Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson ended my baseball season yesterday for all intents and purposes. On June 22nd. With four months to go. Correction, he ended the “root for” portion of my season and ushered in the “root against” segment, before we’d even reached the season’s midway point, let alone the All Star break.
It got me to thinking (sulking) about my tortured existence as a fan of the New York Mets. It just isn’t easy, and I truly don’t believe it’s only a matter of the grass always being greener when I look across the aisle at Yankees fans waving all those pennants and imagine how much easier they must have it.
Here’s the thing, though. We Mets fans are continuing to pay the tax on a gift from the Baseball Gods nearly 32 years ago. The only tax in my life today I truly don’t mind paying. Think back to that night of October 25, 1986. The Mets were dead as fried chicken, down two runs as they came to bat in the bottom of the 10th. Then, with two outs, the unlikeliest of rallies ensued.
We all know the outcome, so I will spare you the play by play. Instead, freeze the frame as Mookie’s slow roller is making it’s way toward Bill Buckner at first (unfathomably still in the game despite legs that barely kept him standing at this late stage of his career — thank you, John McNamara).
What would you imagine the response would have been if time had indeed stood still at that moment, and the universe were to query any random Mets fan, any age, anywhere, watching the game at that exact moment, the following question (cue the thunderous, booming, Baseball God-like voice now)?
“It is your choice right now, tortured Mets fan. Billy Bucks can pick up this routine grounder, tag the bag, and you play on in extra innings with a Red Sox victory sending you home. Or he can stumble awkwardly toward the ball, distracted by Mookie’s speed, the screaming fans and the extreme shooting pains coursing through both of his shins, and allow the slow roller to squirt through his legs as Ray Knight pogo sticks his way across home plate with the game’s winning run. And oh yeah, for good measure you’ll beat Bruce Hurst and his lefty slop a couple of days later to take home the World Series title. But beware Mets fan, because choosing the World Series win here in 1986 will come with a cost. In return for this favor from the Baseball Gods, you will forgo winning another World Series for the duration of your lifetime, and to twist the knife a bit deeper we will throw in several extended periods of absolutely atrocious baseball by your New York Mets, occasionally interspersed with near misses at another championship. Choose wisely, Mets fan, choose wisely.”
Every one of us would have opted for the miraculous outcome that played out that night without a second’s hesitation. In fact, who’s to say that’s not exactly what happened, as we all know the Baseball Gods have the ability to erase a fan’s memory after closing a deal of this magnitude. Still, sign me up.
To this day, Mookie’s roller, Buckner’s error, and the entire glorious comeback in Game 6 is by far the highlight of my lifetime as a sports fan (in fact, one Father’s Day years back I forced my two daughters, at that time about ages 5 and 8 to watch Game 6 with me in its entirety). So do your worst Mr. Alderson, because you can’t take that memory away from me no matter how long you may take before finally DFA-ing Hansel Robles.
How is it that these roots of sports fandom grow so deep, you say? There’s some nature versus nurture here, if you ask me.
On the nature side of the ball, some fans are simply born into it. I can’t help but feel that most New York Giants football fans fall into this first category. Anyone who’s ever been to Rod’s in Spring Lake, NJ, on the Saturday before a Giants home game knows the sight of three generations of Giants fans wolfing down burgers and beers as they allot their family’s tickets for the following morning’s tailgate. It is a completely endearing slice of our nation’s cultural fabric. Really.
I believe that many of sport’s flagship franchises boast this kind of generational allegiance. Think Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers in football. The Yankees (groan, it’s too easy I say, just too god damned easy!), St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Red Sox, among many other clubs, in baseball. It is a long list. And it’s a list that makes sports allegiances so delicious to witness and thoroughly enjoyable to be a part of.
The nurture side is a bit more complicated. It begins with the era you grow up in. I have many friends today that feverishly root on the Miami Dolphins because of the amazing run that franchise had in the ’70’s (three consecutive Super Bowl appearances, two wins, including that awesome undefeated season in ’72).
Shula’s square jaw, the Killer B’s and the two-headed monster of Csonka-Kiick (and let’s not overlook Mercury Morris — I defy you to find a kid aged 7-11 back in 1973 who didn’t think Mercury Morris was the most badass of all the cool running backs in the NFL) in the backfield lured thousands of impressionable young fans across the entire country onto their teal and orange bandwagon. And once on board they never wavered in their allegiance, even when teal long ago became one of the lamest colors in the league (could there be a tax on that perfect ’72 season I have to ask? After all, you had Marino for all those years, but no rings since ’73, right? Just sayin’).
For that same reason the New York Tri-state region boasts legions of fans of the Steelers, Cowboys and Raiders. Today’s age 50-something fans, who weren’t born into a generational allegiance, were forced to gravitate toward cool, winning organizations to escape the losing of the Giants and Jets of the ’70’s. You really can’t blame them looking back today.
Personally, while I just missed the ’69 Mets and ’68 Jets, the exuberance from those unexpected championships still permeated the New Jersey home I grew up in. It was a fun and exciting rite of passage being able to join in on the kitchen table sports conversations as my early infatuation with those recent champions took off (SportsBro footnote: I’m still waiting for that return to glory with the Jets; the Mets gave us a fun run in ’73 — save Seaver for Game 7, Yogi, please! — and rewarded our loyalty big time with the ’86 World Series).
