A Journey Into Summer with the New York Mets
by Michael Lindgren
Monday, July 22, 2013 was muggy and overcast in Queens, New York, where, just after 7:11 p.m., a right-handed New York Mets pitcher named Dillon Gee delivered the first pitch of that night’s game to Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who bunted it foul. The Braves were at Citi Field for a four-game stand against their historic rivals the Mets, whose record stood at forty-three wins and fifty-two losses, putting them in fourth place in their division, eleven games behind the Braves. I was at Citi Field to begin an extended personal experiment in observation, meditation, and expression; I wanted to see what it would be like to watch every pitch, every at-bat, every inning, of an entire series, and to write about the experience, at length, and with perfect freedom. I thought that in the process I might learn something new—about baseball, about the Mets, about New York City, about myself—and this turned out to be true, although not in the way I expected. So here I was, sitting seventeen rows back, just to the left of home plate, by myself, watching as the burly Gee battled Simmons through a long series of foul balls, finally inducing the slender speedster to ground harmlessly to second.
Although I am an American Leaguer at heart, I have been to dozens of Mets games over the years, but never before had I sat this close to the action. It was an experience I was quickly coming to find bizarre, not to mention pregnant with all kinds of complex subtextual meanings. To get to the rich-people seats, I had to present my ticket to a gantlet of uniformed minions, whose authority delivered me, via a series of escalators and hallways, into a capacious indoor lounge space giving out onto the lowest tranche of box seats, with home plate and the field just beyond. This, apparently, was the “Delta Sky360 Lounge,” and indeed there was something of the air of the first-class airport lounge about the place, a grim purposefulness, a sense of enforced exclusivity and faux luxury. There was a glass-lighted bar, clusters of tables, low, curving padded chairs; some kind of highly synthesized R&B music was blasting. It was like a Midwestern marketing executive’s idea of a hip urban lounge, exemplifying that advanced stage of super-consumerism described by Jean Baudrillard where “needs are not so much directed at objects, but at values, and the satisfaction of needs primarily expresses an adherence to these values.” It seemed to me a very contemporary kind of perversity that would take something as organic and essentially communitarian as a baseball game and force it to resemble an airport, which by definition is anomic, transient, and anonymous.
On the subway ride out I had prepped for the game by picking up a copy of the New York Daily News at my bodega on Third Avenue and 29th Street. I thought I recalled hearing someone lauding the News’s sports coverage—the Times, presumably, having more important things to spill ink over—and so I decided that it should be my newspaper of choice for the duration of the home stand. The late Stephen Jay Gould once wrote: “Baseball is not just an occasional three hours at the ballpark. Baseball, through its many months and 162 games, is going to the corner store every morning, buying the paper and a cup of coffee, exchanging a few words with Tom the proprietor about last night’s game, and then spending ten minutes at home with the box scores.” Well, my proprietor is a Korean man named Bruce, but I wanted to honor this older, slower way of doing things at least for the stretch of these four days. The Daily News, of course, is a thoroughly crummy newspaper, but the sports pages did indeed turn out to be better, with a tabloid jauntiness, sharper and meaner and funnier. I finished with them and, bored, began flipping through the rest of the headlines: “Rocking Out: Oasis Wife Flees Scandal, Takes Kids to Fla. Fun Park”; “Trash Fiend Slays Meter-maid Lover, Puts Body in Can: Cops.” Mike Lupica’s column was typical falangist lunacy warning us New Yorkers that we are going to miss Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly when they are gone and our throats are being slit in the night by dark-skinned marauders, à la the bad old days.
Having navigated the Delta Sky360 Lounge, I found myself, quite suddenly, ushered down a mere few steps to my seats, goggling at the sudden widescreen-like closeness to the field. Despite my wonderment I was disappointed to see that the Braves were wearing their dark blue uniform tops; anything that diverges from the classical virtues of grey road uniforms / white home uniforms is sacrilege to my puritan sensibility. Baseball thrives on visual and aural continuity; that is one of its primary virtues. Nonetheless, I was excited. The novel perspective afforded by this unfamiliar proximity was intoxicating; for one thing, you could really see how the pitches worked. The Braves pitcher Julio Teheran’s third pitch to Mets third baseman and uber-mensch David Wright was a changeup that completely fooled Wright, whose swing was visibly out in front of the pitch. (“Hitting is timing,” the Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn—speaking of Braves—is credited with saying. “Pitching is disrupting timing.”) In the second inning, the friendly and likable but generally feckless Mets first baseman Ike Davis banked a looping fly to the opposite field—it disappeared from our line of sight—that the Atlanta left fielder couldn’t get to, and then Teheran plunked catcher John Buck, but the rallyette died there. A light rain began to fall. Several of the people around me got up and made their way up the aisle towards the sanctuary of the Delta Sky360 Lounge. A moment later three sullen, slack-jawed teenage boys, sporting close-cropped hair and gold chains, followed a Dad-type-person down and into seats in front of me. I saw in these boys’ vacant, bored silhouette the very emblem of soft, suburban entitlement and unearned privilege. I thought about the first time my father took me to Yankee Stadium, in the summer of 1979. It was a much different experience than these young men were having. Even baseball—especially baseball—is not exempt from the intricacies and heat of class resentment.
