Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: “The New York Mets: Ethnography, Myth, and Subtext”

I found The New York Mets: Ethnography, Myth, and Subtext completely at random last winter, on the shelves of a Borders in Queens of all places. I’d never heard of it before, or its author, Richard Grossinger, or even the small imprint that published it (Frog Ltd.).

But the title grabbed me, as it was aggressively anti-dumb jockery, reminiscent more of a college textbook than a work on baseball. And the back cover didn’t have the typical sports book blurbs. Sure, it had some praise from NY Post scribe Mike Vaccaro. But it also contained blurbs from Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, two of my favorite novelists. That should give you some idea of the audience this aims to reach.

This is a book written by a fan that does not fit into the typical Fan Writing Mold. Most fan writing these days falls into one of two categories. It’s either the chest-thumping, dick-swinging style of comment sections, as if the only point of sports is so you can talk shit to anonymous people. Then there’s the Woe Is Us style, which says that because your team hasn’t won a championship in X amount of years, you and your fellow Fill in the Blank Fans have known a suffering that no one else can appreciate and thus your fandom is spiritually superior to all others.

Grossinger, an ethnographer by trade, looks at his favorite team differently. The book is made up of a series of essays, most of which try to focus on one specific era. But really, he sees the Mets’ history as one long continuum, and each piece touches on every other period in one way or another, as if it was all one long game. Witness the first essay in the book, “Endy’s Catch”, in which the titular play in the 2006 NLCS sends Grossinger on a mental tour through all the Mets players he loved over the years who, for one reason or another, were traded or let go and never seen again.

He seems to have a soft spot for players whom the Mets never gave a chance. The book’s centerpiece, “Playing Catch with Terry Leach”, discusses his obsession with the once-promising sidearmer who had a hard time catching on in the majors. Leach’s funky delivery and cerebral nature made him the odd man out of the Mets’ rotation for much of the 80s, until a rash of injuries forced him into the spotlight in the troubled summer of 1987. Grossinger referred to Leach’s saga as “a bit of Jean Valjean, Jude the Obscure, Billy Budd.”

Will everyone enjoy this book? Not unless everyone enjoys detailed studies of obscure Mets of yesteryear like Hubie Brooks and George Theodore. Its audience is probably limited to Mets fans, and a very small subset thereof. Rather than a baseball book proper, it’s more of a rambling ethnography whose subject happens to be baseball. This book is not meant to please anyone. It seems unconcerned with pleasing anyone but itself, which is probably why I like it so much.