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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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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 that 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 overlookingwhat 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 National 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.

Waiting for Larry

Five of us had tickets for the entire Mets-Phillies twi-night doubleheader Monday. More than five, according to official attendance figures, but I refer specifically to myself, the three people with whom I’ve been friends longer than anybody and the son of one of those people. I showed up well in advance of first pitch to meet them as planned. Fred (who came from Baltimore) and Joel and his college-age offspring Max (from Northern California) met me by the Apple in the bottom of the first. Good thing they got there when they did, I kidded, because god forbid I have any less than seventeen innings of baseball ahead of me tonight.

Ha ha. Yeah, right.

Larry, who doesn’t live nearly as far from Citi Field as Joel, Max and Fred, wasn’t with them. They weren’t quite sure where he was, though Fred received a text from Larry informing him he was just about to step into the shower and would soon be on en route.

Unless the shower was the same one favored by Chris Flexen after a short outing, something told me we weren’t going to see seventeen innings of baseball.

We didn’t. We waited for Larry instead. We waited by the Apple a little. We waited by the Shea markers in the parking lot a little. Then we retired to McFadden’s for air conditioning, hydration and SNY. We watched Brandon Nimmo, Jose Bautista and Asdrubal Cabrera (who I had heard homer in my earbuds just as Joel, Max and Fred were arriving) produce two runs to give Zack Wheeler a 3-2 lead in the third. By the time Wheeler gave the lead back in the fourth, we were done with our beverages and figured we’d give the Apple another try on the extremely off chance that a freshly showered Larry would be waiting for us there.

Ever hang out outside Citi Field while a game is in progress? You should. I don’t know why you would, but you should, especially if it’s a beautiful late afternoon and a game is going on inside. It’s counterintuitive to not enter the ballpark. We had tickets. We intended to use them. Larry, the least baseball-conversant among us, had the very solid idea that we all get together for the first time in ten years at a Mets game. It didn’t seem right to not wait for Larry. It also seemed one logistical twist too far to explain to Larry what Will Call is and where his ticket might be left for him.

So we waited, back at the Apple. We waited and we listened. The speakers you usually hear on your way in, the ones blaring messages about factory-sealed bottles of water, are tuned to WOR, same as they are in the Citi Field bathrooms. This is better than listening to the game in the bathroom. I don’t know if it’s as good as watching the game from the seats you are ticketed to sit in, but, hey, Larry had to take that shower. Fred, Joel and I tacitly agreed trading a few innings of live baseball for the chance to continue with our stream of “so, think Larry’s still in the shower?” jibes was as good as any exchange any Mets GM will execute between now and July 31.

Howie and Josh kept us apprised of the 3-3 game that never changed its score. Now and then a text would materialize from Larry. He was leaving Manhattan. He was getting on the subway. The subway was held up. Delayed, he meant, not like The Taking of Pelham 123. We watched the foot traffic coming down from the 7. None of the feet belonged to Larry. We listened to Howie and Josh in the sixth, the seventh, the eighth. No runs from the Phillies, no runs from the Mets.

Here’s the thing, among other things: I couldn’t have this game end without me being inside to witness at least a sliver of it. I mean I could, but then I couldn’t inscribe it in my Log, which would mean that for all intents and purposes, it would mean I didn’t go to a doubleheader, which was the whole attraction of this convergence of old compadres. This was a once-in-a-decade rendezvous to begin with. Two games for the price of one elevated it. Or it would if we got to see some of Game One. Any of Game One.

Larry descended from those steps as the Mets batted in the bottom of the ninth. He entirely missed the Apple. He didn’t grasp from our return texts that we had decided to continue to wait for him, so he didn’t bother to look for that gigantic piece of fruit everybody and his uncle is attracted to and poses for pictures in front of (I wonder how many I incidentally showed up in Monday). Larry honestly figured we’d had the good sense to go inside and leave him to his own ticket-procuring devices. Yet waiting for Larry made sense to Fred and Joel and me. It didn’t register as anything remotely logical to Max, but Max didn’t go to high school with Larry and, besides, Max managed to occupy himself with his phone.

