Raisin’ an Amazin’
I recently asked my three-year-old daughter, Mirabelle, what she liked most about the Mets.
“I like Ike Davis!” she replied without hesitation. Davis, of course, is the first baseman who hit so poorly through June that the Mets sent him to the minor leagues, and whose season ended weeks early due to injury.
Mirabelle continued, unprompted, however. “And I don't like that the Mets don't have money.”
My goal from the moment Mirabelle had been conceived, even envisioned, was to raise her as a Mets fan. It's been a complicated few years.
* * *
I didn't suspect things would devolve so significantly from the August evening in 2006 when Rachel and I got married, the rabbi noting the orange and blue sky. He was, like us, a Mets fan.
That season, we managed to go to as many games as our schedule allowed, which was plenty. Deep into October, as the nights turned from crisp to terribly cold, we huddled under a thick Mets blanket I'd purchased explicitly for postseason games, then and in the future. I vividly remember making this case on the phone to Rachel to justify paying $40 for the blanket, standing outside a Modell's on Chambers Street and holding it up proudly.
The jackets thickened and the post-season tickets somehow found us, whether from our rights as partial-season plan holders, or through family members, or, if necessary, a scalper. We sat high atop the left field stands at Shea Stadium on that final night of the 2006 season, the Mets one win from playing in the World Series.
What turned out to be the high point in Mets fandom for the past, oh, fifteen years, included Endy Chavez making the finest catch I'd ever seen (the limited view in left field meaning I only saw it on replay, though), followed by a dispiriting home run from the Cardinals' Yadier Molina, and concluding with a check-swing strike three by the Mets’ elegant center fielder, Carlos Beltran, whose greatness has been obscured in the eyes of too many people ever since.
Though my wife cried as we left, we had hope for next year. The electric Jose Reyes, and David Wright, for whom greatness seemed so easy, were both just 23. Twenty-three! Carlos Beltran wasn't yet thirty. This was the beginning, just the start of it all. They'd just been temporarily derailed by Molina, a light-hitting catcher. Beltran's strikeout came on a curveball from Adam Wainwright, a pitching prospect already shunted into relief, the reject pile. It was an aberration, I told Rachel.
It was an aberration, but not for the Mets. Molina became one of the game's great catchers, Wainwright an elite starting pitcher. And the Mets stalled out, then began furiously backing up.
The following year brought with it my first professional writing about the Mets, for Gotham Baseball, and then for the New York Observer. As I entered the clubhouse at Shea Stadium for the first time, Howie Rose, the team's radio voice and someone whose work I'd known since before my voice changed, apparently could tell.
“Your first time?” he asked, gesturing with his head at the clubhouse doors. I nodded.
“Enjoy it,” he said, as I wandered in to profile backup catcher Ramon Castro and enigmatic pitcher Oliver Perez.
I have, ever since. My professional life covering baseball, at first the Mets and Yankees but now teams across the country, has been more fun than I could have reasonably expected from this or any job. It has allowed me to build a life with Rachel, to plan for and have Mirabelle in 2010, and live a life that includes baseball in a significant way.
That matters to me. I have other passions, but the idea of a life without baseball is as incomprehensible to me as a life without books, or jazz and classical music, or theater, or good films, or excellent food. Baseball is a building block of life alongside friends and family. A season lasts 162 games, three hours at a time on average: it is central to one's daily existence.
So when Rachel began carrying Mirabelle in the summer of 2009, raising her as a Mets fan wasn't something that involved simply incorporating her into our fandom, but rather introducing baseball properly, the way I knew reading would begin, not with Catch-22 but Goodnight Moon.
Baby books will tell you the fetus can't hear until twenty, maybe 24 weeks. People will give you strange looks when you talk to an unborn child about batting average on balls in play, or the importance of a 1-1 pitch in an at-bat.
But people do all sorts of horrible things to their children: from feeding them food that we know is poison to saying horrible things that will have a lasting impact on a child's psyche at a ridiculously early age. Everyone agrees that a pregnant mother who smokes or drinks can affect a fetus. So exposing a child to, for instance, the playoff broadcasts of Vin Scully through an earbud strategically placed in my wife's belly button, or reading Mirabelle stories from the New York Times sports page as an infant, well, call me unconvinced that it didn't make a difference. The Mets were always on in our house. And I couldn't wait to start experiencing them with Mirabelle.
