With my lone natural rooting interest spiritually if not yet officially mathematically eliminated from contention for the National League East title, I find myself inadvertently pulling for some combination of whoever isn’t playing the Mets on a given night. For example, when Brandon Nimmo stuck it to the Phillies decisively and gleefully  on Wednesday, I took an extra dollop of pleasure in imagining some Phillie at the end of September ruing “that series in New York in July,” specifically “[bleeping] Flores and [bleeping] Nimmo hitting those [bleeping] home runs.” The only problem with my spiteful hand-rubbing scenario (in which I snicker like Dick Dastardly’s canine companion Muttley) was anything that screws over the Phillies doesn’t screw over the Braves and Nationals.
We have only so much screwage to disperse, and on some days none at all. The latter was the case Thursday night as the Mets couldn’t do to the Nationals what they did to the Phillies  (and haven’t done much to the Braves). Steven Matz  came out of the gate giving up runs and the Mets, surprising perseverance notwithstanding, never caught up. Matz wasn’t terrible across six-and-a-third — the highest of praise within the non-deGrominational sect of the 2018 Mets rotation — but two homers allowed to Anthony Rendon  left him and his team in a 3-2 hole that Jerry Blevins drilled two runs deeper via the bat of Bryce Harper in the seventh. Lonely solo blasts from Messrs. Plawecki and Cabrera, complementing earlier production from their colleague Sr. Bautista, pulled the Mets to within 5-4 entering the ninth. The ninth, though, was all kinds of bummer. The first out came on a grounder so perfectly placed that shortstop Trea Turner literally fielded it with a foot on second base to effect a force play on pinch-runner Ty Kelly. The next two were registered on a double play that took out the Mets’ two fastest runners, Reyes and Rosario, with the greatest of ease. Whatever walkoff magic inhabited Citi Field versus the Phillies must have gotten caught in an updraft and departed the premises.
Max Scherzer pitched seven innings and got the win. He’s supposed to be almost as good as fellow All-Star Jacob deGrom, which seems unlikely considering his team scores for him.
Without meaning to, we helped the hated Nationals. The only upside there is it didn’t help the hated Phillies or hated Braves, though if I had to choose a team to not help among the three teams we’ve counted as our archrivals at various points over the past two decades…ah, I don’t wanna help any of ’em. But since we couldn’t help but help one, I’ll accept this particular Mets loss to the Nats and dedicate it to the memory of Uncle Frank, a Nationals fan whose baseball happiness I wouldn’t specifically begrudge.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t actually root for the Nationals on Uncle Frank’s account; they are the Nationals, after all, and I’m not that gracious. But if they had to win, I’d reason from time to time during the time I knew him, well, at least Uncle Frank enjoyed it.
I should clarify that Uncle Frank — Frank Lennox — who died last summer at the age of 74, was not my uncle. He was the uncle of the wife of my friend Jeff, the Indians/Cubs fan who hails originally from Ohio but settled in Illinois, thus the dual allegiances (that he himself juggled with aplomb two World Series ago). Frank could eventually relate to having more than one team, but I got to know him when one was all he needed. He was an Illinoisan up from his home in Washington who introduced himself to me as a nothing but a Cubs fan on September 25, 2004. Jeff set us up on a blind date of sorts. Frank was in New York visiting his “sports-challenged” adult son Jonathan and had four tickets to see his Cubs play the Mets. Jonathan politely tagged along with his dad, but two of the tickets were unclaimed, so Jeff suggested to Frank he get in touch with me. I was delighted to be touched. I couldn’t find a fourth for us (it was Yom Kippur, and besides, most Mets fans I knew were fasting where any more games in 2004 were concerned that September), but I showed up at Shea and had one of the best times I could imagine, considering the Mets weren’t scoring and Cubs fans were everywhere.
Frank watched the Cubs play the Mets. I watched the Mets play the Cubs. We hit it off despite our differences. It was a little odd sitting in with a representative of “the enemy” in my home park, but Frank’s intentions were honorable. He was a legit Cubs fan, back when “long-suffering” was implied. Hadn’t lived in the Chicago area since 1961, he told me, and he drifted somewhat away from his true love over time, but technology made it easier to follow the Cubs in D.C. by 2004. I suspect the Cubs’ relative success in that period also made it more compelling.
