Forever (Anthony) Young

Anthony Young was so much more than the pitcher who lost 27 decisions in a row. (via YouTube)

Last month marked a milestone for me. I turned 35. How did I celebrate? By inviting friends over to Barcade for some food, beer and old-school arcade games. A small but fun gathering, I got a chance to stay young for a few hours playing games like NBA Jam, World Series, Daytona USA, Punch-Out and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But I recently got a reminder that your childhood still finds a way to die, figuratively and literally,  whether you like it or not.

August also marked the 25th anniversary of attending my first baseball game, a double-header at Shea Stadium between the Mets and the Cubs. The teams split the double bill with the Mets winning the opener and the Cubs taking the nightcap. I saw my first in-person home run, from Jose Vizcaino in the second game, which also happened to be his first as a major leaguer. I saw future hall-of-famers, as Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson all starting that day. I also saw a fun pitching matchup in the first game with Bret Saberhagen taking on Maddux.

Saberhagen ended up leaving the game early due to injury and Pete Schourek came on and got the win. But I remember this game more for who got the save than who started. Anthony Young pitched a clean ninth, striking out one and getting his eighth save of the season. He was in the middle of his record-shattering 27-game losing streak that included 14 losses as a starter and 13 in relief.

Young died in July at the age of 51 — six months after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The news, weirdly, left me a little empty.

I owe my Mets fandom to a few things: my father, my grandmother, Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson and loving the colors orange and blue.

I grew up in the Bronx in the shadows of Yankee Stadium. I could see the Manhattan skyline and the lights of the old House That Ruth Built from my bedroom window. However, I connected to the Mets more than any other team. Part of that comes from my father. Like most children who find a team, I watched how my father discussed the Mets. I watched how he glowingly talked about players like Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and Keith Hernandez. Although he liked Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, I noticed how angry he got at any mention of the late George Steinbrenner on the local news. Sitting next to my father and watching games on WWOR-TV Channel 9 became a summer ritual. He taught me not only how to keep score, but how to think critically about how sports was covered and who the media gave the benefit of the doubt or outright ignored.

Strawberry and Gooden were rightfully bashed by the media and the public for their numerous run-ins with drugs and the law, but my father pointed out how quiet they were on the late Steve Howe in comparison. Dad gave me the tools to see athletes as humans and, therefore, flawed, and to admire their talent without engaging in hero worship.

My late paternal grandmother indoctrinated me into the National League vs. American League conversation. Despite her love for Reggie Jackson, she always preferred National League baseball and openly railed against the designated hitter. Being a NL fan made it easier for her to pick the Mets as her New York team when she and my father moved up from the Carolinas in the mid-1960s.

At the time, my grandmother, father and uncles struggled. It was the bad old days in New York and they found their joy and diversions wherever they could. Dad found his through sports, music and cartoons. Even as he got older, my father would always make time to play pick-up basketball, quarterback in two-hand touch football leagues, watch cartoons with me and play sports video games. My grandmother always tried to keep her kids on the straight and narrow and knew that sports and anything that involved “play” could help her sons. It’s no wonder that he passed on his love for sports and music (my mom would give me the bookworm and writing bugs). Getting caught up in the Mets of the 1980s through my father and grandmother seemed natural.

Strawberry and HoJo were my first two favorite Mets and both are connected to my first two sports fan heartbreaks. I sat next to my father and cried when Orel Hershiser struck out Johnson looking to end Game Seven of the 1988 National League Championship Series. I became sad and angry when I learned that Strawberry had signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I wasn’t angry at Straw, I was angry at the Mets for not doling out the cash I thought he deserved. (I was a different kind of sports fan). At least I got to watch HoJo bash a few into the Shea bullpen in the three seasons after Strawberry left, though after he knocked a career-best 38 homers the first of those seasons, he totaled just 14 the next two.

All  this came to a head when my grandmother and father took me to my first game. Looking around at Shea and noticing all the things I saw on television made my world. The right field scoreboard with the huge Budweiser advertisement. The Macy’s signs near the foul poles I always saw during home runs. I still have a picture from pregame warm-ups of an ad in the batter’s eye for WFAN promoting Mike and the Mad Dog and Imus in the Morning.

I got so used to listening to Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner that I started making up commentary while watching the game. I would use the time between half innings to go through my newly purchased 1992 Mets Yearbook with Murray, Saberhagen, Bobby Bonilla and manager Jeff Torborg on the cover. I would talk with my father and grandmother about how steep the steps at Shea were (we sat in the upper deck behind home plate, and I felt like I could just jump and fall on top of the home-plate umpire).

