How to Write about the Mets

“The first thing to know about Mets fans is that most of us are insane.”

I was sitting near the front of a school bus. We were rattling down a back road through some forest in Maine, and the rest of the bus was full of 11-year-old boys who were chanting, for reasons that don’t matter to this story, about democracy. Meanwhile, I was thinking that I had just written the first line of my book.

It was mid-July, but I was already looking ahead to September. Since February, I’d been working on applying to Brown’s Nonfiction Honors Thesis program; in April, I’d been accepted. It’s a credit to Brown’s openness, I suppose, that I got accepted after submitting a proposal full of lines like “I’m one of those people whose lives are defined by a baseball team, the kind of guy who you’re surprised to see not wearing a Mets jacket” and “How did I learn that you always have a fighting chance, or to never be sure of something before it happens? The Mets taught me, and in my thesis, I will explain exactly how they did.”

My thesis advisor, an eternally enthusiastic English professor who always showed up to meetings late, worn out, and smiling, had been pushing me towards the program for months, and he always used the same line. “It’s the chance to write your magnum opus,” he would say. “It’s the perfect opportunity to have time to write the thing you’ve always wanted to write.”

It was an intriguing concept, and once I thought about it, I had to admit that it sounded pretty much perfect. So I applied, got in, and started planning. Well, not exactly planning. I thought about almost nothing else, but I didn’t put pen to paper. I mentally catalogued my Mets stories, sorted them into groups, and started thinking about how to imbue them with meaning in a way that would go beyond telling stories about watching the Mets enough to earn honors from an Ivy League University.

I could see from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be simple. It was also a busy time: while I was thinking exhaustively about how to organize dozens of thousands of words about being a Mets fan, I was also working at a summer camp in Maine, a job, as the directors liked to say, which meant that I was never not working. I was also preparing for my final year as a baseball columnist at The Brown Daily Herald. I’d already started working on my final column, which I knew had to be perfect. I’d been working on it, more or less, since my first column, and now, with nine months left, I had to start getting my ideas in order.

But on that bus in the forest in Maine, I wasn’t thinking about my last column, or how I would possibly organize all my stories, or even my camp group. I was thinking about how I’d just written the first line of my book, and how it was absolutely perfect.

You can’t write something good without a great first line. In an introductory writing class my freshman year at Brown, we spent one day doing nothing but leafing through Best American Essays 2015, reading each first line, and trying to figure out what made a first line great. Sometimes it’s obvious. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, for instance, begins:

“Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.”

E.B. White’s Death of a Pig, meanwhile, begins:

“I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.”

I thought the line I’d come up with fit my project perfectly. “The first thing to know about Mets fans is that most of us are insane.” It says so much. It lets readers know, right off the bat, that they’re about to read a book about the Mets and Mets fans; a book with a writer whose voice is the kind that would start things off by saying “most of us are insane.” A writer, of course, who has just opened the book by saying that he himself is a Mets fan, and he himself is insane (that’s why I liked “us” so much). And, of course, it lets readers know that most Mets fans, in fact, are completely insane, albeit in different ways, and they’re about to hear a lot more about it.

How else to start a book about the Mets? Insanity — it’s perfect. So I wrote the line down, and took a long break before I started thinking about what to write in the second sentence.

*          *          *

“All I knew was that David was young, cool, and a great hitter. But his first at-bat, I did get a sense that he might not have the greatest luck in the world. Because the line drive he smashed up the middle, the line drive that I was sure would be an RBI single, was snatched out of the air by the shortstop.”

In September, a few months after I’d written the first line and done nothing else, I wrote the first chapter. It was all about 2004 and discovery and childlike innocence and things like that, and when I finished it I realized that I had written 5,000 words about the 2004 New York Mets, to go along with a 3,500-word introduction. I was starting to realize that lack of material would absolutely not be a problem.

I was also starting to realize that the storyline of my thesis was shaping up as I was writing it. David Wright was rehabbing his many injuries, and was hoping to return to the field before the end of the 2018 season. If all went according to plan, my thesis would end with the end of the 2018 season. And David Wright, I was beginning to see, was going to be, besides me, the book’s most important character.