Entering that afternoon’s action, the Cubs led the National League Wild Card race by a game-and-a-half over the Giants, two-and-a-half over the Astros. They’d come so close to the World Series the year before. Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez and other curious forces of darkness halted their journey in 2003. Now the playoffs were within reach again. How much would that mean to a guy like Frank, recently past 60 yet holding no memory of the Cubs ever winning a pennant? Enough that he took an Amtrak to New York to cheer his team onward to the finish line. Despite my lifetime disdain for his favorite team, I found myself wishing him well in his personal hunt for October.
Except for my well wishes to have any teeth, I’d have to sacrifice that Saturday afternoon’s affair on the altar of comity. I’d have to root against the Mets. Yeah, I wasn’t doing that, certainly not inside a stadium populated at least half by Cubs fans despite not a single speck of ivy evident on the outfield walls. The best I could do for Frank was accept that the Cubs winning at the Mets’ expense was a likelihood — Todd Walker whacked a two-run homer off starter Aaron Heilman in the second and it stood up for a seeming eternity — and be happy for Frank, sports-challenged Jonathan and, by proxy, Jeff back in the Chicago suburbs. The Mets seemed certain to make it easy on my better angels, as they’d spent the past two Septembers going easy on every contender they’ve played. Lousy teams, it is said, can be spoilers. They can inject themselves into pennant races with resolve, announce their presence with authority and skew best-laid plans. Art Howe’s Mets, though, hadn’t been doing that. Every good team who’d played the Mets with anything on the line for them came away confidence boosted, standing enhanced. I’m surprised we didn’t sponsor Carpet Night or something to tie into the walking all over of us competent opponents did in 2003 and 2004.
Jeff advertised me to Frank in advance with generous praise: “You may never meet a truer ‘fan,’ and there’s nothing Metsian that he doesn’t know.” Except perhaps how to be truly, sincerely gracious in a bizarre situation like this. But I was gonna try to thread that needle — represent but don’t resent.
Sluggish train service got me to Shea just after the game started. Before I could pick out Frank, he spotted me. That was momentarily creepy except he told me Jeff sent him my picture. If he hadn’t called to me, I figured I’d just look for a guy in a Cubs cap in the appointed section. Not much of a plan, that. Shea Stadium was, for the weekend, no better than Miller Park, just another convenient depot for Cubs fans to strut their stuff. If this were the Pirates and Mets in late September 2004, you couldn’t have gotten enough fans of either team for a minyan. The Cubs were a draw, no doubt about it. I imagined the self-hating Mets management, which once garishly honored Sammy Sosa to bring in as customers otherwise disinterested Dominican-Americans, would institute a Cubs Fan Appreciation Night next year. The tableau was totally askew. Engaging in throat-to-throat combat with Yankees fans at Shea was one thing. It was to be expected during the plague known as the Subway series. But a house — our house, to be dramatic about it — more than half-filled with Cubs fans really, really, really turned my stomach. And that was a significant amount to turn.
They cheered their heroes. They cooed, “Ah-looooo.” They greeted Sammy and Nomar like royalty. They were loud on behalf of relatively obscure visitors like Walker, who rocked this house divided against itself with that two-run homer in the second. They bared (beared?) foam Cubs claws. Those things were cute on TV the previous fall. They were disturbing in person, in Flushing. As were the fans, the long-suffering, by my gauge, outnumbered by the trendy. How can you front-run for a team that was 96 years removed from its last parade down Michigan?
It got so bad that Frank apologized for the “obnoxious” Cubs fans sitting behind us. Him apologizing to me in my house. My house!
Either there weren’t enough Mets fans or enough motivation among them to fight back. To yell back. To atone for the sin of passivity. I was certainly no help. No yelling. No sniping. Not as much a well-placed remark or dirty look. My rhetorical weapon was holstered in the name of graciousness. Frank and I were pals from the first pitch. As a Cubs fatalist and an abused Mets co-dependent, mostly we tried to bottom each other.
“You’re in luck. Heilman is pitching.”
“Prior hasn’t been good this year.”
“Mike’s been awful lately.”
“Art Howe is a waste of time.”
“Dusty’s a terrible in-game manager.”
We were each insistent on shepherding a bad team. It’s just that Frank’s was twenty or so games better than mine.
Between moments of truth on the field, the conversation was easy and cordial. We talked bout Jeff and ballparks and familiarized each other with our rosters and spoke the common language fans of different teams but one great sport can. But Frank was obviously for his Cubs, as he should’ve been, even if he didn’t crow or taunt. I was obviously for my Mets, but kept it in check. On paper, a mature adult should be able to do that for one afternoon. What’s the diff if the Mets wind up 69-93 or 70-92?
