The year was 1970. I was 7 years old.
It was my first full year in the fold. Not my rookie year. I was called up to the bigs, so to speak, somewhere in the summer of 1969. That was my first exposure to the Mets and to baseball. What a welcome it was. In retrospect, 1969 was the free ski weekend they promise you if you’ll come and listen to a brief presentation about the benefits of owning a time-share.
The Mets won a division title, a pennant and a World Series as part of the sales pitch. I was sucked in and signed on. They had me.
They still do.
A little piece of me is always watching the Mets in 1970. Somewhere in the back of my mind it is the first time I’ve entered April looking forward to a full season, the first time I’ve anxiously watched the standings fluctuate, the first time I’m invested in percentages and averages, the first time I have a favorite player, the first time I have something to collect, the first time I have something to look forward to every day, the first time I’m teaching myself the game, the first time I have an identity to go alongside my name.
I am 7 and a Mets fan. If baseball isn’t everything to me, it is pretty darn close. I couldn’t say that before 1970, but now I could.
There were lots of best things about 1970 for a 7-year-old Mets fan. For one, there was 1969. We were defending world champions, me and my team. The fact that we had been the Miracle Mets told me there was something askew at work the year before. I didn’t really catch on until I bought my first pack of baseball cards.
1970 was the year of the card. I had inherited my sister’s ’67s and ’68s (she was just going along with the crowd, she told me) but now I was taking whatever allowance I had and putting it toward Topps. The first card I pulled out of the first pack was a card that said WORLD CHAMPIONS. At least it’s the first one I remember. It was a team picture of the New York Mets. On the back were all kinds of statistics about the team’s history. It had our year-by-year record.
Hmmm…seems we weren’t too good before 1969. I couldn’t even imagine what that was like. Glad I missed it. Forget the back. Look at the front: WORLD CHAMPIONS. It couldn’t be denied. We Were No. 1!
Were. This was a new year. We had to win again. I got that. At 7, I was already assuming nothing.
The Cubs and the Pirates were good. They hit a lot. They had players named Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. We didn’t have anybody like that. But we did have Tom Seaver.
Tom Seaver was my favorite player right away. Tom Terrific they called him. I had taken to him in ’69 and now I had a whole season to watch him be great. I could linger over league leaders and at any given moment find Seaver NY in the pitching section. Wins, Earned Run Average, Strikeouts…Seaver did it all. He struck out 19 Padres, the last 10 in a row on Earth Day. They gave us the day off from first grade to watch.
I caught onto Seaver’s greatness just as I figured out rather quickly that my favorite team didn’t have anybody else remotely like him. Shouldn’t 7-year-olds think their favorite team has the best players in the world? I didn’t.
The league leaders in the hitting section had guys named Bench and Perez and May and Rose. They were Reds. The Mets had guys named Agee and Harrelson and Shamsky and Jones. They were OK but they weren’t much more. The Mets didn’t hit like the Reds and almost never seemed to score. But they pitched as well as anybody. The Mets had pitchers named Gary Gentry and Cal Koonce and Jerry Koosman and Ron Taylor and Tug McGraw and Jim McAndrew and Ray Sadecki. Especially Ray Sadecki.
Ray Sadecki was probably my favorite Met of 1970 who wasn’t Tom Seaver. I knew nothing about him personally and didn’t understand him to be anything more than a spot starter, but Ray Sadecki seemed like my secret so I secretly adopted him. Ray Sadecki went 8-4. As the season wore on and Tom Seaver stopped winning every game he started, I began to think Ray Sadecki was the true ace of this staff. He may not have been Seaver but he wasn’t Dean Chance or Ron Herbel. They were Mets, too.
Somewhere that summer, I determined it won’t be Ray Sadecki’s fault it we don’t win the Eastern Division. And it will be to Ray Sadecki’s credit if we do. Most importantly, I get to say “Ray Sadecki”. He was never Ray and rarely Sadecki. At 7, I had found my favorite player name of all time.
We didn’t win, it is well known. Pittsburgh did. They passed us in September. Then the Cubs passed us for second and we finished third with a record of 83-79 — not bad, not great. I think finishing behind the Cubs bothered me more than not winning another championship. The Pirates were classy even if I didn’t use that word then. The Cubs were the Cubs. I never forgave them for getting in our way in 1969. That we stepped over them didn’t matter. I hated the Cubs. They were the first team I ever hated and I kept it up a year later.
Having a whole season before me allowed me to make all kinds of choices. I decided I liked the Big Red Machine and hoped they’d win the World Series as long as we weren’t going to be in it. I still disliked the Orioles from ’69 (same reason as the Cubs) but I got a kick out of the way they dominated their division. The team that finished waaaay behind them was the Yankees.
With no prompting and for virtually no reason, I decided I hated the Yankees. The Yankees were nobody when 1970 started. They were some lame fifth-place team in ’69. I didn’t know a single Yankees fan, yet I didn’t like that they existed. I wore a Mets cap to the Sands Beach Club Day Camp all summer. I never saw anybody wear a Yankees cap. I got a New York Yankees team card during my first year of collecting. On the back was a summary of their all-time accomplishments. There were a ton of pennants and world championships. I figured out that they used to be great. That made me hate them even more. The whole idea of the Yankees seemed so old. I just wanted them to go away. New York had a team, my team. It didn’t need another one.
