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The Meaningful Exhibition Game

Do you remember R.A. Dickey shutting down the Mets last June in Toronto and then letting it be known he was pitching a couple of days after his father’s death [1]? Taking the ball was something his manager, John Gibbons, said he felt he had to do. That stayed with me in light of my father at the time attempting to recover from his recent brain surgery. I wondered whether if placed in the same situation soon — not inconceivable, given the long odds my dad faced — I’d want to write about a baseball game like I usually do.

It turns out I do.

Dad, flanked by admirers, the year before I began thinking about baseball. [2]

Dad, flanked by admirers, the year before I began thinking about baseball.

My father, Charles Prince, died in the early hours today. He was 87. Those of you who’ve faithfully read this blog over the past fourteen months are probably aware of the ordeal he endured, one which I am frankly thankful is over. If you’ve read my occasional dispatches [3] tracking his journey from diagnosis to rehabilitation to relapse to inevitable decline, you are probably also aware that baseball often provided the two of us with an oasis from the onslaught of discouraging medical news. We watched a pennant race together. We watched a postseason together. We watched a World Series together. We even got one final Spring Training game in together.

Clearly there are things in life more important than a baseball game, especially a baseball game with no impact on the standings. But after this past year-plus, I wouldn’t call any baseball game meaningless, not if being distracted by it for a spell puts you in a better place.

Today, my mind is necessarily elsewhere, yet it keeps drifting back to last night, hours before I got the phone call to tell me my father died. It drifts back to the last baseball game I watched while my father was still alive, when I worried about him, but couldn’t technically say I missed him. I did miss him from when he was truly himself, of course, but he wasn’t in the past tense on Tuesday night. Now he is. It’s strange.

It’s also strange that despite nothing being more important in my thoughts right now than recalling the man I knew and loved, I’m still irked at how last night’s All-Star Game went down. Not so much that the National League lost [4], but where, from an admittedly parochial perspective, the National League’s manager went wrong [5].

In conversations today, I’ve discussed two subjects: my father dying and the All-Star Game. Perhaps it’s an outlet. Perhaps it’s compartmentalization. Perhaps I just have skewed priorities. I do know that thinking about an allegedly meaningless exhibition game somehow feels better than dwelling on the reality that is never going to leave me.

I don’t need a tissue, thank you. I need to write like I usually do.

Specifically, I need to blog about Terry Collins mishandling his most simple task as All-Star Game manager: get one of the Mets on the mound for a minute at least.

To be surprisingly human about it, Terry looked awfully tired in his postgame press conference, and I really do hope he’s OK. He’s 67, he’s a month removed from an unforeseen hospital visit in Milwaukee and he was working without the usual built-in break most baseball people are granted in July. No doubt everybody wanted a minute of the National League manager’s time. Throw in the additional transcontinental travel, and I’m sure the experience wore on him. When he was shown listlessly answering questions Tuesday night about his leading the N.L. to its annual midsummer defeat, he looked like he wanted nothing more than a decent nap on the flight home.

So I hope Terry’s all right. I also acknowledge All-Star Games have a Brigadoon quality to them. By Friday, few will much remember the 2016 affair. Terry’s gaffe — and I do believe it was a gaffe — will dwell primarily in our collective subconscious as we get back to games that count (I mean really count). It won’t spring back to a full-blown existence until “that time the manager didn’t use any of his own players” becomes an overcited anecdote in July of 2017, then July of 2018, then probably forever more.

Despite my concern for the well-being of the manager and the grip I have on the scheme of baseball things, I do think Terry mishandled his assignment. If you’re the All-Star manager, you have two public relations responsibilities: get somebody from the host team in the game if he’s in your league; and take advantage of the rare opportunity to show favoritism to the players from your club. Terry took care of the Padres. He didn’t take care of the Mets.

His stated strategy of holding out Jeurys Familia for the ninth with a lead and Bartolo Colon for extras in case of a tie crackles with logic on paper, but by two out in the bottom of the eighth, as the American League batted (they were the designated home team because MLB is silly that way), the National League was down by two, with only one of fifteen participating senior circuit clubs not having had one of its players enter the fray.

You know which one.

