2015: The best kind of history.
Though our nation turned its Piazza eyes to mythic Cooperstown on Sunday afternoon, it is Hoboken that makes a convincing claim as the true labor/delivery room of the National Pastime. The first baseball game for which there is a record took place on June 19, 1846, at Elysian Fields, way on the other side of the Hudson (albeit not so deep in the bosom of suburbia). The final score was New York Nine 23 Knickerbockers 1.
I sincerely hope we can make the next great date in Hoboken baseball history Monday, August 8, 2016, when you join me at Little City Books at 7 PM for an evening of Mets book talk. The book is Amazin’ Again: How the 2015 New York Mets Brought the Magic Back to Queens. The talk will strive to be stimulating enough to carry an off night on the Mets’ schedule. We may not do anything anybody will look up 170 years from now, but I’m willing to bet we can entertain one another more effectively than the Knickerbocker pitching staff held the Nine in check.
If you’re in New Jersey, I’m excited to come see you. If you’re anywhere else in the area, it’s only a PATH train ride from Manhattan. Let’s make a little baseball history together. Let’s have the most fun Mets fans can have on a night the Mets aren’t playing.
One of the umpires working the Mets-Marlins game in Miami on Sunday should have taken a moment from making an eventually overturned call and blown a whistle to order a stoppage in play after a couple of innings. Baseball doesn’t operate like that, but how could any Mets fan worth his parmesan dedicate all of his or her bandwidth to just another game — no matter its relative import in the standings — when an almost unprecedented Metsian occasion was unfolding far north of where Michael Conforto was diving, Jose Reyes was tripling and Steven Matz was pitching?
Mike Piazza drew our attention from what every other Met was up to. When he played, it was by coming to bat. This time, it was by coming to speak.
Mike was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday. I’m not sure at what point he was officially inducted. He was elected in January, but what’s the point of demarcation that separates election from induction? No Chief Justice of the Baseball Court appears in Cooperstown with a request to raise your right hand and repeat an oath, so it’s hard to pin down. Is it when the newbie is called to the stage by emcee Gary Thorne? Is it when Commissioner Rob Manfred finishes reading the description on the plaque? Or is it when a Piazza or Ken Griffey, Jr. starts to talk?
I thought Mike Piazza was a Hall of Famer ages ago, so I shouldn’t worry about such niceties, but I’m glad the BBWAA inscribed his Fame for good, because we got to hear him speak at length. It was worth missing a couple of innings of Mets-Marlins. It was worth waiting four elections as well, but don’t tell those who unjustifiably delayed the inevitable.
You thought Piazza could hit. The man can accept induction just as powerfully.
Piazza is not under the impression he ascended to baseball immortality by himself. Through sniffles that seemed to have nothing to do with allergies or a summer cold, Mike emotionally namechecked most everybody who gave him a boost along the way. There were parents and coaches and Dodgers by the bushel. Since he was going in as a Met, of course he mentioned Mets. He praised John Franco’s generosity for handing him No. 31. He paid homage to his batterymate Al Leiter. He credited Edgardo Alfonzo’s excellence for facilitating his own. All of that was much appreciated, but I have to confess I listened most closely to hear what he said about us:
“How can I put into words my thanks, love and appreciation for New York Mets fans? You have given me the greatest gift and have graciously taken me into your family. Looking out today at all the incredible sea of blue and orange brings back the greatest time of my life. You guys are serious. We didn’t get off on the best foot, but we both stayed with it. At first, I was pressing to make you cheer and wasn’t doing the job. You didn’t take it easy on me and I am better because of it. Sometimes a jockey whips a horse. It isn’t always pleasant to watch, but it gets results. The eight years we spent together went by way too fast. The thing I miss most is making you cheer. No fans rock the house like Mets fans. You are passionate, loyal, intelligent, and love this great game. To be only the second Met to enter the Hall of Fame, after Tom Seaver, brings me great pride and joy. And I truly enjoyed Gary Carter’s company. He was a wonderful man, a great player, and I miss him.”
After that — and a heartfelt tribute to those who gave their lives in the hope that others could live on September 11, 2001, ten days before Mike hit what is generally considered the most meaningful of his 427 big league home runs — it was hard to remember the Mets were still playing the Marlins. And when you remembered, it was hard to imagine they could lose, which they didn’t dare.
Viewed from the proper perspective, the Mets played a Hall of Fame-caliber game Saturday night. When Giancarlo Stanton becomes eligible for consideration, some future producer will incorporate the clip of Stanton’s third-inning Neptune shot off Jacob deGrom into a persuasive highlight montage to illustrate why the Marlins slugger merits election. They can use a bit of Jose Fernandez keeping the Mets mostly at bay for seven innings as well when he reaches the ballot.
That’s a long way away. The Marlins pulled a long way away from the Mets in the game in question, winning by five after trailing by two and extending the difference between them and the Mets in the Wild Card standings to one-and-a-half games. That’s not an insurmountable distance. Stanton’s home run, however…good luck scaling that mountain.
Saturday night from Miami was a bummer but Sunday from Cooperstown should be special. Hall of Fame consideration for Mike Piazza, underway on some level for probably two decades at least, finally pays off this afternoon. Mike Piazza is going into the Hall of Fame.
Going into the Hall of Fame as a New York Met.
We’ve known this since January 6, felt it in our gut since no later than 2005, mulled it over since 1998. When he signed the multiyear megacontract that kept him a Met after sampling Shea Stadium for part of a season, he told us a Mets cap was his preference. At the time, Mike didn’t have enough years to qualify five years later; it takes ten years of MLB play to begin the process. Yet it wasn’t presumptuous to wonder, even then, what cap Mike Piazza, eventual Hall of Famer would wear..
Piazza’s first major league experience came in 1992. By 1993, he was being spoken of in elevated terms. When he hit the trade market (twice) in ’98, it was no mere salary dump. Mike Piazza was already in line to go down as the greatest-hitting catcher ever. Of course the Hall of Fame was in sight.
Opening Night in Atlanta in 2001 gave him a toe in a tenth big league season. He could have retired thereafter and he’d be eligible to be on the ballot for induction in 2007. Maybe that would have worked better for him. Those who vote wouldn’t have had time to think about Mike in the context of the era he played and decide that maybe something about his enormous totals wasn’t kosher. In 2001, it was ridiculous to think he wouldn’t go in ASAP. By 2002, it was preposterous to think of him on a plaque in a cap that didn’t spell out NY, given what he’d given New Yorkers the September before.
He left us in the active-roster sense in 2005, amicably. We figured that when the dust settled on what was left of his career, we’d see him in Cooperstown and that we’d recognize him by those initials. Nothing occurred in the intervening decade-plus to disabuse us of that notion, save for a little self-fortifying Mets fan paranoia. All we needed was for Mike to get in in order for him to go in. That took four ballots. He had to stand accused for three years. He withstood the judgment. No hard evidence emerged. By his fourth contest, there was no stopping him.
Today is the end result. Today is Mike Piazza on the Hall of Fame podium nodding in our direction. The NY will be on his plaque. The Mets will be in his heart. He is already in ours.
On July 23, 2005, Jose Reyes busted out at Shea. The kid we’d been told was gonna do great things did the greatest things he’d done to date: 4-for-5, including a triple; two RBIs; two steals; three runs scored. The Mets beat the Dodgers, 7-5. Mets starting pitcher Pedro Martinez — almost exactly a decade ahead of his induction into Cooperstown — announced in advance one of the plans he had for retirement. It involved Jose Reyes.
“When I’m finished,” Pedro said, “I’ll get the best seat to see him play. I’ll pay whatever price to see him play.”
Mr. Martinez is busy this weekend, reacquainting himself with his fellow Hall of Famers, but had he made good on his pledge of eleven years ago today last night in Miami, he would have gotten his money’s worth.
