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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Experience of America

The Mets are opening a “speakeasy” out in right field. I think Prohibition has been over roughly 90 years, so I’m not sure why one would need to know a secret password to get in, but why quibble with a concept, especially when the name of this high rollers club is intended as an homage to someone who has long merited an homage at Citi Field?

Welcome to The Cadillac Club at Payson’s. Or welcome to the news that it exists unless you are one of its “25-30 members” and get to fill one of its “only 100 seats,” per the press release announcing its debut. I assume I’ll have a great chance to see it when Steve Gelbs leads SNY viewers on a guided tour. Otherwise, I’ll just have to be happy that Joan Payson’s name graces something that sounds pretty sweet. Joan Payson bought us a National League franchise that’s still here. The least the Mets could do is acknowledge her more strongly than they have. If an automotive sponsor has to be involved, so be it. I’m guessing Mrs. Payson rode to Shea in something more than a compact.

Getting to see and think about Mrs. Payson inevitably takes a historically minded Mets fan back to the beginning of the ballclub, when the principal owner gave her blessing to George Weiss’s plan to bring in familiar figures with whom fans were likely to identify in “I know who that is!” sense. Experience wasn’t lacking. Consider the very first lineup the Mets sported in St. Louis, 61 years ago this April 11:

Ashburn CF (first MLB game 1948)
Mantilla SS (1956)
Neal 2B (1956)
Thomas LF (1951)
Bell RF (1950)
Hodges 1B (1943)
Zimmer 3B (1954)
Landrith C (1950)
Craig P (1955)

Pretty seasoned for a first season. Not a single career among the starting nine began later than 1956. The Original Mets had been around. Wear and tear was implied when players were made available by the other NL enterprises for drafting, signing or trading purposes. Two of the Mets who got the team going, Ashburn and Hodges, are in the Hall of Fame today. But by 1962, many of those guys were already playing like museum pieces.

Another living, breathing icon in uniform, Casey Stengel, understood the veteran lineup would get him only so far. Casey didn’t wish to be underestimated because he was managing in his seventies back when that was considered irrefutably ancient, but he also understood the value of new blood pumping through the Metropolitan veins. Thus Ol’ Case devoted much of his March every March he managed the Mets touting the future in the figures he dubbed the Youth of America. If it was Spring, it was time to look ahead to the prospects who were going to make the Mets sooner or later and make the Mets’ prospects better as soon as possible.

It’s Spring. Sussing out and talking up the Youth of America is still what we do. Granted, we’re coming off a better season than Casey ever helmed in orange and blue, but we can’t be blamed for peeking around the corner of what we’ve already experienced, especially if we have up-and-comers coming up. It’s been a pretty promising month for getting a taste of those who’ve been ripening on the farm.

Mark Vientos has notched eleven RBIs. Ronny Mauricio, before being sent down, bopped four highlight-quality homers. Brett Baty, getting lots of time at third, is batting .342. Francisco Alvarez, not quite healthy when camp started, has slighter numbers, but we can then say, as we say when the veterans are stuck on the Interstate at this juncture of the calendar, it’s only Spring Training. He’s still Francisco Alvarez. He’s still highly touted. The Mets have catchers and at least half a designated hitter. Alvarez can wait.

They can all wait beyond March 30, 2023, in my instinctive judgment. Get really good at fielding or not striking out or whatever it is ya gotta work on. The kids have time. We have time. I think we do. We certainly have experience, if not far too much of it à la 1962.

Let’s write out a pretend but not altogether hypothetical lineup that we might actually see on Opening Day if Brandon Nimmo’s heart of hearts and knee and ankle are all on the same page…

Nimmo CF (first MLB game 2016)
Marte RF (2012)
Lindor SS (2015)
Alonso 1B (2019)
McNeil 2B (2018)
Canha LF (2015)
Vogelbach DH (2016)
Escobar 3B (2011)
Nido C (2017)

That’s the lineup from the last time the Mets played a non-exhibition game — the quiet denouement of last season’s Wild Card Series — and it didn’t generate much offense (one hit), but it was only the playoffs. The sample size from the rest of 2022 was a little bigger, and I’m willing to ride with the guys who hit most (if not all) of last year.

To a point. The kids are coming with the idea that they’ll budge their way into not-so-hypothetical lineups. They’ll alight when the moment is right. New blood. Budding careers. Sooner, later, eventually.


