It took only 46 seasons for me to wonder if choosing the New York Mets as the defining passion of my life represented the right call. It took perhaps the most excruciating loss I’ve witnessed to date at Citi Field to push me to question this aspect of my existence.
Saturday night was just perfect in its terribleness. It had all the ingredients: a rain delay; a traditionally reviled opponent; a sizable sprinkling of the reviled opponents’ fans; ties blown; a lead melted; opportunities squandered; and a result that dropped the Mets into last place.
I suppose it would have been worse had the Mets been playing for a postseason berth, but this is the Citi Field era. No such prize has been at stake since Shea Stadium stood. Losses at Shea tended to feel much worse. Losses at Citi Field have been something shy of consequential.
The consequences of losing to the Phillies, 5-4, may be no more than evanescent in pictures small, medium and big. A drop into last place on May 10 isn’t permanent. With 127 games remaining in 2014, everything you’ve heard about anything being possible remains valid. In addition to solely occupying last place, the Mets are also sitting only three games out of a Wild Card spot despite having lost their last five and eight of their previous nine.
Standings, however, aren’t really what’s getting me down. 16-19 isn’t getting me down. Even 1-8 since this month began doesn’t fully dictate my mood. Something about the way they let Saturday’s game get away — on top of Friday’s extra-inning loss and the series sweep with the two walkoff losses in Miami and that 11-10 debacle in Denver a week ago — has infiltrated my soul. The way it got away and the way I sat there and watched it get away and the way those around me (a handful of young, drunken, douchebag deluxe Phillies fans) were able to enjoy it and leave the premises not only cackling but carrying Nolan Ryan bobbleheads…
Say, why are Phillies fans handed Nolan Ryan bobbleheads at Citi Field and, for that matter, do the Phillies hand out bobbleheads of Ferguson Jenkins? I bring up the Cub ace of the 1960s and ’70s as a parallel regarding teams commemorating their roles in launching the careers of Hall of Fame pitchers, which is to say they brought them to the major leagues and then traded them before their greatness kicked in.
The Phillies traded Ferguson Jenkins to the Cubs and Ferguson Jenkins became a name you recognize. The Mets traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels and same thing.
I was relatively thrilled when I saw the Mets would be giving away Nolan again. It had to be better than the first time they did so, on December 10, 1971. They stressed it was 1969 Nolan Ryan, so as to add cachet to an otherwise odd promotional choice (BobbleNolan, by the by, is not bearing the MLB uniform patch that would distinguish him specifically as a Miracle Met, but we’ll let that slide). Of course Nolan Ryan packs plenty of cachet given his Hall of Fame status, an honor he earned as a California Angel, Houston Astro and Texas Ranger. There was Hall of Fame potential around Nolan Ryan as a New York Met, and Nolan Ryan contributed to a world championship — the only world championship he celebrated in 27 seasons of pitching — as a New York Met. But only a cockeyed reading of his Cooperstown credentials implies Nolan Ryan is plaqueworthy because of what he did as a New York Met.
It’s probably overly parochial to point out that if we’re immortalizing 1969 Mets besides three-timer Tom Seaver as bobbleheads, Nolan Ryan by all rights should get in line behind Gil Hodges. And Jerry Koosman. And Cleon Jones. And Tommie Agee. And Ron Swoboda. And Ed Kranepool, Donn Clendenon, Gary Gentry, Ed Charles, Art Shamsky, Ron Taylor, Tug McGraw, Al Weis…well, you get the idea. I’m so happy the Mets got religion when it comes to their bobbleheads and now commemorate eternal Mets in reality, not just my imagination, that I’m not going to quibble that Nolan Ryan didn’t exactly deserve to go second, after Seaver.
Besides, Nolan has a cookbook to promote, and judging by the CitiVision segments in which he read trivia questions and deigned to discuss the New York segment of his career, his consenting to be remembered a bit as a Met was a small price to pay when there are beef and barbecue recipes to plug.
The following pair of lists haven’t been thoroughly vetted, but I think it decently reflects reality.
TEN GREATEST MLB CAREERS THAT BEGAN WITH THE METS
1. Tom Seaver
2. Nolan Ryan
3. Jerry Koosman
4. Dwight Gooden
5. Darryl Strawberry
6. David Wright
7. Ken Singleton
8. Amos Otis
9. Tug McGraw
10. Jesse Orosco
I didn’t say “greatest players” and I haven’t looked up everybody’s WAR. “Greatest careers” implies not just statistical performance but what those careers encompassed, including team glory and individual accolades, whether accomplished as a Met or at future stops.
