Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Tale of My Broken Mets Fan Heart

It’s never been easy being a New York Mets fan and everyone knows that. Now, as my crying of an orange and blue river has subsided, I sit staring into space and keep thinking of what might have been. I try watching the Jets and, even though they won today’s game, I find no solace in that at all. I take a walk through the falling leaves, seeing an occasional Mets’ flag or banner waving in the wind from someone’s house. I understand that person’s loyalty since I’ve been fervently rooting for the same team for so long, but I am still too hurt by this loss. I’m not in my right mind, and I know if I saw Mr. Met on the street (with his incessantly happy face) I’d punch him in his great big head.

I guess there are other fans for other teams who could maybe empathize with my feelings, but I think no other team has the ability to break one’s heart more than my Mets. It has to do with many things, but one thing I remember from my youth was manager Casey Stengel saying something about having to get them (fans) early, when they‘re really little tykes. Sure, they got me all right. I was hooked in my youth by the team that made me dream. Sure, they couldn’t win too many games, but damn they were fun to watch and also just amazingly likeable guys. I felt like they could be my uncles or older cousins. Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool, Tommie Agee, Tug McGraw and the rest were just like any other adults I knew; they just happened to get to suit-up, run out on the field at Shea, and play ball against Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Pete Rose (grrrr!!!!), and all the rest of the league’s superstars.

Living a stone’s throw from Shea in Queens, New York, I really felt like the Mets were my neighbors. I grew up with them, loved them whether they won or lost (but mostly they lost), and then experienced the shock of my young life when Cleon Jones genuflected in left field as he caught Davey Johnson’s fly ball, signifying that my Mets had actually defeated the Baltimore Orioles and won the World Series in 1969. The love affair was thus cemented and meant to be forever, for I collected on several two-dollar bets on the team, but even more importantly I was able to now boast to those Yankees fans I knew that my team was on top of the world.

Needless to say, the road since that heady October of 1969 has not been very smooth for my Mets. I had my heart broken in 1973 when a team, with many of the old ’69 fellows still on board, took the Oakland A’s to the seventh game of the series. It was certainly a David verses Goliath story there, but the Mets just didn’t make the slingshot work in the end. No matter, I still kept the faith all the way until the 1980s, when once again Shea started rocking as hard as it did when the Fab Four stood on a stage out around second base for their legendary concert in 1965.

I found the guys on the 1986 team to be quite different than their 1969 counterparts. Although you had some of the old Met types in Wally Backman, Lenny Dykstra, and Howard Joghnson, the big guns weren’t the same kind of underdog players. Hernandez, Carter, Knight, Strawberry, and my favorite Doc Gooden were stars in their own right, and their wattage was never brighter than that summer at Shea when they were amazing again. Yet they seemed ready to break my heart all over, until Bill Buckner made the unthinkable misplay (not of letting Mookie Wilson’s ball roll through his legs but of wearing a Chicago Cubs batting glove for old time’s sake while making the error). Until this day I can remember closing my eyes and picturing Buckner tagging the bag for the out, only to hear the roar of the crowd and upon opening my eyes seeing Ray Knight gripping his head incredulously as he scored the most unimaginable run in Mets history.

Admittedly, it’s been a long haul since 1986. All year long I’ve tried not to get the jones going for the world series. This new team of Carlos I and II, Wright, Reyes, and the rest kept plugging along, but I kept saying to anyone who asked, “Well, we have a long road ahead yet.” Still people persisted to push the Mets’ luck saying stuff about them going all the way, to which I usually replied, “Yeah, but we have a tough series with those Dodgers.” Even after we lost all our pitching except for Tom Glavine, nothing I said or did really worked. These people still wanted to jinx the team, but when John Maine pitched so well in that sixth game of the NLCS, I started hearing old Tug McGraw like a little angel on my shoulder whispering, “You gotta believe” in my ear enough times until I just gave in.

I sat back and daydreamed about the champagne soaking my team as they celebrated the win. I felt the Tigers could be had easily, that we really had it in the bag already, that no one more than Willie Randolph deserved this (for he seemed so destined to be Met manager in the spirit of Yankee greats who were Mets‘ managers: Casey Stengel, Joe Torre, and Yogi Berra). I had my orange and blue Mets flag ready to fly in front of my house (to irk my neighbor the Yankees fan). I closed my eyes and saw the huge parade going down Broadway (along the so-called Canyon of Heroes), and I imagined the guys all getting their rings on a wonderful Opening Day in 2007.

Alas, none of this is meant to be. Endy Chavez had some of that old Met magic when he caught that homerun and brought it back into the park, but it just wasn’t enough. I can imagine the ghosts of Agee and McGraw helping Endy on that one, just pushing that ball a little bit into his glove for a nice snow cone catch. I guess all the great old Mets spirits were there, including Hodges and Stengel, as well as the legendary announcers Bob Murphy and Lindsay Nelson. They must have all been cheering on the 2006 guys, but they just came up a little short.

