Remembering the time I gave tours of Shea Stadium

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the best job I’ve ever had. Or maybe I should say the most memorable (yes, more than ESPN). I was a tour guide at Shea Stadium in the Summer of 1994.

I should point out: I didn’t work for the Mets. I worked for Nickelodeon, or in this case, Games Production Inc., which was the division that handled the mini-amusement center built behind the right field bullpen, of which ballpark tours were a small part. It was called “Extreme Baseball!”

I can still remember going through the New York Times classifieds looking for something, anything that would take up the summer after my freshman year at Trenton State College. They were looking for tour guides, carnival games operators and actors to work in the Guts! Arena. I went to the open audition and was prepared to take the SAT equivalent of a Mets knowledge test. Instead, they had us fill out some forms, put us on camera to tell our favorite Mets story and sent us on our way.

My story was about how listening to the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS served as an inspiration any time I took a big test. It was my equivalent to listening to psych music. For those who don’t know me way back, I missed seeing the 9th inning of that game because my mom made me go to Hebrew School. I’m still bitter.

Apparently my tale passed the test and I was instructed to report to Shea Stadium along with a group of others that included a longtime Shea usher, a suite attendant, a mailman, a retired tax attorney, a guy whose claim to fame was playing with John Franco at St. John’s, a teacher, a cruise ship entertainer, a 1010 WINS producer, and a couple of other students, including one who starred in The King & I with Yul Brenner and now was at Harvard. We would get $10 an hour to give tours (I think … I remember a lot of details … I’m fuzzy on the salary)

One of the first things that happened was that we were given the tour script. Let’s say that it was evident that Jay Horwitz had not written it. It was lacking in Mets knowledge and baseball knowledge. And the tour had good moments … trying to make something of the locker room used for OldTimer’s Day (formerly used by the Jets) was not one of them.

It did produce a great moment though when one of the tour guides asked another “Can you take a picture of me in the shower? … The Jets old shower!”

Fortunately no one objected when some of us tinkered with the script.

My favorite addition was taking a baseball and producing it  effect to describe the famous Shoe Polish Play in the 1969 World Series (“Gil Hodges went out to the umpire and produced a baseball … it was smudged, and the umpire awarded Cleon Jones first base.”)

The Nickelodeon folks had a lot to worry about with the carnival games and the Guts! Arena that they let us go on our own to rehearse our tours. The more knowledgeable tour guides (the ones who knew to refer to the 1986 Mets manager as “Davey Johnson” and not call him “Davey Jones”) clicked and we helped each other out with pointers and confidence boosts.

The next six weeks were amazing (or maybe Amazin’). You showed up, gave three or four tours to camp groups, retirees, and people who were just bored who showed up wanting to see what Shea Stadium looked like.

I remember getting in a smidge of trouble with head groundskeeper Pete Flynn. I made the mistake of telling some kids that they could jump into the outfield fence because it would make for great pictures. Pete saw it from a distance and screamed at us. He was really mad. Shea Stadium was his child and he would not let anyone harm it.

One of the tour guides was an actor named Lane Luckert, one of the most devoted Mets fans I’ve ever met. He and I walked out to the outfield to recreate Tommie Agee’s sno-cone catch in Game 3 of the 1969 World Series. He made me re-take the picture multiple times because he wanted to get it exactly right.

Lane gets major props because he gave me one of my favorite things ever: A videotape that included the view from the last row of the upper deck along the right field line when Len Dykstra hit the walk-off home run in Game 3 of the NLCS.

There were few encounters with players, but I do remember three. One is sad and I’m debating whether to tell it. Maybe. Let’s move past that one …

One was a reliever named Eric Gunderson playing a “get the ring on the milk bottle” game that no one ever won. His first throw was perfect, right on the bottle. The other was then-Cardinals infielder Jose Oquendo getting to a game early and running the warning track while I was giving a tour. When he ran by the dugout he yelled “I can’t hear you down there!”

I loved being a tour guide. I liked the performing. I liked the explaining. I liked the answering questions. I liked standing in the Mets dugout. I liked collecting the Jeff Kent cups that they put the commissary sodas in.

It helped that I got to talk about a subject I knew the most and enjoyed the most. Any time I take a tour anywhere, I notice how the tour guide explains things and watch how they succeed and struggle (most are excellent. I have great respect for those who do it well).

I relate it to my experience – like the time a kid asked a crazy question, I didn’t answer it and he said “What good are you?” That still makes me laugh.

Ninety nine percent of the people were very appreciative (I’m still mad I told a guy the wrong thing – that the umpire he was describing was Augie Donatelli when it was actually Ron Luciano. He walked away happy, but with the wrong info). I got high marks for my work. On my performance review, which I still have, it says “Not only is it clear that you love your work, but that you’re an authority on the subject.”

The reason I’m writing about this now is that Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the final games of the 1994 season before the players went on strike. Thus, it marked the end of the season, with the World Series canceled not long after. That was okay. I was headed back to school anyway.

The tours lasted a few weeks beyond the strike, ending once Nickelodeon realized that Shea Stadium wasn’t a tourist destination if there was no baseball being played.

We had a get together of the tour guides … I think it was a year later. Other than Mike Duggan and Lane Luckert (who became a tour guide at Madison Square Garden), I don’t think I’ve seen any of them since.

The funny thing is that this job connected to my next big job. While I was at the tour guide reunion, my mom told me I’d gotten a call from my college professor. Little did I know that he’d be setting me up for my next job at the Trenton Times. That one lasted 6 ½ years. Another story for another time.

I hope that the other tour guides got as much out of the experience as I did.

And I hope none of them told Pete Flynn (RIP) that on my last day, I went out to the pitcher’s mound, pantomimed throwing a pitch, ran the bases. and made a leaping catch at the outfield fence. It was pretty cool to do.

As was the job itself.

Me at Shea Stadium

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Where you can find my work

I’ve been fortunate to have covered sports as a researcher, writer, and broadcaster for more than 20 years. Here are examples of my work in that time.

Published Book 

The Yankees Index, June 2016 from Triumph Books

ESPN.com

Stars

  • Max Scherzer on sabermetrics and pitching to Ted Williams LINK
  • What makes Mike Trout the perfect player? LINK
  • Post-beaning: Giancarlo Stanton has a blind spot LINK
  • Aaron Nola could be a breakout pitching star LINK
  • Lorenzo Cain has a high ceiling LINK
  • Edwin Diaz is bringing the heat LINK
  • Jacob deGrom is best in the worst situations LINK
  • What makes Buster Posey baseball’s best defensive catcher? LINK
  • Chris Archer is baseball’s most interesting pitcher LINK
  • The Syndergaard ceiling LINK
  • Can Noah Syndergaard pitch at a Kershaw level? LINK
  • 1-1 with Paul DePodesta LINK
  • Q&A with Jerry Seinfeld LINK
  • Bill Groman was the Odell Beckham Jr. of his era LINK (non-baseball)

Hall of Famers

  • Vlad Guerrero the Hall of Famer – you had to see him play LINK
  • The 24 hours that defined Ivan Rodriguez LINK
  • Mike Piazza is a Hall of Framer LINK
  • Q&A with Chipper Jones LINK
  •  Baseball psychology
  • The value of a standing O LINK
  • The mental side of Matt Harvey’s slump LINK
  • Tony Fernandez remembers 1997, has a good outlook on his mistake LINK

Pitch-framing

  • Why is failed Double-A shortstop Tony Wolters a catcher? LINK
  • Pitch-framing is the Mets MVP LINK
  • Why the Dbacks went with Jeff Mathis LINK
  • When you pitch-frame, you have to love the ball, says Francisco Cervelli LINK

