Fandom On Trial

I was sitting in the Upper Deck, about level with third base, listening to the stadium erupt in boos as Chase Utley came to bat.  I don’t remember what Thor was doing on the mound; I’m sure he was calm and cool, aloof and above everything else.  It was early in the evening of May 28th, 2016.

I saw the pitch go to the backstop.  I watched the plate umpire stride righteously towards the mound.  I looked on in disbelief as he ejected our ace from the game, and seconds later, as my brain whirred back into function and I put the pieces together, I realized that what had happened was seriously wrong.

In the immediate aftermath of Thor’s draconian ejection, I talked to a great many people about what had happened.  Some agreed; others did not.  The ones who did not gave almost as many arguments as there were respondents: the pitch was nowhere near him, you give a warning first, players should police themselves, “make baseball fun again,” and the like.  I vigorously agreed with all, in the spirit of pragmatism and ill will towards Adam Hamari.  But none was exactly the response I was looking for.

***

What is fandom, exactly?  What does it mean to be a fan?  And how does it work, when you’re sitting in the stands with a shackburger™ and a lemonade and you just want to see your guys do well?

The question came to my mind the other day, as I scrolled through the comments — already, silly me — on a blog post about David Wright.  Would his number be retired, the post asked?  Did it deserve to be?

I have one answer that will not change: of course it does.  David Wright, over his 13-and-counting years in orange and blue, has given us everything he could, and then some.  He’s worked back from injury; he’s played while still injured; he’s gotten hits and driven in runs like nobody else in franchise history.  He’s been the face of the franchise; always working hard; courteous and polite with the media.  He’s got everything.

He’s the best position player in Mets history; that, I should think, merits a number retirement on its own.  His off-field comportment only adds to his case.

But I digress.  The real question was, who exactly is rooting against the retirement of David Wright’s number?  And why?  How one can be a Mets fan, and at the same time advocate — positively, no less — that David Wright’s number should not be retired?

It’s a simple case, to me.  I’m a Mets fan.  David Wright is a great Met.  I’d love to see his number on the left field wall, or rather, displayed on the overhang above the upper deck.  I’m not worried about precedent, whether if you retire Wright number you have to retire someone else, and that someone else means you have to retire someone else, and so on and so forth until eventually retiring David Wright’s number five means we have to number 33 for Vinnie Rottino.  What’s done is done.  David Wright’s retirement isn’t done yet; what happens when he does finally hang ‘em up remains to be determined.

So, as a Mets fan, I’m a fan of the Mets.  It should seem self-evident; I think it is.  But this doesn’t mean I root for “the Mets” as an intangible concept, or I really like the logo, or anything like that, any one of those abstract constructions of fandom that misses the forest for the trees.  I’m a fan of the Mets, or in other words, the players that make up the team.  I root for them.  I like them.  I’m a fan.

This, I think, is where a distinction comes in between most fans and whatever I am.  Die-hard, true blue, fanatic, whatever.  I think I’m just a true fan.

What makes a true fan?  It’s a tough question, rife with all kinds of criteria like whether one remembers a certain foul ball Dave Magadan hit in 1990 or whether they can name the entire Opening Day roster from 2010 (Alex Cora, Gary Matthews Jr., et al).  But really, I think the distinction comes down to a simple difference.  The difference between being a fan, and rooting for the Mets to win.

I root for the Mets to win; all Mets fans do.  It’s in the definition.  But I don’t root for wins in a vacuum.  That, to me, misses what baseball is all about.

I saw people writing surprisingly nastily as I scrolled through the comments, about how David needs to give it up and hang ‘em up, how he’s done and needs to quit before we spend any more on him, how people are big, big fans of David Wright, but maybe he should just retire.  These people, I’m sure, all root for the Mets to win.  They want more money freed up to spend.  They don’t want a player with an injury history taking up a roster spot.  They think David Wright’s role could be more effectively and efficiently filled by someone else.

Sure.  Check.  What else?

