As the Mets were getting underway Friday night in Flushing, I was situated well north of Citi Field, holding down half of a table at the Annual Sharon Summer Book Signing in Connecticut, a fundraiser for the grand old Hotchkiss Library, founded 124 years ago next month. The other half of the table was occupied by the author of a book about canoeing in Maine . Based on the local response to our respective works, it is my observation that Sharon, Conn., is demonstrably more of a canoeing town than it is a Piazza hotbed. It’s not like it was a contest — we and our thirty or so fellow authors and illustrators donated our time for the benefit of the library. Sell a book, help the cause of reading. We were all in this thing together.
Full disclosure compels me to report that had it been a contest, the book about canoeing would have been the Dodgers and mine would have been the Mets. We’re all glad Mike went into the Hall of Fame as a Met rather than as a Dodger…but that’s not what I mean by invoking the competitive fortunes of the contemporary Dodgers and the contemporary Mets.
I should point out that the book about canoeing is not just a book about canoeing. It’s also a book about relationships — and Henry David Thoreau. I heard my affable tablemate’s pitch repeatedly, and it was as effective a pitch as any Rich Hill delivered after the first inning Saturday. Our man Mike’s home runs traveled far, but maybe his Met legend is more of a draw in Greater Metsopotamia than it is where WOR’s signal crackles with static. Those Northwest Connecticut booklovers whose browse brought them into inadvertent contact with my offering either sternly let me know they were Red Sox fans or pardoned themselves once they realized they misread the title.
“So it’s not about pizza?”
No, sorry, not pizza. Piazza. He’s the iconic figure who arrived in New York under unlikely circumstances and transformed the fortunes of a previously downtrodden franchise. The book  explores the journey they and we took together into the third millennium en route to the title character’s at last receiving the baseball immortality he earned over sixteen seasons of blood, sweat and tears, and…no, it’s not about pizza.
A book about pizza might have been a hot item, though not as hot as a book about canoeing. My signing partner and I were the Mathewson Brothers of the event. Christy Mathewson won 373 games in his illustrious big league career. Henry Mathewson’s lifetime record was 0-1. I’ll leave it to you to infer which Mathewson I was.
When my new pal wasn’t signing copies of his popular canoeing book and I wasn’t fiddling with my solidly consistent display, we talked baseball. We could have talked about canoeing, except it would have been a rather one-sided conversation. The only thing I know about canoeing (other than the people of Sharon hold an outsize fondness for it) is there used to be a cologne named for its conveyance. As a kid I thought its commercial — “Canoe Canoe?”  — was quite clever. I decided against bringing it up. Also as a kid, I got whacked in the ear by a sailboat rudder in day camp, which I was going to bring up, since it’s as close to a canoe story as I have handy. But I resisted.
Baseball, even in canoeing-crazed Connecticut, is universal enough a tongue to bind two strangers for two hours. My temporary buddy has been enough of a fan through his life to speak the language. Born in Brooklyn to a Dodgers family on Opening Day of their only world championship year. Migrated over time to New England and its resident Nation, but still speaks fondly of his early Metsian exposure. Maintains an affinity for Ed Kranepool. Believes no broadcasting crew ever outdid Bob, Ralph and Lindsey. And speaks reverently of the day he went to Shea as a youngster and watched Sandy Koufax shut out the Mets. It was part of a doubleheader, he said, back when “they scheduled doubleheaders”.
People who saw Sandy Koufax pitch love to tell you they saw Sandy Koufax pitch. They can be Dodgers fans, Mets fans, Red Sox fans. Doesn’t matter. He was Sandy Koufax. I went to a game in 2013 in which the Mets played the Royals. A guy in front of me paused his running critique of Terry Collins’s strategic missteps to volunteer that he once saw Koufax pitch. Go to enough games, you see loads of starting pitchers. Go to a game started by Sandy Koufax, you never forget who you saw.
When I got home late Friday night, I looked up what my canoeing colleague remembered. He’d said 1965. Further reader-generated research indicates he may have meant 1966. For the record, the Mets did play a doubleheader versus the Dodgers at Shea on Sunday, June 13, 1965. L.A. swept. The winning pitchers were Claude Osteen in the opener and reliever Ron Perranoski in the nightcap. Koufax indeed shut out the Mets that weekend, 5-0 on five hits, but it was a single game on Saturday the 12th. However memory flows after fifty-some years, a man whose primary interest isn’t baseball can be forgiven for a touch of potential conflation. I can understand how Mets-Dodgers affairs would have blurred together in those days, seeing as how they all came out about the same.
In these days as well.
On Friday night, with me listening to the latter innings on the long Metro-North trip down the Harlem Line to Grand Central, the Mets lost to the Dodgers for the seventh consecutive time. The postgame notes the Mets communications staff compiles when the team is home revealed directly after that the Mets hadn’t lost that many games in a row to the Dodgers since 1965, during a streak that encompassed both Koufax’s June 12 gem and the doubleheader that followed. As Friday’s innings went on and on like the southbound railroad tracks, — and the necessary play-by-play only got in the way of Howie and Josh’s otherwise entertaining conversation — I thought this must be what it felt like listening to the Mets lose to the Dodgers circa 1965. There was never any hope let alone chance of the Mets winning on Friday. You didn’t need the clearest of signals to decipher precisely what was going on.
There was some hope and some chance of the Mets winning on Saturday. The Mets led 3-0 after one. Three Mets had homered with nobody on base. Seth Lugo pitched close to perfect for four innings, throwing what you might loosely call a Koufax going through five. It was still 3-0 heading to the sixth.
