Shea Hey: Jay Horwitz On Four Decades As "Mr. Met" | WAMC

Shea Hey: Jay Horwitz On Four Decades As "Mr. Met"

Jul 21, 2020

Normally by now we’d be past the all-star break and heading into baseball’s pivotal dog days. This year, opening day for a 60-game season was pushed all the back to Thursday because of the coronavirus pandemic. Whatever it looks like, Jay Horwitz will be a part of the baseball season as usual, as has been the case for four decades. The New York Mets’ longtime p.r. head who now works in alumni relations, Horwitz is the author of a new memoir: “Mr. Met.” It traces his career from college sports information to the big leagues in the number one media market.

What do you think of the baseball season and what it's going to look like this year?

Well, you know, like you said, in your introduction, I'm not really that much involved with, for the last two years with the current day team, and I just hope that, you know, they can, you know, everybody can stay healthy and get a season in- And, you know, once you, if your team is in contention in September, I think everybody's still gonna be excited. And I really like the Mets chances, you have a good young team, with Pete Alonzo, Cespedes is healthy. So I think the Mets can do very well. And I really liked the new manager, Luiz Rojas- I'm excited about for Mets fans, I think they have a good year.

A lot of your book is about times when the team wasn't so good. And you still had to find a way to, you know, drum up attention for the team or things like that. If you were in your old role, doing PR for such a strange baseball season. What would you be doing right now?

Well, I'd be stressing charity work. I think people want to hear feel good stories. What are the players doing off the field? You know, how are they trying to reconnect with the community to, you know, to the people who have come down with the virus to do some, you know, work with hospitals, to work in community centers, to reach out to kids-  It could be kind of an awkward situation, because there's no fans involved, then- To give you an example of what we're doing now with our alumni team, we're doing Zoom calls to nursing homes in the area, because  the people can't get out and just kept the people about, you know, what, what is it is to talk to a baseball player and talk baseball. So just try to reach out to the fan base who can't be there, just try and reconnect whenever you can with fans.

Let's talk a little bit about your new job, the last couple of seasons in Alumni Relations-

Right.

You say that's an area where the Mets, um, you know, they didn't do a lot before, so what, why did you want to go into that role?

Well, to be honest with you, I was hired by the Mets in 1980 to be the PR guy. And in 2018, Jeff Wilpon, one of our owners came and said, "Jay, What did he get back to switching jobs, the next year?"- Which would have been- Last year, was the 50th anniversary of the "Miracle Mets" in '69, - "You want to work with these guys?" We really haven't done a whole lot with the, with the alumni, and I honestly, my first reaction, I wasn't crazy about it. I like to travel. I like the camaraderie in the locker rooms. I said, "Okay, let me give it a chance." And I'm really glad that I did. What we've try to do is reconnect with the people, bring it back to the Mets family. The last two years, we put players in full uniform to spring training in St. Lucie:  Ron Swoboda, Mike Hampton, you know, Jerry Grote, Cleon Jones, they sign autographs. And I'll give you one example: we had the first player the Mets signed in 1961, was a catcher named Hobie Landrift, I called him about a half a year ago. And after he said to me, you know, "Jay, you're the first person from the Mets organization to call me in 50 years." And well, now- We're just talking about these guys who are a part of the Mets history, let them know we gave a damn and trying to feel good about themselves and try to make them feel good about being a Met player.

In your own role, you write about in your book, how much camaraderie you had with certain teams, especially '86, which gets so much attention, when they were much closer in age to you. Was it harder to do your job as you got older, and you know, the average player stayed in his 20s?

