Part 1: Friday Night Frights
Went to see the Mets play ball. Lovely evening, and great company in my pals Wayne and Amanda, the latter a visitor and, horrible to say, a Yankee fan. (She was also a model guest — I didn’t once hear the number 27, an invocation of rings or a sentence ended with a superfluous “baby.”) The only problem was the Mets diverting us from a pleasant evening with whatever it was they were doing down there on the field.
It started out well enough — both Mike Pelfrey and Ian Kennedy had to contend with a strike zone that seemed the approximate size of a postage stamp, and settled unhappily on “give up a lot of runs” as the answer to that particular riddle. David Wright hit two home runs that looked like they’d been fired out of a cannon, no-doubters to left and dead center that had even the folks in the spendy seats up and gaping before the ball cleared the second baseman’s airspace. But after Pelfrey was left in for approximately 1,316 pitches, Raul Valdes came in and got mauled for five runs on just 14 pitches in the top of the sixth. He slunk off looking bewildered and unhappy and then there was nothing much to see except Aaron Heilman come in for the ninth, shot-putting the ball plateward and looking, as usual, like a man who’d just chugged a glass of sour milk. Of course he somehow held the Mets scoreless, tagged only by jeers from the helpless fans.
Watching Luis Castillo flailing against Aaron Heilman made me simultaneously angry and tired. So, for that matter, did knowing Jeff Francoeur would swing at first pitches like a dog lunging for a cheeseburger left on the edge of the counter, and having to sit through that ghastly mall anthem of Eminem’s that someone has saddled Angel Pagan with. Oh, and I might be mistaken but during the middle innings I think I heard the Yankees acquired Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, the Milwaukee Brewers’ team bus and the Lesser Antilles. (On the other hand, I’m glad the Mets did nothing except send Mike Jacobs away in exchange for the Blue Jays promising to stop teasing us for reacquiring him. This team isn’t going anywhere in 2010 and I’d much rather see it hold its pieces for use in the offseason and in July 2011.)
Anyway, that was Friday night, on which the only thing wrong with the Mets game was the presence of the Mets.
Part 2: From the Basement to the Dugout
Instead of lingering on the recent unpleasantness, I’d like to go back to offer my thoughts on Wednesday evening’s blogger visit to Citi Field, as chronicled by Greg here, Shannon of Mets Police here and Matthew Artus of Always Amazin’ here. I felt weirdly self-conscious as we made our way through the bowels of the stadium and out onto the green field, populated by big-as-life, honest-to-goodness Mets in pregame motley. Part of it was the oddity of the experience, of going somewhere I’d never been before except for the occasional Kids Dash or pregame event in which actual Mets were far away, instead of 18 inches from me. But another reason for my self-consciousness was that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or, frankly, what I wanted to do.
Like my co-blogger, I have years of experience as a professional journalist. I’ve been a beat guy and a columnist and an editor and run a section. I’ve talked to people who wanted to spin me, people who were adversarial at every turn, people who said as little as possible, and people who were infuriated with something I’d written. So I didn’t necessarily feel out of my element on the field or in the dugout, or petrified by the idea of talking to the players. And yet I did feel out of my element — because I decided years ago that I didn’t want to be a sportswriter.
To be clear, I love sportswriting. I admire the men and women who do it. I appreciate that their jobs can be exceedingly difficult, a delicate mixture of diplomacy and truth-telling, with late nights and sudden rewrites and endless travel making everything still more complicated. I didn’t turn my back on sportswriting because of any of that, but because of a more basic consideration: I knew that becoming a sportswriter would require me to stop being a Mets fan, to accept that there is no cheering in the pressbox. Given those two choices, I chose to stay a Mets fan — until blogging let me find a way to be a sportswriter after all. Or, if you don’t like my use of the term, to be someone who chronicles a team from a close distance but a certain remove, serving as a loyalist and historical-minded complement to the folks working the clubhouse with pens and tape recorders.
Anyway, long ago I chose fandom and distance — and then, on Wednesday, all of a sudden there was no distance. We bloggers were briefed on the dos and don’ts of pregame and turned loose, free to wander up and down the VIP area behind home plate and the warning track along the first-base line and even hang around in the dugout. We were allowed to interview players, with the proviso that they were going about their business and all had different routines. The Mets’ media-relations folks helped us understand that; they couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. And they weren’t worried about us in the least.
Greg chatted with Ed Kranepool, but while I appreciated the opportunity, I didn’t talk to any players. Part of that was not knowing the routine. One rule of BP that I grasped immediately (with the help of lots of signs) is you don’t go on the grass — that’s the players’ workplace and sanctuary. If you want to grab a player, you have to do it while he’s crossing the warning track, and if he’s doing that he’s generally on his way to the clubhouse (where we weren’t permitted) at a decent rate of speed. I hung back because I didn’t want to interfere with either the players’ preparations or those of the beat writers, clustered in the dugout when we arrived.
