A Bloop and a Blast

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, while visiting my parents’ house, I found an artifact of my tortured early years of baseball fandom. It was a journal I was assigned to keep at the beginning of first grade, a stretch of time in the autumn of 1993 that coincided with a thrillingly unexpected Philadelphia Phillies postseason run. “I like the Phillies,” I wrote on October 8—a rather bold statement, given that the Greg Maddux–led Atlanta Braves had clobbered them 14–3 in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series the night before. I added several small crayon illustrations, as if placing my modest offerings at the baseball gods’ altar: a red cap I captioned “Hat,” some sketches of John Kruk and Pete “Inky” Incaviglia that make them look like identical-twin clowns, and, in summation of it all, a red and brown blob that I helpfully labeled “Hotdog.” It worked. The Fightin’ Phils went on to win the NLCS in six games, securing the pennant at home on October 13, and, this time, forcing my mortal—immortal?—enemy Maddux to take the L. Life was good. I was about to turn seven years old, and my team was headed to the World Series. 

I grew up in what a friend once dubbed “the part of Philadelphia that is in New Jersey.” A place where the stuff that comes out of the faucet is wudder and the first word most children learn how to spell is E-A-G-L-E-S (pronounced: “egggles”). Regional sports fandom there is an omnipresence, part of the atmosphere, the kind of stuff a young child breathes in like smog from a nearby factory. But for such a sports-crazed locale, championships remained elusive for Philadelphia teams throughout most of the 1980s and early ’90s. The city’s most recent triumph had come when the Sixers swept the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals, an achievement that meant nothing to me because it happened three years before I was born, which might as well have been the Dark Ages. But a decade later, the Phillies, a team that had gone 70–92 and finished dead last in their division the previous year, suddenly caught fire. Led by a murderer’s row of scraggly-haired dirtbags and future Trump supporters like Lenny Dykstra and Curt Schilling, the ’93 Phillies—whose Wikipedia page contains the sentence “The team was often described as ‘shaggy’, ‘unkempt’, and ‘dirty’”—were somehow so dominant that they led their division for all but one day of the season. All spring and summer they were a hoot to watch, especially Kruk, a mulletted first baseman with a Tweedledee body type who hit .316 in his third consecutive All-Star season. The ’93 Phillies once finished a doubleheader at 4:40 am—eons past my bedtime—when pitcher Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams eked out a walk-off RBI single. Because I was a six-year-old who watched a lot of cartoons, their appeal was obvious to me: they liked to pie each other in the face in the clubhouse and call each other “dude,” and during their home opener the Phillie Phanatic jumped out of an airplane. Now these goofball underdogs and their zoologically confusing mascot would somehow be facing the defending World Series champions. 

Flipping ahead to my journal entry from Monday, October 25, lets you know how that went. “The Phillies Lost Big,” I bemoaned in childish handwriting, still emotionally hungover from the past Saturday night’s decisive Game 6, when Wild Thing had lived up to the worst connotation of his nickname and surrendered a three-run bomb to Joe Carter in the bottom of the ninth. I added, “The Blue Jays won Again for the 2st tam!” [sic] But hope springs eternal in the cyclical churn of baseball seasons. As if acknowledging this, I once again concluded my entry with a weakly optimistic “Hot Dog.” Which was to say, at least we’d have a shot at the 1994 World Series. Right?

Sports fandom is mysterious, mercurial, and a lot more like religious belief than a lapsed Catholic such as myself wants to admit. I cannot pinpoint the moment I lost my faith in the Philadelphia Phillies, but, looking back now, I can see the seeds of doubt planted in the wide-ruled lines of that first-grade notebook. I didn’t yet know that there would be no 1994 World Series—an injustice as unfathomable to me as Christmas being canceled—because of an unprecedented players’ strike that would freeze-frame the season on August 12. The Phillies by then had returned to their regularly scheduled program of numbing mediocrity (54–61; fourth place in their division), which meant I didn’t have as much to complain about as, say, fans of the red-hot and doomed Montreal Expos, or especially San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who had a legitimate shot to finish the season with a batting average over .400 for the first time since Ted Williams did it in 1941. When the season ended, an uncomplaining (but probably secretly pretty damn frustrated) Gwynn was paused eternally at the tantalizing what-if of .394.

When you’re a kid, a year is an eternity—especially when it gives you extra time to wallow in your team’s crushing defeat the season prior. Baseball came back in April of 1995, but by then I had started to drift away from the Phillies. I still liked baseball, and I still watched it quite a bit, I just took more of a bird’s-eye view. I wished Cal Ripken Jr. well that September, when he broke Lou Gehrig’s seemingly untouchable record of 2,130 consecutive games played. In summer 1998, I got as caught up in the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run race as anybody. But over that strike year my heart had hardened and I wasn’t sure I would ever open it up so completely to a specific team again. The cost was too great. And anyway the Phillies sucked for the rest of the ’90s, and to add insult to injury, the dastardly Atlanta Braves won the NL pennant in 1995—and again in 1996, for the 2st tam!

