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New York, New York: A Helluva Baseball Town

Baseball Books

New York, New York: A Helluva Baseball Town

A lot of New Yorkers think the world revolves around their city. When it comes to baseball books, that’s probably true. More words have been written about their teams than all others combined, and fans can usually count on a number of titles about the Yankees and Mets (with an occasional nod to the Dodgers and Giants of long ago).

This year offers a bonus as we mark the 50th(!) anniversary of the Miracle Mets’ improbable first World Championship.

Art Shamsky, an outfielder for that 1969 squad, looks back on those exciting times in AFTER THE MIRACLE: The Lasting Brotherhood of the '69 Mets. He recalls many of the magical moments in a season where the lovable losers shocked the baseball world by winning the pennant and beating a superior team in the Baltimore Orioles (on paper at least, as the saying goes) in the Fall Classic.

His story --- ably assisted in the telling by Erik Sherman, author of KINGS OF QUEENS: Life Beyond Baseball with the ’86 Mets --- is bittersweet, though, as it deals with the sad news of Tom Seaver’s failing health as the result of Lyme disease, and the road trip made to California to visit the Hall of Famer known as “The Franchise” taken by Shamsky and some of their teammates from that year: Bud Harrelson, Seaver’s best friend on the team who himself is suffering from increasing dementia; slugging outfielder Ron Swoboda (whose HERE’S THE CATCH: A Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More is due out in June); and Jerry Koosman, the lefty ace who complemented Seaver on the mound. Shamsky and company banter with each other --- especially between the politically liberal Swoboda and conservative Koosman --- fortunate to find Seaver on a good day.

Fans of baseball literature will no doubt find similarities between AFTER THE MIRACLE and David Halberstam’s THE TEAMMATES: A Portrait of a Friendship (2003), a fond look at a similar farewell cross-country trip made by Boston Red Sox legends Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky to visit a dying Ted Williams.

While it’s wonderful to celebrate the accomplishments of a long-ago moment, it’s sobering to realize that it has been a half-century and that these are no longer the same young men who thrilled us so. They are now in their 70s and beyond (sadly, several of them have since passed away) and dealing with the same frailties that are a matter of nature. By extension, that means that those who were witness to those exploits are in the same boat.

Somewhat more uplifting --- for lack of a better word --- is Wayne Coffey’s THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE: The '69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History.

Coffey follows a more familiar format as he chronicles the season, building the excitement as the Mets, under the strong leadership of manager and former Brooklyn Dodgers hero Gil Hodges, gradually come to the realization that they actually have a good team and no longer need to settle for the mediocrity (to be charitable) of their past. Like Shamsky, Coffey hits the high notes but supplements it with the skills of a professional journalist, digging deeper into the lives of the team’s stars and fringe players alike, although Hodges would have said that everyone contributed to the Mets’ success. One thing that modern-day fans might forget is that 1969 was in the middle of the Vietnam era. Many ballplayers missed several weeks during the season to fulfill military commitments in the reserves. The New York team was lucky to have interchangeable pieces able to pick up the slack.

While there are many books that recount that amazing season, none has the same depth when it comes to discussing the postseason, especially the first round of the newly devised playoffs, which went into effect in 1969 when Major League Baseball added two expansion teams to each league and split them into two six-team divisions, nominally designated as East and West. The Mets faced the Atlanta Braves, who, like the Orioles, were deemed to be superior to the upstarts from New York. What a surprise then when the Mets swept the series, three games to none, which Coffey reports with admirable detail, making THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE a must-read for Mets lovers.

Of more recent interest is former Mets pitcher Ron Darling’s 108 STITCHES: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game, written with Daniel Paisner, with whom he collaborated on GAME 7, 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life.

This is more or less standard for its type with a former player recalling players and managers from a long career. Darling, now a “color man” on Mets’ TV broadcasts, is generally regarded as an acute analyst. With time to reflect on those experiences, he has come to regret some youthful indiscretions that in the modern political climate might be deemed as inappropriate. Perhaps none is more shocking than his accusations that 1986 teammate Lenny Dykstra unleashed a torrent of racist bile towards Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd during that year’s World Series, claiming that it was perhaps worse than anything Jackie Robinson had to endure. (As of this writing, Dykstra is refuting Darling’s claim via a lawsuit for defamation and libel.)

Part of Darling’s tenure with the team is included in another new book. Chris Donnelly, who published HOW THE YANKEES EXPLAIN NEW YORK in 2014, returns to an examination of the national pastime in the Big Apple with DOC, DONNIE, THE KID, AND BILLY BRAWL: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York’s Baseball Soul.

Although they returned to the World Series in 1973, basically because they were the best of a bad lot that year, the Mets could not maintain their 1969 magic. They foundered badly during the rest of the ’70s while the Yankees enjoyed some of their best seasons, thanks to stars such as Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry, among others. By the mid-’80s, however, the teams were closing in on each other in the standings. Management, particularly Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, demanded that his club maintain dominance in the hearts and minds of New York fans. Certainly, his style --- firing and rehiring managers, chastising players with reservation, etc. --- kept his name and brand in the media.

During their heyday in the ’50s and early ’60s, it was said that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel. In other words, they were corporate and boring. But the ’80s was a very different era. New York was trying to get out of the doldrums financially, culturally and socially. And since baseball frequently has been a common denominator, it’s an apt subject to reflect the times, with Steinbrenner playing Gordon Gekko with his philosophy that “greed is good” when it came to dominating the sports pages over their crosstown rivals. In that regard, Donnelly’s latest is a bit more spot on when it comes to including the local climate than Coffey’s appraisal of the Mets and the city in the ’60s.

Since the publication of Michael Lewis’ classic MONEYBALL in 2003, each new year of baseball books seems to bring at least one deep-dive into what it takes to assemble a high-level product (BIG DATA BASEBALL: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak, by Travis Sawchik; THE EXTRA 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, by Jonah Keri; and ASTROBALL: The New Way to Win It All, by Ben Reiter, to name just a few). The latest on that list comes from journalists Bob Klapisch and Paul Solotaroff with INSIDE THE EMPIRE: The True Power Behind the New York Yankees.

The authors split their time between going over the 2018 season, in which the Yankees won 100 games only to finish second to the hated Red Sox (as well as losing to them in the AL Division Series), and the people who put that team together, primarily general manager Brian Cashman and field manager Aaron Boone.

The Yankees, like almost every other team, have learned to adapt to data analysis and other methods when it comes to deciding which players to draft from the amateur ranks, trade for or sign as free agents. The departments that sift through all of this information have grown tremendously in recent years in terms of division of responsibilities and employees. But there still remains a human side, a “gut feeling,” if you will. Boone --- a former player-cum-broadcast analyst who had never managed or coached at any level --- might have seemed like a strange choice to lead the new “Baby Bombers” of Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez. Judging by the results, he has done an excellent job, realizing that today’s athletes are not the same as the ones with whom he (or his dad or grandfather, both former Major Leaguers) played, living in fear of displeasing their managers lest they wind up in the doghouse or, worse, demoted or simply released.

At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, today’s game is no longer the game of my youth. You no longer go to the ballpark to simply enjoy the action on the field; now you have to have a “baseball experience.” As the authors note, “[B]aseball has become a millennial’s sport, and millennials live entirely through their screens.” Game-goers want to take selfies, share via social media, eat and chat. The play seems almost incidental, and Klapisch and Solotaroff do a marvelous job of imparting the emphasis on this new world order, like it or not.


--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (