One of my favorite parts of a new baby season is how for a little while you can remember every game.
We lost that horror show in KC, then played well and won a squeaker, walloped the Phils, then lost that taut little one the next night.
See? Easy. Depending on your attentiveness and memory, you’ll be able to do that for another week or so. Then things will start getting muddled and tangled, and then the season will elongate and elasticize into feelings and narratives invented to fit a selection of facts.
It’s the way of things, just as it’s natural to record firsts. We got the first heartbreaker out of the way early on Opening Night — before Opening Night, even, if you want to count enduring the Royals’ flag-raising and ESPN’s hammering the defenseless carcass of Lucas Duda‘s throw home. We got the first taut victory out of the way two nights later, and recorded the first runaway on a chilly Friday at Citi. And then Saturday night’s game brought us another inevitable first for the menagerie: the first unsatisfying shrug-your-shoulders affair, a game whose only flaw was the final score.
The Phillies are a dumpster fire, no doubt — take a shaky bullpen as an anti-foundation, then atop it assemble a general lack of experience, iffy outfield defense, Ryan Howard‘s albatross of a contract, and whatever the hell it is Cesar Hernandez thinks he’s doing at any given moment. We can guess what that will mean over 162 games, but it doesn’t say anything about what the Phillies will do during one of those games.
Tonight they were a little bit better than the Mets. The difference was teeny — Bartolo Colon‘s 66th pitch was a 88 MPH fastball with not enough movement and too much plate, transformed by Howard into an arcing liner destined for the third row above the old Great Wall of Flushing. Colon was pretty great the rest of the night, punctuated by an over-the-shoulder catch of an airborne Freddy Galvis bunt that looked a little like a high-school drama class’s re-enactment of Willie Mays retiring Vic Wertz. Yes, Bartolo got his man then, but the failure to get Howard would doom the Mets by a thin yet inarguable margin.
Meanwhile, the Phillies’ Vince Velasquez looked like a punching bag early, racking up a slew of hitters’ counts while hunting for a stubbornly elusive curve ball. Unfortunately for the Mets he found it, throttling them with that curve and a lively fastball through the middle innings before a high pitch count forced his exit and ensured the Mets would have three cracks at the Phillies’ bullpen.
Three cracks, lots of opportunities … and nothing accomplished. Alejandro De Aza was picked off first with two outs in the seventh, but reached second when Howard did everything but balance the baseball on his nose; no matter, as Curtis Granderson flied out. The eighth inning, though, was the one that really hurt: between Asdrubal Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes and Lucas Duda the Mets saw no less than 12 pitches in 2-0, 3-0, 3-1 or 3-2 counts. That’s a good recipe for a big inning, but hold your compliments to the chef: they Mets converted not a single one of those pitches into a walk or a hit, then meekly departed after a six-pitch ninth.
It wasn’t a forgettable game — the final score, head-scratching Phillie misplays and taut starting pitching elevated it above that. But one we’d like to forget? That fits well enough.
The Mets won their Home Opener on Friday in what we might refer to as Methodical fashion, steadily dismantling an opponent seemingly incapable of keeping up with them across a given nine-inning period. They hit when they had to, they fielded as needed, they pitched above industry standards and they played Philadelphia. Of such ingredients, victory stew is concocted.
On the list of obstacles starter and winner Jacob deGrom needed to overcome, the Phillie offense placed fourth, behind 1) wanting to be on hand to accept the impending delivery of his first child, lest UPS leave it with a neighbor; 2) a lat muscle that tightened up after six innings of five-hit, no-walk, six-strikeout ball, but was described as not serious because slight Met aches are never anything to worry about, no siree, Bob; and 3) arctic conditions that made the 48 on Jake’s jersey an aspirational figure, once you factored in the wind chill. The Phillies, by comparison, were something you could confidently leave in the baby’s crib and not worry that any harm would come. They are, at this stage of their development, child’s play.
It took a little while for the Mets to warm to their task, which is understandable considering how freaking cold it was at Citi Field. One skinny run remained unaccompanied from the second through the fifth, the Mets leaving five on in the first four innings. The Phillies tied things up in the top of the sixth, with deGrom growing a little uncomfortable and the rest of us perhaps a tad uneasy.
Ultimately, though, the Mets asserted their essential Metness, chasing Jerad Eickhoff in the bottom of the sixth, when Lucas Duda doubled, Neil Walker singled him home and Michael Conforto doubled in Walker. A parade of Phillie relievers thus commenced and may still be in progress; I’m surprised one of them wasn’t run over during the debut of the lame car race that wishes it was Milwaukee’s sausage race. One by one they marched in from beyond the outfield wall, some now and then recording outs, others issuing walks and permitting singles. By the end of the seventh, the Mets had accumulated as many runs as there had been innings. The eventual 7-2 final accurately reflected the current capability gap between combatants. The Mets are good enough to win when they don’t look particularly great. The Phillies have at least one player easily flummoxed by the infield fly rule.
Winning solidly if not resoundingly ensured a successful mission for the 44,099 of us who swaddled ourselves in enough blankets to make Baby deGrom jealous. But Friday was gonna be a special Met day regardless of result. That was guaranteed last October 21, once we knew we’d have no worse than a National League championship to commemorate come April 8.
You don’t get to enshrine a champion of that level or higher every day. The Mets have done it only five times. As long as we could see them do that, the Home Opener was going to be an affair to remember.
The pennant did rise, just like the playoff merchandise promised it would. It rose up a flag pole planted on the branded soft drink pavilion (why get attached to transitory sponsorships?). Three men who know from earning league championship flags — Rusty Staub, Class of 1973 and 2000 alumni John Franco and Edgardo Alfonzo — were tasked with raising duty. It wasn’t a Herculean chore. The Mets have what I assume are the shortest flag poles in the majors. Instead of one that towers majestically over center field, they have a few tucked out of the way where it wouldn’t occur to you to look for them.
On the pole next to where Old Glory flies, the cloth representing recent accomplishment waved prominently in Friday’s omnipresent wind. The ’73 and ’00 flags were given the day off, as were those commemorating ’69 and ’86. The framework for Citi Field’s eighth Opening Day was carved by the 2015 National League Champions. They deserved a singular spotlight.
