16 June, 2014

Remembering Tony Gwynn

  I had the great honor of working with Tony Gwynn on a few occasions and on the day of his passing, I wanted to share a few stories from those occurrences.

  In 2002, Tony came to ESPN to do some part-time work as a game analyst and an analyst on Baseball Tonight. I was the Coordinating Producer of BBTN at the time. On Tony's first day we began our show meeting with the usual banter about the days games, things we should be talking about on the show that night, etc. The Baseball Tonight meetings were always lively. Whether it was the former player or manager telling stories or the staff debating the hot topics, the meeting was never dull.
   On this day the topic switched to a hitter who was struggling and Tony said something like, "well, his hands are all messed up. He needs to fix that."
   "What do you mean?" someone asked.
   Tony then began describing how the player's wrists weren't cocked properly. He held up his hands to show proper alignment, what poor alignment looked like and how that impacts the contact a hitter makes. The room was silent. It was like everyone's mouths had been taped shut. Not a peep. After a few moments Tony realized how much the decibel level in the room had dropped. He paused, put his head down and then said, "Sorry. I didn't mean to bore everyone." A few of us chuckled and I spoke up, "Tony," I said, "We are not bored. No one ever silences this room but you did because you have us eating out of the palms of your hands. If you say those kinds of things on TV, you'll be fine."
   When the meeting was over everyone in the room looked at each other with a "I can't believe I get to come to work and learn about hitting from Tony Gwynn!" grin on their face.
    As we got closer to show time, Tony was terrified. We weren't sure if he was going to go on. We were stunned. This sure-fire Hall of Famer who had been the greatest pure hitter of recent vintage had stage fright. My boss, Jay Levy, convinced Tony that it would be fine  and it was. Tony went on and the show was smooth. I'm sure years later he had long forgotten that day,  but no one else in the show meeting that afternoon ever will.

   Flash-forward to July, 2007 and I am in Cooperstown to help produce the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. That year featured Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. Kind of a big deal. I re-introduced myself to Tony at our production meeting the day before the ceremonies. I had done six inductions before that one and had made a habit of asking the inductees this question, "So, when you get on the bus tomorrow morning to ride over from the hotel to the ceremonies with the all those Hall of Famers, what will that ride be like?"
    Tony looked at me a little wide-eyed at the thought that had not occurred to him. He kind of giggled his famous giggle and simply said, "Awesome."
   The next morning Tim Kurkjian told me that he had run into Tony Gwynn Jr and asked him how his dad was feeling. Tony Jr said to Tim, "At 10 o'clock in the morning he asked me to go get him a beer... and he doesn't drink."

   Tony's speech was heartfelt. Contrary to Ripken who had scripted his speech and even included a stunt to present his wife with a rose, Gwynn spoke off the cuff. He remembered family and friends and everyone who helped him along the way. He told stories about teammates and expressed his admiration for Jackie Robinson and those who helped pave the way. He was humble and humbled by the moment.

    Tony Gwynn's career started when I was 15, right in my sports-loving wheelhouse.
Even back in the pre-internet dark days, everyone knew about Gwynn and his potential when he came up.  Back then the Braves played in the NL West with San Diego and their games were on TBS, so whenever Atlanta played San Diego, it was a chance to watch Tony play. What a treat.
In his first full season in the majors he hit .351. He stole 33 bases and struck out 23 times. That's right. 23. In 675 plate appearances. 23. His teammate that year, Bruce Bochy, struck out 21 times... in 97 plate appearances. The man never struck out more than 40 times in a season. In 20 seasons! Watching him hit was a joy. He was a master at his craft. On top of all that, he was also a really nice man with an infectious laugh and a love for the game as great as anyones.

