They'll be amazing, amazing, amazing, and this year I want you to follow 'em. They'll be known in all the periodicals because they'll be in South America — New Year's Day will be their best game. This year will be over in a hurry.
—Casey Stengel, 1969 World Series Highlight Film
The Ol' Perfesser is right. (Is he ever wrong?). This year will be over in a hurry, so if New Year's Day is going to be the Mets' best game, they're going to need to warm up. I know it's a long flight to South America, but it can't be as bad as the one to Japan in 2000. There's still time to get a game in before the big one in Brazil or Paraguay or wherever Casey says we're playing next.
The good news is we've got a game today, New Year's Eve. Good news? That's great news!
For just a little longer, the year is 2005. But no more am I 42. Today is my birthday. I'm 43. Seven years from Modern Maturity in my mailbox, but fresh-faced if I'm thinking about running for office. And only 14 in Julio Franco years.
I've always liked December 31st as a birthday and not just because I share it with John Denver, Donna Summer and Rick Aguilera among others (presumably 1/365th of the population). I like the finality. As you may have noticed, I'm good with the looking back, so being born on the final day of the year seems appropriate.
What isn't right, barring a relocation to the Winter Leagues, is I will never get to go to a ballgame on my birthday. If that sounds like a rather childish plaint from such an antiquated man, so be it. It's not like anyone's done anything about remedying this injustice in the calendar on my behalf since 1962.
Until now. Thanks to Casey (who always has something insightful to add to even the bleakest situation), I'm going to a game for my birthday. It's gonna be my kind of game. You're all invited, of course.
Don't worry that it's December 31. We've got birthday weather today. I wouldn't have it any other way.
My game starts at the Polo Grounds. I haven't been born yet, but it's my game, so logic and chronology can take the day off. I get to see what all the fuss was about. The Mets are playing in Manhattan. I walk down Coogan's Bluff to my seat. Centerfield is practically in the Harlem River. The foul poles are a Shell Creek Park poke in either direction. The air is thick with Chesterfields, but since it's my birthday, it's less sickening than charming. Best of all, Roger Craig is pitching, Choo Choo Coleman is catching and Ol' Case is actually managing. Well, he appears to be napping, but he's doing what we've only read about to now. Jim Haines — who shares my wistfulness at having missed the PG the first time around — and I unfurl a bedsheet urging the Mets to go-go-GO! But it's not working. It's the top of the first, Stan Musial has gone deep and we're already losing 6-0. Maybe if Casey would pay less attention to our placard and more to his pitcher. Craig is getting shelled out there. Ken MacKenzie stanches the bleeding. (Is there anything these Yale guys can't do?)
Let's move this party to Shea. That's brand new William A. Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens. They just built it for the Mets, you know. Right by the World's Fair. Wow, look at this place! It's so clean! Gotta be the best ballpark in baseball. Too bad the escalators don't work, but you can't have everything. It's the first game they've ever played here, so I decided to watch some of it with Joe, my friend who scores every game he goes to and fills me in on the minutia to the nth degree. Since it is, by definition, the first game we've ever been to at Shea, this, like the Chesterfield cloud, isn't so bad. Joe just inked in HBP for Hunt. Anything to get on base. I wonder if it's too early to buy tickets for the All-Star Game.
Onto the top of the second. It's 1976, so I'm here with Joel Lugo, whom I've known since, well, 1976. We became friends at almost the exact minute the Mets began losing, but maybe today will be different from what we grew accustomed to. We're in the left field boxes so we can get a good look at Joel's favorite player Dave Kingman. Sure enough, a fly ball is hit to Sky King and…darn. Cesar Cedeño is on second with what they're generously scoring a double, but at least Dave isn't hurt. Kingman catches the third out of the inning fairly uneventfully and is careful not to throw it to us or anybody in stands. On the other hand, he doesn't throw it at us.
In the bottom of the second, it's a scoreless game (tallies don't carry over from one half-inning to the next — I'm not spending my birthday down six or more runs because freaking Marv Throneberry couldn't handle a simple popup). Leading off is Darryl Strawberry and he hits one a mile off of John Smiley. Wow! That makes it 1-0, but even with the bases empty that should be worth three runs. Chuck and I high-five in the mezzanine. I'm happy, but Chuck is practically swinging from chandeliers. This is funny because when my best friend and I went to our first Met game together in 1989, it was against the Pirates and Smiley. Chuck was looking forward to seeing Darryl but the Strawman sat it out. But not this time. It's my birthday. I'm giving out Strawberry to celebrate. Chuck is still cursing out the Pirates like he was back then. That's his gift to me.
