Me and the Mets: An Autobiography
I was not born a Mets fan. When I began following baseball, they did not exist. It was 1958, the year after the Dodgers and Giants had moved west, and the Yankees were the only game in town. I was a seven-year-old playing wiffle ball in my New York suburban yard, dreaming that I was Mickey Mantle.
When I turned eleven, however, there was a new kid in town, a toddler with chubby cheeks just begging to be pinched. Like most toddlers, the Mets stumbled a lot. I listened on my transistor radio when Jay Hook pitched the Mets to their first win — in their tenth game. There would be only 39 more victories that season, with a record 120 losses that somehow made them lovable.
That first season, 1962, the Yankees won the World Series, their ninth championship in fourteen years. Nobody would have guessed that the Mets would win a World Series before the Yankees won another. Before that occurred, however, we fans endured six more dreadful years when the losing stopped being lovable. Although they added talented young pitchers like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Nolan Ryan, and moved into a new stadium, I focused, as all teenagers do, on more compelling interests: girls, music, girls, politics, girls.
When the Mets made their miracle run in 1969, I couldn’t savor it. I was an 18-year-old college freshman at Syracuse University, 250 miles from Shea Stadium, studying to change the world as a journalist. October 15, the day of World Series Game 4, was a nationwide protest against the Vietnam War, and I participated by handing out leaflets in downtown Syracuse. The only things I remember about the day was that I was paired with a girl who not only shared my last name, but also a variation of my future wife’s first name, and that in the afternoon, as I handed leaflets to passersby, I would ask them, “Any score?”
World Series games were still played during the afternoon, when I had classes. Since few students had televisions in their rooms, I caught parts of the games at the university’s coffee shop/bar, Jabberwocky, which was right across the street from my dorm. Few students shared my interest in the Fall Classic. On the day after the Vietnam protest, as I sat and watched Cleon Jones catch Davey Johnson’s fly ball to clinch the most unlikely championship in baseball history, I gave out a loud yelp. The smattering of students sitting in Jabberwocky looked up at me in curiosity, then lowered their eyes and went back to reading Camus. I finished my drink and trudged back to the dorm to do my homework.
The Mets’ championship, coming two months after Woodstock and three months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, convinced me that, over the next few years, things would change for the better. They didn’t. The war didn’t end, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, Jimi and Janis died, the Beatles broke up. I expected the Mets, with their great pitching, to contend for the next few seasons. They didn’t. Manager Gil Hodges dropped dead from a heart attack; the front office traded future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan for an over-the-hill infielder.
I fared no better. Fifteen months after my coffee house yelp, I was a college dropout. I had stopped attending classes in my sophomore year. I was embarrassed and bewildered by this; always a diligent student, I didn’t understand my sudden paralysis, and my attempts to explain it felt like gobbledygook. So I avoided explanation by avoiding people, especially friends. Decades passed before I grasped that I might have been suffering from an undiagnosed, untreated bout of depression, a problem that has recurred throughout my life.
Both the Mets and I had a slight bounce-back in 1973. Despite being in last place in August, the Mets rallied to win their division, upset the heavily favored Cincinnati Reds in the League Championship, and, in the World Series, took the defending champ Oakland A’s to a 7th game. Their slogan was Tug McGraw’s “you gotta believe!”
I believed in the Mets; I didn’t believe in me. I began a decent-paying, if futureless, job in a local manufacturing firm. My life was in a holding pattern, but this job would allow me to have some disposable income for the next year or two until I figured out what I wanted out of life.
That holding pattern lasted seven years. At times, I suspected that I had given up on my life.
The Mets had given up too. Free agency and escalating player salaries had arrived, but the miserly Mets management, led by chairman M. Donald Grant, balked, trading their best players, including Seaver, rather than pay market value. They made little attempt to field a competitive squad, and Shea was sometimes so empty that fans dubbed it “Grant’s Tomb.” The Seventies was as much of a lost decade for the Mets as it was for me.
For a few years, I committed an act of treason: I rooted for the Yankees. Once again, they were the only true game in town. Most Mets fans hated them for their longtime domination of the sport, but I mostly remembered their mediocre previous decade, dubbed the “Horace Clarke Era” after their forgettable second baseman, so I was more forgiving. The Yankees of the late 1970s — Reggie, Munson, Guidry, Willie Randolph — were a team with the determination I lacked and the talent I suspected I lacked.
