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The Youthful Enthusiasm of Dana Brand

I will endure its passing, but I would have loved to have been an old man in these seats, under these lights.

That’s what Dana Brand wrote in Mets Fan, in an essay he entitled “For Shea [1]“. I’ve thought of those words often since Shea Stadium was scheduled for and then met its ultimate demise. Every time I felt silly for missing the imperfect ballpark or ungrateful for not unquestioningly accepting the obvious improvements its successor offered, I reminded myself of what had been taken away from me: the opportunity to be an old man in those seats, under those lights. I never equated Shea Stadium with that segment of life. Shea, no matter how decrepit its infrastructure turned, was an expression of youthful enthusiasm. The Mets were an expression of youthful enthusiasm.

Dana Brand knew how to express youthful enthusiasm. To me, in the Mets Fan world I’ve been fortunate enough to inhabit, where I was blessed to have known Dana Brand and call Dana Brand my friend, he was the embodiment of youthful enthusiasm.

Dana was born at exactly the right moment in time to be and to call himself a Mets Fan. He was 7½ years old when they played their first game. That meant Dana and the Mets started with the same clean slate. The Mets, for too long, filled their slate with losses. Dana filled his (and that pocket notebook he toted everywhere) with the youthful enthusiasm of someone who wasn’t thrown by their conspicuous lack of success. “I want,” he would write well after 1962, “my baseball to be like real life, seasoned with failure and disappointment, ennobled by hope, and studded with just a few spectacular moments of pure joy.”

Dana began embracing the Mets and their intrinsic nature at the instant there were Mets to embrace and he never stopped, not until yesterday, I suppose, when he passed away at the criminally young age of 56.

We’re lucky in that Dana wrote relentlessly about his personal relationship with the Mets, the way others might write about a personal relationship with their deity. Thanks to him, we know what we missed if we missed it and we’re sure what we saw because he saw it, too. Through two marvelous books [2] and a vital, eloquent blog [3], Dana let us into his Mets Fan world, from 1962 on. He made me understand those early years I didn’t see. He made me appreciate the texture of 1969 more than I possibly could have even after living with it in my consciousness since I was six. He laid out the entire life of the franchise and what we take it mean to us tribally and why it means so much to us individually.

He loved the Mets and boy did he love Shea Stadium. He got Shea Stadium as few others ever have. He got what made it more than its rotting architectural bones. He got how so many grew up in it and had every reason to suspect they’d grow old in it, under those lights. That Dana Brand had the foresight to anticipate such an actuarial possibility is a credit to him as a writer and a thinker, because every moment I spent with him he never really stopped being that kid who loved the Mets. Don’t let his academic day job and professorial demeanor, let alone his scholarly credentials (which were substantial), mislead you. Dana Brand was a kid who loved the Mets. He was just one of the older kids when we got to meet him.

After I learned that Dana had died, I flashed back on our last meeting, unplanned, in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field on April 10. He was at the first Sunday home game of the year alone and I was at the first Sunday home game of the year alone. Dana wanted to soak up the new season in solitude [4]. I wanted a magnetic schedule and didn’t feel like asking around if anybody wanted to go. When we recognized each other, we greeted as old friends, as people who had been old friends going much further back than September 2007, which is when we actually first met [5]. As I learned on that occasion, at the Long Beach Public Library, we went way the hell back. I guess I knew that from having read Mets Fan, but it was kind of thrilling to feel it unfold in person. Here was, per the title of the book from which he was in my hometown to read [6], a Mets Fan. Here was somebody who shared my life with me without knowing it. That’s how it is among all of us, isn’t it? With Dana, it was immediate and it was warm and it was as all-encompassing in a Mets Fan sense as it could be.

In April, we did what Mets Fans like us who go way the hell back do: we complained. We complained about the Mets. We bitched and we moaned and we griped and we found fault. But not for a second were we unhappy while we were doing this. Oh, we would have preferred whatever it was about the team and the management and the ballpark that didn’t satisfy us be resolved to our tastes. We would have preferred to have had to have spoken up to hear each other over the fluttering of a few more championship banners and we wouldn’t have minded if whoever decided what gets sold in the team store opted to stock a small shelf with books like ours. But these were fleeting if recurring misgivings. The overriding emotion for Mets Fans like us is we were very happy in the context of what aggravated us. We were thrilled, on some level, to be a little disappointed in the Mets, to care that much about the Mets, to share that much about the Mets. I always thought Dana maintained an ideal for his team [7] and it was his mission to frame a world in which they lived up to what he knew they were at their core; to what they will always be to all of us; and to what they meant eternally in the heart and the soul and the beautiful mind of the kid of 7½ who deserved a longer stay in those seats under those lights.