Appreciating Willie, at 90 and beyond

Willie Mays

Willie Mays hits his 500th career home run in the Houston Astrodome, 1965.

I started watching baseball in earnest with the 1961 World Series, when I was pushing six, and the almighty Yankees faced the almost all-surprising Reds and beat them in five. Something about the game put a vise grip upon me that hasn’t let go in the years and over the changes good and bad since.

The Reds’ Frank Robinson was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1961. Willie Mays finished sixth. As I would learn in due course, Robinson won the award as much because he had an MVP-type season as because he played on a pennant winner, but there were better MVP cases in the 1961 National League by Mays and fellow Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Then they finished inventing the Mets. I was no longer stuck with having to think purely about the Yankees in New York, since the National League was coming back into business there. (Assorted family members, especially my maternal grandfather, began telling me about the former exploits of the Dodgers and the Giants.)

And I’d get to see Willie Mays, even if on television alone. His Giants came to play my embryonic Mets in their former cavern, a big, horseshoe-shaped, rambling wreck of a ballpark known as the Polo Grounds. They played against each other there nine times in 1962. The Giants didn’t visit their former home until 1 June, but it certainly felt like a visit to the old neighbourhood—they swept the Mets in four.

I got to see the first of those four. Mays came exactly as advertised, playing center field as though he were part of a track meet; hitting a home run off future Giants manager Roger Craig the other way in the fifth, about 390 feet from the plate and into the right field seats; taking third from first on a seventh-inning single by another future Giants manager, Felipe Alou.

The bad news is that even a Willie Mays who leaves magnificent first impressions just warming himself up in the on deck circle can have days where someone else makes bigger impressions in the game. Fellow Hall of Famer Willie McCovey hit two bombs for the price of one Mays mash. And even McCovey didn’t steal the day’s headlines.

That theft belonged to Jim Davenport, a left-side infielder who wasn’t quite that serious a plate threat, squareing off against Mets reliever Willard Hunter two batters after Mays scored, with the bases loaded and one out. Davenport hit one not too far short of where Mays’s bomb landed in the right field seats.

It made the score 9-1, the Mets’ lone run to that point courtesy of Rod Kanehl hitting Giants starter Billy Pierce for a leadoff jack into the left field seats. The Mets managed to chase Pierce in the eighth with an RBI double (Charlie Neal) and a two-run single (Frank Thomas) back to back, before Felix (Wrong Way) Mantilla greeted Giants reliever Bobby Bolin rather rudely with a two-run homer.

That was the last of the day’s scoring. I’m reasonably certain that that was not the game during which Mets manager Casey Stengel visited Craig at the mound with McCovey due to hit and asked, “How do you want to pitch him—upper deck or lower deck?”

The Giants banked the 9-6 win. I didn’t get to watch the next three games, alas. Perhaps just as well, since the Giants outscored the Mets over those three games 22-6, including a doubleheader in which the scoring difference was 16-6, Giants.

Mays had himself a grand time playing baseball in New York for the first time since the Giants went west four years earlier. In game one of that doubleheader he opened with an RBI single and a run scored on a sacrifice fly in the first and continued with a two-run homer in the second, though somehow the Mets kept him quiet in the nightcap.

Then, he had one more homecoming message to deliver in the fourth game of the series, taking one of the Mets’ two Bob Millers (the righthanded one) into the left field seats with one out in the sixth.

The Giants met the Mets nine times in New York in 1962 and beat them seven times. Mays had himself an .851 OPS during those nine games. He was a lot more rude a house guest of the National League’s other newborn team in 1962, the Houston Colt .45s: despite Colt Stadium being a whole pitcher’s park, Mays battered the Colts for a 1.214 OPS in 1962.

Mays was 31 years old in 1962. But he still played as though still ten years younger. He had that stance with his feet about half a foot forward and aft of home plate, the stride starting his swing where you saw his front foot step forward about another full foot plus, swinging down and across his midsection, not extending his muscular forearms until a split second before contact, the bat sweeping a little up going around.

The stride and swing that delivered 3,283 Show hits including 523 Show doubles and 660 Show home runs, and leaves open for question even now how many of his 140 Show triples came mostly from his bat or from his legs, considering how relentless a baserunner he really was.

“Willie had great instincts on the bases and he was always aggressive,” Pete Rose has said of him. “I was an aggressive baserunner also. I developed my baserunning skills watching Willie Mays play.” An interesting recollection, that—Mays took extra bases on followup hits 63 percent of the time he reached base, meaning he took more than one base on such a hit. Rose did it 49 percent of the time.

“[O]n a single, it would have been strange if he didn’t go first to third,” Rose’s teammate, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench has said. “He had one of the best turns rounding second or third you could possibly have. With his agility, he made the most perfect turns.”

Mays’s legs did as much for him playing center field as they did on the bases. He thought nothing of starting in as shallow a positioning as he could get away with before reading, hunting down, and snaring a drive. “Curt Flood was the best I’ve ever seen against the wall. He was better than Willie against the wall,” Flood’s Cardinals teammate Tim McCarver has said. “But Curt played deep. Willie didn’t play deep; he played shallow. Willie never went to the wall. Willie was the wall.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller had a dugout seat with the rest of the Indians during the 1954 World Series, including and especially for the catch for which Mays remains remembered singularly, the run to the absolute rear of the Polo Grounds’ right center field, some 460 feet from the plate, to haul down Vic Wertz’s drive.

To everyone else in the house—including a writer named Arnold Hano, sitting in the bleachers and writing A Day in the Bleachers about that game and that play—the play seemed God’s next to last miracle. (My last miracle, said George Burns as God in a 1977 film, was the 1969 Mets.)

“That really wasn’t that great of a catch,” the curmudgeonly Feller once said. And why? “As soon as it was hit, everyone on our bench knew that he was going to catch it . . . because he is Willie Mays.”

Willie Mays Hall of Fame

Wouldn’t you love to know even now just whom the meatheads were that denied Mays first-ballot Hall enshrinement?

When Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he name-checked Mays respectfully. “The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run,” said Teddy Ballgame himself. “He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.” Willie went and got 138 more of ’em before his life as a player finally ended.

For me it was baseball fortune to get to see the better of Willie Mays even in his thirties, even if he was on the road team or I had to wait for one of the Giants’ turns on the old national network Game of the Week telecasts. It was worth the wait to see him square off against such Hall of Famers as Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, the aging Warren Spahn, the young Tom Seaver, the young Steve Carlton.

You might care to note that Mays faced Spahn more than he faced any pitcher, Hall of Famer or otherwise, and had ownership papers on the lefthander who owned a nasty screwball and was a bit of a screwball himself. According to Stathead, Mays faced Spahn 253 times, hitting eighteen home runs among 68 hits, with a slash line pretty close to his overall career slash: .305/.368/.587, and a .955 OPS.

His first major league hit was a home run off me,” Spahn said often enough, “and I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

Drysdale might have told Spahn, “Why the hell didn’t you strike him out?” Mays faced Drysdale 243 times and, while he hit a measly thirteen bombs off the Dodgers righthander, the slash line is .330/.374/.604. The OPS is .978. Why the hell indeed.

Having learned more than a shard of baseball history by age 16, and having seen more than enough of Mays even as a road player to know that I was watching greatness that belonged not of this world but about five dimensions beyond it, it was easy to feel a little New York sentimentality when the Giants—entering a somewhat testy reconstruction and no longer afford to carry aging players, not even Hall of Famers—sold Mays to the Mets to let him finish where he began.

He only looked resplendent in the Mets’ fatigues, under the blue hat that brandished the same orange interlocked NY which once crowned Mays’s forehead on the old black Giants hat. Sunday, 14 May 1972, was my mother’s 42nd birthday; she was a year older than Mays. The date was also Mays’s first game as a Met.

The Mets took an early four-run lead thanks to Rusty Staub’s first-inning grand salami off erstwhile Indians howitzer Sudden Sam McDowell. The Giants tied the game with a four-run fifth. Leading off the bottom of the fifth came Mays, who’d been 0-1 with a walk and a strikeout when he checked in against Giants reliever Don Carrithers.

Mays hit one about 400 feet over the left field fence to bring the Shea Stadium house to a boil of delight. The fan’s heart prayed it might be an unlikely revival; the analyst’s head knew in its heart that it was only a question of when, not if we’d have to imagine baseball games played somewhere without Mays playing in one of them.

The greats don’t always go gently into that good gray night when they can no longer play the games that made their names. This son of an Alabama industrial league ballplayer  fought a small war in his soul when his age insisted he was no longer able to play the game he loved so dearly at the level on which he’d played it for so many years. Some said he’d become sullen, moody, dismissive in the clubhouse. Some resented him, others felt for him, still others mourned.

The smiles may have become rare now but when they came he still looked like the Say Hey Kid. But, yes, you can look it up: Mays never said, “Say hey!” His early habit of starting greetings to people with “Hey . . . ” inspired beat writers covering the Giants to tab him the Say Hey Kid.)

When he smiled as a Met, you still saw him in his youth, you didn’t see the manchild who was yanked rudely into manhood by a San Francisco that shocked him with skepticism as a New York import rather than a hero of their own. By a San Francisco that also shocked him, for all its reputation otherwise, when his bid to buy a home with his first wife was obstructed long enough by the sting of neighbourhood racism.

But when he accepted the now-inevitable, you cried the tears he fought to suppress when the Mets gave him a Willie Mays night, 25 September 1973, and he addressed the Shea Stadium throng and his pennant-aspiring teammates alike, when Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson beckoned him to a microphone:

I hope that with my farewell tonight, you will understand what I’m going through right now. Something that—I never feel that I would ever quit baseball. But as you know, there always comes a time for someone to get out. And I look at the kids over here [pointing toward his Mets teammates], the way they are playing, and the way they are fighting for themselves, tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.

The game couldn’t possibly love Mays back as deeply as he loved the game, but it did its best with what it had. Today Mays celebrates his 90th birthday as the oldest living Hall of Famer, and someone like me who was there for enough of his best on the field and at the plate wishes almost as much as he must at times that we could take him back to one more day in the prime of his youth and turn him loose.

This sexagenarian and a half who saw more of him than he had a right to expect would love to shake his hand and say thank you for the honour of watching him play the game the way he played, but the fear is that “thank you” would be insufficient.

