Magnetic schedules attract me. I have one from every season since the Mets have been giving them out. I was determined to not let that streak end last year. Magnetic Schedule Day was a Sunday, April 10, 2011. I’d been to the Home Opener on Friday. I’d been to the game the night before. Truth be told, I wasn’t all that revved up to make it three in a row, except for that magnet. I bought one ticket and didn’t bother trying to cadge company for the day.
“You’ll probably run into somebody you know there,” an out-of-town friend guessed.
He was right, several times over. It happened on the 7…twice. Then, after that magnet was securely in hand, it happened again, almost immediately, right there in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda.
Dana Brand had come to the third home game of the year alone, too. Except for Dana, this was his Home Opener, his personal Opening Day. He couldn’t be there any sooner. But once he got to Citi Field, he was doing what Dana was always doing: looking around and making notes for what he’d write later on his blog and, for all I knew, some future book. His note-taking became the basis of his previous effort, The Last Days of Shea, and I’m guessing he jotted down some observations along the way to Mets Fan, the book that introduced him to a slew of Mets fans who, in one way or another, shared a lot in common with him.
Once we recognized each other as each other, we embraced and fell into wherever we left off in what was now a five-season conversation. I told him my business, about the magnet and a milestone; he informed me how this was his de facto Opening Day. He was looking for signs of things that might have changed in Mr. Robinson’s anteroom. He brought me up to speed on the 50th anniversary Mets conference he’d been planning for so long, coming to Hofstra in April 2012, just over a year away. A brochure had already been printed up, but it was never going to be mailed out because it had a certain team’s logo on it and, well, that team, the focus of the conference, was being a little squirrelly about its formal participation. Maybe they’d come around, he hoped, but in the meantime, he’ll have to send me one. It’ll be a collector’s item, he laughed.
We stood and talked in the Rotunda long past the point where it made a lot of sense. We agreed we could eat and we agreed we wanted to try the new-for-2011 Hot Pastrami stand, which I’d seen during the Home Opener and he’d read about on the Eddie Kranepool Society. Off we went, securing first our food, then a center field food court table at which to chat and chew.
We talked about the pastrami and the knishes. Fantastic additions to the menu, we agreed.
We talked about licensed team apparel and how he’d never been one to wear it. Dana was trying to pinpoint when baseball caps and so forth became de rigueur wear for and even away from the ballpark. I traced it to the early 1990s, basketball and Michael Jordan, but I wasn’t necessarily certain.
We talked about Willie Harris and our shared belief that he might add some “veteran leadership,” no matter how out of fashion it had become to believe that was a tangible asset. In any event, we agreed it would be great to not have Willie Harris doing us in as an opponent this year.
We talked about our team’s prospects for 2011. The Mets were 4-4 after starting 3-1. Carlos Beltran hit two home runs the night before. Maybe they wouldn’t be so bad, Dana allowed. I had my doubts.
We talked about those folks noshing at the other tables in the food court, mainly that there were a lot of them. Pretty good turnout for a team that was supposed to be so bad or unpopular, Dana thought. I concurred that, indeed, we were not alone.
We talked about tickets and ticket prices. Mine was bought on Friday at the window for $25, Promenade 515, right behind home plate. Dana found his on StubHub for about the same price and he’d be on the field level, third base side. I marveled at his luck or skill, adding that I could never find those deals, not even against the Nationals, not even in a season when so little was expected from the Mets.
We finished eating and each of us headed off to our respective ticket locations. Wrapped in our goodbyes was the assurance we’d get to another game soon, one where we’d not just dine together, but sit together.
That game never came. Not quite seven weeks later, I got a phone call telling me Dana Brand died. Thus, April 10, 2011, in the hour prior to an eleven-inning, 7-3 loss to Washington, became the last time we saw each other or spoke to each other. Often as the season progressed, I’d glance at that magnetic schedule and that date was the only one I saw.
