By James H. Burns
Friends keep asking how I feel about the Mets in the postseason.
Many of them know I’ve been a Mets fan for over 40 years. Forty-six years, to be precise.
Most of my life.
I know that it’s ridiculous for any grown man to get wrapped up in a sports team’s destiny. But the truth is, it’s the day-to-day verisimilitude of baseball that I love: the simple joy of watching a game on TV or at the park, or listening to merry voices on the radio doing a good job of calling the game.
I suppose if I had been born in San Francisco, the Giants would have been occupying a significant part of my cranium — or at least its pleasure centers — for all these decades. The same holds true, of course, if I had been raised in any other state with a baseball team.
But what if I had grown up without baseball on the immediate horizon? In the early 1960s, my father — a mechanical engineer and professor — toyed with the idea of moving the family to Cape Canaveral (now the Kennedy Space Center, about an hour from Orlando) when he received a couple of interview offers from firms based on the Space Coast.
Would I have followed some semi-local minor league club? Would I have fallen in love with the game solely by playing it in the backyard, or by playing on a Florida Little League team?
For many men — and, happily now, also women — of the past generations, their embrace of following the sport is commensurate with their learning how to play it.
I became a Mets fan in 1970, one year late to the party after their 1969 World Series championship. The Amazin’s went from never having had a winning record to becoming the best team in baseball. They were an easy group to fall in love with; a bunch of good, blue-collar athletes led by the all-time great Tom Seaver. The pitching staff was also highlighted by Jerry Koosman, with a couple of Gold Glove fielders backing them up.
(Tommie Agee, the Mets’ center fielder from that era, was my first “favorite player.” You can only have one first.)
The Mets’ 1973 National League championship was a thrill, particularly since it was unexpected. The club had been in last place in the East just a little over a month before the season’s close.
My dad taught me that postseason appearances were hard to come by, and the joy of baseball could exist simply in rooting for your team. You could get pleasure out of rooting on your favorite players and watching a well-played game on any given day.
But the aggravation of being a Mets fan was also already evident.
The early 1970s Mets could have been a dynasty in the making, The team’s outfield could have featured All-Stars Amos Otis and Ken Singleton for the next decade, and the pitching staff could have included future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in his ascendancy. (All three were traded by the Mets.)
Mets management made the same mistake after their 1986 World Series win. Over the next few years, players were traded away or not re-signed.
There have been intermittent years in which the Mets seemed to wander in the desert, when all one wanted was to see them compete.
There was always the pleasure of going to Shea Stadium, the only ballpark I was ever able to look around, and see various sections I had sat in with my dad. Bobby Valentine’s Mets, during their first few years, were thrilling. (1999 may well mark the last time I was ever truly in love with a baseball team.)
When the Mets were truly awful a couple of seasons back, I had to ask myself why I still had them on the TV. Truth be told, it was often white noise as I wrote. But I had the baseball package and could watch any game on television. I realized it was from another basic, if elegant, pleasure: listening to Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling broadcast the games.
Having watched and listened to almost every broadcast team in the major leagues, I am totally confident that it’s the best booth in baseball — by far. Listening to them is very much like hanging out with a few friends who are really intelligent about baseball.
I still play occasionally, in the over-30 leagues around Long Island. But the greatest fun comes just from throwing the ball around with neighborhood kids, or other, older friends.
Over time, I learned not to expect too much from the local National League club.
Which is why their wild winning streak at the beginning of this season was so much fun! The Mets seemed to be winning effortlessly, with a sudden swing of the bat, a clutch pitching performance or a sparkling defensive play at just the right time.
Their sporadic swoons were disconcerting, but their mid-summer comeback was similarly invigorating.
I felt elation during the regular season. I’d take whatever happened in October as icing on the cake.
I was disconcerted on Saturday night when the Mets didn’t seem to show any fire when their shortstop had his leg broken by a wild slide. I was particularly angered by Mets manager Terry Collins for not going apocalyptic — not only over the injury, but because the umpires totally misunderstood what had occurred on the field.
The Mets ultimately answered, of course, in perhaps the best way possible. They won the series.
I’m hoping for a crisply performed matchup against the Cubs, and then a similarly well-executed turn in the World Series.
Another championship would, to say the least, be enjoyable! And there are so many current Mets that are easy to cheer for.
When I turned 30 I stopped, generally, wondering why certain things made me happy. The revelation came when I was driving on the Long Island Expressway one Sunday afternoon, heading home from the city. Frank Sinatra was on the radio, and I started to ponder, as I had many times before, why there were so few artists of such magnificent talent and ability. How could our world produce only a relative handful of Beatles-type musicians?
Then it hit me: The real miracle was that any of this could ever happen at all!
So in the days to come, I’ll be looking for the splendid quiet moments of the game as well.
It’s one of the elements that being a Mets fan has taught me about the game I love.
James H. (Jim) Burns is a writer/actor living on Long Island. Once, he was known as “Shakespeare in the Dark” on WFAN, and he still plays baseball.