We can all agree Niese didn’t have it and the Mets did little against Happ and missing the Astros is something that sounds good in theory, but at this moment they can’t move to the American League soon enough for our tastes. The Mets, a pretty good club in April, started May by losing again in Houston, home of a pretty lousy club…or so we thought.
Giving Tuesday’s game the perfunctory treatment it deserves, I’d now like to turn the agenda back to Saturday and share with you the paper I presented at the Hofstra Mets 50th Anniversary Conference, which I thank you for attending if you did (and wish you had if you didn’t). The topic is “The Shared Mets Fan Language: How Mets Fans Speak to One Another”. It was delivered as part of a panel that included On The Black’s Kerel Cooper’s examination of the Met social media landscape and Metphistopheles’s Ray Stilwell’s history tracing the decline of the Mets Radio Network. I hope you enjoy.
(And a more detailed appraisal of the conference will be coming by week’s end.)
You may not have heard this one before, but if you’ve been a New York Mets fan for very long, you’ve probably been involved in something like it.
Three Mets fans walk into a ballpark…separately, but their respective tickets have them sitting in the same row during a game in which the Mets are momentarily behind. A pitch is thrown to a Mets batter recently promoted from the minor leagues in a game taking place toward the end of the season. The batter produces the latest in a series of several recently clustered base hits. The first Mets fan says to the others, “Mike Vail.” The second replies, “Gregg Jefferies.” The third chimes in, “Victor Diaz.”
All three nod and wait for the next pitch.
The above is a brief, hypothetical exchange, but dialogue like this transpires regularly, whether spoken, e-mailed, texted, posted, Facebooked or Tweeted. Wherever Mets fans gather physically or interact virtually, there is a shorthand of shared language that eliminates barriers of unfamiliarity and facilitates instant communication among nominal strangers.
Mets fans speak Mets to one another almost without realizing they’re doing so. Their common tongue is cultivated via a layer of sources and influences, some dating back to their earliest exposure to Mets baseball, all regularly reinforced via continued exposure to Mets baseball.
Take our example of the rookie batter and the base hit. For a Mets fan, little is more satisfying than seeing a young player fill the first lines of his heretofore blank career slate with immediate success. The Mets fan senses promise and reflexively harks back to when he felt that sensation before. Depending on the fan’s tenure, he might reach back to August and September of 1975, when an unheralded rookie named Mike Vail emerged to hit in 23 consecutive games, which tied a team record. He might remember highly touted Gregg Jefferies coming up from Tidewater at a similar time of year in 1988 and making such a sudden impact that he drew Rookie of the Year votes based on five weeks of hot hitting. Or he might recall Victor Diaz, a minor leaguer of little notice, rising to prominence late in the otherwise desolate 2004 season by hitting a two-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, tying a game and ultimately helping to spoil the playoff plans of that day’s opponent, the Chicago Cubs.
The Mets fan doesn’t need to elaborate on what those ballplayers’ names imply. Vail, Jefferies and Diaz each gave his team a boost in fortunes from almost out of the blue. Each imbued Mets fans with a surge of optimism that a future star had landed in their orbit. Yet not long after Vail, Jefferies and Diaz made their initial impressions, each proved a short-term proposition. For the record, Vail’s progress was permanently sidetracked by an injury, Jefferies’ temperament was a poor long-term match for New York and Diaz’s passing resemblance to Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez — remarked upon when he was raising hopes at Shea Stadium — was no more than physique-deep.
Thus, when the members of our Mets fan trio forge consensus by mention of players who briefly excited but eventually disappointed, they all understand one another completely. They are saying, in Mets fan shorthand, “This kid could really be something for us, but he probably isn’t going to amount to much.”
Whether they realize it or not, these fans are leaning on RECURRING PRECEDENT to inform their conversation. They’ve seen it before, they sense they’ll see it again. It is their badge of honor, a sign to each other that they’ve been around and they know their Mets. To every situation, the Mets fan brings a knowledge base that regularly regenerates upon another example of something startlingly similar to something that’s already happened. Events like the frenzy and fizzling attached to phenoms plant themselves in a million individual subconsciouses and, when excavated, provide an element of collective memory.
“Mike Vail,” “Gregg Jefferies” and “Victor Diaz” are code. So, in a different climate, are “Tom Seaver” and “Dwight Gooden” as regards less fatalistic forecasts for top hard-throwing, right-handed pitching prospects. Sometimes having seen it before is a reason to gather hope rather than lose it.
Having relied on recurring precedent to determine the young hitter our hypothetical trio has just seen is more likely to let them down than lift them up — it’s not that it’s happened once before, it’s that it’s happened over and over and over again — one of our Mets fans might suggest what they could really use right now is a beer. If the topic of beer leads anywhere besides the nearest beer vendor, it is almost a mortal lock that the discussion among these Mets fans will head in one direction: toward Rheingold the dry beer.
Rheingold was the official beer of the New York Mets from the club’s founding in 1962 to 1973, or until its parent company, Liebmann Breweries, was on the verge of shutting down its plant for good. Yet the brand equity of Rheingold, as it applies to Mets baseball, is seemingly eternal. For generations of Mets fans — even those born long after the brewery in Brooklyn was shuttered — the name Rheingold is inextricably linked to the Mets, no matter what beer is advertised or sold at Citi Field.
Say “Rheingold” to a Mets fan, and you stand a very good chance to turn that Mets fan into a karaoke jingle singer, reeling off the words burned into their brains from the television and radio commercials of the Mets’ first dozen seasons:
My beer is Rheingold the dry beer
Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer
It’s refreshing, not sweet
It’s the extra dry treat
Won’t you try extra dry Rheingold beer?
Save for a brief late-1990s revival when the brand held limited radio sponsorship rights, Rheingold has been absent from Mets baseball for nearly four decades. Budweiser, meanwhile, plastered a billboard square in the middle of Shea Stadium’s scoreboard in the early 1980s and didn’t cede the space until Shea came down in 2008. The brand remains a prominent advertiser at Citi Field.
But no Mets fan is compelled to sing old (or recent) Budweiser jingles. Budweiser sponsored many teams; Rheingold was identified with the Mets, allowing it to feed a sense of PROPRIETARY NOSTALGIA. Mets fans yearn to celebrate what they feel belongs to them — and toast into perpetuity those who made them feel catered to. Its almost total absence from the modern marketplace (let alone the Mets’ ballpark) hasn’t curbed the brand’s psychic appeal to Mets fans. “Rheingold” needs no explanation among Mets fans. It is shorthand for more than “beer.” It is shorthand for “ours.”
As for our Mets fan trio, they don’t necessarily have to drown their sorrows for very long, for baseball, as Bob Murphy said, is a game of redeeming features. Murphy said many things in his 42 seasons as play-by-play announcer, and though his words were intended as on-the-spot reportage, some of them couldn’t help but form the foundation of the shared Mets fan language. Phrases such as “baseball is a game of redeeming features,” “that’s why they put erasers on pencils” and, most famously, “we’ll be back with the happy recap” were repeated regularly and thus became the lexicon by which Mets fans absorbed their favorite team and understood their favorite sport.
Murphy — along with his broadcast partner of 17 years, Lindsey Nelson, and Ralph Kiner, who is now in his 51st year as a Mets announcer (mostly in cameos these days) — took the lead in establishing much of the Mets fan vocabulary. Among the countless Mets fans whose perception of baseball they colored were two who grew up in Queens in the 1960s, Gary Cohen and Howie Rose, the Mets’ primary announcers today (Cohen on television, Rose on radio).
The long Mets broadcasting careers of Murphy and Kiner overlapped with those of Cohen and Rose, each on the air since the late 1980s, forming what has amounted to an UNBROKEN FAMILY TRADITION. The stories of the fathers became, to a significant extent, the stories of the sons. The fans, in turn, functioning in the role of Mets extended family, pick up on not just the phrases each announcer has used (for example, Rose’s exhortation to “put it in the books!” when the Mets seal a victory) but the myths and legends each regularly revisits. Stories reported by Murphy and Kiner when they were fresh became, over time, well-told tales.
The utterances of Casey Stengel, for example, lived on for Mets fans who never saw Stengel manage between 1962 and 1965, because Murphy and Kiner invoked him on a regular basis. Cohen and Rose, in turn, keep alive the name, the quotations and the image of the Mets’ first manager, albeit with less frequency than Murphy did or Kiner does given that those original announcers were present at the creation of the Mets. Murphy and Kiner shared amusing anecdotes about what Stengel used to say about Marv Throneberry or Greg Goossen, two of the many lesser lights who flickered through the Mets’ early years. Their eventual successors remembered them and repeated them. Mets fans who missed an entire era of Mets baseball are nevertheless made to feel as if they’ve been witness to the entire Amazin’ epoch.