I resumed my study of the action. In the fourth inning the Mets’ thickset right fielder and second-best hitter Marlon Byrd cracked a sinking liner that the onrushing Atlanta outfielder misplayed into a triple. Davis singled on Teheran’s first pitch, and the Mets were on the board. The game settled into a crisp pitcher’s duel, the crowd falling into a relative torpor, marked only by the occasional burst of shouting and applause. I was watching the zeros accumulate; when Gee retired Justin Upton to end the sixth, still not having given up a hit, I thought I detected a slight sense of a stir. Could it be too early to start thinking the unthinkable? No sooner had I typed the words into my smartphone’s handy “NotePad” application than Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman—whose name always reminds me of Miles Davis, just as Dillon Gee’s does R.E.M.—ripped a comebacker that sizzled past the pitcher’s head and bounced into center field. Many of the fans stood and applauded for the lost no-hitter; a nice gesture. In the meantime, though, the game stood now in the balance; a steal, a single, and a hit batsman, and the bases were suddenly loaded. The crowd was suddenly come alive with anxiety and noise. On a 2–1 count Braves third-sacker Chris Johnson hit a chopper to Wright, who fielded and threw home for the force. Gee then struck out the Atlanta pinch-hitter, and the jam was circumvented.
The rain started again in earnest in the seventh inning, by which time Teheran had given way to a hard-throwing lefty named Luis Avilan. The Braves, a quick review of the statistics this afternoon had indicated, are the possessors of a deep and effective bullpen, whereas the Mets pen is a grab bag of journeymen and youthful underachievers. People were leaving. I looked up at the sky. The rain, illuminated by the banks of lights, millions of shining droplets, arching over the players on the brilliantly lighted field, the great banks of stands like a circular skyscraper in the night; it was all surreally beautiful. There were many, many rows of seats, whole quadrants of them, shining and empty in the wet night. “The light hangs from the wheel of heaven,” the American poet Charles Olson wrote. “The air is as wide as the light.” In the eighth, with a runner on first, the speedy Mets outfielder Eric Young Jr. laid down a bunt, the cue-ball-like thok clearly audible from this close, but the Braves pitcher pounced on it and threw the runner out at second, putting Young aboard for a fielder’s choice. Two pitchouts later, Young stole second, and then third. Wright at bat. Scattered, forlorn-sounding cries of “Let’s go, Mets!” Wright quickly fell behind 0–2—he hadn’t looked good today—before going down on a called third strike.
As the ninth inning opened the score still stood at 2–1, New York, with the Mets’ bearded fireman Bobby Parnell firing his warm-up pitches through the swirling mist. The Braves boosters in the stands—more of them than one might expect—were emitting isolated shouts of encouragement. The game came apart quickly: a hit, a passed ball (the ball, from this angle, ticking off Buck’s up-flaring glove and rocketing into the net, almost invisible), and then a single to bring in the go-ahead run, to scattered boos and cries: the sound of disappointment, angry, sour, ragged. When the Mets came up for their last hacks they faced the daunting sight of Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel, who last year had one of the two or three best seasons any reliever has ever had, and whose work this season has been only a shade less dominating. Kimbrel peers in for the sign bent almost double, with his pitching arm extruding out at an outlandish angle—he looks like some exotic insect puffing itself up into order to frighten a predator—before straightening into his windup and delivery. This odd takeoff was the object of considerable disdain from a Mets fan somewhere behind and above me; undone by the evening’s tension, and perhaps some liquid enhancement, he kept screaming, in a weirdly Bostonian accent, “Hey pitchah! Could ya get any lowah?! Get lowah, pitchah!” Perhaps distracted by the sociological implications of this, Kimbrel plunked Buck and then walked the light-hitting Omar Quintanilla, putting runners at first and second with two out. Justin Turner came up to pinch-hit, took a fastball high, and then whacked a long drive into the gap; Braves center fielder Jason Heyward, sprinting through the rain, dove, extending himself vertically over the sodden turf, speared the ball just inches above the ground, and slid a good twenty feet along the grass, holding his glove above him as he did so: a game-ending circus catch. Howls of disbelief, and then resignation. The remaining fans trooped out into the blowy wet night and home.
On the subway ride back, I was pressed up behind a tight circle of three young men and two women, all white. The women were pretty and preppy, with bobbed hair and cotton jersey-dresses; one of them was wearing a Dartmouth baseball cap, and a woman wearing a baseball cap can never be anything but cute. The men were wearing suit trousers, white button-down shirts, and striped ties. They were amusing themselves by playing a weirdly childlike game wherein they attempted to guess the temperatures of various foreign cities, as indicated on the one girl’s smartphone. My first reaction was reflexive contempt: Is this the best you guys can do? How old are you, thirteen? A moment later my snobbery was replaced by a wave of sadness. They made me feel impossibly old.
Those nights, deep into the insomniacs’ hour, unable to sleep, I had been making my slow way through Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, that monument of high modernism, in its broad, thick University of California edition. As the week wore on, Olson’s surreal cataloguing of the history of his colonial American fishing village – much of the Maximus Poems reads like a textbook on Puritan-era economics that has been scrambled by some potent intoxicant — began to blend, in my mind, with a quasi-liminal dream montage, a newsreel of baseball images, of an avalanche of Mets, silently and in black and white, cascading down some steep surface across my field of view. “I come back to the geography of it / the land falling off to the left / where my father shot his scabby golf,” Olson intoned. “The rest of us played baseball / into the summer darkness until no flies / could be seen and we came home…” Eventually, toward dawn, I fell asleep.