We’d love to remove the glaucoma that’s caused him to stop driving and playing golf, and take him back eyes wide open to make one more rambling catch in the depth of the Polo Grounds or in the eye of the Candlestick Park hurricane. We’d love to take him back to the day he won a second National League Most Valuable Player award eleven years after he won his first; we’d love to show him the record and get him at least two or three other MVPs he should have won.

We’d love to take him back to hit one more bomb off the Warren Spahn who only thought we’d have gotten rid of Mays if Spahn had only struck him out; to have his way with Spahn, Drysdale, fellow Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, and others; to let him have one more crack at the Bob Gibson who more or less owned him in comparison; to let him have, especially, one more chance in the single most transcendent one-on-one battle between pitcher and hitter you could ever hope to see, Willie Mays facing Sandy Koufax.

We’d also love to bring back his beloved Mae Louise, his second wife, who wept with him that farewell night at Shea Stadium, and whose eventual suffering with Alzheimer’s her loving husband didn’t allow to stop him from tending her, caring for her, loving her until she died a little over eight years ago.

But all we can do is say “Happy birthday, Willie, and here’s to many more,” we Americans who’ve never really said goodbye to the man who transcended the game we’ve loved, and who have no known inclination to do so. America without Willie Mays would feel like England without the Beatles: anything except themselves anymore.

Lindor’s April shudders

Francisco Lindor

He’s his usual high-flying self at shortstop, but Francisco Lindor seems pressing too hard at the plate. So far.

It’s not even close to a new story, and it won’t be the last time you hear or see it. Star player signs gigabucks deal and presses out of the season gate to have first month about which “terrible” gets applied liberally. Anywhere else it might be merely alarming. But New York isn’t anywhere else, alas.

You’d think the watchword of the New York sports fan is, “To err is human, to forgive is not New York policy.” They’re not going to sink—yet—to the reputed depths of Philadelphia fans who inspire such gags as the Philly wedding clergyman pronouncing a newlywed couple husband and wife before telling new husband and gathering alike, “You may now boo the bride.”

New York fans have their own expectations and demands, evidence and actualities be damned, even if they’re not going to go Philadelphia just yet. (Or are they?)

Yankee fans, of course, have the patience of a barracuda whose three squares of the day are delayed; to them, anything less than an annual World Series ring is treason. When the Yankees lose it’s God’s will, somebody else’s fault, or time to throw out the first manager of the season. And that’s with George Steinbrenner gone to the Elysian Fields for over a decade.

Who’d have thought they’d see the day when Yankee fans make The Boss resemble Job? Who’d have thought another Steinbrenner (Hal) would epitomise calm seas compared to (a favourite phrase of his father’s) the fannies in the seats?

Met fans are a little more patient. It’s in their DNA. The team was born making edgy comedy while finishing below the basement. They’ve won a few pennants and a couple of World Series, experienced times troubled enough to make the Black Plague resemble the Paisley Underground, watched excellent teams collapse, and survived team overseers and administrations that could be tried in court for premeditated malfeasance.

But even the most patient, good-humoured Met fan has limits.

It’s one thing for the Citi Field boo birds to beat their wings and squawk every time Jacob deGrom pitches knowing there’s no jury on earth who’d rule against him if he files non-support papers on his mates—or entertains even microscopic thoughts of post-game manslaughter.

They’re watching virtuoso pitching on behalf of a team whose bats are so inexplicably paralysed on his game days deGrom himself has to think about delivering base hits (the outlier has six in thirteen plate appearances) and even runs batted in (he has two), when he checks in at the plate and sees the unlikely presence of a man on base ahead of him.

Come to think of it, Met fans are probably unsure what to make of a segment almost as bright so far as deGrom is virtuosic continously: the bullpen that once caused seven-eighths of New York to consider filing arson charges. The five main bulls—Edwin Diaz, Miguel Castro, Trevor May, Jeurys Familia, and Aaron Loup—have a combined 1.46 ERA/1/49 fielding-independent pitching rate in 41 collective gigs over which they’ve surrendered a mere (count them!) seven earned runs.

Right now, they’ll cheer and holler wildly for that livestock. Let those April showers turn into Mayhem, however, and Met fans will treat that cattle like burnt meatloaf almost in the same time it takes to snap their fingers for the waiter.

The bad news is that Mets bats not belonging to Pete Alonso (.837 OPS), Brandon Nimmo (.870 OPS), and J.D. Davis (1.089 OPS) are a stalled production line. None is singled out more for his season-opening plate futility than a freshly-minted import shortstop.

Getting used to deGrom pitching like a Hall of Famer with his mates hitting like Hall of Shamers in his starts is one thing. But flapping and squawking over Francisco Lindor is something else entirely. They didn’t quite bargain on SuperLindor showing up with only half his A-game calibrated for the new season.

Let’s get the contract business out of the way first. Lindor wouldn’t be the first gigabucks player to sign his first serious big-bucks deal and press it at the plate trying too hard to live up to it. If you want a single example, hark back to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. He signed his first big multi-year deal starting in 1978—and had a rather down season at the plate to start that term.

The most cynical of the most cynical Phillies fans dismissed Schmidt as dogging it. Those who paid the closest attention to him knew he was only too anxious to live up to the new deal’s notices and implications. Even if he did win one of his ten Gold Gloves that year. The following year, Schmidt hit like his usual self again (40+ home runs, 210+ runs produced, etc.), led the National League in walks, and made one of his twelve All-Star teams.

