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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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You Learn Something New Every Day

To borrow a phrase favored by Josh Lewin, what did we learn on Saturday afternoon watching the Mets lose in the Bronx, other than Saturday afternoon Subway Series conflicts have diminished in appeal since Matt Franco was in fullest bloom?

We learned the phrase “den Dekker” is Dutch for “not Lagares”.

This is linguistic clarification gleaned after the Mets center fielder of the moment lost three fourth-inning fly balls in translation. Mets fans with memories longer than a Yankee Stadium short porch home run will recall Matt den Dekker was originally cast as the can’t miss defensive whiz in the attempted 2013 reboot of the Mets as a competitive baseball entity. Turned out den Dekker did miss — loads of time, due to the injury which opened the gates for Lagares to take his projected Gold Glove role — and could miss, specifically a trio of not easy yet not impossible chances hit in his general direction Saturday. They went for a triple, a double and a single, but when measured by cringe factor, the first was a boot and the next two were reboots. Given that Matt is 0-for-17 since his surprise recall from obscurity, one wonders what his particular major league acumen is at present. Someday, some kind soul might rediscover Matt den Dekker and lovingly recall him as the Billy Murphy of his time. That day is not today.

We learned Ron Hunt’s spiritual grandson Brandon Nimmo owns a record that somehow wasn’t Ron Hunt’s when the day began.

Brandon, when not leading with his grin, has spent 2018 putting his body into enough pitches to gain first base without swinging or taking. Standard-issue players only get hit incidentally. Brandon is clearly custom-made. By uncomplainingly accepting two more plunkings, Nimmo moved past not Hunt but Lucas Duda to claim the mark for most hit-by-pitches in a single Met season. He has fifteen marks overall on his body, not counting the couple he tried to sneak in when the umpires were being picky and ruled he made no attempt to elude what was coming at him. Some give some; Brandon gives all.

Hunt, the godfather of taking one for this team, did establish the franchise HBP record in 1963 with 13 and held it alone until 1997, when John Olerud unassumingly tied it. Duda’s impression of a tree trunk fooled pitchers into dinging him on the anatomy fourteen times three years ago. Nimmo has taken bruising to a whole new level. Congratulations?

We learned everything and everybody conspires against the Mets.

Not just those pesky Yankees batters who hit balls toward den Dekker. Not just those flinty Yankees pitchers who throw balls toward Nimmo. No, the whole universe. Why else would umpires eject two men wearing Mets uniforms who were, at most, only half-involved in the outcome of the game? First, home plate ump Larry Vanover tossed Pat Roessler, the hitting coach, for daring to point out what a crummy job Vanover was doing calling balls and strikes. Then, Hunter Wendlestedt thumbed Asdrubal Cabrera from the proceedings because Cabrera still gives a damn. Cabrera was called out on appeal of a checked swing and reacted in disgust, spiking his bat to the ground. Instead of Wendlestedt admiring that somebody assigned designated hitter participation for the day still has enough of a pulse to remain engaged in the outcome instead of strolling detached from defensive duties back to the dugout as presumably most DHs do in the overwrought softball league, the umpire who decided he himself is the attraction removed Asdrubal. Not pictured: Mickey Callaway racing to his player’s defense. Cabrera would be replaced with Devin Mesoraco. Not pictured: Devin Mesoraco doing much in the way of hitting, designated or otherwise.

Also conspiratorial, as long we’re into conspiracy theories, was Miguel Andujar being awarded second base despite fan interference on ball he hit to right. Some dope representing everything we identify with fealty to that facility’s host team reached several feet over the fence with a glove and treated his find as a home run caught. Proving we’ve come a long way since Jeffrey Maier was hailed by a besotted city for his precocious ingenuity, Andujar was penalized two bases and awarded only a double. He should have been ruled out. So should have a majority of the 47,102 in attendance just on principle.

We — or at least I — learned there is no hope for the hopelessly hopeful.

What a crummy game this matinee had become by the ninth inning, with the Mets trailing, 7-3, and Aroldis Chapman on the mound to nail down the non-save. Kevin Plawecki, who keeps his usefulness to himself, walked to lead off. Amed Rosario poked an infield single under Andujar’s glove (serves him right for conspiring with that doofus the right field stands). Still, what’s gonna come of it? Ty Kelly was sent up to pinch-hit for Matt den Dekker…is a sentence you wouldn’t expect to read from a description or account of a Major League Baseball game, but, you know, Kelly walked on four pitches to load the bases. Son of a gun, it brought Jose Reyes to the plate with at least a chance to do the very same thing. Four balls, none close to being ruled strikes by even this pack of crooked umps, resulted in a Mets run. Nimmo was next and Nimmo did a Nimmo, which is to say he set that hit-by-pitch record. It was now 7-5 and I wouldn’t get up from where I sat. Understand I wanted to get up for a diet cola refill a dozen or so pitches earlier, but I got it in my Mets fan head that something was happening, so I better not budge. The All-Star closer on the other side was wild as a March hare in July and if the Mets could figure out a way to stand by while he continued to self-immolate, well, call me Matt Franco in 1999!

Except it’s not 1999. It’s 2018. Chapman was pulled by his manager. Mesoraco’s manager, having little if anything to choose from on his bench, left Devin in to wreak havoc versus Chasen Shreve. Havoc wasn’t having it. Mesoraco slapped his way into a twin-killing One more run scored, but the bases all but emptied. There was a little fuss at the end, with Wilmer Flores up and Reyes on third, but the chemistry was not right. The game ended in an undesirable 7-6 decision. For all it mattered, I could have budged.

We learned the identities of two Oakland Athletic minor leaguers who are now two New York Mets minor leaguers.

Meet third baseman Will Toffey and relief pitcher Bobby Wahl. Meet them eventually, I suppose. Toffey is a Rumble Pony, Wahl a 51. Neither is a flaming hot prospect. Both are our concern because they — along with a satchel crammed with International Slot Money — were traded by the A’s to the Mets for more or less the best righthanded reliever we ever had, Jeurys Familia. Familia registered 123 saves as a Met. The only righty closer with more for us was Armando Benitez; I’ll take Familia. I would have continued to have taken Familia, especially had there been myriad saves to be had in our near future. Few are on the horizon, so business is business, and business dictated farewell to the arm that touched off more celebratory soirées than any in Mets history. Jeurys was on the mound when we clinched everything we clinched in 2015 and 2016, four preludes to champagne showers in all. The Mets have only poured bubbly over one another twenty times. Close your eyes and you’ll see Familia in the highlight reel of your mind.

Maybe those two minor leaguers will become major contributors. Maybe that International currency will be invested wisely. Yay, if any of it works out for us. I’m never thrilled to say goodbye to somebody who helped us prevail, especially when we’re doing so little of that of late.

These are the saddest of possible words:
Toffey and Wahl and slot
A pair of A’s and a bucket of bucks
Toffey and Wahl and slot
Exchanging our closer from all those wins
Not that Jeurys was devoid of sins
But Familia memories should elicit grins
Toffey and Wahl and slot

We learned Yoenis Cespedes has a couple of heels giving him hell.

We learned that late Friday night, actually. Callaway learned it later Saturday morning. Or so he said. Or he clarified that he knew what was up all along. I don’t know. Who listens to what Mickey Callaway says in hopes of learning anything anymore? While the Cespedes mess indeed represents a blob of bad form on the part of this disorganized organization, I think it’s worth remembering a player who lifted us to unimagined heights in 2015, in conjunction with Familia and a cast of characters that is no longer extant, is hurting. Imagine this franchise, under this ownership, going to the World Series. It’s beyond the imagination in 2018. It wasn’t on the radar as late as 2014. It was barely wishable as late as this date in 2015. But along came Ces on July 31, and up the ladder we went.

In light of Yoenis’s contributions to the Mets briefly standing for something better than they did before and do now, I lean toward thinking he’s not solely at fault in whatever communication mishap has bogged down his return to action. In West Wing terms, Yo’s actions align with President Bartlet keeping his MS quiet. The lot of us has responded as Toby Ziegler did: in stunned disbelief that nobody thought to mention it until now. None of us has been Donna Moss asking if the president is in pain. Maybe that strain of thought, whatever the heft of President Cespedes’s contractual status and the irritation inherent in his characteristic diffidence, should cross our minds a little. In non-TV terms, I hope he feels better soon.

