- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Celebrate Me Home

Singin’ to the world
It’s time we let the spirit come in
Let it come on in

Those 2014 New York Mets kept up their end of the minuscule bargain I struck with them in the middle of July. They had just come off a vigorous homestand in which they won seven of their previous eight games, and caught up in the uncommon giddiness of the moment, I made a simple proposal [1]: Win more than half of your games after the All-Star break and you will have my renewed faith. No swirling down a second-half drain; no road trips to total oblivion; no overwhelming sense of “here we go again.” Sixty-seven games remained. All I wanted was thirty-four of those games to be won.

Guess what: the Mets just finished going 34-33. A deal, therefore, is a deal. For all my cynicism, my pessimism and my fatalism, I rise up as my team did between July 18 and September 28 — which is to say ever so slightly — and say, hey, all right, you guys are maybe not so bad.

Not so bad? Hell, they just played .507 ball for more than two months! That could be mistaken for good.

Let us sincerely celebrate what we got from these Mets toward the end of their schedule. On August 28, the Mets completed a characteristically sad three-game set versus the Braves, losing 6-1 and falling to 62-72. A familiar trap door beckoned inches beneath the feet of the Citi Field Mets, a bunch that had never encountered a finish line they couldn’t limp toward. If recent history was a guide, the Mets would crumple up and blow into Flushing Bay within a couple of weeks.

Recent history, however, got rewritten. Over their final month, these Mets, despite losing player after player to injury, won series after series. Two of three from the Phillies, the Marlins, the Reds and the Astros; three-game sweeps of the Rockies and the Braves. In between happier acts, there was a stumble against Miami and the usual annihilation at the hands of Washington. But I never demanded perfection, just competence. They couldn’t punch much above their weight class, yet they prevailed over opponents who through 2014 were more or less their peers. It might even be said that as this season ended, there was discovered an actual layer of National League baseball teams simply not as good as the New York Mets.

They didn’t win 90. They didn’t finish above or at .500. They went 79-83, encompassing a “second half” of 34-33 on the strength of a sometimes ragged sprint of 17-11.

To paraphrase a paraphrase [2], Game 162 represented a prime opportunity for the Mets to declare victory and go home.

I’m singin’ to the world
Everybody’s caught in the spin
Look at where we’ve been

Of course the Mets could have been on an 0-66 skid and I would have been at Citi Field for Closing Day. I haven’t missed the final regularly scheduled home game of a Mets season in 20 years. That sounds like an estimate, one of those sloppy rounding-offs people who don’t pause to accurately track time spout.

That’s not how I operate. Trust me: I’ve been to lit’rally the last 20 consecutive Closing Days at Shea Stadium and Citi Field, 22 in all. The streak commenced in 1995 and it has yet to stop. It might someday, but not because I’ll want it to.

Every baseball season stops someday, but not because I want it to. Baseball seasons that are magical stop. Baseball seasons that are horrible stop. Baseball seasons like 2014 that aren’t such hot stuff but are also verging on decent when you take the broad view stop, too. It’s the Rule of 162. You don’t bust past it except by extraordinary happenstance or exemplary performance. And even those types of seasons end. Baseball is perpetual in our minds and on our blog, but in Flushing, it expires after six months.

Leave it to me to pour out the last drop. It’s what I do.

It’s what I did on October 1, 1995, when I just had to see a 14th game. My personal record at Shea that year was 6-7 and no way could I rest through winter knowing .500 might have been in my grasp. It took eleven innings for the Mets to top the disinterested Braves, 1-0. Atlanta was so flummoxed that they went on to win the World Series that October. My World Series was beating the Braves, 1-0.

As long as I’m cueing up the classics (you have somewhere else you have to be for six months?), my tearjerker ending was beating the Braves on Closing Day 1997, the year Met success was unqualified for the first time in what seemed like a generation but was only (only) seven years. The Mets weren’t supposed to be any good in 1997. They turned out to be very good. They got to the ninth inning of their final game, about to post win No. 88, and it was all too beautiful for me, so I did the only sensible thing. I started crying. I stopped a little while after I got home.

My suspenseful ending was beating the Pirates on Closing Day 1999, which was apparently 15 years ago. Melvin Mora [3] was on third as the tying run. Bringing him home meant not being done with baseball. Brad Clontz [4] delivered a wild pitch. The Mets weren’t done. They earned another game in Cincinnati, then a total of ten against Arizona and Atlanta. Those were the greatest weeks of my life as a Mets fan. They wouldn’t have happened without Closing Day 1999.