Is that all the persuading you need, before concluding that David Wright, the captain, should just go away?  It’s certainly not, at least in my case.  Sure, I’d like the Mets to win.  But even accepting for argument’s sake that Wright won’t help with that (and I don’t agree; I’ll go to the grave believing that David Wright has a good year or two left in him), does the argument really end there?

Of course it doesn’t.  David Wright is a Met, and just about the best Met there is.  I’m a fan of his, as I am of almost every member of the Mets past and present, but to far greater extent.  Cast out our captain, who’s given us his health and his career, because we might gain a win or two from it?  Sounds like something the Yankees would do.

Just like the Mets aren’t some unreachable concept but a group of players, David Wright is a player himself.  He’s not numbers; he’s not a glove and a bat; he’s a kid from Virginia who’s pretty damn good at playing third base.  You don’t root for the Mets; you root for the players among them.  And David Wright stands out emphatically from that group.

Some guys, you don’t have to root for.  Vince Coleman.  Bobby Bonilla.  You know the type.

But if you’re a Mets fan, you root for David Wright.  And that means that when you hear he’s getting close to returning to baseball activity, or whatever stage he’s at right about now, you don’t grumble and moan about how he’ll just get injured again.

Rather, you celebrate it like it’s news that your brother just got a promotion, which, for me, is as close to the truth as can be said of any non-familiar relation.  David Wright is one of our guys.  So you root for him.  And when you hear that he’s almost recovered from yet another freak injury, you don’t tell him to retire; you’re happy about it.

***

Likewise, when Adam Hamari stole the show and the happiness and ejected Noah Syndergaard, I was insulted.  Not because it was against precedent, or was bad for the fabric of the game, or any of it.  Put simply, Noah, like David, is one of our guys.  You don’t eject him.

Sure, there may have been grounds for ejection.  Adam Hamari may have made the best decision of his life.  In front of the Supreme Court, that ejection may well have been held up as an example of flawless decision-making under pressure.

When, remind me, did we start playing in front of the Supreme Court?  And why do some act like we are?

No one ever said that fans have to think critically about each and every choice they make.  So why even bother with the legalistic interpretation?  Why not just say it like this?

Noah is one of our guys.  You ejected him.  I’m against you.

For the experts, of course, more nuanced interpretation is needed.  But no one said fans needed to be experts.  We’re just folks who love our team.

That, I think, is where the line between fandom and super-fandom, or whatever it is I and my ilk practice, lies.  Fans become superfans when rationality leaves the picture, and is replaced with undying allegiance.

In the real world, of course, this is hardly a desirable mindset.  But baseball isn’t part of the real world; it’s almost the opposite.  For fans, that’s the whole point of the game, and of sports in general.   You can root, secure in the knowledge that if you lose, you’ll be okay eventually, and if you win and keep winning, eventually you’ll find yourself holding a trophy in early November, and you’ll be happier than you’ve ever been or ever will be.  Rooting, for the most part, is the same.  There’s no lasting harm done either way.  It’s not a trial; Citi Field is the opposite of a courtroom.  You can root however, and for whatever reasons, you want.  So why not choose the happiest, most positive ones?

***

After Thor’s ejection, things went south quickly.  Logan Verrett gave up a bundle of runs, we failed to do much ourselves besides a Juan Lagares eighth-inning solo home run that could be featured in the dictionary next to the entry for “too little, too late,” and we lost 9-1.

I wasn’t too miffed as I left the ballpark.  I was secure in the knowledge that tomorrow was a new day, that David Wright was and always would be my favorite player, and that the crew of spare parts on the field, despite the lopsided results, had given everything they had.

I don’t presume to tell anyone else how to be a fan; as I said, you can root for whatever reasons you want.  But I find that my style of fandom — stepping back from the complaints about Curtis Granderson’s arm or Yoenis Cespedes’ sleeve, and appreciating being out on a summer night, watching a team you love give everything it’s got to win ballgames, while also appreciating the players who make up the team, and have devoted their lives to playing this game as long as they can, as well as they can, and treating these players as neither overpaid hacks nor robotic baseball machines but rather as friends and brothers, who we stick by through thick and thin — makes for a fun night at the ballpark.

