Friday, May 2, 2008

The Meaning of May 6th

When I was a little boy, my favorite baseball player was Willie Mays. (He would be eclipsed by Tom Seaver, who would be eclipsed, incredibly, by a guy named Bruce Boisclair, who would hand the baton back to Seaver before the baton would finally dissolve in the hands of Darryl Strawberry, which pretty much ended my need for favorite players, all apologies to David Wright...)

Willie Mays' birthday, I need hardly tell most of you, was May 6th. 1931. So he'll turn 77 on the very day of the Indiana and North Carolina primary. And I can hardly think of a better birthday present for the Say Hey kid than a couple of primary wins for Senator Barack Obama to lock this nomination up once and for all. For those of you keeping score at home, Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier to become the first African-American, or Negro, to play major league baseball, but Willie was America's first black baseball God, the first player who 'transcended' race and was simply, for quite a long time, the Best Player in the Game. (Don't get me started on Mickey Mantle. Really. Don't.)

The point is, it didn't matter that Willie was black. He was great. He played the game better, with more verve, flair, and, yes, intelligence than anyone else, maybe ever. To those who saw him play, it wasn't even close. The guy was the best. And while he's been somewhat forgotten these days, what with all the steroid nonsense and record chasing -- Henry Aaron got the home run record and his quiet dignity in Willie's shadow somehow seemed to make him more popular than Mays post-retirement -- there's really no disputing how magically Willie changed the game.

But before we (or at least I) get too worked up about May 6th, and how fitting it would be if somehow Senator Barack Obama (the Willie Mays to Jesse Jackson's Jackie Robinson, if you will) finally put a stop to the crazy, discordant, Jekyll-and-Hyde like campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton ("if we played by Republican rules, I'd already have the nomination," she said with a straight face last week), let us all remember another May 6th on which we all, or again, at least I, felt some magical torch was being passed.

May 6, 1983. Darryl Strawberry has been called up to the big leagues at last and is set to make his major league debut. His career, we all know, will last twenty years or more, he'll hit 800 home runs, he'll lead the Mets to one championship after another. He is the Black Ted Williams to some; to others, simply the Messiah.

Yeah, right.

I was there, a Friday night at Shea Stadium. Darryl hit third, and was a woeful (but we would all soon grow to learn) typical 0 for 4. 3 strikeouts against the great Mario Soto of the Cincinnati Reds. One screaming, long line drive into the right field seats - foul by no more than three feet. But before we all say, you see, it all ends badly -- and Darryl's misbegotten career is hard to defend; even among those of us who rooted for the guy ("He had some great years! Have you looked at his on base percentage? I bet he never took steroids, either!"), the arguments in his behalf pale next to those against the colossal squandering of promise and talent, the years and millions of dollars he lost up his nose, or to women, or drink, or women up his nose -- but before we all say, "Let's not get too worked up about May 6th, let's remember what happened to him, both on that day and for the rest of his career..."

Let's remember what happened to the team that night.

A team going nowhere, the 1983 Mets -- that's why they'd called him up, remember -- they were giving up on the season in the first week of May, and wanted Straw to get his sea-legs under him that summer so that when the team got good in '84 or '85, he'd be polished and mature (ha!) -- a team loaded down with aging, unfriendly sluggers like Dave Kingman and George Foster, and a couple of good young players playing out of position ... already, by May 6th, they'd won only 6 and lost 15 games and were sinking fast.

But in addition to Strawberry, the Mets had one other good reason to attend the game that night -- Tom Seaver was on the mound. And that night, though they played on the same team, Tom Seaver gave Darryl Strawberry a lesson on Willie Mays Day, as if to say: this, this is how you honor Nick Davis, this is how you pay the kid back for his incredibly selfless devotion. (Okay, maybe that's a little self-centered, but hey, it's my memory, and my blog...)

Seaver was brilliant that night. Long past his prime, he outfoxxed the Reds, kept them off-balance all night, and he and Soto were locked in a scoreless tie into the 6th Inning. At that point, some clown hit a home run off a lousy fool-nobody changeup, and the mood was broken. Seaver ended up (I think) pitching eight solid innings, a good solid professional effort, while all Darryl had managed at that point was the long foul. Going into the 9th, we were down 3 to 1, but hope still lived in me. Darryl was due up third.

Sure enough, we got a man on, and the young kid came up with a chance to be a hero. One man on, one man out --

Three pitches later, I stood up from my seat, and my Dad and I and my high school girlfriend started edging toward the exits. Maybe it was too early, I told my girlfriend; maybe he should've stayed in the major leagues; maybe he's just too young, too inexperienced. With the Mets down to their final out, we kept our eyes on the scene below us, but my heart anyway had already left the building.