It’s been a year plus a few days since my last lunch with Dana. And it’s less than two weeks until the Hofstra conference celebrating 50 Years of New York Mets baseball — Dana’s dream — becomes a reality. Many have worked hard to make it a program worthy of a half-century of this thing we love. Nobody worked harder to make it great than Dana. The conference is dedicated to his memory. He, in turn, dedicated his work in building it from the ground up to the rest of us, the slew of Mets fans with whom he delighted in sharing common cause.
I’ll be taking part of this conference and thinking of Dana, the same way I look at our refrigerator’s magnetic-schedule space (now occupied by the 2012 model) and think of him often. Obviously we still have his books and, through the goodwill of the Internet, the blog he updated regularly from the fall of 2006 through the spring of 2011. In particular, I have the column he posted on April 11, 2011, processing all those notes he took on April 10 and, as it happens, reflecting a little on our time together. (It includes his take on my aforementioned “milestone” along with one of the nicest things anybody has ever written about me, so you’ll have to forgive me that indulgence.)
With the gracious permission of Dana’s wife, Sheila Fisher, I’m thrilled and honored to share it with our readers here.
My personal home opener was the third home game of the season, the Sunday game, where Chris Young pitched seven innings of one-hit ball. For the first time in many years, I wasn’t able to make it to the home opener. But of course, I managed to convince myself that this would be better. I’d get to see what the real season would be like.
I arrived an hour and a half before game time and was gratified to see all the tailgate parties in the parking lot. The disappointments of the past few years have not been enough to eradicate this appealing culture of grilling sausages, beer, and friendship. I remember parties that looked and smelled exactly like these back in the sixties. They used to have them out the back of real, gigantic station wagons with wooden sides. People with nerdy glasses and checked shirts, or kerchiefs over their hair, used to sit on very fragile-looking metal and plastic lounge chairs. The chairs are sturdier now, the cars are sleeker, the people are a bit bigger and the stadium is a bit smaller. But it’s all the same. And it is gratifying to see and smell all the Mets love as you cross the asphalt ocean with the parties like little boats.
For a while, I looked around for my family’s brick, but for some reason, I couldn’t find it. It was near the Rusty Staub poster. Did they move the posters? This is a mystery. I couldn’t do my usual brick touch before the game, and so of course I got superstitiously worried. Then I told myself to stop being worried because I am not superstitious.
I walked into the rotunda and everything looked the same. In the museum, it seemed to me that they had a few more pieces of memorabilia: hats, bats, balls with tags asserting that this is the real hat, bat, ball that plays a part in one of your memories. I went into the bookstore and once again politely asked if they had a section where they sell books about the Mets because I have a friend who’s a big reader and likes reading books about the Mets and I’ve heard that there are some good ones. I get the usual smile and the usual offer of the yearbook and promise of the press guide.
I walk out of the store and run into Greg Prince, the man I consider (and I know this won’t offend anyone) the pre-eminent Mets blogger. He tells me that this is his 500th game. I don’t know what it was for me. But this is one of the things that makes Greg Greg. He knows this, and has a record of it. We walk through the stadium, trying to get a sense of the crowd. It strikes me as a nice crowd, a relaxed crowd, a chill crowd. There isn’t much of a sense of urgency and I try to sort out whether or not I think that is a good thing. It’s good for people who have limited expectations, but I know that there is sometimes a point at which limited expectations, if proven justified, turn into poison. Greg and I, on a tip from Steve Keane, head to check out the new New York deli on the food concourse. Jewish guys from New York who like to eat, we consider ourselves experts, and we have limited expectations. Hand-sliced, lean, and soaked for a long time in exactly the right spices, the pastrami sandwich is unexpectedly superb. So is the mushy, evocative knish. Oh may this please be a season of such bounty, with things exceeding limited expectations! Standing up at one of the tables, we have a fine lunch and fine baseball talk as what looks like a big crowd swarms around us. It’s not a sell-out. But people are coming to see the Mets. We’re coming, they’re coming, everybody’s coming down.
