While the Wilpons unscrunch the large wad of cash they’ve allegedly found underneath their couch cushions, I await anxiously the start of the biggest sporting event to ever touch down in our humble Metropolitan Area. I refer of course to Queens hosting the World Series, time of first pitch as yet undetermined.
In the meantime, there’s Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday, and that figures to make for a decent distraction as we wait and wait and wait for Opening Day LIII to kick off some eight weeks later.
Though the Mets and the Super Bowl debuted less than V years apart, I rarely think of them as being close enough in age to coexist as sporting siblings. The Original Mets were Mad Men season two; the inaugural Super Bowl was Mad Men season five. Stylistically, the gap stretches like the difference between radio spots for Secor Laxatives and a sleek print treatment for the Jaguar XKE.
The Mets were built on the dormant goodwill that remained from 1950s National League baseball in New York. Playing at the old Polo Grounds; guided by old Casey Stengel (the subject of a 2014 bobblehead, Faith and Fear in Flushing has delightedly learned); preserved primarily in old black & white archival footage; and stocked with players whose experience made their presence in the “Senior” Circuit most appropriate, the Mets were an enterprise that echoed yesterday before they could fully anticipate tomorrow.
You don’t have to have followed the evolution of Harry Crane’s haircuts to know the society of January 15, 1967, was cultural light years removed from that of April 11, 1962, which is probably why Cardinals 11 Mets 4 and Packers 35 Chiefs 10 don’t resonate as chronologically related. Yet it was only 57 months after the dawn of the Mets that the Super Bowl came rushing onto the greater athletic scene, never, ever to step out of bounds.
That first AFL-NFL World Championship Game was an event just dripping in what figured to come next, right down to the two jetpack-wearing performers who were launched skyward to signify just how much future was packed into this contest.
The super spectacle’s wow-factor Madison Avenue moniker was not yet codified, but “Super Bowl” was already being informally thrown around by the press. That the game was being played at all foretold of the day when professional football’s distinctions would be streamlined into a single merged entity, the spiritual equivalent of Ned Beatty’s “one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused” speech from Network. The National Football League’s showcase was immediately telecast in living color even if everybody’s set hadn’t yet caught up to the available technology. And the whole thing couldn’t have been more made for TV had it been produced by Sherwood Schwartz.
Perhaps the reason I can’t quite reconcile that the Mets and the Super Bowl are of just about the same vintage is the scale that separates them. The Mets may have made a couple of World Series before the Super Bowl had been played VIII times, but even with those express global implications, to us they were still the M-E-T-S of New York town. Of Flushing town. Of little ol’ Shea Stadium. They were ours. The Super Bowl, on the other hand, never didn’t seem ginormous. Life stopped for the Super Bowl almost from the get-go. By the time I saw my first, which was the IVth, it all but overwhelmed the screen. Minnesota was playing Kansas City in New Orleans, yet it mattered everywhere.
That the games were rarely good didn’t much deter anybody. The ’70s were lousy with low-scoring struggles that nonetheless managed to be largely noncompetitive. Regardless of quality, people tuned into those Super Bowls like they tuned into nothing else. The ’80s and ’90s were pockmarked by high-octane blowouts. People kept tuning in to Super Bowls. As the games improved in the new century it became fashionable to announce with equal parts irony and sincerity that one was watching only to check out the commercials…but watch is what almost everybody did and does. That’s not something that can always be said on behalf of our Metsies.
And now the Super Bowl has encroached upon the Mets’ general geography. It is here among us polished urban sophisticates when it is usually assigned to pleasant places in what we tend to graciously consider America’s countryside…which is to say everywhere else. I must admit I can’t fully grasp its presence on these shores.
New York has the Super Bowl. Gosh, that’s strange.
Technically, New Jersey has the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl has asked New York to allow its name to be used in the program. Or so it feels from here on the non-football side of the frigid Hudson. Several decades ago, the Felix sector of New York’s brain decided to tidy up its outer boroughs and store its messy pigskin accoutrements somewhere near Secaucus. The Oscar portion never even noticed they were moved across state lines. Yeah, the Jets shouldn’t have left Shea (nor should have the Mets), but as long as they and the Giants showed up televised every Sunday, we were fine.
And I imagine we’d be fine with the National Football League blessing a different ADI with its winter bacchanalia. New York didn’t really need the Super Bowl. I mean that less in the “New York has a million attributes and attractions, harumph” sense than “more tourists, more traffic…who needs it?” way we have of approaching every interloper who drops by. The dollars are always welcome, but the hassle never seems worth it.
You know who would appreciate this Super Bowl more than we do? Based on thirty-year-old personal experience, I’d say Tampa. The Super Bowl — or what it turned into by the time it reached adolescence — was made for Tampa.
