Opening Day is only a few days away, a sure sign of Spring and the eternal cycles of life. The grass is greening from its Winter brown; the trees are budding. There’s a faint scent of lilac wafting in the warming breezes. Life and hope seem to renew themselves… unless you happen to be a Met fan!
I know you Cub and Yankee fans have just started playing your violins for me. One of you I’m going to ignore; I’ll get to the other one later.
The Mets, despite playing in one of the best baseball markets in the known universe, didn’t exactly tear up the league last year (or for the last six or so) finishing second to last in the NL East with a 74 and 88 record.
If that wasn’t bad enough, everything good they did last year seemed to have been twisted into something dreadful.
1. They had a great start, actually going into the All-Star break contending for the division… then there was that horrific 7-18 July, and not another winning month for the rest of the year… they even went 1-2 in October.
2. Johan Santana pitched the franchise’s first ever no hitter, a somewhat ironic accomplishment for a franchise who had Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Nolan Ryan pitching for it at various times. But, the no-no was tainted; it was preserved on a bad call, which was broadcast on every national sports media outlet in the world.
3. R. A. Dickie became the first knuckle-baller to win the Cy Young. I hope he’ll be happy playing in Canada this season.
Other off-season gems included the Mets paying outfielder, Jason Bay, $21 million not to play baseball for them. They even lost one of their AAA Minor League teams, the Buffalo Bisons.
While other teams were scarfing up free agents to get ready for a competitive 2013 season, the most hopeful thing for the Mets going into spring training was that the franchise’s owner, Fred Wilpon, won’t start the season in the slammer. Wilpon announced he had settled a $162 million lawsuit over the Bernie Madoff scandal. In fact, Madoff himself claimed from prison that Wilpon “knew nothing” about Madoff’s Ponzi scheme… and God knows… Bernie’s word is as good as gold… as long as you get out quick. But, at least the Mets’ 2013 season will open without the team in receivership and a foreclosure sign on Citi Field.
So, going into opening day, the Mets hopes of success are about the same as the Chicago Cubs, with one huge difference… unlike the Cubs, the Mets aren’t loveable… in fact, they’re pretty much despised around the league.
So, what would cause someone… someone like me for example… to be a Mets fan, other than a ploy to piss off all the Cub fans I know (and loving it).
The first thing I’d like to point out is that I’m a Mets fan neither by nature nor by nurture.
As I mention in my bio, I’m about as much “New York City” as anyone can be. I was born on the east-side of Manhattan in Gotham hospital. When I was a kid, New York City had three baseball teams (they weren’t called franchises back then) the Giants, the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And, the team you rooted for was not really a matter of choice, it was part of your social identity.
Dodger and Giant fans-this was the old National League, when the Braves played in Boston-were the salt of the earth. These were hourly-wage, blue collar, union-member, ethnic folk-Irish, Italian, Polish, Sicilian. Yankee fans over in the American League tended to be Republican, white collar… the bosses… the English.
National league fans drank beer; Yankee fans, cocktails. Dodger and Giant fans rode the subway to work; Yankee fans drove their car (or had a Dodger fan drive it for them). National leaguers lived in apartments with all the kids stacked in one bedroom; Yankee fans had homes in the ‘burbs with a bedroom for every kid, green lawns and swing sets in the back yard. Dodger and Giant fans were Democrats; Yankee fans, Republicans. There was no common ground.
In my family, who were all Giant fans since the Fred Hooey-Buck Ewing days, changing religion would have been accepted easier than going over to the Yankees. (To this day I have a brother and sister whose souls I pray for daily). In fact, in my house the three persons of the blessed trinity were McGraw, Terry and Ott.
During the baseball season, Dodger and Giant fans ignored the Yankees. They were over in that other league and the only inter-league play that existed back then, when the Baltimore Orioles were still the St. Louis Browns, was the World Series in October.
But, Giant and Dodger fans savaged each other. I had an uncle (by marriage) who was a Dodger fan. From April to October, no one in the family would talk to him… and that was the merciful option; even his wife, my aunt, my father’s sister, who taught me poker and black jack, was tainted by odor of Dodger-ness.