Well, I tell you what, it wasn't, this is- I never considered myself to be a suit. I wanted to be, you know- One thing, you know, I always found, to get it along in the lock and have to adjust to the climate in the locker room. I'll give you a story, the present day, when, when I was working on my book, the people at Triumph Books said, "Who do you have a good relationship, you know, on the current team?" I said, you know, "Jacob deGrom." So this is, Jacob and I, you know, about 40 years older than Jacob deGrom. So what we did, I would say, "Jacob, I need you to do an interview." "Okay, Jay, I'll do the interview for you." But, you know, we had a basketball court in the locker room, "You have to make two or three shots for me to do the interview." I never made two or three shots, but with the team watching, I kind of make a jerk, jerk of myself and I missed, he did the interview. In an another occasion, and he would say, "Okay, I'll do the interview for you this time, but you have to go on the field and hit fungos to me and Steven Matz for half hour, then I'll do the interview." And I didn't really do too well at that. The point is, I never took myself seriously, I was always okay to make myself the butt of jokes. And that's how I got along with the younger guys through the years. I didn't want to be a front office suit, I had to develop a layer of trust with them and I was here to help them. When the guys came up, I gave them really simple advice. You know, "If you have a part of the game, good or bad, be in front your locker. Be honest with the press. The press is not your friend, understand that, but be truthful with them." And, and that's what I try to do. Just to let these guys know that I care about them as people, not to always go to them, asking them for things. You know, be the, "Hey can I, do, do something? Does your wife need something? Does your kid need- kids? Are you okay with your kids’ school?" That's, that was really a secret for how I was able to exist in a locker room for 40 years.

You say that one of the mistakes you made early on in your time with the Mets was kind of overexposure with Darryl Strawberry.

Right, so you gotta- So when Darryl comes up in May of 1983, we weren't a really good team, you know, and Darryl is a, you know, former or first number one pick in all of, in the country. He was called the 'Black Ted Williams'. And what I did, I said yes to everything. Could have been a small radio station in Dubuque, Iowa, it could have been a newspaper with a circulation of 10, I said yes to everything. I overexposed Darryl and it put a lot of pressure on him but Daryl showed a lot of strengths. And he regrouped and hit 26 homers that year and became the Rookie of the Year, and slowly but surely, the Mets got better. The next month, after Darryl, we traded for Keith Hernandez. And for me, the, one of the key points in Mets success in the age, when we hired Davey Johnson, after the World Series of '83. You know, Davey didn't need the money. He was a millionaire, successful real estate guy, flew his own plane, got his degree in mathematics from Texas A & M, but he bought a breadth of confidence to the team. And we got, we got better, we got better players. I mean, he wasn't afraid to take chances on young guys like Wally Backman and Lenny Dykstra. You know when Dwight, Dwight- 1983, Dwight Gooden, he struck out 300 batters in Lynchburg '83. There was lot of debate in the front office, to bring him up or not bring him up but Davey said, "Bring 'em up." So Dwight wins National Rookie of the Year, that year, next year was the Cy Young award winner. So probably from '84 to '90, you know, we wanted to average over 90 wins a year. Unfortunately, only one once, probably should have won more. But that that was probably the most success we've had, you know, from '84 to '90, we were either first or second, in every year, those years.

You see some guys who come into that ecosystem. And you mentioned, you know, the reporters, they're famous in New York for being really tough, the back pages in the heyday of the tabloid era. A lot can go wrong for even very talented players in New York. What makes someone able to succeed and thrive on that, in your opinion?

Well, to be honest, I mean, you know, Dwight and Darryl, those two are, are two perfect examples. They had off the field problems. They never ran, they always stood in front of their locker when problems happened. And you know, and they, they, the media- That's why to this day, they're regarded as folk heroes and, and thankfully, both guys have turned their lives around. You know, Darryl and his wife, Tracy, are now ministers, they travel around the country, preaching against the evil of drugs. And, you know, Dwight has a done a lot of work in high schools. And he's done a lot of work in, like Hackensack hospital, he visits cancer kids. And basically the stories are the same, "Don't do as I did," you know, "Learn from my mistakes." And they're very uninhibited about telling people the mistakes they made in the past with drugs and other things. You know, they're great examples and I speak to them, probably, you know, once a week at least during- You know, one thing about my new job, I'm able to stay in contact with the guys I've worked with for so long, and, you know, we've done a lot of alumni work this year because until there was baseball, a lot of media in New York market was looking for historical stuff, talking about Dwight's Cy Young season, Darryl's Rookie of the Year season. So it was, you know, I'm really proud of the way they, both guys have turned their life around.

