Braves/Mets ’90: My “Dinner” with Knucksie — July 23 Game Thread (by Ububba)

When I moved from Georgia to the New York City area in the spring of 1990, the Mets were good, the Yankees were bad… and the Braves? They just seemed hopeless.

As I prepared to see them play at Shea Stadium that July 20, the Braves were in the midst of their sixth consecutive awful season. Between 1985 and 1990, they had finished last in the 6-team NL West four times, fifth twice—averaging 96 losses a year during that span.

During that time, the roster was often a merry-go-round of mediocrity, or worse. An example: Rafael Ramirez was replaced by Andres Thomas, who formed a keystone combo with Ken Oberkfell. Score! Our 1978 Rookie of the Year Bob Horner was always hurt—then he bailed for Japan. Rick Mahler was your most consistent starter, although nobody ever called him a stopper. Of course, the mercurial Lonnie Smith had his moments, but (as we found) not all of them were good. And then, there was the magnificent Dale Murphy, cruelly surrounded by this sad-sack bunch.

Sadly, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was a dead zone in those years. I’d drive in from Athens with friends, buy $5 uppers, and sit just about anywhere we wanted. Want a foul ball? Just hang out down the lines—with any degree of effort, you might get two or three.

In the late decade, however, things started to get a little interesting with the eye-opening arrivals of Ronnie Gant and David Justice, not to mention the occasional gems tossed by John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. By the time I moved north, the team was still really bad, but at least there were young players worth watching.

By 1990, the Mets were living the end of the dream that was the Darryl Strawberry Era —he’d bolt for L.A. in the offseason. Running from 1983 to 1990, the Mets would go from promise to prominence and a World Series title in ’86, followed by four tantalizing “almost seasons”—three second-place finishes behind the go-go Cards and the high-scoring Cubs (Sandberg, Grace & Dawson with a young Greg Maddux topping the rotation), plus a Game 7 loss in the 1988 NLCS to the Hershiser/Gibson-led Dodgers. Between 1984 and 1990, the Mets averaged 95 wins per season, finishing in first place only twice in those seven years.

That summer of ’90 I did a buncha temp work and that week I was working in the Empire State Building (for some lawyer, IIRC). Coincidentally, a friend who worked full-time in the building (for Leona Helmsley, no less) had an extra left-field-bleacher ticket for his company’s night at Shea Stadium. They were playing the Braves, so he asked me to go.

Back then, Shea’s left-field bleacher seats were not open to the public—only to companies that would buy all the seats, one game at a time. If a company did that, they’d get an hour or so pre-game food & drink action at a small canteen under the bleachers, right behind to the visitor’s bullpen. Free beer & hot dogs? Hell, yeah…

So I dove in and, after a couple dogs & brewskies, I see a young Steve Avery start to warm in the bullpen and—whadya know?—there’s Phil Niekro (serving in some temporary pitching-coach capacity which now escapes me), just on the other side of the fence from me, watching Avery closely.

At one point, Knucksie kind of looks around at the fans filling up the bleachers & I took that as a cue to sidle up and talk. He couldn’t have been cooler, couldn’t have been nicer, couldn’t have been more honest and forthcoming.

I told him how, in 1984, I joined a couple of friends at a Braves/Dodgers game on a Friday night & we decided we were going to drive to Baltimore right after the game to see Niekro pitch for the Yankees the very next night. We did, and we met him after the game. (The father of one of my pals had been in the Army Reserve or National Guard with Knucksie in the ’60s.)

At one point, a fan on the bleachers above us, wearing a Yankees cap, sees Niekro and yells, “Hey, Phil! You’re always a Yankee!” He smiles at the guy, then gives me a knowing look that was worth a million bucks, as if to say, “Yeah, right…”

By then, I was feeling the barley malteds a bit and ended the conversation with a very heartfelt, “Phil, are we ever going to be any good again? Is it always going to be like this?”

I guess I was getting a little maudlin, so he said, “I hear you, but when these young pitchers,” pointing to Avery, “figure it out, you’ll be surprised. They’re gonna be good. Watch.”

