Make Batting Practice Great Again

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Last Wednesday was a beautiful blue sky, low 80s with low humidity day, which seemed more like LA than Flushing. That was only fitting because the Mets were playing the Dodgers in a battle of two of baseball’s best teams. It was an ideal day for fans to watch the Mets take batting practice. The only problem was like, nearly every other home game this season, the Mets opted not to do so. I found this perplexing since the Mets, while enjoying a particularly good season to this point, were not exactly the 1927 New York Yankees when it came to hitting, especially when either Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer were on the mound.

During the exciting game in which deGrom and the Mets prevailed over the Dodgers, I asked a very respected baseball journalist about the disappearance of public batting practice. “The Mets analytics department believes that hitting “in the elements” fatigues players over the course of a season,” he answered. “They still take occasional outdoor BP on the road,” he added.

The Center for Disease Control has urged everyone to do as much activity outdoors as possible in this COVID-19 era. Outdoor batting practice is vastly superior to hitting in a narrow indoor cage because players can judge the conditions on the field on which the game is taking place.

While I understand taking outdoor BP on the road is crucial because Mets players are not as familiar with those ballparks, there is no reason not to deny Citi Field patrons a chance to watch their heroes take their pregame hacks. It has long been a part of the in-person baseball fan experience.

On Friday, I asked Mets manager Buck Showalter about the disappearance of public batting practice. “That has been a recent change in the game. The thinking now is not to tire your players over a long season by taking batting practice on hot, humid days or before day games after night games. Hitting in the indoor cages is better for them,” he replied. Buck then added how he missed the communication which takes place during outdoor batting practice.

Buck was being diplomatic. He misses outdoor batting practice, but he didn’t want to criticize the team’s analytics department. He knows teams have never taken BP before a day game or when the weather is unbearable.

It was his constant use of the word “communication” which intrigued me. Batting practice has traditionally been a time for the sports media to chat with players. It’s the only player access writers get who are not granted clubhouse access., and it’s the only time fans can interact with players.

I told a Mets player I saw after I heard Buck’s comments, I believed many ballplayers prefer hitting indoors because they can avoid both fans and the media. “You’re not wrong!” he admitted.

Mets pitcher Taijuan Walker hired a food truck to dispense free tacos just to the right of the Tom Seaver statue at Citi Field last Friday before the start of the Nationals-Mets game. Those who enjoyed the tacos were encouraged to donate, but there was no pressure if they did not. Walker is continually active with the New York Foundling, a Catholic nonprofit whose missions are to provide foster care, pediatric health service, and assist those with developmental disabilities of all ages. It has an office in Long Island City.

Whereas most athletes or celebrities generally stay at a charity event long enough for a photo op, Walker, to his immense credit, was in front of the taco truck for an hour greeting fans and taking selfies with them.

I was on a Citi Field elevator with 1986 World Series MVP Ray Knight following the Mets’ Old Timers’ Day game. I asked him if he still gets asked about his on-field brawl with a former Cincinnati Reds teammate, Eric Davis. “All the time. The funny thing is Eric Davis is now one of my best friends!”

Another Mets alum, outfielder Steve Henderson who was one of the players who came to the Mets in the infamous 1977 Tom Seaver trade, understood why he would get a smaller ovation than most other players from Mets fans on Old Timers’ Day. I told him I was in Shea Stadium when he struck out against the Colorado Silver Bullets’ Jennie Finch when they made a promotional appearance. I asked Henderson, who a Chicago Cubs hitting coach at the time, if Cubs players gave him “the business” when he returned to the dugout. “That wasn’t me! It was someone who looked a lot like me!” he laughed.

American tennis star Frances Tiafoe said at a post-match press conference in Arthur Ashe Stadium Saturday night that he was thrilled to go over to Citi Field before the US Open got underway. “I was thrilled to get Francisco Lindor to autograph a Jersey for me!” he said.

I asked Tiafoe, who is from the DC area, if he was a Washington Nationals fan. “I did get on the bandwagon during their 2019 World Series championship run, but that’s about it.”

The man Tiafoe beat in the third round of the US Open Saturday afternoon, Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman, said he always appreciates the support he gets at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, even when he is playing against an American. Schwartzman is arguably the greatest Jewish tennis player of all-time.

ESPN executives could not have been thrilled Saturday night when their primetime match was Rafael Nadal vs. Richard Gasquet. To use professional wrestling parlance, Gasquet is the ultimate jobber. Think of him as the ATP’s answer to such great WWE patsies as Johnny Rodz, Jose Estrada, and “Iron” Mike Sharpe. It was a foregone conclusion Gasquet would lose in straight sets, and that is exactly what happened.

John McEnroe was competing against himself Sunday as he was calling the action at the US Open on ESPN while Showtime was debuting its documentary, “McENROE,” which was also an entrant in the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“McENROE” opens with a 62-year-old John McEnroe walking the streets of Douglaston, his childhood neighborhood on a late fall evening. Following the path of his life, the documentary has him buying an LIRR ticket at the Douglaston station where he travels to Manhattan to continue his stroll through its darkened street. All the while Johnny Mac is reliving his life with rarely seen archival footage, and interviews with his children.

As expected, a lot of time is spent looking back at his rivalry with Bjorn Borg, who is now one of his closest friends. You can think of this as the epilog to the 2011 HBO Sports documentary, “McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice.”

While Bjorn Borg is the tennis player most associated with John McEnroe, the player who had the most impact on his life was Vitas Gerulaitis, who grew up in Howard Beach and graduated from Archbishop Molloy High School. The handsome Gerulaitis was five years older than McEnroe, and it was he who introduced him to the glamorous world of Studio 54, as well as getting backstage at rock concerts. Aside from being top tennis players, both McEnroe and Gerulaitis were accomplished guitarists who enjoyed jamming together.

It was Gerulaitis’s tragic death from carbon monoxide while staying at a friend’s guest house in the Hamptons in 1994, which shook McEnroe, and forced him to reexamine his life. He admits his embarrassed to watch footage of his on-court tantrums aimed at umpires and linesmen. Being in your 60s and having children can change your perspective. To drive home the point there is nothing the slightest bit cute or funny about his public anger displays, the documentary consciously avoids showing Johnny Mac uttering his signature phrase, “You can’t be serious!”

Family issues are raised throughout “McENROE.” He had a cold, distant relationship with his parents. His dad was also his business manager, and that seemed to bind them more so than just being father and son did. He takes his share of blame in the failure of his first marriage with actor Tatum O’Neal, but happily seems to have found true love with rock singer Patty Smyth.

“McENROE” is a terrific documentary because John McEnroe is fearless when it comes to recalling his life, warts, and all.

If you are going to, or coming from, the US Open or to Citi Field, it is a smart idea to stop in Flushing to try some of the great Asian restaurants. Kaizen offers tasty sushi hand rolls; CheLi is known for its seafood specialties; Shaku Ramen proves that despite ramen’s image of being a favorite food of those on a tight budget, it can be served in an upscale manner; and finally, Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao is noted for its authentic northern Chinese cuisine.

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