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Sunday Journal: New York Mets deliver the best birthday present ever

New York Mets catcher Jerry Grote picks up pitcher Jerry Koosman as third baseman Ed Charles gets ready to join the celebration after the final out of the 1969 World Series. 

Times files (1969)

New York Mets catcher Jerry Grote picks up pitcher Jerry Koosman as third baseman Ed Charles gets ready to join the celebration after the final out of the 1969 World Series. 

Depending how you feel about baseball, having a birthday during postseason play is a blessing or a curse. My birthday, today, has brought years when my cake had to wait for the end of an inning. I've unwrapped gifts during league championship play for most of my life.

My 12th birthday in 1969 gave me the best present a kid living in Queens, N.Y., could have hoped for. That was the year the New York Mets, an expansion team a few years younger than me, took the World Series from the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles. Joe Namath and the Jets may have won the Super Bowl earlier that year, but our house revolved around baseball. It was the World Series that mattered.

The Orioles were formidable. Their anchor, Brooks Robinson, played third better than anyone. They had Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell and Frank Robinson. We had Art Shamsky. The Orioles couldn't lose, said the sportswriters and the grownup world.

I lived near Flushing, home of the Mets' Shea Stadium, and was in sixth grade at St. Bartholomew, a Catholic school with uniforms in a maroon plaid so ugly that every clan in Scotland had rejected it. Our beanies, berets, blazers, oxfords and knee socks were maroon, of course.

Dominican Sisters ran the school. School days were organized around prayer and fundamental learning — no monkeyshines allowed. There was homework every night. "O, Jerusalem!" was the strongest language we heard in school, and that came from the aged Sister Genevieve who taught fifth grade. The political turmoil of the 1960s was far from our little pocket of neighborhood Catholicism.

Into this structured world came the winning season of the '69 Amazin' Mets, our boys in blue and orange, our champions no matter what the scoreboard read or what the grownups had been saying about them since their franchise opener in 1962. Older folks missed the Giants and Dodgers, but those were California teams to us kids. This new team was ours and we loved them because they played in our borough.

The Mets began racking up wins with a young pitching staff that included my favorite player, Tom Seaver. In September, another school year of maroon uniforms and sentence diagrams began at St. Bart's, but with two differences. The Mets' surge and Sister Lorraine came into our lives.

She arrived just as the Dominicans were trading long black habits that exposed only a frowning face for shorter white dresses with a small veil. (They had legs under those stiff black skirts — who knew?) Sister Lorraine was the youngest of the Dominican Sisters and she not only had legs — she had athletic legs. She loved sports and played catch on the sidewalk. Best of all, she loved the Mets as if she were a kid. Sister Lorraine was one of us.

Classes began and the team was on a streak. Then the impossible happened: The Mets won the East in the National League with a record of 100-62. They may have been amazin', but they were also for real.

The Mets took the National League championship in three straight against the Atlanta Braves and our team was in the World Series. What would happen to Seaver and our guys against the Orioles? Would slipping in a prayer for the Mets at Mass be considered a venial sin?

The series opened in Baltimore six days before my birthday. The Orioles took that game and then another miracle occurred: The Mets pulled off a 2-1 win in Game 2 and play shifted to Flushing.

My great-uncle, a respected sportswriter and TV commentator in pre-Castro Cuba, arrived for a visit because he was covering the series for his daily paper in Puerto Rico. He didn't smoke, but he brought matchbooks from the press box in Baltimore. Each had a photo of an Oriole; Brooks Robinson stared at me in all his might.

The Mets rolled on and took Games 3 and 4. One more win and they would have the championship. On Oct. 16, the eve of my birthday, Sister Lorraine reminded us that a win would make our Mets baseball royalty. Then she said a curious thing that made all 52 girls in the class finally sit up straight:

"If the Mets win tonight, you won't have to do your homework."

We looked around as if we'd heard the school cafeteria was going to start serving martinis. What did she say — no homework? was whispered to make sure we hadn't imagined it. It all hinged on a Mets win. I was a believer, but I took my books home just in case.

Our prayers were answered when an Orioles' double error helped the Mets win their first World Series title. That was the only night in my days at St. Bart's that I didn't crack a textbook on a school night. Even the parades and the hoopla paled next to it.

We left New York four years later, but the Mets are still my National League choice on All-Star ballots. I'm now a Tampa Bay Rays fan for the same reasons I was a Mets fan: They're our hometown guys, our expansion team. The franchise is a little younger than my twins are, just as the Mets were about my age when they won. My Mets are their Rays.

Even though my Rays ended their postseason run last week, I'll remember that birthday in 1969 when miracles happened — on the field, and in the classroom.

Maggie Hall lives and writes in Dunedin.

Sunday Journal: New York Mets deliver the best birthday present ever 10/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 16, 2010 5:31am]
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