You've been through too many GMs and managers and coaches to name-

Right.

When something was going poorly, you know, there's some, some bad years in Mets history. And you know, maybe a manager didn't have a contract beyond the year, or there was a firing mid-season. How did you handle that in your role, knowing that, "Hey, we're gonna go through some bad press here and it's gonna be you know, somewhat awkward-"?

I took it really personal. You know, I mean, you gotta understand one thing, with baseball, you're with this family from like, February, and if you're in the play-offs, October, November. And when guys got, get fired, it really hurts. They're part of your family when- I remember when Art Howe was let go. You know, I was really crying in his office with him, helping him pack up his stuff. You know, you try and prepare for what's happening to try and gamble of what's going on like- Before each, you have a briefing, you know, before the game, after the game. You try to give these guys a heads up, what tough questions they might get. And when some guys lose their jobs, it's really, it- You read in the paper, "Art Howe, fired." I mean, Art Howe has a wife and two daughters, you know? People don't understand that, you- Me, I took it personally. I, you know, when a manager didn't work out, "Maybe, how could I have helped them more? What else could I have done?" You know, it's, it's, it's a, it's a family oriented business like, you know, I speak to a lot of my PR friends, like the guys in the NBA, say "Well, we have three games this week." Well, in baseball, you have 162 games 30-40 exhibition games, and during the playoffs, another 30, 20 or 30 games. So it's well over 200 games and you're with these guys all year long and it becomes part of your family fabric.

Did you yourself, take losses personally? I mean, you can't get too high or too low in baseball because like you say, "It's every day."

The thing I hated, not hated- I always try to be professional. One thing about my job, whether the team lost a hundred games or won a hundred games, I try to be professional in the locker room. I had a saying, you know, we had a guy, when he hit, you know, I have a chapter in the book on, you know, Shannon Ford, who was my assistant for so long and, you know, you know, she passed away all too young, you know, from breast cancer.

Yeah, 44.

-At Age 44, any time something happened. I would tap her shoulder, or, you know, have we had a sign together, we didn't share- Because I didn't want to, you know, you can root for your team, but you have to still have to be professional and, you know, to cheer in the press box is not a good thing. So we found other ways to celebrate, and we went down to the locker room with the players and we could celebrate. While we're up there, I try to be professional all the time and not to cheer or yell or scream. Because that's just not the way to do your job.

How did your job change with the coming of the internet and social media in the last decade or so?

In a nutshell, I mean, when I first started, I used to write press releases about everything, trades and injuries. Now everything is on Twitter, like, you know, the players announce stuff on their own. The agents leak stuff, the newspaper guys write it on Twitter. You know, right now, we have that- We used to have these media seminars in the spring. And just to tell the players that have to be much more alert now than they were 30 years ago, you go into an elevator, who are, who are you standing next to in an elevator? When you go to the bar, who are you next to the bar? You know, this story, Michael Phelps, the swimmer, couple years ago, he got into trouble because somebody put on Twitter, from he was at some kind of a party which he shouldn't have been. So the guys today have to be more in tune. You know, even in a locker room, who's hat do you have hanging in your locker? What do you have, that you want no one else to see, they have to be more on their throats and have to be aware of all the surroundings, is which really wasn't the case in 1980.

We're speaking with Jay Horwitz, the author of a memoir called "Mr. Met." He was the longtime Mets PR person and now works in alumni relations. Jay, a few questions about your personal life. You were a sportswriter out of college and then you were working at Fairleigh Dickinson as a sports information person, which got off to a very inauspicious start. Will you tell us that story?