Turned out the 1970 Yankees were pretty good. By the time the year was over, they had a better record than the 1970 Mets. They also had the Rookie of the Year, Thurman Munson. More bad news, I hunched. They didn’t get much attention because the Orioles were so much better but I didn’t like that the newspapers I began to read every day that year gave any space at all to the Yankees. No, I didn’t like them from the start.
But I really took to newspapers in 1970. It was the year I learned that the Mets were on channel 9 and that they were on the radio when they weren’t on TV — I got to know the names Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy as well as I knew any player’s — but it was in Newsday and in the Post where they really lived every single day and in the News and the Times where they showed up on Sunday with every average imaginable listed. All of baseball was there. The standings: those marvelous Ws, those dreadful Ls, that mysterious Pct. and its companion GB lined up every day. I could figure out who was up and who was down pretty quickly. I could see who the best players in the Major Leagues were because all their important totals were printed. I could even decide who should be an All-Star.
The first All-Star Game I ever saw was in 1970. The whole process fascinated me. Did you know you could vote to choose who was an All-Star? When my parents voted, they went to a firehouse, stepped into a booth and closed a curtain. I assumed this was how it was done in baseball. Except you did it at Shea Stadium, a place and a name that carried such mystical powers that I couldn’t fathom just how amazing it must be. I wouldn’t get to vote for the 1970 All-Star team because nobody was taking me to Shea Stadium. We drove by it once and to me, with its big white, orange and blue speckles, it looked like Oz (the Emerald City, not the prison).
Being a Mets fan was a lonely proposition in my house. My parents weren’t baseball fans and my sister, despite her mysterious possession of some cards, wasn’t either. I wanted to see the Mets in person some day but didn’t bring it up. I wanted a Mets jacket and a Mets shirt but settled for the cap. Chevron ran a promotion offering all kinds of Mets merchandise for kids, but my dad didn’t take the Chrysler to a Chevron station. I couldn’t get all that close to the Mets or stuff that said Mets, a funny-looking word if I stared at it long enough. I could only dream and read and watch TV and pick my own All-Stars.
The papers said Rico Carty led the National League in batting average. So I voted, in my head, for Rico Carty. He wasn’t on the ballot but he won on a write-in vote. Can you believe that? Me and the rest of the world were on the same page. And can you believe that the manager of the All-Star team is the same man who manages the Mets, Gil Hodges? Apparently he won that honor by winning the pennant last year. The starting pitcher is Tom Seaver, Gil’s choice. I knew we were World Champions but I didn’t know we were this good.
I watched that entire All-Star Game. I saw Pete Rose slide into Ray Fosse in extra innings and thought it was great. The game had been tied but now my league had won. Rose was driven in by Jim Hickman of the Cubs. They kept saying he used to be a Met, but I found that hard to believe. I found it hard to believe anybody who I hadn’t seen be a Met was ever a Met.
I was learning all sorts of things in 1970. I learned the names of all the stadiums, not just Shea. And then when I memorized them, I had to start over because they were replacing a whole bunch of them. Out went Forbes Field and Crosley Field. In came Three Rivers Stadium and Riverfront Stadium. In came artificial turf to those places. Artificial turf? What’s that? On black & white TV, I couldn’t tell the difference between that and “natural grass”. But I wasn’t all that observant.
I also learned about the Game of the Week and Monday Night Baseball and the post-season. I was a baseball fan, not just a Mets fan, so I watched the playoffs even though the Mets weren’t in them. I rooted hard for the Reds against the Orioles but Brooks Robinson caught everything the Reds hit to him. I respected Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson and Boog Powell because they were as good as they were even if they were from Baltimore, that terrible place that was always trying to beat the Mets and the Jets and the Knicks. I decided that was part of being a fan. I decided a fan should find a way to stay home from school to watch the World Series. I exaggerated the severity of a cold I may or may not have had so I could see the fifth and ultimately final game of the 1970 World Series. It was on in the afternoon in the middle of the week. All World Series games were on in the daytime. They wouldn’t always be but I couldn’t have known that then.
So I enjoyed the background noise of baseball in my first full season, but I knew where my bread was buttered. I was a Mets fan and they were what really mattered. They never mattered more than in late June of 1970. School was just out and camp hadn’t started. The Mets went to Wrigley Field to play a five-game series against the Cubs. I didn’t know you could play a team that many games at once, but I knew they were all important because the Cubs were in first place, 3-1/2 games ahead of the Mets.
The Mets won the first one. Then the second one. Then two more in a doubleheader. That was four wins in a row.
The night after that game, we went to Nathan’s. This was Nathan’s in Oceanside, the second one the company ever built. This was Nathan’s when it had rides and an endless menu. My sister had the fried chicken. She found a wishbone. We each made a wish and pulled a side. I won.
“I know what you wished for,” she said.
She was right. I wished that the Mets would sweep the Cubs the next day. It’s the first time I can remember subjugating all other concerns to concentrate on the Mets’ well-being. Since that wish was made, I’ve stared at the word “Mets” so often that it doesn’t look funny at all. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was my name.
Oh yes — I got what I asked for from that chicken. 8-3, Koosman beating Holtzman. A five-game sweep. My team was in first place and my priorities were straight. Only one of those facts would stand the test of time.
The year was 1970, 35 years ago.
I was 7.
Flashback Friday is a weekly tour through the years, every half-decade on the half-decade, wherein a younger Mets fan develops into the Mets fan he is today. Next stop: 1975.