Wolverines at Mets

University of Michigan Wolverines @ New York Mets

2013 Spring Training: The New York Mets hosted an exhibition game with the University of Michigan Wolverines at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida; part of a trend to open the Grapefruit League with an invitation for collegiate teams to compete at the professional level for a day. Some of the things you see in college play remained the same. Players on the Wolverines bench still ran down the foul line for warm-up routines between innings. The game ended with the traditional handshakes with the opposing team. It’s an ideal time for this match-up; Spring Training camps are well underway and Spring Break is travel time for college teams to fine tune their rosters.

New York Mets have been training at Tradition Field since 1988. It’s also home to the Port St. Lucie Mets (Advance-A Affiliate) of the Florida State League. This game also marked a historic event in baseball. The umpiring crew of four included two women; both in the shadows of Bernice Gera (a graduate of Florida Baseball School and first female minor league umpire in 1972). Fred Wilpon, the New York Mets owner at the time, is a U of M Alumni who was on their baseball team. A torn rotator cuff ended that in his junior year of 1956. The baseball and softball complex on campus has been named in his honor. For the Wolverines, it’s an awesome working spring break trip to the sunshine state. They will not all make it to MLB. But this experience is a memory they will keep for a lifetime. 

Still, over 80 Wolverines have historically made it to MLB; Four Wolverines were just signed last year in the 2020 MLB Draft. Hall of Famer Derek Jeter was offered a scholarship to play there and even took classes. But, instead of playing for the program at U of M, he understandably opted for the $800,000 bonus out of high school offered by the New York Yankees who drafted him. The rest is history. Most notable on the list of U of I alumni in MLB is Jim Abbott who, despite being born without a right hand, played for the Michigan Wolverines and went on to become a U.S.A. Gold Medal Olympian in the 1988 summer games, eventually going to play for 10 different MLB teams. One important day in his career is a no-hitter he threw in 1993 for the New York Yankees.

In the line-up for the New York Mets was Justin Turner. This was his last season with the team. The next year he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers where he is now a 2020 World Champion and the longest tenured player on the roster. Journeyman Marlon Byrd signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets after he completed a 50-game suspension for using banned substances with the Boston Red Sox. Ironically, Boston was where he sustained a devastating injury while with the Chicago Cubs. Red Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves hit him with a pitch near his left eye. Say what you want about Marlon Byrd. He managed to extend his longevity, after a potentially career ending injury, to a 14-year career at the highest level. And, speaking of injuries, Ruben Tejada was also in the Mets line-up. He later suffered a broken leg in the 2015 NLDS caused by an overzealous slide by Los Angeles Dodger Chase Utley at second base. MLB updated its rules after this incident. It’s now considered interference and an automatic out if its determined that a runner tried to make contact with the second baseman.

Wally Backman of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets was on hand as part of the New York Mets Coaching staff. He served as an ideal baseball ambassador for this event. In 2004, he was promoted from within the Arizona Diamondbacks organization to manage the Major league squad. After a series of legal problems became public, he was fired a few days later. He continued to pursue a coaching career after that. Part of that journey was documented in the TV series “Playing for Peanuts.” It highlights his comeback story as the manager of the South Georgia Peanuts of the Independent South Coast League. The locker room entertainment value is through the roof. After this spring training tour, he went on to manage the Las Vegas 51s a Mets AAA-Affiliate of the Pacific Coast League; leading them to an 81-63 record and winning the Pacific South Division title. He won PCL Manager of the year in 2014. Despite the setbacks and eventual fallout with New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson, Wally Backman has sustained a coaching career that speaks for itself. He’s been regarded as a player’s manager. Today he is skipper for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

Citi Field

2010 Regular Season at thenew Citi Field. Just a year earlier, the New York Yankees would have their own inaugural season in 2009 at the New Yankee Stadium. Going into Citi Field, they were also defending 2009 World Champions after defeating the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies the previous Fall. It was early in the season. But, just the day before, the New York Mets had a team meeting to stress the “importance of winning.” They would go on to win (8) of the next (11) games: they had momentum on their side. Regardless of what the situation is, when these two teams meet, they play with the utmost urgency. Needless to say, there was a lot at stake here. Constant trash-talking from fans in the stands reminded you of that.

Design of Citi Field includes the main entrance exterior that strongly resembles the old Ebbets Field. The lobby area housed inside is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Below is the inscription along the barreled wall.

“I life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson.

The original “Home Run Apple” measures (9) feet high and is located just outside of the main entrance of Citi Field. It was replaced by another “Home Run Apple” measuring (18) feet. Twice as tall, it carries on the tradition of popping up beyond centerfield when a Mets player hits a Home Run. Transitions to other the parts of Citi Field are not so smooth. Walking around the park leads to obstructed or blocked views of the field. The major trade off to the Jackie Robinson Rotunda is that the skybox suites or other facilities lined behind home plate do not allow a view of the game as you walk down the hallways in that area; reduced to seeing the game on occasional monitors.

