r-daub-a-blog, August 15, 2007
I. How the Hell Did I Become a Met Fan?
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Yankees were the dominant professional baseball team in New York City. The Mets, meanwhile, were one of the worst teams in the Majors and perhaps at the lowest point in their 18 year history—yet it was precisely around this time at the ripe old age of seven when I became a full-fledged Met fan.
Never mind that the Yankees had made the playoffs five out of six seasons between 1976 and 1981, winning the World Series in ’77 and ’78, and being led by marquee names like Piniella, Dent, Guidry, Nettles, and, of course, Reggie Jackson, who had a candy bar named after him that I had developed a taste for. None of that mattered. Growing up on Long Island, Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens was a much easier trip than heading into the South Bronx, which back then was one of the more dangerous places in the city and a place where parents typically did not take their kids. Even parents who were Yankee fans on Long Island typically took their kids to Met games instead of the Bronx simply because Shea was easier to get to and it was safer since you could pretty much drive right into the parking lot from the highway without having to navigate any unsafe neighborhoods. These factors, coupled with the reversal of fortunes that the two teams would experience in the coming years, is probably why I didn’t even know many other kids who were Yankee fans when I was growing up, although there seems to be a hell of a lot more of them now that they have won three World Series in the past four years (1996, 1998, 1999).
For me, though, it was one day in particular that cemented my two decade fandom of the Mets. That day was Sunday July 13, 1980, when the Mets, managed by future Yankee manager Joe Torre, played a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals on a hot summer afternoon when my father took me and my cousin Garner, who is a couple of years older than me, out to Big Shea. At that point in my life I’m sure I had seen plenty of baseball on TV, but this is my first real memory of watching a Major League Baseball game.
On our way to the ballpark, Dad stopped at the store to buy sodas for the two of us because it would be less expensive than buying them at the stadium. Garner and I waited in the car while Dad went inside and came back a couple of minutes later with a can of Coca-Cola and a can of Orange Crush and left it up to us to decide who got which. Of course, a fight broke out over who would get the Orange Crush, and it was finally settled when my father made an appeal to his nephew’s seniority and convinced him to let me have it because I was still just a ‘little boy’ while he was a mature young man. I recall being angered by these words, although the satisfaction of getting the Orange Crush helped me quickly forget about it as I held the unopened can tight in my hands until it became warm. (I don’t know if this incident has anything to do with it, but I am actually not a big fan of orange soda now and would much prefer Coca-Cola).
The drive was quick, no more than half-hour, and Big Shea looked enormous as I caught my first glimpses of the top of it through the trees. After parking and buying tickets at the caged window and pushing through the turnstiles, we walked up a series of seemingly endless beer-sticky concourse ramps that would leave my father’s cheap drug store flip-flops in tatters by the end of the day. Eventually we reached our section up in the mezzanine and emerged from the tunnel into the sunlight, the huge green outfield and dusty brown diamond opening in front of us and bringing to life what up until that point I had only seen on our crappy old living room television with the rabbit ear antennas.
Everything looked so colorful and vivid. The new Mets ownership had started renovating Big Shea and had installed new color coded seats that were orange down at field level, blue in the second deck (the loge), dark green in the third deck (the mezzanine), and red in the huge upper tank. Down on the field, several guys from the grounds crew were watering the infield dirt with big fire hoses to keep the dust down while another was pushing the little machine that made the chalk lines down the first and third base paths. Then they smoothed the infield dirt by dragging these big things that looked like curtain valances behind them, then they installed a fresh set of gleaming white bases. They didn’t show this stuff on TV, so the whole process of getting the field ready was fascinating, and when they were done the diamond looked pristine. Out on the warning track in right field, a couple of guys were working on the baseball-shaped bullpen car with the Mets hat on top that shuttled relief pitchers into the game from the bullpen.
It was a marvelous day for both the Mets and myself. Not only did the Mets sweep the Cardinals—thanks mostly to the efforts of Lee Mazzilli, who in the doubleheader went an astounding six for eight with two home runs and six RBI and who quickly became my favorite player—but, between games, another whole new world opened up to me when the New York Playboy Bunnies played a brief charity softball game against the Bayside Federal Savings Bank team. Being seven years old and the Bayside team consisting of all men, I at first saw this as a battle of the sexes, boys against girls, and I was under the impression that everyone else in the crowd of mostly men would see it that way too and would be rooting for the bankers from Bayside not to be defeated by a bunch of girls. However, to my utter bewilderment, just about everyone in the stadium, including my father and Garner, were maniacally cheering for the Bunnies much louder than they had been cheering for the Mets.
And then one of the Bunnies got a hit and started running around the bases, her giant breasts heaving against her tight T-shirt with the Playboy logo on the front and bouncing up and down in rhythm with each stride until she slid into second base only to be called out by the cruel umpire. The crowd erupted into a chorus of boos and words I wasn’t allowed to say, and soon I was booing too and may have even uttered a swear word myself figuring that my father wouldn’t hear me above the din since I couldn’t even hear myself. The boos, however, quickly turned to lewd catcalls as she jogged back towards the dugout and waved to the crowd, her breasts bouncing bouncing bouncing until she finally disappeared down the dugout steps.
I have no recollection as to who won the softball game, but from that day forward I was hooked as a Met fan. While the team continued to struggle in the following years, their fans often possessed an element of ludicrous belief that no matter how bad the team was, there was always a chance—a sentiment they had carried since the miracle season of 1969 when they trailed the Chicago Cubs by 9½ games in mid-August and wound up winning the division and eventually the World Series against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles, then the even more unlikely charge in 1973 when Tug McGraw’s rally cry “Ya Gotta Believe” carried them all the way to the Series despite being in last place at the end of August before they finally lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games.
As bad as they were during the early 1980s, they were fun to watch with characters such as Dave “King Kong” Kingman, who was notorious for either striking out or hitting towering 450 foot home runs every time he stepped to the plate; beloved third baseman Hubie Brooks, who led the Mets in doubles in 1981 and always seemed to have a smile on his face; and the gritty catcher John Stearns, known to many simply as “Dude,” who played so hard that he spent a good portion of his career on the disabled list and played in only a little over 800 games despite having a Major League career that spanned a decade.
Then some good young players started coming up from the minors: speedy centerfielder Mookie Wilson, hard-nosed second baseman Wally Backman, and then the #1 overall draft pick from 1980, six-foot-six slugger Darryl Strawberry. In 1983 they traded for first baseman Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals, who had just won a World Series ring with the Cards the year before and who had shared the National League MVP award with Willie Stargell in 1979. Suddenly in 1984 they were pretty good and competed with the Chicago Cubs for the N.L. East crown only to fall 6½ games short. In 1985 they were even better. They had put one of the final pieces into place with the trade for the great Montreal Expos catcher Gary Carter, and then their 20-year-old pitching phenom Dwight Gooden had one of the great seasons of all time (24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts) and would became the youngest ever to win the Cy Young Award. The Mets fought their hearts out only to fall three games short of the St. Louis Cardinals, who went on to lose to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.
Then, of course, came 1986. First it was the incredible N.L.C.S. against the Houston Astros, which included the other “Game 6” that year in which the Mets, down three runs and heading into the ninth inning at the Astrodome and the prospect of a game seven matchup against the split-fingered fastball of former Met Mike Scott who they couldn’t hit at all in the two losses they suffered earlier in the series, rallied to tie the game at three, then scored three more in the top of the sixteenth and managed to hold off a Houston rally at the bottom of that inning to win the game 7-6 and clinch their first appearance in the World Series since ’73. Fans and former ’86 players agree that they probably would have lost that series if they had to go up against Scott again in game seven. Then came the more famous “Game 6” against the Boston Red Sox and their 68-year-old “Curse of the Bambino”. The Sox were a mere strike away from exorcising this curse on two separate batters until Mookie Wilson’s slow roller down the first base line trickled through the legs of Bill Buckner and allowed Ray Knight to score the winning run. The win extended the Mets’ season by another day, and they took full advantage by winning game seven and securing their second World Series title, their first since the Miracle Mets of ’69.
In ’87 they were once again beaten out by their nemesis the Cardinals, then in ’88 they bounced back to win the N.L. East before being defeated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in a series remembered mostly for what took place during game three at Shea when Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell was caught with pine tar in his glove. He was eventually suspended by new commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, who happened to be in attendance and was shown the glove on the spot by the umpire. Giamatti would be remembered for this until the following year when he became the guy who banished Pete Rose from baseball, a decision that was so stressful for him that some believe it contributed to the heart attack that killed him eight days later.
The next decade of seasons for fans of the New York Mets would be that of high hopes in April that descended into frustration by July. That cycle finally ended in 1999 when they won the N.L. Wild Card and defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in the N.L. Division Series. Then they went on to face their biggest rival since the realignment of the divisions in 1994, the Atlanta Braves, who they battled heroically in a series of six one-run games that culminated in what has already become one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the franchise, the clubhouse card game at Turner Field in Atlanta being played by Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson during the final innings of game six because they were both upset with manager Bobby Valentine about their lack of playing time. The team was eventually defeated in eleven innings to end the series, a heartbreaking loss that was so painful that some players came back to the clubhouse in tears of rage, having fought so hard and come so close to a dream that most of them have probably had since Little League only to come back and see Bonilla and Henderson sitting there playing cards like they didn’t have a care in the world. A few players had to be restrained from physically attacking them, and both were eventually released from the team.
