Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Greatest Fan

I've written previously about my unconventional upbringing. I grew up without a father at a time, the 1960s, when one-parent households were still uncommon, especially in a neighborhood full of working-class Catholics.

If you're a kid without a Dad, you don't have anyone to help you understand sports or guide you into rooting for a team. I pretty much had to figure it all out by myself. This was back in the days before cable TV, so you were limited in teams to follow. I started with New York Giants football because they were on in my area every week. Football was also an easy sport for a young kid to understand on his own.

The only New York channels we received with our antenna were 5, 9, and 11. The Mets were on channel 9, and the Yankees were on 11. The year was 1969, and the Mets were becoming quite a story. I found baseball somewhat more challenging to understand than football, but I picked up enough to follow it. When the Mets won the World Series that year, I figured that would happen again all the time. Boy, was 10-year-old me in for a rude awakening.

My grandmother, who I lived with, was not a baseball fan at first but had been a huge hockey fan when the New Haven Blades had played in the Eastern Hockey League. That was quite a rough-and-tumble brand of hockey. If you're not familiar with it, the movie Slapshot was supposedly based on that League.

As a very young kid, I remember accompanying my Grandmother to Blades games at the New Haven Arena. My Grandmother only understood the most basic facets of hockey. Still, she was well known to Arena regulars as someone who would cheer the home team on loudly and enthusiastically until the end, whether they won or lost. Her favorite players were the ones that got into the most fights. If you liked a good hockey fight, you loved EHL hockey.

The Blades were long gone by the time I found the Mets. My Grandmother's natural inclination to cheer a team on transferred to the baseball team from Queens. In time, she became as loud and enthusiastic about the Mets as she had been for the Blades. It didn't slow her down a bit that we were in our living room rather than at a live sporting event. She rooted the only way she knew how, loudly and passionately. (I'm sure she missed the fights, however.)

When I started watching Mets games with my Grandmother, my brother, and, at times, my Mom, we were all rather uninformed about baseball. My brother and I were smart and more adaptable to picking up things. I quickly came to understand some of the game's nuances much better than my Grandmother. Growing up smarter than most people around me and, at the same time, incredibly insecure, I allowed myself to take an obnoxious, superior attitude towards her when we watched games together.

Looking back with some hard-earned wisdom that I've managed to attain over the years, I really regret my inability to see my Grandmother clearly. She was literally the only one in the house that was always on my side. She was not very sophisticated, perhaps, but was actually very intelligent in a way that a preteen dumbass like me was unable to see. Also, I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was. One thing that it took me many years to understand, long after she was gone, was that the way she rooted for a team was a type of genius that was far beyond my understanding.

The Mets were, at best, a mediocre team with great pitching and little offense in the years following the 1969 Championship Team. If a Mets pitcher was handed a 1-run lead, he damned well better not give that run back if he hoped to secure a win. If the pitcher went out without his best stuff and gave up a few runs early, he knew that it was highly unlikely that he wouldn't be hung with a loss. If Tom Seaver had played his whole career with a better offensive team, he might have won 350 games. Certainly more than 311.

As I grew older and grew in my baseball knowledge, I realized that the Mets being down by a few runs late meant a loss was inevitable. Being an insecure kid who wasn't great at handling losing, I always wanted to turn the game off when things got hopeless. Since there was only one TV in the house, that wasn't my call. There just wasn't any way my Grandmother would turn off any game before the final out was recorded.

I thought that it was just stubbornness that kept her tuned in until the bitter end. When I got a little older and learned a little something about reading people, I finally came to appreciate what a great fan my Grandmother really was. Her attitude towards winning and losing saw each game as complete in and of itself. It mattered little if the Mets were competitive in the Division or hopelessly out of it. The game being played that day was everything.

To my Grandmother, a victory in the most insignificant game in the worst of Met seasons was something to be thoroughly enjoyed and treasured. A loss was just a momentary setback that could be remedied tomorrow. The saddest day of her time as a fan was October 21, 1973, when the Mets dropped Game 7 of the World Series to Oakland, and I had to explain to her that the You've Gotta Believe season was over. Not that anybody ever needed to tell her anything about believing.

If there was one game that defined her fanhood, it was a game earlier in that 1973 season, when the Mets were far back in the standings and pretty much out of it. It was July 17, 1973, and the Mets were in Atlanta. They weren't the rivals they would become years later, as the Braves were in the Western Division at the time, having moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta seven years earlier.

The Mets' record was 38-50 going into the game, they had quite a few injuries early in the season, and their offense was horrible.  They had excellent starting pitching: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, John Matlack - but it seems like they lost every game 2-1.  They're playing in Atlanta, down 7-1 going into the ninth inning.  I was frustrated and just wanted to turn the game off.  I knew the Mets had as much chance of scoring 6 runs in an inning to tie the game as I did of finding a Leprechaun's pot of gold.

