To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.
April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack. The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king. To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.
But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper. The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue. It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees. There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia. For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.
The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens. “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation. In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348. For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.
The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams. In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college. It seemed as if he was born and then went to work. But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities. He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family. Yet, he was drawn to the Mets. In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town. Some called them the workingman’s team. His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.
In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership. The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.
Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans. Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy. At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game. The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play. The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”. On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.” 1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history. To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.
The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field. That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard. On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.
September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence. The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea. The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate. Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey. The father had not seen Shea in 20 years. The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth. Yet, it was somehow apropos.
For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.