The veteran we’d been told might do good things busted out:
• A leadoff double, steal and run on a sacrifice fly in the first.
• Taking first on a strike three that got away in the third, then dashing to third on a one-out single (where two subsequent Met batters stranded him).
• An RBI single with a…how you say?…runner in scoring position in the fourth.
• A leadoff base hit, a first-to-third sprint on a single and another run in the seventh.
Jose, a natural shortstop shoehorning himself into a serviceable-plus third baseman, was charged with a throwing error in the bottom of the fourth, but made up for it pronto by starting a 5-4-3 double play on the very next batter.
The Mets wouldn’t have won on July 23, 2005, without young Jose Reyes, and they wouldn’t have won as they did — 5-3 — on July 22, 2016, without older Jose Reyes. As if to bookend the eleven-year trail of Reyes runs, we even got another nifty quote from his starting pitcher, this time Logan Verrett, who said, “He’s like a can of Red Bull balled up into a human being, and that’s something we were lacking.”
Jose is indeed energetic, but also a human being, and we know, through the circumstances under which he was available to re-emerge as a Met earlier this month, that human beings are capable of doing lousy things to their fellow human beings. Upon his return, it was hard to look at Jose, not see the domestic violence charge and instinctively not want to look at him at all. It was nearly impossible to look at Jose and see the Jose-Jose-Jose wunderkind to whom we took such a melodic shine a long time ago.
The vision is changing. I suppose it’s transactional. Now that he’s hitting and running and resembling the Reyes of yore, I’m less inclined to dwell on the legitimately negative (human beings will do that in exchange for a couple of runs sometimes). I’m seeing the Met again, the above-average baseball player. I’m hearing the kid we once embraced in pre- and postgame interviews and he sounds like Jose, except older and perhaps wiser. He is full of pep and positivity and, where the rest of his life is concerned, hopefully nothing else.
I’m rooting for my longtime favorite player again. I don’t know that he’s my favorite player anymore, but he’s here, he’s getting on base and I’m getting used to him.
The Cubs and my father are enmeshed in my oft-told Mets fan origin story. It was my dad who’d bring home the Post — when it was an afternoon paper — that featured the recurring cartoon that I credit for sucking me into the ongoing storyline of the 1969 season: the Mets duck doing battle with the Cubs bear. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say I would’ve found my way to the Mets by some other means had John Pierotti not drawn and personified those wonderfully representative creatures, but I can’t deny that the cartoon didn’t offer me a way in when I was six. The illustrations provided enough impetus for me to read the headlines and flip the paper back a few pages to start making sense of standings and box scores.
The Mets were pursuing, catching and passing the Cubs. The duck was triumphing over the bear. The first championship I would vicariously celebrate, that of the National League Eastern Division, was arriving.
Yay Mets. Boo Cubs. Thanks Dad.
Charles Prince’s role in making me a Mets fan was understated. As I always feel obligated to point out, lest anybody lean on an inaccurate script, he was not a baseball fan. He did not pass down to me some great fondness for the game let alone a particular allegiance. Truth be told, he couldn’t stand baseball most of the time, periodic exceptions notwithstanding.
But let’s retrace my steps. Dad supplied the Post, so he has to receive some of the credit. He let me pull it out of the outer pocket of his briefcase before he was necessarily done reading it. He let me spend time with the sports section and anything else that caught my fancy (this was the Post of Dorothy Schiff, before Rupert Murdoch, so it was written for adults, yet suitable for children). One of his habits was to read to us during dinner. Not in some formalized children, gather round, your father is educating you way, but to share something he read on the train. “I read a really fascinating/funny story today,” he’d start telling my mother, and before I knew it, he’d grab the Times or the Journal or commandeer back from me the Post.
My dad valued reading. I valued reading.
He had already instilled in me that as New Yorkers we rooted for New York teams. My first exposure to any kind of team sport came earlier in 1969, when we rooted (without success) for the Knicks to topple the Celtics in the NBA playoffs. There was no weird predilection to side with Boston in that series, so I was certainly never going to choose Chicago when my eyes opened to baseball. Dad’s example was clear: we root for the home team. Our home was New York.
Oh, he also provided the home in which we watched TV and read the paper. That’s pretty important, too. He gave me a slight allowance, much of it going to local merchants of Topps baseball cards. When I got a somewhat more substantial amount, magazines featuring stories about baseball players were my investment. It paid off mostly in dust (I kept a messy room) and personal intellectual capital. Except maybe once or twice when perhaps something else was frustrating him did he suggest it wasn’t the best use of my funds.
Dad didn’t cultivate my Mets fandom as much as he passively indulged it. He certainly never threw up any obstacles. He bought the tickets to what was going to be my first Mets game. OK, so my pediatrician put the kibosh on it, and I’m bitter to this day we didn’t go, but the thought was present and the thought continues to count. The whole family tried again a few years later. It was a great game to me. It was a burden to him, my mother and my sister. Still, we went. A couple of years after that, once I’d suggested it strongly enough for it to be taken seriously, we took a trip to Cooperstown. It was a long schlep, but he actually seemed to enjoy it.
Growing up in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s not like Charles Prince never encountered baseball. It was ingrained as the National Pastime, unquestionably the city game. He liked the Dodgers. His father liked the Yankees. My dad was keenly aware of all three teams, even if he told me he didn’t know too many Giants fans. The tipping point that left him lacking a passion for the game that would draw me in and never let me go was a Memorial Day doubleheader at Yankee Stadium in 1945. Too many innings. Too many people. Too much shvitzing. Too much sarsaparilla (he never much cared for root beer, either). Maybe my grandfather and great uncle who took him enjoyed themselves as much as they could, considering the Bombers only split with the Tigers, but my father had had enough baseball to last him a lifetime.
Scene from a divisional duckfight.
Then came 1969, when I took the Post out of his briefcase and was charmed by Pierotti’s duck and lost myself in the agate type and never stopped loving baseball or the Mets. To the extent that he thought of it all, I’m guessing he viewed both of them — baseball and the Mets — as my friends who came over after school and stayed for dinner. He was mostly polite toward them. Now and then he’d dip into an old story, throw an old name into conversation, recall that when he and my mother were living in Brooklyn in 1955, it was quite exciting watching everybody celebrate the Dodgers’ first and only world championship. If I began to reminisce (and I commenced reminiscing at a tender age) about 1969, he’d recall coming out of Penn Station just after the Mets won the World Series and how all of Midtown was one big party, sort of like Brooklyn in 1955.
That brings up two points:
1) My father was a bit of a frontrunner when it came to baseball. The ’55 Dodgers. The ’69 Mets. Circa 1978 he gave me the impression he liked the Yankees, partly to bedevil me, partly because sometimes bandwagons grab a person’s attention. By the mid-1980s, he was every bit the Mets fan most New Yorkers were. I accepted his rather rapid conversion to the cause as something I assumed resided deep within him the whole time.
2) My father was coming out of Penn Station just after the Mets won the World Series. Why was a man who commuted dutifully early every morning from Long Island emerging onto Seventh Avenue as the Post was entering its prime PM sales window? On October 16, 1969 — and this is the capper to my origin story — he took the morning off from work to take me to the eye doctor in Brooklyn. We lived in Long Beach. Our doctors were all in Brooklyn. It occurs to me now that whenever I’ve moved, I’ve been slow to transfer loyalties to new establishments and have unnecessarily traveled an extra few miles to get my hair cut or my tires checked. It finally dawns on me where I get this from.
Anyway, he took me to the eye doctor because I poorly expressed some vision situation to my mother and she interpreted it as something being terribly awry, Chuckie, you gotta take him to the eye doctor. The date of the appointment coincided with Game Five of the World Series. In Those Days, to invoke a phrase men spiritually rooted in another era enjoy employing, the World Series was played in daylight. The deal couldn’t have been sweeter. I got out of school legitimately. All I had to do was put up with the eye doctor, get back in the car and plant myself in front of the television.
