Traveling from city to city on commercial flights was not uncommon for big league teams in 1982. The Yankees, Dodgers and few other club chartered flights for their teams. Those players were forced to sit in airports, waiting, like the common folk, clamored for the convenience. Craig Swan was clamoring on June 20, 1982, when the Mets were waiting at Lambert Field in St. Louis for their TWA flight to LaGuardia. And though Swannie didn't clamor nearly as long as we all waited, his words wore on George Bamberger.
But at least the reason for the delay was sound -- the late Paul Newman wanted a seat on the flight and wasn't about to be turned away. Finally, Dave Pallone, the former umpire, forfeited his seat. (No one was sure whether Newman forfeited anything to Pallone to influence his decision.)
Players had found an airport bar during the extended delay, and their moods didn't improve. The in-flight booze flowed too. And by the time the Mets team bus from LaGuardia pulled up outside Shea Stadium, Swan's opinions had been delivered with more decibels and less tact.
Bamberger, a peaceful man of 58 years at the time, confronted his pitcher outside the bus and, while poking Swan in the chest with his finger, suggested he shut his mouth. Swan, a nice, gentle man himself, felt the effects of his alcohol intake and responded in less than respectful tones. Then he made a mistake in the form of a fist.
Frank Howard, Bamberger's friend and a Mets coach, became the manager's pass protector at that instant. All 6-foot-8, 315 pounds of Hondo swooped in from nowhere like some giant Mighty Mouse, and with one hand grasping Swan at the knot of his necktie, he hoisted the 225-pound pitcher off the ground as if were made of papier mache and pinned him against the bus. When Howard returned Swan to earth 20 seconds later, only remnants of the pitcher's shirt and specs of his anger remained.
Howard's demonstration of remarkable power was a clubhouse topic for days afterward. John Stearns called the coach "Hondodopolis" because "he's as big as a city." And Swan, embarrassed, apologetic and remorseful as he was the next day, was more scared. "Do you know what it's like to be pinned against a bus," he said, "by a bus?"
* * *
Objectivity isn't readily achieved early in the reporter's career. Once it has been developed, regular maintenance is required for a few years until a permanent sense of balance is in place. And even then, that balance is challenged on occasion.
So it was in the summer of 1991 -- the date eludes me and it's irrelevant, anyway. It was the day Buddy Harrelson sent Mel Stottlemyre to the mound to make a pitching change rather than make it himself.
Harrelson had come under fire late in his second season managing the Mets, and, sadly, Shea had turned on him. One of his knees was barking that day -- he eventually had it repaired surgically -- and the pain contributed to his decision not to make the walk to the mound. But being as candid as he always had been as a player, he admitted part of the reason for his sending his pitching coach was his desire to avoid the jeers he had heard in other recent trips.
How sad that was. Harrelson never should have been booed at Shea Stadium; never was as a player or coach, never should have been as the manager.
He hadn't been Tom Seaver or Koosman, but he had been their shortstop. They recognized his value and were grateful for his presence. And there in the summer of '91, cast in a role that hardly suited him, he had been booed so much at home that he ducked it when the opportunity presented itself.
It bothered me as did the ridicule of Alex Webster and Willie Reed when, as coaches, they couldn't deliver what they had as players.
The treatment of Harrelson at the park and by the media -- myself included -- still stands as the saddest development I witnessed covering the Mets.
* * *
The strong personality of John Stearns always has intrigued me. There was so much good in the "Bad Dude" and an honesty to him that was admirable. He knew who he was and never stepped back from it. Two examples of it happened at Shea:
Stearns had a particularly productive first half in 1982, prompting an assignment to write a long piece about who he was and what he'd accomplished. The more people I spoke to about him, the more rewarding the exercise became. I finished with what I thought was a pretty solid piece with some aspects of his career and life that had gone unreported while he played seven-plus seasons in the New York market. Several days after the story was published, I learned from his wife that she and John's mother enjoyed the piece and thought it accurately portrayed him.
