A paper presented at The 50th Anniversary of the New York Mets
Hofstra University ~ April 28, 2012
“Sure-handed third baseman from the sandlots of Delaware. A key player in the Negro Leagues. Good instinctive base-runner . . . line drive hitter with an excellent batting eye; a smart, soft-spoken and well-respected player, an athlete whose intelligence set him apart."
But I’m not that Judy Johnson. I’m an English teacher, ordinary fan, mother of three children who love baseball. One of those kids slept peacefully in my arms on a long escalator ride to the top of Candlestick Park in August 1986. My firstborn son was six weeks old, and I had to show him the game, and the visiting team. I had to show him my Mets.
Three summers later we sat in 95-degree heat, 8 rows from the tippy top of Shea Stadium, all sticky with Dove Bar and beer. My boy was with me on the night that Number 8 kept Game 6 alive. When it was all over, I jumped up and down on the bed - “They won! The Mets won!” - and twirled my baby around the room, screaming, “I can’t believe they won!”
A few months later that tiny child spoke one of his first words: Mookie.
I cannot boast vast quantities of baseball knowledge or memorabilia, but a few Mets items have taken up residence in my home: a plastic chip-and-dip plate in the shape of a baseball glove molded in orange and royal blue. A 3x3 black-and-white photo of Ron Hunt, snapped on April 12, 1965. He’s walking back to the dugout on a dreary opening day. Few fans are in the seats at Shea. We’re two hours early, Dad and I, and my sisters, ages 5 and 7.
On my writing desk, a ball signed by Tom Seaver, another by Ed Kranepool, together with an 8x11 portrait of Cleon Jones, his arms outstretched, body leaning forward, knees slightly bent, eyes looking up, hands coming together – and his graceful signature in bright blue permanent ink.
I own an exquisite library full of books - classical, English, American, postcolonial; Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare; the OED complete 13-volume set, precious editions of Austen and Woolf, a slim folio signed by T.S. Eliot. Prodigious intellects lend gravitas to my collection: the Jameses, both Henry and Bill, plus those of a different order: Kiner’s Corner; Straw; The Bad Guys Won; Wherever I Wind Up; The Complete Game, by Ron Darling; Great Moments in Baseball, by Tom Seaver, Miracle Man, Nolan Ryan; Ya Gotta Believe! and 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.
I like the fact that John Donne keeps Tug McGraw company on my shelf. I need the words of baseball. I feel this as an intellectual and spiritual need, romantic and physical.
I’ve followed the New York Mets for 50 years. How can this possibly be? How can I be older than a ball club? I’ve endured longer than Shea Stadium did (by a decade), a fact that saddens and amuses me . . . .
Rooting for the Mets as a child in the 1960s was a perfect way of preparing for life’s and baseball’s disappointments, failures, losses, and dysfunctions. Long before I heard the cliché, I understood viscerally that baseball is a game of failure, because I lived that truth with the early Mets. They taught us not to set the bar too high, until along came an expertly coached team of men who showed us the difference between mediocrity and grandeur. I rooted for the Mets because they were my dad’s team. Their abysmal debut season 40-120 felt like a huge win to me, because I’d discovered an amazing game at the tender age of 7 and delighted in every part of it.
Baseball didn’t begin with souvenirs, t-shirts, and a lot of food; it started with names, sounds, and rhythms in our home. It began with words.
My father was a Dutch Reformed minister who worked 7 days a week and many evenings too, but when he came home and spent time with me, baseball asserted itself as language, and this is how the game felt most real. My dad spoke two languages, scripture and baseball, his words rooted in love, with phrases that became deeply embedded in my young psyche: “3-2 count,” Love is patient and kind . . . “in the cellar,” my rock and my Redeemer . . . “6-4-3 double play,” and the Word was made flesh.
The game’s magical vocabulary - metaphor and idiom, syntax and rhythm, diction both poetical and crude – was the highlight of our daily conversation, a joyful mode of thought, a language that I loved. While learning to speak English in increasingly complex ways during my school years, the splendid lexicon of baseball was a key part of the curriculum, while the New York Mets felt like something basic and fundamental – as normal, natural, and necessary as speech itself.
Baseball is a physical thing, of course, and I loved the grit of it long before Title IX and Little League finally opened the gates to young women. I played ball with Tunis Van Peenen and Michael Minervini every day after school on the John F. Kennedy playground. Traveling across the monkey bars, I sang my song of the ’66 Mets, their names forming a happy litany: McMillan, Hunt, Luplow, Jones, Bressoud, Kranepool, Grote, Swoboda.
The Mets kept me company long after the real boys went home.
While my best friend Janet Vandergoot gloated about Mantle, Maris, Murcer and Ford, I defended Danny Napoleon and Choo Choo Coleman. Baseball began with the names of men chanted on the playground, sung in the kitchen, playing on the radio out on the screened porch on summer nights, and read in the quiet of my closet while I studied many slim pieces of cardboard.
The beginning of baseball was the word: Edward Emil Kranepool. 6’ 3.” 205 lbs. Bats: L. Throws: L. Bronx, NY.
My eyes traveled slowly from one horizontal line to the next until a few diminutive letters stopped my breathing, and changed my life . . . .
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