  For more on just how amazing Gwynn was, check out Jayson Stark's column
http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/11092617/mlb-late-tony-gwynn-incredible-hitting-numbers

08 April, 2014

Digger Phelps

  In 1982 I hopped on a plane as a 15-year old, hoops-loving basketball player bound for Digger Phelp's basketball camp at Notre Dame. The thought of setting foot on the legendary campus to be coached by one of the highest profile coaches in the country was thrilling. Digger and his team had ended UCLA's historic 88-game win streak in 1974 and his reputation had preceded him since that day.
   The week was full of great moments. I had my first in-game dunk in a pickup game on the outdoors courts. We got a tour of the football stadium. The days were filled with hours of basketball and I was on a team coached by John Shumate. Oh, and I even got to see Digger. Twice.
   One night during the week Digger came to dinner at the camp and did a Q+A session. He also came to camp one day to give us some instruction. At one point Digger wanted to use a couple of the kids from the camp to demonstrate what he was talking about, so he called up some campers. One young man in particular caught his attention (sadly, it wasn't me). Digger called the boy over, gave him a look over and asked, "Son, what's that on your lip?"
"It's a mustache, coach!" said the boy whose 'stache made Tim Lincecum's current effort look like Tom Selleck's.
"What's that on your teeth, son?" Digger wanted to know next.
"Those are braces, coach!"
 Digger gave the boy another long look over and then pronounced, "One of them has got to go!"

  Flash forward to 2000. I am the coordinating producer on College Hoops Tonight and am working with non-other than Digger Phelps. Duke and Maryland are scheduled to play a big game so we decide to take Digger down to the studio and he's going to tape a chalkboard segment where he explains why Maryland's defense could cause problems for Duke. We spend about 30 minutes taping the segment, getting it just right. Digger's working hard, drawing all over the board and making a great case for Maryland's defense. When it's over I sidle up to Digger and say, "You know Digger, I just learned more from you in those 30 minutes than I did in a week at your camp." Digger busted out with his patented and infectious laugh.
   When we got back to the newsroom I called my dad on the phone and asked him, "How much did it cost to send me to Notre Dame basketball camp?"
   "Probably around two hundred dollars," he said.
   "Hang on a second," I say as I hand the phone to coach Phelps.
   "Mr. Ramsey? This is Digger Phelps. I owe you a refund."

   Digger announced yesterday that he is retiring from ESPN after 20 years. I'm really going to miss him and I'm not sure I'll ever see him again, which makes me very sad, because he still owes my dad that 200 bucks.

   All kidding aside, Digger was great to have around. He always referred to me and John Buccigross as his campers (we were actually there at the same time. How weird is that?!).
    Working with Digger was always fun because he understood the value of informing and entertaining and that there was a way to do both at the same time.

30 March, 2014

2014 Mets: An Oral History


   In February of 2014 New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told his staff that the ball club could, and maybe should, win 90 games that season. That proclamation was made knowing the team would not have Matt Harvey (he of the 2016 and 2018 Cy Young awards) in their rotation, knowing the team had huge holes at first base and shortstop and knowing he had added two bats to the lineup in Chris Young and Curtis Granderson who had holes in their swings as big as the holes at first and short. He also had an unproven commodity at catcher. It was a brazen suggestion that was chum in the water for the tabloid sharks on the Mets beat. This is the story of how the 2014 Mets chased 90 wins from the men who did the chasing.

APRIL
   David Wright (.306, 26 HR, 102 rbi in '14): Opening day is always exciting. Our club has great history on opening day. The best record in baseball... so Family Guy can bite me. We knew facing Strasburg and the Nats would be a challenge, but we were pumped.

Dillon Gee (13-9, 3.62 era in '14): It was a thrill to get the ball on opening day. So many great Mets have had that honor. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, Pete Harnisch. It's quite a list.

 Daniel Murphy (.288, 39 doubles in '14): Beating Strasburg and the Nats was a great way to start the season. We were down early but rallied for a 4-2 win and hoped that would be a tone setter.

Terry Collins (lead Mets to playoffs in 2015-2018): I remember thinking that if we got out of the gate well that year we could really build some momentum and be in the hunt. Losing the 3 out of 5 in that first home stand hurt. Then we went on that road trip to Atlanta, Anaheim and Arizona. After we lost 2 of 3 in Atlanta I was nervous about flying to Anaheim. That hasn't gone well for Mets managers in the past.

Sandy Anlderson (Mets G.M. 2010-2020) I sat next to Terry on that flight. As we were getting off the plane I told him, "Leave the lineup card, take the cannoli..." just to mess with him.

Wright: Trout's walk-off homer was a crusher. Bartolo pitched so well that game but Parnell wasn't himself yet.

Bobby Parnell (2nd on Mets All-Time saves list): Hanging breaking ball. He hit it over the rocks. I was so embarrassed I shaved my beard after that game so people wouldn't recognize me.

