The 2014 World Champion New York Mets’ highlight DVD — whose title, Soak It Up, of course refers to the several million 7 Line hit towels we twirled as our boys rode triumphantly up the Canyon of Heroes — features one of the biggest blows of the year, Daniel Murphy’s fifth-inning, opposite-field, three-run homer, the one that put the Mets up, 4-1, in that pivotal Wednesday afternoon game against the Phillies in late July.
Interspersed with interviews of Murph, baserunners Ruben Tejada and Curtis Granderson and hitting coach Lamar Johnson are reactions of “typical fans” like myself. You’ll see the part where I talk about being busy doing other things in the middle of the day but pausing in front of the television long enough to watch Daniel’s at-bat versus Kyle Kendrick, and when he drove the second pitch he saw over the left field wall, you hear me say, “For the first time I could remember all season, I jumped up in my living room and raised a fist in the air.”
They used that part of my interview, but they cut the part where I added, “The only thing missing was a curtain call.” It’s a shame that they didn’t bother including my historical riff on how the 11-2 win took its place among memorable Mets midweek home afternoon wins over the Phillies, including the sweltering slugfest from 1985 when Doc faced Koosman; or the day Delgado got the big hit and the Mets prevailed in the then-rivals’ July 2008 showdown series; or — and I really think they should have kept this — that this game provided an echo of the game from the previous August, when Daniel collected four hits, which turned out to be Ralph Kiner’s last game as a Met broadcaster. They also omitted my observation that this romp over Philadelphia occurred on the 45th anniversary of the doubleheader loss to the Astros, the one in which Gil Hodges strode purposefully to left field and removed Cleon Jones for not hustling after a ball.
“The Mets were swept that day at Shea in 1969,” I explained, while trying not to sound pedantic about it, “but it was a very real turning point toward turning a young team into world champions, and now, at Citi Field, we were looking out to left field and seeing something that pointed the Mets toward October…different but similar in terms of momentum.”
Can you believe they didn’t use that bit? These people have no sense of history.
Instead, they flashed Lucas Duda’s bomb to the Pepsi Porch from the eighth before making a perfunctory Sharknado reference and then moving on to how the Mets approached the trade deadline the next day and how it paid immediate dividends the ensuing weekend when the Mets exacted revenge on the Giants for a series sweep suffered in early June in San Francisco. What really disappointed me about the production, however, was they didn’t use the other aspect I wanted to talk about from the July 30 win. You’d think they could’ve at least included it as a DVD extra or something.
Here’s a partial transcript of what I told them:
“Yeah, so Murphy’s home run was huge, no doubt. And I really did jump in the air and raise a fist. I mean, I hadn’t been this excited about a given swing in quite a while. It was just one of those instinctive Mets fan reactions when something happens and your body doesn’t even know what it’s doing and your head doesn’t stop to think about it.
“But still, it was only 4-1 at that point, and Wheeler had really labored. Yet Zack’s still in there for the seventh, which on one hand you like to see, but given how many pitches he’d thrown in the early innings, I had to wonder why Terry hadn’t made a move. Sure enough, frigging Jimmy Rollins — can I say frigging? — leads off with a homer, and now it’s 4-2, and eventually Collins pulls Wheeler and brings in Dana Eveland, who’d been hit on the elbow a couple of nights earlier, and he doesn’t have it, and suddenly the Phillies have runners on first and third and Marlon Byrd of all people is coming up. I can envision the whole thing unraveling right then and there.
“In another season, Byrd hits one off of Eveland or Jon Rauch or I don’t know who, but this wasn’t another season. This was 2014, when the Mets were changing for the better — hey, maybe you guys can use that as a title: Changing For The Better. Or you can stick with the towel thing. It would be great if you could get the rights to use “Car Wash” instead of using a generic music bed. I don’t know what your budget is, but since they started playing Rose Royce at the ballpark, it would be a nice touch.
“Anyway, Eveland goes out and Jeurys Familia comes in. I was bracing for the worst, because that’s just what you do as a Mets fan with the bullpen in play and the Phillies in town and an ex-Met at the plate.
“But y’know what? I should’ve braced for not the worst. Well, no, I should always brace for the worst, because it’s when you let your guard down that the worst happens with this team. At least it was prior to 2014. I guess after winning the World Series maybe I can ease up on the precautionary thinking…no, maybe not, because that’s what helped get us here. That and what the front office did at the July 31 trade deadline. But you said you wanted to get to that later.
“Where was I? Oh yes, Byrd was up and Familia was in. Familia was so good all year, y’know? When was the last time we had an eighth-inning guy like him? Aaron Heilman? And we remember what happened with Aaron Heilman. You’re probably not going to use that, are you? Only contemporary upbeat stuff, huh? Well I was usually very upbeat about Familia and he didn’t let me down. Byrd swings at the first pitch — Marlon’s better than that, but the Phillies must’ve really wanted to get the game and the season over with — and he taps it to Wright, who throws to Duda and the Mets are out of the inning, still up, 4-2. And then comes the five in the bottom of the seventh where even Familia is driving in a run, and it’s 9-2, and at the end of the day it all looked so easy, even preordained.
“Thing is, it wasn’t. Without Familia getting Byrd out, without the kind of lockdown bullpen the Mets had after all those years when you worried about who’d leave the gate open — there, that should make your sponsors happy — we had guys who wouldn’t let leads get away at crucial junctures. I know Murphy was the hero that day, that all you asked me to do was remember where I was when Daniel hit that homer, but I had to mention Familia. That was the real fulcrum of that game, maybe the whole season. Familia’s contribution was so enormous that I was still thinking about it the next morning.
“I know the Phillies sucked…I mean…let me try that again…I know the Phillies weren’t very good, but to be a first-place team, you have to beat the last-place team, and the Mets had to beat the Phillies that day. Lose to them and it’s ‘same old Mets,’ but they weren’t the same old Mets. The whole team — Murphy, Duda, Familia — they all contributed, just like 1969.
“Maybe not exactly like 1969…what’s that? We’re out of time? Oh, OK. You sure? Because I have a couple of parallels to draw between the Mets trading for Clendenon at that year’s deadline and that deal the Mets made on July 31 this year…or should I say the deal the Mets didn’t make?”
The funny thing is I figured we were going to win this one.
The Mets have a way of hanging in there against Cole Hamels, then biting out his throat and letting us all unearth his ill-advised chokers comment to chortle over. So even though it was 2-0 and we were running out of outs, I was serenely waiting for sweet, sweet revenge.
And then Dillon Gee got in trouble and the normally reliable Josh Edgin came in and Chase Utley tried to get hit by a pitch and failed and then Edgin got a borderline call for a 2-2 count and Utley fouled one off and Utley fouled another one and then Utley hit one that I believe broke a guy’s rear window.
A guy who was parked in Islip.
Grand slam, 6-0 Phillies, and drive home safe everybody.
(Here’s a pause to cringe at the memory of the brilliant orange Los Mets jerseys. The Mets looked like traffic cones out there, and hit like them too. Still think black and pink would be a bad idea?)
But back to Utley. Forgive me, but I don’t loathe him. He’s not a shit-talker like some of his teammates, or given to domestic violence, or just generally loathsome. He just beats us, as he’s supposed to.
