Writing About Writing About The Mets

For five weeks, it was winter, and I was away from school, responsibility, and baseball.

Two of those things were good.

Well, all things must end, so I’m back.  School begins once again, and with it, all the usual negatives associated with the end of vacation.  But there’s a positive: namely, with every day that passes, baseball comes one day closer.

Does that make up for all the bad?  I don’t know.  Probably not, but who can tell?

Being back at school – it’s especially chaotic in one sense, seeing as I have about twelve classes to consider for two slots on my schedule, but in another, it’s not all too exciting.   Taking into consideration the fact that the last time I started a semester the Mets were playing their most exciting baseball in ten years, there’s just not much going on.

I know what I’m doing here; if I’m honest, I’ve known for a while.  I’m here to find something that A) I love, and B) allows time to watch the Mets.  Maybe I’ll change the world.  Maybe I’ll write the great American novel.  But whatever I ultimately do, you can bet it will be accessible from Queens.

So with that in mind, is it any surprise that I thought of the classes I chose between in terms of the Mets?  It’s how I think of everything else.

I wanted to take Creative Nonfiction, which requires a writing sample in the form of a letter to the professor.  So I wrote about – what else – the Mets.  I wrote about trying to capture the essence of Mets fandom in words.  I wrote about the beauty that is a 162 game season, and the ebbs and flows of emotion along the way.  I wrote about the heart and soul of baseball in New York and America.

The professor loved it.  Almost on sight, I got a spot in the class.

Then there was Fiction II, which also required a writing sample.  I didn’t have anything prepared that directly involved the Amazin’s – well, I did, but none of that stuff is quite polished yet – so I submitted something else, a story I wrote for a Creative Writing class my senior year of high school.  Old friends meet up 40 years later, one suspects the other is a mobster – your standard little short story.  Only this one starts on Long Island in 1967, and being who I am, I couldn’t resist throwing in a few Mets references during the original writing.

So, my two main characters “had both been Dodger fans and switched over to the Mets,” and sometimes, when work was slow and both were young, would “turn on the radio and listen to a batter or two of a Mets game, celebrating over the success of young Tom Seaver and groaning over the offensive ineptitude of Jerry Grote.”

Later on, as the two see each other for the last time in 1967, before meeting again in the present, they drive home, and because it’s the summer of ’67, when Long Islanders were Mets fans if they had any common sense, the Mets are on the radio.  “The radio was on, and we listened in silence to Don Cardwell shutting out the Cubs,” says the narrator, and shutting out the 1967 Cubs, who won 87 games and finished third in the National League, was no small deal.  Don Cardwell really did it, that night: from 1967 to 1969 with the Mets, he went 20-32 despite a 3.14 E.R.A.

And now, after a day of absolute absurdity, my schedule is almost completely set, and believe it or not, it’s a pretty normal college kid schedule.  There aren’t four classes on baseball history – not that that class is offered, because if it was, I’d be there, but it’s not – but four normal classes that, unless you’re someone like me, have absolutely nothing to do with the Mets.

So, it’s that time again – time to forget about the Mets for a while, buckle down, and get some sleep.  Because I’ve got class at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow.  Philosophy.

Which, for me, is a class on why I love the Mets so much.

So no, I wasn’t serious about that last line.  The day I forget the Mets?  That’ll be the day I write the same ol’ writing sample that everyone else does, all about how I want to expand my horizons and experience personal growth through heavy use of buzzwords.

In short, the day I forget about the Mets is the day they no longer matter to me.  And if you know me, you know that day isn’t coming any time soon.



If Nothing Else, Greatness

It’s something all Mets fans want.  The desire from the fandom has long been public.  It should have been done three years ago.

So naturally, the Mets, for the longest time, didn’t do it.

But once again, it seems the signing of Yoenis Cespedes has signaled the start of a new age in Mets fandom, an age wherein the Mets are finally getting things right.  First they signed Cespedes.  Then they emphasized the importance of Sunday games.  And now, Mike Piazza’s number will finally be retired.

Mike will join Tom Seaver as players enshrined on the left field wall.  It doesn’t get any more exclusive than that.  In seven, ten, twelve years, David Wright may – should – join them as well.  Other than that, the left field wall is a club that, for the foreseeable future, will not accept any new members.

It’s interesting, when you think about it, that the wall will feature, should Wright be duly honored, only those three players, two of whom played together and one of whom didn’t.  Wright and Piazza were on the same team in 2005.  Piazza came to New York in 1998.  Wright is still here.

In other words, since 1998, we’ve been living through the tenures of two of the three greatest Mets of all time.

No, Piazza didn’t win anything, and Wright hasn’t won anything yet.  That doesn’t bother me.  You can hardly blame Wright for Aaron Heilmann’s ineptitude or Beltran’s strikeout, or Piazza for Timo Perez’s, shall we say, unorthodox baserunning techniques, or Armando Benitez’ sudden failure under pressure.

The regular season is where the real baseball gets played, and the regular season was when these two players slugged their way through the Mets record books, emerging 2nd and 3rd in home runs, 1st and 3rd in offensive WAR, 2nd and 4th in batting average, 1st and 3rd in RBIs, and 1st and 8th in hits.

And sure, through it all, the Mets never won anything.  But we, their fans, had – and continue to have, as long as David Wright wears a Mets uniform – a chance to witness greatness.  And that’s a win if there ever was one.

Mike Piazza belonged up on that wall the day he left New York more than ten years ago, or at least the day he retired.  The Mets were late, but they got it done.  It’s done, it’s clear, it’s decided: Mike Piazza is as great a Met as ever there was.

And come July 30th, the fifth number on the left field wall will make it official.


Purely Fandom

I attended more Sunday games than I can remember over the course of the 2015 season, but I had not believed that the Mets had been keeping track.  So when the Mets sent out a tweet that seemed positively tailored for me, I was more than taken aback.

“Day games on a sun-filled Sunday,” read the caption, followed by a series of sunny hands, which has surely been focus-grouped and found to have some positive association.

With the tweet was a photo of, well, Citi Field on a sun-filled Sunday.  I assume it was a Sunday, at least.  The Mets haven’t always been truthful, but I don’t see any reason they would lie about this.


It wasn’t a ticket sales pitch.  It’s taken from the Pepsi porch, where the fans who won’t, or more likely, can’t, pay the $200 that a seat behind home plate requires on a Sunday.  These are the real fans, the die hards – the ones who didn’t leave the park in the late innings of 2009-2014, when the field level emptied almost habitually as the innings wore on and the Mets inevitably fell behind.

No, rather than a sales pitch, it was simply an expression of nostalgia.  The Mets, who are so lacking in nostalgia that they seemingly built an entire stadium to avoid evoking it, can’t wait for baseball season.

Just like us.

And in addition, they got another thing right, which they seem to be doing much more often since Cespedes came back.  On any day of the week, a ballgame is the place to be, but the Sunday afternoon game holds a special place in my heart.

I went to my first game ever on April 18th, 2004, an 8-1 loss to the Pirates.  Jae Seo pitched.  The Mets were down 7-0 before Todd Zeile singled home Shane Spencer in the fifth for the Mets only run.  It was a Sunday afternoon game.

I went to closing day 2009, a season we were all sure had been a fluke.  It hadn’t.  What was a fluke was Nelson Figueroa, pitching a complete game four-hitter and to shut out the Astros.  Besides David Wright, the Mets had RBIs from Josh Thole and Luis Castillo, plus a run when Anderson Hernandez reached on an error.  It was a veritable who’s-who of Mets who would look much better in World Series-tinted lenses.  It was a Sunday afternoon game.

The first game I ever bought my own ticket for was April 7th, 2013.  Aaron Laffey pitched…you know the pun.  All kind of memorable 2013-type Mets appeared: Collin Cowgill, Jordany Valdespin, Greg Burke, Scott Rice, LaTroy Hawkins…players that we look back upon fondly when we’re playing well and have forgotten how painful it is to watch an Aaron Laffey inning dissolve faster than you can return to your seat with a bag of cracker jacks.  In the bottom of the ninth, Marlon Byrd singled home Tejada and Nieuwenhuis, and I had my first win as an autonomous Mets fan.  It was a Sunday afternoon game.

Early this year, as the Mets embarked on an 11-game winning streak that shocked the city and electrified the fanbase, I saw them beat the Marlins to bring the streak to eight.  Harvey pitched.  The stadium was full, and the excitement that would come to a crescendo as our World Series run slowly came into existence was at least somewhat present in the park.  In the 8th, Alex Torres struck out Christian Yelich to end the inning, and Familia nailed down the ninth to save it.  The Mets were 10-3, they’d won eight in a row, and they led the division – although, as we’d find out after the game, we’d lost both Blevins and d’Arnaud for extended periods.  It was a Sunday afternoon game.

But of course, it’s not just memories of various individual Sunday games that make the day special.  It’s the whole experience: you wake up, and you’re off to the park; grab an early burger for lunch; watch the Mets all afternoon; get home in time for dinner, and then a relaxing, easy night before the week begins.  The whole day comes together to create an experience centered around baseball, that is everything that baseball is supposed to be.  It’s fun.  It’s competitive yet relaxing.  And when it’s all over, you’ve got a satisfying day behind you.

Of course, there’s only one way to beat a Sunday afternoon game: a Saturday/Sunday doubleheader.  You get home from Saturday’s game at 11:00 and get to bed.  Wake up the next morning, you’re off to the ballpark again.

It’s crazy.  It’s too much baseball.  You’re obsessed.  You need more sleep.  You need to expand your interests.  You don’t care about anything besides the Mets.

That’s what they say – all of them.  You know them: the concerned mother, the aloof friend, the angry siblings.  And I respond.

“You’re wrong.”

Does it look like craziness?  Mental illness?  Borderline insanity?  Who am I to judge?  I’m a Mets fan!  But I don’t think so.

No, the Sunday afternoon game – or, even better, the Saturday/Sunday doubleheader – is, to give a somewhat vague yet at the same time extremely clear definition, the simplest, most pure form of die-hard Mets fandom.

It’s baseball until there’s no more to be seen or played.  Baseball until they have to drag you from the park.  In short, it’s Baseball Like It Oughta Be.

Of course, the Mets weren’t thinking of this when they sent out a photo that had probably tested quite well in terms of ticket sales generated.  It certainly would have generated multiple sales to me, had I any idea what my late spring/early summer schedule would look like.  But the sales, although the Mets business office would beg to differ, are not the point.

The point is that baseball is coming back, and with it come all those things we don’t even remember.  The experiences that are so great that we convince ourselves we’re romanticizing, or at least exaggerating the satisfaction they impart.  The experiences that make Mets fans the greatest fans in the world, and baseball fans the greatest of the four.  The experiences that, as the Mets know, are marketable only because people love them.  They’re on their way back, and though it seems an eternity, it won’t be long.

And among them, the day game on a sun-filled Sunday is one of many.


We Just Need To Try

Glee.  Elation.  Surprise.  Shock.  Thrill.

All emotions we didn’t expect to feel as the night of the blizzard dragged on.

And then it happened.  From somewhere came the news, and within seconds, it was everywhere: Cespedes was back.

And then all those emotions kicked into overdrive.

Sitting there with a phone slow to react and a computer screen dominated by what seemed like dozens of different documents, I got the news the old fashioned way: my dad entered the room in slow motion, fist raised in triumph.

And I understood immediately.  Because in a conversation between two Mets fans, few things could inspire that kind of gesture.

The knowledge that the Mets have significantly bolstered their lineup going into 2016.

The understanding that a major piece of the 2015 playoff run will indeed be back.

The fact that we’ve added a legitimate power hitter in his prime who has proven he can hit at Citi Field – all this for the first time since, well, the last time we added Yoenis Cespedes.

The fact that the Mets payroll is suddenly near $140 million, which means that maybe, just maybe, they’re getting ready to spend again.

How about all the above?

Cespedes is back.  We’re not losing a centerpiece to a division rival.  We’re legitimate once again, and having sent that message to the rest of major league baseball, we’ll now commence beating up on them, helped out by our newest re-addition.

I saw a tweet tonight that summed up the importance of the signing perfectly.

“A: Mets are going to win the division,” it said.  “B: even if they don’t, you can’t say they didn’t try.  All you can ask for.”

In the immediate aftermath of the World Series, I was angry.  I thought with my emotions.  I thought I didn’t want Cespedes back.  I was wrong.

