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The Four Aces

Welcome to FAFIF Turns Ten, a milestone-anniversary series in which we consider anew some of the topics that have defined Mets baseball during our first decade of blogging. In this installment, we scale Mount Acemore.

Bigger than big
That’s how you start it

—Marnie Stern, “Shea Stadium [1]

Stephen Sondheim, in his A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum phase, might have agreed that Everybody Ought to Have an Ace [2]. We concur! We believe the Mets are far more fun to blog about when they have a charismatic, undisputed head-of-the-staff starter who lives up to his title roughly every fifth day.

It would be easier on us if not exactly everybody had an ace. For example, we could do without the Nationals having quite so many, but that’s not our department. We cover the Flushing waterfront. We prefer somebody on our side who leaves the other team’s batters all wet and — if he can do it without causing great detriment — makes a few waves.

When you’re a Mets fan, you feel deep down you’re entitled to an ace. A real ace. You want ace performances all the way around the rotation, sure; you even mouth with a straight face something that occurred to you in the late ’90s, that whoever’s pitching tonight is your ace. But in your bones, whether they connect to an ulnar collateral ligament or not, you want somebody who’s markedly more stunning than his counterparts. All starts are more or less equal, but one starter should be more equal than others.

This is a Mets fan trait in particular because of whose wings we’ve flown upon to get here. The wings of Seaver. The wings of Gooden. Aces up, baby. No doubt. Tom took us from 1967 to 1983, the biggest presence in Mets history even when he was mysteriously dispatched to pitch for a team in Cincinnati. Technically he was on hiatus for a while there in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the ace seat was his seat and he came back to fill it again. When the Mets general-managed to find a way to unseat Seaver a second, irrevocable time in 1984, they had Doc ready to move on up and slide right in. Gooden was the ace in residence clear to 1994, ofttimes magnificently, now and then heartbreakingly.

When Gooden couldn’t be the ace here anymore, there was a decade’s worth of vacancy ahead. Good pitchers, fine pitchers, well-meaning pitchers pitched. Talent occasionally surfaced, yet none manifested itself in classic ace form. We got by. We even got close to winning it all. But it wasn’t the same without an ace.

I understood that when, in the very first official Mets game of Faith and Fear in Flushing’s existence, we were reintroduced to the concept and got to know Pedro Martinez. That was an ace. An ace is a pitcher to whom attention must be paid. You couldn’t take your eyes off Pedro Martinez. You watched him when he pitched, you listened to him when he talked, you thought about him when he was nowhere in sight. He was a stadium-sized presence, a personality of Lloyd Price proportions [3], a pitcher’s pitcher. He was the embodiment of charisma with a track record behind him and just enough left in his right arm to forge a crucial moment of aspiration and expectation. Shea came alive for him as it hadn’t come alive on account of a pitcher since the moon was in the seventh house and Dr. K aligned with Kid.

In 2005, Pedro Martinez was the best part of a good year. In 2006, Pedro Martinez boosted a very good team to a truly great start.

Then it became apparent there wasn’t enough left in his right arm to be who he was for more than spurts. There was still the presence and the personality but there was also the disabled list and the rehabilitation periods and the recurring descents into mortality. In theory and image, Pedro never stopped being the Pedro of 2005, himself the residual version of the Pedro of just a few years before when he was among the greatest ever. On the mound, it must be admitted, he was aging and struggling just like anybody else who’d been around forever and thrown who knows how many baseballs. You tried not to pay attention to that iteration. In consequential bursts, he could still summon the ace. He just couldn’t keep him pitching forever.

By then, however, somebody else was the ace, somebody who’d been brilliant more recently and born not as long ago. In 2008, the Mets imported our next great protagonist. They gave us Johan Santana. It was quite a gift.

Johan wasn’t anything like Pedro and he was quite a bit like Pedro. He was another attention-commander, though more through quiet confidence that colorful cockiness. This ace’s left arm appeared in New York with more peak left to it than Pedro’s right did, though its best days belonged to another team. Johan didn’t light up Shea as immediately as Pedro had, but he effectively assumed the position as first defense against all comers. Effective doesn’t begin to describe the Johan who came into his Met own at the very end of his first campaign. With one hand, he kept Shea aloft. If he were ambidextrous, it never would’ve tumbled to the ground.

The ace kept delivering in the new ballpark until he was physically unable to continue his rounds. Then he missed a year. Then he returned and appeared as great as new, culminating his comeback in a feat no Met before or since has accomplished. Johan engineered a half-century’s worth of catharsis.

Then he could do no more.

As Johan’s star frustratingly faded, another’s was already glittering in our midst en route to achieving supernova status. For a short time he soared from curiosity to colossus. He joined the ranks of the aces. He remade the concept in his own image. Everything he did and said seemed as brilliant as we were dumbstruck by his epic evolution.