Ces did return on Friday. Homered and everything. Then he revealed his heel problems and reported that if he opts for the surgery he indicated he ultimately needs, he’ll be out quite a while, deep into 2019. By no means is that what anybody wanted to hear, nor was it the avenue by which we would figure something like it would be said. We were reminded Saturday what a Met lineup without Yo looks like. Callaway used two DHs and got nothing for his trouble but one ejection and a devastating double play. When we get back to baseball played like it oughta be, Cespedes will have to stand on two aching heels and man left field or first base. Also unimaginable. We’ll see what an MRI and a visit to a specialist yields. Maybe the Mets will put out a press release when they know something. They don’t at this time retain a general manager who speaks on issues fans would want to know about.

They still have fans, somehow.

All These Tomorrows

Break up the Mets! They’re 2-2 against the Yankees!

Actually that already appears to be happening: the Mets left Robert Gsellman in to throw a ton of pitches against the Yankees Friday night while Jeurys Familia sat in the bullpen in a sweatshirt, got hugs from teammates and was spoken of evasively in postgame interviews. He’s either been traded or is about to be traded, and we all know he won’t be the last ’18 Met to get a new address.

If Friday was Familia’s last game as a Met, at least he saw an exciting one. Exciting and nauseating — it was more bar brawl than athletic contest. Noah Syndergaard, Seth Lugo and Gsellman all labored mightily to hold the Yankees at bay, with none of them recording a 1-2-3 inning. (Plus Syndergaard departed after a drop in velocity, a mound visit and extensive conversations with Dave Eiland and the trainer. Mickey Callaway says he’s fine, but this is the Mets we’re talking about.)

The three pitchers got — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — no help from their defense, with Amed Rosario a particular culprit. Rosario had one of those games that make you grit your teeth and mutter platitudes about growing pains, ending his night with a throw to first that came after the game was over. Better to get an out you don’t need than to need an out you don’t get, I suppose, but yeesh nonetheless.

Fortunately the Mets outhit the ill-advised things done or not done with gloves. Asdrubal Cabrera (speaking of Mets likely on the move) and Michael Conforto led the charge, with Yoenis Cespedes returning and sneaking a home run off the foul pole. The Mets built a 6-1 lead, but the Yankees kept coming, leaping out of closets and dropping out of attics like a particularly stubborn slasher-movie villain. Devin Mesoraco‘s quick footwork kept the game from being tied 6-6 in the 8th, and Cabrera’s leadoff single in the 9th led to a much-needed insurance run and eventually an enormous sigh of relief. It felt like the Mets were going to lose this one, but somehow they didn’t. We’ll take it.

Still, every good slasher movie has a sequel or 12, and these two teams will be back at it for a Saturday matinee. I’d advise everyone wearing blue and orange to lock their windows and doors and sleep with a gun under their pillow.

Oh, and playing better defense might help too.

* * *

Even disappointing seasons go on — oh boy, do they go on. As Mets fan, we’ve got plenty of experience with watching a team play out the string — and at least for me, this is about the time nostalgia makes an appearance on the calendar. It’s a survival instinct, I suspect: if the current Mets aren’t going to offer much to get excited about, I look for solace in remembering previous iterations of the team.

I regard nostalgia a bit warily — the novelist Don DeLillo once called it “a product of dissatisfaction and rage” and “a settling of grievances between the present and the past.” But one nice thing about it is that it blurs losses and disappointments.

I’ve rattled on a few times about making custom cards for those Mets who never got Met cards, or cards of any sort. I’ve made more than 100 by now, filling out The Holy Books with cardboard memorials to September callups, May unconditional releases, momentary acquisitions and lost-cause roster fillers. Which means I avidly watch Topps’s auctions of old slides from previous decades — sometimes to buy, other times just to admire. Those Topps shots offer rare glimpses of momentary Mets (including some who only suited up in spring training), and many of them are wonderful baseball photos even if you don’t care about bubble-gum cards.

By now I can spot a classic-era Topps shot at a glance — there’s a quality to the lighting and the poses that’s unmistakable, down to the photographers’ habit of composing portraits so the player is level instead of the horizon. (This is known among baseball-photo dorks as the “Topps lean.”)

Joe Nolan collected 11 plate appearances in September 1972, when a rash of injuries left the Mets in need of catching help. (Nolan’s first hit would have to wait until he reappeared with the Braves three years later.) For a momentary Met, Nolan’s been amply photographed, so I wasn’t too excited when Topps unveiled two new Nolans last week.

But one of those shots caught my eye not because of Nolan, but because of who else was in it. No. 54 is longtime Mets coach Rube Walker, No. 14 is of course Gil Hodges, and No. 20 is Tommie Agee. That’s three Miracle Mets, legends all, captured as bystanders as a kid who’d never appeared in a big-league game pantomimed a big-league swing.

Nolan’s minor-league record and the look of the photo (trust me on the latter) fix the date of the photo: it’s spring training 1972, meaning it was snapped in the final weeks of Hodges’s tragically short life. I still can’t believe I’m older than Gil Hodges ever got to be — he died two days shy of his 48th birthday. In some better universe Hodges lived and is now a stooped but still sharp man of 94. Perhaps he handed the managerial reins over to protege Davey Johnson, and is greeted rapturously by Citi Field crowds when he throws a first pitch before heading upstairs to spend an inning talking baseball with Gary, Keith and Ron — who inevitably marvel that his big hands are still strong.

Billy Murphy is the opposite of Joe Nolan — present on a roster for an entire season but rarely photographed. Murphy was a Rule 5 pick who spent all of 1966 with the club, as per rules at the time; he got a high-number card in the ’66 Topps set, which he shares with another Bill, the somewhat better-known Bill Hepler. It’s one of the more expensive cards in that set, featuring Murphy squinting up at something — whether it was a pop-up, zeppelin or interesting Florida bird is something we’ll likely never know.

When I made a custom card for Murphy, that small photo was all I had. So I grafted Murphy’s head and shoulders onto the body of Cleon Jones, as captured on his iconic ’69 card. Which was itself quite possibly shot in 1966 — when the players’ union started flexing its muscle in the late 1960s, one of its first showdowns came with Topps. Numerous players refused to pose for Topps photographers unless they were paid more than the standard agreement, leaving the card company stuck using older images.

A couple of weeks back, Topps put up a pair of Murphy images for auction — a hatless shot (taken for insurance in case of a trade) and a pretty good portrait with cap.

I won the latter, and it came with a fun bonus: the half-envelope Topps had used in its filing system. It tells us that Topps had (in this folder at least) three Murphy shots: one each of Head, No Hat and Action. I wonder if the action shot was the one used for his 1966 card — if so, the slide would have been physically cut down to fit the space. That half-envelope also gives us the name of the photographer: Jim Laughead, a legend who essentially invented the basics of sports photography. (Laughead called his standard football poses “the huck ‘n’ buck.”)

But you’re probably wondering: who’s Billy Murphy? Nicknamed “Murph the Surf,” he was born in Pineville, La., but grew up in Tacoma, Wash., where he was a three-sport star at Clover Park High and caught the eye of Yankees scout Eddie Taylor. Murphy struggled in 1963, his second year in the Yankees’ system, missing a month with blood poisoning, of all things: he cut himself sliding and, with no trainer available, treated the injury himself. 1964 was a washout, but Murphy rebounded to hit .291 with power and speed for Binghamton in 1965, a performance that caught the Mets’ eye.

Murphy didn’t play a full game with the Mets until a month of the season was in the books; he collected his first three hits on May 13, when he came in for Jim Hickman against the Giants. His first hit was a three-run homer off Ray Sadecki in the fourth; he then singled in the 12th off Frank Linzy and in the 16th off Bob Priddy. (The Mets lost an inning later on a Jim Davenport homer off Murphy’s fellow Lost Met Dave Eilers.)

Murphy’s other ’66 highlight came in Philadelphia on Aug. 20: with the Mets and Phillies tied 4-4 in the 11th, Murphy ran headlong to center field with his back to home plate, snagging a long drive by Richie Allen as he smashed into the fence 430 feet away. The ’66 Mets being the ’66 Mets, Murphy’s great play only delayed the inevitable: Bill White immediately doubled off Dick Selma, Tony Gonzalez singled him in, and that was that.

Murphy never made it back to the big leagues, bouncing around with in the Mets, Cardinals and Cubs farm systems before retiring after the 1970 campaign. But he’s a Met, a proud member of The Holy Books, and it makes me happy to recall him while holding a little bit of baseball-card history.

