Waking up on the first Sunday there would be football, early—my Mo Wilkerson jersey hanging on the door, ready to be pulled over my shoulders for the first time since last winter—outside, beyond the drawn shades that protected a sleeping Zoey from the light, the sky was indecisive, uncertain how to dress for the day. My dad, obsessed with being prepared, had watched the weather reports all week, teasing rain. By the time we reached the parking lot to unload our car and start our tailgate, the sky had found a sun dress; one it wore beautifully, until, after the Jets secured a 31-10 victory over the dreadful Browns, a parka was needed, rain, hesitant at first, started to fall, and like the season ahead, the sky looked far from clear.
We arrived for our 25th year of Jets football together, me and my dad, with my brother and his daughter, who had lost a coin flip the season before, this game, her game, after her twin sister got to go with us last year, sat in the backseat. Cars lined up to enter the parking lot, overflowing with fans, mostly men, decisively bro, adorned in green and white football jerseys, some wearing hats with brims that remained flat, others their brim curled around their face, all with their tailgate routine spilling onto the concrete. The grill, chairs, table, and cooler, once neatly packed, Tetris like to fit, now spread around the car.
The parking lot before a football game is like a pop-up neighborhood, a community formed: corn-hole, beer pong, soft toss with the football, and grilled food bringing everyone together. That, and their allegiance to the New York Jets.
Sitting in our seats for the first time, after making the long walk from the car, a pedestrian bridge away, through security, airport tight, up two escalators and down seven rows, the familiarity of being a season ticket holder found a scent. Faces that are forgotten, or stored somewhere deep in my brain where only the surroundings of a East Rutherford stadium can remind the path to attach a name, are present. The public address announcer is too loud, unnecessary, but a friendly voice. Even Fireman Ed, who quit the fans when they turned on him during the Sanchez era, was on the scoreboard again. Football was back.
Looking across the field and around the stadium, a mass of people blended together like watercolors, tinted green and white, darker shades saved for the colder months. A police officer sang the national anthem; a giant flag, the size of a football field, literally, was stretched, held by season ticket holders who won a raffle, shook for effect. Fireworks startled my niece, boomed overhead during player introductions and after each Jets score.
A television allows fans to see the players and game; a ticket gives access to the sights and sounds.
The Jets knocked the Browns starting quarterback out of the game, after letting Cleveland march down the field, the feet of Josh McCown leading the charge, his final run ending with a viscous hit, a fumble, and a changed football game. The Jets forced a turnover at the goal line and guaranteed a new signal caller the next time the Browns got the ball.
With Ryan Fitzpatrick barking the snap count through a thick beard for the Jets, Chris Ivory, a bowling ball, running the football, and Brandon Marshall, newly acquired, sure-handed, a favorite target in this game, the Jets offense looked competent. At first, before the Browns would cough up five free footballs, the defense was the only concern.
When Johnny Manziel threw a touchdown pass to the end zone directly below our seats, on a pass that floated in the air long enough for every Jets fan to recite the same words that they would soon type out on Twitter—same ol’ Jets—it felt like it was going to be a bad day. Not only would the Jets lose to the Browns, they would lose to Johnny freaking football. I dreaded the media coverage that would follow; I wouldn’t be able to watch or read sports news for a week!
But the Browns are the Browns and Johnny Manziel is Johnny Manziel, so even the misfortune of the Jets, a curse that my dad, irresponsibly, befell on me by taking me to my first game so many churchless Sundays ago, couldn’t turn this game into a loss.
The Jets start 2015 with a win.
David Wright hit a meaningless single to lead-off the seventh; the captain does that now, he hits a lot of singles, so as I exchanged texts with my dad, he, letting the 7-1 deficit emphasize his point that the Mets needed to worry about the Nationals, and me, less worried, more ready to move on to deGrom’s start the next day, it didn’t seem like Wright’s single, a line drive to right field caught on two hops by Bryce Harper, would mean anything. Then Lucas Duda popped out. Travis d’Arnaud flied out. It was a six run deficit with 7 outs to go.
Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero, the 7th inning relievers who needed one more out to keep the ball out of Drew Storen’s hands, suddenly lost the strike zone. Three walks wrapped around a Wilmer Flores single. Yoenis Cespedes, who, since arriving in Queens, has turned everything he touches to gold, had made a devastating error the half inning before, turning a bases loaded single into an error-induced inside-the-park grand slam, now had a chance to redeem himself. Drew Storen, the struggling right-hander, would come in to try to get him out.
Cespedes doubled, a six run deficit was reduced to one. The Mets were in business. Three more walks later, the game was tied. It was as if the rest of the game wasn’t needed. The Nats had lost the day before, despite staking a 5-3 lead for Max Scherzer, and had now, inexplicably, blown a six run lead before they could record a final out in the 7th inning. By the time Kirk Nieuwenhuis, on a pinch-hit hunch by Terry Collins, connected on a go-ahead home run to give the Mets the lead, the division race was over.
The final pitch by Jeurys Familia hung there; it hung there like a hot air balloon, years of blowing games like this one filling it up with heat, pushing it up and up, pleading with the hitter to send it flying, but then its buoyancy fell flat, a batted ball turned into a double play, the grounding of one team’s hopes a source of propulsion for the Mets.
It would be easy to mark September 8th as the day the 2015 Nationals died, but that would be like assigning death by a terminally-ill patient’s sharpest pain. A death sentence has been written for the Nats since April, when the Mets rolled off eleven wins in a row and Matt Williams’ bunch forgot they were supposed to be great. All that is left at Nats Park is a morgue. The fans lining up to see the fated patient one last time, before leaving—perhaps too quickly—but in their own time, a friend they once knew, so young and full of life, now gone.
On Wednesday night, after the Mets had swept the Nationals, after various websites updated their databases, sans serif printing a seven game lead on fancy graphical interfaces, I told myself to savor the moment. I keep telling myself this. A division title isn’t enjoyed on the night of clinching—that’s the climax; the actual excitement, pleasure, and let’s stop beating around the bush, arousal, of winning a division happens throughout the year. The 12th inning home run by a player who was traded, the multiple home runs by the player they hadn’t planned on acquiring, the bullpen work with new roles defined once an expected face blushed to steroid use. Each night, each win, special.
The Mets are going to play in October; I seriously can’t believe it. How I will react to the pressure, knowing the fragility of reaching baseball’s forbidden season, I’m not sure; it’s sadistic, pleasurable and torturous at the same time.
Talking about the Mets winning the division is against the rules. Sports fans will do anything to stay in order; wearing lucky t-shirts, old, decals peeling, smelly; their favorite spot on the couch, imprinted and lonely, so long as moving two feet to the right sparks a rally; the volume number, a digital amount the sound has to return to after each commercial break; everything is respectful to the Jinx. The Mets have a 7 game lead—don’t jinx it! Especially using the number 7, the same one circled on the front of trains that reach Willets Point, forever jinxable—a seven game lead vanished in seventeen days; mets fans obsessively reminding people of this point, both as a Medal of Honor, having survived it, and to avoid the Jinx.
A jinx is a broken heart’s conscience. Only the youngest fans, growing up in the shadow of Madoff and Bobby Valentine fairy tales, having known losing for so long that winning feels pleasant and surprising, not overdue, remain wide-eyed. Teams with big leads don’t fall apart; not a team that keeps winning in dramatic fashion every night, finally giving meaning to that nickname—the Amazin’s—that always appeared in conversation and print, but never on the field. The Jinx only knows the fans who watched a dynasty turn to white powder, a subway series reward the cross-town rivals, a curveball sail by a passive Carlos Beltran, two September leads torn down like the stadium they helped close down.
I grew up somewhere in the middle of the young and old. I’m also realistic—a sabermetrician. Practical. The Nats are dead. And I’m not afraid to say it.
That does it for this week!