For the top of the third, we're playing the Reds. We've been playing the Reds for as long as we've played ball, so I've decided I don't need to see any particular Met team play any particular Red team. Koosman's pitching. Keith's playing first. Doug Flynn's at second. Roy McMillan's at short with Hubie at third. The outfield is Cleon in left, Lance in center and Joe Orsulak around in right. Grote is catching. Pete Rose leads off with a single. He claps his hands at first. Mex holds him on but then charges toward the plate. He makes a nice play to get Ron Oester but Rose goes to second. Chris Sabo doubles. Eric Davis drives one to the track but Orsulak makes a nice running catch. Sabo moves up to third. Kurt Stillwell sneaks one through the hole, just under McMillan's glove. Damn! Kooz, who just doesn't have it, departs with McMillan as part of a double-switch. Luis Lopez is at short. Deion Sanders steps in. Ray Sadecki, now pitching, brushes him back. Sanders takes a step toward the mound. Grote grabs him. Doug Harvey gets between them. Sanders walks. Woody Woodward is hit by a pitch. Bases loaded, two out, Joe Randa coming up, pinch-hitting for Mario Soto. Torre comes out and removes Sadecki in favor of Roberto Hernandez. Bert gets him to line to Mex. Inning over. I've seen worse Mets-Reds innings.
Between innings, I go out to the concession. Nothing's more than a dollar, but since it's December 31, I'm comped. I bring back one of those pizza rolls Rob Emproto's wife Janet turned me onto in 1995. I haven't been able to find those for a decade, but they're selling them again for my birthday. I also get some of those Daruma of Great Neck California Rolls I ate regularly in 1999. Whenever I had them, the Mets would win. Sure enough, with all my rolls, the Mets get on a roll. They jump Tom Hume but good. Mazz singles. Hundley singles. Santana bunts them over. Rose orders Hume to walk Del Unser. Nice move, Pete. You just paved the way for Keith Miller to bang his first grand slam. The Mets take the lead! I keep eating. Don't gain an ounce and suffer no indigestion. It's my birthday. There's the pretzel guy…only a quarter? And they're warm?
Rose removes Hume for Rob Dibble. Tim Bogar triples. Rico Brogna singles. And Rose is suspended from baseball for good measure.
Top of the fourth. We're winning. And will ya look at these seats? I'm right behind home plate thanks to Laurie and her friend Dee whose husband Rick is pitching for us again. I sat here a bunch of times in the late '90s thanks to Laurie's fabulous connections and it's good to be back. You wouldn't believe the gossip I'm overhearing. Incidentally, Rick just retired the Dodgers 1-2-3. Reeder, as ever, is the man.
I've never sat in the Pepsi Picnic Area but today it's ours. I'm out here with every New York baseball fan I ever worked with in the beverage business, every Mets fan and every Yankee fan. It's a great way to catch this Subway Series game, especially the two homers Ordoñez hit off Wells. Naturally the Mets are sticking it to the Yankees. All the Mets fans who stuck with me all those years are sticking it to all the Yankees fans who suddenly remember that they have to be up early. Diet Pepsis on me!
I don't have to work on my birthday, but I decide to visit Bloggers Row. It used to be called the press box, but it's been taken over by us today. Everyone from Always Amazin' to Zisk Online is here typing away. It's all great stuff. Uh-oh, Todd Zeile just made an error. MetsBlog has a rumor that he's going to Colorado. MetsGeek has produced an equation to indisputably prove that he's a better fielder than Vic Power. Metstradamus just remembered something truamatizing that a kid with a last name beginning with Z did to him in high school and links it to a picture of Luis Aguayo. Mets Guy in Michigan has an amusing anecdote about the time he passed Todd Jones in the carpool lane. Mets Walkoffs recalls Todd Haney never had a walkoff hit. Everybody's got something. That's why I love these guys.
