Two things of note happened to me this week, taking place in roughly a 24-hour period. I’ll go with the second first.
It was the bottom of the sixth Tuesday night, second game of the doubleheader. My co-shiverers had absorbed all the wind chill they could possibly take and bid me adieu. I was tempted to join them on their walk through the exit, but my train wasn’t going to be immediately accessible and besides, I should be able to outlast two petite ladies on an icy April night, shouldn’t I? Never mind that I tolerate New York winters like the Floridian I was for four years of college. I must be manly, I thought. I must stick out most of the rest of this doubleheader. Do your worst, frostbite!
So we parted company at the bridge and my first instinct, not surprisingly, was to find something steamy to hold for a couple of minutes before fully ingesting it. My best bet from a line-waiting perspective was El Verano Taqueria. I ordered up the carnitas (because I hadn’t eaten nearly enough across 15 innings already) and cooled my cold heels for a couple of minutes while Danny Meyer’s minions made them delicious.
The Mets were leading 6-3 at this point of the nightcap. While the carnitas were being roasted or folded or whatever it is that makes them marvelous, I looked up at the monitor. The bases were full of Mets: Blanco on third, Pagan on second, Castillo on first. Reyes was coming up with one out. He took one ball then slapped a grounder to Dodger shortstop Jamey Carroll. Carroll threw home. Blanco appeared to be a dead duck. As I calculated the situation-to-be — two out but the bases still loaded for Jason Bay — I saw the throw get away from catcher A.J. Ellis. Blanco, suddenly live gazelle instead of dead duck, was safe. It was 7-3 Mets.
Yet it was so much more.
It was the jolt I didn’t realize I was dying for, more than I was dying for warmth, more than I was dying for carnitas. When Blanco slid across the plate successfully, I didn’t think.
I just jumped. I jumped in the air and clapped. Then I did it again. As I was jumping and clapping, I was yelling, something along the lines of “YES!” and “ALL RIGHT!” and, in case the Taqueria cook wasn’t sure, “HE SCORED!”
It wasn’t what I was yelling, it was that I was yelling. Yelling and clapping and jumping. It was instinct. It was Mets fan instinct.
It had been missing for so long that I instantly savored the realization of what had just happened.
The Mets went up 7-3. Big deal. I saw the Mets go up 7-3 last July. Tatis came up as a pinch-hitter in the eighth and hit a grand slam against the Rockies. At the time I stood and I applauded and I exchanged high-fives with my friends, but I felt very little for the moment. I saw the Mets go up 9-5 a few nights later on another eighth-inning grand slam, this time from Pagan. Again, I stood and I applauded and I high-fived. And again I felt very little.
I felt next to nothing for the Mets of 2009 even when they were doing well. Two eighth-inning grand slams during their one flickering stretch of Wild Card contention didn’t do it for me. The first win I saw at Citi Field — Santana outdueling Yovani Gallardo of the Brewers 1-0, Omir Santos executing the throw ‘em out portion of a game-ending double play — didn’t do it for me. A 3-2 win over the Marlins at the end of May to finish off a 19-9 month and keep us within a half-game of first didn’t do it for me. I saw 36 games in Citi Field’s inaugural season and the sum total of the unquestionably positive results, 26 wins in all, didn’t do as much for me as Blanco being called safe Tuesday night.
The 2009 Mets went 70-92. They needn’t have bothered with the 70. There was an emptiness to the experience of the entire baseball season that transcended a bad fundamentals team, an injury-wracked roster or an aloof, unfamiliar stadium. I still called myself a Mets fan. I still sought out Mets games and I still loved keeping Mets fan company. I didn’t want the Mets to lose, but I was surprised at how little it truly bothered me if they did.
I was also surprised at how I’d been feeling that way for a while, since some point in 2007. It predated the Collapse. It reached back to June, probably, just after the Mets had peaked at 33-17 on May 29. The Mets fan I was in late May three years ago is a Mets fan I stopped being for a very long time.
That Mets fan was enchanted by the 2006 Mets and the early 2007 Mets. That Mets fan was roughly the same Mets fan he had always been, always putting the Mets above all, never not believing (save maybe for portions of darkest 2003) the Mets could or would win, hardly accepting any single Mets loss easily. Near the end of May 2007, the Mets led the National League East by five full games. They had just won a most dramatic 12-inning showdown with the Giants; Armando Benitez balked home Jose Reyes and then gave up a walkoff home run to Carlos Delgado. The weekend before, the Mets had swept the Marlins in Miami while the Braves were being swept by the Phillies, the preferred outcome then. The whole world was spinning our way, spinning us toward October when we’d reverse the previous autumn’s accidental outcome.
