It’s February, But Spring Is In The Air

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When I was a kid I’d run to the drug store on the corner of Junction Blvd. and Roosevelt Ave. as my dad was pulling up the big chain link. I’d get a paper and I’d head across to the diner for a cup of coffee and a couple of fried egg sandwiches. Two dollars was usually plenty. If Dad didn’t ask for change I knew I’d be heading back later for a comic or a Mad magazine. Dad would drink his coffee and we’d go over the sports pages behind the register. He and mom ran a little deli right by the Junction Blvd. southeast landing on the 7 line.

We bought the lease to the store from the family before us. They were crazy about baseball. They had two sons, both a bit older than me, and we found a few things they’d left behind when we took over. There was a baseball carefully stored in a box on a shelf in the back, a baseball the older boy caught at Shea off of Cleon Jones. They’d been searching everywhere and they wanted it back of course. I had it for like 5 days.

We lived over by 98th street and 37th Ave. and there was this perfect alleyway for stickball by a private school down the block. We’d wait until the school clerk — an uptight big haired lady who wore the same exact dress in different fabrics every day — walked out to her station wagon wrapping her hair in a scarf (even in the summer) with a knot under her chin, and we’d bend the gate poles and slip through.

The alley ran wide and long with a high fence on one side and the windowless wall of a 4 story school building on the other. It opened a good 300 feet to dead center across the church parking lot. Sometimes I’d sneak in on my own and practice pitching with Lindsey Nelson’s voice in my head. You were never alone for long, kids always showed up and your pretend game became a real one. Sometimes if older kids showed up you’d be lucky if you even got to play. The custodian would come out and chase us off in the evening and we’d end up scrambling back to the gate where we’d wait turns slipping back out … immediately fingering our noses at creepy Charlie Chaplin looking janitor guy who’d tighten the chain and lock it from his giant key ring.

Sometimes it isn’t even really the game but the people you share it with, the memories, good and bad — even the group-hug sad ones. For Mets fans, from the outset, even losing wasn’t the worst, it was better than the alternative – no baseball. The old-timers remember those days after the Giants and the Dodgers packed up and shipped out … A bitter nostalgia.

There is no bad baseball really. It’s great when you win, but some of my best memories were sitting in the bleachers watching the Mets play the Reds, or the Cubs, or the Pirates, and it didn’t matter if the team was terrible, we were happy if it didn’t rain and if Kingman hit a moon shot.

I left New York in 1996. Hadn’t been back much since my parents passed. I finally got to take the family to Citifield this past summer. We’d been to a few ballparks, some newer, so I had some idea of what to expect. We had a great time. Matt Harvey dominated, the burgers were good, and it didn’t bankrupt us. There’s a slow egress with Citi from high-end luxury above left field to the almost carnival atmosphere on the pavilion where I think I saw people playing Wiffle Ball. It feels linear, like a gallery, where Shea was annular, modernist, whatever.

The rotunda gives the place focus, with everything pointing to home plate as it should. I can see why a lot of people insist they don’t miss Shea. And sharing it with first timers made it even better, watching them startle with the first roar of the crowd. There was something about Citifield last August, something that could make a kid lose his popcorn and spill soda on his Duda shirt … hard to put a price on that. These Mets can pitch, and the fans are going nuts with every punch-out.

And the talking — the constant talking. On line, on the escalator, in the gift shop … I overheard an argument on the Shake Shack line between this guy and a girl way ahead — he accused her of getting away with cutting in line because she was hot and had nice boots. She admitted the boots were nice but claimed she was “replacing” her friend who was on line earlier, and he’s like “aw, c’mon you can’t replace someone from ten minutes ago.” He even got the people around her to admit that they let her cut in because she was hot. It was hilarious, the entire line was laughing. I turned to my oldest, “only in New York.”

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I realized again that the heart and soul of the Mets was right there on the promenade. A friendly hostility that people sometimes mistake for rudeness when it’s just honest. An old guy grabbing you by the arm as you’re about to walk into traffic, “Hey! What the hell is wrong with you? What aah you stoo-pid?” That’s what you end up missing the most when you leave New York. The innumerable conversations about the Mets in the subway with perfect strangers, and always you leave knowing something you didn’t before — everybody with their scrap of back-page insight.

I remember selling Italian ices and watching the crowds coming off the 7-train after a day game. I could tell if they won or lost, mostly because I’d listened to the game. There were these big sacks of beans in front of the cold-cut fridge and sometimes I’d grab my giant straw and sneak a handful of black eye peas and blast pigeons flying down from the el platform. This old lady yelled at me for that, said I was a mean kid. I felt bad. I remember once this drug addict tried to rob the store with a switchblade and my dad chased him half way down the street with his apron in one hand and a meat cleaver in the other.

Sometimes I’ll drink my coffee and thumb through my fantasy roster and think about the old days. We still play wiffle ball out back. A lot’s changed but the Mets are still here, that hasn’t changed much at all.

There’s always that day, usually in February, when you feel it in the air and you know the worst is over and you are reminded of Spring. You hold a baseball and remember, you’re still that kid with the Spaldeen looking for a place to dream.

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About Matt Balasis 149 Articles

A Met fan since August 1969 when the Red Cross placed my family on the 6th floor of a building in Willets Point because of a fire. I could see Shea from our balcony. I missed the fall of 86 because I was in Boot Camp and I’ve been serving penance ever since in Minnesota. I write about the Mets to share with a tradition that made much of my childhood worthwhile. Follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewBalasis