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Photo by Robbie Noble on Unsplash

As the 2020 baseball season approaches, you are probably optimistic about your team’s chances. After all, your team has not lost a game yet. Most of your players are probably healthy and rejuvenated. And when Ernest Lawrence Thayer described “hope” in “Casey at the Bat,” he said it “springs eternal in the human breast.” As a fan, though, before you get too carried away with your optimism, you should also be aware that how well your upcoming season progresses will depend on two factors and on the four combinations of those two factors.

The first factor is obvious: the success or lack of success for your team. If your team is in contention all summer long, you will probably consider that a good season, even if your team comes up a bit short. By contrast, if your guys start out slowly and deteriorate from there, you will struggle to maintain interest.

The second factor is one you might not think of, but it will definitely help to determine how much you enjoy, or fail to enjoy, the season. That second factor is the amount of free time you have to experience the games themselves, all 162 of them. If you’re a young college student, for example, you may have a lot of free time during the summer to actually attend multiple games. Similarly, if you are retired, you probably have plenty of time to watch all the games on television or listen to them on the radio. If, however, you’re somewhere between those two chronological extremes — raising a family, for example, or working multiple jobs, or starting a business — you will likely have little time to enjoy the games themselves, and you will have to check the daily results through the media. Thus, as mentioned earlier, four possible combinations of those two factors exist. Here are my four extreme combinations from the past.

A successful season with lots of free time: The 1969 Mets. 1969 was easily my best summer ever. I had just graduated from high school, and I had a mindless summer job cutting grass and doing maintenance work at my alma mater. In addition, I was playing softball one night a week with friends for the Cranesville Blockbusters and also playing weekend baseball with the local American Legion team. And in the midst of all that fun, the Miracle Mets were having their best season ever.

We didn’t have cable TV back then, so I wasn’t able to watch many games, but I listened to Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner, and Bob Murphy on the radio whenever I could, and I read about the team’s success daily in the New York News and the Amsterdam Recorder. The season was amazing because we started so slowly, and it looked like the Mets, whose inaugural season was in 1962, would have a losing record for the eighth straight year.

Everything turned around, though, in late May when the Mets set a team record with an 11-game winning streak. From that point on, they played amazingly well, and some of their wins were truly miraculous. For example, in Pittsburgh one Sunday, they won a doubleheader over the Pirates by identical 1–0 scores, and in each game, the Mets’ pitcher knocked in the only run. Later that summer, the Cardinals’ Hall of Famer Steve Carlton struck out 19 Mets in a nine-inning game, but the Mets won 4–3 because their right fielder, Ron Swoboda, hit two, two-run home runs. Amazing!

But the most amazing game of all was Tom Seaver’s almost perfect game against the Cubs on Wednesday July 9th at Shea Stadium. Since the Mets and Cubs were battling for the division lead, that night game was on national TV, and I watched Tom Terrific set down the first six batters, including striking out the side in the second inning. At that point, however, I made a critical error. Instead of watching this possibly historic game in the making, I decided to call my girlfriend, the love of my life at that point. I couldn’t watch the game and chat with her because the extension cord to our phone did not reach the living room. As a result, I sat alone in another room making plans with her for our weekly trip to the movie theater. We talked for a full six innings (probably an hour and a half), and by the time I returned to the game, it was the top of the ninth.

I was stunned when I realized Seaver was only three outs away from immortality, and I watched him retire Randy Hundley on a grounder for out number 25. Then, Jimmy Qualls, a rookie outfielder, broke up the perfect game with a soft liner into left center. I was crushed. I felt like Seaver’s loss of perfection was my fault because I had left him for my girlfriend for much of the game. She left me, too, by the way, later in the season.

Fortunately, my critical error did not prevent the Mets from winning the division over the Cubs, defeating the Braves in the playoffs, and, finally, winning their first-ever World Series in five games over the mighty Baltimore Orioles. That 1969 season and the Mets were both amazing and miraculous because the Mets won everything, and I had so much free time to enjoy the ride.

A successful season with little free time: The 1986 Mets. The New York Mets have only won the World Series twice in their history, so it’s only natural that the 1986 season would be my other choice for a successful summer. Unfortunately, much of that season is a blur because I was way too busy.

Unlike my carefree single days, my life became complicated when I met Barbara in 1983, we married in 1984, and our precious Maria arrived in 1985. On top of that, I lost my job at the end of the 1985–86 school year when the Catholic school where I was teaching closed due to low enrollment. So as the Mets were gradually pulling away from their competitors, I was busy watching Maria during the day while Barbara worked, I was taking two graduate classes at night, and I was also trying to find a new job for the fall. In addition, though cable TV was readily available by then, our budget was a bit too tight to afford it, so I saw very few games. My major recollection from that summer was listening to the end of the games on the radio as I drove home from my evening classes.

Fortunately, just as my life had become complicated with the addition of a wife and a child, the Mets had gradually added a few gems of their own. During the previous three years, they traded for Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, they promoted Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden from the minors, and they hired Davey Johnson to manage the team. During each of those years, too, they became a bit better — and finished second in both ’84 and ’85 — and by 1986, they were ready to dominate, and dominate they did.

Often, when I got in my car around 8:30 for the 30-minute drive home, the Mets had the game well in hand. The pitching and the hitting were both sensational that year, and they won 108 games and finished over 20 games ahead of the second-place Phillies. In fact, they were so dominant on the field that two of the major highlights that summer involved brawls rather than baseball. In July, four Mets were arrested at a bar in Houston during the early-morning hours, and a few days later, the Mets were involved in a bench-clearing brawl in Cincinnati.