For all his pressing at the plate now, Lindor’s still an above-plus study at shortstop. He’s still helping save runs with the leather, legs, and arm. He still has a fielding average 22 points above the rest of the league’s shortstops, and his range factors are still about 30-35 points above the rest. He’s also turned fourteen double plays thus far, well enough on pace to get near his career average 72.

He’s also picking it up when it comes to ducking the strikeout at the plate. Now, I don’t go as nutshit as too many others seeing high strikeout totals, if only because I’d rather see a batter strike out than whack into a double play, but Lindor’s striking out only 11 percent of the time he’s at the plate . . . and taking walks 11 percent of the time. The strikeout rate is lower than his career percentage; the walk rate, higher.

Lindor’s been hitting about as many ground balls as fly balls and that may equal hard batting luck, since he’s not hitting too many weak balls so far. When he does reach base, so far he’s taking extra bases on followup hits 88 percent of the time—his career such average is 47 percent, which is more than just a good rate.

Joe and Jane Fan forget something about baseball players. Allow me to remind you: They’re not automatons or holograms, they’re human beings. No two of them are alike entirely. For every Mike Trout or Mookie Betts who lives up to the implied mandate of a new gigabucks deal right out of the proverbial chute, there’ll be ten struggling powerfully to live up to such deals at the outset or even through the first full season after they sign them.

“It’s interesting and it’s funny, and it sucks,” the usually ebullient shortstop told reporters on a conference call last week. “It doesn’t feel right, for sure. Interesting because it’s the first time that it happened in my career. And funny because I’m getting booed and people think I’m going to go home and just think, oh, why am I getting booed? I get it. They’re booing because there’s no results. That’s it.”

Derek Jeter would empathise. He was as close to a Yankee god as you could get and ended up in the Hall of Fame. But even he took it on the nose and in the brain on the bad days and nights. “I don’t blame them. We would have booed ourselves tonight,” he often said after such games. Jeter understood only too well how quickly a ballplayer might go from hero to villain—sometimes before 24 hours passed.

Don’t kid yourself that it doesn’t really sting. Lindor’s learning fast enough: Come up short as far as New York Fan is concerned and you’re the worst thing to hit town since the November 1965 power blackout. Come up long, you’ll find fewer places more ready to shower you with their love, affection, keys to the city, and maybe first born children, too.

If the right to boo, hiss, catcall, hang snarky banners, or flood Twitter indignantly comes with the price of a ticket to the ballpark, there’s an implicit correlation that says you don’t really know whether a player is just dogging it or is driving himself to nineteen nervous breakdowns trying to deliver.

The appropriate answer when Joe or Jane Fan huffs, “For x hundred bazillion dollars I could hit the you-know-what out of that slop,” is to reply, “If you could, you’d have been there instead.”

“I can’t hit like Vada Pinson,” said a social media baseball group member discussing the old Reds outfielder, “but he can’t make strawberry shortcake like me.” Lucky him. By age fifteen I couldn’t even hit like Strawberry Shortcake. I made a major leaguer with a paltry .200 hitting average and a mere .300 Real Batting Average (RBA) resemble Mike Trout.

A shortstop with a .537 lifetime RBA (once again: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) might also suggest that if one must endure a slump for any reason, it’s better to slump in April than down the stretch of a pennant race.

New York Fan still needs to be reminded that pennant races won in April and May are the exceptions, not the rules, outside a closet full of Yankee pennants in the last century plus the 1986 Mets. That one player won’t make or break a pennant except in very extraordinary conditions. Not even if he signs for nine figures over the ten years to follow this one.

He almost killed the Mets

Citi Field

Met fans at Citi Field earlier this month. Bernie Madoff, the man whose grand ripoff made Charles Ponzi resemble a piker and nearly destroyed the Mets, has died.

There’s a 34-story building in Manhattan known as the Lipstick Building. Not because it ever housed a particular cosmetics company but because of its look. It resembles a glass-and-girder lipstick tube. The co-designers were John Burgee Architects and Philip Johnson, the latter a once-fabled disciple of modern architecture’s “White God No. 2” (Tom Wolfe’s phrase) Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The Lipstick Building seems an appropriate place to have housed the working offices of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. That firm’s founding father only thought he’d applied enough lipstick to the $65 billion pig exposed as the single greatest ripoff in Wall Street history in 2009, a ripoff that made Charles Ponzi resemble a piker.

As one Tweeter phrased it Wednesday morning, “RIP Bernie Madoff, the man who made Bobby Bonilla day possible.” For openers.

Madoff’s death at 82 was reported earlier Wednesday, the federal Bureau of Prisons saying nothing more other than to confirm the financier’s death. The bureau wouldn’t disclose the actual cause “for safety, security and privacy reasons,” though it was known that Madoff suffered end-stage kidney disease and other maladies.

He was an equal opportunity defrauder, nicking and draining the rich and the modest alike. The reputed 37,000 victims around the world include Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, film legend Steven Spielberg, Yeshiva University, a Syracuse local of the plumbers’ union, the charity for Jewish leukemia and lymphoma patients despite his younger son’s fight against lymphoma, and an Afghanistan war veteran.

