Opening Day is two days away. That means a lot of things: it means we’ve crowned an NCAA basketball champion, it means we’re getting ready to hunker in and watch the Masters, it means warmer weather is on the way. It means summer is around the corner. Those days of soda and pretzels and beer, as Nat “King” Cole told us those many years ago. T-shirts, shorts and fireworks replace down coats, thermal pants and fireplaces. There are many fewer pleasures than a hot July night with a hot dog, a cold beverage and a ballgame in progress below. The sounds and sights and smells draw you into the game as following on TV never can.
It was just such a night that I made my first appearance at a Major League baseball game, July 6, 1973. This was the opener of a quick six-game homestand vs. the step-children of the NL West, Atlanta and Houston. These two teams had long abandoned hope that they ever would, ever could compete with Cincinnati or the Dodgers for the division. As for the Mets, they had opened the season with some grand aspirations. The thinking was that they and the Pirates would battle most of the year, with the up-and-coming Phillies nipping at the heels of the only two teams who had ever won the NL East. The New York fans – and there were an awful lot of them back then: the Yankees were not yet the Yankees, about to start building dynasty #3 – thought they had the edge, seeing as they had the division in their grip the previous year when a devastating wave of injuries wiped out the lineup and spiraled the team to their third straight third place finish behind the Pirates and the aging Cubs. As only New York fans can, they knew the Mets’ pitching was far superior – the class of the division — and should easily hurl their way past those Buccos from Steeltown. So what if they couldn’t hit their hat-size? I certainly knew it, of course: I was all of 8-years-old.
The Mets stumbled, somewhat out of the gate, hovering around the .500 mark, never more than four games above or eight games below come the end of June. The injuries reared up once again. Jerry Grote, Bud Harrelson, Cleon Jones, John Milner and Rusty Staub – the main cogs of what offense there was — all spent a portion of the year on the disabled list. By the time I got to Shea, the Mets were a floundering 34-43. The grumbling on the streets and in the stands took on a surly tone. Gone were the days of those lovable, daffy Mets. They’d been to the mountaintop and the love and goodwill they’d received from the crowds from 1962-1968 were not to be seen again if a similar product was trotted out in Flushing. The product was looking pretty similar.
My dad didn’t care. He’d been a Met fan since the beginning, since they’d provided a soft landing spot for Casey Stengel. He figured that now was as good a time as any to take his only son out to the ballgame and by him some peanuts and Cracker Jack. So we dropped my mom, my grandmother and my aunt at Radio City for a movie, then my dad, my uncle and I went to dinner at one of his favorite spots – Donohue’s on Lexington Avenue. Then a couple of subway stops later, we were at the ballpark. I almost fainted. The colors were SO vivid, I was almost blinded and it was near-dusk. I fell in love with Shea Stadium as soon as I set foot in the place. Throw in hot dogs, Cokes, hats & t-shirts? It was heaven.
I was going to see Jerry Koosman vs. some guy named Ron Schueler. Some nobody from Atlanta. Mets’ll win easy, my 8-year-old brain declared. Except the offense lived up – or down – to expectations. The Mets could do nothing against this nobody from Atlanta. The tension in the stands kept climbing and climbing as Met hitters strolled up and sat back down. Somebody with a radio said “Hey! Agee just hit a home run!” Tommie Agee, jettisoned in the off-season for a non-entity named Buddy Harris, had smacked a solo shot for Houston. “Sure coulda used that tonight,” my dad muttered.
Bottom of the 9th and the Mets still don’t have a hit. I’m 8-years-old, ok? I don’t care about witnessing history; I just wanna win! I grumbled and grumbled, even if I barely knew what I was grumbling about. I stopped grumbling when Ron Hodges skied a single to the opposite field. Everyone stood and applauded for Schueler, I thought it was because “we” finally had a hit. Ed Kranepool flied out to dead center. Willie Mays kept his bat nailed to his shoulder for three pitches. Willie Mays! Felix Millan choked way up and slapped a hit up the middle, briefly reviving hope, but Ken Boswell lifted a pop to medium center and that was that. I was mad the Mets lost, of course, but I couldn’t wait to go back again.
I sort of got the chance a few weeks later, when we made a trek to the wilds of the Bronx and saw the Yankees take on the California Angels. Roy White hit 2 homers in the Yankee win. I still preferred Queens. It was only years later when I could appreciate my first two games. I nearly saw a no-hitter my first time out. I got to see 4 Hall-Of-Famers on the field (Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson) and two future pennant-winning Met managers as players (Davey Johnson for the Braves and Bobby Valentine for the Angels). And I can say I was part of mini-miracle of ’73, even thought it didn’t start until a month and a half later.
Turns out, I’m a lucky man. How ‘bout you?
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