In the realm of experience, if you were sentient and a New Yorker on May 8, 1970, you were able to experience a sports moment you will never forget. Willis Reed was hurt. Really hurt. Basketball tends to require the use of two legs. Willis could depend on maybe one. He played Game Seven of the NBA Finals anyway. Got cortisone injected and went for it when nobody was certain he would. I was seven years old. I couldn’t believe Willis wouldn’t play. I’d just spent my first full season of engagement in any team’s fortunes believing in Willis Reed — the center, the Captain — and not believing any opponent could stop him.

Not that I thought in terms of just Willis Reed. Red Holzman didn’t align his Knicks around a single player. We had Frazier and Barnett, DeBusschere and Bradley, the Minutemen (Russell, Stallworth, Riordan) and, in stray minutes, Bowman, Hosket, May and Warren. But Willis was in the middle of it. He was the MVP of everything. He was the leader on the floor and in the locker room. From October of 1969 (after the ticker tape had been swept from Lower Broadway) to May, I was obsessed with Those Knicks like I’d never be obsessed with the Knicks or any non-Mets team again. My parents had season tickets. Some my father used for business. Some I guess he sold. Some games they went to and cheered wildly. They took my sister and me to a few games at the Garden, including one in the playoffs. What a place to be when you’re seven! They had taken us to the circus there as well. I preferred the Knicks. We listened to the home games we didn’t attend on the radio with dinner, my introduction to the velvet vocals of Brooklyn’s own Marv Albert. Road games were on Channel 9. I watched those, even the late night ones on the West Coast, even if it was a school night. Did my mother mind my staying up past midnight for basketball? Who do you think I was watching with? I didn’t get enough sleep, but I got through first grade all right.

Willis Reed, who I kept reading wasn’t really as tall as the 6’ 10” at which he was listed, was revered in our house as a giant. A friendly giant. A fierce center and a good man. The whole crew, straight through to Red’s trusty sidekick trainer Danny Whelan, felt like mishpacha — extended family, but more interesting than our cousins. Sixty wins in an 82-game schedule. The Bullets series, with Willis withstanding Wes Unseld in seven, was a lesson in confident tension. The Bullets were good, but they were from Baltimore, and I’d already seen the Orioles get taken down by the Mets and was up to speed on what happened between the Jets and the Colts. The Bucks series, which we won in five amounted to a coming out party postponed (sorry, Alcindor, not yet). Here came the glamorous Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West and Elgin Baylor with everything on the line. That trio was as imposing as anything. But we were led by Willis Reed, at least until Game Five and an injury that should have made handling Wilt impossible. Holzman had other notions. He wouldn’t have been the coach he was if he didn’t know how to adjust. He deployed DeBusschere, the prototype of a power forward, to stay on the Stilt, and it worked. The Knicks took a 3-2 lead. The next game, the Knicks missed Willis like crazy. Thus, Game Seven.

We hung on bulletins indicating whether Willis was going to be well enough to take the court that fateful Friday night. My mother had to talk me down from my high anxiety that this wonderful team we had watched race to a 23-1 start in the fall might somehow not be the champions. If the Lakers win, she suggested, they’ll have deserved it. They’re a good team, too. All the advice my mother tried to impart to me in the next twenty years of her life, and those are the words of wisdom that I return to most often. When the Mets or any team I root hard for faces a big game, I try to remind myself that there’s another team on the other side, and they are not to be disregarded. It doesn’t always soothe me.

Mostly, I believed Willis was going to play, because Willis seemed incapable of letting us down. Sure enough, Marv told us as we started dinner (home game, therefore blacked out locally, and my father chose not to invest in finals tickets), “Here comes Willis Reed!” Willis would play, Willis would start, Willis would sink two jumpers — on one good leg — and the Knicks were about to revert to form, which is to say the Knicks who won eighteen in a row in October and November. With Clyde turning in the most low-key immortal performance in any Game Seven ever (just 36 points and 19 assists), the Knicks quashed the Lakers. Willis didn’t have to do much more than show up. The game felt won the instant his presence was announced. He and that team were destiny personified.

