On a Saturday in late October, Art Shamsky left his apartment to visit a friend. He took a baseball and an old glove and rode the subway to an abandoned Long Island Railroad car. New York was still unsettled, and so was Shamsky. He had never been so vulnerable in his life. But he wasn’t thinking about the pandemic or himself. An idea played through his head: What if he doesn’t recognize me?
Shamsky had just turned 79, but there was a constant buzz around him; he was always going somewhere and doing something. When he was young and came to New York, the busy and hectic life bothered him. Now he’s missed it. If everything was normal and he wasn’t wearing a mask, he probably couldn’t move through the city without being recognized. Shamsky was a member of the New York Mets Amazins in 1969. It’s been more than half a century since they won the World Series, but he was still getting 10 to 20 fan letters a week. And it never aged. Shamsky may have been born in St. Louis. It was made in St. Louis, but it was made in New York. He was forever an Amazin’.
Boston Red Sox v New York Mets, Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Red Sox pitcher Garrett Richards is 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA. Mets starter David Peterson is 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA.
The train passed by Queens and Westbury, places he revered. His last stop was Central Islip, near the home of shortstop Bud Harrelson. If Shamsky was the glue that held the team together all these years, the last seven months have only solidified his position. In August, they lost pitcher Tom Seaver to Lewy body dementia and complications from COWID-19. Seaver was the real star of the team, with a Hollywood look, a hard work ethic and two nicknames: Tom Terrific and the franchise.
When Harrelson heard of his teammate’s death, he screamed no! But after a few hours, he’d forgotten all about it. Harrelson has Alzheimer’s, and if 2020 confirms anything, it’s precious time. Shamsky didn’t want to wait.
Harrelson’s ex-wife, Kim Battaglia, one of his assistants, met Shamsky at the police station. They arrived at the house and met Harrelson inside. Hey, Buddy, he says it’s Sham.
The room filled with awkward conversation, but then Shamsky said something familiar and Harrelson’s blue eyes lit up.
Want to take a look?
Bud Harrelson at the 2019 Mets reunion with Kim Battaglia, left, his sister Glenna Harrelson Mello and daughter Kimberly Harrelson Psarras. Thank you, J’nelle N. Agee.
Aging Center, which I cannot find despite numerous Google searches, was once asked about the secret to a long life. Don’t fall, they said.
I never thought of this quote until Thanksgiving 2019. My mom wasn’t feeling well, and she collapsed when she got out of the shower. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, but she spent three months there, exhausted by multiple medical problems, never sitting still long enough to go to the bathroom. Linda Diana Merrill died on the 2nd. March 2020, a few days before the coronavirus paralyzes the world. She was 73, but surprisingly eccentric and young and had fewer wrinkles on her face than I did.
In last year’s isolation, I was strangely grateful. I didn’t have to worry about looking for a deadly virus when I visited his apartment, nor did I have to say goodbye to him on my iPad. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for her to be here, at a certain age, and in the middle of a global pandemic.
Now, a year later, the coronavirus has killed more than 570,000 people in the United States. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 80% of the deaths were 65 years or older, although this demographic makes up only 16% of the population. Retirement homes and care facilities were particularly hard hit in the early stages of the pandemic. People lived and died alone, while the younger generation fought for haircuts, masks and freedom. Some politicians have even suggested that grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy. The elderly have become expendable. Maybe this has always been a part of America, and COVID-19 just exposed it.
But there is reverence for past players and their history in the sport. Especially baseball. With people stuck in their homes in 2020, baseball plate collecting is booming. Guys like Jerry Kosman, Mets pitcher in ’69, were getting 50 letters a week. This was lucky for Mr. Kosman, who was eager to take his 100-foot walk to the mailbox with his border collie Buddy (not named after Mr. Harrelson).
69 The Mets were heroes who rose above sports, but last year they were just like anyone else who falls into the wrong statistical categories, struggling with their mortality in an era where staying alive and healthy is considered a win. They share this victory together, because when you are part of something special, the bond is never broken. Friendship can hold you back in the darkest year of your life.
