Monday, August 24, 2009

Emotional Weekend - Celebration of '69 Mets Brings Back Memories of Being a Young Fan

It was an emotional weekend for me. No, not because Ryan Moore won his first event on The PGA Tour or because the tour's 'playoffs' are about to begin. It wasn't Brett Favre appearing in a Minnesota Vikings uniform or even another weekend of Yankees-Red Sox.

I went back to my boyhood this weekend.

There is no sports memory I have that is more vivid than the 1969 New York Mets--aka The Miracle Mets. They were part of an extraordinary 16 month run in the history of New York sports--the Jets shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in January of 1969, followed by the Mets World Series win in October of that year and, finally, the Knicks world title in May of 1970. All were remarkably dramatic. In fact, I can still remember the exact date each time won its title: January 12; October 16th; May 8th. Seriously, I did not look that up.

I remember Namath and the Jets because no one gave them a chance. I was a Jets fan as a kid because there was no way to get Giants tickets in Yankee Stadium and you could actually walk into the Jets offices at 57th and Madison on Monday and buy a standing room ticket for $3. Then you'd find an empty seat somewhere. I'd gotten into the habit of pacing in front of the TV whenever the Jets played for good luck. On the day of The Super Bowl I paced and paced as the Jets built a 16-0 lead. My dad came home from a concert early in the fourth quarter and actually sat down to watch.

"Stop pacing," he said. "You're making me dizzy."

It was 16-0. Okay, I sat down. Johnny Unitas came in for Earl Morrall and took the Colts straight down the field to make it 16-7.

"Okay, pace," my dad said.

I will skip the Mets for a moment. I was a huge Knicks fan. My friends and I used to go to Madison Square Garden in the middle of the night to line up to be sure to get playoff tickets. We always tried for either section 406 or 430--they were at halfcourt in the blue seats, the only tickets we could afford. I was there on May 8th, wondering like everyone else if Willis Reed could play game seven against the Lakers with the championship on the line. Wilt Chamberlain had gone off in game 6 in LA with Reed sidelined.

During warmups, I heard a huge cheer go up and looked down to see Cazzie Russell walking out. Russell always came out late for warmups and, from a distance, some people had mistaken him for Reed. Finally, Reed did come out. The place went nuts. He hit his first two shots of the game and then Walt Frazier took over. The Knicks won 113-99 and it wasn't that close. I still remember hearing the tape of Marv Albert counting down the final seconds while Dave DeBusschere simply stood holding the ball. "Pandemonium in the Garden!" he screamed when the buzzer sounded. He was right.

But there was nothing quite like the Mets. They were my first love in sports--a truly awful expansion team my friends laughed at me for adopting as my team at the age of six. I'm old enough to have seen them play in The Polo Grounds and I suffered through those first six truly awful seasons. I started riding the subway to Shea Stadium--I knew every stop on the No. 7 train by heart--when I was 11--and paid $1.30 to sit in the upper deck. I loved the Sunday doubleheaders best if only because the Mets often won the second game against the other team's backup players.

In that sixth season--1967--hope began to arrive. Tom Seaver was clearly a rising star. The next year Gil Hodges became the manager and Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan showed up. I remember Ryan pitching a one-hitter against the Phillies on a day he didn't have blisters and doing Kiner's Korner with his wife Ruth, who wore a mini-skirt on the show. Talk about first love.

And then came '69. I remember being discouraged on Opening Day when the Mets lost for the eighth straight year even though Seaver was pitching and the opponent was the expansion Montreal Expos. The final was 11-10. But sometime in late May they went on an 11 game winning streak. I remember Jack DiLauro coming up from the minor leagues and beating the Dodgers 1-0. Of course there were the two July series with the Cubs--including Seaver's imperfect game (I still hate Jimmy Qualls). I remember reading a story in which Buddy Harrelson, who was on reserve duty that week, was watching in a bar trying to convince people that he KNEW Seaver. Then the incredible rally from mid-August on. I was there for the black cat and the (Randy Hundley) rain dance and then on September 10th for a twi-night doubleheader with the Expos when the Mets went into first place for the first time.

It was a joyride from there. The clincher on September 24th--Joe Torre hit into a double-play to end the game at 9:07 p.m.--as Lindsey Nelson kept shouting--and then the sweep of the Braves and the amazing five game win over the unbeatable Orioles.

In all I saw 66 games in person. A few times we splurged for big games and bought seats in the mezzanine for $2.50 and my dad loaned me money for the postseason tickets. I remember everyone hugging one another when Cleon Jones made the last catch (on a ball hit by Davey Johnson who later managed the Mets only other World Series win) and it was one of those perfect moments in time.

Forty years later, the Mets celebrated that team again. Some of them are gone--McGraw, Agee, Clendenon and, of course, Hodges who had a heart attack less than three years later. Some others didn't make it back. But there was Seaver and Ryan and Koosman and Gentry and Harrelson and Ron Swoboda and Dr. Ron Taylor and Jerry Grote and Wayne Garrett and, of course Cleon, who may still be the best hitter the Mets ever had with apologies to Mike Piazza. Not to mention Ed Kranepool, who I remember seeing at the tail end of 1962 when he came up straight out of high school. In a God-awful season for the team, there was real joy in the new stadium. All of us old enough to remember had to get choked up as the players were introduced and the highlights montage was shown.

It would be very easy to feel old looking at all the over-60 Mets but I didn't feel that way. I felt warm and happy that it had all happened the way it did and that I had the chance to see as much of it as I did. When I got older and became a reporter, I more or less stopped rooting for teams and started rooting for good guys--regardless of who they played for. I couldn't stand the '92 Mets and I'm not so crazy about the current group, not because they've been injured or mediocre but because I'm not sure how much they care.

But the '69 team happened when I was still innocent--a year before I read 'Ball Four’ and my view of athletes changed forever. To me, they're all still great guys and always will be. Steroids can't change that; Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens can't change that--nothing can change that.

They gave me joy then and they still give me joy now. There aren't a whole lot of things in life about which your feelings do not change even a little bit in 40 years. The '69 Mets are an exception--and, for me, they always will be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a little younger than you are, and I think my generation and subsequent ones to come have lost the loyalty and love for teams at such a young age. My father has stories like you do, and times have just changed from turning kids loose to go to games, to stay up late to watch or listen to games, and maybe even the kids themselves have lost the love.

While I grew up loving sports, and certain teams, the unbridled love just has never been there and never really had a chance to flourish. Maybe we can blame it on the TV like so many others have, and for the youngsters of today, maybe its the computer and video games.