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.
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.