By David Laurell
know that you don't usually turn to the pages of Sports Market Report for a love story, but that is what this is. It's not an Eric Segal tearjerker, nor is it a page-turning account of steamy lust. It's just a story about the ups and downs of the love, passions and emotions surrounding one person's love affair with America's pastime...
In our rapidly changing, confusing and tumultuous world, we all tend to look for the solace of simpler times. Major League Baseball has proven to be that sanctuary during many difficult periods, both for our country and for us as individuals. Baseball has also unfortunately let us down at times, reminding us that we truly do live in a world where nothing is sacrosanct.
Still, despite the disappointments and rough times, we always seem to come back, forgive and makeup. That is simply because the love is real and the passion is undeniable. America's pastime is engrained in every one of our senses. It's the smell of freshly cut grass intertwined with cigar smoke, the sound of a bat cracking against horsehide as a crowd gasps and then cheers in unison, and the feel of the soft leather in the pocket of well-worn glove.
It's the taste of hot dogs, dripping with mustard, being washed down with frothy cold beers, and the sight of men, in uniforms, throwing, catching, hitting, running and sliding on the nation's legendary diamonds and fields. It is so much more than simply a game. It has has become a love affair. It has inspired our dreams, created our heroes and crept into our collective psyches. It has also played a major role in our municipal and state governments, cutting political deals and joining ranks with the cutthroat world of development and big business.
It is the simplicity of a father and his son taking in their first game at the ballpark, the excitement of a Willie Mays over-the-shoulder catch, the precision of a Nolan Ryan pitch and the furry of a Barry Bonds hit. It is the complexity of trades, acquisitions and free agency, and it is the corporate greed of club owners and multi-millionaire players who have come to placing their own best interests far above giving much of a damn about the fans who support them.
It is the things that make up any juicy love story. Good times – Bad times – and everything in between. It truly is a crazy little thing called love! Ah, but the dysfunctional side of our relationship is always overshadowed by the pure strength of our longstanding love affair – a love that blossoms anew each spring, deepens and matures through every summer and culminates each fall with an annual ritual known as the World Series.
The first of these sacred rituals was performed in 1884 when a team that went by the name of the Province Grays swept the New York Metropolitans in three straight games.
Nineteen years later, in 1903, the ritual was formalized when the Boston Braves took on the Pittsburgh Pirates in what would be the first modern day World Series between the American League and the National League. Attendees to that series saw the legendary Cy Young and the Braves emerge victorious over the equally legendary Honus Wagner and the Pirates.
And thus, the World Series memory-making machine began churning out moments that would be burned into our collective hearts, minds and souls. The World Series conjures up so many different memories dependent upon your age. To my grandfather it was Christy Mathewson tossing three shutouts, Fred Snodgrass blowing an easy out and Bill Wambsganss making an unbelievable unassisted triple play. I clearly remember my grandfather relaying World Series tales of Cookie Lavagetto denying Bill Bevens of a no-hitter, of Willie Mays making an unbelievable catch to deprive Vic Wertz of a hit, and of the year the World Championship came to Brooklyn thanks to Johnny Podres.
I also recall his stories about The Babe prognosticating from the plate, Joe Medwick being pelted with bottles and cans by irate fans and Enos Slaughter going for the gusto when everyone in the stadium (not to mention everyone on the field) assumed he would hold up on third. For those of my generation, baseball's World Championship has provided us with the memories of flawless fielding by Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles, Carlton Fisk's hit bouncing off the foul pole for a homer and Reggie Jackson sending three first pitches over the fence in one game.
Still, while each of those moments is as tightly secured in my mind as the core of a stitched rawhide sphere, there are five consecutive World Series, beginning in 1969 and culminating in 1973, that, for me, will forever define my love affair with the October Classic, and to some extent, baseball itself. Those championship games, played over that five years period, began with a Series that made a twelve year old boy from New York truly believe in miracles, and ended with a Series that hit a teenager with the cold hard reality, that as much as you "gotta believe" in miracles, they don't always come true.
The 66th World Series provided fans with many memories – spectacular fielding by the New York Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson and centerfielder Tommie Agee, Don Clendenon's three home runs, and the ejection of the Baltimore Orioles veteran manager Earl Weaver. But the real memories made during that series were those of a hapless team of improbable champions who transformed themselves from being the butt of New Yorker's jokes to emerge as the "Miracle Mets".
