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ABOUT US

Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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So Crowded, Everybody Went There

Did Citi Field seem roomier to you in 2017? There were 328,980 fewer customers paying their way into the old ballgames there than there were in 2016 — and we know paid “attendance” doesn’t fully reflect the relationship between fannies and seats. The approximate 11.8% drop in official visitation to the home of the Mets is understandable. One year the Mets were coming off a pennant and driving toward the playoffs. The next year the Mets were falling off a cliff. A seventeen-win plummet is a tough selling point in any market.

So there was more wiggle room from Promenade on down. Shorter lines at the concessions. Decreased demand to be inside the fancy/schmancy clubs. “Lonely People” by America spiritually replacing “Piano Man” by Billy Joel as the eighth-inning singalong. The reported total of 2,450,622, ninth-highest in the National League, is a respectable enough figure when you stare at it (if Citi were a city, its attendance would have been the fourth-largest city in the United States), but it was definitely less than the Mets had drawn each of the previous two notably more successful seasons.

Yet there was one spot the Mets operated that appeared more popular than ever. It was the destination everybody talked about and almost everybody elbowed, shouldered, kneed, muscled and practically collapsed their way into. Per Yogi Berra, perhaps, it was so crowded, everybody went there in 2017.

It was The Disabled List, the hottest spot in town and recipient of Faith and Fear in Flushing’s Nikon Camera Player of the Year award, presented to the entity or concept that best symbolizes, illustrates or transcends the year in Metsdom.

All season long, the chatter around the Mets was “DL this” and “DL that,” as if the rich and famous were aching to be a part of its scene. It almost hurt to consider the accumulated star power it attracted. And it wasn’t a day-to-day thing, either; you had to commit…ten days…sixty days…who could keep count after a while?

You could try, but it would be painful.

The true mark of what makes a spot hot is the buzz it generates, and the best way to understand what made the Disabled List sizzle is to sift through the online reviews its glitzy patrons left. Taken together, their feedback reads like a cry for Yelp.

“I keep a regular table there, in the back. Sometimes it feels like I never leave. It’s the personal touch I appreciate. The Maître D, Ray, treats me like family.”
—David W., April 2

“Try the inflamed elbow. If you have the time, it’s worth it.”
—Steven M., April 2

“I’m having what Steven is having.”
—Seth L., April 2

“If I can be oblique about it, I’d recommend the left one.”
—Juan L., April 2

“I’d had ham before, but the hamstring was something else.”
—Brandon N., April 2

“You wouldn’t call me hyper, but when it comes to the DL, I’m all about hyperextension.”
—Lucas D., April 20

“Two words: the knee.”
—Wilmer F., April 20

“Have the strain. Try it without water.”
—Yoenis C., April 28

“I’d heard so much about the DL that I had to grab a seat — laterally.”
—Noah S., May 1

“I’d been so often that I didn’t think I could be surprised, but with this trip, you might say I learned the wrist of the story.”
—Travis D., May 5

“You’d have to be a clot to not want to check this place out.”
—Jeurys F., May 12

“Thumbed my way to the DL. Nothing could keep me away.”
—Asdrubal C., May 16

“I didn’t think I’d need to be here, yet here I am. Go figure.”
—Tommy M., May 24

“Thumbed my way back to the DL. I wonder if they have branches of this place somewhere else. I’m definitely gonna ask if they can send me to check them out.”
—Asdrubal C., June 13

“I tried the shoulder.”
—Josh S., June 14

“The joint has barely changed since I last showed up.”
—Neil W., June 15

“I said ‘scallops,’ but they had me down for ‘scapula’. I’m not sure they understand me anymore.”
—Matt H., June 16

“Saw David and Neil again when I walked through the door. Like old times.”
—Juan L., June 16

“The biceps tendinitis is pretty exotic.”
—Zack W., June 21

“If you don’t go to the DL, it’s like you don’t really care.”
—Robert G., June 28

“So busy! I’d lend a hand if I could.”
—Michael C., July 1

“They weren’t kidding about the crowds. It was like I could barely breathe when I arrived.”
—Brandon N., July 8

“My reaction after they told me to leave the Disabled List? Let’s just say it was stressful. So back I went for more.”
—Zack W., July 24

“I was torn about making the trip. Eventually the DL wins out.”
—T.J. R., July 28

“Far be it from me to impinge on such a popular place, but I couldn’t resist.”
—Seth L., August 15

“I tried the ribs. They cage them fresh.”
—Jose R., August 17

“Frankly, it feels more like home for me here than home does.”
—Steven M., August 22

“I’d fall all over myself to get to the DL again. No more separation pangs for me.”
—Michael C., August 25

“What can I tell you? I’m just not a big fan of the water.”
—Yoenis C., August 26

“Heaven nose I tried to make a reservation, but they don’t accept them after September 1. It must be like wearing white after Labor Day.”
—Wilmer F., September 2

“I hear Ray is leaving. I’m still here. I don’t mean to sound unappreciative, but I’d like to think the Disabled List won’t be such a hot spot next year.”
—David W., October 1

FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS NIKON CAMERA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
2005: The WFAN broadcast team of Gary Cohen and Howie Rose
2006: Shea Stadium
2007: Uncertainty
2008: The 162-Game Schedule
2009: Two Hands
2010: Realization
2011: Commitment
2012: No-Hitter Nomenclature
2013: Harvey Days
2014: The Dudafly Effect
2015: Precedent — Or The Lack Thereof
2016: The Home Run

Jake News: DeGrom Wins Ashburn

Richie Ashburn, someday to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was voted an honor nearly as historic as he neared his retirement as an active player. The writers who covered the 1962 Mets chose him as the franchise’s first-ever Most Valuable Player. The 1962 Mets lost 120 games, calling into question the concept of the award at hand. As wise old Whitey himself wondered aloud, “Most Valuable Player on the worst team ever? Just how did they mean that?”

Ashburn played 135 games on 35-year-old legs, batted .306 for a club that averaged .240 and stoked the legend of Marvelous Marv Throneberry for a pack of beat reporters whose opportunities to author stirring stories about uplifting victories were few and far between. The clubhouse favorites even managed to give those writers one more anecdote to disseminate as their act was coming to a close. For winning MVP, Ashburn, straight out of Tilden, Neb., was presented with a really nice boat So was Throneberry, courtesy of Howard Clothes, the sponsor of a contest that inaugural year at the Polo Grounds. Whichever Met hit the Howard sign on the outfield wall the most was deemed seaworthy by the clothier. Throneberry struck out 83 times in 1962, but intentionally or otherwise found Howard’s target more than any of his teammates. So he got a boat…and was soon informed a certain federal government would count it as earned income. Marv did not find that news so marvelous.

Richie’s boat was interpreted as a gift, so he didn’t have to do any additional giving. But given that he was heading back to Nebraska after the season, you couldn’t blame the guy if he looked the gift boat in the mouth, for what was he gonna do with a boat in the middle of the country nowhere near water? He decided to dock it in the waters off New Jersey.

It sank. Word was nobody bothered to install a drainage plug.

Like that boat, the Mets lacked their share of necessary components in those early days, but tellable tales were as plentiful as lopsided losses. Look at us, we’re still telling them. Thus, in recognition of the 1962 Mets proving how much value can be mined from every Mets season, whatever its bottom line, Faith and Fear in Flushing is rededicating the MVM honor it announces in this space annually as the Richie Ashburn Most Valuable Met award. We have no boats. We have no plugs. We have only appreciation to dispense.

For 2017, Faith and Fear celebrates Jacob deGrom as recipient of the Ashburn, making him the most valuable player on the worst Mets team in many years.

Just how do we mean that? Only in a good way, we can assure Jake. As difficult a time as we had watching the 2017 Mets sink toward the bottom of the National League East, selecting deGrom as our Ashburn winner for the second time in four seasons couldn’t have been more of a sea breeze. What little positional-player competition Jacob had either got injured (Michael Conforto compiled a .939 OPS in 109 games, the last of them on August 24) or traded (Jay Bruce and his 29 homers were shipped to Cleveland on August 9), leaving him the openest of fields on which to claim his prize.

That he did, convincingly. The numbers themselves were more than solid. In the classic pitching shorthand, deGrom went 15-10 for a 70-92 ballclub. His strikeouts piled up impressively to 239, the ninth-most by any Met in a single season and the most by any Met in twenty-six seasons. His earned run average was 3.53, not the stuff of Seaver and Gooden in their prime, but far more than decent in contemporary terms. He cracked 200 innings and passed 30 starts.

Within the context of his contemporaries, deGrom ranked as a top-tier National League pitcher. Those 239 Ks were second only to Max Scherzer’s 268. That 3.55 ERA slotted tenth, in line with where his 119 ERA+ stood. He finished seventh in FIP, eighth in WAR and eighth in WHIP, and totaled sixth-most Ws and fifth-most IP. Acronym it any way you like, JdG was good enough for CYA consideration. In a year when the Mets faded from sight, Jake wound up eighth in Cy Young voting, the only member of the Mets to materialize on any BBWAA ballot for anything. Jacob’s couple of points served as a pleasant mid-November reminder that we actually existed in 2017.

Within the realm of what we’re awarding him with here, deGrom was so much more valuable than every other Met, Met pitcher or Met starting pitcher that it wasn’t funny. What it was was historic. Jake was healthier, sounder and better than everybody in uniform to an extent rarely seen in any Met season.

Nobody besides deGrom and Jerry Blevins wore the Mets uniform as an active player in 2017 from beginning to end without interruption. Nobody within the ranks of what passed for a rotation came close to Jacob in anything. “DeGrominant” wasn’t just what he was against opposing batters on his (many) best days. He overwhelmed his comrades in arms.

Here is how deGrom compares to the next-closest runner-up in various categories among Met starting pitchers (statistics from Baseball-Reference):

WINS
DeGrom 15
Gsellman 7

INNINGS PITCHED
DeGrom 201.1
Gsellman 119.2

STRIKEOUTS
DeGrom 239
Montero 114

ADJUSTED ERA+
DeGrom 119
Lugo 90

PITCHING WAR
DeGrom 4.4
Lugo 0.9

One more item indicating how 2017 Mets starting pitching amounted to deGrom and pray against pogrom comes from Game Score, the metric Bill James designed to express just how overpowering a given start is. A really great one — lots of strikeouts, few walks or hits, going very deep, preferably not allowing runs earned or otherwise — would add to up over 90. Our Mets didn’t have any of those. A very good one would clock in around the mid-80s. The Mets didn’t have any of those, either. But what they did have, they got almost exclusively from deGrom.

The best Game Score any Met starter managed in ’17 came via the right arm of Rafael Montero, namely the 81 he notched in eight-and-a-third shutout innings against Cincinnati in late August. The second- through ninth-best from Met starters were courtesy of Jake, scores bunched between 75 and 78. No. 10 was a product of Seth Lugo’s crisp six innings (2 H, 0 BB, 0 R) versus Atlanta in late September, good for a Game Score of 75. Then the next three were deGrom (74), deGrom (74) and deGrom (73).

Picture it this way:

BEST METS STARTS 2017
1. Montero
2. deGrom
3. deGrom
4. deGrom
5. deGrom
6. deGrom
7. deGrom
8. deGrom
9. deGrom

10. Lugo
11. deGrom
12. deGrom
13. deGrom

Eleven of the thirteen strongest Met starts on the season were pitched by Jacob deGrom. He essentially had no peers in this regard, and that made his one-man stand against mediocrity practically unprecedented in Mets history.

During Tom Seaver’s awe-inspiring 1971 (20-10, 289 SO, 1.76 ERA), the ace of aces topped 90 five separate times, the five best starts from any Met that year. But he was followed in the next four slots by Nolan Ryan, Gary Gentry, Ray Sadecki and Gentry again. Amid Doc Gooden’s legendary 1985 (24-4, 268 SO, 1.53 ERA), Gooden filed the top six starts on the Met staff, along with Nos. 8 and 9, but Ron Darling slipped in at No. 7, and Sid Fernandez took the tenth and twelfth spots and a rare Terry Leach outing ranked eleventh. Plus in ’85 you had a wonderful team winning 98 games and several everyday stars blowing your mind.

