Two Miracle Mets committed to one major pension repair

Rod Gaspar and Bobby Pfeil, as shown on their 1970 baseball cards. Proud to be ’69 Mets, they’re determined to see redress for pre-1980 short-career major league players frozen out of baseball pensions.

When new Mets owner Steve Cohen met the press Tuesday afternoon, he spoke of making the Mets meaningful again, and not just for another isolated period. “I’m not in this for the short-term fix,” he insisted in his low-enough-keyed manner. “I’m not in this to be mediocre.”

As he spoke of commitments to excellence, and emphasised people making the difference from the field to the front office, a reporter asked Cohen—like me, a Met fan since the day they were born—to name his outstanding Mets memories. God knew I had a warehouse worth of them myself, so this should have proven interesting.

It did. And how. The first such memory Cohen named named was left fielder Cleon Jones, two hands upraised, waiting for and hauling down future Mets manager Davey Johnson’s 1969 World Series-ending fly out, bringing his hands between his legs as he kneeled to finish what God as played by George Burns (in 1977’s Oh, God!) would call His last miracle.

Funny that Cohen should mention that first. This week I had the pleasure of speaking with two 1969 Mets: Rod Gaspar, the fourth outfielder, and reserve infielder Bobby Pfeil. Both still cherish their days as ’69 Mets. Both also care passionately about another baseball cause.

Gaspar and Pfeil want to see redress for short-career major league players such as themselves who were frozen entirely out of a major pension plan realignment in 1980 itself. The new plan changed pension vesting to 43 days major league service and health care vesting to a single day’s major league time. But the change excluded players with short careers who played between 1949 and 1980.

Both men live in California today. Neither are financially distressed themselves. They’ve both been successful in their post baseball lives, Gaspar in the financial services business, Pfeil as a builder/co-administrator of apartment complexes in California and other states.

Both are delighted to talk of their 1969 Mets and of the game in general. Get these two friendly, accommodating men talking about the pension freeze-out for short-career major leaguers, and they become just as passionate as they were as reserves always at the ready for the 1969 Mets and the manager they still admire, Gil Hodges.

The pension re-alignment affected over 1,100 short-career players originally. Life’s attrition has long since reduced the surviving number to 619. The ranks diminished to that number Sunday when Ray Daviault—a righthanded pitcher whose only major league time after nine seasons in the minors was 36 games as an original, 1962 Met—died at 86 in a pool accident at his Quebec home.

“They have no guts at all when it comes to running my particular game, baseball,” Gaspar says of the owners and players who agreed on the 1980 pension change and those today who bypass or ignore it. “I love baseball. I don’t like what they’ve done with the pension, eliminating guys who didn’t have the four full years, there’s a lot of guys out there who are hurting.”

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Major League Baseball Players Association director Michael Weiner developed a small redress. They agreed the pre-1980 short-career players would get $625 a quarter for every 43 days major league service time, up to four years. Though it was a beginning, it didn’t allow the players to pass those monies on to their families upon their deaths, and those players were still not allowed into the players’ health plans.

Marvin Miller is known to have regretted not revisiting the pension re-alignment before he retired as the union’s director. Several of the frozen-out pre-1980 players have suggested the freeze-out tied to a perception that enough of the players in question were September call-ups who didn’t always make their major league teams out of spring training.

“I don’t think we’re important enough to pay attention to,” Pfeil says of the game’s attitude toward those short-career players. “We didn’t really have a unity, or a group, that was pursuing any changes. It kind of went away with nobody [pursuing] the reform of it.”

It may have taken until journalist Douglas J. Gladstone first wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee, in 2010, before the freeze-out registered to even small degrees with people outside baseball. (Gladstone published an updated edition in early 2019.) Gladstone and others including New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden have written since about both the union’s and the Major League Baseball Players’ Alumni Association’s post-Wiener lack of interest in addressing any degree of the freeze-out.

“[T]hey . . . didn’t hesitate one bit taking my dues when I was a major league player,” former pitcher David Clyde told me of the union’s lack of response last year. “But as soon as you’re no longer a major league player, they basically don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Pfeil says he once contacted the Alumni Association’s then-leader, former Expos pitcher Steve Rogers (who is still on the group’s board), leaving a voice mail to which he got no answer. That lack of response, too, is not atypical among their fellow freeze-outs.

“I’m not real happy that they left out players who actually played in the big leagues,” says Gaspar, who made the 1969 Mets out of spring training and ultimately scored the winning run in the tenth in Game Four of the 1969 World Series. “But think about it. They have so much money, the owners, the players’ union, they have so much money, how much money would it cost them to give the guys who are still alive the pension?”

