Shaw column: Memories of 1969 still fresh
There were seven of us in the car that Friday night, eight if you include my dad, who wasn’t supposed to be there at all.
But due to an unlikely mix of circumstance, fate and last-minute desperation, the late Al Shaw was behind the wheel of our family’s ’63 Fairlane station wagon, rambling down the Long Island Expressway with a carful of sixth-grade sports nuts.
The date was May 30, 1969 ó 40 years ago this weekend ó and our destination was Shea Stadium, where the not-yet-Amazin’ New York Mets would face San Francisco in the opener of a pivotal three-game series. Since spring training, weeks before the 8-year-old Mets would lose their eighth straight season-opener, I had in my possession eight tan-colored tickets to this sold-out game ó Loge Reserved behind first base ó purchased by mail for $20 plus shipping and handling.
And so began, quite innocently, one of the most memorable near-fiascos of my childhood. I had the tickets. All I needed was a driver and six friends willing to pay their way. Can of corn, right?
In the spring of ’69 I was still one of the new kids at the North Country Road School in Miller Place, N.Y., trying to fit in but avoiding the spotlight. We had only moved to Long Island’s north shore the previous November, fleeing the congestion of a Levitt-built, blue-collar town called Lindenhurst for the winding roads and manicured lawns of MP.
Finding six classmates who wanted in on the deal was painless ó I still remember each of their names and continue to trade birthday cards with one of them. The common denominator was always sports, New York sports in particular, and this was the first time we all sensed the Mets could actually contend.
But as March thawed into April and the Mets dropped five of their first seven, we still needed a driver. Someone with a van or station wagon. Heck, even a large Chrysler would do. So seven hopeful 12-year-old boys pleaded with seven fathers, only to elicit seven denials.
Uh-oh, we had a problem.
Make that I had a problem since I was the one who had initiated this misadventure. I had laid out the money, and the tickets were still stashed in an envelope in my underwear drawer at home.
Back at school, X-rays of my future appeared negative until, almost miraculously, a popular math teacher named Mr. Gibson overheard me discussing our predicament with a third-period friend. And just like that, he volunteered ó as long as the rest of us agreed to buy his ticket.
Problem solved, or so I thought. Mr. Gibson was a friendly, caring teacher ó a guy who poured himself into a cup and shared it with his students. He’s the one who made me understand the simplicity of fractions and percentages. He’s the reason I can calculate, to this day, batting averages and field-goal percentages in my head.
Mr. Gibson was good at one other thing ó breaking hearts. Mine was crushed when he backed out of our arrangement a week before the game, citing something about “other plans” he had. By then the Mets were back-page news in the New York tabloids, hovering just below .500 and standing fourth in the newly formed NL East.
Now what? I did what any kid in my situation would do. I started begging my father to take us. I remember making outlandish offers ó like mowing the lawn for free all summer and cleaning out the garage, even if it was the size of Wyoming.
Finally, on Wednesday of that week, he was sold. My father was a salesman by trade, a guy who carried the sunshine around in his back pocket, someone who made it seem like your friendship was a favor to him. I believe he saw beyond my $20 investment and understood the weight a new-kid-in-town youngster had been bearing. Quite simply, Al Shaw bailed me out.
Come Friday night we piled into that old powder-blue Ford and made our way to the big ballpark in Flushing. What we witnessed, along with 52,000 other crazed fans, was equally unpredictable. The Mets erased a 3-0, seventh-inning deficit and secured victory No. 2 in an important 11-game winning streak.
Willie McCovey crushed one of his 521 career home runs into the back of the Mets bullpen in right field, giving the Giants an early lead against Tom Seaver. The Mets inched back when Ron Swoboda smashed a leadoff homer in the New York seventh.
An inning later first-year outfielder Rod Gaspar cracked his only major league home run ó I came storming out of the men’s room when I heard the crowd thunder its approval ó to make it 3-2. Next came Tommie Agee’s two-out single to center that chased starting pitcher Mike McCormick, then an infield hit by Cleon Jones. Swoboda tied the score with a sharp hit to right-center before Duffy Dyer, a backup rookie catcher, delivered a pinch-hit, RBI single to left. Final score: Mets 4, Giants 3.
Exiting the stadium, you couldn’t help but feel you’d been part of something special. Over that summer the Mets would morph into the Miracle Mets and eventually the world champion Mets.
I have one other memory from that night four decades ago. It was after midnight when my dad finished driving each of my friends home and pulled into our driveway on Hemlock Drive. I remember thanking him and feeling exceedingly proud that Al Shaw was my father.
That’s the thing about special moments and joyful memories. They’re not meant to last ó and perhaps that’s what makes them so special. Especially the ones that do.