Eccentric characters welcome at Shea
From Casey to Castro, Mets enjoy lighter side of the game
NEW YORK -- Months before their clubhouse card playing became a postseason felony offense in 1999, Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla were holding hands -- Bonilla had the better one -- in the Mets' clubhouse. Bonilla had lost several hands in a row, but he was confident this time, until he thought he had caught his teammate cheating.
The ensuing argument, loud, animated and completely facetious, was more entertaining than those that had happened regularly for most of the season. Teammates gathered around to hear every word as accusations flew across a table in the middle of the clubhouse. Bonilla indicted his partner in Spanglish, and Henderson responded in a personal, rapidly spoken language not intended to communicate thought.
After a few unintelligible exchanges, Robin Ventura vanished, only to return moments later with a thick book, its cover already altered to fit the occasion. "Jive Dictionary" was the title Ventura had given it. He slammed the book on the table between the combatants and asked, "Is this something the whole group can share?"
And the clubhouse rollicked.
Ventura had the same effect on June 11, 2000, when, during a rain delay of a scheduled Interleague game at Yankee Stadium, he stuffed padding into his uniform shirt and painted sideburns on his face. He then presented a wonderful on-field impersonation of Mike Piazza, to the delight of fans of both teams.
Ventura had the touch. He knew what was funny, what was acceptable when the time was right for his needle. In his own sly, clever and subdued ways, he was a character, an entertainer and a prankster, the kind of clubhouse citizen every team needs.
He was a member of merely three Mets teams, from 1999-2001, and though John Franco was a primary character on those clubs, Ventura had a prominent place, too. Franco's humor often was more verbal -- a line here, a playful insult there. His act came from Brooklyn street corners. Ventura brought his more subtle ways from Southern California.
Franco once dragged the L-shaped batting-practice screen from its place in front of the mound into the Spring Training clubhouse and placed it front of the locker of fellow pitcher Wally Whitehurst, who was regularly struck by batted balls. And each spring, Franco and the clubhouse kids would foist the "four-man lift" on some unsuspecting clubhouse guest.
And Franco always was the instigator in the annual Chicago rookie-rites ritual. He would explain to the team's plebes that, to be accepted, they must paint the part of a horse statue on Belmont Avenue that distinguished the horse as a stallion. Then he would arrange for Chicago cops to "arrest" the perpetrators in the clubhouse the following day.
Ventura's humor often was more pointed. In May 2000, Henderson embarrassed himself by watching his fly ball to left-center field instead of running. The ball didn't clear the wall as he had expected, so his "home run" became a single. The following day, Ventura and Todd Zeile purchased a large star and painted Henderson's No. 24 on it. They were prepared to slap it on the wall in left-center field to show where the longest single in Shea Stadium history had traveled.
But before Ventura and Zeile could act, the club made its own point, releasing Henderson.
Most of the characters who have passed through Shea Stadium weren't so political. There was nothing remotely political about Casey Stengel, perhaps the game's all-time character. Stengel graced the manager's office at Shea from the ballpark's first day in 1964 through July 24, 1965. Most of his best material came before Shea's doors opened, and, in particular, in 1962, the Mets' first season. He was the one-man promotions department that year, when his team produced the worst record in the game's history.
But Stengel saved one of his best for the aftermath of the Mets' loss to the Giants in the second game of a doubleheader at Shea on May 31, 1964. Having lost the first game in nine innings, the Mets used 23 innings to lose the second, prompting this priceless assessment from their manager: "It wasn't good, but at least it was long."
His comments, delivered in Stengelese, often were insightful. He had evaluated Ed Kranepool and Greg Goossen early in 1965 when he offered this: "See that fellow [Kranepool] over there? He's 20 years old. In 10 years, he has a chance to be a star. Now, that fellow over there, he's 20, too. In 10 years, he has a chance to be 30."
Stengel was succeeded by Wes Westrum, who was less a character but often just as funny, identifying tight games as "Cliff dwellers" and uttering this unforgettable malaprop: "When they made him, they threw away the molding."
But neither Stengel nor Westrum had the impact of one of their successors. Yogi Berra's "It ain't over 'till it's over," spoken in the late stages of the 1973 pennant race, has spread far beyond baseball, and Berra himself has become more iconic than either predecessor.