Terry and his college of coaches — did you ever dream you’d see so much of Dick Scott on national television? — didn’t pause to improvise a contingency plan. With the N.L. behind and not guaranteed of roaring back, it was an ideal moment to call Familia in from the bullpen. Jeurys has been the best closer in the league this year. He is the unsung hero of many Mets wins. He’s as good a reason as anybody that Terry was granted the honor of wearing a ridiculous batting practice jersey to begin with.

But let me not be too altruistic about this. I really like Jeurys Familia being our closer. I think he may be the best we’ve ever had, certainly from the right side of the menu. Yet my dismay that we didn’t see him face one batter isn’t generated only for him. This one was for us. This is the only high-profile game in the course of a year that is conducted with minimal competitive implications, almost solely for the enjoyment of the fans. The enrichment of corporate sponsors, too, but mostly the fans. World Series home field or not, you can mess around a little.

They mess around a ton. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t make substitutions all night. Terry had one final substitution to make, and it was simple: substitute a Met into the game. He didn’t have Yoenis Cespedes. He didn’t have Noah Syndergaard. He definitely needed a long man kept available, so, fine, he didn’t have Colon in the single-digit innings (and even I would have resisted the temptation to pinch-hit at Petco in a two-run game). But he had Familia. He had a Met. He is the Met manager. If you’ve somehow landed the All-Star gig, you make your fans happy. You don’t even have to think about it.

Terry clearly didn’t. Jeurys didn’t pitch. The N.L. neither tied nor led in the ninth. On a broadcast in which it was proclaimed Collins judged it vital to make sure every team’s uniform was represented on the field of play, one style of clothing was conspicuously absent…unless you count Terry trudging to the mound to exchange Fernando Rodney for Kenley Jansen. In that case, yeah, we saw a Met on the field.

Yippee.

Three years ago, Terry’s professed professional role model [6], Jim Leyland, was managing the American League at Citi Field. It was going to be Mariano Rivera Night, whether we wanted it to be or not. Rivera was an icon because of how he pitched ninth innings. Leyland understood there might not be a ninth for an A.L. reliever to pitch. Thus, he determined ahead of time that Rivera would pitch the eighth. Mariano mission (such as it was) accomplished.

Something like that was all Terry needed to do. The script was simple to follow:

“Jeurys, Kenley, take a knee, fellas, let me tell ya what I got in mind for you two…if we’re behind, Kenley, I’m using my guy, since one of your teammates will already have been in. And Jeurys, Kenley’s gonna finish the eighth if we’re ahead, so be ready in the ninth.”

Not that hard.

Now for a commercial message:

Please don’t tell me that the non-use of Familia or, for that matter, Colon, is some kind of stealth victory for the forces of good because neither got hurt, and you can’t get hurt if you don’t play, so what a genius that Terry is for unrolling the virtual bubble wrap. If that’s how we’re gonna handle the All-Star Game, mail everybody selected a certificate and don’t bother me with three hours of Joe Buck. Players from 29 other teams (give or take Oakland) risked life and limb so not only they’d enjoy a moment in the proverbial sun, but so their fans at home could say “yay!” before getting back to staring out the window and waiting for the second half. Besides, Familia hadn’t pitched since last Thursday and won’t pitch any earlier than this Friday. If he’s not concealing one of those ever popular bone spurs, he can throw to a batter.

Now for a caveat:

Come season’s end, if Jeurys is pouring champagne over Bartolo’s head and they revel in having been kept fresh in San Diego while all those other chump players exerted themselves during the meaningless All-Star Game, then Terry’s a freaking genius. I’ll accept that conclusion if it comes to pass and offer a full Met-a culpa.

I watched the 2003 All-Star Game in which the lone Met representative, pity pick Armando Benitez, didn’t appear. That’s the way it goes, I reasoned. Same thing in 1994, when Bret Saberhagen was the extent of our delegation. Same thing in 1978, the year of Pat Zachry. Managers are more conscious of “everybody plays” these days, but you can only do so much. Sometimes somebody’s gonna sit.

The difference in 2016: Terry Collins manages the Mets. The Mets manager almost never manages the All-Stars. Only in four other instances did a Terry predecessor get the chance. You know what Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra, Davey Johnson and Bobby Valentine had in common? They all got at least one Met in the All-Star Game they managed. It didn’t seem too much to ask.