My Best Laid Plans

redfoley.jpgAs a kid, I didn’t go to too many baseball games. My family lived a little too far away from the city and had just enough money to not starve, so games involved too large an investment of time and capital. We’d make it out to Shea maybe once a year, inevitably sitting in some of the stadium’s worst seats, way up at the highest reaches of the upper deck. The players looked like pinstriped ants, but I didn’t care. The experience was still special and amazing. I didn’t dream of going any more often, because that seemed so impossible to me

Whenever we went, I’d somehow scrape together enough cash to buy a program and score the game. No one taught me how to do it. I’d learned from Red Foley’s Best Baseball Book Ever, which my grampa gave me one birthday. Once upon a time, Red was the official scorer for the Mets and Yankees. I found the book really interesting, even if Red was unable to get MLB licensing, and all the stickers had bootleg team “logos”.

The last game I went to for a very long time came the day after opening day, 1993. My mom, two brothers, and grampa snuck in chicken cutlet sandwiches and sodas to avoid crushing concession prices. It would be a horrible year for the Mets–The Worst Team Money Could Buy–but we didn’t know that yet. It was also the second game ever played by the Colorado Rockies. They were shut out the day before, so I got to see the first ever Rockie run, home run, and RBI when Dante Bichette went deep against Bret Saberhagen in the seventh. I still was young and dumb enough to consider this Witnessing History. The Mets won anyway, 6-1.

Shea gave away Opening Day Weekend pins with little Mets and Rockies hats on them. I considered it a precious thing and put it with all my other precious things, in the top drawer of my dresser. It stayed there, untouched, forever. Years later, when my grandparents were both gone and I was cleaning out grampa’s dresser, I found the same pin, nestled against watches and retirement gifts.

I was a lapsed baseball fan for most of high school and college. For one thing, almost every game had moved to cable, which I did not have, and so the daily flow of the baseball season eluded me. Also, sports began to seem like the kind of jocktacular thing a nerd like myself should eschew. I shoved books and music into the space in my soul where baseball used to be.

My mother–who got me into the sport in the first place–continued to listen to Bob Murphy every night, sitting alone in the kitchen, cursing one ineffective reliever after another. “Those stupid Mets!” she’d say when a lead was blown yet again. “I’m never listening to them again!” The next night she’d be right back in the same spot. Considering genetics, it should have been obvious what fate awaited me.

As I’ve written about a bajillion times, the 1999 Mets and all their insanity is what drew me back into baseball. Even so, for the next few years, I went to very few games. Beyond a couple of playoff games in 2000, I still went to one game a year at my most. In my mind, it was still a luxury, something Rich People did.

My mind changed when I finally acquired another former luxury: cable. For the first time since the Tim McCarver/Ralph Kiner days of WOR, I could finally watch the Mets on a daily basis. Seeing them every game, seeing Shea every game, made me remember how great it was to go to games. And I also remembered that unlike when I was a kid, I lived in The City now. I could literally hop on a train and be at Shea in less than a half hour. Why didn’t I do that more often?

2005schedule.jpgI got my first ticket plan for the 2005 season. It seemed a good time to buy in. The Mets had just signed Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, and they had a new GM and manager. Things were looking up! My six-game plan included not only Opening Day, but a Subway Series game as well, two events that I couldn’t believe I would be attending.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Mets without an inexplicable cock-up. I didn’t receive my plan tickets for the longest time, and when I called up the ticket office, they couldn’t confirm they’d ever received my dough. So I wound up driving to Shea in the middle of a ball-crushingly cold night to wait on line for tickets to go on sale. Two days later, my ticket package arrived. On the plus side, I got my 1986 World Series program signed by a couple of luminaries from that team.

Our plan seats were in the upper deck box, which was already the closest I’d ever gotten to sit to the field (legitimately, anyway). They were decent seats, with a good view of everything, though still really friggin’ high up. Opening Day was against the Astros, and Andy Pettitte started for Houston. This prompted the simplest but best heckle I’ve ever heard at a game to this date, screamed by a large-lunged woman in our section: HEY ANDY PETTITTE, YOU SUCK AT BASEBALL! The Mets won, thanks to some weird errors behind recent Flushing perennial John Franco, who the fans did not greet warmly.

