It’s not Cooperstown. But the people who come upon, or seek out, the baseball cards in a dimly lighted corridor of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art display behavior similar to the people, mostly men, you see poring over artifacts at the Baseball Hall of Fame nearly 200 miles upstate.
Both spaces are reverie chambers. A faded, colored image unlocks a memory — of a game, a season, a player, a parent or grandparent who loved the sport.
Me, I’m late to baseball. It wasn’t something my family paid any attention to; my father wouldn’t have known an outfielder from a shortstop. And I wasn’t born and raised in New York, where baseball loyalties and history run so rich and deep. The Phillies would have been my family’s team, if we’d had one.
And so I missed out on Babe Ruth’s lore; Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle; the significance of Jackie Robinson; Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world”; the abandonment of New York City by the Giants and the Dodgers; Yogi Berra’s malaprops; the glorious awfulness of the early Mets and the Amazin’ season of 1969; the lunacy of the Steinbrenner years and the so-called Bronx Zoo; the Bill Buckner game and the Mets’ second championship; the Yankees’ core four; the subway World Series of 2000.
I write this with trepidation, having been to only a handful of games in my life, knowing how vast the trove of the knowable is and how many people out there know it. (I recently married one of them. Our apartment is something of a shrine to the game. And yes, he helped me with the previous paragraph.)
I did catch Derek Jeter’s long goodbye, Mariano Rivera’s last game, A-Rod’s travails.
But the devotion, the willingness to watch the long, long games in the long, long season, the compulsion to keep rosters straight, and batting averages, and the disabled list, and the leap-out-of-your-seat joy and face-in-your-hands heartbreak of having a team — I didn’t get it. Now I do.
Curtis Granderson, my favorite left-handed batter, led me to the Mets; I liked him as a Yankee (the team most often watched and discussed in my household); Jacob deGrom, with his slingshot fastball, floppy hair and gorgeous smile, clinched it. And then Yoenis Cespedes came along with his batting muscle, providing a lesson in the drama of the trading deadline. My affinity, I’m proud to note, preceded that of the bandwagon fans who glommed on last year as the team gathered steam and, astonishingly, made it to the World Series.
My father was never a sports fan, but his grandmother Maud, I’m told, was: a wiry, intense baseball fanatic, well into her 90s, although there’s no one left who can tell me what her team was. And my mother: Don’t even try to talk to her if there’s a tennis match on. She follows the players’ stories as if they were potboilers and provides running commentary on their manners, looks, love lives and how she thinks they’re feeling that day. She is very fond of Andre Agassi, and misses him, but fell hardest for Rafael Nadal.
I admit to some of that sort of fandom myself. I’m old enough that I feel maternal about my Mets. They’re so young, some of them. “Is deGrom getting enough to eat?” I caught myself wondering when he returned to the game looking thin and tired after his newborn’s health scare. There are new Yankees I like to watch too: Didi Gregorius (now there’s a shortstop, Dad). He’s my older daughter’s age. Did you know he was born in the Netherlands?
But back to that other Met, the museum with the baseball cards. The show on view this summer is called “The Old Ball Game: New York Baseball, 1887-1977.” It was organized by Allison Rudnick, 29. She oversees the museum’s ephemera collection, which includes 300,000 items (30,000 of them baseball cards) given to the museum by Jefferson R. Burdick, who loved printed pop ephemera. “The legend goes that he amassed this collection without ever having gone to a game,” Ms. Rudnick said. “He had suffered from severe arthritis, which may explain his fanatical collecting. He wasn’t very mobile.” He died at 63, in 1963. Most of the nearly 300 cards in the exhibition were his. You can find them just beyond the Temple of Dendur.
Ms. Rudnick, a fellow Mets fan, was watching the subway series this past week. “Pretty typical,” she assessed. We compared notes on the pitchers, and agreed that we particularly enjoy Bartolo Colon. She likes Granderson too: “He seems like such a nice guy.”
That’s another good thing about baseball, I’ve realized: You’ve always got something to talk about.