Commentary

Are fans giving the Mets a free pass?

As losing seasons mount, the Flushing faithful seem all too willing to settle

Originally Published: July 17, 2014
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

Mets fansCourtesy Brian SullivanMets fan Brian Sullivan, pictured with his friend Michael O'Donnell, wore a bag over his head to Citi Field this month as a form of protest. He wasn't the first, and likely won't be the last.
NEW YORK -- Brian Sullivan has been a Mets fan for "sadly, all my life," but he never tried to do anything about it until the first weekend of this month. On a beautiful Sunday at Citi Field, he protested.

"I decided to wear a bag over my head to show my disgust," said Sullivan, 32, from Cranston, New Jersey.

Sullivan designed the brown bag in typical Mets fan fashion -- using a little humor to dull some of the sting. Under the two eye holes, he drew black tears and a frown.

Bag-headed Sullivan and his Cranston buddy, Michael O'Donnell -- who was bagless -- walked around Citi Field holding a sign that read, "At least the Mets didn't spend $200,000,000 like the Yankees did to suck!"

"Everybody laughed," O'Donnell said.

Until the seventh inning, that is.

After the seventh-inning stretch, a Citi Field security guard informed the pair that if Sullivan didn't remove the bag, he would be kicked out of the stadium.

The two were told "someone from management didn't like it."

A Mets spokesman said there was a miscommunication with the guard. The team has no official "bag-on-head policy," but fans aren't allowed to walk around wearing them, for safety reasons.

Who ever said the Mets don't care about their fans?


'THE WORST OWNERS IN SPORTS'


The Mets and their fans have a unique relationship. And part of it pivots around this question: Why does it seem Mets fans are more willing to accept mediocrity?

The answer, it seems, is a deep pride in being a long-suffering Mets fan, with all it entails. The rewards, the most ardent believe, are higher highs in Flushing than the ones that come nine miles away in the Bronx, where winning is old hat.

"I think it's the blue-collared mentality of Mets fans," said Henry Lee, a 39-year-old Mets fan from Connecticut. "Mets fans don't expect things to be easy. There is no sense of entitlement. Those who feel their team should be in the playoffs every year left the fan base long ago."

Mets fans have been given plenty of reasons to take the 7 train, transfer to the 4 and head up to the Bronx. It starts at the top.

It is difficult to find Mets fans who like team owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon these days.

"The Wilpons are like a real-life Rachel Phelps, the owner in the movie 'Major League,'" Sullivan said.

Said O'Donnell: "The Wilpons are the worst owners in sports."

That may be a bit harsh. The Wilpons don't intentionally try to lose, as Phelps did in the film, but they have been loathe to invest in a winner for years.

Though the Mets operate in the No. 1 market in the country, their $84 million payroll is higher than just seven of the other 29 major league teams, according to a database compiled by USA Today. The Yankees pay their players nearly two-and-a-half times as much.

Despite winning eight out of 10 during their homestand heading into the All-Star break, the Mets are still on pace for their sixth consecutive losing season. The Houston Astros are the only other team that hasn't posted a winning record since 2008.


AT LEAST THEY AREN'T THE YANKEES


Howie Rose, one of the voices of the team for more than a quarter century, may understand the DNA of a Mets fan better than anyone.

In 1954, Rose was born into a family of Yankees fans. His aunt even lived a short walk from Yankee Stadium.

His greatest memory of his childhood is sitting in the Bronx with his dad in 1961, watching Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

A year later, the Mets came to town -- and an 8-year-old Rose thought they were invented just for him. He has never looked back.

Rose The best part about the Mets was they weren't the Yankees. The Yankees had that very corporate, cold, staid image. Frankly, they were a team that everybody in baseball from the administrative level to the fan base around the country wanted to see come totally unglued.

-- Howie Rose

"The best part about the Mets was they weren't the Yankees," Rose said. "The Yankees had that very corporate, cold, staid image. Frankly, they were a team that everybody in baseball from the administrative level to the fan base around the country wanted to see come totally unglued."

There is a psychological and sociological aspect to bleeding blue and orange. Stephen Mosher, a professor in Ithaca College's Sports Management department, teaches courses that delve into the "tribalism" that unites fans.

"The first Mets fans were deliberately choosing to not to be Yankee fans," Mosher said. "They may not have been Brooklyn or Giants fans, when those teams left. They might not even have been baseball fans.

"It was a deliberate choice to be an anti-Yankee fan. The Mets represented the World's Fair and the 21st century in a way the Yankees didn't. The Mets also represent the middle class, the way the Yankees don't. The Yankees own everything. They are the high rollers. They always have been. A lot of people living in the real world resent that."

That "anti-Yankee" feeling is buried deep inside the ethos of many Mets fans. They may be more accepting of the Wilpons' lack of spending because as the Cranston protesters pointed out, at least we didn't spend $200 million to suck like the Yankees.