Rose and Cohen also take the lead in serving as MEDIA GRIOTS. By dint of their respective places in front of the WFAN and SNY microphones, and aided by the sport’s built-in pauses and predilection for clinging to its own history, the lead voices of a ballclub are often its de facto oral storytellers. Announcers less engaged in Met lore would likely ignore this facet of their jobs (which hints at why “out-of-town” voices with no Met connection sound so foreign to the Mets fan ear), but Rose and Cohen, Mets fans before they were Mets announcers, embrace it thoroughly.
In 2011, a press note revealed the Mets had achieved two consecutive late-inning comebacks matching a set of statistical hurdles that hadn’t been overcome since 1965. One of the batters responsible for the Mets good fortune 46 years earlier was a utility player named Danny Napoleon. Rose immediately cut to the gist of the 1965 event, namely that Stengel exclaimed for reporters in the victorious Mets clubhouse, in his inimitable way of approving the worlds this Napoleon had just conquered, “Vive la France!” Rose knew the story so he shared it. Thousands of listeners who had never heard the tale now knew it, too, and were deputized to pass it along on their own.
In the spirit of the western African musician-entertainers whose performances include tribal histories and genealogies, the media griot keeps vital that which might otherwise die off. Rose and Cohen extend the Met story, and thus the shared Mets fan language, orally. Others have been essential media griots via the written word. Most prominently, there have been longtime Mets beat writers reaching back from Adam Rubin, producing copious amounts of copy every day for espn.com and before that the Daily News since 2003; through Marty Noble, today a columnist for mlb.com and earlier a steady presence around the Mets for Newsday and other newspapers from 1974 forward; to Jack Lang, who covered the Mets for the Long Island Press and the Daily News for more than a quarter-century after their 1962 inception. Each writer imbues or imbued his articles with references to what he has or had seen in his endless travels with the Mets.
When Gary Carter died in February 2012, Noble was uniquely qualified to recall the Hall of Famer catcher’s quirks, including his near-obsession with his uniform number, 8. Noble shared with his readers a story about renting Carter’s condominium one Spring Training. To enter the condo, he needed a five-digit security combination to unlock the entrance. The realtor accompanying Noble didn’t know the code. Noble, knowing Carter well, took a guess. He pressed 8-8-7-8-8. The door opened.
Most Mets fans know Carter wore No. 8 for the Mets. The voracious Mets fan now knows how much the number meant to him, thanks to Noble. Those fans, in turn, can pass that along orally or in writing (often in historically minded Mets blogs of their own). Visually, there is a segment of Mets fans who can’t look at an “8” without picturing Carter wearing it. With stories like Noble’s, the connection grows that much stronger.
The grandest Mets oral tradition of them all is one that does not require a microphone, a press card or even a blog. It is brief, it is loud and it is hopeful. At the first spark of a potential rally, our hypothetical Mets fan trio — the ones whose fatalistic conversation wandered off into failed phenoms and whose nostalgic thirsts could be slaked only by the Rheingold theme song — is capable of delivering it as if by instinct. There is no other single sentence in the shared language of Mets fans that has been shared as much or by as many across fifty years of the Mets experience.
The Mets weren’t two months old when one of their forebears, the former Brooklyn Dodgers, returned to New York to play National League baseball against their Metropolitan successors. As Roger Angell related in his first baseball essay in the New Yorker, in 1962, the Mets trailed Los Angeles, 10-0, in the fourth inning when Gil Hodges — formerly of Flatbush, now ensconced in the Polo Grounds — led off the bottom of the fourth with a home run, cutting the home team’s deficit to 10-1.
“Gil’s homer,” Angell wrote, “pulled the cork, and now there arose from all over the park a full furious, happy shout of ‘Let’s Go, Mets! Let’s Go, Mets!”
With that reduction of their team’s deficit to a mere nine runs, Mets fans created their own shorthand, and they did so without any prompting from precedent or quasi-authority figures. “Let’s Go Mets” wasn’t advertised or suggested by team management. It was a pure reaction to the action a sellout crowd witnessed in the first game of that Memorial Day doubleheader, May 30, 1962, and the relative handful of days before it. The Mets, who had lost the first nine games they ever played that April, were in the midst of an eight-game losing streak; by the time the twinbill was over, the streak would reach ten, en route to an eventual 17 — still (thankfully) the longest in Mets history. The Mets were a bad team getting worse. Yet the Mets fans took matters into their own hands and together they crafted a POSITIVE SELF-IMAGE that has defined the heart of the shared Mets fan language ever since.
This team may not be very good, “Let’s Go Mets” tacitly declared, but those who chant on its behalf are absolutely indefatigable.
