Lightning struck, and he was given the Yankees. I could be the greatest man in baseball if they gave me the Yanks. You could be, too. So could Stengel—and he was, for 10 glorious years. He was glorified. St. Thomas Aquinas once suggested that beauty exists in the eye of the beholder. Nowhere is this more true than in baseball. Running the Yanks was as tough as running a crooked slot machine.
When Casey was canned by the noble Bronx organization he had his chance to get lost, become enshrined in the hearts of his countrymen and get a little berth in Cooperstown's Hall of Fame, which is about as phony as Casey's rep. But no. The contagion had hit the great man. Because the fans kept yelling, Mr. Stengel got enraptured.
Then baseball's Establishment gave him a slot machine with the wrong kind of odds going for it, the Mets. For two years the fans were grateful that the town was once more in the league, that New York again had National League ball after Squire Stoneham's flight from the Polo Grounds. The world's greatest manager overnight became the world's worst manager.
There are strong signs the honeymoon is over. A segment of the disc jockey corps (those formidable opinion makers) has turned on the Honorable Casey. The boys began their defection just as Casey's hair turned from silver to a darling russet brown. (Making him look like Dorian Gray's uncle, says the Herald Trib's Hal Rosenthal.) Casey dyed his locks, it is said, at the suggestion of the imagemakers, the better to talk commercials. The jocks turned on Casey although he's a colleague of sorts.
Why is so much of the town on the old man's back? Why do the bars and delicatessens resound with his dispraise? What can have happened? Casey is no better or worse than he ever was. Maybe a bit more ill-tempered, a bit more vain. This is to be understood. A man's characteristics either disappear or coagulate in his 70s.
I think perhaps the Polo Grounds, or rather its absence, may be at the bottom of the change. The old field is now going back to dust. It was in the most dangerous part of the city. The white man went there at night at his peril. The place suited the Met fan. The team at present plays in a resplendent hippodrome next to the resplendent World's Fair. The cellar leaders have been placed in an ambience of respectability, whether they like it or not. The losers who were so at home in the dark Harlem purlieus seem ill at ease in the Flushing sunlight. The lads with clean shirts are making inroads. Where it will all end, who knows? One thing is sure. Respectability has tarnished the magnificently bad qualities of the Mets.
If everything were pour le sport in baseball, there would be no tale to tell here. But the name of the game is loot. The real pennant race is the gate contest between the Mets and Yanks. I need hardly tell you that baseball—which the Yanks play good, and the Mets lousy—has nothing to do with the gate in this case, although the visits of the Giants and Dodgers to Shea have engorged the cash register, and will continue to. No, it's Stengel vs. Berra. And that new thing, the cult of the loser.
I would not like to be in Mr. Berra's shoes. If he wins the pennant and Series, he proves nothing, unless he turns out to be a show biz whiz of transcendent value—which ain't happened yet. If he comes in second with the best team in the business, he's a bum.
Despite the semipublic mutterings, Brother Stengel seems quite secure. The only thing that can affect his solid status would be an uprising in the ranks. The boys might decide to win a couple of games. The Mets could end up ninth in the standings instead of 10th, and this would be murder.
The Mets need to remain superlatively bad if they are to hold the affections of the rabble of bushers who identify with their misfortunes. Nothing less than last will do for the true Metnik. Should the team escalate to mediocrity (as the State Department might put it), they would be dead. A freak must remain unique, or what's the point? The second tallest midget in the world?