Weirdly, that’s not the only reason the 1966 Mets have been on my mind. I was looking for footage of Pete Harnisch getting into a fight in May 1996, which led to John Franco being ejected on John Franco Day, a spectacle Emily and I watched from the Shea stands on a sparkling spring day. (Doug Henry blew the game in the ninth; Rico Brogna won it with his second homer of the day in the 10th. It’s amusing to try and find the fight in this Baseball Reference game log.)

I didn’t find a clip of the fight, but I was offered something else: a broadcast of the Sept. 17, 1966 game between the Mets and Giants at Candlestick, with Juan Marichal facing Dennis Ribant. I started listening out of curiosity, but what I really liked was I had no idea who’d won. (And I’m not going to tell you: Google the date at your own risk.) Ralph Kiner is on the mic, his voice welcome and familiar, there are lots of commercials for Rheingold, Giants fans blow vuvuzelas throughout the game, and you get little gems such as Ralph marveling at the speed of young Bud Harrelson and looking forward to a start in Houston by 19-year-old Nolan Ryan, who at that point had all of two innings of big-league ball under his belt. (The Astros would knock Ryan out with four runs in the first.)

And the broadcast began with something I certainly didn’t expect: a Mets jingle I’d never heard before. Here are the lyrics, which I swear I am not making up:

In all Baseball Land
There are no fans so grand
As our Mets fans

When we play other teams
Oh what blood-curdling screams
That’s our Mets fans

But when Mets fans shout “Go!”
What they mean we all know
We’ve got no place to go … but up!

I’ve been at this a while. I’ve heard of Homer the Beagle, lived through Mettle the Mule, heard “Meet the Mets” bastardized as cheesy soft rock and then restored, and endured “Our Team, Our Time.” But that one was new to me. Listen for yourself.

Born Under a Bad Sign

Perhaps the reason the Mets seem on their way to their worst season since 1993 is they have too many Mets born in 1993.

I wouldn’t expect a Major League Baseball team to discriminate on the basis of anything other than baseball ability (which is an area where the Mets haven’t been particularly discriminating), but at this moment in time, maybe our club might consider easing up on any further addition of players who’ve turned or are turning 25 in 2018. Nothing wrong with employing ~25-year-olds on your baseball team. The 1969 Mets’ World Series roster was 24% filled by guys born in 1944.

But this isn’t about age. It’s about vintage and critical mass. There’s such a thing as asking for trouble. Asking the Mets to succeed with players born when the Mets were at just about their worst as a franchise seems to be giving fate every excuse to laugh in your face.

The 2018 Mets reached the All-Star break sixteen games under .500, thirteen-and-a-half games from first place and loaded down with players born in 1993. The 1993 Mets reached the All-Star break thirty-three games under .500, twenty-nine games from first place, ten games from sixth place and populated by twenty-five players probably wishing to remain anonymous as they rushed to make their planes after losing to the Dodgers on Sunday night, July 11, leaving their record to molder for a few days at 27-60. If you could, you’d want to keep the 1993 Mets’ DNA as far from your future as possible.

Instead, it’s as if the Mets scouted maternity wards from Seattle to Belfast to resuscitate the spirit of the year from hell a quarter-century after the fact.

The first 1993-born Met was the pride of the Pacific Northwest, Michael Conforto, who became the one-thousandth Met ever when he debuted three years ago next week. The Mr. 1,000 milestone is what got our attention when Michael was called up, but while we high-fived over the 2015’s pending improvement, a cosmic parameter was quietly breached. A living symbol of 1993 was back in the house in a tangible fashion for the first time since John Franco last threw a Met pitch. Still, given Conforto’s immediate contributions to what turned out to be a National League champion, the youngest Met’s birth year seemed barely worth noticing.

The next 1993-born Met replaced the first one, indicating somebody was conscious that you wouldn’t want too many of them hanging around Flushing at once. The Mets called up Brandon Nimmo in late June of 2016; to make room for him, they demoted Conforto. Within a matter of weeks, they reversed the transaction sheet, leaving Michael to represent the Class of ’93 by himself. Before long, however, Conforto would be sent down to Vegas again (they loved doing that with him) and Nimmo would be back and forth a bit. While the Mets were cleansing themselves of any connection to the 103-defeat debacle on the position player side, they allowed a couple of 1993-born arms onto their pitching staff, first briefly welcoming Gabriel Ynoa to the bullpen and then, out of desperation, Robert Gsellman to the starting rotation.

By September, Conforto, Nimmo, Ynoa and Gavin Cecchini were ensconced alongside Gsellman. Five 1993-born Mets dotting an expanded roster wasn’t enough to disturb the gods, and the 2016 Mets roared unabated to the National League Wild Card. Then, perhaps understanding they shouldn’t push their luck, the Mets sold Ynoa to the Orioles and proceeded to mostly forget about Nimmo and Cecchini, burying each youngster at Vegas until June injuries necessitated their 2017 returns. Karma proceeded to recognize the confluence of 1993 babies, however and shortly thereafter directed Gsellman and Conforto to the DL.

Twenty Seventeen was already a lost cause when the Mets visited storm-ravaged Houston at the dawn of September and unwrapped 1993-born Jacob Rhame, paving the way for another final month with the annus horribilis’s pixie dust sprinkled all about. Gsellman, exiled to Vegas for a spell, returned in short order to join Rhame, Cecchini and Nimmo. Missing from action was Conforto, who went out for the season in late August. Four Mets among many amid the 2017 debris didn’t seem alarming.

But this season, if you keep close track of roster comings and goings, represents a hair-on-fire situation. Nothing personal, mind you. We were glad Conforto was pronounced healthy sooner than projected. We were thrilled when the nonsensical April optioning of Nimmo to Triple-A didn’t last long. It was great to see Gsellman carve a niche for himself as a reliever. And we’ve developed no animus for Rhame and have by no means wished on him the itinerary he’s endured to date:

March 29: Opening Day roster
April 13: Optioned to Las Vegas
April 27: Recalled from Las Vegas
April 28: Optioned to Las Vegas
May 15: Recalled from Las Vegas
May 30: Optioned to Las Vegas
June 7: Recalled from Las Vegas
June 17: Optioned to Las Vegas
July 9: Recalled from Las Vegas as 26th man for day-night doubleheader
July 10: Optioned to Las Vegas
July 11: Recalled from Las Vegas

Never mind how he pitches. How does he sleep?

While the other Jacob was pinging hither and yon, the Mets were injecting more 1993-born blood into their stream. Corey Oswalt, P.J. Conlon, Drew Smith and Tyler Bashlor all made their major league debuts as 2018 Mets. Despite their big league roster showing all the staying power of a Snapchat video, the Mets did manage until very recently to have almost all of these young fellas together in our midst. With one series to go before the break, the Mets were carrying seven 1993 kids (everybody but Smith). They chose last Friday — Friday the 13th, no less — to cut back by one, sending P.J. Conlon to Vegas to make room for Noah Syndergaard, who had the good sense to first see light in 1992.

Conlon, the Belfast-born baby, likely needn’t worry that he’ll be gone for long. The Mets waived him; watched the Dodgers snap him up; and apparently experienced separation pangs, for they claimed him right back a few blinks later. Oswalt has been sent down in advance of the Subway Series, but he’s been replaced by Drew Smith (while 1995-born Dom Smith goes down to clear space for Yoenis Cespedes). There’s even word that the mostly forgotten Cecchini is working his way back from the injury that has kept him out of minor league action these last two months.

The Mets don’t know how to quit 1993, which is a shame because 1993 really was as bad as we remember it, maybe more so. The sins of the 1993 Mets shouldn’t really be visited upon the sons of the 1993 parents who innocently brought into this world Conforto & Co., but this present conglomeration of birth dates is a little unsettling. You know the broad strokes of 1993: a manager was fired; a general manager resigned; a reasonably competent pitcher extended an already endless losing streak into something both epic and historic; a former Cy Young-winning pitcher pumped a Super Soaker full of bleach at a passel of reporters; one outfielder threatened an individual reporter; another outfielder exploded what amounted to a quarter-stick of dynamite into a crowd of fans, injuring a two-and-half-year-old girl in the process; and, believe it or not, so on and so forth.

Perhaps 1993 is best summed up by the phrases the second manager, Dallas Green, used to describe his team after his charges were steamrolled by the Rockies on a Sunday afternoon at Shea in late August when their record dropped to 45-85: “defeatist, dead-butt approach,” “we’ve had enough fear,” and “they just don’t care because they think the season is over.” At that point, the season had 32 games remaining. Or perhaps Joe McIlvaine, the second general manager, wrote its epitaph most honestly and accurately when he began a November letter to season ticketholders by telling Met customers, “Everyone from the butcher to David Letterman has taken shots at our ballclub as it underachieved and made as much news off the field as on it in 1993. I am as disappointed as you are about the past season…”

McIlvaine wound down his letter by expressing a wish we all surely shared: “May we see another Championship Flag over Shea very soon.” Shea has since disappeared and that Flag, assuming he meant the World Championship variety, never flew. Twenty-five years later, the stadium after Shea hasn’t gotten one of those, either, but it does contain a slew of demographic reminders of the season for which the Mets saw fit to apologize. They don’t do that every year.

May the Mets born in 1993 emerge as avenging angels very soon.

DeGrom Before the Storm

All-Star Jacob deGrom got taken deep by All-Star Mike Trout in the third inning of Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. Regrettable outcome, as was the final score, but somehow everybody was elevated by the experience. Trout doesn’t need much more elevation, except for maybe a deep postseason run or two so casual onlookers in all time zones can get a feel for what harder-core baseball fans have been telling each other for the balance of this decade about the greatest player of the contemporary era. Trout hitting a pitch very hard and very far is his version of plucking a business card from his wallet and shaking hands.

DeGrom’s pitches prior to the one Trout sent on a tour of the left field bullpen at Nationals Park landed where Jake intended. Mookie Betts flied out to Bryce Harper in center (who was in the midst of a scintillating chat with Joe Buck while patrolling his pasture). Jose Altuve popped to Nolan Arenado at third. Then a one-and-two count on Trout, prelude to an immaculate frame, it seemed…until the Angel from South Jersey reached to the outside of the plate as if for the last slice of pork roll. That’s a tough spot from which to pull a pitch, especially from where Trout was fishing. Nevertheless, Mike caught it and released it into the wild.

Officially, it was a 92 MPH sinker that didn’t sink as desired (or perhaps a changeup that went through one too many changes). “He hits the low ball well,” the lone 2018 Met All-Star said later. “Two strikes, probably should’ve gone fastball up. But he got me.”

It happens. It happened a lot to pitchers on both sides of the All-Star divide. The game ended after only ten innings were played and ten homers were hit. The American League prevailed, 8-6, as the American League tends to do these days. Perhaps it’s the recent Midsummer Classic sample size (AL 6 NL 0, dating to 2013) combined with this last year-and-a-half of shall we say Mets baseball that’s led me to expect the worst from whichever team I’m rooting for in a given moment, but I expected the NL to lose. The NL, if you read what Players Association executive director Tony Clark had to say Tuesday, may be stumbling toward acceptance of the abomination of the designated hitter (ptui!). If that’s how they’re gonna be, the National League probably doesn’t deserve much in the way of institutional allegiance.

DeGrom, though, deserves all the adulation we can muster. As if standing up for the integrity of baseball, Jake gathered himself after Trout’s trip around the bases and struck out the American League’s DH, J.D. Martinez. Thus the inning ended honorably if not spotlessly.

Given his lack of Met accompaniment, Jake’s imperfect outing constituted our All-Star highlight for 2018 — that and Nationals fans booing him during the introductions (not a classy response, but respectful of his status within the division in its own way). Now the best pitcher in the National League can get back to doing that for which he is suddenly most famous: being the subject of trade talk.

One night among his peers. Now a return to the mire.

Jacob deGrom will be a Met until he isn’t, which is a time span that appears likely to fall short of forever. DeGrom’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, expressed sentiments Monday that it sure would be nice if the Mets and his client could forge a “long-term partnership that would keep him in a Mets uniform for years to come.” So far, so good…which would also understate deGrom’s tenure as a Met to date.

Ah, but when was the last time you learned a player’s agent’s name and came away with “good” as the predominant adjective? Van Wagenen went on to make his larger point:

“If the Mets don’t share [the] same interest, we believe their best course of action is to seriously consider trade opportunities now. The inertia of [the] current situation could complicate Jacob’s relationship with the club and creates an atmosphere of indecision.”

Meaning? Meaning almost every possible outcome will probably take a turn we don’t care for.

• The Mets trade deGrom soon, as in before July 31. We’d hate that. I don’t care if we got back the next Mike Trout. As soon as your premiere player is no longer yours, something’s missing.

• The Mets trade deGrom eventually, as in the offseason. We’d hate that. The haul could restock the system and project to pay dividends down the road, but we’d still feel a tangible loss. No more Jacob deGrom, except in memory. The next time we see him, he’ll be wearing the uniform of fill-in-the-blank. Cringing yet?

• The Mets don’t trade deGrom but don’t move to extend him. That would hang over our heads, especially now that the agent has spoken and it’s obvious a bone of contention exists between team and star. Without resolution, there is uncertainty. The statements grow less anodyne. The parties become more touchy. The agent lurks in our consciousness. The tension rises.

• The Mets let deGrom walk following the 2020 season. Pending the course of the next two campaigns, we’d likely hate that, no matter the juicy draft pick it would net us. Compensatory draft picks once in a blue moon grow up to become David Wright. Often they become Kevin Plawecki, and that’s if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, deGrom — two-time (at least) All-Star, Rookie of the Year, perennial Cy Young candidate, winning pitcher thrice in the postseason — becomes an ex-Met.

• The Mets sign deGrom to a lucrative long-term contract. Everybody’s happy…until it sinks in just how long the contract is for and how much the contract is for and how the length and the size of the contract impact the Mets’ ability to enhance the rest of the roster. Performances drop off. Injuries occur. Things go wrong. It happened with Piazza, Beltran, Santana, Wright. It’s happened with Cespedes. And none of them was a pitcher beyond 30 years of age. Past disaster is by no means indicative of future debacle, but after what we’ve been through, we have evolved into a breath-holding people. As with rooting for the National League in All-Star Games, there is a tendency to wait in expectation of what is about to go awry.

Or, you know, things could work out fine somehow. It’s possible. It’s just hard to imagine. In the meantime, Jacob deGrom is still a Met, still pitching sensationally, still getting out most everybody who isn’t Mike Trout, which leaves a pretty large pool of hitters flailing at his stuff.

We can deal with that for now.

Accepting a Familiar Blueprint

The first half of the season, which is actually a bit more than half, ended Sunday with the 2018 Mets deciding to remind us that yes, they’re the 2018 Mets.

Ya want yer solid starting pitching, zero offense and a bullpen from hell? Here ya go.

Actually I don’t remember ordering that combination or asking for a reminder that it’s once again the Daily Special — I’d been enjoying the Mets’ spurt of vague competitiveness. But that’s what the Mets slopped down on my plate and everybody else’s.

Corey Oswalt turned in his second-straight abbreviated but admirable performance, with the Nats and Mets each tallying a run when runners were safe on the back end of attempted double plays. (Not exactly an advertisement for baseball thrills, but that’s a post for another day.) The teams ground along until the top of the 7th, when Anthony Swarzak took over pitching duties and everything came up Metsy.

Swarzak has been reliably and inexplicably awful this year, the second coming of Ramon Ramirez. He walked Juan Soto, then had him picked off but threw wide of second base, converting a free out into a free base. He then walked Anthony Rendon, which led to Swarzak’s exit for awfulness and Asdrubal Cabrera‘s exit with an injured hand. (Thanks, Swarzak!)

Enter Tim Peterson, who surrendered a single to Matt Adams to load the bases and pinch-hit two-run single to old friend Daniel Murphy. Peterson got actual outs courtesy of a sacrifice bunt and a flyout, but Mickey Callaway opted for the other half of this year’s tandem of Unexpected Awfulness. Jerry Blevins somehow hit consecutive batters and then surrendered a two-run single to Trea Turner, by which point everything was academic and the faithful were booing anything blue and orange that moved.

I went numb a long time ago, so that’s enough about Sunday’s debacle. But looking ahead to the second half I’ve moved on to acceptance — and the first flickerings of stubborn, stupid hope. The Wilpons seem determined to sacrifice some other player’s development so that Jose Reyes can continue making out with the regularity of a cursed metronome, but that farce aside, it’s clear that in the coming weeks the team will shed payroll obligations and the veteran players that go with them, to put things in an order that matches ownership’s priorities.

