So I’m walking across Mets Plaza in front of Citi Field the other day, quietest place you’d ever encounter late on a Tuesday morning in December. Nobody around for miles as far as I could tell. What a shame, I thought. I’m going to the holiday party the team holds for kids inside. To me it’s just another thing to cover. It should feel bigger, somehow.
But then the silence was broken. There was this “thwack!” sound. Over and over again: “Thwack! … Thwack! … Thwack!” I figured it was coming from somewhere deep inside the chop shops. I sure didn’t see anybody or anything out of the ordinary until I looked down at my feet and saw a pink rubber ball rolled to a dead stop. It was a Spaldeen, as Pete Hamill would be quick to remind you.
Out of nowhere there’s a kid with a Mets cap, maybe 11 going on 12. It was his Spaldeen.
“Hey mister,” he said. “Can I have my ball?”
“This is yours?”
He took the ball and returned to his business of bouncing it against the side of the stadium and catching it. Bouncing it and catching it. Bouncing it and catching it. It was almost hypnotic.
The ball got away from him again. He’s not really that good at this, I thought, but I admire his persistence. As it was rolling, I grabbed it and tossed it to him.
“Hey kid,” I say. “What are you doing out here? They don’t let people bounce balls off the side of Citi Field. Do they?”
“I dunno,” he said, though I got the feeling he did.
“Well, you should be careful. There’s security and stuff.” But there wasn’t any security. There wasn’t anybody. “Besides, it’s a Tuesday morning and it isn’t summer. You should be in school…shouldn’t you?”
“I dunno,” he said again.
I shrugged and let him be and started walking toward my appointment. I heard two more “thwack!”s and then his voice.
“Hey mister,” he says. “You going in there?”
“Can I go with you?”
“Go with me?”
“See, I’m like the biggest Mets fan I know, and I’m here ’cause I heard something was going on today. I thought maybe I’d see some ballplayers or something, but I haven’t seen anybody.”
“Well, yeah, they’re in there. At this party.”
“So can you take me inside?”
I started to explain that I was here in the role of quasi-media, that my job today is to be a dispassionate observer, maybe ask a few professional questions and not make a big deal out of it. He didn’t seem to be listening, though.
“So can you take me inside?”
“Well, I don’t know if the rules would allow that. I mean this is a kids’ thing…” I thought about how odd it sounded telling a kid that. “I don’t know if you can just walk in and get a present.”
“I don’t care about any of that stuff,” he insisted. “I just want to see the ballplayers. I just want to be around baseball in the middle of December.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
I thought I’d have to make my case for him at media check-in, but nobody asked me anything about the kid I brought with me. The guard inside didn’t say anything, either. Same thing when they opened the door to the Acela Club. It was like nobody saw this kid except me. Still, I figured I’d lay low on his account.
“Sorry I can’t let you line up for a present or a picture with Santa Claus or anything,” I told him. “I’m just worried they’ll see you and throw both of us out.”
“I told you I don’t care about presents or Christmas,” he reassured me.
“Do you celebrate some other holiday?” I asked so as to cover my multicultural bases.
“The only holiday I like is Opening Day,” he said. “The quicker Christmas is over, the sooner baseball season gets here.”
I liked the way this kid thought.
“What are you doing here again?” he asked me.
“Well, I write about the Mets and sometimes the Mets do these things they let me get a close-up look at. It’s mostly a bunch of PR jazz designed to help make the team seem more appealing when you get right down to it. Like last month, they had this thing where I got to talk to David Wright and Ike Davis…”
“YOU TALKED TO DAVID WRIGHT AND IKE DAVIS?”
When the kid said it like that, it sounded a lot more amazing than I thought it was at first.
“Yeah. See, I’m a blogger, which is kind of like a reporter or a columnist. So I have to maintain a veneer of professionalism and objectivity…”
“YOU TALKED TO DAVID WRIGHT AND IKE DAVIS?”
“How much money is involved for something like that?”
“Well, I don’t get paid. The blog is something my friend and I started because we like the Mets and all…”
“No. I mean how much do you have to pay to get to talk to Mets players?”
“Oh. Um, nothing. It doesn’t work that way.”
“THEY LET YOU TALK TO DAVID WRIGHT AND IKE DAVIS FOR FREE?”
Again, it sounded way cooler when he said it.
“So,” he asked, “what’s gonna happen here today?”
“Assuming I don’t get caught for letting some kid sneak in here with me, I’m going to stand behind a curtain with a bunch of other bloggers and writers and reporters and at some point, after the Santa stuff, the PR people will shuttle a few Mets in.”
“You’re going to talk to MORE Mets?”
“Uh-huh. Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner and Jon Niese, I think.”
“Murphy, Turner and Niese?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess they couldn’t get any bigger names up here for this.”
