The Masters of the Lingering Death

Tony Russo
Sep 21 · 9 min read

Faith, Brotherhood and the New York Mets

It’s October 10, 1969.

Three months ago the New York Mets were 10 games out of first place. A year earlier they had been one of the worst teams in baseball. Again.

The next day, they would face one of the best teams in baseball for the start of a World Series they seemed destined to lose. Five days after that they would be world champions. Three hundred and fifty-nine days after that, I was born into a world where “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” wasn’t just an aphorism, it was as true as gravity.

Over the ensuing decades, any victory that wasn’t against all odds and reason wasn’t worth celebrating.

But, I have to be clear here, there is no lesson, although I want there to be one. I want to talk about how learning to relish the unlikely wins makes me enjoy them more. I want to talk about how descending into cynicism is the natural end of four decades of hoping against hope, I want my fidelity to mean something. I want my faith justified. I want to be part of something bigger than myself.

Even if those things are true (and I want them to be, but I’m pretty sure they’re not) I don’t know that it matters.

I know that it will never be a miracle when the Yankees win the World Series, but it always has been one when the Mets have.

It’s August 22, 2013 and I’m breathless, crouching in one of the darkened rows at the AMC 24 in Cherry Hill, N.J. having just snuck into The World’s End, the final movie in what’s often called the Cornetto trilogy. Theaters all over the world are showing a triple feature with the previous two movies (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) running before the midnight premiere.

I was supposed to meet Bobby, the oldest of my five younger brothers, at the theater but had purchased tickets online and had somehow chosen Pittsburg rather than Cherry Hill. Instead of accepting the event manager’s assurance that there wasn’t a seat left to be had, I crashed the gates and hid in the dark.

I was 42 years old.

Shaun of the Dead already was underway and the ushers gave up after a cursory check, but both they and I knew I’d be ferreted out at the break.

Bobby and I found one another in the dark using text messaging and the occasional raised screen face. I brought him up to speed and we sat quietly through the rest of the zombie movie. Bobby is nearly three years younger than me, a successful executive at a massive company and he carries himself that way. The thing is, though, he is as likely to ignore rules as am I, he just doesn’t look the part. He doesn’t look innocent so much as he looks above whatever shenanigans we’ve been accused of. In August 2013 he was a 40-year-old father of three.

It is October 25, 1986. Actually, it probably was October 26 when this story takes place. The Mets, who were on the verge of being eliminated in Game Six of the World Series came from behind to tie the Red Sox and force the game into extra innings. The Sox scored two runs in the first half of the 10th and got the first two Mets out in the second half.

Then, with two outs and nobody on, the Mets put together a series of base hits that scored a run and put a man on first and one on third. In that moment a win felt inevitable; as if powered by the force of history and the declarative that had been repeated into meaninglessness over the last fifteen years: Ya gotta believe.

My father, Bobby and I watched in the TV room. There was pepperoni and provolone and oil-cured olives, Super Bowl level snacks in our house. The provolone was so sharp it burned to eat, but not much of it had been eaten since the commercial break. Mets hope is a sick hope, like you’re guilty and know you’re caught but haven’t admitted it out loud to yourself yet on the off chance you’re wrong for once.

In the mid-1960s a sportswriter called the Mets the “masters of the lingering death.” What he was getting at was their ability to keep you caring even though everyone involved knew it was pointless. Lots of teams snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but few did it with the Mets’ ruthlessness or regularity. They trained me to hope against hope in a way that eventually would become a character flaw. When smarter and better people had the sense to quit, I stayed until whatever inevitable loss or disappointment was magnified to reveal my credulity.

The fact is, that there are times when you should quit, when it is appropriate to give up and if you don’t recognize that you always will court heartache. But as with a gambler or a junkie, the highs are phenomenal. Unlike those types, though, for me the highs and lows aren’t dopamine or adrenaline based, they’re regret based.

I never want to have given up, to have lost faith in the cause. It’s the kind of thing that might seem praiseworthy on the face of it, but I never learned where to point my faith, so where it points it sticks long after it is justified.

But I feel like that’s what we all want, to have our faith justified to be rewarded for our loyalty.

As the movie ended and the lights came up, Bobby leaned over and handed me his ticket. For the price of a ticket paid attendees were given a commemorative tee-shirt and a lanyard. Bobby scooped up his tee-shirt and handed me the lanyard and went to call his children and say goodnight. Fifteen minutes later he returned with an additional lanyard.

“I said to the lady at the door, ‘Is everyone supposed to have one of those? ’Cause I didn’t get one,’ and she said, ‘Sure,’ and handed it over,” he told me.

I moved two seats away, placing myself among three 20-somethings who appeared to be saving a seat for someone who wasn’t coming. The woman who had assured me there were no tickets left was in the front of the room, asking trivia questions and giving tee shirts for correct answers.

I had a lanyard and a ticket, all I really was missing was the commemorative tee shirt.

