Sunday, February 27, 2011

Every signature tells a story: Duke Snider and a pair of really nice rings

You can’t really get to know someone while he’s signing an autograph at a card show, but sometimes I think you can get a glimpse at what a person is like.

Reggie Jackson was famously a jerk when I met him at a New Haven, Conn. show as he banged my prized Hall of Fame ball on the table, said, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” then rolled it down the table.

Maybe Reggie was having a bad day. But we’ve all read stories that make us think Reggie has a lot of bad days.

Then there was an afternoon in Trumbull, Conn. when Duke Snider was appearing at a small show. This was back when these events were fairly new and autographs weren’t more than a couple dollars, even for some Hall of Famers.

We lost Snider Sunday at age 84.

Snider, of course, was doubly special. He was he part of the famed New York centerfield trio of “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” saluted in song by Terry Cashman.
But, more importantly, he was a Met.

The team’s All-Star in 1963, Edwin Donald Snider hit just .243 for the Mets, well below his .295 career average. But hit 14 homers and drove in 45 on a team that didn’t have too many runners to drive home.

But truth be told, the 1963 season was more of a curtain call for Snider, beloved as a Brooklyn Dodger and one of the players dragged out to Los Angeles, where he never really duplicated his MVP-caliber statistics.

So Snider was one of the rare players I’d be able to ask to sign both the Hall of Fame ball and my glorious Mets book.

We approached him at the usual hotel conference room table, where the white-haired gentleman sat with Sharpies. My wife and I arrived near the end of his signing time, and there were not too many folks left, giving us a little time.

As he signed, I mentioned that my Dad grew up in Brooklyn and watched the Duke at Ebbets Field, which brought a smile, though I’m sure he had heard that all day.

I noticed the massive ring on his finger.

“That’s my Hall of Fame ring,” he said, taking it off so I could get a closer look. This was in 1988, and Snider was elected in 1980, a ridiculously long wait for such a player.

Snider noticed that my wife was with me, and must have figured that we were newlyweds because a woman at baseball card show is rarer than a 1972 Topps high number Jim Fregosi traded card. Only a newlywed would attend such a thing, at least happily.

“You have a nice ring, too,” he said to my wife, who immediately perked up.

“Would you like to see it?” she asked?

“Sure!” Duke replied, and made the appropriate approving sounds.

It was an unexpected surprise, and we got a pretty good idea of why Snider was beloved in Brooklyn.

Sitting across the room was Indians slugger Joe Carter. Now, Carter was a very, very good player but had no connection to the tri-state area or was a Hall of Famer. I have no idea why the promoter booked him, and at this point in the day there was no one waiting for his signature.

Carter eventually would finish with 396 homers, just shy of Snider’s 407. And he owns one of the greatest home runs in World Series history. But he was just entering his prime when we encountered him.

Having spent our money acquiring Snider’s signature, we had nothing to spend on Carter, nor anything for him to sign, given his lack of Metness or Cooperstown credentials.

But we went over to his table to shake his hand and welcome him to Connecticut. While he didn’t ask to see my wife’s ring, he cheerfully talked baseball with us for a while.

He didn’t have to, considering that we were not paying customers. But, like Snider, he was friendly beyond all expectation. For that, unlike Reggie, he’ll always have a fan.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Billy Joel's "Last Play at Shea" shows he's one of us

There's a funny moment on Billy Joel's live CD recorded on the night 1999 turned to 2000.

“There's some classical shit in there,” Joel said at the conclusion of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.” “Tried to cop a little Copland.”

I laugh because the line captures why Joel is the embodiment of New York, showing off its beauty and coarseness at the same time.

I remembered that line today as I played by “Last Play at Shea” DVD, a Christmas gift from my wife that arrived this week. I thought it was a concert DVD of the highlights of Joel's two gigs at Shea Stadium in 2008.

I was wrong. It's so much more.