II. October 2000
This year, however, has been different. Despite the Braves winning the N.L. East again for the sixth consecutive time and the Mets earning their way into the postseason via the Wild Card, they were spared from having to again face the Braves, who were swept by the Cardinals in the Division Series. Meanwhile, the Mets were beating up on Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants, while across town the Yanks were in the process of winning their series against the other Bay Area team, the Oakland A’s. The Mets then handily beat the Cards 4-1 in the N.L.C.S. and the Yanks rolled past the Mariners in the A.L.C.S. to set up New York’s first Subway Series since 1956, the year the Yanks defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games and Yankee pitcher Don Larsen threw what is still the only perfect game in postseason history.
The dream has now finally come true for New York baseball fans. Getting to the World Series is one thing, but to face the hated crosstown rivals up in the Bronx and having the opportunity to finally seize New York City’s baseball bragging rights from the Yankees and their twenty-five championships—this is going to be better than ’69 or ’86. New York, a baseball town before any other sport, is going to be turned upside-down during this upcoming week. Never in my baseball life have I been so excited about a World Series, and I want more than anything to be there when it commences.
I have been such a staunch Met fan for twenty years that I have never even seen a baseball game at Yankee Stadium (though I did attend a Pink Floyd concert there in the summer of 1994). I have also never been to a postseason game, and the thought of sitting in historic Yankee Stadium, The House That Ruth Built, for a World Series game in which my beloved Mets would be the visiting team is almost too much to bear. I have to be there.
This, however, is obviously a tough ticket to come by. I spend the next couple of days calling the ticket brokers (a.k.a. the “legal scalpers,” which is also how I got the Pink Floyd tickets) and quickly discover that this may be out of financial reach. Tickets out in the bleachers, way out yonder in the depths of Yankee Stadium, are ranging from $500-$750 each, but the bigger problem is that these brokers are only selling them in pairs and I don’t know anyone who has that kind of money to spend to go to a baseball game. I don’t even have that kind of money, yet I have the foresight to realize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—the very first World Series meeting of the New York Metropolitans and the New York Yankees—and I may very well regret it when I am an old man if I allow five hundred dollars from preventing me from being part of New York City baseball history.
After calling all the brokers who were running ads in the sports and classified sections of the New York papers and posting an ad on Yahoo classifieds, I finally get a call from a broker who said that he might be able to sell me a single for $425, but he says he will have to call me back later. He never does, and I didn’t think to ask him for his number when he called.
By Wednesday evening, three days before the game, I have pretty much given up hope. I tell myself that I shouldn’t regret not being there because I really did try to get a ticket, and that I am probably going to be able to see a lot more from the living room couch than the Yankee Stadium bleachers. My backup plan is to at least attend the clinching game if possible, which will hopefully be at Shea after the Mets handily take out the Yanks in four, or, at worst, five games.
On my way back from picking up a burger and fries at All American, Massapequa’s famous 1950’s style drive-in burger joint, my car stereo is tuned to WABC, the Yankee station (of all things), when I hear a commercial for “Ticket Magic,” one of the brokers I have already tried to call several times but they never answered their phone. By now I already have their number memorized, but the guy on this commercial gives a completely different number, so I start repeating it to myself over and over to memorize it so I can call as soon as I get home.
I’m not expecting success as I dial the number, but this time someone does answer. After explaining that I’m looking for a single, the guy on the other end says, “This is your lucky day. I just happen to have a single that I’ve been trying to get rid of.”
For $595 plus $20 express shipping & handling and an enormous line item on next month’s credit card statement for a ticket that is worth $50 at face value, I have a reservation in section 55 of the bleachers at Yankee Stadium in Row A/Seat 6, a good 500 feet from home plate. As soon as I hang up the phone I feel a moment of buyer’s remorse, but that quickly passes when I realize that I am going to be there and that it will be something I will remember for the rest of my life. Enjoy it now, worry about paying for it later.
So, on Saturday I will hop on the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan and work my way up to the Bronx to fulfill a New York baseball fantasy. Hopefully I will leave the old Stadium with the Mets up 1-0, which would give them a better chance to wrap it up on their own home field in game four or five, although it would be something to win it at Yankee Stadium and celebrate on the enemy’s turf. Either way, I’ll take it…
III. October 21, 2000: My First Ever World Series Game and the First Baseball Game I Ever Attend at Yankee Stadium
The first pitch is scheduled for 7:30, so I leave the house at 2:00 and stop at Taco Bell for a late lunch before heading over to the L.I.R.R. station. An hour later I’m in Penn Station buying subway tokens and I use one of them to jump on the uptown 1/9 train towards Columbia, which is the only area that far uptown where I know of a few good bars to down a beer or two before the game. The sale of alcohol is prohibited in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium because the hooligan Yankee fans who normally sit out there can’t control themselves when they get a little alcohol in them. This prohibition is a good thing, though, because the beer is so damn expensive anyway and I want to remember every detail of this experience and not miss a thing, which would be difficult if I’m running back and forth to the bathroom.
I get off at the 110th Street/Cathedral Parkway station, but, instead of finding a watering hole, I decide to do some walking first since it is such an absolutely gorgeous autumn afternoon in New York City. Knowing that I have to head east to get to the 4 train (a.k.a. the “Yankee Train”, whereas the 7 train is the “Mets Train” that runs between Queens and Grand Central Station), I walk along the very top edge of Central Park until I get to the other side and eventually wind up in Spanish Harlem. Here the streets and sidewalks come alive with frantic conversations in Spanish with a backdrop of salsa music and the smell of authentic Latin food all around me that makes me regret the Taco Bell sitting in my gut because I could have had the real thing right here. Eventually I hit Lexington Avenue, the street that the green subway lines (the 4, 5, and 6 trains) run beneath, but the 110th Street station is only a station for the 6, which is a local in Manhattan, while the 4 and 5 trains are express. The next 4 station is fifteen blocks up at 125th Street, so I head up Lexington and eventually arrive at the 116th Street station. I had been planning on walking all the way up to 125th, but I am starting to get tired so I descend the stairs of the 116th Street station and catch the next uptown 6 train to 125th, where I can transfer to the 4.
So far I haven’t seen many signs of the showdown that is scheduled to take place later up in the Bronx, but that changes at the 125th Street station, where I suddenly find myself in the midst of Subway Series madness. Most of the trains going by are painted with Mets and Yankee logos, and on the sides of many of the cars there are signs that read ‘Subway Series 2000.’ My excitement cranks up a couple of gears, and for the first time since scoring the ticket a few nights ago it begins to sink in that I am really going to be there.
I cross the platform and step onto a crowded 4 train stuffed with people headed up to the Stadium. Most are wearing Yankee garb, but there are a few brave souls clad in Mets orange and blue, which makes me feel a little better. I had considered stating my allegiance by wearing my Mets cap and an orange pocket T-shirt, but I decided against it because I would be venturing into the heart of enemy territory alone, and I was advised by a couple of Yankee fans that it would be wiser not to. Based on how much I spent on the ticket, I thought that maybe there would be a higher class of bleacher bum tonight than there would be at a regular season game, but I didn’t want to take any chances because I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.
It doesn’t take long to cross the Harlem River into the Bronx and up to 161st Street, where the 4 line is elevated high above the street. As soon as I step off the train I hear someone on the platform say, “Hey, it’s Jon Lovitz!” Sure enough, there’s the former Saturday Night Live star with his back to the wall surrounded by several people who all appear to be talking to him at once, one of whom is doing a take on his old Tommy Flanagan character from the ‘Pathological Liars Anonymous’ skit: “I’m a Met fan… No, I’m a Yankee fan…”
Down below, the street is packed with people and cars under the subway tracks. There is a Nike billboard that says, “Flushing—How appropriate”, while one Met fan is holding a similar Nike sign that says, “At least our bleachers serve beer!” Many of the cars slowly rolling by have little Met or Yankee flags waving from their antennas, and one classic Volkswagen Beetle is impressively painted with both teams’ logos and the official M.L.B. World Series 2000 logo. It is a festival atmosphere, but a couple of blocks away is the residential section of the South Bronx where there isn’t much indication that this day is different than any other day.
It is difficult to imagine if a subway series is more exciting now than it was in 1956. Back then World Series games were still played in daylight during weekdays when people were still at work and kids were still at school and the National League’s Dodgers and Giants were still in town before they bolted for the West Coast a few years later. I imagine it may have been more exciting then because baseball was by far the most popular of the four major American sports, and people in offices and at schools would stop what they were doing and huddle around radios and the broadcast became a special communal event that broke up their daily routines. Perhaps not being able to see it on TV also forced them to imagine the scene in their minds and made it even bigger than it actually was in a similar way that reading a book is usually more engaging than watching a movie adaptation of the book.
