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The Better Side of Nostalgia

I’m going to deal with the lousy part of the day first, because I don’t want it to be the last thing on the page when you’re done reading.

Frank Francisco got a called strike three, the Mets shook hands and then threw their hats into the crowd, and the video board started replaying the highlights of Mike Piazza’s day, accompanied by Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

Up where we were sitting in the Pepsi Porch, it was a nice scene, as it had been all game. Fans were taking farewell pictures in the sunshine with the field as a backdrop. Emily and I were looking at the big screen, wondering if there’d be a season-highlights video and good-naturedly debating if there should be. I noticed with a smile that Joshua — whose fandom has become a tenuous thing in these tough recent campaigns — was standing with his program against his chest, saluting the departing Mets and then Citi Field.

Enter the men in maroon, Citi Field security.

“Time to get moving, folks,” they intoned as they moved down the rows. “Time to clear out.”

This was not an hour after the last pitch, mind you. This was halfway through the song the Mets themselves had chosen to end the day’s festivities — a song that is all of four and a half minutes long.

You came to salute a Mets hero returned for his induction into the team Hall of Fame? Time to get moving.

You actually want to stick around for another minute or two with a team that last finished above .500 five seasons ago? Time to clear out.

In recent years I’ve gotten to chat now and then with some of the folks who decide how things work at Citi Field, and while I don’t always agree with their decisions, I respect them as good folks who want fans to have positive experiences and are pained when things go awry. But there’s a chronic disconnect between those folks and the Mets personnel that fans actually encounter in the park — too often, you have tone-deaf, brain-dead encounters like today’s.

I guarantee that the Mets spent a lot of time and a money planning and choreographing today’s tribute to Piazza, and they did a great job. But my last memory of 2013 at Citi Field won’t be the ceremony, or the Mets winning a game in the sunshine. Instead, it will be guys in maroon shooing me and my family away while the A/V guys’ carefully chosen music was still playing.

The Mets’ biggest enemy in providing a great customer experience in the park isn’t the win-loss record, or the payroll — it’s the Mets themselves.¬†They screw up the little things with depressing consistency, which undoes the good work done on the bigger things.


* * *

So yeah, that sucked. But I refused to let it define the day, and I’m not going to let it define this post.

The novelist Don DeLillo once wrote that “nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage,” and I think even a cursory look at the newspaper will demonstrate that he was right.

But sports can be an exception. Not all the time, but in the right circumstances it’s possible to revel in the past without deploring the present and dismissing the future.

I was thinking about that up in the Pepsi Porch, watching Piazza emerge from the dugout and exchange hugs with the likes of Rusty Staub and Al Jackson and Buddy Harrelson and Keith Hernandez and John Franco and Edgardo Alfonzo. Piazza himself still looks young for anyone but a ballplayer — he looks relaxed and at peace, and for all that I loved the ferocious, tightly wound competitor he was, I was happy to see this side of him too.

But note I said “young for anyone but a ballplayer.” It was easy to think Hey, Piazza looks like he could strap on the catcher’s gear and get after it, but the calendar doesn’t lie — Mike’s 45, ancient for a ballplayer and positively cruel for a catcher. Alfonzo, now finally truly retired, is grayer and thicker, while Franco’s pugnacity has mellowed into a kind of grizzled gravitas. Keith looks dapper and rakish in his vest, as if headed off to swap stories over Dos Equises with other most interesting men in the world. As for the players who came before his time, they’re now old men — old men with a grace and glamour, to be sure, as witnessed by Ed Charles’s gleeful twirl of his cane, but very far from turning two and taking the extra base.

That’s not meant to be insulting or upsetting — it’s the way of things. When David Wright crouched behind the plate to catch the ceremonial toss from his old teammate [1], my mind flashed forward to Wright’s own ceremony at Citi Field, when Piazza will be the gray elder statesman, Keith white-haired but still regal and faintly amused, and so on up the chain. But the thought made me happy, not sad — because all those old warriors will be Mets, however big the gap between the men on the field and their younger selves preserved on video. Wright will head to the mound, faintly awkward in street clothes, toe the rubber and then think better of it and set up camp a bit down the slope of the mound. Then he’ll fire the ball to someone in a Mets uniform whose name I don’t know yet but who is on the way nonetheless, to be heralded and awaited and fretted over and dissected and dismissed and accepted and embraced and finally just loved, as Buddy and Keith and Dwight and Mike are loved.

And that sense of double vision stuck with me through the game. Almost immediately we saw Eric Young Jr. racing around the field like an overcaffeinated greyhound, stealing bases and scrambling for home and throwing runners out and claiming a stolen-base crown that’s 83% ours. I’m always faintly embarrassed that I get Young confused with his father, but today that struck me as a cheerful tangle — just like I was cheered by the sight of Juan Centeno. Centeno’s all of four games into his big-league career, and a Shetland pony to Piazza’s warhorse. But he’s awfully quick, coming down with a Young throw to smack Jeff Bianchi in the back before he could score and then flying across the plate to connect with Sean Halton’s neck before he took possession of the plate.

One day, perhaps, I’ll get Eric Young Jr. confused with Eric Young III. Years from now, maybe, some Mets backstop will make an acrobatic tag and I’ll remember Juan Centeno. If so, I hope I’ll remember that Young and Centeno played with David Wright, who played with Mike Piazza, and they were together for one sunny day [2], at the end of a September and a now long-ago season.