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ABOUT US

Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Summer Lovin’, Happened So Fast

Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time.
—A. Bartlett Giamatti

Meteorological summer ended on September 1 at midnight. Astronomical summer ended this morning, September 22, at 9:30. The Mets’ summer barely happened at all.

The baseball season, such as it’s been, began July 24 and if it didn’t end last night, we know it’s going, going, gone as of Sunday. It will continue tournament-style for sixteen of thirty major league teams next week. The Mets will be one of the fourteen uninvolved. Mathematical elimination has got its mask over its mouth. The nose will be covered any night now.

It’s been a substantial disappointment when you look at the record (24-30) and recall all the opportunities to garner momentum that went awry. With six games to go, the Mets have yet to win more than three in a row. All they can do from here until Sunday is win three in a row and three in a row again. That will leave them with as many losses as wins and no guarantee that such a stretch will lift them into the NL’s top eight. And though they finished out the two most dreadful seasons for which I’ve been baseball-conscious, 1979 and 1993, on six-game winning streaks, I don’t see how this 2020 team suddenly catches fire and puts it to good use as fall takes full effect.

Still, the Mets of the summer of ’20 haven’t been wholly for naught. The Mets of the summer of ’20 gave us regular appointments with Jacob deGrom, and when you’ve got Jake, you’ve got it all. Except a win, maybe, but we memorized the lyrics to that summer song many moons ago. On Monday night, Jake was close to his usual self. He struck out 14 Tampa Bay Rays in seven innings and lit up the Citi Field radar while doing so. Jacob deGrom is 32 and throwing harder than ever. The late start to both his major league career and his 2020 campaign have apparently served his velocity well. Of 112 pitches delivered, maybe a couple were what deGrom termed “mistakes”. UPS should be so accurate with its deliveries. Giving up four hits while being otherwise overwhelming and winding up with a loss as a result evokes the line about the 1985 Mets finishing three games out: surely they’d have taken the division if not for 24-game winner Doc Gooden losing those four times.

The visiting Rays have their ways, even against literally the best of pitchers. Most of us have no idea who they are until they’re done bumping elbows in victory, yet anonymity seems to work in their favor. The about-to-be AL East champs touched down in Flushing and proceeded to do just enough to edge their opponents, 2-1. They countered deGrom with a walk, a double and a sac fly in the second; a leadoff home run from Nate Lowe-household name Nate Lowe in the fourth; some smothering defense — specifically Willy Adames diving and keeping Jeff McNeil’s ball up the middle from leaving the infield with the bases loaded in the fifth, thereby preventing a second, tying run from scoring; and a grab bag of relievers who tamed the Mets from the evening’s first pitch through its last.

The Mets had Jacob deGrom going seven and fanning fourteen? The Rays had Pete Fairbanks, Ryan Thompson, Josh Fleming, Diego Castillo, Ryan Sherriff and Nick Anderson. Our certified awesome one against their relatively random six shouldn’t have been a fair fight, but the Rays are skilled at opening (openering?) and bullpenning lineups to death. The St. Pete sextet shut down the Mets on a shared four-hitter. Pete Alonso looked more lost than usual. Michael Conforto was unavailable altogether. Guillermo Heredia…who? If you never heard of Guillermo Heredia, Met No. 1,111 on your chronological franchise scorecard, before last night, perhaps all you need to know is he used to be a Ray, so no wonder you never heard of him before last night.

Guillermo Heredia played center for the Mets Monday, having been called up to replace Jake Marisnick, who has a tight hamstring, and then inserted for Conforto, who also has a tight hamstring. A good, loose hamstring goes a long way in getting a person into the Mets lineup these dwindling days of 2020. A decent sense of the moment will have the rest of us in front of our television or by our radio for the duration. It hasn’t been much of a summer, but we might as well savor what little autumn we’re about to get before it vanishes from our midst.

Good Night, Sweet Mets

Most of Sunday afternoon’s game was must-see TV: a taut duel between starting pitchers you didn’t think had it in them. Rick Porcello had his best start as a Met, looking like the pitcher he was before his baffling, seemingly self-inflicted transformation into a pinata. The Braves’ Kyle Wright was fabulous too, throwing strikes and delivering the kind of start that can be a north star for a young pitcher trying to figure it out. With fall in the air and the wind blowing in, the game looked like it would be decided by the smallest of differences: Wilson Ramos hit a double that would have been out on a warmer day and Brandon Nimmo hit a ball that seemed gone but came down just inside the fence, while Ronald Acuna Jr. hit a ball to right that wiggled and wobbled its way through the air, moving steadily and inexorably and maddeingly towards the foul pole and away from Michael Conforto before dropping just into Utleyville.

A wonderful game, in other words, except for the pesky detail of the scoreboard showing Braves 1, Mets 0 instead of the reverse.

And then, well, it turned into a 2020 Mets game.

First came Travis d’Arnaud, who dropped a ball into the corner in the eighth inning off Jeurys Familia for a double and two more runs.

D’Arnaud’s rampage against his former club is evidence that, at least in baseball, the arc of the moral universe really does bend towards justice.

In case you’ve suppressed what the Mets did to d’Arnaud, he lost most of 2018 to Tommy John surgery but was given a contract to be Ramos’s backup to begin 2019. His arm strength clearly wasn’t all the way back, his reactions were rusty, and at the end of April he had a miserable game against the Brewers both behind the plate and on the bases. Twenty-five plate appearances in, the Mets shed the guy who’d been the centerpiece of the R. A. Dickey trade with Toronto.

Now, in an effort to fight against the perfection of hindsight, it must be noted that a) TdA had had a truly wretched game, one of those putrid nights that leaves fans stewing and looking for someone to blame; and b) between his bizarre collection of injuries and overall failure to launch, our collective patience with d’Arnaud was pretty much exhausted. Suffice it to say that as a fanbase we didn’t mourn his departure overmuch. (Though Greg did offer a nicely nuanced farewell.) Still, with a little time and distance that decision — call it the TdA DfA — came to look less like a wise jettisoning of sunk costs and more like a … well, perhaps you might call it a spasm of petty, vindictive pique, one that may as well have hit the media room with FROM THE DESK OF FAILSON across the top of it.

The Mets either should have let d’Arnaud knit ligaments and shake off his rust on someone else’s dime, or acknowledged that there’d be such days but they still believed in him blah blah blah blah. Instead, they split the difference in the dumbest possible way, paying for the project but letting someone else get the dividends. Once freed from the Mets, d’Arnaud touched down with the Dodgers for approximately a second, went on to the Rays, got healthy and non-rusty and had a pretty good year, and then signed on for two years with Atlanta and embarked on a new hobby: beating the ever-loving shit out of the Mets at pretty much each and every opportunity.

Honestly, good for him. I think of Jeff Wilpon wincing with every run scored (or, more likely, insisting a little more loudly to an empty room that someone else is to blame), and that makes it hurt a bit less.

Anyway, d’Arnaud’s 509th …AND TAKE THAT! of the 2020 season made it 3-0 Braves; in the ninth the roof caved in, the scoreboard said 7-0 and something was on fire outside Citi Field, sending a plume of noxious smoke drifting over the cutouts and the field and causing the jokes to once again write themselves. Perhaps what was being reduced to particulates was the Mets’ last hope of playing a role other than observer in the 2020 Baseball Cup: Sunday’s loss downgraded their chances from “very slim” to “now you’re really joking.”

