I’m happy on a Monday from attending two Mets-Marlins games Saturday and Sunday, I’m pretty sure, because the act of Mets baseball — seeking it out, absorbing it fully and wrapping up the leftovers to go — still fulfills me. The lousy record, the murky future, the uninspiring ownership and the dozens of obvious letdowns that the Mets hand out every year like they used to hand out pocket schedules don’t fully shake the fandom from my system. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t.
I won’t pretend my fandom hasn’t been battered by events dating back five Septembers, to when Dr. Gl@v!ne performed the final stages of that collapsectomy on the part of my brain that used to adore the Mets unconditionally. Yet I continue to function as a Mets fan at a level where the casual observer wouldn’t notice much of a difference. There’s more cynicism and less patience and I’m much quicker to descend into disgust, but I doubt that distinguishes me from most of my peers. I may hate the team I love sometimes but I never really stop loving them.
You know what I mean.
So I’m happy after the two wins I saw, even if the status quo remained stuck regarding what this year ultimately became. Nothing’s really changed in the sense that the Mets have been a go-nowhere team in the second half of 2012, for they are still nowhere, even after three consecutive wins over Miami to clinch the prestigious Souvenir Cup. Other than the Marlins and possibly the Astros, there was no National League opponent I couldn’t imagine having found a way to beat them the last two days when offensive narcolepsy set in; when balls were being flung heaven knows where; and — on Saturday — when the one Met who has transcended his team’s woes was removed and another Met (didn’t matter who) was destined to put his latest accomplishment in peril. It’s no coincidence that of the now seven wins the Mets have collected at home dating back to July 8, six of them have come against two of the only four N.L. teams certifiably worse than them. Against all other visitors in that span, the Mets are 1-22.
But nothing’s really changed in the sense that when the Citi Field hourglass is running out of sand…and I’m intent on seeing virtually every last grain of Mets that has yet to drop…and the Mets show just enough life to not blow a lead at the end of one day and to barely cobble together a lead at the end of the next day…well, I don’t care how bad they’ve been in the many days that have preceded these days. These days, the last home Saturday of 2012 and the last home Sunday of 2012, are for divining, no matter the accumulated detritus of yet another lost season in plain sight, the good in what I love best.
And that I did Saturday and Sunday. I went to Citi Field twice, I witnessed two one-run wins by our lousy Mets over the marginally lousier Marlins — neither fully accomplished until the ninth inning — and I’m about as happy as a fan of a four-year fourth-place team can be for having done so.
The winning helped. Believe me, the winning helped. Not saddling R.A. Dickey with a no-decision on Saturday helped. Not having spent three hours and three minutes whipped by an increasingly bitter wind only to be told that a stubborn 2-2 tie would continue for innings on end on Sunday helped. Results are no small thing to a baseball fan, whether it’s in a fight for first or a fight to avoid fifth.
Jon Rauch doesn’t hold off the Marlins on Dickey’s behalf and I’m probably a little pissed still. Ruben Tejada doesn’t drive a ball into left-center scoring Scott Hairston and I’m indefinitely despondent. That Rauch recovered from the predictable three-run homer he allowed John Buck (it was vocally forecast by my friend Joe by way of “YOU BETTER NOT GIVE UP A HOMER HERE RAUCH!”) to find three outs for R.A., and that Ruben didn’t let a two-out, bases-loaded situation dissolve into more cold, more wind and, inevitably, Oliver Perez realighting in Flushing to pitch the fourteenth, explains a great deal of my lingering affection for the weekend just past.
But probably not all of it, which could be a residual effect from the collapsectomy or just a sign of age. As I grow older, I appreciate the last days of a season more and more. Soon there will be no more season and no more Mets, except as theoretical proposition. Talk will spark up in earnest over what moves the GM has to make and whether the owners will be able to provide a suitable budget and if the current manager should continue in his role. None of that chatter, however, will be close to as satisfying as “Valdespin jumped on the first pitch but he’s fast enough and ran hard enough to beat out what could’ve been a double play, which sent Hairston to third, and when he took second on defensive indifference, they walked Lewis and it was all up to Tejada.”
That sounds so much better than “2013,” even if we all agree there’s nothing much left to 2012 besides obligation and a couple of potential milestones. Citi Field’s inventory indicated the pantry is beyond refilling. On Saturday, for example, I couldn’t find:
• A DICKEY 43 shirt for sale (with all merchandise, including stacks of NIEUWENHUIS 9, drastically marked down).
