A baseball anniversary recalls a childhood friendship
October 2019 — Fifty years ago, the New York Mets shocked the sports world, winning the World Series to become baseball’s champs. I was there that day, for that fifth game. In fact, I was at some of the most memorable games of what would become a Miracle Mets season, something you wouldn’t have expected from the lone Yankees fan in a neighborhood full of Mets devotees.
But this is about more than the Mets, me, or my neighborhood. It’s also about the improbable story of a most peculiar souvenir and the forgotten friendship it represented.
It was bad timing to be a Yankees fan back then. By 1965, after appearing in five consecutive World Series contests, the Yankees didn’t just lose the pennant, they completely collapsed, falling to last place, and they struggled for the rest of the decade with a roster of forgettable names, false hopes and declining pillars like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Elston Howard. It was a struggle for fans, too, so accustomed to decades of baseball dominance.
The Mets, meanwhile, were showing promise. They’d signed a talented pitcher named Tom Seaver in 1967 who would be named Rookie of the Year that season. The following year, Gil Hodges came aboard to manage and Jerry Koosman joined the rotation, breaking franchise records for wins, shutouts, and an ERA set by Seaver just the year before. 1968 was also the first time the Mets didn’t end up in last place, and by July of 1969, they’d become a team to reckon with. Through it all, it seemed not a day went by where someone wasn’t busting my chops about being a Yankees fan.
Nothing personal, mind you. Giving your friends a hard time is a way of life in New York. Or at least it was back then. And you used any excuse you could to do it. You could say anything offensive about anyone you wanted and nobody took offense. You spared no one, and no one spared you. It was understood as a sign of acceptance, a bond among friends, though woe betide the stranger who dared insult one of your pals.
1969 marked the beginning of a remarkable run for New York sports fans. In the course of 16 months, hometown teams won a Super Bowl, a World Series, and an NBA title, and the nation won a space race by landing a man on the moon, which seemed as improbable when President Kennedy issued the challenge in 1961 as the Mets winning a championship in their eighth year as one of baseball’s first expansion teams.
So how does a 13-year-old kid and tortured Yankees fan end up at Game 5 to see the Mets become baseball’s champs? It was all to bring home “The Souvenir.”
Despite the sin of not being a Mets fan, I probably saw more Mets games than any of my friends, including games that are part of baseball lore today.
I was there the night Tom Seaver pitched a perfect game for 8-1/3 innings against their division rivals, the Chicago Cubs. Night games were still a novelty back then but they were perfect for a kid who knew how to sneak into Shea Stadium, which was easy to do.
I was there for the Night of the Black Cat, one of the most documented curses in sports. Just before the fourth inning, a small black cat darted onto the field, slowed as it rounded the on-deck circle where Cubs third baseman Ron Santo was standing, and stopped in front of the Cubs dugout, stalking and staring. Nobody knew where it came from and nobody cared where it went afterward, but as the crowd howled, Jim Flood, the Cubs batboy that night, remembered hearing Santo say, “Oh man, we’re f — — — now.”
Someone near me said the cat was hissing and arching its back like one of those Halloween images. I don’t know how you could’ve seen that from the Loge Deck where I was standing down the foul line, 341 feet from home plate, but it makes for a better story. At game’s end, the Mets having won easily, fans were sarcastically serenading Cubs manager Leo Durocher, “Goodbye Leo!”
People love to say this game marked the beginning of the end for the Cubs but, really, the slide had started weeks earlier. Loaded with star players and future Hall-of-Famers, the 1969 Chicago Cubs began the season at a blistering pace and by mid-August were solidly in first with a nine-game lead over the Mets. By the time they came to town for that two-game set on September 8th and 9th, their lead over the Mets had shrunk to 2½ games. After the Night of the Black Cat, it was just a half-game. The next day, the Mets moved into first place and never looked back.
They clinched the division on September 24th, beating the St. Louis Cardinals, 6–0. I was there. Fittingly enough, it was Fan Appreciation Night. They gave out key chains with the Mets logo on it, something I’d lost long ago along with a 1969 Mets Team autographed baseball. Yeah, I really had one of those, too. You could buy ’em easy, like you would a baseball cap. Sports memorabilia wasn’t really a thing back then and few figured it would become a thing years later.
James went with me to that game. James was part of that core of friends you have growing up, guys whom you’d give the shirt off your back and who also had cart Blanche when it came to giving each other shit. Back in the neighborhood, James often led the “abuse the Yankees fan” chorus. He was a diehard Mets fan from the day they first stumbled onto the field in 1962. They were baseball’s punchline, a team better at buffoonery than baseball. Still, despite lopsided losing records, they won the hearts of millions of fans, some of whom could probably play better than the guys in uniform. James embraced those Mets almost in defiance.
