It’s over. The best team in baseball in 2009 won the World Series, and for a fan of the New York Mets, it couldn’t have turned out worse. Our two most-hated enemies were facing off; it’s amazing that I tuned in at all. This year, though, the Mets tanked so early that I was hungry for baseball again by the time the World Series arrived—and I watched every game. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I was looking. Maybe I wanted to see the Phillies’ Pedro Martinez crush the Yankees’ hopes—something we’d never gotten the chance to see him do while playing for the Mets.
There were great moments: Chase Utley’s and Hideki Matsui’s home runs; Pedro laughing at the crowd as he exited Game 2 to chants of “Who’s your daddy?”; Cliff Lee’s chillingly nonchalant fielding in the first game; the free Brooklyn Lagers my friends and I were given every time the Yankees hit a home run on Halloween (that place was great: beer, a jazz band, a holiday atmosphere). But an uneasy feeling arose as the Yankees closed in on the win in Game 6, and, as some kind of self-defense, I fell asleep during the eighth inning. When I awoke the game was over.
I have plenty of reasons not to hate the Yankees. A relative on my mother’s side, Herb Pennock—the Knight of Kennett Square (Pennsylvania)—was a star pitcher for four champion Yankee teams, including the famed 1927 squad, and is in the Hall of Fame. And my father’s family comes from the Bronx. But they were always Giants fans, before the Giants fled to California, and they were happy to see the Mets take their beloved Polo Grounds (at Coogan’s Bluff in upper Manhattan) in 1962—they moved to Shea two years later. And I’ve always associated the Yankees with the bad, Giuliani New York. In any case, I’m glad to be a Mets fan.
Roger Angell reflected on the Mets’ appeal while attending the first games back in the Polo Grounds in 1962. In “The ‘Go!’ Shouters,” he wrote:
What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. … This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.
A new recognition—it ascribes a unique significance to the Mets. New York’s National League teams had always languished in the shadow of the Yankees, but this was something else. The young Mets, probably the worst team ever to play in the major leagues, enjoyed a runaway popularity. It was as if all those old Giants and Dodgers fans, unable to cheer on easy Yankee championships, had finally found a team bad enough to root for.
The season began with promise. Nate Silver, of the statistics blog Five Thirty Eight (mostly devoted to startlingly accurate political projections) and of the vaunted baseball projection system PECOTA, picked the Mets to win their division. Some cried foul—after all, the Phillies had just won the World Series, and the Mets had just collapsed spectacularly two years in a row—but what could he say? He was just crunching the numbers. They were good numbers, too. On a spreadsheet the team looked strong. I imagined Johan Santana, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Reyes riding up Broadway (for the World Series parade) and continuing up I-87 to Cooperstown—something neither Darryl Strawberry, nor Dwight Gooden, nor Keith Hernandez ever achieved. (Gary Carter made it, but MLB forced him to wear a Montreal Expos cap into eternity; it was a nice gesture to baseball’s only francophone franchise, and perhaps soon will be the only evidence the Expos ever existed.)
The Mets got a new stadium for their new season, and I watched the opening on ESPN. In a strange obverse of the infamous black cat which hexed the Cubs’ Ron Santo to help the Mets to their first World Series win, a whitish cat roamed near home plate and lunged at fans. It was certainly an omen, but not till halfway through the season did I find out what it meant. In the beginning I felt optimistic, and one April night in a bar in Chapel Hill, watching the Mets beat the Phillies, I couldn’t wait to make it back up to New York to take part in the season.
Instead I moved into an empty house in Charleston, S.C., where for two months I spent nearly every evening listening to WFAN call the Mets games. I listened either through the MLB’s subscription service or on my car radio, since the WFAN signal is broadcast on a clear channel and listenable down the entire East Coast on summer nights. Every night, Howie Rose would say “put it in the books!”—all too often with a sad sigh.
The Mets’ baffling series of injuries took everyone by surprise; each of the players, save David Wright, missed significant time. Even Wright seemed to morph into a different hitter—still excellent, but with fewer home runs. A midsummer scrawl in a notebook of mine says it all—Angel Pagan is back. By back I meant he’d been called up from the minors; of course he was later injured too. When he came back from the injury, we felt lucky. That’s the kind of season it was.
