You would have thought it couldn’t get much worse. You would have thought a pandemic, riots, recession, and–at least in California–rolling brownouts and wild fires were enough. You would have thought cardboard cut-outs serving as fans in the stands represented the ultimate in kitsch. You would have thought all of this, but you would have been wrong. It did get worse.
How worse? Queen Elizabeth II described 1992, in which she celebrated her 40th anniversary on the British throne, as “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” During that “annus horribilis,” three royal marriages ended, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle that destroyed a hundred rooms, and Fergie (aka the Duchess of York) was involved in a toe-sucking scandal that made all the tabloids. That’s how worse.
To wit, Tom Seaver died this week at the age of 75. Seaver, known as “Tom Terrific,” was a Hall of Fame pitcher who appeared in twelve All Star games and won three Cy Young Awards during a career that lasted from 1967-86. He led the “Miracle Mets” to their first and most improbable World Series victory in 1969 against the Baltimore Orioles.
Seaver’s overall record was just as improbable. He was rookie of the year in 1967 and led in wins and ERA in the National League three times. He led the league in strikeouts five times. By the time he retired, he had won 311 games and struck out 3,640 hitters. That’s a lot of “Here, batter, batter…swing, batter, batter!” Then, playing for the Cincinnati Reds, he pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 16, 1978.
But I happen to know that New York fans loved Tom Terrific not only for his skill and determination on the mound. The Fresno native also represented the values of middle-class America at a time when society was in turmoil, traditional values were being questioned, and people began to mistrust their own government.
Cities, New York among them, became the stage of race riots and violent anti-war protests. Newark and Detroit burned in the summer of 1967. Chicago exploded during the Democratic convention in 1968. Rev. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated that year. The Kent State shootings occurred two years later. And May 1968 marked the start of the student protest movement that spread across the globe and influenced a generation of scholars, politicians, and institutions, not necessarily for the better.
Tom Seaver and the Mets didn’t offer a solution to any of this. They couldn’t have, but neither did they distract people from the reality around them. Instead, they offered fans something to be proud of and a way to come together regardless of political persuasion or ideological bent. The 1969 season, in particular, gave people permission to acknowledge their good angels and celebrate the things they loved about the country, the American pastime being one of them.
That year even had a transcendent feeling to it. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon in July, and the Mets, Jets, and Knicks all won their respective titles. The euphoria people felt balanced the social and political upheaval outside the ballpark; in this case, Shea Stadium, which was torn down in 2009 in favor of Citi Field.
That euphoria extended to my grandmother, who, to my amazement, phoned our house to share the joy of the World Series win over the Orioles. They were still jumping onto the field when my mother handed me the phone in the kitchen. “It’s grandma,” she said. “She wants to tell you she’s watching Channel 9.” Channel 9 carried the Mets, Channel 11 the Yankees. You could have knocked me over with a Wiffle Ball.
Sadly, given the similar upheaval today, baseball doesn’t seem capable of providing the same kind of balm in people’s lives. Social distancing, face masks, and cardboard cut-outs don’t cut it. In addition, rather than offering a refuge from the turmoil outside the gates, baseball has invited it in by changing the ritual and taking explicit political stands. That won’t endear it to fans. And without fans the game loses its power to capture people’s imagination. It becomes just another video game. In effect, it is now a game of players by players for players.
I can’t say I look on any of this with undiluted pleasure.