Aug 26

My brush with greatness ….

The year was 1998, the season of the great home run race and when the Yankees steamrolled through Major League Baseball. It was also the year Cal Ripken’s streak came to an end.

KENNEDY: My brush with greatness.

KENNEDY: My brush with greatness.


That was also my first year on the Yankees beat and I’ll always remember a flight I took from Boston to Washington. I was sitting in the exit row by a window reading a magazine when this man plopped down in the aisle seat. I recognized him immediately, and a few minutes later he extended his hand and said, “I’m Ted Kennedy.”

I said, “I know,” and introduced myself. A few minutes later, I told him, “in all fairness, I should tell you I’m a newspaper reporter.” I didn’t think it would be right for him to be ambushed the next day in the papers by something he might have said or done.

He appreciated the gesture and we began to chat. When I told him I covered baseball, he responded with stories of how his father, Joseph, took him and his brothers to games in Fenway Park. He then spoke of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race and Ripken.

I told him I once wrote a term paper my freshman year in college about him. I was a big liberal at the time.

Not once did we talk of politics or social issues. I figured he gets that all the time. I did want to tell him how touched I was about the eulogy he gave for his brother, Robert, but wasn’t sure if it would strike a sad nerve. I always wonder what he might have said had I brought it up.

It was a pleasant conversation. After awhile, he started reading some files and I returned to my magazine. We started talking again before the end of the flight, and when we landed we shook hands and went our separate ways.

I was surprised nobody bothered him during the flight and nobody approached him at the gate when we left the plane. A few days later, I sent him a note telling him how I enjoyed our conversation.

I told my editor of the meeting, and his response was a curt, “What in the hell were you doing in first class?”

Aug 21

Just let him go ….

Both parties are following their nature, paths leading on an inevitable collision course. Gary Sheffield and the Mets clashed last night, and it won’t be the last time before this train wreck of a season comes to its bitter end.

SHEFFIELD: Time to let him go.

SHEFFIELD: Time to let him go.


The Mets stumble through moments like this with veteran players, holding on to them too long, hoping for glimpses of the past rather than seeing the likely end. They grasped too long with Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Julio Franco before finally letting go. They did right with Livan Hernandez, but saving money by not paying out innings incentives was probably the true motivation.

Sheffield, as is his wont, is complaining again about his contract. He asked for an extension last night, was turned down, demanded his release and then wanted to sit out.

For his part, Sheffield has been a model citizen this season until last night. He’s proven he still had flashes of pop, and even at 41 next year, he probably would have gotten a contract. If not with the Mets, then maybe in the American League as a designated hitter.

The Mets, as they should have, exposed him to the waiver wire earlier this month and the San Francisco Giants put in a claim. Rather then get something, the Mets pulled him off the wire. Why? They weren’t going anywhere. Would he sell that many tickets?

With this move, the Mets lost the opportunity to trade Sheffield and if he’s claimed again they get nothing. Not smart.

Concurrently, manager Jerry Manuel, who doesn’t always measure his thoughts before speaking, said he thought Sheffield still had something and wanted him back next year.

Sheffield’s timing was poor – it usually is when it comes to talking about his contract – but he had every reason to assume he was in the Mets’ plans for 2010.

When the Mets turned him down – they didn’t even say let’s talk about it after the season – they were saying he wasn’t in their future. Sheffield now says the Mets are holding him hostage, which is only partly true.

Barring his release through irrevocable waivers, he’ll languish over the next five weeks in the mediocrity that has become the Mets. There will be no postseason for Sheffield. However, he’s still making $14 million this year (Detroit is paying $13.6 million) and if he finishes quiet with him mouth and loud with his bat, he’ll play again.

It is hard to understand if Sheffield weren’t in their plans why the Mets would keep him. With the season lost, wouldn’t this be a good time to give Nick Evans extended playing time in left field to see if there is something? If Evans showed something, it might alleviate one less off-season headache. You never know.

If history is any indicator, Sheffield will purposely become a distraction. The Mets would likely blame the media for stirring the pot, but with a loose cannon like that, he’s going to be asked questions. He’s an easy story now.

He did so while with the Yankees to the point they were pleading for somebody to take him. The suckers were the Tigers who gave him a $28 million contract.

The Mets should realize this season is lost and there’s no benefit to keeping Sheffield. They should pull the trigger now and be done with it.

