Insomnia, Lockdown and a great New York hack ganged up and forced me to become obsessed with something very alien indeed. Let’s dig deeper and see what’s so special about ‘The Loveable Losers’.
Trigger Warning – Sports
Mentions of various sports follow: this sort of talk can be very upsetting to people who have more important, relevant and apparently interesting excuses for lives.
What happens next is not for you if:
- You prefer pedantry over flawed, human conversation
- You collect signed photographs of Sir Cliff Richards (sic)
- You actively enjoy watching Formula 1
- You call yourself “a passionate foodie”
- You love to shout prices at the Antiques Roadshow before screaming, “Hahahah, you were expecting loads more money for your tatty, precious, dead granny’s painting of the Hight Street in Abersoch weren’t you, eh Karen? Eh? Weren’t you??! Hahahah!”
- You don’t vote
Rounders with a helmet
Baseball – a sport I derided for five decades as “rounders with a helmet” – is currently taking me covividly thorough Lockdown, chronic insomnia and being on the scrapheap. One of the reasons for this change of sporting heart, mind and loyalty is the great and marvellous old New York reporter, columnist, author and playwright, Jimmy Breslin.
(Chronic insomnia is the hideously garishly depressing epicentre of insomnia. It comes complete with aural and visual hallucinations, relationship breakdown, suicide and over-eating late night snacking. I’ve written about a lot of that in this piece called Insomnia, Madness & Fun Times Ahead.)
Jimmy Breslin, in case you’ve not been blessed enough to read him, wrote things like this:
“Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover.”
When you stop drinking, you have to deal with this marvellous personality that started you drinking in the first place.
More from Jimmy Breslin later.
The Clash of cultures
I was born in England where in the 1970s on a large playing field next to the small, flint-walled, flower bedecked, Victorian-built Church of England primary school, I played a bit of Rounders. That game was played at lunchtimes with, breathe in and hold tight your copy of The Sporting Life, mixed girls and boys teams. Rounders, you see, was most closely associated with girls. Boys were forced to play because it stopped us injuring each other with footballs, stinging nettles, cricket bats, newly learned swear words, and rocks.
Despite being roundly and almost unanimously associated with the root causes of Baseball, Rounders is not associated with the USA. Baseball is. In my teens, Baseball had even infiltrated “our” language: “screwball”, “step up the plate”, “three strikes and you’re out”, “ballpark figure”, “off base”, “rain check”, “touch base”, all these idioms had come over here during World War II with their glamorous mystery, nylons, bubble gum and colour.
For teens in 1976, however, America had become the Evil Empire. Our parents adored America and Americans. So we didn’t, disliking what your parents adored came very naturally as masturbation, a desire for carbs, being a terrible teenage drunk, or the knowledge that everybody else knew the script for life except for you.
My natural anti-Americanism, was forged by The Clash before they (like me) sold out, sharpened on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s world-fucking romance, has blunted over the years with experience and time spent in New York city. That said, it’s been recently honed to a vicious edge by Donald Trump et al.
Out of school I played cricket a lot. I mean a lot, weekday, weekend, day, night, a lot. I played, watched, read about, practised, preached and dreamt cricket. This was right up until 1976 when, in my early teens, I discovered Punk Rock, kissing with tongues with girls, with boys, with anyone who would kiss me back. I also discovered cheap, poor quality drugs, cigarettes and cider, and that my dad only had a few months to live. The cricket began to fade away.
Decades flowed around me and carried me away from my teenage snogging and cider drinking. Those decades take longer to pass each year weighed down as they are with the weight of the grown-up world. They also seem to take no time at all as they evaporate leaving nothing but condensation where real memory should.
But then Big Business took cricket away from free-to-view television and so I left cricket. Big Business, by the way, has always been essential to Baseball. This game is deeply interwoven with the USA’s soul, its folklore, its culture, its heart and its psyche. Looking at the history of race, gender and labour relations in Baseball, the influence of Big Money (let’s not be coy about Business) is clear. Those political histories are also publicly acted out, discussed and lived. Unlike cricket.
Big Business, however, prefers to keep a lower profile when it comes to cricket, a game that relies on another nostalgia: fair play (Baseball adoes a good bend of the rules), gentlemen bowlers, graceful batsmen, village greens, obscure field placements, tea, whites, and conservatism.