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First In War, First In Peace…

Raise your hand if it makes you smile when you hear, “The Nationals have never won a playoff series.”  That many of you?  Good.  Me too.

There’s something special about seeing the Nationals fail on the biggest, brightest stage, or at least the stage that stands in for the biggest and the brightest in the months from November to March.  The Hot Stove, the pipeline, or whatever the pundits are calling it these days.  That’s where the Nationals failed.

There, and in every playoff series they’ve ever played.  Never gets old, does it?  Especially if you catch the allusion in the title, which does nothing if not prove that losing ways in Washington have been around for a while, and very well could be for a while longer.

I got slightly nervous a few days ago, as did most of Mets fandom, when it came out that the Nationals were out to make some moves.  They were going for Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen, the story went, and what was more, they thought they had the prospects to pull off both trades.

Remember that time we heard that we had the prospects to get a deal done, and we all believed it?  I don’t either.  Whatever credibility our front office once had when it comes to being near to completing deals, it dissipated in the aftermath of July 29th, 2015, and then completely vanished when, during the 2015 offseason, it was reported that our guys thought themselves the favorites to land Ben Zobrist, when he had already done everything short of installing the furnishings in his Chicago apartment.

However, the news was A) not about us, and B) good news for a major division rival, so we assumed it had to be true.  Honestly, even when news is false, good for us, or not related to a division rival, I assume it will end badly for us.  That’s what I call Met Luck right there; when you know, immediately upon the non-tendering of Justin Turner, that he’ll come back sometime, and come darn near close to grabbing a playoff series from our fingers.

Thank goodness we had Thor to extinguish Turner’s otherwise Gubraithian bat (it’s a reference, google it; you’ll understand).  Let’s hope we’ve got a pitcher of similar capabilities (not to mention hair) the next time Mike Baxter digs in against us.

But this was good news for the Nationals, and bad news for us, so it had to be true.  Off the top of my head, besides Daniel Murphy and all that he’s done, I can’t think of many news items that have actually fit this description over the last few years.  Maybe the Nationals have actually been having a slow go of things.  But come on.  They’re the Washington Nationals.  They don’t have any kind of ridiculous, laughably awful luck innate to the character of their team (besides the fact — and I mention this for the benefit of Nationals fans who are reading this, as well as Mets fans who like hearing it — that they’ve never won a playoff series).

They’re the Nationals.  They’ve never had Norihiro Nakamura.  They’ve never traded Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, literally or figuratively.  They didn’t have to go through Jason Bay or Ollie P.  So, contracts and other formalities notwithstanding, Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen were basically Nationals.

Even then, honestly, I wasn’t too worried about it (if you said that in a Mr. Krueger voice, raise your hand — good, good).  They’re the Nationals; we know what they’ll do.  They’ll be okay, maybe pretty good, maybe really good, maybe mediocre.  They’ll finish first, maybe, or second.  Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen don’t change the inherent uncertainty that surrounds the Nationals, the ineffable fact that no matter what they do, they’ll always be pretty good, but not great.

And regardless — you can trade for Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen, but you can’t trade for victories in playoff series.

However, it can’t be denied that Chris Sale on the Nationals is a foreboding thought, just as each and every one of our four or five or possibly seven starters can be a foreboding thought in their own right.  As a matter of principle, as well as a finely-calibrated appreciation for winning and an even more narrowly tailored desire to win divisional matchups, I don’t like to see the Nationals improve, unless they’re doing so by adding players who will ultimately tear their team apart and lead meltdowns that are entertaining, as an opposing fan, to watch.  Basically, I mean to say that I don’t mind the Nationals improving, so long as they’re doing so by signing Jonathan Papelbon.  Ah, someday.

As for Chris Sale, Terry Collins agreed with me.  “I really thought for sure Sale was going to end up in Washington,” said Terry Collins, who really thought Matt Harvey was good to start the ninth, and was really sure that there was no need to pinch-run for Wilmer.  Terry, who thought Jim Henderson’s arm would be fine, no trouble, pins and needles needles and pins, thought this was going to happen.  So maybe I shouldn’t have been so certain.

Of course, we all now know what happened, or if we don’t, we at least have inklings, based on the amount of tweets I’ve seen today mentioning, in no uncertain terms, that the Nationals have never won a playoff series.  They didn’t get Chris Sale.  That doesn’t help.

Everyone healthy, everyone pitching and hitting and running — I tell ya, I can’t wait to play the Nationals this year.  Thor, deGrom, and a resurgent Harvey, facing off against whatever scrubs they throw against Reyes, Cabrera, Walker, Cespedes, Conforto, Granderson, Wright, Duda, d’Arnaud…etc, etc, etc.  Hey, maybe Chris Sale isn’t enough to beat us, although the Nationals will never know.  You know, maybe we’ve got some better hitters than Andrew McCutchen on our roster — although the Nationals may never have the chance to find out either.  We’re pretty good, is the point — Sale and McCutchen or just McCutchen or not, we’ve got a team that you’ve got to work to beat, and without Sale, you’ve got to work all the harder.

Sandy Alderson, apparently, isn’t ready to admit that maybe, just maybe, we’re doing ok.  “If he ended up in our division we would have had to deal with it, but it didn’t happen,” he said, again regarding Sale. “But guess what, somebody else will end up in our division, so we’ll have to deal with that.”

Sure, somebody else will land in our division.  And we’ll have to deal with them.  Meanwhile, they’ll have to deal with our fearsome pitching staff, our solid solid bullpen, and our slugging, powerful lineup.  We can deal with people.  We’ve been doing it for the last few years now, and I don’t see it stopping any time soon.  Maybe we’re the ones who are actually tough to deal with.

“We dodged a bullet,” Terry said, regarding Sale’s trade to Boston.  He neglected to mention the fact that within our 25 man roster, we’ve got, ready to fire, some pretty formidable bullets of our own.

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I Was Countin’ Down The Days…

No one likes the offseason.  Well, no one who’s anyone likes the offseason.  It’s too long.  It’s windy and cold.  Nothing happens.  It hurts to throw and catch.  And, again, it’s cold.

This offseason in particular, it seems, is really taking its sweet time.  Maybe it’s something that always happens; when you go to a World Series, the offseason the year after always feels slower by comparison.  I wouldn’t know; the last time I had two consecutive offseason, one coming after a World Series appearance, to compare, I was four years old, too young even to know who the Mets’ Opening Day starter in 1982 was.

But regardless, we’ve got one clunker of an offseason to get through, so we’ve got to get down to it.  Watch some highlights.  Read some books.  Even listen to some old radio calls, assuming they’re available (they’re not available on mobile devices, as I discovered in cruel fashion on the treadmill a few days ago).

And, from time to time, check back on your progress with the Shea Bridge Report Official Opening Day 2017 Countdown Clock.  Give it a look now, and then in the New Year, and then mid-January, and suddenly, before you know it, it’s Pitchers and Catchers, and there’s no need for a countdown clock anymore because we’re absolutely absorbed in such urgent Spring Training details as Matt Harvey’s hairstyle and, invariably, animals of some sort.

The point, if there is a point, is that the offseason will pass – temporally quantifiably.  Already, since I created the countdown, we’ve shaved a good few minutes off it.  We’ll continue to do so – after all, it’s almost the Winter Meetings, which will signal that the worst part of the offseason has ended – and before we know it, it will be early on the morning of April 3rd, 2017, and we’ll be up and rearin’ to go, counting down the minutes and the seconds until we can once again turn the radio on after a commercial and hear, “From Citi Field, in Flushing, New York…”

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The countdown won’t matter then.  In months leading up to then, which is to say the months immediately ahead of us, it will matter only marginally more.  But it’s got orange and blue lettering, and if memories of the orange and blue can’t get us through this long haul of an offseason, I don’t know what else can.

And if you’ve missed the previous links, the countdown can be found here.

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