In honor of the 50th anniversary of the opening of Shea Stadium, I thought I’d reprint my post from April 17, 1964, in case you missed it the first time around.
Well, you can’t say it isn’t big. Or bright. They said it would be both and it surely is.
I’m just not sure it feels like home yet.
Listen, we’ve all known this place has been coming for more than two years, but that doesn’t make Shea Stadium any less shocking upon entering it for the first time. It’s not just the structure, which is so obviously different from our beloved Polo Grounds. It’s the location. Now when I want to go to a game, I have to go to Queens.
Queens? Who goes to Queens? Unless you’re catching a flight, who makes Queens their destination? The Beatles came to Queens in February, but it’s not like they hung around. They vamoosed to Manhattan, just like we used to. The World’s Fair is in Queens (and won’t we know it from the traffic?), but that’s temporary. Soon enough, the “World” will move on, but the Mets will still be there.
In Flushing. Now that I’m compelled to stare at it, that’s not exactly the most enticing-sounding of locales. Of course “sound” is all relevant when you take into account all those planes heading into and out of neighboring LaGuardia. Yup, a lot of people are still catching flights in Queens and you’ll hear all about it, especially when you’re sitting in the top section of the stadium as I was. You can hear the planes. You can hear the trains. You can hear the organ, which is pretty nice, actually. And if you squint real hard, you can see Casey Stengel.
Wake up, Case. We’ve got a new stadium.
Shea (can we just call it that for short?) is more dazzling than comforting, though I suppose familiarity will come with time. True to the propaganda, I wasn’t stuck behind a post. I was stuck in front of some idiot taunting Ed Bauta, “Hey, BAUTA, you shouldn’ta BOUGHT A house! Just rent!” Clever the first time, not so much the twentieth time.
Hearing yourself think at Shea will be a challenge, but not as much as tuning out the occasional rotten apple. Goodness I hope that guy or his spiritual equivalent doesn’t happen every time I go to a game.
The game itself, you might have heard over WHN, was a Mets game, which is to say it was a Mets loss, no big surprise there. New plot of real estate, same plot in the standings. Three games into the season, still no wins. Ceremonial folderol notwithstanding (whose idea was that square Guy Lomabardo?), the real christening was provided by Willie Stargell homering over the green fence in the second inning to put the Pirates out in front with the first run in the history of Shea Stadium. Stargell would probably hit a lot of home runs if he played half his games at Shea…except they wouldn’t let him face Jack Fisher, so never mind that. We did get a lead in the fifth — ignited by Ron Hunt; gosh, I love Ron Hunt — but could it last? Can anything last with this team?
Shea Stadium appears built to last. Like I said, it’s huge. You don’t plant something like that upon a meadow and expect it not to be there someday. They probably said something similar about the Polo Grounds, but progress said something different. Shea feels very progressive, though, like this is where we’re headed, if I can get sociological for a minute. That big globe at the World’s Fair, this big stadium with its space-age scoreboard, those enormous blue and orange speckles on the side and all the stuff that just shouts “NOW!” There’s an unfinishedness to it all, but that’s all right. There’s an unfinishedness to our civilization (unless Barry Goldwater finishes us all off). There’s certainly an unfinishedness to our ballclub.
There’s gotta be. There’s gotta be more to the Mets than what we’ve seen through two years plus three games. We do have Hunt. We do have Hickman, who I think is gonna come around one of these years. Kranepool pinch-hit (hard to remember he’s not even twenty yet). Gonder is up to .444 and Fisher is only 25, which isn’t really that old. Jerk behind me had a point about Bauta’s housing plans (gave up five hits in two-and-a-third for the loss), but there’s supposed to some real talent somewhere in this system.
Then again, that’s what they’ve been telling us since 1962. Considering they’re charging an outrageous $3.50 for box seats, it would be nice if the talk could turn into action by, I don’t know, the end of this decade maybe? I don’t mean to be an impatient New Yorker, but I’m an impatient New Yorker. If they can build a stadium inside of three years, even accounting for construction delays, why can’t they build the Mets into something sooner?
Sorry, I shouldn’t be so cynical on the day we were presented with this new and impressive ballpark. To be fair (if not worldly), I can see virtually the entire field at Shea but I can’t see the future. Still, think how much bigger and brighter it would look if we could win a few games. Or one.
At least the escalators work, the staff is unfailingly friendly and the men’s rooms are clean and efficient. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.
“A diamondback without venom is a belt.”
Points to our pal Metstradamus for the line of the series and an unsparingly accurate take on the National League’s Arizona franchise.
