A Loyal Fan

I don’t make a habit of leaving Mets games early. I’ve done it only once in my life voluntarily. It was June 2012 in the Bronx; Johan Santana gave up three home runs in three batters early in the game against the Yankees, Elvin Ramirez couldn’t find the strike zone, and down 9-0 in the bottom of the eighth, I decided that leaving the stadium amidst a crowd of 50,000 rowdy, celebrating Yankee fans wouldn’t be in my best interests. Of course, the Mets scored their only run of the night the inning after we left, which only goes to prove that leaving early is never really a good idea.

But besides that game, and away from Yankee Stadium, I leave early only when I’m with someone who needs to leave early. Needs, not wants. I make it clear with every ballpark invitation I issue that leaving early isn’t to be taken lightly. You want to do it, you’d better have a damn good reason. I’ve stayed ’til the end every time I’ve been able, and along the way, I’ve done some waiting that might have been too much for a lesser fan.

Friday, March 23rd, 2014: a rain delay started in about the fourth inning of a game against the Diamondbacks. I stood there, in the upper deck and then on the field level, knowing full well that there was no way we would play, but waiting until it was official. The stadium was just about full when the game started, and still fairly crowded when the rain started; two hours later, it had emptied out. But at least the stragglers’ loyalty was rewarded; in the Flushing subway station, we told an MTA worker what had happened, and he radioed someone in charge to say hey, the Mets game just ended, Express service starts now. No, not two hours ago, that was just people leaving, it ended just now.

Or there was the time I waited, with my father and brother, fourteen innings in the cold shade of April 2014, for the Mets to beat the Braves. We were in the field level, but during the t-shirt launch at the 7th-inning stretch, we couldn’t catch anything. By the 14th-inning stretch — my first! — the stadium was so empty that we caught three or four shirts, wandering from row to row and gathering them up. And once again, the baseball gods rewarded the stragglers for their loyalty.

I’ve waited through thrilling wins like that one, and mind-numbing blowout losses, like this June, when we lost to the Pirates 11-1…and the Nationals 8-3…or last May, when we lost to the Dodgers 9-1…and the Nationals 9-1…and the Nationals 7-1…the blowout losses blend together until I can only remember them by the notes I’ve taken down in my log book (or its electronic equivalent, the MLB ballpark app), and yet, I keep waiting through them, hoping that one of these days, one of them will end well and all that loyalty will be rewarded, but knowing that even if it’s not, I’ll keep waiting anyway, because that’s what fans do.

At the first game I ever attended fully independently — bought my own ticket, made my own way through the New York subway system, paid for my own food and everything — the Mets were losing late. It was April 20th, 2013: we were up against the Marlins, and a young pitcher of theirs who was making his major league debut. His name was Jose Fernandez.

When John Buck struck out to strand David Wright and end the bottom of the eighth, people started filing out. In front of me, down near the field, a sign man was standing. A bootleg, not the original, although he did have a “sign man” jersey and a frequently rotating array of printed messages to display. Now, he was holding up a sign I hadn’t seen yet.

“Real fans stay ’til the end,” it said. And I wasn’t going anywhere. An inning later, Ruben Tejada was hit by a pitch, Kirk Nieuwenhuis singled, the runners moved to second and third on an errant throw, and Marlon Byrd drove them both home. And the real fans were there to see it.

Real fans stay ’til the end — it’s such a simple sentiment, and one that could be so obvious, but somehow, never holds true. People are always leaving. The seventh or eighth inning ends, and people head for the exits, no matter the score. Sometimes, there’s a reason, and even real fans can be excused for this; you have a child who’s fallen asleep, tomorrow is a school day, I’m going out to meet a friend. Sometimes, there’s a reason, but not a good one; the game is boring, the Mets are losing, the traffic is bad, the Mets suck. And sometimes, there’s no reason at all: people, it seems, have just taken to leaving baseball games, as if the rest of the game doesn’t matter and you’re only there to watch a few innings and then move on to another activity.

Sometimes, you have to leave. But the important thing is that real fans — real Mets fans — never want to leave. You leave for the kids, or for the parents, or for your friend who has to catch an early train tomorrow, or your friend who’s just tired. Leaving with a friend is a kind of loyalty just like staying until the end is, and it’s one of the few kinds that’s just as important. But leaving when it’s not absolutely essential — I can’t even imagine that.

It was 2004 the first time I was dragged away from a Mets game against my will. Heath Bell was pitching, and it was Shea, so as we walked toward the exit ramps, I got quick glances at the field each time we passed the entrance to a new section. I didn’t want to leave; even then, I had my priorities in order. I was crying as we drove away from the stadium, and my mom promised me that next time, no matter how long the game went, we’d stay until the last out.