We captured Larry’s attention. Larry was incredulous that we waited for him. He offered detailed explanations and sincere apologies. I distributed tickets and led us through the security gauntlet. Devin Mesoraco batted with two out. Over the speakers, Howie mentioned Devin’s proclivity for late-inning home runs. I rooted for Devin to not be so hasty. Let me get inside and get a glimpse at this game you’re trying to win first.

Mesoraco cooperated as best he could. He made an out. We got in. There was still some Opener to absorb. Bonus Opener. Tim Peterson worked through the top of the tenth as we ascended to Promenade. We made our way to our seats in 514 as the bottom of the tenth commenced. We sat down in time to observe Wilmer Flores insist he was nicked by a Victor Arano pitch. Video review insisted he wasn’t.

Then we stood up because Wilmer swung and connected for a fly ball that was deep enough and, yes, fair enough to serve as the game-winning home run off the left field foul pole. For everybody inside Citi Field, it was a walkoff. For us, it doubled as a leadoff. It also created the most unlikely of streaks. The last time Joel, Fred, Larry and I took in a ballgame together, it ended on David Wright’s only walkoff home run, August 7, 2008, our farewell to Shea as a group, which was an overwhelming moment in the life of this fan. That afternoon, my stadium, my amigos, my third baseman…an exquisite collaboration of characters and circumstances. It was all that could be asked for. The only discordant note I recall was Fred innocently suggesting what fun it would be to do this at still under-construction Citi Field at some future date. He meant no harm, but I bristled. Shea and I had more dates together as of early August 2008. Don’t talk to me about Citi Field.

That was a decade ago and a lot of water under the Shea Bridge. Joel and Max joined me at Citi Field in 2014, but we never got the whole gang assembled again until July 9, 2018. It took us nearly ten years and we required a tenth inning, but there we were, once more celebrating a Mets game won on one swing of the bat. And not just anybody’s bat, but Wilmer Flores’s, the bat that has won more games in walkoff fashion than any in Mets history. Flores beating the Phillies at Citi Field in 2018 wasn’t as emotional for me as Wright beating the Padres at Shea Stadium in 2008, but it was every bit as much fun. Plus we had the shower jokes. We’ll always have those now.

We also had a second game for which we could kick back and not take overly seriously. Corey Oswalt pitched credibly, Aaron Nola pitched better. He also hit better than all the Mets combined, driving in all three Phillie runs after Mickey Callaway ordered an intentional walk to Maikel Franco with two on and two out in the fifth to load the bases for him. Who’d think a pitcher with a batting average under .100 would double there? Who’d think four people would wait nine innings outside a baseball game for a fifth person who didn’t seriously expect such an extensive courtesy?

For the rest of the nightcap, which the Mets predictably went on to lose with minimal resistance, we treated the intentional walk with scorn. It became, in essence, the Larry’s shower of the second game, even if the baseball-conversant among us understood why it was issued. Anybody who knows baseball would get it.

Joel, Fred and I got why we waited as long as we did for Larry, even if nobody else would. But we’ve known one another for ages. It made all the sense in the world to us.

Same Time, This Year

Losing by the same score as a forfeit is just too on-the-nose as Met-aphors go, but there’s no compelling reason to leave room for interpretation after a 2018 Mets loss so dismal it would have fit snugly inside the disaster known as 2017.

Ah, remember 2017? Probably and probably not, I’d reckon. Sure, it was only a year ago, and you can’t have possibly forgotten how for six months we’d seemingly only lose and wallow in the mire. Yet the way this season has crumbled has likely overshadowed just what a disappearing act Terry Collins’s final crew pulled. One of the themes I keep revisiting of late is that while, yes, this right now is unquestionably awful, no, it is not unprecedented for awfulness. I don’t need to hark back to 1962 or 1979 or 1993 to make that point. I need merely take only one quick step in reverse.

