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    Sunday, April 04, 2010

    Book: Faith and Fear in Flushing, by Greg Prince (2009) 

    On a recent evening, Rosemarie and I were strolling around our Seattle neighborhood. A gent who’d gotten in his cups a little early stopped before us, turned to Rosemarie, and said, “What’s a good-looking woman like you doing with a Mets fan?”

    (I was wearing a Mets cap. As is my wont.)

    Rosemarie replied, “This man is my loving husband of almost twenty years. And I’m also a Mets fan.” Appropriately chastened, the interloper took his leave.

    We walked on. “So, uh, thanks for sticking up for me,” I finally said.

    “Forget it,” Rosemarie replied. “He did say I was good-looking, right?”

    Random abuse is part of being a Mets fan. I don’t know how it works between Cubs and White Sox partisans, but in New York you always have to explain why you root for the orange and blue. That’s because the Yankees are the Yankees, and the Mets are the Mets.

    But root for them I do. The Mets have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Before movies, before crime fiction, there was the Mets. Blame growing up in Queens, just a stone’s throw from Shea Stadium. They were my home team in every sense. (Rosemarie, a product of Flushing, would actually walk to games.) Being a Mets fan is an inextricable part of my identity. Ask anybody who knows me.

    Greg Prince is one of the writers behind Faith and Fear in Flushing, a regular stop for me. He’s spun the blog into a book. Subtitled An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, that’s exactly what it is: a look at how supporting a team, through good times and bad, becomes a constant, a way of marking the years. It’s about the twinned joy of giving yourself over to something larger, and the agony of being at the mercy of that which you can’t control. Substitute the names and it could be about your team. But if the phrase Grand Slam Single produces chills in you as it does in me, you’ll love it.

    So as Opening Day dawns on Monday, I will once again don my cap in support of the most dysfunctional team in professional sports. This in spite of the fact that they’re in a division with the Phillies, the National League equivalent of the Yankees and Red Sox: a perennial contender. That everyone expects them to flirt with .500 and place no better than third this season. That sportswriters have taken to calling for regime change as if the front office is part of the Axis of Evil, or comparing Citi Field to the hell of Dante’s Inferno.

    Instead, I’ll focus on the good times. Cementing my bond with my friend Mike, whose blog Metsanity is well worth reading. The 1986 world championship; game six remains one of the high points of my life. Meeting Tom Seaver, the man to this day known as The Franchise. Want to see hero worship? Look at my face.

    Or simply helping out another fan. It’s late 2007. Only a few weeks after the Mets’ storied collapse, blowing a seven-game lead with seventeen to play and missing the playoffs entirely.

    Whoo. Hang on. I need a minute.

    I have to run to the grocery store. It’s raining, so without thinking I put on my Mets inclement weather cap – yes, I have more than one – and head out. I’m in the express line when the guy behind me taps me on the shoulder.

    “I have to tell you, I’m so glad to see you,” he says to me in a quiet voice. “I haven’t been able to put on my cap since it happened.”

    “You’ve got to man up,” I told him. “Next year starts right now.”

    I am way, way too proud of that moment.

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    Monday, May 25, 2009

    Book: The Complete Game, by Ron Darling (2009)

    Here’s how much I enjoyed this book. I would recommend it even if it weren’t written by a member of your 1986 World Series champion New York Mets.

    Darling, who had a solid journeyman career, revisits nine innings he either pitched himself or observed closely as an Emmy-winning commentator for the Mets, plus an extraordinary bonus from his days at Yale. “Pitchers are considered the non-athletes of the game,” he notes, and as such are often the most isolated players. The book takes you inside their process as they face every conceivable situation – a must-win game, an injury, an inning in which the wheels come off, a session on the hill late in life’s season when the pitcher finds himself wearing a May hat in August. Casual baseball fans will like The Complete Game. Hardcore ones will devour it.

