Archive for May, 2010

Momentum

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Yes I do think that there is such a thing as momentum in baseball.  Yes I do understand that if you flip a coin 162 times and record your results, you will find winning streaks and losing streaks that look just like the performance of a baseball team in the course of a season.  No, I do not think that proves that there is no such thing as momentum in baseball.

I’ve seen it in classes I’ve taught and in groups I’ve been a part of.  People respond to the other people around them, engaged in the same activity.  I’m not sure how it works and I suspect it works in different ways at different times.  I don’t think it follows rules, which is why people are still unsure that it exists. 

One of the reasons people doubt that there is such a thing as momentum is that it is very fragile.  The Mets have momentum at the moment.  Having beaten the Yankees in two out of three games and now having beaten the Phillies 8-0, they are more likely to win their next game than if they had lost two out of three to the Yanks and lost 8-0 to the Phils.  But more likely just means more likely.  If a Phillies pitcher pitches a great game and a Mets pitcher blows it tomorrow, the momentum can be lost or at least diminished, but if they keep winning they will still have an advantage.

One thing that helps create momentum is convincing teams like the Yankees and Phillies to respect you.  Another thing is earning the respect of your fans.  Look, we’ve had our ups and downs this season.  But we are at .500, only four games out, after 50 games.  And Jose Reyes and Jason Bay are just beginning to hit.  And more fun than anything else is the cornucopia of surprises we’ve already had this season.  Pelfrey, Barajas, Davis, Takahashi, Valdes, Dickey, Pagan, Mejia, Carter, Blanco.  Who are these people?  What did we know about them?  How much did we think of them or rely on them?  Last season the only player on the team who played better than expected was Luis Castillo, for all the good it did us.  This is a lot of what momentum often involves:  obscure people asking to be noticed, disappointing people eager not to disappoint, new people happy to be new and wanting to get old. 

What serious, discerning, loving, needing Mets fan is not enjoying this season at this point?  Who among you is certain that something cannot happen this year?  I’m still not giving it 50% odds, but I’m getting close.  I love the way they’re playing.  I love the way the chips are falling.  I love the eagerness I feel at 7.

On the Eve of the First Subway Series

Friday, May 21st, 2010

In a blog called Clutch Bingles, a blogger named Brian mentions the fact that “Dana Brand wrote a book that fondly remembered The Last Days of Shea. …It’s one of the many things I genuinely love about Mets fans over Yankee fans. Mets fans lost their oft-derided stadium (even oft-derided among themselves), and they still mourn it. … Yankee fans, meanwhile, lost a palace with an unmatched history of championships (albeit one with a ’70s disco make-over) and replaced it with a gray gaudy mall — and Yankee fans hardly shed a tear for the old place … There’s no similar poetry devoted to the final days of old Yankee Stadium, not in the same vein as in the book by Brand, who obviously speaks for a lot of Mets fans. It’s like the Yankees brass (with the help of The City) plowed over a community park to drop an exclusive baseball version of the Palisades Center into the South Bronx, and Yankee fans loved them for it, even if that mall hardly loves them back.”

In the superb blog Subway Squawkers, the excellent Yankee blogger Lisa Swan wonders what people think now who had once said that they’d rather have Wright and Reyes than A-Rod and Jeter.  It is a fair question.  The stocks of Wright and Reyes are down at the moment.  But I still enjoy rooting for them to find their way, more than I’d enjoy rooting for Jeter, and much much more than I’d enjoy rooting for A-Rod.  When I noted this on Lisa’s Facebook page, it prompted several Yankees fans to marvel at comparably absurd preferences Mets fans have expressed to them over the years.  One woman marvels that her Mets fan husband says that he’d rather have Ike Davis than Mark Teixeira.  One man mentions that back in the ‘70s, the guy who owned his local deli said he’d rather have Doug Flynn, Ron Hodges, and Dan Norman than Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Mickey Rivers. 

