When New York City lost two dynastic teams, the Dodgers and the Giants, William Shea, a prominent attorney, tried to fill the vacuum by starting a new league. The National League persuaded him to accept a consolation prize instead: an expansion team called the New York Mets. They took to the field in 1962, promptly losing their first nine games, ending the season with a won-lost percentage of .250. No 20th-century team lost more games in a single season.
Despite their 19 winning seasons and four trips to the World Series (they won twice), the Mets are seen by many as the Yankees’ bumbling kid brother. In their last championship series in 2000, they lost to the Bronx Bombers. But in 2005, the Mets acquired slugger Carlos Beltran and ace pitcher Pedro Martínez, holding out the carrot of a division title to their fans and offering another chance to crawl out from under the shadow of their cross-town rivals. That season’s peaks and valleys are chronicled in the epistolary Believeniks! 2005 by Ivan Felt and Harris Conklin.
If you haven’t heard of Felt and Conklin, that’s because they don’t exist. They’re pen names taken by “two critically acclaimed, prize-winning New York writers,” as the accompanying press release coyly states. One is surely Jonathan Lethem, a Brooklyn native who’s mined the rich loam of his home turf for literary fodder: It served as backdrop to The Fortress of Solitude (2003) and Motherless Brooklyn (1999), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Ivan Felt and Harris Conklin aren’t just pseudonyms; they’re entire personas, fictional characters trading letters about a real-life team.They provide a list of their “previous works” (the titles make obscure and slightly obnoxious reference to German philosophy and French postmodernism), and that just might be Mr. Lethem in the authors’ photo, behind a fake beard.
Felt and Conklin are both bumbling, middle-age academics and semi-failed writers with thin social lives. They’re also lifelong, diehard Mets fans. When Conklin locks himself out of his apartment trying to fix his TV satellite dish during a game, he borrows $40 from his friends at the local bodega and gets on the No. 7 train in his slippers and pajama top to catch the end of the game from the stands.
They’re companionable and humorous writers, just charming enough to pull off a book made up of long letters full of references to obscure Mets such as Neil Allen (so-so relief pitcher), Jerry Buchek (traded after one year) and Joe Foy (solid third baseman who immediately crumbled when acquired by the Mets). This book will be most satisfying to knowledgeable fans who will get the jokes and references.
In fact, this is the perfect book for the kind of person who (like me) guffaws at any reference to Harold (Pie) Traynor, a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1920’s and 30’s, or who (like me) finds it amusing to compare pitchers to little-known World War I poets.
The 2005 season proved disappointing despite Mr. Martínez, whom Felt refers to as “a pitcher who won’t make me want to stick my head in the oven every time he takes the mound.” Last year’s Mets were “the most talented roster ever to be the last team in the league without a victory a week into the season.” There were some promising streaks, but the team ended up tying for second to last in the division, just a hair over .500.
The writers capture the statistics-grubbing, resigned crabbiness of long-term fans of losing teams. But they fail to convey what makes baseball fun: The non-cerebral pull of a green diamond, an overpriced hot dog and even the satisfaction of yelling insults at your team from the stands as they lose yet again.
Believeniks! 2005 is laced with hilarious quips like “the Padres always will look to me like nine men whose mothers have dressed them for Halloween as buttered baked potatoes.” Felt notes that pitcher “Glavine’s style has undergone a peculiar metamorphosis: while his pitches are no longer unhittable, balls hit off him have become uncatchable.” They are just as funny when they digress and rant about hipsters on the L train, French season-ticket holders or the mindless bureaucracy of Time Warner Cable.
But the book is marred by self-indulgent forays into showy writing. These are two guys each of whom loves only one thing more than the Mets: The sound of his own voice. Conklin is by far the guiltier party, sometimes even nestling brackets within parenthetical statements. He flies into incomprehensibly long sentences. Here’s a sample: “Like a month’s days flapping free of a movie calendar, like rarified beasts glimpsed on a safari, like those evenings where one glances skyward to spot a plummeting meteor’s arc at the very moment it flares into gaseous nullity on penetration of earth’s atmosphere, one would feel corrupt, cavalier, cruel, and capitalistic to frame [Pedro’s] voyages to Shea’s mound as commodities, as clicks on a doomsday clock …. ”
Felt and Conklin also offer some gratuitous filler in the form of Conklin’s unseemly and farfetched affair with Felt’s daughter. Any romance in which one of the participants can remember holding his paramour as an infant is doomed to the realm of bad taste. They should have stuck to baseball to provide the tension.
After all, 2005 was an interesting season: Fans waited in vain for Pedro Martínez’s no-hitter, and there was the thrilling mid-season appearance of rookie Mike Jacobs, who hit three homers in his first nine major-league at-bats. But it was also a season that saw Doug Mientkiewicz publicly apologizing to “every Met fan in America” for his performance.
“[Y]ou’d think that assembling a decent bullpen with an annual payroll stretching toward $150,000,000 would not pose an enormous problem,” Felt dryly remarks. But for the Mets it did pose a problem, a deficit they are trying to rectify in 2006: They’ve picked up relievers Jorge Jolio and Duaner Sanchez. They’ve taken advantage of the Florida Marlins’ fire sale to nab slugger Carlos Delgado and catcher Paul Lo Duca, but they’ve lost Mike Jacobs. They also lost two of their starters, Kris Benson and Jae Weong Seo, and Pedro is complaining of an injured toe.
Some baseball prognosticators are saying the Mets have a shot at taking the National League East, upsetting the Atlanta Braves’ 14-year reign as champions of that division, but it’s anybody’s guess. After all, this is a team that, as Felt notes, takes “a thoroughly professional approach to underperforming.”
Elizabeth Hoover’s reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune.