Ten years, seven Fridays. This is one of them.
“I have often thought,” allowed Theodore White, one of my favorite authors, “that a very engaging chronicle could be written about the unrecognized ‘lasts’ of history — which are often much more disturbing than the conventionally hailed ‘firsts’. ‘Firsts,’ whether true or imaginary, are the recognized staples of chronicle…’Lasts’ are more elusive.
“Who can identify the last time or place anyone took a gold eagle or sovereign from his purse and slapped it on the table to pay for dinner? Who can identify the last company of archers sent into battle by a captain who still believed a well-drawn flight of arrows could overmatch a volley of bullets? Who can identify the last time a two-dollar bill was folded into a matchbox and passed to buy a vote?”
I’ve always been intrigued by Mr. White’s thesis, even as I respectfully disagree with a segment of it. For all the Opening Days we can mark on our calendars, do we as a people really always know when we’ve entered a new era? That a past is over and a present has been excitingly unwrapped? Beginnings don’t necessarily arrive with engraved invitations. Sometimes you have to divine for yourself when an epoch began. Sometimes it takes years of retracing to reach back to that first step.
But sometimes you and you alone know right away. I know I did. On May 3, 1997, ten years ago yesterday, I could feel the earth move under my feet.
The Mets weren’t bad anymore. They were good. We were good. The Mets and I commenced that Saturday afternoon to forge a bond that would outweigh every link in which we had been previously joined. For all the many dates and many seasons that I can point to that made me The Fan I Am Today, it was that date and, ultimately, that season that shifted the plates of my identity where this team of mine is concerned. Saturday May 3, 1997 marked a sea change.
A Shea change.
And to think I didn’t want to go.
Neither did most of New York. That Saturday afternoon was preceded by a most unsavory Saturday morning, drenched in rain and gloom. It didn’t seem likely the Mets would face off against the Cardinals as scheduled at 1:40 PM and that would have been OK by me. It was Saturday. I was tired. I’m always tired on Saturday. But I had been invited to the game by my friend of about a year Laurie. She called to let me know was planning on going regardless of skies. It was supposed to clear up soon. They would play. I glanced out the window. I guessed I could see something that didn’t look like a cloud. See you there, I said.
I hung up and considered the weather and the circumstances. Sure it might rain some more. Sure I’m tired. But as I would ask Stephanie, just as I would rhetorically ask aloud whenever I was tempted to demur in this sort of situation, who am I to not go to a Mets game?
So I went. I donned my green golf jacket, grabbed an umbrella and whatever other chozzerai I felt compelled to drag with me and loped on over to the East Rockaway train station. I had warned Laurie that the vagaries of the LIRR would probably deposit me at Shea right around first pitch. That’s OK, she said. She would leave my ticket at Will Call and I could meet her inside. She did it all the time that way. Just bring ID.
I took my train to Jamaica, then changed for a train to Woodside and then, instead of automatically climbing toward the 7, spied a Port Washington-bound Long Island locomotive coming my way. Great. I’ll just get on here and take it the six minutes east. They didn’t always stop at Shea Stadium, but they did when there was a game.
I’m standing by an exit when a conductor comes by for my ticket. Where’d you get on? he asked. Woodside, I said. For Shea. Shea? he asked. We don’t stop at Shea unless there’s a game. There’s a game today, I told him.
Yeah. There’s a game.
It was news to him. It was news to the entire crew that had planned to blow right by Shea en route to Flushing Main Street. He notified the engineer or the motorman or whoever actually drives a Long Island Rail Road train that we would be making an unplanned stop. There’s apparently a Met game today.
We slowed. An announcement blared:
Ha ha. I got off.
I was alone. Utterly alone. The Mets were taking the field at this very moment and not a single soul besides myself was detraining. On a Saturday afternoon in New York, nobody else from Long Island had joined me on public transportation for this affair. Maybe they hopped the 7 at Woodside except I didn’t see anybody else get off the railroad there either.
I walked up the LIRR steps alone. I walked across the LIRR boardwalk alone. I cut through the Roosevelt Avenue overpass subway station alone.
Alone. Alone. So alone. When I came down the steps and crossed Roosevelt and headed left toward Will Call, I could hear the PA inside Shea. The game had started. Everybody who was going to be there for it was there for it already. There was nobody…I mean nobody else in Casey Stengel Plaza. You know that standard shot they show during the first innings of Mets telecasts of fans ambling off the 7 extension staircase, rushing, as Terry Cashman put it, to the stadium in Flushing?
There was none of that. A Major League Baseball game was just underway over a big blue wall, an event whose score would be repeated on newscasts and recorded in newspapers and researchable in archives for all time and there was nobody making a late dash for it.
Nobody but me. And it hadn’t rained a drop since I left the house.
I went to Will Call, between Gates D and C. There was a woman behind a window. I told her my name as I fished out my driver’s license to prove that I was indeed the person for whom a ticket to a Mets game had been left.
She put up her hand as if to say “don’t bother” and handed me an envelope with one ticket. Mine, from Laurie. Gate E.
