Deep in the Hole, by Joe Pendal

"This is the Greatest Night of My Life"

[PLEASE NOTE: this column is a bit lengthier than usual, perhaps that's as much do to the mind-numbing prospect that the season will be shorter than usual ... or maybe 'cause it is so personal.]

Given that my eldest son is a mere five and a half years old, it is easy to accept the idea that a particular night could be the greatest of his life since there aren't that many against which to compete. Add to that the fact that he was attending his first Mets game, and from the perspective of a lifelong obsessed fan, it is equally believable. Ironically, he and I enjoyed similar experiences attending our first Mets games ... though thirty-two years apart.

My first game was the 1970 Mayor's Trophy Game between the Mets and Yankees at Yankee Stadium. His first Mets game (his fifth MLB game) was Tuesday, August 6 in Milwaukee. Mine an exhibition game that saw most regulars seated on the bench; his, a last gasp attempt to spark a season-ending surge to the playoffs.

As we drove the five hours from the Land of 15,000 Lakes (they found a couple thousand in the past few years) through the Land of Too-Many-Cheeseheads into Milwaukee, I found myself contemplating MLB's Greatest Moment campaign. Coming up with one moment out of the countless moments in baseball history seems outlandish at best, ridiculous at least. All you have to do to understand the impossibility of it is look at the ballot (forget the typos and the factual error regarding the 1951 Giants-Dodgers series) and the choices. Yes, Carlton Fisk's homer is a memorable moment, so is Henry Aaron's 715th homer ... and even Jackie Robinson's first game could be argued as a moment in history, it certainly was MOMENT-ous. BUT, they are reaching so desperately that they don't identify Mookie's ball slipping under Buckner's legs, they offer up the whole 1986 World Series. Why'd they stop there, they should have labeled it the 1986 Post-Season given the LCS dramas in both leagues. But, I digress.

In spite of my being overly occupied with what is faulty in trying to identify one great historical moment in baseball, somewhere between Baraboo and Ah-choo I started thinking about my personal Top Ten Greatest Moments as a Baseball Fan. In the coming weeks I'll provide more details about some of these moments, but for now here's the list:

Number 10: Sitting in the Oakland Coliseum watching the A's take batting practice, as the stadium's big screen carried live Mark McGwire's 62nd homer to be the first to pass Maris.

Number 9: Attending Games 6 and 7 of the 1991 World Series as the Twins beat the Braves.

Number 8: At the age of eleven, talking on the telephone to Ed Kranepool.

Number 7: Meeting Mike Phillips (utility player in the 1970s) and riding in his car.

Number 6: Taking the bus from New Jersey to Port Authority and taking the Subway to Shea for the first time without a parent.

Number 5: Sitting at Shea watching Tom Seaver twirl a one-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Number 4: 1969 Mets (I know what I said above, but it's all too vague to someone who was five.)

Number 3: Dancing in front of my house, yelping and whooping after the Mets beat the Reds in 1973 to go to the World Series.

Number 2: Seeing Jesse Orosco throw his glove into the air and fall to his knees in 1986.

Number 1: Attending my first Met game ... that is until my son attended his first Met game.

There are a few things I remember about the 1970 Mayor's Trophy Game ... to park, my dad was told to drive up a curb and park on a sidewalk ... why I remember that, I don't know, perhaps it's because a '67 Mustang has little clearance for driving up curbs.

Who doesn't remember their first view of a ball field: walking through a tunnel that opens to a view of a huge, shiny, sunlit, green field with ball players milling around. I see the Mets in their road greys. I can't believe it ... the Mets ... MY Mets! Where's Tom Seaver? Where is my hero? Batting practice is wrapping up. My dad grabs me by the arm and walks us toward the Mets dugout. He says something to an usher ... and I think he hands the guy something. A moment later, my father is holding me virtually upside down so I can peer into the Mets dugout. There's Gil Hodges ... there's Donn Clendenon ... gulp ... there right in front of me is Tom Seaver. I wave haltingly ... he winks back ... as quickly as I was looking in, I was swooped back up. It was just a stinking wink ... but that wink stayed with me my whole childhood and is a moment that I still think about when I consider why I have been such an unquenchable Met fan. The seeds of being a lifelong fan must be planted early, and when they are the roots are strong.

The other thing I remember about that game is that we sat very far from the field and very high in the sky ... and sitting next to us was a Chinese woman with a gold tooth eating a hot dog with lots of mustard.

