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

Steps Along the Road

So. I pretty much took the winter off.

I was busy with my other dorky obsession, writing books related to this oddball space-fantasy movie you might have heard of. But that’s an excuse. I was weirdly disengaged — to an extent that began to worry me.

Granted, my disengaged would be a lot of folks’ full-throated fandom. I made another batch of custom Mets cards to fill some stubborn gaps in The Holy Books. (Luis Rosado [1] had a Tides card but not a big-league card! How could this dreadful state of affairs be allowed to continue!) I fumed about why the Mets weren’t grabbing one of the talented starting pitchers looking for work, then tried to figure out if Jason Vargas [2] changed my mind. I read up on Mickey Callaway [3], and the many injured Mets trying to get less injured.

But what other people do isn’t how you measure engagement. My head and heart were elsewhere, and I knew it. Knew it, and wondered why. Spring training didn’t fix it, but then it never does — my interest in the Grapefruit League has shrunk to the first and last couple of innings. No, I’d have to wait for Opening Day to see if something had changed, or if I’d just had a weird winter.

The early signs were good. On Wednesday night my mind kept jumping ahead to 1 o’clock the next afternoon. I had work stuff to line up, and kept checking the Mets’ schedule and happily declaring myself unavailable on various afternoons and evenings. Until it actually was 1 o’clock on Thursday, and there were Gary, Keith and Ron, and there was Citi Field, beneath skies that could be charitably described as leaden but were not actually spitting out rain. And there were the Cardinals, and there were the Mets.

Which meant that winter was finally officially over, and we’d won our way through to another year.

By the time a pitch was thrown in anger my offseason worries seemed as threatening as the clumps of dirty snow still hiding in shadows here and there around the city — I’d been happy just soaking up the usual doofy pomp and circumstance of Opening Day. There were the Cardinal bullpen catchers, gazing into SNY’s cameras with the joy of people being directed to a new line at the DMV. There were the Cardinal regulars, with Yadier Molina [4] cheerfully acknowledging our displeasure at his existence. (In storytelling this is called foreshadowing.) And then there were the Mets. The crowd cheered whoever the new head trainer is for not being Ray Ramirez. Wilmer Flores [5] was greeted like a conquering hero, as was the delocked Jacob deGrom [6]. David Wright [7] made an appearance, his body shrunken by inactivity but his smile undimmed. Phillip Evans [8] beamed happily to find himself on an Opening Day roster, as he should. Yoenis Cespedes [9] fist-bumped his teammates and I was briefly terrified that he would break a finger, because the Mets. And there was Noah Syndergaard [10], who barely looked up from the bullpen where he was preparing for war.

I would have been reasonably happy with just that — Mets wearing actual Mets uniforms instead of terrible spring-training motley, and doing baseball-like stuff in Flushing instead of in an anonymous chunk of Florida. But then we got an actual game — and a fun one, too.

Opening Day lends itself to dopey predictions based on the smallest of sample sizes. I’ll try not to do that. I’ll try to remember that the Mets are not going to hit over .300 with runners in scoring position, or see every starter fan 10 every time out. Brandon Nimmo [11] won’t be on base every time I look up, Amed Rosario [12]‘s aggression won’t always be rewarded, and the bullpen won’t be close to flawless every time out.

But good luck with avoiding that. By the late innings I’d worked myself into a fit about Nimmo not being in center and the leadoff spot once Michael Conforto [13] returns, advocating that Jay Bruce [14] take up residence at first and Adrian Gonzalez [15] hit the links to make room for him. Gonzalez was 2 for 3 with the go-ahead double, so this demanded tunnel vision that was striking even for me.

I’d also covered every point of the opinion compass on how Noah’s day had gone, eventually winding up in the right place. The numbers didn’t look quite Asgardian, but that was misleading: half of the runs Syndergaard allowed came on a fluky little jam shot by Molina (of course) that somehow plunked the foul pole, leaving GKR, the crowd, Syndergaard and Yadi himself wondering how exactly that had happened. Syndergaard fanned 10, walked nobody, and had every pitch working. His fifth-inning punch-out of Tommy Pham [16] was particularly brutal, a combination of fastball, sliders and change-ups worthy of categorization as a war crime.

But don’t miss Robert Gsellman [17] in running down what went right, at least for a day. Or Kevin Plawecki [18], whose bat showed signs of life during last season’s painfully extended garbage time and did nothing to dispel the notion that he might have figured something out. Or Gonzalez, for that matter. Or — because what the heck, if you can’t be generous on Opening Day when can you be? — Mickey Callaway repeatedly asking Syndergaard to bunt. Callaway will learn you send Thor out with Mjolnir to crush some Jotuns into smears of jam, and not to tap a few nails into a squeaky floor board. But today even that strategy turned out just fine.

