If five years suddenly feels a lot more like a half-decade, then it’s Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
It was a simple plan. In the bottom of the sixth, I was going to stand up when the leadoff batter came to the plate. I was going to clap. Applaud, really applaud. It would probably be the last time I’d see him come up this season. I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d see him come up ever in a Mets uniform, but his contract was expiring and in the business of baseball, you never could tell.
I figured Edgardo Alfonzo would walk to the plate and there’d be at least a few who would feel like me, feel enough to tell him what they thought of him, that despite the bad back that had curtailed his power and his mobility at a position he graciously accepted to accommodate a bigger name we appreciated everything he had done for us these past eight seasons. That we wanted him to return. That we wanted him to never leave. That he was our Met of Mets in this generation, the true Signature Player (Piazza being a little more of prefab stamp ordered from a catalogue) of what had been, until it went south over the summer, a rewarding period in Met history. If enough of us were that aware and expressed it, others would pick up on it. It would become a Sheawide appreciation. Edgardo Alfonzo, our Fonzie, would have to acknowledge it. He would tip his cap to us. It would be a moment to mark an otherwise innocuous afternoon at the end of a completely dreadful season. It would be a moment to remember for all of us who were there. We would always have that moment.
We would be deprived our moment.
All Bobby Valentine had to do was follow what he had written on his lineup card. Alfonzo was batting fifth for the Mets on September 29, 2002, the final game of the season five years ago. On last days that have no bearing on the standings, managers always make a lot of switches. But the veterans playing at home usually don’t get pinch-hit for. Pinch-run, maybe. Defensively replaced often. but not pinch-hit for, not before they’ve had what the fans would recognize as their definitive last at-bat for the year.
But Valentine was never one to follow protocol or adhere to a previously penned script. When the bottom of the sixth rolled around, John Valentin was announced as the pinch-hitter for Edgardo Alfonzo.
I never got out of my seat.
The Mets beat the Braves to wind up the 2002 season, 6-1. It meant nothing in the larger scheme of baseball things. The story afterwards would be that Bobby Cox sent up a pitcher named Bong to pinch-hit as an apparent tweak at his enemy Valentine. Bobby V had held an embarrassing press conference — everything in 2002 was embarrassing — earlier in the week to explain away the photographic evidence that one of his players, pitcher Grant Roberts, was pinch-hitting his own bong. The story two days later was that Valentine was fired, two years after leading the Mets to a World Series.
Edgardo Alfonzo’s final at-bat in a Mets uniform was in the fourth. He struck out. It went unnoticed, even by me. Only the diehards were all that aghast when the Mets didn’t re-sign him by December. First he became a free agent. Then he became a Giant. His goodbye to Mets fans could be found on a couple of dozen taxis that cruised the streets of Manhattan that winter. He thought it would be more appropriate to buy ad space — FONZIE ♥ NEW YORK — atop a yellow cab than taking out an ad in the paper, more New York. I saw the pictures of the ads. Never saw the cabs.
I did see Edgardo Alfonzo after he was no longer under contract to the Mets but before he became somebody else’s player. He was signing autographs at the 42nd St. Clubhouse Shop in October, during the Anaheim-San Francisco World Series. I went with my friends and co-workers Laurie and Jim on our lunch hour. There was a short but negotiable line behind a velvet rope. Mr. Met was there, too.
The purpose of the trip was twofold. My season ticket partners of the past two years, Jason and Emily, were about to have their first child. Not only did I want to buy the baby a Mets outfit (I wouldn’t know what else to buy babies), I wanted Fonzie to autograph it. Jason, Emily and I were in the stands together for so many of Edgardo’s big hits in ’99 and ’00. It seemed an appropriate welcome gift to the next Mets fan.
But I also wanted to not just meet my favorite current player as part of the autograph process, I wanted to urge him to stay. That was the recurring sentiment from everybody who wound their way from the velvet rope to the signing table. Stay Fonzie. Stay.
Fonzie’s response? He sure wanted to.
Despite the Mets Clubhouse Shop’s policy (probably improvised) that you can’t take pictures with Mr. Alfonzo or have him autograph more than one item, Fonzie did what Fonzie wanted. “They don’t pay me,” he said, perhaps ominously. So he signed the onesie for the yet-unborn Mets fan (“hey, that’s cute,” he said). He signed a ball for Laurie. For Jim’s nephew. For Jim. For me. It was Signature Player signatures all around. He posed with everybody, too — as did Mr. Met.
I told him to stay. I told him how much I liked him. I told him he was, by inscribing his name on that onesie, welcoming a new Mets fan to the world.
But I never did tell him goodbye.
You spend so much time enmeshing yourself with the laundry that you begin to hallucinate you have a relationship with those who wear it. I spent eight seasons hanging out with my man Fonzie. I knew him both not at all and intimately. I knew when he’d get a two-out hit, when he’d stretch out for a pop fly behind second or a ball in the hole at third (where he played before the valiant Ventura and after the accursed Alomar). I knew he’d speak softly in postgame interviews and smile shyly in the dugout after getting high-fived. I never spoke to him until he was done doing all that. I never had to. It was a bonus.
I wished I could have said goodbye to him, properly. Not in a Clubhouse Shop, not with a store manager lurking, not as awkward small talk, not as his cab pulled out of Queens for good. I wished I could have said goodbye to him the way I had planned. By standing and applauding in the mezzanine, once more, with feeling. And long after September 29, 2002.
Others would play second (and third) for the Mets in the seasons that would follow Edgardo Alfonzo’s tenure with the team. He wasn’t irreplaceable. I just didn’t want him to be replaced so soon.
Next Friday: The No. 2 Song of All-Time…and I talk about it still.