A Mets Hall of Fame Class That Specializes in Honesty

He sat in the audience watching it all, like a proud grandfather at a college graduation. Fred Wilpon, 86, had owned the Mets when their new class of Hall of Famers — Howard Johnson, Al Leiter and the broadcasters Gary Cohen and Howie Rose — made their marks with the team. At a news conference before the ceremony on Saturday, Wilpon beamed.

He did not take part in the on-field celebration. That was a stage for the new owner, Steven A. Cohen, whose generous spending and reverence for Mets history have made him the steward the fans always wanted.

But say this much for Wilpon, who bought into the team in 1980 and sold to Cohen in 2020: For all the dysfunction that often shadowed his Mets, he never muzzled the franchise’s voices. Cohen and Rose have been mainstays in the booth since the 1980s, blending genuine fandom with a journalist’s instinct to tell it like it is.

The Wilpons — like many owners — could be quite sensitive to criticism. But they always grasped the value of a credible broadcast as a conduit to the fans.

“I never called the booth, never called them afterwards, never said to them they couldn’t be as honest as they have to be,” Wilpon said on Saturday. “You don’t want them to be nasty, but be honest. And they were.”

Rose was the Mets’ TV voice for years before taking over the team’s radio broadcasts.Credit…Gregory Fisher/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Cohen, left, is part of an SNY broadcasting group that is considered among the best in baseball.Credit…Kathy Willens/Associated Press

When the Mets debuted in 1962, Rose was eight years old — precisely the age when a team and a sport can grab hold of you for life. A native of Bayside, Queens, Rose said that his old pals at P.S. 205 would be “howling at the schoolyard” at the notion of him as a Mets Hall of Famer.

Then again, Rose said, is it really as absurd as the Miracle Mets winning the World Series in 1969? That triumph, he said, was transformative: with relentless work and faith, he learned, nearly anything was possible.

Rose earned a spot on the Mets’ radio team doing pregame and postgame in 1987, and after years as their TV voice, he returned to radio near the end of Bob Murphy’s long tenure. Unsure of himself in that medium, Rose once wondered aloud to Murphy, during a commercial break, about his future. Murphy, who was 30 years older and stingy with praise, patted Rose on the thigh and told him he was doing fine.

“That meant the world to me and still does,” Rose said. “So when I think of Murph, it’s not just the happy recaps and all the great calls, it’s that, at the very end, I felt like I had his approval.”

Cohen, 65, wanted to grow up to play shortstop for the Mets. Instead, he took to broadcasting as a student at Columbia, and worked his way through the minors — Spartanburg, Durham, Pawtucket — before landing with the Mets in 1989.

It is hard to imagine a more engaging broadcast trio than Cohen and his SNY analysts, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. They are erudite and witty without being condescending, keenly focused on the action while remembering to have fun.

To a Mets fan, they feel like family; Roger Angell, the Hall of Fame baseball writer who died last year at 101, said he never missed a broadcast.

“I’m not really good with moments,” Cohen said, when asked for his favorite calls. “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 for the 500 hours that you’re on the air during a season.”

Leiter, who grew up rooting for the Mets and spent seven seasons as a rotation standout, made a fun connection: The last time the Mets enshrined a broadcaster was 1984, the same year Leiter was drafted (by the Yankees) out of Bayville High School in New Jersey. Then, it was Murphy, Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson, the soundtrack of Leiter’s youth on the Jersey Shore.

“I grew up on those guys,” Leiter said, “as generations now have grown up with Howie and Gary.”

As a fan and a player, Leiter said, he always wanted the hometown broadcasters to be partial to the team. It made sense, he said, since the vast majority of viewers were fans. Yet a pollyannaish view would go too far.

“That was my whole thing as a player: when I stunk, I was OK with the analysis of not doing well,” said Leiter, now well into his own TV career. “Don’t get into areas of what you think he’s thinking, just the execution or lack of execution.”

Horwitz, the Mets’ longtime public relations chief, received the Hall of Fame achievement award on Saturday and Leiter, a pitcher for the team from 1998 to 2004, was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame as a player.Credit…G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
Howard Johnson was a star third baseman for the Mets who had three seasons of 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases for the team. Cohen believes Johnson is underappreciated in Mets history.Credit…T.G. Higgins/Getty Images

He added: “I think with Howie and Gary, the balance of it, because they’re fans of the team and proud of that, is to be, at times, sharp — as a fan is. We get upset when we see things we don’t like, but we still love the team.”

For fans who share in that tradition, it is helpful that sons of Shea Stadium like Cohen and Rose double as Mets historians — a role officially held by Jay Horwitz, the avuncular team publicist who was also honored Saturday.

Cohen rightly noted that Johnson, a switch-hitting third baseman, had long been an underappreciated figure in Mets history. He had three seasons of 30 homers and 30 stolen bases, a feat matched by only Barry and Bobby Bonds, and Alfonso Soriano.

For Johnson, the last of those seasons came in 1991, more than half a lifetime ago.

“There’s probably not a day goes by that we don’t think about that, being able to play the game that we did when we were 25, play at that level,” said Johnson, 62. “Every time you get out of bed, there’s a reminder that was a long time ago. It’s almost like two different people. And the older we get, that person goes further and further away. And I don’t like that. I want to know that person that still played. I want to know who that person was.”

That is the point of days like Saturday: to honor the past of the people who made a difference for the Mets. Thankfully, some of those people still do.

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