The year was 1980. I was 17 years old.
I learned the truth at 17.
I learned that advertising slogans are come-ons, not guarantees. I learned that a few dozen wins in the middle of summer does not mean a pennant is in the offing. I learned that every promising story doesn’t have a happy ending, just an ending. I learned that the magic isn’t back just because somebody says it is.
And I learned that a baseball team isn’t all it seems at 17.
Ah, but there was a fleeting moment when I was 17 when I hadn’t learned any of that. I was happier when I was that much more ignorant. For a summer, I basked in the momentary sunshine of being 3-1/2 behind and thinking my team was going somewhere.
It did — right back to fifth place when all was said and done. But somehow I’m not fazed by that or by the 95 losses that piled up at year’s end or the eventual likelihood that when my team got good, pretty much nobody from then would have anything to do with it.
I still don’t care. I was in love with the 1980 Mets. They weren’t the first Mets team I was ever hung up on, but I think, given where I was in life, that they were my first love. I didn’t date or anything like that in high school, so that description may be apt, as apt as it is sad. When I was 10, I learned that you gotta believe; at 17, I was infatuated beyond belief.
Once it got going, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that this team wasn’t a contender. I don’t think I ever saw a reason it couldn’t win. Manager Joe Torre was a genius. Doug Flynn was a Gold Glover in the making. Frank Taveras had played on a team that eventually went to the World Series, albeit after trading him. Lee Mazzilli and John Stearns were certified All-Stars. Steve Henderson was talented enough to have been the linchipin of a trade involving Tom Seaver. Elliott Maddox was at long last the third baseman who would put down roots. John Pacella’s hat fell off but he got guys out. Mark Bomback was an absolute find; they called him Boom-Boom for what hitters went-went on him, but he found ways to win. Tom Hausman was my candidate for Cy Young.
Cy Young? I was young. I was old enough to know better but chose not to. I had already learned far too much in the previous three years that I was dying to forget. 1980 would cleanse me.
1980 was wonderful because 1979 was dreadful, 1978 was desperate and 1977 was disgusting. When I became a Mets fan, they were becoming world champions. I knew that was a little out of the ordinary, but I didn’t expect the Mets to eventually become the opposite of world champions. I didn’t expect them to live down to their pre-1969 heritage. I didn’t expect them to collapse on me.
But they did. The Mets made being a Mets fan no fun when I was in junior high. They made it a chore. They made it a badge of stupidity. Whatever awkwardness I carried into adolescence was not helped by being known as The Mets Fan. I didn’t bargain for it. When I was a kid, there were lots of us. By the late ’70s — 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade — there weren’t. There were some guys who didn’t make fun of the Mets and some other guys who felt kind of sorry for the Mets, but there were mostly Yankees fans.
Yankees fans? Where the hell did they come from? Look way out in front and you could see them gathering in a mass. The other New York team, the New York team that was of secondary importance when I was growing up, had taken over. In their wake they swept up a lot of former Mets fans…a lot of very weak-minded, shallow, soulless, craven bastards whose company I decided I could do without.
On the eve of the 1977 season, I got a call from one of my friends, a kid named Stephen. He had been a Mets fan, but now, he revealed, he was going to be a Yankees fan. Not only that, he told me, but the other Steven in our circle? He was switching. And this guy David? Him, too.
They went with the crowd. They and seemingly millions like them opted for instant gratification. For success by association. For winning the moment it appeared to be available.
I stayed a Mets fan. That sounds very noble or at least like it was a decision of some sort. It wasn’t. What was to decide? I was a Mets fan starting when I was 6. I stayed a Mets fan. That was that. There was nothing to think about. Mets got bad? That hurts, but I’m a Mets fan. Mets trade my favorite player of all-time? I wish they hadn’t, but even if Tom Seaver’s not here, the Mets still are. I root for them. The Mets just keep getting worse and less popular and by 1979 it’s all they can to do not lose a hundred games and they don’t come close to drawing a million people and almost nobody you know likes them and almost everybody makes fun of them and, by extension, you?
