I’m striking a bargain with the 2011 Mets. The arrangement is one I’m confident they can live up to. It goes like this:
You don’t have to play for anything this year, but you do have to keep playing.
I made this deal with them in the ninth inning of their dreary Home Opener loss to the Washington Nationals, a drab late-afternoon affair that made even our dependable R.A. of sunshine appear gloomy. The box score will indicate a distressing lifelessness to the Mets’ offense. My instinct would be to say they didn’t come through in the clutch, except it seems absurd to suggest the Mets were anywhere in the vicinity of the clutch. Their batters had ten opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position and they took a pass on all ten.
Gandhi only wished he could have exercised such passive resistance.
And yet, come the ninth inning, there was something about these Metsies. Except for the you-never-know quotient, I didn’t believe they were going to stage a stunning comeback (though I did allow myself to think, “if they could come back from seven down in Philadelphia, why not from four to the Nationals?”), yet I was encouraged anyway.
Why? Because they kept playing. They kept hustling. They kept their heads in the game. Reyes and Emaus kept playing defense up the middle. Pagan kept on top of a ball to deep center so intently that he turned it into a sparkling 8-6-3 double play. They all kept running to first. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, as the equipment (and what remained of the crowd) was begging to be packed in, Thole went the other way and found a hole. He dashed to first like he knew he was setting up a rally, not merely extending our stay in the chill mist another two minutes. It was small, small stuff on an unfortunately small, small day, but it added up in my esteem.
Yes, the results are eerily resembling 2010 right now, but the attitude is from another time. It’s from this time, and this time is a good time to watch the Mets try to improve. If they can do it from ahead, great. If they have to do it from behind — if they are relegated to a lot of behind in 2011 — so be it. In a way, the final innings as afternoon turned to evening smacked of Spring Training…nothing on the line in the way of winning or losing, but everybody still trying to impress, everybody still giving the impression he hadn’t yet made the club, so every ounce of effort and energy offered really, really mattered.
The way some of these players were going — particularly most of the bullpen — you would assume they’d be on the verge of getting cut if this was still March. But they’re here and they’re giving it what appears to be their all. As one who watched countless motions gone through from the middle of July to the third of October, I can’t emphasize enough how much this teamwide resolve is appreciated.
Let’s remember that before the giddiness of 3-1 and whatever contrarian “hey, you know, they’re really not that bad” optimism we talked ourselves into as Spring Training wore on, the general consensus when Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins were hired was the new regime was going to be given this year to figure out what it had. There were to be no unreasonable expectations for 2011. I’d like to stick with that. My one expectation is, I think, reasonable: play from the first pitch to the last out. It is reluctantly understood and grudgingly accepted that the level of play might need additional time and talent to truly gel. But it is understood and it is accepted.
So no, a 6-2 loss to a team that lowered the inherent effusiveness of a Home Opener just by lining up for introductions is not encouraging. 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position is downright discouraging. Ike Davis just missing every ball in his range wasn’t part of the pact. And relievers not named D.J. Carrasco not looking at all competent was, in a word, lousy. Yet drab as it was, it wasn’t insulting to the passion of the fans. It never is when you detect passion among the players.
Passion won’t necessarily win you many games but it makes them all a lot more palatable even when they’re lost.
And what the hell, it’s the Home Opener. Your team is playing in your veritable backyard again. You’re wearing more clothes than you would ideally for baseball, but much of it has your team’s logo, so you’ll cope. You’re taking the route you always take to your ballpark. If you’re lucky — and boy was I ever — you’re greeting your friends and partaking in their tailgate. You’re tipping your cap to the Willie Mays banner in the plaza and making eye contact with your personalized brick. You’re finding your favorite security guard for the first time in six months, the one who urges you to enjoy the game like he actually means it.
You’re inside and you’re recognizing faces. You’re even running into one of your favorite media figures  who, when you’re informing him how much you enjoy his work, graciously shakes your hand and thanks you. You’re applauding the Shea family when it presents its floral horseshoe to Terry Collins to kick off the pregame festivities as Sheas have always done with Met managers — and you’re taming goosebumps when Ralph Kiner makes like a cat and sheds his winter fur to cap the pregame festivities. You’re elated when Ralph fires the first pitch in from the moral equivalent of sixty feet six inches away, straight into the glove of Moooooookie Wilson. You’re elated, too, when the next pitch, Dickey’s first of the day, dies in the sodden atmosphere above left field (and you remind the kid you’ve just met, sitting to your right, not to worry about fly balls like that in this ballpark; you are reassured about the next generation when he gets it immediately).
You’re buying a scorecard even though you don’t keep score because you like to keep at least one scorecard from every season that you go to see the Mets, and this is the 39th season you’re doing that. You’re purchasing an official yearbook by the same force of habit (always go with the “official” yearbook — beware knockoffs). You’re slipping out of the cold (while Mets runners shiver into extinction on base) so you can slip into a couple of Citi Field’s more obscure retail locations to indulge your inner eight-year-old with a few packs of baseball cards. You get home, you open them, you discover you’ve got a Josh Thole and an Angel Pagan and it’s not a lot different from when you were a genuine eight-year-old and you got a Jerry Grote and a Tommie Agee.
You’re in season again. The Mets started playing last week, which counted, but it counts more now that you so naturally fall back into physically being a part of it. You had your Home Opener. It was your holiday, it was your event, it was — per The Pajama Game — your once a year day . Everything else from here on out will be normal. Because it is baseball, and because you will, as if by instinct, take yourself out to it as much as you can, now and then it is bound to be extraordinary. On too many days and nights, however, once it’s stripped of pomp, circumstance and Ralph Kiner’s big daddy coat , it will be too drab to countenance casually if relievers can’t get outs and batters can’t drive in runs.
Mostly, though, it will be normal. If normal for the Mets means running everything out and never giving up on anything, you will not hesitate to cheer for what will become the amiably ordinary.