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The Middle

Americans are notoriously horrible at geography, but citizens of Metsopotamia are surely map-savvy enough to be able to distinguish the city of Denver from the city of Washington. If you can’t deal with a map, just try a set of National League standings. The baseball team that hails from Denver, Colo., is lodged at the bottom of one division; the baseball team that calls Washington, D.C., home sits comfortably atop another.

And that, class, sums up the difference between shutting down the Colorado Rockies and getting trampled by the Washington Nationals [1].

The wide-eyed and action-famished among us dearly desired to read something spectacular into the Mets’ sweep of the Rockies over the first three nights of this week. The word I heard on SNY was “fringes,” as in, “The Mets are on the fringes of this playoff race.” Thursday night, though, the best the Mets could manage was remaining on the fringes of their game against the Nationals, an organization so hellbent on expanding its influence throughout the National League East that it has effected a hostile takeover of Citi Field.

The Mets haven’t beaten Washington in New York since Washington was Montreal, or so it seems. In the latest chapter of this recurring episode of Nats @ Mets, the nominal visitors eased their way to a 6-0 lead before the Mets inched just close enough and stayed just close enough to make you think that just maybe, with a big hit or two, they could…

At that point you stopped mid-thought to observe another key out registered by the Nationals’ bullpen and realize falling short of getting completely blown out isn’t the same as winning. Or almost winning. The 6-2 loss made for a nice allegory to the season at large. Now and then, the Mets appear to be on the verge of genuine progress, if “now and then” is defined as that time period during which particularly strong teams are absent from the Met schedule.

There aren’t many of those in the National League, really. Three teams hold records fifteen games better than .500 at present: the Nats, the Dodgers and the Giants. The Mets have performed dismally against all of them, going 5-21. If you’d like to subtract those nettlesome 26 contests and provide the Mets with a fancy won-lost record versus “everybody else,” go for it. But professional sports doesn’t actually work that way.

By the same token, there’s no point in removing the 9-3 mark the Mets had run up prior to Thursday while opposing a sample of the dregs of the circuit (Phils, Fish, Reds, Rox). They’re lately beating not very good clubs and they can’t quite do anything with the better clubs.

They’re not on the fringes. They’re in the middle. Upper-middle some nights, lower-middle others, stubbornly a component of the blob that separates the Washingtons from the Colorados. This most recent night was one of those others. A certified member of the top tier had their way with them. It would be nice to prevent that from happening so regularly this weekend. We’ll see if the Nationals can be kept from showering and changing in the home clubhouse before Sunday.

***

Being in the middle is becoming a familiar Met position. As happens every year at this juncture, they are in the middle of a flap over what cap they should wear when they’re acknowledging the events of September 11, 2001. Admittedly, it’s a little less of a flap every year. Time will diminish this sort of controversy, especially when nothing really budges.

In case you’ve forgotten (which is unlikely following a day when the prevailing sentiment was Never Forget…unless you’re Travis d’Arnaud on first and you can’t remember how many outs there are), the 2001 Mets wore the caps of the first responders who acted so heroically in Lower Manhattan thirteen years ago. That was the Mets’ on-field response at a moment when few could adequately articulate their gratitude to firefighters, police and everybody who selflessly ran toward danger. It was a powerful statement of solidarity — just a gesture, but a resonant once.

Those Mets wore those caps home and away in September and October of 2001. They wore them in Pittsburgh when they returned to playing a game when nobody was in the mood for games. They wore them at Shea the first time an enormous crowd hesitantly brought itself together for what we had normally referred to as fun. They wore them in the top of the ninth as Armando Benitez [2] nailed down the win Mike Piazza [3] made possible with his September 21 home run off Steve Karsay [4]. They wore them as they hung on in an improbable pennant race, as they blew chances to make up ground on Atlanta, as they finished out their season in relative seclusion [5].

The Mets never took off those caps in 2001. They put them back on a year later for the first anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, their way of showing sustained solidarity. The Mets did much more off the field, but again, it was a gesture. It was never forgetting. It was remembering what it meant to be a part of New York in 2002, then in 2003 and all the way through 2007. Bad Met teams, good Met teams, a Met team on the precipice of vacating first place all wore the caps.

In September 2008, Major League Baseball invented a new commemorative cap design for all 30 of its teams to model. Fans were invited to purchase the very same models. Same deal in September 2009 and 2010, and come 2011, when the Mets asked MLB if they could embrace the tradition they had established in 2001 and be granted an exemption from the officially issued caps — it was the tenth anniversary and the Mets had some special ceremonies planned at Citi Field — they were told no.

