Friday, June 30, 2017

Grace Under Real Pressure

By Jeff Kallman

"A.Y. took a lot of kidding about his losing records," said Doug Flynn, a former Mets second baseman and fantasy camp coach, about Anthony Young, with whom Flynn never played but who met him at various Mets fantasy camps. "But he was the victim of some bad luck during the streak. He knew inside that he was a better pitcher than his numbers."

So did Young, who died Tuesday at 51, hours after two other former Mets, Turk Wendell (also knowing him through those camps) and Lenny Harris (once a teammate), tweeted that the unluckiest pitcher in Mets and baseball history had lapsed into a coma. "I got a bad rap on that," Young told the New York Daily News a few years ago.

"I always said I didn't feel like I was pitching badly. It just happened to happen to me. I don't feel like I deserve it, but I'm known for it. It was an 82-year-old record and it might be 82 more years before it's broken."

What couldn't be broken was Young's courage and spirit, whether during that horrific 27-decision losing streak or announcing at a Mets fantasy camp in January that he'd been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, after his wife brought him to the hospital following his complaints about unexpectedly blurred vision.

"That was Anthony," Wendell said in a formal statement. "He never ran away from anything."

Until Young's surrealistic run the likeliest Mets to break the streak appeared in the team's embryonic years. Craig Anderson suffered a 16-game losing streak in 1962 (after getting the wins in both ends of a doubleheader that May); Roger Craig suffered an 18-game losing streak in 1963 that put him one shy of meeting the single-season record held by Jack Nabors of the Philadelphia Athletics. Neither Clifton Curtis — whose streak Young broke — nor Young equaled Nabors' single-season infamy.

A tall right-hander with a delivery almost as elegant as Dwight Gooden's, Young actually had a 3.82 ERA in 1992-93, the seasons of the streak. He pitched for terrible Met teams and threw mostly to a catcher (Todd Hundley) who could flat out hit but who wasn't always a consistent handler of pitchers. (To Met catchers for 30 or more games, Young performed best when Charlie O'Brien was behind the plate, his ERA with O'Brien 3.32 compared to the 4.12 with Hundley.)

Perhaps even more surrealistically, Young interrupted the losing streak during 1992 when he filled in for injured Mets closer John Franco and recorded twelve saves and two holds in fourteen save situations.

Though it happened during the period when the Mets were brought low after several years of dubious moves that dismantled their 1980s glory teams completely and left them known as The Worst Team That Money Could Buy (according to the title of a book by the Bergen Record'sBob Klapisch and Daily News writer John Harper), Met fans set their disgust aside as the Young streak began building its sad momentum.

They treated Young much they way they'd once treated the Original Mets. The deeper the streak went, the deeper went Met fans affection for the hapless, handsome right-hander. As they'd done with Craig during 1963 (one nut sent him a black cat thinking it might change his luck), they sent Young talismans ranging from horseshoes and four-leaf clovers to rabbit's feet and, in the case of one female fan, her original $2 bill.

The Mets' offices reportedly got calls from psychics willing to pitch in. Even Hall of Famer Bob Feller, who wasn't exactly renowned for an accommodating personality as he aged, sent him a letter of encouragement among the thousands Young received from fans in New York and elsewhere.

The News said Young kept most of the souvenirs sent him during the streak, in the same box in which he kept them in his Shea Stadium locker. He also kept a videotape showing his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and his meeting with the family of Cliff Curtis.

The right-hander whose May 1991 major league debut involved relieving Pete Schourek against the Cubs in the seventh and striking out Shawon Dunston with the bases loaded and the Mets down 5-1 ended the losing streak with a flourish in two years later.

Even that one came the hard way. Young relieved Bret Saberhagen to open the eighth against the Marlins in a tie game and surrendered an unearned run, thanks to catcher Todd Hundley's throwing error allowing Darrell Whitmore to reach safely in a sacrifice situation, setting up first and second.

Walt Weiss bunted to third and beat it out to load the pads for pinch hitter/future Cubs and White Sox manager Rick Renteria, and Young got him to dial Area Code 5-2-3 for two swift if delayed outs. But Chuck Carr singled Whitmore home to break the three-all tie, and Young looked like he might be heading to consecutive loss 28.

Then, against ill-fated Marlins closer Bryan Harvey, pinch hitter Jeff McKnight lined a single through the hole at second, Dave Gallagher bunted McKnight to second, Ryan Thompson sent McKnight home with an odd pop single behind first base, and — one out later — Hall of Famer Eddie Murray doubled home Thompson.

Young barreled his way through the crowd of celebrating Mets to thank them and was escorted to relief by Hundley draping an arm around him. Then he returned to the crowd of Mets and manager Dallas Green — a man not necessarily known for suffering losing gladly — draped an arm around the right-hander. "That wasn't even a big monkey that was on my back," he said. "It was a zoo. The guys treated it like I had won a World Series game for them."

The hard-nosed Green, who once exploded at his players over the merest miscue in a game, developed a kind of inverted admiration for Young. "It's a difficult thing for him to go through. That's why we've had stiff hands out there. Everyone's trying to do a little too much," Green once told Sports Illustrated. (The article was called "Sigh Young.")

A hard-luck pitcher himself during his playing days, maybe Green understood more than credited when a pitcher took lash after lash but had the guts to face up to each one. Even the New York Times took note of Young's dignity. "Mr. Young endures all this with remarkable dignity," said an editorial, "acknowledging the pain of his predicament but never giving in to it by whining."

After leaving baseball and working in a chemical plant before becoming a youth coach, Young kept smiling when one of his charges would Google him and learn about the streak. Hopefully they, as well as Young's own children and grandchildren, learned more about his grace under real pressure, on the mound and fighting the brain tumor that couldn't and wouldn't surrender.

It was June 27, 1993 when Young suffered the loss that put him into the record books, No. 24. This calmly courageous man, with the most luminous Mets smile this side of Mookie Wilson, died on the 24th anniversary of that loss. Before you say he surely didn't deserve that, think instead that maybe God told him, "Let's make that date the date you came to peace with Me, instead."

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