What it Feels Like for a Mets Fan

by

11/21/2002

126th Street & Roosevelt Avenue Queens, NY

Neighborhood: Queens, Shea Stadium

Men will ruin $500 suits scrambling for a $5 baseball. It’s an adage as old as the idea of men wearing suits to a ball game. It also happens to be true. Every person attending a major league baseball game — from the youngest child being indoctrinated into the ritualistic church of Baseball at the shrine known as the Ballpark to the oldest grandfather sharing an afternoon with his children’s children — dreams of some day catching a foul ball that was both pitched by an actual major league pitcher and hit by an actual major league batter.

I have attended New York Mets games at Shea Stadium since I was eight years old. That was back in the early 1970s, when Tom Seaver dominated the baseball landscape. The pitcher was, and still remains, my favorite Met. So much so that my wife and I, only half-jokingly, are considering naming our first-born son Seaver. But I digress: I’ve been coming to Shea Stadium for almost 30 years. I’ve sat through the Dark Ages of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when David Arthur Kingman and Lee Mazzilli were the team’s lone bright spots. I’ve sat through the great, albeit underachieving, teams of Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden. I’ve sat through the embarrassing public relations nightmares, and bleach-spraying teams of the early 1990s when overrated free agents like Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla filled the clubhouse with negative vibes. Finally, my new wife and I have the pleasure of sitting through the very good, very gutsy Millennium Mets of Piazza and Fonzie and Robin.

An ironic downside to having your ball club experience a good stretch is that you can no longer get the great field-level seats you became accustomed to. When the Mets were doing poorly, or at least not as good as those damned Yankees, I could order field-level tickets a week in advance. Now, I can’t even get field-level tickets six months in advance. The corporate boxes are now filled with “suits” who are just there to be seen, and the field-level boxes are filled with well-connected wise guys and their kids who can’t truly appreciate the really good seats simply because they never had to sit in the really bad seats. When I was a kid, my not so well-connected dad provided a fair share of upper deck, nose-bleed seats. But again, I digress.

I estimate that I’ve been to about forty Mets game in my life. Sure, not as many as lifetime season ticket holders who don’t have much of a life beyond baseball games, but more than your casual fan. I saw Seaver shut out the Houston Astros, 7-0, at my very first game in August 1974. I saw his triumphant return to Shea in 1983 as his second, and all-too-brief, tour of duty as a Met began. I saw Terry Pendleton of the hated St. Louis Cardinals hit a monstrous home run in the 9th inning of a September pennant-race game that effectively ended the Mets defense of their championship in 1987. I saw the mighty Atlanta Braves buzz saw the Mets a couple of times in the mid-1990s with scores that resembled football game results more than a baseball score. My wife and I witnessed the incredible, mind-boggling five-run 9th inning rally against Curt Schilling to turn a 4-0 deficit into a 5-4 win on a rainy Sunday afternoon in May, 1999. Later that year, we were lucky enough to be sitting in the very last row of the upper deck on a cold October night to watch the first Mets home playoff game in 13 years as they walloped the Arizona Diamondbacks, 9-2.

Speaking of Arizona…It was a magnificent Saturday afternoon in early May and my wife and I were going out to Shea to see our first game of the season, The Mets versus the Diamondbacks, courtesy of our next-door neighbors who had two extra tickets. The first ballgame you attend each year is like rekindling a love affair. No matter how many times you drive to Shea, it’s still a surprise when the stadium suddenly looms over the Grand Central Parkway, painted bright blue, and if you’re not familiar with the exits you might pass right by it.

Shea is a shabby but inviting home. The only stadium I’ve known for my team. Even in down times, Shea was an exciting place for me to visit; but during good times — like now — the place is positively electric. The sounds of the people slowly making their way through the turnstiles still gets me juiced. You can smell the hot dogs from outside. Passing through the turnstiles, the mammoth pictures of past great moments bring all of the players to life. Then, of course, you spy the playing field through the aisle openings as you ride the big escalator up to your level. Little patches of bright green and blue poke through the dark concourse area. It’s right out there, you think.