All I’ve ever asked the Mets to do is compete, and now they’ve done all that I’ve asked.  They’ve put a team on the field that can compete for a playoff spot, and then watch where it goes.  They’ve proven that the days of competition may once again lie ahead of us.

So that’s it.  Cespedes is back, and all of a sudden, we’ve got a season to look forward to.  Nothing to gripe about, but everything to discuss excitedly.  In a few minutes, over the course of an hour, the Mets regained all the goodwill they earned when they raised a League Championship banner over Citi Field.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Mets are back in business.  And now, those 25 days until pitchers and catchers aren’t just a meaningless number.  They’re how long we’ll wait until the Mets start winning again.


The Fun That Baseball Has

I wasn’t the one who scheduled a five week break from school over the five weeks of the year farthest from either end of Baseball Season, but I did choose to make the most of it regardless.  So over my five weeks of Winter, I found myself attending five New York sporting events with home teams wearing orange and blue.  They weren’t the Mets, but they were the next thing.

In the five games I attended, the Knicks, ultimately, were 4-1.  Until the ugly loss to the Clippers, they had been 4-0, but it quickly became apparent that my perfect record would not prevail.  Robin Lopez was ejected, the back of the bench finished out the fourth quarter, and the Knicks went home with a 28-point loss.

While there’s nothing overtly wrong with winning four basketball games while losing one, as I watched far more games than I ever had in such a concentrated span, basketball began earning unconscious comparisons to America’s Game of Baseball in my head, and each day, I looked at it less and less favorably.

Not that there’s anything wrong with basketball: along with football and hockey, I’d put it in a three way tie for second-best major sport.  They all have their positives and negatives, and their different elements make them appealing in different ways.  And while an evening watching any of them is better than just about anything, they’re all clearly and decidedly in second.  They’re fine; they’re just not baseball.

I found myself thinking of baseball as the Knicks began, to channel Walt Clyde Frazier, hacking and whacking, fouling DeAndre Jordan every time the Clippers got the ball so that the crowd of 20,000 could watch DeAndre Jordan miss free throws, followed by the Knicks – too often – missing shots of their own.  It’s a strategy condemned widely as ineffective and boring – so of course, everybody does it.  And as I watched, I thought wistfully of how nothing like that would ever happen in baseball.

Of course, in one sense it’s an extremely specific problem: in baseball, there are no personal fouls, so there’s no issue.  But comparing more generally, there’s a distinct difference between the two sports.  You’ve got basketball, in which an irregularity in the rules allows teams to foul their way to success.  And then you’ve got baseball, in which the rules, having evolved to perfection over the history of the game, would never allow such a thing.  Imagine if you could gain a strategic advantage by making an error, or could make a miraculous comeback by walking every batter you faced rather than giving them a chance to hit.  You can foul every possession, and you get the ball back.  But you walk every batter, you don’t get any reward.  You messed up, and you’re not getting anything out of it.

That’s the best thing about baseball: there’s no urgency involved, no scrambling to beat a rapidly expiring clock.  Well, there is urgency, but of a different kind: a controlled urgency, the urgency that says our time may be running out, but we’re not done until it’s over.  You can’t rally from 12 points down in basketball with ten seconds remaining, but five run walk-off rallies in the bottom of the ninth are not at all unheard of.  Until the game ends, everyone has a chance – the epitome of what sports are meant to be.  Always play to the whistle – the first lesson in any sport, on the first day of practice.  And yet, in many, it doesn’t hold true during blowouts.  The Knicks played almost the entire fourth quarter with the back end of their bench in, and this was an important game, considering the Knicks, going in, were one game out of a playoff spot.  They just accepted it: there was no way they could win.  It’s a glaring comparison: in baseball, it ain’t over, as we all know, until it’s over.

The whole issue of the clock is one of the things that makes baseball truly unique, and, regrettably, possibly one of the major reasons that its place at the forefront of American sports has shifted in football’s direction.  Most people, it seems, don’t want any breaks in their sports: they don’t want any pauses in the action, any time to regroup, any wasted space that could have been filled by gameplay.  It’s why that oft-quoted statistic came to light: only twelve minutes of every NFL game are actually taken up by game action.

And most people see that, and complain about how much time is wasted.  But I see that, and think, since when is some extra time a bad thing?

They may not be seen as such nowadays, but sports are, or once were, recreational activities.  They were supposed to be fun, even relaxing.  You played – or watched – to clear your head after a week of hard work, or to find some physical outlet for mental exhaustion.  Obviously, we’ve moved beyond that – or backward from it.  Sports aren’t relaxing anymore, as the fan to my left would attest.  He complained the entire game, touching on every topic he could think of: how bad the Knicks City Dancers were, how he didn’t understand why they kept fouling DeAndre Jordan, how he didn’t like the way Kristaps Porzingis was shooting, how the Knicks bench wasn’t passing well enough down 28 points, and on, and on, and on.  He was many things, but relaxed wasn’t one of them.

Once again, I found myself remembering a night at Citi Field: Chris Heston’s no-hitter, which I was in attendance for.  As Ruben Tejada struck out to end it, I slammed the empty seat next to me in frustration, attracting the attention of an older man sitting a row above me.

“Sure, it’s frustrating,” he said.  “But in 20 years, you’ll be glad you saw it.”

And there’s a baseball fan for you.  There’s a man who has his baseball priorities straight.

Baseball is not all about the wins, although of course a win is preferable to a loss.  It’s about the experience, the community, the competition.  And its fans fit the sport perfectly – they, or perhaps we, care deeply about outcomes, but also about experiences.  In its immediate aftermath, I didn’t think I would ever be glad to have seen the Mets no-hit by a no-name rookie.  Now, it’s not even a question: I’d give anything to return to that day.  It was a day at the ballpark, watching my team, and that kind of day, whether it results in a win or a loss, is the kind of day you remember.

Or, at least, the kind of day you should remember.  The kind of game a baseball fan will remember.  And that’s why baseball is, and will be, America’s pasttime.  That’s why baseball is the greatest game in the world.


My Trusty Little Cliche

It’s not usually a good thing to have a treasured possession turn into a living cliche, but in my case, it was exactly how it was supposed to happen.

