Saturday, June 18, 2011

It's Not You ... It Really Is Me.

My dad and I went to two college baseball games last month. We had a great time on both occasions, sitting right behind home plate and watching St. John's University dispatch of Pittsburgh and Villanova in Big East play. My sister, my brother-in-law and my beautiful little niece also showed up for the first game, but it was just me and the old man two weeks later in the last home game of the season for the Redmen.

Those two games, two Saturday afternoons in May spent on metal bleachers watching semi-professionals playing my favorite game to the best of their ability, marked the first time in 22 years that we had gone to a baseball game together.

I was 12 years old on August 20, 1989, when my Dad and I saw the Mets lose to the Dodgers in heart-breaking fashion from two seats behind home plate in the Upper Deck section of Shea Stadium. (Loyal readers may remember that I've written about this day before.) My father is not a baseball fan, not really a fan of organized sports in general, but his son was a fanatic even then and so that meant taking him a baseball game now and again.

By 1991 I was a freshman in high school and started going to baseball games with my new friends - fellow Stanners who loved the Mets as much I did. I imagine my father was somewhat relieved that his days of shepherding me to baseball games were over, although I do remember taking in a few high school basketball games with him at Archbishop Molloy in those years before college. The trend continued when I graduated and went to St. John's - no baseball games, but a few basketball games at Alumni Hall watching the only sports team I've ever loved nearly as much as the Mets.

Baseball has always been my thing, not our thing. That's why he caught me by surprise when he expressed an interest in going to a game back in April, although he was adamant that he had no interest in watching professional baseball or dealing with the crowds that come with them. A college baseball game offered the perfect alternative - played at a high enough level that it would still be entertaining, but without all those damn people with the potential to ruin the experience.

I was struck by how much he enjoyed watching the game itself - taking pleasure in the quality of a single at-bat, a well-pitched inning or even an otherwise routine 4-6-3 double play. He didn't care when the managers put the bunt on at ridiculous points of the game and didn't obsess about bullpen usage or platoon match-ups. That was my job, and he listened without comment when I expressed my ideas about such topics.

I've wanted to write about those two afternoons with my dad at Jack Kaiser Stadium for nearly a month now, but I've struggled to find a way to frame the narrative. This is supposed to be a Mets blog, on those all-too-infrequent occasions where I find the inspiration to write something here, and I just couldn't find a way to tie the story together until now.

The calendar helped me out, for one thing - tomorrow is Father's Day and so a post about my father and our relationship with baseball seems less indulgent than it would at other points of the year. Being Irish in emotional temperament, yet having an ability to use the the written word to convey my thoughts and feelings, allows me to say things and express emotions in print that I couldn't possibly articulate in words.

Those were the two best afternoons I've had watching baseball in many, many years - and it had nothing to do with the teams on the field or the end result of the game. It had everything to do with the company. Really, what could be better than watching an afternoon of baseball with your father and having the home team come out on top? It was the first time I had a chance to do that in my adult life - and it was far more gratifying than it was as a kid.

This week, though, Will Leitch wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus that really hammered home for me why I enjoyed the actual baseball games more than usual, beyond being at a ballpark with my father for the first times in over two decades.

Will's father and mine are different people - the article makes it clear that Mr. Leitch has been a die-hard Cardinals fan for many years. My father roots for the Mets, I suppose, but only because he has seen firsthand the devastating emotional impact that the Mets losing has on his son. No one wants to see their children suffer, and bad Met teams make me suffer.

They are similar people, I think, in that Will's father and mine care only about the final score of any particular game that favors the team they are rooting for. Unlike their sons, our fathers are not caught up in the game behind the game. From the article:

"He doesn’t know anything about the sabermetric revolution ... And he’s clueless as to how long the contracts of any of our beloved Cardinals last, or how much any of these players are making, save for 'too much.'

"The fundamentals of roster construction are a mystery to him ... And it's a mystery to him because he does not care. The team on the field wearing the Birds on the Bat, that's the one he's watching, and that's the one he's rooting for. He doesn't know any of the prospects, he doesn't know when everyone's contracts expire, he doesn't know what incentives are. My father is not stupid: he legitimately does not care. That's just not a factor in how he watches baseball."

Leitch goes on to explain how he himself watches baseball now, contrasting his father's simple joy of hoping for a Cardinals win to his own private hell of wanting the Cardinals to win "the right way" - whatever the hell that means.

"Dad doesn’t care about any of this. He likes the Cardinals to score more runs than the team they are playing, and when something happens that makes that more likely, he cheers. When it doesn’t, he yells ... It just, again, makes me long to be like my father, blissfully unaware and uncaring about advanced statistics, average annual value, and no-trade clauses. There is a game on the field, and he is watching it and cheering for his team. I can't ever do that again. I don't know how he does it, but dammit, he does."

I'll never find the words to thank my father enough for all that he's done for me - but at least I've found the words to tell him how special he made those two afternoons. He reminded me (with an assist from a well-written article by a baseball fan in the same boat as I am) that enjoying the game is the most important thing - rooting for your favorite team to win and being happy for them when they do.

We went to those two games hoping the Redmen would win. The Redmen won, and we were happy. I paid almost no attention to those ill-conceived sacrifices or the bullpen mismanagement I saw from both managers. They were merely noted in the back of my baseball brain and quickly forgotten, replaced by the pleasure of my father's company and an RBI single that put the Redmen ahead to stay.

I do not work in the front office of a baseball team and I never will. I will never have even the slightest iota of influence over the people who will make the decisions that determine in large part whether my favorite baseball team will ever win a World Series. And yet, I've spent so many years allowing my love for the Mets erode because of factors that are entirely beyond my control.

I've stopped enjoying the game of baseball itself because the manager doesn't understand strategy, because the general manager doesn't understand roster construction and because the front office doesn't know how to maximize revenue streams. It doesn't matter that there isn't a franchise in baseball with personnel that excel in each of these areas - I get angry at the Mets for being just like everyone else.

That has to change. And it's going to change.

Like Mr. Leitch, my father doesn't care that the bunt is generally a bad play. He doesn't care that bullpens are overly specialized. He doesn't care if the Mets refuse to draft over-slot or if they block promising prospects with over-the-hill veterans. For him, baseball is nothing more than rooting for your favorite team to win. It doesn't matter how it happens, it just matters that it happens.

And, of course, he's right again.

The man has been teaching me things my entire life. On those two Saturdays in May, my father reminded me of a simple truth that I lost sight of a long time ago, about a game I know far more about than he ever will.

The win is the thing.

In a way, I've been Waiting for Godot for years now. The Mets have done something right 34 times this season. I haven't enjoyed any of them. They aren't going to win the division this year, and I doubt they will seriously contend for several years to come. If I put the Mets on the shelf until that time comes, I am only doing myself a disservice.

So I am going to take yet another lesson my father has taught me to heart. The Mets are playing today, and I hope they win.

They're playing another game tomorrow, and I hope they win that one too. I have tickets for a game against the Yankees in a few weeks, and I'm going to the game. I hope they win that one too.

I'm not going to stop analyzing the Mets, and I'm not going to stop criticizing the organization when it does things I do not agree with. But I am not going to let that get in the way in the simple act of being a fan. When the Mets play, I want them to win. I am going to root for them to win and I am going to be happy when they do.

The rest will work itself out.

And next spring, when St. John's returns to the baseball diamond, me and the old man will be there. Rooting for our favorite team to win.