As a lifelong Mets fan, I’m well acquainted with terrible baseball, and the Diamondbacks are supplying it by the truckload right now. I’ve been listening to Howie and Josh via MLB At Bat, as I’m doing school visits in Louisiana for Jupiter Pirates, and each night they’ve sounded both more pitying and more disgusted. I’ve supplemented Howie and Josh with peeks at footage of temporarily gravel-voiced Gary and the happily returned Keith, who’s the perfect person for chronicling misdeeds at the major-league level.
But I don’t need a TV to know what this kind of baseball looks like. I know Kirk Gibson is staring out at the field with rage churning under his carefully blank expression, just like I know players are plodding off the field, remaining prone for an extra few defeated seconds, and staring into the bowls of their no-longer-needed batting helmets. I know because I remember it from the Joe Torre era, and the George Bamberger era, and the Dallas Green era, and the….
Games like these are rarities to be savored — free passes in the hard slog of a long season. (And even more to be savored when they come on a tough West Coast swing, of which the Mets have approximately a dozen this year.) Even at 2-0 this game didn’t feel particularly close, and Jose Valverde‘s throwing BP to Aaron Hill and Paul Goldschmidt felt more like a long-term problem for the Mets than a short-term threat to a victory. That’s how bad the Diamondbacks are right now.
(By the way, I’m terrified that if Valverde’s struggles continue, our closer will be Kyle Farnsworth. If you’re thinking that’s insane, I’m not going to argue — it should be Gonzalez Germen. But remember that Farnsworth is a Proven Veteran (TM), which I fear in TerryLand means he’ll get every chance to be bad.)
But back to the D’backs and their string of d’bacles. You know what? Too bad for them. I’ve watched the Mets get so thoroughly lost that another win seemed impossible. Nobody took pity on them — they just beat them, as they should have. Moral victories count for nothing — they’re defeats. Amoral victories — beating up on an essentially defenseless opponent — don’t come with a discount. They’re wins, plain and simple. You take them whenever you can, without apology.
By the way, if you haven’t seen this, it’s so so so great. Enjoy.
Definitely a blowout. Something like a laugher. Never in doubt.
The Mets scored three runs before Bronson Arroyo threw 15 pitches. Then I drifted off under the influence of Coricidin Cough & Cold. When I woke up, the Mets were ahead, I think, 7-0. I missed four runs? I guess I could’ve been sore (and achy) that the Mets were clobbering an opponent without me hanging on every delicious swing, but if I was going to be sick anyway, and I needed to wake up to a score of some sort, Mets 7 Diamondbacks 0 represented quite the remedy.
And then, so I wouldn’t feel entirely left out, they put up a couple more runs. Ya can’t go wrong with 9-0. Well, you can brace for bad news from Jenrry Mejia’s blister and snarl through Kirk Gibson and Oliver Perez flashbacks, but only lightly. You gotta enjoy these romps through the desert when they come around.
The return of Kirk Nieuwenhuis brought with it predictable results: three hits, three RBIs, a two-run homer, some fancy catches in center as well. Did I predict Kirk would lay out a box score line as long as his last name? Let’s just say I had a sense he’d reintroduce himself with authority. He has a Don Draper thing going vis-à-vis what Dr. Faye Miller said to him in Season Four’s finale when he broke up with her to marry Megan: Kirk mostly likes beginnings of things. He comes up without fanfare, he conducts a symphony of power and defense in the face of initial indifference, he ascends to People’s Choice territory, yet he usually exits the stage sotto voce.
But he had superb stage presence Tuesday night. With Juan Lagares sadly unavailable, Nieuwenhuis spelled relief. And on the date everybody wore 42, you wondered for a while if the Mets would total at least half that many runs. They backed off after four innings, which Jackie Robinson probably wouldn’t have approved of, but these aren’t the Boys of Summer. They’re the .500 Mets, the statistical epitome of not half bad.
Which in itself is not half bad…or a whole lot better than I’m feeling with this cough & cold.
On a night when I felt like Gary Cohen sounded and the Diamondbacks played, the Mets overcame the most miserable Monday malady imaginable: the loss of two outfielders, one of whom is very good and the other of whom presumably sooner or later will be.
They persevered to a 7-3 victory, thanks to Zack Wheeler holding it together for six-and-a-third (losing his grip only when I stupidly thought to myself, “He’s gonna get through seven easy…”); Carlos Torres clearly begging Terry Collins to overuse him (it’s April, he can handle it); and Lucas Duda producing the way we wish to believe he could if he was just left alone to hit and not think. It helped that Arizona’s currently playing with its diamonds up its backs, but it takes two to tango. The Mets are entitled to top a lesser-performing opponent. It’s just that it’s been a while since we’ve definitively encountered one.
