Opening Day is, needless to say, the finest on the calendar. That’s true even if you’re a fan of a bad team, or one whose best-case scenario comes down to “can assemble some of the pieces required for a better future.”
The second game of the season, though, might be even nicer than Opening Day. The bunting’s no longer crisp, they don’t line up assistant trainers and visiting clubhouse attendants on the foul lines to be ignored by the crowd and you probably had to grouse about the in-case-of-rainout off-day, but Game No. 2 is the day of the baseball calendar that makes you believe this is real again. Oh my God, you think, there’s going to be baseball pretty much every day for the next six months. There’s so much baseball coming that you can barely contain your own happiness. Get lost, winter. Shut up, football. Get it over with, hoops and hockey. The summer game is back, and there’s so much of it yet to come that it’s intoxicating.
For me, this being mildly drunk on baseball generally lasts about two or three weeks. I love the early days of the season when you can remember the outcome of every game, before wins and losses and series and opponents start to blur together. Every win is a hint of unexpected grandeur, while every loss is acceptable, because baseball.
Then, well, things begin to change.
While the Mets were doing nothing praiseworthy on the field Saturday, I was keeping up with them on my iPhone in Sheepshead Bay. Robert Carson came in and Jimmy Rollins did things I wished he hadn’t done and then so did Ryan Howard and when Domonic Brown hit one over the fence, I silenced MLB At Bat in disgust, and didn’t turn it back on. It was a pleasant day in South Brooklyn, and the Mets were not adding to the proceedings. In fact, they were subtracting from them.
Today Emily and Joshua and I were out in Red Hook with friends, and I’d forgotten my headphones, but no matter — I could hear Howie and Josh burbling away down there in my pocket, and when the pitch of their voices indicated some urgency was afoot, I brought them up to ear level to hear what was going on. This is something I love about baseball too — the way the game can be a companion during chores or sightseeing or anything else, providing amiable company while waiting for you to stop being so darn distracted and pay close attention, and then allowing you to go back to whatever it is you’re doing when danger or delight has passed. Baseball is marvelous when every pitch is followed with ravenous interest, but it also works awfully well when the sounds of the game are pleasing background noise. This was the first day of 2013 when baseball was like that, and for a while I was very happy to have arrived at another old familiar station of fandom.
Happy, except for the fact that things were not going swimmingly at Citi Field. Even with half an ear I could tell that: Cole Hamels was handing out free passes with admirable generosity, but the Mets were doing nothing with them. Jon Niese was pitching capably enough, but you could sense disaster hanging back and waiting for him to falter.
And when I got home and gave the game my full attention, disaster caught up quickly.
It started so innocently: With two outs and none on in the seventh, Laynce Nix lofted a little foul pop in front of the Phillies dugout. John Buck pursued it, but the batboy was a bit slow collecting his chair and his thoughts, and David Wright was charging in with great zeal but from an odd angle, and whatever the reason the ball hit Buck’s glove but then hit the ground. A reprieved Nix then singled, Rollins did the same, and suddenly Niese was in the dugout looking understandably perturbed. Enter Scott Atchison, the world’s oldest-looking 37-year-old, whose arrival summoned Ryan Howard as a pinch-hitter, which led to a 2-0 pitch that Howard drove to the wall, which untied the game permanently.
What happened? How did such a little mistake become such a big mess? You could argue the misplay caused Niese to lose his focus, a problem he’d seemed to put behind him last summer. You could argue he was simply tired with an elevated pitch count this early in the year. You could argue he was just unlucky. You could even argue the Phillies were just good at baseball, though let’s not. All of these arguments are plausible, as well as unprovable and thus useless. An out wasn’t made, it led to bad things, and the Mets lost.
Other things are less arguable. Like positing that Terry Collins managed the Mets into peril instead of out of it — saying that you’d rather have a tired Niese facing Kevin Frandsen than Atchison facing Howard struck me and a lot of others as more of a first-guess than a second-. Or that whatever one things of Collins’s in-game maneuvers, the Mets’ offense has been unreliable and their bullpen has been reliably awful. (You’d think that a smart fellow like Sandy Alderson would occasionally get some spaghetti to stick to a wall.)
Anyway, the joy of April baseball is the realization that it’s a long season and there’s a lot of baseball left. That’s true even when you’re a fan of a team that’s not fated to be playing in October. But sometime in late April, there comes a game that makes that moment of joy curdle a bit — and for me, this was the game and the day.
It’s a long season and there’s a lot of baseball left.