Ike Davis (.203, 8 HR, 22 rbi in '14, traded to Oakland that summer. Hit 261 HRs in his A's career):  You know, the year before our first road trip was to Philly, Minnesota and Colorado. We frolicked in more snow those 11 days than Frosty ever did. The first trip in '14 was a nice, warm change of pace. I was sweating every day like I had Valley Fever.

Curtis Granderson (.248, 27 HR, 85 rbi, 172 Ks in '14): We came back to NYC and it was colder than the reception Rocky got in Russia. It was a tough home stand against Atlanta, St. Louis and Miami, but 3 of those games got postponed. It really affected Bartolo.

Collins: Yeah... all those postponements and delays gave Bart a lot of time to wonder around the stadium and get to know the place.

Dan Warthen (Mets pitching coach until 2019): He wandered over to Shake Shack a lot.

Bartolo Colon (8-2, 3.10 era in '14. traded that summer to Kansas City): They had a Shake Shack at Citi Field!! I love Shake Shack!!

  The Mets finished the month 10-14. The highlight came the last day in April when Lucas Duda hit 3 homers in a game at Citizen's Bank Park in Philly.

10 wins down. 80 to go. 

MAY  

Eric Young (.267, 33 SBs in '14): We went on that trip to Colorado and I was so excited. I love playing against my old team, but the Mets had an investment in Chris Young.

Chris Young (.218, 11 HR, 183 Ks in '14): When I look back at my career, I try not to think of those first three games in Colorado. It's hard to go 0-11 with 11 strikeouts, but I did it. To this day I can't even join LinkedIn because I can't make contacts.

E. Young: At least I got in that last game and hit for the cycle. That was cool.

Wright: That was a good stretch for us that year. We won 7 of 10 heading into the Yankees series. We were ready. Niese was really pitching well.

Jon Niese: (15-9, 4.07 era in '14): I was pitching really well.

Collins: The year before we had swept them for the first time ever, so we were confident. When we got them in '14 Jeter was on the DL, Teixeira was really struggling and Sabathia's fastball was like Madonna, peaking in the 80s.

Travis d'Arnaud: (.239, 23 doubles in '14): Wheels was amazing that first game. His fastball was popping, his breaking stuff was fantastic. I really thought he was going to get that no-no but Gardner dropped down that BS drag bunt in the 7th.

Lucas Duda: (.261, 21 HR, 69 rbi in '14): I had settled into first base by then, but cell phones in 1990 still had better range than I did.  He beat it out easily.

Wright: It was nice to take 3 out of 4 from them, even though Jeets didn't play. His last game at Citi Field we gave him a construction hat with the New York skyline on it because no one had done more screwing, nailing and banging around the city than that guy. Although Harvey was a close second.

Matt Harvey: (203-102, 3.14 era as a Met): I loved Jeter growing up, so I wanted to do everything he did. That included Jessica Alba, Minka Kelly and the rest. Except Mariah Carey. She was too old.

Collins: We were rolling but probably got a little too big for our britches after that Yankees series. The Dodgers came in and shut us out three straight. I hadn't seen that many zeros since I watched Fred Wilpon sign a few checks made out to Bobby Bonilla.

Granderson: I hit 8 balls that home stand that would have been out at Yankee Stadium. Granted, none of them went 300 feet, but it was still pretty frustrating.

Muprhy: We lost a game to the Diamondbacks when Tejada and I called each other off on a pop-up and the ball fell between us allowing the go-ahead run to score. Ironically, it was Luis Castillo Bobblehead Day. The timing couldn't have been worse.

Ruben Tejada (.230, 18 errors in '14): That was a cool bobble head. Instead of his head bobbling, the glove did.

C. Young: Winning 2 of 3 in Philly to close the month helped, but we really had something going there and let it get away. We were 10-4 at one point that month and finished it 16-14. That was more disappointing than my season. (Really?) Okay, not really, but it sucked.

26 wins down. 64 to go.

JUNE

Zack Wheeler: (16-7, 3.78 era in '14. 168 wins ranks 4th all-time for Mets behind Seaver, Harvey and Syndergaard) I was rolling at that point. I had won 5 in a row, averaging around 10 Ks per nine innings. We went into San Fran and I beat Bumgarner 1-0. People were building that game up like it was a showdown between the two guys who would start the All-Star game for the N.L. I pitched 8 really good innings and turned it over to B.P.

