The other evening, as I watched the glorious spectacle of the New York Mets spraying cheap champagne and puffing on what looked like pretty good cigars in celebration of their Eastern Division championship, I got a text from a good friend with whom I often commune at such pivotal life moments. “Fantastic! Much needed distraction from the Republican crack-up!!!” Before I’d even had a chance to answer, he followed up with another: “But for how long?”
For the Mets, it’s a long way to a World Series championship. The obstacles are as daunting as those confronting any ancient hero. In Cave One loom the Los Angeles Dodgers, with their twin-headed Zack Greinke/Clayton Kershaw pitching monster; in Cave Two, the St. Louis Cardinals, rabid predators the thought of whom conjures in the mind of Mets’ fans the nightmarish vision of Carlos Beltran, turned by some malevolent god to stone as he watched 2006’s last pitch zip by; Cave Three, take your pick: the Pirates—who, marauding and pillaging at will, took all six games against the Mets this season—or the Cubs, suddenly grown into ferocious grizzlies, who mauled us in seven of seven. And if the Mets survive all that, there still awaits the greatest task of all, the unknowable beast from the American League!
“Let’s enjoy it while we can,” read my friend’s next message. “But let’s also remember Abba Eban: As the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, so the Mets never disappoint to disappoint.”
Have I mentioned that my friend and I are both conservatives? No team in the game is a better emotional fit for those of our disposition than the Mets. Where liberals, smugly certain of their moral righteousness, assume history’s arc will bend their way, Mets fans like us know better. Never do we take winning as our due. Nor, needless to say, (damn those Wilpons!) do we throw money at problems. Yet still we stick, prizing loyalty above all other virtues. Indeed, even when we know the Mets Establishment is lying through its teeth—behind closed doors, sneering where are they gonna go, to the Yankees?—we accept the shameless duplicity with weary resignation, for it only confirms our worldview. As Peggy Noonan wrote of the reaction of “hard-core movement types” to the slights they regularly suffered at the hands of moderates in the Reagan White House: “More proof of human perfidy! More proof of the ugliness at the core of the human heart!”
Even as it toughens the skin, rooting for the Mets adds immeasurably to the cynicism quotient. During our post-clinching back and forth, I forwarded my friend a recent piece from the New York Times sports page. The editors had solicited readers’ guesses at how the opening paragraph on the Mets’ final game of this rollercoaster season might read, and I circled the one I’d be proud to have written: “Matt Harvey was brilliant in his Game 7 matchup with the former Met R.A. Dickey and the Toronto Blue Jays. However, Harvey was pulled from the game in the third inning by the new Mets manager Scott Boras, in an effort to conserve innings. The Mets’ offense sputtered, but Yoenis Cespedes hit four home runs to leave the Mets a run shy of the Jays going into the final inning. With two outs in the ninth, Bartolo Colon hit a pinch-hit, game-tying home run, but he missed third base on his trip home. The Mets lost 5-4. Minutes later, Cespedes signed a seven-year contract with the Yankees.”
“This guy’s one of us,” I scrawled at the bottom.
Since he’s a Times reader, this person would surely be horrified by such a suggestion. Yet (infinitely more frightening!) not only does his sardonic and finely wrought fatalism mark him as a conservative, but one of the hard-boiled Dick Cheney variety. Screw the feel-good stuff. He sees the world—and the Mets—as they are, not as he wishes they would be. We’re talking about a guy who knows you can trust the bullpen to come through in the clutch the same way you can trust the Iranians to self-inspect.
By way of contrast, a number of more typical Times readers responded to the offer, and true to form, they foresaw only wonderful things, bringing to the process of visualizing a Mets World Series triumph roughly the same rigor they use to “visualize world peace.” “And so it happened,” begins one of their imaginary next-day reports. “The cosmos shifted. Children slept contentedly in their beds. Doors were held open for the sick and elderly. All were kinder to animals.” “David Wright hit a home run in the bottom of the 25th inning to break the tie, and orphans and puppies ran down the steps of Citi Field,” begins another. (Even when they’re kidding around, it has to be all about social justice.)