Aspiring stars

  • Why was Ryan Merritt unfazed pitching for the Indians in the ALCS? LINK
  • How did Gio Gonzalez become good again? LINK
  • Danny Duffy is a hometown hero LINK
  • Danny Duffy’s not boring LINK
  • Collin McHugh’s unexpected success LINK LINK
  • Brandon Guyer is the HBP king LINK
  • Byron Buxton on expectations LINK
  • Danny Salazar has the most valuable pitch in the game LINK
  • High expectations for Chris Devenski LINK
  • Brandon Belt makes an adjustment that pays off LINK
  • Jake Lamb makes one too LINK
  • Michael Conforto’s special swing LINK

The Athletic

Sports Info Solutions Blog/Stat of the Week

Link to articles

SIS Baseball Podcast

  • July 23, 2019: Interviews with baseball legend and current Tigers broadcaster Kirk Gibson, as well as Saberseminar co-runner and Brooks Baseball creator Dan Brooks.
  • July 11, 2019: Interviews with Sports Info Solutions founder John Dewan and baseball writer/podcaster Ben Lindbergh.
  • June 24, 2019: Interview with Diamondbacks broadcaster Mike Ferrin.
  • June 11, 2019: Interviews with Athletics  beat writer Susan Slusser, Rays beat writer Marc Topkin, and Twins beat writer Dan Hayes.
  • May 29, 2019: Interview with baseball writer Joe Sheehan.
  • May 14, 2019: Interview with former pitcher and current Yankee broadcaster David Cone.

Tommy Henrich was old, reliable and clutch

Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich was known as Old Reliable, which in my book is about as good a nickname as one could be given. Henrich wasn’t a megastar of the Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Joe Dimaggio level, but he was quite good, and he was quite good when it mattered.

I connect with Henrich for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s one of the first old-time ballplayers whose autographs I can remember getting in the late 1980s at baseball card shows held in airport hotels in New York. I’m pretty sure the Kodak photo of him that’s somewhere in my parent’s apartment featured him smoking a pipe (I should note – he lived to 96). And he hit the first World Series walk-off home run, beating the Dodgers in Game 1 in 1949.

The 1949 season is a significant one in Yankees history, because it marks the start of one of their great dynasties. The Yankees won five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953.

How did that run begin? With a walk-off, of course.

The Yankees opened on April 19 of that season against the Senators. Opening Day was the first opener for the Yankees since Ruth died and he was paid proper tribute both before the game and by how it ended. The Yankees were also without Joe DiMaggio, who was battling a heel injury.

The Senators were the opposite of the Yankees. They won on their opening day in Washington D.C. (by walk-off, actually) but didn’t win much else. They finished 50-104. Thus what I tell you probably won’t surprise.

The Senators hung gamely with the Yankees, taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. But with two on and two outs, Yogi Berra’s pinch-hit single scored Phil Rizzuto to tie the game (Berra didn’t start because he had the flu).

The Senators went six up and six down in the eighth and ninth innings, giving the Yankees a shot to pull the game out in the ninth. Phil Rizzuto grounded out and Gene Woodling popped out. That brought up Henrich, who was 0-for-4. What was great about Henrich that season was that though he was 36 years old, he could still hit like he was in his 20s. He’d hit .287/.416/.526 and place sixth in the AL MVP voting.

That wasn’t known at the time. What was known was that Henrich was both old and reliable. He hit seven home runs in 63 at-bats in what Baseball-Reference.com deems “late and close” situations (this qualified). This would be the first. He set the tone for the Yankees season with a long game-winning home run to right center field.

”It was a perfect ending, one that must have drawn a booming roar from the Babe, away up there in the heavens.”
— Joe Trimble, New York Daily News

The HR king before the HR kings could walk-off too

I was listening to the great baseball podcast “This Week in Baseball History” the other day, when one of the co-hosts, Bill Parker, paid tribute to someone celebrating a birthday that week – Gavvy Cravath.