    Here’s Ronnie promoting the book with my fellow Mets fan Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

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    Monday, September 29, 2008

    Sports: And Welcome to Fantasy Baseball

    One last note on the end of the 2008 season. I can now report the results of my first foray into the timesuck that is fantasy baseball. When I weighed in at the All-Star Break, I had finally muscled my way out of last place. At the time, I set three modest goals for myself. In the interests of completion, let’s see how I fared.

    I fervently hope to stay out of the cellar. I think I have a shot.


    I would accept finishing ahead of the person who dared me to play.

    Mission accomplished. Take that, Karma! (For the record, I am not taunting the Eastern belief that our actions in this life have consequences in the next. My friend Karma dared me to join her league, in part by saying that if I was in it she wouldn’t come in last. As it happens, she didn’t come in last, either.)

    Ideally, I’d like to make the top half of the field. I do not expect this to happen.

    I was wrong. I finished fifth out of ten, closer in points to the top than to the bottom. I’m not saying that this is the equal of the Red Sox’s staggering comeback in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees. I’m saying it’s comparable.

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    Sunday, September 28, 2008

    Baseball: Actually, I Do Care If I Never Get Back

    For the second consecutive year, the New York Mets took their season down to the final game. And for the second consecutive year, the team fell short.

    I can live with that. I am a Mets fan. I am inured to disappointment, conditioned to keep my expectations in check.

    It does sadden me that for the second consecutive year, the Mets squandered a truly titanic performance from one of their pitchers in the season’s penultimate game, a Herculean effort that made the drama of #162 possible. And it kills me that they couldn’t win the last regular season match-up ever to be played in Shea Stadium. For old times’ sake.

    A few days ago, when the Mets were in the thick of both the wild card and NL East hunts, sportswriter Tim Brown wrote, “say what you will, they do drama like no one else.” That attitude helps take the sting out of another almost-but-not-quite season: view it as a soap opera. It had all the ingredients. The lingering shadows of last season’s collapse, big personalities, late-night executions, sudden reversals, a heart-in-your-mouth ending. If it were a TV show, I’d set the DVR for it.

    I’ll remember the 2008 Mets season with fondness, in large part because I got to see them play at Shea one final time. Yes, I know that if their patchwork bullpen, an Achilles heel all year that imploded down the stretch, had held onto a lead in just one game, today’s drama would have been unnecessary. I know if their spotty offense had advanced a runner in scoring position in just one game, a playoff berth would have been theirs.

    But the end of the season always puts me in a philosophical mood. So here’s something else that I know. If the last game of the season counts, then all the games before it count. Every single one, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time.

    It’s a lesson that all baseball fans know. Even Yankee fans. It’s just that lately, Mets fan have been learning it the hard way.

    All season long, I’ve followed my team at my friend Mike’s blog Mets Fan Club. Thanks also to the guys at Faith & Fear in Flushing. This wrap-up post is particularly fine. And here’s the New York Times’s George Vecsey saying goodbye to Shea.

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    Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    New York Report: Medical Update

    Rosemarie’s back from the doctor and hobbling around in one of those walking boots. Turns out she sprained her foot while racing to Sardi’s for a cocktail before curtain. Making her the first person to injure herself in such a fashion since Kitty Carlisle Hart.

    New York Report: The Old Neighborhood

    The entire reason for scheduling our trip at this time was to see one last New York Mets game at Shea Stadium before the exodus across the parking lot to Citi Field. It’s pointless to rehash a week-old sporting event, so let’s focus on the color commentary.

    We headed to Flushing early, because it’s where Rosemarie grew up. She took me to her childhood haunts – the candy store turned cell phone shop, the former A&P. Her block, in her words, “is an inch long.” We took photos of her old house, alarming the contractors in the process of remodeling it. We also stopped by her school, not hard considering it’s across the street.

    Flushing is renowned for inexpensive and delicious Chinese food. But where to go? We were still without internet access. After a scouting expedition we settled on a restaurant that still had customers late in the afternoon, taking that for a good sign. Plus it had “Gourmet” in the name, and who’d lie about a thing like that? They certainly didn’t. (Note what a later web search turned up.)

