Let’s see, what did I do with that piece I wrote about the Mets’ Monday night 11-4 loss to Washington? It had everything in it: how they led 4-0 in the middle of the third inning; how they probably could have led by more; how Brandon Nimmo recorded the first hits of his major league career; how everything looked fine in the game itself despite the news beforehand revealing Steven Matz’s elbow spur; how Matz might miss his next start and perhaps require surgery; how the Mets had Noah Syndergaard on the mound and Joe Ross on the ropes, then suddenly Syndergaard gave back the lead and then some; how Ross was untouchable after the third; how the Met bullpen didn’t help matters; how the Mets looked unhinged in the field and, ultimately, helpless at the plate; how they Mets are now four out in the division and in possession of neither Wild Card; how Syndergaard was reported to also have a bone spur, though he denied it afterwards; and, most of all, how the Nationals stole six bases, five off of Thor, including four in the wretched, ragged bottom of the third?
That’s right — I left my article on second base. The Nationals must have stolen that, too.
Memo to Brandon Nimmo: that’s not the way you’re supposed to play baseball up here.
Nimmo didn’t collect a hit in his big-league debut, but perhaps he just was trying to fit in with the rest of his new teammates. He played right field ably and showed a veteran’s eye for the strike zone, which was plenty for Day One. And he got to watch Bartolo Colon being his usual imperturbable self, showing no ill effects from taking a line drive off the thumb. Colon proved mortal only against the rejuvenated Freddie Freeman, whose first-inning homer set a dispiriting tone.
Bartolo was stingy, but other Mets were far too generous. We’ll call Logan Verrett‘s gopher ball to the irritating Adonis Garcia an error of execution, but Antonio Bastardo pitched horribly and didn’t think much more capably, making the baffling decision to fake a throw to first for an instant balk before letting Ender Inciarte basically walk to third. Rene Rivera struck out feebly in a key spot and failed to back up first base on a play where a ball eluded James Loney and went into the Braves’ dugout. I know it was hotter than blazes and a day game after a night game, but yeesh.
So the Mets end a long weekend of baseball having essentially spun their wheels against the invariably infuriating Braves. Their recent history shows them as 4-1 against the Pirates and Royals and 2-5 against Atlanta, so go figure. In Nimmo’s first two days of big-league duty he’s watched a game while wearing gaudy blue pajamas and played another in which several of his teammates appeared to be asleep. With the Nats and Cubs on tap, here’s devoutly hoping they wake up.
For nine innings Saturday night, you might have believed you were watching the Mets perform in historically frustrating fashion, better known as just another game from the past eight weeks. On April 30, the Mets had risen to eight games above .500, Michael Conforto was soaring atop an OPS of 1.118 and the only change any of us could have reasonably requested was a more equitable system of Syndergaarden Gnome distribution.
Good times. They didn’t last unabated. Momentum started, sputtered, stalled. Backs, necks, shoulders, wrists, ankles, hips — if it could be connected to a Met bone, it would go aching or worse. Inertia, injuries and plain old inability have contributed to create a lack of fluidity in the current Met season. They’re good enough to win some, not good enough to not lose some more.
These Mets entered Saturday’s shall we say action 24-26 in their previous 50 games. We’ve tended to spiritually process that win one, lose one-point-oh-eight-three-three-three sample as the Mets can’t do anything right. Not true. They win almost as much as they lose (while the Nationals, blessedly, lately lose exclusively).
Sometimes, when the Mets win, they do things you’ve almost never seen them do before.
On Saturday, they won a 1-0 game in extra innings on the road on the strength of a home run. That’s happened exactly three times in New York Mets history (which we know, thanks to the Play Index feature of Baseball-Reference). The Mets have been playing baseball since 1962. It is 2016. Fifty-five seasons, including this one, have transpired, and in 52, what occurred last night never occurred at all.
The lucky seasons before the contemporary edition provided our third episode were 1965 and 1985. Each of the games in question was remarkable and memorable before their respective home runs provided the Mets a climactic penultimate scene.
June 14, 1965: At Crosley Field, Jim Maloney no-hit the tenth-place Mets for ten innings, striking out seventeen along the way. Frank Lary for eight innings and Larry Bearnarth for the next two in no way matched Maloney for epic brilliance, but they did keep the Reds in a zero state of mind. Johnny Lewis led off the eleventh for the Mets and homered. Maloney responded by striking out Ron Swoboda to give him eighteen K’s on the evening. Bearnarth withstood Cincinnati one more time in the bottom of the eleventh to seal the 1-0 win.
October 1, 1985: At Busch Stadium, Ron Darling and John Tudor engaged in a pennant race pitching duel that could be used to illustrate a dictionary definition. Darling scattered seven baserunners over nine innings before giving way to Jesse Orosco. Tudor went ten, yielding six hits, three walks and no runs. In the top of the eleventh, after striking out Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, Ken Dayley gave up one of the most enduringly famous home runs any Met has ever hit: Darryl Strawberry’s shot off the clock. Anybody who watched the game will remember Darryl alarmed Dayley at precisely 10:44 PM CDT. Orosco preserved the 1-0 lead in the bottom of the inning.
That was it for approximately 54½ years, until June 25, 2016, which was already shaping up as a bold-letter date in Mets history, at least around the edges. It was the day Michael Conforto, OPS having plunged to .727, graciously (but necessarily) accepted a demotion to Las Vegas. It was the day Brandon Nimmo, the Mets’ No. 1 draft choice from 2011, replaced him, finally earning elevation to the big leagues; his first game is slated to be Sunday’s finale in Atlanta. It was the day Jose Reyes, last seen in a Mets uniform the year Nimmo turned pro, was signed to a minor league contract, a formality that will allow him to work out his kinks in Coney Island and soon rejoin the team he still calls home. Judging by the joy he displayed while taking his most recent haircut, that day can’t come soon enough for Jose. It was also, sadly, the day Jim Hickman, an Original Met whose nickname Gentleman Jim was, by all accounts, well-earned, passed away at the age of 79. (More on that below.)
An active Met day, indeed, before the night’s business commenced. When pitches started being thrown in earnest, the action at Turner Field failed to encompass hitting. If it wasn’t exactly Lary vs. Maloney or Darling vs. Tudor on this steamy Georgia night, Jacob deGrom and Julio Teheran replicated the essential results. Control on each side was impeccable. The Brave starter walked nobody in his eight innings, while deGrom, this year’s poster pitcher for snakebit (no W’s since those 15,000 Gnomes were a hot topic), walked only one. Singles came and went. DeGrom produced double play grounders in three consecutive innings, making best friends everywhere he went.
Met (or Royal Giant) baserunning was the enemy on a couple of occasions. Yoenis Cespedes and his battery of bruises didn’t or couldn’t slide into second in the third, short-circuiting a legitimate scoring opportunity. In the tenth, during a sequence that seems destined to represent Alejandro De Aza’s calling card for the rest of his Met time — which looms as limited — the Braves turned a DP of the SMH variety. Matt Reynolds was on first, pinch-running for Wilmer Flores. De Aza bunted badly, popping up toward pitcher Jim Johnson. That was routine failure, but what made it horrendous was De Aza’s decision to slam his bat into the ground and dawdle in his dismay. Johnson took note, let the bunt fall to the grass and threw to second to easily nail Reynolds. De Aza, inferring that he wasn’t out, scrambled down the line in a mad dash to compensate for his shortcoming, leading with his head (if not his brain), in a sliding attempt to beat the relay to first.
It didn’t work, as De Aza continues to absorb the hard lesson Tom Haverford did on Parks & Recreation after the ultimately fleeting retirement of office scapegoat Jerry Gergich: ecosystems abhor a vacuum. Without Jerry (also known as Larry, Terry and Garry over the life of the show) around, Tom would be the colleague to get dumped on. De Aza may not bumble as a matter of course, but with a batting average of .169 and Eric Campbell nowhere in sight, somebody’s gotta serve as Soup.
