Diminishing the one whose record you break?

If Joe DiMaggio didn’t think Cal Ripken, Jr. diminished Lou Gehrig, neither should anyone else. Unfortunately . . .

You become accustomed to absurdity when loving, following and writing about a game. You see and hear it from those who love and follow it, those who play it, those who manage or administer it, and those who write about it. But then comes a remark that should win the ultimate Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary.

I saw it in the context of late-spring observations on the health of certain Yankees, aboard a Facebook baseball group to which I belong, mindful that for almost three years The New England Journal of Medicine could be the Yankee yearbook. I saw concurrent references to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr., Hall of Famers both, one setting the consecutive games played streak the other broke.

Both Gehrig and Ripken played through assorted injuries to reach their milestones, perhaps foolishly. Gehrig ended his streak only under orders from the insidious disease that would kill him shy of two years after removing himself from the Yankee lineup. Ripken was able to play 501 consecutive games more following the night he passed Gehrig and 870 more games total before retiring with 3,001 major league games played.

Aboard that group, I couldn’t resist noting Gehrig’s plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park still calls him “a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time.” Just as it did when it was first erected in the old Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July in 1941.

The night Ripken said “not quite,” one of Gehrig’s Yankee teammates was in Camden Yards to see it happen. “Well,” said Joe DiMaggio to Ripken and the crowd after the game ended, “that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken. And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Another group member thought not. “I still wish Cal would have stopped at 2130,” he wrote. “He would have been even more of a media darling if he said something along the lines of the memory of the man and the streak is too great to be broken therefore I am content to tie it and to hopefully be mentioned in the same breath as he in future conversation.”

Have I finally seen everything?

Well, I know better. But for abject absurdity if not sheer foolishness, that gets as close as possible. It only begins with Ripken having been a media target as much as a media darling the closer he got to meeting and passing Gehrig. For every one that marveled at his endurance, there was another who marveled that the Orioles put up with his “selfishness,” with putting his potential place in baseball history ahead of the team’s good.

My first response in the space of the group itself was to suggest such thinking as wishing Ripken stopped equal to Gehrig made it a wonder that any record would be broken. I remembered Henry Aaron saying, “I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth, I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.”

I also wondered whether Ruth himself would have said, in 1919, “Gee, I think I’ll stop at 27 [home runs] because I don’t want to ruin Ned Williamson’s memory.” (Ruth’s 29 homers that year broke Williamson’s 1884 single-season record.) I didn’t dare add that I was pretty sure Pete Rose in 1985 didn’t think for a single minute, “Jeez, I can’t do this to Ty Cobb, can I?” before slashing his Tying and passing career base hits.

Guess I should have described myself as a hopeless romantic instead of an idealist but i really do wish that was the way it went down,” said the group member in question who thinks and wishes Ripken had stopped at 2,130. “Everyone would have known Cal could have easily surpassed Gehrig and I can’t foresee anybody breaking or even coming close to 2130 again. Your point though is certainly well taken.”

What manner of “hopeless romantic” goes ballistic at the mere idea of anyone challenging Ruth’s former single-season home run record in 1961? Which one has kittens over the likelihood of plainspoken, charisma-challenged Roger Maris and not glib, charisma-loaded Mickey Mantle breaking it?

Idealists don’t send aspiring record breakers hate mail. Hopeless romantics don’t write venomous newspaper columns or throw things at them. Then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t hopelessly romantic, he was cynically selfish—as a one-time Ruth ghostwriter and permanent Ruth acolyte—demanding separation between 154-game and 162-game seasons the better to be damn sure ruthsrecord (yes, they said it that way then) couldn’t really be erased.

(P.S. You asked for it. Maris needed five fewer plate appearances to hit 61 in ’61 than Ruth did to hit 60 in 1927. If you re-set Maris’s clock to start his season the game in which he hit his first homer of ’61, it took him 152 games to hit 61. Take that, Edsel Frick.)

I wondered further about such “idealists” as the brain-dead and the racists (who are their own kind of brain dead) threatening Aaron every step of the way as he approached, met, and passed Ruth on the career home run list.

I resisted the temptation to ask my fellow group member if he was one of those ready to wear black arm bands when Sandy Koufax smashed two of Bob Feller’s records in one 1965, Feller’s major league single-season strikeout record and his career record three no-hitters. (Koufax really hit Feller where it hurt, too: his fourth no-hitter proved that practise makes perfect.)

Then I reminded myself no milestone passer or record breaker could possibly erase the memory or the legacy of the one whose milestone he passed or record he broke. I learned that early from Ted Williams himself, a man who was nothing if not obsessed with his own legacy. “The other day,” Williams said at his own Hall of Fame induction, “Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘go get ‘em Willie’.”

Williams didn’t think Mays diminished him. Teddy Ballgame, of course, probably believed nobody could diminish him. While whacking balls during batting practise he was once heard to say, “Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out!”

Was Ruth diminished by Maris and Aaron? Was Feller diminished by Koufax? Was Cobb diminished by Rose? Was Walter Johnson diminished by Nolan Ryan breaking his lifetime major league strikeout record? Was Gehrig really diminished by Ripken?

DiMaggio didn’t think so. “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record,” the Yankee Clipper told that cheering Camden Yards throng, “and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

On the silver anniversary of the night he passed Gehrig (and whacked a home run while he was at it), I reminded anyone who cared to read it that Ripken didn’t (and doesn’t) live by 2,131 alone. He’s the arguable greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game. Says who? Says 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs (the only such middle infielder to do both) and +181 fielding runs (third only behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith), says who.

You should be half afraid to ask whether Casey Stengel managing five consecutive World Series winners diminished the John McGraw who’d once managed a mere four. Or whether Tom Seaver striking out a record ten straight to consummate a nineteen-strikeout game diminished the Steve Carlton who’d struck out nineteen in a game previously without ten straight punchouts to finish.

Carlton wasn’t accused of diminishing the Koufax who struck eighteen out in a game twice or the Feller who did it once.