The differences may appear subtle to the naked eye, but what materially separated the dregs of 2018 from the depths 2017 until Sunday, to my thinking, was something Mickey Callaway continually references. It’s not to his credit, but I honestly see what he’s been getting at. Over and over, when the Mets are doing and scoring nothing, he says they’re really and truly in the games they’re losing. I want to rinse and spit every time he goes there, but he hasn’t been wholly incorrect. Saturday’s 3-0 loss, for example, was a lot like many 2018 losses. They weren’t blown out. They stayed close. Hell, they led off with a baserunner in seven different innings en route to being shut out. Had something or other gone right (or not gone wrong), maybe they’d have won (or not lost). Same could have been said on numerous fairly well-pitched, relatively razor’s-edge occasions.

It’s not much to cling to — in my harsher moods, I’d call it loser talk — but I can understand why a neophyte manager who has watched his team fall short over and over might want to grab for the slightest of twigs on the slimmest of branches. Callaway’s job is to figure out how to turn those agonizing losses into wins. They’re so close he can taste victory. It’s gotta be killing him that he can’t get them across the line.

Sunday afternoon at Citi Field obliterated the vague sense the Mets were missing just a little something here or there. Sunday afternoon at Citi Field they missed everything by a mile. Most damningly, Sunday afternoon at Citi Field could have been most any Sunday afternoon at Citi Field in 2017, the year when the Mets practically never won a Sunday afternoon home game and were habitually steamrolled Monday through Saturday wherever they played.

The Sunday business last year could be chalked up as anecdotal or coincidental, but what was consistent among all days of the week in 2017 was the Mets landing on the wrong side of lopsided scores. There was always an 11-4 bashing waiting around the corner, with a 12-5 mashing lurking in the shadows behind it, and a 14-3 trashing waiting in the wings. How apropos that 2017 ended with an 11-0 beatdown.

Twenty Eighteen seemed to pick up in earnest where 2017 left off on Sunday, as the Rays stomped the Mets, 9-0, a no-contest marked mostly by Nathan Eovaldi carrying a perfect game into the seventh, but also noteworthy for Tampa Bay facing the minimum number of New York batters until the ninth. Throw in mediocre outfield play by each of its components and an ill-advised start by 2017 desperation days alumnus Chris Flexen (three innings, five runs, ERA up to 12.79), and whatever edge in style points this year had versus last year fully dissipated. Not that 2018 was exactly being heroic by comparison otherwise. As putrid as 2017 was, the Mets briefly hinted at competence as the first half slogged into the second. They won sixteen of twenty-six between June 25 and July 25, keeping lit the faintest ember of hope for anybody who figured if they could rise from the doldrums in 2015 and 2016, maybe the third time could be a charm, too.

Illusions of contention never gained a ton of traction, but the 2017 Mets did hover within four games of .500 with a little more than a third of the season remaining. They weren’t fooling anybody, but — and here’s something I wasn’t planning on saying in the present — they weren’t this bad. They would get this bad and perhaps worse in August and September, but they kept one fingernail on respectability’s outer edge for longer than it seemed they were capable of doing.

These 2018 Mets haven’t done anything remotely as impressive since May became June. These 2018 Mets haven’t been four games from .500 since June 5. Not that being four games below .500 should be a goal for any professionally owned, operated and managed big league baseball team, but this edition has plummeted faster and farther than its immediate predecessor. I didn’t think being better than the 2017 Mets was something that was going to be aspirational, but, as of now, the 2018 Mets are four games worse than the 2017 Mets were at the same point in the schedule. The 2017 Mets ebbed to 39-47 after 86 games; the 2018 Mets have sunk to 35-51. It’s not even our first time sixteen games under this year, whereas last year’s Mets needed 124 games to flail that far from break-even.

The only thing the 2018 Mets have going for them in this mythical battle versus their former selves is the 2017 team would eventually roll downhill as if shoved by an avalanche. They were 53-62 on August 13 — certifiably lousy, but garden-variety crummy, all things considered — yet finished 70-92. That’s a 17-30 tumble into the abyss. There went Collins. There went coaches. There went a season to its deep, dark, deserving resting place. Hardly anybody was healthy, hardly anybody was hitting, hardly anybody was watching. When it finally ended, we all said roughly the same thing: thank goodness that’s over.

