While doctors and scientists deal with the virus, the rest of us deal with our fear and boredom in isolation from the virus. Some people have taken up gourmet cooking and some prefer wine—lots of it. A few couples allegedly have sex. They say it helps pass the time, like watching Netflix or rereading classic novels. For me, however, there’s baseball.
In particular, the 1986 postseason. Eventually, I’ll get to the World Series, but right now it’s the National League playoffs, the Mets vs. Houston, teams that battled each other for next to last place throughout my childhood. Sure, the Mets had 1969, but residual animosities still burned 17 years later. I don’t know exactly how I got the idea to find those games online—probably because we ought to be a month into a new season by now, the point where it traditionally becomes apparent that Mets fans will have to wait until next year—but I remembered the Mets/Astros series as the most exciting baseball week ever.
Indeed, the first game was a 1-0 nail biter with Dwight Gooden, the best pitcher in Mets history not named Tom Seaver, losing to that year’s eventual Cy Young Award winner, Mike Scott. At any moment, the game could have broken open as the Astros twice loaded the bases and the Mets landed Darryl Strawberry on third base with two outs in the ninth.
But just as I was about to scroll down to Game Two, I realized that baseball isn’t only a matter of postseason highlights. It’s about the development of a team’s character over 162 games from April to September. So my next thought was to binge watch the entire season. Yet that was wrong, too, because the game requires its leisurely daily pace. So what if I started now, a few weeks into the season, and watched whatever game the Mets played on May 1, 1986 on May 1, 2020, and ditto the rest of the games until the playoffs began? What if I relived the Mets’ ’86 season?
In fact, why not relive 1986 itself? It’s a year I vastly prefer to 2020. My first novel had come out the year before, so I was still basking in miniature glory. My oldest child was two, and her sister had just been born. Those were the days of sweet babyhood, prior to college tuition and adolescent angst. We lived in an 1,800-square-foot corner apartment in Tribeca that cost $132,500. The Woolworth Building was visible out one window, the World Trade Center out another. Why can’t I abandon the ugly present and seek asylum in the idyll of ’86?
No COVID, no smartphones, no climate change. No Donald Trump. Well, there was a man by that name, but I don’t think it was the same person. He was loud and vulgar, rich but vaguely ridiculous, and compared to him, President Reagan was a stable genius. So what if a few weapons were traded for some shady money. You call that a scandal? Mad Cow disease? How cute. The only truly scary event of the year was the explosion of the nuclear facility at Chernobyl, but at least we could take comfort in the soothing balm of the #1 TV program of the year, The Cosby Show.
Nostalgia has provided an emotional refuge since Adam and Eve lamented their exile from Eden. A little later, Odysseus’s mood of yearning to return home permeates the Homeric epic named for him. And one can see the entirety of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as a deep dive into the sensory waters of what used to be.
Likewise, pop culture appreciates the past in the vernacular of the present. Broadway plays are often set in previous historical eras. Guys and Dolls does Prohibition, Annie the Depression, The Phantom of the Opera Paris in the 1880s. In music, tribute bands bring back the sounds that today’s octogenarians created when they were teenagers in order to make the aged audience feel like teenagers. And perhaps the greatest statement of nostalgia comes in the movies, as Rick says to Ilsa, “We’ll always have Paris.”
Of course, the good old days were never quite as fine as we remember. Yet gauzy distance is part of their allure. I don’t care if, as French actress Simone Signoret claimed, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” I’d still be happy to swap our contemporary nightmare for 1986. But you can choose your own year. It can be one that you actually lived through, or any other. 1776 if you’re into Americana. 2000 if you’re a millennialist. Or 1917. Or 1066. Pick a year, any year except this one. No one will ever look back and yearn for 2020. Meanwhile, I’ll stay with ’86. Baseball doesn’t get any better than Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Moooookie and the rest of the team. I’ve got a good feeling about how the season will turn out.
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