Of course I’d rather have Ike Davis than Mark Teixeira.  I too was glad to have Doug Flynn, Ron Hodges, and Dan Norman rather than Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Mickey Rivers.  Wright and Reyes versus Jeter and A-Rod?  No contest at all.  These sentiments are relatively uncontroversial among long-time, die-hard Mets fans and they are entirely incomprehensible to Yankees fans.  This is how the fan bases can be told apart.  It is incomprehensible to Yankees fans that we would actually prefer players we know to be inferior to theirs.   We write books and poems of love to a mediocre newish stadium and they can’t even produce a tear (let alone a book or a poem) for a truly historic old one.  They can’t comprehend that we don’t envy them.  They think we should.  We don’t.  We feel superior to them, precisely because of the perversity and the sentimentality that prevents us from envying them. 

As I’ve said before, Yankees fans are just as good people as Mets fans.  But if the only way I could be a baseball fan was to be a Yankees fan, I wouldn’t do it.  It doesn’t look like fun to me.  For all of the disasters and absurdities, I can’t help but find Mets fandom fun. 

So here we are at the first Subway Series, a psychological point of the season that both Mets fans and Yankees fans know is important.  I’m psyched.  Because I know that anything can happen.  Yankees fans also know that anything can happen.  But they are not as much at ease with this fact as I am.

Would You Be Surprised?

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

If someone had told you at the start of this season that one quarter of the way through 2010, the 3, 4, and 5 starters in the rotation would have a total of two wins, Jose Reyes and Jason Bay would have a combined total of one home run, and David Wright would have 55 strikeouts, would you have been surprised to learn that we were in last place?

No, you wouldn’t.

Would you be surprised to learn that they were 19-21 and only two games out of second?

Yes, you would.

The Six-Run Inning: The Mets on May 11

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

I was at the game last night (5/11 against the Nationals) and I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it.  It was one of those games that encourages you to think that you’ve seen the season pass before your eyes.  Of course, such a conviction can be an illusion.  But sometimes you just can’t help but be convinced.

The game convinced me to see it as the 2010 season in miniature because it showed me all the blemishes of the Mets, but it also reminded me of how they can transcend their imperfections.  The starting pitching has been quite good at times, but it is not reliable.  The offense has shown signs of waking up and being good.  It’s still nothing to write home about.  But there is something about this team that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

The first seven innings of last night’s ballgame reminded me of constipation.  The bases would load up but nothing would come home.  I found myself wondering at points what the record was for number of hits by a team that had only one or two runs.  Not that I had any interest in breaking such records, but I was just wondering.  At the beginning of the eighth I calculated that the Mets as a team were batting almost .500 for the game, and yet they had only scored two runs.  Pretty amazing.   Double plays and strikeouts just waited to happen.  There was no way I expected the Mets to win.  But something kept me in my seat.  Looking back, I think it was the fact that I am getting used to the Mets fumbling around, blowing leads, not coming back, and then coming back, whether or not they make it all the way to a win. 

We now have to change metaphors, if you don’t mind.  The eighth inning felt like hitting the jackpot.  Bright shiny coins kept coming out of the machine and wouldn’t stop.  My sister Stefanie and my daughter Sonia and I stood up for the whole inning.  We just jumped up and down repeatedly and hollered, enjoying everything we saw on the field and particularly enjoying what we imagined to be the anguish of the smartasses who felt they had to get into their cars in the middle of the eighth inning.  Never leave a game, I thought.  I have never left a game.  If you think you might possibly leave a game before it’s over then you should find a different sport to follow. 

What was cool about the six or ten run eighth inning was what is cool about the 2010 New York Mets.   Things aren’t happening because known quantities are producing according to statistically predictable patterns.  The known quantities (Wright, Reyes, Santana, Bay, etc.) are proving themselves to be unknown.  And then there is all this entirely unanticipated stuff.  The Ruthian home-run and rbi frequency of our consolation prize catcher, who doubles off the wall with the bases loaded.  A utility infielder hitting under .200 who lays down a bunt that no one is expecting.  The career minor leaguer who joins the team this morning and hits a double to put us ahead.  The charismatic kid first baseman who hits a grand-slam up over the foul pole.  And let’s not forget the no-name middle-relief staff, the most formidable in baseball, who made this go-ahead late inning possible.       

