BY STEPHEN MCGUIRE
Forty years ago this baseball season, a fledgling team of loveable losers took to the field at the Polo Grounds.
The game and the lives of millions of New Yorkers would never be same.
The Birth Of A Baseball Team
It was 1962 – the same year John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, the year of the Cuban Missile crisis and the year the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club was created.
It was the hope of then-New York City Mayor Robert Wagner and an Attorney named William Shea to bring a National League baseball team back to the Big Apple after New Yorkers’ hearts were broken by the departure of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Dubbed the Mets by owner Joan Payson, the team was a hit with New Yorkers even before they played their first game.
On April 12, 1962, the City threw the team a parade on Broadway.
And On Opening Day it became clear that the team was “Amazin’” — even if it was only in their own minds.
“Can’t anybody here play this game?” asked Mets manager Casey Stengel.
It was the expression that later became the title of a book by newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin.
The book detailed how, despite their losing record, New York City was infatuated with the Mets.
In their debut season, the team shattered baseball attendance records by drawing approximately 2 million fans – a figure virtually unheard of at the time.
The Legend Of The Mighty Casey
He may not have been at the bat, but from the dugout and in front of the cameras and microphones, Casey Stengel — the gnarly baseball veteran with the craggy face who had just been released by the New York Yankees after a 12-year stretch of unprecedented managerial success with the Bronx Bombers – was approached by Mets president George Weiss in 1961 to manage the new baseball team.
Mets manager Casey Stengel dubbed the team “amazin” before they even took to the field.
Stengel was less than enthusiastic.
He had already turned down a job offer as manager of the Detroit Tigers and expressed little interest in heading up a baseball team again.
But Weiss, a former Yankee general manager, refused to give up.
As far as he was concerned, there was only one man could fill the spiked shoes of the New York Mets’ first manager.
With persistence and not-so-gentle persuasion, Weiss convinced Stengel to get back into the game and on September 29, 1961, 72-year-old Casey Stengel made it official.
Stengel became the first manager of the New York Mets and would take aim at structuring the new team when they took to the field for the first time in 1962.
He had no illusions about his new club, he told the media.
He had located the spirit and character of his new players, calling them “Amazin’” – even before the team had completed or played their first game.
An irrepressible phrasemaker in his own right, Stengel had tossed off a moniker that has become synonymous with Big Apple baseball.
And Then, A Miracle
In 1964, the Mets were given the shiny new Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows.
But what really needed polishing were the lackluster baseball skills of this rag-tag team.
Season after season Mets fans grew accustomed to the team’s blunders on the diamond – and stayed away from home games.
The fans who did show up knew what to expect – and often it wasn’t good news.
But in 1969, what can only be described as a miracle happened.
The Mets were losers no more.
As the world’s attention was focused on men walking on the moon and turmoil in Southeast Asia, the Mets quietly got better.
The team began to win and the word of their victories began to spread.
As more fans began to show up at Shea and optimism about their chances of winning was growing, the Mets captured the hearts of the city when they won the pennant.
“Amazin’ Amazin’ Amazin’ Amazin’,” Stengel — by then the former Mets skipper – waxed again.
Unbelievably, the team in the baseball basement just seven years before was now in a World Series.
With their ears glued to transistor radios, everyone in the city and across the country – from school kids to stockbrokers – was captivated by the “Miracle Mets.”
In a win that pushed a City right out of the graveyard and straight into baseball heaven, the Mets won the World Series.
For a short-lived moment the win gave the tumultuous world of 1969 a breather – a moment to rejoice.
After the Mets win, Stengel said of the team, “They come from behind by runnin’ out the ball and hittin’ it over the fences which the manager platoons them amazin’ly that he has an old team on the bench and a young team on the bench and they all came through for him.”
After all the team had been through, Stengel still wasn’t making sense.
But baseball in the Big Apple did.
In 1986, the Mets showed New York that miracles can happen again.
The team wound up with a winning record of 108-54 – the best in club history.
Again they found themselves in the World Series.
But after tying up the series against the Boston Red Sox and losing Game 5 in Boston, the stage was set for the Mets elimination as they returned home to Shea Stadium for Game 6.
The Red Sox led in the top of the 10th inning of the game.
But the Mets were able to come back and tie it up in the bottom half of the inning but with two outs against them, it looked like the rally had come to an end.
Then, the unbelievable happened again.
Outfielder Mookie Wilson hit a weak ground ball through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
“He probably took his eyes off the ball for a split second, to see where I was,” Wilson said of what has become known as one of baseball’s most legendary moments.