Parnell: My beard was back at that point, and so was my fastball. I was blowing guys away like Rambo invading a Vietnam prison camp.

Granderson: I hit 5 balls that series that would have been out at Yankee Stadium...

d'Arnaud: The year before we were the only team in our division that had a winning record on the road. In '14 we were doing a pretty good job continuing that. There was just something about playing at home.

Collins: The pitching and defense mantra that had always been the Mets way, and the reason Citi Field was built the way it was, still wasn't translating just yet. It probably didn't help that Duda, Murphy and Tejada were still regular players in our infield. Once we upgraded there and Harvey and Syndergaard were with us, that's when Citi Field become a great home field for us.

Harvey:  I spent a lot more time in Port St. Lucie that year than I thought I would. There were three Hooters within five miles of the complex and no paparazzi.

Colon: Those 2 games against the A's that month were huge. Playing against my old team. The team that didn't want to keep me after I won 18 games for them the year before. It was awesome because I didn't have to pitch either day and got to spend a lot of time at the Shake Shack. Did I mention I LOVE SHAKE SHACK??!!

Ruben Tejada: That first game against Oakland was great. Ike hit 3 homers, including a walk-off in the 11th.

Davis: Billy Beane had come to NY with the A's so the Mets could commemorate his call up 30 years ago.

Jay Horwitz: (Mets VP of PR 1969-2039): Billy was a former first round pick of ours and was called up in September of '84. He went 1 for 10 that year, 3 for 18 in his Mets career. When a first round pick gives you that kind of production, you have to honor him, so we did.

Davis: After the game Billy tracked me down and said he loved my upside. That I reminded him of him and that he was going to try and deal for me.

Alderson: Billy approached me on the field the next day and asked what I wanted for Ike. I was Billy's mentor in Oakland so I didn't want to try and fleece the guy. I knew he had stars in his eyes for Ike after that three homer game. I wanted to be fair. I told him 4 seats from Oakland Alameda Coliseum when they tore it down would do it. We made the deal official before the game that day.

Davis: I was excited about the trade. It was a fresh start. A chance to get out of New York and turn the page.

Collins: Not exactly. He still had to play a game against us before he could leave New York.

Davis: Hit three more homers in that game. It was quite a 48 hours.

Mark Simon (Mets historian): He became the first player ever to hit 3 homers in consecutive games in the same stadium for different teams. Couldn't happen to anyone but the Mets.... (shaking his head repeatedly)

Wright: Going 13-16 that month was difficult. It was nice that the temperature in New York finally hit 70 and it felt like baseball season, but our bullpen kept finding ways to lose games.

38 wins down. 52 to go. 

JULY

Wheeler: What I remember most about that July was how great David was. You couldn't get him out.

Gee:  He was hotter than the women Harvey kept bringing into the clubhouse.

Harvey: Let's not get carried away. He wasn't that hot.

Wright: We had a ten-game stretch at Citi and I was seeing the ball great. I had a 5-hit game against the Rangers on the 4th of July. They set off the fireworks after the game and one round made a formation of my face. It was awesome.

Collins: He single-handedly beat the Braves that week. We had 4 hits one game. He got all of 'em and Niese beat Santana 2-1. Instead of Cereal Bowl giveaway day that week, they should have had David Wright BackPack Day because he was carrying us.

Murphy: I remember toward the end of that home stand they had a post game concert with Huey Lewis and the News. When they sang "I Want a New Drug," Bartolo dropped his Black and White shake, his fries and his double SmokeShack burger, ran to the stage and yelled at Huey "I want one! I want one!"

Noah Syndergaard (5 wins in '14): I had been up around a month and just remember what a great leader Bartolo was. Every time we were on the road he lead us to the best donut places, the best fast food restaurants, the best ice cream parlors. What a leader. It was a blow when they traded him... especially to the Shake Shack bottom line.

Wright: When we got to Seattle it was fun to see Robbie Cano. He was struggling and I said, "It's ok, at least you have all those All-Stars in the lineup to cover for your failures."  The sarcasm was not lost on him. He was so mad that he hit one grounder to short and ran hard almost the whole way to first.

