When the season began, they were nobody. When it ended, they were somebody. If it’s the first Friday of the month, then we’re remembering them in this special 1997 edition of Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
Ten years, seven Fridays. This is the last of them.
Here’s the crux of it. This is why I remember 1997 so deeply and so fondly and why it resonates so much for me for so long after the fact.
It made me cry.
I’m not being cute about this at all. I’m not going to give you the ol’ “I think there’s something in my eye” bit in telling you what 1997 did for and to me. I’m not going to deny a bit of it. Why deny? I couldn’t be prouder that I violated the Jimmy Dugan edict that there’s no crying in baseball. I like to think I’m the biggest Mets fan you’ll ever meet. I think I proved it to myself on Sunday afternoon, September 28, 1997.
That was the last game of an 88-74 season. I just went to the last game of another 88-74 season. If it made me cry, it was from a culmination of angst and exhaustion and for maybe two seconds while washing my hands in the men’s room after it was over. 2007 provided the kind of ending that made you want to wash your hands of the whole thing right away.
The last day of 1997 wasn’t like that. The last day of 1997 was something beautiful. It was the end of something beautiful.
I’ll never have another season like that. I’ll never again be capable of being surprised like that, of being delightfully surprised like that, of waking up rooting muscles that I assumed had gone permanently dormant. I’ll never again care the care of the innocent, unburdened by cumbersome backstory. Even with 28 previous seasons of Mets fandom in the books, 1997 wiped the slate clean. Past failures were ancient history. Past successes served as useful precedent.
I’ll never be able to enter a season expecting nothing and end it having been given oodles and oodles of something. Another Mets team can come along and do better than expected and it will be gratifying, I’m sure, but it will never sneak up from behind and embrace me like this one did. Once it’s happened once, you can’t be surprised if it happens again.
I’ll never again find myself surprised that I’m so immersed in a particular team or a particular season. I’ll never again be surprised that I find myself believing we can overcome a suffocating opponent or an imposing margin. I’ll never again feel shock that my team that wasn’t supposed to be any good proved to be not bad at all. I’ll never again be stunned by a team winning a little more than it loses even if it had just spent years losing far more than it had won. I’ll probably never again find deep and enduring satisfaction in a season that comes up just a few games short.
But short of what? Maybe you’re wondering how an 88-74 season can be so damn meaningful when you’ve just seen how awful the most recent one was. Context is everything, of course. Coming off a division title and building a record of 83-62 and a lead of 7 games, you’re not going to think much of 88-74.
But after 71-91 and after 69-75 and after 55-58 and after 59-103 and after 72-90 and after 77-84 and after feeling you were eternally consigned to circling a tunnel of irrelevant submediocrity, U-turning from one lousy year into another into another into another…you, the biggest Mets fan you insist anybody will ever meet…you’d think a lot of that.
Especially if it came with possibility. As painstakingly detailed across the previous six Fridays devoted to this topic, it wasn’t just the first winning record since 1990 that sent me over the Met moon in 1997. It was the unforeseen chance that there might be tangible reward. A playoff spot was in reach for the first time since 1990, too. The Mets finished within four games of the Wild Card that year. They competed ferociously for it into August, fell off the hunt a bit as September neared but clung to the legitimate possibility that they, the downtrodden Mets, the laughable Mets, the heirs to futility Mets, the next-of-kin to Anthony Young Mets, the artists formerly known as the fourth-place, 91-loss Mets — that they would make the playoffs. That if they made the playoffs, they could win a division series, a league championship series, a World Series even.
They didn’t, but that’s hardly the point of 1997. They made me believe they could. They made me dream they could. When the dream was dashed for the simple reason that they weren’t quite good enough, it bothered me as little as that sort of thing could bother me. Imagine investing all your fanhood in the hope that your team, on the verge of breaking through all season, actually breaks through. Then it doesn’t. Would you be disappointed?
Weren’t you just recently disappointed?
