To deploy a dated reference, baseball seasons may unfold in the sports pages, yet we do not experience them oblivious to what’s transpiring in the rest of the paper. No retelling of the 1969 Mets — and we’ve had a few this year — feels complete if it doesn’t check the contemporary boxes that epic annum left in its wake. The moon was landed on. Woodstock was descended upon. Vietnam was railed against. And the Mets won a championship so transcendent it couldn’t help but brush past these generation-explaining events on its way into legend.
Thirty years later, the franchise’s familial instinct for playing intensely memorable not to mention fairly successful ball as a decade ended reawakened, bringing us the demi-magic summer we who lived it recognize as the next best Met thing to 1969: 1999…and its veritable sequel, 2000. When 1999 and 2000 are retold, which is often among Mets fans if rarely by anybody else, the conversation usually sticks to sports. The world of two decades ago had its moments (it always does), but what they had to do with the Mets going to the playoffs twice in a row wasn’t immediately apparent.
That didn’t discourage Matthew Callan from linking, at least locally, who the 1999 and 2000 Mets were to what surrounded them. Callan’s purview is the Metropolitan Area, specifically whether the New York of that era and the National League team that called it home made for a snug spiritual fit. The brief answer, gleaned across his detailed and evocative work Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium , is no, not really. But the distance from the sports pages to the front of the paper remains wide enough, even in this predominantly digital age, so that the Mets fan who boards Callan’s train simply to ride the baseball express shouldn’t have a problem glimpsing out the window to appreciate the geopolitical scenery the book simultaneously explores.
Yells for Ourselves is mostly about a baseball team, its myriad ups, its fatal downs, its inherent absurdities and its demeanor of never-say-die no matter that a copy of the coroner’s report has been messengered to the clubhouse. You’ll be delighted to re-meet those M-E-T-S Mets of New York town. If you step back from the yellow line and take in the New York whose portrait the author paints, that’s another story, albeit one artfully told. It’s hard to cheer for that New York, one that by Callan’s reckoning had begun the process of mechanically sanding away its rough edges and squeezing out all but its überclasses. What did or does that have to do with the Mets winning a Wild Card in 1999 and a pennant in 2000? No more than Neil Armstrong taking one small step onto the lunar surface did with Ron Swoboda launching two Steve Carlton pitches into deep space, but if you are willing to believe the most textured of shared baseball memories ought to be preserved as products of their times, you will embrace Callan not skipping those civic stops on his ride out to Willets Point-Shea Stadium.
What brings the Mets into the greater orbit of Greater New York at the conclusion of one century and the commencement of another is what ultimately got in the way of the Mets laying claim to New York on either end of the millennium: the Yankees. Ah, yes…them. They, like the mayor who rooted them on with the same ostentatious fervor he rousted out elements he deemed undesirable, are unavoidable supporting players in Callan’s tale. Rudy Giuliani’s New York was the Yankees’ New York, and as you can have only one hizzoner at a time, you wouldn’t be far off in pronouncing his town not big enough for two thoroughly capable baseball teams.
So, in the end, it opted to settle for the one that did a touch more winning, which was characteristic of the way New York was acting in the latest ’90s and earliest ’00s. As Callan writes in introducing us to his backdrop, “whenever New York boasted a baseball champion, that champion uncannily reflected the city’s self-image.” In that vein, the signature squad for New York in this time couldn’t help but be the 1998 Yankees of 114 regular-season wins and a breeze through the postseason. Those Bronx Bombers, Callan declares, “were exactly what New York felt it deserved as it barreled toward the twenty-first century. No more struggles. No more lovable losers. Winning and winners only.”
Going up against that cultural ethos, the 1999 and 2000 editions of the Mets, who fell six and three victories short of earning consecutive world championships, may not have stood a genuine chance to return New York to its baseball senses circa 1969, the year that produced “a stirring underdog story for a city beginning to unravel,” or 1986, the peak of the previous Met reign, mirroring a municipal stretch Callan describes as “cocky, drug-fueled, dangerous and doomed to end in tears.” Funny thing is the Millennium Mets played like they never received that particular alert (perhaps their BlackBerry was on the fritz), which is why the baseball the author delves into reads as compelling now as it was to watch then.
Callan’s preferred mode of transportation for taking the reader back to Bobby Valentine’s days — Bobby V defines his seasons no less than Gil Hodges imprints stories of ’69 — is the contemporary media and how they framed the Mets. These were, the author contends, “perhaps the last moments in history when fan opinion was dictated from on high by sportswriters who purported to speak for them,” a terrifically savvy insight. Whether it was because most of the beat reporters and columnists didn’t care for Valentine personally or they were institutionally conditioned to line up squarely behind the proven winning the Yankees represented, I always sensed (as someone who bought and read four papers a day every day) that the Mets I reveled in daily and nightly throughout 1999 and 2000 were not the same Mets who showed up in print the morning after. We baseball fans who love to read were a few years from fully realizing that what the traditional tastemakers had to say only mattered if we decided it did. The day this blog started in 2005 was the day I began to stop putting so much stock in what “they” had to tell me about my team.
In 1999 and 2000, though, the local papers, selected national voices and a couple of afternoon hosts on WFAN held sway, and by relying on their archives to construct his baseball narrative, Callan has ratcheted up the agita related to what were already a pretty chaotic couple of seasons. The Mets were continually fending off some crisis or chasing down some uncatchable opponent and, as such, made for dynamite if cynical copy. If the joy of rooting for a Met team that twice pounded on the door to the promised land doesn’t always seep through, it’s probably because the joy wasn’t necessarily communicated in the ledes of the stories that ran in the late city finals. Plus, there’s no avoiding the encroaching heartbreak that hangs over the entire enterprise. The valiant 1999 Mets go down to defeat in the eleventh inning of the sixth game of the National League Championship Series at Turner Field; the determined 2000 Mets absorb a similar gut punch in the 2000 World Series at Shea Stadium versus the Yankees (who themselves teetered on the brink of mere mortality a few tantalizing and potentially narrative-altering weeks before). Those outcomes, alas, can’t and don’t change.
Still, the tick-tock here is irresistible, just as those seasons were as they happened. There’s a reason we as Mets fans circle back sentimentally to the Bobby V years; to Mike Piazza at his mightiest; to Rick Reed and Melvin Mora rescuing a Wild Card bid gone awry; to Edgardo Alfonzo and Al Leiter pulling it safely from the abyss; to Todd Pratt tackling Matt Mantei and Robin Ventura on successive weekends; to Mojo Risin’ over one October; and to a whole other October devoted to demanding to know who (who?) let the dogs out. Those were special times in the life of Mets fandom and Yells for Ourselves is a special chronicle that both diligently captures them and dares to contextualize them.
NOTE: I’ve known Matthew Callan for quite a while and read an early version of his manuscript. But I was also a fan of his blogging on Scratchbomb  and Amazin’ Avenue  well before we grew chummy, so I feel comfortable objectively recommending you seek out and read his book .
Deadspin published an excerpt from Yells for Ourselves the other day, focusing on one of the most famous, least disguised episodes of 1999. Check it out here .