I don’t even hate the Phillies all that much — they’re too pathetic these days, the baseball equivalent of a broken-down car with people living in it. (Led by a shirtless Ruben Amaro Jr. waving a rusty machete and screaming for everyone to get away from his treasures.) Rather than hate Utley, I fear him – he’s expressionless and dead-eyed and always waiting for us at Citi Field, with his swing perfectly engineered for the right-field seats. I wish the Phillies would trade him somewhere he can’t hurt us — Japan might work as a start.
Anyway, you’re gonna win a third of your games and lose a third of your games and it’s what you do in the other third that matters, a baseball sage once said. Despite my seventh-inning delusions, toss this one in the pile of 54 that weren’t going to go our way. Oh well — at least the Mets will be right back at it tomorrow around noontime, and if they win that’s a series victory and a game closer to .500.
Which is increasingly what I want most out of this strange year — a milestone I’d be willing to call success. An 81-81 season, with tons of starting pitching teed up for 2015, some promising young hitters who could make the roster come July or August, and the possibility of a trade to improve the lineup before then. Is that a pathetic thing to shoot for? Maybe it is. But after these dreadful years of financial ruin and grim waiting, it would feel like a genuine step forward. We’d have a reason for honest-to-goodness hope. And we all need it.
A sportswriter once asked Yankees owner Colonel Ruppert to describe his perfect afternoon. Replied Ruppert: “It’s when the Yankees score eight in the first and then slowly pull away.”
Wrong team, different margin, but yeah — a flurry of first-inning Mets hits was all Bartolo Colon would need, and all we’d need with our team finally back home after weeks of wandering the post-All-Star Game world. Epic drama is the lifeblood of a baseball fan, but a nightly dose of it is a hard way to live: the occasional laugher makes for a very nice respite.
The only flaw exhibited, as far as I saw, was that the Mets were wearing their horrible Padres-style camo ensembles. I’m all for Military Monday and supporting the troops, but the sand-colored togs might actually be the worst outfit this team has ever worn — they’re an incoherent mess that assaults the eye more viciously than the return of the tail, the brief-lived white ice-cream hats and most everything you can think of except the Mercury Mets, and that was only for a night. Want to make Military Monday special? How about a flyover, extra introductions of men and women in uniform, and scoreboard features about Mets who served? (In fairness, I haven’t been — perhaps some or all of these things happen already.) Freedom from terrible uniforms would be a small tribute as well.
Speaking of uniforms, an interesting bit of Mets lore popped up yesterday. The Mets’ baseball logo was created in 1961 by cartoonist Ray Gotto; back around the time of QBC ’14, uniform designer Todd Radom revealed the surprising discovery that Gotto first created the logo in pink and black, with publicist Lou Niss requesting that the colors be changed to orange and blue. That was both fascinating and baffling: black was a couple of generations away from its later vogue, and pink seemed as unlikely then as it does now. But Radom kept digging and discovered yesterday that there was a perfectly logical reason for Gotto’s choice: pink and black were the colors of Greentree Stable, owned by Joan Payson and her brother John Hay Whitney.
The Mets had a glorious period in black, and pink has crept into the palette for Mother’s Day and games dedicated to fighting breast cancer. But pink and black? Maybe it’s just the aftereffects of a night gazing at Colon swathed in yards of camo, but why not try it for a night or few? I’ve always wished the Mets would try throwback uniforms designed to showcase the alternate names for the franchise — the Skyliners, Meadowlarks, Continentals et al. (I’ve long thought Skyliners would have been a badass name for a franchise, but that’s another post.)
“Meadowlarks,” in fact, was Payson’s preferred name for her club. Why not Joan Payson Night, with the Meadowlarks taking the field in their pink and black home alternate uniforms?
“The Mets — ah, the Mets! Superlatives do not quite fit them, but now, just as in 1969, the name alone is enough to bring back that rare inner smile that so many of us wore as the summer ended. The memory of what these Mets were in mid-season and the knowledge of what they became suggest that they are in the peculiar position of being simultaneously overrated and patronized in our recollection.”
—Roger Angell, 1973
Almost nobody scores runs off Jacob deGrom. Almost nobody hits home runs but Lucas Duda, but Lucas Duda hits a home run almost every day. Put those facts of Met life together, and you have a decent shot at being up by at least 1-0 in a given game started by deGrom and co-starring Duda.
Sunday, the Mets were up by twice that much. Through six innings, luxuriously locked deGrom had the Brewers thoroughly washed, set and braided, leaving them trailing the Mets by two runs, both of which scored on Duda’s 18th round-tripper of the season, his fourth since the All-Star break and the Mets’ fifth in that span. Except for Curtis Granderson reminding us he’s alive and belting one out on Saturday, it’s been all Duda all the time in the Metropolitan power department dating clear back to July 12, when Chris Young delivered his dramatic pinch-homer against the Marlins. That was more than two weeks ago.
Chris Young hasn’t hit a homer in more than two weeks and it’s still the second-most recent Mets not named Lucas Duda have managed.
Jacob and Lucas did their jobs. No other Met with a bat was doing much of anything. Once the Brewers scratched out a couple of base hits to start their seventh, another Met faction would be counted on to perform capably.
With two on and one out, deGrom heads for the hair dryer and the rest of us are left to hope the Met pen doesn’t curl up and die. It’s instinctive behavior for us to think that way. How will whoever’s coming in on the heels of another beautiful start ugly it up?
Trick question. Vic Black entered and kept the game looking sharp in its natural tones; two popups rinsed the Brewer threat out of our hair the seventh. In the bottom of the eighth, after the Mets put two on for no apparent reason in the top of the inning, Jeurys Familia was called on to maintain the Mets’ 2-0 edge. Maintain, he did, in order, no less.
“Even with the best of the short men, the brevity of their patchwork, Band-Aid labors; their habitual confinement in faraway (and often invisible) compounds during the long early stretches and eventful midpassages of the game; their languorous, cap-over-eyes postures of ennui or lassitude — are they asleep out there? — for the first two or three hours of the event; their off-putting predilection for disorder and incipient disaster; the rude intrusiveness of their extroverted pitching mannerisms into the staid game-party; their reckless way of seizing glory, or else horridly throwing away a game nearly in hand, all in the space of a few pitches — all these confirm some permanent lesser status for them: scrubs, invisible weavers, paramedics, handymen. The slur persists, I think, in spite of clear evidence that relief men — the best of them, at least — are among the most highly rewarded and most sought-after stars of contemporary baseball.”
—Roger Angell, 1985
The bottom of the ninth brought Jenrry Mejia to the mound. That’s how it works these days: Black to Familia to Mejia, with maybe Edgin mixed in if a particularly nasty lefty is lurking. They don’t individually avoid every hazard — Vic can walk guys and Josh has been known to roll around on the ground at the worst junctures imaginable — but they’ve certainly grown consistent of late, haven’t they? Consistently dependable, I mean, in case your instincts are still set on Farnsworth or Valverde or, for that matter, Manny Acosta Time.
Do you remember the last ninth-inning lead a Met reliever irretrievably mishandled? If you don’t, it’s a sign that the times, they really have a’changed. Best as I can tell, it was on June 7 at San Francisco when Mejia allowed a 4-3 lead to dissipate into a 5-4 loss. That was more than seven weeks ago. It was so long ago that I had to comb through the Met pitching logs on Baseball Reference to find one of those “BL” notations that signify a pitcher was served a double-scoop of futility: a blown save and a loss.
So in comes Mejia, whose previous six outings each merited an “S” in the box score. On SNY, it was mentioned that the last Met closer to streak that efficiently was Billy Wagner in July of 2008 (no great shakes before that sudden spurt of spectacularity, Billy would pitch three more times and then be shut down for the season, setting up that year’s bullpen for exploits likely still inducing nightmares in particularly skittish Metsopotamian precincts). Mejia was seeking his seventh save in seven consecutive outings. The last Met closer to do that? I don’t know. I assume either Jesse Orosco or Jesus Christ.
Mejia’s not necessarily a bump-free ride. An opposing batter or two reached base in five of those six saves. But none reached home. That’s key. Also helpful is not teetering on the brink of debacle. You get to do that now and then if you’re a closer, since “closer” is a subset of “human”. But you do that too often, it’s not just bad for our nerves, it’s tough on the closer’s shoulder, elbow, what have you. Goodness knows Jenrry Mejia has lost enough time to injury. He shouldn’t hurt himself and he shouldn’t hurt us.
The Brewers can be a mountain of an assignment in a ninth inning, and they presented Jenrry with multiple hills to climb. Mt. Lucroy, for example, can elevate the ball. But he grounded to short for the first out. Mt. Davis — the strangely spelled Milwaukee version that got on in the seventh, not the Oakland iteration that blocks out the Alameda County scenery — also grounded to short, but inconveniently unauthoratively. Ruben Tejada, back in the lineup Sunday after the republic nearly dissolved in his absence, made a desperate grab and throw, but Khris Davis was safe by a step. Mt. Reynolds, who might as well be a mountain, struck out, but then Mt. Segura nuisanced Mejia with a single to center.
Well, isn’t this a predicament? Two out, but two on. Lyle Overbay is the last slope Mejia must scale. He’s oh-for-two lifetime against Jenrry, which doesn’t mean much, unless you’ve watched one too many Met closers over the years, in which case you believe Overbay is overdue. After Mejia falls behind two-and-oh-no, you don’t just believe it, you’re bracing for it.
Then, one more pitch, the eighteenth of the half-inning. It becomes a grounder to second so harmless that Daniel Murphy doesn’t rush the throw to first. Call the batter Lyle Oh-for-Three. Call the pitcher 7-for-7. Call a Mets fan relieved by the relief pitching he’s been seeing over an extended period.
I love the sight of Jenrry Mejia stomping off the mound in triumph. I love the smell of reliable relief pitching in the late afternoon. It smells like…victory. We’re not used to that aroma. Met bullpens usually stink. But the one we have now is kinda sweet. I’m kinda sweet on it. On its arms. On its heart. On its insistence on not imploding.
“My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heartbreakingly difficult, that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush. A pastime, indeed.”
—Roger Angell, 2014
There were probably more than a few nights during Joe Torre’s reign as manager of our New York Mets when I clicked the dial to Channel 9, sat down clearly intent on paying attention, but then got preoccupied reading or something. Now and then I would look up and notice the Mets were losing. Come the ninth, I’d put down my book, magazine or newspaper, see a runner reach base, get my hopes up and have them dashed immediately.
That happened here in the heart of the apparently never-ending Terry Collins era Saturday night. The TV was controlled remotely, the channel was 11 and the distractions were primarily digital and feline, but the same basic formula held. I didn’t find the game gripping and the Mets came up short.
Some things change only a little.
The Mets’ lack of zazz at Miller Park, where the most interesting sidebar was provided by whatshisname the lefty being annoyed that he couldn’t get out of a jam in the fifth and wasn’t allowed to pitch anymore in the sixth, won’t be protested too harshly here, as it provides me an alibi to write about Joe Torre’s imminent Hall of Fame induction, a prospective event that would have overwhelmed with joy circa 1978 because I would have assumed he was going in for the many titles he’d be winning with the Mets in the decades ahead.
In truth, I don’t remember thinking Torre was going to manage his way into the Hall of Fame on those nights when his Mets teams weren’t particularly gripping. But I guess I learned my lesson. For the record, I don’t think Terry Collins will be joining Joe Torre in Cooperstown, though he is sort of following in his footsteps. Nobody managed the Mets for more games without guiding the team to a winning record in any given season than Joe. Take Torre out of the equation, and nobody’s managed the Mets for more games without guiding the team to a winning record in any given season than Terry.
While we’ve been sitting here waiting for that package containing the future to be dropped off by UPS, the current skipper has been racking up sustainability numbers all out of proportion to his winning percentage. Saturday’s 5-2 defeat in Milwaukee was Collins’s 590th game as Mets manager. Since the All-Star break, he has passed Casey Stengel (582) and Yogi Berra (588) to place fifth in the Metropolitan managerial longevity department. Each of them is in the Hall of Fame, too, so maybe Terry’s more of an immortal than I imagine.
Blips of promise aside, it seems he’ll never take the Mets above .500 and it seems he’ll never be dismissed based on his record, so maybe there is no putting him out of our misery. But never mind Collins, his pitcher batting eighth and his weird seasonlong fondness for Abreu and C. Young over giving every last shot to Nieuwenhuis and Brown. This is about Torre, remember?
I never grew as crabby watching Torre not win with the Mets as I do watching Terry do the same. I probably wasn’t as intermittently sour in my teens as I’ve become in middle age, or maybe I just hadn’t seen enough blah baseball yet. Also Torre seemed to hint at better days, not signify settling for waiting. Joe, who managed 709 Mets games, played in 254 Mets games and — in action far more gangsta than anything Jerry Manuel ever attempted — player-managed twice, represented progress, or at least the illusion of it.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t connect my frustrations with the often unwatchable Mets of 1977-1981 to their fearless leader. I had seen Brooklynite Torre play, both as a superstar MVP opponent and a revered veteran coming home at last. Joe was immensely experienced, undeniably local and gave good quote. Hell, he was my first baseball card. When he transitioned from the clubhouse to the manager’s office, it qualified as exciting. All Met managers prior to Torre were guys who played in the majors a million years earlier, a.k.a. before I had ever heard of baseball. Torre was a mere 36 years old when handed the keys to the roster on May 31, 1977. Joe Torre’s the manager? Why, he was hitting .300 just last year! Maybe the Mets aren’t so stodgy after all!
That conclusion was valid for approximately two weeks when management punctuated its harrumph! toward modern times by sending away the high-priced players who dared to grumble that the franchise was being run into the ground by its retrograde chairman of the board. The Mets weren’t going anywhere post-Seaver and post-Kingman in 1977, but they did have Torre, and by dint of being neither his predecessor Joe Frazier nor our albatross M. Donald Grant, he was dynamic.
Then, the next year, the Mets showed up at Shea wearing snappier uniforms, pullovers with a couple of buttons at the top and a touch of blue and orange trimming adorning cuffs and collar. With the decade 80% over, the Mets had decided to join the 1970s. Joe was still a young man as managers went and his players were those kids you were urged to bring your kids to see and they were gaining maturity right before our eyes! Right before our eyes when we bothered to look up from our book, magazine or newspaper, that is.
