On a Long Island Rail Road train heading toward Shea Stadium, four Mets fans drank beer out of brown paper bags and fretted about running late for the first game of a big series with the Yankees.
Another passenger, sitting across the train, announced that he’d gotten a score on his cell phone: Yankees up 4-0 in the bottom of the first.
The fans with the beers swore. Shit! Fuck! Already? Four-nothing?
Then one of them brightened. That’s O.K., he declared. Randy Johnson’s pitching.
It was a statement that was breathtaking in its arrogance, but one that also turned out to be justified. (The Mets did indeed come back against the five-time Cy Young Award–winning pitcher, beating Johnson and the Yankees, 7-6.)
It was also the sort of thing that, for most of the two decades since the Mets last won a World Series, has been the exclusive provenance of the triumphalist, ascendant fans of their rivals in the Bronx. Ranging from the devotees of the lean Andy Hawkins years to the 1996 bandwagon jumpers, Yankees fans have dominated the city’s baseball topography, with the streets and subways littered with pinstripes and dark blue hats.
But now, buffered by a first-place team, it’s the beleaguered, envious and loud Mets fans who are pounding their chests and swarming onto streets all over the New York area in numbers not seen since the mid-1980’s glory days of Doc, Mookie and the Straw.
“There’s just a lot of excited Mets fans—I see it in my everyday travels,” said Dale Berra, the son of baseball deity Yogi Berra, who hung out in the Mets clubhouse as a kid and played shortstop for the Yankees in 1985 and 1986. “In the grocery store, on the golf course, there are just a lot more Mets fans, and there’s plenty of them to go around.”
Or, as ESPN baseball analyst Bob Klapisch put it, “After so many years of desperation, the dam has burst.”
If you don’t believe it, just ask a Mets fan. Then stand back.
“It’s payback time for all the Yankees fans who have been talking shit all these years,” said Jon Anatra, an 18-year-old Queens native who was taking shelter during a rain delay at Shea Stadium on Monday. “Every time we see them, we’re gonna abuse them the way they’ve tortured us.”
But just where do Mets fans get off, exactly? It’s only Memorial Day, so does it really matter that the Mets are in first and the Yankees in second in their respective divisions?
After all, the Yankees drew four million fans last year to Yankee Stadium and are expected to draw that again. Their television ratings have been unmatched. And a comparison of their recent record—four championships and six pennants in the last 10 years—against that of the Mets is about as lopsided as the fateful match-up last week between Barry Bonds and the luckless Byung-Hyun Kim.
“These Mets fans, these Mets fans,” said Leon Cataderas, who works on the technical-help desk at ING, during a night out at a bar near Times Square. “When they lose, you don’t see them, but now that they win, I just see these Mets jerseys everywhere. Oh my God, I just want to tell them: ‘Relax, man, relax, just wait till the end of the season.’”
Of course, with the Mets out to a torrid 31-19 start this season, relaxing is the last thing on the minds of their fans right now.
“They’re out, loud and annoying,” said Mike Riordan, a bartender at Harry’s in the financial district and a Yankees fan. “By September, there will be a lot more of them, and they’re just going to get louder and more obnoxious.”
For those obnoxious fans, this is why it matters: They’re tired of holding back. For the first time since the 1980’s, they smell an opportunity to be something more than a sentimental favorite of a minority of baseball fans in New York.
“These fans have suffered through enormous embarrassment,” said Klapisch. “But now there isn’t this terrible anxiety among the fans that they’re going to blow it. It’s dawning on the Mets fans that they’re on the brink of something really good, and it reminds them of the 80’s. They’re eager for it.”
Take, for example, the scene last Friday afternoon at the Mets Clubhouse Shop in midtown. The small, oblong store was packed and bustling, with fans picking up jerseys and tickets and fingering T-shirts that read “Dynasties and Empires Fall. Long Live the Mets.”
“Look at this,” said Steve Lefkowitz, a salesman pointing to the 20 people crammed into his shop. “This store has always been a ghost town, and look at it now.”
But surely these blue-and-orange-clad lunatics packing the store on Fifth Avenue had to have been from Long Island, or at least Bayside, right? After all, Mets fans have long hailed from the outer boroughs and suburbs, leaving Manhattan as a steely bastion of support for the Yankees. (A recent Quinnipiac University poll—yes, someone polled this question—showed the Yankees enjoying majority support in all boroughs except Queens, where they were tied with the Mets.)
But even the traditional strongholds of Yankee support might be under assault by the resurgent followers of the team that plays out by La Guardia Airport.
“I was at the Equinox,” said Gay Talese, the famous New York author and a lifelong Yankee fan, “and one of the locker-room attendants came up to me and said, ‘Delgado’—the Mets’ first basemen, Carlos Delgado—‘is working out upstairs.’ He didn’t say Carlos Delgado. It’s one name: Delgado. Most people in this neighborhood are Yankees fans. I don’t even know a Mets fan. And here’s Delgado working out, and he obviously impressed the locker-room attendant, who is a Yankees fan too.
“The Mets are penetrating Manhattan, an East Side of Manhattan that has traditionally gone for the Yankees. If they keep doing this, they’ll be rivals here.”
That, for some, may be hard to imagine. New Yorkers may like to think of themselves as pulling for the underdog, but that garish color scheme? That awful, multi-purpose monstrosity of a stadium in Flushing? How can this be? Could it possibly be cool to be a Mets fan again?
There are signs—judging by those human barometers known as front-runners—that it is.
Larry Giles, a 22-year-old from the Bronx, stood outside a convenience store on 14th Street, resplendent in a new-looking Mets cap and jersey. Between puffs on his cigarette, he explained to a reporter that he had worn a Yankees cap for years but abandoned it two weeks ago.
“It was kind of like a fad where everyone was wearing a Yankees cap,” he said. “And, you know, now I’m seeing less and less Yankees stuff and the Mets are doing really, really well, and now I got to rock with the Mets.”
If there is a collective shift in allegiance underway, according to one wise old baseball writer, it may be due to the fact that the Yankees have simply been winning for too long.
“There seems to be a sameness about the Yankees,” said Murray Chass, the hall-of-fame baseball columnist for The New York Times. “They just get an expensive hitter here, an expensive pitcher there. The Mets just have a much more exciting team.
“If you want to compare things, Reyes and Wright are to the Mets what Jeter and Rivera were to the Yankees in the late 90’s. These were the young and exciting players, and the Yankees were winning the World Series. But now the Mets have these young guys and new faces and the more exciting team for it. They’re fresher.”
Mike Wallace, the semi-retired 60 Minutes anchor, has been a devoted Yankees fan for more than 50 years. But now, with a lot more free time to watch baseball, who’s the 88-year-old rooting for?
“I care more about the Mets than I do the Yankees now,” he said.
And why is that? Wallace couldn’t quite say.
“This is the first season I’ve felt this way, I mean come on,” he said, pausing again. “They just hit me in my gut more than the Yankees do.”