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When ‘Seinfeld’ Abandoned The Mets For The Yankees

George exults while wearing a Yankees cap after being hired as the assistant to the traveling secretary for the New York Yankees in an episode of "Seinfeld."
Via YouTube

Jerry Seinfeld is almost certainly the world’s most famous Mets fan. He routinely visits the SNY booth, where he cracks jokes at the expense of Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and old friend Keith Hernandez. He attended “Seinfeld Night” at Citi Field in 2019 and threw out the first pitch, challenging himself by throwing a sidearm strike from the rubber. His biggest contribution to Mets lore was surely casting Hernandez, his favorite player from the ‘86 World Series team, as himself in an iconic episode of Seinfeld, where he played a new friend to Jerry and love interest to Elaine. Hernandez ran with it, even titling his memoir I’m Keith Hernandez, his most well-delivered bit of dialogue in the episode.

I was a 9-year-old Mets obsessive when that show debuted, just old enough to get most of the jokes and view its overgrown children as aspirational figures. Who better than Jerry to emulate? He loved sneakers, cereal, and Superman. He had a job that allowed him to sleep late and lived in a cool New York apartment with a rotating door for young, attractive women. The fact that he was a Mets fan just sealed the deal. I taped every episode and watched them on repeat, studying them as if they were guidebook to adult life. 

My deep emotional bond with the show, and with Jerry in particular, made the show’s subtle but unmistakable embrace of the Yankees feel like a betrayal. In the beginning, Seinfeld was a Mets show. In the series pilot, which aired on July 5, 1989, Jerry comes home from a late-night gig to a ringing telephone and answers, “If you know what happened in the Mets game, don’t say anything, I taped it, hello.” Before cell phones, it was pretty easy to avoid learning the score of a game, provided you didn’t know Kramer, who lets himself into Jerry’s apartment in the high Kramer Style a second later and blurts out, “Well, the Mets blew it tonight, huh?” In “The Baby Shower” (May 6, 1991), Kramer is again the conduit for Mets content. He makes an impassioned case for Jerry to install illegal cable, closing his argument by stating simply, “The Mets have 75 games on cable this year.” Jerry immediately agrees. “Put it in,” he says. And of course, there’s the “The Boyfriend” (February 12, 1992), which, in addition to featuring Hernandez in his iconic role, also sports a Mookie Wilson reference and a cameo by reliever Roger McDowell. 

These aren’t just casual references. They identify Jerry, both the character and the actor, as a serious fan—someone who goes to great lengths not to have a game spoiled for him, is willing to risk prison time to watch more Mets games, and gets giddy as a schoolgirl around a former Met. Whenever possible, Seinfeld incorporated Mets imagery into the show. In “The Busboy” (June 2, 1991), the title character has a Mets banner above his bed. “The Alternate Side” (December 4, 1991) opens with George wearing a Mets cap, complaining about Jerry’s being stolen, as they return to Jerry’s apartment. We can presume that they were on their way to Shea Stadium.

Perhaps because New York contains baseball multitudes, or perhaps because co-creator Larry David was a fan of that other New York team, there were in these early years a few scattered Yankees references, as well. It’s heavily implied that Kramer was a Yankees fan, perhaps because, unlike Jerry and George, he did not grow up in Queens. A subplot in “The Note” (September 18, 1991) has him investigating Joe DiMaggio’s doughnut-dunking habits. In “The Visa” (January 27, 1993), Kramer tells a story about attending Yankees fantasy camp in Florida and punching Mickey Mantle in the mouth, and starting a brouhaha that includes Joe Pepitone, Clete Boyer, and Bill “Moose” Skowron. 

The show’s even-handed approach to New York baseball, however, shifted dramatically around the middle of its nine-season run. The key episode is “The Opposite” (May 19, 1994), the season five finale, when George gets a job with the New York Yankees as assistant to traveling secretary. From there, the Mets virtually disappeared from the show, while their cross-town rivals became fully integrated into the group’s weekly hijinks. George worked at Yankee Stadium, and every time the show cut to a scene there, viewers were treated to an establishing shot of the majestic ballpark. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, voiced by Larry David, became a recurring character, while Yankees Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, and Danny Tartabull all made cameos. Even manager Buck Showalter showed up as himself, thoughtfully considering George’s misbegotten plan to switch the Yankees’ uniforms from polyester to cotton. Frank Costanza, when afforded an audience with Steinbrenner in “The Caddy” (January 25, 1996), furiously upbraids him for trading away Jay Buhner in what was admittedly a very shortsighted deal for Ken Phelps.

