I’m guessing the last time I made any kind of directly baseball-related gesture of exultation after sunrise and before noon was March 30, 2000, when Armando Benitez struck out Joe Girardi to seal the Mets’ eleven-inning 5–1 victory over the Cubs in Tokyo, a game best remembered for the grand slam Benny Agbayani launched to put the Mets ahead in the top of the eleventh. Since then, the Mets haven’t played any games in the Far East or in that timeslot. They’ve stayed up awfully late in these United States, but they’ve rarely gotten going that early.
The Tokyo Dome, however, is still up for hosting AM baseball when translated to American clocks, and on Wednesday morning, the stadium where Benny poured one of his most potent Hawaiian Punches served as my field of nonjudgmental yawns. Excuse the yawning. It was too early to be polite. I can’t help that night reigned on the other side of the world.
Israel was playing Japan in the World Baseball Classic, words that even as I type them strike me as Mad Libs answers. Israel? Japan? World Baseball Classic? Is there another month when any of that would flow logically? Then again, is there another month when a Heisman Trophy winner from the previous decade would be handed a Mets uniform and cause a stir every time he looked like he remotely deserved to wear one, even if it’s No. 97? It’s March. It’s the month when traditionally every Spring thing that happens wherever it happens not only stays there but is destined to be 97% forgotten.
Multiply that by four, as in years, for anything that goes on in the WBC. Baseball’s foremost international showcase is the most Brigadoon thing the game has got. It happens as often as a New Jersey governor’s race, though it tends to produce less embarrassing outcomes. March 2017 is for devoting stray thoughts to the WBC. April 2017 to February 2021 is for…well, we should only live so long. Play ’em one day at a time and all that.
But this, right now, is the magical month. This is WBC time, early, late, all night, all morning, depending on where the pools are placed. This was, until Wednesday morning, the month that belonged to Team Israel, never mind that as the WBC proceeds toward its finale, Team Israel won’t be involved. Tough break for those of us who knew a sweet bandwagon when we jumped aboard.
Somewhere around here I have a small Israeli flag. I got it when I was a fervently Zionist kid. I probably didn’t know what Zionist meant, but I was into Hebrew School for a spell, plus I enjoyed a Hebrew National frank on occasion. That was about the peak of my quasi-nationalistic fervor. I wish the Israelis well in geopolitical matters pertinent to their survival, but otherwise don’t think about them very much. Israel competes in Olympic sports. I don’t watch the Olympics. But I watch baseball. Israel crossing baseball’s path — with the Mets in the midst of conducting exceedingly meaningless exhibitions — somehow got my attention.
Israel played three games in Seoul and won them all. One was against host Korea, the other versus the Netherlands. I’ve heard of ballplayers being from those countries and of those backgrounds. Israel, not so much. True, the Team Israel players represented Israel more in the sense that Israeli citizenship is open to them by bloodlines than from being born and raised on the ballfields of Israel (which are mostly nonexistent). But a good story is a good story. This, it was said, stood as a little miracle in the making: a modern David slaying a slew of Goliaths; enough horsehide oil to light the upper deck lamp across an eight-night homestand; Jews hanging in there against overwhelming odds in any setting you choose to reference.
I read an article that said the Israeli players didn’t necessarily care for that interpretation, that they weren’t Cinderella in spikes, that they were plenty good enough to win without divine intervention. Maybe so. The 1969 Mets have always said much the same thing, and they received from Rabbi Hodges the wisdom and confidence to apply their innate baseball skills in the most holy of causes. Still, if somebody wants to infer from you miraculous properties, maybe step into the box and let us have our fun.
Israel winning baseball games in a somewhat worldwide arena hit all the right notes if you ever spent any part of your life learning to read from right to left. Did I mention in addition to my small Israeli flag I also collected a button in my youth that espoused JEWISH POWER, with the Star of David sitting in for the “o” in power? Speaking of Jewish Power, how about that Ike Davis? That’s what I asked seven Aprils ago when Ike landed on Citi Field’s doorstep and made himself essential to us with one mighty swing after another. That’s a while back now, and I’d gotten over my fleeting Ike fixation once his mighty swings created breezes rather than runs. Davis went on to wear other uniforms, some less appealing than others.
Wednesday morning, however, Ike was again in a uniform I could get behind. Neither his presence, nor Ty Kelly’s, nor that of any other Team Israel member was extending the Cinderella storyline. After leaving Seoul 3–0 and taking care of Cuba in the next part of the pool, Israel ran into too much Goliath. The Netherlands crushed them and Japan was doing the same. The second loss was going to remove them (and, pending further developments, my impromptu tournament passion) from the WBC. The ninth inning came around. Israel was down, 8–0. Midnight was approaching between 9:00 and 9:30 AM. I watched anyway.
I watched Kelly, likely my favorite transcontinentally shuttled Las Vegas 51 in the months ahead, get on. I watched Ike drive in the first Israeli run of the morning. Then I watched both Ty and Ike score on a double from the vaguely familiar Ryan Lavarnway. It was 8–3. Israel was forging a comeback. I was raising an arm and pumping a fist. I did that in March of 2000 when the Mets were beating the Cubs because I was then as I am now a Mets fan; and 2000 was the year I was determined to urge the Mets into the World Series they just missed in 1999; and it was never too early to start, not in March, not in the morning.
In March of 2017, I allowed my imagination a thirty-second sprint that five runs down with two outs left was nothing in the face of a miracle gathering strength. Then I called my imagination back into the dugout, because 8–3 in the top of the ninth with one out versus Japan in Japan was a taller order than anything Benny, Armando and everybody else faced seventeen years before. Besides, winning this game, creating a tiebreaker situation and somehow pushing on to the semifinals in L.A. was hardly the point here. Team Israel had already won me over. And I wished no ill on Japan as it went about recording the final two outs. The thing I like best about the WBC is there are no enemies, only opponents. I want everybody to do well and come back in one uninjured piece. As for a surfeit of pride as regards where my or Ike’s or Ty’s people can trace their ancestry, my only quasi-nationalistic fervor since Hebrew School boils on behalf of those who proudly identify as Metropolitan-American. (And I really don’t care for Washington Nationals.)
Nevertheless, replays of the ninth inning will indicate that the hand of mine that wasn’t exulting over a few late runs early in the morning was reaching for a Kleenex or two. It couldn’t have been more surprised with its assignment, but the third base coach stationed in my eyes definitely relayed the sign for an emotional squeeze play. It took all my baserunners by surprise.
Ike Davis. Israel. The Tokyo Dome. The Mets. Miracles. Baseball to feel good about instead of everything else that makes us miserable. There they were, together on my TV and in my mind. Some things that stay with you have a way of rounding your bases when you’re not expecting them to take off on the pitch. As that button I’ve got around here somewhere says, Jewish Power.
I join several other Mets bloggers in previewing 2017 for Cards Conclave. Check it out here.
A reminder that my new book and I will be at Foley’s NY in Manhattan on Sunday at noon and Staples High School in Westport Tuesday night at seven. Details for both events are here. I hope to see you out on the promotional trail.