Discover more from Homestand: Baseball and the Fight for the Heart of America
On Being a Fan
The author in Iraq during the 2006 Mets-Cardinals playoff series
Before I begin posting updates from the road, I thought it might be important to note that I am a lifelong fan of baseball… to include Major League Baseball (MLB). This distinction matters, as MLB does not “own” the sport, but rather simply governs its dominant professional league.
While I feel that the MLB front office (in conjunction with a cadre of owners) has hurt the sport in ways that I’ll probably allude to in future posts, I used to be a passionate, devoted fan.
In some ways, though increasingly conflicted, I still am.
Below is a short essay I wrote back in 2008, not long after returning from a deployment to Iraq. I tried to communicate the power of baseball to deliver joy (and sadness, especially to us Mets fans!), transporting us beyond the challenges of our daily lives. It’s useful in establishing my “baseline” as an MLB fan.
I could have written a similar piece about living in New York City during 9/11, and how the Mets and Yankees helped so many escape their grief and fear and rediscover a sliver of happiness. I will never forget Mike Piazza’s home run against the hated Braves in the first home game at Shea Stadium after the attacks.
I mention all this simply to show how much MLB has meant to me - from my earliest memories watching games with my grandfather and hearing tales of his beloved Yankees of old, to bringing my son to his first games at Coors Field in Colorado - and how much MLB stands to lose if it risks losing a fan like me.
Sept. 29, 2008 - The New York Times
Perching my MacBook on my lap and signing in to MLB.com on Sunday afternoon, I had the oddest sensation that I was back in Iraq. It wasn’t post-traumatic stress disorder. It was the Mets.
As I watched Oliver Perez take the mound on a drizzly afternoon in Queens, I felt the same pregame anxiety that I had when he started Game 7 of the National League Championship Series in 2006. The feeling was the same. My surroundings couldn’t have been more different.
I watched Perez’s improbable performance against the Cardinals two years ago in the chow hall of a remote Army camp in Anbar Province in Iraq, joined by an equally devoted Cardinals fan, our lonely vigil interrupted only by the occasional soldier stopping in to grab some coffee before starting a guard shift in the desert night. My pulse quickened and my body temperature rose watching that game, the accumulated highs and lows of a 162-game season adding to the magnitude of the moment. I had the same physiological response this afternoon, though this time I was watching from the comfort of my suburban living room. I even got up to make sure the air conditioner was still working — it was.
This anxiety, familiar to all die-hard fans when a long season comes down to a single game, is even more acute for Mets fans, given the team’s tendency in recent years to careen violently from the sublime to the dreadful and back. Over the past few weeks callers to WFAN have lurched from the ecstatic to the despondent with dizzying regularity.
As Sunday’s Shea Stadium finale progressed, the Mets’ suddenly punchless offense placing ever-mounting pressure on the team’s pitchers (and helpless fans), I will even confess to shaking a bit. Somehow following this team affects my nerves in ways that even combat patrols did not.
I’ll never forget the 2006 postseason and the disruptive but oddly reassuring routine of setting my alarm for 2 a.m. and shuffling downstairs to watch the Mets on the Armed Forces Network. My pregame ritual was the same every night: slide into my flip flops, shake the cobwebs from my head, maybe grab a nonalcoholic beer and a frozen microwavable pizza and join my buddy watching America’s pastime in the fertile crescent.
These nights are frozen in my mind, marking the only prolonged distraction from what was otherwise a long year in a violent place.
Watching the games, listening to Shea Stadium rock to the chants of “Let’s go Mets,” I was temporarily transported to a different — better — place. I found it surprising how quickly I was able to shift gears from the challenges confronting our battalion to the emotionally draining roller-coaster ride that is Mets baseball. I would have thought my interest in the Mets at night would have lessened after confronting a Sunni insurgency by day, but I found myself as emotionally invested in the outcome of the games as if I had been back home.
Two years later I am back in the United States and working in the Washington bureau of the New York Times. The pressure of combat patrols in a distant land is gone, but my relationship with the Mets stays the same, endlessly teased by their potential yet too often frustrated by the uncanny way they dangle just enough success in front of their fans to make the ultimate defeat all the more crushing.
Whether watching in Iraq as John Maine threw a gem to keep the Mets’ season alive in 2006 or witnessing Johan Santana take a step toward Met immortality from my Northern Virginia apartment, the taste of victory is just as delicious.
On the flip side, the emotional hangover now setting in after having postseason dreams shattered in the final game for the second consecutive season is all too similar to the emptiness I felt trudging back to my bunk in an abandoned Iraqi building after Yadier Molina devastated Mets fans everywhere in 2006.
Therein lies the glory, and the pain, of being a fan. You can momentarily forget where you are, no matter how forbidding or how mundane, and lose yourself in the successes and failures of your team.
Today I will not be groggily scanning pockmarked Iraqi roads for roadside bombs the way I was two years ago, hours after Carlos Beltran struck out with the bases loaded, ending the Mets’ season as the sun began to rise over the desert.
I am off from work and had been hoping to drive to New York and watch a playoff game against the Brewers.
What will I be doing instead? Rogers Hornsby said it best: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
153 days until spring training.