The summer of 1969 was a difficult one for me. My father had passed away the previous December and, on top of grappling with his death, we moved that summer from Brooklyn to Staten Island. I didn't know anyone and my "friends" became Harrelson, Agee, Clendenon and their teammates, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones, Ken Boswell, Al Weis, Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool, Jerry Grote, Art Shamsky, Gary Gentry, Nolan Ryan and the Mets manager Gil Hodges.
That rooster of 1969 Mets also gave me a new respect for trading cards. Up until that year, cards were for playing with, flipping and putting in the spokes of my bike's wheels. That summer, I became obsessed with getting my hands on cards that carried the smiling faces and action shots of "Gil's Guys" such as Tom Terrific and the agile Agee. And, when I did get those coveted cards into my possession, they were never carelessly toyed with, but instead, proudly displayed on a shelf over the desk in my bedroom.
As the summer wore on, my "buddies" out at Shea were steadily driving towards post-season play. By the time school started in September, I began making "real" friends. Still, everything about starting a new school year in a new school was overshadowed by the fact that the Mets constantly won games, took the division championship, the National League pennant and went on to the World Series.
Following their defeat in the first game of the Series, the Mets regrouped and finally turned the tide in the second inning of the third game when Gary Gentry smacked a double to bring in Grote from second and Harrelson from first. In the fourth inning, with the birds behind 3-0, Baltimore began a rally that was finally cut short by the agile fielding of Agee. Three innings later, with the bases loaded, Agee robbed the Orioles of a potential triple by diving headfirst into a catch.
The Mets won that game 5-0 and millions of my fellow New Yorkers, for the first time, sensed that we just might be watching a miracle being performed before our eyes.
And, a miracle it was. When the Mets clinched the championship, fans poured out on to the field in a wild dance of hysterical lunacy, downtown Manhattan was covered with a blizzard of ticker tape, and kids like me dreamed. We dreamed what it would be like to make unbelievable catches like Agee and Harrelson and to come through with a hit when it was most needed like Gentry. Perhaps, more importantly was the fact that the Mets victory showed us that our dreams could become realities, that the seemingly impossible could be possible, and that every once in a while miracles really do happen.
I was in love with the game!
The key thing to remember about miracles is that they only happen once in a while (remember, their rarity is what makes them miracles) and; by the end of the 1970 season, it had become clear that the miracle of repeat, much less dynasty, would not manifest itself at Shea. I clearly remember being disappointed that it would be a Metless World Series. And while the fact that the Orioles had gotten back to the Series irked me, I did sort of secretly hope to see them deny the Cincinnati Reds of the championship trophy.
That clandestine support rapidly gave way to my rallying behind the boys from Baltimore. How could I not? They played with such flair and excitement. Excitement that sent me on a quixotic search to secure the cards of Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Dave Johnson, Paul Blair, Don Buford, Boog Powell and the Robinsons – Brooks and Frank.
That series again went my way. Halfway through, the Big Red Machine was being referred to as the Big Red Edsel. By the end of the Series, the Reds had completely stalled and the Orioles cracked open the champagne one year to the day after they had lost to the Mets.
The love affair continued.
By the following year, I had come to just take it for granted that the Baltimore Orioles would always play in the World Series. And, while they had fascinated me in post-season play the previous year, the 1971 World Series introduced me to a colorful cast of underdogs from Pittsburgh whom I just couldn't help but root for. How could a fourteen-year old boy not be mesmerized by the likes of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and Doc Ellis, all who became additions to my card collection.
The first two games of the 68th Series were as predictable as it gets. Baltimore chalked up two wins and seemed destined to be well on their way to a second straight championship. That predictability was tossed aside by game three and, by game five, it was the Pirates that had the upper hand on a 3-2 Series.
The Orioles did come back to tie the Series in game six but their championship repeat would be denied in the final game when Dave Johnson blew the bird's last hopes by grounding to short. By this time, I was not only collecting cards but also newspaper clippings from the sports pages. I still have many of those clippings to this day and every once in a while, usually on a rainy Saturday morning, I'll dig them out and lose myself in those memories.
A clipping from that Series always stands out in my mind. Next to a picture of a Champagne-doused Bill Mazeroski he is quoted as saying: "Things are always supposed to be better when you look back on them from eleven years. But, they might not be – they just might not be." Ah, if I could have only known then how true that statement was!
