The infrastructure of a baseball season encompasses a surfeit of components that don’t show up in the box score, including intramural dustups in March that dissolve into the murkiest of memories by May. They are as much part of the National Pastime landscape as the crack of the bat, the flight of the ball, the layering of convenience fees and the finding of Cuppy. There’s no use in rolling our eyes toward them. If whatever episode we attempt to haught away as a silly controversy didn’t materialize, another seemingly dubious contretemps would come along in its place to grab our inevitably evanescent attention. It’s how things work when we’re relentlessly interested in a subject as broad and deep as our Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ Mets.
A few weeks from now, if an anvil doesn’t quash him from above, Matt Harvey will be diligently rehabilitating his right elbow in one of two geographic locations. Now and then we’ll receive an update whose key takeaway will be “progress” or “setback” and we’ll react accordingly. Then we’ll turn our attention to whoever’s starting that night’s game, as Harvey’s specter recedes in the moment because, unfortunately, he won’t be available to pitch.
Until then, judging by the fascinating-on-several-levels account written by Andy Martino in the Daily News the other day, young Matthew seems intent on tying Mets management in the kind of knots he previously reserved for roving bands of Rockies, Phillies and White Sox. I don’t believe he’s doing it out of malice. Matt Harvey got this far this soon hewing to his competitive nature. Disingenuously dismiss him for possessing a ton of nerve for someone whose major league record boils down to a scant 12-10, but what a 12-10 it’s been.
Besides, his won-lost mark in his year and change as a Met is far brighter than anything the Mets have put up over the past half-decade. When it comes to taking winning seriously, I’m willing to put a wee bit of faith in Harvey’s instincts, whereas the Mets…I’m still waiting to find out what business they’re in exactly.
Harvey will rehab and it will go encouragingly swell or distressingly slow whether it transpires in Flushing or Port St. Lucie. I’m rooting for the former mainly because Port St. Lucie in July — no matter its springtime charms — sounds spectacularly depressing. When I think of a Met serving injury time in PSL, I think of Kaz Matsui literally seeking shelter from the storm, riding out a Florida hurricane in the home team clubhouse. I also think of Keith Hernandez on Tuesday suggesting a player can “die on the vine” when exiled to far-away minor league precincts. It’s worth noting that in his final, hobbled days as a Cleveland Indian, Hernandez resisted a rehabilitation assignment in Winter Haven — and he’s Keith Hernandez.
The ace and his employer will figure it out and put a happy enough face on the decision, but Martino’s column remains fascinating even if we speed ahead to the part where we decide this was much ado about little. When you read it, you’re taken aback by how nervous the Mets are to have their marquee attraction (we’re attracted to him even when he’s technically inactive) speak to a reporter on his own. Spring Training is traditionally the long, languorous stretch when players are blessed with the opportunity to talk at length. It’s when there’s nothing to but talk once the workouts are over and it’s too late to golf. As antsy as the Mets are to generate interest in their product, it’s strange that they’d so assiduously try to hide one of the best pieces in their inventory from public view.
It’s Spring Training. There’ll be plenty of chances to forget about Matt Harvey once he’s not pitching.
You might also wonder why it took columnist Martino to successfully seek out Harvey and why it took more than a month after Pitchers & Catchers for this story to fully bubble up. I don’t know if Martino was the first media member to directly approach Harvey or the first one to break through a psychological barrier the Mets set up to keep their ace from saying too much to any one reporter, but since when does the vaunted New York press yield to unilaterally imposed prohibitions? I’ve seen allusions throughout the spring to the Mets making Harvey available in only gang-interview settings. I wondered how such a restriction could possibly fly in February and March (as opposed to a postgame setting during the regular season). Apparently Harvey wondered, too.
On a larger scale, I marveled at how the current administration hasn’t really had to withstand any kind of withering assault from those who are paid to cover the team. Oh, there are continual 140-character shots, snarks and snipes at the owners and their enterprise amid a generally almost passive-aggressive portrayal of the Mets as something less than wholly successful, but given that this is New York, and New York has this reputation for unforgiving media focus, you don’t really see anybody take much issue with what those charged with running the baseball operations have produced in the standings. The trees are examined to within an inch of their bark, but the forest tends to go undisturbed.
It’s possible that there is unanimous concurrence among all current and recent members of the Met press corps that the best of a bad situation has been made since 2011 — when there was so much leftover hash left to be cleaned up; and it wouldn’t be fair to fully judge the franchise until 2015 — when its most prized ducks are projected to line up in a row. But it doesn’t seem likely that among a diverse group of professional inquisitors, somebody wouldn’t think to pointedly ask, in so many words, “Why haven’t you guys made this team tangibly better than you have? You’re in your fourth year here, you’ve never put together a winning record and you’re well shy of constructing a legitimate 1 through 8 for this year. Why are your team’s fans left to wonder which least bad option will get the bulk of the playing time at two key positions?” We surely don’t lack for granular coverage of this team, but everybody seems eerily satisfied that the big picture is taking care of itself with all deliberate speed.
It could be that the Alderson group knows exactly what it’s doing and their slow build in the shadow of all the Wilponian mishegas will pay off relatively soon. This ongoing frustrating epoch may yet prove to have been the early stages of Cashen II (even if we’re at least one Strawberry shy of reincarnating 1984 ASAP). Still, it’s odd that nobody on the credentialed side of the divide really pushes the matter. You’d figure someone would bang the drum impatiently if just to generate a little old-fashioned headline heat.
Does the Mets’ path to on-field competence let alone glory really appear that unimpeded to everybody who has a close-up view? If so, clear my next few Septembers for meaningful games.
In any event, kudos to Martino for digging in with Harvey and for having the best spring in St. Lucie of anybody not named Eric Campbell. The News’s “Baseball Insider” has become something of a Met Whisperer of late, eliciting soul-searching stuff from Daniel Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud and now capturing Harvey in mid-smolder. (On the other hand, Martino’s smug defense of anonymous “one Met said” sourcing, in response to Howard Megdal’s enlightening talk with the scorned Justin Turner, was rather dispiriting considering the great work he’s done having players speak on the record this month.) Baseball newspaper columnizing, particularly in this digital day and age, can stand a point of difference.
One night late last season, Howie Rose was moved to bring up the grand tradition of the New York sports columnist, mentioning three names in particular: Vic Ziegel in the News, George Vecsey of the Times and Steve Jacobson at Newsday. I found myself thinking I’d happily read anything any of them had written, but in 2013, I wasn’t going to be reading much new. Jacobson hadn’t penned a regular newspaper column in a decade, Vecsey was primarily blogging whatever struck his fancy (sports or otherwise) on his own and Ziegel passed away in 2010. As someone who heard the same broadcast put it to me a few days later, “Two of those guys are retired and one of them is dead.”
I don’t know if anybody’s around today at any New York daily quite matching the kind of work those gentlemen did. I’m not suggesting talent has taken a sabbatical in the wake of their respective absences from press boxes across America. It’s just a far different media world balancing far different demands. The 800 well-thought words crafted to meet the thinking sports fan’s line of sight first thing in the morning doesn’t serve as the pinnacle of sportswriting anymore. There are still newspapers and there are still columnists, but as a reader who picks up or clicks on a local paper, you rarely experience columns that reflect and consider and breathe…all on deadline, no less. There’s information and there’s immediacy, but within what’s left of the sports pages, there just isn’t as much in the way of elegant engagement.
Granted, a vast array of venues exist to feature writing that fits more or less in that realm, but the general daily sports column in your newspaper isn’t necessarily one of them.
If you want a reminder of how well a general sports column could capture your fancy, you might want to pick up a collection that came out about a year ago called Summers At Shea. It contains the Mets-themed work of one of the contemporaries of the columnists listed above, Ira Berkow, long of the Scripps-Howard’s Newspaper Enterprise Association and later the New York Times.
I’d never particularly identified Berkow with the Mets, but that’s fine. A degree of detachment served his occasional forays into our obsession quite nicely between 1967 and 2007. While by no means naïve about the machinations of professional sports, this columnist didn’t fully tamp down a romantic’s heart when it came to the game and the individuals he was covering. He grew up a Cubs fan and never stopped wishing for their eternally elusive success. It’s refreshing to hear someone in the media confess to a lingering loyalty besides “the best possible story”.
And if you can be a lifelong Cubs fan and still write about the 1969 Mets without snarling, then you’re probably going to do justice to your stories anyway.
From Stengel to Seaver to the latter days of Shea, with a welcome Roadblock or two along the way.
