Commemorating the 1969 New York Mets

BE021028 by you.

On my Facebook newsfeed, the famous Mets blogger Coop wrote that she had an extra ticket to the 1969 New York Mets commemoration this Saturday, August 22.  Did anyone want to go with her?  Unfortunately, I can’t go to this event because I have another obligation.  But what interested me was that somebody responded that they wished it was a reunion of the 1999 team, which was this person’s favorite team of all time.  I understand what this person is saying.

I know from my own experience that it takes some inner work to get really excited about commemorating things that happened before you were born, or before you can remember.   With respect to the 1969 New York Mets, the big wave hit me with full force, when I was perfectly prepared for it.  I was a pure baseball geek who turned 15 the week the 1969 Mets clinched the Eastern Division and I had rooted for the Mets, with everything in me, since their very first game.  If you do not remember the 1969 Mets, you should envy me.  You can be a baseball fan for the rest of your days, into the second half of the twenty-first century for all I care, and you will never experience anything like what I experienced.

You younger people don’t like it when older people say stuff like this.  And you are perfectly right to resent us.  After experiencing fifty-four years, however, my own sense is that there really were some things in the past that you should regret having missed.  But, as you know, there are also things you are experiencing now and that you will experience in the future that older folks should envy. 

This is why we have or should have commemorations.  We didn’t want you to miss the 1969 New York Mets.  It just happened that way.  We always wanted you to share it, even though you weren’t born when it happened.  And we want you to share it because we want you to have the opportunity to make it a part of you.  We don’t just want you to know about it so that you will envy us.  We have all these memories and you have no idea yet how much having a lot of memories enriches the texture of experience.  We can’t zap these memories into your brain, but there are ways in which we can get them into your head in some form.  We can have commemorations and Old-Timer’s Days, we can write books for you, and set up museums that will give you some idea of what happened.  We’re not just doing all this so that we can get all teary-eyed and insufferably obnoxious.  This is as much for you as it is for us.  When you can’t have a memory of something, you can have a heritage.  With a heritage, you’re not totally out of the loop.  You’re a human being, and this entitles you to be able to have some of the treasures of the past, even though the past is all gone. 

I know about this.  I teach literature for a living.  And there are few things as wonderful to me as helping a bunch of people born after the Mets’ last world championship become excited or moved by something written before they were born, before I was born, or even before anyone who has ever spoken English was born.  Don’t tell me this stuff is not for me or for them.  We can read it.  This is what the imagination is for.

The Miracle of the 1969 Mets happened.  I saw it with my own eyes.  I heard the people screaming, I saw the city gripped by Mets love, by the sense that the downtrodden could triumph, by the sense that the impossible was possible.  If you are a Mets fan, you are entitled to know this and you are entitled to imagine that you were there even if you weren’t.  This is what it means to be a Mets fan.  Being a Mets fan is not just being stuck in a lousy little pocket of time in which there is no hope, there are no prospects, and there’s only an endless cascade of disappointments and disasters.  Being a Mets fan also means getting out of this for a moment, getting beyond even the limits of your own lifetime, becoming part of something that has been around a long time and will continue for a long time.  This weekend is a good time to make this leap.  As Mets fans, we have no more pressing concerns at this moment.

So enjoy the commemoration of the 1969 New York Mets this Saturday.  Pay attention.  Close your eyes and imagine.  You may not have actually been there.  But we were thinking of you, and we were waiting for you to join us. 

For those of you who may not have read it, here is the essay “1969” from my book Mets Fan (2007).   
 

      The 1969 season will never go away.  It gives a particular
flavor to life, and it will be taken as a treasure to the end.  No one
could have foreseen what we saw.  It stands apart from all other
sports miracles.  Baseball historians can point to a few examples
of teams leaping from terrible to great in a single year.  But
none of these are comparable to the 1969 Mets because no other
suddenly great team had spent so long in the cellar, and no other
team had ever become such a symbol of futility.
        

