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Same as the First Half

Anticipation traditionally accompanies our team’s first game out of the All-Star break. We haven’t had a real game to watch in five days, so naturally we’re famished for Mets. On top of the yen for baseball was a hankering for an explanation by the highest-ranking official available to give us one. Brodie Van Wagenen, we were told, was going to meet the press and face our nation from Marlins Park in Miami, something he’d assiduously avoided doing at Citi Field in recent weeks, including last weekend when he let a flying chair doing his talking.

So much to look forward to on Friday — in theory. In actuality, I’m not sure what exactly we were anticipating.

Brodie did indeed take a seat in the Mets dugout (and controlled himself long enough to not throw it). SNY promised to carry it live on its social media streams, which it did, except for the part where they carried it live. It appeared they tried, but the feed kept glitching out. Perhaps technology ascertained before the rest of us could that there was not a lot worth transmitting.

Here’s what the general manager said [1] in a Q&A session that lasted close to a half-hour:

We suck.
We’re sorry.
We’re sellers.

The first answer had been self-evident since the Mets’ 9-4 start morphed into their 40-50 first half (first half in the figurative sense, for those who wonder how 90 is suddenly half of 162). The second answer was delivered more in corporatespeak, but at least Van Wagenen resisted the temptation to tell us everything was fine, go to mets.com/tickets. The short-term resolution — the trading of every expiring contract that’s not nailed down — will play out in rumor and innuendo before fact gets in a few swings circa July 31.

Save for a few rhetorical flourishes — yeah, they came and got us; no, he doesn’t usually throw office furniture — and the latest “here’s what’s wrong with Jed Lowrie now” update, you could have predicted the topline substance of the content. Still, somebody’s gotta now and then sit down or lean against a wall and speak up. We fans want to know. We fans are insatiable that way. We’re fans. We’re even insatiable for Mets baseball when it’s gone a few days. We’re nuts, perhaps.

We got our Mets baseball Friday evening. Boy, did we ever. It was the kind of Mets baseball we grew used to getting as the so-called first half of 2019 wound down, the kind for which we should probably fasten our seatbelts as the second half gets rolling in earnest (unless you’re more the “press eject button NOW” type; no judgments). It was the Mets and the Marlins, fourth place at fifth place, non-contender dueling non-contender so palpably you could feel yourself losing half-games in the standings every time you came back from the kitchen. Because the Mets had been playing contender after contender from the middle of June clear to the All-Star break, I hadn’t fully grasped how much we were not a contender. I mean, gosh, if we could just take this game and this series against this contender, we’d be picking up ground and gathering momentum and if we’re not that far out of it…

Forget that, as they say in the rougher scenes of movies edited for television. The Mets were playing the Marlins and neither is anywhere close to anything. For a night, the Mets weren’t close to the Marlins. They led the Miamians for a spell, but then Jason Vargas [2], whose late-career renaissance was such a delight to support before he informed Tim Healey he’d knock him the fuck out, bro (also to be edited for television), ran into trouble in the third. First he allowed a single to opposing pitcher Caleb Smith on the heels of a single and steal to catcher Jorge Alfaro, none of the above necessarily a crime against civility. But then Vargas became obsessed with keeping Smith — the pitcher — tethered to the bag, making throw after throw to Pete Alonso. Why on earth? Maybe he hoped the ball would eventually come back autographed from the Home Run Derby champion.

Long ago, Bobby Valentine engineered a series of pickoff plays [3] at second base after Roger Clemens, then a Blue Jay, doubled in an Interleague game. Clemens wasn’t used to running the bases. It was a hot night at Shea. Let’s sap his leg strength, Bobby ordered. It was a typically brilliant Bobby V tactic. It worked. Whatever Vargas was thinking in applying something similar to Smith didn’t (and Mickey Callaway didn’t exactly rush to take credit for it postgame). After multiple throws, Vargas had to direct his distracted attention to Miguel Rojas, who drove in Alfaro from third with a sac fly. Curtis Granderson then stepped up and delivered a two-run homer that scored not only good ol’ Grandy but Smith, who Vargas never did pick off and never did sap the pitching mojo from. For Met measure, the next batter, Garrett Cooper, also homered.

The Mets were down, 4-2, and essentially buried. Smith went six and didn’t give up anything else. Vargas was replaced with two runners on in the sixth before giving way to Robert Gsellman. Gsellman, of the Mets bullpen Gsellmans, gave up a three-run homer as soon as he could to Brian Anderson. Thar she blew. The final would be 8-4, the Mets the ones with fewer runs and another loss [4].

In case it wasn’t an awesome enough day in Metsopotamia, we learned during the afternoon that Dwight Gooden was arrested last month [5] in New Jersey for driving under the influence and was reportedly found to have cocaine in his possession. That hurt worse than any random loss a losing team records in a lost second half. We’ve been rooting for Doc for 35 years, including the part when he hasn’t been pitching. Of course our allegiance stems from those golden seasons at the outset of his career, but you couldn’t have listened to the man [6] these past several years and not been cheered that he was doing well in the way that counted most. But addiction is addiction. From afar, a Mets fan hopes he continues to battle — and that he doesn’t get behind the wheel in such a state ever again.

I also found myself a little miffed at Keith Hernandez of all people. It was just before the Vargas-Smith festival of pickoffs, when Alfaro swiped second. A catcher stealing put him in mind of John Stearns, who set a National League record for catchers stealing bases in 1978. What started as a complimentary aside to the Dude for his uncommon speed meandered into Keith noting how horrible the Mets were in those days. Not “we were bad,” but “they were bad,” because Keith wasn’t one of us until 1983. Once Keith became one of us, we stopped being so horrible and eventually became fantastic. That’s one of many reasons we will always love Keith. I don’t necessarily mind him reminding us, directly or implicitly, that he was a lifechanger. Usually I welcome it.

But during those “dark days” that Hernandez alluded to for Wayne Randazzo’s and our edification, we tuned in before All-Star breaks and after All-Star breaks for players like John Stearns stealing bases like few other catchers could. We believed in those Stearns teams to the greatest extent of our gullibility. We rooted like hell for the Mets of the late 1970s and early 1980s to beat Keith’s Cardinals, among others. We were rarely rewarded, but when we were, it was cause for celebration. For an instant, as Keith’s tangent ran its course, it wasn’t 2019 anymore. It was somewhere between 1977 and 1983, probably 1980. I didn’t know Keith Hernandez would ever be a Met. I knew John Stearns was already. Stearns, Mazzilli, Taveras, Flynn, Swan, Henderson and so on. Those were my guys. In my 1980 inner fan, they still are (I have 51 inner fans, one for each season I’ve been a fan — 52, counting the split season of 1981). My 1980 inner fan didn’t want to hear Keith Hernandez of the fucking St. Louis Cardinals put down my team, no matter how accurate his assessment.

Then I came back to 2019. Accuracy where the Mets are concerned was still being rather impolite.