Citi Field is loud, and it’s wonderful.
I reflexively started to type “loud again,” then stopped myself. Because that wouldn’t have been true. Citi never has been loud. This is the first run of games in which the crowd is a factor, in which the buzz is focused on the field and the players are aware of it.
Citi Field started off dealt a lousy hand. It opened during a wrenching recession, the third pitch thrown in its official history became an enemy home run, management missteps alienated hardcore fans, and that first season began with months of weather that was lousy to the point of peculiar. By the time it warmed up, the Mets were broken and bad and the season was lost, leaving acres of those new green seats empty.
That was 2009, and the story hasn’t been fundamentally different at any point since. The Mets fixed some of their park’s flaws and we got used to some others, but the biggest problem came to seem intractable: the Mets were never good enough long enough for enough people to notice. That left Citi Field a reasonably nice place with lots of good food, a really big HD screen … and a baseball game somewhere in the middle of it.
The party started with Yoenis Cespedes and the Nationals arriving and hasn’t stopped. But Wednesday night was my first chance to see it for myself. I was sitting with my pal Jeff in the second row of the Pepsi Porch, barely in foul territory, and marveling at the sights and sounds around me.
First of all, I could see people. People in their seats, watching baseball. Sure, there were a few swathes of seats mostly unoccupied, but the field level was nearly full, and above that you saw blue and orange gear, waving arms, people getting up when the game demanded it, and directing their attention at the field.
And you could hear those people. The ones around us were talking about our young pitchers, and Cespedes and his contract, and David Wright down in St. Lucie, and the adventures of Wilmer Flores, and how the Nats might fare against Clayton Kershaw. (They lost, 3-0!) They were talking baseball, and cheering for it down on the field — roaring for it down on the field, in fact.
When Jacob deGrom reached two strikes they were up and howling for a third. When Juan Uribe rifled a ball over Charlie Blackmon‘s head in center they were yelling for Juan Lagares to hurry home, and then they did the same for Uribe when Michael Cuddyer smacked a ball into center. They roared for Cespedes’s first Citi Field clout (while wearing a yellow sleeve to match the feathers of a confused parakeet who’d taken up residence among the A/V cables), and at the end they stood and exhorted Jeurys Familia across the finish line.
Baseball is a different experience depending on whether you’re in the park or in front of the TV. I was 380-odd feet away in the Pepsi Porch, so don’t ask me to say anything smart about deGrom’s pitches — all I know is they resulted in Rockie after Rockie trudging away from home plate with barely used lumber. But the tradeoff was being borne up by the noise and fervor when deGrom was in a tight spot and looking for a little more life on the fastball, and being buffeted by the joy at seeing him find it.
None of the above is particularly extraordinary; it’s fun watching a good baseball team on a nice summer night as part of a big crowd. But it’s new for Citi Field — new, and oh so welcome.
I shed no tears for the demise of Shea, a battered rattletrap that exuded decay and bred hostility. But I have mourned the new place’s failure to engage us collectively, to feel like more than a short-term rental. Some of that failure reflects a sea change in parks and they crowds they attract: different economics and a different audience, the distraction of myriad non-baseball options, and the fact that we all now have ludicrously powerful pocket computers competing for our attention. But the real problem has been a lack of anything to engage us, to make us look up from our tweets and text messages and decide some other evening would be better for standing in line for burgers.
That’s no longer true. Now our eyes are on these Mets and their improbable summer story. We’ve found something that’s got us … well, that’s got us hollering and cheering and jumping in our seats, whether we’re butchers or bakers, or consultants or content providers. Some part of me had feared that never would happen again, that it had been lost somehow. But it’s not so. It’s happening right now — and however overdue it may be, it’s wonderful to find yourself part of it again.
Welcome to Tuesday night, Citi Field, Flushing, New York, August, the 2010s. It is not by chance we are here. We make a date. We make this date.
