Thursday, December 8, 2011

Celebrating Mets History Anyway

This is a tough week for Mets fans as Jose Reyes has done what most New Yorkers can't manage until they're twice his age--he took the money and fled to Florida. The team might be in for the Second Dark Ages the next few years, reminiscent of the forgettable seasons between the departure of Tom Seaver and the arrival of Dwight Gooden. On the other hand, they might ride a talented young pitching staff and a patchy lineup to some sort of miracle. They've done that before, too.

This is a good time to look back at Mets history and put things in perspective, a task made more feasible and enjoyable by the publication of The Mets: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (compiled by the New York Daily News, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, and reasonably priced at $40), a volume which should be on the coffee table of any Mets fan by Christmas afternoon. With more than 300 pages packed with images and memories, it features text by Daily News staffers Andy Martino and Anthony McCarron, and a Foreword by Ron Darling.

The images are the best thing about the book; if you never looked at the text, you'd still get your money's worth from the images, starting and ending with reproductions of 20 Daily News front/back pages with the most significant headlines in team history--inside the front and back covers. Nearly every page of this franchise history--grouped by decades and including all the key games and players--includes a photograph taken from the pages of the Daily News. These photos cover everything you'd want to be reminded of, and some things you'd rather forget, if you're a lifelong Mets fan.

I enjoyed every photo in the book, but a couple of them stand out for me. One is a ground-level shot of Endy Chavez making "the catch" in 2006, his body stretching so he can his elbow above the fence to make the catch, the ball snowconed in the webbing of a glove that's a couple of feet above the wall, where huge block letter proclaim THE STRENGTH TO BE THERE. Even better than that is the photo of the all-time franchise miracle catch: Ron Swoboda in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. I watched it happen live, and I've seen the footage of the catch hundreds of times, yet I'm still astonished not only that Swoboda caught the ball but also that he got to that spot so quickly. He had to be prescient to get that great a jump, and has suggested as much himself. I've seen a photo of the ball finding his glove just an inch or so above the ground, but for me that image is topped by the one on Page 71 of this new book. It shows Swoboda landing on the turf with his twisted glove a few inches above the ground. His left knee and right forearm have hit the ground, and he is fully outstretched. The amazing part is that the ball is not visible. We can see a couple of feet in front of Swoboda's glove, the webbing of which is no more than three inches clear of the planet. There is no baseball. Knowing that in the split-second it would take for the glove to be flat on the ground, the ball would somehow sail into it, boggles the mind.

I have been a Mets fan since the first day of the franchise, and still remember being bribed by my parents to sit for a portrait when I was eleven years old with the assurance that I'd be able to listen to the first exhibition games of the inaugural 1962 misfits while sitting. I went to a couple of dozen games at the Polo Grounds, and countless more after they moved to Shea Stadium. I've been there through all of it, and I believe this book would have been better served by writers who were more personally involved in the team's history. Gary Cohen would have been a terrific choice, but the Daily News did this project in-house.

McCarron says he's been watching the team since he was a kid in the 1970s, but Martino has only covered the team since 2008. The authors did their homework, plenty of it, and they cover most aspects of the team's history clearly, thoroughly, and rationally. It's a smooth read and every Mets fan can learn a lot; I found their detailed account of the franchise's origins quite illuminating. You'll enjoy reading the text, especially the blow-by-blow descriptions of key innings in important games. You will relish many reminders of the past glory, and you can also wallow in the traumatic times as well. The authors certainly relished digging through the team's dirt, and seldom passed up a good opportunity to rip them.

Having said all that, I have to point out three major problems I have with the text. The first two are related in that they are symptoms of the main problem I have stated--that the authors got too much of their Mets history second-hand. That increased the chance that they might miss some things in their research, might make simple factual errors, and might interpret partial data in a way that skewers the truth they are seeking to describe. Unfortunately, Martino and McCarron are guilty of all three of these things. Let's start with the factual errors. There aren't too many of them (and an acceptable number of typos), but nearly all of them occur in their coverage of the early years of the franchise, and they're all pretty embarrassing. Would someone who has observed the team's history directly make the mistake of identifying Tug McGraw and Jerry Koosman as right-handed pitchers? I doubt it, but these authors did just that. In fact, twice they said Koosman was a righty (once on the same page as a photo of his pitching motion) and from Minnesota (he's a Wisconsin native). They even misspelled Casey Stengel's name twice, and wrote about someone named Edgardo Alfronzo. The most annoying mistakes involved the 1969 champions; this book tells you that Pete Reichert [sic] bounced the ball off J. C. Martin's shoulder in Game 4 of the World Series; that Koosman's record that season was 17-6 (it was 17-9); and most regrettably, that the last out of the Series was a fly ball to center field. Yikes! Red Foley would never have let that happen.

The bigger problem--the error of omission compared to the errors of commission listed above--is that the authors apparently have little idea of how popular the Mets were during the 1960s. "How long did it take for the lovable losers to become mere losers?" they ask on Page 33, talking about the 1962 team. Apparently their answer is "right away," which simply is not the truth. They adopted the view of New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte, whom they interviewed. (All newspaper quotes in the book are from the Daily News, but the authors did interview several Times writers even though they weren't allowed to print their work.) Here is their account on Page 38: "Robert Lipsyte recalls 1964 as the definitive end of the endearing Marvelous Marv, cute loser Mets. After two years of bad baseball, the act simply ceased to charm most people. 'By the time they were at Shea Stadium, that was totally over,' Lipsyte said."