The Mets overcame Zeile's error (MetsBlog was right again — Zeile's a Rockie) and maintain their lead in what I think is the bottom of the fifth. Joe may still be keeping score somewhere but I've pretty much given up. So has Cub pitching…Mets home runs, that is. First John Milner. Then Tommie Agee. Then Donn Clendenon. Gil has two relievers warming up in the pen. I can't make out who from where I'm sitting, but Bob Murphy on WHN tells me it's Danny Frisella and Tug McGraw.
Leo Durocher only looks worse when he steps outside the Cub dugout to have a cat cross in front of him. Everybody points and laughs, including me and Rob Costa, whom I haven't seen since 1996. A black cat? From a distance. But on closer inspection, he's black and white and mighty big. Hey! That's my Bernie! I was wondering where he went. Agee, Clendenon and Tug, who just hopped out of the cart, hand him back to me. Murph chuckles on the air about it. Sorry about that, I tell the players. They're cool with it. (Bad cat! But I forgive you.)
In the top of the sixth, Tom Seaver strikes out Jimmy Qualls. Pedro Martinez gets Chris Burke looking. And David Cone fans a helpless Benny DiStefano. Though it's only the sixth, it counts as the first no-hitter in Mets history. For the first time since the clinching of the 2000 National League pennant, Rob Emproto shows emotion. He always said that when the Mets get that elusive no-no (in this case a perfect game), I could call no matter what time it was. On my birthday, it was our good fortune to be able to witness it together in person.
Between innings, our attention is directed to the DiamondVision so we can watch Dwight Gooden's induction into the Hall of Fame live from Cooperstown. First unanimous selection, you know.
Next half-inning, Richie tells me something I don't know about baseball. Doesn't matter what it is. I'm better off for him having told me. I will use this knowledge in the coming years and pretend that I figured it out myself.
In the top of the seventh, Seaver gets Joe Wallis to ground out. Antonio Perez taps one back to Pedro. Doc, just off the plane from his ceremony, gets Keith Moreland on the fists. Moreland bounces to Knight at third who handles it cleanly and throws to first. Three out. Rob and I high-five some more. It never gets old.
Between innings, our attention is again directed to the DiamondVision so we can watch Bill Pulsipher's induction into the Hall of Fame live from Cooperstown. It wasn't unanimous, but you can't have everything.
Seventh-inning stretch coming up. I put down my wooden spoon full of chocolate and vanilla ice cream (I haven't seen those cups here in decades…thoughtful of Harry M. Stevens to bring them back for my birthday) so I can get up and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with Jason, Emily and Danielle, arms over shoulders just like we did when had that season-ticket plan. As with every seventh-inning stretch, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is the only song that's played. Except for “L.A. Woman” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” of course.
Before the bottom of the seventh starts, P.A. man Roger Luce reads the lucky ticket number for the “special giveaway” they've been touting all game. It's Mezzanine, Section 21, Row M, Seat 23. Jason won! It's a rare set of baseball cards featuring Al Schmelz, Lute Barnes, Bob Rauch, Francisco Estrada, Tommy Moore, Greg Harts, Rich Puig, Brian Ostrosser and Leon Brown. They also throw in a snappy subset of Xavier Nady and Mike Cameron with a clever two-part story printed on the back (a Topps first). The cards are delivered to our seats by Rich Sauveur. See, I tell Jace — they have great promotions on New Year's Eve.
Energized, Jason gives extra oomph to his standard taunt of a new enemy reliever, something I always enjoyed when we had the Tuesday/Friday deal. “BRING ON JOHN ROCKER!” he shouts.
Indeed, Bobby Cox has brought on John Rocker to face the Mets in the seventh. Lenny Dykstra leads off with a bunt down the first base line. He runs over the lefty, stepping on his shoulder with his spikes in the process. Rocker is forced to leave the game. Cox then brings in the recently signed Roger Clemens who decided he wanted to pitch one more year. Backman bunts, Clemens fields and…yup, same thing. The Mets score 10 in the inning. Rocker and Clemens are never heard from again.
I'm so delighted that I arrange for the eighth inning to be played in the Mets' new ballpark, the one that's not supposed to be built until 2009. Jason and Emily are in awe (and not just because it's named Stengel Hodges Stadium and not after some faceless corporation). They barely tolerated Shea all these years, but now they're showing Josh all the great postmodern Ebbets touches. See, Jace tells me — there's life after Shea. Unfortunately, Braden Looper surrenders a bomb to Pat Burrell. We have a big lead but the unfortunate aspect is the old Mets top hat, which they brought over from the old place, has an apple rise out of it to salute the visitor. Looper departs and Wagner gets the Phillies in order.
