In my interview with Gary Cohen that is the Foreword to my book The Last Days of Shea, Gary says that the New York Mets “have a unique bond with their fans … The relationship never was just about wins and losses. This sense may have been lost a little bit in the last few years, but I think that for most of their history, the Mets held on to their fan base in spite of their lack of success and I think that speaks volumes about the unique relationship that the Mets have had with their fans.” Trying to put his finger on what makes the bond between the Mets and their fans unique, Gary refers to the “wackiness” and “quirkiness” of the franchise and its history. He refers to the creativity of fans who, starting back in the sixties, “found a way to celebrate their team and root for their team in a way that had never really been seen or heard before.” The Mets, Gary says, appeal to “a different kind of fan, a different kind of person,” someone who “revels in the amusing minutiae,… the features of the game that for an average major league baseball team either get shuffled aside or lost in the crowd of statistics or championships.”
I agree completely with Gary and I think he puts his finger on something the Mets, and all Mets fans need to think about right now. Is there still a unique bond between the Mets and Mets fans? If so, how can it be preserved? If not, how can it be restored? If it still exists or if we can get it back, will it be enough to get us through this year?
I think the bond still exists. I went to the game last night (Wednesday, 4/20) and sat once again in absurdly affordable field boxes purchased on StubHub. In the middle of the worst start in decades and the worst home start ever, the crowd was festive and hopeful. It wasn’t big, but it wasn’t contemptibly small. Citi Field was not a valley of despair. The crowd may not have had great expectations, but people were enjoying being at a ballgame, and they were fervently hoping that the Mets would surprise them and begin to turn things around. We appreciated R.A. Dickey’s gutsy performance, Reyes’s four hits, Murphy’s homer, and while we were shocked and dismayed by the nutty bunting and running that deprived the Mets of a win they probably should have had, we weren’t following the score of the Yankee game or cursing and wailing. We endured what needed to be endured until tomorrow when the return of Jason Bay might provide something new to pay attention to. Like me, a lot of Mets fans haven’t even given up on this team yet. It’s April 21. I don’t think the Mets are going to win one-ninth of their home games. I don’t think they’re going to end the season with a team E.R.A. of five and a half. When Pelfrey and Niese settle down, as Dickey appears to be doing, you’re going to be looking at a very different team. It is April 21. There may not be much of a reason to expect that the Mets will contend this year, but I still think it’s too early to say that there’s no reason to pay attention to them.
The papers tell us that because the team not going anywhere, the fans no longer want to have anything to do with them. I think that’s wrong. They cite all sorts of attendance horror stories to prove their point. Bob Klapisch said the other day that stadium was empty on Tuesday night and the few fans who showed up were either “brave or masochistic, Spartans or fools.” My oh my. I guess it’s really really hard to understand what kind of person roots for a baseball team that isn’t playing well.
The kind of person who roots for a team that isn’t playing well is the kind of person who has a bond with the team.
You know, at one point during the last year of Shea, I happened to be touring the Citi Field exhibit when some Mets executives were having a meeting in the conference room they had their behind glass. I listened as well as I could as I waited for my tour to begin. I couldn’t make out much of what was said. But I did hear someone say that the Mets were a brand and the team on the field was a product. Somebody got sent to business school to come back talking like that.
What this person was saying, though, makes some sense. Although I wish we lived in a world where the Mets were a public foundation like the library or the opera, a collection of artists paid well to perform a beautiful sport at a very high level as part of a non-profit organization devoted to enriching the lives of the people of the New York metropolitan area, that’s not the world we live in. In the world we live in, too many people are convinced that what I just wished for is communism and what we have now is better. So be it.
If we’re going to have owners and big profits, the Mets are a brand. Brands thrive by selling products that people want to buy (see I know that even without going to business school). People buy the product either because it is better than other products or because people have developed a loyalty to the brand. My recommendation to the Mets is that they acknowledge that since the Mets are not likely to be better than other teams anytime soon, they should devote their energies to improving fan loyalty to the brand.
