Standing in the outfield at Citi Field on Saturday were four very oversized, triangle-based replicas of Topps baseball cards featuring the four newest members of the Mets Hall of Fame – Al Leiter, Howard Johnson, Gary Cohen and Howie Rose.
The ceremony honoring this quartet, plus special recognition for longtime PR Executive Jay Horwitz, bestowed with the Mets Hall of Fame. Achievement Award, began with guests seated behind second base and emceed by former Met Todd Zeile, but none of the new inductees were present, or so most fans thought.
Previous events of this nature usually welcomed the honorees emerging from the centerfield walls, or from a path leading from the first base stands, or even the dugout. Instead, as the honorees were introduced, they exited a door in those baseball card displays and made their way to the podium.
The four baseball card entrants now ties the largest class of members joining the Mets Hall of Fame in any one year, equaling the Class of 2010, when Frank Cashen, Davey Johnson, Doc Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry became immortalized in Mets bronze. The four for the wall now brings the total of Mets Hall of Famers – many of which who were on hand for the ceremony – to 34.Each member was presented with a light blue blazer emblazoned with the Mets Hall of Fame patch on its front pocket, a badge split with images representing Shea Stadium and Citi Field. Even previous recipients of Mets Hall of Fame status were wearing their blazers. On hand were Mets stalwarts such as Ed Kranepool, John
Franco, Mookie Wilson, Edgardo Alfonzo, and future Mets Hall of Famer (next year, maybe?) David Wright. Also on hand were members of the extended Mets family, including: former managers Bobby Valentine and Terry Collins, former GM Steve Phillips, and former players ArtShamsky, Tim Teufel, Glendon Rusch, Dennis Cook, and Turk Wendell. Plus team skipper Buck Showalter and a beaming Mets owner, Steve Cohen, and his wife, Alex, delighted they were again able to honor Mets history in a magnanimous event.
Also in the ballpark were Endy Chavez and longtime Mets broadcaster Ed Coleman.Of course, each of the inductees were grateful for the honor, and their brief speeches paid proper homage to their families, teammates and the organization. And to the fans, special recognition.“To the Mets fans,” said Leiter, “I cared very much about my job as a pitcher and my responsibility to the organization. I knew I was holding a place, holding a baton for a short while for the next generation of Mets. I truly gave everything on every pitch. Thank you for keeping me on my toes, and every once in a while, you pushed me. You helped make my time with the Mets a lot more memorable. Always keep the faith for the Amazin’s, and let’s go Mets.”
Leiter was eager to point out how deep his Mets fandom went, and told the story of the day he became a Met. “It was Feb. 5, 1998, when I got a call from Dave Dombrowski, then General Manager of the Florida Marlins. We won the World Series in ‘97, and Dave was instructed to go in a different direction, and had to trade many players. Dave called me, and said, ‘Al, I’m not going to promise anything, but I have two comparable prospect deals in front of me, from the St. Louise Cardinals, and the New York Mets. Do you have a preference?’
“I said, Dave, are you kidding me? As a Mets fan growing up in New Jersey (Toms River), my Dad was born in Manhattan, raised on Long Island. He loved Casey Stengel and the whole lovable losers monicker. My Mom and Dad had seven kids, six boys and a girl. The wholeLeiter family were Mets fans. That would be a dream come true if it happened.
“The next day I get traded to the Mets. Shea Stadium was my Mets home, so many memories. I remember the first time I pitched there in ’96, with the Marlins. I went out to the visitor’s dugout, it was pitch black, and I looked out and just imagined all my boyhood heroes whohad played there. It was easy to reminisce…In fact, we named our dog, Shea.” Prior to the event, a press conference with the inductees allowed for more extensive reminiscing. Showalter, who managed Leiter in the minors, remembered the lefthander as “a young Colt. Al was a guy just coming into his own, just trying to feel his way around, a lot of nervous energy. Had a big arm, a guy who was always willing to ask why. We would explain it, he didn’t always buy it, but he was willing to learn, wanted to get to the big leagues. (It) didn’t surprise anybody to see the success he’s had.(He’s) articulate, smart, funny, doesn’t take himself too seriously. Loved having him in spring training. He wanted to go to every game, and be in on every pitch, talk to every player.”
Buck remembered a young Howard Johnson as well. “I played against Hojo. I think he was in Birmingham, Southern League. Hojo was a good-looking player, he could fly. At one time, he could really, really run.” Among many other achievements, Hojo was being honored for the rare trifecta of three 30-30 seasons, years with at least 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. Hojo Had 36 homers with 32 steals in 1987, 36 and 41 in ’89, and in ’91, when he led the NL in home runs with 38 (alsoled with 117 RBIs), along with 30 bags nabbed.When asked about those years, Johnson – who proudly had his father, Bill, next to him for the ceremony to present him with his replica plaque – said he can almost feel removed from its impact.
“The only thing you can go off of is how many times it happened since. It hasn’t happened a lot. 30-30 is more of a marathon than a sprint. We remember the sprint. We don’t remember the marathon. So, looking back, it feels like I’m two different people. You know I actually did that and have to remind myself at times. I still remember it.”
