After I got home and watched the replay, Michael Conforto’s one-on, two-out, ninth-inning drive to left-center proved ordinary. It was a deep fly ball but quite catchable, and sure enough Andrew McCutchen caught it to send Friday’s Mets-Pirates game to the tenth inning, knotted at one.
From Row 21 of Section 109, however, it looked perfect. Too perfect, in retrospect. Who wouldn’t want the Mets’ top draft pick of 2014 to deliver a signature blow and add another chapter to 2015’s improbable first-place story? And if you happened to be monitoring the flight of the ball alongside somebody who was wearing a recently purchased CONFORTO 30 t-shirt…somebody who had a few hours earlier posed for a picture with his shirt’s namesake…c’mon, who could ask for anything more?
So we — that would be me and Citi Field goodwill ambassador Skid (who swears he never wears shirts with players names normally, but on impulse he bought the rookie’s) and Mike, who’s visiting Skid from California — asked for simply that. We asked for Michael Conforto, in his fifteenth major league game and his second pinch-hitting appearance, to provide the proverbial storybook ending. The ball he hit appeared standsbound off the bat. We wished it and we hoped it toward the Party City Deck. We wanted it to be a gala ball.
But it wasn’t. It was an out. The rule about not always getting what you want held, just like the 1-1 score, at least until the tenth. Then Bobby Parnell came apart, which led to Pittsburgh taking a 3-1 lead that withstood a mild Met rally and resulted in a 3-2 defeat for the home team.
Which was an aggravating if not crying shame (save your tears for September devastations, if necessary). This was one of those games that sat there for the taking all night, yet it got left on the table. Once it sunk in that it was no longer within Metropolitan grasp, that instead the Pirates snatched it, absconded with it and ferried it into their clubhouse for their own nefarious purposes, the bastards, this game officially became the most frustrating loss in modern Citi Field history. Modern Citi Field history only dates back to the last Nationals series, so you might also say it was the only loss in modern Citi Field history.
I’ve seen the Mets lose in distressing fashion at Citi Field before, but what were the consequences prior to this year, exactly? That instead of languishing in fourth place, they’d languish slightly deeper in fourth place? Even horrible losses registered as late as July 30 of this year — like the one Jeurys Familia enabled between rain delays on that very date — tended to be suffered on their own demerits.
But now we’re in the Met Games Matter portion of Citi Field’s life. All Met games matter, but everything since July 31 is being played out in authentic pursuit of the playoffs. If you’re old enough to recall a time when the Mets chased pennants, you know a 3-2 loss in ten innings in August is different when it determines your immediate future, not just your draft positioning.
The Mets lost enough in 2013 to draft Conforto tenth overall in 2014. Smart move, losing those 88 games. Limited exposure to the left fielder shows us what a lively bat he carries and what a large clue he has when using it. Plus there’s a real spark to him, a twinkle in his eye, a sense that barely a year removed from college that he knows he belongs in the bigs.
Am I a scout? No.
Did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night? No (though I did fall asleep in a recliner around three in the morning).
But, because I’m lucky enough to know Skid, I was on the field for batting practice before Friday’s game. Skid won an MLB-sponsored contest of some sort that hinged, to a degree, on his excellent ballpark attendance record and his tenacity in “checking in” electronically. The powers that be provided him with field passes for BP. He invited Mike and me to join him.
You ever hang around watching city workers repair a pothole? That’s what BP is like up close, to be honest. There are various sets of barricades to keep gawkers at a safe distance from those who are going about their labors. They’re just trying to get their jobs done. If they wore orange vests and traversed asphalt, you wouldn’t give what they’re doing a second thought. But they’re wearing Mets gear and they’re on baseball field, so of course you gawk from behind your barricade and soak in the small miracle that is a ballpark coming to life.
