- Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
ON A 68-DEGREE Saturday in late October, Art Shamsky left his apartment to see a friend. He grabbed a baseball and an old glove, and took the subway to a deserted train car on the Long Island Rail Road. New York was still skittish, and Shamsky had been too. He’d never been so vulnerable in his life. But he wasn’t thinking about the pandemic, or himself. One thought kept floating through his head: “What if he doesn’t recognize me?”
Shamsky had just turned 79 years old, but there was a constant whir about him; always someplace to go and something to do. When he was young and came to New York for the first time, the crowded frenetic life bothered him. Now he missed it. If things were normal, and he wasn’t wearing a mask, he probably wouldn’t be able to move about the city without being recognized. Shamsky was a member of the Amazin’ 1969 New York Mets. It had been more than a half century since they won the World Series, but he was still getting 10-20 fan letters a week. And it never got old. Shamsky may have been born in St. Louis, but he was made in New York. He was forever an Amazin’ Met.
The train rumbled past Queens and Westbury, places where he was adored. His final stop was Central Islip, near the home of shortstop Bud Harrelson. If Shamsky was a glue guy who helped keep the team together all these years, then the past seven months only cemented his hold. In August, they lost pitcher Tom Seaver to Lewy body dementia and complications of COVID-19. Seaver was the team’s true star, with Hollywood looks, a farm-boy work ethic and two nicknames: “Tom Terrific” and “The Franchise.”
When Harrelson learned of his teammate’s death, he cried out “No!” But a few hours later he had forgotten about it. Harrelson has Alzheimer’s disease, and if 2020 reaffirmed anything, it’s that time is precious. Shamsky didn’t want to wait.
Harrelson’s ex-wife Kim Battaglia, one of his caregivers, met Shamsky at the train station. They drove to the house, and met Harrelson inside. “Hey Buddy,” he said, “It’s Sham.”
The room filled with awkward small talk, but then Shamsky said something familiar, and Harrelson’s blue eyes lit up.
“Do you want to have a catch?”
AN AGING CELEBRITY, who, despite many Google searches I cannot seem to find, once was asked about the secret of longevity. “Don’t fall,” they said.
I never really thought about that quote until Thanksgiving 2019. My mom wasn’t feeling well, and she fell coming out of the shower. She did not want to go to the hospital, but then spent the next three months in hospitals, plagued by numerous medical issues, and never again stood long enough to walk to the bathroom. Linda Dian Merrill died March 2, 2020, days before the coronavirus shut down the world. She was 73, but was wonderfully weird and youthful, somehow managing to have fewer lines on her face than me.
In the isolation of the past year, I’ve been oddly thankful. I didn’t have to worry about tracking in a deadly virus when I visited her apartment, or say goodbye to her on an iPad. I couldn’t fathom what it would have been like for her to be here, of a certain age and directly in the crosshairs of a global pandemic.
Now, a year later, the coronavirus has killed more than 570,000 in the United States. About 80 percent of those who have died were 65 and older, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, despite that demographic representing just 16 percent of the population. Nursing homes and group-care centers were hit especially hard in the early stages of the pandemic, people living and dying alone while younger generations fought over haircuts, masks and freedom. Some political types even suggested that grandparents might be willing to die to save the economy. The elderly became disposable. Maybe that’s always been part of America, and COVID-19 just laid it bare.
But in sports, there is a reverence for past players and their history. Especially baseball. In 2020, while people were trapped indoors, baseball-card collecting experienced a boom. People like ’69 Mets pitcher Jerry Koosman received 50 letters a week. It brought happiness to Koosman, who looked forward to his 100-foot walk to the mailbox with his border collie Buddy (who’s not named after Harrelson).
The ’69 Mets were heroes who transcended sports, but for the past year, they’ve been like everyone else who falls on the wrong end of statistical categories, grappling with their mortality in a time when staying alive and healthy is deemed a victory. They share that victory together, because when you’re part of something special, bonds never break. Friendship can keep you going during the darkest year of your life.
It could be said that 1969 was a difficult year too. The country was divided over the Vietnam War and still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy the previous year. Racial tensions were high. Two unimaginable things happened that summer: A man landed on the moon and the perennially hopeless Mets suddenly had the look of a winner.
They had never, in their seven years of existence, been above .500 after the ninth game of the season, never finished higher than ninth in the 10-team National League. Their preseason odds to win the World Series were 100-to-1. The ’69 season did not start with great promise, either. The Mets opened with an 11-10 loss to the expansion Montreal Expos and lost 14 of their first 23 games. But they won 11 straight from May 28 to June 10 and took the city on an unforgettable joyride.
The games were dramatic, the pitching was dominant and a cast of various underdogs contributed in clutch moments. If living among the dredges of Major League Baseball humbled them, winning together fused them. They trusted each other up and down the lineup.
In mid-August, the Mets sat in third place in the National League East, 10 games back. They proceeded to win 38 of their last 49 and finished first, eight games ahead of the Chicago Cubs. They swept Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. Their World Series opponent was the Baltimore Orioles, a collection of future Hall of Famers who’d won the AL East by a margin of 19 games.
The Mets lost Game 1, then rattled off four victories to become champions. They were the sports version of Neil Armstrong and The Beatles. Shamsky appeared on the cover of a fashion magazine, locked in an embrace with model/actress Lauren Hutton. America was so in love with the Mets that a group of players went to Las Vegas and did two shows a night at Caesars Palace.
They sang “The Impossible Dream.”
They represented hope.
“They captured the attention of the world,” says television writer Phil Rosenthal, a New York native and “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator. “What made the ’69 Mets extra special was that they were underdogs. If you were a short little kid like me, and somewhat weak and bullied, maybe this team meant even more because they were relatable.
“If you were alive, it meant something to you. That’s how big it was. The little guys won.”
WHEN THE PANDEMIC hit New York, Shamsky retreated to Florida. He didn’t think he would be there long.
His city was resilient. When terrorists flew planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, the people of New York came together. They became stronger.
But now, everyone had to be apart. Shamsky tried to stay busy in Florida. The key to staying upright, he says, is being active. Having a purpose. He worked out six days a week, and took long walks in the sun. He learned how to do Zoom calls and started “The Art Shamsky Podcast.”
“You have to find ways to stay connected,” he says. “Otherwise, you fade away.”
Shamsky never let the friendships from 1969 fade away. He’s the guy who temporarily stood in as best man at teammate Tommie Agee’s wedding when Cleon Jones was running late. And when Agee died suddenly of a heart attack at age 58, he and Jones made a point to look after his widow Maxcine and their little daughter J’nelle, making check-in calls and visits. A few years ago, Shamsky gave a speech at J’nelle’s 30th birthday party.
He wanted to be an All-Star, but it was never going to happen in New York. Not with manager Gil Hodges’ platoon system. Shamsky, a left-handed outfielder, batted .300 in 1969, but because of matchups, Ron Swoboda started over him in four of the five games of the World Series. To this day, Shamsky says he wouldn’t trade 100 more at-bats, or 100 times his salary, for that season.
His first guest on the Art Shamsky podcast was his old teammate Ed Kranepool. A few months into the pandemic, the COVID-19 numbers started spiking in Florida.
“I see people without masks on, and it’s a little scary,” Shamsky says. “They don’t care.”
He went back to New York.
THE FIRST TEAM casualty to COVID-19 came in May. Nancy Pignatano was terrified of getting sick. She was living in Florida with her husband Joe, the Amazin’ Mets bullpen coach. She was following the precautions.
They stayed indoors, had their groceries delivered and limited her outdoor trips to grabbing the paper and the mail. But she caught COVID anyway and died in May at the age of 86. For months, Joe didn’t understand that she was gone. He has dementia. His family would tell him that she was out golfing with friends, and he’d smile and be OK.