There's plenty of music, for sure. But the documentary is better described as parallel biographies of the performer and the ballpark, and, by extension, the Mets. It's magnificent. I spent most of the afternoon all weepy.

People here in the Midwest don't get Billy Joel. I've seen him perform several times at the Palace of Auburn Hills, and the shows don't compare to the nights I've watched him at the Nassau Coliseum, one of which was captured on video.

The people watching in the shows in the Detroit suburbs enjoy the hit songs, but they don't come with the shared experiences as the man from Levittown. They can't picture the old hotel on the beach he's singing about in “This is the Time,” they think “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” could take place in a place like Olive Garden because they don't have places like Musicaro's here. They don't picture the fishing boats in “Downeaster 'Alexa'”

They don't get the Mets, either. These one-team cities don't understand how a person could totally embrace one team from your town and be repulsed by the other.

Watching “Last Play at Shea,” I was convinced that Joel was the perfect person to perform the grand stadium's final concerts.

His Mets loyalty has been questioned. He's mentioned the Yankees twice in songs, and there's the VHS of him performing at that place in the Bronx. But notice that they had to draw a picture of him wearing the Yankees cap, and he looks uncomfortable even in that. I suspect the label made him do it.

Because Joel whether he realizes it or not, has more in common with the Mets. Bruce Springsteen – not even a New Yorker, I might add – gets the love from the critics and the Super Bowl performances and the Oscars.

But Joel, as the documentary shows, is like the Mets in that Billy has had his ups and downs, and the ups are very up and the downs really suck. We can relate to that.

He's the boomer who came of age in the 1960s in “We Didn't Start the Fire,” the defensive guy in “My Life,” and the guy out of step with the trends in “It's Still Rock and Roll to Me.” We like orange and blue and giant apples, all right? The Mets are flawed, but we love them just the way they are.

The other team reeks of entitlement and thinks it will win the World Series every year. Billy said in the documentary that he's always surprised when one of his songs becomes a hit.

The movie has all kids of scenes of Shea beauty and magic, from the metal panels to the neon players, from 1969 to 1986.

It's got interviews with Tom and Sir Paul, the very best to perform in the building. And it's even got the best Mets blogger in there to pull it all together.

Sting is in there, too. He confesses he doesn't get the magic of Shea. But he was in “Dune,” too, so his judgment is questionable. Go play in the Bronx.

The film winds down with Paul McCartney trying to land at JFK and get to the concert in time and the Mets scrapping to hang on as the end of the 2008 season. Paul makes it, the Mets don't.

At the end of the concert we see Billy backstage, imploring Paul McCartney to come back for one more song, almost as if he doesn't want the night to end. Kind of how we all felt when we saw Cameron Maybin at the edge of the warning track waiting for Ryan Church's ball to land in his glove.

The documentary ends with time-lapse photography of Shea's demolition that builds a lump in the throat as the sections go down one at a time, each revealing more of Citi Field in the background.

But the cameras keep running right to the lights go on for Opening Night in 2009.

The new ballpark isn't Shea, but it's beautiful.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

It's true, 'Tom Terrific' atop the Topps top 60

It’s not a surprise which baseball player will be depicted on the card deemed the greatest in Topps’ 60 years.

Even baseball writers, a difficult lot for sure, recognized Tom Seaver’s importance to the card collecting hobby and the sport itself. They enshrined him into the Baseball Hall of Fame with 98.84 percent of the vote, the closest any inductee has come to unanimity.

But Seaver appeared on many Topps cards during his spectacular 19-year career, as well as in a bunch of sets after his retirement. But they can’t all be No. 1.

We can immediately eliminate Seaver cards from when he played for lesser teams. Those are important cards, to be sure. Some of them appeared further down in the countdown. But Seaver as a member of the Sox, white or red, or an Ohio-based team wouldn’t be the way people remember him best.

