When I meet a Mets fan from anywhere outside the Metropolitan Area, my instinct is to ask him or her how he or she got to be One of Us. I did so with a Mets fan from Australia a couple of years ago. He gave me the strangest answer imaginable.
He said it was because of Bobby Bonilla.
I’d literally heard people swear off the Mets on account of Bobby Bonilla being on the club (especially the second time around), but this was a new one on me. It would have been a new one from me. As begrudgingly willing as I am to give Bonilla his props as not necessarily all that bad an offensive player during parts of his first term with the Mets, he wasn’t someone for whom I relished rooting from 1992 to 1995, and I know I’m not alone in that perspective, given the plethora of well-known episodes that made Bobby Bo’s Met Hell credentials impeccable before he was invited back to burnish them. Bobby Bonilla’s ultimate Met exit, following his 1999 tenure, brought out in me the same sentiments I had regarding my fourth roommate in college — when he moved out, I did a Mark Gastineau-style sack dance in the hallway of my dorm.
But I didn’t have the experience the fellow from Down Under had. I found his tale fascinating and, when it came up again recently, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing it with Faith and Fear readers. Let’s call it the first entry in an occasional series entitled, Every Met is Somebody’s Favorite Met. I don’t know if there will be a second. I don’t know if anybody else can match this one.
To preserve his viability within the international Mets fan community, our guest author has requested his name be withheld. Just know he’s the guy whose favorite Met is Bobby Bonilla. There’s more to him than that, but for our purposes, that’s plenty.
1993 was an unlikely year for anybody to fall in love with the Mets. What perhaps was even more unlikely was the source of this infatuation.
My mother moved to Montreal in 1992 on a three-year work assignment. I had just started my college years, so the opportunity to go on exchange in a different country was too good to pass up. I arrived in Montreal just before the end of the NHL regular season with the city gripped in Stanley Cup delirium (the Canadiens’ last championship, as it turns out). Though I managed to attend a few games, Habs playoff tickets at the Montreal Forum were rarer than tartare aller-retour, so my attentions turned elsewhere.
After dealing with the disappointment of not being able to acquire tickets for the opening two games of Wales Conference Finals (which coincidentally involved the New York Islanders), a work colleague of my mother’s asked if I’d be interested in going to watch the Expos with him.
At this point baseball was not foreign to me. It enjoyed its peak popularity in Australia in the mid-’80s to the early ’90s during the heyday of its first professional league. The Sydney Metros (who also played in orange and blue and compiled a miserable 3-36 record in the only season of their existence) played their home games literally a 10-minute walk from house. My only previous exposure to American baseball was the major league playoffs, which were screened on television on delay at ungodly hours. While I appreciated the game’s beauty and idiosyncrasies my allegiances were uncommitted. The Expos (naturally) and Orioles were the two teams that initially competed for affections.
The visiting team on my fateful day at Stade Olympique was the New York Mets. Even though it was still early in the season, the team was reeling 7 games below .500. Frank Tanana was the starting pitcher for the Mets that day; suffice it to say the team had few likeable qualities. The only player on the team I recognized was Bobby Bonilla, from preceding years’ NLCS tussles with the Reds and the Braves when he was a Pirate. I recall the Montreal media was particularly scathing at the state of the Mets in the lead-up to the series and in particular Bonilla’s slow start.
Most of the game was a blur. As far as I was concerned, this was a one-shot deal, so towards the end of game I took the opportunity to walk around sampling every vantage point around the stadium. In the top of the 9th, with the Mets trailing by two runs, Bobby Bonilla stepped up to the plate and crunched a monster home run off Mel Rojas (a player who would haunt Mets fans several years later) to right-center field, which must have travelled at least 450 feet.
The ball landed about 15-20 metres from where I was standing and was hastily devoured by another fan. However, the ball’s proximity to me was the baseball equivalent of Cupid’s arrow — as if it was a proposition of marriage to the team. Even though the Mets eventually lost the ballgame, that event forged a bond with the club that was never broken.
I attended the following two games by myself completely ignoring the hockey series being played that several days earlier I was pining for. They say love is blind and I was certainly oblivious to the Mets’ copious deficiencies (living in Montreal I was somewhat sheltered from the negative press the Mets were receiving in New York on a daily basis). The Mets were swept in the series but my disturbing infatuation had taken over logic and reason.
I missed the Mets’ return to Montreal later that year as we had taken summer vacations overseas. However, I made plans to visit New York in late August. I purchased a ticket for my first game at Shea on August 30th, my 19th birthday. (The fact I was prepared to forgo legally drinking, again, in favour of watching the Mets provides a pretty good insight into where my priorities lay at that point in time).
A major hitch to my plans came from my mother, who was reluctant to allow me to travel to New York City on my own, primarily because of the World Trade Center bombings earlier that year. This became a significant source of friction in our relationship at the time. I boycotted my own birthday party in protest and watched the game with an unused ticket in my pocket at some seedy sports bar in Montreal.
Bonilla did “come to the party” for me, so to speak, in that game with 3 RBIs and a HR in a narrow victory over the Astros. What added significance to this was the fact when I returned home after the game, my mother, who was totally ignorant about anything baseball-related, said to me “The Mets won on your birthday and Bonilla had a great game tonight.” This went a long way to mending our relationship. In fact, if you recall the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer asks Paul O’Neill to hit 2 home runs for a sick kid, well, I harboured some inner, albeit delusional belief that my mother had reached a similar arrangement with Bonilla as recompense for not allowing me to travel to New York.
