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A Sense of Occasion

I’ve been a baseball fan a very long time, but once a year, depending on the circumstances, I’m talked to like I’ve just discovered the game.

Ironically, it didn’t happen when I was relatively new to baseball. When I was a kid, the issue at hand was helpfully childlike in its simplicity. It went something like this:

“The baseball season is about to start. Opening Day is a big deal. Tom Seaver will pitch.”

There. Done. Big day, biggest pitcher. What was to think about? As long as Tom Seaver remained the ace of the Mets’ staff, he would start Opening Day.

That equation held until a dark June night between Tom’s tenth consecutive Mets Opening Day start and what should have been his eleventh. That was the night in 1977 the Mets traded Tom Seaver, an event who repercussions rippled clear to the following April 7 in this particular context. The Mets hadn’t needed anybody else to start Opening Day since 1967, when Tom was a rookie and letting a rookie start Opening Day was unheard of (thus, veteran Don Cardwell in the first-game role). What to do if you don’t have Tom Seaver?

You give the ball to Jerry Koosman in 1978. And when you no longer have Jerry Koosman, as you wouldn’t a year later? You give the ball to Craig Swan in 1979 and 1980. And when Swannie is nagged by injuries in April of 1981? You give it to Pat Zachry.

Seaver. Then your next-best option, though it could be argued if you don’t have Tom Seaver, there is no next-best option, just whoever happens to be warm. That’s your Opening Day formula. When we didn’t have Seaver, we made due with latter-day Koosman, prime-of-his-life Swan, okey-dokey Zachry. I was out of high school before I had to think twice about it. Thinking once was all it took.

A quick aside is necessary to acknowledge the first game of the “second season” of 1981, the year Major League Baseball restarted from scratch after its midsummer strike. The Mets’ Opening Day 2.0 starter was Mike Scott, not because Joe Torre could accurately envision a future when Scott would thoroughly dominate the N.L., but because he was in better shape [1] than his staffmates following the seven-week layoff.

Back to traditional Openers. In 1982, the Mets’ Opening Day starter was Randy Jones because snow had delayed the season’s beginning and George Bamberger had to go with whoever remained more or less in rotation. It was the first time since I’d been paying attention to Opening Day that the hand on the ball belonged to somebody who was not like the others. Randy Jones had started four Opening Days for the San Diego Padres (and stolen Jerry Koosman’s 1976 Cy Young Award), but by 1982, he was less supreme than Supremes, which is to say he was just kept hangin’ on.

That’s all right. Randy Jones beat Steve Carlton on Opening Day in Philadelphia, as probably would have any Mets starter. Steve Carlton lost more often to the Mets than he did to anybody in his otherwise spectacular career. You know why Steve Carlton never spoke to the press while a Phillie? Because the Mets shut him up.

Jones’s aberrant appearance in the long line of Opening Day starters — which, for the record, began with Roger Craig, Al Jackson and Jack Fisher — would resemble a historical hiccup come 1983, when the Mets, behind a triumphantly restored Tom Seaver, defeated Steve Carlton and the Phils to kick off another season. Seaver didn’t get the decision that Opening Day (Doug Sisk did), but Opening Day was complete again. It had the best pitcher possible starting for the team where his tenure never should have ended. Mets fan Carly Simon was probably tempted to call Art Rust’s show that night and aver, “That’s the way I’ve always heard it should be.”

Seaver was a misplaced White Sock twelve months later (don’tcha hate losing a Sock in the laundry?) and we were back to Randy Jones, except in this case it was Mike Torrez, who was basically Don Cardwell. Do you follow? The Mets didn’t have an obvious ace as of April 2, 1984. Their most promising pitcher, raw rookie Dwight Gooden, was slotted for April 7, Game No. 5. Their most accomplished promising pitcher, September 1983 callup Ron Darling, was assigned April 4 duty, the second game of the year. Torrez was the only longtimer in the ranks. He was a wonderful pitcher…during the previous decade. As a Met in 1984, he wasn’t happening. But he had logged his innings the year before and he had been around. Davey Johnson went with the least objectionable choice from that perspective. Torrez got lit up by the Cincinnati Reds, absorbing the Mets’ first Opening Day setback in ten years.

Did it kill the Mets’ chances? No. They went out and won their next six games. Suddenly 1984 was happening in a way Torrez wasn’t any longer. Mike was released in June, destined to land in the dustbin of Opening Day trivia.