I get one more half-inning in the new place so I decide to spend it with Jeff from Chicago. He's not a Mets fan but we share a love of ballparks. We wander around the concourse and decide it compares favorably to PNC (where we rendezvoused in '02) and Camden and the Jake where his beloved Tribe plays. Jeff especially likes how the '85, '99 and '06 WORLD CHAMPION banners sway in the breeze and how each week's issue of Gotham Baseball is sold throughout the stadium. He asks what happened to that rule from Shea about not being allowed on the field level without field level tickets. Oh, I blogged about that the first season we did Faith and Fear and Fred Wilpon read it and changed it. We get back to our seats in time to see Reyes steal second, Beltran double him home and Wright, Delgado and Gary Carter homer back-to-back-to-back.
Is it the ninth inning already? Gosh, that was quick. Back to Shea. Since it's my birthday, I reserved the entire Diamond View Suite level. Everybody I've ever known and cared about who has any connection at all to my love of the Mets is here. My parents are watching on one of the monitors. My mother always felt she understood the game better with Tim McCarver explaining it. My sister and brother-in-law are availing themselves of the buffet. They hate baseball but love buffets. My four cats are sleeping oblivious in a corner, rousing occasionally to crowd noise but otherwise ignoring it.
All the folks from my e-mail group are here. Frank swore he'd never set foot in Shea again I don't know how many times, but he's here cracking everybody up with his reminders of how bad the Mets were going to be. Joe Dubin is remembering the Polo Grounds. I told him I finally know what he's talking about. The two Dans are making perfect sense, but they always do. Gary and the real Jane Jarvis are having a go at dueling organs. I think Gary's winning. The music drowns out the Crane Poolers' friendly debate over whether Kevin McReynolds was a better clutch hitter than Cliff Floyd. At least I think it's friendly.
One Met after another does something to elicit a cheer and Laurie cheers with them. There's nothing to boo. Only to moo. Mookie Wilson just ripped a grounder down the first base line. Clean single. Randy Myers came in to strike out Mike Scioscia. Roger McDowell coaxed an innocent fly to right out of Terry Pendleton. Kenny Rogers has exceptional control.
On the radio that I have turned up in the background, Gary Cohen just mentioned to Howie Rose that not only were the Yankees eliminated again but that they're still having no luck finding a shortstop. “It's been a long time since Russell Earl 'Bucky' Dent,” Howie notes. “And about that long a time since they played in New York,” Gary adds. “Life's very different for the Utah Yankees these days.”
I'm having a great time seeing everybody, from the kids who lived down the block from me when I was starting first grade (which happened to be 1969) to the Faith and Fear commenters. Albertsonmets came from Albertson. J M made it from Massachusetts. Metlady516 left her area code. Doobie is scouring the out-of-town scoreboard to see how the Royals are doing. CharlieH just showed up but he's more than welcome. And the anonymii, in all their nameless glory, are out in full force. (I really shouldn't have made registering for this affair so difficult.) I didn't know any of these people before my last birthday but I feel I know them now.
Having greeted all my guests, I grab a Kahn's Hot Dog and find my seat next to my wife.
“What'd I miss?” I ask.
“Mora singled,” she tells me. “Then Fonzie singled him to third. Oly was intentionally walked. Now they're bringing in Clontz to face Mike.”
“Wow, Sweetie” I say. “This level of detail is uncommonly precise coming from you.”
When action resumes, Clontz throws one in the dirt. Mike reaches down and it golfs it anyway. Five-hundred sixty-six feet if it's an inch. Grand slam! The Mets have tied the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth.
Tied? Yeah. It's up the next batter to win the game. And he does. With his one swing, he sends the Mets to victory. Aguilera gets the W (it's his birthday, too). I accept congratulations all around. Stephanie and I hug.
“I guess you were right,” she says. “Having a son and naming him Darryl Strawberry Prince really did guarantee we'd raise a superstar slugger.”
As the chants of DAR-RYL! Eventually wind down, Stephanie gathers her things, including the two foul balls she snagged (Robbie Alomar is good for something after all). “Time to go,” she said.
“Are you kidding? This is my birthday. We're definitely staying for the nightcap.”