Little did we know what the sequel held in store.

One True Outcome

The Mets lost on Saturday afternoon. The Mets will lose any afternoon, any evening, any day of the week. It’s what they do more often than not. Very recently it was only what they did as often as not. In their previous four games, the Mets had lost only once. In their previous eight, they were 4-4. Throw in the pair off of days this past week, and it was like they were moving away from the concept that the Mets do nothing but lose each and every day of their and our lives.

Saturday brought it back, right up to Promenade, Section 523, Row 7, where my pal Joe and I took in the 3-0 shutout Blake Snell and three Rays relievers threw at the Mets. I didn’t know the Rays used starting pitchers like normal teams. To make up for adhering to an established baseball pattern, they sent out their starting pitcher in a jersey bearing a single numeral: SNELL 4. What innovators. I kept thinking they were cleverly deploying a position player.

The draw for Joe and me was Jacob deGrom Bobblehead Day. The figure was very lifelike. The Mets don’t score for Jake’s bobblehead, either.

Meanwhile, Steven Matz threatened to behave like a Transformer. Every inning he came disturbingly close to transforming into Jon Niese. But Steven is somewhat better than his role model. He kept giving up doubles but avoided giving up runs almost altogether through six-and-a-third. He might have matched No. 4 from the Rays with 0 after 0 except Amed Rosario lived up to only half of his good-field/no-hit reputation. Actually, I don’t think that was his reputation at all, but it is where he’s trending.

Amed wasn’t surehanded on Saturday and he sure didn’t hit a lick. Licks generally go unhit in the midst of Mets. Rosario’s batting average is in the .230s, and it is higher than four of his Saturday lineup compatriots’ (Bautista, Plawecki, Frazier and Conforto). Nimmo got himself thrown out at third for no good reason in the first, so let’s not let him off the hook, no matter his lovability. Actually, the only regular who did much with a bat was Flores, whom we’d call time and hug every plate appearance if it wasn’t likely to cost us a mound visit. Wilmer got three hits. Alas, based on his accumulated acumen for the finer points of the game, Wilmer will never be known as Johnny Field. It’s fun to clap along when he’s introduced to the theme from Friends, but friends, let’s just say I’d be there for any legitimately worthwhile offers from anybody for anybody on this team, no matter their Flushing Q rating.

Except the guy who theoretically inspired Saturday’s bobblehead. Try to imagine the 2018 Mets minus deGrom. Then again, the 2018 Mets in reality with deGrom are enough to not want to imagine.

Did I mention the weather was beautiful in Promenade? It was. Meteorologists would call it unSwarzakish. So nice to have the humidity take a hike. It was probably beautiful elsewhere in the Metropolitan Area, so one didn’t really need a Mets game. But Mets fans’ homing instincts are well-honed. We hear the call of the Vaguely Resembling Bobblehead and we come flocking, some of us two or more hours ahead of first pitch, lest we not get our hands on our Jake. Then we sit for a while. Then we watch the Mets stand in place, at least on the scoreboard.

You know who else didn’t look thrilled Saturday? The kids who were selected as part of the perks program to trot out to their heroes’ positions ahead of their heroes. I use “heroes” lightly. I have no idea if Petey from Port Washington, Robbie from Rockville Centre or Freddie from Forest Hills necessarily idolize Todd Frazier, et al. When each young’n was introduced by preternaturally ebullient Colin Cosell, none, and I mean none, looked happy to be there. C’mon, I said, this is the thrill of your young lifetime, though perhaps I was projecting.

You know who looked happy? The guy from the charter bus company who threw out the second first pitch (a guy from a car company threw out the first first pitch). The charter bus company guy was stoked to stand at the lip of the same mound Steven Matz was about to tread, even more stoked to toss one on the fly to Kevin Plawecki. Imagine being that happy to see Kevin Plawecki. I know we idealize children’s fondness for the National Pastime, but maybe save this sort of on-field interaction for those who’ve survived childhood, adolescence and puberty to remain Mets fans through it all. Seriously, that charter bus company guy was happier than the nine kids combined. The charter bus company is apparently some kind of Mets sponsor, but we’re used to that. Based on the bobbleheads we were handed after our tickets were scanned, the Mets’ best pitcher’s name is quite possibly Ford.

