Summer and Jacob deGrom’s first big league win each arrived in good stead on Saturday. Summer, as the artificial-lemonade commercials used to tell us, is only here a short while. DeGrom, one hopes, will stick around so long that the length of his career will rival the length of his locks. Paradoxically, time of game for Jacob deGrom’s entry into the legion of Winning Pitchers was 2:38, much quicker than baseball usually takes in this century. That means one of the shortest games of the season occurred on the longest day of the year.
Though we can all agree the crediting of individual wins isn’t the definitive metric by which to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness, a win is a win is a win. A win lasts forever. When young Jacob accepted a stream of congratulations from his teammates after the decision he’d been waiting his entire life went final, it wasn’t for improving his FIP. Kid’s a winner, just like Rick Wise was 50 years earlier to the day. Wise notched his first W on June 21, 1964, at Shea Stadium against the Mets. One assumes Rick Wise, then 18, never forgot it, even though 187 more wins (plus one in legendary Game Six of the 1975 World Series) awaited him, even though at his moment of triumph, the 18-year-old Phillie was the embodiment of an afterthought.
See, Wise’s first win came in the nightcap of a Sunday doubleheader. In the opener, Jim Bunning threw a perfect game. The regular season hadn’t seen one since 1922; there had been none in the National League since 1880. It couldn’t help but trump Rick Wise’s welcome to the win column, could it?
The cellar-dwelling Mets, 20-47 and 21 behind front-running Philadelphia by the close of business, weren’t much competition most days — “People would say to me it didn’t really count because it was against the Mets,” Bunning later acknowledged — but 27 up, 27 down, was something to behold. That the pitcher seeking perfection was wearing a visitors’ uniform didn’t much bother the 32,026 at Shea. They sportingly (or perhaps fatalistically) took Bunning’s side once history neared. As Bob Murphy observed during the ninth inning that sealed this result for the ages, “They’re Mets fans, but they appreciate a great performance.”
Talk about a win that lives forever.
Ten years later, summer commenced in conjunction with a much more common occurrence. The sagging, last-place, 26-39, defending N.L. champion Mets beat the resurgent, first-place, 35-32 Phillies, 3-1, Tom Seaver defeating Steve Carlton (for whom Wise was wisely dispatched to St. Louis a couple of years earlier). Tom winning was nothing out of the ordinary in the annals of Metsiana. This was the 139th victory of Seaver’s career. Winning was what Tom did as a matter of course. But that comfortingly familiar course was all askew as of June 21, 1974, when Tom entered the game at the Vet with a most unTerrific mark of 3-6. Even on this particular Friday night, something had to go wrong. Tom asked out after five innings, the sciatic nerve in his left buttock strained. “It hurts like hell,” he put it postgame.
Seaver’s path to the Hall of Fame, after seven seasons, had been littered by few obstacles. In his eighth season, though, little was going smoothly. His first 15 starts had produced a 3.80 ERA, and if there were interior numbers that revealed he was pitching better than his record indicated, nobody who might have devised them had yet disseminated them. A 3-6 pitcher was a 3-6 pitcher, even if he was Tom Seaver. A Shea crowd saw fit to boo him in a 7-0 loss to the Pirates in April. He opted not to speak to the press after losing a 4-3 complete game to the Giants in May. Now, having won his first game in three weeks and four starts, an injured, 4-6 Seaver couldn’t enjoy it in the least.
Literally and figuratively, 1974 was a pain in Tom’s ass.
The summer solstice emerged amid much cheerier Met cosmos on June 21, 1984. Whereas a decade earlier the Mets were on the verge of falling apart for a very long time to come, the Mets on this first summer day were coalescing as they hadn’t since the moon was in the Seaver house and Jupiter aligned with McGraw. By chance, the Mets were again playing the Phillies, this time at Shea. At stake was the top of the division. Philadelphia (37-29) owned it coming into this Thursday matinee. But it belonged to the Mets (36-27) when nine innings were over.
New York’s starter was Walt Terrell, who carried a 6-1 lead into the seventh. But the Phillies awoke and began to rake. Terrell was chased, replaced by Jesse Orosco, who allowed the Met lead to be erased. Suddenly the home team was down, 7-6. Yet just as suddenly — keyed by a run-scoring single Rusty Staub stroked when he pinch-hit for Orosco — the Mets returned fire with three in the bottom of the frame. They led, 9-7, turning the game over to Doug Sisk for safe keeping (which you could do during the first half of 1984). The Mets won, 10-7, taking over first place by a half-game and setting the tone for the first of several scintillating summers at Shea.
The winning pitcher? Because he had been on the mound directly before his club rallied, Jesse Orosco, the Met who gave up three hits, a walk and three runs in his one inning of work.
Now that what’s I call a nondefinitive metric!
Fast-forward another decade, to June 21, 1994, and you’ll find the last-place Mets (32-38) playing not the Phillies for a change, but the first-place Braves. And they’re winning, 3-2, going to the bottom of the ninth on a Tuesday night in Atlanta. Thus, this should be the heartwarming story of Mike Remlinger, making his second Met start, going six-and-a-third and edging toward his first win in a New York uniform, his first in the majors since going 2-1 for San Francisco in 1991.
