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ABOUT US

Greg Prince and Jason Fry
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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My Superhero

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

I kicked off my half of our Met for All Seasons posts with a remembrance of Rusty Staub, my first favorite player — and how he turned out to be an ideal choice. That’s no surprise — Staub was a legendary Met regular, an iconic Met role player, and a beloved alumnus, as well as one of those rare players who crossed the white lines to become a New York City presence as well.

My second favorite player, the one who replaced Rusty in my heart after his shameful exile to Detroit, was a less obvious choice — more “oh yeah that guy” than legend, and a man for whom New York was one in a series of addresses and not a home. But he did just as much to make me a Mets fan. And maybe more.

Why did I fall in love with Mike Phillips, utility infielder for the mid-Seventies Mets, and our Met for All Seasons for 1976? The simple answer is because I was a weird kid.

Mike Phillips 1976 Topps card

The pride of Irving, Texas.

In 1976 I was already a Mets fan, thanks to Rusty Staub and my mom. (Getting to watch Tom Seaver helped too.) But the Mets weren’t an all-consuming passion. I also loved to draw and make up stories. Mostly these were about superheroes — Star Wars was still a year away from capturing my imagination, but I loved my Mego action figures, the ones that were basically dress-up dolls for boys, complete snaps in the back of their fuzzy tunics and weird clawlike mittens instead of gloves. (My friends and I would have been horrified by that description, but look at these things and tell me it isn’t true.) I didn’t care for the Marvel superheroes, which had an arriviste whiff, but I staged endless epics starring Batman and Robin, sometimes joined by Superman and even Aquaman, with his otherworldly shock of highlighter-yellow hair.

When I couldn’t cart around my collection of superheroes, I brought them to life on paper, which was in ready supply for the child of two academics. I primarily drew Batman and Robin, but eventually I tired of familiar caped crusaders and tried something new: superheroes of my own invention.

I don’t remember the name of the superhero I invented, but I do remember he had a secret identity, because every masked man needed one of those. And the secret identity I chose for my creation was “Mike Phillips.”

I know what you’re thinking, but I’m pretty sure you’re wrong. Yes, I was a Mets fan by the mid-Seventies. But I don’t think I was enough of a Mets fan to have cribbed that name from a utility player who’d arrived in 1975 on a waiver-wire deal. Nor do I recall my parents being conversant enough with the roster to bring up part-timers and fill-ins. I think it really was a coincidence.

But it would turn out to be a pretty important one. In 1976 I started collecting baseball cards, which supercharged my fandom by giving me biographies and stats and factoids I could pore over and memorize. And so I was stunned when I saw that there was a 1976 New York Met with the same name as the superhero I’d drawn on the backs of about a thousand no-longer-needed SUNY class handouts and memos. Clearly this was the hand of fate, stretched down from the baseball gods to a seven-year-old kid on Long Island and indicating, This is the path. Follow it to happiness. (Or, well, since you’re a Mets fan, at least something happiness-adjacent.)

Like I said, I was a weird kid. Maybe that’s why the hand of fate pointed at a journeyman infielder — Seaver would have been too easy. But maybe there was more to it than that.

Phillips was born in Beaumont, Texas, and attended MacArthur High in Irving, a school whose most famous sports alumnus is Brian Bosworth. He lettered in baseball, basketball and football, which caught the attention of the San Francisco Giants. They drafted him in 1969 and he reached the big leagues in ’73 as a backup to Chris Speier despite never having hit over .250 at any minor-league stop.

Phillips’ tenure with the Giants would form the blueprint for his career: He wanted to play and never really got the chance. As a rookie, he hit .240 and saw action at shortstop, third and second. The Giants liked his versatility, and he came to spring training in 1974 as the favorite for the third-base job. But the club opted for Steve Ontiveros instead. Phillips got into 100 games, but only hit .219 and made 19 errors. He wanted out, and the Giants granted him his wish in ’75, putting him on waivers.

Enter the Mets, who needed a replacement for Bud Harrelson and his increasingly gimpy knees. Phillips got the bulk of the time at shortstop, and while the results weren’t the stuff of statistical wows — a .256 average and a 0.5 WAR — both team and fans appreciated his gutty play and knack for clutch hits, rewarding him with more than 330,000 write-in votes to the All-Star Game. (He wasn’t selected.) But while Phillips’ positional versatility brought up the old “Jack of all trades” saw, his defensive stats were a reminder of the “master of none” thing — he led National League shortstops with an ugly 31 errors.

1975 wasn’t the springboard Phillips had hoped for. His defensive improved in ’76, but so did Harrelson’s knees, and Phillips was back to sharing time and moving around the infield. In ’77, the Midnight Massacre meant the end of his Met career, as Doug Flynn‘s arrival and a .209 average made him superfluous. The Mets shipped him to St. Louis for Joel Youngblood, making me probably the only Mets fan in the world who was more upset about June 15’s third-paragraph dog-for-cat trade than the departures of Seaver and Dave Kingman.

As with Staub, I continued to carry a torch for my lost hero. Phillips found himself in a familiar situation with the Cardinals: He wanted to be a starter and wasn’t given the chance. I knew this by following box scores and was even ticked about it than Phillips was — and when my parents took me to see a Mets-Cardinals game at Shea in 1978, I arrived bearing a declaration of war.

My message for Cardinals skipper Vern Rapp was as lengthy as it was angry:

HEY VERN IF YOU WANT A BENCH WARMER GET A HEATING PAD BUT DON’T USE MIKE PHILLIPS

A couple of points should be made here.

1) To be read by anyone in the Cardinals’ dugout, this message would have required multiple bedsheets and poles and the cooperation of at least a section’s worth of fans, assuming the wives of the 1969 Mets weren’t on hand, as they probably weren’t for a regular-season game nine years later. I didn’t use multiple bedsheets, however — I used a single sheet of letter-sized construction paper.

2) Said single sheet of letter-sized construction paper wasn’t white, but forest green. It was unreadable 20 inches away, to say nothing of 200 feet.

3) I have no idea what 1978 Mets-Cardinals game we attended, but the first one was May 29, and Rapp had been fired on April 25, replaced by Ken Boyer.

Did I make the least-effective banner in the history of spectator sports? It’s got to be at least a contender.

Mike Phillips in clubhouse

Little does he know every letter is from the same weird kid in East Setauket, N.Y.

