We interrupt this annual limp to the finish line to remind you baseball is wonderful and the Mets aren’t so bad themselves.
Put aside the third consecutive losing record, the now-perennial fourth-place finish and all that has contributed to the long-term disappointment that seems to define this franchise around this time of year. Consider instead what baseball can do for its fans sometimes, and what the Mets did recently.
In June, Faith and Fear shared the story of David Roth and Roger Hess. David’s the Mets fan who was diagnosed with a brain tumor while on a family vacation late last summer. Roger’s the Mets fan who’s been his friend going back to elementary school and the mountain climber who dedicated his ascent up Denali in Alaska to David by using it to raise funds for the Tug McGraw Foundation. Longtime readers of FAFIF will recognize TMF as an organization founded by one of the all-time Mets greats to work toward treatments and improved quality of life for those burdened by the disease that afflicted Tug and afflicts David.
Roger made it pretty far up that mountain and pretty far up his fundraising goal, too. He returned from Alaska having garnered more than $10,000 for the Tug McGraw Foundation, including donations from some thoughtful Faith and Fear readers. It was a compelling enough story to get the attention of Otis Livingston, one of Channel 2’s sports anchors. Otis had David and Roger on CBS 2’s Sunday Morning in July, where early birds got to hear about what one Mets fan will do for another. You can see their appearance here.
The Mets took note, and as alluded to in Channel 2’s coverage, they wanted to thank these fans of theirs by having them out as their guests for batting practice. Roger and David weren’t about to say no.
Given our interest in how David and Roger had persevered — and with their blessing — I asked the Mets’ Media Relations department if Faith and Fear could be credentialed for BP that same day, September 1, so I could follow them around and report on their experience. I’d been on the field pregame a couple of times in 2010 and noticed there were always knots of people (kids as well as adults) on the edges of the action. These were guests of the Mets, too. The Mets generally didn’t call attention to their presence. It was just one of the pieces of the pregame mosaic, easy enough not to notice. But there was usually a generous reason the Mets made it available to those people who formed those knots.
I wanted to notice it. I wanted to see how it worked and explain, if I could, what it meant for a couple of fans like Roger and David to have this kind of moment so close to the players and the diamond and everything a Mets fan usually watches from relatively far away. I also wanted to bring along crack photographer and longtime Tug McGraw Foundation supporter Sharon Chapman to capture the scene in pictures. Any photos you see with this story that aren’t from mountaintops she took.
Mets Media Relations, in the person of Shannon Forde, couldn’t have been more accommodating of my request, which I greatly appreciated. Sharon and I picked up our Field Passes the same time David and his wife, Bonnie, were picking up theirs. Somebody in the office where media checks in made a call on the Roths’ behalf, and out came Ethan Wilson, one of Shannon’s colleagues. He had been the point of contact between the Mets and Channel 2, I gathered, and was ready to lead David and Bonnie to the field (Roger and his son, Josh, were stuck in traffic and would join them a bit later). I quickly explained to Ethan what Sharon and I were doing — this was coincidentally the same night the Mets had invited bloggers to a function for Tuesday’s Children, so Ethan at first thought we were making a wrong turn when we started to follow him — and Ethan shrugged, said OK and we all set out for BP.
I won’t endeavor to weave a narrative from here. Rather, I’ll just share my observations.
Though it was a particularly busy day for Media Relations, Ethan took the time to provide a condensed guided tour for David and Bonnie as we walked through the labyrinth of corridors “regular” folks don’t usually see. He pointed out why certain artifacts hung on the walls. Here was a blowup of the lineup card from the first game at Citi Field. Here was a 2009 team picture, the ballpark’s inaugural squad. Off to the left, unmentioned by Ethan, were three Mets broadcasters — Gary Cohen, Howie Rose and Ron Darling. They bantered as they waited for the elevator, three guys whose day at the office was just starting. We hung a right and were headed down one more short hallway, the one that leads you to the field.
