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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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103 and Holding

Add ’em all up, from October 1, 1921, a 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia A’s in the first game of a doubleheader at the Polo Grounds, to October 11, 2017, the fifth game of the American League Division Series won, 5-2, over the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field, and you conclude the New York Yankees have clinched something worth clinching on 103 separate occasions. The first time it happened, Damon Runyan characterized manager Miller Huggins’s demeanor as “in happiness or sorrow […] something of a picture of dejection.” Nice to know Joe Girardi does his darnedest to keep stoicism in style.

In ye really olden days, whether at the hand of Huggins or at the behest of Berra, pennants were secured within the parameters of regular seasons. The Yankees commenced their collection as tenants of the Giants in Manhattan 96 years ago and repeated the process the next year, and then another 27 times as the Bronx Bombers through 1964. Divisional play, when the leagues were split in two, meant capturing precursors. The Yankees won four American League East flags (but didn’t dare fly such paltry prizes) between 1976 and 1980 and added a fifth through 1981’s emergency contrivance ALDS. Those five division wins spawned four pennants that further brightened their spacious bank vault.

The segmenting of leagues into three divisions and the addition of extra playoff spots and series added more opportunities for more clinchings and more celebrations. The champagne flowed amongst Yankees almost every October for two decades from 1995 forward, sometimes just once, sometimes a whole lot. There were commemorative caps and t-shirts distributed — available immediately after the last out at your nearby Modell’s! — for winning six Wild Cards, thirteen division titles, eleven League Division Series, seven League Championship Series and even a Wild Card Game when that became a prerequisite for advancement.

Oh, plus the rings. Always the rings. Not always, but often enough, you might have heard. There were 27 sets of those awarded between 1923 and 2009. Actually, the first time the Yankees won the World Series, their players were given pocketwatches. Same difference, though, even if it’s all about the pocketwatches, baby! doesn’t quite have the same shall we say tenor.

Whatever the nature of the bling, the beast was generously adorned. The hearty handshakes, the ebullient embraces, the hooting, the hollering, the sense of success that begot more success…the Yankees did that 103 times across a span of 97 seasons encompassing 53 postseasons.

But they didn’t get to do it Saturday night at Minute Paid Park, and for that we are thankful.

Hail to Houston, champions of the American League in the fifth season of their elaborate student exchange program. Undercover Astros, answer to our prayers. It’s not easy to win an ALCS or an NLCS. As the Washington Nationals could attest, it’s not easy to qualify for an LCS no matter where you put it. The Astros have qualified across league lines. And they’ve never played a dull LCS, regardless of which L they’re vying to represent in the World Series. We know they’re National Leaguers at heart. We’ve seen the birth certificate. We definitely appreciate all they’ve accomplished in their current assignment. (How appropriate that the 2005 N.L. champs were handed their 2017 A.L. trophy by Frank Robinson, still the only player to snag MVP honors in each league.) Glued to the bottom of their class as they migrated from the N.L. Central to the A.L. West, it seemed preposterous three years ago when a widely disseminated magazine strongly suggested we check back around now and see how close they’d be to a world championship.

They’re very close, which is great for them. They’ve arrived very close by knocking off the Yankees, which is great for us. Thank you Hinchmen and congrastrolations.

Sportsmanship alert: congratulations to the Yankees as well. Helluva year absolutely, helluva future probably. Feel free to wretch, but they seem worthy of a tip of the hat even as we revel in the aftermath of irritatingly delayed Elimination Day. We didn’t want the Yankees anywhere near the World Series. Their proximity was too tight for comfort, to be sure. I woke up this Sunday morning in a state akin to that felt by Kevin Costner as Kenny O’Donnell at the end of Thirteen Days, knowing an event of untold horrors had been narrowly averted. In O’Donnell’s case it was resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As Mets fans, we assumed another Yankee World Series appearance was a done deal. They won a Wild Card, they came from behind to win their Wild Card Game (albeit at the expense of their patsies the Twinkies) and they overcame an oh-two deficit to take their ALDS from Jay Bruce and the Indians. Those goggles they donned in the clubhouse when the bubbly started to spray were surely going to get another workout. Once the Yankees revved up the comeback machine in the ALCS — down oh-two; up three-two — our impulse was to forget we can’t stand the Hollywood Dodgers and take L.A. to block.

Desperate times call for Dodger measures, but they won’t be necessary. This postseason has been officially elevated to enjoyable (no Yankees) if not ecstatic (no Mets). That’s Houston’s doing. Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers channeled the best of Don Wilson, Larry Dierker and J.R. Richard, while the Astro offense found its pulse. Perhaps all that switching between leagues stirred havoc with their bearings. More likely, you couldn’t keep Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and the rest of the analytically aligned All-Stars down for long. If anybody could quash the Sports Illustrated cover boys of 2014, we knew, by gut, it would be the Yankees. We hadn’t seen that movie where the Bombers destroy all comers, model sparkly new rings and strut up Broadway in eight years, but we never forgot how it works. We assume it’s always on the verge of a harrowing reboot.

So do the Yankees, I suppose. Maybe theirs is way to approach your business. I noticed for all the talk about how the 2017 Yankees were an uncommonly “fun” edition (as if winning something that merits a celebration a hundred times prior wasn’t fun), the coalescing conventional wisdom coming out of their ALCS loss was this was valuable experience for these Yankees, that the disappointment will be fleeting and the learning will be what counts as they go on to their implicit quota of bigger and better achievements. All these wonderful young players of theirs have now been to the Norman Greenbaum Preparatory School, steeling themselves for the Octobers ahead when falling several games shy of a world championship will be considered unacceptable (prepare yourself, you know it’s a must). This, it has been agreed, wasn’t just 2017 for the Yankees. It was another 1995, the implication being another 1996 and so forth necessarily wait directly around the corner. Book the Canyon of Heroes ASAP.

Call it pinstriped privilege, if you like. For teams like ours, we’re generally thrilled to win anything. We’ve had twenty distinct celebrations in our history, including a couple that have followed absolutely hopeless eras. Our first champagne pour, on September 24, 1969, came on the heels of an 89-loss season that was deemed a vast step up from all the seasons that preceded it. Our 2015 division title was a heaven-sent revelation after the plethora of campaigns in which the Mets couldn’t crack 80 wins. When not treating a seven-game ALCS defeat as a trial run for the next dynasty, those who speak for the contemporary Yankees, lacking sports fandom’s otherwise prevalent Long Suffering gene, will tell you what a fantastic and utter surprise getting as far as they did was, taking into account where they’d been and all the rebuilding they had to do.

In the four seasons directly prior to 2017, the Yankees posted only winning records; continually floated on the fringe of Wild Card contention; hosted a playoff game once; and gathered a bounty of young talent. If we — and a majority of major league franchises — did that for four years, we’d label it an accomplishment. For them, it was a fallow period. We should all have such a baseline of misery.

While the Yankee Celebration Count stalls blissfully at 103, another calendar of local interest pushes forward. October 21, 2017, marked 2,085 days since the last New York major professional sports championship was attained. On February 5, 2012, the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Nobody around here has done anything similar since. No Stanley Cups. No NBA titles. One World Series played in — by us — but none fully wrangled. And no Super Bowls. (Caveat: I’m not including soccer in this calculus and likely never will.)

We are closing in on historic as this metric goes. Should neither the Giants nor Jets hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy on February 4, 2018, the count rises to 2,190 days. The modern record between New York major professional sports championships sits at 2,280 days. The Yankees of perpetual dynasty won their last World Series on October 16, 1962. Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis, shortly after which vast cultural upheaval unfolded, transforming the nation as we knew it, leaving New York’s athletic entitlement behind. It took the balance of the Sixties to get the sporting interests of the city and its immediate environs back on the board. The Jets brought us to the top of heap on January 12, 1969. The Mets kept us there on October 16, 1969. The Knicks maintained the new New York status quo on May 8, 1970. Champagne flowed anew. Four Meadowlands Super Bowls. Eight Metropolitan Area visits from Lord Stanley. The ABA Nets twice. Everybody anybody roots for in these parts would get a taste between January 12, 1969, and February 5, 2012.

Now nobody in New York wins it all. Nobody’s edged nearer to absolute victory lately since the 2015 Mets, who fell three games shy. No NHL finals the past three springs. No NBA playoffs the past two. The Giants have reached the vital portion of January once. The Jets have abstained, courteously. Based on current trends, neither football team is poised to snap the streak this February. By the time we discover if we are surprised on the ice or hardwood this June, the wait will have surpassed 2,280 days, leaving the Big Apple and adjacent North Jersey dry for as long as multiple big-time professional sports has existed.

I really wanted the Mets to be the ones to end the drought. I still do. I’m glad that possibility — conceivably under the guidance of Mickey Callaway — remains viable. The Yankees may have gained valuable experience in the ways of winning, but it guarantees them nothing. We gained valuable experience pulling up short in 2015 and 2006 and it guaranteed us nothing.

It was fun anyway. All the years when we celebrated the steps toward a world championship yet wound up without a world championship generated a ton of fun. The journey can be spectacular despite the destination emerging as elusive. When your baseline for misery isn’t 84-78 but 59-103, you learn to savor every drop of champagne, every trip to Modell’s. Maybe not expecting much and being grateful you received anything isn’t the way to approach your business, but unless you’re swimming in a swarm of rings and pocketwatches 27 trinkets deep, it’s probably better for your daily well-being.