The Knicks had a sustained run of pristine, selfless championship basketball going on as I first got hooked on hoops, so that one was a no brainer. Not unlike how here in the Bay Area today millions of young Warriors fans are growing up die hards and will never leave that bandwagon, no matter how hard the law of averages crashes down on them when this magical run comes to its inevitable conclusion (as an aside here, a fellow Knicks fan pointed out to me that Warriors fans have gotten to enjoy more championships in the last four years than we Knicks fans have in our entire lifetime. Thanks for pointing that out, Tony. At least we have the Fizdale era to look forward to while we pray the league intercedes on our behalf and forces ownership into a sale).
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a sports fan household. However there were no diehard allegiances influencing my early year fan choices. All the influential people of my childhood had enjoyed rooting affiliations through the years that I got to learn about, but there was never any pressure.
Dad grew up in the New York area but was enamored with the 111-win Cleveland Indians of 1954. He loved their incredible pitching staff and lamented what could have been if Herb Score hadn’t taken that line drive off his forehead. I give him props for his contrarian approach in rooting for the Indians during the heyday of New York baseball in the ’50’s when the Yanks, Giants and Dodgers seemed to be in the Series every year.
Mom was a quiet Yankees fan in the ’70’s (and remains a slightly less quiet one today), but was always supportive of the Mets (probably because she saw the pain being inflicted on her eldest child regularly by the boys in blue and orange). In her youth she had rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but I believe that may have had more to do with Duke Snider’s winning smile than anything the Bums were doing on the diamond.
Grandpa Jack was a Phillies fan, which amused me to no end growing up, as they were always so darn hapless. But he was from Pennsylvania-Dutch country and the geographical “nature” part of his fan upbringing was a strong one. I learned from him the important lesson that you didn’t waver in your support just because you were saddled with a string of last place finishes. I was happy for him when “his Phils” finally brought him a title in 1980, even if that jerk Pete Rose was on the squad.
My Grandpa Perce was a baseball fan first, and a Yankees fan second. He never pressed me about the Yanks, opting instead to introduce me to some of the game’s historic characters. It was at his suggestion I first read “Nice Guys Finish Last” and immediately became the world’s biggest Leo Durocher fan.
I can’t resist a Durocher footnote here as I expand on this point — “The Lip” had an absolutely historic and fascinating career. Think about the following:
*He was a teammate of Ruth and Gehrig on the Yankees in the ’20’s.
*He was captain and shortstop of the World Champion “Gashouse Gang” Cardinals, who won one of the most exciting World Series in baseball history over the Tigers in 1934.
*Player-Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 when the Yankees had the improbable “strike 3, wild pitch” comeback in Game 3 and went on to beat the Dodgers in 5
*Suspended from baseball for the entire 1947 campaign for his known association with gamblers.
*Moved crosstown midseason from the Dodgers to the Giants as manager in 1948. Just think about that for a sec. Imagine Aaron Boone leaving the Yankees tomorrow and taking over as manager of the Mets the following day. Leo did that and for awhile was reviled by fans of both clubs.
*Managed the “Shot Heard Round The World” Giants in 1951 when Bobby Thompson sent the Dodgers home with his famous HR.
*Managed the final New York Giants World Series winner to a sweep of my Dad’s heavily favored Indians in 1954.
*Was manager of the Cubs when they blew that huge August lead to the Miracle Mets in 1969.
Okay, that’s enough. Read it yourself. Still in my Top 5 of baseball books to this day.
So those formative years and how young fans are nurtured contribute significantly to their long-term maturation process as today’s fanatics march their way into adulthood. C’mon, doesn’t anyone wish they could have been a fly on the wall for the early years and upbringing of those Redskins fans that wear the dresses and pigs noses to home games these days?
Another SportsBro aside: I had the misfortune of owning Redskins season tickets for a couple of years while living in the D.C. area back in the late-’90’s. My least favorite song in the world? You guessed it — “Hail to the Redskins.” Maybe the NFL will ban that song — and the band that plays it (a band? uh huh…) — when they finally strip the Washington franchise of their “Redskins” moniker?
And don’t you wonder what kind of “nurturing” was going on in those households where the Black Hole Raiders fans grew up? Or those lunatics that make up the Dawg Pound in Cleveland?
I know, it’s easy to take shots at other fans, especially those less sophisticated, less knowledgeable, classless and lacking passion. You know, the ones that root for the other guys. Guilty as charged. I tend to believe that I and my Mets/Jets/Knicks-fan brethren are at the top of the sports fan pyramid. Our extended period of futility (a combined 127 years for those scoring at home — good grief) only underscores what tremendous, loyal fans we must be.
And it doesn’t end with the self-congratulatory approach we take in our impeccable support of our chosen franchises. We also form biases around likes, dislikes and character (or more frequently character defects) based on sports team affiliation. Yankees fans take longer to win me over and earn my trust. I admit it. And I’m far more likely to embrace a fellow Mets fan into my inner circle without much due diligence or background checking than I ever would if introduced to a Celtics fan, or worse, a Cowboys fan.
Talk about profiling! Niners fans? More interested in chardonnay in the luxury suites than in paying attention to the second half of the game. Dodgers fans? Arrive in the third, leave in the 7th. Can’t tell a slider from a curveball. Fans of new franchises? Newbies. Can’t possibly be knowledgeable. Raiders fans? Welllll, we all love and respect Raiders fans and feel their pain as they await another relocation of their team. They’re simply awesome fans.
I could go on and on, except for the fact that I already have.
So root, root, root for the home team. Make whatever deal is necessary with whatever deity you bow to or fear the most, and hope you can one day experience just a fraction of the euphoria that Warriors fans today believe is their divine right.
It’s not easy being a fan.