For a day, everything the Mets needed to work worked [19]. It won’t always go like that — there will be days and even weeks when the opposite is true — so enjoy it whenever you can. I’ve learned a few things over the decades, and that’s high on the list.

* * *

Speaking of decades, Rusty Staub [20] is the reason I’m a Mets fan. He’s the reason I’m a baseball fan.

One of my earliest memories is my mother leaping up and down in our living room, whooping and yelling the mysterious word “Rusty!” like it was the happiest sound in the world. Finding out what had her so excited was the first step I took down a road I’m still traveling. It took me a while to figure out what baseball was, how it worked and why I liked it, but from the beginning I understood one thing: I loved Rusty Staub. I loved his strange name, pairing a friendly and fanciful nickname with a brusque and serious last name. I loved his hair, which looked molten and impossible. I loved his ancient-looking batting gloves and the way he stood stock-still at the plate, studious and determined.

When I was going to play Little League, I told my parents that I wanted a Rusty Staub mitt. But that’s understating what I meant. Nothing that wasn’t a Rusty Staub mitt would be acceptable. I’d rather not play than go out there with some poor substitute — with a Bill Madlock [21] or Joe Morgan [22] or Carl Yastrzemski [23] or Graig Nettles [24] model on my hand.

[25]There was only one problem: there was no such thing as a Rusty Staub mitt. Rusty — famously absent from Topps card sets for two years of his Mets tenure — didn’t sell his name for stuff like that.

So my parents made it work. They surreptitiously acquired a generic mitt, a yearbook with Rusty’s facsimile signature, and a leather-burning tool. Then they copied my hero’s autograph and gave me the good news. I was none the wiser, and thrilled. I used that mitt until it wouldn’t fit anymore, and then for a while longer after that.

In addition to being my first hero, Rusty was my introduction to baseball heartbreak. After he was sent off to Detroit, a distant city in the wrong league, I hoarded copies of his 1976 card — the rare baseball card made better by its subject being hatless — and bemoaned that it said he was a Met even though he no longer was. When he came back to New York a few years later I’d become a baseball exile, distracted by new interests and ground down by labor unrest and my team’s bedrock terribleness. It was Dwight Gooden [26] who brought me back to the fold, but I was grateful to return and find the familiar, comforting presence of Rusty Staub.

No, he wasn’t the Rusty I’d loved as a little boy — he was bigger and slower, in fact he was a lot bigger and slower. But he could still hit, and he had that familiar self-possessed calm, an almost-scholarly air of silent readiness. He was the Mets’ secret weapon during that wonderful ’85 season, a pinch-hitter whose success you almost took for granted. I loved reading Keith Hernandez [27]‘s warts-and-all book If at First…, particularly the sections in which he recounted how Staub had been a steadying hand for him. The idea that my favorite player as a boy was a mentor for my favorite player as a teenager struck me as perfect then and still does now. The only thing I was sad about in 1986? It was that Rusty Staub had retired and missed the party.

Except he wasn’t really gone. He became a familiar voice in the TV booth — though much as I loved Rusty, I can’t bring myself to claim that was his forte. And as the years went on, all of a sudden he kept popping up in my life.

I saw him on the street after running a charity race through the Battery Tunnel, one of the many charities to which he contributed so much. I noticed him walking along by himself, did a double take, and then froze. I’m not particularly interested in meeting athletes, but this was Rusty Staub. How could I not shake his hand and say a few words about how much he’d meant to me? Wouldn’t I regret not doing so forever?

So I did. I ran up to him, looking sweaty and mildly insane, but I couldn’t settle for just a few words. I shotgunned approximately 1,000 of them at him in a frenzied minute, somehow working my way around to my parents’ custom mitt, at which point I realized I sounded deeply crazy, gathered myself, and told him he’d been my favorite player as a kid and I’d just had to tell him that. He didn’t break stride — I’m sure something like that happened to him several times a day — but thanked me and said that meant a lot.

Then he seemed to be everywhere. I saw him in the San Francisco airport and managed not to make a pest out of myself that time. In New Orleans a cab driver had played high-school ball against him and regaled me with Staub stories, for which I happily gave him a ludicrously outsized tip. When I started making custom cards for missing Mets who hadn’t got their due, few creations satisfied me more than the cards that filled in Rusty’s missing years.

Now he really is gone, and the world is a far less interesting place. But he won’t be forgotten — not here, or in Montreal or Houston or Detroit or New Orleans. If you haven’t read Greg’s reflection [28], do so. If you have read it, read it again. Rusty will always be crashing shoulder-first into the outfield wall, pleading with the unruly fans at Shea, flicking a homer over Joe Rudi [29]‘s head, lurking in the dugout, or looking mildly embarrassed but pleased to be surrounded by Mets in flame-red wigs.

And he certainly won’t be forgotten by me. Somewhere in my memory my mom will always be jumping around and cheering for him — a long-ago moment that led to so much else, and that has seen me through so many Opening Days. With so many yet to come.