The funny thing? Michael Yalango wasn’t even all that much of a Mets fan. He’d grown up with the Brooklyn Dodgers as a kid on Staten Island, but that ride had ended 12 years earlier when they pulled up stakes and moved to California.
“They moved away,” Yalango says, “and I lost interest.”
By 1969, most of his sporting passions were wrapped around the Rangers — whose games he’d listen to on the radio with his father, Ward Wilson, and Bert Lee and Jim Gordon delivering the descriptions from the Old Garden and all across the NHL. Later, when he returned home, it was the Rangers in whom he’d invest most of his sporting soul.
But that year in Vietnam — June of ’69 through June 1970 — his parents would regularly send him his hometown paper, the Staten Island Advance, and though the news was a couple of weeks old by the time it reached him in-country, he could easily spot what the big story back home was.
And by Oct. 16, 1969, he wanted his own thin slice of that story, even from 10,000 miles away.
Yalango was stationed with the 47th Scout Dog Infantry Platoon, which was attached to the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade. He was stationed at Landing Zone Sally, not far from the notorious Hamburger Hill in South Vietnam’s northern region, near Hue. There were 25 or so other scout dog handlers, and they’d regularly have to pull guard duty in their bunker.
Like most every other soldier, Yalango was a regular listener of Armed Forces Radio — which had made Adrian Cronauer a star a few years earlier as he crowed, “Good morning, Vietnam!” at the fighting men in between spinning Motown, Doors and Stones records. Yalango followed the progress of the World Series between the Mets and Orioles, knew the Mets had a shot to wrap it up in Game 5.
So he hatched an idea.
“We’d all take turns,” Yalango recalls. “And I knew the game would be played at night, when most guys wanted to sleep. So I switched with two of my friends for the time when I knew the game would be played. They were more than happy to do it.”
The fog of time and distance has removed their names from Yalango’s memory, but one thing remains crystal clear, nearly 50 years later, deep in the recesses of his memory: sitting in the bunker, a primitive bud in one ear attached to a transistor radio, the voices of Bill O’Donnell and Jim Simpson live from Shea Stadium, delivering the greatest care package a soldier could ask for.
“A slice of home,” Yalango says. “It brought me a few moments of joy in a very sad place.”
Sarge was Michael’s partner, and his best friend. A few years before his arrival to Landing Zone Sally, Sarge had barked at a few inopportune moments during his own basic training — there are few things more useless to a scout platoon than a dog who can’t stay quiet in the jungle. Someone decided to cut Sarge’s vocal cords. You could understand if Sarge would have trust issues from there.
But Sarge and Michael became quick confidantes. The kid from Staten Island and the tan German shepherd with black markings developed a remarkable rapport, essential on scout missions when man and dog need to be so fine-tuned that they can communicate silently. Sarge could sense trip wires in the foliage, and would also alert to the enemy sitting in ambush, waiting. Michael rewarded him with positive reinforcement and with Gainesburgers for dinner, even though meal times were difficult for Sarge because he couldn’t swallow properly.
Sarge earned his stripes early on, waking Michael one night, his ears perked, his paw raised. At first, the patrol leader assumed an enemy platoon was nearing, but Sarge insisted to Michael, in a way only the two of them could understand, that it was something else. He believed the platoon in question were friendlies. He argued against calling in artillery.The patrol leader was dumbfounded. He would trust his men’s lives to a dog?
Sarge, of course, was right. He had sensed an American unit, lost at night in the jungle, and somehow he’d saved them from a terrible accident.
These were the kinds of things that filled so many of Michael Yalango’s days. At night, he would often pine for home, he would yearn for Staten Island and all the things he was missing: Woodstock, the moon landing, normalcy. And the ’69 Mets, edging ever closer to one of the greatest stories ever told.
It’s why as he settled into his bunker that night of Oct. 16, 1969, Yalango allowed himself to feel as he’d felt just a few years earlier at Tottenville High: alive, carefree, happy. Home.
“Any time you could take a break and not think about where you were, which was a long, long way from home, you did that,” Yalango says. “It was wonderful.”
The game began just after 1 o’clock in New York — just past midnight in South Vietnam — and it lasted for 2 hours and 14 minutes, and Michael Yalango soaked in every second of it: the Orioles taking an early 3-0 lead, the Mets coming back thanks to Cleon Jones’ shoe polish and Donn Clendenon’s bat, finally taking a 5-3 lead into the ninth.
At home, at 3:17 p.m. in the borough of Queens, Jerry Koosman threw a baseball, Davey Johnson hit it, and Cleon Jones cradled it into his mitt, dropped to a knee, and let the sweet thunder of 57,397 mad, rabid fans ladle over him, his teammates, and his city.
Far, far from home, at 2:17 a.m., not far off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Yalango listened to all of that being described by Bill O’Donnell, for NBC radio and the Armed Forces Network. He was all by himself in the cold earth of South Vietnam and yet he somehow felt a part of the joy back home, in Queens and Staten Island and everywhere else where the Mets had injected a thread of hope and happiness and possibility.
“I was elated,” he said. “It was the kind of feeling I’ll never forget, one that really allowed me a moment of peace in a place where that wasn’t always possible.”
When Yalango rotated back home the following summer, he was told that Sarge was also getting discharged — but for Army dogs, that meant something quite different. Yalango begged his company commander to spare Sarge, and eventually he was allowed a quiet retirement as the company clerk’s dog.
Yalango came home and worked in construction for a while, owned his own direct-mail business for a while and, like so many of his comrades, slowly came to terms with the war and what it meant. He still lives on Staten Island, still aches for those who weren’t as lucky as he was, who never made it home.
And he cherishes the 2 hours and 14 minutes when home was allowed to visit him in the middle of his tour. The ’69 Mets touched a lot of people in a lot of ways. Even from 10,000 miles away.