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The Man Who Loved the Game

I knew Monday night’s game against the Marlins would be emotionally wrenching. I think we all did [1].

But I wasn’t prepared for just how tough it would be, and how tough it kept being.

There was the sight of every Marlin wearing Jose Fernandez [2]‘s No. 16, and the knowledge that it would never be worn again.

There was the sound of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a grieving farewell, something I know my mind will come back to again and again on carefree summer days.

There were the red eyes and stricken faces of Martin Prado [3] and Giancarlo Stanton [4], just minutes before game time.

There was tracking Yoenis Cespedes [5] as the Mets and Marlins came together to exchange pregame hugs and back pats, and seeing how hard he was holding on to each opponent.

And there was the sight of the Marlins surrounding the mound where Fernandez had done so many amazing things, and the reminder that all of that was done, irrevocably ended in an unlucky second in the night.

Last week I called the Cespedes our-walkoff-turned-their-walkoff as cruel as baseball gets [6], and that was correct as far as sports go. But what a monster of a qualifying statement. That was a game and a pennant race. This was a young man killed at 24, a son and grandson gone in a blink, a father-to-be who’ll never see his child. There’s no comparison between the two, none at all. Watching the Marlins during the remembrances of their teammate and friend, I wondered how they could possibly play — how anyone could. Throwing ourselves into sports is grand fun — and sometimes its opposite — but what happened off Miami Beach in the early hours of Sunday morning was cruelty and tragedy in the true senses of those words, and it was devastating to see them transposed to the baseball diamond, where we get to obsess over the pretend versions.

If you’ve read us for a while you know that I’m not a fan of the Marlins’ ownership or their off-the-field personnel, to understate the case considerably. But they handled the unimaginable with grace, to use that word in the nearly-forgotten sense for which it was intended. So too did the Mets and the SNY crew. The open grief on the faces and in the voices of Gary, Keith and Ron was almost too intimate, and it was a relief — for us and I suspect for them as well — that they let the first minutes of the game speak for themselves. These weren’t things to talk over; for long TV stretches they simply let them be.

But unwelcome though it was, there was another aspect to Monday night’s game: within the parameters of baseball, however silly and ephemeral they might be, this was a game the Mets desperately needed. At first I felt queasy about this double vision, then I simply accepted that I wouldn’t be free of it and did the best I could.

It was astonishing seeing Dee Gordon [7], a baseball whippet with zero home runs on his 2016 resume, lash a Bartolo Colon [8] fastball into the second deck, as if he’d become a quadruple-sized Stanton. As a Mets fan I winced — 1-0 Them. A moment later I was applauding, as a baseball fan and as a person, and wished I could help carry a crying Gordon around the bases and back to the embrace of his teammates.

And then I went back to wincing — with plenty to wince about. Colon didn’t have it at all, as sometimes happens to him — he was throwing in the mid-80s and everything was getting walloped. Terry Collins [9] has had a quick hook in recent weeks, hauling starters off the mound without consideration of wins or their psyches or anything else. But he left Colon in. He let him hit in the third despite the Mets being in a 5-0 hole, an inning that ended with Cespedes looking at a borderline called third strike and leaving two runners on base. Colon faced three batters after that, surrendering a hit, surviving a rocket liner from Stanton and then yielding Justin Bour [10]‘s triple. Only then did he come out.

Down 7-0, the Mets did little against a succession of Marlins relievers. Cespedes popped up with a chance to make it a game again; Lucas Duda [11] got caught looking. The game, understandably, became an exhausted trudge for both teams, and wound up a 7-3 loss [12]. The Mets are now half a game up on the idle Giants, and had to find solace in the Reds trouncing the Cardinals. Some folks noted that they didn’t mind the Mets losing this one, and I appreciate the sentiment. Applaud it, even. But I couldn’t second it: there’s no such thing as a game you don’t mind losing with six left and a postseason berth in the balance.

But accepting that you feel that way isn’t the same as letting it blind you to bigger things. As the Marlins gathered at the mound again, this time to leave their caps behind, my mind went back to the last batter Colon had faced — and then further back, to a game 15 years gone. I was in the stands with Greg and Emily on Sept. 21, 2001 [13], when Mike Piazza [14]‘s drive into the night transformed a shocked, tentative crowd into a bunch of cheering loons — the first moment in which we felt allowed to celebrate a little thing like it was a big thing.

Colon’s final pitch on Monday night was a flat fastball that Bour hammered into right-center, just under the glove of a tumbling Jay Bruce [15]. Bour is a massive hulk of a man — perfectly named, really — and he careened around the bases and did a belly flop in the dirt in the vicinity of third, bouncing hard into the base. Then, finding himself safely in possession of his first career triple, he popped up and flexed at his teammates, who grinned and yelled and flexed back.

I realized that on the Monday night we all thought was coming, Jose Fernandez would have seen the ball get past Bruce, sprung to the top of the dugout railing, and hung over it so he had the best seat in the house. He would have been not just cheering Bour but also bouncing up and down, practically levitating with delight, with that million-watt smile attracting every eye in the park. I knew I would have hated that Justin Bour of all people had tripled, but wound up smiling at how much Fernandez loved it — like he seemed to love every moment in which he was part of the game he played with such irrepressible, contagious joy.

For that moment, on this shocked and sorrowful Monday night, the game had helped. It hadn’t fixed anything — nothing like that can ever be fixed — but it had allowed Bour and his teammates and their fans to let go, giving them permission to lose themselves in something small and silly. Small and silly — it’s just baseball, after all — but joyous and real for all that.