Mr. Met is on the move.
Unbeknownst to the kids at the Cross Island YMCA and the majority of Bellerose, Queens, the Mets' mascot – all 6'10" of him (mostly head) – is being hustled up Hillside Avenue by one of his handlers. They stop about a block up, beneath the low-hanging branches of a tree, count to three, turn around and head back. Mr. Met gradually breaks into an elbows-out, high-stepping strut. It doesn't take long for him to be noticed.
"There's the baseball man!" a kid in an orange Mets T-shirt shouts.
Any semblance of order at the YMCA Jr. Mets Clinic is quickly lost. Things were going swimmingly for a while there – instructors had broken the kids into groups, and two members of the actual Mets, Josh Edgin and Eric Campbell, were giving hitting and throwing pointers – but as soon as Mr. Met arrives on the scene, it's pandemonium at Padavan-Preller Fields. Kids toss their gloves in the air, run in semi-circles and generally act like anyone under the age of 12 would when a smiling, anthropomorphic baseball man magically appears. Even the Canadian Geese standing in shallow center appear enthused.
At the time, the New York Mets were 57-64, fourth in the National League East and barely clinging to faint playoff hopes (if you were an optimist). None of that mattered. To these kids, not to mention two generations of long-suffering fans and more than a few celebs, Mr. Met remains an icon.
For the next half-hour, he poses for pictures, dishes out "high fours" (Mr. Met only has four fingers on each hand) and gestures his way through questions shouted from every direction – "Are you the real Mr. Met?" and "Are you wearing a costume?" are two of the favorites. But mostly, he attempts to avoid starting a riot.
once in a while, things get out of hand. "People will try to hit Mr. Met in the privates," one of his handlers tells me.
On this day – and, from what I'm told, most days like it – the biggest problem is that everyone keeps trying to touch Mr. Met's head ("Don't touch his head, okay?" is the oft-repeated plea from his handlers.) It's an understandable desire, but for reasons not entirely clear, Mr. Met's giant baseball head is off limits. Outside of suspension of disbelief, "hands off the head" appears to be the only rule the team enforces when it comes to their mascot.
For his part, Mr. Met appears unfazed, and he dutifully stands above scrums of kids, occasionally dipping his shoulders down for a group hug. Mets goody bags are handed out, the kids are sent on their way and there is calm once again. While we are on our way to a nearby diner (only after an exhaustive iPhone search for a Dunkin' Donuts – official coffee of the New York Mets – comes up empty), Mr. Met and I do a quick "interview," which is weird, considering he doesn't speak. However, with one of his handlers translating his various gestures, I learn the following:
• Mr. Met is married (to Mrs. Met). They have three children and live at Citi Field, where they work Sunday games together. The rest of the week, Mrs. Met works for Metropolitan Hospitality, which handles weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs at the stadium. "She's like Beyoncé," the handler tells me. "She's 'Baseball Bey.'"
• Mr. Met doesn't have to wait in line at the Citi Field Shake Shack.
• Mr. Met isn't sure why manager Terry Collins leaves his starting pitchers in for so long, either (he shrugged when I asked him about it). "They talk shop," the handler says, "but Terry's going to do what Terry's going to do."
According to his official bio, Mr. Met is Major League Baseball's "first modern live-action mascot," and his corporeal debut in 1964 predates the arrivals of the San Diego Chicken, the Phillie Phanatic and every other fuzzy creature of record. He is a member of the Mascot Hall of Fame, the star of several "This is SportsCenter" commercials and, in 2012, was named "America's Favorite Mascot" by Forbes magazine. Outside of current third baseman David Wright, SNY analyst Keith Hernandez and the long-retired John Franco, it is not a stretch to say he may very well be the most popular member of the Mets organization.
In other words, Mr. Met is the greatest mascot in New York City, which isn't saying much, considering his only competition, the Brooklyn Knight, was put on indefinite hiatus by the Nets this summer. But his popularity seems to have more to do with intangibles than anything else; like The New York Times wrote in a 2012 piece about him, Mr. Met is "the one blameless figure in Flushing…[he is] Sisyphus, muscling his head up the steep hill of tough Mets history. That's his life and his plight."