Those Knicks would just miss making the finals the next spring; go the championship round and lose to the Lakers the spring after that; and then take one more trophy the next spring, in 1973. My parents dropped the season tickets in 1970-71 and 1971-72, but signed up all over again for 1972-73. I got to go to a bunch of games during the regular season and a game in every round that year, including the finals. I was at the Garden for the legendary double-OT Easter Sunday win over the Celtics. It was legend before it was over. My father pounded a tile out of the ceiling over our seats. I’d be telling that story forever after.

There was one more go-round for Those Knicks, but it was obvious to all — including this by now experienced eleven-year-old — that they didn’t have much left. The Celtics took care of them pretty easily in the conference finals. Willis, who had trouble staying in one piece after the first championship, retired. So did DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas, who, like Earl Monroe, brought shimmering individual credentials to Holzman’s Knicks and blended in beautifully. I remained a Knicks fan in the sense that I didn’t become a fan of any other NBA team — the Nets were still in the ABA — but I never cared as much as I did when Willis stood tall in the middle of everything, gradually reducing my rooting interest to sporadic, then non-existent. Something in my heart of hearts told me accept no substitutes.

But, boy, did I love Those Knicks and did I love Willis Reed and did I love sharing him and them with my mom and dad. I read the statistics in the paper, and got that Willis was great. But Dad filled me in on what made Willis great beyond points scored and how Willis made everybody around him better. So did Clyde. So did DeBusschere and Bradley and Barnett and everybody else. That’s the kind of basketball Holzman preached. That’s the kind of team it was. When I learned on Tuesday that Willis Reed died at the age of 80, I at the age of 60 understood it. The seven-year-old version of me only believes that Willis is there when we need him.

6 comments to The Experience of America

  • Seth

    Summer of ’72 my parents got our first cable TV box. It wasn’t good for much other than removing the need for a roof antenna. But it had this one channel called “MSG,” which amazingly carried every Knicks and Rangers home game (commercial free in those days). So the ’72-’73 season was my first exposure to the Knicks, and what a year to start with. I was at MSG for game 6 of the finals vs the Lakers — 5/6/73, great memories.

    RIP, Willis.

  • Dave

    Late to the conversation, and not going to talk about the Mets. Willis Reed was not only as gutsy an athlete as I ever saw, but (along with Mark Messier, sorry Keith), the greatest captain/leader of any team I ever saw. My first in-person sporting event was the Knicks last game at the old Garden, and thanks to my Dad (a junior high teacher) chaperoning the school’s annual Knicks game, I went to one each if the few years thereafter. Some of my fondest memories of my Dad involve watching those Knicks teams together, and while Clyde was the cool flashy one (later joined by Pearl) and my Dad loved DeBusschere’s dual sport resume, and often said to me about the small forward, “you know, he could be President one day,” it was always Willis who put the team on his shoulders and carried them where they needed to go. His entrance in Game 7 is as great a sports moment as any of us have ever seen. RIP, Captain.

  • Bob Mullaney

    Great article – especially for any NY fan born during the Kennedy administration!

    I recently came across a recent interview with Willis Read. While being asked about being the heart and soul of the Knicks, Willis interrupts the question, stating, “Hold on… I may have been the captain, but it was Clyde’s ball… he just let us play with it”.

  • bob kurpiel

    Nice tribute to the Captain, Greg. He was the first center to play like a guard or forward with that patented jump shot from 20 feet out. It forced a whole new way of playing defense by the opponent’s center. True, Willis had stars surrounding him but he did make each one just a little bit better. The Celtics were famous for passing the ball all around but to me, when you hear the crowd call for defense, they’re calling for the Knicks type defense where holding their opponent to under 100 was the goal of each game.

  • Bruce From Forest Hills

    May 8, 1970. Giants at Shea to play the Mets. I’m 11 years old. I’m at Shea with my father, my best friend (later my best man) and his father. We loved the Knicks. But the game wasn’t on TV. Actually, I don’t recall even discussing not going to the Mets game. We bought the seats a long time ago. And we weren’t the sort of people who could emotionally (or financially) afford to pass up opportunities to go to Shea. I don’t remember a thing about the Mets game (I had to look it up on just now. The Giants won.) But I do remember when the people with transistor radios told the rest of us that Willis had limped onto the court. It was a wild and unique evening listening to history being made — in a different sport. … Back in those days, my 11-year old self thought that Tom Seaver was the best ballplayer ever. And that Willis was at the next level up. Time has not changed my opinion about that.