The Jose Bautista Game

You don’t remember Jose Bautista was a Met? Yeah, he was another one of those veterans the Mets picked up when nobody else wanted him, another one of those faded stars of whom it was assumed he had nothing left. This was in 2018 when the Mets seemed to be doing a lot of that. Maybe that’s why you don’t remember. A lot of people claimed to have checked out on the 2018 Mets after things went awry.

Thing is, Bautista was pretty good as a Met. Sometimes very good. Sure, he came off the scrap heap, but nobody was scrappier and, this one particular night, nobody’s hitting was heapier. Guy got on base a ton. Great eye. I never knew that about him when he was a Blue Jay. To be honest, the only thing I knew about him as a Blue Jay was he hit loads of home runs and once flipped a bat so demonstratively in a playoff game that it got all of the Texas Rangers and half of the Western world enraged at him. The other half cheered his flair. I was only vaguely aware of the flip. It was during the 2015 postseason, and during the 2015 season, my mind was elsewhere.

Anyway, Joey Bats — I’d heard other people call him that; I never felt familiar enough to brandish his nickname — had been a Met on paper for like literally ten minutes in 2004, a footnote to the deal that made Anna Benson a Met. Something like that. Sometime later, Bautista, who apparently still follows all of us on Twitter, broke out to become a big star and once in a while, when there wasn’t enough of a compelling case to poke fun at the Mets, it would be pointed out that not only were the Mets paying Bobby Bonilla more than a million bucks annually, but they also had this 54-home run guy and let him go without realizing it. But, like I said, it was a paper transaction. Kansas City gave him to us so we could give him to Pittsburgh. He’d been with other teams, too. Nothing really clicked for another five years, by which time everybody but Toronto had given up on him.

Where was I? Oh yeah, 2018. Sorry, it’s one of those years people are always changing the conversation on when they’re Mets fans. Bautista had the great career with Toronto, but found himself unwanted in the free agent market the preceding winter when nobody was getting offers. No, not the collusion winter. That was way before, in the 1980s. Among players active in 2018, not even Bautista was old enough to have played then. Maybe Bartolo Colon. I’ll have to look it up. I don’t know, maybe almost nobody getting signed was collusion. Kind of felt like it, though the Mets must not have heard about it because they colluded to sign Jay Bruce for three years. Don’t get me started on that. Bruce found a taker. Bautista sat out there without a contract until the Braves took a flier on him.

No, I don’t know where that expression came from, either. It’s just one of those things people say. The Braves made every possible right move to get back to contending in 2018, but Bautista was the exception. He didn’t do much for them and they let him go. The Mets had a need — when don’t the Mets have a need? — and they snapped the guy up. He was a righty slugger at the exact right moment, the moment the Mets were missing Cespedes.

I know, when weren’t the Mets missing Cespedes? It didn’t seem like much of a contingency plan, but you know how the Mets were in 2018. Somebody was always getting injured, nobody was necessarily developing, and a team presumed to have a surplus of starting outfielders found itself with a shortage. They even tried Dominic Smith out there for a few games. Remember him?

Bautista, 37 years old, somehow didn’t get injured. And though he wasn’t exactly the “Joey Bats” from Toronto, he really wasn’t bad. The Mets were terrible, but it was totally not Bautista’s fault. Like they were gonna be good without him at that point? I have to confess when I picture him in the mind’s eye, I see the beard he sported and I chuckle because, given his glum resting face, he started reminding me after a while of Emmett Kelly, Jr. But Bautista was no clown. I had nothing but respect for the guy, though, granted, I do usually fall briefly in love with every former All-Star slugger the Mets bring in out of desperation. I was kind of gaga over Adrian Gonzalez that year, too.