Phillips moved on from the Cardinals to the Padres and finally to the Expos, with his career less an arc than a flat line. It ended in 1983 much as it had begun, with him sticking around because he was useful but never really getting to play. Montreal was a strange and undoubtedly frustrating limbo in which he was equal parts player, coach, instructor and none of the above. The Expos released Phillips three times in 16 months: in May ’82, June ’83 and finally for keeps in September ’83. His final career totals: 412 hits over 11 years, a .958 fielding percentage, and one season with a WAR above 1. After his career, Phillips went into marketing, which eventually brought him back into baseball — he was director of corporate sponsorships for the Rangers and oversaw all corporate revenue for the Royals. That’s an interesting second life for a player — two high-ranking jobs that had little to do with the nuts-and-bolts experience of being a player.

But let’s go back to 1976, the best year of Phillips’ career — and the one in which he meant everything to me.

My one memory of Phillips as an actual Met is seeing him hit a leadoff homer, with his name immediately popping up in yellow capital letters on the screen, which was Channel 9’s way of noting round-trippers. That’s the entire memory — I have no context beyond it, and when I sat down to write this piece, I wouldn’t have sworn that what I recalled was accurate. Plenty of memories from when you’re seven years old turn out to be incomplete, distorted or fundamentally incorrect.

So I checked. In late June, the Mets rolled into Wrigley Field for a three-game series with the Cubs. The team was 34-37, far off the pace in the N.L. East, and Phillips was hitting .207. In the first game, Phillips played short and hit leadoff. He struck out looking against Ray Burris to begin the game, but doubled in the third, tripled in the fifth, homered in the seventh, and grounded a single in the eighth. That made Phillips the third Met to hit for the cycle, joining Jim Hickman and Tommie Agee. The Mets won, 7-4. The next day, they romped to a 10-2 win with Phillips scoring three runs and homering — but in the eighth. In the third game, the Mets completed the sweep with a 13-3 bludgeoning of the Cubs, moving to 37-37 on the year. Phillips led off again — and, as I discovered to my delight, he opened the game with a home run to deep right off Rick Reuschel.

That home run was part of the best week of Phillips’ career. He arrived at Wrigley with four home runs as a big-leaguer and left with seven. He hit for the cycle. And soon after that, he was named the National League’s Player of the Week.

So my memory was accurate: I’d seen him go deep off Reuschel on our Sony color TV, watching Channel 9 on a summer Sunday afternoon. Did that week, that game and that moment in particular make me the Mets fan I’ve been pretty much ever since? It might have.

I adopted a utility player as my favorite because of a coincidence involving names and tried to will him, with all the fervor a seven-year-old could muster, into becoming the star I’d imagined. That was too much to ask for a career, but not for a week. For a few days, Mike Phillips really was a superhero. And he donned his cape at the perfect time to transform a little kid’s curiosity and interest into a lifelong passion. The hand of fate may have been pointing somewhere unexpected, but it really was showing me the path.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1986: Keith Hernandez
1988: Gary Carter
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2017: Paul Sewald
2019: Dom Smith

Mad Libs and Exits

The beginning of a baseball season is light and consequence-free — with six months of games ahead, you can relax a bit, allowing yourself to simply enjoy having baseball as a companion again. Starting in June, things begin to get serious — you’re conscious of the standings, of opportunities taken and missed and lost. This reaches a fever pitch in September. But then, if things go poorly? You wind up back to lighter-than-air games.

They feel different, of course — they’re consequence-free because you’re out of it* and just playing out the string. But sometimes there’s a strange relief to that. The needle has not been threaded. The dominoes have not all toppled in the precise configuration you needed. It’s disappointing, but it’s happened, and why would you stalk away from baseball in a snit with so little of it left? So you watch.

I watched — though an asterisk (or an asterich, as it turns out Keith Hernandez pronounces it, to the bafflement of Gary and Ron and everyone watching) wouldn’t be unfair, since I forgot the game started at 6, arrived in the third inning, and then Emily and I talked with our kid on the phone during two tense innings near the end. But that’s OK — consequence-free, remember?

Such September games also bring an awareness that you’re seeing some players for the last time — statistics harden into their final form as starting pitchers complete their yearly duties and position players exit the stage for a variety of reasons. Before the game the Mets put Michael Conforto on the IL, ending his wonderful breakout season. Then they gave the ball for the final time to rookie David Peterson, who looked as good as he has all year, stifling the Nationals to earn his sixth win and finish with an ERA below 3.50. Peterson is going to lead the club in wins; he arrived as an unknown quantity and departs as someone the Mets can write into their 2021 starting rotation in pen. After a year of erasures and crossouts and expletives written in the margins, that’s a welcome development.

It was also a Mad Lib game. What’s a Mad Lib game? It’s a game where the key moments are produced by guys who weren’t in the original plan — for instance, when Guillermo Heredia spanks a sharp single to right off Patrick Corbin and Robinson Chirinos follows him with a grinding at-bat that finally yields a sinker that doesn’t sink and a two-run homer. Heredia and Chirinos! Just like we imagined it in, um, July!

There were some good moments from better-known entities, too — such as Justin Wilson facing the deadly Juan Soto as the tying run in the bottom of the eighth and coaxing a foul pop that Todd Frazier‘s vaguely animate corpse managed to corral, then dueling the deplorable Kurt Suzuki through a 12-pitch at-bat that ended in a harmless grounder and a fielder’s choice. An inning later Edwin Diaz — who’s not back to trustworthy but is a lot closer than we would have imagined not so long ago — bent but didn’t break and the Mets had won.

The Mets had won. It doesn’t matter, except that there was a Mets game to be watched when soon that won’t be the case. And that certainly does matter.

* “But wait the Mets are not done because X and Y and Z and carry the 1 and flip this exponent!” Sure, Jan.

Enjoy Every Image

The online Mets fan world suffered a loss this month when Warren Fottrell passed away at the age of 62. Though the name might not ring a bell, his work would probably elicit a ripple of recognition from anybody who’s ever clicked around in search of Met images. Inevitably you’ll find pictures of baseball cards that were too wild to be something you ever pulled from a pack. If you could, you’d have never stopped collecting.

Life is just a Fantazy when you’ve made it onto one of Warren Fottrell’s cards.

That was the work of Warren, who generally went by the screen name of Warren Zvon or variations thereof. I knew him a little personally (in a virtual way) from his time devoted to brightening up the Crane Pool Forum and a little more from brand-name social media. He was an upbeat, offbeat presence on every platform he inhabited. Spreading Metsian joy through an aggressively goofy illustrative prism was his implicit mission, and he fulfilled it continually.

I’ll share three quick examples of what made Warren Warren and what made us all better off for having crossed paths with him and his work.

The pitcher is Tom, but the grass was all about Ray.