The columns featured in Summers At Shea are snapshots that prove worth preserving. There’s Tom Seaver in Rochester in 1970, having recently ascended to the peak of popular consciousness (but having misplaced his overcoat). There’s Willie Mays in St. Petersburg in 1973, doubling off the wall and proving himself viable for one more spring. There’s Rusty Staub battling gastronomical temptations as he would lefty relievers in his final season of pinch-hitting in 1985, the last year his conditioning would be served up for public consumption. There’s Berkow joining Ron Darling on a “dark and leaky afternoon” for the Sunday drive from Manhattan to Flushing for what was supposed to be Game Seven of the 1986 World Series, a little number Darling was poised to start a few hours hence until the leak became too much for the Series to bear. Nevertheless, Ira Berkow got himself in the car with that night’s starter on the biggest day of his life.
Casey Stengel shows up in Summers At Shea, in the book’s introduction. It’s a story about how the then 83-year-old Stengel rejected Berkow’s overture to work with him on a baseball instructional primer of sorts. “Cannot disclose my Future affairs,” the Mets’ first manager advised, but he does wind up a part of Berkow’s tapestry nonetheless. So does Sherman “Roadblock” Jones. So do Tommie Agee and Dave Kingman and Rafael Santana and Kevin McReynolds and, eventually, various millennial Mikes (Piazza, Hampton, Pelfrey). Berkow wrote sports for decades. He came in and out of the Mets’ life intermittently if not exclusively. No wonder he has a couple of similar collections out that focus on the Yankees and the Knicks. That writing a Metsian book — one padded with a frankly unnecessary “formidable rivals” section that includes an ode to Paul O’Neill, for crissake — appears more a box to be checked than a mission to be accomplished shouldn’t be held against him.
Nor should some really egregious editing errors. A pennant race column that quite obviously appeared in September of 1969 is labeled as having been originally published in September or 1968. Another, on the World Series just won, is listed as having been first printed in September of 1969, or a month before the World Series was played. A third, regarding Tom Seaver’s milestone performance of September 1, 1975, is identified with a publication date of September 26, when clearly it saw light on September 2. Berkow’s writing set a high enough standard so that the bar shouldn’t be lowered for historical accuracy.
More appropriate to the tone of Summers At Shea was the column Berkow wrote after covering Seaver’s retirement press conference in 1987. “I guess it’s time now to sit back and reflect on what I’ve done,” he quotes Tom. “It’s been a lovely 20 years. I couldn’t have asked for more.” Double that span for Berkow’s columnist career and the sentiment applies to having read this sampler of what he wrote.
Jay Goldberg welcomed Ira Berkow to the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in 2013. Listen to a podcast of the visit here.
Thanks to the best blog readers in all of Metsdom, the Faith and Fear in Flushing retired numbers t-shirt has been spotted in ballparks all over America and on a couple of continents besides this one since its introduction during the 2006 postseason.
But we’d never seen anything like this until now.
Not the FAFIF shirt, but an incredible simulation.
David, from somewhere in the vicinity of Philadelphia, explains why the above 37 14 41 42 looks so different from all other 37 14 41 42s:
Just wanted to send you a note for how your t-shirt has been used over the years.
I bowl in a Thursday Night Men’s League and everyone there smokes. So I wear your t-shirt every single week as my bowling shirt so that only one shirt smells like smoke and not all of my shirts smell like smoke.
I’ve been wearing it every week for the past 6 years. I MIGHT wash it like 4 times in a year. But it’s held up quite well.
Needless to say I get a million comments about it (living in Phillies territory). Usually “Is that your locker combination?” or “wear another f’in shirt!”
Anyway, I am very glad you are still selling them because I think I will need the replacement pretty soon.
I’m attaching a pic of the week when the team we bowled against wore imitation t-shirts for your amusement.
Thanks for a great blog and a great t-shirt!
Faith and Fear doesn’t endorse smoking, but it has no problem with bowling — and it salutes the Faith and Fear tribute shirt…and David’s wardrobe habit for making this garment possible.
And of course it’s never too late to secure your classic Faith and Fear shirt here.
Jon Niese must’ve put his glove in front of his pitching arm and stabbed a sizzler of fate, for he has caught a break. He hasn’t caught a debilitating elbow injury at any rate. The presumptive first-game thrower who visits MRI tubes like less wholesome athletes might frequent strip clubs left Sunday’s game with discomfort in his left elbow. The sensible reaction was to remember him fondly now that his career has ended, but no, it’s just inflammation.
“Just” inflammation…easy for us whose elbows aren’t inflamed to say.
Anyway, Niese isn’t lost for the season but he’s probably bound for the DL just long enough to knock him out from repeating as Opening Day Starter, which is a shame for Niese, of course, but represents no more than a reordering of rotation deck chairs if indeed all he needs is cortisone. If he’s not unduly sidelined (when it comes to the Mets and “discomfort,” we imagine the worst ASAP and seek clarification later), he looms as the Sixth Day Starter, an occasion for which there has never been a name until now.
As for who starts Opening Day instead of Jonathon, it only matters in that one of your nine men on the field has to be a pitcher. It didn’t much matter that Niese was the Opening Day Starter, not in the sense that you look at Jon Niese and you think “there’s an ace…that’s who starts the first game of the season…get a load of the cut of the jib on that fellow!” Some pitchers are Opening Day Starters who inhabit the role; others are guys who happen to be pitching the first game of the season because somebody has to and there’s no overly obvious choice for the assignment.
Niese was that last year. With Johan Santana out and R.A. Dickey traded, there was nobody else who earned it on reputation and/or merit, so Niese was tabbed primarily for Met time served. This year against Washington on March 31, Terry Collins can go with the veteran from somewhere else in Bartolo Colon, or the guy who’s hung in here the longest in Dillon Gee (who also happens to pitch exceedingly well versus the Nationals, hint, hint). Collins doesn’t seem inclined to go with the guy who maintains the highest ceiling in Zack Wheeler. Nobody exactly cancels out everybody else the way a healthy Matt Harvey would.
Harvey’s the kind of Opening Day starter who gets you dreaming. Harvey’s the ace you truly want to lift your lid. What you want and what you take, however, are two distinct things.
When you’ve been deprived of baseball that counts for six months — and you remind yourself every game counts the same, ceremonial pomp notwithstanding — you’ll take anybody. You’ll take Pete Harnisch in 1997, from when the Mets had nobody else particularly prepared to grab the reins. You’ll take Randy Jones in 1982, from when April snows forced George Bamberger to improvise. You’ll take Mike Pelfrey in 2011, even if it was a bad idea to maneuver him into the spotlight against the Marlins, who owned him the way Gee owns the Nats.
But what you want is the pitcher who’s the moral equivalent of Tropicana — the pitcher who gets your juices flowing. You want Pedro Martinez in 2005. You want Santana from 2008 to 2010 and again in 2012. You want, because you were conditioned to expect no more than frozen concentrated, Craig Swan in 1979 and 1980. You want Dwight Gooden those eight seasons when you could have him. The only times you couldn’t were when he was not experienced (1984), not recovering from shoulder surgery (1992) and not confined to Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center (1987).
What you really want for an Opening Day Starter is Tom Seaver.
If you were a Mets fan every year Tom Seaver was a Met, you could set your calendar to Opening Day by the sight of Tom Seaver throwing your team’s first pitch. The only outlier within that twelve-season sample was 1967, when Wes Westrum resisted the temptation to go with his best-looking pitcher. Seaver had never been in the majors before and you just don’t start a raw rookie on Opening Day. Westrum went with Don Cardwell instead and deferred Seaver’s major league debut for the season’s second game.
From then on, for more than a decade, no Met season would start without Seaver on the mound, a testament to both his enormous stature and fortunate health. To put his string of appearances in perspective, Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra and Joe Frazier never had cause to call on another Opening Day starting pitcher during their respective Met managerial tenures. And every year from 1968 through 1977 (and again under George Bamberger in 1983), you always assumed the Mets would start the season 1-0 because they always had the best pitcher in the world going for them.
If you can’t have Tom Seaver’s hand in a baseball glove or all his teammates’ signatures adorning baseball glove, how about the Franchise’s face front and center on a baseball glove? This is the brilliant work of Sean Kane, as seen at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse.
Watching Seaver slip his left hand into his glove and wrap his right hand around a ball made being a Mets fan wonderful. It must have made managing at least the first pitch of every season a delight. Hodges knew that sensation before anybody else. And that man knew a little something about pitching and, don’t ya know, a little something about gloves.
Gil came to the majors as a catcher, a position where the Dodgers were pretty well set in the late 1940s. Recognizing the emergence of Roy Campanella and what his presence would mean to the Brooklyn lineup, Leo Durocher handed Hodges a first baseman’s glove in 1948 and “three days later,” in the Lip’s esteem, “I’m looking at the best first baseman I’d seen since Dolph Camilli.” Indeed, the first Gold Glove ever awarded to a first baseman went to Hodges in 1957. He took home the prize the next two years, too.