Was Joe Torre a good manager with bad players when he helmed the Mets? Or did he have a load of learning ahead of him to qualify for the pedestal he will be put on this afternoon upstate? I don’t know that I was sophisticated enough in the late ’70s and early ’80s to delineate, but I never minded his extended tenure and I gave him every benefit of the fifth- and sixth-place doubt. The Mets were already tumbling relentlessly into the abyss when he took over for Frazier, so I never blamed him for not rescuing them. The evanescent spurts of Magic-Is-Back type improvement, as viewed through Joe-colored glasses, obscured the shortcomings of a team that was perennially warding off 100 losses. If he didn’t seem preternaturally wise like Gil Hodges or supremely serene like Yogi Berra, he also didn’t seem out of his element like Joe Frazier.
You know how Collins’s biggest strength is that “he’s never lost the clubhouse”? Well, Lee Mazzilli seemed to like Joe Torre. Steve Henderson seemed to like Joe Torre. I liked Lee Mazzilli and Steve Henderson. That was as much Pythagorean theorem as I ever cared to apply to baseball, including the year I studied advanced algebra.
Torre was a fixture at Shea from the minute he was traded to the Mets from St. Louis in the fall of 1974, but after five years as manager, his time was up. The pace of displacement was accelerated by the installation of a new general manager. Joe may have come with the place, but Frank Cashen was entitled to make renovations. When 1981 ended no more successfully than 1980 or 1979 or 1978 or 1977, it was goodbye Torre, hello somebody else. Managers, you may have heard, are hired to be fired…except for Terry Collins, who will be telling your grandchildren’s grandchildren that the Mets are in most games; that they’re just not getting the big hit; and that he’s going to sit Flores yet again because, “It’s important that we get Ruben going.”
If you weren’t around when Torre was a Met through and through, you probably picture him in the other kind of pinstripes, the ones that never featured those neat blue and orange accents. Or maybe you just know him as the common sense-averse MLB executive in charge of keeping the Mets from wearing FDNY, NYPD and PAPD caps every September 11. He’s been exalted since October of 1996, by which time you could be pretty sure he felt secure enough to leave “NEW YORK METS, 1975-1981: Player, player-manager & manager” off his résumé.
He wasn’t exalted when we had him, but he was going to lead Mazz and Hendu and the rest of the kids to fourth place if everything broke right, and if they can get to fourth and stay close to third by the All-Star break…
When Joe Torre’s Mets had visions of first-division sugarplums dancing in my head, you can bet I put down whatever I was reading and paid rapt attention.
Torre will put down his cup of Bigelow Tea long enough to stroll arm in arm in performance-enhanced arm into the Hall with two other exalted managers: Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa. In one particular parochial context, we can lump them as a unit and consider them the Treacherous Three. Cox’s Braves beat our boys in the 1999 NLCS; Torre’s Yankees ruined the Subway World Series of 2000; and La Russa was the one who started Jeff Suppan in Game Seven in 2006 and closed with Adam Wainwright. Not incidentally, also ensconced in Cooperstown as managers are the late Dick Williams, from the 1973 A’s, and Tommy Lasorda of the 1988 Dodgers.
In other words, every manager who has succeeded against the Mets in October has been honored for depriving us of an extra ring or five. You could view that as something of a slap at our sanity, but I prefer to take it as a cosmic compliment, as if various Veterans Committees decided the hardest thing a manager can do in baseball is keep the Mets from a championship. Once you step right up and beat the Mets, however, you’ve really earned your plaque.
Conversely, not in the Hall of Fame as of this writing are the two extraordinarily talented managers who led the Mets to world championships. Label me as parochial as you like and let Walter White stir the Stevia into my Bigelow, but would you really not take Gil Hodges or Davey Johnson over any of these guys any day of the week?
It’s not so much that if you watch enough baseball, you see something new every day. It’s that if you watch enough baseball, you see something you’ve seen some other day, thus allowing you to perhaps sense what’s coming directly at you.
On the surface, the Mets’ come-from-moribund victory over the Brewers Friday night came out of nowhere. They were Dead Team Napping for eight innings, shamefully wasting another rock-ribbed effort from Zack Wheeler. Zack (6.2 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 1 ER, 9 K) was undermined by a complete lack of offense, an absence of second base defense an, ultimately, a few too many pitches thrown. Also, it was his misfortune to be paired off against Yovani Gallardo, who was just a little better and a little better supported.
The result appeared fait accompli until the Mets didn’t make the final out of the top of the eighth as initially assessed. Eric Campbell grounded a ball up the middle that ticked off Gallardo’s glove and bounced to Rickie Weeks, enabling the hustling pinch-hitter to take first, but only after a replay challenge. Campbell had originally been ruled out by Mark Ripperger, which tentatively completed Gallardo’s eighth shutout inning and allowed him to walk off the mound with a commanding 2-0 lead.
When the out was overturned by eagle-eyes of Chelsea Market, Gallardo’s night was undone. Or it was done but not as planned. Ron Roenicke took him out then and there, and while there was no immediate penalty to be paid (Will Smith struck out the slumping Curtis Granderson), I had an inkling the flow of the game had been irrevocably disrupted. Everything had gone the Brewers’ way thus far, but it could have gone further for them. Daniel Murphy had played an atrocious game in the field, yet only one unearned run scored from his well-meaning mishaps. Gallardo was masterful, yet he lost an out and now he was out of the picture.
Neither was more than a couple of pebbles in the shoe of things, but let enough pebbles accumulate and suddenly you’re stopped in your tracks. Think about all the games you’ve seen and how the disruptive influence arrived not without warning but rather the slightest sense of foreboding.
For example, rewind to October 11, 1986, Game Three, National League Championship Series. Bob Knepper is pitching for the Astros. Darryl Strawberry is batting fifth for the Mets. It’s a great matchup for Houston. During the season, nobody was worse against Knepper than Strawberry: 0-for-10, five strikeouts. No walks, no sac flies, no nothing. In the second inning of Game Three, another strikeout. But in the fourth inning, with Knepper having kept the Mets mute and the Astros loudly posting four on the board off of Ron Darling, Straw did something. Not much, but something: an infield single of the dinkiest variety.
Darryl, I thought 28 years ago, is not consigned to helplessness against Knepper anymore. He’s recorded a hit. He can do that again.
Two innings later, when Darryl came up with two on and the Mets down by three, lefty Strawberry vs. lefty Knepper loomed (at least in my mind) as a fair fight. And sure enough, Darryl got to him with a towering three-run homer to tie the game and (though a few more gripping innings would have to transpire) set the stage for Lenny Dykstra’s walkoff blast off Dave Smith, the one that reversed the trajectory of the series and, in essence, made the last world championship in New York Mets history possible.
Eric Campbell being ruled safe and Ron Roenicke removing Yovani Gallardo wasn’t Straw going deep at a critical juncture in the playoffs, but it was surely something. It was enough to make me think, as I did with that squib Darryl converted into a base hit nearly three decades earlier, that I shouldn’t assume nothing was going to happen next.
We get to the top of the ninth. It’s still 2-0. Murphy is due to lead off, using his bat and not his glove, a small victory unto itself. He’ll be facing Frankie Rodriguez, a notoriously unsettling presence in his Met days, though quite successful in his current go-round as a Brewer. The fact that he was being talked up as the all-time closer he’d been performing as lately reminded me of a Met encounter from year ago with a reliever who was Rodriguez’s temperamental opposite.