Over the years the amateur sociologist in me has noticed that the Mets seem to engender a special flavor of boosterism, one that tempers passion with a sense of affectionate exasperation; unlike the Yankees, they are often loved but seldom despised. From the start, the Mets have had an inferiority complex when compared with their older, immeasurably more famous neighbors to the northwest, a sense of not-Yankeeness that redounds to their appeal. The great Roger Angell understood this dynamic perfectly from its very inception. Attending a game during the Mets’ historically disastrous debut season of 1962, when they lost 120 games (a record that still stands), he observed of some slumming Yankee fans that
their fandom was characterized by the stolidity, the smugness, and the arrogance of holders of large blocks of blue-chip stocks. These fans expect no less than perfection. They coolly accept the late-inning rally, the winning homer, as only their due. They are apt to take defeat with ill grace, and they treat their stars as though they were executives hired to protect their interests. During a slump or a losing streak, these capitalists are quick and shrill with their complaints: ‘They ought to damn well do better than this, considering what they’re being paid!” Suddenly the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river (same idea, different river: the Mets played their debut season at the Polo Grounds, in Washington Heights—ML). This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try—antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.
The historian Robert Creamer has a consonant if slightly different take, observing that those early Mets teams “were different, they were counterculture, they were fun. The worse they were, the more fun they were… the counterculture kids began chanting ‘Let’s Go Mets!’ as a kind of parody, along the lines of ‘Fight Fiercely, Harvard,’ and soon everybody took it up.” Even the great Mets teams of the 80s were tacky and raffish; their swagger was the swagger of the loudmouth, the cocky underdog, the grinning, gap-toothed neighborhood delinquent. These teams were loaded with men—Dykstras and Backmans and Strawberries and Goodens—who became burnouts and has-beens, addicts and jailbirds, some in quite spectacular fashion. Despite their immense talent, they produced only one pennant, and they needed the most famous fold in the history of pro sports to take their title. There’s always been something ethnic and outer-borough about the Mets, with their clownish royal blue-and-orange striped jerseys (“like a beer-league softball team,” one former player said) and their almost immediately superannuated dump of stadium, built on the doorstep of an airport. The Yankees are followed by stockbrokers and lawyers and celebrities and politicians; the Mets draw a distinctly less glamorous crowd. As the anthropologist and Mets fan Richard Grossinger put it, the Yankees “are a well-orchestrated advertising campaign, glitter around a spiritually hollow snow job.” There are never any coolly elegant Riveras or clinically perfectionist Jeters in the Mets dugout; it would be like seeing Catherine Deneuve in a sitcom.
On Tuesday I got to Citi Field a little early, as I would be recording the remainder of the home stand in exile from the Delta Sky360 Lounge, back in my usual seats in the grandstand behind first base. My companion for the second game was my old friend, artist, photographer, and jack-of-all-trades Barbara “Babs” Smiley, a tall, attractive woman with an engaging smile, originally from Long Island, but a West Sider by habituation and temperament. Babs was waiting for me in our seats, and I had hardly sat down before Braves shortstop Simmons hit the second pitch of the game into the left field bleachers. We both groaned. After a moment, she said, somewhat formally, “A jarring way to start the game.” I looked at her, and realized that she was listening to the game on WFAN, via one ear-bud. She removed the ear-bud. “Did you get my text? Ron Swoboda is here.” This was an outfielder from the original Mets’ glory days; his diving catch of a line drive off the bat of Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson in Game Four of the 1969 World Series helped seal the upset and deliver the title to the unlikely champions. Babs is just old enough to remember all this; she once showed me a game program circa late-60s with her enthusiastic annotations of the Mets’ lineup, in curly teenage-girl cursive. Babs taught me the words to “Meet the Mets,” the sunny, pre-rock’n’roll anthem that still greets visitors to Citi Field:
Meet the Mets, meet the Mets
Come on out and meet the Mets
Step right up and greet the Mets!
Bring your kiddies, bring your wife
Guaranteed to have the time of your life
because the Mets are really sockin’ the ball
knocking those home runs over the wall!
East side, West side, everybody’s coming down
to meet the M-E-T-S Mets of New York town!
A moment later—perhaps still disoriented by news of Swoboda’s presence—Babs went on to claim that WFAN announcer Josh Lewin sounded “just like” the late Lindsey Nelson.
“Where do you think Lindsey got all those jackets?” I mused. Nelson’s trademark attire was a jarring combination of plaids and checks.
“From Mr. Met!” Babs said immediately.
“Mr. Met is creepy,” I said. It was true: the maniacal fixed grin on the face of the Mets’ mascot was disturbing in the same way that clowns and ventriloquists’ dummies are.
Barbara ignored me; she was frowning. “My popcorn is stale,” she said. To the vendor, sweetly: “Excuse me? I’m sorry—this is really stale. Could I get a fresher one?” The obliging popcorn vendor moved off.
“It’s the nature of Long Island,” Babs said, a little vaguely. “Everything is stale.”