Today, however, the television networks (Fox being the network this year) want to make sure that as many people as possible watch the games, so they schedule them only at night, even on weekends. Yet the ratings are still low, so they attempt to enhance the broadcast by turning it into an entertainment event with slick computer graphics and live in-game interviews with the stars of their primetime dramas and sitcoms. Apparently, a World Series game is no longer enough to hold an audience. How much it has changed even since 1986 when Fox broadcaster Tim McCarver was still the regular announcer for the Mets along with Ralph Kiner and Steve Zabriskie, and the World Series announcers on NBC were the legendary Vin “Deuces Wild” Scully and Joe Garagiola. This is my nostalgia, NBC Major League Baseball Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons when it was a big deal to see the Mets as one of the featured teams on the national broadcast, and Vin Scully (who still announces for the Dodgers) setting up the situation by knowing precisely when not to say something and building the drama until it became almost unbearable. Two of Scully’s finest broadcasting moments came during this era, the first being his call when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs in ’86 (“it gets through Buckner, here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”) and then two years later with Kirk Gibson’s legendary home run in game one of the Dodgers-A’s World Series, a simple “High fly ball into right field… and she is gone!” and then letting the scene speak for itself by saying nothing as Gibson hobbled around the bases and the Dodger fans went bananas.
It is hard to imagine the current scene on the street outside the Stadium being anything like what it would have been in 1956. Everything is alive in vivid color, and the crowd consists of men, women, and children of various races. The only picture of 1956 I can form in my mind is a grainy crowd of starched-shirted-black-tied-fedora-lidded white men chain smoking Chesterfield cigarettes and drinking Rheingold beer from pull-tab cans.
Some things, however, are probably not that much different, such as people sitting in the bars around the Stadium having a few cold ones before the game. This is exactly what I find upon entering Billy’s Stadium Sports Bar across the street from the bleacher entrance, but the place is very crowded and there are a lot of people between me and the bartender so I just leave because it doesn’t seem worth it. I don’t even bother trying to get a beer elsewhere because I don’t have much cash on me anyway and I am going to have to get something to eat sooner or later. Instead I wander up the block past the crowded souvenir shops such as Stan the Man’s Baseball Land and The New York Yankees Pro Cap Dugout before heading back across to the Stadium side of the street.
There’s a line about half-block long at the bleacher seat entrance, but it moves swiftly despite a team of security guards at the turnstiles frisking the patrons, including small children. When it’s my turn I hand my $600 ticket to an elderly gentleman who tears it at the perforation and hands me back the stub, then I am frisked by a burly guard who carefully pats me down with a professionalism as if to make it clear that this is nothing personal and that he is just doing his job.
The concessions area beneath the bleachers is blocked off from the main structure of the Stadium so that the people sitting out here in the boonies can’t just wander in and purchase alcoholic beverages. I am clearly in the land of outcasts, which makes me wish that I could have scored a ducat in the main section of the Stadium. Yet, upon walking up the tunnel that leads to the bleachers and seeing the autumn shadows on the green grass strewn with batting practice balls and the blue Stadium seats spread out in front of the twilit sky, I realize that it doesn’t really matter where I sit as long as I am within the walls of this historic old building tonight. As a baseball fan, it is truly wondrous to see the whole Stadium in front of me with the decorative white frieze adorning the roof that makes me think of George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. and how this is easily the most historic of all places in the history of our national pastime.
Before finding Row A, Seat 6, I head back inside and purchase a $4.00 soda, then join some spectators at the railing above the visitors’ bullpen behind Monument Park who are trying to catch the occasional batting practice blast that manages to make it out this far beyond the Death Valley of the Yankee Stadium outfield in left-center. Several players on the field are tossing stray batting practice balls to the fans, many of whom are calling on them to ‘throw it over here’. In Monument Park, Old Glory and the 1999 Yankees World Championship pennant sway gently in the breeze of ghosts swirling atop the flag pole. Home plate is so far away that I can’t tell who’s taking batting practice, but someone hits one towards us that’s just a little too far out of my reach to take a stab at it. One unlucky N.Y.P.D. officer in the stands who has his back to the field gets clocked in the noggin by a 450 footer, and though it startles him momentarily, he’s tough enough to simply shrug it off with a chuckle.
After watching batting practice for about fifteen minutes or so I head up the steps to my seat and encounter a man who looks to be in his 50s already sitting on the Row A bench in the spot next to the one that is painted #6. I realize that this guy is probably the other half of the ticket pair that was broken up to allow me to score my single, which I am grateful for, but at the moment it feels a bit awkward to sit right next to him when there isn’t anyone else within 30 feet of us.