Tomorrow is Opening Day. The Show will be back and with a full season to come, even. Last year’s pan-damn-ically shortened, irregular season will recede a little further into the ranks of the aberrations. There may be a few milestones reached and passed this year, if not exactly all-time records of all-time idols.

Miguel Cabrera needs a mere 134 hits and thirteen home runs to become the only player who ever reached 3,000 lifetime hits and 500 lifetime home runs in the same season. At least nobody—whether fan group member or professional writer—can accuse Cabrera diminishing someone else’s achievement if he makes both.

Nobody can predict, of course. The likelihood isn’t that great, either, but imagine if the aging Cabrera’s thirteenth home run this year becomes his 3,000th hit, somehow. He’d be only the third man in Show history to do it. Hands up to anyone foolish enough to think he shouldn’t even think about trying to go long for 3,000 because it might “diminish” the only two men whose 3,000th hits were bombs—Derek Jeter (who did it first, in 2011) and Alex Rodriguez (who did it in 2015).

At September 2019’s end, just about, Justin Verlander struck Kole Calhoun out twice in a game. The first time nailed Verlander’s 3,000th career strikeout, the second time his 300th strikeout of that season. No pitcher ever delivered that trick before. The only thing that diminished Verlander even slightly was what happened after he punched Calhoun out for 3,000: Andrelton Simmons hit the pitch immediately following the punchout over the center field fence.

Entering 2021 Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw have over 2,500 lifetime strikeouts each. Suppose one of them endures long enough that his 3,000th strikeout-to-be might also become his 300th strikeout of the season in question. Would it really diminish Verlander if one of them pulls it off? Should he just try throwing grounders the rest of the way? Should his manager relieve him on the spot? The better not to soil Verlander’s glory?

God help Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., or Christian Yelich if any of them should stand on the threshold of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Some bonehead somewhere is liable to suggest he should take a dive for game 57 on the grounds that it’s too great a record to be broken and, by the way, he shouldn’t ought to want to diminish DiMaggio’s memory.

Both Ripken and myself will probably be in the Elysian Fields before somebody else breaks Ripken’s streak, if somebody else actually does. But I’ll be there watching when Ripken and Gehrig holler down to the man, “Way to go, kiddo!” They won’t be screaming bloody murder with demands not to be diminished.

When Johnny Bench broke Yogi Berra’s record for lifetime home runs as a catcher, Berra wired him: “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.” Funny how Bench didn’t exactly diminish Berra. Funny how Berra didn’t exactly feel diminished. Funny, too, how nobody who’s since passed Bench —for the record, they’re Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza—diminished Yogi, either.

The only one diminished by suggesting that breaking venerated records diminishes the original record setter is the one making the suggestion in the first place.

Tom Seaver, RIP: Gravitas

The Franchise.

When Tom Seaver’s family announced his withdrawal from public life in March 2019, thanks to his battle with dementia, I wrote that it would not be untoward for those who love baseball to pray that The Franchise received any kind of miracle. He’d helped fashion one that inspired one of the classic lines in 1970s film comedy.

“Oh, every now and then I work a little miracle just to keep My hand in,” George Burns as God told a skeptical John Denver in Oh, God! “My last miracle was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea. Aaaaah, that was a beauty.”

I saw Oh, God! in a Long Island movie house when it was released originally, and that line got the heartiest laughs of the entire film. Loud enough that you had to sit through it again to hear the part about the Red Sea. Somewhere in the middle of the racket I remembered Seaver’s fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, covering the 1969 World Series for NBC, interviewing Seaver during the set.

“Tom,” Koufax began, “do you think God is a Met fan?” Seaver didn’t miss. “I don’t know, Sandy,” he replied, “but I think He rented an apartment in New York this week.”

Now the miracle may be that Seaver suffers no longer, shepherded to the Elysian Fields by the God who embraces such of His works as elegantly, intelligently competitive pitchers. The first genuine Mets superhero, after their infancy chock full of super anti-heroes, Seaver died in his sleep Sunday at 75, following a battle against dementia incurred through Lyme disease for which COVID-19 is reported to have delivered the final pitch.

Met fans thought their team hit the lottery when Seaver arrived in 1967. How literally true it was, after the Atlanta Braves made a huge mistake signing him out of USC. The Braves ran afoul of the rule that college pitchers couldn’t be signed after their season began. Seaver also ran afoul of the NCAA, which ruled him ineligible for USC despite his not having taken so much as a nickel into his pocket yet.

Commissioner William (The Unknown Soldier) Eckert voided the deal. Then, he offered Seaver to any team willing to beat the Braves’ $40,000 bonus offer. Three teams offered. (The Mets, the Indians, and the Phillies.) Eckert put their names into a hat. He just so happened to draw the Mets. They’d soon learn that coming up with Seaver out of a hat was like reaching into a bowl of marbles and pulling up the Hope Diamond. So would at least one of his would-have-been Braves teammates.

When Seaver made his first All-Star team, as the National League’s Rookie of the Year-to-be in 1967, he couldn’t wait to introduce himself to Hall of Famer Henry Aaron. “Kid,” Aaron replied, “I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.” Thus spoke the Hall of Famer half of whose hits against Seaver were extra-base jobs—eight out of sixteen lifetime hits in 89 plate appearances.

Examing Seaver statistically is child’s play, even discovering that he’s one of only two major league pitchers ever to strike out more than three thousand batters and retire with a lifetime earned-run average below 3.00. (The other: Hall of Famer Walter Johnson.) Or, the only man in baseball history to strike out ten straight. Examining him as the mound artist with unlikely and uncommon endurance (only nine post-1920 pitchers have more complete games than his 231) is likewise.

After Gil Hodges settled in as the Mets’ manager in 1968, he and his pitching coach Rube Walker saw they had a host of talented young pitchers and a concurrent need to nurture them properly.

“[T]o protect Seaver and [Jerry] Koosman, as well as up-and-comers Nolan Ryan and Gary Gentry,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci in 2019, “Hodges and Walker used their young starters in a groundbreaking five-man rotation in ’68 and again for most of ’69. Moreover, the coach instituted Walker’s Law: No Mets pitcher was allowed to throw a baseball at any time, even for a game of catch, without Walker’s permission.”

