Time Out: January 8, 2014
By John Bernhardt
Pen went to paper way back in 1843. Even so, the classic holiday novella, “The Christmas Carol” resonates with readers today as one of Charles Dickens’ most important literary contributions. No other character in the beloved novella captures the fascination of readers and viewers like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Many times, my mind shifts to Ebenezer Scrooge when I hear New York Met fans and members of the media characterize Met General Manager Sandy Alderson. For me, it’s almost like many who root for or write about the Mets, have stolen a page from Dickens when they reference the Met GM.
Think about it. Like Scrooge, Sandy Alderson is often vilified as a cold, reclusive figure, a definitive “low temperature guy,” stoic and self-contained. Dickens painted a portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge as a Victorian like miser, a character who symbolized the rich, the elite, protecting only their interests at the expense of the suffering poor.
Fast forward to modern times and consider how many Met fans depict Sandy Alderson. Ditto. In their worldview, Sandy Alderson was planted in the Met front office by Commissioner Bud Selig to protect the interests of his friend, multi-millionaire Met owner Fred Wilpon. Like Scrooge, Alderson is presented as shrewd and cunning, a tight-fisted, emotionless hoarder, a guy fixated on protecting the interest of his boss while at the same time immune to the suffering of fans who live and die for the Mets.
To read comments on Met blogs and fan sites it would be easy to come away believing Sandy Alderson is a synonym of a covetous, grasping, possessive guy with no soft edges, a man who defers to logic and sabermetrics to avoid the warmth that comes with feelings and emotion.
Not the one I met
The Sandy Alderson popularly typified by many Met fans and the press is not the Sandy Alderson I met at a Binghamton Met game in early September of 2011.
It was the final weekend of Double-A baseball, and I was in a foul and Grinch-like mood myself. Hurricane Irene had just devastated the tiny Catskill Mountain town where I lived, Binghamton Met baseball would soon be ending, and I was in desperate need of a mental reprieve. I hunkered down in a seat in the top row behind home plate and went about my pre-game statistical recordings that come with keeping score at a baseball game.
I’m obsessive about keeping score when watching a ballgame. Batting and pitching statistics are recorded before the game and then every pitch and every play is charted. For the most part, I’m not approachable as I madly jot down notes in the moments before a baseball game begins.
On this particular day, I was aware someone had appeared in the aisle outside my row. I was sitting in the third seat and glanced up to note a gentleman studying his ticket stub, clearly deciding where he was supposed to sit. An odd feeling of recognition flooded my senses, but I struggled to match a name with the face. This stately fellow sent a ‘hello’ my way as he settled into the aisle seat, which I returned with a nod. Deferring to my statistics, I decided to try and figure out if I knew who this Met fan might be when the final pre-game stats had been logged.
Turning back toward the stranger I was certain I should know who he might be. He was clearly a man who cared about his appearance, trim and neat as a pin. He traveled without scorebook, notepad or camera, somewhat unusual for a solitary fan sitting in the part of the park where scouts representing major league franchises often assemble. He was busy on a cell phone, tweeting I assumed.
Age has a way of slowing name recognition, but it wasn’t long before the name Sandy Alderson surfaced. Oddly, that presented a dilemma of sorts. I have always followed a belief that people of celebrity deserve some privacy in public venues. Sandy Alderson was at NYSEG Stadium to watch Met baseball prospects, not to engage in conversation with me. Yet, it’s always my habit to introduce myself to the folks who sit around me at a baseball game. The social aspect of watching baseball is one of the pleasures of the game. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to handle that divergence.
It was a Juan Lagares at bat in the bottom of the first inning that was the icebreaker. The B-Mets were playing the Fighting Phils from Reading, and Lagares was the B-Met right fielder that night. Lagares was on a tear, ripping Doube-A pitching at a .370 clip after his arrival in Binghamton. I would later come to believe it was Lagares and Reese Havens that Sandy had really come to see.
Lagares pieced together an uncanny at-bat that lasted 13 pitches with the outfield prospect flying out to the warning track in left field on the final pitch. I leaned towards Sandy and said, “Now that was a major league at bat.” Knowing what I know now about the Met organizational approach to hitting and the role average number of pitches in an at bat means when evaluating prospects, I would have predicted Sandy’s response to my comment. It was like the floodgates opened and conversation flowed easily between the two of us for the rest of the night.
I made a conscious decision that night not to brooch controversial topics swirling around Met land at the time, the hottest issue whether Sandy would resign Jose Reyes. I wasn’t a reporter looking for a sport’s scoop. My goal was to enjoy Sandy’s company as I enjoyed the company of any new neighbor at a baseball game.
Far from self-contained, Sandy surprised me by peppering me with questions. He had a curious mind and wanted to know everything he could about me. His first line of questions concerned my relationship with the B-Mets. How often did I attend games? Was I a season ticket holder? When Sandy learned I had purchased a game pack, he wanted to know how that worked. What kind of statistics did I take? Did I do anything with them after the game? Where did my interest in baseball and the Mets originate?
When Sandy learned I lived some two hours from Binghamton and the town where I lived had been hit hard by Irene, the line of questioning shifted. Sandy had seen news clips about the devastation and was clearly concerned. There was much he wanted to know. Was anyone lost? Were folks displaced? What was the extent of the damage? His questions addressed the clean-up, possible damages of my home and property, lodging and provisions for people affected by the storm, anything and everything related to the storm and its impact.