      1969 began like all of our other seasons, with a loss on
opening day.  We lost to an expansion team.  Nothing was
surprising in April or May.  Our pitching was good and our hitting
was weak, just as they had been in 1968, when we poked our
heads into ninth place.   The Mets seemed to be headed for the
fifth place finish everyone had predicted, in the first year of
divisional play, the first year of the Expos.  But around Memorial
Day, something happened that at the time seemed as weird as the
discovery of crop circles or a story of an alien abduction.  
The New York Mets won eleven games in a row. 

      I remember how this felt.  Something had cracked.  The Mets
had never done anything like this.  When a team wins eleven
games in a row, it alters your sense of what is possible.  At the
end of that eleven game streak, the Mets were five games above .
500.  It was June, and my eye didn’t need to look for my team
at the bottom of the list.  They were in second place.  And for the
very first time in my eight years of looking at the standings, the
two-digit number on the left was larger than the two-digit number
on the right.  

      

      Suddenly the Mets could imagine that they were in a pennant
race, with the Chicago Cubs of all people, another Cinderella team
emerging from years of mediocrity to dominate a division that
everyone thought should have been dominated by the Cardinals.  
The Mets held steady.  The Cardinals slept.  And then in July, the
Mets played the Cubs in the first series they ever played that
actually mattered.  They played it for all it was worth.  In the first
game, they came from behind in the bottom of the ninth.  Seaver
almost pitched a perfect game in the second.  Then the Mets
flubbed the third game with fielding errors, prompting Cubs
manager Leo Durocher to call the clumsy team of the third game
“the real Mets.”   

      This crack, from Durocher’s notorious lip, opened the
floodgates.  The worried Cubs despised us, and we would hate
them back.  Here were America’s two biggest and oldest baseball
cities.  Here were two teams of great character, and no history of
success.  Only one could win.  It was a shame.  But boy it was
fun.  It was tense and it was wild, and as the season progressed it
turned into a full scale carnival, with brushback pitches, black
cats, and taunting cheers.  It was hand-to-hand combat between
two desperate and deserving dreams.  In the second Cubs series
in July, at Wrigley, the Mets once again won two out of three.  
They were only three and a half games out of first place.   In mid-
July.

      Then it all collapsed.  It had to.  How could it possibly have
happened?  How could we have dared to hope for this?  By mid-
August, after a rough month, the Mets were nine and a half games
behind the Cubs.  They were in third place, as the Cardinals had
finally woken up.  And the Pirates were gaining.  We would
probably finish fourth.  It was okay.  It had been more fun than any
Mets season had ever been.  I wasn’t crushed.  I was only 14, but
I knew something about how the world worked.

      I don’t know how to describe what happened next.  It is the
best baseball memory I have.  Imagine lightning.  Imagine the
silence after the flash.  Imagine a swell of sustained thunder.  
Imagine the heavens opening and the rain loud and sweeping and
drenching the earth.  Imagine a baseball team winning thirty-eight
of its last forty-nine games.  Imagining all of the other teams
crumbling with fear, dissolving into irrelevance.  Imagine two
young aces winning eighteen of their last nineteen starts.  
Imagine a team that has always been bad suddenly playing
as no team ever has.  Imagine the largest city in the world fully in
its thrall.  There are no words adequate to this.  There are not
even numbers.

      There is only the bursting of all boundaries.  There is only
the image of thousands of fans spilling over the line that had kept
them off the field on which the miracle has happened.  There are
flying corks and foam on the camera lens.  There is the emotion of
millions watching the Mets in their wet dugout singing all
of the baseball songs they can think of.  There is the memory of
the hung-over Mets recording the songs in a studio the  next day
and all of us rushing out to buy the quickly-pressed record.  There
was a pure and powerful happiness that waved a wand over the
last seven years.  The bad years would no longer be laughed at,
or cried about.  They were lifted up out of the gutter and given a
place of honor at the table.  They gave the moment of triumph its
luster.  They were the preparation for the launch. They had been
worth it.  But you only knew it now.  Everything had happened as
it was supposed to happen.  This was the real meaning of the
Mets.