My 1997 was no more than tinged by disappointment. Not colored by it, certainly not defined by it. Even as I had grown to expect winning baseball from my team across May and June and July, when it didn’t automatically come in August and September, it didn’t kill me. Not because I didn’t expect better, but because I was given the gift of expectation at all. When the season was over, I looked around the sport. Twenty teams missed the playoffs. A few of the other nineteen franchises had probably exceeded their fans’ expectations, but I couldn’t imagine they didn’t feel let down somehow. Of the eight teams in the postseason, seven sets of fans were bound to be crushed by coming so close and falling just shy. The Giants and Braves each lost to the Marlins; that wasn’t supposed to happen. The Yankees and Orioles lost to the Indians; that wasn’t supposed to happen. The Indians watched a Game Seven lead slip away in the ninth inning and with it their first world championship in 49 years; that’s never supposed to happen. The fans of the eventual world champions, the Florida Marlins, got to celebrate heartily for a couple of days before their owner almost immediately ripped their roster apart. That’s totally unheard of.
By Thanksgiving 1997, everybody else who rooted for a baseball team was experiencing some degree of misery. And I was still thrilled and thankful. I’d had a year I couldn’t anticipate and now I couldn’t forget about it, not then, not now.
That’s why I cried on the last day of the season ten years ago. That’s why I was at the last day of the season ten years ago. There was no way I was missing it. I was invited to a wedding on Sunday, September 28, 1997 by a co-worker and fellow Mets fan. I didn’t ask him what the hell he was doing scheduling a wedding on the last day of the season, but I was clear on why I was RSVPing no.
I have a previous engagement, I said. I have another affair to attend.
I went to Shea Stadium alone that Sunday. Couldn’t have possibly gone with anybody else. It had to be me and my team, just us two, even if I was only going to be making the sound of one fan clapping. Technically, we weren’t alone. Paid attendance was announced as 27,176, pretty good for those days. It may even have been fairly accurate. There were apparently others who recognized 1997 for what it was. But I didn’t need to talk to them.
Having been to a very memorable Closing Day in 1985 when the last Mets team to come achingly (if unsurprisingly) close said goodbye by gathering en masse in front of their dugout and tossing their caps in the stands, I decided I wanted to sit in good seats. Maybe I’d catch a cap. Maybe I’d be in the middle of the fuss. Before I had a chance to seek out someone looking to unload the last of his season boxes, someone approached me. A man in his 50s, not very tall, offered me a $25 Metropolitan Club seat for $15. If they weren’t right behind the Mets dugout, they were darn close. I said yes.
Not having dealt that much with either scalpers or non-licensed ticket agents, I wasn’t expecting to sit next to this fellow once inside. But he became my neighbor. When I thanked him for the view, he told me not to thank him, but thank his brother-in-law. They were his company’s seats. Oh, I said, my thanks to him. He couldn’t make it today, huh?
“No, he died the February before last.”
It also turned out this same guy, the one who was living, had some kind of Tourette tic wherein he’d have to repeat every name the public address announcer broadcast (PA: “Now batting: Keith Lockhart”; Strange dude: “Keith Lockhart”). He also brought a glove and held it high in the air with every foul ball that was popped up, no matter where it was heading. And he referred to Astros manager Larry Dierker as Bobby Dierker.
Like I said, I didn’t need to talk to anybody that day.
The Mets were playing the Braves, the Braves who had won their third consecutive Eastern Division crown, the Braves who were forever tuning up for the postseason. The only Met with anything specific to play for was John Olerud, making a sudden rush on 100 runs batted in. He’d been driving them in relentlessly of late. He entered the week with 88 and entered the day with 98. Oly did his part with Olylike precision, doubling home Alfonzo in the fourth and blasting a three-run homer in the fifth. He got to 102 before Bobby Valentine pulled him.
The Mets A/V squad did their part, too. Eschewing the usual promotional rubbish, every half-inning DiamondVision break focused on some aspect of what made 1997 so enjoyable, with several of the vignettes devoted to the team’s Amazin’ Comebacks. There was Oly in May beating the Rockies, Baerga taking it to the Braves in June, Everett and Gilkey executing the most Amazin’ Comeback of them all (down 0-6 in the ninth, winning 9-6 in the eleventh) against the Expos two weeks before. Those of us among the 27,176 who were Closing Day pilgrims applauded each clip heartily. One gentleman sitting in front of me, however, scoffed.
“This is a results-oriented business,” he informed me, “so all this is meaningless.” He went on to downgrade these Mets, scoffing in particular at the acquisition of “Hal McRae.”
Brian McRae, I said. The Mets got Brian McRae, the son of Hal McRae.
He shrugged. “I stopped following the Mets when Frank Cashen traded Kevin Mitchell.”