When I raised my hand to answer one she was absolutely astonished. It took her maybe two or three seconds to register what was happening. She looked at me as if to say, “Are we really going to do this?” I smiled at her, answered the question and awaited delivery of my prize.

She moved purposefully up the aisle to where I was sitting and told me I’d have to show her my ticket. Brushing past Bobby I handed it over and she turned from astonished to dumbfounded to practically enraged. She grabbed each of the hipsters, demanding to see their tickets.

She ignored the tall, well-appointed man quietly looking into his phone at the end of the row.

The hipsters all produced tickets, she told me she knew I didn’t belong there (or that she knew who I was or something. Frankly I was barely breathing at the time and the adrenaline was making everything a little fuzzy). She stomped back to the front of the theater.

As I mentioned earlier, mere wins are boring.

The Red Sox brought in Bob Stanley to pitch to Mookie Wilson. Stanley hadn’t given up any runs to the Mets at all that series, but with the count 2–2 threw a pitch in the dirt that skipped past the catcher and allowed Kevin Mitchell to score from third base. It was a tie game and the winning run was in scoring position. All the Mets needed to win was one hit.

Mookie Wilson was at bat for four of the longest minutes in my life. He fouled the ball off six times before hitting a dribbler to first base.

I have watched the video replay of this at-bat a dozen or so times recently and still cannot believe that what happened next happened over the course of a little more than two seconds.

As the ball rolled down the first base line, I heard my brother and father deflate to have hoped so hard to see the Mets win a World Series, to have been at all those awful games and have watched all the mediocre teams and to come this close and fail was too ghastly to consider.

I was baffled. Something clearly was wrong, the Mets had won this game the second they had runners on the corners. The momentum of luck had anointed them. That they would go on to win the World Series, let alone Game Six, had been inevitable. Losing on a slow roller to the first baseman felt as likely as having the game end with an alien invasion, but there it was happening before my eyes.

Out loud I said, “It can’t end this way.”

Then, a little more than two seconds after Mookie Wilson made contact, the ball scooted through first basemen Bill Buckner’s legs and into baseball history.

The three of us embraced, one at a time and then altogether before literally breaking into dance, moving in a circle, arm in arm, like witches around a boiling pot.

Outside the theater, I apologized to Bobby for inviting him to a movie and then sitting with other people. I knew he must’ve been at least a little disappointed. Although I got the sense he’d enjoyed the movies and still liked getting one over on the grownups with his older brother, he still didn’t love the chaos that tends to travel with me. He’s always been good at dealing with it but would have (I think) been just as happy to hang out with me rather than pretending we didn’t know one another for nine hours.

The waiting to get caught, the tension that came with it, wasn’t pleasant, but from the moment Bobby had pressed his ticket into my hand I knew I wouldn’t be thrown out of the theater. I knew it even more certainly than I had known the Mets were going to win, mostly because I really only had hoped the Mets would win.

You see, the Mets didn’t reward my faith when they won, although I felt then and feel now like they did. What makes them the masters of the lingering death is that they’re not capable of rewarding people’s faith. I mean, no sports team is, but the Mets are just really, really good at it. You can have all the faith and all the loyalty in the world and it will have zero effect on your team’s play.

It’s knowing that they are eventually going to let you down and pretending that you don’t know it that makes sports fans called the faithful as if they are religious people.

You can hope that you’ll be rewarded, or that you get what you want. You can hope so hard that it feels like you’re making history happen, that you can see the pre-ordination in every success. But at least hopes can be dashed or fulfilled. Faith keeps you moving whether it’s warranted or not.

Things can’t reward faith. People can’t reward faith. Right there in the way we use the word implies that faith is a thing unto itself. Faith is the reward. It allows us to continue to believe whatever we want, no matter what oppositional evidence piles up.

I didn’t have faith or confidence or even a belief that everything would be OK once Bobby handed me his ticket. It might be best to say that I had confirmation.

I guess if I’m honest I didn’t know that we would get away with our improvised theater ruse either, but it was an utterly different feeling. I want to say that knowing he was willing to be dragged along (again) because he likes mischief and he loves his brother was the real win. The fact that I didn’t happen to get caught sweetened it, and the fact that I got to flaunt it a little bit was really pleasant too.

His engaging in the conspiracy, just the reaffirmation that we were in it together? That was the victory.

I don’t believe that my brothers have my back any more than I believe I have a head.

Any more than I believe, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

It’s those things that are beyond faith, I think, that keep us grasping for larger connections, superstitiously trying to move history with our minds, betting against all odds and, god help me, cheering on the Mets year after year after year.

As a brief epilogue, I’ve been telling that Game Six story for decades, more so since my father died a few years ago because it was such a powerful, wonderful memory.

As it turns out, it also is a partially false one. According to Bobby, the dancing and probably the snacks and other details that didn’t make it into this telling happened when the Mets won game seven and officially became World Series Champions.

He told me this just recently when I mentioned I’d be sharing the story.

“It doesn’t matter to me how you tell it,” he said. “I just want to make sure we have our stories straight.”

Tony Russo

The world is all that is the case.

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