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August and Everything After

Two sure signs we’re on the wrong side of summer:

1) My friend Chuck, Illinoisan by employment but New Yorker by heart, called me Saturday, as he will when he’s in time-killing/errand-running mode. He was in a mall somewhere in the Midwest, taking his daughter back-to-school shopping. Back-to-school already? I asked. How early do they go back to school there? Then I considered the middle of August isn’t all that far off from school, not even here.

2) The conversation turned, within a minute or two of pleasantries, into an extended Met update for the benefit of those who no longer live in New York and don’t necessarily check in with certain blogs as often as they should. After receiving the latest state of the dysfunctional union report, Chuck took a measured tone:

“You shouldn’t give up,” he said. “Anything can happen.”

And that, even more than sales on sweaters and loose leaf binders, is the surest sign to me that autumn is lacing up its running shoes and preparing to grab the baton from a faltering summer — because even across a thousand miles and a digital phone connection that doesn’t include video conferencing, I can see Chuck suppressing a smirk. He does this every hopeless year right around this time, poking at me with a proverbial stick to see if I’ll swipe at it. He tried it in late August of 2003, the weekend after the last-place Mets had swept a surprisingly competent set of games against the first-place Braves and were maybe, just maybe on the cusp of creeping toward the outer edge of the box in the paper where they list the Wild Card contenders.

“You shouldn’t give up,” he said then, too, innocent as a slice of room-temperature apple pie. “Anything can happen.”

I paused to think about the 2003 Mets’ chances of pulling off a miracle to beat all miracles. And then I considered the source of those seemingly encouraging words — my best friend since college, yes, but someone who carries a playful manipulative streak longer than anything Mike Vail ever put together hittingwise.

“Fuck you,” I said almost seven year ago.

Chuck broke up in hysterics.

I didn’t repeat in 2010 what I told him in 2003, because I knew his faux keep-the-faith message was coming. No, I said calmly on Saturday, anything can’t happen.

Soon after our call ended, I was on a train bound for where anything couldn’t happen and, rest assured, it didn’t. The Mets lost bloodlessly on Saturday. Their signs were even less vital Sunday as they lost yet another must-win series. They are now some distressingly large amount of games out of first place in the N.L. East and nearly as many in the Wild Card race. I don’t buy the papers anymore, but I’m guessing that if they haven’t dropped from the box of contenders by now, they will soon.

That’ll happen some Augusts. It’s happened this August, just in time for those back-to-school sales and back-to-reality lifechecks. The summer ends too soon while the season ends too soon after summer, no matter how long the season is extended. The Mets’ season won’t be extended at all. We’re now in that transition mode between wanting to hang on to baseball for as long as we can and wishing the baseball we’re seeing would please go away already.

Saturday afternoon I didn’t want it to end. Chuck could bait me about the Met disarray, but I had a game to get to. I had people to meet at the Apple — Jeff, at last up from D.C. after months of our talking about it, along with his son, Dylan, and Dave, Jeff’s buddy from Brooklyn. We’d set this date at the height of the Mets’ 2010 competitiveness. Not that it mattered to a couple of lifers, but it was assumed that this would be a big game. And of course it was a big game: it was the first game Jeff and Dylan would be seeing at Citi Field all season. It wasn’t a big game in any other sense, however. As I said, some Augusts just work out that way. Couldn’t do anything about the standings, but I could still look forward to spending a night with the Mets and with people I like.

Funny thing about me and Citi Field. As much as I’ve analyzed it and criticized it, I’ve grown mighty proprietary of it, never more so than early Saturday evening. None of the guys I was meeting had yet seen the Hall of Fame and Museum, so I enthusiastically began pointing out highlights once we entered: here’s the ball Mookie hit; there’s the plaque that doesn’t quite get Doc’s term of service right; listen for this part of the narration on the video, it’s particularly good; oh, and take a look over here!

I was the same way after we left the museum and then the store (where Mets fans registered their disgust with the current regime by purchasing $28 t-shirts and such). Our tickets were Field Level, but they allowed us access to Excelsior. Hey, c’mon, I gotta show you Caesars Club — we don’t have to stay there, I just wanna show you what it is. I was like that up and down all the escalators and staircases and throughout the concourses.

I’m taking the official Citi Field tour in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure why I’m not guiding it.

The sole Met highlight of the error-strewn game itself was when a beachball made the rounds in the seats below us. It was harmless good fun until it finally occurred to somebody in orange and blue that the ball was red and white and emblazoned with a “P,” requiring it to meet a sudden but timely death. We still couldn’t do anything about the standings or the scoreboard, but we cheered the proactive move on the part of our patriotic Mets fan brother in the slightly fancier seats. His popping the beachball reminded me of Benjamin Franklin reporting excitedly to Thomas Jefferson in 1776 of “a ragtag collection of provincial militiamen who couldn’t drill together, train together or march together, but when a flock of ducks flew over, and they saw their first meal in three full days, Sweet Jesus could they shoot together!”

The Mets were ultimately deflated, but our spirits remained high as we parted ways on the Super Express Saturday night. I was so happy to have seen Jeff, so happy to have been at Citi Field, so happy to have been around baseball and beachballs that I hated to admit that it would all end soon enough.

It always does.

As I waited for my eastbound train at Woodside, the slightest pre-September chill wafted by. Summer was still technically in effect, but the season was giving its seven weeks notice. This is a Mets team scuffling to maintain its self-ballyhooed Home Field Advantage, which is now adds up to a not-so-advantageous 8-10 at Citi Field since July 5. They’re barely grasping .500 overall. They never win a series on the road. They rarely offer any kind of hitting support for their valiant battalion of starting pitchers. They wouldn’t even do Pat Misch the courtesy of playing defense on Saturday. No, this is not a Mets team that merits “anything can happen” consideration.

The only thing that could happen after Saturday night was Sunday night [1]. It rained on and off. Citi Field sounded dead the first few innings on radio. It looked even deader on TV, at least while Mad Men was in commercial. I saw the starting lineup and was struck by what an amorphous blob of players the Mets had become. Mostly youngsters, which is supposed to give us hope, but lately has given us nothing. Sprinkled between them, a couple of veterans who have to play every now and then if just to keep them theoretically sharp. Some of these starting Mets were vital in spurring the team into surprising contention in May and June. Now, in mid-August, the whole bunch was receding from view.

Baseball season is both too short and honestly long enough. How is it that Opening Day wasn’t just last week? How is it that a quarter, a third, half and now just about three-quarters of the season have flown by? It goes too quick. Yet it’s interminable. It’s been long enough for Ike Davis to emerge as a budding star and then show us how far he has to go to develop consistent offensive skills. It’s been long enough for Angel Pagan to establish himself as the batting order’s bulwark and for opposing pitchers to adjust to all of Angel’s improvements. It’s been long enough for Mike Pelfrey to find himself, lose himself and grope around in the dark for a piece of his April self all over again.

There isn’t enough of the Mets if you salivate over spring and luxuriate in summer and treat every trip to their imperfect ballpark like you might an invitation to the chocolate factory when you were five. Nevertheless, there’s more Mets than you can stand when they’re drearily getting their own beachball burst again and again on too many nights like Sunday. You can only take so much of detesting watching what you’re pretty sure you love.

I’m not a fan of Sunday night baseball. I’m not a fan of autumn’s encroachment. And I’m not a fan of giving up on the Mets. Ten out in the East…eight out for the Wild Card…anything can happen. But at this stage of the season, it usually doesn’t.

Tim Kurkjian of ESPN has, at last, given up on an anachronistic baseball obsession of his own. Recommended reading here [2].