Wednesday, June 11, 2008
It was a warm and bright mid June early evening at the Glen Oaks Little League Field when what could have been a magical moment took place. Could have been if not for one of the two main characters in our story. But let me pause to give a little background as we build towards the suspenseful evening.
I grew up in Glen Oaks. Glen Oaks sits in the most eastern part of New York City. Hard against New Hyde Park and Nassau County, it is the last outpost in Queens. When snowstorms blew our way, we were the last people in the city to get our streets plowed. New York is famous for its subways, but the nearest train was a thirty minute bus ride away in Kew Gardens. In the mid-sixties, Mayor Lindsay started a parks program that would bring musical celebrities and some theater to community areas. The only time we were fortunate to have this experience, the Mayor sent us Shirley Ellis. Ellis, to music aficionados, is famous for quirky songs such as “The Name Game”. You know, the one that rhymes names with banana, etc. In fact, notice was so short about Ms. Ellis’ performance, that no more than fifty folks showed up.
Anyway, the centerpiece of the Glen Oaks community was and still is the “Oval”. The Oval hosted the Glen Oaks Little League, in addition to basketball courts and lots of green space. In the early days of the Little League, Glen Oaks had some competitive teams, and was in the 1964 playoffs the year that Staten Island represented the East and won the whole thing.
Glen Oaks was also used as affordable apartment living for New York area athletes. The NHL’s New York Rangers put Hall of Famer, Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrian just around the corner form my apartment. The Mets had players in the area, including their long time catcher, Jerry Grote. Grote was an incredible defensive specialist who also hit just well enough to be a regular with the club for over a decade. He backstopped the World Champion Miracle Mets in 1969. A Texan, through and through, Grote was appreciated by fans but was never afforded the love and attention shown towards superstars like Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones and Tug McGraw.
So it was that our June evening (in 1968 or 1969) that the aforementioned Grote decided to come and watch a few innings of a Little League game at the Oval. From my own recollections, I do not remember if he had been in the habit to come to watch any of the games. But, there he was on that evening, live and in person. And beside him was one of those Mets that fans particularly swooned over, outfielder, Ron Swoboda.
Swoboda was just the perfect combination that made the Mets such lovable winners and losers in those long ago sixties. Swoboda was big, strong, and handsome and easily was a favorite among female followers of the club. In his rookie year, Swoboda, had rocked nineteen homers. The Mets publicity department kept cranking out notes stating how Swoboda hit more homers in his first year than players like Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Much was then expected from the young slugger, but alas his talent never came to full fruition. He never again hit more than sixteen home runs in a season, never drove in more than sixty, and his career average was .242.
But in an era when twenty homers was considered quite decent, there was always the chance of “Rocky” hitting one out in a crucial situation. Just as his hitting had up and down moments, Swoboda’s fielding was also quite questionable. Almost any fly hit out to him became an adventure. Yet just as the Mets hit pay dirt in 1969, Swoboda made an incredible diving catch during the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. Full of youth, promise, and game situations that were out of his control, Swobada was a perfect match for the Mets and their huge following.
Grote might have meant for his friend and himself to take in a few innings watching the local kids before going out to dinner. They did not sit in the small bleachers behind home plate but leaned up against the fence a bit down the left field line. My house was just across the street from the Oval, and there wasn’t a night that went by that I did not check out some of the Little League action. I was sitting with a few friends in the bleachers when someone noticed the two gentlemen watching the game. One friend walked over and then ran back breathlessly to tell us that two Mets were at the Oval.
Of course, the action on the Little League diamond became of little consequence, as boys and girls began to make their way over to the players. At first most of us kept a respectful distance, but being young and eager, the distance became narrower and narrower. As all of this was going on a thought clicked in my mind. I would run home, grab a pen and my Mets yearbook, and get Grote and Swoboda’s autographs.
In the three or so minutes that I was gone, the crowd around the two men must have swelled to at least three dozen. Kids were calling out Swoboda’s name and wanting to touch the popular player. Grote should have known that his presence (let alone Swoboda’s) would cause some commotion. But for whatever reason, Grote was not happy about the attention being heaped on his guest. He asked in a non demanding voice if we could move away so they could watch the game. Maybe most of the crowd did not hear this request, because all of us got even closer to them.
After a few more minutes, Grote whispered something to Swoboda, and they began to leave the Oval and head back towards Grote’s apartment which probably was a few blocks away. As they walked we ran. As they moved toward their destination we left the Oval. Ron Swoboda was about as big a star as any of us had ever encountered in Glen Oaks. It would not be that easy to shake us off.
Whether it was the rudeness of young people calling out for Swoboda’s autograph, a bad day for Grote, or a bit of jealousy, Grote abruptly turned around and faced all of us. He looked deeply into the eyes of a mob of kids ranging from ages five and six up through high school age. He looked, he took a few breaths and then in his Texas accent he told us (once again memory does not allow me to give a direct quote) to either go F... Off! or Go To Hell!. To this day, this is the memory I will always have of the superb Mets catcher. In the heart of Queens, it was a rare day to hear or see a Texan. It was an even rarer day to hear one of your heroes use such vitriol against young people. For those in that crowd, we would always root for any Met, but we would always hold a cautionary thought about one of our heroes.
So off Grote went. The strange thing is that Swoboda did not follow him. Indeed, it could not have been more than twenty or so seconds before he began to give out autographs. And here memory is a constant and reliable friend. For it was I, with my Mets yearbook, who somehow got to the front of that line and obtained Mr. Swoboda’s John Hancock.