They enforced such rules all 1969 until the crucial stretch drive. Then they turned those arms all the way loose. Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher burned his key pitchers starting and bullpen alike, plus most of his regulars, and the National League East title they once looked to have in the bank. (He also said it was almost everyone else’s fault at the time.) Hodges and Walker worked their pitchers with care and brains and had them still fresh for crunch time.

Now, marry that to the manager’s insistence upon using his entire roster deftly, keeping veterans and young sprouts alike prepared to step in with perhaps minus two seconds’ notice, not to mention some staggering defense and unlikely clutch hitting. That’s how the Miracle Mets won the East, dumped the Braves sweeping the maiden National League Championship Series, and won four straight (including Seaver’s ten-inning Game Four triumph) after losing Game One of the Series to the behemoth Orioles.

Unless, of course, you asked legendarily flaky Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw. (“I’ll tell you one thing,” Seaver once said. “I want him right here in my foxhole, I’ll tell you that!”) “When those astronauts walked on the moon,” McGraw would say in due course, “I knew we had a chance. Anything was possible.”

Seaver’s pitching greatness is in the records. Baseball Reference ranks him the number eight starting pitcher in baseball history. He won three National League Cy Young Awards and probably should have won two more. He pitched his best baseball despite anchoring teams that could barely get him an average 3.6 runs to work with lifetime.

But there was something else always about Seaver that left impressions. On the one hand, his prankishness and wit (he almost got away with posing as a lefthander for his first non-rookie baseball card, his wicked grin the giveaway, but the card was pulled fast) are as legendary as his greatest pitching performances. On the other hand, he had the gravitas that made the ordinary and the extraordinary alike comfortable with and around him.

When absolutely necessary, Seaver knew how to deflate the self-inflated. Verducci remembered that Seaver wandered into the legendary Toots Shor restaurant later in the off-season evening on which he was presented his Rookie of the Year award. He bumped into Yankee manager Ralph Houk, whose team was well enough along in its own Lost Decade (1965-75). The time just so happened to be 1:30 a.m.

“You’ll never be a big league pitcher keeping hours like this,” Houk barked, with all the righteous Yankeehood he could muster despite his team’s deflation, at the fresh young Met. Seaver summoned his own bark: “If you had 25 players like me, you wouldn’t finish 10th.”

That wasn’t braggadoccio cutting the harrumphing Houk back down to size. It was self-assurance that stopped about ten city blocks short of arrogance. The son of a top amateur golfer who spent a little time in the Marines in his early baseball seasons, Seaver knew only too well that the line between knowing yourself and inflating yourself was a line too fine for many to walk and too simple to forget existed in the first place.

Long before A. Bartlett Giamatti became a baseball executive, he discovered how well Seaver walked that line. Giamatti chanced to attend a gathering at the Connecticut home of a literary light who’d invited Seaver and his wife, Nancy, to the gathering. “Seaver had . . . dignitas, all the more for never thinking for a moment that he had it at all,” Giamatti wrote, after the Mets threw New York into a soul-wrenching depression by trading Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds in 1977.

A dignity that manifested itself in an air of utter self-possession without any self-regard, it was a quality born of a radical equilibrium. Seaver could never be off balance because he knew what he was doing and why it was valuable . . . With consummate effortlessness, his was the talent that summed up baseball tradition; his was the respect that embodied baseball’s craving for law; his was the personality, intensely competitive, basically decent, with the artisan’s dignity, that amidst the brave but feckless Mets, in a boom time of leisure soured by division and drugs, seemed to recall a cluster of virtues no longer valued . . .

About that trade—which climaxed a bitter feud between Seaver and the Mets’ patrician to a fare-thee-well chairman M. Donald Grant, who thought Seaver forgot his place when the pitcher criticised the Mets for failing to both rebuild the farm system and enter the freshly-minted free agency market reasonably—Giamatti was just as unequivocal:

Of course Tom Seaver wanted money, and wanted money spent; he wanted it for itself, but he wanted it because, finally, Tom Seaver felt about the Mets the way the guy from Astoria felt about Seaver—he loved them for what they stood for and he wanted merit rewarded and quality improved. The irony is that Tom Seaver had in abundance precisely the quality that M. Donald Grant thinks he values most—institutional loyalty, the capacity to be faithful to an idea as well as to individuals. Grant ought to have had the wit to see a more spacious, generous version of what he prizes so highly in himself. Certainly the guy who had watched Seaver all those years knew it, knew Seaver was holding out for something, a principle that made sense in one who played baseball but that grew from somewhere within him untouched by baseball, from a conviction about what a man has earned and what is due him and what is right. The fan understood this and was devastated when his understanding, and Seaver’s principle, were not honoured. The anguish surrounding Seaver’s departure stemmed from the realisation that the chairman of the board and certain newspaper columnists thought money was more important than loyalty, and the fury stemmed from the realization that the chairman and certain writers thought everybody else agreed with them, or ought to agree with them.

Seaver and his wife sustained a solid, loving marriage through and beyond the baseball years, raising two daughters successfully. Verducci repeats the tale so often told when the subject is Seaver: Seaver’s brother-in-law asked him what he’d do when he finally left baseball permanently. (He worked as a Met and Yankee broadcaster for a time after his pitching days.)

“I’ll move back to California,” Seaver replied, “and grow grapes.”

The Fresno native bought 116 acres worth of arid, embracing land in the west Napa Valley, discovered it was perfect for growing Cabernet grapes and bringing a man to peace, and spent the rest of his life tending and growing those grapes and a large winery. It was there that a group of 1969 Mets visited him for what they feared and did prove the final time, in 2017.

Outfielder Art Shamsky arranged and led the trek, which also included Koosman, shortstop Bud Harrelson (himself battling Alzheimer’s disease, alas), and outfielder Ron Swoboda, and wrote about it lyrically (with Erik Sherman) in last year’s After the Miracle. Shamsky recorded a poignant moment when he had a spell alone among the vines with Seaver, and Seaver admitted his bout with Lyme disease left him prone to heavy anxiety attacks.