Once De Aza committed the kind of misjudgment we’d have reflexively associated with Campbell until his late-May disappearance, there were two out, soon to be three. It was still nothing-nothing in Atlanta, going to the bottom of the tenth, a status maintained when Addison Reed struck out two and flied out Jeff Francoeur. Reed had entered the game in the midst of the bottom of the ninth, eliciting two foulouts with a runner on base, a nice recovery from the Adonis Garcia incident a couple of nights earlier.
The next pitcher to enter the fray was Dario Alvarez, a Met for not very long in 2014 and 2015, but one who looked like he could be a useful lefty reliever had not injuries interfered; he was the pitcher of record when the Mets stormed from behind to annihilate the Nationals last Labor Day, fanning Bryce Harper and saving all our bacon. His Atlanta assignment was Kelly Johnson, who was surely playing for one team or the other in attendance. Johnson, as you know, is the Brave who became a Met who became a Brave who became a Met who started as a Brave before sojourning to all of the American League East as well as Arizona.
Lemme check…yeah, he’s a Met now. Not only is he a Met, but he is a Met who homered in the eleventh inning of a nothing-nothing game. It’s not stunning that Johnson would muscle up and send a ball out of a park as a pinch-hitter. It’s something he did last September against the Nationals, coming through for us in the very same series in which Alvarez shone. The way things were going last night, it was surprising anybody scored, and, at the risk of feeding the woe-is-Mets narrative, a little shocking it was one of our guys.
Lemme check again…Kelly Johnson, yeah, still a Met. A Met a second the time way Lary was in 1965 (he was the first of 41 Recidivist Mets to date), the way Reyes will be within the week (he’ll be the 42nd).
As it was after Johnny Lewis and Darryl Strawberry, the Mets led, 1-0, heading to the bottom of the eleventh. And as it was in those contests, the dramatic swing wouldn’t mean a thing if it wasn’t followed up by some clutch pitching. In the best tradition of Larry Bearnarth and Jesse Orosco, Jeurys Familia — having the night before set a Mets record I’m confident neither he nor I knew existed (most consecutive saves at the start of a season, never mind four-run leads that get away) — had to put in the books what Johnson lined up at the edge of the last chapter. It didn’t come easily, because why would it, but it got put. Jace Peterson led off with a single to center, Ender Inciarte bunted him to second (and ran to first) and Freddie Freeman was wisely intentionally walked. Nick Markakis, however, grounded to Mr. Familia, who pivoted and fired to Asdrubal Cabrera covering second. One out. Cabrera threw to electric defender James Loney (Lucas Whoda?). Two out. For the inning, three out.
The Mets won a 1-0 game in extra innings on the road, fueled by a solo home run for the third time in their existence, proving yet again that if you watch enough baseball, you’ll see something you’ve only seen infrequently.
If you watched the Mets in their early years, you saw plenty of third baseman and outfielder Jim Hickman. The club jettisoned most of its veterans as soon as they could. Twenty-eight Mets went north in April of 1962; sixteen were gone by April of 1963. Rookie Hickman, however, outlasted everybody, persevering in Manhattan, then Queens, until the end of 1966, no small feat on a team that lost 547 games in five years.
Hickman lasted and occasionally flourished. In 1963, he became the first Met to hit for the cycle. In 1965, he became the first Met to hit three home runs in one game. The only other Met to accomplish both feats? Jose Reyes in 2006, both feats achieved in losses for a division champion, whereas Hickman’s big days occurred in rare and therefore precious wins. Jim’s biggest hit as a Met occurred two days after his cycle. On August 9, 1963, in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds, with the scored tied and the bases loaded, he lofted a fly ball that, given the dimensions of the Mets’ original environs, flew just high and just deep enough to have “just ticked the overhang of the upper stands,” per Jerry Mitchell’s reporting in The Amazing Mets. Not only was it a walkoff grand slam, it halted Roger Craig’s personal eighteen-game losing streak.
Craig was ready to do more than greet Hickman at home plate. Had the batter not touched it, the pitcher said, “I’d have tackled him to make him do it if I had to.” In those days, Mets wins were wonderful, but the Mets not losing was enormous.
Jim’s relative longevity amid constant turnover allowed him a leg up on the Met record books. After five seasons, he stood as our all-time home run (60) and RBI (210) champ. It was Hickman’s opinion, shared with Bill Ryczek in the always marvelous The Amazin’ Mets, 1962-1969, that he might have had better years early in his career had he gained the kind of sub-MLB experience someone like Nimmo has in the minors. Hickman hadn’t exactly been rushed to the bigs as a Met — he had been a Cardinal minor leaguer since 1956 when he was scooped up in the expansion draft — but some players, like some people, are late bloomers. It was generally agreed during his New York tenure that Hickman had the talent to flourish (“a beautiful swing,” Sports Illustrated raved in 1963), but also that the humble Tennessean might not have been a temperamental match for the bright-lights situation into which he was thrust in the Big Apple.
His day came, however. In 1970, Jim Hickman made the National League All-Star team, the final 1962 Met to ever be selected for the Midsummer Classic. His manager for the occasion was his erstwhile teammate Gil Hodges, but it was selection based on merit. Jim hit 32 home runs and drove in 115 runs while batting .315 for the Cubs that year. It was good enough to net him eighth place in the N.L. MVP voting.
Those glittering statistics were compiled shortly after Leonard Shecter wrote of him, “For years, Jim Hickman was one of the Mets’ best players. They didn’t go anywhere until they got rid of him.” It sounds like a knock, but Shecter was right. Hickman and Ron Hunt were traded to Los Angeles following the 1966 season to bring Tommy Davis to New York. Davis, in turn, was packaged with Jack Fisher after 1967, sent to the White Sox for Tommie Agee and Al Weis. With Agee and Weis, the Mets went very far. Before them, there were but a few Mets who took the team anywhere at all. Jim Hickman was definitely one of them.
Well now. The Mets, baseball’s worst second-place, currently-qualified-for-postseason-play team, won a game that was alternately exasperating, entertaining, frightening, amusing, and mostly befuddling.
If you missed it, Steven Matz cruised through four innings, facing the minimum and watching as the Mets put up an eight-spot against punching bag Aaron Blair. At which point everything — no really, everything — went wrong. The Braves, that irritating pack of feral Tiny Ashes, went after the Mets’ Big Ash with forks, brooms, hot stoves, soap buckets, discarded nails and everything else they could find: the butcher’s bill was double, double (lost in the lights), double, single, fielder’s choice for an out, three-run homer, single, infield single (out reversed on review), single. That was it for Matz, who slunk off the mound and sought refuge beneath a towel in the dugout.
Enter Hansel Robles, alias the Mets’ latest Plan B. Once again Robles proved a superb rescuer, coolly retiring Jeff Francoeur and Nick Markakis to bring the nightmarish fifth inning to a close. It was 8-6 Mets somehow, though it felt like it was 80-6 Braves; eventually Robles would wind up with the right-guy-in-right-place-at-right-time official scorer’s win. It was thoroughly deserved — as it was when he followed Bartolo Colon to the hill.
But that was a few perils later. The ninth was theater-of-the-absurd stuff: Jeurys Familia allowed a leadoff single to Tyler Flowers and hit Erick Aybar, then faced Chase d’Arnaud with disaster not just lurking but leaping up and down. Which was when the Braves reminded us that we do not, in fact, have a monopoly on buzzard’s luck: d’Arnaud lined a bunt in the direction of Wilmer Flores‘s feet which Wilmer fell on top of, trapping it beneath his body. He scrambled to his feet, pursued by Familia and Travis d’Arnaud, AKA the batter’s brother, who hollered for him to stomp on third to force Flowers and throw to second to force Aybar.