Aug 02

Remembering Munson

This is a Mets blog, but it is also a New York baseball blog. Today marks the anniversary of the tragic death of Yankees captain Thurman Munson, who was killed 30 years ago today in a plane crash near Canton, Ohio.

I once spoke with his widow, Diana, about their life together and that tragic day. I hope you’ll post your remembrances of Munson.

***

It was one of those bitter cold days. The kind where the wind whips your face, where your fingers ache and even your eye lashes hurt.

Diana Munson doesn’t remember the year, but recalls the afternoon when she and her husband, Thurman Munson, the captain catcher of the New York Yankees, were running errands in Manhattan and drove into a gas station.

“The guy wouldn’t come out, so Thurman got out and started pumping the gas,” Diana said. “He was wearing jeans and a flannel jacket and boots – kind of a typical Ohio guy out of place in New York at the time.”

Diana sat in the car as her husband pumped the gas and a car pulled in behind theirs.

“I remember, the guy said, `Hey buddy, when you’re done with that fill this one up,’ ” Diana said. “If he only knew who he was talking to – he never would have believed it. The cutest thing about this story is he filled it up for him.”

MUNSON: Always in motion.

MUNSON: Always in motion.


Diana Munson’s voice paused, it softened, it became reflective.

“Those are the things about him that I just loved,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite stories about him. I think about that a lot.”

Her memories are more frequent now as she is reminded of the cruelest day of her life – on August 2, 1979, her husband was killed in a plane accident near their offseason Canton, Ohio, home. It was a Thursday, an off day for the Yankees, and Munson was practicing take-offs and landings in his twin-engine Cessna Citation.

Later that day, he was to meet her at an office to sign papers dedicating “Munson Street” in a nearby housing development. However, Munson was always busy and for him to be running late wasn’t unusual. Diana dismissed it and went to the grocery store and continued home.

“I was unloading the groceries and the people from the airport came to my house,” Diana said, her voice trailing to a whisper.

“Nothing has ever compared to it in my life,” she said of the chill – far more numbing than the one she experienced that day in New York – that ran down her spine.

“I’ve lost lots of people in my life, but it was the way that it happened. You’re not supposed to lose someone who is that young. You’re not supposed to lose someone on a beautiful day … not in the middle of baseball season. Thurman was the best father that I had ever watched. Looking at those little kids and knowing what they were about to go through just about killed me.”

Within minutes, the news was on the wire.

MUNSON: Always clutch.

MUNSON: Always clutch.


Yankees reliever Goose Gossage was getting dressed for a night on the town when he got the call from owner George Steinbrenner. Bobby Murcer was “stunned when I heard the news … I cried a lot at that time.” Yankees first baseman Chris Chambliss was driving with his wife when he heard the news on the radio.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre, then manager of the Mets, was in the dugout when the message flashed on the scoreboard.

“It was up on the board,” Torre said. “Just shock. Lee Mazzilli was in the batter’s box. He got out of the box and looked at me, `What do I do?’ It was such an eerie sensation.”

That sensation has never left Diana Munson, but, “it took me a long time to come to peace with this.” Her memories of Munson and the life they shared have softened. Some – like the one at the gas station – have aged like a fine wine.

She remembers a thoughtful husband and loving father to Tracy, Kelly and Michael. Sometimes, she remembers that Munson considered quitting flying. That’s not so pleasant … it gnaws at her. She remembers when she first knew she was going to marry him: “I was 10 years old at the time and I wrote Mrs. Thurman Munson on my notebook.”

Murcer and Gossage recalled Munson’s work ethic, and Diana remembered him getting up at 6 in the morning to caddy at a golf course, then cut lawns before going to baseball practice. She recalls the three-sport star at Canton’s Lehman High School, and that he loved real estate and listening to Neil Diamond.

“My poor children knew every Neil Diamond song before they knew their nursery rhymes,” she said.

She remembers his laugh – “always the loudest one in the room,” she said – and the time he drove to a Brooklyn church from Canton in a snowstorm for a Christmas party to distribute toys to underprivileged children. Munson brought with him the Yankees fine money for that season, nearly $5,000.

She remembers for months after his death receiving letters from charities, thanking her for Munson’s generosity. “Believe it or not, there were many that I had never heard of,” she said. “But, that was like him. He never did it for the recognition, he did it for right reasons.”

Sometimes, her memories, like at Old Timer’s Games, drift to the days when Munson was a special baseball player.