It was all downhill from Delgado’s home run. It was 15 losses in the next 19 games. It was an indifferent summer. It was failure to halt the Phillies’ forward momentum at Shea in June or Citizens Bank in August. It was that seven-game lead with seventeen to play and everything thereafter.
Then it was 2008, and the hangover, and the colorless, offense-free Brian Schneider and the mopey before the concussions Ryan Church and the parade of leftfielders and the endlessly rehabbing Pedro and the 3 A.M. firing of the manager who shouldn’t have been brought back after blowing the seven-game lead with seventeen to play and — zipping past the temporarily uplifting 40-19 spurt that served to get my hopes almost back to where they were in late May of 2007 — the Echo Collapse that brought down another September and a ballpark with it.
Then 2009. Then the first couple of weeks of 2010, culminating in the honest-to-god stupidest 20-inning victory an honest-to-god stupid team ever won. I didn’t want the Mets to lose in St. Louis two Saturday nights ago, but a part of me dared them to try. A part of me thought “good!” when Yadier Molina — Yadier Fucking Molina, for crissake — retied the score in the 19th. I didn’t care if the Mets won games last year and I was off on that same wayward path this year. You can’t hit infielders who are masquerading as pitchers? You don’t deserve to win, not in 20 innings, not in 40 innings.
The Mets fan who thought in those terms needed a DNA test to prove he was the same Mets fan from May of 2007 let alone April of 1985. I mentioned college and Florida before. It just so happens that it was 25 years ago this week that I graduated from the University of South Florida. Big day, right? Do you know what obsessed me as I underwent that rite of passage?
The Mets. They were playing an 18-inning marathon at Shea against the Pirates. With my diploma in my back pocket, I stopped at every pay phone I saw and dialed Sports Phone for updates. They told me it was still tied. They told me Tom Gorman was still pitching. They told me Davey Johnson kept switching John Christensen Clint Hurdle and Rusty Staub between corner outfield positions depending on who was batting and who posed less peril for the 41-year-old Rusty, by then a pinch-hitter deluxe who would never again play the outfield. Davey couldn’t hide Rusty forever, and a Rick Rhoden flare nearly foiled the redhead, but Staub — in literally the last chance of his career — ran and ran and tracked it down for the third out of the top of the 18th. We won in the bottom of the inning.
A day later, I was bound for New York to spend the next five months devoted to the Mets. The summer of ’85 was the summer I’d been waiting my whole life for. The Mets and the Cardinals…the Cardinals and the Mets, back and forth, first and second, day after day after day. I can vividly recall* the Sunday before the All-Star break. Doc shut out the Astros in Houston 1-0 — 11 strikeouts — to raise his record to 13-3. Ronn Reynolds was catching because Gary Carter’s knees were giving him serious trouble; Reynolds scored the only run of the day when Billy Doran threw away a Kelvin Chapman grounder in the eighth. It was our third straight win, twelfth in thirteen games. The only thing that would make it more perfect would be a Cardinal loss. St. Louis was home to San Diego. I took a long walk. At :15 and :45 after the hour, I’d tune my Walkman knockoff to WINS (no ‘FAN yet) for an update. The Padres took a 1-0 lead in the seventh on a Kevin McReynolds RBI single. Yay! But Terry Pendleton homered in the bottom of the seventh to tie it. Boo! Vince Coleman scored what proved to be the winning run in the bottom of the eighth. Damn! Talk about a good walk spoiled.
*My vivid recollection’s half off — not on the details, but on the sequence of events. Cards played in the afternoon, Mets played at night. Hat tip to FAFIF reader Guy Kipp for straightening me out.
Still, it was the Mets in a pennant race, 50-36 at the break, 2½ out, never giving up. Just like me as regarded them. I never gave up in 1985. I never gave up on the Mets after 1985, not for the balance of the ’80s, not throughout the ’90s, not for the first decade of the twenty-first century.
