On fandom, the New York Mets, and learning to own my emotions

By Aaron Leibowitz

New York Mets' Benny Agbayani points skyward as he watches his game-winning home run in in the 13th inning against the San Francisco Giants in game 3 of the National Leage Division Series Saturday, Oct. 7, 2000 in New York. The Mets won 3-2. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun )

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

(This piece was originally published at The Cauldron via SI.com: http://www.si.com/thecauldron/2015/10/08/2015-mlb-playoffs-new-york-mets-fans)

On Wednesday, as I sat at my cubicle scrolling through Twitter, my attention was drawn to what, for most people, would have been little more than a random baseball curio:

Fifteen years ago to the day, Benny Agbayani had hit a walk-off, 13th-inning home run in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Giants, giving the Mets a 2–1 series lead.

I plugged in a pair of headphones and began watching the clip. Almost immediately, a lump formed in my throat. I was at Shea Stadium on that October night. After Agbayani’s homer, I remember hugging my dad and feeling the entire stadium shake, roars of “BE-NNY, BE-NNY” ringing out around us. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Pure sports euphoria.

I wiped the dumb smile off my face and got back to work, but for the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about that feeling. I was eight years old. It remains one of the happiest moments of my young life.

This meandering down memory lane led me to two thoughts:

  1. I’m so excited the Mets are back in the playoffs for the first time in nine years (Game 1 in Los Angeles is Friday night), and I’d give anything to revel in another moment like the Agbayani walk-off in 2000.
  2. What is wrong with me? No, not because I am a Mets fan — I am largely at peace with that painful identification. But why does a silly game make me feel things that I rarely feel in my actual life?

Here’s the thing: The Mets’ postseason return has been nothing if not a wonderful and welcome occurrence. Most nights this past summer, I’d come home from work, kick back on my couch, fire up the Slingbox and watch my Metropolitans do their thing.

I was furious when the team’s deadline deal for Carlos Gomez fell apart, and I ran around my apartment screaming like a fool when Wilmer Flores hit a walk-off homer in extra innings against the Nationals (just two days after the infielder cried on the field when he thought he’d been traded).

Now, as the Mets prepare to square off against the lock-loaded Dodgers in the NLDS, it’s all I can think about. The team’s success, out-of-nowhere as it has often felt, has compelled me to connect and reconnect with family scattered around the country. I’ve been texting non-stop with old high school and college buddies. People I haven’t heard from in years have been reaching out to express their baseball solidarity, and, lo and behold, we’ve been catching up on each another’s lives.

On Monday, I’ll be driving home to New York to attend Citi Field’s first-ever playoff game. Naturally, I’ll be sitting alongside the man with whom I reveled in Benny’s 11th-hour bomb all those years ago — my dad.

Our Amazin’ family ties run deep. As it so happens, grandpa had grown up a Dodgers fan in Brooklyn, but with his team departed for Southern California, he came to embrace the Mets when they arrived in Queens in 1962. He bestowed his love of the team upon my dad, who in turn passed it on to me.

Last Sunday, the day after the Mets clinched their first NL East title in nine years, my uncle paid a visit to my grandfather’s grave. Using hundreds of tiny pebbles, he spelled out “Let’s Go Mets” on the headstone. He texted me the picture, and like Wilmer Flores back in July, I, too, cried.

Which bring us back full circle: What is wrong with me?

To be clear, it’s not that I think something is wrong with the fact that my favorite team invokes such intense feelings, or that those feelings bring me closer to the people I love. As fans, we’ve all heard self-proclaimed “rational people” wonder how anyone could get so worked up over silly games played by people we don’t know.

But isn’t that the wrong question to ask? Getting worked up is fun; it’s part of being human. And caring deeply about something — while knowing that millions of others care deeply about it, too — that’s exactly why certain things in sports can be nothing short of magical.

What’s weird to me is that very few other things in my life summon the same emotional charge. The best explanation, as I see it, is that we — and by “we” I mean men, in particular — are conditioned to use sports as an outlet for emotional expression that isn’t socially acceptable elsewhere. It’s the excuse we use to feel closer to other people, especially other men, free from the burning fear that we’ll be labeled less cool, less manly, too sensitive.

Of course, when sports is the onlyspace where men feel comfortable letting loose, that’s when things have the potential to turn ugly — and angry. This probably has something to do with why I used to throw temper tantrums every time I messed up in Little League. And it probably has something to do with why emotionally stunted men tend to become a wee bit protective of their sacred sports space.

Mostly, though, I think that release of emotion is a healthy exercise, and it has the potential to help us better understand and deal with life in non-sports settings. The Mets are part of my blood, part of what keeps me connected to generations of relatives and far-away friends. They’re my excuse to scream, to cry, and to unleash exuberant, unadulterated joy.

With Game 1 fast-approaching, all I can think about is how badly I want them to win it all.

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