Eli Manning sits this Sunday. Technically, he stands on a sideline, bearing a clipboard, wearing a headset, doing whatever is done when backing up a starting quarterback. It will be the first time he has done so in so long that I can’t link to what we were posting when it last happened, because that year was the year before we existed. Faith and Fear in Flushing was founded in February 2005, three months after Eli Manning took over as starting quarterback for the New York Giants, which was less than two months after John Franco threw his last pitch for the New York Mets.
Franco saved 276 games for the Mets, easily and most difficultly the most of any Met. Only one pitcher can notch saves in a given game. By the time Franco came to the Mets, it was generally accepted that only one pitcher be considered the closer for his team. If Franco was healthy, Franco was called on to save. Sometimes he wasn’t healthy. Sometimes he was used in quest of so many successive saves that he was marked unavailable. Otherwise, if there was a save opportunity, John Franco was on the mound attempting to scoop it up, pretty much every game from the beginning of 1990 to the middle of 1999.
Then Franco got hurt and gave way in the interim to Armando Benitez, deemed a more reliable or at least overpowering option. Franco got well, but when he did, he didn’t get to attempt to save games as a matter of course any longer. There was talk that you don’t lose your role because of injury, but that’s what happened to Franco’s. Benitez took it from him.  He had, in a two-month sample, proven satisfactorily reliable and overpowering. He was younger. He threw harder. Time and its ninth innings with Met leads were marching on in a different direction. From late in 1999 to the end of 2004 (which included more than a year lost to Tommy John surgery), Franco saved all of eight games for the Mets. He was still who he was — he was named team captain in 2001 — but he had stopped doing what he had done for a decade.
That’s the closest Met analog I can come up with to the fate that is befalling Eli Manning , and it’s not really that close. Even as bullpens undergo evolution, closer is a prestige position in baseball, yet it’s essentially one-ninth of the game’s shall we say defensive snaps, and then only if the team without the ball has the right-sized lead. Franco, Benitez, whoever…they’re not out there every single game.
Manning was. Manning was hiked the ball on November 21, 2004, and continued to grip it through November 23, 2017. Manning got the ball in the top of the first and took it to the bottom of the fourth, if you don’t mind my cross-pollination of sports lingo. If the Giants had the ball, it was in Manning’s hands. He was the starting quarterback. Baseball’s got nothing quite like that.
Starting pitcher? Sure. Every fifth game. Football is played once weekly, so there’s no need for a rotation. A starting pitcher may no longer be “the ace of the staff,” but if he’s a starting pitcher, he still gets the ball just about as often. He may be skipped a turn, he won’t be the man on the mound on Opening Day or turned to first in the most critical of late-season situations, but a start is more or less a start. Sometimes you get a starter who is dropped to the bullpen and he snarls. I remember Ron Darling, for seven seasons a member of the Mets’ rotation, grudgingly shifting to relief in September of 1990  when the club developed an infatuation for a Tidewater Tide named Julio Valera. It was a September with playoffs on the line. Darling wasn’t happy. Valera didn’t make the most of it. But it was just once every five days and, honestly, Ronnie wasn’t pitching that well. Neither he nor Julio would be pitching for the Mets by September of 1991.
It’s another imperfect analog. The Mets had Gooden, Viola, Cone and Fernandez. They had Ojeda, who had unwillingly preceded Darling to the bullpen. All but Viola and Cone had been instrumental in winning the Mets a world championship. The Giants, in their sport, have had Manning. Manning was instrumental in winning them two world championships. More than instrumental. They didn’t go anywhere near a Super Bowl without Manning. There was nobody of note take the next series, nobody to close out a tight one for him. There was Eli Manning, two trophies, thirteen years, 210 starts, so much constancy that if you stumbled into Giants fandom when you were six years old in 2004, you arrived at the age of nineteen in 2017 with no experience watching anybody quarterback your team besides Eli Manning.
