Years after the fact, my dad told me a story entitled “The Midnight Massacre.” He said that on June 15, 1977, while I was asleep in my crib, he cried while watching the nightly news.
If you are a Mets fan, I won’t insult your intelligence about what that night was.
Yet, when he told me this, I couldn’t help but giggle. A grown man crying at another grown man getting traded to play for another baseball team? Concept seemed foreign to me.
Until a while later, the Mets won the 1986 World Series, and I was blubbering like an idiot. I was ten. I still haven’t forgotten that feeling. Probably the closest I felt to that at Shea Stadium was when it shut down in 2008.
So I guess Jimmy Dugan was wrong. There IS crying in baseball…but with shades of grey.
Fast forward to 1988. The date was July 24, and it was a Sunday. “The Franchise” Tom Seaver came back to Shea Stadium, if only to be honored one day for his induction to the Mets Hall of Fame, a precursor to his ultimate induction to the big house, Cooperstown (the name, however ironic, is merely coincidental). I’ll never forget how I never saw him pitch for the Mets, but I saw him take the mound one last time. I thought he was gonna throw, but instead he bowed to the edges of the stadium.
Wow. It was chilling. And I cried. I never saw the guy pitch for my team, but I cried. Of course, this was no different from the water works my dad supposedly shed in 1977. He partook in that ritual too.
I didn’t just cry for the moment. I cried for what I missed. I cried that because of selfish reasons, for me and for the selfish reasons why Seaver was cast away several years before I became a fan. I cried because so many Mets fans were able to see the greatness of Tom Terrific, in person and all those special years, and I missed it all.
Yet, this was also the power of the story of Mets fans. I could listen to the old days from the fans’ perspective, any fan, about the past.
One story I liked to hear was when Uncle Gene and Dad would talk about when Keith Hernandez was traded to the Mets in 1983. I can’t really think of something similar that was so game-changing in my generation. Johan Santana kind of shut down the blogsosphere when the trade went down, but given how the team has performed (and not to mention his unlucky injury history since then), it’s vastly different from how Mex changed the landscape of the 1980s Mets.
I heard stories about Tommie Agee’s Upper Deck home run, I heard stories about the Polo Grounds, I heard about the black cat at Shea Stadium that ran behind Ron Santo in 1969. I’d only heard stories about 1973, as I was only minus two years old. Yet it was Tom Seaver’s retirement ceremony that got me thinking that I missed something very special, and I didn’t have to. I was certainly old enough to appreciate what he would have been had he never been traded and retired around the time I was starting to be a Mets fan.
Selfish reasons, natch.
By 1992, we had word that George Thomas Seaver was going into the Hall of Fame. My dad was pretty much on the horn arranging our pilgrimage to the place of baseball worship. I was there once as a child. I was simply “okay” with baseball at that time and didn’t appreciate it. This time, baseball and I were totally cool with each other, and I appreciated its part in my life a lot more.
That same year, the song “This Used to Be My Playground” by Madonna was on top of the charts, the theme song for A League Of Their Own. I remember telling Dad that we should see that movie, about the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League and their triumphs during a time when the world was at war. Yet, I don’t remember seeing it in the movie theaters with him, but I do know we both ended liking it a lot. Anyway, the song by Madonna, along with countless other baseball-themed songs like “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, was played on a loop during the pre-ceremony.
It’s funny what my dad remembers about that weekend that I don’t. I remember driving up during basically a monsoon. I remember we ate like the best wings I ever had in my life, at a place called Burger Heaven, go figure. I remember spending a long time at the Museum, but what I didn’t remember is why we had to go to a field in the middle of nowhere to see the ceremonies. I thought maybe that’s the way they did things. Dad reminded me there was some construction at the museum, otherwise it would have been held there. Heh.
I do remember it was warm out, and like a moron, I had decided to wear jeans. I was fine with it though. We sat for a long time, as we had staked our spot out hours before. A gentleman with a flag that simply said “41” was next to us. I remember seeing some highlights on ESPN later, and saw the “41” flag flapping around (but I didn’t see us). I remember someone telling us that he felt bad for Rollie Fingers, who was also inducted that same day. The crowd was clearly blue and orange. (I might have seen a few Reds 41 in the crowd, though. Dad might remember better than me.)
I remember Rollie Fingers talked about his mother in the middle of his speech, who was deceased. Seaver, in a later interview, said that he could have never done that, whose mother was also no longer with us. Seaver did mention her, however, at the end of his speech. His voice cracking as he ended with the two words, “My mom.” It was touching, to see these players that most of the crowd considered heroes to show that they, themselves, were capable of showing emotion. Certainly, it wasn’t the only time fans had seen Seaver overcome with emotion.