As anyone who lived through that era knows, the Yankees were called the “Bronx Zoo” for good reason. Turmoil and conflict ruled even on the best of days. Sometime around 1980, after another managerial firing or abrupt minor league banishment, I realized, “If I worked for a company that was run like this, I’d quit. Why am I rooting for them?” Almost overnight, my attitude toward the Yankees changed.
But I asked a similar question about my own life: Why? I was 29, on the fast track to nowhere. I knew I needed to make a drastic change. I quit my job, sold some possessions, and hit the road, spending the next six weeks traveling around the country. I wasn’t closely following the pennant races, though I did stop to see a game at Wrigley Field. I was hoping the trip would give me the sense of purpose I had lacked for a decade.
It didn’t. But my life did change. I had broken out of whatever funk I’d been in. Shortly after returning home, I got a temporary job which turned into my first IT job. At work, I made a new friend, a diehard Mets fan who reignited my love for the team from Queens. The team still stunk, but we would drive to Shea from work, buy the cheapest seats available, then walk up to an usher on the lower level and hand him a couple of fives as he seated us in the corporate boxes nobody was using. It was wonderful.
A couple of years later, the corporate boxes were being used again. The Mets didn’t stink any longer. Nor did my life. In 1983, as the Mets added Strawberry, Darling, and Hernandez, I landed my first computer programming job. In 1984, as the Mets added Dwight Gooden, I got married. In 1985, as they added Gary Carter, I got a job programming for a major bank, where I would stay for the next two decades. And in 1986, as the Mets won 108 games and their second championship, I became a father.
I couldn’t savor the Mets’ title because Michelle’s first months were touch-and-go. Born thirteen weeks early in July, weighing less than two pounds at birth, Michelle spent the first 3 ½ months of her life in the hospital’s NICU, and her long-term prognosis was iffy. My wife and I carpooled, driving directly to the hospital from work each night for a few hours before going home and grabbing a belated dinner.
I followed the Mets closely, of course, though I rarely caught more than half a game on TV. I did, however, score a ticket to Game 3 of the N.L.C.S. against the Houston Astros and sat down the right field line, just a few sections from where Lenny Dykstra’s ninth-inning, walk-off home run landed.
Game 6, with the Mets leading three games to two, put me in a bind. It was a weekday afternoon game. As I arrived at my wife’s workplace, preparing to head for the hospital, the Mets were down by three runs, with a loss dooming them to a Game 7 showdown against the best pitcher in the league, Mike Scott, who had befuddled the Mets all season. I feared that their great season was about to end in bitter disappointment. But as my wife approached the car, the Mets were making a miraculous ninth-inning rally to tie the game. We made an impulsive decision to watch the end of the game at my parents’ house — they lived near the hospital, we lived 40 minutes away — and visit the hospital after the game ended.
The teams were still tied after 10 innings, then 11, 12, 13. In the top of the 14th, the Mets scored a run and we knew victory was imminent. We raced to the car and headed for the hospital, tuning the car radio to the bottom of the 14th that would clinch our victory. But just as we reached the highway exit ramp for the hospital, Billy Hatcher of the Astros hit a home run to tie the game again. We made a U-turn and headed back to my parents’ house. When the Mets scored three runs in the top of the 16th to take the lead, we took no chances. We stayed on the couch until the last out was recorded, then dashed belatedly to the hospital.
I celebrated when Vin Scully announced, “The ball gets by Buckner!” and two days later when Jesse Orosco jubilantly tossed his glove in the air. But I also spent much of those days, and the surrounding days, at the hospital.
Three weeks after the Mets’ parade, Michelle came home. All was now right with the world. Michelle grew into a healthy, intelligent girl. For the next two decades, life was good. We bought a home, had a second daughter, Nicole, earned promotions and raises, and became solid members of America’s middle class.
Life was not so good for the Mets. Drugs, injuries, and age depleted that 1986 team, and the promise of multiple championships dissipated. After losing in the 1988 N.L.C.S. to Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers, their fortunes plunged. A trio of promising young pitchers dubbed “Generation K” fizzled out and free-agent signings were a dud, though a trade for Mike Piazza led to a playoff run in 1999 and a World Series trip — losing, ugh, to the Yankees — in 2000. I remained a fan, but some of the ardor had died. My Mets buddy had moved away, and Shea visits were rare; the only one I remember is baby Nicole sleeping through a 1991 Fireworks Night. Watching games on TV became less important than letting the kids watch their Disney videotape for the 42nd time.
