Al wasn't a great pitcher. By the pitching standards baseball holds so dear, he produced a mostly modest career. But his character, happy demeanor and unsurpassed decency have put him in the pantheon of the exalted and splendid folks who have walked this planet.
He was a prominent member of the 1962 Mets, the most dreadful team in history -- 120 losses, 20 of which were credited to his 10-season account. No loss by that team, Casey's beloved bunglers, would have compared to the loss of Little Alvin.
Al -- it never seemed proper to identify him impersonally as Jackson -- was an Original Met. That distinction always has warranted mention, appreciation and uppercase treatment in this city. The team was loved because of its faults, flaws, futility and failings. Its grade would have been in upper case as well -- F. But the '62 bunch and the four editions that followed were embraced by fans the newspapers came to identify as "The New Breed."
The cold, corporate Yankees were cheered for their successes in 1962-64. And in those years and beyond, the Mets, warts and all, endeared themselves to the public. Indeed, the more warts, the better. Rod Kanehl, Craig Anderson, Choo Choo Coleman. I still think wart-covered Marvelous Marv Throneberry deserves a plaque in the club's Hall of Fame, along with Jackson, Seaver, Hernandez, Agee, Staub, et al, because he is most representative of that defective first bunch.
Jackson, now 79, wasn't a wart, far from it, no matter that his losses totaled 20 in 1962 and '65, and that he averaged 18 losses per year for the first four Mets summers. He won 40 games for those teams, more than any colleague. He pitched each of the team's four shutouts in '62, and threw six more in the first of his two tours with the Mets. He started their third game at the dilapidated Polo Grounds. It was a loss, of course; they lost their first nine. Two years later, when Shea Stadium still was in diapers, Al was the winning pitcher for the Mets' first victory in their new digs. He threw a six-hit shutout against the Pirates of Clemente and Stargell.
Although he later pitched for the Cardinals -- 22-19 in two seasons -- and briefly with the Reds in 1969, he was recognized primarily as a Met. He returned to pitch for the Mets in 1968 and provided 11 forgettable April/May innings to the Gil Hodges team that later laid claim to October 1969.
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So this is a Mets thing and a personal thing that we're dealing with now. Al worked as pitching coach for the Red Sox and Cardinals -- three years each. But most of his post-pitching time in the Mets' employ has come at the Minor League level. The club would bring him him to New York to fix a phenom or send one to Port St. Lucie for a tutorial. So, yes, this is Mets thing.
And that's why his well-being and his hospitalization in Fort Pierce, Fla., have struck me. I've been around the various incarnations of the team for the better part of 44 years and spent not enough hours in the presence of Little Alvin. I consider him a treasure. I want more hours -- days, years.
The Mets need more of his presence, wisdom and influence. And his laughter. Without question, Al has the best and most infectious laugh in the game. It gained distinction over the years as it became more gruff and raspy. He's overworked it, just as his persistent smile has overtaxed his facial muscles and created crevices in his skin.
Al is a knee-slapper. Whatever strikes him as particularly funny prompts him to slap his knee, bend at the waist and laugh so loud that his ancestors can hear him. I used to kid him, Craig Swan and Jose Reyes about their wonderful laughs. I wanted them recorded for posterity -- or just for me.
And, one more time, I'd like to see Al catch a glimpse of one of his catchers -- Tim McCarver. They comprised the Cardinals' battery one night in the '60s at the second Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Willie McCovey launched one of Al's fatter pitches and left a stretch mark at a distant point in the upper deck in right field.
Each spring when both were in the Mets' employ, Jackson would be on a mound, mentoring a Matlack or coaching a Cone, McCarver would approach, and when he was 50 feet from his former pitcher, each would begin to laugh heartily.
"That was the longest home run I ever watched from my position," McCarver would say.
"I hope that was the longest I ever gave up," was Jackson's reply.
"Why did you throw that pitch?" McCarver would say through his laugh.
"Why'd you call it, you dummy?" Jackson would say and then he'd slapped his knee, bend at the waist and made everyone within the sound of his voice lose it.
I want to hear that gruff and raspy laugh a few dozen more times. Get better, Alvin.