There was a time not long ago when baseball fans could rub elbows with professional ballplayers.
My friend and partner in columnizing Curt Smith writes to inform there’s a new book out about the New York Mets’ improbable 1969 world championship. This is timely news, as the question “What do you want for Christmas?” has been popping up of late. It also harks back to a simpler time, when a 10-year-old fan — me, for instance — could hang around with actual players.
In the early 1970s, my family lived in Amityville (yes, of “horror” fame; but that’s another column). Our home happened to be just two blocks from a bar and restaurant called The Dugout. And The Dugout was owned by none other than Mr. Met — no, not that giant-baseball-headed mascot; I’m referring to longtime player Ed Kranepool, who had the distinction of playing for the team in each of its first 18 seasons.
A first baseman who occasionally turned up in the outfield, Kranepool rode the Mets arc from expansion exasperation, to miracle turnaround in 1969, to unlikely World Series appearance in 1973, to renewed futility in the late 1970s. While never a Hall of Fame-caliber player, Kranepool was nonetheless productive enough for long enough to still hold Mets team records for most games played, at-bats, hits, doubles and total bases in a career.
But best of all, from my 10-year-old perspective, he owned The Dugout.
Now, you might think responsible parents wouldn’t let a 10-year-old hang around in a tavern — even one owned by a New York Met. And you’d be right. But once a year, in mid-December, Kranepool would call in some fellow Mets and invite young fans to help decorate The Dugout Christmas tree.
Yeah, it sounds kind of corny in retrospect, but to us kids it was a Big Deal. In fact, it was a little surreal. When you’re a kid, bars are sort of mysterious to begin with: they’re dark, hazy from smoke and full of odd, alcoholic aromas. Add to that the rows of mirrors and bottles reflecting the subdued Christmas lighting and The Dugout was a decidedly adult holiday venue.
Then there was the headiness of meeting real, live baseball players. Mets, no less. Oh sure, there was some initial confusion:
“Hey, Dad, are you sure those guys are Mets? Where are their uniforms?”
It was explained to me that ballplayers dress like normal people when not at the stadium. (This was not my first baseball-related letdown. When I was about 5, my uncle told me one day the Mets were playing the Giants and the game would be on TV. I couldn’t wait. The game started and I quickly realized the so-called Giants were just normal-sized players. I mumbled something about false advertising and went out to play.)
Kranepool & Co. proved perfect hosts. They provided ornaments to hang on the tree, and they autographed baseballs, photos and baseball cards. And while I never met my favorite player, Tom Seaver (owing, no doubt, to the fact that he lived some 3,000 miles away in California), I recall collecting handshakes and signatures from the likes of Kranepool, Danny Frisella, Duffy Dyer, Don Cardwell and Jim McAndrew (a journeyman pitcher whom I held in special regard: we shared the same birth date). And I didn’t have to wait in line for hours or cough up $25 per John Hancock. In fact, I believe the Cokes were even on the house.
I’ve since lost the autographs (like most kids who let their rooms get so messy their mothers take matters into their own hands), but I still have the memories of a simpler day when ballplayers would pal around with kids for an afternoon just to generate a little goodwill.
In a bar, no less.
Messenger Managing Editor Kevin Frisch’s column, “Funny Thing ...,” appears each Sunday in the Daily Messenger. Contact him at (585) 394-0770, ext. 257, or via e-mail at email@example.com.