When the New York Mets beat the Milwaukee Braves twice in a Sunday doubleheader a week or so ago to run their startling winning streak to four straight games, the crowd watching in the ancient Polo Grounds was 27,000 or slightly less than half of capacity. If one considers that it was the first Sunday the Mets were playing at home, that the team had just captured its first two victories of the season—both of them exciting games—and that it was a warm, pleasant spring day, the fact that only half the ball park's seats were occupied might seem to indicate that enthusiasm for the Mets, while considerable, is nonetheless under a decent restraint.
But this is misleading, or else one does not know the Polo Grounds. A crowd of 27,000 seems nearly to fill up the place. The 28,000 seats that remain empty are either high in the distant center-field bleachers (the top row of the bleachers is almost 600 feet from home plate) or far back in the upper stands (people in upper right can't see the right fielder, and people in upper left can't see the left fielder, but everybody can see the center fielder, which may be another reason why Willie Mays was so popular in New York) or else behind posts, of which the c has a splendid supply. Some seats in the Polo Grounds are behind several posts simultaneously, particularly those in the rear of the lower stands behind the dugouts. Watching a game from there is like watching it through a picket fence, and the people who sit there sway back and forth continuously during a game, first one way to get a glimpse of the pitcher winding up—as the batter disappears behind a post—and then the other way, abruptly dismissing the pitcher, to watch the batter swing. The Polo Grounds is a terrible place to watch a ball game.
The Polo Grounds is also a terrible place to get to. It is stuck in between a cliff (you walk down to get in from that side) and a river; it has one parking lot, which is designed on the principle of the funnel—everything seems to go out through one gate. You can't get in the parking lot, if the crowd is any size at all, unless you arrive hours before game time. And if you do get in, it takes three-quarters of an hour from the last out of the game before you can move your car as far as the street. And yet 27,000 people went to see the Mets.
Of course, this may help to explain the hold the Mets have on New Yorkers, because the Polo Grounds, wretched ball park that it is, is beloved. Grown men brainwash their children with its legends; generations of stale cigar smoke linger in the memory like a lovely, elusive perfume; realization that the new Shea Stadium out in Queens will soon be ready for the Mets and that the Polo Grounds will then be torn down and laid waste to make room for a housing project brings tears to the eyes of men sitting behind posts, or those in the upper right-field stands who are wondering what the right fielder is doing. Perversity is a form of love.
That Sunday, Duke Snider hit a double against the Braves to make the score 2-2. A man entering a bar off Sixth Avenue said to a friend, "Hey, did you hear? The Duke just doubled to tie the score." The friend looked up from his Scotch with some amusement and said, "Ah, I see you've joined the cult of the Mets."
The first man was jolted. "Cult?" he said. "It's getting so you can't even root for a ball team without being analyzed."
But he looked up the word later. He discovered that its meaning, in this case, was "a great devotion to something, especially such devotion viewed as an intellectual fad." And he had to admit that his friend had something, for in New York there is no question but that rooting for the Mets is the thing to do; it is smart, it is right, it is In. The boys in the advertising dodge, always alert lo trends (narrow brims, vodka Martinis, pro football), are Met fans almost to a man and are up on all the latest deprecatory gags. Intellectuals who still confess an ignorance of TV ("I really don't get a chance to watch it") rally round the Mets. When Jimmy Breslin, the Brendan Behan of sportswriting, turned out a book this spring on the Mets, The New York Times and the Herald Tribune hurried to review it, glowingly. The fact that it was a fine and funny book seemed almost coincidental; that it was about the Mets seemed all that mattered.
So a cult does exist. But beyond it lies honest rooting territory, sustained interest. Last year it was novelty, a carnival, the fun of having the National League back in New York, the chance to see Willie Mays and the Dodgers again, the happy joke of an awful but colorful team. This year the team is neither as colorful nor as awful, and the quality of the baseball being played is becoming more important that the gags. People are talking more about Jim Hickman, the good center fielder, than they are about Marv Throneberry, the comic first baseman.
Matter of pride
The day his team lost that Sunday doubleheader to the Mets, Bobby Bragan, manager of the Milwaukee Braves, was maligning the Polo Grounds. Long fly balls hit by the Braves were being caught in the far reaches of the vast outfield, and short fly balls hit by the Mets were going into the stands along the foul lines for home runs. Bobby looked with profound disgust at this oddest of baseball parks and muttered, "Chamber of horrors. Whoever it was who called this place a chamber of horrors hit it exactly right."
Maybe so. But for Mets fans, the ones who are noncult and who came to see baseball, the key moment of that glorious weekend—which was culminated by Jim Hickman's grand-slam home run on Sunday—was a play that had nothing to do with the size and shape of the chamber of horrors. Al Jackson, a Met pitcher of the Bobby Shantz class, which is to say he is a complete ballplayer, though small, came to bat against Warren Spahn with a man on first base. He squared away as if to bunt and the Milwaukee infield pressed in; but, instead of bunting, Jackson swung away at the last second and chopped a little base hit over the left side of the infield. The base runner went all the way around to third, and Jackson was safe at first. It was a deft play, beautiful, perfect, and it was done against ballplayers of quality and reputation—Warren Spahn, Ed Mathews, Roy McMillan.
It made the crowd feel proud, which is a new feeling for crowds watching the New York Mets.
Casey Stengel used to pose this way at pennant clinchings and after World Series games. Here, with four upraised fingers, he salutes the Mets' four-game winning streak, a modest achievement elsewhere, but for the Mets the longest winning streak in their short, gentle history. It was a small thing but it was their own.