The horrible news that the great Tom Seaver is battling dementia summoned a flood of memories from 1969, when I was a 10-year-old Mets fan growing up in Centereach.
That summer on Clarkson and Drake roads, a bunch of boys — including my brother Bobby and me, as well as the McNeeces, O’Mahonys and Randazzos — rooted for the Mets.
We futilely imitated Seaver’s trademark windup and low delivery, trying to scuff our right knees on the ground. We wore Mets shirts from Mays department store with the number 41 in the lower left corner. And we drove our moms crazy almost every day when our wild throws banged against wooden picket fences as we pretended to pitch games.
Across the street from my house, Jimmy’s mom, Pauline Randazzo, made the world’s best and biggest rice balls. Their tempting aroma wafted across the street from her open window. The only Italian mom on the block, she would spoil our dinner appetites by feeding us “Irish” kids regularly.
On hot nights, we’d sleep in tents in our backyards, quizzing each other on the uniform numbers, names and batting averages of every Mets player. Who was No. 1? Bobby Pfeil!
We were only 10. We didn’t know yet what else to think or talk about because nothing else mattered.
I followed the Mets’ improbable rise all summer through the headlines and stories of my dad’s newspaper. 1969 also was the summer that Dad took us to our first game at Shea Stadium. When he produced the yellow-colored tickets (box seats!), the first question we asked was, “Is Seaver pitching?”
The Mets ace wasn’t on the mound that day, but the sights and sounds are still vivid: the bursts of blue sky and green grass as we emerged through the tunnel to our seats; Jane Jarvis, “the queen of melody,” playing the Thomas organ; salesmen hawking yearbooks, hot dogs, beer, soda and peanuts; people behind the rightfield wall walking down the ramps from the 7 subway train; Karl “the Sign Man” Ehrhardt holding up his clever placards in the stands; deafening flights from LaGuardia overhead; chants of “Let’s Go Mets!” from Cub Scout troops in the highest reaches and cheapest seats. The Mets lost to the Astros that afternoon, but it was a great day.
When the Mets reached the World Series in October, the girls and boys of Drake and Clarkson roads staged our own neighborhood pep rally and parade. We made banners — as so many Mets fans did. Stevie O’Mahony played “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his trumpet, and for two hours we marched around our neighborhood chanting, “Let’s Go Mets!,” and “With Seaver and Kooz, how can we lose!” to any neighbor or neighbor’s dog.
And of course, they did win. Leftfielder Cleon Jones caught Oriole player Davey Johnson’s last-out fly ball in Game 5 of the Series and took a knee. Catcher Jerry Grote was in pitcher Jerry Koosman’s arms seconds later, and my dad (a Brooklyn Dodger fan by birth) was out on the porch with the other dads and moms on our block banging pots and pans in celebration.
In 1969, thanks in large part to Tom Seaver, a cliché came true: The summer didn’t end — at least until October. It is a cruel twist of irony that Seaver, a man who gave us so many memories, now battles a condition that threatens his own — especially as the Mets and fans prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the team’s most storied achievement, the 1969 world championship. Thank you, Tom Terrific. We wish you the very best!
Reader Dan Martinsen lives in Westhampton Beach.