My cult classic was beating the Expos on Closing Day 2004. The 2004 Mets surprised some people in the first half, then lived down to general expectations in the second half. But the part toward the very end was positively redemptive. There was a Saturday in September when they spoiled the Cubs’ playoff chances — Victor Diaz [5]! Craig Brazell [6]! — and then eight days later there was that final Sunday that was final like nothing else I ever saw. Todd Zeile [7] homered and called it a career. John Franco [8] emerged from mothballs and wound down a Met tenure that dated back to Darryl and Doc. Art Howe [9]…well, who cared about Art Howe, but he was gone after that day. So were the Montreal Expos as an entity, for gosh sake. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, Closing Day 2004 was also the merged hello and goodbye of Joe Hietpas [10], the Met catcher who debuted by catching the final half-inning inning of Expo existence and ceased to be part of Major League Baseball at the exact same moment that Montreal did.

My disaster movie and sequel were Closing Days 2007 and 2008. I don’t feel like going into those.

Shea Stadium closed, Citi Field opened. The tradition extended. Pleasant Closing Days (Nelson Figueroa [11] tossing a shutout in 2009). Aggravating Closing Days (Ollie Perez in the fourteenth inning in 2010). Seething Closing Days (Jose Reyes mostly vanishing just as he was triumphing in 2011). Boisterous Closing Days (R.A. Dickey [12] capturing his twentieth in 2012). Closing Day of 2013 had its pomp, with Mike Piazza’s Mets Hall of Fame induction ceremony (a sweet echo of the sendoff we gave him on Closing Day 2005), and its circumstances worth noting (Eric Young swiping a stolen base title, Juan Lagares [13] nailing another unsuspecting runner), but I remember feeling edgy and wanting the game — like the season it was sealing — to be over before it was over [14].

Not all Closing Days are created equal.

We’ve been runnin’ around
Year after year
Blinded with pride
Blinded with fear

In rough chronological order, here’s what I take away from Closing Day 2014:

• One Casey Stengel [15] bobblehead that is a splendid tribute to Vice Principal Woodman [16] from Welcome Back, Kotter, but doesn’t look a whole lot like the Ol’ Perfesser, a.k.a. the man who invented the Mets. I’d complain that somebody dropped the ball that contained the picture the bobblehead company was supposed to work from, but I still find it Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ that the ahistorical Mets of the 21st century bothered to attempt to honor Casey Stengel.

• One magnetic schedule. How odd to make the change on the side of the fridge in September rather than April.

• One MURPHY 28 t-shirt discounted from the Minneapolis All-Star Game. Investing in a player garment an hour before what could be his final game as a Met…well, tell it to the ALFONZO 13 t-shirt I bought in December 2002 and endures in my drawer to this day. Whether he gets a raise commensurate with his status from the Mets or is sent to seek his riches elsewhere, Daniel Murphy [17] will always be the Mets’ 2014 All-Star. So the shirt’s OK by me.

• One “TRUE NEW YORKERS ARE METS FANS” towel under glass in the high-end merchandise section that bridges the team museum and the team store. That was a marketing slogan in April. It’s #NOWSTALGIA in September. Great how the homegrown 7 Line towel became the linen of choice across Metsopotamia in 2014. Astounding (even if it was precedented) to watch and listen to the 7 Line Army anchor the outfield for a third consecutive Closing Day. Great job, ladies and gentlemen. You were hailed from Excelsior.

• Two guys in Astros gear in the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, paying their respects to the Polo Grounds portion of the Mets ballparks exhibit (not pictured: Ebbets Field; that’s because you’re soaking in it!), which moved me enough to approach them heartily and welcome them “back to the National League”. They worried their pitcher wouldn’t know how to hit, proving the MLB brainwashing has been getting to them. Their reaction should have been, “Thank you! We want back in full-time! Whither the Toy Cannon?” Points for them agreeing with my indisputable statement that the pitcher hitting is a small but essential part of “baseball how it’s supposed to be”. (I was going to say “baseball like it oughta be,” but why rub 1986 in the faces of Houstonians who aren’t Charlie Kerfeld [18]?)

• One Mama’s of Corona turkey & mozzarella; one Daruma of Great Neck special sushi; one Box Frites sweet potato fries — all shared with my lovely wife for our last luncheon of 2014. “You can’t go wrong with the classics,” I said of Mama’s and Daruma, both of whom, like us, date to Shea.