They also included Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax and a few other sports figures such as former Mets middle infielder Tim Teufel and New York Islanders hockey dynasty wingman Bob Nystrom. And, especially, former Mets owners Fred Wilpon, Jeff Wilpon, and Saul Katz.

The elder Wilpon invested with Madoff beginning in the mid-1980s, not long after he became the Mets’ co-owner and, in time, very likely unaware that promised massive returns were illusory at best. Those promised returns enabled the Mets in 2000 to agree to a buyout of veteran but fading Bobby Bonilla’s remaining contract.

The actual remaining value was $5.9 million. The Mets instead agreed to pay him $1,193,248.20 a year for the coming 25 years at eight percent interest. Bonilla gets that check every 1 July. Wilpon believed that double-digit returns on his Madoff investments would cover the Bonilla buyout and deliver glandular profits above and beyond whatever they’d be paying their former player. Not quite.

The Mets will be on the hook for the Bonilla buyout until 2035. The Wilpons found themselves on the hook for $65 million in loans to meet the Mets’ payroll after Madoff admitted to prosecutors that he’d ripped off billions of his investors’ monies while financing a lavish lifestyle for his wife and family.

Were the Wilpons plain victims like most of Madoff’s clients? Did they know more about Madoff’s bloated ripoff than they let on? One bankruptcy trustee named Irving Picard thought so.

Tasked with recovering monies lost in the Madoff scheme, Picard sued the Wilpons to compel them, as Crain’s New York Business described, to “return $300 million in ‘fictitious profits,’ paid out to their family, their associates, and businesses by Mr. Madoff ’s firm over many years.”

The New York Times called that a “novel claim,” noting Picard “was initially seeking an extra $700 million because he says, the Mets’ owners looked the other way while they benefited from Madoff’s fraud.”

It wasn’t that simple to determine whether the Wilpons and Katz were victims like the others or whether they looked the other way because their investments with Madoff became more of a part of the Mets’ business model than once intended.

“Clearly, Wilpon ignored the warnings because it benefitted him to do so,” argued Sports Are From Venus writer Zachary Diamond in September 2019. “He did not go against Madoff and his fraud at any point because of how financially important it was to his business. Had it not benefited him, Wilpon most likely would have stopped investing with Madoff, as one should do after learning something was fraudulent.”

“Madoff promised and delivered consistent, high, and ultimately false returns of as much as 12%-18% of their investments, which is why the Wilpons and Katz had such an extensive relationship with him,” writes AMNY‘s Joe Pantorno.

Of course, they didn’t know that; relying on Madoff for quick, extra cash as needed to help bolster the Mets’ roster in the late 90s and early 2000s, for example.

But the Wilpons used money made from Madoff as collateral on other loans, so when Madoff went bust, Mets ownership had to borrow $430 million against the team and an additional $450 million against their regional television network, SNY.

It created massive debts that forced the Wilpons to pay over $100 million per year alone, created alongside the annual $43 million payment on Citi Field.

That was why Mets fans’ wishes of their favorite team going out and signing that big-name free agent didn’t happen often enough. That was why a club that plays in the largest sports market on the planet was being run like it played its games in Kalamazoo instead of New York City.

“The fallout shrunk the [Mets’] payroll, from $140 million in 2011 to $95 million in 2012 to $85 million in 2014 as salaries rose across the game,” writes ESPN’s Joon Lee. “Subsequently, the Wilpons slowly lost power and financial stake in the team.”

In 2012, federal judge Jed Rakoff ruled that Picard overshot his target by a glandular distance. “After careful consideration,” Rakoff proclaimed, “the court concludes that the trustee has entirely failed to demonstrate the kind of extraordinary circumstances that would warrant this court in granting his motion,” saying Picard hadn’t proven the Wilpons and Katz “willfully blinded themselves” to Madoff’s chicanery. The Wilpons and Picard settled in due course for $162 million.

When the depth of Madoff’s ripoff was exposed, hedge fund titan Steve Cohen bought a $20 million stake in the Mets. Today Cohen is the Mets’ owner, after buying the Wilpons and Katz’s majority stakes last September. The Mets have since begun behaving like the large market team the Madoff ripoff throttled them from being in its wake.

As of today, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, victims of the Madoff ripoff have recovered roughly eighty percent of the estimated total $65 billion out of which they were swindled in the first place. The Wilpons and Katz made off with $2.4 billion when selling the Mets.

“Bull or bear market, recession or recovery, Madoff’s clients were always guaranteed a great year,” writes New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro.” At the very least [Fred] Wilpon — a man who was his own self-made success story in business — was grossly and almost irresponsibly naive.”

Signing shortstop Francisco Lindor to a ten-year, $341 million contract extension just before the current major league season began would have been unthinkable, so long as the Wilpons and Katz remained the Mets’ majority owners while still having to pay over $143 million to retire the loans compelled by the Madoff ripoff.

Madoff’s investment victims weren’t his sole victims, of course. His oldest son Mark committed suicide two years after Madoff’s arrest; his younger son Andrew died of lymphoma in 2014. Mark and Andrew Madoff had listened to their father confess to the racket in December 2008, with the father promising to get things straightened out within the next 24 hours. They didn’t give him the chance, going to their lawyers and then to the authorities.

