Beyond the noble significance in its title, Memorial Day is also considered the beginning of summer. I never quite got that as a kid when I was in school because school went on for another three or four weeks, depending on how the calendar turned. After high school, calling it the beginning of summer no longer seemed like an adult conspiracy to tease me. After college, it didn’t really seem to matter because as an adult, summer is just a hot version of the rest of the year (they never tell ya these things in advance, do they?).
Twenty-five years ago was the last time the International Adult Conspiracy got the better of me. That was my senior year in high school. I was 27 days from graduation, 27 days from no longer being tied to the year as defined by the Long Beach Board of Education. Memorial Day was merely the day before Tuesday and however many classes remained before I was officially Outta There. Summer waited for late June.
That Memorial Day was a good one for the Mets. We entered that Monday on a roll, having just taken three of our last four. 3-1. A .750 winning percentage.
Before that? Uh, we were 8-24. But that was clearly behind us.
If 1980 was the year The Magic [Was] Back, 1981 (“The Magic Is Real, Catch It Here”) was the year of the magical hangover. It was such a disappointing crash back to earth that I was too dizzy to notice it was going on. Lose 24 of 32 to start the year? It was just a detail. The 8-24 coming on the heels of an 11-38 finish to 1980? Listen, I knew what I saw. The Mets who went 47-39 in the middle of ’80, those were the real Mets. Between the end of 1980 (whose final third wasn’t a fair reflection of who we were because of injuries) and the beginning of 1981, we had improved immeasurably.
We had brought back Rusty Staub. We had brought back Dave Kingman. We attempted to sign Dave Winfield and Don Sutton but when they chose to go elsewhere, we managed to sign Bob Bailor and Mike Cubbage and Randy Jones and Dave Roberts. We were free agent players! Young guns Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks were here to stay. All our Magic cogs — Stearns, Mazzilli, Henderson, Flynn, Taveras, Treviño, Youngblood, Swannie, Zachry, Allen — were another year older and wiser and presumably better. If that didn’t spell contention, I don’t know what did.
I’m glad logic wasn’t a high school class because I would not have passed the Regents. The terrible start to 1981, including a seven-game losing streak and a nine-game losing streak, wasn’t an accurate gauge of the Mets’ quality. How could it be? There had been a spate of off days and rainouts early. It played havoc with the pitching. Rube Walker had been joined by Bob Gibson (attitude coach, it was said), but even they couldn’t work miracles with an unforgiving schedule. Of course there was going to be some erraticism.
I explained away the seven-game losing streak to the pockmarked schedule. The rest? I’m fairly certain bad luck was involved. For example, there was a 9-7 loss to the Giants at Shea on Tuesday, May 5, in which the Giants built a 9-0 lead after five innings and the Mets charged back with seven in the ninth. Kingman confounded a shift and poked a single between first and second to make it 9-7. Two outs, first and third, Cubbage up as the winning run. It was going to be the greatest comeback in human history! Cubbage flied out but I wasn’t discouraged. The Mets, I convinced myself, had learned something valuable that night. They learned not to give up. From here on out, I said, they’d start scoring earlier and winning more.
The lesson took. They stuck much closer the next night (losing 6-4), won the night after that (3-2 behind Ed Lynch) and on Friday night, May 8, they were the center of the baseball universe. Fernandomania came to Shea, as did I. Fernando Valenzuela was the sensation of the game then. I don’t know if anybody has captured everybody’s imagination on an extended basis the way he did those first couple of months of 1981.
In his first six starts, he was 6-0 with an ERA of 0.33. Five complete games (the sixth went extras and he left after nine). Four shutouts. Fifty strikeouts in 45 innings. Fernando Valenzuela of Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico did this at the reported age of 20, without speaking English, without any physical resemblance at all to Sandy Koufax except for very similar left arms.
Now he’d be facing the Mets. A big deal. A very big deal. How big? In the previous three games against the Giants, the Mets drew 16,803 fans…total. For Fernandomania, the paid attendance at Shea was 39,848. That’s the 1981 equivalent of about 70,000 now. There was a guy in a sombrero going nuts. Or nachos, shall we say. Instead of giving away fifty bags of peanuts to an entire randomly selected section as had become custom during the seventh-inning stretch (“This Magic Moment,” the promotion was called), the Mets let them eat Doritos. From deep in the right field mezzanine, I was practically moved to tears. So, this is what Shea looks like with people in it.
We countered Fernando Valenzuela with Mike Scott. Mike Scott pitched the game of his life (to date). He was nicked for a run via a Bob Bailor error, a balk of his own and a Dusty Baker single in the first. And that was all he gave up. Seven innings, four hits, six strikeouts.