Even in dismal Met years when you had a starting pitcher carrying the load in deGromulent style — Swan in 1979, Dickey in 2012 — there was somebody else doing something else worthwhile. Lee Mazzilli batted .303 in ’79 and rated his own Poster Day; David Wright finished sixth in NL MVP voting in ’12…and a fella named Johan Santana made a memorable (if short-lived) comeback culminating in the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History. Johan, as long as we’ve invoked his Hall of Fame-eligible name, easily outshone his rotationmates in contention-laden 2008, but Mike Pelfrey at least showed up and won 13 games, or only three fewer than Santana.

The win gap of seven between deGrom and Gsellman has been exceeded only four times among Mets starting pitchers. Jacob’s wins represented 21.4% of all Met victories, placing him within the upper third in franchise history when it comes to proportional representation. The chasm between his ERA+ (which is ERA adjusted for park and league effects) and Lugo’s ranks thirteenth-highest between the Mets’ best and second-best starters (minimum 10 starts for pitchers who appeared more as starters than relievers). The WAR gap of 3.5 is eighth-best. And, much as Jake wore the star-of-the-game crown frequently, he put together a team triple crown season (the twenty-fourth in team history): most wins among Mets pitchers; most strikeouts among Mets pitchers; and lowest ERA among qualifying Mets starting pitchers.

He was also the only Mets starter to qualify for the league’s earned run average title. You have to throw one inning per every game your team plays. Only Jake did that.

There was something about the needle that deGrom threaded in 2017 as an outstanding pitcher on a crummy team on which nobody else produced very much for very long that felt valiant, substantial and fairly extraordinary. When deGrom pitched, attention was merited. When deGrom didn’t start, the three hours that followed were left to your discretion. In the spirit of Richie Ashburn’s reluctance to be recognized for his contributions to a 40-120 enterprise, we will declare on Jacob deGrom’s behalf that you can be a most valuable player on a distant fourth-place finisher. Without deGrom, you get the feeling the 2017 Mets wouldn’t have finished at all — and who would have wanted last season to have just kept going?

FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS RICHIE ASHBURN MOST VALUABLE METS
2005: Pedro Martinez
2006: Carlos Beltran
2007: David Wright
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Pedro Feliciano
2010: R.A. Dickey
2011: Jose Reyes
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Daniel Murphy, Dillon Gee and LaTroy Hawkins
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Yoenis Cespedes
2016: Asdrubal Cabrera

Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2017.

Eli’s Sitting

Eli Manning sits this Sunday. Technically, he stands on a sideline, bearing a clipboard, wearing a headset, doing whatever is done when backing up a starting quarterback. It will be the first time he has done so in so long that I can’t link to what we were posting when it last happened, because that year was the year before we existed. Faith and Fear in Flushing was founded in February 2005, three months after Eli Manning took over as starting quarterback for the New York Giants, which was less than two months after John Franco threw his last pitch for the New York Mets.

Franco saved 276 games for the Mets, easily and most difficultly the most of any Met. Only one pitcher can notch saves in a given game. By the time Franco came to the Mets, it was generally accepted that only one pitcher be considered the closer for his team. If Franco was healthy, Franco was called on to save. Sometimes he wasn’t healthy. Sometimes he was used in quest of so many successive saves that he was marked unavailable. Otherwise, if there was a save opportunity, John Franco was on the mound attempting to scoop it up, pretty much every game from the beginning of 1990 to the middle of 1999.

Then Franco got hurt and gave way in the interim to Armando Benitez, deemed a more reliable or at least overpowering option. Franco got well, but when he did, he didn’t get to attempt to save games as a matter of course any longer. There was talk that you don’t lose your role because of injury, but that’s what happened to Franco’s. Benitez took it from him. He had, in a two-month sample, proven satisfactorily reliable and overpowering. He was younger. He threw harder. Time and its ninth innings with Met leads were marching on in a different direction. From late in 1999 to the end of 2004 (which included more than a year lost to Tommy John surgery), Franco saved all of eight games for the Mets. He was still who he was — he was named team captain in 2001 — but he had stopped doing what he had done for a decade.

That’s the closest Met analog I can come up with to the fate that is befalling Eli Manning, and it’s not really that close. Even as bullpens undergo evolution, closer is a prestige position in baseball, yet it’s essentially one-ninth of the game’s shall we say defensive snaps, and then only if the team without the ball has the right-sized lead. Franco, Benitez, whoever…they’re not out there every single game.

Manning was. Manning was hiked the ball on November 21, 2004, and continued to grip it through November 23, 2017. Manning got the ball in the top of the first and took it to the bottom of the fourth, if you don’t mind my cross-pollination of sports lingo. If the Giants had the ball, it was in Manning’s hands. He was the starting quarterback. Baseball’s got nothing quite like that.

Staring pitcher? Sure. Every fifth game. Football is played once weekly, so there’s no need for a rotation. A starting pitcher may no longer be “the ace of the staff,” but if he’s a starting pitcher, he still gets the ball just about as often. He may be skipped a turn, he won’t be the man on the mound on Opening Day or turned to first in the most critical of late-season situations, but a start is more or less a start. Sometimes you get a starter who is dropped to the bullpen and he snarls. I remember Ron Darling, for seven seasons a member of the Mets’ rotation, grudgingly shifting to relief in September of 1990 when the club developed an infatuation for a Tidewater Tide named Julio Valera. It was a September with playoffs on the line. Darling wasn’t happy. Valera didn’t make the most of it. But it was just once every five days and, honestly, Ronnie wasn’t pitching that well. Neither he nor Julio would be pitching for the Mets by September of 1991.

It’s another imperfect analog. The Mets had Gooden, Viola, Cone and Fernandez. They had Ojeda, who had unwillingly preceded Darling to the bullpen. All but Viola and Cone had been instrumental in winning the Mets a world championship. The Giants, in their sport, have had Manning. Manning was instrumental in winning them two world championships. More than instrumental. They didn’t go anywhere near a Super Bowl without Manning. There was nobody of note take the next series, nobody to close out a tight one for him. There was Eli Manning, two trophies, thirteen years, 210 starts, so much constancy that if you stumbled into Giants fandom when you were six years old in 2004, you arrived at the age of nineteen in 2017 with no experience watching anybody quarterback your team besides Eli Manning.

I was six when I stumbled into my New York Football Giants fandom, apparently needing something to occupy my Sundays between baseball seasons. Fran Tarkenton, No. 10, was our quarterback. Sometimes when I’d see Manning in 10 on the field, I’d think Tarkenton. Yet when I was nine, Tarkenton gave way to another quarterback better known as a Minnesota Viking, Norm Snead. Snead gave way to the old Cowboy and future Bronco Craig Morton. Morton gave way to Jerry Golsteyn, Golsteyn to Joe Pisarcik, Pisarcik to disaster. Or deeper disaster. The Giants were pretty much already a disaster when I picked them as my football team. They challenged for a playoff spot once and finished above .500 twice during my childhood and adolescence. They bottomed out when Pisarcik was instructed to avoid victory formation with a five-point lead and less than a minute left in November of 1978. He memorably avoided victory instead, but at least in his missteps he inadvertently gave way to Phil Simms. Simms was the first Giants quarterback to make me dream Giant dreams. They eventually came true, though not for an extended spell.

Simms was the Giants quarterback when I was sixteen through eighteen, except when he was hurt, and then he gave way to Scott Brunner. Brunner was a backup, but a pretty good one. In 1981, he pushed the Giants to their first playoff berth since 1963, when the quarterback was Y.A. Tittle, who died this October at the age of ninety. Scott was still in there a year later, the year I was nineteen, because Simms kept getting hurt. There were other backup quarterbacks who got the ball all those years I took to get from six to nineteen, too: Randy Johnson (not that Randy Johnson) started eight games; Randy Dean started two; Jim Del Gaizo, of whom I have to admit I have no memory, started one in 1974.

In my thirteen-year journey from six to nineteen, I watched or listened to ten different Giants start at quarterback. In that same measurement of time set more recently, I watched or listened to only Eli Manning start at quarterback. Plus Manning had longer seasons and six playoff trips and two Super Bowl runs. He never led the Giants through a truly 1970s-style season until the debacle presently in progress— and now he has been told to step aside and stop trying to lead.

The consensus reaction that Eli Manning has been a victim of unsportsmanlike conduct by his supervisor and employer strikes me as heartwarming. He’s Tom Sawyer at his professional funeral, though I imagine he’d prefer the rumors of his demise prove wholly exaggerated. Manning is still a Giant, still under contract, still alive, perhaps still capable of quarterbacking a team less decimated and more competently managed. Nevertheless, it’s nice to hear short memories give way to long ones in the wake of the news that Eli Manning is no longer the QB of record in blue. Two-and-nine in the moment takes a distant back seat to two-and-oh in Februarys of yore.

The Giants are 2-9, and it’s not nuts to want to try something and/or somebody else when the season has gone irretrievably to hell. Anything/anybody else? Well, there was no discernible boomlet to start Geno Smith, and Davis Webb, the theoretically promising rookie, has been languishing at third on the depth chart. Yet it’s not like a third Lombardi Trophy was imminent. Eli wasn’t gonna be the Giants’ quarterback forever. The move and its inherent logistics were unsportsmanlike regardless. You’re in the epitome of “you don’t do that” territory when Eli Manning is shunted aside for a backup quarterback several clipboards shy of Scott Brunner. There ought to be a smoother sequence by which you take concentrated aim at 3-9. There has to be a more polite process that doesn’t leave your one and only starting quarterback for a baker’s dozen seasons scrambling alone in his emotional backfield.

Maybe not, though. You ever watch football? You ever notice how many people are involved? Are there other sports where “too many men on the field” is a thing? It would never occur to the savviest baseball skipper to slip an extra fielder between first and second without a shift (if it had, Bobby Valentine would have already concocted it). But football is a numbers game. Eleven men on a side. Fifty-three men on a roster. Plus practice squads, which used to be called taxi squads, a name indicating how fast teams are willing to call you a cab and send you out of town. Everybody appears disposable. Everybody’s face is obscured by a mask. In 1987, they played games that counted with replacement players. We can replace you so fast it would make your head spin…which the sport you play already does was the unsubtle message. Eli Manning, the one guy who you couldn’t imagine unceremoniously replacing, just got replaced unceremoniously.

At the risk of going the the full Carlin here, score one for baseball over football. Baseball replaces its players, but we are conditioned to expect a modicum of ceremony when the changing of the guard is nigh. We see our ballplayers’ faces. Na, na, hey, hey, we wouldn’t thinking of not properly kissing them goodbye if given the opportunity. Franco could drive us into states of martyrdom (“this always happens to us”) and mutterdom (“come on John…come on already…”) with his penchant for less than overpowering saves, yet we stood and applauded when we were damn sure we were seeing him for the last time in 2004. It wasn’t the ninth inning, but it was Johnny from Bensonhurst in relief, going out in something resembling style.

Maybe Eli Manning will have that kind of opportunity before 2017’s Giant schedule is complete. Maybe he’ll be around to properly mentor a successor in 2018, outlasting the coach and general manager who conspired to make a 2-9 season feel tangibly worse. Or maybe we’ll be left with three lasting images: the quarterback who won a championship; then another championship; and then our hearts all over again for the way he was directed toward the bench.

Whereas “scripting plays” is an element of football strategy, “you can’t script baseball” was not long ago a selling point of our defiantly unpredictable National Pastime. (Per George Carlin and confirmed by the running times of reason postseason outings, “Baseball has no time limit — we don’t know when it’s gonna end.”) But you can script baseball, a little, around the edges. You can gently slide your cleanup hitter to a lower spot in the batting order if such a move threatens to be internally contentious. You can give your perennial All-Star catcher a heads-up about trying his hand at first base before alerting the media. You can make less of a deal who pitches the eighth versus the ninth. Someday soon, it would be nice to think, you can orchestrate a graceful denouement to the career of the only technically active contemporary New York sports star whose presence on the local scene predates Eli Manning’s.

