Every once in a while someone in show business makes a mistake and I end up gainfully employed. Such were the circumstances a few days ago when I found myself on the set of a commercial, putting in my usual brilliant performance in the service of a chain of sandwich shops (I won’t mention the name of the product, except to say they are fine, quality sandwiches that are made fresh daily). My “co-stars” in the spot were a couple of New Yorkers moonlighting from their usual jobs: long-time New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and brand spanking new New York Mets manager Willie Randolph.
Over the years on various different projects I’ve worked with an eclectic cast of big-name stars. I’ve emceed benefits where I’ve introduced Richard Dreyfuss, Stiller and Meara, one of the Baldwin Brothers (I think it was Billy). I’ve done USO shows with Joyce Randolph (Trixie from The Honeymooners), Richard Masur (terrific character actor, you’d know him if you saw him) and one of the Baldwin Brothers (again, Billy–I think). I once did a comedy sketch on TV with the great Abe Vigoda. All terrific, all lots of fun to work with. But, basically, we’re all doing the same thing–we’re all singing for our supper.
But Willie and Joe! Now, that’s impressive! Everybody on the set was excited to be working with Joe, so much a part of our New York lives for so long–like a favorite uncle. But there was an extra happiness buzzing around about Willie. Here he was, looking trim and fit in his crisp Mets uniform–like he could go out and play second base tomorrow. This charming, classy guy who has waited so long for the opportunity to manage a team, serving his apprenticeship under Joe. He had interviewed so many times for managers jobs (ten? eleven?) and been passed over so many times (eleven? twelve?) that right before his last interview, with Omar Minaya and the Mets, the normally discrete Mr. Torre was quoted as grousing; “I hope they’re not just calling Willie in for the interview because they have to see a black guy”.
They weren’t, and to the delight of Mets fans (and Joe, and, I’m sure, Willie) Willie got the job. Now, here he was, just a few days before his first spring training as Mets manager, selling sandwiches with me and looking like a million bucks. There are days when you’ve got to love show business.
So everybody on the set, myself included, threw all professional decorum out the window. We were all giddy kids, getting autographs in between takes, pulling out the cameras that we just happened to have brought with us that day. Willie and Joe couldn’t have been nicer about it, they posed for every picture, signed every autograph, obliged all with charm and class. And they were funny in the spot, too.
For a life-long Mets fan, this was quite a kick in the head. At one point there was a lull in the action and Willie and I started making small talk. I told him how thrilled I was that he got the job (the job managing the Mets, not the job selling sandwiches–though, that’s nice too and they are freshly toasted). Willie said he was looking forward to it, that it was going to be a fun year. We chatted amiably about the new, young Mets–Reyes and Matsui and Beltran. All very amiable and pleasant–the kind of amiable and pleasant baseball chat you’d expect to have with Willie Randolph, an amiable and pleasant guy.
Not wanting to push my luck, but looking to keep the conversation going, I threw Willie another soft ball. “As a manager, how do you deal with these players with all their big money and big egos?” It was a generic, banal question that deserved nothing more than a generic, banal answer. Which would have been perfectly fine. But then this charming, amiable, pleasant man did something completely unexpected. He got really close to me, looked me right in the eye, and for the next ten minutes spoke calmly and with great passion about respect and teamwork and responsibility. He talked about eternal, manly qualities of hard work and sobriety and meeting expectations. He got very specific and he got very serious.
By the time he was finished I was ready to follow him into battle. This guy is a leader.
It’s been thirty years since Gil Hodges managed the Mets. If you’re a Mets fan, the name Gil Hodges brings to mind nothing less than George Washington. Hodges was big, quiet, with huge hands. Players respected him, they worked hard for him, they performed miracles for him. Gil Hodges was a sober figure, a towering figure, a man who personified the eternal, manly qualities. He was a leader. Think Gary Cooper in High Noon.
Of course, Gil Hodges was managing young ballplayers in the days before huge salaries, steroids and players strikes.
There have been fourteen men who have managed the Amazin’ Mets since Gil Hodges. There’ve been terrific baseball men (Yogi, Davey Johnson, Bobby Valentine, Joe Torre in his first incarnation as a New York manager when he was still young enough to put himself in as a pinch hitter), nice guys not quite cut out for the job (Buddy Harrelson, Frank Howard), total non-entities (Joe Frazier anyone?) and a couple of guys who would probably be better off in another line of work altogether (so long Jeff Torborg, see you in the funny papers Art Howe).
But Mets fans have wondered for 30 years what would it be like if a man like Gil Hodges was running the team. It’s going to be a fun season because I think we’re about to find out.
–Comedian Dave Konig starred on Broadway in Grease! and won a New York Emmy as the co-host of Subway Q&A. Konig has written a novel, Good Luck, Mr. Gorsky. Konig is also an NRO contributor.