Unfortunately, by the season’s end, it looked as if the Mets had peaked too early. They struggled a bit to get by the Houston Astros in the playoffs, and they fell behind the Boston Red Sox three games to two in the World Series — and were down to their last strike — before Mookie Wilson saved the day. By hustling to first base to avoid making the last out, he apparently distracted Boston first baseman Bill Buckner, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fortunately, I did get to see most of those post-season games on national TV, and they were exhilarating. In fact, I vividly remember holding a sleeping Maria when Darryl Strawberry hit a three-run homer to tie the Astros in game three of the playoffs; somehow, I was able to cheer silently and jump up and down without leaving my feet, so I didn’t wake my little angel. Despite not being able to see many games that summer, I will never forget those 1986 Mets.

A terrible season with little free time: The 1993 Mets. Amazingly, by 1993, my life had become even more busy. Our second daughter, Katrina, arrived in 1988, so we had a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, both of whom wanted to play on the swing set with Daddy and ride bikes as often as possible. By then, too, I had a new job and a new home. The new job, though, was not in education, so I had to work nine to five every day without the benefit of numerous holidays and a summer vacation. And while owning our first home felt great, cutting the grass every week, painting every room in the house, and repairing the automatic garage door took up valuable baseball time. And did I mention that I was teaching a college writing course two nights a week to help make those mortgage payments?

Thus, much like the 1986 season, my only real time with the Mets occurred during my drive time after class on the way home. Unfortunately, these 1993 Mets were terrible. Yes, they still had Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, and Howard Johnson from that 1986 team, but all three were in decline. By then, the Mets had acquired other players who looked like capable replacements, but Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray, Vince Coleman and pitchers Bret Saberhagen and Mike Maddux never quite jelled, and the team finished dead last with 103 losses. The Mets hadn’t lost that many games since their first half dozen years as an expansion team.

So from a baseball perspective, I wasn’t really missing much, but the newspaper headlines from that time were bizarre. Vince Coleman got in trouble for swinging a golf club in the locker room and injuring Gooden; Coleman also threw a lit firecracker towards some fans in Los Angeles. Saberhagen, too, made negative headlines when he filled a large squirt gun with bleach and fired it at some of the reporters. To top all of that, the most interesting and engaging on-field activity involved pitcher Anthony Young.

Normally, the Mets have always been a pitching-rich franchise, and during Tom Seaver’s career, for example, I always paid extra attention to his starts because I always wanted to see him win 20 games in a season; Seaver did it four times as a Met. Young, on the other hand, never came close to that mark, but during the 1993 season, I found myself masochistically paying close attention to both his starts and his relief appearances.

Young, who was drafted by the Mets and worked his way through the minor-league system, finally arrived in the majors in 1991. During the next two years, he made baseball history by losing 27 consecutive games. Obviously, he had to be good enough to earn all those appearances, and he actually saved 18 games for the Mets during those two years. Still, while I admired Young’s perseverance and tenacity, that 1993 season was painful, and I was somewhat grateful that I didn’t have much time to really experience all those losses.

A terrible season with lots of free time: The 1978 Mets. My worst baseball season ever occurred after I had graduated from college but before I married and had children. At that point, I needed to care only for myself, and my primary concern that summer was watching the Mets. Single and working, I could easily afford the cable TV payments, so each evening, I sat in my recliner and settled in for what I hoped would be an exciting trip to the World Series. Sadly, that was not to be.

Actually, I should have expected a terrible season because during the previous summer, the Mets had traded “The Franchise,” Tom Seaver, in what came to be known as the “Midnight Massacre.” Unfortunately for all Met fans, Seaver had become disenchanted with ownership, so they shipped him to Cincinnati at the trade deadline in return for four players: Pat Zachary, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn, and Dan Norman, none of whom would ever be able to shine like Tom Terrific. Consequently, the 1978 season deteriorated quickly, and the Mets lost 96 games and finished dead last in their division, 24 games behind the Phillies. The only bright spot on that team was catcher John Stearns.

Though never an outstanding hitter (career average .260), Stearns was rugged behind the plate, and he did something most catchers did not; he stole bases. During his first four years in the majors, he stole only 14, but during 1978, he threatened to break the National League record for stolen bases by a catcher, 23, a record set by Johnny Kling almost 80 years earlier.

Thus, each time I watched the Mets play, I had a pretty good idea that they were going to lose, but I could at least look forward to Stearns coming to the plate. Then, I could root for him to get on base and perhaps steal second. That was pretty much the only real excitement and suspense for Met fans during that horrible season. Did Stearns actually break the record? Yes he did. He finished with 25 for the season (a record, unfortunately, that has since been broken). Could Stearns have broken that record without me? I doubt it.

The Forecast for 2020. The 2020 season looks to be a good one for the Mets. I am extremely optimistic because we have the Cy Young Award winner from both 2018 and 2019, Jacob deGrom, and we also have the 2019 Rookie of the Year, first-baseman, Pete Alonso. In addition, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes is attempting a comeback, we acquired some pitching help, and the rest of the team gained valuable pennant-race experience and played extremely well during the second half of 2019.

Personally, too, I am optimistic because we have cable TV, so I should be able to watch as many games as I’d like. Also, I’m not teaching any summer courses, so Barbara and I might even make the three-hour trip to Citi Field to see a game or two. So when Opening Day arrives on Thursday March 26th and we face the defending World Champion Washington Nationals, I’ll definitely be cheering for a third championship season. Let’s Go, Mets!

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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