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First Place, Just Like I Pictured It

Posted By Greg Prince On February 22, 2008 @ 8:49 am In Main Page | Comments Disabled

Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log [1], 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.

7/24/84 Tu St. Louis 2-2 Berenyi 1 10-21 W 9-8 (10)

I’d been waiting a long time for this game.

I’d been waiting through an eleven-game road trip.

I’d been waiting through a mandatory summer semester.

I’d been waiting through the end of the spring term.

I’d been waiting the better part of my life.

I’d been waiting the better part of my life to go to Shea Stadium and root for the first-place Mets, to stand and cheer and exult and not merely hope and hang my head on the way in and after the last out. I’d been waiting since 1973 to have something as remarkable as first-place Mets to root for. That was the year the Mets came from last to finish first. That was the year I first came to Shea. When I came, they were last. Whatever they were between July 11, 1973 and July 24, 1984, I knew what they weren’t.

First.

When they were finally that, I knew how they got there.

Without me.

If all I could contribute was distant good vibes, so be it. I’m not selfish. If you need to earn your newfound status in my absence, I could never ask you to wait on my account. Go. Go catapult yourselves over those roving bands of Cubs and Phillies. Go shake off the dust from seven years of lean. Go slake the thirsts of everybody else up there in New York. I’ll sip on the standings in a far-away newspaper, content myself with agate type, jump up and down midway through the 11 o’clock news, especially if your score came with a highlight. I can get by on the first-place Mets becoming the first-place Mets without me.

But listen you guys: don’t forget who’d been taking you home and in whose arms you’d always been. So Darling — and the rest of youse, for that matter — save some first place for me.

***

These days I know Mets guys in Michigan, in Texas, from hard by the Canadian border. They get by nicely. They get instant access to their Mets. The geography isn’t nearly as daunting as it used to be.

1984 qualifies as used to be. In 1984, geography was daunting. If you were away from your first-place baseball season, it was a potentially cruel, cruel summer. Well, not that cruel. Sixth place was sadistic. First place was still first place, no matter where you were taking it in from, no matter how little of it you could instantaneously absorb, no matter that none of it was in your personal space. Nena said it best in ’84: this is what we’ve waited for, this is it, boys — this is the Mets floating toward the top of the NL East like 25 blue and orange balloons.

You took what you could get in Tampa, where I was winding down my junior year, the only one to extend into mid-July instead of late April because of some arcane State University System requirement that nine (9) hours of undergraduate classes applied to a Bachelor of Arts degree be completed during one or more summer semesters. It was now or never for those nine (9) hours. It was now. So I took what I could get.

The Mets had been granted the honor of the season-opener in Cincinnati on April 2. That was something I could take, Tampa being Spring Training home to the Reds and a low-power Tampa radio station carrying weekday afternoon Reds games ever since I arrived in town. I put two and April 2 together. I would get to listen to the Mets open the season! At least a few innings before classes kicked in.

But you know what AM-1050 aired on Monday afternoon, April 2, 1984? Not the Mets at Reds. Somebody at WHBO (it stood for Hillsborough) forgot to flip a switch. My Opening Day detour was blocked. Never mind that the Mets would lose their first lidlifter in a decade, never mind that Mike Torrez would get lit up, never mind that Darryl Strawberry’s first homer of the first year he pledged to be a team leader went to immediate waste, never mind that the Mets were 0-1 and were the only club in all of baseball to earn their way into the GB column. I wanted to hear them be humiliated! Just like I did in ’83 and ’82 and all the way back to ’77 when I got used to the depths of the division.

Except, even with radio nowhere, the Mets remembered to flip their switch. They won their next six games. That made them, if I remember my college math, 6-1. That put them, and I remember this college math, in first place. It was only April 11, but, I’ll be damned…somebody was alive out there.

This brand new 1984 Mets juggernaut was a little on the unfamiliar side to me, given that I was in Tampa and they were everywhere but. The manager, Davey Johnson, was new. The emerging ace, Dwight Gooden, was new. His second, Ron Darling, was new. The catcher they threw to, Mike Fitzgerald, was new. I was a junior, but I was falling for a bunch of freshmen.

The Mets’ early hold on first place was tenuous and sporadic. They’d slip out. They’d slip back in. They’d slip again. As late as June 1, they slipped to ordinary: 22-22, fourth place, four out. Not the first division, but it sure as hell beat 1977 through 1983. And before it had a chance to become any one of those faminetastic years, 1984 revealed itself once and for all as a whole other era of Mets baseball.

