Monday, November 20, 2006

Memories of THE K KORNER (by the man who created it)

My name is Dennis Scalzitti, and I became a diehard baseball fan when I was 11 yrs. old. My Dad was a sheetrocker, and he invited me to come meet one of his customers, a pitcher on the New York Yankees named Fritz Peterson. I was just a kid and was in awe to meet someone famous. He was very nice to me, and gave me 2 autographed team baseballs. On these balls are names like Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, Mel Stottlemyre, Horace Clarke, Gene Michael, and Lindy McDaniel. I can vividly remember attending games that year (1973) at the old Yankee Stadium and was amazed at the architecture of the building, not to mention the history of the place, and all the great ballplayers and classic games that took place in years past. My parents took me to the last game at the old stadium (Sunday, September 30, 1973) when the Detroit Tigers beat Fritz Peterson and the New York Yankees 8 to 5. I will NEVER forget how some fans, armed with screwdrivers and hammers, started tearing their wooden seats out at the end of the game. People were taking whatever they could because the stadium would be undergoing a 2-year renovation anyway. 1973 was the year I became hooked on baseball, devouring any book I could read, collecting baseball cards, and joining Little League. The game, the rich history, the players, colorful uniforms, the stadiums....it was in my bloodstream.

I watched my first World Series on TV that October; watching the mighty Oakland A's defeat the upstart New York Mets in 7 games to capture their second consecutive championship. It was the last hurrah for Willie Mays. There was Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Gene Tenace and Reggie Jackson on the A's. Charley Finley was their eccentric owner. I vividly remember Reggie clubbing a homer in Oakland and after jogging around the bases, he JUMPED and landed on home plate. The Mets had Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, Wayne Garrett, John Milner, Don Hahn and Felix Millan. They won their division (only 83 wins) on the last day of the season. My parents and I listened to that final game on the radio as we drove home after seeing the last home game at the old Yankee Stadium on September 30, 1973.

The images and sounds of that final game at Yankee Stadium AND the Mets/Cubs game on the radio that day were so influential. It is something forever ingrained in my memory.

Fast forward to 1984. I'm a senior at Seton Hall University, only a few months away from graduating with a degree in Marketing. In addition to going to college, I was "DJ COCONUT JOE" (www.DJCOJO.com) on the weekends, and also had a part-time job fixing power tools at a Sears repair center in Hawthorne, New Jersey. I was 22 years old, and an avid reader of The Sporting News. I'd read a lot about a young pitcher named DWIGHT GOODEN who had enormous talent and potential, and was being touted to break into the major leagues and be a big strikeout pitcher.

Sure enough, during Spring Training, Dwight Gooden made the team as a rookie starting pitcher. He was only 19 years old.
He got off to a great start, and was striking batters out with ease, using a blazing fastball and wicked curve.
One day in late May of 1984, I had a crazy idea (while taking a shower) to become a "living scorecard" at New York Mets games when Dwight was scheduled to pitch. Whenever he'd record a strikeout, I would hang a homemade red "K" card from the upper deck railing for all the fans to see. After sharing this crazy idea with a friend of mine at Sears, I went to the local Five & Ten here in North Haledon, New Jersey and bought up an entire box of white posterboard placards and a handful of red magic markers. It took me hours to create 27 red "K" cards that night. The next day after work, my friend Leo Avolio and I headed off to Shea Stadium for Dwight's next home game. It was a Sunday day game against Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros. We were sitting in the upper deck on the first base side and every time Dwight got 2 strikes on a hitter, we'd each stand up, holding a "K" card high above our heads, and sway slowly from side to side. The fans took to it IMMEDIATELY, and started rhythmic clapping, urging "Dr. K" (Dwight's nickname from the minor leagues) to record a strikeout. I cannot remember the outcome of the game (I think the Mets won), but I do remember they showed us on Diamond Vision on the scoreboard (several times throughout the game), and that was really cool.

Now we REALLY got inspired. On Monday, we went to a local hospital and picked up a matching set of green doctor's scrubs in honor of Dwight's nickname "Dr. K". I created a few additional reaction signs (like "Gotcha" and "Clap" and "Another One Bites The Dust") to get the fans excited. And we anxiously awaited Dwight's next home game.