Ruth Madoff broke off all contact with her husband after the suicide; their grandchildren are said to have changed their names hoping to escape what Town & Country called “the family shame.” Mrs. Madoff was allowed to keep $2.5 million in return for forfeiting all her other assets, the magazine said, and must report any spending over $100 to a bankruptcy trustee.

New York City mayor Bill deBlasio, a man who normally shows wisdom by standing athwart it, says Madoff’s death doesn’t mean it’s time to dance on a grave. “[B]ut let’s just be honest: Many, many people were hurt by his actions,” deBlasio told the press. “It’s time to hopefully turn the page and move forward.”

The victims may first turn to the page on which they’ll see Clarence Darrow saying, “I have never wished a man dead, but I have read a great many obituaries with a great deal of pleasure.”

Paul Lo Duca learns the hard way

Paul Lo Duca, Billy Wagner

Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner share a high-five after nailing down a Mets win. Claiming Joe West’s strikes could be bought with Wagner’s classic Chevy sends Lo Duca from high five to out five hundred large . . .

You can accuse one of baseball’s two most notorious umpires of anything you like. Call him a craven self-promoter. Say his strike zone behind the plate is more flexible than politician’s policy positions. Tell the world he’s a meathead for complaining about the length of a baseball game between two certain teams over whom he appoints himself judge and jury.

Those won’t get you hauled into court to answer for defamation. But say on the air that Joe West’s strikes could be bought for the price of using your pitcher’s classic automobile and it’ll cost you six figures. Especially when West wasn’t even behind the plate in the games in question when you caught that pitcher.

Former major league catcher Paul Lo Duca is learning the hard way after losing a defamation lawsuit West filed in 2019. That year, Lo Duca accused West, the single most notorious umpire this side of Angel Hernandez, of being very generous calling strikes with relief ace Billy Wagner on the mound, after Wagner agreed to let the chunky umpire use the lefthander’s 1957 Chevrolet any old time he chose whenever they were in town together.

That’ll cost Lo Duca $500,000 plus interest paid to West after a decision in Manhattan Supreme Court Monday, during a session to determine damages for which Lo Duca didn’t even show up according to numerous published reports.

Lo Duca claimed on a 2019 sports betting podcast that he talked to Wagner after a game in which Wagner both advised Lo Duca to set up a little more inside on the hitters and suggested West would give Wagner the inside corners a little more generously. Why? Here’s Lo Duca himself aboard that podcast:

We’re playing like a really tight game against the Phillies and Billy Wagner comes in from the bullpen. I used to go to the mound every time and like, ‘What’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, Joe’s behind the plate. Set up a couple more inches inside. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Joe hates me.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Joe loves me.’

I go, ‘He hasn’t given us the corner all day.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He literally throws 10 pitches and strikes out three guys. Joe rings up all three guys. Eight out of the nine pitches were at least three to four inches inside, not even close. Guys were throwing bats and everything. Joe walks off the field.

I get back into the clubhouse and I’m like, “What the [fornicate] just happened just right now?” And Wagner just winks at me. I’m like, “What’s the secret?” He’s like, “Eh, Joe loves antique cars so every time he comes into town I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me.”

I’m like, “This guy’s been throwing me out for the last 10 years of my life and all I needed to do was rent him a ’57 Chevy?”

'57 Bel Air

A 1957 Chevrolet, the kind of car Billy Wagner didn’t use to buy strikes from Joe West.

There were two problems with Lo Duca’s revelation, as things turned out. Problem One: West countered, and the records support him, that he was never behind the plate when Wagner was on the mound with Lo Duca catching in either 2006 or 2007, the two seasons Lo Duca spent with the Mets. Problem Two: Wagner himself submitted a December 2020 affidavit denying he talked to Lo Duca about buying West off with a vintage Chevy or anything else.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge John Kelley found it too simple to rule in West’s favour when Lo Duca didn’t show up Monday or respond directly to West’s suit otherwise. As of this writing, Lo Duca hasn’t responded to the court ruling and Wagner hasn’t spoken publicly about the case or the critical conversation he denies ever happened.

West remembers working only one Mets-Phillies game behind the plate in the 2006-2007 time frame and Wagner wasn’t on the mound at any time during the game—which ended on a home run, not three straight punchouts. Unlike on a lot of occasions when he calls strikes balls, balls strikes, outs safe, and safes out, West was dead right about that.

You can look it up. In 2006-2007, the Mets played 27 games that ended in walk-offs. Their record in those games: 18-9. (That’s a .667 winning percentage in those games, for those scoring at home.) They included two walk-off games with the Phillies in each year; the Mets won only one of those games:

9 May 2006—Final score: 5-4, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Mets reliever Aaron Heilman’s throwing error on Bobby Abreu’s grounder, allowing David Delluci (two-out triple) to score the winner. Billy Wagner: didn’t pitch. Paul Lo Duca: caught and batted second in the lineup. Home plate umpire: Doug Eddings.

23 May 2006—Final score: 9-8, Mets, sixteen innings. The walk-off blow: Carlos Beltran’s leadoff home run off Phillies reliever Ryan Madson. Wagner: pitched the 11th; fly out, two swinging strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Jeff Kellogg.