And yet I found I’d reached the “acceptance” step in the program. At their best, the 2020 Mets looked like one of those poorly constructed assemblages that occasionally manages to outhit the rest of its pretty obvious flaws; at anything less than their best, they looked like they did Sunday afternoon. And yet, the noxious Wilpons really are finally about to go up in smoke themselves. We got an improvised but reasonably complete baseball season when I wasn’t expecting one at all and then was pretty sure the improvisation wouldn’t stick. And despite the judgment of scoreboard and standings, that Let’s Make It Up As We Go campaign was pretty goddamn fun sometimes and a much-needed diversion-cum-distraction the rest of the time.

Given what else 2020 has brought us, I’ll take it — even if it came with the occasional Sunday afternoon that began taut with tension and at least vaguely plausible possibility and ended without either.

The Short of It

We finally have a marginally useful statistical comparison of sorts for this season that is statistically, logistically and aesthetically absolutely like no other. With the 2020 Mets having played 52 of a projected 60 games, we can line their season to date up against the only season when the Mets played 52 games in total, the only other season in Mets history when we knew what was done after 52 games defined most or all of what that season amounted to. That was the second season of 1981, the year when a strike spurred the splitting of the schedule into two roughly equal parts, a pair of seasons like no other(s), not until this baby came along.

The 52-game season in question followed a 51-game season that was downright abysmal in Flushing, though the 51-game season didn’t quite define in the same manner most or all of what that season amounted to because, after 51 games, we didn’t know it was a 51-game season. The Mets were 17-34 on June 12, looking forward to drearily completing the usual 162-game campaign. Then the strike occurred. It was presumed that when the strike ended, everything would just pick up where it left off. But the strike lingered through June and all of July before a settlement was reached. Hence, when everybody started over on August 10, they started at 0-0, basically because baseball’s dealmakers decided few potential customers would willingly pay for the privilege of watching teams try to go, say, 18-34 after nearly two months of distasteful discord left them watching nothing.

The second-season 1981 Mets thrilled at least one 18-year-old fan because they took their best shot at winning a mini-division title that was suddenly very much in play. Even though it was only a 52-game season, it was still a matter of finishing first or going home — and the Mets honestly challenged for first. Ultimately, it proved an illusory challenge, but it was real enough while it lasted; it was certainly better than restarting from 17-34. Their final record of 24-28 didn’t get them anywhere because a final record of 24-28 shouldn’t get you anywhere. When it was over, they landed in fourth place in the National League East, 5½ games out of first.

Thirty-nine years later, the Mets after 52 games are also 24-28. They’re also in fourth place in the National League East. They are 6 games out of first. But they are arithmetically a playoff contender because their 24-28 record isn’t final. It’s close to being final, but it’s not yet done. They have eight games left. And they have options that were unavailable to their 1981 second-season predecessors.

In ’81, it was first place or bust. It was that way in the first half, even though nobody knew on June 12 that a “season” had been completed. It was that way in the second half. First-half champ in each division played that division’s second-half champ in the playoffs to determine the division champ that would play the league’s other division champ for the pennant. If somebody won both halves, they would play the division’s second-place team from the second half, but that didn’t happen in any of the four major league divisions.

In ’20, you can finish first and make the playoffs. You can finish second and make the playoffs. You have three divisions in each league, so that’s six playoff positions in the NL, six in the AL. And then there are two Wild Cards, giving us eight here and eight there for sixteen overall. It was considered the fairest way to apportion opportunity in a season surrounded by the unfairness wrought by a pandemic. With eight games left to play, four games under .500 after 52 games makes you more of a contender than a team that finished four games under .500 in a 52-game season 39 years ago could have ever dreamed of being. At least in the NL it does.

The second-half Mets of 1981 compiled the 9th-best record in the 12-team, two-division National League between August 10 and October 4, though what went on in the NL West standings didn’t factor in figuring their playoff chances because there was no such thing as a Wild Card. The short-season Mets of 2020 currently claim the 11th-best record in the 15-team, three-division National League since league play commenced on July 23. They need be very much concerned with the actions of several teams in their circuit’s other two divisions, the West and the Central, because they are not really pursuing first place in the East. They are pursuing whoever has the second-best non-second-place record among everybody in the East, West and Central, for that equals one of the two Wild Cards. (Never mind that, for COVID contingency’s sake, they haven’t played and won’t play anybody from the NL Central or NL West yet still have three games remaining versus the AL East-leading Rays.)

Within those perfectly clear parameters, the Mets are running fourth in the playoff race, 1½ games behind the Reds, who at the moment, hold an advantage of .001 over both the Brewers and Giants, so the Mets are also 1½ games behind each of them. Then there’s us. There’s maybe one more arithmetically viable team behind us (the Rockies) and a little action above the Reds (among the Cards, the Phils and the Marlins) that might directly affect the scrap for the second Wild Card if enough losses befall somebody in that higher quasi-bracket.

We’re still alive. We’re still conceivably a very hot and extremely lucky week from making the playoffs as the 8-seed. Given the right quantities of heat and luck, we might waft up to the 5-seed, but chances are the 8-seed is as high as we can set our sights, if we are of a mind to set them at all.

We’re still 24-28. Just like those 1981 second-season Mets who had nowhere to go but home after playing 52 games. Just like the Mets of 1968, 1978, 2011 and 2014, all of whom had 110 games to go after playing 52, so they were hardly in a similar boat to the Mets in 2020 or the Mets in the second season of 1981, though it’s worth noting none of those Mets went on to finish with as much as a .500 record. Their 52-game marks, however, serve to remind us 24-28 teams generally aren’t on their way to the playoffs no matter how long or short their season.

On Saturday night, the Mets climbed from 23-28 to 24-28 by beating the Braves, 7-2, at Citi Field. The Braves are the team in first place in the NL East, so the Mets picking up ground and moving within six of them probably didn’t cross the visitors’ minds. Given that they haven’t clinched anything yet, the Braves no doubt would have preferred winning, but losing to the Mets wouldn’t seem to represent a tangible dent to their fortunes.

The Mets could be particularly satisfied that they received their first legitimately splendid starting pitching performance since two Friday nights ago in Buffalo and the first that lasted longer than a cup of Bigelow Green Tea since Tuesday in Philadelphia. This rare pleasant turn of the rotation was brought to us by David Peterson, whose rookie season has been more up than down, particularly against the Braves. David went six innings, struck out ten and gave up only one run. It was reminiscent (if anyone actually wishes to reminisce about 2020) of Peterson’s first start against Atlanta, when he also went six and struck out eight. Should the Mets and Braves both make the playoffs and meet in the second (NLDS) or third (NLCS) round, it would behoove Luis Rojas to align his pitching to have Peterson ready to face Atlanta in either Houston or Arlington, as all NL playoff games beyond the Wild Card round will take place in Texas.

In a 60-game season in which 16 teams are invited to the postseason, even a 24-28 team never knows.

Objects in Rearview Mirror Are Farther Than They Appear

The Mets followed two unlikely good nights in which they got lousy, abbreviated starts but hit and relieved their way out of the mess with a thoroughly bad one: no hitting, no relief, and no help on the scoreboard. None of which is ever good, all of which is really bad when the season’s down to a count-them-on-your-fingers number of games.

Of all the damaging developments for the Mets’ recently solid starting pitching, some of which have been self-inflicted and some of which have been lousy luck, Steven Matz‘s disintegration must rank as the most perplexing. Is Matz hurt, as he has been so often during his professional career? Is he oil to Jeremy Hefner‘s water? Is he personally at sea because of a year that has so many of us looking for life jackets?

Whatever the malady or maladies, Matz arrived for duty basically unarmed, missing a few necessary MPH off his fastball and unable to control any of his pitches. He survived the first by giving up only a single run, thanks to some sleight of foot by Todd Frazier, who blocked Freddie Freeman off third, and Austin Riley guessing wrong and locking up on a 3-2 curve that broke over the heart of the plate. But the roof fell in an inning later: Matz threw a sinker to Marcell Ozuna that did no sinking and Ozuna hit it approximately to Portugal.

The Mets were down 5-0, and while big deficits haven’t been fatal this week, the Braves are a lot better than the Phillies. They kept pouring it on, cuffing Matz around over a further two-thirds of an inning, then unloading on Franklyn Kilome and Jared Hughes. The Mets’ lone 1-2-3 inning of the night was turned in by Frazier, who once upon a time pitched a New Jersey team to a Little League championship, as perhaps you’ve heard. Frazier wasn’t throwing pitches that would have received a speeding ticket on the highway, which is something perhaps more Mets should try. Frazier also shouldn’t be on the roster, despite that cannily positioned foot: A 1-2-3 inning from a position player is literally something Luis Guillorme can also do, but Guillorme was renditioned to the Mets’ black site (I may not have this 2020 terminology quite correct) despite a .347 average and being better than Frazier at everything else. The Mets’ Pleistocene belief in Proven Veterans™ is just one of many things I hope vanishes with the departure of Wilpons père et fails.

As it is, the Mets lost when they needed to win, and were left gazing helplessly at the scoreboard as it reported that the Cardinals and Phillies had both swept doubleheaders and the Reds and Brewers had won as well. The Mets aren’t done, at least not mathematically, but if you’re one of the teams they’re chasing, they’re one of those objects in the rearview mirror that’s actually farther than it appears.

* * *

On a brighter note, today is Roger Angell’s 100th birthday, and here’s a tip of the cap and a deep bow to the man without whom we wouldn’t exist.

Angell did more than anyone to impart a love of baseball to me as a child — after I discovered the Mets, I devoured The Summer Game and everything else he wrote. Those books taught me the game’s history, imparted a deep respect for its players, and showed me that baseball seasons form a continuous fabric in which an astute observer can happily spend a lifetime spotting patterns and following threads. He’s also the trailblazer for what we and so many others do in the digital age — Angell started covering baseball for the New Yorker from the dual perspective of professional and partisan, something no one else was doing at the time or had even imagined doing. That double vision is hard to maintain, requiring you to be both clear-eyed and at least reasonably neutral about what happens while also putting your fannish heart out there in all its messiness as part of the chronicle. Should I ever feel that dual focus slipping, all I need to do is go back to my baseball library and see how Angell did it. Which also gives me another chance to dream that once, just once, I’ll manage to write a bit of emotional or physical description that’s half as good as what Angell comes up in each and every column.

Live from New York, It was Mike Vail

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

The golden age of baseball coincides neatly with when one happened to be twelve years old.
—John Thorn, Official Historian, MLB

If first base is childhood and second base is adolescence, the summer you’re twelve years old is your indecisive third base coach putting on and taking off the steal sign so often that you might want to call time. The summer I was twelve years old, 1975, I stayed close to first, but I had my eye on second. No wonder, then, that as summer grew late, I took off for second — and, as summer was turning to fall, ran straight toward the newest of Met stars, Mike Vail.

As Met metaphors go, you had to be there, and I was. I was with the Mets practically every minute of every day in 1975, treasuring the successes of the lingering icons of my childhood while savoring the accomplishments of the unusually large quantity of newcomers who had joined them. Seventeen Mets made their team debuts in ’75, the most in any season since notoriously transient ’67. They were breaths of fresh air, though I don’t mean to imply the extant atmosphere was wholly stale, for I also took comfort that the foundation of 1975 was formed by figures so familiar to me.

It could still be 1969 if you wanted it to be. Tom Seaver pitched as Terrific as ever (22-9; 2.38 ERA; a league-leading 235 strikeouts). Jerry Grote regularly caught the two- going on three-time Cy Young winner. Bud Harrelson was still around, at least when the disabled list didn’t beckon. Wayne Garrett, too, no matter how often they tried to replace him. It could be any year in Mets history when you saw Eddie Kranepool grab a bat and emerge in the on-deck circle. Jerry Koosman notched a couple of saves, once stole second base and pulled down 14 wins. Cleon Jones, who’d been piling up hits for the Mets since 1963, missed time early, but eventually returned. By July of ’75, Jones’s collection of singles, doubles, triples and homers was up to 1,188, the most in Met history.

It could still be 1973, too. Felix Millan played in every game. Rusty Staub drove in runs at a franchise-record pace en route to becoming the first Met burst past a hundred ribbies. Jon Matlack was so good, he wasn’t only an All-Star, he was the Midsummer Classic’s co-MVP, with Bill Madlock, because who could resist the homophonic possibilities? John Milner was on hand, if in a slump. Ron Hodges was in the minors, but not permanently. Harry Parker had put down stakes in the bullpen. The callups from a couple of years earlier were making strides — Bob Apodaca (13 saves) more so than Craig Swan (6.39 ERA), but strides were strides. George Stone, who might have been asked by Yogi Berra to start at least one more game in a recent October, was thought more or less recovered from arm problems. Yogi managed as he had in 1973, though apparently not enough, because he didn’t last the duration of 1975. Then again, neither did Jones, who had a falling out with Berra, which led to an unconditional release that reads as unthinkable in retrospect, but real time didn’t sit still to take stock of how good a player used to be. Jones was, in the middle of 1975, a .240 hitter judged insubordinate by his manager. Berra was a manager whose alleged contenders trailed Pittsburgh by 9½ at the two-thirds mark. Berra was next an ex-manager, replaced by coach Roy McMillan.

Cleon and Yogi had had it already by the summer of ’75, but they weren’t the only ones for whom it had been called a day in Flushing. The all-time Met hit king, who had batted .340 in ’69 and sizzled through September of ’73, was shown the door not only weeks before Yogi was told it was over for him, but also not so many months after Tug McGraw, Ken Boswell, Duffy Dyer, Don Hahn and Ray Sadecki were dispatched to distant precincts following the massive Met disappointment of ’74. They’d all been heroes of or at least contributors to pennant drives past. But past was past. Thank you for your service. The present is presently all that is accounted for.

So maybe most days it couldn’t be 1969 or 1973, but as a 12-year-old, maybe I didn’t want 1975 to be moored solely to what had been. I loved all we’d pulled off when I was 6 and again when I was 10 — it helped explain why I’d been a Mets fan literally half my life — but I sort of wanted to move forward, to race toward second, as it were. I didn’t want to be merely satisfied by the presence of old faces. I wanted to be excited by new faces. Old faces that looked different once they were under a Mets cap would suffice just as well.

Joe Torre, whose 1967 baseball card was my first, now wore a Mets cap as he attempted to dislodge Garrett from third. So did Jesus Alou, who had played in the same outfield with his brothers in 1963, against the Mets, just after Cleon Jones was initially promoted. Alou was a .350 pinch-hitter from the right side, complementing Kranepool’s .400 clip from the left. Del Unser had been around. Now he was a Met, and a superb one at that; should’ve made the All-Star team, I’ll never tire of mentioning. Gene Clines was always a Pirate. Now he, too, was a Met. Likewise former Astro Bob Gallagher, former Giant Mike Phillips, former Red Tom Hall and a couple of American League relievers who existed for me mostly in the pages of Baseball Digest: Ken Sanders and Skip Lockwood. Big Dave Kingman, who in 1971 simultaneously socked a home run off both Jerry Koosman and a bus minding its own business in the Shea Stadium parking lot when visiting from San Francisco, was suddenly a Met, purchased in Spring Training. Soon Sky King (don’t call him Kong) owned our all-time single-season franchise home run record, a mark I assumed by law would always belong to Original Frank Thomas.