But once you’re a catcher, it’s probably impossible to not view the world from behind the plate. Hodges surrounded himself with catchers when he managed the Mets. Three of his four coaches — Berra, Rube Walker and Joe Pignatano — all crouched for a living. It can’t be a coincidence that the Mets nurtured great pitchers in their day (let alone their all-time best defensive backstop, Jerry Grote).
It’s safe to say Hodges knew his defensive gear. He recognized a good glove, no matter how many fingers with which it was equipped. But did you know that there’s a glove story like no other that hinges on Gil’s heart more than his hands?
I didn’t until someone wrote to us to tell us all about it. A gentleman in Florida named Fred Stankovich got in touch not long after he read about the presentation of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award at this year’s Queens Baseball Convention. I’m thrilled that he did.
Take it away, Fred:
I grew up in the shadow of Shea (Flushing) and attended the very last game at the Polo Grounds (still got the grass from the first base line as the field was torn apart after the game) and the first game at Shea. (Cut school for the first time to attend. Sat in the last row, last seat in right field so the cameras wouldn’t pick me up and bust me.)
A quick blurb about Mr. Hodges. I was working at LaGuardia Airport, midnight shift, renting cars for National Car Rental in my senior year of college. During the summer of ’69, with the Mets woefully trailing the pack, the Mets were scheduled to arrive on a flight back in LaGuardia after a night road game. Those were the days when they arrived at baggage claim to get their luggage like anyone else. I went out to my car and got my baseball glove and a pen. I approached Mr. Hodges as he was waiting for the luggage to come to the carousel. I asked if I could please have his autograph (My Dad loved him from the Dodgers’ era.) He said, “Sure, son”.
He pulled out his own pen, signed the glove and as I reached for it, he held up his hand as if to say, “Hold on a second.” He then passed the glove and pen to the player next to him. And away it went. The 1969 Mets ALL signed MY baseball glove!! When it finally came back to Mr. Hodges, he handed it to me with a big smile. I nearly dropped dead.
How cool was that? Well it was my only glove and that weekend I had to play ball, so I used it in center field, showing it off to all my buddies. We were all impressed, but the game had to go on. Too bad I didn’t have the appreciation for Met memorabilia back then. That glove is in Japan somewhere now as I traded it for a new glove while serving in the Marines over there.
I can understand Fred’s “Ouch!!” but no matter what that glove would be worth today, that story will remain priceless forever.
For more information on the Baseball Glove Art of Sean Kane, visit or contact Bergino Baseball Clubhouse, where the one-of-a-kind Tom Seaver glove is among several Kane works on display and for sale.
This is the second time in a few days that we’ve referenced Leo Durocher. Get even more Lip here, from W.M. Akers, when he recalls the spring seventy years ago that Brooklyn trained on Bear Mountain.
Leo Durocher would have relished this weekend in Las Vegas. The Cactus League Cubs — the team he managed to its only oasis of success in a nearly 40-year schlep through a desert of futility, and the Grapefruit Circuit Mets — the team that inevitably turned 1969 into a Near North Side mirage, will square off in a pair of exhibitions in so-called Sin City. Durocher would’ve gotten a kick out of this geographically illogical Spring Training detour because it would’ve given him an excuse to visit Vegas on somebody else’s dime. Seeing as how these games don’t count, Leo probably would’ve handed the reins to coach Pete Reiser and looked up Frank as soon as the Cubs’ plane landed.
Leo liked to live the life (not always to everybody’s satisfaction). The Lip also wasn’t afraid to speak up in favor of whatever pies Leo had his fingers in. Maybe you’ve heard the line about Durocher from when he took over the Cubs after their eighth-place finish in 1965. This, he said with characteristic brio, is no eighth-place ballclub.
His figurative money laid down where his mouth was, Leo charged into his first season as Chicago’s skipper…and led the 1966 Cubs straight into tenth place.
In something approaching that spirit, wouldn’t it be great if the business about Mets management fancying their team a 90-win outfit was proven inaccurate, except in the other direction? Wouldn’t it be great if somebody was repeating an anecdote in the far-off future about how somebody running the 2014 Mets suggested, “this is a 90-win team,” but it turned out to be wrong because they won so many more?
Yeah, that would rule. As would many largely elusive fantasies that pop to mind across a weekend in Las Vegas.
The Mets probably should have more good players set to play more positions. That is if they’re serious about this 90-win thing, which they probably aren’t. The 90-win goal that’s become this spring’s Underdog t-shirt wasn’t something they issued a statement to explain or deputized Mr. Met to Tweet. Sandy Alderson reportedly dropped that number in an internal meeting and Fred Wilpon reportedly got caught up in the moment and endorsed it less as an aspiration than an imperative.
“We better win 90,” said Fred, channeling his inner Christopher Moltisanti.
Can the Mets, who at the very least have no chance of finishing eighth in the five-team National League East, win 90 games? Hell yes. They can win 162. They can also win none. Or any total in between. There’s a divergent array of potential outcomes. Consult your local numerologist for a more accurately assessed win total if you really want one pulled out of the air or any given ass.
But can the Mets really win 90 games? No. Don’t be silly. Do Alderson or Wilpon remember what 90 wins look like? The Mets have hit that mark once in the last thirteen years, and that includes years when they had certifiable talent rarin’ to go, not a pool of ellipses bracketed by bold-faced question marks.
Have you seen this team? It lacks legitimacy at two of eight positions. There’s 25% of your defensive alignment right there. Put aside normal questions about leadoff hitters and which partially accomplished outfielder will be granted playing time over which other partially accomplished outfielder and whether the rookie catcher is ready to not only strap it on but step it up. The Mets entered the offseason with only the faintest outlines of a shortstop and the iffiest conception of a first baseman. Two-and-a-half weeks before the season starts, the possible solutions have grown less certain.
Terry Collins recently speculated aloud about batting his pitcher eighth and some underwhelming non-pitcher ninth. He was thinking about doing it, he said, to generate as many opportunities as possible for Murphy, Wright and Granderson to drive in runs. Well, sure, you strategize over lineups to create the most offense you can. Whether any of it amounts to any kind of net-plus is always up for grabs. I wouldn’t automatically dismiss the pitcher batting eighth on principle, because not doing something because almost nobody’s ever done it isn’t a valid reason for avoiding it. Not doing something because Tony La Russa did it and Tony La Russa strikes most of us as a plague isn’t a disqualifying element, either.
But what got me when I read that Collins was resorting to considering this unorthodox tactic was it was early March and he was already groping in Something/Anything territory. A powerhouse lineup doesn’t figure to be built on Niese batting eighth and Lagares batting ninth. A powerhouse lineup is leading off Henderson and surrounding Piazza with lefties like Olerud and Ventura. Or it’s figuring out where to best bat Beltran and Delgado in order to maximize your Carlos quotient. Those are the offensive versions of pleasant problems. Digging deep into the eight- and nine-spots and juggling .138-hitting pitchers with .219-hitting anybody-elses is what you do when you’re desperate.
It’s March. It’s not supposed to be desperation time yet. Or it’s not supposed to be desperation time at all if your front office is talking and your owner is demanding 90 wins. (And if the pitcher batting eighth is real, why do we keep using DHs in exhibition games?)
Where’d they get 90 wins from, other than it’s a round figure and it implies a very imposing team? Best I can come up with is the old saw about every team winning a third and losing a third, which puts the Mets at 54-54 no matter what. That other third, where the gold supposedly lies, comes to those who execute and angle and hustle and get breaks and avoid injuries and are led by real men of genius. Perhaps when the Mets look in the figurative mirror, they see all the attributes that show up in neither the scouting reports nor Baseball Prospectus and they are charmed by their appearance. They fancy themselves a scrappy collective set to outmaneuver opponents, a unit overdue for some dumb luck to land their way.
“We live clean. We take pitches. We don’t unduly raise the league average payroll just because we need more good players at more positions. We apologize for insensitive remarks. We can win 90 games!”
They can, if they go 1-0 90 times, which is more in line with how I like to approach seasons. I’m a disciple of Bobby V, who never failed to identify tonight’s game as the most important game of the year because it’s the only one we’re playing tonight. Or they can go 36-18 in the mystery 54. If an inside straight is drawn, they can go 82-79 as in 1973 and keep going well into October (or, should playoff systems revert, they can go 98-64 and go home like they did in 1985 — though that wouldn’t be much fun).
Or you can forget anybody said anything about 90 wins and brace for the worst, thus being satisfied when something less bad happens. We do that a lot around here.