As was the case with Stengel, many of Berra's signature remarks predated his move to the Mets. But he saved a few for his stint in Queens. He once chastised a reporter, saying, "You ask the stupidest answers," to which the reporter responded, "And you tell the stupidest questions."
And after the Mets were shut out in three successive games in 1975, Berra wanted to alert everyone that the next day's batting practice had been canceled. He said, "We won't hit tomorrow."
Berra's Mets tenure overlapped with that of Tug McGraw, the all-time character among Mets players.
Players run the risk of becoming buffoons or irritants if their personalities outshine their performances. McGraw ran no such risk, particularly in 1973, when he changed a phrase from a late-summer clubhouse address by board chairman M. Donald Grant into the Mets' battle cry. "Ya gotta believe," as well as McGraw's energy and nearly flawless relief pitching, carried the Mets from last place on Aug. 31 to the seventh game of the World Series.
McGraw, Irish and impish, was decidedly left-handed -- as a pitcher and a personality -- but because he was ambidextrous, he occasionally warmed up right-handed. Mostly because he could.
After McGraw was traded, Willie Montanez served as the clubhouse humorist. The first baseman's on-field antics classified him as a hot dog. Vince Lashied, the wonderful organist at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, played the Armour Hot Dog jingle before Montanez's at-bats. But Montanez had the gift. He could make others smile. A native of Puerto Rico, he learned English and could play with the language.
He also was a one-man show at Shea in 1979. During an early delay in the Mayor's Trophy Game, with Luis Tiant in the Yankees dugout, Montanez took the mound and perfectly -- and hilariously -- mimicked Tiant's stylized delivery.
Characters often are the offspring of the bullpen, and the Mets have had their share of entertaining relievers. Jeff Innis, a resident of Shea's bullpen from 1988 to 1993, provided on-the-mark impersonations of then-general manager Frank Cashen and had a Steven Wright point of view.
He came across an unflattering photograph of himself in a Port St. Lucie newspaper one spring and immediately charged, "This picture was taken out of context."
And during Spring Training 1991, he provided a daily dose of Innis-isms, entitled "Innis in the Morning" for Newsday. The best: "My teammates get on me because I have a degree in psychology. They say, 'I-man, with you it's, Wham. Bam. Tell me about your childhood.' "
Innis' stint with the Mets overlapped that of Roger McDowell, the game's foremost dugout arsonist. McDowell was well known for his hot-foot endeavors, wearing masks and the "Upside-Down Man." No one ever has determined why the Mets' division clinching in 1986 prompted him to do a headstand in a concoction of ice water, green food coloring and baby powder, but everyone laughed.
McDowell had a hand in creating the "bars" that turned the lockers of four teammates into jail cells in the visiting clubhouse at the Astrodome after the four had been arrested in the infamous "Cooter's" episode in 1986.
But even McDowell didn't have the playful Machiavellian genius that Pete Harnisch demonstrated during a road trip in 1996. Armed with a list of players' hotel rooms, Harnisch went to every door and removed the sports sections from the complimentary copies of USA Today.
His routine everyday existence qualified Lenny Dykstra as a character. He was so different and influential. Dykstra introduced the word "nails" as a synonym for "good" -- "That was nails, dude," he would say -- and the clubhouse adopted it immediately. "Nails" became his nickname. And his lisped "thweet, man" became a popular phrase, too.
The tenure of Jose Lima was too brief -- and his pitching too ineffective -- for him to have legit "character" impact. But Ramon Castro is now in his fourth season of making the Mets laugh, whether it is by one of his purposeful falls in an airport or a restaurant, or by offending his colleagues' olfactory senses.
But sadly, Castro is a member of an endangered species. The game gradually has become more serious and its players more inhibited in the last 20 years. A Ventura, Franco or Dykstra is quite the exception now.
"And you've got to have guys like Tug and Franco," Buddy Harrelson said while managing the Mets teams of 1990 and 1991. "You put a group of 25 guys together, there probably will be one comedian among them, somebody to keep everyone loose. But if there isn't, you're lacking something. You've got to be able to laugh to play 162 games. Gotta be loosey-goosey. You need a guy who keeps everybody loose, just like you need a good utilityman."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.