1) The Sadecki Spot This started as a Crane Pool conceit based on the fact that so many Spring Training pictures where the Mets trained in St. Pete were taken on this one particular patch of grass at Huggins-Stengel Field. It got nicknamed the Sadecki Spot for the Met who was noticed posing there frequently, southpaw hurler Ray Sadecki. It’s the sort of thing that’s fun to talk about on a board for a few posts until the next prospective team president is named by the next prospective team owner. But in the imagination of Zvon, it became a trip.

Zvon never missed a chance to spread Metsian joy.

2) Bob Murphy Does Pre-Game Interviews! One 1970 Topps N.L. Playoff Game 3 card would never be enough for Zvon because shallow dives were never deep enough for his uniquely Sheaded tastes. Warren regularly delved into the Mets fan subconscious and created “Fantazy” cards that we only dreamed of (and we’ve all had dreams like this). Perhaps my favorite within his many, many sets was Murph wielding a microphone, ostensibly on the day the Mets clinched their first pennant, because, of course, Bob Murphy talking to Henry Aaron and Tom Seaver is as much of a part of the 1969 playoff experience as anything. This one, by the way, was included on an SNY telecast last year, probably searched for and selected by a production person who had no idea they didn’t design cards like that in real life in 1970 — and still don’t.

Warren could get pretty cinematic if you asked.

3) iThree Amigos! This wasn’t a card. It was a request, by me. In September of 2016, with the Mets driving hard toward a Wild Card berth, media coverage focused on the role Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Reyes and Asdrubal Cabrera had taken in leading the Mets’ charge, both in firing up their teammates and sparking the offense. It all came together on September 22, the night Reyes homered to tie the Phillies at 6 in the ninth and Cabrera homered to beat them, 9-8, in the eleventh. I reached out to Zvon and told him what this made me think of, did he think he could retrofit the characters from the movie Three Amigos to match the Met moment? He responded cheerfully and brilliantly, per usual.

This is iceberg-tip stuff. I urge you to visit Warren’s blog, Mets Fantasy Cards, and treat yourself to a long, luxurious traipse through his archives. Also, check out his Twitter feed, @zvon714, for examples of how he responded to Met events in the wake of their occurrence, right up through Opening Day this year. He was a chronicler of our team as much as any of us who write and he was an artist like no other.

I was an admirer. My partner here was his peer in the baseball card-conceiving realm. Jason adds his perspective on all Warren could do from a technical (and personal) standpoint:

Warren and I shared a mildly insane passion for making custom baseball cards, and he was my mentor and tutor from the beginning. He was an enormously capable designer and colorizer, and as I learned those crafts, i realized just how impressive his skills were. Colorizations are devilishly hard to make convincing, but Warren’s were always warm and lifelike, because he approached them with such great care and invested enormous hours of work to get them right. He had a bone-deep love of old Topps designs and practices, but he was never afraid to tweak a classic, giving those nostalgic designs jolts of life by breaking borders or turning World Series highlight cards into frames for mini-movies. Most of all, he was generous with not just tips and tricks but also with praise and kind words. He taught me so much, and my inbox is filled with conversations in which we happily geek out about new photo discoveries or puzzle over lost printing techniques. And of course he loved everything about the Mets, celebrating not only their brightest stars but also their three-quarters-forgotten 25th men from generations past. I miss him already.

Again, do yourself a favor and visit Mets Fantasy Cards now and often to dig all Warren Fottrell could do.

Just Another Game at Home

We want people to be able to watch sports, to the extent that people are still staying home. It gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy.
—Gov. Andrew Cuomo, May 24, 2020

On Sunday afternoon, August 7, 1994, the Mets lost to the Marlins, 2-0, at Shea Stadium. Had I known the outcome in advance, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been there to witness it. But bereft of inside dope, I sort of did want to be on hand because the deadline the Players Association set for a strike was later in the week, and absolutely nobody was optimistic that a work stoppage could be avoided. The Mets were going on the road the next day, so this Sunday game was, in all likelihood, the final opportunity to go see the Mets for quite a while. I mused out loud that morning that maybe I should get on a train and head out to Shea.

“Why don’t you?” my wife asked.

“I’m tired,” I said.

That’s my excuse for lots of things, this particularly invocation of my most reliable alibi came from a place of earned weariness. We had just three days earlier returned from a ballpark-laden jaunt to the Midwest: White Sox on Sunday; Brewers on Tuesday night; Cubs on Wednesday afternoon. It was a whirlwind. I couldn’t say I hadn’t had plenty of in-person baseball to see me through the upcoming void. Besides, the Mets were on TV. So, on August 7, 1994, I stayed home and watched what became the final home game of the season.

Last night, Wednesday, September 23, 2020, was the first time in 26 years I could say I did the same thing. In the interim, encompassing the final home games of the regular seasons from 1995 to 2019, I attended every single date at Shea Stadium and Citi Field that fit the description of final home game of the regular season. It became a point of pride with me; if there was one game I was gonna be at, it was that game. Then again, it was never the one game I was gonna be at because there had been plenty of games preceding it. That was the beauty of what I came to call Closing Day before anybody else did. The season was leading me there. We’d been through this thing together, the Mets and me. We were one in April, we were one all summer, and now, on the day or night it was time for us to split off, we’d be one one more time.

Then came 2020, when the Mets and I (and everybody else) kept our distance by necessity and public health mandate. I haven’t been out to Citi Field to see them. Nobody has. Not even the “788,905” version of nobody that counted as the official attendance in 1979. The Mets of 2020 have been, by design of contingency, a television show. Not a great one in substance, but a steady one since July 24 — and always presented entertainingly. Same for the radio rendition.

Thus, when Closing Night 2020 rolled around, it was just another game to watch at home. None of the emotions attendant to a final visit to the ballpark. None of that sense that this is the last time I’m getting on the LIRR to change at Jamaica for Woodside…this is the last time I’m getting on the 7 to Flushing…this is the last time I stop by my brick, the last time I get felt up by security, the last time somebody hands me a nick-nack, the last time… There were no last times like the last 25 times to be had.

There were the Mets and Rays, in living color, courtesy of SNY and me paying my cable bill. There was Michael Wacha looking kind of promising for a while until the promise broke. There were home runs from Andrés Giménez, who will keep getting better; and Dom Smith, who has gotten marvelous; and Todd Frazier, who’s from New Jersey. There were the Rays being far more able, as Met opponents have generally been, wherever the show is telecast from. The only twist to this episode is Tampa Bay got to pop a little confetti when it was over because by defeating the Mets, 8-5, they had clinched their division, which is in another league, but that’s the 2020 schedule for ya.