Gary’s voice, nursed through nine by hot tea and Keith Hernandez’s surprise appearance in the booth to pick up the promotional slack, announced a satisfying result. He said he felt fine except for trouble from a throat that works more innings than Torres and Scott Rice combined. Me, I felt (feel) buggy all over but couldn’t (can’t) tell you what was (is) wrong with me — none of which has shown up in the box score, best as I can tell — but I was happy to make it awake to the last out and then immediately fall into my own postgame show of the subconscious. Usually I hang on every dispatch from the manager’s office, but I figured I’d wake up this morning and find out if, like Old Glory, the franchise was still there.
It is, but it has an outfield problem, and not the outfield problem that was taking shape before Monday’s game. That was when Terry was declaring that two Young men would be sharing time with Juan Lagares as soon as Chris came back. It wasn’t a surprising decree, just a silly one, given that Juan Lagares has been the Mets’ best outfielder, while their best-compensated outfielder, Curtis Granderson, hadn’t really done anything in his admittedly brief National League tenure to earn unquestioned playing time in the land of the shoehorned.
How ever would the Mets figure out the best solution to this ordeal of having too many at least partly deserving starting outfield candidates but only the regulation number of starting outfield slots?
Well, go worry about what you’ll do if you hit the Mega Millions instead, because the Great Met Outfield Glut of 2014 conveniently depleted itself in Phoenix. There was Granderson running into the part of the wall that can hurt a fella in three places — wrist, rib cage, knee — and there was Lagares furtively grabbing at a hamstring, and there went two of our three pre-Chris Young starting outfielders, and out to left for a return engagement nobody booked went smokin’ Lucas Duda, toting his ashtray of a glove, the kind of curio you really don’t expect to put out for company these days.
Granderson probably gets a breather to wonder why he’s not hitting whatsoever and how it is when he finally knocks in a run (going the other way against a shift) he has to leave the game. Lagares seems destined for the DL, which is wise with a hamstring and sad when he was generating the most fun a Mets fan could see this side of a Matt Harvey rehab update. EYJ, whose speed has convinced nobody he’s much of a leadoff or any other spot hitter, maintains his role for now. Meanwhile, the other Young will soon get a chance to restart his season and reignite his career without being seen as the goon who snatched playing time from Our Beloved Juan.
Also, Kirk Nieuwenhuis probably gets called up in the short term. Two years ago around now we were Nieuwenhuead over Nieuwenhueels for this otherwise forgotten sixth or seventh outfielder, which makes for a healthy reminder that nobody’s forever a savior or eternally a lummox in these situations. Duda went 4-for-5 last night and erred not at all between his stints at first and in left. Expectations that the distant precincts of Chase Field would open up and swallow him whole proved unwarranted.
Yet again, Chuck Berry provides the most accurate forecast in town when it comes to baseball: It goes to show you never can tell.
They hit ’em out of Anaheim. They hit ’em into Los Angeles. They hit ’em until geographic borders were obliterated.
They scored 14 times. They were Ram-tough in Orange County as if they still had a team there that takes the field in blue and yellow. It was such a thorough thumping of New Yorkers that I’m pretty sure I saw Flipper Anderson trot into a tunnel.
They left the visitors part grumbly, part speechless. A substitute umpire named Toby Basner created a strike zone that was more impressionistic than actual. Two visiting victims were ejected for noticing, or as many who crossed the same home plate whose width seemed to baffle Basner.
They treated the starter like a piñata. Oh, the offensive treats that spilled out of him as soon as they began whacking him around! And the bullpen produced no less in the way of delicious offensive goodies for the home team’s bake sale.
The manager said, “We got through it.” The captain said something about knowing you’re going to get no more than a minimum of runs. It was certainly said as a compliment to the home team’s pitcher, but it was also quite accurate in hindsight. The visitors understood in advance they’d score maybe twice. Given how many arms it took to push through 23 innings over the previous two evenings, it wasn’t surprising the staff would surrender seven times as many tallies as were generated on its behalf.
Add it up, and it was Sunday carnage. I suppose it was embarrassment, too, but it felt suspiciously routine, or no worse than routine gone awry. Sometimes these Mets win. A little more often they lose. This time they lost by a margin of 14-2.