We say hello when I sit down, and although I am wearing a dark blue fleece jacket over a white T-shirt (which looks very similar the colors of a certain home team partaking in this evening’s competition), he asks right off the bat if I am a Met fan.
“How did you know?” I ask.
“You look a little nervous,” he says. “But don’t worry—I won’t tell anyone as long as you don’t tell anyone that I drove three-and-a-half hours down here from Boston.”
“Boston?” I ask, perplexed. I can’t imagine why anyone from Boston would even want to watch this game between the hated rivals of the Red Sox and the team that extended their curse for another fourteen years and counting.
“Who are you rooting for?” I ask. “Or are you just here to torture yourself?”
“Actually, I’m a Yankee fan.”
“Did you grow up in New York or something?”
“Nope. Born and raised in Boston. My buddies are always giving me a hard time about being a Yankee fan.”
“I’ll bet they do.”
“That’s why I’m here by myself because none of them wanted to come down here with me.”
“I didn’t think there were any Yankee fans up there.”
“There’s a few of us, but we have to keep a low profile. Just like you will tonight. But I’ll get to cheer out loud for a change.”
When batting practice is over and the grounds crew is wheeling away the batting cage in the distance, people start heading to their seats in our section. I get up and hurry back inside to take one last bathroom break, then wolf down a $4.00 Nathan’s hot dog before making my way back to my seat. In the short time I was gone the bleachers have filled considerably. There are more people in their seats out here than in the main part of the Stadium, where the seats are still mostly empty except for some splotches of people covering the blue seats here and there.
While some brave Met fans are showing their presence, they are heavily outnumbered by Yankee fans (as is usually the case, even at Shea when these two teams face each other during regular season interleague play). Out here in Death Valley, the heathen Bronx Bomber faithful are giving anyone they see clad in orange and blue a generous helping of verbal abuse that makes me glad that I chose the cowardly route because I am alone and these people are nuts.
As the cool calm of evening falls over the Bronx, a huge cheer goes up when Bob Sheppard, the voice of Yankee Stadium for half-a-century, greets the crowd over the P.A. system. These cheers soon turn to boos when the names of the New York Mets start echoing in the Bronx night, then just as quickly turn back to cheers when the Yankee players are announced. There is a moment of silence in tribute to the crew members of the U.S.S. Cole who lost their lives during a terrorist attack in Yemen over the summer. Then Long Island’s favorite son, Billy Joel, steps up to the microphone behind home plate and interprets “The Star-Spangled Banner” as heard from the bottom of a jug of burgundy. Joel sounds so tanked that he hardly hits any of the notes. But, just as this act of patriotic sacrilege is about to conclude, the moment is saved by a beautiful bald eagle that takes flight from center field and soars across the backdrop of flashbulb-popping Yankee Stadium to it’s keeper waiting at second base. The crowd roars at this breathtaking display and allows Joel to slink back to the recesses of the Stadium without being noticed.
Yankees starter Andy Pettitte, who went 19-9 with a 5.07 ERA during the regular season, receives a huge ovation as he steps to the hill and begins throwing his warmup pitches. His counterpart Al Leiter, who went 16-8 with a 3.20 ERA during the regular season and who won a World Series with the Marlins a few seasons ago, then takes the hill for the Mets after they go down quietly in the top of the first.
I am so far from home plate that I can’t see the umpire’s calls and have to look at the scoreboard to see if the last pitch was a ball or a strike. The game starts out as a classic pitcher’s duel between two seasoned professionals, and suddenly the first five innings are over and it appears as if the game is going to be a quick one.
Then in the top of the sixth, Mets right fielder Timo Perez leads off with a single. After two quick outs and Perez still at first, Mets first baseman Todd Zeile steps up to the plate and smashes a long fly ball to left. It looks for sure like it’s going to be a home run, but from my seat it’s impossible to tell if it went over the wall or not. When I see Perez slow down and start to celebrate as he rounds second base, I think for sure it’s a home run and start celebrating silently by pumping my fists in the pockets of my fleece jacket.
But then Perez suddenly starts sprinting again towards third as if the ball is still in play. No one out here in Death Valley knows what the hell is going on because we all think it’s a home run. By the time Perez rounds third and is halfway home, Derek Jeter already has the ball at the edge of the infield dirt and throws a strike home to catcher Jorge Posada, who easily tags him out. Mets first base coach John Stearns is going ballistic, and manager Bobby Valentine steps out of the dugout twirling his index finger in the air signaling to the umpire that the ball was a home run. Alas, it was not, as the ball hit the very top of the wall and came right back into the field of play. Regardless, if Perez had been running hard the whole way and had not slowed down to celebrate, he would have scored easily and the Mets would have a 1-0 with a runner on second and two outs. Instead, it is the third out of the inning and the game remains scoreless.