We’ll be back with some thoughts on the new manager of the Mets as soon as we gin a few up.

The Dodgers Win the Pennant

As you know, I’ve been a big Dodgers fan ever since it occurred to me the Astros might not win the ALCS, so congratulations to my favorite team of the past 48 to 72 hours on winning their/“our” first pennant in 29 years. It’s been a helluva ride, huh? Congratulations foul-tipper extraordinaire Curtis Granderson. Congratulations third base coach and onetime Rando Commando Chris Woodward. Congratulations Justin Turner, whose transformation from Met castoff to co-MVP is up there with Gordy the Weatherman returning to the WJM newsroom as one of the biggest names in TV journalism. That last example is from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but Turner’s ascent has been no plot device.

Temporary alliances are all the rage in October, though there was legitimately a span when I harbored positive feelings toward the Los Angeles franchise. That was a very long time ago, so long ago that I liked them because they hadn’t won anything in a while. I guess not having won anything in a while — a league championship, anyway — describes the state of my present Blue crush prior to Thursday night, but this was in the early 1970s, when my frame of reference reached back no further than the very late 1960s. The Dodgers had last won a pennant in 1966, three years before I became a lifelong baseball fan. Their most recent success occurred while I was alive but before I was alert.

When I first encountered the Dodgers, they were a pretty good team that didn’t win their division. They seemed to be up there in the standings, but not all the way up there. My instinct was to pull for new teams to replace old teams. The Dodgers were new within that framework. The Reds, three-time N.L. West champs by the time I turned eleven, thus represented the old order. The season I was eleven, 1974, the Dodgers supplanted the Reds. They struck me as both startlingly fresh and comfortingly traditional. Steve Garvey became Steve Garvey as in Steve Garvey Superstar that year. Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey…all young, all bursting onto the scene alongside first baseman Garvey at second, short and third. Walt Alston was still managing. He’d been managing since 1954, in Brooklyn. Vin Scully was still announcing. He’d been announcing since 1950, in Brooklyn. Garvey’s dad had driven the team bus in Spring Training from when the team was, yup, in Brooklyn. Steve said his hero was Gil Hodges. I knew who Gil Hodges was and where he’d played.

The Brooklyn-L.A. connection didn’t fully click for me (grainy black & white seemed a world removed from living color), but I gathered the Dodgers had been a big deal during the ages that preceded mine. Every syndicated ’60s sitcom set in Southern California seemed to drop in a Dodger reference if not a Dodger guest star. Don Sutton had pitched on the same staff with Koufax and Drysdale (the latter of whom tutored young Greg Brady) and was still pitching for them. Veteran Tommy John was pitching for them, too, though by October he was out with an arm injury that required some sort of surgery. Based on my baseball cards, Jimmy Wynn had been an Astro, Andy Messersmith an Angel and Mike Marshall an Expo, but now they were all sticking it to the Reds, the lot of whom I’d had it in for dating to the previous October and their whiny NLCS appearance at Shea. Marshall was particularly amazing: 106 appearances in relief, his right arm still attached to his right shoulder.

I dug those Dodgers, celebrated their historically overdue 1974 flag and maintained a vague vein of non-Met support for them for a few more years. The West got confusing when Tom Seaver moved to Cincinnati in ’77 and I had to kind of like the Reds because of No. 41. The next wave of new challengers — San Francisco in 1978, Houston in 1979 and ’80 — came to the fore, making the old Dodgers and their ever more ancient infield seem desperately in need of toppling. Worst crime of all, L.A. made a habit of slipping on banana peels in World Series. I could forgive 1974 versus the A’s (speedy outfielder Bill Buckner made a critical baserunning mistake), but they lost to the Yankees in 1977 and again in 1978. The latter really bugged me. Up two games to none, they dropped the next four. Lopes and Russell moaned about the New York fans. I didn’t like the New York fans who attended Yankees games, yet even I was perversely glad those two California kvetchers didn’t win. Once the Fernando-fueled Dodgers returned the favor in 1981, losing the first two before taking the next four from the finally struggling Yankees, I cheered them home, thanked them for their service, and drifted off to other extracurricular clients. Save for a few marriage-of-convenience intervals, I don’t think I’ve rooted at all for the Dodgers in the past 35 years.

But I will gladly do so should they not face Houston in the forthcoming World Series. I gladly did so in the last couple of games of the NLCS against Chicago. Nothing against the Cubs, a shocking development to my younger self, but I let go of my anti-Cub animus in the wake of the 2015 NLCS when the North Siders played perfect hosts to the league champion Mets. Chicago earned what it earned in 2016 and everything else is aftermath until further notice. Gone Cubs Gone, but no hard feelings.

When Cubs fans recall the period of 2015-2017, they probably won’t fume, “Oh great, that was when we lost two NLCSes in three years.” Though maybe not. It’s still nearly impossible to utter or Twitter the year “1988” in the presence of Mets fans without triggering emotional distress. A person tracking the Dodgers’ last steps to their first pennant in twenty-nine years couldn’t help but mention 1988, not out of malice, just to be accurate. I’m aware it didn’t work out well for the Mets that October. I was alive and alert and as dissatisfied as any Mets fan sentient. Yet three decades hence, I compartmentalize the good stuff — division title, 100 wins, a few very admirable postseason performances sprinkled in amid the pain — and also check the calendar. Two years separated 1988 from 1986. The 1988 Mets shouldn’t have lost to the 1988 Dodgers, but I’m willing to retroactively grant them the slightest of period passes. That era was not about coming achingly close several times and missing. That era was about winning the big one once and not losing a ton in the years that surrounded it. I swear it was.

It’s different if you never win the big one. It was different for L.A. post-1988. What’s weird about their pennant drought, longer than any established, stationary National League franchise’s besides Pittsburgh’s, is the Dodgers were rarely horrible from 1989 on. They had a couple of dips, particularly before their current ownership situation coalesced, but mostly they’ve generally functioned as one of the elite operations in baseball. That’s what it was like when I encountered them as a kid. You knew they were glamorous and successful. They just weren’t champions. The Dodgers made the playoffs ten times in between their 1988 and 2017 World Series appearances. They just never scaled the hump, sort of like Cleveland, Oakland and Minnesota. Cleveland, Oakland and Minnesota, however, would revert to stubbornly horrible for discernible stretches. L.A. was no worse than in-n-out of trouble before suffering the heartbreak of being merely glamorous and successful.

Twice, in 2006 and 2015, the Mets expelled the Dodgers from the playoffs, and that was cool. Lately, the Dodgers expel the Mets from just about every game they contest, which isn’t, but they’re up, we’re down, sometimes that happens. I can’t hold the unpleasant side of recurring rivalry against the Dodgers at the moment. I can, but I won’t. Really, seeing the Dodgers and Cubs in two consecutive NLCSes let the taste of us beating them both linger longer than it should have. If you think about it, we are the National League round robin champions of the past three Octobers. We’re two-and-oh against them; they’re one-and-two against us and each other. Plus all this business was settled at Wrigley Field, which makes for a very telegenic setting.

Too bad none of it wins us anything new, but it beats dwelling on Scioscia, Gibson and Hershiser.

Bandwagon to Barricade

I was a temporary Astros fan earlier this month, sort of like I was this month in 1980. Way back then, Houston being in the playoffs was novel and they were playing a team, the Phillies, that I detested. The Mets were nowhere in sight. It was October like it’s supposed to be when you can’t have October like it oughta be. That it didn’t turn out exactly the way I wanted it to be was beside the point. I gravitated to a reasonably appealing entity, I rooted my postseason heart out for it, and I moved on to the next round. Not as good as rooting for the Mets, but I was used to the Mets being nowhere in sight come October.

That was in the National League, where the Astros used to reside. In the American League, my team for the duration was the Royals, a choice that was mandated by the presence of their opponent, the Yankees. I liked the Royals in those best-of-five days, anyway…though mostly because my exposure to them had been from watching them gallantly if futilely battle the Yankees in three previous Octobers. As the exotic t-shirts advertised in the back of Baseball Digest suggested, one of my two favorite teams was whoever was playing the Yankees.

The LCS portion of October thirty-seven years ago shook out as one part mighty satisfying — the Royals sweeping the Yankees three straight; and one part fleetingly heartbreaking — the Astros dropping the fifth and deciding game to the Phillies, 8-7, in ten innings. Houston’s other losses came in extra innings, too. Four of the five games went past nine. Grueling series to watch let alone lose. I felt truly bad for the colorfully clad band of bland ’Stros, that swirl of Puhls and Ruhles and Reynoldses to which I’d grown briefly yet resolutely attached.

Then I moved on, first to the World Series, where I’d feel bad for the futile/gallant Royals and resentful toward the ultimately victorious Phillies, then back to wondering how the Mets would improve themselves for 1981. My interest in Houston, except when they played the Mets, receded. Between 1981 and 2015, the Astros landed in the postseason nine times. Once, in 1986, I was keenly engaged. On all the other occasions, not so much. Twice (1999, 2015), the Mets were in the same postseason, and when the Mets are in the postseason, all action that doesn’t directly involve them tends to be blacked out from my attention span. Six other times, whatever the Astros were doing seemed to occur in the shadows of better publicized series transpiring concomitantly. When the Astros finally made it to the World Series in 2005, I was rooting squarely against them and for the White Sox. The White Sox hadn’t won a title since 1917. The Astros had Roger Clemens. It was an easy call.