Cabrera will go, assuming Swarzak’s latest ineptitude hasn’t injured him. Jeurys Familia will go. Perhaps the Mets will find a taker for reclamation project Jose Bautista, or swing some sort of deal involving Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler or Wilmer Flores. (Which would hurt, and going bigger by trading Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard would be insane, but anyone else … well, we’re 16 games under .500, y’all.)

With veterans off to what I hope will be greener temporary pastures, the Mets will probably give us a look at Peter Alonso, just seen hitting to the moon in the Futures Game, and possibly Jeff McNeil if they can remember that he has in fact played positions where they need help. Maybe Amed Rosario will keep looking like he’s found his footing, Brandon Nimmo will show he’s adapting to the rigors of everyday play, we’ll be convinced Michael Conforto‘s shoulder is reknit, and Matz and Wheeler will keep building on their successes and remain pain-free. In which case maybe September won’t look so bleak, and maybe we’ll find ourselves idly playing with 2019 rosters and thinking that maybe something good could be happening.

Or, alternately, Tim Tebow will get called up, because this year of greasepaint and pratfalls could use one more circus. Alonso and McNeil will sit on the bench next to Dom Smith while Reyes makes even more outs for his BFFs in the owners’ box and Jay Bruce limps around in right.

But for now, let me have this vision of something different, which might look like hope if you squint. Because I need it.

The Late, Great Buy-In of 2018

All right, who’s in for the Mets to become buyers? We’re talking about a team that has won seven of thirteen, producing its best extended stretch since Mickey Callaway’s managerial acumen was considered a growth stock. And these last two games, encompassing one professional baseball victory after another…why, it’s like watching a team that isn’t so much buried in fourth place as it’s like watching a team that’s studiously avoiding fifth place.

Progress! Sweet, relative, infinitesimal progress!

So desperate for Met developments that don’t amount to a wall of sadness, I’m almost willing to believe that beating a sluggish Washington unit twice within twenty-four hours tells us we’ve got enough going on to, if not actually become buyers (I didn’t get that much sun sitting in Promenade Saturday), then not sell, sell, sell stray Mets like they’re going out of style. For most of this season, the Mets were indeed unfashionable. Amazingly, they now resemble a team capable of taking down select comers. No wonder I’m in no rush to part with the contracts that belong to the players who are finally making me feel something different from disgust.

Pride? I wouldn’t go that far.
Joy? You’ll have to remind me what that is.
Satisfaction? I’m not as immensely dissatisfied as I’ve been, so sure, let’s say satisfaction was the Saturday special at Citi Field, served up on the same plate as the Mets’ delicious 7-4 defeat of the not-so-pesky Nats.

Nobody deserves to feel more satisfaction as the All-Star break approaches than Zack Wheeler, a mostly effective pitcher for weeks, yet one who’s looked at Jacob deGrom’s record and wondered how that guy got so lucky. DeGrom’s been stuck on five wins despite living the Cy life. Wheeler has been good enough to earn a third win since early May, yet hadn’t until the Mets pounded a rookie pitcher instead of vice-versa. While Wheeler and his teammates pasted seven big ones on the previously virginal record of Austin Voth, Zack kept the Nats embedded inside their mucilaginous malaise. From Section 417, I saw a pitcher who appeared in command from beginning to almost end.

Kudos to Callaway for leaving Zack in to retire Bryce Harper in the eighth. It was a tableau we’d been waiting a long time to unfold. As the National League East was reshaping its constellation of young stars in the early-to-mid 2010s, we wouldn’t have been crazy to have imagined repeated showdowns of Harper vs. Wheeler as more than incidental. Battles between the likes of them should have been signature throwdowns for individual and divisional supremacy. Both were young and on the rise. Harper, no matter the repellent properties of his resting Bryce face, rose to become one of the sport’s most recognizable stars. Wheeler didn’t rise at all.

Unlike his compatriots in all those group glamour shots of Mets Pitchers Who Can’t Miss, Zack missed out on most of the fun surrounding Mets pitching. Not only was he unavailable to take part in back-to-back playoff pushes, Wheeler didn’t come out of the box setting down batters and building up credentials. He had a big reputation as a first-round draft choice and prize acquisition, but his major league storyline was different. Wheeler was more Dillon Gee than gee whiz. He was a guy who was going to have to learn to get better, who would have to experience losing some to start winning consistently.

Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz were all varied shades of phenomenal as we got to know them. Initial stabs at hype notwithstanding, Wheeler had to find himself. His 2013 and 2014 was akin to what 2017 and 2018 have been for Amed Rosario, a reminder that no matter your prospects, success isn’t automatic at the highest levels of the game. Those first two years of Wheeler were about ups and downs and promise waiting to be fulfilled. The next two years were about absence. Last year should have been about return; it wound up dominated by detour.

At last, Wheeler is performing within the realm of a pitcher a legit contender would trade in order to land a Carlos Beltran. And now that he’s finally got it going on, we’re supposed to shop him and ship him? I understand the impetus for moving Asdrubal Cabrera and Jeurys Familia, though even their status as obvious trade bait is beginning to bug me. What are we, the Kansas City Athletics? We take our useful players and hand them over to our betters and say thank you for the magic beans? I gravitated to professional sports over college sports as a kid because I could never quite cotton to the idea that after no more than four years a player simply gets up and disrobes from your laundry. There were trades in baseball, of course, but those seemed organic, part of the ebb and flow of how a team got or stayed competitive. Nowadays, especially in July, it’s preposterous to believe your so-so team wouldn’t consider offing everybody in sight in the name of a nebulous shining tomorrow.

Maybe I’m just missing the reserve clause.

Catch me when we’re back to our usual losing ways and I’ll be happy to work the Flushing yard sale. I’ll provide used grocery bags, I’ll make change, I’ll help carry contenders’ purchases to their cars. I’ll be unsentimental as all get out and say “get out” to spare relievers, infielders, maybe even starting pitchers who are peaking in value. I’ll buy into the usual song of the also-ran, that we’re finishing last with these fellows, maybe we can finish higher with new blood next year or the year after that.

At the moment, though, on the heels of a second consecutive convincing win, I love all my Mets and you do not have my consent to easily pry them from my sudden loving embrace.

Better Than Fair

In a haughtier season, we might file away Friday night’s 4-2 victory over the Nationals as a nice, boring win. We’re not in a haughty season, however, so let’s not too hastily dismiss the delights of dullness. Besides, how low-key can any game started by Noah Syndergaard come off as? Noah, even when playing it cool, carries a Reggie Jackson-style “magnitude of me” to the mound. You can’t miss him when he’s in town. The eye finds him first, the same way you spot the observation towers overlooking what remains of the New York State Pavilion as you drive along the Grand Central.

Whereas Jacob deGrom has been our Unisphere this year — he’s the world to us — Noah has been mostly been something to behold in theory. A sprained index finger sidelined him for a start, then two, then, because every Met injury heals only when it’s damn good and ready, seven weeks. Theory begat Thor and, suddenly, the Mets had two top-notch starters again. The Mets were a few games above .500 when Noah disappeared into the cornfield on May 25. Is it possible that missing a consensus preseason Cy Young candidate could have something to do with a team completely falling apart in June?

It wasn’t like they weren’t already decomposing from the middle of April onward, but lacking Syndergaard couldn’t help but gape the growing void. We have him back and we are better off for it. Noah threw five sharp innings. Not suffocating — the Nats kept putting their first batter on base — but unquestionably professional. Yes, that’s the word for what the Mets were Friday night. Professional. Getting hitters out while in the field, pushing runs across while at bat, very little exploding in their faces no matter who the Nationals sent to torment them. Daniel Murphy’s not moving so well. Bryce Harper isn’t interested in legging out grounders. Tanner Roark hasn’t much roar. We’re having a terrible year, but they’re relentlessly disappointing. For one game we were bound to float by them.

As with any visit to the old World’s Fair site, you could get a sense of what used to draw people to Flushing and why people made such a fuss. Syndergaard (a five-game winner — just like deGrom!) limiting the opposition to a single run, or as many as he himself drove in; Lugo and Gsellman competently carrying the load to the end of the line; the top of the order efficiently generating three runs in the first; Rosario burning up the basepaths in the thrilling fashion the tout sheets said he would…these were the 2018 Mets from when the 2018 Mets were a certifiable attraction rather than the remnants of something rusting embarrassingly alongside the parkway.