Who else could it be? David Wright had been my favorite player for something like 14 of my 15 years of fandom. My freshman year, in fact, in a class called “Sport in American History,” we’d been assigned to write a paper on our sports heroes — that’s the Ivy League! I wrote about David Wright, of course. Then I took Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, and wrote about David Wright for that too. Then I took Sports Writing, and near the end of that semester, during the “memoir/column” unit, I wrote a piece about the Mets that I didn’t end up submitting.

It started like this:

“So there I was, sitting in the Upper Deck at Citi Field, holding a sign that said ‘Hunter Pence is a rotten cornet player,’ hoping that the Mets could avoid being no-hit by the Giants, but knowing that they couldn’t.”

And it ended like this:

“And, of course, I was carrying an enormous picture of David Wright’s face printed on foam, because I wanted something new for my wall.”

I think it’s fair to say, then, that without David Wright and everything he’d done as a Met since 2004, I didn’t have a thesis. And he was working his way back, which meant I had perfect new material to work with, and also, of course, that I was so distracted by David Wright finally working his way back that working on new material was the last thing I wanted to think about. But I managed to do both.

A few days after I wrote the first chapter, Wright held a press conference. The Wilpons were on stage with him, and I was sitting in a class unable to watch, but I learned from the sudden emotional downturn on Twitter that Wright’s plan was fairly straightforward. His body couldn’t take it anymore, but he was going to play one more game anyway. He was going to prove that he could make it back, that for all his injuries and setbacks, he was that same guy we all loved, the same guy who broke his finger and came back two days later to hit a home run. Still the captain. He was going to prove that he was stronger than his body, more powerful than the ravages of injury and age.

We’re jumping ahead here, but I already knew that the thrust of my thesis, once I reached the years from 2009 to 2015, was going to be health, and how it impacted David Wright and me. This, for the most part, is a story I’ve told before, so I won’t go into great detail here, but suffice it to say that I came down — if that’s the right phrase — with Pediatric Epilepsy a few weeks before Matt Cain hit David in the head with a fastball in 2009; we suffered more or less concurrent setbacks as the years went on; then, in August 2015, when David came off the Disabled List in Philadelphia and with his first swing in months hit the ball about seven miles, it more or less marked the end of my fight with rogue brain waves. We’d both triumphed, in other words, and you’d better believe I found some solid writing material in the whole ordeal.

So, what better end to my thesis than David Wright returning one last time, and providing some closure to an entire adolescence centered around Mets fandom? I certainly couldn’t think of one. So as soon as the class ended, I bought my tickets to the game. I bought train tickets later that night. And a few weeks later, I got on the subway in my WRIGHT 5 jersey. Notebook and pens in a bag, along with a pack of tissues (not my idea, but they came in useful).

We probably all remember what happened that night — see my thesis for a detailed accounting — but I’ll say this: if I was a fiction writer, it would have taken me years to come up with an ending as good as the one the Mets provided that night. Maybe it would have been impossible. Wright walking in the first inning, then leaving in the fourth; Brandon Nimmo, my new favorite player, pulling his hamstring in the seventh; the game going to the 13th inning still scoreless; the heroes, ultimately, being Austin Jackson and Jack Reinheimer…it was as if the Mets had read what I’d written so far, and were subtly alluding to it as often as they could.

Maybe I was just seeing things that I would have seen anyway…but come on. Brandon Nimmo, my new favorite player, pulling his hamstring crossing first base, the same game as David Wright, my favorite player of all time — who once pulled his hamstring crossing first base — takes the field for the last time? I had a ballclub that was being systematically torn to shreds by the baseball gods, but I also had a hell of an ending.

The next day, I took the train back to Providence. First, though, I watched Noah Syndergaard throw a complete game shutout to end the season…just like Nelson Figueroa in 2009…and Miguel Batista in 2011…I just sighed, resigned. The Mets may not be the greatest team in the world, but as literary figures, I have to think they’re unmatched.

*          *          *

“But those aren’t the conversations we had that I most remember. I most remember the times we talked about Ike Davis.”