We had imports representing varying degrees of exotica and we had kids of our own breaking through the grass ceiling and introducing themselves as Mets in full. Rick Baldwin, 21, put on Tug McGraw’s 45 and got warm in the pen. Randy Tate was almost as young and just as new; he wore 48 and almost threw a no-hitter (which is to say he didn’t, but still). Another rookie, John Stearns, accompanied old Del Unser and fairly familiar if frighteningly fleeting one-game wonder Mac Scarce from Philadelphia, so technically Stearns wasn’t homegrown, but he was as fresh-faced as it got behind the plate on the days Grote wasn’t catching. If you read the Sporting News, as I began to the summer I was twelve, you salivated at the realization that we had a third baseman coming along who was leading the International League in runs batted in. His name was Roy Staiger and he, too, would be elevated to the majors by the Mets in 1975.

Move over, Garrett. Move over, Torre. Staiger’s here! Oh, the things I thought when I was twelve.

This blended roster-family of old, new and newish gave me many a moment and milestone across my seventh season as a fan. But the player who punctuated all this dizzying activity most tantalizingly — not with a period, but with an ellipsis, as if to indicate there was more to come — was Mike Vail, a heretofore underpublicized August callup who electrified September. There was no deafening buzz that I can recall soundtracking the promotion of Mike Vail. Vail hadn’t habitually haunted the back pages of the Official Yearbook. He wasn’t hailed as a Future Star and had never gotten our hopes up.

Hold Tide. Mike’s coming.

Unless you were tracking the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system (where he’d been fellow Northern Californian Keith Hernandez’s roommate), you probably hadn’t heard of him a year earlier. I’d heard of him only the previous fall when I’d read that he was the throw-in to the deal that sent utilityman and 1973 alumnus Teddy Martinez to the Cards for utilityman and former Indian Jack Heidemann. If you’re considered the extra guy in a trade that swaps who’s slated to sit, you’re just asking to be overlooked. For whatever reason, Vail’s name, however small the type it might have been printed in when the papers first reported his acquisition, stuck with me immediately and stayed with me indefinitely. Yeah, I thought, we got a lot of new guys for next year, but nobody’s talking about Mike Vail. I was feeling a little pride of propriety in his forthcoming fortunes. Maybe I figured we who sported punchy two-syllable names had to stick together.

Coming into 1975, Vail was 23 and a four-year minor league veteran. It’s not as if the numbers implied he couldn’t hit. In ’74, the righty batted a combined .334 at Single-A Modesto and Double-A Arkansas, but promising outfielders in the Cardinal system had to wait in line behind Lou Brock, Bake McBride and Reggie Smith. St. Louis was set. Vail grew antsy and requested a trade. To show just how sophisticated the scouting of prospects could be in bygone decades, GM Joe McDonald detailed for the Sporting News the intricate strategizing he undertook with his Cardinal counterpart, Bing Devine, in order to land Mike on the Mets.

“When Bing and I decided to swap Martinez and Heidemann,” Joe said, “I felt we needed another player in the deal. I asked for Vail, and Bing said OK.”

The 1975 yearbook’s YOUNG MEN WITH A FUTURE page featured eight players; none was Mike Vail. Instead, Vail washed in with the Tides. He proved high Tide. Highest International Leaguer, in fact. Mike hit .342 at Triple-A, better than every player in his circuit (Pirate infield hopeful Willie Randolph was IL runner-up, with a .339 average; Ellis Valentine in the Expo chain finished fifth, at .306). A big chunk of that .342 was built on a 19-game hitting streak that pretty much compelled his callup. His AAA season was enough to earn him International League MVP honors, a prize never before won by a Tide and something snagged the year before by Jim Rice, who was only propelling the Red Sox to first place in the AL East this year. Thus, despite no springtime hype, and no play on page 58 among the rising Brock Pemberton, Rich Puig and Luis Rosado types, Vail hit his way to New York, debuting on August 18 and validating my determination to let his name rattle around in my consciousness all summer.

At the time, the Mets’ outfield seemed to invite little in the way of flux. They may not have been Brock/McBride/Smith, but in right, incumbent Staub was on his way to pounding out those team-record 105 RBIs; in center, former Phillie Unser had settled in nicely en route to posting a .294 average; and in left, Kingman was taking dead aim at Thomas’s franchise mark of 34 home runs, a total that had sat undisturbed since 1962. Then again, Kingman (who had usurped Jones’s position before Cleon’s tenure met an ignominious end) was said to be versatile, having played first and third for the Giants…and, quite frankly, he wasn’t putting down defensive roots in left. The Mets were scuffling to remain viable in the division race, hovering a little above .500 and clinging unconvincingly to wishing distance of the first-place Pirates. A team in the Mets’ position could hardly turn down a .342 batting average, regardless of its league of origin.

Mike, whose publicity photo revealed a Prince Valiant haircut, had to take his first NL swing inside the Astrodome against fireballer J.R. Richard, as intimidating an hombre as any rookie could encounter. Talk about being welcomed to the big time. Yet Vail announced his presence with authority, producing a pinch-hit single. Logging a 1-for-1 and holding a 1.000 batting average was not an inauspicious way to get Vail’s party started.

Soon Mike’s soirée became a full-time affair. He got his first start in left on August 20. The position became his for keeps on August 25. With corner outfielders Vail and Staub flanking a platoon of Unser and Clines, the Mets commenced contending in earnest. The club that had faded behind Berra discovered depth behind McMillan. Late August wound down with a five-game winning streak in Southern California and the Mets creeping to within four lengths of the Pirates. Seaver, Koosman and Matlack threw complete games in succession. Kingman was up to 28 homers. Staub had 90 RBIs.

The future looks like this SSPC card when you’re of a certain age.

And Mike Vail was the hottest Met of all. In San Diego, he went 9-for-14. In L.A., he notched a hit a day. When the Mets returned to Shea to open September, Vail belted his first home run, off John Candelaria, to give Tom Seaver a 1-0 first-inning lead. It was all Tom would need en route to completing a four-hit shutout. It was not only Seaver’s 20th win of the year, it included his 200th strikeout of the season, the eighth consecutive season he’d fanned at least that many. It was an all-time baseball record and it rightly received the lion’s share of attention that Labor Day afternoon.

But if you were paying attention, you couldn’t help but notice that Mike Vail had hit in nine games in a row. And once the Mets leveled off and unfortunately fell away from their chase of the Pirates, you mostly noticed that Vail had kept hitting, at least one hit in every game as September got going. On September 3, the day I started junior high, Vail’s streak reached ten. On September 7, as the Mets finished a dishearteningly dreadful homestand (they’d won both of Seaver’s starts but dropped their four other contests), the streak stood at 14. A three-game sweep by the Expos at Jarry Park essentially buried the Mets’ divisional aspirations — they were nine out with eighteen to play — but Mike just kept getting mightier. He hit in every game in Canada and now claimed a hitting streak of 17.

Did you know what the record for a Met hitting streak was? In the course of 1975, we’d been reminded that among Mets Tommie Agee had collected the most hits in a season (185), Donn Clendenon had driven in the most runs (97) and, of course, Frank Thomas had the most homers (34). Those standards were in the course of being refashioned by Millan (191), Staub (105) and Kingman (36). But streaks don’t build over a season. They appear out of nowhere, not unlike their architects sometimes. Vail was a throw-in when Felix, Rusty and Sky, not to mention Tom, Jerry and Jon were excelling. Now Mike was front and center for us, and Jack Heidemann (.214 in limited action) could be considered the throw-in to the Vail trade.

