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An Ode to Playgrounds and Egg Creams

I have been asked if I take "blog-requests" and indeed I do. My first request comes from the folks at "Faith and Fear in Flushing" who wanted to read my take on the walk-off of September 12, 1985. Since one of those bloggers works in the beverage industry, I think he'll appreciate my special twist on this story.

First, some context. In 1985 I was 10, so the memories are a little fuzzy, but baseball moments tend to stick in my head, like watching Cesar Cedeno's two-strike home run fly over the left field fence, and John Tudor's whiff of Darryl Strawberry to end a 1-0 10-inning classic Cardinals win the night before the game we're referencing. I believe our seats that night were along the left field line and Cedeno's homer whizzed right past us. That allowed the Cardinals to tie the Mets for first place in the NL East. The night was historically notable because during one half-inning break, the DiamondVision showed us that Pete Rose had broken Ty Cobb's hit record with the 4,192nd of his career (never mind that it's now believed that Ty Cobb actually had fewer than 4,191 hits). I always tell people that I was at "the game" when Rose passed Cobb. When prodded, I tell them which game and am usually met by a "that's a bad joke" face.

So on to September 12, which was a Thursday afternoon game , the finale of this three-game series and it must have been a school day, because I have no recollection whatsoever of watching this contest, one of the most exciting games in a thrill-filled season.

I'm wondering whether my recollection of that day is an amalgam (see the opening scene of "Parenthood," in which a boy tells an usher that he's not a real person, but a composite of all the ushers his dad left him with) of many of my after-school experiences from that era, which consisted of a trip to Carl Schurz Park and a stop at the Egg Cream store. We'll presume that my mind is not playing tricks on me and that this actually did happen.

One of my biggest "baseball regrets" is that I never hit a home run over the fence on the upper-level of Carl Schurz Park, located at 84th street and East End Avenue. That park was a regular visit during my childhood days and the 4-on-4 baseball games (wiffle or tennis ball, plastic bat) took place right by the entranceway. The bases were probably only 40 feet apart, and home plate was only about 150 feet or so from a pointy fence, over by the 'swings with no backing' (a girl once fell off one while I was there...rumor was that she died, but I could never confirm that). There are two levels at Carl Schurz and the shorter one is usually filled by basketball and hockey games- the fence separated us from the walkway that connected the upper and lower levels.

There were two kids who starred in our games. One was a Hungarian-American named John who had the advantage of being 2 years older than most of us, and the other was previously-mentioned 'playground legend' Tim Murphy. They hit lots of home runs. I was a singles (and outs) hitter for the most part. Hitting home runs was cool. It meant you had to stop the game and track the ball down. It gave you a little bit of status. I came close to hitting one on a number of occasions. My longest drive hit the very top of the fence (remember, it was pointy) and bounced back into play, for a long single. On the lower level of Carl Schurz, one of the fences was really close, and I hit a homer or two down there, but looking back, it would have meant a lot more to trot around the bases in the real 'ballpark.'

Those games were a lot more enjoyable than Little League for me. The playing field was more even and the contests were a lot more fun as a result. If I had to guess, I believe I was a regular in those games for two to three years (feels like that long, anyway), with my interest dwindling after a local bully named Dale shot me in the hip with some sort of pellet gun that looked to be made of one of our plastic bats (I was not seriously wounded, though my dad walked right up to these wannabe thugs, grabbed the gun and smashed it in half)

When it was time to go home, if my mom or dad had taken me, we usually walked up to 84th and 2nd. There used to be three good places to get an egg cream on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One was my dad's candy shop ("The Sweet Suite") on 91st and Madison (frequented by the likes of grammar-school aged Gwyneth Paltrow, it closed in 1981). One was a store on 79th beween 2nd and 3rd (this is a very fuzzy memory...for some reason I think this mom-and-pop place was owned by a guy who looked like the host of Candid Camera). The third place lasted the longest, and shoot, I don't remember it's name.

The egg cream store was owned by two brothers and a sister, who must have been in their 50s. There was a skinny brother and a fat brother (I don't really remember the sister) and both were always chomping on cigars (the fat one died of cancer, I believe). They were an 80s version of Sid, the candy-shop owner from the short-lived tv show "Brooklyn Bridge." Both guys made good chocolate egg creams.

It is very difficult to combine syrup, milk and seltzer in just the right combinations (and you must stir an egg cream by hand, not by machine). My dad still has a pretty good touch a couple of decades later (we used to order specially-bottled seltzer), but you can't go into a Ben and Jerry's or Haagen Dazs in your local mall and get a good egg cream. The best egg cream makers have been toiling at their craft for years. The egg cream is a dinosaur, on it's last legs. It's too retro. I have no clue where I could find someone in Connecticut who makes one, but I can find a dozen places to get a pretty good smoothie. The store I'm referencing was sold to a man who I believe said he was from India, in the late 80s. After about two weeks he realized he couldn't duplicate the quality of egg cream and turned the place into a rather impersonal newstand.

Anyway, if you haven't bailed on this tale yet, here's the walk-off connection. I'm pretty sure on this day we got to the egg cream shop a little after 5 pm, about 10 minutes or so after the Mets-Cardinals game ended. I believe the fat owner (not the skinny one) filled my mom and I in on what happened.

The Mets scored four times in the first inning and twice in the second off Joaquin Andujar, to snatch a 6-0 lead. While the Cardinals bullpen quieted the Mets down, St. Louis rallied. Whitey Herzog's team tallied three times in the third and twice in the fifth against Mets starter Ed Lynch. The score held, with the Mets dodging Cardinals threats in the seventh and eighth, into the ninth inning. With one out, Jesse Orosco gave up the lead, surrendering a game-tying home run to eventual MVP Willie McGee. Remember that first place was on the line, so that was a pretty big moment. With two outs, reliever Ken Dayley tried to find a way to win his own game, reaching on a single, but Orosco struck out Terry Pendleton (who would get a big hit at Shea two years minus a day hence) to end the inning.

The one good thing for the Mets was that even though they hadn't scored since the second inning, the top of the order was up. Mookie Wilson led off with an infield hit when Ozzie Smith couldn't throw him out from shortstop (first baseman Brian Harper juggled the throw). Wally Backman bunted Wilson to second, bringing Keith Hernandez up and the speculation from Cardinals radio announcer Jack Buck was that Dayley would walk one of the NL's leader in game-winning RBI and bring in Jeff Lahti to pitch to Gary Carter. Instead Dayley went after Hernandez, who rapped a base hit to left field (going the opposite way, Buck lamented, as he did so often against lefties). Mets fans have probably heard Tim McCarver yelp "(Vince) Coleman can't come up with it!" The ball rolled under the glove of the future Met and Wilson scampered home with the winning run, concluding baseball at Shea for the day.

It was a good day to be a Mets fan because the team was now in first place. It was also a perfectly good day for an egg cream.

True Metcreams know...The Cardinals played several players in that September 12 game who have a Mets connection. Left fielder Coleman and second baseman Tommy Herr were future Mets. First baseman Mike Jorgensen was a former Met. They combined for four walk-off hits (Jorgensen had three and Coleman had one) with the Mets. Additionally catcher Tom Nieto (who had 2 RBI that day) can often be found in the Mets bullpen as the team's catching coach, and Harper's son Brett is currently playing first base for the Binghamton Mets.

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