• One gracious visit to our seats in 326 from Brian of Bayside, a FAFIF reader and social media correspondent whom I’d never met before and have spiritually kindreded with forever. Every time I meet a Mets fan whose experiences more or less align with mine, there is very little “getting to know”; we already know. Brian of Bayside sent Rusty Staub [19] a get well card when he hurt his shoulder in the ’73 NLCS. Rusty sent Brian a thank you note. I send a thank you note right here, right now to all the Brians from Bayside for reading this blog and reaching out across the virtual world to say hi at Citi Field this season. I appreciate your friendship and your kindnesses.

• Several stops & chats with people I have met before and are now essential to my fandom. Sunday it was Matt, who not long ago witnessed deGrommian history with me; and Rich, who will find us another shortstop if it’s the last thing he does; and Coop, with whom I stepped around what appeared to be the unscrubbed blood of a fainted Mahomie from Saturday night; and Ed, who carried a “record” seven stuffed bears, and if Ed says it’s a record, it’s a record. Another thank you note to those who provide a comfortable backbeat to my season and my offseason. It’s always a pleasure.

• One speculation that in an alternate reality, David Wright [20] annually records a message telling Mets fans that they’re simply the worst. In this reality, though, I watched him dutifully top off the Mets’ thank you video, as has been the Captain’s chore since Dennis Ribant [21] handed it off to him in the mid-’60s. Players we’ll never see again and players who never spent a moment in close proximity to us expressed their gratitude to us while positioned in front of green screens. I suppose it’s a thoughtful gesture. Except for the “thank you” from David, which I’m convinced is thoughtful.

• One “goodbye and adios,” to use his smiling words, to Bobby Abreu [22], long ago an über-Phillie who tiptoed whenever confronted by an outfield fence, lately a beloved Met sage. I had the privilege Friday night of sitting in on the press conference during which Abreu announced his retirement. I was genuinely moved by how a well-compensated athlete teetered on tears in saying this was going to be it. I wanted to applaud his news, but I was in credentialed media mode (thanks to the Mets PR staff for that) and had to demonstrate quasi-professional reserve. Sunday, when I was back to being a no-strings-attached Mets fan, I stood and applauded Bobby’s first at-bat and his final hit. It had been ten Closing Days since Zeile went out with a flourish. It’s nice to see it can happen around here every decade on the four.

• One impressed nod of approval as I followed the progress of Jordan Zimmermann [23] toward what became the first no-hitter in Washington Nationals history. That’s ten seasons exactly (if not to the day) since the last day there were no Washington Nationals in the major league scheme of things. The Washington Nationals have inflicted ten consecutive L’s in my Log, so I’m not in the habit of exulting in their successes, but I had to clap for a no-hitter.

• One batting crown achieved for Jose Altuve [24]. I remembered to clap for him at some point. Perhaps I was just clapping for myself for recognizing an Astro.

• Several glances at the out-of-town scoreboard to ascertain the hardening of the playoff picture. There was excitement Sunday morning that three Game 163s might occur. I figured none would, and none did. It just seemed too silly. I miss being part of a playoff picture.

• One “OH YES!” or something like that when Lucas Duda [25] blasted — and I mean blasted — his 30th home run of the season. One final swing, one round number. That’s a Closing Day marker to savor. Like Olerud surpassing 100 RBIs in ’97. Like Dickey winning that 20th in ’12. Beyond the numbers, I turned my attention to the Met dugout and saw each of his teammates had hidden so Duda’s “car wash” attendants were limited to Murphy, who couldn’t duck out since he scored ahead of him. These rituals go over so much better with me now that they’re a 17-11 powerhouse.

• One very satisfied fan in 325, one section away from us, who started a commanding “DOO!” and received “DUH!” in return every time Lucas batted. Duda’s 30th home run was that guy’s grand slam.

• One home run ever hit by Ruben Tejada [26] at Citi Field and it happened Sunday afternoon, shortly after Duda went deep. Note to self: check the night sky for Comet Kohoutek [27] before going to sleep.

• One sad realization that the supposedly offensively inept Tejada batted 10 points higher than Granderson. And Ruben never saddled anybody with “True New Yorker” nonsense that, no matter how innocently it was uttered, yielded bad-taste loyalty oaths and towels that went straight to display case.

• One sighting of an authentic vintage item: a “1…since 1984” logoed shoulder bag in the men’s room on the third base side of Excelsior. Fans of a certain vintage will know what I’m describing [28]. In 1989, Met marketers who couldn’t have been more fully full of themselves commissioned a competition for a graphic representation of the fact that the Mets had just completed five years with the best record in baseball. Not five straight world championships, mind you. This was the era of “excellence, again and again,” when it was impossible to imagine the Mets would ever backslide into the misery that preceded 1984. Yeah…anyway, you don’t see this logo much 25 years later, so I compliment the carrier of the bag, once he’s done washing his hands. He tells me that he’s had it since a particular night in 1990 when he was awarded it as Sharp Broadcaster of the Game and he got another one later that same season when he was chosen Sharp Broadcaster of the Year. I knew exactly the contest he was talking about and remembered each game he mentioned. Also, I agreed with his assessment that “1990 was a lot of fun.” Give or take a bag, he was me and I was him. (If he doesn’t regularly read this blog, something’s terribly wrong with the universe.)

• One last-inning infusion of beverages. Stephanie had gotten up at some point late but not that late and asked if I wanted anything. “A Diet Pepsi if you can find one,” I said. Citi Field vending in September is always a crapshoot, and it took her a while to hit paydirt. While she was gone, I paid top dollar (five of them, in fact) for a bottle of water from the guy who almost every game I’m at crosses my path and sells “PepsiWater…Agua.” Eventually Stephanie came back with a souvenir cup — featuring man of the hour Lucas Duda — filled to the rim with sugar-free cola. The season was almost over but it was time to start drinking in earnest.

• One tied-for-second finish with the formerly high and mighty, they think they’re so great but they’re not Atlanta Braves once L.J. Hoes [29] flied out to EYJ in left field. (“It all comes down to L.J. Hoes,” I had informed Stephanie, post-soda shopping; “It always does,” she replied.) The Mets were a winning team from the All-Star break forward. They were a .500 team in my Log for the year, going into my spiral-bound notepad for ’14 at 14-14. Not a bad bounceback from 1-6 for me, never mind where the team was in late August. No, not bad at all. Good, even.

Singin’ to the world
What’s the point in puttin’ it down?
There’s so much love to share

These were Terry Collins’s best Mets yet, and all they accomplished across 162 games — each of which counted — was the very same record to which Jerry Manuel [30] piloted his club in 2010. Manuel was let go. Collins was hired. Four years later, no winning seasons (though 4-0 on Closing Day, I must add). If this really is the 1983 we want it to be…even if it’s just 1982-and-a-half and prosperity proves no more than a couple of city blocks away, we’ll retroactively enshrine 2014 as the necessary next step, the foundation for the wonderful mid-decade renaissance that truly turned New York orange and blue.

I don’t totally buy that, but when Hoes flied out to EY, I was practically ready to run to the parking lot and start building a bandwagon. I couldn’t have been more charged up over a Closing Day win on top of a penultimate walkoff win [31] on top of a solid, solid month of results. I didn’t exactly want 79-83 2014 to keep going but I couldn’t stand the idea of waiting for 0-0 2015.

We’re a few pieces and too many millions of dollars short of shattering the grass ceiling. We’re still prone to National sand being kicked in our face. The Mets played seven of the ten teams who will be proceeding to the postseason. Versus Washington, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Los Angeles of Anaheim and Oakland, the Mets compiled 17 wins and 36 losses. There aren’t quite enough Houstons to compensate for such a shortfall.

But I didn’t care after the 27th out of the 162nd game. The Mets had won. The Mets were reasonable facsimiles of winners. The Mets had played baseball on a Sunday when I didn’t need long sleeves. The Mets opened their gates to me on 28 separate occasions in 2014. The Mets were about to close their gates behind me.

Thus, I lingered. I let Closing Day wash over me. I watched the handshake line. I listened to Abreu answer Steve Gelbs’s queries. I stepped down a few rows to take in whatever was going on to my right, my left, my directly below. Then I repeated the process before pulling myself and my stuff together.

I’m singin to the world
Don’t you see it all comes around?
The feeling’s everywhere

The 7 line — the train, not the army — is my inevitable postgame destination if I’m not getting a rare ride home. But not this postgame, I decided. C’mon, I said to Stephanie, let’s take a walk. Let’s go to the park. Flushing Meadows park, I meant. My official reason was it was a nice day and I’ve still got this rather voluminous amount of soda in this souvenir cup. My real reason was I did not want to put a lid on Closing Day.

