Ah, Opening Day! As I observe the jubilant people sitting around me in the mezzanine section behind home plate at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, I think, “Is there a more purely happy moment for any baseball fan?” There is an at once familiar yet new aroma in the ballpark of fresh paint and simmering hotdogs, a chill in the air (courtesy of the wind blowing off Flushing Bay), and the grass on the playing field has never looked greener. The base paths are pristine; the blue and orange seats glisten even in the mist of the rainy April day, and the ballplayers all seem young, strong, and fiercely ready for the season.
Opening Day is like spring itself: a time of renewal, of invigorated spirit, and hope for what is to come. On this day every regular player stands equal: all are batting .000 and have no homers or runs batted in. The pitchers all have an 0.00 earned run average and have no strikeouts or walks. It is the one moment, however fleeting, when all players are different and yet very much alike. As a Met fan who has seen many years of poor performance from his team, there has always been that wonderful feeling on Opening Day that we were just as good as any other team on paper, though this indubitably would change after the first pitch was thrown.
This year is supposed to be a little different at Shea, and yet the ceremonial first pitch was being thrown by Jesse Orosco to good old Gary Carter. Talk about nostalgia to a Met fan, and he or she has no choice but to look back whimsically at 1986. The sight of these two guys makes me get a little teary eyed (but I claim it’s that damn wind off the bay), for I recall that night in 1986 when Orosco threw that last pitch of the World Series, got Boston’s Marty Barrett out, and threw his glove up into the hazy night sky over Shea. Gary Carter ran out to the mound to embrace him, and our city erupted in a frenzy unseen since 1969 (at least for Mets fans).
Back in the 1980s the Mets owned New York City. It was a blissful time, a dreamtime for Met fans, and the always despised Yankees were just a bunch of has-beens across the river. We had no idea what would be coming in the 90s, that a former Met named Joe Torre would defect to the Bronx and turn everything ugly. The name Jeter was meaningless (he was just some funny guy on that TV show Evening Shade with Burt Reynolds and his toupee), and we had no idea that much of the city would turn on us, even former Met fans, because the Yankees juggernaut would be so overwhelming and last so long.
So as I sit there and watch Orosco and Carter run off the field and see the new 2006 Mets take their positions, I feel a tingling along my arms and know we have a chance for something special once again. There is David Wright at third and Jose Reyes at short where he has always belonged, and I think that there probably hasn’t been two more exciting and talented young guys playing alongside each other since Boston’s Jim Rice and Fred Lynn back in the 1970s. These are the new Met stars, and along with Carlos times two (Beltran and Delgado), Cliff Floyd, and the rest, we are looking at what should be a very good year. Even so, I turn to my old friend and say, “I want a do-over.”
He laughs because that’s something he hasn’t heard in a long time. “A do-over for what?” he asks.
I am thinking at first for 1986 to happen again, but that really isn’t what I mean. It is all the sordid stuff that has happened since 1986, most specifically the steroid mess that has ruined baseball. I want to get rid of the McGwire-Sosa homer competition because, even though it seemed to make the term “national pastime” relevant again, it was a farce, a sleight of hand by tricksters who had pumped themselves up like alien creatures. I want a “do-over” to get back to a purity of the game, something I can still smell in the air on this Opening Day, despite the noxious fumes from the malevolent shadows of Bonds, Palmiero, Giambi, Canseco and others who have almost irreparably scarred this magnificent game.
When we were kids the “do-over” was a simple solution to a multitude of problems. Since we played in the street, there were many things that could happen that only a “do-over” could make right. For example, if someone hit the ball and it bounced off one of those cars parked along the street, one of us would immediately yell out, “Do-ovah!” If the ball hit a lamppost, a trash can, an electrical wire, or went down a sewer, that was also time for the all powerful “do-over.” More importantly, since we were playing these games without any umpires, the “do-over” was especially helpful when someone did something untoward (like shoving a player or running out of the base path). Any infraction that could not be settled (one side said “out” and the other said “safe” was the classic example) was solved with the “do-over.”
Perhaps the “do-over” was a placebo, but that didn’t matter because it worked so well. Growing up here in New York City, there were limited places for us to play real baseball. We could walk up to the field at PS 68 and hope it was free, but that was usually not the case. Besides, it was a cement field with no possibility for stealing a base, diving to make a catch, or sliding into home plate. For somewhat innocent kids who fervently believed in the “purity” of the game, it goes without saying that we felt this was a compromised version of the sport we loved. Thus, we turned to stickball.