Familia then struck out Jace Peterson, except the ball squirted past the Met-affiliated d’Arnaud, who scampered after it and made a desperate heave towards the infield side of first, a ball seemingly destined to be corralled along the right-field foul line by Curtis Granderson as the Brave-affiliated d’Arnaud took third and Peterson took second. Except James Loney somehow speared it, scooting his feet backwards like a wide receiver on the edge of the sidelines to stay on the base as he fell and sprawled in the dirt. The umpires huddled, but Loney knew his feet had done their duty and the Mets lined up for unofficial handshakes.
Well, whew except for whatever happened to Matz. In the top of the fifth, with a laugher seemingly in progress, SNY’s cameras caught Matz sitting in the dugout palpitating his left elbow and/or forearm; when he came back out, his velocity had dipped and his location had disappeared. On the postgame, Nelson Figueroa insisted the only real oddity was that Matz had unwisely tended to his pitching arm where Mets Twitter could see it, instead of in the tunnel or the trainer’s room. Maybe, but Matz has acknowledged his elbow has been tight, he’s junked his slider because it hurts to throw it, and something sure as heck looked wrong just after all that massaging. Terry Collins said as far as he knows there’s nothing wrong with Matz’s elbow, but recent events have said plenty about Terry’s attitude towards revealing pitchers’ ailments. I’m skeptical, to say the least.
Speaking of skeptical, we’ll see if the Mets have a new old teammate back in their employ come Saturday. By now it’s baseball’s worst-kept secret that the Mets intend to sign Jose Reyes for a pittance, with the Rockies paying the rest of Jeffrey Loria’s gargantuan megadeal.
If I close my eyes, I can see the Jose Reyes I loved to watch play baseball and hated to see decamp for Loria’s gauche Miami clip joint. I can see his churning legs and lashing bat, his bouncing Predator dreads, and his dragging one hand to grasp third base as he plowed into it, a move that always reminded me of a fighter jet’s hook grabbing the cable of an aircraft carrier.
But those scenes were quite a while ago. When I open my eyes, unfortunately, I can see other things. I can see Jose Reyes displaying minimal baseball interest or competence for the Rockies last year. His legs were slow, his mind was elsewhere and it was painful to see him so dour and diminished.
And I can remember the events of the offseason. On Halloween, police in Hawaii responded to a 911 call from a Four Seasons security guard. Reyes’s wife received medical attention for injuries to her face, neck and left leg, injuries that were reportedly the result of Reyes grabbing her by the throat and shoving her into a sliding glass door.
The case was dropped in March, but only because Reyes’s wife — like all too many domestic-violence victims — refused to cooperate with prosecutors. Major League Baseball suspended Reyes anyway, sidelining him for 51 games and costing him more than $7 million in salary. (That money, of course, was also taken away from Reyes’s wife; I’ll give MLB credit for good intentions while noting that the shared financial consequences make an already wrenching choice even rougher.)
When Reyes donned a Rockies uniform for extended spring training in May, he acknowledged that “I made a mistake. … I’m going to try to be a better guy, a better man, better husband.” As part of his suspension, he agreed to donate $100,000 to organizations focusing on preventing and treating survivors of domestic violence and to undergo counseling. He never played for the Rockies again, was released and now apparently will return to us.
So where does this leave us? I’m not going to tell you what I’m about to write is what I’ll believe until the end of time or even as long as Monday. I’m struggling with this, and one thing we’ve lost in the Twitter age is being willing to say that we need to think about something more, or that we just don’t know.
It’s true that we all make mistakes. But most of those mistakes don’t involve hands around women’s throats and slamming them into things. That’s a hell of a blunder — and one that’s been minimized for far too long in pro sports and society as a whole. A donation to charity, counseling and an apology strikes me as the first step to maybe, not the last word before the matter is dropped.
If I were in charge, Reyes wouldn’t return at all. Since I’m not and it seems that he will be back, I hope the Mets have a frank conversation with him about what has to happen if he’s to wear blue and orange again. I hope he’s forthright about what happened and what he’s learned, and I hope both team and player make a real, sustained effort — involving money and time — to ensure Reyes’s mistake helps younger players and fans understand the toll of domestic violence and how to make damn sure they never become victimizers themselves.
I have happy Met memories of second chances — of Rusty Staub as elder statesman of the mid-80s clubs, of Lee Mazzilli as the final piece of the World Series team, of Jason Isringhausen as wise veteran reliever. But those were baseball second chances, involving nothing more serious than the wearing of other uniforms and the outcome of other games. What happened in Hawaii last Halloween was the farthest thing from a game. If we’re going to make progress, it has to be treated accordingly. If it’s a subject for a day before we get back to baseball, we’ll have failed before we started, and ensured that we’ll keep failing.
(If you missed it, here are my blog partner’s thoughts on the matter.)
SNY’s cameras really shouldn’t have lingered on Braves’ bench coach Terry Pendleton, acting as manager, after Brian Snitker was ejected for arguing the result of a replay review Thursday night. Snitker is obviously too interim to fully understand the intricacies and ramifications of replay review rules (and when we’re straight on them, we’ll be sure to impart our wisdom unto him). When Pendleton fills the screen, it doesn’t take long to travel in the mind’s eye from 2016 to 1987 and frame him in his playing days, as a Cardinal, within a September night when the course of a pennant race changed perhaps irreversibly.
That’s a 29-year swing in the standings right there, going from worrying about the second-place Mets of now to shuddering over what became of the second-place Mets of then, but baseball is a time machine that way, whether you desire to connect to its services or not; it comes with the package. I saw Pendleton and I was transported to the infamous home run he hit off Roger McDowell and the shoe I threw at a nearby wall once that game went final.
Not longer after the present-day portrait of Terry Pendleton at Turner Field dissolved, Adonis Garcia was batting with one out in the bottom of the eighth, the Mets leading, 3-2, Freddie Freeman on first. Freeman landed there after lining a Jerry Blevins pitch to right as the inning’s leadoff batter. You don’t think of Blevins starting eighth innings with one-run leads, which gave me pause, considering the Addison Reed–Jeurys Familia combination has been functioning without serious glitching in sealing off the final two frames, but it wasn’t ludicrous. Blevins is, in the parlance once applied to Gene Walter (speaking of 1987), death on lefthanded hitting. Freeman, though, is death on Met pitching of all stripe.
Blevins struck out his next lefty, Nick Markakis, so half harm, half foul, I suppose. The next batter was Garcia, a righty of slight track record, which motivated Terry Collins to scurry like a puppy dog to the mound to remove Blevins and insert Reed. Reed’s rap is he’s not as reliable when entering in an inning already in progress as he is when the canvas is his to paint. Last year, after joining the Mets at the edge of September, he inherited seven runs and allowed five to score. He’s improved in this area when asked to take over for a fallen bullpen comrade. Heading into his encounter with Garcia, he’d inherited eleven and stranded all but one.
Garcia, though, I perceived as daunting. It was not seeing Adonis Garcia at the plate that bothered me, but Wilson Betemit. I looked at Garcia and Betemit crossed my mind. Betemit, a utility type who played for seven teams — more with Atlanta than anybody — in parts of eleven major league seasons (none since 2013), was beefier than Garcia but a comparable power threat. According to Baseball-Reference, Betemit hit a home run once every 27.9 at-bats, Garcia, to date, once every 26.6. His numbers were unremarkable, but, according to my selective memory, Betemit homered off Mets pitching every chance he got.
It turns out Betemit hit only six home runs versus the Mets: two as a Brave, including his very first in the majors; two as a Dodger; one as a Yankee; and one as an Oriole. It’s the one as a Yankee that stays with me, struck June 29, 2008, the final Subway Series game at Shea Stadium. It was a truly lovely Sunday afternoon for eight innings, devolving, as those things would in the ninth, into a marshaling of survival instincts when Derek Jeter produced a leadoff single against Billy Wagner. The Mets hung on to their 3-1 lead, despite Jeter scampering to second on a wild pitch and Alex Rodriguez flying to Endy Chavez at the track. Betemit happened to strike out looking to end the game, but that’s not why I thought of him while he batted against Reed.