I entered this postseason as I have all but nine times in my life as a baseball fan, without an automatic affinity. There were teams I could comfortably root against, but that’s less fun than rooting for (unless and until rooting against pays off). Without necessarily meaning to, I sparked immediately to the Astros as soon as I encountered them in their ALDS versus the Red Sox. They were novel yet familiar, National League alumni who had famously transformed from hopeless to happening. The Sports Illustrated long-term cover cause circa 2014. Altuve. Correa. Springer. Bregman. Beltran. Keuchel. Verlander. They were no longer in those rainbow stripes, but modeled a tasty shade of orange. They offered potential uplift for the people of a city slammed by a hurricane. I have friends in Houston — genuine Astros fans — who were flooded out of their home and had to move. I wanted them and their neighbors to have something to be happy about.

Clemens isn’t pitching for the Astros anymore. Mike Scott isn’t pitching for the Astros anymore. I had no reason not to root for the Astros. So they became my team for the duration. They beat the Red Sox in four. Then they won Games One and Two of their next series. They were exciting, they were intriguing, they were as rewarding to read about as they were to root forward. I was so on board this Astro bandwagon that when my wife asked me what was going on in a game of theirs, I reflexively told her, “The Mets are winning.”

Whoops. The Astros aren’t the Mets. Same expansion litter, but very different bloodlines. Having spent six months glued to Mets telecasts, it was semi-understandable that I’d misspeak, though there was no mistaking the Mets for a team that had made it into this year’s seventh month of baseball.

The real problem is that over their last three games, the 2017 Astros have come to closely resemble the 2017 Mets. They’re not hitting. They’re not pitching. They’re not winning. They are oh-and-three during a span when going two-and-one would have been ideal and one-and-two acceptable. Oh-and-three, given their trajectory and their opponent, presents a problem. I had the actual 2017 Mets if I wanted losing streaks of three going on four against the 2017 Yankees.

I’ll be rooting for the Astros to resume playing like the Astros in Game Six of the ALCS and, I would like to believe, Game Seven. I have little expectation of success, however. When I was seventeen, I would have expected success. I’m older now. I’ve seen many more Octobers, particularly the ones that run neither as they’re supposed or ought to, specifically ones where we are sentenced to choose between the Yankees and Anybody Else.

At the moment, I’m gravitating toward the Dodgers. I don’t much care for them, but I will depend upon them. This is purely transactional. I don’t need a bandwagon. I require a barricade. The Dodgers, even after not quite clinching their inevitable pennant against the Cubs on Wednesday night, are the best World Series bet available among prospective contestants who are Anybody Else. The Dodgers have Justin Turner. That’s gotta be worth a couple of games right there. Their loss to Chicago in NLCS Game Four, I’ve rationalized, was all right. You don’t want your undefeated juggernaut swaggering into the World Series ripe for upset. Should we wind up with Dodgers-Yankees, the Yankees will whoosh in have knocked off the 102-win Indians and the 101-win Astros. The 104-win Dodgers riding a pair of postseason sweeps looms as too juicy a Goliath for the nouveau narrative Davids. A stray loss will properly humble Los Angeles in preparation for the civilization-assuaging assignment that awaits them.

I’m going with that theory for now. And the Dodgers, stain of Buttley notwithstanding. We tolerated Pete Rose in the 1976 World Series, three years after he whaled on Buddy Harrelson, and he played ball, so to speak, helping to stem the pinstriped tide until 1977. We can pretend Chase Utley is a member of decent society two years after he took out Ruben Tejada if it means delaying even for twelve months the impending restoration of the dormant dynasty slightly to the north. I’m also going with the Astros for as long as they’re alive, Verlander willing. I’d appreciate it if they can stop imitating the Mets. I didn’t mean to confuse them by conflating them. I didn’t mean to root solely against during this postseason, either, but sometimes October goes down that way.

Natlessly We Roll Along

What’s red and white and available for dinner the rest of October? Your National League East Champion Washington Nationals, who I have to say aren’t doing a very good job of representing our division on the larger stage. As is their custom in this decade, they went to the NLDS. As is their more noted custom, they did not advance beyond the NLDS.

Not that many of us were rooting for them to carry the NL East banner ever upward, but c’mon, Nats. You’re making us look bad. We lost 92 games this year. We can make ourselves look bad without your help.

There doesn’t seem to be much inclination in baseball to get behind “our” champion if we are not involved in the playoffs. It’s a romantic notion that we would. NL EAST OR DECEASE! Or something of that nature. But it’s not like that. It’s not remotely like that.

Familiarity breeds so much contempt. Were you delighted for the Atlanta Braves when they were winning East after East? Did you Phlip for the Phillies in the midst of their divisional dynasty? I’d invoke the Marlins here, except they’ve yet to win a divisional title despite having socked away two world championships before their eleventh birthday. (Gads, the Marlins are weird.) It’s hard to recontextualize your enemy of six months after six months of active hostility. Nor does it much occur to you to try.

It’s not just the Nationals who’ve been bringing down the average. National League East champions are pretty lousy at going forward. Since 2002, most of them have lost their Division Series. The Braves are 0-for-5. The Nationals are 0-for-4. The Phillies, when they had a heyday, went 3-for-5. The Mets, however, played two and won two, in 2006 and 2015. Give us the right context, and we are selectively unbeatable.

Yet the Nationals’ contemptible familiarity is nevertheless familiar. Of all the teams to have entered this postseason, they’re the ones I knew best, so there was something compelling about their presence. Their players are well known in our circles. Daniel Murphy is estranged, but not so long ago one of us. Oliver Perez holds a special place in our gut. Ryan Zimmerman might as well be the name the David Wright brand is sold under in certain Middle Atlantic markets. We’d know Harper’s resting Bryce face anywhere. We’ve been adding “less” to “Werth” for a generation. We took pride in loudly declaring Harvey better than Strasburg. Scherzer’s eyes. Rendon’s flow. The Lobaton Galaxy of Stars.

I didn’t root for them, exactly, but I was prepared to deal with the idea that they’d be sticking around. And I thought they would be. The Cubs seemed very much like last year’s news, extras in somebody else’s narrative. When Washington went up by three runs early in Game Five, I thought the result was Nat accompli. Their near-death experience was Game Four at Wrigley, the whole Strasburg mold contretemps, wherein the pitcher suspected of being soft threw the bleep out of the ball for seven robust innings and Michael A. Taylor redeemed the whole effort with a grand slam in the gloaming off Wade Davis. That should do it for the Cubs dynasty, I thought. The two teams’ll take this thing back to Nats Park, we’ll make jokes about the last Metro pulling out before the last out and our nominal archrival — or as close as we have to one at present — will move on to Los Angeles where somebody would notice Murphy dueling Turner for the pennant.

But it didn’t happen that way. It never does for the Nationals. Four times in the NLDS in six years, four heartbreaking exits. Maybe not our hearts, but objectively horrifying to watch if you consult your heart a little. You feel sort of bad for certain players after a 9-8 loss like that which ended this postseason’s Washingtonian exercise in futility. Upon further microscopic review, you feel sort of bad for Dusty Baker, who you remember having it in for in 2000 when he managed the Giants and it was our job to snarl that the opposing manager was no Bobby V, but is otherwise considered one of the game’s all-time good guys. You feel bad for the fans who haven’t directly pissed you off or who haven’t gotten on the nerves of your Mets fan friends who live in and around DC and swear to you that, no kidding, Nats fans are the worst. You feel bad more in theory than reality, but the reality was right in front of you: another elimination loss wherein Washington falls ever so short ever so late and the train is pulling out of the Navy Yard station bound for the NLCS without them…again.

That’s pretty bad baseball reality.

Who’s talking Mets in the middle of the playoffs? Gary McDonald and I are on his wonderful podcast Mets Musings. Listen in here.

Viva Leaving Las Vegas

Monday afternoon I was keeping an eye on the Astros and the Red Sox in the fourth game of their American League Division Series, rain spitting on Fenway, Houston trying to close it out, Boston trying to keep it going, both clubs’ straddling the line between urgent and panicked as they relied on their respective ace starters — Chris Sale and Justin Verlander — to serve as life-saving long relievers when the Turning Stone Resort Casino Turning Point of the Game emerged clear and sunny:

The Mets were reported as moving their Triple-A farm club operations from Las Vegas to Syracuse the year after next.

Never mind ending or extending a postseason series. Our team just improved its organizational logistics. Who was the big Columbus Day winner now?

Well, Houston. They beat Boston, 5-4, in a riveting four hour, seven-minute, nine-inning affair slightly reminiscent of the Wednesday afternoon in October 1986 when the Astros were eliminated by the Mets, who went on to play the Red Sox. Except that game took seven innings longer, yet somehow lasted only an additional 35 minutes — and Hal Lanier resisted the temptation to insert Mike Scott around the fourteenth inning.

Houston’s a winner. L.A., in three over Arizona, is a winner. As of this writing, four other teams remain alive in pursuit of two next-round berths. October baseball in its various highly entertaining iterations has gone on without our participation, but at least we got this. We got Syracuse. We don’t get to be in an LDS. We won’t get to be in an LCS. We didn’t even get to be bounced from a Wild Card game. The World Series as it applied to us sort of lately is fading as recent history. But hot damn, we no longer have to have to have our top minor league affiliate three time zones away.