The record for a Met hitting streak was 23, established by erstwhile Met left fielder Cleon Jones in 1970. This was getting mentioned regularly. Ditto for another nugget: the record for a hitting streak by a National League rookie was also 23, shared by Joe “Goldie” Rapp of the 1921 Phillies and equaled in 1948 by another Phillie — and Original Met — Richie Ashburn. The division title hopes were gone. Seaver’s quest for the Cy Young appeared secure. There was time for Staub and Kingman and Millan to do what they were trying to do; even Millan’s goal (or our goal for him) of playing every single game, something no Met had ever done, would have to wait to unfold, one by one, until it got to 162. What Mike Vail was doing was all about immediacy, the fierce urgency of now. He was, as a new late-night television show set to debut in about a month would announce itself, live from New York.

Mike Vail had breathed life into the cause surrounding a team otherwise running out of time. As fans, even when we’re 12-year-old fans, maybe especially when we’re 12-year-old fans, we need a cause. In September of 1975, we needed Mike Vail’s hitting streak to keep on keepin’ on.

On September 10, the Mets traveled to Pittsburgh for a two-game series that no longer much mattered in the standings. Seaver lost the first game. Koosman won the second. Vail hit in both. The streak reached 19. The succeeding weekend brought them to St. Louis. Folks at Busch Stadium got to see what Devine deemed expendable. Vail went 1-for-3 on Friday the 12th; 2-for-5 on Saturday the 13th; and 1-for-4 on Sunday the 14th. The former Cardinal farmhand was now a lifetime .347 major league hitter riding a hitting streak of 22 games.

On Monday, September 15, the Mets welcomed Montreal to Shea Stadium. Steve Rogers was the opposing pitcher. Rogers retired Vail on a grounder in the first and a hard liner in the fourth. In the sixth, however, with the Mets trailing by two and Unser on second, Mike’s golden rap came at last. It was a single to center. The Mets halved the Expos’ lead but, honestly, more important was all at once Vail tied Goldie Rapp, Richie Ashburn and Cleon Jones. It was as long a hitting streak as ever forged by an NL rookie; by a New York Met; or any player anywhere in 1975 — the longest in that last category.

I, alone in my bedroom, went suitably nuts. The sparse Shea crowd of 7,259 that had been chanting, “LET’S GO MIKE!” stood and applauded for two solid minutes. But they’d have a little more to cheer two innings later when, with the score tied, Vail came up again, this time with runners on first and second, and stroked another single off Rogers, this one to left. Gene Clines came home to give the Mets a 3-2 edge, one maintained in the ninth on Skip Lockwood’s first Met save.

What a maiden voyage into the big leagues for Michael Lewis Vail. In crafting his record-tying streak, he batted .364, with 36 hits in 99 at-bats — a “steady rat-atat-tat of base hits,” in Jack Lang’s beat-writer lingo. Better than the numbers was the hope he represented. The Mets hadn’t developed many hitters in their 14-year history, hardly anybody beyond Cleon Jones and Ed Kranepool when it came to Met longevity. Mike might not have been seeded on the farm, but he did hone his skills as a Tide, and we Mets fans embraced him as our shiningest future light.

The streak ended the next night in an eighteen-inning game (Mike went 0-for-8), but the brief rookie campaign had worked its magic. Vail concluded 1975 with a .302 batting average and a grip on the Metsian imagination. When Joe Frazier, his skipper with the Tides, was introduced as the Mets’ next full-time manager, one of the questions Frazier received was whether he had any more Vails down there. Joe and everybody at the press conference laughed, because, yes, that’s exactly what we needed. More Mike Vails. More record hitting streaks. More future. We’d seen so many icons of 1969 and 1973 go. The day after the ’75 season ended, our first manager, Casey Stengel, died. On the day the ’75 playoffs started, our only owner, Joan Payson, passed on, too. Yes, we could really use some future around here.

Vail’s 1975 was truly a treat.

Instead, we got a slap in the face come December when McDonald’s track record for offseason heists went off the rails. At the urging of de facto showrunner M. Donald Grant, the GM got rid of Rusty Staub before Rusty Staub accrued the contractual ability to veto trades. The news was dispiriting as all get out: Staub and Tide pitcher Bill Laxton to Detroit for Mickey Lolich and minor league outfielder Billy Baldwin. Lolich, 35, had been a helluva lefty for the Tigers…several years earlier. Staub, 31, was at his peak as a Met, both as an icon and as a hitter. He’d stay at his peak in Detroit. After driving in 105 runs for the Mets in ’75, he’d average 106 runs batted in for the Tigers across 1976, 1977 and 1978. (And, by the by, Baldwin wasn’t destined to morph from throw-in to steal.)

The only aspect of the Staub trade that made the transaction remotely palatable didn’t emanate from contemplating whatever Lolich might do in a new league. It was from knowing that at least the way had been paved for Mike Vail to continue developing as an everyday player. True, he’d played left for the final month-plus of 1975, and he’d be assigned Rusty’s old perch in right in ’76, but if Dave Kingman could be versatile, so could Vail. At least we’d have that to look forward to.

Except, no, not really, because Mike played a little hoops in the offseason and dislocated his right foot on the court. The damaged Achilles tendon kept him off the baseball field until June. The Mike Vail who returned wasn’t the Mike Vail we remembered. He batted .217 as a part-timer and never strung together more than five consecutive games with at least one base hit in all of 1976.

Meanwhile, Frazier’s management style didn’t win many games after ’76, nor did it retain the confidence of those making the decisions above him. He was gone before June of ’77. Others would be gone in June of ’77. The less said about the post-Payson ownership situation in the late 1970s, the better. The future that awaited Mike Vail and the Mets was not much future at all. Mike didn’t light up anybody’s life in 1977, leaving him to be claimed off waivers by Cleveland in the Spring of ’78. We’d see him again quite a bit as a Cub, for whom he once blasted an eleventh-inning grand slam off Dale Murray that somehow didn’t beat us.

Mike wound up playing for seven different teams in a career that spanned ten seasons, compiling 447 base hits in all, or 447 more than anybody writing or reading this ever has or ever will. His last year, with the Dodgers, came in 1984, or one year before Rusty took his final bow, fortunately in a Mets uniform, with new management having reacquired him five years after the previous regime shipped him to Michigan.

The story of Mike Vail’s Metsian journey, if you venture beyond the ellipsis, tends to curdle (as too many Met stories do), so let’s rewind it to where it was its most delightful. Let’s abide by what was written on Mike’s behalf in the 1976 yearbook, when his 1975 exploits were still fresh in everybody’s recollections…

“Collected more ink and superlatives than any rookie in Met history after reporting from Tidewater.”

I wasn’t baseball-conscious in 1967 when Tom Seaver first dropped by from Jacksonville, but putting aside that possible freshman-sensation omission, yeah, it’s true. Mike Vail came out of the box ready-made and astounding. I was older at the end of the 1975 season than I was at its beginning — a hazard of aging, it seems — but I was still 12. At 12, my analytical approach to the game allowed me to project forward with utmost confidence that if this guy is this good for us now, he’s gonna keep being great for us forever, or for however long he plays for us, which will clearly be for a very long time. I was sure of it. I was sure of Vail.

“It definitely for me has a ‘my favorite year’ quality to it,” Conan O’Brien once said of his experience writing for Saturday Night Live, a program that debuted on October 11, 1975. “I’ll never be that young and naïve again.” In the fall of 1975, I was that young and naïve, and I had years of Mike Vail to look forward to.

In my heart, sometimes, I still am and I still do.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1986: Keith Hernandez
1988: Gary Carter
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2017: Paul Sewald
2019: Dom Smith

The Best 23-27 Team in Baseball

Jules, y’know, honey, this isn’t real. You know what it is? It’s St. Elmo’s Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them. There was no fire. There wasn’t even a St. Elmo. They made it up. They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep ’em going when times got tough, just like you’re making up all of this.
We’re all going through this. It’s our time on the edge.