And yet…when you commence to sneaking up on two weeks from Opening Day, you scrunch your face, squint your eyes and focus real hard to see if there’s a way into this almost prohibitive phony-baloney goal that would be inarguably neat to meet. You give d’Arnaud a gently sloping learning curve. You give every pitcher — each of them at least pretty good at base — his best possible season and then sprinkle a little more WAR on top for good measure. You wipe away your wondering about Granderson having been out almost all of last year and check those bulging statistics of campaigns past. You bolster yourself with the knowledge that Grandy (Grandy?), CY2 and Colon have all been recent playoff participants and experience as winners has to count for something. You take Lagares’s defense, EYJ’s speed and the other Young’s 2010 and create a three-headed left-center fielder that will, in the sainted memory of Ralph Kiner, cover two-thirds of the earth.
You think back to Gil Hodges projecting 85 wins for his team the spring after they won an all-time franchise high of 73 and challenging himself to come up with a few more — 15 more, as it turned out in ’69, plus another seven in the postseason. You recall having little confidence in the myriad second base candidates of March 2006 and winding up by May with Jose Valentin and his 18 home runs. You even remember (because you are the way you are) that the Mets made late trades twenty years ago this very spring, filling holes at short and first with Jose Vizcaino and David Segui, each of whose modern equivalent would be an upgrade over Ruben Tejada and Ikas Duvis. If you like harbingers of something other than doom, those 1994 deals were pulled off by then general manager Joe McIlvaine, the same Joe Mac who’s been scouting the Mets for the Mariners all spring, the same Mariners who are said to have a talented shortstop to spare.
But that’s best-casing this scenario. Sure, maybe someone emerges from the crowd to make a Valentin type of difference and maybe a Vizcainoish transaction emerges. Summoning 1969, though? When the best possible answer to my doubting George Thomas tendencies is invocation of the most Amazin’ aberration of all as precedent, I’m mostly saying you need something that happens once in a lifetime to happen again…to happen right away.
Y’know what ya do? Ya hope anyway.
Ya hope other teams aren’t very good.
Ya hope our team is better than I believe it is.
Ya hope a cable-ready kid pitcher can be plugged in as soon as fiscally amenable.
Ya hope Pythagorean lightning can be caught in a bottle, as it was thirty years ago; the 1984 Mets, expected to do nothing, scored and allowed enough runs so they “should” have won 78 games — they wound up with 90.
Ya hope the BABIP bounces charitably and the FIP flies our way.
Ya hope magical thinking translates to a 16-game improvement from a year ago, even if there’s no Byrd anymore, no Harvey for now and no Syndergaard yet.
Mostly, ya keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars, one game at a time. You can only win that many at once anyway.
One National League East Narrative Reinforcement comin’ right up!
While the Braves were doing everything they could on Wednesday to earn their fans’ gratitude, the Mets were finding new, characteristically clumsy ways to show they’re as sorry as any organization can be.
Atlanta invested more than $14 million in Ervin Santana, the best available pitcher on the open market, to fill the stud-sized hole in their rotation left by the recurrence of pain that flared up in the previously surgically repaired right elbow of Kris Medlen. Despite mounting an inspiring comeback since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, the Brave righty’s fate has to be taken in Flushing as a cautionary red flag against anybody confidently penciling in Matt Harvey as he misses all of 2014 antsily rehabilitating his right elbow from the same kind of procedure. Mets brass were already visibly uncomfortable with how Harvey has conducted his rehab. This latest of turn of events can only add to their unease.
But it wouldn’t be spring in Port St. Lucie without the Mets visibly squirming and their fans feeling none too good about them either.
Nearly two hours to the east of Braves spring HQ in Kissimmee — and presumably dozens of games south of Santana’s new pennant-minded team in the standings — the Mattless Mets not only continued to maintain they’re fine with their present assortment of subpar in-house shortstop and first base candidates, but had to be publicly shamed into acknowledging a private apology with racially charged ramifications wasn’t suitably contrite.
The Braves train at a complex adjacent to Walt Disney World, the so-called happiest place on earth. It’s a title the barren east coast wasteland of Port St. Lucie isn’t likely to vie for anytime soon — and you can add it to the list of titles Mets-related enterprises don’t look to be competing for this year.
Except, perhaps, sorriest team ever. The Mets seem to have that locked down in every sense of the word.
If you haven’t read something like that in one of your fancy professional sports columns, you probably will sooner or later. Everything comes back to haunt the Mets and make them look like amateurs, whether they deserve it or not.
Do they deserve grief for the Braves being the Braves and deciding winning is so important that they’d go above budget and replace Medlen with Santana? No. That’s the Braves’ business. Is there an unflattering parallel to be drawn between Atlanta not sitting still and New York’s stubborn inertia in the upgrade department? Probably a Granny Smith and Valencia comparison, though you’d like to think somebody would closely examine the Tejadas, Davises and Dudas, notice they’re not particularly ripe and find us crisper, juicier produce, even if it costs a little more than anticipated.
And whither Warthen? Remember when you didn’t think about Dan Warthen whatsoever? Remember when he was the pitching coach who was either doing a perfectly adequate job, assuming somebody was pitching well, or needed to be replaced because somebody got lit up? That’s usually how we are moved to think about coaches.
That was yesterday.
We don’t think about coaches at all unless a reason arises. A reason arose in what I’m tempted to say was the most Metsian way possible, but only because I’ve been conditioned by events to assume if there’s something counterproductive to come out of something vaguely positive, the Mets will find the counterproductive. Or, at the very least, they’ll meet in the murky middle.
The vaguely positive is Warthen, the Mets’ pitching coach since 2008, was observed apologizing to Jeff Cutler, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s interpreter, for having used an archaic ethnic slur in his direction. It wasn’t a staged or lawyered apology. It was somebody coming up to somebody else at work saying, in essence, “I’m sorry I said that to you.”
How could that little slice of internal interaction turn counterproductive? Well, let’s see…
• The person who did the observing was a reporter.
• The reporter, Stu Woo of the Wall Street Journal, is a self-described Chinese-American.
• The phrase for which Warthen apologized was “Chinaman”.
• The apology was observed by the reporter as “I’m sorry I called you a ‘Chinaman’ yesterday,” and was followed with “I didn’t mean to insinuate — I know you’re not Chinese” and “I thought it was a good joke, though.”
• Cutler is described in the story Woo wrote about the encounter as Japanese-American, leading Woo to wonder about the context of Warthen having said he was sorry.
Was he saying that he wanted to apologize for saying “Chinaman” only because he’d said it to a man of Japanese, rather than Chinese, descent? Did he think that the word itself was OK to use — or that it was acceptable material for jokes?
It’s a question that apparently nagged at Woo, who observed the encounter Monday morning and asked Cutler about it Tuesday morning. Cutler told him he wasn’t offended by Warthen’s joke and otherwise deferred to the pitching coach on its content. (If somebody doesn’t want to repeat a joke, you can assume it has transcended its potential to elicit laughs in polite/on-the-record company.)
Woo wrote he later “caught up” with Jay Horwitz, presumably to seek clarification. Horwitz, in his role as vice president of media relations, arranged a meeting that was to include the two of them plus Warthen early Wednesday morning, “[b]ut when I got to the Mets facility Wednesday, Horwitz said Warthen wasn’t going to comment. Cutler wasn’t in the locker room.”
That’s where Woo’s story ended when it first appeared on the Journal’s site Wednesday night. Soon enough, in this world of microscopic news cycles, the Mets were moved to respond via written statements, which have since been added to the originally posted article. Warthen apologized for “thoughtless remarks”; a “poor attempt at humor”; and words that were “wrong and inappropriate in any setting”. The pitching coach was “very sorry”. Sandy Alderson apologized “for the insensitive remarks made by one of our staff members,” describing what Warthen had said to Cutler in front of Woo (and perhaps to Cutler via the joke in question) “offensive and inappropriate”. The organization, the GM added, “is very sorry”.
This morning, the Mets moved into to putting-it-behind-them mode, save for an unusually feisty Jon Niese, who, according to Newsday’s Anthony Rieber, told “a group of reporters: ‘Stop Tweeting about our clubhouse. That —-’s gotta stop.’” (Rieber, naturally, Tweeted that nugget.) They could’ve avoided it altogether had Warthen chosen to speak to Woo Wednesday morning. Or if Warthen wasn’t moved to use words like “Chinaman” in conversation in 2014. Or if Jared Diamond hadn’t gotten married over the offseason.
Diamond normally covers the Mets for the Journal. He was taking a few days off to be with his new bride. If Diamond is on the beat, whatever conversation Woo — who mostly covers football — has with Cutler doesn’t take place and is therefore not interrupted by Warthen’s overheard conditional apology. It could be Warthen seeks out Cutler with nobody around, Cutler nods and says “it’s OK,” just as he did with Woo on hand, and nobody ever knows anybody ever made a poor attempt at humor.
But Woo was there and the makings of a story coalesced. Spring Training is enough of a production to merit not just continual beat coverage but fill-in beat coverage. As Jason pointed out most insightfully the other day, nothing much of enduring significance happens in Spring Training, so therefore anything and everything becomes a potential story. (There are only so many times in six weeks you can read David Wright pledge fealty to the front office’s long-term vision.) Then consider the media outlet. The Journal, in particular, pursues angles that the New York dailies don’t, generally seeking the less obvious ones. A fantastic example came a few years ago when Brian Costa wrote about the logistics involved when a ballplayer is called up from the minors: where they sleep, how that works, who pays for what. It was a fascinating glimpse inside a sliver of the major league existence that we don’t normally see. Similarly, Woo tackled the Senior Bowl not through the prism of scouting reports but how the college all-star game serves as de facto job fair for potential NFL players.
So you have the Journal ethos of striving to cobble the interesting amid the mundane. And then you take into account that Woo is not a regular on the Mets beat. In a way, that could be a disadvantage in that there’s no base of familiarity from which to deal, but it also means he’s looking at the clubhouse and the players with fewer preconceived notions. Continued access to sources doesn’t loom as an unspoken concern. If someone has to be around the Mets most every day, he’s probably going to be more hesitant to spill what feels, after a while, like family business. He may also be more inured to it. As Woo himself acknowledged in his story, he knows how athletes talk in clubhouses and locker rooms. Still, he came to this situation as an outsider. An insider and an outsider may hear the same thing, but they’re likely to process it quite differently. One reporter’s “that’s nothing new” is another reporter’s “that’s something else.”
And there’s no overlooking Woo’s ethnic identity here because Woo emphasized it himself:
As a 27-year-old Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard the term “Chinaman,” a derogatory word originally given by white Americans to Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. I might have heard it used on the grade-school playground, but never before in dozens of NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball locker rooms I’ve been to as a sports reporter.
Woo admitted he had a first-person interest in this story. The phrase Warthen uttered caught his ear. It wasn’t enough for him to think, “that’s something you don’t hear every day,” and then share it only on the sly. He indicated he decided to pursue it as an angle in print as opposed to an anecdote passed on opaquely because, “Warthen had used the term in front of two people who had every reason to be offended. And he did so in a casual way in a work environment — one where he holds a position of power. I didn’t want to be complicit in tolerating the use of a slur that should have been retired long ago.”
You wouldn’t necessarily think of the Wall Street Journal’s sports section as a platform for social advocacy journalism, but Woo (and his editor) went in that direction, and today you have a Metsian contretemps.
To be cynical about it, Warthen probably should’ve waited until Cutler was done speaking to a guy with a media credential hanging around his neck during open-clubhouse hours to approach him. Having failed to do that, Warthen shouldn’t have blown off the appointment Horwitz made with Woo. That it took Woo’s story being posted on wsj.com to flush out prepared statements of regret makes the Mets look a little craven. Then again, Warthen did offer Cutler an apology in the first place…and the Mets did play catchup as quickly as they could in condemning their own behavior.
It would be easy to write off Warthen’s “Chinaman” slur as a symptom of age. I won’t. Warthen is 61. He’s not from the Stone Age. Sixty-one probably sounds ancient to many of you. To me it’s my age plus ten years. Warthen’s old enough to know better and not so old that an unfortunate choice of words can be winked away.
On the subject of age, I find Woo’s more intriguing. He’s 27, pretty young, all things considered. Is he old enough to “know how things work,” that men who coach other men are sometimes salty in their speech and say things that are indelicate? He basically says so in his story. But he decided not to care, and that’s probably an encouraging sign in a societal sense. Woo wrote he didn’t want to be “complicit” in going along with the program, the one that that silently certifies otherness as something inherently worthy of derision. At 27, he’s adhering to a higher standard. It takes a bit of courage to do that, especially in an industry that’s traditionally looked the other way when its protagonists have routinely ostracized otherness.
And if we’re cheering on Jason Collins and Michael Sam as they attempt to blaze new paths of acceptance in professional sports, I find it hard to ignore vestiges of the old ways that make otherness so pronounced. Stu Woo is entitled to do his job and not hear “Chinaman” from someone in a position of authority. So is Jeff Cutler. So are the clubhouse attendants and interns and lackluster first basemen. So is everybody who comes in and out of the Met sphere, regardless of descent.
Dan Warthen is entitled to think whatever he wants. If he sees Cutler and thinks, “there goes that Chinaman who interprets my advice to Dice-K,” that’s extraordinarily sad, but that’s a heart-and-mind issue. If he’s desperate to ask somebody away from his place of employment, “did I ever tell ya the one about the Chinaman who walked into grocery store…” that’s unfortunate, yet that’s his right. But if Warthen’s going to come to work and throw a word like that around, whether in the form of a joke or a relatively benign reference, geez, what’s wrong with that guy?
Never mind that there’s a considerateness aspect to life that is too often dismissed as overly sensitive or (speaking of offensive phrases) politically correct. Baseball is a business predicated on teams attracting all the people they can to buy tickets to their games. The Mets needn’t come remotely close to offending any potential customers on any basis that has nothing to do with not acquiring a better shortstop. The Mets play in Flushing, for goodness sake. Ride the 7 one stop to Main St. and meet your neighbors.
If we’re a forgiving people, then we forgive Dan Warthen for saying something cloddish and let Alderson decide on merit if he’s the pitching coach best suited to further develop Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, Montero and all the other young arms in his care. If the results Warthen yields are outstanding — starting pitching seems to be the one Met area about which nobody has any real complaints — the slur fades until the next time somebody says something anachronistically stupid. If team ERA wafts to intolerable levels, what Woo reported Warthen saying to Cutler probably doesn’t help his cause.
The great Dan Jenkins (probably not someone who’d have a problem with how Warthen expressed himself) built a career on observing truths and turning them into fiction. In a terrific profile synced to the release of Jenkins’s autobiography, Grantland’s Bryan Curtis discusses how the author of Semi-Tough would linger over drinks in the company of colorful characters and gather what became his prose.
“He would disappear once in a while,” said David Israel. “You knew nobody had to take a leak that often. He was off writing down all his overheards. That’s what he would call them. Just writing down great lines overheard in bars. He didn’t want to write them down in front of somebody.” Jenkins knew if he didn’t write down those lines — that material — they would float into the ether and he’d never remember them again.”
Jenkins, Curtis continued, absorbed “locker-room philosophizing” from the likes of Don Meredith and Sonny Jurgensen, stuff that was “too interesting for Sports Illustrated. By placing their words in the mouths of Billy Clyde [Puckett] and Shake [Tiller], Jenkins could show readers what the life of a pro football player was really like.”
“I wrote a novel with people talking the way I know they talk,” Jenkins told Curtis. Woo wrote a brief news feature with Warthen talking the way he knows he talked, and we saw a little of what the life of a major league clubhouse is really like. Sometimes these narratives write themselves. Sometimes somebody has to decide to write them.
I have a modest proposal: dismantle the spring-training media-entertainment industry.
No, really. Because it’s making us all crazy.
Spring training exists for two reasons:
1) Pitchers need time to strengthen their arms to do a better job at something profoundly unnatural that will eventually hurt them, possibly in a catastrophic, career-ending way.
2) Towns in Florida and Arizona like money.
Today’s hitters need spring training the same way you and I need to go spend six weeks in an anonymous subset of Florida scrub choosing which sub shop and Wal-Mart to visit. Spring training for hitters is a vestige of when players drove trucks in the winter or served as ornamental employees of insurance shops and auto dealers. They’d show up to huff and puff off their winter weight. Now hitters spend the offseasons tinkering with nutritional regimens and hitting. They’re there because they’ve always been there and because pitchers need someone to throw to.
The rest of spring training is stupid and maddening and ultimately counterproductive.
We watch games in which teams wear parodies of real uniforms, nobody we’ve heard of is around after the fifth inning and the outcome matters not a whit — yet dingbat fans act as if it does. If there’s a subspecies of fan dumber than the spring-training heckler, I’ve yet to meet him. “If David Wright doesn’t drive this ball against this Double-A palooka I’m gonna GIVE HIM THE BUSINESS!” Uh-huh. It’s March, champ — have another hot dog and be grateful for the sunshine.
Yesterday it was breathlessly announced that the Semi-Mets and Sorta-Braves had set an attendance record for Whatever Field in Port St. Lucie. Outside of five to seven guys at Whatever Field, I cannot think of a sentient being who could possibly care about this.
The media passed that tidbit on, because what else are they going to do? They’re stuck in Port St. Lucie for six weeks like everybody else, going slowly crazy reporting things that we all know don’t qualify as news. Bartolo Colon will start today. Lucas Duda might start at some point. The Mets don’t have a real shortstop. Matt Harvey is still hurt. Noah Syndergaard will be awesome, but he won’t be awesome in a way that matters until June, because contracts and money. Riveting!
It would be no less honest and only slightly less interesting to report the reps guys do on weight machines.