The season was a wash–after flirting with the wild card, the Mets tanked in September and finished in third–but the plan was a success. My wife and I enjoyed going to games, hanging out with friends and family before during and after, being sort-of outside on warm summer days. Plus, it helped to distract me from extreme family trauma I’d found myself having to deal with: my father deciding to start dying halfway across the world (details here, if you must). Long story short: You can do exactly the right thing, something no one will ever second guess you on, and still feel more guilt than you could ever comprehend. Having the Mets around to pull me through this would become a blessing and a curse.

I bought tickets for extra games, including Mike Piazza’s last as a Met, which hit me harder than I anticipated. It wasn’t Mike Piazza per se, but the fact that the season was over, that I now had a long, cold winter to think about all the things that had been fermenting, not dealt with, in my heart all summer. But it wasn’t before I had a lot more things to think about.

In November, I got married. In deep, dark February, we went on our honeymoon to England and Ireland. I remember checking MetsBlog in a hotel on the Liffey, looking for spring training game results, hoping for wonderful things in 2006.

We upgraded to a Saturday plan, just in time to see the Mets steamroll the entire National League in 2006. The afternoon before Opening Day, the Mets held a workout day where they took batting practice and did some on-field interviews. We saw new acquisition Carlos Delgado ding a few moonshots off of the scoreboard, and my wife fulfilled her wish to be photographed with Mr. Met.

We also checked out our new seats. They were in the mezzanine, with a claustrophobically low ceiling and dripping pipe rendering the seats to our left unusable. When a ball was hit very high, we’d lose it in the roof, but on the plus side, we were out of the rain and sun (the latter very important for someone of my complexion; the sun is not my friend). The next day, we watched the Mets squeak out a win against the Nationals, just the first of many happy recaps that season.

sheaseats.JPGI got to see the Mets clinch the NL East on a balmy September night, where my brother somehow snuck in a 12-pack of tallboys for the occasion and, amazingly, did not get caught. I scored every game I went to that season in a huge Modell’s scorebook, the kind little league coaches use to make sure they don’t mess up the batting order.

Just as the season began, my wife and I found out we were going to have a
baby. The sheer terror we normally would have (and probably should have) felt at this time was assuaged by spending an enormous amount of time at Shea. Between my plan and other days we just showed up, my daughter attended some 30 games in utero. My wife still swears that during game two of the division series against the Dodgers, The Baby was kicking against her stomach in rhythm with the loud, stadium-rattling screams of LET’S GO METS!

My plan entitled me to some postseason tickets, and I purchased as many others as I could. I wound up going to all but one Mets home playoff game that season. Unfortunately, game seven of the NLCS was not one of the ones I missed. I remember when Endy Chavez made The Catch, our section was overtaken by an epidemic of Tourette’s, as people could only express their disbelief and joy through the use of spontaneous, uncontrollable cursing. The upper deck literally shook and swayed from fans jumping up and down.

We all thought there was no way the Mets could lose after that. Even after Yadier Molina hit his homer in the top of the ninth, and my wife buried her head in my jacket in despair, I thought somehow they would pull off another comeback. We were all wrong. I had to go home and file away my now unusable World Series tickets in my top drawer, not far from my Opening Day Weekend 1993 pin.

We reupped in 2007 with the same plan and the same seats. Opening Day saw the Mets recover from an early deficit to pummel the Phillies. Jimmy Rollins was heartily booed for his “team to beat” remarks. What did that guy know?

2007 turned out strange, to say the least. It was really two seasons: a dominant first half that felt just like the year before, and a second half that was one kick in the dick after
another. I remember being at a game against the Phillies in mid-September, which the Mets lost after Carlos Beltran made an uncharacteristic error in centerfield that
allowed the go-ahead runs to score. It was not an error in the box score; he just ran in on a Jimmy Rollins fly when he should have run back, the kind of mistake he never, ever made, except now, at the worst possible moment.

Later, I was drowning my sorrows at El Chicano, one of the very few bars near Shea, a Mexican place with low ceilings and very cheap beer (now sadly defunct). A Phillies fan was at the bar too, but not celebrating or gloating. He looked as bad as I felt.

“You guys won again,” I said, with a wan laugh, barely able to believe it myself.

“Don’t worry,” he sighed, looking pale and damaged. “We’re gonna blow it. We always blow it.”

On the last Saturday of the season, my wife and I considered not going. It just seemed like more aggravation was in store, but ultimately the ex-poor people in us decided that we couldn’t just let the tickets go to waste. So we saw John Maine take a no-hitter into the eighth inning and shut out the Marlins. At day’s end, the Mets were tied for first place again.

