Friday, January 11, 2013
Really...It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over
Recently, the sports writers who elect members of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame failed to select a single one for induction in 2013, despite several marquee names with Hall of Fame numbers on the ballot, including Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Their more than suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs torpedoed their chances—this go-around anyway.
2013 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Mets, and my then favorite team’s last place to first place August-September metamorphosis. Champions of the National League Eastern division, the Mets promptly defeated the heavily favored Big Red Machine in the play-offs—three games to two—but came up a game short in the World Series against the heavily favored Oakland A’s. It was a World Series that my beloved Mets really should have won—they were up three games to two after all. It would have been the icing atop the cake of what was—for me at least—a mystical snapshot in time that, I know, can never be replicated.
I wasn’t quite eleven years old that September when the baseball gods intervened and healed so many injured players, while simultaneously adding a little extra oomph to their on-the-field performances. The coupling of youthful, unjaded exuberance with bona fide baseball fanaticism proved a potent mix, particularly back in this vastly different, much more innocent epoch to be a kid. If I had a month to live over in perpetuity—a Groundhog Month as it were—September 1973 might very well be my choice. It was an epic run for Met fans, and most especially appreciated by the younger set, like me, who lived and died on every call made by Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner. Up to that point in time, these three guys were the only broadcasters the Mets had ever employed. They painted the word picture with class and aplomb in stark contrast with the overbearing critical eyes of so many of today’s announcers.
My all-time favorite player was pitching great and future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver—the “Franchise” as he was known in these parts. Yogi Berra managed the 1973 club and, as far as I'm concerned, will always be a Met. God, Willie Mays was on the team’s roster—back home in New York where he rightly belonged—for his final season in what had been a long and illustrious career. When the organization hosted a “Willie Mays Night” in the thick of a pennant race before a capacity Shea Stadium crowd, I remember watching the festivities on the family’s black-and-white TV set in our living room. Witnessing the Say Hey Kid “say goodbye to America” was simultaneously thrilling and poignant. It was a simpler snapshot in time, for sure, with both affordable tickets on sale at the box office and Jane Jarvis tickling the organ ivories in the ballpark. Forty years ago, 24/7 all-sports-talk radio stations didn't exist. Dissecting and criticizing players, managers, and management were largely confined to newspaper columns and miscellaneous bloviating among friends and acquaintances on the neighborhood streets, in the schoolyards, and—for the adult crowd—in the saloons.
Growing up in the Northwest Bronx—in both a Yankees-centric neighborhood and family—kicked up the pressures a notch or two for this sixth-grader Met fan. Despite it being my family living room, I nonetheless accepted the reality I’d be watching the 1973 World Series in enemy territory. High anxiety. My father—a Yankee fan extraordinaire—hated the Mets with a passion. Committed New York fans loved and loathed in those days—to the marrow of their bones. And I hated the Yankees right back with equal fervor. Real fans just didn’t play both sides of the street and, if they did, they weren’t considered real fans.
Anyway, on October 14, 1973—game two of the World Series in Oakland—scrappy shortstop Bud Harrelson scored the go-ahead run in the tenth inning on a Felix Millan sacrifice fly. But hold your horses here, veteran umpire Augie Donatelli missed the call. He anticipated Harrelson sliding—which he didn’t do—and positioned himself smack dab on the ground for a bird's eye view. The great Willie Mays—in the on deck circle at the time—couldn’t believe the out call and fell down on his knees in despair, gazing toward the heavens for some succor, which he didn't get. An apoplectic Yogi Berra cried out in both disgust and resignation, “You missed the damn thing!” Harrelson, who was tossed out of the game for something he apparently uttered to the overly sensitive Donatelli, moaned, “You can’t kick me out for your inadequacies!”
As one might suspect, I was crestfallen at the blown call and, too, the harsh ribbing I received from the Yankee fans on the premises—my father in particular. I ran off to the security of my bedroom to shed a tear or two—definitely internally and maybe even externally. I don't recall the teary details. Chagrined at having gone too far, I suspect, my dad came back to console me. He said something to the effect: “The game isn’t over. The Mets could still win it. Come back to the living room.” I did and, in fact, the Mets won the game in fourteen innings. Although I knew he wished they had lost—super-Met fan young son notwithstanding—Pop was right on the money.
There is a life lesson here—from all those years ago in 1973—I surmise. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” perhaps, or “Ya gotta believe?" I can't say. However, I do know that forty years have passed and a fair share of folks from that time—and that team—are no longer among the living. And that's kind of sad. But really, life is about moments—high points—and the 1973 pennant chase and post-season were, for me, high points that will never, ever be forgotten.