Another way that sports fandom is like religion is that the people who convert later in life are the most annoying about it. Vocal and overzealous to make up for all that lost time they spent ignorantly sinning. Take it from me. While I did not become a born-again Christian, I did convert to something much worse in the eyes of the people I grew up with. In my early thirties, you see, I fell with my whole stupid heart and soul for the Phillies’ division rivals, the goddamn New York Mets.

Mr. Met at the Oakland Athletics vs. New York Mets game, Citi Field, New York, June 25, 2014. Eric Kilby/Flickr.
Mr. Met at the Oakland Athletics vs. New York Mets game, Citi Field, New York, June 25, 2014. Eric Kilby/Flickr.

SO MANY BASEBALL FANS I KNOW have heartwarming stories about how they fell for their favorite teams—a family saga, an iconic moment to which they bore accidental witness,” Devin Gordon writes in his highly entertaining 2021 book So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets—the Best Worst Team in Sports. “The number one overwhelming reason why I’m a Mets fan,” he continues, “is that I was seven years old and the Mets had a player named Strawberry. That’s really all it took.”

As a former six-year-old who just really liked saying “Incaviglia,” I understand. But Gordon’s early fandom experience was the opposite of mine: in 1986, when he was an impressionable ten years old, his team won the World Series. He was mature enough to understand that this meant he must pledge undying allegiance to them forever (those are the rules!), but he was still too young to understand that—for the inherently hard-luck New York Mets—this moment of triumph was an anomaly. 

If the Yankees are New York’s chiseled older brother who was elected president of his fraternity and definitely grew up to be a cop, the Mets are the city’s eccentric and probably under-parented younger stepchild. Their conception itself was an act of spite and municipal vengeance: when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants both decamped to California in 1958, then-mayor Robert Wagner immediately promised his incensed constituents that he would bring another baseball team to New York. He just didn’t necessarily promise they’d be any good. And so in the Mets’ inaugural season, 1962, they won forty games and lost 120. They were a trusty punchline for the rest of the ’60s, until the 1969 Miracle Mets, led by their beloved ace Tom Seaver, did the unthinkable: they won the World Series.

“In essence, all of Mets history has been a spiritual tug-of-war pitting the ’62 Mets against the ’69 Mets,” Gordon writes, and this is the logic that grounds his argument that, as per his book’s subtitle, the Mets are indeed “the best worst team in sports.” As he clarifies quite convincingly, though, “There is a difference between being bad and being gifted at losing, and this distinction holds the key to understanding the true magic of the New York Mets.” Exhibit A: sixty years later, the ’62 Mets still hold the modern-era record for most losses in a season. It’s honestly impressive to suck that monumentally. Give them an exhibit in the basement of the Baseball Hall of Fame, right next to the freight elevator.

Gordon’s book sprang from a delightful 2018 New York Times Magazine feature about the three beloved broadcasters he dubbed “the three Magi of Mets Nation,” Gary Cohen, ex-pitcher Ron Darling, and Seinfeld nemesis Keith Hernandez. (Their three names are so entwined to Mets fans that Gordon stylized them throughout the book, correctly, without commas, as “Gary Keith and Ron.”) So Many Ways to Lose is a chronological romp through Mets history, but it’s also a somewhat autobiographical study of the average Mets fan’s psyche, which Gordon describes as existing in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance—as pessimistic as a crotchety old man but somehow as naively trusting as a newborn babe, “simultaneously certain of humiliating defeat and pretty darn sure there’s a miracle brewing.” 

“This is very hard to do,” he adds as a disclaimer. “You probably couldn’t pull it off.” Maybe it’s all the Jersey factory exhaust I inhaled as a child, or maybe my former home team’s underdog mentality primed me for it. Either way, I read that challenge and let out one of those low, throaty sounds of approval that Keith Hernandez always forgets to mute on the broadcast whenever the barrel of someone’s bat connects with a hanging slider: “Mmmmmm.” Sign me up.

I MOVED TO WASHINGTON, DC, IN 2005, the same year the Montreal Expos did and rechristened themselves as the Washington Nationals. Maybe that should have been the clean slate I needed to devote myself to a brand-new team, but another gross thing that I find sports fandom to resemble is a skin graft. Sometimes, the conditions can be right, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t take. Also, the Nationals were just unwatchably bad for their first few (eight) seasons, and I was in college and thus did not have time to follow baseball. I was very busy reading Derrida and drinking bottles of malt liquor taped to my hands.

The Nationals made the postseason for the first time the very same month I moved to New York: October 2012. But even when I was living in DC, it never quite felt like a place I was trying to put down roots. New York was different. So were the Mets.

