Rooting for the Mets — one year later

Was in Barnes & Noble the other day on my lunch break,and I flipped through Joe Benigno’s book Rules for New York Sports Fans. Well, hell, I’m almost 38 years old, and My Old Man had me reading the sports pages since I graduated from picture books (I grew up thinking that newspapers were read backwards, starting from the back page). So I hardly need to read about “rules” for being a fan. On the other hand, I live too far upstate to get WFAN’s signal, and Benigno is nothing if not a passionate sports radio host, so I gave the book a look-see.

Benigno writes that you can’t change fandom after you’re 13 years old, that there’s no divorce in fandom. I don’t think I saw it, but I suppose he might as well have added that there’s no converting religions (through marriage or otherwise) in sports fandom and no equivalent evolving of your politics as a fan, either (I’d probably agree on that one for professional politicians).

Well, I’m not divorced (despite my friends frequently referring to my wife as a Saint). I’m still a Catholic (though, to paraphrase Jake Barnes, I’m a rotten one). I’m still fairly Center-Left. And I changed the team I root for at the age of 36.

It’s been nearly a year since I came out with this, but let me explain and expand.

I was born into Yankee fandom — my father idolized Mickey Mantle, and my grandfather (from Italy by way of Yonkers, or is it Yonkers by way of Italy?) took me to my first ballgame, at age 7, at Yankee Stadium in 1979. I rooted for them until I was 11, became disillusioned at that impressionable age, came back within a few years, and slowly had that cynicism build up until I left the Yankees to root for the 2009 Mets. The Yankees won the World Series that year. The Mets won an early start to fall golf.

The year I turned 11 I rooted for the 1983 Yankees more than any team in my life, past or present. If you remember, that was the season that Billy Martin came back to manage the Yankees (Oh, right, that one? No, not that one. That one? No, that one.). The Yanks’ game program had a picture of Martin from behind pointing his thumb over his shoulder at his No. 1 with the words “Billy’s Back.” The team yearbook had a photo of Martin kicking dirt on an umpire, which surely did wonders for the Yanks getting any leeway on close calls that season.

My favorite player was Graig Nettles. I adored him. I modeled my batting stance on his. I sought out his model baseball glove, his model spikes, his model bat. I sought out his baseball cards. I bought his book. I loved Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” music video (remember those?) because he mentions Nettles at the end of it (the end of the video, that is, not the song).

And the Yankees traded their two-year captain and Gold Glover in spring training 1984 and named Toby Harrah their third baseman.

I was crushed. A few days before the deal, I remember seeing the back page of one of the tabs with a story about the potential trade of my hero. I threw the paper down the stairs in my house in anger.

Nettles went to the Padres, and the Padres went to the World Series that year. I bought and wore a Padres hat that year.

Eleven is pretty young to become a budding jaded cynic, but hell, I experienced a strike shortened season when I was 9. No wonder my generation grew up jaded, for God’s sake. It’s one thing to have grown up a decade earlier, when your President leaves a season (or two) early. It’s only politics, government, and the future of the free world. It’s quite another to have your baseball heroes out for the summer. We’re talking about something much more important. (Though at least they came back that year. I wonder how fans who were 9 years old during the 1994 strike-canceled season feel today).

Fifteen years after the Nettles trade, I’m in the laundromat reading about the spring training 1999 trade of my favorite player of those Yankees — the perfect/quite imperfect David Wells — for Roger Clemens. This following a season after Wells threw a perfect game and anchored the Bombers’ rotation in one of the best years of any MLB team in history. I bought a Blue Jays hat after that trade.

Still, I came back within a year, less die-hard. The situation did not improve any for me in 2000 by the crap Clemens pulled with Piazza. In July 2001, in what has been the last Yankee game I attended, I proposed to my future wife in Monument Park, next to the grounds crew’s plants.

But a decade of increasingly unlikeable teams, capped by the never-ending A-Rod saga; performance-enhancement allegations (and some admissions) against A-Rod, Clemens, and Giambi; the continuing propensity to buy themselves into and out of everything; the smarmy new manager who changes uniform numbers to match the next World Series he’s convinced the team will buy, er, win; and finally, decisively driven home by the monstrous, exclusionary new ballpark across the street, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I truly felt the Yankees left me. No, perhaps not in the same way that the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left the baseball fans of New York after the 1957 season. But I’d been feeling rudderless, abandoned, for much of the ’00s.

So I went with the crosstown rivals, a flirtation I had at age 12, the team I never truly learned to hate (the Red Sox are another story, but no Yankee fans hates the Mets as much as they hate the Red Sox, or as much as Mets fans hate the Yankees for that matter. Take it from me on this one.). Perhaps the years I spent as a local sportswriter, when I aimed to have the neutrality of the Statue of Lady Justice, made this transition easier. Perhaps my journalist’s/writer’s bullshit detector added to that ease.

Benigno, in his book, says you can’t change teams if you hate the personnel, if you hate the owner, if you hate the GM. Only if your team leaves you (a la the Dodgers and Giants) can you change affiliation mid-life.

Of course, Benigno meant if the team physically packs up and leaves. But what if you feel they’ve left you emotionally?

I stuck with the Mets through 2009. I yelled loud enough when Castillo dropped that ninth-inning pop fly last June to wake up my baby boy. For the first time in my life, I derived no joy whatsoever when the Yankees won the World Series in the fall (though I hardly felt bad for the Phillies, either).

Still, it continues to be a tricky ride. I enjoy catching up on Mets history, though I must remind myself, it’s not my history, and I can’t be a fraud about it, no matter how much I enjoy reading about the ’86 exploits in The Bad Guys Won! and the early days in Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? As I previously stated, I can’t renounce my past history with the Yankees, either, without being fraudulent — Nettles, Munson, Mattingly, Reggie, Wells, Bernie will always be a part of my rooting past. But A-Rod, Teixeira, and (though I respect them) Jeter and Mariano aren’t past of my rooting present or future.

Maybe it’s just that the Yankees aren’t fun like they were in the late ’70s Bronx is Burning Days, and even the first half of the ’80s, when I was growing up and my interests were almost perfectly limited to baseball and Star Wars (with some hockey mixed in, but not much). They aren’t fun in the way Wells injected a needed dose of levity in ’98. Maybe, with a 3½-year-old at home, I want to give my son the full range of rooting options, and not peg him to root for a stodgy, corporate franchise (unless he chooses to on his own; we’re all for free will here).

For richer or for poorer, for me, anyway, my present and future is with Wright, Reyes, Jerry, Johan, Big Pelf, K-Rod, Ike, Frenchy, Rod Bah-ha-has, Bay, and yes, even Ollie, too.


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