All things considered, a summary of the New York Mets' first 50 years would qualify as a happy recap. Really, only one thing needs to be considered and that is the fact the Mets were born to be different, and they have been succeeding since 1962.
They are distinct from the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, their National League ancestors, and they sure are different from the Yankees. In his book, "The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan," the late Hofstra professor Dana A. Brand explained it this way:
"The Mets, in the mythology of the Mets fan, are the other side of New York. We are the not-Yankees, the aspect of the metropolis that doesn't take itself quite so seriously . . . We who became Mets fans grew to love that nuttiness."
Meeting the Mets
At the start, the Mets weren't just bad, they were historically bad: 40 wins and 120 losses. But they were also endearingly bad, so much so that the phrase "1962 Mets" still has a distinct identity. So does "1969 Mets," which still instantly connotes one of the colossal surprises in the history of sports. When they won again in 1986, it wasn't a run-of-the-mill title, it was the product of high brinkmanship.
You could look it up, to quote Casey Stengel, who set it all in motion: The Mets won pennants as a major dark horse (1973) and a wild card (2000). When they had September collapses (2007, 2008), those were epic, too.
"Let's Go Mets"
Fans picked up on the theme right away, and fed it. They were different. "You can't overestimate the horror of losing the Brooklyn Dodgers and of wandering in the wilderness for four years," said Steve Aptheker, a 14-year-old from Canarsie in 1962 who would become a real estate lawyer on Long Island. "And four years when you're 14 is not like five years when you're 50. It seemed like forever."
For his part, Aptheker and buddies took a bed sheet, painted "Let's Go Mets" on it and paraded around the park for a Memorial Day doubleheader against the Dodgers. "The next day," Aptheker said recalling a newspaper story from his new, carefully chosen, office in Port St. Lucie, "it said there was a big cheer of 'Let's Go Mets' down the third-base line."
Thus, a chant was born.
An instinct for self-expression led to Banner Day, Karl Ehrhardt's signs in the third- base stands, the "K Corner" for Dwight Gooden and a quirky appreciation for the mascot Mr. Met and "Meet the Mets," arguably the most famous of all pro team anthems.
Kranepool, 67, grew up a Yankees fan in the Bronx, but signed with the Mets in the pre-draft era because he didn't want to spend years in the minors, as Yankees prospects did in those days. "My goal was to make it to the major leagues. I did it in two days," said the man who made his Mets debut at 17. "That probably hurt my career in the long run."
But it didn't hurt his life. Not a day goes by without someone recognizing him as a '69 Met. He still is around the club and is part of its one-of-a-kind lore.
New York state of mind
To be sure, the Mets paid homage to roots: They took the Dodgers' blue and the Giants' "NY" logo. They played in the Polo Grounds and built a park to look like Ebbets Field. They acquired Duke Snider and Willie Mays. But the Mets always have gone their own way.
Who else can claim a groundskeeper like Pete Flynn, who tended the field in three home stadiums? Only the Mets can say that the two pitchers who got the final out for them in the World Series, Jerry Koosman and Jesse Orosco, were once traded for each other.
The Mets are Ron Swoboda's catch and Endy Chavez's catch and Luis Castillo's muff. They are Tom Seaver's almost-perfect game and Dave Mlicki's mastery in the first-ever real game against you-know-who. They are shoe polish and bleach and a fake mustache. They are Joe Pignatano's tomato plants rising from the bullpen soil and a big mechanical apple that popped
They are Jimmy Piersall rounding the bases backward to mark his 100th home run (Dallas Green was the pitcher) and Robin Ventura getting tackled by Todd Pratt before he could make it around the bases. They are Mookie Wilson's grounder through Bill Bucker's legs.
Grim reality has had its moments: Gil Hodges' death, Gooden's drug problem, the Madoff scandal. Yet the Mets have been a refuge, too. While the city was roiled in conflict over Vietnam War protests, The New York Times' quote of the day one morning was from Tommie Agee (about his catches in centerfield). The Mets, and Piazza's home run, helped New York take a first step forward after 9/11.
"Obviously, we don't have the pedigree of the Yankees. But when this team wins, this town goes incredibly crazy for National League baseball," said David Wright, a Mets fan as a kid in Norfolk, Va. "When I was growing up, it was that kind of rowdy bunch," he said of his favorite franchise, "a bunch of different personalities, a bunch of different characters."
For the Mets, it is and always has been all in the differences.