Judging from that summary dismissal, you would get the idea that life at Shea Stadium was dismal, lifeless and barren until the Miracle Mets of 1969. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the authors didn't know enough to research the numbers, or they ignored what they found. Here are the facts: in 1964, the Mets drew 1.7 million fans to Shea, second in the National League, while the Yankees--the pennant-winning Yankees who also led their league in attendance--drew 1.3 million to Yankee Stadium. What? The team that won 53 games drew over 30 percent more fans than the team which won 99 games and its fifth straight pennant? Of course the novelty of the new stadium was part of the appeal, but clearly the "lovable loser" factor was still present. People kept choosing to go to Flushing rather than the Bronx, and it had to be for some other reason than the expectation of a home-team victory.

That season ushered in a stretch of twelve straight seasons in which the Mets outdrew the Yankees, a streak not broken until the Yankees moved into the renovated Yankee Stadium in 1976. In 1969 the Mets became the first New York team since the 1950 Yankees to draw over 2 million fans, but let's look at the period from 1965-1968. Lipsyte says things were dead for the Mets and their fans during that period, and I have to wonder whether the authors were compelled to ignore the Mets' popularity rather than dwell on the worst decade in the history of the Daily News' primary readership's favorite franchise. The fact is that the Mets kicked the Yankees' ass during the 1960s, and Martino and McCarron are remiss in not mentioning a word about it. It was fun at Shea in those years. It was like going to a circus where it was likely that an acrobat would fall.

Quickly, the attendance figures by which the Mets trumped the Yankees in those year: in 1965, 1.77 million to 1.21; in 1966, 1.93 million to 1.12; in 1967, 1.56 million to 1.26; and in 1968, 1.78 million to 1.18. Add it up, and it's an average of 1.76 million to 1.19, or about 48 percent more fans for the Mets. Recall that during these four seasons, the Mets averaged 62.5 wins a season, and by the end had still never finished higher than ninth; the Yankees averaged 75.5 wins despite finishing last in 1966. Clearly there was plenty of losing going on at Shea, so why were the fans going there in droves (they were second or third in league attendance during those years)? Much like the fans at Wrigley Field in recent years, they went to Shea for the giddy, almost party-like atmosphere, the sense of being in a park on a beautiful day or evening, surrounded by people who just want to be there to watch the passing parade, even if it did include a few fielding and baserunning gaffes. Compared with staid Yankee Stadium, Shea was festive, symbolized by the franchise embracing the notion of banners in the stands. That practice was forbidden in the Bronx, but Mets fans quickly found that they could express with wit and images both the joy and anguish of rooting for the Mets.

In 1963, Mets management decide to promote banners by staging the first "Banner Day," during which fans paraded around the field with banners between games of a doubleheader. Pretty soon it became a contest, and I'm pretty sure the first winning banner fittingly declared, "To err is human, to forgive is a Mets fan." By the time the team started to play decent ball in 1968, banners were a fixture, as were the witty perspectives provided by the "sign man" behind the third-base dugout. "Banner Day" was an annual event until the early 1990s, and it is significant that the Mets just announced that "Banner Day" will return in 2012. The fans need some way to express themselves again, though I don't think you'll see any banners at Citi Field promising that Mets fans will forgive as easily as we used to.

This is a vital omission from the Daily News version of Mets history, because that first generation of fans established the foundation for the franchise's enduring popularity. Their children took to the team anew in the 1980s and have pretty much stuck by the team ever since. But to trumpet the Mets' success at the box office in the 1960s would have meant reminding readers that the other huge factor was that the Yankees stank. The authors weren't up to that, but I didn't find any such gaps in their account of more recent team history.

My third beef is stylistic and a pet peeve of mine. The authors use "Met" as the adjectival form of "Mets," referring to things like "the first Met run". Let me make this clear. The franchise is called the Mets. Anything that refers to the franchise has to say "Mets". The only time "Met" is correct is when it refers to an individual player, as in "Richie Ashburn was the first Met to score a run." Otherwise it has to be Mets. This is especially true in New York, where "Met" actually refers to two non-sports entities: the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a matter of fact, the "first Met run" was Gounod's Faust, performed at the Metropolitan Opera House (known as "The Met") in 1883.

In this book, "Mets" and "Met" are often used in the same sentence, depending on the part of speech. That looks bad, sounds bad, and is bad. What does it mean to refer to "Met management"? If the authors are referring to the ball club and not the art museum, they are talking about the people who run the franchise called the Mets. Therefore they are "Mets management" and nothing else. And so on, and so on. It bothered me every time I saw it, and there is more useless interchanging of team-related terms here than I've ever seen in a book.

Despite these reservations, I'll repeat that this is a great book, and you can't go wrong giving it to your favorite Mets fan for Christmas. Or at least by Opening Day 2012, when we'll need a more urgent reminder that in a 30-team enterprise the odds are that you'll win a championship every 30 years, so a team with two titles in 50 years is still far enough ahead of the curve for its history to be celebrated.