Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 358 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
8/15/81 Sa Philadelphia 2-1 Leach 1 5-13 W 3-1
It was probably just a coincidence that the Mets never seemed to win when I went to see them. But at the age of 18, I didn’t think so, not after what felt like a lifetime of watching them lose in person.
It wasn’t a lifetime. But it did feel like it. My Sheagoing started with a loss in 1973, when I was 10, followed by three wins across ’74 and ’75, the cumulative effect of which imbued me with a false sense of confidence that the Mets and I were winners.
Then puberty struck.
1979: Two losses, a win and then another loss for a 1-3 personal mark that fit all too snugly with the 63-99 Zeitgeist.
This is where I began to get suspicious. It was me, wasn’t it? This was The Magic Is Back year, but Magic took a hike when I was in Flushing. The Mets lost every time I showed up, even during the deceptively uplifting portion of 1980.
They were never going to win when I went, were they?
1981 began: A loss…another loss…then a long and boring strike that coincided with the end of my senior year of high school, thus costing me the trivia question of what the Mets were doing on the day I graduated (answer: nothing, absolutely nothing). There would no official baseball at Shea Stadium until the middle of August. I raced out there the first night it was available.
God damn it! The Mets never win when I go! What is this now? It’s seven losses in a row, twelve of thirteen. I’m 1-12 since starting 3-1, for crissake, a lifetime mark of 4-13. I might as well be Pete Falcone.
But there’s a reason you don’t stop banging your head against a wall: the promise that one time you’ll bang it and it won’t feel quite as bad as the approximately dozen times prior.
That time, for me, was August 15, 1981. We won. The Mets won. I was there for a Mets win for the first time in eight tries, for the first time in more than two years, eligible to start my first winning streak since I was 12.
We won. The Mets won. They beat the Phillies. I was there. Terry Leach made the first start of his Major League career. This poststrike callup of whom my friend Joel and I in loge knew nothing outpitched Nino Espinosa. Espinosa was the Met starter and loser the day in ’78 my lifetime record dipped below .500, where it would wallow for the next two decades. 1978 was the year before Nino and his surfeit of hair was traded to Philadelphia for the presumably solid Richie Hebner. Hebner gave an emphatic two-armed salute to Joel and me and 6,600 other fans of the reluctant Met third baseman on one of many 1979 afternoons that would prove futile for him, the team, Joel, me and the rest of the scattered faithful (Richie had elicited the disapproval of our small congregation by waving a Brave ground ball through to left field the way a Bluetooth-wearing, clipboard-wielding bouncer at a hot club might signal Paris Hilton that no, of course she doesn’t have to wait outside with the riff-raff). Espinosa for Hebner apparently wasn’t the steal I predicted it would be. On this particular Saturday night in 1981, however, Nino’s surrender of an RBI double to Doug Flynn and a pinch-sac fly to Rusty Staub in the seventh inning to make it Mets 3 Phillies 1 was sufficient compensation for having endured Annus Hebnerilis.
I didn’t know Nino Espinosa was making the final start of his Major League career the same night Terry Leach was making his first. I doubt Nino knew. I just knew I was thrilled that the bushiest afro I had ever seen on a Met now belonged to a pitcher who sported a wavy red P set against powder-blue pajamas, a pitcher who allowed the Mets a go-ahead run and insurance run as I watched from a couple of hundred feet away. Nothing personal against the late Nino Espinosa. I just wanted a visiting pitcher in my midst to be saddled with an L.
Pete Falcone, my go-to example of indifferent Met pitching circa 1981, picked up the W. Me and him, actually. His first W since early May. My first since the late 1970s.
We won. The Mets won. I was there. I had three responses to the event.
1) Following Neil Allen’s two-inning, no-hit save (Bowa, Unser, Rose, Matthews, McBride, Schmidt…this kid could pitch!), I babbled so long and excitedly to Joel out of Shea and into the lot about having finally witnessed a win that I entered the Grand Central without bothering to turn on the headlights in my borrowed family Ford Granada until the motorist behind me was kind enough to let me know of my literal dimness via several gentle reminders.
2) After I dropped off Joel, I headed to Laurel Luncheonette to buy two Dunkin’ Donuts. I guess I was hungry, but mostly I didn’t want to go home right away lest the feeling of the win evaporate too quickly (good thing they invented blogging to serve as a jubilation-pastry substitute).
3) After trawling for highlights on every 11 o’clock newscast to prove I saw what I thought I saw, I went up to my room and pulled out from the bottom drawer of the tackily contact-papered bureau in the corner of my bedroom (my mother fancied herself an interior decorator) a stenographer’s notebook. It was left over from my high school newspaper editing days, pilfered from a metal cabinet where our journalism teacher hid from us everything we might need to produce a high school newspaper. To his never-ending consternation, two of our staffers were expert lock-pickers. I probably took the notebook because I could.
Up until now, everything I knew about the games I saw at Shea Stadium had been drawn from what I was told was legendarily unusual memory: the first loss in ’73 was 7-1 to the Astros; the nosedive that started in ’76 came at the expense of an unsupported Tom Seaver gem; two of the three disgraces in ’80 transpired in July. This, tonight, was my 18th game. I figured I wasn’t going to remember forever the details of each game I had been to, so I ought to write down the essentials: when I went, whom we played, who threw the first pitch for us and, of course, the final score. This was a pleasant task to undertake on August 15, 1981, a 3-1 win against the Phillies behind rookie Terry Leach, even if I was compelled to record the 17 games and 13 losses that preceded it.
By continuing to write down exactly what happened after I came home from Shea Stadium, I would know now and forever how every game I ever attended went just by looking. When I would get curious down the road as to what day of the week those games took place, I could add that information. When I wondered what the Mets’ record was against a particular opponent when I saw them play that team, that, too, would be easy enough to pencil in. Same for deciphering how often I saw one Met starter or another. Finally, should the running tally in my head ever betray me, I could add a notation regarding “my record” at Mets games.
I stayed up until late Saturday night became early Sunday morning and stared at that first page of a spiral bound steno pad that I would spend the next quarter-century and then some filling in dutifully until there would be just enough space left for a final season of Shea Stadium. I studied each line representing a past disappointment and marveled that every once in a while I got to come home unabashedly happy.