Hojo declared pre-event how much he preferred the National League style of play after coming over in a trade with Detroit that sent WaltTerrell to the Tigers in 1984. And he was delighted to return next door to his favorite ballpark.
“I remember my first time walking out in Shea Stadium,” Hojo recalled. “(I got) goosebumps, such a big ballpark. To have 55,000 people out there cheering was pretty crazy. To be able to react with the fans, that’s what sets New York apart.
“The teams I was on, fortunately, were really, really good, and the first few years were outstanding. We won a championship. The guys along the way, I wouldn’t trade for anybody. It’s an honor to be here with these guys and going in with them.”
It’s not often a fan knows their team’s PR Director, but every Mets fan knows Jay Horwitz. In fact, everybody in baseball knows Jay Horwitz, and there’s a whole lot of celebrities, politicians, and other sports notables who also know Jay Horwitz, who, as Gary Cohen affectionatelystated, “has been the backbone of this organization for many, many years.”
Jay – it’s pointless to just say, Horwitz, everybody knows him simply as, Jay – was one of the very first hires by Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, when they bought the team in 1980. And he’s been there ever since, effectively juggling the 24/7 duties of keeping players,management and the media smiling. Jay admitted it is often a delicate act of keeping three balls in the air at the same time.
“The hardest thing a PR guy has to do is balance between the players, the media, and the owners. The players think you’re partial to themedia. The media thinks you’re partial to the players. And ownership thinks you’re partial to the players and the media. So, to walk that
balance and keep the trust in a big city with a lot of papers, I’ve always tried to be honorable and tell the truth.” Fred Wilpon, now 86, made it a point to attend the event and presser to congratulate Jay and the rest of the honorees.“Thank you, Fred, for honoring me,” Jay pointed out, “who took a chance on a young kid out of Fairleigh Dickinson, and thanks to myassistants over the years, Ethan (Wilson), Shannon Forde, and Dennis D’Agostino.”
Usually, Jay – who really should also have received a bronze plaque, and not just a crystal desk memento with the Hall of Fame Achievement Award – is coordinating such events, but in recent years, his duties were altered to focus on Mets Alumni and bringing them back to the organization in various fan-friendly connections. Jay admitted it felt “weird” being honored and not just keeping tabs on the timing of the event. “I don’t like being on this side of the table.
We’ve done a lot of great things the last couple of years (including) the Oldtimers Game. (I) switched jobs in 2019. The idea was not just to bring back the superstar guys, but to bring back the 25 guy on the team, too. Hobie Landrith was the first guy we picked in 1962, andwhen I spoke to him, it really makes me proud to work with all these guys, but it’s awkward to be on this side.”
Jay didn’t even offer an acceptance speech on the field, choosing to just sit and enjoy the ceremony.When Gary Cohen stepped up to the podium, he just first said, “Hi,” then took a few moments as he looked around the ballpark to appreciate the scene.
“I fell in love with the Mets from my first experience at Shea Stadium,” Cohen stated. “The grandeur of the ballpark, the sound of Jane Jarvis’ organ. It felt like the friendliest place on Earth. From the Upper Deck, I felt like a King sitting on an enormous throne.”
The Queens native remembered the day his love of broadcasting was born.“For my ninth birthday, I received a gift of an AM radio. On that radio, I discovered my broadcasting heroes – Marv Albert (who did the voiceover on a video tribute honoring Cohen and Rose during the event), Merle Harmon, Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and especially Bob
Murphy, who for so many summers was the sound of Mets baseball. I had the privilege of sharing 15 of those summers with Murph, and I am so thrilled that this season, his microphone was raised to the rafters.” Cohen’s “brother from another mother,” as they like to describe their kinship, also voiced deep admiration for their late broadcast partner,where he also gained years of experience alongside the long-time Mets broadcaster.
“Murph wasn’t exactly Soupy Sales,” joked Rose in the presser. “He wasn’t a guy who was going to make a whole lot of jokes. He was a very stern partner. Gary worked with him way more than I did.
“But one think about Murph. He was a tough grader. If he were a professor, you’d have a hard time getting an A from Murph. When I started doing radio more frequently, I had already been doing television, which is a completely different animal. Radio was so much moreintricate, so much more involved. You gotta be much more descriptive.
“And at that stage, I was not very happy with how I sounded on the radio. But I was doing a game with Murph, and it might have been that last game of the season in ’03 (Murphy’s last season broadcasting), I had completed an inning, and when we threw to commercial, Ijust said to Bob, ‘You know, I don’t know if I’m really ever going to get this. I don’t feel like I’m right yet, doing radio.’
“And for Murph, this was so out of character, he just took his hand and patted me on the thigh, and said, “No, your radio is just fine, your radio work is fine.’ And just the shock of hearing that was the kind of affirmation that you could only compare to receiving from a parent.Yeah, there was a generation gap in approaching how to call a game. It’s going to be inevitable with somebody who was significantly younger, and trained a little bit differently, but that pat on the thigh meant the world to me.”
