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

Still Standing

I usually have a favorite player, but as a grown man how I acquire one has changed. It’s impossible, for instance, for me to make heroes out of young men who could quite literally be my own children. And I’ve learned too much else about the game and life to put anyone on a pedestal. These days, I look for a certain combination of precociousness, a willingness to work hard and the possibility of greatness — and then I wait for mysterious inspiration to select someone for me.

While I appreciate arriving veterans, they arrive too fully formed for me to embrace as favorites. I loved watching Carlos Beltran [1], and tirelessly defended him against the moron wing of Mets fandom, but he was Carlos Beltran before he got here. And I need to see my favorite player every day — a test even the most electric starting pitcher fails.

So. Young position player. Precocious, works hard, possibility of greatness.

The current Mets club has a few players with that combination: Brandon Nimmo [2], Jeff McNeil [3], and Amed Rosario [4] come to mind. (If we’re being fair, any young player has those three things or they would have vanished before Double-A, but surely by now you’ve learned the heart isn’t fair.) But the position of favorite player is filled — Michael Conforto [5] is the incumbent, with no sign of yielding his post or being supplanted.

Conforto, alas, gained bonus points with me for something all too common with the Mets of the 2010s and their young players: he succeeded despite his employers trying to ruin him. The Mets started off by doing the right thing for once, risking promoting him too early rather than far too late, but they then ignored his minor-league track record and declared that Conforto couldn’t hit lefties, based on some vague combination of his birthdate and shamanic lore that Terry Collins [6] learned while hunting mastodons. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, culminating in Conforto’s banishment to the minors, where he learned a valuable lesson about looking within yourself and grew mentally stronger went back to hitting like his old self because Collins wasn’t around to screw him up. (I banged on about this at greater length here [7].)

The Mets stubbornly kept trying to screw him up, most notably by pressing him into service as a center fielder, a position he has worked very hard to play … adequately. None of it worked. And since playing for the Mets is like laboring in a particularly unsafe cotton mill, Conforto got playing time he might otherwise have been denied as those around him got hurt and were carted off to the bench or sometimes even the disabled list.

Last year he emerged as a star despite every attempt to dim his light — and then, on a swing that didn’t look different than any other, his shoulder came apart.

Conforto was expected to miss a couple of months of 2018 at least; instead, in what seemed like a rare dose of good Mets injury news, he was back in the first week of April. Though maybe that wasn’t good news, because he sure didn’t look like Conforto. His bat seemed sluggish, his batting eye unfocused, his approaches to pitchers all pretzeled up. Would he have been better served with a longer rehab and a stint shaking off the rust in Las Vegas? We’ll never know and Conforto will likely never say – the omerta of baseball injuries forbids it.

Whatever the case, Conforto wasn’t Conforto until after the All-Star break. But now he looks like he’s making up for lost time [8]. On Monday night, he singled in McNeil and Zack Wheeler [9] to give the Mets a 4-0 lead, doubled to give the Mets back the lead after Wheeler crumbled and surrendered it, and then iced the game [10] with a three-run homer. He has an outside shot at finishing 30 home runs. More importantly, he’s showed that he’s healthy — and demonstrated that he needs to be in the lineup every single day, against righties and lefties and six-armed arrivals from another planet, should they appear to complicate matters.

Not even Conforto’s heroics could stop the Cardinals from winning last night, which eliminated the Mets from postseason play. That turn of events became inevitable around the time the Mets crawled out of the rubble of a 5-21 June, but I’ll record the formality nonetheless. Still, these days I find myself experiencing that most dangerous of Mets-fan emotions: hope. (Even more dangerous: it’s infectious [11].)

The Mets aren’t going to win anything — unless they’ve got a plus-sized miracle in them they’re not even going to be a .500 club — but for the last month or so they’ve been entertaining and exciting. And though garbage time can be a dangerous mirage, they’ve been entertaining and exciting in a way that makes me want to think about 2019.

McNeil will come back to earth, inevitably, and Jacob deGrom [12] won’t put up a sub-2.00 ERA for the rest of his career. But there’s a lot more going on here than those two players’ heroics. We’ve covered Conforto, but Rosario has put up a very good second half in which it looks like he’s turning lessons into habits. Nimmo has done the same, baseballs to the hand notwithstanding. Wheeler looks like he’s running out of gas, but his breakthrough has been a wonderful thing to see. Noah Syndergaard [13] looks healthy. Steven Matz [14] looks healthyish, which may be about as good as it gets with him.

Put those things together and you’ve got the core of a good team. And in a division unlikely to have a monster club … well, you never know. But you can believe. As a wise man once said, you gotta.