But I hadn’t been that Mets fan from 1985 when 2010 began. I don’t know that I was close to being that Mets fan from 1985 when the last homestand began. I’m not sure I was necessarily rounding into form, either. Then Ike Davis was promoted; Mike Pelfrey was stifling; Jose Reyes was tripling; Johan Santana was unbending; Hisanori Takahashi was a lifesaver; Pagan and Bay and Wright were all recording long and key hits; Davis bombed Shea Bridge; Pelfrey danced through raindrops; Santana was unflappable in a wind storm.
It all began to coalesce, yet it took a simple E-6 to completely unleash the Mets fan within once more. Henry Blanco wasn’t the only one undeniably safe at home Tuesday night. I arrived there, too. I jumped up and down because a Met scored a run; because the Mets increased a lead; because the Mets were in the process of lifting themselves from third place to first place; because, in a way I hadn’t felt in almost three years, I was a Mets fan.
You know what I did when I got home, actual home, Tuesday night? I turned on the Phillies-Giants game on XM. I became the biggest San Francisco Giants fan this side of Christopher Russo. I wasn’t watching the scoreboard. I was living it. I was thrilling to the Mets inching one-half game ahead of Philadelphia. Never mind that our record was a pedestrian 12-9. Never mind that it was no later in the season than the wee hours of April 28, technically the 25th anniversary of my college graduation. The Mets had taken first place. That’s all that mattered.
It’s all that continued to matter during the afternoon of the 28th, with John Maine rediscovering some semblance of his fastball and Jeff Francoeur accidentally poking an RBI double to right and Frankie Rodriguez not losing interest despite being asked to close out a non-save ninth. The Mets had swept the Dodgers and provisionally led the East by one game.
The Phillies began playing the Giants by the time we were done beating L.A. I remembered MLB Network was showing it. I had other things to do, but I kept coming back to the TV. It was that July day in 1985 again, constantly checking out the competition, not wanting to give an inch no matter how much time remained in the season, dying with every archrival hit, being reborn with every run they gave up. It didn’t work out any better on April 28, 2010 than it did on July 14, 1985. The Cardinals won by one run then, the Phillies won by one run now. But we were still in first place and we would be in first place when we started a three-game series at Philly Friday night.
I’ve watched scoreboards thousands of times. I watched scoreboards in 2007 and 2008 and even 2009 a little. I haven’t necessarily waited for a year to turn 22 games old to do it, either. In 1985, I was watching the Cubs relentlessly from Opening Day until the Cardinals emerged as the locus of our concern. I watched the Braves every April in the late ’90s and early ’00s. So what I was doing the other day, worrying about the Phillies on April 28 wasn’t unique to my Mets fan experience.
Maybe that’s why I liked doing it so much. I did it, just as I jumped at the Taqueria the other night, without thinking, because it was what that Mets fan I was when I was 6 and 22 and 43 and all the years in between would do. Ever since jumping for Henry Blanco, I’ve stopped being wary of the Mets. I’ve stopped waiting for something to go wrong. I’ve stopped begrudging them their intervals of competence because I was certain they were setting me up for disappointment.
I’ve stopped being that Mets fan. I’ve resumed being the one I always was.
I like me better this way.
That was the second thing that happened to me this week. The first was the night before this big revelation and transformation, the night the Mets were rained out — which was kind of OK with me because I had other plans. Stephanie and I attended a screening of The Last Play at Shea, the long-awaited documentary that covers the Billy Joel concerts, the Robert Moses-driven rise of Queens, the history of the Mets and the life of Shea Stadium. I had a particular interest in it beyond it being pretty obviously up all my alleys. Before Joel played Shea, a fellow blogger had referred me to one of the producers of the project and he hired me to deliver some research on various aspects of the story the director wanted to tell. That September, the movie folks got in touch again, asking if I’d sit for an on-camera interview the last week of the season.
Um, yeah, I said, I could do that.
Other than a little polishing on one section of the prospective script the following winter, that was the extent of my involvement in The Last Play at Shea. Now and again I’d get curious and do a search, yet not find anything new. I’d heard the film was in post-production, but with the concerts more than a year in the past and Shea down, it wasn’t top of mind. Still, it lingered in the back there somewhere. I’d never had anything to do with a movie before. And as long as a film was en route, it was as if Shea Stadium wasn’t quite gone.
In March I learned from Dana Brand (who sat for an interview the same time I did) that Last Play was coming to to the Tribeca Film Festival. I found out when tickets would go on sale and snapped them up for the Monday night showing as soon as they were available; it premiered Sunday night, but Sunday night I had a ballgame to attend. I had no idea whether the research I did would be evident in the finished product or, for that matter, whether I would. The phrase “cutting room floor” hung heavy in my thoughts.
