Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Game 5's

The Mets weren't supposed to be anywhere near the World Series in 1969, or in 2015. But they got there both times. And so, somehow, did I, attending Game 5 of each. But the tales are quite different -- and not just because of the disparate high/low outcomes.

In 1969, you couldn't buy tickets the same day as the game from your computer.  Designated Hitters had not yet ruined the sport. You couldn't buy a lobster roll at the stadium. Pitchers regularly pitched complete games. The winning players' World Series bonuses were $18,338. And Fox Broadcaster Joe Buck (right) was only six months old, so he couldn't yet be held responsible for being a babbling idiot.

Even though the New York Metropolitans weren't born until a year after me, I was predestined to root for them.

My mom grew up in Brooklyn and had snuck into Ebbets Field with her nanny to watch Jackie Robinson play. So there was no WAY I was going to root for the Yankees.  My dad luckily had been a New York Giants fan, so when both teams moved West for the 1958 season, they got married, and waited around for a new expansion team to be formed from a draft of cast-offs from around the league with names like Choo-Choo Coleman, Marv Throneberry, and a couple of over-the-hill former Brooklyn Dodgers to get fans out to the ballpark (which in 1962 was the Giants' old Polo Grounds), including Clem Labine, Don Zimmer, Joe Pignataro, and Gil Hodges. Their debut record was historical: 40 wins and 120 losses.

Mom at the Museum of the City of New York, 2007
Mom kept cheering. She wasn't just a lifelong sports fanatic. her moods literally rose and fell with the daily travails of her teams. She listened to hockey playoffs on a transistor radio at temple services (I'm pretty sure she cursed out loud when circumstances turned dire), wrote letters to the Port Authority to complain about construction on the Whitestone clogging the road to Shea Stadium, and later in life frequently called the sports radio station to opinionate as "Judy From Scarsdale." She had elaborate superstitions about causing the Mets to do well or not, one of which included saving a half-eaten Nestles' Crunch bar for years in our freezer because she'd been in the middle of eating it when something Amazin' happened.

As the first-born, I knew no other way to live. She took me to my first game in 1968 when I was seven and she soon took all three sons. We sat in the top deck, seats were $1.30, and I learned to keep score.  Way before fantasy leagues were a twinkling in Las Vegas's eye, I was playing make-believe baseball games in my room with playing cards and dice, keeping track of batting averages and ERA. I sent self-addressed stamped envelopes to players c/o Shea Stadium and got back autographed pictures. I went to signing events and met them in person.
My souvenirs: 1969 Mets Taylor, Frisella, Koosman, McGrw, Kranepool
And I started keeping scrapbooks.
Yes, that's groovy Contact (TM) paper on the right. 
By starting when I did, I got an incredibly warped sense of how easy it is to win a World Series. Because in my second season of conscious fandom, the hapless Mets,
who had been last-place dwellers their entire short existence on the planet starting with their historically inept 40-120 debut, suddenly became the Miracle Mets, fueled by young pitchers, some ragtag veterans suddenly having career years, and heroic utility players.

The most important trade leading up to this, however, was for their manager - that doesn't happen any more either. But one of those Brooklyn Dodgers who my mom had rooted on, Gil Hodges, who had gone to LA with the team and then was drafted by the original 1962 Mets, was traded in 1963 to the Washington Senators and became their manager. The Mets reversed the situation before 1968, trading to Washington one of their young promising rookie pitchers -- Bill Denehy - so they could make Hodges their manager. (Thank god they didn't trade the other guy on Denehy's rookie card. Denehy went on to have a short, undistinguished career.)

They made it all the way to the World Series.

But they were going up against the much more seasoned and scary Baltimore Orioles, who had won 109 games and led their division by 19. Which is why I got to go to game 5.

Back then there was no Stubhub -- there wasn't even Ticketmaster, just Ticketron -- so if I'm remembering correctly, people who weren't season ticket holders obtained tickets through a snail mail-in lottery. I can't IMAGINE how this was administered or the corruption involved (my Uncle Steve swears the folks at the box office were themselves scalping, which is how he got in.)

My parents tried and failed. But one of their friends scored four seats for all three home games -- 3,4, and 5 -- and feeling sorry for my folks, gave them the game 5 tickets "because the Mets will probably lose in 4."
(not my ticket. we sat higher. but check out the face value: $15)
Instead the Mets won three of the first four, and at Game 5, on October 16, 1969, we saw Jerry Koosman win his second World Series victory, jump into the arms of catcher Jerry Grote,  and the fans -- including eight-year-old me (left) - poured onto the field in a mania never matched since. People ripped up the bases, pieces of sod, tried to strip uniforms off of the ushers. I collected a small jar's worth of infield dirt which I still have to this day. It was a heady time to be a New York sports fan: Joe Namath's Jets had won the Super Bowl in January, Willis Reed's Knicks would pick up the baton and go on to win the NBA crown. And somewhere along the way men walked on the moon.

