Stephanie and I spent Saturday with the Mets and with the Stems. The Mets are the Mets. The Stems are the opposite of the Mets, and they were embodied not by the victorious visiting Milwaukee Brewers but by two people who are the opposite of fans of the Mets.
Let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Stem.
That doesn’t mean they’re Brewers fans or Phillies fans or, god forbid, something worse. They’re not Mets fans is the most accurate way to put it. It’s not a matter of preferring another team or rooting against the Mets. There’s just an antithetical relationship between them and the Mets as a concept. Thus, only one who is truly mad would endeavor to place the two parties in the same 42,000-seat room.
It so happens Stephanie and I are related to Mr. and Mrs. Stem. Mrs. Stem I’ve known since right around when I was born. She’s my sister. She married Mr. Stem almost thirty years ago. He’s my brother-in-law. They’re family…but they’re the Stems. I long ago understood and mostly accepted those facts. I don’t need my family to embrace the Mets. I have lots of people who will do that with me.
Still, there’s something strange to me that I’m so closely related to the Stems, yet they’re not particularly partial to the Mets. And the Stems are far too cognizant of my enmeshment with the Mets to steer fully clear of it. For example, take Mrs. Stem and her recurring comment and question since Citi Field opened in April 2009:
The comment: “I have to see the brick.”
The Stems gave us the brick — technically, a gift certificate for one — almost as soon as the Mets announced fans could commemorate themselves on the grounds outside the new ballpark. That’s the kind of thoughtful gesture the Stems have always made despite their antithetical positioning vis-à-vis the Mets. As the gesture reached fruition, I reported to Mrs. Stem what was etched onto the brick. I sent her pictures. I pointed out the replica I have at home. I described its positioning outside Citi Field as best I could. I didn’t really want a brick when Shea closed. I was grateful to have it when Citi opened.
Mrs. Stem was glad it worked out. “I have to see the brick,” she continued to mention in that way people have of really meaning to check out that new show that was cancelled three months ago.
The question: “How’s the food?”
As long as I can remember, no matter the occasion, the venue, the emotional overtones (business, pleasure, tragedy), Mrs. Stem wanted to know about the food.
What’d they give you? What’d they put out? They didn’t put out anything? That’s terrible! They should at least have given you a little something.
Mrs. Stem was vaguely aware that the Mets’ new ballpark was renowned for its food or its “food court”. She didn’t care about the seating angles that kept me from seeing left field. She wasn’t interested that there was no Mets memorabilia on display for a solid year. She never requested an evaluation of Pat Misch’s velocity. “How’s the food?” was the only question that ever came up.
Mr. Stem didn’t ask about the food. He tried it on his one visit, with his father and brother two years ago. He volunteered to wait out the line for Shake Shack (“overhyped”) for as many innings as he could on their behalf. For Mr. Stem, such a dreary assignment was better than watching baseball.
Whereas Mrs. Stem’s Mets-obliviousness is perfectly benign, Mr. Stem can’t help but leak hostility when the topic of the Mets floats by. Mr. Stem is fiercely opposed to them on a level that transcends what the rest of think of us as sports allegiances. It’s got nothing to do with liking this team and not liking that team.
Long ago if not so far away, Mr. Stem, who grew up in Flushing, was a Shea Stadium vendor. The experience did not endear him to baseball or, by natural extension, the Mets. By Mr. Stem’s reckoning, every game he ever worked meandered into endless extra innings; included a giveaway item with which menacing children attacked him; took place as part of an inevitable doubleheader; and dragged on before and/or after an infinite parade of banners.
Mr. Stem, despite his bedrock good nature and generally great humor, thoroughly and righteously detests baseball, yet in his own way he understands it keenly. He understands the Mets have woven into them a capacity to build you up, let you down and break your heart. He’s immune to its effects ever since he assumed his Shea post, but he recognizes what they will do to others.
Which he doesn’t particularly mind, but is thoughtful enough to occasionally warn me against. I can still hear his parting words as I dropped the Stems off at JFK before Game One of the 2000 World Series and they were leaving New York for Las Vegas the morning of the first Subway World Series in 44 years: “Don’t be too upset if they lose.” Then, without my asking, he put ten bucks on the Mets to win for me.
