Fair Weather Mets Fans

There’s hipster currency in the New York Mets right now, but don’t let that stop you from rooting for them this week in their playoff series against the Dodgers. Sports fanhood has all sorts of meanings to its practitioners, and your Mets may not be your neighbor’s Mets. The meaning the fans collectively give to their team, as the hero in the sports epic that’s unfolding in their respective minds, is what gives every team its personality.

The Yankees, like their fans, often have an angry air about them. “Everyone is jealous of us,” they think, “and so they underestimate our excellence, but we really are that good.” I found myself having a sandwich at a bar and grill in Milford, Pennsylvania one night this week, and three 20-something guys were huddled under the TV set rooting for the Yankees, in their final game, and an off-duty employee put “Sweet Caroline” on the juke box, and led a loud singalong. It was a big “fuck you” aimed at the Yankees (“Sweet Caroline” is the Red Sox theme song.) that was not lost on the guys at all. One of them muttered to the others, “Can you believe this shit?” in a defiantly annoyed, but supremely confident voice, wasting no time thinking any further about it.

They’re easy to hate, and yet, walk into most Latino bars in New York, and you’ll see a lot of Yankee fans among the Dominican and Puerto Rican old guard, the “Yankees” having a totally different meaning to them: pride in New York when it was down and out, and America itself, the future. How can you be against the future?

Tug McGraw's 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

Tug McGraw’s 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

To understand the absolutely unique identity of the Mets, check out the fascinating map of American baseball fans that Facebook and The New York Times published last year. Using Facebook “likes” as an indicator, which is admittedly imperfect but must mean at least a little something, it lists the few favorite teams of every zipcode, and by how much. The Mets aren’t even the favorite around their own stadium! They have no homeland. Their fans are a diaspora, a smallish minority of a relatively small, but densely populated area.

Muslims in India are only 14% of the population, but out of 1.2 billion, that’s 168 million people, more than Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia combined, and that says something Mets fans can understand. To everyone else they’re an anomaly. Only they comprehend just how vast their numbers are.

And then there’s the team history, so consistently beaten, their fans have a fellowship of hope in the face of constant suffering. About once a generation they put together a winning team. Don’t tell the Cubs fans, but that’s just barely enough to sustain them through their long droughts. All the while they endure constant comparisons to the dominant Yankees.

The Yankees are the team of “New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind,” the fantasy of New York as the perfect background to one’s own terribly impressive biography, the city that thrills you, that you love because it gratifies you in return, and that makes you swagger a little just because you know your way around it. The Mets are the team of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Why do you love it? “I don’t have any reasons/ I’ve left them all behind.” It’s the fondness an old, bickering couple still has for one another.

Enter the hipsters, the huddled masses who washed ashore clutching iPhones and wrapped in duvet covers. Remaking the fabric of many places in Brooklyn and Queens since the last time the Mets won it all, they chose the outer boroughs instead of “the city,” so naturally they’re choosing the Mets. To them the Mets are the team of the grinding hunt for rent in the city that makes you weary. You see them at Citi Field: groups of three or four soft-spoken guys with beards and Mets caps, having some guy time while their girlfriends are elsewhere watching Dance. Even if a part of their hearts will always be loyal to the team they grew up with, and even if they dreamed of a loft in Tribeca before they realized that a one-bedroom in Crown Heights was actually “a better fit,” they can’t help falling for the Mets, or they have no substance at all.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map

How do I know? True confessions, don’t judge me. I grew up loving the Philadelphia Phillies. My fondest childhood memories are of the team of Schmidt and Carlton, Bowa and Boone, Maddox and especially Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. My mother’s half-Polish, and my father was fond of Polish jokes; he was prone to gruff comments, any time someone hit a double to left-center, about how anyone but Luzinski would have caught that ball, and how the Phillies would never win with “that polack” in left field. I don’t know what the Freudian term is for the satisfaction you get from your mother’s people being redeemed every time a lifetime .276 hitter smacks a homerun, but I had a persistent case of it.

Then there was Tug McGraw, a screwball-thrower who was on the Mets championship team in ’69, before moving to the Phillies mid-’70s, who must have been bitter about the breakup, because his hatred of the Mets was well-known. Tug was so lovable – He famously answered the question of whether he preferred astroturf or real grass by saying, “I don’t know, I never smoked astroturf,” and who doesn’t love an intoxicated baseball player?* – you rooted for him to get his revenge.