August 10, 2010
August 9, 2011
August 21, 2012
August 6, 2013
August 12, 2014
August 11, 2015
Did we ever have a meeting to decide? Did it go through committee? Did we take a vote? I don’t think we did. It was more a matter of nomination by acclamation. See you in Tuesday in August…seconded…any objections?
The ayes had it. Every August, on a Tuesday night, we meet for baseball. We meet for Mets baseball, of course, usually coincidentally played against the Colorado Rockies. They have a knack for being available in August, four of the last six, including this one.
So there we were, the Chasins — Rob, the dad; Ryder, the son — and the Princes — Stephanie, the wife; Greg, the husband as well as designated chronicler. That’s me. I take the minutes of the annual meeting.
In action Tuesday night: Ryder Chasin, Matt Harvey.
Let the record show the principals met in a light drizzle outside the little-known and even less-understood Payson entrance shortly after 5:30 PM. Our tickets were waiting at an unfamiliar window, left by someone you’d call “a player,” but not someone you’d find in your $5 scorecard, and let’s leave it at that.
The seats for the 2015 edition of our confab were outstanding (and, it’s worth noting, given the events of the night before, tightly fastened, albeit uncushioned). A dead-on sightline for the baseball fans. Sufficient cover for foes of precipitation. The shelter aspect turned into a non-issue as the drizzle that accompanied us at the Payson entrance dissipated by the time we u-turned for the more famous, better known Jackie Robinson Rotunda.
My bag was searched. My beverages were left intact. I have learned the secret of not having my half-drunk water confiscated. I will share it only when Citi Field is no more, lest the terrorists win.
No more than two minutes inside the building, we run into Skid from Monday night, Skid from every night. Skid is doing laps around the Field Level. When you’ve relocated your life to a Major League Baseball stadium, you avail yourself of every opportunity it presents. Skid gets his walking in at Citi Field.
We get our walking in, too. We stroll to Shake Shack. We are drawn to it, as if by medium-rare magnets. It wasn’t our planned destination, but when we find ourselves before it with a line that is barely longer than Parnell to Clippard to Familia, we do what all sentient people would do: we get on it. Or do we get in it? Stephanie long ago noticed New Yorkers stand on line, while the rest of America stands in line. Whose colloquialism is it anyway?
However we stand, we don’t stand for long. The Shake Shack line moves like Jose Reyes once did or Michael Cuddyer suddenly does now just around the corner from this slice of hamburger heaven. Oh, the wonders of showing up just early enough for a short Shake Shack line. Behind us the queue has begun to snake in earnest. But we have broken the tape just in time.
Ryder and Rob have to wait for their shakes, which is weird when you realize “Shake” is technically the headline attraction, but that’s less onerous than waiting to order. It just is.
Did you know you can get a great deal on home heating oil at Citi Field? This is an even less understood element than the Payson entrance. On Monday night, Skid and I were accosted by a home heating oil salesman on three separate pregame occasions. On Tuesday night, Ryder and I were pitched twice. Inexpensive home heating oil will be a wonderful thing this winter. Like postseason baseball tickets, it might be the sort of thing a person would be best served by signing up for well in advance of needing it. Unlike postseason baseball, you can be certain cold weather is coming.
But why is a home heating oil concern allowed to accost baseball fans repeatedly in the middle of August inside their favorite team’s ballpark? (Even Shea’s voracious credit card hawkers of yore were relegated to Casey Stengel Plaza.) We were just four baseball fans carrying their Shake Shack to a table elsewhere on the grounds. I can’t imagine anyone among the 25,611 on hand will be perusing his or her home heating bill come February and cursing himself or herself out for not making the switch to this particular oil concern while at a baseball game between the New York Mets and the Colorado Rockies.
I’m not saying this as a natural gas customer. I’m saying this as a baseball fan who simply wants to get to the Shake Shack stuff while it’s still warm.