There’s a famous story about the Giant player, Bobby Thompson, who in a playoff against the Dodgers in 1951, hit a home run up the left-field line in the old Polo Grounds in the bottom of the ninth-the famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”-to consign Dodger fans to “waiting for next year” while the Giants went on to the series against the Yankees. (They lost in five!) After he hit the homerun, Thompson remembered that his apartment was in Brooklyn, and the Dodger fans in his neighborhood would probably be waiting for him to get home. So, he had to hide out in the clubhouse until the Brooklyn lynch mob gave up and went home.
But, during the World Series, Dodger and Giant fans united against the Yankees, regardless of what National League team they were playing. So in October, at various times in my life, I’ve been a Dodger fan, a Milwaukee Braves fan, even a Pittsburgh Pirate fan (that was sweet!), any National League team that was playing against the Yankees.
Then came that horrible day in September, 1957. The National League abandoned New York City. The Giants left the Polo Grounds for San Francisco; the Dodgers abandoned Ebbets Field for LA. New York baseball was dead!
Now you have to remember (for some of my readers, you have to find out) these were the days before national media. There was no ESPN, no USA Today, no internet. When the Giants and Dodgers left New York, they completely disappeared from view for a ten-year-old kid growing up in New York, except for the vestiges left in box scores in the NY Daily News and Daily Mirror.
Then in 1962, after four years of no National League-in other words, real baseball-in New York City, the Mets were born!
Now the 1962 Mets were arguably one of the worst teams ever to play the game. They made the pre-Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers look like champs! But-and here is one of the secrets of their early success with New York City fans-they emulated the old Dodgers and Giants. One of the colors they wore on their uniforms, was Dodger blue, and on their caps they wore the same orange “NY” logo as the old New York Giants. And, they played their home games at the Polo Grounds. That pretty much did it for me… I was hooked.
Another major attraction for the early Mets was that they brought the Giants and Dodgers back to New York. Anytime one of these teams came to town, the Polo Grounds were packed, and most of the “home town” fans were not rooting for the Mets. What would be the point in that? They went 40-120 that first season, the most losses by any major league team since 1899. They finished dead last in the National League, 60 1⁄2 games behind… wait for it… the San Francisco Giants (who went on to play the Yankees in the Series losing in seven).
Also, with the Mets, returned some hometown heroes like Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer and Roger Craig who had Dodger pedigrees. And, of course, Casey Stengel, who had both Giant and Dodger history, as well as being one of the most successful mangers the Yankees ever had, was brought out of retirement to manage the team. Stengel’s baseball wisdom included such sage advice as, “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in,” and “The secret of successful managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven’t made up their minds.”
And, of course, the early Mets, despite their dismal proficiency at anything resembling major league baseball, were “loveable.” For example, say the following two words to any vintage Met fan, “Marv Throneberry”! The response you’ll get, with a healthy dollop of New-York-City irony, is, “Marvelous Marv!”
Throneberry was the personification of Mets endearing ineptitude. Not only did he screw things up on the field, he did it big! An infamous “Marvelous Marv” story. Throneberry was called out at second and manager Casey Stengel came out to argue the call, but was told by the umpire “Don’t bother arguing Casey, he missed first base, too.” And, New York Mets fans loved him!
Ironically, the Mets two World Series victories destroyed their image as the “loveable losers.”
When the “Miracle Mets” of 1969 overtook the Cubs for the Eastern Division, swept out the Braves for the National League Pennant, then beat the Orioles in five for the Series, Met fans had to accept the fact that their team were no longer a parody of a major league baseball club, and their play on the field had to be taken seriously. The comedy show became a melodrama.
The Mets stopped being “loveable”-at least, outside of Chicago, where they never were-in 1986, the year they beat the Red Sox in seven. I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but my theory is that it had something to do with playing “power baseball” around the league with a little too much swagger and a little too much cocaine.
So, here we are in spring 2013, and my team is neither “lovable” nor the Washington Generals of baseball, but just another perennially underperforming Major League franchise. My only question is whether it’s too early to do adopt a venerable Brooklyn Dodger tradition and declare, “Wait’ll next year!”