    Next stop was Flushing Meadow Park. When I was a kid it was the only green area around. Not only did I have to take the subway there, I had to change trains at 74th Street. Never seemed out of the ordinary to me.

    Then it was game time. We met up with our friends Mike and Paula. (Here are Mike’s pre- and post-game reports.)

    It was merengue night. We didn’t stay for the show.

    Call me a traditionalist, but I miss the old blue and orange panels that used to hang from Shea’s exterior. They gave the stadium what character it had.

    A recent New York Times article on baseball cuisine reviewed the food at every major league ballpark. The verdict on Shea: eat the hot dogs and nothing else. New York law now requires fast-food outlets to post calorie information. This explains how I know that two Nathan’s hot dogs are roughly equal to a bag of peanuts. This made me feel better until I realized that no one consumes an entire bag of peanuts in one sitting. Even in extra innings.

    For the record, I ate two hot dogs and no peanuts. Apparently those things’ll kill you.

    Carvel ice cream is also sold at Shea. Talk about childhood haunts. Carvel soft serve would be my treat for getting good grades on my report card. Mike told me that the real prize dessert-wise was the lemon ice, which would last “a good three, four innings.” Only they weren’t available at any of the food outlets in the mezzanine. We’d have to wait for a vendor. By the seventh inning I gave up; “a good three, four innings” meant I’d be finishing it on the 7 train, not known for its dining ambiance. So we had Carvel instead. I didn’t bother to read the calorie information.

    Halfway through the sundae I remembered something: Carvel ice cream isn’t that good.

    There were a pair of homers in the game, a two-run shot from a reinvigorated Carlos Delgado and a career first for the Mets’ young second baseman Argenis Reyes. I was so excited to see the giant apple behind the center field wall light up twice that I forgot to take pictures each time.

    I did the “Jose, Jose, Jose” chant, along with “Everybody Clap Your Hands!” Beats doing it at home all by yourself. But that’s true of so much in life.

    Top of the ninth, one out with a six-run Mets lead, and who magically appears behind us? The lemon ice vendor. Thanks for nothing, guy.

    The Mets win and we join the throng filing into the IRT station. The “super express” gets us back into Manhattan in no time flat. During the ride, we have a pleasant conversation with a Cardinals die-hard who flew in for the series. Mets fans, magnanimous in victory.

    Barring a miracle, the next Mets game I see will be in Citi Field. Across the parking lot, but a world away.

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    Wednesday, July 16, 2008

    Sports: All-Star Break Report

    From Dan Barry’s Sunday New York Times article on Billy Joel:

    Someone must sing a proper song of farewell for Shea Stadium, the nice try of a coliseum in Queens, as its dismantling draws near and a new ballpark rises just yards away. But that someone must be able to convey emotions specific to the place, emotions beyond the sadness of many lost Mets summers and the euphoria of two World Series championships. There is so much more.

    The romantic idealism and the yeah-right realism. The quickness to mock and to take offense. The need to prove oneself better than any Upper East Side twit and the guilt from having conceived such a hollow ambition. The restlessness, angst and ache of the striver. The Long Island of it all.

    Had they asked to use my photo as an illustration, I would have obliged. The conflicted soul described above? C’est moi.

    But who cares? We got ourselves a pennant race!

    After a half-season of drama that reached dangerous Melrose Place levels, the Mets closed strong, winning nine straight. They’re now only a half-game out of first. A few weeks back, they seemed to be staring down another lost Mets summer. Man, I love baseball.

    Lots of critical games in the weeks ahead – and yours truly will get to see one of them. I want to say goodbye to Shea myself, no matter if it’s “not even the nicest ballpark in its own parking lot anymore.” Or if, according to some, it stinks.

    I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But Vince, how are you doing in fantasy baseball?” Well, curse you for asking.

    As I’m sure none of you remember, I dithered on the subject of joining a fantasy league. Not too long ago I saw World Series announcer Joe Buck on Bob Costas’s HBO show say that he’d played fantasy baseball only once and came in dead last. I passed this salient fact on to my friend Mike, who replied, “Buck is old school. He probably drives a Buick and has dinner at 4:30 p.m. and watches Judge Judy.”

    I was essentially goaded into participating this year by a friend of Rosemarie’s. I am pleased to say that after spending most of the season mired in last place, I have clawed my way up to eighth out of ten. There’s a lot of churn where I am; just before the All-Star break I lost a mere half-point and dropped two slots.

    My goals for the year are modest. Ideally, I’d like to make the top half of the field. I do not expect this to happen. I would accept finishing ahead of the person who dared me to play. Currently that is the case, but how long that status stays quo is anybody’s guess. I fervently hope to stay out of the cellar. I think I have a shot.

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    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Sports Rant: Black and Blue and Orange

    It’s never easy being a fan of the New York Mets. But it’s been particularly difficult lately. First there was last September’s epic collapse, presided over by manager Willie Randolph. Then this season’s mediocre run, compounded by constant rumors of Willie’s imminent dismissal and mixed signals from the front office.

    All of that paled in comparison to last night’s shenanigans. Following a win in Anaheim, Willie and two coaches were fired at 3:15 AM EST. The Mets management apparently believes that fans, lulled by the pastoral rhythms of the game, are unfamiliar with the internet.

    Say what you will about Willie – and I’ve said a lot – he didn’t deserve the treatment he received this season. He certainly didn’t warrant being dismissed under cover of darkness in what Fox’s Ken Rosenthal calls “one of the most shameful episodes in sports history.”

    I could rant on and on. Instead, I’ll just point you toward this piece. Or this one. Or this one. Or you can pick your favorite search engine, type in “Mets” and your pejorative of choice, and read what turns up.

    All this plus the Mariners have the worst record in the majors, and I’m sucking wind in my first foray into fantasy baseball. It’s a grand old game.

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    Friday, February 01, 2008

    Sports: Step Right Up and Greet Him

    I don’t want to make too much of the fact that Johan Santana, two-time Cy Young award winner and one of the most dominant pitchers of this era, now wears a New York Mets uniform. I will simply acknowledge this great moment in the history of athletic competition, and humbly move on.

    TV: Up and Down the Dial

    Last night’s Obama/Clinton debate took place in the Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards, and CNN shot it like there wasn’t going to be a ceremony this year. I caught glimpses of Steven Spielberg, Pierce Brosnan, Diane Keaton, and Stevie Wonder among others. The only thing missing was a red carpet show.

    When I had my wonkish fill I flipped channels and found, to my surprise, a bedridden Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) being spelled by ... Bette Davis? Turns out Perry is part of the line-up on the Retro Television Network, added to my cable service with zero fanfare. It’s so new that its website isn’t finished yet. Among the shows in the RTN rotation: The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Rockford Files, Cannon, Hawaii Five-O, and Mission: Impossible. There are even “retromercials.” Of most interest to me is a Saturday night bad movie show hosted by, like, freaky beatniks, man.

    Incidentally, Bette won the case.

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    Tuesday, October 09, 2007

    Book: Grub, by Elise Blackwell (2007)

    It’s funny to realize how few novels I’ve read about novelists. You always hear that there are too many books about literary life. No doubt this is true. But unless the protagonists are accused of murder or battling vampires, odds are I’m not going to pick those titles up.

    Grub, however, may have changed my mind. Elise Blackwell’s novel is an elaborate contemporary re-imagining of New Grub Street, the 1891 satire of the London publishing world by George Gissing. I’m not familiar with Gissing’s book, but I have read the Wikipedia entry, which qualifies me as an authority.

    Aside from moving the action to New York, Blackwell apparently hasn’t changed much. Nor does she have to; ambition, jealousy and fear are constants in the writer’s lot. She smartly updates the Victorian conventions of Gissing’s novel. More impressively, she recreates the feel of reading one of the books of that period, with its rich stew of characters and incident. Success, failure, romance, secret identities, and endings that come in degrees of happiness. There’s something for everyone. Lovely stuff.

    Sports: The Road to Recovery

    The Phillies, who outlasted my New York Mets, are already out of the post-season. The Yankees also made an early exit. Which means I can just sit back and enjoy the rest of the baseball playoffs.

    I have moved on from the Mets’ late-season collapse with the aid of mental health professionals. The other day I even wore my Mets cap in public again.

    Complete Stranger in Supermarket: I haven’t been brave enough to put mine on yet.

    Me: You gotta man up, son. Next year starts right now.

    Complete Stranger in Supermarket: You’ve inspired me.

    Sadly, that exchange is the supreme accomplishment of my life so far.

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    Tuesday, October 02, 2007

    Miscellaneous: The September Stuff-I-Didn’t-Get-To Post

    Lonely Hearts. The sordid tale of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who murdered at least a dozen women in the late 1940s, was told in The Honeymoon Killers and Deep Crimson. Now Todd Robinson, grandson of one of the Long Island detectives who brought the pair to justice, recounts the case from their perspective. His low-key but gripping style honors the memory of his grandfather, played by John Travolta. I was concerned about Salma Hayek as Martha Beck, a fearsome woman who weighed over 200 pounds. But Salma finds her own ways to be fearsome.

    The Wounded and the Slain, by David Goodis. Don’t be fooled. This isn’t a pulp novel about a couple getting caught up in murder while on vacation in Jamaica. It’s a brutal portrait of a marriage in crisis that cuts to the bone.

    The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet. You think you know how bad a sexploitation version of the Bard’s classic filmed in the style of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In – complete with repeated references to “beautiful downtown Verona,” women hollering “Sock it to me!” during sex, and cutaways to lame one-liners – can be. Then you watch the movie. And you realize you had no idea.

    Sports: That’s What I’m Talking About

    After the Mets collapse, what I needed was a game like last night’s instant classic between the Rockies and Padres to, as they said at Faith and Fear in Flushing, restore my belief in baseball. (I should have linked to FAFIF long before now. Some excellent writing to be found there even if you’re not a Mets fan.) Seeing Mets castoffs like Heath Bell and Kaz Matsui playing with fire was odd, but it allowed the healing to begin. I figured the Arizona Diamondbacks, who smoke-and-mirrored their way to the best record in the National League, would win the pennant. But I’m revising that opinion. Whoever makes it out of the Rockies/Phillies showdown, sure to be a corker, will be in the World Series and give the AL champ a run for their money.

    In Mets’ downfall news, ESPN’s Bill Simmons was so moved by the team’s collapse that he created an entirely new level of losing to describe it. What did he call it?

    The Goose/Maverick Tailspin.

    I had that on Sunday, Simmons. I want full credit. Top Gun is an obscure film no one remembers.

    And don’t let anyone tell you what happened to this team is not a tragedy. Lives are being destroyed by it.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    A moment of silence for The Tube, an excellent music channel gone too soon.

    Hey, Stephen Fry has a blog!

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    Sunday, September 30, 2007

    Sports: Express Train To Mudville

    Leave us journey back, if you will, to a simpler, happier time. A time when your humble correspondent was a younger, more virile figure. I’m thinking about a month ago.

    The Seattle Mariners are in control of the wild card race and about to host the the Angels Angels of Anaheim (translation from the Spanish) in a crucial series. Take two out of three games and they’re in first place in the AL West. My beloved New York Mets, meanwhile, have a considerable lead on the competition. If they do well in a four-game stand against the second-place Phillies, the NL East will be decided early. I allow myself to fantasize about a Mets/Mariners World Series.

    Not that my loyalties would be divided. I follow the Mariners, because I live in Seattle. I root for the Mets, because they are the team of my Queens childhood. In my fantasy World Series they don’t beat the Mariners. They crush them in four perfect games.

