Sunday, June 4, 2023

Mets Hall of Fame Inductees On Their Memories

Al Leiter, Howard Johnson, Howie Rose, Gary Cohen, and Jay Horwitz on Saturday afternoon after their press conference. Photo by Jason Schott.


The Mets Hall of Fame has four new members - former players Al Leiter and Howard Johnson; and two long-time announcers, Howie Rose and Gary Cohen, and they were inducted in an on-field ceremony on Saturday before the Mets' game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Johnson, an infielder, was a tremendous hitter, a three-time member of the 30/30 club (home runs and stolen bases, and a member of the 1986 World Championship team. Leiter joined the Mets in 1998, and he led the Mets to the National League pennant in 2000. Cohen has called Mets games for 34 years and has been in the SNY booth since 2006 with Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling. Rose has been a play-by-play voice for the Mets since 1996, first on television before he moved to radio in 2004.

Longtime public relations director Jay Horwitz was honored with the Mets Hall of Fame Achievement Award for his contributions to the organization. He currently works as the team's alumni director, and was instrumental in reviving Old Timers' Day during the 2022 season.

There was a press conference on Saturday afternoon ahead of the ceremony, and here is what the honorees had to say:

Rose was asked what his favorite moment in the booth was, and he said, "Well, there have been very few times that I've delivered a call where I actually got goosebumps while I was doing it, and I said this to David, but when David Wright came back from his long injury-induced layoff in 2015 in Philadelphia, and he hits that home run into the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park. Just knowing how beloved David is by everybody in the organization, by his teammates, by those in the media who dealt with him every day, while I was describing that ball in flight, I literally felt goosebumps coming over me because, again, of who David is. The only other time, well, two other times I really felt that was Johan's (Santana) no-hitter because, as Gary will attest, I never thought that was going to happen. I mean, I thought it was just fated somehow that the Mets would never throw a no-hitter, and when that ball nestled into Josh Thole's glove, I said, 'really?' and then went on with the rest of the call, but to have the words 'the Mets win the pennant' come out of my mouth in 2015, that's pretty good, I almost choked up when I made it because of what that meant, so those are the few off the top of my head."

Cohen said to the same question of his favorites, "I'm not really good with moments, my feeling has always been that the most important part of any broadcaster's job is not what they do in the 15 seconds where a big play happens, but more of how they settle in with fans over the 500 hours that you're on the air during a season, but I will say this: the 1999 season was the most memorable to me. I arrived in 1989 after the greatest five-year stretch in the history  of the franchise, and things suddenly plummeted when I arrived, no coincidence I'm sure (he said in jest), but after 10 years of the Mets not making the postseason, 1999 for me was just a magical year. There were so many memorable moments, and Al can probably attest to them all, coming from four runs down in the bottom of the ninth to beat Curt Schilling, the last weekend when the Mets were two behind with three to play, and Brad Clontz (of the Pittsburgh Pirates) throws the wild pitch (in the final regular season game) that gives them a chance to get into the postseason, and then of course, Al's spectacular performance in Cincinnati (in the Wild Card playoff game), Fonzie (Edgardo Alfonzo) hitting the grand slam in Arizona (Game 1 of the Division Series), and Todd Pratt hitting the game-winning home run in the final game of the series against Arizona; Robin Ventura's grand slam single (to end Game 5 of the NCLS against Atlanta), (Mike) Piazza's home run against (John) Smoltz in Game 6, I mean, all those things, one after another that season, that for me was the most memorable time that I've ever spent behind the microphone."

Leiter was asked about the end of that 1999 season, and he said, "You know what, I think the excitement of it all, you get consumed by what's transpiring, right, so we knew we were good and we were on the verge of something special, obviously, the next year we go to the World Series, but that particular game, because when we completed our 162nd game, because of the central time zone, we had to wait for Cincinnati and Milwaukee, and I was either, 'I'm pitching Game 1 against Randy Johnson in Arizona or we're gonna make this detour into Cincinnati,' and I think for all players, or maybe just where I was mentally when I got to the Mets, if you're locked in and you feel good about what you're doing, what you're accomplishing and the execution, the plan, the process, all that, it's exciting. So, we were up in the Diamond Club (at Shea Stadium), we had to wait, I remember our game was quick, and they had a rain delay, so, but I felt good, I felt good either way, you know, I was ready, I was prepared for it. I think my experience previously of being in World Series helped because it's a compelling game. You know, you fly into Cincinnati, pitch poorly, good chance you're flying back to LaGuardia (airport), but I was in a place where I was excited about it, and I was excited about our team because we were starting to feel the mojo, and it was building, so it was all positive." 

Leiter's use of the word mojo is kind of a reference to The Doors' song "Mr. Mojo Risin'" becoming an anthem of the 1999 Mets.

Johnson, known as HoJo, was asked about being a member of the 1984 Detroit Tigers, one of the greatest teams ever, but not getting to play in the postseason, and how a move to the Mets the following season helped his career, "Well, it helped a lot to be in that environment for five games. We kind of went right through Kansas City and San Diego to win the ring. It helped to be in that, it helped to be on that team all that season, you know, winning big and just making sure we kept it there, and then getting traded over here. When I heard Jay's voice on the line, I was real excited, I was ecstatic about it because, any time you go through that stuff, even though I wasn't a big part of the World Series that year, in '84, played a lot during the season, and that experience still carries over. It's Major League Baseball, and when you go from one place to the next, if you're looking for similarities, you know, the Mets were certainly the equal to Detroit, I mean, when it comes to players and the ability and the potential to win a championship, so, for me, it was fine. It was an easy transition, National League, I love the National League, always have, and the style of play just hit me better, so it was great."

