“I saw him play.”
“Yeah? What do you think?”
“He was the best. Run, hit, throw…he was the best.”
—Buck Weaver on Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eight Men Out
Listen, I’m supposed to present this award to you: Faith and Fear’s Most Valuable Met for 2011. It’s not a real award, so don’t clear space for it or anything. It’s just something I do every year to put a wrap on the season.
You won the award easy. You won it in June. Now and again it would occur to me that come November I’d have to compose an essay to make it “official,” if you will. I looked forward to it. I always look forward to doing Most Valuable Met, especially in the overall bad years, because it’s something positive to look back on.
I have to admit I’ve been waiting to present this “award” to you ever since I invented it in 2005. You were one of the “finalists” every year the first few years, but there was always someone who embodied the season just a little more. I considered it a great exercise in self-control that I didn’t give it to you in 2006. I wanted to, but Beltran had the big numbers, and since I’d been boosting him for league MVP, I thought I had to honor that.
But that was OK. It wasn’t really a thing in my mind back then. The first couple of MVMs were sort of off the cuff. I didn’t make a thing of it until 2008, really, and that one had to be Johan’s. You understand, I’m sure.
Then you disappeared for most of a year, and weren’t more than 80% yourself the next year. You weren’t really top of mind. You understand that, too, I’m sure.
Finally 2011. You owned it. You owned the heart of it. I can’t imagine your agent doesn’t have all kinds of statistics revealing just how much you accomplished this year and every year — and how much you’re likely to do in the years ahead — but I have to share what I divined anyway, courtesy of Baseball Reference.
From May 24 to July 2, you batted .413. Your OPS was 1.074. You scored 37 runs in 34 games. You collected 62 hits. You stole 13 bases. You tripled 9 times.
And you transcended your numbers. You ascended to that level where nobody wanted to miss a single thing you did on the field. For six weeks, you were the greatest show on turf. You managed to maintain that J. Pierrepont Finch grin of impetuous youth, yet there you were, unquestionably a man in full. You may have been the best Met not named Seaver or Gooden I ever saw. For one of those rare moments across a half-century in the sport, we had the best player in baseball.
Honestly, I don’t think we ever had a better position player over an extended period. I could rattle off a few names and dates, but that wouldn’t help anybody else’s case or dilute yours. Nobody was as exciting as you. Nobody started games the way you did and nobody kept them going the way you would. Nobody was a better advertisement for staying tuned and sticking to one’s seat. Whatever else your teammates were doing — and they did what they could — you were why I wanted to watch the Mets in 2011.
Who am I kidding? You were why I wanted to watch the Mets from 2003 on. You played with a division champion. You played with eight lost souls. It didn’t matter. In my soul, you were the draw for me. You hitting. You running. You not stopping. You until you were a blur…a happy and peppy and bursting with love of the game blur, blazing from home to third and then ninety feet more.
A blur…that was you and that was time, it now occurs to me. How did it get to be nine seasons so soon? How did you get to be our all-time leader in runs scored? How did you land suddenly second to indefatigable compiler Eddie Kranepool in hits? How did June 10, 2003, become more than eight years ago so fast?
This year your blur was epic. Then it receded into injury. Why that keeps happening I don’t know. I was envisioning a 2011 that was going to keep growing in stature until it was the stuff of legend. The year you broke Olerud’s record for batting average. The year you broke Lance’s record for hits. The year you made yourself inarguably indispensable to the fortunes of the franchise. You were going to create a masterpiece so dazzling that the commissioner would have been forced to invoke the “best interests of baseball” clause to keep you from going anywhere else, because how could the Mets — whatever their financial foibles — function without you?
You came back from the first hammy calamity, you groped to find your footing…and it happened again. Another injury. There went the blur. There went the fun. Your teammates had run out of gas by then and you weren’t around to fuel them anymore. So we just waited for you to return a second time, sort of like we did all through and then after 2009…a lot like we did all through and after 2004 and even 2003, come to think of it. A little like we had to do in spots during 2010.
I really wish you hadn’t missed all those games. You’d be ahead of Kranepool by now. More importantly, you’d have had no doubters in high places. You’d have been courted and signed for the long haul. You’d be the Met for life you couldn’t not be. There’d be no questions from a front office that didn’t know what it had in you when it got here. I could hear it in Alderson’s tone a year ago when they asked what he planned to do about his shortstop’s expiring contract. “Who? Him? We’ll see.”
