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The Gem Before the Storm

Of course Chris Capuano pitched a great game Friday night [1]. Mets starters always pitch great games when hurricanes are bearing down on New York.

Mind you, my sample size is now three, which is a good thing since although we all want more well-pitched Mets games, none of us wants any hurricanes. Seems to me you can’t always get what you want.

On August 8, 1976, as Belle loomed and all of us on Long Island were battening hatches (“battening down” suddenly strikes me as overwording — like “now defunct”), Mickey Lolich threw an eight-hitter at Three Rivers Stadium to beat the Pirates, 7-4. That may not sound particularly great, but consider Lolich did it by not striking out a single Buc, the last time any Met pitcher used his fielders quite so efficiently in a complete game triumph. No wonder a game that included 11 runs and 20 hits took only two hours and four minutes to complete. Nothing but flyouts, groundouts and a couple of lineouts. Lolich’s ERA actually went up a tick for his troubles, from 2.81 to 2.88, as his won-lost record (I’ve also never understood “won-loss”; it should be either “won-lost” or “win-loss”) rose to 7-10.

Imagine a pitcher going nine and not striking out anybody. Imagine all that offense and the game lasting barely more than two hours. Imagine an ERA under 3, yet a record in which the losses substantially outnumber the wins.

Now imagine why Mickey Lolich retired after 1976 (even if he did cost us Rusty Staub and even if he did nefariously sneak back [2] into baseball with the Padres in 1978).

As for Belle, we had only so many hatches to batten when it was decided my mother and I would take the LIRR — back when such trains ran in advance of bad weather — into the city the next day to meet my father and my sister (then a summer intern at a slightly skeevy PR firm) at Dad’s office on E. 49th St. We stayed overnight at a pretty nice hotel and returned to Long Beach the next day to discover Belle’s landfall left a few branches on the ground and some yogurt in our fridge inedible.

The Mets were off.

On September 26, 1985, with Gloria moving up the East Coast amid intense media scrutiny (I distinctly remember a television reporter berating someone who allegedly held a “Gloria Party” during which Laura Branigan’s signature single [3] blared — kind of a limited playlist, I thought), I was focused on Chicago, where Dwight Gooden was doing what Dwight Gooden always did in 1985 [4]. Doc threw an eight-hit shutout out at the Cubs, winning 3-0 and keeping the Mets as viable as he could: four behind the Cardinals with nine to play, most critically three the following week in St. Louis. Doc, raising his mark to 23-4, was a veritable life saver (not to be confused with emergency crews on alert to be literal life savers), as his eighth shutout of the season compensated for a miserable game the day before, one in which Jesse Orosco and Gary Carter combined to let a walked Davey Lopes (with two out in the bottom of the ninth) steal second and third and be driven home by Chris Speier. The Mets lost 5-4 despite Kid’s grand slam. It was a disheartening result in a searing pennant race, but also a personal letdown given Carter and Orosco were pointing fingers at each other afterwards. And here I thought all the Mets loved all the other Mets.

But Doc made everything better, except the weather. Our Gloria party the next day followed the evacuation route to South Side High School in Rockville Centre, where everybody and his brother joined me, my mother, my father, my sister and my brother-in-law to — and wow, what traction this cliché has gathered in the past 24 hours — ride out the storm. We dragged with us a bag of rapidly hardening bagels at home that my mother insisted on piling into one of our many Heftys for what became, in the spirit of Gilligan and another infamous episode of islands battered by storms, a three-hour stay. When we got home, the power was out, which was a problem in that the Mets were in Pittsburgh and it was essential I follow their progress.

So I used precious battery life to listen to the Mets build an early 5-2 lead over the pathetic Pirates, only to have Ed Lynch, Tom Gorman, Wes Gardner and Randy Niemann give it all back by shabbos candlelight (any candle in a storm). The Mets would lose 8-7 and be barely clinging to non-elimination before the TV came back the next day.

I don’t remember what became of the stale bagels.

Friday night, August 26, 2011, the dance partners were Chris and Irene. Irene seems like a far worse threat than Belle and Gloria did. Chris is a way less accomplished pitcher than Lolich or Gooden were. But on any given hurricane eve, any journeyman lefty can throw a two-hit, thirteen-strikeout game of his or most post-Doc Met’s life. I have to admit that last evening, as Stephanie and I toured our local retail establishments in search of non-perishable food items (if I succumb this weekend, it won’t be to the elements — it will be from a Pop-Tart overdose), I thought to myself, “Who’s pitching tonight?” That’s how removed my immediate concerns were from my constant concern.