Collins: 15-10 was a really good month. Getting Syndergaard on the big club was great. It did seem odd that every batter he faced got to a 2-2 count. When I asked him about it he said it was a "Noah thing." Still though, he looked legit, pitched legit and proved to be legit in the years to come. Every time we played the Blue Jays I made sure to thank them.

53 wins down. 37 to go. 

AUGUST

C Young: One of the great things about the Mets is the way they embrace their history. So when I was closing in on the single season strikeout record, they brought in Dave Kingman, Mo Vaughn and Todd Hundley for the first home stand that month.  In the first two games I whiffed my way past all of them. When I finally passed David for the record, they gave me glass case full of air to commemorate the only thing I had hit all season.

Wright: It was a special moment.

Juan Legares (.262, 9 assists in '14): I was glad when he finally got the record so the team could sit him and I could get some playing time.

Collins: It was on that road trip to Washington and Philly that Juan put on a show. He made several diving catches.

Duda: Dude had more grass on him than Nate Newton on a weekend trip to Louisiana.

Collins: The Gold Gloves he won in '15 and '16, he started building that reputation in '13 and '14. 

Scott Rice (103 appearances, 87 ip in '14): He made a great catch against Harper in D.C. Bryce was so mad he picked up his bat and broke it over his ego.

Murphy: I remember the trip we made to Oakland. It was good to see Ike. He was raking, leading the A.L. In RBI since the time he switched leagues.

Alderson: I got my chairs on that trip. They were nice.

Parnell: I can't forget the trip to L.A. Puig hit a ball so hard off Gee the LAPD responded to a "shots fired" call.

Gee: To be fair, there actually were shots fired outside the stadium.

Parnell: Still, he smoked that ball.

Niese: We ended that month going to Philly and taking 3 of 4. I think we beat them 14 times that year.

Wright: Every time I got to first against the Phillies Ryan Howard would smile at me and say, "can you believe I'm making 25 million this year? Crazy, right?"

Collins: Exchanging lineup cards with Ryne Sandberg was real tough by that time of the year. They were scuffling in last place. Rollins and Utley had been on the DL 3 or 4 times apiece. The Philadelphia papers were calling for ownership to trade Ryne for Ivan DeJesus who was managing in the minors in Lexington.

65 wins down. 25 to go. 

SEPTEMBER:

Wright: When we got to September it was pretty clear 90 wins was out of the question. But there were attainable records to be had.

Granderson: We were going to blow by the 1,384 strikeouts as an offense that was the team record set the season before. I mean we were striking out like Screech in his sophomore year at Bayside High.

C Young: Don't look at me. I was on the pine by then. The only contact I was making was butt to pine. 

Warthen: Scott Rice was making a run at the games pitched record. That was something we really wanted for him. Even if it meant he'd need elephant ligaments put in his elbow some day. 

Rice: Oh man, by that point in the season I had made more appearances than Marv Albert on Letterman in the 80's. 

Parnell: He came out of the bullpen so often we started using a doorman out there. 

Niese: We had managed to let the dog days drag into September. It seemed like everyone we were playing was battling for a playoff spot. 

Wheeler: Those 7 games against the Nats were intense. Syndergaard dropped Harper with some chin music and it was on. Benches emptied, fists were flying. 

Duda: That one was nasty. Adam LaRoche and I ran right at each other... but we're both so slow by the time we got to each other the fight was over.

C Young: I threw 7 punches in that fight. Didn't hit a thing. 

Granderson: 0fer 5 for me in that one... (shaking his head)

Wright: Couldn't count on them for protection at all that year. 

Parnell: My beard got caught up in Jayson Werth's beard. They had to get the Jaws of Life to separate us.

Collins: We finished up with three against the Astros. They played all their September call ups.

Wright: There were a lot of 17 and 18 year olds on the field. It was like a One Direction concert.

Collins: We took two out of three.

Alderson: Didn't quite get to 90. But 78 was still progress from the prior two seasons.

    The 2014 Mets went 78-84, 12 games short of the whimsical 90 win proclamation. Years later Sandy Alderson sat in his back yard on one of his seats from the Oakland Coliseum and sipped a beer while listening to Guns N' Roses on his iPhone 21. "Only off by one year. That's not too shabby," he said.  He looked down at his 2017 World Series ring, smiled and sang along with the music in his earphones "...all it takes is patience....ooooh-yeaheahea....just a little patience..."