Jon Niese must’ve put his glove in front of his pitching arm and stabbed a sizzler of fate, for he has caught a break. He hasn’t caught a debilitating elbow injury at any rate. The presumptive first-game thrower who visits MRI tubes like less wholesome athletes might frequent strip clubs left Sunday’s game with discomfort in his left elbow. The sensible reaction was to remember him fondly now that his career has ended, but no, it’s just inflammation.
“Just” inflammation…easy for us whose elbows aren’t inflamed to say.
Anyway, Niese isn’t lost for the season but he’s probably bound for the DL just long enough to knock him out from repeating as Opening Day Starter, which is a shame for Niese, of course, but represents no more than a reordering of rotation deck chairs if indeed all he needs is cortisone. If he’s not unduly sidelined (when it comes to the Mets and “discomfort,” we imagine the worst ASAP and seek clarification later), he looms as the Sixth Day Starter, an occasion for which there has never been a name until now.
As for who starts Opening Day instead of Jonathon, it only matters in that one of your nine men on the field has to be a pitcher. It didn’t much matter that Niese was the Opening Day Starter, not in the sense that you look at Jon Niese and you think “there’s an ace…that’s who starts the first game of the season…get a load of the cut of the jib on that fellow!” Some pitchers are Opening Day Starters who inhabit the role; others are guys who happen to be pitching the first game of the season because somebody has to and there’s no overly obvious choice for the assignment.
Niese was that last year. With Johan Santana out and R.A. Dickey traded, there was nobody else who earned it on reputation and/or merit, so Niese was tabbed primarily for Met time served. This year against Washington on March 31, Terry Collins can go with the veteran from somewhere else in Bartolo Colon, or the guy who’s hung in here the longest in Dillon Gee (who also happens to pitch exceedingly well versus the Nationals, hint, hint). Collins doesn’t seem inclined to go with the guy who maintains the highest ceiling in Zack Wheeler. Nobody exactly cancels out everybody else the way a healthy Matt Harvey would.
Harvey’s the kind of Opening Day starter who gets you dreaming. Harvey’s the ace you truly want to lift your lid. What you want and what you take, however, are two distinct things.
When you’ve been deprived of baseball that counts for six months — and you remind yourself every game counts the same, ceremonial pomp notwithstanding — you’ll take anybody. You’ll take Pete Harnisch in 1997, from when the Mets had nobody else particularly prepared to grab the reins. You’ll take Randy Jones in 1982, from when April snows forced George Bamberger to improvise. You’ll take Mike Pelfrey in 2011, even if it was a bad idea to maneuver him into the spotlight against the Marlins, who owned him the way Gee owns the Nats.
But what you want is the pitcher who’s the moral equivalent of Tropicana — the pitcher who gets your juices flowing. You want Pedro Martinez in 2005. You want Santana from 2008 to 2010 and again in 2012. You want, because you were conditioned to expect no more than frozen concentrated, Craig Swan in 1979 and 1980. You want Dwight Gooden those eight seasons when you could have him. The only times you couldn’t were when he was not experienced (1984), not recovering from shoulder surgery (1992) and not confined to Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center (1987).
What you really want for an Opening Day Starter is Tom Seaver.
If you were a Mets fan every year Tom Seaver was a Met, you could set your calendar to Opening Day by the sight of Tom Seaver throwing your team’s first pitch. The only outlier within that twelve-season sample was 1967, when Wes Westrum resisted the temptation to go with his best-looking pitcher. Seaver had never been in the majors before and you just don’t start a raw rookie on Opening Day. Westrum went with Don Cardwell instead and deferred Seaver’s major league debut for the season’s second game.
From then on, for more than a decade, no Met season would start without Seaver on the mound, a testament to both his enormous stature and fortunate health. To put his string of appearances in perspective, Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra and Joe Frazier never had cause to call on another Opening Day starting pitcher during their respective Met managerial tenures. And every year from 1968 through 1977 (and again under George Bamberger in 1983), you always assumed the Mets would start the season 1-0 because they always had the best pitcher in the world going for them.
Watching Seaver slip his left hand into his glove and wrap his right hand around a ball made being a Mets fan wonderful. It must have made managing at least the first pitch of every season a delight. Hodges knew that sensation before anybody else. And that man knew a little something about pitching and, don’t ya know, a little something about gloves.
Gil came to the majors as a catcher, a position where the Dodgers were pretty well set in the late 1940s. Recognizing the emergence of Roy Campanella and what his presence would mean to the Brooklyn lineup, Leo Durocher handed Hodges a first baseman’s glove in 1948 and “three days later,” in the Lip’s esteem, “I’m looking at the best first baseman I’d seen since Dolph Camilli.” Indeed, the first Gold Glove ever awarded to a first baseman went to Hodges in 1957. He took home the prize the next two years, too.
But once you’re a catcher, it’s probably impossible to not view the world from behind the plate. Hodges surrounded himself with catchers when he managed the Mets. Three of his four coaches — Berra, Rube Walker and Joe Pignatano — all crouched for a living. It can’t be a coincidence that the Mets nurtured great pitchers in their day (let alone their all-time best defensive backstop, Jerry Grote).
It’s safe to say Hodges knew his defensive gear. He recognized a good glove, no matter how many fingers with which it was equipped. But did you know that there’s a glove story like no other that hinges on Gil’s heart more than his hands?
I didn’t until someone wrote to us to tell us all about it. A gentleman in Florida named Fred Stankovich got in touch not long after he read about the presentation of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award at this year’s Queens Baseball Convention. I’m thrilled that he did.
Take it away, Fred:
I grew up in the shadow of Shea (Flushing) and attended the very last game at the Polo Grounds (still got the grass from the first base line as the field was torn apart after the game) and the first game at Shea. (Cut school for the first time to attend. Sat in the last row, last seat in right field so the cameras wouldn’t pick me up and bust me.)
A quick blurb about Mr. Hodges. I was working at LaGuardia Airport, midnight shift, renting cars for National Car Rental in my senior year of college. During the summer of ’69, with the Mets woefully trailing the pack, the Mets were scheduled to arrive on a flight back in LaGuardia after a night road game. Those were the days when they arrived at baggage claim to get their luggage like anyone else. I went out to my car and got my baseball glove and a pen. I approached Mr. Hodges as he was waiting for the luggage to come to the carousel. I asked if I could please have his autograph (My Dad loved him from the Dodgers’ era.) He said, “Sure, son”.
He pulled out his own pen, signed the glove and as I reached for it, he held up his hand as if to say, “Hold on a second.” He then passed the glove and pen to the player next to him. And away it went. The 1969 Mets ALL signed MY baseball glove!! When it finally came back to Mr. Hodges, he handed it to me with a big smile. I nearly dropped dead.
How cool was that? Well it was my only glove and that weekend I had to play ball, so I used it in center field, showing it off to all my buddies. We were all impressed, but the game had to go on. Too bad I didn’t have the appreciation for Met memorabilia back then. That glove is in Japan somewhere now as I traded it for a new glove while serving in the Marines over there.
I can understand Fred’s “Ouch!!” but no matter what that glove would be worth today, that story will remain priceless forever.