Too bad you can’t go see them like that all the time.

One for Uncle Frank

With my lone natural rooting interest spiritually if not yet officially mathematically eliminated from contention for the National League East title, I find myself inadvertently pulling for some combination of whoever isn’t playing the Mets on a given night. For example, when Brandon Nimmo stuck it to the Phillies decisively and gleefully on Wednesday, I took an extra dollop of pleasure in imagining some Phillie at the end of September ruing “that series in New York in July,” specifically “[bleeping] Flores and [bleeping] Nimmo hitting those [bleeping] home runs.” The only problem with my spiteful hand-rubbing scenario (in which I snicker like Dick Dastardly’s canine companion Muttley) was anything that screws over the Phillies doesn’t screw over the Braves and Nationals.

We have only so much screwage to disperse, and on some days none at all. The latter was the case Thursday night as the Mets couldn’t do to the Nationals what they did to the Phillies (and haven’t done much to the Braves). Steven Matz came out of the gate giving up runs and the Mets, surprising perseverance notwithstanding, never caught up. Matz wasn’t terrible across six-and-a-third — the highest of praise within the non-deGrominational sect of the 2018 Mets rotation — but two homers allowed to Anthony Rendon left him and his team in a 3-2 hole that Jerry Blevins drilled two runs deeper via the bat of Bryce Harper in the seventh. Lonely solo blasts from Messrs. Plawecki and Cabrera, complementing earlier production from their colleague Sr. Bautista, pulled the Mets to within 5-4 entering the ninth. The ninth, though, was all kinds of bummer. The first out came on a grounder so perfectly placed that shortstop Trea Turner literally fielded it with a foot on second base to effect a force play on pinch-runner Ty Kelly. The next two were registered on a double play that took out the Mets’ two fastest runners, Reyes and Rosario, with the greatest of ease. Whatever walkoff magic inhabited Citi Field versus the Phillies must have gotten caught in an updraft and departed the premises.

Max Scherzer pitched seven innings and got the win. He’s supposed to be almost as good as fellow All-Star Jacob deGrom, which seems unlikely considering his team scores for him.

Without meaning to, we helped the hated Nationals. The only upside there is it didn’t help the hated Phillies or hated Braves, though if I had to choose a team to not help among the three teams we’ve counted as our archrivals at various points over the past two decades…ah, I don’t wanna help any of ’em. But since we couldn’t help but help one, I’ll accept this particular Mets loss to the Nats and dedicate it to the memory of Uncle Frank, a Nationals fan whose baseball happiness I wouldn’t specifically begrudge.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t actually root for the Nationals on Uncle Frank’s account; they are the Nationals, after all, and I’m not that gracious. But if they had to win, I’d reason from time to time during the time I knew him, well, at least Uncle Frank enjoyed it.

I should clarify that Uncle Frank — Frank Lennox — who died last summer at the age of 74, was not my uncle. He was the uncle of the wife of my friend Jeff, the Indians/Cubs fan who hails originally from Ohio but settled in Illinois, thus the dual allegiances (that he himself juggled with aplomb two World Series ago). Frank could eventually relate to having more than one team, but I got to know him when one was all he needed. He was an Illinoisan up from his home in Washington who introduced himself to me as a nothing but a Cubs fan on September 25, 2004. Jeff set us up on a blind date of sorts. Frank was in New York visiting his “sports-challenged” adult son Jonathan and had four tickets to see his Cubs play the Mets. Jonathan politely tagged along with his dad, but two of the tickets were unclaimed, so Jeff suggested to Frank he get in touch with me. I was delighted to be touched. I couldn’t find a fourth for us (it was Yom Kippur, and besides, most Mets fans I knew were fasting where any more games in 2004 were concerned that September), but I showed up at Shea and had one of the best times I could imagine, considering the Mets weren’t scoring and Cubs fans were everywhere.

Frank watched the Cubs play the Mets. I watched the Mets play the Cubs. We hit it off despite our differences. It was a little odd sitting in with a representative of “the enemy” in my home park, but Frank’s intentions were honorable. He was a legit Cubs fan, back when “long-suffering” was implied. Hadn’t lived in the Chicago area since 1961, he told me, and he drifted somewhat away from his true love over time, but technology made it easier to follow the Cubs in D.C. by 2004. I suspect the Cubs’ relative success in that period also made it more compelling.

Entering that afternoon’s action, the Cubs led the National League Wild Card race by a game-and-a-half over the Giants, two-and-a-half over the Astros. They’d come so close to the World Series the year before. Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez and other curious forces of darkness halted their journey in 2003. Now the playoffs were within reach again. How much would that mean to a guy like Frank, recently past 60 yet holding no memory of the Cubs ever winning a pennant? Enough that he took an Amtrak to New York to cheer his team onward to the finish line. Despite my lifetime disdain for his favorite team, I found myself wishing him well in his personal hunt for October.

Except for my well wishes to have any teeth, I’d have to sacrifice that Saturday afternoon’s affair on the altar of comity. I’d have to root against the Mets. Yeah, I wasn’t doing that, certainly not inside a stadium populated at least half by Cubs fans despite not a single speck of ivy evident on the outfield walls. The best I could do for Frank was accept that the Cubs winning at the Mets’ expense was a likelihood — Todd Walker whacked a two-run homer off starter Aaron Heilman in the second and it stood up for a seeming eternity — and be happy for Frank, sports-challenged Jonathan and, by proxy, Jeff back in the Chicago suburbs. The Mets seemed certain to make it easy on my better angels, as they’d spent the past two Septembers going easy on every contender they’ve played. Lousy teams, it is said, can be spoilers. They can inject themselves into pennant races with resolve, announce their presence with authority and skew best-laid plans. Art Howe’s Mets, though, hadn’t been doing that. Every good team who’d played the Mets with anything on the line for them came away confidence boosted, standing enhanced. I’m surprised we didn’t sponsor Carpet Night or something to tie into the walking all over of us competent opponents did in 2003 and 2004.

Jeff advertised me to Frank in advance with generous praise: “You may never meet a truer ‘fan,’ and there’s nothing Metsian that he doesn’t know.” Except perhaps how to be truly, sincerely gracious in a bizarre situation like this. But I was gonna try to thread that needle — represent but don’t resent.

Sluggish train service got me to Shea just after the game started. Before I could pick out Frank, he spotted me. That was momentarily creepy except he told me Jeff sent him my picture. If he hadn’t called to me, I figured I’d just look for a guy in a Cubs cap in the appointed section. Not much of a plan, that. Shea Stadium was, for the weekend, no better than Miller Park, just another convenient depot for Cubs fans to strut their stuff. If this were the Pirates and Mets in late September 2004, you couldn’t have gotten enough fans of either team for a minyan. The Cubs were a draw, no doubt about it. I imagined the self-hating Mets management, which once garishly honored Sammy Sosa to bring in as customers otherwise disinterested Dominican-Americans, would institute a Cubs Fan Appreciation Night next year. The tableau was totally askew. Engaging in throat-to-throat combat with Yankees fans at Shea was one thing. It was to be expected during the plague known as the Subway series. But a house — our house, to be dramatic about it — more than half-filled with Cubs fans really, really, really turned my stomach. And that was a significant amount to turn.

They cheered their heroes. They cooed, “Ah-looooo.” They greeted Sammy and Nomar like royalty. They were loud on behalf of relatively obscure visitors like Walker, who rocked this house divided against itself with that two-run homer in the second. They bared (beared?) foam Cubs claws. Those things were cute on TV the previous fall. They were disturbing in person, in Flushing. As were the fans, the long-suffering, by my gauge, outnumbered by the trendy. How can you front-run for a team that was 96 years removed from its last parade down Michigan?

It got so bad that Frank apologized for the “obnoxious” Cubs fans sitting behind us. Him apologizing to me in my house. My house!

Either there weren’t enough Mets fans or enough motivation among them to fight back. To yell back. To atone for the sin of passivity. I was certainly no help. No yelling. No sniping. Not as much a well-placed remark or dirty look. My rhetorical weapon was holstered in the name of graciousness. Frank and I were pals from the first pitch. As a Cubs fatalist and an abused Mets co-dependent, mostly we tried to bottom each other.

“You’re in luck. Heilman is pitching.”
“Prior hasn’t been good this year.”
“Mike’s been awful lately.”
“Sammy’s through.”
“Art Howe is a waste of time.”
“Dusty’s a terrible in-game manager.”

We were each insistent on shepherding a bad team. It’s just that Frank’s was twenty or so games better than mine.

Between moments of truth on the field, the conversation was easy and cordial. We talked bout Jeff and ballparks and familiarized each other with our rosters and spoke the common language fans of different teams but one great sport can. But Frank was obviously for his Cubs, as he should’ve been, even if he didn’t crow or taunt. I was obviously for my Mets, but kept it in check. On paper, a mature adult should be able to do that for one afternoon. What’s the diff if the Mets wind up 69-93 or 70-92?

The Mets’ first and presumably only serious threat summed up their shattered season. With the bases loaded in the fifth and nobody out, Jose Reyes bounced to first. Took a nice play, but Derrek Lee threw home to nail Valent. One out. Old Gerald Williams, who probably came up alongside Don Buford and Paul Blair, flied to Alou in relatively deep left. Jason Phillips, the most glacial man in the bigs…Jason Phillips, who got tagged out Friday night on a throw 10 feet to the right of home…was on third. Even Jason Phillips could tag up and score.

However, Jason Phillips had gone halfway. He hadn’t tagged up. Two outs, no sac fly. Bases still loaded. Jason Phillips officially sliced from my favorite players list and mentally traded to Toronto. Wilson Delgado, who furtively subbed for Kaz Matsui, flied out.

That, I guaranteed Frank, was that. I truly thought so. The Mets were again softening the blow, removing the element of You Gotta Believe from the equation. The Mets made their stand Friday night by going ten innings before losing. Today, they’d go quietly.

I softly applauded rookie David Wright when he came up and clapped perfunctorily at the continual striking out of Sosa, technically doing my job as unobtrusively as I could. With Jonathan at the concessions, Frank finally broached the unbroachable.

“Ya gotta admit, Greg. The Cubs need this game more than the Mets.”

There it was. The gauntlet, however polite, however innocent, had been thrown down. I was being asked in a subtle fashion to ease his pain. 1969 was all well and good, but now the Cubs were angling toward “The Holy Grail” as Frank called it earlier. I wouldn’t really want to stand in the way of it.

Here was my talking point:

“Frank, the only one with a Mets affiliation who would benefit from a Mets win today would be my record for the season, which would be under .500 with a loss.”

There. A nice legalistic response, poorly communicated. Frank chuckled. We went back to watching the game.

The Cubs added a run in the eighth so I didn’t have to worry about diplomacy. The loss was in the bag. All the other Cubs fans were still annoying, but in the course of an afternoon, I’d reluctantly gotten used to them. Mets fans get used to lots of indignities, even at home.

In the middle of the eighth, so confident of losing 3-0 was I, that I told Stephanie by cell that this should take no more than half-an-hour. By 4:15, I’d leave and meet her at the senior center where she worked (she was recovering from a sprained right arm and normally I’d pick her up from the train close to home). I told Frank of my self-imposed curfew. We said preliminary goodbyes. I told him he should know the Mets beat the Giants in a wild 12-inning affair in August, 11-9, so between that and the rolling over we were doing this weekend, you could thank us for the Wild Card. He smiled, but reminded me this wasn’t over yet. Maybe not, but the Mets went down in the eighth. The Cubs didn’t score in the ninth. Last licks beckoned. I figured this was Bugs Bunny territory: one, two, three, you’re out!

Mark Prior, who looked just fine to me, had come out in the eighth for Ryan Dempster, the former Marlin and Red (I had no idea he was a Cub). He started the ninth by striking out Todd Zeile. Natch. Then he walked Valent and molassesy Phillips. First and second. Dusty was about to do some in-game managing, bringing in LaTroy Hawkins, the nominal closer, who had pitched the night before.

Cubs fans, thousands of them, were excited. I noted out loud it was 4:17 and I was already lying to my wife about when I’d meet her, but this would be over any minute. Frank and Jonathan laughed. Things were all set for me to be gracious, a good loser, which had emerged as my primary goal for the day.

Jeff Keppinger came up. Friday night, Keppinger got on base four times. Frank and Western Civilization had never heard of Jeff Keppinger. As I’d been doing all day, I was explaining that this Met or that Met you’ve never heard of was called up to replace an injured, established Met. Keppinger was pretty good, I said. At home on Friday, I declared to Steph that I could be considered a Kepptomaniac.

Kepp flied out to right. Two out. Still two on, still three-nothing. If Jeff Keppinger can’t do it, no one can.

Up stepped Victor Diaz. Yes, you’ve never heard of him, I said. Yes, he’s up from Norfolk because somebody (Floyd, Cameron, I forget now) got hurt. Yes, this will be the last out.

Except. Except. Except with two strikes on him, he swung at Hawkins’s offering and hit it to right. Deep right. Sosa went back. Back. Back. Not far back enough.

HOME RUN! Victor Diaz just hit a three-run homer! The Mets, barely out of last, have just tied the Cubs, the playoff-bound, ultrapopular Cubs, at three and three.

I did what I do, what any Mets fan would do. I leapt to my feet and raised both arms above my head. Half of Shea, maybe more suddenly, did the same. I yea’ed (“yea!”) and I clapped and I jumped up and down and I felt…

…bad. I mean I felt great, but I felt bad for Frank. Not for the 17,000 or so interlopers, not even for Jeff, a thousand miles away. But Frank, who had been wonderful company and purchaser of tickets and loyal to his team to one degree or another for a half-century. He sat there and watched another Cubs manager make another pitching change that led to another ominous home run. As I was coming down from my Diazstic high — to the spoilers belong the Victor — I patted him on the shoulder and apologized for my team’s success. Me apologizing to him for my team. My team!

Gerald Williams struck out and I stuck to my plan. We all shook hands one more time. Impulsively, I told Frank, “I’ve never said this to anybody here before, but I hope you guys win the game. We’ve had our moment.”

And I meant it. At that instant, looking into his disappointed, Billy Goat-cursed eyes, I meant it. I wanted to extend a generosity of spirit. Even with Victor Diaz shooting a bolt of hopeful lightning through my glands, I agreed with the earlier assessment. The Cubs needed the win. The Mets didn’t. Senior center appointment or no, I decided in an instant that no more good could come of my presence here. If I stayed and the Cubs won, well, that’s what was going to happen anyway, and what was the point of the home run? And if the Mets won — which they would, with rookie Craig Brazell homering (his first and last ever) off Kent Mercker in the eleventh and me on the E train, out of radio range — I’d just have to come up with more conciliatory, encouraging words for Frank.

I meant what I said. As I walked away from our seats, I wanted the Cubs to win that game for his sake. But by the time I finished walking away, I changed my mind for my sake. I wasn’t even out of the section, to be perfectly honest. I didn’t get to the concourse before I let out a “HA!” at a cluster of younger, very recently sullen Cubs fans. And a “HA!” on their house for acting up in my house. Of all the places on the face of this earth, Shea Stadium is not where a Cubs fan wants to get cocky, not even in 2004, not even in a game started, respectively, by Mark Prior and Aaron Heilman, not on Yom Kippur, not on Bob Kipper.

I’m pretty sure I was out of Frank’s and Jonathan’s earshot. Maybe that makes me a phony or at least less than gracious. I meant well, I swear I did, but I was true to my team…and true to the instinct that made me very happy that it was now only nineteen or so games worse than theirs.

Thanks in large part to Diaz and Brazell, the Cubs didn’t make the 2004 playoffs. And Frank didn’t make it to 2005 as the same kind of Cubs fan he’d been when we met in September, because he had a new team in his life. A few days after our game, MLB announced the Montreal Expos were about to move to Washington, D.C. Among those purchasing a season ticket package ASAP was Frank Lennox. He wasn’t necessarily abandoning his Cubs, but he was determined to show his support for the new local baseball endeavor. Frank was not only generous toward the transplanted Nationals, he thoughtfully passed along a pair of tickets to Stephanie and me for us to use on the Mets’ first trip to RFK Stadium and did me a similar solid when Nationals Park opened in 2008.

In the ensuing years, Jeff, Frank and I continued to corresponded among one another as the baseball seasons dictated. Frank’s shift in allegiance from Cubs to Nats was palpable, so much so that he couldn’t really enjoy the Cubs’ 2016 world championship because he was too stung by the Nats having fallen away earlier that October, same as they had in 2014, same has they had in 2012. We teased each other a little now and then in the context of the intermittently simmering Mets-Nats rivalry, but tipped caps more than we talked trash. I expressed admiration for Anthony Rendon when he first burst upon the scene. Rendon seemed to become Frank’s favorite player (or biggest bane of his existence, depending on the trajectory of his batting average). Rendon makes me think of Frank, so when he hit those two off Matz Thursday night, I tried to put it in perspective. When he drove in ten against the Mets last year, I probably wasn’t thinking good thoughts of anybody.