When you’re writing what will eventually become 95,000 words on the Mets, and you go into each season without much of a plan besides a handful of stories you know you want to work in, you’ll end up running into a problem, what Twitter baseball pundits might call “a good problem to have.” The problem, of course, is that you’ve — that is to say, I’ve — been to hundreds of Mets games, and probably have a dozen or more good stories from each season, and you simply cannot include every one. So you have to pick and choose.

That’s why, for instance, I titled my chapter on the 2010 season “A Nice Jewish Boy.” It has two main through-lines: my seventh-grade Bar Mitzvah season, and Ike Davis becoming the talk of New York. So I built the chapter around Judaism, not as some deeply profound force but simply a thing that became important to my life, both because of the Mets and for other reasons. The chapter starts and ends with Bar Mitzvah season; it goes into how exactly Ike Davis became a superstar, or whatever exactly Ike Davis did become (not, to be honest, a superstar). It also talks about Jason Bay and everything that made the 2010 Mets terrible, but it all refers back to Ike and Bar Mitzvah’s and the like. It’s a conscious choice, and it means some things will inevitably be left out or under-discussed.

For instance: did you remember that on Closing Day 2010, the Mets lost in a way that’s so Mets, it’s almost beyond parody? Mike Pelfrey went seven innings and only gave up one run, but we only sored one. The game was tied until the 14th, when Óliver Pérez came in to pitch and had the most Óliver Pérez inning of all time: hit-by-pitch, stolen base, walk, walk, walk. That the 2010 season should end like that feels like it has to mean something — but it wasn’t on the theme of the chapter, and properly exploring it would have taken a whole new chapter of its own, not to mention degrees in Philosophy, Theology, and Counseling. So I confined it to a sentence or two, and continued on my way.

For every great story I wove in, I left out another. I left out the time I won a spot in a baseball clinic at Citi Field, and Daniel Murphy taught me to field a grounder: when another kid made a wild throw, Murph remarked — bear in mind that this was back when he was playing first base — “Don’t worry, I did that last night.” I left out Michael Cuddyer’s walk-off against the Giants in 2015, that finally quieted the two Giants fans who had been chattering away behind me all night. I left out the time I waited at Citi Field through a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay knowing that the game was almost certain to be canceled (ultimately, it was, but now I can say that I saw Aaron Hill hit a home run off Bartolo Colón; a home run that according to the MLB record books does not exist).

I left out much of the story of my early Mets blogging, back when “mlblogs” would give you free Mets themes. I think I devoted only a sentence to Pedro Beato, despite the fact that his scoreless streak to begin the 2011 season was probably one of the four most memorable things about the year. I left out the story about the 2012 Subway Series leg at Yankee Stadium, when the Mets were losing so badly that I started rooting for Elvin Ramirez to keep throwing balls because it was making the Yankee fans mad. And I left out much of the story of the night we clinched the division in 2015, because I realized it would take so long to tell properly that it would only detract from the moment. Only my workshop group knows that one.

If you’re someone with stature, like Ron Darling, you can get away with just throwing your stories together; you can publish, as Ron Darling recently has, a book titled, basically, “All the extra stories I haven’t told yet.” And it can even — as Ron Darling’s did — turn into a fantastic book. But you can’t do that when you’re just getting started, just like your debut album can’t be your greatest hits.

One day, maybe I’ll throw all those extra stories and thoughts together, and you can get my take on the architecture of Citi Field and which Mets uniforms are the best and a whole chapter about Chad Bradford. For now, though, I stuck religiously to themes. If a story didn’t fit a chapter, I didn’t include it, no matter how good a story it was. That’s why you’ll see a lot of space, relatively speaking, devoted to Jack Reinheimer — I seriously considered titling my thesis “Reyes, Wright, and Reinheimer,” but I decided it would be too quirky and dumb even for me — but not a lot dedicated to Chin Lung Hu or Brad Emaus, who are both, if we’re being honest, not so different from Jack Reinheimer.

Thank goodness, I suppose, that the Mets manage to churn out so many stories that fit with the greater project of putting Mets fandom to paper. Sort through the names like Willie Harris and Jason Pridie and you’ll eventually get to Valentino Pascucci. Look at dozens of relievers like Josh Stinson and eventually you’ll get to Dae-Sung Koo. Research forgettable catchers like Henry Blanco and Rod Barajas and Ronny Paulino for a while, and eventually you’ll remember that week in 2009 when the greatest hitter in the world was Omir Santos.