Doctor, my eyes have seen the Mets. Now let me see if they can win it all. Except I did not enjoy the sensation of drops in my eyes. I still don’t, but at the age of six, I hadn’t yet learned to remotely tolerate that which I could not stand. I yelped and I moaned and I shuddered. I did not want those goddamn drops in my goddamn eyes.
If I wanted to use my eyes to see the World Series later that afternoon, my father warmly but sternly informed me, I’d sit still and take the drops.
I took the drops. My eyes were fine. I watched the Mets win the World Series.
Yay Mets. Thanks again, Dad.
So, as my oft-told origin story always concludes, I was hooked, and here I am [FILL IN NUMBER OF YEARS DEPENDING ON WHAT YEAR THIS IS THAT I AM TELLING THIS STORY] later, still hooked. In 1970, with the hook well in me, the Post was still publishing in the afternoon, my dad was still bringing it home and the Cubs were still lingering on the periphery of my vision. They were in another divisional duckfight with the Mets, so much so that when the two 1969 rivals gathered at Wrigley Field for a five-game series in late June, and I was available to watch an entire doubleheader on Channel 9, I clearly remember being extra delighted to greet my father when he came home from work that night.
I assaulted him with the bulletin he hadn’t been waiting to hear: the Mets had swept the Cubs that day, won four straight, were in first place, and if they won tomorrow, they will have won all five…which they did the next day (the only five-game road series the Mets have swept, by the way). My father feigned enthusiasm, permitting me to have at the Post so I could examine the line score from the first game of the twinbill. That was one of the beauties of the afternoon paper. If a day game ended early enough, you’d see the score. Never mind that I already knew the score. Validation was on the back page. The Post printed not only final line scores of early games (and late West Coast games from the night before the morning’s News probably missed), they printed partial line scores. If there was, for example, a businessman’s special in St. Louis or Cincinnati, you might see the first couple of zeroes that had put on the board before the Post had to go to press. Or you might see the probable pitchers listed for a 4:05 game just getting underway in San Francisco as you were just getting ready to board your train. No score at all, but the sense that something was happening while you were riding the LIRR.
Charles Prince, in his extensive prime.
Today you’d just click refresh. Or you’d set your app so you didn’t have to do anything but stare. In 1969 and 1970, you’d light up another Newport and maybe plan to call your bookie from a pay phone once you got off the train. Damned if I know the value of a blank line score, but I loved staring at it.
The Cubs couldn’t help but be central to partial line scores on the back page of an afternoon paper. They played nothing but day games at home. They no doubt logged more column inches in New York than they deserved based solely on a refusal to install lights at Wrigley Field. Throw in the duck, the bear and those two years when their games against the Mets made all the difference between first and second place (permanently in 1969, fleetingly in 1970), and it’s no wonder I think of the Cubs when I think of my dad bringing home the Post and me plucking it from his briefcase for Metsian purposes.
You couldn’t miss the Cubs on the Mets’ schedule In Those Days, which were days that extended well into the 1990s. We played five N.L. East teams eighteen times a year. Along with the French-Canadian novelty of the Expos, it was the Cubs who stuck out as a distinct Met opponent no matter what was going on in the standings. The Pirates and Phillies each played in the same stadium, more or less. The Cardinals were a vague presence in our lives until 1985. The Cubs were Wrigley Field nine afternoon games every season through 1987. Then came lights. Then came realignment. Then went the Cubs off to all-other land.
It took me ages to get over the derelevantization of the Cubs, particularly the lack of regularly slated weekday Mets games from Chicago. We get one now and again, but mostly, at least when we play them, they’re a night kind of town. Wrigley remains apart from everywhere else, yet many of their games start when more or less everybody else’s do. They have lately retrofitted in not just lights, but the modern accoutrement every ballpark has. Pac Bell, PNC and so many others were inspired by Wrigley, yet Wrigley concerned itself with jamming a Jumbotron onto its premises. In the spirit of In Those Days, I will add It’s Just Not The Same Anymore.
But you roll with the flow. The Mets weren’t in fierce competition with the Cubs? We lathered up for other opponents. The Mets didn’t receive an afternoon oasis in their routine? We tuned in later. The Mets were going for a pennant against the Cubs?
The Mets were going for a pennant against the Cubs? This was, on some level, my dream come true. I’d claimed to have hated…sports-hated, mind you…the Cubs long past the Mets-Cubs rivalry’s expiration date. A little piece of me was always watching in 1969 and 1970, the duck feuding with the bear on the back page of the Post and all that. The parameters worked if I wanted them to. We clinched a division at Wrigley on the day after the final day of 1973 (eliminating the remnants of the formerly fearsome Cubs the day before) We were at each other’s throats, or perhaps ankles, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as the Mets and Cubs seemed to be trading off fifth and sixth places annually. Then came a genuine divisional race in 1984 that didn’t turn out as desired; then another semi-showdown in 1989 with another displeasing result. The Cubs padded off to the Central, yet we viewed each other with disdain from afar amid the 1998 Wild Card stakes (which also wound up sucking). Chicago rarely made its New York presence felt thereafter, though there were a couple of moments worth preserving in Flushing: the Victor Diaz/Craig Brazell spoiling of 2004, the five-run ninth of 2007, the final Shea walkoff win of 2008.
What we got in 2015 was something that would have been impossible to have experienced in 1969. We got a Mets-Cubs NLCS. They had to layer in extra playoffs to make it happen, but it came to pass. If the Post was still on its natural publication schedule, it would have called for extra editions.
Funny thing about last October was after all the years I salivated for a Mets-Cubs playoff, I could gin up no additional venom for the opponent of the hour. I wanted the Mets to prevail. I wanted whoever they were playing to succumb. That was all I wanted. I took no particular fervor from Chicago, home of the cartoon bear, trying to block the path of New York, home of the cartoon duck.
Nor, I imagine, did my father. I’ll also go so far as to imagine that if a Mets-Cubs NLCS had come to pass in any previous season in which three-division play made it theoretically possible, between 1995 and 2014, my father wouldn’t have cared whatsoever. He was on a long baseball hiatus. His deep-down Mets fandom that emerged in the mid-1980s evaporated in the early 1990s. He got caught up in the Teamwork Dreamwork Mets, just like my mother did. My mother died in 1990. His interest in baseball passed fairly soon after. It took me a spell to catch on. I still tried to talk baseball with him, tried to watch baseball with him, tried to express to him how much baseball meant to me and I thought it sort of, kind of meant to him.
It never took. At most, I got a “that’s nice” from him. The Mets went to a World Series in 2000. Dad shrugged. I started writing about the Mets in earnest in 2005. Dad didn’t get it. I told Dad I was writing a book about being a Mets fan in 2008. He told me there were probably better things I could be writing about.
I didn’t talk to him for two-and-a-half months after that.
We made up. Of course we did. We were father and son. I didn’t care that he didn’t love baseball. I was a little put off that he had no use for what I was doing, but he came around when the book came out in 2009. He told me he read it and liked it…though he confided to my sister that he didn’t necessarily agree with every aspect of my portrayal of certain family events — “Rashomon,” he reasoned, invoking the movie in which everybody tells the same story but with his own set of details.
My relationship with my father as my father grew older was mostly small talk. We honed it to a fine art, I believe. We talked about sports, global and national headlines, weather, maybe a human interest or pet story and a TV or movie review. We were essentially a weekly version of News 12 Long Island. His life had meandered in one direction, mine in another. We weren’t extraordinarily close to begin with. I loved him. More importantly, I liked him; I liked him like Sally Field reveled in being liked. That’s why I wished we had been closer. My attempts to forge a tighter bond — with baseball, without baseball — never went anywhere. Eventually, I shrugged. Good small talk was better than no talk at all.