Leiter, who went into broadcasting after his career, was asked what it means to a fan base to have longtime announcers like Rose and Cohen and what makes them special and he said, "I'm not a broadcaster, I do television," he said to laughter. "So, I never got the whole impartial thing. I don't think you should be a homer, and I've said this to these guys numerous times, I think when you're doing a team's broadcast, radio or television, I'll throw a number out there, 95 percent of the people watching are fans of that club. I never got that you're not supposed to show favoritism; I disagree. As a player, I enjoyed it, I wanted to hear my guys, you know, say favorable things, but also be honest, and that was my whole thing as a player. When I stunk, I was okay with the analysis of not doing well. Don't get into areas of what you think he's thinking, or it looks like it might be this, just the execution or lack of execution, so for these guys, and I was joking with them a little about this because, you know, when I say I was a Mets fan, I was a Mets fan at birth. My Dad, born in Manhattan, raised in Long Island, loved Casey Stengel, and it was the start of the Leiter family, and it was all about that. As a baseball player, got a circuitous route, I got drafted by the Yankees, I go to Toronto, then Florida, so when I finally got here, everything about the uniform, the stadium, it was - I was so happy, and I tried to be more than just a pitcher, so when I do listen to the broadcasts, I think it's important that your broadcasters have some sense of 'win one for the good guys,' and I don't know where the 'homer' comes into it. I think Howie and Gary, the balance of, because they're fans of the team, why not, and be proud of that, is to be, at times, sharp, as a fan is, right, we get a little upset when we see things that we don't like, but you still love your team, so for the longevity, the consistency of that voice. I graduated high school in 1984; the New York Mets put in their Hall of Fame, the last time, broadcasters, was my senior year of high school. For whatever it's worth, 1984, put in Lindsey Nelson, Murph (Bob Murphy), and Ralph Kiner, and here, HoJo and I going in with the next set of voices, and I get that, I grew up on those guys, as generations now have grown up with Howie and Gary."

Cohen said earlier in the press conference that Leiter and Johnson were two of his favorite players to cover, he was asked why, and he said, "I'll start with Al because nobody brought his passion for playing out in public as much as Al did, and you know, most people who play Major League Baseball are passionate about what they do because you couldn't be as successful as these guys are at the highest level unless you did have passion, but Al wasn't afraid to show his passion. You know, so many guys are stoic, and that works to their advantage, but Al lived and died with every pitch, and as a fan, as a broadcaster, you can live and die with him, and he brought that intensity to every start, and it was joyous to watch, and you know, he talks about falling short in the 2000 World Series, he didn't fall short. That 142 pitches that he threw in Game 5 before he gave up the 18-hop single to Luis Sojo that wound up beating him, that was one of the most heroic efforts I've ever seen, and Al should always be applauded for that. As for Howard, I feel as though he was an overlooked piece of Mets history for far too long. You know, he was not a star on the 1986 team - he was an important piece - but he became a star on Mets teams that weren't as good, and I think that because of that, he sometimes gets overlooked, but there are very few players in the history of the game who have been switch-hitters with the power and speed that HoJo brought to the table, and to be a three-time 30/30 player is an extraordinary feat, and his time in this Hall of Fame should have started a long time ago, and I'm glad we finally righted that wrong."

Rose then said, "Can I add one thing about Al and Howard, this is very important to me because, you know, a lot of guys hear stuff on the air, or they thought they heard it, but they heard it from their wives or their kids, whatever, so I could probably count on less than the entirety of two hands the number of players who, in my career, have actually voluntarily come up to me and said, 'hey, thanks for what you said on the air last night,' and both Al and Howard, at one time or another in their careers, did that. You have no idea how grateful that makes us because you generally only hear when a player's upset about something you said, but for these two and a couple of others to have said, 'thanks for that last night,' that means the world! (as he hit the table) So thank you."

Horwitz, who has orchestrated events for the Mets for 44 years, was asked about what it was like to be on the other side of the table for once, and he said, "Weird, really weird," to laughter. "I mean, I don't like to be on this side of the table, you know, I mean, we've done a lot of great things the last couple of years, the Old Timers' Day game, trying to keep the tradition alive, so when I, you know, switched jobs in 2019 (when he went from being head of public relations to alumni director), my whole thing was not just to bring back the superstar guys, to bring back the average, the 25th guy on the team. One of the great quotes I ever got, Hobie Landrith was the first guy we picked in 1962, and when I spoke to him, he said I was 'the first guy from the organization I'd spoke to in 50 years.' That was in a nutshell what we were trying to do to reunite the family, but I think we're at a good place with the alumni, with retirements, the Hall of Fame stuff, you know, and it really makes me proud to - I worked with all these guys, so that makes it great, but it's awkward being on this side of the thing for sure."

Jay was then asked what stands out about any accomplishments through his career, and he said, "The hardest thing for a PR guy is to strike the balance between ownership, the players, and media. The players think you're partial to the media; the media thinks you're partial to the players; ownership thinks you're partial to players and the media. So, it was all about trying to walk a balance and keep the trust, you know. New York is a big city, a lot of papers, once you get caught in a lie, PR guy's a dead man. I always tried to be honorable, tell the truth, and don't lose the level of confidence in me, and that's what I tried to do for years."

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