It's the new guys who will heal us.
I don't just mean that Angel Pagan has been a revelation, that Ryan Church has so far proved a good bat and an excellent glove, that Johan Santana is Johan Santana or that Nelson Figueroa had a very nice night. (Or that even Raul Casanova chipped in when finally allowed to play.) All those things are true, but there's another factor.
We aren't mad at them.
Those guys weren't stumbling around these precincts after Memorial Day, plummeting back to the Phillies' level in September or getting keel-hauled by the Marlins on Tom Glavine's day of disappointment. Hopefully we'll soon get over being mad at all those branded with the tag “2007 Met” — it's no fun being mad at David Wright — but it hasn't happened quite yet. It's too early for that. But it's not too early for thoroughly enjoying the derring-do of Pagan and Church and Santana, the innocents.
Which brings us to Figueroa.
Being a baseball fan of a certain stripe means sentimentality is always waiting to swallow you up if you're not careful. Baseball really is about lyrical green fields and the arc of the ball. But it's also about sweating and bleeding and cheating and managing egos and guys who don't get along and hangovers and baseball Annies and contract strife and labor wars and drug worries and the ruthless business decisions that assemble and maintain teams and franchises and ballparks. It's not all Ken Burns — black-and-white photos and piano and mannered narration.
But sometimes, man. Shut up, play that piano and let John Chancellor talk.
Nelson Figueroa grew up a Met fan in Coney Island. Scorned for being too small and not throwing hard enough, he wound up at Brandeis University, not exactly a baseball hotbed. His boyhood team drafted him in 1995, but without an excess of faith in his future — he went in the 30th round, the 833rd overall pick. And then the Mets sent him away in 1998, as part of a package for the utterly forgettable Willie Blair and Jorge Fabregas. He made it to the big leagues with the Diamondbacks in 2000, pitched well for the Phillies in 2001, then tore his rotator cuff after a cup of coffee with the Pirates. Then it was a minor-league deal with the Nationals and a spring-training look-see from the Mariners. It was a tour of duty in the Mexican League and a late-season job with the Uni-President Lions of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. He did well there, but Figueroa was 33, owned a 7-17 lifetime record and a suspect rotator cuff, and was pitching in Taiwan.
But somehow his story was just beginning.
You know the rest, but imagine it from Nelson Figueroa's perspective: He got a minor-league deal from his original team, the one he grew up rooting for, the one that sent him away. He pitched well enough in spring training to shove himself into consideration — and got cut on the last day of camp anyway. And then got called back almost before he left. Walking off the mound in Miami, wearing a Met uniform at last, he said he didn't want to be seen tearing up in HD.
Heck, he wasn't alone. That was a wonderful story right there, one that made anyone with a heart made of anything softer than granite excuse themselves for a moment because, hey, it's getting a little dusty in here. But you want more? You want Figueroa to take the mound at Shea with his family spilling out of a luxury suite and cheering him on? OK, the baseball gods can do that. You want him to retire the first three Brewers? Well, sure. The first six? Hmm, OK. The first nine? Easy there — sure, what the heck. The first 12? Man…but OK. The first 15? No. Too much! Sorry.
No, you had to settle for six innings of two-hit, two-run ball — and a win whose final moments were etched on Nelson Figueroa's face, in the arch of his eyebrows and the too-quick flash of his smile and every nervous duck of his head as Billy Wagner retired the last three Brewers somewhere out there in the fog. No perfect game, no no-hitter — even the baseball gods can reject a story as too perfect, too cornpone, too hard a yank for the heartstrings to bear.
But that's OK. That's more than OK. We thought about the perfect game, the no-hitter. We thought about it, hoped for it, knew it wasn't coming, nodded our heads when it didn't arrive. I bet Nelson Figueroa did all that too. And I bet he knew there wouldn't be 27 up and 27 down. After all, he knows how things work around here. He knows because as a kid he was one of us, and because now he is — at long, long last — a New York Met.
(Tip of the cap to the Star-Ledger's Jeremy Cothran for background via a nicely told tale.)