It's a drab olive file box with traces of rust, like the one on the kitchen windowsill in which my mother vouchsafed her recipe for ratatouille. On the front I affixed a brightly colored Mets decal, three inches in diameter, that is chipped and peeling now; across the lid I stuck a label, ammo from one of those dial-a-letter label guns, reading NY METS AUTOGRAPHS. Inside I keep the autographs of (almost) every member of the 1969 world champion New York Mets, all sequestered alphabetically by tabbed dividers. I throw that parenthetical "almost" in because with it lies a story, one that bears telling this summer, as the Mets celebrate their silver anniversary by sitting atop the game once again.
I flip the lid and inhale an archival mustiness. Some other aromas in the box are only implied. That of pickle brine, for instance.
Nolan Ryan had soaked a blistered finger in pickle brine during the late '60s, at the urging of Gus Mauch, the Mets' trainer. It was to the tonic powers of pickle brine that the kid from Alvin, Texas, could attribute the continued verve of his already legendary fastball.
I take a 3 X 5 file card signed by Nolan Ryan out of the box and smell it to see if it smells of pickle brine.
"Gus, get me some brine for soakin'," I imagine Ryan saying a few hours before a game that sceptered summer. "Think I'll knock off some of this fan mail between dips."
I can't recall exactly when I took up autographs, but it coincided roughly with my giving up baseball cards. In the sports memorabilia collecting community there has always been a tension between devotees of cards on the one hand and autographs on the other. I ultimately came to believe that cards were too impersonal and regenerative: Once you had acquired your 1966 Willie Mays, there would be a '67 Mays to collect and soon a '68 Mays, along with the 600-odd other cards that the Topps bubble gum people put out each year. Autographs, by contrast, were little concessions that players made directly to their public, without a corporate middleman. There was one per life, not one per year.
I had no idea what the '69 Mets would accomplish as I began writing to them for their signatures early that season. But one imperative lingered from my baseball card days, and that was to complete the set. I had to get every Met, no matter how inconsequential.
It would be a thrill to petition such stars as Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee for their autographs. But it would be an altogether different sort of challenge to get the scrubs: Duffy Dyer, third-string catcher; Amos Otis (some scrub he would turn out to be); Rod Gaspar—or Ron Gaspar, or Rod Stupid. ( Baltimore's Frank Robinson, on the eve of the World Series supposedly said, "Bring on Ron Gaspar!" A teammate told him, "Not Ron—Rod, stupid!" Said Robinson, "O.K., bring on Rod Stupid!")
I would never trade my Kevin Collins, though the Mets did—had to, that June, to the Expos, along with Steve Renko and a couple of minor league pitchers—for Donn Clendenon, the righthanded power hitter they so desperately needed.
I had to have the coaches, too: From Rube Walker, the pitching coach, to Joe Pignatano, cultivator of tomato plants in the bullpen.