- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

They've Got Our Backs

Nets won. They're in the playoffs. Change one letter in your priorities and you can enjoy a pleasant evening.

Instead of looking at the Marlins' backs, something I hope we're not doing in the standings much longer, I'm going to look at our backs. The backs of the fans, that is, and the names we choose to display on them.

At my two well-attended games this year, my informal survey by sight of uniform tops and t-shirts bearing players' identities has revealed a seismic shift in loyalties. Most noticeably, PIAZZA 31 has taken a dive. From the moment he got here on May 23, 1998 (when FRANCO 31 ceased to exist), the active Met with the most visible devotees in the Shea stands has been Mike by a mile. The only Met to give him a run as a symbol has been SEAVER 41.

That's changing. The early leader for 2005 is MARTINEZ 45. True, one of the games I tracked was his first Shea start, but the ace's acolytes were also out in full force on Opening Day. BELTRAN 15 has been in evidence in large numbers — not surprising — as has been WRIGHT 5 — a little surprising, given his brief tenure.

I'm wary of latching onto a new Met's fabric before he's played a single game for us. Although I was lusting for one as soon as he was recalled from Norfolk, I waited more than a month from his debut before shelling out for REYES 7 (on my back in the chill breeze Saturday, albeit underneath two layers of team apparel). I didn't even go for a PIAZZA tee until the summer of '99. He had to wait because a year earlier I'd developed an infield fixation. It was a big moment when I went to the Sports Authority and came home with OLERUD 5, BAERGA 8, ORDONEZ 10 and ALFONZO 13 t-shirts. The original Carlos B. still shows up from time to time around the house if I know I have to do sweaty work. (I think I get Baerga's Mets gear dirtier than he ever did.)

I cling to the dearly departed for quite a while. OLERUD 5 came out of the retired t-shirt bag when he returned with the Mariners in '03. I stuck with VENTURA 4 for several months beyond its practical application. When Robin showed up at Shea in the wrong kind of New York uniform, I gave him up. On the other hand, I protested the Mets' discarding of Alfonzo by buying my third ALFONZO. Seeing as how the proceeds from that purchase went to the organization that dumped him, I can't say it was a very effective protest.

I saw both VENTURA and ALFONZO at Shea last weekend. Fans only have so much money and emotion to invest in flavors of the week. Your Mets shirt is your Mets shirt, even if it has an ex-Met on the back. If it still fits, it's tough to say goodbye. Three winters ago, Stephanie surprised me with a VAUGHN 42. It violated my no-shirt-before-its-player's-time rule, but it was thoughtful, and because it was made in the image of Mo, it was roomy. Still is. Don't have the heart (or the shape) to callously remove it from my drawer.

Just as the PIAZZAs have diminished in volume, the LEITERs were almost nonexistent for his homecoming — I saw only two 22s, which would make 44, and I only saw one of those. Since my first glance was from the front, I wondered…ISRINGHAUSEN? PAYTON? MYRICK? Nah, it was CAMERON. He may have been on one fan's back, but for most of us, he's on the backburner. (How long before DIAZ 20 begins to sprout in earnest?)

There was one SHINJO 5 in my section, which I'm guessing was bought on sale at one of the Mets Clubhouse Stores. They overstocked the SHINJOs, perhaps predicting an East Coast ICHIRO 51 phenomenon. Never happened, on or off the field. But if you're not picky, the Mets stores are a spurned loyalist's/bargain-hunter's paradise. Last I looked, WIGGINTON 9 was priced to move, and I don't doubt McEWING 11 has joined him.

Though I've noticed the very occasional, very worn and very likely handed down CARTER 8 or STRAWBERRY 18, I don't remember the player t-shirt or top being much of a Met thing until the late '90s (winning not being much of a Met thing until the late '90s either). So hungry were we as a people for feeling like contenders, some of us latched on to whoever was made available. That explains my HUNDLEY 9, which won me a couple of rueful cracks at Wrigley in '98. I never succumbed to JONES 28, though. That seemed too desperate. In fact, the only pitcher I ever purchased was REED 35. To this day, he's the only hurler (save for 41) who's had my back.

I've focused my attention on officially licensed player merchandise (though the REED thing was a little shady since he was barred from the union and his shirt came with a likeness of his autograph on the front, a signature that was definitely not his), but kudos to some who have taken initiative. I'm not a fan of those who would iron HERNANDEZ 17 on an orange shirt or THEIR OWN NAME 17 for that matter. But I got a big kick out of SINCE 62 on a regulation snow white home jersey that popped up in the Mezzanine both times I've been there this month. That's the best one I've seen since YANKSSUCK 24:7 in 2000. COW-BELL MAN, you'll want to know, has switched from 10 to 15 and has traded in his trademark black jersey for the black & blue BP look. He has retained his hyphen.

Coolest shirt of all on Saturday was what appeared to be an authentic retro jersey that I wouldn't have imagined existed. A 1989 Blue Jays top. Number? 3. Name? WILSON. Mookie, Toronto-style! (No corresponding MUSSELMANwear to be found.)

You won't see me in PIAZZA 31 ever again, by the way. Not that I've given up on our old hero. It's just that PIAZZA the shirt is to luck what Piazza the first baseman was to fielding.

* August 14, 2003: I wear the black shirt. We have a blackout.

* April 12, 2004: I wear the black shirt. I get a pink slip.

I still love Mike, but I don't want to find out what the third strike is.

Superstitious? Let's just say shirt happens.