“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”- Field of Dreams.
I love that. And believe what it says about the game. I re-watch that film every year at the beginning of the season, and I cry like a baby every time.
We grew up Mets fans. They were a new team then, founded in 1962 during the National League’s first expansion in the 20th century. They were born from the turmoil that resulted when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to California in 1957. The leagues decided to add four new teams, and one would be from New York. For the first two years of the club’s existence, they played at the historic Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. In 1964 they finally got a stadium of their own and it was called Shea.
I was lucky enough at a very early age to attend a game at the Polo Grounds and I remember it for what it was – a Cathedral of steel and grass built for the most sublime of sports. The Mets lost by the way. They did a lot of that back then; it would take seven more years before they beat the odds and the odds makers and win a World Series. Shea Stadium opened the same spring as the World’s Fair arrived in New York so it was an extra exciting time to be there.
I have always loved the approach to a ball game. You park your car, or walk from the train station (unless you are lucky enough to live in Chicago or Boston where the stadium is downtown), go through the turnstiles and into a concrete concourse of food vendors and souvenir shops. You make your way up escalators and ramps to the right level. You check your ticket stub to make sure you are heading to the right section, and when you find it there is another small ramp up into the light. And then you see it all before you. The sunshine, the green grass, the players taking batting practice, the scoreboard in right field, that perfect symmetry of the diamond-and you are overwhelmed at the sheer beauty of it all. At least I am. Every damn time. When I am at a ballgame it is one of the few times when I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at that very moment. That doesn’t happen often, my friends but it happens at a baseball game.
Casey Stengel was the manager at the time, a cantankerous and loveable guy who saw his players as his family and he was determined to bring them up right. Now there were a few veterans on the team, Duke Snyder for one, but there were more young kids whose names would soon be enshrined in Mets history. At the time however, they were unknown and kind of awkward looking. Stengel loved every one of them. And we did too. Through loss after loss, bonehead play after bonehead play, we cheered, we prayed, we watched.
One particular game was extra memorable and would add to the team’s mystique. I think they were playing the Pirates, and a fight broke out, not an uncommon thing then. Roy McMillian had tried to slide into second base and the second baseman gave him his cleat. Happened all the time; the rules were a lot more lenient back then; it was a game of intimidation and the Pirates were the best at being intimidating especially to a new expansion team. McMillian stood up to the Pirate player who I remember as being twice his size, and a shouting match ensued. A couple of the Pirate players started to come out of their dugout when the crowd started to jeer. Stengel wasn’t about to let one of his kids stand there all alone and unsupported; first he started shouting at the Umpires to no avail of course. So he took the situation into his own weathered hands. Suddenly, there he was, wielding a baseball bat high above his head like saber, leading a charge from the dugout. The players not about to let their beloved manager go it alone, followed. Every one of them took to the field. The crowd went wild. This of course triggered the Pirate bench to empty in response and the two opposing forces ran for each other. It was a sight to behold. It was a home game, so the fans, being Mets fans weren’t about to let their team go it alone so they too swarmed onto the field. That might have done it for the Pirates. They started to falter and turn back, the odds being too great now. But that didn’t stop the mighty Casey. It was told he shouted “ Lets Go Boys!” and he kept going leading the charge, chasing the opposing team into the dugout and the locker room beyond.
And at that moment, Casey Stengel bought a place in the heart of every fan forever. We were transformed. We weren’t just fans of a baseball team anymore, we were Crusaders of a Holy War and Stengel was our Genghis Khan. Pity any team that tried that cleat thing ever again.
Of course they still lost games, ending up more often than not in last place in the standings. But we didn’t care. We were in this for life. And like I said, eventually they won a World Series, and then another and another and now they are annual contenders for the crown.
They don’t play at Shea anymore. Sadly they tore it down and replaced it with a more modern stadium. Stengel has long since gone to coach in a higher league and the players, the ones that are left, are old like us. I haven’t been to a Mets game in a long time but I watch them when I can on television, and I still get chills when I see that magnificent logo with the New York skyline in that deep blue and the orange script upon it.
And I hear the song; their song, from out of the past:
Meet the Mets
Meet the Mets
Step right up and greet the Mets!
Bring the kiddies
Bring the wife
You’re bound to have
The time of your life!
The song was right. It was.