Adios Los Mets, The Weather Sure Is Fair Up There in the Bronx
“I would like to be one of those people who treat their local team like their local restaurant, and thus withdraw their patronage if the are being served up noxious rubbish.”
—Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
One early-spring day in 1992 I sat outside a lovely Prague pub, in a park in Smichov, the district where Mozart shacked up at a friend’s villa during his working visits to his adopted city. However, I was not discussing classical music at the pub, but baseball. My friend and fellow American, let’s call him O’Connor, was explaining to me his decision to tender his resignation for a position he had thought to be his dream job. O’Connor had been recruited by a Prague-based chemical company to act as player/manager for the semi-pro team they sponsored in a fledgling Czech baseball league. He subsequently enlisted me to play for the team.
We had had about a month of cold-weather, mostly-indoor practices; played a few scrimmages on weedy Prague fields; and taken one kick-ass, southbound road trip to a suburb of Turin, Italy for a round-robin tournament that included our ragtag Czech-American hybrid, a Swiss team from Bern, and a half-dozen local sides. My standout memory of that weekend was trying to concentrate in left field while mesmerized by a snow-capped peak of the Alpine foothills looming behind home plate. It had never been like this, standing in left field for my New Jersey high school team. So distracted was I by the postcard-views, that it occurred to me I could well end up like that proverbial little-league nerd, oblivious in right field while flyballs sailed over his head.
The chemical company had not lived up to their word regarding salary and perks, and because the paychecks weren’t as promised, and because O’Connor had come to Prague on a whim (and with little walking around money), he was broke. The day previous, the universe delivered an epiphany of sorts, at the checkout counter of his local grocery. He was buying a yogurt, an apple and a banana, and when he reached into his pocket, he realized he didn’t have enough money for all three items. Consequently, he had to choose between the apple and the banana.
As O’Connor related his story there at that pub, there was a note of intense bemusement in his voice: Hausler, he said, a fucking apple and a banana. Imagine, I didn’t have enough money to buy an apple AND a banana. I don’t mean a bag of apples and a bunch of bananas, I mean a single one of each.
And with that, he quit the baseball team, exotic though it was, as cool as it sounded for him to tell Aussie backpackers that he was a player-coach in this strange backwater of Czech baseball. He needed to be free-up for the down and dirty and otherwise boring prospect of work and a regular paycheck. He had immediately scored a job as a bartender at a touro bar in the center of Prague.
With O’Connor out as coach, no more baseball for me. It was ok, though, spring had arrived in Prague, the outdoor drinking season had commenced. O’Connor paused to take a long pull on his half-litre of beer. I took the opportunity to do likewise. He continued: Standing at that grocery counter, I realized that life doesn’t have to be hard. It’s my new mantra, said O’Connor: Life doesn’t have to be hard if you can make it un-hard.
Words to live by.
I thought about O’Connor and his mantra this month, as I’ve slowly started to read up on spring training 2010. As March turns to April, I’m considering making my sporting interests, shall we say, a little bit un-harder. Specifically, I refer to the The New York Metropolitans, for whom I have rooted for 40+ years, but for whom I am now not sure if I have any unconditional love left.
The good news out of Florida for this 2010 version of the Mets comes in the form of two young’uns making a splash: slick-hitting first baseman of the near-or far-future Ike Davis; and the proverbial kid from the clouds, right-handed pitcher Jenrry Mejia. No telling if either will make the roster come April, but at least there is the promise of some talent on the farm. As of this writing, Davis is slotted for the minors and Mejia is penciled in with the big club, but with the mercurial nature of young stars and injuries to other players, both will probably go both ways this season.
For comic relief, David Wright is feeling so chipper that he suggests the Mets could win the World Series. This year. Nice to show some verbal cajones, but seriously? Anyone who followed Los Mets through their train wreck of a 2009 season, could only marvel at Wright’s chutzpah, and wonder how many consecutive seasons and disparate ways the Mets can illustrate the sports cliche “train-wreck” I used above. We’re up to three seasons and counting.
I love David Wright, truly. But power hitters who smack only ten home runs while playing the entire season (minus a week or two for getting beaned in the head) shouldn’t make with the Jimmy Rollins prophesying, lest they end up sounding like Patrick Ewing, the King of the Empty Boast, who never uttered a prediction he had the power to deliver. Another Mets fan I know joked that 2010 would be a perfect year for Wright to use steroids, because it will be impossible for him to NOT triple or quadruple his home run output from last year and no one would be suspicious, even in this cynical, post-post-steroid era.