By the following April, we had the reincarnation of Seaver for those occasions. We had Gooden, whose prominence was unquestioned. He started every Opening Day but two for the next ten years. In 1987, Smithers (not the Brian Cashman-like underling to Mr. Burns’s George Steinbrenner character from The Simpsons, but the drug rehab clinic) called. In 1992, Dwight’s right shoulder was still rounding into form after arthroscopic surgery, so he was held back until the fifth game of the season, which also happened to be the Home Opener. That was the first time I can recall anybody noting anything special about being the starter for the Home Opener when the actual Opener was on the road. More or less, it was “…Doc gets to make his first start since his injury during the Home Opener; that’ll be nice.”

Gooden’s replacements during his two Opening Day exiles were Bobby Ojeda, who’d been the best pitcher on the World Champions the year before anyway, and David Cone, who’d led the league in strikeouts (including 19 on the season’s final day) in his Opener’s preceding season. Thus, from 1985 to 1994, we were back where we were comfortably nestled from 1968 through 1981 and again in 1983: the Ace pitches Opening Day; if we can’t have the Ace, we go with the next-best option.

In 1995, the season started late after the strike and Dallas Green was sending one of his messages when he skipped over logical choice Bret Saberhagen and went with Bobby Jones. Saberhagen had just enjoyed his best season as a Met in 1994. Bobby Jones was Bobby Jones: a better bet than typical Randy Jones in a Met uniform, but no match for the best of Randy Jones in a Padres uniform, let alone recent-peak Saberhagen. That was strange.

In 1996, after Jason Isringhausen came off a sizzling-hot second half of 1995 and excitement was sky-high for Generation K, Green tabbed Jones again. That’ll teach us to get excited.

In 1997, under Bobby Valentine, Pete Harnisch started Opening Day in San Diego. It was about as dispiriting a choice as one could have conjured. The Mets had no holdovers who at least had a claim on past glories, no healthy young guns. Even Bobby Jones was lacking luster. Harnisch was Torrez. Harnisch, like Torrez, was hit hard and led the Mets to a loss. Harnisch, like Torrez, didn’t last the season. The 1997 Mets, like the 1984 Mets, came alive soon enough and the grim memory of Pete Harnisch surrendering three consecutive home runs to start the sixth and not pitching again until August became a footnote (by which time it was revealed he had worse problems [2] than a ravenous gopher ball).

In 1998, Bobby Jones entered the season as titular ace of the Mets. He’d had an excellent first half of 1997, went to the All-Star Game and “earned” the Opening Day start (even if Rick Reed had surpassed him in reliability during the prior second half). Jones went toe-to-toe with Curt Schilling on one of those Opening Days that makes you want to indulge your clichés. The Mets won in fourteen, long after both of them were gone. Schilling kept on being an ace. Bobby Jones went back to being Bobby Jones.

In 1999, the Age of Leiter was fully upon us. Al Leiter was the Mets’ ace in times the Mets didn’t have an upper-case Ace. When the Mets would import someone of previously established ace credentials, Al would gracefully step aside and generally pitch better than he had when he was titular. Al was the starter on Opening Day ’99 in Florida, ’01 in Atlanta and ’02 at Shea. It made all sense in the Mets’ aceless universe.

2000? You might remember that as the year the Mets went to Tokyo. Mike Hampton was the designated ace. Of course he was. He’d won 22 games for Houston the year before and it was a brassy move to go out and get him in his walk year. You weren’t going to travel halfway around the globe and not start Mike Hampton to usher in the new millennium. As it happened, Mike Hampton was a lousy Opening Day starter and not much more than a co-ace. Had a helluva National League Championship Series, back when the Mets used to play in those.

Leiter was permanently unseated from Opening Day duty by future Hall of Famer T#m Gl@v!ne, who the Mets signed prior to 2003, just as their archrivals, the Braves, decided he wasn’t going to be of much use to them. It was also at the same point when the Mets were sliding into oblivion regardless of what long-ago Cy Young winner they decided to throw money at in the twilight of his career. Still, you pay T#m Gl@v!ne, and your only other remotely appropriate option is Al Leiter, you’re going to start T#m Gl@v!ne on Opening Day. Even I recognize that.

Gl@v!ne’s status took care of 2003 and 2004. Come 2005, it was Seaverly simple again. The Mets got Pedro Martinez. Nobody was going to start ahead of Pedro Martinez on Opening Day as long as Pedro Martinez was physically capable. On April 4, in Cincinnati, he was (6 IP, 12 K). In 2006 (held back for health reasons until Game No. 3) and 2007 (unavailable until September), he wasn’t. Your next-best option was the other future Hall of Famer on the roster, Gl@v!ne. T#m started both of those games, both of them wins.