Nobody could touch Mariano Rivera, right? Especially on his farewell tour, which alighted at Citi Field on May 28, 2013. The Mets gave him gifts to toss into the back of his closet, invited him to throw the ceremonial first pitch to John Franco and, presumably, would bestow upon him the honor of collecting one more save for his scrapbook.
Except the Mets had knocked out Rivera a few times over his storied career and here, in the ninth, trailing 1-0, they opted to not be impressed by his unmatched credentials. Three batters came up, the Mets scored two runs and the great Rivera left the Metropolitan midst forevermore carrying a loss.
The batters due up against Rivera in that ninth from fourteen months earlier? Daniel Murphy, David Wright and Lucas Duda.
The batters due up Friday night in the ninth against Rodriguez? Daniel Murphy, David Wright and Lucas Duda.
These guys did it once before, was my new thought. Maybe they can do it again. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been shocked had they not, but I wasn’t going to be stunned if they did.
Murphy jumps on the first pitch and doubles. We are either very much in business or about to be incredibly frustrated. Leadoff baserunners tell you some things but not everything. Still, Daniel acquitted himself beautifully from his fielding follies and it sure as hell beat not getting on base.
Wright found himself in an oh-and-two hole. The old Frankie could have reared back and struck him out. But Rodriguez hasn’t been the old Frankie since he was a young Angel. Recent spurt of excellence notwithstanding, he’s more often just an old Frankie. Having watched him overworked as an Anaheimian (when they were my favorite American League team) and struggle as a Met, I believed in my gut that if you can keep Frankie in an at-bat, the odds of wearing him down turn in your favor. Even when he was reasonably dependable, his path to prevailing was almost inevitably fraught with drama.
Maybe that’s the case with every closer, but it really always felt that way with Frankie. Thus, when David fouled off the oh-and-two delivery and then took ball two, I fastened my seat belt for a helluva ride. David did not disappoint, driving Murph in from second and me to the conclusion that not only were the Mets not doomed, but that they might be on the verge of the opposite of doom.
Duda? Has he ever had a big hit in a ninth inning? Why, yes: against Rivera. He drove in the winning run that Subway Series night. Of perhaps more relevance, Duda hit a massive home run the night before in Milwaukee. It was barely window dressing in a 9-1 loss, but he seemed so loose about it, which wouldn’t necessarily be a factor in my thinking about anybody, except Lucas always strikes me as…I don’t want to say not quite human, but there’s something about Duda’s demeanor that suggests he was developed in a laboratory, then forgotten about by science.
When it was mentioned during the San Diego series that Lucas hailed from Southern California, I was genuinely surprised. I don’t think of Lucas Duda as being from anywhere. I just assume he materialized one day on the Mets’ organizational chart and they kept routinely promoting him, sort of like Milton in Office Space.
Nevertheless, Duda is listed on the roster as real and he hit a real, long shot on Thursday night that wasn’t a big deal on the surface, but I noticed that when he returned to the dugout — and his sensors told him to cooperate with the forthcoming human horseplay — they started in with the towels. My first instinct was to scoff that trailing by eight runs, the Mets should put the kibosh on their silly celebrations. My second instinct, however, countermanded that call. I decided it was a positive sign that the bench was engaged in a game that was about to be lost. If they haven’t truly given up when down, 9-1, maybe they won’t give up as a matter of course in whatever remains of this season.
Not giving up can pay off. Rattling a capricious closer can pay off. Keeping slight but daunting deficits from widening can pay off. Insisting on a replay review can pay off. It’s the little things that become big things, and the biggest thing was Duda swinging at Rodriguez’s first pitch and beaming it toward his home planet, or at least Wauwatosa. The 2-0 defeat to which the Mets were sentenced was commuted in the space of eight pitches: one to Murphy, six to Wright, one to Duda.
One less than the same trio needed to torpedo Rivera.
Rodriguez stayed on the mound, looking less than confident and being somewhat shy of effective, but got out of the top of the ninth with no further scoring. Hence, Jenrry Mejia would be called on to preserve a 3-2 Mets’ lead.
And what does he do? He walks the leadoff hitter, Jonathan Lucroy. It’s a six-pitch battle that puts Mejia in a hole. Jenrry’s been so good for so long (in the annals of Met closing, a couple of superlative months equals an eternity), yet this is a recipe for disaster. Milwaukee’s a first-place club. They can turn this thing around as quickly as it turned around on them. Who the hell wants to play the victim on Brewers Classics?
Maybe that wasn’t going to happen. Maybe Mejia was going to dip into his multifaceted arsenal and confound the next three Brewer batters. But, boy, give an assist to Ron Roenicke for some very helpful managing. I’m not sure Jenrry Mejia has a shiny new save without him.
Logan Schaefer was sent up to bunt. I didn’t love it because it seemed like something I’d seen Terry Collins instruct far too often, but OK, play for the tie at home and all that. Maybe it’s worth a shot.
Except at one-and-one, Mejia throws Schaefer ball two, a plainly unbuntable pitch. Yet Schaefer offers and misses. It was a misguided attempt. More misguided was Roenicke’s insistence on telling him to do it again. Another desperate bunt brought Schaefer contact with only air.
The game was basically over right there. Sure, Carlos Gomez could have killed us (he’d homered in the seventh) and Rickie Weeks was as capable as anyone of burying us, but Roenicke short-sheeted his club’s bed before they could make it and lie in it. Or make Mejia lie in it. Either way, Mejia struck ’em both out and the Mets, once sure losers, were certified winners.
The clichés don’t matter. Except for the one about never saying die.
Need a scapegoat for your favorite fourth-place team in the whole wide world? Blame Dillon Gee for the pounding the Mets absorbed Thursday night in Milwaukee. Blame Matt Garza for maintaining the deep freeze at such a cold temperature where the New Yorkers’ bats were concerned. Blame gravity for pulling the Mets down to earth since the All-Star break ended.
Blame me for getting a little too excited lately.
It happens every summer of recent vintage. Take any season since the current endless era commenced and you’ll know where I’ll be: watching cynically, blogging morbidly, rooting as if the pocket schedule was printed solely for the purpose of tracking a Met-aphorical Bataan Death March. Nevertheless, when I detect the tiniest speck of sustained Met momentum, you can’t find the bulk of me, because my heart, my soul and a chunk of my head have jumped out of my skin.
Where did most of me go? Why, to meet the unrealistic expectations.
Yo! I’m right here, hunched over the standings with a loupe pressed to my eye searching out signs that this latest Met run is fo’ reals!
And when I’ve determined to my satisfaction that it is indeed for real (to say nothing of fo’ reals), I do two things:
1) I get quietly but almost completely carried away.
2) I bring the ayin hora upon the Mets. For you nice ladies and gentlemen out there who didn’t grow up around random scraps of the Yiddish language, that’s more or less “evil eye” in American.
In any tongue, my enthusiasm has been bad luck dating back to 2010 (I had no enthusiasm in 2009).
• Began to take the Mets’ chances as legitimately serious in late June of that modestly promising campaign. They were laughable before July was over.
• They impressed me as on the come in late July 2011. They came and went come early August.
• I held out against pervasive giddiness across the exquisitely pitched June of 2012, yet found myself exploding with hope shortly after the Fourth of July. The twilight’s last gleaming was the next sight I saw.
