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

A Night to Forget, An Affair to Remember

There I sat, an unaffiliated baseball fan, watching the game because it was the only game that was on, the final game that would be on, Game Seven of the World Series, October 29, 2014 [1], the Royals playing the Giants for the championship of the sport I loved. Those teams and that circumstance had nothing to do with my team and where it sat that year and the several years before it.

If you had told me what the next two Octobers had in store for my team, and that those two teams on the television would transform from admirable strangers to final obstacles, I would have suggested, depending on my mood of the moment, that you have another drink or perhaps put down the booze. You’re drunk, you’re nuts, stop saying silly things.

You weren’t silly, hypothetical you. You knew what I couldn’t have conceived. Twenty-four months ago, I straight up lacked the imagination to believe that in 2015 the Mets would play in the World Series and in 2016 return to the postseason. I did not look at the Royals and Giants in that Game Seven and see a scintilla of the Mets’ future.

Yet that future came without warning — not so much as a push notification appeared in 2014 to indicate how 2015 and 2016 would unfold. One season led us into ultimate conflict with the Kansas City Royals, the next, an urgent entanglement with the San Francisco Giants. Two teams I had nothing against have come to represent bitter ends to otherwise beautiful stories surrounding our New York Mets.

Had I bothered to set my preferences, I assure you I would have tapped on a better conclusion.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. [2]

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Still, I’ll take it. Or, should I say, I took it and I shall be back for more. Less bitter, more better, I hope. I was back for more in 2015 when all I was doing was doing what I always did. I came back for more Mets and to hope they’d get better. I had no concrete expectations. I generally hoped blindly before 2015. A year later, after a thrill ride dropped the National League pennant off on our porch, my hopes and expectations were heightened. Then lowered. Then raised. Then crushed. Now they’re gone for 2016.

But, oh boy, will they be back in 2017, and not just because I’ll be doing what I always do. I will come back for more Mets and I will come back to hope. Technically, I will be activating what is always there. It was there, lying dormant, when teams like the Royals and Giants were playing on a plane far above ours, and it was there, crackling through every last pitch and missed opportunity, when we rooted against the Royals and then the Giants because the games and the circumstances in October had everything to do with us and our team.

The 2016 postseason party goes on without the New York Mets now, our invitation to this grand autumnal festival quietly rescinded. It was fun while it lasted. Well, it was fun for eight innings, then it turned into the stuff of “I’ll get the coats, you bring the car around, let’s get out of here before anybody notices we’re gone” in the ninth. Pretty soon, everybody else still at the ball won’t remember we were honored guests when the gala began. It used to be they’d let you stick around, get used to your surroundings, make a nuisance of yourself before showing you the door. This Wild Card RSVP didn’t work like that.

Instinct tells us that after losing an entrancing Game One, we’re gonna be fine, it’s a long series, we’ll go get ’em in Game Two. But, of course, it’s not a long series. It wasn’t a series at all. It was one-shot, a one-off, a one-and-done. Appropriate to how we classify it, we were shot, off and done in one night.

The nihilistic and tempting view the morning after is we went to a lot of trouble to lose 3-0 and go home [3]. Had the Mets, who flailed helplessly through so much of the summer, floundered just a little longer and not recovered their mojo in late August, we could have been spared the ceremonial execution of our hope. It would have continued to fizzle and eventually evaporated like it always used to, privately, with only a relative few of us serving as witnesses. Our winter would have arrived on what was its usual schedule, same as it did in 2014 and 2013 and 2012 and so on. We could have dismissed 2015 as an aberration and watched a new episode of Modern Family or whatever else was airing Wednesday night.

Happily — yes, happily — 2015 was not an aberration. It did alter our expectations. We did enter 2016 conceiving that the new season would somehow outdo the last season. “World Series or bust” was a phrase thrown around with a straight face, as if the options following almost winning it all were limited to going one step further or failing completely.

How droll.

Perhaps you remember the sharpest zinger from the film version of Moneyball. GM Billy Beane [4] and coach Ron Washington [5] visit Scott Hatteberg [6] in the offseason to convince him to sign with the A’s and play first base for them. Thing is, Hatteberg’s been a catcher his entire major league career. Brad Pitt’s Beane assures Chris Pratt’s Hatteberg, “It’s not that hard, Scott,” and then turns confidently to his stonefaced coach (Brent Jennings) for backup.