After lunch, we find our separate seats. Greg is in the Promenade and I’m in a Field Box. Our tickets cost the same very limited amount of money, because I bought mine on StubHub. In a big, friendly section of the field boxes just past third base, I settle in to enjoy my personal home opener, to note the changes, to get a sense of the universal spirit circulating through a stadium that is slowly starting to feel more like home to me. I get a text message on my phone from my daughter who tells me she is listening to the game. I am very happy.
My original sense that the crowd is chill and in a pretty good mood is reconfirmed in the first few innings. The only National anyone is taking any trouble to boo is Jayson Werth. It’s a little disconcerting to see a pitcher as tall as a basketball player, or Nosferatu or Alexander Nevsky, on the mound for the Mets, but I really enjoy watching Chris Young pitch. When a guy that big is in control, he really looks in control. All the Nats seem to be able to do is hit foul balls or big pop-ups. And in the meantime, the Mets are being the good Mets. Reyes is asserting his right to get on base anytime or anyway he chooses. Wright is knocking him home. Ike is looking like he is absolutely for real. They still don’t score as many runs as they should. They are still the Mets after all. But they build the nice little lead that always used to be enough for Jerry Koosman in 1968, and with the way Chris Young is pitching, I feel, and we feel, that things will be all right.
And so the game goes on, relatively swiftly, 3-1 for a long time. I get to pay attention to the new between-innings activity-commercials. They look pretty lame to me this year. They still have the eternally popular Kiss Cam and the always loudly acknowledged returning veterans thing. But most of the new activities are really boring. It’s supposed to matter to us what the price of something is at a wholesale store? We’re supposed to get excited by a kid grabbing as many Topps baseball cards as he can in like, two seconds? We’re supposed to care that some kid threw a ball at 47 mph? That’s supposed to want to make us go to Hershey Park? As Steve Somers would say, what is this?
At its peak (why do half the people come late to a ballgame? I never understood that.) It looks like there are 30,000 people in the ballpark. That’s good enough. The stadium hardly looks pitiful, just as the Mets don’t look pitiable. Young comes out after seven innings, having given up only one hit. But we don’t want to push it, and D.J. Carrasco has been terrific lately. And so Carrasco comes in and gives up two runs. The mood changes.
Don’t lose this game, we’re all saying to the Mets. Lose other games if you have to, but don’t lose this one. The Mets have started 4-4. They’ve looked good and bad. They’re about where we expect but we don’t yet have a sense of the direction in which they’re moving. This is the game that feels as if it is telling us what the season will be like. I know it’s completely irrational, but I find myself feeling about this game the way I feel about a scratch-off lottery ticket. I rub, and hope, and am finding out more, the more I rub. This is the ninth game. Have we scratched off enough to know what we have?
Carrasco is booed by the crowd I thought was so chill. He’s been so good for us so far, but he’s getting booed for this. I know these boos. They’re situation boos, not personal boos. They don’t mean: go away and don’t come back. They mean: Oh, I am so sick and sorrowful. This kind can turn into cheers if something good happens. Nothing good happens. Buchholz comes in, then Byrdak, later Boyer. We don’t see Beato. This is kind of dreamlike. We have a bullpen consisting of one guy who beats up his girlfriend’s father, one guy who throws as hard as Koufax but nobody really knows if he’s going to be any good, and four guys I don’t really know whose names begin with “B.” And they screw up the game for the gigantic, brilliant starter.