I passed through the turnstile, I was handed a Dunkin’ Donuts travel mug that celebrated the 1996 accomplishments of four “RECORD BREAKERS” (Todd Hundley and Lance Johnson to the left of the Mets and Dunkin’ logos, John Franco and Bernard Gilkey to their right) and I escalatored up to field level.
Laurie was waiting for me in the right field corner. Also alone. I don’t mean she didn’t come with anybody else. I mean nobody else was sitting in the right field corner. Hardly anybody else was sitting on the first base side of field level. Or the third base side. Or any side of any level.
When you examine the boxscore for the Mets-Cardinals game of May 3, 1997, you will read there was a paid attendance of 16,248. Good fiction can be amusing. The next day in the News Mets officials conceded threatening weather had kept the crowd down to a turnstile count of about 4,500. “About” was charitable. I’m pretty good at counting the house. If I’d been ambitious enough, I could have literally counted the house. There were no more than 2,500 people in the stands, vendors included.
Yes, it had rained. Yes, Ed Coleman had been on WFAN in the morning hedging, hemming and hawing on whether there would be a game and whether it would start on time. He sounded surprised when it was given a go. Nevertheless, the Mets couldn’t round up 3,000 witnesses on a Saturday afternoon to watch them play baseball? Professional baseball?
Make no mistake. The Mets had lately displayed evidence of professionalism so glaringly lacking in years and even weeks past. The previous Sunday, Rey Ordoñez had salvaged a getaway game in Montreal with a two-run single in the tenth, raising their record to 9-14. I was so thrilled that I celebrated with a can of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni. Must have been my first in close to a decade. It would be my last forever (cc: Teddy White). The next afternoon I took sick, sending back my Beefaroni in a most unfortunate manner. I lay in bed through the evening, dehydrated and delirious, managing mid-game to flip on the Mets and Reds from Cincinnati. The Mets, Bob Murphy said, had taken a 13-0 lead.
Ohmigod, when was this fever going to go down?
It was true, though. Rick Reed was throwing a shutout and everybody in the lineup but Rey-O had driven in at least a run. We won 15-2. I felt much better.
The Mets would take two from Cincy, come home, split two with the Padres and then win on Friday night against St. Louis. Having begun 1997 a dreadful 3-9, we were now a nearly respectable 13-15. It doesn’t sound like much, but the Mets hadn’t been over .500 this late in a season since 1994, hadn’t finished over .500 since 1990. Anything that smacked of progress was noteworthy if you were a Mets fan in early 1997.
Progress is what Laurie and I hoped for as we settled in to watch the final eight innings together that Saturday. Reed was pitching. He mowed down the Cardinals in the first. He was mowing them down in the second and didn’t give up a hit (as if we wouldn’t have noticed such a development) until the fifth. Where did this guy come from?
Oh that’s right — Pittsburgh. He was a blasted Pirate in the summer of 1988, coming up from the minors and outdueling Bobby Ojeda 1-0 on a Monday Night Baseball telecast from Three Rivers. The Mets and the Bucs were duking it out for the lead in the East at the time, so it was quite an unwelcome debut from my perspective. The Mets’ too. “I had forgotten what minor league pitching looked like,” sniffed Wally Backman. (Nice talk from someone who was just made to look silly.)
Nine years later, Reed had knocked around leagues major and minor mostly undetected by the baseball populace at large until he was spotted in Spring Training with the Reds in 1995. That was a bit of a problem as the vast majority of players in camps that spring were of the replacement variety. Major Leaguers were on strike. Rick hadn’t been a Major Leaguer since May 9, 1994, just before Texas sent him down, three months before the Players Association walked out. Reed wasn’t on strike. But he wasn’t looking to break one either. He just wanted to throw in front of scouts (not in games) and he was working for a reason most of the job-actioners couldn’t have possibly imagined — because his family needed the money. Really needed the money. Medication-for-his-mother needed the money. His eventual teammates on the 1995 Reds were about as understanding of his circumstances as Reed was considerate of their feelings when he shut them down in that 15-2 laugher.
None of this yellowing Red drama would have come to our attention except Bobby Valentine had Reed at Norfolk when both were exiled there in 1996. Bobby gave him a shot in the spring of ’97 and Rick came through. Made the team as a long reliever. Moved into the rotation. Was untouchable in April. And now was taking care of the Cardinals in his first May start. From our vantage point among the orange acres in right, Laurie and I agreed we liked Rick Reed.
We liked a lot of what we were seeing. We liked John Olerud, our new first baseman. He had entered the day hitting .355 and ended it hitting .360. Olerud, the former Blue Jay star, put the first run on the board with a solo home run. Laurie and I stood and applauded. I imagine we’ve each done that for Met home runs all our respective lives, but this home run I know we stood and applauded. Attendance was so sparse that I had a hunch that we might show up on television. In those days, SportsChannel repeated a condensed version of the game all night. SportsChannel Light, they called it. Stephanie set our VCR to tape SCL and sure enough, as Olerud rounded first, the camera picked us up in the distance. A blue speck and a green blob clapping away.
I was the green blob.
