I set up an interview with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo to figure out how much of a Mets fan he was. If you know the story of the band’s name, you know that there’s a link to the team. And there are a few other clues that link the band to the hapless Mets. But every fan has a different level of engagement with the sport.
Obviously, their name is relevant to the investigation. “Yo La Tengo” is what Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn used to yell so that Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacon would stop running into him on fly balls. Unfortunately, as the story goes, left fielder Frank Thomas did not speak Spanish and needed a post-collision team meeting on the meaning of “Yellow Tango.” Kaplan acknowledges having read the story in Roger Angell’s Five Seasons. On the fiftieth anniversary of the season that produced the story, he even tried to go back and identify when Thomas collided with Ashburn and couldn’t. (An “exhaustive” search concluded that the story was “probably apocryphal.”) But Kaplan also denies that the name and its backstory is of much import to their band, really: “It’s certainly a funny story, and we like the phrase, but our list of names didn’t start with ‘can of corn!'”
Already Kaplan was checking a lot of boxes that a fan might use to evaluate the depth of another. Has favorite baseball writer. Has done original baseball research. Knows important anniversaries. Cares enough to celebrate them. Knows who Elio Chacon is. Has at least been a fan since 1984, when he started the band.
Other dominoes fell quickly — it was starting to look like he was a ‘real’ fan. Kaplan and his wife watch most of the games when they are home. He’ll DVR them some when on the road, which is a lot. He did admit: “If they were better, I might even DVR all the games when we were on the road.” It’s been a hard few years for Mets fans, and he’s a busy dude with a full passport. “There’s something about it being two o’clock in the morning and they’re losing by four which doesn’t lead to good sleep habits,” he said.
When asked if he had a preference for style of losing — Shea’s lovable losers, or Citi’s more corporate version — Kaplan has an answer that made this author laugh multiple times. “I like this team, at least. It’s always preferable to lose with young players instead of the over-the-hill Bobby Bonilla, Bret Saberhagen, Vince Coleman types — that’s just life-sucking — but I was a Met fan from almost the very beginning. In 1969, when they won out of nowhere, that was like, ‘Maybe there is a Santa Claus,'” he said, adding: “Ron Swoboda is my favorite Met.”
Ron Swoboda is Ira Kaplan’s favorite Met.
This is a fascinating requirement in certain circles of fandom: the trivia-answer favorite player. Okay, maybe not a requirement, but a familiar phenomenon at least. Mine is Rey Ordonez, for a glove that blew my mind, and a magazine front cover that reminds me of better days. For Kaplan, Swoboda is a link to when he was a younger sports fan, when his fandom may have been more passionate. Also, he was a member of the “You Gotta Believe” Mets. Also, he hit a lot of home runs his rookie year (19) and then never again (career high of 13, and 64 over the next eight years). Also he made a lot of highlight reel catches — “mostly because he was misjudging the ball and recovering.”
There’s a little bit of sabermetric thought in that last bit. Kaplan admitted to being a Bill James fan, but also said he was “a little bit out of the sabermetric game” these days. He understands about Mike Trout, and about “batting average and RBI” but it’s hard to vote against the triple crown. This might be an important (un-checked?) box for some.
Early in my time in New York, baseball wasn’t something I shared with people I knew. For the most part, sports were gauche, and not to be broached while drinking PBR in a basement listening to your tai-chi instructor world music DJ friend spin rare tracks. Kaplan doesn’t have this problem. He has a community of real-world Mets fans to kvetch with, and his support for the team is well-known. He once left the stage dripping from sweat at a Lollapalooza gig to hop in a cab and catch Tom Glavine win number 300 in Wrigley, a fairly public moment of fandom for him. (He doesn’t know if Tom Glavine was a “real Met” either.)
The band plays fundraisers for WFMU, listener-supported radio in Jersey City, and takes requests from people that donate. They “tried to play” Meet the Mets, and they put it on a compilation of noteworthy moments from their WFMU work. But no plans for a baseball album. As much as The Baseball Project surprised him as a concept (“Really?”), and nailed it in execution (“This is beautiful” and “moving” and “captured what it means and what you get out of watching sports and baseball specifically and how it speaks to your humanity”), Kaplan doesn’t think it’s in the cards for Yo La Tengo.
He won’t tell you if he put specific baseball references into a song, so he wouldn’t tell me if “is it too late to call this off” in Autumn Sweater was a line about the Mets. “We want people to sort of project their own meaning into the words,” he said, and “if you think it’s there, it’s there.” So, maybe. He certainly cares about baseball and that could inform his writing. And, for what it’s worth, the band played Autumn Sweater an hour later on the main stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival that afternoon. This could mean something! Probably not.
Did he like giving Mariano Rivera the first pitch in Citi Field? “That’s not my favorite thing, I’m not so wild about it,” Kaplan said. Should they trade Bobby Parnell? No, Bobby Parnell is young enough to keep around. Should they trade Daniel Murphy? “I don’t know, honestly,” the singer admitted, “Murphy’s a weird player. He almost should just be in the American League as a DH.” Should they have traded R.A. Dickey? That was smart, they weren’t ready to win. Kaplan hates the DH. He hates interleague play.
So what kind of fan is Ira Kaplan? Ira Kaplan is a Mets fan. They come in all shapes and sizes.
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