Yes, Adrian Gonzalez was a Met. Man, does anybody besides me remember anything?

Let’s get back to Bautista. He was kind of an under-the-radar phenomenon…OK, “phenomenon” might be too strong a word. These were the 2018 Mets. There was nothing phenomenal about them by the middle of that dreadful season, but I don’t think anybody really noticed the nice job Jose — Bautista, not Reyes…yeah, he was there that year, too — was doing until the Mets went to Toronto around the Fourth of July.

No, I didn’t understand the scheduling, though it wasn’t the first time the Mets had been in Canada on the Fourth. They played at Montreal three times. Nobody has a memory, everybody treats today’s news as if there’s been nothing like it before. Sorry, I’ll get down off my soapbox now. However unprecedented it was or wasn’t, Bautista playing his first game at SkyDome…excuse me, Rogers Centre…was a big deal for Toronto fans. They gave him a warm welcome home. Kind of made us sit up and take notice of Jose. At least those of us who were still keeping tabs on the Mets in 2018.

When they came back to Citi Field to start their next series, against the Rays — and I don’t know why Interleague play hadn’t already gone away; it wasn’t like these games were humongous draws — we had what amounted to the Jose Bautista Game. I hoped it was the first of several as long as he was sticking around that year, but I also doubted there’d be another to match it for a signature affair.

First, he runs through the outfield wall. No, not quite Rodney McCray reincarnated. See, he kind of whiffed on a fly ball and then braced for impact against the fence in right center field. Except that was the bullpen door and — I don’t get how this happens — the gate was left unlatched. That actually happened twice at Citi Field inside a month that year. Geez, what an organization, what a season. Jose kind of limped around for a minute, and I figured it was another outfielder joining all the rest — Cespedes, Bruce, Lagares if you can remember him anymore — but no, Joey Bats was resilient. He even made a nice leaping grab the next inning. “No ill effects” as Gary Cohen might have said.

Bautista walked a couple of times in that game, which wasn’t that big a whoop, considering he did that plenty. Bautista and Wilmer Flores were the offense most nights: walking and waiting on base for somebody to drive them in. Wilmer would have been better off waiting. This was one of those nights when the third base coach sent Wilmer from first on a double. Wilmer was not only out by approximately five miles, but he slid somewhere east of East Elmhurst. We all loved Wilmer in those days, but we kind of had to watch him with one eye covered when he was doing something besides hitting.

Bautista stole a base that night. Funny that I remember that. He could run a little even at that advanced age. Mostly what I remember before the big finish is Jacob deGrom got his ERA down to 1.79, best in the majors. Man, he was good that year. Never got wins, because the Mets were the Mets, but what a pleasure to watch him mow down hitters, and even more of a pleasure to watch him strand runners in scoring position. I think he gave up a solo home run to some Ray I never heard of before, but otherwise went eight innings unscathed.

Of course Jake left in no position to get a win unless the Mets scored for him ASAP, which they didn’t, because god forbid. Familia came on in the ninth. Familia was still with the Mets at that point in 2018. He wasn’t what he was when he was helping the Mets to the playoffs a couple of years earlier, let alone what he was when he was setting up his buddy Jenrry Mejia, a name I probably wouldn’t recall here except they unsuspended him for life the same day as all this was happening…no, I don’t get how that works, either, but we all make mistakes, I suppose. Chances to correct them are nice.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Familia was having trouble in a tie game. The bases were loaded and he got a grounder to first. Flores was playing first, which was always an adventure. Wilmer lollipopped the ball home on a force play. The catcher — Mesoraco by then; catching was not a Met strong suit most of the 2010s — had to leap into the air and pull down Wilmer’s throw and make a tag. The runner was called out. The Rays challenged the call. The Rays did lots of nitpicky things. They didn’t even use starting pitchers. Somehow the call didn’t get reversed and Familia would get out of the mess. It was early July, weeks before the deadline, so I hoped Jeurys didn’t damage his trade value too much.