It was a night game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first week of June 1984. This time we sat in the upper deck on the third base side and moved down to the front row. There was something like 12,000 fans in the entire park and we were the only 2 in the upper deck. Attendance in early 1984 was low because the team was coming off a last-place finish in 1983. Again, I cannot remember the final score that night, but Dwight had 6 K's that night, and my parents and some friends were watching at home, and they saw us on TV and recorded it on the VCR.

ESPN was in it's infancy stages at this time, and they showed us on the highlights that night, also. And at THAT game, we were approached by a man who introduced himself as a New York Mets employee and then asked me what my name was. I thought we were going to get in trouble, so I quickly picked up my box of signs and promised him we'd get up and leave. But he said NO, don't worry. The team officials LOVED what we were doing because it was getting the other fans in the stadium excited. He then told me that the director of marketing (a man named Tim Hamilton) was going to be calling me the next day to discuss something.

Sure enough, Mr. Hamilton called me the next day and invited us to Shea Stadium to discuss something the Mets wanted to offer us. Leo couldn't attend the meeting for some reason, so I drove there alone the next day. I remember the strange feeling of going into an empty baseball stadium in the daytime and seeing that it contained so much office space. It showed me the "business" side of baseball that I'd never experienced before. Mr. Hamilton asked me if we would continue doing what we did in return for free admission. I said "of course" (naturally). The team would benefit from the free publicity from all the excitement we would generate, and maybe (I thought) something good would happen to us. He asked me if we wanted to sit on the third base side again, and I said no. "Put us in the front row in left field.....all the way by the foul pole", I said, "so that everyone can see us." That's Section 42 for all you people keeping score at home.

We decided to give our section a name: THE K KORNER, and I created a 10' long white sign with black block letters and a red K in the middle that we hung from the upper deck railing. For every strikeout Dwight would record, we'd hang a red K card to the right side of the sign (if you were looking at it from the front).

The fans went absolutely BERSERK when they saw how dedicated we were and how choreographed our "act" was. As soon as Dwight would get 2 strikes on a hitter, we went NUTS. Each of us held a red K card above our head and stood on a seat, swaying back in forth in unison. Sometimes, we'd run up and down the stairs like raving maniacs. Hearing the fans cheering for us was such an incredible RUSH !! And then, after Dwight got the hitter to swing and miss for strike 3, we'd jump up and down screaming and yelling, and hang the K card from the upper deck railing. After the second K, we'd each put on a giant foam finger and count down the amount of K's (in unison).

It was a very simple concept at the time, but 2 fans had never gotten any notoriety for doing this before in baseball history. We were constantly being shown on Diamond Vision at the games, and also shown (constantly) on WOR-TV (Channel 9).
Someone told us these games were being shown all over the COUNTRY; that Channel 9 was a "superstation". WOW!
There were several highlights of the 1984 season: We asked the team if we could meet our idol, and they said yes. We got to stand on the field (behind home plate) and pose with Dwight for some pictures; each of us holding a K card. I remember how innocent he seemed to be. Very polite. And very grateful for all the attention we were bringing him. It was a dream come true for us....having a positive effect on the game we loved so much. After we met him, we came off the field and back into the Mets' offices inside the stadium, and they gave each of us one of our K cards autographed by Dwight.

We only did one road game (ever), and that was in August of '84. In Philadelphia. We left really early (on a Saturday) and arrived in Philly in less than 2 hours. We stood by the gate and greeted the players as they walked into Veterans Stadium. The game was preceded by the US Olympic baseball team playing someone; I cannot remember who. But I remember Mark McGwire was on the team. The Mets wound up winning the game, and Dwight had SIXTEEN strikeouts!!! We were in "enemy territory" way up in the upper deck in center field, and we got some flack from the locals but also a lot of cheers from other New Yorkers who made the trip down the NJ Turnpike.

