Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, 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.
CitiVision (or DiamondVision, if you’re civilized) repeatedly aired promotional spots for the ’69 Reunion the other night. To lure Mets fans to show up Saturday, Alex Anthony read off a partial guest list. As I listened to it for the third, fourth, fifth time, I smiled a little.
First name: Seaver. No explanation needed anywhere baseball is taken seriously.
Second name: Ryan. I doubt that would have been the pecking order forty years ago, but you can’t argue with the placement today. Nolan Ryan, based on what he did after leaving the Mets, is the most famous of the ’69 Mets, even more famous than Tom Seaver.
Third name: Koosman. This is where I began to smile.
Sure, you and I know Jerry Koosman. In 1969, a lot of people knew Jerry Koosman. Jerry Koosman was the lefty complement to Seaver. In 1968, he put up better numbers. In the ’69 World Series, he was more effective. To this day he’s the greatest postseason pitcher in Mets history. Outside Citi Field and wherever Mets fans call home, however, Jerry Koosman is probably not instantly recognizable.
As the other last names were rattled off — Jones, Kranepool, Harrelson, Grote — my smile widened. The so-called casual fan; certainly the under-40 fan of any team that isn’t the Mets; the youngish Mets fan who doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what came before his or her first game…they would likely have little to no idea who these men were or how they, in the company of eighteen other last names that may or may not ring a bell in other circles, changed the world.
Changed our world, at any rate.
I didn’t smile because I approve of the ignorance of others. The feats of the ’69 Mets should be taught in schools. They were exemplars of math (how 10 out on August 14 became 8 ahead at season’s end), science (how shoe polish seemed to magically appear on a baseball that might not have hit a shoe); English (as taught by Prof. Karl Ehrhardt); and social studies (uniting as one a city otherwise divided by war and societal upheaval). The ’69 Mets are history, too, but they’re our history. They’re the fundamental building block of Metsopotamia. I wouldn’t expect those who don’t live among us to ever quite get it, no matter how universally symbolic the 1969 Mets have become for entities that overcame long odds, upset established orders and succeeded in ways few would have guessed.
I don’t smile at the idea that Mets fans who came along a full generation or more after the ’69ers retired might not feel this championship is quite theirs. I can understand it to a point, as it takes some commitment to relate fully to what you didn’t experience first-hand, which for me covers the first seven seasons of Metsdom. As much as I’ve read up on the Mets who preceded the ’69 team and as attentively as I’ve listened to the stories surrounding them, I’ll always fall a little short in suitably appreciating their contributions toward establishing the Mets as a one-of-a-kind baseball enterprise.
But the 1962 to 1968 Mets didn’t win the most improbable championship in the history of the sport. The 1969 Mets did. That’s ours, meaning it’s yours, even if you weren’t there. You buy into a team, you buy into the whole package. You buy into 40-120 and you buy into the recurring downs, but you also get, free of charge, the highest of ups. You automatically get the ’69 Mets. They’re worth knowing. It goes without saying they deserve embracing.
Despite my misgivings that every person on Earth let alone in Queens doesn’t automatically know how to spell Pfeil, the smiling I did Monday night was rooted in realizing just how much this team belongs to us, the Mets fans. That’s a fairly self-evident conclusion, I suppose, but think about those last names and their limited range of resonance. Pick another championship team, whether indisputably famous or relatively obscure. Some names are inevitably going to be recognizable to one and all, some will be known just by their diehards, but there will be a pretty wide swath in between that are familiar enough to the baseball populace at large to elicit, at the very least, an “oh yeah, I remember him…”
Fans of all ages are going to know, I think, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell from the ’71 Pirates, to use a random example. But you don’t have to be from Pittsburgh to recall Al Oliver or Manny Sanguillen or Dock Ellis. The ’93 Blue Jays were packing Robbie Alomar and Paul Molitor and Joe Carter and Dave Stewart, but also Devon White and Tony Fernandez and John Olerud — not household names, but sturdy major league mainstays. I’ll bet our own ’86 Mets follow a similar pattern away from Flushing.
But the ’69 Mets? Even taking into account the individual successes of Jones (third in that year’s batting race), Kranepool (eventually one of the game’s top pinch-hitters), Harrelson (starting All-Star shortstop and Gold Glove winner in ’71) and Grote (acknowledged in his time as a defensive maestro), who else besides we who experienced them in all their glory would be impressed by an advertisement to come see them gather decades beyond their collective signature accomplishment? The only thing that would have made it more impressive to us is if Anthony had extended the roll call to include Swoboda and Charles and Martin and everybody else scheduled to return Saturday.
If we’re not going to get excited on our own behalf, who will? When I would watch one of those Old Timers gatherings Equitable used to sponsor in conjunction with the All-Star Game, I noticed how few former Mets seemed to be on hand. There were retired stars from other teams, but not us. There never seem to be ex-Mets when ESPN shows those celebrity softball games that have taken their place. If we’re not in the midst of one of our occasional outstanding seasons, it’s like we barely exist on the baseball map at large.
And maybe on some level we don’t. Maybe you have to be a Seaver or a Ryan to have that kind of staying power on the outside. They’re Hall of Famers to the rest of the world. But they’re Mets to us. They’re ’69 Mets first and foremost — they and their lesser known peers. It takes nothing away from their Cooperstown credentials to say Seaver and Ryan exist on the same plane for us as Dyer the third catcher, Gaspar the fifth outfielder and DiLauro the last man out of the bullpen in 1969. They’re all immortal to us. To borrow a phrase 1997 Florida Marlins bench coach Jerry Manuel used in expressing his appreciation for the just-released Liván Hernandez, they put a World Series ring on our finger. Only two groups of men did that for us. This was the first.
The enormity of that accomplishment should not for a second be underestimated. It will never diminish for me, not from time, not from distance, not from anything. Collectively and individually, the mere thought of the 1969 New York Mets will always make me smile like nothing else.
I hear their names and of course I smile. I absolutely light up.
AMAZIN’ TUESDAY returns to Two Boots Tavern August 25 at 7:00 PM. Join Jason Fry, Dana Brand, Caryn Rose and me for a fun night of reading, eating, drinking and all things Mets baseball (Mets baseball optional). Full details here.