Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?
O, Mets. That’s all I keep saying to myself this week. O, Mets. I won’t know what it means ’til after Sunday’s game. Maybe later.
Maybe much later.
It is not out of the question that Johan Santana’s mastery of the Marlins  goes down as every bit the footnote to 2008 as John Maine’s one-hitter versus Florida at the very same juncture of last year did to 2007. We all remember the Maine. We just don’t think about it much given what followed. You know you’ll never see that one reair as a Mets Classic.
We shouldn’t forget the Santana. I doubt we will. It was brilliant, it was stunning, it was both a total surprise and wholly expected. Its impact on this season and this franchise could be profound.
Or it could be a footnote. We don’t know.
But we do know what an ace looks like. We do know what A Man pitches like. Forgive the over-the-top jockishness of this assessment, but that was A Man out there Saturday. Easy enough to call him The Man (or Johan The Man…I’m sure Stan Musial wouldn’t mind sharing). But wow, the way he walks up to Jerry Manuel, says “I’m pitching” and then pitches the way he did, the way we needed, the way nobody does anymore, the way hardly anybody here ever has in a situation of this magnitude. What A Man, What A Man, What A Mighty Good Man.
Mind you, I just assume he pitched well. I was there and I had a nice home plateish view from the Upper Deck, but after taking note of his literal and figurative broad shoulders, I didn’t watch Johan Santana pitch the game of my life all that much. I was watching other pitchers. I had my eyes fixed on the right field bullpen.
Nobody’s getting up, are they?
That one…he’s just taking off his jacket ’cause it’s muggy…right?
The bullpen door is shut, isn’t it? Gosh, can’t we get some superglue and maybe a Doberman to make sure?
That, to co-opt a line a friend uses from a Broadway show to describe another player, is why we have a Johan Santana: so we can forget we have the Mets’ bullpen.
No worries. Johan had a little trouble in the fifth, putting runners on second and third and wisely walking with the best intentions Hanley Ramirez. His pitch count was over 70, of concern given the three days’ rest. We needed him to get out of that one. John Baker’s sinking liner gave me a sinking feeling, but Ryan Church kept Johan’s ledger clean. After that there was no looking back…just looking over the right field fence. Hey Schoeneweis, that better be a seventh-inning stretch you’re taking there!
Johan Santana was flawless. Fifty-two weeks to the very day John Maine flirted with a no-hitter, Johan Santana was perfect. The line score may say different, but 54,920 of us (minus the rainophobes) knew it for certain. It wasn’t so much that the Florida Marlins couldn’t touch Johan Santana. It was that they couldn’t beat him.
No way. No how. No defeat.
No coming out for Johan. Johan was a throwback Saturday. Johan on three days’ rest is better than God creating the world in six days. God made mistakes. God created Met middle relievers.
Have we ever won a 2-0 blowout? Ricky Nolasco was pretty formidable himself (10 K’s in 7 IP, one more than Johan accumulated in going the distance) but I barely noticed we weren’t hitting. Ramon Martinez and the Mets offense did just enough. David Wright and the Mets defense nabbed as necessary. Otherwise it was a matter of watching an immortal dropping by and being a good enough sport to play a little sandlot with some neighborhood kids. The other Mets and all the Marlins should have lined up single-file to get his autograph after the game.
Jason’s first words to me following the 27th out were “Where does this one rank?” Well, I thought, somewhere between the Second Coming and simultaneous heart-brain surgery, but he meant it in terms of clutch Mets pitching performances through the years. We bandied about some impressive examples, including Maine’s from September ’07 , but I maintain it’s a mostly pointless exercise. Nothing compares to Johan Santana demanding the ball on three days’ rest in an age when nobody pitches on three days’ rest and then throwing a shutout on the second-to-last day of the year when the Mets are a game behind the afternoon after one of the most dispiriting nights this team and this fan have ever known.
I’m not saying it’s the best-pitched game the Mets have ever had. The Mets have had some pretty good pitchers and quite a few well-pitched games. I’m saying that when you toss into the bowl all the surrounding circumstances and you stir it with a Johan Santana three-hit shutout on three days’ rest, you’ve never seen a cake like that rise in the Mets’ oven.
With the very first pitch Johan Santana threw Saturday, my jangling nerves from Friday night snapped back into place. My whole M.O. about sorta, kinda hoping the Mets would go quietly and clear out for the Shea Goodbye festivities dissipated into the steady mist. All it took was one pitch and I was on board, even if I had no idea how badly the ride might crash into the finale Sunday.
Closure can wait. Give me continuation. I’ll worry about reflecting on the distant past after Game 162. Game 161 made the lingering present a whole lot brighter.
How badly was this game needed? Beyond one out with two to play needing to become two-way tie with one to play? Well, I’d like to think the Mets couldn’t sink any lower than they did Friday. I’d like to think I touched bottom early Saturday. While the rain has largely stayed away, the black cloud over my head opened wide before the game. I was standing my post in Section 22, chatting with Charlie Hangley as has become a most pleasant Saturday tradition these last two years. The game was nowhere near starting and the walkway was nowhere near crowded. Charlie was in Row A, so I could lean up against his railing and step aside with ease whenever somebody needed the adjacent steps.
An usher comes by. He speaks courteously but there’s that presumptuous Shea employee tinge to it that sets me off. Sir, you have to move, he says.
It wasn’t an unreasonable request, but at that moment I was that punk kid in the movies who’d been hearing people telling him to “move along” all his life and all it took was one cross word to push him over the edge and into pulling his switchblade.
“Sir, you have to move.”
Normally, I move. Normally, I say excuse me and scoot out of the way. Normally, I am very spatially aware of other people’s needs.
But not after Friday night . Not after the two September homestands. Not after a season’s worth of idiocy from the Shea Stadium workforce. Not after these 36 years.
“Sir you have to move.”
A pause. Then I strike.
“YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!”
Again, there’s not that much pedestrian foot traffic. And I’m talking to my friend Charlie on his last trip to Shea, where I’ve always talked to Charlie and my presence has never been a problem.
I’m frozen for half a second. Charlie is motioning me to an empty seat next to him. I take one step but I steam instead. And I turn back to the usher who is between tips.
“YOU’VE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME!”
“Hey,” he smiles. “You can’t stand there. People have to get through.”
I can’t stress enough that what he said was true and that I wasn’t about to be put out by complying. But I’ve been hearing people at Shea telling me to move along all my life. My last sight of the Mets was from the night before, them letting me down, them forcing me to wish them into the corn field. I was still the Bubba Burger Angry Fan of the Game.
I blurted out an “I’ll see you later” to Charlie and stomped off to my seat in Section 6. And I calmed the fuck down. (When I mentioned to Jason that I don’t roll with the punches very well and thus tend to lash out at the strangest times and the strangest targets, he was very quick to agree, which makes me wonder what else I’ve done to who at Shea.)
Johan lifted the cloud. Johan and, irony of ironies, Peter Finch. For years, the A/V squad played the famous “I’m mad as hell” clip from Network, using it to elicit a tremendous LET’S GO METS! chant from the crowd. I thought it was one of the most clever things  they ever did. Then sometime last year, it disappeared. Instead we got that atonal Kevin James blowing the cadence and Darryl Strawberry doing community service and Chris Rock not sure if the camera is on and whoever wandered by on any given day having no idea what Let’s Go Mets means to us. I didn’t want them telling me to yell Let’s Go Mets. I wanted Howard Beale from UBS.
Before Saturday’s game, I got him. When Finch/Beale commanded, “I want you to get up now…” I actually got up. The game hadn’t started yet, but I got out of my chair and went to my window, opened it, stuck my head out and yelled…
LET’S GO METS!
Felt very good. Just like seeing the quintessential No. 2 starter Jerry Koosman reveal No. 2. Like seeing the securer of the last out of the first championship Cleon Jones throw out the first ball instead of, say, State Farm Insurance Agent of the Day Pat Cawley of Glendale, New York (I swear, I’ve seen his picture on DiamondVision so much I’m tempted to take out a policy on my mind). Like being part of the crowd that was at least 135 degrees more intense and a thousand percent less boo-some than Friday’s. Like hearing not just all of “Takin’ Care Of Business” by BTO but a little “Keep The Faith” from Bon Jovi. I don’t really like Bon Jovi, but I sure as hell like any excuse to invoke faith  instead of fear at Shea Stadium.
But all that amazin’, amazin’, amazin’ karma aside, I don’t know if it’s a one-day wonder or the start of something big. I thought Maine might change the culture on the final Saturday last year, but his older, more accomplished rotationmate invalidated that theory in the very first inning Sunday. This is still the same team as it was Friday, except Johan Santana pitched. It will be the same team Sunday, except Oliver Perez will pitch. If there’s two things we know about Ollie Perez, it’s that he comes up huge when we absolutely need him and he has less than nothing when we absolutely need him. Ollie is two pitchers, but sadly only one can be used and we don’t know which will show up.
But, y’know, that’s the love rollercoaster we’re on. Monday, Wednesday and Friday I was never lower. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I was never higher. I don’t particularly care for that pattern, but no one said it was set in granite. If you’re looking for a rallying cry, that’s about the best I have: we might not lose.
One night when I was in college, I was wearing my satin Starter Mets jacket  and a guy came up to me. He was a Mets fan, too. That very day a bunch of ’69 Mets and a bunch of ’69 Cubs had convened in St. Petersburg to play an Old Timers game. He was there and it was great, he said. I wanted to be there, I said, but couldn’t make it.
“You didn’t go? You’re not a real fan!”
That’s the last time another Mets fan questioned my credentials (and that college student grew up to be Steve Phillips…no, not really). I think I’m pretty well set up in that regard since, but after Friday I wasn’t sure if I was a real fan. A real fan wants his team to hang in there as long as it can until it makes the playoffs or until it dies trying. I just wanted out. Now I don’t. I feel more like a real fan again.
Which doesn’t make me wildly optimistic (even if I’m not resolutely pessimistic). I think back to a conversation I had with my mother when I was seven. It was the afternoon before the Knicks would play the Lakers in the deciding game of the NBA finals. I fretted my head off that my Knicks, who had been the best team in the league all year, might actually not win the championship. Well, my mother cautioned, if the Lakers win instead, it will be because they deserve it.
Willis Reed limped onto the court and the Knicks won, but it’s my mother’s unusual words of wisdom that mean more to me now. If the Mets win, then there’s nothing to do but jump up and down for a few minutes before we start dreading the Cubs again. If the Mets lose, then they probably didn’t deserve the Wild Card as much as the Brewers . Neither contender deserves a playoff spot if you ask me, but they’re both right there and it’s in their hands, not mine.
It’s the final game we know of at Shea Stadium on Sunday. I still look forward to all that implies. I no longer dread the 2008 Mets’ impact on the farewell ceremonies, on the nostalgic bent of the afternoon, of my memories and my emotions. It even occurred to me that the day could be embellished by what they (and the Cubs) do. I don’t know how it will unfold, but I don’t fear it.
You know you’ve got to keep the faith.