Like the swallows that return to Capistrano every March, Mets fans dependably make the pilgrimage to Port St. Lucie every spring. It’s not so much what they see that spurs them onto southbound flights but what they feel. And what Ryder Chasin felt when he was treated to a longer than expected weekend in the temporary center of our universe is something we can all experience vicariously thanks to him being kind enough to write it up exclusively for Faith and Fear in Flushing readers.
Ryder last wrote for us when he covered the first Citi Field sleepover. Now our good friend and special correspondent presents his impressions of the 2014 baseball season as it begins to stir far from home.
It was a cold winter, mostly spent huddled in the dark, unblinking and mouth agape, ceaselessly and helplessly watching MLB Network — I could probably recite most of the Top Ten Right Now lists by memory — and scrolling through the 2013 archives of my fantasy league to try to relive the days of summer. But The Bite still itched.
Any moment not spent staring at the TV was reluctantly spent at school, where doodles of team logos and theoretical Mets lineups decorated my desks; I paid a little less attention to physics and a little more attention to where Juan Lagares looks best in the order (6? 7? 2? Then where does Murph go?). But The Bite still itched.
The QBC gave it a good, hard scratch, and the 2014 FanGraphs and ESPN projections provided sweet, albeit temporary, relief. But, suffice it to say, The Bite still itched.
See, it takes more than talk to satisfy The Bite of the baseball bug. It takes sun. It takes crowds. Put simply, it takes baseball. Right?
Well thanks to my wonderfully accommodating parents, that prescription was filled. My father and I, with the hope of there being tickets available at the door, hopped on a plane and took our fifth annual trip down to Port St. Lucie in an attempt to heal the infamous, if not abominable, Bite.
Opening Day, Friday, 2/28:
Nationals 5 Mets 4
Though it was our fifth trip to camp, going to Spring Training Opening Day was a Chasin first. Our flight landed two hours before the national anthem, leaving us just enough time to hustle our way over to Tradition Field, buy our tickets, grab a Taco-in-a-Helmet (for those who haven’t had the pleasure, it truly is a disgusting yet delicious staple of Mets spring training) and get seated. We decided to celebrate being there for the first game, so we splurged and spent an exorbitant $20 a pop to sit first row, right next to the Mets bullpen.
The seats allowed me the pleasure of giving an acknowledged head-nod to Dave Racaniello; the silent bliss of watching the exceptionally sharp Rafael Montero pitch his pregame bullpen from ten feet away; the starstruck joy of waving down Dan Warthen after the game to ask him, since I hadn’t heard any news, how Jenrry was looking.
“Outstanding,” he said.
The game itself went down as a Met loss. Then again, every Spring Training game is a wash. But it wasn’t the result that mattered. No, what mattered was the Ike Davis moonshot and seeing Granderson in right and watching the jersey numbers ascend from the teens to the 60s as the game grew older. I didn’t care that the Mets were losing. I cared that the Mets were playing.
However, just as I felt the obtrusive Bite finally being scratched, the unfortunate metaphor physically manifested itself, and — perhaps due to the previously taco-filled helmets gathered under our seats — a swarm of flies started to loiter around us. The brave men and women of section 116 tried to combat the hive, but it was to no avail. We mutually decided just to ignore the bugs and try to enjoy the last few innings of the game. Nonetheless, metaphorically or otherwise, I was bitten. Again.
Day 2, Saturday, 3/1:
Marlins 9 Mets 1
Thankfully we had another day to try to cure the fresh Bite. This time we had no flight to keep us from getting to the park early and walking through camp. We again saw Montero, from even closer than ten feet, and my dad shook his hand to wish him luck this year. I’m not sure how much he understood, but he still said thank you and gave him a smile. If only all players were so courteous.
One courteous man was Terry Collins, who not only smiled and laughed through a good 15-second conversation, but who was kind enough to take a picture with me, putting himself in an uncomfortable pose where he had to reach his arm both over the fence and over my shoulder to make it look amicable. Despite the discomfort, and the fact that my FAFIF shirt did not make an appearance, I think it turned out just fine.
Before too long, though, we were kicked from our spot at batting practice, and had to make our way inside the stadium. Another Taco-in-a-Helmet later, and we were in seats with which we’re more accustomed, in the second deck, but at a perfect vantage point to see the misplaced John Lannan take on the Marlins.
Duda’s tape-measure blast was the only Mets Magic of note at the game. It turned out, of course, to be a 9-1 rout, and, though I said the results don’t matter, the deflation wasn’t just seen on the scoreboard, but also on the field. So, while Opening Day brought so much to cheer for, Saturday’s game brought nothing but wonted pessimism — not to mention it didn’t much help The Bite.