It all started in 2005, when I was getting old enough to realize that I wasn’t following the Mets nearly as closely as I needed to be.  I went to four games in 2004.  Maybe one or two in 2005.  Other than that, I was reduced to checking the score in the paper the next morning.

So I did some thinking about how I would go about getting closer to my team.  I needed to know what was happening, with no overnight delay.  I needed to be connected to the entire adult world, of which Mets baseball was, for me, the most important part.

So I made the request to my parents, and on the first night of Hanukkah 2005, I unwrapped a brand-new Sony transistor radio.  And although I didn’t notice any immediate changes, I would realize later that this was the moment I had becoming a die-hard.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the 2006 team was the most exciting team that I’d been alive and aware of baseball for.  Starting as the 2006 season began, and moving forward, I listened under my blanket every night, and through this sudden immersion in the happenings of the Mets, I heard the games which have become scattered memories.  The radio told me stories, which defined the memories that now make me a certifiable — in more than one sense — Mets fan.

In 2006, I heard Ronnie Paulino and the Pirates walk off against Aaron Heilmann to prevent a Mets clinch, and then, only days later, I heard a Billy Wagner induced fly ball to Cliff Floyd finally get the job done.

In 2007, I listened as Tom Glavine slowly and methodically, one pitch at a time, became a creature out of a Mets fan’s nightmare.

In 2008, I heard Fernando Tatis double home Wright and Beltran in the bottom of the 12th to give the Mets a walk-off win, which in turn became one of 89, which proved one less than enough.

In 2009, I listened as David Wright homered to tie the home opener in the bottom of the fifth, and was sure, before ultimately being proved wrong, that the Mets had gotten past 2007 and 2008 and were ready to make the playoffs again.

In 2010, I listened from Maine, on a radio whose reception over great distances continues to amaze me, as Carlos Beltran hit a sac fly, bringing in Jesus Feliciano to beat the Diamondbacks and move the Mets two games over .500.

In 2011, I listened as the Mets took the first two games of a series in Detroit from the Tigers, by scores of 14-3 and 16-9.  Don Kelly, a 2011-Tigers version of Joe McEwing, pitched an inning in the second game, and a friend of mine, who held an inexplicable appreciation of Don Kelly, could barely contain his excitement.  I also listened on the way home from school that September, as Jose Reyes’ final game as a Met wound down.

I listened to Opening Day in 2012, on the bus to a game of my own.  I heard Frank Francisco nail down the save, and thought for a minute that maybe he would be the solution we were looking for, although his physical similarities to Armando Benitez were an instant red flag.

I listened to Opening Day in 2013 and 2014 as well.  In 2013, Collin Cowgill came out of nowhere to become everyone’s favorite player for two or three days, hit a grand slam to seal the blowout, and in 2014, Bobby Parnell entered for the save and, as I was jogging down from the school locker room to the baseball field, blew it faster than you could point out how good you thought he was going to be.

And then, finally, came 2015, which was the kind of season that you just had to follow.  I listened in April – when I wasn’t at the ballpark, that is – as the Mets won 11 straight, before losing to the Yankees.  I listened over the summer as Yoenis Cespedes came to the plate and Citi Field applauded with the same excitement that they’d showered down on Donn Clendenon back in mid 1969.  I listened as we swept the Nationals — both times — and on the final day of the season, as Granderson assured that we’d go into the postseason on a semi-positive note.

Through it all, that little radio has stood up to everything.  It’s been through drops, tosses, and thunderstorms.  It’s been left at a friend’s house in Montauk, and once lost for a month before being recovered.  It’s been broken and repaired in multiple areas.  But still, it remains, in a pinch, my favorite way to listen to a ballgame.

I don’t know exactly what the appeal of the radio is — not just to me, but to the many people who have noticed that I’m listening to a game on a portable radio, and commented that it’s their favorite way to listen as well.  Maybe it’s the history, and the fact that the radio’s been around 30 years longer than television.  It could be the portability of radio, and the way that unlike watching on TV, you can listen to a ballgame on the radio anywhere — a Long Island beach, a hiking trail upstate, the subway home from dinner in Brooklyn, a walk through Central Park as Summer sets in and darkness holds off later and later.  It’s also, I’m sure, got something to do with the radio broadcast itself.  Howie Rose, with respect to Gary, Keith, and Ron, is an artist.  His is the voice of the Mets, and his descriptions of baseball, played on a cheap, tinny speaker with static in the background, capture the emotions of the game as well as, if not better than, an SNY broadcast.

After ten years of hard work dispensing WFAN and WOR broadcasts, my little transistor radio has become a cliche, and I’m totally fine with that.  The antenna requires constant tightening so that it continues to stand up straight, and the battery case is held on by scotch tape, which makes changing the batteries inconvenient, to say the least.  It’s like something out of a comedy: a character has a cell phone from the ‘90s, or whenever, and the other characters mock it to no end.  Doesn’t the owner of the antique know that technology has moved on?  Did you ever hear of this thing called the MLB app?  It’s like the radio, except it sounds better and you can listen anywhere in the country.  And also, it doesn’t make you look like you’re stuck in 1955.

But like the character who just won’t let go of their Motorola touch-tone behemoth, the transistor does everything that I need it to, and barring a disaster, like the mutterings we’ve started to hear lately of radio no longer being profitable, it will continue to do so.  “As a guy, I feel I need a new computer every time a new model comes out, which is every 15 minutes,” Dave Barry once wrote.  “This baffles my wife, who has had the same computer since the Civil War and refuses to get a new one because — get THIS for an excuse — the one she has works fine.”  Call me a dinosaur, but what was good enough for FDR, Vin Scully and Red Barber, and every ballgame from the ‘20s until TV came around in the ‘50s is good enough for me.


Why I Am A Mets Fan

It’s a question that I hear all too often, even from people who know me well.

“But really, why do you like the Mets so much?”

Perhaps it’s asked so often because it’s a very hard question to answer.  Why do I like the Mets?  The only true answer is hours of stories – Marvelous Marv and Choo Choo Coleman all the way to Sean Gilmartin’s improbable success at the plate and Ronny Cedeño’s near home run against the Rockies three years ago, with good and bad, wins and losses, George Foster and Dae Sun Koo along the way.

And regrettably, not many people want to hear about that.

