His eyes froze the five year old version of me, instantly. That Christmas morning-type of frozen, when your haul from Santa is witnessed for the very first time in all its glory.
There, peering straight at me, and piercing straight through me, from just above the Mets dugout were the eyes of Bud Harrelson.
They weren’t dark or brown or deep space black, like the eye coloring of everyone else in my neighborhood from downtown Brooklyn. No, these were unrelentingly light. Were they blue? No, that’s too dark. Aqua? Maybe, except Coney Island never had water as transparent as Buddy’s eyes so, scratch that. Were they violet? I don’t know! But if they were, what was violet? With that, I was all out of colors from my Crayola memory bank.
My mental paralysis was suddenly released by the sound of my father’s voice.
“C’mon, John-John. Buddy is waiting to say hello to us. He’ll give us his autograph.”
My father wasn’t lying. Now standing in full view in front of the dugout and smiling, Bud Harrelson was waving at me to come down from Row 5 of the Field Box and meet him at Row 1, so we could interact over the top of the dugout.
But each time he smiled and waved and LOOKED at me with those EYES, my terror resumed, as if he had a squad of frothing pit bulls pacing behind him, impatiently awaiting their long-promised 5 year-old boy snack. I could not and would not move. Not today. Not here at Shea. My Dad eventually apologized for my statue imitation, Buddy waved goodbye and then disappeared forever.
As I got older I wondered why I had reacted the way I did that day. I finally realized it’s likely because it was the first time I’d ever viewed a baseball player as a human being. I’d watched them on WOR-TV and caught them taking batting practice back when you could actually watch the Mets take BP. But they were distant figures. Characters. Unreachable Gods.
How many times have you ever looked a baseball player directly in his eyes? If you meet one, chances are they’re signing something or talking to three people at once or distracted in general. They’re not stopping to have a heartfelt one-on-one with you, like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in “Heat”. Buddy didn’t talk to me that day but his eyes certainly spoke to me. I learned in that moment he was a living, breathing man and a really nice one at that, just like my Dad.
A few years later, the 10 year-old version of me learned the darker side of eye contact with another beloved Met: Joe Torre.
Let me be clear: Joe did nothing bad or wrong or Dave Kingman-ish to me.
I was being a punk. Period.
Torre was managing the Mets, so this is around ’77 or ‘78 and, as usual, because there were more ushers than fans in the stands, I was able to stroll down to the first row behind the dugout and watch the game from there.
I don’t recall the details of the game or what prompted me to do what I did but as Torre returned from the mound after removing God-knows-who from the game, I hatched a plan.
For the first and last time in my life, I decided to stand up and boo a New York Met. Consider that statement for a moment. As a Mets fan in the 1970s at Shea, booing could have been a full-time gig. Yet, I never booed Richie Hebner (who pulled the shoulder of his uniform more than he ever pulled anything into the right field corner). I never booed Frank Tavares, who could make spectacular plays look easy and make routine plays look like he was fielding a hand grenade loaded with ebola. I never booed Bruce Boisclair for being Bruce Boisclair.
Joe Torre. That’s why.
The Joe Torre returning from the mound that day obviously wasn’t the warm, cuddly, fuzzy, emotionally-engaged Hall Of Fame communicator we know and love today. No, this was the 37 year-old, hard-nosed, powerful, thick-bodied, hairy-chested, simian-armed Joe Torre.
So, as I’m in the middle of a full-throated, lusty boo of Mr. Torre, he picks up his head and fixes me with a stare that I’m pretty sure killed the entire row of people behind me with a thoroughness rivaled only by the nuclear bomb detonation scene in “The Day After”. It was a withering, soul-reducing, shrinkage-inducing glare, radiating from eyes that were as black and un-Buddy Harrelson as eyes could ever be.
I froze — again — as our eyes stayed locked, Torre telling me silently, “I don’t need to look where I’m walking, punk. I only need to peer into your soul and take whatever little remains.”
I slowly sat down and stopped booing. Forever.
I know baseball players have a dream job and they get insane amounts of money for said dream job but my feeling is the great ones always try hard and they sometimes miss, just like all of us do. And, I believe, the not-so-great ones are doing the best they can. So, after the blood returned to my face on that day in Flushing in 1970-something I decided booing was no longer an option for me as a fan.
My Mets are human, just like you and me. I could tell that just from looking in their eyes.