The public memories of Munson are of a gruff, grouchy, squat catcher. They are of his feuds with Reggie Jackson – “The straw that stirs the drink” – and Carlton Fisk, the taller, thinner, chiseled catcher for the Boston Red Sox.

The Yankee championship teams of 1977 and 1978 were loaded with stars – Jackson, Chambliss, Graig Nettles and Lou Piniella – but Munson was captain. He was a six-time All-Star and the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1976. He hit .512, .320 and .320 again in his three World Series appearances. He was the 1970 Rookie of the Year and hit over .300 five times.

Nothing meant more to him than being a Yankee captain.

“He loved the Yankees. His heart was a true Yankee heart,” Diana said. “He didn’t want to be captain because whenever you single yourself out like that you feel like you’re not as much a part of the team. He was uncomfortable with that, but at the same time he was so proud of that.”

Munson was the real straw in the drink.

“He was the leader on those teams and everybody knew it,” Murcer said. “We all looked up to him because of his toughness and his ability to produce in the clutch. He had such an uncanny ability to come through when the pressure was on.”

Years later, current Yankees manager Joe Girardi saw for himself when he was channel surfing when on his screen popped the unmistakable image of Yankee Stadium.

“It was Classic Sports, and they were showing the Kansas City game,” Girardi said of the pivotal Game 3 of the 1978 American League Championship Series.

“I’ve heard a lot about that game and what he did. I wanted to see how he played so I kept watching.”

The series was tied 1-1 and the Yankees trailed 5-4 in the eighth inning when Munson – not normally known as a power hitter – crushed a line-drive, two-run homer off Royals reliever Doug Bird to give the Yankees a 6-5 victory.

Munson was named Most Valuable Player in the series and the Yankees went on to beat Los Angeles in six games in the World Series.

Hall of Famer George Brett played in that game. His Royals and the Yankees were one of baseball’s hottest rivalries in the 1970s.

“We hated the Yankees,” Brett said. “But we also respected them – and we all respected Thurman. He was so tough in the clutch and we feared him because he usually came through. However, the thing I’ll remember most about Thurman wasn’t that home run, but of something that happened in a fight we had against them.

“I slid hard into third base and Nettles and I started shoving each other. The benches cleared and it got real ugly. I remember being on the ground and Thurman was on top of me. I thought, `Uh, oh, he’s going to crush me,’ but all he did was whisper in my ear, `Don’t worry George, I won’t let anything happen to you.’ ”

Diana Munson said she gets sad when she returns to Yankee Stadium because it’s a reminder of what was and what could have been. The feelings are a mix of pain and pride when she sees Munson’s locker that remains intact in his honor.

When the fans cheer her, they are cheering their memories of her husband as a Yankee. She loves the Brett story, because it’s an appreciation of the man she loved – and always will.

Jun 29

METS CHAT ROOM: Game #75; it’s not getting any easier.

CHAT ROOM

CHAT ROOM

After being swept by the Yankees the Mets are in Milwaukee tonight to begin a series against the Brewers. It won’t get any easier.

And, it is going to stay rough for a long time because Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado aren’t back any time soon, and Carlos Beltran could be out a little longer. They simply don’t have any chips to deal.

It’s up to the people here now, and they aren’t getting it done.

Jun 26

METS CHAT ROOM: Game #72; the Yanks are coming.

CHAT ROOM

CHAT ROOM

The Mets follow up their first series win in weeks with a three-game series against the Yankees at Citi Field, with Mike Pelfrey going against CC Sabathia.

Pelfrey (5–2, 4.74 ERA) pitched five innings against the Yankees last season and allowed eight hits and four runs. The key with Pelfrey is to get ahead in the count. With a first-pitch strike opponents are batting just .193 against him; they are .387 when he falls behind.

Another thing with Pelfrey is to avoid the big inning. He has a tendency to give up runs in bunches and unravel. He has been unable to minimize the damage.

Sabathia (6–4, 3.71 ERA) left his last start in the second inning with a sore left bicep. He has gone 5-1 over his last nine starts.

An interesting line-up change has Ryan Church in center and Fernando Tatis in right. Gary Sheffield is back and in left.

Here’s the batting order:

Luis Castillo, 2B
Alex Cora, SS
David Wright, 3B
Gary Sheffield, LF
Fernando Tatis, RF
Ryan Church, CF
Nick Evans, 1B
Omir Santos, C
Mike Pelfrey, RP