And the Mets are keenly aware of that. They reportedly used him to help lure potential minority investors, including access to Mr. Met on a list of perks available to those willing to chip in $20 million to the club's coffers. And they roll him out for countless community events, like this morning's YMCA appearance, which was scheduled eight hours before the team took on the Washington Nationals at Citi Field. Meaning today, Mr. Met will play a doubleheader. And I never heard him complain once.
At roughly 6 p.m., he stands in the center field concourse at Citi, posing for photos with fans that showed up early to watch batting practice. The crowd is thin for the time being (just under 23,000 will attend tonight's game, not too shabby), so Mr. Met and his Pepsi Party Patrol escort, Will, head to "Mr. Met's Kiddie Field," a miniature Wiffle ball diamond. There, the mascot serves up more home runs than 41-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon, though he just keeps smiling.
Before first pitch, Mr. Met is led through the stadium, down an elevator, towards his own personal dressing room. The voyage takes approximately 15 minutes (Will can only shake his head), since the most-famous mascot in NYC stops every few feet to take more pictures. A few junior Mets fans are overcome by the moment – unofficial "crying kids" tally: four – but their parents are too starstruck to really notice. A girl kisses him on the cheek, a way-too-excited guy with glasses pumps his fist after snapping a pic and a Hasidic family poses for multiple photos.
Then, there are the countless fist-bumps Mr. Met doles out to security guards, concession stand employees and a woman who definitely appeared to be an MLB official of some sort. With his size 16 shoes slapping on the concrete that lines the intestines of Citi Field, you can hear him coming from around the corner, and down here, each step echoes. Employees know he's on his way, and they line the walls in anticipation. Everyone, it seems, loves Mr. Met.
Finally, he arrives at his personal sanctuary. No one is allowed inside Mr. Met's dressing room, though as the door closed, I'm pretty sure I caught a glimpse of a Nerf hoop hanging on the wall. Throughout the course of a game, he will return to the room several times, though always under the watch of the Pepsi Party Patrol.
They keep him on a rather tight schedule; one half-inning, he's bounding up the stairs of the Party City Deck, the next, he's making his way through rows of box seats on the first base line. In the fifth, he is firing T-shirts into the stands with a cannon; during the seventh-inning stretch, he leads the crowd through "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," then fires even more shirts into the crowd. Wherever he goes, crowds gather, and before long, he's usually whisked into a nearby elevator, like a visiting dignitary. Truth be told, Mr. Met leads a very regimented life.
After the fifth inning, presumably due to beer sales (or the fact that the Mets are losing 4-1), there is a small, yet palpable change in mood of the fans. They become more aggressive, jostling Mr. Met for selfies – "It's the year of the selfie," Amanda, another Party Patrol member, informs me – and getting angry when he moves past them in the crowd. One fan, clearly a lifer, even blames him for the team's misfortunes.
"Get rid of Mr. Met and we win games," he shouts to no one in particular. "It's that simple."
None of that is particularly fair to the bobbleheaded mascot, though he seems to take it all in stride. While waiting for the Mets to work out of yet another jam in the top of the seventh, he openly mocks a Nationals fans, taking his cap and rubbing it under his arms. The Nats were in first place at the time, and they probably still are as you read this. Mr. Met is undeterred, now turning his attention to a guy in a Yankees cap, pointing and giving him a dramatic "thumbs down" gesture. The remaining Mets faithful laugh and cheer. There is something inspiring about all this; Mr. Met's optimism belies the team's flagging fortunes. Whether it's due to his longevity or his permanent smile, he makes you believe that one day, they're gonna figure this thing out. Mr. Met knows; he's seen some shit.
The Mets go quietly in the bottom of the seventh. And with that, their mascot's night is over. He walks slowly back up the tunnel, towards his dressing room, shoulders slumped, either because the Mets were poised to drop yet another game (they'd lose 4-1) or because his shoulders are always kind of slumped (that head is heavy, after all). I'd like to believe it was the former.
Regardless, a long day was in the books, and another surely awaited New York's hardest-working mascot. So he was off, presumably to get some rest, perhaps to dream of a vacation or even a Wild Card berth. That night, like all others before it, Mr. Met laid his comically large head down and drifted off to sleep. Somewhere in Citi Field. Where he lives with his wife and three children.