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THE HEROES OF '69

"Frankly, I would like more of this," he said. By the eighth, the pint bottle was shot, so we rose unsteadily from our seats, wobbled off to the IRT station and made our way to Clark's. We had three or four more. "Baseball," X. suddenly started. "What the...who the...Now you tell me this. Who the hell ever said that baseball was the...that a man was supposed to..."

His voice trailed off, and it's hard to remember the rest. The Mets beat Baltimore 5-0, and the next day we returned to Uncle Jack's glamour seats at Shea and watched Seaver take a 1-0 lead into the ninth. As you may know, Ron Swoboda's diving catch then robbed Brooks Robinson of a triple, but the tying run still scored for Baltimore. In the tenth, Grote stroked a double to win it for the Mets 2-1.

X. and I hit O'Banion's for a couple of traffic-thinners. Then we cabbed it straight to the White Horse. After that the Fedora, I think it was. We wound up in the Riviera, then Casey's, for a few more. They wouldn't let us into Trude Heller's, even though X. was waving a twenty around. Apparently, we topped off the evening at four o'clock in the morning, face down on the floor at Margo Janders's apartment. Shameful as my recollections are, I have no memory of what happened at Margo's. Except that the next day she gave us both a sharp, pitying early-morning look, then strode off to work.

Somehow, we went to game five, X. and I. On the way out in the cab, on Northern Boulevard (at least I think it was that day), I suddenly remembered a ball X. had hit in a game when we were both seventeen. It was a heater, inside corner, maybe farther in, and in one quick, seamless act of beauty, X. pulled his hands in toward his belt buckle, dropped his eyes onto the pitch and stroked it, fat part of the bat, to the deepest part of the gap in left-center. The whole thing looked like slow motion, like art, like timelessness. It looked major league.

In the cab next to me X. was working on the vodka, which this time was wrapped in a brown paper bag. "Who's gonna do it?" he slurred. "Mets," I instantly answered. He gave me a long, bleary look, then said, quietly: "That's not what I mean." I think I know now what he meant, but that day we rode the rest of the way to the ballpark wordlessly.

While Uncle Jack fished, X. and I got to see Jerry Koosman's curveball wrinkle in the sun, and when the Mets had won it all, we watched the fans tear up big clods of grass and dirt from the playing field. That night we kept trying to learn firsthand the deeper meaning of what all the fans were chanting in all the bars of New York through all of October 1969: "Seav and Kooz and pass the booze!" That's what they were chanting. We chanted it, too. Twenty-five years ago. The year the Mets won the Series. "Seav and Kooz and pass the booze!"

I still drink, which is no feather in the cap. But thankfully, X.'s Smirnoff days are long over. He has a wife, kids and a pretty good job in New Jersey. His joints still ache, but he no longer talks about the war. And when an old urge occasionally strikes him, he recently confided, he watches a Yankees game on TV--or part of one.

"But it's not the same," he says. "Something doesn't look right. It's not like being there."

Any hero can tell you that.

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