Gaspar answered his own question quickly. He says that if a combination of the owners and the players’ union wanted to offer even the minimum $10,000 a year pension to the still-living, pre-1980 short career players, it might cost a little over six million dollars a year. “What is that to baseball?” he says. “A drop in the bag, probably.”

“All we hear about is the money that’s in the game,” Pfeil says, “and I think we’ve been a forgotten group that helped them get to where they attained this.”

Both former Mets think the issue might have gotten further redress if Weiner—who died of brain cancer in 2013—had lived instead. Why wouldn’t Tony Clark, the former first baseman who succeeded Weiner and is the first player to serve as the union’s director, take more interest in aiding former players whose major league careers didn’t endure?

“I think he’s working on things that he thinks are more important,” Pfeil says, “and we’re easy to forget about.”

“You think the players union cares about these retired ballplayers? You think the owners care? No, they don’t care,” Gaspar says. “I’m probably better off than most, and I feel badly for these guys. I know a number of them. I’ve been back to reunions and stuff, most of them have done fine . . . if it changes, to me that’d be wonderful for the guys who are still alive. I don’t see it happening because it’s a non-issue for the baseball players union and the owners.”

Gaspar and Pfeil are no strangers to collaboration. On 30 August 1969, they collaborated on one of the season’s strangest double plays in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. With the Mets’ defense shading Hall of Famer Willie McCovey to pull to the right side, McCovey hit a long double to left in the bottom of the ninth.

Gaspar had to run from his positioning to try flagging it down, settling for extracting the ball when it landed and somehow became stuck in deep left. He dislodged the ball, wheeled, and threw home. “I threw it blind,” he still insists of the Hail Mary-like throw.

Blind or not, the throw hit Mets catcher Jerry Grote in textbook style to bag Giants right fielder Bob Burda with what would have been the winning run. But the usually heads-up Grote suffered a momentary brain fart: he thought Burda was the third out and rolled the ball back to the mound. An alert Mets first baseman Donn Clendenon charged, pounced on the ball, and whipped a throw to Pfeil at third to bag McCovey trying to advance on the mishap.

“I was playing like left center field, [center fielder Tommie] Agee’s over in right center, [right fielder Ron] Swoboda’s down the right field line,” Gaspar says. “McCovey’s a dead pull hitter. But he hit it about 300 feet down the left field line. It was about, I don’t know, two, three, or four feet fair. As soon as he hit it, I took off, because I knew [Burda] was going to try to score. And I got to the ball, right in front of the warning track, I think down the line it was 330 . . . I just pivoted and threw from that point. That was probably the best play I ever made.”

The 7-2-3-5 double play sent the game to the tenth inning, where Clendenon—with two out and, ironically enough, Gaspar and Pfeil batting on either side of him in the lineup—tore what proved a game-winning solo home run out of Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry.

Both Gaspar and Pfeil say they’re impressed with the way Cohen has put himself forth soliciting fan input and declaring his commitment to turning the Mets around for the longer haul. Is it possible, then, to get Cohen himself to think about the pension issue and seek a way to make things right at least for still-living, short-career, pre-1980 Mets players? Could Cohen, acting himself or soliciting help for those players from the team he’s rooted for since its birth, start a team-by-team snowball toward that redress.

“I think he sounds like a person that would be willing to do something like that,” says Pfeil, mindful that, if he could or does, it wouldn’t happen overnight. “I think he’s got bigger fish to fry for a couple of years, he’s got a few other issues to get in place in the next six months.”

Perhaps Cohen’s equally philanthropic and enthusiastic wife, Alex, whom he’s designated to administer the Mets’ foundation for community and charitable outreach, might be receptive to entreaties on behalf of just such pre-1980 Mets as Gaspar and Pfeil.

Both players cherish their memories as 1969 Mets and the friendships that remain among various members of the team, but they hope for the pension mistake to be redressed. “I believe in miracles,” Gaspar says. “I’m a Miracle Met. But some things just don’t get to happen and I believe this is one of those things. But I wish I was wrong, I really do.”

So do 617 more former players asking only that the game they love forget no longer that they, too, played the game in more ways than one.

Cohen asks Met fans for input

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The New York Post captures Steven Cohen and his wife, Amy, celebrating Cohen’s purchase of the team he’s rooted for since the day they were born.