Then I remembered it was Capuano and went back to collecting enough emergency toaster pastries to satisfy Mickey Lolich in a blizzard.

Well, laugh’s on me, which is nice because who’s otherwise in the mood to laugh with twelve times as many reporters on six times as many channels as in the days of Gloria telling me how doomed I am? I live about a mile north of the evacuation zone, but power lines and killer wind and whatever else are out there, so mentally preparing for the worst (while using these remaining hours of relative calm to blog) seems of the essence. Anyway, all those bastards on all those channels are depressing the hell out of me, but Caps lifted me up, if only for 2:35 (see how long strikeouts take?)…and only partly because I decided he has to be worth a pretty decent prospect, assuming Caps made it through waivers.

Which I’m assured over and over most everybody does.

Capuano’s Game Score business [5] is astounding. David Cone filed the best one in Mets history, a 99, when he struck out 19 Phillies as the cops waited to question him [6] on the last day of 1991. Tom Seaver’s 1970 one-hitter rated a 97, second-best we ever had. Then, it’s a three-way tie between Seaver’s more famous 1969 one-hitter, his fellow Fresnoan Dick Selma 1965 ten-inning shutout (Mortimer Snerd’s second big league start — seriously, that was his nickname [7]) and Capuano last night.

Game Score is a fantastic tool to measure levels of dominance and effectiveness, but declaring Caps’s performance one of the five best pitching outings in Mets history is a real salt-grainer. By this measure, Johan Santana’s nine-strikeout three-hitter on short rest and a bad knee versus the Marlins to fend off playoff demise in 2008 (to use a memorable, high-profile example) registered a Game Score of 87…tied with 19 others as 66th-best in Mets history.

No offense to Caps, but I’ll take Johan’s [8], if only for 21st century posterity. Still, what Capuano did was lovely. Even giving up the two hits demonstrated a knack for timing. What if Chris Capuano had stayed as perfect as he seemed to be on the verge of doing? Would anybody but us have noticed? It wouldn’t have made the front pages in this Irenecentric age; it may not have even made the crawl underneath local officials scowling at us for throwing Me, Myself & Irene parties.

Bloggers can’t be choosers, especially with a hurricane warning in the air, but I’d prefer the first no-hitter in Mets history arrive in better weather.

Like when hell freezes over.

Finally, before I leave you to return to my contingency packing, my simmering panic, my avoidance of “futurecasts” (as opposed to “forecasts”) and the fervent hope that I’ll be able to sit at a computer and type about the Mets past, present and futurecast for you before not too long, here is a passage I enjoy quoting at times like these. It’s from Jerry Mitchell’s sublime book, The Amazing Mets.

It was the morning of October 23, 1962. President John F. Kennedy had the night before declared an embargo on Cuba, taking a step which could have meant the beginning of thermonuclear war. There was a sense of crisis all over the United States and all over the world.

In the quiet little village of Cooperstown, N.Y., far from the centers of anxiety but feeling the impact nevertheless, Lee Allen, historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame, sat at his desk. He was thinking that if the Russians picked up the challenge it might very well mean the end of life as we know it. Brooding over the future, Lee attacked his mail. He turned over a postcard from New York’s Bronx, and read:

“Dear Sir:

What was the record of the New York Mets this year on Thursdays? I would appreciate a game-by-game total. Thank you.”

The preposterous postcard pulled him right out of his depression. He suddenly realized that, to the Met fan anyway, crises were commonplace. Somehow the card made him feel a lot better.

“My first impulse was to toss it into the wastebasket,” related Allen. “But it occurred to me that the writer must have had a purpose in asking the question, as unusual a one as I ever received. I checked the records and found that the work of the Mets on Thursdays showed no victories and 15 defeats.”

After replying to the fan, Allen forwarded the postcard to the Mets with the observation, “With the world on the verge of ruin, I thought you might be interested in what the Mets’ fans are worried about.”

Take a hike, Irene. And Let’s Go Mets.