Kid and the Big Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I typically don’t take this blog out of the realm of silly fun or venomous rants, but a couple of my personal heroes both had some bad news in the past week or so. First my favorite baseball player as a teenager, Hall of Famer Gary Carter, had exploratory surgery and found that his brain tumors were inoperable. Then, just a few days ago Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, Bruce Springsteen’s demigod of a saxophone player, had a massive stroke.

I realize neither of these gentlemen are related to me, and they have families who are more distressed about this news than I could ever be. It still saddens me deeply that two people who afforded me so much joy over the years have been given such a bum deal in life. Baseball players are like comics—they should never be subject to death. They live so passionately as young, able men in our memories, playing a game meant for children as grown men in uniforms and caps. Same goes for rock and roll stars. We remember them as callow and vital and in their prime, forever young like that picture of Jim Morrison with his shirt off, challenging, daring, existing somewhere between our expectations and their own legend. The ravages of age weren’t meant for such people.

So I’d like to relate stories about two of my favorite people I’ve never known, in the glory of their health and the at their greatest prowess.

When I was sixteen I was lucky enough to score tickets to not one, but two playoff games during the Mets 1986 League Championship Series against the Astros. This was back when you had to keep calling Telecharge over and over for hours on the telephone until you finally got through. I was slick and I found the number for the Philadelphia Telecharge in the Mets yearbook, which was put there for out-of-town fans. I got through to that number–TWICE–while the rest of New York was calling the other number. When I got to the first game I realized that I was in the last row underneath the overhanging mezzanine, which meant that I couldn’t see the ball if it went into the air—everyone else looked up, I ducked down to get a fuller look at the field. I guess that’s what they saved for folks from Philly. But I didn’t care, I was in the stadium! I met my friend Tom there and we settled in.

It wasn’t much of a game. Mike Scott shut the Mets down completely and Glenn Davis hit one about a mile and a half over the left field wall to seal the win. For the next game I was supposed to meet Tom again. It was pouring rain out, and when Tom pulled up the game had already been called. He had been taking time off from work to get to these games, so he told me he couldn’t meet me again for the make-up game the next night. So I went out to Shea by myself. So far I had seen a bad loss and a rainout, so I was beginning to feel a little cursed.

It was Nolan Ryan against Dwight Gooden, two of the best pitchers of their era. Gooden gave up an early run, then reeled off a bunch of great innings. Ryan had a no hitter for five innings, then was touched up by a Darryl Strawberry home run right down the right field line, sneaking between the pole and the wall—I saw just the last bit of this because I had dived down three or four steps to get a good look. It ended up staying tied 1-1, Ryan going nine innings and Gooden going ten. In the bottom of the twelfth, Wally Backman got on base somehow against a big goof of a pitcher named Charlie Kerfeld. He had big thick glasses and looked like they gave him his first pair of shoes when he walked into the clubhouse. The goober tried to pick off Backman and threw the ball away, sending Wally to second. The crowd was yelling derisively, “CHAR–LIE KER–FELD” Up to the box walked my guy Gary Carter, wearing number eight. I wore number eight that year in softball, and ever year after that until I was thirty. Today my oldest son wears eight as well. For Christmas the year before my parents got my an authentic Gary Carter bat, with an eight drawn in marker on the knob and the imprint of baseballs he had crushed on the barrel.

He wasn’t universally liked by Met fans. He never met a commercial or a microphone he didn’t like, after spending most of his career in that advertizing Sahara known as Montreal. I didn’t care. The Mets got better as soon as he walked in the door, and his clutch hitting and strong defense was a lot of the reason why. He was nicknamed “Kid” because of his child-like enthusiasm and love of the game. But enthusiasm or not, in this series against Houston he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. He had one hit in five games so far and he wasn’t looking as good as even that. But as he came up to the plate, the familiar refrain of “Ga—ree” echoed through the stadium. Funny how they could say his name the same way they did Kerfeld’s and you could tell which one was the enemy. Kerfeld pitched and Carter hit a bullet through the middle, past the pitcher and into center field. Backman hustled around third and all of Shea was ready to explode. When he finally slid into home, after what seemed like minutes, the place made so much noise you couldn’t hear yourself screaming. Carter went into the dugout to receive the accolades of his teammates, but the crowd wouldn’t shut up. Moments later Carter came out, without his helmet so his crazy, curly clown hair was all over the place, and gave the crowd a two-handed fist pump. That picture was everywhere the next few weeks as the Mets won that series and then the World Series. Still the best game I’ve ever been at.