I knew of Gavvy Cravath as baseball’s home run king prior to Babe Ruth, but that was about all I knew. It’s a great listen and very detailed (it comes towards the end of the show, which dealt with the collective bargaining agreement that netted player’s free agency). My favorite part is what happened to Cravath after his baseball career ended. After managing the downtrodden Phillies for part of 1919 and 1920, he worked briefly as a minor league manager and scout, then returned home to California.

Cravath’s father was the mayor of his town, so it’s likely he passed some political skill down to his son. Cravath became a judge, a job he held for 36 years (listen to the podcast to find out how he was elected … it’s funny). Cravath was known as both “crusty” and “widely respected” per his SABR bio. He had no legal training whatsoever!

I went looking for a Cravath walk-off home run and the Baseball-Reference archives came through for me. Cravath reached the 100-homer mark on June 14, 1918 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Cardinals. What’s notable about this home run is that it would not have been one today. The ball bounced before entering the left field bleachers (those were homers in those days!)

There was a GREAT game story sharing the events of the game in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I’d love to credit the author, but he appears to be going by a pseudonym. The byline is listed as “Jim Nasium.”

How would you not want your name to be known when you could write a lede like this???

“That ancient old ruin, Cactus Cravath, intervened between a double defeat yesterday afternoon when he tottered to the plate in the 10th inning of the opening encounter and loafed around there until he had three balls and two strikes called on him and then nonchalantly whaled the next pitched ball into the left field bleachers …”

Are you ready for some Foote ball?

There is a famous game in Cubs history known as “The Sandberg Game” because of multiple dramatics by Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. It’s the signature win of the 1984 season, when the team won the NL East title. That it came against the Cardinals didn’t hurt its historical significance either.

Less known, but perhaps just as good of a game was the one which took place on April 22 1980 between those same teams. But the 1980 Cubs weren’t particularly memorable. They were just mediocre. And “The Foote Game” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

This was bonkers baseball at its finest, a game played in 22-mile-per-hour winds. That shortstop Ivan DeJesus, he of 21 home runs in more than 4,600 at-bats hit for the cycle within five innings was strange. What Barry Foote did may have been stranger.

Foote had two good seasons as a hitter. With the 1974 Expos, he hit .262 with 11 home runs, but was soon displaced behind the plate by Gary Carter. In 1979, he hit .254 with 16 home runs for the Cubs. In Foote’s eight other seasons, he wasn’t much of a hitter. His career batting average was .230 and he was kept around much more for his glove and arm than anything else. But on this day, he could do no wrong.

First he singled in a run in the second inning, cutting a 3-1 Cardinals lead to 3-2. Then, he doubled in two more runs in the third inning to tie the game, 6-6. The Cardinals went ahead 12-6, but in these conditions, no lead was safe. The Cubs cut the lead to 12-11 by the eighth and Foote tied it with a home run.

The Cardinals didn’t score in the top of the ninth, with Foote throwing out Garry Templeton trying to steal second base. The only way to get Foote up in the bottom of the inning was to load the bases with two outs. Sure enough, that’s what happened. And on the first pitch, Foote obliged, clubbing a grand slam against Cardinals reliever Mark Littell.

Foote was greeted at home plate with a kiss on the helmet from none other than Bill Buckner.

Final score, Cubs 16, Cardinals 12.

Barry Foote Minutiae
Foote finished with eight RBIs. It would be 22 years before another Cubs player would drive in at least eight (Sammy Sosa had nine in 2002).

Ichiro took a while to walk-off, but it was worth it

Ichiro Suzuki recorded more than 3,000 hits in the major leagues. But he did not record a walk-off hit until his ninth season. In 2009, Ichiro made up for lost time by recording three walk-off hits, all in the second half of the season.

The first one came on July 28, 2009 against the Blue Jays. The Mariners loaded the bases in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, but Jose Lopez grounded into a force and Ronny Cedeno struck out. Ichiro got behind in the count 0-2, and per the AP game recap, he golfed a pitch that was nearly in the dirt into center field for the winning hit.

