Baseball Confession Number One
A Baseball Confession
I have a baseball confession to make–three, actually. They are specifically about team allegiances, and I will spread them out over three separate posts. My confessions speak to our rabid following of our favorite teams and to what we should be teaching the next generation about the teams we follow so fervently.
I am an unabashed St. Louis Cardinals fan. That’s not a baseball confession, just a starting point. For almost three decades now, the “birds on bat” have been my favorite. But, I must confess (and here comes baseball confession number one)…
Baseball Confession Number One: I haven’t always been a Cardinals’ fan.
I Was a Mets Fan
I was a Mets fan from 1976-1989. When I say I was a Mets fan, I was a Mets fan all the way.
- Cap? Sure.
- Shirt? Several.
- Mini-bat? Had one.
- Autographs? Quite a few.
- Poster? Yep.
- Annual pilgrimage to Shea Stadium? Uh, no, I was just a kid from Star, Mississippi.
People who know me now find it beyond peculiar that I was a Mets fan and am now such an avid follower of all things Cardinal Nation. Especially when I tell them that I switched allegiances in 1989 at the time when the two teams were heated rivals.
Then, I tell them the reason, and it all falls into place.
There’s a New Team in Town
In 1976, the New York Mets placed their Double-A franchise in brand-new Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi. I was 10 years old, loved baseball, and had never been to a big league game. My grandmother had told me about the major league games she had attended and always brought me a game program (which I devoured). Granny told me about the stadiums that the big clubs played in, like the then-brand new Astrodome. I was fascinated.
Granny went with us to the exhibition opener. The new local nine , the Jackson Mets, took on the parent club New York Mets. A big league team right here in Mississippi! My team to that point in life had been the Cincinnati Reds of Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench (and I could name all the other starters and some of the reserves, too). As the New York Mets took the field that day, their left fielder was none other than George Foster, who had joined the Mets that season from the Big Red Machine. Magical, that’s what it was to a 10-year-old boy.
Jackson Mets Fan First
I didn’t switch big league allegiances quickly. However, when the New York Mets’ roster began to be peppered with former Jackson Mets, I had a new team. I eagerly followed the careers of Lee Mazzilli, Lenny Dykstra, Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, and others who made it to The Show. Ah, but the highlight of my brief foray into Mets fandom was when this highly touted 21-year-old can’t-miss prospect showed up in Jackson:
Even the name suggested greatness. Strawberry was a fan favorite from the beginning of his time in Jackson. Not only was he a talented slugger, he would regularly sign autographs and chat it up with the fans. Just a really nice guy. Every time he stepped to the plate, the fans would move to the edge of their seats and a hush would settle over the brightly lit Lakeland Drive park. Would Darryl hit another of his moon shots?
The answer to that question was no, not while I was there. My brother Andy and I must have gone to more than 20 games over the course of the summer. With free tickets for fill-ups of $10 or more on Ecol nights, consolation prizes (more free tickets) for correct guesses on the nightly sports quiz, and various other free-ticket promotions, we rarely paid admission. But we also couldn’t seem to pick a night when Darryl hit one out of the park. Once, I had underestimated the concession stand line and rushed back with my hot dog…just in time to see Darryl cross the plate. Missed it!
Mississippi Boy Visits New York
I finally saw Darryl Strawberry hit a home run in Jackson late that summer. I was a Mets fan (even of the New York variety) by the time he made The Show the next summer. Strawberry was a key figure on the ’86 World Series champion Mets team just a few years after his time in Jackson. He went on to become a star–albeit a troubled one–for the Mets, Dodgers, Giants (very briefly), and the Yankees. Even with all his off-field struggles, I couldn’t help but pull for the guy.
I happened to be in New York a little over a decade later, taking a tour of Yankee stadium. The Yankees were out of town that day, and my two friends and I (the only ones on the tour) were able to dig deep into our guide’s vast fountain of knowledge of all things Yankee. He told us who the truly good guys of the game were. (When we asked about opposing players, he immediately said, “Cal” with an obviously deep appreciation for Cal Ripken, Jr.)
As we toured the dugout and eventually the clubhouse where the Yankees has celebrated a World Series title the previous fall, my gaze settled on a tall, athletic-looking man sitting in front of one of the lockers in the corner of the room. Darryl Strawberry. He was with the Yankees’ organization then and was not on the road with the team due to an upcoming surgery.
With no expectations, I asked our tour guide if we would meet Darryl. In his thick Bronx accent, he said he wasn’t supposed to do that. I said fine, just thought I’d ask since I had watched him play on his way up for the Jackson Mets. Our tour guide tilted his head to the side, looked over at Strawberry, and shouted across the room, “Hey, Da-ryll, this guy says he used ta watch you knock ‘em outta the pahk in Jackson!”
Darryl Strawberry stood up, all 6’6″ of him, walked across the room, shook my hand and said, “Oh, yeah? Jackson, Mississippi?” He shook my friends’ hands, told them hello, and then we moved on. With all the troubles that had haunted him through the years, I found Darryl Strawberry to be as personable and nice a fella as he was when he was 21 and still on his way up.
As we exited the clubhouse, the tour guide stopped and turned to face us. “Now, guys, I wouldn’t ‘a done that with just anybody. But Da-ryll, he knows ah names.”
Priceless. His baseball days are over, but I still root for the guy.
I read it a few years ago–very sad story about superb baseball talent and what could have been. Still an absolutely fascinating read.
One More Time for Old Times’ Sake
Back across town, I was a Mets fan one more time that night in New York–Mets cap and all–as the Mets defeated the Braves, 1-0. I saw in the concourse the photos of the ’86 World Series team that was the highlight of my decade as a Mets fan. Photos of Dykstra and Backman and Wilson and Jesse Orosco, arms raised in triumph. And Darryl.
Shortly after that World Series, the Mets began to build their team more through free agency and less through farm league talent. The Mets eventually moved their Double-A team somewhere else, and minor league ball in Jackson would come to an end for a while until the Mississippi Braves moved to Pearl, just down the road. It wasn’t long before I had no more connections to the Mets, and I was ripe for a new team.
I took a trip to St. Louis in 1989 with my friend and coaching mentor. Though the Cardinals wouldn’t have a winning team again until 1996, I was smitten. Best fans in baseball. No turning back now. It’s the teams my boys have grown up following because their dad does. But every once in a while, I’ll tell them about a magical 13-year span when I was a Mets fan.
Okay, one baseball confession out of the way and two to go. And speaking of go…
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About Al Ainsworth
Al Ainsworth is a values storyteller. He works with individuals, businesses, churches, and other organizations to pass along their values through the stories they tell…and re-tell. Al is the author of Lines in the Gravel (and 52 Other Re-Told Childhood Tales), Stories from the Roller Coaster (of a Faith Life), and Coach Dave: Season One. Subscribe to his email list for more values storying.