It was singles night in Pittsburgh. The Mets collected eight one-base hits and carefully avoided the other kinds, while there seemed to be fewer than ten healthy Mets let alone ten living Pirates fans at PNC Park. Double-digits are apparently reserved for places like San Diego where the Phillies won 10-5 on the strength of Raul Ibañez’s 18th and 19th home runs and moved 2½ games ahead of us now that we’ve hit the road and, for the moment, stopped playing the Nationals.
Zach Duke outpitched Johan Santana. His full name is Eff Zach Duke. I’ve had it in for Zach Duke since the night in 2005 he completely silenced the Mets at Shea Stadium and left Jim Haines and me grumbling about what a worthless game that was all the way back to the Nassau County border. Jim and I have attended nine night games together since then and the Mets have lost every one of them, all by Zach Duke-like margins, each leaving us more grumbly than the one before. (We were due to break our nocturnal streak last Friday but I threw my friend under the bus so I could accept an invitation to the Ebbets Club — if we had rustled up Promenade tickets as tentatively planned, Ramon Castro would still be a Met, because Omir Santos would not have driven in the winning run in the eleventh because the Marlins would have beaten the Mets handily just as they always do when Jim and I show up in tandem for night games.) Duke, meanwhile, did not grow up to be Johan Santana. He just became one of those young Pirate pitchers who got older and less successful. That Duke boy who went 8-2 in ’05 has followed it up with successive seasons of 10-15, 3-8 and 5-14. He seems to be back in Dukeness, damn it.
The Mets were also done in, for the second night in a row, by Matt Capps, which is an interesting name for a closer or perhaps a lovable rogue British comic strip character. Did you know Matt Capps’ middle name is Dicus? And did he ever, 1-2-3 in the ninth.
Only one Met hit Tuesday night, and that was Jeremy Reed. He, however, found a creative way to not score when he tumbled hopelessly into an out at home in the third from second, somewhat diminishing the halo from his 3-for-3 performance. The Mets’ only run was put up by Ramon Martinez whose thumb took it on the chin in the process and, without even catching the team flu, found himself sidelined immediately thereafter, joining the Mets’ burgeoning ranks of the lame, the halting and the reportedly nauseous. There is no surer path to seasickness than playing the Pirates.
And enjoying it all was a very small kaffeeklatsch of Bucco loyalists. You’d figure after sixteen consecutive losing seasons they’d attract no more than a hardy band of lost souls (aarrgghh!!), but then the Penguins skated into the Stanley Cup finals and reduced their ranks even further. I flipped over briefly to Versus to see what all the fuss was about. Not only was the hockey next door causing a frenzy inside the Igloo, but there was a bigger crowd outside their arena watching Game Three against the Red Wings on temporary TVs than there was inside PNC for Duke, Dicus and the rest of the local baseball crew performing in person. Brought me back to that Saturday afternoon in May of 1980 when Bobby Nystrom and the Islanders finally broke through to win their first Stanley Cup…and that night in June 1994 when the Rangers ended their infamous 54-year drought. On both occasions I wondered how anybody could care about any other sporting event when there was a Mets game in progress.
To be fair to the ‘Burgh, they haven’t seen a lot of the regionally pleasing kind since 1992, since Barry Bonds didn’t throw Sid Bream out at the plate in Atlanta and then packed for San Francisco. Every time the Mets alight at PNC, the SNY cameras linger lovingly on statues and signs saluting Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente while Gary and Keith/Ron invoke Ralph Kiner. It’s great historical stuff (what do visiting teams’ broadcasts show from Citi Field — spaces where there are no pictures of Mets?) but it points up more and more what little good the Pirates have achieved lately, as in during the last two two-term presidencies. The Pittsburgh Pirates are essentially the Florida Marlins with backstory but sans any trace of recent achievement.
Yet I’ve identified them in my mind as my Doomsday team. That is to say I decided some time ago that if the Mets ever pulled a 1957 and skedaddled to another city, and that if I could still stand to look at baseball, I would break the emergency glass and become a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.