The next one came on September 17 against the White Sox. The Mariners trailed 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, but rallied, tying the game on home runs by Lopez and Bill Hall in the ninth inning. In the 10th, Ichiro hit a ground-rule double, but was stranded at second base. The game stretched to the 14th inning, where after a single by Ryan Langerhans, Kenji Johjima was hit by a pitch. Ichiro, perhaps[ perturbed that his fellow countryman got dinged, singled on a 1-0 pitch to score Langerhans and win the game.

That was pretty good, but Ichiro saved the best of his walk-offs that season for last. The very next day, the Mariners and Yankees played a highly-entertaining game. This was the season that the Yankees would win the World Series, so to hold them to two runs through eight innings was a good accomplishment for Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. However, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes combined to allow one Mariners run in that time. So the Yankees led 2-1 after eight innings and had their closer, Mariano Rivera, on to finish things off.

Rivera struck out the first two hitters looking, upping the Yankees win probability to 95 percent. But Mike Sweeney hit a first-pitch double that may have rattled Rivera. Ichiro was next and for the second straight day, he came through with a walk-off. But this one was a walk-off home run.

“It didn’t go where it was supposed to go,” Rivera told reporters regarding the pitch.

It sure did for Ichiro, who walked off a winner that day, and now walks off the field for good, headed sometime soon for the Hall of Fame.

Ichiro walk-off minutiae
Ichiro was one of five players to hit a walk-off home run vs Rivera and by far the most famous of them. The others are Bill Selby, Bill Mueller, Vernon Wells and Marco Scutaro.

When Ichiro is elected to the Hall of Fame, he’ll be one of two Hall-of-Famers who hit .400 against Rivera. Ichiro was 6-for-15 (exactly .400) against Rivera. His former teammate, Edgar Martinez, was 11-for-19 (.579).

Once, twice, three times gets it done

Had Dolph Camilli made the major leagues earlier than 1933, when he was 26, this piece might be about a Hall of Fame player, or at least someone with a close case for Cooperstown. As it is, Camilli was a very good ballplayer for 12 years for the Cubs, Phillies and Dodgers. It was with the Dodgers for whom this first baseman, who predates Gil Hodges, starred. He had lofty on-base percentages and slugging percentages and drove in 100 runs with Brooklyn four times in a five-year span.

Camilli was the NL MVP in 1941, hitting 34 home runs and driving in 120 runs for a team that won the pennant. You could make the case he won the MVP award all in one amazing game.

It was September 1, 1941, the first game of a doubleheader with the Boston Braves. The Dodgers and Braves played 15 innings, which was the subject of complaining in the newspapers the next day, because the second game was halted due to darkness, forcing the Dodgers, who were just out of first place, to make the game up.

The Braves led 4-0 after two innings helped by two Dodgers errors, hence the grumbling. The Dodgers got three runs back in the fourth inning, but did nothing more until the eighth. That’s when Camilli turned the game into his highlight reel. With two outs, he clubbed a 450-foot home run to center field to tie the game.

The Braves, managed by Casey Stengel at the time, went back ahead in the 10th inning on Hall-of-Famer Paul Waner’s RBI hit. Two of the first three Dodgers to bat in the home 10th went down, with Billy Herman drawing a walk. That brought up Camilli. This time he doubled off the Ebbets Field scoreboard, scoring Herman to tie the game again.

Camilli walked in the 12th, but was left stranded. He singled in the 14th, but Pee Wee Reese lined out with the bases loaded to keep the game tied.

Finally in the 15th, a walk, single and hit by pitch loaded the bases bringing the right man to the plate, Camilli. His single, his fifth hit of the game won the for the Dodgers. In all, Camilli had two tying hits in the eighth inning or later, a walk and a hit to try to extend extra-inning rallies, and the winning hit. Pretty cool stuff.

That started a heck of a close to the season for Camilli. He hit .316 with a 1.024 OPS and 26 RBI in 27 games. The Dodgers won the pennant by 2 ½ games and Camilli was a very worthy MVP choice.

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