The Mets posted a message on their videoboards prior to Friday night’s game at Citi Field: WELCOME 2017 GROUPS. Judging from the clusters of onlookers scattered throughout the stands, it could have as accurately said WELCOME 2,017 PEOPLE. Demand for tickets doesn’t spike when the home team doesn’t readily supply a steady stream of wins.
Eventually, more than a couple of thousand seats besides the ones occupied by my friend Joe and me filled in. Not too many thousands of them…certainly fewer than were explicitly reported via the charming fiction known as the “paid attendance,” announced as 25,864. Citi Field capacity is listed as 41,922, which would mean the place was 61.7% full on Friday.
I feel confident in asserting it wasn’t.
Amid contentionless conclusions like this year’s, those agate-type numbers at the bottom of the box score fall easy victim to the eye test. Yet the numbers continue to be printed as fact. It took nearly nine seasons and buckets of rain  for the Mets to finally issue, on Wednesday night, a paid attendance figure of (slightly) less than 20,000 at Citi Field. Veterans of anemic Shea Stadium Septembers — not to mention first-grade arithmetic lessons — understand the difference between 2,000 and 20,000 and when a shall-we-say crowd strongly resembles the former rather than the latter.
We don’t see the reality-based four-digit paid attendances of yore anymore not because the attraction to Mets baseball has grown admirably impervious to downturns in the standings but because, since 1993, the National League has gone along with the creative accounting scheme popularized by the American League to use “tickets sold” as the standard for paid attendance. Tickets sold seems a fair barometer when you can fathom the tickets were sold. When it rained on Wednesday, you could believe a significant proportion of tickets bought weren’t used in service to witnessing the fourth-place Mets take on the fifth-place Phillies. What you couldn’t believe was that there were 19,617 tickets bought in the first place, certainly not in the traditional sense of 19,617 people wanting to see that particular baseball game and paying for the privilege. And, despite the additional lure of nifty one-size-fits-some LET’S GO METS shirts being distributed to all who did show up (with enough presumably left over to clothe half of East Elmhurst), I am flummoxed trying to imagine how enough discrete purchasing decisions were made to add up to 25,864 “tickets sold” on Friday for the fourth-place Mets of the East doing battle against the fifth-place Reds of the Central.
I can’t speak to the contemporary dark arts that produce a sum indicating more than half of available inventory got gobbled up for a limited-interest contest like Friday’s. I can speak only to the experience of being one of the alleged 25,864 or however many, many fewer we were who actually decided to buy a ticket and go to this game.
Joe and I picked this game for reasons of mutual availability several weeks ago. We’re the people who annually make at least a fraction of the paid attendance credible. We vastly prefer the Mets compete for postseason berths, but we don’t subject our attendance to such uncontrollable niceties. At heart, we assume everybody else among us — whether closer in number to 42,000 or 4,200 — is there because of a deep and abiding allegiance to the Mets. Inevitably, we find ourselves surrounded by exceptions to our assumptions.
That’s what happened Friday night, when our three blissfully unoccupied except-for-us rows at the bottom of 510 in Promenade suddenly filled in. Were they late arrivers? In a sense. They’d been at the game when it started, except their seats of record were in the elevated rows of 510. They were one of those 2017 GROUPS the Mets were welcoming in advance of first pitch.
I would learn that they were students from a local university’s sports management program. They got a deal on tickets and food & drink vouchers (especially the drink part), so they came out to spend a chilly yet dry Friday night doing something that sounded like fun. Their area of study seemed immaterial to their presence. As one of them told me in the late innings, “the funny thing is nobody here is really into sports, especially baseball.”
Yet there they were, a couple of dozen at least, most slipping into their complimentary LET’S GO METS shirts and all visibly/audibly having a whale of a time drinking and eating and drinking some more, yapping the evening away, arranging mass selfies and being resolutely young and diverse. They were the giddiest guys and gals you’ve seen at Citi Field in months. It was less group outing than freshman mixer. Sort of like these Mets lineups of late.