The rumors that swirled over the winter about the Islanders moving to Kansas City reminded me of all this (though having the Islanders as your favorite hockey team means never having the slightest distraction from baseball come June). What if it were the Mets who were loading Mayflower vans in the dead of night? What would I do?
An absurd proposition on the face of it, but I worked out the Doomsday Scenario in the mid-’90s when the talk of a new ballpark ramped up in earnest and progress toward it was nil. That was when most nights at Shea drew the kinds of crowds the Pirates attracted last night. The subtext, beyond lousy Mets baseball, was “we need a new stadium.” What if Wilpon & Doubleday didn’t get their wish? What if the Mets never substantially improved? What if nobody besides me kept going to Shea? How soon before a line like “well, we love New York, but we cannot continue to operate under these conditions” became a genuine threat?
Yes, absurd-sounding now — maybe even then. Once the Mets got Mike Piazza and the orange seats didn’t remain quite so orange for nine innings, it seemed all but prohibitively impossible. But I always had it way in the back of my mind that it could happen. The Giants left. The Dodgers left. Those were unthinkable exits. Why would the Mets be immune? The whole raison d’etre for the Mets was New York couldn’t live without National League baseball. Circa 1994-96, it was living fine while generally ignoring it. If that pattern continued, I couldn’t see the Senior Circuit argument taking hold a second time and securing us a replacement franchise á la what Bill Shea accomplished by October 17, 1960. If the stadium named for our savior continued to deteriorate and the Mets rotted from the inside out and ownership carped that it wasn’t getting what it wanted from the politicians…let’s just say I never completely put away these fears until Mike Pelfrey fired strike one past Jody Gerut on April 13. Whatever my reservations about Citi Field, I figured that if Wilpon got what he craved, he or his progeny — at least in my sentient lifetime — would never make even a veiled threat to move.
Exploring the Doomsday Scenario now is like coming across a Fallout Shelter sign left over from the Cold War. But I did have a contingency plan planted somewhere in a mental deposit box. I’ll spill the contents now.
Option A was to give up baseball forever, which may have been the most likely course. I’d have become one of those guys who told you he saw a triple play at Ebbets Field once but hasn’t watched a game since. Baseball isn’t hockey or any other take-it-or-leave-it activity to me. To not have the Mets would be to not have baseball…probably. But who knows?
Option B, theoretically, would have been to have grudgingly accepted the Mets in their new guise as (Jason came up with this name years ago) the Charlotte Demographic or whatever they’d be called. I know a whole clutch of old New York Giants fans who’ve gotten by for more than a half-century as San Francisco Giants fans. I can’t picture that being me, though. True, I nominally remain a Nets fan even though they left Long Island in 1977, but that’s basketball and New Jersey isn’t far away. But the New York Mets mean far more to me than the New York Nets ever did, even when Dr. J was slamming me home two ABA championships that I still cherish. I can’t see the Anytown USA Mets having any kind of imaginary pull on me.
Option C was find another team. I don’t know if I could have followed through, but it was intriguing to imagine.
• No remaining New York team, obviously.
• No American League team. Just couldn’t.
• No L.A. Dodgers. You can’t avenge a team that left New York with one that left Brooklyn.
• No Atlanta Braves. Yeech.
• No Houston Astros. How dare they be the surviving 1962 franchise?
• No Florida Marlins. I hate when New Yorkers move to Miami-Fort Lauderdale and become Dolphins fans.
• No St. Louis Cardinals. Too much bad blood.
• No Arizona Diamondbacks, since they didn’t exist when I started worrying about this.
• No Milwaukee Brewers, who were probably an American League team when I started worrying about this.
• No Cincinnati Reds. Warren Giles ran the National League from Cincinnati after 1957, acting as if New York didn’t matter. I resent the Reds immensely in the abstract just for that.
• No San Diego Padres because I’ve never cared in the least about them.
I was down to maybe six viable if remote possibilities in this mostly unthinkable realm.
I thought for a second about the Cubs, purely out of admiration for Wrigley Field. But then I’d be a Cubs fan and I really can’t stand Cubs fans or anything the Cubs stand for. They were out.
