The Fan Club
I had the opportunity to attend the Mets Opening Day in 1984, so I went with my buddy Squig. (Not his real name, in case you were wondering) 1984 was to be a fateful year for us.
I think that school was out for Easter, but I couldn't swear to it. I do know that Ron Darling started the game, and it wasn't a pretty one. the Expos won 10-0, so it was not a good omen for the upcoming season, or so we thought.
Davey Johnson had just taken the helm of the Mets after spending the previous year managing the Tidewater Tides in the International League, winning 71 games. That spring, he got to witness the phenom that was Dwight Gooden.
Doc had torn up the Carolina League in 1983, striking out 300 batters in 191 innings, winning 19 games along the way for the Lynchburg Mets. He was eighteen years old, and he would go on to win the Rookie of the Year Award in 1984, setting several new records along the way.
I won't go into the description of the subway ride from our homes in Woodhaven to Shea Stadium, but suffice it to say that the subway conductor wasn't going to be forgetting us any time soon. Essentially, on the G train, Squig and I would change seats between each of the stops. It took five or six stops before he noticed what we were doing, and at first confusion led to slight annoyance, then to what I believe was admiration for our perseverance. I think as we got to our stop, Squig may have even tipped him.
We finally got to the stadium, about an hour or so before game time. As we were taking in the sights and festivities around us, we both noticed one of the coaches (we knew this because it was the eighties, and he was wearing a number in the 50's) half limping, half walking towards the bullpen. We reached for our scorecard and looked him up:
51- Vern Hoscheit.
Squig and I had not heard of him prior to that, (remember kiddos, this was before the Google was available) but there was something almost lyrical about the name. Vern Hoscheit.
A little while later, as they introduced both teams, when they introduced "Number 51, bullpen coach Vern Hoscheit", both Squig and I screamed out "VERN!!" Nobody else did anything else apart from polite home team applause.
Like I said, the game itself wasn't anything to be proud of, except for noting that Gary Carter hit a Grand Slam homer in the game. The commute home was interesting enough, inasmuch as when we were getting on the G Train, who should we have as our conductor? Yep. The same one from earlier. And yes, he did remember us.
A few times that summer, a summer which was turning into a somewhat magical summer for many teams and many reasons, we would hear a reference to Vern on a radio broadcast, or a telecast and each of us would yell "Vern!" no matter where we were at the time we heard it. (Yes, we got a lot of stares)
Then, I had an idea.
Sitting on the stoop in front of my house one evening, I told Squig, "You know, if we started a Vern Hoscheit Fan Club, and made like a banner, and took it to a game, they'd probably show us on TV."
There was a very long pause as Squig looked at me, I could see the wheels spinning, and he finally said, "You know what, it just might work."
And the plan was hatched.
The Mets were on their way to their second 90 win season, with the Gooden show being the must have ticket, combined with the Mets being in playoff contention until the last week of the season, made getting tickets more of a challenge than had been the case in the previous years. But we muddled ahead and picked the last Saturday game of the season, also against the Expos. That was our debut.
By this time, I had my drivers license, so we didn't have to rely on the subways to get us to the game. It also meant we could get to the stadium as early as we wanted. (Too early as it turned out, they wouldn't let us in at 11:00 for a 2:05 game, so we bided our time.
We had masks, one Groucho mask and one giant insect mask, both provided by Squig, and both ungodly hot and uncomfortable to wear. I had the banner, or rather, one of my mother's white bed sheets with the words "Vern Hoscheit Fan Club, Vern is God" hand lettered, badly at that, in black spray paint. (Not to pat myself on the back here, but all the words were spelled correctly) We also had navy blue t-shirts with red felt iron-on lettering which said "Vern is God" on the front, and "The Vern Hoscheit Fan Club" in smaller letters on the back. We looked awesome.
When they finally let us in, we ran up to our seats, which were on the railing in the upper deck, the two seats on the foul side of the foul pole. The Mets were still taking batting practice, and we immediately donned the masks and unfurled the banner and started yelling to get their attention.
Below us, Ron Darling and Darryl Strawberry were shagging flies in right field when they looked up at us and started laughing. Pointing and laughing, if truth be told. They hollered over to some of the other guys, and then there were a bunch of players pointing and laughing at us. Ron Darling then tossed us a baseball, and pointed towards second base, where the man himself was gathering baseballs in a bucket for the BP pitcher. He saw us and waved at us.
It was awesome.
So we settled down to await the start of the game, about an hour or so away, and tried to plot when the best time to walk with the banner was. We both agreed that later in the game was better, not sure why, but it made sense to us. As we were chatting away, Vern started making his way to the bullpen, lumbering towards our spot, so we jumped up again and unfurled the banner again. he waved and smiled back up at us.
Man, this was more awesome.