They had seen it live on June 15, 1977. He admonished himself. “Come on, George.” He allowed himself this one break, though.
In my lifetime, the Mets haven’t done a good job of developing their own players or keeping them around. Case in point: Seaver, George T. I certainly had favorites on my teams, I had projected to other lifer players on other teams — you know, those quintessential players who defined a team as much as the team defined him. Cal Ripken. Tony Gwynn. (Sad to tell Montreal that we shared Le Kid, though.) I started to follow the Iron Man around 1987, though I was aware of his existence prior to then. I loved Ripken. I was a Mets fan first, and a baseball fan second ultimately. And ultimately, as a baseball fan, you had to love Cal Ripken.
He was born to be an Oriole, growing up in a suburb of Baltimore. His daddy was a baseball lifer too. I loved that he called his dad “Senior” instead of “Skip.” It certainly helped too that in my 11 year old eyes, he was easy on them (yeah, I said it). I remember I begged my dad to draft him in his fantasy league when he used to participate in that. I was intrigued in 1987 when his father managed his two sons on the same team, when little brother Billy joined the Orioles.
Though I had kept an eye on the Orioles, I hadn’t gone to a game at Camden Yards (or any Baltimore stadium for that matter) until 1997. I make it a point to visit there at least every other year. Mostly as an homage to my favorite player. Also, as a way to get me out of New York sometimes. It happens, as New York City can wear thin on your patience at times. Possibly my road trips to Camden Yards led me to give in to my wanderlust for baseball stadiums. At current date, I’ve been to 18 stadiums, some still with us, some dearly departed, like our Shea.
Keeping with the trend of road trips and baseball worship, in 2001, Iron Man had gone on his farewell tour. Many cities showed their respects for one of the last great heroes in baseball. I’m sure there will be others. Yet between Ripken and Gwynn, I’ve yet to see any other class acts that could have measured up to those gentlemen. However, I had a great idea. Sort of.
Dad said, hey how about we go see Cal Ripken’s last games at Yankee Stadium? I had a better idea. “How about we see his last game in BALTIMORE?”
That year was odd. Baseball was shut down because of the terrorist attacks on the United States. We banded together like no other time. Mike Piazza for the Mets might have ushered baseball back to New York City with his home run, but Cal Ripken’s retirement ceremony befitting an all-American hero was postponed. The last game in Baltimore was no longer. It was now in October.
I traded in my tickets for others. I mean, this is how SURE I was that I needed to be there to see him retire and his last game. The opening ceremony was special. They officially retired his number, and brought his family in. Senior was long gone by then. I only found out recently that his #7 was taken out of circulation with the Orioles, but not officially retired, after he passed away. Mrs. Ripken, his wife, his kids, his brothers and sister. The whole family. Jim Palmer said a few words, a lifer Oriole himself.
The game ended with Ripken on deck. The postgame ceremony showed him walking into the outfield, with Orioles greats such as Brooks Robinson. It was a touching and moving ceremony, befitting a man how transcended the sport. I got choked up only when Dad told me that we’ve seen a lot of these type of games together. Like Seaver’s ceremony. Cooperstown. Ripken was my favorite though, because selfishly, I wanted a player like him on MY team. Seaver may be the closest thing, but for me, it’s just not the same. I never saw him play or when he was on the team, I didn’t know him from Adam.
I can see now, that crying does happen in baseball. When Mike Piazza played his last game in a Mets uniform, I teared up. I often admit to people that I didn’t truly appreciate what Piazza did for the team until his last season. When we lost Shea Stadium, it was dusty for sure. I was verklempt at the ceremony in 2010 when Doc, Darryl, Davey and Cashen were inducted in the Mets Hall of Fame. I don’t know if I’ll get choked up at John Franco’s ceremony. Unless, of course, the Mets give him a video remembrance and the good and fun memories I have of Franco are highlighted.
I never made it to Cooperstown for Cal Ripken’s and Tony Gwynn’s induction. I don’t remember why I didn’t go. Perhaps I didn’t think it was appropriate. Maybe let my space go to other fans. I remember what Gwynn said in his speech to his home crowd when they sent him off to Cooperstown. He said, “You’ll all be there with me.”
Baseball players may come off as dumb jocks sometimes. Yet, they can say things that are so poetic and carry so much meaning in our lives. Or a simple self-admonishment like “Come on, George,” can speak to the frustration of a fan base for a lifetime.