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

The Pride of the Neighborhood

Between one of Tuesday night’s half-innings when nobody was touching either starting pitcher, Citi Field’s bounty of video screens posted a trivia question answered by a random face in the crowd. Engrossed in conversation, I didn’t catch the question, but when I heard the answer, I knew what would happen next: the answer would walk on camera, in the flesh, and present the winner with a prize.

Dave Kingman — the answer — appeared and received a warm ovation from history-minded Mets fans appreciative of his contributions to their team…as he should have.

Yet during both of Kingman’s Met tenures, from 1975 to 1977 and 1981 to 1983, fan relations with the slugger turned sour enough to make Sky King a go-to target for relentless ire, particularly as the Mets struggled for respectability. When he returned in other uniforms, he wasn’t welcomed back to Shea heartily, unless you count the hearty booing. But nobody remembers that now. He’s Dave Kingman, old Met hero. Give him another nice round of applause.

Hence, I believe there’s hope yet for an unalloyed happy return down the line for Jose Reyes. Waaay down the line, perhaps, but if he hangs in there another 30 or so years, he’ll be golden.

I wouldn’t have thought Jose would be on the clock in this regard. I wouldn’t have thought a lot of things where Jose Reyes, all-time New York Met great, was concerned. I wouldn’t have thought Jose Reyes would ever be anything but a New York Met. I wouldn’t have thought Jose Reyes could attract sustained boos from a New York Mets gathering. I wouldn’t have thought nine zesty years between a catalyst and those he fired up could be so casually written off in the name of intradivision competition.

Maybe I just think differently from the vocal plurality of the 20,000 or so who shared Citi Field with me Tuesday but don’t come close to sharing my sensibilities as a Mets fan. They booed their heads (or whatever they use to balance their caps) off when they saw Jose Reyes of the Miami Marlins. I cheered him. I cheered the brief, classy video montage of Jose’s Met years. I cheered his name when it was read to lead off the lineups. I cheered when he came to bat to lead off the game. I cheered him a little less on each of his subsequent trips to the plate, but I never booed him. And I never will.

I don’t root for Marlins, whether they be stamped Florida or Miami, but I sure as hell cheer great Mets. Jose Reyes was a great Met, which means he is a Great Met for good. His greatness in the context of his Met years is established. If it’s not present-tense in a practical sense at this time, its truth nevertheless marches on…or races from home to third on a ball in the gap, unless Kirk Nieuwenhuis tracks it down first.

The owners of the New York Mets, to paraphrase from former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower [1], were born on third base and think they hit a triple vis-à-vis what the Mets mean to Mets fans. Except for opening the gates, they have nothing to do with why our passion spreads out so far and wide when it comes to the Mets. We fall in love with a baseball team, not a baseball organization. Just the word “Mets” contains such power and goodwill based on deep and abiding passion that when confronted by the sight of somebody who embodied “Mets” as much as any individual has in the past decade, yet recently ceased doing so when compelled by a clash of long-term economic agendas, those who love “Mets” pivoted breezily to change that individual’s status from friend to enemy.

Not opponent, but enemy.

That’s “Mets” pride at work, I suppose, letting our old raw flame and live wire know he’s no longer welcome in the neighborhood. Jose Reyes (who sleeps on a bed made of money, so don’t cry for him, Flushing Meadows) opted for Marlinhood, which is distasteful, to be sure, but also, I’ve decided, the way it goes sometimes. There’s a gray area between the childlike innocence that absorbs us in picking a side for fun and games and the adult realization that it’s a livelihood for the players providing us the fun and a business for the barons who host the games. Somewhere in there, we make tradeoffs that might not pass a cognitive dissonance test between the emotion in which we choose to immerse ourselves and the reality that engulfs us.

• Jose Reyes was the perfect Met to match my emotional needs for nine years — a rechargeable battery that jolted me from my seat night after night. You just don’t get that kind of jump or feel quite that kind of emotion in the parts of life that aren’t sports.

• Jose Reyes made a decision bathed in reality, the place where he wasn’t childlike and electric, but a cool, calm professional seeking a financial windfall in exchange for his services on the open market.

What do I do with that dissonance once I am reminded that no athlete who is compensated for his abilities is explicitly plying them for me? He represents “Mets” as long as his contract says he has to. Then he’s without a contract and it’s another component of the major league monopoly that offers him a package to his liking. Then he no longer represents “Mets,” no matter that my emotional gratification in the realm of the sport I prefer above all others (all other sports and almost all other things) was so strongly linked to the intangible bond I felt with the way he played for me.

Jose Reyes played for me for nine years. Yet he plays for himself always. Same as Johan Santana. Same as Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Same as Lucas Duda and all of the Mets responsible for winning Tuesday night’s edgy 2-1 affair [2]. Jose Reyes’s new teammates play for themselves as well. I know that. I’ve always known that. The brusque tap on the shoulder that free agency provides every winter should be enough to make that a matter of constant awareness not recurring surprise.

But if we walked around fully aware that baseball players are just people looking to make the best living possible and baseball teams are just businesses looking to make the most profit possible, we’d want nothing to do with either faction. So we forget, and we revel in the word “Mets” and we revel in those who represent the word “Mets” and, in my case, I deal with the dissonance by grudgingly accepting it. I accept that Jose Reyes eventually did what Jose Reyes perceived as ideal for Jose Reyes, even if it meant fitting himself into an identity every Mets fan finds anathematic to our values.

It may ultimately be “just a business” to players like Jose Reyes, yet it’s anything but to fans like me. Thus, when I cheer Jose Reyes as he materializes in a Miami Marlins uniform, I don’t offer my approval of the business decisions (the Mets’ as well as his) that led him into that unfortunate set of garments. What I’m doing is acknowledging all that happened before, back when I could convince myself Jose — like Tom Seaver, like Dwight Gooden, like Edgardo Alfonzo, like so many — was playing for me.

In my judgment, those whose actions embroider the actual meaning into “Mets” deserve that strata of acknowledgement, no matter that in a strict reading of the respective situations of the players who preceded Reyes as “my favorite Met,” Seaver demanded a trade while under contract to the Mets; Gooden’s repeated substance abuse violation earned him a suspension that ended his active Mets association; Alfonzo sought a better contract as a free agent than the Mets were prepared to tender him; and few who aren’t Ed Kranepool or Ron Hodges didn’t find a way to be at practical odds with the best interests of we the Mets fans. Almost everybody has left us, benignly or bitterly, whether of free will or not, and if they played against us as opponents, they sure as hell weren’t playing for us.

Still, there are enough enemies in this world without weaving together specious reasons (bunt! pinch-runner! injuries! no rings!) to create more of them. What were mostly good times don’t suddenly go bad because the individual responsible for them won’t be generating any more of them in our name, and now it’s his job to help prevent them.

Meanwhile, there are precious few continua whose relentless flow over the course of our lifetimes completely captivate us. My continuum of choice is the New York Mets, historically since 1962, personally since 1969. When somebody rises above that continuum and grabs my attention and ignites my passion, that guy is irreversibly golden to me.

Whether he signed with the stupid Marlins or not.