So those are the Stems. And I’m apparently one who is truly mad because I got it in me that it would be a fine thing to do to bring them to Citi Field as something of a belated anniversary/birthday outing (their anniversary is in May, his birthday is in June; I am methodical in my madness). They could witness the brick. They could sample the food. And — this was key — they didn’t have to pay a whit of attention or respect to that thing which obsesses me every night and day of my existence.
This was a brainstorm for me, or what qualifies as one in my brain. I picked a game in August that figured to have no resounding impact on a presumably disintegrated Met season. Mets-Brewers? Would I really mind not having all my attention fixed on the Mets and Brewers? There were no giveaways scheduled, so there’d be no flashbacks to Willie Mays Night or Bat Day or whatever promotions still haunt Mr. Stem decades after the fact (Mr. Stem has combined them into one hellacious evening of his souvenir stand barely withstanding a full-on projectile assault.) All in all, I thought this was something the Stems could enjoy without actually having to consider the baseball going on around them.
I was pleased with the idea, also, because it allowed me to test my theory that Citi Field was designed for people who aren’t baseball fans. And, in a dangerous nod to sentiment, I’d been wanting to share just a little bit of my obsession with those close to me who had otherwise rejected it. Well, not so much with Mr. Stem because he’d just as soon take a Louisville Slugger to the head than take in a ballgame, but more with Mrs. Stem. Mrs. Stem took me to my first two Mets wins. Never liked baseball but she took me anyway. She was in college then. What college kid wants to waste a Saturday with a little brother amid acres of obliviousness? I don’t know, but this one did it anyway.
There was a moment or two in the mid-2000s when Mrs. Stem proudly peppered a telephone conversation between us with words like “Pedro,” “Gl@v!ne” and “Omar”. This was when I was intermittently involved with Mets Weekly and I guess seeing your relative on TV is kind of cool. But there’s never been any retention of any Mets data for Mrs. Stem, or any noticeable residual affection for those Saturdays in 1974 and 1975 at Shea. But I remembered the act of her taking me there and I always wanted to touch it again. Never mind that the last game we took in at Shea, Fireworks Night 1998, was an epic, aesthetic disaster. Mrs. Stem is a fireworks freak, but was so overwhelmed by nine innings of public address system blare and whatever 50,000 souls were screaming about that she begged off from what was to her the main event. We bolted before the fireworks show ever started. (Plus John Franco blew a lead in the ninth, which sucked for everybody else in attendance.)
In September of 2008 I gave serious thought to inviting Mrs. Stem to one final Shea game — to the second-to-final Shea game. It would have been perfect to my thinking: a Saturday, just like those Saturdays when I was a kid. I counted up all the reasons it would be beautiful…then I counted the myriad counterreasons why she would have found it hellish: more noise, more crowds, more headaches and backaches, never mind the commute and never mind that there was zero chance either the significance of Shea’s closing or the Mets’ fighting for a playoff spot would mean anything at all to her. I never brought it up.
No, that was a stupid idea. This — August 2011, Milwaukee, an insistence that Mr. Stem could rail at whatever and whomever he liked and I wouldn’t mind, and that Mrs. Stem didn’t have to keep a scorecard, and it would feature a nice dinner in the Acela Club along with a veritable guided tour of the ballpark I don’t really love but I sure seem to know, starting with that brick…this was brilliant. Or so I decided.
They went for it, which kind of surprised me. I said you don’t have to, that we could take you to the movies or something else, but we captured their fancy just enough with the offer. It was almost as if they were touched we wanted to share this.
Mr. Stem helpfully saved us a step and not a few bucks, peeling off his brother’s season tickets and parking pass for the day. I was thinking Excelsior because it more than any other section strikes me as detached from the game in progress, but Promenade Club Box would do nicely, and I wasn’t going to argue with us getting a ride from them. From there, though, it was our production.
We parked in Lot D, which I learned (because I’ve never driven to Citi Field) is the name of the lot where the Shea markers sit. I hustled over to third base to begin the tour. Stephanie — more of a Met maven than I’d ever dreamed she’d be — explained the significance: Shea Stadium, the bases, the field, the whole thing, right where we stand.
Mrs. Stem: That’s very nice.