The 2020 schedule for the Mets has been brief and unhelpful from a confetti-popping standpoint. Others pop. We don’t. We’re not eliminated, but we will be. We won’t be playing any more home games, but what’s the difference? It’s not like we get to go to any of them.

A Welcome Rediscovery

So Seth Lugo faced the Phillies last week and let’s just say it didn’t go well.

Lugo got strafed. He started out the game fanning Andrew McCutchen, but then gave up back-to-back-to-back homers, also yielding a triple and a run-scoring single in the inning while fanning two more. Can you strike out the side and have a horrible inning? Yes you can. Things went no better in the second: flyout, lineout, home run (that landed on Mars), double, hit by pitch, single, early shower.

It was a stunning sequence of futility, and doubly stunning because it happened to Lugo, who has a terrific arsenal and the brainpower to know how to make the most use of it. But that night he looked essentially unarmed: He was missing several MPH off his fastball, his location was poor, and the Phillie hitters were on seemingly everything he threw. My fear, as he made his early departure, was that he was hurt — which wouldn’t have been a shock, given the elbow damage he’s pitched with for some time, but also would have been more bad starting-pitcher news for a team that can’t afford any more going into 2021.

So I sat down Tuesday night with some trepidation. Would Lugo continue to look like a guy who couldn’t wake up from a nightmare? Could he fix whatever was ailing him against the Rays, a thoroughly impressive team whose players make very few mistakes and always seem to have a plan?

Happily, Lugo looked like the Lugo we’ve foolishly come to take pretty much for granted. The oomph on the fastball was still mostly missing, which may simply be the cost of moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation, but everything else was working. Including, perhaps, a tweak that mostly was left out of conversations: The chatter in the SNY booth (on an entertainingly pointed and perky night for Gary, Keith and Ron) was that Lugo may have been tipping his pitches in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell got a little squeezed by the umpire (and complained about it a lot) and a little unlucky, which was enough to make him the loser. Robinson Cano — who’s had a wonderful year and done so much to wash away the murk and muck of his first campaign — started the Mets off with a solo homer, and then Pete Alonso got into the act with a fourth-inning homer of his own. Alonso brought in two more runs later in the game and looked like he was actually enjoying playing baseball for once. The batting average isn’t there and the fielding has slipped — in fact, the Polar Bear has looked a lot more like the feast-or-famine guy scouting reports warned we’d get in 2019 than the Rookie of the Year we so thoroughly enjoyed — but we should recall that Alonso’s still working on what would be a 37-homer season in a full campaign. That will play; throw in some more smiles from the BABIP gods and it will play very nicely.

(Oh, and the heretofore anonymous Guillermo Heredia — whose first name I still can’t remember without asking Google or my wife — went deep, proving that he not only really does exist but might actually be good for something.)

Then there was Todd Frazier. I’ve done a lot of grousing about Frazier’s return from the omniscient vantage point of my couch, which is a stance that’s far from controversial — he’s hitting a robust .212, though there is that 0.00 ERA — but admittedly has been amplified by my own prejudices. I’ve always been inclined to favor young players with theoretically bright futures over aging veterans with long, mostly complete tenures, and I’ve been an enormous fan of Luis Guillorme‘s throughout his time with the Mets, convinced he’d succeed if granted regular playing time. So I felt a little guilty when Frazier started a nifty double play in the sixth, short-circuiting a dangerous situation for the Mets. I started to grumble that Guillorme would have made the play too, then chided myself for crossing the line between prejudice and absurdity.

Shortly thereafter, Frazier had a chance for another DP and promptly muffed it. Sometimes baseball forces you to reexamine your own blind spots and biases, and sometimes, well, it shamelessly enables them. FREE LUIS GUILLORME!

Eighth Wonder

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Everybody scream and shout
Do the Fonzie
Come on
Do the Fonzie with me

Leather Tuscadero

In 1997, Edgardo Alfonzo came to the plate 68 times in eighth innings. In those eighth innings, he batted .482, reached based at a clip of .545 and slugged .714 for an eighth-inning OPS of 1.260.

Is that good? In 1997 in the National League, it was unmatched. Baseball-Reference allowed me to check. I looked at every single NL team’s eighth-inning statistics (BB-Ref is a miracle). No player with a comparable number of eighth-inning plate appearances came close to Fonzie’s fitness and fortitude when the going got tough. Five other hitters topped 1.000 OPS in the penultimate inning of regulation — Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mark Grace and Al Martin — yet none of them was within a thousand points of Edgardo. Biggio and Bagwell are in the Hall of Fame, as are Tony Gwynn, Larry Walker and Mike Piazza. You can certainly make a case for Bonds. There was a ton of lumber in the National League twenty-three years ago, and that’s not even taking into account St. Louis trading for Mark McGwire at the deadline. I looked up all the stars, all the sluggers, all the regulars. I looked basically everybody up. Nobody could touch Fonzie when it came to producing in the eighth inning.

Now, you may be asking, “What’s the big deal about the eighth inning?” That’s a fair question. Here is my answer:

The eighth inning was the inning for the 1997 New York Mets. The Mets did more scoring in the eighth inning than they did in any other inning. The Mets did more scoring than any National League team did in the eighth inning. You could chalk it up to random statitude. I say it’s a sign of outstanding character.

No Met demonstrated more outstanding character across his eight seasons in New York than Edgardo Alfonzo. Or probably ever. Nobody filled me with a greater sense of calm and confidence than Fonzie. Nobody made me think that it was all gonna be all right while leaving less room for doubt. Fonzie’s got this was as good a guiding principle as you could adhere to from 1995 to 2002, never more so than in 1997.

Ohmigod, 1997. I loved 1997. I still love 1997. I still love the 1997 Mets, both the season and the team. There’s a delineation to be made between seasons and teams, but in this case I want to throw my arms around both of them and all of them, even the Mets who needed to peel off early so the rest of the Mets could catapult into legitimate contention.

It was legitimate, you know. In September of 1997, I rooted for the Mets to make the playoffs, something I hadn’t been able to do with a straight face in any September since September of 1990. That the rooting didn’t lead to the playoffs, and that it was already kind of a long shot when September began, is beside the point. They were hanging in there, having won more than they’d lost for the first time in seven years, being the kind of team that couldn’t instinctively be viewed as the team most unlikely to win whatever game they were in. The Mets of the ’90s had tumbled into an orange-and-blue abyss around August of 1991. They were stuck down a couple of weeks into April of 1997.