28 August 2007—Final score: 4-2, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Ryan Howard’s two-run homer off Guillermo Mota. Wagner: didn’t pitch. Lo Duca: caught and batted seventh. Home plate umpire: Joe West. Most likely, this is the game West himself remembers.

30 August 2007—Final score: 11-10, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Chase Utley’s RBI single through the hole at second, after Tadahito Iguchi singled to tie the game and stole second. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered the tying and winning runs. Lo Duca: entered the game in the eighth taking over for Mike DiFelice and batting eighth. Home plate umpire: Ed Hickox.

Four times the Mets and the Phillies played games ending in walk-off hits in 2006 and 2007. Joe West was the plate umpire for one of those games, in which Wagner didn’t pitch but Lo Duca caught. In the two games in which Wagner did pitch, he struck out two of his three batters in the first game but struck out none of the batters he faced in the second game.

As a matter of fact, Wagner was credited with the pitching wins in three Mets walk-offs in 2006 and two in 2007. So we should have a look at those, too:

9 April 2006, vs. the Marlins—Final score: 3-2, Mets. The walk-off blow: David Wright’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth. Wagner: pitched the top of the ninth, worked his way out of a two-out jam by inducing a ground out to second base, no strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Ed Montague.

1 May 2006, vs. the Nationals—Final score: 2-1, Mets. The walk-off blow: Lo Duca’s grounder to relief pitcher Gary Majewski on which Majewski’s throwing error trying to start a double play allowed Endy Chavez to score the winner. Wagner: pitched a spotless ninth with two swinging strikeouts and a ground out right back to the box. Home plate umpire: Chris Guccione.

19 May 2006, vs. the Yankees—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright scoring Lo Duca with a fly single off Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. Wagner: struck the side out swinging in the top of the ninth. Lo Duca: of course, caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Alfonso Marquez.

23 June 2007, vs. the Athletics—Final score: 1-0, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright’s RBI double. Wagner: shook off a leadoff single in the top of the ninth to get a bunt ground out, a fly out, and a swinging strikeout. Lo Duca: started the game but came out for a pinch hitter in the sixth. Home plate umpire: Marvin Hudson.

21 August 2007, vs. the Padres—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Luis Castillo’s RBI single. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered a game-tying run on Kevin Kouzmanoff’s sacrifice fly, during a rough inning in which he surrendered a single, a walk, and a hit batsman to load the bases for Kouzmanoff. Lo Duca: didn’t play. Home plate umpire: Angel Hernandez.

Five times between 2006 and 2007 Billy Wagner ended up the pitcher of record in walk-off wins by the Mets; only once did he get credit for the win when the Mets walked it off after he’d surrendered a tying run. Paul Lo Duca was behind the plate for Wagner in three of the five. Joe West didn’t call balls and strikes in any of those five games, including the one such game in which Wagner did strike out the side—against the Yankees, not the Phillies—with Lo Duca behind the plate.

West plans to retire after this season. Trying to bring Lo Duca to account, West’s legal team pressed his fear that the Lo Duca podcast appearance would injure his chances to be elected to the Hall of Fame, especially considering he stands to break Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem’s record for games umpired. As The Athletic points out, umps elected to Cooperstown earn a lot more on the rubber chicken and autograph circuits if they have the Hall of Fame on their resumes.

Never mind whether or not you think West belongs in Cooperstown. Lo Duca forgot one of the key lessons we learn at ages younger than Lo Duca’s when he first made the Show: Look before you leap. The tide may have receded.

“I try to control what I can control”

Jacob deGrom

He pitches like Tom Seaver for a team that hits like the St. Louis Browns when he’s on the mound.

Here we go yet again. And it’s getting more ridiculous than before. To the point where someone might be tempted to spike Jacob deGrom’s MP3 player with the Four Tops.

Once upon a time, that legendary Motown quartet sang, “It’s the same old song/with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.” Except it isn’t deGrom who’s gone, it’s the Mets offense when he’s on the mound.

He’s too much a team player to say it, but he must be tempted to wish his teammates wouldn’t just sing “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” but mean it and show it.

For the second time in his first two 2021 starts, deGrom pitched like a Hall of Famer. For the second time in his first two starts, his Mets could have been hauled into court for non-support and for trashing what he left behind. Or, at least, for impersonating the St. Louis Browns.

On Saturday his only blemish was the 0-2 fastball Marlins rookie Jazz Chisholm deposited over the right field fence in the top of the second, after deGrom struck Garrett Cooper and Brian Anderson out swinging.

Those were two of fourteen strikeouts deGrom nailed in eight innings’ work. He threw 95 pitches and 76 were strikes; he scattered five hits including the Chisholm bomb; he was, in other words, the Jacob deGrom who may still remain the favourite for this year’s National League Cy Young Award.

If the Mets keep playing this kind of baseball with deGrom on the mound, the righthander may set another precedent, even in theory: the first 20-game “loser” to win the Cy Young Award.

Don’t laugh, it could happen. DeGrom has an 0.64 ERA and a 1.55 fielding-independent pitching rate. Right now, these Mets seem capable entirely of going the distance to hang 20 losses in deGrom’s locker despite him making their late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver resemble the late Anthony Young.

