“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat”
“Losing after great striving is the story of Man”
Roger Kahn (The Boys of Summer)
Roger Kahn, working for the New York Herald Tribune, was the beat writer for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. He covered them during the Dodgers glory days of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. He witnessed and wrote about incredible pennant races, worlds series, personalities larger than life, and so much heartbreak for players and fans.
Kahn’s book, The Boys of Summer, inspired me to write this article. I highly recommend reading this book during this winter’s respite from baseball games.
In both 1950 and 1951, the Dodgers lost the pennant in the final inning of the final game of the season. This sounds eerily similar to the plight of the New York Mets in 2007 and 2008. History does repeat itself.
In 1950, the Phillies were coasting to the NL pennant They had a seven game lead over the Dodgers with eleven games left to play. But the Phillies lost eight of their last ten entering the last game of the season. As the two teams squared off against each other on the final day of the season at Shibe Park, the Phillies lead was down to one game. With the score tied in the 9th inning, the Dodgers Cal Abrams led off with a double. After a walk, Duke Snider singled up the middle. With no out, the 3rd base coach (who was fired after the season), waved Abrams home, and was easily thrown out. The Dodgers failed to score. In the bottom of the 10th, Dick Sisler hit a 3 run HR off of Don Newcombe. The Dodgers and their fans had their hearts broken.
We are much more familiar with the heartbreak of 1951. The Dodgers led the Giants by 13 games. The Giants caught them and forced a playoff series (best 2 out of 3). The Giants won game one in Brooklyn but the Dodgers responded with a win at the Polo Grounds. The turning point of game two was when a fellow by the name of Bobby Thompson struck out with the bases loaded. In game three, it happened so quickly. A 4-1 Dodgers lead in the 9th. Two singles and a double. Ralph Branca was brought in. The rest is history.
Players have hot streaks and slumps, bloops for hits and wicked line drives for outs. No one remembers that Don Mueller had a seeing eye single past Gil Hodges in the 9th inning of game three or that Bobby Thompson’s home run barely traveled 300 feet. One day Thompson strikes out and the next day he is the hero.
As Kahn said “choker and hero are two masks for the same plain face”. Did the Dodgers choke? Did they lack courage or character? Or were they just unlucky? What is choking anyway. As Pee Wee Reese said ” when you chew gum and saliva don’t come you’re choking”. To me it sounds like everyone’s mouth gets dry when the pressure is on. Puking before a game doesn’t imply choking.
The Dodgers remained defiant. They did not choke. Choking doesn’t exist. It is imagined by the fans and media. Pressure affects everyone.
Personally, and in this context, I despise the word “choke”. It has no place in the dictionary of sports. It is a sleazy and short-sighted way of not examining the true reasons behind failing. Have you ever heard anyone claim that Gil Hodges or Duke Snider choked? Yet numerous times they didn’t come through in the clutch during the Worlds Series.
I think that Brooklyn Dodgers history teaches us why we love the Mets so much. It is psychological, but by no means a personality flaw or an indication of mental illness. It is a sign of character and a testimonial to the quality of our existence that we can identify, sympathize, and commiserate with our beloved Mets. Our cause is noble – we fall in love with the loser. It is a justified essential trait that makes us better human beings. Yankee fans, unfortunately for them are lacking this trait, and will never understand the wisdom of this argument.
The Jackie Robinson Rotunda. The Ebbets Field resemblance. The quirky right field. Maybe the Wilpons have accurately defined our history by making CitiField a memorial to honor the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were the Mets predecessors and when they left for L.A., like it or not, we inherited their history and legacy. The Mets were born and created in their image. That is something to be proud of, and not forgotten.
Imagine if the Dodgers had moved to Queens. We would all be New York Dodgers fans. And what a proud history we would have. We would have a dozen retired numbers. The legacy of Robinson, Snider, Hodges, Campanella, Furillo, Reese, Newcombe and Branca would be genuinely ours to honor.
Many of us were Mets fans from the beginning. Forty five years of the Mets memories at Shea Stadium are significant too. They are just very different. Let’s not measure them in wins and losses. Truly, nothing beats rooting for the New York Mets. I feel lucky and proud to be a fan.