I thought of playoff tickets I’d already purchased, and of the Phillie fan I’d run into weeks earlier. I hoped his pessimism would trump mine. We both turned out wrong. The next day, when Tom Glavine spit the bit as few had spit it before, I now had three rounds’ worth of playoff tickets to tuck away in my top drawer in shame to keep the lonely 2006 World Series tickets company.

I reupped again in 2008, mostly to ensure that I could do so once more when CitiField opened the following year. But much of the fun of going to the games had been sapped away. It felt that way from Opening Day, when Oliver Perez–not quite yet the devil incarnate he’d become–faltered against the Phillies. He soon took Rollins’ place as the most heartily booed man at Shea.

But more importantly, it felt that way within me even before a pitch was thrown in anger. With all the money I’d invested in tickets, going to Shea became more of an obligation than a treat. Our lives had gotten infinitely more complicated–babies tend to do that–and if baseball games were just going to add to that aggravation, what was the point? Every time we went to a game, we’d have to get a sitter, adding another level of hassle to something that was once a pleasant diversion.

sheaciti.jpg I stopped scoring the games, because it just served as a record of failure, and had also become a crutch to keep me from talking to anyone during the game, further compressing the despair deep within me. I began to feel very disconnected from the world, even more so than usual for someone who spends the vast majority of his free time writing. And yet I still kept coming back. I’d become like my mother when I was a kid, cursing Those Stupid Mets but right back in the same spot listening to them every damn night.

To emphasize the sense of impending doom, the new stadium began to dwarf the old one just beyond the outfield fence. Things were changing, it said, and not for the better.

On the last Saturday of the season, my wife decided she wouldn’t go. I’d let the Mets make me miserable, to the point where I was literally having panic attacks about them. She didn’t want any part of that, and I couldn’t blame her. If it was possible for me to not be around myself back then, I would’ve taken that option too. I’d wrapped this obsession with the team’s prospects around something else within me, which I didn’t want to face, and when Reality threatened to intrude, I just wrapped more layers around it.

So I called up my brother to see if he was interested, and together we took in Johan Santana’s complete-game shutout against the Marlins. On three-days’ rest. With a knee that required surgery. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never even heard of anything like it. For the second year in a row, a Mets pitcher shut out Florida to bring the Mets back into a tie for a playoff spot on the next-to-last day of the season.

Unfortunately, the symmetry continued. I forget exactly how, but the next day my wife–feeling better after Johan’s win, and with me learning a small lesson in perspective–somehow managed to snag tickets to the next game, the last ever at Shea. The game was another cocktease, but at least it was closer than 2007’s last game. It ended with a long fly ball to right field off the bat of Ryan Church, one that looked for a split second like it might tie up the game. Close but no cigar, much like everything involving the Mets for the last few seasons. The Marlins celebrated on the field like a little league team, with the entire crowd showering them with rage-and-tear-filled epithets (myself included; this is one reason of many why the Marlins have supplanted the Braves as my most hated team).

In their inimitable cluelessness, the Mets decided to have ceremonies celebrating Shea not before the game, but after. Amazingly, nearly the entire crowd stayed for it, a cathartic act of defiance, cheering on greats gone by as they strolled on the Shea field for one last time.

I almost lost my mind when I saw Edgardo Alfonzo back at Shea, in a Mets uniform. On the way out, I took as many pics as I could of the dumbest things I thought would always be there. When I walked through the gate for the last time, I cried like a baby. And then I went home and filed away some more bitterly ironic, unusable playoff tickets. My collection of futility had grown exponentially. Generation of uselessness begat generation of uselessness.

But 2009 brought a brand new stadium, so despite the Game Fatigue I was experiencing, I reupped. I couldn’t get tickets to the real Opening Day, but I managed to snag tickets to the very first Mets game at CitiField, an exhibition against the Red Sox, and treated my mom to the experience. She liked the new stadium but felt weird about it, like we didn’t deserve it. My family has the working class dislike of “nice” things, because anything above the level of utilitarian feels pretentious and fancy. My mom wasn’t the only one. All night, I saw Mets fans wander around the stadium in a daze, baffled by amenities like ample bathrooms and more than three choices of food.

The season went downhill almost immediately, and the lure of a new stadium quickly dissipated. I realized that the disconnect I felt from Life Itself was completely my fault. I was missing hanging out with friends, or seeing my family, or just enjoying the summer, by going every Saturday to see a team I’d grown to dislike immensely.