“So,” I asked, “why are you here?”
He pointed to his son. The kid dragged him to the game. Fortunately, the kid lost interest around the time Olerud was reaching the century mark and Dr. Buzzkill exited the premises. Yet another good thing about this season. His departure meant an empty nearby seat that allowed me the chance to slip away from the glove-and-repeat guy.
It wouldn’t have really mattered had the Mets not won this game, but that wasn’t the sort of thing the 1997 Mets wouldn’t do. Of course they won. The Braves may have been checking travel itineraries, but the Mets were playing exactly as Bobby V had had them playing all year, living up to his mantra that the most important game of the season was the one they were playing next. Olerud’s homer had made it 5-2. Alberto Castillo and Rey Ordoñez tacked on a run apiece in the sixth. And Matt Franco launched one over the right field wall to lead off the eighth. That made it 8-2 Mets. That would be the final.
The excitement was building among the truly faithful. PA announcer Del DeMontreaux had urged us all afternoon to stick around after the final out for the end-of-year video tribute to the season. When the Mets had something to salute, they usually did it very well. In 1985, they set their highlights to Sinatra’s “Here’s To The Winners”. In ’88, they used “Back In The High Life” by Steve Winwood. I couldn’t wait.
I really couldn’t. After Greg McMichael retired Rafael Belliard for the first out of the ninth, I stood up in front of my Metropolitan Club seat and started clapping. I wasn’t alone. The anticipation for a final out that wasn’t going to clinch anything was overwhelming. When Greg Colbrunn flied out to Carlos Mendoza in left, the applause and the shouting rose. Everybody was now standing. You wouldn’t have known there was no postseason for us. You wouldn’t have known this wasn’t the postseason. I had my Walkman on and heard Gary Cohen describe the scene with surprise. Yes, he said, I guess it had been a good year. These fans are certainly enjoying the last of it.
McMichael worked the count 0-2 to Andruw Jones. Then he struck him out swinging. The Mets won. The season was over.
The roar was incredible. The Mets burst out of their dugout, not to celebrate beating the Braves, just to celebrate, at the very end of what they had accomplished, themselves.
They stood as we stood. They watched as we watched. The DiamondVision blinked on and we heard Gloria Estefan:
If I could reach
Just for one moment
Touch the sky
From that one moment
In my life
There the 1997 Mets were again. Keeping me up late from California. Winning the first battle of New York. Keeping pace as long as they could with a dream that came from I don’t know where. There were walkoff hits and clutch strikeouts and sensational grabs in the hole. There the Mets were, up on that screen, doing everything that made me stand up when there was one out in the ninth and made me start applauding — and crying — before the game was put in the books.
Yes, I was in full lachry-mode. There was a rain delay behind my glasses and no tarp capable of keeping the field dry. I could not stop bawling. And I made no attempt to stop. Neither did at least three other people standing in my midst. There were two fans who held each other tight like it was New Year’s Eve during wartime. I wasn’t the only one who had come to Shea today for this. I didn’t come to this game alone after all.
The video ended. The crowd cheered. I kept crying. I never did that for baseball before. Then I did something else I had never done. I climbed on my seat and began chanting LET’S GO METS! LET’S GO METS! Others followed. Maybe they would have done so without my lead.
The players waved, Todd Hundley among them. Hundley had left the team for elbow surgery a few days earlier. He emerged from the dugout in street clothes. Of course he was coming back for the final day, he told a reporter after the game — he wasn’t going to miss the video for anything. Carlos Baerga was out there, too. Baerga was booed fairly frequently since becoming a Met, since becoming the latest in a long line of Mets who didn’t live up to their previous billing. When I eventually saw highlights of the lovefest on TV, I saw Carlos Baerga standing on the field wiping a tear from his eyes.
I was still crying as it ended. The players threw their caps to the fans immediately behind their dugout, and I was still crying — and not because I was too far back to get a cap. We were thanked for coming, and I was still crying — and not because there was no game tomorrow. All attempts to compose myself failed. I left Shea crying, I boarded the 7 train crying, I waited at Woodside crying, I cried the whole way home until I finally forced myself to cut it out as the LIRR pulled into East Rockaway. I walked from the station to our house, came up the steps of our apartment, and as I began to describe for Stephanie what the day had been like, I started crying all over again.
Next Friday: The Champagne of centerfielders.