- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

The Hungry Years

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 364 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.

7/8/83 F Houston 0-3 Torrez 2 9-20 L 6-3

In April, the Mets rolled out the Second Coming of Tom Seaver. In May, the Mets exposed to the world at large the most famous minor league baseball player in existence, Darryl Strawberry. In June, the Mets traded for one of those superstars their fans always dreamed of receiving, Keith Hernandez.

Yet nobody showed up. Oh, they showed up to see Seaver start on Opening Day. That was an event. That drew the moral equivalent of a sellout, the high 40,000s. They got exactly what they came for, the return of No. 41 after six years in exile. Tom Terrific donned the only uniform that ever fit him correctly [2] and threw seven shutout innings against the Phillies. He faced a lineup that was more than 50% all-time great (Rose, Morgan, Schmidt, Perez, Carlton) and struck out nine. The Mets won 2-0.

Everybody was so pumped that two days later, for the next game at Shea, the Mets drew fewer than 6,000. Two days after that, the paid attendance, versus the defending world champion Cardinals, was 11,511. The next time the Mets were home, they gave their fans a doubleheader sweep over the traditionally powerful Pirates. Seaver pitched the opener. Slightly more than 4,000 flocked to Shea to see it.

Seaver didn’t help attendance. Strawberry debuted on May 6 to hype unmatched [3] before or since for any Met rookie. Not 16,000 showed up at Shea to see him. When Hernandez, whose acquisition from St. Louis was greeted by universal acclaim throughout New York, appeared in a home uniform for the first time at Shea Stadium, in a June 20 doubleheader (against his old team, no less), the crowd was 16,668. Another twinbill, compensating for April rain, commenced two days later. Seaver started the opener. All of 18,792 bought tickets.

That’s three icons in three months dropped into the lap of a fan base that had been clamoring for an old hero, a new slugger and an imported bat, dying for any sign that the Mets were serious about pulling out of a seven-season slump. You couldn’t have been bestowed three better gestures than Tom Seaver, Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez. Yet in 1983, they would burnish their respective credentials almost exclusively in solitude.

Can you believe it? Can you believe that 25 years ago New York Mets fans could not be goaded by the return of Tom Seaver, the promotion of Darryl Strawberry and the theft of Keith Hernandez (for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey) into coming to Shea Stadium in anything approaching representative numbers? Can you believe that in 1983 the Mets, playing in the largest media market in the nation, finished dead last in National League attendance? It was the only time that’s ever happened. Even in the bottom-out year of 1979, when 788,905 lost souls [4] drifted through the turnstiles and averted their gaze from Richie Hebner [5], the Mets topped somebody in the N.L. (the Braves) at attracting physical interest.

Not 1983. Nobody in the league was less attractive than the Mets if you read that bottom line. If you read the bottom line of the standings, you’d put two and two — 94 losses and 1,112,774 fans — together. Nobody had a worse record that year. Nobody had a worse cumulative record for seven years. Nobody between 1977 and 1983 had failed to compile at least one respectable season in the National League. Atlanta snapped out of its perennial morass and won a division title. San Diego emerged as a demi-contender a couple of times. The Expos and Astros tasted October. The Cubs, a Johnny Carson punchline, spent a sizable chunk of the summer of ’77 in first place. It wasn’t much, but it was more than we’d had.

We’d had nothing. Absolutely nothing. Occasionally there would be the illusion of something but it would inevitably prove fleeting, nothing more than a tease that prosperity was just around the corner. Without looking it up, I can tell you the Mets reached 23-24 between games of a doubleheader in 1978; 56-57 on the strength of a 47-39 run in 1980; and 27-21 in 1982 (plus 9-6 in the “second season” of 1981). I can tell you, without looking it up, that those were the high-water marks of the era.

I can tell you, without the aid of any reference material, that the Mets were always crashing after flirting with competence…that from the moment the Mets prepared to face off with Philly in August of 1980 [6] in what I was certain would be a five-game launching pad toward the pennant (we were swept 0-5 and outscored 40-12) until the strike of 1981 mercifully [7] pulled the plug on the middle third of their season, they won 28 games and lost 72. That’s a .280 winning percentage over 100 games. That’s as easy to figure out as it was difficult to endure. Even accounting the mini-charge [8] after the strike was settled, the combined tally for late ’80 and both halves of ruptured ’81 — 152 games — was 52 wins and 100 losses. Pro-rate that for a regulation season and that’s 55-107.