    The Mariners get swept, never contend for the division again, and blow the wild card. They finish tied for the fifth best record in the AL. Not bad for a team that wasn’t expected to be a factor this year, but still disappointing.

    The Mets? Oh, where to begin ...

    They’re swept by Philadelphia, which prompts them to play their best baseball of the year. By September 12 they’d rebuilt their seven game lead, just in time for the Phillies to roll into Shea for a rematch.

    They were swept again. Thus beginning what sportswriters are calling the most complete regular season collapse in modern baseball history. (Post-season collapse honors still go to the 2004 Yankees.)

    The numbers are too ugly to contemplate. Still, let’s look at ‘em. The Mets closed out the year 5-12. They lost six of their last seven games at home to teams under .500.

    Yet somehow, this morning their fate was in their hands. Win the final game of the year and at worst they forced a playoff against the Phillies for the division, with a shot at the wild card as well. Win and 2007 could still be the Mets’ Tom Cruise year.

    You know how early in Cruise’s career he’d play cocky guys who had never been tested? Then Goose dies and Tom goes into freefall? But through adversity Tom recovers his swagger and proves that he’s every bit as good as he thought he was? Hell, better? That works for me.

    The thing is, Maverick never gave up seven runs in the top of the first inning. And the Mets finish out of time, out of chances, and out of the money.

    Making it worse, both the Mets and Phillies games were shown in their home markets over the air. Which meant I had to follow both games listening to the Marlins and the Nationals announcers praise their teams’ performances as spoilers. The compliments were deserved; both squads finished the season strong. But it’s not the same as hearing the joy from Philly, or the ruthless anatomization of a year gone wrong from the Mets booth crew, the best three-man team there is.

    I should be heartbroken, but the truth is I never embraced this Mets team the way I did last year’s. That bunch, which was a swing of Carlos Beltran’s bat away from the World Series, could never be counted out of any game. This year’s team lacked that fire, and seemed to play with a sense of entitlement. As if they were saying, “Remember what we almost did last season? We’re gonna almost do it this year, too.”

    On Thursday I told my friend Mike that I started wanting the Mets to choke because at least we’d get an epic failure out of it, something to make the season memorable. Years from now, when a team falters late, their fans will say, “Yeah, they suck, but it coulda been worse. It’s not like they were the 2007 Mets.”

    I know the idea of rooting for a team is irrational. A bunch of millionaires wearing a particular uniform has nothing to do with me, with the place where I grew up, with the memories of my boyhood. But that lure is powerful. The other day I spotted a guy wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap and T-shirt. The Bucs logged their fifteenth consecutive losing season this year, but still he was letting his colors fly. I respect that. Even more, I understand it. I understand it all too well.

    The 2007 Mets were overhyped, overconfident, underachieving assholes. But they were my overhyped, overconfident, underachieving assholes. And I’ll let my colors fly.

    But not today. Today I don’t need the aggravation.

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    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    Miscellaneous: Links

    Ed Gorman has sent me to Cinema Retro for many a fine article. It’s only fitting, then, that the site features an interview with Ed, in which he weighs in on vintage crime films.

    Several years ago, I wrote a profile of Jim Bouton, former major league pitcher and author of the landmark baseball memoir Ball Four, for a small magazine. The article was primarily about Bouton’s business career – he was one of the inventors of the bubble gum Big League Chew, for instance – but touched on all aspects of his fascinating life. He was in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, fer cryin’ out loud! After the piece ran Bouton sent me an autographed copy of Ball Four, made out to “a great writer and a nice guy.” It remains one of my most prized possessions, even though he was wrong on at least one and possibly both counts. In some respects that lovely gesture on his part set me on the path I’ve followed ever since.

    Bouton’s latest project is the Vintage Base Ball Federation, dedicated to recreating the experience of our national pastime as it was played in the 1880s. Yahoo’s Steve Henson covers the league’s first world series.

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