Speck and blob weren’t done showing their appreciation. Though Reed (Laurie noted that union rep John Franco had referred to him in an interview as “Reeder”…wasn’t that adorable?) had surrendered an RBI single to John Mabry in the top of the fifth, we got it right back when Carlos Baerga doubled (second of four hits on the day) and Carl Everett, in for the shin-splinted Lance Johnson, drove him home. An inning later, Mets RECORD BREAKER Todd Hundley made like the guy on the travel mug and hit one out. And an inning after that, a rally of Valentinean proportions — Baerga single, Ordoñez bunt, Steve Bieser (The Beez!) pinch-walk, Everett single — produced a fourth run. An infield single by Olerud would load ‘em up and Hundley would draw a base-on-balls that would send the Mets up 5-1.
Takashi Kashiwada entered the game in the eighth and gave up nothing of consequence. Final score: Mets 5 Cardinals 1. The Mets pulled themselves to within one win of .500. I had collected, in addition to my travel mug, a replica white cap (just like the Mets promised to wear every Sunday but would fashionably cease doing within two sensible weeks), a Mets rally towel (Laurie flashed her MBNA credit card to secure me one since I wasn’t anxious to produce financial information on demand at a baseball game) and a copy of Total Mets, a valuable volume of stats that the Mets had sworn you could get only by subscribing to at least a mini-plan of season tickets but, well, it was obvious there were a lot of books left over.
Something else I got that day, too. A feeling. A sense. A certainty almost. Why was this win different from all other wins? The Mets hadn’t been very good in 1996 but I did manage to see them beat somebody four times in person. I never once left Shea thinking it meant anything. Today, May 3, 1997, I did. This team of ours was 6-1 since Ordoñez and Montreal and the misguided Beefaroni. The Cardinals were a defending division champion yet we had outplayed them for two straight days. Johnson may have been hurting and Gilkey may have been regressing, but look who was coming through for us: the abandoned Olerud, the outcast Reed, the heretofore disappointing Baerga and Everett, the unknown Kashiwada. Hundley was still homering and even third base, always a mine field around here, was shaping up with the recent insertion of Edgardo Alfonzo in the almost everyday starting lineup. His glove was good. Ordoñez’s, at short, was Gold.
Sometimes a fan just knows. I knew that May 3 as Laurie and I left our spacious enclave in right field for the utterly uncrowded platform that we were seeing a better Mets team than we had in ages. It was a Met team whose possibilities I couldn’t stop dwelling on — nearly .500! — even after Laurie and I parted ways at the penultimate Fifth Avenue stop. I rode back into the city with her to be gracious (the game was her treat) and, as long as I was in midtown, headed over to the Virgin MegaStore in Times Square to do a little CD shopping — “MMMBop” had just caught my ear that week — and who do I see on one of the shop escalators? Somebody carrying one of those RECORD BREAKERS travel mugs. Somebody else in the world was at the Mets game today.
The sun had come out, too.
The Mets lost the finale of the Cardinal series. They’d split two apiece in Colorado and Houston (there were a lot of two-game series that year) and then, at Busch Stadium, sweep three from St. Louis. On May 11, trailing 4-3 in the ninth with Alex Ochoa on and one out, Bobby V would send up Carl Everett as a pinch-hitter and Everett would homer. Then he sent up Butch Huskey to pinch-hit directly after and Huskey went deep. Back-to-back pinch-homers put the Mets up 6-4, providing Cory Lidle with his first big league win. The Mets were 19-18, over .500 at last. The first-place Braves were a pipe dream but almost a quarter of the way through the schedule, the Mets were within three games of the lead for the Wild Card in the National League.
1997 really was going to be different. The likes of me and Laurie and that person with the travel mug at the MegaStore and the gang I knew only as the Metcave on AOL wouldn’t root alone for long. The Mets would see to that. We who had persevered as Mets fans since it all fell apart in 1991 would now see it pieced together again. Had it only been seven years since our last pennant race? Felt like seventy.
Maybe the rest of New York would take a while to get the memo. Maybe almost everybody else would be tangled up in the Knicks’ nonsense with Miami for another week or worry about the Rangers in what would be their last playoff appearance for almost a decade or remain distracted by another local baseball team, but we knew a change was gonna come if, in fact, it hadn’t already arrived. The weekend after we topped .500, we took three from the Rockies at Shea, the last of them on a Monday afternoon. Down 3-2 in the ninth, Alfonzo doubled and Olerud homered. A walkoff win. I was in heaven. Listening in my office, I bolted to share the good news with somebody who cared. Nobody where I worked did. Not yet.
So it was private heaven. I’d been in private hell long enough to know this was much better. Even if there were few back pages and not much talk on the radio and plenty of good seats available, there was no denying these Mets were coming on. I would follow them and their place in the standings to the end of 1997 like I hadn’t followed them ever. Like my life and my identity depended on it. I would follow them that way into 1998 and 1999 and into the new century with a depth of purpose and commitment I don’t think I had ever devoted to them even in their glory seasons of the ’80s. All I wanted to do was think about the Mets, talk about the Mets, write about the Mets. It started in earnest that damp and lonely May Saturday when they clearly became a contender.
I don’t know if anybody else saw it. But I did.
Next Friday: The Mets play poorly…and I couldn’t be much happier.