In 1982, that handsome 27-21 start would give way, as of June 1, to an execrable 38-76 finish and that, in turn, would be succeeded by a 6-15 start to 1983, or a 44-91 stretch that took us up to Darryl Strawberry’s first game (and was the reason Frank Cashen brought up the young man long before he believe it appropriate). But that was no balm either because as Seaver persevered and Straw struggled to hit the curve and Hernandez cried in the shower at the realization that he was now, as he put it derisively, a Stem, the Mets continued to plummet. On July 30, 1983, the Mets lost to the Pirates 6-3. It lowered their record for the year to 37-65. They were sixth of six in the N.L. East. They were ten lengths from fifth. Combine the first two-thirds or so of 1983 with the last two-thirds or so of 1982 and you had a mark covering approximately eight months of competition that totaled 75 wins and 141 losses. The Mets’ winning percentage over those one-and-one-third seasons was .347. Apply that to a standard 162-game schedule and it translates to 56-106.



Makes those nightmarish records of 64-98, 66-96 and 63-99 from the de Rou-late ’70s look positively de Lightful by comparison, doesn’t it?

For all the marketing burbling about magic being back and fun starting now, for all the agreeable additions of Seaver and Strawberry and Hernandez, for all the excitement and enthusiasm I personally drummed up for what amounted to less than one 1995’s worth of good baseball (the most successful slices of ’80, ’81 and ’82 amassed to a grand total of 73 wins and 66 losses spread out over three calendar years; some tease)…for all the good signs I saw and conned myself to see when I was 17 and 18 and 19, the Mets were, for all practical purposes, in total tatters when I was 20, no better than they were when I was 14 — when they were, like, the worst. They had gone nowhere, were going nowhere and were intractably nowhere.

So why did I walk up to the box office and purchase two field level box seats to watch the Mets play the Astros on July 8, 1983? Why were my sister and I two of only 12,722 people to decide sitting in Shea Stadium on a Friday night was preferable to sitting somewhere else or doing something else? (To be fair to Suzan, her husband was away on business and she came with because the Internet had yet to gain popular dissemination.) Why would anybody who lived through six godawful seasons and while his team was dying through an undeniable seventh want to dig into his wallet and pay for the privilege of witnessing it first-hand as a partisan for the side that lost far more frequently than it won?

Because I still hadn’t gotten the memo. The papers printed it virtually every day, Art Rust, Jr. reiterated it on WABC and Warner Wolf scoffed on its behalf on Channel 2 every night, but I never received the message that the Mets were as bad as they, well, were. I still thought the Mets would be pretty good if they weren’t already. And I wasn’t accepting that they weren’t already.

Keith Hernandez was our first baseman. He was great. Darryl Strawberry was our rightfielder. He was going to be great. George Foster, for goodness sake, was in left and he was coming around from a disastrous ’82. Mookie and Hubie…I’d always liked them. They weren’t perfect, but they were young. They’d get better. We got Junior Ortiz right around the same time we got Hernandez. He was quite a defensive catcher, it was said. You had to love Jose Oquendo at short (the first Met born after me) and Brian Giles at second. That was a double play combination for the future right there. And they could hit! Seaver was getting up there, wasn’t quite keeping pace with how good he looked early in the season, but he was still Seaver. Jesse Orosco made the All-Star team out of the bullpen, and I never thought he’d be any good. Plus the farm was reportedly reaping one live arm after another.

When I said to Suzan, hey, let’s go to the Mets game Friday night, it wasn’t just out of habit and loyalty and all that. It was because even in the midst of a seventh consecutive hellish season, I still believed in the Mets. I always believed in the Mets on some level. Once in a while I’d indulge in a reality check and understand immediate prospects didn’t look so hot, but I always thought things would get better, that we had a core of players on the cusp of improving by leaps and bounds if only we got a few breaks and if only somebody would take the time to notice. I had begun to sense, in the debris of 1982, that the first rebuilding program, the one that had wrought Youngblood and Mazzilli and Henderson and so forth, hadn’t really taken, but now there new guys. There was Strawberry. There was Hernandez. There was Seaver again. Things would have to get better. In 1983, it was quite possible they already were.

I looked at every victory, no matter how infrequently they materialized, as a harbinger of great things. The losses, even if they constituted the large majority of the results, were the aberrations. When Darryl hit a homer, it was proof that he was ready for big league pitching. When he struck out, it just meant he was learning. When Keith drove in a run, it was evidence that the front office was on the right track. When there was nobody on base to drive in…well, there would be his next time up. When Seaver strode to the mound in blue and orange in 1983 as he had from 1967 until that cursed night of June 15, 1977 [9], even with the bizarre racing stripes that had been added, all was right with the universe. Six years later, June 15 wasn’t the date Tom Seaver was traded. it was the date when Keith Hernandez became a Met. Of course the tide was turning.

