Anthony Young, RIP: Grace under real pressure

It wasn't always easy for Anthony Young to smile during his record losing streak.

It wasn’t always easy for Anthony Young to smile during his record losing streak.

“A.Y. took a lot of kidding about his losing records,” said Doug Flynn, a former Mets second baseman and fantasy camp coach, about Anthony Young, with whom Flynn never played but who met him at various Mets fantasy camps. ”But he was the victim of some bad luck during the streak. He knew inside that he was a better pitcher than his numbers.”

So did Young, who died today at 51, hours after two other former Mets, Turk Wendell (also knowing him through those camps) and Lenny Harris (once a teammate), tweeted that the unluckiest pitcher in Mets and baseball history had lapsed into a coma. “I got a bad rap on that,” Young told the New York Daily News a few years ago.

“I always said I didn’t feel like I was pitching badly. It just happened to happen to me. I don’t feel like I deserve it, but I’m known for it. It was an 82-year-old record and it might be 82 more years before it’s broken.”

What couldn’t be broken was Young’s courage and spirit, whether during that horrific 27-decision losing streak or announcing at a Mets fantasy camp in January that he’d been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, after his wife brought him to the hospital following his complaints about unexpectedly blurred vision.

“That was Anthony,” Wendell said in a formal statement. “He never ran away from anything.”

When learning of Young’s diagnosis, I wrote, “Young had the guts to smile his way through and stand up against  . . . 27 consecutive losing decisions in games in which he was given the decision . . . incurred from May 1992 to July 1993, smashing the record long held by Clifton Curtis of the Boston (eventual) Braves. He probably has the guts to spare to smile his way through this uncertainty.”

He can smile and rest in peace with the God of his fathers now. A tall righthander whose delivery was as gracefully elegant as Dwight Gooden’s, Young really was a better pitcher than that streak showed. Most of his starts during the sad string were quality starts. Only Job had more hard luck, but like Job Young offered extremely few complaints.

It’s easy to show grace under pressure when you happen to be winning and have to work in or squirm out of dicey situations. Try showing it when you happen to be losing no matter how good your work might be and you get to points where lesser men and women being wondering if hell really is like that. Especially with thousands watching in the ballpark and millions, possibly, on television.

You need no further proof of Young’s showing such grace than how Met fans, who’ve suffered too many fools not always gladly in the team’s 55-year history, took him to heart as the streak went deeper.

As the original generation of Met fans did with Roger Craig, when that tall righthander was in the middle of what turned out an eighteen-game losing streak in 1963, the generation in Young’s harrowing time  sent him talismans ranging from horseshoes and four-leaf clovers to rabbit’s feet and, in the case of one female fan, her original $2 bill. Psychics routinely called the Mets’ offices offering to pitch in.

Celebrating in the middle of a pack of teammates the night his streak ended at last.

Celebrating in the middle of a pack of teammates the night his streak ended at last.

Imagine Young’s surprise when, among the large volume of mail he received regularly during the sad streak, was a letter of encouragement from Hall of Fame Bob Feller, who normally tended to get more curmudgeonly as the years went passing by.

Young got to meet the family of Clifton Curtis, the ancient Boston Braves pitcher whose sad record he obliterated, and found them encouraging and empathetic. Everyone he met was encouraging and empathetic. If only they could have turned something, anything around whenever he took the mound.

Somewhere during the sad streak Young found himself as the unlikely Mets closer when incumbent John Franco (stop me if you’ve heard this before) hit the disabled list. He also found himself with a just as unlikely twelve straight saves and two holds in fourteen relief gigs.

Two years after a Show debut that saw him strike out Cubs star Shawon Dunston with the bases loaded, Young ended his losing streak in a flourish that was interrupted momentarily by what became a classic “oh, no, not again!” moment.

He relieved Bret Saberhagen to open the eighth against the Marlins and surrendered an unearned run on a catcher’s throwing error. After Walt Weiss beat out a bunt to put ducks on the pond, future Cubs and White Sox manager Rick Renteria dialed Area Code 5-2-3 for two swift outs, but Chuck Carr’s RBI single broke a three-all tie and threatened to send Young’s sad streak to 28.

But pinch hitter Jeff McKnight lined a single off ill-fated Marlins closer Bryan Harvey, Dave Gallagher bunted McKnight to second, Ryan Thompson sent McKnight home with a pop single behind first, and one out later Hall of Famer Eddie Murray doubled home Thompson with the winner.

Young would never forget the mobbing he got from his teammates and manager Dallas Green—who’d stood admirably by his man, knowing the hard luck in which he pitched too often despite his ability—after the winning run scored. “That wasn’t even a big monkey that was on my back,” he said. “It was a zoo. The guys treated it like I had won a World Series game for them.”

Jay Leno hosted him on The Tonight Show. (Young kept the videotape for the rest of his life.) After leaving baseball and becoming a youth coach, Young kept smiling when one of his charges would Google him and learn about the streak. Hopefully they learned more about his grace under real pressure, on the mound and fighting the brain tumour that couldn’t and wouldn’t surrender.

It was 27 June 1993 when Young suffered the loss that put him into the record books, number 24. This calmly courageous man, with the most luminous Mets smile this side of Mookie Wilson, died on the 24th anniversary of that loss. Before you say he surely didn’t deserve that, think that maybe God told him, “Let’s make that date the date you came to peace with Me, instead.”

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