In a few minutes, I shall require a diversion.
—Alan Swann, My Favorite Year
Where there is deGrom, there is delight. Stadiums can sit all but empty, standings can tease with cruelty, seasons can run out of sand as captains cede reluctantly to the inevitable, but when you have a young starting pitcher who doesn’t give up runs, there’s nothing in a cool September night that feels the least bit wrong.
Jacob deGrom , beyond bidding ever more convincingly for N.L. Rookie of the Year honors , has injected some much needed oomph into 2014 ever since he figured out how to affix his lower-case last name next to W’s rather than L’s. This campaign needed a deGrom to step forward, just as 2013 required a surfeit of Harvey Days, 2012 articulated a desire for Dickey and 2011 needed to be chased toward a batting title by four guys named Jose (Jose Jose Jose). Somebody needed to peel back the top layer of morass on a season that wasn’t going anywhere fast.
We needed an individual distraction from a collective disappointment. You get one of those and you have something to look forward to in the short term and, perhaps, work up a lather over for the long term. For three months, there wasn’t much. For two months and change, for a change, there’s been deGrom’s push into the upper tier of not just National League freshmen, but National League pitchers, period.
If you can’t have Kershaw and you can’t have Cueto, who would you rather have as of now? What Met hurler is easiest on the eyes, the nerves, the sense that you’re not going to fight the frizzies all the way home? Wheeler’s been wonderful, but man, can his starts be chores. Everybody else, pending Montero’s return, is old news. DeGrom is both new and improved.
Against the Rockies, he was Pert near impenetrable: 8 innings, 3 hits, no walks, nine strikeouts, no runs. Though his stuff isn’t quite so organically electric and his demeanor isn’t nearly as intense, this conquest of Colorado recalled the night Matt Harvey  blew nine zeroes past the same opponent last August . Harvey’s first shutout also became Harvey’s final win to date, so let’s not squeeze the comparison too hard — plus the Rockies minus Tulo and CarGo are, let’s be honest, barely Fruity Pebbles. Still, deGrom’s been aces for months. What a pleasure it is to have maybe developed another one of those. What a pleasure it was Tuesday night to be among the 4,500 or so in attendance to enjoy the latest steps in Jacob’s journey.
I’m not exaggerating that total downward, official gate of “21,035,” notwithstanding. I was willing to estimate maybe 5,000 on hand, but my pal Paul, who was kind enough to invite me to the purple whitewashing, literally laughed out loud when I floated that figure in the middle innings, drily labeling it “generous”. It was probably closer to 4,000, but what the hell, when the Mets are winning, what’s a few hundred phantom fans among friends?
But “21,035,” like Aristophanes , is ridiculous.
One of those at the game was a guy I started talking to or with or at on the 7 Super Express afterward. I wouldn’t call it a conversation as much as two people each speaking to the same general topic in close physical proximity to one another. The similarity of our bullet points drew us temporarily together: deGrom is great; Lagares is great; nobody was there. Turns out this guy, whose frame of reference for outstanding Met centerfielders is Agee (so you know he’s been around), was making his first trip ever “to the new ballpark”. His boss gave him two tickets; he couldn’t find anybody who wanted to join him, so he went alone. Whoever didn’t go, he declared, missed a helluva game.
That’s true. And this is truly puzzling: what kind of vibe have the Mets been putting out there these past six seasons that somebody who knows instinctively from Tommie Agee  has avoided going to Citi Field until now? Judging by the accent, my fellow traveler didn’t just fly in for the game. He was all excited about the Super Express because it was going to let him change at Queensboro Plaza for the N. A tourist doesn’t get excited about the N, about deGrom, about Lagares. This was a Mets fan who has stayed away. Had I not been exiting at Woodside (and maintaining a safe interpersonal distance besides), I would’ve asked why it took him so long.
Seriously, why did it take him so long? His life may not allow for too many trips to ballgames, but you’d think once in nearly six years — 474 home games — he would’ve grown curious. Was he convinced by the early buzz that Citi Field was too darn expensive? (Had he not heard of 4 for $48 ?) Is he disgusted by ownership? Did he clamber off the Mets express after Agee was traded to Houston for Rich Chiles ? He seemed too engaged to not care at all between 1972 and the present. Something tells me there are a lot of Mets fans like him…and a lot more could-be Mets fans like all those who told him, “no thanks,” when he unsuccessfully offered that other freebie around.