“Tell ’em, Wash.”
“It’s incredibly hard.”

That’s just first base in the movies. Now consider trying to approximate one year’s unexpected success the very next year, yet with the burden of expectations, but without the participation of all kinds of key contributors from the year before. Imagine you’re asked to make the playoffs twice in two years when making the playoffs just once in a while is a historical rarity in your organization. Imagine you fall almost hopelessly out of the race remarkably late in that second season. Then go and do what you set out to do when the season commenced, when your goal was no mean feat to begin with.

Yeah, it’s incredibly hard. But the New York Mets just did it. They were postseason qualifiers for the second time in two years, busting past the 162nd-game barrier just as they did in 2015, yet nothing at all like they did in 2015. They made it, though. Not as division champions, and not with ninety victories, and not on the glittering arms of a golden rotation, but they made it just the same.

Somehow, the portion of the journey that defined this season felt even more Amazin’ than the season that preceded it. This wasn’t 2015 2.0, which is not to say that wouldn’t have been splendid had such a reproduction been available to us. This was 2016, its very own chapter in our ongoing family history and a worthy descendant of a season we’ve been invoking for decades [7] every time summer was down to a wisp and the contemporary campaign was circling the drain.

We had to believe, we’d been telling each other since 1973. This year, 43 years after the seminal surge that confirmed faith doesn’t have to be futile, we saw again what can happen when we consent to believe. That year faith carried us almost all the way. This year it got us only so far, but certainly further than could have been rationally projected a blink ago. As play began on August 20, our Mets were 60-62 and five-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot (those are coordinates we will be repeating as long as we root, which is to say as long as we live). As play continued on October 5, so did we. In between, the Mets did everything they had to in order to deliver us to the doorstep of possibility, a place we had to squint to see from where we seemed stranded less than seven weeks before.

The Mets won 27 games from August 20 to October 1. Almost every one of them felt like The Game of the Year [8] until it was supplanted [9] by a victory even more astounding [10]. Whenever faith threatened to revert to folly, something we needed to happen would happen. A home run was hit. A strike was thrown. A catch was made. A player we’d barely heard of or thought of before this season took up residence in our hearts. In the middle of 2016, the Mets were comprised to an alarming extent by guys who essentially wandered in off the street. How were we supposed to get behind them if we could barely remember who they were?

When it came to selecting retreads and promoting obscurities, Sandy Alderson proved himself, à la Hatteberg in the movies, a pickin’ machine. We know who these Gsellmans and Lugos and Loneys and Riveras and Kellys are now, and if they listen closely, they can hear us do our best impression of Gerry and the Pacemakers [11], regardless that their ferry didn’t cross all the way into the NLDS:

We don’t care what your name is, boy
We’ll never turn you away

Not after a finish to the regular season like they and their teammates gave us, not even after the lone postseason night that ended their trip sooner than we’d hoped.

In the only Wild Card Game the National League had to offer us, we couldn’t furnish our ferryman, Noah Syndergaard [12], with nearly enough offense to get us to the other side. Syndergaard was brilliant. Ten strikeouts, two hits, three walks, one stolen base, one not so stolen base (thanks, replay) and one gargantuan Grandersonian grab at the wall added up to a shutout in progress. The Giants did nothing against him for seven innings and never appeared on the verge of doing anything irreversible against him. The only way Noah’s night would go for naught is if there happened to be on the Citi Field premises somebody in a San Francisco uniform matching him pitch for pitch.

That could be a problem. It was. The Giants brought Madison Bumgarner [13] to Queens; why the TSA didn’t detect this deadly weapon I don’t know. Bumgarner owned that seventh game versus the Royals in 2014. He’s excelled in game after game versus everybody in every postseason he’s pitched in since 2010. He’s been in a lot of them and never been rousted from any of them.

