’t emit enthusiasm at 3:30 in the morning over the Mets’ chances in an 11-11 tie, then what’s the point of going on?
INSTREAM:Who was the one guy you would have liked to have managed the Mets that never happened?
GREG PRINCE:Somewhere during his burnt-out phase, I recall reading of the Mets’ interest in Jim Leyland. I thought that was crazy because, what, they’re going to drag this guy out of retirement? Then he goes to Detroit and resurrects the franchise. In retrospect it might have been interesting to see him try it here. The media laps him up, so I don’t think New York would’ve bothered him.
INSTREAM:Willie Mays, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, George Foster, Mike Piazza, Roberto Alomar. Which trade do you believe, generated the most anticipation among the fan base?
GREG PRINCE:Given where the Mets were and the time of year when it was made, Carter. He was immediately cast as the “final piece of the puzzle,” which was a bit premature, but wow, we won 90 games last year and now we have Gary Carter, watch out Cubs! Every one of those names provided a jolt when announced, but Carter had “right place, right time” written all over him. And he embraced it, which made it even better.
INSTREAM:Describe for me the best day you ever had at Shea Stadium.
GREG PRINCE:October 3, 1999. The Mets have to beat the Pirates in the 162nd game of the year to, at the very least, tie the Reds for the Wild Card and force a one-game playoff. Hanging over this assignment was the seven-game losing streak that knocked the Mets into this predicament; a heartbreaking loss to the Braves that preceded this series; and, most of all, the way the Mets dropped their final five in 1998 and thus blew their first playoff spot in a decade. What got me about this game as I woke up that morning was the Kenny Loggins factor, if you will: This is it. This is what we as fans show up day and night for, a chance to break into the promised land...the playoffs. You just hoped the players would see it as such and respond accordingly. It was an amazingly tense atmosphere in the ballpark, supportive but murmuring because it was 1-1 most of the way. The pitchers were, in a weird twist of history, Orel Hershiser, Mets nemesis from the past now the calm veteran head for the Mets, and Kris Benson, later an appendage to the comic stylings of Anna Benson when they were with the club. It was a perfect baseball allegory: grizzled old man and fireballing youngster keeping runs off the board. You get to the ninth inning, the tension’s only increased. Bobby Valentine sends up a player he and we can’t stand, Bobby Bonilla. We’re all ready to forgive Bonilla’s real and imagined transgressions, standing and applauding a guy we’ve booed all year. And you can feel that he really wants to make good on it. But he doesn’t. Yet in the time we’d normally take to mutter about Bobby Bo, we’re now lined up behind Melvin Mora, a bit bench player who gets the single we desperately need to generate a rally. Then Edgardo Alfonzo, forever the solid pro, singling him to third. Now it’s OK to make noise and think that the team that let you down last year and last week and just the other night might actually deliver what you woke up for. Olerud is intentionally walked to face Piazza...both nuts and perfectly sane...and Brad Clontz, an ex-Met but not so much so that a tangible memory of him as a Met exists, uncorks a wild pitch and Holy Tim Foli, Mora races down the line, slowing just enough to duckwalk across the plate and put us, per Howie Rose, in something approximating postseason play. “Mojo Risin’” blares from the Shea speakers and everybody’s hugging and looking for John Franco because we know he’s the one player in all of baseball who’s waited longest to reach the playoffs, and in the middle of everything, my friend whispers into my ear, “They didn’t choke,” which was mighty considerate of him to mention since he knew I was on the verge of giving up baseball altogether if the Mets let me down again. And just to put a Shea spin on the whole affair, it was Fan Appreciation Day and we were all supposed to get mini bats, except the Mets didn’t trust us enough to give us projectiles while entering, so they gave them to us as we exited, or attempted to. 50,000 fans, their wildest dreams sated minutes earlier, mobbed the bat-dispensing stations and it was every fan for himself. I saw some yutz walk out with NINE bats. I peeled two rainchecks off the ground and mailed them in for my wife and me who walked away emptyhanded. They arrived at our house a month later, in the middle of a nasty November storm, a piece of pennant race to get us through a stressful offseason moment. The bats were accompanied by a letter confirming what we suspected: The Mets were indeed were afraid we’d take the bats and throw them on the field if they had choked away another playoff spot.
INSTREAM:I had a conversation with a Mets official a couple years back. We got around to discussing Aaron Heilman. I know how his career has panned out, but I always had a sneaking suspicion the organization never truly gave him a chance as a starter. What are your thoughts there?
GREG PRINCE:Aaron Heilman one-hits a very good Florida Marlins club on April 15, 2005. On May 15, 2005, he makes his final start ever for the New York Mets. It was a bit of a mystery that they didn’t ride him out in a rotation that wasn’t particularly deep or that a year later, when besieged by injuries, they didn’t give him a shot (while Jose Lima, Geremi Gonzalez, Dave Williams and a cast of thousands were handed the ball). Either they didn’t trust his endurance or his makeup — or they really liked him in the seventh and eighth innings. It’s not a mystery to which I’ve given much thought lately, but now that you mention it, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to show a little faith in their former No. 1 draft pick. The Mets were and still are a little too rigid about who can do what. Tony La Russa would not have been afraid to try Heilman a few more starts and probably would’ve gotten 15 wins a season out of him.
INSTREAM:For pure METS sentimental value, I was so happy the ballclub re-acquired Mazzilli in ’86. He had played through so many brutal seasons that I thought it was wonderful that he was brought back into the fold to take part in the glory. Do you think there was another player addition in club history that contained even more sentimental value outside of “this guy can really help the ballclub?”
GREG PRINCE:The Lee Mazzilli reacquisition was perfectly timed. Great for him, great for the club, great for the fans and really paid off in the World Series. Most Recidivist Mets don’t have those kinds of happy homecomings. Only Rusty Staub’s had more long-term value. Several felt good upon contact — Seaver, Kingman, Brooks, Cone all come to mind — but either went sour or simply fizzled on the field. When the Mets signed Fonzie to a Triple-A contract in 2006, I hoped like hell he’d be added to the roster as Mazz was, and I think it would’ve happened had not Ramon Castro gone on the DL and the Mets needed to find space on the 40-man for the decidedly unsentimental return of Kelly Stinnett. (All this said, nothing out-sentimentaled the return of Willie Mays to a New York National League uniform.)
INSTREAM:With all the chatter surrounding the Giancarlo Stanton rumors a couple weeks ago, what are your thoughts on inter-division trades? On one hand you don’t want to see former players come back and bite you, and yet most of the great swaps in team history – Carter (expos), Hernandez (Cards), John Stearns (Phils), Piazza (Marlins) came from the NL East.
GREG PRINCE:You’ll notice three of the four you mention are absolutely ancient, and Piazza, which isn’t recent, was with a team being used by the Dodgers for player-laundering purposes. I get the sense teams are afraid to deal within their own division these days because of the backlash that’s just waiting to unfurl. I don’t remember an emphasis on “your own division” one way or another when trades were made decades ago. There wasn’t the same microscope on every GM’s moves. Front offices don’t want to swing for the fences anymore; almost everybody wants to work out a walk, so to speak. The current Marlins, however, are an exception to every contemporary rule, so the Mets could be as “in on Stanton” as anybody else. Now to make it happen without giving up anybody of consequence.
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