Young getting the save capped off my first game experience. It was a win in a season where the Mets didn’t win much (they went 72-90) and a season where Young would compile 15 saves despite going 2-14 with a 4.17 ERA. Young was only a couple of months into the streak, but watching him handle everything with grace from May 1992 until the streak’s end the next July was something to behold. He grabbed the ball and did his job when he was called upon no matter the situation.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Young was one of the few Mets who got cheers from the crowd as the actions of players like Bonilla, Saberhagen and Vince Coleman off the field marked the beginning of what Twitter would mark as #ThatsSoMets. The 1992 season was a disappointment, but it would be their best record until 1997, when they finally got back over .500. Young recalled the days where the Mets were lovable losers and not a bad team that people wished more ill upon with each passing day.

Young’s stoic nature during the streak is still looked at in awe by Mets fans of a certain age and so much so that he’d become a regular welcomed presence at Citi Field and team functions.  I remember watching a Mets game at home a year or so ago and seeing Young in the crowd hanging out with Ron Swoboda. They were players from two different eras, but both were “miracle” Mets in their own right. Swoboda helped the franchise win its first championship. Young helped fans find someone to rally around like a champion when everything else around him was an embarrassment.

Young’s time with the Mets was plagued by bad luck and a bad team. According to FiveThirtyEight, while Young’s ERA (4.56) was 15th worst in the National League in 1992-93, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) that judges the three true outcomes of homers, walks and strikeouts stood at 3.80; league average. During the streak, Young had the 21st worst BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of any qualified pitcher during that stretch. From 1992 to 1993, the Mets ranked 24th in Total Zone Defense (TZ), according to FanGraphs.

But he handled the media frenzy surrounding him as well as anyone could. When he lost his 23rd straight game, reports had Young in the clubhouse wearing a shirt with the phrase “LIVE AND LEARN” on it and telling reporters, “I’m not the type to run away from my problems.” For the way he carried himself while playing in one of the worst situation for a major league pitcher, Young was labeled “A Noble Loser” in a New York Times editorial.

After the streak was broken on July 28, 1993, Young appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Several years ago, Young told the New York Daily News that Leno offered to let him make fun of his chin in exchange for jokes about the streak. Leno used Young as prime monologue material during those two seasons. (The Mets, as a whole, were the butt of jokes for several years.)

Young’s death took me back to my first game and how the sport that I had already fallen in love with became more real. His name, along with the likes of Ryan Thompson, Bill Pecota and Joe Orsulak would spark a conversation with my other Mets-fan friends about how bad the teams we grew up rooting for were. I constantly joked about getting a collection of custom shirseys made that had names of random Mets from those early ‘90s teams, including Wally Whitehurst and Jeff Innis. Young was always at the top of that list for desired shirseys. I want one now because I want a reminder of the one guy it felt OK to cheer for amidst a pool of problematic people.

He pitched only six seasons in the majors, three with the Mets, but Young’s losing streak etched himself into the minds of baseball fans, and Mets fans in particular, as a sympathetic figure. By losing, Young made Mets fans embrace him because he handled it so well. For a team that had become a laughing stock and, eventually, the subject of a book called The Worst Team Money Could Buy, Young allowed Mets fans to look back somewhat fondly on an era that many would like to forget.

Seeing Young’s occasional appearances on television at Citi Field felt comforting. It made me feel like I was 10 again. Young left his mark on us and he definitely left a mark on me. His death made me realize that a piece of what I devoted my young life to is gone.

References & Resources

Stephon Johnson is a staff writer at the New York Amsterdam News. His work has appeared in The Classical, The Sports Fan Journal, Polygon and The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated. He would like hitters to emphasize making contact again. Doubles and triples are OK. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @StephonJohnson8.
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4 years ago

Lovable losers? Like Vince Coleman, Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Bo? In what universe?

4 years ago

Good stuff. Thanks, Stephon.

John Keating
4 years ago

Yes, I agree it’s not always the best players for whom we develop an affinity.

Eric Robinsonmember
4 years ago

Hello, I really enjoyed this article. Do you by chance have a picture or a link to a pic of Young in the “Live and Learn” shirt?

Psychic... Powerless...
4 years ago

Very enjoyable article. And Young was a class act as a Cub too.