So as we get into the game, fifth or sixth inning, we decide...now is the time. We are going to walk the banner. So our plan was to start in the row in the far right field stands, and walk to the other side, the left field stands. We start, only to be stopped by a stadium guard, who tells us that we can't carry a banner like that while the ball is in play. But there was about to be a pitching change, so we could do it then.
As Jim Fanning marched to the mound to bring in Randy St. Claire, Squig and I began our march to left field. With one eye on the Diamondvision screen, looking for ourselves, and listening to a chorus of "Who the Hell is that?" we made our way from post to post. Satisfied with the job we had done, we rewarded ourselves with a hot dog and a Coke and returned to our seats to finish watching the game.
Then, out of nowhere, between innings, the Mets bullpen door opens, and out comes Vern, headed our way again. As we were about to unfurl again, he motions for us to go back into the stands, along the walkway that overlooks the bullpen, and he would meet us there.
Awesome strikes again.
We go back there and we have a few words, he asks if we were for real, and where we got the shirts and could we get him one. We asked if he could sign our ball, which he did. And we made a promise to stay in touch, which we most definitely did.
But some background information first here. Sometimes, as you follow a particular team, you have certain players that you develop an affinity for. Guys that you want to see do well, get that clutch hit. Not the big stars, but the guy that starts maybe once a week. Maybe rides that pine as a pinch-hitter.
Conversely, sometimes there may be a player that you can't stand. Sometimes nor reasons that my not be particularly rational. You just hate seeing this guy get up to bat or being called in to pitch in relief. Whatever. For me, Roger Cedeno fell into that category. For Squig, it was Ron Hodges.
Squig was known to unload a stream of expletives whenever Hodges was put into a game. All hope was lost whenever he saw Hodges by the bat rack. We had been to a nail-biter against these same Expos in early April as well and they had a lead going into the ninth. The Mets pushed across 2 runs in the bottom of the ninth to win the game, helped by a crucial pinch-hit walk by that same Ron Hodges. When Wally Backman then doubled batting right handed (a rarity for him) poor Squig was beside himself with joy and anger.
So, fast forward to our awesome day, and Squig goes back and watches the video tape and sees us. And I was right, not only did they show us, the announcers also poked a little bit of fun at us as well. The bullpen TV plays the TV feed as well, so as they are showing us maneuvering our way through the crowd, the camera cuts to the bullpen, where they know Vern is, and you can see a slight commotion as one of the Mets players pushes Vern out to accept the glory of his newly found fan club.
Anyone want to take a guess at what Mets player it was the pushed Vern out?
Over the next little bit, with a little bit of detective work, and some lucky breaks, we were able to get in contact with Vern by telephone on a few occasions. (This was when you had to pay extra for long distance). I spent about twenty minutes one evening speaking with his lovely wife.
Squig and I sent him a Fudgy the Whale ice-cream cake (from Carvel) for his birthday in 1985. (April 1st in case you were interested)
After the Mets won the World Series in 1986, we called Vern during the off season and he told us that if we made it to spring training, he would buy us dinner one night. So we took him up on it. In fact, that's what he wrote in the Christmas card he sent:
The Mets were training in
that year, the last before moving to Port St. Lucie. Since it was Spring Break
( a concept Squig and I were unfamiliar with) the nearest hotel we could get
was in Clearwater.
But that was OK by us. We caught a couple of games. We made arrangements to
meet with Vern after an exhibition game against the Cardinals, meeting him in
the lobby of the Marriott, where we watched and listened to the legendary Bob
Murphy interviewing the legendary Lindsay Nelson.
Vern took us to a little Italian restaurant and we had a good meal, a great conversation, and enough anecdotes and story for a lifetime. He told us that during the post game team meeting he was trying to rush Davey Johnson along, and Davey jokingly asked if Vern had a date. To which Vern replied, "I'm taking my Fan Club out to dinner"
(imagine a clubhouse full of snickering at this point)
To which Davey asks' "Do you have enough money? Do you need a little money?"
Bill Robinson, the Mets first-base coach said, "No, he don't need any money. There ain't but two of them".
(imagine even more laughter at this point).
I was happy to have met Vern and am grateful for the evening he spent with two bozos from Woodhaven.
Vern shared a few great stories, some of which I will probably share on these postings from time to time. Vern has 4 World Series rings, two from the
Oakland A's, and one each from the Mets and the
Orioles. He worked with Casey Stengel, was one of Lou Piniella's earliest professional
managers, and seemed to have winning ball-clubs on his resume.
When former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010, the first non-family member that he thanked was Vern, who was his first manager in professional ball.
In June, 2007, I received this e-mail:
I just wanted to let you know that Vern passed away June 11th, 2007. Your fan club meant a lot to Vern, it was something he was proud of.
Thank You, Billy Ray Hoscheit
No, Thank You...
PS Thanks to Squig for the pictures and the video
PS Thanks to Squig for the pictures and the video