Then the Yanks plate two in the bottom of the sixth and the home crowd comes alive for the first time since the bald eagle took flight before the game. The Mets, however, show some of their classic playoff resiliency by plating three in the top of the seventh to take a one-run lead. The Yankee fans all around me are standing quietly watching the Mets base runners round third and head for home while I am standing quietly with them shouting ‘Yes! Yes!’ inside my head, teeth clenched and fists once again pumping inside the pockets of my fleece.
Meanwhile, the Boston guy left an inning ago just before all the scoring started and hasn’t yet come back. In the row in front of me there’s a group of guys who have managed to smuggle in some miniature bottles of Bacardi Rum and they have been getting progressively louder and rowdier since the first pitch. An inflatable cow is being batted around the bleachers like a beach ball, and, as it nears our row, the guy sitting directly in front of me—a very, very large man who has had one too many miniatures—jumps up trying to volley the cow but misses. He promptly loses his balance, falls backwards, and, since the bleacher benches don’t have backrests, lands right in my lap and pins my lower thighs to the bench. I let out some form of exclamatory noise that is by far the loudest sound I have made all evening, and the guy quickly jumps up and starts apologizing profusely. Although my legs are in excruciating pain, I tell him I’m okay and that it’s alright because at least he’s being nice about it and the Mets are winning.
As the cow continues to get batted around before finally landing on top of Lou Gehrig’s monument down in Monument Park and eventually confiscated by a Stadium official, a man who appears to be in his mid-50s and scary drunk approaches the railing above the Mets’ bullpen and begins shouting, “Hey, Franco, your father’s a garbage man!” He repeats this several times as loud as he can, stretching the pronunciation of ‘garbage man‘ as long as he could and waiting for lulls in the crowd noise so that he can be clearly heard by longtime Met reliever John Franco, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and whose father Jim did actually work for the New York City Department of Sanitation.
“Hey, Franco, your mother married a garbage man!” he continues. The Met bullpen is quiet and the relievers and coaches are seated on a bench beneath a canopy, so they can’t be seen from our section until they start warming up. “Hey, Franco, your father is a loser garbage man!”
As they should be, the Yankee fans are quietly embarrassed at this shameful display, and none of them speak up because this man is clearly a drunken maniac. The entire section is uncomfortably quiet, and I’m sure just about everyone within earshot, Met and Yankee fan alike, would love to see a sanitation worker calmly walk right up to him and punch him in the face. Unfortunately this does not happen, but the man is eventually led away by a couple of security guards who receive a smattering of applause for their efforts.
Most of the other Yankee fans out here have been jeering another Mets’ reliever, the eccentric and superstitious Turk Wendell, who wears #99 and sports a necklace strung with shark and bear teeth and who flamboyantly leaps over the baselines on his way to and from the pitcher’s mound. He seems to be feeding off the negative energy directed at him and acknowledges it every so often by occasionally emerging from beneath the bullpen canopy and pumping his fists in the air, which gets the Yankee fans riled up even more.
After the quick outburst of scoring in the sixth and seventh innings, the Mets take their 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth. By now I am about ready to bust with excitement, but I know that I had better not because Yankee fans think it is their birthright to win and generally don’t take it very well when they lose.
Then, suddenly, my enthusiasm descends to the pit of my stomach when I spy Met closer Armando Benitez leaving the bullpen and heading towards the mound. Benitez was dominant during the regular season with 41 saves and a 2.61 ERA, but he is a notorious choke artist in big games and has already blown a save in the playoffs this year against the Giants in a game the Mets still managed to win. He also blew a huge save against the Braves last year in game six of the N.L.C.S, and, in this very building in 1996, he was the Baltimore Orioles pitcher who gave up the infamous ‘Jeffrey Maier home run’ named after the twelve year old kid who reached over the wall and snatched the fly ball hit by Derek Jeter just before it was going to be caught in the field of play by right fielder Tony Tarasco. With an assist by young Jeffrey, the Yanks went on to win that game and eventually the World Series, and I can’t help but think that this and many other things might be going through his head at this very moment. Hopefully, though, he sees this as an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of Met fans for what happened last year.
