Growing up on Grandma Muriel’s spaghetti and the Mets
How Mike Piazza and my Grandma Muriel taught me about family, winning and why we still care about the New York Mets — even when they’re awful.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Sunday in Yonkers, N.Y., and I’m diving face-first into a plate of my grandma’s spaghetti, meatballs and sausages. There are dozens, possibly hundreds of kids just like me around the state covered in red sauce, slurping up pasta and occasionally remembering to breathe or dab their faces with the reddish-orange ball that was once the first napkin of the afternoon.
The Sunday pasta dinner is an Italian thing in NY, but our Jewish family adopted it too. Grandma Muriel raised her kids — my father and aunt — in a lower-middle class neighborhood of the Bronx replete with Italian, Puerto Rican and Jewish families, most first- or second-generation Americans. Italian family friends taught my grandma how to make their Sunday staple, which became a tradition in our family for decades after.
I was a fat kid on the verge of his last growth spurt, so despite the chorus of complaints about traffic, politics, the war, my dad’s back, my aunt’s hip, my neglected homework and whether or not the spinach is overcooked, I tuned everything out and fell into salty, savory bliss.
I eventually hit my limit and looked up to find that despite the infallible wisdom of my 11 years on Earth, the world could go on without my attention. My dad was cleaning up my six-year-old brother, my cousins were talking about colleges and mom was begging my grandma to sit down and eat her first plate before her grandson polished off his third.
These Sunday afternoon dinners were a staple of my childhood, and they typically started and ended with a New York Mets game. If I got lucky, the game would start at 4 p.m. so I could watch the first few innings with the whole family and listen to the rest on the car ride home. Serenity is listening to Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen call a Mike Piazza homer while the sun sinks behind Manhattan and your little brother falls asleep on your shoulder.
My Mets fandom starts with my Grandma Muriel. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she never forgave the Dodgers for fleeing to Los Angeles in 1957. When the Mets started playing baseball in 1962, she never let go. Her son (my dad) grew up in the Bronx watching Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris do unspeakable things to innocent baseballs for the New York Yankees, but followed my grandma’s lead into decades of woeful fandom. He met my mom, a Jersey girl with little interest in baseball, in March 1986. The Mets won the World Series seven months later, and my dad proposed less than a month after the championship parade.
I got roped in sometime in 1997. I was three, and whenever my dad would layout on our white leather sofa to watch the game, I’d snuggle up next to him. He taught me what baseball was, what the numbers and symbols meant and what things like “hits,” “runs” and “players” were. In 1998, I was strapped into my carseat when my dad told me he had big news: The Mets traded for a catcher named Mike Piazza who “hits lots of home runs.” That was especially exciting, because I had just learned what home runs were. A couple months later I had a hero, and my dad had started the third generation of Mets fandom.
Despite my early initiation, I didn’t truly get baseball until 2002, and the Mets were awful. I got a little too big to share the couch with my dad, but I did learn the difference between fastballs and other pitches, different players’ skill sets, and got used to a steady stream of monster Piazza home runs in meaningless losses. That didn’t bother me, though. Baseball was still something I played with my friends, but enjoyed with my family — and often with a plate of grandma’s spaghetti with meatballs and sausages.
Four years later, everything had changed. The Mets were good. Really damn good. Mike Piazza was gone, but David Wright, Jose Reyes and Pedro Martinez were here. They had the two best Carloses in baseball (Beltran and Delgado) hitting back-to-back. It was unfair.
Quantifiably, they won a National League leading 97 games and ranked in the top three in most statistical categories. But no metric can measure how fun that team was to watch. Reyes stole bases without breaking a sweat. Wright sprayed hits to every nook and cranny of the field. The Carloses launched homers so far you thought they could hit the planes flying over Shea Stadium from LaGuardia airport. Martinez made batters look foolish for even trying to hit his pitching. Every night was a fireworks show — you just didn’t know which player was going to light the first fuse.
My relationship with the game changed too. I was 13 and clawing myself out of the awkward hellhole otherwise known as middle school. I spent more time thinking of how I’d fend off bullies than how I should do my homework, and the Mets were my escape from some difficult years. Watching them was one of the few positive outlets I had. When the Mets won, none of that mattered.
Grandma Muriel — from whom I inherited a quick temper, motor-mouth and loyalty to a fault — was on the same page. She’d always be the happiest when they won, and the most disappointed when they lost. She’d get so excited, she’d mix up me and my cousin’s names, or take out the frustration on my aunt for something she didn’t do. For a while I thought it was just the Mets.
The 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons ended in heartbreak. The team started to fall apart, blowing games, leaving runners on base and choking away playoff berths. The fireworks stopped, and the Sunday afternoon dinners I loved so much as a kid became strained and frustrating. Sometimes my grandma would scold someone trying to help her take a pot off the stove or drain the pasta. Sometimes the sauce was really thin, really salty or just plain off. After all, I was a know-it-all high schooler with little interest in listening to my family kvetch and even less heart to watch my Grandma Muriel slip away from me.
Born in 1919, Muriel Robles had a rough childhood. Her eyesight was so poor, she was deemed legally blind as a young woman and relied on heavy-duty glasses. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was three. She was mercilessly bullied in school, and taken away from home with her two brothers and put into foster care. The state didn’t think her mother could afford to feed them, and when Grandma Muriel had kids of her own, she refused to let them leave the table hungry, even if that meant skimping on her own servings. The same applied to her grandchildren.
Despite a brutal childhood and a lifetime of smoking, she was sharp as a tack and feisty as hell well into her 80’s. She was devoted to her children and grandkids, so much so that when I asked her to stop smoking as a toddler, she dropped the cigarette in her hand and never picked up another. Whenever I spent time with her, she made sure I had plenty of snacks and control of the TV, just as long as we didn’t miss the Mets game.
But by 2009, we knew Grandma Muriel didn’t have much time left. She had become dangerously forgetful, leaving food in the oven and pots on the stove until smoke billowed beneath her apartment door. She moved in with my aunt and uncle, and was soon limited to using the microwave, very much against her will. Her quick wit and sharp tongue gave way to anger, often bookended by confusion. She’d call up old friends to talk and hear someone else’s voice explaining the woman she dialed for was dead.
Despite her difficult final years, Grandma Muriel still watched the Mets as often as she could. We’d visit her on weekends and watch with her, though by Monday she’d forget we were there and ask when we’d see her again. But even as she lost her grasp on the world around her, she could still remember half of the world champion 1969 Mets roster.
Grandma Muriel died on December 26, 2009, when there was no baseball to watch. She said before she passed that she didn’t want a big funeral, so instead we gathered at my house and shared our favorite memories of her. — over spaghetti with meatballs and sausages, of course. I was 16 when Grandma Muriel died, and I still wish for just one more Sunday afternoon with her, a plate of spaghetti and the Mets game.
After we lost Grandma Muriel, I paid less attention to the Mets — who, by the way, had become an abysmal shell of the team I fell in love with in 2006. I was getting ready to go to college, slimming down, coming into my own and looking forward to getting the hell out of Mohegan Lake, N.Y.
I realized soon after that whether the Mets won or lost, nothing about my life changed. I might be happy or sad, but I didn’t need the Mets or depend on them anymore. Middle school was far behind me, and I was cruising through high school, writing for local papers, learning to drive and applying to colleges. Grandma Muriel would have been proud, even if I wasn’t watching the hapless Mets flail their way through another season.
Now I’m 22 and living in D.C. in what’s essentially a closet with plumbing and gas. The Mets are in the World Series for the first time since 2006, and I’ve spent most of the past few nights crouched over my laptop, strangling a pillow and watching their playoff climb. David Wright is still there, but he has a whole new team around him reigniting fireworks that remind me of 2006, only bigger and brighter. Even better, I can actually watch the games now, since post-grad life has more structure than four classes, three extracurriculars and countless late nights studying, writing, editing or drinking.
Of course, there’s more incentive to watch a good team than a bad one. You may think I’m fair-weather fan, but even when the Mets sucked, my love for the Mets never faltered, even if the time I invested in them did.
A few weeks ago, the Mets won their first playoff series since 2006 by beating the Dodgers — the team that broke my grandma’s heart almost 60 years ago. After lots of air-punching and heavy breathing, I thought about how excited she would have been to see her team move onto the NLCS by kicking Los Angeles in the stomach.
That’s when I realized why I still cared about the Mets. The team could forfeit the playoffs tomorrow, dissolve as a franchise and never play a game again. Or they could win every game for the next five seasons. Either way, the Mets’ success still has no impact on the fundamental aspects of my life, save for a few excited or dejected hours.
But watching the Mets and remembering how important they were to my grandma, how prominent they were in the moments I shared with her? That means more to me than anything the Mets could do on the field.
It’s weird to think that the Mets, once synonymous with futility and disappointment, created such enduring bonds in my family. Mets fans like to joke that life our lives would be so much easier, so much richer if were Yankee fans — as if we were born into years of torment through some sort of Calvinist predetermination and couldn’t switch sides if we wanted to.
Some fans started rooting for the Mets during a rare good year and were hooked ever since. But the “ever since” is the hardest part, and it means sticking through years of terrible baseball for a team that means more to you than a box score or a November parade.
For my family, the Mets were either featured in the forefront or playing in the background of countless moments. Whether those moments were peaceful or joyous or somber or frustrating or just plain awful, it didn’t matter, because I had my family and we had the Mets. They were there even when we didn’t need them, and always there when we did. Some of those moments were just long drives, lazy afternoons and tasty Sunday dinners. But each of those games brought us closer together — inning by inning — because they were something we were doing together.
It could have been anything. Any team. Any sport. Anything else. But for better or worse, it’s the New York Mets.