Then came Johan Santana. No need to think about who’d start Opening Day in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. None whatsoever. There Mets went 4-0 on Johpening Days.

We had to skip over 2011 there because Johan was out for the year and Terry Collins was the new manager and manipulating expectations became the in thing at Citi Field. The next-best option to Johan entering 2011 was mostly R.A. Dickey and a little Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey had a first half in 2010 somewhat comparable to Bobby Jones’s in 1997 (though not All-Star selected). He was the longest-serving homegrown guy. Dickey, on the other hand, was the best pitcher the Mets had from the time he appeared as if from out of the cornfield in Field Of Dreams. He was zipping up the charts in terms of becoming the Peepul’s Cherce, if you will [3]. Mets fans who were already Mets fans were in love with R.A. They took Pelfrey with a grain of salt.

Thus was born Collins’s Solomonic decision to start Pelfrey on Opening Night at whatever Joe Robbie Stadium was called by then and fix it so Dickey could start the Home Opener a week later. It was a well-intentioned [4] terrible idea. First off, nobody told Collins how bad Pelfrey was against the Marlins; he was Carlton against the Mets caliber bad. Second, Dickey was the best you had after Santana. You don’t hold back your best. That neither Pelfrey nor Dickey [5] had a good game in their respective Openers only drilled two points home.

Don’t get too cute with Opening Day starters. And there’s only one Opening Day per team.

The Home Opener, regardless of whether it’s the first game of the season, is the fan’s Day of Jubilee [6]. For the team, however, if it’s not the first game of the season, it’s the next game of the season. Give us in the stands the pageantry, the Shea family with the floral horseshoe, Howie at home plate introducing the lineups, the release of orange and blue balloons, a lack of pocket schedules — fabulous. But the team itself should just be putting its players on the field and playing. If it’s the seventh game of the season (as it is this season), then the starting pitcher should be whoever comes up in a rotation set up to maximize pitching strength.

Opening Day — the real one — is where you do honors. It’s where you honor yourself by starting a Seaver or a Gooden if you have one, or a Koosman or a Cone if that’s your best or a Randy/Bobby Jones if weird circumstances dictate. After that, start your second-best pitcher, your not-quite-ace. Then three and four and five and start over, pending off-days, weather, preservation of projected post-Tommy John innings. If you don’t like a matchup, then avoid it coming out of Spring Training. Keep your Big Pelf the hell away from his teal Kryptonite. If you have a long-range forecast that suggests rain, maybe move your Dickey around.

The Mets in 2013 no longer had Santana on the active roster or Dickey in the organization. Their best pitcher as the season approached was Matt Harvey. Collins named Jon Niese his Opening Day starter. Some folderol about him being here the longest and deserving it [7]. Same folderol that was applied to Pelfrey. The Opener was at home. Niese pitched fine. The Mets won. Harvey pitched the second game. He was amazing. The Mets won again.

And on the season went, everybody pretty much forgetting about who pitched when at the beginning of the season until the next season when the subject logically stirred again. It figured to be Niese, given Harvey’s absence, but then Jon was hurting and Dillon Gee had finished strong and he was the inheritor of the “deserves it” [8] reasoning. The fact that the opponent was the Washington Nationals, whom Gee had always worn on his watch chain, wasn’t much mentioned, but that was a bonus. The Opener was at home. Gee pitched fine. The Mets lost. It happens.

So here we are. We have an Opening Day in Washington in 2015 and we have a Home Opener one week later. We have an Ace in Matt Harvey. We have a pitcher who was the best on the staff in Harvey’s absence in Jacob deGrom. And the Mets will start their season with neither of them.

They are going with the updated version of Mike Torrez, the sequel to Pete Harnisch, an echo of Don Cardwell.

They are going with Bartolo Colon, even though they have something better.

They are going with Bartolo Colon, even though they have two things substantially better.

This is where I come to feel like I’ve been a baseball fan a very long time, but once a year, depending on the circumstances, I’m talked to like I’ve just discovered the game.

This is where somebody helpfully pops his head up to deign to explain to me and inform me, “Oh, it’s not a big deal. It’s one game out of 162.”

Because I had no idea 161 games remain after Opening Day. Thanks for that.

In theory, I’m down with not placing outsize importance on any game that doesn’t speak for itself. You know what you’re not guaranteed in the final 161 games, though? You’re not guaranteed the sense of occasion. You don’t have that one chance to start everything the way you’d like it to go before it inevitably doesn’t. Circumstances will get the best of you after the first pitch. Up to the first pitch, you have the circumstances in the palm of your hand.

