Mets caps and talking baseball

A conversation on a partly sunny sidewalk, Sunday afternoon. I’m wearing a Mets hat, walking to a post box to mail a bill.

Guy walking toward me: Twenty innings last night.
Me: Yeah, that was something. At least they won.
Guy: Fucking unbelievable.
Me: I know. After a while, it was just like, someone, please score.
Guy: I wanted to go to bed, but I didn’t want to turn it off.
Me: Yeah, it was like a car accident … (Guy looks momentarily confused) … You couldn’t look away.
———

You’d be surprised how often this happens (that is, this sort of conversation, not a 2-1 baseball game that lasts 20 innings).

For nearly all of my first 36 years, save for a youthful flirtation here or there, I was a Yankee fan, and I wasn’t shy about wearing my gear. But after they left me, and I warmly embraced my new team in Queens (even in the face of 2009’s downward spiral), I noticed a different phenomenon. People want to talk to you about baseball if you’re wearing a Mets hat.

That may sound strange, and perhaps this is only a phenomenon north of Catskill, but let me explain, or at least give you my theory.

Everyone and their brother, from Wichita to Leningrad, is a Yankee fan, or so it seems (our family, by hailing from Yonkers, had some legitimacy to our claim as Yankee fans, according to Mr. Queenan at least, but I digress.). Baseball hats, and especially Yankees caps, come in every shade of color — or, let me pause. Fan hats come in every shade. Real Yankee hats are only navy blue with the white “NY” — it’s the only one I ever wore, and the one time I was given a beige version of that hat as a gift, I politely thanked the gift-giver and stuck the cap in the attic.

But here’s the thing: when I wore a Yankee hat, almost no random stranger wanted to talk baseball to me, or even acknowledge the team I wore on my head. Never a “Did you see last night’s game?” or even a “Go Sox” or “Go Mets” from a fan of another team as sort of a friendly (or not) nudge.

But variations of these things have happened to me in the last 11 months whenever I’ve gone out in public in a Mets hat.

True, I live in a walkable and, I’d say, chatty city upstate —put me in the suburbs, where the only place you walk is inside the mall while you’re shuttling in your SUV from your garage to your office park, and the story might be different. Suffice to say, you’re not going to get a “fucking unbelievable” from a 50-ish total stranger strolling through your cul-de-sac.

Still, I’m hardly a social person. I’m not out looking for conversation, unless someone engages me first, and even then, I can be moody and standoffish. But it never fails when I’m in a Mets hat.

———

Clerk at the beer store, to me, on Sunday: Twenty innings, huh?

Guy coming out of the beer store, to me, last summer: [mockingly; a friendly jab] Let’s go Yankees.

(I go to the beer store a lot.)

Teacher at pre-school, smiling, seeing me and Icepick Jr. in matching caps, last week: I see he’s rocking the Mets hat.

———

Why didn’t this sort of thing happen more often when I wore a Yankee hat? I live in an area that clearly places itself deep inside the Yankee fandom camp. Two recent polls stated the obvious: that fans in New York State root for the Yankees more than any other team. Delving deeper, my part of upstate is nearly equidistant to Boston and Manhattan. Though one poll didn’t ask about out-of-state teams, and the other showed weaker support for the Sox, the Red Sox are a clear and close second place to the Yankees in terms of fan support here in the Capital Region. The Mets are barely fighting for show money in this race.

Here’s my theory:

Not all of these comments to me are coming from one Mets fan to another, but they are coming from fellow baseball fans. And baseball fans like to talk baseball, even to strangers on the street or in the beer store or in the lobby outside your kid’s pre-school. And a Mets cap in a Yankee town clearly indicates someone who follows baseball, something a Yankees hat does not.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen if I wear a generic baseball hat (say, my New York-Penn League cap). This sort of thing doesn’t happen for other sports when I wear the hat of a team in hockey or football.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen to any other team, even the Red Sox I’d hazard to guess, with all the Bosox bandwaggoning in the last six years. Heck, even when I rooted for the Yankees, I’d dabble in wearing a Twins or Tigers hat over the last few years as my disillusionment grew and the diehard in me waned in the face of mounting evidence of Bronx Bombast. All anyone every asked of me when I was in one of those hats was “You from Detroit?”

It’s not like I’m parading around like Mr. Met or seeking a blue-and-orange badge of courage. But my theory goes that if you’re wearing the hat of a local team that’s not the Yanks or the Sox and that’s been to the World Series four times in nearly 30 years (and none in almost 10 years), you’ve got to be a real baseball fan.

Let me put it another way: I’m sure most baseball fans (at least those up here) wouldn’t approach someone in a Yankee hat the same way. Why should they? They’re almost certain to get one of four reactions:

Person A to Person in Yankees hat: They had a great rally to win last night’s game, huh?
Person in Yankees hat, response 1: Um, I didn’t watch it.
Person in Yankees hat, response 2: Who are the Yankees? Oh, is that what the “NY” represents on my red and pink hat?
Person in Yankees hat, response 3: Yeah, and your team sucks if it’s not the Yankees. Now get in your car so I can cut you off in traffic while I change the number on the back of my “Got Rings?” T-shirt from from 27 to 28 to indicate my abject smarminess.
Person in Yankees hat, response 4: Derek Jeter is so cute.
———

Maybe it’s an upstate phenomenon, but given the Mets recent state, and the Yankees boorishness combined with rampant front-running, I think not.