And the Mets capitalized best as evanescent sports celebs in 1969 could -- they released an album of the team SINGING and appeared on Ed Sullivan and in Vegas.

In 1973 the Mets were back in the playoffs, and I was allowed to take the train and subway in from suburbia to Shea Stadium with my fellow 12 year old Jono to see a division game versus the Reds.  (Our memory fails but I think we were meeting our working NYC lawyer dads there.) As for that year's World Series, the memory is fuzzy, partly because we lost to Oakland.

And then I kind of lost interest in baseball -- because the Mets stank. They traded Seaver away in '77; the year I graduated from high school, Joe Torre managed the Mediocres to a last-place 63-99 record -- not that far from where they started.

By 1984, when I moved into the city they were rebuilding and then came 1986:Doc, Darryl, Keith, Mookie, The Kid, et al. The whole city was alive with confidence.

Grandpa and me
But my memory of the actual 86 World Series is clouded because that fall, my mom's dad, my grandfather, a retired labor lawyer, was dying.

For much of the year I had been spending a lot of time in his NYC duplex apartment trying to fill the void left when his second wife died the previous October.  My mom, of course, tried to get him excited about the Mets. But he was inconsolable and literally withering away and wound up in New York hospital to be on an IV. The last weekend of October, my parents went up to New England to visit my brother for his college homecoming.

I went to visit my grandfather on Saturday October 25 but from inside the room I heard him tell the staff he didn't want guests.   He died that night -  the night of game 6, the famous Mookie Wilson/Bill Buckner moment; (if you missed it, here's the video game recap). I can't even remember where, or if, I watched the game.

Game seven was delayed a day because of rain, and I remember watching game 7 when the Mets won at a friend's apartment and then the city going crazy outside, but I was a little dazed.

Three generations of fans
By the next trip to the World Series versus the Yankees in 2000, my parents had bought themselves season tickets, and the Mets had bought themselves a whole lotta talent - it was the Mike Piazza era,  But I had other distractions: I was married with two young daughters.  My parents brought them to games as soon as they could walk, of course, even though they mostly were there for the food concessions. (They did end up with lifelong love of the game.)

But when I thought back to that Series, I had to look at my calendar to remind myself I had attended  game three at Shea - incidentally the only one the Mets won. My friend Lois reminds me why that series felt so odd:
It wasn't as much fun as a normal playoff game, because it was against the Yankees, so half the fans at the stadium weren't rooting for the Mets. It didn't  have that insane fervor you expect, because not all the fans were root-root-rooting for the home team.
The other thing, of course, was that it was over pretty quick: We lost in five games.

They got into the playoffs in 06 but were eliminated. In 2007, they lost 12 of their last 17 games and surrendered first place on the last day of the season; three weeks later, my mom died suddenly, swimming, of a heart aneurysm .Coincidence?

My dad kept their season tickets going in 2008, often going to Shea Stadium by himself and leaving my mom's seat empty in her memory.- and the Mets rewarded him by choking on the last day a second consecutive year.

The Mets were building a new stadium next door and had doubled the price of his seats.  Instead my Dad ordered a memorial tile for "Judy From Scarsdale" But he died before the stadium's debut in 2009.

And the Mets continued to stink -- until this year. Well, to be more accurate, until August.  I went to a few games early on to see their hot young pitchers, Harvey, DeGrom, and Syndegaard, but the Mets were scoring so few runs for them that for a while I couldn't bear to watch on TV.  I'd glance at the box score the next day and see new ways to lose.

But then a few trades -- as have been well-covered elsewhere -- a couple of hot streaks, and suddenly they had the most runs scored and most home runs and best record for the last two months of the season. I felt like my parents -- who are buried in the century-old family plot in a Queens cemetery only 2 miles from Citi Field -- were smiling.  It was nothing anyone had predicted, Mets fans were happy just to be there.

And I decided I could not pass up this opportunity to see post season play, considering it's so flukey to ever get back there, what with changing rosters, Tommy John surgery, and streaky hitters. So I went on Stubhub early and bought overpriced tickets for me, my daughter and my partner to an NLDS game versus the Dodgers, only to see the prices drop as we got closer to gametime. Still, we got our money's worth, as Harvey and the bats crushed the Dodgers. and it didn't matter that the bullpen coughed up four runs - we still won 13-7.

We waved orange Let's Go Mets towels, screamed and jumped for joy. My kid even caught a free t-shirt.

Six days later,  and with temperatures 30 degrees colder,  I waited till the morning of the Cubs NLCS game pitched by Syndegaard, and got similar seats - for half what I'd paid vs. Dodgers. I brought my friend Robert and we loitered with many others in the heated team logo store until game time.

