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Amazin’ Grace Note

If you watched Curb Your Enthusiasm [1] Sunday night, you were no doubt tickled by Jason Alexander’s take on the faux Seinfeld reunion proposed by Larry David. Yes, George declared, a reunion show is a great idea, because now, at last, we can leave the show on a good note.

Larry is mystified by this implicit criticism of Seinfeld‘s farewell, but the viewer gets it. The Seinfeld finale did not feel of a piece with the rest of the series run and suffered as a result. The same could be said for most sitcom finales whose inflated goodbyes tend to come off as foreign or out of place vis-à-vis the narrative arc we thought we knew. The bigger the program, it seems, the more disappointing the finale.

But how often does the final episode dramatically exceed all that came before it?

The 2009 Mets left on the best note possible [2] Sunday afternoon. Granted, the best note available to them, literally speaking, was a 70th victory. That it came bundled with a three-game sweep and two players’ finest individual career performances didn’t in any way blot out that these Mets were nobody’s idea of must-see baseball. If they were a sitcom — and god knows they repeatedly played like one — they would have been put on hiatus in midseason.

Wonderfully, I was able to brush much of their reality show aside yesterday for a few hours. While never quite able to forget how little the Mets were playing for or how much more this kind of 162nd game would have aided them on their previous two final dates, I had my best day of the year at Citi Field by far.

Nelson Figueroa’s first complete game shutout and Angel Pagan’s 4-for-4 near cycle were compelling reasons on their own, but on a Closing Day when there were no particular competitive stakes in sight, that was mostly sweet background music. I mostly wanted one final day in the sun. I wanted to sit in good seats with a good view with the one I loved. That much I secured when Stephanie and I settled into Section 326, Row 4.

If I ever hit it financially big, my season tickets will be right there. Best look I’ve had at everything since that preseason stroll they let us take in early April. It provides the money shot for Citi Field, a facility where money tends to overwhelm baseball’s better angels (FYI, Sunday’s showdown between the hopeless Mets and lifeless Astros was loftily assigned Silver status). The 300s, at least the middle of them, are my double-edged Citi sword. They provide an awesome perspective, yet they’re disgustingly overpriced. How they came up with $115 as a face value for the ticket I had yesterday — affordable via the good graces of StubHub — is beyond me.

Mr. Wilpon, tear down this Club designation for your glorified Logezzanine. Give the people a chance to enjoy more of your park.

That would include one of the unnecessarily hidden treasures of Citi Field: the bars on the Logezzanine level. This, my friends, is gracious living. I’m not a barfly, I’m rarely even a bar patron, but one of the simmering discontents I’ve shared with my beer aficionado amigo Jim Haines is that without a Caesars Club ticket, the bars are off-limits. OK, it was a way bigger discontent for Jim than for me. Jim saw the bar on the right field side of Excelsior during that open workout [3] and envisioned a perfect season ahead. He’d be there so much, he promised, they’ll call out “JIM!” when he walks in.

Then he learned he was less welcome at this bar than Diane Chambers was at Cheers. Still, we never let go of the long-term goal of our being seated if not effusively greeted at what we came to call the Norm! [4] Bar. It would be perfect, he thought: Mets game on TV, beers flowing, profanity-laden exhortations and other baseball dialogue ongoing, and (following some sobering diet colas) back to our seats for the happy recap. There was something about the scenario as Jim painted it that didn’t have me questioning why we needed to sit at a bar and watch a ballgame at a ballgame when, in fact, there was a ballgame right there to watch live. I just accepted it as best-of-all-worlds material, and wondered why only Caesars Club patrons could be trusted to sit at a bar (or, for that matter, drink an adult beverage that wasn’t beer or wine).

It took 81 games, a little couples coordination and the Mets sucking so much that StubHub could be kind and generous to both of us, but Jim and his wife Daria bought tickets in nearby Section 327 after we got ours in 326. Stephanie and I sought out the Haineses, and by the top of the fourth, Jim and I were finally living the dream. We excused ourselves from our better halves, ambled up to the bar that was conveniently right behind us and took our long-delayed places amid the granite and spirits.

