Even though it’s only a few weeks old, I already know how the baseball season is going to end-in sadness, disappointment and self-pity. That’s because we’re a New York Mets family. I’m not talking about my wife and kids and me, but my parents: my father, to be precise. My mother, who comes from Europe, has about as much interest in baseball as she does in string theory, which isn’t a lot.
But the Mets have a way of confirming my father’s worst fears about the world. If the team loses-which they have tended to do with some regularity throughout their history-he takes it as proof that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
If the team wins the World Series, he’ll dismiss it as a fluke, the exception that proves the rule. Sometimes I’ll ask him what he thought of a particular game, or the Mets’ prospects in general. I know in advance what his answer is going to be, but I like to hear it anyway. It’s a perverse ritual we have-a reminder to me that my optimistic nature is a gift that requires constant nurturing.
“You know,” he said after I attended a game last year that the Mets actually won, “every game the Mets play is almost a tear-jerker. They come so close to winning, so close to losing, that it’s always a one-run margin or something.”
I noted that the game in question had been their third victory in a row. “But you know,” he continued, undeterred, “for months now-for years-every time they’ve won three, they would talk about how they’re going for their fourth victory as though they already had it.”
I’m not quite sure how we became Mets fans. The first baseball game I ever attended was a Yankee game, a birthday party my parents held for me at the stadium with a bunch of my friends. I don’t remember anything about it except that Ralph Houk, the Yankee manager at the time, threw a temper tantrum over a questionable call, bumping chests with the home-plate umpire and behaving in a way that surely would have gotten us awestruck little kids suspended or expelled from school.
The only possible reason why we chose the Mets as our team when the franchise was founded in 1962 is that while the Yankees always seemed to win, only the Mets could break your heart.
The Mets were so ludicrously incompetent in their early years that, like an uncoordinated puppy, it was impossible not to become attached to them. When they won their first World Series in 1969 against the Baltimore Orioles, it almost felt like the girl you love had gotten contact lenses, attracted the attention of the captain of the football team and dropped you like a hot potato.
The ironic thing is that while I think of the Mets as losers-I am my father’s son, after all-some of my happiest moments are associated with Met victories. I got married in the fall of 1986 as the team was on its improbable run towards a second World Series championship, this time against the Boston Red Sox.
My bachelor party fell on the night of that year’s epic sixth game of the Mets-Astros National League championship series. It was an afternoon game, but it went 16 innings and well into the evening before the Mets pulled it out.
I remember heading to the bachelor party through Soho in a cab. Every TV and radio was tuned to the game, so that the entire city felt like a single giant receiver, the reactions of the fans ebbing and flowing from pitch to pitch and block to block.
My wedding coincided with the first game of the resulting World Series. In fact, at the reception, one of the guests recited a poem that pegged our courtship to great moments in baseball, starting with the night we met-the fourth game of the 1978 Yankees-Dodgers World Series, the one where Reggie Jackson, running the bases, threw his hip into a ball, breaking up a double-play and allowing Thurman Munson to score as the ball bounced into right field.
After our wedding reception, which conveniently concluded at around 10 p.m., the party continued at a friend’s hotel room, where we watched the Mets lose to the Red Sox, 1-0.
Even though the Mets ultimately won the ’86 World Series, the astonishing way in which they did it-coming back from two games down, and that memorable ground ball that went through Boston first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs to send the Series into a seventh game-only seemed to prove my father’s theory that whereas a team like the Yankees could win through sheer talent, only divine intervention could secure a Mets victory.
Last season, I took my daughters, 12 and 7 at the time, to their first baseball game. Of course, it was at Shea Stadium. Utterly apart from issues of loyalty and safety, I find Shea a more pleasing place to watch baseball than Yankee Stadium. Nature somehow seems more present at Shea than it does in the Bronx.
The game itself is almost beside the point; nobody is capable of focusing exclusively on baseball for nine long innings, except to the extent that it provides a pleasing backdrop for companionship and beer consumption.
The game, the Mets vs. the Montreal Expos, occurred during that uncharacteristic winning streak I’d discussed with my father. The Mets had won three games in a row but were still eight and a half games out of first place. The matchup had all the makings of one of those heartbreakers my father hates to love. The Mets took a 3-0 lead. But then the Expos tied the score in the fourth, all their runs unearned. New York held onto a one-run lead into the top of the ninth. But when the Expos got a runner on third base, suddenly this game, to which I was paying scant attention, started to take on huge symbolic significance. Nothing less seemed at stake than my father’s view of the world against mine. If Armando Benitez, the relief pitcher on the mound, managed to get the batter out to end the game, it would prove that the forces of light had prevailed over those of darkness.
If the batter got a hit and sent the runner home to tie the game, then the dark forces would have triumphed. What made it worse was that this was my kids’ first baseball game. I felt that their view of the world could turn on the outcome of the next pitch.
Benitez, who had never worked more than one inning that season and was now into his second, wound up and delivered the pitch. It was a 97-mile-an-hour fastball that he blew past the batter to end the game. I let go a sigh of satisfaction and relief that my kids might be able to look forward to a future free of antidepressants.
They’re agitating to go to another game this season. Now if I can only figure out how to reserve seats in an expletive-free section.
Follow Ralph Gardner Jr. via RSS.