Batting now was Dave Kingman. The king of Whiff, or, as Bob Murphy called him, Sky King. A surly, deeply unlikeable man, he was somehow still in the big leagues despite a record breaking propensity for striking out. Quickly there were two strikes. Oh well, at least we saw Seaver pitch one last --

It wasn't one of Kong's monstrous shots, just a solid whistling line drive - but it was clear from the moment the ball left the bat. The ball rattled around in the Met bullpen, the crowd roared, and the building rocked -- Mets 3, Reds 3. And we resumed our seats...

Most of the crowd, though, filed out at the end of the 9th Inning. They had weekends to get to. And so they missed, or caught on radio and delighted in, the Reds scoring a run in the top of the 10th. Kingman's heroics notwithstanding, the Mets would lose 4-3, and so those who left early would be vindicated.

As for the Mets, they looked lifeless again in the 10th. Two up, two down - and two quick strikes on Hubie Brooks, our beloved but frankly inconsistent third baseman with the big high butt and the slightly exaggerated bat-held-high-like-a-Knight's -lance stance.

There may be some way of looking up whether a team has twice been saved from defeat by two out, two strike home runs, one in the ninth inning and one in the tenth, but I don't know what it is. What I do know is: delirium. Madness. The stuff of childhood games you play with your friend in a backyard and pretend you're not completely fabricating the last-second heroics -- but not a major league game played by a team that's 6 and 15 and going nowhere.

The crowd, what there was, was on its feet and roaring for our dear Hubie, who rounded the bases with his head down, soaking in the moment. But I must admit that as he did so, a thought raced through my mind, and it's the kind of thought that has dogged me my whole life: we should leave now, it's not going to get any better...

But that thought, that 'let's freeze time and stop right now,' that's precisely the kind of non-optimism that can destroy any real chance to change anything for the better, whether it's a ball team or a life or a country's politics. And I am glad that my Dad was there to prevent us from giving in to it, if I even voiced the thought (I doubt I did; luckily I had acquired such a reputation as a deep-feeling baseball fan that I am sure I didn't feel I could even mention the idea of leaving a game, any game, before its conclusion....) And my girlfriend, bless her stubborn soul, understood it was not going to help her cause if she started moaning about the lateness of the hour.

Extra inning games, though the fate of the world seems to hang in the balance, are also frequently extremely tedious, kind of like a political campaign that seems never to end. If someone would just end this already! You feel like you don't care as much, and then you realize you do, you care more than ever, you've invested more time and energy into this than you had any idea you would at the start... but God, would it just be over please!

The Mets loaded the bases in the 11th but didn't score -- the Reds threatened a couple of times -- I seem to remember a line drive hit right at someone -- but as the Mets came up for the bottom of the 13th, it really wasn't too hard to imagine the game never ending. The crowd had thinned way down - it hadn't been too big to begin with, much to my surprise. (I remember as we rode in, thinking we were probably going to get a sell-out because it was Darryl's first game. The official attendance was just over 15,000 -- probably down to about 5,000 by now...)

So here it is, 4-4 in the thirteenth, and the Mets come up and make, as you can probably guess, two quick outs. Only now, it is Darryl's turn. The young kid has grown up a lot tonight, he looks a lot less skittish now.... And I start telling myself that after all, he's not really in his first game now, now that we're into such deep extra innings. But can I think of any better way of ending this excruciating, fabulous night? I can see it so clearly, the ball arcing high into the dark Queens night sky, caroming off the scoreboard --

And does he homer? Does he answer young Nick's (and probably 4,999) other prayers? No, he does not. He's not playing in someone's backyard, remember. But what he does is maybe just as gorgeous: he works out a walk. He trots down to first base as the winning run.

What follows is inevitable. Another walk to Kingman's defensive replacement, Mike Jorgensen (you gotta love, and now, with two on and two outs, it's time for George Foster, the second-most unfriendly, unloved sluggers the Mets have. And this time, there's no need to go to the final strike.

He ends it, with one mighty swing of his thin little black toothpick of a bat. Hits it deep into the Mets bullpen, and it's 7-4, and Darryl greets Jorgensen and Foster at the plate, the whole team comes out to shake hands (no high fives, none of that tossing your helmet in the air and jumping into the scrum like a moron business, this was, after all, still 1983), and the final scoreboard is a thing of beauty: Mets 7, Reds 4.

That's the lesson of May 6th. A team does not give up hope, so we as fans better not bail on them. We stay there, and we root for them, for all of them, and even when it looks bleak, when they're 6 and 15 and their pastor is revealed to be an egomaniacal race-baiting freak, we keep pushing and hoping and rooting, and in so doing we help them keep working, and we keep hoping that we're going to win because not to win is to do something we won't allow ourselves to think. We do not give up hope, not now, not ever.

May 6th.

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays.

Yes. We. Can.


Brooks Hansen said...

memories well re-kindled.

This, then, the vintage that featured George Foster, Hubie Brooks, AND Ray Knight, sometimes even hitting in that order, and which therefore missed out on what would have been the great promotional evenings in the team's history:

Foster Brooks (K)night

...and I guess I don't have to tell you what they would have been giving away for free.

nyhusker said...

Epic, Davis. Epic.