—Rob Lowe as Billy Hicks

The 1993 Jets were supposed to be better than they were. They’d made big-deal offseason acquisitions. Boomer Esiason. Ronnie Lott. Then they went out and played as the Jets tend to play, losing four of their first six games…after which safety Brian Washington defiantly declared they were “the best 2-4 team in football”. While this pronouncement didn’t go down well in the New York media, it’s difficult to mount an argument regarding a status nobody had previously ever thought of contesting before.

With that in mind, I’m here to tell you that after 50 games, the Mets are the best 23-27 team in baseball. Also, they’re the only 23-27 team in baseball, so that probably makes them the worst of their kind as well. How it is we have thirty baseball teams and only one with this precise record is probably a bigger mystery than how the Mets, at four games under .500, are still something of a playoff contender, but let’s assume the game totals will more or less even out by next Sunday. For now, let’s celebrate the surge that has brought the Mets to their unquestioned position atop the mountain of 23-27 teams in baseball.

WOO!

Honestly, it’s been pretty invigorating watching this team both not lose and somehow win these past two nights, considering the one undeniable strong suit they thought they had going for them — the upper echelon of their starting rotation — got its asset kicked. Yet they survived the thrashing and battled on, just like a real team with something to play for in the third week of September. Wednesday, it was Cy deGrom and his amazing, colossal, spasming hamstring splattering our time-tested formula for competing all over the Delaware Valley. But then the Met relief corps, under the direction of bullpen coach Nancy Walker, acted as the quicker picker-upper, and the Met offense proceeded to score just enough to wipe Jake’s and our slate clean.

Thursday night, there was another fine mess that had to be absorbed ASAP, this one spilled by the heretofore reliable Seth Lugo. We’ve long considered Seth a competitor to the leading national brands of starters, but sadly he proved too soggy to be of much use. After the Mets had put three on the board in the top of the first, Lugo took to the mound and got supergenerous with the givebacks. A homer to Harper. A homer to Bohm. A homer to Gregorius. A triple to Segura, who usually homers against Met pitching, but that’s OK, because here came Adam Haseley to drive him in.

After one, it was Phillies 4 Mets 3. Before Lugo could slither out of the second, it was Phillies 6 Mets 3, with Bryce bashing another dinger along the way, and did you hear Seth’s hamstring barking? Me, neither, but after an inning-and-two-thirds of this Citizens Band Box horror show, you wouldn’t have blamed Luis Rojas for invoking any malady he could think of and bringing out the hook. Just as deGrom blessedly swears he’s fine after his spasm revelation, Lugo claims he is physically well. He just sucked was all. “I made some bad pitches, but I also made some pitches that got hit, too,” Seth said, shedding absolutely no light on the situation.

Erasmo Ramirez, on the other hand, was nothing but light. Light so bright than no smoke from a distant fire could dim his effect on our fortunes. Like Michael Wacha the night before, Ramirez strolled in and clamped down the Philadelphia chaos. Erasmo for two-and-a-third, followed by Chasen Shreve for two-and-a-third, followed by Jeurys Familia for one-and-a-third. Put all these ones and two and thirds together, and suddenly you’re back in a game you were plummeting from a few full innings before.

In the top of the sixth, the Mets opted to stop being impressed by Phillie starter Aaron Nola and returned to attacking him successfully. Pete Alonso, who was so desperate for a big hit the night before that he tried batting and chewing gum at the same time, regenerated his swing and blew a bubble right in his Nola’s face by launching a bomb to left field. Pete can still do that. He has 12 home runs in this year and, I’m guessing, about 16 hits in all. Still, when he connects, he detonates, and after Jeff McNeil worked out the Mets’ fifth walk of the night off Nola, Joe Girardi replaced his ace with pure dynamite.

It doesn’t really matter who Girardi brings in from the Phillie bullpen. They’re all potentially explosive to the touch. Blake Parker was ol’ Joe’s choice. Andrés Giménez patiently ignored the ticking device and took a walk. Soon enough, though, Brandon Nimmo lit the fuse: tripling in both McNeil and Giménez and tying a game that appeared lost in the second. Except these are the Mets in Philadelphia, where few leads sit undisturbed for long. The only thing more common than games there getting tied and untied is the SNY shot of cheesesteaks sizzling. And because the SNY camera crew is not in attendance on the road this year, we didn’t even get that.

The 6-6 tie stayed in effect until the ninth when another Phillie reliever burst into flaming wreckage. Brandon Workman threw. Brandon Nimmo swung. We had a Brandon new pair of roller skates and Nimmo was the Brandon new key. Our Wyoming Walloper blasted it so far that he didn’t even bother sprinting to first, which may be a Nimmo first.

“The guys had two choices,” Nimmo would say later. “Give up, or keep fighting. The guys chose to keep fighting.” God, I love that inspirational introspection when it comes out of the mouths of Mets. As the Mother Superior in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure might have put it, “Oh, Brandon, you are an inspiration to us all!” To which the next several hitters in the Mets lineup essentially replied, “We’ll say! We’re going to start a paper route right now.”

Read all about it: Michael Conforto singled; one out later, Dom Smith tripled; immediately thereafter, Robinson Cano homered. It was a bounty of runs, indeed. By the time Cano extended the Met lead to four, Garrett Cleavinger had replaced Brandon Workman, but it barely mattered. Phillie pitching provided the gravy for this delicious dish of savory offense piled over a steaming bed of scoreless innings. With no cheesesteaks in evidence, the Mets had to find another way to feast. Ramirez. Shreve. Familia. Justin Wilson in and out of a little trouble but ultimately unscathed. And, at 10-6 and with no save opportunity in sight (unless he created one for somebody else), Edwin Diaz came in and finished the job. The job got tense — Sugar may have been on third-day fumes — but it got done. The Mets emerged from a series they couldn’t lose by winning it. DeGrom was no good. Lugo was lousy. Yet the Mets took two of three to become…

THE
BEST
23-27 TEAM
IN BASEBALL!

Which gets them…what? Maybe nothing. Probably nothing. They inched a little closer to something than they were 24 hours earlier (which is about how long this game took), but there are still a few too many bodies between them and whatever it is they’re trying to grab, which, by the way, can be defined as the second-best sub-second place record in the National League, a status nobody had ever thought of contesting before. Talk about an inspiration to us all.

That said, when a camera briefly spotted Todd Frazier looking pleased with the outcome, I thought to myself, “I wonder if they’d put him on the postseason roster,” a postseason roster we’ll make up because we think we need it to keep us going. Maybe we do.

Go Figure, They Won

Jacob deGrom gets hit like Jacob deGrom never gets hit. Then Jacob deGrom leaves with an injury like Jacob deGrom does in our worst nightmares. Then the Mets, down by three in the third, turn to Michael Wacha, a lapsed starter the Mets resist turning to as a matter of course. Then the Mets run the bases without regard for doing it well.

Then the Mets win?

Yes, then the Mets win. They won Wednesday night’s game against the Phillies and won the Go Figure Cup, awarded annually to the team that has no earthly business winning a game they were so clearly destined to lose.

Destiny took a holiday for a change. The Mets have lost enough games they seemed moments from winning that it was about time they had one mysteriously float over from the ‘L’ column. And it’s not like they weren’t proactive about making it happen. Wacha hung in for four very solid innings, giving up only a solo homer to Jean Segura in the third, which made the Mets’ deficit 4-0 and the Mets’ likelihood of prevailing highly unlikely.

