Saturday, June 15, 2013

Keith, The Mets & Me: A Thirty-Year Love Affair

I became a Mets fan on Memorial Day 1981.  My father wasn't feeling well that day so we had to cancel our annual Memorial Day barbecue, leaving eight-year-old me to find something to do since I was home from school that day.  My ill father was in bed all day, so I decided to lay back on his comfortable-beyond-words recliner and watch TV.  The last person who watched the tube had left it on Channel 9 and since 1981 was the pre-remote control era of television (at least it was in our household), I didn't feel like getting up to physically change the channel, so I just watched was on WOR at the time.  It was a Mets-Phillies game.  And it was beautiful.

The Mets destroyed Philadelphia, showing no brotherly love for their division rivals in a 13-3 romp.  Although many players performed well for the Mets that day (Hubie Brooks, Lee Mazzilli and Joel Youngblood had three hits apiece and Dave Kingman hit a grand slam), it was Mookie Wilson who captured my attention and made me thankful that we weren't a remote control household.  Mookie reached base four times that day (two hits, two walks).  He also scored three runs and drove in two.  After leading off the game with a walk, Mookie proceeded to swipe second and scored the first of the Mets' four runs in that inning.  It was the first time I had been exposed to Mookie's baserunning abilities, and I was utterly amazed.  Six innings later, Mookie crushed a long drive to center off former Met Tug McGraw that went for a two-run triple.  His gazzelle-like speed mesmerized the eight-year-old me to the point where I checked the TV guide (I had to get off the couch eventually) for when the next Mets game was going to be aired on WOR.

Less than three weeks after discovering Mookie and the Mets, baseball went on strike.  For two months, I couldn't indulge in my new passion - my New York Mets passion, that is.  Fortunately, my father recovered from his illness and we were able to have many barbecues to pass the time during baseball's two-month hiatus.  Baseball returned to my TV screen in August, and I quickly eschewed burgers and hot dogs on the grill for Mookie and the Mets on my grill.

Run, Mookie, Run!

Although my father hails from Puerto Rico, an island paradise that loves its baseball, he has never been much of a sports fan.  He knows the object of the game, but can't differentiate between an infield fly and an unzipped fly.  So naturally, you can imagine how difficult it was for me to get him to take me to a Mets game at Shea Stadium.  Every conversation would start the same way ("We're not doing anything this weekend, right?  Can you get us tickets for this game?") and unfortunately, they would also end the same way ("No.").  It took over two years for me to finally make it out to Shea to meet the Mets, meet the Mets, step right up and greet the Mets.  And when I did, it was because my Little League team went as a group.  The date was June 15, 1983 - thirty years ago today - and it became a memorable day not just for the then ten-year-old me, but for all Mets fans.

When we got to the game, I remember how disappointed I was that Mookie Wilson was not in the starting lineup (Danny Heep took Mookie's place as the leadoff hitter and centerfielder for the game.  It was only the second time all year that Mookie wasn't in the starting lineup for the Mets.)  My fleet-footed hero didn't start, but Craig Swan did, taking the mound for the Mets against future Hall-of-Famer Ferguson Jenkins.  Unfortunately, Swan was not graceful that night.  By the time I got back from my second bathroom break in the second inning (my Little League teammates were not amused that I kept stepping on their feet every time I tried to squeeze by them in our upper deck seats), Swan was out of the game and the Mets were down 4-0.

The bullpen pitched very well after Swan’s early exodus and the Mets rallied to tie the game.  Mookie did pinch-hit in the fifth inning, but struck out against Jenkins, denying me the opportunity to see him fly around the bases.  Of course, his one-day replacement in center field, Danny Heep, followed Wilson's strikeout with the game-tying hit, causing my Little League teammates to tease me by saying that Heep was going to be the centerfielder of the future.  I'm glad they were wrong.

Neither team scored after Heep knotted the game, necessitating extra innings and causing some of the parents and chaperones to wonder if they should take the kids home.  They decided to stick around for the tenth, but told us all that if the game went to the 11th, we would have to leave.  We did get to see the game to its conclusion, but it wasn't the conclusion I wanted.  The Mets lost the game to the Chicago Cubs in ten innings by the score of 7-4.  An error by first baseman Rusty Staub and a timely bunt by Bill Buckner set the Cubs up for their big inning and my bigger disappointment.  But errors by Mets' first basemen were about to become a thing of the past, thanks to a brilliant trade engineered by general manager Frank Cashen.

A Gold Glove, a sweet swing, a killer 'stache.  Keith Hernandez brought it all to the table.

Earlier in the evening, the Mets announced that they had acquired first baseman Keith Hernandez from the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey.  I remember how happy the sparse crowd of 11,631 was when the announcement was flashed on DiamondVision.  I also remember how confused I was that the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for the “big TV screen in left field” rather than the events taking place on the field.  But as the years went by and my love of the Mets grew, I realized just how special Keith Hernandez truly was, both as a player and as a team leader.

As you all know, the trade for Keith Hernandez set off a chain of events that led to a World Series championship three years later (a World Series that turned my man Mookie into a Mets legend for all time).  Hernandez's arrival gave instant credibility to the languishing franchise, although it took until the following season for that off-the-field credibility to translate into on-the-field wins.

In hindsight, it didn’t matter that the Mets lost on June 15, 1983.  It was one of 94 games they lost that season anyway.  That day was important to me for more than just a game.  That day began my love affair with Shea Stadium and my subsequent appreciation of Keith Hernandez.  I should have known the Mets had acquired someone special when I listened to the sweet voice of Bob Murphy after the game during the radio post-game show when he said “the Mets lost the game tonight, but they have gained a superstar.”  Thirty years ago today, the magic that was the Mets entered my life.  It has never left.

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