In the practical sense, of course, it’s simpler: I’m a Mets fan because my dad was a Mets fan, and he was a Mets fan because his mother was a Mets fan, and she was a Mets fan because she’d been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan until they left, and then decided to find a new team that wasn’t too far from the old one.  She was a Dodgers fan because if you lived in Brooklyn in the 1940s and ‘50s, you were a Dodgers fan.  That’s just what you did.

What happened to those days?

But although that’s the correct answer in the most mundane sense, it doesn’t really answer the question, or if it does, it answers it in the wrong way.  No one really cares whether my grandmother lived in Brooklyn or The Bronx; they’re asking about me.  And the question deserves an answer independent from factors beyond my own control.  They want to know why I myself am a fan, not how I was forced to become one.

And for a long time, I wasn’t sure myself.

I would answer the question with a standard line about how the Mets were more fun to watch, or how their games were more exciting, or something like that.  I knew I wasn’t going to lose my fandom, because beyond a certain point, that’s just out of the question, but I also wasn’t sure why I stuck to it so fervently in the first place.  It seemed like dogma, always accepted and never questioned but maybe not exactly true.  But it’s not.

I know it’s not, because in the days after the World Series, when baseball was associated with all manor of crazy emotions in my head, I thought long and hard about the essence of the question.  And in the end, I realized the truth: I hadn’t been sprouting standard lines at all.

Mets games are more fun to watch, and their players are more exciting, and it’s not just because I’m a fan.  And although the team that I’m really comparing to is the Yankees, who I know relatively well because they get all the good airtime in New York — although somehow, given one team’s World Series run and the other’s conspicuous wildcard loss, I feel that’s about to change — I get a feeling that this is true for the majority of Major League Baseball.

But why are the Mets more exciting to watch?  Well, to put it simply, they play baseball like a sport.  And although it doesn’t seem obvious, many other teams don’t.

The Yankees certainly don’t.  The Yankees are run firmly as a business, and they don’t like players outside of what they accept as normal because the fans may not like them.  The Mets, despite their payroll situation, are not run like a business.  Sure, perhaps the money is spent with profit in mind.  But the players who the money is spent on are here not because they’re assets, but because they’re athletes.

Consider one of the 2015 season’s iconic moments, Wilmer Flores night.  Wilmer had cried two days earlier when he’d found out that he would – almost – be joining the Milwaukee Brewers.  He and Wheeler, we thought, were headed there, in exchange for briefly-former Met Carlos Gomez.

Now imagine the same thing taking place in Yankee Stadium, and stop immediately because you can’t.  You just can’t.  A mid-tier prospect shedding more than a few tears at the thought of leaving the organization that he had spent eight years with?  That’s not how things happen in the Bronx.  The Yankees probably would have fined him for an unprofessional display of emotion.  Then they would have dumped him off at the deadline for nothing, and then made a blockbuster deal for Troy Tulowitzki, who, upon arrival, would have been forced to trim his hair so he didn’t earn the disapproval of the season ticket holders sitting in the first row.

No, the Yankees didn’t get involved in baseball for the human element.  On the Yankees, deGrom would lose his hair immediately, as would Thor.  Cespedes would lose the neon sleeve in favor of a uniform, dark blue one.  If I’m a Yankees fan, all the facial hair experiments that we’ve seen over the last few years, like the little known Daniel Murphy Mustache of 2013 which brings a smile to my face to this day, would be for naught, replaced by somewhat whiny complaints that even though our left fielder – the Yankees, that is – was perfectly fine, we needed a new one, because IT’S WHAT GEORGE WOULD HAVE DONE, GOD DAMN IT!!!!

Who are the Yankees?  They’re NBC news anchors.  They’re John Kasich or Hillary Clinton.  They stick pretty close to the middle, because if they move too far either way, they become deathly scared of losing their supporters.  Kasich growing his hair long?  Hillary going out on the campaign trail wearing bright yellow?  Forget it.  It’s not going to happen.  Now think of the Yankees doing something unorthodox — say, leaking the news that a trade had been made before announcing that there hadn’t been any trade.  Well, Hal runs a tight ship.  That’s not happening in the Bronx.

The Mets are Bernie Sanders, and they’re damn proud of it.  They’re the eccentric underdogs, fighting for recognition, and their supporters are all the more loyal because of the uphill battle.  They’ve got less money to spend, but the money they do have comes from the real fans – not from corporations, in the form of suite leases or campaign contributions, but fans that sit in the upper deck and have seats from Shea Stadium in their living rooms and can still tell you the story about that day in 1980 when Steve Henderson hit the walk-off home run against the Giants.  The Mets are for the people, not themselves, and they may not win as much as we’d like, but man oh man, are they fun to follow.

Of course, these are just subjective statements, and there’s always the matter of whether being run as a business instead of a ball club is what you want from a baseball team.  For the longest time, the Mets were emphatically not run as a business — giving Oliver Perez three years, $36 million hardly qualifies as businesslike — and it was ultimately to their detriment.  The Yankees, throughout the dynasty years of the late 1990s, were nothing more a win factory, and I’m sure their fans enjoyed it immensely.  But there’s a balance, and the 2015 Mets found it.  We spent well, but didn’t reign in our players’ creative interests.  We had character, but not at the expense of talent.

For fans who hadn’t seen postseason action since 2006, the 2015 World Series was just about as great as it gets.  But you can’t always make the World Series, and from year to year, the regular season, the experience of watching a team mesh together and grow over 162 games, is the real reward.  The postseason is extra.  If you’re lucky, you get between 11 and 20 games in October and November, and you get to be crowned champion of your division, or your league, or the world.  But winning, in the end, isn’t what baseball is about.

Baseball is about all those things it’s always been about, that have turned into cliches but can still be found at any decent ballpark.  Baseball is about hot dogs in the stands, the radio on the beach, the portable TV in the attic.  It’s about fun.  It’s about watching a team of guys who have fun while doing what they do, all while having fun yourself.  You don’t have to make the World Series every year to do that.

The Yankees, as I’ve written before, are a factory that produces wins, and if all you’re looking for is winning, then head on over to the Bronx.  Personally, I don’t care for this approach.  Baseball is a game, with fun as the end result.  Who hangs out in a factory for fun, even if it does produce wins?  But although the numbers that define baseball – and sports in general – can now be largely reduced to statistics and lines of computer code, the experience of the game cannot.  If all you want is a win, you don’t need to bother watching the game; just read the score online, or in the paper.  If seeing a W next to your team’s name, regardless of how it got there, is satisfaction enough from a baseball game, the Yankees are your team.