It has to last. It’s the last ballgame on my docket until sometime in April. Probably Opening Day, the home version, on April 13, maybe a little after. That, according to my math, is a million years from now. New bats. Fresh arms. Healed shoulders. We hope. But it’s not happening on Sunday, September 28. Sunday, September 28, just happened. I don’t want it to slip into the past tense just because there’s a connection to be made at Woodside. My connection to Citi Field, which six seasons in I can’t quite love but I’m willing to acknowledge as preferable to anywhere else in my milieu, is too vital to me in the wake of Mets 8 Astros 3 [32].

So we walked through the station formally known as Mets-Willets Point, past the LIRR and down into the park. We snapped some pictures. Stephanie frolicked in a fountain for a few minutes. We explored some ruins. I thought of my father taking the IRT east with his grandmother from Jackson Heights the summer he was 10 years old. He’d go to the 1939 World’s Fair every chance he got. He recalls it fondly 75 years later. A time capsule is ensconced at the edge of the park from that fair. I’ve never needed to open one. I’ve had my dad.

The park kept me near Citi Field but gave me other things to think about. Then, when we turned around and made our way toward public transportation, I saw the stadium rise over the horizon. “I wish it had a better name,” I told Stephanie, for I wanted to be excited that I’d found a new view of where the Mets play ball but I was just vaguely disdainful that I couldn’t see past the omnipresent corporate logo.

Yet I manage 28 times a year. I’ve managed to not be turned off by branding 182 games since the first official one I attended on April 16, 2009. I’ve spent the equivalent of an entire baseball season (when you factor in the off days) inside Citi Field. No. 183 feels far off, but it will arrive before we know it. No. 155 — Opening Day 2014 — arrived before we knew it 182 days ago and now it’s ancient history.

One thing in Citi Field’s favor despite it forever trailing in the adoration column behind its predecessor, the one whose passing occurred six years ago Sunday, on a Sunday (CitiVision’s “this date” feature skipped 2008). In 2014, I noticed I and others phasing out differentiation between it and Shea in terms of our stories. I started doing it in July, telling the fellow I was with about this game or that game from before 2009, yet pointing to a section of Citi Field as if that’s where I was for Mora or Zeile or 1997 or 1973. Maybe it’s just easier to explain in those terms.

Conversely, few were the games I attended in 2014 when I didn’t overhear a conversation that went something like this: “This place is great, but I miss Shea.” It struck me again and again how Shea has clinched its sentimental division into eternity, that Citi Field — particularly as it remains devoid of winning baseball — can’t catch up among the generations who grew up in the place next door. The generations growing up at Citi Field will have a different story, which is OK. My dad had the 1939 Fair. My sister had 1964’s. I had Shea, where I started going the summer I was 10 years old and kept going every chance I got. Billy Joel once told me we all need a room of our own.

We’ve been closin’ our eyes
Day after day
Covered in clouds
Losin’ our way

Still didn’t want to go home after the park. I called one more audible. Let’s take the train to 74th Street. Let’s go to Jackson Heights. Let’s try that Indian joint we walked by in May after we tried that other Indian joint. We tried it and we liked it and we were stuffed. Then, instead of climbing back on the 7 to Woodside, we opted for the E to Jamaica, hooking up with the LIRR there. We walked in our front door in the dark. I turned on the kitchen light and, for dramatic effect, declared that as soon as I put my bag down on this stool right here, the season is irretrievably over.

I put it down.

Hey, but it’s daybreak
If you wanna believe
It can be daybreak
Ain’t no time to grieve

I mentioned some names many paragraphs above in the context of Closing Day. I’d have to multiply by 28 to do the concept of thanking everybody who makes my life as a Mets fan a joy, and it appears I’ve already gone on for a while. Maybe those necessary six months have already passed while I’ve been sitting here writing.

Nope. Still dark outside.

Listen, thank you. Thank you if I’ve never met you but you read this. Thank you if I have met you and you read this. Thank you if we’ve shared innings and hours and words. Thank you to my eloquent partner in blogging of suddenly ten seasons. Thank you to my partner in everything else of more than twenty-seven years, right up to and including listening to me issue dramatic proclamations about plopping bags on stools. Thank you, 1969 Mets, for showing me how great all this could be. Thank you, 1970 Mets through 2013 Mets, for proving over and over how constant all this could be. Thank you, 2014 Mets, for being just good enough at the end to make me not consider leaving you one pitch sooner than I had to. Thank you, 2015 Mets, whoever you’ll be, wherever you finish.

I plan to meet you when you get there.

Said it’s daybreak [33]
If you’ll only believe
And let it shine, shine, shine
All around the world