Fernando Valenzuela overmatched him. Another complete game shutout: seven hits and five walks but eleven strikeouts. His ERA dipped to 0.29. We lost 1-0 but it felt almost like a win. Thus inspired, the Mets took the field the next afternoon and took it to Rick Sutcliffe. We won 7-4. We were looking good.
Then we lost nine in a row. It started the next day, Mother’s Day. Randy Jones, perhaps still paying for stealing Jerry Koosman‘s Cy Young Award five years prior, dropped to 0-5. In the fourth, three consecutive Dodgers reached on three consecutive errors by Hubie Brooks. Had to be an aberration. Hubie was batting .338…how could he be such a bad fielder?
Anyway, the 1981 Mets almost fell out of sight. I say almost because the Cubs were, somehow, worse. When we descended to 8-24, they were below us at 5-26. Johnny Carson made fun of the Cubs. I was almost jealous. You mean we suck this bad yet we don’t even get credit for it? I also say almost because there was a great turnaround in the offing. I just knew there was. Finally, it began to unfold.
The Mets went to the West Coast and lost three apiece to the Padres and the Dodgers, then two more to the Giants. The getaway game at Candlestick was a win. Then we went to St. Louis for a weekend series and fashioned a two-game winning streak on Friday. Lost Saturday, but Sunday was scintillating. I’m sure that’s how Steve Albert put it on Channel 9, but in this unusual circumstance, he was right. We clung to a 1-0 lead, Scott again pitching brilliantly. Mazzilli had homered off Bob Shirley to lead off the fifth and Scott made it stand up clear to the ninth. Alas, Keith Hernandez homered to start the home ninth and it was 1-1. Neil Allen curbed any more damage and we went to extras.
The Mets of previous years — OK, the previous week — would have given up, rolled over, phoned it in. But not these reviving 1981 Mets, at last, I sensed, the rightful heirs to the 1980 Mets (the good part of 1980). Facing none other than Bruce Sutter, the reliever who Ralph Kiner reiterated over and over ended games after seven innings. But not today, not in the top of the tenth when Mazz tripled, Stearns doubled and Brooks singled. Mets 3 Cardinals 1. The Cards got two on in the bottom of the inning, but a double play (Jorgensen-Taveras-Jorgensen) erased the runners and the Mets won. In what I considered a showdown between the National League’s two best firemen, Neil Allen bested Bruce Sutter.
No wonder that the next afternoon, Memorial Day, found me in such a good mood. The Mets had won three of four, taking a series from the first-place Redbirds in the process. Now into Shea came the other powerhouse in our division, the Philadelphia Phillies. The same Phillies who won the World Series last October. The same Phillies who derailed our pennant hopes by sweeping five games from us in the middle of August. The same Phillies who dropped us from 47-39 to 11-38 to 8-24 by my reckoning.
Not this time, you bastards. We were primed. PRIMED! Starting for us was Greg Allen Harris. It was his second Major League start. Hardly any Mets were named Greg to my mind, so I was predisposed to root extra hard for him. I don’t think any pitcher was ambidextrous, but Greg Harris allegedly was. Who wouldn’t root for that?
Greg Harris faced a lineup featuring Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Gary Matthews. But guess what: Dick Rutheven was facing a lineup featuring Joel Youngblood, Lee Mazzilli and Hubie Brooks and they collected three hits apiece. In the first inning, Dave Kingman laid down a sacrifice bunt and the Mets scored four. In the second inning, Dave Kingman blasted a grand slam and the Mets scored four more. Goodbye Dick Rutheven. ‘Blood, Mookie and Hubie each contributed two ribbies. Greg A. Harris, pitching righty, earned his first Major League W. Final score: Mets 13 Phillies 3.
What a great Memorial Day! And what a great run the Mets were off on. By week’s end, the Mets would take this series and the next one from the clearly more pathetic Cubs. Friday night the Mets announced a trade with the Expos: Jeff Reardon and Dan Norman for Ellis Valentine. Reardon was good, but we had Neil Allen, so were set for closers. Ellis Valentine…WOW! He was one of the most talented players in the league.
One week after Memorial Day, we had risen from the ashes of 8-24 to the rarefied air of 15-27. We were in fifth, 5-1/2 ahead of Chicago in sixth and only 6 behind Pittsburgh for fourth. From there, well, who knew? Miraculous comebacks were our heritage. Summer would be here soon enough. Four months remained in the season. What was going to stop us?
Any number of things, it would turn out, but twenty-five Memorial Days ago, I didn’t know that. And I was fine not knowing.