By 2006, things had changed again. Michelle was attending college in Boston, living only a few blocks from Fenway Park; on the night the Red Sox broke the curse in 2004, she sent me an email saying, “Is something going on? It sounds like a riot outside.” Nicole was in high school and I had time to watch the games again. With David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and Pedro Martinez, it looked like a new era of success was beginning. The Mets won their first division title in 18 years. But several of their pitchers got hurt just as the playoffs began, and the 2006 N.L.C.S. ended with an image no Mets fan has forgotten: the final pitch, when the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright snapped off a curve ball that froze Carlos Beltran at the plate with the bases loaded.
In 2006, life threw me a curve, and I froze too. I had worked at the bank for 21 years and assumed I would retire there in another decade. But the bank had other plans. They announced that they would be selling off my division, then merging with another bank. Within a year, my job would no longer exist and there was no guarantee I would be offered another one. I was 55 years old and facing unemployment, with a mortgage and a second kid soon heading to college.
My co-workers, most of whom were near my age, shared my dilemma. You could feel the tension and despair every day in the workplace. But I made it worse for myself. I had recently begun writing for the first time since my college journalism classes. It was strictly an avocation — I wasn’t attempting to publish anywhere — but I thought I was pretty good at it. I had always been wistful about my twenties, when I lost my sense of direction and abandoned my dreams, but I had always reassured myself that I had ended up on a safe and stable path. Now, however, that path was shown to be not safe and stable at all. I began to berate myself for my youthful weakness, and I filled with self-loathing. Beltran may have blown Game 7 of the N.L.C.S, I thought, but I had blown my life.
The Mets continued to have good teams in 2007 and 2008, but in both Septembers, their weary bullpens ran out of gas, and other teams battered them like a piñata; I joked that the pitchers should just throw the ball over the fence and save the batters the trouble.
But I felt like a piñata too. The bank did give me a new job, but I hated it. None of the other people in my department worked in the same building and I felt isolated; the man who once avoided human contact now cursed its absence. There were people around me, however; I was moved from a cubicle to an open desk with no privacy and located five feet from the department printer, assuring that people would tromp past my desk every 30 seconds. My self-loathing got deeper and I sank into a depression so dark that my family feared for my safety. They had good reason; many of my thoughts were suicidal. When my wife finally convinced me to see a therapist, I spent the entire first session crying.
Finally in 2008, for my own sanity, I took early retirement. My plan was to take a few months off, regain my bearings, and then rejoin the workforce, even if it was in a different, lower-paying endeavor. But that September, just like the Mets bullpen, the economy imploded.
Over the next few years, the Mets began to regroup. Hampered financially by the owners’ involvement with Bernie Madoff, they drastically cut their budget, let talented players like Jose Reyes leave, eschewed the free-agent market, and began to concentrate on rebuilding the minor league system in hopes of contending a few years later.
We regrouped too. Since I couldn’t land a full-time job, my wife encouraged me to concentrate on writing. I started a blog, made a lot of friends — if not much money — and I was happier than I had been in years. We drastically cut our budget, figuring out a way to survive on just her salary and my retirement account; I took temporary jobs and found ways to add some income to our coffers.
Then, shortly after the 2012 season ended in the Mets’ fourth consecutive sub-.500 season, my wife lost her job. She hasn’t found a full-time job since. Many days are a struggle, both financially and emotionally. My old friend depression took up residence, uninvited, for a while. Still, we are surviving.
No, the Mets’ World Series run in 2015 is not matched by a corresponding jump in my fortunes. If the team’s success no longer mirrors my life, however, it does provide a lifeline. I used to scoff at the old saying that entertainment and sports allow people to forget their problems for a few hours; it always sounded condescending. But for me this year, it was true. My passion for the Mets has been higher this year than it has been for decades. I watched most games on TV and began following (without participating in) the fan blog at Amazin Avenue. A few years ago, my Mets buddy returned to the area; I recently made my first two trips to Citi Field and now have someone to kvetch about the team with.
Looking at the Mets’ history, I find lessons that apply to my life: Plans, no matter how well-constructed, sometimes fail. Success, no matter how hard you work, is not guaranteed. In fact, success and failure may appear randomly, but failure this year doesn’t preclude success in the next.
Although I expect the Mets’ young talent to provide multiple chances at titles, I recall that I said the same thing about the 1969, 1986, and 2006 teams. I understand that there is no guarantee of success and you must seize the chance while it is there. It’s been 29 years since their last championship, and if it is 29 years until their next, I might not be around to see it. If they win it this year, I plan to savor it.