Eighteen months ago, Seaver’s family announced the dementia that arrived as a Lyme after-effect meant he would no longer appear in public, costing him the formal anniversary celebrations of the 1969 Mets and his usual trip to the annual Hall of Fame inductions. “Tom will continue to work in his beloved vineyard at his California home,” the family statement said, “but has chosen to completely retire from public life.”

Now we see Seaver one more time, the boyish-looking young man wise beyond his years but unafraid to keep enough boy in him. We see him winding up into that long-familiar downward, leg-driving delivery. We see him surveying the aftermath with Gentry, their uniforms askew, walking around what remained of Shea Stadium’s field, after delerious fans mauled it celebrating that surreal World Series triumph.

Now we see Seaver at the end of his brilliant career, still looking boy enough as the hair started to turn and the body began losing its taper, accepting one final bath of love from Mets fans as he said goodbye by bowing to all sides of the park from the mound. Until such hours as when he became the first Met player whose uniform number (41) was retired, or when he joined his fellows and those who followed saying goodbye to Shea Stadium over a decade ago.

Now we see Seaver’s second act, the vintner at peace with his family and their tall, shading, rich vines; the pitching icon who relaxed every July at the Hall of Fame, the single greatest Met at ease and at peace with his person, his meaning, his life.

When he was traded to the Reds, a heartsick fan in Shea Stadium hung an iambic banner:


“I construe that text, and particularly its telling rhyme,” Giamatti wrote, “to mean that the author has lost faith in the Mets’ ability to understand a simple, crucial fact: that among all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and that such a man is to be cherished, not sold.”

So he was—cherished, that is—by fans and the game’s intelligentsia alike, both of whom know baseball is as spiritual as it is viscerally embracing, both of whom joined former teammates and competitors crowding the Twitterverse and other social media with messages of gratitude and grief alike at almost the split second the news of his death arrived.

None cherished The Franchise greater than his beloved Nancy, their daughters Sarah and Anne, and their grandsons Thomas, William, Henry, and Tobin. We should thank the Lord for blessing baseball with him and welcoming him home gently to the Elysian Fields; and, them, for allowing us to share even a piece of a man who transcended even the great and glorious game.

When miracle workers re-convene

2019-05-02 AfterTheMiracleBack in 2001, three 1940s Red Sox—Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dominic DiMaggio—planned a road trip to visit their Hall of Fame teammate Ted Williams one last time. Friends since their playing days, the trip’s only disruption was Doerr unable to make it after his wife suffered her second stroke.

Fifteen years later, one of the 1969 Miracle Mets, outfielder Art Shamsky, decided it was time to do something similar in visiting his Hall of Fame teammate Tom Seaver, after long-term, lingering manifestations of Lyme disease began curtailing Seaver’s travel away from his Napa Valley, California home and vineyard.

The Pesky-DiMaggio trek and the lifetime bond between them, Williams, and Doerr were recorded lyrically by the late David Halberstam in The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship. Until Harvey Araton’s Driving Mr. Yogi—about the bond between the late Hall of Fame catcher and a later Yankee pitching star, Ron Guidry, as spring Yankee instructors—there was no better chronicle of baseball friendships and their sometimes impenetrable bonds.

Shamsky rounded up pitcher Jerry Koosman, shortstop Bud Harrelson, outfielder Ron Swoboda, and baseball historian Erik Sherman for the journey to Seaver. And he’s  produced (with Sherman) After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets. (New York: Simon and Schuster; 325 p.; $28.00/$18.30, Amazon Prime.) Unlike the Halberstam and Araton books, Shamsky takes the weight of chronicling the final journey upon himself, from the inside, with Sherman’s help. And he delivers it as precisely as Seaver once delivered fastballs.

Shamsky, Koosman, Harrelson, Swoboda, and Sherman didn’t pile into a car and drive east to west for their trip as the old Red Sox did for Williams. The whole thing began over lunch between Shamsky and Sherman, pondering the coming 50th anniversary of the 1969 Mets. And, knowing Seaver—who has since retired completely from public life, after his family announced him diagnosed with dementia—wouldn’t be able to travel for any commemoration in New York.

When Sherman suggested bringing a reunion to Seaver, Shamsky pounced. All he needed was to pick the teammates for the trip. He wanted Harrelson desperately, since the former shortstop himself deals with the memory issues of Alzheimer’s disease. He also wanted Seaver’s rotation mate Koosman, “one of the most gregarious characters I’ve ever known”; and, Swoboda, with whom he competed for playing time in right field as a ’69 Met. “He’s liable to say anything, at any time, anywhere,” Shamsky writes admiringly.

When he told Seaver he wanted to bring that trio with him, Seaver was all in. “We’ll sit around, laugh a little bit, reminisce,” Shamsky told Seaver, “and tell the same old lies—the balls that we barely hit over the fence that are now five-hundred foot blasts—those kinds of lies.”

“Ahh,” Seaver replied with a chuckle, “but those are good lies.”

Swoboda hesitated at first, in the wake of his wife’s surgery to remove a malignant tumour, but went all in as well. Koosman was eager from the outset so long as he was free when the others could go. Harrelson was in, too, though his former wife (with whom he maintains a close friendship) first thought the tickets sent him for the trip came from a baseball card show promoter. Realising it wasn’t, Kim Harrelson left Shamsky one instruction: take lots of pictures to help him remember the journey.

The group was forewarned by Seaver’s wife, Nancy, that they were taking a small gamble. “We just don’t know how he’s going to feel—he gets foggy sometimes,” she advised. She knew the visit would be good for Seaver and for Harrelson, as well, “but just understand that some days are good and some days are not too good. Every day is different. It’s really a roll of the dice.”

They’d fly across country and have only one day to spend with Seaver. But it turned out to be the winning roll. The four Miracle Mets recalled the key days and nights of their unlikely trek to the World Series championship and some of the details involving their acquisition of several key pieces to it.