It can be said that 1969 was also a difficult year. The country was divided by the Vietnam War and is still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy last year. Racial tensions were running high. Two unimaginable things happened that summer: Man has landed on the moon, and the Mets, eternally desperate, suddenly seem to be winning.
In their seven-year existence, they were never above .500 after the ninth game of the season and never finished higher than ninth in the 10-team National League. The odds of winning the World Series were 100-to-1 in the preseason. The ’69 season didn’t start with high expectations either. The Mets opened with an 11-10 defeat against the Montreal Expos and have lost 14 of their first 23 games. But they have won 11 in a row out of 28. From May to 10. June and took the city on an unforgettable journey.
The games were spectacular, the pitchers were dominant and many underdogs contributed at crucial moments. If life in the lower ranks of Major League Baseball humbled them, winning together would bond them. They trusted each other to the end.
By mid-August, the Mets are third in the National League East, ten games behind. They won 38 of their last 49 games and finished in first place, eight games ahead of the Chicago Cubs. They swept Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. Their World Series opponent was the Baltimore Orioles, a collection of future Hall of Famers who won the AL East by a 19-game margin.
The Mets lost the first game, then won four games and became champions. It was the sports version of Neil Armstrong and the Beatles. Shamsky appeared on the cover of a fashion magazine in an embrace with model/actress Lauren Hutton. America was so enamored with the Mets that a group of players went to Las Vegas and played two shows in one night at Caesars Palace.
They sang The Incredible Dream.
They represented hope.
They’ve caught the world’s attention, says presenter Phil Rosenthal, a New York native and creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. What made the ’69 Mets special was that they were underdogs. If you were a little kid like me, a little weak and arrogant, maybe this team meant even more because you could count on it.
If you were alive, it would mean something to you. He was that big. The little guys won.
The Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles 5-3 in the fifth game of the 1969 World Series. Pitcher Jerry Kosman jumps on catcher Jerry Groth after Cleon Jones catches the ball from Davey Johnson in the final inning. Donn Clendenon (22) hit a home run in the sixth. Paul DeMaria/New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images
When the New York pandemic hit, Shamsky retreated to Florida. He didn’t think he’d be there long.
His city was indestructible. When terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center twin towers in 2001, New Yorkers stuck together. They’ve gotten stronger.
But now it had to be every man for himself. Shamsky tried to stay busy in Florida. He says the key to staying afloat is to be active. Have a goal. He trained six days a week and took long walks in the sun. He learned how to make phone calls in Zoom and started the Sham podcast.
You have to find a way to stay in touch, he says. Otherwise you disappear.
Shamsky never let the 1969 friendship fade. This is the man who was the temporary best man at his teammate Tommy Agee’s wedding when Cleon Jones was late. And when Agee died suddenly of a heart attack at age 58, he and Jones decided to care for his widow, Maxine, and young daughter, Janell, by making phone calls and visiting them. A few years ago, Shamsky gave a speech at J’nelle’s 30th anniversary.
He wanted to be a star, but that will never happen in New York. Not with manager Gil Hodges’ platoon system. Shamsky, a left-handed outfielder, was hitting .300 in 1969, but Ron Svoboda’s game-planning was the reason he outhit him in four of five World Series games. To this day, Shamsky says he wouldn’t trade more than 100 innings or 100 times his salary for this season.
His first guest on the Sham podcast was former teammate Ed Cranepool. A few months after the pandemic, the number of COVID-19 in Florida began to increase.
I see people without masks, and that’s kind of scary, Shamsky said. They don’t care.
He went back to New York.
Art Shamsky, here in New York in 2014, is one of the Amazin Mets who helps his teammates feel connected to each other. Noam Galai/WireImage
In May, the first employee of arrived at COVID-19. Nancy Pignatano was afraid of getting sick. She lived in Florida with her husband Joe, the bullpen coach for the Amazin’ Mets. She took precautions.