Mr. Stem mock-kicks invisible dirt on third. “I earned that,” he said.
I led us to home plate. “Uh, you don’t have to show us every base,” I was told.
Next up, the brick. After 44 months, dating back to the presentation of the gift certificate, it was a little anticlimactic to show it off in its natural habitat. I’d already reported to Mrs. Stem what was etched onto the brick. I’d already sent her pictures. I’d already pointed out the replica I have at home. I’d already described its positioning outside Citi Field as best I could.
So there’s the brick.
Mrs. Stem: That’s very nice.
Mr. Stem: How many of these bricks say “Let’s Go Mets” on them anyway?
We went inside. There’d be stops in the museum (where I rediscovered Mrs. Stem had no idea who or what “Bill Buckner” was); peeks at various concessions (“What’s Mama’s of Corona?”); recountings of architectural details as I interpret them (Mrs. Stem wanted to know what the Shea Bridge did — “It gets you from here to there,” I said); and after pausing for the national anthem, we were up the escalator to our seats in 417 for baseball.
Which I wasn’t counting on. The last thing I intended to expose the Stems to was baseball. Seriously. I could watch baseball anytime with baseball fans. That wasn’t the mission here, not for nine innings it wasn’t. Mr. Stem’s wishful-thinking accelerated countdown of every out indicated the baseball at the baseball game — this Very Special Episode of a baseball game, that is — needed to be limited.
Luckily, I was on top of this. Two innings in, I got up and said OK, time for dinner. I had made reservations at the Acela Club for five o’clock, which was fast approaching. That would be the heart of our outing.
And it worked. Mr. and Mrs. Stem LOVED the Acela Club. They loved the food. They loved the air conditioning. They loved that it was situated above a baseball game yet required not even the feigning of acknowledgement that a baseball game was underway.
From the glimpses I took from our window seat (for which the Mets graciously apply a surcharge), it didn’t appear Chris Capuano was all that aware the game counted. So I wasn’t missing anything on the field. The Market Table awaited, the entrees were delivered, everybody was relaxed. There were many declarations from the Stems that this was the best baseball game they’d ever attended now that they could easily ignore the baseball game they were attending. Out in the stands, that would have gotten on my nerves. In the climate-controlled, plentifully portioned Acela Club…whatever.
We were good from the top of the third to the bottom of the seventh. If this was how the food was at Citi Field, there were no complaints from this crowd. We turned various shades of mellow (even as we wondered what the deal was with that fire they were showing on the monitor). A little well-meaning baseball talk filtered in and out. Mrs. Stem, grasping to put it all in perspective with one of those abrupt non-sequitur summations she tends to issue without warning, concluded, “This is a business of miracles.” l stared at her quizzically ’cause I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. She said she was referring to the Mets…you know, the Miracle Mets. Yeah, sure, but at the time, the Mets were losing 7-1.
“If they come back to win, I’m using that as my headline,” I promised.
But I assumed they weren’t coming back to win, even as they finally began to assemble some baserunners as we left the Acela, even as they’d narrowed the gap to 7-3, then 7-4. I hoped for more but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. It was too distracting from my overall plan and, let’s face it, the Mets were still losing by several runs. But then, as we stood on the Excelsior level, Lucas Duda doubled in two more and suddenly we were down only one and I mentally returned to the baseball game.
Except I noticed Mrs. Stem held her hands over ears at the first legitimate explosion of noise all day. Ohmigod, I thought, it’s Fireworks Night 1998 all over again. So, calmly, I said let’s go — there’s a place over there called the Caesars Club where the noise won’t bother you.
No, I was assured, we could wait and see the conclusion of the bottom of the seventh as Jason Bay prepared to bat with the tying run on second. Besides, Mr. Stem predicted with not even a twinge of taunt or doubt — and without knowing Jason Bay from Thunder Bay — the Mets wouldn’t score anymore here.
And of course he was right. They build you up, they let you down, they break your heart. At least we got it out of the way.
I would have been satisfied with leaving after showing the Stems the Caesars Club (they were theoretically attracted to its comfort without quite understanding why something like it took up so much space at a ballpark) but Mr. Stem was trying his best to play ball, as it were. Let’s go back to our seats and watch the last two innings, he suggested.