The Mets themselves, as it turned out, were not stale at all on this night. In the bottom of the third, the young center fielder Juan Lagares hit a cue shot down the first-base line that caromed off the angled wall of the stands in shallow right field, and cruised into second standing up. He was sacrificed to third, bringing up pitcher Carlos Torres, who punched a grounder past the drawn-in infield to tie the game.
When the groundskeepers came out to rake the infield after the third, Babs asked, “is this where they do the macarena?”
As part of their promotional schemes, the Mets had billed that game as “Star Wars Night,” and the result was almost unbelievably cheesy, featuring a series of skits on the giant scoreboard that looked like they were put together by a sixth-grade drama club, and roving Stormtroopers and Princess Leias doing break-dancing moves in between innings. Like Mr. Met—like everything about the Mets—the effect was mainly embarrassing, poised as it was on the precipice between kitsch and schlock. Susan Sontag would have been stymied by Citi Field circa 2013. In the meantime an older phenomena, more impressive even than Wookiees, was unfolding in the distance: the sky spread out beyond the towers of the stadium had become an eerie, roiling orange, with towers of purple clouds forming and re-forming into fantastical shapes. The lights were on; the atmosphere felt liquid. A cool breeze ruffled the stands, a welcome sensation after the heat and humidity of the last week or so. David Wright was up, and I watched the Mets captain and perennial All-Star closely. He took a strike, fouled off a pitch, and took a ball, making the count 1–2, before grounding out again. Yesterday he had gone 0 for 4, and a little electronic research confirmed what I thought I had observed: at no point during yesterday’s at-bats had he been ahead in the count, having gone 1–2, 1–2, 1–1, 0–2. This is, of course, nothing surprising: a pitcher falling behind in the count often ends up cautiously steering a hittable pitch into the strike zone lest he walk the batter, whereas a pitcher who is ahead in the count can fire his wildest, hardest pitches in the confidence that if he misses he still has one or two chances to get the batter out. Conversely, the batter, when ahead, has the advantage of being more selective; when behind, he is apt to be anxious and defensive, as his margin for error has become extremely thin. A few years ago I did some research on this phenomenon, and was startled to find how consistent and drastic it was. An examination of last year’s statistics for both leagues reconfirmed this. Over the course of the 2012 regular season, when the count was 3–0, the batters in both leagues collectively stung the ball at a .348; when the count was 0–2, they managed only a feeble .149. In other words, the count progressively is the single biggest predictor of the success or failure of any individual at-bat; or, to put it another way, a great hitter like Albert Pujols becomes a poor hitter like Ike Davis as the count works against him, and vice verse. This is simple to understand but hard to believe; for me, that the averages rise and fall so consistently and with such exact correlation with the correspondent ball-strike counts seems… fluky? statistically improbable? proof of intelligent design? For what it’s worth, in 2012 David Wright hit .385 in 3–1 counts (he faced a 3–0 count 27 times, and walked 25 of them), and .154 on 0–2. This is a hard game.
Back at Citi Field the kiss-cam was up, this being an amusing if faintly prurient exercise in which couples around the stands are shown on the giant scoreboard and encouraged to buss each other enthusiastically. Babs, who is a lesbian, always grouses loudly about the lack of gay couples. Tonight her approbation was relatively muted: “Homophobes!” she muttered. A perhaps equally offensive display broke out in the sixth, when the mysterious workings of collective crowd lassitude resulted in a brief outbreak of the despised Wave, which circled the stadium several times, accumulating modest momentum. “No Wave!” I shouted, irritated. “No Wave! The Wave is for losers!” In a past life I had almost been ejected from Fenway Park, several times, for alcohol-fuelled anti-Wave and –beach-ball vigilantism. On the field, Torres put a stop to the irksome nonsense by fanning the Atlanta pitcher, Kris Medlen, swinging, to end the inning.
As it happened, Medlen’s night was almost over anyway; in the sixth, the Mets’ gritty second baseman Daniel Murphy singled, and then, as if in illustration of my hypothesizing, Wright took two balls before singling cleanly to center. The yard, convivial till now, became raucous. I thought of something that Brooklyn editor Molly McArdle once wrote on Twitter: “Straight white men get so sassy at sporting events! It’s like a safe space for heteronormative sass,” and laughed. Byrd grounded to third, forcing Murphy at second. Davis waved feebly at two pitches and then, improbably, poled Medlen’s next offering into the right-field corner for a double and the lead. Buck singled, scoring another, and that was it for Medlen. His successor was David Carpenter, against whom Lagares promptly lifted a fly to right, deep enough to score Davis. That, it turned out, was the ballgame: Mets manager Terry Collins sent out a passel of anonymous but effective relievers to stifle the Braves, the last of whom being Parnell revivus, who set down the visitors 1–2–3 in the ninth to seal the 4–1 victory. The Braves, who had entered the series leading the league in home runs, had scored only three runs in two games; the Mets were holding their own and then some against a visibly superior opponent. “The team is still deeply flawed and could easily slink back into the oblivion that defined the first segment of its season,” wrote the News’s Andy Martino the next day. “For now, though, a few young stars and a team still playing hard will have to pass for entertainment in a down summer for New York baseball.”
