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Totally Amazing Following the '69 Mets helped the author survive in his new surroundings

May 31, 2004
May 31, 2004

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May 31, 2004

NBA Playoffs

Totally Amazing Following the '69 Mets helped the author survive in his new surroundings

I was in the backseat of our Chevy station wagon the first time
I saw my family's new home, a two-story, gray-shingle house in
the East New York section of Brooklyn, in April 1969. We
unpacked what we had in the car, and after the moving van
delivered the rest of the boxes, my father got back behind the
wheel and drove away, telling us that he would be back soon.
"He wants to get his bearings," my mother told us. At eight
years old I wasn't sure what bearings were or where my father
had to go to get them, but from the reassuring tone in my
mother's voice, I was sure that we would all be better off once
he returned with some. ¶ We had come to New York from
Annapolis, Md., where I could remember rolling down grassy
hills near our house and lying down in fields of tall weeds in
games of hide-and-seek. Compared with that, my new neighborhood
seemed like a different, frightening planet. Concrete was
everywhere. Even the small garden of hollyhocks and figs that
grew in front of our house, softening the property a bit, was
surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. Everything about my
little corner of New York seemed dangerous and unforgiving.
There would be no rolling around or lying down on this hard
ground. Fall here, I thought, and the scars could last forever.

This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue

For the first few weeks I passed most of my free time listening
to, watching or reading about Mets games. It was the first year I
had paid much attention to sports, and I quickly became a Mets
expert, knowing that when Tom Seaver was on the mound it was
almost an automatic win. Jerry Koosman was only slightly less
reliable, and that kid pitcher, Nolan Ryan, threw flames but was
so wild he'd probably never amount to anything. I was told that
the other team in town, the Yankees, used to be kings of New
York, but watching them then, floundering with players like
Horace Clarke and Jerry Kenney, I found it hard to imagine that
anyone could prefer them to the Mets. Believe it or not, I still
do.

Following the Mets from inside my house seemed much safer than
what was going on outside it. East New York was a rough place. It
wasn't unusual for one of the older kids in the neighborhood to
come walking down my block, Elton Street, with a welt over an eye
or a blood-soaked bandage, the result of some recent brawl. The
leader of the neighborhood kids was a teenager named Julio, who
was short enough that most of the other teens towered over him
and so slender that the white T-shirts he always wore seemed a
size too big. A black porkpie hat usually sat precariously on his
head, but somehow it never fell off, even when he was playing
basketball or baseball.

Despite his size, Julio had a way of intimidating every kid on
the block, including me. Because of my age he clearly didn't
think I was good for much of anything, but that changed when he
discovered my knowledge of sports in general and the Mets in
particular. Julio was the kind of sports fan who had strong
opinions but few facts to back them up, which was how I was
useful to him. He would argue with another kid that the Mets'
leftfielder, Cleon Jones, was the best outfielder in the National
League, and I would be there to point out that Jones was third in
the league in hitting, and what's more, he went 3 for 4, with a
double, against the Reds last night. "You see? You see? What did
I tell you?" Julio would say.

The Mets captured New York's attention that summer with a
dramatic pennant race, and I helped Julio and the other kids on
the block keep up with it. I was the one who always knew how many
games ahead the Cubs were or who was pitching for the Mets in
Saturday's doubleheader. By the time the Mets won the World
Series in October, I had a newfound respect on Elton Street. Kids
were coming over to play baseball in my yard, and Julio was
teaching me that I would hit with more power if I stopped holding
the bat cross-handed. Suddenly my new environment seemed much
more welcoming. As my father obviously knew, New York isn't
nearly so threatening once you have your bearings.

Phil Taylor is a senior writer for SI.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO