Where The Boys Are
As for the sport itself: well, it’s certainly true that I now have a whole new appreciation of the terrific physical strenuousness of it—all those games, all that pain, all that pressure to be perfect. But mostly my baseball learning curve has given me some interesting insights not only into the male bonding process—always worth observing—but on why women are into it, too; and no, not for the reason you’re thinking, but what the heck, let’s discuss that anyway.
I can’t speak for other girls, but jocks have never appealed to me. Jim, a swimmer as a lad, had a terrific body the last three years of his life, six feet tall and strong as a horse, but he was never what you would call buff (nobody was in those days, except of course Ah-nuld…). Still, if one has to choose…
Football players are by definition right out. Basketball players are divinely tall, and move like Greek statues would if Greek statues could move, but those stupid baggy shorts and tops make them look like saplings wrapped in burlap for the winter. Jockeys are nervy and brave, with great hands and a necessarily marvelous sense of balance, but unless you’re Linda Hunt get real. Even setting aside the problematic dentition, hockey players still look like stunt doubles from "Halloween" movies, though I must say some of the Jersey Devils are rather cute. Soccer players have fabulous legs, but (this may be a mere optical illusion) they all appear to be quite short, perhaps as a result of hitting the ball with their unprotected heads—which has to tell sooner or later, unless of course their heads are solid bone from the neck up (oh, no, sorry, right, that’s soccer fans…). So by default I guess it must be baseball players.
Admittedly, I haven’t done a whole bunch of research, only on the Mets and their opponents—and, yeah, okay, the Skankees too, since they’re local boys and their pictures are inevitably in the papers or on TV. Based on that limited data, baseball players tend to be rather strong-looking and on the tall side—neither of which qualities exactly sucks. The uniforms are less than flattering, though, except the Mets’ groovy black-shirt ones, so New York. But— however historic it may be—that little knicker look has GOT to go! So roll down those pants legs, men! The Victorian urchin is dead! Quite a few team color schemes could also use a serious edit (Arizona? WAY too overartdirected, hon!) and baseball hair is absolutely lamentable (Mets? Too short! All of you! Let it grow! Your power is in your manly locks, just like Samson: right now you all look like your mommies just gave you the old soupbowl trim…).
On the plus side, this excellent new Mets tendency to cultivate Vandyke beards (Todd Zeile, Mike Hampton, Glendon Rusch, Derek Bell, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jay Payton, Armando Benitez, Matt Franco, Bobby J. Jones, probably more) is TOTALLY fierce and must be warmly encouraged. (Girls! Tell ’em how fine and adorable they look! Rick Reed! Grow it out! Robin Ventura! Grow it back!)
A bit of terminology correction here, pay attention: "goatee" means that little tiny stupid wispy underlip tuft of a chin beard, the one that’s apparently all that alleged manly men Leo di Caprio and Brad Pitt can manage—you know, like a billygoat’s beard? Hence the name? (Duh!) The FAR more manly, carefully trimmed beard/mustache/no-sideburns combo that all you people have been ignorantly calling a goatee is actually a VANDYKE—as you obviously don’t know, after the beard you see on noble-type guys in paintings by Vandyke (or Van Dyck, if you prefer), the brilliant court painter to King Charles I of England. And now it seems to be the baseball beard of choice—players on every team proudly sporting it. Which, of course, is just fine with me: as a Celt and quondam rocknroller, my motto is the more cute guys with beards and long hair the better.
And GREAT BALLS OF FIRE SOMETHING MUST BE DONE ABOUT ALL THAT SPITTING!!!!! E-e-e-e-w-w-w…
Surprisingly, I haven’t noticed anyone drop-dead gorgeous. Needless to say, my personal standard is extremely major league: on the Jim Morrison Scale of Male Pulchritude, baseball players mostly come in at around a high seven, bunch of mid-eights, even a couple of borderline nines. Fetching enough, in a geeky Jimmy Stewart sort of way, pleasant good looks but nothing you’d call broodingly handsome. Much tabloid fuss is made over Mike Piazza (who is by no means uncomely, though something must also be done about that Fu Manchu—like how about a nice Vandyke??), but Turk Wendell is probably the best-looking Met (runners-up, in no particular order, Zeile, Leiter, Rey, Robin, Pat Mahomes).