Late in September, due to poor attendance, we were told to sit in the left field mezzanine on a chilly night at Shea. This was the only time we would ever set up shop in that part of the stadium. Little did we know what was in store for us that night: Dwight struck out 16 Pittsburgh Pirates that night; and for the second time that season. He also set a National League rookie record for K's when he recorded his 268th of the season, passing Grover Cleveland Alexander. When he hit that mark, we hung a MASSIVE sign (about 15 feet long by 4 feet wide) over the railing...a giant K to comemmorate this feat. And another one that said "Move Over, Grover". I'll never forget that. Someone took a picture of us at the conclusion of the final strikeout. By that time, thousands of people started to flood our section. The photo appeared in the 1985 Mets yearbook.

Dwight Gooden would up going 17-9 in 1984, and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. He pitched in the All-Star game, and The Mets went from last place to second place to The Chicago Cubs, who won the eastern division. The Cubs wound up losing to the San Diego Padres in the playoffs. And the Detoit Tigers beat the Padres in the 1984 World Series.

We gave a ton of interviews that season to newspaper reporters and camera crews from all the major New York TV stations. Once camera crew from WOR-TV (Channel 9) came out to my home in North Haledon, New Jersey on July the 4th to tape a segment on us. They interviewed my Dad, my next door neighbor, and us dressed up in our green doctor's scrubs. The story concluded with us jumping up and down like 2 mexican jumping beans while the reporter (Matthew Schwartz) signed off. Although the taping took a few hours, only about a minute appeared on the news TV that night.

So many people were aware of what we were doing, and after reading stories in the newspaper and seeing us on TV, we were becoming mini-celebrities of our own. It was really incredible.

In 1985, Leo Avolio indicated he did not want to commit to doing any more games, so I recruited my friend Bob Belle to replace him. And ironically, 1985 was the year Dwight would break out and go 24-4 with a microscopic 1.74 ERA !!
The newspaper interviews intensified, and we were regularly giving out our autographs to eager fans of all ages. We always made sure to allow other people sitting around us to get in on the fun by giving them some of the "reaction" signs to hold so they'd get on TV, too.

Seeing how much people loved what we were doing, Bob and I decided to protect ourselves and hired a lawyer to trademark THE K KORNER name and sell a variety of products via mail order (No such thing as the internet back then!).
We had T-shirts, bandannas, buttons, and K cards (game used) autographed by us. We placed a classified ad in The Sporting News, and got orders from all over the country, along with some very positive letters from our fans.

For the 1985 season, we also changed our look. Instead of wearing green doctor's scrubs, we wore matching shirts and shorts with crazy designs printed on them and our own signature white bandannas with "THE K KORNER" printed on them. Later in the season, we wore our own K Korner T-shirts that we were selling. They were white, with a big red K on the front, and on the back it said "Official Member of The K Korner" with both of our signatures underneath; all in red ink. That season, we threw a free T-shirt down to the rabid fans below after each strikeout Dwight recorded. The response was incredible, and it was funny watching people dive over each other to grab one of our shirts.

We were invited to Rusty's restaurant at one point that summer. Crown Publishers was coming out with a book about the history of the Mets, and longtime Daily News reporter Jack Lang was the co-author of the book, along with a man named Peter Simon (There's a photo of us in the book, along with a nice write-up). This was a party to celebrate the release of the book. Several Mets players were in attendance; guys like pitcher Mike Torrez and first baseman Keith Hernandez. The owner Nelson Doubleday was there, and we posed for a picture with him. People recognized us and asked for our autographs. I remember seeing the singer Carly Simon there. We found out that Peter was her brother. Anyway, we sat down with Carly and had a nice conversation with her. She was very down-to-earth. I remember telling her about how we sent a videotape to David Letterman to maybe get on his show, but we got a rejection letter in return. She told us he was a nice guy and to keep trying. We posed for a photo with her, and it was right after that she made eye contact with Keith Hernandez and I saw they were both attracted to each other. I read in the newspaper soon thereafter that Keith and Carly dated briefly after that. And I kinda thought it was funny that me and Bob were there when it happened.

That summer, we were invited to another party held inside the Diamond Club at Shea Stadium. I cannot recall who threw the party or why we were there, but I remember meeting a radio DJ and feeling like a V.I.P. because of all the attention we were getting.