But I had one more highlight on the tour as long as they were up for it: the Pepsi Porch. I figured it would give them a sweeping vista effect…and maybe we’d be able to see if that fire was still smoldering. We arrived up there in the top of the eighth just as Francisco Rodriguez was being announced into the game for the Brewers. I wasn’t surprised but a little put off by how heavily booed he was. I got that he was in the other uniform, but the guy held up his end of the bargain for the duration of his Met 2011. I applauded him, maybe out of habit, maybe out of sympathy.
Not that I particularly wanted him to succeed as I found a railing to lean against. What I wanted didn’t matter, however. K-Rod retired Paulino and Pridie and went to oh-and-two on Tejada. This is too bad, I said to Stephanie when she joined me. Mr. and Mrs. Stem were milling about somewhere, so as long as we were up there, we might as well watch Frankie throw ball one to Ruben. Then balls two, three and four. We had a baserunner.
Josh Thole was announced as the pinch-hitter and I allowed hope to take root again. “He caught Rodriguez,” I told Stephanie. “How can he not know exactly what he throws?” My (and Terry Collins’s) theory was right on the money. Josh ripped one to deep center and from the Porch it was clear Jerry Hairston, Jr., might catch it but probably wouldn’t.
He didn’t. We were tied.
I had no sympathy any longer for Francisco Rodriguez. He was just another Brewer now and all I wanted was for Angel Pagan to grill him the way the Acela chef grilled my salmon — exquisitely.
K-Rod had two quick strikes on Pagan, but Angel knew something. I could feel it. He was fouling them off, just missing. Frankie would melt. Frankie would too often melt. Why should he stop melting now just because he was no longer a Met?
And just like that, he melted. Pagan launched a fly ball that was coming right at us — not close enough for us to catch, mind you, but right at the Porch, just like he did last month in that Gary, Keith & Ron game.
It was…a homer! Angel Pagan homered! I literally jumped in the air. “I’ve never been happier” would be going a bit too far, but one doesn’t get as happy routinely as I got from Angel Pagan’s home run off Frankie Rodriguez and into the Pepsi Porch. It probably helped that Stephanie and I were standing on the Porch when its ascent and destination became thrillingly clear. It definitely helped that I had discounted the Mets in this game — that I had discounted the game altogether in deference to the good time I wanted to show the Stems, but now I had it all. We had our lovely dinner, we had our relaxation, we had our improbable comeback (just as Stephanie and I did after dining at the Acela last year) and I even had my headline, courtesy of Mrs. Stem.
“This is a business of miracles.”
I could see it, I could feel it, I was even reshuffling the standings for Game 125 of The Happiest Recap. How could this not be the best Game 125 the Mets had ever played? We were down 7-1 against a first-place club, we were dead again in 2011 and we sprung back to life as we had over and over in 2011. How was this not great?
Mr. Stem came over and mentioned the sun was bothering Mrs. Stem, can we go back to our seats soon?
Oh, right…them. Them and baseball. Them and the Steve Henderson home run 31 years ago when they were still dating and I was bouncing off the walls when the Mets converted a 6-0 deficit into a 7-6 victory and Mr. Stem throwing “who cares?” cold water on my teenage euphoria. Them and not being the least bit invested in the Mets’ 9-7 lead I was just jumping in the air about. The sun was a bit harsh. That was what they noticed.
Well, yeah. They’re the Stems.
On another day, this would have annoyed the spit out of me, stepping on my big Mets moment like that, but this wasn’t another day. It was the day I dedicated to showing them that good time, and I was surprisingly concerned with keeping that going to an unbitter end. I didn’t even wait for the final out of the eighth to say let’s go downstairs and watch the last three outs from behind some Field Level seats.
Though I was mentally kicking myself for assuming there’d be a last three outs accomplished so easily.
Mr. Stem knew better. Mr. Stem expressed a desire at day’s beginning for a quick 1-0 game but knew we’d get something like this because every game he ever had to be at went this way: the Mets would fall behind, the Mets would roar back, the Mets would give it all up, the Mets would not roar back again. Build you up, let you down, break your heart. He told me it was coming.
As if I couldn’t have calculated that for myself.