All that was missing was an exchange worthy of Ken Levine [5]:

“What’s going down, Normy?”

“One Astro batter after another. Gimme a Hoegaarden [6].”

Jim and I put in three effective innings at the Norm! Bar. Overpriced beer? Of course. It’s Citi Field. But the sun poured in, you didn’t have to plead with the bartender to switch to SNY (or explain what SNY was) and it was one of those ideals that came to life better than we had anticipated. Jim effortlessly invoked Mel Ott [7] along the way. So did Dave Anderson [8] Sunday, but I didn’t see that ’til I got home.

We returned to the seats for the Seventh Inning Stretch. By then, the notion of being taken out to the ball game carried more poignancy than usual. It was Closing Day and we knew we’d never get back — not to Citi Field in 2009 we wouldn’t. On paper, that was appropriate. On paper, the Mets were angling toward 70-92. In my mind, and every other sentient Mets fan’s mind, we’d had all the Mets we could take from this year. Physically, I kept watching, kept listening and kept attending; mentally I’d checked out around the second week of August.

Yet it was a glorious afternoon, the Mets were winning, Nelson Figueroa was a master moundsman, Angel Pagan was doing everything right…and it would all be over in a blink. We were winding down without angst. There was no 2007 horror show to absorb, no 2008 cavalcade of gobsmack. This had long ago become a season that existed in merely technical terms. It was kept alive only because it was plugged into a pocket schedule. Merciful end-of-life counseling would have recommended pulling the plug with two months to go. These Mets were beyond any cure universal health care might offer.

That wasn’t worth dwelling on Sunday. We could forget the surfeit of injuries and the lack of fundamentals. We could forget the myriad missteps. We could forget how badly run this organization seemed and how short the new ballpark came up in matching its hype. Almost every built-in indignity of Citi Field dissipated yesterday. Maybe it was because I had the right ticket or maybe it was because I was done detecting its drawbacks. If I had never attended a game there before yesterday, I’d tell anyone who criticized it as I have after 36 games of experiencing it that you’re crazy, this place is great. Ignorance and not asking too many questions sometimes amounts to bliss.

Stephanie and I made our final shared Citi Field meal the following: 1 lobster roll (high price covered mostly by the $15 swipe card I received as part of the Gary Keith & Ron package the day before); 1 chicken nachos (a culinary gem lost in the sea of fancier fare); and 1 custom-tossed Caesars Club salad (an excellent touch). We consumed it in the “club” that seemed unusually upbeat. We enjoyed our view. We enjoyed our friends the Haineses. As noted, I enjoyed my bar time. I enjoyed my final 2009 chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.

I then thoroughly enjoyed rooting Nelson Figueroa home. I haven’t been a big booster of his. If anything, I’ve groaned at the sight of Figueroa (and Redding and Misch) taking the ball, no matter how positive the outcome, because I assumed it was all a massive setup for a 2010 return to mediocrity. “Great, now they’ll all get untradeable five-year contracts for pitching adequately in garbage time.” It’s the same reason I cringed as Brian Schneider raised his average through September. “Don’t re-sign him, Omar! DON’T!”

No such worries in the eighth and ninth yesterday. I really wanted Nelson to get the shutout. Not until I turned on Howie and Wayne for the final three outs did I know he’d never had one. Howie said that as bad as this season had gone and how much he and everybody wanted it to end, he was now feeling sad that it was about to be over. It was all going so beautifully — for Figgie, for all of us. Who wouldn’t want it to continue?

Nelson gave up a two-out single to Lance Berkman, which briefly reawakened my demons. I gave myself over to liking Figueroa and the 2009 Mets and now, I thought, the shutout will disappear and they’ll blow a four-run lead and we’ll all stomp out of here moping and cursing. Daria noticed my sudden surge of discomfort and asked if this was anger or disappointment bubbling to the surface. Both, I said, but I should be long past it.