Hell, I could see that from Tampa even if I couldn’t see the Mets at all. Bless those box scores. Bless that Hubie Brooks and his team-record hitting streak. Bless Lee Mazzilli — no, no longer a Met, but a Pirate who left third base too soon one night in an attempt to tag up and score what didn’t become the winning run in Pittsburgh, permitting the Mets to prevail in thirteen. Bless the mysteriously resurrected Kelvin Chapman, plucked off the 1979 scrap heap five years after his failed second base trial and now platooning successfully with Wally Backman. Bless Wally Backman. And bless Keith Hernandez who didn’t want to be a Met the year before but now was clearly Mr. Met. Bless these Mets. They made me feel so full of…what’s the opposite of shame?

***

Met pride showed itself when NBC insisted the Mets switch from a Saturday night to a Saturday afternoon so everybody, even those of us marooned in Tampa, could see them (see them lose, but see them nonetheless). Met pride showed itself when I lingered in a Meineke muffler shop waiting room so I could soak up every word of a glowing Sports Illustrated profile of the unbelievably great young Doctor K, who in his last electrifying start struck out eleven Expos (describing him losing on an Andre Dawson homer, but describing him nonetheless). Met pride really showed itself as an all-nighter extended into a third dizzying day, which happened to be the first day of summer, which happened to be the day the Mets took first place the latest they had in any summer since 1973, when, come to think of it, they didn’t get around taking first place until roughly the first day of fall.

I would stay up all night if it meant the Mets could be in first place come morning, but this was ridiculous.

The requirement was for nine (9) hours of academic credit. So why was I up for fifty-four (54) of fifty-seven (57) consecutive hours on June 19, June 20 and June 21? Blame it on a near-lethal cocktail of chronic dishevelment, youthful hubris and Winesburg, Ohio, the book for which I owed a term paper of the big-ass variety but hadn’t, as of June 18, actually gone to the library to research. I also had to read The Great Gatsby, cover to cover, before I could sleep. There seemed to be a final that demanded it. I also had to tend to my job at the college daily, where I could have written the headline on my own obit.

As junior expires from exhaustion,

Straw clocks Carlton for 3-run HR

It’s how I would have wanted to have gone out.

At 21, I wasn’t as young as I used to be (the previous November, I pulled off 68 hours awake in a 75-hour span, but I was only 20 back then), so I needed a little somethin’-somethin’ to stay up. My performance-enhancement of choice was NoDoz, something I was using only once — I swear! — not to gain an edge, but to recover from sleepiness. Even that little foray into perfectly legal over-the-counter drug use made me feel like a dirtbag. I skulked into a 24-hour Eckerd Drug in the middle of the night Tuesday — or was it Wednesday? — to buy my first box. I had to ask a kindly old pharmacist out of central casting where he kept it. I felt like such a lowlife purchasing it. Swallowed however many I needed to properly analyze Sherwood Anderson. NoDoz turned my insides into a giant piece of cardboard, the kind you might get with your shirts if your dry-cleaner boxes them. So much for NoDoz being habit-forming. I couldn’t stand it. Nevertheless, I remained awake…widely so.

Longish story short, I got the book read, got the research done, got the paper written and got to the Arts & Letters building for the final. Even managed to stagger into the elevator and out onto the third floor. Just before the test, I stopped into the ladies room.

That’s not a typo. I had to go to the bathroom, so I went into the first one I saw, the one closest to the elevator. At the very moment I wondered who let the urinals out, a woman in the hall barked at me: “Hey! You can’t go in there!” Hey, I just figured that out. My brain snapped out of its seven-second delay and back into real time. I did a U-turn, put my head down, found the right facility and, feeling relieved, went to class. Apparently I passed the final. I’m pretty sure I avoided that third floor my entire senior year lest I see that barking lady again.

You’d think after being up for almost 2-1/2 straight days that all I’d want to do was drop into bed. And that’s all I did want to do. Except that on this Thursday afternoon, at whatever time it was, I had one piece of business remaining.

I had to find out how the Mets were doing.

They were at Shea, without me, trying to attain first place. I may have been delirious from lack of sleep, but I was clearheaded enough to lunge not for my bed, but for my phone. For Sportsphone. (516) 976-1313. The Mets had entered the day a half-game behind Philadelphia. It was too dreamlike to imagine where they’d be if they won.

Sportsphone sent my head into the clouds. Within 60 seconds, the voice on the other end was telling me it had been 7-7 in the seventh when Rusty Staub, our beloved Rusty Staub who was the Met rightfielder the night the Mets went into first for the first time in 1973, lashed a pinch-single to plate Hubie Brooks and George Foster. 9-7 Mets. One inning later, Ron Hodges — the hero of that very same first first-place night in ’73 when he clutched the ball that had struck the top of the wall in the top of the thirteenth and drove another ball into the outfield for the win in the bottom of the thirteenth — walked with the bases loaded. 10-7 Mets. Three reliable Doug Sisk outs later, the score was a final. Like Sportsphone, the Mets were fast and first. First-place Mets.