You could think of a baseball game as a factory assembly line, with eighteen separate stations that, together, yield a score and a result.  If you do think of a game that way, you may be a Yankees fan.  Put a stud pitcher and a mediocre offense through the machines, and at the end, out comes W 1-0, and that’s all you need to know about the game.  But quite clearly, that isn’t how baseball was meant to be.  The end result isn’t all that matters; if it was, anyone could check the score three hours after first pitch, and have satisfied their baseball yearning for the night.  Baseball is not an assembly line; it’s far more.

Instead, I like to think of a ballgame as a long, slow trip — if we’re really romanticizing, a cross-country train ride.  You could look at the weeks-long process, and reduce it to starting in New York one day and ending up in California three weeks later, but if that’s what you want, you can just fly.  Baseball gives you the stops along the way, which provide the stories that form the true meat of the experience.  Division rivalries as you pull through Philadelphia and Atlanta.  A clincher in Cincinnati.  Carlos Beltran falling down on Tal’s Hill in Houston.  A dirty slide in Los Angeles.

And then the trip is over, and you’ve reached your destination, and maybe it’s the greatest destination you could possibly have hoped for: a World Series trophy.  But the trophy, the end of your journey, is not the experience that lasts.  The stuff that sticks with you forever is watching every day for six months, going to sleep knowing that there’s another game tomorrow, and knowing that no matter what happens in the future, today, the Mets, our guys, have a ballgame to play.

We Mets fans, as Twitter will attest, are not the kinds of people who are satisfied with checking the score on the ESPN app and turning in for the night knowing the score and nothing else.  We’re there for every stop, the long, boring, inconvenient ones every bit as much as the thrilling nail-biters.  We watch, and we watch doggedly, for one reason: our team is not a factory that spews out wins and losses, but a group of people that we’ve come to know and appreciate.  We love our team and the players that make up our team, and when our guys succeed, we’re right there with them.  We don’t cheer for the W; we cheer for the players that make it happen.

And again, this could just be a Mets fan not understanding how other fan bases feel, but I don’t think so.  Given the chance to experience Mets fandom, and take in our history, passion, and emotional connection, I think a great many casual fans of the Brewers or the Padres – well, teams like the Brewers or the Padres, you know what I mean – would choose the Mets fan lifestyle.  And while I detest what the Wilpons did for so long to tear our team apart, and what they’re doing right now to prevent us from building on an incredible World Series run, I can say that in my mind, the connection we have with our team, which I have yet to see rivaled anywhere else in baseball, means we’ve got it pretty good.

So from now on, when the inevitable question is posed to me, that’s how I’ll answer it:

Because baseball is more than a win or a loss.

Because players are worth more to a real fan than 1.2 or 3.6 or 5.9 wins.

Because when a player cries on the field, it means they’re playing the game the right way, not the wrong one.

And above all, because baseball, for 170 years, has been about having fun.  And the Mets, for all the shortcomings that I’ll freely admit they have, know damn well how to have fun.


Michael With Force

As he jumped from Double-A ball to make his debut, and started hitting and never stopped, the accolades kept pouring in.

“Conforto might be the Mets’ best all-around hitter since the captain arrived in 2004,” wrote David Lennon in Newsday.

“Michael Conforto and the Mets are ready,” wrote Kevin Kernan in the Post.

“He’s an excellent player,” David Wright said.  “A great person, one of those young guys who gets it.”

And the praise was not unearned.  After a slow start in his six July games, Conforto hit August without breaking stride.  In 23 games, he hit .317/.405/.603, for an OPS of 1.006.

That’s right: a Mets rookie OPSed over 1.000 for a month – and, despite a drop-off in September and October, .841 for the year.  In slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+, Conforto was second only to Cespedes.  And unlike Cespedes, Conforto will be 23 next year, is under contract for the foreseeable future, and is not a liability on defense.  Far from it, in fact – while not perfect, Baseball Reference has Conforto’s dWAR at 0.8, almost a full run higher than Cespedes’.  Overall, Cespedes barely beats Conforto in WAR, 2.3 to 2.1 – and Cespedes did it in 249 plate appearances, to Conforto’s 194.

And Conforto’s strong points just keep coming.  In his 194 plate appearances, Conforto struck out only 39 times.  He walked 17 times – three more than Cespedes.  He hit 14 doubles – the same amount as Cespedes.

And again, he was 22.  He still has room for that oft-mentioned but infrequently observed development.  The average will go up.  The power will improve, even beyond its impressive 2015 showcase.

And even better, he’s got some luck coming his way.  Conforto’s Line Drive Percentage in 2015 was 22.6%, compared to an average of 20.9%.  Cespedes only had 20.4%.  But Cespedes’ 2015 BABIP was .323.  Conforto’s was .297.  The League average BABIP was .299.

BABIP lower than average, Line Drive Rate higher than average?  You know what that means – on top of all the development the coaching staff can coax out of him, Conforto’s got some luck coming his way as well.

But it goes beyond the numbers, because the numbers simply can’t do it all.  Just look at him.  Look at the fluid power of his swing, the elegance of his opposite-field line drive home runs, the infield that can’t shift because they don’t know where the ball is going.  Look at his two home runs in Game Four, a stage on which most rookies could only dream of finding themselves.  Look at his simple yet effective defense in the outfield, where preseason rumor had it that his defense would hurt the team.

And listen.  Listen to the excitement of the broadcasters as Conforto hits, and their comparisons to Don Mattingly.  Listen to the loud, clean sound of the ball off the bat as he homers twice in game four.  But above all, listen to that little voice.

You know the voice.  All Mets fans have it.  It’s the voice that we want to listen to, but are afraid of.  The voice that we’ve repressed since it let us down with Lastings Milledge and Fernando Martinez.  The voice that told us that deGrom was for real, but also tried to sell us on Alay Soler.  It’s the voice of optimism.  And in Mets fans, it’s been beaten down, given the wrong answer and then been silenced, so many times that we’re not sure whether it can still sprout the occasional nugget of truth.

