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.
7/17/76 Sa Houston 0-2 Seaver 1 3-2 L 1-0
I have this thing about remembering exact dates when certain things took place. I always have, with more precision and frequency than most people. I had no idea I was unusual in this regard until others told me I was. It’s not necessarily that the date on which something happened resonates because of the event in question. Rather, it’s because I knew it was coming and I was looking forward to it for a very long time. It is the anticipation that fuels the recall.
That’s probably why I remember July 17, 1976.
The Mets are kind enough to print a schedule every year telling you when each of their games will be. It’s good information to have ahead of time. Gives you something to look forward to. I know the dates in advance now as I did then, but the filtering is different. If I choose now to attend a game in July, I will have gone to several games in between. But in 1976, at the age of 13, there was nothing between the printing of the schedule and July. I got to go to exactly one game that season. It would be July 17.
I wasn’t officially restricted to that one game for the year, but that’s essentially the way it worked. There was no picking up and deciding to go to Shea, not yet. I had to be taken. I was 13. A popular religion claimed I had reached manhood that January and by May I sprouted the slightest hint of a mustache (it has yet to come in fully), but those were technicalities. I wouldn’t have copped to it, but I was still a kid. If you can only get to Shea Stadium today if somebody takes you, then today you are not a man.
My sister had to take me. Well, she didn’t have to, but she did, just as she had taken me to a few Broadway matinees and one taping of The $10,000 Pyramid. Suzan was quite the sport to chaperone her little brother around, especially considering she had zero interest in sports (or game shows). We had constructed an annual tradition of going to Shea, one Saturday every year for three years. This was the third year. As had been the case in 1974 and 1975, the occasion would be the same: Old Timers Day. I got to choose and I always chose Old Timers Day. At 11, then 12, then 13, maybe I thought hanging around Old Timers would make me seem more mature by association.
I do not remember the date when I knew I’d be going on July 17, but it was on the calendar for months. Seventh grade was still in session when I owned this news. I was sufficiently enthused over it to tell the kid I shared a locker with in homeroom, a fellow everybody — everybody — called Ziggy. It was a play on his last name, which began with a Z and included a g. I went to his Memorial Day Bar Mitzvah and I’m not sure the rabbi didn’t call him Ziggy.
I’d known Ziggy throughout Hebrew School, but it’s safe to say you couldn’t really know Ziggy as he wasn’t the type to open up. But you definitely knew of him because there was only one Ziggy. Though larger than the average seventh-grader, Ziggy was not to be confused with Fat Dave from the West End (whose unfortunate nickname was alarmingly accurate). Rather, he was big-boned…and brooding…and a guy whose starter mustache was making greater strides at 13 than mine…and a guy whose calling card was distributing packs — packs, not sticks — of chewing gum as if obliged to by the Wrigley Spearmint Act of 1958. In the hall, on the bus, anywhere around school, you’d hear the same thing:
“Ziggy, got any gum?”
And you can bet Ziggy had gum.
Since I never asked for gum, our conversations mostly consisted of Mets chat or him telling me to Shut up, Greg when, in fact, I hadn’t said anything. Logically, I had a hard time processing this approach. Why is he telling me to shut up? I didn’t say a word. It took me until the end of high school to figure out this was Ziggy’s well-planned shtick and that he was quite proud of it. He actually wrote “Shut up, Greg” in my yearbook. After I crossed paths with him in 1994, I told a friend of mine who also knew him that I had just seen Ziggy. My friend asked, “Did he tell you to ‘Shut up, Greg’?” Sadly, I had to report, he did not.
Ziggy, upon learning I’d be going to Shea on July 17, didn’t tell me to Shut Up, Greg, but responded that he would be going to that game, which struck me as pretty wild: two guys, one locker, same Saturday. Ziggy never seemed enthused about anything, but he, too, anticipated Old Timers Day. Thirteen-year-old Mets fans were crazy for retired ballplayers in 1976.
Suzan and I left the house early the brilliantly sunny Saturday afternoon of July 17 to walk to the station. She was between her sophomore and junior years at NYU, so she knew the trains. We were walking to the station when a car pulled alongside us a few blocks from home.
It was Ziggy. Ziggy and his sister and his father, neither of whom seemed remotely Ziggylike. The Ziggys were driving to Shea. Ziggy remembered that I’d be going and, though I’m sure it was a coincidence, almost seemed to be waiting for us. Ziggy’s dad offered us a lift, not to the station, but all the way to the ballpark. Suzan seemed a little wary, as in “who the hell are these people?” I sort of liked the idea of the train and its whiff of independence from adult supervision, but Mr. Ziggy was quite insistent. Well, OK, we said, sure.