The oil men went about their accosting as we rode the escalator to Caesars Club, which is named for a gambling enterprise that no longer sponsors the Mets. Perhaps it’s just as well the name sticks to the establishment. Once you start referring to something as something, it’s hard to start calling it something else. Just ask the Avenue of the Americas; it’s over on Sixth Avenue. Or just ask me what stop I get off at to attend ballgames. The MTA says it’s Mets-Willets Point. I still call it Shea.
I’ve only recently ceased thinking of Ryder as “my Bar Mitzvah boy,” though that’s sort of understandable, as it was Ryder’s legendary Citi Field Bar Mitzvah and our unforeseen attendance at it in November 2009 that set the Tuesday Night Baseball Club’s annual meetings in motion. Ryder is nearly 19, sports facial hair and attends Northwestern University. He is nobody’s Bar Mitzvah Boy at this stage of his burgeoning life. (In a related development, time flies.)
As for the limbo in which the name “Caesars Club” lingers, why not use their absence from the Met sponsorship depth chart as a chance to rebrand? I offer, as I’m pretty sure I have before, these alternatives:
The Stork Club, with portraits of George Theodore everywhere and George Theodore himself on the premises if he so desires a sinecure.
We tuck into our Shake Shack in the club currently known as Caesars, until otherwise dubbed. “Tuck” is one of those words I only see in Times profiles of celebrities and politicians who are inevitably interviewed over lunch in chi-chi locales. They’re always “tucking into” steaks or salads. I have never heard anybody in real life refer to anybody tucking into food otherwise. So let’s just say we ate our Shake Shack and we were quite satisfied.
I was so satisfied, I left my denim overshirt draped on the back of my chair as we left Caesars. “Overshirt” is how Stephanie and refer to whatever shirt we schlep along when we think it might get a tad chilly, but not cold enough for a jacket, let alone heating oil. I pride myself on leaving no shirt behind, but somewhere between the national anthem and first pitch, I realize I have blundered. I must return to our old table at once and see if it’s still there. Rob accompanies me, presumably to calm my nerves.
“There’s nothing but Mets fans here,” he assures me. “They’d never steal anything.” And he’s right (hell, the Mets barely steal bases). My ratty denim shirt is still draped where I left it. I snatch it back without ceremony. When we get back to our sensationally sightlined seats, we tell Stephanie and Ryder that some big galoot was wearing it and I had to resort to weaponry to fully secure it. Then, because accuracy is everything when you’re tasked with taking the minutes of the meeting, we let them know we’re kidding, it was just sitting there, neglected and ignored, sort of like the Mets most Augusts, though certainly not this one.
Say, you know who else we saw Tuesday night at Citi Field? Matt Harvey. He sports facial hair, too. The Rockies and their beards were more hirsute than Harvey, but were no match otherwise. The Mets didn’t score for the longest time, but it barely occurred to me to worry they wouldn’t win. Even with a Terry-rigged lineup that lacked Granderson and was noticeably Duda-free, I figured our first-place team would find a run draped over its chair eventually, and as long as they did, Matt Harvey and his facial hair weren’t going to be touched.
That’s basically what happened in the actual game that you probably came here to read about while I’ve been going on impressionistically about mood and circumstance and my wife and our friends the Chasins. (The blog for Mets fans who like to digress!) Harvey was Harvey for eight innings and the Mets eked out a run in the sixth. They added three in the eighth to make the lead safe for Eric O’Flaherty as Woodrow Wilson once strove to make the world safe for democracy. It’s what a first-place team does, you know. Victories achieved by first-place teams in games pitched by their premier ace are by no means automatic, yet it’s delightful to believe they’re more probable than possible on any given Tuesday night.
Ryder and Rob and Stephanie and I, across all these August Tuesday nights, had seen a lot of Mets and a bunch of Rockies, but never a first-place team. Well, to be baseball-retentive about it, we saw a pretty powerful first-place team last August. It was the Washington Nationals, our Rockies substitute in 2014. The Nationals rattled Rafael Montero pretty badly that night. That seems like more than twelve months ago.