Their younger son, Frank, still lives in Brooklyn. The last words he heard from his mom were over the phone. “Frankie, I love you,” she told him. “I can’t talk.”
Frank is the one to pass along the memories now. He was 12 years old that season — his nickname was “Little Piggy” — but he speaks as if it was his best year too. The Mets kept a tomato garden in the bullpen during the ’69 season. Joe found the wild plant, and instead of ripping it out, he watered and tended to it. “He was a Brooklyn Italian,” Frank says. “You give them a patch of dirt and they plant tomatoes.”
Joe’s very best friend, Frank says, was Gil Hodges. They played together for the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers and the 1962 expansion Mets, then started coaching together in Washington in 1965. They’d be at the ballpark all day, then meet for cards later with their wives at night, the room a chain-smoking haze of crab claws, mixed nuts and banter.
“I tell my kids it was a simpler time,” Frank says. “You could have a house and a car in the garage and have kids on one salary. You can’t do that today.”
Hodges was a Marine during World War II, but he always downplayed it. He used to tell his son Gil Jr. that he worked behind a desk. It wasn’t until the boy was older that he found out that his father was a gunner in the 16th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, fought in Okinawa and was awarded a Bronze Star.
He played with Jackie Robinson in 1947, the year Robinson broke the major league color barrier. Hodges was a straightforward man with little ambiguity, but he was also a dreamer. Just before Game 1, 19-year-old Gil Jr. was sitting in his dad’s office, marveling over the Orioles’ stat sheet, when he asked him what the Mets were doing on the same field with Baltimore. Hodges got up, closed the door and sat next to him.
“Listen, son,” he told him, “I have 25 guys out there who think we can win. That’s all that matters.”
The Mets had back-to-back 83-79 seasons after the World Series, and Pignatano kept tending to the tomato plant. They had high hopes heading into ’72, a season that was delayed by a players’ strike. During spring training — Easter Sunday — Hodges and his coaches spent a morning playing 27 holes at a golf course in West Palm Beach, Florida. Pignatano was putting his clubs in the trunk, Frank says, when Hodges suffered a heart attack, fell backward and smacked his head on the sidewalk. Pignatano held him as he was dying.
Hodges was 47 years old. For years, Pignatano blamed himself. He was right next to him. If he hadn’t turned around, he thought, he could’ve caught him. But Pignatano couldn’t have done anything. Hodges’ son tried to explain that to him many times.
“When you love someone like that … ” Gil Jr. says, “you will always feel like you could’ve done something. But it was out of his hands.”
Pignatano has a picture of Hodges in the house, and he’ll point to it and always says the same thing.
“That’s my best friend.”
THE LAST TIME they saw Tom Seaver was in 2017. Five old teammates stood in a parking lot trying not to say goodbye, trying not to think about how it would probably be the last time they’d be together.
It was two years before the ’69 Mets 50-year reunion, and Shamsky had decided to write a book. Perhaps no sports team has been written about more than the ’69 Mets, so Shamsky’s co-author, Erik Sherman, was apprehensive at first. But after some brainstorming, Shamsky came up with the perfect pitch. They’d travel to Seaver’s home in Calistoga, California, along with several other teammates, then Shamsky and Sherman would write about the experience.
Harrelson, Koosman and Swoboda accompanied them on the trip. “After the Miracle” chronicles the experience. They didn’t know what to expect. Seaver was having memory problems by then, and Harrelson was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. But on the last day of the trip, they caught Seaver on a good day. They ate lunch together and Seaver showed them around his vineyard.
The Hall of Famer had a deep appreciation for the collective effort it took to win his only championship, the diving catch by Swoboda that saved him in Game 4; the six innings of no-hit ball that Koosman threw in Game 2 that swung the momentum the Mets’ way.
They appreciated each other’s differences. They still do. Koosman, for example, occupies some of his time watching Fox News, Newsmax and OAN, while Swoboda still calls Vietnam “an illegal war.”
“He’s a radical leftist and I’m a conservative Republican,” Koosman says with a laugh. “No … We love each other. We do. We’re good friends. You play that long with somebody, you experience something that no one else had. … You have a bond like a brother. When we talk, it’s just like we saw each other yesterday.”
A few hours after they won the World Series, Swoboda sat in the Diamond Club on the fourth floor of Shea Stadium, staring out the window at the trampled-over field, taking in what they’d just done. He came to realize that nothing in his life would shine brighter than that moment when he was 25.
Around summertime, in the height of the pandemic, Swoboda worried about his country. He thought about the divisiveness and the struggle between fact and fiction on the internet. The late 1960s was a tumultuous time. But Swoboda said it was nothing like now.
“I feel a big darkness coming on here,” he says, “because we’re so separated as people.”
ED KRANEPOOL KNEW about darkness. He was trapped under the gray clouds of New York. He could not go out because he received a transplanted kidney a year earlier, which made him more vulnerable.
Despite having the toes removed from his left foot because of an infection, Kranepool was still active before the pandemic, working in the credit-card processing business. He loved meeting clients for lunch and the feeling he’d get when he walked into a restaurant and someone said, “Krane!” and then he could tell his stories.
But then the days were reduced to him waiting for the New York Post and Newsday to hit his door. That, along with coffee and breakfast, got him to about 9 a.m. Then he had nothing to do. His wife played canasta with her friends on the computer, and that kept her occupied, but Kranepool felt isolated.
He knew it could be worse. By summertime, thousands of New Yorkers in nursing homes and long-term care facilities had died of COVID-19. To buoy spirits, the Mets conducted virtual visits with area long-term care facilities and nursing homes. In August, Kranepool was the special guest for the Amazin’ Alumni series with AristaCare at Cedar Oaks, a facility in a bedroom suburb of New York City. About 10 residents eagerly waited in a parquet floored room with balloons and a Mets banner precariously hanging in the back. Kranepool was on the Zoom call while waiting in the parking lot for his wife Monica — the boss, he jokingly calls her.
But there were technical difficulties, and his face was reduced to a gray-and-white avatar. Kranepool couldn’t find the video button, then his connection was poor and the feed stuttered. “Is that any bettah?” he asked.
The feed faded in and out for 40 minutes and was indecipherable at times. It was almost fitting when midway through the call the Mets banner fell in the back. But members of his audience, who hadn’t hugged their children or grandchildren in almost six months, didn’t seem to care. They asked questions and clung to his words.
“I wish I could get to the ballpark,” he told the group. “So let’s clear up the act with COVID. I don’t like watching the games on TV. I like to be there.”
When it was over, a man sitting in the front started to cry. Robert Bongard, a 70-something in a Mets jersey, hadn’t seen his wife since the pandemic started, and hadn’t had a whole lot to look forward to. He said he’d waited his whole life to meet an Amazin’ Met.
WHENEVER SOMETHING BAD happens, Jay Horwitz is usually one of the first to get a call. Horwitz was the Mets’ head of media relations for nearly four decades, and is now the team’s historian and vice president of alumni relations. He is so devoted to the Mets’ family that every night, around suppertime, he calls Gil Hodges’ widow Joan. “I enjoy talking to her,” Horwitz says.
On Aug. 31, Horwitz was home reading the paper when he got the call nobody wanted: Tom Seaver had died at age 75. Eleven teammates are now gone, and every death is hard, but losing Seaver felt like the end of an era. There would be no public service, not with the pandemic, and no tributes in front of a packed ballpark.