The pennant’s literal rise followed the introduction of the 2016 Mets, who aren’t exactly the 2015 Mets, which will happen when offseasons interrupt continuity. You watched the festivities and thought about all the fingerprints on the achievement we were basking in, yet Howie Rose did not call names like Murphy or Tejada. It didn’t exactly detract from the ritual, but you missed them in the moment. Still, this is the business we’ve chosen. No doubt the rings are in the mail.
Every Met who is a Met in the present was introduced with an Opening Day flourish and cheered heartily, whether it was someone who’d devoted to the cause we hold dear a dozen years or a dozen weeks. Mets who’d been Mets since not much before Sunday were greeted as blood relations. We are modern fans. We understand how to blend our family.
These types of ceremonies, even without a pennant adornment, are always a ritual to behold. I’ve been a sentimentalist since I was a kid, so I loved that Ray Ramirez finally drew more yays than nays, his Prevention & Recovery execution finally being good for what ailed us…deGrom’s lat pending. I appreciated that Dan Warthen was treated as the superstar svengali he’s turned out to be. I got a kick out of the extra relish spread on Michael Conforto’s reception. Every year at this time, I’ve noticed we like to tell the young player who showed us a little something late in the preceding year that we noticed you, that we do pay attention, and now we anticipate big things from you (implication: don’t let us down, kid).
Amid the stream of please welcome and direct your attention instructions came an interlude I was not expecting at the instant Alex Anthony announced it: a moment of silence dedicated to Shannon Forde, the senior media relations director and first-class human being who died of cancer in March. Viewing her cherubic image on the video boards, accompanied by the unintentionally cruel words “IN LOVING MEMORY,” made for one of those Opening Day time jumps that grabs you by the heart. The weather people said something in the morning about a chance of “pop-up showers”; I can report the brief presence of one behind my glasses.
I took in the ceremonial portion of the day on my own, staking out a spot in the left field corner to stand and clap and occasionally go “YEAH!” This was my sixteenth Home Opener and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that no matter how well I plan, I’m never fully stationed at my seat when the ceremonies begin. It is better, for my purposes, to stop wherever I am and watch from there. It works fine that way. As for why I can’t be in my seat, the first home game of the year demands a course of pregame scurrying. That, too, is intrinsic to the day’s rituals.
I want to see what’s new inside the stadium. I want to see what’s up with folks I’m meeting outside the stadium. I want to let those with whom I didn’t physically touch base know where to find me later. I want to linger at the tailgates of gracious fellow travelers. I want to grab my magnetic schedule (I have one for every year since 1997). I want to purchase my Official Yearbook, program and media guide. I want to run to the bathroom. And I want to absorb the whole scene. Opening Days demand much of the highly engaged fan — as they should, I suppose. Go big or stay home or something like that.
Once the podium was carted away and the players retreated to their opposing dugouts, the center of gravity for my first game of 2016 became Section 534 in Promenade, a region that provided a wonderfully Shealike perspective on the remaining proceedings. It is the rough equivalent of Section 32 in Mezzanine, if we allow for the conceit that nothing at Citi Field (besides Garrett Olson’s lifetime Met ERA) measures as high as the Upper Deck at Shea Stadium; otherwise, pencil in Upper Deck 48, since-demolished site of the sainted Agee marker, for purposes of comparison. I sat in fair territory at Shea only when it was a huge crowd for a huge game. It seemed fair to sit well up in left for this year’s Opener. Mets and Phillies is no longer an automatically enormous matchup, but what could be huger than raising the first pennant in Citi Field history?
Elevating my spirits way higher than Row 6 of 534 was my companion for the bulk of the day, my sister Jodie, who is not technically my sister (different parents and all that), but might as well be. Our last Home Opener together was 2007, also a satisfying beatdown of the Phillies, also conducted in a climate better suited to the Iditarod. Jodie lives far from Flushing now, but she recognizes a special occasion from a vast distance, and for that I’m grateful. While I was immersed in happily recapping 2015 last November, Jodie told me a Facebook group to which we both belonged (I in a mostly nominal capacity) was getting a bloc of tickets together, preceded by epic parking lot doings, did I wanna go as her guest? I looked up from my typing long enough to say, uh, sure, not quite believing months in advance that anybody had a handle on whether we or the Mets would still be around in futuristic-sounding April of 2016.
Glad I went along in concept as well as reality. The group, cheekily self-identified as The Mets Give Me Agita, was conspicuous by its affable mellowness on Friday — convincing wins will temporarily quell the stubbornest of anxieties — and Jodie and I picked up more or less from where we left off, wondering why, for example, Hundley couldn’t stay behind the plate and Piazza couldn’t go out to left since Todd was obviously the better catcher. Clearly, Mets agitation does not come stamped with a sell-by date.
Likewise, Mets fulfillment shouldn’t be deemed a done deal just because the final pitch Antonio Bastardo throws to Cameron Rupp is grounded to Asdrubal Cabrera and fired successfully to Lucas Duda. My Mets buzz stayed intact all the way to Woodside, where I was meeting Stephanie for dinner at a little Filipino restaurant where the chicken molo soup warms whatever extremities a 7-2 triumph can’t. I arrived first, sat myself down, stared out the window and watched Mets fan after Mets fan wander by. They were presumably bound for Roosevelt Avenue establishments of their choosing, no agita evident in their gaits, either. Emotionally sated Mets fans are a boon to the local economy, to say nothing of the civic mood. A pennant had indeed risen, our mojo was risin’ and that molo they were making in Engeline’s kitchen was going to hit the spot like our lineup had hit the Phillies’ bullpen.
The whole world is a better place when the Mets win their Home Opener. You already knew that, but it’s always nice to be reminded.
Thursday afternoon, driving around and desperate for baseball to fill the inane interregnum during which an uncaring schedulemaker left the Mets far too idle, I flipped to the Yankees-Astros game. John Sterling mentioned something about Nathan Eovaldi apparently being done for the day. Rarely thinking about who’s on that team and what they do, I worked to remember Eovaldi from the Marlins and piece the clues together from there. He’s a pitcher…he pitches for the Yankees now…he’s leaving the game…but they’re not saying he’s being pinch-hit for…because this, like our two games in Kansas City, is being played under American League rules…which are an affront to all that is good.