You tell yourself it’s just one game. A defeat by a dozen isn’t materially different from a loss by a lot less. It’s still a loss. The Mets were pounded but it only counts against them once.
Yet another moral victory is secured.
My deepest apologies to anybody who wanted and expected to turn in no later than midnight Saturday after a calmly resolved 6-3 Mets win over the Angels, one saved without incident by Jose Valverde. Don’t blame Valverde for the three-batter sequence that commenced with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, the one that ensured a much longer night awaited. Jose was probably on his way to a very simple save and you were on your way to a welcoming bed. The only thing that could have gotten in the way was my thinking this thing was over.
Oh no. No. Never think that. Never mind never say that and never Tweet anything suggesting it.
You’d think I’d have relearned this eternal lesson on Opening Day when I dared to stand with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets ahead, 5-4, and Bobby Parnell the pitcher in whom I’d invested qualified episodic confidence. I stood, I grabbed my stuff and I dared to think not just “this will be over in a minute,” but began to sort through my reactions to other presumed reactions to the impending victory, such as, “Gads, am I going to have to hear about how great Bobby Parnell, who obviously isn’t throwing as hard as he did year, is after just one save?”
Very soon I was relieved of that burden. There was no save and there’s been no more Parnell. He was shortly thereafter provisionally replaced by the veteran Valverde for those few/far-between situations calling for a Met closer. Provisional, however, was beginning to feel permanent — or as permanent as a closer of 36 years and diminishing reputation could feel — when Jose emerged unscored upon in his first five outings as a Met. And on Saturday, in the otherwise unmapped Anaheim section of Los Angeles, given how the Mets had already overcome a two-run deficit and the vengeful specter of Collin Cowgill, it didn’t seem out of line to think Valverde would gently tuck in a three-run lead, especially once he got ahead of David Freese one-and-two and needed only one more strike to wish us and the Angels sweet dreams.
I apologize for thinking it was as simple as a third strike and resulting third out right there. I neglected to take into account the doom factor I had unleashed. You won’t find “doom factor” on the back of your baseball cards or among your more advanced statistics. No metric properly reflects that when I begin to think a Met closer is certain to escape a danger-fraught scenario with ease, that same Met closer inevitably implodes. It happened to Bobby Parnell on Opening Day. It’s been happening with alarming regularity since at least Skip Lockwood in the mid-1970s.
Somehow I missed the alarms.
It happened to Jose Valverde Saturday night at Angel Stadium, where David Freese singled instead of making an out and ending the game. True, all Valverde had to do after not retiring Freese was take care of Erick Aybar, but already I sensed karma was issuing me a bill for daring to contemplate not only how Valverde off the scrap heap seemed a better bet to save games in 2014 than post-neck, pre-elbow Parnell, but for having been perversely glad the Mets didn’t extend their advantage beyond three runs in the top of the ninth. This way, I cleverly reasoned, Valverde will focus. Give a closer of his caliber a three-run lead, and he concentrates. Give him too many runs with which to work, his mind will perilously wander.
Yeah, that was an insipid insight. The Mets should have scored more than two when — bases loaded, one out — they had the chance to pad their newly wrought three-run lead. But that seemed almost greedy. They had overcome a 3-1 deficit in the seventh, thanks to all kinds of small encouragements, most notably Jon Niese’s grinding endurance and Anthony Recker’s glamorous aura. They had leapt from 4-3 to 6-3 on an Omar Quintanilla two-RBI single, for goodness sake. Omar Quintanilla played 66 games between July 3 and the end of the season in 2013 and knocked in all of nine runs; on only one of those occasions did he drive in as many as two on one swing.
We got Omar Quintanilla to do something he’s utterly incapable of and then didn’t build upon it. Of course karma’s going to add that to our tab. Of course when we go to the bottom of the ninth up, 6-3, instead of, say, 8-3, Valverde recording the first two outs is going to guarantee nothing. Of course getting ahead of Freese didn’t mean Freese wasn’t going to line a single up the middle to give the Angels life. Of course Aybar, who had two hits the night before and was surely a Brave in a previous life, was going to walk.
And of course ex-Phillie, ex-Yankee and only active major league non-pitcher actuarially entitled to call Bartolo Colon “kid” Raul Ibañez socked the three-run homer that tied the score at six and sent the game into a tenth and eventually thirteenth inning, a frame that didn’t conclude until after two o’clock Eastern time Sunday morning. That Anthony Recker used the overtime period to grow even handsomer and belt what revealed itself to be the winning home run — and that John Lannan at last earned the spot he’d been soaking up on the roster by pitching flawlessly in the twelfth and thirteenth — is gratifying yet immaterial where my irresponsibility is concerned. The Mets could have won in nine had I not thought this thing was in the bag.
