April 07, 2006,
Over in The Corner earlier this week, Warren Bell and Peter Robinson made my Opening Day an occasion for reminiscing (see here, and scroll down). They brought back such wonderful memories that I couldn’t resist adding more about how I, growing up in the heart of the Evil Empire (the Bronx, that is), managed to become a diehard Mets fan.
My dad was a nut for baseball, a passion he inherited from his father. He had been a big Yankee fan, but somehow their ownership made him revolt. (I never got the whole story, but dimly remember its having something to do with the trade of Bobby Richardson.) In 1962, my dad decided to start all over again, in the National League, with an expansion team: the New York Mets. This, of course, meant that was how his old eldest son, aged three, would be reared.
Dad took us to our first game at Shea Stadium in 1967. It was a sparkling new ballpark, opened in Flushing, near the site of the World’s Fair, in 1964. Even though the outside was never finished, back then it didn’t seem anything like the eyesore it appears to be when I see it today. Of course, by now, almost 40 years later, I’ve been to Yankee Stadium for a World Series game and any honest baseball fan will tell you everything looks like an eyesore after you’ve been to the House that Ruth Built for the Fall Classic. But in 1967, I was quite sure Shea Stadium was heaven. And I still think I was right.
Three of my younger brothers and I sat in jaw-dropped wonder, watching the Cardinals beat the Mets (the first of many times we would watch the Cardinals beat the Mets). A stickler for tradition, my dad brought his dad along that day, too. It was always the great rite of Americana that the deepest lessons the lessons for life were passed from fathers to sons in the summer, in the daytime, in a ballpark.
Of course, I was thrilled beyond words. And hooked forever.
For years afterward, my brothers and I would clip out the coupons on the back of Dellwood milk containers (with six kids in an apartment, there are always lots of empty milk containers!). With about 15 of them, you could sit in the upper deck for free which we did for untold hours at many a Sunday doubleheader. The suits who run baseball now who often seem as if they won’t stop until they’ve completely killed the golden goose they’ve been trusted with have deep-sixed the traditional Sunday doubleheader. Just like they’ve ruined the World Series by no longer playing in the daytime … and starting the games so late at night, and interrupted by such long commercial breaks, that the eight-year-olds they need to hook can no longer stay up with their doting fathers to watch them. But back in the 60s and 70s, there was no better way to spend a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.
The Mets, history recalls, were charmingly awful in those days. A ninth-place finish was something to strive for, and 100-loss seasons were a commonplace. They found every way imaginable to lose. And some ways that were unimaginable. They once lost a game when the ur-Met, Marv Throneberry, hit what appeared to be a game-tying, pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning … only to be called out for failing to touch second-base during his delirious home-run trot. The manager, Casey Stengel, started out of the dugout to argue, but was intercepted by the third-base coach who told him not to bother. Throneberry whose middle name was Eugene (hence the initials M-E-T) had missed third, too.
But that all changed in the magical summer of 1969. With a good team for the first time ever led by gifted young pitchers Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, solid outfielders Cleon Jones and Tommy Agee having career years, and a dependable slugging first baseman, Donn Clendenon the Miracle Mets were, more importantly, touched by the Divine.
Their journey through that season made Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk (July 20, 1969) seem like a footnote. Written off in August, they steamrolled from way back to catch and pass the legendary Leo Durocher’s Chicago Cubs for the Eastern Division title. Then, in baseball’s first intra-league playoffs, they easily out-slugged the great Henry Aaron’s Atlanta Braves (who, in the suits’ geography, were then somehow in the Western Division) to move on to the World Series. Imagine being 10-years-old and living that.
On October 16, 1969, the Mets, incredibly, stood three-games-to-one ahead of the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles a team of great hitters, better defense, and lights-out pitching that had won 109 games and was among the best of its era. Game Five would be at Shea that afternoon, and dad surprised us it was a weekday by announcing the no one would have to go to school.
My giddy brothers and I were piled into the car and off my dad drove us all the way over to … the other side of the Bronx. To his dad’s house. There we spent the rest of that glorious day watching the Mets rally from an early 3-0 deficit to beat the O’s and become world champions. (In an irony of the type that seems to happen in baseball like no place else, the final out a fly to left that Cleon Jones snagged before dropping to one knee in thankful prayer was made by Davey Johnson, the Orioles’ very fine second baseman who would manage the Mets to their next world’s championship, some 17 years later.)
That afternoon in the Bronx, watching the World Series with my dad, my grandfather, and my three brothers reveling in the joy of the day and each other’s company remains among the two or three most cherished of my life. My grandfather passed away suddenly the next year. My hero, my dad, died even more unexpectedly in 1972. The memory plays tricks all these years later, so I can’t say for certain that there wasn’t some other family event I’ve long forgotten. But that unforgettable autumn afternoon in 1969 is the last time I remember all of us being together. Watching the Mets.
Sure they break my heart almost every year. But I’m still way ahead on that ledger.
Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.