Betemit infiltrated my mind because in the seventh inning of that 2008 affair, with no runners on and Oliver Perez in shutout mode (Ollie was actually quite solid in the situations when you absolutely could not stand the idea of losing to certain clubs), Betemit launched a missile that, without resorting to more than a modicum exaggeration, probably reached the World’s Fair Marina. It was seriously belted. Even though the home run had limited impact on the outcome of the game — none, really, as the Mets were winning when he hit and went on to win — it lurked in the recesses of my subconscious for eight years. It came out to play last night.
I thought of Wilson Betemit hitting a home run, I literally muttered to myself that I sure hoped Adonis Garcia didn’t do to us what Wilson Betemit did to us, and, within a matter of seconds, Garcia did exactly that.
Except worse, because the Mets had been up by three when Betemit let loose with his solo blast, while Garcia was up with a man on and his team down by only one. It wasn’t the same type of home run. It wasn’t pulled so dramatically and it didn’t clear the wall with acres to spare, but it counted the same. The Mets went from leading, 3-2, to trailing, 4-3.
Too Betemitesque for comfort. Too Pendletonian, too, except in 2016, it’s June, whereas in 1987, it was September, and the Cardinals were in first place and the Braves, despite displaying excessive amounts competence of late, are in last. Still, it stung enough that when the inning was complete and I had to dash upstairs from the living room for a moment, I looked at the steps ahead of me and flashed back to that Barney Stein photograph of Ralph Branca sprawled face-down on a similar staircase in the visitors’ clubhouse at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951. Branca wasn’t in a good baseball mood and, 65 years later, neither was I.
I came back downstairs, but the Mets didn’t come back in the ninth. Just one game, as we say when there are 91 of them remaining on the schedule and only four separating us from the top of the division, but what a shame. There were several things to like before Reed got that fastball up in Betemit’s zone of delight. There was Matt Harvey being effective if not dominant (if neither when it came to A.J. Pierzynski) over six innings; Harvey even picked a runner off first for the first time since his maiden start of 2013. There was Alejandro De Aza making a very nice grab in center to rob Jace Peterson in the third after having doubled in his first run since Harry M. Stevens decided sticking a sausage in a bun was a capital idea. There was Michael Conforto not disabling himself when he ran into the padded left field side wall making a catch to end the fourth. There were even two close calls that went our way, no matter the damage it did to Mr. Snitker’s decorum.
In the seventh, Conforto threw out Emilio Bonifacio at the plate from fairly deep left, which was a surprise, given Conforto’s accurate but average arm, and a shock, given that Travis d’Arnaud had to catch the ball, hold the ball and legally block the plate while not reinjuring his perpetually vulnerable body. Td’A did it all, and it was a revelation…even though I was sure Bonifacio had gotten a toe in ahead of the tag. Replay review “confirmed” the call, Snitker’s ire be damned. In the eighth, which could have gotten worse after Garcia went yard, Travis fired a bullet to second to cut down Erick Aybar stealing, which nobody challenged or suggested challenging, but the umpires asked the home office in Chelsea to weigh in on. It, too, stood.
Never mind the Mets getting two calls (if, ultimately, for naught). Conforto has had little go swimmingly since an April when the game was as easy as floating on an inflatable raft with a frozen cocktail in hand. Sophomore turbulence has turned tough, but Michael’s still on the field, still learning, still succeeding intermittently. D’Arnaud’s been absent from behind the dish for too long this season, but what a shot in the arm it’s been to see his arm having recovered its zing in the small sample size we’ve observed since his return from the DL.
Earlier Thursday, I filled out my All-Star ballot — hardly the most consequential vote in the world yesterday — and abided by my rule of not selecting any Mets who in no way deserve election, while definitely voting for any Mets for whom a remote case can be made. Also, I have a whole bunch of teams in both leagues whose players are automatically by association on my no-fly list, so it’s a pretty narrow needle I’m threading while voting. I wound up punching the electronic hole for three Mets: Cespedes (the only one on track for election), Walker and Cabrera. I considered Conforto, based on his first month, but decided I didn’t want to send him the wrong message and make him complacent (don’t worry, kid, I’ll take care of you over the next fifteen summers). I looked longingly at d’Arnaud and recalled telling somebody in spring that this season would be the one when Travis, 27, makes his All-Star debut, backing up Buster Posey.
That’s not gonna happen. No year has happened in full for d’Arnaud yet, who’s at the outer perimeter of being considered a young player (except in life) without ever having participated uninterrupted in a big league season. You get used to certain guys not being around that you forget what they mean to a team. Due respect to Rene Rivera and the since-demoted Kevin Plawecki, but it’s a sharp drop from d’Arnaud to the alternatives, provided Travis a) plays and b) takes a deep breath to facilitate his development. I very much want to believe he has an All-Star date in his future, if not the immediate one. Those two plays — tagging out Bonifacio, throwing out Aybar — gave me faith.
Which is a good thing to hold on to after Adonis Garcia ruins everything.
No Mets game Saturday afternoon, so come spend an hour and change with me at the Queens Library in Briarwood, where I’ll be discussing Amazin’ Again and sharing some related baseball/book thoughts starting at 3 o’clock. Details here. Hope to see you there.
It came at the end of Terry Collins‘s press conference, and might have been funny except for the fact that it wasn’t funny: the small manager with the large personality tried to exit stage left, then had a brief, unhappy colloquy with someone not shown by SNY’s cameras. Collins objected that there hadn’t been any questions about it, then plopped down and snapped that “the puppy dog wants you guys to know that Noah Syndergaard’s seeing the doctor. His elbow flared up on him. That’s why I took him out of the game.”
(Let’s take a moment to observe that while the Mets aren’t out of the business of needlessly belittling Jay Horwitz, they’ve at least found better internal nicknames for him.)
Exit Terry again, this time for real. And cue a sudden U-turn to the familiar confines of Panic City.
Collins’s annoyance was understandable, as was his attempted dodge. (Which isn’t to say either was appropriate.) The rollercoaster Mets had looked robust and feisty against the Pirates, then inept and inanimate against the Braves. So of course they then swept an abbreviated two-game series against the Royals, last seen at Citi Field doing things that need not be spoken of.
The Mets had secured the sweep — and a win in the season series, to extract a positive that hits all of us like a negative — with a tidy, taut 4-3 win. Syndergaard wasn’t his electric self, which is to say he was merely really good, and the two teams battled back and forth, looking for a breach in the other’s defenses.
Asdrubal Cabrera scored the first run in the fourth, racing home on a little dunker by James Loney and getting past the mitt of the redoubtable Salvador Perez through a moundward scurry and a quick reversal to slap the outer margin of home plate with his hand — a run that somehow didn’t involve the apple going skyward.
It wasn’t to last, though: in the top of the inning, Kansas City’s Cheslor Cuthbert stepped to the plate against Syndergaard. Let me take a moment to observe that “Cheslor Cuthbert” is not just a ridiculous baseball name but a ridiculous name, the kind of thing an overeager young D&D player would come up with, spending four hours crafting an intricate backstory for a cleric with four hit points. (Time for a lesson, thinks the DM; this roll for wandering monsters won’t be the last.)
It may be a silly name, but the player rolled a natural 20, and a moment later Cheslor Cuthbert was trotting around the bases to tie the game. Three batters later, Whit Merrifield checked that his boater was at a jaunty angle, buttoned his cardigan and stroked a ball just past Neil Walker for a 2-1 Royals lead. Hip-hip! declared his chums, breaking into valedictory song.
(Seriously, what is it with the Royals and names?)
Ned Yost trued to coax a sputtering Danny Duffy through the fifth inning, only to run afoul of Cabrera, who crashed a two-run homer to return the lead to the Mets’ possession. (Cabrera had a really superb game, helping the Mets win with his bat, glove and baserunning smarts.) The Royals tied it immediately in the top of the sixth, but Matt Reynolds — pressed into service as a left fielder — untied it just as immediately in the bottom, smacking his first career home run off Joakim Soria.