That split second was all it took.
The Buckner error allowed third baseman Ray Knight to score the winning run.
It gave the Mets a fighting chance in game 7 which the Mets won to take home a second World Series trophy.
For the fans, the Mets were amazin’ once again.
On Opening Day in 2002, in large block letters, the slogan “Always Believe” was visible on top of the Mets dugout.
The slogan seemed to sum up the hopes of fans and the Mets team with a vastly different look from 2001.
During the off-season, Mets General Manager Steve Phillips worked to acquire new sluggers including Roger Cedeño, Alomar, Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz and starting pitchers Pedro Astacio and Shawn Estes.
The team with new additions and previous fan favorites like Leiter, Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo and John Franco have some baseball experts predicting a winning season and fans hoping that history can repeat itself and saying “You Gotta Believe!”
— Liz Goff contributed to this story
The Mets Logo
The circular Mets logo, designed by sports cartoonist Ray Gatto and unveiled on November 16, 1961, has gone virtually unchanged throughout the history of the club. The shape of the insignia, with its orange stitching, represents a baseball, and the bridge in the foreground symbolizes that the Mets, in bringing back the National League to New York, represent all five boroughs. It’s not just a skyline in the background, but has special meaning. At the left is the church spire, symbolic of Brooklyn, the borough of churches. The second building from the left is the Williamsburg Savings Bank, the tallest building in Brooklyn. Next is the Woolworth Building. After a general skyline view of midtown comes the Empire State Building. At the far right is the United Nations Building.
The Bayside Man Who Keeps The Mets In Stitches
BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
When Mets team leader and relief pitcher John Franco sees Bayside resident Russ Gompers in the Shea Stadium clubhouse, he greets him with a simple, friendly, “Hey, Stitches.”
“Stitches” is the nickname that Gompers has been known by in the Mets organization since 1993, when his company – also named Stitches – began lettering the jerseys that the Amazin’ Mets players wear on the field. Gompers, who has lived in Flushing and Bayside for most of his life, told the Tribune, “I’ve been a Mets fan my entire life. This is like a dream come true for me.”
Gompers’ business opened in 1991 in Bayside, lettering jerseys for local high schools, little leagues and individuals. His life and business changed one fateful Saturday night in 1993, when Mets third baseman Howard Johnson injured himself and was placed on the disabled list. A minor league call-up was on his way to Queens, and needed a jersey made that night for a Sunday afternoon game.
Gompers said, “The company that was doing the jerseys for the Mets at the time couldn’t be reached, so a mutual friend suggested me to the Mets. I got this message on my machine while I was food shopping with my wife, and when I called the number, it was Shea Stadium. While I was on the phone, I heard Charlie Hough, the Mets equipment manager, in the background saying, ‘If you do this for me, you’ll get all of my business.’ So I called one of my stitchers, we made the jersey that night, and the Mets hired my company.”
Business boomed for Gompers after working for the Mets, and his store, clamoring for more space, had to move to Whitestone last year. In the meantime, Gompers has become a friend to the Mets, hanging out in the clubhouse with players and traveling with the team to Japan to start the 2000-2001 season. Gompers’ office is filled with Mets memorabilia, like autographs, bats, and champagne bottles from Mets playoff triumphs. Gompers said, “I’ve been in the clubhouse for games that they won when the music is blasting and everyone’s happy and for games that they blew when you can hear a pin drop and there are garbage cans and clocks flying everywhere.”
Gompers said the Mets are “great guys,” and is especially fond of Franco and utility infielder and outfielder Joe McEwing. He said, “That guy was told his whole life he would never make it. He has such a strong work ethic and is such a nice guy. He actually came down here once, and he calls me Russ. If every kid could follow his example, the world would be alright.”
Gompers explained that every jersey he letters takes about 20 minutes, and that the jerseys have to be provided. “We don’t sell jerseys,” he said. “We just stitch them.” The letters and numbers for each jersey are placed on the jersey with hot wax by Gompers’ nephew Eric Krause so the letters can stay in place long enough for stitchers Lily Lilman, Mary Lou Howard, and Cindy Singh to stitch them on. Gompers said, “We don’t do that taped on lettering stuff. Hand-stitching is what I do so it’s the highest quality.”
Every time a Mets player needs a jersey, Gompers said, he has to stitch seven of them – white, black and pinstriped home jerseys, black and gray away jerseys, and black home and away warm up jerseys. He also said that new jerseys have to be constantly made for players, especially pitchers. He said, “After three innings of pitching, a pitchers shirt could be soaked and he has to change. They need a lot of jerseys made.” This year, the Mets’ jerseys also came with a Sept. 11 patch that Gompers designed.
