What's the frequency, Mookie?
With the release last week of the time-travel thriller "Frequency," nonbaseball fans in movie theaters around the country will be getting a little taste of the New York Mets' magic that has kept the team's fans enthralled (and opposing camps exasperated) over the years.
A prime example is the routine ground ball hit by the aforementioned Met outfielder Mookie Wilson in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. It skipped through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, a slow-roller that simultaneously sank all of New England's hopes for a title and, just as poetically, set up the charmed Mets for yet another fairy-tale finish.
The mind-boggling "Frequency" stars Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel as a father and son who magically reconnect through the time-space continuum by talking on a ham radio that somehow bridges 30 years. Along the way, they change the course of their family history and prevent a series of murders, thanks in no small part to their mutual love of the 1969 Mets. Key plays from the '69 World Series--including the famous "shoe polish incident"--are pivotal plot links in the film.
Of course it's the Mets. Who else could it be? It's no secret that baseball has a certain je ne say hey that Hollywood strives to appropriate whenever possible. But more specifically, when it comes to movie and TV references to the major leagues, the '69 Mets are the team to use when you're trying to invoke a sense of wonderment. Organizations like the Cubs and Indians are long-standing punch lines--just check out "Rookie of the Year" and the "Major League" movies.
Blessed by the baseball gods, and certainly bolstered by a cadre of New York-born writers and executives, many of whom came of age during the miraculous summer of '69, the Mets seem destined to live on in the annals of popular entertainment. Or to steal a line of dialogue from "Frequency" about a colorful outfielder on the '69 club: "I will love Ron Swoboda till the day I die."
The Yankees are lordly and imperious, occasionally crossing over to evil: Think "Pride of the Yankees," "Damn Yankees," the Vader-esque back of George Steinbrenner's head on "Seinfeld." (Oddly, the Dodgers, the alleged pride of Hollywood, don't factor nearly as much on the big screen, though stars like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale made appearances on '60s sitcoms.) Only the Mets are Amazin'.
"Frequency" is just the latest in a line of high-profile entertainments to take narrative advantage of the cultural impact this relatively young punk of a franchise has had. Movies as diverse as "Bad Lieutenant" and "City Slickers" worship at the altar of Shea Stadium, along with entire episodes of "Seinfeld" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."
"The Mets are definitely one of the more popular teams" as far as depiction in mass media, confirms Cindy McManus of Major League Baseball Properties, an arm of Major League Baseball, which must clear any usage or mention of their product in TV and film. Not wishing to downplay the 29 other major league clubs, McManus points out that "a lot of productions are set in New York."
But just being in the right place at the right time is typical of the Mets' mystique. In 1973, relief pitcher Tug McGraw's rallying cry of "Ya Gotta Believe" told the tale of a team that clawed its way into the World Series with the worst won-loss record ever to qualify. The '69 club made history by winning a championship just seven seasons, most of them laughable, after coming into existence.
They did so with talented players, yes, but also with a mixture of unlikely heroes and million-to-one occurrences, such as star outfielder Cleon Jones' famous hit-by-pitch incident. Jones was awarded first base in a key rally only after the umpire spotted his shoe polish on the baseball.
Finding His Miracle in the 1969 Mets' Win
The residual good karma doesn't end there. Even though it seems likely that the exploits of the 1969 team would have helped inspire the creation of the fantastical plot line of "Frequency," they were not always penciled into the lineup.
"I sort of stumbled into [using] the Mets," explained "Frequency" screenwriter Toby Emmerich, naturally a native New Yorker. Because Caviezel's present-day character was supposed to be about 6 years old at the time of his father's death, the writer was looking for a watershed event that father and son could bond over in the late '60s. Even though Emmerich's primary baseball touchstones were the Ken Burns documentary and the scene from "Field of Dreams" when Kevin Costner gets to play catch with the young man who was to become his father, the Mets were not to be denied.
"What makes [the story of 'Frequency'] special is, it's 'The Miracle Mets,' " he said. "They're a team associated with magic and miracles and amazing events and this is a movie about a truly amazing event. I was just trying to sprinkle some of that stardust that people kind of associate with this miracle of the '69 Mets, with this miracle of this father and son being able to talk across time."
For an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond," the '69 Mets appeared en masse, showing one of the few ways that Raymond, brother Robert (whose dog is named Shamsky, after Art, a minor slugger from the team) and their father could truly bond. A New Yorker who was originally a Yankee fan, Ray Romano was unable to dodge becoming a Met fan too.
"No one expected anything from them, and they came through," he says. The comedian remembers attending the 1969 pennant-clincher as a 12-year-old, and years later, when a delivery job for UPS took him to the home of Met first baseman Ed Kranepool, as he describes it, "that was big."
So big even that his 7-year-old twins are "probably aware of only three teams," Romano notes: the Cardinals, "because that's the name of their Little League team"; the hometown Dodgers; and, of course, the Mets. "Fathers are lucky to have baseball, even the undemonstrative ones," says Romano. "It's a great father-child event."
Even in Abel Ferrara's NC-17 "Bad Lieutenant," the only time the amoral title character, played by Harvey Keitel, isn't yelling at his sons, he's listening to Mets talk on sports radio with them. And it bears noting that Keitel's free fall into depravity is underscored by his stubborn refusal to stop betting against the hometown team.