It’s a victory that won’t show up in any box score. Maybe it will be reflected in some future set of standings. It definitely feels very good in the psyche. We can’t pop champagne from it, but maybe vigorously pour yourself a room-temperature Genesee Cream Ale and toast something no longer going wrong.

Let it be recorded that the 2015 Mets and 2016 Mets did go to the postseason while maintaining a geographically confounding relationship with the Las Vegas 51s. It never made sense on paper that the Mets linked with Las Vegas, and too many of its callups were literally up in the air, flying four-and-a-half-hour flights (or nearly as long as it took for the Astros to oust the Red Sox) to land at Citi Field on few winks of sleep, but it didn’t necessarily directly limit the Mets’ chances to compete.

But it surely didn’t help. We all understand it was never the ideal arrangement. The Mets were shown the door after five fruitless seasons in Buffalo and had to set up Triple-A shop somewhere in North America prior to 2013. Las Vegas qualified as somewhere. Somewhere far away. The heat. The elevation. The distance. Mostly the distance. The drawbacks were familiar and self-evident.

Las Vegas 51s became New York Mets anyway. We asked for Zack Wheeler and we got him. Then Travis d’Arnaud. Noah Syndergaard, too. Jacob deGrom came through Las Vegas without fanfare. Amed Rosario and Dom Smith were hyped and we remain hopeful. There were plenty of others in between. Michael Conforto rose directly from Binghamton, yet found himself deposited in the desert when he was mysteriously deemed not as ready as previously presumed. Matt Reynolds was a walking, talking, frequently flying human timeshare.

Every team has its shuttle. Ours happened to run longer and seem more absurd than any other’s. Generations of Mets fans, let alone streams of Mets prospects, never had to think about this. From 1969 to 2006, if you needed a body or wanted an upgrade, you’d look to Tidewater. Somewhere along the way you learned Tidewater was essentially the same thing as Norfolk. We were told it was in Virginia. How close was Virginia to New York? It never came up. If a Tide couldn’t become a Met by that night’s BP, it wasn’t the system’s fault. The Tidewater-turned-Norfolk shuttle worked without an obvious hitch. It even delivered us a native product, young David Wright, in its latter stages.

I’d heard deposed skipper Wally Backman explain a while back that the Las Vegas inconvenience factor was overblown, that when you consider all the direct flights out of McCarran, shipping a 51 to Queens was no more a chore than landing him from some closer-in Triple-A precinct that didn’t have nearly as much airline service going for it. Maybe that was so. I always wanted to believe Wally knew something the rest of us didn’t, though anything that’s not as bad as it sounds still tends to be somewhat bad, or at least not as good as it could be. (That might describe how the Mets viewed Wally as a potential manager.)

Is Syracuse as good as it could be? When some bench player or bullpen arm is snowbound upstate come April 2019, we’ll likely find fault with our new affiliation. We’re Mets fans. We find fault like other fans find their teams in the postseason. But keeping a cache of if-necessary fill-ins in-state, where the air travel can be measured in minutes and the clocks don’t require resetting, instead of peering westward and waiting?

Let’s call it a win until proven otherwise.

The Coaches You Notice

You really don’t notice coaches in major league baseball until they are pointed out, which isn’t often. Maybe it’s for something benign, like they planted tomatoes in bullpen or exchange particularly sharp low-fives when batters work out walks. Maybe it’s for something pleasant, like how well his advice is being processed by a player on a streak. Usually it’s for when something is going awry. The team isn’t scoring. Fire the hitting coach. Another runner got thrown out at home. Replace the third base coach. The staff earned run average is the franchise’s worst since the year it was founded…and almost all the pitchers got hurt.

Say goodbye to Dan Warthen in the last case, the same Dan Warthen who was the toast of the pitchnoscenti when he had the horses and the horses were healthy. Warthen had been coaching Mets pitchers for nearly ten seasons. The last Met pitcher who hadn’t been coached exclusively by Dan Warthen as a Met was Pedro Feliciano, and he had to return briefly from lucrative exile in 2013 to make that claim. Warthen ushered generations of Mets pitchers into the majors, from Niese and Parnell in September of 2008 to Rhame and Callahan in September of 2017.

You saw more of Warthen than you saw of other coaches because the pitching coach is permitted to wander halfway across the diamond during games. Warthen probably did more of that type of wandering than any Mets pitching coach before him, visiting the mound to take pulses, dispense wisdom and maybe kill time while another of his pitchers warmed until fully heated in the bullpen. Rube Walker and Mel Stottlemyre were Mets pitching coaches longer, but they surely made fewer of those visits. They coached in different times from Warthen when it came to pitching.

Diamond Dan leaves his post on the Terry Collins Plan, having been “offered another role in the organization,” according to the organization itself. Terry, who was offered only the door until it occurred to somebody how bad that looked, is now a special assistant to the general manager. Dan seemed pretty special when his pitchers looked very special. After a season when his pitchers looked worse than ordinary, he gets a press release and a conditional euphemism.

In the same release that covered the respective statuses of Collins, Warthen and persistent soul collector Ray Ramirez, the Mets announced three coaches — Dick Scott, Tom Goodwin and Ricky Bones — are welcome to take a hike (“given permission to speak to other teams, pending the selection of a new manager”), while three others are welcome to stick around. Kevin Long and Pat Roessler coached hitters who hit a lot better than the pitchers pitched. They stay. Long may even elevate; his launch angle vis-à-vis the managerial opening is to be determined. The Mets also said they will “retain” third base coach Glenn Sherlock, who we noticed getting runners thrown out at home now and again. The Mets were careful to note Sherlock has a contract for 2018, the subtext being, yeah, we noticed the runners getting thrown out, too.

We all form semi-informed opinions of whether the manager is a genius or incompetent. We’re mostly guessing when it comes to the coaches. When they are commented upon for nonspecific reasons, it is usually to laud them for being “baseball lifers,” the strange implication being that you could somehow change careers from, say, regional agricultural sales to major league coach on a whim. The baseball life they are pursuing doesn’t automatically transmit clues to their effectiveness. The Mets homered a lot in 2017? Were the long balls really Long balls or was it opposition pitching, atmospheric conditions and a few extra reps in the weight room making the Mets more powerful? Did everything Warthen recommend suddenly come with an expiration date or did the pitchers maybe do something wrong? There are probably highly specific if anonymously sourced answers to be had. Watching from the other side of the protective netting, it’s difficult to discern.

Without cavalierly making glib pronouncements regarding the livelihoods of others, perhaps it is time for a clean or at least cleaner slate. The Mets haven’t begun a season with a fresh manager and a fresh pitching coach since the dynamic duo of Art Howe and Vern Ruhle alighted in 2003. A year later, Rick Peterson broughthis hardwood floor philosophies to Flushing from Oakland, reuniting with Howe. (Howe had played behind Ruhle in Houston; Art may not have won a lot of games for the Mets, but he apparently managed to maintain his relationships.) Peterson survived the GM transitions from Steve Phillips to Jim Duquette and Duquette to Omar Minaya, and remained ensconced when Minaya brought in Willie Randolph, but the Pacific Purge that swept out Willie nabbed Rick, too. His hardwood floor got torn up. Warthen’s Tuscany tile was installed and it stayed firmly in place for the length of Collins’s determined walk across it.

It’s hard to say whether a clean slate effectively clears the organization’s mind. Walker entered Shea with Gil Hodges in 1968; they led the Mets to the pinnacle of baseball a year later. Rube would coach pitchers under Yogi Berra, Roy McMillan, Joe Frazier and Joe Torre, clear through 1981. Stottlemyre arrived with Davey Johnson in 1984; two years later they and their charges were kings of the world. Mel kept at his job under the auspices of Bud Harrelson, Mike Cubbage, Jeff Torborg and the first four months of Dallas Green until being let go at the end of 1993. Their clean slates got filled good — and bad. The only other Mets pitching coaches besides Rube, Mel and Vern to come in at the outset of a new year with a new manager was Bill Monbouqette, who joined George Bamberger on his short-lived Queens adventure in 1982. If you want to, you can also count the first Mets manager and pitching coach combo, Casey Stengel and Red Ruffing. The slate couldn’t have been cleaner, even if it was destined for immediate sullying. Under Stengel’s managing and Ruffing’s coaching, the 1962 Mets’ ERA was 5.04, an unsightly figure not approached again…until 2017’s 5.01.

Stengel is in the Hall of Fame. So is Ruffing. So is George Weiss, who hired them both. None of them made it as far as they did for the results their pitchers generated in 1962. Casey said of one of his championship units in the Bronx, “I couldn’t have done it without the players.” Similar attribution could presumably be linked to the personnel that lost him 120 games.

***

On the same day the Mets made their provisional coaching announcements for 2018, it was reported that the last of the surviving 1962 Mets coaches had passed away the day before. Solly Hemus, 94, died in Houston on Monday. Solly coached third for Casey. Cookie Lavagetto coached first. Solly. Cookie. Casey. Red. Two Reds, actually, when you include instructor Red Kress. Baseball lifers got much more colorful names back then. Yet from what I’ve gathered as a baseball lifer of my own ilk (a fan who likes to read), the coaches didn’t garner much attention in those days, either, certainly not when operating in the shadow of Stengel.

