"You Gotta Believe"

Rebecca’s birthday present this year was two tickets to see the Mets at Shea Stadium. After a bag search and full-body metal-detector sweeping, we made it to our seats just in time to sit out the national anthem. I like to get to a ball game on time, if only for the pleasure of publicly showing my disrespect for this country and the banner under which it perpetrates its violent crimes.

Baseball is about the only American thing I can even uneasily embrace. Well, baseball and military surplus stores–olive skin, olive drab, they go together. But cars, highways, capitalism, shopping centers, obesity, suburbia, weak coffee, minimum forty-hour work weeks, lack of health care, shitty beer, a populace whose vast majority believes they have been saved by Jesus, the psycho-sexual holdovers of Puritanism, really transparent shams of representative government–not for me.

My weakness for certain organized sports is twofold. First, the glory–I’m a sucker for glory–and second, the screaming. But I don’t even think of baseball as a sport, or the Mets as a team. I think of the Mets as a miracle and Shea Stadium as a cathedral on the brink of destruction where I worship improbable victory. Due to an early-childhood delusion that it was my fervent hope and sheer force of will that assisted the Mets in hanging on in Game 6 of the now-legendary 1986 World Series and going on to win Game 7, followed by eleven more years of atheist upbringing during which no competing examples of miracles were presented (besides the remarkable curative powers of vitamin C) and no greater forces than my own optimism worshipped or prayed to, the 1986 Mets remain for me something dangerously and ecstatically close to an encounter with the divine. When I am especially bereft of hope or glory or hope for glory or the glory of hope, I pop in my 1986 Commemorative World Series DVD for a shot of positive energy that twenty-one years–and the drug possession or domestic violence arrests and subsequent rehab stints of a substantial portion of the starting lineup–later still moves me to cleansing, invigorating tears.

Thus, I come to Shea Stadium only to blanket its reality with a net of my own imagined narrative. I go there as much to get in touch with elusive feelings as to commune with the Mets themselves. Improbable victory is part of it, certainly, as is the refusal to give in or give up. Making one’s own destiny, the imposition of Nietzschean amounts of will, the possibilities and caveats of a large group of talented people on stimulant drugs. You know, things that go beyond salary caps, sexism, and what I suspect are the conservative political leanings and practicing Christianity of most if not all baseball players. I am willing to look past the waving flags and intimations of religion because the Mets , unlike, the government, have never tried to impose their religious beliefs on me, save one, which is the belief in belief itself. “Ya gotta believe!” is one of their slogans. Notice they don’t specify in what.

The gap between my lofty ideals and the prosaic intersection of sports and commerce in millennial America is vast. The modern ballpark, particularly Shea Stadium, is more than anything a site for relentless advertising. As with many religions, I am worshipping something I believe to be supernatural, and they are trying to get me to give them more and more money.

No space is wasted, no interlude too short nor any maneuver too mundane to let slip an opportunity to sell something to a captive audience. Even the black batter’s background has those venetian-blind things built in, so they can put ads on it between innings. Even the return of a fly ball from the outfield warrants a plug for chemically enhanced beverages. We saw the Verizon Fastest Pitch of the Game and the Just For Men Call to the Bullpen. We saw gift certificates given away entitling recipients to hundreds of dollars worth of meat and leather at four different steakhouses and several sporting goods stores. We sawFanCam, KissingCam and DanceCam . If you text-messaged a certain number with what you personally believed to be Carlos Delgado’s favorite cereal, you could win a trip to Barbados. For two electrifying minutes, a team of frantic stadium employees used an explosive device to fire t-shirts into the crowd.

“I want one!” Rebecca said wildly.

“You want an extra-large t-shirt that says ‘Pepsi?'”

She sighed. “I guess not.”

The advertising frenzy gave me ideas. If I like to think that I, like the Mets, could one day win ugly, maybe I, like the Mets, could get corporate sponsorship. I imagined a world in which everything in my life was comped in exchange for free advertising.

