Admit it. You’ve done it. You’ve done it out loud or you’ve done it in your mind. You’ve done it at everybody wearing a Mets uniform, and you’ve been doing it since a year ago Saturday night whenever the situation has called for it. You’ve done this:
“TWO HANDS! USE TWO HANDS!”
The Mets celebrated the first anniversary of “TWO HANDS!” by not dropping a road game they had in the palms of their mitts from the fifth pitch, the one Jose Reyes deposited over Camden Yards’ human-scaled left field wall (bandbox or not, it’s a marvelous change of pace to witness a Met not have to deploy a cannon to hit a baseball out of a baseball stadium). Hisanori Takahashi found his groove, Jeff Francouer homered to the opposite field — OP@CY surely playing like the opposite of Citi Field — and somewhere in the middle of all that, the Mets’ second baseman acquitted himself really well.
That wasn’t the case one year earlier. At the end of a decade when second base devolved from showcase (Edgardo Alfonzo) to sham (Roberto Alomar), then miscast (Jose Reyes) to mistake (Kaz Matsui), the state of the position reached its logical 2000s nadir when Luis Castillo, on the night of June 12, 2009, failed to catch a pop fly off the bat of Alex Rodriguez at Yankee Stadium. There were two outs in the ninth inning, there were two runners on base and the Mets led by one. All Castillo had to do was catch a pop fly and they would have beaten the Yankees. It wasn’t the simplest of pop flies, judging by Castillo’s unsteady route under its arc, but it wasn’t all that complex for a 14-year-veteran who had been voted three Gold Gloves by National League managers and coaches, the most recent of them less than four years prior.
It was a pop fly. He was a second baseman. We had a one-run lead with two outs in the ninth. How hard could have it been?
It wouldn’t have been hard at all had Luis Castillo brought his bare hand to his glove hand once the ball hit the glove. The second hand helps out the first hand. The second hand ensures the ball will stay in the first hand. Together, they form two hands and secure a third out.
Well, we know that didn’t happen. We know Luis Castillo used only one of the two hands he was issued at birth. He also called on absolutely none of the common sense the good lord presumably gave him, futzing around after the ball bounced out of his glove and onto the ground. Instead of staying with the play and firing the ball home to possibly nail a sprinting Mark Teixeira and send this abomination of a game to extra innings, he disinterestedly bounced a throw toward the infield.
Mets lose. I let out a scream that, one year later, is just now leaving our solar system.
In the wake of Luis Castillo’s dropped popup, it became the night of the long knives around here. The first victim, I declared, had to be the perpetrator of the crime. Release Castillo Now, I demanded. As extreme as it sounded, even to me, I was dead serious. Send the rapidly deteriorating Mets a message. Send him packing ASAP! Get Joe Pisarcik, Jr., out of my sight forever.
Of course the Mets didn’t do that. The Mets would never do that. They owed him a ship-ton of money and — though it was of no help to the team at the time — Castillo was experiencing an offensive renaissance…for him. His on-base percentage after that game was .376. Luis was exponentially better in 2009 than 2008, which is to say he was darn adequate when he wasn’t committing the most egregious, embarrassing error in club history.
I would yell “TWO HANDS! USE TWO HANDS!” at him for the rest of the season. So would you. So would everybody. We’d yell it at Castillo and we’d yell at it any Met who attempted to settle under a baseball in flight. Last month in Flushing, on a night that eventually became the antithesis of a heartbreaker but at the time was just a game we were losing to Washington, Pudge Rodriguez popped a ball to very short right with two outs in the top of third. Castillo backpedaled and, despite multiple entreaties from all of us fielding coaches in Section 109, chose to use one hand to make the catch. The ball was caught, but nobody was satisfied.
“These guys,” the man in the next row turned to me to say — “they never learn.”
No, they don’t. Almost none of them. In the seventh Saturday night in Baltimore, Cesar Izturis lined a Takahashi pitch to left. It wasn’t the game, but it was a key moment. Julio Lugo was on first, there were two out, we were up by one. We wanted Hisanori to get through seven. We wanted the lead to remain intact. Mostly, we wanted Jason Bay to catch the ball. And he did…with one hand.
Do they ever learn? I don’t know. Luke Scott hit Frankie Rodriguez’s first delivery of the ninth to Angel Pagan in center. Angel, who seemed learning-challenged most of 2009, used two hands. It was a delight to behold.
Wishing for Luis Castillo to be unconditionally released following his dropped pop fly proved a fantasy. He continued his pretty decent offensive season the rest of last year. He wasn’t going gangbusters in 2010, but I’d finally, sometime during the 9-1 homestand, decided I’d “forgiven” him. That sounds rather haughty, I realize, for Luis Castillo didn’t consciously do dirt unto me personally, but c’mon. Dropping the last out of a Subway Series game at Yankee Stadium? Of course it was personal. It was personal for all of us. I didn’t boo Luis Castillo the balance of 2009, but I was highly stingy with my encouragement. It took until May of 2010 to give him the requisite hand — even one hand — when the starting lineups were announced.
Luis hasn’t played lately. Went onto the DL with a foot problem. His absence meant we’d see a little of Alex Cora (which is exactly how much of Alex Cora you’d want to see) and quite a bit of Ruben Tejada. It’s been so long since we’ve been given an extended glimpse of a genuine middle infield prospect — the winning touch of Argenis Reyes notwithstanding — that I wasn’t sure how to judge what I might be seeing.
I had no problem figuring out Saturday that Ruben Tejada is pretty damn good at second, even if he’s actually a shortstop. He was in the middle of an around-the-horn double play early and made a sensational jump and throw to retire Adam Jones later. Ron Darling compared him to Roberto Alomar, presumably the pre-Met version. Tejada was showing himself to be a free-range second baseman, unencumbered by age, injury and lack of mobility. He also singled and scored what proved to be the winning run in the sixth.
I’m not sure I’m ready to anoint Ruben Tejada the second baseman of the future or even the present. He’s supposed to be a shortstop and he’s only 20 years old. He’s batting .185 and is obviously raw. But he is exciting and the Mets are winning.
Ruben Tejada’s posting, at least as far as 2010 is concerned, appears to be temporary. Luis Castillo’s foot won’t keep him out forever (though with the Mets you never know). He’ll be back soon enough, laying down bunts and getting to grounders six inches to either side of him and probably holding onto pop flies, however many hands he chooses to use. Maybe the Mets will still be winning with him, too. Luis Castillo has proven to be not a total schlub no matter how horrendously onerous his contract still looks and how far over the hill he was when Omar Minaya insisted on signing him to it. The memory of June 12, 2009 has faded somewhat. I’m not really mad at Luis Castillo anymore.
But I gotta tell ya: I haven’t missed him in the slightest since he’s been out.