Instinctive ’09 dread went as quickly as it came. Carlos Lee flied to Pagan in left, and you could put the gleam of Closing Day as well as the disaster that rendered it a footnote squarely in the books. Figgie nailed tight his first shutout. The Mets won their first Closing Day since 2004 [9]. They barely managed 70 victories, a low “C” average. Daniel Murphy led the team with 12 home runs. Nobody was their best player, but I compiled a 26-10 Log…and my 26th win instantly emerged as my personal highlight of the year.

Something about Sunday kept getting better, even when it was officially over. We stuck around to watch the season be packed away. Two years ago, I stared in utter shock at the nothingness [10] Shea evinced in the wake of the 8-1 loss that knocked us out of contention. One year ago, I attempted to reconcile all my competing emotions once we lost 4-2, lost another playoff spot and lost a stadium [11]. Yesterday? Tranquil might be the word, and tranquility was fine.

There was an extra burst of applause for Figueroa and Pagan as their exploits were flashed on DiamondVision (bigger crowd than you’d expect), but there was no 1997 [12]– or 1985 [13]-style appreciation for a Met job well done. A job wasn’t well done in 2009. It can’t be because everybody was sitting at the bar that I heard very little cheering in the course of the afternoon. Citi Field’s biggest roars arose Sunday in response to news from Kansas City, for Giant touchdowns. The Mets reaped what they sowed. They didn’t deserve more than perfunctory acknowledgement, so we didn’t send them a farewell bouquet of sobs and plaudits. The Mets knew this and didn’t inflict a propagandistic highlight video on those of us who lingered. Natalie Merchant thanked us [14] for being so forthcoming with our discretionary income, and that was that.

Yet, somehow, I was moved. I was moved to witness a season’s end, even an indisputably lousy season’s end. That’s why I go to Closing Day. The three final wins were a decent parting gift (as opposed to the Fan Appreciation prize, which was…oh wait, the Mets didn’t bother with Fan Appreciation Day), but I wasn’t fooled. This is the same team that just lost three in a row to the Nationals last week. No, this was not a season I wanted to continue. I just wanted to pay it my respects. Not the 70-92, but the 26-10; not the frustration I endured from afar, but the good times I enjoyed on-site despite my reservations regarding the host venue; not whatever bad surrounded this team, but the good people I sat with, cheered with and commiserated with 36 different times in 2009. I have nothing but respect for the grand habit I’ve cultivated of going to baseball games and spending precious hours with the people I’m fortunate to call my friends. It felt precious in April. It felt even more so in October.

Like I said, it kept getting better. We didn’t rush away from the ballpark per usual. Our foursome meandered to the Field Level and down the Rotunda stairs. I executed my preferred exit ritual: tip the cap to Mr. Rickey and Mr. Robinson; tap the Mr. Met sign; touch a brick in the archway. That’s usually that. But then Stephanie mentioned our commemorative brick to Daria, and Daria was so charmed she insisted on taking our picture with it (my right knee went ouch, but it was a lovely gesture). Having accepted their invitation to join them at a beer garden in Astoria, we set out on a walk through Flushing Meadows Corona Park to their secret parking space. By the weather you’d think the season was still going. It wasn’t, but we already knew that. Then the beer garden [15], and its own set of revelations and bratwurst.

My Closing Days occasionally have codas, but they usually involve gloom and despair. They’re rarely as much fun as yesterday. So thanks to Jim and Daria for embellishing 2009’s surprisingly happy ending. Thanks to Stephanie for liking baseball and me enough to make us the perfect threesome on a day like Sunday. Thanks to everybody who was kind and generous enough to spend an inning or more with me this past season. Thanks to everybody who lets me extend my days and nights at the ballpark by telling you about them here.

As we toasted yesterday, here’s to 2010.