Saturday, July 11, 2020

When BC Meant Before Cable

I spent some time today thinking about how I became a Mets fan. After more than five decades in rooting for this team, it seems that this was just somehow meant to be, but that's certainly not true in my case. I grew up without a father, so there was no family tradition of fanhood handed down to me. I was never even taken to a live sporting event of any kind until I grew up, got a license and a car, and took myself.

I grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, a suburb of New Haven, in an area that was fairly divided in sports loyalties between Boston and New York. New York was closer, and subsequently had more fans, but in the late 1960s that meant primarily Yankee fans. You could probably find more Dodgers and Giants fans still than Mets fans, despite the fact that both teams had been in California for a decade.

My formative years as a sports fan were 1968 and 1969. I had just turned 10 in the late fall of 1968, and it was then that I first remember watching sports and forming my allegiances. As I've said. without a Dad in my life, the choice on which team to root for was up to me. I started rooting for the New York Giants in football because they were carried almost every week on channel 3 out of Hartford. Had I realized how bad they were I might have thought twice about it, but my allegiance was already formed by the time I figured it out.

I picked up the Rangers and the Knicks over the winter because they were both on channel 9 and I could watch a lot of games. Sure, it often involved putting up with a snowy picture and the need to constantly fine tune that old analog signal, but that seemed like a small price to pay as I found myself sucked in to the teams that I would spend the rest of my life supporting. It might have been different if cable tv existed back then, or if we lived closer to Boston than New York, but the reality was that, in those ancient pre-cable days, most of my teams were essentially chosen for me by what was available on broadcast tv.

The one real exception was baseball. In the summer of 1969, 10-year-old me was standing on a path that forked in 3 different directions. I could have chosen to be a Red Sox, Yankees or Mets fan. All three choices were available to me, as I could watch the games of all three teams on tv. The Mets were on channel 9, the Yankees on channel 11, and a smattering of Red Sox games were rebroadcast by local channel 8. Broadcast from a tower in northern Hamden, channel 8 was always the strongest station on the dial in those analog days. A point for the Red Sox.

Both the Red Sox and Yankees had a better track record of success than a New York Mets ballclub that was still widely viewed as a joke. Even at 10 years old I was familiar with the Yankees history. The Red Sox were only a couple of years removed from a trip to the World Series and were still quite good. The battle for my fanhood was on.

I weeded out the Yankees first. I just didn't care for their tv announcers. Phil Rizzuto gave me a headache, and the other guys seemed boring to me. I would come to learn in later years that the Yankees once had legends like Mel Allen and Red Barber doing their broadcasts, but that was before I came along. They've been consistently bad since I've been following sports, with guys like Michael Kay and John Sterling keeping the "tradition" going to the present day.

The Red Sox were more of a near miss. Their tv crew at the time sounded okay to me, and they still were a pretty good club. And the games were on the one analog signal that you never had to tinker with and constantly fine tune the signal. I could have easily become a Red Sox fan that year, except that channel 8 didn't carry many of their games. Mostly they just had some weekend games. Meanwhile, on channel 9, the majority of Mets games were aired. I started watching Mets games all those days that the Red Sox weren't on and, before I even knew it, the Mets became "my" baseball team.

Of course, some of the attraction was also the unfolding magic of the 1969 Mets. Not that it looked as if they were going to win anything. Even as late as August 14 they were still sitting 10 games behind the first place Cubs, but they were still a cool and exciting team to me.

As someone who had to learn the intricacies of every sport I began to follow on my own, I was lucky enough to take my beginner's class in baseball with Professors Nelson, Kiner and Murphy. The Mets broadcasters were real pros, and made the game of baseball understandable to me. While I had been turned off by the cacophony of the Yankees booth (Holy cow!), I found the Mets broadcasters understandable and inviting.

One of the first Mets game I watched was a Tom Seaver start, and I quickly learned the most important detail of those early Mets years: Seaver was a god. I still had a lot to learn about the game of baseball, but Tom Seaver was so clearly the best player on the field every time he was out there it was obvious to me when I still knew practically nothing about the game. In 1969 Seaver was still quite young himself at age 24, in my youthful ignorance it seemed to me that Tom Seaver would be around virtually forever. Even though I was 18 when Seaver was traded to the Reds 8 years later that is still the most traumatized I've ever felt from something that happened to a team I supported - more so than tough playoff losses and late season collapses, because that's when I first understood that you couldn't trust the people in charge of your team to do what's right. That's a lesson I've relearned many times since then.

