Bats Out Of Hell


By Bill Jensen

There’s a tiny bathroom directly behind the Mets’ dugout at Shea Stadium. It’s the closest bathroom to the field, the one the players use when they can’t hold it till the end of the game. The 4-foot-by-9-foot, black-and-white tiled space is damp and noxious, housing a small sink, urinal and toilet. On the last weekend of the regular season, it held no toilet paper—maybe the Mets had spent too much of the last two weeks crapping out.

After the Mets gave us the most exciting baseball in 13 seasons in Flushing, it looked like Elvis was leaving the building. Elvis used to read the Bible on a bowl similar to the one behind the Shea dugout. And Elvis died on that bowl.

But the Mets ain’t an Elvis team, I kept telling myself. They spent the season invoking the ghost of Jim Morrison, even going as far as inviting his witch-wife Patricia to batting practice. With their rallying cry of “Mr. Mojo Risin’, ” the Amazins were about to enter their first postseason since ’88. Then their bats turned as flaccid as the Lizard King’s sex organ.

It looked like another blow for Long Island’s hapless sports fans, who spent the month of September suffering the pain of a heart ripped out of a chest. Testaverde went down early to kill the Jets. The Islanders started training camp, which is just another invitation to a season of hockey hell. And the Mets were on the verge of what was destined to be deemed in baseball circles as “the choke of ’99.” Something had to be done.

All Choked Up

During the depths of the Mets’ losing streak last week, I paid a call to the catalyst behind one of the biggest chokes in baseball history. Tommy Holmes, an old-timer of 80 who lives in Woodbury, has been running the Mets’ sandlot baseball program for the past 25 years. But 50 years ago, he was known as one of the best line-drive hitters in an era when baseball players lived hard.

Holmes admitted to the line drives—while playing for the Boston Braves he held the National League record for consecutive games with a hit (37) until Pete Rose broke it in ’78—but insisted he never drank or smoked; his only vice was ice cream. Maybe that relatively clean living was the reason he played a part in the baseball drama of ’51. Holmes was managing the Braves while the Brooklyn Dodgers were in the midst of their infamous slide. The New York Giants trailed the Dodgers by one game, with one game left. All the Dodgers had to do to avoid a one-game playoff for the pennant was beat Holmes’ Braves.

“They were down to one game to go,” Holmes recalled, “and Charlie Dressen—he was the Dodger manager—said, ‘There’ll be no playoff.’ You don’t say that in the press. Boy, were my guys mad. Well, we pulled them into a tie. It’s like they say: Let a sleeping dog lie.”

Bobby Thomson has never thanked Holmes for giving him a chance at immortality.

Just before they were to face the Braves’ ace Greg Maddux in a make-or-break game, I asked Holmes, “Why are the Mets doing so bad?” Holmes didn’t understand the slide either, but he knew that trying to hit a five-run homer on every swing wasn’t going to do it. Hey, it’s a simple game: The Mets needed to put the bat on the ball. “Where is Seattle with Griffey?” barked Holmes. “Where is Chicago with Sosa? Where is St. Louis with McGwire? Nowhere. Look at Sosa, what did he strike out, 150 times?”

Another grumpy old man? No, Holmes practiced what he preached. In 1945 he hit 29 homers in 636 at bats. He struck out only nine times. Nine friggin’ times!

“The key to hitting is, you give the pitcher one quarter of the plate and you take the other,” Holmes said. “You will put the bat on the ball. The beauty of the whole thing is, if you make an out, it’s your fault. What are the home runs? You gotta have hits.”

He paused for a second and said, “You cannot stop the bat.”

The Mets’ Sept. 29 game was the absolute end of the line. They had lost seven in a row and had fallen one and a half games out of the playoffs with just a handful of games left. And they were facing Maddux.

The Mets, playing at home, jumped out to what seemed like their first lead since the Nixon administration, but Al Leiter loaded the bases in the second, and young slugger Brian Jordan stepped to the plate. I had wanted to watch the game with Holmes but he had begged off because his house was too messy. We had agreed to talk by phone during the game. If Ross Perot lived in Brooklyn, he would sound like Tommy Holmes.