* * *
After that cold October in 2006, the team’s fortunes tumbled. As the Mets came up a game shy of the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, the core of Reyes, Wright and Beltran took the blame for the failings of the rest of the roster, and of the front office that had failed to provide them adequate support.
By 2009, a season in which twenty of the 25 players on the Opening Day active roster eventually visited the disabled list, the Mets finished 70-92, well out of the running. And yet, though I’d long heard sportswriters claim an inability to root for teams, I found myself as interested in seeing the Mets win as ever.
In fact, my appreciation deepened, even as the team struggled to find meaning in statistically meaningless games. Rachel and I sat along the first base line, Mirabelle approximately one-third gestated, as we cheered Nelson Figueroa—one of the more contemplative and revelatory baseball players I'd ever interviewed—pitch a complete-game shutout to end the 2009 season. 2010 brought more on-field misery, but also the story of R.A. Dickey.
Accordingly, my 2010 book project felt like the most natural thing: write about running for general manager of the New York Mets in an effort to highlight systemic problems with the team's baseball operations, while at the same time satirically exhibiting just how little control we all have over something so central to our day-to-day life, which is the fate of our favorite baseball team. The position of Mets general manager, of course, is not an elected one, but I decided to launch a public campaign anyway.
162 games a year means that more than 44 percent of the time, you'll have a day in which you'll be happier if your team wins, disappointed if your team loses. That's a ton of power to just turn over to fate, accidents of geography and family tradition, which is how most of us settle on our favorite teams.
In European soccer, many clubs are fan-owned. Others elect presidents based on popular will and direction of the team. But fans of the New York Mets got to watch the prime of Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran—three of the best players the Mets ever employed—get wasted, and could do nothing.
I didn't get the job. I got to write about the job, and what it would have meant, which suited me more anyhow. I embraced following in the footsteps of heroes like Calvin Trillin of The New Yorker and Rich Sandomir of The New York Times, both of whom proved you could write seriously about complicated subjects like murder trials and team financial obligations, and also campaign on television to make Spaghetti Carbonara the national dish or attempt to interview Mr. Met.
The most important moment of that season by far came on July 31, 2010, when I took Mirabelle to see her first baseball game at Citi Field. Just a few months old, she sat contentedly in my lap while I threw many more baseball terms her way than she probably understood. She lasted seven strong innings, and we concluded with a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Mirabelle giggling as I tossed her in the air. As Rachel and I drove home over the Whitestone Bridge, Mirabelle already fast asleep, the Mets won. But really, that night I didn't care. I'd taken my family to a baseball game, with the promise of so many more to come.
The following month, Mirabelle, Rachel and I grabbed dirt-cheap tickets from StubHub in the fanciest section of Citi Field for a mostly forsaken doubleheader against the Rockies. Once again, the experience was glorious.
Baseball served as am emotional tether for my relationship with my father. Celebrating Lenny Dykstra's game-winning home run in the 1986 playoffs with him, jumping and dancing on a Saturday afternoon in October, is indelibly etched in my experience. Awakening my mother when Jesse Orosco struck out Marty Barrett to end the 1986 World Series provided the unfettered high of uncomplicated childhood pleasure. Incredibly, 14 years later, so did watching Bobby Jones pitch a one-hitter, in-person, at Shea Stadium with my father. Much had changed in my life, and in our relationship. That hadn't.
So I knew that once the view panned out from the thrill of the experience itself to a larger reality of season after season of meaningless games, Mirabelle deserved something more dramatic than encounters with Mr. Met in order to truly connect with baseball. She deserved a winning team. So when the Mets chose Sandy Alderson, a 180-degree turn from Omar Minaya, as the new general manager, I was thrilled. Surely this sage creator of the Moneyball ethos, put in charge of a large-market, wealthy team like the Mets, supported by a front office dream team and entering a cash cow of a new stadium, meant a glorious age would begin. By the time Mirabelle could read, she could read about the Mets in the playoffs. I'd seen the Mets win the World Series in 1986, my age-six baseball season. Surely, she'd see the same before hers, in 2016.
I told all this to my wife, and to Mirabelle, a few months old and already a veteran of several baseball games. As I bounded down the stairs to my basement office, Rachel, her tears from 2006 long dry, asked me what turned out to be a prophetic question: “So, how will it all go wrong?”
