Thirteen

Spring is almost here and arriving with the daffodils and dogwoods is baseball. Our nation’s pastime and first athletic love. A sport where its legends fail far more than they succeed, since the average lifetime average of a Hall of Famer is only .302.

Since I’m a New York Mets fan, spring is my favorite part of the season. The season is still filled with promise, and I can dream of the Mets making the World Series. By June, those hopes are often dashed upon the rocks of reality, with the Mets beset with injuries and playing sub .500 ball.  By July, I’m reading the pre-season prognostications for college football and hoping the Mets will trade their entire team and draft most of LSU’s team.

In anticipation of the season, I put on my Mets hat yesterday. By chance, I ran into a guy from New Jersey that asked about it.

“So you’re a Mets fan. Why?”

I get this question a lot, since being from Memphis, it would be so much easier to be a Cardinals fan. The Cardinals are the IBM of sport, a well-run, efficient machine that’s always fighting for a playoff spot. They’ve won 11 World Series. Nearly one every decade since the 1920’s. My dad was a fan, I most Saturday’s our radio was playing Cardinals games.

But in the late 1960’s, our local team, the Memphis Blues, was part of the Mets farm system. The stadium was painted blue and orange, and the late 60’s were a good time to be a Mets fan. The Miracle Mets of 1969 featured Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan on their staff and won it all. My parents made a trip to New York around that time, and I remember being fascinated by the fact they were flying on a plane and going to this magical place called New York, the biggest city in the country. I believe this launched my life-long interest in New York, and my love of New York sports. The Knicks, Jets and Mets all won world titles in 1969. Three years before, The Beatles played in Shea Stadium, so in those days, New York was front and center in the nation’s consciousness.

When I was a kid, we rarely traveled, and as a young father, we were frankly too broke to make a trip to a place like New York. I went on business once, but didn’t make my first pilgrimage to Shea Stadium until 2008, the year before it was demolished. I’d seen the Mets play an exhibition in Memphis against the Cardinals the year we opened Autozone Park, but I’d never seen them play in an actual game in their home stadium.

We had great tickets, right between home and first base, about ten rows up behind the Mets dugout. My son and his future wife KC were there along with Allison, and I was so excited. The big moment had finally arrived and of course so did the rain. The game was delayed an hour or so before they called it and dashed my dreams upon the rocks.  Yet, it seemed a fitting ending for a lifelong Mets fan. Decades of disappointment and frustration culminating in a final, anguishing defeat.

I was deeply saddened by the recent news of Tom Seaver’s dementia. It’s one of  toughest calls you can get in life. It’s hard to watch your boyhood idols fade away, especially when you realize most of today’s players don’t seem to be made of the same “stuff.” There are fewer characters. Fewer real greats that seem to be willing to play injured or pitch in a third game in a series. Today, a player could land on the DL with an ingrown toenail. It’s all about money and the money is out of hand. There’s no one today that has the aura of a Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson or Willie Mays. Today’s players don’t inspire the love and adoration like the old greats.

I’m old fashioned and still like to listen to baseball on the radio. When you listen on the radio, you imagine the player getting his lead off first. You imagine him digging into the dirt, balancing his weight and keenly watching the pitcher’s movements. You imagine the smell of the ballpark. The sound of the ball hitting the bat and people turning their heads watching the ball flying toward the fence. And if you’re a Mets fan, you probably imagine it’s Tom Terrific on the mound one last time, dipping his knee down close to the mound as he delivers his trademark fastball. I can see him take off his sweat stained blue cap with the orange “NY” emblazoned on the front, wipe his brow, and prepare for the next pitch. The final decisive fast ball, hard and in, just under the batters elbows. The batter is frozen and the ump screams, “Strike three! You’re out.”

And unlike in real life, the Mets always win.

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