Let’s start this account of fuckfaces on October 18, 2006. I was 30 years old, recently engaged, in my third year of residency training at Chapel Hill, and depressed about the New York Mets. After sweeping the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, the heavily favored Mets were down 3-2 in the NL Championship Series to the scrappy St. Louis Cardinals. Game 6 conflicted with an Okkervil River show in Durham. I’d purchased a $10 ticket to the show weeks earlier. I could have eaten that cost and stayed home to watch the Mets try to even up the series. Instead, I went to Durham, sang along with a bunch of Duke students to every song that night (Okkervil River was my favorite band at that time), and listened to the post-game recap on the radio while driving back to Chapel Hill. I remember thinking, on that drive, that I’d done the right thing: I’d enjoyed the show. The Mets had won. I hadn’t missed anything. My schedule was completely open for the pivotal Game 7. The Mets wouldn’t be in a playoff game, let alone win one of those contests, for nine years after that Game 7, but I couldn’t have known that at the time. I went to the show to avoid watching Game 6 because I didn’t want to see the Mets lose. The show was a way of covering myself: if the Mets had lost Game 6 and I’d skipped the Okkervil River show, then I was a double loser.
No one had a smart phone in October 2006. In the nine years between playoff appearances for the Mets, six versions of the iPhone came out, and the viewing experience for baseball fans changed in accordance. When I sat down to watch the Mets play the Dodgers in the 2015 NL Division Series, I had my iPhone in hand. Baseball is a slow game, with plenty of time between pitches, innings, mound discussions, and replay reviews to be “social” in the iPhone way of being social. I sat alone in my basement watching the game, but I also constantly read the #Mets Twitter feed and texted friends around the country who, like me, were practically giddy to be discussing Mets playoff baseball.
Bruce was the exception. We’d met in Chapel Hill in 2004. His wife, Rachel, was a co-resident with me and my wife. We were best friend couples, if you know what I mean, in that all four of us got along equally well. Bruce was originally from New Jersey and rooted hard for the Mets, although in basketball and football his teams were Philadelphia. His odd geography of rooting interests actually helped our friendship – we bonded over the Mets, but we also grew closer trading jibes about each other’s football and basketball teams. Rachel and Bruce threw my wife and me an engagement party at their house. When Rachel was pregnant, my wife hosted her baby shower. When I moved out of my apartment and into my wife’s townhouse, Bruce and Rachel helped me move and offered to store more than half of my stuff in their already cramped attic. One of the best pictures from my wedding is the four of us, arms wrapped around each other, doing some sort of Rockettes-like dance with our legs. This photo sits framed on a bookshelf in the basement of my house, where I was watching the Mets play the Dodgers and texting with Bruce about his recent divorce.
In one sentence that, admittedly, is more sympathetic to Bruce than Rachel: She left him for another man, a co-worker named Matt. In a few more sentences that incorporate the versions that Rachel has told my wife and me: Bruce had been stifling Rachel’s interests for years. She had been feeling trapped. She felt that she needed to ask permission to do things that she loved, like stay out late for a yoga class or take the kids to visit her parents for a weekend. Bruce was working part-time, because his job paid less than Rachel’s, and Rachel felt that this arrangement was forced upon her. Bruce was the dominant parental figure by his choice, not hers. Leaving him for Matt was the result, not the cause, of a failed marriage. She may or may not have had the courage to leave Bruce were it not for Matt, but she would have wanted to regardless of whether she’d fallen in love with another man. In one sentence that Bruce texted me during a Mets-Dodgers game: “Is it bad that I dream about Matt dying in a car accident?”
I can’t remember who started calling Matt “fuckface” in our texts, but by the NL Championship Series, every text from Bruce that mentioned Matt referred to him as fuckface. “I saw fuckface coming out of the yoga studio with Rachel today. They didn’t see me. Wish they did.” I texted back: “Would have loved to have seen fuckface’s face in that situation.” I don’t remember who first called Matt fuckface, but I do remember why we started using that moniker. During an inning change, a commercial for the MLB Network featured a cast of former ballplayers now turned sportscasters. Billy Ripken’s smiling mug filled my screen, and I texted Bruce, “You remember that fuckface card?” “Oh yeah, paid like $50 for that back in the day. Bet you it’s worth $1 now!” he replied. Our texting had picked up with each Mets win, with less of a novelty to the idea of the Mets playing in October. After escaping from the Dodgers series with a hard-fought 3-2 win, the Mets were now coasting to a sweep of the Cubs. With other friends, I could text about potential World Series matchups. I could joke about Daniel Murphy’s resemblance to Johnny Galecki (“You know, that guy who played Roseanne’s daughter’s boyfriend and now’s on Big Bang”) or how old Michael Cuddyer looked (“You realize he’s 3 years YOUNGER than us”). With Bruce, our ratio of baseball texts to divorce texts was about 1 to 10. And the single baseball text was brief (“Big out!” or “Huge hit!!!!”), while the 10 divorce texts went something like: “Can you believe that fuckface bought my son a birthday present? Some t-shirt that says KEEP CALM AND PLAY CHESS. Dude, don’t act like you know my son. Fuck you! How about I buy some shit for your kids to fuck up their heads?” Fuckface had twin daughters, close in age to Bruce and Rachel’s two kids. “How’d you handle that?” I texted back. “Threw it out. Never even showed it to him. He doesn’t even like chess that much anymore. No way I’m letting him wear that shirt.”