When you absorb Original Met recountings, most of which tend to contain ample wiggle room where exactitude is concerned, Cookie in June tells Casey not to bother arguing the ruling that Marv Throneberry didn’t touch second on a triple because he didn’t touch first, either, and the Mets lose as usual. When you lose yourself further in 1962 lore, Solly in August gets hot and bothered over what he considers a bad strike call, then gets ejected…which then gets Cookie into the third base coaching box…which eventually gets Marv (!) into the first base coaching box, from which he is beckoned to pinch-hit and deliver a walkoff homer, and the Mets win as unusual.

You get the feeling you wouldn’t know who Casey’s coaches were if it weren’t for Marv incorporating them into his legend. Nevertheless, they were baseball men/lifers in their own right. Weiss secured the services of Ruffing months before he signed Stengel to oversee all pitching in the Met system, and he contracted Lavagetto and Hemus as coaches in advance as well because —even though it’s impossible to imagine — George wasn’t absolutely sure he was going to convince Casey to manage the Mets. Lavagetto (the Senators/Twins) and Hemus (the Cardinals) had experience. One could run he show if the eventual ringmaster declined to get involved. Upon his reintroduction to the press in October 1961, Stengel went so far as to suggest either man could be managing by that time next year.

Casey, it turned out, wasn’t going anywhere, and he outlasted both of those lieutenants. Cookie, the old Dodger, would be traded for Wes Westrum, the old Giant, coach for coach, following the 1963 season. Wes was in San Francisco, which was close to Cookie’s home and where he preferred to be after suffering an illness. Lavagetto recovered and lived until 1990. Westrum lasted long enough as a Mets coach to succeed Stengel as manager in 1965. By then, Hemus had moved on, too, assisting Casey only through the Polo Grounds years, yet he would have a significant hand on what would soon develop at Shea Stadium.

In 1966, Hemus managed the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Jacksonville Suns. In that capacity, he was the first man to manage, in professional baseball, a recently inked 21-year-old righthander named George Thomas Seaver.

One start was all it took for Hemus to understand who he was handling with care. “Tom Seaver,” he told reporters in Rochester after the relatively unknown Californian beat the Red Wings for his first pro win, “is the best pitching prospect the Mets have ever signed.” There was no doubt Solly recognized talent when he saw it. He also knew how to convey it (as preserved in John Devaney’s 1974 Seaver biography):

“Tom has a 35-year-old head on top of a 21-year-old arm. Usually we get a 35-year-old arm attached to a 21-year-old head.”

Seaver was on his way, for sure, though not without the occasional setback. Even 21-year-old arms attached to 35-year-old heads are still part and parcel of 21-year-old young men. In one start at the end of a string of bad ones, Hemus managed Seaver by giving him the opportunity to work out of trouble rather than rescue him. It was part of the toughening-up process that led Tom to the majors by Opening Day 1967 and toward the Hall of Fame career that lay ahead of him.

In the media call following the Mets’ comings-and-goings announcement, Sandy Alderson expressed discontent with how the Mets Triple-A players are being prepared for the big leagues and hinted a staff shakeup at that level is very likely. It’s another of those situations where we’re all experts from a 2,500-mile distance, but recalling the impact a minor league manager had on a hot prospect reminds us how important every step of the way can be in giving a player every legitimate chance to become a star.

By the time Seaver was promoted, Hemus was done with baseball on a fulltime basis, the Suns uniform being the last he’d wear for a living. Hence, if you go solely by occupation, Solly was a baseball lifer only for the first fifty-odd years of his life. He left the game for the oil business as Seaver was touching down in New York, though in a sense, once a baseball lifer, always a baseball lifer. The old coach remained active with the Baseball Assistance Team for many years. He attended the B.A.T. dinner in New York in 2010, regaling baseball history writer Nick Diunte with fond memories of the Mets’ beginnings — Stengel was “one of the smartest managers in baseball,” Weiss “an excellent GM” — and expressing a bit of regret that he couldn’t continue to be a part of their immediate future.

“I would have liked to be a part of the ballclub that won the World Series in 1969,” Hemus told Diunte, “because that’s what I had in mind when they hired me. I thought that they would eventually win it and they did just that. It was a fine organization.”

Helping Seaver along the path to immortality probably qualifies has having been a pretty important part of it.

***

The first expansion team to reach the postseason faster than the Mets did was the Colorado Rockies, landing there in 1995, only their third year of existence. Their first manager…their Casey Stengel in a sense…was Don Baylor, an accomplished hitter and coach before taking the reins of the brand new team. Like just about every manager, Baylor led teams to losing records as well as winning ones, and was eventually replaced in Denver. He went back to coaching, stopping off at Shea for two years, serving as bench coach and hitting coach for Howe in 2003 and 2004 (Howe was Baylor’s aide in Colorado in ’95). When Howe was fired by the Mets, so was Baylor. It was off to Seattle from New York, and later other stops. Don Baylor was always in demand.

Baylor died this past August at the too-soon age of 68. I hadn’t thought of him very often since he had been a Mets coach, and to be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten just about everything about his time in the uniform of my favorite team. I’d forgotten that he had to leave the Mets for a while in 2003 to be treated for the bone cancer that would take his life fourteen years later. I’d forgotten that he assumed Denny Walling’s hitting coach portfolio when Walling was blamed for the Mets’ woeful batting partway through 2004. The whole Howe administration was so dispiriting that I might not have committing much about its brain trust to memory in the first place.

Except for one fact I surely learned and continue to hold dearly: Don Baylor was a gentleman. I had planned to share this story in the wake of his passing, but never got around to it. As long as the subject is Mets coaches, this seems as good a moment as any to belatedly give Don his due.

It was during the offseason between 2003 and 2004. The Mets still had a Clubhouse Shop in the East Fifties in Manhattan, their “flagship,” which was very convenient to where my wife worked. One day, she noticed an event was taking place there. Two Mets players and one Met coach were signing autographs and greeting fans.

The coach was Don Baylor, not in uniform, but representing his and my team. Stephanie didn’t know who he was, but figured I would and that I would appreciate his signature on a small slice of cardboard emblazoned with the Mets’ latest marketing slogan, “Catch the Energy!” The players’ signatures, too. My emotional investment in the Mets was at a low ebb (I was still sore that Howe had replaced Bobby Valentine a year earlier), but it was a typically lovely gesture on my lovely wife’s part.

The trio didn’t draw much of a crowd, so she didn’t have much of a wait. Stephanie went up to the first player, who she reported didn’t exactly radiate energy in fulfilling his fan-friendliness obligations, and obtained his autograph for me. She did the same with the second player, who was a little more interactive and perfectly polite about the whole thing.

Then she got to Baylor. Baylor could not have been warmer. He inquired about her, her job, what all it entailed. He showed genuine interest in another human being, like somebody who wasn’t talking to her because somebody told him he had to. When their brief conversation was complete, he stood up, shook her hand and thanked her.

No, you don’t think much about the coaches. But whenever his name comes up, I’ll always think of what a class act Don Baylor was.

The Sick are Healed

Don’t trip over all the casts, crutches, slings and splints scattered along the streets of North America tonight. They were discarded this morning by Met after Met who was magically healed by the news that Ray Ramirez will no longer be training them.

The sick, the lame and the day-to-day are all up on their feet, their hamstrings pleasingly loose, their limbs fully flexed, their ulnas utterly undisturbed. Michael Conforto’s posterior capsule is as smooth and supple as a baby’s bottom. Wilmer Flores’s nose breathes free and easy; just try fouling a ball of that schnozz now. Tommy Milone’s left elbow, which was described as sore in late September, can be referred to as totally mellow in early October.

Once an organization has its Ramirez removed, the rehabilitation program occurs organically. Consider that since the Mets announced their head trainer of thirteen seasons will not return for a fourteenth, they haven’t placed a single player on the disabled list. Nor have they lost a single game. During the final year Ray was spotted continually emerging from the dugout to have a little look-see, what did the Mets do? They lost games and they went on the disabled list.

Yeah, it was all Ray Ramirez’s fault. This just confirms it.

Going to the End of the Line

If you’ve never read the work of James Schapiro, author of the blog Shea Bridge Report (“good writing about a bad team”), then Faith and Fear invites you to pull up a chair and dig in. James kindly offered to file some impressions from the final Mets game in Philadelphia, and we wisely took him up on his offer. Thus, here’s James, having survived a 92nd loss, an 11-run shutout, his 14th season as a Mets fan and an extended round-trip commute that deposited him, at last, on the doorstep of the offseason.

***

“Philly, coming up! Twenty minutes to Philly!” called the conductor from behind me as he barged through the car, snatching up seat tags as he went. So I marked my place in my Hunter S. Thompson collection, packed it up in my bag, and started getting ready to watch the Mets season end.

I still wasn’t sure how it would feel. 2017 had been a season of mixed emotions, of deep ties and bitter disappointment. When it started, I was closer to my team than ever: for the first time, I made the pilgrimage down to Spring Training. I saw Jose Reyes smash extra-base hits; Matt Harvey pitch like he didn’t during the regular season, which is to say well; I got to watch the Mets bullpen up close (literally, from the front row down the left field line); and I saw Lucas Duda smash a three-run homer off Adam Wainwright. I also — and I’m one of few people who can say this — saw Tim Tebow in a Mets uniform, and watched him face off against Max Scherzer. Even if you don’t remember it, you can probably guess how that went.

Then came Opening Day, where I was as invested as I’d ever been; a promising start, that had me salivating over a division title; some Terry Collins bullpen blunders, and a slide into mediocrity that seemed never to end, but only to vary slightly in grade. But still, this was my team. Even as we shed talent for minor league relievers, I dutifully learned their names. As starting pitchers came and went (Milone, Pill, Wilk, Flexen), I kept track of their accomplishments. My interest waned every so slightly in mid-Summer, as it always does when I’m essentially isolated for eight weeks, but it was back in full force as August came to an end, even as we stood no chance in hell of achieving anything worth writing home about.

And now, here I was, pulling into a train station in Philadelphia to watch the end of a season that seemed like it hadn’t really started. I certainly didn’t know how I would feel when it was over.

I had to find my way to Citizens Bank Park first, which should have been easy. You could say it was, in that I followed the directions and they led me to the ballpark; but the trip wasn’t exactly efficient. I spent enough time waiting on the platforms for my two trains to decide that if train service in Philly was this slow, I would avoid the city like the plague — as if I needed another reason. But I made it to the park, and climbed off an escalator and out of the subway station to find a bright blue sky, with only the slightest hint of Fall in the breeze reminding me that this wasn’t just any other game in June.

A family with two young children ambled on behind me as I walked toward the park. Maybe the kids saw me; maybe it was just their attitude. “Boo, Mets!” they were chanting. “Go, Phillies!”

It was Closing Day for them too, I thought to myself. Almost certainly, they weren’t old enough to realize; much more likely, they’d scratch their heads one night in early January and ask, “Why isn’t there any baseball?”

“There’s no baseball in Winter,” one of their parents would reply, and they would laugh and move on, because you can do that when you’re young.

I scanned my ticket, and accepted the 2018 Phillies schedule that an usher handed it to me. I gave it a perfunctory scan as I made my way to my seat, and found the 19 NYM squares, which were the only games on the page that I cared about. Well, besides the one in front of me; all technicalities aside, and despite what Twitter was telling me, it wasn’t 2018 yet.

***

Citizens Bank Park, I decided as I looked around before first pitch, was nicer than I’d expected. I’d been anticipating a droll, heartless ballpark befitting the Phillies, but this place was just pleasant. The red brick construction in the outfield, with retired numbers painted in red, gave the place a kind of rustic charm, and the flowers and ivy on the outfield wall added the color that some ballparks are missing. The enormous outline of the Liberty Bell complemented the park’s aesthetic, as did the light towers rising above the upper deck, painted an almost rusted reddish-brown. I’m still not quite sure what they evoked — it wasn’t the golden age of Ebbets Field, but it was something like that.

Now, the Phillies were taking the field, and I focused on Chris Pivetta, their starting pitcher. His ERA was 6.26: just the kind of guy, I thought, who would, if history was any guide, completely and inexplicably shut us down. Nori Aoki, the guy who, as I’ve come to describe him, is a better James Loney than James Loney ever was, struck out, but Phillip Evans took a pitch in the gut and jogged down to first. After Brandon Nimmo, smiling down on the crowd from the scoreboard, popped up to short, up came Dominic Smith.

The two fans behind me, Phillies lifers the both of them, had been offering running commentary during the first few at-bats, which I was now hearing clearly for the first time. “Guy’s batting .201,” one of them said.

“Mario Mendoza,” replied the other, not deigning to add any qualifiers or clarifications, probably assuming that everyone would just understand him, which of course I did.

These fans spent most of the game learning about what had gone on with the Mets all season, and occasionally, stabbing me in the heart. “Did David Wright play a game all season?” one of them asked, out of the blue, as Matt Reynolds (“No relation to Mark Reynolds, I can tell you”) batted in the top of the second.

“No, I don’t think so,” said the other. I wanted to turn back, and tell him he was right, but then he continued with “he’s like Chase Utley,” and I didn’t have to hear where the comparison was going to decide that this fan wasn’t deserving of my insight.

There wasn’t much to see, throughout the first few innings, unless you were the kind of person enthralled by Mets minutia, so I was occupied. There was Gavin Cecchini (“Ketchini,” the Phillies PA guy pronounced it, as opposed to Czechini), who hit a softball-style slap single in the top of the second, after making a slick diving pickup in the first (“you gotta give that to him,” said one of the guys behind me, “wow”). Cecchini was having a day on the last day of the season, as players will tend to do the moment it becomes completely unhelpful. There was Rhys Hoskins, perhaps the Rookie of the Last Few Months, who earned the loudest applause I’d heard so far when he strode to the plate in the bottom of the first. Hoskins had hit 18 home runs in less than half a season, but his batting average had steadily declined from above .300 to .259 by day’s end. I listened to the cheering, and thought back to Ike Davis, and smiled. Then I thought even further back, to Mike Jacobs, and almost laughed at what Phillies fans were setting themselves up for.

And then, of course, there was Noah Syndergaard, pitching beyond the first inning for the first time since April. Watching Thor’s warmups, I started to get nervous; maybe it had just been a while, but he didn’t look quite the same. His motion looked shorter, less natural. Then Cesar Hernandez stepped in, and Thor started him off with a fastball at 99 MPH, and I stopped worrying. An inning later, Syndergaard ended the second with a fastball with inhuman movement that painted the inside corner at the knees at 101 MPH, and I leaned back in my seat, satisfied that if nothing else, we had something to look forward to.

***

When I checked the news on Twitter after Thor ended his sparkling two innings, I saw that the inevitable had become official. Terry Collins was on his way out of the manager’s office (and headed for a front office job, but you have to think he’ll do far less damage from up there). Thus, what I’d already been looking forward to became the story of the game: each action Terry took had the potential to be his last in a Mets uniform.

After Thor left, Chris Flexen navigated the bottom of the third. He started the fourth, but you got the sense that he was tiring: he gave up a leadoff double, then with one out, walked Nick Williams (who?) to bring up Maikel Franco. Flexen had already thrown more pitches than a normal relief outing. I looked toward the Mets dugout. There was no sign of movement. I’d seen this movie before, and I knew the ending.

It was hardly even Flexen’s fault. But after Dan Warthen visited the mound in what would become his last move as pitching coach, things took a turn. There was a single up the middle, a sac bunt that Dom threw away, and then a slow grounder to first that Dom fielded perfectly, and flipped to Flexen. Flexen, unfortunately, was nowhere near first base. His face as he caught a flip he couldn’t possibly have anticipated, displayed close-up on the video board, was as succinct a summation of the Mets season as I’d seen. Then there was another RBI single, a clean hit this time.

Out came Terry. On the scoreboard, his expression was in plain view: he looked not so much like a deer in the headlights, as a deer uncertain what headlights are, but vaguely aware that they’re nothing good. As Terry waited for Kevin McGowan, I thought about the situation. Here was Terry Collins, in the last game of his Mets managerial career, standing on the mound in the middle of an inning that had gone to hell, making a pitching change four batters too late. And as I took this incredibly representative situation in, I couldn’t help but smile again.

***

A little while after McGowan had put the inning to bed, I got up for some food. I came back to my seat with Cracker Jacks and lemonade; some of the last I’d have of each, I figured, until late March. I didn’t miss any action — the Mets, it would turn out, didn’t have a hit after the fifth — but I returned in time for the seventh-inning stretch.

Out came the Phanatic, accompanied by a host of female Phillies employees, dancing to “We Are Family.” But this wasn’t just any game. This was Fan Appreciation Day, and something special was happening.

“Stop the music!” said the PA announcer. “To thank you for your support, the Phanatic would like to give the shirt off his back to one lucky fan…”

He undid his jersey, and, finding himself wearing nothing but green fur, launched into some nudity-based slapstick. I’m no Phanatic devotee, but it was harmless, and, indeed, funny; just the thing for Closing Day, when juvenility and innocence make one last stand against the forces of maturation and civility. The Phanatic shuffled off the field, covering whatever he had.

“If we were in New York right now,” one of the guys behind me said, “on the last day of the season, Mr. Met comes out and gives everyone the finger.”

The Mets, it seemed, were determined to carry out Mr. Met’s work: they were intent on giving the finger to every fan they had. After they went down 1-2-3 in the seventh, I attempted to strike a bargain.

“Two more shots,” I thought to myself. “Let’s just score one. Let’s get a run, make the season a few batters longer.”

Rafael Montero made his way through the bottom of the seventh, but in the eighth, we went down without a whimper. Montero came back out for the bottom of the eighth and walked the leadoff man. Pinch-hitting, Ty Kelly, of former Las Vegas fame, popped out, but Montero walked Cesar Hernandez. I looked towards the Mets dugout. No one moved.

“There’s no way this goes well,” I muttered.

A ground-rule double, an RBI groundout, a walk, and an inside-the-park home run that looked like it may have cleared the fence but no one bothered to check later, Terry Collins was back out at the mound, making a pitching change sane people everywhere had known he should have made four batters earlier. Terry’s earlier maneuver, I supposed, hadn’t been the last move of his Mets career: this was. But really, how much difference was there?

***

All too soon, the ninth came along, and we were down to our last three outs of the season. It was Amed, Plawecki, and Cecchini.

Amed, the shortstop of the future we’re all counting on, smacked a line drive. J. P. Crawford snagged it out of the air. One out.

Up came Kevin Plawecki, pinch-hitting for Jamie Callahan. The last time Thor had made a legitimate start, Plawecki had pitched the final innings; now, here he was, helping out the Norse god in a different way. Plawecki, the former first-round pick…Plawecki, once a solid minor-league hitter…could he pull something off?

It was his signature move, a slow three-hopper to short. Crawford threw him out. Two down.

Now, Cecchini (“Ketchini”). Once a prospect; now, a kid with a weird swing and an only slightly less weird future. He can field — can he hit? We’ll find out. Well, not today, because he hit another ball right to Crawford, and just like that, the season was over.

I made my way up the steps to the concourse, but stopped at the top and looked back. The Phillies were already shaking hands and slapping backs; the Mets, meanwhile, were nowhere to be seen. Eventually, it struck me that they weren’t coming out. They were in hostile territory and had just been demolished.

I turned away from the field and left. It was getting colder: there was a chill in the air that couldn’t have been there moments before. On the way out of the stadium, I saw a family of Mets fans, a son maybe eight or nine years old. He was wearing a graphic David Wright t-shirt, decorated with a big number five, but also David’s face, and outlines of his swing. I started to smile, and then I realized that the kid had no idea whether his hero would ever play again. I didn’t either. Suddenly, the air felt even colder.

***

It was past 10:00 by the time I got to my Metro stop, and finally got above ground. Now, it was genuinely cold. As I started on my way back to my apartment, stepping on dead leaves as I walked, I pulled my winter hat out of my pocket and put it on. The top half of my body was clad in orange and blue, but the hat was a departure: it was emblazoned, with the red, blue, and gray of the New York Rangers.

The season was over, and there was only one thing to do. When I got back to my apartment, I opened up my computer and checked my calendars. It all fit. So I texted my girlfriend.

“Hey,” I said. “You want to go to Opening Day next season?”

“Obviously,” she said.

And with that, I started my offseason by looking forward to the end of it, even after a 70-92 season that was the worst since I was barely five feet tall. The Mets come and go as the schedule decrees, but they never truly leave us. This same team that had me smiling in the midst of an absolutely embarrassing 11-0 loss will be back in 2018, and hell, maybe we’ll even be better. But whether we are or not, to me it hardly matters. Old seasons end and new ones start, but Mets baseball continues, no matter what kind of season it is. And come March 2018, whether we’re set for 61 wins or 101, I’ll be there to see it. Closing Day? What Closing Day? There was a ballgame today. And soon enough, there will be another one tomorrow.

There Was A Season

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

Baseball gives you what came before, what’s going on and what will come next. Life does that, too, I suppose, but as Casey Stengel might have put it to a Congressional subcommittee, I am not here to argue about other states of being, I am in a baseball state of mind. To reside there as resolutely as I do, I have to be able to glide gracefully among what came before, what’s going on and what will come next.

Baseball seasons are ideal for navigating such an existential three-division format, even a baseball season as unideal as that just completed by the New York Mets of 2017, who finished 70-92, 27 games from first place in their division and 17 games from a playoff spot in their league. Perhaps it would be more polite to refer to the Mets as having finished, period.

But I like knowing and remembering every season’s final record. I know and have remembered every final record form each of the Mets’ now 56 seasons (including both halves and the composite if contextually meaningless total from the 1981 split season). A season’s record amounts to its name, rank and serial number. If you can’t tell anything else about a season, you should be able to identify it by its wins, its losses and its standing. In less militaristic terms, consider those vital stats the bus pass pinned to your first grader’s windbreaker to make sure the season can find its way home should it go wandering off god knows where. In the Mets’ case, anybody squinting to make out 70-92 would know to inform the driver to drop these children off in fourth place where they belong.

Incidentally, the 2017 Mets’ mark was precedented in franchise history. Seventy and Ninety-Two was also cobbled together in 2009, a season mostly recalled for a strange new stadium and a bizarre rash of injuries. Eight years later, the stadium seems neither strange nor new. The rash, though, is hauntingly familiar.

This year’s record was recorded steadily. After the briefest prelude of promise, the numbers got bad, then worse, then declined steeply. We were never in it in 2017. We never close to in it. “It,” if you’re not clear, is what we were in the previous two seasons. We were in it in 2015 and 2016, we emerged brilliantly from it and, after those years’ 162 games were complete, we weren’t being terribly reflective about it because we had games to anticipate ASAP. One game last year. A whole bunch the year before.

Gads, that was fun. That was fun we hadn’t had in the strange new stadium when the stadium was still strange and new. It was so much fun that it allowed me to allow the Mets some slack this year…a year that was basically no fun. Yes, 2017 Humpty Dumptyed early, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men definitely seemed more focused on selling off the pieces for minor league relievers than putting the ballclub together again. But who could burn with disdain after 2015 and 2016, which — following 2009 and its statistical facsimiles — seemed so surprising in producing their bounties of joy?

You could, maybe, but I couldn’t. What came before cushioned the blow when the Mets took their great fall.

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

The last time the 2017 New York Mets had something, if not much, going on was Sunday, the occasion of their 162nd game. It occurred in Philadelphia between 3:11 in the afternoon and 6:20 in the evening. The Phillies scored eleven runs. The Mets facilitated them generously.

Noah Syndergaard used the game as the platform for his second abbreviated rehab start. When Syndergaard partially tore his right lat muscle and inadvertently shredded the Mets’ chances to contend, there was some informed speculation that he’d be back in July, maybe a little before the All-Star break, maybe a little after it. I told somebody I figured we wouldn’t see him pitching until the beginning of August, yet as soon as I said it, I decided I was being wildly optimistic. Since when does a Met come back from injury only a little behind schedule?

Thor looked great for two innings against the last-place Phillies, just like he looked fine a week before versus the clinched & unconcerned Nationals. He threw hard and he didn’t grab any section of his anatomy in agony. It means he’s healthier than he was during the heart of 2017, which is an encouraging sign for 2018. But 2018 is a light year away.

The rest of the starting lineup for the last game of the old year was young enough to make Syndergaard look like a hardened veteran. Actually, Syndergaard was pretty much the hardened veteran of the group. Nobody among his eight fielders had played a game as a Met before 2016. Save for stopgap right fielder Nori Aoki, none of them had played a game in the major leagues before 2016. It was a feast of potential when viewed through the prism of playing the youngsters en masse and seeing what we’ve got.

The Phillies, however, did all the feasting, stomping the Mets on their way out of town, 11-0 (on a Sunday, natch). Once Noah threw his preapproved 26 pitches, no Met looked particularly ready for prime time. Amed Rosario took an ohfer and saw his batting average dip below .250. Dominic Smith appeared baffled by the niceties of first base and watched his average slide beneath .200. And they’re the hot prospects.

Just one game, probably the most insignificant game they or their teammates will ever play in (the good lord willing). Still, not the note anybody wants to say goodbye to a season on. Or, perhaps, exactly the note on which this season deserved to be bid good riddance.

A time of love, a time of hate

A time of war, a time of peace

A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

The first Mets lineup managed by Terry Collins:
Reyes SS
Harris LF
Wright 3B
Beltran RF
Pagan CF
Davis 1B
Emaus 2B
Thole C
Pelfrey P

The last Mets lineup managed by Terry Collins:
Aoki RF
Evans 3B
Nimmo CF
Smith 1B
Nido C
Rosario SS
Reynolds LF
Cecchini 2B
Syndergaard P

Full circle? Well, no. The 2011 Mets were trying to put their best foot forward on Opening night at Sun Life Stadium, a.k.a. every other random combination of sponsored words scattered about South Florida. Three of those Mets tasked with taking on the Marlins were the still extant core of the Shea’s last division champions from five years before. Two others were former first-round draft choices in whom a decent quantity of hope remained invested. Yet another had enjoyed a breakout season the season before.

Admit it, though. The name that jumps out at you from the first batch is Brad Emaus. Terry Collins may have had some residual talent from the 2006 Mets at his disposal along with a few pieces he could picture building on, but to begin his new assignment, the type he’d been craving a shot at for more than a decade, he’d had bestowed on him as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift a Rule 5 second baseman who’d never played in the majors before April 1, 2011, and wouldn’t play in the majors after April 17, 2011.

Here ya go, Terry. Knock yourself out.

Carlos Beltran was never going to finish 2011 as a Met. He was traded in late July. Ike Davis didn’t finish 2011. He tripped on the Coors Field mound in May and, metaphorically speaking, never really got up. Jose Reyes gave Terry a heckuva season, winning the NL batting title, and then made the snappiest exit imaginable. Angel Pagan didn’t live up to his 2010. Mike Pelfrey barely saw 2012. Josh Thole wasn’t a long-term answer. Willie Harris was Nori Aoki. David Wright was David Wright for as long as he could be, though not that much in 2011.

Collins kept molding lineups from rosters that were, for the most part, more Emaus than Wright, more au revoir than arrival, less able than cost-effective. The records crafted on his watch were not impressive. 77-85. 74-88. 74-88 again. 79-83. He managed those teams. Those are his records, too. Thing is, if you watched those Mets from 2011 through 2014, you knew for damn sure that those could have been, maybe should have been tangibly worse.

The manager was eventually given some keepers. He and his coaches did some cultivating, some strategizing, some tacticianing, even. Terry never seemed willing to yield ground to circumstances. The bit where the Mets are decimated by injuries didn’t pause in 2009 and resume in 2017. It was a chronic pain that inflicted the organization more years than not. Lineups had to be constructed from whole Emaus (or its generic equivalent) in the middle of 2015. Eric Campbell. John Mayberry, Jr. Darrell Ceciliani. And so forth. Lots of so forth.

Terry’s team held the fort. Then the fort was fortified, and before we could blink, the perpetually lousy Mets were the first-place Mets. After we blinked, they were division champions (90-72) for the first time in nine years, winning two playoff series and a pennant. Terry Collins was a World Series manager.

For an encore, he had to stitch together another team from ragged material, with almost everybody of import hurt at one point or another during 2016 (somebody should really look into how that keeps happening). Yet when the Wild Cards were dealt, Terry Collins’s 87-75 Mets found themselves in hard-earned possession of one. Two years, two Octobers.

Then came 2017 and its rapid descent to 70-92, which also goes on Collins’s record. More losses than wins overall, even if prior to 2015 there weren’t as many losses as could be expected. Overall, across seven seasons, it qualified as a Larry David kind of performance. Pretty, pretty good.

Published reports indicated some combination of Jeff Wilpon, Sandy Alderson and a host of unnamed sources curbed their enthusiasm for Terry Collins. There was no doubt the 162nd game of 2017, coinciding with the expiration of his contract, would be his last as Mets manager. It would have been sweet had his team produced a goodbye bang as loud as those the “POP!” sound those champagne corks made a year and two earlier.

A season of this nature, along with his stewardship, was destined to end with a whimper.

TC’s final lineup did not represent a best foot forward, but it was the 162nd game, a time to play the kids (an impulse Terry managed to control consistently during September). Still, Collins could be forgiven Brad Emaus flashbacks. The starting nine together had accumulated 61 career major league home runs entering Sunday’s action, or two more than Giancarlo Stanton hit this season. Aoki had 33 of them, all in other uniforms. Smith had nine. Syndergaard had four.

The kiddie corps didn’t save Collins’s job, but the Mets saved corporate face and preserved their manager’s dignity, announcing officially after the game that Terry will stay in the organization in some vague front office capacity. This is a victory for decorum and a triumph over business as usual. Throwing managers overboard and under buses is Met reflex. Stengel was granted a VP title following his 1965 retirement. Interim skippers Roy McMillan, Frank Howard and Mike Cubbage returned to coaching duty. Everybody else who lived to tell of having been a Mets manager was told to take a hike.

Terry, in the end, wasn’t. It wasn’t smooth, and the details on what his forthcoming role entails are vague, but the man who managed the Mets to the postseason twice and a league championship once managed the most Amazin’ feat of all: he managed not to be kicked to the curb.

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love…

After Gavin Cecchini made the last out of the Terry Collins era and 2017 got itself put in the books, SNY’s cameras lingered for a while on the Mets dugout. One of the players who was in no rush to leave was Reyes. Reyes 2.0. Not the Reyes who didn’t want one more minute on the field on September 28, 2011, lest his .337 batting average (and accompanying free agent value) encounter danger, but Reyes in a warmup jacket, sitting in deference to Cecchini and the almost all-young’n lineup. Jose batted .246 in 2017. Six years older than he was when he won the batting title, he didn’t appear itching to get going.

Neither did Asdrubal Cabrera, who, like Reyes, constituted what little fiber there was to this team on a daily basis once everybody else of tenure was traded or waived. You could take issue with Collins choosing to play Reyes instead of Cecchini as much as he did in the final weeks, or wonder why he leaned on Cabrera instead of testing Phil Evans a little more, but you had to admire the veteran remnants of the 2016 playoff drive for keeping it coming. I certainly did. On Saturday night, Cabrera hit the game-winning home run and thus wore the crown and robe the 2017 Mets awarded to their player of the game. They only gave them out when they won, so after a while hardly anybody wore them. I was impressed the Mets bothered to pack the silly clubhouse accoutrement for this last trip. I was more impressed they had cause to unpack it.

Reyes. Cabrera. First base coach Tom Goodwin. The cameras caught them hanging around chatting with each other, probably for the last time they’ll do that dressed as Mets together. And I caught myself hanging around to watch them hanging around. It’s something I’m skilled at.

There’s what’s come before. There’s what’s going on. And there’s what will come next. I’m great at the first part. I’m all right at the second. The third? Cripes, as Terry Collins liked to say when he managed the Mets for seven years, I haven’t the faintest idea.

But boy do I look forward to what will come next. I don’t mean that in the how many days to Pitchers & Catchers and has anyone seen the revised MLB Pipeline rankings? sense as much as I mean it in the immediate hey, the pregame show will be on pretty soon! sense. Looking forward to what was coming next was my favorite reflex of the 2017 season. With rare exception, I actually actively anticipated most every game the Mets played this year.

These Mets. This year.

I knew we weren’t in it and I knew we weren’t going to get back in it, but I didn’t care that much. There was going to be a Mets game. There were going to be Mets playing baseball and me watching and listening and noticing and considering all that was going on in the scope of what had come before. And I got to do it practically every day or night for six months. Not had to, but got to.

More often than not, the games themselves wound up dissatisfying. But more often than not, the whole thing culminated in me being here with you. That was extremely satisfying. I really looked forward to that. So thank you for another season of being a part of my season. And thank you in advance for whatever will come next as we turn, turn, turn the page toward 2018.

Don't Miss Out

An Asdrubal Cabrera three-run homer in the 11th to beat the Phillies? What Met fan would say no to that?

Sadly, though, Cabrera’s Saturday night shot will never be more than a faint echo of the one we’ll all remember. That one, off Edubray Ramos, came down the stretch last September, when the Mets were fighting furiously for a spot in the play-in game. This one came off Adam Morgan, at the end of a meaningless slog of a game amid the embers of a dead season. Later today the Mets will play their final game and disperse. Terry Collins, in all likelihood, will no longer be their manager. Some number of his coaches will also become ex-Mets. And that will be it until some new incarnation of the Mets assembles in Florida in February.

Honestly, it will be a mercy after a sour, dispiriting season in which pretty much everything went wrong, often cruelly so. I’ll miss the Mets and watching Mets games, eventually. But it’s going to take a while.

Still, don’t let a horrific season — or the embarrassing spectacle of anonymous knives in departing backs — keep you away from October baseball. Don’t cheat yourself.

In 1988, as a 19-year-old fan, I watched in agony as the Mets came apart against the Dodgers. I can close my eyes and still see awful images. Keith Hernandez fumbling in the mud, unable to reach third base. David Cone and his stupid newspaper column. Mike Scioscia unloading off Dwight Gooden before a stunned Shea. Darryl Strawberry failing to hit a simple fly ball when it was desperately needed. Orel Hershiser here, there and everywhere.

And worst of all, somehow, Gary Carter grimly packing up his catching gear in the visitors’ dugout, even though the Mets had a couple of innings left in Game 7. I screamed at the TV and at him that he couldn’t do that, that the Mets weren’t dead. But I was young and Gary wasn’t. He knew they weren’t coming back against Hershiser. I knew it too but couldn’t bring myself to admit it.

I was crushed. And so I sulked. I told everyone who’d listen as well as everyone who didn’t want to that I had had my fill of Tommy Lasorda and Jay Howell and Hershiser and Scioscia and Kirk Gibson — oh, I had most definitely had my fill of Kirk Gibson — and didn’t need to see the Dodgers play the A’s. I’d sit this one out and watch the Mets take gleeful revenge on their tormentors in 1989.

And so I missed Gibson’s home run off Dennis Eckersley — only one of the most famous homers in the history of the game. I mean sure, I’ve seen it a couple of hundred times. I know Jack Buck’s call by heart and Vin Scully’s summing up, just like you do. But I didn’t see it live, as the culmination of three hours of tension and unscripted drama. I missed that because I was mad at the Mets. And I’ve regretted it ever since.

Baseball’s the greatest artistic achievement yet devised by our species, and every October it brings us an amazing story that seems impossible until it’s written and then feels foreordained. I’ve got my bandwagon teams — I’ll happily root for the Indians, the Twins and the Astros. Or, if it comes to it, I’ll cheer passionately for those perennial October heroes, Not the Yankees. (Not the Yankees are a freaking dynasty, by the way — they’re an impressive 85-27 in World Series history. You could look it up.) There are matchups that make me think, “Oh wow, that would be fun,” from Astros/Dodgers to Cubs/Indians II. There’s the madness of the play-in games, and rooting against the Nationals. There’s the chance to watch Jose Altuve and Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor and Aaron Judge in prime time. There’s the bittersweet promise of checking in with old friends Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce and Bartolo Colon. There will be heroes nobody sees coming, and goats who deserve far better, and bathing in beer and Champagne, and scoffing at shivering stars of soon-to-be-cancelled FOX sitcoms, and a bizarre controversy or two, and so much more besides.

I don’t know how any of it will turn out. That’s the fun of it. The Mets will be back and maybe they’ll be a little older, wiser and healthier. Until then, though, the big stage belongs to others. And that’s all right — because I still want to know how this story ends.