The Mets’ first and presumably only serious threat summed up their shattered season. With the bases loaded in the fifth and nobody out, Jose Reyes bounced to first. Took a nice play, but Derrek Lee threw home to nail Valent. One out. Old Gerald Williams, who probably came up alongside Don Buford and Paul Blair, flied to Alou in relatively deep left. Jason Phillips, the most glacial man in the bigs…Jason Phillips, who got tagged out Friday night on a throw 10 feet to the right of home…was on third. Even Jason Phillips could tag up and score.
However, Jason Phillips had gone halfway. He hadn’t tagged up. Two outs, no sac fly. Bases still loaded. Jason Phillips officially sliced from my favorite players list and mentally traded to Toronto. Wilson Delgado, who furtively subbed for Kaz Matsui, flied out.
That, I guaranteed Frank, was that. I truly thought so. The Mets were again softening the blow, removing the element of You Gotta Believe from the equation. The Mets made their stand Friday night by going ten innings before losing. Today, they’d go quietly.
I softly applauded rookie David Wright when he came up and clapped perfunctorily at the continual striking out of Sosa, technically doing my job as unobtrusively as I could. With Jonathan at the concessions, Frank finally broached the unbroachable.
“Ya gotta admit, Greg. The Cubs need this game more than the Mets.”
There it was. The gauntlet, however polite, however innocent, had been thrown down. I was being asked in a subtle fashion to ease his pain. 1969 was all well and good, but now the Cubs were angling toward “The Holy Grail” as Frank called it earlier. I wouldn’t really want to stand in the way of it.
Here was my talking point:
“Frank, the only one with a Mets affiliation who would benefit from a Mets win today would be my record for the season, which would be under .500 with a loss.”
There. A nice legalistic response, poorly communicated. Frank chuckled. We went back to watching the game.
The Cubs added a run in the eighth so I didn’t have to worry about diplomacy. The loss was in the bag. All the other Cubs fans were still annoying, but in the course of an afternoon, I’d reluctantly gotten used to them. Mets fans get used to lots of indignities, even at home.
In the middle of the eighth, so confident of losing 3-0 was I, that I told Stephanie by cell that this should take no more than half-an-hour. By 4:15, I’d leave and meet her at the senior center where she worked (she was recovering from a sprained right arm and normally I’d pick her up from the train close to home). I told Frank of my self-imposed curfew. We said preliminary goodbyes. I told him he should know the Mets beat the Giants in a wild 12-inning affair in August, 11-9, so between that and the rolling over we were doing this weekend, you could thank us for the Wild Card. He smiled, but reminded me this wasn’t over yet. Maybe not, but the Mets went down in the eighth. The Cubs didn’t score in the ninth. Last licks beckoned. I figured this was Bugs Bunny territory: one, two, three, you’re out!
Mark Prior, who looked just fine to me, had come out in the eighth for Ryan Dempster, the former Marlin and Red (I had no idea he was a Cub). He started the ninth by striking out Todd Zeile. Natch. Then he walked Valent and molassesy Phillips. First and second. Dusty was about to do some in-game managing, bringing in LaTroy Hawkins, the nominal closer, who had pitched the night before.
Cubs fans, thousands of them, were excited. I noted out loud it was 4:17 and I was already lying to my wife about when I’d meet her, but this would be over any minute. Frank and Jonathan laughed. Things were all set for me to be gracious, a good loser, which had emerged as my primary goal for the day.
Jeff Keppinger came up. Friday night, Keppinger got on base four times. Frank and Western Civilization had never heard of Jeff Keppinger. As I’d been doing all day, I was explaining that this Met or that Met you’ve never heard of was called up to replace an injured, established Met. Keppinger was pretty good, I said. At home on Friday, I declared to Steph that I could be considered a Kepptomaniac.
Kepp flied out to right. Two out. Still two on, still three-nothing. If Jeff Keppinger can’t do it, no one can.
Up stepped Victor Diaz . Yes, you’ve never heard of him, I said. Yes, he’s up from Norfolk because somebody (Floyd, Cameron, I forget now) got hurt. Yes, this will be the last out.
Except. Except. Except with two strikes on him, he swung at Hawkins’s offering and hit it to right. Deep right. Sosa went back. Back. Back. Not far back enough.
HOME RUN! Victor Diaz just hit a three-run homer! The Mets, barely out of last, have just tied the Cubs, the playoff-bound, ultrapopular Cubs, at three and three.