Horwitz scrambled to call Seaver’s old teammates. He didn’t want them to hear about it on the news. Cleon Jones was working on a house in Mobile, Alabama, when Horwitz called. Normally, it takes a lot to pull Jones away from his work, but when Jones got the call about Seaver, he put everything down and went home to tell his wife.
“She just prayed and we held hands,” Jones says. “It was a loss of not only a teammate. It’s the loss of a friend and someone I highly respected.”
In the clubhouse celebration after the World Series, Jones and Seaver were interviewed together, and Seaver held his teammate tightly.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Seaver said of the championship.
The exchange might not seem like much today, but it meant everything to Jones, who grew up in the Jim Crow South. When Jones was a child, a white man ordered his parents to get to the back of a bus line, and a fight broke out. Police came looking for his dad, and his parents fled their hometown of Mobile, Alabama, going separate ways and leaving Jones to be raised by his grandmother.
He endured racial slurs and rejections as he rose through the minor leagues, and it didn’t stop when he reached the Mets. Jones hit .340 in 1969, and caught the final out of the World Series. He loved that team, despite the one or two players who Jones said would have a smile for him and his Black teammates on the field and contempt for them off of it. Half a century later, Jones won’t identify those players. He’d rather focus on the 20-plus others he calls “brothers.”
“There are so many ways to fight,” Jones says. “But you have to do it in a way that is going to be beneficial.”
He eventually went back home to Alabama and Africatown, which once served as the docking place for the last slave ship to come to America. He started the Last Out Community Foundation, a non-profit organization that refurbishes and builds affordable homes for the community. Jones is very hands-on. One day last summer, he couldn’t come to the phone because he was chopping down a tree. He does just about anything, and even fixes roofs. He says he can still climb ladders, but refrains from jumping off houses like he used to.
“I’m 78,” he says, “but don’t tell anyone.”
Because of his work, Jones isn’t the easiest person to get ahold of. Swoboda oftentimes just talks to his wife Angela. When hurricanes were bearing down on the Gulf Coast last fall, Kranepool told Jones and his wife to come up to New York and stay with him. “Well, I don’t think it’s going to be that bad,” Jones told Kranepool. “But I appreciate it, Eddie.”
Jones has watched racial and social progress inch forward and slide backward. When he saw the video of George Floyd being killed by a Minneapolis police officer late last spring, he thought about all the times Black men have been confronted with those situations but didn’t have the benefit of a camera phone. He has no idea whether the social justice efforts will lead to substantial change.
“As a minority, as a Black person, we dream a lot,” Jones says. “But we dream because it was a long time before we could do anything else. Now, some of us cease to dream because they see no way that things can change or be different for them because it’s been so bad so long.
“But I’m a positive thinker. I just believe things will be better in the future.”
IN THE KITCHEN at Bud Harrelson’s house sits a digital photo frame. It rotates pictures of him in various stages of his life. Sometimes, a photo of him in his Mets uniform pops up, and he’ll remember. “That’s me,” he’ll say. Other times, the ballplayer in the photo is a stranger.
He was called Twiggy back in his playing days because he was 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, but his teammates never questioned his toughness. Harrelson is known as much for a brawl with Pete Rose during the 1973 NLCS as he is for his Gold Glove.
Harrelson had a two-year stint as the Mets’ manager in the early 1990s. In 2000, he became a co-owner, coach and vice president of the Long Island Ducks, an unaffiliated minor-league team. One of his favorite things to do was to walk around the concourse, sign autographs and meet people.
Harrelson went public with his diagnosis because he wanted to educate others about Alzheimer’s disease. But when Shamsky invited him on the trip to Calistoga in 2017, Harrelson didn’t want to go. He didn’t know what to expect. But in the end, he found it comforting. Seeing Seaver, he told Battaglia, made it feel as if he wasn’t alone.
Harrelson’s neurologist told him that the best way to slow the disease’s progression was socialization. The pandemic ended all of that.
