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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