More importantly, I only realized when the Facebook map came out, I grew up in a very particular baseball microclimate, a suburb of Trenton. We were in the outer ring of people who read The Inquirer and watched Philadelphia news, and were divided between Yankees and Phillies, with the Mets a distant third. Yankee fans were either Italian-Americans or people who’d moved south from New York or North Jersey, and I found them intolerably arrogant. Mets fans I had a cause to dislike in an active way since we were division rivals, but I saw something of myself in them: Teams who a. resented the Yankees, b. had chips on our shoulders about the unglamorous geographical center of gravity we each revolved around, and c. were more than a bit surprised when we did win. Phillies and Mets fans are just a chromosome apart. Like Serbs and Croats, how could we possibly not get along?

Citi Field during Mets game has the best vibes of any big crowd in New York. Chill, well-informed, and generous, but with just a hint of that impatient Long Island attitude. It’s rather white, but that’s who’s still watching baseball, as Mets fan Chris Rock explains. I know there’s a hint of disdain, in the diehard Mets fans’ hearts, for the fair weather friends who tune in for the post-season on those rare years when they’re in the running. It’s natural, like the usher at a church exasperated by the bad manners of a swollen congregation on Christmas, but I hope they’ll save a little of the happiness for us too.

*I guess I’m a fair weather fan myself, since I’ve honestly spent more time this summer talking about this animated documentary by James Blagden about Doc Ellis than I have talking about any one Mets game. “High as a Georgia pine,” that guy was when he pitched a no-hitter, on LSD!

“What happened to yesterday?!”

Shep Gordon, Supermensch

There’s so much more to SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon than just old tabloid fodder, though it’s rich in that that too. My first time watching it, I was so dazzled by the anecdotes, I didn’t see what a thematically tight, and uniquely structured film it is.

You can forgive me for that, with stories like how Shep became a rock and roll manager: He woke up in a motel after a night of doing acid and saw Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin poolside, and Jimi asked him, “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager.” Or how Shep’s long-time client Alice Cooper befriended an elderly Groucho Marx and used to tuck him in at night – Groucho, according to Shep, understood Cooper’s act as vaudeville – until he learned how disastrous Groucho’s finances were, and so he hooked him up with his own manager, Shep, who helped make his final years comfortable and worry-free, without charging him. Or how he got on his knees and begged John Lennon and Harry Nilsson to come get their photo taken with Anne Murray, which made her career. Or his epic three-day drug binge with Teddy Pendergrass that sealed their business relationship.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Watching it a second time (It’s still streaming on Neflix.) you realize the whole rock and roll story is literally half the film. At minute 45 it’s done. You move on to chapters of semi-retired Shep’s life, his entertaining, his work with the Dalai Lama, and his search for a family. Following a heart attack, he says, “ I’d spent my whole life making people famous, but there’s nothing about fame that I’ve ever seen that’s healthy. It’s something that’s very hard to survive, and has no intrinsic value unto itself.”

Mike Myers, who directed the film and appears in a few interview snippets, tells a story of how Shep leveraged a difficult position Myers was in during production of Wayne’s World to get a new Alice Cooper song in it, and turned it into a “win-win,” if you’ll pardon another ’90s catchphrase. You get the impression there are many more, less flattering stories you’re not hearing. Let’s just say that, in addition to the many stars who gush about what a mensch Shep is, you can put together an A List from just the people who have prominent roles in all the Shep stories but never go on camera for Myers.

While on tour back in the ’70s Shep used to wear a tee shirt that read “No head, no back stage pass.” Everyone on camera makes it clear that he was a womanizer, but of a specific time and place: the mid-century Jewish-American male id that also got released via Philip Roth and Woody Allen. Shep, it seems, road the crest of the counterculture for his own gratification longer and higher than the other guys did. You wonder whether the lengths he went to make Anne Murray’s career were some peace offering, some proof that he could think of women as good for something other than sex.

All that, and he made a name as a legendary manager whose business model was simple: Take care of your friends! I was most moved by the fact that Shep and Alice Cooper have never had a written contract in their 43 years working together. The basis of his business practice is relationships, not contracts.

I am a better person than Shep Gordon is…if you need someone to give your 17-year-old daughter a safe ride home, that is. One way I’m clearly not is on account of the times I’ve let friends down by second-guessing the quality of their work. Once, back when I was a film critic for a weekly paper, an old friend of a friend hustled to deliver a short film to me before a deadline. It was part of a shorts showcase at a film festival. I think it was on VHS, even. Working late, I watched it once and didn’t like it. I was on the spot, do I do right by my old acquaintance, or do I listen to the prig inside who feels some responsibility to the readers? I went with the prig. Readers read copy and forget about it all the time, but friends have long memories. That old acquaintance, and the friend who introduced us too, never forgot me, nor have they spoken to me.

Shep, I venture to say, would never have done that. Oh, another reason I like Supermensch, my friend Joseph Krings edited it, but it bears repeated viewing whether you know Joe or not.