The Dude's opinion was different. He hated it. A flight attendant had a copy of it that day on the plane, and John found me in one of the back rows and shared his opinion. I was surprised and unapologetic. But two days later, he approached me in the clubhouse at Shea and said he read it a second time. "It's still stinks," he said, "but you're a pro and I respect how hard you worked in it. You and I are still OK."
No reporter could have asked for more.
The second episode, I think, captures the essence of Stearns and provides some insight into Keith Hernandez and into the wonderfully enjoyable clubhouse humor that used to happen on a daily basis in clubhouses -- where reporters could see it.
Well after his retirement as a player, John was working for ESPN, doing color commentary. His assignment on a summer Friday night was a game in Oakland. He was to be at Shea the following afternoon for what has turned out to be the final Old Timers' Day staged by the Mets. Of course, the game went into extra innings, and John blew the red eye. But he found a connecting flight -- through Minneapolis -- that got him to LaGuardia an hour before the program was to begin.
Still in playing shape, the Dude played as if his retirement never had happened. He backed up first base, tried to pick off runners and even went first to third on a base hit to left-center field. His teammates for a day recognized it. "The Dude being The Dude" is what Eddie Lynch said.
John was beating his chest afterward in the clubhouse. "I can still play," he said proudly and loudly. He approached Keith Hernandez, a self-proclaimed "nocturnal animal" in those days, and continued his ranting. "No sleep. I flew all night. No sleep. I can still play. I can still play. No sle ..."
Hernandez interrupted. "Dude," he said. "What's the big deal? I played every night without sleep."
* * *
Bobby Murcer was a terrific guy. Never big leagued a soul. Not even a first-year reporter who learned early there was more to know about the game that he had picked up watching Mel Allen, Red Barber and Scooter -- Phil Rizzuto. Murcer was responsible for two Shea memories, his controlled reaction -- disappointment and a touch of anger -- when he discovered someone -- Sparky Lyle -- had sawed each of the legs on his clubhouse rocking chair and unbridled joy he experienced when he finally hit his first Shea home run in 1974. I thought it was a sign the Yankees would win the division. He said he thought the same. We were wrong.
Murcer was a sweet man.
* * *
The Mets and Giants were only in the seventh inning at Shea, but it seemed as if Dwight Gooden had struck out 25 already. It was Aug, 20, 1985, and Gooden was as dominant as he ever had been. He had struck out the first two batters in the seventh to put his total at 14. He still had a chance for 19 strikeouts -- actually, he could have reached 21 -- when Dan Gladdin stepped in.
Shea wanted blood -- type K positive. It wanted nothing other than a third strike and a 15th strikeout when Gladdin made contact. The ballpark moaned when his defensive swing produced a soft pop into foul territory behind first base. It had little hang time, but enough for the crowd to implore Keith Hernandez not to catch it. And when the ball fell into his Gold Glove, Hernandez was playfully booed.
Gooden struck out one in the eighth and two in the ninth -- Rob Deer, the last batter, was a foregone conclusion -- and finished with 16, equaling his career high.
Afterwards, the Doctor chided Hernandez for interfering with his pursuits. And his teammate laughed. And Hernandez tried to keep a straight face when reporters surrounded him.
After he explained that he couldn't have let the ball drop in good conscience, I couldn't resist:
"Where's Dave Kingman when you need him?"
* * *
Covering baseball for a newspaper or this Web site seldom allows family to come first. Birthday parties don't make road trips, and Spring Training and school vacations don't always coincide. Daughters' weddings, though, do come before pennant races and stadium farewells. So I'm missing the final week of Shea and the 2008 season. Carolyn Noble is getting married Saturday.
I mentioned my pending absence in passing to David Wright on Tuesday, and he playfully accused me of some journalistic misdemeanor. Joe Smith wasn't so forgiving, though, after he heard some of the clubhouse exchange.
"What? You're not going to be here? How can you cover all year [not really] and miss the last three days? How can you miss the last days of Shea?"
I explained about the wedding. But Smith would have none of it. "Half the marriages in this country end in divorce," he said. "So there'll be another wedding you can go to. Shea's never going to close again."
I told him to enjoy the weekend. I would.