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

The Sweet Spot of Summer

MLB’s “Summer Camp” has not only been named, it’s been sponsored, by a company called Camping World. Perhaps when the streamlined sixty-game schedule is announced, the reveal can be sponsored by Thom McAn, considering we’re all kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop on baseball’s best-laid, half-assed plans.

True, they no longer have Thom McAn stores, but then again, we’ve reached July and there’ve been no more than hints of baseball. At a time of year when we’ve usually had our game for three months, we’re sort of, kind of anticipating seeing a first pitch in three weeks. Covid-19 seems a more effective commissioner than Rob Manfred, so take no official edicts from the usual sources as the rule of law. And take whatever aseasonal pleasures you can from whatever the hell is going on that indicates baseball is rumbling back to life.

It’s the middle of February at the beginning of July. We’re talking camp. We’re talking a veritable plethora of non-roster pickups. Now loosening limbs under the auspices of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York are several fellows who span the familiarity spectrum from very to vaguely: Melky Cabrera, Gordon Beckham, Hunter Strickland, Jared Hughes. If this were the middle of February, we’d know what to make of the odd veteran signing. Now we are assuming this bunch will add depth to our 60-player pool, a phrase that didn’t exist the last time baseball went camping.

The Mets will start working out on the Third of July, both right on time and unfashionably late. It’s as if they’ve overslept only to find out it’s finals and they forgot to go to class for four months. Hitting coach Chili Davis will be monitoring his charges’ swings remotely in deference to how old he is (60) and where he lives (Arizona). Who said baseball can’t work from home? Davis isn’t the only coach around MLB being asked to bypass the ballpark. Some ballplayers are avoiding returning, too, opting out of the demi-season ahead for genuine health concerns. Those who are reporting are noticeably lacking [1] that traditional “can’t wait!” spark. Instead of expressing excitement, our new manager — Luis Rojas, in case you’ve forgotten — is invoking caution [2]:

“We’re very optimistic that we’re going to get into the season and finish it. That’s our goal.”

Not finish first. Not finish with a title. Finish the season. That’s the Mets’ goal. That’s baseball’s goal.

That’s different. But what isn’t these days?

***
These particular days on the calendar are usually among my favorite of the entire year. The close of June. The dawn of July. School is well over to the point you’ve forgotten the extraneous stuff you’ve learned (and your mother has stopped reminding you how much better your grades should’ve been). “Back to school” hasn’t re-entered the commercial lexicon. Kid or grownup, summer’s presence is undeniable. In adulthood, as in childhood, the Fourth of July is on the horizon. On the other side of Independence Day and its immediate aftermath is a little less summer. It will still be hot and all, but get past the first week of July, past the All-Star break, certainly, and you can feel it tangibly slipping away. Before you know it, it’s August and those sales on fall clothes and trapper keepers are advertised everywhere.

It doesn’t matter that you haven’t been mandated to be back to school for a couple of generations. The feeling that summer abandons you too quickly never leaves you. But it’s not in evidence at the close of June and the dawn of July. Here we have nothing to worry about. We have the Fourth coming up. We have baseball every day.

That’s how I’ve interpreted this sweetest summer interlude for as long as I can remember. Summer. The Mets. Unless there’s a strike or a pandemic, you’re safe to do so.

***
Fifty years ago right around now, I was reveling in the Mets’ grabbing and holding a piece of first place. The 1970 Mets moved into first place on June 24. The pesky Pirates and the creepy Cubs were making life unnecessarily stressful for a kid who wore his Mets cap to day camp at the Sands Beach Club, but on the Fourth, Tom Seaver wins his thirteenth game against five losses by five-hitting the Phillies, and we’re a half-game up on Pittsburgh and what more, besides a larger lead, could you want when you’re seven?

Forty-five years ago right around now, I mean literally right around now, I was picking out which shirt to wear to that night’s game against the Cubs. I was going to my very first night game on July 2, 1975. A landmark event in my life and I’m worried about clothes. I ultimately chose my t-shirt with the logo of my favorite group from when I was twelve, Chicago. Wednesday night in the park, under those Shea lights, it occurred to me I was rooting for New York, and therefore this shirt was a terrible choice. I didn’t have to worry about pitching, though. Jon Matlack went all the way for a 7-2 Mets win.

Forty year ago right now — right now — I was listening to John Pacella mow down the Cubs over WMCA. Every good thing Pacella did while I held down the receptionists’ desk for my father the summer he relocated his business from the city to the suburbs was accompanied by word from Bob Murphy or Ralph Kiner or Steve Albert that Pacella’s cap had fallen off again and again and again. It was a colorful sidelight to a dazzling, Magic summer, and a welcome distraction to the eerie Rockville Centre office quiet of July 2, 1980. If John Pacella could lose his hat and still win ballgames (and he would win this baby, 3-1), could we be stopped? When I was seventeen, it was a very good year for self-deception.

[3]

Hats off, John Pacella, wherever you are.

Thirty-five years ago tonight, the 1985 Mets got their heads out of wherever they’d been stuck over the course of a vexing six-game losing streak. On July 2, behind Ron Darling and five whole runs (the most they’d scored since June 21), they beat the Pirates, 5-4. They’d beat the Pirates the next night, then go to Atlanta on July 4 and play all night and a bunch of the next morning. They were on their way to winning 30 of 37 games, encompassing a pair of nine-game winning streaks and making for one of the best Met summers of my life — made even better knowing that, as a 22-year-old college graduate, it was the first summer during which I’d be technically immune to “back to school” pitches. Spiritually, I’m still working on it.

Thirty years ago this week, the Mets were scalding, and no Met was scalding the ball more effectively than Darryl Strawberry. On July 3 versus Houston, he hit the Shea scoreboard. So did Daryl Boston. Had the Mets had other Darryls with other spellings, they, too, would have gone deep. Under the calm hand of Buddy Harrelson, the 1990 Mets were on fire. I, at 27, welcomed their warm glow. This was about two weeks after my mother died. My fiancée and I watched the Strawberry fireworks display with my dad at the same kitchen table where we used to watch such explosions with my mom. Nobody said, “What a great distraction.” Nobody had to.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the 1995 Mets weren’t very good. They were particularly dismal when I showed up at Shea. Show up I did, anyway. On July 4, my wife and I joined my sister and her husband for actual Fireworks Night. That was their interest in being there. The Mets lost to the Cubs. That was still my interest at age 32. It was my sixth game of a season that started a little late due to management’s malfeasance. I was trying to make up for lost time. The Mets were 0-6 with me in the house. I kept going. By season’s end, they’d be not so bad and I’d be 7-7 on the year.

Twenty years ago today, July 2, 2000, I got a sip of how the other half lived. Not a taste, just a sip. The sister of a colleague of my wife’s was connected to a Mets sponsor, which somehow brought us into a Diamond View Suite. Here I was, 37 and heretofore limited to viewing only the diamond from Field, Loge, Mezzanine or Upper Deck. A view from the inside of a suite? Sweet! Except — and I don’t mean to look a suite horse in the mouth — there was no food provided by the sponsor, just the keys to the joint. I mean, yeah, there was food if you wanted to go get it for yourself, or if you wanted to order it when some nice person in a bowtie came around and inquired what of an overpriced nature you might like to ante up for, but there was no spread, just some beverages in the fridge. I’m not complaining, mind you…OK, I’m complaining a little. Wasn’t the whole idea of a suite to dig fully into the suite life? No, the whole idea of going to a Mets game in 2000 was to watch the Mets beat the Braves. Alas, the Mets didn’t do that that day. It was two days since Mike Piazza had capped off that exhilarating ten-running inning, when every seat was the best seat in the house, and we’d won the next day, too, so now I’m really getting greedy. Honestly, the 2000 Mets could have used a little more greed when World Series time rolled around. And I would have liked a little nosh on July 2.

Fifteen years ago today, I was at Shea to watch the 2005 Mets not quite satisfy my appetite again. This had nothing to do with food. The Mets had a chance to move two games above .500. They passed, losing to the Marlins, 7-3, falling to 40-40. Over the course of the previous week, they’d been 37-37, 38-38 and 39-39. I was 42 and tiring of barely breaking even roughly every other day. But I was handed a Carlos Beltran bobblehead for my trouble.

Ten years ago tonight, on July 2, 2010, the Mets weren’t quite ready to let us down. Deep in our bones, we knew they would eventually. Not even that deep. The stumble was coming. They weren’t that good. I was 47 and not as susceptible to summertime Magic spells as I was when I was 17. But for a while, we could pretend that the Mets were really a team worthy of being 10 games over .500, which is what they were after beating the Nationals in Washington. What made the victory particularly tasty was the way it concluded, with Francisco Rodriguez turning, wheeling and firing to Ruben Tejada at second base to pick off Roger Bernadina. It was the first time a Mets game had ended with the Mets picking a runner off at second. Tejada was a defensive prodigy. The Mets were winning. Maybe 2010 was gonna be a great year after all. (I know I just said I was too sophisticated for such teenage tripe. Maybe I wasn’t.)

Five years ago this afternoon, on July 2, 2015, the Mets scored one run. It was cause for mock celebration where I was sitting in some thoughtfully furnished Delta Club seats. The Mets had been shut out on June 30 and shut out again on July 1. It was that desolate slice of 1985 all over again, except it was thirty years later and there was no sign of a Strawberry, Carter or Hernandez on the premises. Also, that one run didn’t much hold up as Jacob deGrom threw one of his lesser outings and the Cubs completed a three-game sweep. Four days after we sincerely celebrated the coming of Steven Matz, we were mopey again at Citi Field. Still, we were relatively close to the Nats in first place and, more importantly to me at fifty-two years of age, was knowing my father was out of the hospital more than a month after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. I didn’t know that he’d be back in the next month or, that by then, I’d have another 52 to think about via Sandy Alderson’s trade for Yoenis Cespedes, and I never would have guessed that my dad, who’d pretty much given up on baseball since Darryl left the Mets, would get interested in what Yoenis and the Mets were doing and we’d be watching them together in the World Series come October. And what’s this about the 2015 Mets being in the World Series? No, I didn’t know that was in the cards in early July.

It’s just enough to know there are the Mets and there’s baseball right around now every early July. There isn’t any of that precisely on July 2, 2020, but maybe soon. Maybe.