Marlins rookie Trevor Rogers pitched like a deGrom aspirant on the other side, with ten punchouts in six innings and three measly hits against him while walking two to deGrom’s none. He threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes to deGrom’s 80 percent. These Marlins need all the good news they can find and Rogers, a lefthander who stands an inch taller than deGrom does physically, may be some of their best news this year.

For eight innings the game stayed 1-0 and deGrom’s elegant assassination of the Marlins other than the Chisholm blast was rewarded with the Mets forgetting that it’s neither necessary nor possible to hit six-run homers every time they check in at the plate.

They had Brandon Nimmo opening the first with a double and taking third when the Marlins misplayed Francisco Lindor’s bunt at second base—and stranded him when Lindor got arrested for attempted grand theft second base followed by Michael Conforto and Pete Alonso striking out.

They had Dom Smith leading off the fifth with a line single past second base but James McCann dialing an immediate Area Code 6-4-3; then, they got the gift of Jeff McNeil wringing Rogers for a full count walk and taking second on a balk with Jonathan Villar at the plate—but they also got Villar striking out for the side.

They had deGrom himself leading off the sixth with a base hit, first and second when Nimmo followed immediately with a walk, and first and third when deGrom had room enough to tag for it on Lindor’s fly to the back of right field—and Conforto and Alfonso striking out for the side again.

They had six chances to get men in scoring position home and blew all six chances. Even allowing how tough Rogers was on the day, that’s six veterans unable to out-think the rookie when they were at the plate and give their own man even two runs to work with.

Of course, in deGrom’s first start the Mets actually let him leave a game with a lead only to see one inning of shutdown relief followed by another of the bullpen puking the bed. This time, the Mets left deGrom in a 1-0 hole—and the bullpen had another stomach upset.

Specifically, the one imposed by Edwin Diaz opening the Miami ninth. He served Starling Marte a grapefruit to hit for a long double on 0-1 and handed Jesus Aguilar a 1-0 meatball to dump into short right center for an RBI single. Just when it looked like Diaz would contain the damage with a fly out to center (Cooper) and a grounder to short (Anderson) forcing Aguilar at second, he walked Chisholm unintentionally and served Miguel Rojas an orange to shoot through the hole at shortstop and send Anderson home.

Then Jeurys Familia kept the damage to a pair by striking out Chad Wallach on three pitches. What was the reward in the bottom of the ninth? Doing nothing against Miami reliever Yimi Garcia. Lindor lined out to the right side of the infield, Conforto grounded out to second, and Alonso looked at strike three right on the floor of the zone on 1-2.

Guess Conforto couldn’t elbow his way into getting something going the way he did Thursday, when he did or didn’t quite get out of the way of a pitch that caught him on the elbow guard with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

Twenty viewings of that segment and I still couldn’t tell for dead last certain whether Conforto thought about a swing and snuffed the thought at once, or whether he thought he might get away with taking one for the team. Those who think Conforto was looking for a sneaky play should be reminded that his career-long habit with two strikes on him is to lean over the plate a little more than normal.

Plate ump Ron Kulpa rung him up on strike three—then called hit batsman. A replay review didn’t overturn the call that Kulpa knew should have been strike three with the batter failing to get out of the way of the strike. Even the Mets’ own broadcast team—Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling—knew Conforto got away with manslaughter.

The ump declared mea Kulpa right after that game. He got cheered by the Citi Field crowd Saturday, appropriately. We know too much about ump malfeasance and umpires refusing to admit they blew one; we should expect an ump getting some love when he admits he made a big mistake.

The boo birds let the still-struggling Conforto have it in the sixth. Speculation abounds that Conforto in his contract walk year and other formidable Met hitters are pressing too heavily at the plate. (They’re 6-for-41 with men in scoring position so far.)

Nimmo all but admitted as much when he told a reporter, “That could be happening, I’m not in everyone’s mind, but I do try and talk and figure out what guys are thinking, but that definitely could be happening as the game goes on and the runs are not there . . . it definitely could be happening in some guys’ minds.”

Ask deGrom—as the same reporter did about him having a 2.06 ERA since 2018 while the Mets have been six games under .500 in his starts in the same span—and you’re not going to get him to admit he just might have those non-support papers ready to file at the nearest courthouse.

Even if he isn’t quite the most luck-afflicted of hard-luck pitchers. Nobody denies deGrom pitches in an ocean of rotten luck. But he’s not even the most hard-luck pitcher in Met history, believe it or not. That dubious honour belongs to Jon Matlack, whose 39 percent of starts with two runs or less to work with is the highest in franchise history. Higher than the 37 percent shared by Matt Harvey and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, higher than the 33 percent of Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, higher than deGrom’s 35 percent.

That could change rather drastically, if the Mets continue their very dubious practise of forgetting how to hit when deGrom is on the mound. Bless him, deGrom doesn’t want to think about things like that. Yet. “I try to control what I can control,” he insisted, “and that’s getting ready for my next start. I hadn’t seen that stat. These guys are great. They’re going out there giving 100 percent. Today we just got beat.”

If he doesn’t exactly sound like the abused spouse who’s willing to believe yet again that the abuser will keep the promise to never, ever, ever do that again, he’s not that far from it, either. If he keeps pitching like a Hall of Famer and wins a third Cy Young Award this year, despite his team making his “won-lost” record resemble an Anthony Young Award winner’s, someone’s going to have to do an intervention.