by William S. Willet
In my dreams, I can still hear the crack of the bat. The noise of that sweet, natural, majestic swing that connected with that imperfect pitch still resonates through my mind. The ball disappeared into the left field bleachers and an avalanche of humanity converged where it landed.
I swear to God that Shea Stadium was going to come down that night. Anyone who has been there during a big moment knows what I mean. I’m not sure how the old girl remained standing.
Valentin nearly forgot to bring his run home as he stood somewhere between third and home, stunned. Endy was doing his best Wally Backman home run hop, stopping just in time to make sure he didn’t pass Valentin. Hernandez had to go back to touch second because he skipped right over it. And Carlos…Carlos. Shea Stadium didn’t collapse that night, but the entire Mets team collapsed on him. It took them three days to dig him out of that pile at home plate. Talk about clutch.
No one has ever hit an NLCS clinching walk-off grand-slam in Major League Baseball history. Nobody. Not even that night. Sadly, Beltran never moved his bat and struck out with the lumber resting on his shoulder. However, I still hear the crack of the bat in my dreams.
My name is Bill S. Willet. I was born to Montgomery W. Willet and Bobbie (short for Roberta) Antonelli on September 24, 1957 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Dad was a Brooklyn Dodger fan and he lived and breathed that team. He always tells me stories of the 1955 World Championship team (Dem Bums!). He played high school baseball with the hopes of one day pitching from the mound at Ebbets Field. He pitched a couple of innings somewhere in the Dodgers minor league system. He came back to Brooklyn where he met a nice Italian girl, Bobbie, in 1954.
It wouldn’t be until their second date, when he was well on his way to being smitten, that the awful, horrifying truth was revealed. Mom told dad that it had only been about three years that people called her Bobbie. She grew up as Roberta, but after Thompson’s “Shot heard around the world”, her dad started calling her Bobbie. The nickname stuck. Dad, until this day, cannot talk about that game without getting himself worked up. When we were kids, if we wanted to distract dad from something we shouldn’t have been doing, we would bring up Branca. He would work himself up so much that he’d have to go walk it off. He’d be gone for hours, sometimes. To find out the girl he found himself quickly falling for was nicknamed after the greatest villain he had ever known was too much for my dad to handle. He spoke not another word until they got to her house, where he politely wished her a “Good Evening” and walked away. It would be two more weeks before dad could overcome the despicable news and ask mom out for a third date. She, of course, accepted. Dad never called her Bobbie again. He is the only one I have ever heard refer to her by her “God-given name”.
Mom loved the Giants. She talked about them almost as much as my father speaks of the Dodgers. Getting both sides of the rivalry was fascinating to me, especially the Bobby Thompson game. When the Giants moved out west, she continued to follow them, as much as she could, but never really felt the joy for them that she once did. Her face would glow as she recounted old stories or sang one of those corny songs they use to sing about the Giants.
Dad was devastated by the Dodgers move to Los Angeles. In the weeks leading up to final game, he wore a black band around his sleeve. He had tickets to the final game at Ebbets Field. He felt it was important to go and say goodbye. The morning of that last game, however, mom went into labor. Family legend (perhaps myth) has it that I took my first breath, just as Gil Hodges secured the throw from Don Zimmer to end the Dodgers stay in Brooklyn.
Despite the huge loss he must have felt that day, dad always gets his priorities straight. “It was the best day of my life,” dad would always tell me.
They would take me home for the first time the day the Giants played their last home game in the Polo Grounds.
Being born into that moment, into a new family that just lost one of it’s beloved teams and would see the other play it’s last game a few days later, seemed to thrust me into a void in my parents life and fused me to an acute moment in the history of the game. From within that void, I would discover the remnents of what was there and from that moment, I would see the game and it’s history differently.
I love baseball history, from Elysian Field to Citi Field, from John McGraw to Jackie Robinson. From the 1899 Cleveland Spiders to the 2001 Seattle Mariners. So, that element will come to play here. I love the irony and cruelty of the Baltimore Orioles moving to New York and eventually becoming the Yankees. I get goose bumps whenever I hear “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” and hear stories about Johnny Podres and the 1955 Dodgers. I feel saddness when I think of Roberto Clemente and Herman Munson.
My life and baseball became intertwined and I don’t think I’d be able to escape it, even if I wanted to. It seemed that I was born the child of New York National League baseball. Although it would be another four and half years before they would play their first game, I was, almost literally, born a New York Met. My parents would unite behind the new Mets and I would eventually grow to love them as much as my parents loved the Dodgers and Giants.
I am an eternal optimist (“hope springs eternal”) and I go into every game believing the Mets will win. Even when they are down by 11 runs with two outs in the ninth, my heart still believes they can win. If they are 18 games out of first and there are still 19 to play, I believe they have a chance. And when they fail, which is more often than not, I occasionally am left pondering what might have been. The sad optimist in me cannot help by rewrite history in the Mets favor.
I am, strangely, a realist, also, and whenever I think of Beltran, I still see him standing at home plate with the bat on his shoulder. However, I hope the last enduring moment I have of him will be of a bottle of champagne being poured on his head. That, to me, is what baseball is about. Not really the champagne or rings, but the enduring hope and the opportunities for optimism it brings, even from its darkest moments.