FIRST-PLACE METS!

FIRST-PLACE METS!

FIRST-PLACE METS!

On the afternoon of June 21, the last day of American Lit and the first day of summer, the New York Mets, last-place team last year and five of the last seven years, moved into first place.

The Mets were in first place! The Mets were in first place! The Mets were in first place! It was really happening. It wasn’t just a rumor. I wasn’t just rooting for a lousy team for the rest of my life. I didn’t need NoDoz to stay up a few more hours into the evening to enjoy the sensation. My roommate, also named Greg, also from Long Island and, yes, also a Mets fan (whoever made the housing assignments must have thought it would cut down on confusion to put us together) came back from wherever he’d been and I told him. Joyousness swept the room from the window to the door.

And then I — if you’ll excuse the colloquialism — collapsed.

Refreshed on Friday morning, I went to Home Town News and bought the thin but essential national edition of the Daily News. There was a back page headline blaring METS MOVE INTO 1ST. This was no first-place 1-0 after Opening Day gag where the papers would run a ha-ha METS IN FIRST headline either. This was 36-27, the real thing. I clipped the headline and taped it to my dorm room wall (just as I used to clip and save those early April versions that mocked me but were better than nothing). I ran back to Home Town News on Saturday for Friday’s Post, two pre-Internet days after the fact, so I could read Dick Young write about how the Mets, Cubs and Phillies were “playing footsie with first place”. Percentage points might be needed to clarify the standings, but for the balance of the next week, our toes rested on top of theirs.

It was true. We were in a pennant race. The genuine article. On the first day of summer, the whole world knew our name.

I just had to get out of Tampa and back to Shea Stadium. I just had to.

***

Right before the All-Star Break, my last weekend before heading home, the Mets passed their midterms with flying colors, sweeping the Reds a five-game series at Shea, giddily tossing their caps into the stands after the fifth win and ensuring a half-game foot over the Cubs’ throat in time for the midsummer classic. I watched that Met-heavy affair (Strawberry, Hernandez, Orosco, Gooden) at the Greenery Pub down the block from my dorm, where I pointed out to my non-fan friends which was on the mound at Candlestick was Doctor K. There he is! Striking out Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon and Alvin Davis in succession! They didn’t care. I was elated.

Three days after that, lucky Friday the Thirteenth, I packed up my Corolla and took off north toward I-95 where Bob Murphy and Steve LaMar on WHN could be received at night as far south as South Carolina. The flagship station transmitted to me that the Mets were beating the Braves. They stayed in first place while I stayed in Wilson (North Carolina, not Mookie). I drove straight through the next day, stopping for gas in Delaware, where I put on my Mets cap before getting out to pump. I was one cocky traveler on the fringe of Phillies country. A couple of hours later, I was back in Long Beach in time for dinner, the first-place Mets’ eighth consecutive victory and the beginning of the truncated yet decidedly uncruel portion of summer 1984 where I could watch or listen to my first-place team kick ass every night or day.

Talk about a sweet season on my mind.

***

My own road trip was over, but the Mets insisted on fulfilling their contractual obligation to play four in Atlanta, three in Houston and four more in Cincinnati. I couldn’t wait for them to come home to meet me but I would have to, until July 24 versus St. Louis. That would be the night I would step right up and personally greet the first-place Mets for the first time in my life.

It was everything I hoped it would be. First off, there was a crowd. An honest-to-goodness crowd. Joel and Larry and I actually had to stand in line to buy tickets for this Tuesday night game. Imagine that! The last Mets game I’d been to, in July of ’83, was on a Friday night and drew fewer than 13,000 — and that was with Nolan Ryan pitching (though to be fair, not for the Mets). This was clearly not last July. This was surely no longer last year.

We bought three upper deck seats because those were all that were available. The view was great. We saw a first-place team bat last. As it was my first game of the year, I looked to buy a yearbook and a program because that’s what I always did. But I added a third goodie to my haul: a foam hand featuring a raised foam index finger. It was orange, it indicated WE ARE #1 [2] and it advised all who stared at it to CATCH THE RISING STARS. Those would be the #1 Mets. I had seen foam fingers on television, in other cities, for other teams. Those had come into vogue sometime after 1973. I’d had finger envy ever since. Now I was cured.

It never occurred to me the first-place Mets might lose that night. The odds were against it. First-place teams were generally favored to win. We scored three in the third, one of them driven in by Keith Hernandez. Bruce Berenyi, considered the last piece of the puzzle for the Rising Star rotation of Gooden, Darling, Terrell and Lynch, gave it, plus one, back in the fourth, but no worries, not in 1984. The Mets scored four in the fourth, one of them driven in by Keith Hernandez.

Things got really giddy from there. I began chanting M! V! P! for Keith. I read Cubs fans were doing the same for Ryne Sandberg. As with the foam finger, I didn’t want to be left out of what fans of winning teams did. I had also read the wave had reached Shea before the All-Star break, that it had become quite the sensation. Y’know what? On the first night I ever got to see the first-place Mets at Shea Stadium, I joined in. The wave wanted to wash over the upper deck? Who was I to be a killjoy? I stood up for no reason, I raised my arms in the air and I waved hello. I may have even been wearing my foam finger.

I never did it again. Chalk it up, like my flirtation with NoDoz, to youthful indiscretion.

Like I said, no chance the Mets would lose, even when Berenyi was knocked out in the seventh by an Andy Van Slyke RBI-triple, even when Sisk lost all control and walked three straight, even when Tom Gorman allowed a two-run homer to Tito Landrum after an Art Howe single. By the middle of the eighth, it was Cardinals 8 Mets 7.

But it was 1984 and these were my first-place Mets. They had M! V! P! candidate Keith Hernandez. He singled home the tying run in the bottom of the eighth. Neither team scored in the ninth, so as consolation for having to wait until July 24 to see the Mets this year, I got an extra inning: a scoreless top and an awesome bottom. With Neil Allen pitching and two outs spotted, Mookie singled and stole second. After a walk to Wally (pinch-hitting for Kelvin), Keith Hernandez came up. He singled off Allen. Mookie scored. We won 9-8 in 10 and exchanged high-fives at once.

The Neil Allen connection I got immediately. We all got it. As soon as Keith was in the on-deck circle, every Mets fan among the nearly 37,000 in attendance uttered some variation on “they were traded for each other.” It was more obvious than the difference between a men’s room and a ladies room. What I didn’t get until I read it later was four times that night Keith Hernandez stepped up with a runner on second — facing four different Cardinal pitchers — and four times he drove in the runner from second. When Keith Hernandez stepped up, he really stepped up.

Funny how I remember reading that fact and retain it 24 years later. It’s funny because I couldn’t have told you one damn thing about Winesburg, Ohio 24 hours after I slept it off.

***

I also remember one other damn thing about the first-place Mets winning that night in 1984, one other very nice damn thing. It was the walk down the ramps and the chants on the ramps — two of them.

1) “WE’RE NUMBER ONE! WE’RE NUMBER ONE!” over and over again, no foam finger required. This was the same chant I recalled from the larval stage of my fanhood in 1969. Then it was just on TV. Now it was me in person being a part of it, being as loud as anybody, feeling that sensation about the Mets that was the opposite of shame.

2) “STEINBRENNER SUCKS! STEINBRENNER SUCKS!” Notice that it was personal. It wasn’t about the Yankees, who had never, ever come up in chantversation at Shea Stadium to my recollection. George Steinbrenner embodied the evil on the ramp that night as the dark era that had gripped us since ’77 dissolved for good. Steinbrenner was the one who bought up all the good players at the dawn of free agentry, took over the back pages and consigned our stories to the legal notices at the edge of the sports section. Now we had Hernandez and Strawberry and Gooden. We had all the good players and all the good stories. We had the first-place Mets, 3-1/2 in front of the Cubs at that moment. George Steinbrenner had a sub-.500 club 22-1/2 in back of the Tigers. If nobody had thought to chant about him, I would have completely forgotten about them.

Boy did it feel good to win a game of chants.

The Mets were in first place, if I haven’t mentioned it. It was so unreal to me. They’d been in first without interruption since July 7, and on a baseball level, I understood it. But on a Mets fan level, because they’d been out of first place without interruption since 1973, I couldn’t believe they were leading their division right before my eyes. At last they were in first place with me. On the drive home from Shea, I posed a riddle to Joel: “Who’s in first place in the National League East?” It was a pretty lame riddle, but I really loved the answer.

Don’t forget to send us your ideas for the Shea Stadium Final Season Countdown. Details here [3].


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URL to article: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2008/02/22/first-place-just-like-i-pictured-it/

URLs in this post:

[1] Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/blog/_archives/2008/2/15/3525247.htmll

[2] WE ARE #1: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/blog/_archives/2008/2/22/3538799.html

[3] here: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/blog/_archives/2008/2/20/3535423.html

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