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Shea Abhors a Hateful Vacuum

The most telling sign of Mike Piazza's status upon his return to Shea Stadium was the graphic posted on DiamondVision in advance of the sparkling “In My Life” video tribute. There was a circular icon with a 31 in the middle. The numbers were blue, the trim was orange, the numerals were adorned with pleasing pinstripes.

That's right: A retired number. It was an implicit public promise that what we all think should happen will happen, barring long-term memory loss on behalf of ownership or the re-emergence of Kelvin Torve. No. 31 will go up on a wall, here or next door, alongside the ones you know in your sleep: 37, 14, 41 and 42. Without dredging up dozens of fun but tangential arguments on behalf of removing 24 and 17 and 6 (what, no Orsulak?) from active duty, 31 getting Stengeled is so appropriate that Miss Manners could emcee the ceremony.

Until then, we'll have to make do with turning our own backs on Mike Piazza. Thirty-Ones were in full effect last night, tens of thousands doing as I did and diving into their jersey and tee collections to break out a classic (though one joker in my section invested in a Padre road top with 33 and MET FOR LIFE on the name plate). We're on the same page with the Wilpons here. We're all respecting 31 however it's embodied.

This, by the by, is something the Dodgers won't do as is evidenced by their assignment of 31 to Brad Penny, so let that end any notion that an LA can adorn Mike's HOF cap…and how in bloody hell does Brad Penny get to keep wearing 31 [1] when Greg Maddux is on the same team? Not our problem, but tacky.

Mike should receive the digital honor of honors just for pulling off the neat trick of returning to Shea and maintaining virtually every fan's loyalty while not pulling it at all away from the home team. The 2006 Mets get an assist there, too. In other not so long ago years, the crowd could be easily swayed against the Mets if one charismatic personality alighted in the wrong shirt. It is to Mike's credit that his Met popularity is rock solid. It is to the Mets' credit that last night didn't devolve into a late-'90s Merengue Night fiasco [2] when even a Felipe Alou could turn a plurality of attendees into raucously supportive Montreal Expo acolytes and there wasn't enough of the royal we to convene a critical mass on behalf of our guys.

By the same token, in other years and on other nights, contagious amnesia has been known to break out. I was bemoaning to my friend “Other” Jason last night that I was here for the returns of Alfonzo and Olerud (and, we determined as I reminisced, most of the '99 Mets), and they were all treated like gray-suited strangers by almost everybody but me.

Say, who's that vaguely familiar character batting for the other team?

Oh, just somebody who used to work here. Pay him no mind and root for Tyler Yates.

But Tuesday with Mikey was invigoratingly different. The love in the room was intoxicating, the priorities were sober. Let's Go Mike and Let's Go Mets: concurrent emotions sung in perfect harmony. Nice job.

Having established that Mets fans don't always turn their old heroes into hero sandwiches, I am now left to wonder about some other sentiments expressed at Shea in recent nights and why we en masse think the way we do.

He's slightly old news, but what was with the booing of Chase Utley Friday night? Co-blogger and I were just reaching our seats Friday when Utley of the 35-game hitting streak was announced. You'd think Chase was a Pennsylvanian abbreviation for Chipper. Ya gotta be kidding me — we're booing Chase Utley for his recent spate of excellence? Talk about tacky. Worse than tacky…it's Yankee. It's Juan Gonzalez hitting a couple of home runs in the '96 playoffs and then becoming Public Enemy No. 1. We did the same thing with Utley, except without flinging Duracells at his head (can't beat that Yankee tradition).

Whatever happened to “Here comes that Man again”? Brooklyn fans may have hated what Stan Musial did to their Dodgers (owning them), but they recognized they were witnessing a great player and they applauded him. Didn't don Cardinal 6 jerseys as far as I know, but they respected him. When I was a kid, Mays the Giant and Aaron the Brave were above spiteful booing. You see an immortal among us and you clap.

What's that? Utley ain't them? No doubt. But Utley was doing what Pete Rose was doing in 1978, hitting every night and nearing history. Pete Rose really had been Public Enemy No. 1 in these parts since October 8, 1973; he still hasn't been forgiven for upending Buddy Harrelson. But when he came to Shea with the National League hitting streak record in sight, Mets fans — and not just the frontrunners who infect big events — saluted his feat. 1978 was like 2006 in one respect: There were no real ramifications in this for the Mets. If Rose had gone hitless, those Mets still would have sucked, just like if Utley had singled Friday night, these Mets would still rule.

You didn't have to root for Chase Utley to keep at his skein successfully (though why you wouldn't want a Yankee Clipper toppled clear out of the record books is beyond me), but you really couldn't take a moment from preserving the integrity of Metdom to put your hands together a few times and say, “hey, you're a real good player accomplishing a pretty great thing…now strike 'em out Duque!”? There has to be an aesthetically satisfactory middle ground between the Stockholm Syndrome that turned New Yorkers into home run whores for McGwire and Sosa and the brainless state that dictates anybody who's the enemy has to be fully and frontally attacked.

Listen, I cheered real hard when Pedro Feliciano put an end to the streak. Just because I admire what Utley had done doesn't mean I wanted to actively encourage him to succeed at our expense. But I also applauded him for having gotten that far. It's not that hard.

If you don't care for Pete Rose, maybe Axl Rose will do it for you. I'm thinking in terms of the acoustic G N' R of “Patience,” as in take it slow, things will be just fine. Consider this a long-distance dedication to the fans who are pumping up the volume, notch by disturbing notch, on booing Lastings Milledge.

Remember him? He's the extremely talented rookie you loved approximately two months ago. He's apparently been optioned to oblivion in your estimation because the Lastings Milledge at Shea on this homestand isn't being offered any high-fives down the right field line [3].

I won't argue that Milledge isn't showing nagging indications of shrinking into Jason Tyner, Size 2000, right before our very eyes. There is a growing process here and with growth comes pain. Thanks to Miami DUI fucker Cecil Wiggins, Milledge is back before his time. He's learning at the highest level and the lessons are complex, but I and, more importantly, those who evaluate talent for real think he's capable. Heck, even Jason Tyner is playing for a contender (the Twins) these days.

So why is Lastings Milledge being booed like he's Chase Utley without portfolio? I sensed a smidge of it on Sunday night and it definitely built into something noticeable by his final fruitless at-bat Tuesday. Booing Royce Ring is silly enough, but I get that: Reliever comes in, gives up hit, you react. Unnecessary, but instinctive. This Lastings thing feels like something else, as if the eighth-place batter in your first-place lineup is really becoming a bane of your existence. Because he's got a touch of the Mendoza? Because he leapt and missed for Geoff Blum's homer like Ron Swoboda did Don Buford's? Because his body language isn't as upWright as you'd like?

I can only conclude that there's a significant swath of Mets fans who need to be down on at least one of their own at all times. It ain't gonna be the left-side youngsters with the big contracts and, because they've performed so effectively, it ain't gonna be one of the Carloses (Beltran we've always showered with adoration [4], right?). Lo Duca is more of a folk hero than ever for being somebody else's unreasonable target. Cliff has always been blessedly immune to anything more than mild “he's hurt again?” grumbling. Booing Jose Valentin didn't harm him, the bastard. Endy Chavez never had a chance to be disliked, what with his good playing and such. Trachsel's monumentally boring but regularly victorious. Billy Wagner refuses to screw up every chance he gets. Aaron Heilman and Chris Woodward didn't play last night. Eli Marrero has left the building.

I see. It's all about to be Lastings Milledge's fault.

Whatever it is.