When I came off the 7 train on Wednesday night I found the vast lot surrounding the stadium loud with salsa music and colorful flags. It was the Mets’ annual Latin night, a yearly tradition that is part cynical marketing ploy and part heartfelt appreciation of a key demographic. The Mets have always had a certain Hispanic component both to their fan base and to their team, an identity that peaked in the mid-2000s, when the franchise featured both a Latin-American manager in Jerry Manuel and a Latin-American general manager in Omar Miñaya—a first for any major-league team. That team, which also featured Hispanic stars like Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and José Reyes, was affectionately known as “Los Mets,” and Latin night in those days sometimes genuinely felt like some kind of giant block party/fiesta. Unfortunately, when the team fizzled in the 2006 playoffs and was subsequently disbanded, Manuel and Miñaya were replaced by Collins and new GM Sandy Alderson, both certified members of baseball’s old-white-boy club.
This issue is either compounded or ameliorated, depending on one’s perspective, by the decision to make the centerpiece of Citi Field, the glossy new stadium that replaced Shea Stadium in 2009, the famous—or notorious— “Jackie Robinson Rotunda.” Upon entering Citi Field, one is confronted by a vast and not inelegant three-story space that is dominated by Robinsonania: footage of him with Branch Rickey and with his Dodger teammates in 1947, inspirational quotes set in dull brass into the floor, and a giant, Robert Indiana-esque “42” sculpture. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least that, in the words of writer Bill Vourvoulias, “the handful of African American and black Latin American players on the opening day roster of the inaugural 1962 Mets (Choo Choo Coleman, Félix Mantilla, Charlie Neal, Elio Chacón, etc.)… have been virtually written out of team history by the Mets’ appropriation of Jackie Robinson at Citi Field.” The word “appropriation” may even be too mild: “hijacking” and “moral bandwagon-jumping” also come to mind. Robinson retired six years before the Mets even came into existence, so laying claim to his legacy—as noble and essential as that legacy is—is an act of historical reshaping, of cultural opportunism, that feels jarring and false. There are demographic reasons to take offense as well, for the Mets were also the inheritors of thousands of jilted New York Giants fans who adopted the team as their own, for whom walking into Citi Field only to see Dodgers insigne—for this was a rivalry that remains unmatched in enmity and bitterness and historical gravity, and I say this as a Red Sox fan—is a slap in the face. (If you don’t believe me, ask my friend Ralph Feingold, a Mets fan nonpareil who grew up watching Willie Mays play at the Polo Grounds; ask Ralph, that is, assuming you are prepared for a barrage of profane obloquy.) It could be argued that the Giants, not the Dodgers, are the Mets’ logical progenitors, since the Mets inherited the Polo Grounds from the Giants, but of course hewing to this strain of common sense would preclude any horning-in on Robinson and his aura of civil-rights-era grandeur. Finally, it is worth noting that the Dodgers, of course, are alive and well and very much a living, breathing rival team whose biannual visits to Citi could, at any time, erupt into relevance.
Over the past four years I have nonetheless come to admit, grudgingly, that I rather like Citi Field, or at least as much as I am able to like any edifice that is named after a giant financial institution whose reward for helping drive the nation into a second great depression is to have its corporate branding subsidized by the loan of my tax dollars. The place benefits mightily from comparison both with its unloved predecessor and with the soulless, fascistic hulk that is the “new” Yankee Stadium – which opened in the same year and was designed, weirdly, by the same group of anonymous technicians at the architectural firm of Populous / HOK Sport Venue Event. Citi Field is a pastiche of old-style bandbox parks—an effect that one critic called, quite accurately, “hokey”—but the resulting environment is open, warm, and visually pleasing. There are nooks and crannies galore, along with an overhanging right-field porch, oddly-shaped outfield walls, banks of stands situated at fragmented, intersecting angles, wide mezzanines, overarching promenade grandstands, and so on. It is a manufactured nostalgia, to be sure; all of these oddities mimic the organic dishevelment of, say, Fenway Park, whose idiosyncrasies were dictated externally by geography, cost, and convenience, and represent the accretion of decades of not-always-consistent internal development. Citi’s simulation of this process is synthetic, carefully asymmetrical; in this, it is a perfect emblem of its time.
So, emblematically, I ascended the escalator, veered to the right, and clambered down into the seats, noting as I did that the Mets were wearing their atrocious orange tops, as if attempting to out-tacky the Braves. Awaiting me was my friend Ron Kolm and his son Danny, who had gotten out to the yard early, as is their wont, in order to soak up the atmosphere. It is difficult to describe Ron Kolm in a way that does justice to his ineffable Ron Kolm-ness. A writer, bookseller, poet, and editor, Ron came to New York City as a young man in 1970 and quickly became something of a fixture on the legendary downtown scene of the era. He co-founded the anarchist literary collective the Unbearables and began publishing the work of his friends and peers in a variety of fanzines, small journals, so-called assembly magazines, and anthologies. For many years the night manager of Coliseum Books—my former boss, in other words—he is currently the associate editor of the Evergreen Review, which remains alive in the somewhat reduced circumstance of digital format. Still spry in his late middle age, he continues to work the floor at Posman Books in Grand Central Station, one of the last independent bookstores left in the city. His son Danny, a lanky young man with soulful eyes, is the lead singer and guitarist in the indie-rock combo Arklight.