Not to mention that the Plan itself had changed. When I first bought a Saturday plan, most of the games started at 1:10, but thanks to FOX, they now had 7:10 start times. Lovely summer days had been supplanted by muggy, mosquito-filled summer nights. It used to be my wife would say, “Oh good, we have a game this weekend!” Now she said, “Oh crap, we have a game this weekend…”

But above all, it wasn’t special anymore. I’d gone to so many games that the experience had become too ordinary. Childlike wonder had been replaced with ennui.

So in 2010, I let my plan lapse. The Mets ticket office actually called me to ask why I wasn’t reupping. I told them, “Money.” It wasn’t untrue and it was easier than going through all the many reasons. The Mets turned out to be terrible and, even worse, boring as hell. Once again I couldn’t get tickets to Opening Day, mostly because I barely tried.

But a funny thing happened last season: I managed to enjoy going to games again, thanks in large part to my daughter. One day, as I was watching a game on TV, she announced, “I want to go to the baseball game!” I had not suggested doing this in any way, shape, or form. She unilaterally decided she had to go back to CitiField.

I’d taken her to games a few times over the years, but the hassle of taking all the necessary kid-gear into a stadium was usually more trouble than it was worth, particularly if she wanted to leave after three innings. But now she was older, potty trained, and not in need of constant maintenance. So I figured, if she wants to go, why not?

maddieciti.JPGWe went to five games last year, sometimes as a whole family, sometimes just me and her. Every one of them was a delight. No thanks to the Mets, lord knows. But sitting with her on a beautiful summer day, and watching the game through her eyes, that is a treasure. Her interest in baseball is fleeting–at the age of four, her interest in everything is fleeting–but the game is almost beside the point. That would’ve seemed insane to me a few years ago, but now it makes all the sense in the world. Thanks to her, the games became special again.

Plus, I get to hear her react to the ridiculousness of stadium fare in an organic way. Like when the organist played “Sweet Child O’ Mine” before a game and she asked, “Is this a love song?” Or during a Braves game, when the crowd serenaded Chipper Jones with a chorus of “LAR-REE!”, and she wanted know why everyone was doing this. I explained that the man at the plate’s real name was Larry, but he liked to be called Chipper. She snorted. “That’s stupid!” she said, matter-of-factly. I don’t like to encourage the use of that word, but in this instance I said, “Yes, that is very stupid.”

Recently, my wife dug up a slideshow she’d made a few years ago, after the last game at Shea. She took dozens of pics she’d taken at the stadium over the years, sprinkled in a few famous Met moments, and set them to Spoon’s “The Underdog.” I’d watched it when she first made it and enjoyed it, but there was too much pain there to watch it again.

It was such a perfect choice of song, too, musically and lyrically. So many lines that fit so well, but I kept coming back to: It can’t all be wedding cake/It can’t all be boiled away/I try but I can’t let go of it/Can’t let go of it. (I wish I could post it, but baseball images + actual song soundtrack = YouTube account shutdown. Please make do with the actual video.)

Watching her video for the first time in years, I remembered that the
games weren’t all blood and guts and pain, that they were, more often than not, fun. And that they had become fun again, because I had stopped wrapping team obsession around this core of self-hatred over what happened to my father (who, by the way, maybe saw five baseball games in his entire life, if that). I’d dealt with that, somehow, at my own glacial pace. And I had stopped going to games for me, but for Us. I had achieved happiness and enlightenment through an athletic extinction of the self, via the 7 train.

Last week, out of nowhere, my wife suggested we get a ticket plan again. A small one, six games. I probably wouldn’t have dared consider it myself, but this brutal winter has made us all long for warmer times. She seemed excited about the idea of going to see baseball again, and suddenly, so did I. It would be about one game a month, including Opening Day. Enough games to look forward to, and not enough to dread.

It made me think of our first plan, which we got just before we were married, just as my father plunged me into a funk it took me years to pull myself out of, a million years ago. We only went to six games, but each one seemed wonderful. We needed them all, distractions from the crushing weight of life and death and everything in the middle. I think I can handle six games again.

Today, spring training begins for the Mets. Once again, they have a new manager and GM, though this time around no one expects great things of them this year, myself included. I don’t care. Baseball can kill you and wound you and drive you insane, but unlike many other things in life, it has the decency to come back every year and give you another shot.