This isn’t going to be a screed against the designated hitter and its unnatural nature having no place in the game we love, and it’s not even going to be a swipe at John Oliver’s target de la semaine nor the announcer whose most every fly ball call encompasses height, distance and inaccuracy. Instead, it’s a celebration of today being a day when there will be no desperation for baseball. We’ll have baseball. Our baseball.
No DH in the Mets-Phillies game at Citi Field today at 1:10. No announcers for whom we roll up the windows while in the car lest strangers adjacent to us at a red light think we listen to this crap as a matter of course. No substitutes needed.
We’ve got the Mets back. Our Mets.
It’s something approaching normal, this Friday day game in Flushing. Granted, there are never Friday day games in Flushing unless it’s the Home Opener, and the Home Opener is anything but business as usual. Even in the years coming off sub-.500 finishes, today is fully out of the ordinary, for better and for worse.
The “for better” you can figure out for yourself. The “for worse” is a tad harsh, I suppose, but as much as I thoroughly enjoy the half-hour or so of tradition-steeped pomp that precedes the actual playing of ball — everything from the appearance of the Shea family’s sacred floral horseshoe through the opposing leadoff batter inevitably taking the first non-ceremonial pitch for ball or strike one — what I’m craving annually here at winter’s end is an intertwining of normality and baseball in my bloodstream. The excitement that bubbles over hours beforehand on mass transit platforms and inside rapidly filling parking lots over one single game that isn’t for the championship of anything, whether the vibe is organic, manufactured or a little lubricated…well, to quote the Queens-bred boyfriend of a girl who lived across the hall from me in college, it ain’t nawmal.
Opening Day, the Home version, is out of the norm by definition, but sometimes finding your bliss can be an intensely personal journey that eludes accepted norms. I attended five consecutive Home Openers from 2010 to 2014, and by the last one, I was feeling optimism fatigue, which is a dangerous condition to bring to a venue where everybody is uniformly thrilled. Thus, I willingly snapped my streak last April and experienced no void for having done so.
One year later, Reverse Chicken Little (“The sky’s not falling! The sky’s not falling!”) has been proven to have squawked the truth; the Mets are raising the fifth pennant in their history; and I’ll shortly be Citi-bound packing enough anticipation to fill the first disc of a Carly Simon anthology. Of course winning has a lot to do with flipping the mood. But maybe skipping the Home Opener in 2015 provided me a reset. I’m feeling this morning like I felt twenty years ago on this occasion. The skies were grimmer and the six-month forecast was decidedly murkier in 1996 — if Wilson is as good as they say and Izzy keeps it up and Huskey slugs like he did in Florida and Ordoñez can hit like he can apparently field, watch out Wild Card — but the idea that I was gonna be at Shea to witness the Mets commence the National League season in New York challenged credulity. You mean a person can just do that?
Yes, he could and yes he can. What a kick to get to do it again with clear eyes, let alone full heart. Can’t lose? We’ll see. Either way, once this Day of Days is done, there are slated to be 80 more games in what we contentedly call our ballpark and 79 others scattered across this great land. Baseball will be performed daily, accepted as normal and, for the most part where we’re concerned, conducted free of designated hitters. Surely it will keep us coming back.
And you thought only the schedules were magnetic.
No need to stop the presses, as the Mets finally maintain a 2-0 lead versus the Royals.
All that gold in which the world champion Kansas City Royals draped themselves over the past two games is now dust. Gold dust. They can cram it into tiny tubes, authenticate it, mark it up and sell it as Thor-used to their heart’s content.
They’ve still won what they’ve won, yet we still have the most astounding concentration of starting pitching in civilization. We were reminded of both irrefutable facts Tuesday.
The Royals can have their flags and their rings and the accoutrements of 2015 victory. The Mets can have Noah Syndergaard pitch every fifth day and call him, depending on the prevailing winds, their No. 3 starter.
Some staff. Some stuff. This Syndergaard is good for all time zones, including the Central, where the late afternoon start, like the starter, hit all its spots. The Mets played fourteen postseason games in 2015 and none of them ended in daylight. Opening Night…well, it was called Opening Night for a reason, though Nightmarish Continuation would have sufficed. The last time the Mets took and left the field under the sun was October 4, just before they departed on their journey to greater things, which itself was the first instant they and sunshine were seen simultaneously in about a week. They won that well-pitched game, too.
Daylight does a Met body good, particularly one that’s listed at 6’ 6” and 240. Noah led us out of the darkness that enveloped the first game of 2016 and, after permitting a foreboding triple to leadoff pest Alcides Escobar, retired almost every Royal he faced Tuesday, doing so with command, arsenal and poise.
Wear all the gold you want. You face that and you’re gonna end your afternoon with your luster tarnished.
Thanks to Neil Walker bringing to bear the kind of home run power we’ve come to expect from our second basemen, the Mets took a 2-0 lead in the fourth. Thanks to everybody else in the lineup, the score loitered at 2-0 for an uncomfortable interval. Nothing wrong with leading the world champs — have you heard they’re relentless? — by two as the innings are whittled away, except for oh that déjà vu. The Mets led the Royals, 2-0, through eight one night in November, you might recall. That lead didn’t hold up.
This one did. Thor masterfully ’gaarded his advantage over six (three hits, one walk, nine strikeouts). The bullpen that never quite quelled doubts five-plus months ago transcended adequacy and groped at excellence. Jim Henderson, whose name evokes director of sales for your granary supplies’ Midwestern branch, turned the top of the seventh into a company picnic, complete with balloon animals for the kids. Addison Reed, who won’t always calm your anxieties, was Xanax for the Mets fan’s soul. And Jeurys Familia, a platinum reliever except when encountering Justin Upton, Alex Gordon and cruel fate, was his usual phenomenal self. In the middle of reveling in Jeurys’s tour de Familia, respect must be paid to Walker, who had trouble cleanly scooping an Eric Hosmer grounder with one out in the ninth, but did manage to pick it up and fire it to first, thus retiring both the runner and a seven-game-old narrative that had seeped all over our brand new calendar.
