EPISODE THREE: THE METS FAN
Imagine discovering that your DNA contains the genetic marker for some horrible disease. Would you still have children? Before you answer, ask yourself, "What if this nasty little allele was also responsible for some admirable character trait that the men in my family possess?" A wicked sense of humor... but then senility, for example. Would you pass the gift/sickness onto your offspring?
Two years ago, I infected my six-year-old son, Nicholas, with a malady known as being a Mets fan. For those who don't follow baseball, New York is a two-team town. So I could have spared him a lifetime of abuse and heartache. I could have taken him to Yankee Stadium rather than Citi Field for his first game, but I didn't. And I suspect my reasons were the same as dads who raise their children to root for the Luton Hatters in British football or the New Mexico Lobos in American college basketball. The team we root for says something about our character. Supporting a troubled franchise is a bit like being the protagonist of the Johnny Cash song, 'A Boy Named Sue'.
"Why are we Mets fans?" Nicholas asks me every so often. The question usually comes after one of his Yankee classmates has made one of those constructive comments that Yankee fans do, like: "What does it feel to suck so badly?"
"In this family we root for the underdog," is my stock response, parroting the line that my maternal grandfather used on me. Admittedly, it sounds a little hollow coming out of my mouth. My maternal grandfather knew poverty first-hand. He grew up in a tenement on New York's Lower East Side. He got his high school diploma at night because from the time he was a teenager, he was already working several jobs - one of them was as a vendor at the old Polo Grounds, the ballpark of the New York Giants. He loved the Giants, and when that franchise moved to San Francisco in 1957, he started rooting for the Mets.
My grandfather loved Willie Mays, who played for the Giants from 1951 to 1957 and then The Mets in the Seventies. Mays, it was often said, was the player for whom they invented the All-Star Game. He could hit. To this day, he is fourth in all-time home runs. And he could field. The Say Hey Kid was famous for making breathtaking catches like the over-the-shoulder one he executed in the 1954 World Series. When Mays came back to New York from San Francisco for his swan song, my grandfather took me to the stadium for Willie Mays' Night on September 25, 1973. I remember how excited we both were - me because it was my first night game, and he because Mays represented to him the promise of America. If Mays could go from playing in the Negro Leagues to being the toast of New York, anything was possible. I saw tears on my grandfather's face that night as Mays made his farewell address.
Over the course of my lifetime, The Yankees have won The World Series seven times; The Mets have come in last place 13 times. The Yankees players are superstars, and they date the likes of Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz. The Mets have Merengue Night. Even the uniforms are no contest. The Yankees' uniforms consist of a classic navy and white pinstripe; The Mets uniforms are royal blue and orange - a color combo that only an Italian aristocrat on holiday could pull off. Consider the nicknames. The Yankees are The Bronx Bombers. The Mets were initially dubbed The Lovable Losers by their fans, until a marketing campaign rechristened them The Amazing Mets.
I'm not sure exactly what Nicholas is learning from watching The Amazing (and at this writing Last Place) Mets. Even before the current season got underway a few weeks ago, I knew I would have to start managing his expectations. Recently, The Mets majority owner Fred Wilpon was dragged into the Madoff scandal. A lawsuit filed by the attorney entrusted with recovering money for the Ponzi schemes' victims alleged that The Mets owners received over a billion dollars in ill-gotten gains. Both Wilpon and Madoff (in a recent prison interview with the FT) denied Wilpon knew what Madoff was up to. The lawsuit may explain why The Mets failed to fill holes in their lineup through trades during the off-season and left the roster a peeling, pockmarked mess.
"You know, we may not end up in first place this year," I said to Nicholas to get him prepared for the inevitable.
"Why not, Dad?"
"The Wilpons invested with this bad man..."
"What's an investment?"
"A place you park your money."
" You mean like a garage for your money?"
"Sort of, but the garage pays you money to park there."
"Well, we should park the Volvo at that garage. That's a good deal."
Like his great-grandfather, Nicholas is a cockeyed optimist - whether this is his nature or the byproduct of being a Mets fan I'm not sure. The other day he told me not to worry about the team's money problems because that meant "all the players will be the same as last year. And that means they won't trade David Wright [his favorite player]." I do hope that he never loses this boyish ebullience because it's nice to think of him going through life rooting for The Amazing Mets rather than The Lovable Losers.