But I also wasn’t sure I wanted to talk with the players. I’d never been across the line that divides us, and if I was going to cross it, I wanted to be better prepared than I felt on Wednesday, with a clearer idea of what I was looking for and how it would help the blog. Should we be given another opportunity like Wednesday, I’ll think about it more beforehand, since I won’t have to fret about the basics. But honestly, I’m ambivalent. I think our blog has worked pretty well without direct interaction with actual New York Mets — our point of view has never included that, chance meetings in Catskills resorts aside, and there’s a freedom in calling things as we see them from the stands or the couch, unencumbered by the need for clubhouse diplomacy. On the other hand, the reporter in me likes the challenge of finding new stories to tell, things the beat writers might see as just part of the scenery but be of interest to the rest of us. And the reporter in me has always felt queasy at the fact that I’ve said horrible things about various Mets and never had to look them in the eye. At one point Wednesday I had a brief fantasy in which Francisco Rodriguez turned out to be a Faith and Fear reader, and I was about to play the role of a much smaller Brian Bruney. It was vivid and unpleasant. It also wouldn’t have been unjustified. That’s worth thinking about.
After 10 minutes or so of pointless angst, I did what I’ve always done to settle myself down in such situations. I opened my notebook and started writing down what I saw.
Part 3: Up Close and Sorta Personal With the Mets
One thing I’d expected was that the Mets would seem much bigger up close than I’d imagined. But that was only true sometimes. The first Met I passed was Pedro Feliciano, and he was broader than me but built to the same scale. The same was true of plenty of other Mets — they were obviously fit and athletic and spent their days outside, but they didn’t look like members of another species. But some of the Mets were imposingly large. On TV, Josh Thole’s youth and crouched batting stance makes me think of him as somehow slight, but he’s a big, solid guy. I don’t think of Carlos Beltran as enormous — he’s only about two inches taller than me — but if he walked down the street in civilian clothes you’d immediately notice him, struck by his size and purpose. And then there’s Albert Pujols. He was on the other side of the field, but when he came out of the dugout all eyes jumped involuntarily to him, and I knew him at a split-second’s glance.
The Mets spent plenty of time playing catch, shagging flies and doing other baseball routines that look like a lot of fun, and I’m sure are. Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo were tossing the ball back and forth a couple of feet away when we arrived — except Reyes wasn’t really tossing the ball, at least not by my standards. It was coming out of his hand fast, much faster than a ball does even when I throw it with maximum purpose, and you could hear it hiss as went past, until it snapped into Castillo’s mitt with a crack.
Batting practice and infield practice are interesting to watch because they’re so intertwined. At one point Randy Niemann was throwing to the Met hitters while Chip Hale stood to the side of the cage, hitting grounders to Ike Davis and Mike Hessman at first, who’d field the ball and throw it back to Dave Racaniello. (Who was everywhere and doing everything during practice.) What struck me was that Niemann and Hale never had to look at each other, never had to exchange hand gestures, never had to indicate that one or the other should go ahead. The rhythms of their routines were perfectly synched, fitting inside each other. That was something I noted over and over again — the amazing control the players and coaches have over what they’re doing at any moment, the way so much of what they do has become muscle memory.
During their pregame routine the players are surrounded by people — not just loitering bloggers, but reporters from print and TV and radio and the Web, speaking Spanish and English, alongside Mets officials and security guards and groundskeepers and camera operators and other stadium personnel. After 4:40 the stands began to fill with fans watching BP, cajoling players for balls and autographs as they descend into the dugout. And the VIP area fenced off behind home plate is a zoo, an endless parade of kids and businessmen and young women and random folks admitted by the two teams. Pop songs chosen according to no discernable rhyme or reason blast over the PA — I found Genesis’s “Paperlate” particularly random — and the players do their work amid constant noise and chatter, with eyes following them everywhere they go. The chatter rises to a tumult when they leave the field. At one point Wright came into the VIP area and was frankly besieged, almost lost behind outthrust pens and balls and even a stack of WRIGHT jerseys people wanted signed. He handled it with grace and ease, but I felt uneasy for him at the center of all that attention and interest and naked want, and couldn’t imagine being him.
On the other hand, at one moment I found myself very much wanting to be Jeff Francoeur. Hitting in the cage, Frenchy needed a couple of pitches to find his timing and set himself. But once he had it, he started smashing home runs into the second deck in left field, one after the other. The swing was utterly fluid, a mathematically defined arc, executed with flawless timing. Each swing in that series was a ruthlessly efficient conversion of the ball’s velocity and the bat’s and Francoeur’s muscles into a majestic trajectory. Each swing was perfect, and I found myself thinking that the pitcher’s job was to interfere with perfection, to scramble the pieces of the equation to yield a decidedly imperfect outcome. I’d never thought of hitting as something that could be perfect, but there it was, in laboratory conditions, and I found myself nodding in delight that I’d been able to see it.
(Thanks to Kerel Cooper of OnTheBlack for the photo, and to all of our fellow bloggers for great company in the dugout and in the stands.)