The newly minted New York Mets (named in honor of an earlier team called The Metropolitans, but not short for Metropolitans) set up shop at the famous Polo Grounds in Manhattan — and they sucked. Still, the team had an immediate and loyal fan base, even bringing in more fans at home games than their crosstown rivals in the Bronx. In 1964, the team moved to Shea Stadium in Queens, a concrete bowl with recognizable orange and blue panels, a stone’s throw from the chop shops and flanked by the Grand Central Parkway and the Whitestone and Van Wyck Expressways. They had their own home, but as with all expansion teams, there was no sense of history at Shea — yet.
Mets fans can tell you that rooting for the blue and orange is often an exercise in patience, frustration, and futility; the phrase “historic collapse” has been applied to more than one Mets team over the decades. It’s even worse when fans of that other baseball team in the Bronx never let you forget that they’ve won the World Series 27 times — more than any other team in baseball. There is a certain loneliness to being a Mets fan in a Yankee dominated city. Still, to fans of the Amazin’s, when the Mets win, and especially when the Yankees lose, there’s nothing better.
From Lovable Losers to World Champs
Prior to the start of the Mets’ first season in the bigs, they brought on the legendary Casey Stengel, “The Old Perfesser” himself, as manager. The move brought some legitimacy to the new franchise, and for Stengel, the job was a cap on an illustrious career. Still, the team had a miserable 1962, going 40 and 120, the worst single season record in the modern baseball era. Their second season wasn’t much better, at 51 and 111, and their third, fourth, and fifth also found the team at the bottom of the National League standings.
Things started to turn around for the Mets when they signed Tom Seaver in 1966. He was rookie of the year in 1967,and had an astonishing 25-7 record in the miracle season of 1969. In July of that year, Seaver took a perfect game into the 9th inning before giving up a single. The Mets finished in first place for the first time in 1969, then swept Atlanta in the National League Championship series and beat the Orioles in five games to take the World Series. In just seven seasons, the Mets had gone from basement dwellers to the best team in baseball — and fans were ecstatic.
Ups and Downs
For Mets fans, the 1969 season was validation — this was a team that could compete and win. The 1973 season, though, would be just as memorable. Led by manager Yogi Berra and bolstered by Tug McGraw’s battle cry of “Ya gotta believe,” the streaky ‘73 Mets went from worst to first in September, riding their winning streak all the way through the NLCS before Oakland stopped them in game seven of the World Series.
But of course, for all Mets fans, nothing comes close to the team’s illustrious 1986 season. They won 108 games that year, a franchise record, under manager Davey Johnson (who, ironically, made the last out of the ‘69 World Series as a player on Baltimore), and finished off their fellow 1962 expansion club Houston Astros in the NLCS to claim the pennant before meeting the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. And, like a favorite Seinfeld episode reminded us several years later, Game 6 was the big one. Every Mets fan who was alive in ’86 knows exactly where he or she was when Mookie Wilson’s choppy grounder to first got by Bill Buckner and Ray Knight trotted home to win the game, hands on his head as if he could not believe the incredulous scenario he was a part of, and got swallowed up by his exuberant teammates. After that, Game 7 was a formality, and the Mets were World Series champs once again.
Despite winning the NL East in 1988, the Mets had a mostly dismal 1990s until the arrival of catcher Mike Piazza in 1998. They won a Wild Card spot the next year, and in 2000, they were part of an historic October Subway Series against the Yankees. Still, the Mets couldn’t get it done, and the team and its fans had to watch the Bronx Bombers celebrate a World Series win on their home turf, cementing, it would seem, the team’s position as second in New York.
The Mets won the NL East in 2006, but never advanced past the eventual World Series champion Cardinals in the NLCS. All Mets fans remember the cringeworthy dive that the team took in 2007, when they lost 12 of their last 17 games and got squeezed out of the postseason. The lovable losers jokes kept coming, but in 2012, the team found something to celebrate when Johan Santana threw the first no hitter in team history. A short three years later, the Mets found themselves in the World Series again, and after playing dominant baseball throughout the season and the playoffs, they lost to the Royals in five games.
So the Mets have just two World Series Championships, while they Yankees have…well, a lot more. But the Mets have some great intangibles that are known throughout baseball, including the best team song in the league. And while it may be true that only Mets fans know “Meet the Mets” by heart and perhaps teach it to their young children along with “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and the ABCs, the song is recognizable in any American city. Plus, “Meet the Mets” was written in advance of the 1962 season; the Yankees didn’t have a team song until 1967.The Mets also have great imagery to bolster their brand, including Mr. Met, the best mascot in the league. Whileother teams either go literal in their mascot costumes — Fredbird the Cardinal in St. Louis, for example — or aim for the oddest character possible — what exactly is the Phillie Phanatic? — the Mets keep it simple: a ball player with a giant baseball for a head. Oh, and he’s married! There’s a Mrs. Met, who can also be seen galavanting around Citi Field during home games.
And of course, an iconic apple in a top hat, way out in center field, that pops up whenever the Mets hit a homerun or win a home game. The original apple was installed at Shea in 1981 as part of a promotion called “The Magic is back.” When the team moved to Citi Field for the start of the 2009 season, a new, larger, and sleeker apple in a top hat was created, and the original Shea apple was put in the plaza outside the new park, where fans can take photos with it.
Things have definitely changed for the Mets and their fans from 1962 to today. Ralph Kiner’s folksy play-by-play voice has given way to Gary Cohen’s more student-of-the-game approach, and the addition of Mets greats Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling is loved by fans who remember 1986 and fans who weren’t even born then. And while it might take a while for longtime fans to admit it, yeah, Citi Field really is much nicer than Shea, though many of us miss the pitcher and catcher in neon lights that replaced the panels on the exterior of the old ballpark.
Yankee fans will always and forever accuse Mets fans of having an inferiority complex, and with the long and storied history of the Yankees, that type of trash talk is expected. Does it bother us? Nah. The Mets have shown, time and again, that they belong in this league, and besides, the Yankees have had their fair share of dismal seasons (the early ‘90s were especially bad for the Bronx Bombers). But the real proof may have come in 2015, when the Yanks couldn’t make it past the Wild Card game. The Mets made it to the World Series, and suddenly, every fairweather New Yorker was suddenly a bandwagon Mets fan. It may have bothered some true Mets fans, who felt the team’s postseason success was a reward for their many years of suffering and heartbreak and should not make Yankees fans happy. Still, the shouts of “Let’s go Mets” echoed throughout the city that fall, and the seemingly impossible had happened: the Mets had united New York.
And then, in true Mets fashion, they blew it. But as every Mets fan knows, there’s always next year.
Tom Seaver.Photo: By Tom_Seaver_at_Shea_Stadium_1974.jpg: ShellyS from New York City, US derivative work: Delaywaves talk (Tom_Seaver_at_Shea_Stadium_1974.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Davey Johnson Photo: By Jeff Marquis (Flickr: Davey Johnson) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons