THE HEROES OF '69
Amid the current outpouring of nostalgia about those American footprints in the lunar dust, the observations of former Apollo astronaut Alan Bean seem particularly apt. Bean recently told a magazine interviewer that whenever he looks at Norman Rockwell's painting of Neil Armstrong's small step/giant leap, it strikes him as a bit off. Not false, exactly, but something doesn't quite add up in the light, or the texture, or Armstrong's posture.
Bean would know. Not only has he seen the moon firsthand; in his retirement he has become an acclaimed painter of moonscapes. "When I painted my first painting of space," he says, "I realized that I knew everything about it--like the way that a spacesuit wrinkle looks in the sun. I have a love for my subject that I wouldn't have if my subject were horses."
This brings us to baseball.
Specifically, it brings us to what, arguably, may be the only other major public event of 1969 that most people can now recall with a fondness untainted by revulsion: the 1969 World Series. Unless you're a Cubs fan, of course. Even if you're not, there is still plenty of revulsion to go around. This was the year in which the FBI was exposed for having tapped Martin Luther King Jr.'s telephones. Teddy Kennedy drove the family myth off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. The Manson family carved up half of Los Angeles. At White Lake, New York, half a million young Americans managed to convince themselves that tribal love and pride were rampant in the land. Soon afterward, the Hell's Angels, acting as security guards, stabbed a kid to death at a Rolling Stones concert.
Meanwhile, at the peace talks, the United States and North Vietnamese delegations busied themselves by bickering over the shape of the table to be used when South Vietnam and the National Liberation Front finally sat down.
Ah, but 25 years ago this October, the lowly New York Mets sprang out of the cellar and whacked the mighty Baltimore Orioles a fatal blow in the World Series. As the hopeful throngs out at Mile High Stadium can tell you, the Mets were the first expansion team to win a Series, and they did it in just their eighth season.
With that in mind, Dante, Charlie, Andres and assorted Rockies yet to be named or worshipped can take heart. So can the Colorado fans. One day a pennant will fly over Coors Field, and it might happen before it happens in, say, Seattle, or Arlington, Texas.
In troubled 1969, no one thought it would happen in Queens. When it did, my good uncle Jack came up with tickets through methods known only to him. These were not just any tickets, either, but sixth-row seats behind the Mets' dugout. Not only that, they were for all three World Series games scheduled at Shea Stadium. Uncle Jack gave the tickets to me and promptly went fishing. I called my friend X., and on October 14 we met in O'Banion's, a mile from the park.
This is what happened then:
The Series had come to New York knotted 1-1, and Gentry was going for the Metsies. But X., a lifelong friend, had other things on his mind. At 24, his joints still ached mysteriously from some crud he'd picked up over there and, truth told, he hadn't taken a real solid meal since he got back. In O'Banion's that day, he was firing down neat shots of Smirnoff--not with the showiness or the foolish nerve of youth, but with the joyless concentration of an old man who's peered over the edge. By noon, X. and I were cooked. You can't let your best friend drink alone. Can you? Course not.
Out at the ballpark, Tommie Agee ripped a homer in the first, and a couple of innings later he made the first of two spectacular, sliding catches in the outfield that are now encrusted in World Series lore. Swigging openly from a pint of vodka, X. stared dreamily at the sky and said something like this:
"Are you aware that the diamond Richard Burton gave Liz Taylor weighs in at 69.42 carats? Guy at Cartier's paid a million bucks for it the day before the sale. Says he made a profit on it with Burton. I like that. A profit. Cartier's made a profit on the diamond. That's great."
Out on the field, Gentry had just fanned Boog Powell. You know how you associate such things. At the precise moment X. was saying "profit on the diamond," I now remember with odd clarity that Boog Powell was striking out. And I remember thinking about the way X. used to play shortstop. The catlike grace moving either way. The soft hands. The smooth rifle arm. In high school and Legion ball, he had simply been peerless, and when he got to community college, the Yankee scouts had gone upstate to check him out not once but three times. They wanted to sign him. Definitely. He might have become a Yankee.
But X. did poorly in school. Not dumb. Distracted. So the draft board got him. Induction. Basic training. He was no hero, like the astronauts, he said, but a grunt. "A fuckin' grunt," he said later. Almost before he knew it, he was in the middle of the Tet offensive, shooting at guys in a bright wall of noise and blood and chaos. Guys getting killed all around him. Agonizing with the dysentery. Wondering about the strange aches in his joints. And keeping the Marlboros dry. Later he talked about that. You had to keep the Marlboros dry. In late 1968, he pulled two wounded buddies out of a ditch, and they gave him a medal for it. "Big deal," he said. By the time he came home, dazed and skinny, X. was already heavy into the Smirnoff. Now, sitting out here at the World Series (lean young Nolan Ryan had relieved Gentry, with the Mets leading 3-0), baseball was not on his mind.
"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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