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Another 41 at Seaver Way

It’s too late for massive regret where Saturday night’s sloppiness is concerned. It’s Sunday morning, and another game is directly in front of us. It’s too early for despair where 2019 is concerned. Thirty-three games remain, and despite an ugly 9-5 loss [1] facilitated by the Braves playing admirable heads-up baseball and the Mets playing abysmal baseball with their heads up their asses, our team is a mere two games from its moving target of the second Wild Card spot. At the moment, we’re chasing Chicago; have Philadelphia between us and them; and share standings space with Milwaukee. By tonight, that alignment could be shaken up slightly or stay exactly the same. Still a long way to go.

Can’t let the mistakes from Fireworks Night envelop our outlook in a cloud of smoke despite the proliferation of goofs that created our first home losing streak in ages. Jeff McNeil [2], an otherwise welcome sight, shouldn’t have been running from second to third on a grounder in front of him. Amed Rosario [3], a legitimate major league hitter who needn’t be asked to lay down sacrifice bunts except in very specific situations, shouldn’t have been stealing, or attempting to, when he tried. J.D. Davis [4], our recently revered self-proclaimed avatar of “that New York swagger, that New York attitude,” shouldn’t have contemplated the feeling of horsehide in his right hand for interminable seconds while speedy Billy Hamilton [5] galloped home from first on Ronald Acuña’s single to left.

The Mets brought this defeat upon themselves, though the Braves of Hamilton, Adeiny Hechavarría [6] and the perpetually irritating Francisco Cervelli, who had literally just flown in from professional purgatory, could be said to have grabbed it for themselves, though their higher-profile players also assisted the Atlanta cause. Overall, the first-place club clearly outplayed the Wild Card hopeful. The Mets weren’t helped by their starting pitcher, Zack Wheeler [7] (6 IP, 5 R), or a couple of their bullpen representatives. Brad Brach [8] had a foot on the throat of the Atlanta lineup until the bottom of it wriggled loose and tied the shoelaces from each of Brach’s spikes together. Edwin Diaz [9] surrendered a long home run to Freddie Freeman, then let his dugout know he was in no condition to pitch…physically, he meant. Diaz was apparently bothered by tightness in one of those muscles nobody ever refers to until a baseball player points at it, and then everybody talks about it like they’re anatomy professors.

In Diaz’s case, according to Mickey Callaway, it was “trap tightness,” which I assumed was a body part and not an indication of a rodent problem. I have since learned that trap is short for trapezius, a body component a pitcher requires for pitching. Through Alan Suriel, the Met translator who deserves to interpret nothing but questions and answers regarding big hits and key strikeouts after a year of communicating Diaz’s miseries for the English-language press, Edwin said he didn’t think the discomfort that plagued him amid his gopher ball to Freeman and subsequent walk to Charlie Culberson (another Brave plague), was something that should necessarily dispatch him to the IL.

“Regardless of whatever pain I have, I have to out there and do my job,” Diaz via Suriel said postgame. “I didn’t feel 100 percent at that time, but I have to try to go out there and execute my pitches.” I’d say Freeman already did quite an effective job of executing at least one of Diaz’s pitches. Also, as someone who muddled through six years of junior high and high school Spanish while avoiding all the science electives they’d let me, it is my considered opinion that Diaz should probably take the ten days a trip to the injured list encompasses and tend to his trapezius, a word I have now typed for the second time in my life. My professional credentials for this diagnosis? I have groaned too often at the sight of Edwin Diaz this year.

Groaning at most every Met (and their atrocious Players Weekend gear) on Saturday night aside, there was an interlude of literal jumping for joy. Not surprisingly, it was for Pete Alonso [10], the fount from which the most joy associated with the 2019 Mets has flowed. You could even call him Pete Fountain [11] for the way two of the homers he launched at SunTrust Park this year splashed down amid decorative waterworks. Our boy has certainly struck up the band wherever he’s gone, which is invariably deep.

As countdowns to destiny go, the wait for Pete Alonso to tie the Mets’ single-season home run record was filled with all the drama of a wait for the 6:09 to Penn Station when the LIRR is running without delays. It might even be said Pete’s train arrived at the station a touch ahead of schedule. The 41st home run that he was chasing on our behalf took a while in past years. Todd Hundley’s 41st of 1996 pulled in during the 148th game of his signature season. Carlos Beltran’s 41st of 2006, which was more incidental than monumental given that he and we were playing for higher stakes then, blew its whistle in Game 159. When Pete’s power presented itself to us in full earlier this year, I started tracking his progress versus his predecessors.

“Man,” I thought, “he has a chance to break the record.”

It would be less race than walkover. The only real complication Pete faced was not hitting No. 41 on Friday night [12], when my friend Kevin and I were at the game and really would have really appreciated witnessing it in person. Historically minded to the first Met degree, Kevin wore his old HUNDLEY 9 tee and planned to ceremonially exchange it for the POLAR BEAR 20 model we were handed at the gate whether it fit us or not (less of a problem for Kevin’s physique than mine). On Friday, only Jacob deGrom homered in the Mets’ 14-inning loss. Not a terrible souvenir, but not precisely what we came for.