BREAKING: Niese sets calf press to 90. Second set of reps may follow. #Mets
But that wouldn’t bring in fans and ad dollars the way pretend baseball games do. (And even then, have you seen SNY’s spring-training ads? If you’re a maker of crummy furniture on Long Island and can’t figure out where to spend your ad dollars, you’re obviously not trying.)
Players go crazy too, of course. Harvey tweeted that he’d be back this year. Someone on the Mets presumably scolded him about this, so he untweeted it, which was about as effective in making the story go away as you’d guess. I don’t blame Harvey. If I were in Port St. Lucie I’d be re-enacting “A Beautiful Mind” in my motel room by now or making a Fortress of Solitude out of gum wrappers and spit. Veterans fall prey to this too: Carlos Beltran dutifully answered the old question about the Mets being lousy to him and so created a one-day quasi-story. It had the desired effect of getting idiots riled up and bringing us a day closer to no longer having to endure this period of non-anything.
Oh, and I just read that Ike Davis is in a walking boot. Terrific. I’m sure all matter of insightful medical analysis and level-headed fan forecasting is on tap.
I’m not going to link to any of the above because it’s all profoundly pointless. It’s intellectual rotor wash generated by trapped people who have no choice. I don’t blame Port St. Lucie’s hostages for this behavior. Instead, I want to help them.
Let’s untelevise spring training. Send the reporters home to be with the families they’ll have to miss from April to October. Create a list of fun apps for players to occupy themselves so they don’t wind up driving anywhere else at 825 MPH or assaulting pizza delivery boys in parking lots. The reporters can show up the day rosters are cut down to 27 or 28 to write one story about the guy in the best shape of his life, another about a roster battle that no one will remember in June, and to make predictions about the entire baseball season, down to the exact second the World Series will end and what the DJIA will be that day. Maybe we can even televise a game or two. That would take about a week, which would be about right.
We’d be sad at first. But then we’d realize it was for the best. Spring training doesn’t make me happy anymore. I don’t think it makes anybody else happy either. The idea of it is fabulous, but the reality is tedious and witless and is making us all crazy. And it’s got to stop.
Not so long ago, three ships passed in the Met night. We probably didn’t grasp the transient nature of what was transpiring right in front of us because we didn’t know their night sharing the same waters would be over so soon.
On August 9, 2012, R.A. Dickey threw a complete-game, ten-strikeout five-hitter to defeat the Marlins at Citi Field, 5-1. Not only did R.A.’s 15th win (against only three losses) halt a three-game Met slide, it marked the first time the Mets had won at home in more than a month.
On August 10, 2012, the Mets’ discomfort in their own ballpark returned, as the Braves came to Queens and greeted Matt Harvey rudely. Harvey’s home debut was a far cry from his first major league start just over two weeks early. The rookie righty was behind, 2-0, after three batters, as Jason Heyward nailed him for a two-run homer. Matt lasted six and finished strong, retiring his final nine batters, but four walks in the first two innings told most of the story of the 4-0 loss.
On August 11, 2012, Johan Santana was making his first start in three weeks, having been placed on the disabled list in late July with what was listed as an ankle injury but probably had a little something to do with the surgically repaired left shoulder that had kept him out of action for all of 2011. Either way, Johan didn’t look sharp after Reed Johnson of the Cubs stepped on his ankle during a play at first base on July 6, so a little rest couldn’t hurt. In this Saturday night matchup with the Braves, however, it was obvious it didn’t help. Atlanta (whose lineup now included the very same Johnson) jumped all over Santana, knocking him out in the second inning. He left trailing, 5-0; Jeremy Hefner came in with the bases loaded and immediately surrendered a grand slam to Freddie Freeman. The Mets would lose, 9-1.
Fast-forward a few days later to Cincinnati. R.A. Dickey is gamesmanshipped by the Reds into removing two unobtrusive bracelets from his glove hand and loses, 6-1, on August 15. Matt Harvey finds the form that had the league buzzing upon his callup, striking out eight Reds while giving up just one run in 7⅔ innings en route to an 8-4 Mets win on August 16. Johan Santana starts the series-opener that follows the next evening in Washington and it doesn’t go nearly as well. Three perfect innings are wiped away in the fourth on three consecutive singles and the Michael Morse home run that drives in four on one swing. Johan gives up another homer in the fifth, a two-run job to Bryce Harper, before getting out of the inning by flying Morse deep to center.
It’s the last pitch Johan Santana will ever throw for the New York Mets, and August 17 marks the end of the era when the Met rotation features the team’s three most storied starters of the 21st century. One story was prematurely over, another was reaching its climax and the third was just filling its first pages. The era that encompassed all three of them lasted exactly two turns, but it happened. There was a time when the Mets would send R.A. Dickey, Matt Harvey and Johan Santana out to pitch in succession.
The time measured nine days in 2012.
The Mets could overwhelm opponents with dazzling starpower from the mound in the more distant, less fleeting past. In 1990, for example, it wasn’t uncommon to watch consecutive games started by Frank Viola, David Cone and Dwight Gooden. In 1976, we were regularly treated to some variation of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack starting in succession. Down the stretch in 1969, Gil Hodges rolled out Koosman, Seaver and Nolan Ryan in a row.
But the ships that passed in the 2012 night — or sailed one behind the other ever so briefly before peeling off in three distinct directions — make for an unlikely unit in hindsight. It’s not two years later and it’s hard to picture those three together. Besides, in August of 2012, we couldn’t be quite certain that those three were Those Three. Unlike the other aforementioned groupings of yore, this was not a trio of contemporaries. You had no guarantee you’d have reason to think of them as peers in the “most storied starters” sense.
Today, their stories are still in flux, as they retain only one undeniable similar circumstance: the Mets are putting together a rotation for 2014 and none of them is slated to be a part of it.
Funny how time picks up speed and sails away. Funny, too, how quickly the names that are etched into our collective top-of-mind can be plastered over by other names.
Every March from 2008 to 2013, Johan Santana was the first pitching name we thought about, either because we were thrilled he was here or were worried that he wasn’t. Now, after an uncomfortably uncertain pause, we know for sure that Johan is in camp…but not ours. He signed a minor league deal with the Orioles the other day. He’s confident he’ll be back in pitching trim soon enough, ready to help his team at some point this season. We used to hear him offer those kinds of resolute projections, cross our fingers and hope for the best. I suspect we still hope for the best where Johan Santana is concerned, but his seemingly endless comeback trail winds through Sarasota, not St. Lucie. His salvation may be somebody else’s solution eventually, but right now, his status is somebody else’s problem.
We didn’t think about R.A. Dickey at all in the first March he flitted across our radar. In 2010, he was, as he likes to tell it, the first cut in Spring Training. Indeed, he and Josh Thole were reassigned to the minor league side of the Mets’ complex on March 15 that year, having been given all of five innings to impress Jerry Manuel. The journeyman and his knuckleball didn’t make much of an impression: nine hits, three walks, five earned runs. Two months later, he was called up from Buffalo. Two years later, he was crafting the best season by any pitcher in the National League and the best story by any player in the known universe. Then having literally and figuratively scaled every mountain available to him, the man who morphed into the undisputed Met ace once Santana was no longer physically able to maintain that mantle was traded to Toronto. This past week, as Johan was attempting to take flight as an Oriole, R.A. was up the coast in Clearwater loosening his wing for the Blue Jays. He gave up a home run to the Phillies’ Marlon Byrd but was in no danger of being shuffled off to Buffalo. Jays manager John Gibbons has already named the fully proven veteran his Opening Day starter.
This is our third spring fully cognizant of Matt Harvey. In 2012, as Santana was making his way back from surgery and Dickey was promoting the autobiography whose release foreshadowed The Year of R.A., Matt was that tantalizing staple of every preseason: the unknown quantity we’d heard plenty about and couldn’t wait to see. He had a future, but it wasn’t going to be immediate. Triple-A Buffalo was young Matt’s destination but not without a quick detour to big league camp. 2010’s first-round draft choice was already impressing. “Did you see him?” Thole asked a reporter. “(Bleeping) unbelievable.”
Harvey was sent down on March 16, but was converting agnostics into believers in his very first major league start on July 27, fanning eleven Diamondbacks in Phoenix and setting the stage for two intensely promising months of pitching. The only reason he wasn’t the biggest story of the back half of the 2012 season was Dickey had taken off into the stratosphere, chasing and notching a 20th win and earning a Cy Young. Dickey’s ascension was also the best reason we didn’t miss Santana quite so much as August turned to September. Likewise, Harvey’s subsequent rocket ride to all-world prominence explained why, despite the justified Sturm und Drang surrounding Dickey’s trade, R.A.’s absence wasn’t mourned quite as much as it might have been in 2013.
