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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Remembering the 50th anniversary of my first memory as a sports fan

Jubilant Mets fans give voice to their enthusiasm

Jubilant Mets fans give voice to their enthusiasm after their team defeated the Expos in both games of a doubleheader at Shea Stadium on Sept. 10, 1969. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

For much of the world, it was just another Wednesday, two months after men walked on the Moon, one month after Woodstock and one month before my ninth birthday.

For New York sports fans, it was anything but ordinary.

The big moment came at 8:43 p.m., as illustrated in a Newsday graphic the next day that featured an analog clock set to “FPT,” or “First Place Time.”

There also was a picture of Cleon Jones scoring the winning run against the Expos in the 12th inning, securing a 3-2 victory in the first game of a doubleheader, thus catching the Cubs and inspiring this lede by Steve Jacobson:

“First place! The Mets are in first place. Shout it, scream it, sing it, if you like, and drink a little champagne over it. That’s what the fans in Shea Stadium did; that’s what the Mets did. They’re in first place.”

Or, as Jones later put it, “This is real, not fantasy, whether the world wants to accept it or not.”

Why bring this up now, other than because it is 50 years to the day, another milestone in a summer (and soon to be autumn) full of them surrounding that season?

Because it also is my own, personal milestone: my first memory as a sports fan.

Super Bowl III was slightly too early for a kid whose father died too soon to pass along such things and had to find his own sports path. But the '69 Mets arrived just in time to sweep me up, along with everyone else I knew.

So Sept. 10 it was: Ken Boswell singling home Jones, the fading Cubs losing to the Phillies on a three-hitter by Rick Wise, then the Mets winning the nightcap, 7-1, on a three-hitter by Nolan Ryan that ended past my bedtime. The Mets never gave up first place and won the World Series five weeks later.

Of course, many details above were lost on me at the time and had to be looked up five decades later via means that would have seemed like science fiction at the time.

But that’s OK. Your first memory surely is fuzzy, too, which is part or the charm of it, whether it stars Babe Ruth or Derek Jeter, whether it was watched in person, heard on the radio, seen on TV or followed on a mobile phone.

Each of us gets only one, and gets to cherish it for a lifetime, whether or not anyone else cares.

The cliched version of this sort of reminiscence involves a first trip to a major league ballpark, and marveling at the expanse of grass that three outfielders must cover.

I have one of those, too: July 27, 1970, Ken Singleton in right, Mike Jorgensen in center and Jones in left against the Giants at Shea.

But let’s face it: For most of us, the vast majority of our fan experiences have come through a screen, so those count, too, even if it began in standard definition, and in my case, usually alone and always in black and white.

So it’s OK to share your first time with fellow travelers, as long as you promise not to look bored when they tell you about theirs if they are kind enough not to look bored when you talk (or write) about yours.

Back to the summer of ’69: Jacobson wrote of fans at Shea “riding on a high that makes smoking grass dull stuff,” a line unlikely to make it into a game story in 2019.

And Bud Harrelson said that while the Mets were happy to drink champagne to celebrate, they would save dumping it on one another’s heads until they clinched something.

That came two weeks later, when Gary Gentry shut out the Cardinals, 6-0, on a four-hitter, and the Mets secured the first National League East title. Joe Torre grounded into a double play to end it at 9:07 p.m.

I was an experienced sports-watcher by then. But for someone out there – maybe you! – it was their first time, and their story to tell.

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