• A pretty good six weeks between mid-June and late July of 2013 tentatively pulled me back in. The evil eye spit me back out ASAP in one distasteful phlegm globber.
In 2014, I didn’t wander terribly far off the reality-based reservation, but I will cop to having spent last Saturday morning and afternoon in the deepest state of Mets euphoria I had known since the weekend of the no-hitter, even though I knew by lounging there I had pretty much wrecked whatever hope remained for the rest of this year. The way they won last Friday night in San Diego…the way they didn’t lose last Friday night in San Diego…the way they looked as good right after the All-Star break as they had for a week before…the way they’d been getting one good start after another…the way the latest iteration of the youth movement was coalescing…the way the youth movement that came before it was finally maturing…
I could end every thought with a kine ayin hora as a buffer against the jinx of excessive optimism, but it was too late. I was too happy. I knew the Mets couldn’t handle it. And they haven’t. At least not in the short term, going 2-4 since winning that first game at Petco Park, hitting barely a lick in that span and appearing as dreadful, deflated and defeated last night as they have all year.
All you kids out there may not believe me, but there was a time when you could get excited about a Mets team getting its act together and not reflexively expect the show to close. Instead the excitement would lead to more excitement because the show kept getting better and better.
Such a time revealed itself to me in full exactly 30 years ago last night in a ballpark far, far away. It was the Shea Stadium of 1984 — an edifice that had survived an epic of despair so despondent that it made these present mediocre Met days at Citi Field seem like a Brewer cakewalk in Miller Park.
On July 24, 1984, I was at Shea Stadium for the first time since July 8, 1983. In late July of 1983, I was so overcome by disgust that the Mets had failed to materially improve across seven incompetent seasons that I pledged to keep my distance for the rest of that summer. Though the last-place Mets shook off their cobwebs on the last day of that July and finished as strong as they possibly could (albeit still in last), I stayed true to my word. I was due back at college by the last week in August, anyway, which made my resistance of rebuilding’s siren song academic after a few weeks. But I felt I’d made my point.
When the next Opening Day rolled around, I was still away at school and the Mets were still an aggravating enterprise. They were clobbered by the Reds in Cincinnati and it didn’t seem much of anything that had defined the franchise since 1977 had changed. But then they won the second game of the 1984 season. And the third game. And in the fourth game, they took the wraps off a kid named Dwight Gooden and won that one. And after seven games, the New York Mets — whose composite record since their last winning season was 434-641 — were playing .857 ball.
The Mets were 6-1 to start 1984. It would be a bit of an exaggeration to add “…and they never looked back,” because there were spells when the downs outnumbered the ups, and as late as June 1, the Mets were in fourth place, having won no more games than they had lost (22-22). Yet it’s barely any exaggeration to say once they reeled off those six consecutive wins succeeding the Opening Day loss that I never looked back. I took the Mets to be as real as real could be.
This was based primarily on staring at box scores and peering a hole through wire service accounts, because not only did my spring semester run to the end of April but I was already committed to a humid summer term in Florida that would keep me away from Shea clear through the All-Star break. Save for stray appearances on the NBC Game of the Week and ABC’s Monday Night Baseball (plus the good graces of the Atlanta Braves radio network), the 1984 Mets’ ascendancy was broadcast mainly in my imagination.
I imagined that their climb up the National League East ladder — no lower than second place by July 1, an extended stay in first place beginning July 7 — was exactly what was supposed to be happening. I didn’t fret overthinking their rise. I didn’t have any sense that confidence could beget karmic cockiness, with pride going before a fall, or anything like that. And it never occurred to me that the Mets playing this well was a temporary condition.
If the Mets were good, they were supposed to be good.
If the Mets were good, they were going to get better.
If the Mets were good, they would eventually be the best.
On Tuesday night, July 24, 1984, you might say I went to the apex of my leap when I finally made it back to Shea. Everything had changed since my last visit. There were people. There was noise. There was hope. There was a first-place team in the home uniforms. I had never seen that. I had never seen a game like this, one in which the Mets and Cardinals slugged it out, exchanging leads like they were wrong-size sweaters from Alexander’s. Mets up, 3-0, in the third. Then the Cardinals ahead, 4-3, in the fourth. Then the Mets scoring three in the bottom of the inning to go up, 7-4. The Cardinals with two in the seventh and two in the eighth to lead, 8-7. Then a Met run that tied in the eighth.
Then the hit I can still see thirty years and a day later, Keith Hernandez lining a tenth-inning pitch from none other than Neil Allen up the middle to plate Mookie Wilson with the winning run. Mets 9 Cardinals 8. Plus the Cubs lost in Philadelphia, so our lead had expanded to 3½. The Mets were 20 over .500 for the first time since the blessed year of 1969, a year I remembered a little, but I was all of six then, so I couldn’t say I remembered all that much. This, at 21, I was soaking up so I would never forget it.
Hernandez theatrically getting the best of the pitcher for whom he was traded thirteen months earlier.
Keith proving himself forever the clutchest of Mets, not only coming through in an RBI opportunity in the tenth, but also in the third, the fourth and the eighth. The Mets scored in four innings and Keith drove in a runner from scoring position in each of them.
The cheers. Ohmigod, the cheers as Keith triumphed over Neil. The paid attendance was listed at 36,749, which seemed light compared to how it sounded and felt in the Upper Deck. Whatever the total in the house, I’m convinced 99% of the crowd had, like me, spent the previous seven years waiting and waiting and waiting for a night like this and was holding back its cheers for just this moment. Boy did we let them out.
And the chants. Ohmigod, the chants as we floated down those ramps. I never heard chanting in any of the previous 29 games I’d attended at Shea dating back to 1973. After 1973, all potential relevant chants would have been unfit for Family Sundays had such animals existed then. In 1984, the resounding ramp chant that exclaimed “STEINBRENNER SUCKS!” probably wouldn’t have passed muster for inclusion in the next day’s papers (not even the Post), but it rang out loud, clear and spiritually appropriate. And there was no disputing accuracy of “WE’RE NUMBER ONE!” whether the allusion was to the standings or the city.
Funny, I don’t remember “LET’S GO METS!” on the ramps. I think it was implied.
One other thing I remember from that night. It happened long after Joel Lugo and I finally escaped the parking lot (more than 36,749 cars there, I’m pretty sure). We were almost back to Long Beach, riding in relative silence, when I couldn’t help myself to pose a riddle of sorts:
“You know who’s in first place in the National League East? The New York Mets are!”
Joel kind of grunted, as if to ask, “Yeah, so what else is new?” I could see where he’d be blasé. He’d been around all summer. The Mets had been a first-place team on and off since the middle of June all around him. Though I hadn’t seen it up close until that Tuesday night, I had known it as fact even if I didn’t completely appreciate its depth until I was embedded in the middle of it.
Nevertheless, I had gotten so used to the Mets leading their division that — except for the “whoa!” moment in the car — I hadn’t really stopped to pinch myself. Historical perspective would be saved for decades later. For now, it was about sweeping the Cardinals the next day (30 years ago today) and Doc taking care of the Cubs when they came to town on Friday night and the 1984 Mets reaching the apex of their leap at 59-37, 4½ ahead.