It’s going to take a while to fill that joint. The Mets being on a mini-roll isn’t going to move the needle. Should they stay in the groove for all of 2015 and move in on a playoff spot at this time next year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see not that many more people than I saw Tuesday night. OK, a bigger bunch than 4,500, and certainly a more boisterous one, but if you watch teams that are in actual contention this September and see how many empty seats they’re contending in front of, you won’t be shocked if public perception lags behind pennant race reality if/when an actual pennant race transpires.
Forty-five years ago tonight, the Mets did what was considered impossible and moved into first place for the first time ever, sweeping a doubleheader from the Montreal Expos and enabling the Shea scoreboard operator to post those immortal words, “LOOK WHO’S NO. 1”. That was September 10, 1969. On September 9, a black cat crossed in front of the Chicago Cubs’ dugout to warn them they were about to be NO. 2. On September 8, Jerry Koosman  came hard and inside on Ron Santo , in his way auguring far worse luck for the Cubs than any feline could transmit. The Mets won both of those games versus their archrivals. They were poised to make history against the Expos. It was, perhaps, the greatest, most legendary three-day stretch in the history of the New York Mets franchise.
And on Wednesday September 10, the Mets drew 23,512 to the twi-night doubleheader where first place awaited — which is to say if the 1969 Mets as they approached the apex of their Miracluousness were left holding an inventory of more than 30,000 unsold tickets, don’t hold your breath waiting for Citi Field to pack ’em in the day the Mets arrive in September in uncommonly good shape.
This past Monday, the Mets and everybody else released their 2015 schedules . Among the hardcore, if it wasn’t Christmas morning, it was at least Black Friday, everybody trying to decide what they wanted in the way of road trips and Interleague opponents. A couple of hours later, I noticed a poster-sized 2014 Mets schedule still hanging up at my LIRR station, taped to the wall to enable potential riders to take the train to the game. Nobody seemed to be perusing what was left of its contents and few were queuing up to change at Jamaica for Woodside en route to Mets-Willets Point.
You can hop aboard several modes of transit to get to Citi Field, but the Mets somehow couldn’t ride Jacob’s coattails (or pigtails) to the easiest of wins Tuesday. His offense provided him all of two runs, and when the manager decided asking deGrom to throw another dozen pitches was going to jeopardize his career, Jenrry Mejia  set a fire he couldn’t stomp out. Bases got loaded, backup was summoned and two sighs of relief — one from Josh Edgin , the other from Jeurys Familia  — were necessary to preserve the winning effort .
Missing from the lineup and all lineups for the duration was and will be David Wright , who will do something most people aren’t tempted to do these days: he’s going to take a seat at Citi Field. That shoulder of his that either was or wasn’t bothering him and was or wasn’t hindering him, well, guess what: it bothered him and it hindered him and now he’s going to rest it .
One wants to applaud his determination to play through the pain. In a short series of major import, that would be admirable. Down the stretch in a fierce battle for the playoffs, it would be monumental. When your team has been wallowing below .500 and marking time toward next year or whenever, you weren’t helping. Put another way, when does playing in a diminished state make you a better hitter and how does it boost your team’s chances of winning?
Gentle admonishment complete. Feel better, David.
If 2014 could get an addendum tacked on, the Mets inching to within 5½ games of the second Wild Card by securing their eighth win in eleven tries would be cause for captainly cortisone shots and playoff package come-ons (“Branden, you know my favorite month is October!”). But it’s seventeen games to 2015. Yes, fellow savants, I recall vividly what happened in the span of seventeen games in 2007, but step back and consider the Mets haven’t won a series from a winning ballclub since July 23 and, you know, get ahold of yourselves. Most of you probably have a grip already. Yet when your team almost consistently beats the Rockies and the Reds for a week, imaginations are prone to take a mighty big lead off first.
There’s nothing wrong with not losing to lesser competition and going out on a higher note than the one on which you came in, even if it doesn’t make for much of a marketing slogan. If the Mets can play over .500 the rest of the way — just go 9-8 — they will have responded positively to my previously stated mandate of winning more games than they lose  following the All-Star break. I’d consider that a heartening accomplishment and something to build on, pending the usual budgetary mysteries that will undermine the offseason. It’s not as sexy as invoking 1973, but sometimes you gotta believe in incremental progress.
(Programming note: should the Mets sweep the Rockies; rise up and smite the Nationals this weekend; and then elbow the Marlins out of the way next week, forget everything I just said and start rubbing your copy of Screwball for karma because Wild Card here we come!)