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Our Days Got Numbered

Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End [1], a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.

One supposes every season brings with it change you can be counting on in advance of knowing what’s actually going to happen on the field. Entering 1999, we knew a few things beyond the annual recomposition that each year brings to the roster.

• We saw an all-black cap, the NY in blue with white outline and orange drop shadow, and an all-black road uniform with NEW YORK in block letters.

• We saw no names above the numbers on the back of any of the three different home uniform tops the Mets might wear on any given day.

• We saw no Mets on Channel 9 but found them now and again on Channel 11.

That’s the sort of stuff that will shake you up going into Spring Training if you’re the kind of fan who pays attention to every little detail. These changes wouldn’t go unremarked upon in the months or decade that would follow.

Let’s take them one at a time before moving on to one other Spring 1999 change definitely worth noting.

Black. It was the second season of the Mets either enhancing or corrupting their color scheme, as 1998 saw the black Mets script debut at home and be worn generously on the road. It also saw the black dome/blue bill cap in action for the first time. Judging by how many heads I saw them on at Shea beginning on Opening Day 1998, it was considered less an affront than a mod new look by those who bought in. Plenty seemed to buy in; plenty must have passed, but it did spawn a blacker variation a year later. I first saw the new cap in the offseason press conferences that announced the acquisitions of Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson, then in person at a Lids in Roosevelt Field. It was a strange sight, but by May, I bought in (same interval I waited a year earlier to buy the black and blue). I liked the black NEW YORK jersey enough to cough up $70 in May of ’99 to have for my trip to see the Mets in Arizona — representin’, as it were. I’m not a jersey-buyer (too cheap), so I must have really been diggin’ on it.

The all-black cap and the all-black road jersey have become entrenched in the Mets wardrobe, though the team has pulled away from both somewhat these past three years. I think I read somewhere that the jersey may be left in storage when Charlie Samuels is packing for road trips in 2009, but we’ll see what we see. Most Mets fans who are vocal about it see only ill tidings in the black shirts and the black caps, a renunciation of our blue and orange birthright.

I’m way easier on the black caps and the black NEW YORK tops than much of the Metsnoscenti. I liked them in 1999. I like them now. They say or indicate New York Mets in an official capacity, which is about all I need to sign off. Black goes well with anything, as they say. I thought it went well with blue and orange though I’m willing to accept the argument that there’s no improving on blue and orange. I never got on board with any of the well-intentioned online petitions demanding a return to blue caps only and, though you won’t hear me say this all that often, I trust the Mets to dress themselves most years. The only uniform I absolutely hated was the block letter NEW YORK pullover introduced in 1988, yet on the first day the Mets wore them, they swatted six homers at the Big O, led by Darryl’s tension ring blast, so even those kind of worked out OK.

The Mets wore black when they re-entered the playoffs in 1999 at the BOB; they wore black when they took two from the Cardinals at Busch an October later. They’ve had their moments in the togs they first slipped on in 1999, and anything that reminds me of 1999 is always going to be at least a little blessed in my eyes.

Nameless. Oh, except for not wearing names on the back of the home jerseys in 1999. I thought that was pretentious for the era. The practice had a dry run the first two games of the Subway Series in 1998, something about Nelson Doubleday like the home Red Sox look and wanting to do something special for a big occasion. Since the Mets lost both of those NY-NY games, I didn’t think it was all that special, but there the Mets were in 1999, a bunch of no-names.

It didn’t work, especially on the rarely seen pinstripes. The numbers were set too low. It should have evoked not the Red Sox of Doubleday’s fantasies but the Mets of ’62 to ’78 when there were no names. It just evoked obscurity. The Mets seemed determined to hide their identities in plain sight, to place themselves in witness protection in front of their home fans. With hindsight, it’s a bit charming because it was 1999. For example, you know if you’re seeing an unspecified 6 scampering from third to home in the late afternoon shadows of an early October Sunday, you have that extra beat before you realize you’re watching Melvin Mora run us into some semblance of postseason baseball in 1999.

Not that you need much help to figure that out, I’m guessing.

The most important element the Mets removed from their backs in 1999 was not their names. It was the monkey that had resided there since the final five games of 1998, all losses of a playoff-eliminating nature (in quainter times, we called that a collapse). We recognized October baseball when we finally got it the next year. And the year after that, 2000, it was good to see PIAZZA definitively be PIAZZA at Shea. Thrilling to know sometimes the Mets are capable of correcting their mistakes.