They enjoyed remembering things like first baseman Donn Clendenon’s wicked humour (his nickname was Clink), third baseman Ed Charles’s spirit, spare infielder Al Weis’s coverup of the bat logo on the souvenir bat he insisted on using in the Series (it was an Adirondack the feel of which he liked though he was signed with Louisville Slugger), the circus clinic the Mets outfielders put on in the Series, manager Gil Hodges’s deftness at using his entire roster, and, of course, the atmosphere around the team and its unlikely (to everyone but themselves) accomplishment.

Including the atmosphere of the city and the country during the Series. With unrest over the protracted Vietnam War achieving fever pitch, one demonstrator outside Shea Stadium hoisted a sign: BOMB THE ORIOLES–NOT THE PEASANTS! In baseball terms the peasants did indeed bomb the Orioles—not to mention out-pitch and out-catch them—to win the Series in an unlikely four straight following a Game One loss.

Koosman remembered entertainment legend Pearl Bailey stopping him as he paced nervously before his Game Five start. “Kooz, settle down, settle down,” Bailey told him. “I see the number eight, and you’re going to win.” Indeed. Weis’s unlikely blast in the bottom of the seventh, tying the game at three, was only the eighth home run the middle infielder ever hit in the major leagues. And, the last.

2019-05-02 TomSeaverJoanPaysonArtShamsky

Seaver (left) and Shamsky (right), flanking original Mets owner Joan Payson in 1969.

The group also remembered the ribald prank Koosman hatched with a radio bug and a Mets television director named Jack Simon, the latter impersonating sportscasting legend Howard Cosell so dead on it shook Seaver to flip his radio on and hear he was being traded to the Astros—with Mets chairman M. Donald Grant in earshot. That was a prank, but Grant’s eventual purge of Seaver after a contentious contract renegotiation broke the Mets and their fan base in half eight years later.

They reveled with Seaver in his pride over his vineyard and indulged the one habit former ballplayers can never avoid when they reunite at all, never mind renew such friendships as these and other 1969 Mets share—an out-of-the-dugout version of bench jockeying. Consider this exchange, recalling a tough play for Swoboda on a rare day playing left field, with Harrelson in his customary habit of gunning out from shortstop on any short fly as Swoboda shot forward for it.

Swoboda: “I see Buddy and he ain’t stopping. But I didn’t even have time to make the call to say I had it.”

Seaver: “I remember that, too. I was pitching!”

Koosman: “Yeah. Cheech caught the ball and about three seconds later, you ran over him!”

Swoboda: “I know I did. But you didn’t want the ball to fall in, did you? I didn’t know what to do.”

Seaver: “Did anybody bother to use the English language out there?”

Harrelson today looks as grandfatherly as a former athlete can look and admits to writing notes to himself to help with his stricken memory. Koosman, who credited Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax for teaching him a better and more variable curve ball, resembles a portly rancher rather than the machine designer and pilot he became after baseball. Only Shamsky’s gray betrays his age; he still looks like a tapered ballplayer as well as the broadcaster he was and realtor he still is. Swoboda, a longtime broadcaster post-baseball, looks more like a former footballer now but does colour commentary for the telecasts of the minor league New Orleans Baby Cakes (AAA).

They swapped stories about Berra (a Mets coach from 1965-72, before succeeding Hodges as manager following Hodges’ fatal heart attack) and other coaches, including bullpen coach Joe Pignatano. (“Piggy was Hodges’s spy,” said Koosman about the coach Shamsky describes as having one job: “to keep control of the pitchers out in the bullpen who were out of control.”) And they reminded each other that age’s betrayals didn’t have to obstruct life.

Even as they miss the earthly presences of those among their 1969 fraternity long gone. Hodges, Charles, Berra, and Clendenon. (“Hey, remember the Caesar’s Palace act we had after the Series? Donn Clendenon would have himself paged every five minutes just to hear his name.”)

Outfield acrobat Tommie Agee, veteran pitcher Don Cardwell, spare infielder Kevin Collins, spare relief pitcher Cal Koonce, co-closer Tug McGraw. (“I’ll tell you one thing,” Seaver said of the flaky but effective lefthander, “I want him right here in my foxhole, I’ll tell you that!”) Third base coach Eddie Yost. (“I used to tease him all the time,” Shamsky says, “by saying, ‘Eddie, you really look like a ballplayer. You look like you could still play!”) Pitching coach Rube Walker. (“I’d call him even during the winter,” Koosman says. “He had a way of putting up with our BS and still have a smile on his face—just always glad to see you the next day.”) All long gone to the Elysian Fields.

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This Bloomberg photo shows Tom and Nancy Seaver amidst their Napa Valley grapevines in 2017.

Seaver now looks the part of a veteran wine grower especially when he’s paired with Nancy, his wife of almost 53 years, to whom age has been a little more kind. When having a private moment among the grapevines with Shamsky, Seaver admitted quietly that he’s had to ward off anxiety attacks since his condition became more acute than when he first battled Lyme disease while still living in Connecticut.

“I was so frightened,” Seaver recalled about such an attack, while with his wife en route visiting a former Mets announcer. (Seaver himself spent a few years as a Yankee announcer, teamed with Phil Rizzuto and Bill White.) “Man, it just made me breathe heavy like this. We turned around and went home. I mean, this Lyme disease ain’t fun. It can be absolutely frightening. The more cardiovascular I do, the better off I am. And drinking wine helps. I drink about half a bottle of wine per night. I haven’t had a beer in about eight years. But the traveling, no. I just can’t anymore.”

Meaning Seaver can’t be present when the Mets commemorate their first World Series winner come June. Or, at the Hall of Fame, in July, when Yankee relief legend Mariano Rivera, Yankee/Oriole ace Mike Mussina, Mariners hitting clinician Edgar Martinez, the late mound marksman Roy Halladay, longtime relief ace Lee Smith, and longtime outfielder Harold Baines will be inducted.

But you can get Seaver’s presence, and the bond of the biggest surprise champions of the 1960s, in this amiable book, mourning those absent, thankful for those still present, and quietly contented that their baseball fellowship melted into something more enduring than the transience of even the most transcendent World Series triumph.

Traded for Gil Hodges, then to hell and back for Bill Denehy

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“Met fans who remember me ask, ‘Oh, Bill Denehy. You’re the guy who was traded for Gil Hodges, aren’t you?’ ‘I am,’ I tell them with great pride.”—Bill Denehy.