This was empathetically exciting to me. I’d been down here a few times, but I have a way of switching into professional mode (even if nobody pays me to blog), so my reflex is to play it cool even in a situation that rates as cool in its own right. But Roger and Bonnie were under no such obligation; nor was Sharon, who’s been taking pictures from the stands all year and now she was going to be able to do it from up close. I was getting goosebumps not for what I was about to see but for what these people were about to see. (I got all my “IT’S THE FIELD!” goosebumps out of the way on September 6, 1998.)
It was September 1, the day callups join the team, the erstwhile minor leaguers who insist they are just happy to be here. I’m pretty sure David and Bonnie — and Sharon, for that matter — were happy to be there. And I was happy they were happy.
Once we got positioned somewhere between the Mets’ dugout and the batting cage, David’s phone sounded. It was Roger. The Whitestone traffic had been punishing, but now he was closing in on Citi Field. David was standing feet from the players on his favorite team and in the midst of that kind of proximity, he was navigating his friend into the parking lot and toward the correct entrance. He could have been doing it from anywhere, but I had to smile when I heard him say, “I’m on the field.” You don’t get to say that every day.
Bonnie and David planted themselves at the special-guest barricade. Sharon wandered a little further down the right field line (as the Field Pass allows). I sort of hung back to take in the scene, to see who else showed up, to watch how people react to being almost in the heart of Metsdom. I was amazed how quickly a person gets used to it. “I’m on the field,” is where you are, so it’s where you belong. Why shouldn’t you be on the field?
One of those on the field was a gentleman in a PAPD cap — Port Authority Police Department. Part of the Tuesday’s Children contingent, I assumed. I’d learn later he was former PAPD Officer Will Jimeno, and his 9/11 tale is as chilling as any. Still, I overheard him tell somebody, he “doesn’t regret” any of it.
Mr. Jimeno was trapped in the rubble of a fallen tower almost exactly ten years earlier. He was one of the last to be pulled out. He was injured badly and he lost comrades-in-arms.
But he was at Mets batting practice wearing his own smile.
Only if you show up early enough for a Mets game do you necessarily glean how much commemorating and honoring the Mets do of different causes and groups, and only then do you see how much preparation is involved. Among other things, September 1 was Hispanic Heritage Night, sponsored by Goya. Several ladies in Goya-branded outfits came out for national anthem rehearsal. One of them, Nicole Toro, belted it out hours in advance, just to make sure her and the stadium’s pipes worked. Both did.
“The Star Spangled Banner” is a touchstone of any baseball game. Everybody rises when it’s delivered a few minutes before first pitch. When it’s delivered early, it maybe gets a little light applause. Maybe.
For a supposedly unpopular team, the New York Mets sure do inspire a frenzy when they’re feet away from you. People want to be on the same field with them. People want to stand next to them. People want them to sign whatever they’ve brought with them. Every Met, no matter his statistics or his prospects, is a star when you’re in their midst.
Nobody is more of an attraction as the final month of the 2011 season commences than Jose Reyes. Nobody. David Wright was the bigger attraction last year. He’s still pretty attractive to many — Bonnie’s wearing a WRIGHT 5 jersey and wouldn’t mind an autograph — but Jose’s magnetic. He draws the most squeals. He’s asked to sign the most things. He is the most recognizable. He’s also taller and more muscular than you’d assume somebody who plays “shortstop” could possibly be.
If you were brought up reading phrases like “standing around the batting cage” in baseball columns, you might be surprised no reporters actually stand around batting cages. They loiter in the dugout until the given player they want is done. Maybe they follow him into the clubhouse to get what they need. I don’t know what happens when the field is vacated. But I do know I only saw one Mets writer cross right behind the batting cage, presumably en route to talk to somebody on the Marlins’ side of the field: mlb.com’s Marty Noble, who’s been covering the Mets longer than anybody. That, I decided, is why Marty is Marty. He doesn’t sit back and wait for the story to come to him.