So now I am nursing a broken heart that will not heal all that easily. It’s a long winter ahead, and maybe I can get into the Jets if they win a few more. Still, spring training is far away and the crack of the bat and pop of the ball in the glove are faint sounds in the distance. I don’t want to dream and I don’t want to hope or anything right now.

There was a great cartoon in the New York Daily News yesterday of Mr. Met going into a bar and standing next to a dejected and drunken Yankee fan. He tells the bartender, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Man, did that cartoon hit home. Some people might say, “Hey, there’s always next year.” Maybe, but right now there’s enough left of this year to keep me feeling like there’s no tomorrow.


Monday, October 2, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities: Baseball Playoffs Divide New Yorkers

East Side, West Side,
All around the town;
The Mets and Yanks fans are training;
They’re ready to go a few rounds.

Boys and girls are a bit anxious,
But that's not stopping them from talking the talk;
If either the Mets or Yanks win the Series,
Look out on the sidewalks of New York!
                  (with apologies to Chas. B. Lawlor and James W. Blake)


It’s becoming very apparent on the streets of New York that the city is preparing for war between Mets and Yankees on the baseball diamond. One can see an almost equal amount of colors being worn by people around town for both clubs. There are signs in store windows; flags for both teams are flying from car antennas, and even babies in carriages are wearing team shirts and hats. The thing I (as a Met fan) am waiting for most is to see The Empire State Building bathed in orange and blue. Yes, ladies and gentleman, the gloves are off and the fun has just begun.

Of course, the Yankees have to first get through the Detroit Tigers and the Mets will have to deal with the Dodgers. The Yankees would seem to have the easier task here, for the Tigers literally collapsed and had to settle for the wild card instead of winning their division. It is almost unbelievable that a team seemingly destined for one hundred wins and a runaway with their division fell apart like this. As Mets fans have come to know, when Kenny Rogers is involved, all bets are off.

The Mets have their own problems meeting the Dodgers at Shea starting on Wednesday afternoon. Some of us diehard (and older) Mets fans can recall the crushing loss to the Dodgers in the playoffs in 1988, when a hobbled Kirk Gibson and an ubiquitous Orel Herscheiser (working as a starting pitcher and reliever) led their team to victory over the Amazin’s. What we’re really dealing with here is not just the LA team but the Brooklyn ghosts, notwithstanding all those former Dodgers who subsequently went on to wear Mets orange and blue (current Met Shawn Green is one of them).

If the Mets and Yanks can get through their respective division series, then there is the more difficult and daunting league championship series. We won’t know which opponents will be waiting, but these are really just like preliminary rounds. Everyone here in New York knows what theywant to happen and, while there is no guarantee that the Mets and Yankees will make it to the World Series, most of us are salivating at the prospect of a rematch of the 2000 Fall Classic.

As a Met fan, I like to think things are going to be different this time. Back in 2000 we were dealing with the Valentine-Piazza Mets. These guys were a likeable enough bunch, but they were not dominating or any way similar to their 1986 counterparts. Conversely, the 2006 Mets look an awful lot like the guys from the Hernandez-Johnson Mets. While not without their controversy (Lastings Milledge is something like him, but nothing really close to Darryl Strawberry in the talent department as of yet), the 2006 Mets are a clean, lean, nothing near mean fighting machine.

The 2006 Yanks remind me a good deal of the old Mattingly era Yankees. Derek Jeter has morphed into a leader like Mattingly with two hundred plus hits and almost took the batting title. These are still Torre’s boys, but there is a new feel to them thanks to contributions from young players like Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano. Also, veterans like Sheffield and Matsui were just getting hot at the end of the season, so more than anything else the Yanks can be categorized as dangerous. In some ways, much more so than the 2000 team seemed to be.

There is also the walking wounded and the stretcher case (aka Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez). Johnson has struggled all year and one must wonder if he can muster the grit and determination necessary to get out there and pitch like he used to. The Mets are in worse shape because Pedro is gone and has confirmed the fear most fans had all along. Pedro is a great guy and an amazing presence in the clubhouse, but he is fragile and always seems this close to breaking a bone, pulling a muscle, or popping something. Without him, the team is less confident and yet there is the possibility that young John Maine might step up and surprise us all (if he can keep the ball from being hit over the wall too much).

Whatever actually happens in the playoffs does, of course, matter a great deal, but New Yorkers have been treated to a year of solidly played baseball by both of its teams, but we’re not satisfied with that by any means. So now, as we all wait for the first volley, New Yorkers are preparing their base camps and stocking up on gear necessary for the long struggle ahead. If both teams can make it to the World Series, then there will be a battle for the city like no has seen since 2000 (but, as a Met fan, Iam hoping it’s more like no has seen since 1955 when the Dodgers finally deflated the Yankee bubble).

So I am hoping for a subway series, but if I get my wish I can’t help thinking that I might be quoting the immortal words of Charles Dickens even before the first pitch is thrown: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Still, there is nothing like this tale of two cities here in old New York: the New York Mets City verses the New York Yankees City. Let the games begin!