How can they improve fan loyalty? Well, they can shake things up and surprise everybody. They should take to heart what Gary Cohen says and they should figure out how it can work for them. To some degree they may already understand this. My ticket from last night says that they’ll play hard for the diehards. Fine. Play hard. That would be good. The fact of the matter is that you’re not likely to attract new fans until you’re really good again. In the meantime, make real nice to the diehards. They’re all you’ve got and you need to remind them of the reasons why they should be loyal to you.
Restore and cherish the bond.
You can do this by listening to diehard bloggers like Steve Keane, Greg Prince, and Caryn Rose and bring back Banner Day. You’ll have doubleheaders this season. You have no idea how many tears you’ll bring to the eyes of how many diehards if they get to see people carrying sheets of Mets love around the ballpark between games of a doubleheader. And don’t just bring back Banner Day, bring back banners. Designate some areas where people can hang stuff. Get something going where people can compete, in wit, and art, and cleverness, to declare their over-the-top Spartan or foolish love for the New York Mets.
While you’re at it, bring back Old Timers Day. You did a great job bringing back all those old-timers for the last day at Shea. Make something like this a regular thing. Cherish the history.
Here’s another idea: Let everyone into the sections behind the dugouts during batting practice. It worked at Shea. I’m told it still works at Fenway. We’ll all be gone an hour before the game. We’re not going to damage the fancy seats. Who do you think we are, the ’86 Mets? If you do this, you may bring something back that we had at Shea: a sense that the team is approachable, accessible, a sense of intimacy that will win the loyalty of fans and may even help the players.
Okay, now here’s a really revolutionary suggestion: Open up the lower level to everybody in the stadium after the fifth inning. Try it. You have nothing to lose. It will win you good will and headlines. It will change the unpleasant atmosphere that can now exist at the stadium when there is a small crowd and the guards still guard the empty lower seats like they were Fort Knox. A change in this policy will create the impression that you are populists, rewarding your diehards. You might even consider finding a way to open up to the ordinary public the seats that are now in what I call the Black Hole, you know, the seats where a smattering of very rich people sit behind a couple of returning Afghan War vets. I know that these seats are only accessible from the Delta Club and the Championship Club and all that, but after the fifth inning, you can let people into the doors of the clubs and have guides directing them to the great seats, making sure that nobody touches anything. Seriously. You will actually benefit from creating a sense that you want the people to storm the Bastille. You want people to treat Citi Field as if it is theirs. It’s our Mets. We the people. The diehards.
If you want another idea, how about getting some creative types involved over at SNY, and even at Citi Field itself. Did you know that there are Mets poets, artists, musicians, filmmakers, memoirists and serious writers? Did you know that a lot of seriously cool and famous people root for the Mets? Do you know that many of us are in tune with the quirkiness and wackiness Gary Cohen was talking about? Did you ever think of the fact that in addition to giving the Mets some populist cred, you could also give the Mets some cultural cred, the kind of thing that looks really good to certain levels of the press? Think about what Jimmy Breslin’s New York magazine articles (the basis for the great book Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?) did for the early ‘60s Mets. Have stuff on SNY that people wouldn’t expect. If people start thinking that there’s something cool and classy about rooting for the Mets, it will be harder for the unimaginative hacks in the mainstream press to treat us with contempt.
Think about this seriously. None of the usual PR will work with a team like this. You need, as MBA types like to say, to think outside the box … or at least outside the luxury boxes.
All brand loyalty depends upon some kind of hype. Remember that it was all hype to begin with. The idea of the lovable even if lousy New York Mets got started because the press was so charmed and intrigued by Stengel, a few folks with some banners, and the unusual number of eccentrics and colorful cast-offs on the early team. They wrote about it and everybody got into it. The Mets got the reputation of being more interesting than the Yankees, more of the people’s team. Their fans got the reputation of being more passionate and creative. All of this was fun. And the Mets need to be fun again. They need the organization to encourage the fun, to cultivate the fan culture. We’ve got an interesting team to root for this year, for all that it has gotten off to a lousy start. While we’re waiting for what glory may come in the future, make us feel at home, make us feel appreciated, make us feel special. You can do it. And can I ask one more thing? If the Mets ever become so good that every seat in the small stadium is sold out, please don’t forget us and please don’t milk us for all we’re worth. You never know when you may need us again.