My teenage self had only one question: Jerry, how could you? At the time, it looked and felt like the work of a classic frontrunner. Jerry had dropped his childhood team to jump on the bandwagon of the ascendant Yankees, who were well on their way to the first playoff appearance in 13 years around the time George joined their fictional front office. The next year, when George was tooling around New York with representatives of the Houston Astros in “The Hot Tub” (October 19, 1995), the Yankees won the first of the four World Series they’d win while Seinfeld was on the air. The character of Jerry never became a Yankees fan, but the show made its allegiances clear. Except for “The Millennium,” (May 1, 1997) in which the Mets try to recruit George to be their head of scouting—quite an indictment of the Mets front office, there—and the series’s penultimate episode (May 7, 1998) with the gang stuck in Puerto Rican Day parade traffic and Jerry scheming to find a TV to watch a historic Mets comeback, the Amazins were rarely mentioned on Seinfeld again.

Mr. Seinfeld ignored requests to comment on this story, so we can only speculate as to what caused him to abandon the team he has spent most of his life loving, and to all appearances still cares about, to chase rings with the Yankees. Perhaps it’s just the price of being number one. Surely, the Yankees had more widespread appeal at this time (and to be fair, at most other times). In another sense, the Mets gave him little choice. Just as the Yankees were rising, the Mets were diving headfirst into one of the most ignominious eras in franchise history. When Seinfeld premiered, New York was still a Mets town. The buzz from the ‘86 World Series had not worn off. They were coming off a 100-win season in 1988 and posted winning records in ‘89 and ‘90. 

Things turned sour in a hurry. Hernandez and Darling were traded. Daryl Strawberry left as a free agent. Their replacements failed to measure up. Juan Samuel was no Lenny Dykstra. Stud prospect Gregg Jeffries failed to live up to the hype. Mackey Sasser had a good bat for a catcher, but it came at the cost of a legendary case of the yips. Look closely, and you can see #LOLMets being born. In 1993, the team went from laughable to infuriating. This was the infamous Worst Team Money Could Buy, a ghost ship on which high-priced free agent acquisitions Bret Saberhagen, Bobby Bonilla, and Vince Coleman all drastically underperformed their career averages en route to last-place finish and a 59-103 record. Those Mets were worse than just a losing team, and remain something like the sport’s gold standard for organizational toxicity all these years later. As the season spun out of control, the players lashed out. Saberhagen fired a squirt gun filled with bleach at reporters. Vince Coleman threw a firecracker out of a car in the players’ parking lot and injured a woman and her two children, including a 1-year-old girl. Showcasing a team like that on a hip new show with mainstream aspirations doesn’t make a lot of sense. Curb Your Enthusiasm might have been able to get laughs from the bleach-and-fireworks roster, but Seinfeld never worked quite that dark.

And just as the Mets were reaching new depths of ineptitude, the Yankees were beginning their climb towards a new dynasty. Showalter took over as manager in 1992. The next year, they finished with their first winning record in five years. One strike-shortened year later, the core four—Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, and Rivera—arrived in the Bronx, and the town was officially transformed. The Yankees of this era were basically designed for television: a winning team with a famous owner—he was a bully and a lout when the team was bad, but Steinbrenner became a character with a big personality once his organization turned things around—and a roster of charismatic, talented players. As usual, the Mets never had a chance.

And yet being a fan—indeed, the world’s most famous Mets fan—comes with certain responsibilities. There’s no more shameful designation in sports than that of a frontrunner or fair-weather fan, and to switch teams within a city is particularly hard to justify. Especially in New York in the ‘90s. The wounds inflicted upon embittered Mets fans by arrogant Yankees fans at this time have never healed. For Mets fans, watching the hated crosstown team become a dynasty while their own team crumbled was a traumatic experience. The dynamics that formed at that time still play out in city streets and on the WFAN airwaves. Yankee fans are still arrogant. Mets fans are still walking around with open wounds.

As fans of any losing franchise will tell you, the thing that makes it all bearable—the reason we keep coming back year after year to watch our beloved team disappoint us in new and awful ways—is the desperate solidarity of knowing that you are not suffering alone. No matter how bad it gets, we’re all in this together. Well, maybe not all of us. Jerry took the easy way out, turning the show that bore his name from a champion of the underdog into a free advertisement for the Evil Empire. Maybe that’s the cost of success. As a Mets fan, I wouldn’t really know.

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