"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Bronx Banter Interview: Greg Prince

For years, Greg Prince has co-authored one of the great team blogs–Faith and Fear in Flushing. I’ve gotten to know Greg over time and a nicer guy you will not meet. He’s a fine writer, too. Last week, he was at Gelf Magazine’s Varsity Letters Reading series talking about his new book–the first of a four-part series detailing 50 years of Mets wins.  I recently had the chance to chat with him about The Happiest Recap: First Base.

Dig in.

Bronx Banter: How did this project start?

Greg Prince: The Happiest Recap started in the depths of depression over the then-current Mets of 2009, who weren’t winning very often in real time. With the franchise’s 50th anniversary approaching, I got to thinking about highlights and wins from better times and came upon the idea of constructing a mythical season in which I — on Faith and Fear — would write about the “best” 1st game (or Opening Day) in Mets history, the “best” 2nd game…clear through to the “best” 162nd and 163rd games. The key was the number had to match an actual game played on a previous Mets schedule. Thus, the “best” 37th game, for example, was the 37th game of 1973. The “best” 146th game was the 146th game of 1976. It was a different twist on merely listing the Top ‘X’ games in Mets history or doing a “This Date” feature. I followed through and ran the series in 2011, shadowing the actual Mets schedule that year.

BB: So then how did it go from a series on the site to a book?

GP: Having published the book version of Faith and Fear in Flushing in 2009, I guess I had the fever a little bit to do something else. Around the time I began to think this project might work as a book, a publisher came out with a team-by-team series called “162-0,” which was similar but not exactly in line with what I was doing. So for a moment I was discouraged that a good idea had been used elsewhere, and not necessarily to my satisfaction. Thing is, the more I worked on the blog series, the less concerned I became with the “best” aspect for a particular game number and found myself fascinated by more than 162 games fitting a narrow description. I wound up writing about 326 games — a “Happiest” entry and an “Also Happy” entry for each game number — and within those entries, sometimes incorporating more games and more stories.

BB: That’s a nice evolution.

GP: The box scores I was researching and the books, magazines, web sites and newspaper clippings I was looking up in support of those box scores were reminding me of lost Met tales and bringing up names that had been tucked away in the Met memory storage locker for decades. It seemed a shame to leave them to fade into obscurity. Met histories are too often narrowed down to the lovable losers of 1962; stumbling into Seaver and hiring Hodges; 1969; 1973; 1986; and maybe Piazza hitting a dramatic homer after 9/11. Our fandom (anybody’s fandom, really) is so much more than the agreed-upon milestones. It’s the big inning we’re all talking about the next morning or the rookie who came up to pitch a shutout and then disappeared or the quirky game where all 17 hits were singles. It’s firsts and lasts and lots of in-betweens. It’s the championships and superstars, too, of course, but it’s also the moments of contention that fizzled and the stage being set for great things and the residual fumes on the other side of those great things and the games and players who got us through the rough times. It’s everything, if you’re a steadfast fan of a team.

BB: I love that.

GP: So with 50 years of Metsdom completed, I decided to shake out the contents of the blog series and rearrange and supplement all I’d done, digging a little deeper to come up with the 500 Amazin’ wins that would best tell the story of the first half-century of the franchise the way we as fans experienced it. It’s Mets History of the Subconscious, almost. The losses filter in because, let’s face it, these are the Mets, but I guarantee a 500-0 record when all is said and done.

BB: How did you decide to make it a four part series instead of one fat volume?

GP: I wanted to let the game stories breathe. I wanted to be able to write about Jim McAndrew for as long as it took to explain Jim McAndrew. I wanted to take a detour into Tom Seaver’s history as a relief pitcher. I wanted to make note of the handful of times the Mets have used a de facto designated hitter (a pinch-hitter who bats for the pitcher and then comes up again when the lineup bats around). I wanted to transcribe Bob Murphy’s and Lindsey Nelson’s calls where reading how we listened to them would bring a moment alive again. I wanted these, in a way, to be 500 bedtime stories. Put all that together, and that’s a pretty hefty volume. I found breaking the saga into four pieces helped discipline the eras a little better.

