The Mets’ four-game sweep of the Yankees this week, with two victories at home in Queens and two overseas in the Bronx, may not be a story for the grander history books. But for this baseball fan and for New Yorkers on both sides of the greatest baseball divide, it was memorable.
To outsiders, including some members of the sports media and not a few of the ballplayers themselves, this deeply fraught rivalry between the two teams — one long dominant, the other long dormant — is hard to figure. And baseball’s importance in American life, its role in our nation’s history and consciousness (despite a lot of pretentious writing about its glories, and notwithstanding the recent troubles with performance-enhancing drugs and profit-enhancing owners and agents) remains a larger cultural mystery. What we know is that its importance begins with its unimportance: what happens on a ballfield has little connection to the rest of life – which is precisely why we love it.
I am unashamed to be among those who invest it with moral qualities. But I will say this: I was struck, a few years ago, when passing through St. Louis on a road trip, at the solidarity of the people of St. Louis in support of their wonderful team, the Cardinals. And I’ll admit I felt not a little wistful envy at this mass consensus of opinion. The Cards were in town, and everyone at the hotel where I stayed, a block from the stadium, was rooting for the same team. Everyone wore a red Cardinals hat. A city with one team: it must be a fine thing, an innocent virtue.
But I’m a New Yorker, and we don’t live here because the living is easy. Since 1962, we have had two teams in different leagues that have stood for very different things. The Yankees, who have always been owned by rich boors and were slow to integrate in the 1950s, represent American dominance and entitlement. Excellence, yes, that too – but resulting mostly from financial strength. In fact, we don’t associate the Yankees with the word ‘excellence,’ but rather with ‘success.’ And success can be bought.
The Mets, meanwhile, were awful in their early years not because they chose to be, or were badly mismanaged – that came later – but because the deck was stacked against them from the outset by the baseball powers that were.
They have managed to sustain a tradition of losing (along with a dozen or so years of winning and respectable contention) for over a half-century. Where the Yankees are a magnet for the self-satisfied and the elite, the Mets represent the side of New York that is striving, that identifies with the underdog, and with the immigrant’s golden door – which often takes years to pass through. Rooting for the Mets isn’t the easier choice; it’s the higher choice.
Like many others, I inherited my allegiance from grandparents who supported the Brooklyn Dodgers, an earlier incarnation of honorable striving and suffering. My first-ever baseball game was a Yankee game, because the Dodgers and Giants had left for California and the Mets had not yet been born, but I was never going to become a Yankee fan. (It was the spring of 1959, first game of a doubleheader, and the Yanks beat the Chicago White Sox 14-9. Bob Cerv hit a grand slam for the Bombers.) I was not quite six years old, but I was enthralled the moment I entered the vast old stadium, the diamond set in a vast green carpet of grass. I fell in love with the sport that afternoon, and bawled when I wasn’t allowed to stay for the second game; already, in my sixth year, three hours of baseball just wasn’t quite enough.
So you folks in Philadelphia and St. Louis and Kansas City, who are blessed with a single major league team and a unified fan base, may gloat or recoil at this intense rivalry or shake your heads at the emotions it calls up. We don’t care. New York is a complex city of tribes and divisions and sublimated civic conflicts. Our ancestors didn’t take the easy way and strike out for the wilderness; they stayed here and struggled and sometimes thrived, and chose opposite sides of the melting pot to stew in. No New Yorker who is at all serious about baseball roots for both teams. You might as well vote for both parties.
We take our baseball seriously here and project our narratives onto it without timidity. And this week, the hapless Mets, who are bound for ignominy in 2013, drubbed the great tyrants from the Bronx with fine pitching and timely hitting in four straight games.
Sure, the Yanks are missing a few key players – Jeter, A-Rod, Teixeira, Granderson, Youkilis – who isn’t? Go ahead and whine, Yanksters – it’s every fan’s prerogative. We even beat Mariano Rivera, my favorite Yankee player and the greatest relief pitcher ever, in his farewell appearance in intra-city baseball. That’s why we call them the Amazing Mets. It’s easy to root for perennial winners; but in the long run it’s far more satisfying to be amazed.
Winning isn’t everything. But this week we won four straight from the bad guys. It was almost like winning the World Series.