JUPITER, Fla. — It is the beauty of spring training sometimes, the people you run into at the ballparks and then the stories you hear from them. Only in the baseball spring can you begin a conversation one day in Port St. Lucie with Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez and not finish it until a couple of days later, down I-95 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, in a box that has Bill Belichick in it and Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley and another proud old football man named Ron Wolf.
First there was Darling and Hernandez, who make every Mets game they work on television another one you simply don’t want to miss, because of the baseball conversation between the two of them that began over 30 years ago, when they were on their way to being proud 86ers with the 1986 New York Mets, as much of a team and as much of a show as any New York baseball team has ever been.
Once you get Darling and Hernandez talking it is never much of a challenge to finally get them talking about Game 6 of the World Series that year, and how a team that won 108 regular season games and won an epic National League Championship Series against the Astros, winning the pennant in a 16-inning game, was about to lose the Series to the Boston Red Sox.
Hernandez made the second out of the bottom of the 10th that night and went back to his locker, mad as hell, then into Davey Johnson’s office to watch what he thought was going to be the end of his season and his team’s season. Only the season did not end. Gary Carter got a hit and then Kevin Mitchell did and so did Ray Knight and the Mets didn’t quit until that slow roller from Mookie was on its way through Bill Buckner’s legs, forever.
“I wasn’t moving out of that chair,” Keith was saying the other afternoon. He looked at Darling. “Right?” he said. “Turned out there were hits in that chair.”
Darling told of how he had been sent home early that night, to beat the Shea traffic, because Darling was scheduled to start Game 7 the next night (before rain moved Game 7 back to the last Monday night of that baseball October). Except that on his way home the Red Sox took the lead and he turned his car around because, as he says, “If your team’s season is going to come to an end, you have to be there.”
So Darling watched on a television set in the equipment room as Hernandez watched the end of Game 6 from Davey’s office, all the way through Buckner’s legs.
And then, somehow, in the blur of memories from October of ’86, we were all back to talking about Game 1, one the Mets lost at old Shea 1-0 because of an error by Tim Teufel. And I was telling Darling and Hernandez about what a stand-up performance Teufel gave that night, at a locker just a few down from Hernandez’s in the clubhouse at old Shea, never walking away until the last question had been asked by the last reporter in the room.
“Second-best performance like that I ever saw after a Series game,” I told Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez.
Ron Darling asked what was the best, and I said, “Dennis Eckersley at Dodger Stadium after he gave up the home run to Kirk Gibson.”
It happened 30 years ago this next baseball October. That home run by Gibson, to win Game 1 of the ’88 Series against La Russa’s Oakland A’s, is one of the most famous ever hit in a World Series. Eckersley, who in his time in Oakland was as great a closer as there has ever been, and that means as great as the great Mo Rivera for a time, somehow walked Mike Davis with two outs and then served up a home run to Gibson, who wasn’t supposed to play and could barely walk to home plate, or get around the bases after the ball went over the right-field wall.
And that night Eckersley was the one who stood in front of his locker, after giving up a home run like that, one that ultimately won that Series for the Dodgers even though it only came in Game 1. I stood next to his locker and watched him as the media crowd around him dwindled, until I think the last guy asking a question was a radio guy from Encino.
“Wasn’t like it is now,” Eckersley said Friday afternoon, watching the Red Sox play the Marlins at Roger Dean. “They would have had me in the interview room. I just did it in my locker until there weren’t any questions left to be asked.”
He smiled. He is in the Hall of Fame now the way La Russa is in the Hall of Fame and the way Belichick, standing in the back of this suite, will be there in the first five seconds he is eligible, because he is the best football coach who ever lived. Belichick was smiling on this day, too, the football guy listening to baseball stories, with spring training stretched out in front of him.
“So the new guys would move up from the back of the crowd,” Eckersley said. “And basically it was the same question: What pitch did I throw? And I’d say, ‘Back-door slider.’ That guy would leave. Another guy would move up. ‘Still a back-door slider,’ I’d say. Until I finally didn’t have to say it anymore.” He smiled again. “Now they want me to come back (to Dodger Stadium) this year and throw out a first pitch. I don’t know if I’ll end up doing it, but if I do, I can tell you it won’t be a back-door slider.”
Tony La Russa said, “Here’s what I was told when we got (Eck) in ’87: That he would always, and I mean always, be accountable. And he was.”
Eckersley said, “You told me to throw the slider, right?”
La Russa laughed. So did Eck, and Ron Wolf, who was once the general manager of the Packers. So did Belichick, football guy on a baseball day. I asked him how he thought the Red Sox were looking. Belichick nodded at La Russa.
“All I know about baseball,” Belichick said, “is what Tony tells me.”
The seventh inning became the eighth. The game continued. So did the spring training afternoon. There are preseasons in all the other sports, including Bill Belichick’s and Ron Wolf’s. Just not like baseball. Other good conversation in the other sports. Not like baseball.
Most Valuable Beard, Serena and Roger & anchor this, PGA!
– I know that James Harden is odds-on to win the MVP award in the National Basketball Association.
Harden is having a wonderful season and his team is having a wonderful season, and it is his turn to win, the way it used to be somebody else’s turn when the voters didn’t want to give it to Michael Jordan, the way they occasionally don’t want to give it to LeBron.
But I will ask this question again:
What is Harden doing for the Houston Rockets that Anthony Davis isn’t doing for the Pelicans and hasn’t done since Boogie Cousins went down?
– Yup, Friday was one of those days at the Valspar tournament in Florida where everybody wanted to make sure Tiger still wears a 44 long in a Masters green jacket.
It is worth mentioning once again that not only have the Knicks only won one playoff series in the past 17 years, and lost more games than anybody else in the league in the past 17 years, but they are now about to lose 50 games three times in a row for the first time since the 1960s.
But, well, you know, trust the process.
– Serena Williams, just back to playing tournaments after giving birth to her first child, will turn 37 in September.
Roger Federer will turn 37 in August.
They currently have 43 major singles titles between them.
And are still out there.
Not only has nothing like this ever happened in professional tennis, men’s and women’s, nothing like this, or even close to this, will ever happen again.
And now here comes Serena in another comeback, after everything she has done, with something to prove about her own game and her own legacy after giving birth to a daughter.
– There are many reasons to root for Keegan Bradley, a former major champion, and one of the best people playing professional golf for a living.
In addition to that, he is the niece of my old friend, a Hall of Famer named Pat Bradley, with whom I grew up playing golf at Nashua Country Club, Nashua, N.H. a long time ago.
But the biggest reason of all to root for Keegan is that he is one of the guys victimized by the dumbest rule in golf, the one against anchored putters, which is the way Keegan was putting when he won the PGA.
I don’t care what reasons you get about why the rule had to be changed, from all the windbags who treat golf like church.
There is no good reason.
I will ask this question again:
Just from whom are they protecting the integrity of the sport by not allowing players young and old to use an anchored putter or a long one?
But they have altered the careers of terrific young guys like Keegan, and Webb Simpson, a former U.S. Open champion, and Adam Scott, who won the Masters using a long putter.
This is a rule that really is dumber than a bag of hammers.
Or long putters.
– Grayson Allen of Duke continues to be a dirty player and a slow learner.
You know who else seems to be a bit of a slow learner?
Odell Beckham, Jr.
Allen has already cost himself money before he gets out of college.
Beckham might yet do the same, no matter how much he thinks he’s worth.
My friend Mr. Imus suggests that there have been more people leaving the Trump administration than attended his inauguration.
My sons point out that the one taking a knee right now in the NFL is Jerry Jones.
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