Seeing how popular we were becoming, I wanted to sell our K Korner merchandise at the concesion stands within Shea Stadium, so I contacted the team and asked for a face-to-face interview, and they asked us to come in. I remember the man's name was Harry Mandt, and even though he was very polite, he kinda shot us down and said that the Harry M. Stevens company was the stadium concessionaire, and we didn't stand a chance with them. Even though we were more than willing to give them a nice percentage of the sale of our merchandise, we just couldn't make an impression on him. And we left it at that. Looking back, I guess we should have tried harder.

Bob had never met Dwight before, so I called the team to ask if we could come in one day to have our picture taken with him, and they complied. I remember setting up my 35mm camera on a tripod, and Dwight had never seen a camera with a self-timer before. After I took a few pictures, Dwight thought my self-timer was "awesome", and we got a kick outta that. We told Dwight about our K Korner merchandise, and I asked him for the phone number of his agent (Jim Neader) because I wanted to run an idea by him. Dwight gave me the phone number. In addition, I gave him the 3 issues of Sports Illustrated that he appeared on the cover, and he autographed them for me, along with the words "Thanks for getting the fans going".

I called Jim Neader (who was based in Dwight's hometown of Tampa, Florida) and he flew up to New York to meet with Bob and I at a hotel located across from LaGuardia Airport near Shea Stadium. We proposed selling our K Korner merchandise in K Mart stores across the country. It was the perfect idea at the perfect time, and NOW was the time to do it. Once again, we were willing to offer he and Dwight a nice percentage of the sales, but he didn't seem interested, and wasn't sure if it was in Dwight's best interests (??). And he politely rejected our idea. Bob and I were now 0 for 2, and at this point, we just focused on having fun at the games and selling our stuff via mail-order.

We taped a few interview segments on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW, the first 2 at his old studio in Times Square, and another one in Secaucus, NJ. Mr. Franklin had the one of the very first television talk shows in New York, and had been on the air since the early 1960's, and was a living legend. But his show was on Channel 9 at something like 1am, which is why he never really made it as an "A-list" star. He asked me to come in to meet him at his office on 42nd Street. I will NEVER forget that meeting with him. I walked into his office, and was overwhelmed with the sight of PILES of newspapers, magazines, and literally a TON of movie & TV memorabilia stacked all around the small office. And there was Joe facing me, sitting in a big leather chair, holding a telephone receiver to each ear, talking to 2 people at the same time!!! His assistant let me in; an old man with white hair, and as Joe was talking, he handed me one of the phones and told me "talk to this lady". I wound up talking to a stranger about The K Korner and that we were going to be on his show, etc., etc. It was SURREAL to say the least. Joe eventually told me to make up a list of 10 questions he could ask me when we appeared on the show, and gave me the date & time of the taping. We were really excited to be interviewed by him.....to sit on the same couch that many other famous people had sat on, and to be interviewed by this eccentric but lovable character who is a New York icon. We dressed in our crazy outfits and presented him with one of our T-shirts. It was hilarious!

Just like in 1984, it was a great season, but the Mets finished in second place, this time to the St. Louis Cardinals, who wound up winning the 1985 World Series against the Kansas City Royals.

The 1986 season brought more excitement and even bigger crowds to Shea Stadium. Whereas in 1984 we had practically the entire upper deck to ourselves, a lot of people were jumping on the Mets bandwagon, and it became "fashionable" to see the Mets that year.

On Opening Day, the team passed out replica K cards to all the fans in attendance. On the back was a photo of Dwight Gooden. It was sponsored by Kodak, and I remember feeling like we were being exploited and kinda ripped off in a way. And yet flattered at the same time; if that makes any sense. Our impact on the game itself was undeniable by this point, because fans across the country were now hanging K's for pitchers on their own teams. And they still do to this very day!