• A Ruben Tejada card leading off the Topps lineup atop the Rotunda (or maybe they just left the Mets logo there from Fred Lewis’s appearance the night before).
• Willie Mays’s 1973 card, which has graced the first base side of Field Level for years (in its place — an empty slot).
• A Pepsi Max (though I did track one down Sunday via Pat LaFrieda).
And they had people in the park on Saturday. Dogs and people and, as if to fulfill a contractual requirement left over from the Nickelodeon Extreme Baseball days, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
So a little shy on favorite sights, shirts and sips, the search for satisfying milestones would have to suffice. One of them, I had hoped, would be David Wright by now surpassing Ed Kranepool as all-time Mets hit leader. September 23 would have been an ideal day to do it, and not just because it was yesterday. I would have liked David to finally push past Ed Kranepool’s 1,418 because it would be daylight, there would be sunshine and — assuming the Mets bother to call attention to the breaking of the record — enough persons would be gathered so Wright could be properly feted by a crowd, not just by the stragglers like myself who will dot the stands for the gaunt weeknight affairs on tap against the Pirates.
I also would’ve liked September 23 because it’s a helluva New York baseball date.
• On September 23, 1908, the Giants took a critical pennant-race matchup against the Cubs at the Polo Grounds…until the league office took the win away from the home team because Fred Merkle didn’t advance from first to second on the winning hit, even though nobody enforced that rule in those days and, in the midst of on-field chaos, there’s every reason to believe Johnny Evers used a ball that hadn’t been in play to force Merkle. The incident would go down as Merkle’s Boner, the game would be replayed after the season, the pennant would wind up in Chicago instead of New York (and the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since — so there, Johnny Evers).
• On September 23, 1954, the second-place Dodgers were idle, but born into a family of their rooters called the Brands was a boy named Dana, who wouldn’t come to baseball consciousness for another seven-and-a-years, by which time there’d be no more Dodgers at Ebbets Field but there’d be Mets where the Giants once roamed, at the Polo Grounds. Dana was, from the very first day they played, hooked on those Mets and all the Mets he saw thereafter. He grew up to be one of the most thoughtful essayists it would ever be the Mets honor to have writing on their behalf. Sunday should’ve been my late friend Dana Brand’s 58th birthday. I thought of him yesterday at Citi Field. Because he was a Mets Fan of the first order, he would have hated what this season became had he lived to see it, but I am certain he’d still be loving his team.
• On September 23, 1962, on Dana Brand’s eighth birthday — with Dana probably following along on either TV or radio — the Mets completed their first and supposedly only Polo Grounds season by beating the Cubs (a not so lucky 54 years after Merkle), 2-1. The Mets were going on the road to finish their first year and then move into beautiful Shea Stadium to start their second year. That didn’t quite happen, as Shea would continue under construction clear in to 1964. The big story in terms of the game was Frank Thomas driving in Choo Choo Coleman with the deciding run in the bottom of the ninth, a walkoff win before such a term had been coined. But a cursory glance at the 9/23/62 box score shows a 1-for-4 day by the starting first baseman that Sunday, and just a little research beyond that reveals the “1” was the 1st major league hit for the first baseman, 17-year-old Ed Kranepool. Eddie was getting his feet wet as 1962 dried up. His Met soles would be drenched as no others’ 17 years later when he recorded the final of his 1,418 Met hits.
(Also, on September 23, 1972, I was supposed to go to my first Mets game, but the doctor said I was too sick and my mother bought into that nonsense and I watched Jon Matlack beat the Phillies on Channel 9 and I haven’t spent the last four decades trying to make up for that disappointment, I swear I haven’t.)
Fifty years to the day the Krane took flight, I was really hoping David Wright would record his 1,418th, maybe his 1,419th Met hit. Symmetry, echo, whatever…it would’ve been beautiful. Except David’s been ice cold and his two-run homer in the first was all he could produce — large in terms of the game, yet only 1,415 in terms of the count. He needs three to tie Eddie and four to beat him. He has four games left at home to do it in Queens this season. He could get ’em at Atlanta or Miami, but geez, what fun is that?
