The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Loser

Why do we keep coming back to baseball teams that don't deserve us? The short answer is love, and the longer answer is different for everyone.
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In early August, I took my daughter to a businessman’s special at Citi Field, in Queens. This continued a four-year tradition that started when I would park her stroller in a handicap spot -- with full usher approval, of course, as I’m not a monster -- to enjoy, or at any rate to watch, some Mets baseball. On this particular Monday afternoon, the crowd was decent, filled with groups of summer camp kids in rainbow-hued shirts painting the upper tank in bright colorful blocks. Thanks to the G train not making all the stops means we had to grab a bus, we were late. This played to our favor as a scalper sold us two tickets in the lower bowl, down the first baseline, for $40.

As the game went on, I found myself paying almost no attention to the Mets. Part of this is because my job as a baseball game parent is now to wander about looking for Mr. and Mrs. Met, finding a helmet sundae, prevent my little girl from killing herself while she performs gymnastics on the concourse, running bathroom breaks, and so forth.

Still, I never felt the pull of the game, in part because I haven't felt the pull of the Mets. And it goes beyond this crappy Mets season, the Wilpons’ ridiculous financial situation, and general malaise that’s afflicted a club who are going to have to fight like hell not to finish under .500 for the sixth straight year. (The awful and awfully convincing sexual discrimination lawsuit against team COO and designated franchise-inheritor Jeff Wilpon isn’t helping.) I suppose the game was enjoyable enough as these things go, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have to look up who won. There are bright spots on this roster, and on the horizon, and there is reason to believe next year’s team will be better than this one. But at some point the future just comes to seem like a punchline, and not a gutbuster, either.

Does any of this matter? In the grand scheme of, well, everything, the answer is of course not. But that doesn’t change the fact that devoting a huge amount of one’s fandom and emotional energy to, pardon the jargon, a bullshit organization more or less sucks. I am fortunate to have other sports -- troubled ones, to be sure -- and other teams (ditto) that I care about more. But the Mets open the door onto a larger question that has to do with more than partisan fan stuff. Namely, how do fans of crappy clubs do it year-in and year-out? I wanted to know, so I asked them.

***

Fritz Neighbor, a sportswriter for the Missoulian in my great home state of Montana, has been a Royals fans since 1976. That love affair was glorious, right up until around George H. W. Bush took office. Two decades on, somehow, and on the cusp of the team’s first postseason appearance since the Reagan administration, he persists.

I started out in seventh-grade when I noticed this first-place team with crisp white uniforms and blue trim. Add in the fact that George Brett played his first year of pro ball with the Billings Mustangs and it was all over.

I chose well. I knew this even as the Royals broke my heart with three straight losses in the ALCS, each one steeling my resolve and perhaps preparing me for what came later. I grew to hate the Yankees’ spending machine, and I puzzled over late-game decisions like Whitey Herzog bringing in Dennis Leonard to close the fifth game in 1977, but I kept fighting the good fight.

When the Royals vanquished the Yankees in the 1980 ALCS, I was in heaven. I should have seen what was coming next -- a loss to Pete Rose and the Phillies in the World Series -- but such is the life of most fans, I figured. When Kansas City won the 1985 World Series, I felt vindicated, but it turned out I was just being set up for more anguish. The Royals haven’t made the postseason since.

And yet, Brett.

In 1992, having earned my first real paid vacation, I traveled to Oakland and took in the A’s home series with the Royals. I remember Mark McGwire hitting two out one game, and Harold Baines hitting a home run to beat former Mustang Jeff Montgomery in another.

Yet what I really remember is the rowdy A’s fans in the bleachers, heckling and boozing, not really paying much attention to the Royals … until Brett came up. It became noticeably quieter; the fans seemed to lean forward. This is how I recall it, anyway. My memory doesn’t always serve me.

I do know that by 1992, the club that had introduced the concept of a baseball academy, and broke the mold for expansion teams, had lost most of its magic. When the team became less successful, I eased the pain by rooting for individual players. The Royals brought up Bo Jackson in 1986 and still had Brett, who kept cranking line drives through the infield ‘like a stream of milk,’ to quote Roger Angell.

This makes sense: individual players who become the face of a franchise go a long way to keeping hope alive. I love David Wright, but he ain’t George Brett. But what if your team has mostly been devoid of stars, to the point where a decade’s worth of reliably lonely All-Stars have included Tony Womack, Mike Williams, Jack Wilson, and Nate McLouth?

