When you get a ticket plan, the tickets from later in the schedule seem like the stuff of science fiction: Amid the chill of February, who can imagine June 25, 2009? For all we knew back then, we might spend the evening mourning Michael Jackson, waiting for the latest news out of Iran and making merciless fun of the governor of South Carolina.
This was a day game on Emily's plan with her dad — a pair of tickets that threatened to go orphaned. Joshua's out of school and not yet in camp. I have some vacation time unallocated. Really, the answer was obvious: a father-and-son outing to Citi Field, with the added bonus that for today at least, summer actually came to New York City.
Last time Joshua and I did this, Willie Harris wound up robbing Carlos Delgado and my son gave me a lesson in innocence and resilience that I vaguely begrudged at the time but soon came to cherish. Unsurprisingly, he's grown considerably as a baseball fan: Nowadays we banter about why batting average is a lousy stat (if Luis Castillo goes 5-for-10 with five bases-empty singles and Omir Santos goes 5-for-10 with five grand slams, who has the higher batting average? Who's been more valuable?), talk over why Ryan Church puts his hands up like he's making a catch even when he knows he's playing the ball on one hop, discuss why the infield-fly rule exists and why a bunted third strike isn't just another foul. He's learned to loathe Derek Jeter (though my blood ran cold the other night when he inquired if we shouldn't drop by His Smugness's Web site, since we hadn't been there lately) and I've got him started on disliking Tony La Russa and Cody Ross. (I don't know why I hate Cody Ross with the intensity of a thousand suns, but I do.) And he's been introduced to the family tics and quirks — he greets each opposing pitcher with “Bring on [Name Here],” yelps “We win!” if the Met starting pitcher's first pitch is a strike, counts down outs to go to a no-hitter by three after each inning, and sighs heavily and groans, “Another night…” when the no-hitter is inevitably lost. And, it goes without saying, he grasps the essential difference between taking three out of four from the Cardinals and being able to mock Tony La Russa for being the fussy, self-satisfied martinet he is and splitting with the Cardinals and being irritated for the next 27 hours.
Everything was perfect as we plopped ourselves in the Promenade high behind home plate, except for one thing: Johan Santana was quite obviously not himself. Sure, there was a pitcher wearing 57 down there, and he was stalking around behind the mound like Santana, but the pitches were doing disturbingly un-Santanan things, like swooping and rising and dipping where they weren't supposed to. 3-0 kept following 2-0 and 1-0, with uh-oh dogging their heels the whole way, as Johan seethed and steamed and tried to force his arm to obey his brain.
Watching a Cooperstown-caliber pitcher at the top of his game is wonderful, of course — who wouldn't want a seat in the studio as Michaelangelo made a chunk of rock immortal? — but sometimes watching a master craftsman struggle is more interesting. Santana looked at video after the first (it either didn't help or more likely these things take a while), gathered himself to get Albert Pujols with the young game in the balance in the second, caught Skip Schumaker looking to end the fourth, and took care of Brendan Ryan personally on a comebacker to finish the sixth. It wasn't a great performance — that one earned run over seven is deceptive — but that's not the point. It was enough to win on a day when a lot of pitchers would have been gone in the fourth with a shrug of the shoulders and a swollen ERA. And that's the difference — OK, really it's a difference — between Santana and a lot of other pitchers.
It was also an object lesson that baseball is fundamentally unfair. Consider Chris Carpenter's fourth: He surrendered Luis Castillo's modest single in the hole, a David Wright double-play ball that Carpenter himself deflected into an infield hit, a Fernando Tatis parachute in front of Ryan Ludwick, and then Nick Evans' two-run double on a cutter that didn't do much. Santana struggled for about an hour; Carpenter pitched badly for three seconds at most. Yet Johan got the W and Carpenter got the L.
And of course there was the tense endgame, with Frankie Rodriguez disposing of Chris Duncan and Schumaker so the main event could ensue: K-Rod vs. El Hombre, insurance canceled for the bout. (Like all of us, I'd started doing worried lineup math late in the seventh.) Frankie sent Pujols to first, but that proved habit-forming: Ludwick followed him and there stood Yadier Fucking Molina, and I looked into the helmet cup of vanilla ice cream that I was viciously stirring, half-expecting to see that the sprinkles had formed themselves into the face of Aaron Heilman.
Happily, all I saw was ice cream — and YFM's line drive soon saw nothing but the confines of Jeremy Reed's mitt. Cora's Irregulars had not just survived but prospered — and can take over first place Friday night, against the Yankees no less. It's an amazing game, baseball. It'll delight you and horrify you and be a loyal companion and a vicious tormentor, and every time you think you know the script you're proved wrong. You can spend your whole life watching and learning baseball, but you will never, ever figure it out. And thank goodness for that.
Need a good companion? Curl up with 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.