But these aren’t the same old Mets.  This isn’t the face-palming team of early 2015, nor the laughingstock team of 2009-2014, or the where-prospects-go-to-die team of 2006-’08.  This is a whole new ball club.  This is a team that was good yesterday, and will be good tomorrow, next week, and next year.

So for once, give in to that little voice, or, failing that, to the broadcasters, pundits, opposing managers, teammates, opposing pitchers, analysts, scouts, etc., and take a good long look at Michael Conforto.  Take a look at what he’s got, and then think about just how good this kid could be.

And no, he may not be a Hall of Famer.  He may not be Willie Mays or Stan Musial.  But he’s a 23 year old outfielder with a great bat and a good glove, and on this team, that goes a long way.  Michael Conforto, in five weeks, five months, and five years, will be the solid hitter that this team and all its pitching needs to become a group that can beat anyone on any given day.

And yes, it’s tough as long-suffering, beaten-down Mets fans, to admit to ourselves that we might just have a pretty damn good team next year.  But this time, I’m listening to that little voice that’s telling me good things.  And Michael Conforto, I suspect, will prove me right.


My Very Own Two Game Road Trip

The Mets will open the 2016 season with a two game road trip.  And I, with my own personal 2016 season, will do the same.

As I returned from Madison Square Garden, the Knicks’ win over the Celtic fresh on my mind but the 2016 Mets threatening Kristaps Porzingis for my undivided attention, I was suddenly fully occupied with Opening Weekend of 2016.  It was sudden, unexpected: all at once, I couldn’t think of anything but Saturday, April 9th, when I’ll finally get back to Citi Field.

And so, walking home from the subway only minutes after watching what by all accounts was a heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping thriller of a win, a Mets fan who simply couldn’t wait any longer for baseball season began planning a trip.

Were Opening Day a night game, I’d make it, but it’s not, and I can’t.  But I won’t be far away though: come Friday, April 8th, when the Mets will take on the Phillies at 1:10, I’ll be A) in the midst of the three hour train ride from Providence to Penn Station, or B) finishing up Spanish class.  I haven’t decided yet, and I assure you that Opening Day won’t factor into my decisions at all.

Not that I’m winking as I say that, or anything.

In any case, as the Mets’ starter delivers Citi Field’s first pitch of the season (Syndergaard?  DeGrom?  Who knows, when we’ve got two games in five days to start the season?), I won’t be present, at least in any physical form.  But I’ll be close by, and rest assured I’ll be listening, one way or another.

Spanish class or not.

Regardless, I’ll be home by Friday night, and by that time, baseball in New York will be in full swing.  Some have questioned my priorities, spending a full weekend in New York to watch two baseball games, but if you don’t understand the way I prioritize things by now, it’s your job to get to know me better.

So I’ll get to New York, and whatever else I have to do will take a seat, because during baseball season, there’s no uncertainty as to what comes first.  And then finally, for the first time in what, I’m sure, will have felt like ten years, I’ll go through the standard pregame rituals: choosing a jersey checking the weather, evaluating StubHub offerings, etc.

And for what is mostly meddlesome, mildly inconvenient preparation, I’ll sure feel happy about it.

And then, after a sleepless night, it will be game day, and all the waiting, and anticipation, and fruitless speculation, and absolute monotony, which will already have been dissipating, to a degree, since Opening Night in Kansas City, will finally be ready to pay off in full.  And I’ll go through the motions, and make every attempt to pretend that sure, it’s just another day.  But everyone who knows me will know just how far from the truth that will be.

It will be the day I finally return to Citi Field, my second or third or whatever number home, on equal footing with all the others if not higher.  A World-Class ballpark that houses a World-Class team where World-Class memories have been made, with a pennant newly raised to commemorate the sheer volume of World-Classiness that Citi Field houses.

Repeat: you bet it won’t be a normal day.

I tell myself every offseason that I’ll remember the sensation of pulling ‘round the corner on the 7 train, and seeing the outline of Citi Field for the first time.  Every offseason I forget.  Maybe I’ll remember this season, but somehow, I think it’s more likely that I’ll forget, swept away in the euphoria.  But regardless, the sensation of finally returning will be, I’m sure, all that I’ve billed it.

And that’s how my season will begin, with a Saturday night game against the Phillies, which I’m feeling good about, because these are the Phillies and we’re the Mets and this is not 2007 but 2016 and we’ve got four aces and hitters to boot and they’ve got very little of anything.  We’re coming off a World Series run, and still will be the night of April 9th.  The Phillies?  Who are they?  We’ll take care of ‘em.  Harvey or Syndergaard or Matz or deGrom or even Bartolo Colón himself will do what they do, and six or seven scoreless innings and Reed and Familia later, we’ll have ourselves a win.

Saturday will end, and Sunday will begin, and I’m confident that against the Phillies, I’ll see another win, with all hands on deck and all machines humming.  Neil Walker will contribute, as will Asdrubal Cabrera, even though I didn’t like his signing, because I’ve just got some really good feelings about that opening weekend.  I don’t know particularly why this is: maybe that we just made a run to the World Series, maybe that the Phillies are bad and not getting better, maybe that the thought of having baseball to watch again makes me so damn giddy that I can’t help but think positively of it.

And that will be that.  With a two game road trip concluded, I’ll pack whatever I conspired to bring with me and catch a three hour train back to Providence, where school will resume in earnest and I’ll have a whole damn month before I can get off school and focus my attentions on the infinitely more desirable theater that will inevitably be playing out in Queens.  There will be highs and lows, injuries and triumphant returns, walk-offs and blowout losses, well played pitchers duels and sloppy slugfests that, at least, Keith Hernandez, we now know, will be back to grumble over.  But whatever it is, there will be baseball.

In the dead of winter, thoughts of Baseball overcame me, to the point that I buckled down and planned my first annual return to New York.  I really planned it – looked at trains and everything.  Few things are powerful enough to inspire that kind of compulsion – in fact, I can’t think of anything but this.  A return to baseball.  A return to summer.  A return to the suddenly homey grounds of Citi Field.

And after my two game road trip?  No, I won’t be back.  Not for a while, at least, with midterms and finals and projects and whatever else is dreamed up for us students to complete.  But it will be baseball season.  And with a nightly Mets game to look forward to, my month in captivity will pass in the blink of an eye, and I’ll be back in the seats before you know it.


