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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Get Your Hopes Up

The Mets have played 38.3% of their allotted baseball games for 2016, which in and of itself is no magic number, but if you do the math and calculate that 38.3% of a pie has been consumed, you understand 61.7% of it remains. If you express 61.7% as a decimal figure, the kind you’d see in the standings, then you can picture .617.

And if you’ve spent your life aware of what the standings looked like at the close of the regular season in 1969 (and why wouldn’t you?), you know .617 adds up to 100 out of 162 games. That’s how many the Mets won in 1969, that’s how many are left in 2016.

So we find ourselves at a statistical milestone in this regular season, at least for those who find round numbers significant. We have the roundest of numbers awaiting us. The big one-oh-oh. One-hundred.

Sounds like a lot. But so did 162, and 38.3% of those have vanished into 34-28 air. As long as we’re counting fingers, toes, wins and losses, the Mets’ record with 100 games to go projects to 88-74 when there will be none to go. Sharp-eyed Mets fans who know their figures will recognize 88-74 as a record the Mets have achieved thrice in their existence. They finished 88-74 in an exhilarating 1997, repeated the feat in a less emotionally rewarding 1998 and compiled it all over again in a crushing 2007. In none of those seasons did they play a postseason game.

Ah, but each of those seasons was B2WC, Before the Second Wild Card, an institution that, if the season ended today (though why would it?), would serve as our bacon-saver. The Mets hold that second Wild Card, leading the Utley Dodgers by two games at present, trailing the Perennial Cardinals by a half-game for the National League’s first consolation prize. It’s all very temporary up there. If our plans had been panning out, we would be more readily comparing our mark to that of the Murpharious Nationals. At the moment, however, that’s verging on pointless. The Nationals are 4½ in front of the Mets, or as far out ahead as they were at any point last year, but they look way better and we look…

Who can tell?

The National League East of 2015, when there were 62 games played and 100 on tap, was a tale of two teams trying to get on track. The Mets were 33-29, one game worse than now, but one game better than the Nationals then. Come to think of it, when we reached 100 games done and 62 to go, the tale was still in effect. The net difference 38 games later was two games: the Mets were one behind the Nationals. That was at the beginning of the week when first everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Mets and then everything that could go right in fact went right. (You know, trade called off; lead blown in the rain; different trade consummated; guy not traded hitting dramatic home run; main rival swept…helluva book out about it, I hear.)

We can call 62 games played a milestone. We can call 100 games played a milestone. We make those notations because 162 games, although they dwindle as nearly as quickly as the number of readily available Met players on any given Sunday, is as long a time as it is a short time. You look for signposts, for clues, for ways to stay engaged in what often penetrates our brain as an endless slog. 62 games down with a hundred to go is meaningful if we want it to be.

Baseball is beautiful, the season is what we crave when we don’t have it, but then we get to the predictably unpredictable portions where we’re flailing a bit. Like the road trip at whose end healthy bodies recede from view and all you can see is a lineup you didn’t envision a few weeks never mind a few months ago.

The highly unlikely starters of Game 62 from the perspective of Opening Night.

Batting cleanup, the second baseman Kelly Johnson.
Batting fifth, the first baseman James Loney.

We didn’t re-sign Kelly Johnson in the offseason, did we? What happened to Neil Walker? Loney…isn’t he with the, uh…not the Dodgers anymore. The Rays? Where’s Duda?

The vaguely plausible starter of Game 62:

Batting second, the shortstop Matt Reynolds.

Reynolds made the team? No, he didn’t. Don’t tell me something went wrong with Cabrera. Hold up — Reynolds is batting second. And Johnson’s the cleanup hitter?!?!? Also, is Loney really that good that he’s our five-hole guy?

The less surprising but still not-quite-kosher starters of Game 62:

Batting sixth, the third baseman Wilmer Flores.
Batting seventh, the left fielder Alejandro De Aza.
Batting eighth, the catcher Kevin Plawecki.

