The day Willie Mays was traded to the Mets.
I became a baseball fan sometime during the late 1960's. I remember watching games on TV on Saturdays and during the World Series some teachers at school would put the game on a small black and white TV in the classroom. Around sixth grade other kid's were bringing baseball cards to school to share and trade. I was hooked. I started listening to Lon Simmons doing San Francisco Giants radio broadcasts. It seemed like every other game Willie Mays would do something great that would help the Giants win. He became my favorite player. My small handheld transistor radio became my companion during the summer of 1971. In September, on the night on my first day in junior high/7th grade, my Uncle Stan and Aunt Peggy took my three brothers and I to our first Giants game against the Dodgers at Candlestick Park. I remember being awestruck by the large stadium and when we walked through the double doors the brilliance of the lights and ball diamond grass. That moment of seeing a major league baseball diamond for the first time still stays with me. The game had already started and the Giants were up in the bottom of the first of this tight September pennant race game. As we found our seats Willie Mays stood at the plate against Dodger pitcher Don Sutton. Before I could get out of the isle and into my seat, Sutton knocked down Willie with a fastball, hitting my hero and sending him sprawling into the dirt of the batter's box. I stood still with my jaw dropped gazing at the gathering near home plate of manager, trainer, players, umpires, and Willie Mays dusting himself off. "They just hit Willie Mays!" I cried out through the chorus of boos from the Giants faithful. That was the moment I began hating the Dodgers.
After losing in the 1971 playoffs to the Pirates (my brother's favorite team) the 1972 season started hopefull that the Giants could repeat and make the playoffs again. But the Giants owner was low on cash and traded an ageing Willie Mays to the New York Mets for $100,000 and a minor league pitcher, Charlie Williams. I couldn't believe that the Giants would trade the greatest ballplayer there ever was. Although Willie was at the end of his great career and over 40 years old, I daydreamed in class about how if Willie played until he was 48 and I graduated high school and was signed by the Mets, I could play in the New York outfield with my hero. While Willie would not extend his great career longer than age 42, I did not have the talent to cut the grass at Shea Stadium much less roam it catching fly balls alongside my idol. In 1972 and 1973 the only connection I had to the Mets was yesterday's box scores in the afternoon newspaper. I would spread the newsprint out on the porch and see if Willie had played that day and how the Mets had faired.
I remember using lined school paper and a pencil and making my personal Mets schedule that I would mark with a W or a L depending on the game's outcome. I even scrawled highlites here and there that I gleened from the newspaper. I still have those wrinkled, folded worn sheets that I used to carry with me to school and fill in the next opponents while researching the Mets at the school library. I had no alliance to the Miracle Mets of 1969 except for vague memories of the 1969 World Series games on TV at school and news accounts of the Amazin's rise from the depths of losing seasons. My team now was the Amazin' Mets of Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, Staub, Harrelson, Milner and yes, Willie Mays.
As I went through my four years of high school I became an avid baseball card collector. I had complete sets from 1972 through 1976 and only needed a handfull to complete my 1970 & 1971 sets. Those were the days when you had to find a neighborhood friend or school chum to wrangle the cards you needed to fill in the missing numbers of your sets. Going to the local Circle K or 7-11 to grab packs of cards was a highlight of summer. I still followed the Mets in the papers, scouring boxscores for the latest Mets news. Less than one month after my High School graduation in June of 1977, the darkest day in Mets history struck. June 15, 1977. A day that will live in infamy. The day the Mets died to me. The Mets had the nerve to trade their best ever player and "The Franchise", pitcher Tom Seaver to the Reds. And to make it worse for me they also traded my favorite slugger, ex-Giants 1B Dave "King Kong" Kingman the same day to the San Diego Padres. I was devastated as I read about the transactions. I was downright mad. I swore off the Mets as I had the Giants when they traded Willie Mays. I quit collecting baseball cards. I quit reading boxscores. I quit caring about what the Mets did. That was the moment I began hating major league baseball.
My brother and I were coaching 6 to 8 year olds in little league from 1980 through 1984 while we got jobs and started families of our own. He always named his team the Pirates and I always named mine the Mets. Coaching six, seven, and eight year olds how to love the game of baseball and what the heck a "Mets" was, really made me miss following the major leagues. While buying a soda at the local corner store, I would pick up a pack of baseball cards just to see what the current designs were only to throw them in a drawer somewhere to be forgotten. In 1984 the All-Star game was coming to Candlestick Park in SF and my brother and I arraigned to be part of a 20 game ticket plan with the Giants so we could go to the summer classic. Just the year before in 1983, I had gone to my first SF Giants game in many years. It was against the Mets on Aug 20, 1983, and they held Willie Mays Day, honouring the "Say Hey Kid" for his greatness as a Giant. The Mets won that day heading towards the end of another losing season with players like Hernandez, Foster, Giles, Brooks, and Hodges. I remember seeing this kid wearing number 18 on his back. Darryl Strawberry. Cool name. He looked awesome just standing there. And then I started checking his stats in boxscores. And he became the rookie of the year. And I bought bubble gum packs to get his rookie cards. That was the moment I fell in love with the Mets again.
