March 29, 2005

Column 2005-3-29 Commentary

Brooks's latest column is an interesting departure from the norm. Not because it is completely trivial -- God knows that Brooks has written completely trivial columns before -- but because it lacks the usual features of Brooks's completely trivial columns. Brooks's musings on whether he should abandon being a Mets fan to root for the brand-spanking-new Washington Nationals (for those of you who are not au courant with the baseball scene, the Nats used to be the Montreal Expos) are far more self-indulgent than usual. There is no attempt to make a connection to the ongoing moral decay of the country, or even of the liberal part of the country. Brooks doesn't even try to be funny (or if he does, he's even worse at it than usual). Even Maureen Dowd tries to connect her most self-centered columns to a national trend or a political event: Brooks doesn't even try to suggest that other Washingtonians are suffering a similar crisis. Was he simply at a loss for a topic this week? Is he attempting to segue from the editorial pages to the sports pages? Perhaps that's the explanation. After all, the constant intellectual dishonesty must get to him. Having to parrot the party line in almost every column cramps one's creativity. And it's much less problematic to predict the wrong team to win the N.L. East than to predict the existence of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and there is no need to write a column after the season about how the Phillies' third-place finish actually vindicated your expectations.

Regardless of Brooks's motivations for writing this columns (he can't resolve any personal crises, no matter how small, without first writing a column about them?), he can't escape my criticisms by writing about baseball fandom, as I am just as qualified to write about that as about politics or culture. Where by qualified, I mean that I have a computer and some free time. Actually, I do have a solid eighteen years of being a Mets fan under my belt -- among my first memories is one of watching the 1986 World Series, and when I was four I could tell a policeman that my favorite player was Keith Hernandez -- compared to about five or so of really caring about politics, so I will probably never be more qualified to write about a Brooks column, unless Brooks starts writing about math, physics, or the works of P.G. Wodehouse. Anyway, let me just say that I really do hope that Brooks decides to start rooting for the Washington Nationals, because I'd prefer not to have him as a fellow Mets fan. In fact, when I started reading this column, my first reaction was horror at the thought that I might have to actually give Brooks a bit of grudging respect, since he was, after all, a Mets fan. Luckily, the fact that he is considering switching allegiances to the Nationals, just because they happen to have moved to town, removes the necessity for any such action. In fact, my respect for Brooks has never been lower. Well, that's not strictly true, as it couldn't actually have fallen, but let me just say that I'm not surprised that Brooks is the kind of fan who would contemplate moving from one team to another. He probably rooted for the Yankees AND the Mets when he was a kid, too.

Brooks posits three sources for fandom. The first source is location: you are a fan of the team from where you live. Having moved to Washington, Brooks says, it is only natural that he become a Nationals fan. This is patently ridiculous. To abandon a team just because you have moved is one of the worst forms of treachery. I have not lived in New York City since I was six years old, yet I have never been tempted by any other sports team. My grandfather has lived much of his life in the Midwest, yet he did not stop being a Giants fan simply because he no longer lived in New York, or even because the Giants stopped living in New York. Even the metaphor Brooks gives for this kind of fandom, patriotism, breaks down. Many immigrants maintain a loyalty to their home country. Their children may be Americanized, but they speak the language they brought from the old country and try to keep as many of the traditions as they can. Not that it would be relevant if all immigrants immediately assimilated one hundred percent: it would still be wrong to change team loyalties just because one no longer resides in the same city as the team.

Brooks's next way to explain fandom is that "the love of a team is primarily a psychological connection. It is a bond forged during a lifelong string of shared emotions - the way I felt when Tommie Agee made that diving catch in 1969, the way I have suffered through the disappointment of Mo Vaughn." And he is, for once, absolutely correct. This is fandom, created from the exhilaration of Robin Ventura's grand slam single and the crushing disappointment of Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run the next day. It is a bond strong enough that not only can't you stop watching a meaningless September game against the Expos, you get increasingly caught up as it goes along, become excited as the Mets rally to take the game into extra innings, and then cast down as the Expos win anyway. However, Brooks is not entirely correct when he says that to abandon the Mets would be to abandon himself and send him off on "a life of phoniness and self-alienation." For if he is contemplating, even for a minute, becoming a Nationals fan, then his bond with the Mets obviously isn't very strong. It's not even as if this is August of 1993, or even 2003, when the Mets were down and not going anywhere, and one could excuse a bout of doubt caused by depression, as long as the doubter recanted afterward. But the Mets are (probably) on the way up: they won't win the division this year, unless everything breaks right, but in 2006 and 2007, watch out. If Brooks is contemplating leaving the team this year, and at this time, when everything is bright and full of promise, nobody has been injured (well, except for Steve Trachsel, but he's not irreplaceable), and everybody is excited about the upcoming season, then he clearly just doesn't care that much.

Brooks's third reason why one becomes a fan is devotion to a philosophical ideal: i.e., for Yankees fans, pure hatred of all that is noble and good, (Brooks says, "All cower before the greatness that is Rome," but I like my formulation better), for Red Sox fans, "nobility through suffering", for the Cubs, "It is better to be loved than feared", and for the Mets "God smiles upon his darlings". This is, frankly, bullshit. First of all, it applies only to a handful of teams. What ideal do the Mariners embody? The Reds? God help us, what ideal do the Devil Rays embody? Secondly, this is applicable only to particular eras. The Yankees may be the Evil Empire now, but back in the 80's and early 90's they were busy sabotaging Don Mattingly's Hall of Fame case by sucking. The whole "nobility through suffering" meme for the Red Sox is a product of the 1986 World Series, which spawned the idea of The Curse of the Bambino. And the Mets haven't really been about miracles since 1969. Sure, there was Mookie Wilsons's grounder through Buckner's legs, but the 1986 team was a well-constructed team with some very good, and even outstanding, players that was expected to compete. The 1969 team really came out of nowhere: the Mets won 100 games in 1969, after setting a team record in 1968 when they won 73. And the 2000 World Series appearance had nothing miraculous about it. Actually, one could argue that, if one allows for negative miracles, the years after 2000 were pretty miraculous. The Mets acquire sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Roberto Alomar, .300 hitter and Gold Glove second baseman, and he immediately sucks! It's a miracle! But somehow, I don't think that this is what Brooks is going for.

Unsurprisingly, this is the type of love Brooks has for the Mets. He doesn't care about the team, just some ideal that they once represented and now no longer do. While it's great that the Mets teach Brooks that "miracles happen and the universe is a happy place", what this means is that Brooks doesn't actually care about baseball, much less the Mets. Instead, he's desperately searching for a team that embodies his philosophical vision of a world where miracles happen. To which all I can say is, good luck and good riddance. Oh, and don't become a Nats fan: with their bullpen practically nonexistent and their lineup full of holes, it's going to take direct divine intervention for them to win anything this season.

Why the Times allows this to continue is beyond me. Are they really paying for Brooks to wonder whether to abandon the Mets (in the pages of a New York newspaper, to boot)? Can they at least prevent him from wasting his space on trivial topics? Or prevent him from wasting his space altogether by giving it to someone else?