Then Bobby Valentine made Edgardo Alfonzo his everyday third baseman and everything changed. That’s my version of events. Fonzie off the bench and to third. Huskey was off third and out to right. Huskey wasn’t needed at first anymore because we had gotten Olerud. Butch and John were important, too. So was the pitcher who the Mets picked up from post-strike purgatory, Rick Reed, and the pitcher who had spent four years being just fine suddenly blossoming into the second-best arm to ever emerge from Fresno, Bobby Jones. Rey Ordoñez made all the plays, not just the spectacular ones, at short. Todd Hundley was still knocking those home runs over the wall. Carl Everett had a grasp on opposing pitchers if not always reality. John Franco had help in the bullpen for a change: Greg McMichael, Cory Lidle, Takashi Kashiwada. Carlos Baerga had a little something left. Dave Mlicki had a big night in the Bronx. Bobby V juggled a Jason Hardtke here, a Matt Franco there and made magic as needed.

Fonzie by Zvon.

But it all came back to Fonzie and those wondrous eighth innings. Fonzie — the kid was from Venezuela and had never seen an episode of Happy Days — was a natural shortstop. So was Ordoñez, which meant Fonzie needed to be something else. He’d play anywhere he was asked. He did so for Dallas Green, who didn’t play him all that much. Valentine took over and saw a third baseman. Fonzie saw a regular gig develop around him. He made it his own. Fonzie and Rey-Rey on the left side of the infield constituted the original Great Wall of Flushing.

Good glove. Good bat? During his first two seasons as a part-timer, Fonzie hit .269 overall with four home runs each year. Given the chance to show his stuff, he flourished, batting .315, with 10 homers and 72 RBIs. His OPS+, which didn’t exist as far as I knew in 1997, was 119. Hundley’s, with power that was a known quantity after his record-setting ’96, was 148. Ordoñez’s, with a bat that presumably came free with a fill-up of Sunoco unleaded, was 36. Fonzie was closer to Hundley than Ordoñez on offense, no piker next to Rey on defense.

As the year went on, anybody who relished watching the Mets daily realized there wasn’t anything Edgardo Alfonzo couldn’t do well. He wasn’t particularly fast, but he wouldn’t get himself thrown out unnecessarily. If you needed a runner moved along, he could handle the bat. There was pop. There was savvy. There was silky smoothness at a position that had been missing dexterity since…well, forever. The Mets had steadily received some fine production out of third base dating back to the days of Hubie Brooks, but nobody stationed at the hot corner — not Brooks, not HoJo, not Knight or Magadan or Bonilla or Kent — was assigned its challenges in deference to defensive skill. Third wasn’t even Fonzie’s first position, but you would have thought he was born to play it.

As the Mets ascended from a typical 8-14 start to a rousing 88-74 finish, it was Fonzie who led them from nowhere to somewhere. He placed ninth in the league in hitting and thirteenth in MVP balloting for a team that almost nobody noticed was building itself into a winner. One of my fondest memories of Fonzie, 1997 and eighth innings was when the three of them converged on a FOX Saturday affair at Shea, Mets versus Pittsburgh, the home team trailing, 2-1. Tim McCarver, who saw enough of Fonzie to understand that this was a special player, explained to Joe Buck that as National League third basemen of the moment went, Edgardo Alfonzo, batting with Hardtke on first, was having as good a season as any of them. Buck, who probably flew in that morning, practically guffawed at the notion that this nobody could be somebody he had to take seriously.

Then Fonzie homered to left-center to give the Mets the lead and ultimately the win. Listening to Buck swallow his dismissive words was a delight.

Eighth innings, as noted, were a Met specialty in 1997. It was the “we’re not giving up” inning, the indicator that you don’t dare dismiss us until we’ve had every last up. Sure, the ninth inning gets all the walkoff glory that extra innings don’t, but don’t sleep on eighth innings. The Mets were walkup winners repeatedly in ’97, walking up and swiping a win from an unsuspecting foe eighth after eighth. “HEY!” I would have warned the rest of the league had I not wanted to keep our core competency on the down low lest it be discovered and neutralized, “WE’RE NOT DONE HERE YET!” That’s the outstanding character I alluded to above. Finish your homework. Clean your plate. Make sure you take advantage of every last opportunity to score. The 1997 Mets were raised right.

The Mets were tied or behind entering the eighth inning 95 times in 1997, yet they went on to win more than a quarter of those games. Overall, they won from behind 47 times, more than anybody in either league. Sometimes it was dramatic, but often it was reasonably too quiet for the likes of Baseball Night to amplify at a high volume. You can’t pound the bearer of the go-ahead run in the top or bottom of the eighth on the back or urge him to fling his helmet in triumph because, fellas, we’ve still got a little work to do here.

Nobody had to tell Fonzie. I’m sure Edgardo enjoyed giving and receiving a high-five as much as anybody, but his demeanor always expressed wariness. We might need to score more. One of us may need to make a diving stop. Johnny from Bensonhurst might not close this thing out so easily. Fonzie stayed ready.

In 1999, he was ready to move to second base when asked, a request motivated by the offseason signing of Robin Ventura. Fonzie did the shift. The Mets, who’d seen their progress stall in 1998, were better off for having Fonzie play second. What a DP combination he formed with Ordoñez! What an infield with Ventura and Olerud at the corners! Best ever, according to a national magazine! In the interim, between 1997 and 1999, the Mets had picked up one of the players who finished ahead of Alfonzo in the MVP race. Yeah, that guy, Piazza, helped. Plenty of turnover in two years’ time, but Fonzie was at the heart of that 1999 team that made the playoffs, just as Fonzie was at the heart of that 1997 team that first allowed us to dream of getting there. He may have been even better in 2000 when we went even further.

In 2002, because the chance to land Roberto Alomar seemed too good to pass up rather than too good to be true, Fonzie graciously bid adieu to second base and greeted third anew. Talk about a splendid team man. Talk about a lousy response in return. When Edgardo Alfonzo became a free agent after ’02, GM Steve Phillips decided Fonzie was too low-key a character to merit a significant commitment. Phillips like marquee names. Fonzie’s whole thing was being underrated and overlooked. Fonzie just did his job. As did Olerud, who was allowed to leave as a free agent after 1999. As did Reed, who was traded at the first dip in team fortunes during 2001. Phillips tended to get stars in his eyes and mostly ignore the glittering performers on his roster.

Repping 13 then and now.

I never forgave the Mets for letting Edgardo Alfonzo go, at least not within the narrowly defined parameters relating to forgiving the Mets for letting Edgardo Alfonzo go. I mean, yeah, I’m still a Mets fan and never stopped being a Mets fan, but I spent all of 2003 being sore that Fonzie was a San Francisco Giant more than I did being enthusiastic about anybody who was a New York Met. Part of 2004, too. I don’t particularly care that Fonzie as a Giant was not the force he was as a Met, that his back was giving him trouble, that he bounced around during the last year of his lucrative four-year contract. Screw you, I say to nobody and everybody, he’s Fonzie. On the all-time team of Never Should’ve Worn Another Uniform, Fonzie is my starting second baseman, just as he was named the starting second baseman on the Mets’ 40th and then 50th anniversary teams. Fonzie should have been around to nurture Reyes and mentor Wright. It should have been Fonzie’s all-time team hit record that the two of them chased and surpassed. It shouldn’t have taken until 2008 to have Fonzie return to Shea Stadium in a Mets jersey, then only ceremonially to Shea Goodbye. This was six years after the departing player said goodbye by taking out ads atop yellow cabs, letting us know FONZIE ♥ NY.

Again, outstanding character!

The Mets signed him to a Triple-A contract in 2006 yet somehow failed to call him up in September; I don’t forgive that, either. And what was up with letting him go as Cyclones manager last year after winning a championship in Brooklyn? While we’re doing an impromptu airing of heretofore repressed grievances, how did it never occur to anybody to invite Henry Winkler to Shea for a Fonzie summit? That would have been worth the price of an entire yearbook. Well, maybe when they officially induct Edgardo Alfonzo into the team’s Hall of Fame, which was supposed to happen in 2020 and should have happened no later than 2015. I was gonna be there this year for Fonzie. If they let people into the ballpark, I promise I will be there next year for Fonzie.

When it comes to Fonzie, my favorite position player ever, I say what Cheap Trick said about whatever it was Cheap Trick was singing about in 1988. I will be the flame. I will carry the torch. The spark was lit in 1997. It’s burned quietly ever since.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1986: Keith Hernandez
1988: Gary Carter
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2017: Paul Sewald
2019: Dom Smith

Summer Lovin’, Happened So Fast

Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time.
—A. Bartlett Giamatti

Meteorological summer ended on September 1 at midnight. Astronomical summer ended this morning, September 22, at 9:30. The Mets’ summer barely happened at all.

The baseball season, such as it’s been, began July 24 and if it didn’t end last night, we know it’s going, going, gone as of Sunday. It will continue tournament-style for sixteen of thirty major league teams next week. The Mets will be one of the fourteen uninvolved. Mathematical elimination has got its mask over its mouth. The nose will be covered any night now.

It’s been a substantial disappointment when you look at the record (24-30) and recall all the opportunities to garner momentum that went awry. With six games to go, the Mets have yet to win more than three in a row. All they can do from here until Sunday is win three in a row and three in a row again. That will leave them with as many losses as wins and no guarantee that such a stretch will lift them into the NL’s top eight. And though they finished out the two most dreadful seasons for which I’ve been baseball-conscious, 1979 and 1993, on six-game winning streaks, I don’t see how this 2020 team suddenly catches fire and puts it to good use as fall takes full effect.

Still, the Mets of the summer of ’20 haven’t been wholly for naught. The Mets of the summer of ’20 gave us regular appointments with Jacob deGrom, and when you’ve got Jake, you’ve got it all. Except a win, maybe, but we memorized the lyrics to that summer song many moons ago. On Monday night, Jake was close to his usual self. He struck out 14 Tampa Bay Rays in seven innings and lit up the Citi Field radar while doing so. Jacob deGrom is 32 and throwing harder than ever. The late start to both his major league career and his 2020 campaign have apparently served his velocity well. Of 112 pitches delivered, maybe a couple were what deGrom termed “mistakes”. UPS should be so accurate with its deliveries. Giving up four hits while being otherwise overwhelming and winding up with a loss as a result evokes the line about the 1985 Mets finishing three games out: surely they’d have taken the division if not for 24-game winner Doc Gooden losing those four times.

The visiting Rays have their ways, even against literally the best of pitchers. Most of us have no idea who they are until they’re done bumping elbows in victory, yet anonymity seems to work in their favor. The about-to-be AL East champs touched down in Flushing and proceeded to do just enough to edge their opponents, 2-1. They countered deGrom with a walk, a double and a sac fly in the second; a leadoff home run from Nate Lowe-household name Nate Lowe in the fourth; some smothering defense — specifically Willy Adames diving and keeping Jeff McNeil’s ball up the middle from leaving the infield with the bases loaded in the fifth, thereby preventing a second, tying run from scoring; and a grab bag of relievers who tamed the Mets from the evening’s first pitch through its last.

The Mets had Jacob deGrom going seven and fanning fourteen? The Rays had Pete Fairbanks, Ryan Thompson, Josh Fleming, Diego Castillo, Ryan Sherriff and Nick Anderson. Our certified awesome one against their relatively random six shouldn’t have been a fair fight, but the Rays are skilled at opening (openering?) and bullpenning lineups to death. The St. Pete sextet shut down the Mets on a shared four-hitter. Pete Alonso looked more lost than usual. Michael Conforto was unavailable altogether. Guillermo Heredia…who? If you never heard of Guillermo Heredia, Met No. 1,111 on your chronological franchise scorecard, before last night, perhaps all you need to know is he used to be a Ray, so no wonder you never heard of him before last night.

Guillermo Heredia played center for the Mets Monday, having been called up to replace Jake Marisnick, who has a tight hamstring, and then inserted for Conforto, who also has a tight hamstring. A good, loose hamstring goes a long way in getting a person into the Mets lineup these dwindling days of 2020. A decent sense of the moment will have the rest of us in front of our television or by our radio for the duration. It hasn’t been much of a summer, but we might as well savor what little autumn we’re about to get before it vanishes from our midst.

Good Night, Sweet Mets

Most of Sunday afternoon’s game was must-see TV: a taut duel between starting pitchers you didn’t think had it in them. Rick Porcello had his best start as a Met, looking like the pitcher he was before his baffling, seemingly self-inflicted transformation into a pinata. The Braves’ Kyle Wright was fabulous too, throwing strikes and delivering the kind of start that can be a north star for a young pitcher trying to figure it out. With fall in the air and the wind blowing in, the game looked like it would be decided by the smallest of differences: Wilson Ramos hit a double that would have been out on a warmer day and Brandon Nimmo hit a ball that seemed gone but came down just inside the fence, while Ronald Acuna Jr. hit a ball to right that wiggled and wobbled its way through the air, moving steadily and inexorably and maddeingly towards the foul pole and away from Michael Conforto before dropping just into Utleyville.

A wonderful game, in other words, except for the pesky detail of the scoreboard showing Braves 1, Mets 0 instead of the reverse.

And then, well, it turned into a 2020 Mets game.

First came Travis d’Arnaud, who dropped a ball into the corner in the eighth inning off Jeurys Familia for a double and two more runs.

D’Arnaud’s rampage against his former club is evidence that, at least in baseball, the arc of the moral universe really does bend towards justice.

In case you’ve suppressed what the Mets did to d’Arnaud, he lost most of 2018 to Tommy John surgery but was given a contract to be Ramos’s backup to begin 2019. His arm strength clearly wasn’t all the way back, his reactions were rusty, and at the end of April he had a miserable game against the Brewers both behind the plate and on the bases. Twenty-five plate appearances in, the Mets shed the guy who’d been the centerpiece of the R. A. Dickey trade with Toronto.

Now, in an effort to fight against the perfection of hindsight, it must be noted that a) TdA had had a truly wretched game, one of those putrid nights that leaves fans stewing and looking for someone to blame; and b) between his bizarre collection of injuries and overall failure to launch, our collective patience with d’Arnaud was pretty much exhausted. Suffice it to say that as a fanbase we didn’t mourn his departure overmuch. (Though Greg did offer a nicely nuanced farewell.) Still, with a little time and distance that decision — call it the TdA DfA — came to look less like a wise jettisoning of sunk costs and more like a … well, perhaps you might call it a spasm of petty, vindictive pique, one that may as well have hit the media room with FROM THE DESK OF FAILSON across the top of it.

The Mets either should have let d’Arnaud knit ligaments and shake off his rust on someone else’s dime, or acknowledged that there’d be such days but they still believed in him blah blah blah blah. Instead, they split the difference in the dumbest possible way, paying for the project but letting someone else get the dividends. Once freed from the Mets, d’Arnaud touched down with the Dodgers for approximately a second, went on to the Rays, got healthy and non-rusty and had a pretty good year, and then signed on for two years with Atlanta and embarked on a new hobby: beating the ever-loving shit out of the Mets at pretty much each and every opportunity.

Honestly, good for him. I think of Jeff Wilpon wincing with every run scored (or, more likely, insisting a little more loudly to an empty room that someone else is to blame), and that makes it hurt a bit less.

Anyway, d’Arnaud’s 509th …AND TAKE THAT! of the 2020 season made it 3-0 Braves; in the ninth the roof caved in, the scoreboard said 7-0 and something was on fire outside Citi Field, sending a plume of noxious smoke drifting over the cutouts and the field and causing the jokes to once again write themselves. Perhaps what was being reduced to particulates was the Mets’ last hope of playing a role other than observer in the 2020 Baseball Cup: Sunday’s loss downgraded their chances from “very slim” to “now you’re really joking.”

And yet I found I’d reached the “acceptance” step in the program. At their best, the 2020 Mets looked like one of those poorly constructed assemblages that occasionally manages to outhit the rest of its pretty obvious flaws; at anything less than their best, they looked like they did Sunday afternoon. And yet, the noxious Wilpons really are finally about to go up in smoke themselves. We got an improvised but reasonably complete baseball season when I wasn’t expecting one at all and then was pretty sure the improvisation wouldn’t stick. And despite the judgment of scoreboard and standings, that Let’s Make It Up As We Go campaign was pretty goddamn fun sometimes and a much-needed diversion-cum-distraction the rest of the time.

Given what else 2020 has brought us, I’ll take it — even if it came with the occasional Sunday afternoon that began taut with tension and at least vaguely plausible possibility and ended without either.

The Short of It

We finally have a marginally useful statistical comparison of sorts for this season that is statistically, logistically and aesthetically absolutely like no other. With the 2020 Mets having played 52 of a projected 60 games, we can line their season to date up against the only season when the Mets played 52 games in total, the only other season in Mets history when we knew what was done after 52 games defined most or all of what that season amounted to. That was the second season of 1981, the year when a strike spurred the splitting of the schedule into two roughly equal parts, a pair of seasons like no other(s), not until this baby came along.

The 52-game season in question followed a 51-game season that was downright abysmal in Flushing, though the 51-game season didn’t quite define in the same manner most or all of what that season amounted to because, after 51 games, we didn’t know it was a 51-game season. The Mets were 17-34 on June 12, looking forward to drearily completing the usual 162-game campaign. Then the strike occurred. It was presumed that when the strike ended, everything would just pick up where it left off. But the strike lingered through June and all of July before a settlement was reached. Hence, when everybody started over on August 10, they started at 0-0, basically because baseball’s dealmakers decided few potential customers would willingly pay for the privilege of watching teams try to go, say, 18-34 after nearly two months of distasteful discord left them watching nothing.

The second-season 1981 Mets thrilled at least one 18-year-old fan because they took their best shot at winning a mini-division title that was suddenly very much in play. Even though it was only a 52-game season, it was still a matter of finishing first or going home — and the Mets honestly challenged for first. Ultimately, it proved an illusory challenge, but it was real enough while it lasted; it was certainly better than restarting from 17-34. Their final record of 24-28 didn’t get them anywhere because a final record of 24-28 shouldn’t get you anywhere. When it was over, they landed in fourth place in the National League East, 5½ games out of first.

Thirty-nine years later, the Mets after 52 games are also 24-28. They’re also in fourth place in the National League East. They are 6 games out of first. But they are arithmetically a playoff contender because their 24-28 record isn’t final. It’s close to being final, but it’s not yet done. They have eight games left. And they have options that were unavailable to their 1981 second-season predecessors.

In ’81, it was first place or bust. It was that way in the first half, even though nobody knew on June 12 that a “season” had been completed. It was that way in the second half. First-half champ in each division played that division’s second-half champ in the playoffs to determine the division champ that would play the league’s other division champ for the pennant. If somebody won both halves, they would play the division’s second-place team from the second half, but that didn’t happen in any of the four major league divisions.

In ’20, you can finish first and make the playoffs. You can finish second and make the playoffs. You have three divisions in each league, so that’s six playoff positions in the NL, six in the AL. And then there are two Wild Cards, giving us eight here and eight there for sixteen overall. It was considered the fairest way to apportion opportunity in a season surrounded by the unfairness wrought by a pandemic. With eight games left to play, four games under .500 after 52 games makes you more of a contender than a team that finished four games under .500 in a 52-game season 39 years ago could have ever dreamed of being. At least in the NL it does.

The second-half Mets of 1981 compiled the 9th-best record in the 12-team, two-division National League between August 10 and October 4, though what went on in the NL West standings didn’t factor in figuring their playoff chances because there was no such thing as a Wild Card. The short-season Mets of 2020 currently claim the 11th-best record in the 15-team, three-division National League since league play commenced on July 23. They need be very much concerned with the actions of several teams in their circuit’s other two divisions, the West and the Central, because they are not really pursuing first place in the East. They are pursuing whoever has the second-best non-second-place record among everybody in the East, West and Central, for that equals one of the two Wild Cards. (Never mind that, for COVID contingency’s sake, they haven’t played and won’t play anybody from the NL Central or NL West yet still have three games remaining versus the AL East-leading Rays.)

Within those perfectly clear parameters, the Mets are running fourth in the playoff race, 1½ games behind the Reds, who at the moment, hold an advantage of .001 over both the Brewers and Giants, so the Mets are also 1½ games behind each of them. Then there’s us. There’s maybe one more arithmetically viable team behind us (the Rockies) and a little action above the Reds (among the Cards, the Phils and the Marlins) that might directly affect the scrap for the second Wild Card if enough losses befall somebody in that higher quasi-bracket.

We’re still alive. We’re still conceivably a very hot and extremely lucky week from making the playoffs as the 8-seed. Given the right quantities of heat and luck, we might waft up to the 5-seed, but chances are the 8-seed is as high as we can set our sights, if we are of a mind to set them at all.

We’re still 24-28. Just like those 1981 second-season Mets who had nowhere to go but home after playing 52 games. Just like the Mets of 1968, 1978, 2011 and 2014, all of whom had 110 games to go after playing 52, so they were hardly in a similar boat to the Mets in 2020 or the Mets in the second season of 1981, though it’s worth noting none of those Mets went on to finish with as much as a .500 record. Their 52-game marks, however, serve to remind us 24-28 teams generally aren’t on their way to the playoffs no matter how long or short their season.

On Saturday night, the Mets climbed from 23-28 to 24-28 by beating the Braves, 7-2, at Citi Field. The Braves are the team in first place in the NL East, so the Mets picking up ground and moving within six of them probably didn’t cross the visitors’ minds. Given that they haven’t clinched anything yet, the Braves no doubt would have preferred winning, but losing to the Mets wouldn’t seem to represent a tangible dent to their fortunes.

The Mets could be particularly satisfied that they received their first legitimately splendid starting pitching performance since two Friday nights ago in Buffalo and the first that lasted longer than a cup of Bigelow Green Tea since Tuesday in Philadelphia. This rare pleasant turn of the rotation was brought to us by David Peterson, whose rookie season has been more up than down, particularly against the Braves. David went six innings, struck out ten and gave up only one run. It was reminiscent (if anyone actually wishes to reminisce about 2020) of Peterson’s first start against Atlanta, when he also went six and struck out eight. Should the Mets and Braves both make the playoffs and meet in the second (NLDS) or third (NLCS) round, it would behoove Luis Rojas to align his pitching to have Peterson ready to face Atlanta in either Houston or Arlington, as all NL playoff games beyond the Wild Card round will take place in Texas.

In a 60-game season in which 16 teams are invited to the postseason, even a 24-28 team never knows.

Objects in Rearview Mirror Are Farther Than They Appear

The Mets followed two unlikely good nights in which they got lousy, abbreviated starts but hit and relieved their way out of the mess with a thoroughly bad one: no hitting, no relief, and no help on the scoreboard. None of which is ever good, all of which is really bad when the season’s down to a count-them-on-your-fingers number of games.

Of all the damaging developments for the Mets’ recently solid starting pitching, some of which have been self-inflicted and some of which have been lousy luck, Steven Matz‘s disintegration must rank as the most perplexing. Is Matz hurt, as he has been so often during his professional career? Is he oil to Jeremy Hefner‘s water? Is he personally at sea because of a year that has so many of us looking for life jackets?

Whatever the malady or maladies, Matz arrived for duty basically unarmed, missing a few necessary MPH off his fastball and unable to control any of his pitches. He survived the first by giving up only a single run, thanks to some sleight of foot by Todd Frazier, who blocked Freddie Freeman off third, and Austin Riley guessing wrong and locking up on a 3-2 curve that broke over the heart of the plate. But the roof fell in an inning later: Matz threw a sinker to Marcell Ozuna that did no sinking and Ozuna hit it approximately to Portugal.

The Mets were down 5-0, and while big deficits haven’t been fatal this week, the Braves are a lot better than the Phillies. They kept pouring it on, cuffing Matz around over a further two-thirds of an inning, then unloading on Franklyn Kilome and Jared Hughes. The Mets’ lone 1-2-3 inning of the night was turned in by Frazier, who once upon a time pitched a New Jersey team to a Little League championship, as perhaps you’ve heard. Frazier wasn’t throwing pitches that would have received a speeding ticket on the highway, which is something perhaps more Mets should try. Frazier also shouldn’t be on the roster, despite that cannily positioned foot: A 1-2-3 inning from a position player is literally something Luis Guillorme can also do, but Guillorme was renditioned to the Mets’ black site (I may not have this 2020 terminology quite correct) despite a .347 average and being better than Frazier at everything else. The Mets’ Pleistocene belief in Proven Veterans™ is just one of many things I hope vanishes with the departure of Wilpons père et fails.

As it is, the Mets lost when they needed to win, and were left gazing helplessly at the scoreboard as it reported that the Cardinals and Phillies had both swept doubleheaders and the Reds and Brewers had won as well. The Mets aren’t done, at least not mathematically, but if you’re one of the teams they’re chasing, they’re one of those objects in the rearview mirror that’s actually farther than it appears.

* * *

On a brighter note, today is Roger Angell’s 100th birthday, and here’s a tip of the cap and a deep bow to the man without whom we wouldn’t exist.

Angell did more than anyone to impart a love of baseball to me as a child — after I discovered the Mets, I devoured The Summer Game and everything else he wrote. Those books taught me the game’s history, imparted a deep respect for its players, and showed me that baseball seasons form a continuous fabric in which an astute observer can happily spend a lifetime spotting patterns and following threads. He’s also the trailblazer for what we and so many others do in the digital age — Angell started covering baseball for the New Yorker from the dual perspective of professional and partisan, something no one else was doing at the time or had even imagined doing. That double vision is hard to maintain, requiring you to be both clear-eyed and at least reasonably neutral about what happens while also putting your fannish heart out there in all its messiness as part of the chronicle. Should I ever feel that dual focus slipping, all I need to do is go back to my baseball library and see how Angell did it. Which also gives me another chance to dream that once, just once, I’ll manage to write a bit of emotional or physical description that’s half as good as what Angell comes up in each and every column.