This thing is never in the bag until the zipper is pulled completely shut, the clasps are securely fastened and the Met closer of record has actually closed the deal. After all these decades and all these Met closers, you’d think I’d have figured that out by now.
Can we talk about the Angels?
I’ll grant you that the entire AL West is essentially uncharted on my personal baseball map, but the Angels are the true terra incognita. This shouldn’t be — the Angels are essentially us, a mere year older thanks to the AL pushing to the head of the expansion line. But they must rival the Padres and Rangers for most years without a real identity, having cycled endlessly and fruitlessly through uniforms, logos and even names until recently, when they stopped after achieving a subtly amazing level of focus-grouped anonymity. Today’s Angels look like the Cardinals wearing spring training uniforms, and the franchise name might be the worst in all sports — “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” is a bizarre formulation that no commissioner worthy of the position would have ever allowed. It’s equal parts deeply cynical and laughably spineless, a blunderbuss of quarter-assed marketing that once ducked leaves you embarrassed for all involved, yourself included.
To be clear, I have nothing against Angels fans or the guys wearing their thoroughly unmemorable uniforms. The Angels are practically our brothers, I sympathize with the second team in town thing, and their park is no classic but tries hard — it’s gleefully overstuffed with Angeliana in a way I wish the Citi Field braintrust would copy. And hey, any sporting event that lets you watch Mike Trout do what he does is worth the price of admission. But for all our inglorious and fitfully embarrassing history, the Mets have at least avoided spastic branding reboots — the shade of blue has wandered, the script briefly sprouted a tail and black jerseys ruled the land for a while, but a New Breed fan transported from 1962 to any other year in Mets history would immediately know what team she was rooting for. The Angels are in their fifth decade as a spastic branding reboot.
Which was honestly kind of perfect for the start of a strangely early West Coast swing, with the first game of course rumbling into extra innings and the New York night.
There are extra-inning games that keep you engaged, trying desperately to outguess the baseball gods but feeling certain that somehow you’re going to win. There are extra-inning games where you keep waiting for the snick of the guillotine and wondering why you haven’t heard it yet. And there are extra-inning games that turn into a sort of baseball Eastern Front, where eventually all you want is for it to be over.
This one was somewhere between the second and the third case — though before things got weird there was a rather entertaining and more or less conventional baseball game to watch. Josh Satin got the start at first and delivered a two-run double, making me wonder if Terry Collins will soon declare that Lucas Duda is the starting first baseman, Ike Davis is the regular first baseman and Satin is the everyday first baseman. (After which he’ll look faintly amazed that the beat writers need this explained.) Travis d’Arnaud cracked his first home run of the season, and while Dillon Gee was so-so, the Mets’ bullpen was surprisingly capable, as it has been for a week or so. (When will we stop being surprised? I dunno. Maybe July.)
Plus you got the spectacle of Scott Boras in his suite behind home plate, like the Banquo’s Ghost of Embarrassingly Low Payrolls. Boras, I noticed, observed each of Ruben Tejada‘s at-bats standing, so the center field camera got a group shot of Tejada, Angels catcher Chris Iannetta/Hank Conger, spatially challenged umpire Manny Gonzalez and Boras. I swear to God Boras was doing that deliberately, perhaps in the hope that one of the New York tabloids would use a screen grab for a front page after some Tejada-related disaster. It was a little bit funny and a little bit irritating, and what I really wanted was for SNY to pixelate him, like in Japanese porn.
With the game becoming a stalemate, I kept waiting for Trout to beat us — and winding up startled when it didn’t happen. Carlos Torres struck him out with two on and two out in the sixth. Kyle Farnsworth rather wisely walked him with two on and two out in the eighth. And then Jeurys Familia gave up a two-out single to him in the 11th, but it wasn’t fatal.
My second thought was that Albert Pujols would beat us — Pujols who’s been through a lot in Los Angeles or Anaheim or whatever municipality is being catered to at the time, but to me remains a name to conjures terror and despair. But that didn’t happen either. Farnsworth got him to ground out to David Wright with the bases loaded and Familia retired him with two on. Sorry, Albert.
(By the way, what would you have said a few years back if I told you there’d soon be a baseball player whom you’d be glad to see walked so a retread reliever could pitch to Albert Freaking Pujols?)