“When you have a hitter like that up, I would rather walk him, pitch around him,” Holmes advised. “If you hit that corner, you could get him out. If you don’t, we’re still only down by one. But if he gets under it, we’re down by four.”

Jordan smacked the ball into left field and two runs scored. The stadium deflated like a cheap tire. Not again!

But Tommy Holmes didn’t panic. “Leiter looks like he’s throwing hard,” Holmes said confidently. The Mets escaped the inning with no more damage.

Then, in the top of the fourth, the game changed. Mike Piazza made a diving grab of a foul pop-up. This is a lesson in how not to choke. “You can’t play chintzy, you gotta go for it,” Holmes crowed. “Now that’s the spark.”

Ten minutes later, the slow-footed John Olerud belted a Maddux pitch into the Mets’ bullpen.

“What did I tell you! What did I tell you!” Holmes yelled at me. “See what I mean about a good hitter? With the bases full, he’s a double-play guy. You gotta pull the ball. He was just up there looking for a ball to pull. He was ready. He waited for his pitch.”

So what if the rest of the Mets’ hits against the normally tough Maddux had been a mixture of bloops and bleeders? “We got three or four dunkers in there,” Holmes said. “Who cares? In the papers, it’s a line drive. Now the luck is with us.”

Got Balls
Why women love a game that shuts them out

By Laura Conaway

Here’s hoping: They came, they laughed, they prayed.

The Yankees fan to my right leaned back from the bar and suppressed a sneer as the Mets fought for their lives on screen last week. “I’d like nothing better than for my boys in the Bronx to kick your asses,” he said.

The Mets booster to my left clapped his hands and half rose from his seat with each pitch John Olerud fouled off. “Come on!” he shouted, his baritone ricocheting off the mirrored walls. “Come on!”

You could say a woman like me has no place squeezed between half-drunken men in a smoky tavern, watching lumbering athletes rearrange their private packages and bowl each other over at the plate. You could say the game of summer is played by and for the boys of summer, and a woman like me should despise the sport because she’ll never be allowed to take part.

You could say that, but then you’d have to deal with Kathy Rosado. I’d found her a few nights before, clad stem to stern in Mets orange and blue and sitting a few rows from the field. Rosado, 35, put down her binoculars and turned away from last week’s spectacle of New York finally unraveling Atlanta run by run. The Manhattanite had one thing to say about people who insist that women shouldn’t enjoy the game: You’re outdated.

“If it’s anybody who says that, they’re usually somebody who was born many years ago and has different ideas,” Rosado said. “It’s so easy for women now. We’re into boxing, we’re into basketball. Now more than ever, girls are into it.”

The lure of the live-action hero

Sisters may not be doing it for themselves on the diamond yet, but our day will come. Until then, we’ll fight for the sports section in the morning so we can check out the stats. We’ll buy good tickets and make posters imploring St. Jude to take pity on our team. We’ll keep our own boxscores there in the stands and we’ll dream—just like millions of other New Yorkers—of pulling on Rey Ordonez’s uniform and taking our place at the edge of the infield grass.

“It’s the American thing,” said Jill Aney, 39, making her way past the concession stand at Shea Stadium. “Baseball is such a part of American history. Look, Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe—that really got women’s attention.”

Aney, who lives in Rockland County, confesses to casting a lustful eye toward Mets catcher Mike Piazza, but she can also detail the intricacies of lineups and trades. Like countless other women at the park, she was there not for the players’ chiseled jaws and strong thighs, but for the drama between the white lines.

Even from the cheap seats, you can see the twitching bat of Rickey Henderson in the box, the peering eyes of Rick Reed as he probes the ump’s strike zone, the low-slung slouch of Darryl Hamilton as he gets set for the pitch. The hunks in movies are mere cardboard characters compared with the flesh-and-blood hopefuls diving for third base. These Mets make the game up as they go along, each moment uncorking another surprise. Piazza struggles to race home on an overthrown ball. Henderson lets a long fly land at his feet. Win or lose, these men are real, just like we are real, and there’s no better show on earth.

