When people ask me how I turned out to be a Mets fan when the rest of my immediate family roots for the Yankees, I respond that I saw my first major league game at Shea Stadium, on May 18, 1989, to be precise.
What I remember most about that night is Darryl Strawberry's home run, the first time I saw the classic home run apple rise up out of a its top hat, which my family and I were watching from the third base side of the Mezzanine.
I certainly don’t remember everything about the game, but the box score tells me a few other things that undoubtedly helped me become a Mets fan. Dwight Gooden was the Mets’ starting pitcher and threw eight innings that night, and Kevin McReynolds and Dave Magadan each hit a home run, too. I would only turn five years old later that summer, and I’m thrilled that I can remember any of that first game. Clearly, I’ve got no recollection of the 1986 Mets.
The Mike Piazza Mets marked the first time that my fully developed memory and a successful Mets team crossed paths. There was plenty of fun to be had in watching that version of the Mets, from Sports Illustrated’s "The Best Infield Ever?" to Bobby Valentine’s disguised return to the dugout, I’ve got plenty of memories of that incarnation of the Mets.
The thing about Piazza, though, is that I probably took him for granted at the time. He's still up there as one of my favorite Mets because, well, how could he not be? But when Piazza’s days as a Met came to an end, I didn’t feel the same way that I feel today about Carlos Beltran’s departure.
Perhaps it was the timing. Beltran signed with the Mets prior to the 2005 season, of course, and the following year I would graduate from college, get a real job, and make it out to more Mets games than I ever had before. Beltran’s underwhelming debut season was behind him, and he was in the process of having his career year as I was getting the opportunity to see more live major league baseball than I could imagine.
If I wasn’t at the game – and since the 2006 season I’ve been at a ton of them – I was watching on television if it at all possible. The best part of watching Beltran was that there were different things you could enjoy whether you were at the stadium or sitting on the couch.
The view from the upper deck of Shea Stadium made it very easy to appreciate Carlos the center fielder. He made fly balls that most others at his position couldn't catch look routine. If one of his catches made the highlight reel, you knew it was a truly outstanding play.
On the couch, the center field camera perfectly captured Beltran’s beautiful swing. Though he produced very well from both sides of the plate, it was his left-handed swing that always stood out to me as the best one I’d ever seen. It all added up to make Beltran my favorite Met, his white pinstriped jersey the only authentic Mets uniform I've ever owned.
When Mets fans harped on the way that the 2006 NLCS ended and later started blaming Beltran for the team’s woes in general, I developed a quick and easy test to determine whether or not I’d want to continue a conversation with a Mets fan: Did they like Beltran or not? Those who didn’t either didn’t pay attention to what was going on with the Mets, or they had no idea how the game of baseball worked. If someone said he stunk or called him soft, they weren’t the kind of Mets fan I’d want to associate with. I just couldn’t wrap my head around how someone could ever come to those conclusions. The haters never took away anything from my enjoyment of watching the guy play, though.
The Mets may not have achieved the highest level of success during the time that Beltran was on the team, but it’s not all doom and gloom. We Mets fans got to watch one of the team’s greatest players in history play for the better part of seven seasons, thriving in a very difficult game while making it all look incredibly easy. There aren’t any championships on which to hang our hats, but there aren’t very many fans who get to watch players like Beltran on a regular basis.
Strawberry turned me into a Mets fan, Piazza and company showed me that the Mets were actually capable of winning, and Beltran made the last several, sometimes challenging, years incredibly enjoyable.
"For the loser now will be later to win." - Bob Dylan.