You gawk at Jerry Blevins walking by with his left arm in a sling, neither slipping nor falling as he walked. How nice of Jerry to drop by and support his teammates and nod thanks to the fans who shout encouragement to get better soon. You have no idea at that moment that Jerry’s planning on ditching the sling and slinging four-seam fastballs before 2015 is over. From his arm and mouth to Dan Warthen’s ear, you suppose.
You gawk at Yoenis Cespedes dispatching baseballs far over the outfield fence, a phenomenon he’d repeat when the seats were occupied and the pitcher didn’t toss intentionally softly. I’ve been on the field for BP more than a dozen times over the years and I’ve never seen any Met mash a baseball like Yoenis did yesterday. That he did it against J.A. Happ when the scoreboard was lit was more important, but going yard in the empty yard was impressive on its own count.
You gawk at Curtis Granderson working the veritable rope line like a small-state governor seeking his third term. When it comes to fan relations, Curtis is running unopposed, yet takes nothing for granted. If you were eight years old and your teacher asked you to draw a “really good baseball player,” you’d draw Curtis Granderson. When Curtis Granderson was eight, I imagine, he started making lists of what he’d do when he became that really good baseball player. I’ve never seen anyone embrace those types of self-imposed responsibilities more diligently. He greets little kids as pals. He smiles broadly at ladies of a certain vintage. He signs anything and poses with everyone. He takes his time and is never perfunctory. It’s so beyond too good to be true it makes me cynically wonder what the hell he’s up to.
You gawk at Terry Collins taking a break from his Leader of Men duties to greet a handful of random well-wishers. Terry may or may not be an outstanding manager. He could have managed his bullpen a little quicker in the tenth last night, I thought (where’s Sparky Anderson’s legendarily quick hook when you need it?), but now and then I get a kick out of watching his self-awareness kick in. Like last night at the barricade as he made several civilians feel particularly valued for having been recognized by the skipper of their favorite ballclub. Like the last two Closing Days when he sprinted out to center to acknowledge the cheering endeavors of the 7 Line Army.
Those end-of-season’s greetings to the fans in the matching t-shirts reminded me of something Arnold Hano wrote about another set of fans in another set of bleachers at the end of another year. This was in September 1957, the last weekend the Giants would ever wind down a campaign at the Polo Grounds. Hano, covering the funereal proceedings for Sports Illustrated, met a woman named Freda Axler, who, between fits of inconsolability, pointed to the aisle near where she was stationed in Row D, Seat 20.
“See that?” she asked Hano. “D for Durocher,” the already erstwhile manager of the Giants. “Twenty. Two-oh. Durocher’s number was 2. When Leo was here, never a day went by he didn’t wave from the playing field and yell hello to Section 12.”
Freda Axler probably never forgot those waves, and those who Collins touched will long tell of the day they got to shake hands with the manager of the Mets. I usually get the sense Terry would be happier on a back field in Port St. Lucie advising some prospect to get a quicker prep step, but I appreciate his intermittently reaching out from behind his own barricade and filling the role of big city skipper with just enough aplomb.
My buddy Skid doesn’t seem the starstruck sort, but he’ll probably remember the day he decided to wear his Conforto tee and found himself a couple of feet from Conforto himself. At 22 and toting three weeks’ service time in the majors, young Michael probably doesn’t know he can just jog off the field when BP is over, that he doesn’t have to stop and chat with those regular people behind the barricade who are gawking at him. Or maybe he’s watched Curtis in action and is taking an encouraging cue. Or it could be they just teach excellent manners at Oregon State.
Regardless, Conforto lingered and Skid (once suitably nudged) couldn’t help himself. Look, he said to the Met on the other side of the barricade, I’m wearing your shirt. Conforto thought CONFORTO was quite cool. They had to pose for a picture. Ironically, Skid’s shirt has no number on the front and Michael’s BP warmup hid any evidence of a jersey, so their bond by garment is hidden in the photograph. What is easy to see is that unlike the other new, likely rented faces you had to gawk at twice to recognize fully during BP because they haven’t been Mets very long (and they, too, wore unnumbered warmups), Michael is slated to be a Met for years to come.