With eleven games left in the 1967 season, Mets manager Wes Westrum, who’d succeeded Casey Stengel, resigned. Third base coach Salty Parker took the bridge to finish the season, but the Mets had a permanent candidate in mind.

They wanted Gil Hodges, the much-loved Brooklyn Dodgers icon, who finished his playing career as a knee-injured Original Met before becoming the manager of the expansion Washington Senators. But it would cost the Mets to get Hodges, since he’d signed a contract extension that would take him through the end of 1968.

So the Mets traded righthanded pitcher Bill Denehy—who shared a 1967 Topps rookie baseball card with future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—to the Senators. If you ask Denehy today whether any Met fans who remember him ever suggested he could be called the man who really made the 1969 Miracle Mets possible, he says no . . . while laughing heartily.

Then, he tells the backstory, which begins with his having left an impression on the parent Senators when he pitched well against their minor league teams while rising through the Mets’ system. To get the Hodges deal done required a little Yankee panky—specifically, former 1930s teammates Johnny Murphy (relief pitcher) and George Selkirk (outfielder), now major league general managers.

“The Senators were trying to extract as much as they could for giving up Hodges,” Denehy says by telephone from his Florida home.

They got $100,000 in cash and they wanted a player. Johnny Murphy was then the general manager of the Mets, and George Selkirk was the general manager of the Senators, but they didn’t really like each other. Selkirk was pushing for the additional player. Mr. Murphy told me they offered three additional players to choose instead of me, but Selkirk insisted it be me. What the Mets didn’t tell them was that I hurt my arm in May and was sent to the minor leagues and got a couple of cortisone shots.

The injury in question occurred when Denehy threw a hard slider to Hall of Famer Willie Mays in his fourth major league start. “It felt like someone stuck a knife in my shoulder,” he once said. Back in the minors in Florida during ’67, he underwent a procedure to have a dye shot into his arm and shoulder and it showed the torn muscle. The Mets’ then-team physician, Dr. Peter LaMotte, didn’t affirm that diagnosis; the Mets also failed to pass the information to the Senators.

Going to the Senators for Hodges may have been the least among strange, sad deals Denehy has seen, handed himself, and been handed in the decades since.

Bill Denehy today is legally blind. It began when he awoke one morning in January 2005 unable to see through his right eye, thanks to what proved a torn retina. Caught frozen without medical insurance, since he was two weeks from beginning a new job after leaving his incumbent job, Denehy needed help from a church group to undergo the surgery at a University of Florida eye facility.

Surgery performed by the same doctor who operated on boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard’s torn retina proved unsuccessful. “He said my retina tear was worse than Sugar Ray’s was,” Denehy says, adding that he’s since incurred two more retina holes, a macular hole, and required a stent for his left eye.

Friendly and sounding far younger than his 73 years, Denehy believes up to 57 cortisone shots in 26 months that he was given as a young pitcher caused his eventual visual loss. As he wrote (with Peter Golenbock) in his memoir, Rage: The Legend of Baseball Bill Denehy (Central Recovery Press; 280p, $16.95), “I didn’t know any better.”

This was before the dangers of cortisone were made public. I knew Sandy Koufax was taking them for his arm, and Sandy was my hero, so I figured what was good for Sandy was good for me. I found out years later that nobody should take more than ten cortisone shots in a lifetime. I was later told that if you take more than ten shots in a lifetime, your corneas will go weak and you risk going blind. I wish someone had said something back then.

“I have my hand out in front of me a foot, and I can’t see my fingers,” Denehy says on the phone. “If I bring them in, if I stuck my thumb on my nose, and then just turn my hand where my palm is facing me, I can see my fingers there.

“But I can’t read or write,” he continues. “I’ve got the television on mute right now, and all I see is whiteness and black things moving. I don’t know whether it’s a person or it’s a game or whatever on there. I can’t go to the computer. I can’t read any type of thing. Telephone numbers are difficult for me. I used to have five by seven cards with big numbers written down for telephone numbers, but that’s gone by the wayside now. I’m in the final stages now of what we call in blindness—darkness.”

Administered to excess, cortisone is also linked to glaucoma, the disease that put paid to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s playing career in 1996, ten years before his premature death from a stroke. Puckett isn’t known to have taken cortisone often if at all during his twelve-season career, but it was revealed that glaucoma ran in his family.

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Short-lived Senator Denehy, following The Trade.

Does Denehy think baseball’s medical personnel during his career simply didn’t know the full extent of cortisone’s potential dangers? Or does he think they saw players then as mere commodities to hustle back to the field posthaste, regardless of actual or long-term health? “Great question,” he replies. “I think it was a little of both.”

He once joined a 2004 legal action involving the cortisone issue, filed by former White Sox catcher Mike Colbern, who died in March. “Baseball gave us illegal drugs and too many cortisone shots,” Colbern told Douglas J. Gladstone for A Bitter Cup of Coffee, “but never kept medical records in order to keep us playing.”

Denehy is one of 634 still-living, short-career former major leaguers who were frozen out when a 1980 agreement between baseball government and the Major League Players Association re-aligned the game’s pension plan to vest health benefits after one day’s major league service time and a retirement allowance after 43 days’ major league time. The deal didn’t include players whose careers occurred between 1949 and 1980.

Colbern, one-time Met shortstop Al Moran, and former Houston second baseman Ernie Fazio (who died in 2017), the first signing by the Astros’ franchise (born as the Colt .45s), led a 2003 class action suit against baseball, after a 1997 agreement to provide $10,000 pensions to select former Negro Leagues players who saw some Show time but still didn’t qualify for the 1980 pension re-alignment.

The suit accused baseball of discrimination (Colbern stressed the players didn’t want to deny the Negro Leaguers) and also charged battery and negligence against baseball for allowing team doctors and trainers to administer multiple cortisone shots without informing players of cortisone’s risks. Several hundred players including Denehy joined the suit.

It lost on appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006. Baseball government, ESPN said at the time, “argued that the former players were essentially looking for a handout they didn’t deserve.”