Soon, though, goodbye shutout, goodbye lead. It was 3-3 by the middle of the sixth; 4-3 in favor of the Dodgers come the seventh; 5-3 in the eighth; 7-3 in the ninth. A stray solo homer in the last half-inning allowed the Mets to pull within 7-4, where the score stayed until it was final . The next postgame set of notes complied by the Mets communications staff included this nugget: the Mets are now on their longest losing streak against L.A. since 1964, when they also dropped eight straight — though in those days you could work in a rain-shortened tie, which the two clubs did.
The 2017 Mets haven’t managed that much versus the Dodgers. No rain and no ties that don’t become losses. Nor did the 2016 Mets do any better the last couple of times they played the 2016 Dodgers. The Mets haven’t beaten the Dodgers since the night before David Wright felt a twinge in his neck. David was scratched, he hasn’t played since, and the Mets haven’t defeated the Dodgers since. A lead nursed for five innings while taking on a team that’s 46 games above .500 is perhaps the modern-day moral equivalent of a win. Or an official tie.
Hill, who recovered nicely after his first-inning bout of gopheritis, wasn’t Koufax on Saturday. Rich blanked the Mets over the next four but pitched only five total. Yu Darvish might as well have been Koufax on Friday based on the numbers he put up (7 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 1 BB, 10 SO), but there’s only one Koufax. The impressionable children who’ve attended this weekend’s series and grow up to write the regionally robust canoeing books of tomorrow are most likely to regale future fleeting acquaintances with tales of Dodger power, if only because there’s been so much of it produced at the expense of Mets pitching. All seven of L.A.’s runs Saturday plated on Dodger homers. Justin Turner hit one of them. Justin Turner always hits something against the Mets. Justin Turner seemingly uses a canoe paddle rather than a baseball bat. Daniel Murphy watches Justin Turner hit against the Mets and calls Pete McCarthy to ask how the Mets could have let him get away.
There were also homers from Yasiel Puig and Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager and, I have to double-check, but maybe Claude Osteen. Anybody else? Carl Crawford? Carl Furillo? Carl Erskine? Cal Worthington for Cal Worthington Ford?  Hard to keep all these slugging Southern Californian types straight, seeing as how all these homers and all these losses blur together.
If you’ve been a Mets fan long enough (and you may be tempted to define any time period encompassing 2017 as “long enough”), you are likely familiar with the historical intersection of Sandy Koufax and Tug McGraw. Koufax was regularly filling the memories of young New Yorkers with his exploits against the Mets in the early and middle 1960s. His exploits weren’t limited to mastery of the Mets, but given his Brooklyn background and the general helplessness of the new team in town, Sandy’s dominance at the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium was particularly pronounced. Over the Mets at Dodger Stadium, too. The Dodger Stadium mound was thought to be taller and thus more imposing than any other. Maybe it was because Sandy Koufax stood upon it.
The first time Sandy Koufax faced the Mets, on June 30, 1962, he no-hit them and struck out thirteen. The fourteenth time Sandy Koufax faced the Mets, on August 10, 1965, he seven-hit them and struck out fourteen. Sandy’s record against the Mets over those first fourteen career starts was 13-0. The Mets snuck a no-decision in against him on July 30, 1964, though they lost that one, too (to Bob L. Miller, who lost his first twelve as a Met in 1962, proving ex-Mets wreaking revenge didn’t begin with Turner and Murphy). There seemed little reason for optimism that the Mets would do anything different to Sandy Koufax on August 26, 1965, at Shea than they’d done anywhere else anytime else. The tenth-place Mets were 31½ games behind the first-place Dodgers. Koufax was 21-5. The Mets rookie starter, McGraw, could also boast of a 21. It was his age. He had fewer major league starts to date, two, than Koufax had losses on the year. And Koufax didn’t have many losses.
Yet with all those factors lining up logically, the ensuing nine innings yielded a thoroughly illogical result: Mets 5 Dodgers 2. The winning pitcher was Tug McGraw. The losing pitcher was Sandy Koufax. The Mets had beaten Sandy Koufax. The Mets had beaten hardly anybody for four seasons. Now they had defeated the pitcher who would remain the avatar of excellence in pitching for at least the next half-century, not to mention the team that had regularly handled them, a team on its way to a world championship that fall. And they did it with a starter four days from his 22nd birthday, a starter who wouldn’t stick in the majors until he was converted into a reliever by a manager who played first base for the Dodgers on the night in 1955 that Sandy Koufax made his professional debut.
You had to believe? That would come later in the Tug story, but for a night in 1965, you had to recalibrate what you knew was certain. You were sure the Mets would rarely best the Dodgers and never solve Koufax. Yet you just learned different. Wes Westrum and not Gil Hodges was managing, yet this might have been the first Met miracle — the miracle of realizing anything is possible.
When Tug and the Mets beat Sandy and the Dodgers, the Mets narrowed the margin between themselves and their daunting opponents to 30½ games. When Seth and the Mets lost to Justin and the Dodgers, the gap between New York and Los Angeles expanded to 28 games. The Mets aren’t necessarily as uniformly overmatched against quality competition as they were in 1965, but the Dodgers appear to be as awesome as they’ve ever been, and they’ve been pretty good plenty across their now 128 National League seasons of operation (though Brooklyn lost to St. Louis, 3-2, on September 13, 1893, the day the Hotchkiss Library opened its doors for the first time). Nevertheless, anything continues to be possible. A lefty from around here will be wearing No. 32 and pitching in tonight’s Mets-Dodgers game. Maybe Steven Matz won’t lose to Los Angeles. Maybe he won’t give up multiple homers. Maybe Justin Turner will be contained to a single. You never truly know.
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