Finally, the bottom of the ninth and a chance for deGrom…well, no, deGrom was gonna get a no-decision no matter what, but I was sick of watching him be involved even tangentially in Met losses in 2018. An overly familiar storyline, you might say. Maybe we’d get lucky, I thought, before laughing at the notion. Nevertheless, Todd Frazier worked out a walk, Mesoraco singled after trying to bunt, Rosario bunted beautifully — he didn’t break out as a star immediately the way we wanted him to, but he had his moments in his first full year — and, after getting Smith out as a pinch-hitter, the Rays walked Nimmo intentionally. It might have been the only time all year Nimmo didn’t point to the sky upon arriving at first.

That brought up Bautista and that brings up the big moment, the reason why we still call it the Jose Bautista Game, the first-pitch grand slam Bautista launched into the second deck. I don’t remember who the title sponsor was for it in 2018. They could have called it Jose Bautista’s Landing. The pitcher who surrendered the homer, by the way, was named Chaz Roe. I had to look it up while I was telling you about all this. The Rays were like that.

Oh, the whole thing was beautiful. As horrific as the Mets were in 2018, they all came out to greet him at home plate like they’d just won a big game in a pennant race. Asdrubal Cabrera — remember, this was before the deadline — literally kicked him in the ass. I don’t know what that was about. Maybe they now shared a bond from hitting dramatic walkoff homers. I saw Reyes get excited and Conforto…no matter how much the Mets sucked, I loved the way they came together in victory, as if you could almost scrape away the suckage like frost on a windshield and, if you peeked inside, you could see there was still something there.

It was the eighth walkoff grand slam in Mets history, not to mention the first by a guy who also stole a base in the same game. Such a thing is always exciting and gratifying, but I remember thinking — kind of like I did when Tim Teufel did it in a tie game in extra innings in 1986 — man, we only needed the one go-ahead run. Any way we could use the extra three to stake ourselves to a lead the next day? Much was also made in the aftermath that it was Bautista’s first walkoff home run despite it being his 337th home run overall. It’s not like that’s a real statistic, but OK, cool. What I really liked — besides that it won the game for the Mets over the Rays, 5-1 — was that it came on the 56th anniversary of Gil Hodges’s final major league home run. Yes, another righthanded power hitter the Mets picked up late in his career that people might not remember being a Met, save for what he’d do as a manager not all that many years later. Gil hit 370 home runs overall, most of them as a Dodger, of course, but the final few as a Met. When Gil hit No. 370 on July 6, 1962, in a Mets win, no less, he had more than any National League righthanded slugger had ever belted. How that statistic alone didn’t catapult him into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible…ah, I don’t wanna go there.

I don’t wanna go back to 2018 too often, either, but for the Jose Bautista Game on July 6, I’m happy to take a quick trip back. OK, a lengthy trip. Trust me — that was one worth remembering in detail.

When ‘1776’ Met 2018

Good news: the Mets won in Toronto on the Fourth of July. Better news: my wife and I devoted part of our holiday to watching 1776 together for the twenty-eighth consecutive Independence Day, a tradition that dates back to 7/4/1991, coincidentally another of those infrequent occasions when our American baseball team was sent to Canada (Montreal, natural-LEE) to conduct its course of human events. I must admit I skipped the first few innings Wednesday evening in order to complete our annual viewing, thus though I soaked in the five-run rally that provided the Met bullpen a lead that somehow defied blowing, I can tell you very little about how Corey Oswalt looked during his four innings of work. Rarely do I avert my eyes from my ballclub when my ballclub is right there for the viewing — even this edition of my ballclub — but once a year, I reset my usual priorities.

The Mets sometimes lose on the Fourth, but those thirteen colonies always become a nation by the end of the film, which longtime readers will recognize as a point of personal obsession. 1776 is my favorite movie musical, a source of incessant summertime quoting between Stephanie and me (more me at her than she at me) and one of those things that I find makes life worthwhile. The Mets sometimes feel like that. Maybe not that much in 2018, but often in other years.