For Brian Rathgeb, a Pittsburgh-area native who’s now a commander in a Maryland law enforcement agency, it was never necessarily about individual players. He learned that lesson young, thanks to his guy, Dave “The Cobra” Parker, he of the big bat, rifle arm, and cocaine-inhaling nose.

I grew up during the 1970's and early 80's. The Steelers were religion and the Pirates were the baseball team. I never chose to root for the teams. They were thrust upon a kid in that area, but times were good. I attended one of the 1979 World Series games at Three Rivers. After the team was utterly destroyed by the 80's cocaine scandal, the Pirates were fucking awful. I still followed them though, because, what the hell else was I going to do?  

When Jim Leyland showed up and brought them back, it was awesome. Bonds, Bonilla, Van Slyke, Drabek... Loved 'em. I always figured that we were headed for another sustained run of excellence, because that what the Steelers did. I never dreamed that they'd go into a twenty-year funk.

So, what kept Officer Rathgeb at least somewhat on board with the sinking, and sinking, and basically sunk Pirate ship? Remember when Sister Sledge was as synonymous with the Bucs as Pops Stargell?

A big part of staying with the Pirates has been family and the whole Pittsburgh diaspora. I hate that phrase, but the older I get, the more I actually recognize it as something very real and tangible, almost a civic esprit de corps that I still maintain after 20-plus years away.

It's also about my dad and my brother. My dad, as much as I love him, ain’t exactly the best conversationalist with his kids. He is with others, but never his own kids. Having the Pirates has always meant that I have had something to talk to him about between Steelers seasons. Pirates baseball is also easy to text my brother about, and he isn't very good at staying in touch otherwise.

The Pirates hold a great place in Rathgeb family lore. Back in the 1950s, Bill Mazeroski lived near Greensburg, where I grew up, during the off-season. He did commercials for Rathgeb's Dairy on the radio. All Rathgebs have a framed picture of my grandfather with Maz in uniform.

It’s true, mostly, that family ties are stronger than the rope teams hang themselves with, but what if flesh and blood plays little part in fandom? I grew up in Billings, so the only unified commonality we have is the Mustangs, and as beloved as the Ponies are, short-season rookie ball doesn’t exactly bind us together.

I don’t live close to any family members, either, and I more or less root in a Twitter vacuum. My dad doesn’t have a team, and when I do talk baseball with my brothers it’s usually some version of them belittling the Metropolitans because they root for the Red Sox and Giants, respectively. But what keeps someone engaged in baseball when familial traditions play no part?

Tony Malakian, U.S. editor of Waters Technology, grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania and now lives in Brooklyn. He has, despite all that, been an Astros fan since he was nine. His is a lonely road.

I’m an Astros fan mainly because I’m an asshole. My dad is a lifelong Yankees fan, my brother is a Mets fan. I collected baseball cards and loved those crazy orange and yellow striped uniforms from the 1970s. And then in 1986, I remember watching Mike Scott carve up the Mets in the NLCS. For some reason -- and I really can’t remember the exact reason why -- but I became an Astros fan after that.

This was before the Internet or MLB Extra Innings, so I used to love picking up the newspaper and reading the box score from the previous day’s game, and going down to the Vet (or Shea, when I was visiting family in New York) to watch the ‘Stros. Today, I subscribe the MLB Extra Innings package, but I’ll only watch one or two games during the week. I’m probably a bit of a diehard, having suffered through three-straight 100-loss seasons and continuing to shell out real money for the subscription, but there are plenty of guys on those teams (and today’s squad) that I couldn’t name. It took me half of this season to correctly pronounce Dallas Keuchel’s last name.

I understand the impulse, but I can’t fathom tuning into a 100-loss team on a regular basis. What’s the secret payout for this dubious privilege?

To me, baseball is not meant to be a sport that holds your interest the same way that hockey or basketball, and much less football, do. You turn on the game, watch a few innings, switch over to something else, flip back, read a boxscore here and there. Basically let it just waft around you, rather than immerse yourself in it.

And at the game, it’s just as much fun to walk around, taking in the stadium while drinking overpriced beers, as it is to sit through a pitcher taking 25 warm-up pitchers or some jerkoff hitter go through a five-minute routine before they step into the box.