      After the Mets won the NL East and celebrated, you needed
to remind yourself that, for the first time in history, the team that
had won more games than any other in the league still had to win
a few more to claim the pennant.  After the way they had played,
the Mets were still not favored to win the National League
Championship Series.  It was as if nothing they could do could
render what they had done believable.  But they beat the Braves
quickly and easily, in three games.  Even that didn’t make them
the favorites to win the World Series.  The 1969 Orioles were one
of the best teams of all time.  I wasn’t in a mood to be greedy.  I
was happy with the pennant.  

      In those days, the World Series was played in the daytime.  
This made it a public event.  You could see what it really meant
to people.  There were radios in every classroom and every
office.  You could hear the game in every street and every
shopping center.  It seemed to me that the Mets were all that
anyone anywhere was talking or thinking about.   

      Seaver lost the first game.  Seaver lost.  Our team did not
look frightening.  None of them could hit like Frank Robinson and
none of them could field like Brooks Robinson.  Some of them
could pitch as well as Mike Cuellar, but not this time.  How had
the Mets managed to win so many games?  I felt, at the end of
the glum and sobering first game, as if I was beginning to forget.

      But the second game reminded me.  The Mets won by
scoring more runs than the other team.  But just barely.  To do
this with their lineup, they had to have spectacular pitching.  They
got it this time.  Koosman almost pitched a no-hitter.  Clendenon
hit a home run.  The Orioles tied the game.  But the Mets, with
three little singles, went ahead in the ninth, and held it.  

      In the third game, the Mets win was decisive, the only
decisive win of the Series.  Gentry and Ryan combined for a
shutout.  Tommy Agee made two catches that have changed my
understanding of how the human body can move.  The Mets won, 5-
0.  They had the momentum again, and the rumbling sound you
had heard all season long was back and it seemed as if it had
never gone away.  It swelled as Seaver returned to form in the
fourth game, as Clendenon hit another home run, and as Swoboda,
stinky fielding Swoboda, made a tumbling catch as great as either
of Agee’s the day before.  In the tenth inning, a fated and
probably wrong base running call gave the game to the Mets.

      The Orioles struggled mightily in the fifth game.  They knew
they did not deserve to lose.  They could not understand what was
happening.  Surely, the Orioles must have thought, this thing
could be prevented.   They had eyes and minds and arms.  They
had will.  And so they scored three runs before the Mets
could do anything.  Then in the bottom of the sixth, Cleon Jones
reached first because Gil Hodges convinced an umpire that the
shoe polish on a ball belonged to him.  Clendenon hit another
home run.  Al Weis, who could not hit home runs, hit one to tie the
game in the seventh.  A wave came out of the crowd and pushed
the Mets in front in the eighth.  Human beings could not stop this,
or anything else that had to happen.  Davey Johnson would some
day become the most successful manager in Mets history.  But
now, with two outs in the ninth, the Orioles second baseman hit a
line drive to left.

      In what seemed like slow motion, Cleon brought the dying
ball into his glove.  He squeezed it tightly.  He dropped to his
knees.

   
 44-15132-F by you.

 ********* 

My new book, The Last Days of Shea is in the publisher’s warehouses (as of August 20) and it will be in the Amazon and Barnes and Noble warehouses very soon after that, and in bookstores very soon after that.  If you want to pre-order the book for $11.53 from Amazon, you can do so here and you will certainly have it by the end of the month. 

I will first see my book on Monday and on Tuesday I will be reading a few pieces from it at the MetsStock event at at 7pm on Tuesday, August 25 at Two Boots Tavern at 384 Grand Street between Norfolk and Suffolk Streets on the Lower East Side.  Sharing the stage with me will be my distinguished fellow authors and bloggers Greg and Jason from Faith and Fear in Flushing and Caryn from Metsgrrl, so this will really be a spectacular event for Mets fans.  I will have copies of the book for sale at Two Boots and will be happy to inscribe them personally.  Even if you don’t want the book, please come up and introduce yourself to me.  You know what I look like. 

 

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