When their unstoppable momentum inevitably sputtered and the Cubs blew by them, there was no immediate inclination to step back and appreciate all the progress that had transpired. The Mets were good, yet finishing 90-72, 6½ back in second, wasn’t good enough. The season the Mets improved by 22 games and wiped away seven years of stone misery concluded, in real time, as a little bit of a disappointment.
Of course it did. After living through a night like the one I lived through 30 years ago last night, it was impossible to imagine anybody but the Mets in first place.
You know things are strange when Greg Prince violates a baseball taboo.
The email arrived about midway through Bartolo Colon‘s attempt at retiring 27 straight Seattle Mariners, with the subject line HERESY. “I’m not feeling more than minimally emotionally invested in Bartolo Colon’s particular effort today,” Greg wrote to me.
He didn’t spell out what that effort was, and he acknowledged still being superstitious, but this is asterisk stuff. Because there was the email, its subject matter very plain. And what did I do? I didn’t scream about jinxes and respect and losing one’s mind. Instead, I laughed. Because I was feeling the same way. I’d noticed that Colon hadn’t allowed a hit, walk, error or other imperfection, but I wasn’t glued to my iPad as he chased history. I was working, with somewhere between half an eye and one and a half eyes on the game.
Why the relative lack of psychic urgency on both our parts? I can think of a ton of reasons.
First of all, it’s Mets-Mariners, which is not the kind of thing that gets the blood pumping. It’s the stuff of shrugs and eye rolls.
Second, 3:30 pm for a midweek baseball game is just bizarre. My internal baseball clock is pretty well-calibrated, but it has no setting for 3:30 pm.
Third, it was so far away. We’ve joked in these parts about San Diego being West Kamchatka, but if so then Seattle is Ulan Bator. (Some disclosures of sorts: Seattle is lovely and you should visit, and the West Kamchatka joke’s on me since I’m heading to San Diego tomorrow morning.)
Fourth, no insult whatsoever to Colon, but he’s Matt Harvey‘s understudy, brought in on an emergency basis with the understanding that we shouldn’t count on him seeing a second April 1 … or even a first September 1. “A perfect game would enhance Bartolo’s trade value,” I thought at one point, which should be horrifying but still strikes me as fairly sensible.
Anyway, when Colon got into the seventh my blood finally stirred to sluggish flow, because despite all of the above, wouldn’t that be a thing? A Mets perfect game? Or even a Mets no-hitter that would survive the age of instant replay? The combination of At Bat and my iPad left me about a minute behind game action, so I was hiding from Mets Twitter and getting impatient with At Bat’s freezes and dropouts, yet I was too superstitious to switch to a real TV.
Then Robinson Cano lined a clean single to left and I thought, “Oh well.” Which is good — Johan Santana cured Mets fandom of waiting to lament a terrible curse, leaving us free to cheer for perfection because it’s kind of neat. Which is less epic but so much healthier. When Cano’s ball touched down, we all moved on — and being Mets fans, we were soon caught in the familiar trajectory that moves inexorably from WOW MAYBE PERFECT to OH NO A HIT to UGH WE COULD LOSE THIS ONE. (Happily, we didn’t.)
With Colon thwarted, the most compelling part of the game was watching the Mariners’ talented young hurler Taijuan Walker go about his business. Walker is big and dripping with talent — he’s got a nice arsenal of pitches and natural movement. But he’s also raw — next time you grumble about Zack Wheeler, compare him with what you saw from Walker today. Walker has so much movement that he’d probably be better served trying to back off his adrenaline, throwing the ball down the middle of the plate and letting physics take care of the rest. But he can’t do that … maybe not ever, but certainly not yet. He was wild in the first, escaping with just one run surrendered, untouchable in the second and third, then wild again in the fourth. There are no guarantees in baseball, but sometimes you are pretty sure a young pitcher is going to come unglued again and stay that way. That’s what happened to Walker, in scary fashion: In the fifth, he cracked Ruben Tejada‘s helmet with a fastball to the right of the NY decal, one that left Tejada dazed but one hopes unhurt. (A diagnosis the Mets should make very conservatively.) Walker clearly shied from throwing his fastball in anger after that and was gone after a sixth-inning meltdown.
Walker’s got a lot of talent. He doesn’t know what to do with it yet, which isn’t any kind of sin. Contrast him with Colon, who works with a much smaller arsenal but has learned how to make amazingly effective use of it, outfoxing hitters by joining pinpoint location with slight changes in fastball velocity. The difference? A big part of it is that Bartolo Colon is 41 and Taijuan Walker’s 21. Seriously — Colon signed a pro contract with the Indians when Taijuan Walker was a year old.
Pitching’s tough. It’s great to be given a lightning bolt for an arm, but it can be the work of a baseball lifetime learning how to use that weapon to perfection. Or near enough to perfection, anyway.
You know that feeling of serene confidence you get as a Mets fan when they give their pitcher an early lead? Probably not, but it’s been known to exist. It existed for me Tuesday night. I was as surprised as anybody that it did.
In the second, Mariner center fielder James Jones’s eyes proved bigger than his glove, enabling a Travis d’Arnaud sinking liner to triple its word score and drive home Bobby Abreu. Soon-to-be-dinged Ruben Tejada — who apparently serves as his own backup on the infielder-deprived Mets — proceeded to single Travis in from third, putting the Mets up, 2-0. I assessed the situation and very matter-of-factly thought, OK, we’re good. They gave deGrom two runs. He’ll do the rest.
Serenity now? What an odd sensation, but it proved prescient. True, a few more runs off the otherwise impenetrable Erasmo (a.k.a. AWESOM-O) Ramirez would have been welcome…and, yes, Daniel Murphy did try to make it more of a contest than it had to be when he received a relay from Juan Lagares and fired it clear to Walla Walla…and, sure, eventually I assumed all would go to Pacific Northwestern hell, a dark nether region that I imagine reeks of coffee and mildew…yet when the Mets supplied Jacob deGrom with a two-run margin, I figured all would end well.
And it did. The Mets captured their first-ever win in Seattle, thanks mainly to the pitcher who’s making a strong case to supplant C.J. Wilson as baseball’s primary shampoo pitchman. The Rapunzel of the Met rotation went beautifully long once again — 7 IP, 1 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 7 SO — and as he commenced to mow down every teammate of Endy Chavez’s (who are these American Leaguers we keep bumping into?), Gary Cohen would intermittently refer to this or that freshman hurler from the Metropolitan mists whose precedent deGrom was meeting and matching. No Met rookie pitcher had done what Jacob’s been doing as a matter of course since Dwight Gooden! Or Nolan Ryan! Or Jerry Koosman!
Those are names that’ll grab your attention even as you’re crossing midnight and drifting into a field of dreams.
DeGrom really has been quite effective. Over his past six starts, he’s posted an ERA of 1.59 in 39.2 innings, striking out 45 batters while allowing only 45 baserunners. He’s been the best pitcher the Mets have sent moundward every five days for a solid month, which explains why Terry Collins was publicly contemplating shoving him into the bullpen for his own good; keeping his most talented kids from filling primary roles is a critical component of the skipper’s mediocrity protection program.