Denehy still hopes to help change that for players such as himself. Players such as David Clyde, the mishandled Rangers pitching phenom of the 1970s. And, Jim Qualls, the Cub center fielder remembered if at all for busting Seaver’s bid for a perfect game in the ninth inning in 1969. And, Carmen Fanzone, a third baseman frozen behind Hall of Famer Ron Santo with the Cubs but who made a second career as an in-demand jazz trumpeter.

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner announced a re-alignment of the 1980 pension re-alignment: Players frozen out of the original re-alignment would get $625 for every 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a limit of sixteen quarters, good for $10,000 before taxes. The bad news: If a player dies before collecting the last of those payments, the remaining payments can’t be passed on to their widows and children.

“My feeling is that we should get a pension that is indicative of the service time in the big leagues,” says Denehy of the pension re-alignment, for himself and for those among his 634 fellow former players frozen out of the deal. “We earned the time, okay? When they dropped it down to 43 days active service time, every one of us prior to 1980 that had more than 43 days should have gotten a pension.”

One possible reason for the pre-1980 players’ freeze-out? Stressing that it was strictly hearsay, Denehy spoke of a sense that many if not most of the players in question were merely September call-ups, with baseball and the players’ union believing they “didn’t really earn their way onto a major league roster.”

That might have been true for a few of the players but certainly not all of them. Denehy pitched in three major league seasons, for the Mets, the Senators, and the Tigers, and he made each of those teams directly out of spring training.

When he reported to the 1967 Mets’ spring camp, Denehy didn’t figure in their pitching plans until the day Jack Fisher, the one-time Orioles “Baby Birds” rotation member, had to miss a spring start when his little daughter was injured in a fall. Denehy got the start instead, zipping through three innings and posting a strong enough spring to go north with the Mets to open the season.

He got his first major league start on 16 April 1967, against the Phillies, striking out eight including the first Show batter he faced, Johnny Briggs. The eight punchouts matched Seaver for a Mets rookie record that stood until Matt Harvey broke it in 2012. Other than six walks against those eight strikeouts, Denehy’s only other blemish in the game came when Dick Allen blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth.

“That wasn’t a home run,” Denehy chuckles. “That was a moon drive.” The rising liner sailed until hitting a Coca-Cola sign atop Connie Mack Stadium’s second deck. Without the sign, Denehy says, “that ball would have landed in Delaware.”

Three starts later, facing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and the Giants, Denehy threw the fateful slider to Mays. The knife in the shoulder the pain resembled would prove nothing compared to the one the quick-tempered, admittedly self-destructive, injury-plagued Denehy would stick into himself a few hundred times over.

The physical pain from his baseball injuries prodded him to more serious drinking plus marijuana and cocaine. Out of baseball, he tried real estate, insurance, and radio broadcasting, before becoming a pitching coach in the Red Sox system. (His charges included the young Roger Clemens.) By 1987, Denehy’s marriage collapsed, unable to bear the weight of his addictions and his furies any longer.

He was the University of Hartford’s baseball coach from 1984-1987. (One of his players was future Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell.) He rebuilt the team into a potential powerhouse before a bench-clearing brawl with the University of Connecticut brought out the worst of the inner clash between Denehy’s passion to win and his fear of failure, the clash that helped ruin him.

By his own admission a runaway train, Denehy remarked out of frustration after the brawl that he hoped a particular UConn assistant coach got car bombed—he swears he was trying to say he hoped the coach’s car would be blown up “like a balloon,” but he was cut off before he say that second part. After his firing, Denehy tried to pitch once more, in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in Florida in 1989.

But he failed a physical exam, and settled for becoming a colour commentator on league broadcasts, with Lou Palmer—the first on-air ESPN broadcaster—handling play-by-play. His eventual memoir collaborator, Peter Golenbock, in The Forever Boys, said Denehy’s in-game interview of former Mets Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack—pitching for the St. Petersburg Pelicans—drew a threat from former Tiger pitcher Milt Wilcox to slap Matlack with a kangaroo court fine.

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The rookie card, appraised by some collectors’ sites as worth up to $7,000 in mint condition.

Two subsequent road accidents caused Denehy injuries from a dislocated jaw and broken ankle to neck and back issues. He lapsed back into marijuana and cocaine until it throttled his plan to launch a national radio talk show discussing addiction and sports. He sobered up for good and  reconciled with his children and his parents.

“I haven’t really reconciled that well with my ex-wife,” he chuckles, “but my daughters and I, we talk all the time, and it’s really good.” More than good. When Denehy was bilked out of a reported $17,000 (he thinks it may have been as much as $30,000) by his now-former caretaker, Donna Sue Santella, one of his daughters worked with his bank to get the charges Santella’s accused of running up off his accounts.

It was easier facing Dick Allen and Willie Mays than facing the losses Santella admitted in an affidavit to inflicting on him. “Very simply, first of all I feel extremely violated that she worked for me for 25 months and we found out she was stealing for fifteen months,” Denehy says. He now has a new caretaker, thanks to Florida’s department of children and families who steered him toward an agency that bonds and vets its caretakers fully.

“I want to make sure that anyone who has a handicapped person or a senior citizen that’s in their family, or just a good friend, if they need assistance, they go through an agency that is bonded and vetted to make sure that person who’s going to assist them doesn’t have any kind of record or has done this before,” he says.

Denehy admits he’s had “a bad tendency” to trust the wrong people, from his pitching days to the Santella case. “And, again, my message is that you be very, very careful,” he says. “You can’t go on in life without being able to trust people. But, make sure that it’s done over time, and make sure that you can talk to other people, so that you don’t feel people are taking advantage of you.”

He still loves baseball deeply and pays close enough attention to the games and the issues around them. He’s interested especially in proposals to move the pitcher’s mound, an idea now under experiment in the independent Atlantic League. He thinks the mound should be moved back—but not quite in the way the ordinary fan or even the commissioner’s office think it should.

But he prefaces his theory with a challenge, saying that “if you ask a hundred people what’s the distance between the rubber and the plate,” they actually answer incorrectly.