Before Eli Manning won his first Super Bowl, he reminded me of David Wright, who made his Met debut in July of 2004 while a certain Giants rookie was getting the hang of his first NFL training camp. Both were touted as low-key leaders. Both were Southern gentlemen by birth, affable Midwestern boys next door by temperament, New Yorkers by osmosis. Both had a knack for constancy. The Mets played 873 games between July 21, 2004, and August 15, 2009. Wright started 853 of them. It took a Matt Cain fastball to the helmet to sit him. They do a lot to you in football, but they don’t throw those.

Eventually David Wright reminded me of Eli Manning, except without the rings. Wright beat Manning to personal success; David saw multiple All-Star Games before Eli was chosen to a Pro Bowl. David’s Mets neared the promised land ahead of Eli’s Giants. But Eli’s Giants made it there. David’s Mets took a shot at its end zone in David’s twelfth season, but they wound up stuffed at the goal line on fifth and short. Nobody’s had to awkwardly send David Wright to the sidelines late in his career. David’s body has sidelined itself.

Third base for the New York Mets wasn’t a prestige position until David Wright made it so. Others have kept his corner warm in his absence. His absence continues. There was another back surgery in October, a laminotomy. It followed rotator cuff surgery in September. Together, allegedly, they will give Wright the best possible chance to return to the diamond in the quickest possible manner. Onlookers can be forgiven for not betting on possibility. Neither procedure eliminates spinal stenosis, which is the overriding factor in why we haven’t seen Mr. Wright ply his trade since late May of 2016. At best, the surgical activity will “reduce the risk of further issues going forward,” according to the statement issued in David’s name. “With these two surgeries behind me, I hope to be able to put on a Mets uniform again as soon as possible. My desire to play is as strong as ever.”

David’s heart is the one Met figure of renown to never go on the DL. The rest of him has been stuck there like glue. Wright demoted unceremoniously to backup status à la Manning would be a step up at this point. On paper, he has three more years to find his way back to active duty. In reality, Met life is going on without him. Should the club opt to more than browse the free agent market, of course they’ll stroll the third base aisle. They’ll make calls. They’ll check in on this or that player who plays the position. It was once as unimaginable as the Giants shunting Eli Manning aside. Now it’s simply due diligence.

I don’t know how it will end for No. 5 in orange and blue. Maybe it already has. Maybe there’s a worthy career coda ahead, one that will have made all that surgery and rehabilitation worthwhile. If that’s not possible, maybe there’s at least a fitting farewell.

There’d better be.

When Johan Was Hall That

For the sixth consecutive Thanksgiving, Mets fans’ thankfulness index implicitly included “Johan Santana was ours.” SNY put the holiday to good use and aired what must be its most-aired Mets Classic, the game of June 1, 2012. It served as an after dinner reminder of who Johan Santana was and what he did for us. We shouldn’t require a reminder, but it’s always handy to receive one.

Through May 31, 2012, the Mets had played 8,019 regular-season games and achieved zero no-hitters. It kind of bugged us. You might not remember how much anymore because on June 1, 2012, in the 8,020th regular-season game the Mets played, Johan Santana went the full nine innings and gave up absolutely no hits. From there on out, giving thanks for Johan (along with Mike Baxter’s sacrificial instincts and Adrian Johnson’s aversion to chalked lines) became the decent thing to do. Secondarily, SNY could give thanks that it had the one Mets Classic no fan in his Wright mind ever tires of getting sucked into watching for the umpteenth time.

Welcome Regional Sports Network programming decisions aside, Johan Santana is on the fringes of top of baseball mind at the moment, as he has this month made his Hall of Fame ballot debut. Can you believe how quickly that happened? Five-and-a-half minutes ago he was pitching us a no-hitter and you turn around and learn, no, that was five-and-a-half years ago. There’s always a little of that reaction when you start seeing in the context of Cooperstown names of players you assumed were about to finish their St. Lucie rehab assignment. Johan hasn’t made the link between him and retirement any easier by never technically retiring. After the injury that ended his active Met tenure in March of 2013, he said he’d be coming back. He still hasn’t said he won’t be. For all we know, he’ll be in Spring Training on a minor league deal with the Orioles or Blue Jays. He did that, you know — signed with Baltimore in 2014 and Toronto in 2015. I guess it didn’t take. I say “I guess,” because I know too much to put anything past Mr. Santana.

Given that he hasn’t pitched in the major leagues for five seasons, Johan is indeed Hall-eligible, which explains why he is appearing on a ballot near you, a first-timer, same as presumed certainties Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. Holdovers Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman were darn close last year, so they seem likely to jump the 75% threshold and also find their way upstate come late July.

Santana? Probably not, judging by the lack of buzz surrounding his candidacy in the spate of articles that declare who’s an immortal lock, who’s a righteous cause and who’s necessarily a pariah. That’s strange, considering no buzz ever made the swarm of noise the rumors that we were gonna get Johan Santana made almost ten years ago. Oh my goodness, it was loud and pervasive and hopeful and, eventually, real. We got Johan Santana. It was one of the biggest deals the Mets ever pulled off. Johan Santana was, in the six or so seasons before he donned 57 and smiled for the cameras in Flushing, the best pitcher in baseball. That’s why it was a literal big deal that the Mets would get him. I’m still surprised it happened.

Johan had a Johan year for us his first season as a Met and Johannish follow-ups the next two years. Then he was out for a year. Then he returned and threw that no-hitter among several excellent starts. Then he was out for another year. And that was it, save for those minor league contracts elsewhere and his intermittently reported determination to work again from atop a major league mound. In the mind’s eye, that’s where he belongs. He was the king of the hill in his time, time that lasted long enough to spellbind the sport, if not long enough to stake a claim to eternity.

The balloting has just begun. So has the nattering nabobism of who should get a check mark and who shouldn’t. Perhaps there’s momentum in Johan Santana’s immediate future where this Hall of Fame vote is concerned, but to date I sense he is being practically universally overlooked. Once your 2018 locks are certified and your 2017 near-misses are waved in, you’ve got the tired arguments to relitigate. Should the PED suspects who overwhelmed the game get a fair shake or the brushoff? Can a full-time DH be justly enshrined? What about a dynamite hitter aided by swinging a mile high in the air? Say, what do you make of a pitcher who can’t shut his post-career trap but who couldn’t be touched in October? Is defense as important as offense? Is relieving on the same plane as starting? Does quiet excellence speak volumes?

Then there’s the guy who took a back seat to nobody for a while, but probably not an extended enough period. That’s Johan Santana, Koufaxian for the Minnesota Twins, close enough for the New York Mets. A helluva competitor. A helluvan accomplisher. Kept our team going when nobody else could or would. Rewatching the action of June 2012 from the vantage point of November 2017 diminished not a whit how impressive he was almost always.

With Mike Piazza safely inducted, I’m not hanging on every Hall of Fame pronouncement these days. I’d like certain legends to be ratified for ages. I’d be fine if a few others weren’t. There’s a lot of taking or leaving in between. We each immortalize of our volition, and neither my head nor heart takes its cue from the BBWAA’s blessing. Yet I understand what it signifies. Thus, out of respect for what he did for the Twins and out of appreciation for what he did for the Mets, I sincerely hope Johan Santana garners some semblance of his share of check marks. Memories can’t be so short that he fades from the ballot in a blink.

Five minutes. Five years. Five percent. What’s the rush?

Most Valuable Seaver

Happy Tom Seaver’s Birthday! No. 41 is 73 today. He’s also No. 1 forever, not only in all the ways we usually think, but in a very specific, sort of timely way.

Tom Seaver was the first National League East Most Valuable Player.

The what?

OK, so it’s a mythical award, but it’s based in reality and, besides, Tom is a mythic figure.

When Giancarlo Stanton won the National League MVP for 2017, I actually felt kind of warm about it, generating a perverse twinge of neighborhood pride when I learned Giancarlo won, like, hey, we know that kid, he lives up the block from us, he grew up around here. We play our divisional opponents so much, I figure we have more than a little something to do with it when one of our direct rivals is awarded. Stanton hit eight of his 59 homers against the Mets and recorded twenty of his 132 RBIs. We put the V in Stanton’s MVP.

I had a similar if more spiteful feeling when Chipper Jones took the NL prize in 1999 and Jimmy Rollins did the same in 2007. Maybe those guys would have become MVP without their respective late-season tours de force at our expense, but they became locks (and we became lox) once they were done with the Mets. There’s a reason we loved Larry and Jimmy as we did.

The other two relatively recent NL MVPs to come out of the East didn’t resonate quite so closely. Bryce Harper in 2015 certainly seemed of the neighborhood, but eight houses behind ours. My attitude was, fine, enjoy your hardware, we’re over here in the playoffs, ha, ha, ha…ha. Ryan Howard and his 58 home runs in 2006 barely registered in my consciousness. We didn’t yet have a rivalry with the Phillies and I thought it would be Albert Pujols who’d grab Carlos Beltran’s MVP.

Stanton. Harper. Rollins. Howard. Jones. And that’s been it since the National League East became a five-team division in 1994. That’s the other thing that occurred to me with Giancarlo’s victory announced Thursday night — we don’t win MVPs. I don’t just mean the Mets, who remain bereft of this award, but our entire division tends to get overlooked. Two of the last three years, yes, and back-to-back in ’06 and ’07, but otherwise this century and that last bunch of years of the last one have been a Central and West party. I spend approximately 76 games a year rooting against the rest of the NL East, yet I felt our third of the league has been getting overlooked too long.

So I set out in search of National League East MVPs, the players who ranked highest in MVP voting from our neck of the woods, whether they won the big one or came closer than anyone else to whom we’re close. To be clear, that means the player with the most MVP points in a given season from a team who played for the Mets, the Phillies, the Expos/Nationals, the Marlins, the Braves (but only since 1994) and the three who used to be among us until they left us: the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates, from 1969 through 1993.

Let’s get to the good part first: Seaver. Tom was Cy Young, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and Hickock Belt winner in 1969, the first year there was divisional play in baseball. The BBWAA, however, stopped short of recognizing that the most important player on the most Amazin’ team ever was more valuable than anybody else in National League. They gave NL MVP honors to Willie McCovey. Seaver finished second, but tops among all NL East players.

Some years in the two-division era, there was no slicing and dicing to be done. The first NL MVP winner from the East from those days was Joe Torre, in 1971 for the Cardinals (the Mets would wait until he aged and slowed down even more to make him theirs). But there was definitely a tilt westward for a while, meaning the NL East MVP was only the NL East MVP. Billy Williams, who turned the trick of being both a superstar and perennially underrated, twice finished behind Johnny Bench, in 1970 and 1972. Bench was in the West (as was Cincinnati; don’t try to map it). Williams was the main man in the East.

Willie Stargell, you probably know from Keith Hernandez, shared the NL MVP award with Keith Hernandez in 1979. He also won our mythical NL East award in 1973. His Pirates didn’t win the East, though, did they? A year later, another future Hall of Famer, Lou Brock, stole off with NL East honors. Baseball writers judged him not quite up to Steve Garvey’s standards overall, however.

In 1975, the Phillies grew into a legitimate contender, and that was no bull. But the Bull, Greg Luzinski, led them into the thick of the fight, winning NL East MVP that year and in 1977. In between, a third baseman named Mike Schmidt carried our division’s 1976 banner. He’d do it three more times for the whole league (1980, 1981, 1986).

In 1978, Dave Parker became the first NL East player to win NL MVP since Torre. In 1982, Smith of the Cardinals won NL East accolades…but not the one you’re probably thinking of. It was Lonnie Smith, not Ozzie, who placed behind Dale Murphy (of the then-West Braves) in the overall voting. A year later, in ’83, an Expo who would go to the Hall of Fame, Andre Dawson, repped the East to Dale’s rear.