I thought for two seconds about the Colorado Rockies. New team, a little success early, gleaming home, fresh start, expansion brethren. But c’mon…the Colorado Rockies? A million miles from here? And no pitching? Nope.
I thought about the Montreal Expos, and this was before I developed the absence-inspiring fondness for the Expos I dwell on here from time to time. The Expos weren’t that far away geographically. They were founded in 1969, which was a good year for baseball, and they were unique. We played next to a World’s Fair and they were named for a World’s Fair. They had Rusty and Kid, we had Rusty and Kid. Lots of linkage in my mind. But I took Spanish in high school, not French. Plus I live in the United States, not Canada. It wouldn’t have worked as anything more than le fling. (And, as it turns out, they wouldn’t have been a good long-term emotional investment given that they actually did meet their doomsday on October 3, 2004.)
I thought about the San Francisco Giants. Yeah, it would send the wrong message in that it would legitimize just the sort of franchise movement that would have cost me my team, but if the Mets had left me, wouldn’t that sort of negate the historical crime committed by the Giants? I’d have full access to the lineage of Mathewson, Ott and Mays without having to exhort endlessly about their latter-day relevancy. They would be my team. But, no, they left New York. As much as I would come to look longingly at Pac Bell when it was built, I never could have gone all the way to the Pacific for my team. They stopped being my team before I was born.
I thought more than I’m comfortable admitting about the Philadelphia Phillies. This was from the perspective of the mid-’90s. The likable 1993 Phillies were still fresh in the mind’s eye. They had Lenny Dykstra. They’d had Tug McGraw. They were a convenient train ride away. I could hear Harry Kalas without too much static. But…they were the Phillies. As Jason told me when I suggested once that they could be my Doomsday team, he set me straight: “No, you don’t have nearly enough hate in your heart to be a Phillies fan.” Amen, brother.
I was left with the Pirates. The Pirates of Hans Wagner and Pie Traynor and Ralph Kiner. The Pirates of Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente and Pops Stargell. The Pirates I rooted against as a kid because they competed vigorously with the Mets, but the Pirates I always vaguely admired despite that rivalry. Five years ago this month we moved, which forced me to semi-organize my shoeboxes full of baseball cards. They were still more or less as I’d had them since my adolescence, wrapped in brittle rubber bands and Hefty Bagged by divisional alignment. I went through my National League East cards on a Sunday night in June 2004. I bristled at the Phillies of the ’70s. I spat at those Cardinals. I rolled my eyes at those Expos. I fumed anew at the Cubs for even thinking of getting in our way in 1969. But when I came to the Pirates, I was like, “Hey, they were pretty good. Good players. Good guys.”
Doomsday dwelled in dormancy for quite a while until I visited PNC Park in 2002. I fell in love with that place. If I were a cat, I’d roll around on its outfield grass. Even if I weren’t a cat and thought I could get away with it, I might. It is clean, lean, green, serene…everything Shea wasn’t, everything Citi Field isn’t. Citi Field, by comparison, is garish verging on whorish, more brassy than classy. PNC Park is beautiful and mostly unoccupied. As I dusted off the Doomsday Scenario, I imagined frequent flier mileage on US Airways being applied generously to weekend trips to Pittsburgh or, what the hell, just moving out there. I never really wanted a piece of Western Pennsylvania, but with computers, you could live most anywhere and do most anything. I just wanted to spend time at PNC Park. If I had to accept the lousy Pirates in a chilling Metsless world to do it…well, there was always Stargell and Clemente and everybody else to admire.
I’m glad it never came to that. Whether it’s the sixteen consecutive losing seasons or their ability to shake off their chronic futility when the Mets come to town, I don’t particularly like the Pirates anymore, not even a little. I don’t want to take away from the gleam of PNC, but any ballpark in which the Mets play so badly so regularly can’t possibly be that great. And screw the Penguins while we’re at it.
Death to Doomsday. Long live the Mets, flu-bugged, injury-addled and impotent as they appear on any given Allegheny evening.
Documentation of what the Mets can do to you can be found in Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.