Frank, though, never stopped being gracious. In 2015, in the aftermath of the NLCS the Mets took from the Cubs on top of division battle that didn’t go Washington’s way, he texted Jeff and me, “Darn Mets. Now I will have to congratulate Greg Prince again.” And when the Mets clinched their 2016 Wild Card, he paused from preparing for the upcoming inevitable Nationals postseason disappointment to send me the nicest of notes:

“Here’s to those plucky Mets. A while ago in total manager-berating-team mode, now getting ready to toss the young pitchers at the league in the postseason. Imagine what a book you will write if the Mets knock off the Giants, Cubs, and Nats! And? Red Sox? (Okay, Indians.) All without Daniel Murphy — who has a pulled hamstring anyway. Mets just don’t seem to go away.”

Nor does true graciousness.

He Who Smiles Last

Perhaps Jacob deGrom struck a shady deal with the Devil at a forlorn crossroads one night … and didn’t look carefully enough at the fine print.

You see where this is going. Any pitcher would sign over his soul — or at least a good chunk of his discretionary income — in exchange for pitching at least six innings and giving up two runs or less in every start. It’s only later that such a pitcher might think, Dang, I should have asked about run support.

DeGrom has appeared in 19 games this year. The Mets are averaging 3.6 runs in his starts. They’ve scored 12 runs for him once, in Colorado. (Surprise!) Twice they’ve scored eight runs, six and five. Then the problems emerge: the Mets have scored three runs for deGrom four times, two twice, one three times and none at all three times. That’s how you can be leading the league with a Goodenesque 1.68 ERA and be 5-4 on the year.

You probably knew all that. What the numbers miss is just how ludicrously good deGrom has looked for long stretches of this season. On Wednesday night the Phillies — the first-place Phillies — looked simply helpless against him. They’re not alone: DeGrom has four plus pitches, impeccable location, and a Seaveresque ability to both outthink enemy batters and overpower them. To get to him, you have to guess what he’s going to throw, where he’s going to throw it, make the adjustment from what he threw last and where he threw it, and then actually hit what’s coming your way.

It’s too tall an order a lot of the time … and yet deGrom’s excellence often winds up surprising me. Part of it is that he’s tall and skinny and frankly gentle-looking, lacking the sheer physical presence and gunfighter stare of Noah Syndergaard or prelapsarian Matt Harvey. His pitches don’t lend themselves to jaw-dropping GIFs and amused/amazed head-shakes. But he doesn’t need to look scary or have an arsenal that lends itself to memes. To appreciate him, you have to watch the progression of pitches, at-bats and innings. Yes, he can overpower hitters if he has to. But he usually doesn’t need to — he disarms them before reaching that situation.

The best plan facing deGrom when he’s on is to wait for some other Met to fail. Unfortunately, that’s been a sound strategy for much of this woeful year. The bats will do little or nothing, and eventually the defense will stagger, the bullpen will falter, and deGrom will trudge up the clubhouse tunnel with his expression carefully blank.

That was the blueprint Wednesday night: deGrom was untouchable for eight innings, but the Mets weren’t touching anything either. Their tally through eight: an Amed Rosario single, a Wilmer Flores single, an enemy error that allowed recidivist Met Matt den Dekker to go to first, walks to Michael Conforto and Rosario, and an intentional pass to Asdrubal Cabrera. When deGrom headed up the tunnel with another no-decision, no Met had reached third.

With deGrom gone, I braced myself for another miserable loss, to be followed by clubhouse stoicism and trade rumors. You probably did too. But somehow that didn’t happen. Rosario doubled with two out in the 10th against Mark Leiter Jr., Jose Reyes (who’d short-circuited a Phillie threat with a heads-up play to catch Andrew Knapp, um, napping) walked, and Brandon Nimmo blasted Leiter’s first pitch over the right-field fence.

It all happened in a minute or two — the Mets went from needing a mirror held up to their collective mouth to being winners. (Robert Gsellman now has six wins, which I hope deGrom can laugh about.) Nimmo floated around the bases with his trademark grin even bigger than usual, was greeted with a shower of gum (ouch), and immediately thanked the fans, because he’s Brandon Nimmo. In connecting with one pitch, he collected as many bases as the Mets had recorded via hits all night.

The Mets, weirdly, have secured their last three wins via walk-off homers: Jose Bautista beat the Rays last Friday, Flores welcomed Larry to the ballpark against the Phils on Monday, and Nimmo was the hero Wednesday night. Which suggests the possibility of another deal with the Devil. What if we got to hit three walk-offs a week? The fans would love that, right?

Well yeah, they probably wouldn’t object. But the suspicious among those fans might also ask about the rest of the week and suggest a careful look at the fine print.

Consolation Prizes

Congratulations to Drew Gagnon for making his major-league debut — and collecting an RBI in his first plate appearance at-bat.

If you detect snark in that, hold your fire. The congratulations are sincere. Gagnon is in his eighth professional season, and with his third organization. Las Vegas marked the fourth season in a row he’d pitched in Triple-A. He had to have thought that the call was never going to come and the dream was never going to come true. And with good reason: he knew he’d become a roster-filler, and that 28-year-olds with marginal stuff are Plan H or I for big-league rotations.

But the Mets specialize in Plan Is. Gagnon did get the call, and the dream did come true. Even if he never throws another big-league pitch, he’s an immortal. That has to mean the world to him, to his fiancee, and to his family. I hope they’re all out too late, celebrating the long-awaited fulfillment of all that hard work and shared sacrifice.

The Mets could use a feel-good story in this horrific season, but Gagnon’s arrival was pretty much all they could muster on a steamy, torpid Tuesday night. Gagnon, a vaguely Matthew McConaughey-looking dude, was whacked around pretty good and then gave way to Tyler Bashlor, whom I couldn’t pick out of a police lineup. Amed Rosario, who may one day aspire to be a feel-good story instead of a question mark, collected three hits, two of them triples. Rhys Hoskins slammed his face into the outfield wall and was apparently undamaged, which we’ll file under “good news based on common humanity.” Oh, and Wilmer Flores made a nice catch and peg home, though that one ought to come with an asterisk since Wilmer should’ve let Jose Bautista catch it.

Is that it? I think that’s it. Well, Mickey Callaway didn’t do anything that demanded curious postgame rationalizations. Wonders abound.

I hadn’t seen the Mets for the better part of a week, as I was out in California with family and friends. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that their absence from my life was not exactly a hardship. Watching Phillies circle the bases in the middle innings tonight, all I could think was that what the Mets offer is not a big-league product, and hasn’t been for some time.

The people who own and run this sad-sack franchise should be apologizing nightly for a steady diet of Flexens and Oswalts and Conlons, for setting up shop in New York and charging good money to serve people helper without hamburger. One SNY spot proudly informed us that for the next few days there are no fees for buying Mets tickets. Did you hear that, Mets faithful? Should you be dumb enough to waste your hard-earned money and a summer evening watching this bleak parody of baseball, you will do so free of the indignity of a string of surcharges.

Unless the slow death of the soul counts, of course.

Still, not even apologies would satisfy me at this point. What I really want is for the people who own and run this staggeringly terrible baseball team to go away. Since that’s not going to happen, I want the team they have shoddily assembled to go away, and as soon as possible. Except even that wish comes with an presumptive asterisk. Because we know there will be no dynamic players coming back in return. Should the Mets’ bureaucratic triad agree on a trade and get their feckless nitwit of a boss to sign off on it, it will be a trade made with an eye on pocketing money instead of amassing talent. We’ll get more middle relievers who throw hard but straight, and maybe a lottery-ticket future fourth outfielder. And then we’ll watch more Flexens and Oswalts and Conlons trudge out to the mound.

The broken-down, has-been Mets I want to go away will be replaced by cheaper-model, never-will-be Mets I will almost immediately also want to go away. Perhaps a couple of those players will be making their debuts, with smiling family members in the stands. I’ll try to be happy for them, I really will. And then I’ll hope they make it through, say, three innings before it all comes crashing down on us that night too.