Hey, Mets! I Just Can't Quit You.
In 2005, I wrote a column saying that maybe it was time to abandon the New York Mets and become a fan of the Washington Nationals. My reasoning was sound. We were raising our kids in Washington. We had Nats season tickets. We were acquiring Nats paraphernalia. It would be so easy to join the fold.
Since then, the reasons to leave the Mets and follow the Nats have become even more compelling. The Mets have suffered a pair of bone-crushing late-season collapses that have changed the personality of the franchise. The team is mired in financial turmoil. It is expected to be mediocre for the next several seasons, at best.
The Nats, meanwhile, have a set of astoundingly talented young players and should be thrilling to watch for the next decade.
Yet the project to switch to the Nats has been a complete failure. Apparently, when writing that column seven years ago, I was suffering from the Rick Blaine Illusion (named for the character in "Casablanca"): the illusion that we are autonomous individuals who have the ability to shed and form our attachments at will.
We don't. I've since come to accept that my connection to the Mets exists in a realm that precedes individual choice. It is largely impervious to calculations about costs and benefit. It is inescapable.
Since I am me, I've read a bunch of social science papers on the nature of sports fandom, trying to understand this attachment. They were arid and completely unhelpful. They tried to connect fandom to abstractions about identity formation, self-esteem affiliation and collective classifications.
It's probably more accurate to say that team loyalty of this sort begins with youthful enchantment. You got thrown together by circumstance with a magical team — maybe one that happened to be doing well when you were a kid or one that featured the sort of heroes children are wise to revere. You lunged upon the team with the unreserved love that children are capable of.
The team became crystallized in your mind, coated with shimmering emotional crystals that give it a sparkling beauty and vividness. And forever after you feel its attraction. Whether it's off the menu or in the sports world, you can choose what you'll purchase but you don't get to choose what you like.
The neuroscientists might say that, in 1969, I formed certain internal neural structures associated with the Mets, which are forever after pleasant to reactivate. We have a bias toward things that are familiar and especially to those things that were familiar when life was new: the old house, the old hometown, the people, smells and sounds we knew when we were young.
I'd say my attachment to the Mets is more like an old friendship. It's not as intense as it used to be. I watch about 40 games a year, mostly on TV, and read blogs like Amazin' Avenue and Metsblog.com. I'd like the team to thrive and win championships. But I really just want them to continue to be one of the allegiances that enrich life. I want them to continue to provide vivid moments.
A Mets at bat is more vivid to me than an at bat not involving the Mets. A Mets prospect is more consequential than any other prospect. Hustling players like Daniel Murphy, charming players like Ike Davis, and funny players like R.A. Dickey are more endearing because they happen to be Mets. I was in the media center of the Mets spring training facility in Florida this week when Ron Darling, the excellent pitcher from the great teams of the 1980s, sat down at the table next to me and started reading The Times. That was a vivid moment, evoking all sorts of memories, though I didn't try to talk with him.
There's a core American debate between "On the Road" and "It's a Wonderful Life." "On the Road" suggests that happiness is to be found through freedom, wandering and autonomy. "It's a Wonderful Life" suggests that happiness is found in the lifelong attachments that precede choice. It suggests that restraints can actually be blessings because they lead to connections that are deeper than temporary self-interest.
The happiness research suggests that "It's a Wonderful Life" is correct and "On the Road" is an illusion. So I'll die a Mets fan, exaggerating their potential, excusing their deficiencies. This week, in Florida, I even detected new virtues in the team. In the early days, the Mets were lovable losers, then miraculous winners, then, in the 2000s, big-spending disappointments. Now they are young and frisky, enthusiastic and charming. I'll enjoy following this team and exaggerating its promise. I have no choice but to love the Mets. Just as I have no choice but to hate the Phillies.