That sucks. But I’m a Mets fan. I don’t know how not to be. Not then, not ever.
Still, it would’ve been nice if the Mets could’ve gotten better. It seemed like a pipe dream, a fantasy. It seemed like the Mets would forever wallow in irrelevancy and ineptitude. It seemed like the Mets would forever finish last or, if the Cubs could be persuaded to be just a little worse, fifth.
I’d had a social studies teacher, Mr. Patton (he rode his bike to school) who told me he was a Mets fan but hoped they would lose every game in 1979. If they did, he said, maybe the team would be sold.
They lost only 99 but he had the right idea. In 1980, the clueless De Roulet family sold the Mets to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon. They hired Frank Cashen, the old Orioles’ GM. It was something if not much. The Mets wanted to be new. Their yearbook presented them as the NEW New York Mets, but it was more a concept than reality. The 1980 Mets looked a lot like the 1979 Mets. The biggest difference I could detect was an exchange of third basemen. Gone was the surly Richie Hebner (I was at the game the previous August when he saluted the fans in his own unique way) and in his place came Phil Mankowski.
The NEW New York Mets, featuring Phil Mankowski, who made two errors in his very first inning at third while the Mets made six, did not seem all that new. They got off to a 9-18 start, the highlight of which was Mankowski beginning a five-month stay on the DL. The bad baseball was sin enough, but they were taking out ads telling us how much better they were going to be. Those ads said The Magic Is Back.
I can still hear the laughter.
The worst came at the end of the first homestand. The Mets drew 2,052 for a midweek afternoon game against the Expos. THE MAGIC GARDEN was the back page Post headline, giggling over a picture of 53,000 empty wooden seats.
So they weren’t any good and nobody liked them. Well, nobody but me and Joel, my best friend through high school. Shortly before that season started, I had my fondest non-Mets wish come true when I was tabbed to be editor-in-chief of our high school paper. My first act was to add Joel to the masthead and find something for him to do. Talk About Mets With Me Editor would’ve been the most apropos title.
We had a good group back then. Our pal Larry also came aboard the Tide that spring mostly because he was the first in our crowd to get a driver’s license. I wanted to name him Transportation Editor. But Larry didn’t follow baseball. We met a very smart, younger guy (skipped a grade) named Fred. Fred was very funny and was up for anything. I went to his house one afternoon toting a transistor radio, listening to a Mets game that drew 2,052. I was very matter-of-fact about it. I thought I detected a smirk from Fred, but he kept it mostly to himself. He didn’t follow baseball. Nor did John, the earnest guy from the other side of town or Mark from Lido. Adam, Fred’s neighbor, did, but he was a Yankees fan.
Essentially, it was me and Joel and Phil Mankowski against the world in the spring of ’80, against preconceived notions, against an uninspiring track record, against smug, hateful Yankees fans who told us we were no good. As eleventh grade wound down, though, the world would begin to come our way, just a little.
The Mets started to win. Not a lot. Not to an extent that anybody who didn’t care would notice, but enough so that people like me and Joel did.
• In late May, they swept the Braves. The Braves were as lousy as the Mets, but we never swept anybody.
• In early June, the Mets took four in a row from St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Those were pretty good teams.
• On June 11, the benches emptied at Shea as the Mets took on the Dodgers. Ron Cey was pissed off at Craig Swan for coming inside. No punches were thrown but Mike Jorgensen took a swing. Hit the winning grand slam in the tenth off Rick Sutcliffe. POW!
The Regents were just around the corner but mostly I studied the Mets’ chances. After Jorgy went deep and stuck it to L.A., the Mets were two games under .500, just six games out. The Mets were winning late and they were losing not that much. It was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
Three nights later, it was New Year’s Eve.
There are dates that you live through that you know you’ll remember as long as you have a mind. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, July 20, 1969 made itself indelible in my memory. When Nixon said he was going to resign, I knew I’d always be able to identify August 8, 1974. And once the events of June 14, 1980 became the events of June 14, 1980, there was no way I would ever, ever forget June 14, 1980.
