When Mad Men‘s brilliant third season ended in November, I thought I had seen every compelling thing I could possibly see on 2009 television regarding life as it was lived in 1963 Manhattan. And then last week came Mets Yearbook: 1963, and all I could say was, “Eat your hat, Don Draper.”
It’s not a competition per se, but Mad Men has to take a late back seat as my favorite show of the past year now that SNY’s Mets Yearbook has grabbed the wheel. Five episodes in and it brings new meaning to the phrase Mets classics. It is everything a Mets fan could want out of TV and maybe life. It is, to paraphrase John Adams from 1776, a masterful expression of the Metropolitan mind.
A standing O for SNY is in order — and this from someone who has sat on his hands for a good long while.
Since debuting in March 2006, the channel we reasonably considered “our” channel too often swung weakly and missed consistently, clogging its valuable airwaves with poker shows, boating shows, the most grating of shout shows, news shows plagued by smarmy attitudes and smug anchors , and a glut of mindlessly scheduled filler. The Met Quotient was never as high or as strong as any of us would have calculated had any of us been consulted. True, SNY produced all non-national Met broadcasts, employed the finest announcers imaginable, aired a weekly magazine show, a kids show, an offseason news show, a sprinkling of old games and recent ceremonies, a handful of interview specials, a couple of documentaries as well as breaking coverage of news both bad and good…and yet I can honestly say, without irony, that it was never enough. It never felt like anybody there at the highest precincts of decisionmaking truly lived and died with the ideal of the Mets. The network talked up “all things NY sports,” but came off as tone deaf to its true hardcore audience of Mets fans.
Not the case anymore, not with Mets Yearbook. Watch or rewatch any and all of the five episodes that have run to date and you will conclude there hasn’t been a more extensive and extraordinary representation of New York Met genius since Gary Cohen dined alone.
Just a few highlights from the highlight films of yore:
Mets Yearbook: 1971 — The Winning Way
• The wonders of the Florida Instructional League
• The oncoming curse of Jim Fregosi
• Bud Harrelson, chatting in a not at all stilted manner
• Tom Seaver, setting records
• Banner Day!
Mets Yearbook: 1984 — Don’t Stop Us Now!
• The sweetness of Strawberry Sunday
• The oncoming blessing of Gary Carter
• Baby Doc’s unlimited future
• Shea Stadium, overcome by The Wave
• Banner Day!
Mets Yearbook: 1975 — Meet The Mets
• Dave Kingman, friendliest Met ever
• Mike Vail, budding star
• Joe Frazier, asked if he’s gonna bring more Vails with him
• Dairylea Day
• Banner Day!
Mets Yearbook: 1968 — Year Of The Met Pitcher
• Jerry Koosman’s internal monologue
• Tom Seaver conducting a pitching clinic while wearing No. 38
• Ron Swoboda’s media onslaught
• Bud Harrelson invoking God at a Little League dinner
• Banner Day!
Mets Yearbook: 1963 — Let’s Go, Mets!
• The lady who says all her children are “a Mets fan”
• The gent who adds the Mets have nowhere to go but up
• The Mr. Met bobbleheads sold in the Polo Grounds stands
• Ed Kranepool, world-weary 18-year-old, and Casey Stengel, unstoppable at 73
• Banner Day!
Yes, Banner Day was quite the constant in these things, making one wonder why, for the umpteenth time, why the Mets abandoned what Dick Young (who, before turning evil, was quite a nifty conflict-of-interest script writer) called their “soul promotion” — and we’re not accepting “because there are no more scheduled doubleheaders” as an excuse. I can’t get enough of those placards. I can’t get enough of Old Timers Days and Helmet Days. I can’t get enough of Lindsey Nelson narrating. I can’t get enough of the incidental footage, like how the people filling the box seats looked so different from ’63 to ’68 and again from ’68 to ’71. I can’t get enough of the ballpark advertising, especially the outfield wall of the Polo Grounds where Hebrew National was, in 1963, introducing Delicious STUFFED CABBAGE IN JARS. I can’t get enough of watching the Mets at home in the Polo Grounds and marveling at Shea Stadium being built. I can’t get enough of the innocence and implicit honesty of these films, particularly 1963 when they made losing 111 games somehow sound like brand equity. None of the years above resulted in more than a second-place finish, yet I felt like a champ just for being a Mets fan listening to the Mets tell me how much I meant to them.
The stream of Met consciousness is unbelievable. Doesn’t matter if they’re focusing on Seaver and Stengel or Staiger and Stearns or Singleton and Schiraldi. It’s the Mets video family album. It’s about why we became Mets fans, whenever we became Mets fans, certainly if we hopped on board between 1962 and 1988, the years that Mets Yearbook will eventually cover in twenty-seven Amazin’ chapters.