“Welcome,” I would say to my visitors. “Have a seat and I’ll be right back with your Tanqueray martini!” “Today’s joint is sponsored by Rizla rolling paper! Congratulations! You are the Pothead of the Day! Please enjoy this free gift certificate to the deli for snacks!” “It’s time to play the Amazon.com Guess Which Book I’m Reading Sweepstakes. If you win, you will take home this malfunctioning blender and be entered to win an all-expense paid vacation to a foreign country where you will run out of money and sustain a mild personal injury! Oh, sorry, I am reading twenty books at once. But thanks for playing. You get a New Zealand kiwi! I’m going to go take a shower, sponsored by Kiehl’s , while you enjoy HBO television. It’s not TV: It’s HBO. After you leave, it will be time for a night of Apple Writing. Apple: Think Different. Be sure to come on down tomorrow, when the first three people to enter my apartment will receive fried egg sandwiches, sponsored by Heinz Ketchup and Tabasco Hot Sauce. Alcohol will not be served after I pass out. Please enjoy the evening and get home safely!”

Maybe if I whored myself to the right corporations, I thought, it wouldn’t feel so whorish.

As the game progressed, we noticed things. We noticed that the umpire lightly rests his hand on the catcher’s back as the pitcher enters his windup. We noticed that Jose Reyes wears different gloves for batting and baserunning . We noticed that if you’re on base when the last out is made, you don’t have to run back to the dugout, because the player at the position next to yours brings you your mitt and cap while a batboy takes your helmet. We noticed that when the manager approaches the mound to take out a pitcher, the pitcher has to give the manager the ball, and so is symbolically castrated in front of forty thousand people.

The sexual metaphors of baseball hold up particularly well. Certainly nothing can approach the moment of extreme glory when the last out of a championship series is made and the catcher springs from his crouch, storms the mound and jumps into the pitcher’s arms, wrapping his legs around him and throwing his head back in ecstasy. But the old metaphor of various sexual acts corresponding to bases on the diamond is also quite apt. There are lots of ways to get to first base, and you can steal second, but third base is more rarefied . Triples are rarer than doubles, and it’s much harder to steal third than second. Nearly impossible to steal home, I explained, but it does happen. Second base being scoring position makes sense, but it’s easy to get stranded there, too. The closer you get to scoring without actually scoring, the more frustrating it is. I remembered that third base is called, “the hot corner” and we pondered that for a while, too. Our theorizing then devolved into the most feminine of all sports fan conversations, the criticism of the uniforms.

“Personally,” I said, “I think stirrups are a sharper look, especially on a base-stealer. The way their hands dangle at the level of their shins as they take their lead and the stirrups are stretched taut like little pistons in their legs is cool. And I liked when the pants were cut slimmer. Much cleaner line.”

“Black as the third official color of the Mets was a huge mistake, too,” said Rebecca.

“In my dictatorship,” I said, gesturing with my $7.25 Budweiser, “I will monitor professional sports closely, and only original uniforms from the early days of baseball will be allowed. There will be no alternate jerseys, and I will personally select the anthems to be sung before the game.”

“Of course you will,” said Rebecca soothingly. Then something happened and she leapt to her feet and screamed.

It was a great game. The Mets fell behind early, then took the lead and held on against a late Brewer surge. There were back-to-back home runs and a lot of exciting plays. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday baseball experience to give to my best friend, or a better best friend or more well-informed Met fan to give such a birthday present to.

Trying to find a commemorative t-shirt on our way out, we wandered into a carpeted interior area where there was a glass trophy case. One side housed the 1969 World Series trophy, the other the one from ’86.

I looked up at the trophy, gaudy and gold, and felt the familiar lump in my throat. “What a glorious moment!” I quavered. “What a beautiful thing!” My voice was breaking, but I continued on. “They won, because they refused to lose, because we believed, and it was so beautiful and impossible but it was the only way it could be. It was a convergence of people and time and now that time lives eternally.”

All the way down the ramps of the stadium, I rambled on about the ’86 Mets and their athletic and existential feats. As we exited the stadium we passed a banner depicting their gamewinning pile-on.

“You gotta believe!” I shouted triumphantly.

“Yes,” Rebecca said. “You do.”

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