Conforto will drive other balls to deep left center. A few are bound to keep traveling.
The one in the ninth, though, wasn’t the bookend we wanted it to be. Skid and I were probably forcing the narrative: neat picture at 5:30, a walkoff highlight after the clock struck ten. Instead, it was — as Bruce Springsteen once tweaked a sitting president who claimed it was morning in America — “midnight, and, like, there’s a bad moon risin’.” In reality, the game was completed around 10:30, but our mood was pretty dark there at the end.
Argh, to put in Piratespeak. So frustrating. The Mets hit the ball well on and off all night, yet very little landed when and where we wanted it to after BP. Bartolo Colon, perhaps bucked up by the return of his gorgeous personal catcher Anthony Recker, pitched fairly beautifully for seven innings, allowing only one blemish in the form of Neil Walker’s home run in the top of the first. Happ, who’s been throwing baseballs at big leaguers roughly forever (yet ten years fewer than Bartolo), nixed every offensive effort the Mets generated, save for the one Yoenis took into his own hands to lead off the home sixth.
Tyler Clippard pitched a scoreless eighth. Familia pitched a scoreless ninth. Parnell couldn’t say the same in the tenth. Karma suggested this game was doomed once Conforto didn’t fully connect, but Bobby buried it for sure as soon as he appeared and showed absolutely nothing. Three consecutive Pirates made something of his nothing while we waited for Terry to send a lifeboat to the mound to rescue his drowning reliever. The S.S. Carlos Torres arrived a tad too late. The Mets attempted a bottom-of-the-tenth comeback, but like most of their offense Friday, it arrived ass-backwards, with never enough successful swings bunched together to meaningfully move a single needle. It was swell that Juan Lagares doubled off Mark Melancon, raced to third on a wild pitch and scored on Granderson’s sac fly, but you didn’t need to be Tim McCarver to tell yourself, “That run means nothing.”
This game meant something. This loss meant something, though thanks to Washington’s continued uncanny impression of the Cubs of ’69 (think Durocher waved to those kids at Camp Ojibwa, too?), it wasn’t felt in the immediate standings. The Mets’ N.L. East edge is still 4½, which is both considerable and shocking. Day by day I find myself in conversations regarding October, and not just to arrange leaf-peeping appointments. I try to tamp the tempting talk down as soon as I drift into it, for who are we, humble Mets fans, to be pitched “potential 2015 Postseason” ticket offers in the middle of August? Why, it’s as ridiculous as someone trying to sell you home heating oil while at a ballgame (that happened again last night).
But there those messages are, delivered brightly and confidently by Branden and Alexa on the 62% Larger Videoboard seemingly every other inning. And, all hard-earned common baseball sense notwithstanding, it doesn’t sound crazy in the context of the modern history of Citi Field. In the modern history of Citi Field, the Mets are a very good team. The Mets are a first-place team that doesn’t look fluky or transient sitting where they do, and the Mets fans — not just the stubbornly diehard but the ones whose heads were buried in texts or whose feet were planted in food lines only weeks ago — are fully absorbed.
It’s a tableau every bit as gorgeous as Anthony Recker.
There were more than 38,000 of us in the park last night, not counting the heating oil salesmen. The vast majority were all over this game, like they were all over the game I attended Wednesday night, because when you go to Citi Field to see the Mets play ball, nothing could be bigger than seeing the Mets play ball. This is not the Citi Field I once knew. This is a much better Citi Field. This is Citi Field breaking through the barricade of possibility and swarming toward the rope line of probability. Like Michael Conforto, we’re still getting used to being here, no matter how much we act as if we know what we’re doing.
That’s why the frustration was so enormous when we didn’t win in the ninth or keep from losing in the tenth. It was too perfect a night to not win.