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There’s a Feel in the Air

In Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend [1] by James Hirsch (which I’m about 130 pages from finishing, which is too bad, because I don’t want it to end), Willie tells a pack of reporters inquiring about the Giants’ pennant chances during Spring Training of 1961, “There’s a feel in the air.” One of his confidantes in the press corps asked Willie why he trotted out a line he used every spring.

“Well, there is a feel in the air.”
“That’s what you said last year.”
“Was a feel in the air last year.”
“And the year before.”
“Feel in the air then, too.”
“Matter of fact, you think this way every year around this time.”
“I know it,” Mays said.

Mays’ confidante, Charlie Einstein, then suggested he might have done the unwitting reporter who took “feel in the air” as gospel a favor and explained that he always said it.

Willie told Charlie, “He only asked about this year.”

The Giants did not win the pennant in 1961. The Mets aren’t exactly a favorite to win much in 2010, but I have to tell you I feel a feel in the air, and I wouldn’t have said so last year or the year before.

This doesn’t have to do with finishing in what they used to call the first division. This doesn’t have to do with finishing anywhere at all. This is about a fresh start. I realize there may be a few too many stale slices of bread in the bag to necessarily avoid becoming toast once the season begins, but I sort of don’t care.

Just as I didn’t care that we were nominal favorites the last two Marches when I felt mostly dread about what lay ahead.

Perhaps the first sustained taste of spring in the Long Island atmosphere is doing it. Perhaps it’s that every time I turn my figurative antenna toward Port St. Lucie it’s pulling in images of Mejia and Davis and Martinez and a flock of kids. I don’t generally have a lot of faith in Met youth or those who tend to it, but the time has come to reach out and touch faith. The can’t-misses in our midst haven’t missed yet. There’s always 2012 or some future date to recall what disappointments those highly hoped upon rookies of 2010 became. I’m not there yet. I’m loving Jenrry and Ike and, to a certain extent (though he didn’t seem altogether sound during our exposure to him in toxic 2009) Fernando. Even if none of them is on the Opening Day roster, I’m loving that they’re around.

Should they be on the Opening Day roster, any of them? My default response is set on “don’t rush them,” whoever “them” happen to be, but this March, I am so ready to move on from how the Mets usually put together a team that I wouldn’t mind if each brought a note from his parents and joined on us on this six-month field trip. Of course I worry about Jerry Manuel overusing Mejia (there’s nothing more dangerous than a desperate manager with a new toy) or Davis hitting .189 in April or F-Mart falling down in center and throwing to the wrong base once he gets up, but I also worry that if they are sent out of our sight, worse things will happen. Nobody seems to have risen to the majors from our minors in the past five years without being scathed somewhere along the way. I don’t know what my babysitting would do for them, but I’d feel better, somehow, if I could keep an eye on them.

Whether they’ll be here when the season starts is almost immaterial to me. They’re here now. They’ve made it the first spring in ages in which I don’t feel we’re going through the motions. These kids make me watch these games. That whole bit about “we’ll be sick of watching exhibitions”? It hasn’t happened yet. I welcome extended glances at the likes Jenrry Mejia and Ike Davis and Fernando Martinez.

I also welcome those stories about how Jeff Francoeur and Jason Bay are Solid Clubhouse Presences who are Taking The Pressure Off David Wright. Those attributes won’t matter if they’re not hitting, but for now, those are fine qualities to find in teammates. Who exactly was taking the pressure off anybody, particularly David, on this team before?

Francoeur and Bay are reminding me a bit of Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile being the answer men to the beat guys while Mike Piazza quietly went about the business of being fabulous one decade ago. We’ve had veterans around David, but not guys who seemed to enjoy being spokesmen (or who could manage to smile while doing it). I’m well aware of the perceived and actual shortcomings of Francoeur and Bay as players — performance speaks loudest of all — but as of March 18, they’ve not failed at anything they’ve done as Mets. They, like the kids, have made this a sunnier spring.

No, I don’t know who’s going to pitch effectively behind Santana. I really liked what I saw out of Hisanori Takahashi the other day. Perhaps it’s the novelty, but I’d welcome him into the rotation ahead of guys whose upsides we know or those whose upsides don’t strike me as too terribly tall. That, again, could be the spring talking, but in Takahashi, we may have actually stumbled upon the Japanese starting pitcher who doesn’t disappoint us. Meanwhile, Pelfrey pitched well yesterday and talked even better: “I think one day I’d like to become an actual pitcher.” I like the self-awareness. I like location more. Maybe he’s hinting at an upside that will finally measure up to his height.

These are scattered impressions and selective ones at that. The starting shortstop is still in two-to-eight week purgatory. The five-tool center fielder is blocks away from Home Depot. Ollie Perez remains an international man of mystery. A DP combo of Alex Cora and Luis Castillo conjures visions of white balls skittering onto green grass. The same people who run the organization haven’t surrendered the keys, which means the ride will certainly have its share of bumps again and the brakes may not work properly and the floor mats might get stuck underneath the gas pedal. But it’s not March 2008 when I couldn’t get past September 2007. And it’s not March 2009 when I couldn’t get past September 2008.

It’s March 2010. There’s a feel in the air, and this time it doesn’t feel like acid rain.

Come one, come all to the first AMAZIN’ TUESDAY of 2010, March 23, 7 PM, at Two Boots Tavern on the Lower East Side, as we read aloud, rally around and try to raise a few bucks for the Tug McGraw Foundation. Details here [2].