* * *
The news, in late January of 2011, that the Mets were being sued by Irving Picard, trustee for the Bernie Madoff victims, brought with it an unprecedented pile of information about the team’s owner, Fred Wilpon, and his finances.
One didn't need to take the word of the trustee to see just how deeply in debt Wilpon and his partners were. There were piles of primary documents to attest to that, huge loans that needed repaying. Whether Wilpon knew about Bernie Madoff's scheme—“knew or should have known,” as the lawsuit asserted—was essentially beside the point. Win or lose, Fred Wilpon and his partners looked like they were bleeding out, with seemingly irreconcilable loans due in 2014 and 2015.
I took the time to read everything, to report every relevant detail I could find, consulting with attorneys familiar with the Madoff scheme, with bankruptcy experts, with sources both in the trustee's office and the Mets. One overriding fact became indisputable: the Mets were out of money, what money they got would go to creditors, and it was hard to see how that was going to change until either ownership changed or Fred Wilpon found a way to grab a pile of money so enormous it could overcome debts that exceeded $1 billion.
That this has driven the way the Mets have operated ever since shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone. But for several years now, the Mets have been insisting, in various ways, that all is well; they have plenty of money, they just prefer not to spend it on anything to arrest the decline of the club. Alderson has been left to do the best he can building a farm system, but even a front office like his cannot build a winner with a single-talent stream, let alone one as speculative as prospects. There's no such thing as a target year when your budget is planned in weeks.
This led to more reporting, and ultimately, another book about the Mets. I kept digging for reasons to believe it could all turn out well for Wilpon. I went over every sentence of my book with multiple Mets executives, asking for denials on the record, or even exculpatory explanations on background. There were none. This was reality, and it was grim.
Each passing winter has been a high-wire act, Mets owners using the house for firewood, selling minority shares in the team to cover the following year's losses in 2012, borrowing against their holdings in SNY, the sports network, to cover 2013's losses, while barely making a dent in looming loans. The trustee, with forty years of bankruptcy experience to guide him, even gave up. After viewing all of Wilpon's personal and business finances he came to the conclusion that he couldn't get blood from a stone. That's the stone Mets fans have been hoping will bleed ever since.
Well. Try getting your wife and daughter excited about the future, in the face of that. It is the often-ignored result of management ruining a baseball team: entire generations are either connecting with treasured baseball experiences that cement them to the game for life, or else they aren't. You can lead a little girl to Ike Davis, but you can't make him hit.
* * *
Somehow, though, fandom has survived, even thrived for us all. Work has continued, too. Other than a brief, ill-advised effort to ban me from the clubhouse prior to the 2012 season, which the Mets quickly backed away from following some bad publicity, when I work at Citi Field, I'm left alone. It doesn't feel much like it did when I followed Howie Rose's advice back in 2007, though. It feels like a job, one I am incredibly fortunate to have, but a job nevertheless. Baseball with my daughter is an extension of baseball with my father, but my job is somehow separate from this experience now.
What hasn't changed, though, is the pleasure inherent in taking Mirabelle to the ballgame. The phrase “childlike wonder” was created with Mirabelle in mind, someone who I've seen light up, her cheeks impossibly squeezable, at the sight of Mr. Met. Last season, she managed to learn the starting lineup. This year, I didn't push it as much, mostly because no one really knew who the Mets' outfield was, including, famously, Sandy Alderson, who responded to a reporter's question about his team's outfield with the rejoinder: “What outfield?”
We went, just the two of us, to see R.A. Dickey win his 20th game last September. I picked Mirabelle up from preschool, and she informed her teacher that “Daddy is taking me to the Mets game!” We got to the car and on went her Mr. Met baseball cap. On went my Mr. Met baseball cap. And off we went, playing a Mets baseball mix I'd created a few years before, complete with every version I could find of “Meet the Mets,” “Who's On First,” “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball,” even “Lazy Mary,” the staple of seventh-inning stretching in Flushing.
And we've been back a few times this summer, though I get to Citi Field less with my family than I used to, instead working on assignments during the week and at night and saving weekends for non-baseball pursuits. Rachel, for one, isn't as invested. She knows Justin Turner isn't the future, or worse, that maybe he is. When we do go together, it's easy to get tickets, and even stretch out. Nothing feels like the packed summer afternoons and October nights at Shea Stadium. Rachel says she doesn't even remember what they felt like, and I'm not sure I even do anymore.