The team improved in the years that followed, but no one expected them to do it so well so quickly, yet here they were, on this Fan Appreciation Night, defying gravity, and here we were to see it, hugging and cheering as the game progressed. The Mets? Clinching? These Mets? Who woulda thunk?
We didn’t stay till the end of the game. The Cardinals couldn’t buy a hit that night so by the 7th inning I said, “James, this one’s over. Let’s get outta here and beat the traffic.”
He wanted to stay but finally agreed. It was common for fans to leave a game early. It meant taking the 7 Train just outside the stadium one stop down to its terminus at Main Street in Flushing, then taking a bus home. Yeah, it was a weeknight and, yeah, we had school the next day but in those days parents didn’t helicopter over their kids being out late like that, especially for a ball game. Besides, we were a pretty self-sufficient bunch.
So now it’s after 11 and I’m home when the phone rings. It’s James. He’s not happy.
“Turn on the news, moron!”
It was footage of fans running all over the field celebrating. It was bedlam. Bases were being pulled up. The mound and home plate, too. People were even ripping out seats from the Field Level section.
“Are you seein’ this?” James yelled. “We coulda got first base! We coulda got home plate! But noooo, you wanted to go home early and beat the traffic!”
That made me an even bigger target in the neighborhood. Even Fat Mark, the owner of the local candy store, and John who ran the deli, were asking, “Did you really leave that game in the 7th inning to beat the traffic?” Ya know the old vaudeville performer whose act bombs so bad that the audience starts throwing tomatoes and heads of lettuce at the stage? That was me.
I don’t suppose I could blame anyone and none of it was ill-willed but after the Mets beat the Atlanta Braves in divisional play to get to the World Series, I came up with an idea — a prediction, actually, announced to all my ball-busting friends: the Mets would win the World Series in five games, four straight, “and to back it up, I’ll buy a ticket to the fifth game and I’ll be there.”
Five games, four straight? Don’t ask how I came up with that. Who could? The Baltimore Orioles won 109 games that year. The Mets started the season as 100–1 long shots to get to the Series, and no one was giving them a chance to win it now.
But it wasn’t about a prediction; it was about “The Souvenir.” My plan — my secret plan — was to go to the fifth game of the World Series, which the Mets would be hosting, see them win the championship and get first base for James. That would shut everyone up once and for all.
It almost worked.
I went down to Shea, stood at a kiosk outside the stadium behind two other fans and bought a ticket for Game Five. A week before the World Series would begin. The ticket was orange. Upper deck, row VV or something.
Five bucks. For a World Series ticket. A beer at Citi Field today costs twice that.
So it’s Game 5 and I’m there for the 1:05 start time. (I got to leave school early.) Got to my seat, then went down to the concession stand to get a drink and when I returned, my seat was taken by some grownup but I couldn’t get to it anyway since fans decided to park themselves on the stairs leading up to row V double-whatever. So I spent the game walking around the park, watching from different vantage points while plotting how I’d snag first base.
Each Series game in New York had a signature moment: two circus catches by Tommie Agee in Game 3 that likely robbed the Orioles of five runs (and Agee had already homered in the game); the spectacular diving catch by Ron Swoboda in Game 4; Game 5’s infamous Shoe Polish Play in which Mets manager Gil Hodges showed home plate umpire Lou DiMuro a scuff mark on the ball to prove that Cleon Jones had been hit in the foot by a pitch in that 6th inning. DiMuro awarded Jones first base and Donn Clendenon came up to smack a 2–run homer.
As the Mets tied and then went ahead in the late innings, you knew that Fate was in their corner. The foot markers down the foul lines — metal pieces bolted into the mesh railing at the standing room section of the Loge Deck — were disappearing one number at a time. “341…” “34…” “1.”
By the last out, when Cleon Jones caught a lazy fly off the bat of Orioles second baseman and future Mets manager Davey Johnson, I’d made it down to the Field Level railing just off the Mets dugout. All the ushers were now standing in foul territory to keep fans off the field, in vain as it turned out.
An usher pushed me back into the seats as I tried to hop the railing, delaying my beeline to first base, not that I had a shot at getting it or any other base. Grown men were swarming the bags like a colony of killer ants devouring a carcass. With those mementos gone, fans began packing the infield.
A photographer for the New York Daily News, one of the city’s great tabloids, stood atop the first base dugout and snapped a picture to capture the moment — a sea of joyous humanity. It covered the entire back page of the next day’s edition.