To console myself I attended a two-game series pitting the Yankees’ single-A affiliate River Dogs against the Mets’ Savannah Sand Gnats in Charleston. Sitting with the good crowd and the peanut shells, I watched top Met prospect Wilmer Flores line a nice hit down the third base line. After the River Dogs won, some rowdy Mets-Sand Gnats fans started cheering “Yankees suck!” Of course, my father and I joined in. And when some Red Sox fans joined in the “Yankees suck” chant, the rowdy guys started chanting about Bill Buckner. It was great, really. I felt like the Sand Gnats (and by proxy the Mets) had won, even though they hadn’t.
The truth is that things didn’t feel quite right even before injuries sidelined most of the Mets’ starters. In Los Angeles, Angel Pagan hit what should have been a game-winner, but Ryan Church missed third base, and he was called out. Listening to this on the radio was confusing, but I knew I had to fill up my wine glass and prepare for another loss. Then there was the drop—Luis Castillo, in a one-in-a-million error, flubbed Alex Rodriguez’s shallow popup, which should have been the final out of a Francisco Rodriguez save. Instead, a swirl of Yankees rounded the bases, and the game was over. The Mets were still over .500 at that point, and I told myself that these mishaps would make the Mets’ eventual championship story one to compete with ’69 or ’86. But in a strange way Castillo’s flub was the highlight of the season.
I finally wandered into Citi Field in late September, buying my ticket from the first scalper I spotted after I got off the 7 train. What I found was not a replica of Ebbets Field, as was intended, but of Turner Field. But at least Turner Field was once Olympic Stadium and had been named after its team’s owner in the old style of Comiskey and Wrigley. City Field would have been a great name; so would have been (Jackie) Robinson Stadium, as proposed by George Vecsey in the pages of the New York Times. After the collapse of Citigroup last fall, the name was even more obviously a bad omen than that cat turned out to be.
My seat had a good enough view, even though I had to look at first base through some kind of glass railing. But it felt more like Atlanta than Queens. Even the Braves’ Chipper Jones, who named his daughter Shea in honor of his success there against the Mets, is on record as despising the new digs. Of course, the Mets lost. They weren’t even a major league club anymore. As I was making the outdoor subway transfer back to Brooklyn, I spotted my local pizza guy, sporting his Mets cap as usual, but I couldn’t bear to talk to him. And it was strange to see him in Queens.
I’ve only watched the Mets play in one World Series, the Subway Series in 2000. I didn’t make it to any of the five games (four of which were won by the Yankees), but I remember dialing the box office over and over with my father in vain. We never got through to a human being. So, without the happy memories that a fan gets when one’s team wins the World Series, I have been forced to invest in an expensive set of DVD recordings of the last time the Mets won—in 1986, against the Boston Red Sox, in one of the best Series ever. This October, after seeing Darryl Strawberry filming something or other near the office where I work in the Flatiron district, I decided to watch some games.
The first thing you notice after cuing up a DVD is how much the ballparks have changed. At Fenway Park, razor wire topped the Green Monster in ’86 (God knows why), and, inexplicably, the distance-markers on the outfield fences were marked in meters as well as feet. Now, of course, fancy bar stools line the top of the Monster beside ads for Volvo. The first game played at Fenway was Game 3, and things were looking good for the Sox. The Mets had lost the first two games, scoring only four runs to Boston’s ten. The Mets hadn’t had a single extra base hit. While Game 1 had been a pitcher’s duel between the Mets’ Yale grad Ron Darling and Boston’s Bruce Hurst, Game 2 had been a disaster. Dwight Gooden had given up five runs in his five innings of work.
Everything changed on the first pitch of Game 3. The first batter, Lenny Dykstra, hit a grand home run—grand because of the narration on television by Vin Scully—off Oil Can Boyd. Boyd was pitching without his glasses, as he always did. The Mets scored four runs in the inning, enabled by Boyd’s off pitching and a botched double pickle, in which both Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez somehow didn’t get out. The Red Sox were prone to costly gaffes. The Mets would win Game 4, and the Red Sox Game 5 (the first game in which either won at their home stadium), and the rest, as they say, is history.
My parents were at Game 6—though they left early (my father couldn’t watch the Mets lose), probably spinning across the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge as that ball spun past the grasp of Bill Buckner. As Roger Angell wrote, in “Not So, Boston”:
Now I noticed that a few Mets fans had given up and were sadly coming along the main aisles down below me, headed for home. My companion just to my right in the press box, the News’ Red Foley, is a man of few words, but now he removed his cigar from his mouth and pointed at the departing fans below. ‘O ye of little faith,’ he said.
It should be mentioned that, in a sense—depending on your views on When Life Begins—I was there too, with my parents, speeding over the Whitestone, away from victory. After all, that was only three months before I was born.