They stayed inside, delivering food and limiting their trips outside to pick up paper and mail. But she still got COWID and died in May at the age of 86. For months Joe didn’t notice she was gone. He has dementia. His family told him they were playing golf with their friends and he smiled and got away with it.
Their youngest son, Frank, still lives in Brooklyn. The last words he heard from his mother were over the phone. Frankie, I love you, she told him. I can’t talk.
Frank is now the one passing on the memories. He was 12 that season – his nickname was Little Piggy – but he says it was his best year. During the ’69 season, the Mets had a tomato garden in the bullpen. Joe found a wild plant, and instead of pulling it out, he watered it and tended it. He was an Italian from Brooklyn, Frank says. You give them some soil and they plant tomatoes.
Joe’s best friend, according to Frank, was Gil Hodges. They played together for Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as for the Mets in 1962, and then went to practice together in Washington in 1965. They were at the ballpark all day and met with their wives in the evening to play cards, the room a succession of crab claws, mixed notes and jokes.
I tell my kids those were easier times, Frank says. You can have a house and a car in the garage and have kids on a salary. You can’t do it today.
Hodges was a Marine in World War II, but he always downplayed it. He told his son Gil Jr. that he works behind a desk. Only when the boy was older did he learn that his father was a gunner in the 16th Regiment. Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, fought in Okinawa and was awarded the Bronze Star.
He played with Jackie Robinson in 1947, the year Robinson broke the major league color barrier. Hodges was a righteous and unambiguous man, but he was also a dreamer. Just before Game 1, 19-year-old Gil Jr. was sitting in his father’s office marveling at the Orioles’ statistics when the father asked him what the Mets were doing on the same field as Baltimore. Hodges got up, closed the door and sat down next to him.
Look, son, he told him I got 25 guys who think we can win. That’s all that matters.
The Mets had an 83-79 season after the World Series, and Pignatano continued to tend the tomato plant. They entered the ’72 season with high expectations, which were delayed by a players’ strike. During spring training – Easter Sunday – Hodges and his coaches spent the morning playing 27 holes at the West Palm Beach Golf Course in West Palm Beach, Fla. Pignatano was putting his clubs in the trunk, Frank said, when Hodges had a heart attack, fell backward and hit his head on the pavement. Pignatano held him in his arms as he lay dying.
Hodges was 47 years old. For years, Pignatano blamed himself. He was there with him. If he hadn’t turned around, he could have caught him. But there was nothing Pignatano could do. Hodges’ son tried to explain it to him several times.
When you love someone that much… Gil Jr. says you always feel like you could have done something. But it wasn’t his responsibility.
Pignatano has a picture of Hodges in his house, he shows it and says the same thing over and over.
He’s my best friend.
Tom Seaver at Shea Stadium in New York in 1969. Focus on Sports/Getty Images
THE LAST TIME that they saw Tom Seaver in 2017. The five former teammates stood in the parking lot, trying not to say goodbye, trying not to think about the fact that this was probably the last time they would be together.
That was two years before the 50th anniversary. It was the 50th anniversary of the Mets’ 1969 reunion, and Shamsky decided to write a book. Probably no more has been written about any sports team than the 1969 Mets. That’s why Shamsky’s co-creator, Eric Sherman, was initially concerned. But after some brainstorming, Shamsky came up with the perfect idea. They visited Seaver’s home in Calistoga, California, with some other teammates, and then Shamsky and Sherman wrote about the experience.
Harrelson, Kosman and Liberty accompanied her on this journey. According to the Miracle Chronicle. They didn’t know what to expect. Seaver had memory problems by then, and Harrelson had the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. But on the last day of the trip, they caught Seaver on a good day. They had lunch together and Seaver showed them his vineyard.
The Hall of Famer praised the team effort it took to win his only championship – Liberty’s game-saving dive in Game 4, Cosman’s six no-hit innings in Game 2 that turned the tide for the Mets.
They appreciated each other’s differences. They always do. Coosman, for example, takes the time to watch Fox News, Newsmax and OAN while Liberty still considers Vietnam an illegal war.