Sports fans: Big Business is everywhere in your dreams and hopes. It’s a fact of life. At least Baseball admits it.
Growth and Jimmy Breslin
Time moved on, and took me with it much against my will. I had a beautiful daughter who died, I married and then married again. I moved from one side of the world to the other, I drank a lot of booze; even going blind for a week but that’s an entirely different story. I smoked a lot of cigarettes. I tried a lot of drugs. Time passed. I didn’t, somehow.
So now 30 years on and here I am in my mid-fifties, an ex-smoker, ex-drugger and ex-drinker. It’s dark and I live in (old) York, with a loving wife, a decent house, an eager young mongrel dog, a cat in cancer remission. I have chronic insomnia, I blame giving up the fags, booze and drugs. It’s 03:58 in the morning again. I’m reading I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me: A Memoir. I get to a piece about Casey Stengel, a baseball coach and manager of immense reputation. The man managed the NY Yankees to about a million pennants (league wins) and a zillion World’s Series wins. Nobody likes The Yankees. People seemed to like Casey.
Stengel spoke “Stengelese”, a version of English. He loved the game. He had a face like two Samuel Becketts fighting each other in a sack full of gravel. For some reason, in 1962, in their inaugural and terrible first season Casey ended up at The Mets. The team has been thrown together with players that the other teams in the league felt they could well do without. The Mets in 1962, when I was being formed by my mum and pa, were an appalling mishmash of ancient, broken players on their ways out anyway, and young, inexperienced players ripe for destruction.
This is how The Mets came into my life. This and the fact that Seinfeld supported them, because they weren’t the Yankees.
Now, because of Jimmy B, and Ken Burns’ flawed Baseball documentary and the easy availability of live and archived games I have The New York Mets (aka The Loveable Losers, Miracle Mets, The Bad Guys) baseball organisation.
To quote Breslin from his book, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets’ First Year published in the year I was born:
“You see, the Mets are losers, just like nearly everybody else in life. This is a team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn’t manoeuvre himself to lunch with the boss enough… it is the team for every woman who looks up ten years later and sees her husband eating dinner in a t-shirt and wonders how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married. The Yankees? Who does well enough to root for them, Laurence Rockefeller?”
Unlike other US baseball teams, most of which were formed in the late 1800s and won’t let you forget it, The Mets are upstarts. Modernists. Arrivistes. Jonny-come-latelys. They played their first game on a Wednesday. April 11, 1962, slightly more than year before I came into the world. They lost that game 11-4 to the St Louis Cardinals (formed in 1892 for god’s sake), and went on to set the still-to-be-worsened record for the most losses in one season of 120 losses from 160 games. Marvellous effort.
Who couldn’t love a team like that? New York Yankees fans, Manchester United fans, Richard Branson fans, fans of Trickle Down economics, fans of dying not living rich, fans of success over experience, that’s who.
People who can’t enjoy the slapstick beauty of two highly remunerated sportsmen running into each other as they both try to catch the same rapidly descending ball in September under floodlights. Those people can’t understand baseball, let alone The Mets.
If you have ever seriously considered reading the last page of a novel first because the goal itself is more enriching than the rich and varied the experiences it takes to get there, then nothing I write will mean anything other than loserhood, sadness and failure. You will certainly consider it all to be a waste of your valuable time and energy.
You should leave immediately, maybe go to the gym where people can see you working efficiently and loudly. Or you could go to a restaurant and tell the chef that the meal was very good but that you would have cooked the lardo-poached chicken a teeny bit longer and without that beurre noisette that she seems to have burnt. Then leave a very low tip because the staff are only doing their jobs and no one tips you. That sounds exactly like the sort of thing you go-getters would probably do.
A month later, and I have now bought and read several books on the game and the team. I’ve got a with Mr Met the fingering mascot t-shirt. I’ve not bought an official MLB official shirt because, like football shirts in Britain, those things are instant poverty inducers, as heady in price as Hapsburg Gold Label Premium Reserve Absinthe is in alcohol). My insomnia allows me to watch games starting at midnight and going on for hours and wonderful hours. My wife is looking at ways of getting us to New York next year. She to lecture on post-war British History, me to drag her along to Citi Field and a Mets game.
So, Lockdown and Insomnia at least have on upside: I fell in love with the loveable losers.
And last night, “we” actually won a game!
Thanks Jimmy – R.I.P.