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

Back in the Sweetest Swing

For my birthday I went back to Citi Field, and that was wonderful [1], even with zip-tied seats for social distancing and vaccination checks and mandatory masks. Last week I went to my second game and it was even nicer [2], because those three things were gone and the only strange note was how normal all the old routines felt. (It helped that the Mets won both games.)

But something was missing from this year: I hadn’t been to see the Brooklyn Cyclones, in their ballpark by the sea on Coney Island.

Emily and I had tickets for the end of May, but rain scotched those plans and then the usual complications of life (which all seem to be back too) got in the way. Until Saturday night: The Cyclones were playing the Jersey Shore Blueclaws at 6 p.m. We’d be there.

We started going to Cyclones games in their inaugural 2001 season, a giddy ride that screeched to a halt when 9/11 canceled the winner-take-all finale of the championship series between the Cyclones and the Williamsport Crosscutters. (It had been scheduled for the evening of Sept. 11.) That year the Cyclones were a hot NYC ticket, with jaded Manhattanites and Brooklyn hipsters trekking out to the beach to watch new draftees led by heartthrob center fielder Angel Pagan [3] play baseball (with wildly varying proficiency) and gape at the antics of Sandy the Seagull, their cheerfully shambolic Big Lebowski of a mascot. Over the years Emily and Joshua and I watched good Cyclones teams and bad ones, learned about the pitiless realities of life in the New York-Penn League, and got used to the idea that this year’s players would be mostly gone next year, with the successful or favored ones moving up in the organization and the unsuccessful or overlooked ones moving closer to a return to civilian life.

I was there in 2019 as the Cyclones played another winner-take-all game for a title, this one against the Lowell Spinners. I was in the stands as the Cyclones came from behind and held off the Spinners and celebrated on the field, with skipper Edgardo Alfonzo [4] in the middle of the happy scrum. I had no way of knowing I’d watched the last pitch in the 80-year history of the New York-Penn League (and that of the luckless Spinners); that the Cyclones would be idle for all of 2020, with their ballpark repurposed as the Mets’ alternate site, to use the creepy terminology of pandemic ball; or that when they did return they’d have moved up a minor-league level as part of a league called — with all the originality bureaucrats can muster — High-A East.

A lot would be different. But it would still be baseball by the sea, with neon rings around the stadium lights and the Parachute Jump coruscating in the darkness and the wind off the ocean making home runs to center or right all but impossible and all the other wonderful little things I’d become used to over nearly two decades.

The only problem was that the Mets were playing the Phillies that same afternoon — and Jacob deGrom [5] would be on the mound. Not a big deal, I figured — I’d navigated overlapping Mets and Cyclones games before, so I figured I could do it again. What I hadn’t thought through was that Saturday would also be our first visit to Coney Island since the pandemic. Emily and I were overjoyed to be plunged into its ragamuffin charms, once again strolling down the boardwalk, putting our hands up and screaming on the Cyclone, biting into a Nathan’s hot dog, and lolling high above it all in a car (swinging, of course) on the Wonder Wheel.

We were having such a good time that I did the unthinkable: I forgot all about deGrom, the Mets and the Phillies, and the opening act of our baseball evening.

When I came to my senses it was 1-1 in the second, which seemed impossible. DeGrom had given up a run? It was like hearing that Einstein had muffed long division. That’s simultaneously a tribute to the extraordinary things the Mets’ ace of aces has done in 2021 and a hideously, horribly spoiled thing to find yourself thinking. I did a little math in my head and realized if deGrom went nine and gave up just that one run, his ERA would still go up, which was self-evidently absurd. In fact, it would do up even if he went 18 innings and gave up just that one run, for which I have no words whatsoever.

DeGrom didn’t go 18 innings, or even nine. He departed after six, having given up two runs — a strong game for most any starter, but not for him. Less shocking was seeing that the Mets weren’t scoring runs, news I absorbed from Gameday with weary disgust. By the seventh we were in our seats at the rechristened Maimonides Park with the Cyclones and Blueclaws preparing for hostilities, and I turned on the WCBS feed, letting Howie and Wayne burble up at me from my drink holder (and hoisting them up to my ear at critical moments) and wondering why the Mets and Phillies kept insisting on playing the exact same baseball game.