I was 14 years old and knew and understood this; my Grandmother was 65 and "didn't get it" at all.  She never felt that the Mets would lose a game until after the final out.  She wouldn't let me turn the game off - she was certain the Mets were going to pull out a win.  I was mad and basically told her she was an idiot.  I stuck around so I could do an "I told you so" after the game. Yeah, I was kind of a douche at 14.

Anyway, this team that averaged less than 4 runs a game, a team that hit 85 home runs for the entire 1973 baseball season, gets two 2-run home runs to make it 7-5, later gets a  pinch-hit single from the 100-year-old Willie Mays that drove in the tying and go-ahead runs, and holds on to win the game 8-7.  I was the recipient of the "I told you so," and after that day, I knew there was no turning off any game until the final out.

As the '70s went on, the Mets fielded a series of teams that were almost shockingly bad.  I grew disillusioned, but my Grandmother never did.  No matter how bad they were, she always thought they would win.  When they did win, it was an event to be enjoyed, even if the team was 20 games under .500 and dead last.  She never changed, right up until her death in 1985, just when the Mets were finally getting good again.

I remember watching game 6 of the 1986 series and, as a fan, feeling that sheer joy and exuberance when the Mets came back to win.  I immediately thought of my grandmother, who had passed away a year earlier.  That was definitely one of "her" moments.  She wouldn't have been surprised at all that they came back and won the game. It would have been an honor to hear her, "I told you so," if only she'd been around to say it.

For the most part, I enjoyed watching the games with my grandmother. However, in my teenage years, I began to find her joyous but unknowledgeable way of rooting for the team embarrassing in that stupid superior attitude that a teenager can assume.  As I grew into my 20s and lost some of that teenage arrogance, I was more accepting of the kind of fan she was and actually got a kick out of it.  At first, I admired her spirit, but then I actually admired her. I was finally gaining some wisdom at last.

One of the things I love about baseball is that it is a thinking person's game, but I believe sometimes you get to a point as a fan where you lose the sheer joy of it, the thrill of victory, the good guys vs. the bad guys stuff.  Put aside what you think you know and root fully and joyously, like a kid. Like my Grandmother.

One of the greatest joys I had was taking her to a Mets game before she died. I was working a crappy job and driving a car held together with duct tape and Bondo. It was just enough to get us to Shea to celebrate her birthday. In those olden times, you bought tickets by mail. I put a note with my request mentioning that I was taking my Grandmother to her first live Mets game, and it was her birthday. Could they please give me the best field box seats available?

After I mailed it in, I thought about my note and chuckled. Like some jaded ticket person in New York was going to be moved by a request from some dumbass kid.

When the tickets arrived the next week, I remember thinking that the seats they gave me were pretty good. When I got to the game, I discovered just how good they were. We were sitting in the field boxes, 3 rows back, directly in line with first base. They were the best seats I ever sat in for any Mets game, before or since. Someone who opened the envelope with my ticket order actually read the note and gave a crap. What were the odds?

I have to say, we didn't fit in that well with the others around us. It was me, my brother and my Grandmother. We all looked quite scruffy, especially me and my brother. It was the late 70s, and we both had really long hair. As for my Grandmother, she never spent much on clothes for herself. She wore an old, faded house dress to the game.

I bought my Grandmother some sort of pennant to wave and a Mets hat that she proudly wore.  She cheered the Mets with her usual unrestrained gusto. Within 10 minutes, all of the other fans in the section loved her. My brother and I were accepted, too. If Louise was with us, we couldn't be as bad as we looked.

The true miracle of that night in Queens was that the Mets won that game against the Pirates. That just didn't happen very often in the late 70s. I know I was pleasantly surprised. Not my Grandmother. She always expected a win.

We watched games together on tv after that. Even after I moved out on my own, it was fun to occasionally watch a game with my Grandmother. I no longer thought the way she rooted was silly, nor did I even try to get her to turn a game off, no matter how hopelessly the Mets were behind. I always intended to bring her to another game, but we could never seem to find a day that worked for both of us. The truth was, she was a homebody that liked being in her house more than anything. Still, I'm glad for that one night we did spend at the ballpark.

You know it's funny, but I always think of her now after the Mets win a game in an exceptional way, coming from way behind in the last at-bat. I still enjoy baseball intellectually and always will. At some point, I finally learned to enjoy it more at the level that my grandmother did, and my enjoyment of the game has really increased. I now know that my Grandmother was much, much smarter than teenage me. She just had too much class to let me know that.

That's it for today. I'm back to work part-time now, so my posting schedule might get a little erratic. I'm still going to try to post every day for now. Thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you back here soon. Take care, and be safe.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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