Good news came Monday afternoon from Dana, who saw it Sunday. Both he and I made the final cut. We were in the same movie with Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Mike Piazza, Tom Seaver and Keith Hernandez (among many others). I won’t lie: I was excited. Dana told me where I showed up in the film, in the section that described, in the gentlest terms possible, the Collapses of 2007 and 2008.
That was fine. That was even appropriate. Those were touchstone moments in my life as a fan. Not good touchstones, but definitely memorable.
Stephanie and I go to the movie Monday night. It’s fantastic. Great early clips of Joel, amazingly shot concert footage, killer interviews, clever animation, nice intertwining of the various documentary subplots. If I had seen Shea so alive and so vital in 2009, I would have cried. In 2010, it was akin to uncovering home movies you weren’t sure you had seen before. I saw Dana a couple of times on screen: “Dana Brand, Author,” identified like everybody else who had something to say. I applauded when I saw him.
The movie rolls on. The Mets win the World Series in 1986. Billy Joel marries Christie Brinkley. Billy Joel stops recording new material. Shea Stadium is a staging ground for 9/11 rescue and recovery efforts. Mike Piazza hits a home run. Mike Piazza talks about it.
Then I hear my voice. And I see myself on screen. I’m there for, I don’t know, 10, 15 seconds. I’m sitting in orange Field Level seats behind home plate at Shea. I say something about how it would sure be nice if the Mets could win one more World Series here at Shea. I have to confess I wasn’t listening to every word I said because I was waiting to see how I’d be identified on screen.
Greg Prince, Author? Nah, my book hadn’t come out when this was shot.
Greg Prince, Blogger? That would be correct, but at that moment it didn’t look right as I tried to picture it.
Greg Prince, Writer? Broad, but somebody introduced me to somebody else last week as a writer, and I liked how that sounded…very tweedy. But I’m not terribly tweedy in real life.
You know what it ultimately said on screen?
Nothing. I was not identified at all. And by not being identified, it was clear who I was.
Greg Prince, Fan.
That’s all. I was the fan. I was the Mets fan. Truth be told, the bit they used of me talking about wanting the Mets to win one more World Series at Shea was not an insight. You could have found anybody in the crowd of 54,416 that night to say what I said, or at least what they used of what I said. I said a lot. I answered several questions about Shea — my memories, its deeper meaning — for about ten minutes before the fateful game of September 24, 2008 (the Murphy on third, nobody out, Wright up, score tied ninth inning that can still haunt). But they used what they used and they didn’t see fit to run a graphic to identify me.
They didn’t have to. It was obvious I was the Mets fan. It wasn’t just that I was dressed as a Mets fan — blue Shea Stadium t-shirt, black NEW YORK road jersey. It was my whole demeanor. I looked about as beat up as that stadium did by then. I was going to every game that week, every game that month. I was dying a little every day knowing that Shea was dying for real. I was graying at the temples, perhaps from knowing my place of worship was about to turn to dust. And I was shouldering the cynicism of one eternally corrupted September and another that was about to crumble on impact.
Yet there I was on the screen, seeming quite hopeful, talking about a World Series, letting the camera know without saying it explicitly into my microphone that as down on the Mets as I had been and would be for the indefinite future, I was still a Mets fan. They could tear down Shea Stadium, they could blow another playoff spot, but they couldn’t take that away from me.
At first, I was downcast at not being identified onscreen. Per Mr. Joel’s “Big Man On Mulberry Street,” I wondered what if nobody finds out who I am? Then I got over it. My name showed up in the credits twice, once for the research, once with a raft of people who were thanked for sharing for their memories whether they were used or not (among those sharing but not shown: Rusty Staub). And — oh yeah — I got to be in a movie with Billy Joel and Shea Stadium and a whole lot of Mets and my friend Dana. Not a bad night’s realization for a rainout.
Twenty-four hours later, I was grayer and more tired and still burdened by cynicism while I waited for my carnitas. Henry Blanco scored and I — bundled in a shiny orange Mr. Mets jacket, blue and orange giveaway Mets scarf and black, blue and orange giveaway ski cap — was jumping and clapping and yelling not because I’m an author or a blogger or a writer, but because I am, as whoever edited the film figured out, a Mets fan.
Last play at Shea. First place at Citi. It’s all good.
Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks will return next week.