As I sat in the panels, immersed in baseball, I considered just what a Met fan is. Fans of a particular team seem to take on certain characteristics. Certainly Cubs fans, none of whom are alive to have seen last World Series victory, have a certain personality type. Red Sox fans, who were similar to Cubs fans until 2004, now have a different personality after experiencing a rush of success. Yankee fans are unaccustomed to losing, and represent a certain kind of elitism. As sportswriter Stan Isaacs commented, "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Donald Trump to win the lottery."
The Mets are the spiritual descendants of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who, along with the New York Giants, decamped for the West Coast after the 1957 season. Many fans of those teams, especially the Dodgers, swore off baseball rather than root for their exiled teams, or even the Yankees. The Mets came along to soothe their pain, but the team was historically awful--120 losses, still a record. But the team was embraced, as they were lovable losers, a collection of fading stars and bumbling journeymen, typified by Marv Throneberry, who once hit a triple and missed both first and second base on his path to third. The manager was the legendary Casey Stengel, now in his dotage, who remained a writer's favorite with his fractured syntax and pithy witticisms. Upon meeting sportswriter Steve Jacobson's wife, he told her, "I don't know you, but you could be our third-string catcher."
The team would experience glory in 1969, a 200-to-1 shot that rose from the depths of the standings to win it all. Four players from that team, Ed Charles, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, and Art Shamsky, attended the conference. Gentlemen all, they were generous with their time, although you can't help feeling they are wistful about missing out on the millions that would come to the players of the next generation.
The team has had ups and downs since then, mostly downs. There was a lot of talk about the anger over the trade of Tom Seaver, the mid-80s team that would win only one World Series (but what a win--who will forget the '86 series, with the thrilling win over the Astros and then "Game Six" of the World Series against Boston). The team has declined steadily since their last World Series in 2000, with the Mets just missing getting to the Series in 2006, when Carlos Beltran ended game seven of the NLCS against the Cardinals by taking a called third strike. A Mets fan told the story about being at that game, and spending two minutes in a stall in the Grand Central Station men's room, screaming, "Why didn't he swing?!"
Being descendants of the old Brooklyn team, the Mets fan is associated with a kind of Sisyphean mythos. Mostly it's losing, with the occasional rise to the mountaintop. They are mostly middle-to-lower class, and there are many Jewish fans (one Jewish history professor came to the realization that God was a Yankee fan, so he became an atheist). They are also marked by a persistent optimism, despite all the losing. Yes, they hearken back to '69 and '86, but they also care about the current team, despite the financial difficulties of the current owners. Serendipitously during the conference, a Mets day game was playing on the big-screen TV in the commuter lounge at Hofstra. Conference attendees gathered around the set. The Mets had trailed the Marlins, but had tied the score in the ninth, and now had the bases loaded. Official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn, stood next to me as out number two was recorded on a force-out to home plate. "Is a sacrifice fly too much to ask for?" he beseeched, turning away in typical Mets fashion. The next hitter, a call-up named Kirk Nieuwenhuis, slapped a two-out single over the head of the Marlins rightfielder, and a roar of delight and triumph went up.
The highlight of the conference for me was the banquet. I sat with my friend and the co-director of the conference, Dr. Paula Uruburu, and also at my table was Bud Harrelson, shortstop of the '69 Mets. His most famous moment was getting in a fight with Pete Rose during the '73 NLCS. I did not tell Bud that Rose was my father's childhood friend, but it's easy to see that Bud is probably ten times the gentlemen Pete ever was.
I was thrilled to get to shake hands with Rusty Staub. Rusty was a well-traveled player who spent most of his career with the Mets, and he gave the keynote address at the banquet (pictured above). But me, being a Tigers fan, remember him fondly for his few years with the Tigers in the late '70s.
It was a great three days. There's nothing like being among kindred spirits who, despite the emergence of football and basketball as eclipsing baseball, understand that America is still about baseball.