Terry must be giving Wright the day off. Flores must be doing OK. De Aza? Did Conforto need a day off the same day as Lagares? Plawecki getting some playing time is good, but maybe they should have found an experienced backup catcher for d’Arnaud.

Bonus unlikelihood of Game 62:

Dick Scott is managing? Who the hell is Dick Scott? Oh right, the bench coach. Wait, where did Geren go again?

Curtis Granderson led off and played right. Yoenis Cespedes was in center and holding down the three hole. Steven Matz pitched and batted ninth despite his ability to bat eighth, maybe seventh amid this bunch. Those were assumables worth assuming. You would have assumed Terry Collins would be in the dugout day in and day out. If you were told Terry Collins’s team was in possession of a playoff spot entering its 62nd game, you’d assume he’d still be the manager. He still is the manager, but on Sunday, he wasn’t feeling all that well and the Mets decided discretion is at least 61.7% of valor and they sent him to a hospital in Milwaukee (where he was deemed no worse than day-to-day, sort of like most of us).

OK, we understand why Scott was in for Collins. The rest we understand because we didn’t just arrive here in our spaceships from April 3. We know the Mets are without their catcher, first baseman and third baseman of record due to lengthy injury (though the catcher might not be injured forever, despite it appearing as if that’s exactly what he has been). We know the second baseman is aching in the back and that his Sunday replacement was reacquired because of the injury epidemic. It’s hard to remember so many days later that Johnson was fetched from Atlanta to fill in for Wright, but there are so many holes to fill on this Mets club right now that the next thing you’ll tell me is Kelly Johnson batted cleanup on Sunday.

Oh yeah, I already told you that.

The rest is just the usual Metsiness or, to be fair, anybodyness that can afflict any team during the long march from April to October. Juan Lagares was still healing in the thumb (and he eventually pinch-hit). Michael Conforto has a wrist issue (and is still slumping, including when he pinch-hit). Asdrubal Cabrera was simply taking a cue from Peter Gibbons in Office Space and opting not to take the call from Bill Lumbergh that said, Hello Asdrubal, what’s happening? I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday. We, uh, lost some people this week and we sorta need to play catchup.

Cabrera’s been working nights, weekends, practically every shift without a break since the season started. You couldn’t blame him if he’d voluntarily underwent hypnosis so as to instinctively tune out Lumbergh…I mean Collins…I mean Scott. Whoever was leaving those droning message on his machine, it didn’t matter. Eventually Cabrera entered Sunday’s game. Eventually the Mets, whoever constituted them, entered Sunday’s game. Their names showed up in the box score for the first six innings and their actions were mentioned on the radio, but there was no tangible evidence that they were participating in their ballgame at Milwaukee. The Brewers put the ball in play versus Matz, and they didn’t have to do much beyond that to generate runs. The Mets committed more errors (three) than they fielded regular starters (two). Zach Davies, who became a worthy Cy Young candidate yesterday if no other day, held the Mets hitless from one out in the first to three out in the sixth.

In the seventh, Davies returned to the mortal, allowed two hits and was replaced long enough to allow the Mets to scratch out a run courtesy of Almostandro De Aza, whose hallmark in 2016 has been his ability to almost gets hits, almost score runs and almost make catches. In the eighth, there was a stronger flurry of Met activity. Lagares, having convinced Miller Park security he really did play for one of the teams inside, doubled to lead off. Granderson, at last in that annual groove that lifts his batting average to .218, singled. The inning before, the Mets started with a double and a single but still needed two groundouts for one run. Lagares’s thumb, thank goodness, isn’t in his feet. He ran and he scored and the Mets closed it to 5-2. Following two-hole hitter Reynolds’s second strikeout, Cespedes doubled home Granderson. Now, at last, there was hitting and there was running and, either best or worst of all, there was hope.