Or ever, ever forget Steve Henderson. My goodness how I’d never forget Steve Henderson after that Saturday night. Steve Henderson was one of four players received by the Mets in exchange for Tom Seaver three years earlier, almost to the day. Hendu, it was said, was the difference-maker. Pat Zachry was taking Tom’s starts, not filling his shoes. Doug Flynn was all glove, no bat. Dan Norman was rumored to be down in Tidewater learning to switch-hit. But Steve Henderson was the kind of talented outfielder the Mets never had, the kind of talented outfielder the Reds had too many of.
Steve Henderson was a nice player. He collected hits, some of them clutch, during his time as a Met. He wasn’t George Foster, Ken Griffey or even Cesar Geronimo, but we liked him. I liked him. Maybe my standards had been hopelessly lowered since 1977, maybe my heroes were mediocre baseball players, but he was one of my favorites, right there with Mazzilli.
On the other hand, Steve Henderson hadn’t homered all year through June 13. It was getting to be a cause celebre. The Mets didn’t hit many homers to begin with. Jorgensen, who got his fifth with that grand slam, was the Mets’ idea of a slugger in 1980. The Daily News was running a chart, comparing the day-to-day progress with that of Roger Maris in 1961. Not Jorgensen vs. Maris but 1980 Mets vs. Maris. They were running neck and neck.
The Mets weren’t hitting anything against John Montefusco and the Giants on June 14, not for the first eight innings. We fell behind 6-0 in the fifth. It was 6-2 entering the ninth, a second straight loss to San Francisco staring the Shea crowd in the face.
But these were the 1980 Mets and this was June 14.
Maddox grounded out against Greg Minton.
But Flynn singled.
Jose Cardenal, useless his entire Met tenure, grounded out, moving Flynn to second.
Mazz singled Doug home.
It was 6-3.
Frank Taveras walked.
Claudell Washington, acquired so recently that he was the only Met with no name on his back, singled Mazz home and Frankie to second.
It was 6-4.
Allen Ripley replaced Minton. All he had to do was retire Henderson.
Steve Henderson hit a three-run homer.
The Mets won 7-6.
THE METS WON 7-6! THE METS CAME BACK FROM 6-0! THE METS SCORED FIVE IN THE NINTH!
THEY NEVER DO THAT!
It was bedlam everywhere you looked. There was Cy Hausman catching the ball in the Mets’ pen. There was Hendu circling the bases. There were his teammates waiting for him at the plate. There were the fans not letting him go into the clubhouse until he returned for a curtain call.
And there I was, jumping up and down in front of the televsion in my parents’ bedroom, all alone.
THE METS WON!
I ran into the dining room. I breathlessly explained to my sister and her boyfriend what just happened. This was big, this was unprecedented, this was the greatest thing that had occurred to the Mets since at least 1973.
My sister’s boyfriend, a former Shea Stadium vendor who grew up in Flushing and thus took a lifelong dislike to baseball, had one question:
Killjoys. I continued running through the house that night and I swear I didn’t slow down all summer.
Everything was better. Shea was better. It was alive with color. The fence was repainted royal blue. The old wooden seats were replaced, top to bottom, with bright plastic ones — red, green, blue and orange, beautiful Mets orange. And the seats, instead of holding nobody, held everybody. The day after Steve Henderson made June 14, 1980 a night to remember, Shea was sold out. They drew more people that Sunday afternoon (44,910…some sections were still being refurbished) than they did in their first six-game series in April. The Mets lost, but that was a technicality.
The Magic Was Back!
Magic was my favorite word in the summer of 1980. When school ended, my father relocated his office from the city to Rockville Centre. Instead of hiring a full-time receptionist, he gave me the job. Truth be told, it was kind of slow, so I mostly sat at my desk, answered the occasional phone call and listened alternately to WYNY, a middle-of-the-road FM station that my father didn’t mind too much and WPIX, reborn as a Top 40 station. One of the first new songs I heard from that desk was by Olivia Newton-John.