Wherever Home May Be

Madison Square Garden is a nice building on its own, but it’s no Citi Field.

Yes, you read that correctly.  The perpetual drear offseason has me thinking about baseball in rose tinted glasses, and thinking of Citi Field, I suddenly find it less disappointing than I remember.

I watched the Knicks beat the Bucks last night.  It was a fine time, relative to the other options available on a January Sunday.  in four or five months, I doubt it.  But as offseason entertainment goes, Kristaps Porzingis and friends isn’t bad at all.

And then the game ended with a win, and the crowd slowly descended the stairs.  And that’s when Citi Field came to my mind.  The stairs at Madison Square Garden, the World’s most famous arena, are cramped, dingy, and airless.  They go on forever, and there are no windows to speak of.

I remembered descending the stairs at Citi Field after a win, a cool breeze blowing in from the parking lot, the Manhattan skyline visible beyond Queens, the smells of the game coming off the field, the postgame show playing over the speakers over the rotunda.  And I may be romanticizing, but if I am, I don’t think it’s the only thing.

We, the fans, were disappointed when Citi Field opened in 2009.  It didn’t honor Mets history.  Its outfield dimensions were ridiculous.  A seemingly random assortment of seats had glass panes in the way of the field.  And these were all very legitimate criticisms, but not enough to make Citi Field a bad place to watch a ballgame.  We deluded ourselves into thinking that they did, because there was so much wrong with Citi Field that it just had to be bad.  But although we didn’t immediately allow ourselves to see it, there was some good to be found.

The main attraction of Citi Field, as it went through construction, was that it was a world class ballpark.  That’s all we heard.  “When World-Class Citi Field opens in 2009,” or “This virtual tour of the Mets new world-class Citi Field, is brought to you by…”  For the most part, the world-class designation was ignored as Citi Field opened.  For one thing, no one knew exactly what it meant, and for another, the negatives were so numerous that whatever “world class” meant, we were sure it wasn’t enough.

The negatives to Citi Field, when it comes down to it, are that Citi Field is not Shea Stadium.  Many of us didn’t want to see Shea Stadium go, and when it did, nothing could have been enough.  And because of it, those who had hated to see Shea go allowed themselves to turn against a very pleasant, if not historical, ballpark.

I myself was sad to see Shea go, and I don’t deny that Citi Field has its share, or perhaps more, of drawbacks.  But Shea’s not coming back, and although I myself refused to accept that for the longest time, it’s time now to acknowledge both ballparks for what they were.

Shea was our childhood home.  It was that old house with the leaks in the basement and the kitchen too small for the family to eat in, but we loved it because it was ours, and because of the experiences that came with it.  It had an internal color scheme that we loved, and an exterior that, while maybe not the most beautiful thing in the world, was unique, and we loved it for that.

Citi Field is the new place in the fancy new neighborhood.  We didn’t like it when we moved in, almost on principle.  The slick new construction didn’t look anything like the old place that we were used to, and on the inside, everything was a dull shade of green.  We didn’t like the new place because it wasn’t the old place.  But as we critiqued everything that it wasn’t, we forgot to celebrate what it was.

Just think about all the good things about Citi Field.  Unlike Shea, it’s got plenty of space, all open to the outdoors, like baseball is supposed to be.  It’s got better food.  The views are better, as are the bathrooms and the clubs.  Citi Field has the plaza in center field, which we’ve taken for granted, but there was nothing of the sort at Shea.

No, Citi Field is not Shea, and it never will be.  It’s lacking in some ways, compared to Shea, and in others, much as we hate to admit it, Citi Field is Shea’s better.  And Citi Field has one thing that Shea, regrettably, no longer does: it’s home now.  If we’re honest, it’s been home, by letter if not by spirit, since 2009, but after the magical summer of ’15, Citi Field no longer faces a dearth of Mets memories.  And if we’re once again honest, that was the last thing holding it back.

When there was nothing left to complain about, we complained that Citi Field just hadn’t seen enough Mets history.  As if it was somehow the ballpark’s fault that it’s early years were populated by the Mets of the Manual and early Collins administrations, which didn’t yield any results of note until this past year.  Citi Field had seen a no-hitter, and that’s about it.  But even before 2015, things had begun to change.  After the final weekend of 2014 turned into the weekend of Lucas Duda, it seemed to crystalize in our minds that Shea would not be back, and that we were perhaps better off celebrating what we had.  Some resisted, but others acquiesced.

And then 2015 happened, and Citi Field finally saw what some marketing employees termed “Mets Magic” a few years back.  Our ballpark saw Wilmer Flores night, the sweep of the Nationals and subsequent movement into first place, the arrival of Cespedes, the terror of the four horseman rotation that was completed when Steven Matz had the best Mets debut of all time, seven playoff games and four wins, and the raising of our first brand new pennant in 15 years.  And, of course, Citi Field saw the World Series end, not in our favor, and there’s nothing that brings people together like heartbreak.

And now Citi Field has seen at least a fair share of Mets history for its relatively brief lifespan, and with that, the last major obstacle to full acceptance as Mets fans’ new home has vanished, for all but the most staunch Shea Stadium worshipers.  Not that these people are crazy, or anything like that: for the longest time, I was one of them, and even still, Shea holds an allure that I don’t think Citi Field will ever replace.  But Citi Field has turned a corner in my mind.  Before, I was reluctant, but Citi Field has won my favor.  Citi Field is home now.

This all started with a trip to Madison Square Garden, and a realization that Citi Field had nicer stairs.  That segued into a reflection on how nice it is for a stadium to have the amount of open, outdoor space that Citi Field does, and from there, my thoughts were off and running.

I don’t know if Citi Field deserves quite so many words right now; it’s not like the stadium is changing, and we won’t be back inside for three months at least.  But I think Citi Field has put up with enough, and is just now getting its due as a ballpark that is comfortable, well designed, and fun to attend, if not a carbon copy of Shea Stadium.  Citi Field is a heck of a ballpark, as well as now being our home, and I hope I’m not the last to finally acknowledge it as such, but even more than that, I’m glad that Citi Field is finally taking its rightful place as the home of some recent memories of Mets magic, and with that, winning over the hearts of fans who held out reluctantly for so long.

But even more than that, I just can’t wait to get back there.