The Washington Nationals enjoy a two-game advantage over the St. Louis Cardinals heading into today’s playoff game in baseball’s National League Championship Series, formerly known as “the Pennant.” I like “the Pennant.” I also like the Nationals. They remind me of another ball club, the New York Metropolitans. The Mets were my first love through my father, allegiance to baseball teams being an inherited trait.
As often happens in baseball, these two clubs are connected. One of the great appeals of baseball is the role it plays in history. I don’t mean that it is a game with history, which, of course, it is, but that it weaves in and out of our larger history like a thread. It runs through our collective, American psyche.
The connections involve the 2019 Nats and the 1969 “Amazin” Mets. Both teams, separated by half a century, replaced other teams.
The Nats replaced the Washington Senators, who for a time (1905-1956) were also known as the Nationals. The new Nats used to be the Montreal Expos. They moved to DC in 2005. However, they should not be confused with the Washington Capitals hockey team, which wears the old Expo colors of red, white, and blue.
The Mets replaced the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, both of which–as Don McLean might say–caught the last train for the Coast in 1958 and never looked back. They took Dodger blue and Giant orange and combined them into the gaudy uniforms you see today.
I’ve noticed an interesting thing about aesthetics and sports over the years. They have an inverse relationship. That is, the uglier or plainer the colors, the better the athleticism of the players. But maybe that’s just me.
There are other connections as well. For instance, the Expos were formed in 1969, the same year that the Mets became “Amazin” by shutting down Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles, the best team in baseball at the time, to win the World Series. Donn Clendenon hit a key homerun in game five of that series. He had joined the Mets earlier in the season from the Expos.
And then there are the teams themselves. Both are young, scrappy, and not cowered by overbearing opponents. The Orioles were a 100-to-1 favorite to win the World Series. The Nats’ chances are much better, but they remain underdogs. Like the 1969 Mets, they represent a town left behind. More importantly, they represent the working class of DC, all those tassel-shoed, lobbyist supporters notwithstanding.
The Mets were the people’s ball club. Unlike their blue-blooded, pinstriped cousins in the American League, the Yankees, the Mets attracted fans from what are now called the “outer boroughs,” meaning native New Yorkers. Yankee fans were said to drink chilled martinis and attend galas. Mets fans contented themselves with drinking Rheingold beer and haranguing opposing players.
The first major league ballgame I attended was in 1964 to see Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Mets at Shea Stadium. The Mets knocked Koufax out in the fourth inning and went on to win 10-4. Most notable, however, was the pair of drunken college students who kept running down to the box seats to harass Koufax with the foulest language imaginable. No doubt, it would land them in court today. Back then people just smiled. As a young boy, I was mesmerized.
It is true that the 1969 Mets were an amazing team with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Ron Swoboda, Tommie Agee, and Buddy Harrelson. Perhaps they reflected the spirit of the time, a Hegelian zeitgeist that included a moon landing and Woodstock. But then fans always believe this will be their year to win it all and that their team is magical, even transcendent. How often do you see signs exhorting people to “believe” and invoking destiny? Even retail stores like Macy’s have picked up the language.
Still, there is something about the Nats and Mets that not only forces you to make comparisons but leads to magical thinking, which is dangerous. It is dangerous, because baseball is a game of numbers, angles, percentages, and torque. It is probably the most natural and logical of modern sports that way. Yet, things happen that leave you wondering or have you believing in string theory. How else to explain a Justin Verlander fastball? Actually, the Yankees will have to answer that question.
In the meantime, let’s go Nats!