———
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Put a clock in it

Look, I firmly believe in the rule that the best umpire is the one that you don’t notice, much like they way breathing and digestion is supposed to work. So I can’t abide by Joe West spouting off about the length of Yankees-Red Sox games. It’s all fine and dandy to say what you want when you retire, a la Ron Luciano, may he rest in peace, of The Umpire Strikes Back fame. But not while you’re still an active ump.

That said, the man has a valid point when he called the interminable length of Yankees-Red Sox games “a disgrace to baseball” and “pathetic and embarrassing” in a story in The (Bergen) Record. He’s correct, yet as the Daily News’ Hall of Fame columnist Bill Madden put it, “he just isn’t the one to be saying it.”

Other than Yankees-Red Sox fans — who, as God is my witness, deserve each other until the end of time in the worst possible way that could be defined — the fuck is a 9-inning ballgame doing lasting almost four hours? Don’t get me wrong: I like the leisurely pace of baseball. I love the way a game ebbs and flows, the way tension builds and subsides depending upon the critical pitcher-batter matchups. And I dig that baseball doesn’t have a clock.

Except that it once did. Sort of.

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Confessions of a lapsed Yankee Fan

Like my upbringing in the Catholic Church, my Yankee fandom runs deep.

My first visit to the Stadium was on Catfish Hunter Day in 1979 (when the Yankees brought an elephant onto the field). I remember seeing games several times with my departed and beloved grandfather, once getting doused with mustard from a girl smirking devilishly from the upper deck (and fellow fans yelling, “Go get her, Dick Tracy” to the stadium cops).

The author in "Esquire," circa 1998

The author in Esquire, circa 1998

I once appeared shirtless from behind (no, it’s not pretty, but you can’t miss me) in the bleachers in a photo spread in Esquire magazine. In June 2001, my father and I watched a game from the loge seats (and, I should add, the Stadium’s Burns Security denied us pre-game access to an overcrowded Monument Park).

And my wife and I were engaged, on July 1, 2001, before a game in that very same Monument Park, with me dropping to my knee next to the small garden the grounds crew tended at the edge of the park (yes, I also paid to have a message appear on the scoreboard in the middle of the fifth inning, with my sauced friends, secreted in another part of the Stadium, nearly forgetting to snap a photo before the message disappeared). The future Mrs. Icepick and I arrived at 10 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game, my experience with my father two weeks earlier giving me the necessary knowledge to arrive extra early if we were to gain access to the retired numbers beyond left-center field. Needless to say, my nerves that morning led her to suspect something was up. She accepted (twice), despite my mother’s half-hearted tongue-in-cheek (I think) “warnings” to her.

So that is why it pains me, in a young season of an ugly, overbuilt new Yankee Stadium run by tone-deaf Chief Operating Officer Lonn Trost, a Stadium that bulldozed a neighborhood park (h/t George Vecsey) for the benefit of those that can afford $2,500-seats and be surrounded by a moat (h/t Deadspin, and no, my opinion has not changed because the Yankees relented ever-so-slightly and let fans come down into the front row in the outfield for batting practice), a season of steroid admissions and allegations, a season with bombastic television and radio announcers, that I am prepared to renounce my Yankee fandom, at least for a year’s exile, or a year’s self-flagellating penance (there’s that Catholic guilt influence) or whatever you want to call it.

You can’t call me a traitor or a deserter. Truth is, the Yankees have deserted the likes of me.

The Yankees of this generation engender equal parts fierce loyalty (sadly, of sometimes over-muscled meathead variety) and exasperation, and that’s not even counting banning beer sales in the bleachers at the “old” Stadium under the watchful eyes of the Stadium’s toughs.

What I hereby publicly announce is nothing novel. My 70-something neighbor gave up a lifetime of rooting for the Yankees 16 games into the 1985 season when George Steinbrenner unceremoniously fired Yogi Berra through an intermediary. My neighbor switched his allegiance right then and there to the dreaded Red Sox, and has been a fiery supporter of Boston ever since. Nearly 14 years later, Yogi came back into the Yankee fold. My neighbor never has.

My father is on the verge of a similar defection. Also a lifetime Yankee fan, who adored Mickey Mantle as a boy and whose TV room is adorned with black-and-white photos and memorabilia dedicated to No. 7 (much to my mother’s dismay), my father has all but renounced his lifelong Yankee fandom and turned himself over to the Bosox.

This does not negate either man’s memories or remove them as fans of the Yankees before their conversions — they still retain the right to cherish and proclaim their love of Yogi, Whitey and the Mick, much like I am still retaining my fond memories of Thurman, Nettles, Reggie, Gator, Goose, Sparky, Mattingly and David Wells, and I am still clinging to my scorn for Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Bill “Spaceman” Lee.

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