The Royals get all the breaks and eventually make the Mets pay. But they don’t cash in on every last one of them, we discovered an instant later, as Familia earned the glittering item we learned across several frightful nights last fall can be more precious than gold: a save.
The Mets are 1-1, exactly where they were after two games in 2015 (and a whole lot of other less rewarding seasons). Two and Oh would be better, as would 162-0 eventually, but this is fine. We got the first loss out of the way, we got the first win nailed down and we get on with our baseball lives. We now wait out the bizarro-schedule portion of the week — off Wednesday, off Thursday; bundle up Friday for our own humble ceremonies; and by next Tuesday, it will be like this year has been going on forever.
With pitching like we saw from Syndergaard, that sounds like an enticing proposition.
It wasn’t exactly on my bucket list — unless you’re redefining the term to mean “stuff that makes me want to puke when I think about enduring it” — but I can now say I’ve been through an Opening Day that I was dreading.
Dreading Opening Day? What a bizarre thing for a lifelong fan to say. Yet that’s what I was doing while waiting for Mets/Royals at Kauffman Stadium and the beginning of the 2016 campaign.
It’s not baseball’s fault — the Mets and the Royals were locked into a season kickoff last summer, when nobody knew what the fates had in store, and rejiggering team schedules sounds easy until you actually try it.
Nor was any of the variously excruciating, annoying and exasperating pregame pomp and circumstance the fault of the Royals. They did what they should have done for their loyalists, and I thought they did it well. The Royals are a great team I gladly would have cheered for in October if not for the zero-sum problem involved, I love the goofball pageantry of flag-raising and gold lettering and trophies on display, and their fans had waited 30 years for a chance to coronate their heroes in their home park. I was miserable, but I managed to be happy for them, from the dude with moose horns to the fans pointing gleefully at Salvy Perez‘s gilded shin guards.
It wasn’t ESPN’s fault either, though by the fourth inning I was ready to hurl Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone and Jessica Mendoza off a nearby suburban overpass (of which one can choose many). Relentless narrative, after all, is what ESPN does.
My blog partner may have been elated, but I felt like I’d received an invitation to a party I really didn’t want to attend, knew would be super-awkward and painful, and yet couldn’t get out of. I’d been brooding about it off and on during the Mets’ alternately dopey and sleepy spring training, knowing there was no outcome that would satisfy me. If the Mets blitzed the Royals by a dozen runs, I’d demand to know why that couldn’t have happened a few months ago; if they lost, it would feel like a cruel Game 6 — a mean-spirited addendum to a series already down the toilet.
Either way, I was sure, it was going to suck.
What I didn’t dare guess — because it seemed too cruel — was it would suck pretty much exactly the way the World Series sucked. This was ripping off the Band-Aid to discover not pink and slightly delicate skin, but a wound that was still bloody and festering.
I went a little catatonic after the World Series, retreating into creating Lost Mets baseball cards and the comforting routines of work. I never quite figured out why, but I can grasp the broad outlines of the problem. It starts with the fact that I’ve always dismissed the World Series as a fun but silly exhibition series, seeing the pennant as the real prize. The 2015 Mets 2.0 — who didn’t exist before the end of July and never quite stopped feeling like strange new arrivals to me — won that pennant rather handily, surviving a ridiculously dramatic and harrowing series with the Dodgers before beating the Cubs as badly as one team can beat another.
Which was so, so awesome — all the more so for the long wait and the sheer unlikeliness of it all.
And then those same Mets went and turned in one of the worst weeks of baseball they’d given us all year.
You saw it: alternately incompetent and tragic fielding, inept baserunning, dunderheaded quick pitches, meek hitting, bad managerial decisions, and no shortage of rotten luck. It was dreadful, and as things cratered I tried to tell myself not to fall prey to the narrative. I reminded myself that I laugh at dumb talk-radio fans who confuse a bad few days of baseball with a failure of virtue, a pallid will to win, or any of that other tired Goose Gossage bullshit.
But it’s easy to laugh in May or June. Turns out it’s tougher in October.
It’s a lot tougher in October.
I sulked about it for a while, waited for the feeling to fade, and when it stubbornly persisted … well, I didn’t quite know what to do. And I still don’t.
But I do know this much: the antidote to this particular fan’s illness was not kicking off April with the same two teams and the same two starting pitchers.
Which leads me back to the narrative: If the Mets had drawn any of the other 28 possible opponents for this Opening Day, the in-game chatter would have been all about the team’s giddy success and the parade of stud pitchers and the feel-good returns of Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon and how Wilmer Flores cried and stayed and how now the promised land was within reach.
Instead, the Mets drew the only opponent that ensured a different narrative: one that was all about the Royals’ triumphs and the Mets’ failures, crystallized by poor Lucas Duda taking aim at a spectator and Travis d’Arnaud spinning vainly to catch the uncatchable.
The best revenge would have been to kick the narrative in the teeth, and leave Shulman and Co. awkwardly trying to cram an increasingly square peg in a round hole. A fine plan, except the Mets turned in a performance eerily reminiscent of the World Series that I can’t manage to get over.
I mean, it was like baseball plagiarism: There was Matt Harvey once again looking out in first-inning amazement at Cespedes and a ball fielded with horrific negligence. There were Royal grounders sneaking through holes and just eluding Met defenders in the bottoms of innings, followed by the aggravatingly familiar sight of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas smothering tough hops in the tops of innings, transforming run-scoring singles into rally-snuffing outs.
Yes, the Mets made things interesting late, but their uprising started as farce and ended as tragedy.
The eighth inning looked like one of those hollow baseball moral victories, with Duda and Michael Conforto grabbing a page from Kansas City’s playbook and dropping little bloops that found grass. The ninth inning, though, turned bleak and wintry: Curtis Granderson and Cespedes sandwiched excellent at-bats around a helpless, dreadful showing by David Wright that marooned the tying run at third. It’s only one game and it would be unfair to make more of it than that, but Wright had an awful day — besides the strikeout, his bat was slow on several pitches he should have crushed and his arm was short on two infield plays.