Women have always had to identify with male heroes, from Moses to George Washington to Sammy Sosa. Men have carried the flag of our dreams, not solely, but often. Why should women turn away from a city holding its breath as Roger Cedeno sprints for the warning track, or deny themselves the cruel pleasure of praying for the pennant? The short answer is they shouldn’t, and the obvious truth is they don’t. “I always like the action stuff,” said Dolores Skelly, up from the Pittsburgh suburbs with her adult daughter for the series. “I just like the spontaneous action.”

Your coach awaits

I’ll admit that our love for a sport that refuses us makes little sense, at least under the rubric of contemporary gender politics. But what disenfranchised people ever earned their invitation to the dance by refusing to learn the steps? Women and minorities didn’t rail against elections—they battled for voting rights until they got them. Mia Hamm didn’t take her ball and go home—she knocked heads on the field and won a world championship. The WNBA wasn’t born because women hated hoops, but because the bigwigs were finally convinced it was time we got game.

The quest for dignity and a place on the team has been waged anew in each generation. Black players who were once denied a spot on the field are now demanding their rightful positions in management. Japanese athletes were once considered too tiny to hold their own, but pitchers like the Mets’ Masato Yoshii are now commonplace.

Girls used to be thought too frail for full-court basketball, but today they play full-contact rugby. They skate with men’s hockey teams and win gold medals of their own. They race across lacrosse fields and square off in boxing matches.

But when it comes to bats and mitts, they’re either confined to softball or converted into barnstorming, sexed-up sideshows like the Colorado Silver Bullets, a female pro team.

If Major League Baseball invested half as much money in coaching girls as it spends on self-congratulatory commercials, the game would take its first halting steps toward gender equity. Tell me Theresa Weatherspoon couldn’t have learned to line a throw to first the same way she learned to fire a bullet pass into the paint. Try arguing that Brianna Scurry couldn’t block a wild pitch the same way she denied China’s penalty kicks in the battle for the World Cup. Shunting female athletes into second-rate softball makes a mockery of one of baseball’s brightest virtues—that you don’t have to be built like Atlas in order to play.

This logic has never taken hold with baseball’s brass. Barred from the game, generations of American tomboys have had to face the great divide of puberty, when they figure out they won’t wear the long pants with stirrup socks that look so classic on their brothers.

“You probably realize it when you’re about 10 or 11, that you’re never going to play,” said Colleen Rizzo of Westchester, standing on line for hot dogs with her grade-school daughter. Rizzo, like so many other women, has made her peace—however tenuous—with her place in the bleachers. “I think it’s just the fun of the game,” she said, explaining why she’s still a fan. “There are plenty of men who love it just for the fun of the game, and they’ll never play, just because they can’t.”

Yet women have not quit hoping that the gains female athletes have made in other sports will crack open the door to baseball. “Things have their own time for changing,” said Jane Maguire, a Brooklynite waiting outside Shea for her two sisters to arrive. “You can’t push it along. It’ll happen.”

When it does, we’ll be there.

Bums Rush
Forget the tight pennant race. Focus on the tight baseball pants.

by Stacy Albin

Kathy Lange doesn’t have an ordinary view of the diamond at Shea Stadium. She has the view. Her season tickets plant her between home plate and third base, the perfect spot to score an eyeful of action.

We’re not talking about balls and strikes. We’re talking about tight pants whenever one of the Mets’ right-handed batters assume the position over home plate. Lange, a faithful Met fan since her dad first took her to games in the ’60s, keeps an eye on the men in uniform.

“Nice ass,” she says. Well, big surprise. Eight weeks of spring training has been known to whip many an ass into shape—unless, of course, we’re referring to behavior. But this is not about Darryl Strawberry or Vince Coleman. An informal poll taken outside Shea last week revealed Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez and Mike Piazza are the favorite hunks. Some fans claimed they have two honeys in the bullpen.

