Like my blog partner, I registered the wholly unexpected presence of Jason Isringhausen in Mets camp — and, however briefly, allowed myself to dream.
Stories like Izzy’s are an object lesson in why it’s good that fans don’t run baseball teams. The reaction of the Sandy Alderson braintrust to Izzy’s availability, I’m sure, was a businesslike “eh,” resulting in a risk-free minor-league contract. My first reaction was to throw Izzy a virtual parade, welcoming him back to … OK, not the starting rotation or closer duties, as not even my imagination could stretch that far. But some kind of heroic middle-relief role with a side of mentoring young pitchers? I could close my eyes and convince myself I saw that.
This is foolish, of course: Mets history is not exactly littered with successful reacquisitions. There are instances of sentimental score-settling: Tom Seaver II, for instance, or Dave Kingman Redux. There are revivals that proved the curtain fell a while ago: the unofficial Seaver III, David Cone. There are thoroughly farcical second acts: Kevin McReynolds and Bobby Bonilla. There are wrongs put right that should have been left wrong: Marlon Anderson and Greg McMichael. There are unfortunate return visits that seemed only to squander the original promise: Mike Jorgensen, Tim Foli, Hubie Brooks, and Mike Jacobs. There are forgotten encores: Did you really remember off the top of your head that Alex Trevino, Jeff McKnight, Kelly Stinnett, Josias Manzanillo, Brady Clark and Anderson Hernandez returned? Two of the most successful repeat Mets engagements featured players in much-reduced roles: Rusty Staub and Lee Mazzilli, returned as pinch-hitters. The best second Met go-round, sad to say, might be a tossup between Pedro Feliciano (if Japan counts) and Jeromy Burnitz. Of such stuff legends aren’t exactly made.
And, of course, there’s a more immediate example of a failed comeback where Izzy’s concerned. As if on cue, Izzy’s Generation K partner Bill Pulsipher popped up yesterday to half-jokingly suggest his own Mets comeback might be on tap. The accounts I read ignored the full extent of Pulse’s role as Greek chorus: After all, he had an unsuccessful Met return of his own, retrieved from Milwaukee Brewerdom to toil futilely for the 2000 Mets. I remember the reclaimed Pulsipher being saved early in a shaky start against the Giants by Jay Payton, leaping above the fence to snatch back a Bill Mueller home run. It was a great moment, one I let myself imagine would rekindle Pulse’s confidence, leading to his rejuvenation as a starter and place in a World Series parade. Alas, very soon Pulse was giving up shots not even Payton could catch; he slumped off the mound as I tried to convince myself that I’d expected this and was not, in fact, crushed.
It’s an unfortunate duty of front-office types to snuff out fan sentiment in these situations. It’s their job to cut loose David Cone, to verify that Tom Seaver III was right about what it means to be annihilated in a simulated game by Barry Lyons, to trade Jesse Orosco for Joe McEwing, to not call up Edgardo Alfonzo. We’re not capable of that — we usually see the glass as minutely full.
Or at least I’m not capable of it. Seeing photos from Port St. Lucie of Izzy grown thick and impossibly old, I let myself daydream. But then I always have with Izzy. He and Pulse grabbed my attention when they first came around: They were young and talented and full of hope when I was the same, and I was giddy to think of having near-contemporaries rise to Mets glory. Izzy would be Seaver and Pulse would be Jerry Koosman, unless it was Paul Wilson who’d be Seaver, which would maybe make Izzy Jon Matlack. Except pretty soon it became horribly clear that all three members of Generation K would be Gary Gentry.
Pulse was obviously slightly nuts from the get-go, gazing out at the world from under the low-slung bill of his cap with a slightly too intense stare. But Izzy turned out to be the loose cannon in terms of misadventures, calling Jay Horwitz “Jewboy” (a situation not particularly helped when it emerged that this was a clubhouse term of endearment) and turning up during rehab playing softball with strippers, among other things mercifully forgotten. He was forgiven every time, but his pitching decayed, until he was packed off to the A’s for the very tall Billy Taylor, who was greeted by Todd Pratt near the Wrigley Field mound with “I’m Tank, whaddya throw?” That was the highlight of Billy Taylor’s Mets career.
Still, I remember being more reluctantly accepting of the Izzy trade than outraged. It was like the day your mom got tough and threw out your raggedy baby blanket, or you realized that cheerleader/cool artsy girl/whoever she was would never decipher your longing looks, or you stumbled home blasted and found your friends and family waiting grim-eyed to start the intervention. Choose your own metaphor — whatever it was, it was the end of something, simultaneously unwelcome and inevitable.
Izzy’s later success never particularly moved me: I always saw him as proof that Billy Beane was right in thinking that closers could be manufactured from failed starters, a position that I fully grant may be sour grapes. Still, on some level I kept rooting for him: He was the A’s closer against the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, and I laughed happily to read that he’d admitted to Jason Giambi that he couldn’t feel his legs. Good ol’ Izzy! That only ebbed after he became a Cardinal and thwarted what I was sure would be the coming-out party for a young David Wright. After that he was just another closer; my affections had moved on to younger hopes.
And yet here he is, again, and I can’t help myself. He could be 2011’s Staub, or Mazzilli, or maybe an Al Jackson or Bob L. Miller. He could, couldn’t he?
Well, I suppose. Or more likely he could be 2011’s Mike Birkbeck. Making these judgments is why they pay Sandy, who can think about Izzy without seeing a 44 or a magazine cover with two other young pitchers or being pissed about the Baseball Network’s existence or mourning an alternate Mets reality in which many, many things are different.