Win or lose, they’ll always be lovable lugs
Newsday
Oct 19, 1999

IF MY METS were a work of art, they would have breadth. Depth, too.

They’d be a Dostoevsky novel, in collaboration with Seinfeld: desolate, joyous.

Not that the team had such distinction at the beginning. Oy. From 1962, when they began playing at the decrepit Polo Grounds, through most of the ’60s in their only-a-mother-could-love-it home, Shea, they were often little more than comic book buffoons in uniforms that combined the colors of New York’s lost teams, Dodger Blue and Giant orange. Except for the heroic Gil Hodges, did I love them then, Ed Kranepool and Elio Chacon and Jim Hickman and Chris Cannizzaro? No, but I liked them a lot. For many of us, mostly heartsick ex-Dodger fans, it was revivifying to have a National League team back in town. And if some of them couldn’t field too well, much less hit? Big deal. Brooklyn fans had humor, to say nothing of a tragic sense of life: So all a new Mets fan required was a bag of peanuts and she would sit there, season after season, eternally patient, everlastingly hopeful.

Except then came 1969, the Year of the Pitcher: Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver, and the Mets were contenders. Suddenly we were in the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, and if the Mets were the Amazing Ones, the ones they most amazed initially, after themselves, were us, the fans. Not only had they come back after losing the first game to win the series, they had also stopped being Jugheads. They had stature. Baseball in Queens was no longer a mere amusement or even a game. It had become sport.

It has been that way ever since. My Mets are the best of baseball.

Clearly, I’m not speaking of pure athleticism, because prowess alone is not the sport-in some years a very comforting concept. No, if a great novel is biography, a full life or lives, then baseball at its best is Life in an afternoon. And at Shea since 1969 it’s the real Dostoevskian-Seinfeldian McCoy.

Where else for 10 bucks can you get ecstasy (Todd Pratt’s astounding, game-winning home run), hilarity (the pronouncements of Casey Stengel), irony (putative savior Bobby Bonilla transmogrifying into an unlovable version of Marvelous Marv Throneberry), pain (the three-game humiliation by the Braves during the penultimate encounter), cruelty (management’s boorish treatment of Todd Hundley and Tim McCarver) and grief (the loss of Hodges)? In Shea, as in life and literature, there is no predicting when joy or calamity will come upon us. It can arrive at the end of the next decade or in the middle of the third inning. Mets fans know that happy endings are the beginnings of tragedy.

Now I’m not saying the boys from the Bronx are mere plastic figures in pinstripes. Of course they’re human. But when bad things happen to good Yankees, or vice versa, they happen to Yankees as individuals. As a team, the Yankees have always seemed to me to be Life Lite, a fairy tale without a wicked witch.

Steinbrenner? Egomaniacal, yes. Evil, no. He’s little more than a cranky troll.

Former Met Darryl Strawberry? Wicked? Please. Barely bad. Other than that there is only Good King Joe and his handsome Princes in the kingdom. True, in bad games or off-years, their fans get unhappy or apprehensive. However, they do not get sick with fear.

Perhaps the Yankees ought to be the team called the Angels, for they seem above it all, held to earth only by the weight of their World Series rings. They and their fans do not know from existential angst. Because even when the team loses, fans know with certainty that soon-very soon-they will win. It is easy to say wait ’til tomorrow, or even wait ’til next year when there is never any doubt that, in your lifetime, you will prevail.

I no longer loathe the Yankees the way I did when I was a kid. Watching them in ’52, ’53, ’55 and ’56, even in black and white on our 10-inch TV, I could see the arrogance of achievement in their players’ warm-up swings, the self-satisfied sneers on the tied-and- jacketed rich men who were their fans.

Now they are led by the utterly righteous Joe Torre. The Bronx Bombers are a stunningly accomplished group of players. And some might say, why shouldn’t they be, with Steinbrenner’s largesse, the highest team payroll in the major leagues-over 85 million bucks? Still, Mets owners Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon are not exactly pikers.

Theirs is the eighth-highest payroll. Yet even for 63 mil and change they cannot buy perfection. Better pitching? Better hitting? Indubitably. A truly stupendous infield? Absolutely. And if they were to ante up another 10 or 20 or 30 million, would they be able to put together a team like the New York Yankees? I would hope not. The Amazin’s are amazing, in part because they are never a sure thing. The Yankees, on the other hand, are a collaboration, a flourishing business partnership of highly talented individuals who please exceedingly. Who even delight. But they never amaze. Nor do they disappoint, at least not for long. Their fans could not accept a knife twisting in their gut; they’d see no point in rooting for the underdog when it’s so much more civilized to be the overdog.

Do I love my Mets because I enjoy pain? No. I’d much rather have pleasure. But like many girls from Brooklyn and Queens-offspring of Jewish immigrants or Catholic immigrants, or African-American descendants of slaves-I sensed that life, even in benign WASP America, would not bring unmitigated happiness.

OK, it did occur to me that it might not be totally terrible to grow up to be a princess, to have the itsy-bitsy glass slipper slide onto my twinkled-toed foot and then waltz with Prince Charming at a perpetual ball. Except, even as a kid, I sensed not only was this not going to happen but also that it would wind up being a major snore.

I’d been a Dodger fan. I understood. Real life-like first-rate literature and great sports-might not always be pretty, but it was infinitely complex and incredibly interesting. And I wanted to have and to be the real thing.

And that’s why I love my Mets.
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