Today’s Mets pitcher was another anonymous journeyman, this one named Jeremy Hefner, with a floppy delivery and a bit of a hitch at the very top of his windup. We watched as Hefner dealt to the Braves outfielder Evan Gattis, who hit a deep drive over the wall in left field for a 1–0 lead. Four slinky women in halter-tops filed in and sat down directly in front of us. After a few moments they turned around and, settling on me, asked if I would take their photo? I would. In grappling with the smartphone I inadvertently hit the button that causes the camera to reverse its perspective, thus possibly polluting their group shot with an image of my unshaven middle-aged face. After fumbling to correct this, and clicking a quick series of shots, I explained this to Cute Girl Number Three as I handed the phone back to her, but a quick review showed no such photo. To my astonishment, the young woman smiled at me and snapped her fingers in flirtatious mock disappointment, before turning her attention back to her friends and the game.
The three of us contemplated this brazen display in silence. After a moment, Danny said—picking up the thread—”the Mets used to be the most Latin team in the league. Now it’s all white guys with beards. You need to look like Bruce Springsteen to play for the Mets.” Indeed, the observation was borne out: the Mets lineup featured many bearded white men indeed; it was like looking at a lineup of hipster Rotarians. Feeling adventurous, Ron ordered a vodka lemonade. In the fourth Murphy came up, which got Ron talking about Samuel Beckett, his favorite writer. We were trying to remember which of the novels were originally published in English, and which in French. Ron and Danny split a beer; I ordered a hot dog. In the top of the fifth, Braves second sacker Dan Uggla, he of the .197 average and 19 home runs, homered to left, to make it 4–0. The Atlanta pitcher was Tim Hudson, a tough and resourceful veteran right-hander, one of the best and most consistent starters in the league, with 205 career victories to his name. He was cruising so far, although the Mets weren’t challenging him with any kind of patience or skill. Ron observed that it seemed like a slow night for the slender black woman selling cotton candy. “She looked like she was carrying totemic items, bales of cloth, little baskets of souls…” he said, his imagination perhaps enhanced by beer and vodka lemonade. Ron is not just a poet in name; he has an authentically metaphorical mind, thinking in quick bursts of imagery and analogy, although this sometimes leads him faintly astray.
“Ron,” I remonstrated. “She’s black. You can’t say ‘bales.’” A few minutes later Simmons hit another shot very close to where Uggla’s landed, and it was 6-0. Collins came out to get the beleaguered Hefner. “Terry was being summoned by the crowd,” Ron exclaimed. “He came out timidly. He was taking tiny, mincing steps.” This was more of Ron’s poetic fancy taking flight: Collins is potbellied and Irish, and doesn’t do anything “mincingly.” For some reason, the scoreboard displayed only a giant Atlanta “A.” Danny found this ominous. “It’s like they’re conceding defeat,” he said wryly.
The night had become windy and quite cool, but I wanted ice cream, so after the sixth I went up and stood in a medium-long line only to be foiled, after some delay, by a defective machine. For consolation I walked a long way along the concourse, enjoying the way the shifting perspective on the field below offered ever-evolving, heretofore-unseen angles, all the way out to deep right field. I leaned against the railing and watched an at-bat or two. From here, above the steeply angled stands, sparsely populated, the perspective was somehow foreshortened, vivid, distant but curiously distinct. Directly below me I could see the furrows made in the dirt of the warning track by the groundskeeping machinery.
By the time I got back the precincts of my little seat-neighborhood had become looser and rowdier, the sense of decorum somewhat attenuated. The young women had returned from wherever they had gone to drink, visibly tipsy; the other patrons were losing focus, given over to irritation and bile. Michel Foucault has written of “fortresses of confinement” that separate “reason from unreason on society’s surface” while “preserving in depth the images where they mingled and exchanged properties”; Section 113 had begun functioning “as a great, long, silent memory” that “maintained in the shadows an iconographic power that men might have thought was exorcised.” Hudson, meanwhile, was motoring along with the iconographic power of throwing strikes; through seven he had thrown 90 pitches and given up only three hits. With two outs in the eighth, though, Eric Young hit a grounder to Freeman, at first, who bobbled it and then, hurrying, flipped to Hudson covering, who converged on first base with Young in a high-speed blurry tangle. Hudson collapsed and lay writhing on the field, and it was clear that something had gone very wrong. The crowd became quite still. Hudson lay on the ground for a long time. Eventually a cart emerged from the deep-center field wall and motored along the warning track down to the first base cutout. They loaded the Atlanta pitcher onto a stretcher and drove him away. We found out later that Young had come down hard on Hudson’s ankle, quite by accident, instantly fracturing his fibula and tearing the deltoid ligament; a gruesome incident indeed. It meant the end of Hudson’s season, and, possibly—he is thirty-eight years of age—his career.
Some air seemed to have gone out of the game, even after Murphy doubled off the wall to bring in two runs in the eighth and precipitate a Kolmean digression on Flann O’Brien. The Braves brought in Jordan Walden, who executes his delivery with a dainty little hop, to face Wright, who fanned to end the inning, sending his bat and helmet spinning skyward in disgust (he would end up going 4 for 17—.235—for the series). The Braves promptly countered in the ninth with a single, an error, and a walk. “The events took place under a de Selbyean sky,” Ron rhapsodized, “a night sky of falling soot…” The Mets backup catcher, Anthony Recker, let a pitch skitter away from him, scoring the Braves pinch-runner and making it 7–2. I was having a hard time staying focused. “You can say that something, anything, is a temporary autonomous zone,” Ron was saying, “even this ballpark, in so many ways… well, no. There will be no liberating… oh shit!” Justin Upton had just singled, scoring Reed Johnson, but center fielder Lagares fielded the ball on the second hop and, coming up strong, fired a strike to home to get Heyward and bring the inning to a merciful end. Gonzalez didn’t even bother to waste Kimbrel on this game, opting for mop-up man Luis Ayala. A group of young men in the stands below us started chanting something unintelligible, possibly profane… and a few minutes later the game was over.