In 1984, Ryne Sandberg overwhelmed voters, just as Willie McGee would in 1985. That made it two consecutive NL MVPs won for teams that edged out the Mets. Say, we’re well along since Seaver established the NL East MVP award. Where is another Met? We’ve already mentioned Schmidt somehow beat the field in 1986. And maybe you recall the voters looked past all established norms and gave their award to Dawson again in 1987. Honoring Andre wasn’t the unorthodox part — but his Chicago squad finished last. What the Cub?

Finally, for the first time in nineteen years, a Met was elevated to the top of the NL East heap. It was Darryl Strawberry, the best player on the best team in the league…at least until the playoffs started. In the NL MVP voting, grit and leadership and intangibles in the person of Kirk Gibson outdistanced Straw, but not even Kevin McReynolds’s excellent 1988 was judged better than Darryl’s.

You may remember Pedro Guerrero as a Cardinal. I remember him mostly as a Dodger. I didn’t remember how good he was for St. Louis in 1989. Voters did. He was the beast of the East. Then along came Barry: Barry Bonds was the NL MVP as a Pirate in 1990 and 1992, sandwiching the highest vote total from an East man in 1991 (he lost the grand prize to Atlanta’s Terry Pendleton, though you may remember him as a Cardinal). In 1993, the Marlins joined the East, and Lenny Dykstra joined the Met regret parade. Our former sparkplug was the division’s Most Valuable Player, finishing second overall to Bonds, who was no longer with the Pirates.

In 1994, the Pirates would no longer be with us. Nor would the Cards or Cubs, but that was all right, because we got the Braves, who were three contenders rolled into one. Their reign of terror got lost in shipping that year, though, as the Expos ran the East until the lamented labor stoppage halted their prospective rise. The writers tabbed Moises Alou, later a Met, as the NL East MVP.

Then it became Brave time: Greg Maddux in 1995; Chipper Jones in 1996; Larry Jones in 1997; Andres Galarraga in 1998; Larry “Chipper” Jones in 1999 (the whole league on that occasion)…yeesh. With the turning of the millennium, though, a bright light in the piazza. More specifically, Piazza! Mike Piazza! He finished third in MVP voting to the Giants’ Jeff Kent and Bonds, but beat out every Brave and every other Easterner.

After which, it was Braveness as usual: Chipper Jones in 2001. We had a breather via a Canadian front in 2002 — Vladimir Guerrero — until the Braves resumed banging the East like a drum. Gary Sheffield in 2003. J.D. Drew in 2004. The Jones not named Chipper in 2005… Andruw Jones to you. We got sick of the Braves collectively in those years. We weren’t crazy about them individually. I gotta admit I do admire the variety. J.D. Drew? You could have given me a hundred guesses for this award I just made up and I wouldn’t have recalled him as NL East MVP in 2004, or a Brave at all.

Atlanta fever at last broke in 2006, but an insidious strain of Eastfluenza incubated in Philadelphia and, as noted, proceeded to infect the MVP balloting: Howard, to Rollins in 2007, right back to Howard (Eastwise) in 2008. Just as we were tiring of the Phillies, a Marlin suddenly reeled in NL East MVP honors: Hanley Ramirez. He’s still playing ball, I hear.

Roy Halladay was Most Valuable among NL East players in 2010 and 2011, and the only pitcher besides Seaver and Maddux to be so recognized. Come 2012, we had a Stargell-Hernandez situation, albeit writ smaller. The top five National Leaguers were from the West or Central divisions. Tying for sixth were two gentlemen of the East: Met-killer Adam LaRoche and, yes, a Met! David Wright! The fourth Met to win NL East MVP, the only co-MVP among Mets. David’s such a good guy, of course he’d share his accolade.

Freddie Freeman punished the Mets enough in 2013 to rise up and bring Atlanta a new wave of divisional glory. Then along came Stanton (second to Andrew McCutchen) in 2014, foreshadowing his league victory in 2017. We mentioned Harper in 2015. There was another National, oh joy, in 2016. He was a Met before that: Daniel Murphy.

As noted, a number of actual MVPs in here, more of them divisional MVPs, which isn’t really a thing, but I decided it is today, for Tom’s birthday. A few of these winners finished as low as ninth in their overall voting, leading me to believe there’s an anti-East bias at work. Then again, we got Tom Seaver and 1969. Everything after that is second place.

The Magnificent Ones

No doubt they faced each other plenty in the American League, but I wasn’t paying attention. That’s the beauty and perhaps the drawback of the two leagues maintaining distinct identities. I don’t have to be conscious of one of them. I’m a Mets fan, thus I’m a National League fan. If there’s somebody in the American League worth knowing about, word will filter over. Better yet, the player will.

Carlos Beltran from the Royals arrived first, in 2004, with Houston, when Houston was part and parcel of the senior circuit. The star player lived up to his advance word, fortifying the perennial afterthought Astros into serious World Series timber. He was one of those missing pieces you yearn for if your team is close but cigarless. If only we had a Carlos Beltran type…

Unlike the Astros, the Mets weren’t close to a World Series in 2004, but by going for the ultimate Carlos Beltran type, they leapfrogged mediocrity and embraced legitimacy in 2005. Closing in on a World Series would come a bit later. The Mets’ conscious decision to compete as a major league team was a welcome decision after the self-destructive tendencies displayed in 2003 and 2004. You didn’t take competing, never mind contending, as a given.

When Beltran showed up in St. Lucie, the same week this blog showed up on the Internet, his merely being there was a victory for Mets fans. Anything he did up the road — in April; in 2005; through the length of the contract set to keep him a Met until 2011 — would be a bonus. A necessary bonus, but we’d take it when it came.

It took a while, actually. Beltran appeared in a Mets batting practice jersey and tried to live up to his enormous paycheck. I didn’t know much about him from his Kansas City days and, obsessed with the Red Sox vanquishing the Yankees the previous fall, I only caught the flavor of his demolition of Cardinal pitching in the NLCS. My impression, though, was he was trying too hard. He told reporters he was going to take the Mets’ promising youngsters David Wright and Jose Reyes under his wing and introduce them to his workout regimen. He strongly implied he was going to be the leader the Mets needed.

A few months in fan proximity to Carlos Beltran convinced me that wasn’t who he was, not in 2005, anyway. I found it telling that in the retirement article posted this week under his name on the Players’ Tribune, Carlos shared a story about overcoming his reticence to pester Barry Bonds at the 2007 All-Star Game and asking for a hitting tutorial. Bonds, to his Beltran’s surprise, responded positively.

Not that Beltran needed much help by then. He was at the All-Star Game as a peer of Bonds’s, after all. Still, it fits with the Beltran we met, the guy I sensed was overcompensating for maybe not being the most natural of gladhanders. One of the quirks of 2005, when Beltran rarely hit like his Houston self, was when he did homer, it was usually in service to a Pedro Martinez start. Martinez, the other imported Met superstar, wasn’t reticent. Martinez was very comfortable in the spotlight. He generated spotlight. It was probably a coincidence, but it couldn’t have hurt that Pedro cast enough shadow to let Carlos be Carlos every five or so days.

In 2006, the Mets got Carlos another Carlos: His buddy Carlos Delgado. Delgado’s bat ramped the Mets up toward another level, and his relationship to Beltran seemed to both raise him up and calm him down. Superveteran Julio Franco helped, too. Beltran hit a big home run early in the ’06 season. The Shea crowd cheered, a response that differed from how a vocal minority greeted his outs the year before, a boo impulse that dripped into the new year’s Opening Day. With this homer, though, Mets fans requested a curtain call and offered a clean slate. Beltran wasn’t so forgiving. Franco had to practically push him out of the dugout. Beltran stood, waved and suitably acknowledged his new batch of supporters. Cheers became the rule for the rest of 2006.

Few Mets teams have ever been better than that one. No Met was better on that team than Carlos Beltran. The man who had been pressing too hard for leadership made excellence look easy and elegant: 41 home runs, 116 runs batted in, an OPS close to a thousand, indisputable Gold Glove defense in center. The Mets won 97 games for the first time in seven years and the National League East for the first time in eighteen. Beltran hit three more homers in the postseason. As he did with the Astros in 2004, he took his team to the doorstep of the World Series. His inability to give the door the swiftest, hardest ninth-inning kick imaginable rates as a footnote, hardly the full text.

An era of possibility peaked the night of NLCS Game Seven. Those Mets were never so close to going all the way again. They were very good for most of the next season, albeit horrible at the end. Not Beltran. He was amazing in September 2007. And September 2008. His teammates mostly ceased being so. There was no return to the playoffs for Beltran’s Mets. A few more Carlos Beltrans might have pushed them over the top, but you only get so many of those on your roster in a lifetime.

Injuries sapped Beltran’s athleticism as Shea Stadium gave way to Citi Field and contention disappeared from the Mets fan’s contemporary consciousness. Carlos persevered above the din of debate over how good and how passionate he was or wasn’t. His team was disconnected from pennant aspirations. His mobility compromised. The perseverance continued clear into 2011, his seventh year as a Met, his fifth as a Met All-Star. Once his knees were good again, he played great again. From late-period Beltran, I fondly remember the afternoon he went deep thrice in Denver, but particularly relish the takeout slide he put on Chase Utley in September 2010, an answer to the similar if dirtier slide Utley put on Ruben Tejada the night before (foreshadowing!). Age would nudge Carlos from center to right field and diminish the damage he could do on the basepaths, but it no doubt enhanced his wisdom and bolstered his comfort level. He guided his center field successor Angel Pagan and his right field replacement Lucas Duda. The leader he wanted to be when he came to the Mets he surely was before he left.

Beltran had to leave, a little ahead of the end of his contract. The Mets were rebuilding. Our next pennant contender was years away. Maybe it would materialize sooner if his dangerous bat and sterling character could entice a team that deemed itself on the cusp of big things into giving the Mets a true blue-chipper. Thus, Carlos Beltran and his armful of accolades were off to distant precincts, destined to change uniforms five times in a six-year span. Sometimes he aligned with undesirable opponents. Always he burnished his reputation on the field and among his peers. He came close to wrecking the first no-hitter in New York Mets history. He visited the playoffs repeatedly. Finally, in Houston for a second turn, he went all the way. At forty, from the bench, he became a world champion. Everybody with the Astros praised him to the top of Tal’s Hill. The ridiculously steep incline is not there anymore, but the memory he made from running up it as a Met lives on…as does the impact Beltran had on his championship team.

“[M]y purpose in this game,” he conveyed as he called it a career, “is not only to hit home runs or to win championships. It is to share what I know with the younger players, like so many other players have done for me.”

In that Players’ Tribune piece, Beltran mentioned warmly Reggie Jackson, someone Carlos “saw a lot of” when he was wearing his least appealing uniform. During Beltran’s seven postseasons, Jackson’s name tended to come up because each man excelled in October. Their respective bushels of home runs would come to mind because home runs are home runs, yet it was a ball that didn’t go out of a specific park that linked them for me in October of 2017. Game Four, ALDS, Houston at Boston, a Monday afternoon. The skies were drearier, the stakes a little differently calibrated — only the Red Sox had their backs firmly planted against the Green Monster — but 10/9/17 echoed 10/2/78, the date that has gone down in history as that of the Bucky Dent Game. Of course it was the Bucky Dent Game. Bucky Dent hit the three-run home run in that sudden-death American League East championship playoff that pushed the Yankees past of the Red Sox in the seventh inning. Dent had hit four home runs coming into Game 163. As long as the Yankees held on to that lead, you’re going to name the game for such an unlikely hero.