For Lange, however, No. 31 is No. 1.

“There’s just something about Piazza,” says Lange, 32, who lives in Wantagh. “He keeps the team going and he loves the sport. “He’s just got that rugged, but boyish, look.” She first noticed him when he played for the Dodgers, so she picked up a Dodgers shirt and Piazza’s autograph. Not that these souvenirs would look quite right on a shelf next to her Mr. Met doll, a memento she saved from childhood. Last year, though, she took a bigger step: To wish Piazza a happy birthday, she sent a $50 bouquet of wildflowers to him at Shea. She recalls the message on the card: “Mike: You’re the greatest. Love, Kathy.”

If that’s first base, a fan named Diana is considering stealing second base with Piazza: She says she’s planning on sending him an eight-foot-tall poster of her in a bikini. “I might have the equipment,” speculates Diana. She’s thinking of busting another move: taking off her clothes and painting M-E-T-S across her privates.

Why all the fuss? If any Met has been marketed as a sex symbol, it’s the 6-3, 215-pound Piazza. In 1998, Playgirl named him one of the 10 sexiest men of the year. This past April, he appeared on the cover of GQ, suave in a suit. And outside Shea last week, one fan whipped open her corduroy jacket to show an airbrushed image of Piazza on her T-shirt. When this woman, Angie Rodriguez, 25, of Queens, watches the games on TV, she talks to the tube when Piazza is up at bat. Giggling, she recalls: “I told him, ‘If you hit a home run I’m going to give you a kiss any place you want.’ ”

Boyfriendless Angie doesn’t have to hide her passion for players; other fans do. One woman says that because her boyfriend is the jealous type, she pretends she doesn’t understand baseball. In order to watch a game and catch a glimpse of her heartthrob Rey Ordonez, she tells him that she’s going to games only to keep his sister company. (The sister is part of this conspiracy.) Other women are almost all the way out to their boyfriends.

“He always busts my horns about it,” Kathy says of her boyfriend. “He goes, ‘The only reason we’re going to the game is to see Mike, right?’ I go, ‘It doesn’t hurt.’ ” What did the boyfriend think about her spending $50 on a birthday gift for Piazza? “He didn’t know about that,” she says flatly.

The Final Out

By Beth Greenfield

Some straight women who are not sports fans have their own good and flighty reasons for glomming onto baseball (tight uniforms, tighter asses), as do some of their best girlfriends—otherwise known as gay men.

Greg Fox of Northport is the creator of the gay comic strip Kyle’s Bed & Breakfast, currently running in Outlook Long Island and Genre. The strip features “Brad,” a closeted baseball player with blond hair, blue eyes and a second-skin uniform that clings to his exaggerated, Tom-of-Finland-like pecs.

“There are many gay baseball fans out there, I have learned from doing this comic strip,” says Fox, a fan himself who says that Mets player Robin Ventura “rocks! And not only for his looks—he’s a great player.” Many of the fans he corresponds with, he says, “are in the closet—not the stereotypical gay-bar kind of guys. In fact, many of them relate to Brad.

“Of course, I receive an equal number of e-mails from gay baseball fans who are very much out. And, yeah, I’m sure the tight uniforms and hot players are a draw, but I don’t believe that’s enough to bring in gay guys as big fans of the sport. These guys who write me emails love the game itself. You’d really have to, to endure the often long innings and endless repetitions of stats and scores. And let’s face it—aside from my comic strip, you don’t really see too many pro baseball players strutting around in their briefs.”

Suffolk County gay activist and Outlook publisher Tom Hroncich says that most of the men he knows who are baseball fans like it for the sport. As for himself, he says he would watch the Mets if he had more time. “And if Mike Piazza left his helmet-cam running while he stood naked in front of the locker room mirror,” he muses, “I suppose I might be inclined not to flip the channel to watch Tino Martinez.”