October 1, 2007

"The Idol of Origins" and the Mets

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In its unassuming way, the new school year enveloped me. Before the final week of August, my first class had already begun. Students sported shorts and sunglasses, the History Department indulged in Dinosaur Barbecue at its annual picnic, and for those hardened by Ithaca’s rude winters, the sun-soaked campus possessed a foreign feel. But it now seems impossible to deny that autumn has trickled in. Many of us have lectures to write and deliver, papers to grade, articles to research, students to advise, books to review, books to write, books to read (and reviews to read), and an academic job market to navigate. Such are the wonders and rigors of life for this Visiting Assistant Professor.
As September moves into October, there is also baseball to watch. For a weekend, this obsession will almost certainly jump out from the periphery of my consciousness and form its center. For I am a New York Mets fan, and my beloved team finds itself on the brink of an epic collapse.
When others learn of my allegiance to the Metropolitans, many raise their brows, wrinkle their noses, and ask how I became a member of this odd breed. Most natives of Springfield, Massachusetts, my hometown, grow up with an attachment to the Red Sox. Many others do not. Quite a few, like myself, are the children of migrants from the New York area. And New York City was only 40 miles further than Boston from my childhood home. Moreover, for most Boston-area residents, Interstate 495 forms Massachusetts’s western boundary. I do not begrudge them this worldview; if I grew up in Boston, I would not have had much regard for Springfield, either. All this is to say that nothing about the Red Sox compelled me, or called out to me, beyond the incidental fact that they played in my home state.
I acknowledge the envy that I sometimes feel toward other baseball fans – toward my friends and colleagues who were raised in Boston and root for the Red Sox, who hail from Philadelphia and root for the Phillies, even the Orange County native who favors the Angels. The envy certainly does not apply to any attributes of their specific teams – after all, I have no idea why anyone would enjoy rooting for Curt Schilling or Brett Myers, derive inspiration from the “rally monkey,” or beat “thunder sticks.” It is just that I sometimes wish I had grown up in a metropolitan area large enough for a major league baseball team, a place in which no other road could have been taken.
My father skipped high school to attend the Mets’ first home game at Shea Stadium, and he watched the 1969 “Amazin’ Mets” win the World Series while the crowd sang, “Give Peace a Chance.” But an element of choice always loomed over his allegiance. My Dad was a Yankees fan before he decided to embrace the Mets (which to my ear sounds like voting for the Iraq War before voting against it), and my parents often joined in the festivities at Fenway Park when they lived nearby during the 1970s. But at a certain moment point, my father became a Mets fan for life — and so did I. The events of 1986 are burned in my memory, when as a nine-year-old I worshipped Doc Gooden and the Mets team that broke millions of Massachusetts hearts.
At some point it becomes fruitless to divine the origins of my love for the Mets. I hope my colleagues in the History Department will not accuse me of torturing Marc Bloch’s words if I enlist them in my cause. The search for origins, Bloch argued in The Historian’s Craft, lends itself to “ambiguity” and “danger.” Bloch questioned a “preoccupation with origins,” for observers too often used their suspicions about the roots of an event to assess the results. “The past was so assiduously used as an explanation of the present only in order that the present might be the better justified or condemned. So in many cases the demon of origins has been, perhaps, only the incarnation of that other satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments.” The explorations for past origins thus fed a “mania” for criticism and castigation in the present. Indeed, the beginnings of my love for the Mets are more tangled than are the preferences of many other baseball fans.
Yet the origins of that love matter little. My devotion exists undeniably, without regard for its origin, and this weekend it carries the potential for heartbreak. In these last days of September, I will revise my next lecture, finish my fellowship applications, work on my next research project, and I will live and die with the Mets in their final regular-season games.
A god smiled somewhere when the History Department’s newest faculty member, Dan Magaziner, was assigned the office directly across the hall from mine. Photos of Pedro Martinez, David Wright, and Willie Randolph adorn my office door. And as the Mets frittered away their division title to the Phillies, Prof. Magaziner – in his tattered red Phillies hat – grew ever more gleeful. He wished me luck last Thursday, and I politely told him I did not accept. As he left the building on Friday afternoon, Dan peered into my office, formed a wide grin, and told me to have a bad weekend. A smile crept across my face as I meekly answered, “You, too.”

Jason Sokol is a professor in the History department and is one of the Sun’s faculty bloggers. He can be reached at blogs@cornellsun.com.