I had just entered my freshman year in high school when the Oakland A's met the Cincinnati Reds in the 1972 Series and it was a no-brainer that I would be supporting the A's. Every fan seemingly has that one team in every sport that they despise. For me, in baseball, the team I loathed was the Reds with their cocky Pete Rose and their hot-headed Sparky Anderson. The disgust I harbored for the Reds, however, really stemmed from the fact that a Reds appearance in the World Series meant another lost chance for a second championship banner to wave over Shea Stadium.
I knew very little about the Oakland A's except that they were cool. They had cool uniforms, cool mustaches and they were from California which, to me, seemed very hip.
Their players even had cool names like Rollie, Vida and Catfish. And their names weren't just cool – they were cool! What teenage boy didn't think Fingers, Blue, Hunter, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace and, of course, Reggie Jackson were as hip as it got?
I can clearly remember watching each one of those games. And, while I didn't have a "dog in the hunt" so to speak, I was so enthusiastic about that Series that you would have thought the Mets were playing.
It was a truly great Series, and for the fourth consecutive year, the team I had been rooting for walked away with championship rings. The World Series had become the second most important thing in my life behind the Super Bowl and I spent the remainder of 1972 and the early part of 1973 searching for A's cards and growing a peachfuzz mustache. I was a bursting flame of hormones over the game!
Every young man experiences a time of reckoning. A time when you close one chapter of your life and a new one begins. The early fall of 1973 was such a time for me.
In the time that had elapsed since the A's celebrated their championship victory to the late summer of the following year, my world expanded to such a degree that sports was only one of the things that was important to me. Baseball had become my magic dragon and I was little Jackie Paper, who had found that painted wings and giant rings do in fact make way for other toys. I became fascinated with television and film production, classic and current movies, music, writing, photography and, the opposite sex. Still, despite my new interests and diversions, there I was, camping out overnight at Shea to get tickets for the National League Championship Series – a Series that would seal my dislike for the Reds and see my Mets have one last shining moment.
That was the series in which a scuffle between Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson cleared both benches and culminated with the Mets return to the World Series. Although I had, by that time, broadened my horizons, October of 1973 blinded me to everything except the Series games between the cool A's and my hometown boys. It had also been the year that I added cards bearing the pictures of Jon Matlack, Rusty Staub, and Felix Millan to my Mets collection. It was the Series in which a relief pitcher by the name of Tug McGraw asked us to believe in another miracle. And it was the Series that I had to face the cold, cruel reality that no matter how much you believe, miracles are as rare as a high-grade T-206 condition Honus Wagner card.
I learned that love hurts!
The 1973 World Series was by no means the end of my love affair or fascination with the October Classic. In fact, I'm still rather infatuated and intrigued by it to this day. And I was, of course, over the moon and head over heels in love when the Mets reemerged in a truly miraculous way in the 1986 Series. Still, for me, I will probably never be able to recapture the thrill and excitement that baseball and the Series, and the game, brought me from 1969 through 1973.
For those just a few years older than me, innocence had already dissipated in the assassinations, racial divisions and overall turbulence of the 1960s. But for me there was still a fair dose of innocence to be found during those years. By 1973, however, my generation's innocence was waning. We had seen a bloody war in Vietnam take the lives of thousands of young Americans. We had seen four American college students shot to death by the Ohio National Guard for protesting that war. And, we had seen both a United States President and Vice President forced to resign in disgrace. Still, as I, and my fellow Baby Boomers became socially conscious, baseball and the World Series continued to be an annual reminder of simpler times.
Today, in this modern world of multi-millionaire players, multi-billionaire owners and greed- induced strikes, I still love baseball. I guess I always will. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions and memories of the game are still enjoyable. Seeing a mint condition Tom Seaver, Brooks Robinson or Reggie Jackson card still thrills me. But, it's no longer a vibrant and exciting young love. It is now a matured relationship that has been tempered by years of ups, downs, disappointments, temporary abandonment, emotional scars, and let downs.
I have finally come to terms with baseball, from pre-season and opening day to post-season and the October Classic, we are now like an old couple relaxing on a porch swing reminiscing on both our times of passionate excitement, our challenges and our lost opportunities. There's still a lot of love there, but the excitement and passion have waned to a point that I really no longer even want to recapture those days of yore. To me, that would be a violation on how great those times were. I no longer have great expectations for our love affair to be one for the history books. I just want to comfortably enjoy one another's company. Hold one another... and pray to God that no one ever invents baseball viagra!
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