But this whole season has been unlikely, so why not keep watching and divine whatever good news there was to be discerned? Like Jake was gone not for the season but probably for no more than the five days until his next scheduled start because all that ailed him was a hamstring spasm. I sometimes get those sitting at my desk typing, but I don’t use my legs nearly as much as Jake does. Jake’s Cy Young chances may wind up falling outside the razor-thin margin for error, given that his ERA shot up above 2 during his two uncharacteristic non-deGrominant innings, but if he doesn’t win it, we can dismiss the awarding of a Cy as rather silly in a sixty-game sprint.

And if he does somehow win it despite an earned run average of 2.09 (gasp!) with no more than two starts remaining, we’ll change our tune without missing a beat and revert to singing the praises of the wisdom of the BBWAA.

Besides, no matter what happens with the Cy, we’ve already captured the Go Figure Cup. Go figure, Wacha was fine after Segura crushed him, and so were Justin Wilson, Miguel Castro and the recently less cringe-inducing Edwin Diaz for an inning apiece after Wacha left. Go figure, J.D. Davis, playing this strange position wherein he bats several times a game yet doesn’t trot out to the field at all, homered and drove in three runs. J.D. going deep may not sound worthy of going figuring, but Mr. Davis had not hit one out since August 18, or nearly a month before, for those of you who no longer bother with niceties like calendars.

One of the runs J.D. drove in, the one that tied the game at four in the eighth, scored via the seemingly disinterested feet of Michael Conforto. Michael had walked with two out. J.D. doubled to center. Michael only sort of ran from first because he didn’t seem aware that there were two out. What should have been a fairly easy tally became uncomfortably close at the plate. It was still a run, but it was a little too typical of how the Mets have run themselves out of innings of late.

There’d be more of that in the ninth: more scoring, more running without thinking the process through. The good part was built on Robinson Cano converting a Hector Neris quick pitch into a single up the middle; pinch-runner Amed Rosario taking second on a Neris balk; and Andrés Giménez taking advantage of Joe Girardi’s decision to intentionally walk Jeff McNeil to instead take on the rookie. Giménez responded with the tie-breaking single, as Rosario sped home without incident from second. The abhorrent part came during the succeeding at-bat, as Jake Marisnick struck out; the ball got away just a little from catcher Andrew Knapp; Giménez took off prematurely from his base; Knapp threw to second; McNeil took off from third; and McNeil got himself tagged out attempting to dive into home by second baseman Scott Kingery, who rushed in with the ball to end the inning.

Yet the Mets didn’t suffer for their foibles and misfortunes. Davis got to Zack Wheeler, Cano and Giménez got to Neris (as does every Met, eventually) and Diaz in particular got the ball over the plate in mostly unhittable fashion, recording three swinging strikeouts that rendered a single somewhere in between shockingly harmless.

Mets 5 Phillies 4. Go figure. Mets still sort of in the playoff picture. They’re two-and-a-half out of a playoff spot with eleven to play and three teams between them and the team they have to reach. Go figure that if you are so inclined. Or just be thankful for small favors and spasms that aren’t fatal.

The Grinding Down

The Mets played one of their more discouraging games of 2020 on Tuesday night, one that left me so dispirited and annoyed that I decided this morning everyone would be better off reliving the misadventures of Paul Sewald, Jonah, than revisiting what had happened more recently.

Fighting for their lives against the Phillies, the Mets … never really seemed to be in it. Rick Porcello pitched tolerably, briefly losing his way in the fourth for two runs and then making a mistake against Didi Gregorius in the fifth for two more. Which wasn’t great, but it was better than Porcello’s been for too much of the season. And given the Mets’ offensive firepower and the Phils’ flammable bullpen, four runs shouldn’t have been insurmountable. Except they were — the team left 12 men on base, turned 11 hits into just one skinny run (and that came on a Brandon Nimmo solo shot), and failed repeatedly in the clutch. Which you could feel the whole time — it was almost as if you could sense guys tightening up as they came to the plate, squeezing the bat until sawdust shot out from between their fingers.

Wilson Ramos was the biggest offender: inning-ending grounder back to Jake Arrieta in the second with runners on second and third, K in the fourth, inning-ending GIDP on JoJo Romero‘s first pitch with runners on second and third in the sixth. But the Buffalo had company: Pete Alonso flied to center with the bases loaded to end the third, flied to right with one on and none out in the sixth, and fouled to the catcher with one on and one out in the eighth. Alonso is popping everything up and spent large chunks of the game hanging miserably on the dugout railing, looking like the woebegone protagonist of approximately 70,000 country songs featuring deceased dogs, vamoosed wives and busted barns. Jeff McNeil made a boneheaded play to short-circuit the eighth, getting tagged out at third when he a) didn’t need to advance, b) a run was going to score, and c) Jean Segura had no play except for the one McNeil gift-wrapped for him.

It was that kind of night. Afterwards, Luis Rojas talked about poor-quality at-bats and McNeil’s lack of awareness, and Ramos said something that everyone trying to work through COVID can sympathize with: “I’m overthinking every night because I have nothing to do.”

True … except 29 other teams are dealing with the same problem, and a bunch of them have a better chance to make the playoffs despite having less talent than the Mets. And hey, fairness to the other guys on the field: The Phils’ bullpen stood up, at least for one night, and Joe Girardi came up aces with the decision to send Adam Haseley up as a pinch-hitter in the fourth, which seemed overeager at the time but gave his team the win.

There’s no way the Mets should be behind the Marlins or Giants, but the standings say they are, and that’s the only judgment that matters. The Mets are rapidly running out of time to change that judgment, and they’ve given little indication that they’re capable of forcing a different one.

Sympathy for a Jonah

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Every Met roster seems to have one — a guy who slumps around under a little black cloud, trailed by misfortune both chronic and mysterious. Mysterious because he doesn’t seem to deserve what happens to him over and over again, or at least not the “over and over again” part. And because he doesn’t strike you as devoid of ability, or as a bad teammate.

There are words for this kind of player and for this kind of person, as this isn’t just a baseball phenomenon but an unfortunate aspect of life.

“Schlemiel” is the Yiddish word, with the added context (helpful for those of you who vaguely remember Laverne & Shirley) that the schlemiel is the guy who spills his soup and the schlimazel is the guy whose lap it lands in — which, in baseball terms, makes all of us groaning in the stands or on our couches the schlimazels. But the word I’ve always used is Jonah, which is sailors’ lore for a passenger or crewmate who brings bad luck. I think I prefer that one because a baseball team is like a ship’s crew, isolated and trying to get along in a little self-contained world beset by dangers.

The difference between a Jonah and other crewmates not quite fit for duty can be subtle — it’s easier to define what a Jonah isn’t than to nail down what he is. A Jonah needs a certain modicum of talent — your overmatched emergency starters and stone-fingered infielders don’t count, because they shouldn’t have been put it that position in the first place. A truly tragic or star-crossed player isn’t a Jonah either, because when a Jonah screws up your reaction should be more of a sigh than remote-throwing, drywall-punching rage. Life with a Jonah is a grinding, corrosive series of letdowns, not a sequence of blowups that leave craters in the soul. And a Jonah need not be universally viewed as such — the identification can be completely subjective, with one fan’s Jonah another fan’s guy to merely shrug and grumble about.

Which brings us to the 2017 Mets, and Paul Sewald.

