Someday Spring Training will end, and when it does…what’s that? It’s over? More or less?
Didn’t see that coming.
Hallelujah, the Mets are done with grapefruits and slot machines at last, saving a couple of days here near March’s conclusion for un petit peu de poutine up Montreal way. Nice to pretend the Expos exist again for a weekend, unless somebody gets hurt on that mashugana Olympic Stadium carpet, in which case, what a terrible idea this was.
Canadian detour notwithstanding, Opening Day finally awaits, though there’s still a bit of roster business to be settled around the uninspiring margins. It doesn’t get much more marginal than choosing a backup for Ruben Tejada, himself a dubious Met starter unless/until he makes me eat those words smothered in cheese curds and gravy. The role could be awarded once more to Omar Quintanilla, who has familiarity going for him if nothing else (which there doesn’t appear to be after Q’s batted .158 thus far this spring), or Anthony Seratelli, a personable local boy who would be a great story, save for his having done close to nothing to take a job from Omar Quintanilla.
Seratelli is 31, a lifelong baseball underdog and totally untested at the major league level. Plus he’s local, which we already mentioned. One is tempted to guess the Mets are considering him instead of Quintanilla because then they’d have the chance to sell a few more tickets in the otherwise untapped Edison, N.J., market. If he rockets a few balls off the ol’ Big O concrete, hikes his exhibition average well above its current .213 and handles grounders competently, maybe he’ll overtake valuably experienced Omar and line up for introductions at Citi Field on Monday.
If that happens, then for a few moments before Anthony Seratelli inevitably wears out his utilityman welcome (or makes me ingest my cynicism like it’s smoked meat smuggled through customs), it would loom as the heartwarmingest of chilly March 31 moments. A pristine rookie tipping his cap on Opening Day — whether or not the stands include family and friends — would and should move everybody who realizes what’s going on to heartily applaud. When Scott Rice emerged from utter obscurity last Opening Day to hear Alex Anthony announce his name, you could feel the part of the crowd that was cognizant of the significance of his hard-earned beam with onlookers’ pride.
You don’t always get a major league debut on Opening Day (especially if you’re nurturing Super Two concerns more than you are hopes of contending) and you don’t necessarily get the major league debut you want on Opening Day, but what better setting could you conjure for a first day as a big leaguer than the first day of a new season? There’s no bad day to make the majors for the first time, of course, but making it on Day One is the stuff of cotton candy dreams and puffy cumulus reality.
Then there’s the opposite. There’s the day you stop being a major leaguer. There’s no good day for that.
Thing is you probably don’t know that it’s happening even as it happens. Certainly if you’re Chipper Jones in 2012 or Mariano Rivera in 2013 or Derek Jeter in 2014, you can lavishly choreograph your farewell (if it were up to me, all three would have taken their final bows in early 1996 and, by their subsequent collective absence, made the turn of the millennium a Metsian paradise), but most players aren’t those players. Most players don’t or can’t announce in advance that this is it for them. It’s not necessarily their call.
As much of a premium as we put on who’s gonna make a team coming out of Spring Training, we lose sight that this also tends to be the time of year when not only do guys not make the cut, they sometimes hang it up with no warning and minimal fanfare. Among the stream of longtime major leaguers who have quietly nodded over the past couple of months that, yup, that’s it, I’m done, are old friends or at least acquaintances Dan Wheeler, Liván Hernandez, Rick Ankiel, Rod Barajas, Valentino Pascucci, Jason Bay and the ever popular Guillermo Mota. No goodbye tours, no hauling parting gifts back to the mansion. Just the need to find something else to do.
Some of the above had been hanging on in what we used to call the bushes or had been reserving final self-judgment just to make certain they were really and truly done. They didn’t have to be officially released to know they weren’t going to be major leaguers anymore. If somebody had wanted them to play, they’d probably be playing. This weekend, Tim Byrdak, Met lefty specialist from 2011 through 2013, will be Josh Lewin’s radio partner for the games against the Blue Jays in Montreal. It’s not because Byrdak would rather be broadcasting than pitching. Tim’s let it be known he’s available to face lefties for a major league team. Thirty major league teams didn’t take him up on his generous offer.
The game goes on without any one player, which has to be the most humbling realization for an athlete to face. There are no more chances to make an enormous paycheck and, just as unfortunately for them, there are no more chances to compete on the highest plane in the world. They were major league baseball players. They might not have always succeeded (and fans like us might have taken strenuous note of their shortcomings), but they were at the top of their profession. The profession proceeds and the individuals move on.
When they’re gone, the retired players also miss out on the chance to create the best memories possible, both for them and for us. They don’t get to win anymore. They don’t get to try to win anymore. It’s quite possible the last thing they did on a big league field was lose. Their final act might not define their careers, but talk about going out on a low note.
Here are some more names you’ll probably recognize: Brian Lawrence, Dave Williams, Aaron Sele, Shawn Green, Willie Collazo, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Jeff Conine and Sandy Alomar, Jr. All of them are attached to a rather dismaying thread. Each man played his final major league game as a Met. As a 2007 Met. As a 2007 Met in the second half of that September.
Every one of these guys was a component of the Worst Collapse in Baseball History and never got to redeem himself. Their respective last acts as active major leaguers, aside from tipping the clubhouse staff, was to help blow a lead of seven games with seventeen to play and keep from the Mets from returning to the playoffs…where the Mets still haven’t been since.
The Collapse of 2007 — to differentiate it from the deflation of 2008 — was every bit the team effort 1969 and 1986 were, except in reverse. It was the fault of no given Met; it was the fault of every given Met. Some of the 2007 Mets continued being Mets in the year or years following and were able to leave better impressions. They had the opportunity, at any rate. The aforementioned octet didn’t. They retired. Or they tried to hook on elsewhere but were left to sink at sea. They didn’t play another major league game for anybody after they didn’t boost the 2007 Mets to the postseason. They weren’t able to turn the page or put it all behind them or activate whichever cliché they leaned on to get them through a slump.
Not only didn’t they get to go out on their own terms, they didn’t get to go out on our own terms.
If you’re a ballplayer, you’ve looked forward since you became a ballplayer to the moment that might await Anthony Seratelli on Monday, the same moment that likely awaits Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero within the next few months. You’re gonna be breaking in. But someday, hopefully after many seasons and many successes, you’ll be going out. And when you do, a word of advice from someone who’s never played the game, but watched it a whole lot:
Try not to leave the Worst Collapse in Baseball History in your wake. Your fans will appreciate it. Thank you and best of luck in your careers.
I had the pleasure of joining Taryn “Coop” Cooper in the Mets Lounge for a little season preview talk. Listen here to all of it, find me a little after the 35-minute mark.