- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Once Upon Citi Field

Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.
—Bruce Springsteen

Getting off my train after witnessing a 13-2 Mets loss [1] in person — my personal-worst ninth consecutive loss at any of the ballparks the Mets have called home — I noticed a few people were arriving back on Long Island from New York’s annual Pride Parade [2].

Man, I thought, I’d love to someday return home from a parade full of pride for the Mets. That day is probably far off. It felt farther off than usual Sunday despite the focus on one of the leading indicators that better days are directly ahead.

Zack Wheeler couldn’t have been better in his first Citi Field inning had his name been Matt Harvey. Actually, Harvey was stomped on by the Braves in his first home inning of 2012: a walk, a fielder’s choice and a home run blasted by Jason Heyward. Harvey settled in thereafter for six unremarkably effective innings, but whatever glow was extant for the kid who had set the Diamondbacks on fire in Phoenix was briefly extinguished [3] in Flushing. Of course it would go on to spark bigger and brighter than we could have imagined, and we all lived happily ever after every fifth day, but it was definitely on hold last August 10.

Wheeler drew a bigger crowd and set off more excitement as he paraded to the mound on the last day of June 2013, probably because the Harvey precedent has made us salivate our heads off at the idea that we could maybe get another one of those, whaddayacall, superstars practically out of the box. Zack received the same “Feels Like The First Time” introduction from the AV department that Matt did last summer and lived up to the novelty of so-called Wheeler Day immediately. Denard Span struck out. Anthony Rendon struck out. Ryan Zimmerman grounded out. Zack Wheeler, clad in the 45 made famous by McGraw and Franco and Martinez, was making it all look very easy.

But this pitching to big league hitters only looks that way, especially at the beginning of the trail. The Mets treated Wheeler like Harvey in the bottom of the first in that they put two runners on with one out and didn’t score. Then the paths of the phenoms diverged for now. The Nats beat up on Wheeler in the second and the third and the fifth, his last inning, the one he didn’t finish. By his performance, you’d never know there were special musical cues (I would’ve gone with “Heart Like A Wheel [4]” by the Steve Miller Band over John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels,” whose context is a bit too wistful [5] for someone over whom we’re so hopeful), ticket deals and orange t-shirts devoted to him. You suddenly forgot Tug and Johnny and Pedro and were left to remember that 45 was also worn by Brent Gaff and Paul Gibson and Jerry DiPoto and that the one sight you’ll never see on a pitching mound is a sure thing.

Zack Wheeler wasn’t a budding ace Sunday. He was an unready rookie. That’ll happen when, perhaps, you’re an unready rookie.

We 33,366 who came out to celebrate the birth of a local idol chose instead to incubate him until he is ready. Zack was not hooted off the mound. We applauded warmly upon his removal with two on and two out in the fifth. We’re impatient by nature but we’re not idiots. We wish for Harvey II: Wheeler’s Revenge to open to rave reviews in Queens as it did on the road [6], but we realize boffo box office doesn’t necessarily lead to immediate critical acclaim.

Then we got back to being idiots, sitting through intermittent showers, invisible offense and Brandon Lyon. When your day’s highlight morphs from “I’m at Zack Wheeler’s first home start!” to “All right, Anthony Recker’s gonna pitch!” you should probably check and see if your health insurance covers stupidity.

What had hinted at a brighter future around 1:10 was, well before 4 o’clock, best left to the chronically dim, myself included. It became one of those days in which you and your companion debate which horrid game this is most like in your vast Met-going experience. I couldn’t decide if I was reliving the 10-1 debacle of September 2011 (a convenient precedent, as the Nationals were the opposition that gray Thursday afternoon [7]) or the second game of the season-crushing doubleheader loss to the Diamondbacks [8] in August 2002. That one — started by Wild Card insurance policy John Thomson — went so bad so much that my friend Joe agreed we should give up and get out, which is something Joe never does.

I was with Joe on Sunday and we stayed to the Recker end. He and I were giddy to be in on Citi Field’s first episode of Met position player pitching, but the misguided euphoria lasted all of two batters, or time enough for 11-0 to become 13-0. Once Ian Desmond landed Recker’s first strike (following six straight balls) square in the middle of the Acela Club’s Market Table, Joe capped his pen and shut his scorebook. If you know Joe as I do, that’s his version of Laurence Olivier ripping a piece of cloth from his suit jacket to signify that his rotten modern son Neil Diamond is dead to him in The Jazz Singer.

Yet we’re too stupid to stay mad at the Mets or leave them before they’re done losing more than once every decade or so. Thus, we stayed to watch Recker sew back a shred of our dignity by setting down his next three batters and John Buck hit his utterly unapplaudable home run to give us a final score of 13-2, a tally that was tangibly better than 13-0 only in that brought to mind another blowout the Mets absorbed — their first, actually. I wasn’t on hand for it, having made the mistake of not being born as of April 18, 1962, but I cherish it, thanks to Leonard Shecter’s account and description in Once Upon The Polo Grounds [9]:

It was a cold and miserable day at the Polo Grounds and the Mets were down 15-5 with two out in the ninth. A fan stood in the aisle in right field, his shoulders hunched against the cold, his hands deep in his coat pockets. He jiggled up and down for warmth and all the time he was rooting. “C’mon,” he said, almost to himself. “C’mon, one more run, just one more run.”

“Why one more run?” he was asked.

“That would make it six,” he said. “Then you could say if they got any pitching they woulda won.”

The fan turned back toward Don Zimmer, who was at the plate. “C’mon,” he said. “Just one more.”

Zimmer popped up to the catcher.

The fan shrugged his shoulders. “Ah well,” he said. “I’ll be back tomorrow. No use giving up now.”

As a matter of fact, I will be back at Citi Field Monday night, with every possible chance that I’ll be racking up my tenth consecutive loss. But Shaun Marcum was 0-9 as of last week and he stopped his streak. And Shaun Marcum is pitching versus Arizona!

Like the man said, no use giving up now.

(P.S. Joe took the cap off his pen and reopened his scorebook for the bottom of the ninth. I knew he would.)

If you want more heartfelt Mets talk from a crazy person, listen to the interview and audience Q&A Jay Goldberg conducted with me last week at the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse when he graciously invited me over to discuss The Happiest Recap [10]. Find the podcast here [11] or on iTunes [12].

And when you see one, get yourself a 2013 All-Star Game program [13] to read what I have to say about David Wright and John Franco as part of a wonderful article on Mets captains through the years, written by Jon Schwartz. The whole thing is a worthwhile $15 investment, actually (you can find my thoughts starting on page 269).