Anyway, Trout didn’t land the fatal blow and neither did Pujols and it was the 11th and the Mets had to load the bases with one out and so of course Familia hits Conger with a 2-2 pitch, shades of Daryl Boston winding up with a ball in his shirt. Not what I saw coming, but you generally don’t see it coming in affairs like this one. They just end, with a mutter and a shrug in the middle of the night.
Howie and Josh mentioned a 1-0 lead during our brief half-inning together, but that’s all I absorbed before I had to reluctantly click them off. My phone flashed a lot of “Young” and “Murphy” whenever I gave it a borderline-polite furtive glance, yet I also spied a bit too much back-and-forth on the scoreboard for comfort. At 4-4 and the Mets-Braves game going to the seventh, you know what I needed?
A tavern with a TV tuned to the proper channel and Juan Lagares up with runners on. As it turns out, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. And want.
Happily pulled between two compelling baseball events in Manhattan Thursday evening— Dusty Rhodes’s family gracing the New York Giants Preservation Society meeting in the friendly confines of Bergino and a knockout Varsity Letters lineup hosted a little further downtown by that Jason Fry fella — I wasn’t able to sit down and stare intently at the Mets for the duration. I could only divine what I could divine on the fly. And what I divined most, even as EYJ and Murph piled up numbers and the bullpen (!) strung together zeroes and the whole team took two of three in Atlanta, is there’s nothing quite as divine on the Mets right now as Juan Lagares.
So wonderfully Juanderful. Mostly glove (and arm), but not without some bat, as his go-ahead RBI that I just knew he would produce showed. Juan’s in that golden phase of Metsdom at the moment. He’s been here long enough to not be a total surprise but hasn’t been around so long that he doesn’t continue to represent a revelation. Like Dickey when Dickey was still becoming a thing. Like Fonzie after he was deemed more than a garden-variety utility player but before the entire industry recognized him as the epitome of class.
I find it fitting that I watched Juan coming through like Dusty Rhodes in the ’54 Series on a bar’s television because he seems to be in the bar band phase of his potentially brilliant career. He doesn’t have that big record contract yet, no starmaking machinery behind the popular song. It is up to us to serve as his word of mouth. Right now we’re mostly making “ooh” and “aah” sounds, punctuated when appropriate by “WOW!” Someday we’ll be telling people, “You should have seen Lagares when he was just starting out. You think he’s great now? Early Juan was the goods! Wait, I have a bootleg of his 2014 Brave series right here…”
It’s still early. The nine-game Mets are at least temporarily OK (or as OK as a 4-5 team can be). It’s also still early in the context of a magical center fielder who hasn’t been a major leaguer for a calendar year. Of course it’s too soon to say what Juan Lagares will be beyond the hot start to his second go-round. But isn’t it fun to believe we’ve stumbled into something worth knowing about?
Speaking of Met outfielders, get to know all over again one of the best we ever had when we had yet to have much. Straight outta 1967, enjoy the rhythmic recollections of Tommy Davis and all that jazz, via David Jordan at Instream Sports.
Bartolo Colon, who won Tuesday night’s game, is old (by baseball player standards), portly (check out this self-administered belly-fat check) and never seems to be taking himself all that seriously (though of course he is). Colon doesn’t have a blazing fastball anymore, but what he does have is pinpoint location and a deep reservoir of wisdom filled during a baseball lifetime.
Zack Wheeler, then, is the anti-Colon. Wheeler is young (by anybody’s standards), skinny and seems serious as a heart attack when it comes to pitching. He has a blazing fastball with natural movement, along with a biting slider. What he doesn’t have is great control, and his reservoir of wisdom is still getting filled.
You saw it tonight. Wheeler had great stuff — he generally does. He attacked the Braves’ leadoff hitter, Jason Heyward, with buzzing fastballs and sliders over an 11-pitch at-bat that ended with a Heyward homer. (The Braves are pretty good too, especially Heyward and Met killer Freddie Freeman.) Wheeler escaped the first with Heyward’s shot as the only damage, thanks in large part to a typically superhuman Juan Lagares catch halfway up the fence. After that he pitched well enough, then unraveled in the fifth, hanging sliders and getting stomped by the Braves for three more runs — a tally that once again could have been worse without some nice defense from Ruben Tejada and David Wright.
After the game, Bobby Ojeda was all over Wheeler, pointing out that he didn’t throw inside to Heyward, pitched lazily to Ervin Santana in that fatal fifth and failed to make adjustments. I find Ojeda wearying when he’s thumping his chest generically about toughness and other intangibles that grow enormous with the passage of time, but he’s terrific when he’s taking apart the mental strategies of pitching, which was his subject tonight. Wheeler, he said, had good enough stuff to win — but was undone by a lack of planning and an inability to adjust.