ESPN’s sledgehammer narrative, if anything, wasn’t delivered relentlessly enough. And what was guaranteed to be a bittersweet evening at best turned out to be one of those soul-curdling losses that leave you shaking your head and waiting for a better game, one that will disperse the little black cloud created by this one.
Unfortunately, the next chance at that will be against these same Royals, and against this same narrative. Didn’t like the party? Then you’re not going to like Tuesday’s shindig either. But once again, our attendance is mandatory.
Spring what now? Spring Training? Never heard of it. If, in fact, it existed, it has completely ceased to matter. The Mets, I seem to vaguely recall, introduced the phrase “winless streak” to the baseball vocabulary for a couple of weeks at the end of March, but March has ended. Games that don’t matter don’t matter even more now that they’re ensconced in the past tense.
It’s Opening Night tonight. That’s what matters. That and its 161 companions to come.
I’m very excited. Also, the sky is blue, the grass is green and the clouds are puffy and cumulus. None of this is news, though to me, the part where I’m excited has me psyched, stoked and revved. The last time I was very excited in advance of a season’s lid being lifted was nine years ago. Perhaps you recognize an echo in that formulation. Last September, we were clinching our first postseason trip in nine years. Now we’re opening a season on the heels of one for the first time in that same size span. One of the fringe benefits of success is a lingering case of excitement.
I’ve avoided mentioning the exact calendar year that was the site of my previous overspill of Game One enthusiasm, but after a trip to the World Series, why be coy? It was 2007. Yes, Game 162 sapped the enthusiasm that was so in abundance six months before, but never mind that. Seriously, never mind any thoughts of a Year After syndrome. 2007 undercut 2006’s legacy and cast a shadow on 2008, which itself certainly didn’t bode well for anticipation of 2009, and so we went clear up to the outset of 2015, which I approached with no more than perfunctory elation.
Which was still elation, because it was still the beginning of baseball season, and the beginning of baseball season is always just cause for elation, but 2015 followed 2014, which had been the latest in the Nothing Special Parade that had been coursing through Metsopotamia for more than a half-decade.
Ah, but 2015’s full complement of 162 changed the direction, trajectory and arc of where we were going, and ever since things straightened out to our liking, everything about the Mets is exciting. Opening Night is exciting, even if it’s at night, even if it’s on ESPN, even if it’s in an American League facility and even if it brings us into direct contact with the Kansas City Royals, the only team in all the land that had a better 2015 than ours, directly at our expense — which is almost irrelevant amid our excitement, except when pangs of regret remind us that isn’t.
But never mind that, either.
The most exciting part of all this, after an October when baseball activities never ceased and a winter devoted to ensuring there might be another one in our not-so-distant future, is that we can Believe from the get-go without straining our inner credulity (which will get you pronounced day-to-day by Ray Ramirez). We can honestly Believe we might go as least as far again, a phenomenon a whole lot different from groping for pieces of if everything goes right, then maybe we won’t be so bad. There are no motions to go through when you have a ballclub like this. There is no limiting your aspirations when you have pitching like this. There is no stretching to imagine when you have a pretty good idea of how real the Mets can be.
Our reality is a dream that has every legitimate chance to come true, not the generic dream of thirty teams having a shot while sitting at 0-0. There is at play an actual amalgam of talent and ability and experience that you’re entitled to envision processing teamwork into dreamwork. No guarantees — despite the inspirational anniversary at hand — but we have arrived at a stronger competitive not to mention emotional starting point than we have at any Opener post-2007.
We’re not living in the post-2007 world anymore. This here, brothers and sisters, is the year after 2015, and I mean that in the best sense possible.
Not to look past Opening Night in Kansas City, let alone the Mets’ last chance to end Spring Training without a loss or tie already yet, but what’s incredibly hard to believe is that in a week’s time, Citi Field will be filled again.
I’ve really come around on the ol’ ballpark, probably because a pennant was won by the home team, but also because management never stops trying to improve it. Consider all the upgrades we’ve read about in the past few days from respected members of the credentialed media, and then add to them the thus far less-reported second wave of innovations I was fortunate enough to personally preview in the tour they gave to select bloggers like yours truly.
I think I’m most excited about the Purina One Bad Luck for the Other Team Black Cat Giveaway in the middle of the third inning of every home game — to be repeated in the 13th and 23rd, should the occasion present itself. Going to a Mets game and bringing home a kitty we weren’t expecting is an experience sure to appeal to those of us who love our felines as much as much as we do our Metsies. If you’re not a cat person, you will be soon if you are tabbed. According to the fine print on the backs of the tickets this year, acceptance of the cat is “mandatory,” as bearer “tacitly accepts responsibility to raise and nurture animal for three years from game date, subject to criminal prosecution.
And speaking of “Metsies,” the Casey Stengel “Babblehead” Doll, brought to us by Verizon Wireless, is a stroke of promotional genius. It’s like a bobblehead (even if it still doesn’t look like him), except this Ol’ Perfesser just keeps going on about how Amazin’, Amazin’, Amazin’ his Amazin’ Mets are, then offers an authentically Stengelese analysis of every player who has ever participated in a game for the Mets, including new guys like Neil Walker and Antonio Bastardo, the latter of whom the Babblehead colorfully identifies as “that son of a bitch Nelson”. I don’t know how they got the technology to work so you don’t have to pull a string or anything. Casey just starts talking and doesn’t stop. Taking him home alongside that black cat will be doubly fun.
Team history gets its due in other ways, too. Look for an exhibit in the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum devoted to the 9186 World Champions. It’s supposed to say 1986, but it came back from the printer transposed, and with so much going on ahead of the Home Opener, they just went with it. Let’s hope it’s an omen for the 92nd century.
