Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball on this Sunday, Feb. 9.
I’m always grateful for a new season to start, but I don’t think I have ever wanted a new season to start and a gloomy winter to end than in this particular gloom-shrouded winter. This coming Friday, college baseball will begin and within a few weeks after that, spring training. But in this winter where Roy Halladay was lost in a plane crash and broadcasting icon Dick Enberg died just before Christmas, another sad story needs to come out of this computer and this one hurts my heart more than my hands.
I thought it was difficult enough to hear that Jim Bouton, arguably the funniest baseball author alive is battling dementia. But this past Friday, the New York Post revealed that former Mets’ shortstop Bud Harrelson is facing Alzheimer’s disease.
This reaches my heart because at the beginning, in 1971 when I became a baseball fan I was a Mets’ fan. You couldn’t be a Mets’ fan without liking Bud Harrelson for the way he played. It wasn’t about his hitting-he batted .236 for his career-but he was as good a shortstop as you could name, and a rare slick fielder on some horrific Mets’ teams, and two winners. Even after I began to root for the Yankees, I still heard the odd Mets’ game and followed their progress downhill through the years from 1974 on.
The Mets’ shortstop’s full name or “Government” as athletes call it, is Derrel McKinley Harrelson. He was born in California on what Cornelius Ryan called “The Longest Day” June 6, 1944. He joined the Mets in 1965 as a September call-up and would be theirs through 1977. The team famously won the 1969 World Series and came within a single bad managerial decision of winning the 1973 World Series. Harrelson became a hero when the Reds’ Pete Rose decked him in game 3 of the 1973 NLCS. A brawl erupted on the field and a riot began in the Shea Stadium stands-never exactly a home for staid behavior. From then on, Pete Rose was Voldemort and Harrelson was Harry Potter, if you will. I never heard anybody booed as lustily as Pete Rose was after he dropped Harrelson-a much smaller man than he.
Two years later, in May 1975 my dad took me and a few others to hear Bud Harrelson speak at a dinner. At that point I had no idea that athletes made personal appearances and made speeches. With the speech done, I was able to meet, and get an autograph from Bud Harrelson. I couldn’t have been happier.
Now, Harrelson faces a tougher foe than Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, or even Pete Rose. Now the villain is Alzheimer’s disease. The estimable reporter Bob Klapisch, a graduate of Columbia University whose writing is far better than his pitching laid out the sad truth. Going back several years, Harrelson would start to forget things he would normally have remembered. His first doctor thought it was natural aging. By 2016, said Klapisch of Harrelson, words seemed to be disappearing from Harrelson’s vocabulary. He had difficulty finishing sentences and completing thoughts and often lost his place in a conversation.” The words chill my blood even as I write them. I heard this happen to my mother a couple of decades ago. 5.5 million in this country alone battle this frightening ailment, and as the boomers age that number can only go higher. Harrelson isn’t the first 1969 Met to suffer what the doctors call “cognitive issues.” Tom Seaver, the greatest of all those Mets must live his life with memory issues since he was stricken with Lyme disease. They can both remember the 1969 season and Harrelson still recalls the fracas with Rose in October, 1973. The two made up and were teammates at the end of Harrelson’s career. Of late years, Harrelson has coached and managed the Long Island Ducks, an independent league team which he partly owns. Last season, and presumably going forward he will be a greeter in the stands, a job the former heavyweight champion Joe Louis held in Las Vegas casinos when dementia damaged his mind. That was 40 years ago and science has made advances since then. This means there are medicines that might slow down the process in Harrelson’s case. With the help of his family, Harrelson will continue to live at home as long as this is possible.
It’s my guess that, no matter who you root for, if you know Bud Harrelson’s story you’ll say a prayer for #3.0