This, however, does not happen. Benitez quickly loads the bases, and a sacrifice fly hit by Yankee designated hitter Chuck Knoblauch ties the score at three. The crowd goes into a frenzy, Yankee fans hugging each other all over the Stadium, including the guy who fell on me earlier who now makes a point to include me in the jubilation by turning around and giving me a high-five, which I reluctantly return. Even the stoic police officers in our section with their backs to the field who thus far had managed to resist the temptation to turn around were now finally watching and cheering themselves, though in a considerably more subdued manner than the people who were going crazy all around them.
The Mets manage to get through the ninth without giving up the winning run, but the damage is already done. The Yankees always seem to win games like this, and the Mets at this point are reeling. The tenth and eleventh innings bring the game past midnight, and the Met bullpen almost seems determined to lose and barely get out of a couple of jams. Meanwhile, the Met offense is unable to get anything going.
Finally, at 1:04 AM, 4 hours and 51 minutes after the first pitch, which time-wise makes this the longest World Series game in history, and by going twelve innings has whittled the cost of my evening’s entertainment down to fifty bucks an inning, ex-Met Jose Vizcaino puts his former team out of its misery with a bases-loaded single that sends the crowd into a ear-splitting uproar. Before the winning run even crosses home plate I am heading for the exit and manage to get a step ahead of the pack. In a matter of moments I am speed-walking down River Avenue towards the downtown entrance of the 4 station, where several N.Y.P.D. officers are offering a free ride by holding the gates open to keep the crowds moving.
Upstairs there is a long wait for the next downtown train, which allows the platform to fill to capacity. Across the tracks there is hardly anyone waiting on the uptown platform. It is becoming so crowded behind me that I am growing concerned about being pushed over the edge onto the tracks. But finally, after ten minutes that feels more like an hour, a pair of bright headlights appear on the elevated horizon that will me take me away from the Bronx in the first leg of what is going to be a long, lonely journey back to the strip malls of Long Island.
The crowds squeeze into the train and it takes several attempts for the conductor to get the doors closed before we finally pull away. I take the 4 down to 59th Street in Manhattan thinking I can transfer to a westbound E train coming in from Queens that will swing down to Penn Station at 8th Avenue, but I am wrong about that because the E passes through 51st Street, not 59th. So I hop on a 6 train crowded with Yankee fans down to 51st, where to find the E platform I have to navigate century-old passageways that cut through the bedrock far below Metropolis and down an escalator so long that after a while it doesn’t feel like I’m going down anymore but actually moving sideways as it descends towards the increasingly warmer and more stagnant air emitting from Earth’s core. It is quiet down here, still too early for the Saturday night crowds in this city to be heading home, and now more than ever I wish that I could live here in Manhattan where it all happens. For now, however, I am stuck on Long Island having to watch the Mets break my heart all over again, as they have done over and over again save for that one magical season fourteen years ago.
IV. Post Script: November 2000
Of course, the game one loss was the most devastating loss I have ever had to endure as a Mets fan. They should have won it, and winning that one would have changed the complexion of the Series.
Then came the bizarre game two loss that featured psycho Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens tossing a jagged broken bat at Mets catcher Mike Piazza. The Mets were down 6-0 heading into the ninth and nearly made a miraculous comeback by scoring five runs during their last turn at bat, but, of course, it was not to be.
The Mets managed to take game three at Shea, but that was all they could muster. When Derek Jeter homered to lead off game four, the darkness came. At that moment they were still only down 2-1 in the Series and were losing only by a single run in the first inning of game four, but that home run seemed to stick a dagger into the heart of Met players and fans. As Jeter trotted around the bases, it already felt like it was over.
And, of course, it soon was after the Yanks won game five at Shea to clinch the Series. Yankee manager Joe Torre, who was the manager of some notoriously bad Met teams back in the late ’70s and early ’80s—including the one that played in the fateful Playboy Bunny doubleheader against the Cardinals two decades earlier—had come back to the very field where his managerial career got off to a dreadful start and won his fourth World Series title with the hated crosstown rivals. I had been happy for Joe when he won his first World Series with the Yanks back in ’96, but those sentiments are now long gone. It was absolutely nauseating to see the Yankees celebrate a World Series victory at Big Shea. The Mets could have won at least one more game to send the Series back to the Bronx so the Yanks could celebrate on their own field. Instead, us Met fans not only had to endure seeing the Yankees celebrate winning yet another championship, but had to experience the nightmare scenario of watching it happen on our own field in Flushing.
Now Met fans are left to ponder what life would have been like if they hadn’t pulled off that miraculous championship back in ’86. This year’s loss to the Yanks would have been that much more devastating. But at least they should be better in the coming years than they were when I first boarded the Flushing Meadows express two decades ago, a train with many stops and starts that always seemed to get stuck at the wrong stations but at least had one glorious run during my lifetime. ▪