That lead held up, and there you had it: scoring in five consecutive half-innings, three lead changes, plenty of excitement, and a victory for the forces of light and good.
So yeah, no wonder Terry Collins didn’t want to talk about injuries. He’s been manager of the Mets long enough to know that Syndergaard’s elbow flaring up would mean a question from every reporter in the room — he’d just endured a round table of inquiries about Yoenis Cespedes‘s wrist, and been asked about Zack Wheeler‘s elbow. He’s been in baseball long enough to know that none of those questions would be answerable. He’s seen the thinking around the game change enough to sense he’d have to start answering questions about, say, the wisdom of leaving a young pitcher to go north of 100 pitches with an 11-0 lead.
Terry tried to duck the question; Horwitz knew the cover-up would lead to more howling than the crime and didn’t let him.
A few weeks back, I emerged from a college-reunion dinner to see Syndergaard had exited with 2.1 innings under his belt and no earned runs allowed. My first thought was simple and awful: he’s blown out his elbow.
It wasn’t the case, thank goodness. But when Collins scurried away from his parting stink bomb on Wednesday, I had the same thought: he’s blown out his elbow.
It’s not the case this time, either — as Syndergaard himself let us know via Instagram. (What a world!) But I wasn’t shocked to have that thought again. And I won’t be shocked the next time Syndergaard turns away from his delivery with a look of annoyance, or needs something checked out, or seems to be missing a couple of ticks on that ungodly fastball.
Because odds are that sooner or later, this won’t be a false alarm: that little ligament will go, undone by the superhuman feats it’s been witness to. And then Syndergaard will spend a year in a cameo role, followed by a return that will involve a roll of the dice. Just like happened to Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz — which is to say, every member of the presumed September rotation except Noah Syndergaard.
I devoutly hope that won’t be true this year or any year. I hope Syndergaard will be one of the outliers, a Tom Seaver or a Nolan Ryan who won the genetic lottery. If so, I’ll even forgive him when he comes back to old-timers’ affairs and grouses that pitchers were a different breed than today’s cosseted, milk-fed semi-athletes, having followed Seaver and Ryan’s lead and mistaken his good fortune for moral fortitude.
That would be better for the Mets and better for Syndergaard, needless to say — even today, slicing open the elbow of a pitcher is no routine thing. But it would be better for us, too. Noah Syndergaard is a dream: simultaneously a videogame played by a kid who’s mastered the cheat codes and a cerebral athlete determined to master the mechanics and tactics of his craft. The problem with dreams is that you wake up and are left facing mundane reality; so far with Syndergaard we’ve been able to shake off the interruptions, hit the pillow and pick up where we left off. We’ll get up soon … but not quite yet, please. Just give us a little longer.
You don’t want to have to win a game by using five relievers to cover 8.2 innings, but you surely don’t want to lose a game under those circumstances. They were unavoidable Wednesday night once Bartolo Colon was forced to leave in deference to a liner off his right thumb from Royals leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield. The ball found its way to Neil Walker, who converted it into an out, but that was of little comfort in the first. Colon, tougher than leather let alone horsehide, departed amid fears of a fracture. X-rays indicated contusion. We’ll see; I’m trying to imagine a Met injury situation that winds up markedly sunnier than it appears.
We’ll know more about Colon’s condition in the days ahead. Of necessarily immediate concern Wednesday was there was one out, there were twenty-six to go, there was no starter on the mound and there was no obvious long reliever in reserve to take on the defending (bleech) world champions.
Who ya gonna call? Hansel Robles? Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
Robles sure did, breaking out of his twin molds of fairly brief appearances and often shaky relief. Hansel kept the game a game when you would have wagered it would be a fiasco. He took the Mets to the fifth without giving up a run, by which time the Mets had posted a pair, each the way you’d expect, via solo home runs. Asdrubal Cabrera popped one just over the left field orange line in the first and Yoenis Cespedes blasted the black that surrounds the Apple in the fourth.
Robles couldn’t pitch forever, though Terry Collins likely thought about it. He let Hansel keep throwing into the fifth, which facilitated the first Kansas City run. Exit No. 47, enter No. 62, also known, if you don’t have a scorecard handy, as Erik Goeddel, approximately the fifteenth man on the Mets’ twelve-man pitching staff. If it felt a little like Terry stared up at the video board and saw INSERT INTERCHANGEABLE RELIEVER HERE where Ray Kinsella once read Moonlight Graham’s lifetime statistics, it’s only because which one is Goeddel again?
Wednesday night, Goeddel was the pitcher who got the Mets out of the fifth with no further damage and put up another zero in the sixth. Way to go, guy I had completely forgotten was on the active roster. Way to go as well to Travis d’Arnaud, who was catching his first major league game in ages while being thrown a figurative curve. Travis probably thought handling Bartolo would provide an amenable path for easing back into his routine. With the Mets, of course, little is routine.
Following Erik (and the Mets’ nightly offensive nap), the characters on the rubber grew more and more familiar.
• Jerry Blevins, who impishly replied to fan questions during SNY’s pregame show, answered Terry’s prayers with a clean seventh.
• Addison Reed, mostly unhittable in 2016, was completely unhittable in the eighth. As is his peculiar trait, Reed walked off the field with his cap brim pushed back on his head in such a fashion that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s filming Bowery Boys shorts in the offseason.
• Dillon Gee…oh wait, he pitched for the other team, but nice to see him again.
• Finally, with Alex Gordon and Lucas Duda both on the DL, Jeurys Familia finished off the Royals as you’d expect a lockdown closer to do. Familia has converted 23 consecutive save opportunities if you took your World Series amnesia pill.
It’s never too late for such an ending. I believe it’s called happy. It wasn’t Game Eight of the 2015-16 World Series, exactly, but it was an enormous 2-1 win, the specific opposition vanquished representing the least of it. We just lost three to the Braves. Losing Colon, hopefully not for very long, was a blow. Giving up this game before it got going would have been detrimental to the Mets’ mental health. Good for Collins for extending those arms he had to stretch. Good for Robles (65 pitches) and Goeddel (31) in particular for responding. I wouldn’t anticipate seeing Hansel again until July, but the game of June 21 was the one that had to get won.
Every possible pro and con argument for the Mets signing imminent free agent Jose Reyes has been made in the past 24 hours. I have nothing original to add that you haven’t heard lately. To me, the most compelling aspect of a possible bargain-basement reunion between our erstwhile All-Star shortstop and the club for whom he plied his trade brilliantly in his innocent youth comes from listening to how those pros and cons are put forth.
Any statement that begins with a solemn nod to the severity of the domestic violence charge made against Reyes — the one that ultimately turned him into an ex-Rockie — is an endorsement of bringing Jose, even the physically and perhaps morally diminished version, home since a) it won’t cost much; b) the Mets’ depth is as thin as Bartolo Colon isn’t; and c) everybody deserves a second chance, particularly those persons who might capture lightning in a bottle from the leadoff spot while learning to play third base on the fly.
Any statement that begins with an acknowledgement of how great a player Reyes was between 2003 and 2011 and how much affection one felt for him at his peak leads to a rejection of the potentially prodigal infielder, either because he’s probably not capable of contributing very much anymore or because who wants to root for a man arrested for allegedly hitting his wife?
Opposites attract. Or people just prefer to imitate Reyes in his prime and motor all the way around the bases to make their point.
Last October 27, during Game One of the aforementioned World Series, Jose Reyes tweeted an image from his Hawaiian vacation. It was of the game his original team was playing, airing on the TV above the bar at whatever resort he was staying. “Mets all day,” he typed, adding a string of flexed-muscle emojis for emphasis. How sweet, I thought, he still loves us. I’d given up on the idea that he’d return to the Mets anytime soon, but I hadn’t stopped adoring him in the baseball sense.
A few days later, on the same vacation, he allegedly used his own muscled arms against his spouse, which will cool your ardor for anybody from a distance.
