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

Welcome Home

 

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 10.54.59 PM [1]It’s not a new story any more. In fact it’s a well-worn tale on its way to becoming a cliche.

But that’s the fate of stories that resonate with people, that mean something. And this one does. It’s the one I keep coming back to. And it’s worth hearing again.

It’s the story of Wilmer Flores [2], sent away to Milwaukee with Zack Wheeler [3] for Carlos Gomez [4]. In theory, it was a trade designed to make everybody happy. Gomez would come back to his first team, a rambunctious colt grown into a high-wattage hitter and charismatic clubhouse figure. Wheeler would return next summer knowing that his new team had valued him enough to acquire him long months before he could again be useful. And Flores would escape a situation that had become frankly dysfunctional.

He wouldn’t have to keep learning to play a position he’d once been told to stop playing, with his every hesitation and mistake exposed in public and excoriated at top volume. He wouldn’t be asked, while already doing something extremely difficult, to also add muscle to a sick, sputtering offense. Instead of being expected to speed up a transformation into something he’d never been, he’d be accepted for just being Wilmer Flores.

Plenty of athletes would have jumped at the chance. But Wilmer Flores didn’t want to go. Despite everything that had happened, he wanted to stay with the professional family he’d been a part of since he was literally a child. Distraught and dismayed, he spent his final moments as a New York Met in tears — an ordeal that was public, just like the previous ones.

And then came a twist that would have made even a soap-opera fan incredulous. The done deal was undone. Forty-eight hours later, the Mets faced off against the Nationals, the kings of the N.L. East, with Flores at shortstop. In the 12th inning, with the game knotted at 1-1, he drove a ball into the Party City deck [5]. With a horde of teammates awaiting him at home plate, Flores tossed his helmet away and then grabbed at his uniform, at the script word on his chest, the one that turned out to have meant as much to him as it has to us: METS.

That all happened the same crazy week of the season that saw the great-pitch, zero-hit 2015 Mets 1.0 rebooted as Mets 2.0. There was the arrival of Michael Conforto [6] from Double-A, viewed with reflexive suspicion as a low-cost PR gesture. There was the import of Juan Uribe [7] and Kelly Johnson [8] and Tyler Clippard [9], battle-scarred veterans and baseball professionals. And there was the shocking acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes [10], Plan C after deals for Gomez and Jay Bruce [11] failed to materialize.

All of those events fueled the Mets’ astonishing rocket ride past the Nationals, a trajectory that has now reached escape velocity. But it was Flores’s resurrection that was the heart of it — the story we’ll remember, and tell in an effort to make sense of two months in which the impossible became routine.

For a long time we’ve labored under the burden of bad stories. There were the twin collapses that taught us to fear things that go bump in the September night, and then the financial reversals that taught us to assume we were being lied to on December mornings. The Mets, still shell-shocked from back-to-back disasters at Shea, moved into a modern park just in time for a savage economic downturn and the revelation that the coffers were bare. Both they and we took up residence at Citi Field like squatters in an stripped and abandoned palace, sniping about obstructed views and Dodger shrines, watching terrible baseball and listening to worse excuses.

We were a dumpster fire, a pitiable farce, a national joke. The athletes paid to be Mets failed and were discarded or succeeded and were subtracted anyway, sometimes exiting with an anonymous knife in the back. They left if they could, most of them; we stayed because we had no choice, we were born to this and it was too late to choose otherwise. And so for six years we subsisted on the little we had. There was nostalgia, correctly diagnosed by Don DeLillo as a product of dissatisfaction and rage. There was the ragamuffin insistence that glasses were 1/10th full. And there was hope — wild and desperate hope, idiotic and indomitable hope. Hope, a bucket constantly filling with water even as it runs out the massive hole blown in the bottom.

But those bad stories have lost their power over us. They dissipated into phantoms a little after 7 tonight [12], exorcised by Matt Harvey [13] and Lucas Duda [14] and David Wright [15] and Jeurys Familia [16]. We’ve rediscovered that September can be wonderful, and repopulated our dreams with memories that will make us laugh and clap and shed a happy tear come winter.

Like Matt Harvey explaining why this time he wasn’t going to let go of the ball, his face hard but his voice cracking.

Like Daniel Murphy [17] and Jon Niese [18], two of just four remaining Mets who wore orange and blue at Shea, beaming at their children, who looked amazed at finding themselves scooped up in their fathers’ sodden, sticky arms.

Like the conga line of Mets slapping hands with fans who’d made the trek to Cincinnati and camped out behind the visitor’s dugout, waiting with their banners to salute and be saluted.

Like Cespedes in his custom goggles (as if he’d wear any other kind), standing with a cigar in his mouth next to Bartolo Colon [19], as imperturbable and Zen with a champagne bottle in his hand as he is with a ball out on the mound.

Like Wright, older and wiser than the last time he saw a magic number hit zero — and so appreciating the moment even more.

Like the joy on the face of Terry Collins [20], who spent four and a half years stoically explaining why a perpetually undermanned team wasn’t winning, then awoke one day to find he’d been handed a real one — a team he’ll now take to his first-ever postseason.

Like you, wherever you were, whether it was Cincinnati or your favorite bar or your lucky spot on the couch. In the top of the ninth I realized we had no champagne in the fridge and so hustled two blocks to the store. I got back for the bottom of the inning, and when Familia fanned Jay Bruce I sank onto my back on the carpet — a collapse born of joy instead of pain.

These are all good stories we get to tell ourselves now. And next time things threaten to go awry, next time we doubt or despair, we’ll remember that disaster isn’t the only thing that can take you by surprise.

Because sometimes the dutiful, decent captain whose career seems in jeopardy actually returns from the disabled list — and launches a massive home run on the first pitch he sees.

Because sometimes that kid called up from Double-A as a glimpse of the future turns out to be the present, and you realize he’s here to stay.

Because sometimes the big bat you want gets away, and the next big bat you want gets away, but the third time really is the charm, and you find yourself wondering if you too would be better at everything if you wore a parakeet-colored compression sleeve.

Because sometimes the late-season showdown with your biggest rivals, the one you’d been dreading, yields three straight come-from-behind victories, including one in which a 7-1 deficit in the top of the seventh turns out to be no big deal.

And because sometimes the accidental shortstop you get saddled with turns out to be the heart of the team — the one whose reaction to cruelties and misfortunes is to want to stay and help write a better story. And then sometimes, given an unlikely second chance, he does just that.

October is an undiscovered country. The Mets may win 11 more games after their normal course of 162 or they may win none; their season may continue into November or be a memory before the kids have picked out their costumes.

But whatever happens in the postseason, they’ve already won. And so have we. All of those games are bonuses, extras, lagniappe — a stolen season snatched back from winter. They’re our reward for nearly a decade of crazy perseverance, for getting up when it seemed a lot smarter to stay down, for insisting — in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary — that ya gotta believe.

The magic number is zero. The ball’s over the fence. Doubt and despair are walking off the field with their heads down. Come on around to where we’re waiting to greet you with open arms.

Welcome home.