He’s a left-wing radical and I’m a conservative Republican, Cosman said, laughing. No, no, no, no. We love each other. Yes. We’re good friends. When you play with someone for that long, you have an experience that no one else has had. … You have a bond, like a brother. When we talk, it’s like we saw each other yesterday.
Hours after winning the World Series, Swoboda sat in the Diamond Club on the fourth floor of Shea Stadium, looking out the window at the trampled field and trying to think of what they had just done. He realized that nothing in his life would shine brighter than that moment when he was 25.
By the summer, at the height of the pandemic, Svoboda became concerned for his country. He reflected on the division and struggle between fact and fiction on the internet. The late 1960s were a turbulent time. But Suboda says it’s not now.
I feel a great darkness rising here, he said, because we are so divided as a people.
Mets manager Gil Hodges and outfielder Ron Svoboda look at each other during spring training on the 13th. March 1970 in St. John’s Petersburg, Fla. Б. Bennett/Getty Images
ED KRANEPOOL WISHES of the darkness. He was trapped under the gray clouds of New York. He has not been able to go out because he had a kidney transplant a year ago that made him even more vulnerable.
Although his left toe had been amputated as a result of the infection, Cranepool was still active and working in credit card processing prior to the pandemic. He loved meeting customers for lunch and the feeling he got when he walked into a restaurant and someone was talking: Crane! And then he can tell his stories.
But then his days were reduced to waiting for the New York Post and Newsday to knock on his door. With coffee and breakfast, he arrived at 9. Then he had nothing to do. His wife played Canasta with her computer friends, which kept him busy, but Kranepool felt isolated.
He knew it could be worse. By summer, thousands of New Yorkers in nursing homes and long-term care facilities had died from COVID-19. To boost morale, the Mets made virtual visits to local long-term care facilities and retirement homes. In August, Kranepool was a special guest at the Amazin’ Alumni Series with AristaCare in Cedar Oaks, a New York State institution. A dozen residents waited impatiently in a room with hardwood floors, where balloons and a Mets banner hung painfully behind them. Cranepool had a Zoom conversation while waiting in the parking lot for his wife, Monica – the boss, as he jokingly calls her.
But there were technical problems, and his face turned into a gray and white avatar. Cranepool couldn’t find the video button, then the connection was bad and the power was cut. Is it some kind of betta? he asked.
The stream faded for 40 minutes and was sometimes unreadable. It was almost fitting that the Mets’ flag fell in the middle of the call. But his listeners, who hadn’t hugged their children or grandchildren in nearly six months, didn’t seem to mind. They asked questions and stood by his words.
I wish I could go to the stadium, he told the group. So let’s be clear about the COVID situation. I don’t like watching games on TV. I like being there.
When it was over, the person in front started crying. Robert Bongard, 70, wearing a Mets jersey, had not seen his wife since the pandemic began and had nothing to look forward to. He said he had waited all his life to meet Amazin Met.
Cleon Jones, Art Shamsky and Ed Kranepool met at the 2019 spring training in Port St. Lucie. St. Lucie, Florida. Alejandra Villa Loarka/Getty Images
Happens WHEN BAD , Jay Horwitz is usually one of the first to be called. Horwitz has been the Mets’ media relations director for nearly four decades. He is currently the team historian and vice president of alumni relations. He is so devoted to the Mets family that he visits Gil Hodges’ widow, Joan, every night around dinner time. I like talking to her, Horwitz said.
The 31st. August Horwitz was at home reading the newspaper when he got the call that no one wanted to talk to him: Tom Seaver died at the age of 75. Eleven of his teammates are already gone, and any death is hard, but losing Seaver felt like the end of an era. There will be no public worship, no pandemonium, no offerings in front of a crowded football stadium.
Horvitz had to call on some of Seavers former teammates. He didn’t want them to hear about it on the news. Cleon Jones was working on a house in Mobile, Alabama, when Horwitz called. It normally takes a lot to get Jones suspended, but when he got the call about Seaver, he dropped everything and went home to tell his wife.