Dent, though, didn’t win the game for the Yankees. Not really. They led 3-2 when Dent went deep and 4-2 in the middle of the seventh. Jackson, twelve months removed from his indelible three-homer performance in Game Six of the 1977 World Series, led off the top of the eighth versus Bob Stanley and homered to make it 5-2. The Red Sox came back in the bottom of the eighth with two runs, yet Goose Gossage held them off from there. The final was 5-4. The Yankees won the division, the Red Sox went home, thereby capping and capsizing the one season I lived and ultimately died hard with a team that wasn’t the Mets. (See what I got for watching the American League too closely?) Dent provided the legend, but Reggie was responsible for the margin of victory.

Almost exactly thirty-nine years later, it’s the Astros up two games to one on the Red Sox in a best-of-five situation. Houston could have swept the day before, but Mookie Betts made a fabulous catch to rob Josh Reddick of a home run and turned Game Three in Boston’s favor. Momentum was now on the loose and up for grabs. The Red Sox’ lives so depended on winning Game Four that John Farrell dispensed with the day after tomorrow and directed theoretical Game Five starter Chris Sale (17-8, 2.90) to take the mound in relief of Rick Porcello in the fourth inning. Porcello had given up two runs in three innings, but there was no time for niceties.

Not to be outdone, A.J. Hinch pulled an ace from his sleeve, sending his if-necessary Game Five starter Justin Verlander (5-0, 1.06 in five September starts following his trade from the Tigers) to relieve Charlie Morton during the fifth inning. The Astros were leading by a run. Didn’t matter to Hinch. Didn’t matter that they theoretically had a one-game cushion. If the other guy was gonna bring in his ace starter, he was gonna bring in his ace starter.

Whereas Sale retired the first six Astros he saw, Verlander, who entered with one on and out, immediately surrendered a two-run homer to Andrew Beinintendi. Suddenly the Red Sox led, 3-2. Suddenly the momentum was Boston’s. Sale remained unscored upon through the sixth and the seventh. Verlander settled in and posted zeroes, too. Sale was still on in the eighth when Alex Bregman came up to lead off. He homered to tie it at three. Sale got two more outs before being removed with a runner on first. Craig Kimbrel replaced him and eventually allowed the go-ahead run. Astros 4 Red Sox 3.

We throw the phrase “greatest game ever played” around quite a bit, especially in October. The first time I remember thinking it to myself while a game was in progress was the Yankees-Red Sox playoff. I thought of that game while I watched the Astros and Red Sox play this game, especially when it got to the top of the ninth and, with two out and two on, Carlos Beltran, pinch-hitting in the DH slot, doubled off Kimbrel to drive in one more Houston run to make it 5-3. The two-run lead allowed Astros closer Ken Giles, who had come on for Verlander in the eighth, a touch more breathing room, which was helpful, because Rafael Devers led off the bottom of the ninth with an inside-the-park home run. Giles was fine after that. Much as Gossage teased one last out from former MVP Carl Yastrzemski in 1978, Giles got his by besting former MVP Dustin Pedroia in 2017.

The final, from Fenway Park, was 5-4. Verlander in middle relief beat Sale in middle relief. This provisional candidate for greatest game ever played, at least until the next several came along, would be remembered, if it was to be remembered, for the starters who came out of the bullpen. Yet the literal difference in the end turned out to be the extra-base hit delivered late by Carlos Beltran. His team moved forward. The home team went home. It was very much like what Reggie Jackson wrought upon the Red Sox thirty-nine years earlier, except on this occasion I was rooting for the visitors.

The double was Beltran’s final RBI in the major leagues. He didn’t hit much in the ensuing ALCS or World Series. He didn’t have to. The players he mentored in Houston were plenty capable of hitting. They didn’t need his bat as much as they needed him. “After we lost Game Five of the ALCS to the Yankees,” he recounted in his retirement article, “I sensed that the guys were a little bit tense. So I called a team meeting, and I just talked to them in a very casual way. I wanted to loosen them up. And I guess it helped, because we went on to win Game Seven and advance to the World Series.” The leader he set out to be in 2005 quietly led his team all the way a dozen years later. Different team from when we started watching him closely, but time will do that.

***

Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays arrived second, in 2010, with Philadelphia, when Philadelphia didn’t need much help. They’d won three consecutive division titles, a pair of pennants and a World Series. The Phillies were going beyond the lesson imparted by “Hey Jude”. They were taking a glad song and making it better. For their NL East rivals who had distanced themselves in the wrong direction, Halladay to the Phillies was a hole in the Mets’ head.

Halladay had unfurled a magnificent career in Toronto without my dedicated attention. The Mets faced him only a few Interleague times and he never appeared in the postseason. I knew he won a Cy Young once, but otherwise had to sort him out from Pat Hentgen, another Blue Jay who had done the same several years before. Like I said, I don’t see much of the American League.

There’d be no mistaking who Roy Halladay was once he landed in Philly (in exchange for a package of prospects that included minor league catcher Travis d’Arnaud). The Mets saw him on a regular basis. The first time the Mets took him on, they didn’t get very far. Roy went nine, the Mets scored none. Mike Pelfrey and Raul Valdes gave up ten. How generous of them, considering the Phillies needed only one.

A few months later, the Mets saw Halladay on back-to-back weekends. It was my pleasure to be in the crowd both times, once at Citizens Bank Park, once at Citi Field. Though I recall having fun with friends at each game, “pleasure” should not be taken as an all-encompassing term here. The one in Philly presented the Mets an excellent chance to stick it to an ace. They kind of did, scoring two runs in the first, one in the sixth, two in the seventh.

Oh, the seventh. Halladay was still in there, still pitching, still getting by on an afternoon during which he allowed nine hits, the last three to the not so murderous row of Fernando Martinez, Josh Thole and Chris Carter. Halladay was the generous party here, making like a human versus some very human hitters. All that scoring, though, was to no avail. R.A. Dickey, in his revelation season, lacked his usual mystique. The Phillies plated six off him in three. And when Halladay might have been had, he got out of the seventh, first by flying out Pagan, then by striking out Beltran. Beltran may have never looked worse in a Mets uniform. He fanned three times, went hitless in four at-bats and, in pursuit of a catchable Jayson Werth fly ball, fought the wall. The wall won. Beltran banged into it. The ball cleared it. Philly’s bullpen handled the rest of the Mets to preserve a 6-5 win for Halladay. As if to prove the close call was a fluke, six nights later, in Flushing, Roy put his humanity on hold and robotically mowed down the Mets for eight innings and a 4-0 victory that was business as typical between the two opponents.

Halladay was a 15-8 pitcher once he was done with his home-and-home conquests of the Mets, 21-10 when the regular season was complete. He started the postseason, his first, by firing a no-hitter past the Reds. It went nicely with the perfect game he tossed at Florida in May. The American League Cy Young winner from 2003 proved a worthy unanimous choice for the National League version in 2010. I’d gotten a pretty good education in who Halladay was that year. When the Phillies formed their incomparable Legion of Arms the next year — returning Cliff Lee to a rotation that already boasted Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels — there was no mistaking who was first among equals. Halladay started Opening Day in 2011 and faced the Mets in his second start, an 11-0 squashing that required less than two-and-a-half hours. Roy didn’t waste pitches and the Phillies were highly efficient scorers. They would go on to win 102 games, twenty-five more than the Mets. Halladay won nineteen of them.

From a Met perspective, the only solace to be had as the Phillies drew their fourth and fifth consecutive division titles was they slid backwards in October. From a world championship in 2008 and the NL flag in 2009, they lost the NLCS in 2010 and NLDS in 2011. Sweet Sheadenfreude, spiteful times never seemed so good (so good, so good). We didn’t recognize that when they bowed out against St. Louis in the latter series, that was it. Halladay was beaten by his old Jays teammate Chris Carpenter in Game Five, 1-0. There’d be no more Phillies as we knew and loathed them. Ryan Howard lay on the ground, his Achilles tendon torn on the final swing of their mini-dynasty. Talk about symbolism.

The Phillies grew old and achy seemingly all at once in 2012. Halladay wasn’t immune. A strained shoulder put him on the DL for seven weeks. His ERA soared from the lower twos to the middle fours. He won only eleven games. The Phillies shrank to a .500 record — a mark they haven’t neared from below since.

Twenty Thirteen represented the end of the line for Halladay. A bad back got to him as hitters never did. The outings were few, the results unrecognizable. His second start of the year was again against the Mets. The old master was dueling a rising phenom, Matt Harvey. Narrative City was on high alert. But only one pitcher pitched to his notices. It was the kid. Young Harvey dominated the Phillies like Halladay had dominated the Mets and everybody else for the better part of the previous dozen seasons. Roy couldn’t do that anymore. He lasted four innings of a 7-2 loss. I was thrilled that Harvey (7 IP, 3 H, 9 SO) looked so sharp, yet I found myself distressed that Halladay struggled so mightily. This wasn’t how I wanted my narrative to flow. This wasn’t how I wished Cy Young winners to fade.

These things occur of their own volition, certainly without our consultation. Halladay retired after the 2013 season, the year the Mets finished ahead of the Phillies for the first time since 2006 (aided some by another highly touted kid pitcher, Zack Wheeler, the blue-chipper we got from the Giants for Beltran). We won 74 games, they won 73. It didn’t quite make up for the collapse of 2007, the September that put Philadelphia on the map, nor the echo thud that let them catch and pass us in 2008. We haven’t finished behind them since 2012, but that’s not really a prizeworthy accomplishment.

I really disliked those Phillies Halladay joined, some Phillies more than others. Halladay I never had it in for. It never occurred to me to do anything but respect him. I wished his prime had still been in effect in 2013 when he faced Harvey. That was the Halladay I wanted the Mets to beat. (I also wish Harvey was still in his prime right this very minute, but that’s another story.) I still dislike Werth, who made it easy for us to extend our animus toward him when he joined the ascendant Nationals in 2011. Our collective disdain for Utley was already off the charts when he was a Phillie; with the Dodgers, you couldn’t dream of fitting it inside a PowerPoint. I rooted for Hamels to nail down his 2015 no-hitter, because I almost always root for no-hitters, yet I continue to resent his willingly being goaded into calling the Mets “choke artists” in 2008 (I mean, yeah, sure, they deserved it…but you the guy on the Phillies don’t get to say it). Shane Victorino was vile, though if he’d played for my team, I’d probably endlessly endorse his valor. Howard I never hated with the fury of a thousand Shanes, except when he batted.

Jimmy Rollins, last seen doing shtick alongside ex-Mets Pedro Martinez and Gary Sheffield on TBS’s postseason studio show, I was compelled to hate at his peak by his team-to-beat bluster, but I grudgingly admired the way he backed it up. Hated that he backed it up, of course. I read about Rollins during Spring Training this year. The decade between 2007 and 2017 might as well have been a century. That spring, he was preparing to knock off the Mets. This spring, he was trying to hang on with the Giants, making his own version of the Steve Carlton Don’t Give Up Until You’re Good and Ready Tour. Carlton was the great Phillie who stopped being adequate before he wanted to stop pitching. He bounced from the Phillies to the Giants, White Sox, Indians and Twins, growing inevitably older, pitching inevitably worse. He didn’t give up until he was 43. I never liked Steve Carlton. But I liked that he kept going.

Rollins in Spring Training 2017 was the bookend to what Beltran became after the 2017 World Series. The ex-Phillie, ex-Dodger and ex–White Sock was the veteran aiming for one more shot, preferably one that would find a happy ending. Beltran got his. It didn’t happen for Jimmy. He failed to make a team in spring that didn’t go anywhere in summer, but Bob Nightengale’s USA Today profile in February alone made his attempt worthwhile. In it, Rollins expressed full awareness of where he was in baseball and cherished the last chance he had at a last chance. Retirement would mean the end of what he’d been doing all his life. Spring meant more. More grounders. More running. More chatting it up among baseball men in baseball uniforms, him being one of them.

“This is heaven right here,” Rollins told Nightengale. “There’s so much history here. I get the Willie treatment…” That’s Willie as in Willie Mays, a Giant presence every spring in Scottsdale. Willie got a kick out of razzing and coaching Jimmy. Jimmy got a kick out of being razzed and coached by Willie. Why wouldn’t you to try to stay in the game if they’re gonna let you get the Willie treatment?