And Mirabelle is still figuring out basic loyalty. I guess I am, too. Sportswriting hasn't lessened my enjoyment of the Mets on the field. Baseball, like any truly great pastime, only improves with more knowledge of it. If anything, it's been reporting about other teams that has limited my ability to root against anyone. Jimmy Rollins is too fascinating and accommodating to allow me to hate the Phillies, as I did in my childhood. Even rooting against Mariano Rivera gets harder after you see the way his wife and children look at him, as I did, covering the All-Star Game this summer.
It's changed the tribal nature of baseball fandom for both of us. To my occasional detriment, I make a habit of picking up players who are particularly good interviews on my fantasy baseball team. Brian Matusz, a situational reliever on the Orioles, has been toiling, one batter at a time, for my team since we chatted in May. I'm currently in tenth place, in a ten-team league, just like the 1962 Mets.
Mirabelle still has a Mr. Met doll we picked out this spring after watching the Mets lose to the Dodgers 3-2. Mirabelle loved Ike Davis’s home run, delighting to the rise of the famous Home Run Apple. Losing didn't bother her. But neither did getting, alongside Mr. Met this summer, a Fredbird from my trip to St. Louis, and an Oriole Bird when we all drove to Baltimore in late August.
Make no mistake: Mirabelle is a Mets fan, and she'd be the first to tell you that, or anything else. She likes to talk as much as her daddy does, probably because of the elegant baseball prose she was exposed to midway through the second trimester.
Mirabelle loved Banner Day, marching around the field in her pink Mets dress and Mr. Met hat, holding up our family banner dedicated to Ike Davis, an icon in the Megdal household due to his affiliations with the Mets and the Jews. When she marched past the judges and a bit beyond the first base bag, Matt Harvey, whose 2013 season will be long remembered—even as it was wasted by the limited talent around him—happened to be signing autographs, and added his to her banner.
I had to call Rachel and Mirabelle late last month, standing just outside the press box on an overcast Monday afternoon at Citi Field, and tell them the news: Matt Harvey hurt his elbow. Mirabelle is used to injury updates now, and would periodically inquire this summer, “Is Lucas Duda's side feeling better?” This was different. I'd just seen Harvey talking about it, the preternatural talent suddenly sounding like a scared 24-year-old kid for the first time in his big league career. Mirabelle took it better than I did.
If he has Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow, as is ultimately expected, the next time Harvey pitches will be the year Mirabelle enters kindergarten: 2015. A huge debt against the team comes due in June 2014. Maybe JPMorgan Chase—one of the team's creditors—will pull the plug on ownership, maybe not. Jose Reyes plays for the Blue Jays now, Carlos Beltran for the Cardinals. David Wright stands alone. There's some young pitching, not nearly enough hitting.
But there's baseball, and another little girl on the way. I made it to 15 weeks, but couldn't wait any longer. Onto the pregnant stomach of my wife went a comfortable speaker pillow. I think she'll love listening to Howie Rose and Josh Lewin as much as I do. I used to put Mirabelle to bed to the sound of Mets games, and I don't intend to change this family tradition. The new baby-to-be heard Louis Armstrong's “West End Blues,” Ella Fitzgerald sing “Them There Eyes,” Frank Sinatra croon “I've got You Under My Skin,” and then a west coast broadcast of Vin Scully, talking about the sport that matters most to the Megdal family.
It mattered when my father heard Scully call Brooklyn Dodgers games, years before the Mets or his child or grandchildren even existed. And it will matter to us when the Mets have solvent owners again, giving us all a reason to pack Citi Field and experience transcendent moments as Mets fans, someday.
In the meantime, it's up to me to make sure my family is ready. I'll be taking Mirabelle back to Citi Field next week, straight from preschool. Rachel is due right around the time pitchers and catchers report. And we'll all be there next year, all four of us, on Opening Day, and maybe in October, too.
* * *
Howard Megdal is Writer At Large for Capital New York, contributing writer for Sports on Earth, and covers the Mets and Knicks for The Journal News. His books include "The Baseball Talmud," "Taking the Field" and "Wilpon's Folly." You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardMegdal.
Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer based in Brooklyn, NY.
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