Day 3, Sunday, 3/2:
No Game Attended
I woke up expecting to go home Sunday night, with The Bite still itchy as ever. We had packed our bags in the morning and headed out to do non-baseball-related (thus, I suppose, uninteresting) activities, when we got word that our flight into JFK was canceled due to the impending superstorm that was projected to hit the New York area. With that, my dad and I had won a bonus day in Florida, separated by only a two-hour drive from Champion Stadium in Kissimmee, where the Mets would play the Braves on Monday. Our agenda was immediately set.
Side note: I hear now that the storm never really hit. I don’t know if I believe in fate, but I’m starting to think that maybe there was never going to be a storm at all; that maybe it was the work of some gracious Baseball God who understood the feeling of The Bite and knew I had to see just one more game. But I digress.
Day 4, Monday, 3/3:
Mets 6 Braves 2
It wasn’t until the morning that I discovered Syndergaard was starting. I let out a giddy yelp and sent a text to three of my other Mets friends, eliciting justifiably mixed responses.
“Tell me how Thor looks,” one said.
“Lucky man,” said another.
“I hate you,” said the third.
With ample excitement in my heart and ample sunscreen on my nose, we made our way to the stadium. Champion Stadium is a part of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney, and so the employees are all Disney-programmed to be extraordinarily cheerful. Used to Citi Field, I was certainly a bit taken aback.
Nonetheless, aided by these unconditional smiles, we were directed into the stadium. We got there exceptionally early once again, and passed the time by sitting in the row immediately behind the Mets dugout, waving to unfamiliar faces of the non-roster invitees while pseudo-fans tossed their balls and pens to the Danny Munos and Eric Campbells of the traveling roster.
Somewhere along the way, we found out we were sitting near Matt den Dekker’s grandfather and Anthony Seratelli’s uncle-in-law. It made for some interesting conversation, and Seratelli tossed some sugar-free dugout Dubble Bubble our way.
We stayed in the seats we found behind the dugout; by another touch of the Baseball Gods, nobody came to claim them. It gave us the perfect vantage point to watch Syndergaard’s relaxed elegance — his easy 97 — through to the end of his two-inning tease. The anticipation was well worth the result, but, while I thought Syndergaard might be my fix, The Bite stayed.
Next, Familia came out throwing 98 with life, and he held the Braves to nothing over a couple of frames. He left. The Bite stayed.
Suddenly, if not fittingly, flies again swarmed our section, this time unprompted by Tacos in Helmets. I had a flashback to Friday, to the bugs — quite literally the baseball bugs — flitting around us as our row sat still, trying to ignore them and watch the game. We weren’t kidding anybody. The bugs were there, and so were their Bites. They weren’t just going to go away.
I decided that this time it was going to be different. This time I wasn’t going to sit idly by waiting for the bugs to leave. To beat this eerily accurate metaphor, this time I was going to Bite back.
What ensued was a gruesome battle, lasting the better part of four innings. More flies would swoop in, and I would swat them down or bat them with my scorecard. By the bottom of the eighth, the ground, not the air, was full of flies.
That inning, though, the Braves surged ahead to take a 2-1 lead, and the Mets looked defeated. Wild pitches and inopportune hits forced the beautiful outings from Syndergaard and Familia to go in vain. The day was almost over, and The Bite itched terribly. We trudged into the top of ninth, ready to head home.
But then an Amazin’ thing happened. A triple. Andy Brown, without warning, sliding safely into third base. And then, before I had time to mark it down in the book, a base knock. The Mets had tied it in the ninth. A few hits and a blink later, it was 5-2, and the Braves pitcher was now the one trudging off the field. A stolen base and another hit brought the Mets to threefold the opposing score as we headed into the bottom of the inning, and a “Let’s Go Mets” chant erupted at the Braves’ ballpark. After the raucous ended and the hum of the crowd reformed, I felt something I hadn’t felt in months: no itch. No Bite.
The bottom of the ninth started with good ol’ Gonzalez Germen on the bump, but the game wasn’t the focus anymore. Even if Germen gave up 20 runs — which I suppose would be impossible given how the bottom of the ninth works — there was no question as to which team won. Just then, as Germen was delivering his final pitch, my dad looked around our seats.
“No more bugs,” he said. “Guess you must have gotten them all.”
I looked at my scorecard, and recorded the final out.
“Guess so,” I said back with a smile.
Now with three games under my belt and a glimpse into happier times for the Mets, I can rest easy. No longer do I constantly feel the need to chew off my nails like an addict on withdrawal. Instead I feel content; happy. I feel, perhaps foolishly, optimistic.
But I think in the end that’s the cure to The Bite: a little optimism. There’s so much unfeeling analysis in FanGraphs and ESPN projections, and only so much speculation to make about offseason moves and top ten lists. Sometimes maybe it’s best to take a page out of Warthen’s book and look at things as though they might really be, well, outstanding.