The first two fellows, Seaver and Ryan, are in the Hall of Fame. Koosman deserved more consideration than he received. Gooden and Strawberry are boosted here by world championships and starpower (besides fistfuls of monster seasons that tend to be overlooked amid their respective melodramas). Singleton and Otis were smaller-scale Ryans in terms of blossoming post-Met; neither was larger than life, but each was consistently excellent for very good teams. Premier closers Tug and Jesse — who pitched in more games than anybody ever — got the nods over premier closing brethren Jeff Reardon, Jason Isringhausen, Rick Aguilera and Randy Myers because, quite frankly, they’re Tug and Jesse.
And coming up fast, maybe rated a little too low in this context, is David Wright. David’s just about the best position player the Mets have ever had; that is as a Met. Greater players have spent parts of their careers as Mets and several of them have ended as Mets, but those stints were, at best, flourishes, and at worst, fadeouts. Since we had beginnings above, let’s have unvetted conclusions here.
TEN GREATEST MLB CAREERS THAT ENDED WITH THE METS
1. Willie Mays
2. Yogi Berra
3. Gil Hodges
4. Richie Ashburn
5. Gary Sheffield
6. Joe Torre
7. Carlos Delgado
8. Rusty Staub
9. Willie Randolph
10. Larry Bowa
(In case you’re itching to throw some more Hall of Famers into the discussion, Duke Snider, Warren Spahn, Eddie Murray and Rickey Henderson, to name four, left the Mets and played with other teams before retiring.)
Happy 83rd birthday from the other day (May 6) to No. 1 on this list, Willie Mays. Willie Mays the Met would look good on a bobblehead. Willie Mays the two-franchise New York National League baseball icon of icons would look great at Citi Field should the Mets decide to notice he’s 83 and there’s no time like the present to complete the trilogy of Willie Mays Nights. There was one at the Polo Grounds in 1963, one at Shea Stadium in 1973 and none at Citi Field so far.
Don’t get me started on Willie Mays or I’ll never get back to my existential crisis.
Without diving too deep into the “ended” list, everybody but Torre and Delgado made a World Series as a player. Everybody on the “beginning” list made a World Series as a player…everybody except Wright, that is. One postseason in which David Wright produces like David Wright has for a decade of regular seasons would do wonders for David Wright’s place on lists like these. All that keeps me at this juncture from already declaring David Wright the greatest position player in Mets history is the lack of a postseason that reaches beyond what David (and Delgado) achieved in 2006.
When I think about Keith Hernandez and Mike Piazza, I think of them lifting the Mets to a world or league championship. When I think about Strawberry, I think about him coming through in the most dramatic moments in service to the most lofty of goals. When I think about David Wright, I don’t get to think that. I know he has most every Met record there is and will have the rest soon enough. After hitting his long-awaited second home run of this season, he’s 28 behind Darryl for most ever hit in a Met uniform. Probably when he passes Straw for homers, I will decide no Met has ever done anything (except run) better than Wright.
But if he leads the Mets to a league or world championship, I will bump him right up against Seaver and over everybody else pronto. Because if he does that, it would do wonders for the franchise to which he is de facto betrothed for the rest of his baseball-playing days. And it would do wonders for the likes of a 46-year fan who left Saturday’s game pondering a genuine existential crisis about his life choice to be a Mets fan.
Wright was the star of the game on the Mets side. There was that homer, a two-run job in the first, propelling David from the schneid where he’d lingered since Opening Day. Even though the reborn slugger himself dismissed the event as a non-event — “I don’t build my game around hitting home runs, so it wasn’t too much of a monkey at all” — I found it sweet release to stand and applaud a David Wright home run. He’d been singling and doubling and making play after play at third, but when you’ve got the man who’s going to lead your team all-time in home runs, you want him to hit one more often than every forty days.
There was the homer in the first that tied the score at two (I forgot just how much Dillon Gee struggles against the Phillies). There was the double in the sixth that tied it at three. Then there was the single that started the eighth, the inning that was going to mean business for the Mets.
