Back in the day, my friends and I were all Yankees fans. My favorite player was No. 15, the captain, Thurman Munson (R.I.P.). I loved all the Yankees players from that era: Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers, Lou Piniella — they were all great. I studied the stats on the backs of their baseball cards like I was prepping for a test. I knew all their batting stances; if you put a baseball bat in my hands today, I can still do a spot-on imitation of Reggie Jackson’s home run swing.
After the Yankees won the World Series in 1977, things started to change in the organization. There always seemed to be controversy and infighting surrounding the team. Former relief pitcher Sparky Lyle wrote The Bronx Zoo, bashing the organization, and it seemed like owner George Steinbrenner was on the cover of the sports pages more often than his players were. I was a kid and couldn’t really understand all the negative press — I just wanted to root for my team.
On June 14, 1980, my friends and I went to watch the Mets play. Although we were all Yankees fans, Shea Stadium was in Flushing, which was much easier for us to get to since we all lived in Astoria. The Mets were playing the San Francisco Giants that summer night. It was an OK game…the Mets were losing, per usual. My friends and I even contemplated leaving after the seventh-inning stretch, but thank God we didn’t. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets started to rally; they were down by four runs, but had gotten one back when center fielder Steve Henderson stepped up to the plate with two runners on, and hit a monstrous walk-off three-run homer to win the game.
The roar that erupted from the crowd when that ball went over the fence was a sound I haven’t heard anywhere since.
We were sitting in the bleacher seats, and so many Mets fans were jumping up and down at the same time that it felt like the whole section might collapse onto the playing field. Strangers were high-fiving, hugging, and dancing with each other. Then everyone started calling for the hero of the night, Steve Henderson, to come out of the dugout and take a bow. When he did, the crowd went wild all over again.
The excitement didn’t end there. As fans were exiting Shea, shouts of “Let’s Go Mets” echoed through the stadium parking lot and out onto the 7 train, where, once we were all packed in, every Mets fan on board joined in a chorus of the team’s theme song “Meet the Mets, Meet the Mets, step right up and greet the Mets.” The electricity was so magical and contagious on that ride home that I announced to my friends, Donald, Joe, Guiliano, and Eddie, that “from this day forth, I am a Mets fan.” They all thought I was kidding, that I would come to my senses the next day; but I wasn’t joking. I felt a kinship with the Mets fans that night. The Mets were from Queens and I was from Queens and most of the fans on that 7 train were from Queens. The Mets belonged to us. Good or bad, they were our team.
Like the Mets slogan goes, “Ya Gotta Believe”…and I did. Even though it would be four more years before they had a winning record, they kept getting a little better every season. Then, in 1986, the Amazin’ Mets finally made the playoffs again and took NYC on a magical ride, winning the World Series by beating the Boston Red Sox.
Back in the day, I was the world’s biggest Yankees fan; then all the controversy surrounding the team made it hard for me to follow. When I went to the Mets game with my friends that summer night, I rediscovered what I loved about baseball and I switched sides. Only a native New Yorker would understand the magnitude of what “switching sides” means, because being a baseball fan in New York is way more than “sports” — it’s a religion. You’re either a Mets fan or a Yankees fan and there is no in between.
This summer, I look forward to sitting back with a few ice cold ones and watching every Mets game, and on the most perfect of days will hope that my two wishes come true: a Mets win and a Yankee loss.
LET’S GO METS!