Sure, it was December 1 1972. We're playing the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. And I was the official score, it was part of my job. I mistakenly wrote down the wrong names in the score book. We started a game with two technical fouls, and we lost a game 68 to 67, Al LoBalbo, who would become a good friend like a second father. He comes by the score book and score tables, said, "Now I know why.... NYU dropped basketball. You're a moron." And I was so embarrassed. I mean it was my first day at the job, I cost the team a loss. And- But it did get better- And, Al, you know, he, Al coached with Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski at Army. And he became, he and his wife Ruth, became like my second set of parents, but it didn't get off to a really good start that night.

How did you make the jump to the Mets?

Well, I had- In the winter of 1980, I had taken a job as the stat guy for Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola on NBC. And about a month before I was supposed to start, I get a call from somebody says, "Hey, I'm Jim Nagourney. I work for the Mets. You're kind of an offbeat PR guy. What do you think about come and interview for the job? And we have new ownership, blah, blah-" So I said, "Bob," I said, I thought it was a friend of mine named Bob, “Bob,” I hung up on him. I said, "I already have a job. It's not funny." So the next day I found out this guy was legitimate. So I called him back, I said, "I apologize, I didn't think there's a real thing." I flew down to St. Petersburg for an interview. I unfortunately went to the wrong hotel. I was late for the interview with Frank Chashen, who was the GM. Frank was sitting there, his little white tennis shorts. I was so nervous, I proceeded to knock over his huge container of orange juice in his lap, the interview lasted about five minutes. On my way back to the airport, I said, "Mom, there's no possible way I got this job." And 40 years later, I'm still here.

One of the through lines of your book is that you don't really take yourself too seriously. Where does that come from?

John Franco was, was my mentor. He- Some other guys too. They just- Johnny always told me and other players told me, the locker room was kind of a different territory. And you got to be able to accept jokes. And he said, Johnny always said to me, "If the guys don't like you, they're not gonna screw around with you." And Johnny, I could have written a whole book with Johnny did to me. The best joke: we're in the old hotel, the Biltmore Hotel in LA. He unscrewed horse head from the lobby, went up to my room, got the lights out in my room, put ketchup on my pillow, put the horse head in, under my sheet. When I walked in to my room, I thought I had a dead horse in my bed. So Johnny said, you gotta- I never took anything the guys did to me personally. I took it as a sign of love. And that's why I was able to roll with the punches.

You have a glass eye, which you talk about in this book.

I do. I do.

How come you wanted to talk about that?

Well, this is the thing, is- When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, when my mother was carrying me, she got, contracted German measles, I got glaucoma and my right eye. So I had a blue eye and a green eye. I was ridiculed a lot in school, you know, my kids could be cruel, and they ridiculed me. Then when I was in, when I was in sixth grade. The doctor said, "Listen, if you don't have the eye taken out, it could spread to the other eye and he could be totally blind." So I had the glass eye and I was always embarrassed to tell people that, I, you know, I said, you know I- Well yeah I could see a little, but I couldn't see out of a glass eye. Couldn't see, see out of a glass eye. I said to myself, I said, "Self you're going to be 75 years old in August maybe you could-" One of the reasons I was writing a book it gives some people that may be born with a with one hand, with a finger, with one leg, some kind of unknown disease- If you buckle down and make something of your life, you can do it. Just because you're not perfect, doesn't mean you can't succeed in life. That's one of, for me it's one of the really underlying messages in the book, and I hope that kids read it. Or you know, when parents tell them, "Hey, you know, Jay, Jay, got a decent career. He was born with one eye and did okay". And that was one of the things I hope to get, get out here and get across to people.

In 1998, the Dodgers shipped Mike Piazza to the Marlins and he spent about a week on the Marlins. And it was highly rumored that he'd be coming to the Mets. That was a huge trade that summer. What was the week between Dodgers and Mets like, when Piazza was on the Marlins? Did you guys have a strong feeling that he was coming to New York?