Anyway, as the summer of 1969 wore on, I was getting pretty solid on the basics of baseball while the Mets were starting to put the heat on the Cubs. They caught fire at the end of August and wound up winning the division by 8 games. It was quite a turnaround.

The Atlanta Braves won the NL West that year. They didn't have the pitching the Mets had, but they had a powerful offensive team. With a lineup featuring a still-great Hank Aaron, Rico Carty, Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou, offensively the Braves were the muscle-bound bully to the Mets' 98 pound weakling.

The first two games of the 1969 NLCS were on the weekend, so I got to watch both of them. Tom Seaver started game one against Phil Neikro. As a relative newby I was skeptical of the knuckleball that Neikro featured - it somehow felt like cheating to me. Anyway, Seaver was a god, so I felt like he would prevail in the end. Turned out neither pitcher was very effective. Seaver gave up 5 runs, but the Mets came from behind thanks to some timely hitting and a couple of errors to score 5 in the eighth and win 9-5

The next day it was Jerry Koosman's turn to not be good. He didn't even make it out of the fifth, allowing 6 runs. It didn't matter much, as the Mets torched Braves pitching for 11 runs and took a commanding 2-0 lead in the best of 5 series.

A quick note here. The reason 10-year-old me was able to enjoy the first two games of the series was because they were day games. Back then they didn't feel the need to start every game in the evening to shut out kids on the east coast. Maybe that's part of the reason MLB's fan base is skewing so much older these days. Just saying.

Not so great for me was the Monday game 3 in New York that was also a day game. Schools in Hamden neglected to give me the day off, so I had to be satisfied with watching highlights of the Mets win on the news. ESPN and cable tv were still in the distant future.

Tom Seaver failed to be a God again in losing game one of the World Series to the Orioles, but the Mets magic took over as they swept the next four games, so I celebrated my first year as a Mets fan with a World Series victory.

That winter, with the excitement of the Mets championship still fresh in my mind, I cheered on the New York Knicks to an NBA championship. Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, Bradley and Barnett were the heroes of that crew. It all seemed magical to 11-year-old me. It seemed like a future chock full of championships stretched out ahead. Little did I know...

I was in my late teens by the time we got cable in my area. For the first time I could watch my teams without dealing with static, snow and adjustments to the fine tuning. Cable seemed pretty magical to me then, even though there were only about 20 channels at first. sadly, the Mets were pretty awful then, the Knicks were sliding into mediocrity, and the Giants never were any damned good during that first decade I cheered for them. Cable had opened a variety of sports choices that only grew as time went by. I could have rooted for whoever I wanted by then, but it's not in my nature to change allegiances. I still root for the same teams all these years later that I did back when my choices were much more limited. It hasn't always been great, but I have no regrets.

If I had been born a few years later, or cable had come along earlier, I might have made different choices in the teams I support. It's funny how it all worked out. All of my teams had some moments, but they've also been pretty terrible for long stretches of time. Still, I don't regret the choices I've made, and I wouldn't go back in time and change any of them, even if I could.

Baseball has been my number one sport for many years now, and the Mets haven't always been a pleasure to cheer on. A couple of championships that happened a long time ago, a cycle that features short stretches of contending separated by longer periods of wandering in the wilderness. An ownership that is long overdue to move on. Hopefully this is the year that they finally do.

As it turns out, it would have been far more rewarding for me, at least as far as championships, if I made either of the other two choices back in that summer of 1969. More championships, less time spent with a hopeless feeling as incompetence and poor decision making doom yet another Mets summer. But I know, despite it all, being a Mets fan is part of who I am now. Don't get me wrong, if someone wants to buy this club and run it a whole lot better than the current bunch, I won't complain. If there's a championship - or two, or three - in my future, I won't spit on it. Believing that something good might still be ahead is part of what gets me through all of the other stuff. If you've been a Mets fan for a while and you can still be an optimist, then congratulations, you've already won the biggest prize.

That's it for me today. I started out to write a piece about one of my favorite players of my baseball youth, and wound up writing this instead. It just felt like the thing to do. And I can always write that other one tomorrow. Thanks for spending some time here today. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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