The Miracle Mets at 50
by
October 16, 1969, after the final out (YouTube screenshot)
It is New York, in early October 1969.

Indian Summer, in these pre-Earth Day times, is something everyone can see. An orange, almost atomic sky.

Remembering … you are suddenly back there at age 12, closing apartment windows as if for fallout or an Apollo-era plague.

You reach to touch the furniture of 50 years ago. A television made by Zenith. Ashtrays ready for filling on just about every table. A kitchen clad in Formica in case of Swanson or Chef Boyardee spills.

This, you realize, is exactly the moment that your life as a Manhattan kid drastically changed. It had nothing to do with family or with your life at school. It has to do with the team you root for — the usually cartoonish, normally hopeless Mets.

New York at this time is not a Yankee town, as some might assume. The Yanks are a so-so squad. The city is still nostalgic for its National League Dodgers and Giants, whose blue and orange colors have been blended into the uniform of your Metropolitans.

During their first seven years, from 1962 through 1968, your Mets have never finished higher than ninth place — ending up in last five times. No one understands this, but this year’s team of young unknowns and journeyman players is out of the cellar and on the move.

You are back there in memory … and it is simple to slide into old and familiar patterns. Running to find the paper, then riffling furiously for sports and “The Standing of the Clubs.” Barely believing what you read.

Barely believing because the 1960s New York you know is not the glossy, tourist-friendly locale of needle skyscrapers, the High Line, or Hudson Yards. For the first time ever the Big Apple has free-floating fears about itself. A clinical complex. It needs a civic psychiatrist.

The five boroughs are often referred to as “Fun City.” It is a bitter joke. Movies like The Out-of-Towners and The Prisoner of Second Avenue reflect a place where people are angry. Angry and afraid. Although you live in Chelsea, a neighborhood that’s relatively calm, just about everyone you know has been mugged at least once.

For a battered metropolis that’s confronting blackouts, garbage strikes, and bankruptcy, the Mets of 1969 are starting to feel like redemption.

Your team has pulled ahead of the Cubs — a franchise of future Hall of Famers like Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ernie Banks. Your team has captured its division in a shower-bath of Reingold Beer. And, in a wink, your Mets have mopped up Hank Aaron’s Atlanta Braves in three games.

Even your mom has turned into a fan now. She is obsessed. And superstitious.

When lead-off hitter Tommie Agee comes to bat, she flees to the kitchen. “He usually walks or singles,” she tells me, “when I am making toast.”

Whenever the all-but-unstoppable Tom Seaver pitches, Mom is convulsed with worries. Standing by the sink sometimes leads to another strikeout for Seaver. But, one night during an important inning, she turns on the faucet for good measure — and the tactic fails.

Mom isn’t sure what will work when the Mets face the airtight Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, who trot out perennial all-stars Frank and Brooks Robinson and have won 109 games. You tell her you are not concerned. You tell yourself that, too.

The Series begins. It is a flame-colored event, at least when it comes to logos and uniforms. The Orioles sport a slightly different shade than the Mets. And they are the shooting stars at first, beating Seaver in the opening game and defeating your Mom’s sink strategy once and for all.

You are not concerned, you say to her. And, somehow, thanks to some magic that’s in baseball, you are actually proved right. Your Mets and Tommie Agee and Jerry Koosman and Donn Clendenon and Cleon Jones take games two, three, four, and five.

There is a Wall Street ticker tape parade for the world’s most unlikely World Champions. You are back there, seeing it all. And what you see is orange. Like the New York license plates on taxis. Like the “N” and “Y” on Mets caps.

Almost atomic. Like the tinted sky.

This day of big-city celebration is as smoggy as any other. But despite the inversion — despite the unbreathable air — your Mom shouts suddenly, “Open windows! Open them all!”

You run for the newspaper. You pick up a pair of scissors.

Together, you toss out some ticker tape of your own.

Peter Mandel is an author of children’s books including Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan), Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster), and Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays (Hyperion)

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