Honestly I didn't know until the day. We started speculation the day before and I didn't really know, you know? You don't really know until it happens and, and Mike, Mike just transformed our team. He became a rock star, we didn't have a team of superstars at a time and you know, we had, then we had more columnists following us, we, you know- And Mike I didn't think, after the first summer, I didn't think he was going to sign back with us, because he didn't play that great, played okay, not great. And he got booed a lot, and he was, wasn't really happy, you know? But it turned around. And you know, Mike, Mike is a guy who can speak to a lot of different things- And, I remember, when he came that day. We had a, we had a Press conference, after the game, Al Leiter pitched a complete game that day, against the Brewers. The press conference, you know, we had in the old Jets locker room, at Shea, it was packed. I say myself, "This is going to be a whole different kind of thing now, because now we have a celebrity in our team, you know future Hall of Famer, we all thought he would be in-" No, I had no idea really, until, you know, usually we see stuff most of times and stuff is speculated is paper, it doesn't happen. But thank God, this one happened and Mike went on to a great career and in the Hall of Fame, and we're he rightfully belongs.

And then another thing from the same Mets era, people might remember when Bobby Valentine, who was sort of a flamboyant manager in some ways, and a very smart one....he was thrown out of a game and he came back into the dugout wearing a disguise. That wasn't a very sophisticated disguise so it was obvious that it was him. How crazy was your job that day?

Well, Bobby took most of the bullet, he admitted it and he was just trying to- Actually was Robin Ventura's idea. Robin, Robin told Bobby, Bobby, kind of cajoled, Bobby, he said, "Listen, Bobby the umpires going to pay too much attention. It'll be fun, the guys get a big kick out of it. Nobody will know you." And you know, Bob, Bobby is a- I'll tell you what, let me digress for one second- in the 9-11, after the attacks, no one person did more than help reunite to city did Bobby Valentine did. He, he is a tremendous guy and did a lot of great things. And Bobby's always willing to, you know, take one for the team. He said, "Relax, the teams-" he put on the, you know, the disguise on. He got fined a couple thousand dollars. It was a good laugh. We had good, good fun with it. And Bobby was, wasn’t that adverse to make habits of fun at his expense either.

Are you working on the 9-11 anniversary game? It was announced that the Yankees and Mets will play each other in 2021 on that day.

Right. Yeah, I tell you what, I'm- You know, '86 was great. But if you asked me, Jay, what was the thing you're most proudest of being with the Mets?" It’s what the organization did after the attacks. I mean, we, we had, from ownership to Bobby to players like John Franco, Al Leiter, Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile, Joe McEwing, we did all the right things. We went down to ground zero, a number of times, without any media. We visited the firehouse, the police station, Shea Stadium became a recovery or to get supplies shipped down. And you know, it was just, we just, we just helped the city heal. And when Mike hit the home run that on 9-21 game. People took a deep breath, they were able to smile, our guys signed autographs for the firemen and police kids, after the game. It was really you know, it's good to win a World Series, I'm proud of the ring, I'm happy it was a part of that team. But it was really, looking back and once- If we get to, in next year, the game with the Yankees, it's to know our guys made a difference. We had the perfect team for that time because we had a lot of local guys. Franco from Staten Island. Bobby was from Connecticut, Al's from New Jersey. And they got it, we wore the hat. We donated money to Rusty Tom's police foundation. And you know, we were, not to keep you but we were the, we were the first team to wear, we were happy to honor the service the the agencies who lost a person on 9-11. You know, police lost a lot of stuff and members, and so did the fire department. The court office in New York was four guys, and two of our guys wore hats for the New York court offices, and I'll never forget, we got a call from somebody, the wife or somebody who died, said how much they appreciated seeing the Mets represent her husband on the field. Stuff like that, you know, you don't forget, man.

OK. I'd have to give my press pass back if I didn't ask you about the rumors that the Mets are potentially going to be sold, maybe imminently. What do you hear?

I don't, again, I don't really hear much. I- When I read- The only thing I could tell you is, I've worked for the Wilpon family for 40 years. Fred and Jeff have been great to me. And whatever happens, I wish nothing but the best. It's pretty good in this day and age to anybody to work for an organization, any team or company for 40 years. I'm really just proud of the fact I work to someplace for 40 years, and they've been really good to me and I wish him the best, whatever happens.