It was August of 1985 when I bought a scalped ticket for $100 to see Springsteen and the E Street Band at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I was already well indoctrinated into the Springsteen cult, having gotten my hands on a bunch of bootlegged concerts of the band from 75′, 78′, 81′ and even a few from the current tour in ’84. But I hadn’t paid my dues completely by actually seeing a show with my own eyes. So there I was about a football field away from the stage as people threw frisbees and bounced beach balls around the stands. There was the sense of an impending EVENT, somewhere between the best party you’ve ever attended and an atom bomb. I remember thinking to myself that they’re all going to be out there in a few minutes, right here on that stage, just to play for me. There was no way they could EVER live up to my lofty expectations.

Until they started playing. The place went ape. “Born in the USA” rang out, and if you lived through that summer in New York or New Jersey you’d know that song was everywhere you turned, the radio, MTV, everywhere. But the next song, “Badlands” was the one for the fans. The best song from what true tramps considered Springsteen’s best album, “Darkness On the Edge of Town”. There’s a sax solo in that song, but you wouldn’t have known it when Clarence began to blow because there was a swell of audience rapture at the presence of the Big Man that even the twenty-thousand speakers hung on poles throughout Giants stadium couldn’t drown it out. After a few moments you could finally hear his glorious, joyful noise as he ripped through the rest of the solo like he was thinking it up on the spot. It was a night-long love affair. Don’t get my wrong, everyone was there to see Springsteen, but it’s clear who was the soul of that band. By the time the first set ended with Clemons and Springsteen pounding out the musical coda of “Thunder Road” on separate ends of the stage, anyone who wasn’t a convert coming in was overwhelmed.

In the second set Clarence played foil to Springsteen during a story of how they got lost driving in Jersey during “Growin’ Up”. It ends with the two of them being granted their greatest wishes, a guitar and a sax spotlighted at center stage. Springsteen tries to strum the sax while Clarence holds the guitar up to his lips before they realize they’ve got the wrong instruments. They switch and the song explodes in triumphant noise, each man doing what they were put on earth to do. I’ve seen many, many E Street Band concerts since then, but I will always remember the two of them meeting at center stage to find their greatest wish together, bathed in white light and the adoration of the crowd. If there were two people who could inspire more joy together, I haven’t met them yet.

Get well soon “Kid” and “Big Man”.

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    • Matt Meinsen
    • June 16th, 2011

    This one may be my favorite. I had Sunday season tickets from 85-90. Got to pick 1 playoff game and 2 World Series games back in 86. For the Series, we picked games 2 and 6. I still have my stub from Game 6. Greatest game I have or ever will see in person. Everyone remembers that ball going through Buckner’s legs to win the game. I remember the Mets being down to their final strike and a single to centerfield. Great players that they were…Roger Clemens had gone into the clubhouse and shaved his daily scruff off for his post game victory interviews. Wally Backman made the first out and went back to sulk. Keith Hernandez got retired and went back to the clubhouse to have a beer. Gary Carter lined one up the middle as if to say, “This isn’t over yet”. The difference between a borderline hall of famer, and a first ballot guy. He would have played for free.

  1. Carter actually lined it to left, but I had the benefit of seeing it on TV. I remember when Knight scored I jumped up and hit the ceiling. I’ve never been known for my verticle, but I think I may have been able to dunk at that particulal moment.

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