"They've been so good for so long and we've been so bad for so long that most of the Mets fans I know, we get more pleasure watching the Yankees lose and be bad, than we do out of the Mets winning," O'Donnell said. "It is twisted."

Mosher, a Red Sox fan, can relate. He emphasizes the "tribalism" that is steeped in a fan's sense of community, which makes it almost impossible to switch allegiances.

Mosher grew up outside of Boston. In 2004, when the Red Sox completed the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history, beating the Yankees in the ALCS, a delirious Mosher did not know what to do with himself in Ithaca.

"So I woke up the New York Yankee fan neighbors on my street by playing 'Sweet Caroline' at 6 a.m.," Mosher said. "They called the cops on me. That was good. That's tribalism."


FROM HATER TO SAVIOR


Mets pitcher Matt Harvey grew up in the other tribe, as a Yankees fan. He sort of behaves like it, too, with his air of confidence, carrying himself like he really belongs, even though he just got here.

Harvey, his parents and sisters used to make the drive down from Mystic, Connecticut, to root for his idol, Paul O'Neill, and the Yankees at Shea.

During those Subway Series visits as a kid, Harvey saw the endless "Yankees suck" shirts, which might as well have said, "I'm jealous."

Now, it is like one of the cool kids from the other side of town has come to the rescue.

"When you win that many championships, you put yourself on a pedestal, I guess," Harvey said. "Obviously, as a Met fan and a Met player, it's someplace where we want to be, too. Crosstown, getting all the recognition and all the championships, we want that, too, as players and as fans."

And if Harvey wins a World Series as a Met, you can almost hear the Citi Field faithful argue, it will be even sweeter than winning one with the Yankees.


THE REAL METS FANS OF FLUSHING


Ultimately, the relationship of Mets fans to their team is like a dysfunctional family that sticks together. They are mixed up, but in the end there is a lot of love.

While the Wilpons will probably be hated until they either spend more or win -- or perhaps both -- the fans have their favorite sons from the glory days. For the older crowd that means folklore about Tom Terrific and his crew.

[+] EnlargeJon Niese
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekJon Niese disputes the notion that Mets fans are naively loyal.

For Generation Xers, it is Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and their band from 1986. In between the championships, there are guys such as Mike Piazza and David Wright, who lacked the proper supporting casts but are beloved nonetheless.

Still, the relationship between players and fans is not easy, especially in the down years. Twelve years ago, Rey Ordonez let slip his real thoughts in the clubhouse, saying Mets fans are "stupid" because of their constant booing.

The other day at Citi Field, Jon Niese wondered where all the fans are these days.

"What do I think of Met fans?" Niese said with a laugh. "That's a good question. I really don't know except they want their team to win, pretty much like any other fan. That is pretty much all I know."

When it was pointed out to him that Mets fans have stuck with their team through a lot of bad times, Niese questioned the sentiment.

"How can you say that?" Niese said. "We are not filling the stadium. Where are the Mets fans when we are down-and-out? They were here in '06 and '07 when we were really good, but we have struggled and they are not coming to the stadium."

The Mets drew 4 million in their final season at Shea in 2008. This year, they may not top 2013's 2.1 million.


DREAM, DREAM, DREAM


The essence of being a Mets fan, and probably why fans don't run away from their club, or protest as loudly, is because the team encourages its fans to dream.

From Generation K to Alex Ochoa and Alex Escobar to this current crop of young players, there is always something to provide an inkling of hope.

During the lean years, an ingrained gallows humor is nurtured about the "The Worst Team Money Can Buy," Bobby Bonilla's endless contract, Bernie Madoff and all the can't-miss kids who missed.

Still, if you delve deep enough into the psyche of the Mets fan, you understand that the bad times are a rite of passage. You have to suffer and sacrifice before you finally succeed. And, anyway, when you look back at the tough times, you still have to shake your head and smile.

"When the Mets fell apart in 1977, that is when I felt most loyal to them," Rose said. "Because, 'OK, now we are in for a little bit of a rough ride, but damn it, I'm going to watch these guys and feel that I may be paying some dues now, but when the things turns around, I'm going to feel like I watched [Joel] Youngblood, I watched [Doug] Flynn and I watched [John] Stearns. They were fun in their own way."

While Jeff Wilpon doesn't seem to have the common touch, many of his employees do. Jay Horwitz, the Mets' longtime PR man, lives and dies with the club as hard as the biggest fan out there.

Horwitz reached out to the bag men, Sullivan and O'Donnell. He offered them front-row seats and a chance to attend batting practice for a game this season.

"To me, when the VP of media relations takes time out of his busy day to personally call me, a no-name fan, to apologize and offer me free tickets, it shows an admission of guilt on the part of the Mets but it also shows they care much more about their fans than I thought," Sullivan said.

And that may say it all. Mets fans may not come to Citi Field as much, but they can never leave.

Just when the fans are about to give up, they go on and win eight of 10 and fans can dream that another "Miracle" -- or at least a .500 season -- might be just around the corner.

"You ride out the lows, and the highs are incredible," O'Donnell said.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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