It didn’t on July 8, mind you. It was a bad loss that night, a typical loss, a loss of a piece with the losses of ’77 and ’78 and all the other famine-stricken years. Yet in the quiet of the right field boxes, as my sister read the Post and then a paperback book, I clapped for every Met. I clapped for Mike Torrez, at least until he left in the top of the first having allowed five runs. I clapped for Mookie Wilson in the bottom of the first when he led off with a hit and stole second to spark the rally that would, I thought, make up the 5-0 deficit. I clapped for all four hits the Mets collected off Nolan Ryan across eight innings. I clapped for George Foster’s run-scoring double and Darryl Strawberry’s run-scoring grounder in the third as the Mets cut the lead to 5-2. I clapped for Ron Hodges as he stepped in to become Ryan’s twelfth strikeout victim of the night by which time it was 6-2 Houston. I clapped for Scott Holman picking up for Torrez and Tom Gorman’s five shutout innings and for Walt Terrell when he took Gorman’s place and for Brian Giles when he homered off Bill Dawley to start the ninth to make it 6-3. With Ryan out of the game and Dave Kingman, Jose Oquendo and Mookie up, we had a chance.

Oquendo grounded out and Kingman and Wilson struck out and it was over. We lost to drop our record to 30-51. We were dead last, 12-1/2 out of first. But the mind wandered at the math…

Only 12-1/2? Twenty-one under, but 12-1/2 isn’t impossible. Weren’t the Giants further behind the Dodgers in 1951? Weren’t the Mets nearly as far behind the Cubs in 1969? Didn’t both of those historic comebacks begin later than July 8, in August? Wasn’t Willie Mays a rookie in ’51, like Darryl in ’83? Didn’t the ’69 Mets have Tom Seaver the way we did now? Wasn’t Keith Hernandez a great addition? Didn’t Giles just homer? Was it really crazy to think that with a little luck in a crowded N.L. East that…

Seven years of defiant, occasionally fevered optimism reached its breaking point exactly one week later, the following Friday night. The Mets were in Houston. Ed Lynch was facing Bob Knepper with two on and two out in the second. He gave up a single to score Ray Knight and make it 1-0 Astros. Then Omar Moreno tripled Knepper and the other baserunner in. Then Terry Puhl singled in Moreno. Just like that, Ed Lynch was behind 4-0. From there Knepper mowed the Mets face down into the Astroturf. I don’t know if it was giving up the first RBI to the pitcher or the out after out after out registered by the Mets’ lineup or the accumulated weight of nearly seven complete seasons of futility laced with a potent cocktail of innate hope and proneness to propaganda, but I lashed out at the television, at the Astrodome, at the Mets.

No more! No more will you get my money in 1983! No more will you get my hopes up! No more will you hear me clap for you! I am home for another six weeks or so before returning to school, but I am not going to Shea Stadium any more this summer! I have had it with you! I have had it with all of you! You all suck! You never get any better! Aauugghh!! AAAUUUGGGHHH!!!

I never stopped listening or watching or rooting, just going. They continued to dig their bottomless hole, culminating in the aforementioned 37-65 (7-14 since my last game at Shea, 5-11 since my blowup at Ed Lynch) but starting on July 31, the Mets began to play like the professionals I’d previously predicted they’d eventually become. They swept a doubleheader from the Pirates, both twelve innings, both won by Jesse Orosco, the second secured when Mookie Wilson scooted home from second on a groundout as George Foster hustled to first to avoid a double play. Something was in the air that Sunday, something that seeped through Channel 9. Something was actually better about these Mets.

I stuck to my guns on the Shea issue. Not because I thought there was some element of luck involved, just because…I don’t know…it just seemed a good idea to keep my word to myself. Don’t go even though Shea’s right there and there are PLENTY of good seats available. Don’t go even though you don’t really have anything better to do. Don’t go even though you’d really like to. Don’t go. You said you wouldn’t. It’s seven years. You’ve done all you can. Stay put for now.

Maybe if I’d been a softer touch, home attendance would have swelled to 1,112,778.

The Mets lit up August in their way. They swept three straight weekend series. Jesse piled up bushels of wins and oodles of saves. Straw began to earn the Rookie of the Year award. Ron Darling was brought up in September and some kid named Dwight Gooden, 18 years old, moved from Single-A to Tidewater for the Little World Series, won by the Tides, managed by Dave Johnson. Keith Hernandez was supposed to become a free agent but didn’t. The Mets won 31 of 60 to close 1983 — the most exhilarating stretch of .517 ball fathomable. I devoured every box score in the Tampa Tribune that final month, every Met note the Sporting News had to offer. I listened to one game against the Dodgers that was mysteriously available in Florida in Spanish; I took six years of it in junior high and high school, the only word I understood for sure was Strawberry. Los Mets finished with the worst record in the National League, a feat they had somehow avoided since 1979, but it was their best record of all the years they’d been finishing last or next-to-last. Nobody came to see them, but I couldn’t wait until the next time [10] I would.

Remember when the Mets could make you happy like that?