In the stands, Citi Field’s environs seems almost tiny. I can pick out individual sections by number from wherever I am. Sometimes I can make out faces in those sections. At ground level, though, the field itself is huge. The outfield is green acres. No wonder Jason Bay can’t hit a ball out of this yard. Please, by all means, bring in a fence or two. Lower a wall. We don’t have the outfielders to cover all that space and we don’t have the sluggers to overcome its dauntingness. If we improve our pitching even a little, we’ll cope with that end of the equation.
Batting practice produces batted balls. They lie on the infield as if dropped by a flock of overhead geese. If one bounced to a fan, a fan would go wild. Yet they just sit there, scattered about like Rawlings confetti on New Year’s Eve.
Roger fought through traffic and then talked his way past Hodges entrance security. My big contribution to the evening was when I told David to tell Roger to tell the guard who didn’t want to let him in because he didn’t have his and Josh’s ticket yet, “I need to go to media check-in.” I can’t believe I actually knew something approximating magic words, but it worked. When Ethan brought Roger and Josh out to join us, I asked Roger what was more difficult: climbing 13,000 feet or getting by an overofficious guard.
The guard, he said.
Together again at last, David and Roger filled me in a bit on their Mets fan story. We’re of more or less the same vintage. They were eight years old in 1969. The Mets became their team up in Connecticut. Done deal for the rest of their lives, no matter that it wasn’t necessarily the thing to stay over the next bunch of decades. They recalled a “vehement Yankees fan” of their childhood acquaintance whose mere existence seemed to confirm their choice as the right one.
Without much provocation, Roger took me on his journey up Denali. During the retelling of one particularly tense episode, he clutched my arm as he described the severity of the elements and the self-doubt he faced (“I thought I was toast”). He mentioned, too, how much it took out of him, that when he was back at his job in early July, he found himself nodding off at his desk. Yet he expressed no regret for taking on the challenge. Way the hell up there, as close to the heavens as a human being could reasonably hope to get, he looked around, and he said, “it felt like being an astronaut.”
Ethan had earlier suggested that because the Mets finish their half of batting practice by 5:30, that might make a good time to go and grab some dinner. Once the visitors begin to take BP, he joked, “the thrill is gone.” We laughed when he said it, but when the Mets left and the Marlins were swinging in their place, we didn’t even seem to notice. You’re on a major league field, even one swimming with Marlins, the thrill doesn’t vacate.
“I still have cancer.” David says it matter-of-factly, not for shock value, just to keep you updated when you ask how he’s doing. But he’s here at the ballpark. You wouldn’t have bet on that a year earlier. He’s doing a lot of things. There are checkups and there are tests and there are steps he’s taking and his own mountain-climbing, figuratively speaking, is pretty damn impressive. After a while, though, we’re not talking about David’s cancer. We’re talking about how each of us met our mutual friend, Jeff, the unseen hand in making this night happen. We’re trading Jeff stories on the field where the Mets play. I’m stunned at how quickly two people fall into casual conversation on the same grounds that a little more than an hour ago they approached with at least a little awe.
Bonnie Roth didn’t acquire a WRIGHT 5 autograph. But HYDE 17 of the Marlins — our new all-time favorite bench coach Brandon Hyde — tossed her a BP-used baseball. She clamored for it, but respectfully. So he tossed it gently. A real baseball from real batting practice from a real coach…a real mensch. Dozens of balls were strewn behind the pitcher’s mound, but this one was truly special. It belonged to one of us.
Roger had climbed a mountain. David had made it through a year of cancer. Bonnie had a baseball. Everybody was no more than an arm’s length from the ballplayers. Everybody was standing on the same sod where the ballplayers stood. Everybody was leaning forward over barricades. Everybody was getting their picture taken. Nobody was in a rush to leave. Nobody wasn’t thrilled.
Everybody was an astronaut.
If you can, please contribute what you can to Roger Hess’s continued fundraising for the Tug McGraw Foundation in honor of his friend David Roth by visiting here.
If you like to run, Sharon Chapman would love to have you run with Team McGraw in the New York Rock ‘n’ Roll 10K on October 22. Registration details are here.