All this just made my yearning to see the Mets and Bobby at Shea even stronger. I realized more drastic measures needed to be taken. So I met a fictitious girl from Toronto and told my mother I intended to travel there to meet her. In reality, I purchased three tickets to a meaningless series in September against the Cubs at Shea and a flight to LaGuardia (fulfilling my fantasy of seeing Shea for the first time from the air.)
When I arrived at the ballpark I was so overwhelmed by the intense atmosphere of Shea, notwithstanding the murmurings of discontent that at that point in the season were deafening, that I didn’t realize Bonilla wasn’t in the line-up. “No problem” I thought, “He probably has the day off. He may pinch hit or I’ll see him tomorrow”.
When I came to the ballpark the next day and realized he was again absent from the line-up, a panic set in. I asked a few people and didn’t get particularly helpful responses. (In the pre-Internet days tracking a player’s status was not as simple as it is these days). When he was absent again for the final game of the series, my heartache was complete (ameliorated only by a masterful four-hit complete game shutout by Sid Fernandez.).
So I was resolved to return to Montreal without seeing my hero play at Shea. For my last night in NYC, I met up some with people I knew from McGill University who took me to a prominent Manhattan nightclub at the time. (This was the first and only time in my life I used a fake ID).
In the nightclub, there was a VIP area cordoned off from the rest of the club, filled with people I didn’t recognize. I overheard somebody say: “What a bum. He’s okay to go out clubbing but can’t play,” or words to similar effect. My heart skipped a beat at the remote possibility they were talking about Bonilla, and when it was confirmed that they were, I knew I would never get another chance to see him. I never believed in fate or destiny until that night.
However, between me and my hero was a large burlesque, menacing-looking “attendant” standing in-front of the VIP area. In those days I was a shy and timid young lad and, after 15 minutes of deliberation, I finally mustered enough courage to approach him. I said:
“Hi, I’m a huge fan of Bobby Bonilla and would like to say hello”. I probably sounded like a giddy little schoolgirl to him.
In a stern voice he replied: “Bobby don’t like to speak to fans outside the ballpark. This is Bobby’s private time. Please vacate this area.”
I walked away dejected and once again heartbroken. I was so close to him. It was as if my moment of destiny was abruptly altered.
I stared at Bonilla across the room as if I was looking into the eyes of my Maker. I caught his leering, disapproving eyes. I bowed my head. I had to try again. If all else failed, I thought it would make for a really cool story telling my friends how I got beaten up by this rather large attendant, in an effort to meet Bobby Bonilla. I decided my last hope was to play the Australian “card”.
In an exaggerated Australian accent I approached the attendant again and pleaded my case:
“Look, I travelled all the way from Australia just to see Bobby. I was devastated I didn’t see him play, but I believe it is destiny that brought me to this place tonight.” The last past clearly wasn’t a lie. “I just want to say hello to him.” This time my voice reeked of desperation. He thought about it for half-a-second and the look on his face suggested another rejection was incoming.
“Wait here” he said, as he entered the cordoned off area. He walked towards Bobby, bent over and spoke into Bobby’s ear, pointing to my general direction. It was a glimmer of hope, but I was certain that Bobby would reject any contact, based on his well-documented feelings towards the Shea boo-boys.
Bobby initially looked irate, hesitated for a moment and then got up. He began to walk towards me. I was still under no illusions. As far as I was concerned, he coming to me “to show me the Bronx”. I was genuinely scared and regretted initiating the whole episode.
As Bobby approached, his eyes seared at me, like he was trying to ascertain the plausibility of such an implausible story. “Did you really come all the way from Australia to see me?” was the first thing he asked me.
Tongue-tied, partly because I was awestruck and partly because I could not bring myself to confess to the lie I had just told to my idol, I could only nod my head. Then I sensed a look of pride in his eyes that became tattooed in my brain. It was as if his faith in Mets fans had been restored.
He asked the attendant for a pen and signed a drink coaster and shook my hand. I was touching the same hand that held the bat that inflicted so much hurt on opposing pitchers!
Then he said: “Order whatever you like and put it on my tab.” (For the record, I ordered an Appleton’s and Coke — probably in an effort to confirm my “Aussieness”. Dark rum and Coke is like Australia’s national cocktail.)
Indeed, he had showed me the Bronx, but in a different way. There was no turning back for me now. The Mets were my favourite sporting organization in the world. The whole meeting may have lasted just over a minute but it will live with me forever. For a 19-year-old kid, this was the thrill of an eternity.
I politely thanked him and then blurted out: “I love you Bobby. I’ll never wash this hand again.” He smiled as he turned and walked away.
My experiences with Bonilla lead me to believe that the Shea faithful never gave him a fair chance. I am often perplexed and reviled by the level of vitriol and indignation shown by Mets fans towards Bonilla, despite the fact he led most offensive categories during his first tour with the Mets. At a time when the club is burdened by gross ineptitude of Jason Bay, it is somewhat of an injustice that Bonilla holds such a negative place in Mets folklore. It often makes me wonder whether we deserve the cruel twists of fate we are all-too-often subjected to.