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Born to Be Not This Bad

Elton John’s “Levon” was “born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day when the New York Times said, ‘God is dead, and the war’s begun.’” What exactly does that mean? As Jimmy Rabbitte said in The Commitments regarding the lyrics to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in the imaginary interview he conducted throughout the movie with Eurovision host Terry Wogan, “I’m fucked if I know, Terry!” But I do know it sounds like a pretty depressing beginning to a person’s life, fictional or otherwise.

Thomas Szapucki [1] seemed destined for a better start than Levon, certainly Metwise.

The young man himself was born in Toms River, breeding ground for the eventual major league careers of Al Leiter and Todd Frazier. As identified with the town as Al and Todd are, they didn’t more or less share a name with it. Further, Thomas Szapucki was born on June 12, 1996. The perpetually overmatched Mets won for a change on June 12, 1996. They topped the perennial powerhouse Braves, 3-2. You might think if anybody was born to give birth to a Baseball-Reference page full of immediate ebullience, it might be Thomas Mathew Szapucki, especially given that he was wearing a Mets uniform upon MLB arrival and was facing the very same Braves franchise that fell to the Mets the day he was born.

The reality was not even close to that. So let’s call what Szapucki delivered Wednesday night in Atlanta a work in progress. But it was a start. And as Jimmy Rabbitte’s mystical foil Joey “The Lips” Fagan wisely intoned after the Commitments’ unpromising first rehearsal, “I believe in starts.”

Technically, Szapucki’s start to MLB statistics-keeping came in relief. Relief was desperately needed on a night that went awry long before young Thomas got loose in the visitors’ bullpen at Truist Park. Starter David Peterson [2] didn’t have it, unless you want to count a sore right side as “it”. Why was David Peterson’s right side sore? Tests were to be conducted after the game. If David Peterson’s right side was watching the game rather than participating in it, we’d understand the getting sore…at least until falling frustratingly far behind gave way to falling laughably far behind.

Peterson and his right side left in the midst of an inning when the Braves scored seven runs on top of the four they already had. Those first four enemy tallies wiped out the blip of promise that began the night. Pete Alonso had homered in the top of the first, another “I’ll show you” swing apparently directed at me for suggesting [3] the once-celebrated slugger mostly hits singles nowadays. That was Pete’s second homer this week (you’re welcome, everybody). Alas, the early 2-0 lead was gone with the wind provided by a hurricane’s worth of Atlanta offense.

Peterson exited, Sean Reid-Foley [4] entered, and perhaps Sean Reid-Foley suffered from vertigo attributable to the half-dozen times he’s been sent down and called up this season. Reid-Foley’s latest recall was in response to a three-day roster opening that arose when Marcus Stroman went on bereavement leave. That opening is about to close, and likely with it, SR-F’s latest window to major league meal money. Between David and Sean, the Mets recorded ten defensive outs and allowed ten runs.

Exit Reid-Foley, enter Szapucki. No pressure, kid. Your team is down eight runs. Relax and have fun!

Also, nothing but pressure, kid. You’re in the big leagues now. You’ve been in pro ball since 2015, but this is where you’ve been aiming toward since those days at William T. Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach when you caught enough of the attention of the Mets to have them draft you in the fifth round. You climbed the ladder from the lowest rungs of the Gulf Coast League and made your way north slowly. You had to pause for Tommy John surgery, yet got back on those pegs, and finally it was your moment. You were put on this earth to skip the light fandango and turn cartwheels ’cross the floor.

On June 12, 1996, when the Mets edged the Braves at Shea Stadium, five of the players who represented New York could claim something in common with the just-born Szapucki. They could each go back into their archives of choice — the Internet was just learning to walk, so the library was probably the best bet — and find a box score recording the Mets’ doings the day he was born.

• Center fielder Lance Johnson went 1-for-4 and scored a run. On the day he was born, July 6, 1963, the Mets were beaten at the Polo Grounds by the Pirates, 11-3. Al Jackson fell to 6-9. The Mets fell to 29-54.