You know he took ill in 2015 and I’ve described at length how we latched onto baseball together as the Mets tore through the National League last August and September. I’ve mentioned how much it meant to him and me to watch the World Series together. I’ve told you he died last week. So I’m not going to revisit all of that again. If anything, I want to get past his illness and remember him more like I knew him in his remarkably extensive prime — with baseball, without baseball. Mostly without, to be honest.
But I do have one strand of the Mets part of our story I don’t think I’ve ever delved into. It’s from last October. He was in the nursing home where he was administered palliative care, so his condition had already crossed over. His memory, so rich in detail, was growing spottier (particularly disconcerting for a son who is alleged to remember everything). His ability to conduct a conversation sputtered, which frustrated him when he was aware of it. I was missing our small talk. When one of us would call the other for twenty years, I took large delight in staying on the phone a little longer than usual. Maybe something was really good on TV that week. Maybe I hit on a nostalgic button that got him going. Any chat that wasn’t dominated by lingering pauses was a personal victory.
When we spoke on the phone in the fall of 2015, it was because he was insisting the nurse hadn’t come around when he rang for one. These calls came late at night. He didn’t know it was late at night. Sometimes his first question was “is it night or morning?” He’d call at 1 AM and want to know why lunch hadn’t come. The only thing he seemed to have no problem remembering was my phone number.
That was the dad I was dealing with in the fall of 2015 when he wasn’t getting stirred up over the Mets. The Mets were playing for the pennant. That stuck with him. If the Mets were playing big games, he knew I’d come over and watch. I came over and watched other things with him; it wasn’t the same. We had truncated chats about other things; they didn’t click. He conflated the Mets and me. I suppose he always had. For the first time, it meant something to him.
We watched the Mets clinch the NLDS against the Dodgers together. He was pleased, but I don’t think he quite got the magnitude of it. It was just another playoff series. Basketball had playoffs. Football had playoffs. Not every victory is outsize. But a pennant is something else. If you’re from the 1930s and 1940s like he was, you got the significance of a league championship. There’s a reason Russ Hodges screamed like a lunatic on behalf of the Giants in 1951. Pennants were something else In Those Days.
We watched the Mets win Game Three of the NLCS against the Cubs together, a night game at Wrigley Field. He was pleased again. It meant the Mets were one win from the World Series. The World Series was what I promised him in August, when the Mets were more than one game away. Somehow we landed on its lip. I don’t know how I arranged it, but it happened.
Game Four we didn’t watch together. It was a conscious decision on my part. Game Four was my turn recap to here. If the Mets won the pennant for the first time in the history of Faith and Fear in Flushing, I wanted to be at my computer not too many minutes after the final out to capture the moment. If I was gonna do that, I couldn’t be with my father. So I wasn’t.
And y’know what? I’m glad I wasn’t. Because a few minutes after Jeurys Familia struck out Dexter Fowler and the Mets became National League champions for the first time in fifteen years, my phone rang. It was my father.
He wasn’t asking where the nurse was. He wasn’t asking where lunch was. He wasn’t wondering if it was day or night. He knew exactly what time it was.
It was time to call me and tell me, “Congratulations. They won the pennant. That’s really something.” My dad was as coherent as I’d heard him since he returned to being a full-time patient in August. I didn’t think I was talking to a man who had only so many months left. I was talking to a man who’d seen plenty and understood what he was looking at on television and realized it was a big enough moment in the life of a baseball team that he had to share it with the biggest baseball fan he knew.
Frontrunning has its privileges.
If we’d watched the Mets clinch the pennant together, I have a pretty good idea of how it would have gone. By watching separately, I received perhaps the greatest unexpected phone call of my life, from my father to me, via Wrigley Field. There would never be another phone call quite like that in the nine months he had left. Given that our relationship had been mostly phone calls for so long, it felt perfect, just like that pennant won against the Cubs in Wrigley Field under the lights.
I assured Dad I’d be up to see him in the following days, and I was. It wasn’t as good as the phone call, maybe because there was no Mets game on. Then came the World Series, which was better in theory than in actuality, at least our two games together, One and Five. We tried. The Mets tried. No dice. I know it meant something to him, though. He brought it up on and off during our subsequent visits — how he still had it in for the Royals, how he looked forward to our watching the Mets in the World Series together next year (he said it with such certainty that I began to believe he, I and they couldn’t possibly not make it that far again). He kept referencing it until was incapable of referencing much of anything. My favorite moment in this regard came when we had the Chiefs-Texans AFC playoff game on in January. He repeatedly asked who was playing, who was winning. When it finally sunk in who one of the combatants was, he perked up:
“Boo hiss! I HATE Kansas City!”
Yes, Dad, I said. So do I.
We formally said goodbye to Charles Prince on Wednesday afternoon, July 20, 2016, in a rather simple service at the National Cemetery, part of the vast cemetery complex at Pinelawn. Dad was a veteran (defending the shores of San Francisco during the Korean conflict), so we availed ourselves of the outdoor military ceremony the VA said he’d earned. His only request was to be cremated; he didn’t care to know what would happen next.
A two-man honor guard participated. One of the servicemen blew “Taps”. Then the pair rigorously unfolded and folded an American flag, presenting it to my sister and me jointly, acknowledging Dad’s service to our country. When they completed discharging their duties quite honorably, Suzan read aloud a brief biography she penned, explaining who Dad was, where he was born and how he came to the life he lived. After leading us in the 23rd psalm, she turned the program over to me and I read a remembrance that I am sharing with you below, so you get an idea of what it was like, Mets aside, for me to have grown up the son of this man. There followed some heartfelt remarks from Florence, his “significant other” of nearly 25 years, and then a few more from her lovely granddaughters, Charles’s de facto granddaughters. When the speaking was done, Suzan and I were led to the wall in which the urns of loved ones are stored for what we on earth laughably refer to as eternity.
Suzan and I placed my father’s remains in his little locker together. That part was scripted. The next part was my own touch. I reached into my suit jacket pocket and removed the orange rally towel that I had hung, with Dad’s permission, on his nursing home bulletin board when I came over to watch Game Five of the Dodger series. It was from Game Three at Citi Field. It said, of course, Let’s Go Mets. It stayed up through the rest of the postseason, then the offseason, then into this, the next season. It probably explained why Dad managed to keep the Mets top of mind all those months. “Let’s Go Mets” stared at him every day. The Mets reminded him of me. A picture of me and the rest of the family was at the side of his bed, but after a while, he couldn’t turn his head. When the nursing home swept up his possessions and packed them into several Hefty bags in the hours after his passing, I asked Suzan, who was picking up his belongings, to make sure to return the towel to me. She presumably thought I wanted to re-add it to my amorphous blob of Metsiana.
Peering into the abyss of the eternal cubby (seriously, that’s what those urn compartments look like without their ornate doors), I took out the orange towel, which was folded as carefully and diligently as any flag, and placed it atop the urn. When my mother was prepared for burial 26 years before, I requested a button commemorating the 1986 World Champions, one I had given her after that World Series, be attached to her dress.
I have one move, I suppose. As my father would say when he didn’t want to dig any deeper for an explanation of his motives, what can I tell ya? Or was it, what can I say? Suzan and I remember it differently…à la Rashomon.
I didn’t want to make a fuss about what I had done — you don’t always want to be seen as the walking embodiment of the logo of your favorite professional sports team — but when we returned to our makeshift congregation under the canopy the cemetery provided, Suzan announced softy to all, “I just want you to know he went with a Mets rally towel.” After my brother-in-law Mark led us in the Mourner’s Kaddish and pressed play on his phone so the theme to “The Milkman’s Matinee” could send Charles off to the music he enjoyed, I had at least one attendee come up to me to compare notes. “When my father died,” he said, “I put a Mets cap in there with him.”