Conveniently adjacent to the springtime home of the New York Mets in St. Petersburg, Tampa was the site of my college years and Super Bowl XVIII (we were both so young then). Though I was a relative newcomer to the vicinity, I figured out right away that nothing bigger had happened to Tampa than being told it was going to host The Big Game. The city’s founding in the 19th century probably ranked a distant second…maybe third, with the 1976 invention of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lodged in between.
Forget economic impact, at least as measured by hotel bookings and restaurant reservations. Tampa — where “the good life gets better every day,” per the chamber of commerce’s unbiased early ’80s opinion — was just tickled to have its existence validated by an massive outside entity like the NFL. I had never lived in a less than wholly major market prior to my extended stay in Tampa. I was from New York, worldwide headquarters of self-esteem. I didn’t know what it meant for a city to crave “national recognition,” a commodity valued in the local media the way the legendary Gulf Coast pirate Jose Gaspar was said to have lusted for Tampa Bay’s treasures.
Tampans were so taken with the tall tales of Gaspar (no known relation to Rod) lavishing attention on its peninsula that in 1904 it instituted a Mardi Gras-ish festival called Gasparilla in his name. Every year, the city fathers sanctioned an “invasion” of Tampa by businessmen dressed as buccaneers, creating the annual highlight of the municipal social scene, at least until it was trumped by the Super Bowl’s initial West Central Florida appearance in January of 1984. No wonder the eventual home of the Bucs was only too happy be to be invaded by the NFL. The DNA of Tampa cries out to be trampled.
There was a chance it would be only half-trampled, but not a great one. On the eve of the 1983 football season, I watched a pair of co-anchors report on how much it would benefit Tampa to have two teams from somewhere else qualify for the Super Bowl because that would mean more money flowing into town. “I don’t care,” one chirped cheerily to the other. “I still want the Bucs to make it!”
Despite coming off three perennially unlikely playoff appearances in a four-year span, the 1983 Buccaneers courteously stepped aside with a 2-14 record, presumably to ensure the city’s merchants would benefit from the onslaught of visiting fans who would fly in to root on the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Raiders. This was outstanding for Tampa’s psyche, too, because those conference champions were traditional powerhouses of the period, each of them having won a Super Bowl in recent seasons. If Tampa was good enough to open its arms to nationally recognized football franchises, then, gosh darn it, Tampa mattered!
The Super Bowl roared into my temporary hometown like a monorail salesman through Springfield and was gone to Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook just as quickly, leaving the purported good life to get better every day on its own steam. For all the life-changing dreams the region harbored in advance of Super Sunday 1984, what Super Bowl XVIII really wrought was:
• a glutted secondary market (tickets bearing the absurdly high face price of $60 were said to be going for five bucks apiece in the Tampa Stadium parking lot right around kickoff);
• a typical-for-the-era lopsided result (Raiders 38 Redskins 9, Marcus Allen trampling every Skin in sight);
• a few silver and black benches branded with the “Commitment To Excellence” motto — residual Raider glory left to linger at scattered HART bus stops long after Al Davis hightailed it back to California with the Vince Lombardi Trophy (Davis’s ego probably functioned more reliably than Hillsborough Area Regional Transit);
• a single Tampa-centric pregame feature on CBS (mostly Jimmy the Greek praising the charms of a good Ybor City cigar);
• and a desire by Tampa to be invaded repeatedly in the years to follow anyway. Tampa has been a Super host III more times, and it’s always giddily bidding for another. If you ever need to swing by Tampa and don’t want to arrive emptyhanded, a well-executed incursion always makes a nice gift.
Maybe it’s testament to the NFL’s knack for conferring legitimization that more than a decade before Jerry Maguire made it a catchphrase, Tampa practically swooned to the league, “You complete us.” The Super Bowl was all anybody talked about for weeks. Everybody felt like they were in on the festivities, which weren’t nearly as festive as they are these days. Where are the Redskins huddling? Did you see which Raiders were out being rowdy? Super Bowl stuff is on sale at Alberstons…I bought ten plastic cups for a dollar!
Why, I can even recall one normally blasé college student turning practically starstruck from his brush with a league official driving by in a Roman numeral-marked car. The guy was seeking the jury-rigged football facilities set up at one of the area’s prominent universities and the encounter left a Joe Jacoby-sized impression. “Wow,” the college kid would tell anybody who listened. “I was walking back from class and somebody from the NFL asked me directions to the soccer field!”
The easily impressed young scholar in question? That would be your not yet so blasé blogger. I may have effected a New Yorker’s detachment on the outside, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was as immune to Super Bowl fever as I’ve grown with age. New York might bundle up and barely blink at the thought of hosting The Big Game, but a Super Bowl was the biggest thing to ever happen to Tampa. And after a few years exposed to another city’s folkways, even a jaded New Yorker couldn’t help but turn into a bit of a Tampan.