If you are a Mets fan in your twenties, you might remember the excitement of 2006 (Endy Chavez makes the catch!) and the incredible disappointment of 2007 and 2008.
Unless you are over 30, you probably don’t remember the great pennant races of the late 90’s between the Mets and the Braves. There was plenty of drama (and heartache) until the Mets finally made it to the World Series in 2000, only to lose to the Yankees (of all teams!).
Unless you are over 40, you certainly don’t remember what the Mets had to do to get over the hump that was the St. Louis Cardinals in the middle 80’s before we put it all together and ran away with everything in 1986, our last World Championship.
And unless you are like me, over 50 but under 60, you can’t possibly know what it was like to be a Mets fan in the summer of 1969. I know you’ve see the pictures and videos, Cleon Jones bending to one knee to catch the final out from Orioles second baseman Davy Johnson, the fans destroying the field, the ticker tape parade. Yes Yankee fans, we had one WAY before you.
But you had to be there to feel it. It was heart pounding every day. The newspapers, the TV news programs, your Dad and your Uncles talking about it constantly. Even my mother knew who Tom Seaver was!
I was 12 years old. My life (and everyone else I knew at the time) was all about baseball. Every field at the school yard was filled with neighborhood kids during the summer. You had to wait to use a field, or challenge someone to a game. You think I’m making this up? Go ask your dad.
There was no organized Little League in the summer. No “travel” teams where the average player gets to hit once and play two innings in the field. This was life and death to us. Go to your nearest school yard today and the only time you see anyone with a baseball glove is with an organized activity.
For the first time ever, our team, the Mets, were winning games. On August 13th of 1969, the Mets were 9.5 games behind the Cubs. We started winning and they started losing, it was a simple as that.
But there was no ESPN. There were no Smart Phones that beeped us every time someone scored a run. You couldn’t even watch every game – they weren’t all televised! There was only one thing you could depend on – your AM transistor radio. Every Mets game was on radio. And every game going on in the National League was on the scoreboard.
Scoreboard watching was the only way to find out what was going on outside of Shea Stadium.
If you were at the game (I was 12, how many games did you think I went to?), Shea Stadium was one of the few stadiums that had all the scores of all the games displayed at all times. There were times that Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner were broadcasting the game (they all switched between radio and TV during the game) and they would announce that the Cubs had fallen behind and would say, “Wait till they put up the new score, this crowd will go crazy”. And that’s just what would happen.
Some didn’t quite know what was going on, but as soon as you heard a cheer for no apparent reason, you snapped your head to check the scoreboard and immediately joined in.
When school began that fall, it was difficult to concentrate because of day games. You would get home in time to see the last few innings, or try to listen to the radio on the way home. We used to have a guy that would sit outside his house and give us updates when we walked by.
This was our time. The Mets had been so terrible for so long, we almost didn’t know how to handle success. We couldn’t compete with our Yankee fan friends – even though those Yankee teams were pretty terrible. But here we were, making up a game on the Cubs almost every day.
And I did get to see one of those games in person – the famous “Black Cat” game. The Mets would sweep that series from the Cubs and were now just a few games back.
Every day you needed to find out what happened. It either made your day or ruined your day. But the Mets won 38 of their final 49 games (24-7 in September/October) and went from 9.5 games back to 8 games ahead – a 17 game turnaround that is still an MLB record today.
I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I remember the night the Mets clinched the first ever National League East title. In 1969, major league baseball split the leagues into two six-team divisions instead of one 12-team league. At the beginning of the year, the joke was that the Mets could finish no worse than sixth!
1969 was a momentous year for New York, this Country and the World. The year started with the Joe Namath and the Jets winning Super Bowl III in January and in July, a man walked on the moon and the whole world got to watch it in glorious black and white. There was the great music festival in Woodstock and now we had to worry about Vietnam.
But here we were, September 24th, 1969. Mets and Cardinals at Shea Stadium. We had been following the “Magic Number” (who even knew what that was at the time?) in the Daily News the last few weeks and it counted down to single digits and finally, “1”. TV station WOR (Channel 9 here in New York) was televising the game and the Mets scored 5 runs in the first inning (Don Clendenon a 3-run homer and Ed Charles a 2-run homer) and had a 6-0 lead going into the ninth inning.
The crowd at Shea was crazy. Everyone was chanting “We’re Number One!, We’re Number One” and for the first time, we actually were.
With one out and a man on first, Joe Torre grounded into a double play and the Mets had won a pennant! A pennant! The METS!!!
Lindsey Nelson marked the occasion on the broadcast by saying “At 9:07 on September 24th, the Mets have won the Championship of the Eastern Division of the National League!” I still remember that and actually found it on YouTube with all the highlights. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYHOM81SlfE)
After the final out, the fans ran out onto the field in joyous celebration, not to destroy or because it was premeditated. It was spontaneous, it was jubilation. It was a long time coming. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do. The locker room celebration was off the charts.
And as a 12 year-old, I couldn’t wait to get to school and wear my Met hat. Sure, the Mets stunned the baseball world by beating the mighty Orioles in the World Series. But it was the thrill of the pennant race that I will always remember.
And to this day, I get tears in my eyes when I see Cleon Jones bend that knee to catch that final out and we became World Champs…