As much of a kick as I got out of the 5-1 Mets win  Joe and I came to see, I got a bigger kick out of this bunch. There were random bits of baseball knowledge detectable among their ranks, though not enough to get from David Aardsma to Don Aase if they were scanning Retrosheet , which is to say I’m pretty sure they’d miss Hank Aaron altogether. I’m also certain none of them is going to be scanning Retrosheet this weekend. Nevertheless, they had a sense of where they were and respected the activity to which they committed themselves for a couple of hours. One of them was born in Tokyo and talked excitedly, between cocktails, of growing up a fan of Tsuyoshi Shinjo , whom he admired for not necessarily conforming to established Japanese norms. No wonder that he, like his baseball hero, had dyed his hair a shade of electric orange. Another, originally from Pennsylvania, admitted to a fondness for the championship Phillies of the previous decade, especially “Jimmy Rollins talking shit about being the team to beat,” but he gave them up once the DVR came along and he found better things to watch on TV. The guy who was more or less the leader of the band I mistook for a solid Mets fan. This was understandable given his indefatigable enthusiasm and his LET’S GO METS shirt. By the ninth, however, he copped to being “a bandwagon fan — that’s my shit!”
This was a night when the heretofore parked Mets bandwagon, fueled by a third consecutive victory, seemed inviting enough for adventurous stragglers to temporarily hop aboard. Plenty of room to cheer Jose Reyes’s two homers (the erstwhile Phillies fan remembered that “he used to be good”), Travis Taijeron’s first major league dinger (his last name came in for a predictable mispronunciation even while his feat was boisterously celebrated; Travis d’Arnaud’s was similarly mangled), surprise callup Phillip Evans’s pinch-hit line drive (which unfortunately got turned into a double play, but that was OK since the Mets were winning by a lot and alcohol was still being sold) and Seth Lugo’s six shutout innings. What I liked about this crew, as opposed to so many who’ve obliviously engulfed Joe and me with headache-inducing idiocy over the years, was they emitted intermittent bursts of earnest curiosity as to what they were sort of watching. The bandwagon guy asked Joe about his “taking notes”. Joe politely but firmly informed him he was keeping score. The Shinjo guy observed that Adam Duvall looked a lot like Joey Votto (whose name he considered the coolest he’d ever encountered) and most of the Reds, at least as pictured on CitiVision, looked alike, which he feared sounded “a little racist,” though I doubt that’s how he intended it. He also knew just enough about pitching to confirm with me that Tommy Milone’s ERA of over 7 was “pretty bad, right?” spurring him to ask in all sincerity, once Milone relieved Lugo, whether the Mets cared about winning this game.
There was a flickering awareness among our sports management students that the Mets and Reds weren’t pretty good by a long shot, and they certainly calculated there was a reason that “nobody’s here!” before executing their DIY seat upgrades. One of them looked to me for guidance on who the best Met was. “You mean right now — on the field?” Yes, that was the question. Cast in the role of section sage (owing to my being older than them and wearing a Mets cap), I could provide them capsule summaries of Mets history and brief oral essays on what makes a person choose to be a Mets fan, but on this I was stumped. I said Reyes (now with more than a hundred home runs as a Met) was indeed, as the Phillie guy had hinted, the most accomplished among those still standing, but there was really no suitable answer other than to lightly Metsplain the injury wave that had depleted the roster.
“So you think they’ll be good when all the pitchers come back?” the most cognizant in the group queried. I couldn’t say for sure, not to him, not to anybody, certainly not after prolonged exposure to the Mets as we’ve come to know them as 2017 whimpers toward an end. I’d like to believe we’re in the valuable-experience phase of September for the Mets’ own graduate students, the ones who are essentially taking classes at the big league level right now. But the lineups at present would work better as Jeopardy categories. They are hodgepodges and potpourris of players who wouldn’t be playing if something more was on the line or somebody better was readily available. Based on this week and this week alone, I’d buzz in with “What is a Taijeron-Aoki platoon?” even though I know I’d have my score deducted if the clue was “This could prove to be the 2018 Mets’ solution in right field.”
Nobody around me was pressing too hard for prescience or details as the Mets were disposing of the Reds. It was enough that we had two Travises — or Travii — banging extra-base hits and Milone lowering his earned run average to something slightly less ghastly than it had been and a delirious barrage of high-fives rendered between these kids who may never again attend another Mets game and this older kid who’s always going to come back. How many people were actually at Citi Field Friday night? I couldn’t tell you. How happy were those of us who were there? Indisputably very.