We piled into the Ziggymobile, where we learned that Mr. Ziggy worked for Nabisco. He wore an Oreos watch. There were Nabisco tchotchkes that we had to brush off the back seat. Nabisco engendered company loyalty, apparently. Suzan never quite seemed comfortable with the sudden change in transportation from LIRR to the Ziggy family car. She didn’t know from Ziggy. Not surprising, then, that when we got to Shea, she turned down both Mr. Ziggy’s invite to meet after the game for a ride home and a chance to forage the Ziggymobile’s trunk for our choice of Nabisco gametime snacks. Go ahead, he said, we’ve got plenty, as Ziggy and his sister picked out boxes of Ritz crackers and so forth. No, Suzan said, that’s all right, but thank you…and thank you for the ride.
I don’t think any gum changed hands, but I’m sure we could’ve asked…though I wonder if I would have been told to Shut Up, Greg.
Free of the well-meaning Ziggys, we entered Shea on the third base side. Our seats were Juicy Fruit yellow — field level, down the left field line. First time I ever sat that close. I had studied the schedule’s ticketing options and seating diagram that always looked a semi-circular piano to me, and once I determined that field level was the best bet, I asked Suzan to try for those. In 1976, field boxes were $4.50. Suzan was working that summer at a PR firm. She sprung for the whole nine bucks.
As Old Timers Day veterans, we had come to expect Casey Stengel to make a grand entrance. Two years earlier we had seen him delivered to home plate via horse and carriage, receive a massive ovation and milk the applause. I had to break it to Suzan that we wouldn’t be seeing Casey this afternoon as he was dead at the present time. She was kind of disappointed. I suggested they could still bring him out, he just wouldn’t wave back this time. We both laughed the laugh of people who are 19 and 13 and have no real concept of mortality or taste.
Yes, old people were funny to us then, just by their existence. The oldest Old Timer in 1976 was Lloyd Waner, “Little Poison” of the Pittsburgh Pirates from way, way back, like the 1920s. He was one of those players Ralph Kiner talked about, which meant he had to be old. Waner dressed up in the black and gold of the Bucs and not only took a bow but played in the Old Timers Game. He was 70, he swung and he singled. It was quite amusing then, a 70-year-old doing something. It wasn’t until I chortled about it to a girl I knew whose grandfather suffered from Parkinson’s did I realize old people weren’t necessarily any funnier than any other people.
A peanut vendor in our section filled the void between the Old Timers and the Mets and Astros by hawking “CARTER NUTS! GET YOUR CARTER NUTS!” Just that week, the Democratic National Convention had taken place at Madison Square Garden and nominated Jimmy Carter for president. Carter was a peanut farmer. It was in all the papers. “CARTER NUTS! GET YOUR CARTER NUTS!” I admired the peanut vendor for working on his material and making it so topical. Then, to cover his political bases, he switched to “REAGAN NUTS! GET YOUR REAGAN NUTS!” I think I was more impressed by the peanut vendor than I was by Little Poison.
What I couldn’t have known when the schedule for 1976 came out was that Tom Seaver would be pitching for the Mets that Saturday. What a bonus! My first Mets games were started by Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Randy Tate and Jon Matlack again. Nothing wrong with any of them, but it had convinced me that I was somehow prohibited from seeing Tom Seaver, that I would have to settle for watching him on TV. It turned out that no, it was just chance who you got to see pitch. On July 17, I was getting Seaver, my favorite player since I was six years old. He was going to be on the field pitching and I was going to be on the field level rooting. What a deal!
That’s all the excitement I needed, even though one woman nearby didn’t realize it. She must have been a cheerleading coach during the school year, I gathered, because a) she was quite fit and b) was quite adamant that we all collectively urge on the Mets to victory.
“A-C-T! I-O-N! ACTION, ACTION — WE WANT ACTION!”
There was no reaction
“H-U-S! T-L-E! HUSTLE, HUSTLE — WE WANT HUSTLE!”
Nothing. Not even Van McCoy. The cheerleading coach sat down.
So did most of the Houston Astros upon facing Tom Seaver. He was everything in person that he was on that little Sony where I usually saw him. He threw hard and he threw strikes. Tom struck out Greg Gross to start the game, got Rob Andrews to ground out and then gave up a line drive to deep left to Cesar Cedeño. It wasn’t going to be caught but from our relatively nearby vantage point I didn’t think it was going to go out. It seemed to have hit just above the orange stripe on the green wall by the 341 mark, just to the right of the left field pole. It was ruled a home run by the width of a Ritz. Joe Frazier may have disputed the call or maybe I just wished he did. It was barely 1-0 by my reckoning. Seaver came back to strike out Bob Watson.
In the bottom of the first, the Mets had Mike Phillips on with two out when Dave Kingman stepped up. Kingman was the most exciting Met of 1976. He was leading the league in home runs by a comfortable margin over Mike Schmidt. I had conditioned myself to expect a homer every time he stepped up. Against Joaquin Andujar, he swung and hit one to left. Not a homer. Not fair. Into the seats. Seats right near us. Maybe four field boxes to our left. Thanks to Dave Kingman, I was now conditioned to expect home runs from him and foul balls toward me all the time. Thirty-two years later, only a handful of fouls at Shea Stadium have come as close to me. I’ve yet to grab one.
Kingman popped to short. It stayed 1-0.
And it never moved from there. Seaver was great. He struck out six after three and nine after six. Andujar was quite good — or the Mets just didn’t hit, which I was used to. The Mets wouldn’t put more than one runner on against him in any one inning. And none of them would equal Cedeño cheap shot to left. Tom would go eight, strike out eleven — every Astro at least once — and be lifted for a pinch-hitter, Joe Torre. Torre singled off Andujar, but Phillips flied to Jose Cruz in left and Felix Millan lined to Enos Cabell at third. Skip Lockwood pitched the ninth for the Mets, Joaquin Andujar (nuts himself, we’d learn years later) stayed on for the Astros. The score didn’t change. Mets lost 1-0. Not much A-C-T! I-O-N! except for S-E-A! V-E-R!
On a July afternoon twelve years later, the Mets would retire Tom Seaver’s number. Newsday devoted a special section to his career. One of the writers who covered him complied a Top Ten list of his best games. There was the 19-strikeout game against the Padres in 1970, the Qualls imperfect game from ’69, his World Series victory over Baltimore…all wins. Tenth on the list, however, was July 17, 1976, the day he struck out eleven Houston Astros but lost 1-0. He couldn’t have been more dominant, the article said, but sadly this was typical of the run support generated on Seaver’s behalf during his Met tenure.
Hey, I thought, I was at that game — one of only three Seaver starts I ever saw. The other two would have to wait until 1983.
The Mets, 47-44, weren’t going anywhere on July 17, 1976. The loss kept them glued 13-1/2 behind the Phillies who were enjoying a breakout season. We had Seaver and Matlack and Koosman throwing their guts out but rarely getting many runs with which to work. We had Kingman walloping homers, though not too many more beyond that Saturday afternoon (he fell on his thumb trying to corral a fly ball later that same homestand and was out long enough to let Schmidt overtake him in the home run race). An inexplicable stretch of superior baseball in August and September would lift the Mets to their second-best record ever, 86-76. But by the following year, that kind of competence would seem as distant as the prime of Lloyd Waner.
The July 17, 1976 Mets were the final Mets team of my childhood. It’s not as if they had remained the exact same club since 1969, but there was enough continuity so that it all felt reassuringly constant over those first eight years of my fandom. Seaver, Koosman, Kranepool, Harrelson, Grote and Garrett (about to be traded with Del Unser for Pepe Mangual and Jim Dwyer) were all there when I was 13, just as they’d been when I was 6. Matlack, Millan and Milner had been mainstays on the ’73 pennant winners and they played on in ’76, still Mets, still able in my eyes. You could even throw Ron Hodges into that group, though by then Ron Hodges was already Ron Hodges, even if he did homer in Pittsburgh on Memorial Day, the same day Ziggy was Bar Mitzvahed. Duffy Dyer homered, too — as luck would have it, he was a Pirate at this point and his team beat the Mets, 2-1. It’s the score the Mets lost by when they weren’t losing 1-0.
Regardless of roster turnover, the Mets as I had discovered them and embraced them were pretty much intact from the time I started first grade until I was getting ready for eighth. They were always a team that pitched well, scored little and hung around just above .500, just good enough to give me hope, never bad enough to take it away.
Those were the Mets of my childhood. Those were the Mets I saw on July 17, 1976 for the last time…the last time I was ever a kid at Shea Stadium.