Early on in the season, a representative from NIKE (a man named Curt Collins) sat next to us, gave me his card, and invited Bob and I to the NIKE office on 23rd St. in Manhattan. He gave us free sneakers, including the very first edition of the Air Jordans. He told us that some higher-ups from their main office in Beaverton, Oregon wanted to fly into New York to meet with us and make us some kind of offer. We were absolutely thrilled and came back again the folowing week dressed up in suits & ties and gave them a formal "presentation" of what THE K KORNER was, and showed them newspaper clippings and gave them videos of the media attention we had attracted thus far, along with explaining to them the positive impact we had on the fans and the fun we generated at the games themselves. I think they wanted to see firsthand if we were stable people who weren't under the influence of drugs or alcohol, too. We were just high on life.

NIKE was planning on coming out with an entire line of "Dr. K" merchandise. Although they never told us exactly what was coning out, they gave us some "Dr. K" T-shirts. They also proposed giving us a new rendition of the K cards; white laminated signs with the Mets team colors: a blue and orange K with a flaming baseball superimposed on top of it, and the NIKE logo at the bottom right-hand corner. All we had to do was hang their K cards instead of our own classic red ones.

In return, we were allowed to choose $3,000 worth of NIKE merchandise out of their catalog. We were thrilled with the offer, and each of us was given a catalog and an order form to fill out. Other than free admission to the games, it was the only thing being offered to us, and we were very grateful, so we took it.

But wouldn't you know it, Dwight wasn't his old self. Later on we found out he was dabbling in cocaine, and as a result, his performance was a little off, not to mention his strikeouts were down. Without all the strikeouts, The K Korner was nothing. In 1984 and 1985, it seemed like Dwight would reel off 10 K's like it was nothing. But this season, we couldn't take that for granted anymore.

But the team won 108 games that season, even with a less-than-perfect Dr. K on the mound. The K's didn't really matter, because the team was so dominating in many other ways.

We sat in the rain for the first game of the playoffs (against the Houston Astros). Bob and I were wearing sombreros I had brought home from a vacation in Mexico, and I remember the rain dripping off as I turned my head forward. Dwight didn't do so well that game, and only had a few K's. But the Mets beat the Astros (in Houston) in Game #7 of the playoffs; a
16-inning THRILLER of a game that will go down as one of the most exciting playoff games in baseball history. The Mets were in the World Series !!!!

NIKE gave us several boxes containing smaller versions of their Dr. K cards for us to pass out to the fans at the World Series. Dwight pitched against Roger Clemens, and the anticipation was very high. Billy Joel came out to sing the National Anthem, and we were up in Section 42 passing out K cards to everyone around us and telling them to follow our lead when Dwight would get 2 strikes on a hitter.

Unfortunately, Dwight got bombed by the Red Sox that night; only had a few K's, and Clemens outdueled him. It turned out to be the last game ever for THE K KORNER. Even though the Mets defeated the Red Sox in amazing fashion to win Game #6 and then the clincher in Game 7, the end of the season was bittersweet for Bob and I because Dwight did not do well, and he didn't even turn out for the victory parade in Manhattan because he was messed up on coke. He wound up getting arrested in Tampa soon after the season ended. His car was stopped, and he had coke on him.

Bob and I decided to formally hang up our K's for good, and put The K Korner to sleep forever. It was the end of the innocence, and now that the Mets were coming off a World Series victory, we figured this was a perfect time to stop; while we were on top.

We made our final appearance on The Joe Franklin Show on Opening Day in April 1987, this time not dressed in our crazy uniforms but in casual street clothes and to announce the retirement of The K Korner on the air to all the Mets fans out there. We thanked them for all the love & support, and for all the good times and happy memories. And that was that.

It was so much fun and so rewarding to have such an impact on the game I've always (and still) love. I am very grateful and very blessed to have had such a chance to be a part of something so unique.

Several times in recent years we gave interviews about our happy days hanging K's for Dwight; most notably when he retired from the game, and yet again when he got in trouble for drug use and went to jail (he just recently got out). But I guess that officially closes the chapter on Dwight Gooden and THE K KORNER forever.

It sure was a fun ride! If anyone would like to write, please feel free to send any correspondence to me at
DJCOJO@optonline.net

And feel free to check out my website www.DJCOJO.com

THANKS A MILLION,
Dennis J. Scalzitti
North Haledon, NJ