In this opening portion of the season, I find that younger fans are sometimes curious about what it was like to go to Opening Days in the past. Did we have postcard lotteries, or did we have to keep speed-dialing until we got through to phone sales? Was it necessary to show up at the stadium with a sleeping bag to wait on line all night? Well I went to six Opening Days in a row in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s and here’s what it was like.
First you’d find out when the game was scheduled to be played. Then you’d get yourself to the stadium before the game began. Then you’d stand in line in front of some windows for a short period of time. When you got to the window, you’d ask for a seat in the Upper Deck. The man behind the grate would take a very small amount of money from you and he’d give you … your Opening Day ticket. Then you’d enter the stadium and go and sit in the seat printed on the ticket until the end of the first inning. Then you’d take the escalators downstairs to the Loge or Field Box Level and pick out your real seat. If anyone did show up with tickets to your seat, either you or they would sit somewhere else nearby. There was plenty of room. This was a great system. Maybe some day they’ll bring it back.
The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were some of the worst years in Mets history. M. Donald Grant, who ran the team for the daughter and very bizarre granddaughters of Joan Payson, was insisting that players like Tom Seaver did not deserve to be paid more than the 2007 equivalent of one million dollars a year. He felt it was un-American. Most other owners disagreed. Grant wouldn’t pay his players market value and he wouldn’t enter the free-agent market. We therefore ended up, for seven years straight, with one of the worst teams in baseball.
Because we were so bad, and the Yankees were quite good at the time, all of the bandwagoners headed off to the Bronx. Hardly anyone showed up for Opening Day. The Mets had opening day crowds that filled less than half the stadium. But, as anyone who went to those opening days can tell you, there was something truly wonderful about being in the stands back then. Imagine being in Shea stadium when every single person in very single seat is as true blue-and-orange as you are. That can never happen to a popular team. Only the crazies were left. We all loved to be crazy together.
On one of those opening days, I remember, the De Roulet granddaughters (yes that was their name, one of them was even named Bebe, pronounced BAY-BAY as in French for “baby”) introduced a new team mascot, a mule named (oh who thought this up?!) Met-Al which was supposed to make you think of the Mets as having “mettle.” Who uses a word like “mettle” in the twentieth century? Who could think that what the Mets needed was more “mettle?” Who could think that what the Mets needed was a mule named “Met-Al” as a mascot? The only metal the Mets needed from these people was their gold, which they weren’t coming up with. Anyway, it’s opening day, and the De Roulet girls proudly ride down the right field line in a carriage drawn by this mule, as 15,000 of the purest possible Mets fans try to hide under their seats with embarrassment.
Years later, I learned that those wild and crazy De Roulet girls had been doing you-know-what with some of the Mets players. If you had told me that, as I was watching them in their beribboned carriage ride down the right field line behind that mule, I would have fallen out of my seat and laughed until I was dead. Who knows whether we won that game? Who knows what happened to that poor mule?
But one of those Opening Days in that dark period stands out more than any other for me. In some ways, it may be my best opening day memory. It was 1983. Doubleday and Wilpon had acquired the team and Frank Cashen was running it. There was a sense that things might finally begin to change. Tom Seaver had had a bad year in 1982 and the Reds decided he was washed up. The Mets acquired him and almost 50,000 people, probably the largest crowd since 1976, filled the stadium to see him make his return in a Mets uniform, pitching once again as our ace on Opening Day. First, the other members of the team were announced and then the public address announcer intoned: “And pitching, for the New York Mets, Number 41, Tom …” I remember the roar of the crowd as we saw “41” jogging in from the bullpen. I remember how the sound just rose to the skies and grew and grew. It was full-throated, joyful, and loving. Tom Terrific was back with us.
With the obtuseness you’d expect of the Mets PR people in that era, the theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter” began to blare from the stadium sound system, almost drowning out the spontaneous crowd sound. It was a moment that seems to me in retrospect to stand for all that is involved in being a Mets fan. We were cheering for the return of the greatest hero in Mets history, our only home-grown hall-of-famer. And in the wild enthusiasm of our cheers, we were crying too, for those six lost years, when he was mostly great, but wasn’t pitching for us.
Well, he was back, and he pitched a beautiful game too. He didn’t give up any runs, though when he was taken out in the late innings, the Mets hadn’t scored any either. The Mets did win, though. I think Doug Sisk got the win. That was to become the story of the year. Seaver pitched well all year, but we didn’t score any runs for him. And then, at the end of the year, he wasn’t protected in the free-agent compensation draft, and the memory of his homecoming was ruined by Mets management, just as his whole career with the Mets had been ruined by Mets management.
That sums it up. The Mets are the stupidity that gave away Seaver in 1977 and the cluelessness that lost him again after the 1983 season. But the Mets are also the sterling excellence of this extraordinary pitcher. And most importantly, the Mets are that community of crazy fans who filled Shea with hope, happiness, and the uncontainable and unforgettable sound that welcomed Tom Seaver home on that cold April afternoon twenty-four years ago.