The Mets obeyed and have continued to not rock the boat (they put the caps on during batting practice; it’s not the same). They still put heartfelt effort into their community relations, still put themselves out there to benefit the families of those most directly affected [6] by the attacks on the World Trade Center, still put their arms around a firehouse in Maspeth [7] on a going basis [8]. Players from 2014 who were kids in California or Georgia or wherever in 2001 pick up where the Venturas and Zeiles and Francos left off and fill the role of, shall we say, true New Yorkers. There is more to being a good and concerned neighbor than putting on a cap.

But what caps they put on in 2001. And how putting them on and playing in them resonated. Gestures can reach people. That gesture reached every Mets fan.

It’s a shame they forgot.

***

Meanwhile, one of the owners of the New York Mets finds himself in the middle of some serious, frankly sickening — if they’re accurate — allegations regarding how he treated a recently dismissed employee. Without diving deeply into the disturbing details (not to protect the accused, but mostly because after invoking the heroism of September 11, who the hell wants to think that much about Jeff Wilpon?), this is one of those stories that stops you in your tracks as a fan [9] and makes you ask yourself why you stick with a team that’s run by somebody allegedly like this.

We’re familiar with the Mets’ competitive foibles and we know that, no matter their admirable charitable activities, they can cause a substantial cringe [10] in the executive suite. Still, you keep on rooting because it’s who you are. You’re a Mets fan; ’nuf said. The suit brought by former senior vice president of ticket sales Leigh Castergine, however, left a thick layer of ooze all over my fandom. A woman works for you, does her best with a largely unsaleable product, modernizes your shop, draws good customer reviews from those who dealt with her, and your response — allegedly — is to harangue and diminish her because she had a baby without a husband?

I learned abut Castergine’s suit, which the Mets have labeled “without merit,” about an hour before I was heading out to, as is my wont, Citi Field. I was meeting my friend Matt Silverman there to take advantage of an invitation extended on Castergine’s watch [11]: you get a free ticket if it’s your birthday. Neither my nor Matt’s birthday was Wednesday, but the policy allows those of us who were born on a date when the Mets aren’t playing at home (or on theoretical high-volume dates like Opening Day and the Subway Series) our choice of a handful of games when, let’s be honest, there’s likely to be loads of otherwise unused inventory.

Matt and I are firmly entrenched within that breed of Mets fan that isn’t above attending a Wednesday night game in September against the perennially poorly drawing Rockies. You should know that after filling out a slip of paper and flashing our photo IDs at the box office to successfully secure our birthday-offer tickets, Matt handed me a ticket for this coming Monday night’s game against the perennially poorly drawing Marlins. We’re not above going to one of those, either.

I’ve been to 23 Mets games thus far this year and I consider it a light year personally. I mention that because for all the cynicism I express on this blog and how hard I’ve been to convince that the Mets are legitimately advancing beyond the fleeting fringes of distant contention at anything swifter than a snail’s pace, I remain the hardiest of diehards. I may prefer a complimentary ticket to a cheap ticket, and a cheap ticket to an overpriced ticket (who doesn’t?), but in the course of a season, I use a lot of tickets, however I come by them or they come by me. I dig deep when necessary. I make the trip. I show up. I wear the colors. I buy the edibles and the potables. I preach the gospel. In every way I can count, I support my team.

After learning why Leigh Castergine claimed she was suddenly disappeared from the Mets’ back-office roster, I didn’t much want to. Yet I did. I rationalized that the ticket was going to be gratis; that I was carrying a gift card for food and beverages that somebody had thoughtfully given me on my real birthday; that I could wear a non-Mets shirt and a non-Mets cap; and that on some level I could minimize my tangible/visible support of my team, or at least my team’s chief operating officer whose alleged behavior oozed all over my lifetime of fandom around 4 o’clock that afternoon. On September 10, 2014, exactly 45 years after I basked in the glow of the instantly iconic bulletin that lit the Shea Stadium scoreboard — LOOK WHO’S NO. 1 — I wanted to dim the lights on my purely voluntary association with this team.

It was a small gesture. It was visible to nobody but me. And by the bottom of the first inning, it escaped my consciousness completely. I wore an Islanders t-shirt, I donned a Long Island Ducks cap, I kept my wallet away from Citi Field’s cash registers and I picked over the latest (by no means the only [12]) Wilpon-brand escapade with appropriate disdain. Yet there I was at the Mets game with a Mets pal who, like me, writes a lot about the Mets [13], and we were watching the Mets and cheering the Mets and doing nothing that emitted a sense of disgust or dismay with a mall-encompassing ownership group [14] we wish would remain out of the news until the preferably upcoming day when it announces it is at last doing the sporting thing and selling the team we love [15] so it can function in an atmosphere of blazing luminescence once more. On the train home, I realized I wasn’t wearing my Mets stuff and somehow felt guilty about not publicly displaying my allegiance.

Shaking this severe case of fandom remains impossible. Not that I try very hard.