Until two weeks ago, this stood as my personal high point as a fan ... I'm the kind of fan who wants to see a 2-1 pitchers duel won by Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nino Espinosa, Dwight Gooden, or Al Leiter on a home run by Cleon Jones, Rusty Staub, Steve Henderson, Lenny Dykstra or Mike Piazza. I'm the kind of fan who turns on ESPN Classic hoping to see Game 3 of the 1969 World Series ... and when I do, I sit there teary-eyed as Tommie Agee makes two fantastic catches. Simply put, baseball is an emotional, nostalgic thing for me ... it's as much a connection to a happy childhood as it is an on-going, roller coaster of entertainment. Perhaps if the Mets won as frequently as the Yankees, or had more runs like they did in the eighties, I'd be less romantic in my thinking ... but I feel as Mets fans we have the better part of it. Sure, Yankee fans can talk about some of the greatest of the greats playing for them and they can count their 26 championship flags over and over again. So can historians ... so can anyone with the ability to read a newspaper or a book ... you don't have to be a Yankee fan to know, but you have to be a Mets fan to feel.

Yes, I wish the Mets had more titles. Yes, I wish that 1973 and 2000 turned out differently ... and that Gil Hodges hadn't died too soon and Tom Seaver had never been traded. But, what joys we've known even in futility. I know Met Jimmy Piersall ran around the bases backwards when he hit his 100th career home run ... I know Banner Day at Shea was always better (and safer) than Bat Day at Yankee Stadium ... I know that Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Jim McAndrew, Craig Swan, Walt Terrell, and Rick Reed were solid pitchers who could be great on occasion ... I know that Ron Hunt, Roy McMillan, Jerry Grote, Art Shamsky, Mike Jorgenson, Felix Millan, John Milner, Alex Trevino, Hubie Brooks, Mookie Wilson, Danny Heep, and Rico Brogna were all decent players who could also sparkle.

More than anything ... I know that there was shoe polish from Cleon Jones' shoe on that baseball ... I know that Bud Harrelson was safe and Willie was right ... I know that Kirk Gibson sold his soul to the devil ... I know that the devil is M. Donald Grant ... and I know that if Timo had run all the way he would have scored and the Mets would have won the game and the series. And above all ... I can name all the players on the 1969 and 1986 Mets, I can tell you the scores of each World Series game in those series and the winning and losing pitchers; how many Yankee fans can even list the years in which their team won the dang thing?

So in this season of utter disappointment, I find it poetically appropriate to have experienced my new Number 1 thrill, which brings me, back to August 6, 2002. As important and formative as my first Mets game was in 1970, I believe my son's first Mets game will be the same for him. Here's what he will remember, or at least what I will be reminding him of so that he has a chance to remember:

We got to Miller Park early with the hope of seeing batting practice and just maybe getting a chance to get Mike Piazza's autograph. My son is starting to understand the game a bit more this summer, but he is still pretty focused on three things: Mike Piazza, seeing the apple after a Met home run, and games Al Leiter pitches. Everything else remains in a puzzling grey area for him. So, Mikey was at the top of his list.

After eating in the stadium's Friday's, we took up a position in left field along the third base line. The Mets were taking batting practice. As we stood near the field, Trachsel, Estes, D'Amico and others were out playing catch. Roger Cedeno was nearby shagging balls. I pointed out each of the players to my son ... and each time he asked, "Where's Mikey?" Prior to arriving in Milwaukee I asked my colleague Sharon Chapman what she knew of Mikey's pre-game rituals to get a sense of our chances of meeting the Big Kahuna. Sharon was not a font of optimism on this account, telling me that he's really tough to get especially on nights he's in the lineup. Based on this, and Sharon and her family are incredibly dedicated fans on top of being wonderful people, I kept telling my son not to get his hopes up. Suddenly, I notice that Mike Piazza is wondering over toward the stands at the end of the Mets dugout. I grab my son, and sprint with him in my arms over toward the growing crowd of autograph seekers. We push to the front (I might live in Minnesota, but I am FROM New Jersey). I take off my son's hat to get it signed when I realize I have no pen. D'oh! Mikey won't use someone else's pen for some reason. Not wanting to let this moment be a memorable dud, I lift my son and lean him over the rail close to Mike and ask if he would at least shake the kid's hand. Mikey reaches out, takes his hand and says, "How's it going, Buddy!" To which my son, warbles, "You're the greatest Mikey!" and the Mets' catcher says, "Thanks, pal."

I pull him back and set him down. He's shaking with excitement and I am on the verge of tears I am so ecstatic that I give to him the same type of moment my father gave to me thirty-two years ago. It was an unbelievable feeling ... and not for the first time since having children of my own, it was a feeling that made me understand my father's motivation as a parent much better.

