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A Banner Day for R.A.

Hot day at Citi Field: Emily and I easily spent $25 on bottled water, an expense I’d normally decry but accepted uncomplainingly as the cost of remaining upright. Besides his usual helping of hot dogs, Joshua got a massive “fresh-squeezed” lemonade (squeezed from a factory, by the taste of the stuff), a cherry Sno-Cone and a steady flow of instructions to take it easy and not jump around so much.

Down there on the field, R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball was jumping around plenty. It had Padre bats slashing above and below fluttering objects when those bats weren’t parked on shoulders or pinwheeling away from their owners. Over on ESPN New York, Dickey talks [1] about having found new wrinkles in his knuckler: how to change speeds with it, so he effectively has a fastball knuckler and a change-up knuckler, as well as how to elevate the pitch instead of simply letting it tumble through the air on its plateward journey. One of the things that’s fun about Dickey — besides his W.P. Kinsella musings, thoughtful candor and pitbull competitiveness, of course — is the way he treats his knuckleball alternately like a scientist with a tricky experimental subject and an artist with a fickle muse. On Sunday, his knuckler was so good that R.A. sounded like a man who’d proved his theorem and harnessed that muse, even if only for an afternoon: “If you [radically change speeds] and still throw strikes with it, it can be ruthless.”

If ruthlessness was the order of the day [2] on the mound, joy was top-line in the stands. Banner Day was back after 16 years, and it looked very much like a success to me. No, there wasn’t a huge crowd or banners in the thousands — blame jungle weather, years of losing, a multitude of newborn distractions and the once-annual rally having taken an entire generation off. (About which, here’s Greg [3] in the Times.) But the parade was pretty good nonetheless — hundreds of banners, trooped proudly in a loop around the ballpark that took them by judges Howie Rose, Evan Roberts, Rusty Staub and Dwight Gooden. Standing by the railing above the warning track in short left, Emily and Joshua and I offered cheers and raised thumbs.

Shannon Shark, who deserves thanks and congratulations for tirelessly campaigning for Banner Day’s return, has a from-the-field perspective here [4]. He reports that the Mets were cool, fan-friendly and organized, adding that he saw no knucklehead behavior. We didn’t either — of all the banners, I noticed one lament for the lost Jose Reyes (expressed in gentle rhyme) and a single scrawled anti-Wilpon slogan. But the last one was being carried around by some yutz in a Yankee cap, so it barely counts. That’s a success too: My fear was that some fans would see Banner Day as an outlet for the frustration and anger of the last few years, combined with a chance to put one over on the guys in maroon. Which, besides being lousy manners, would have ensured at least another generation in the wilderness for Banner Day.

But that didn’t happen. What we saw instead was banner after banner that fairly sang with the joy, wild hope and occasional self-deprecation of being a Mets fan. Invocations of famous numbers (1o! 41! 16!) and names (Tug! Cleon! Mookie!). Calls to bring back Mettle the Mule. “Camptown Races” rewrites featuring Lucas Duda, Duda. Assurances that no-hitters are overrated anyway. A grinning Endy Chavez against a banner that read THE STRENGTH TO BE THERE, with a real glove emerging from a hole at the wrist. Praise and pride for homegrown Mets, flowers in an NL East garden. Mr. Met, lovingly drawn and held aloft by small hands. A defiant insistence that “WE DON’T STINK LIKE THEY THINK” followed by the quiet addendum “We’re over .500.” Oh, and meanwhile, the PA was playing Casey Stengel talking about the fans’ placards and how he’d gotten distracted reading them. Nice touch!)

There were predictions of 2012 World Series titles, of course. But most of those came with question marks — which is really what being a Mets fan is all about. If you can allow yourself to imagine a spectacle as soulless and awful as a Yankee Banner Day, you know there wouldn’t be a question mark in sight. Mets fans live adorned with them: Where others guarantee victory and expect rewards, we imagine good things that might happen if this goes right and that goes right and if you believe. (After all, ya gotta.)

In recent years the people who run the Mets let two unfortunate tendencies get between the fans and the team: They treated the Mets’ history as an embarrassment to be minimized or ignored, and they looked at any potential situation and tried to figure out what could go wrong. Those same people have made great strides in undoing the first mistake, restoring the classic uniforms, adding a very nice Mets Hall of Fame and starting to fill Citi Field with Mets memories. Today, they took a big step toward undoing the second. Sure, Banner Day could have been a parade of anti-Wilpon signs, or a PR black eye if such signs hadn’t been allowed, or the kind of thing the Yankees wouldn’t do, or some other morsel for the sharp teeth of ravenous back pages. But Banner Day wasn’t any of those things. Instead, it was a pageant of beaming fans showing off placards Casey would have appreciated, the products of hours and hours of hard work and years and years of crazy love for a team that’s often star-crossed and a sport that’s often cruel.

Banner Day is back, a good new beginning for an old tradition. And its return is more evidence the Mets are back, too. Maybe not back as it’s measured in the win-loss column quite yet. (BUT JUST YOU WAIT!) But back in the way that’s always mattered more.