I was six when I stumbled into my New York Football Giants fandom , apparently needing something to occupy my Sundays between baseball seasons. Fran Tarkenton, No. 10, was our quarterback. Sometimes when I’d see Manning in 10 on the field, I’d think Tarkenton. Yet when I was nine, Tarkenton gave way to another quarterback better known as a Minnesota Viking, Norm Snead. Snead gave way to the old Cowboy and future Bronco Craig Morton. Morton gave way to Jerry Golsteyn, Golsteyn to Joe Pisarcik, Pisarcik to disaster. Or deeper disaster. The Giants were pretty much already a disaster when I picked them as my football team. They challenged for a playoff spot once and finished above .500 twice during my childhood and adolescence. They bottomed out when Pisarcik was instructed to avoid victory formation with a five-point lead and less than a minute left in November of 1978. He memorably avoided victory instead, but at least in his missteps he inadvertently gave way to Phil Simms. Simms was the first Giants quarterback to make me dream Giant dreams. They eventually came true, though not for an extended spell.
Simms was the Giants quarterback when I was sixteen through eighteen, except when he was hurt, and then he gave way to Scott Brunner. Brunner was a backup, but a pretty good one. In 1981, he pushed the Giants to their first playoff berth since 1963, when the quarterback was Y.A. Tittle, who died this October at the age of ninety . Scott was still in there a year later, the year I was nineteen, because Simms kept getting hurt. There were other backup quarterbacks who got the ball all those years I took to get from six to nineteen, too: Randy Johnson (not that Randy Johnson) started eight games; Randy Dean started two; Jim Del Gaizo, of whom I have to admit I have no memory, started one in 1974.
In my thirteen-year journey from six to nineteen, I watched or listened to ten different Giants start at quarterback. In that same measurement of time set more recently, I watched or listened to only Eli Manning start at quarterback. Plus Manning had longer seasons and six playoff trips and two Super Bowl runs. He never led the Giants through a truly 1970s-style season until the debacle presently in progress— and now he has been told to step aside and stop trying to lead.
The consensus reaction that Eli Manning has been a victim of unsportsmanlike conduct by his supervisor and employer  strikes me as heartwarming. He’s Tom Sawyer at his professional funeral, though I imagine he’d prefer the rumors of his demise prove wholly exaggerated. Manning is still a Giant, still under contract, still alive, perhaps still capable of quarterbacking a team less decimated and more competently managed. Nevertheless, it’s nice to hear short memories give way to long ones in the wake of the news that Eli Manning is no longer the QB of record in blue. Two-and-nine in the moment takes a distant back seat to two-and-oh in Februarys of yore.
The Giants are 2-9, and it’s not nuts to want to try something and/or somebody else when the season has gone irretrievably to hell. Anything/anybody else? Well, there was no discernible boomlet to start Geno Smith, and Davis Webb, the theoretically promising rookie, has been languishing at third on the depth chart. Yet it’s not like a third Lombardi Trophy was imminent. Eli wasn’t gonna be the Giants’ quarterback forever. The move and its inherent logistics were unsportsmanlike regardless. You’re in the epitome of “you don’t do that” territory when Eli Manning is shunted aside for a backup quarterback several clipboards shy of Scott Brunner. There ought to be a smoother sequence by which you take concentrated aim at 3-9. There has to be a more polite process that doesn’t leave your one and only starting quarterback for a baker’s dozen seasons scrambling alone in his emotional backfield.
Maybe not, though. You ever watch football? You ever notice how many people are involved? Are there other sports where “too many men on the field” is a thing? It would never occur to the savviest baseball skipper to slip an extra fielder between first and second without a shift (if it had, Bobby Valentine would have already concocted it). But football is a numbers game. Eleven men on a side. Fifty-three men on a roster. Plus practice squads, which used to be called taxi squads, a name indicating how fast teams are willing to call you a cab and send you out of town. Everybody appears disposable. Everybody’s face is obscured by a mask. In 1987, they played games that counted with replacement players. We can replace you so fast it would make your head spin…which the sport you play already does was the unsubtle message. Eli Manning, the one guy who you couldn’t imagine unceremoniously replacing, just got replaced unceremoniously.
