‘Playing’ for The Mets
 
I grew up in a Yankee town. A small town, but a Yankee town. Long before baseball players lived in mansions, they lived in smaller things called “homes”. Not far from my family’s home; down Blanche Avenue, across the railroad tracks, past John’s Pizzeria— not far from where I first kissed the tough but cute red-head Roxanne Stoeckler, lived Catfish Hunter. Across from Hunter lived Gene Michael. A Yankee. In fact, Norwood was the home to several Yankee players; Thurmon Munson, Ron Guidry, Don Gullet to name a few. Every shop in town had pictures of the Yankees. You couldn’t get away from it. In short, it was Mets fan hell.

However, this was August, 1978, and if I remember correctly, it was a hot, humid, sticky summer day. Andy Widholm and I were bored as any other ten year-olds in the neighborhood. But Andy was a schoolteacher’s worst nightmare, and when we got together, we were a pair of sugar-induced demons; high on sucrose, glucose, concentrated corn syrup, and red food dye #3.

As Andy and I sat on the curb, munching our Pop Rocks and counting how many spider eggs we found in our Bubble Yum, a blue Chevy Nova rumbled down Carter Street; Catfish Hunter. The car pulled into the driveway and Catfish got out with another buddy of his; Graig Nettles. Yankees. They were returning from a day game against the Kansas City Royals.

Seeing them wasn't unusual, since Catfish lived two doors down from Andy. But, somehow I knew this day would be different; and different it was. Catfish picked up a ball from his front porch and threw it over to Andy. “Here’s your ball, kid.” Andy turned to me — and through his devilish, dirty-blond hair and menacing grin, he said, “Let’s go!” I grabbed the bat leaning against his mom’s Delta 88 and darted for the street.

We marked out the bases; the manhole cover was home plate, the sewer grate: first base; the horseshoe-shaped pothole: second; and the black patch of tar against the curb was third. Andy spit on the ground, "And that's pitcher's mound!"

We began throwing warm-up tosses as Catfish and Nettles looked on from the porch, guzzling beers and uttering small talk. After a couple of tosses, Andy yelled over, “Hey Catfish, what are you looking at? You’re pitching! Nettles, you’re playing outfield! This is the World Series— game seven, bottom of the ninth, tie game 3-3 at Shea. Me and Frankie are the Mets and we’re gonna kick your Yankee butts in!"

Catfish and Nettles took to the street. Andy was up first. He was a feisty kid; one who didn’t like being placated either. “Pitch me something real, Catfish!" Andy yelled. Nettles, beer in one hand, shouted from his spot as the designated outfielder for our impromptu World Series game on Carter Street, “Up and in, Fish. Don’t let the kid make me run.”
After settling in, Andy cracked a 2-1 change-up over Nettles head, past Mr. Rainie’s Pinto and deep into Mrs. Lutzo’s tomato plants. By the time Nettles dug through the vines and relayed the throw back to Catfish Hunter, Andy had made it safely to third base. Andy was beaming, Mrs. Lutzo was screaming, and I was up next.

“C’mon Frankie, you could do it,” Andy hollered. My hands began to sweat. Catfish pitched a fastball just outside the home plate manhole cover. I could tell it wasn’t going to be a dead give-away. Andy and I were going to have to earn this win or lose everything.

The count was one ball, one squished tomato under Nettle’s foot, and one cute redhead peering from the outfield bleacher-box windows of “Carter Street Stadium."

“This is it,” I thought. “I’m gonna do it.” As I pushed the strands of hair from my face, Nettles moved closer to the third base bag, hoping to get a tag on Andy should I pop the ball up.

Full count, bottom of the ninth inning, game seven of the World Series, the go-ahead run at third base and it’s all up to me and my filthy, pop-rock, sugar-glazed hands and “Grand Way special” sneakered feet.

I took a deep breath and settled in, focusing only on hitting the ball. Andy’s hollering faded into the background. For a moment, it was just me and Catfish. And I was going to do it for my team, the Mets.

Hunter served a belt-high fast ball over the plate and I swung. All I remember is Andy jumping for joy as the ball lined past a diving Graig Nettles allowing Andy to score the winning run.

We had won the World Series!

Andy and I hugged each other, jumping up and down, hollering so loud the neighbors came out to see what in hell was going on. Andy pumped his fists high in the air as we did imitation mock laughs of Vinnie Barbarino and Arnold Horshack. Nettles and Catfish picked up their beers, smiled, then one of them said, “Kids, go home and eat now. Good game. You deserve it.”

Later that evening, walking home, heading down Carter Street, around Broadway, cutting through the railroad tracks, I heard a familiar voice coming from the friendly, yellow-lit porch door of Roxanne’s house. “Hey Frankie,” she said, running over to me. “Congratulations. You won!” Then, she planted a kiss on my cheek. Before I could blush, she ran back inside. The door closed and I continued on my way; the hero, the slugger, the dreamer, the newly indoctrinated, die-hard baseball fanatic. Just a kid, but one who just tasted the quiet glory of being a Mets fan.


copyright 2006, Frank Messina

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