She just prayed and we held hands, Jones says. It wasn’t just the loss of a teammate. It is the loss of a friend and someone I had great respect for.
At a club party after the World Series, Jones and Seaver are interviewed together and Seaver hugs his teammate.
It’s the best feeling in the world, Seaver said of the championship.
That exchange may seem insignificant today, but to Jones, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, it meant everything. When Jones was a child, a white man sent his parents to the back of the bus and a fight broke out. The police went looking for his father and his parents fled their hometown of Mobile, Alabama, each on their own, leaving Jones to his grandmother.
He endured racial abuse and rejection as he moved up in the minor leagues, and it didn’t stop when he reached the Mets. Jones hit .340 in 1969 and reached the World Series final. He loved this team, despite the one or two players who, according to Jones, mocked him and his black teammates on the field and despised them off it. Half a century later, Jones no longer identifies these players. He prefers to focus on the more than 20 people he calls brothers.
There are so many ways to fight, Jones said. But you have to do it in a way that is beneficial.
He eventually returned home to Alabama, to Africatown, where the last slave ship to come to America had docked. He founded the Last Out Community Foundation, a nonprofit that renovates and builds affordable housing for the local community. Jones is very practical. One day last summer, he couldn’t come to the phone because he was chopping wood. He does all sorts of things and even repairs roofs. He says he can still climb ladders, but he doesn’t jump off houses like he used to.
I’m 78, he says, but don’t tell anyone.
Because of his job, Jones is not the easiest person to get along with. Freedom often talks only to his wife, Angela. When a hurricane hit the Gulf Coast last fall, Cranepool asked Jones and his wife to come to New York and stay with him. Well, I don’t think it will be that bad, Jones told Cranepool. But I appreciate it, Eddie.
Jones has seen racial and social progress rise and fall. When he saw the video of George Floyd being shot by a police officer in Minneapolis last spring, he thought of all the times black people have had to deal with this kind of situation without a camera phone. He has no idea whether social justice efforts will result in meaningful change.
As a minority, as a black man, you dream a lot, Jones said. But we dream, because it took us a long time to do anything else. Some of us stop dreaming now because we can’t see how things can change or become different for us because things have been bad for so long.
But I’m a positive thinker. I just have faith that things will be better in the future.
Maxine Agee and her daughter J’nel with a portrait of center fielder Tommy Agee, who was posthumously inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 2002. Thank you, J’nelle N. Agee.
There is a digital photo frame in kitchen of Bud Harrelson’s house. She rotates her photos through the different phases of her life. Sometimes a picture of him in a Mets uniform pops up, and he remembers. It’s me, he’ll say. Other times, the baseball player in the picture is a stranger.
In his playing days, he was called Twiggy because he was only 6 feet tall and weighed only 3 pounds, but his teammates never doubted his toughness. Harrelson is not only known for his fight with Pete Rose during the 1973 NLCS, but also for his Golden Glove.
In the early ’90s, Harrelson spent two years as a manager for the Mets. In 2000, he became co-owner, coach and vice president of the Long Island Ducks, an unaffiliated minor league team. One of his favorite pastimes was walking around the lobby handing out autographs and meeting people.
Mr Harrelson disclosed his diagnosis because he wanted to educate others about Alzheimer’s disease. But when Shamsky invited him to Calistoga for a trip in 2017, Harrelson didn’t want to go. He didn’t know what to expect. But in the end, he found it comforting. When he saw Seaver, he told Battaglia that he felt like he wasn’t alone.
Harrelson’s neurologist told him the best way to slow the progression of the disease was through socialization. The pandemic put an end to all that.
Caregivers came – he was one of the lucky Americans who could afford it – but when the pandemic broke out, Battaglia had to send them home. They didn’t want to risk Harrelson getting sick. But even before that, most of the burden was on the family. Mr. Harrelson’s state of consciousness has reached the point where he needs 24-hour care and assistance with basic things like showering, dressing and toileting.
He doesn’t feel comfortable letting strangers help him with his personal matters, so his family does most of the work. Including Battaglia.
It’s not that uncommon, she says, to end up in the middle of an impossible outcome when there’s no miracle rally and the only ones who can manage what’s left of their parents’ lives are the children. Battaglia and Harrelson divorced in 2013, but she moved in with Harrelson in March 2020 and took care of him so that their 33-year-old son Troy and their other children didn’t have to bear the whole burden.
I love it. It’s about Harrelson. This is not a job for me.
He is the kindest and most generous man I have ever met.
In August 2009, Yogi Berra (first base coach), Nolan Ryan, Jerry Groth, Tom Seaver, Jerry Cosman and Duffy Dyer gather before the game to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1969 World Cup team. USA Today Sports
After serving nine months in prison, Ed Cranepool wanted to visit his son and grandchildren in North Carolina for Christmas. He planned everything. He would wrap gifts in their Audi, make sandwiches for him and Monica, and they would arrive in 10 hours, without even stopping along the way. They would spend a quiet Christmas together, then head further south to see their daughter in Florida. It’s all right, it’s all right.
When Cranepool told the doctor about his plan, it didn’t end well. My doctor said I was crazy. I spent nine months in that house. Why put yourself at risk when the vaccine is at the end of the tunnel?
It wasn’t the smartest thing to do.
Cranepool stayed home. Christmas was another grey and gloomy day spent indoors.
In January, Kranepool became eligible for the KOVID-19 vaccine. In late January, he received an order in the Bronx, where he was a high school star nearly 60 years ago, and a longtime Metropolitan Vaccine resident got the Moderna vaccine at a facility near Yankee Stadium.
Ed Cranepool celebrates his 1969 World Series victory at Shea Stadium. Concentrate on sports/pictures
SHAMSKY AND GARRELSON were also vaccinated. By August, Battaglia was able to hire full-time nurses. She has recently found someone Harrelson is comfortable with, and mostly happy. But the lack of socialization last year, she says, accelerated her decline. Sometimes Harrelson needs to be reminded to eat. He usually speaks with one word. He wakes up in the middle of the night, forcing Battaglia and his other caregivers to nervously look at the monitor to see if he’s okay.
Earlier this spring, Ms. Battaglia was looking for information about home safety for Mr. Harrelson when she arrived at a new memory care facility in the area. He will be surrounded by people trained in dementia care and will benefit from the necessary socialization. Harrelson will move into the facility in June. Battaglia said she was not looking for options to get him out of the house. But she admits it’s time.
It’s getting harder and harder to cope with home care, she says. And it’s insulating.
Shamsky began seeing Harrelson regularly after the 19 encounter. Harrelson needed an assistant for the event, and Shamsky gladly volunteered. That day he took to the field with him in the car, clinging to his former teammate to keep from falling.
Battaglia, who sits on the board of the Alzheimer’s Association of Long Island, says Shamsky has been a constant. But she doesn’t blame the old friends who wanted to call and didn’t. She understands that people have their own families and their own lives. She also knows the awkwardness and uncertainty of seeing someone who has been through the best of times and the worst of times.
But here’s the thing: Somehow, Harrelson never forgot baseball. Last year in the jam, the big kids tried to trap him, and Harrelson threw the ball back and forth for at least 20 minutes. It was one of the few things that still felt natural to him.
When Shamsky called last fall, Battaglia told him to bring his glove. So he grabbed one of his old Mets gloves and a baseball and took the subway. Eric Sherman met her at the Harrelson house. They stood about 30 yards apart and played a triangle game with a catch in the front field. Forward and backward. Harrelson smiled. It was like they were warming up for the game.
For lack of a better word, it was witty to me, Shamsky said. Invigorating.
They lunched, and Shamsky said goodbye on that autumn day at the height of the pandemic. He said he’d come back.
ESPN producer William Weinbaum contributed to this report.
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