Monday, October 8, 2012

Look Who's Number One

I know where I was and what I was doing on this day thirty-nine years ago. It, too, was a Monday and a holiday. As per family tradition, my mother hosted a birthday party for my younger brother on that crisp autumn Columbus Day. Various friends from the neighborhood were invited over to our house to sing “Happy Birthday” and eat Duncan Hines chocolate box cake, ice cream, and assorted munchies. And, last but not least, no kid party of ours was complete without fun games like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” and “Dunking for Apples”—McIntosh Red from Sloan’s supermarket down the street.

But it also was a very special day for New York Met fans of all ages. Back in October 1973—a month shy of my eleventh birthday—I proudly wore the nickname of “Mr. Met.” On my block, I was a rare fan of the team from Queens. After all, I called home the Bronx, where that American League franchise played in a big stadium several miles to the south. My unbending fealty to their cross-town rivals set me apart.

Shortened to just “Met” in most instances, my nickname has endured. Over the last four decades, a handful of folks—who misheard “Met” in the ether—have called me “Matt.” But, sadly, my allegiance to the team has not endured. Once upon a time my Met fanaticism was whole and pure—loyal through good times and bad for a quarter of a century. Society, the world, and Major League Baseball, though, gradually changed—for the worst in many instances—as did my interest in what once was a wonderful game. Big money, multi-media hot air, and snowballing technologies have dramatically altered the playing field. The game’s unique and special ambiance has taken a colossal hit—fatal from my perspective. An average game takes close to three hours now, and a half hour longer than that during the post season. Between excessive commercials and on-the-field dilly-dallying, the games just never end. I won’t bother mentioning the pampered millionaires who play the game today, steroids, over-expansion, interleague play, uneven and unfair scheduling, and ticket prices beyond the pale of decency. Player loyalty? Fuggedaboutit. This used to be the little guy’s game.

And so I return to that Columbus Day birthday party from yesteryear, which found my New York Mets playing Cincinnati’s heavily favored "Big Red Machine" that same afternoon in a play-off game. Yes, we called them the “play-offs” then—not the “LCS.” It was televised on both WOR, Channel Nine—the Mets’ local station—and nationally on NBC. Imagine that. Naturally, I remained loyal to the play-by-play of the home team’s dulcet announcers: Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and Bob Murphy. And on this festive fall day, Jerry Koosman pitched a complete game and Rusty Staub hit two home runs in a 9-2 rout. The Mets went on to beat the Reds in a best of five series with a team ERA of 1.33. The staff also completed three of the five games played. Imagine that.

Only a week earlier, the Mets clinched the Eastern Division title with a win against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Realizing that many of her students were more interested in watching the game than having her read aloud from The Big Wave, sixth-grade Language Arts teacher Sister Joanne wheeled in a big black-and-white television set, resting atop a tall stand, and plugged it into the non-educational, commercial TV slot on the wall. Fortunately, it wasn’t a year earlier when I had old and crabby Sister Camillus for the same subject. She wouldn’t have been so obliging, I suspect.

On August, 31, 1973, the Mets sported a 62-71 record. Manager and guru Yogi Berra told skeptical reporters around that time, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” After a year of debilitating injuries to so many team regulars, good health had returned for the month of September. Admittedly, it helped that the Eastern Division of the National League was pretty lame that year, but Yogi was nonetheless prescient. On the last weekend of the season, five of the six teams had a mathematical chance of winning the division. The Mets actually assumed first place with a 76-76 record on September 21st. After they beat the Pirates 10-2 that night, I'll never forget a WOR-TV post-game camera shot of Shea Stadium’s "state-of-the-art" electronic scoreboard. It read “Look Who’s Number One,” with the division’s standings listed below it. That old scoreboard often looked like contemporary Facebook posts from iPhones—error laden, incoherent, and unintentionally hilarious—but this particular message was absolutely correct in letter and number.

When one combines my almost-eleven-year-old enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence with my favorite team going from last place to first place during the first few weeks of September, it’s little wonder that one of the most exciting sentences I’ve ever laid eyes on was: “Look Who’s Number One.” Perhaps I’ll encounter another such sentence in the future—with such heft—but that’s highly unlikely.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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