You have to believe we are magic
Nothing can stand in our way
Fate! A song called “Magic” was a big hit in the summer of ’80. I listned carefully for “Magic” by Pilot and “Do You Believe in Magic?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful and “This Magic Moment” by Jay & The Americans. For the first time, I had a soundtrack for my season.
Given that there wasn’t much more to do at work, I read the papers. It was the first summer I read every paper available every day. The Post, the News, the Times and Newsday were brimming with Mets stories. Anything I could find, anything that confirmed the Mets’ presence in a four-way race with the Expos, the Phillies and the Pirates, I absorbed as quickly as it was printed. I remember a new weekly paper came along to cover the burgeoning New York sports scene. There was too much for just daily papers now.
There was also a lot to listen to. 1980 was the summer I discovered sports talk radio. On WMCA, the Mets’ flagship, there was a man named Art Rust Jr. He guaranteed the Mets would be playing October baseball at “Flushing by the Bay.” He also promised that by the end of the decade we’d have interleague play and every team would be under a dome. He referred to good defensive catchers as guys who could really flash that leather behind the dish. When Art got to be a bit much, I turned my loyalties to WFUV, Fordham’s radio station. There, every Sunday night between 11 PM and 2 AM, hosts and callers debated Mets vs. Yankees. For college students, they weren’t bad, except for this one hyperobnoxious Yankees fan who sounded awful on the air. His name was Michael Kay.
The Mets were on a mission. I could feel it. I wanted to high-five, a gesture I picked up from watching football games, everything in sight. I wanted to beat everybody in the N.L. East like it was life and death. On the Fourth of July, the Mets split a doubleheader with the first-place Expos. There was another near-brawl brought on by Bill Gullickson headhunting our Jorgy (who had once suffered a serious jaw injury) because Montreal, I figured, couldn’t stand the fact that the Mets were so good. I pedaled from Long Beach to Island Park where Joel was working at Shell Creek Park, signing out volleyballs, to fill him in on the action. If I had seen an Expos fan as I crossed the bridge between towns, I’m convinced I would’ve started a fight.
It took me until July 6 to go to my first Mets game of this brilliant, new era. Joel wasn’t available, so I enlisted Larry. Larry was a great guy, but like I said, not a baseball fan. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It made him more observant of details a baseball-savvy person might not pick up on. In the bottom of the first, Mazz doubled. We were sitting in the orange seats behind third base. As he rounded second, I put up both my hands to warn him to stop where he was. “What are you,” Larry asked me, “the coach?” He caught something. I had begun to mimic what I was seeing on TV because I was watching every single game as if there would be a test afterwards. I couldn’t say that before 1980, but now I could.
The Mets lost that game but Shea was beautiful. Even the ride home was good. We had to change at Jamaica. Another Mets fan, our age, started telling me how happy he was, how great it was to watch the sports report on the news and how sometimes the sportscaster, whether it was Bill Mazer on channel 5, Marv Albert on channel 4 or Warner Wolf who had just taken all his highlights (couldn’t get enough of those) from channel 7 to channel 2, would sum up the night’s events with “Mets win, Yanks lose.” For so long, it had been the opposite.
Three weeks later, Joel and I made it out there. I was very confident of my abilities to guide us from the LIRR to the Subway at Woodside but I led us down a staircase to the street that made us miss the first train that came. Joel let me know about it. When we arrived, he wanted to buy two field boxes from a scalper. They were 10 bucks each. I said no. I wasn’t ever going to spend that much to see my team in my stadium.
We got pretty good seats nonetheless at the box office. “As long as no balls are hit in the right field corner, we can see everything,” Joel said. Jerry Morales was starting there. Eventually, Jerry and a ball went into the corner and out of sight. The ball came out. Jerry didn’t. The right field corner immediately became known as Jerry Morales territory between us. The Mets lost. They lost John Stearns, too. He took a foul off the index finger. Out for the season.