This all makes sense, and the live baseball experience always delivers, but there is still the sense that I should care more -- or at least nearly as much -- about what the Mets are doing on the actual field as I do about what my daughter is doing on the mini tee-ball diamond behind center field. With this in mind, I asked someone who walks in my cleats, and who was qualified to speak about the Mets.

This was Brock Mahan, a writer/producer on NatGeo’s Going Deep With David Rees and a Queens native who came of age in the (short-lived) Darryl Strawberry heyday. He’s about the biggest Mets fan I know, this piece’s editor notwithstanding, so surely he can talk me off the ledge of disinterest. How does he remain in step with the annual bungling in Flushing?

I had an auspicious start. My first trip to Shea was for Game Three of the 1986 NLCS, though I didn't make it through the entire contest. My dad and I heard the fans' roar, of what we later learned was a walk-off homer by Lenny Dykstra, from the 7 train platform.

In my defense, I was four and remember being scared by how high up in the upper reserve our seats were. The Mets were at their most competitive when I was first introduced to them, though I think that was probably more of a draw for the adults in my life. I liked the team because the uniforms were colorful and they had players with nicknames like Mookie, Wally, Doc, and The Kid.

I'd say I started following the team on a day-to-day basis after a Cub Scout excursion to Shea in the late summer of 1991. I'm a sucker for Opening Day and generally unwavering in support through the All-Star break. Then the trade deadline usually adds enough excitement to get me through a few more weeks. However, I haven't cared about an August Mets game in at least five years, save the occasional R.A. Dickey or Matt Harvey start. By September, a level of acceptance has settled in and I genuinely look forward to roster expansions.

Is that the key, I wondered, the late-season call-up salve, the “promise” of tomorrow making today livable?

I wouldn't say I'm a fan in the short-for-fanatic sense of any other team than the Mets, though it's waned in the Citi Field era. The park isn't entirely (or even mostly) to blame, but I'm not as true to the orange and blue as I've been in the past. That said, I can still rattle off the entire 25-man roster and give you the names of at least 50 Mets prospects.

I don't really follow any other sport the way I do baseball, so it's a matter of finding surrogate teams to follow when there are no meaningful September games on the horizon. I was pretty pie-eyed with success during the 2006 season and figured that would become the new baseline. Won't be drinking that spiked Kool Aid again, should the chance arise.

***

So, let’s review ways to keep on keeping on when your team, yet again, goes down the shitpipe. One can be born in the general area where a team plays, which will work for my daughter, perhaps, although unless the Mustangs get humped to the bigs... Or, failing that, you could have longstanding family roots with the team (nope), pony up for the TV package (don’t have to, still not paying attention), lock in super early and never let go (hell, as a kid I rooted for the Orioles, which would be about the same). Or you could just love baseball so much that the sport trumps individual leanings. A side note: NBA basketball starts October 28.

Help me out, here. Fritz?

It’s 2014 and my team is on an improbable run. It’s the end of September and the Royals. Will. Be. In. The. Playoffs.

My food tastes better. The sun seems to shine brighter. I saw none of this coming. I love baseball, and for the longest time it was enough to root against the Yankees and Marlins and Dodgers, and secretly hope that the Cleveland Indians or Chicago Cubs get it done if my Royals don’t. But being in first in September? So much better.

Winning. Yep. Brian?

Last year was great and you couldn't pick a better face for the franchise than Andrew McCutchen. Personality wise, he's everything that Barry Bonds wasn't. He's not as good, but they don't give MVP to just anyone.

I hate to say it, but winning doesn't solve everything, because I'm always a fan regardless of what the record is. After 20 years of losing seasons though, winning is very sweet. And the best part is hearing my daughter Maggie yell, ‘Raise the Jolly Rancher!’

Uh-huh, bringing joy to father-and-daughter. Now we’re getting somewhere. Tony, thoughts?

As an Astros fan, all I wanted out of this season was to not lose 100 games. AND WE DID IT! As sad as that may sound.

Losing makes the winning better. My dad always says, ‘Tony, you should’ve been a Yankees fan -- look at how much winning you’ve missed out on!’ Fair enough, but without a salary cap, I just can’t understand how Yankees fans stay invested in their team.

Yankee hatred, of course. Bring us home, Brock:

Umm, Let’s Go Mets?

This is nonsense, of course. It’s not an answer at all. It’s also, somehow, good enough. See you next season.


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