Sunday, April 6, 2014

When Hope Sprang Eternal

As a youth and fanatical baseball fan—New York Mets fan to be precise—hope always sprang eternal in springtime. Even during the team’s dreadful down years—1977 through 1983—I, without exception, felt excited about my Boys of Summer in the chillier climes of spring. I honestly believed my team had what it took to contend, and perhaps go all the way, despite their rosters saying otherwise.

When manager Gil Hodges informed members of the fourth estate in the spring of 1969 that he expected his Mets to win eighty-five games during the season, he was not taken seriously, despite being a very serious man. The Mets, after all, had not a single winning season in their brief existence (1962-1968). Their biggest win total was seventy-three games, which they had tallied up the previous year, Hodges’ first at the helm. And what was so different about the 1969 Mets anyway, who had lost eighty-nine games the year before?  Despite the doubters, the “Miracle Mets” won 100 games and a World Series, too—Hodges had in fact grossly underestimated the team’s performance. A short decade later—in 1979—and virtually everyone from the 1969 and 1973 pennant winning teams were gone, including my boyhood idol, “The Franchise” Tom Seaver. Only Ed Kranepool remained to play in what would be his last season and the last link to the glory days. It was a “rebuilding era,” even though the rebuilding crew in the late-1970s were incompetent tightwads who, mercifully, sold the team to more competent baseball people after the 1979 season. They were willing to do what it takes to build a winner, which they did in due course.

Still, maintained hope come hell or high water in those past springs, regardless of the product on the field or in the front office. There was just something about spring and youth that proved an intoxicating combo. In 1983, Tom Seaver was traded back to the Mets from the Cincinnati Reds, the team he had been unceremoniously shipped to during the “Midnight Massacre” of June 15, 1977. Upon learning about the deal that brought him back to where he belonged to finish his illustrious career, I’d venture to say it was one of the most joyous moments of my life—pure, right, and dramatic. Opening Day 1983 with Tom Seaver on the mound again at Shea Stadium was a dream come true. The spectacle single-handedly wiped away the mess the former ownership—and the dreadful patrician, M. Donald Grant—had made of the formerly great team in the late-1970s, when Shea Stadium was christened “Grant’s Tomb.”

Tom Terrific didn’t have the greatest season in 1983, but pitched well enough and showed flashes of his old brilliance. He was thirty-eight years old and nearing 300 wins, too, a milestone that he would achieve in a Mets’ uniform—perfect and fitting, I thought. But while hope always sprang eternal in those days of yore, it didn’t always sustain its springy step, I discovered. Tom Seaver was left unprotected on the roster at the end of the season and snatched away as free-agent compensation by the Chicago White Sox, which is where the greatest Met of all time won his 300th game. Of all places, he ended his career with the Boston Red Sox. There was, however, one final tease that Tom Seaver would return to the Mets in 1987 at the age of forty-two and end his career on an appropriate high note sporting the orange and the royal blue baseball cap and pinstripes. It didn’t happen because the once live arm of the future Hall of Famer had run out of steam.

Nevertheless, hope sprang eternal through thick and thin. And now, it’s spring again....

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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