On the Yankee side of the ledger, I just don’t see Derek Jeter at all—he looks like a smug Muppet—though I am told that teenyboppers of all ages feel very differently, and he does seem to be an exemplary young man, while Tino Martinez is pretty but such a whiner; and a few Atlantoids who shall go nameless (Larry Jones John Rocker whoops sorry it just slipped out) look like poster boys for the perils of inbreeding.
Still, it is very wrong indeed to view baseball players as merely meat wearing cleats, homerun hunks. The smart, enlightened, cultured women who are the only kind I have for my friends are into baseball, if they’re into at all, for the drama, the sport dynamics, the community gestalt, not the broad shoulders and well-toned behinds. Right. Yeah. Right.
So all my life I didn’t bother with baseball. I didn’t get it and I could have happily gone to my grave still not getting it. To me, an interest in baseball (or indeed any other macho-driven team sport) was merely an endearing personality quirk on the part of otherwise quite intelligent people, and I felt I was absolutely right to take no notice. But then the Mets had to go and drag my guy into it, so that I had to take notice—and then it all became clear.
Sport, gladiatorial combat, has always served as an alternative to warfare. Ancient Constantinople was divided between the Blues and the Greens, partisans of two rival chariot teams who, following their favorites’ fortunes, came to blows more often than the imperial armies did. In medieval Siena, the Palio horse race meant war in the streets between the different contradas—and still does. And you can’t get more tribally nationalistic than the World Cup…
So it’s hardly a new dynamic. It’s the Wars of the Roses, say, and you’re a Yorkist, and your husband roots for Lancaster, and the armies run around the country and maybe one afternoon there’s an actual battle in your back pasture, and they fight, and then they move on, and a few days later you hear how it turned out, who’s top of the battling averages that week. It didn’t really affect your life (apart from your trampled pasture—kind of a Plantagenet Woodstock, with swords), or if it did, only at the most remote and distant levels, so you could look at power struggles as a kind of sporting event, the World Series of monarchy.
That is the historical context into which baseball can be placed. Bread and circuses, even as it was in the days of Caesar Augustus, to dazzle the populace —really to divert social unrest into manageable channels, to short-circuit civic tensions that might otherwise have resulted in actual warfare, to stop people thinking about their real problems and pour prodigious amounts of time, energy and money into the utterly inconsequential outcomes of sporting events. Pace Marx, it’s sports that are the religion and the opiate of the masses. Tribal factions, money and power and control: business as usual.
But, as I say, now it’s personal. Now I’ve actually met people who are professional baseball players. Now I actually know a little teensy bit about the intramural dynamics of this team. Plus, any guys whose rather droll idea of a victory song is my honey chanting over the stadium PA system loud enough to drown the plane noise from LaGuardia Airport next door are certainly people in whose work it would well become me to take a benevolent reciprocal interest, as a sort of Jedi fairy godmother—the Shamaness of Shea.
I’ve always been a sucker for Destiny. And all this karma floating around has gotten me deeply invested in the vicissitudes of the Mets’ fortunes on the field, engaging not only avenging warrior-princess and/or protective maternal instincts but atavistic sociotribal participatory reflexes—otherwise defined as the burning desire to kick the living bahoogies out of the other team, any other team, for they are the Stranger, they are Not Us. Not to mention noblesse oblige: the Mets were nice enough to take Jim out to the ballgame, so naturally I as his wife want nice things to happen for them in return. But you can only work with what you’ve got, so…
MOJO BATTLE! Today is a good day for the other team to die! Roll ’em up like a carpet and let’s all go home! Chants! Fu! Wands! Incense! Candles! Hits! Nobody messes with the Mets! Nobody steps on Robin diving for second and gets away with it! No one concusses Piazza at the plate and lives to tell the tale! And anyone who tries will rue the day they ever put on a cup!
Whoa! Calm down there, Trish-trish… Okay, I feel better now… Actually, I’m more astounded than anyone by this—especially by just how into it I managed to get in a mere quarter-season. (Let’s not even discuss this year…) Considering the depth of my previous disinclination, this new fandom is a little unnerving—friends mutter darkly that I’m starting to scare them, that perhaps it really is Pod Person Patricia wearing that Mets jersey WITH HER NAME ON THE BACK. Or maybe it’s more like being a Moonie. But that’s the thing about road-to-Damascus type conversion. Besides, it is just so dang much FUN. Can’t beat that with a bat!
