The summer when I was 10 years old, my mother shipped me off to a sports camp in Fayetteville, N.C. The first week was tennis instruction, second week was basketball and the third week was baseball. I would stay with a friend who lived in Army housing in nearby Ft. Bragg. He and I would do the day camp, pretty much for the whole month of July 1974.
My memories? During the tennis week, I was taught how to serve with some authority—all about the footwork, y’see. During the hoops week, I learned the ball-handling drills Pete Maravich once employed when he was growing up in the area. (The instructors called it “Rhythm,” and if you could do the whole routine correctly, it sounded like a breakbeat.) And during the baseball week, it was basic stuff—look for a good pitch at the plate, keep your eye on the ball, don’t turn your head when a hot grounder’s blazing in your direction. But through it all, the baseball week provided the most marvelous memory.
Why? The campers got the opportunity to meet and take instruction from a Miracle Met of 1969. Now, he wasn’t a Koosman or Gentry. He was a contributor—6 wins, 7 saves in 83 IP—but not enormous component to the staff. He didn’t even pitch in the post-season vs. the Braves in the NLCS, which the Mets swept, or in the World Series, which saw the Mets shock Baltimore in 5 games.
His name was Cal Koonce, a twice-sold-but-never-traded, journeyman right-hander, who toed the rubber for the Cubs, Mets and Red Sox, mostly out of the bullpen. He was a Fayetteville local, but when he first showed up on that youth-league diamond, you would’ve thought that Tom Terrific himself had paid a visit.
Why? The ring, baby. From the moment he stepped out of his car, you could see it from across the field.
Eventually, all the day-campers crowded around him just to get a good look at that glittering chunk of a World Series ring—and boy, was it a beauty. Before he ever picked up a ball that first day, he held the ring out for us to inspect. It had a great, big diamond in the middle, a Mets logo on one side and Shea Stadium on the other. Awestruck? You betcha—all of us.
He answered all our questions, silly or otherwise, and showed us a couple pitches. When it came time to show off the action on his curve, for some reason, he pointed to me to put on the catching gear. I usually played first base and, if the situation were different, I might’ve protested, but not here, not for a former big leaguer. Before I knew it, I was yanking shin guards out of a duffel bag.
I remember warming him up and feeling as if his follow-through carried him halfway to home plate. It was obviously an easy motion—after all, he was throwing to a 10-year-old—but it was the fastest pitch I’d ever caught. Zzzzzip—thud! And after he signaled that the hook was coming, damn if it didn’t break side-to-side the first time he threw it and down to my ankles the second.
Looking back, it was a bit of a thrill to be “catching a big leaguer,” but at the time, I was just happy that none of this tosses went to the backstop. When we were done as “a battery” and just before he went onto another instruction, he gave me the nod—I’d done alright. I’m sure I was beaming the rest of the day.
In the years immediately afterward, I became mildly fascinated with the Mets and read two terrifically funny books about the franchise. “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game” by Jimmy Breslin detailed the day-to-day foibles of the hopeless ’62 squad, which still holds the record for most losses in a season (120). And “The Year the Mets Lost Last Place” by Paul Zimmerman & Dick Schaap zeroed in on a crucial stretch of the miracle ’69 season. No doubt it was all informed by that afternoon with Cal Koonce.
Of course, that minor fascination didn’t last long. Every time I’d turn on a TV game from Shea Stadium, I’d see wind-swirled garbage flying around the place and pitchers incessantly stepping off the mound to let another jet from LaGuardia do another loud flyover. I have friends who actually wax poetic about Shea, but it always looked like a dump to me—and I found little charm in that place (or that team) beyond those two books and that one summer thrill of catching a Miracle Met.
Still, thanks for the memories to the late Cal Koonce.
Back to Life, Back to Reality: With MLB’s best record, the Braves are kicking much ass. Their 13-3 August (including a 5-1 stretch vs. Washington) has essentially clinched the division. Meanwhile, the Mets are 7-7 vs. Atlanta and showing some signs of life with a decent starting staff. Their lineup remains a mystery—they’re 7th in the league in scoring runs despite ranking 14th in NL OPS. And somehow again, we miss the magnificent Matt Harvey, the one guy who has sold tickets in Flushing and done ratings on SNY.
Tonight, it’s Brandon Beachy (looking sharper each start) vs. Georgia native/Braves killer Zack Wheeler (let’s kick his ass this time). We’ll be at Citi Field as well, scorecard in one hand, beer in the other. Go Bravos.