We got to Shea Stadium just in time for the first pitch. We weren’t sitting field-level, but we had 2nd row in the mezzanine level. Our almost-behind-home-plate seats were good enough for us, an unobstructed view of the entire playing field. The Mets were wearing their solid royal blue caps with their solid white home uniforms. This made me particularly happy as I’m a traditionalist and can’t stomach those dreary, joyless, yet very commercially popular, black jerseys and caps. The only uniform combination that would’ve made me happier is the white pinstriped uniform with the solid blue cap. In my opinion, that’s how my Mets should look.

As the game progressed, and each foul ball eluded me once again, I couldn’t help but think that never once had I come close to catching a foul ball in the almost-30 years I had been going to ball games. But Lady Fate calls your name when you’re not expecting it. That day, it was finally my turn. Only, it wasn’t that simple. It never is.

Bottom of the 6th inning, Mets up 3-1 on Arizona, Todd Pratt on 2nd base after just doubling, Rey Ordonez at bat. A few pitches into the at-bat, Ordonez smacked one foul almost straight up in the air. I’ve got a cynical habit of reaching my hand out and saying, “I got it,” after every foul ball even when I know it’s nowhere in my vicinity. However, this time, the ball was straight over head.

“Honey, I think you might get this one,” I heard Karen say before (she claims) I pushed her back in her seat as I positioned myself in the very narrow aisle two rows from the railing.

It was directly over my head and seemed to take forever to come down, but it was mine. Much like a catcher who drifts and backpedals as he tries to track a foul ball with lots of backspin, I stumbled on those very narrow aisle steps. I felt myself airborne, the mezzanine railing suddenly loomed right before my eyes, and beyond it, nothing but the field level seats 20 feet below. “Get down!” I told myself and I crumpled in the aisle. My shoulder slammed into the railing, the steps, or the person in front of me. Self- preservation was my M.O. at that second. People in the front row reached to catch me, but I fell in a heap at the foot of the stairs. I gathered my wits and found the baseball sitting on the steps between my legs. The people in the surrounding seats were too much in shock of almost seeing me plummet to my death to react. I picked the baseball up. No one contested it. I looked back at the rest of Section 543 and saw a sea of faces agape.

“Show everybody you got the ball,” the fellow in the front row urged me.

I stood, held the ball aloft much like a golfer after sinking a putt, and smirked, quite embarrassed and self-conscious. The section applauded me (or laughed at me – it’s a toss-up in my mind). My wife was none too thrilled as she thought she almost witnessed my death.

But, I got my first foul ball (for whatever it’s worth). My wife kissed me in congratulation, then laughed at my folly. The final score was Mets 8, Diamondbacks 1. It was a good afternoon.

We wended our way down the winding ramps to ground level, then waded through the passing throngs on our way to Roosevelt Avenue. My neighbor pointed out Seaver, now a Mets television announcer, packing his bags into the trunk of one of the VIP cars parked right in front of the stadium. Wow, there was Tom Seaver, my boyhood baseball idol, no more than 20 feet away from me! He was practically anonymous! Hardly anyone acknowledged him or made a fuss about him! Some pointed at him in recognition; some hollered a passing comment. But, basically, he was just going about his business like anyone else. Funny how celebrities look different in person than on television. The thought that they looked not so larger-than-life crossed my mind, at least until my wife made a comment about Tom looking paunchy. I defended him by pointing out his age. I was a little star-struck, I admit.

“Go get his autograph,” my neighbor prodded. I was reluctant; I didn’t want to seem like an inconsiderate clod.

My wife took the baseball out of her backpack and said, “Here, Hon, why don’t you have Tom sign your baseball? You know you want to.”

She was right. I stood there for a few moments, considering the tactic. Just then, a small boy obviously too young to remember Tom from his playing days, and perhaps just a puppet for a cowardly father who didn’t want to look like some star-struck teenybopper, approached Mr. Seaver. He held out a piece of paper and a pen as Tom was getting into the Lincoln Town Car that was waiting to whish him away from the stadium. I couldn’t hear the conversation; I didn’t need to. I saw the boy offer the paper and pen. Seaver in return waved the boy off and closed the car door.

“Not cool,” my wife said.

“Maybe he’s in a hurry,” I said in his defense. I didn’t want to admit that it bothered me. “I mean, if he signs one autograph, then he’d probably be swamped by dozens of people wanting autographs and he’d never get out of here.”

“Your rationalization of complete strangers astounds me,” she said with a shake of her head. “He wouldn’t sign an autograph for one little boy. I don’t think I want to name our kid after someone like that.”

I didn’t either.

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