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How About Them Apples!

A Brooklynite Rooting for Yankees? Now That Would Be Truly Amazin'

October 19, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't easy being a baseball fan in Brooklyn in the mid-1960s.

When the Dodgers deserted Brooklyn and the Giants fled the Polo Grounds, I was too young to be aware. As I grew up, I heard stories about the beloved Bums, one of the few treasures Brooklyn could claim as its own. When the Dodgers headed west, they sapped the life out of the borough. I always felt I had missed something special.

Sure, the Yankees remained. But from our far southeastern corner of Brooklyn, the Bronx might have been a million miles away. Worst of all, the Yankees were soulless and unlovable. Their great history made them too haughty and their success made them robotic. The Mets, born in 1962, were amusing in their early years but were just another bad team by the time I started following baseball.

Choosing which team to root for was difficult. But a choice had to be made, because baseball was the only sport that mattered. Hockey, basketball and football were dalliances between the World Series and spring training. Baseball was everything, and the team you rooted for defined who you were. The Mets were the working stiff's team, adopted by forlorn Dodger fans. The Yankees were snobby. You could admire them but you couldn't live and die with them. There was no drama, because they always won.

The Mets being hopeless, my older brother became a Yankee fan. So did I. We fought for the New York Post our father brought home each night, turning to the back to check the standings and box scores. When my brother's transistor radio broke and would play only one station, he gave it to me--and I took it happily, because that one station carried the Yankee games.

I used to fall asleep with the radio pressed to my ear and wake up with the pattern of the carrying case imprinted in red dots on my cheek. I learned about Mickey Mantle's bad knees, wrapped like a mummy's before each game. I learned about the promising kid pitcher, Mel Stottlemyre. I pestered my parents to take me to Yankee Stadium, but they thought I was too young to sit through a game until the summer I was 9.

We took the subway to Manhattan and then to the Bronx, where the train emerged above ground. Yankee Stadium loomed to our left, the grass vividly green and perfectly manicured. I'll never forget that image or that game, won by the Yankees on a home run by Mantle in the bottom of the ninth inning. When I went to sleepaway camp that summer, I took with me the Yankee cap my brother had gotten by collecting Yoo-Hoo labels (the ones with Yogi Berra's goofily grinning face). I still have that cap, complete with the name tag my mother sewed in.

When the Yankees lost the 1964 World Series to the Cardinals in seven games, it seemed a momentary disappointment. No one knew it was the beginning of a dark decade.

Ravaged by injuries and age, Mantle became a travesty of what he had been. The farm system dried up, producing no more Mantles or Tom Treshes and too many Horace Clarkes and Ross Moschittos. The decline was painful to watch.

Meanwhile, the Mets had been developing quality pitchers such as Tom Seaver, left-hander Jerry Koosman and a hard-throwing but wild kid named Nolan Ryan, who soaked the blisters on his pitching hand in pickle brine. Bud Harrelson was a vacuum cleaner at short. Catcher Jerry Grote handled the pitchers well. Veteran Ed Charles, the latest in a parade of third basemen, imparted an air of dignity to a young team. Even Ed Kranepool, a holdover from the original Mets, didn't look so bad anymore.

The 1969 season revived baseball in New York. The Mets' giddy ride to the World Series was a magical season, when everything the Mets did went right and everything Leo Durocher's Cubs did went wrong.

Every kid should have one summer like that, when anything seems possible and nothing is so important as who's pitching today and who's in a hitting slump. To minds uncluttered by adult responsibilities, the clutch play of Rod Gaspar, Al Weis, Wayne Garrett, Ron Swoboda and Cleon Jones made deep impressions. The ultimate underdogs had their day, and it became everyone's day. The Mets' success united New York in a way nothing had before or probably will again.

The Mets returned to the World Series in 1973 and 1986, but college and the real world took precedence and I lost the emotional connection I once had to the game. Later, as a backup baseball writer for Newsday, I lost my idealism.

I hated how George Steinbrenner had us dancing like puppets to his every word, and I hated his imperious attitude. When Billy Martin was managing the Yankees, writers had to sit in the hotel bar after road games because Martin was likely to slug some marshmallow salesman or be slugged and you couldn't miss the story. We'd sip club soda and watch Martin fall off his bar stool. That's a side of the game I wish I hadn't known.

With the designated hitter, astronomical salaries and games that take longer than cross-country flights, baseball has pushed many of us away. The prospect of a Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees, though, draws me back.

I wish I could be in New York to read the screaming newspaper headlines, buy a hot dog from a street vendor and push my way onto the No. 4 train to the Bronx with New Yorkers who might be excited enough to actually make eye contact with each other.

Though Yankee Manager Joe Torre is a fellow Brooklynite, I will probably root for the Mets. Their scrappiness reminds me of the 1969 team. But no matter who wins, I hope there are kids who have enjoyed this as much as my generation did in 1969.

GAME 1

METS

at YANKEES

5 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 11

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