Oh, sweet hope. You are the mother’s milk of the baseball season. Well, not literally. If the Mets could sell a beverage like that at Citi Field, they’d charge you eleven bucks for an eight-ounce container. But after six dreadful innings and one marginally rewarding inning, the Mets were still in this thing. Hope! Baseball! Yeah, baby! This is how we do it! We get our hopes up. We get by with a little hope from our Mets, we hope to get high — in the standings — with a little hope from our Mets.

Up next was the cleanup hitter, which suggests bad news for the Brewers. The cleanup hitter is, by definition, the most feared slugger in your lineup, or as the Mets called him for the afternoon, Kelly Johnson. All right, the Brewers probably had little fear, but Johnson is a professional hitter, or at least a professional player. We were anywhere between modestly sated to moderately thrilled to have restored him to the Met roster less than a week ago.

Forty-one players have left the Mets, played for another major league team, and returned to us. Johnson is the 41st. It’s not always a case of regret that brings Recidivist Mets back, but you can wish you still had the guy you didn’t mind giving up the first time. In December 1934, the New York Giants traded for center fielder George Davis nine months after trading him away. With Davis, the Giants won the 1933 World Series. Without him, manager Bill Terry cracked not so wise about the Brooklyn Dodgers, who relished playing proto-Marlin spoilers against them on the final weekend of ’34, costing the Giants any chance of repeating. Memphis Bill concluded his team was better with Davis than without him. “I made a mistake last spring,” he admitted, as recounted in Frank Graham’s essential Giants chronicle. “I had to see George play with another ballclub before I realized how good he was.”

The Mets had to see how bad they were as they tried to get by with Reynolds, Ty Kelly and Eric Campbell. They processed they were pretty grim, thus set out to salvage Johnson once more, leaving Akeel Morris as a non-refundable deposit. It didn’t matter that Johnson wasn’t batting more than Granderson for the last-place Braves. All that mattered was that when you viewed .215 Johnson in the context of unproven Reynolds and Kelly and a-little-too-proven Campbell, he wasn’t them. And, in limited action to date, he’s batted .444 for the Mets. He’s also awoken inside a defensive nightmare and ran the bases ludicrously on Friday night (though that sort of thing was going around).

Kelly Johnson still seems like a good addition or re-addition. But that didn’t mean he converted Cespedes from runner to run. Instead, he grounded to second, which was productive in the sense that it moved Yoenis to third, but now there were two out. Cabrera was summoned to bat for Loney, what with lefty Will Smith pitching. Reliable Asdrubal emerged from his hammock without complaint, battled Smith for nine pitches, and walked. First and third was our situation, which could totally raise your hope quotient. Johnson and Cabrera each did something not bad, yet the Mets were still waiting for something very good to happen. Where had we seen something like this before only to have the Mets not score?

From watching Mets baseball since we were wee lads and lasses. But that’s not the only thing we were used to. We were used to hope. And stitched into the tapestry of hope is faith in the new.

***

If everything is going great, we don’t need hope. When it’s not — and it wasn’t on Sunday until the eighth — we need to rely on something we don’t consider the reason we require hope, somebody who didn’t get us into this mess to begin with. We need somebody to come in and turn the beat around Vickie Sue Robinson-style. As 2016 has unfurled, that’s meant, at various very recent junctures, the likes of Matt Reynolds and Ty Kelly and James Loney and good old Kelly Johnson and did you notice Erik Goeddel was back from Vegas and rolling a perfect three outs in the seventh? The new or new-ish guy will fix a little piece of what’s dooming us and, before you know it, the rest of the roster will catch on and boy, we will be on our way!

A new Met, some new hope (courtesy Mets Fantasy Cards).

A new Met, some new hope (courtesy Mets Fantasy Cards).

In May of 1963, the motivation for that sort of Mets-ical thinking was the acquisition from the Tigers of Chico Fernandez. Studied through a long lens, he is neither the most accomplished of Met Fernandezes (Sid, Tony) nor famous of Met Chicos (Walker, Escuela). But he was new and therefore he embodied hope. He had to. I wasn’t watching or listening when he came to the Mets, having no TV or transistor in my crib at four months old, but I know how Mets fandom functions. Surely it didn’t get this way just when I came along.

I know the Mets fan whose team was in ninth place on May 8, 1963, the day the Mets swapped Larry Foss for Chico Fernandez, got excited that we now had a guy who a year earlier had belted 20 homers for Detroit, who two years earlier swiped home in a huge game against the Yankees. This was exactly what we needed, Chico Fernandez at shortstop. We couldn’t wait to see him. By the time we did, his good vibes infected the entire operation. The Mets were on a five-game winning streak, wafting to two games under .500 and into — get this — sixth place, only five games behind the front-running Giants, the same nemeses who had beaten us 17-4 a couple of days before our fortunes transformed.

Would wonders ever cease? Hell, wonders were only starting.

Chico joined the fun on May 11, pinch-hitting for Al Moran with two out in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds, the Mets trailing the Reds, 4-2. If Fernandez could get on, then Casey could send up a pinch-hitter for Ken MacKenzie, and then…well, that’s hope. We weren’t down to our last out. We had the potential tying run in the on-deck circle.

Fernandez struck out looking. So much for a sixth consecutive win. The Mets dropped to seventh place that Saturday, eighth in the first game of a doubleheader that Sunday. But Chico displayed versatility, leading off, starting at third base (the Mets’ eleventh third baseman in their very brief history) and moving to shortstop in one of Casey Stengel’s multiplayer repositionings.

Double-negatives be damned, we hadn’t seen nothing yet, because in that Sunday’s second game, all hell broke loose in the most heavenly and Metsian way possible. Larry Burright became Met 3B No. 12 in the fifth inning, Moran No. 13 in the ninth. The Mets were giving new meaning to “three men on third” on May 12, 1963…four, actually; Rod Kanehl had started the nightcap, but left not long after getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the third. Never mind that bit of trivia for the moment, though. So much more was percolating. As Sunday grew later and later, the Mets led Cincinnati 5-0; were tied with them at six; forged ahead of them by five; fell behind them by one; and, ultimately, came up victors, 13-12. Fernandez drove in the all-important seventh and scored the just as vital ninth run.

The Mets were ready to get vertical. They traveled to Houston for a Monday night game on May 13 and Stengel assigned third base to rookie Ron Hunt, giving the Mets their fifth third baseman in little more than a day, their fourth new one in a nineteen-inning span and fourteenth overall in fewer than 200 games. It didn’t help. The Colt .45s won, 4-2. Another loss to the Colts, a win (Chico singling and scoring) and a flight to San Francisco ensued. The Giants were still in first. The Mets were clinging tightly to ninth.

The game of Thursday, May 16, 1963, began fairly typically for the Mets of that era. Willie Mays homered with his pitcher, Billy O’Dell, on base in the third. Giants up, 2-0. Joey Amalfitano hit a ball that second baseman Hunt couldn’t handle with runners on second and third. Giants up, 4-0. Cliff Cook pulled the Mets to within three when he led off the fifth with a homer. But Willie McCovey increased the home team lead to five when he launched a two-run shot off Met starter Jay Hook. It was 6-1, San Fran, and what were you gonna do?

You were gonna hope. Because Hunt led off the Met sixth with a home run. And, after two outs, Jim Hickman singled. He took second on a wild pitch while Cook batted, then scored when Cook singled. Up stepped Chico Fernandez, still the newest of Mets.

Fernandez buried a Digger O’Dell delivery over the Candlestick Park fence. The Mets, not so up and at ’em moments before, were now in this thing. The Mets went from down 6-1 to down 6-5. We had Chico Fernandez homering and the Mets roaring back and, in the bottom of the sixth, Tracy Stallard relieving Hook and keeping the Giants off the board. The Mets didn’t score in the top of the seventh, but Larry Bearnarth shut down San Francisco. The eighth beckoned.