I did what I do, what any Mets fan would do. I leapt to my feet and raised both arms above my head. Half of Shea, maybe more suddenly, did the same. I yea’ed (“yea!”) and I clapped and I jumped up and down and I felt…
…bad. I mean I felt great, but I felt bad for Frank. Not for the 17,000 or so interlopers, not even for Jeff, a thousand miles away. But Frank, who had been wonderful company and purchaser of tickets and loyal to his team to one degree or another for a half-century. He sat there and watched another Cubs manager make another pitching change that led to another ominous home run. As I was coming down from my Diazstic high — to the spoilers belong the Victor — I patted him on the shoulder and apologized for my team’s success. Me apologizing to him for my team. My team!
Gerald Williams struck out and I stuck to my plan. We all shook hands one more time. Impulsively, I told Frank, “I’ve never said this to anybody here before, but I hope you guys win the game. We’ve had our moment.”
And I meant it. At that instant, looking into his disappointed, Billy Goat-cursed eyes, I meant it. I wanted to extend a generosity of spirit. Even with Victor Diaz shooting a bolt of hopeful lightning through my glands, I agreed with the earlier assessment. The Cubs needed the win. The Mets didn’t. Senior center appointment or no, I decided in an instant that no more good could come of my presence here. If I stayed and the Cubs won, well, that’s what was going to happen anyway, and what was the point of the home run? And if the Mets won — which they would, with rookie Craig Brazell homering (his first and last ever) off Kent Mercker in the eleventh and me on the E train, out of radio range — I’d just have to come up with more conciliatory, encouraging words for Frank.
I meant what I said. As I walked away from our seats, I wanted the Cubs to win that game for his sake. But by the time I finished walking away, I changed my mind for my sake. I wasn’t even out of the section, to be perfectly honest. I didn’t get to the concourse before I let out a “HA!” at a cluster of younger, very recently sullen Cubs fans. And a “HA!” on their house for acting up in my house. Of all the places on the face of this earth, Shea Stadium is not where a Cubs fan wants to get cocky, not even in 2004, not even in a game started, respectively, by Mark Prior and Aaron Heilman, not on Yom Kippur, not on Bob Kipper.
I’m pretty sure I was out of Frank’s and Jonathan’s earshot. Maybe that makes me a phony or at least less than gracious. I meant well, I swear I did, but I was true to my team…and true to the instinct that made me very happy that it was now only nineteen or so games worse than theirs.
Thanks in large part to Diaz and Brazell, the Cubs didn’t make the 2004 playoffs. And Frank didn’t make it to 2005 as the same kind of Cubs fan he’d been when we met in September, because he had a new team in his life. A few days after our game, MLB announced the Montreal Expos were about to move to Washington, D.C. Among those purchasing a season ticket package ASAP was Frank Lennox. He wasn’t necessarily abandoning his Cubs, but he was determined to show his support for the new local baseball endeavor. Frank was not only generous toward the transplanted Nationals, he thoughtfully passed along a pair of tickets to Stephanie and me for us to use on the Mets’ first trip to RFK Stadium and did me a similar solid when Nationals Park opened in 2008.
In the ensuing years, Jeff, Frank and I continued to corresponded among one another as the baseball seasons dictated. Frank’s shift in allegiance from Cubs to Nats was palpable, so much so that he couldn’t really enjoy the Cubs’ 2016 world championship because he was too stung by the Nats having fallen away earlier that October, same as they had in 2014, same has they had in 2012. We teased each other a little now and then in the context of the intermittently simmering Mets-Nats rivalry, but tipped caps more than we talked trash. I expressed admiration for Anthony Rendon when he first burst upon the scene. Rendon seemed to become Frank’s favorite player (or biggest bane of his existence, depending on the trajectory of his batting average). Rendon makes me think of Frank, so when he hit those two off Matz Thursday night, I tried to put it in perspective. When he drove in ten against the Mets last year, I probably wasn’t thinking good thoughts of anybody.
Frank, though, never stopped being gracious. In 2015, in the aftermath of the NLCS the Mets took from the Cubs on top of division battle that didn’t go Washington’s way, he texted Jeff and me, “Darn Mets. Now I will have to congratulate Greg Prince again.” And when the Mets clinched their 2016 Wild Card, he paused from preparing for the upcoming inevitable Nationals postseason disappointment to send me the nicest of notes:
“Here’s to those plucky Mets. A while ago in total manager-berating-team mode, now getting ready to toss the young pitchers at the league in the postseason. Imagine what a book you will write if the Mets knock off the Giants, Cubs, and Nats! And? Red Sox? (Okay, Indians.) All without Daniel Murphy — who has a pulled hamstring anyway. Mets just don’t seem to go away.”
Nor does true graciousness.