The 2017 Mets, in case you’ve forgotten, were deeply terrible in a boring way that you could feel gnawing at your fandom day after day after identical day. This was a team that gave five starts to Tommy Milone, a reliably horrible starting pitcher. (He posted an 8.59 ERA.) Neil Ramirez was a living metronome of suck that ticked and ticked and ticked until I wanted to ram an icepick through both eardrums. Jay Bruce was the top guy in most offensive categories, which might define damning with faint praise. David Wright spent the entire year on the shelf with what turned out to be spinal stenosis. Michael Conforto‘s season ended when he dislocated his shoulder swinging and missing. With every ambulatory outfielder traded or injured, Nori Aoki was brought in late to supply basic competence and felt like a savior. A fire sale of formerly useful players brought back nothing but identically lousy right-handed relievers. Tomas Nido collected his first big-league hit in a meaningless game against the Cubs and ended that game about two minutes later by being tagged 25 feet shy of home plate by the pitcher. The highlights of the year were the presence of Jacob deGrom, cameos by Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith, and the fact that the season actually did end.

The first new Met of 2017 was Sewald, a 25-year-old right-hander from Las Vegas who’d looked perfectly useful over five seasons in the minors, working exclusively in relief. Sewald made his debut on April 8 at Citi Field, entering in the eighth inning of a game the Mets were losing to the Marlins, 4-1. Facing the bottom of the order, he gave up consecutive singles to Adeiny Hechavarria, Dee Gordon and J.T. Realmuto, then retired his only batter when Miguel Rojas sacrificed home a second run.

Not a great debut, but many debuts aren’t great. Sewald looked better in his next outing and again when summoned back to New York in May, but June was a disaster and he finished the year with a 4.55 ERA and an 0-6 record. There’s a blinking light of early onset Jonahdom — no lucking into a win, plenty of stumbling into a loss. In 2018 the Mets were better but Sewald was not — he posted a 6.07 ERA and an 0-7 record, running his career mark to 0-13.

That 0-13 mark probably makes you think of poor Anthony Young, who infamously went 0-27 from 1992 into 1993. But Young, while deeply, improbably and tragically unlucky, wasn’t a Jonah. During his year of misery, your primary thought was that he deserved better. A Jonah rarely elicits such sympathy. Armando Benitez and Braden Looper and Edwin Diaz weren’t/aren’t Jonahs — they had too much talent for that tag, and their failures induced too much rage to qualify. Jason Bay wasn’t a Jonah but a player whose sky caved in on him.

My first Jonah might have been Jose Vizcaino, a relatively blameless player in a statistical sense who nonetheless struck me as beset by deep flaws that were somehow communicable to his teammates. Call that weird prejudice, but weird prejudice is part of Jonah-hood. (Greg has always had a bone-deep loathing of Danny Heep, for no reason I can tell.) If you’re wondering, Vizcaino’s dagger into the Mets’ heart in the 2000 World Series in no way invalidates his Jonah status — Jonahdom is team-specific, and can be escaped with a change of affiliation.

Roger Cedeno was a Jonah, though I consign him to that status a bit reluctantly — he had more talent than your typical Jonah, but was dragged down into the Jonah spectrum by his chronic, sighworthy lunkheadedness.

Aaron Heilman was perhaps the Jonah-est Jonah who ever Jonahed, at least in orange and blue. Enough said.

Jose Offerman counts as a mild Jonah — he was pretty much cooked by the time the Mets brought him in, which isn’t his fault, but still managed to underperform a decent big-league track record.

Some people would call Mike Pelfrey a Jonah, but I blame the Mets for taking ace stuff and producing a pedestrian pitcher.

I detested Jon Niese, but dislike alone doesn’t make a Jonah — if anything it works against it, since a Jonah isn’t someone you want to root against.

Anyway, back to Sewald. After his unassuming start his win-loss record got worse and worse, eventually achieving Curious Factoid status. But the accumulating badness crept up on us — it’s not like anyone was rushing off to update the Sewald Watch, as had happened with Young. You’d be surprised to learn Sewald was now 0-9 or 0-11, but the surprise lay in the specific number, not in the general futility. That was thoroughly expected.

By 2019 Sewald was a known quantity, summoned for long periods from Triple-A but never quite securing a place in the bullpen. We knew his repertoire — meh fastball and changeup, good slider undermined by his lack of another pitch and his tendency to hang that slider at key moments. We had no objection to him as a teammate. We knew him as a standup guy in clubhouse interviews. We read that he was a smart player, interested in scouting reports and sabermetrics and always looking for a way to make his run-of-the-mill arsenal play better. The fact that his preparation never seemed to work? Classic Jonah indicator.

Sewald finally won a game last year — he was the pitcher of record when the Mets beat the Marlins on a bases-loaded walk in the 11th inning at Citi Field in late September, breaking his losing streak at 0-14. He made one final appearance that season, giving up the first of Hechavarria’s deeply annoying home runs in the finale won by Dom Smith. There’s yet another another telltale of Jonahdom — any rare bit of good news is followed immediately by a reminder of who you really are.

Sewald has plied his trade with the Mets during this weirdo season, and while he hasn’t lost a game, at least not yet, he’s sporting a 13.50 ERA. When he takes the mound I sigh, not because I dislike him or root against him, but because I can guess that the kind of things that cause guys to have 13.50 ERAs are in the offing. He’s Paul Sewald, doughty and doomed. He’s a Jonah. It’s not his fault, but the fact that it isn’t his fault doesn’t change what he is.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1986: Keith Hernandez
1988: Gary Carter
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2019: Dom Smith

New Year’s Steve

The keys are a couple of months from formal exchange, but the hardware store has been put on alert to make up a new set for the new owner who is preparing to move into 41 Seaver Way.

Say “hi” real soon to Steve Cohen, your next control person of the New York Mets. We’ve heard such advice before, like less than a year ago, but this version of it’s really happening seems closer to real than ever before. For a reported $2.42 billion, it ought to be no further than six socially distant feet from our loving embrace. The parties have issued their respective statements that an agreement has been reached. Sterling Partners — you know them as Fred, Jeff and Saul — will sell our favorite baseball team, with hopes and dreams to be named later, to Cohen. You know him as our savior, whether ultimately he is or not.

He’s not a Wilpon, so that’s a start. Once he’s approved, which seems something verging on a given, then not being a Wilpon will only be the beginning. At some point, we will discover that having Steve Cohen calling the shots won’t be a 100% unadulterated delight, if only because no living, active sports franchise owner keeps a universal approval rating extant forever. The only ones we’ve really cared for in this century have been Joan Payson and Nelson Doubleday.

Suitable for framing, as Murph used to say about the team picture.

But enough with waving the yellow flag indicating caution. Let your heart race with anticipation. Consider the players who will become available on the open market and either become Mets or not become Mets, but the result won’t be because there’s this murky Madoff residue lurking in the equation. Think about a front office potentially less encumbered and let loose to think ahead and thrive. Think about not cringing when you hear what “the owner of the New York Mets” has to say about the team he and we each have our own kind of stake in.

We’ll all see our own ink blot when we look at Steve Cohen taking charge and imagine our own version of Metsian nirvana. The reality has little chance of matching exactly our wildest wishes, but we’re probably going to like the net Met effect. To reiterate from the last time this seemed to be a sure thing, Cohen is a lifelong Mets fan who has resources like your or I have pocket lint. He saw the Mets at the Polo Grounds. He grew up down the LIRR tracks from Shea Stadium. He’s maintained a piece of the Mets at Citi Field. He’s not known to have fetishized Ebbets Field.

He’s been around. He’s been around the Mets. Think about it. Somebody who intimately knows our team still wants our team, and presumably for more than real estate reasons. Nice to know after all these years, so many of them unkind, that “Mets” means that much to somebody who has so much but wouldn’t rest until he had that.

Which he doesn’t quite, but he’s closing in. When the keys are turned over, then we’ll raise a glass. Make mine a Rheingold. Steve will understand. It never felt like Fred, Jeff or Saul would.