The United Colors of the New York Mets?

Stopped by Shea Stadium the other night. It was Jewish Night. Heard lots about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax (they played baseball) and Bernard Malamud (he wrote about baseball) and Neil Diamond (well, baseball is played on a diamond). Got a nifty pin celebrating Israel’s 50th anniversary. Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed us via videotape.

The parking lot was filled with yellow school buses, and the scoreboard periodically informed us of the presence of various synagogues and Jewish youth groups, of which there were many. They sang the Israeli national anthem before the first pitch and the two micks in Box 38K were the only people in the immediate area who didn’t know the words. (We were preparing to regale spectators with a faux-Gaelic version of “A Soldier’s Song,” but we were informed that we were 24 hours ahead of schedule, as Irish Night was to take place the following evening.)

Ah, what a night for New York baseball! We were smack-dab in the middle of the Mets’ annual international week, during which various representatives of the city’s hyphenated American culture are congratulated, saluted, feted and pandered to, all in the cause of filling Shea Stadium. Before Jewish Night and Irish Night, there had been Asian Night and Hispanic Night–a little of new New York, and a little of old New York. On each occasion, well-placed spies report, the place was crawling with kids and their parents.

All of this can, and perhaps should, make for some wonderful satire. In the New York Post , a mysterious prognosticator identified as “Hondo” (whomever he or she is, let it be said that he or she is the author of the most hilarious column in New York and is deserving of an immense pay raise) made some politically incorrect remarks about Jewish Night’s seventh-inning bris and a special Hangover Day giveaway that followed the salute to, um, one of the aforementioned groups.

Yes, there was a little too much schmaltz and blarney. At one point during Jewish Night, the scoreboard flashed the names of three players, one of whom, we were told, was Jewish. It was our assignment to play Guess the Jew. The answer was Shawn Greene of the Toronto Blue Jays. Who knew?

But if you managed to get past the pandering and took a look in the grandstands, you’d have a pretty good idea of what baseball ought to be, and, in fact, how the Mets–and not their more storied rivals in the Bronx–are trying to make it work.

The Mets’ international night is a gimmick, all right, but it is a well-intentioned and even admirable gimmick. In celebrating the cultures of various ethnic groups, particularly African-American, Latino and Asian, the Mets essentially are recognizing that this is a city where the name Walter O’Malley means nothing anymore, except among some of the older attendees of Jewish and Irish nights. The Mets are a nonwhite team, a team of immigrants and native-born blacks, and their annual ethnic festival is a clumsy way of letting the city’s immigrants and native-born blacks know that they’re welcome at Shea Stadium, as welcome as the Jews and Irish and Italians and Poles who make up the team’s old-line fan base.

What a contrast from the attitude of the Yankees’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner. He is rather famous for his contempt for the neighborhood in which his team plays–the South Bronx–and those who live in it. For years, earnest sportswriters have lamented the Yankees’ apparent unwillingness to recruit new fans from the vast Latino population around Yankee Stadium. Such naïve souls! Mr. Steinbrenner doesn’t want such people in his stadium. In fact, as we know, he doesn’t even want his stadium anymore.

When the Mets, who have been through some hard times of late, faced the Yankees earlier this year, the sporting press announced that no matter the outcome of the three-game series (the Yanks wound up winning two of the three), New York was and always will be a Yankee town. The Mets, the writers insisted with their sporting-press certainty, will forever be New York’s other team.

Really? What about if the Dominicans of Washington Heights and the Colombians of Jackson Heights and the Koreans of Flushing–not to mention the Puerto Ricans of the South Bronx–decide to patronize the one team in New York that’s making an effort to win them over? Sure, the Wall Street crowd will remain Yankee fans, especially if Mr. Steinbrenner gets his ball park on the West Side. But a good portion of the Wall Street crowd heads for points north and west after Yankee home games. They will not decide which team will rule New York. The fans in the subways will.

The Yankees are in the midst of a season to remember. Good for them. But the Mets, with their funny little gimmicks, are trying to win over the New York of the 21st century. Better for them.