And these are just the players who never amounted to anything! My goodness, the stories this ridiculous team manages to churn out, even in service of thriftiness and perpetual mediocrity. It’s just typical Mets, I suppose, except when it comes to typical Mets, there’s really nothing typical about them.

*          *          *

“January 19th, 2016. Late in the evening, after I’d finished doing whatever I was doing that night. Suddenly, all at once, a post fell into my head, fully formed. I felt like J.K. Rowling during her famous train trip. I knew exactly what to write.”

I realized, sometime after I finished writing about the 2015 World Series and decided I definitely needed to take a few days off from writing about what the Mets did on the field, that I couldn’t write my thesis without writing about writing. I started writing about the Mets in 2011, and started writing well about the Mets in 2015 or so. And once I started, writing about the Mets became the way I interacted most with the Mets, and with Mets fans.

I was looking forward to writing about writing about the Mets, because I love reading about writing. It probably helps to love writing itself before loving reading about writing — and I can see that this will all become confusing very quickly — but I’ve always enjoyed reading writing about writing. Zinsser’s On Writing Well…McPhee’s Draft Number Four…they’re fantastic, not that everyone must agree. It probably helps to be the kind of person who would write a senior nonfiction thesis about the Mets. But regardless, I started writing about writing about the Mets, which now of course means I’m writing about writing about writing about the Mets, but let’s all just pretend we understand.

The thing about writing about the Mets, once you start to do it, is that the Mets make it pretty easy. There are the stories I’ve already told, of course; it’s hard to go wrong telling the story of Dae-Sung Koo, for instance. But there are also all the connections that come to light when you look at the different figures that pop up throughout Mets history, connections that are probably intrinsic to baseball and any sport with free agency, but connections of which F. Scott Fitzgerald would be proud.

Like Billy Joel. In 2012, I ordered a book — “Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets” — and in 2016, I met Greg Prince, the author. He told me about a Billy Joel song, Through the Long Night, that he felt perfectly summed up the experience of waiting through a long extra-inning Mets game as inning after inning, the Mets come to bat and fail to score in almost astounding futility. Billy Joel, of course, had already sung the National Anthem during the 1986 World Series and the 2000 World Series and the 2015 World Series, and played the last concert at Shea Stadium, and “Piano Man” played during the eighth inning of every Mets home game.

So is it any surprise that in the game that became the end of my thesis, the Mets and Marlins went to extra innings tied at zero, each team futilely attempting and failing to score? As I sat in the stands, waiting desperately for the game to end, completely uninterested in the result, only wanting to see David Wright one more time, I was thinking to myself: “It’s so late // but I’ll wait // through the long night // with you.” Maybe it takes some sort of writerly instinct to notice and chronicle the connection, but either way, I have to think the Mets made it easy.

And really, connections like this are what writing is all about. The way The Great Gatsby treats books, or the way The Catcher in the Rye treats adult conversations, is pretty much the way the Mets treat baseball. There’s no specific comparison, but it’s all about the fact that when you get beneath the surface and look closely, it’s all about connection, and pretty much everything is connected. Jose Reyes smacks a leadoff double to right in the last game of David Wright’s career, basically a mirror image of a Reyes leadoff triple you saw in 2006 at Shea? It’s perfect. David Wright’s career ends with a walkoff win over the Marlins, the team that has ruined so many years for him with inexplicable wins? Perfect. Jack Reinheimer, the least likely hero anyone can think of, becomes the hero of David Wright’s final game? I mean, come on.

Writing about the Mets, you realize that there’s no established plot to follow. It’s not a Hollywood story; it’s almost an anti-Hollywood story, except it’s not quite that either. The Mets, I think, will do what they’ll do, and the only way to write about what they’re doing is to come up with entirely new ways to describe it. They’re not Springsteen working class heroes or angsty teenagers or handsome superstars or gritty heartlanders. They’re just a bunch of guys in Queens, who tend to encounter some really strange things when they get together to play baseball.