“These are the chronicles / of an imaginary town,” wrote Olson, although the Maximus Poems are steeped in the very real history and mythology of 18th-century Gloucester, Massachusetts. In a way, a baseball game experienced live is a small but discrete installment in such a chronicle, a quality of being both imaginary and real, secret and staged. Baudrillard, again: “This realm beyond political economy called play, nonwork, or nonalienated labor, is defined as the reign of finality without end. In this sense it is and remains an aesthetic,” and it is that aesthetic, that sense of “finality without end,” that I and thousands of others respond to, however unconsciously, when we go to a game. Watching a major-league baseball being played in a big-city stadium is simultaneously public and anonymous, completely specific and utterly generic; each game is distinct, of course, yet from a distance of time and space they blend together so completely as to be interchangeable. And as another philosopher, this one named Filip Bondy, put it: “The Mets are just the Mets. They aren’t very good and they won’t be very good in the near future, but they aren’t performing terribly at the moment.”
Thursday’s game was scheduled for the unusually early start time of 12:10, and it was also downright cold, cloudy with the occasional sprinkle of rain. The 7 train was half-empty. My companion for the final game of the home stand was another Coliseum Books alum, a young Nuyoriqueña named Anitta Santiago, grave, devoutly Catholic, learned, soft-spoken, and one of the smartest people I have ever known. In joining me Anitta was taking time off from working towards her doctorate in American literature at Columbia, a staggering achievement for a first-generation college student from the Bronx. She had not yet arrived when the game started, so I settled in, observing sourly that today the Mets had chosen to wear their blue jersey tops, as if to compete with the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates in testing the limits of uniform-variation combinatorics. The Atlanta pitcher was the rookie left-hander Alex Wood, who has a herky-jerky, teeter-totter delivery from a low three-quarters angle, so Collins had inserted two new right-handed-hitting players: Josh Satin at first, and Justin Turner at shortstop. The Mets, meanwhile, sent out their young power pitcher Zack Wheeler, whose promising rookie campaign had so far been obscured by his teammate and fellow rookie Matt Harvey’s All-Star season. Anitta arrived and took her seat, thanking me for a book—a collection of sermons by the Anglo-Irish Marxist theologian Herbert McCabe—I had sent her the week previous. With two outs and men on base, Zack wheeled and dealt a fastball to Evan Gattis, who swung at what should have been an inning-ending strike three. The pitch, however, got away from Buck, who was having a terrible series defensively; Gattis, hustling down the line, forced a sloppy throw that Satin bobbled—it hit him in the face—and for the third day in a row the Mets were trailing in the early going.
This being a day game, the crowd comprised an unusually high percentage of old people and children; in the third, when Wright came up with men on first and second, he was greeted with a noise that seemed noticeably higher in pitch than that of previous games—an alto fuzz, say, rather than a guttural tenor roar. Wright hit a long drive that advanced the runners, and then Byrd singled and took second when Gattis, in left, briefly bobbled the ball; Young scored on the play, and the game was tied. (The downside of the relative aggregate youth of the crowd, aside from the danger to the treble range of one’s hearing, was their alacrity in responding to the loathsome MAKE NOISE exhortations from the scoreboard, which adult fans rightly ignore.) Turner then grounded to deep first, scoring another run, and was followed by Buck, who singled to drive home another two runs. The Atlanta outfielder on the play made the throw home just too late, but Buck took second on the play, beating Gerald Laird’s throw back out. This play—scored 8–2–4—is one of my favorites in the game, for the catcher’s throw back out to second gives the play a delayed, roller-coaster second wave of excitement that I find exhilarating. Everyone near me was standing and clapping.
Anitta, meanwhile, was distracted by the bat boy, and over the next inning or so we worked up a quasi-Marxist post-feudal theory of bat-boy dialectics. “Is it like indentured servitude?” wondered Anitta. “Is he permanently consigned to serving his betters?” I pointed out that the bat boy in turn exercises power over the supplicatory front-row fans—themselves an economic elite—who clamor for the favor of a tossed ball, a ball which is worth at most $15, or 3.2% of the price of a front-row box seat at Citi. The bat boy thus represents a bottleneck of sorts in the transference of surplus value… Anitta wanted to know if on hot days the bat boys were allowed to take shelter and water in the dugout alongside the players, or if they were forced to wilt in the heat. In the face of these proliferating levels of complexity, our analysis soon foundered. “I wish Fredric Jameson was here,” I said; possibly the first-ever time those words had been spoken at Citi Field.