“Let’s Go Mets” may not have led the Mets to top 40 victories in 1962, but its impact would resonate long beyond that first tough year of competition. Evidence that it translated as something more than a standard-issue rallying cry appeared in a most unexpected place, according to early beat writer Leonard Koppett, who noted that in 1963, “when President Kennedy landed at Frankfurt, West Germany, and in the crowd at the airport someone held up a ‘Let’s Go Mets’ sign, it was effective indeed.”
John F. Kennedy didn’t go so far as to punctuate his planned speech with “Ich bin ein Mets fan,” but Mets fans didn’t need the validation. They provided it themselves, no matter how bleak the circumstances. Consider the scene described by author Stanley Cohen in his 1988 tribute to the 1969 season, A Magic Summer:
“During one game in 1963 (the team’s last season at the old Polo Grounds), with the Mets trailing by thirteen runs in the bottom of the ninth, two out and no one on base, the New Breed sent up a chant of ‘Let’s go, Mets.’ With each new strike on the batter, the cry grew louder and more insistent. It was a battle cry that needed no battle; it betrayed neither a glimmer of hope nor the sneer of derision. It was a simple and joyous act of defiance, the declaration of a will that would not surrender to the inevitable.”
“Let’s Go Mets” endured, self-generated, as the Mets moved from the Polo Grounds to Shea Stadium, from the second division to first place, from the 1969 world championship to the dire late ’70s days ahead and on through a second world championship in 1986. That autumn, New York radio stations featured on their playlists a bouncy tune entitled, “Let’s Go Mets.”
We’ve got the teamwork
To make the dream work
Let’s Go Mets!
Over time, Mets management co-opted the simple, fan-invented affirmation, perhaps sapping it of a bit of its organic strength as the seasons rolled by. In the 1990s, recorded exhortations of “Let’s Go Mets,” accompanied by DiamondVision graphics and ear-splitting drumbeats at the first sight of a Mets baserunner, detracted from the pleasure the crowd felt of starting the chant themselves. “Let’s Go Mets” tended to emanate on its own a little less often every year, but it still rises from the stands to this day, and not just at Citi Field (where the three words, sans exclamation point, stare out from the scoreboard as if by some silent statist decree).
“Let’s Go Mets” — or LGM, in common shorthand of the shorthand — simply works better when it is of the Mets fans, by the Mets fans, for the Mets fans. In 2007’s Mets Fan, Hofstra’s own Dana Brand offered an endorsement of “how Mets fans use ‘Lets [sic] Go Mets!’ to end letters and cards and e-mails, or even to say goodbye [...] It is like Ciao! or Sholom Aleichem! or Cheers! It ends things with a statement of shared hope, of happy fellowship. It is only half-serious. But it’s serious enough.”
The positive self-image, as encapsulated and communicated in “Let’s Go Mets” and its spiritual sibling, “You Gotta Believe” (disseminated by emotional relief pitcher Tug McGraw during the unlikely 1973 pennant race and enduring in the collective Mets fan consciousness ever since), is essential in compelling Mets fans to be Mets fans and enables Mets fans to enthusiastically speak to one another as Mets fans. The language, as much as a blue cap or an orange t-shirt, provides a most critical thread of identity for individuals coalescing as a group. The identity woven by the shared Mets fan language transcends division standings and roster composition. And like the 7 Train, it unites Mets fans as a people while banding them together on a common journey.
NOTES FOR “THE SHARED METS FAN LANGUAGE”
The spirit of this paper is informed by an extensive series I wrote on Faith and Fear in Flushing (the blog I co-author) between March 11 and April 3, 2007, entitled “March Metness.” Meant to mimic the NCAA basketball tournament, “March Metness” set out 64 quintessential Met sayings, events and historical cues, spanning 1962 through 2006, exploring each of them as the “tournament” went along until a winner was determined. The entire series was happily recapped on December 23, 2007 and can be referenced here:
The section on RECURRING PRECEDENT is based largely on experiential observation. As a Mets fan since 1969 and a Mets blogger since 2005, I’ve been party to multiple conversations in which late-season minor league callups quick to achieve have been written off as flashes in the pan on the order of Vail, Jefferies and Diaz, to name the three most prominent examples. It has always struck me what little introduction those players — particularly Vail and Diaz, whose careers were far more fleeting than Jefferies’s — require as Mets fans discuss the next would-be prospect’s chances of sticking and succeeding.
Similarly, PROPRIETARY NOSTALGIA is a phenomenon I’ve observed arise time and again, with Rheingold providing the most prominent example (the same principle could be applied to Jane Jarvis, the Shea Stadium organist from 1964 to 1979 who nonetheless remains, in the popular Mets fan imagination, the Mets’ organist for all time). On at least three occasions since 1994, I’ve witnessed the Rheingold jingle break out spontaneously at the drop of the brand’s name.