The Mets hung in. They played footsie with .500, twice touching it if never going over. Joel and I went into the Village on a Friday night in early August to see Uncle Floyd, the subversive faux-kiddie show host, live at the Bottom Line. On the train home, we ran into a guy we knew from school. He was at the game. The Mets beat the Astros, he said. Then they won the next night. Both times they came from behind. On Sunday, the Mets went for the sweep, falling behind early. Steve Albert said that was only fitting, that’s how the Mets like it. I had the feeling he shouldn’t have said that. The Mets lost.
But it wasn’t fatal. The Mets got to mid-August still playing pretty well. They took two of three from the defending world champions in Pittsburgh and were 56-57, 7-1/2 out of first. Since that awful 9-18 start, the Mets had gone 47-39, a solid, winning record that spanned more than half a season.
Next up was a five-game set against the Phillies at Shea. This, I was convinced, would be the moment we took off. This would be 1969 and 1973 all over again. I sat down with the schedule, factored in all the ground the Mets would gain over the weekend (we had nothing but aces — Zachry, Bomback, Swan, Burris, Roy Lee Jackson — ready for ‘em) and then all the wins they could count on when the West Coast teams came in. It would take a pennant race, but the Mets would prevail.
The Phillies swept the Mets. Five straight. They weren’t close, none of ‘em. By Monday morning, the Mets were 11 games out of first and for the first time all summer I avoided every single newspaper. Somewhere along the way, Flynn and Taveras went down. The rest of the homestand was just as bad. The Mets tumbled and tumbled again. I went to one more game. It was against the Giants. The Mets lost. Ripley didn’t pitch. Henderson didn’t homer. My record at Shea in the year it was made over was a drab 0-3. I would never have such a bad record there again, but I couldn’t have known that then.
By the time my senior year in high school began, the Mets had returned to where they were in the spring. Nobody talked about them except to mock them. One guy in my AP History class asked if my “The Magic Is Back” t-shirt meant I was a Doug Henning fan. Even at home I couldn’t get any love. On a Sunday in September, when the U.S. Open was finishing and the football season was starting and the Yankees were closing in on another division title, I was at the kitchen table, wrapped up in the fading Mets.
“All those other sports on,” my dad asked, “and you’re watching this?” He shook his head and walked away.
Yeah, I was watching. I never shook the idea that it was a great season, even as the Mets finished up — or down — 11-38. It was the exact mirror image of 1969′s last 49 games. The Magic was out of the standings while the fans had vacated the stands. I was still watching. In the last week of the season, Joel Youngblood practically channeled Steve Henderson or at least Mike Jorgensen. He hit a two-run homer off Grant Jackson to beat the Pirates 5-4 in the tenth. It was witnessed by 1,787 souls, the lowest attendance ever at Shea (a record that would last 24 hours). There were no derisive headlines the next day, though. Met misery wasn’t novel enough to rate the back page.
By then, the 1980 Mets were no longer the 1980 Mets who had me running gleefully through the house in June. Torre was now managing rookies. Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks and Wally Backman were all recalled in September. Maybe they’d be recalled longer than the season itself which felt like it had faded from institutional memory even before it was over. On paper, the Mets’ 95-loss campaign appeared not altogether dissimilar from ’77, ’78 and ’79 except that they finished fifth and drew more than a million. Boom-Boom won-won 10 games and led the team in victories. The hitters, all of them, tied Maris with 61 homers. Statistically, the Mets of ’80 were of a piece with the disgraces that preceded them.
Emotionally, they couldn’t have been more different. The Mets acted like a contender for three months, and all I really wanted was to root for a team that seemed to have a chance. They led the sports. They got segments on This Week In Baseball. They gave me something to talk about and think about and never, ever forget about.
Just to be lifted from the morass of last place and to have a little hope — what a gift for one summer. Try to explain that to somebody who wasn’t in high school or thereabouts then. Try to explain that to a fan of any other team.
The year was 1980, 25 years ago.
I was 17.
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. Previous stops: 1970, 1975. Next stop: 1985.