First David singles, then Curtis Granderson does the same, and there’s two on and nobody out and the Mets are golden. It’s 4-4 by now, with Eric Campbell’s bid to begin a spectacular MLB career of his own bolstered by his sac fly in the sixth and Terry Collins’s decision to replace Gee after six ultimately quality innings (81 pitches) proving quirky, to put it kindly. Scott Rice was underwhelming when asked to do more than he usually does in the seventh and our brief 4-3 lead was erased by the old dirty bastards of South Philadelphia, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.
But now, in the bottom of the eighth, gold glittered just up ahead. Chris Young, the power hitter who conquered Citi Field’s far reaches on the last homestand was up, and he had every chance of…
Yes, Terry Collins asked his No. 5 hitter to sacrifice Wright to third and Granderson to second. And at that, Young succeeded. Would have been swell had he done more, like driven in the go-ahead run, but when you’re managing with an eye on tying — in the eighth inning, not the ninth — you can only ask so much. Two on still, but one out.
Next up was Campbell the raw rookie; the sensation of Spring Training; the John J. Murphy Award winner; the sac fly specialist from two innings earlier when he pinch-hit for Lucas Duda after Ryne Sandberg opted for lefty Jake Diekman (quite the vote of confidence for Campbell…and quite the opposite for Duda). Sandberg this time wanted righty Mike Adams to walk righty Eric Campbell to set up a double play in anticipation of the black hole known as the bottom of the Mets’ order coming up.
One ball was thrown intentionally to Campbell. But no more. Utley — not Sandberg, but Utley — figured out lefty Bobby Abreu was loosening up for the Mets, likely to pinch-hit much sooner than later. He also figured out Adams would be better off trying to get out Campbell, veteran of one major league plate appearance, than Le Grand Abreu. So Utley — not Sandberg — called off the intentional walk and Adams pitched to Campbell.
And it worked. Campbell struck out. After Wilmer Flores walked, Abreu did indeed bat for Travis d’Arnaud. And Abreu tapped out to Adams.
“That was pretty neat to watch,” said Sandberg, the Phillie manager turned trusting observer.
It wasn’t neat to watch if you weren’t in the Phillie dugout or were sitting adjacent to young, drunken, douchebag deluxe Phillie fans who didn’t need success to fuel their obnoxiousness (when they weren’t drinking or cursing or generally making a case for not being missed should they take a fatal tumble down the Promenade steps, they were relentlessly imitating a professional wrestler who repeatedly points upward and chants “Yes! Yes! Yes!”). They didn’t need a boost from their team, but they got it. The Mets, on the other hand, had a golden chance to score and didn’t score. They could have taken a lead but didn’t take a lead. They…just didn’t is what they did.
In the top of the ninth, journeyman Kyle Farnsworth records two quick outs, but the crimson-clad ODBs pull a reverse-Mets, much as they did during the last Septembers that meant anything around here. It’s Rollins walking, Utley singling, Rollins racing to third and Ryan Howard driving Rollins in. The allegedly decrepit Phillies are taming the equally allegedly rising Met tide, 5-4.
Kyle Farnsworth surrendered a go-ahead run. Go figure.
Then, in the bottom of the ninth, as “PAP!” comes on to close out the Mets, there is a glint of light. After two blink-quick outs, Jonathan Papelbon walks Daniel Murphy. Murphy takes off for second, not the keenest of concepts given a) Carlos Ruiz’s arm and b) the possibility that the batter, Wright, would be put on so “PAP!” could pitch to Granderson (who would you rather face?), but Murphy makes it and Wright is still batting and neither Utley nor Sandberg is instructing Papelbon to walk him.
And there’s Wright, almost the greatest positional Met ever, almost the greatest Met who isn’t Tom Seaver. He’s got three hits tonight. He’s so good that one of the Phillie fans is grumbling about “Captain America”. I’m thinking, this is the time, David. This is the time the greatest of Met hitters — and there haven’t been a bunch — make every difference in the world. Strawberry takes somebody deep. Hernandez lines one perfectly. Piazza flips the scoreboard.
The date was May 10. Exactly eleven years ago to the day, it occurred to me, I was at a game with my pal Joe — the same guy I was with Saturday night — that Piazza won with a tenth-inning home run off the Padres’ Jaret Wright. We as Mets fans swoon over Piazza because of home runs like that. We as Mets fans revere Hernandez, goofy broadcasting and all, because of nights like the one I experienced in 1984 when he came up four separate times with a runner in scoring position and he made certain the runner scored. I still talk about Keith’s four RBIs from thirty years ago. I still talk about Mike shifting tectonic plates in ninth innings. I can still see Darryl shocking Nolan Ryan with a home run in October 1986 when Nolan was an Astro and more seething than bobbling — and that was two days after Darryl did something spectacularly similar to Bob Knepper.
I wanted David to do at Citi Field what Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez and Mike Piazza did at Shea Stadium. I wanted David to do at Citi Field what David Wright did at Shea Stadium one sunny afternoon in the old yard’s final summer. I wanted David Wright to give me a night to talk about and think about and write about for the rest of my Met life. I wanted to someday be able to remind everybody about that time Wright beat Papelbon with a two-run homer, the night he went four-for-four, the night he put the Mets on his back and kept them out of the cellar.
Though to be fair, I would have settled for a well-placed single to score Murphy. Or a walk to bring up Granderson and whatever his well-spoken .187 bat had to say for itself. I didn’t want David to foul out…which is what he did to end the game.
And that was the moment I wondered, what am I doing here? Why do I keep coming back? Will this ever get any better? As the drunken douchebag deluxe kiddie corps cackled its way to the parking lot (great, they drove), in my mind I heard the school-marmish voices of so many best-intentioned Mets fans who would not hesitate to inform me that it’s OK; that the organization is in good shape; that the current administration knows what it’s doing; that you can’t judge how well things are going by how poorly things are going. They might even find a way to explain that a perennially low payroll dependent on Kyle Farnsworths and Wilmer Floreses and Eric Campbells isn’t an indication of an inability to compete financially but the product of subtly sound judgment.
In my mind, I screamed at them like I wanted to punch out the Phillies fans.
As I hoofed out of my section, trying to ignore both “New York State Of Mind” and the Phillie fan ringleader who said he didn’t want to hear Billy Joel right now (dope, if you knew anything, that’s exactly who you’d want to hear, because it’s only played right after the last out when the Mets lose), I noticed a half-consumed fountain beverage. It took all my restraint to not grab it and hurl it at the ground. I did that at Shea once when the Mets lost in excruciating fashion…really excruciating fashion because the Mets were competing for a Wild Card. This was when I was 35 and too old to be throwing tantrums let alone beverages in public. I’m 51 now. Such behavior hasn’t grown more socially acceptable.
What linked that night in 1998 with this night in 2014 was I couldn’t bring myself to say a word to Joe as we strode silently to the train (that and Joe’s unprompted insight that “this would be a good night to throw a soda”). Taking a loss is less and less a big deal as I go along, season to season, decade to decade. The Citi Field Mets make it so routine that it almost doesn’t leave a mark. If the Mets don’t bleed to win, why should I be reaching for Band-Aids? I assume the players are bothered. I know one of them was for sure. While I clomped down the stairs, Wright stayed put in the dugout, ruminating on just missing on Papelbon’s last pitch, describing losing as something that “sucks”.
He knows. But he’ll be out there again Sunday, because he’s David Wright and it’s his job and it’s his passion.
I’ll be out there again Sunday, too. It’s not my job. It’s presumably my passion. For ten, twenty, thirty minutes, I found that hard to believe. I felt not anger but dispassion. I rifled through these past 46 seasons like they were cards in a Rolodex. I reveled in the highs, despaired of the lows and couldn’t really fit what I’d just felt into any of it. Jerks from Philadelphia were rewarded with a win. I bought my ticket, I collected my bobblehead in good historical faith, I rooted to the third power for the home team. I still had Nolan Ryan, but nothing else to show for showing up. I couldn’t imagine ever having anything to show for it. I couldn’t imagine the Mets not being a losing team. I was overcome with the sense that the two world championships I cherish from when I was 6 and 23 are never going to be joined by a third. I doubted if I’d ever see playoffs again.
I was too bothered by how this game unraveled to say I didn’t care. (Hell, I came home and produced Met-intensive lists whose topics straddle the border of obscure and obsessed.) But for maybe a half-hour I couldn’t imagine caring as much as I have anymore. Then Joe and I started talking, and even though we were both disgusted, the whole thing settled into normality: when our next game together might be and who might be pitching the eighth and ninth by then.
I will care. It’s what I do, even if it’s not my job. It doesn’t go away. Just like the losing, which, as no less an authority than David Wright can confirm, sucks.