Leiter spoke in the presser about the relationship of broadcasters to fans.“I’m not a broadcaster. I do television”
This got a big laugh amongst the media, but you can hear – and see – Al Leiter frequently on the MLB network with a really deep understanding of the game and especially a unique analysis of pitchers.
“I never got the whole impartial thing,” Leiter noted. “I’ve said this to these guys numerous times, I think when you’re doing a team’s broadcast, and you’re on television, I’ll throw a number out there, 95% of the people watching are fans of that club, so I never got that you’re not supposed to show favoritism. I disagree, as a player, I want my guys to say favorable things, but also to be honest, and that was my whole thing as a player.
“When I stunk, I was okay with their analysis of not doing well. Don’t get into areas of what you think he’s thinking, or it looks like it might be this, the execution or lack of execution.”
Perhaps speaking on behalf of many major league ballplayers, Leiter likes to root, root, root, for the home team.
“So, when I listen to a broadcast,” Leiter elaborated, “I think it’s important that your broadcasters have some sense of rooting for the good guys. I don’t know where homerism comes into it. Howie and Gary balance that because they’re fans of the team, and why not. Be proudof that. To be, at times, sharp, as a fan, except when we see things we don’t like, but you still love your team.
“I graduated high school in 1984, the year the Mets put in their Hall of Fame broadcasters – Lindsey, Bob, Ralph, my senior year. I get that I grew up on those guys. And generations now have grown up with Howie and Gary.”
Meanwhile, both Cohen and Rose, fully acknowledged as Mets fans practically since birth, are always extremely fair and impartial in their broadcasts, as opposed to some teams where the broadcasters openly root for the home team. Have you ever heard a Cubs or Cardinals broadcast?
While Cohen has made a simple but affirmative “It’s Outta here” declaration his signature home run call, and Rose has made “Put it in the books” his signature game-ender when the Mets win, both carefully keep homerism at bay.
The two Queens kids with microphones as their tools also are often recognized for their work by their broadcast brethren, and will, no doubt, someday also join Lindsey, Bob, and Ralph as members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with the annual Ford
C. Frick Award for baseball broadcasting excellence. Lindsey Nelson was honored in 1988, Murphy in ’94. Kiner went in as a player in 1975. Rose talked in the presser about the relationship broadcasters have with the players.
“This is very important to me, because a lot of guys hear stuff that they heard on the air, or they thought they heard it, or from their wives,or their kids, or whatever, but I can count on less than two hands, the number of players in my career who have actually voluntarily havecome up to me and said, ‘Hey, thanks for what you said on the air.’
“And both Al and Howard have, at one time or another, in their careers did that. You have no idea how grateful that makes us. Cause you generally hear about what a player hears when they’re upset about something you said. That means the world to us, so thank you, Al andHoward.”
Mr. Howard Rose of Bayside, Queens, and of PS 205 and Benjamin Cardozo High School, put the icing on the cake with his acceptance speech. “I may be the one down here being honored right now, but each and everyone of you are right here with me. Cause I think you know weare kindred spirits. Like many of you, I grew up next door at a place called Shea Stadium, where I spent some of the happiest moments of my youth, none more so than in the summer of 1969.
“That team changed my life, convincing me, and countless others, that anything was possible as long as you work hard and believe in yourself.
“They still look ten feet tall to me, so Eddie, and Art (who presented Rose with his replica HOF plaque), I am so honored to have you with me on this special day.
“I’ve had the opportunity to call so many special moments in Mets history, including Johann’s no-hitter, Mike Piazza’s home run…but I am holding out for one more call. The one we have been waiting to make for so long. But I am confident that those guys over there in the firstbase dugout, from Buck Showalter on down, they are capable of getting that done, and taking that long ride down the canyon of heroes. It’s time!”
Rose closed the event with this heartfelt tribute. “There have been a lot of wonderful people who have come through this organization since 1962, but I can tell you this. There has neverbeen anyone, not a player, or a manager, or a coach, or an executive, that they were any prouder to be a New York Met than I am. “And you can put that in the books.”
METS HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES:
- Mrs. Joan W. Payson (1981), Casey Stengel (1981), Gil Hodges (1982), George M. Weiss (1982), Johnny
- Murphy (1983), William A. Shea (1983), Ralph Kiner (1984), Bob Murphy (1984), Lindsey Nelson (1984), Buddy Harrelson (1986), Rusty Staub
- (1986), Tom Seaver (1988), Jerry Koosman (1989), Eddie Kranepool (1990), Cleon Jones (1991), Jerry Grote (1992), Tug McGraw (1993), Mookie
- Wilson (1996), Keith Hernandez (1997), Gary Carter (2001), Tommie Agee (2002), Frank Cashen (2010), Doc Gooden (2010), Davey Johnson
- (2010), Darryl Strawberry (2010), John Franco (2012), Mike Piazza (2013), Jon Matlack (2020), Ron Darling (2020), Edgardo Alfonzo (2020),
- Howard Johnson (2023), Al Leiter (2023), Gary Cohen (2023), and Howie Rose (2023).
Article courtesy of Andrew Esposito and NY Sports Day
Photo courtesy of Andrew Esposito