And we can rule out any of the cards from retro sets, or sets that exist as an excuse to mix in jersey slice insert cards. Neither seems to be in the spirit of the countdown.

Leader and All-Star cards are to be enjoyed, and neat subsets like the “In-Action,” “Boyhood” and “Turn Back the Clock” are fun. But the No. 1 spot needs to be held by a base card.

That leaves a fairly small pool of cards from which to select. Let’s examine the pros of each, as well as the cons, slight as they might be, to determine our Topps champion.

Pros: The Seaver rookie is a nice card, and certainly his most expensive. It's the starting point to the magnificent career and it must give Bill Denehy a thrill to be linked forever with Tom Terrific.

Con: Bill Denehy is linked forever with Tom Terrific. Bill went 1-7 with the Mets in 1967, had three appearances with the Senators in 1968 and 0-3 with the Tigers in 1971. On the bright side, the Mets traded him to the Sens for Gil Hodges! But a card with Bill Denehy can’t claim the top spot.

Pros: We get a great headshot of Tom, who is full of youthful confidence. There is, perhaps, a slight annoyance to his glance. Some teammates might not be realizing that this losing crap isn’t cutting it. They need to straighten up, and this kid is going to lead them. Plus, we get the All-Star Rookie trophy and a funky burlap card design. The write-up on the back is wonderful.

Con: I don’t get the burlap/baseball connection. It’s the only thing holding this card back.

Pros: It’s a baseball card and it has Tom Seaver’s photo and it was released in 1969. That’s all I got.

Cons: Topps got lazy. How can it use the same photo of one of the game’s best players two years in a row? The design is dull, and the backs are pink.

Pros: A nice headshot of Tom, with another minimalist – but classy – design. As card No. 300, it was probably released after the start of the season, with the photo taken in spring training. Seaver looks relaxed, at the top of his game. He’s the reigning Cy Young Award winner; he’s got a World Series ring. The adorable Nancy is waiting at home. It’s good to be Tom Seaver.

Cons: Tom looks a little too relaxed. While it is, indeed, good be Tom Seaver, we still want to see a little edge there.

Pros: We finally get a pose that doesn’t looks like a yearbook photo with a baseball cap. The set is a classic, and we get Tom’s facsimile autograph, too!

Con: The card was from 1971, which was, perhaps, Tom’s greatest season. He went 20-10 with 21 complete games, and I don’t know how he possibly lost those 10 games considering his ERA was a freakish 1.76. You’d think this would mean Tom’s second Cy Young. But no, he lost to a Cub who had an ERA that was a FULL RUN higher. It’s not the card’s fault, but I still get all upset.

Pros: A magnificent Seaver card, with Tom in a spring training faux-action pose, glove held high as if he was staring in for the signs. It looks scary, and this is just spring training. Tom that season went 19-10 with microscopic 2.08 ERA. And unlike 1971, voters recognized that wins aren’t always the best indicator of success and gave Tom the Cy over Ron Bryant and his 24 Giant victories.

Cons: The 1973 set is beloved, and with good reason. But the design is just a little bit too stark for me to put it on top.

Pros: Lots of firsts here. Its Tom’s first main card action card, and his first horizontal base card. Tom has just unleashed a laser and we can see John Milner in the background. And the 1974 set is one of my favorites.

Cons: As nice as the action shot is, there are Mets with just iconic cards in this set. The McGraw and the Harrelson are amazing portraits; the honked-off Rusty is great. Heck, they’re almost all great. If the Tom card isn’t the best on the team, it can’t be the best of all time.

Pros: I sent this card to Seaver when I was 11. I had doubles and thought he’d like to have a copy of his own card. It never occurred to me that he might already have one. I sent him a poem I composed – eat your heart out, Robert Frost – and asked for an autographed photo. Before long, an envelope came from New York National League Baseball Club, containing my autographed photo and the card I sent Tom, and it was signed, too. (Note the signature on the card above.)