Saturday, though, the folks who lined up for the fireworks could enjoy a premature explosion, Pete taking Max Fried on a VIP tour of that black backdrop that surrounds the Alonso Apple in center field. They might as well rename it for Pete, who has made it ascend 21 times, already the twelfth-most in Citi Field history. That’s the twelfth-most of any Met in the course of a post-2009 Met career, courtesy of a kid who’s worked at the ballpark less than five months.

As all of Pete’s home runs seem to be, whether aesthetically or narratively, it was a big one. Alonso’s three-run blast gave the Mets a 5-4 lead, climaxing a fifth inning in which our summertime heartthrobs displayed their best selves. Juan Lagares [13] (hashtag #Lagaressance) doubled. Rosario singled him in to trim the Braves’ lead to 4-2. Joe Panik [14] singled. Fried unleashed a wild pitch, his second of the inning. Finally — because we’d waited a whole six days since No. 40 — Pete got ahold of a fastball and let it fly. It went 451 feet, it was worth three runs in a playoff chase, and it sent at least one heretofore seated veteran Mets fan from his couch into the kind of vertical leap that surprised even the leaper.

“Man,” I thought, “he just tied the record.”

The record. Forty-one home runs. There’ve been two 41s that need little to no introduction in franchise lore. One is the Franchise. If you’re at Citi Field, you’re not only cognizant of the preeminent Met 41, you’re at 41… 41 Seaver Way [15], to be exact. (We’d also have accepted Tom Terrific Terrace as a searchable Flushing address; you certainly won’t find it in Foxborough [16].)

The other 41 has, since September 14, 1996, belonged to Todd Hundley [17]. It belonged to him the way 34 belongs to Frank Thomas [18]’s 34, 37 belongs to Dave Kingman and 39 belongs to Darryl Strawberry. Those numbers live on in memory, but were surpassed as records. Hundley’s 41 wasn’t. Technically it still hasn’t been, though we shall take the liberty of assuming that moment is coming to a ballpark near us soon. When it occurs, no matter that No. 42 shall fill me with Pete pride, I shall lay a figurative wreath at the marker that will always exist in my Mets fan heart for the first 41st home run in Mets history and what it represented.

Todd Hundley was an exceptional Met slugger in a transitional Met era, which is a polite euphemism for they weren’t very good when he was at his absolute best. But when he was at his absolute best, the excitement was uncontainable. We had a Met hitting more homers than any before him — and more homers than any catcher anywhere before him, which was probably a bigger achievement (he broke a record held by Roy Campanella, for goodness sake) — but the one that tickled me was the Mets record. We never had a 40-homer man before Todd, never mind 41. He was among the league leaders in a shall we say very homer-laden period in baseball history. Whether observed from Loge, Mezzanine, Channel 9 or Sportschannel, it was clear he enjoyed the hell out of what he was doing. He understood the power of the home run, for him and for us.

I loved that Todd Hundley cared so much that he was hitting more home runs than any Met ever had or ever would for at least 23 more years. I’ve always been glad that as long as 41 persisted as the record — even when it was tied by Beltran — that it kept Todd prominent in our record books. Mike Piazza’s presence all but erased him from our consciousness, which was totally understandable given the enormity of everything about Piazza, yet the one thing the great Mike Piazza didn’t do was hit a 41st home run in a New York Met season.

Hundley did. That was his thing. I can still see it in action. Top uniform button unbuttoned, a mighty swing, a dose of “that New York swagger” that didn’t need to be announced because it spoke for itself while it rounded the bases 41 times in an otherwise grim Met summer. It was 1996. There was Bernard Gilkey driving in runs while keeping an eye peeled for aliens. There was Lance Johnson making Billy Hamilton look like a piker as he slid safely again and again into third. And there was Todd Hundley elevating the ball in a fashion most unMetsielike. It was a rush.

The Mets lost 91 games and all but the tiniest fragment within the city’s baseball mosaic, but we who were there would always remember those 41 and always cherish it. Not that we didn’t root for it to be surpassed, but it stayed. Had Mike belted a couple more as we grasped for the 1999 Wild Card and finished with one above 41, I’m sure I would have leapt higher than I did last night. Beltran gave it a go, matching Todd, but Carlos was so busy doing everything well that I have the feeling he thought it overly gauche to shove Hundley from his perch. That’s what I’ll tell myself for the sake of the story, anyway.

Nobody had neared 41 since 2006. Now somebody has alighted there. It’s still Hundley’s record, but it’s shared by three Mets for the moment. The moment Alonso resets the home run clock to 42 (and beyond), I will celebrate as a lifelong fan does when standards change. I will pull for that number to keep rising, for some other number to stand tall as what some future Met slugger — perhaps Pete himself — aspires to in some future Met season.

But we’ll always have 41 and Todd Hundley somewhere in there. I won’t forget that.