I’m an obsessive baseball fan, but I only know two things about Billy Ripken. One, he’s the younger brother of Cal Ripken Jr., a.k.a. the Iron Man, a Hall of Fame shortstop who broke Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played. Two, in 1989, the baseball card company Fleer issued a baseball card in which Cal Ripken Jr.’s younger brother, Billy, had his bat perched on his shoulder with the words “FUCK FACE” written on the knob. I was in the seventh grade when this card first appeared. “Who?” I asked when first told of the card. “Billy Ripken, Cal Ripken’s younger brother,” my friend Steven told me. “And what?” I asked. “FUCK FACE!” Steven said. “Bull shit,” I said. “I’ll bring it in tomorrow,” Steven said. The next day, he showed me the card in private, behind a tree, and made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone he had the card in school. “It’s worth $500,” he said. “You can’t even buy them now – you have to find them in packs.” He was exaggerating its value, but not by too much. Billy Ripken FUCK FACE cards (which is what my friends and I called them, as did pretty much everyone at baseball card conventions and comic book stores) typically sold in the $50-$100 range that year. The most expensive version was the second iteration of the card, after the expletive-containing first version was removed from circulation. In this second version, which did reach prices close to $500, the FUCK FACE text was hastily scrawled over with black marker. Eventually, a third version came out with the knob whited out completely. And then a fourth version with an airbrushed knob of the bat. The most common version is the final version, which obscures the words with a black box, a nod to the card’s original allure, like a picture of a nude woman with a black rectangle just covering her nipples.
The FUCK FACE origin story that circulated among my friends and other card collectors was that a teammate (or teammates) had played a prank on the Orioles second baseman. Just before Billy Ripken went for his Fleer photo shoot, someone had scrawled the expletive on the knob of his bat, and Billy posed for the camera unaware that he was displaying the words to future card holders. The FUCK FACE on his bat was like a KICK ME sign on George McFly’s back. Billy Ripken was the team nerd, the loser, the target of other players’ teases. As his older brother was the star of the team – in fact, the face of the entire franchise – all assumed that Cal, if not involved in the prank, at least had to give some pre-approval to the teammate who wrote the words. The card actually lists the player’s name as “Bill Ripken,” yet I’ve never heard anyone call him Bill, just Billy – as in little Billy, Cal’s younger brother, a trivial being. My older brother was much cooler than me. I was short, wore glasses, and weighed less than 80 pounds in seventh grade. My brother was in high school, on the wrestling team, and “really cute” according to the girls in my class. I empathized with Billy Ripken. He wasn’t a fuckface. He was me.
Stories change, though. In 2015, splayed out on a couch in the basement of my house, my wife and kids fast asleep upstairs, texting sympathetically but also a bit self-righteously with a friend whose marriage had just self-destructed, I wasn’t the insecure seventh grader who empathized with Billy Ripken. I was a 39-year-old man enjoying his life. When I saw Billy Ripken appear on my screen and reflexively thought of the words “fuck” and “face,” I also reflexively thought of Billy Ripken himself as the fuckface who’d been nailed by his teammates. I looked down on him and was disappointed to find, when I googled the card in between innings to check its current price, that Billy Ripken had revised the origins of FUCK FACE. In 1989, he told The Baltimore Sun, “It appears I was targeted. I know I’m kind of a jerk at times. I know I’m a little off. But this is going too far.” Twenty years later, he changed his tune in an interview with CNBC. He claimed that he received a shipment of bats that were too heavy, so he relegated those bats for batting practice. To ensure that he could easily distinguish these batting practice bats from those he would use in real games, he himself wrote FUCK FACE on the knob. “I tried to deflect it as much as I could,” Ripken said. “It was fairly easy to say that somebody got me with a joke because people think you’re the scum of the earth for doing something like this.” In Ripken’s new version, we were all fuckfaces for believing that he could be the target of a prank and that his teammates didn’t love and respect him as much as they did his older brother.
I don’t know who or what to believe. I know that fuckface is a fluid concept. Billy Ripken is a fuckface if he’s a victim, but he’s even more of a fuckface if he’s so embarrassed about being bullied by his teammates that, years later, he needs to retell the version in a manner more accommodating to his self-esteem. He’s just as much a fuckface if his recent version is true, if he wrote the words on his heavy bat instead of something more mature, like “BP” for batting practice. And I’m not sure who’s the fuckface among Bruce and Rachel and Matt. They all are, I guess. Matt is a fuckface because we assigned him the term over text, and that, along with his being a married man who slept with another man’s wife, should account for something. Rachel is a fuckface for dissolving her marriage. Bruce is a fuckface for making her want to do that and for being completely oblivious, in the 16 years leading up to the night when Rachel told him she was leaving, that he was doing so.
Let’s end with the fuckface who started this account, me driving home from an Okkervil River concert as October 18, 2006 ticked over into October 19, 2006. I had no idea the Mets would lose a heartbreaking Game 7, that the words “Yadier Molina,” whose home run sunk the Mets in that game, would become a curse for fans like me over the next nine years. The Mets would run the gamut of misery over those nine years – from overpaid has-beens historically choking away a division lead to minor league talent filling out all but a few roster spots during double digit losing streaks – but I couldn’t have known that on the short drive back to Chapel Hill, when I arrived home and quietly snuck into bed next to my fiancée, my soon to be wife, the eventual mother of my children, the copilot of this life we’ve built together. My wife and I thought Bruce and Rachel were a model couple back then, mentors for what we were about to start for ourselves. Bruce and Rachel probably thought so, too.