Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong — a 38-year-old former naval aviator and test pilot from Wapakoneta, Ohio — stepped off a ladder and into the charcoal-colored powder of the Sea of Tranquility. Watching on a little TV in an airport lounge in Montreal were the 1969 New York Mets — a band of professional ballplayers aged 22 through 36.
The Mets had split a four-game series with the Expos, with some heroics (a convincing win for Jerry Koosman, Ron Swoboda dashing home from second on a Bobby Pfeil bunt that the Expos let roll all the way to an intersection with the third-base bag) and some worries (24-year-old ace Tom Seaver getting knocked out in the third inning and complaining of a sore shoulder, Tommie Agee smashing into an outfield wall and lying stunned on the warning track for a good 10 minutes). The second game of their doubleheader was the final one before the All-Star Game; the Mets entered the break with a 53-39 record, five games behind the Cubs.
How did the Mets react to the little image of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at work 240,000 miles from home? Depends on whom you ask and when you asked them. In a New York Times interactive about reactions to Apollo 11, Seaver recalls that the Mets had gone through customs and stopped to watch the landing at a bar. He notes that even no-nonsense Gil Hodges stopped to see history made, that Tug McGraw became very emotional, insisting that “if we can get a man on the moon, we can win the World Series,” and says that the team took inspiration from the viewing.
But one suspects the mystic chords of memory are at work there, smoothing away dissonance in unconscious pursuit of a better narrative. “Joy in Mudville,” George Vecsey's wonderful 1970 quickie book on the Miracle Mets, tells it another way. The Mets had waited around in a deserted terminal for their chartered 727 back to New York, only to learn the plane had an oil problem and another one would have to be sent from Detroit. So they trudged a quarter-mile with their gear back to a lounge for a hastily arranged dinner. It would take five hours before the 90-minute flight could begin; in the meantime the players stared dully at the moon landing. Swoboda groused that NASA could send a rocket to the moon but Montreal couldn't get a plane off the ground. And Jerry Grote was stewing about a comment Newsday's Joe Gergen had made to a Chicago paper. Gergen had said that “the Mets have about as much chance of winning the pennant as man has of landing on the moon” — which of course was a warning to Cubs fans to take the Mets seriously, what with Apollo 11 ready for launch and all. But somehow Grote was certain the reporter had ripped him and his teammates.
Either way, it was the summer of the moon landing and the summer of the Miracle Mets, and in our minds the two will be forever linked. Or at least they will be in mine. I was nine weeks old when men landed on the moon and five months old when the Mets landed in the promised land, and I spent a good chunk of my childhood reading about both with equal parts happiness that both things had happened after I was (just barely) born and frustration that they would always be secondhand experiences.
And secondhand experiences at an unavoidable distance. I was born in 1969, but my earliest reliable memories are from around 1976. That was the year I started watching the Mets and dreaming that one day I'd see them win the World Series, and reading about the planets and imagining that one day we would go there. And why not? When I was a baby, the Mets had struck down the terrifying Baltimore Orioles and astronauts had taken that first small step/giant leap towards the planets.
But hard on the heels of such hopes came a vague unease. Yes, the Mets had won it all in 1969 — they'd even returned to the World Series in 1973 for an oddly chaotic and ultimately unsuccessful encore, with a strange undercurrent of 1970s-style tension and danger. And yes, men had gone to the moon after Armstrong and Aldrin, zooming around on NASA dune buggies and hitting golf balls. But by 1976 a good chunk of the Miracle Mets had been traded or retired or didn't seem so miraculous anymore — they seemed forever destined to finish third. And no one had walked on the moon for four years. In elementary school my teachers talked about Skylab, but Skylab was boring. Much like the Mets of the mid-Seventies, it didn't go anywhere.
But disappointment was what the 1970s were for. As I got older, I got better at separating the joy of my birthright from the disenchantment of my childhood. I knew the Mets of the late 1970s and early 1980s weren't going anywhere near the World Series, but it was impossible to say they couldn't win one. I knew the astronauts of the late 1970s and early 1980s weren't bound for the moon or Mars, but you had to be awfully cynical to say they wouldn't get there at some point.
It's July 20, 2009. Neil Armstrong is 78. Tom Seaver is 64. The Mets have about as much chance of winning the pennant in 2009 as man has of returning to the moon this year — and if Brian Schneider interprets that as a blogger ripping him and his teammates, he'll be correct. But now there are qualifiers — “in 2009″ and “this year.” Beyond that, I have hope. And why wouldn't I? For practically all my life, I've known that amazing things are possible. You could look it up.
The first of three AMAZIN' TUESDAYS is coming to Two Boots Tavern July 21. It will be a Mets night devoted to reading, rooting and Roy Lee Jackson. Get all the details here. And get your copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.