The food concessions have been literally beefed up, with Bobby Bonilla’s Burger Grudge opening adjacent to the newly dubbed Coca-Cola Corner. Bobby Bo will be on hand, dispensing Burgers & Snarls. That’s what he calls fries; also, he kind of snarls at customers if they lean too far onto the counter. In the fourth inning, CitiVision will feature Bobby’s Beef, in which he tells off a random seatholder. The lucky fan then receives an autographed Knuckle Sandwich from Bonilla himself. (No photographs, please; Mr. Bonilla doesn’t care for the capture of his image.)
For the Burger Grudger who builds up a thirst that won’t be satisfied by carbonated soft drinks, there will be the chance to visit the latest Danny Meyer creation behind center field, the Beers of Joy stand, with all your favorite craft creations on tap, including a Union Square Hospitality Group original, Lachrymose Lager, “in honor of the player who cried out to stay in Flushing”. I guess they can’t explicitly refer to Wilmer Flores because of alcohol/athlete restrictions, but it’s a nice touch. All offerings at Beers of Joy will retail for $20.15 per 4-ounce cup.
Finally, given my particular demographic status, I appreciate the introduction of the Flomax Race to the Bathroom that follows the bottom of the fifth. It’ll be like Milwaukee’s sausage races, but each of the “contestants” truly has to go. Matt Harvey will be the spokesman. Kudos on the well-executed product placement we’ve already seen.
Of course the biggest attraction a week from this very day will be the raising of the RATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONS flag. Again, it was kind of a rush job, but when you see it, you’ll know what it means.
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
The shortest span between seasons in Mets history, from a little after midnight last November 2 to a few hours before midnight this April 3, has, predictably, turned into the longest wait for a new year baseball humanity has ever known.
Remember how happy we were that Spring Training had arrived? That was about a thousand months ago, and it’s still freaking going on. The charm, at least as gauged from the northern segments of I-95, has been worn down to the nub. Spring will look good again when its view is obscured by another winter. For now, it is The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave.
Yet it will. Give it time. Just a little more time.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!
I’ve tuned in to at least a portion of just about every Spring game the Mets have transmitted over their TV and radio outlets this year, yet I’d be hard-pressed, even while Spring is still literally in the air, to remember anything about any of them. They’ve very recently occurred, I possess a pretty good memory, but they evaporate into mist on contact. It’s Spring Training. We’re informed so regularly how unimportant their results are that it becomes second nature to ignore just about everything we see and hear. It’s supposed to be enough that the act of baseball is being carried out. Don’t look too closely. Certainly don’t look at who’s winning or losing. Chances are nobody is doing either.
But Sunday, because it was the last Sunday during which Mets baseball would definitively not matter for more than six months, seemed to matter, at least in theory. We reached the one-week-and-counting stage of Spring. That seemed to countermand the idea that none of this counts. It was worth watching and listening and maybe retaining.
So I did. It was the Mets and a split squad of Nationals, or roughly half of our contemporary archrivals. Just based on the whole vs. half theory, we should have prevailed easily. We had them outnumbered. In Spring, though, it doesn’t work the way you’re conditioned to normally consider these matters. Numbers don’t matter. Look at the players. A bunch are wearing numbers that hardly ever appear on baseball jerseys. It’s one more in a series of winks that you really should stop staring so hard at all of this. Come back in a week.
Nah. Let’s see what we’ve got here.
It’s only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Under a tree.
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!
Steven Matz started. Out of the corner of the one eye with which I’ve been monitoring Spring activities, I’d noticed Steven Matz was not performing in a manner befitting one-fifth or –sixth of the Greatest Starting Rotation Ever Assembled. I could dismiss such presumably aberrational behavior if I could measure it in relation to his awesome track record. But Matz has almost no track record. He threw two real good regular-season starts, went on the DL, threw four more (one of which was relatively superb), reported some back stiffness and then was tasked with taming the Dodgers, the Cubs and the Royals in October. He survived each of them and now he’s the No. 4 starter on the GSREA. There was a time we huffed “no scholarships” at starters will fewer big league credentials, but we all believe in Matz because a) we really like him; b) we really want to; c) we’re told he’s definitively worthy of our faith despite having pitched past the sixth inning exactly once in the majors.
I’m willing to take a relatively small leap that he’ll be what he is supposed to be — the best parts of his 2015 sample size were as tasty as his sample size was small — but maybe he could pitch well once in March so he could put my mind at ease in advance of April?
My fellow Long Islander did me a solid. Five-and-two-thirds innings of what appeared to be professional pitching. He walked four but struck out five and allowed only a home run to Clint Robinson in the way of damage. Later he told those who asked that the Mets pitchers had a meeting and this somehow helped. Most meetings veer to the useless. Perhaps Dan Warthen has a future in human resources.
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!
David Wright went the other way, all the way, belting a Yusmeiro Petit pitch barely over Tradition Field’s right field fence in the first inning. David Wright stroking opposite field home runs is the rock on which His Wrightness was built. Then they built Citi Field, which sapped one of his core equities but doesn’t much matter in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets play in a ballpark whose dimensions remain an exact match for Shea Stadium. That was a brilliant concept in 1988, a lingering curiosity since 2009 for those of us who enjoy raising our eyebrows in “ya don’t say?” astonishment. The Mets aren’t using 338 down the lines and 410 to center anymore in real life, but knowing that the old ballpark’s measurements still play a role in preparing the players for their season in the current one tickles the historical rib. It’s like bumping into the Ebbets Field flagpole outside Barclays Center or scaling the restored John T. Brush Stairway behind the site of the Polo Grounds.
Here’s a ghost for you, albeit one that ultimately learned it was time to blow: the air conditioner that cooled the visitors’ clubhouse at Shea from 1964 through 2008 was a transplant from the Polo Grounds press room. Ironically, an AC unit that was said to chill effectively enough “to store raw meat” was ultimately knocked down because of a stiff Breeze.
Wright, who’s been around since that air conditioner was frosting Bobby Cox’s autographed balls, is working toward not being an anachronism. He’s working hard so he can take Johnnie Walker’s advice on remaining ambulatory. Tell us all you want that Spring is somewhere to tread emotionally lightly. David works it. At 32 and saddled stenoically, he has to.
The work paid off on Sunday. It didn’t count at all, yet surely it counted for something.
With a click, with a shock,
Phone’ll jingle, door’ll knock,
Open the latch!