Given the confluence of good fortune that befell both the Mets on July 4, 2018, and the United States of America on July 4, 1776, let us dispense with the reading of the minutes from the Mets’ 6-3 victory over the Blue Jays and instead explore the many similarities between the dialogue in our movie and the words that perhaps apply just as easily to our Metsies.

Is, “For God’s sake, John, sit down!”…
a) a stinging rebuke of John Adams’s repeated calls for a vote on American independence?
b) how Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi put John Ricco in his place during GM meetings?

Is, “If you left tonight, you could be here in only eight days,” an estimate of…
a) how long it would take John Adams to travel from Philadelphia back to his farm in Massachusetts?
b) the time required to get a Triple-A callup from Las Vegas to New York?

Is, “Those dispatches are the most depressing accumulation of disaster, doom and despair…”
a) how Thomas McKean refers to General Washington’s battlefield letters to Congress?
b) what a Mets fan thinks upon reading about the Mets’ latest loss?

Is, “Never was such a valuable possession so stupidly and recklessly managed”…
a) Ben Franklin’s scathing rebuttal to John Dickinson’s defense of King George?
b) an objective assessment of how Mets ownership has operated during the past decade?

Is, “New York abstains courteously”…
a) Lewis Morris’s polite way of telling John Hancock his colony will not be participating in yet another roll call vote?
b) what Mickey Callaway says when the home plate umpire asks if he’ll be pinch-hitting for his relief pitcher?

Is, “Just a moment. This business needs a Virginian”…
a) John Adams’s realization that the Declaration of Independence can’t be written without input from Thomas Jefferson?
b) somebody in the front office suddenly remembering to add David Wright’s name to the 60-day DL?

Is, “He tucks it right under his chin,” an allusion to…
a) Thomas Jefferson playing the violin?
b) Brandon Nimmo intentionally getting himself hit by another pitch?

Is, “Dear Sir, you are, without any doubt, a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a thief, a scoundrel and a mean, dirty, stinking, sniveling, sneaking, pimping, pocket-picking, thrice double-damned, no-good son-of-a-bitch”…
a) the text on cards Stephen Hopkins has had printed to hand out in response to the epidemic of bad disposition he’s detected?
b) typical of the season ticketholder mail that arrives on Jeff Wilpon’s desk?

Is, “We’ll be setting our own precedent!”…
a) Ben Franklin’s exasperated explanation to James Wilson regarding the effort to form a new nation?
b) the Mets’ reasoning for having three general managers instead of one?

Is, “Never have troops been more cheerful. Never have soldiers been more resolute. Never have training and discipline been more spirited,” a response from…
a) John Adams to Samuel Chase when Chase doubts the Continental Army can defeat the British?
b) Mickey Callaway answering a reporter’s question about all that’s been going wrong with his team?

Is, “To the right, ever to the right, never to the left, forever to the right”…
a) Congress’s anti-independence forces making clear they reject the arguments put forth by the likes of Adams and Franklin?
b) Jay Bruce hitting in such a manner that will never beat the shift?

Is, “Naked bathing in the Raritan River”…
a) one of the many improprieties General Washington catalogues in his latest dispatch to the Congress?
b) a juicy detail from the Page Six exclusive, “The Last Days of Matt Harvey”?

Is, “Are you mad? It’s 80 miles and he’s a dying man,” an incredulous response by…
a) Thomas McKean to John Adams when Adams insists Caesar Rodney leave his Delaware deathbed to provide a crucial vote for independence?
b) Yoenis Cespedes’s agent to the Mets’ request that his client interrupt rehabbing his hip flexor in St. Lucie to visit with his teammates at Marlins Park?

Is, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”…
a) a cry for help shared by George Washington and John Adams as each faces his own seemingly intractable crisis?
b) small talk between ushers working Promenade after the All-Star break?

Is, “I begin to notice that many of us are lads under 15 and old men…”
a) how General Washington views the ranks of the Continental Army?
b) the latest update from the Mets player development department?

Is, “It’s done…it’s done”…
a) what John Adams says softly to himself as the resolution on American independence passes Congress on July 2?
b) what Mets fans have been saying to each other about the 2018 season since approximately June 2?