I found that once again my attention was wandering; this was my 40th consecutive inning in the last sixty-seven hours, and I was feeling a little baseballed-out. At one point I noticed—it somehow having escaped my attention so far—that the Braves first-base coach was former Atlanta stalwart Terry Pendleton. Seeing him trot out to first, in the familiar gray and blue-trimmed uniforms, with the dark red ‘9’ on his back, brought unbidden a sudden shock of memory, of the 1991 World Series—one of the greatest ever played. Pendleton was the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year, and he hit .367 in that series, which the Braves lost to the Minnesota Twins in seven games. In 1987 he had played third base for a St. Louis team that also lost the Series, again in seven games, to essentially the same Minnesota team: a sour, angry set of games, rife with injury, bitter accusations, and questionable umpiring. Terry Pendleton never made it back to the World Series. This is a hard game.
The one in front of me proceeded in fits and starts, with Anitta and me watching for the most part in companionable silence. I was sitting on my hands by now, in an effort to keep warm. It seemed impossible to believe that last week the temperature had hit ninety-seven degrees. In the sixth, Andrew Johnson, who had replaced Eric Young in the outfield for the Mets, doubled and then took third on a passed ball, with the gutty Murphy’s single bringing him home for the lead once again, 5–4. Wright then launched a long drive out to the left-center gap, which appeared to hit the track and then bounce over the mesh, for a ground-rule double; when the umpire made no signal, he alertly kept running, and ended up on third. Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez came out to argue, and, with the stands booing and hollering, was eventually ejected de rigueur by third base umpire Chad Fairchild, who clearly had blown the play. In the ninth, with the Mets up 7–4, once again the mournful strains of mook-rock classic “Bad Company,” by Five Finger Death Punch (sic) filled the stadium—closers are required to have pop-metal theme music these days—and Parnell strode in from the bullpen. Anitta wondered if the gloomy music wasn’t, in essence, counterproductive; it seemed portentous and lachrymose rather than inspiring. No matter: Parnell gave up a single to Chris Johnson but otherwise was unscathed, and the Mets came away, on a gray day that felt like autumn, with a split for this installment of the summer game.
That night, reading Olson, I came across this:
I looked up and saw its form through everything — it is sewn in all parts, under and over
Baseball’s form, too, can be seen through everything, the structure of pitches, at-bats, innings, games, seasons; it too is “sewn / in all parts.” Watching these four very ordinary, near-meaningless games had given me a glimpse of this reality, which seems as mundane and miraculous as air. The iconography and language of most sport, the structure of its meaning, is built towards action, climax, thrill, triumph over impossible odds, villains and heroes; it is hyperbolic and reductionist by its very nature. I love pro football, but I find it exhausting; watching a telecast is essentially subjecting yourself to men yelling for three hours. Baseball contains that too, but its very every-day-ness, the sheer volume of innings played over a long season—what Wilfrid Sheed called “the variables, namely, the big game versus the small one, the crucial series that proves inconclusive and the minor one that turns out disastrous, and all the streaks and slumps and injuries that curl their way through the season”—gives it a depth and nuance, a composite subtlety, that is unique to itself. The “variables” are endless; the averages will win out. A sort of formal inevitability is built into its dynamic structure.
C. G. Jung once wrote that “our banal everyday life makes banal demands on our patience, which we must fulfill modestly and without any heroic gestures to court applause, and which actually need a heroism that is not seen from without. It does not shine and is not praised,” and this seems to me a fairly exact description of the confluence of baseball and life, how the shape of their psychic structures overlap. Baseball is more often than not anti-heroic in this very way. As in life, nothing much seems to happen for long stretches of time; brilliance is accretionary and cumulative rather than epic; it’s a long, at times invisible, up-and-down grind. It’s often quite boring, sometimes laughably inept; it’s impossible, even for the best players, to perform perfectly. Many, many people have observed that to hit .300, that enduring symbol of batting excellence, is to fail seven out of ten times; the Hall-of-Fame slugger Reggie Jackson—not a conspicuously humble person—noted that his 2597 lifetime strikeouts were the equivalent of going hitless for four-plus entire seasons. No other sport, it seems to me, has failure built into it—”sewn in all parts, under and over”—so ineluctably. Maybe that’s the secret key to its appeal: it’s a place where public failure can be beautiful, even elegant. Even the Mets can be poetic. But enough of that—like many manifestations of American culture, baseball can only support so much exegesis before it begins to resist, to belch and yammer and strut its vulgarity and cheerful, profane grit. The season draws on, but for now there’s still time enough, while it’s still summer, to turn on the radio, to catch an inning or two of a meaningless game, to half pay attention, to cheer or not, to be distracted, even to be a little bored; time enough to fall asleep, and to dream.
After their July split, the two teams continued along their divergent paths for the remainder of the season. The day after the last game of the Atlanta series, the Mets walloped the Washington Nationals, 11–0, but that turned out to be the high point of the season; returning to form, the team wobbled along at 28–35 the rest of the way, with a particularly dismal 2–9 stretch to open September. On August 2, in the 10th inning of a game at Kansas City, David Wright injured his hamstring, which ended up costing him almost seven weeks on the disabled list. He finished at .307 but with only 58 RBI, his lowest total since his rookie year of 2004. The Braves, on the other hand, continued their strong play, claiming their division title with 96 wins before bowing out, quite unexpectedly, in the first round of the playoffs to the suddenly hot Los Angeles Dodgers. Tim Hudson, meanwhile, says that he expects to be fully recovered from his ankle surgery by the spring, and looks forward to pitching – with the Braves or another team – next season, his sixteenth.