The Mets have played 69 games in 2016. After they’d played 69 games in 2011, Jose Reyes was slashing at a rate of .348/.390/.531. No Met had ever been as exciting as Jose was in June of 2011, unless it was Jose Reyes in June of 2006. Those Junes were five and ten years ago. Jose Reyes this June is locked in at .000/.000/.000, or pretty much what the Mets have been getting out of everybody since April turned to May.
Worth a shot from a baseball perspective? Yeah, why not? At worst, he’s Rick Ankiel, and if he has nothing left, you sign his release. At best, you remember the uptight M. Donald Grant Mets picked up Lenny Randle off the Texas Ranger scrap heap after he punched his manager, Frank Lucchesi, in the face, and not only did Randle produce a banner season for an otherwise dreadful Mets team, lovable Lenny is certified in retirement “the most interesting man in baseball”.
Worth a shot from a sentimental perspective? You’re asking a preternaturally sentimental fan, someone who heartily applauded Bobby Bonilla upon his ill-conceived return to the Mets because there was a minute chance everything would work out and wouldn’t that be a wonderful story, so of course, yeah, as long as you take another amnesia pill to forget why Jose is so incredibly available.
Worth a shot from a “baggage” perspective?
You had to ask that part.
What Jose Reyes is hauling is not baggage. It’s an entire cargo plane, even as it’s understood charges were dropped (when Mrs. Reyes chose not to cooperate with authorities), an apology was issued and a suspension was served. I’ve overlooked all sorts of miscreant and/or illegal behavior in Mets over the years, partly because shades of gray tend to tinge my view of most everything, partly because I will get behind virtually anybody who can help my team win ballgames. Knowing a player has allegedly assaulted his wife, however, is a whole other ballgame. That I can’t think about one of my all-time favorite Mets without thinking about what he was arrested for…that I can’t bring myself to picture myself cheering him vigorously in his theoretical first Met at-bat in six years despite never replacing him in my heart as my favorite Met of the more or less current era…that I feel ridiculous for even worrying about such sports consumer transactional niceties in the face of what he is alleged to have done to his wife in Hawaii last fall…
I didn’t say I wouldn’t take him back if it were somehow left up to me. But I didn’t say I would.
My first brush with publication came 38 years ago this month in my junior high literary magazine, Pieces of Mind. The story I wrote was called “Saturday Afternoon Fever,” about four friends whose entire existence revolved around going to the library at the end of their week, which was the only thing that made them feel alive. Gibb-inspired song lyrics embedded within the narrative included, “Readin’ A Book,” “Book Fever,” “How Long Is Your Book?” and “More Than A Bookworm”.
Learn, baby, learn…about the Mets and stuff.
It was 1978 and, trust me, it was very on-point. There was even talk of a movie, albeit most of it between my friend Joel Lugo (who recently reminded me of the entire ninth-grade episode) and me.
The not-so-subtle subtext of my Saturday Night Fever parody was a good-natured ribbing of those who theoretically preferred a trip to the library over anything else in the world. I mean, c’mon, who would want to spend their Saturday afternoon in a library?
You will, I hope.
Everything that comes around goes around, or something like that, for this Saturday afternoon, Amazin’ Again Fever will burn like a disco inferno at the Queens Library’s Briarwood branch. That may be an overstatement, but the nice folks there have asked me to talk baseball in their building and I am looking forward to doing so at 3 PM, June 25.
You can find the Briarwood branch at 85-12 Main Street, accessible via the Briarwood (formerly Briarwood – Van Wyck Blvd.) stop of the E and F trains; the 168th St. exit off the Grand Central (turn left onto Main); and four bus lines that begin with the letter Q: 20A, 20B, 44 and 60. I’ll bring some books, I’ll share some thoughts, we’ll solve the Mets and we’ll be done in time for that evening’s 7:15 first pitch from Atlanta.
I hope you’ll join me. I can’t think of a better topic to discuss, indoors or out, on a Saturday afternoon.
For those of you in New Jersey who have asked for an Amazin’ appearance on your side of the Hudson, mark Thursday, July 28, 7 PM at Little City Books of Hoboken, on your calendars and other appropriate date-marking apps.
In this post-primary, pre-convention interregnum when we speak of presumptive nominees, I must confess I was nervous when the Mets were declared presumptive winners, perhaps sweepers, of the Atlanta Braves in advance of this past weekend’s series at Citi Field. The Braves have been remarkably bad in 2016. The Mets had been pretty good to occasionally very good. Yeah, how could we lose a set of three games to these bozos?
I can’t tell if Atlanta is building something formidable based on their having swept this trio of contests from the Mets. Maybe they’re better than we were led to believe. The Mets, based mostly on their recent sample of baseball, don’t appear to be particularly able at all.
It’s not so much the loss of three games to a last-place club as it was the pulselessness that was displayed one through eight from Friday to Sunday, particularly Sunday. The Mets’ trademark starting pitching was good enough to compete if not overwhelm in all three games, but the Mets’ starting hitting, save for a handful of swings, never really began.
Sunday dreadful Sunday was the worst, which is saying something after how Saturday night went down. You can accept with grace one loss to a rebuilding entity like the Braves. You can rationalize away a second loss defined by a third base coach’s ill-advised green light. But the third, for which your batters produced one hit and no other means of reaching base?
That’s not gonna get it done, if you’ll excuse my using technical terms. It’s not much of answer, but on Sunday, the Mets didn’t look like much of ballclub. The real victims were all the kids who were looking forward to the Mr. Met Dash. Without their heroes setting an example, these boys and girls were left completely clueless as to what one does when one encounters basepaths.
I heard “shakeup” mentioned in the postgame press conference. If possible, I’d treat the current roster like a snow globe and, after swapping out Kevin Plawecki for Travis d’Arnaud, send down any four guys and bring back any four guys who aren’t named Eric Campbell. There is a handful of Mets who are performing to expectations and several others who don’t seem to be doing so badly yet also seem to be doing nothing.
Fix that, would ya?
During Saturday night’s game on Fox, one of the announcers I didn’t want to hear referred to the Mets as unathletic. How could that be? I wondered. They’re athletes. I take it that “unathletic” was intended as a synonym for slow. They are slow…but they’re also a little creaky, they don’t proceed with fluidity, and they’re not exactly nimble on their feet.
Fandom often boils down to older, unathletic men expressing dissatisfaction with younger, athletic men for not being less like them. I can be slow, creaky and look pathetic on my own very well, thank you. The Mets went 1-for-28 versus Julio Teheran. I can honestly say I couldn’t have done a whole lot worse.
For all the mostly justified kvetching, the Mets carry the exact record they held after 68 games last year and remain in position for a Wild Card spot this year, but now it’s the second one and they’d be traveling to frigging Marlins Park to face elimination. You’d like to believe the statis will cease and instead of “remaining in position,” they inject themselves with some dynamism. I swear these aren’t terrible players, as long as one of them isn’t Campbell.
I’d also like to believe I’m a better fan than the Mets were players on Sunday. I’d like to think that if I’d been at the game, I would have tepidly applauded Teheran when he came to bat in the eighth. Appreciation for the other team’s starter’s excellent outing is a dying art, just like standing for the seventh-inning stretch (a timeless ritual that mystified my section last week). Though it’s difficult to comprehend that anybody can pitch worse than his record indicates against these Mets, Teheran had been throwing his heart out all year and had two wins to show for it. A giveaway cap can be tipped lightly in his direction.
The Reds made a classy gesture last September. (Image courtesy of Studious Metsimus.)
Granted, one-hitters are useless to have thrown at you, whereas no-hitters are historic. On Channel 11, given that Sunday was Father’s Day, we were shown the last pitch from June 21, 1964, Jim Bunning’s perfect game at Shea Stadium. Between Bob Murphy’s enthusiastic call of and the Mets fans’ supportive reaction to that 6-0 whitewashing, you understood a great performance had transpired and you might as well appreciate it. I thought the Mets should have acknowledged the no-hit successes of Chris Heston and Max Scherzer last season on the Citi Field scoreboard (they didn’t) and I thought posting “CONGRATULATIONS ROYALS” wouldn’t have been out of line at the end of the World Series, as painful as it was to come out on the short end of that little get-together.