Mark had found something online about an Israeli folk tale and jelly doughnuts and maybe funerals. I didn’t quite process the note-for-note significance (he admitted it had no basis in scripture), but the idea that all the mourners who weren’t averse to sugar consumption should partake of something sweet was a nice one, so Munchkins were handed out, giving everybody an excuse to stand around a little longer and chat amiably under the canopy about the departed. After a fashion, we all got going. Stephanie and I walked into our living room at exactly 2:20 PM, first-pitch time for the Mets and Cubs from Wrigley Field. They were playing a day game at that venue on this day of all days, almost as if assembling a second honor guard, an LGM for PFC Charles Henry Prince. Given the gift of such beautiful if coincidental scheduling, I doubt I can ever pretend to hate the Cubs again (until the next time we see them, at least).
As if that weren’t enough, it was a throwback uniform game. The Mets dressed like it was 1986, the Cubs 1988. My dad and I watched them play each other in both of those seasons, years when the Mets went to the playoffs, years when we watched the Mets together quite a bit. We watched them play the first night game that counted at Wrigley in 1988. At the time, I considered it an affront to nature — a National League game in Chicago under anything but natural light was simply wrong.
In light of our telephone conversation from late in the evening of Wednesday, October 21, 2015, when the Mets won the pennant on the road from the Cubs and my dad sounded better than he ever would again, I stand corrected.
Long may it wave.
The following is what I wrote for and read at my dad’s service.
Today is Wednesday, and there was a time in this country that, if you watched enough television, you were reminded constantly that Wednesday was Prince Spaghetti Day. The commercial that established it as fact was very big when I was a kid. Don’t think my contemporaries on the school bus didn’t latch onto it.
When you have a name like Prince, people are going to make what they are certain are original, amusing remarks to you. They want to know how the spaghetti was last night. They want to know how much you made off your album, “Purple Rain”. In the days when you had to drop your film off somewhere to be developed, I can recall a several-minute dialogue regarding “prints for Prince”. It comes with the territory. It’s all intended in good fun, I’m sure, but after a while, you’ve heard it enough.
Mostly, the allusions are in the royal family. “Oh, you must be a real Prince!” or something like that. I’ve heard it a few thousand times, and I have a fairly innocuous first name.
Now imagine you’re Charles Prince, or as it usually winds up on a last-name-first form, “Prince, Charles.” It’s too good for people to pass up. “Oh, you’re Prince Charles!” he was told repeatedly. He always took it in good humor, as if he was hearing it for the very first time…which he wasn’t.
I don’t know what the famous Prince Charles with whom my father shared an accidental moniker is like around the castle, but whatever qualities are ideally attributed to a lower-case “prince,” my father, Charles Prince, had them in spades.
He was never less than cordial. He was ceaselessly gracious. He treated every single person he encountered with genuine respect. He acted as if nobody was beneath him.
Would you expect anything less from a prince?
I can tell you first-hand that the phrase “prince of a guy” absolutely fit this man. Which is not to say his regal bearing didn’t have a few wrinkles to it.
I knew the Prince of Absurdity, the guy who said of a vanity license plate that identified its bearer as HARRY, “Look, Greg, they turned Uncle Harry into a car.” Mind you, Uncle Harry had passed away a few weeks before, and my dad loved his Uncle Harry, and he immediately berated himself for such impertinence, but I could tell he thought it was pretty funny. And so did I.
I knew the Prince of A Lost World, the guy from a time before my own who loved to tell stories of his grandmother making him soup; of FDR talking to him and the rest of the nation on the radio; of the gentlemen who worked in the back at Prince Valet Dry Cleaning on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights and how they were so nice to him; of the wonders of the 1939 World’s Fair; of a semi-pro baseball team he referred to as the “old Bushwicks,” who played at Dexter Park; of the easily riled track coach at Newtown High who didn’t like what was written about him in the school paper; and of his buddy who wrote the critical article hiding in the closet so the coach wouldn’t find him. Dad made all these long gone personalities and places come alive for me over and over again.
I knew the Prince of Saturday Afternoons, the guy who would take me along on necessary errands. The guy who would take me to “take a haircut,” not “get a haircut” like everybody else said. The guy who put up with me screaming at the sight of the buzzer the barber used to clean up my sideburns. “No machine and no pinch on cheek,” he liked to tell me I told my first barber when I was two…he liked to tell me that a lot. The guy who explained, after I asked, why cabs where we lived didn’t cruise around like they did in the city (it was because it wasn’t economical, he said). The guy who told me to get in the front seat with him because he wasn’t a cab driver. This was mundane stuff, but I loved doing it with him. I learned a little more about the world every Saturday through his eyes when I was at my most impressionable.
I knew the Prince who watched TV in his boxer shorts and undershirt. The Prince who stacked newspapers practically to the ceiling because he planned to read them all eventually. The Prince who could be buttoned-up as any executive could possibly be as he spoke in hushed tones on the telephone with a candidate for a position he was attempting to fill. The Prince who would laugh uproariously if so provoked by friends or relatives or Archie Bunker or Mary Richards or even me. The Prince who prized the conceptual over the anecdotal. The Prince who used words like “conceptual” and “anecdotal” at the dinner table. The Prince who was rarely judgmental but informed me quite seriously that only an idiot would wear white socks with black shoes, go upstairs and change them. The Prince who insisted there was a wartime baseball player named Frenchy Bordagaray, which I somehow didn’t believe, but it turned out to be true. Imagine that — a kid finding out something useful from his dad.
I also came to know, in his final fourteen months, the Prince who fought a valiant fight against an insidious disease until he could fight no longer. I felt I got to know my father all over again, starting with the Wednesday, May 20, 2015, that he entered the hospital for the first time for what was diagnosed as a brain tumor; and I got to know him even more when — after he had worked so hard to regain his strength all summer — he was back in the hospital on Wednesday, August 19, 2015, with the pneumonia that sent him on his ultimate downward spiral.
The old nursery rhyme declares Wednesday’s child is full of woe. My dad was born on a Wednesday. We know he died last week on a Wednesday. We are standing here on a Wednesday saying goodbye to him. It’s not much of an advertisement for Prince Spaghetti Day, I suppose.
But my father lived 4,565 Wednesdays in total, 31,949 days in all across his approximately 87½ years. I wouldn’t call the totality of his life woeful whatsoever. He made countless lives better just for having touched them. None was better for his having been among us than mine, and I want to thank him for that.
He was truly a Prince of a Guy, and very much a helluva dad.
One of the great frustrations of being a fan is how different a team can look on successive days. In one game absolutely nothing works; less than 24 hours later everything does. Or vice versa, of course. Players know this far better than we do and respond to it with a studied stoicism that we sometimes misread as bland acceptance; 90% of dumb calls to sports-radio shows (which is to say about 81% of all such calls) start with the fact that fans externalize what players have learned to internalize.
A tolerably good response to this essential unfairness is to turn things around and look at them from the other guy’s perspective. (Actually this is a tolerably good response to everything, particularly in our to-the-barricades age of hot takes.) On Tuesday absolutely nothing went right for the Cubs, culminating in an excruciatingly hapless ninth-inning crash landing; on Wednesday the Cubs stuck their bats out and waited for good things to happen. Meanwhile, for the Mets … well, you get it by now. If Tuesday’s was a game that stubbornly refused to send the Mets away,Wednesday’s was a game that never came into view.
I was on my couch, happy to be back from nine days overseas and even happier that there was a matinee awaiting me. Being five hours in the future had limited me to a handful of early innings: witnessing the All-Star introductions but luckily missing Terry Collins failing to even secure his own team a participation medal; seeing Neil Walker blast a key home run; and catching a batter or two when the Wi-Fi was friendly. Now I was back, and ready for … well, for not much.