Stickball is a New York City sport that is played in many variations (with gloves, without gloves; with a rubber ball, with a tennis ball, etc.). The great Willie Mays grew up playing stickball, and we knew this and it inspired us. One kid would come down the street with his mother’s old broom handle; another would bring the electrical tape to wind around one end to protect the batter’s hands, and someone else brought the ball which was usually a Spaldeen, though sometimes we’d get lucky and someone bought a bright pink Pense Pinky (those always traveled farther when hit). One of us always had a hunk of chalk to make home plate and the bases, and then we were ready for action.
We spent hours playing this game we loved. In the street we usually bounced the ball and hit it basically for practical purposes: Either we didn’t have a catcher or, if we did, we didn’t want the ball to be missed and roll down the block into the sewer. Over the years many balls were lost in the NYC sewer system, though we had perfected a wonderful way to “fish” for these balls using connected wire hangers that we straightened and bent a small loop at the end to hook the ball. I stuck my arm down many sewer gratings, determined to get that blackened pink ball despite the rats big as cats swimming below. We weren’t ready to spend another 25 cents for a new ball if we could help it.
If we had the inclination and it wasn’t too hot, we’d all walk up to the supermarket and use the back wall as our backstop. Drawing a large rectangle on the wall in chalk for a strike zone, we then could pitch the ball and be assured it would come back toward the pitcher (unless the hitter socked it). The supermarket parking lot spawned all new reasons for “do-overs,” must notably the haphazardly left shopping carts, parked trucks, and garbage bins that were in the way.
No matter how much we loved stickball, it was the Mets we were emulating (even in their darkest times). Living in Queens and just a bus ride away from Shea, we all became devoted fans in 1969 and then continued that way into our adult lives. Any kid who liked the Yankees (and there were a few to be found in the area) was a traitor, and we certainly let him know how we felt about his wrong choice in teams in a vociferous way as he’d walk down the block.
More than anything else, we believed passionately in the game. We used to watch wrestling on Channel 9 on Saturday nights and laugh because we knew it was fake, but baseball was real as anything could or should be. What happened between those baselines was a religious experience, the communion of ball and bat a true sacrament, the players all men restricted by the holiest order imaginable: the integrity of the rules of baseball.
Our passion for the game increased as we got older, even after we left the unique tapping sound of the dropped stickball bat on pavement as the hitter raced toward first base behind. We got jobs, some of us married, and we all moved away from the old neighborhood and left our ghosts on the street where the chalk outlines of home plate and the bases long ago faded away. I’ve been back there several times over the years, and not once have I seen kids playing stickball on that block now crowded with cars. A few kids were jumping rope, some playing handball against a house, but the old game we loved obviously had been long forgotten.
Now, I sit in the stands on Opening Day watching the 2006 Mets and am talking about “do-overs” and how the steroids scandal is ruining the game. An old man, probably in is eighties, overhears my friend and I talking. He leans toward us, his faded old Mets cap bright even on this rainy day, and says, “You know, the game has never been as clean as you want it to be.” I must look like I am in shock and he laughs, “No, I am serious, boys.” It sounds funny to hear anyone calling us “boys” anymore.
He takes a puff on his cigar and continues. “I used to play on a minor league team for the Dodgers years ago. There was always some guy ready to cheat somehow. Some used too much pine tar or corked their bats; pitchers used grease on the ball, cut it with razor blades, or used sandpaper on it. There were always guys like that.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I say, turning away and watching the field with a few tears in my eyes again. Was the game I thought I loved not the game I was now watching? Were the purity and sanctity I believed in just myths, a stack of cards, a dream that could never be realized? Despite understanding that cheating was maybe always inherently part of the game, there were still those players (the majority, I believe) who chose to do it the pure way, the right way, the way a ten year old kid or a forty year old on Opening Day could still believe in.
So, I watch the game, enjoy David Wright’s opposite field home run, and Billy Wagner’s getting the last out. No matter what anyone else says, I still want the game the way it should be played. Maybe that is folly, a naïve wish that will never be fulfilled, but I don’t care. I still want one last chance to say “Do-over” in order to erase all the impurity and to leave nothing but the truth of the game as I want it to be: ball players on the field with nothing more than pure talent flowing through their veins. I think that the future of the game can somehow be saved by this kind of return to innocence, by an integrity that for now seems only to be found in a kid’s baseball dreams.