Now I look back and think: Imagine that, a pep talk from a future Hall of Famer. But at the moment, as thrilled as I was to be talking to one of my all-time favorite players, I could only think, “Boy, have I heard this before.”

Game starts, and right away Avery gives up three runs in the first. He didn’t help things by balking runners to second and third, then giving up a two-run single to Howard Johnson. Meanwhile, the Braves—sporting a lineup that included Jim Presley, Francisco Cabrera and Andres Thomas—were getting mowed down by sneaky-quick lefty Sid Fernandez, who racked up 10 Ks in 7.2 IP. He gave up only 4 hits, including a solo HR by Thomas that barely cleared the LF wall, right in front of me. In the Mets’ 6-1 win—they added three 8th-inning runs off Braves reliever Mark Grant—the save was recorded by none other than Alejandro Pena, someone who soon would play a big part in Braves history.

I took the 7 train back to Manhattan thinking that nothing had changed. But the not-so-apparent reality was that these were two clubs going in opposite directions. Next year would be different, very different.

85 thoughts on “Braves/Mets ’90: My “Dinner” with Knucksie — July 23 Game Thread (by Ububba)”

  1. nice post. not the game thread, but very interesting.
    LOVED Knucksie. One of the really great guys in baseball.

  2. Great story, Ububba!

    I envy you this kind of story. I was only 14 at that time, and I remember going to a game with my father in St. Louis. I remember what a shock it was for the Braves to be in SECOND PLACE! In the middle of MAY! Yeah, this Justice guy’s really good, and Smoltz and Glavine could be fine pitchers, but how do we get past the Marty Claries and Jim Presleys of the world?

    I couldn’t imagine says that the team we’re playing tonight would ever be IWOTM.

  3. That was an enjoyable read. Thanks ububba. Fast-forward many years and you could say that the roles have almost totally reversed. There’s a lot of Met fans that think they will never be good again – but a hardcore few that can see that they might be really good in a year or two when the young pitching is paired with a few free-agent bats that don’t suck. They may be right…it’ll be fun to compete against a good Met team for a change.

  4. I think it’s inevitable that the Mets will be good again — they play in the biggest media market in America. A few years after they get a new owner they’ll be quite good again. They were an almost-juggernaut, until the back-to-back collapses in ’07 and ’08; if Carlos Beltran hadn’t gotten frozen in the 2006 NLCS, they could have won the World Series that year. I love their utter ineptitude right now, but it won’t last.

  5. The only autographed baseball I own is one signed by Niekro and Willie Stargell in the late 80s, when they were both coaching for the Braves. They were in Chattanooga for some promotional thing or other and my dad got them both to sign a ball for me. Best present my dad ever gave me.

  6. From last night’s recap:

    Each to their own, I suppose, but I’ve never understood the “Steroids in sports don’t bother me all that much, and in fact, I think sports are better with steroids” line of thinking. What is this, professional wrestling?

    The problem with professional wrestling is that it’s scripted, not that the talent is trying too hard to stay fit.

  7. My favorite response by a player so far to the Ryan Braun saga.
    Logan Morrison: “You know we’re clean. We haven’t scored a run in 37 innings.” ‪#‎marlins‬ ‪#‎braun‬
    3:32 PM – 22 Jul 2013

  8. I might say “Snitkered” but there were 2 outs and it would take another hit.

  9. Snitker. Ugh, what’s left to say. That ball was hit so hard it got to center way to fast to score on.

    And Chip describes the throw as “a strike” when it was a mile up the line. I truly believe he has glaucoma.

  10. Uggla up next, you pretty much had to send him. Gattis destroyed that ball though (0-2 curve no less).

  11. So there go the Braves again with extremely unlucky sequencing of offensive events. Ugh.

  12. @23 a homer, a double, two singles and a HBP in two innings typically scores far more than 1 run.

  13. It was mentioned somewhere that Medlen may have spotted a mechanical flaw during the All-Star break, and he said he felt really good coming into the game today. So hopefully he’s got his mojo back.

  14. I promise I’m not trying to be a dick, but is there a reason people misspell Kris Medlen’s name just as much as it is spelled correctly?

