During the third season of “Seinfeld,” in 1992, Keith Hernandez appeared as himself in a two-part episode entitled “The Boyfriend.” In an interview on the DVD release, Jerry Seinfeld says that this is his favorite episode. It is certainly one of the most famous of all “Seinfeld” episodes, which means that it has been seen over and over by everyone in the entire world. Whenever anyone asks Keith Hernandez whether he thinks he is more famous for having played baseball or for having been a character on “Seinfeld,” he says he thinks he is more famous for having been a character on “Seinfeld.”
There must be a lot of people who know very little about baseball who, when they think of the New York Mets, think of this episode. I like this, because I want the Mets to represent to the world the things I like most about New York. And “Seinfeld” has given the world a sympathetic and not entirely inaccurate view of New York. I think it is closer to the soul of New York than any other television show has ever been, with the possible exception of “Car 54.” Jerry Seinfeld is a New Yorker and an enormous New York Mets fan. His comedy reflects this. There seems to me to be something deeply Mets-like about “Seinfeld.”
Like rooting for the Mets, “Seinfeld” is all about living with failure and false starts. It is about maintaining your expectations regardless of how reliably life does not reward you. It is about the same things happening to you over and over again, without you ever realizing that you are stuck. It is about sabotaging yourself. But it is also about the way in which life is made bearable, even pleasant, by the affection you have for the things you know best, for the things you have always known, which you love mainly because you know them. Things like Pez dispensers and Superman Comics and Mr. Met and the Home Run Apple. This aspect of Jerry Seinfeld, the sweet, loyal, love of the familiar, is central to the spirit of Mets fans. We do not desert the crumbling stadium and all the silly things in it just as we do not desert the disappointing team. We can’t imagine our lives without them.
The faces and gestures of the Mets fan are the faces and gestures of Seinfeld’s stand-up comedy. We shrug as he does. And you know that facial expression where he scrunches the lower part of his face and seems to be saying that something is ridiculous but what is he supposed to do about it? That is our face. In the show, and in his routines, Seinfeld is a connoisseur of the ways in which reality and social custom stubbornly refuse to make sense. This is not a philosophical perspective you could associate with the New York Yankees.
But it is exactly right for Mets fans. Being a Mets fan is fun, even though it is often ridiculous and humiliating and it doesn’t make sense. You ever notice how when the Mets get good, they always seem to screw something up? Why is that? Hey, how about Mr. Met? What is it with that stupid smile? Why is everybody so excited when they shoot the Pepsi t-shirts into the crowd? Do they even know what is on the t-shirt? The apple in the hat? Why does the apple come out of a hat? When are apples ever in hats? Rabbits are in hats, sometimes. But apples? What is that supposed to mean?
Yankee fandom, with all of its rewards, has an element of rationality about it. The Yankee universe makes sense. Winning is a good thing and losing is a bad thing. The Yankees win. Therefore it makes sense to be a Yankee fan.
With the Mets, it’s more complicated. Just as it is on Seinfeld. Winning and losing are often intimately connected. You expect to lose, even as you are winning. You think you might win, even as you are losing. Winning has a way of turning into losing. Losing leads to winning, without any warning. And while winning is good, losing can be good too.
In “The Boyfriend” episode Jerry starts off by winning big. He meets Keith Hernandez, his favorite ballplayer, in a locker room. Hernandez recognizes him and tells him that he loves his comedy. What better thing could happen to Jerry? He is in love with Hernandez. And this episode is built around the dream of all baseball fans that the love we have for a ballplayer could be requited.
Elaine actually gets to go out with Keith because of the accidental fact that she is a woman. But she is more amused than impressed by the great ballplayer. Elaine is not a fan. She doesn’t know who Mookie is and she is hearing about “Game 6” for the first time. Jerry feels the injustice and the waste of this. So many men and women are in love with Keith. And here he is going out with someone who doesn’t care who he is. It is Jerry who should be able to go out with Keith. Keith should be his “boyfriend,” not Elaine’s.
Elaine likes to see what Jerry goes through when Keith doesn’t call him for three days. She enjoys seeing how jealous Jerry gets when Keith cancels a date with him to go out with her. The way men treat women has always been a mystery to Elaine. But now she sees that men like Jerry care about their favorite sports figures in the way women care about the men with whom they have fallen in love. In his “relationship” with Keith, Jerry’s emotions are engaged, his vulnerabilities are exposed, as they never are when he’s just going out with a woman.
As fans, don’t we dream of the players making us happy? Aren’t we crushed when they don’t? Aren’t we a little shy around them at first? When we finally embrace them, don’t we think about them all the time? Don’t we need them? Aren’t we wounded when we have a sense that they don’t care about us? Don’t we want them to know how much we care about them? Aren’t we sure that they would like us, if only they knew us, and understood our affection? Regardless of our gender or our sexual orientation, we baseball fans are all involved with these guys in something that feels like a relationship. Of course it is a waste that a non-fan like Elaine gets to go out with Keith just because she is a woman.
Hernandez is perfect in his role. He has the illusion that he is a real person, just another guy living through a protracted late adolescence on the Upper West Side. He thinks he is a Seinfeld character! Keith is making a new friend and trying to go out with a woman. His fame is only something he will use to try to get into bed with Elaine. Confident that he can impress Elaine with his eleven Golden Gloves, he is as clueless and self-absorbed as all of the other men Elaine goes out with. The fact that he smokes gives her the out she always looks for.
Jerry’s biggest hero becomes his friend. They plan to go to movies together. The fan’s fantasy is achieved. But then Keith asks Jerry to help him move. Senselessly self-sabotaging as always, the man who is puzzled by the logic of all rules and customs once again insists on their inviolability. A man has to know another man for longer than this in order to have the right to make this request. Jerry refuses to help Keith move, only to have Newman and Kramer take his place after Jerry demonstrates, in a parody of Oliver Stone’s film about the Kennedy assassination, that Keith could not have been the one who “ruined” Kramer’s life by spitting on them after Newman insulted Hernandez after a game in 1987.
Something has happened, but you don’t know what it is. You thought things were fine, but something you couldn’t have seen coming turned it all around in a moment. The world has many moving parts, subplots that come together and then diverge. Miracles happen. George can go out with Marisa Tomei. But everything will collapse in an instant. You’re helpless as you watch. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. But you always come back to the same living room, the same friends, the same coffee shop, because this is where you have always been and it is where you will always be.
The history of the Mets shapes the spirit of the Mets fan. We believe that anything is possible, but we know that anything can happen. We are lyrical and sentimental about what we’ve had because what we’ve had is all we’ve got. We are even lyrical about losing because if we weren’t, we’d have to hang it up. We are happy right where we are, even if we know that there are other people having a lot more success and maybe more fun somewhere else. Jerry Seinfeld has given the world a pattern of our perspective.
He made a lot of money doing this in L.A. But as a lover of his own oldest, deepest, most familiar things, he had to come back here. Now he can do whatever he wants and what he wants to do is go to Shea. The TV cameras always find him, sometimes with a friend who is sometimes a celebrity. It’s great to have him back. But he never left.
[The essay above is in my book, Mets Fan (2007), the prequel to my new book The Last Days of Shea. I am reprinting it here because I am so excited about Jerry Seinfeld broadcasting from the Mets booth this coming Wednesday. I am excited about everything having to do with the New York Mets right now. As it says in the second verse of "Meet the Mets," we've got ourselves a ballclub!]