He was R.A. Dickey. He was unlike anybody or anything to materialize in a Mets uniform. At first, he was a found object, alighting at Citi Field in 2010, mostly unknown, perhaps overlooked. His quirks were delightful, his pitching revelatory. Come 2012, just as we were about to need a post-Johan ace in the worst way, R.A. came on like knuckleballing, literature-citing gangbusters. He owned opposing lineups. He took possession of our baseball souls. We were along for a ride that was all climax and no denouement.

And about ten minutes after we toweled off and congratulated ourselves for booking passage on Mr. Dickey’s multisyllabic monorail, the attraction was shuttered, shipped off to Toronto for reasons that were sound financially, prudent competitively and shattering spiritually. How did we go from Cy Young to psychologically bereft in a matter of months?

Before we could feel too sorry for ourselves and our narrative — R.A. Dickey was as much a godsend to the Mets fan blogger as he was to the nonblogging Mets fan — we were blessed a fourth time. This one was really special.

Pedro came from Boston, Johan from Minnesota, R.A. from obscurity. Matt Harvey, however, was the ace the Mets made for themselves. The backstory was unfolding right in front of us: first-round draft pick out of college; a couple of years getting acclimated in the minors; then fully grown and instantly ready to roll.

Roll he did. There was a glint of the spotlight just as Johan was setting and R.A. was cresting and then, in 2013, the universe was his. Matt Harvey entered April like a lion and ate up batters as a matter of course. He was born to do this. He was Seaver reincarnated, except maybe more intimidating. He was a cause to rally around. He was the best in his league for as long as he could pitch without pain.

Which turned out to be less than five months, because as we’ve seen in the modern age of aces, some sort of 22nd Amendment must’ve been enacted. Nobody holds office in (mostly) uninterrupted fashion as the Franchise and the Doctor did.

A funny thing inevitably happens on the way to where these aces are supposed to be taking us. Pedro was The Man in practice for a year-and-a-half before sputtering in and out of the rotation for the rest of his four-year deal. Johan, who closed out 2008 with such a flourish, was never around for the close of a season again, including two seasons when he was under contract but wasn’t around at all. R.A., given his beautiful pitch and unorthodox makeup, seemed a lock to be signed long-term. Instead he was traded. And Matt Harvey — calling him just “Matt” or just “Harvey” doesn’t seem appropriate in this context — was directed to the Tommy John table before his first full year was done. His second full year is scheduled to begin far behind schedule.

Pedro and Johan and R.A. became history all too soon. But Matt Harvey has returned to make more of it. To make more good copy for us, too, which I will tell you, quite selfishly, ratchets up my interest in his aceness. Without a certifiable ace, you have to depend upon the achievements of mere mortals and work to find a hook 32 times a year. These guys who top rotations thoughtfully provide framework, fill in blanks, twist, turn, excel, elate and sprinkle our heads with content dust.

You sit in the stands or on your couch and root for the Mets, you embrace a Pedro, a Johan, an R.A. or a Matt Harvey (whose first Spring Training outing was electric enough to qualify as a Mets Classic) at their best because they pitch better than most everybody else. You sit in front of your computer the way we do after they pitch — no matter how well or how disappointingly — and you’re truly relieved the Mets once in a while have this kind of starter. You know they will do something, say something, mean something. They essentially dictate their story to you.

You’re rewrite and they’re honey.

I’ve publicly mourned the respective inevitable departures of each of our previous three aces, but I’m ecstatic thinking that we have our fourth just about back in the saddle. As a class they can be high in maintenance, I suppose, but they are higher in emotional payoff. I’ll grant you there’s something to be said for keeping quiet, being professional, doing your job and not making a big show of it. Speak softly and change speeds. Swell. It fits some pitchers more than others. But that’s not what gets me excited. That’s not what points me in the direction of Opening Day let alone toward a mythical Game One (or Game Seven) to be named later.

Backlash, like resistance, is futile. Aces aren’t like you and me and guys named Chris who are repeatedly signed to one-year contracts in February. Aces shape your season for you. Aces get your fingers flying. You can’t wait to hit “publish”. You can’t wait to copy & paste that URL. J.J. Hunsecker thought he had a hot column? I don’t need to dirty my hands with some grubby Sidney Falco-type schlub when I’ve got an ace up my sleeve like those who’ve graced these pages.

Win or lose, to me that’s the sweet smell of success.

Here’s this pitch: Join us on Saturday, March 28, 1-4 PM, at Foley’s NY [4] to celebrate the tenth anniversary of The Blog for Mets Fans Who Like to Read (about aces and other things) and generally get your Met on. It’ll be fun, if not as much fun as Matt Harvey flirting with perfection. But c’mon — what is?