***

Lots of things make Mets fans unique. There’s the connection I’m convinced is unparalleled; the personal investment in our team’s fortunes; the attachment to the club that lets itself out on twitter amusingly and sometimes downright alarmingly. But there’s also the loyalty. That may be what defines us. Because more than anything else, Mets fans are loyal.

They’re always asking us what makes a Mets fan, and we’re always telling them. But they never seem to believe us. We pour our hearts out explaining how we’re truer, bluer, and closer to our team than anyone else in the league, or the country, and at the end of it all, they scoff, or crack a Jason Bay joke, and we realize they were only laughing at us. We explain how much we’ve been through, and how, after it all, we still manage to troop out to the ballpark for another game, and somehow, it doesn’t seem to register at all.

Maybe that’s because every city and every fan base feels closer to their team than anyone. I certainly won’t tell fans of the San Diego Padres that we’re better fans than they are; that would be mean-spirited, and frankly irresponsible. Somewhere in San Diego tonight, there’s a kid listening to sports radio on a transistor under his pillow as he pretends to be asleep, hoping desperately that he’ll hear something about his ballclub. There are good, loyal, die-hard fans in every city that has a team, and some that don’t.

But that same loyalty could be exactly why Mets fans are different. Lots of fans of all kinds of teams are loyal because that’s how they are. Mets fans are loyal because we’ve become that way — after submitting ourselves to the grueling rigors of Mets fandom, we come out, whatever’s left of us, as bastions of loyalty to a team we love unconditionally. We have to, if we’re going to put up with the shenanigans they put on.

Really — how can you be a Mets fan and not be a loyal one? If you’re a Mets fan — that is, if you’re still a Mets fan — you’ve been through head-pounding, face-palming nonsense from all sides. From the owners — Bernie Madoff, Bobby Bonilla, Jeff Wilpon getting sued, Citi Field forgetting it was the Mets who played there. From the players — valley fever, refusing MRIs, taxi accidents, brawls with onlooking relatives. And from people whose names fans of ordinary teams don’t even know — Ray Ramirez, Mike Barwis, Jay Horwitz, Eric Langill, Charlie Samuels, Tony Bernazard — Tony Bernazard! Ordinary fans don’t deal with things like this, and Mets fans aren’t ordinary fans. If you’re still here after everything we’ve been through, you’ve proven your loyalty beyond a reasonable doubt.

I own lots of shirts from The 7 Line, but somehow, I don’t believe they have one with their slogan printed on it. If they do, I don’t have it yet. “Loyal ’til the last out,” it would say, loudly and proudly across the front. Which means: you can leave after the sixth, and grab some friends and go out for a drink, and you’ll probably have a lot of fun doing it. Or you can stay in your seat in the upper deck during a 12-2 loss, and watch a reliever with a 7.29 E.R.A. pitch to some hitter whose name you’ve forgotten on a team that doesn’t even matter. Both are fine options. But if you want to be a true, orange and blue fan, you pick the second option.

***

“Loyal ’til the last out” is good. It’s better than good; it’s great, and it’s essential. But it’s only a starting point.

Sometimes, it’s easy to be loyal ’til the last out, when everything is good and the last out is cause for celebration. It was certainly easy to refrain from leaving early in 2015, when usually, the last out meant we’d won. In winning seasons, even when the last out means one game hasn’t fallen your way, it also usually means that you can look forward to another win tomorrow.

Hell, even in a bad year, it’s easy enough to stay until the game ends. Well, it’s easy enough for me; usually, I find that ballgames, even the worst ones you can imagine, go by far too quickly. But even for people who find baseball dull — they really exist, and I can’t stand them — staying for the entirety of one game isn’t usually too trying a task.

Real Mets fans, the truest among us, are loyal to the last out, and then more. We’re loyal to the next week, the next month, the next season. If you’re loyal to the last out, or the next game, only so long as the Mets are winning…well, so long, it was nice to have you. Here’s some news: the Mets aren’t winning very often. We’re all still here. We’re not loyal to the last out — we’re loyal to the last breath. Morbid? Sure. But there’s nothing I can imagine turning off my devotion to Mets baseball, nor many of the fans I’ve encountered, so it seems fairly accurate.