With one out against young reliever Gaylord Perry, Hickman blasted a fly ball that, had it been left alone by the Candlestick wind, was judged likely to pull the Mets into a tie. Alas, the Candlestick wind was a fickle beast. Whereas, according to Leonard Koppett in the Times, it was minding its own business earlier, this time it kicked up enough to hold Hickman’s ball in the park. Still, it was high and deep and fell in after it ticked off Mays’s glove.

Hickman reached second. How about third? Mays made a hellacious throw there, but missed his target. Had Jim kept running, he could have had himself a triple. Except Jim didn’t keep running. By Koppett’s account, he had not run “at full speed in the first place. He settled for a comfortable double, just as nine players out of ten do in such circumstances.”

Willie Mays was probably the tenth player, but he couldn’t help us for another nine years. Nevertheless, there was hope that the Mets’ next two batters could bring Hickman home. Each of them had homered earlier. We didn’t need a homer. We needed any kind of hit in the right place. Instead, Cook lofted a flyout to right (a potential sacrifice had Hickman made it to third) and Fernandez struck out. The Mets went on to lose, 6-5. A day later, they’d dip down into tenth and last place, settling there for the bulk of the season. By the second week of July, the Mets demoted Cook to Buffalo and optioned Fernandez to Seattle, which was a Boston farm club, but you could do things like that with other teams’ minor league affiliates in those days.

Chico returned in September and holds two “last” distinctions in the distinguished history of the Polo Grounds. In the top of the ninth on September 18, 1963, he gobbled up a two-out grounder from Phillie pitcher Chris Short and fired it to first baseman Tim Harkness. It was the final defensive chance ever handled by a home team in Manhattan. In the bottom of the inning, with the Mets trailing, 5-1, Harkness flied out, but Kanehl, pinch-hitting for Norm Sherry, singled. Chico stepped up and singled as well. Now we had first and second. Ted Schreiber was announced as the pinch-hitter for Bearnarth. Should he get on, Dick Smith would come up as the tying run. The Mets could send out the ancient horseshoe with a win. Or at least keep it going with a tie. There was, in an expiring ballpark’s last scheduled inning, hope.

Schreiber grounded to Cookie Rojas, who tossed it to Bobby Wine, who threw it to Roy Sievers. Fernandez was out, the Mets had lost, the Polo Grounds was done. Two of them — Chico and the Mets — hit the road to finish 1963, grip on tenth place securely cemented. Chico Fernandez, owner of Upper Manhattan’s last base hit, would never play major league baseball after that season ended. He never hit another home run for the Mets after May 16. To this day, in addition to being the eleventh of 160 Met third basemen, he is the fifth member of the One Met Homer Only club, population currently 78. 2016 inductees include Met 3B No. 160 Ty Kelly, who is presently at liberty in Las Vegas; James Loney, who you’d like to believe carries only a temporary membership card; Bartolo Colon, which is a whole other miracle; and Almostandro De Aza. De Aza almost hit a second, in Pittsburgh, but it didn’t quite clear the highest wall they have.

Chico Fernandez died on Saturday at the age of 84. He came up as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1956 and kept playing baseball after being traded in 1964 from the Mets to the White Sox for Charley Smith (Met 3B No. 17 if you’re scoring at home; Hickman and Pumpsie Green also gave it a whirl in ’63). Chico would play in the minors, in Japan, in Mexico and, as late as 1968, back in American Triple-A. He didn’t give up. For eighteen professional seasons, he maintained the kind of hope he gave us for a week in May of 1963, an interval that I suppose amounts to a footnote relative to what he achieved in Detroit. The Cuban-born infielder made his mark as the Tigers’ first Latin player to start on a regular basis. His old Detroit teammates still speak fondly of the man whose given name was Humberto. His wife acknowledged on Ultimate Mets Database that he wasn’t particularly enthused to join our second-division ranks, but was careful to add, “He did love Met fans.”

We return a little of that love 53 years later by remembering that Chico Fernandez inspired a little hope in us during a ballgame which was enshrouded in hopelessness before he hit one out of Candlestick.

