After each of the four massive nor’easters that struck the city this March, I kept saying to myself, “Baseball season will be here before you know it!”
And finally, it’s here!
The Big Apple is ripe with optimism for this baseball season, as both the New York Mets and New York Yankees turn over the reins to first-year managers: Mickey Callaway for the Amazin’ Mets and Aaron Boone for the Bronx Bombers.
To ring in the season, I caught up with a couple of Father Sweeneys for their takes on their respective favorite teams.
Father Bill Sweeney, pastor of St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor, has been a Mets fan since the beginning. Growing up in Astoria, he remembers going to the Polo Grounds in Manhattan during the team’s inaugural season of 1962 and recalls his first-ever game at Shea Stadium on April 17, 1964, as he sat in the upper deck watching Willie Stargell hit a home run as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Mets, 4-3.
Meanwhile, Father Kevin Sweeney, pastor of St. Michael’s parish, Sunset Park, wore No. 14 and played right field for the St. Luke’s, Whitestone, CYO baseball team in the late 1970s – emulating Yankees right fielder Lou Piniella and thus cementing his fandom of the pinstripe empire.
Both pastors have great memories of following their team. By using Borden’s coupons, Father Bill attended 40 Mets games the summer before enrolling at Cathedral Prep, which also happened to be the Mets’ World Series championship year of 1969.
In 1986, he went to a number of playoff and World Series games. However, he was not present at one of the defining moments in Mets history – and it’s probably for the better.
“I gave my sister Game 6 of the World Series, and she went,” Father Bill said of the game in which Mookie Wilson’s ground ball trickled through the legs of Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner to cap off an improbable come-from-behind win. “And thank God because I think I would have had a heart attack!”
Father Bill’s favorite Mets moment was being at Game 5 of the 1999 National League Championship Series, in which Robin Ventura’s famous “grand slam single” gave the Mets the win. He also served as the Mets’ team chaplain for three years right after Citi Field opened.
In 1992, Father Bill lived out the ultimate Mets fan’s dream by attending the team’s fantasy camp with former players. His manager was Clint Hurdle, and his pitching coach was Bob Apodaca. Other former Mets in attendance included Duffy Dyer, Don Zimmer, Bud Harrelson, Jim McAndrew, Tug McGraw and Joe Pignatano.
For Father Kevin, the Yankees teams of the ’70s – featuring Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles – hold a special place. The architect of those teams was none other than George Steinbrenner.
“George Steinbrenner was like most great artists: He was misunderstood,” Father Kevin said. “But I don’t think you could have asked for a better owner.”
Father Kevin became a big Don Mattingly fan in the ’80s and was especially fond of the “Core Four” – Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada – of the ’90s and early 2000s.
“For a Yankees fan, 1996 was as special as it gets because they were back where they’re supposed to be,” said Father Kevin of the start of the Yankees’ dynasty.
Heading into this season, the Mets were one of the most active teams in baseball, adding the likes of All-Stars Jay Bruce, Adrián González, Todd Frazier and Jason Vargas. The Yankees though made the splash of the offseason, acquiring Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59 home runs for the Miami Marlins last year.
Stanton and Aaron Judge – who clubbed a rookie-record 52 home runs for the Yanks last season – are only the second pair of teammates to have each hit at least 50 homers the previous season, with the other pair being Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in 1962.
The Yankees are also the first team to lead the league in home runs and then acquire that season’s individual home run champion since the team purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1919. Maybe you’ve heard of him?
As good as the Yankees lineup looks on paper, the players actually have to go out there and perform. Father Kevin said the key to this season will be how the team’s starting pitching holds up.
“In terms of expectations, they’re what a lot of Yankee fans are used to,” he said. “Anything other than a World Series championship is a disappointment. This year, there’s even more reason to be optimistic as a Yankee fan.”
For the Mets, 2017 was a downright disaster given all the injuries the team suffered. The keys this year will be the health of slugging outfielders Yoenis Céspedes and Michael Conforto and of course whether the starting pitchers – led by Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey – can reach their full potential.
“We Mets fans are so looking forward because after 2015 and 2016 (playoff years), last year was such a downer,” Father Bill said. “It all comes down to if they stay healthy.”
It may be a bit too early to predict another Subway Series World Series like we had in the year 2000.
But with prayers from their respective Father Sweeney, the Mets and Yankees are poised for success in 2018.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.