Look at the end of David Wright’s career. Three plate appearances: groundout, walk, foul pop-up. The Hollywood ending, of course, is a home run, and the anti-Hollywood ending is a strikeout. We didn’t get either of these. We got a walk, which I think, in hindsight, was almost perfect. David Wright was never going to get a storybook ending; his story was too dark, too sad. The ending — a long, drawn-out walk — was basically what you get when you aren’t necessarily a superstar or a Hollywood actor, but still grind it out long enough to be successful your own way. You’ll never see a novel with a David Wright-type ending. That’s why with the Mets, nonfiction is the way to go.

So, as I got closer to the end of my thesis, it started to become a sort of subtle meta-project: writing about how I wrote about my subject. How did I write about the Mets? Once I got rolling, it was fairly simple. I told lots of baseball stories. I told stories about myself. And then, if the connections that pervade life and baseball weren’t obvious, I rewrote the stories until they were.

*          *          *

“The Mets will never change. If I’m honest with myself, I think I’ve known that for a long time, and I’m ready for it.”

My project, I realized as I worked on the last chapter, was at heart about one simple thing: the fact that baseball is unavoidably cyclical, and at the same time unavoidably finite. The Mets will always take the field some time in March or April, and they will always have a third baseman: barring some calamity, that’s about as likely as the sun rising in the east. But that third baseman will never again be David Wright. The names change but the cycle continues, and altogether it creates a strange sort of paradox wherein everything changes, but at the same time nothing changes, and it’s hard to tell exactly what is happening. Are the Mets, as they’re currently constituted, the same team that went to the World Series in 2015? Well, yes: they’re still the Mets. Are they the same Mets? Some of them — Lagares, deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz, Cespedes, Conforto, Familia — are. Some of them aren’t. But even if the names are the same, are they the same players? Familia, for one, certainly isn’t, as we’ve learned to everyone’s detriment.

But you see the problem. Too often in baseball, it’s hard to tell when exactly a change happens, when one team becomes another, and if a change happens, whether it’s really a change at all. Replacing Keon Broxton with Aaron Altherr, for instance…did that really change anything, in any meaningful sense, besides the letters involved in writing the names of the bench players who were available?

So, I was looking for an ending that captured the idea that some things never change, but at the same time, things are changing all the time. At first, in fact, that was pretty much how the ending went. It was, “some things never change. But most things have to change eventually.” When I read it out loud at our last thesis group workshop, the professor in charge shook her head and tutted. “That has to be better,” she said.

I had a line in my head, a sentence I wanted to use but couldn’t figure out where. I was thinking about doing a piece on free agency, a reflection on the idea that players come in and out but, if they’ve played for the Mets, remain part of the Mets collective consciousness forever in an important way, but that never got beyond a conceptual stage (which, I suppose, is fitting for a concept like that). But I canned that piece for good when I realized the ending I was grappling with in my head was perfect for my thesis. By now, I’d given it a title. “Only in Queens: Stories from Life as a New York Mets Fan.” I even made up a cover.

thesis cover

After a whole lot of thought and research, I wrote the ending, and everyone liked it a whole lot better. I wrote and rewrote and eventually handed in a giant brick of a project. A few weeks after that, I decorated my graduation cap (“J.D. DAVIS IS A PROFESSIONAL HITTER”), walked through the gates, and got handed a degree with honors in English Nonfiction, all for writing about this ridiculous baseball team.

Thank goodness for that professor, who told me the ending had to be better. She was right. Now, I think, I love my ending. It sums everything up nicely, without being so general (“some things never change”) as to be meaningless.

It goes like this:

Jack Reinheimer is a Baltimore Oriole now. Kevin Plawecki is a Cleveland Indian. Wilmer Flores is an Arizona Diamondback, and Addison Reed is a Minnesota Twin. Valentino Pascucci is a hitting coach, Paul Lo Duca is a horse-racing commentator, and Mike Piazza briefly owned an Italian soccer team. Carlos Beltrán is retired, Pedro Martinez makes everyone laugh on MLB Network, and Endy Chavez is still hanging on in the Independent League. David Wright works with the Mets’ front-office.

So many Mets, dispersed every which way, gone from baseball with barely a trace. But Mets fans soldier on, and as the players come and go, the Mets remain. And every April, the sun comes up and nine players take the field in Queens, and the world is right again.

 

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