The other milestone on the immediate Met agenda, and the one that’s captivating what’s left of the 2012 Met imagination, is R.A. Dickey’s 20th win. It is ideally attained Thursday in the Citi Field finale. It can happen at Marlins Park next week if necessary, but selfishly in the broad and in the personal sense, it should happen in front of us. R.A. is our story, our cause. We have so few that pan out. I’d love for him to win the Cy Young, too, but that’s out of his grip. A 20th win isn’t, at least as far as him doing all he and his teammates can do. We saw Saturday that even R.A. requires help, in the form of a few runs and, unfortunately, maybe a few outs from the Met bullpen. Jon Rauch was so unhittable for so long this season, until the one moment in September when what he did had additional ramifications. Then Buck took him as deep as he had to, and a 4-0 Dickey shutout became a 4-3 Met nailbiter, and Marlins began to swim onto the basepaths and…
Rauch got out of it. The satisfaction index plummeted like crazy, but a 19th win was a 19th win. What I hold onto two days later isn’t how close to calamity Rauch brought us but how high Dickey took us at his Kilimanjaroesque peak. That was as the top of the eighth ended and Carlos Lee had flied out to center. Eight innings of shutout ball were in the books. R.A. Dickey was one inning from a 19th win. I’d never seen a Met win a 19th game. Dickey stepped off the mound and I jumped to my feet and applauded for what he’d done this year and what he’d this Saturday and what he was on the verge of doing if he (or some reliever) took care of business in the ninth and what he had a chance to do on Thursday.
And as I stood and clapped, I thought back to the penultimate Shea Saturday from five years earlier, during a break from collapsectomy, when John Maine seemed on the verge of doing something I had never seen and that no Mets fan had ever seen. John Maine came off the mound in a game the Mets had to win after seven innings with a no-hitter intact. The applause was thunderous, far more so than for Dickey, who’s doing what he’s doing mostly for himself and for whatever we choose to read into it (he sure does give us lots to read). Maine, not a terribly stimulating figure, was getting us going because he was not only stopping a disastrous losing streak dead in its tracks — it was September 29, 2007, and the Mets hadn’t won since good old September 23 — but he was accomplishing the previously unaccomplished.
In the next inning, he wasn’t accomplishing it anymore, and the emotion attached to feeling a no-hitter get Hoovered from our grasp once again was all-encompassing, crucial win or no crucial win. And on this Saturday in 2012, with nothing crucial in the standings on the line, I kind of felt with Dickey what I had felt with Maine, the high of thinking something was coming and the anxiety attached to realizing it very well might not come. Maine didn’t get the no-hitter but we got the win and lived one more day. Dickey didn’t stay in, but the 19th win didn’t slip away and the 20th win lives on as a possibility for Thursday.
That’s the kind of stuff, played out on a historical and personal continuum, that keeps me coming back September after September should I be so lucky to bump up against it.
Sunday didn’t quite have that storyline handy, but it had enough to make the persistent wind inside the Citi seating bowl almost tolerable and make me overlook the Mets’ stunningly depressing choice of pregame music. They had a choir on the field performing “Empire State of Mind” so dourly that it sounded like Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” which they played at Shea to sadden us exponentially beyond where we were already depressed when the game of September 30, 2007, was through. Then they brought on a young lady who added a layer of mournfulness to the Beatles’ “Blackbird” without mining any of its inherent hope. They also let her do the national anthem, after which I assumed the bombs bursting in air were going to crush our collective skull.
Nevertheless, the somber tone lifted because Sunday had more than a dirgelike soundtrack. It had David’s first-inning home run, which let me believe for a bit that maybe he could generate four or five hits and get that record. It had David’s “baseball brother” Jose Reyes on the same field with him in Flushing one final time in 2012. Watching the two of them get tangled up after a passed ball placed Jose at third made me smile for seeing them together again and sad as I was reminded their uniforms refuse to align any longer. Jose has remained my favorite Met, albeit in exile, during his first year as a ridiculous Marlin, but I think I’m finally learning to let go.
I wore my first Jose t-shirt on Saturday — the REYES 7 I purchased in 2003 because the clubhouse store didn’t stock PHILLIPS 23 — and it felt like closure. I wore a more recent model on Sunday and it felt superfluous. I still love Jose as I loved Edgardo Alfonzo the Giant and Tom Seaver the Red and as much I could handle Doc Gooden the Yankee, but I’m finally prepared to treat him more as an opponent and less as a reminder of what once was. Time will do that to a fan.
Time has also given me a chance to properly frame the difference between the two ballparks in which I’ve watched the Mets year after year after year.
Shea Stadium, I’ve decided four years after it was dismantled, was Jose Reyes: fun, thrilling, exciting, exasperating, prone to breaking down, didn’t always function as you’d like, but damn you knew you’d experienced something.