The UNBROKEN FAMILY TRADITION is apparent to anyone who grew up listening to Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner serve as the Mets’ primary television and radio voices from 1962 into the 21st century (Nelson left the Mets after 1978; Murphy worked radio only from 1982 until 2003; Kiner has been exclusive to television since 1982). I examine their impact on passing down the Mets legacy in the foreword to the 2012 re-release of Tales From the 1962 New York Mets Dugout by Janet Paskin. The enduring place in the Mets soul of “the happy recap” is attested to by the online radio show of the same name, accessible at:
“Put it in the books!” or simply “Books!” is repeated in unison on Twitter every time the Mets (or #Mets) win a ballgame, testifying to how Howie Rose’s catchphrase has caught on since he introduced it as a television broadcaster in 1996.
I touched on the Murphy-Rose connection in appreciation of Murphy’s career for the New York Times shortly after his passing in 2004:
MEDIA GRIOTS’ role in perpetuating the Met language has shone through not just via some of the examples cited above but, conversely, when there was a lack of such well-versed storytelling emanating from the places where a fan might expect it. The four-year Met broadcasting career of Wayne Hagin (2008-2011) washed up on the same rocks that crushed Lorn Brown’s almost thirty years earlier (1982). In each case, two respected, experienced major league voices alienated Mets listeners and viewers because they were unable to “speak Mets” on the air. One extreme manifestation of anti-Hagin sentiment could be found in ESPN uniform critic (and Mets fan) Paul Lukas’s 2011 blog, Fire Wayne Hagin Already!
By contrast, the Mets’ latest full-time broadcasting hire, Josh Lewin, vigorously made clear during spring training 2012 that he grew up a Mets fan and could talk about Mets players, games and seasons with the kind of ease his partner, Rose, brings to the task. I noted the early indications that Lewin was warming to his new assignment on Faith and Fear in March 2012:
Rose’s sharing of the Danny Napoleon anecdote was appreciated in my Faith and Fear partner Jason Fry’s assessment of the Mets-Padres game of August 10, 2011:
Adam Rubin’s role as Media Griot was exemplified in January 2012 when he drew from his nearly ten seasons on the Mets beat and took to Twitter to delineate nearly a decade of Mets’ injury woes, matching fact with insight. The entire run of his Tweets was captured by Mets Police:
Mets fans can be grateful Media Griot Jack Lang chose to outline the first quarter-century of Mets history, peppered greatly by what he personally experienced, in 1986’s New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years of Baseball Magic. Marty Noble has thus far not opted to write a similar history or memoir, but he freely shared a string of reminiscences with Mets By The Numbers in 2008:
The aforementioned article regarding Gary Carter’s love of the number 8 is illustrative of Noble’s Media Griot tendencies. It’s likely no veteran baseball writer tells better Met stories on a consistent basis:
It is tempting to say “Let’s Go Mets” and what it says on behalf of POSITIVE SELF-IMAGE speaks for itself, and in a way, it really does. But as noted in the text, four essential books that tell the Mets story delved into the topic: The Summer Game by Roger Angell (the first collection of Angell’s New Yorker baseball essays); The New York Mets: The Whole Story by Leonard Koppett; A Magic Summer by Stanley Cohen; and Mets Fan by Dana Brand. These authors’ assessments of “Let’s Go Mets” were written, respectively, in 1962, 1970, 1988 and 2007, demonstrating that unlike Vail, Jefferies and Diaz, these are three words that cannot be mistaken for flashes in the pan. As recently as the outset of the 2012 baseball season, this past April 1, George Vecsey — who covered the Original Mets — advised Mets fans in the New York Times, “Just for sanity’s sake, it is time to revive the wonder of that spring, 50 years ago, when the chant first soared toward the heavens: Let’s go, Mets. What else is there?”
My comments on how Mets management has perhaps overreached by getting out in front of the “Let’s Go Mets” parade via excessive electronic cheerleading are based on the more than 500 home games I have attended at Shea Stadium and Citi Field since 1973. I would contend the use of “Let’s Go Mets” in commercials ostensibly for Mets baseball, sponsored by Citi, contributes further to the feeling that a classic fan-generated sensation today exists as yet another corporate marketing tool. Fortunately, as Professor Brand noted, it is the fans who own “Let’s Go Mets”. I personally have been signing e-mails to fellow Mets fans with “LGM” since 1995 and have been receiving responses in kind for just as long. It is, blessedly, a Met language tic that requires no explanation among the true believers.