To whom do we owe this simple pleasure of unearthed treasures and recovered memories? Let’s credit Gary Morgenstern, vice president of programming for SNY. He green-lit the concept and guided its creation, though the better word might be its resuscitation. The content of Mets Yearbook has existed for literally decades. It was Gary, however, who got it on the air. For that I wanted to thank him and pester him for information. He was kind enough to spend about twenty minutes on the phone with me last week to indulge my curiosity.
“These films have been in the Mets’ archives for some years,” Gary began. “It was unclear to us exactly what they had, where they existed and in what format.” The goldmine was struck in the process of moving from Shea to Citi Field. That’s when the film library revealed itself and “we confirmed what they had.”
You mean it took the destruction of Shea Stadium to give us these peeks into the life and times of Shea Stadium? Gary wouldn’t go quite that far, but did acknowledge that the transition “might have sped up the process and moved it forward”. He says a project like this had long been on the SNY radar, “conceptually” speaking: “We were aware there was stuff in the library, that there was a library full of content. We just didn’t know what they had. We imagined it was really compelling.”
That much has been proven. What wasn’t clear to SNY viewers starved for such content is why the network waited one more second than it had to to debut this stuff. Gary explains they had to answer their own questions, including, “How do we get our hands on them? What format are they in? Are they good for TV? It’s taken a little while.”
Of the five that have aired thus far — purposely nonchronological to offer us tastes of different Met eras — SNY had to work with different formats and running times. “They were not created for TV,” Gary notes; indeed, Lindsey, Ralph and Bob used to regularly remind us we could write to the Mets about having one of them shown if we were a civic organization or church group. “Some were 28 minutes long, some were 24 minutes long, some were 33 minutes long.” They needed to be properly formatted for 2009 cable television, edited for commercial breaks and generally spiffed up for broadcast.
The cynic in me wondered if the Mets gave a damn. After all, these are the people who needed a year of haranguing before painting their staircases orange and announcing a Hall of Fame. “The people in the broadcast department were fantastic,” Gary assured me. “They pushed it on us. They were aware of the content in their library and very supportive. They waded through boxes and boxes of tapes. They love seeing this stuff as much as we do.”
The Mets highlight films had taken on a mystical quality during their interminable absence. No fan much over thirty won’t immediately spurt “rain delays” when the subject arises. These were what you watched when the tarp was pulled over the field. Since that ad hoc tradition dried up, sightings were rare. SportsChannel aired the entire oeuvre to commemorate the Mets’ 25th anniversary in 1986, and some memorable clips emerged in An Amazin’ Era, the franchise’s celebratory VHS. The Mets transferred the 1969 production, “Look Who’s No. 1” to tape and handed it out at Shea one Sunday in 1999 (best…giveaway…ever). MSG ran the films from the playoff years to welcome the Mets to their frequency in 2002. Mets Weekly has spliced segments into its program periodically. But mostly…nothing.
Gary admits he had not seen them before Mets Yearbook began coming together, though “there were a couple of films I was aware of” and a general awareness they existed, thanks to their use on Mets Weekly. I have to confess it never occurred to me that anybody connected to airing Mets games wouldn’t have known about the sacred rain delay cache, and it frightened me a bit, but that’s now water under one of the many bridges that connect the Five Boroughs…especially since — hold onto your blue caps — Gary promises we will see Mets Yearbook during rain delays in 2010, even if they are not modern, even if they in no way explicitly promote Citi Field and even though they’re not Beer Money.
“Charming is the right word,” Gary agreed when I threw it at him. “They are so innocent and charming in their own way.” What fascinates him as a television executive is each film goes its own way despite the prevailing logic of today. When he thinks of a highlight film, Gary says, “I think of a game-by-game recap of the season. Our inclination would be to sort of follow a chronological progression of Game One through Game 162.”
Instead, he continues, “you get little bits and pieces and nice little stories, or highlights of a particular player. There is no recapping of the season, but you do get a flavor of that season. It’s really interesting and not necessarily something we would think of doing.”
But how about doing it that way? I asked. How about, given what we all know about 2009’s shortcomings, taking the 1963/1968 tone of “We didn’t win that many games, but baseball sure is fun!” Gary allowed that might work on some level. “As you know,” he says, “there were positives. Maybe by focusing on them and telling those stories, that would be the right approach for a 2009 season in review and even beyond. It’s not the traditional approach these days.”