Even so, I’ll never be a baseball fan, just a Mets fan. It’s not the objective outer that involves me (statistics, strategy, form—team stuff) but the subjective inner, the human-interest subtext—the myth, the connection, the narrative, the personalities—personal stuff. Which —appreciation of superlative athleticism aside—is why and how I think most women get into sports fandom: not the guy thing of stats and averages and vicarious schoolboy dreams, or even because the players happen to be hunkish and cute (and men are watching women’s soccer because…???), but because we can make a story out of it, and stories are fun.
If Robin Ventura hadn’t started being my husband’s personal dj, I would never have paid the Mets any more attention than I’d ever done—a jingoistic scan of the headlines (go New York!) if they’d done as well as they ended up doing. And if the team hadn’t turned out to be so flipping dramatic and angst-ridden, I would have gotten very, very bored very, very quickly.
All My Children
But the Mets have caught my novelistic fancy. I am totally into it, I am SO hooked. I see that the Mets are soap opera drama queens, the Susan Luccis of the sports world. Like the Energizer bunny, they go on forever. They can hardly be stopped, and they cannot be killed, and they make defeat snatched from the jaws of victory more compelling than an easy win (though we are getting just a bit tired of that…). They dance on the edge of the abyss and they want you to be their date for the sock hop. They always have to do everything the hardest possible way at the last possible instant, nothing ever comes easy to them, they are fated and victorious and heroic and doomed. They are utterly mindblowing, and endlessly entertaining, and more than a little nuts—and soooo much more New York than that bunch of ungracious spoiled-brat Republicans up in the Bronx. As a mythologian I really like this, and as a native New Yorker I am very proud.
Yet apart from the Heart-Attack-City gut-clenching intensity of it all—not to mention the delirious fun of getting to phone everybody I know during the many, many clutch moments of the last days of the season (not to mention the postseason) and scream like a demented banshee "OHMYGODICAN’TBELIEVETHISCANYOUBELIEVETHIS!!!" (anguishedly, jubilantly or incensedly, as the moment’s circumstances dictated)—what appealed to me most was that every Met got to be the hero and every Met got to be the goat. Equal opportunity psychosis: there was just no end to it. Couldn’t have been more theatrical if they’d tried. I couldn’t have written some of those finishes. And I write science fiction! Gotta love it.
Every game it was someone different giving everybody fits, somebody else doing something more unbelievably mythic than the game before:
…relief catcher Todd Pratt against the Diamondbacks: knightly young King Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone to slay the Snakes—returned from exile to triumph, from delivering pizza in Florida to stepping in for Piazza in the best Star Is Born tradition, bopping out a tenth-inning gamewinning home run that apparently beamed itself out of the chagrined ’Zona fielder’s very glove (go Tank!);
…Game 5 against the Braves, Rockin’ Robin and his wounded knee, saving up all the good karma to spend on a grand-slam single, the Mojo rewarding him with an instant legend: Luke Skywalker taking out the Death Star. His own team joyously mugged him, to deny him the slam, but he took them all the way back to Atlanta, Ventura Freeway, with the last ball of the millennium to be hit at Shea—a grand-slam home run that bizarrely wasn’t and it won a 3-3 15-inning rain-soaked epic death march, a game nearly six hours long, in the wind and the dark, there was a 14th-inning stretch, battles that changed the course of human history took less time…
…the Melvin Mora to Edgardo Alfonzo to Mike Piazza relay play that still seems impossible except we all saw it happen…Piazza’s tying Game 6 homer, the bruised and battered Lancelot winning one more joust before the tournament shut down…and on, and on, and on…
Even the Braves said those last two games were two of the greatest baseball games ever played; and they were quite right to say so. And Yankee manager Joe Torre’s sister, the very cool nun Sister Marguerite, confessed publicly, "I fear the Mets"—you have to believe a nun…
You couldn’t INVENT stuff like this. It just never stopped, until it did, and then we were so bummed because we really thought it would go on forever, that the Mets and the Braves would just get to play each other until the end of time—destined opponents, the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness in eternal cosmic battle and balance. And it should have been so. In the end, the Mets never gave up but were carried home on their shields, as heroes should be, and if you can’t win then that is the only way to go.
Mojo in action. And, for a while, it ruled. Pretty cost-effective return on a T-shirt and a little airplay... But this year—the Mets Millennium is at hand, it’s probably in Nostradamus, go check it out—ah, this year it will CONQUER.