Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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.

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).

1980 Phillies had a vital walk-off win in their World Series path

I’ve noted before that I enjoy walk-offs with a 6-5 final score, since that was the final score of the greatest walk-off of them all (the 1986 Mets beating the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series).

Turns out that the 1980 Phillies can stake a claim to a pretty cool 6-5 walk-off win on their way to a championship.

I’m referring to their 156th game of the season. They entered their game against the Cubs trailing the Expos by ½ a game in the standings after losing two of three to Montreal. A Bill Buckner (!) RBI double tied the score at two in the seventh inning and Steve Dillard’s RBI ground out put the Cubs ahead. But the Phillies tied the game in their half of the seventh on Pete Rose’s RBI grounder. That would be the last scoring for a while.

Among those who pitched in relief and pitched well were Hall-of-Famers Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter for the Cubs, and standouts Tug McGraw and Sparky Lyle for the Phillies. There was no more scoring in this one until the top of the 15th when the Cubs plated a pair of unearned runs, set up by an error by pitcher Dickie Noles.

But the Phillies weren’t done. Lonnie Smith led off the home 15th with a walk and Pete Rose followed with one as well. A wild pitch advanced each runner a base, and Bake McBride brought home Smith with a ground out.

Next up was Mike Schmidt, who won NL MVP that season and delivered countless big hits along the way. Not this time. With Rose representing the tying run on third base and one out, Schmidt popped out to second base.

The Phillies were undaunted. Down to their last out, they tied the game on Gary Maddox’s single. It should be noted that Maddox had been benched with Greg Luzinski and Bob Boone that day for manager Dallas Green for recent offensive struggles. The three were not happy, with Maddox going as far as to blame an article by young Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Jayson Stark for his benching (seriously??). But Maddox redeemed himself. And after a hit by Keith Moreland and a walk to Larry Bowa, Manny Trillo singled home Maddox with the winning run.

This was a vital win for the Phillies, one needed to keep pace with the Expos, who won that night. The Phillies would go on to edge out the Expos in the final weekend of the season to win the division title. It probably wouldn’t have been possible without this win.

If you want to hear Jayson Stark’s take on this game, listen to this interview he did a few weeks ago

Chris Chambliss had other big home runs too

Chris Chambliss is best known for his home run that won the Yankees a pennant in 1976. But it turns out that Chambliss had a great flair for the dramatic beyond that game.

Chambliss had three instances in which he hit a walk-off home run with his team trailing, including one earlier in the 1976 season against the Red Sox.

These Red Sox were not a threat to the eventual AL champion Yankees, but it’s fun to reminisce regardless. The game of note was on July 25, 1976. Don Zimmer had just taken over as Red Sox skipper and his team was in a bit of a funk. A disastrous 14-game road trip ended in New York.

The day started well for the Red Sox. They led 5-0, but frittered it away. Still, they had a 5-3 edge with two on and two outs in the ninth inning. Zimmer called on lefty Tom House (best known for catching Hank Aaron’s 715th home run) to pitch to the left-handed hitting Chambliss. House had the edge here – Chambliss was 0-for-8 in his career against House. Not for long.

House threw one pitch and Chambliss hit it over the wall for a game-winning three-run home run.

“I told (House) to pitch him tough,” Zimmer said. “If that’s pitching him tough, than I don’t know what tough is.”

The next of these walk-off home runs came the next season against the White Sox. The Yankees entered the day 4 ½ games out of first place with 46 to play, so wins were necessary to catch both the first-place Red Sox and second-place Orioles.

This was a bonkers baseball game. The Yankees led 9-4 in the ninth inning, but Ron Guidry, Sparky Lyle and Ken Clay combined to blow the lead, allowing six runs, with the go-ahead hit being Oscar Gamble’s two-run single.

Trailing 10-9, a leadoff walk to Thurman Munson proved costly for the White Sox. Two batters later, Chambliss hit a walk-off home run off rookie Randy Wiles. If you’ve never heard of Wiles, that’s not surprising. He pitched in five MLB games. This one was his last.

Speaking of last, the last of the three home runs in our story is a cool one. It came in an otherwise nondescript season for the Braves against the Padres on August 13, 1986.

The Braves trailed 7-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning. With two men on and one out, Padres Hall-of-Fame closer Rich Gossage struck out the Braves best hitter, Dale Murphy. But Ken Griffey Sr. followed with an RBI single. The game came down to Gossage versus Chambliss. It ended in Chambliss’ favor with a walk-off home run against a high fastball.

“Isn’t that great?” said Braves manager Chuck Tanner afterwards.

It was great beyond just that moment.

It was the last home run of Chambliss’ career.

Not a bad way to go out.

Bill Buckner’s only walk-off HR started a heck of a streak

I just guested on a podcast in which I told many Bill Buckner stories. But one I didn’t tell was the story of his only walk-off home run.

It came on June 21, 1974 against the Giants and it started a positive barrage of victories of a similar nature. In this one, the Dodgers trailed 3-0 into the bottom of the eighth inning, but scored three runs to tie. The key hits that inning were three of the “barely” variety, by Buckner, Jimmy Wynn (a bunt) and Steve Garvey. Buckner then homered to right off Elias Sosa in the ninth inning to win it.

“I can’t believe it, nor can I say how that ball went out or what the pitch was or anything,” Buckner said afterwards, and this might be the first instance I can remember of a baseball player properly using the word “nor” in a sentence.

Buckner’s surprise also makes sense given that he finished the season with more than four times as many stolen bases (31) as home runs (7).

That was the first win in a 5-1 homestand and what’s crazy is that all five wins were walk-off wins.

The Dodgers won the next day 3-2. Wynn homered in the ninth inning off Jim Barr to tie it and Buckner’s fellow 1968 draft pick, Joe Ferguson, homered in the 10th inning off Sosa to win it.

In the series finale, the Giants led 3-1 in the seventh inning, but the Dodgers scored twice to tie. They won it in the ninth on Ken McMullen’s RBI single.

The Dodgers had a chance at a walk-off win against the Braves in the first game of their next series, but left the tying run on first base and lost by a run.

They took the next one, scoring twice in the ninth to win 2-1. Steve Garvey got the tying hit and Ron Cey got the winner off fellow Washington State baseball alum Danny Frisella.

The last of the wins was a 5-4 victory in the series finale. Ferguson homered to tie it and Manny Mota singled to win it. Mota replaced Buckner mid at-bat with a 1-1 count and a man on second base, an interesting maneuver, though understandable given that pitcher Tom House was a lefty and Alston wanted the platoon advantage.

Amazingly, all five games were won by relief pitcher Mike Marshall. Marshall won 10 games via walk-off that season, the most in a season by a pitcher in the years for which Baseball-Reference has data (dating to 1908).