And, this year, Bartolo Colon’s.

Colon is an excellent choice to start Opening Day if your other choices are Niese, Gee, Randy Jones past his prime and Bobby Jones floating around his. Colon is magnificent choice if you’re Wes Westrum and you don’t have the gumption to give the ball to rookie Tom Seaver. Colon is a splendid choice if baseball’s been on labor hiatus and Bartolo is somehow in better fettle [9] than Pat Zachry and Pete Falcone.

You have Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom on your team. Jacob deGrom was last seen mowing down batters like crazy. Matt Harvey, you may have heard, worked long and hard to return in time to an Aceness that transcends titularity [10]. Either one of them would be a worthy choice to commence 2015. I’d go with Harvey — he appears horselike in his healthiness and was good enough to start for Bruce Bochy the last All-Star Game he was eligible — but I could see going with deGrom. DeGrom just won a major award based on his pitching.

It would never occur to me to go with 41-year-old Bartolo Colon. Not on this team. Not in 2015. Not even as I acknowledge that the first game is statistically one of 162. Not when I can set my rotation to have my two best pitchers pitch first and second.

Colon’s a pro. Colon’s a competitor. Colon’s a survivor. Colon’s a 204-game winner lifetime and a 15-game winner from 2014 despite an ERA+ that was well below league average.

He’s not an Opening Day pitcher for the 2015 Mets…except for the indisputable fact that he has been announced as such.

It’s just one game. It’s the wrong occasion for Colon.

It just is. The choice is at odds with the occasion and its inherent sense.

The best argument I’ve heard in favor of Colon getting the ball at Nationals Park is he won’t get too “amped up”. Y’know what? I want my Opening Day starter to get a little amped up — not to the point of short-circuiting, but I’ll always lean to the guy who absolutely embraces a given opportunity for what it is. Getting amped up in and of itself should not prevent a manager from trusting a pitcher who projects excitement. If a talented pitcher can’t handle the emotions of a given afternoon in front of a large crowd, he may not be who you want around for the long term.

The Mets plan to play big games this year, don’t they? Might as well get used to how they feel.

Opening Day is what we look forward to. Opening Day stokes our passions, including the desire to dwell a bit on who shall stand astride the mound, toe the rubber and lead us into our immediate future. Why not make that day as anticipatable as possible?

If you’re lucky enough to carry the starter from the 2013 All-Star Game and the Rookie of the Year from 2014, you don’t skip them both on April 6, 2015, unless you’re also packing someone with an MVP among his bric-a-brac.

I’d skip over Harvey and deGrom for Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner. Not Bartolo Colon.

It’s not the end of the world to put your first foot forward with an ordinary step when you have extraordinary options. It doesn’t put the kibosh on your dreams of contending (the Torrez and Harnisch starts didn’t portend massive Met revivals, but revive those respective Met squads did). It is, however, the beginning of the season, the instant we count down toward for six months. Rise to the occasion in the style the occasion deserves.

As for the second component of what the Mets have decided — who starts the Home Opener — that’s the game on whose behalf I’d willingly take up the one of 162 argument.

You know who should start the Home Opener when it’s not the actual Opening Day? Whoever’s turn it is. No manipulating, no runner-up prize and for crissake no dabbling in the dark arts of ticket sales to have the current Peepul’s Cherce start a game for which seats aren’t otherwise flying off mets.com. Just start whoever would start the seventh game of the season based on how you started your first and second series on the road.

Think back to some of the relatively recent seasons when the Mets didn’t open their schedule at home. In 2005, when Pedro was wowing Cincy (until Braden Looper deflated the experience), the Home Opener was Gl@v!ne’s start. Y’know why? Because it was his turn. Pedro’s turn was the day before, when he outdueled John Smoltz in the season’s sixth game. That was huge — it put Willie Randolph’s Mets in the win column for the first time — and it was treated as one of 162…which it should have been.

That’s how it worked in 2007, when John Maine got the ball at Shea, and in 2008, when the task fell to Oliver Perez. There was no talk of who “deserved” the Home Opener when the Home Opener wasn’t the Opener. That almost never came up in conversation until Collins invented it in 2011. The Mets opened at home the last three years, so there was no need to delineate. This year the first home game is Game No. 7. Thus we’re told there’s Colon for the real Opener, deGrom getting the “honor” of the Home Opener and, oh yeah, Harvey in Game No. 8, Tuesday night, April 14, 718/507-TIXX.

Way too cute [11].