The Mets have many liberal fans, of course. Indeed, at their inception, they were widely viewed as the people’s team, the lovably inept alternative to the ruthlessly efficient, slow-to-integrate, pinstriped Yankees, for whom cheering was said to be akin to rooting for General Motors. (For those under 40, think of rooting for the Koch brothers). To an extent, that remains true today, since in the liberal universe, one’s sporting preferences, like one’s politics, tend to be inherited, rather than thought through. Those with literary pretensions in particular are apt to be Mets fans, and it’s a certainty that there are a lot more Prius drivers in the Mets’ demographic than in the Yankees’. Still, rooting for the Mets has helped nudge more than a few of us rightward.
I was 13 when the Mets were born in 1962, and all in all, a sunny and optimistic kid. They lost the first nine games they ever played, en route to a record 120 losses in that first season, including losing streaks of 17, 13, and 11 games; their best pitchers, Roger Craig and Al Jackson, lost 24 and 20 games, respectively. Then there was the way they lost them. Once, after hitting a triple, our lumbering first baseman, “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, was called out for having missed second base. When he started to argue, the umpire stopped him with: “Don’t bother, you also missed first.” Catcher Harry Chiti was traded to the Mets for the proverbial “player to be named later,” who, when the player was named, turned out to be himself. Jay Hook, the righthander who’d gotten the team’s elusive first win (and then went on to lose 19) had a master’s degree in thermodynamics, and early on he got some press explaining why a curveball curved. Soon after, having been yanked three innings into his latest disastrous start, he was spotted by manager Casey Stengel in the locker room. “There’s Hook,” Casey growled, shuffling by. “He can tell it, but he can’t do it.” Then, too, of course, it was the exasperated Stengel who gave Jimmy Breslin one of the all-time great book titles: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
Already, subtly, the Mets were undermining my belief that the world was a good and safe place; indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis, occurring immediately after that first season, was an anticlimax. Worse, the Mets were playing havoc with my sense of reality. Hope and change could have been my mantra. Not only did I refuse to buy into the narrative that the Mets were a lovable joke, but I convinced myself that they were good. The following year, 1963, when they got an outfielder named Duke Carmel, I actually went around telling everyone that he’d be the slugger the Mets needed. Why? His name was Duke!
Even now, looking it up, I’m surprised to see he lasted only half a season with the team and hit just three home runs. Then, again, I was a liberal then, so I believed what I needed to believe. This is why, when the Mets pulled off their one true miracle, stunning the world by winning it all in 1969, I wasn’t that surprised. It made sense. The arc of justice was simply bending as it should. Three years later, when I voted for McGovern, I half expected the same thing.
It was the Carter years that finally set me right: stagflation and trading Tom Seaver for a passel of bums; the embassy takeover and a starting outfield of Elliot Maddox, Dan Norman, and Bruce Boisclair. Though some good times were to come, there were far more heartbreaking ones: Timo Perez not running full-bore in 2000; the collapses of ’06 and ’07; the Beltran tragedy. Lest we forget, even in Game Six of 1986, the fates got their jollies putting us through bloody agony before we pulled it out. And does anyone really think the recent Cespedes near-tragedy was an accident?
Yet, here we are, approaching that terrifying moment of truth—the playoffs—and even many of the normally clear-eyed and resolute are getting as caught up in Mets-mania as unembarrassed two-time Obama voters. Talk about a breakdown in conservative values: even my friend and I are letting rays of hope pierce our habitual gloom.
“The bullpen’s definitely a worry,” I write him a few days after the clinching. “It just can’t be trusted.”
“That’s right. Our watchword must be: Trust, but verify.”
“Uh . . . don’t quite know what that means . . . .”
He took a half hour or so answering that one. “Sorry, can’t do this anymore,” he finally wrote back. “I stand athwart history yelling ‘LET’S GO METS!!!’”