The loyalty Mets fans have showed sometimes impresses even me — and I’ve showed it myself (I like to think). Think about it. Starting in 2004, we witnessed an almost embarrassingly bad trade of our hottest pitching prospect, a pitcher whose party-prone wife couldn’t handle New York, a pitcher who was disappointed but not devastated, a 3:00 a.m. call to the West Coast, a season wracked by injury after injury after injury, a new ballpark whose dimensions were a joke and whose aesthetics were almost nonsensical, several players who were so bad they defy description (Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez, Luis Castillo), Jason Bay, a five-way race for the second-baseman’s job that landed on Brad Emaus — Brad Emaus! — and a first baseman who returned only to be named an HGH user, a star pitcher who threw a no-hitter only to injure himself by the end of the month and never pitch again, owners shedding payroll after being involved with the largest Ponzi scheme in history, a star third baseman who, in the midst of legging out an infield hit, injured himself and hasn’t been the same since, the antics of Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth, Terry Collins making decision after decision that may have cost us a World Series trophy, a heartbreaking loss in a wildcard game, and another season that fell apart after multiple injuries, and turned into our worst season since 2009.

My head hurts reading and writing that. And yet I’m still here, Mets cap and jacket at the ready, hoping like hell that the offseason passes quickly so I can get back to Citi Field and watch Mets baseball again.

We’re all still here, for the same reason that we’re still in the stands in the ninth inning of a game we have no shot at winning: it’s still baseball. It’s still Mets baseball. We’re Mets fans. We watch the Mets, and we love every moment of it, even the ones that are really unbearable. What else are we going to do?

***

Why do we love David Wright so much?

Is it because of his offense? His defense? The way he carries himself off the field? His beautiful smile? Well, those all play their parts. But I don’t think any of them explains it in full.

It’s not just his offense or his defense: Mike Piazza had better offensive numbers as a Met, and lots of people have been better defenders. It’s not his gleaming smile: we’ve had — maybe — better looking guys than David (have we? I can’t think of any, but we must have). And it’s not just his off-the-field bearing: David sure is a boy scout, but we’ve had lots of those. David Wright is quite possibly the most beloved New York Met since Tom Seaver — why?

Well, maybe it’s because we know what loyalty means to us. We, the loyal Mets fans, appreciate loyalty too. We’ve sat through the bad hoping for the good, and out there, playing third or stretching out in the clubhouse or rehabbing his back and his shoulder, David has done the same. Really, he’s just like one of us: He stays ’til the end because he’s a Met. That’s what he is, so that’s what he’ll do.

Not to bash Tom Seaver, but David may be the most loyal Met in team history. When ownership got tired of the Franchise, Tom demanded a trade. When Fred Wilpon said that David wasn’t a superstar, David signed an eight year contract.

As a child, I looked at David Wright and saw a star, a legend, an icon. I look at him now, and I still see all that. But I see something else too.

David Wright is a Mets fan. There’s no other way to tell it. He opted to stay here, in Queens, at a discount rate, because he was loyal to this team. His team. He wanted to win a championship — he said as much. But he wanted to win it as a Met.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets

David Wright, our captain and, it seems, our fellow loyal fan.

So why do Mets fans love this? Because we’re loyal too. David’s here to stay. So are we. And we respect that. Just look at David’s remarks after he signed the contract that was all but guaranteed to make him one of the longest tenured Mets in club history. He’s talking straight to the most loyal of the fans.

“I can honestly say I’ve never pictured myself in a different uniform,” he said, echoing what we fans think all the time, especially when someone’s asking what we’re doing rooting for a team that makes us pull our hair out. I’ve never pictured myself in a different uniform either; I’ll wear the orange and blue, with as much pride as I can muster, whether there’s anything to be proud of or not. And David Wright echoed that, when he said, at the same press conference, “I knew this was where I wanted to be. It made the decision pretty easy. I think that my friends and family knew that putting this uniform on was important to me, start to finish.”

He knew this was where he wanted to be; so did I. So do all the fans who wait out the ninth inning of an unsalvageable game because it’s a few more minutes at Citi Field with our guys. And putting on the uniform is important to us too.

There’s another quote that I remember, maybe from the same press conference, but I can’t find the source. It seems like something David would say, though, so I think I have it right. It’s pretty simple; in fact, I can only remember the first half.

“I’ve been through some good,” he says, “some bad, and a whole lot of ugly.” Then he goes on to explain that good things are coming, and he’s going to keep working hard, and eventually, all that work will pay off. And as you listen to something like that, it becomes clear.

David Wright is more than our captain, our third baseman, our star, our favorite player — he’s all of us. He’s every Mets fan. And there he is, sitting in the upper deck in a game that hasn’t gone his way, not leaving, but looking forward to tomorrow, or next month, or next season, when maybe fortunes will turn his way again. But I get the feeling that he’ll be here with us regardless. We’ll be here to watch, no matter how the season’s going, and he’ll be here to play. He’s a Met. We’re Mets fans. What else would he do?

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