Our old familiar team feels new.  It has a whole bunch of new guys we can enjoy and dream about as we wait for the old guys to find their rhythm.   When they do find their rhythm, the pace and mood of the team will have been re-set by the likes of Barajas, Davis, and Takehashi.  Nobody really knows how these guys will pan out.  There are plenty of troubling signs on the Mets.  But there is something new.  There is this sense that a game is never lost until it’s over, and that a foul ball hit into our dugout is not going to just bounce in there without being chased by a guy hurtling through the air in a somersault.

Baseball, Politics, and Polarization

Monday, May 10th, 2010

The Mets, amazingly enough, were mentioned by President Obama this morning as he was announcing the appointment of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Noting Kagan’s reputation for respecting a diversity of legal and political views, Obama said, “This appreciation for diverse views may also come in handy as a die-hard Mets fan serving alongside her new colleague-to-be, Yankees fan Justice Sotomayor — who I believe has ordered a pinstripe robe for the occasion.”

Once again, we see how important baseball is to the fabric of American life and once again we are prompted to consider the way in which baseball loyalties relate to the other important loyalties in our lives. I mean, let’s say that I was trying to choose between two candidates for office and let’s just say for the sake of argument that both were decent and principled people. Let’s say that one of them was liberal, as I am, in most of his/her positions, and the other was conservative. Let’s say that the liberal was a Yankees fan and the conservative was a Mets fan. How could I ever determine which one to vote for?

What do you think I am, an idiot? I mean, there is no way in which I would vote for someone just because they were a Mets fan and there’s no way I would vote against someone just because they were a Yankees fan. The main thing that would matter to me was their positions on issues and the other important considerations would involve their character and intellect. The fact that somebody is a Mets fan does not make me think any more highly of them than I would if they weren’t a Mets fan. I’ll take this further. Although I like the myths and traditions of Mets fandom more than I like the myths and traditions of Yankees fans or Phillies fans, I don’t think that Mets fans are better people than Yankees fans or Phillies fans and I actually get upset when Mets fans say things that suggest that they genuinely believe that they are.

There may be Mets fans who dislike people just because they’re Yankees or Phillies fans, but I’ve never actually met such a person.  We all know that it’s fun to pretend undying emnity, but we also know where to draw the line.  There’s a particular pleasure, I think, in striking up a conversation with the Phillies fans who drove up for the day, in sharing with them the sense that it’s all in fun.  Nobody seriously believes that Kagan and Sotomayor are going to have a problem with each other on the court because they root for different teams.  

So what then is the point of all this baseball loyalty, all of this loud and fervid tribalism? If you don’t actually get to hate the people you pretend to hate, what good is it?  Well the good stuff comes from the fact that you get to like people you wouldn’t otherwise like, to be on the same side as people you would otherwise think of as on the other side.  I can’t help but get a real kick out of situations in which I find myself sharing Mets love with people who might disagree with me on every other conceivable issue. I love the sense that if you got me and Tim Robbins and Jon Stewart and Richard Nixon and Bill O’Reilly in a room together, there is something at least we could talk about without getting mad at each other.

Baseball loyalty offers a sense of temporary peace, of suspension of all other hostilities, precisely because it doesn’t involve an allegiance to any specific ideas. I think in fact that this is one of the reasons why baseball has been such a force for positive change in American life. Like many, I really think that the integration of baseball may have done as much to change racial attitudes in this country than the worthy ideals of the civil rights movement. Many people wouldn’t listen to these ideas, because they were the ideas of the “other.”  But they could be convinced to change their ideas by finding themselves loyal to a person of another race, by finding themselves hoping for his good fortune.  The meaningless game was able to bring about meaningful change for many people who found the meaningful ideas too threatening.

By sharing my Mets fandom with people who disagree with me about everything else, I find it easier to imagine their humanity and I hope they find it easier to imagine mine. In these sometimes absurdly polarized times maniacs, on the internet, on the radio, on cable television, and, alas, on bookshelves, urge us to ignore the humanity of those who disagree with us. One thing about baseball is that is reminds us of the humanity we share with those with whom we disagree. The sharpest political or religious disagreement cannot destroy the bond of those who now ride the waves of excitement offered by Ike Davis and Hot Rod Barajas.

This is one of the great and wonderful ironies of baseball. The artificial oppositions don’t really mean anything. But the artificial unions do.