Bartolo Colon‘s location was not what it needed to be, which happens to him sometimes and makes him into the easy target he otherwise just appears to be. Colon looked odd in second-term Reagan gray polyester and grumpily resigned on the mound, knowing it was unlikely that the baseball was going to go where he needed it to. Twice that baseball lingered in the couple of inches of airspace where Anthony Rizzo most wanted to find it, resulting in fly balls so instantly and obviously gone that the normally polite Curtis Granderson barely moved his feet.
The Mets mounted a couple of fitful rallies against a very Colonesque Kyle Hendricks, most notably in the fourth when James Loney, Travis d’Arnaud and Kelly Johnson awakened with two outs to rap consecutive sharp singles. Unfortunately, Johnson’s hit had to deliver Loney from second base, a task for which express delivery is not an option. As Loney drifted continentally in the direction of home plate, Jason Heyward scooped the ball up in center and hurled it home. The play was neatly symmetrical: one hop between the grass and Heyward’s glove, one hop between the grass and Miguel Montero‘s mitt, and pretty much a textbook illustration of how to throw a runner out at home.
That’s another way to keep baseball from being maddening: appreciate whatever it gives you on the day, even if it’s a highlight for the other guy.
One other thing keeps bugging me, too much to leave for the full post it deserves to receive one day. During a discussion of draft picks, Steve Chilcott’s name came up and I winced, as I always do.
The Mets, you may recall, drafted Chilcott as the first pick in 1966, one place ahead of Reggie Jackson. Reggie became Reggie; Chilcott became a punch line.
What kind of punch line depends on the context. Sometimes it’s that the Mets are and have always been the Mets, ready to screw up their next one-car funeral. Other times it’s that the mid-60s Mets were run by racists who disliked rabble-rousers and other free-thinkers.
What might have been.
Either narrative ignores the fact that Chilcott was a pretty good player: he hit .500 his senior year at Antelope Valley High, with 11 home runs in a 25-game season. Whitey Herzog, a key architect of the Mets and the man who should have succeeded Gil Hodges as manager, recalled that he polled the other teams after the ’66 draft and the vote for Jackson over Chilcott was a skinny 11-9.
Chilcott didn’t do much in two stops in ’66, but was having a fine year at Winter Haven in 1967 when his career took a disastrous turn: he dove awkwardly back into second on a pickoff attempt, dislocating his shoulder. The injury never healed properly, leaving Chilcott saddled with constant pain and unable to throw effectively. He tried surgery in 1969 but was out of baseball by his 24th birthday.
That’s half of the story; the other half concerns what the Mets might or might not have thought of Reggie Jackson.
Rumors that race had something to do with the Mets picking Chilcott over Jackson go back to 1969: Reggie told one interviewer that “there are other reasons they didn’t pick me, and it isn’t what they put in the papers. Other people in baseball have told me why I wasn’t drafted by them.”
Mets GM Johnny Murphy rejected that: “We needed a catcher more than we did an outfielder when that draft came up and our reports indicated that Chilcott was a better player, certainly a better prospect. Every time I read about Jackson hitting another home run I appreciate how wrong you can be in your judgment.”
Checking racial boxes is a dubious strategy regardless of one’s intentions, but perhaps it’s worth noting that the Mets at the time were trying to develop an outfield featuring Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee and Amos Otis (three Mets from Mobile), saw Ed Charles as their spiritual on-field leader and had just traded for Donn Clendenon.
Still, Murphy hadn’t run the Mets when they selected Chilcott — that was still George Weiss’s department. Weiss’s Yankee tenure wasn’t one of the more glorious periods of baseball integration, to say the least, and a number of black players of that era heard rumblings that they’d been traded or passed over because they dared to date across interracial lines. This piece about Jackson and the Mets discusses their experiences, including those of Vic Power, who was buried in the Yankees’ farm system under Weiss.
In later interviews and autobiographies, Jackson said the Mets’ issue was that he’d dated white women and had a Hispanic girlfriend at the time of the draft. Jackson said Bobby Winkles, his Arizona State manager, warned him that he wouldn’t get picked first because of that. (Winkles has denied that.)
Reggie Jackson, of course, says a lot. My suspicion is that it still eats at him that he wasn’t the top overall pick. Combine that with having had to deal with a lot of toxic shit as a young black star (and as a not so young one) and you get a narrative that’s convenient for a lot of people, starting with Jackson himself.
As for the Mets, who knows? They did have a number of promising outfielders in ’66, and a glaring hole at catcher. Yet it’s also not a stretch to think that Weiss may have looked at two amateur players rated relatively evenly and opted against the one who would attract attention — for his temper and his mouth, certainly, and perhaps also for his dating habits.
We’ll never know — it’s far too late to ask Weiss. But what bugs me is once again we’ve lost sight of the man who’s been reduced to the punch line.
Steve Chilcott didn’t turn out to be Reggie Jackson, but he was a good enough player to hit .290 as an 18-year-old in the Florida State League. He got hurt, as innumerable baseball players have before him and will after him. That’s not his fault, or the Mets’ fault. If there’s any lesson in it, it ought to be the one baseball drums into players and fans alike — that this is an unfair game, one that will drive you crazy if you let it.
Sometimes you look at the screen and you know you’re doomed. Then you look at the tiny score bug in the corner of the screen and realize you’re not. You’re losing in all facets of the game, especially on the scoreboard, but it hits you after a while that the game is neither over nor out of reach. The flagship example of this phenomenon in Mets history is probably Game Six of the 1986 National League Championship Series, wherein the Mets fell behind in a hurry, 3-0 in the first, yet the Astros never increased their lead versus Bobby Ojeda and Rick Aguilera. Bob Knepper had them stifled through eight, but Lenny Dykstra pinch-hit to lead off the top of the ninth, tripled, and suddenly it was all so clear: we’re not dead. Three runs would soon score and the legend of that Game Six was only beginning.
More recently, the final game of last year’s National League Division Series followed a similar path. Jacob deGrom was nicked early, the Dodgers threatened repeatedly, the Mets were doing little against Zack Greinke, the postseason seemed to be slipping down some terrible black hole…yet, it was only 2-1 heading into the fourth, 2-2 going to the sixth, 3-2 Mets thereafter. L.A. still loomed as trouble, but the worst never materialized. Somehow we hung on.
These Felix Unger Presents Oscar Madison’s Greatest Moments In Sports are invoked here because they were evoked Tuesday night in Chicago. The Mets played one of those games that you were sure they were destined to lose. Even when they hung tough, you figured it was for naught. Even when they tied things up, you assumed it was temporary. Even when they nosed out in front by no more than the length of Murray Greshler’s proboscis, you believed it represented no more than the prelude to a lethal fall.
No way the Mets were beating the Cubs last night. Yet they did, in this dimension anyway. In most other iterations of our universe, the Mets lost badly or weirdly or both. Since the game we witnessed is the only one that counts in the only standings we see, we’ll call it a win and not ask too many questions.
Besides, “How the hell did the Mets win that game?” and “How the hell did the Mets not lose that game?”
You weren’t sure what you’d get from Noah Syndergaard and the bone spurs he briefly claimed didn’t exist (public denials of the obvious being all the rage these days), and early on, it appeared the Cubs might hammer Thor. Yet balls hit hard and deep with runners on base wound up in the gloves of Mets outfielders who played wherever their manager told them to play. Through two innings, Chicago left five men on and sent no men across.
The logistics shifted in the third. Noah struck out his first two batters (not looking fatigued or damaged in any discernible way) before surrendering a two-out double to Wilson Contreras. Syndergaard retired the next batter, Jason Heyward, on a flyout to left, but in between, he threw a wild pitch, and a scrambling, overambitious Rene Rivera followed with a dart down the left field line. Contreras enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip from second to home, while Heyward never had to dig into his deep pockets. The Cubs were up, 1-0.