Gompers also provides new jerseys to players when old ones rip, and said, “The Mets are a class organization with uniforms. If a player has one rip, the jerseys are replaced. I fix the uniforms of visiting teams when they play the Mets, and I have seen pants with three or four mended rips. Not the Mets. New uniforms right away.”
Gompers has been hired to stitch shorts for professional boxers like George Foreman, jerseys for celebrities like Paul McCartney and Bill Clinton, and has been hired by Major League Baseball to letter World Series jerseys and shirts when the Series is in New York. Gompers said, “We do some stuff for the Yankees. When they’re in the World Series, we stitch their patches on and the patches of their opponents. Last year, we did the Yanks and the Diamondbacks. I personalized the shirts they wore under their jerseys.”
But while Gompers, a Flushing High School graduate, may stitch for the Yanks, he will never be caught rooting for them. “I hate the Yankees,” he said. “I am an official Yankee hater . . . I am also an official Roger Clemens hater. I hope when they play the Mets at Shea he gets up to bat and they throw at him because he deserves it.” He jokingly added that before stitching the World Series patch on Clemens’ jersey in 2001, “I spat on it.”
Fields Of Dreams: A Home At Shea And A Mets Ballpark For The Future
BY STEPHEN MCGUIRE
Where would the Mets field their first fly ball?
Answer — in the old Polo Grounds.
Once the home of the departed Giants, the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan had been abandoned since the team packed up and moved away.
The ballpark would come alive again – though temporarily – as the home of the New York Mets . . . until they could build a home of their own.
As the new Mets team battled through their first season (1962), their new home began to take shape in Flushing Meadows.
The Mets hoped the stadium would be ready for the 1963 season, but construction delays kept the Queens team in Manhattan until Opening Day 1964
Shea Stadium was named for William Shea, the attorney responsible for bringing National League Baseball back to New York City.
The stadium cost $28 million and took 29 months from it’s groundbreaking in October 1961 until its dedication on April 17, 1964 to build.
The new home of the Mets, was originally going to be called Flushing Meadow Park, but the name was changed when city officials started a movement to name it after Shea.
Containing 24 ramps and 21 escalators, Shea was the first stadium able to be converted from baseball to football and back by use of motor operated stands that moved on underground tracks.
Legend has it that when city officials scouted the location to build a ballpark, they went in winter when the LaGuardia Airport flight paths were different.
The planners never anticipated that the sounds of planes passing overhead would make Shea Stadium the noisiest park in all of Major League Baseball.
When the stadium was opened in 1964, it was “christened” with “Dodgers Holy Water,” from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and water from the Harlem River at the exact location where it passed the Polo Grounds.
Slated For Renovations
A “rapidly deteriorating” Shea Stadium is slated for a facelift to make it safe for fans, according to Mets officials and the Mayor.
“It’s something that the City has to address and repair and that’s what we’ll do” said Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
According to an article that appeared in the Daily News last month, a city engineering report showed that Shea is suffering from “crumbling and cracked concrete, sagging ceilings, overtaxed wiring, water leaks and rusting steel.”
The article cited a city report indicated that “immediate corrective action” is needed.
“Shea is a phenomenally well-used facility,” Bloomberg said. “We want to make it as safe and attractive as possible.”
A New Mets Home?
In 1998, Mets owner Fred Wilpon proposed a new Ebbets-Field styled stadium for the team – a stadium with a retractable roof and seating for 45,000 fans – 10,000 less than Shea.
In many ways the new stadium plans resembled those used for the recently constructed Safeco Field in Seattle Washington.
In April, a Tribune reporter took a tour of the 47,238 seat stadium on the West Coast — one of the largest and most expensive stadiums of a handful that has popped up around the country in recent years.
In 2001, Safeco Field drew three-and-a-half million spectators and is reputed to be the most expensive stadium ever built at a cost of $517 million
The first game was on July 15, 1999, and it is a publicly funded facility.
Safeco Field tour guide George Crory, a frequent visitor to Queens and familiar with the
borough’s sports facilities, said Safeco is a state-of–the-art facility.
“We have the best hot dogs in the world,” Crory added. “The secret is in the grilling.”
A retractable roof – similar to the one at Safeco – was one of the features planned for a new Mets stadium.
But all talks of a new home for the Amazins has been put on hold due to City budget constraints.
— Arlene Lewis contributed to this story