Ah, but perhaps you’ve forgotten how the Mets of the 1990s attempted to secure most leads. They tasked the assignment to John Franco, who certainly piled up his share of saves, but also had a knack for allowing a few to slip away. True, every closer shares that knack on occasion, but if you lived through Franco Follies, you’re sure it happened at an alarming rate. At Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, it happened like this: with one out, Franco walked ex-Met Bill Pecota; Bobby Bonilla made a two-out error at third; two singles ensued. The Braves won, 4-3. John Franco was the losing pitcher. The winner was Atlanta reliever Mike Stanton.
Ten years minus one day later (the Mets were idle that June 21, so we’re gonna have to use June 20, 2004, as our benchmark), Stanton was Franco’s teammate in New York. John didn’t pitch in that Sunday series finale versus the Tigers, but Stanton did, which I probably wouldn’t remember, except Stephanie and I were in the process of moving into our new home. It was that day I discovered we lived a few blocks from a street known as Stanton Avenue.
Hey, I said, look — maybe it’s a good omen.
True, I wasn’t much of a fan of Mike Stanton, given his Brave and Yankee pedigree that had never quite worn off to my satisfaction, but he had just helped Steve Trachsel and the third-place Mets sweep Detroit and reach .500 (34-34), and if we can’t live on Trachsel Terrace, Piazza Plaza or Wigginton Way, Stanton Avenue will just have to do.
Then, as we approached our tenth anniversary of living in what is now the old homestead, summer dawned at 6:51 AM on June 21, 2014, and first pitch was to be televised from Marlins Park at 4:10 PM. Usually the latter is enough to sew me to my couch for the duration, which can go on forever, but here it was, the longest day of the year, and it was nice out, so Stephanie lobbied me for an in-game walk around the neighborhood. Somewhat surprisingly, I agreed to her request, even with Jacob deGrom and the Mets clinging to an unfamiliar 1-0 lead, even with, you know, the game on TV. What the hell, I thought, it’s only the first day of summer once a year.
Naturally, I brought my radio, because I always bring my radio. And just as I was getting acclimated to Howie and Josh — and just before David Wright extended deGrom’s lead to 2-0 — a lady stopped us on the sidewalk to comment on the commemorative t-shirt I just happened to be wearing.
“1986 Mets,” she said. I nodded, expecting I’m not sure what next. “The Mets won the World Series in 1986,” she offered enthusiastically.
Yup, I was thinking, that’s what the shirt says.
She went on to tell us that she was in high school then, and when the Mets won, everybody yelled and screamed and was so excited, and just seeing that reminder emblazoned across my torso made her think of all that. She seemed extremely happy to have thought of the 1986 Mets for the first time in a long time. I didn’t mention that I think of the 1986 Mets several times a day. It makes me extremely happy, too.
Our walk proceeded without further pedestrian interjection. When we had to decide just how far we were going to stroll before turning for home, I set our boundary as Stanton Avenue. “Do you remember,” I asked, “how ten years ago almost to the day we first drove down Stanton Avenue? Mike Stanton was pitching for the Mets. And now the Mets are playing a team with Giancarlo Stanton, who used to call himself Mike Stanton.”
Stephanie didn’t remember any of that, but that’s OK. That’s what I’m here for.
Elevated by heretofore unremarked-upon historical significance, we took a perfectly lovely walk across that perfectly lovely thoroughfare that is named for neither Met nor Marlin. Then we got home in time to see the fifth-place, 34-41 Mets go up on the Marlins, 4-0, and ensure Jacob deGrom (1-4) would find two game-used baseballs in his locker when the contest was over. Presumably one of them was thrown by Jenrry Mejia to record the final out that made deGrom — who pitched seven shutout innings against G. Stanton and the Marlins in his eighth career start — what we on the sidelines like to call a winner at last. But the man of the hour couldn’t be sure.
“I don’t know which ones they are,” Jacob admitted to reporters, but as long as the MLB authentication sticker was on each of them, that meant they were most certainly from his first win, and “that’s fine with me.”
A little over forty years earlier, as Seaver the veteran was negotiating his unprecedented struggles and nobody had yet thought to apply official stickers to any of the equipment, Jerry Grote saved another Met rookie pitcher a ball from his first win. Craig Swan, 23, had lasted six innings in the rain at Wrigley Field and earned a W on May 11, 1974, when Ray Sadecki didn’t give back too much of the lead the Mets had built when Swannie was the one instigating the action. It wasn’t a Seaver-style shutout let alone a Bunningesque burst of perfection, but a win was a win was a win. Pitchers have always cherished everything about them and — no matter how many advanced statistics surface to better illustrate the depth and breadth of a given pitching performance — probably always will.
Especially the balls they came in on. “I’ll keep it,” rookie Swan promised after grizzled Grote handed him his. “I’ll keep it forever.”
Forever’s an intriguing concept on the day we call the longest of the year. As the lemonade commercials and every schoolkid will attest, summer doesn’t last nearly long enough. Yet the way it starts now and then has every chance of lingering in the mind’s eye.