That track record holds. Whereas Thor was epic over seven, Bumgarner was Bumgarner for nine. The Mets put six baserunners on across nine innings. None neared home plate. Once or twice the “Mad” in Madison appeared poised to overtake the visiting starter — the strike zone was not a constant by Mike Winters’s reckoning — but there is, unfortunately, no bum in Bumgarner, not in October. (Not that I didn’t hurl far worse epithets at his televised image over the course of the Wild Card evening.)

Bumgarner barely bent and didn’t come close to breaking. Syndergaard departed and left the Mets’ chances of outlasting his counterpart to the best of his bullpen. Addison Reed [14] wriggled from a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, making it 26 consecutive innings of the Giants not scoring against the Mets in postseason play, a string that dated back to October 7, 2000. Maybe, just maybe, the ghosts of Benny Agbayani [15] and Bobby Jones [16] would be kind enough to kindle some friendly spirits for us.

Instead, Jeurys Familia [17] turned the ninth inning into a haunted house. A double to Brandon Crawford [18]. A one-out walk to Joe Panik [19]. A three-run home run to Conor Gillaspie [20]. A three-nothing Giant lead. When these SOBs break a scoreless streak, they don’t mess around.

Familia, who saved 51 games in 2016 on top of 43 in 2015, but was charged with three blown saves in last year’s World Series and now has this loss emblazoned on his ledger forever, was booed as he left the mound after completing the rest of the ninth inning to Mrs. Lincoln’s satisfaction. I thought the reaction was tacky. I also thought it was a helluva spot to give up a three-run home run to Conor Gillaspie, only the second home run Jeurys allowed this entire year.

The last three Met batters of 2016 were Yoenis Cespedes [21] (flied to right), Curtis Granderson [22] (flied to left) and T.J. Rivera [23] (flied to center). The Mets’ final out was recorded at 11:21 PM. When the projected time of first pitch is announced for Opening Day 2017, I’ll be back around to let you know when we’ll be reaching the Baseball Equinox, that instant after which we will be closer to the coming season than we are to the last one. Until then, we drift involuntarily away from the Mets, at least in the active sense. They will stay with us without playing as they tend to do, ever more so in this era, a period that commenced in 2015, endured with challenge in 2016 and, because pessimism is as big a bummer as Bumgarner, has every chance of going forward in the foreseeable future…if there is such a creature.

We foresaw a 2016 fronted by more than Thor. We foresaw Harvey and deGrom and Matz and Wheeler. Have you seen them lately? We foresaw Neil Walker [24] holding down second and Wilmer Flores [25] coming off the bench. We foresaw Lucas Duda [26] socking long balls, Juan Lagares [27] tracking down most other balls and, if physically handled wisely, David Wright [28] dispensing captainly wisdom and the occasional double into the gap. We foresaw a quantum leap ahead for Michael Conforto [29]. We foresaw the necessary last step in the development of Travis d’Arnaud [30].

Tell me more about foreseeable futures. We foresaw the Mets as a contender and a playoff team when we were foreseeing all of the above, before actually seeing no more than a fraction of it. Yet we wound up contending and in the playoffs. We got there, as noted, via a team made up of Gsellmans and Lugos and Loneys and Riveras and Kellys (both Johnson and Ty), but also Granderson in his indispensable mode for a month; and Cabrera as invaluable all year; and Cespedes as explosive in indelible bursts; and Reyes as the prodigal infielder you grudgingly gave a chance and weren’t sorry you did; and Colon as Colon, which needs little delineation but inspires a mountain of appreciation; and De Aza and Reynolds and Ruggiano and Nimmo and Jay Bruce [31] of all people filling vital roles; and Blevins and Edgin and Robles and Smoker and Salas, not to mention Reed, to say nothing (not that you’d want to at present) of Familia, providing relief.

And stirring together this unlikely goop mélange until it qualified as postseason pudding, Terry Collins. They don’t always supply him with the freshest or most appetizing ingredients, yet somehow he whips up a feast and manages to come up with something Amazin’ for dessert. Our second consecutive trip to the Viennese Table didn’t last long, but just getting us a seat at that table took some fancy doing.

We could have danced all month, but we won’t. Nevertheless, 2016 will stand forever as an affair to remember. Thanks to all who joined me in taking part. I hope you had as wonderful a time as I did.