***

We paid quiet tribute on Sunday by investing similar hope in Wilmer Flores, a native of Venezuela and a permanent citizen of our hearts since last summer when he showed us he, too, loves Met fans. If Flores could get a hit at Miller Park…if he could bring home Cespedes from third in the eighth, then it would be 5-4. If he could manage the right kind of hit, maybe a long one or one that got by a Brewer glove the way balls had been eluding Met leather, it could be 5-5. And if Wilmer reprised the role that earned him Best Drama in a Pennant Race in 2015…reprise it versus his ghost team, the Brewers with the type of hit he inflicted on the Nationals…well, then we wouldn’t have been wasting our hope on this Sunday, would have we?

Wilmer did his part. He connected for a sinking line drive to left. When it fell in, it would indeed be 5-4. If it did something quirky — and wasn’t it already quirky that this game wasn’t effectively over? — it could be 5-5. There was hope in the air.

Unfortunately, there was left fielder Ryan Braun diving to the ground, making a pretty good catch. Braun caught a third out along with our whimsical wishes, leaving the score where it would wind up for permanent filing, Brewers 5 Mets 3.

Yet we cannot say we wasted our hope. We never do. It’s our greatest renewable resource. The only way we cease to make more of it is to stop hoping at all. We have 100 games to keep trying.

And I hope to see you in Greenpoint at WORD Bookstore (126 Franklin St.), Tuesday at 7 PM, where I’ll be joining Mets By The Numbers author Jon Springer and NBC Sports writer D.J. Short and discussing my book Amazin’ Again. There was a lot of hope in that volume, come to think of it.

7 comments to Get Your Hopes Up

  • Dave

    Greg, you do deliver the faith when all around looks dark. Yes, anything can happen, and yes, this team is giving us what seem like new “ok, they’ve hit rock bottom now” moments on a daily basis. But still in the race, still with a rotation that most fans envy, and yes, the hope and the faith are in our DNA. So too is the fear, but we can save that for another day.

    Still glad they’re off tonight. Everybody needs a breather.

  • Ken K. in NJ

    So I’m reading the Chico Fernadez pararagraphs, and of course, wondering exactly where all of this was going. Sad to hear he passed away.

    I do remember him, and remember when they got him I was somewhat happy that they had gotten themselves yet another former Brooklyn Dodger. (Not that that was any prescription for success, which I was too young to understand). I did not remember much about his season other than it’s general mediocrity, so thanks for the ride.

    RIP Chico.

  • Stephen Kairys

    Greg,
    As usual great trip down Memory Lane. Thank you!

    For those of a statistical bent, here is the box score from that 5/12/1963 game vs.the Reds, that ended in a 13-12 victory. How often do you see a team blow two five-run leads…and win?

    http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1963/B05122NYN1963.htm

    R.I.P Chico!

  • eric1973

    What the heck’s the use of tryin’?
    Why should we coise?
    We gotta get better
    ‘Cause we can’t get woise
    And to add to it…..
    We got hearrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt!

  • Mikey

    Greg, you sure weave a story like no one else. We are lucky to have you in our corner and delivering exceptional pieces like this one!

    I was bummed about the loss Sunday, especially in how we bumbled in the field. but when you consider we had a completely different infield than on opening day, and only two regulars….it’s actually pretty amazing we almost tied that game.

    I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Gnats, but it just doesn’t happen. I watched most of their game against the Cubs last night and Scherzer was Scherzer and the Gnats bats were getting timely hitting and the Cubs looked like the Mets on D Sunday, except that their starters were the ones bumbling.

    So now we are 5 games back. that may as well be 15 the way both the Mets and Nats are playing, but these things can change in a heartbeat. and I feel some magic about to come on during this home stand, thanks to some uplifting words from our fearless blogger!

  • eric1973

    Greg —- Chico Escuela was one of the best!

    Kranepool had great things to say about him!

  • Pete In Iowa

    Lest we forget our greatest moment of hope. Game six, bottom of the tenth, down two runs, two out and nobody on……