    I’m honestly curious if I missed out on a subtle inside joke or if it’s just one of those names that people always have trouble with.

  15. That at bat was everything we haven’t seen from Simmons, and what we need to see for him to be a good leadoff hitter.

  16. The pitch that Jason just struck out on was not even a competitive pitch. That was never a strike. It was never close to being a strike. That was positively Francoeurian.

  17. @36 – I wouldn’t really call it a tightrope. You could lay a highway through all the holes in this lineup.

  18. Fascinating new strategy we’re trying here, winning games without scoring runs. I’m interested to see how it works out.

  19. Gosh, the Mets TV broadcast team is just miles better than the Braves’ team. I find myself agreeing with them a whole lot.

    One of them was talking about Dan Uggla and said that though the Braves want him to hit the ball to right field more, he would have Uggla get a bit closer to the plate and try to pull everything, a la Frank Robinson. Not the kind of thing Joe Simpson would be likely to say.

  20. Alex @ 40. I was once again thinking the same exact thing. The Mets announcing team is very good.

  21. The radio guys had a long conversation about urinal cakes. Bet the NY guys didn’t do that.

  22. It’s the time I spend listening to Gary, Keith, Ron and Howie that gives me the perspective on the idiocy of Chip. They are the best. Chip is… not.

  23. The Braves again have 1 run on 7 hits and 2 walks. And 3 of the hits are for extra bases. This is close to a skill.

  24. When we envy the Mets’ performance with RISP, it is a sorry situation indeed.

  25. If we hadn’t dodged Harvey for so many series we’d have a losing record against these guys. They’ve played us pretty tough this year.

  26. Loved your reminiscing, ububba. Those are my favorite game threads.

    The Braves winning, on the other hand, are my favorite game recaps, so I hope we don’t let this one get away.

  27. Nats are about to lose again. Phillies are losing also. The best thing about our team this year is the division we’re in.

  28. I was pessimistic about this offense before it was cool. Don’t worry though, this will all be a memory once all 3 outfielders start to click at the same time.

  29. Sup bros, don’t come around much anymore. (Miss Mac so much.) but I have a question, was it Reitsma who had a cousin that showed up all pissy back in the day because we all hated him so much or was it someone else? Has it happened more than once? I can’t fuckin remember and it’s killing me. Hope you’re all well. Seriously, I think about Mac all the time.

  30. @57

    I dunno, I think Meds was pretty great until the 6th. If Fredi hadn’t pulled a Fredi and left him in to hit for himself B5, or if he’d pulled him sooner, Kris’s line would look more like the way he pitched. I assume they just didn’t want to overtax the bullpen in a four-game series, but it seems to me they left him in longer than they should have.

  31. @66, 68-71

    I am now thoroughly infatuated with the adjective coinage “Kleskovian.” Gonna have to find a way to work that into a recap.

  32. Remember that time that we got 2 hits and a walk and a HR in the first inning and scored ONE run?

    I’m trying to find a way to blame Fredi but so far no luck.

  33. Great post! I remember Rafael Ramirez…saw him in only his 4th major league ballgame when I went to my very first Braves game in the summer of 1980. Thanks for stirring up the memories!

  34. Remember how, a couple of years ago, the NL East was the second-toughest division in the majors, behind only the AL East?

    I prefer winning to losing, but if we’re going to lose, I’d at least rather everyone else lose the same night.

  35. Well, if we win tonight, we’ll be .500 on the road trip. That’s the long view, I guess.

    But from a game-at-a-time view, it’s driving me crazy we aren’t taking advantage of this stretch where we play ostensibly weak teams while our main opponents are in complete circle jerk mode.

  36. OK. I need advice. Taking my six year old grandson to the game tonight — his first Braves game, and my first time at a game with a 6 year old. Advice on how to keep him interested and engaged? His baseball knowledge is essentially limited to a few games we watched last year on television, so I was thinking showing how to keep score might help him understand, but if it fails completely by the top of the second I fear an evening spent in lines for hot dogs and souvenirs (would that be the worst thing in the world? No — but I’ll miss the game!) Any and all advice for going to games with young’uns appreciated. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.