Last month was bittersweet for me: My Yankees were eliminated from another postseason, while, just days before, my Mets walked off with another championship under their belt.
No, I’m not one of those fantasy-baseball shut-ins, or a minor leaguer playing for the Mets AA Binghamton franchise. I’m an ex–New Yorker who lives in Paris and mans center field for the Paris Mets, this year’s (and last year’s, and the year before’s) team to beat in the greater Parisian Softball League (or AARJF—don’t ask me what it means). Playing in October is nothing new for Les Mets, who manage to compete every year despite injuries, annual roster turnovers and the early-Sunday game times.
Personally, I don’t ever recall trying out for the Mets, or even looking for a game. All I remember was the Walter Cronkite voice of Dick Van Ham booming through my answering machine like a Charles de Gaulle radio address to the Resistance: “John, we’re playing ball on Sunday. I expect you to be there.” Van Ham’s been serving as the Mets pitcher/manager/G.M. for a quarter of a century now, ever since coming to Paris in the late 70’s as an accountant. Since then, he’s managed to field a team of white-collar relos and globetrotting expats, all of whom he’s plucked from the photocopier rooms and brasseries of a city not usually known for its baseball talent.
At first, I had reservations about suiting up. For one thing, I wasn’t in the best of shape, having been penned up like a veal calf since moving to this country four years ago. Also, the thought of returning to the diamond brought up bad memories of my high-school days, when I played for a rich prep-school powerhouse: You know, the kind of program that boasts a 30-plus game schedule, has dugouts, home and away unis, and barnstorms Florida during spring break just to see how the other half lives. Sure, we won; sure, we learned skills—but any enjoyment I associated with playing was discouraged at an early age. Baseball, to me, was spending winter weekends in front of a batting tee, or having framed stills of my swing spliced together in the school AV room. Want fun? Go play tennis.
But just like in the film The Manchurian Candidate, Van Ham’s sober message set off some inner ball player in me that couldn’t be contained, and events were soon put into motion that would routinely take me to a soccer field deep within the confines of the Bois de Boulogne, the giant municipal park west of Paris, where I’d play for a different type of team, in a different type of setting, and learn to appreciate the game I’d long sworn off.
Aside from their standard black-and-red jerseys, the Mets are a motley bunch. Third base is a marketing exec. First base runs a printing press. Right field dubs Italian porn. And Van Ham, at 65, is on the mound. The Mets alumni have ranged from quasi-famous soap stars to recently jailed corporate C.P.A.’s, but any superficial differences among teammates are quickly tossed aside when one is confronted by the sheer culture shock of playing softball in Paris.
The first thing you need to know about Paris softball is that there are no Parisian teams—and, apart from the Mets, the rest of the league is Japanese. Yup. Go to any game and you’ll marvel at the pomp and ceremony of pre-game bows and flag presentations. You’ll clap as various one-name teams like Koura and Sorinji take the field while their dedicated wives set up sushi stands along the third-base line. You’ll watch as round-trip tickets to Tokyo are occasionally raffled off during the seventh-inning stretch, and if you’re really lucky, you just might get to see a hungover American paralegal argue balls and strikes with a Japanese father of three, then watch as both turn to vent their rage on a clueless French soccer player who’s drifted into right center—all of this, mind you, under the gaze of the Eiffel Tower. That’s Paris softball: It’s not so much a sporting event as a Dali painting.
And it’s here, in this bizarre setting, that the Mets have thrived, last week’s championship tournament being no exception. As usual, Van Ham got the start and stormed the mound like any big-money pitcher would in October. He systematically stymied the Koura batters early with his patented turkey-jerk leg-kick delivery and ground-ball-inducing slider. As usual, the Mets bats woke early and gave him a big cushion, battering the Koura starter with six runs in the first, one in the second, and four in the third. By the sixth, the game was all but academic: nothing left to do but pad the stats, enter the raffle and give the French tokens some playing time.
Following the rout, each team in the tourney was asked to line up on the infield and stand single-file facing home plate. Why? Because, remember, we’re in Japan. There, Van Ham was presented with the ceremonial tourney flag and the championship trophy, which would once again rest on the mantle of the Crazy Violin, the fifth-arrondissement watering hole that many of the Mets call home. As the Japanese softball commissioner mumbled through his half-French/half-Japanese discourse on the history of the league, I couldn’t help but stare off into the now-amber-turning oaks sloping down from the Bois and into the Seine and wonder how I ever could have hated baseball. In just three hours, I’d witnessed how the game could unite people from all walks of life in a spirit of friendly competition; how its simple but fundamental tenets allowed it to be played just about anywhere and with just about anybody; and how, most importantly, it had given each of the dislocated and relocated players there that day (Japanese and American alike) a small but satisfying whiff of home.
When I turned back from my musings, Van Ham was suddenly in front of me, another trophy at his side. Yet it wasn’t until the commish wrapped up his unintelligible speech with the universal abbreviation “M.V.P.” that I caught on to what was happening. Dick handed me the cup, my teammates applauded, and it was there that my arduous journey of learning to love baseball again finally came full circle, on a Paris sand lot, among raggedy American and Japanese transplants and polo horses trotting now behind the back stop.
So last week, as I sat at the bar of my neighborhood café and read in the Herald Tribune that my Yankees and their $200 million payroll had been bumped, I couldn’t help but feel bittersweet. Perhaps, in a way, the Yanks had lost sight of what their little sisters, the Paris Mets, had proven in spades: that it’s the love of the game, not the money, that wins you titles. Baseball isn’t that cheap.