Cons: This is a neat portrait of Tom leaning on the batting cage – there’s really not another Tom card like it – but his face is almost all in the shadows. Clearly this was meant to symbolize the previous season, when an injured Tom limped to an un-Seaverly 11-11. And because I tried to copy Seaver in every way, I spent half the summer complaining that I had injured the sciatic nerve in my left hip.

Pros: This card already checked in the top 60 at No. 41. Tom is in a classic spring training, baseball card pose. There might not even be a ball in his hand, but he’s probably not going to fire a pitch from the on-deck circle anyway. I remember pulling this card in the very first pack of cards I opened that year, and decided that I’d never have to buy another until 1977. That rule lasted maybe a day.

Cons: Having already checked in at No. 41, it can’t be in the running for the No. 1 card.

Pros: A terrific card. It’s very possibly Topps’ best Seaver action card. Any Mets fan would recognize that classic delivery and know that it’s Tom from a mile away. It’s an awesome design, and the colors are perfect. In fact, the entire card is nearly perfect.

Cons: Perfect, unless you count the blunt trauma caused by the June 15 midnight massacre that I’m still not even close to being over yet. I’m working on not overtly hating M. Donald Grant with an eye on eventually forgiving them. It’s a 40-year plan. We’re in the first week. Patience. Dick Young, you get no such forgiveness.

1983 traded
Pros: Tom’s exile is over, and that alone is a glorious thing. The design calls for two photos, an action shot and headshot for the inset. It’s a nice design, the colors are right, and Tom is back.

Cons: Despite all the potential glory here, the card just seems to be a little, well, lacking. The inset shot is better than the action shot. In fact, Topps used the headshot for subset cards and leader cards. The action shot is a bit dark and doesn’t look like Tom. We can’t see the team name or his No. 41. Overall, it looks like the kind of card Ray Searage would get, not the homecoming of the franchise hero.

Pros: The 1984 card is every bit the celebration of Tom’s triumphant return that the 1983 card could have been. Seaver’s at home in the Mets pinstripes. And the bunting in the background reveals that the photo was, in fact, from April 5, 1983, the emotional Opening Day. Even the racing stripes, making their debut that day, look great. The design is fantastic, too, with the team name boldly running down the side, leading to a headshot. It is a fantastic reminder of Tom second tour.

Cons: There is but one slight fault. The card came out as part of the 1984 set, after Tom was swiped by the White Sox in the infamous Dennis Lamp Incident, and we’re not all the way over that, either. It’s a reminder of what we lost, again.

That would leave:

Pros: There is much to love about this card. After several years of pretty tame designs, Topps got bolder with the 1971 set then embraced all that was the 1970s with the epic 1972 issue. It’s as if the stogy old guys in the design office were out for a week and the young upstarts took over. It’s a cross between art deco and Warhol pop art. It perfectly captures the time period.

Then you have the photo. Tom’s in his pinstripes and blue warm-up jacket. He’s pretending to be following through on a throw. But look at the eyes. The edge is back. Andy Pettitte only wishes he could look as imposing.

The shot is obviously from spring training, given the background with the distant palm trees and coach on one knee issuing instructions. Given that this is card No. 445, we can presume that the photo was taken that year.

The card back tells of the Cy Young injustice of 1971, and mentions Tom’s homer on June 24 to beat the Expos, 2-1. The h in “homered” is for some reason capitalized, but we can overlook that. The little cartoon tells us that Nelson Burbank as the scout who signed Seaver, giving me a reason to look for his photo in the yearbook.
And in a personal level, this was the first Tom Seaver card I ever possessed. It came in a trade with Jeff, parting with two Yankees to obtain the printed image of the hero.

Cons: None. This is perfection on cardboard. It’s a 2.5-inch by 3.5-inch reminder of all that is good in life. The design, the photo and the informational back perfectly capture the player and the era.

It is, without a doubt, the best card Topps has produced in its 60 years.