Credit where credit’s due: The New York Mets are very good this year, and they wholeheartedly earned the NL East title. But given the team’s habit of historic late-season collapses—recall, for example, when they blew a sturdy seven-game September division lead in 2007 by losing 12 of their last 17 games—there must’ve been something else at play, some lucky stroke or ethereal presence, for the boys to clinch the playoffs so cleanly in 2015. Is Mrs. Met wearing a new amulet, perhaps? Are there real angels in the outfield? Could it be the spirited endurance of injured captain David Wright or the pious tears of shortstop Wilmer Flores? Or is it something else altogether, like a rare Citi Field pilgrimage from Yo La Tengo, a band of lifelong Mets fans so devout they more or less named themselves after the team?
It was the last Sunday in August, the climax of three interleague standoffs with the Boston Red Sox, when Yo La Tengo made the trip. They’d just released their 14th full-length album in 30 years of existence, Stuff Like That There, a lovely curation of reimagined cover songs that reunited the trio with erstwhile guitarist Dave Schramm. They’d also recently sat in on NPR’s Morning Edition, functioning like a house band for the day; just the day before, CBS This Morning: Saturday aired a pre-taped performance of them covering the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.”
Now, across from Dial-a-Bug ads, above some Premio Sausage stands, and a concourse spiral away from a booth curiously promoting The Jerry Springer Show (the man himself was in the building), Yo La Tengo co-founder and guitarist Ira Kaplan drank a beer. Schramm, an affable fella with chin hair, ate a hot dog. Bassist James McNew scrolled through the band’s official Twitter account, where he’d update the score for the band’s 85,000+ followers throughout the game. Co-founder and drummer Georgia Hubley, who forms half the indie-rock institution’s married-couple core with Kaplan, was nowhere to be found until the second inning, when she finally appeared, carrying a bag and a helmet. (She’d superhumanly biked here from Manhattan and hadn’t anticipated the delays en route.)
Meanwhile, they had fun with the opponents. Schramm declared Red Sox slugger David Ortiz a “destroyer of dreams.” Over the stadium speakers, McNew heard “Xander Bogaerts” and immediately thought the Red Sox shortstop’s name sounded like an experimental noise act. “Xander Bogaerts!” he repeated, laughing. “Pretty sure I saw them at No Fun Festival.”
Yo La Tengo are all lifelong Mets fans, but all four members cast their relationship differently. Hubley—the Upper West Side daughter of two Oscar-winning, jazz-loving animators—was introduced to the Mets by her babysitting older brother. To her, the allegiance seems intrinsic, like a shoe size. Schramm, meanwhile, talks about the Mets like an adopted uncle. His father was a Brooklyn Dodgers diehard, until the team went west. “He never forgave them,” said Schramm, shaking his head. The Mets were all he had left.
With McNew, the team was once a rebellion. Growing up in Charlottesville, Va., he paid attention to the Atlanta Braves thanks to the team’s proximity, but also grew enamored with the Kings of Queens, which only intensified when the 1986 World Series came around. “My girlfriend’s parents were huge Red Sox fans, and they hated me, and I hated them, and I loved the Mets, and I loved that team.” When that team he loved beat the team of the parents he hated, McNew interpreted it as a divine message. “That was the Universe giving me one back, telling me, ‘Things are going to be okay.’”
For Kaplan, the Mets have been a constant in his life for 50 years. “I’m long-suffering,” he said wearily, as if the dedication was a vice. Raised in the upstate New York town of Croton-on-Hudson, the eldest of four sons played first base in the local Little League. He started to notice the team around 1965 or 1966, but it wasn’t until the legendary 1969 “Miracle Mets” season—a miraculous turnaround in which the expansion squad with seven consecutive losing seasons went on to win the World Series—that he bought in. On July 9 that same year, Kaplan was in Shea Stadium when Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver came within two outs of a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. “That whole 1969 year stands out,” Kaplan remembered. “At school with this one friend, meeting at our lockers everyday in disbelief.”
So 15 years later, when it came time to christen the Hoboken, N.J., band he’d formed with his future wife, they favored baseball terms for band names. The Bad Hops stuck for a bit, and also A Worrying Thing, a phrase used in Lawrence Ritter’s classic The Glory of Their Times. Eventually, though, they settled on Yo La Tengo, which would have them billed early on as “Wo La Tengo” and later introduced by Conan O’Brien as “Yo Lo Tengo.” The reference comes from an alleged blunder from Mets left fielder Frank Thomas that passed into team lore thanks to Roger Angell’s Five Seasons—an anecdote that Kaplan is so tired of retelling, he enlisted former first basemen Ed Kranepool to do it instead in a video explainer.
Some bands digress to politics or marijuana; Yo La Tengo drift back to sports. For their 2006 compilation Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics, they included an acoustic cover of “Meet the Mets” and revived the Nightmares’ 1985 “Baseball Altamont,” a hilariously imaginative garage-rock single that’s more or less about Keith Hernandez watching a Shea Stadium riot while smoking a cigarette bummed from Dwight Gooden. On the road, they catch baseball games when they can, even if it’s sometimes just the local minor-league team, and even if sometimes Kaplan and McNew go alone. “There was one tour when I was like the mom,” remembers Hubley. “I dropped them all off and picked them all up in the van after the game.”
For this outing, Kaplan wore a vintage heather-gray Columbia Mets T-shirt from 1987, a souvenir from a Southern Carolina minor-league game he and Schramm attended on early Yo La Tengo tour. “Still fits!” admired Georgia, tugging lightly at the bottom hem. “A little short, but it fits.”
Surprisingly, this was the first time they’d been to Citi Field as a band. McNew compared the live-event experience to public worship. “It’s like how people choose to go to church,” he offered. “You don’t have to go to church—you can also do that stuff at your own house.”
In other words, some Mets fans speak in tongues, while others pray silently in their own private pews, and Yo La Tengo are firmly in the latter camp. On this afternoon, they didn’t participate in The Wave. They didn’t chant, “Let’s go Mets!” or sing along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Hubley occasionally plugged her ears when the music got too loud. The loudest display of frustration took place when Red Sox center fielder Mookie Betts hit a bloop triple, tying the game at 4-4, and McNew muttered, “Crap!” despondently. Kaplan looked genuinely betrayed, like a stranger had just taken a bite of his sandwich.
“I’m an old man,” Kaplan, who is 58, later confessed. “It’s so loud. Fake enthusiasm really irritates me here.”
In the end, the Mets beat the Red Sox, 5-4. The scoreboard KissCam didn’t land on Kaplan and Hubley, which would’ve been a huge morale boost for everyone, but the Mets eventually made it to the playoffs anyway. And after 30 years of nuisance, it turns out the Yo La Tengo origin story might be apocrypha. “I called Frank Thomas a few years ago,” Kaplan told Billboard in 2014. “He insisted, “That never happened.”
Camille Dodero is a senior editor at Billboard Magazine. Go Sox.