And now? Now we know we miss Matt Harvey and track every dispatch regarding his post-Tommy John (or, more accurately, post-Frank Jobe) rehabilitation, yet we have a fancy that requires capturing in the interim. In the spring of 2013, reasonably assured by Harvey’s first ten starts that he was for real, we were already peering ahead to the Next Big Thing, looking for proof that Zack Wheeler was as good as advertised. Byrd, then a Met, said Zack was “looking like a No. 1” and compared him to Justin Verlander. Wheeler’s now sufficiently old enough news that we’re obsessing on Noah Syndergaard, the flamethrower who looms as the ultimate prize in the Dickey deal…once he’s served enough time in Las Vegas to keep him from getting paid too soon. We didn’t want to wait for Matt or Zack and we don’t much want to wait on Noah’s clerical work to be processed, either. One exhibition start in and Terry Collins says, “He’s on track to be special.”
That’s the idea: a triple-helping of special, Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, perhaps all in a row. Like when the Mets could string together trios of starts from the youthful and the accomplished. They have the youth. They just need the accomplishments. And uninterrupted health.
Santana had the accomplishments before coming to the Mets and racked up a few more during his New York tenure, one in particular that will live for as long as there is a Mets franchise (and another that nobody who saw it will ever forget). But he had only intermittent health. Dickey’s most admirable accomplishment pre-Met was professional survival. Then he came here and became an icon, captivating us whenever he spoke and dominating batters whenever he threw. Then he was gone in a transaction that we might not readily identify under his name in a couple of years. That left Harvey, who turned out, in a distressingly limited sample size, to be at least as good as either of his erstwhile rotationmates ever were as Mets. We assume Harvey Days will be bountiful again come 2015 (if not sooner…though probably not sooner). We assume that, because to imagine anything else would undercut our trio of dreams and be just too goddamn cruel to fathom.
We didn’t assume after that second turn through the rotation that went Dickey to Harvey to Santana that we’d never see Johan pitch for us again and we sure as hell had no idea only nine starts remained in R.A.’s Met career. We’d only recently come to understand how special it was to have the two of them burnishing their legends on a back-to-back basis. Then Matt was dropped in between them and there was no time in real time to comprehend just what we were seeing.
The idea was never quite Santana, Dickey and Harvey. It just kind of happened that way. Then, without warning, it wasn’t happening at all. That’s OK, though. Something seems to be happening here. We’ll just have to keep one eye on the horizon and try to figure out what it’s going to be.
My thanks to Annie Levy and the Photo ID Foundation for inviting me to take part in the Baseball As Good Medicine evening of storytelling Thursday night and thanks, as ever, to Jay Goldberg for his superlative hosting at the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse, a shrine each and every one of you should visit. Hat tip as well to my fellow storytellers, including Mets fan Paul Lukas, who not only knows how to wear a uniform but exchange a rain check.
Like the swallows that return to Capistrano every March, Mets fans dependably make the pilgrimage to Port St. Lucie every spring. It’s not so much what they see that spurs them onto southbound flights but what they feel. And what Ryder Chasin felt when he was treated to a longer than expected weekend in the temporary center of our universe is something we can all experience vicariously thanks to him being kind enough to write it up exclusively for Faith and Fear in Flushing readers.
Ryder last wrote for us when he covered the first Citi Field sleepover. Now our good friend and special correspondent presents his impressions of the 2014 baseball season as it begins to stir far from home.
It was a cold winter, mostly spent huddled in the dark, unblinking and mouth agape, ceaselessly and helplessly watching MLB Network — I could probably recite most of the Top Ten Right Now lists by memory — and scrolling through the 2013 archives of my fantasy league to try to relive the days of summer. But The Bite still itched.
Any moment not spent staring at the TV was reluctantly spent at school, where doodles of team logos and theoretical Mets lineups decorated my desks; I paid a little less attention to physics and a little more attention to where Juan Lagares looks best in the order (6? 7? 2? Then where does Murph go?). But The Bite still itched.
The QBC gave it a good, hard scratch, and the 2014 FanGraphs and ESPN projections provided sweet, albeit temporary, relief. But, suffice it to say, The Bite still itched.
See, it takes more than talk to satisfy The Bite of the baseball bug. It takes sun. It takes crowds. Put simply, it takes baseball. Right?
Well thanks to my wonderfully accommodating parents, that prescription was filled. My father and I, with the hope of there being tickets available at the door, hopped on a plane and took our fifth annual trip down to Port St. Lucie in an attempt to heal the infamous, if not abominable, Bite.
Tradition Field, whose traditions include tacos in helmets. (Photo by Ed Witty.)
Opening Day, Friday, 2/28:
Nationals 5 Mets 4
Though it was our fifth trip to camp, going to Spring Training Opening Day was a Chasin first. Our flight landed two hours before the national anthem, leaving us just enough time to hustle our way over to Tradition Field, buy our tickets, grab a Taco-in-a-Helmet (for those who haven’t had the pleasure, it truly is a disgusting yet delicious staple of Mets spring training) and get seated. We decided to celebrate being there for the first game, so we splurged and spent an exorbitant $20 a pop to sit first row, right next to the Mets bullpen.
The seats allowed me the pleasure of giving an acknowledged head-nod to Dave Racaniello; the silent bliss of watching the exceptionally sharp Rafael Montero pitch his pregame bullpen from ten feet away; the starstruck joy of waving down Dan Warthen after the game to ask him, since I hadn’t heard any news, how Jenrry was looking.
“Outstanding,” he said.
The game itself went down as a Met loss. Then again, every Spring Training game is a wash. But it wasn’t the result that mattered. No, what mattered was the Ike Davis moonshot and seeing Granderson in right and watching the jersey numbers ascend from the teens to the 60s as the game grew older. I didn’t care that the Mets were losing. I cared that the Mets were playing.
However, just as I felt the obtrusive Bite finally being scratched, the unfortunate metaphor physically manifested itself, and — perhaps due to the previously taco-filled helmets gathered under our seats — a swarm of flies started to loiter around us. The brave men and women of section 116 tried to combat the hive, but it was to no avail. We mutually decided just to ignore the bugs and try to enjoy the last few innings of the game. Nonetheless, metaphorically or otherwise, I was bitten. Again.
Day 2, Saturday, 3/1:
Marlins 9 Mets 1
Thankfully we had another day to try to cure the fresh Bite. This time we had no flight to keep us from getting to the park early and walking through camp. We again saw Montero, from even closer than ten feet, and my dad shook his hand to wish him luck this year. I’m not sure how much he understood, but he still said thank you and gave him a smile. If only all players were so courteous.
One courteous man was Terry Collins, who not only smiled and laughed through a good 15-second conversation, but who was kind enough to take a picture with me, putting himself in an uncomfortable pose where he had to reach his arm both over the fence and over my shoulder to make it look amicable. Despite the discomfort, and the fact that my FAFIF shirt did not make an appearance, I think it turned out just fine.
Managing to take a pretty good picture.
Before too long, though, we were kicked from our spot at batting practice, and had to make our way inside the stadium. Another Taco-in-a-Helmet later, and we were in seats with which we’re more accustomed, in the second deck, but at a perfect vantage point to see the misplaced John Lannan take on the Marlins.
Duda’s tape-measure blast was the only Mets Magic of note at the game. It turned out, of course, to be a 9-1 rout, and, though I said the results don’t matter, the deflation wasn’t just seen on the scoreboard, but also on the field. So, while Opening Day brought so much to cheer for, Saturday’s game brought nothing but wonted pessimism — not to mention it didn’t much help The Bite.
Day 3, Sunday, 3/2:
No Game Attended
I woke up expecting to go home Sunday night, with The Bite still itchy as ever. We had packed our bags in the morning and headed out to do non-baseball-related (thus, I suppose, uninteresting) activities, when we got word that our flight into JFK was canceled due to the impending superstorm that was projected to hit the New York area. With that, my dad and I had won a bonus day in Florida, separated by only a two-hour drive from Champion Stadium in Kissimmee, where the Mets would play the Braves on Monday. Our agenda was immediately set.
Side note: I hear now that the storm never really hit. I don’t know if I believe in fate, but I’m starting to think that maybe there was never going to be a storm at all; that maybe it was the work of some gracious Baseball God who understood the feeling of The Bite and knew I had to see just one more game. But I digress.
Day 4, Monday, 3/3:
Mets 6 Braves 2
It wasn’t until the morning that I discovered Syndergaard was starting. I let out a giddy yelp and sent a text to three of my other Mets friends, eliciting justifiably mixed responses.
“Tell me how Thor looks,” one said.
“Lucky man,” said another.
“I hate you,” said the third.
With ample excitement in my heart and ample sunscreen on my nose, we made our way to the stadium. Champion Stadium is a part of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney, and so the employees are all Disney-programmed to be extraordinarily cheerful. Used to Citi Field, I was certainly a bit taken aback.
