Even great baseball teams lose an annoying number of games.
The runaway-train teams — your ’86 Mets and ’98 Yankees and ’01 Mariners — are still going to lose 15 or 20 games that make you want to lie down in the road. Which means 45 to 60 hours of your time will be dedicated to an outcome you’ll look back on not at all fondly. Double that — at least — for more run-of-the-mill teams. And multiply it by some really horrible number for the bad ones. Even in the dream years, that’s a lot of baseball predestined to leave you enraged, devastated, bitter, surly, morose or just deeply annoyed.
From the perspective of non-fans, this is obviously insane. Why would anyone sign up to receive such slings and arrows? But if it’s too late for you — in other words, if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog — you accept it and even look forward to it. You don’t look forward to the pain of losing, exactly — that would be weird — but to the familiarity of losing. A bad loss in April aches, but it’s a lot better than the void of winter, during which one feels nothing at all. Plus, as I wrote Tuesday night, even a lousy baseball game will deliver moments of beauty or interest or curiosity to those who care to look. And very occasionally something remarkable happens, and the virtuous fan who sticks with a punishing game is rewarded.
This probably sounds like way too much to put on a game where the Mets were down two runs at worst and came back from a one-run deficit. And it is — this wasn’t one of those crazy affairs where the veterans are excused by the middle innings and watch in awe as the scrubeenies stage a ragtag revolution. But, well, you have to factor in a few things.
1) It was a Matt Harvey game, and those are already becoming events at Citi Field. There’s every indication that he really is that good, and the smart thing to do is get to the park when he’s pitching, before it becomes a very tough ticket. The latest manifestation of Harveyism brought me out to the park during a month when I regard night games as an excess of adventure. It also brought my blog brother (for the first Faith and Fear meetup of ’13), my wife, my father-in-law and a decent number of similarly intrigued fans, all of us with expectations somewhere between “high” and “completely unfair.” Harvey struck out seven over six innings in which he gave up three hits and walked one. Most pitchers would call a pretty good line, which it was. But it was mortal, and though it’s a terrible thing to say, we’re already used to more than that.
2) It was cold. Not Mets-in-Colorado cold, not Jackie Robinson Night cold, but cold — the kind that gets into your bones and refuses to leave. (I’ve been home for nearly two hours and I can still feel it.) Was I thrilled when the Mets forced extra innings? Of course I was. Would I have managed to get on with my life if they’d lost in regulation and I’d been able to cram into a nice warm subway car a little earlier and go the hell home? Forgive me, but yes. When it’s cold enough, getting to escape can reduce a tough loss from … well, from devastating to disappointing.
3) The Mets looked snakebit. It was one of those games that looks like it will be decided by a few plays wobbling this way instead of that way, only you’re pretty sure all the breaks will belong to the other guy. First the Dodgers scored a cheap first-inning run on two singles and a fielder’s choice just a bit too poky to be a double play. Then Jerry Hairston Jr. went airborne to take a double away from Ike Davis (showing signs of life), in an inning where Lucas Duda rammed a double of his own up the gap. (Hairston wasn’t done — more from him in a bit.) Most of all, Ted Lilly mesmerized the Mets hitters, as it seems rehabilitating junkballers always do. The big hit wasn’t there and wasn’t there and wasn’t there, until you were pretty sure it wasn’t going to arrive.
So, yeah — it was 3-2 heading to the bottom of the ninth, but it felt like about 7-2.
But there’s a reason I’m still writing and you’re (one hopes) still reading. Leading off, Mike Baxter hit a low liner to left that Carl Crawford misplayed twice, first letting the ball clank off the heel of his hand and then pursuing it so indifferently that Baxter raced for second, which was not a good idea but worked out. Ruben Tejada bunted Baxter to third as the tying run (how novel to applaud a Terry Collins bunt), setting the stage for Daniel Murphy, who no longer feels like a miscast work in progress but like a reliable regular. Murph worked a 2-0 count and then spun a low liner towards the third-base seats. Hairston, to our horror, nabbed it with a nifty backhand while ramming into the photo-box rail.
In a lot of parallel universes the game ended with Baxter trying to score on a 75-foot sac fly, only to be rounded up after a bit of fuss somewhere between third and home, like a cat being taken to the vet. In this one, happily, Baxter scampered a few feet down the line, then reconsidered and belly-flopped back into third. But with the Dodgers an out a way from victory, David Wright promptly rammed Brandon League’s first pitch for a game-tying single to right-center.
An inning later, John Buck (at the plate when Wright was caught stealing to end the ninth) led off with a single and Ike walked, setting up an endgame everyone in the park could see coming. Marlon Byrd sacrificed the runners to second and third (check) and the Dodgers intentionally walked Duda (check) to bring up Jordany Valdespin with the bases loaded. Except first Don Mattingly — who’d repeatedly spent an eternity in frostbite-inducing meetings at the mound — brought Luis Cruz in as a fifth infielder, which one normally sees in conjunction with a coach pitching.
I wasn’t all that happy with the match-up, and not just because I was frozen. Duda has made himself into a tough out, combining a discerning eye for the strike zone with prodigious power, whereas Jordany is equally capable of marvelous things that leave you dumbstruck and dumb things that you just marvel at. In the eighth, in fact, he’d come up with the tying run on third and two out and immediately tapped a weak grounder to first — a rather brainless at-bat, to say the least.
But this time things were different. Josh Wall wasn’t particularly sharp, and Valdespin patiently maneuvered him into a 2-1 count, then hammered a high fastball. The game was won, absent some blockheadedness on the basepaths (which seemed by no means impossible), but then it was gloriously won — Valdespin had hit it over the fence.
A great win, to be sure — on the subway back into the city I happily watched the highlight several times surrounded by beaming Mets fans. But the thought came to me immediately: Because of this game, I will keep watching years’ worth of games in which nothing good happens whatsoever.
And you know what? Right now that seems like a perfectly good trade to me.