The old shortstop knew the odds weren’t in his favor in an endeavor where experience wasn’t what it used to be. Not that 38 wasn’t always fairly ancient in baseball, but the industry Rollins encountered in spring was skewing as young as it reasonably could. “The game’s completely changed,” the player who came up in 2000 lamented seventeen years later. “When I came up, there were veterans everywhere. Teams wanted them in their clubhouse. But now, with sabermetrics and numbers part of the game, it’s about computers. You plug in numbers, and it spits out a player. It’s like you’re not wanted.”

Rollins wasn’t wanted by the Giants (he batted .125 in Spring Training), but Beltran didn’t have that problem in Houston — though had he shown up there a little sooner, he might have run smack into the perceptions Rollins described. Instead, Beltran’s role on the Astros, like that of veterans Brian McCann and Josh Reddick, according to an insightful post-Series analysis by Jared Diamond in the Wall Street Journal, countered the burgeoning conventional wisdom of spring. Seeing as how the Astros constructed their championship by dismissing accepted practices, it’s instructive to realize their GM Jeff Luhnow leaned a little on the old-school component of clubhouse chemistry. Luhnow labeled it “the human element of baseball”. Prior to 2017, the numbers took precedence in Houston to such an extent that even the younger players admitted to being turned off. This year, it was an appropriate “blend” of people and data that carried the day for Luhnow’s team. By Diamond’s account, the youngsters and oldsters blended beautifully.

They must have. There was a trophy, a parade and everything else to prove it.

The Phillies certainly wanted Halladay around, and Halladay was amenable. He’d signed on as the organization’s mental skills coach, working with their minor leaguers at the club’s Clearwater training complex, convenient to his home and family. He was on the job two Mondays ago, the day before his solo airplane flight went awry and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a bromide that athletes die twice. The first time, it is said, is when they give up their sport. Halladay, a pitcher from 1998 through 2013, had only four years to enjoy the rest of his life after retiring as an active player. Dying the second time wasn’t supposed to come so soon. The man was only forty, the same age as Beltran, barely older than Rollins. Sadness permeates baseball because he’s gone. It’s a far deeper sadness than the twinge we might have felt when we learned Beltran, a hitter from 1998 through 2017, wouldn’t be playing anymore.

We’re lucky because we saw both Halladay and Beltran at their best, whatever league we watched them in, in whatever cap the Hall of Fame eventually chooses to portray them. We are particularly lucky that for a couple of years we got to see them in the same division, sixty feet six inches apart. For the record, in 2010 and 2011, Beltran of the Mets faced Halladay of the Phillies fifteen times. Carlos collected two singles and a two-run homer off Roy. Roy notched five strikeouts of Carlos.

OK, maybe we weren’t that lucky in context, but we definitely saw a couple of greats.

The Class of ’62 Comes Through

In the great contemporary tradition of making everything about ourselves, congratulations to the New York Mets’ expansionmates, the Houston Astros on winning their first World Series and, after fifty-six seasons, minting the Expansion Class of 1962 as the first in which everybody can bring a Commissioner’s Trophy to show and tell.

Eleven World Series have now been won by seven expansion franchises. The Mets in 1969 were and shall always be first, a point of next-generation pride for those of us who keep score. When someone of our ilk matches our achievement, it speaks well for baseball’s broadened horizons. There was, through 1960, the musty old order of sixteen teams that didn’t necessarily crave company before Branch Rickey’s Continental League threatened to rumble into existence. Then came the vanguard of tomorrow, emerging in waves of two and four, spawned periodically between 1961 and 1998. We and Houston showed up in the second wave. Houston took longer to earn access the champions club — not to be confused with Citi Field’s Champions Club, formerly known as the Ebbets Club, eventually known as the Hyundai Club until the next sponsor comes along.

The Mets own two world championships; the Royals (Class of ’69) two we wish were one, in which case we would have three; the Blue Jays (’77) two; the Marlins (’93) two; the Angels (’61) one; the Diamondbacks (’98) one; and the erstwhile Colt .45s one at last. Still waiting to get on the board, in chronological order by birth or relocation, are the Padres (’69), Brewers (’70), Rangers (’72), Mariners (’77), Rockies (’93), Rays (’98) and Nationals (’05). If you wish to saddle the teams that moved with the additional years racked up in their previous places of residence, be my guest.

The Astros, who holstered their guns in favor of shooting for the moon identitywise in 1965, never left Houston and remained frustratingly earthbound for five-and-a-half decades. At last they have slipped the surly bonds of also-ran and touched the face of November. That it’s dripping with Champagne has made the culmination of their long journey all the sweeter, if stickier.

This should be about them, not us. This should be about an organization that fathomed whatever it had been doing wasn’t going to get them where they wanted to be, so they stripped the whole enterprise to its foundation and started over, switching leagues and inflicting deep discomfort on their won-lost balance sheet in the early 2010s, confident that they were launching something eminently spaceworthy. In the understatement of the century, losing is no fun. I can’t imagine Astros fans who hung in there across seasons of 106, 107 and 111 losses were having a blast (getting blasted…maybe). I can only imagine how rewarding the transformation that led to 101 wins and a scintillating seven-game World Series triumph over the Dodgers feels today.

It probably feels a little like 1969 and 1986 did for us, actually, but that was a while back now. Maybe winning it all these days feels different. There seems to be more merchandise available. I hope Houstonians who are able partake to their heart’s content. They, like their team, have had to persevere plenty of late. I’m particularly happy for my college-era friend Jo Ann and her family. She moved to Houston for law school and settled there. Shortly after midnight, as Wednesday became Thursday and a crown descended over her city, she sent me a text that consisted of a simple inquiry:

“So, how ’bout those Astros?”

Jo Ann married a fellow attorney, Bob, who attended the first exhibition game at the Astrodome in ’65 and saw the last regular-season game there in ’99. Bob claims he could hear the ruckus during Game Six in the ’86 NLCS from his office, “and my office was five miles from the Dome.” Bob is now a Harris County judge. I move court be adjourned this Friday when Houston holds its first World Series victory parade.

I’m delighted for Jo Ann and Bob and their kids, especially Alex, the eager incoming college freshman Stephanie and I met this past summer when the brood visited New York. Alex wanted to let me know that he’d heard from his dad that Nolan Ryan was a pretty good pitcher, a judgment I willingly seconded. Less than two months later, Jo Ann and Bob were wading through the flood damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey and notifying us of a new address. A World Series championship is a stupendous gift anywhere any year. For Houston, this year, you gotta believe it’s kind of a blessing.

Since we’re intent on steering the conversation back to us, let’s hear it for the Astros with Mets ties, most of them vague to begin with and fairly frayed by now. But if we want in on reflected glory, we gotta reflect.

So, how ’bout Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, a Met in 1972 for eleven games, five of them starts, one of them good? Brent was traded to Cleveland, enjoyed some success with San Diego and then succumbed to arm problems. For years Strom lived on in conversations between my friend Chuck and me because the Met pitcher from our youth shared a last name with a colleague of Chuck’s, thus we always referred to that person as “Brent Strom”. I don’t know exactly what “Brent Strom” is up to, but it was good to see the actual Brent Strom up and at ’em during the postseason just past, out to the mound again and again to wisely confer with and presumably calm down one Astro pupil after another.

And how ’bout their third base coach Gary Pettis? Do you remember Gary Pettis as Mets first base coach in 2003 and 2004? His Flushing tenure has been stored undisturbed in my baseball subconscious since he was swept away in the purge of all things Art Howe. Pettis served as our baserunning and outfield coach as well. The Mets had some pretty good outfielders then and ran the bases to fairly positive effect. Jose Reyes and David Wright took their first leads off first base with Pettis urging them on. He seemed very well suited to third base in Houston, waving runners home by the plethora.

One more Astro coach was a Met coach — and scapegoat. Dave Hudgens was brought on as primary hitting instructor in December 2010 and let go in May 2014. When the Mets hit, we didn’t trip over ourselves to praise him. When the Mets slumped, Hudgens had to be doing something wrong. That’s how it works with coaches and the rest of us. We rarely know what impact they’re having behind the scenes. The Mets replaced him during the season, usually a sign that nothing is going right. The Astros picked him up in advance of 2015, the season they rose from the nether regions of the A.L. West and into the playoffs, same year our guys (under the tutelage of the recently departed Kevin Long) slugged their way from mediocrity to a pennant. Maybe Hudge knew what he was doing all along. Maybe some fits are better than others. What is indisputable is he is now a world champion hitting coach.

When the Mets were as bad as they could get without being quite as bad as the Astros got, Alex Cora was kind of the face of the franchise. Or the face of the franchise’s futility. If Cora, who demonstrated no range, no power and no talent for reaching base, was playing at brand spanking new Citi Field, it must have meant somebody better wasn’t, usually because anybody better was injured. Cora, 33, was to lousy 2009 in my mind what Howe was to miserable 2003: depressing as hell to ponder in a Mets uniform. But there was one episode I remember warmly where Alex was concerned (one more than I associate with Art). This was in 2010, after the All-Star break as a promising first half dissipated on a West Coast road trip that began in San Francisco and ended down the drain. Following a loss in Arizona, Cora barked in the clubhouse at a knot of reporters who were sharing a few laughs with Mike Pelfrey to “have some respect”. The reporters reportedly apologized (as did Pelf). Cora responded, “Nothing against you guys. It was just a one-time thing. But it was too much.” I was impressed that somebody on the Mets still cared about such niceties. Cora had won a championship with the Red Sox three years earlier and would be picked up by Texas for their playoff push within a month. That kind of “veteran presence,” easy to mock in the context of meager slash lines, still had some kind of value in the game. It’s little wonder Houston would go on to hire him as bench coach and less wonder he is moving on, another championship in tow, to manage Boston.

Tyler Clippard pitched fourteen innings for the 2017 Astros, none of them in the postseason. He threw more than twice as many for the 2015 Mets, shoring up our bullpen just in time for that crucial series against the Nationals in late July and early August. Perhaps the Mets’ mistake was keeping him on the World Series roster. I can still see him, from Promenade, repeatedly missing the strike zone in Game Four, just ahead of Daniel Murphy’s lethal fielding foibles. Cripes. Anyway, he gets a ring now.

On September 25, 2013, Mets catcher Juan Centeno zipped a throw to shortstop Wilver Tovar to nail Cincinnati’s previously unstoppable Billy Hamilton from stealing second base. We didn’t know for sure that would be the highlight of Centeno’s (let alone Tovar’s) Mets career, but it seemed a pretty good guess. Juan played in fourteen games as a Met in ’13 and ’14. He backed up Brian McCann in the 2017 World Series. Didn’t appear in a single game. Neither did Ed Hearn in 1986. They’re still world champion catchers forevermore.

You play for the Mets at the wrong moment, you know first-hand only the agony of defeat. For example, in the waning weeks of 2017, the thrill of victory particularly eluded callups Tomas Nido and Kevin McGowan. Nido played in five games this past season. According to a handy tool on the Baseball Musings site, the Mets lost all of them. McGowan’s Mets outlost Nido’s, going 0-8. Hopefully better box scores await both of them. They sure did for Collin McHugh, the top-notch blogger and mid-level pitching prospect who joined the Mets only to be greeted by the hardest of hard-luck losses. Collin’s line from the afternoon of August 23, 2012, at Citi Field: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 9 SO, 0 R and a no-decision before Bobby Parnell gave up an eighth-inning run to the Rockies. Colorado won, 1-0. McHugh never again pitched so well for the Mets nor ever pitched in a game won by the Mets. Eleven Mets games across 2012 and 2013, eleven Mets losses. Soon, McHugh was swapped to Colorado for Eric Young, Jr. Later, he materialized in Houston and linked himself with winning. Collin put 43 W’s on his personal ledger between 2014 and 2016. An injured right elbow derailed McHugh’s 2017, forcing him to miss more than half the season. He was a minor contributor to the Astros’ World Series surge, but a contributor — and a winner — nonetheless.

