Thursday, September 22, 2016

September Song

In the ethereal radiance of the 1969 World Championship season, I became a Met fan at the impressionable age of seven. Personally, I consider the “Miracle Mets”the class of 1973. In fact, catcher Jerry Grote once said: "It (1969) was no miracle. Now, '73 was a miracle!" I was there and I was aware then—and armed with that indispensable youthful exuberance—during that memorable September pennant drive. It was a dramatically different time to be alive, to be a baseball fan, and to be a kid—a better time, I daresay, on a whole host of fronts.

It’s kind of hard to believe that forty-three years have passed since that amazing September song when the Mets catapulted from fifth place—and nine games under .500—on the last day in August to first place on September 21st. They were 76-76 after sweeping the Pirates in a two-game series at Shea Stadium that night, which was good enough to be on top in what was a mediocre 1973 Eastern Division. The Mets finished the season with a record of 82-79, beating out the second place St. Louis Cardinals, at 81-81, by a game-and-a-half.

So much happened along the way, including "Willie Mays Night" at Shea Stadium on September 25th. I recall watching it on WOR-TV, Channel 9—the Mets televised three-quarters of their games on free TV back then. Willie had announced his retirement after the season. At forty-two with a pair of bum knees and slower reflexes, he was a mere shadow of his former self and everybody knew it, including Willie. “Growing old is just a helpless hurt,” he said.

Still, just having him in New York for the last two years of his stellar career—that began in New York with the Giants—seemed so right, so special, and almost mystical from a baseball fan’s perspective. The fans of yesteryear were more steeped in the game’s history, too. No matter how poorly or uninspired Willie Mays played in the last year of his career, he was nonetheless revered and justifiably so. Just seeing him in a Mets' uniform, with that famous number twenty-four on the back, was worth more than words can express. And, yes, he supplied us with some great moments, but Willie was with the Mets primarily because owner Joan Payson wanted him in New York, where he belonged, for the final curtain. She also promised San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham that she’d take care of him financially after his playing career was over.

I remember Willie Mays Night being quite a poignant affair with the baseball legend announcing his departure from the game before a full house at Shea Stadium in an excitingly tight pennant race. Mets' announcer Lindsay Nelson was on the field in the role of master of ceremonies, which he did so well, and bedecked in one of his ultra-colorful sports jackets. It was even loud on my family’s black-and-white TV set. Two of the game's greats, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, were also on hand to pay their respects and watch Willie receive a treasure trove of gifts, including an expensive fur coat for the Misses and a Cadillac for himself. But it was the baseball giant's words that night that struck an appropriate and resonant chord. “When I look at the kids over here, the way they’re playing, the way they’re fighting for tells me one thing,” he said. “Willie, say goodbye to America.”

The ten-year-old me couldn’t fully appreciate then what he said next, but I found it moving nonetheless. “I never felt that I would have to quit baseball,” Willie said, “but as you know, there is always a time for someone to get out.” For twenty-two years he played the game—America's pastime—and it came to end, just like everything else does. Now, forty more years have passed and Willie Mays is eighty-two years old. Time passes by for sure and there’s nothing we can do about it. But, really, there is “always a time for someone to get out”—in baseball and in so many other areas of life as well.

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