Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

May 8, 2013

A Lifetime of Mets Fandom, One Win at a Time

Mets blogger Greg Prince digs through the archives to find memorable stories of his team's success.

Max Lakin

There were never any grand promenades surrounding Shea Stadium. When it stood, it carried on demurely among the Bedouin village of chop shops along 126th Street and under LaGuardia landing patterns. When it returned to the Flushing dirt, not a lot changed. For all its nouveau-New York eats and anatomically-considered seat pitches, the gleaming, near-billion-dollar hulk that sprouted in its parking lot is the same heartbreak hotel with a better pool and free cable, flanked by the same mottled streets. If you've aligned yourself with the Mets, you probably like it that way, because that's how it's always been.

Greg Prince and Gary Carter.
"My unique qualification is that I’m not sure anybody else would want to do this."

Greg Prince and Gary Carter.

In sports, fandom usually and neatly can be reduced to pride of place. To cheer for a team is to cheer for your hometown, which ultimately is to cheer for yourself. In New York, the distinction is muddied. You have, as it were, a choice, and to choose the Mets is an immediate and intractable signifier. It announces a few things: That you welcome sadness, and have cultivated a life of self-flagellation. That you come from a place on the emotional margins, of craggy streets ignored by mayors—the Outer Borough as psychic deficit. But also that you find joy in things not guaranteed to you. That you have learned to prize industriousness over a good box score, and recognize the good box score as a gift.
There are few who articulate the schizophrenic self-affirmation-lament complex of Mets allegiance better than Greg Prince, whose Faith and Fear in Flushing blog and 2009 personal history of the same name Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets offers a literate and interior study of what it means, (compromised expectations, usually) of choosing the team from Queens. Prince's new project, The Happiest Recap: 50 Years of the New York Mets As Told in 500 Amazin' Wins is a planned four-volume pandect in a decidedly more positive pose. The Happiest Recap: First Base (1962-1973): 50 Years of the New York Mets As Told in 500 Amazin' Wins (Volume 1), the opening entry, includes the team's well-trod origins and Miracle squad, but also seizes upon what Prince calls "the moments in between"—the small miracles that raise the Mets fan aloft and define his belief. What follows are excerpts from a conversation on the project between Prince and Gelf, edited for clarity and length.

Gelf Magazine: A four-volume compendium encompassing a half-century history of a single sport franchise is quite the ambitious project, even for someone who spills as much ink on the Mets as you do. Why do you feel uniquely qualified to author it?

Greg Prince: The impetus for The Happiest Recap (a project originally conceived for the blog in a somewhat different format) was the 50th anniversary of the franchise. I wanted a different and deeper way to tell an oft-told story. It's usually boiled down to this: Mets founded; they're terrible but lovable; then they pull off a miracle and a near-miracle; then they're terrible and not lovable; then they're rebuilt and succeed wildly; then life goes on and somewhere in there Mike Piazza hits a home run that lifts a city's spirits; toss in a nod to whatever's going on at the moment. This same basic story is told yet again.

You rarely get the moments in between. You rarely get that night when you saw something you thrilled to for weeks thereafter, something that remains lodged in your subconscious and needs only the slightest jostling to come out to play again. You don't necessarily get that storyline that preoccupied us for a portion of a season that we surely lived through. And if there was a victory or a performance or an oddity that occurred in the midst of a not necessarily lovable or successful era, it's as if it never happened. I wanted to confirm that the Mets are always happening, that every ballgame tells a story and that our lives as Mets fans are defined by all of them.
My unique qualification is that I'm not sure anybody else would want to do this. It's the big dig of Mets research, and even after you've run through every winning Mets box score several times and made your selections, you have to know why you did. This would be deadly dull if it were just a string of summations. My construction project is built on a foundation of context. I'm in my 45th season of taking the Mets very seriously. I know where the stories are buried, or at least where to find their pieces and how to put them together.

Gelf Magazine: How much is a project focusing on wins a kind of antidote to the general malaise of recent years, which has featured fewer of those?

Greg Prince: I first thought of this in the depths of 2009, so the timing might speak to the desire to have something uplifting on which to focus when everything around us was falling apart. Come to think of it, the Mets haven't had a winning season since I began contemplating The Happiest Recap.

Gelf Magazine: Which are some favorite stories previously unknown to you?

Greg Prince: Tim Harkness belting a grand slam in the bottom of the 14th inning to beat the Cubs in 1963 at the Polo Grounds, and the delirious reaction to it, was something I didn't know and am now very glad I do. The Mets fell behind in the top of the 14th on an inside-the-park home run hit by future Hall of Famer Billy Williams. Earlier, the Mets had stormed from behind to tie. In the middle of this very long game, Mets relievers combined for a veritable no-hitter from the fifth to the 14th. Not only an incredible game with an Amazin' ending, but one that lived on for every fan who was 13 years old in 1963 and recorded their memories on Ultimate Mets Database decades later. The whole thing played out like a messier, lower-stakes version of the Shot Heard 'Round The World. I loved the chance to discover and present wins from the years when the Mets experience is usually portrayed as completely hopeless. There was always hope. It just wasn't cashed in on very often.

Gelf Magazine: Were there years when the Mets were terrible—say, 1964, of which Casey Stengel said, "Lyndon Johnson wanted to see poverty, so he came to see my team"—but the storylines were rich?