In its (58) year history, the New York Mets have played in five World Series (1969, 1973, 1986, 2000, 2015); winning two of them in 1969 & 1986. Both those teams represent a renaissance era for the organization. The 2021 regular season marks a new beginning for the New York Mets franchise. On November 06, 2020 Associated Press reported that Steve Cohen, CEO of Point72 Asset Management and lifetime Mets fan, closed on a deal to purchase the New York Mets at $2.64 Billion; increasing his financial interest in the New York Mets from 8% to 95%. The Wilpon and Katz families (previous owners) will retain the remaining 5%.

Many changes on the way. But, the biggest game-changer was the recent signing of superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor for a year at $22.5 Million. The plan is to lock him in for the long term (similar to what the L.A. Dodgers did with Mookie Betts). If they do, and with the potential for other signings in the horizon, the New York Mets stand to be a big threat in baseball. “Yes, it is what the Mets fans wanted to see, their team acting like a big-market bully,” wrote Ken Rosenthal in “The Athletic.” For the Mets fandom, its hopefully an end to disfunction within the organization and the start of a new renaissance era.

New York Yankees @ New York Mets

Hiram Bithorn Stadium

New York Mets @ Florida Marlins

2010 Regular Season at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The Florida Marlins hosted the New York Mets for a three-game series in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. The humidity was thick in the air. Any sudden move would initiate a watershed moment of profuse perspiration. Players were claiming their spot near the cooling fans in the dugouts. But it was a privilege to take part of an event such as this. It wasn’t the first time MLB visited Puerto Rico. In 2003, Omar Minaya, the General Manager of the Montreal Expos, promoted 22 home games in Puerto Rico to help generate revenue for a troubled franchised. It was a success and it set the table for this series to happen. This time he was on hand as the General Manager of the New York Mets. Fun fact; David Samson, the former Executive VP of the Montreal Expos, who took part in its fallout and led the negotiations of the Florida Marlins purchase in 2002, was also on hand as President of the Florida Marlins.

Among the other dignitaries, Mrs. Vera Clemente, the widow of Roberto Clemente, and her son Luis Clemente were presented a donation of $37,050 for San Jorge Children’s Hospital during a pre-game ceremony. Just recently, Edwin Rodriguez was hired as Florida Marlins Manager; making him the first Manager of Puerto Rican origin in MLB history. It was an unforeseen circumstance. The previous Manager, Fredi Gonzalez was fired for sitting Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez down during a game after a lack of hustle. The front office questioned his decision to take the team’s star out of the line-up. Legend Bobby Cox was retiring and put in a good word for Fredi Gonzalez to replace him as Manager of the Atlanta Braves. Hanley Ramirez would later move to third base in 2012 to make room for short stop Jose Reyes who was starting in this game for the New York Mets. Mike Stanton, a player to be renamed later as Giancarlo Stanton, had just debuted with the Florida Marlins in early June. This was also a special day for his family in more ways than one. His maternal great great grand mother was from Puerto Rico.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium was named after the first Puerto Rican MLB player. He pitched for the Chicago Cubs between 1942 & 1946; also serving in the U.S. Navy (1944-45). His final season was with the Chicago White Sox in 1947. He paved the way for many players to come. Professional Baseball in Puerto Rico can be traced back to 1938. But, baseball’s origin on the island goes back to the 1890’s during the Spanish American War. Ironic that it’s start was during a time of war, just as it was during the Civil War on the mainland. Baseball always has a way of bringing people together, even in a time of war. Its not a coincidence that Hiram Bithorn Stadiums’ Art Deco design is similar to that of Dodger Stadium. The most common element is the “V” or “W” shaped roof line seen in both parks. They opened a year from each other in the sixties when that style took a resurgence. It gave Americana a mood of optimism and hopefulness that later flourished into the hippie culture.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium has played an integral part of professional Baseball in Puerto Rico. Leysa Caro Gonzalez from “El Nueva Dia” recently reported on a proposal by a Candidate for San Juan Mayor (Rosanna Lopez) called “San Juan se Recrea y Compite.” It promotes a healthy living via physical activity and nutrition. Hiram Bithorn Stadium would be an important part of this endeavor. It’s a response to the downside of stay at home living due to COVID-19. The concern among those in some circles on the island is that it did not mention anything about professional baseball. They’ve seen this same lack of priorities for the game of baseball that is attributed to the decline of the sport 10-15 years ago and the eventual cancelation of the 2007-2008 Winter League Season, due to lack of funding. The hope is that this time there is a groundswell of support to advocate for professional baseball. Just as the mainland, its yet another thing at stake in an election year.