Something’s coming, don’t know when, but it’s soon;
Catch the moon,
Gary Cohen was on assignment, which could be taken to mean he’d be filing reports from Lebanon on The Nightly News with Lester Holt unless you know that announcers for your favorite team actually announce other games. Howie Rose does hockey, Josh Lewin football, Gary college basketball. Though they’re all as talented there as they’re talented here, it can’t help but feel like the tiniest bit of betrayal to their true missions, which is talking to us about the Mets every time they open their mouths. Lindsey Nelson called the Cotton Bowl without once mentioning Buddy Harrelson. Lindsey, I’d wonder, why aren’t you talking about the Mets on New Year’s Day?
With Gary broadcasting for radio audiences the improbable step Syracuse took into the NCAA Final Four, Scott Braun took his place telling us about the PSL Nobody’s Keeping Track Two. Braun — whose voice I inevitably associate with Barbasol-sponsored updates on the MLB Network at four in the morning — filled in last Spring, too. He and Jim Duquette and Alexa Datt. It’s not at all bad what they do. It’s just not what we’re used to.
Keith Hernandez, though…him we’re used to and wouldn’t have it any other way. Keith, who fretted between Sunday pitches about booking his brother a hotel room in Sag Harbor two months from now, did color while Scott did play-by-play. It was a generally affable and amiable arrangement, though you certainly hope Cabrera and Walker are in better sync by Kansas City than these provisional partners were.
Scott asked Keith a pitching question. There was a pause of several seconds.
“I’m sorry,” Keith finally and honestly replied. “I was daydreaming.”
Ah, Scott. Everybody knows Ronnie handles the pitching questions. But he was on assignment as well.
Around the corner,
Or whistling down the river,
Come on, deliver
Will it be? Yes, it will.
Maybe just by holding still,
It’ll be there!
At any given moment, I’m hyperaware of no more than three Mets prospects. One of them is Amed Rosario. I’ve heard he’s the Shortstop of the Future. The last one we had was Jose Reyes. I was hyperaware of him as he climbed the ladder. It’s been all pretty TBD at that position in the four going on five seasons since Jose left. Will Amed fill the post-Reyes gap once and for all when 2018 rolls around? It’s too soon to peer so far. Rosario’s only 20, has spent all of two games above Single-A and was sporting No. 89 on Sunday.
But No. 89 was in action. He, like Matz and Wright (and, I suppose, Braun and Hernandez), started. He banged out two hits. He made a leaping grab of a line drive. He exuded enthusiasm all over Twitter before and after.
It was a “privilege and honor” playing alongside the “big boys”; any number was a good number if got him “to play in the show”; the best part of his day was “seeing Captain David Wright healthy, winning and playing in front of the Mets home crowd.” Young Amed volunteered all of this and answered every atta-boy fed him in the occasionally fraught 4-6-3 pivot of social media.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s @amed_rosario who has the future in human resources — after he stars at shortstop for us for a decade or two.
Come on, something, come on in, don’t be shy,
Meet a guy,
Pull up a chair!
The air is humming,
And something great is coming!
Nobody won. Nobody lost. That happens in Spring Training. It happens a lot to the Mets, who on Sunday posted a tie for the third consecutive day. Once the bottom of the ninth was over, the score Mets 4, Nats 4, I braced myself for the most predictable March camera shot this side of some UNC Tar Heel cutting down a net: Terry Collins waving “bye” to the other team’s manager.
As of this coming Sunday night, we won’t see that shot anymore. It will be whether you win or lose, not just that you played a game. The bullpen will have to fine-tune itself. Cespedes will have to judge deep flies to the base of the wall better. Conforto will have to be comfortable, deGrom up to speed and Harvey…gads, what exactly is up with the titular ace of the GSREA? Nothing good, say the sources inside my head.
This gets real and stays real before we know it. It’s only just out of reach.
Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Anticipation by New York Mets fans everywhere.
Profuse thanks to all who came to Foley’s this past Saturday for an Amazin’ Again event that lived up to my book’s name. You humble with me with your words and actions.
Hope those of you in or adjacent to the Borough of Mets can join me Thursday evening, 6 to 7:30, at the Queens Library’s Central branch in Jamaica for a talk I assure you will be as Amazin’ as I can make it.
And speaking of Amazin’ talk, this chat between myself (at 35 minutes in) and Chris McShane of Amazin’ Avenue was a pleasure to be part of.
The Mets have played home games in two counties of New York City, so I’ll do the same in the coming days, as the preseason book tour for Amazin’ Again: How the 2015 New York Mets Brought the Magic Back to Queens continues.
This Saturday, March 26, from roughly noon to three, I’ll be at Foley’s, the bar dedicated to baseball, with books for purchase and signatures for free. Buy a copy if you haven’t already; bring the copy you already bought. Mostly, come say hi, hang out and share a little Mets bonhomie with your fellow fans. Foley’s is located in Manhattan at 18 W. 33rd St., between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, across from the Empire State Building, convenient to Penn Station, not far from Grand Central. (Thanks to Friend of FAFIF Sharon Chapman for getting this particular baby going.)
Next Thursday, March 31, from 6:00 to 7:30 PM, the tour travels from the borough once graced by the Polo Grounds to the borough where Shea Stadium stood and where Citi Field will hoist a National League Championship flag. That’s right, Amazin’ Again comes to Queens, specifically the Queens Library’s Central branch in Jamaica, 89-11 Merrick Blvd. I’ll be giving a talk about the book, baseball writing, the Mets and anything else anybody in the audience is curious about. As at Foley’s, copies will be available for sale and inscriptions are on the house.
For those of you who are wonderful people who ask, “When are you going to be in [place that isn’t Manhattan or Queens]?” the answer is soon, I hope. You probably know your neighborhood better than I do, so if you know of a location that strikes you as suitable for this sort of thing, let me know, and together we’ll see what we can do.
The author sits down alongside the host with the most Amazin’ baseball stuff around, Jay Goldberg, at the Bergino Clubhouse.