Before long word spread that the Met GM was in the house. A steady stream of Met fans stopped by to chat with Sandy or hawk an autograph. Sandy couldn’t have been more accommodating. He treated each Met fan with the same curiosity and graciousness he showed in his conversations with me, asking people their names or asking questions about them, always obliging, always amenable. I was struck with the sharp contrast between the image of Sandy painted by his distracters and the guy seated alongside me at this B-Met game.
I laugh when I read frustrated Met fans accusing Sandy Alderson of not caring about the team he puts on the field. That is not the Sandy I met. Sandy wasn’t shy about asking my opinions about B-Met prospects. He chatted about some of the younger players in the system, and we talked in general about the Mets. The Met GM was constantly on his cell phone getting Met game updates, reporting the score to me with any commentary that had been passed his way. I remember Sandy was especially pleased to report rookie pitcher Josh Stinson had registered an inning of scoreless relief toward the end of the game.
The things about Sandy that most impressed me that night were his wit, his dry sense of humor, and his genuine appreciation for all the unusual things that take place at a minor league baseball park. No two minor league baseball venues are the same. Every minor league park is distinct. Each minor league franchise has its own discrete culture with during the game entertainment events that help define what makes them special.
In Binghamton’s case, three between innings game events come to mind. Binghamton is a city nicknamed the “Carousel Capital of the World.” To celebrate that fact, the B-Mets have a Carousel Horse Mascot ridden by a cowboy who throws hotdogs over the screen to screaming fans. “I remember telling Sandy to prepare himself for something he had never seen at a baseball park before and unless he returned to Binghamton would likely never see again.” He laughed heartily at the mayhem that followed.
With a twinkle in his eye and a smile from ear to ear, Sandy was riveted during a mid-game break when a gate in the fence along the left field stands was opened and hundreds of kids poured out on to the field racing across the outfield to exit through another gate on the right field side. Sandy talked about how important it was to connect baseball with young people and you could tell he approved of the youngster’s lap in the outfield.
The clincher came during the seventh-inning stretch. I whispered to Sandy that he was in for a real Binghamton treat. During almost every B-Met home game since the franchise began in Binghamton 21 years ago, an elderly gent called ‘Jingles’ dances to his own lively signature song during the break between the halves of inning seven. Jingles’ stage is located directly behind where Sandy and I sat. Sandy loved it, clapping to the rhythm and cheering loudly with all the other B-Met fans when ‘Jingles’ completed his jig.
Look me up
In fact, Sandy was so inspired, as he sat back down in his seat, I watched him fish around in a pocket and pull out his ticket stub. Sandy jotted something down on the stub, turned to me and said, “Here. Take this. If you ever get to New York City call this number, and I’ll make sure you have a good time.”
Stunned would be an understatement. By the time the game had ended, Lagares would add a base hit to his 13-pitch at bat. And Reese Havens went 2-5 with a double and RBI. Sandy and I shook hands and headed our separate ways.
Unlike the cold, solitary, uncaring Sandy Alderson portrayed in print, I experienced the polar opposite. The Sandy Alderson who watched a baseball game with me at NYSEG was curious, welcoming, fun loving, and generous, nothing like Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.
Oh, you probably want to know if I ever called the number on the ticket stub. Not during the remainder of the 2011 season. The Mets were limping along at the end of the year, so I reasoned I might make better use of Sandy’s offer early in the 2013 campaign.
As luck would have it, my son who resides in Los Angeles, came east for a cousin’s wedding. I hadn’t seen him in a year and asked if he would like to catch a game at Citi Field. A huge Met fan, who only sees his team on west coast swings, my son had never visited the Mets new ballpark and was eager to make the trip.
I called the number. It hooked me with Sandy’s office. His secretary was great. She made the arrangements for us to see the game. When my two other children learned they hadn’t been included they were not too pleased with Dad. So, tail between my legs, I called back and inquired if there was a chance that there might be four tickets instead of two.
The end result was a magical night for my family and me. The Mets rolled out the red carpet, and we had a blast. It was an evening none will forget.
When we returned home I wanted to do something personal for Sandy in way of thanks. The Catskills and our mountains are famous for maple syrup. I sent Sandy and his secretary containers of homemade syrup with a lengthy hand written thank you letter explaining how much the night meant to my family and me and, of course, expressing my thanks. Like the first President Bush, famous for his hand written thank you notes, Sandy impressed me as a similar kind of guy.
Several days later, when I returned home from my morning errands, I had a message on my answering machine from Sandy’s secretary to call his office. I did. After a pleasant chat, she told me how much she appreciated the maple syrup. She added that I had not left a return address on the package, and Sandy had asked her to call and get my address. I chuckled not expecting a thank you for a thank you, but sent along the information.
Not long after, a handwritten thank you from Sandy on New York Met stationary arrived. It read: “John, Thanks for your letter and the maple syrup! Both will help me through the month of September as we try to get back on a positive note here at Citi. I’m glad you enjoyed the trip here and look forward to seeing you again in Binghamton when I return there.” Regards, Sandy”
I hope good fortune brings me together with Sandy Alderson again some day. Far from the Ebenezer Scrooge like character unhappy Met fans portray him to play, the Sandy Alderson I met is everything Scrooge is not; a self-confident, fun-loving, genial, and generous guy. In the spirit of the Christmas season, I wish Sandy good fortune and good health and the joy that comes with a winning Met baseball season in New York.