Is this going to be a funny season, I wonder? A dream-like season? I look up at the scoreboard at one point and note that none of the nine Mets are hitting in the .200s. That’s weird. Never saw that before. I notice that David Wright has the longest last name in the lineup. Speaking of dreamlike, the Nationals bring in some guy named Laynce Nix. Who’s he going to lance, who’s he going to nix? What kind of a comic book name is that? And also speaking of dreams, who is this extremely familiar figure by the dugout we cheer for as he steps to the plate to pinch hit and redeem the game for us in the bottom of the ninth inning. Where have we seen him before? Where have we seen this exact situation before? Everybody gets to their feet. A guy a few rows ahead, who looks as if he has had a few too many beers, stands up and, as he’s been doing all afternoon, leads our section in a loud chant of “Lets Go Mets!” that doesn’t need anything from the prompters on the scoreboard. Beltran grounds out. I suddenly realize that this is his seventh season with the Mets. People don’t boo. They can’t. He hit two home runs yesterday.
The game goes into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Reyes, Harris, and Wright are coming to the plate. That should do it. Two guys who have been around now for eight and nine years and have been supposed to bring us all the way. And one guy between them whose catch of what should have been a David Wright triple took away one of our division titles, and who knows maybe even our third World Championship It doesn’t happen, though.
This game is too close. All tie games, I suppose, are too close, but here I could really feel the closeness. I felt as if I could really understand how little difference there is between victory and defeat in a single game. But the problem was that I couldn’t shake my sense that this was the pivot of the season. Somehow I felt, although I didn’t believe, that this was the turning point. If they win this game, they have a chance this season. If they lose it, they don’t. That’s bullshit. But I couldn’t help but think it. I closed my eyes and rocked from side to side, hoping and hoping, my version of praying. In the meantime, all around me, from the ninth inning on, people were leaving. Where were they going? What were they late for? How vital was it to them that they be someplace else for the next half hour or hour? Why do so many people leave tie games in the ninth or tenth inning? The guy who kept standing up leading us in cheer was gone. Why? Did he not really care as much as he seemed to care?
The Nationals score one run. No matter. One run is nothing. Makes it more exciting. Then Laynce Nix hits a three-run homer. Nix. Can’t believe it. Everyone, it seems, stands up and heads for the parking lot. I’m stunned, like everyone else. And bitter and sad. But I also don’t understand the people leaving the stadium. Have they never seen the Mets score four runs in an inning before? Do they consider this impossible? Man, I remember when the Mets stunk to high heaven back in the early ’80s and they were losing to the mighty Dodgers by something like six runs and in the bottom of the ninth they scored something like seven runs. I remember how that felt. We’ve had moments like that. Several of them over the past fifty years. Why would anyone want to miss the chance, however small, to see something like that?
I know what I’ll do, I think. I’m going to go over to the field boxes on the other side of the stadium, the ones closer to the Mets dugout. That will give me a sense of how the Mets are taking this, as a team, as people. And if we get one of our miracle moments, I will be there with them. Me and the no more than one thousand people who are left in this stadium that earlier this afternoon held thirty thousand. I get up from my seat and run to the concourse, hoping not to miss any of the bottom of the eleventh. This was the most dreamlike moment of the afternoon. As I walked briskly down the concourse, past the big area where the concourse feeds into the Robinson rotunda, I was walking through an end-of-the-game crowd, a the-game-is-over crowd. There was nothing in the crowd I saw that would have let you know that the game was not in fact over.
I get to the first base field boxes, which are empty except for the few rows right down behind the Mets’ dugout. I start heading to a bank of empty seats. A white-haired guy in a green jacket calls after me, “Hey! Hey!” I’m startled, since we were well past the point at which the guys and green jackets would be or should be enforcing seating rules. The guy can see for himself that I’m one of the last people left in the stadium. Anyway, I go back up to him, smile, and hand him my ticket, which has an outrageous price printed on it, and a distinguished list of eateries and clubs to which I am entitled to be admitted. I say: “I just want to see what the last half-inning look like from this side. I have seats in the same kind of section on the other side of the stadium.”
The man in the green jacket looks at my ticket. And then, with the look and voice that cops use with juvenile delinquents, he says to me, “So go back there and sit in them.”