Thinking now that the night has been made, and that even the next two days of games are simply gravy for us, we head back to our spots along the line to watch more BP. Soon Mikey steps into the cage for his hacks. Roger's still shagging, the pitchers are still tossing only now they're something like forty yards apart. Mikey rips one down the foul line, but I'm too high up to reach the bounding ball below. Another one bounces into left. Roger picks it up and I join the chorus of adults and children calling for him to toss the ball into the stands. I point to my son who's wearing a Mets cap, shirt and jacket, and yell, "C'mon, Rog ... do it for the future of Mets fans!" To that, Roger looks over and throws the ball in my direction; unfortunately, some yutz in a Brewers cap reaches in front of me and grabs it. Other Mets take their hacks; no balls come near Roger or us. Mikey steps back in; he hits one on a hop that Roger grabs. I yell again along with everyone else ... this time I yell, "Gimme another chance, Roger ... I'll dive this time." He smiles and laughs at that, takes two steps closer to us and throws it directly to me. No Brewers fan's gonna outreach me this time and close both hands around the ball. I can barely mumble thanks to Roger as my throat gags on the emotion of the moment.

Not that getting a ball is in and of itself a life altering experience, but when I look down into the eyes of my son as I hand him the ball and I see his utter exhilaration it is a moment that will live in my mind for as long as I have a mind that can remember. With the ball in his hands, my little Mets fan is jumping up and down bounding up the steps as we head toward our seats. He is beside himself, "YESSSSSS!" he shouts. "WOOOO-HOOOO!!!! I shook Mikey's hand, now this!" I'd never seen him this excited before ... this clearly beat meeting Elmo, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and getting those museum dinosaurs when he was four.

I'm thinking the same thing he is, but I'm slightly better able to keep myself from singin' and dancin' in the streets. As we're walking I ask him to let me see the ball. When I look more closely at it, I can hardly believe it ... it's a leftover from the 2000 World Series ... Mets logo, Yankees logo ... World Series 2000 logo. I can't believe they made that many that they're still burning through them, but hey, who's complaining ... Lucky Us!

Hand shake, World Series ball ... what's next? Oh, Mikey homers in his first at-bat to tie Johnny Bench and the Mets win a well-played game thanks to an exceptional pitching performance from Pedro Astacio.

It's about the seventh inning and the kids are getting tired and my wife is looking like she's had about enough of the squirming our three year old has been doing. I tell the five year old it's about time we should go ... he looks like I told him our cats all got hit by a car. I look at my wife ... we nod ... we stay. He looks at me and says, "Dad, this is the greatest night of my life. I'm going to remember it forever." I look at him and choke out, "Me, too, pal ... me too."

Deep in the Hole's DOUBLE PLAY

Usually DOUBLE PLAY takes this opportunity to pay tribute to two former Mets who can even in the remotest sense be tied to the topic discussed in the Deep in the Hole column. This week we pay tribute to two Mets fans, but first the proceedings would not be complete without a major bow and doff of the cap to my father, Joseph Henry Pendal who took me to countless games at Shea and the Vet in Philly and who played pepper with me for as long into the night as we could see and who helped nurture my love for the game and who provided a great role model for a father wanting to share his love of baseball with the next generation.

Double Play's spotlight falls on Sharon (of Monday Morning Mets fame) and Kevin (of Labor Scope fame) Chapman. Residents of the tri-state area, the Chapman's have attended major league games in at least 30 stadiums and as new ones come on line they are adding them to their cache. The contributors traveled to the upper Midwest this summer for their family's baseball excursion. With their three wonderful, well-behaved, intelligent, and baseball oriented children with them, they took in games at the Metrodome, Miller Park and Detroit before heading back to Metsland.

My family had the good fortune of breaking bread with them in our Twin Cities home the night before we went to Milwaukee, and then things got even better as we all sat together for the Wednesday and Thursday games of the series. My five-year old is hoping against hope we can still go to Shea this summer with the Chapman's now six-year old (he celebrated his sixth at Miller Park during the Mets afternoon blowout).

If by chance you are reading this and your name is either Ralph Kiner or Al Leiter, you will remember the Chapmans as the family who got your autographs outside the Fister Hotel Thursday morning before you boarded the team bus. Self-described as the Accidental Stalkers, the Chapmans happened to notice a bus in front of a hotel and then recognized the hotel as the one the Mets were staying in. They wasted no time hustling to the hotel's lobby to see if they could get their birthday boy a couple autographs ... and that they did. Ralph Kiner signed the sweet spot of a ball, adding HOF '75 and later the Mets ace came along and provided his signature.

We had a blast meeting the Family Chapman ... and seeing the Mets notch what now appears to be two of their last wins of the season.

Previous Columns:

08/08/2002 - This Ain't no Bandwagon

07/14/2002 - The Dog Days of July

07/09/2002 - The Tie That Binds

06/22/2002 - A Little Thing Called Mojo

05/22/2002 - Penetrating the Surface

05/13/2002 - Scratching the Surface

04/26/2002 - And On Top of Everything IT Snowed

04/16/2002 - Of Love and Baseball (Well, Sorta)

04/09/2002 - Miscellaneous Mets-ellany

04/01/2002 - Let the Good Times Roll

03/25/2002 - When Pitching Was King

03/06/2002 - Rise and Shine!