I fell for the Mets the way that guy goes bankrupt in The Sun Also Rises: gradually, then suddenly. I was not yet on board when they made it to and then efficiently lost the 2015 World Series, which is probably for the best—my heart is made of blown glass and such sudden excitement may have shattered it beyond repair. But I started going to games with a few lifelong-Mets-fan friends in 2016 and 2017, if only because there is no lovelier place to be on a beautiful late-summer New York evening than Citi Field. My friends did not twist my arm. They were patient, accepting. They introduced me to the scrappy characters on the current roster. That outfielder who sprints for his life every time he draws a walk and effusively thanks his God for reaching first base is Brandon Nimmo. The admittedly streaky hitter with a Ken Griffey Jr. swing and a dreamy smile is Michael Conforto, on whom I developed a somewhat embarrassing crush. The main draw, though, was this lanky, freak-of-nature ace pitcher who seemed to subsist entirely on McDonald’s while maintaining the silhouette of Slender Man, and whose arm was clearly on some Benjamin Button shit because the older he got, the harder he threw. That, of course, was Jacob deGrom, New York folk hero and one of the best pitchers currently walking the earth, whose two consecutive Cy Young seasons in 2018 and 2019 sealed the deal for me. Throw in the dulcet, ASMR tones of the best booth in baseball, Gary, Keith, and Ron; the strange psychosexual tension between Mr. and Mrs. Met; and the way Lou Monte’s novelty song “Lazy Mary” is a bigger deal during the seventh-inning stretch than “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Forget it. Baptize me in the waters of the orange and blue.

Gordon’s book ends right where my Mets fandom really took off, during a 2019 season that was a quintessentially Metsy blend of ya-gotta-believe triumph and are-you-freaking-kidding-me disasters: a six-run lead blown in the ninth inning against a division rival, a slugger who was injured in an altercation with a wild boar (Yoenis Céspedes, we hardly knew you!), and a promising young closer who plummeted from the best to worst in baseball as soon as he put on a Mets jersey. But in addition to deGrom, what made that season so infectiously watchable was the charismatic jolt that young Pete “the Polar Bear” Alonso brought to the team, chasing—and eventually breaking!—the rookie home-run record when he hit a staggering fifty-three dingers in a season. Down the stretch, Alonso was simultaneously laser focused on that goal and enough of a class clown to create an endearingly homoerotic new tradition where every time a player won the game with a walk-off, Alonso would summon his ursine strength to rip that player’s jersey right off his body. God bless Pete Alonso, and may he be a New York Met for life.

One of the defining paradoxes of sports fandom is that while we pledge our devotion to individual players, we also must grapple with the constant possibility that they could leave us and go play for another team. Maybe even a rival team. Gordon is especially poignant on this. The lowest four months of his Mets fandom were not necessarily when the team was at its worst, but when Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden were together on the Yankees. Even Seaver, a guy so synonymous with the Mets that his nickname was “The Franchise,” was dealt unceremoniously to Cincinnati in one of the most notorious trades in Mets (or even MLB) history. Though he came back for a season in 1983, Seaver spent a decade of his career playing for other teams. When the ’86 Mets beat Boston in the World Series, injured Red Sox pitcher Seaver, “the greatest Met there ever was, watched all of it happen from the Red Sox dugout.”

Players, stadiums, and teams sometimes seem like they exist to remind us of the Buddhist idea of the impermanence of all things and the grace that comes from not getting too attached. Jacob deGrom’s arm will eventually succumb to the laws of physics and temporality, and Michael Conforto will stupidly reject the Mets’ generous qualifying offer, have season-ending shoulder surgery right as he becomes a free agent, and also marry a woman literally named Cabernet. But non-attachment is an incredibly difficult mindset for us feeble humans to achieve, so we keep letting the players, the teams, and the game break our hearts over and over again. At least we’re not alone in that. I’m aware that a significant reason I’m a Mets fan is a social one, the fact that I have a tight-knit group of friends to go to games with and to whom I can text melodramatic things like “SEASON OVER” after a brutal mid-April loss. Metsiness loves company.

Baseball fandom allows me to quiet my rational mind and to accept several opposing truths at once. When I watch the Mets, I am able to be, as Gordon describes, both a wizened old cynic and a naively optimistic kid. I am thirty-five and also six years old—a vehemently pro-labor adult who supports the players union in all its endeavors, and who also would have cried like a first-grader had the owners’ greedy stubbornness forced the players to strike and cancel the 2022 season. I am both a Philadelphian expat and a proud New Yorker. I can boo the Phillies until I run out of breath—Bryce Harper, you suuuuuuck!—while on some subconscious level I tip my cap to them, because I know that they were the ones who first taught me how to root for the underdog, and to love a baseball team unconditionally enough to let it break my heart.

Lindsay Zoladz is a writer living in Brooklyn and a frequent contributor to the New York Times