Kevin Pillar [6] homered to get deGrom off the hook and the game ground along in my ear while I sized up the new Cyclones with my eyes. The current team is in the cellar, yet features a trio of bonafide prospects in Ronny Mauricio [7], Brett Baty [8] and Francisco Alvarez [9], the 3-4-5 hitters on Saturday night.

Mauricio is rangy and grasshopper-legged, with a million-watt smile and an easy grace no matter what he’s doing. I wonder if he’ll outgrow shortstop, particularly if he bulks up, but for now he’s a superlative fielder there, with a rifle arm, phenomenal range and soft hands. Baty made less of an impression, at least until he scalded a ball to left for a home run late in the game, showing off quick hands and plus power. Alvarez then followed with a blast of his own to much the same spot, but I was already riveted by him: He carries himself with an easy confidence and a swagger that we’re going to love, approaching every pitch like it’s a chance to do something extraordinary.

It was early for the Cyclones, but late for the Mets — and seemed about to get downright dark when Edwin Diaz [10] came in to hold the fort and pitched like he does too often in non-save situations, a recurring problem that makes me want to shake Luis Rojas [11] and scream at him to stop doing that and undoubtedly makes Rojas want to shake Diaz and scream at him to stop doing that. Diaz turned a HBP and a lack of interest in holding runners and a walk and a wild pitch and a sac fly into a one-run Phillie lead, and was saved far worse by the wizardry of Luis Guillorme [12], who jammed his foot between Luke Williams [13]‘ shoe and the third-base bag, turning yet another stolen base into a critical out once the Mets challenged the call.

Guillorme also provided a priceless moment, which I caught on video on the subway and then revisited via MLB.tv. Here he is as captured by WPIX’s cameras as the umpires talked to New York (not so far away for once) about what had or hadn’t happened:

Luis Guillorme being awesome [14]

Guillorme already knew, because he’s Guillorme. Also very Guillorme: that bit of sly deadpan as he waited for the rest of the relevant personnel to catch up with him. My goodness do I love him.

Guillorme is always involved [15], and would play a key role in the bottom of the ninth as well. So would the Phillies’ star-crossed bullpen and execrable defense, which are so chronically terrible that I want to feel bad, except for the fact that we’re talking about the Phillies. I can muster this bit of empathy: There’s nothing that torpedos fan enthusiasm more completely than a chronically terrible bullpen, because even when your team’s ahead you feel like you’re being set up to be the butt of the joke once again.

The maroon perpetrators this time were Hector Neris [16] and Rhys Hoskins [17]. Hoskins began the ninth by fielding a hot shot from Travis Blankenhorn [18] with his knee and fumbled for it just long enough for Blankenhorn to beat Neris to the bag. Neris then walked Billy McKinney [19] and surrendered an infield hit by Pillar that caromed between Williams and Ronald Torreyes [20], loading the bases with nobody out.

A chronically terrible offense isn’t a lot of fun either, and about now I told Emily that I didn’t know why I did this to myself and announced I was going to throw my phone into the sea to avoid further torment. Instead, I listened as Guillorme walked on a splitter from Neris that was low and inside by an eyelash each way, tying the game. Francisco Lindor [21] then struck out in an AB that was both ineffective and weirdly panicky, sending my anxiety spiking once more. With the sea too far away, I declared that I was going to smash my phone underfoot.

I didn’t do that either; a couple of minutes later Michael Conforto [22] socked a hanging splitter to center, deep enough that McKinney could slide across home on his belly, looking for all the world like Robin Ventura [23] having fun on the soaked Yankee Stadium tarp a generation ago. The Mets had won [24], even on a day that had seen me be shamefully negligent and deGrom dare to be merely excellent.

The Mets had won, and a little over an hour later so had the Cyclones, powered by those back-to-back homers from possible future Mets. It wasn’t so long ago that I was keeping an ear on the Mets while watching Conforto in a Cyclones uniform; perhaps not so long from now I’ll listen to Baty and Alvarez win a game at Citi Field while watching Cyclones I’ve not yet heard of continue the baseball cycle. That would be a nice thought on any evening; it was an even sweeter musing after a year without nights like that.