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Unrivaled

Under the format that’s been in place since 2001, you usually play your division rivals nineteen times a season. As a result, you become intimately familiar with them. When the Mets play somebody from the National League Central or West or American League, it’s almost as if we’re welcoming or visiting special guest stars. You don’t particularly want to go up against Clayton Kershaw [1] or Madison Bumgarner [2] if you’re interested in winning, but there’s also a sense of occasion to it. When you see the same team over and over, however, niceties go out the window. It doesn’t matter that you are presented with an up-close-and-personal view of one of the best pitchers in the game. You got that in April and again in June. You don’t need it in September.

The only thing better than besting the best players your rival has to offer is not having to best them at all. Tell us we don’t have to see them. We wish no ill, just preoccupation.

You know these rivals too well. You develop an allergy to their skills. Freddie Freeman [3] should take a longer paternity leave. Ryan Howard [4] should contemplate early retirement. Might Bryce Harper [5] be so kind as to continue slumping for an additional three games? From the Marlins in this decade, among the relatively ordinary players who acquire the powers of superpests simply by donning their uniforms in order to wreak havoc against us, we can identify two characters who we were sure existed to instigate Met gloom. One, the slugger Giancarlo Stanton [6]; the other, the ace Jose Fernandez [7].

In the first five Met-Marlin series of 2016, we saw Fernandez four times. It was plenty, we thought. Then we heard the Marlin rotation has been shuffled just enough to generously offer us a fifth encounter, scheduled for tonight in Miami. Something about getting him an extra day of rest because of the 111 pitches he threw versus Washington last Tuesday. Yeah, sure. Fernandez was slotted to pitch against Atlanta Sunday, but Atlanta’s in last place and the Mets are in a Wild Card race. Miami’s playoff aspirations are all but mathematically done, but apparently their desire to mess with ours wasn’t. It’s what rivals do to each other if they get the chance.

The fretting began well before we were finished our weekend engagement with Philadelphia. Gotta win on Sunday, we said to ourselves Saturday, because come Monday, we are being presented with an obstacle. Haven’t we had enough obstacles already? We’re trying to win a Wild Card while pitching one emergency starter after another. Now we have to attempt to hit against an ace who is as elite as they come.

Eight times — four in 2013, four in 2016 (much of 2014 and 2015 were given over to Tommy John surgery and rehab) — the Mets faced Jose Fernandez. They won two of his starts once they nicked the Marlin bullpen, but they never actually defeated him. The Mets barely touched him: 47 innings, 7 runs. In the middle of a season, during the immense portion when you rationalize that you’re going to lose ‘x’ number of games anyway, all you can do if you want to maintain 162 games’ worth of sanity is graciously if grudgingly tip your cap to an ace of his stature [8] and results of his doing.

That’s for June and April. This is September. A season is winding down with a chance that it won’t end so soon. All we really care about is that chance. We’re simultaneously trying to will our team to victory and wish competitive ill on their fellow contenders in distant cities. We need the Mets to win, the Giants to lose, the Cardinals to lose. The last thing we think we want to hear is that the blankety-blank Marlins have taken steps to throw at the Mets the pitcher who rarely loses to anyone and never loses to the Mets.

That’s what you think is the last thing you want to hear.

The rearrangement of Miami’s rotation to place Jose Fernandez on the mound Monday night seemed like one of those cruel tricks the universe plays against our team. That’s how we see the universe, especially in a pennant race. Then we found out why the Mets won’t face Jose Fernandez, and we were reminded what cruel really is. Fernandez, we learned Sunday morning, had been killed in a boating accident [9]. A 24-year-old person, along with two other people we’d never heard of because they weren’t famous, was gone.

We knew who he was because he was a baseball player who played against our favorite team on a regular basis, and because he played baseball better than almost everybody else in his profession, and perhaps because he played it exuding more joy [10] than anybody else we saw. He was on our minds because he was going to play against the Mets two games from where we sat. Get by the Phillies, then deal with Fernandez. You could chalk it up as a loss in advance if you were so inclined (even in late September, you have to remind yourself that winning them all is almost never an option), or you could gird for the challenge and tell yourself, well, if the Mets want to play for a championship, they ought to prove they can win against one of the best there is.

They might have been up for the challenge. Or Jose Fernandez might have been too much for them and they would had to have regrouped the next night. In baseball, there’s always supposed to be a tomorrow.

Those truisms we reflexively apply to our sport don’t necessarily translate to the world around them. Everything we thought we needed to know about Jose Fernandez dissipated Sunday morning. Instead of thinking about him in the context of a rival, we paused to contemplate him as a human being — an incredibly formidable one at that. Not many of us ever encountered the obstacles he braced for repeatedly and overcame definitively [11]. Not many of us spread as much happiness [12] by dint of personality as he did. Not many of us touched in such a positive and lasting manner virtually everybody he came across in a life that loomed as boundless [13]. His talent is what we knew because his talent is what we saw. That would be formidable enough for most people.

The Mets won’t face Jose Fernandez tonight in Miami. That’s supposed to read as good news. Instead, it’s the worst news possible. In baseball, we have divisions. In humanity, sometimes we step back and unite.