Oh, and Carlos Beltran. I think you’re all familiar with his body of work, both since 1998 as a major league superstar and between 2005 and 2011 when he was one of the best players the Mets ever featured. It seemed to take Beltran almost as long as the Astros themselves to finally win a championship. He won’t physically be mistaken for the October missile that exploded across the October sky in 2004, the one that largely earned him the contract that brought him to Queens, but he never ceased being the Carlos Beltran his teammates have continually praised and credited. Some of the first words out of World Series MVP George Springer’s mouth in an interview following Game Seven were thanks to Carlos Beltran. Our old center fielder didn’t play much this autumn, but his impact was palpable in Houston. Going by the word of those who would know, it will be displayed indefinitely on dozens of ring fingers, one of them most deservedly his own.

Baseball in Seven

Welcome to the peak of existence, the cusp of the Seventh Game of the World Series, that hoary hypothetical sprung to life. You know how managers are accused of managing a mundane midsummer situation “like it’s the Seventh Game of the World Series”? There will be no need for “like” this evening and, going in, nothing not to love. This is it, the real thing, the genuine article, not a drill. This is what we train for as baseball fans. This is DEFCON 7.

In the one month since our beloved New York Mets (remember them?) wrapped up their most recent campaign (remember it?), ten teams have combined to favor us with thirty-seven postseason baseball games, thirty-one of which were executed to ultimately render eight of the participating entities into a state of irrelevance. Each pushed past October 1 with an eye toward becoming world champion no later than November 1. They didn’t make it. Only two could get this far. Only the two who made it should be here.

These Los Angeles Dodgers, who extended the World Series to its Seventh Game, deserve the National League berth, what with their 104 regular-season wins, their cadre of young offensive stars, their requisite ex-Met who found his inner immortal elsewhere, their greatest pitcher of his generation and their usually masterfully manipulated bullpen. Their opponents, these Houston Astros, deserve the other berth — technically the one reserved for the American League, but because we know from whence the Astros emerged, it feels they’ve arrived via an at-large slot. But they’re not here on scholarship, not with 101 regular-season wins and a galaxy of talent honed big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. If you take both sides at their best, you’re experiencing a World Series of superteams. I’ve experienced sixteen previous World Series that required a Seventh Game. They all had much to recommend them, but rarely was I convinced I was watching two squads so essentially super. They’re hardly perfect, but, boy, are they spectacular.

If either unit was accidentally playing the 2017 Mets in the 2017 World Series, they’d have swept them in four. The Dodgers swept the Mets in four in June, then in three more in August. The Astros swept the Mets three in September, and that was with the aftermath of a devastating hurricane swirling behind them. We may not be the most reliable witnesses to vouch for the abilities of outstanding opponents. Every team looks like a superteam to us.

Fortunately for competition’s sake, the 92-loss teams were long ago safely tucked away and the winners of more than a hundred found each other where they oughta be. The Dodgers and Astros are 3-3 against each other. Sounds about right. For either to not have reached Game Seven would have been so wrong.

To date, we’ve been treated to two contests that generated Best Game Ever! hyperbole at least an hour prior to their conclusion. Thing is, the hyperbole didn’t seem exaggerated, not when you were ducking and covering from the balls soaring out of Dodger Stadium in eleven-inning 7-6 Game Two or Minute Maid Park in ten-inning 13-12 Game Five. Perhaps it’s baseball’s stubborn puritanical streak that compelled a fan to wonder in the later stages of the latter if what he was taking in wasn’t a tad/ton too overwhelming. Didn’t a great World Series demand ace pitching? Where were the Clayton Kershaws, the Dallas Keuchels, the Kenley Jansens to provide the yin to the loads of yang flying off the bats of the Altuves, Springers, Bellingers and Puigs?

Oh, there they were, in Game Five, with veritable tire tracks over their backs, unable to alter life in baseball’s fast lane, which surely made you lose your mind. Or perhaps change it. You honor pitching. You cherish pitching. You revel in its capacity to stop hitting when each is judged impeccable. Yet a century-and-a-half of airtight wisdom went straight out the window on Sunday night, specifically the window behind the Crawford Boxes, conveniently located within easy swinging distance of home plate in Houston. Good hitting was in abundance. Good pitching left its tickets on the kitchen counter and was denied admission. Was this great baseball or merely a vastly entertaining mutation of the sport we thought we knew?

Thanks heavens for comparatively uneventful Game Six, which — like Games One, Three and Four — was played closer to the ground. Scores of 7-6 (8 HR) and 13-12 (7 HR) thrive in a more organic state when surrounded by baseball like it used to be. A couple of those allegedly slicker than standard spheroids were launched into the wilds of Chavez Ravine, but that’s de rigueur in the fall of 2017. There will be homers; there doesn’t necessarily have to be a bushel. On Tuesday night, one Astro hit one and one Dodger hit one to raise the Series total to 24. In context, though, it was a pitchers’ duel, albeit the postmodern version that encompasses nine pitchers. The best of the lot was Justin Verlander, who also happened to be the losing pitcher. He went six innings and was nicked for two runs. In this World Series, that makes him a direct descendant of 1905 Christy Mathewson.

Bullpenning, more active as a phrase and concept than Curtis Granderson has been since the NLCS, prevailed in Game Six, specifically the Dodgers’ rendition of it. Rich Hill couldn’t have been much better through four-and-two-thirds, but these are analytical times. A couple of years ago we’d have assumed Dave Roberts was simply nervous Hill wouldn’t get out of the fifth, or snorted that Roberts was prone to overmanaging. We’re all too hip for that now. Hill gave way to five-and-a-third innings of Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, Kenta Maeda and Jansen, most of whom were battered about the cozy confines of the Juice Box two nights earlier. Strategy that exploded in Game Five (when it was deployed in desperation) functioned like a charm in Game Six, leading to L.A. winning, 3-1, and the rest of us winning because we get the Seventh Game of the World Series.

I’ve been rooting for the Astros. They’re dynamic, they’re likable, they helpfully cast aside undesirable actors and they don’t employ Chase Utley. I’m still rooting for the Astros. But in Game Six I was probably pulling just as hard for Game Seven. That’s an additional game of baseball the day after October, a gift horse whose mouth requires no examination. One-hundred sixty-two Mets games (a majority of them bordering on or surpassing abysmal) were not enough. Thirty-one games to extract the Twins, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Indians, Nationals, Cubs and Yankees from the postseason proceedings were not enough. Six games between these Astros and these Dodgers have not been enough.

We may not always get the world champion we want, but we’re definitely getting the world championship we deserve.

Mets Opponents Missing Some Stars

BALTIMORE (FAF) — The squad of World Series opponents who Earl Weaver will bring to New York to face the World Series Mets in the Fall Fantasy Classic won’t be lacking for star power, but the absence of a couple of big names will be conspicuous.

“Do we or do we not have seven Hall of Famers on our roster?” an irascible Weaver asked reporters. “I don’t think talent is a problem here. This may be as good a bunch as I’ve managed since 1969. We won 109 games that year, ya know.”

True enough, Weaver’s Junior Circuiteeers, a team consisting of five members apiece from the clubs that faced the Mets in the 1969, 1973, 1986, 2000 and 2015 World Series, drips with accolades, including five men who captured six Most Valuable Player awards and a trio of Cy Young winners. But the New York tabloids will no doubt make back page fodder from a couple of non-selections.

Weaver could not choose Roger Clemens of the 2000 Yankees, thanks to a ruling from Classic Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert. The Mets petitioned the commissioner’s office for the suspension of Clemens from his “irresponsible behavior” stemming from the infamous bat-throwing incident of 2000 in which the pitcher flung the barrel of Mike Piazza’s bat at Piazza after Piazza fouled off one of Clemens’s pitches. Though no action was taken against Clemens at the time, the Mets asked Eckert to invoke the “best interests of baseball” clause to keep the righthander from participating “in such an important showcase”. Eckert reportedly decided in favor of the Mets after plucking a scrap of paper reading “SUSPEND” from a hat in his office.

Opponent general manager Brian Cashman did not file any sort of grievance in return.

The action marked Eckert’s second suspension in advance of the Classic. Previously, he decided, “sans hat,” to ban longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner from entering any of the ballparks in which the games will be played. A source close to the commissioner said, “that one was just a matter of good taste.” Cashman declined to comment.

Clemens theoretically could have been added to the roster as a member of the 1986 Red Sox, but Weaver resisted the urge to add him to a staff that will include his Boston rotationmate Bruce Hurst and three 2000 Yankees: starter Andy Pettitte and relievers Mariano Rivera and Mike Stanton. While Pettitte is practically synonymous with postseason pitching and Rivera is considered the gold standard for relief, Stanton struck observers as a surprise choice, but as Weaver pointed out, the lefty retired all 13 Mets he faced in the 2000 Series, “and the Mets have some tough lefty bats.”

The other 2000 Yankees on the Mets opponents’ roster are first baseman Tino Martinez and center fielder Bernie Williams, meaning — because of the ironclad limit of five players from each team rule — shortstop Derek Jeter will not play in the Fall Fantasy Classic. “We’ll be fine,” was all Weaver would say in response to questions about how he could leave off the 2000 World Series MVP and such an all-around stalwart of the game. Jeter issued no reaction, but is reportedly “too involved firing people in Miami” to turn his attention back toward the field.

“I admire the way Jeter is running the Marlins,” principal opponent owner Charlie Finley told reporters. “Besides, if Williams is around, we don’t have to hire an extra national anthem singer.”

With Jeter inactive, shortstop will be manned for the American Leaguers by Bert Campaneris, who was a thorn in the side of the Mets during the 1973 World Series. Other Oakland A’s on the roster will be that October’s MVP Reggie Jackson, starting pitcher Catfish Hunter and relievers Rollie Fingers and Darold Knowles. Jackson, Hunter and Fingers are all in the Hall of Fame, each having played a pivotal role in downing the Mets in seven games in ’73. Knowles pitched in all seven contests, impressing Weaver with his durability.

From his own 1969 Orioles, the manager chose two Hall of Fame position players, Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, and his co-Cy Young winner Mike Cuellar, plus a pair of wild cards: left fielder Don Buford and catcher Clay Dalrymple. “I’m not being coy,” Weaver said. “You guys know why those guys are there.” Indeed, Buford left his mark on the 1969 World Series early, belting a leadoff home run off Tom Seaver in Game One, while Dalrymple owns a .500 career average versus the Mets ace, including a pinch-hit single in the tenth inning of Game Four.

“I’m sorry I can’t have more of my guys,” Weaver admitted after a drag on a cigarette. “I had to leave Boog off. I had to leave McNally off. I’ll miss Blair’s and Belanger’s gloves. Palmer’s good, too, but he drove me crazy. Let him go shoot an other underpants commercial.” Weaver added he thought about finding a spot for his second baseman Davey Johnson, but knowing Johnson would be coaching first base for the Mets “made the whole thing too weird.”

Two Kansas City Royals will round out Weaver’s pitching staff: starter Jonny Cueto and swingman Chris Young. Each was highly effective versus the Mets in 2015. Their teammates set to join them on the Fall Fantasy Classic opponents roster are versatile Ben Zobrist, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and World Series MVP catcher Salvador Perez. The selection of Dalrymple and decision to bypass the defensively challenged Jorge Posada likely means Perez will be catching every inning of the Classic, a prospect that doesn’t worry Weaver, who relied on a platoon of Elrod Hendricks and Andy Etchebarren when the ’69 Orioles fell to the Mets.

The rest of the A.L. team will consist of the four 1986 Red Sox besides Hurst: outfielder Jim Rice, his fellow Hall of Famer third baseman Wade Boggs, second baseman Marty Barrett and first baseman Bill Buckner. Bucker’s selection raised a few eyebrows in light of his tenth-inning error that tilted Game Six and perhaps ultimate momentum to the Mets in ’86.

