Yes, I know: It’s not called Shea Stadium anymore; it’s a new building next door to the old Shea, and it has taken the nondescript name of some nondescript bank or other. I don’t care. If conservatism counts for anything, I will persist in calling it Shea Stadium until my last puff.
There was a doubleheader there today. In the first game: The Mets jumped out to a 2-0 lead; lost the lead and fell behind by four runs; staged a rally; fell short; and lost. In the second game: same as above, except without the “staged a rally” part.
I think the Mets have found their level of badness. They are in last place, with a 4-9 record, and have lost five straight. This is not the spectacular badness of the Mets Infancy Narrative — everyone remembers the record-setting 120 losses back in their opening season, 1962 — but a level of badness that is much more impressive because it is, I think, more sustainable.
Why do we Mets fans love the Mets anyway? Is it the sheer contrast between their ordinary badness and how, roughly once in a generation, they get struck by lightning and rise to greatness? That is, after all, the rags-to-riches narrative all Americans love: from 1962’s “Can anyone here play this game?” to, seven years later, the Amazin’s of ’69. The subtext of this narrative is that loyalty will be rewarded; as, indeed, it was, in 1969 and 1986. But to treat this as an adequate explanation is to demean the nobility of, most notably, the Cubs fans, who love their Cubs despite any prospect of reward. And the Cubs are beloved by the vast majority of Americans who have a primary allegiance to some other team, precisely because the Cubs keep going.
One of the staples of anti-American rhetoric is that Americans worship success. Like most clichés, this does have some element of truth in it, but it’s actually so misleading as to be false. A country that loves the Cubs — and Charlie Brown, for that matter — has hardly thrown itself into a Dionysian frenzy for “the bitch-goddess Success.”
Which brings us back to Shea Stadium, where a small but good-humored crowd today cheered moments of transitory hope and clutched its collective skull in (rather more frequent) moments of exasperation. There was a guy sitting in the upper deck, wearing a Mets cap and a Mets jacket. He was conventionally handsome, I’d guess about 30: He looked like a young Jon Hamm with about three days’ bristle on his face. He would shout out all the conventional encouragements, but between innings he would fish out a book and read a couple of pages. I’d never seen this at a ballpark before — newspapers, yes, but even those not often — and I couldn’t restrain my curiosity. I inclined myself to just the right awkward angle to see what the book was: The Perfect Joy of St. Francis, by Felix Timmermans.
I’ve never gotten around to reading this book — a novelization of the life of St. Francis of Assisi — though it has been strongly recommended to me over the years. But the account of the “perfect joy” of the title is one of the most popular stories told about St. Francis; a version of it can be found here. In essence, what St. Francis tells his disciple in the story is that life is full of failure and hardship, and that it is worth living anyway; there is beauty and transcendence even in the darkest hours, because we are loved and held in being by a power beyond ourselves. Thomas Boswell once said in a book title that life imitates the World Series — but we all know that, too often, life imitates a doubleheader where our team gets swept. It’s a great game anyway, and that’s why we love it, and our own Mets — whoever they are for you, dear reader — who play it with us and for us.