“THOSE ARE THREE OF MY FAVORITE PLAYERS!”
The kid looked at me like I was on the wrong planet.
“Of course! They’re on the Mets! The Mets are my favorite players! Murphy! Turner! Niese! They play for my favorite team! And you get to talk to them?”
“I guess. I don’t expect to learn a whole lot. They’re not much older than you and, besides, they aren’t going to say anything substantive to a dozen bloggers all pointing tape recorders in their face for five minutes. It’s all a big dog and pony show, to be honest.”
“WOW! YOU GET TO TALK TO DANIEL MURPHY AND JUSTIN TURNER AND JON NIESE!”
Maybe this kid should go into PR when he grows up, I thought. He has a real talent for spinning.
I told him we have to play it cool for a few minutes until they’re ready for us. We followed the media crowd behind a black curtain while the players, dressed as Santa (Murphy) and elves (Turner, Niese), handed out presents to Queens schoolchildren who got into the building by more legitimate means. After I nodded hello to a few acquaintances — none of whom noticed the kid who was with me — we wandered to the back of the room and looked out on the still and empty field.
“I see they’re working on bringing the fences in,” I said. “About time. What a badly conceived dimensional nightmare Citi Field has been.”
“WOW!” the kid answered. “THERE’S THE FIELD THE METS PLAY ON! IT’S RIGHT THERE BELOW US!”
“Yeah. It was too deep and high in left and that silly notch in right was too artificial to be taken seriously.”
“WOW! THAT’S WHERE JASON BAY IS GONNA BE! AND ANDRES TORRES WILL BE OVER THERE! AND LUCAS DUDA!”
“Of course maybe if you have a seat over there in the Left Field Landing, maybe you’ll get a better view of fly balls if the wall isn’t so far back. What a missed opportunity this whole place has been.”
“THIS IS WHERE THE METS PLAY AND I GET TO STAND HERE IN THE OFFSEASON AND JUST STARE AT IT! THIS IS THE GREATEST FEELING I CAN IMAGINE IN DECEMBER!”
Eventually the sanctioned festivities on the other side of the curtain broke up and the PR people began to bring the players in for the group interviews. I told the kid to stay quiet and out of the picture. I had work — or something like it — to do.
First they gave us Turner. Bubbly sort. Taking nothing for granted after several years in the minors.
Then Murphy. More of a firecracker than I would have guessed. I asked him about being one of the de facto veterans on this ever younger ballclub, at least in terms of Met tenure: he’s fourth, by my reckoning, behind Wright, Pelfrey and Santana. Murph said he didn’t know he was so far up the food chain. “That’s bold,” he proclaimed, which I found charming.
Niese…didn’t have much to say. Maybe he was tired.
All in all, a pleasant enough round of exchanges, most of it rather predictable. They’re all gonna work hard, they all want to win, they all said the kind of stuff they’ve probably been saying since people started asking them questions based on their athletic ability. Perfectly decent but nothing groundbreaking.
When we were done and back outside, and he was sure nobody would see or hear him, the kid with me all but squealed.
“THAT WAS FANTASTIC! JUSTIN TURNER TALKED TO YOU!”
“I wouldn’t say he talked to me. I was just one of a dozen faces, just another part of his job.”
“AND DANIEL MURPHY ANSWERED YOUR QUESTION! HE LOOKED AT YOU AND ANSWERED YOUR QUESTION! HE EVEN PATTED YOU ON THE BACK AS HE WALKED AWAY!”
“Well, he’s supposed to answer my question. As for the back-patting, I wasn’t expecting that, but it’s not that big a deal.”
“A MET TOUCHED YOU!”
“I’m in the communications business. I can’t make a big deal out of anything like that.”
The kid seemed confused by my nonchalance.
“But didn’t you say you’re a Mets fan?”
“So how can you not be excited by getting to talk, even a little bit, to guys who are on the Mets?”
“I am. I just have to, you know, keep it in check.”
“I dunno. I just have to.”
“So you don’t cheer at the games or yell at the TV when they’re playing?”
“No, I do. That’s different.”
“It is…I guess.”
The kid didn’t seem any less confused by my lack of clarity, but he forgot about it soon enough. I told him that I should have asked somebody about bridge loans or other important issues — I did come face to face with one of the owners of the team for the fleetingest of moments — and that the goodwill of the party didn’t mean the Mets were actually going to be any better this season. But he wasn’t listening to me as I droned on cynically. The kid who was with me but who nobody else saw had his own agenda.
“Wow,” he said. “Turner and Murphy and Niese all up close. Just being inside Citi Field for an hour was great enough, but players, too? Hey mister, how did that happen?”
“I’m not sure, kid. But I guess I’m glad it did.”