• Left fielder Bernard Gilkey went 2-for-4, drove in two runs and stole a base. On the day he was born, September 24, 1966, the Mets were nipped by the Reds, 4-3, at Crosley Field. Hawk Taylor singled in Ron Hunt in the top of the ninth, and Greg Goossen came up with the tying and go-ahead runs on base, but made the final out.

• Catcher Todd Hundley took an ohfer. On the day he was born, May 27, 1969, the Mets sprayed a dozen hits around Shea, but scored only a pair of runs en route to a 3-2 loss to Al Santorini and the expansion San Diego Padres. It was the Mets’ fifth consecutive defeat, a matter of probably no concern in the Hundley household, where Todd’s dad and catching mentor Randy could easily shrug off his Cubs dropping a 5-4 decision in San Francisco. For one, Randy had himself a new son (he played that night at Candlestick; times were different). For another, Chicago led the newly formed National League East by a whole bunch — 5½ over the Pirates, 8 ahead of the Cardinals, and nine over the two teams tied for fourth, the hapless Phillies and the ne’er-do-well Mets. Little did Randy Hundley know that the very next day the 1969 Mets would give birth to an eleven-game winning streak…or that his infant boy would grow up to set slugging records as a Met catcher in 1996.

• First baseman Rico Brogna went 2-for-4, singling and doubling before leaving for a pinch-runner in the eighth. On the day he was born, April 18, 1970, the Mets won, thrashing the Phillies, 7-0, at Shea. Nolan Ryan struck out a club-record fifteen, walked six and went the distance on a one-hitter that defied pitch counts (again, times were different).

• The starting pitcher for the Mets against Atlanta the night Thomas Szapucki entered the world? It was Mark Clark. Not a lefty like Szapucki, but let’s consider Mark the rookie’s patron saint. Clark, born on May 12, 1968, when the Mets split a doubleheader with the Cubs, set a fine example for the youngster, not only going eight and striking out nine when striking out nine wasn’t something a pitcher did every day, but outdueling Greg Maddux, merely the winner of the previous four National League Cy Youngs. Mark Clark gave the 1996 Mets their most consistent starting pitching, racking up fourteen wins for an outfit that posted Ws only 71 times in all. You could do worse for Met pitching in any year than Mark Clark.

You couldn’t do much worse for Met pitching in any year than what the Mets got Wednesday from Peterson, Reid-Foley and, sad to say, Szapucki. Thomas neither pitched particularly well nor fielded his position with aplomb. The first Brave to score on the rookie’s watch came home when a potential rundown imploded because Szapucki didn’t think to pursue the dead-to-rights Dansby Swanson between third and home. That runner was inherited from Reid-Foley. The rest that scored between the time Szapucki escaped the fourth down, 11-2, and before succeeding pitcher Albert Almora, Jr. [5], (you read that right) surrendered a three-run bomb to Ozzie Albies, which was posted to Thomas’s ledger. Luis Rojas had hoped to ride his spanking new southpaw clear to the end of the horror show. As a minor league starter, Szapucki was positioned to give the Mets length. But in the ninth, it was fair to infer he was feeling kinda seasick as the crowd called out for more.

Still, he threw his first 82 pitches in the big leagues. He got those out of the way. True, seven of them became hits…and three more put a runner on base via ball four…and the three-and-two-thirds innings he pitched yielded six earned runs and inscribed a maiden ERA of 14.73 onto his Baseball-Reference page…and his team was down by fifteen runs when Rojas finally and mercifully pulled him…but it was a start.

The ending was Braves 20 Mets 2 [6]. How, you might wonder, are the Mets still a first-place team after a pounding of such epic proportions?

Fucked if I know, Terry!

***

Only slightly more stunning than an eighteen-run loss is the Mets’ embrace of their distinguished 1990s alumnus Bobby Bonilla. Our former third baseman/right fielder/goodwill ambassador joined with the Mets to promote sleeping in a suite at Citi Field. What a way to celebrate Bobby Bonilla Day [7], eh? Want a better way? Listen to this swell episode of the Hey Buddy! podcast [8] in which I join co-host Ari Ecker to lovingly remember the Bobby Bo 1.0 era at Shea. (OK, maybe not that lovingly.)