Given my choice, of course I wouldn’t have been in Orlando.
Nothing against Orlando, or Disney World (where I’m staying while signing books at Star Wars Weekends), but on the night Johan Santana freed us from our ancient, unwanted distinction, my first choice would of course have been to be in the stands at Citi Field, or failing that to be on the couch with Emily, listening to Gary, Keith and Ron and trying to read tea leaves in everything.
But work is work, and so there I was, a good 1,100 miles south of Citi Field. But thanks to the digital world, I still felt connected to the team, to Emily, to Greg, to all the fellow fans and bloggers.
I’d had a premonition of this, oddly. On Thursday night I was by myself in the hotel restaurant, which can be a lonesome proposition. (Though better than room service in that respect.) My Twitter feed was full of sports fans reacting to ESPN’s coverage of the spelling bee. I couldn’t see that, but for fun I started imagining a Mets spelling bee, with Nieuwenhuis and Mientkiewicz as the obvious championship-round words. Other folks picked up on that (or maybe someone already had the idea), and before too long Greg was tweeting things and Andrew Vazzano was having fun with a quiz of tough-to-spell Mets players, and fans of other teams were jumping in and goofing on it, and soon I was done with dinner, having had a grand time.
Last night, I tuned into the game on At Bat sometime around the second inning. I noticed neither Santana nor Adam Wainwright had allowed a hit — I’m a Mets fan, I always notice that. I’d forgotten my headphones, so I tipped the butt end of my phone up to my ear, transistor-radio style, and listened while waiting in line for the Aerosmith rollercoaster, and while wandering around Hollywood Studios, and while in the line for the boat back to the hotel.
I didn’t get nervous until Johan was through five. My friend Erich (a Yankee fan but a decent person for all that) was with me, amused by my obsessiveness while saluting the passion. I heard Carlos Beltran’s fair ball get called foul and had that thought, that Mets-fan thought that we’d all had without purpose for so many years: Hey, wow, that’s the kind of play that makes you wonder. I didn’t think anything was tainted — we ought to have instant replay for calls like that, but we don’t yet, so there was a certain justice in Jim Joyce/Armando Galarraga there and Adrian Johnson/Johan Santana here. Or at least an acceptance that there’s a certain randomness at work here that we all must live with, for better or for worse.
Now Johan was through six. I was starting to panic. Should I go back to the hotel room? Hurriedly subscribe to At Bat’s premium service? Erich and I were headed for the ESPN Club to meet someone, and for some reason I was sure that the ESPN Club would only show the various flavors of ESPN. “I might have to find a TV,” I muttered.
Erich pointed out, quite reasonably, that if the game wasn’t on in the ESPN Club, it wasn’t going to be on in the hotel. Normally I would know this, but this was no longer normal. Mike Baxter had just made what sounded like a circus catch, and I’d had that thought once again: Hey, wow, that’s the kind of play that makes you wonder. The funny thing was that Erich had no idea that Santana hadn’t allowed a hit. He just thought I was being doggedly and a little excessively true to the orange and blue. I wanted to tell him, to explain, but of course I couldn’t do that, of course I wouldn’t do that.
We were a step into the ESPN Club, joined by our friend, and Erich pointed. There were the Mets, on a little TV wedged in between big sets showing the Heat. We found a table where I could crane my head upwards. Seemed perfect to me.
Six to go, I muttered. I’ve done that for years, counting down the outs by threes after the first as long as there’s a reason to do so.
Twenty-four to go.
Twenty-one to go.
And so on.
Six to go.
Just another number, but it was almost a whisper.
The funny thing was my phone. It was silent, inert. And that told me more than anything that this was serious business. A few weeks ago someone noted on Twitter that he always knew the Mets had won because their fans were silent instead of bleeding out messily in cyberspace. Now I could feel a fanbase holding its breath. No tweets at me. No tags in Facebook. No “Are you watching this?” calls. The only exception was a text message from a friend not deeply versed in such superstitions. I looked at the green rectangle on my phone’s screen in horror, replied neutrally. At least he hadn’t used any of the dreaded words. I forgave him, conditionally.