The distance is 60 feet, six inches, right? Wrong, Denehy says. “It’s actually 59 feet and one inch from the pitching rubber to home plate. It’s sixty feet, six inches, to the back apex of home plate, where they’ve got a seventeen-inch square that’s cut off the corners to make the lines that go down to first and third base.”

And he would move the rubber back the length of the plate, to make the distance a true sixty feet, six inches. The reason? Not on behalf of more balls in play or artificial pace-of-game concerns—but safety.

If you’re someone like [Aroldis] Chapman for the New York Yankees, he throws over a hundred miles an hour. But—he has a seven-foot stride. So in fact when he’s releasing the ball, he’s not even fifty-nine feet, one inch from home plate, he’s fifty-two feet, one inch from home plate . . . Just look at the number of players over the last couple of years who’ve been hit in the wrist and everything, broke their wrists or broke their arms. Because they don’t have enough time to get out of the way of a pitched ball. 

And if a batter hits a 121 mph liner off a pitch thrown at 100 mph, Denehy says, “anyone who’s ever pitched and tries to throw as hard as you can, when you follow through your glove is at your side and your throwing arm is crossing your opposite hip. At 121 miles an hour, at fifty-two feet, one inch, you don’t have enough time to react to be able to get your glove up to [stop] a ball that’s hit at your face.”

The night before our conversation, the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo lined a base hit off the head of Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Tallion. “I’m fine,” Tallion said after the game. “I’m unlucky I got hit and lucky I seem to be OK coming out of it.” It wasn’t the first time Tallion was ever hit by a line drive on the mound.

“Either a batter or a pitcher is going to get killed,” Denehy says. “And that’s going to be too damn late for baseball to come in and make a reactionary change in something that doesn’t have anything to do with batting average or pitching statistics, it has to do completely with safety.”

Like many, Denehy casts an interested eye upon the current trend of teams opening their checkbooks for lucrative, somewhat long-term contract extensions for their best young players, forestalling their first free agency seasons by several years. He thinks the owners have their own pocketbooks in mind, of course, but the players signing such extensions—even if they could have bagged more on the open market—aren’t exactly “heading for the breadlines,” either.

Referring to Bryce Harper’s mammoth new contract with the Phillies, which wasn’t an extension but a free agency signing, Denehy is emphatic. “He wanted to play baseball,” Denehy says. “And not be involved in any more negotiations, no more opt-outs, no more bonuses, he wanted to sign a deal where for the rest of his career he could do the one thing he loved more than anything else, which wasn’t making money, he wants to play baseball, and I say good for him.”

Denehy also cautions against assuming that the highest-salaried player on a team will become the automatic team leader. Often as not, the lower salaried players prove to be the team’s true leaders, though Denehy likes to point to one well-paid Hall of Fame teammate who became a leader quietly but authoritatively—Al Kaline, who once turned a salary raise down because he believed he didn’t earn it.

Kaline was once the highest-paid Tiger and the first to sign a six-figure season’s contract. “Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” Denehy says. “Any time we had a team meeting, any time we had anything that, you know, caused the team to get together to give their opinion . . . Al would sit at his locker and vote just like he was—Bill Denehy. He wasn’t someone who would complain, he wasn’t someone who really wanted to put his opinion out there, he was the ultimate team player. But just because you get the most amount of money, doesn’t mean that you’re going to become the team leader in the clubhouse.”

But he hopes most to see baseball finally resolve the 1949-1980 players’ pension issue once and for all. “I don’t think any one of us are at a point where we’re asking for something that we haven’t earned.

“You know, I don’t think they owe me because of all the cortisone shots that they gave me, I don’t think that they owe me for the tear that I had in my shoulder,” Denehy continues. “All I’m asking for is what I earned, and that was the service time that I got in. If they do that, make me just a regular pension, I will continue to stay happy and promote this great game of baseball.”

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Denehy (left) with Seaver, spring 1967: “We were Prospect A and Prospect A-1. I’m not sure who was which.”

Regretting only that he didn’t think to get a second opinion about his original shoulder injury, Denehy refuses to allow his blindness to interfere with living.

“I’m Irish,” he says, laughing. “I have faith in a higher power. I’ve got some really good friends. I went back to my fiftieth high school reunion in 2014, I was absolutely amazed at the number of classmates who came up to me that weekend and said how proud they were of me, you know, being from our class and getting to the big leagues. And I still stay in touch with a good dozen of them, a couple of them almost every day a phone call to see what’s going on.”

The only other thing to sadden Denehy is the fate of Seaver, who’s retired from public activities following a diagnosis of dementia and isn’t likely to be part of this year’s fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the 1969 Mets. The two pitchers first met when pitching for the Mets’ then-AAA farm in Jacksonville, Florida, before both made the Mets in spring 1967.

“We went north, we were like Prospect A and Prospect A-1, I’m not sure who was which,” he continues. “Our lockers were next to each other in the clubhouse. I knew [Seaver’s wife] Nancy. Every time I was around Tom, he always treated me, while we were teammates, and even after I was out of the game, he treated me as a friend and a former teammate.”

When Denehy worked as a baseball reporter for Enterprise Radio in 1980, the network assigned him to cover Opening Day in Cincinnati, when Seaver was with the Reds. Knowing Seaver didn’t really like to talk on Opening Day, Denehy arrived a day early with an idea.

“They were having their practise,” Denehy says, “and I went up to him. We all called him Soup back then. I said, ‘Hey Soup, I need a favour from you.’ And he says, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘I’m covering the game tomorrow for Opening Day, you know, for this network, it’s my first job, and I’d like to get an interview from you, but I realise you don’t do it tomorrow on your Opening Day, so maybe we could do it today.’

“And he put an arm around me and said, ‘Hey, listen. You’re a friend and a former teammate. Show up tomorrow at 10:30 in the clubhouse, here, and you and I will go underneath the stands and I’ll give you my comments on Opening Day.’ And he did that, and I was able to broadcast it.”

Denehy pauses a quick moment before finishing his thought. “That’s how much I think of that man,” he says. “I’m very sorry to hear about his illness.”