Since good news is relative (and fleeting, I might add, in the bizarro alternate Metsverse), here are a few, other-shoe-dropping tidbits: 1) We finally know why Jose Reyes can’t sit still in the dugout; 2) Elite fireball closer Francisco Rodriguez came down with the longest bout of pinkeye since they started keeping stats on that; 3) The Mets Brain Trust (yes, those are ironic caps) started a “he said/he said” pissing contest with Carlos Beltran, their best—and most sensitive—player, when Beltran elected to undergo knee surgery that team officials seemingly advised (begged?) him not to get. The universal opinion among Mets beat writers (and my informal straw poll of Mets fans) is that Beltran did the right thing in keeping his own counsel.
So, yes, Jose Reyes, once considered a future MVPer and HOFer, is once again a perpetual DLer, just like the early few years of his career. Last spring, with the season barely six weeks old, Reyes suddenly came up lame with a then-benign “lower body injury” (to borrow the comically vague parlance employed during hockey playoff season). A pulled calf muscle, maybe a bruise? As weeks turned to months, at some point in mid-season, you just knew he wouldn’t be back. And indeed, he didn’t lace up the cleats again in 2009.
Now, this spring, hard on the heels of a week of hope-springs-eternal, Reyes-feels-like-old-self-again stories on the backpage, comes the bizarre news that he has a thyroid condition. And that he’s not supposed to eat seafood. Which conjures images of Reyes as some sort of unstoppable, shark-like, seafood-devouring machine, the scourge of fisheries far and near, depleting the bounty of the seven seas, to the point where he develops a thyroid condition troublesome enough to halt his day job for two to eight weeks. Who knew?
Two to eight weeks is a pretty big spread, it’s a vague time-frame. All it tells us is that, again, the Mets medical staff can tell us nothing, and that Carlos Beltran was just being practical when he decided to do opposite of what they told him about his knees. As of this writing, it appears that Reyes has returned to camp (somewhere in the middle of that two-to-eight-week range), but the indeterminate nature of a thyroid condition makes me think we haven’t seen the last of this malady.
What’s a long-time old Mets fan to do? How many seasons in a row can we endure a filthy-rich, underachieving team that seems doubly cursed with a plague of bizarre injuries. Like rookie pitcher Jonathon Niese, promoted as a fill-in last season for the Mets injury-depleted staff, tearing the hamstring tendon from the bone while covering first base on a routine grounder.
Not to be outdone, Luis Castillo sprained his ankle while walking down the dugout steps during a game. In fact, The Metropolitans had so many extraordinary injuries last year, that the Castillo pratfall completely slipped my mind. Kinda like the eight years of the Bush administration, where so many fucked-up things came to pass, that the fucked-up became normal, and one day years later, you suddenly re-remember that the vice president shot his old hunting buddy in the face while—what was the term the flaks used—flushing a covey of quail. But I digress.
My favorite, head-shaking low-light from these last three Met years was delivered in the last week of 2007. Due to a scheduling quirk—a single make up game bookended by 3-game series—our pathetic millionaires dug deep and found it in themselves to lose on three consecutive nights to three different sub-.500 teams. There’s a good chance that this three-losses-to-three-different teams is some sort of record of futility for a first place team. For me, this mini-streak was the nadir that defines this incarnation of the Mets.
The Mets aren’t the only team in town, right? That other one in the Bronx is pretty good, 27 World Series rings and counting. My dad was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and nurtured a hatred of the Yankees; but that hatred never really took hold with me. Sure, I rooted for the Mets as a kid in New Jersey, but in the 13 years I’ve lived in Brooklyn, the Yankees have been mostly good and the Mets have been either bad or cursed or underperforming goldbrickers. It’s been nice to root for a local team come playoff time, year after year. Who else was I going to pull for all this time? Colorado? San Diego? Cleveland? Lovely places, all, but rooting for the local side, even if it’s not your favorite local side, feels like you got a stake in the game.
The Yankees, as an organization, only want to win and will stop at nothing to do just that. The Boss, and now his sons who are running the show, err on the side of Obsessive Winning. They meddle, but they care. At least with the Yankees, you feel like every year they’re in the game. What’s not to like about that? It’s starting to look pretty nice over there. And what is the cloying fan psychology that even prompts me to speak of this in terms of desertion and betrayal? A guy can weigh his rooting options, can’t he?