B: Yeah, that makes sense.
GP: There is no narrative, per se, but I think one coalesces organically in each volume. In First Base, you can feel the youthful ineptitude of the early Mets wearing off little by little as you read about the first big moments produced by an Ed Kranepool or a Cleon Jones. At the same time, you have a sense that it’s still a team depending on a blast from the past via Duke Snider or leaning into a hopeful future with Ron Hunt or Grover Powell, whatever those guys become eventually in their careers. In a way, it’s the Mets family history as told by your well-meaning if slightly obsessive uncle.

BB: Did you have any hesitation about just writing about wins and not loses?

GP: From a practical standpoint, not really any regrets on 500 wins and 0 losses. The losses worm their way in anyway. You can’t write about the great wins of the 1973 postseason, for example, without acknowledging the gut-wrenching losses. Since the first volume officially ends with Game Five of that World Series, wherein the Mets take a 3-2 lead over Oakland, you can’t just say, “well, good night everybody!” Thus, Game Five becomes the platform to also discuss Games Six (George Stone not being chosen to start) and Seven (Willie Mays not being chosen to finish). And you can’t fully appreciate the few resonant wins from 1962 without noting there were only 40 wins to begin with that year.

BB: Good pernt.

GP: I mention in the introduction that my personal favorite game ever — best game I ever watched, in my opinion — was Game Six in 1999 against Atlanta, the one remembered mainly for Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run in the eleventh inning (thus largely reviled by Mets fans) but remembered fondly by me for how the Mets fought back from 0-5 in the first inning and 3-7 later to take 8-7 and 9-8 leads and how the game topped off the most intense 30 days of fandom I ever experienced. I promise “you won’t read about it here,” and then instantly backtrack that, yeah, you probably will, but only in the context of the whole story. I’ve learned from eight years of blogging that while Mets fans are willing, almost anxious to cope with reality (reminding each other of the woe that has befallen us from time to time), nobody really wants to be hit over the head with it as a going concern. So while you can say, “Oy, the collaspe of 2007!” the minute you start detailing the four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies that presaged the blowing of an enormous lead (as I did in a blog entry in late August of 2012), the reaction is, per Tom Petty, let me up, I’ve had enough.

BB: I liked what you talked about in terms of being a steadfast fan. That can be a problem when you root for the Yankees where you tend to evaluate seasons on whether they’ve won the World Series or not. And when you do that you neglect some of the smaller things that are really the rich moments that make up not only a season but our fandom.

GP: It’s crossed my mind in the process that this wouldn’t necessarily work for other franchises, particularly ones wherein postseason berths are almost a given. The Mets have won 43 playoff and World Series games, and they’re all in here, but they’re not necessarily the most, shall we say, Amazin’. You get a Mets fan who was sentient on June 14, 1980, and he or she will eventually tell you about the Steve Henderson Game, a night the Mets trailed the Giants 0-6 and won 7-6 on Hendu’s three-run homer in the ninth. What made that game special was it was in the midst of the “Magic is Back” season in which the Mets had that silly ad campaign of the same name and weren’t winning and weren’t drawing flies and all of a sudden, everything falls into place for a couple of months. Every win is a come-from-behind affair and the “magic” thing catches on to such an extent that even Joe Torre and his players are talking about it. Henderson hits the home run on a Saturday night, and the next day there is such a large walkup crowd that they actually had to turn fans away.

BB: I vaguely remember that because Joel Youngblood was my brother’s favorite player at the time.

GP: Now by the end of 1980, the magic has dissipated and the Mets are back in the dumps and nobody is showing up at Shea, but a game like that lives forever. That’s the reward of constancy.

BB: Getting back to the format of the book for a sec. How much re-writing did you do with these pieces from the original blog posts?

