It has been well documented that playing baseball in New York is unlike playing anywhere else, for a number of reasons. There’s the intense media coverage. There are the loud and knowledgeable fans. There’s the mystique of the city itself. The two words New York do not conjure up visions of cow pastures and the sweet smell of organic milk. New York is tough. It’s loud. It’s boastful and proud and in your face. New York is busy and fast and furious. It’s high and hard. It’s where you need to keep your eyes open and energy up. It’s everything to everybody, unless you happen to be somebody who is uncertain how to deal with the massive and unending rush of stimulation. It’s New York. It can be the most stressful town in the world.
And that’s just if you’re a tourist.
Imagine if you were a country boy – wait, that’s a cliché. There aren’t too many country boys anymore. Everybody has TV and the Internet and cell phones. Let’s change that scenario. Imagine if you were a ballplayer who played baseball in a smaller city, like Norfolk, Virginia or Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Imagine if the most people you had ever played baseball in front of was a few thousand on a lazy summer evening. Now, imagine if you were called up, or traded, and now, quite suddenly, you need to leave the world of fireflies and 5th inning popsicle-melting races for New York City. And you need to be there now. This second. With no time to get used to the change. It would be like Mom & Dad pulling you out of a gentle private school and dropping you into P.S. 185. It would be the difference between drifting on a quiet canoe and commuting on the Staten Island Ferry. It would be like Gus Johnson dropping you off at the no-hub airport and the #7 train skirting you into Queens.
Can you sense how one environment is different from the other?
There’s a reason why the entire world does not live in New York City. Besides the obvious reason that there aren’t enough bathrooms, there’s also another real reason: Not everybody wants to live there. Some people love the ocean. Some people love the mountains. Some people love the Midwestern life. In fact, lots of people love those lives. They enjoy the quieter cities and towns and the slower pace of life. Baseball players fall into these groups. Just as not every pharmaceutical sales person wants to sell to hospitals and doctors in the Five Boroughs, not every Major League Baseball player wants to play in Queens or the Bronx. Very simply, it’s just not what they want to do. The thing is, they don’t always have the choice. And that’s where the stress comes in.
Think of names of guys who haven’t made it in New York: Ed Whitson, Jeff Weaver, Kevin McReynolds, Art Howe, Carl Pavano. They were competitors. They had known success elsewhere. And others, like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, were destroyed by New York City’s temptations. For these guys, New York was a whole new ballgame.
When Craig Swan was called up from Tidewater to play with the Mets for good before the 1976 season, there was another man called up with him as well: new Mets manager Joe Frazier. Neither acclimated very well to the big city at first.
Frazier is one of the forgotten men in Mets history. He guided their 1976 club to an 86 and 76 record, which was better than the NL champion 1973 team and the most single-season wins for the team between 1970 and 1984. But, as Craig says today, New York took “the piss and vinegar” out of him.
Before Craig’s first game with the Mets in 1973, “I was pretty scared of New York and had never been to New York. I remember my knees shaking quite a bit before my first pitch.” He speaks today of body armor, a “chronic, unconscious contraction of a muscle or muscle group due to a physical, emotional or psychological stress or trauma. We all have some form of body armor. I held mine in my stomach.” He was able to overcome his stomach issues, even though he had to go to the hospital “for a week here or there so they could do some things to get me back on the field.”
Craig really liked his fellow call-up in 1976, who was a rough, tough guy. But the New York scene wasn’t kind to him. “For Joe Frazier, once he got to the big leagues, he kind of lost that rough and toughness. The ownership at the time weren’t the best owners, as far as the president, not the Paysons. M. Donald Grant was a hard man to work for, and Joe was working for him. That definitely changed Joe.”
Joe Frazier had never really tasted The Baseball Life in New York before his call-up. He had once been an outfielder, playing parts of four seasons with Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Baltimore between 1947 and 1956. Born in Liberty, North Carolina, his resume lacked any big city experience. He managed throughout the Mets farm system starting in 1968, but in cities like Pompano Beach, Florida and Visalia, California. Joe Frazier was unprepared for New York.
He had had success managing in the minor leagues, with pennants and championships from Memphis to Victoria to Tidewater. He had the pedigree to be a successful manager. But was that pedigree enough for New York? Or was it destined to fail?
There is always 1976 to look at. Frazier’s rookie year was his only full season managing in the big leagues. With a big three pitching staff of Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman, who won 21 games, followed up by Swan and Mickey Lolich, the team was able to overcome a problem that plagued those mid-1970s Mets, an anemic offense. They couldn’t follow that up the next year. Forty-five games into the 1977 season, Frazier was fired. Joe Torre took over for the 15 and 30 team on May 31st, 15 games under .500. With Torre at the helm, the team would go 19 games under .500 and go on to lose 90 games. The New York Mets did not post a winning season for another 7 years.
Is 207 games managing a team in New York enough of a sample to say a man can’t hack it? And when the man’s teams went a combined 5 games under .500, is that enough to say New York ate Joe Frazier up? He never managed in the big leagues again after that. His only stint in professional baseball afterward appears to have been managing the 1982 AAA team for the St. Louis Cardinals, in Louisville, Kentucky, not by any means considered a major metropolitan city. The Louisville Redbirds came in 2nd place, 11 games over .500.
What would happen if Frazier had managed the Mets in 2008/2009? With the proliferation of media now vs. 1977, I don’t think the Mets front office could have gotten away with it unscathed. While M. Donald Grant ruled the team with an iron fist, Omar Minaya and the current front office does not. In fact, Minaya had such a personal problem firing Willie Randolph last season, he famously had Randolph fly to California to manage one game before letting him go, only because the decision was so difficult. Minaya was roundly criticized for that by sports radio, print columnists, ESPN and bloggers. In ’77, there was only print. If this happened to a Joe Frazier-type today, we would realize that Frazier was either a victim, which would help him resurface fairly quickly in another big league organization, unless he had pulled some Tim Johnson stunt that was unforgivable by front office, team, and fans alike.
At the end of the original 1933 version of King Kong, someone says to Carl Denham, the man responsible for bringing Kong to New York City, “Gee what a sight. Well, the aviators got him.” Denham looked at the giant beast lying dead on the city street and said, “No, ’twasn’t the aviators that got him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast.”
With Joe Frazier, some could say the losing record ended his career in New York. But if you asked Craig Swan today, he’d tell you this: “It wasn’t the team that killed Joe Frazier’s career. ‘Twas New York that killed the man.”
You can listen to Craig Swan’s Jimmy Scott’s High & Tight interview in its entirety right HERE.
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