Every year, when my New York Mets begin their home season, the family of the late Bill Shea — the man for whom the dearly departed Shea Stadium was named — presents the current manager with an oversized floral horseshoe. Good luck, the Sheas are saying, leaving unspoken that when 162 opportunities to thrive or fail await you, you’re going to need it.
I relish the floral horseshoe ritual, just as I warmly anticipate every piece of the opening day pie. There’s that first train ride with fellow baseball travelers. That first mob fighting its way off the platform and down the stairs. That first tailgate soirée I detour toward in the overpriced parking lot. That first overzealous frisk from security. That first ticket-scanning mechanism that takes four or five waves to capture my essential bar code data. Those first pocket schedules I’ll routinely stuff into my jacket in the course of the year because you never know when somebody’s going to ask you, “Do you know where I can find a pocket schedule?”
And that’s all before I find my seat and applaud the progeny of Mr. Shea inside sold-out Citi Field, the structural descendant of Shea Stadium. I applaud Bill’s kids and grandkids. I applaud manager Terry Collins, his coaches, his training staff and all 25 of his players. I applaud everybody and everything. I applaud that it’s Opening Day. When you’re a baseball fan, no matter the identity of your team, it’s the first box on your pocket schedule that’s shaped the most seductively.
Yet somewhere within this alleged land of hope and dreams, a sense of dread can’t help but loiter. On Opening Day, the Mets are 0-0. How do I know they won’t go 0-162? Unlikely — even given their inability to fashion a winning record since Shea Stadium last stood, in 2008 — but a whole new season can lurk like an abyss. For while I applaud the Sheas, the Mets, the pomp and the pageantry, and even as I agree with every old pal I bump into that, yes, it’s grand that we survived another winter, let’s play ball … I wonder what’s going to go wrong.
Something will definitely go wrong. Even the opening day optimists have to concede intermittent worst-case scenarios. The best of ball clubs, it is repeated as folk wisdom this time of year, lose a third of their games no matter how much goes right. By that equation, my Mets are already guaranteeing me 54 occasions for unhappiness — and my Mets by no means project among the best of ball clubs. That the same adage assures us the worst of baseball teams somehow emerge victorious in a third of their games doesn’t present me with a countervailing bright side. You win some, you lose some, sure, but losing takes a lot more out of you than winning puts into you.
Plus there’s that other third, the 54 games rife with theoretical uncertainty. They could go overwhelmingly well. They could go fully to hell. We just don’t know. The mélange of possible outcomes may explain why as much as I embrace opening day, a part of me prefers the unheralded satisfactions of closing day. When closing day is over, I know what happened. I know where those 162 games went. I won’t be surprised when our young ace is seriously injured or our hottest hitter is traded for prospects. It already happened and, despite the disappointments, whatever didn’t kill kept me rooting.
In essence, I survived another summer.
Life is stocked with few enough guarantees, but you roll with it because you’re in the middle of it before you all, who were born without your consent, realize what you’ve gotten yourself into. Baseball, however, beckons with unreasonable promise. In one opening day flourish, it’s banishing the chill winds and it’s wiping the slate clean. It’s offering you and that team whose fortunes you’ve dwelled upon since childhood the freshest of starts. If you stopped to think about the odds against it delivering all that it promises, you might never board the train that takes you out to the old ball game.
Yet, of course, you get on. Because where else in this life can you be giddily conned into what baseball conspires to make you believe? Maybe we win the first game. And if we win the first game, maybe the second falls in line. Maybe there’s a nice little winning streak upon which momentum can be built, and soon, the prospects are called up from the minors and the injuries to the ace heal. And maybe a few more developments we couldn’t have predicted in March are positively crackling by July. And maybe we play more than 162 games this year for the first time since the last time we went to the playoffs, which was far too many pocket schedules ago.
Or maybe we’re 1-0 after opening day with no guarantee that it’s foreshadowing anything. Or we’re 0-1 with a chance to even it up in the second game, the night when the paid attendance plummets to a cozy gathering and the ceremonial bunting has disappeared and it’s just baseball, which, win or lose, is what we’d been waiting for all winter anyway. And when that one’s in the books, it’s two down, 160 to go — some of them with train rides and tailgates, many more in front of a television or by a radio, all of them drawing us in, perhaps enhancing our existence, maybe simply distracting us from it. No matter the results your team’s season generates, you’ll be in the middle of it again without realizing what you’ve gotten yourself into.
Whaddaya know? Baseball’s conspiracy to make me believe just conned me again.