GP: It depended on the entry. Some games were transplanted whole if they worked as such. Others were expanded if I didn’t think I gave enough information in the first place. For 1973′s pennant race on the blog, I had layered a lot into a couple of posts. In the book, every win from the middle of September onward gets its own treatment (maybe a few paragraphs, maybe a few pages) so you’re living the most improbable weeks in Mets history day-to-day almost, just as it occurred. I’ll do something similar when 1999 rolls around. Conversely, some blog posts were contracted altogether if I thought one more extra-inning marathon or walkoff home run wasn’t really revealing anything that wasn’t already being revealed in another game. And there’s a bunch that — because the original “best game number” format demanded tough choices — simply didn’t appear on the blog.One name that didn’t show up whatsoever in the blog series was Les Rohr, the Mets’ first-ever amateur draft pick.

BB: Wait–who?

GP: His debut in late 1967 (Game No. 50 in the book) was a success, which in itself is a bit of a milestone — one of the recurring themes of First Base is the Mets’ search for that young fireballer who’s going to lead them to the promised land — but digging a little deeper, I realized Les was the 54th player used by the 1967 Mets, the most they ever used in a season. So Les gives me a reason to talk about the Grand Central Terminal atmosphere that prevailed in the clubhouse in those days. Plus the year he was drafted, 1965, was the same year the Jets drafted Joe Namath. It’s not a huge thing, but it’s an intriguing parallel where highly touted prospects (playing in the same stadium, no less) are concerned. And then there’s what happened with Les Rohr after that first start. He pitched well a couple more times, hurt his arm in the 24-inning, 1-0 loss at the Astrodome the following April (an instance when I can mention a historic loss in a book all about wins) and after a token appearance exactly two years after his debut — as the Mets were on the verge of clinching their first title — he was done. Rohr was, on the surface, a flameout, but the Mets drafted very spottily with their high picks in those days, which is another tidbit I get to throw in (Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson and all that) and it provides some foreshadowing as well, because the lousy drafting would come back to haunt the Mets in the ’70s. In other words, you could do worse than drafting Les Rohr with your very first pick…and the Mets somehow managed to.

BB: Did you write it all at once and then are releasing it in four volumes or are you still working on the others? What are the publish dates for the other volumes?

GP: I’m pushing ahead chronologically so the second, third and fourth volumes are coming together in order, publication dependent on the respective schedules of my talented art director Jim Haines and myself. Second Base is currently in production. Third Base is being written. Home is loosening up in the on-deck circle. Think of it in the realm of waiting for the next series from Topps in a given year.

BB: One last thing. I’m curious about what, if anything you found in your research that surprised you?

GP: In a broad sense, it was surprising to realize that players who are historically written off as hopeless actually accomplished some things in a Mets uniform. Marv Throneberry hit a game-winning home run. The two Bob Millers teamed to pitch the Mets to a win. Jack Fisher may have lost 24 games in 1965, but he threw a gem from time to time. On an individual basis, if I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have known about the proto-Steve Henderson Game, the Tim Harkness Game, in 1963. It was a 14-inning affair that Harkness won, 8-6, with a grand slam after falling behind the Cubs in the top of the 14th when Billy Williams hit a two-run inside-the-park homer. What blows my mind about it is a) that Harkness came out from the center field clubhouse onto the balcony to take a bow the way Bobby Thomson had 11 years earlier and b) the comments I found on Ultimate Mets Database from people who were kids back then, still remembering the cries of “Let’s Go Mets!” echoing as they headed back to the subway. This was 1963, 111 losses, yet it didn’t matter. A friend once told me he thought the 1963 Mets were the bravest team he ever saw, that if they had the talent of the 2008 Mets, they’d have won 140 games. I didn’t get it when he told me that. I kind of got it after Tim Harkness and the rest of the games I looked at from that season.

BB: That’s interesting.

GP: One more surprise: I knew that The Odd Couple filmed its baseball scenes before a game in 1967 at Shea, with Bill Mazeroski hitting into a choreographed triple play. What I didn’t know was there was an even more bizarre scene in the real game that day with the Pirates batting out of order and Wes Westrum — who you never read anything about other than he couldn’t take all the losing — waited until a key moment in the game to bring it to the umpires’ attention and wound up getting Pittsburgh runs taken off the board. If you were at that game, you probably went home talking about it for a week.

BB: Go figure that.

GP: I know a lot about the Mets. I didn’t know that at all.

 

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver