“It’s time to be a MAN.” — Johan
A long time ago I lived in a group house outside Washington, D.C., and the male housemates had a running joke. The premise was that the world’s men had formed a union, and our president was Steve Young, then the never-say-die quarterback of the San Francisco 49’ers. If a male housemate decided you were falling short in the cojones department, he’d inform you (with an audience, of course) that you’d had a phone message (this was before cellphones, because I’m damned old). Steve Young had called, sounding disgusted, barked “GODDAMNIT, BE MORE MANLY!” and hung up. (Yeah yeah, Young was actually a Mormon and so undoubtedly neither swore nor ever had any fun. Shut up.)
After what I witnessed yesterday, though, to heck with Steve Young. Johan Santana is the president of the International Brotherhood of Men, as well as our savior and an ace worth each and every single penny of that $137.5 million.
Greg and I, being insane Met fans, tend to stay put when we’re at Shea for a big game. We’re organized about our food runs (take care of that before the game, ideally) and even our bathroom trips. (Greg can cover the distance between his seat and the john at cheetah speed; I’m not that fast, but will never go unless the Mets are hitting, since by definition things then can’t get worse.) Greg doesn’t drink much, and while I can’t exactly say the same, I rarely drink more than a token beer in the ballpark for fear of missing things on the field while in the bathroom.
On Saturday neither of us left our seats for nine innings. What was going on down there on the field was way too important to be interrupted for any biological demand. Because what was unfolding below us, in the mist of late September, was nothing less than a passion play with the 2008 Mets’ survival at stake.
Normally, fans watch the pitcher. They watch the hitter. And the smart ones watch the outfielders, so they don’t roar for pop flies. Today, we and all the other Santana rooters (a wonderful crowd, by the way — nearly all die-hards in full defiant cry) did all that, but in addition we watched the bullpen door. We were trying to will it to stay shut. No Heilman, no Schoeneweis, no Feliciano, no Stokes, no Smith, no Ayala. All we wanted was Johan, our Rock of Gibraltar against the tides of Marlins and Brewers and Phillies and collapses and ill luck. But how long could he go? He’d been good for 87 pitches on short rest once upon a time, but that was a while back. He’d just thrown his career high. How long could that dreaded bullpen door stay shut?
We fretted after the bottom of the sixth, when Johan got the Marlins 1-2-3, then cheered rapturously when he strode to the plate as the second batter in the seventh. We roared and chanted his name as he got through Paul Lo Duca, the deadly Hanley Ramirez and John Baker in the eighth. In the ninth, we were on our feet for every pitch, baying his name, trying to shove him across the finish line. With two out and a runner on second, Cody Ross lifted a potentially dangerous-looking ball to deep left. Some around us groaned. I just stared, my mouth hanging open, the parts of my brain used for calculating trajectories and estimating arcs temporarily shorted out. “IT’S IN THE GLOVE!” Greg yelled, and sure enough, the ball came down cradled in Endy Chavez’s eminently trustworthy hands. Game over, a three-hit shutout on three days’ rest. Unbelievable.
Greg has a ticket for today; I do not. This is significant, because in recent years I’ve developed a curious habit: When I know it might be my last visit to Shea for the year, I give myself over to all the silly between-innings stuff. I cheer for the Kiss Cam and the Delta Dental Smile of the Game. I stand up and hope the Pepsi Party Patrol finds me with a shirt. I let Diamondvision and Busta Rhymes tell me when to clap and what to yell. Yesterday, I was too terrified to follow potential-last-game protocol for a while. But then I remembered. And so I sang lustily along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I clapped for “Lazy Mary.” (Jesus, do I hate that song.) And in the eighth, I was in full cry for “I’m a Believer.” Halfway through, I realized a slight pronoun switch would make it the perfect song for the day, the season, the pitcher and what was at stake out there in the rain:
I thought love was more or less a given thing,
Seems the more I gave the less I got.
Whats the use in tryin’?
All you get is pain.
When I needed sunshine I got rain.
Then I saw [his] face, now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind.
And before I knew it I was wiping my eyes with the back of my hands. Jesus fucking Christ, I thought, I’m misty-eyed about the fucking Monkees. Somebody get Steve Young on the phone.
If Greg noticed, he was politic enough not to say anything. What got to me? Well, everything: The sheer audacious bravery of the man on the mound, throwing a team and a terrified fan base on his back and demanding they measure up to what he was accomplishing; the dull pain and wild hope of seeing an undermanned, overachieving team trying to cheat the hangman; the memory of 2007 and how everything turned to ashes before our eyes; and the thought that if Johan could do this, if these Mets could back him up, then whatever happened on Sunday Shea would have a marvelous memory to offer so close to her end.
I am not sentimental about Shea — quite the contrary, in fact, though that’s not something to discuss right now. But looking out over Shea’s familiar bowl in the late innings yesterday, I found myself thanking the baseball gods for making the old park once more a showcase for what human beings of extraordinary ability and supernatural will can do with a ball and bat and some gloves. Baseball is our most beautiful game and, to my eyes, one of our highest artistic achievements. On Saturday, at Shea Stadium, it was played about as beautifully, thrillingly and heart-stoppingly as it can be. Nothing that happens today, whether it brings us joy or misery as Met fans, will erase that.
On the way out, as Greg has already told you, he and I quietly debated where Santana’s day ranked with great Met clutch pitching performances. Al Leiter in the play-in game? Superb, and our backs were against the wall, but he wasn’t on three days’ rest. John Maine a year ago in this same Game 161? Terrific, but he did have a heck of a cushion. Sid Fernandez in Game 7? Heroic, but a relief stint. Maine in Game 6 against the Cardinals? Fantastic, but he went 5 1/3. Oliver Perez a night later? Wonderful, wholly unexpected, and on three days’ rest, but he went six and we lost. Jerry Koosman in Game 2 of the ’69 Series? Great, and stopped the bleeding from Game 1, but not back-to-the-wall stuff. Bobby Jones dismantling the Giants? Marvelous, and we didn’t want to go back to San Francisco, but we had some wiggle room.
Santana, we decided tentatively, might just stand alone. And then we quietly considered that as we went down the ramp, out into the mist of a season that has at least one more meaningful day after all.
As we went from the upper deck to the mezzanine to the loge and to field level, I let my eyes linger on the familiar ramps and blue girders and Mr. Met signs and scary-looking puddles and stopped escalators and stalled food carts and boozy, happy fans, knowing this might well be the last time I saw them in such familiar surroundings. And at ground level, at the gate, I let my hand rest on Shea’s tan bricks for a long moment, ignoring the grumbles from the sudden pile-up I’d caused behind me.
“Thanks, old girl,” I said quietly. “I hope I see you again.”