According to Nick Hornby, no, no, a thousand times no! a fan most certainly can NOT weigh his rooting options. Hornby, of course, is the British novelist whose memoir, Fever Pitch, about his obsession with Arsenal, the storied, north-London football club, is a seminal treatise on fan-psychology. To wit: “There have been many times over the last twenty-three years when I have pored over the small print of my contract looking for a way out, but there isn’t one. Each humiliating defeat … must be borne with patience, fortitude and forbearance; there is simply nothing that can be done.”
As far back as kindergarten, I wore to school a Mets pinstripe uniform. At my wedding, my wife and I placed “now and then” photos on the reception table; my “then” pic showed me at five, in my suburban front yard, shorts and knobby knees, in a mock-baseball-card pose—bat on left shoulder, a pack of Bazooka bulging out my cheek to mimic a wad of chaw—sporting the royal-blue-and-orange-Mets hat, the classic cap that the team still trots out every third or fourth game. So, big deal, right? Just because there’s a photo of me in a Mets cap at age five, does this pedigree, this history, really mean there is no loophole out of my Mets-fan contract?
I recently started following club soccer and, specifically, the English Premier League. Not having much history with club soccer or the English league, I am free to root for whomever I want. It takes the stress out of following the season, out of watching a game; it’s lovely and liberating. Imagine, switching teams in mid-season, or at season’s end, or following and liking multiple teams at once.
Last year, my first love was Hull City, who were playing in the top flight of the four-league structure for the first time in their 100+ year history. For the first third of the season they were charming and dogged overachievers; at one point they sat in second place, having beaten four of London’s five far-wealthier, top-flight teams. They were the proverbial little guys who could, they kicked ass and took names. Alas, they couldn’t sustain the level of play, the intensity of the top-flight caught up with them and their luck and will ran out. The club sank like a stone the last two-thirds of the season, barely staving off relegation back to the second tier from whence they came.
So, being a free man, with no ties to the city or team of Hull, I ditched them. Or rather, I let other teams in—Arsenal, West Ham, Fulham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton—rooting for these with varying degrees of intensity, depending entirely on random factors. After one scintillating and surprisingly decisive win over league leaders Manchester United, I was smitten by Liverpool, and their swashbuckling, young Spanish striker, Fernando Torres. From then on, I was rooting for the Scousers to overtake Man United for the title, but they fell agonizingly short.
I feel no-particular alliance to any one team, therefore all teams are in play. It’s kind of a nice feeling, being attracted to a team for any number of reasons, each one as valid as the next. This year, I pull for Arsenal one week because they are near top-of-table; while the next week I root for mid-table Everton, simply because they borrowed U.S. national team stalwart Landon Donovan for a few months (he has since returned to his full-time club, the L.A. Galaxy). Fulham are my now west-London heroes after beating the esteemed Italian side, Juventus, to advance in the Europa League. (The Europa League is a pan-European tourney that some of the better clubs play in, concurrent to their regular league matches. It is the less-fancied little brother to the Champions League; think N.I.T.)
Now comes the question: can I transfer this “freedom to root for whomever” back over the pond and shoehorn it into the context of baseball, where I DO have ties and a history? To question Nick Hornby, do we really have to bear each humiliating season with patience and fortitude? Do I really have to continue rooting for the Mets, even when they take a big, smelly poo on their fans year after year? Let’s call a spade a spade, here: we’re not talking about some small-market team scraping to get by, or a band of lovable losers. The Mets are a very wealthy organization, who have spent loads of money very badly over the last three or four years; consequently, they have nothing to show for it.
What’s wrong with being a fair-weather fan, what’s wrong with admitting that maybe you’d consider being a fair-weather fan? And why is that term pejorative? Why should I stick with one team come hell or high-water, just because I’ve always stuck with that team? I am finally out of patience. Blowing large leads in the standings two consecutive Septembers, followed by last season’s mind-blowing bad luck and boundless ineptitude, will wear on even the most patient fan.
The weather is starting to look pretty fair up there in the Bronx. There’s always room for one more on the Yankees (or Phillies? or Red Sox?) Bandwagon. Time to invoke The O’Connor Mantra, and make my life a little less hard. Starting April 5, it’s a clean slate for me. If I like how the Mets are playing, I’m on board. But more likely, I’ll be watching as many games on YES as SNY, and will find myself peeking more and more at the box scores from the Bronx.