He had caregivers who came in — he was one of the lucky Americans who could afford it — but when the pandemic hit, Battaglia had to send them home. They didn’t want to risk getting Harrelson sick. But even before that, much of the burden still fell on the family. Harrelson’s cognition has declined to the point in which he needs round-the-clock care, and requires help for basic things such as showering, dressing and using the bathroom.
He’s uncomfortable with having strangers help him with private matters, so his family handles much of that. Including Battaglia.
It’s not all that unusual, she says, when you’re in the middle of an impossible outcome, when there is no miracle rally and the only ones left to manage what’s left of a parent’s life are the children. Battaglia and Harrelson divorced in 2013, but in March 2020, she moved into the house and took care of Harrelson so their 33-year-old son Troy, and the other children, didn’t have to carry the whole burden.
“I love him,” she says of Harrelson. “It’s not a job for me.
“He’s the kindest, most generous man I have ever met.”
AFTER BEING COOPED up for nine months, Ed Kranepool wanted to visit his son and his grandchildren for Christmas in North Carolina. He had it all planned out. He’d pack up some presents in their Audi, make sandwiches for him and Monica, and they’d arrive in 10 hours and wouldn’t even have to go inside anywhere along the way. They’d have a quiet Christmas together, and then they’d keep going south to see their daughter in Florida. Everything would be fine.
When Kranepool told his doctor of his plan, it did not go over well. “My doctor told me I was crazy,” he says. “I’d spent nine months in the house. Why expose myself when the vaccine was at the end of the tunnel?
“It wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”
Kranepool stayed home. Christmas was another gray, gloomy day spent inside.
In January, Kranepool became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He secured a late-January appointment in the Bronx, where he was a high school star nearly 60 years earlier, and the lifetime Met received the Moderna vaccine at a site near Yankee Stadium.
SHAMSKY AND HARRELSON got vaccinated too. By autumn, Battaglia had been able to hire two caregivers. But the lack of socialization in the past year, she says, has accelerated his decline. Sometimes Harrelson needs to be reminded to eat. He speaks mostly in one-word answers. He wakes up in the middle of the night, prompting Battaglia and his other caregivers to nervously check a monitor to make sure he’s OK.
Early this spring, Battaglia was searching for home safety information for Harrelson when she came upon a new memory-care facility nearby. It would surround him with people trained in dementia care and give him much-needed socialization. In June, Harrelson will move into the facility. Battaglia says she wasn’t looking for any option that took him away from his home. But she concedes that it’s time.
“It’s harder and harder to manage home care,” she said. “And it’s isolating.”
Shamsky started checking in regularly with Harrelson after the ’19 reunion. Harrelson needed a helper at the event, and Shamsky happily volunteered. He rode out with him onto the field in a cart that day, hanging on to his old teammate so that he wouldn’t fall out.
Battaglia, who serves on the Alzheimer’s Association board in Long Island, says Shamsky has been a constant. But she doesn’t blame any old friends who wanted to call and didn’t. She understands that people have families and lives of their own. She also knows the awkwardness and uncertainty of seeing someone from the best time in your life who’s devolved into his worst state.
But here’s the thing: Harrelson, in some ways, never really forgot baseball. During last year’s lockdown, his adult children would take him out to play catch, trying to engage him, and Harrelson would precisely toss the ball back and forth for at least 20 minutes. It was one of the few things that still felt natural to him.
When Shamsky called last fall, Battaglia told him to bring his glove. So he grabbed one of his old Mets gloves and a baseball and got on the subway. Erik Sherman met them at Harrelson’s house. They stood about 30 feet apart and played a three-way game of catch in the front yard. Back and forth. Harrelson smiled. It was like they were warming up for a game.
“For lack of a better word, it was spiritual for me,” Shamsky says. “Invigorating.”
They ate lunch, and Shamsky said his goodbyes on that autumn day in the middle of the pandemic. He said he’d be back.
ESPN producer William Weinbaum contributed to this report.
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