At the risk of going the the full Carlin  here, score one for baseball over football. Baseball replaces its players, but we are conditioned to expect a modicum of ceremony when the changing of the guard is nigh. We see our ballplayers’ faces. Na, na, hey, hey, we wouldn’t thinking of not properly kissing them goodbye if given the opportunity. Franco could drive us into states of martyrdom (“this always happens to us”) and mutterdom (“come on John…come on already…”) with his penchant for less than overpowering saves, yet we stood and applauded when we were damn sure we were seeing him for the last time in 2004 . It wasn’t the ninth inning, but it was Johnny from Bensonhurst in relief, going out in something resembling style.
Maybe Eli Manning will have that kind of opportunity before 2017’s Giant schedule is complete. Maybe he’ll be around to properly mentor a successor in 2018, outlasting the coach and general manager who conspired to make a 2-9 season feel tangibly worse. Or maybe we’ll be left with three lasting images: the quarterback who won a championship; then another championship; and then our hearts all over again for the way he was directed toward the bench.
Whereas “scripting plays” is an element of football strategy, “you can’t script baseball” was not long ago a selling point of our defiantly unpredictable National Pastime. (Per George Carlin and confirmed by the running times of reason postseason outings, “Baseball has no time limit — we don’t know when it’s gonna end.”) But you can script baseball, a little, around the edges. You can gently slide your cleanup hitter to a lower spot in the batting order  if such a move threatens to be internally contentious. You can give your perennial All-Star catcher a heads-up about trying his hand at first base  before alerting the media. You can make less of a deal who pitches the eighth versus the ninth. Someday soon, it would be nice to think, you can orchestrate a graceful denouement to the career of the only technically active contemporary New York sports star whose presence on the local scene predates Eli Manning’s.
Before Eli Manning won his first Super Bowl, he reminded me of David Wright, who made his Met debut in July of 2004 while a certain Giants rookie was getting the hang of his first NFL training camp. Both were touted as low-key leaders. Both were Southern gentlemen by birth, affable Midwestern boys next door by temperament, New Yorkers by osmosis. Both had a knack for constancy. The Mets played 873 games between July 21, 2004, and August 15, 2009. Wright started 853 of them. It took a Matt Cain fastball to the helmet to sit him. They do a lot to you in football, but they don’t throw those.
Eventually David Wright reminded me of Eli Manning, except without the rings. Wright beat Manning to personal success; David saw multiple All-Star Games before Eli was chosen to a Pro Bowl. David’s Mets neared the promised land ahead of Eli’s Giants. But Eli’s Giants made it there. David’s Mets took a shot at its end zone in David’s twelfth season, but they wound up stuffed at the goal line on fifth and short. Nobody’s had to awkwardly send David Wright to the sidelines late in his career. David’s body has sidelined itself.
Third base for the New York Mets wasn’t a prestige position until David Wright made it so. Others have kept his corner warm in his absence. His absence continues. There was another back surgery in October , a laminotomy. It followed rotator cuff surgery in September . Together, allegedly, they will give Wright the best possible chance to return to the diamond in the quickest possible manner. Onlookers can be forgiven for not betting on possibility. Neither procedure eliminates spinal stenosis, which is the overriding factor in why we haven’t seen Mr. Wright ply his trade since late May of 2016. At best, the surgical activity will “reduce the risk of further issues going forward,” according to the statement issued in David’s name. “With these two surgeries behind me, I hope to be able to put on a Mets uniform again as soon as possible. My desire to play is as strong as ever.”
David’s heart is the one Met figure of renown to never go on the DL. The rest of him has been stuck there like glue. Wright demoted unceremoniously to backup status à la Manning would be a step up at this point. On paper, he has three more years to find his way back to active duty. In reality, Met life is going on without him. Should the club opt to more than browse the free agent market, of course they’ll stroll the third base aisle. They’ll make calls. They’ll check in on this or that player who plays the position. It was once as unimaginable as the Giants shunting Eli Manning aside. Now it’s simply due diligence.
I don’t know how it will end for No. 5 in orange and blue. Maybe it already has. Maybe there’s a worthy career coda ahead, one that will have made all that surgery and rehabilitation worthwhile. If that’s not possible, maybe there’s at least a fitting farewell.
There’d better be.