Yeah, he saw. We all saw. We saw the upside. We were reminded of the outside — the trademark, toothsome explosion of joy you effortlessly evinced. You were still that kid from 2003 and 2005 and 2006 and 2007 before it kind of went to hell on you. Yet you were somehow more mature, too. You were 28: timeless and ageless. And, in the heart of 2011, you were as healthy as you were vibrant.
Except there’s a portrait of your hamstrings in a storage facility somewhere in Corona and those suckers got old fast. Hearing about them did, at any rate. Nobody here wanted to think about the parts of you that weren’t indestructible. We preferred your smile. Your flying dreadlocks. Your facefirst slide into whatever base came next. Your infectious clapping from the dugout. Your blur. Your June. All of that felt impervious to danger.
Your hamstrings were another story. They were a story we chose to put aside as you wrote a new lede in the final weeks of 2011. You weren’t in Olerud/One Dog territory anymore, but son of a gun, you were still the hittingest hitter in all the National League. You were leading in batting average. We all agreed to suspend our cynicism toward a statistic that proves more and more hollow the deeper one drills into it because, quite frankly, it was the neatest title any Met had ever pursued. It may not have been complex or sophisticated, but when we were growing up, it had it own baseball card and its own listing in the papers — the leaders every day, and everybody on Sunday. No Met had ever headed that listing. But you were going to.
And you did. You did it with an uncharacteristically klutzy flourish on the final day, but I’ve already pretended to forget about that. The point is you won the title. You were the National League Batting Champion of 2011. You hit .337 the year after you hit .282. You did it in less than ideal physical condition. You didn’t triple after July 21 (yet tied for the league lead with 16). You tried to steal only once between August 31 and September 22 (but still finished sixth in the N.L. with 39). Your legs…your business partners…didn’t cooperate, but you overcame.
Which brings us to the presentation of this award, usually a pleasant distraction from the gaping maw of November and the fact that the Mets tend to come up empty where real awards are concerned. Like I said, I was looking forward to this little annual ritual of mine, but honestly, it’s been difficult getting to this point. I can’t think of what you’ve done without thinking of what your next move might be, and whether the Mets will cooperate with you any more amenably than your legs did in the second half of the season. And, to be perfectly frank, I can’t swear to just how much cooperation in the form of a lucrative multiyear contract is reasonable.
If money were no object…never mind that fantasy. Money is an object, one that likely eludes the grasp of the owners of this franchise (thanks to their most infamous business partner). I don’t know how New York City became Kansas City, but it apparently has. Nobody really believes you’ll be back to defend your batting title or run out more triples or give us something we can’t take our eyes off in 2012 and beyond. I don’t really believe it anymore, though I’d be happy to be wrong very soon.
If they don’t sign you, there will be moments, perhaps lots of them, when it will make all the sense in the world, but there will be at least as many moments — unquantifiable yet emotionally tangible — when it will be the worst idea in the world. The thought of the Mets without you is why this award presentation has been difficult for me to pull off. I can’t even bring myself to inject your name into this discussion. It’s like if I put it out there, forces will align to take it away from me.
I didn’t become a Mets fan to endure indeterminate stretches of being less happy than I’ve been previously. I’ve put up with those inevitable downturns on principle; or out of loyalty; or maybe just because I have too many clothes featuring too many Mets logos to start over. But these days I’m having a tough time reconciling my diehard tendencies with the notion of the Mets plodding along without you. I don’t look forward to rooting for a Mets team that doesn’t have you. It wasn’t much fun doing it when you were on the DL, but at least then we knew you were coming back.
By the way, you can decide to take less money to stay here. That is if you like it as much in these parts and in this dead-end organization as you’ve indicated you do. I wouldn’t necessarily do it if I were in your position. I don’t plan on becoming one of those creepy fans who writes to 29 strange teams declaring he’s a free agent, but except for habit and a lifetime of devotion, I can’t think of a good, rational reason to get squarely behind this team if you’re not on it.
You, on the other hand, were the best, most rational such reason for nine seasons, especially last season. That’s why I’m going through the formality of informing you that you’re Faith and Fear’s Most Valuable Met for 2011, from when “valuable” didn’t need to be assessed with a dollar sign.
We experienced it for ourselves day after day. If we don’t experience it anymore, I am going to miss it too much for words.
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS MOST VALUABLE METS
2005: Pedro Martinez
2006: Carlos Beltran
2007: David Wright
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Pedro Feliciano
2010: R.A. Dickey
Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2011.