The return of the Royals to Flushing this week will elicit several regrets, and the paucity of institutional sportsmanship demonstrated by Met management will be pretty far down the list, but if a championship is captured in your midst by a worthy opponent who isn’t from across town, it really wouldn’t hurt to give the ol’ “good game, good game” before turning out the lights. Watching the Cavaliers accept their NBA hardware Sunday night on the Warriors’ home court, I really had to hand it to Golden State fans who sat and absorbed the scene implicitly commemorating their team’s demise without wadding up their yellow t-shirts and firing them in the general direction of LeBron James. Admittedly, it’s a tough line to toe without tripping on your emotions.
Listen in as Mike Silva and I dissect a below-average weekend and recall the chaos of seasons past on the Talkin’ Mets podcast. I join Mike at around the 20:00 mark.
Mets are down one to the allegedly lousy Braves in the bottom of the ninth with nobody out. Wilmer Flores is on first. James Loney has lashed a Jim Johnson pitch into the left-center gap. Flores is running. We probably have a few minutes until the situation resolves itself. I don’t want to say Wilmer is slow, but Mo Vaughn, Jason Phillips and a box turtle all just turned their heads to wish him well as they strolled by him.
While the Snickers people set up to film their next “Not Going Anywhere For Awhile?” commercial, I guess I have time to share some thoughts regarding today, Father’s Day. Our Father’s Day celebration, if that word can be used, was yesterday, which felt appropriate. I identify Saturday, its late afternoon and early evening, with my father more than any other part of the week. I think of how he and I would “go around the corner” to “take a haircut” at George’s Madison Avenue Barber Shop, which was conveniently located on Park Street, nowhere near Madison Avenue. Park Street in Long Beach was alternately known as Park Avenue, so I wondered why George didn’t just call it George’s Park Avenue Barber Shop. Either one would have communicated the classiness to which George seemed to be aspiring.
George didn’t cut my hair. Leo did. George had his chance. He freaked me out when I was two years old and taking what was apparently my first official haircut. George used that electric razor device on my burgeoning sideburns. George pinched me on the cheeks. I jumped out of the chair and ran in circles screaming and crying in objection to each act of aggression. That was it for me and George. Leo was given explicit instructions on my next visit.
“No machine,” I demanded. “No pinch on cheek.”
Leo played ball. I don’t know if his haircuts were Madison Avenue-worthy, but I put up with them. I think a lollipop might have been involved in quelling my anxieties. Over in the adjacent chair, Dad would take his haircut from George. He was a lot lower-maintenance in those days.
I don’t know why Dad would say “take a haircut”. The rest of the world would get a haircut. I said “get a haircut”. I didn’t get or take many haircuts. I was considered the family radical at an early age. Taking or getting a haircut seemed to be giving in to the system — plus the lollipop never made up for all those damn scratchy hairs down my neck and back. Also, I really wanted to let it grow long enough to effect a David Cassidy look. It never took.
But when there’d be haircuts, my dad and I would take them together. I’d chat as much as I had to with Leo, who wore glasses and spoke in a German accent. Dad would chat as much as he had to with George. Truth be told, neither one of us was much for chatting with barbers. If I had to wait my turn, I’d sit and thumb through magazines that had been sitting out since Leo didn’t need glasses. Sometimes the Saturday Newsday would be there, back when Saturday’s Newsday was essentially the Sunday Newsday, since Newsday didn’t yet publish on Sunday. I have a very clear memory of sitting in George’s and reading Newsday’s coverage of the Knicks’ instantly historic comeback victory over the Cincinnati Royals from the night before. The Knicks, trying to set a record for longest NBA winning streak, were down five by with sixteen seconds to go, yet prevailed. We thrilled to it on Channel 9 on Friday night, November 28, 1969, and here I was reliving it at the barber shop on Saturday afternoon.
I also remember that every time I had to use the bathroom at George’s, I’d see a calendar on the wall turned to the page marked JUNE 1968. The years would change, George’s calendar wouldn’t. I don’t remember there being any kind of racy picture that would make a barber reluctant to move on from it. As with the whole Madison/Park thing, I don’t think I ever asked.
How long the haircut visits would last I don’t know. They felt long. They probably weren’t. My current barber has me in and out in ten minutes if there are no other customers and he’s not too distracted by his phone. His magazines are old, too, but there’s usually a fairly recent Newsday lying around if I have to wait.
Haircut done, back and neck scratchy, there might be other errands awaiting my dad and me on Park Street. We might pick up his shirts from the dry cleaner. My father’s father was a dry cleaner, so I imagine he took that stuff pretty seriously. We might need some small grocery item from East End Dairy, which was later known as East End Deli, but I always called it East End Dairy. If my parents were going out on Saturday night, and they usually were, there might be a trip to pick up dinner for my sister and me at the Lido Deli, which did not serve dairy, because it was kosher.
None of this was exactly a ritual or a routine. Sometimes Suzan (then spelled as Susan) would be with us to get the two burgers and two French fries — which came in tiny brown paper bags like they sell you a can of Heineken in at Penn Station. At least once, Dad and I met my sister and my mother at the Associated, colloquially known in our house as Murray’s, for Murray the gonif, who earned the nickname out of accuracy for his business practices. We usually walked, since it was indeed around the corner. Or maybe we drove to Island Park or Oceanside conduct our other affairs. Maybe we took the haircuts and just went home. We never talked about anything of substance. I learned no great life lessons, other than the kosher Lido Deli did not serve cheeseburgers.
A week consists of 168 hours. The one or two that constituted whatever it was I recall doing with my father on Saturday grow in stature like my hair tends to grow between haircuts, even to this day. At my mother’s urging, because she didn’t think Leo was a very good barber, my head would eventually be taken to others who were handier with a pair of scissors. Once they opened a McDonald’s in Long Beach, we didn’t need the Lido Deli. My father eventually opted for a different dry cleaner. Our Saturday trips to Park Street ceased.
I missed them without realizing it. They may have been the first element of my young life that I developed nostalgia for. On the Saturday prior to Father’s Day when I was sixteen, I went into the East End Dairy/Deli and had the bright idea to bring home a six-pack of Perrier. Perrier was a very chic beverage at the moment, Madison Avenue George’s kind of quaff, no doubt. My father had mentioned having it at some business lunch and deciding it lived up to the hype. That’s all I needed to hear to end my Father’s Day shopping. I gave my dad the Perrier and maybe a plastic lime filled with lime juice. He seemed to get a kick out of it and opened a bottle.
Five bottles sat in the back of the fridge undisturbed for the next decade, but I stand by my decision. A late Saturday afternoon in 1979 brought me back to an idealized late Saturday afternoon in 1969 or whenever. I could’ve found the Perrier at the Associated (albeit at Murray the gonif prices), but going into the East End Dairy for something vaguely exotic for my father is what hit the spot. My sense of who we had been as father and son bubbled up like naturally sourced sparkling water from my subconscious. Those Saturdays on Park Street, me and him, had already evaporated. I just wanted a taste.
Father’s Day never seemed like something my father particularly embraced. I don’t think he cared for the attention. I also have come to believe over the last year — as I have watched him withstand brain surgery, physical rehabilitation, cancer treatment, two or three bouts of pneumonia and a general diminishing of his being to the point where his ability to move and communicate are close to non-existent — that he has viewed the best part of his life as the part long before my sister and I came along. I don’t take that personally. He just obviously preferred being a kid.
Within a couple of days of his beginning to recover from the operation that removed his tumor last May, he began talking regularly about growing up in Jackson Heights, about his grandmother, about FDR. Some of the stories I’d heard before. Some were new to me. Over the months that followed, they’d elbow out the present. Lately he’s taken to speaking, when he does speak (softly), almost exclusively in Yiddish. Yiddish is all he spoke until he was four, according to family lore. He learned Yiddish from his grandmother. She was a great lady, he told me on multiple occasions last year and this; “It’s a shame you never knew her,” he lamented repeatedly.