Citi Field, with four years behind it, is David Wright: Pleasant, admirable, a cut above the competition in several noteworthy areas, its flaws not immediately apparent at a casual glance, capable of upgrading as needed…but it’s never gonna be as much fun as Shea was.
Sunday also had Chris Young, which it always seems to have. The Log II says I’ve seen Chris Young pitch five times for the Mets and three of them have been on Sunday. My head insists Chris Young always pitches when I go to a game and it’s always Sunday when he does. Maybe it’s because he takes up so much airspace that he’s blotting out my memory’s better judgment. Anyway, Chris Young swatted a mighty double and pitched his usual generally serviceable six innings. David giving him the 2-0 lead didn’t fool me into complacency because this was Chris Young and Chris Young never wins at Citi Field. (And that part is true; you could look it up.)
There had been a promising beginning, but then Sunday became nothing but middle. Stephanie and I plopped ourselves into unoccupied seats in our Caesars Club section — deep September discounts are the fringe benefit of a dismal second-half denouement — but the view was ruined by the two couples behind us who yammered loudly about how little they knew about anything (they were a good match for those who surrounded Joe and me Saturday, when somebody decided to empty out the Tri-State Area’s idiot bins straight into the heart of Promenade 510 and 511). Technically, the couples weren’t explicitly spouting sentences like “here’s another piece of information I don’t have, let me describe it in numbing detail at the top of my voice,” but that was the inference to be made by involuntarily overhearing what they wouldn’t shut up loudly about.
So we moved to our actual seats in the same section the same time a perfectly nice fellow did the same right in front of us. He was built like a block of granite and made for just as good a vista when it came to monitoring the actions of the pitcher and the batter. Plus, as we sat where our primo back-row aisle seats suggested, the Gary and Keith audio spilled into our ears from the concourse. That would be dandy if I was actually watching WPIX — which I still can’t on Cablevision — but disconcerting when I don’t need TV. I’ve got a ballgame in front of me…or in front of the block of granite guy at any rate. Disembodied Gary Cohen singing the Fordham fight song, a cherished tradition from afar, came off in this setting a little too much like those scenes in Boss where mentally deteriorating Kelsey Grammer can’t fight the corrosive voices in his head.
But it’s still the ballgame at the ballpark with your wife on a Sunday and there were still, believe it or not, other available seats we could move to after a fashion and I regretted only the chill wind (it was 70 degrees on the plaza, for crissake), the score staying 2-2 forever and the possibility that the son of Hank Webb would send this game from a ninth to a 25th inning in something more than no time at all.
Then Scott Hairston, who’d caught one ball by accident and another as if by levitation earlier, continued to make a retroactive case for his not being traded in late July. He singled off Ryan Webb and the Mets’ ninth-inning rally was off to the races in this team’s characteristic way. Lucas Duda didn’t have a chance to not hustle down the line to first when he struck out, but Scott — or Scott Bless America as I had dubbed him in a fit of patriotic fervor — took second on a passed ball (Scott bless those Marlins, too) and Andres Torres stood still long enough to walk. The entirety of Jordany Valdespin’s offensive capabilities, except for the lately dormant power, instantly tore into action with his first-pitch swing. It produced a futile ground ball to Reyes that took out Torres, but Valdy’s willingness to make up for poor pitch selection with the use of his legs (take note, Lucas) let him beat the relay from second.
Fred Lewis could’ve been a hero, but we’ll never know, as Jordany took second unaccosted during Fred’s at-bat, so Ozzie Guillen woke up long enough to order Lewis walked, which left it all in the hands of Ruben Baby Tejada. And to paraphrase Donald Fagen when he covered the Lieber-Stoller classic, he’s not Jose, but I love him just the same.
Tejada drove home Hairston. The Mets won, 3-2. They had swept the Marlins. Stephanie and I hugged and high-tenned because we won and because we could get out of the wind. Stephanie planned to retreat to a Caesars sofa if there were extra innings, but I was probably going to counter by authorizing a beeline to the exits. (It was really cold.) But none of that mattered, as I basked in having seen two wins in two days by a team that had only won four games at home over a stretch of more than two months.
That part mattered. Winning matters even when the outside world is telling you that except for your star knuckleballer, nothing about your team does. It has to matter to somebody. It matters to us. It matters to me. Mattering, you might say, is what matters most to a fan. It’s right up there with winning.