The Mets looked really good, and suddenly you sensed against all logic that they might go all the way. The roster had a similar makeup to those 69 Mets -- phenomenal young arms, a couple of wizened veterans and journeymen playing above their boxing weight. And - We won! Fireworks!

I made an impulse buy of a new postseason t-shirt. Instead of the braggy "DESTI-NY" I opted for NEW YORK WANTS IT MORE. (The most recent shirt I'd bought said "I Like Ike" for Ike Davis, the likeable but uneven player that the equally uneven Lucas Duda beat out for the first-baseman's job.)

Then came the relentless Royals, with their nonstop lineup of machine-gun singles and doubles hitters and endless scoreless relievers. And who had already been to The Show last year. Inevitably, Our closer who hadn't blown a save in months blew game one. Our hitter who was on a record-settting home run streak stopped hitting. We got blown out in game two. Down 0-2 heading back to New York.

But wait! Somebody noticed: The same thing happened in 1986 -- and that had happened when the first two games were AT HOME. The margins of loss were exactly the same. Surely it was an omen, we would bounce back when the teams came to New York.

And when I tried to obtain tickets, it did seem like fans had not given up. Instead, as the Daily News reported, the resale market had set a new record: tickets were averaging $1,667.82. (It doesn't help that CitiField holds about 10K fewer fans than Shea did.) I decided that while it would be fun to go,  I'd rather fly to Europe with my girlfriend. I resorted to sitting on my couch and waving my orange towel at home, while furiously texting three Mets fans in L.A. 

We won game 3 -- again, by the identical margin as the game 3 in 86 versus the Sox -- and the mystics were losing their minds. 
But then the law of averages caught up with the poor Mets. They stopped hitting, stopped fielding -- and lost game 4, unlike 1986, in ugly fashion. 

The only upside? Down 3-1, prices started dropping. The day of game 5, I found a seat in the middle tier behind first base selling for 25% of what had been asked the day before. I bought it. I would go to honor my mom - and also just in case the Mets don't get back there for another 15 years when I will be nearly 70. Unlike the nice cardboard ticket, I only had a pdf printout, but I was going to the game! 

Impulsively I sent a nostalgic email to tell my childhood friend Jono, who I'd gone to the 1973 playoffs with, who now lived in DC -- and he wrote back "I'm on Amtrak! I'm going too!" His brother had even flown in from Chicago, and another high school friend Peter from Philly -- and their seats were literally a few sections away from mine. 

I took the subway out to Flushing -- and in my car I ran into a college theater acquaintance who also had gone into TV (more successfully than I) and who, despite living in LA, holds season tickets and had been to both previous Royals games. But he described attending game 5 as "Going to visit a sick friend." It reminded me of my grandfather. I tried to shake it off. 

Before entering the ballpark, I stopped to visit the memorial tile my dad had bought for my mom 6 years earlier, and placed my ticket next to it for good luck. 

I went inside and took a moment to take it all in. World Series. It's painted right there on the grass. Nobody thought this would happen on Opening Day. Hell, nobody thought it would happen as recently as July 30. Or maybe even Oct. 1. But these kids were making it happen. There's no way they'd lose two of three at home, right? The mood inside was cautious but still celebratory. I talked to some die hard fans who had spent $750 for upper deck seats a few days ago and was embarrassed to tell them how much cheaper my lower-down seat was. 

When I arrived, I discovered it had a great view but was a weird, "wheelchair companion" folding chair on a terrace and my fellow occupants were elderly and fighting off drowsiness. I kept turning in my seat to commune with the guys who had bought standing room.  

Cleon Jones, Darryl Strawberry and Mookie Wilson ALL threw out ceremonial first pitches, and I felt old. Matt Harvey's first actual pitch was a strike, and he was on his way to pitching a game for the ages. 
First pitch, from my seat. 
After Harvey's impressive first half-inning, I went to find Jono and Peter a few sections further into right field.  
High school reunion: Peter, me and Jono

But then: The Mets were about to bat. I stood up and started sprinting back to my seat -- and slipped on wet concrete and fell. I put out my hand to break my fall and it immediately started to throb. I looked up and there were two firemen standing right there. They looked at me inquisitively, and my mind fast-forwarded to an indoor first-aid room watching the game on TV, and I thought - no way, I am not going to seek medical care and miss this game after waiting all these years!

I returned to my seat just as Curtis Granderson stepped inside the batters box.
My hand stopped hurting. But the Mets barely hit again. And things unravelled in an ugly, memorably terrible way. They had the bases loaded with no out, Cespedes fouled a ball off his knee and had to leave the game, and they only eked out one more run. Harvey struck out 9 in 8 innings but bullied manager Terry Collins to leave him in the game to pitch the 9th ahead 2-0. You had to admire his drive to win, but he had stopped striking out people and it was time to hand over the ball. Instead Collins left him in even after a leadoff walk, and all the longtime Mets fans knew what was coming. It had happened so many times in their history that it was starting to feel like the norm. Errors, bad relief pitching, inability to throw out basestealers, and the Mets' season, which was three outs from returning to Kansas City, trickled into a miserable, humiliating extra-inning defeat that paralleled game one.