Dad has been confounding longevity expectations for quite some time now. Since May of 2015, I’ve been ready for him to go at any minute. The minutes passed. He didn’t. He went downhill, but he didn’t cease. He is, despite being confined to a bed in a palliative-care facility, the Energizer bunny. He’s still going. Every trip I’ve made to see him since winter I more than half-expect to be my last. In March, I was pretty sure it was. I’d gone up to bring him my book, which he had been looking forward to seeing. He was, within the confines of his condition, pretty lucid, letting me know that he knew what was happening to him and that if I wanted to say goodbye, this would be a good time to do it.
He had gone sporadically melodramatic during various phases of his illnesses. “Say goodbye to me,” he’d wail. I think he was a victim of too many movies in which it appears people are about to die and then they die. It doesn’t work that way in real life, I have learned. But on this afternoon in March, he explained that he always regretted that he’d never had the chance to say goodbye to his mother, my grandmother (who I also never knew). He and my mother were out to dinner and came home to receive a message. His mother, who kept the books for the family dry cleaning store, suffered a stroke while working She died immediately.
Now I finally got the subtext of “say goodbye to me” every time he didn’t want to get his blood pressure measured. All right, I figured, I better give him what he wants. He wants a goodbye scene. I gave it to him. It was simple but emotionally satisfying. I said what I needed to say, he heard what he wanted to hear and we watched the Mets lose a Spring Training game to the Red Sox.
Which, incidentally, bequeathed me one final baseball memory between us, thanks to rampant commercialism.
DAD: “Why does it say Nixon?”
DAD: “It says Nixon there behind the batter.”
ME: “That’s Nikon. It’s an ad for the camera company.”
There was peace and finality in that visit. There was a goodbye.
And then he kept living. Still going. There are no more conversations. There is virtually no English. His eyes don’t open much. Feeding him a fully puréed supper takes about as long as it’s taken Wilmer to round second on Loney’s extra base hit. But he still eats, and as long a person still eats, a person makes like the branded battery rabbit.
That meant one year after what we all assumed was our last Father’s Day with him, there was another Father’s Day with him. Stephanie and I opted to go see him yesterday because it was Saturday and Saturday is where I like seeing my father in my mind. We had a Father’s Day card sitting unused on a pile of papers — from one of those Junes when we each bought one, hence a leftover. It had Mickey Mouse on the front. I probably selected that one out of all the other at the CVS because I remembered being fascinated to learn that Mickey Mouse and my dad were born within a year of each other.
The printed message had something to do with his being the “No. 1” dad, as if the AP and UPI took a poll. I signed it with a little more emphasis than usual, and slipped it into the envelope, stopping to mark it “Dad,” and then realizing this is probably the last time I write that on a greeting card envelope.
But I probably thought that last year, too.
He wasn’t going to be able to read the card, let alone open an envelope, but it was Father’s Day and I still had a father. This is what we do. Assuming Perrier is not on his list of approved foods and beverages (I know where five bottles can be had cheap), we stopped at the Dollar Tree to pick up three balloons to brighten his room. We had brought a balloon for his birthday in January. It inevitably deflated, but nobody had the heart to toss it, so it had just remained tacked to his bulletin board, all saggy, these last five months. Time to bring festive back to balloons, we figured.
I went to the cashier to pay three dollars for three balloons (generic star-shaped balloons, because they’d run out of Father’s Day models), accidentally letting one slip out of my hand to the Dollar Tree ceiling. No personnel came forth with a ladder. So it became two balloons for two dollars. It’s the thought that counts.
We showed up in time for dinner. That’s the best hour to visit him. Or hours. It takes a while, just as it’s taken a while for Wilmer to reach third, for him to be fed. He’s as alert as he’ll ever be in the course of a day. When we arrived, his latest early-evening companion, a buoyant woman named Theresa, sang his praises.
“Charles is such a nice guy!” she testified. “He doesn’t call you names, he doesn’t hit you.” I’m pretty sure she meant he’s cooperative, because when you visit these places enough, just walking down the hallways you notice the residents not at their best, and with good reason. Yes, I said, my dad is a sweetheart. I wanted to say “you should have known him when,” but knowing him now, despite his lack of everything, told Theresa all she needed to know.
We presented the card, read it aloud and tacked it to the bulletin board that was crowded with cards from past occasions. We presented the two balloons, which Stephanie secured to the board as well. I opened my iPad and turned on Metromedia Radio for him. It is a recreation of the old WNEW-AM to which he listened regularly when I was growing up. In my youth, I both couldn’t stand it and came to adore it. The Internet version is positively Proustian, playing not just the standards and the big band numbers that defined the terrestrial WNEW, but the jingles and station IDs of yore. Stephanie, who works with the elderly, said music has a way of infiltrating the brain when nothing else does, even at this stage of life, so I keep tuning in faux AM Eleven Three Oh when we’re there and I keep hoping it makes an impression or at least sparks a little joy.
Me, I got mine when, after Theresa loudly announced that, “Charles, your son is here!” Suitably prodded, he opened one eye fully, the other eye a little, stared out and said, “Hi Greg.”
That was more than we got out of him on our last visit. That was all the English we heard from him yesterday. The music played on, Stephanie now and then asking him if he recognized this artist or that. We’re almost certain he nodded when asked about Tony Bennett, his favorite singer of all time. Dad, I said, this is the station and the music you were always playing in the car and in the kitchen. I couldn’t wait to go up to my room and listen to my station and my music, but thanks to you, I really came to appreciate this, so thank you for that.
I saw evidence that suggested this got through as well, but the only sentiments he expressed vocally were for more water, or vaser. One Filipina health aide after another is getting to know Yiddish.
For a while, I did the lifting of cup and spoon and napkin to his lips. It’s never too late to bond, I suppose. Eventually, Theresa the professional took over, continually reminding him his son and daughter-in-law were there, continually informing us what a nice guy he is, how he never hits or calls names. On the fifth or sixth mention, I was tempted to add these skills to his LinkedIn profile. Given his small sips and what we’ll generously refer to as bites, I thought dinner would meander into breakfast, but Theresa had her ways and before we knew it, his plate was clean. He wasn’t what you’d characterize as highly engaged, but the lady swore that he was, in fact, quite excited to see us. His eyes were more open than she’d ever seen them and he wasn’t falling asleep mid-chew. This is the new normal for excitement.
We stayed a while after dinner. I had flipped the TV to Fox in hopes that a pregame show would be on, but they had the U.S. Open. I know nothing about golf, but I know this tournament always ends on Father’s Day. Every third Sunday evening in June, we’d all be waiting for a table at some restaurant near where he and Florence — his significant other of almost a quarter-century — lived and, over the bar, was the 18th hole. Golf and Father’s Day went together in my mind like Saturday and taking a haircut with my dad. My dad never cared for golf, but having it on in his room at least lent the concept that were once again sort of going out for Father’s Day dinner a thin veneer of reality. We had brought sandwiches from a 7-Eleven, so it really did kind of work.
The golf didn’t put him to sleep. Making it to 87 with too many things to keep track of wrong with him took care of that. The WNEW tribute channel played on. I waited until the U.S. Open closed for the night and Steven Matz threw strike one to Chase d’Arnaud to depart. I kissed him goodbye on the same head that was shaved to facilitate the operation last year, the same one that was subject to radiation and chemotherapy…where at least in the back and down the sides, hair has been coming in plentiful and dark. If he were up for it, I’d say he and I should take a haircut next Saturday. I don’t really need one, but I’d go with him for the company.
Oh, there’s Wilmer Flores, coming very slowly around third. Teufel’s sending him? Really? Ender Inciarte, who’s been killing us all night, grabs the ball, relays to Aybar, Aybar throws home …yeah, Wilmer’s out by ten feet. Mets lose to the allegedly lousy Braves again.
Ah, whaddaya gonna do?