A word of appreciation to Jay Goldberg and everybody who came out on March 17 to Bergino Baseball Clubhouse for the first stop on the tour. It was one of the most fun Mets nights I’ve ever had that didn’t include one of Mark Simon’s meticulously catalogued walkoff home runs. You can listen in to the conversation between Jay and me here, including some lively Q&A with a terrific audience. Jay also has a handful of autographed copies of Amazin’ Again in stock if you can’t make it to either of the upcoming events and you’re a swell enough person to want one.
I also appreciate the interest over at Mets Merized Online, where I answered a string of solid 2015-related questions from Joe DeCaro and several of MMO’s highly engaged readers.
Amazin’ Again is on sale at your finer bookstores and through major online booksellers. I thank everybody who has been good enough to add it to their baseball library already and appreciate to high heavens all the nice things you’ve told me about it to date.
Oh, as for the Sports Illustrated–covering 2016 Mets — who probably have a real ballgame coming up sooner or later — I was recently part of a panel of Mets bloggers who attempted to forecast their fate for the Cardinal site, C70 At The Bat, where we hope they know enough to take good care of Ruben Tejada for us.
I long ago worked with a CFO who was fond of quoting the late Everett Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking you’re talking about real money — so cut down on the paper clips.” The paper clips part may have been our CFO’s coda, but you could hear the longtime Senate minority leader’s sentiments echoed from Port St. Lucie Wednesday as Ruben Tejada was, at last, given his walking papers.
Ruben always could work out a walk.
Must be the money, right? We all more or less love Ruben since last October and when it comes to Ruben’s skill set — guy who won’t necessarily kill you, guy who now and then helps you — there was nothing wrong with what he brought to the Met table. Nobody was ever more Ruben Tejada than Ruben Tejada.
That, I suppose, made him his own archetype. I think back to the first FAFIF Spring, in 2005, when the Mets deleted their perfectly good utilityman, Joe McEwing, when Chris Woodward became available and proved himself more consistently capable of doing Joe McEwing things than Joe McEwing. Nobody ever called Chris Woodward “Super,” but he seemed better in the moment. One balanced one’s sentimentality toward the next-to-last 2000 Met still on the roster (only Mike Piazza was left post-McEwing) with the realpolitik of, in essence, it ain’t Joe friends, it’s Joe business.
Eleven springs later, releasing Tejada is a little like that, except I don’t necessarily see a contemporary Chris Woodward in his off-the-bench prime charging onto this team. Maybe Matt Reynolds makes a splash. Maybe all those balls Eric Campbell hits so hard start to fall in. Maybe Tejada doesn’t wind up on the Cardinals, which is where we tend to presume every cast-off Met winds up and elevates his baseball IQ to our eventual teeth-gnashing detriment. What it inevitably comes down to is Ruben, who never quite cemented his role, was going to make three million bucks and now the Mets won’t have to pay him five-sixths of that.
Two-point-five-million here, two-point-five-million there…and I’m not criticizing the decision for being financially driven. Roleless Ruben could be valuable or he could be a cipher. I honestly don’t know how much a player who wasn’t going to be the go-to backup infielder of record is “worth”. Yoenis Cespedes signs a three-year deal worth $75 million and it’s sort of a bargain. Jacob deGrom is renewed at $607,000 and it’s a travesty, but don’t worry, because if he stays in one piece, he’ll get much more. Michael Cuddyer accepts approximately $3 million to be on his merry way and it’s a gift. Daniel Murphy rejects a qualifying offer of $15.8 million because it’s understood to be kind of an insult.
We should all be so insulted.
Anyway, somewhere in there, $2.5 million not dedicated to Ruben Tejada, minus the $507,500 or so it will take to minimally compensate his replacement, adds up. Hopefully it adds up to whatever the Mets might need in late July, assuming the Mets need something in late July. And the Mets, as content as we are with them, always need something.
That’s the practicality. The sentiment is it’s sad that somebody ordered a Ruben to go. I mean, c’mon, he was (and is) Ruben Tejada. You talk about rules regarding kids in the clubhouse. Ruben Tejada is perpetually 14 years old from the looks of him. How in the name of Drake LaRoche can you kick him to the curb?
With the purge of the Children of Manuel almost complete, Lucas Duda is the second-longest serving Met, behind David Wright, who isn’t going anywhere unless his back tells him otherwise. Tejada was lined up to be the penultimate senior Met, which is crazy, until you remember Ruben made the club out of camp in 2010 as insurance for Jose Reyes’s thyroid condition, and Ruben wasn’t too far removed from 14 then. He’s been up and down in the intervening seasons, but mostly up and as close to a fixture at Citi Field as anything that wasn’t the Pepsi-Cola sign. But the Pepsi-Cola sign isn’t there anymore, and neither is Ruben.
I’m glad he — like Murphy and Jon Niese — got to experience a division title and part of a postseason. Without 2015, Tejada would have been consigned to the batch of players from the lean years. It’s the players who persevere through those hard times and arrive in at least the foreground to the promised land who are destined to sparkle in our memories. Ron Swoboda was a 1966 Met. Mookie Wilson was a 1982 Met. We don’t identify them as such, though, no matter that Swoboda hit an Amazin’ walkoff home run against the Giants in ’66 or that Mookie stole more bases than any Met previously in ’82. In that spirit, Ruben Tejada was a 2012 Met. He was one of the better 2012 Mets. Tejada succeeded Reyes at short, an impossible situation, and did all right. He batted .289 as a full-time player. He stayed in at-bats forever. He went back on popups with the best of them. By 2013, however, we got an inkling we had already experienced peak Tejada at the biological age of 23 (though he still looked 14). By 2014, neither Tejada nor the Mets appeared to be on the fast track to excellence.
The point is, Ruben Tejada won’t be remembered as a 2012 Met. He’s a 2015 Met, which will eternally mean something, partly due to his own contribution to the team we’d been waiting practically forever for. Hell, he literally gave a limb to the cause. Good luck to him wherever he goes.
I had a nice conversation with the folks at Mets Merized Online regarding those 2015 Mets, which you can read here. And if you want another taste of that National League championship season, I’d love you to check out Amazin’ Again, my book on how the Mets brought the magic back to Queens.