Lifestyle

Our Teams, Ourselves: Tribal Rites

What lies at the root of rooting for the home team?

This is the way every longtime Giants fan feels.

Mark Mehler got hooked on the New York Football Giants by the great play-by-play announcer Marty Glickman in the 1950s and became a season ticket holder in 1964. He once had a cat named Lawrence Taylor who tried, and failed, to scratch out his eyes — a metaphor, he’s pretty sure, for most of his 55 years of fandom. Greg Prince latched onto the Miracle Mets of 1969 as they were about to capture the championship of baseball, the fancy of a city and the heart of a six-year-old forever. Generations later, he stands relentless vigil for the next sign of anything remotely miraculous about them.

In this, the first installment of “Our Teams, Ourselves,” the two take a break from the exhilarating agony of daily rooting to reflect on what it's like to maintain an allegiance to a team across the wins, the losses and the decades.

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GP: Several years ago, when the Mets were uncommonly hot, I was out of town to see a ballgame with a couple of friends I've known since high school. Both of them have forever been indulgent of my Mets thing even if neither shared it to any meaningful extent. We had a great time that day.

When the game was over, we met up with the significant other of one of my buddies and all went to dinner. The conversation drifted to everything but baseball ... and I realized that I had absolutely nothing to say to any of them. All I could think was, "Why aren't we talking about David Wright?"

MM: Who wouldn’t want to talk about David Wright?

Well, there I was, in the tranquil gardens of Villa Rufolo on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, gazing upon one of the most spectacular coastal vistas in the world. Thousands of miles from home and no one knew me from Adam, except this one guy who thought he did.

“Hey,” the fellow tourist called out to me, pointing at my Giants cap, "you guys suck!"

Incongruous and crude, to be sure, but there's no denying he knew me from my headgear: Mr. Giants Fan Guy. Isn't that why I wear the stupid cap wherever I go, in Italy and India and Winslow, Arizona? To announce my team allegiance to the whole world — for better or for suck.

GP: There's a difference between the "you guys suck" of grudging respect and the "you guys suck" that reflects the reality of the standings — I usually hear the latter — but either way, I'm not necessarily looking for my largely blue and orange wardrobe to engage total strangers.

We do, I suppose, implicitly invite comment when don we now our team apparel, yet as I go along, I find myself turning increasingly insular about my fandom. My favorite topic of discussion may be the Mets, but only if I'm talking to those who are enmeshed in the tribe. I don't have much patience for the patronizing, "So ... how are your Mets doing?" inquiries a fan inevitably receives in the world at large, because if you're going to ask, I'm going to tell you. And if you're not going to listen, I'm not going to want to deal with the likes of you in any situation.

I might have to, but I won't like it.

MM: I understand that, but when your significant other is a tribal outsider, different standards apply.

My ex-wife didn't even bother trying to patronize me. She abhorred football. At the University of Texas, she was the only one at the bar not crying when they announced the firing of their legendary coach Darrell Royal. I finally coerced her into accompanying me to an Eagles game and a drunken Philly fan spilled beer over her head. She never set foot in Giants Stadium again.

My current wife is a better sport. She doesn't get the game — she still thinks the dime package is something you get in a bank. But she tries to care, and I appreciate the effort.

GP: Expose me to a nest of Eagles fans and I'd be mulling a trial separation, too.

I never explicitly told my intended she had to join the tribe, but she figured out I would view our marriage as an isosceles love triangle and cheerfully adopted the faith — at least on a Reform level. I remain equally committed to my wife and my Mets, though I have to admit I don't sit myself down on the couch at 7 o'clock every night for six months and proceed to stare intently at every move she makes until 10:30. Then again, I've never been tempted to curse her out for bunting incessantly.

She'll talk about David Wright with me. She won't remember the double he drove to left two innings ago, but that's OK. That's what the Orthodox members of the tribe are for.

MM: In some way, I think my relationship to the Giants is a proxy for all the relationships in my life. My dad and I started on this journey 50 years ago and we saw enough bad football in the first 17 years to drive Knute Rockne to drugs. A fetid litany of mind-numbing losses, yet we kept coming back for more. Together. How I wished he could have been with me in Phoenix to see David Tyree catch that pass in Super Bowl XLII with his head.

And then there were the good folks in Section 135 at Giants Stadium, in the golden days before personal seat licenses. I knew their names, their families and their health histories. There were Mitch and Helen, a marvelous old couple who never forgot to bring me a Delicious apple for nutritious halftime delectation. There was the pure, non-alcohol-fueled fandom of Mike and Adam, who reminded me of the youthful me.

Now that gang's been decimated by a soulless new stadium and personal seat licenses. Today, my seatmates are ExxonMobil — one week, visiting Pakistani geologists, the next week, Mid-Atlantic middle management. Something special's been lost, forever. But I return, not for the wins, but, in the poet's words, to live in the along. And I find new friends to join me on a fan's journey.

GP: In our heads and perhaps our living rooms, we watch our teams alone, but these games and these seasons don't feel quite as real if I'm not sharing them with the rest of the tribe, whether it's at Citi Field or on Twitter or through the blog I co-write with a very good friend ... who is my very good friend because we met each other on an AOL Mets board almost twenty years ago. The first time we got together was at Shea. The first place I took my future wife was Shea. Almost everybody I've gotten to know well in this century I've gotten to know well either at a ballpark or discussing what happened at a ballpark, even if the ballparks are surely built more for the high rollers who don't much care than the diehards who don't know how not to care.

I do look forward to the Mets emerging from the competitive desert they've been wandering through for far too long, but as I get older, I find my desire to experience a third world championship — the Mets' first since 1986 — almost isn't about fulfilling my own fan fantasies. I want to share the sensation with the generations that have come along behind me, the ones to whom '69 and '86 might as well be Yorktown and Appomattox.

MM: I think every fan's relationship with his or her team changes with age, unless it's a matter of arrested development or imbecility. Offhand, I can think of several discrete stages of my long-term affair with the Giants, beginning with idolatry (all apologies to the Second Commandment), followed by sharp disappointment that eventually escalated to existential despair.

I recall returning home after witnessing the infamous, horrifying "Fumble" in 1978 and finding my ex had packed her bags and moved out (she returned two days later). I blamed Joe Pisarcik and Larry Csonka for driving me to a new emotional low. That night I drank alone and watched 6th-grade basketball on cable TV. Back then I even had the audacity to write in a magazine that "only the dead know the Giants." I was in way over my metaphorical (and literary) head.

GP: I can tell my readers stories about Tommie Agee and Mookie Wilson until I'm orange and blue in the face, but I want them to know that these tales from the ticker-tape parades aren't the baseball version of the moon landing conspiracy theories. It wasn't all rigged up in a spare NBC studio. Our team actually does come out on top once in a great while. It has happened before. It can happen again.

I want to feel on top of the world as I did when I was a kid and when I was a young man, but a part of me, now that I've passed 50, feels it would be almost gravy drizzled atop the overpriced Citi Field Box Frites to want it mostly for myself. Kids, I want to say when that last out is someday made and that next championship is someday won, welcome to boundless euphoria.

MM: When the Giants starting winning playoff games, I experienced an identity crisis. My Giants died in car crashes and got cancer from all the chemical waste in the Meadowlands swamp. Who were these guys? But I got over that, too, and started enjoying the ride. Four championships in 26 years, more than the Cowboys, Eagles and Jets combined. That's a fun fact for you.

But having reached social security age, the losses no longer sting as much, the wins are less exhilarating. My devotion feels less anchored in the past, looser and more abstract. I remain a devout fan, only one no longer haunted by gridirons.