I’m in that photo somewhere but never looked to find myself. I bought the paper the next day and put it in my bedroom closet for safekeeping but it’s long gone, too.
Scenes like that don’t happen anymore. These days, security ropes confine fans to their seats or restricted areas, a podium gets trucked out and a bunch of self-important stuffed suits stumble over their congratulatory remarks in an elusive bid for poignancy. Blech!
After milling around the field empty-handed I headed home, leaving through an opening out in right field, and that’s when I got my souvenir: a long strip of grass right at the warning track. It came right out of the ground, easy. I had no idea what I would do with it. When you’re a kid you don’t think about things like that. I just rolled it up under my arm like a giant sleeping bag and carried it onto the 7 train headed for Main Street.
Rush hour had just started as I boarded the train. Back then, unless you had a transistor radio — the one with that white wire connected to an earpiece — you had no idea what was happening in the world. But as fans boarded it was easy for commuters to do the math. We were all in a cheery mood as the train sat waiting to enter the Main Street terminus. It was taking a while.
“Excuse me,” a commuter asked, pointing at the grass. “Is that from Shea Stadium?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I ripped it up out of right field.”
“Ya know my kid is a huge Mets fan. Do you think I could have a piece of grass to take home for him?”
Sure. I tore off a piece. And then I tore off another piece, and another, and another, and another, as one commuter after the next asked the same thing. By the time the train rolled into the station, all I had left were two small pieces, each about the size of a laptop computer.
I kept one piece and gave the other to James, set neatly atop dirt with nutrients in a planter’s box my mother had put together. A patch of memorabilia. When I handed it to him, James laughed that “you gotta be kiddin’ me” kind of laugh, but he took it, said thanks and never mentioned it again. In fact, nobody in the neighborhood said anything about it. I figured James threw it out, and as our lives progressed, as often happens in childhood, we moved on and went our separate ways.
But one day, completely out of the blue, he called me, having gotten my number from my parents. By then I’d moved out to California.
There was the initial shock of “Holy crap, I can’t believe it, how ya been?” and the usual catching up you do with someone you haven’t spoken with after so many years.
So why now? What on Earth made you decide to call? Turns out it was just as the Mets and Yankees were about to face off in the World Series, the year 2000.
“I figured it was good timing,” said James.
“Whaddya gonna break my balls about the Series?” I said defiantly. “Ya know the Yankees are gonna win that thing.” (They did, by the way, four games to one.)
But James had called for something else. It turned out he took the grass I gave him 30+ years before, nursed it in that planter’s box, and planted it in the backyard of his home in upstate New York, where he had moved. He’d actually called a sod farm to find out exactly how to take care of it.
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe he still had the grass but more than that, I couldn’t believe he’d gone through all that trouble to keep it.
“Are you nuts?” I said. “It ain’t exactly first base, ya know!”
“Yeah,” he said, “but it’s kinda better than first base. Ain’t nobody got a souvenir like this.”
And no wonder nobody in the neighborhood ever gave me any grief over it years ago.
“I never said anything about it to anyone,” said James. “The fact what you gave me was so ridiculous was exactly what made it pretty cool, and it was just ours.”
He went on to explain that rather than a piece of Mets memorabilia, it was about childhood, and friends — the kind of friends you have as a kid that you never have again as an adult.
“Those were good times back then, Maimes,” he said.
They were, too, or at least the parts I remember. You often hear about adults reaching certain points in their lives that make them yearn to go back, to relive the people and the places of their past, and the safety and security of what was. Of course, those memories are selective, an idealized version of something we want our past to be. Still, the pull is powerful and, yeah, there’s a lot worth remembering.
I hadn’t thought much about that time until James called that day, and I suppose reminiscing about your childhood is a little better when you can do it with childhood friends. You have shared memories, slogans, sayings and, yes, even insults. They’re all part of that special code we all have with the friends of our youth.
“So what happened to your piece of grass?” James asked.
“Well,” I sighed. “I planted it in my mom’s garden and it died.”
“Shouldn’t have been a Yankees fan, dumbass.”
Yeah, maybe so.
James didn’t get the chance to enjoy this special 50th anniversary of his beloved Mets. He died some years ago. Cancer. If he were alive today, though, he’d still be rooting for his Mets, bragging about the club’s promising future despite failing to make the post-season, and of course, he’d be giving me a hard time about the Yankees. I’d be disappointed if he didn’t.
Maybe one day I’ll get back east and drive up to that house he had to check out that grass sitting under the bows of an oak tree. If it’s still there and still thriving, I’ll just chalk it up to another Mets Miracle and then tip my cap to my old friend. A Mets’ cap, of course.