Nonetheless, aided by these unconditional smiles, we were directed into the stadium. We got there exceptionally early once again, and passed the time by sitting in the row immediately behind the Mets dugout, waving to unfamiliar faces of the non-roster invitees while pseudo-fans tossed their balls and pens to the Danny Munos and Eric Campbells of the traveling roster.
Somewhere along the way, we found out we were sitting near Matt den Dekker’s grandfather and Anthony Seratelli’s uncle-in-law. It made for some interesting conversation, and Seratelli tossed some sugar-free dugout Dubble Bubble our way.
We stayed in the seats we found behind the dugout; by another touch of the Baseball Gods, nobody came to claim them. It gave us the perfect vantage point to watch Syndergaard’s relaxed elegance — his easy 97 — through to the end of his two-inning tease. The anticipation was well worth the result, but, while I thought Syndergaard might be my fix, The Bite stayed.
Next, Familia came out throwing 98 with life, and he held the Braves to nothing over a couple of frames. He left. The Bite stayed.
Suddenly, if not fittingly, flies again swarmed our section, this time unprompted by Tacos in Helmets. I had a flashback to Friday, to the bugs — quite literally the baseball bugs — flitting around us as our row sat still, trying to ignore them and watch the game. We weren’t kidding anybody. The bugs were there, and so were their Bites. They weren’t just going to go away.
I decided that this time it was going to be different. This time I wasn’t going to sit idly by waiting for the bugs to leave. To beat this eerily accurate metaphor, this time I was going to Bite back.
What ensued was a gruesome battle, lasting the better part of four innings. More flies would swoop in, and I would swat them down or bat them with my scorecard. By the bottom of the eighth, the ground, not the air, was full of flies.
That inning, though, the Braves surged ahead to take a 2-1 lead, and the Mets looked defeated. Wild pitches and inopportune hits forced the beautiful outings from Syndergaard and Familia to go in vain. The day was almost over, and The Bite itched terribly. We trudged into the top of ninth, ready to head home.
But then an Amazin’ thing happened. A triple. Andy Brown, without warning, sliding safely into third base. And then, before I had time to mark it down in the book, a base knock. The Mets had tied it in the ninth. A few hits and a blink later, it was 5-2, and the Braves pitcher was now the one trudging off the field. A stolen base and another hit brought the Mets to threefold the opposing score as we headed into the bottom of the inning, and a “Let’s Go Mets” chant erupted at the Braves’ ballpark. After the raucous ended and the hum of the crowd reformed, I felt something I hadn’t felt in months: no itch. No Bite.
The bottom of the ninth started with good ol’ Gonzalez Germen on the bump, but the game wasn’t the focus anymore. Even if Germen gave up 20 runs — which I suppose would be impossible given how the bottom of the ninth works — there was no question as to which team won. Just then, as Germen was delivering his final pitch, my dad looked around our seats.
“No more bugs,” he said. “Guess you must have gotten them all.”
I looked at my scorecard, and recorded the final out.
“Guess so,” I said back with a smile.
Now with three games under my belt and a glimpse into happier times for the Mets, I can rest easy. No longer do I constantly feel the need to chew off my nails like an addict on withdrawal. Instead I feel content; happy. I feel, perhaps foolishly, optimistic.
But I think in the end that’s the cure to The Bite: a little optimism. There’s so much unfeeling analysis in FanGraphs and ESPN projections, and only so much speculation to make about offseason moves and top ten lists. Sometimes maybe it’s best to take a page out of Warthen’s book and look at things as though they might really be, well, outstanding.
Mike Piazza is a special instructor in Mets camp. He is among the most special of all Mets, so the title fits. Nice of him to swing by St. Lucie, just as it was good thinking on Jeff Wilpon’s part to invite him.
(We will now take the keyboard on which I’m typing out of play and send it to Cooperstown, as it’s the first keyboard ever used by a Mets blogger to express a complimentary thought toward Jeff Wilpon.)
What instruction can Piazza give the Mets of today, particularly their catchers? Besides “wear extra padding in your mitt when Syndergaard pitches”? Whatever it is, I’m willing to bet it will be useful. He’s Mike Piazza, for goodness sake. We don’t regularly tout his election to the Hall of Fame just to be friendly. He was one of the all-time greats as a hitter and — the occasional floating throw into center notwithstanding — a hard-nosed catcher who seemed to work well with his pitchers. If you weren’t convinced of his credentials after experiencing his eight breathtaking seasons at Shea, then read his 2013 autobiography, which I just got around to doing. Mike will make sure to let you know he was one of the best…whether you appreciate him or not.
Sadly, he doesn’t think you do, which seems to be the point of the book.
Long Shot (written with Lonnie Wheeler) is the richly detailed life story of a public figure you thought about plenty while he was in your line of sight but, honestly, never thought about nearly as much the public figure himself did. You couldn’t have. We are all our own protagonists, but Long Shot takes the concept well beyond focused self-examination. The book seems to assume every moon, planet and sun revolved around Mike Piazza from the first time a scout watched him take his cuts to the last time he left a major league field as an active player…and none of those heavenly bodies spun quite to the center of Piazza Universe’s satisfaction.
The Piazza of Long Shot lays out a canvas unfortunately skewed to slights. Mike never got over the doubts of anybody who didn’t think he belonged in professional baseball, anybody who wasn’t convinced of his merits as a catcher or hitter, anybody who…well, everybody. Everybody doubted Mike Piazza and he showed them. That’s the tone of the book. That’s the substance. If he was as defensive during his playing career as he is in his recollections, he’d have more Gold Gloves than Johnny Bench. Every now and then he drops in a note about how lucky he was and how grateful he is to have been so blessed, but then he gets back to ticking off all the times somebody ticked him off.
As exhilarating as it was to watch Piazza hit to all fields is how exhausting it was to read Piazza remember selectively. He portrays New York as incredibly tough on him, what with all the booing after he was traded here. I went to 18 games in 1998 with Mike a member of the Mets and I have to say I mostly recall standing and cheering in the company of tens of thousands who were doing the same. Granted, the random 6-4-3 DP wasn’t greeted with “aw, you’ll get ’em next time, big fella,” from everybody populating Loge and Mezzanine, but No. 31 was the most popular Met from the moment he boarded the plane that carried him definitively north from Fort Lauderdale. Dissenters notwithstanding, we Mets fans absolutely adored Mike Piazza. We were overjoyed when we got him. We were ecstatic when he signed to stay on. We were saddened when he waved goodbye. I didn’t know we were not living up to his expectations while we were emoting overwhelmingly in favor of his being Our Guy from 1998 through 2005.
Then again, he has far less good to say about Dodger fans, so I don’t feel so bad about inadvertently making him feel episodically put upon. The Dodger crowd made him feel worse. So did Dodger management. So did many of his L.A. teammates, not to mention those with whom he played in the minors. By comparison, New York was nothing but peaches, cream and perfectly permissible protein shakes (the rich detail includes an exploration of Mike’s workout regimen, presumably included to deflect the inane bacne assertions that have undermined his Hall candidacy to date).
Plus, he’s still Mike Piazza of the New York Mets and will always be Mike Piazza of the New York Mets. No overly touchy memoir can take that away from me.
While I came away from Long Shot wishing Mike was more comfortable as the Hall of Fame-caliber star who inhabits his own skin, I wasn’t altogether sorry I read it. His inherent affability shone through despite pursuing his agenda of dismay, plus I learned a good bit about how a spectacular hitter and stalwart catcher sees the game, and now that he’s special-instructing, I imagine he has a few pointers (besides “dude, hit the ball real hard”) to pass on to the likes of Travis d’Arnaud.
I was also reminded you don’t have to have been Piazza-level as a player to accumulate and dispense wisdom to the next generation. One of the names that jumped out from the pages of grudges in Long Shot was that of Frank Estrada. Estrada was Piazza’s winter league manager in Mexico in 1991 — and Frank is short for Francisco.
Recognize him? Francisco Estrada was one of the four players the Mets gave up to get Jim Fregosi from the Angels in 1971. That’s usually as far as he gets in the Met canon, but if you read Long Shot, you’ll find out that Estrada played a role in Mets history that outweighs his throw-in status in the Nolan Ryan deal.
Francisco Estrada taught Mike Piazza how to catch. Not singlehandedly, but enough so that Piazza saw fit to single him out for his instruction more than 20 years after the fact. “He taught me a lot,” Mike wrote of the man known as Paquin. “In the end, going to Mexico was absolutely the best thing I could have done that winter…it was when I started to become a polished hitter.”
Ryan + 3 for Fregosi was a bust of epic proportions for the Mets. But if you consider Piazza, by way of Estrada’s tutelage, a de facto throw-in to the deal coming back this way (albeit 27 years after the fact), I’d say the worst trade ever made eventually evened out just fine.