In other words, he’s still learning to pitch.
A lot of promising Mets are still learning this year. In the starting rotation there’s Wheeler and Jenrry Mejia, soon to be joined by fellow students Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard. In the bullpen you’ve got Gonzalez Germen and Jeurys Familia. And in the lineup there’s Lagares and Travis d’Arnaud.
Lagares and d’Arnaud, in my opinion, are the most important players on the team this year.
This is (yet another) transitional year for the Mets, one that could lead to promise, or just to more teases about promise — recently both contention and payrolls have had a habit of retreating into the future, like the hallway in Poltergeist. As an organization, the Mets appear to be enviably rich in starting pitching, while iffy at best on offense. Solid campaigns from Lagares and d’Arnaud would be invaluable in advancing the varsity’s timetable, allowing the Mets to trade some of their starting surplus (or even spend actual money, should it materialize) to fill holes. Right now the lineup’s mostly holes; taking catcher and center field off the punch list would make the task a heck of a lot easier.
Lagares has looked great so far, which is obviously heartening. His defense has been stellar, of course, but the real revelation has been the bat — the light switch has seemed to go on for Lagares in terms of working good counts and finding a pitch to drive. Granted, it’s very early — Jeff Francoeur rather infamously started 2010 as an on-base machine before reverting to his Francoeurian habit of hitting like the base on balls had been outlawed. But so far it’s very encouraging, small sample size and all.
As for d’Arnaud, he started very poorly, sending writers to the files looking for longest oh-fers to start seasons and sparking statistical brushfires over whether we should or shouldn’t worry. But then hits started falling in, as they tend to. In the ninth, with Craig Kimbrel looking mortal, Lagares and d’Arnaud both smacked fastballs into the outfield for hits, turning a depressing 4-0 loss into a less depressing 4-3 loss. (Tejada struck out on a 97 mph chest-high heater, which isn’t too venal a sin even if it did end the game.)
There’s no column in the standings for moral victories; the Mets remain a rather meh 3-5. But if you squint a little bit, you can see better days. You can see Wheeler learning and harnessing that phenomenal stuff. You can see Familia and Germen gaining confidence from good relief outings. You can see Lagares and d’Arnaud calming down and hunting strikes and hitting in a little better luck.
Or not. Like I said, I was squinting.
It doesn’t take long to travel from Hank Aaron to Bartolo Colon if you choose to journey through degrees of separation. Aaron, who was honored Tuesday night at Turner Field for having hit the home run many assumed would never be hit, played his final game in 1976. Colon, who was hit against only incidentally after the ceremonies for Aaron concluded, began his major league tenure in 1997. Enter their names in Baseball-Reference’s Oracle of Baseball tool and you’re no more than a Phil Niekro (’74 Brave/’87 Blue Jay) and Tony Fernandez (’87 Blue Jay/’97 Indian) away from bridging the Aaron-Colon gap.
Bartolo Colon, you may have heard, is 40 years old. That’s considered ancient in baseball circles. It was considered even more ancient in 1973, the year Colon was born, the same year Hank Aaron, 39, hit 40 home runs, the last of them his 713th in a career that stretched back to 1954. In 1954, the all-time record for most home runs by a single player in the length of a career was 714, established by Babe Ruth, who retired in 1935. When Ruth’s record was 19 years old — and Aaron was 20 — no player was closer than 180 home runs from 714. In two decades’ time, Aaron had moved to within one.
They said it couldn’t be done. It was inconceivable. Babe Ruth was Babe Ruth. 714 was sacred. Jimmie Foxx’s runner-up 534 was an impressive total, but it wasn’t even in the same state let alone county as 714. Before Aaron came along, only Foxx and Mel Ott had slugged their way past 500 home runs post-Ruth. They were revered figures, but no figure was revered as 714. Ruth had owned the home run record since July 18, 1921, when he swatted his 139th off the Tigers’ Bert Cole at Detroit’s Navin Field, surpassing Roger Connor on an all-time list that didn’t much exist before the Babe shifted into historic gear.
(By the way, you can get from Bert Cole of the 1925 Indians to Bartolo Colon of the 1999 Indians — both of whom pitched at Navin Field or, as it was known later, Tiger Stadium — in five degrees…though you’ll need six to make it from Roger Connor of the 1893 Giants.)