I bit my tongue and didn’t ask what positives there were, but if I try, I can see a 2009 highlight film that straddles the line between innocence and whitewashing. Give me a few segments: one on Pedro Feliciano breaking his own appearances record; one on the tasty Taqueria; one on Josh Thole’s Gee Whiz! September; one on the ’69 reunion; and one on Omir Santos’s home run off Jonathan Papelbon in Boston — and don’t try to convince me the Mets were merely a couple of MRIs away from legitimate contention. Don’t overwhelm me with phony salutes to sightlines. Make me feel 1971 warm and fuzzy with the material you have at hand without attempting to pull the wool over my eyes regarding 92 losses and poor fundamentals. Use catchy music and don’t cheap out.
And, no disrespect to the admirable Kevin Burkhardt, see if you can resurrect Lindsey Nelson.
OK, tough to imagine a Let’s Go, Mets! treatment translating to today but it might be fun trying. It’s already fun watching the years we’ve seen. It will be more fun when SNY airs its next five Mets Yearbooks, which will be — in an order yet to be determined — 1966, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1988. Each resulted in a record better than the year before it, though only one, ’88, yielded as much as a division title. Still, I’ll bet there’ll be a golden glow around each of those seasons in those films. Gary says he’s yet to watch the raw material in full, but that we can look forward to “the same array of great unseen before content.”
He couldn’t say when the next five will air, though they will likely be keyed to Spring Training and the beginning of the season. More will be spread out across 2010 and 2011, which means we shouldn’t go hungry for long and we’ll be able to make this treat-laden Met smorgasbord last. At some point, we might see a Mets Yearbook marathon, though none has been scheduled (and no discussions with the Mets or Major League Baseball have occurred regarding a DVD release…though that would surely rock).
Since 1988, the Mets have made exactly four five annual highlight films: 1989*, 1990, 1999, 2000 and 2006. Gary says they’re MLB productions, thus out of SNY’s immediate grasp. Everything between ’62 and ’88 was “work for hire,” meaning the Mets are free to do with them what they want, even if local Knights of Columbus lodges are no longer clamoring to run them during their winter smokers. I mentioned it was a shame the Mets stopped doing these every year. After all, the NFL mandates a highlight film every year from every one of its franchises, even the Detroit Lions. Gary seemed sympathetic, but that’s not his charge.
SNY is, so I did ask about one other topic: Mets Classics. With the recent enshrinement of the “Omir-acle ” at Fenway, we have seen, by my count, 43 different old games on SNY. The Mets are an impressive 42-1, with Game One of the 1969 World Series constituting the only loss in rerun history. Not that I’m not grateful for repeated chances to watch Endy Chavez to lay down a squeeze bunt  against Colorado in April 2007, but, uh, Gary, what else ya got?
“We’re targeting for this year the ’86 NLCS versus Houston,” he reports, specifically the four Met wins. It occurs to me they were all shown in 2006 when SNY went heavy on 1986 (including the excellent Simply Amazin’ documentary). “Those are truly classic games and we’ll see full versions of those.”
More, I asked. When are we going to see more?
The answer was two-part. Stuff after ’86, such as the thus far buried 2000 NLDS and NLCS triumphs, is coming…eventually. As for old stuff, like say the ’73 postseason, probably not. Not a single full game from either series, versus Cincy or Oakland, exists in the Met library. Generally, Gary informs me, the MLB archives are light on full games from before 1980. Me, I’d settle for a stringing together of videotaped highlights, and Gary says a 1973 documentary is a possibility, though he’d sure like to find a full game telecast.
“We want to get more games into that pool” of Mets Classics, Gary says. “In the first year, we showed the same nine games over and over. Now we’re up above thirty.”
I left the vice president of programming with one final programming suggestion — and it’s not particularly original in that several Mets fans have suggested it to me over the years. How about just showing a Random Mets Game? Just pull one from whenever. It doesn’t have to be “classic” or fraught with historical significance — and it doesn’t have to be a walkoff win. It just has to be a Mets game from quite a while ago. Just put it on without giving away the ending (we’ll take it on faith that it engenders a happy recap).
“We will get to that point,” Gary forecasts. “Every year conjures up a certain era in Met history. If it’s not a ‘classic,’ then it’s a classic in memory.” He says SNY will get its hands on some Mets games whose main appeal is that they are Mets games — 1992, 1995, whenever — and “go more in that direction”.
Do enough of that and it will be a banner day for all of us.
*An incredibly reliable source informs me a 1989 highlight film was produced, correcting my mistaken assumption that the Mets weren’t anxious to publicize the Juan Samuel Era.