Forget everything else since the World Series finished and ponder this. A fellow Met fan since the day they were born now owns the team. And he hit Twitter running over Halloween weekend, soliciting his fellow Met fans’ input on improving their experience as fans.

Social media has been with us by and large since about the turn of the century, or within the first few years. Until Steve Cohen did it, I don’t remember any incoming baseball owners jumping aboard Twitter, reviving a dormant account, and asking their new teams’ fans much of anything, never mind a question like that.

Some of the answers Cohen received during his weekend Tweet and greet were on the sublime side, as were his replies. “You’ve already done it by buying the team,” tweeted a user handled Austin. “Nah,” Cohen replied, “we can do more than that.” David Tratner, identifying himself as a former NFL public relations executive, tweeted, “Hire smart people in every area (which may include people already in the building).”  Cohen replied, “Hire them smarter than you. That has worked for me in the hedge fund biz.”

Except perhaps for that time when his old hedge fund outfit got spanked by the Securities and Exchange Commission over insider trading. Now, read carefully: Cohen himself was neither accused of nor charged with wrongdoing in that case. It didn’t stop assorted naysayers from screaming blue murder over the prospect of a “felon” becoming a baseball owner.

It also didn’t stop New York’s self-congratulatory mayor, Bill de Blasio, a man who illustrates wisdom by standing athwart it, from threatening at almost the eleventh hour to kill Cohen’s purchase of the Mets. Cloaking himself in doing “our due diligence,” de Blasio sought to use a customarily obscure clause in Citi Field’s land lease agreement with the city—empowering the city to block users known for (brace yourselves) “moral turpitude” from buying—to kill the sale. (The Mets actually own Citi Field through their Queens Ballpark Company subsidiary, but the city owns the land on which it sits.)

When de Blasio was quoted credibly as saying he didn’t want some “billionaire hedge fund” guy buying the Mets, nobody thought to ask, nor did he deign to say so far as is known, which kind of billionaire he preferred to buy the team. Finally, last Friday, the requisite majority of major league owners voted to approve the sale. Cohen thus got the next-best thing to every Met fan’s boyhood wish. If he couldn’t become a Met, at least he got to buy the team.

Some of the weekend answers Cohen got were on the ridiculous side, too, but you might have expected that. “We also don’t need a new analytics department,” tweeted a user handled LOLCOWBOYS—his @ account identifier indicated himself as a Yankee fan—after suggesting the Mets should sign such aging free agents as Yadier Molina and/or J.A. Happ. “Going old school works. Just ask A rod. You should hire A rod as head of the analytics department.”

Cohen didn’t answer that one. But when not rejecting the former Yankee whose powers of baseball analysis have been found very wanting of late, respondents urged the Mets away from baseball’s playing senior citizens: “For too long,” tweeted a fan named Pete, “the Mets have been a team where talent acquired was of the Player to be named to the DL later variety.

A considerable consensus urged Cohen to consider restoring the black alternate jerseys the Mets wore a decade ago. (Say I: No chance. Stick to those handsome blue alternates.) Another fan suggested installing markers in the parking lot, where Shea Stadium used to sit, signifying important moments and plays in Met history, such as the precise spot where left fielder Cleon Jones caught the final out of the 1969 World Series. (Sound as a nut.)

“I like that one,” replied Cohen. He also went on to promise a far better institutional job of honouring the better and more instructive sides of the Mets’ chameleonic history, adding that he’d even return the Mets’ annual Old-Timers Days on partial behalf of doing exactly that. “No brainer,” he said.

My own contribution to that cause was suggesting such uniform number retirements as David Wright (5), Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter (8), Dwight Gooden (16), should-be Hall of Famer Keith Hernandez (17), and Tug McGraw (45). Cohen didn’t reply to that one as I write, but a Twitter account identified as Carter’s gave it a like. My best guess is that the account based from Carter’s Palm Beach home belongs to his family. (He died at 57 in 2012.)

I should have made another suggestion, on behalf of such former Mets as pitcher Bill Denehy, outfielder George (The Stork) Theodore, and other pre-1980 Mets whose major league careers came and went in a blink for assorted reasons. So I’ll make it now.

Mr. Cohen, you have the kind of good will and resources to make something happen for Denehy, Theodore, and over six hundred other former major leaguers who, for reasons ranging from the nebulous to the ridiculous, got frozen out of a 1980 re-alignment of baseball’s player pension plan.

The owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to change the plan and make players’ vesting eligibility 43 days of major league service time instead of the original four-year service time requirement. They also agreed to a one-day service time requirement as vesting eligibility for health benefits. But they excluded short-career major leaguers whose short careers happened between 1949 and 1980.

That mistake affected over 1,100 former players in 1980; attrition since has reduced the number to a little over six hundred. Denehy* may be the best-remembered of the impacted former Mets: after an injury-blocked rookie season in 1967, the Mets traded him to the Washington Senators in order to bring their manager, Gil Hodges, back to New York to manage the Mets.

An unconscionable volume of cortisone injections following his original 1967 shoulder injury—which proved a rotator cuff tear, about which then-Met and other medical personnel were far less than truthful with him—have helped make Denehy legally blind since 2005 and place him now on the threshold of total blindness. He isn’t the only one of the six hundred plus pension freeze-outs with profound health issues.

Eight years ago, then-Players Association director Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig got Denehy, Theodore, and their fellow pension freeze-outs a small but telling redress. They got those players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. The kicker is that they can’t pass those monies on to their loved ones after they pass on. And they still can’t buy in to the players’ health plan.

“It was a nice gesture on the part of Weiner and Selig who, undoubtedly also realized it could hardly make up for all those lost years in which the pre-1980 players got bupkis,” wrote longtime New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden last February.

Just why those players were frozen out of the original 1980 re-alignment remains somewhat mysterious. Denehy, former Texas Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde, and other affected players have said they think many if not most involved in the re-alignment believed many if not most of those short-career men were little more than September call-ups.

Denehy made the 1967 Mets, the 1968 Senators, and the 1971 Detroit Tigers out of spring training. Clyde was signed for a six-figure bonus right out of high school and thrown onto the mound for the Rangers immediately, before the Rangers broke a promise to Clyde and manager Whitey Herzog to send him to the minors for proper seasoning after letting him start twice to goose the struggling Rangers’ gates.

More of the short-career men made clubs out of spring training than the owners and the union remembered or even cared to know. Eligible former players since 1980 collect their pensions whether they were blink-of-an-eye one-day fill-ins, short-term scrubs, long-term spare parts, long-term regulars, or Hall of Famers. Pension vesting isn’t tied to statistical achievement.

It’s rare enough to see a genuine fan grow up to become the owner of the team he grew up loving. (Like me, Mr. Cohen, you saw your first live Mets games in the ancient wreck of the Polo Grounds in 1962-1963.) It’s even more rare when such an owner actively solicits his fans’ input and doesn’t laugh them out of town for their answers.

Mr. Cohen, the worst kept secret on earth is that your pockets are deeper than the Atlantic Ocean. You don’t have to open them to every last one of the six hundred plus pension freeze-outs. If all you do is address Bill Denehy, George Theodore, and their fellow short-career pre-1980 Mets, you would throw down one of the most considerable gauntlets of your time.

“Realistically speaking,” Denehy told me this morning, “no one’s going to come in and bankroll the whole six hundred [plus] players. But if they just take care of the former players in their own organisations, it would be a great start and get the ball rolling a little bit.”

You made yourself an instant hero among Met fans with your weekend Twitter excursion, Mr. Cohen. For that alone, you may repeal the law that says no fan in the history of professional sports has ever bought a ticket to a game to see the team’s owner. (Frustrated 1980s Yankee fans buying into Yankee Stadium to boo, hiss, insult, or hang George Steinbrenner in effigy at the depth of his act notwithstanding.)

You might make yourself even more a hero taking that pension bull by the proverbial horns, especially if more Met fans really knew and understood what little the Denehys and Theodores and others ask for having played the game even briefly. It may help you to know that the late Players Association director Marvin Miller—who was finally elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously as a pioneer—is known to have said in his retirement that not revisiting the 1980 pension re-alignment on behalf of the short career freeze-outs was his biggest regret.

Moving to take care of just your Mets’ own short-career pension freeze-outs would put you even further on the side of the angels and challenge your fellow owners to take a second, third, and even fourth look at their own, Mr. Cohen. Those would be the most profound looks those former players have received in years.

And it would consecrate you, sir, as what your weekend Tweet and greet merely began, the man who started to clean up the New York Mess—and started to clean up a long, long overdue pension plan redress.


* Fair disclosure: Since interviewing him for a 2019 essay—recalling his role in bringing Hodges to New York, his battles with substance abuse borne in due course of his rookie-season shoulder injury misdiagnosis, after he was subject to such a volume of cortisone shots that eventually contributed to the blindness with which he’s lived since 2005—Bill Denehy and myself have become friends.