In 1984 the Mets had another rookie join the team, Dwight "Doc" Gooden. By now in the mid eighties, I no longer had to rely solely on boxscores for my Mets news. ESPN and TBS now had nightly baseball highlights. We could now watch the Braves games and the Cubs games on cable all year long and the Giants had all of their games on pay-per-view access. Meanwhile the mid eighties Mets started to win games. I remember watching the sports ticker going across the bottom of the screen as my "instant" game updates. The Mets nearly caught the Cubs in 1984 and lost out to the Cardinals on the last weekend of 1985. A huge year by both Doc and Straw. I got a pure bred chow as a pet for the family and named him Darryl Dwight. We called him the "rally dog" and would bring him in to lay by the TV whenever we were fortunate enough to watch the Mets on the tube. When the 1986 season started with the Mets dominating everyone in the National League, I had a feeling something was special. Aquiring Gary Carter to catch and Bob Ojeda as another starter put the Mets over the top. I started recording the short game highights from ESPN on my VCR. Caught the "Lets Go Mets" Video. Played the Curly shuffle. And they kept winning. We started going to every Mets/Giants game when the Mets would visit Candlestick, staying after the game to root the team bus out of the parking lot and watch Keith Hernandez drive off in his corvette. After a week of stutter stepping, the Mets clinched the National League East early in September, ending the season with 108 wins and leaving the second place Phillies 21 1/2 games behind. That was the moment I fell in love with the Mets dominating.
A couple years of almosts and maybes and the eighties were over. I still refuse to believe we lost to the Dodgers in 1988. That portion of my memory is still in a black hole twenty five years later. Then into the 1990's and gone were Knight, Strawberry, Hernandez, Carter, Dykstra, even Gooden. One moment on the top as Champions, that's all we got. The "worst team money could buy" replaced the World Champs. Lean years during the 1990's. Vince Coleman. Juan Samuel. Bobby Bonillia. Anthony Young. 'nuff said. By the end of the decade things started to look up. I got to experience Mets baseball in New York one time in my life, in 1999. We were in Baltimore for a work conference and my wife and I drove five hours to Shea to see the Mets play the Blue Jays. It was the game in which Bobby Valentine got kicked out but appeared later in the dugout wearing a disguise. I got to see Mike Piazza and Rickey Henderson play at Shea. The Mets won in extra innings making my only Shea experience a little longer than normal. That was the moment I felt at home at the ballpark.
The Mets of the 1990's weren't much to watch until they got Mike Piazza. And Al Leiter. Edgardo Alfonzo. Robin Ventura. John Olerud. In 1999 they thrashed Cinncinatti in a one game playoff for the wild card. Then Todd Pratt hit his tenth inning home run, winning the division series and putting a priceless look on Steve Finley's face when he saw the ball was not in his glove. Classic. A team that in 1999 almost pulled off the impossible against the Atlanta Braves long before Ortiz and the Red Sox stunned the Bronx Bombers with four straight wins. So close again but denied the ultimate season prize. Those same New York Yankees were on a streak of four straight World Series appearances when they crushed the 2000 Mets dream of climbing to the top of the baseball world again. After beating the Giants with one of the greatest pitching performances in Mets history thrown by Bobby Jones and domination over the Cardinals for the National League crown, the Yankees kicked the Mets back across town as still the second best team in New York. That was the moment I began hating the Yankees.
Then the most exciting thing ever happened to me as a Mets fan. Extra Innings on cable. 2005 was the year that I was finaly able to watch the Mets on TV nearly every game. I bought a DVD recorder so I could record the games at their 4pm PST start while I was still at work. Then after the game was over, carefully avoiding any scoreboards or sports programing, I would pop the DVD in and watch the games. I have nearly the whole 2005 & 2006 season on DVD discs. The Mets seemed to have the magic again in 2006, winning exciting games. Including the greatest up/down game in Mets history. Game 7 versus the Cardinals. Endy's catch and Beltran's called third strike. Again I thought the Ghost of Mookie Magic would prevail but was left dissappointed. In 2008 I signed up for both MLB.TV and Extra Innings so that I would not miss a game. Sometimes I wished I had missed a game. Like the last one of the season in 2007 & 2008. These Mets teams were not really on the caliber of previous Mets winners. But their historic collapses defined a team that is still trying to shake that image. I've been heartbroken three times in my life. When the Rally Dog, Darryl Dwight passed away in 1999, when my father passed in 2009, and when Shea Stadium was torn down in 2008. I cried like a baby during the closing ceremonies after that tough loss on the last day of Shea. I watched on the internet the slow dissasembly of Shea all winter long. Those were the moments I hated being sentimental.
But now a brand new stadium is the home of the New York Mets. I have never seen it with my own eyes. For nine years now (2005 to 2013) I have watched Gary Cohen (and sometimes listened to Howie Rose) tell me about my New York Mets. I've now dumped Extra Innings as the quality of MLB.TV is outstanding. (2013 they were crap, really pissing me off) I have access through many platforms to watch the Mets on MLB.tv. Every game with Mets announcers, no more Rockies shrills or Braves hommies or Phillies fanatics. Only Gary, Keith, Ron, Kevin, Howie, Josh, and even some Ed Coleman and Ralph Kiner. Unfortunately Ralph Kiner passed away and Kevin Burkhardt has moved to bigger things [Fox baseball & football]. This is the moment that I love technology.
So one Saturday during August of 2012 I'm sitting there watching the SNY broadcast of the Mets and I'm thinking about my retirement that comes in two years. Thinking about how I will watch every Mets game from home until death due us part. And then the Dream comes to me. What if I were to be able to watch every Mets game at Citi Field for a whole season? How could I make that happen? Would it be possible? Could I afford it? I've worked for the same company since I was 18 and have 37 years of service with them. Is 37 years of getting up to an alarm clock and shuffling off to work as a priority worth spending a year as a resident Mets fan at Citi Field? Well, I'm committed now to get it done. That will be the moment I will love retirement.