“Ah, I don’t worry about that [stuff],” Weaver said, brushing off Buckner’s moment in the harshest of spotlights. “This is a guy with nearly 3,000 hits and a batting title. What am I gonna do — not take Bill Buckner?”

AMERICAN LEAGUE FALL FANTASY CLASSIC ROSTER

PITCHERS
Cuellar, Mike (LHP) – 1969 BAL
Cueto, Johnny (RHP) – 2015 KCR
Fingers, Rollie (RHP) – 1973 OAK
Hunter, Catfish (RHP) – 1973 OAK
Hurst, Bruce (LHP) – 1986 BOS
Knowles, Darold (LHP) – 1973 OAK
Pettitte, Andy (LHP) – 2000 NYY
Rivera, Mariano (RHP) – 2000 NYY
Stanton, Mike (LHP) – 2000 NYY
Young, Chris (RHP) – 2015 KCR

CATCHERS
Dalrymple, Clay (L) – 1969 BAL
Perez, Salvador (R) – 2015 KCR

INFIELDERS
Barrett, Marty (R) – 1986 BOS
Boggs, Wade (L) – 1986 BOS
Buckner, Bill (L) – 1986 BOS
Campaneris, Bert (R) – 1973 OAK
Martinez, Tino (L) – 2000 NYY
Robinson, Brooks (R) – 1969 BAL
Zobrist, Ben (S) – 2015 KCR

OUTFIELDERS
Buford, Don (S) – 1969 BAL
Cain, Lorenzo (R) – 2015 KCR
Jackson, Reggie (L) – 1973 OAK
Rice, Jim (R) – 1986 BOS
Robinson, Frank (R) – 1969 BAL
Williams, Bernie (S) – 2000 NYY

MANAGER: Earl Weaver
COACHES: John McNamara (Pitching), Joe Torre (Third Base), Dick Williams (First Base), Ned Yost (Bullpen)

NOTE: Fall Fantasy Classic roster must consist of five players apiece from each New York Mets World Series opponent roster. If a player is injured during the Classic, he may be replaced, but only by a member of his year’s World Series roster.

Mets Set All-Time World Series Roster

FLUSHING, N.Y. (FAF) — A near-batting champion, a defending Cy Young winner and the franchise leaders in saves will all be on the sidelines as the so-called greatest New York Mets World Series team ever prepares to take on its American League opponent in the upcoming Fall Fantasy Classic.

While there is much talent assembled on the 25-man roster, it is hard to miss the omissions that remain in the wake of manager Gil Hodges’s excruciating decisionmaking.

“There were more tough calls than you could imagine, and most of this exercise is about imagination,” Hodges said after issuing the roster he will use against an amalgamation of previous Mets World Series rivals. “I had a lot of good players to choose from and only so much latitude.”

Hodges referred to the defining rule of the Fall Fantasy Classic, which states the Mets must play with five players apiece from each of their World Series rosters, those used in 1969, 1973, 1986, 2000 and 2015. In all, 113 different players were named to Mets World Series rosters, with 106 playing in at least one World Series as Mets, eight playing in two and seven never seeing action despite being eligible.

“That’s a large pool and it presents a great deal of possibility,” said chairman of the board of general managers Sandy Alderson, who consulted with Hodges and fellow pennant-winning GMs Johnny Murphy, Bob Scheffing, Frank Cashen and Steve Phillips in shaping the final Fall Fantasy Classic roster. “With the ‘five from each year’ caveat, you won’t be able to make everybody happy, nor should you. You want players who want to play. On the other hand, the requirement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because at the end of the day, this is an entertainment business, and you want to keep fans from each era entertained.”

Certainly the controversy touched off by the construction of this roster — which also had input from the other Mets World Series managers, each of whom will coach for Hodges in the upcoming set of games — will provide conversational fodder in the run-up to the first game of the Fall Fantasy Classic.

“There were many tasty ingredients, but only a few could be added to the stew,” mused Bobby Valentine, the 2000 Mets manager who will take time out from running his Connecticut sports bar and restaurant to serve as Hodges’s third base coach in the Classic. “We all had a say, but the big picture was in Gilly’s hands. You don’t get in the way of the big man.” Alderson confirmed Hodges had final say, acknowledging that their shared background as United States Marines conferred a certain “zone of comfort” on the selection process.

“I don’t think there are too many players who wouldn’t follow Gil into metaphorical or actual battle,” Alderson said.

The Mets who played for Hodges in 1969 were most understanding of their old manager’s ways. Cleon Jones, whose .340 average placed him third in the National League batting race that year, admitted disappointment that he wouldn’t be joining the Fall Fantasy Classic team, but said, “I get it. Gil has his reasoning and I’m better off for it,” before chuckling, “tell him he can use my shoe polish if he likes.”

Jones could have been chosen as a 1969 or 1973 Met, though not both. Luckier in that regard were 1969 selection Jerry Koosman and 1973 representatives Bud Harrelson, Tug McGraw and Tom Seaver, each of whom played for Hodges in ’69 and Yogi Berra four years later.

“Those two had different personalities, that’s for sure,” said Koosman, who figures to join with Seaver, Al Leiter and Noah Syndergaard to form a Fall Fantasy Classic rotation, the order of which Hodges has yet to announce. “But once the game starts, the manager is in the dugout and you’re on the mound.” Berra, one of the great catchers in baseball history, will work as Hodges’s pitching coach in the upcoming series, a new role, but one Berra’s fellow New Jerseyan Leiter is sure the Hall of Famer is suited for.

“Yogi told me throw strikes,” Leiter said. “You can’t argue with that.”

The most notable starter who will not be partaking of Berra’s advice is Dwight Gooden, left off the roster in what Hodges says was a numbers crunch and not a repudiation of a 1986 World Series performance that fell short of his 1985 leaguewide dominance. “I’d love to take everybody,” Hodges explained, “but it’s a seven-game series, and something had to give.” Other starting pitchers who did not make the Fall Fantasy Classic roster cut include Gary Gentry, Jon Matlack, Ron Darling, Mike Hampton, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey. Hodges did opt to add two hurlers who primarily started in their respective World Series years, 1986’s Bobby Ojeda and 2000’s Rick Reed, to his bullpen. “I think both men bring poise and can give us innings if we need them,” Hodges said, noting each had experience throwing in relief. “We need to be flexible.”

The Mets rounded out their Fall Fantasy Classic pitching staff with two arms from 1973 — lefties Tug McGraw and George Stone — plus Nolan Ryan and Turk Wendell. Ryan went on to a Cooperstown career after leaving the Mets, but the Mets stress he is on the roster as his 22-year-old fireballing self. “Nolie can smoke ’em, that’s for sure,” Berra noted.

Missing from the staff are single-season saves leader Jeurys Familia and John Franco, the Mets’ all-time career saves record holder and a Brooklyn native who grew up rooting for the ’69 and ’73 squads. “Ah, whaddaya gonna do?” was Franco’s reaction. “At least I should get good tickets.”

Not every Met who didn’t make the Fall Fantasy Classic roster accepted rejection so matter-of-factly. Nowhere within the Mets championship universe were omissions processed as slights more forcefully than among the 1986 world champions. Because of the five-per-year rule, only five ’86ers could be tabbed. To no one’s surprise, Hodges selected the heart of the 1986 batting order: right fielder Darryl Strawberry, first baseman Keith Hernandez and catcher Gary Carter; it’s unclear how Hodges will divide catching duties between Carter and his fellow Hall of Fame inductee Mike Piazza.

The only other 1986 Met besides the All-Star trio and Ojeda to make the club was Wally Backman, who is projected to see action off the bench. That meant a slew of well-regarded Mets who were vital in earning the franchise its second championship trophy will not be available.

“You know, I did win the Most Valuable Player award in the last World Series the Mets won,” an obviously miffed Ray Knight said when informed he wouldn’t be part of the roster. “I’m not saying there weren’t lots of great options and lots of tough decisions. I love Gil like a second or third father. I love the guys who did make it, but I can’t help the team if I’m not a part of it. I hit a home run in the seventh game of the World Series. I scored the winning run in Game Six, which everybody remembers as one of the greatest games ever played. I’d think there’d be room for someone with those capabilities, but I gotta respect the rules and pull as hard as I can for the guys, even the ones I didn’t play with, the ones who are darn good but didn’t win 108 games.”

Similarly disappointed was 1986 Mets center fielder Lenny Dykstra. “Dude, seriously?” Dykstra asked, before unleashing a string of profanities that concluded with another “dude.”

Harrelson and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo will serve as Hodges’s double play combination, with David Wright, from 2015, manning third base across from Hernandez. Wright’s contemporary, Yoenis Cespedes, will likely start in left, projected to flank 1969 center fielder Tommie Agee. Agee’s selection precluded the inclusion of 1986 hero Mookie Wilson. “That was maybe the hardest one,” Hodges said. “I appreciate Mr. Wilson’s abilities, but Tommie gives us speed and power, and we know his defense.” Wilson, like teammates Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco and Sid Fernandez, declined to comment.

Rounding out the roster are two players Hodges managed to great effect in the 1969 World Series, slugging first baseman Donn Clendenon and utility infielder Al Weis; Berra’s leading hitter from the 1973 Series, Rusty Staub; and two of Terry Collins’ 2015 National League champions, Curtis Granderson and Juan Uribe. Hodges admitted he wasn’t necessarily as familiar with Uribe’s work as he is with his higher-profile players, but he was impressed by his earlier World Series track record, in which he helped the White Sox and Giants to titles, and liked his 1.000 batting average from the ’15 Series. “He went 1-for-1,” Berra added. “You can’t do better than perfect.”

Hodges’s coaching staff will be rounded out by 1986 Mets manager Davey Johnson at first base and Collins, who will handle bullpen duties.

The full squad will work out at Shea Stadium, site of Game One and potential Game Seven, before the beginning of the Fall Fantasy Classic. Games Two and Six (if necessary) will take place at adjacent Citi Field. The three middle games, in which the designated hitter will be used, thus giving Hodges the opportunity to start both Carter and Piazza, are scheduled for the three American League parks: Fenway in Boston (Game Three), Memorial Stadium in Baltimore (Game Four) and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (Game Five). Neither Kansas City’s Kaufman Stadium nor renovated Yankee Stadium were considered as venues.

“These gentlemen are all champions in my eyes,” said Hodges. “Now it’s time for the rest of the world to see it.”

NEW YORK METS FALL FANTASY CLASSIC ROSTER

PITCHERS
Koosman, Jerry (LHP) – 1969
Leiter, Al (LHP) – 2000
McGraw, Tug (LHP) – 1973
Ojeda, Bobby (LHP) – 1986
Reed, Rick (RHP) – 2000
Ryan, Nolan (RHP) – 1969
Seaver, Tom (RHP) –1973
Stone, George (LHP) – 1973
Syndergaard, Noah (RHP) – 2015
Wendell, Turk (RHP) – 2000

CATCHERS
Carter, Gary (R) – 1986
Piazza, Mike (R) – 2000

INFIELDERS
Alfonzo, Edgardo (R) – 2000
Backman, Wally (S) – 1986
Clendenon, Donn (R) – 1969
Harrelson, Bud (R) – 1973
Hernandez, Keith (L) – 1986
Uribe, Juan (R) – 2015
Weis, Al (S) – 1969
Wright, David (R) – 2015

OUTFIELDERS
Agee, Tommie (R) – 1969
Cespedes, Yoenis (R) – 2015
Granderson, Curtis (L) – 2015
Staub, Rusty (L) – 1973
Strawberry, Darryl (L) – 1986

MANAGER: Gil Hodges
COACHES: Yogi Berra (Pitching), Terry Collins (Bullpen), Davey Johnson (First Base), Bobby Valentine (Third Base)

NOTE: Fall Fantasy Classic roster must consist of five players apiece from each New York Mets World Series roster. If a player is injured during the Classic, he may be replaced, but only by a member of his year’s World Series roster.