On the morning of July 11, 1973, I boarded a bus bound for Shea Stadium. It was my first Mets game. It was also the last time I rode such a vehicle to a Mets game…until June 22, 2006.
Sometimes it's good to retrace your steps.
Helluva day to take a bus to Shea. Helluva day to sit way out in the right field mezzanine, so far removed from the action that it was sort of like seeing everything for the first time again. Helluva day to be part of a group. In '73, I went as part of Camp Day. I kind of did the same on Thursday, albeit with a much more advanced camp. The cap I wore 33 years ago identified me as a kid from CAMP AVNET. Thursday I donned a lid that read Lenox Hill Senior Center St. Peter's Church Volunteer. Helluva day to buy a brand new traditional blue Mets cap as well; 30 bucks well spent given the W that ensued. I purchased a fresh black/blue model in March, reasoning it really is the color scheme of our times, but the Mets kept losing when I wore it to their games. If I'm gonna go back to my roots buswise, may as well do the same on the top of my head.
Helluva day and helluva way to get over Wednesday night's debacle of a disaster of a farce of a joke. Pedro's six innings and David's two homers are what certified it all as hella good, but I'll remember this win over the Reds as a very special day as much for the bus as for everything thereafter.
While Wright was hitting two home runs for the greater good, the Mets were apparently “hitting a home run for senior nutrition”. That's what the folder pimping this event said, though I didn't actually hear much about senior nutrition. This was no day to eat your vegetables.
The savvier members of the Lenox Hill Senior Centers on the East Side, including the one Stephanie runs at St. Peter's, took the Mets up on their invitation to attend the game versus the Reds. I was enlisted to help out. My role? Wear my Pedro t-shirt and provide a walking landmark. If you get lost between the bus and the stadium, or the stadium and the bus, just look for Stephanie's husband. He's the big blue thing with MARTINEZ 45 on his back. Ya can't miss him.
I have to admit that while this sounds like a pretty cush volunteer assignment, I've been haunted for four years by my last out-of-Manhattan Lenox Hill bus duty. In August 2002, Stephanie recruited me to join her to lead a troop of feelin'-lucky seniors to Foxwoods Resort & Casino in The Middle of Nowhere, Conn. Not my kind of trip. Let's just say the Foxwoods Resort & Casino turning point of that game came when the bus door shut tight behind me, holding me hostage for one of the longest days of my life. The Wonder Of It All, my ass.
Today wasn't four years ago. This was fun, not just because of the destination, but the journey. Some of those who signed up for Senior Day at Shea were simply looking for a diversion, weather permitting. But there was a true hard core of baseball fans on the bus. Never mind you and me and our piddling three or four decades on the beat. I met people who knew Leonard Shecter (Jim Bouton's editor on Ball Four), Milt Richman (longtime UPI sports editor) and Bill Shea (you hafta ask?). Actually, that was just one lady. There was another lady who sang a rousing chorus of the New York Giants' fight song. Her late husband was a Yankees fan who was driven so up Coogan's Bluff by her constant playing of her favorite record, he smashed it. She demanded he go out and get another copy. Then she played it even more. In the words of Leo Durocher, stick that in your ear.
Did I mention what fun this was? I was recently wondering if I'd ever be able to look at Shea the way I'll look at Busch in early August, the way I look at every ballpark I go to for the first time. Having clicked past 300 on the Shea meter last summer, I didn't think so. Thursday afternoon was as close I'm likely to get to it between now and its destruction. Though I badly wanted a win after Silly Wagner blew Wednesday night away and just as badly desired to improve on my limp 1-5 mark on the year (plus finally see the home team shake hands while I wore MARTINEZ 45; another jinx bites the dust), I felt, in my way, like a Shea rookie once more. I was just happy to be there.
I was also elated to have been there with my baseball-reclusive wife. Sure, she'll fly halfway across the country and agree to make a vacation out of a Cardinals game, but she limits her Shea exposure to a single annual appearance most seasons. Weeknight games are out. Cold weather games are out. Steamy day games are out if she can help it, but technically this was work. She had to go (well, she had to go once I egged her on to make Lenox Hill a part of Senior Day). My fair lady played hide and seek with the sun, creeping back a row at a time to avoid feeling the burn. She slathered on the 'screen and hydrated and persevered through all nine innings with characteristic good cheer.
The whole gang did, not easy when humidity levels dwarfed our passenger-manifest's average age. Postgame, we even managed to find the bus with minimal fuss (I was still the big blue thing with legs). While cars fought their way through single-exit parking lot traffic and transit riders crowded onto the inadequate MTA steps I know all too well, our coach whisked us toward the L.I.E. in minutes. You gotta believe it was a way better ride than what Camp Avnet offered in 1973.
You also gotta continue to believe in the 2006 Mets. After the most recent Worst Loss Ever, they bounced back, just like in Philadelphia in early May, just like after the Saturday Subway Series train wreck. Other than Pedro's wildness (nicely quelled by his final inning), there was nothing not to like at Shea, and the fans — seniors, juniors, all shapes, sizes and vintages — didn't not like it.
After witnessing seven games in person this season (started by seven different Mets pitchers, for what that's worth), I can report the atmosphere this year is different from any I've experienced as a constant goer. Even more than our transportation mode, a 2006 Mets game feels like a joyride. I've witnessed mostly losses, but it still feels good every time I'm there. I've heard boos reasonable and irrational but it's not Venom Inc. There is expectation, but there is also participation. Everybody wants to be a part of this, and presumptuousness, 10-game lead or not, hasn't infected our huddled masses.
Is it simple bandwagon-hopping and value-pricing that explains more than 46,000 on a Thursday afternoon and nearly 50,000 the night before versus the Reds when all that was given away was a 5-4 lead? Some, I suppose, but this is bigger than that. I attended three games on this homestand and I was surrounded by Mets fans. No duh, you say, but really. There's a difference between those who show up because it's the thing to do and those who show up because they can't stay away. It's overwhelmingly the latter. It's not “the scene” as it was circa '86 or '88. And it's not as defensive or edgy as the best of the Valentine era required. Gosh, how I loved those seasons, but it was hard work being a Mets fan from 1997 through 2001. Even when we were World Series-caliber, it always felt like we had to prove ourselves. To the local media. To the star-fudgers who infiltrated our good seats in SOSA and McGWIRE garb. To the Braves (remember them?). To the mother-lovin' Yankees and their unpleasant slummers.
That in particular is changing. For years, I'd see a dozen too many Yankee caps at Shea Stadium and I'd get ready to rumble. What the hell are they doing here? Thursday, I saw a smattering of offending bonnets, but they weren't worn by the JEET-UH neanderthals on holiday from their criminal asylum. They were younger types — crisp WRIGHT 5 tees overshadowing the wrong NY on their caps — who emitted a vibe that they wanted to see the best baseball being played in New York, that they'd gladly let a good gust blow that piece of cap right off their noggins.
There was none of that familiar preening and pointing to their logo and reminding us about the rings, baby. Call it front-running if you choose. It's an unfortunate, occupational hazard of winning. Still, as long as I was in volunteer mode, I had to overcome the temptation to set up tables and have these wannabe-converts fill out amnesty request forms (plus a few credit card applications; it is Shea, after all). Conversely, there was a quick ramp-burst of YANK EES SUCK! after the final out, but I sense that's going to fade as it sinks in at last that our own affairs are job one.
The tide has turned, the plates have shifted and, as was the case when I first showed up at Shea in 1973, it's a great feeling to have grabbed a spot on the bus before everybody else did.