The Royals burst upon the field in celebration in an eerie, silent stadium. Police filed on the field - so many I had to wonder if they just wanted to see the game for free - but there was no need for security. It was opposite-land of 1969 when I had been able to roam and pick up the magic dirt. People trudged toward the exits, the season folding up like a vacation does when you land back at your home airport.

On the subway home, I was entertained by two members of the "7 Line Army" in orange hoodies who vociferously discussed all the ins and outs of the Mets' various contracts and who the available players were in the free agent market. This perhaps more than any other change struck me as the difference between 1969 and now: teams are a quick conglomeration of moveable pieces. David Wright, the longest player with one team, is a rarity. The Mets have twelve (count 'em) free agents hitting the market next year and while our starting pitching will be intact and Granderson, thank goodness, will still be on hand, who else will be on the field is anybody's guess.

The morning after, the New York Post poured salt on the wounds, running what amounted to snuff photos of all the Mets' horrible plays.
Royals scouts said "run on Duda's arm. run on D'arnaud's arm." Done and done.

Oh -- and I went to see another high school buddy - an orthopedist - to check out my hand. He took an x-ray and informed me: I had a 3mm break in one of the bones and would have to wear a splint for four weeks.

But I'll be ready in plenty of time for spring training.


Robert said...

Wonderful post, David. We had a great night and saw a terrific game.

Profesora said...

This was marvelous, David. So full of love, memories, excitement.

Betsy Sherman said...

What a lovely tribute to your mom and the game. Love, loss and the passion of being a fan. My mom practically lived at Ebbets field--maybe they knew each other.

jeff said...

Since I’m still not old enough to be what they call in Portland an “honored citizen,” and get half priced tickets on Trimet, there is little benefit to being 60, except maybe that I was old enough to go to baseball games at the Polo Grounds and young enough to remember them. You went expecting the Mets to lose and rarely went away disappointed (although I did see Al Jackson shut out the Phillies). 1962 was a great year for New York baseball, and for a little kid who enjoyed the history of the game it was magic. I still remember how we could lean over the dugout wall and see Casey Stengel at the end of the bench wearing his sunglasses and sometimes obviously asleep. After the games, they would let you on the field and exit through the centerfield gate.

We also went to the first old-timers game, which recreated the infamous 1951 playoff game between the Giants and the Dodgers (infamous if you were a Brooklyn family). It was all rather hilarious, as Branca would only roll the ball to Thomson. We had field level seats, and after getting some autographs, I remember returning to my seat where my Dad was talking to an older fellow on crutches. “Jeff, I want you to meet Frankie Frisch.” Even at seven years old I knew that was cool.

stmmendoza said...

A wonderful blog! And the pictures make it so special. You clearly had a fun and loving family.

My father grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and 1940 so he was a Yankee fan, and his father had season tickets by third base. My father used to wait by the exit to the stadium to ask the players to autograph baseball cards and baseball---in those days, they walked out the stadium like "regular" people". As you can imagine, he had some wonderful autographs, but when he went to college, his mother threw them out. It was heartbreaking! We went to some games growing up, but watched most games on t.v. in our den, and were certainly not as dedicated as "Judy from Scarsdale", and the jubilant young David.

I see the Yankees when I travel sometimes (as they don't come to Oklahoma), and my husband, son and daughter saw them play the Rangers in Arlington a few year ago---they lost. Jorge and I took a trip to see them play the Royals this summer---and they lost AND even though I bought seats down by the Yankee dugout, no one came down to sign the baseball I brought with me. The next night, I saw Arod out giving autographs as I watched the game from my living room. We also seen the Yankees play in Toronto and Detroit when attending conferences, and I have to admit to buying my Yankee tickets before my plane tickets for the Toronto trip. My son Donald and I saw a game in the old Yankee Stadium (the last year before the move) when we were in New York looking at colleges---and they won with Mike Mussina pitching.

Thanks for writing such a moving piece.

Susannah Greenberg said...

What a wonderful post! You are such a writer. Your memory and ability to share your memories, amazing. Thanks, David.

John Paul Newport said...

Wonderful piece! It's a family history as much or more than a Mets story. After all that came before in the piece, I was really moved when that pic of you and Nancy scrolled up. The tradition lives! So glad you did this.

Kathy said...

Very moving piece, David. My grandfather was an ardent Mets fan. The last part of his life he was blind, and his one great pleasure was listening to Mets games on his TV. Thanks for the memory.