Thor’s fellow All-Star, Jake Arrieta, needed no post-break adjustment period. He dominated the Mets from the first through the fourth, facing only one batter over the minimum. The “1” the Cubs had appeared as daunting as the Sears Tower (which is actually now officially the Willis Tower, but I had to look that up, and if I said as “daunting as the Willis Tower,” I’m guessing most of you would have thought, “what you talkin’ ’bout — Willis?”). This was the Arrieta who regularly handled the Mets prior to last October and these were the Mets who didn’t hit the night before and hit only intermittently to begin with.
Jake was so awesome that he doubled to center in the bottom of the fourth with two out and, when Tommy La Stella singled to right, he was off and running to increase his own lead. Helping his own cause was the placement in right of Michael Conforto, never before a major league right fielder and known less for his arm than the Sears Tower is known outside of Chicago as the Willis Tower. Son of a gun, though, Conforto unleashed a beauty of a throw to Rivera, who reminded one and all, despite that lousy peg past third, of his defensive prowess. With a grab and a swipe and a tag, he took out the heretofore invincible Arrieta, whose Cy Young form does not include baserunning. True, it took a replay review to reverse a horrific call at the plate by old nemesis Eric Cooper, but that’s why they make video monitors. The Mets were still down only 1-0.
But c’mon, they weren’t doing anything with Arrieta. There was a tiny uprising in the fifth, including an unlikely base hit from Rivera, but all that did was bring up Syndergaard with two out. Noah, hitting résumé notwithstanding, fanned. Jake was JaKKKKKKe in the scorebook and clean on the scoreboard.
Syndergaard was getting better. In the bottom of the fifth, he filed his first 1-2-3 frame of the night. Arrieta would start the sixth by taking on Jose Reyes, prototypical leadoff hitter of a day gone by, a day that didn’t seem to include Tuesday night. Le Grand Reyes — so dubbed because he’s sure looked rusty — turned back the clock to 2006, running clockwise from home to third after lashing a ball down the right field line. it was Jose’s first triple of 2016, the hundredth he has hit in a Mets uniform. Curtis Granderson followed with an immediate sac fly.
The Mets, you were sure, were still losing, except they had exactly as many runs as the Cubs did. Strange game, this baseball.
Thor and his right elbow had thrown plenty through five. Terry Collins decided they could go another inning. It seemed a strange bet, given the Syndergaardian condition and his importance to the overall Metropolitan enterprise. He walked that darn Contreras to start the sixth. The Cub left fielder stole second, but then Noah went full Norse on the next two batters, striking out Heyward and Addison Russell. His pitch count was in triple-digits, the next Cub was up was a lefty and Terry decided he’d pushed the limits of his luck. Out went Syndergaard — seven hits and two walks not so great; eight strikeouts and one run pretty fantastic — and in came Jerry Blevins to thwart Miguel Montero.
Arrieta’s awesomeness was receding in the seventh. Neil Walker singled to lead off. Two outs later, Rivera collected his second single. The pitcher’s spot was nigh. A pinch-hitter was needed. Alejandro De Aza was called upon.
Less than mighty Alejandro (.179) struck out. It was Jake’s eighth and final K of the night, dealt to his final batter of the evening. He permitted five hits and one walk. He was far more in command of his side of the ledger than Syndergaard seemed to have been of his, but “seem” is unseemly in a sport that keeps count of one indisputable fact: the score. It was still Cubs 1 Mets 1. Even it continued to feel like we were behind, we weren’t. Feel, like seem, is all very subjective.
Hansel Robles was efficient in the bottom of the seventh. Pedro Strop was more so in the top of the eighth. Robles stuck around for the bottom of the eighth and gave the Cubs nothing. Hector Rondon came on for the top of the ninth. The Mets would be sending up a stream of their solid, admirable veterans few of us ever gave a second thought to until they arrived among us.
James Loney, long of the Dodgers, singled the other way, in his case to left. Walker, hometown Pirate, grounded into a double play, immediately firing up an escape pod for Rondon and the Cubs, who would presumably alight in the bottom of the ninth positioned to ruin the Mets’ adorable efforts to keep pace with Joe Maddon’s children of destiny, hey, hey, holy mackerel and all that. Except it wasn’t a double play. The relay to first to nail Walker accomplished no such thing. It was just another horrible umpiring miscue, fortunately corrected by the blessing that is MLB replay review.
Replay rocks…when it works on our behalf.
With Walker on first, Cabrera from Cleveland singled to right, sending Neil to second. Rivera, defensive specialist/eighth-place hitter who kept his past well hidden from me until we acquired him (he’s a Tampa Bay refugee, I eventually learned), did what Loney did. He went the other way off Rondon. Rene’s third base hit of the night was served to right. Walker ran from second to home successfully.
The Mets had taken a lead in a game they, I swear, were never in. They led, 2-1, in the ninth (on a hit delivered with a runner in scoring position, praise be), and continued to have under contract the best closer in creation. On some level, this could be comprehended as an advantage for the team in the lead.
But this seemed and felt fishy. Jeurys Familia’s streak of not blowing saves had gone on forever. The only thing that dated back further is Wrigley Field, and how can the Mets play a night game in Chicago and not have something about it backfire dramatically? It’s the cost of doing business most seasons. A dramatic home run would screw them effectively, though some sort of passed ball would be plenty cruel, too.
Familia’s on in the ninth. He walks Russell. He walks Montero. Four or five walks in a row would be so unfathomably over the top enough that it could be nominated by a major political party, but it’s not like it couldn’t happen and potentially destroy our way of life. Ah, two walks was plenty. Two walks constituted the seeds of pending destruction. First and second, nobody out. The last time Jeurys was on the Wrigley mound, Gary Cohen noted, it was to celebrate a pennant. Of course he was due for penance.
Javier Baez came up to bunt the runners over. He chopped one toward third. Reyes, a third baseman for a good coupla weeks now, charged, grabbed, threw and…
Wasn’t that gonna go foul? Probably.
Did Jose get Baez at first? No.
OK, now the bases are loaded, nobody’s out, the game is tied, the game won’t be tied for long, because there’s no frigging way this isn’t going to mushroom in spectacular fashion.
Matt Szczur bats for Rondon. He grounds sharply to Loney. Loney throws sharply to Rivera. Russell is out. Everybody else is safe. Albert Amora, Montero’s pinch-runner, is on third with the tying tally. Baez stands on second with the heartbreaking winning one. There is nowhere to put anybody.
Except out, like Fred Flintstone would do with the cat in the end credits to a show I watched every day after school without ever actually enjoying it.
Someday, maybe Fred will win the fight.
Then that cat will stay out for the night.
Fred rarely won any battle on The Flintstones. But when the whistle blew, he knew it was time to slide down the dinosaur and head for home. In this more modern age, our ninth-inning protagonist Jeurys knew if he wanted to punch out with a clear conscience, he had to keep Amora and Baez from heading for home. But how?
How about a Kris Bryant grounder to the ever aggressive Reyes, who instead of firing to Rivera for one excruciation-extending forceout at the plate, went around the horn, throwing a little low to Walker, who stretched for the putout that offed Baez. Walker, in turn, pivoted and sent a slightly wayward bullet to Loney. Loney had to be a bit gymnastic to receive the delivery on the fly, but he did.
Such a sequence of events is spelled, in baseball shorthand, 5-4-3, as in game-ending double play. The Cubs, with the bases loaded and nobody out, lost, 2-1. The Mets, on the other end of that exact equation, won, 2-1.
How the hell did that happen? Exactly as detailed above, but seriously. How the hell did that happen?