The top of the eighth ended with a ridiculous near-collision between Daniel Murphy and Omar Quintanilla. I could feel my heart seize in my chest, and yet it just made me love those Mets even more. They looked tight, terrified. In the background the fans were a waving, hands-on-head mass of hope and fear and disbelief. I wanted to teleport myself there. I knew I couldn’t.
Three to go.
I forced myself to make conversation for the bottom of the eighth, apologizing that my mind was elsewhere. My tablemates hadn’t figured out what was happening. No way I was telling them, not now. They’d understand soon enough, when it was over. Whichever way it would be over.
Johan finally went back out there. I saw the pitch count, saw Terry Collins looking tense and miserable in the dugout. The wind whipped the uniform back and forth on Johan’s thigh. I knew there was bad weather in the area. The fans in the stands looked like they were going to fall down or take flight, or be caught between the two and explode.
I’d never gotten to three to go. I didn’t know what to do. I decided I’d do what I’d always done during ninth innings with leads. I’d hold up fingers. Index finger for one, then it and the pinkie for two, and if three were significant it wouldn’t matter what I was doing.
Matt Holliday hit the ball hard. It looked like a tough catch off the bat. Or maybe it wasn’t. I had no idea anymore. Andres Torres snatched it out of the air. I screamed something and held up that one finger. No one else in the ESPN Club seemed to know what was happening. I looked for a blue cap, for someone else riveted, but it was just me. Me and my in-the-dark friends and my phone, heavy with anticipatory, superstitious silence. Except I realized my phone wasn’t actually silent. I heard Howie Rose and fill-in Jim Duquette, still talking quietly down around my thigh. I’d never turned off the At Bat audio. I went to turn it off, then pulled my finger back in near-panic, like I’d almost touched a burner on the stove. My God, what are you, a total fool? I put phone and narrative back in my pocket.
Allen Craig lined out to left, Kirk Niewenhuis taking a slightly odd, frightened-stepped route to the ball. I was standing again, with no memory of getting to my feet. Now David Freese was up. Santana was exhausted, control fraying. Freese was a World Series hero. How cruel would that be?
The at-bat went on and on. I think it lasted about a week. I forced myself to sit, jamming my rear end back into the seat. Three straight balls, then a strike, then a foul. I registered that Yadier Molina was on deck, the same Yadier Molina who’d hit the ball Baxter had caught, the same Yadier Molina who … but never mind that right now. Just like Wainwright had been on the mound and something odd and slightly unfair had happened to Beltran. Bizarre and spooky? Not really, not if you watch a lot of baseball. Baseball specializes in such surrealism.
And then Freese swung, sort of, maybe, YES HE HAD and Josh Thole tagged him and it was real, it had happened (to quote Gary Cohen) and we were in another world. I was standing and screaming now, people looking at me in mild wonder. I told Erich what had happened. He looked stricken, then amused, then offered heartfelt congratulations. I fell back into the seat, exhausted, unbelieving.
My phone, silent for so long, had begun to twitch and leap in my pocket. Text message, text message, text message, tweet, tweet, tweet, on and on and on. I answered everything, sent out my own messages. My hands were shaking so hard I could barely type. (My phone would fail a few minutes later. Erich very kindly let me borrow his and add my Twitter account to his app. His Yankee fandom was redeemed right there.)
People had noticed what had happened now, but it was just another baseball game to them. So what? Who cares? I went out into the night and screamed at the moon, nearly dropping my phone in the manmade lake. I called Emily. “I wasn’t watching,” she said, caught somewhere between happy and horrified. That was only technically true — she’d had a trying day, watched a movie, switched over with an out to go and sat riveted, instantly a part of the drama.
We said goodbye and I leaned on the railing, staring into the dark water. I thought of how many times I’d watch Gary’s call, hear Howie’s. How I’d read all the columns and blog posts. Watch the SNY encore. There would be time for it all.
I hung my head, not in dismay but because the weight of the happiness was too much. Yes I was far away, unable to put on my Mets gear and parade down Henry Street, whooping and crowing. But my dying phone was still leaping and buzzing in my pocket, trying to keep up with the great flood of well-wishing and purest, simplest joy that had been undammed and was now roaring across everything in its path. I let it wash over me, alone on the boardwalk in Orlando, and I wasn’t lonely at all.