Channel 11. Man, this was weird. Thirty-seven seasons of Channel 9 gone. Now the over-the-air home of the Mets was the former over-the-air home of the Yankees. Those fine fellows slid down to Channel 5 and, to make things just a little more bizarre, took Tim McCarver with them. Meanwhile, we replaced McCarver with Tom Seaver, which — in Metlike style — couldn’t get accomplished without a heaping helping of storm and stress.

Two different issues, really. Seaver would have been in for McCarver regardless of frequency. It had been grumbled that Bobby Valentine got the honest/hypercritical McCarver off the telecasts through his alleged Machiavellian maneuverings. If so, it was a pretty thin-skinned thing to do…and absolutely the right call. I had had it up to here (my hand is under my chin) with Tim McCarver by 1999. He was no longer fresh or incisive or teaching me something new every time I turned on a Mets game the way he was so often in the 1980s. He just harped and harped and harped. Was he too hard on the Mets? I honestly don’t remember. I was just sick of him (and Gary Thorne) by ’99. I celebrated the return of Seaver to the Met fold and if McCarver was the McCollateral Damage, so be it.

Seaver wasn’t much of an analyst, but he was Seaver. In 1999, that was enough.

As for it all playing out over Channel 11, weird. Not as weird as it might have been in the ’70s or ’80s when there were loads of over-the-air games, but strange on those stray weekends when the Mets didn’t pipe their performances through Fox Sports Net New York. It took some remembering which channel to click to; to this day, once or twice a year I flip to Channel 9 and wait for Ralph Kiner. That said, it wasn’t as weird in 1999 as it would have been in 1979 or 1989 because the Channel 9 we generally recall with such warmth didn’t really exist by 1999.

Four of the Mets Classics [2] that have aired on SNY are Channel 9 productions, the last of which is from 1997: the Mlicki game. It didn’t feel like Channel 9 the way the ’86 game at San Diego or the ’91 homecoming of Darryl Strawberry did. It felt like a UPN 9 game, a difference that transcends a single digit. To my way of thinking, Mets games on Channel 9 stopped being Mets games on Channel 9 in the classic sense once Lindsey Nelson bolted for San Francisco after 1978 and lost a little beyond that when WOR-TV became WWOR-TV in 1987. On Ralph Kiner Night [3] two years ago, we were treated to a montage of Kiner’s Korner klips on DiamondVision and none of them predated the mid-’80s. None of them had that Rheingold or even Schaefer feel to them. Small pity. Channel 9 remained the TV home of the Mets clear through 1998, but Channel 9 ceased to be Channel 9 quite a while earlier.

That said, it was weird to go to Channel 11 and, ten years in, it’s still a bit strange.

We knew of those changes in the spring of ’99, but it would take me until after the season began to learn of another at least as momentous shift in the Metscape that would alter how I looked at the Mets in the years to come.

One day at work, I get a call — not an e-mail, but a call (signifying a Met alert) — from Jason urging me to check out this new Web site devoted to the most awesome topic ever: a site devoted to which Met wore which number. You’re gonna love it, he said.

I did. I still do. It was the first Mets site of its ilk to which I had been directed and, with it having outlasted generations of Internet newcomers, I don’t know that I’ve ever found anything else that tops it in terms of mission, execution and the combination of joy and certainty it brings me as a Mets fan (though this also indispensable ten-year-old site [4] ties it in that regard). I never have to guess who wore what. I can go to MBTN.net [5] and feel secure that it’s all right there. So, with due respect to the all-black road ensemble; the nameless uniform backs; and changing channels, the most enduring addition to the Mets consciousness to come out of the spring of ’99 is Mets By The Numbers, which just turned ten [6]. I think I speak for countless (countless — get it?) Mets fans when I say we wouldn’t know Sisk from Viola the way we do if it weren’t for Mets By The Numbers.

Aside from entertaining and enlightening us for a decade, Jon Springer set a solid standard for every aspiring Mets site that has come along since, including this one. The book [7] he wrote with Matt Silverman also created a nice little literary legacy [8] to live up to for those of us trying our hands at that now.

So Happy Tenth to Mets By The Numbers…and here’s to a decade of it having made more interesting everything attached to that which is blue and orange and intermittently black.

It’s Mets by the angst (a little) in Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets [9], available for pre-ordering now via Amazon [10], Barnes & Noble [11] and other [12] fine retailers.