Let’s see what we’ve got in the outfield:
Cespedes in left. Lagares in center. Granderson in right.
No, Conforto in left. Cespedes in center. Granderson in right.
Wait, Cespedes doesn’t want to play center. As dinged up as he’s been, and given how important it is to keep him in the lineup, it’s probably best to accede to his wishes.
Though he’s supposed to be in center tonight. But not much more after tonight.
Cespedes has such a great arm. He showed it off Monday night. It’s a perfect right fielder’s arm. But he wants to play left, where he’s really good…though he made a bonehead play there in the same game that he made the great throw.
He tends to make those bonehead plays in center.
So Cespedes is in left. Which is where Conforto played before being sent down. He wasn’t great at it, but it was the position he knew how to play best.
Like with Cespedes, we’re mostly concerned that Conforto hits. He hit in Vegas. He hit to the opposite field in the Mets’ last-chance, mostly useless ninth-inning rally just before the Mets lost Monday night’s mostly useless game to the Cubs. That was useful to see. Along with Cespedes’s early throw to nail a runner at home, and Flores’s homer, Conforto showing he had honed his approach while at Triple-A represented the highlight of the game.
We shouldn’t overlook Lugo’s solid relief, either, though when you identify “Lugo’s solid relief” as a highlight, it’s probably a bad sign for the night overall. No offense to Seth Lugo, but I actually forgot he was on the active roster.
Anyway, can Conforto play center? Can he play right? He played a little right in Vegas, didn’t he?
What about Granderson? Granderson used to be a center fielder. As is, he’s a really good right fielder, except for throwing. He throws like a barely adequate left fielder, which is the opposite of Cespedes, who’s primarily a left fielder, who throws like a really terrific right fielder. He throws well from center, too, but he’d rather not play center.
Conforto’s not a center fielder, but he might be.
Which leaves Lagares where again? Lagares was the best defensive center fielder the Mets ever had for a couple of years, then not much of anything offensively or defensively last year when he was hurt, lately better at both, even though he’s been battling his own injuries.
Lagares should be in center most of the time. Unless you can convince Cespedes to go back there. Or get Conforto used to it. Or get Granderson over there from time to time. Or make room for Nimmo.
Oh wait, Nimmo is back in Vegas. Lugo is here, Nimmo isn’t. Nimmo will be back soon, I imagine, though where he’ll play doesn’t seem obvious.
Same could be said for Flores, who hits when he starts, which isn’t often. Wasn’t there some talk at some point of trying Flores in the outfield? That ended quickly.
Come to think of it, didn’t they say something similar about Reyes, that he was going to play some third, some short, some second, some center, even though all he had ever played was short and a bit of misguided second a long time ago? Reyes somehow became the everyday third baseman at the same instant Flores became red hot.
Reyes has played a pretty good third base, but the leadoff catalyst element of his game has been a work in progress. Then again, neither Granderson nor Lagares nor Nimmo, albeit in a small sample size, was setting the top of the order on fire.
So Reyes isn’t playing the outfield, which is OK, since he’s not an outfielder and we have plenty of outfielders, but it seems to cramp Flores’s playing time. Flores isn’t an outfielder. He was a shortstop most of last year who was moved to third this year when Wright got hurt, and he occasionally plays first, but not much, because we have Loney. Plus Walker and Cabrera, who play Flores’s other positions, never sit. Walker, I heard, could play some third, but he hasn’t yet. Also, Johnson can play everywhere but never plays anywhere anymore.
That’s Kelly Johnson, in case you’d lost track of him. I have to admit I did. I saw “Johnson” was pinch-hitting last night, and for a moment I wondered who Johnson was.
Johnson didn’t get a hit. The Mets got only six hits. One of them was Flores’s home run, which came with nobody on. The Mets lost, 5-1. They have lots of potential outfielders. They could use more actual hitters.
I traveled to the Meadowlands a couple of Septembers ago for a Giants game. In the first series executed by the home team, a run for four yards on 3rd and 1 produced a first down. My host for the afternoon, as True Blue a fan as there is, could not have been happier to have seen the ball move from his team’s 29 to his team’s 33.
“That,” he exulted to me, “is Giants football!”
Some franchises are eternally identified with a certain style or trademark, regardless of how they’re playing in a given era. Giants football has indeed always meant effective rushing and stifling defense. The Lakers will always be Showtime in the mind’s eye. The Celtics must have a killer Sixth Man lurking somewhere on their bench. The Raiders are supposed to be marauders. You say “New Jersey Devils,” I still think “neutral zone trap”. The St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles are assumed fundamentally sound, thanks to their respective Ways.
The Mets? The Mets are a convincing complete game shutout from an outstanding starting pitcher on a sunny weekend afternoon. That is Mets baseball, certainly to me.
Sunday from Philadelphia, I watched quintessential Mets baseball. I watched 2014 Rookie of the Year, 2015 National League All-Star and Wilson Defensive Pitcher of the Year Jacob deGrom throw nine innings and give up no runs. I watched the Mets score enough runs (five) to not require a pinch-hitter to prepare to bat for deGrom. I watched deGrom maintain a low enough pitch count (105) so that the bullpen did no more than perfunctorily stir in the ninth.
DeGrom’s line was so simple as to be beautiful: nine innings, seven strikeouts, one hit, one walk, no runs, no trouble. Add in the dazzling handling of a Cody Asche would-be bunt base hit; a two-out single deGrom’s second time up; and Jake coming around to score the Mets’ second run from first on Jose Reyes’s subsequent double into the gap, and some kind of day it had been. It was not a perfect game, but it was perfect. I love Mets baseball when it’s definitively Mets baseball. The Mets, at their best, are defined by a Jacob deGrom-type pitcher having a Jacob deGrom-type day.
You may have noticed I slipped that “one hit” allowed in there without fanfare. A one-hitter can be crushingly disappointing if a no-hitter is in play, but deGrom gave up his lone hit with two out in the third, to opposing pitcher Zach Eflin. Not that I wasn’t already contemplating how good deGrom looked and how possible it was that the Phillies might not touch him at all, but it was too early to be edgy about it, and besides — June 1, 2012. We’re good. We were also good the Santana start before his no-hitter, on a sunny Saturday at Citi, when Johan threw the kind of throwback complete game shutout deGrom did Sunday.
Tom Seaver threw a one-hitter in Philadelphia in 1970 in which the only opposing hit was generated in the third inning. The batter then was Mike Compton, a name that does not really live on in the pantheon we associate with dreamwrecker deluxe Jimmy Qualls. It could by all rights, considering catcher Compton totaled only 18 hits in his brief big league career, or 13 fewer than Qualls. But Compton’s hit of note happened six innings earlier than Qualls’s had ten months before, so some one-hitters get themselves accepted at face value.
We can take Jake’s as such, even if Eflin’s straight outta Compton single was only the third hit of his rookie year. It seems ungracious to rue the one at-bat that didn’t go deGrom’s way when all the others did. Jacob was in command from start to finish, accent on finish. Nobody else had to pitch for the Mets. Thanks to three runs off Eflin and two off Andrew Bailey, nobody who was in the lineup in the first wasn’t in the lineup in the ninth. The Mets were comfortably ahead by the fifth, prohibitively so by the eighth. Substitutions could be left to Pete Mackanin and, for that matter, Red Auerbach. It was a smooth afternoon, the kind Seaver and Gooden regularly gave us sans ceremony back in the day. I understand we live in a different day. I understand why it’s rare in the present. A little taste of what made the past so appealing when the past was the present, however, can be quite welcome any day. Especially on a sunny Sunday, though that’s a matter of personal preference.
A Mets win (in which no Met aggravates a quad or other body part) is a good Mets win, period, but a Mets win in the tradition of Mets wins as you picture them when you picture Mets wins…well, gosh, that’s baseball like it oughta be.