Greg Prince: Every year has rich storylines, or wonderfully aberrant breathers from the prevailing futility. The second chapter in the first book, for example, covers 1965 to 1968, after the novelty of the Mets' prodigious losing and the opening of a new ballpark presumably wears off and before the miracle of 1969 unspools. Yet in the heart of the Wes Westrum era, if you will, you have the practitioners of the miracle emerging: Cleon Jones stroking a walkoff home run; Ron Swoboda foiling Juan Marichal's otherwise in-the-bag usual win over the Mets; Jerry Grote throwing out Lou Brock, hauling in foul pops, nursing his pitchers through a shutout and driving in the winning run in the 10th; Bud Harrelson stealing home. That's all from 1966. You might not have understood what they meant as they were happening, but that's the beauty of hindsight.

Gelf Magazine: What have been your best resources for recreating some of the franchise's earliest games?

Greg Prince: I couldn't do this without Baseball Reference, which has every box score
and all play-by-play. BB-Ref uses data from Retrosheet, so I couldn't do it without them, either. Ultimate Mets Database is a terrific reality check in terms of the fan memories. I can tell Tim Harkness's 14th-inning grand slam was great, but learning how it affected so many fans via UMDB was a revelation. The Times, the Sporting News, and whatever newspapers are available through Google News Archive are a boon. But for the early years, I was greatly influenced by my "baseball library," as Bob Murphy would've called it in a promo for the "official" yearbook. Those are the books I'd been reading and occasionally picking up again from the time I was 12, most notably The Amazing Mets by Jerry Mitchell; The New York Mets: The Whole Story by Leonard Koppett; and Joy In Mudville by George Vecsey. The stuff they wrote has stuck with me forever, so revisiting and researching the games to which they alluded didn't feel like entering virgin territory, even though pre-1969 is the only period of Mets history I didn't experience first-hand.
The Mets were a legend from the get-go, which is what made the first volume—1962 through 1973—both enticing and challenging. Everything the Mets still are at heart was on display in those first dozen years, which made me want to spread their gospel to the generations who hadn't seen them or read much about them. But it also meant striving for new and more textured ways to tell some familiar stories, particularly from 1969. It helped that so many talented writers wrote so many compelling books after that World Series, but ultimately I had to find slightly different ways into those games so it didn't feel like a rehash of what you already knew.

Gelf Magazine: As you revisit those old seasons, do you feel like you were born in the wrong era—wishing you could inhabit some Woody Allen plot device and be on the beat in the '60s, '70s, or '80s?

Greg Prince: As long as I'm writing about a given season, I feel like I'm there, so maybe I'm my own Zelig. When I moved into the second volume and I had to tackle the Mets after they traded Tom Seaver; or, for that matter, the Mets who let Tom Seaver go to the White Sox; I was back in those seasons and those moments. It probably helps that when we get to Second Base, which covers 1974 to 1986, my memories are already pretty layered. The research in that case mostly supplements (and occasionally corrects) what I already pretty much know and have retained. I think the arc of the Mets rising from the occasionally exciting win of the mostly morose late 1970s to the consistently spectacular seasons of the mid-1980s will be tangible here.
On the other hand, no matter that this series only profiles Mets wins, it's impossible to not acknowledge the context surrounding them in disappointing or devastating seasons. I'm writing the third volume—1987 to 1999—right now and can't swear that the names Terry Pendleton and Mike Scioscia don't come up at least in passing. I look at it this way: If the Mets didn't lose the way they lose, we would have no idea why we love it so much when the Mets win.

Gelf Magazine: It helps that in baseball even bad teams get to win at least 40 games.

Greg Prince: The Mets lost 17 in a row in 1962, but they've never gone 0-16, so, yes, that's one for baseball over football. While there was no hiding the Mets' 120 losses at the beginning of the first volume, it really did make those games that were won stand out. Marv Throneberry pinch-hits a walkoff home run in the same game in which he was coaching—not playing—first base, for goodness' sake. Who else but the worst Mets team ever could've come up with something that marvelous?

Gelf Magazine: Do any of today's Mets know or care about some of the history you're recapping?

Greg Prince: Maybe if they were part of it—the fourth volume, which covers "2000 and Beyond," includes the coming of David Wright and likely ends with a bonus 501st game pitched by Johan Santana on June 1, 2012—but I doubt it. In 2011, Justin Turner broke Ron Swoboda's record for consecutive games with an RBI by a rookie—a record that never occurred to me existed—and Turner, a perfectly nice kid, admitted he hadn't heard of Swoboda. That makes perfect sense given his vintage and Swoboda not having been Henry Aaron, yet it made me sad nonetheless. Swoboda is an über-Met. They made a movie, Frequency, in which a Queens cop in 1999 swears he'll never forget Ron Swoboda. The right-field gate at Citi Field is adorned with a silhouette of Swoboda robbing Brooks Robinson in the 1969 World Series. He's Ron Swoboda! It made me wish the Mets took each of their call-ups to their sparkling little museum and give them a 10-minute tour, ideally conducted by Mookie Wilson or John Franco. Barring that fantasy coming to fruition, I'd be immensely satisfied if the current Mets simply make the kind of history I relish writing about for my fellow fans.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.







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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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