Given the various pains that have afflicted every other starter this season, whether they’ve been physical (Gee, Niese), growing (Wheeler) or the result of growing inexorably older (Colon), deGrom has begun to feel like the ace around here. I usually consider “ace” an overblown title. You know who you need to be the ace of your staff? Everybody. You need an ace every night. Or you need whoever’s pitching to pitch like an ace when it’s his turn. Since late last August, the Mets have had several guys live up to that description for stretches.
Gee finished 2013 as the most dependable of Mets. There was a spell earlier this season when Colon could calm your nerves and disrupt a losing streak. Niese, when not appraising the caliber of our fandom as something quite ordinary, bordered on the extraordinary. And on occasion Wheeler’s leaps forward have dazzled us enough to make us forget the stumbles and falls he’s taken along the way. These days, it’s deGrom getting his ace on, proving it’s never too soon to a) get carried away by a rookie pitcher on a roll and b) blow away batters in opposing uniforms.
You know when I didn’t consider “ace” an overblown title? Last year until August 26 when we had an ace who pitched like an ace every five days and I looked forward to that fifth day and even when his offense didn’t sufficiently support him, I didn’t much fret because I looked at Matt Harvey and decided with long dormant but deeply ingrained Seaverian certainty, “He’s got this.”
What he got soon enough was his unsettlingly common Tommy John surgery, followed by his own brand of Tommy Hilfiger rehab. Though Matt’s on the scene half the time (I live for those stray shots of him just chillin’ in the Citi Field dugout), he’s not on the mound at all. You can’t say starting pitching hasn’t been a strength for these otherwise scuffling 2014 Mets, but you can’t tell me Harvey’s injury and absence didn’t create a void, at least spiritually. Matt not pitching certainly torpedoed my spirits.
Jacob pitching as he has and evoking so many past masters in the process has undoubtedly lifted them.
An unwelcome thought crept into my head somewhere between the 45th reference to it being David Wright‘s 10-year anniversary as a big leaguer and the moment the Mets stopped losing and crept away into the mossy Northwest night:
How many lousy nights like this has David Wright gone through, anyway?
The answer, as best I can determine: 824.
The Mets are 802-824 in Wright’s tenure, which is probably a bit better than you’d expected, and should make us all stop for a moment and think about how bad we’d be without him. Which is something we don’t do nearly enough.
I was there that first night, July 21, 2004 — I cajoled my friend Tim into going to see this heralded new Mets rookie at Shea. He didn’t get a hit but I recall him making a mildly perilous catch of a pop-up near the enemy dugout. That enemy was the Montreal Expos, soon to go extinct at Shea with the Mets as their final adversary. (I was there for that too.) Wright didn’t get a hit, but the Mets won, 5-4, bringing their record for the season to 47-47.
They finished the year at 71-91.
After opening the Wright Era with a win, the Mets promptly lost four in a row. Their season imploded thanks to a 2-19 horror show that spanned late August and early September, which led to the team firing Art Howe and Howe agreeing to stay on until season’s end anyway, which says a lot about all involved. In retrospect, Wright should have lit out for the territories somewhere around the time the Mets were getting drubbed for a fourth straight day by the 2004 Padres, perhaps popping up on an independent-league team with a fake name and a pasted-on mustache. That way he might have landed a job with a real outfit.
He stayed, though, of course. Oh boy, did he stay. Within a year he was the heir apparent to what passes for glory in Metsian precincts, a young slugger whose ability to drive the ball was matched only by his ability to work a count and ensure he got a pitch to hit. Down the stretch of the marvelous 2006 season, I kept telling anybody and everybody that the player Wright really reminded me of was my departed favorite Edgardo Alfonzo — if a pitcher got Wright in an 0-2 hole, you still had faith that he would ignore sliders diving away from him and foul off tough fastballs until the count was 2-2 or 3-2 and the pitcher finally surrendered and gave him a ball he could drive.
That David Wright doesn’t really exist anymore, and where he went is one of the more puzzling questions about the Mets. Possibly he vanished with the departure of the supporting cast that let Wright grow into the polished hitter he was. Maybe he disappeared when the Mets put Wright into a park seemingly engineered to turn his homers into doubles and his doubles into outs. Perhaps he was last sighted when Matt Cain hit him in the batting helmet with a fastball. An 0-2 count on David Wright is no longer the prelude to a long at-bat — Wright goes fishing now, trying to do too much.
And that’s the way we should put it: trying to do too much. Because Wright’s work ethic and desire are unassailable even when all around him is in shambles. I suspect if I somehow woke up in Wright’s body I would immediately gasp and call for an EMT. He’s played with a broken back, a busted shoulder and all manner of non-routine baseball injuries he shrugs away as routine. He’s always been dutiful at his locker, patiently answering annoying question after annoying question after cruddy loss after cruddy loss. Behind the scenes, we’ve learned, he can be both a hard-nosed leader and a thoroughly decent employee. Recently we read about Wright yanking Matt Harvey aside for a talking-to about the responsibilities that would come with rehabbing his elbow in New York instead of in St. Lucie. The key to this epic tale of Jay Horwitz’s butt-dialing? It’s that Horwitz kept mistakenly sending flight itineraries intended for a Mets administrative assistant named Dianne to a Mets third baseman named David. Because he’s who he is, Wright figured out who Dianne was and patiently emailed each misdirected message to her. Stand on the field near Wright before a Mets game and what will strike you most of all is the exhausting frenzy of attention that surrounds him. Every time Wright moves, dozens of eyes follow him. Every time he pauses, voices call out his name frantically. Mets people are always at his elbow, quietly asking him to do one more thing. Which he invariably does, gracious where any of the rest of us would have snapped and put up a indignant stop sign or fled.
(My favorite David Wright memory will never make the Diamondvision, because it’s a little thing no one else remembers: Last summer the Mets were in Washington, and Wright wound up near the stands with a ball that had landed foul. He looked into the seats and looking back were a) a pretty young woman in a Nats top and b) two schlubby dudes in Mets gear. The pretty woman in the Nats top beamed at Wright. The dudes stood there being schlubby. Wright looked at the woman, hesitated … and handed the ball to one of the Mets fans.)
And hey, David Wright’s still pretty darn good. Some time next season he’ll overhaul Darryl Strawberry in career home runs and claim the only all-time team batting mark that still eludes him. One can’t say he’s on his way to a Hall of Fame career, because you never say that at the 10-year mark. But you can say that if Wright comes anywhere close to his last 10 years over his next 10, he’s a shoo-in. Similarly, you can’t say he’ll finish up a storied career in our uniform, because the future remains stubbornly unwritten. But you can say that it’s clear the Mets want him to do that and Wright wants to do that.
Will he be rewarded for that decision with meaningful games in September, return trips to the playoffs and a World Series ring or two? You’d have to ask the Wilpons, the baseball gods and Sandy Alderson, in that order. One certainly hopes so, for his sake. (We’d be happy too.) I can imagine a graying, slightly thicker David Wright putting his first baseman’s glove in his locker and talking about how great the fans have been and how much he’s loved New York City. Then someone asks him if he regrets never playing in a World Series. Wright nods, his brow knits for a moment and his eyes go far away. And then he starts talking about fate and luck and enjoying the game and playing it right. His answer isn’t illuminating, but he doesn’t duck the question, and he smoothly steers the discussion back to how great the fans have been and how much he’s loved New York City. And then when nobody needs anything else from him, the lights turn off and he can finally go.