Ruth and 714 were synonymous. Nobody was ever going to catch either of them. Nobody pulled to within a hundred home runs of the Babe until Willie Mays hit No. 614 off Pittsburgh’s Bob Moose on June 10, 1970. At that moment, Hank Aaron had accumulated 571. Mays’s long and brilliant career, however, was at last beginning to run out of steam.
Aaron’s, however, just kept chugging along, particularly as regarded the home run. Hank never hit fewer than 24 once he fully established himself in 1955, the first of his 22 consecutive All-Star seasons. He never hit more than 45 before he became the twelfth man to hit a 400th home run (April 20, 1966) and the eighth to hit a 500th (July 14, 1968). Hits of all nature just kept on coming as Hank grew older, but it was his collection of homers that really began to gain notice in what could have been mistaken for the onset of his twilight. With No. 537 (July 30, 1969), he passed Mickey Mantle for third on the all-time list. With No. 600 (April 27, 1971), he was in territory previously reserved for only Ruth and Mays.
The quiet superstar who rose to prominence in Milwaukee and carried his steadily spectacular star to Atlanta wasn’t just on the map anymore. He was approaching the capital. At the age of 37, Aaron unleashed more power than he ever had before: 47 home runs. When that eye-popping 1971 season was over, he was up to 639, or seven behind Mays. On June 10, 1972, Henry belted No. 649, at last surpassing Willie, now of the New York Mets. Mays, 41, had a dozen homers left in him. Aaron, 38, was just getting going. Thirty-four home runs in 1972. Forty in 1973. The lifetime chart, thus, read as such:
Babe Ruth 714
Hank Aaron 713
One behind Ruth. Nobody was supposed to touch Ruth. Ruth remade the game a half-century before. Ruth was mythic. Hank Aaron? Hank Aaron was merely great. Ruth was a generation-defining character, a symbol of a nation, the personification of his times. All Aaron did was play baseball and play it better than just about anybody who’d ever played it. It turned out that if you did that for a couple of decades, it was enough to edge you toward the most famous record in all of sports.
A lunatic fringe minority spewed hatred toward Henry Aaron because he wasn’t the same color as Babe Ruth — or them. They represented a clear and present danger, yet they by no means represented the bulk of popular sentiment as 1973 moved into 1974. Despite twenty years of irrefutable excellence, America hadn’t known Hank all that well before he closed in on the Babe, but we were damn glad to see him doing what he was doing. We couldn’t wait for Opening Day 1974 and we cheered wherever we were when the second 714th home run in major league history happened on April 4 in Cincinnati.
And we who weren’t in the lunatic fringe minority stood in awe at our televisions when NBC’s Monday Night Baseball brought us to Atlanta Stadium, where Al Downing of the Dodgers threw, and 40-year-old Hank Aaron of the Braves swung, and the first 715th home run in major league history happened before our appreciative eyes.
That was April 8, 1974. Exactly forty years later, the man who hit No. 715 as the third-oldest player in the National League early in his spotlight season (and forty more thereafter) returned to within slugging distance of the same spot from whence he connected with history and shoved Babe Ruth into second place. He had been invited to be appreciated some more. Hank Aaron was 80 this Tuesday night in Atlanta in 2014. But he was still Hank Aaron. Still merely great. Still the man who played baseball and played it better than just about anybody who’d ever played it — before or after 1974. Some of us stood in awe at our televisions again, overwhelmed as were four decades earlier to realize, my god, that’s Hank Aaron.
That’s Hank Aaron!
Then, in the hours that followed, Bartolo Colon, the second-oldest player in the National League this season, pitched seven shutout innings and became the eighth New York Mets starting pitcher to win a game past the age of 40, joining a select group that began with Warren Spahn, who played eleven seasons with Hank Aaron, and continued with Frank Tanana, who gave up the 748th home run of Aaron’s career when Hank was finishing up with the Brewers.
Spahn, when he was a Met starting pitcher in 1965, played with Tug McGraw, who would later play with Julio Franco. Tanana, when he was a Met starting pitcher in 1993, played with Tony Fernandez, who would also later play with Julio Franco.
Franco’s and Fernandez’s teammate when they got together on the 1997 Cleveland Indians? Why, Bartolo Colon. Of course, Bartolo Colon.
(P.S. It’s also three degrees from Hank Aaron to Kyle Farnsworth, 38, who pitched the eighth inning in the Mets’ 4-0 victory over the Braves, and three degrees from Aaron to Jose Valverde, 36, who pitched the ninth. But you probably could have guessed that by now.)