“The Tree Is First, That Dirt Spot Is Second . . . and I AM CLEON JONES.”

Jimmy:

Kids nowadays, grumble-grumble-grumble, feh!

Mike:

Problem Jimmy?

Jimmy:

boys-43rd-Avenue-1960sSorry, I didn’t see you there, Mike. I was just thinking out loud. You know I’ve still got a couple pretty athletic kids living in my house, so we’re constantly driving all over to Hell & Beyond (my mother’s expression) for games and practices. I’ve coached a fair amount, too. So has my wife, Lisa. And I always have the same, sad observation: they don’t know how to play anymore, unless there’s 5-6 adults standing around to help organize it. You could take eight 5th-grade boys today and they wouldn’t have a clue how to successfully play a half-court basketball game, much less a self-pitch baseball game on half a diamond.

Mike:

tumblr_l547524hGI1qc5ck2I agree but it isn’t the kids who screwed it up. Kids used to be left out together in packs to take care of themselves, like any other wild animals. When I was five I was taken to school by the other kids on my block, it was five through twelve year-olds. And of course nobody ever messed with us, we had to be thirty strong. If a parent tried doing that now someone would call Child Services.

Jimmy:

You are absolutely right, Mike. Another thing, I used to spend hours each day playing imaginary ball games in my back yard. On good days, Robert Beilman or Jeff Charles or Frank Dunne would swing by and we’d play Wiffle ball. Pitching, I’d always be Jerry Koosman. Bat in my hand, I’m Cleon Jones, baby. If this van be rocking!

Mike:

I loved Wiffle ball, stickball too. The fact is for me, I never played an organized game of baseball in my life. But I’m still sure I swung a bat more by the time I was ten than my kids did in their entire childhood.

Jimmy:

Loved stickball — and the sneaky fun of climbing on the school roof to fetch the lost balls that went foul. I’m the youngest of seven, so there was not much discretionary spending. I tell my kids, “I never had a lesson in my life!” That’s true, I’m totally unprepared for this world. My kids have had dance lessons, hitting lessons, agility and weight training, basketball lessons, horseback-riding lessons, art classes, pitching lessons, swimming lessons, piano lessons, guitar lessons . . . and on and on it goes, not to mention all the summer camps. Then there’s me. I don’t know anything, I’m walking around like, “What? Huh?”

Mike:

Well in Astoria we all had agility lessons, there were just no adults around. We used to play a game called “Hot Butter Beans.” Did you ever play that? The rules were that a child hid a belt somewhere and everyone searched for it, with hints of, “You are getting warmer” or “You are getting colder.” Then when someone found the belt they could whip the crap out of everyone else until they made it to a designated “home base.” We played all the time, all you needed was one belt. Talk about speed and agility training – get away or get whipped! We didn’t have a slow kid on the block.

Jimmy:

That’s hysterical. We played “Spud,” a softer, gentler, more suburban version. I coach a lot of teams and it’s remarkable how many kids are S-L-O-W these days. Now, of course, it could be that I’m an old coot suffering delusions through the gauze of time. On the other hand, it could be that a lot of these kids don’t run anymore. They just don’t.

Anyway, I came here today to say something about one of my childhood heroes, Cleon Jones.

JonesCleon

For starters, there’s just something beautiful about looking back in time and picturing myself, at age 8 or 9, this innocent white kid in suburban Long Island, pretending I’m Cleon Jones from Mobile, Alabama. Sports can be colorblind to a kid, and there’s something really nice about that.

Mike:

Yes, hopefully that thought process is less important now. But I agree, the only colors I ever saw with a Mets player were Blue and Orange.

Jimmy:

In 1969, my formative Mets year, Cleon Jones hit .340 and made it onto that cherished baseball card, “Batting Leaders.” There he was, up there with Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente. Good company. Cleon wasn’t #1, but it was plenty good enough, especially for the Mets. I was damn proud of him.

1970-Topps-Batting-Leaders

So here’s a thesis statement I’d like to try out on you, Mike. The Mets in 1969 had a team batting average of .242. Shamsky hit .300 in a platoon role, and the next highest after him was Ken Boswell, .279, also in a platoon role. Agee was a regular and hit .271, and then the bottom fell out. So, here comes my statement:

In 1969, Cleon Jones shouldered the largest share of the offensive burden than any other player in a single season of Mets history.

Mike:

Over fifty years, I don’t know, but who cares about 1965 or 1978, etc. When you think about our playoff teams, that sounds reasonable enough. More importantly you turned around and batted right handed for the guy when you were a kid. That is true devotion.

Jimmy:

I’m a lefty who bats righty. That’s me, Cleon, and Rickey Henderson.

Mike:

I liked Jones back then but I was all about the pitching. I wanted to be Seaver, but I had a rag arm, all of my training was built around avoiding a whipping. That does not build arm strength.

Anyway, when I think of Cleon I think of this image. When this moment hit I know you were in the stands. I can only imagine that childhood memory.

2027

Jimmy:

Well, the amazing thing was watching the fans pour onto the field, ripping up sod, etc. We were literally seated in the top row of Shea, turned around and had a good view of the parking lot. I remember the slow crawl getting out of there, the jubilant crowd. People carrying handfuls of grass from Shea. I wondered what they were going to do with it, and my dad said, “Plant it in the front yard, probably.” And that detail has always stuck with me, that maybe even now there’s an old guy in Queens somewhere watering a patch of ancient, magical grass that was once walked upon by giants.

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2 comments

  1. Eric says:

    Jimmy…Jimmy…Jimmy— you’re sounding OLD!!!!

    Kids know how to play…it’s built in! They have choices beyond what we had…. so they CHOOSE.

    ADULTS don’t know how to LET THEM PLAY… and we have taken no care to provide them access to space.

    WHEN WE GREW UP….. there were more empty lots—– and there were less Moms and Dads concerned/informed about the dangers (real and perceived) of allowing us to be alone in empty lots.

    WHEN WE WE GREW UP….. every Mom, Dad and Kid over the age of 8 didn’t have a Phone in their pocket….the habit of Constant Contact was not established to the point of sheer compulsion.

    Sooooo….. DEAL WITH IT. Youi Coach?… ask yourself two questions:

    1. Are they having fun
    2. Will they want to do it again?…tomorrow…next week….. next year

    You’re not building Sports Starts—They take care of themselves….as long as they are having fun and want to play again, again, and again.

  2. Frank Dunne says:

    HOLY CRAP JIM… You just brought back 45 year old memories of playing SPUD! WIFFLE BALL! EVEN STICKBALL at Beech Street School! I would have never remembered that- great memory. And YES… you always wanted to be Cleon becuase you played that well. I on the other hand always wanted to be Tommie Agee. Unfortunately, I never lived up to me hero’s name. I was more of a Marv Throneberry type player. Thanks for the memories.

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