The first pitch Jason Isringhausen threw to Jonathan Lucroy to lead off the ninth was a ball. By no later than the fourth pitch, which raised the count to three-and-one, I knew he didn’t have it. Izzy looked so tired, so out of sorts. I tried to tell myself that he could find it, but I didn’t for a second believe it. Certainty that there’d be three quick outs crumbled into hope there’d be three outs without two runs. And hope didn’t stand a chance.
And if I wasn’t sure, Mr. Stem kept circling around to me to remind me that this is what they do. I have to stress he wasn’t taunting me personally and wasn’t taking any pleasure that I was presumably absorbing some pain. It was just that antithetical relationship to the Mets flaring up. He couldn’t help himself: the Stems and the Mets are natural adversaries. Mr. Stem knew who they were. He hadn’t voluntarily watched a pitch in decades, probably, but he knew. He knew and he was compelled to communicate it.
I am certain I didn’t need to hear it at that very moment, not with Izzy allergic to the strike zone, not with the bases getting loaded, not with Mark Kotsay walking to force in Lucroy to make it 9-8, not with nobody out, not with Collins coming out to bring in I had no idea who, not with Izzy being booed and me feeling like chiming in.
Still showing remarkable control, I calmly informed the Stems that we could go now, I’ve seen enough, I’m just running into the bathroom, I have my radio, I’ll listen to the end on the way to the car. It probably came as more melodramatic than I intended, but I meant it.
This was the inverse of the glorious Victor Diaz game of 2004, the one Diaz tied with a two-out, three-run homer in the ninth against LaTroy Hawkins of the Cubs, who were in a desperate playoff race with a week to go in the season. I was watching that one with a really wonderful, older Cubs fan who was still stinging from the Bartman incident a year earlier, and I had to leave as soon as that inning ended, even though extras were ahead. I had to go because I promised Stephanie I’d meet her in the city but really there was nothing left for me to do in that particular game. If the Cubs won in extra innings, I’d be miserable. If the Mets won in extra innings, I’d be jubilant, of course, but I’d feel really bad for the guy I was with. The circumstances were different against the Brewers, but the sense of “there’s nothing more I can do here” held, not with me trying to keep to my original intent of what the day was supposed to be.
It was supposed to be a pleasant day with family. It was supposed to be 7-1 Brewers. It was supposed to be the brick and the Acela. It wasn’t supposed to be me suppressing my instinct to be disgusted and dismayed, and not just from Jason Isringhausen. I didn’t want the lingering good vibes from dinner and from Pagan to be obliterated by whatever was about to happen. So I said let’s go, I’ll be right out of the bathroom.
Sixty seconds later, nobody had moved from where we were watching. Mr. Stem promised to put a cork in his Stemian impulses for the duration and implored us to stay through wherever the full nine innings took us (what a bizarro chain of events: I want to leave the Mets game and he wants to stay). Fine, I said.
Now it was in the hands of Manny Acosta — as if that was about to solve all our problems.
For a second, I believed. That second spanned Manny’s flying of Ryan Braun to right to Jason Pridie’s effective throw home. Maybe, just maybe Manny Acosta could…
No. He couldn’t. Prince Fielder tied the game on a ball Justin Turner couldn’t corral and Casey McGehee shot another one by him and it was 11-9 and there was no turning back from where this was going.
We hung around anyway. Mrs. Stem tried to boost the Mets by calling out, “C’mon Joe!” and then asking me if the Mets, in fact, had a player named Joe. Not presently, I said, but I thought it might work, so we Joe’d Wright and we Joe’d Duda in the bottom of the ninth, but by any name, they made outs. So, of course, did Bay.
Mr. Stem offered the least vindictive version of I told ya so I’d ever heard. It was just going to happen, he said. They added a twist by building a two-run lead to blow instead of just one, but it was the same as it ever was. If the Mets were two games from first place, I would have been a shambles. But I have no idea how far the Mets are from first anymore, so the disenchantment of losing 11-9 after winning 9-7 after losing 7-1 wore off surprisingly quickly.
It had been so pleasant from the third through the seventh. And it was electric in the eighth. Why let a lousy ninth spoil everything?
I swear, you’ll find yourself thinking the strangest things when you decide to mix the Mets with the Stems.