Five years ago when we — the Princes and the Chasins — first did this, we saw 25 different players take the field as either Mets or Rockies. Ryder dutifully kept score of each of their official activities, just as he tracked each of the 24 Rockies and Mets who played Tuesday night. Was there, we wondered, any overlap? It turns out that five years later, only four of those from our 2010 meeting joined us again: Carlos Gonzalez, Rafael Betancourt, Ruben Tejada and Jose Reyes. Reyes was the only one to change outfits in the interim.
Tuesday night, as Jose batted against Matt Harvey, I honestly forgot who was playing for who. This was early in the game, when Reyes was batting and I was focusing intently on him and somebody sitting behind us was invoking a classic Jose-Jose-Jose and somebody next to him marveled that the last pitch was 96 miles per hour. My honest thought was, “Who on the Rockies is throwing that hard to Jose?”
Then I looked at the mound and remembered what was actually going on. I will cop to my mind wandering and our four-way conversation wandering. What do you want from us? We only go to one ballgame together every year.
You already know the Mets won Tuesday night. A little while ago I checked and saw the Nationals lost in L.A. I don’t recall the last time I pumped my fist in the wee small hours of a Wednesday morning. A pennant race will do that to a person.
The Mets are 61-52, which appears too impressive to belong to the Mets, doesn’t it? That’s the record of a good team. This year it’s the record of a first-place team. Our first-place team. Our first-place team that leads second-place Washington by 2½.
Don’t you love half-games? What other sport has half-games? I suppose basketball, but stay with me on this one. I’ve paid at least modest attention to the NBA all my sentient life and I’ve never heard anyone get excited over leads or deficits involving half-games. That’s a baseball quirk. Baseball, at its best, is defined by its quirks.
Did you know that on Tuesday night every home team beat every road team? That, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (and doesn’t “bureau” make Elias’s mission sound that much more pulsating?), had never previously happened with a slate of 15 games. That’s pretty quirky right there. It means that in every MLB park across the continent, those people who made a special point of getting together because it’s what they do every year at this time came away very happy.
Not that we in our little Tuesday Night Baseball Club wouldn’t have enjoyed ourselves (albeit less) had the road team prevailed. That’s the whole idea behind these annual meetings. We are happy to get together, we are sorry to adjourn, we are eager to resume more or less a year from now in the very same place.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the butcher and the baker and the people on the streets, all of whom have gone to Meet The Mets. More than 27,000, whatever the vocation, did so Monday night, myself included. We gave ’em a yell, gave ’em a hand and let ’em know we were rootin’ in the stand.
Yes, “stand,” which is the official lyric submitted by Ruth Roberts and Bill Katz in 1961 for an authorized team song that would be played twice this particular 2015 evening at Citi Field, once around 7 o’clock as we leaned forward with anticipation, once a little after 9:30 as we practically pranced toward the exits. I always thought it should have been “stands,” but during the course of Monday’s game, I understood why “stand” must stand.
It’s explained several lines earlier when Roberts and Katz detail what we do when we go to meet the Mets. We’re hollerin’ and cheerin’ and jumpin’ in our seats. Seats are not made for jumpin’. Some seats, I learned, aren’t even made for sittin’.
Let me back up here, if not into my seat, for that would be an impossibility.
My seat and I reconcile after it abandoned me.
It’s the middle of the game between the Mets and Rockies. I’m sittin’ — not jumpin’ — in my luxuriously padded Delta Sky 360 Charles Montgomery Burns Club seat, brought to me for the evening by my good friend Skid, who you’ll recall is the Mets fan from California who decided to move to New York for six (hopefully seven) months and join his team every time they open their gates. Skid was celebrating his birthday Monday and opted to make his accommodations relatively ritzy for the evening, purchasing two of these seats and graciously inviting me along to occupy one of them.
Really, this whole season has been a birthday celebration for Skid. I’m thinking he wished for this on some previous August 10, blew out the candles and got what he asked for: every day he gets to go to a baseball game. Maybe he wished extra hard that one time and asked for a first-place team. Skid wishes very well.
Anyway, game’s going on, we’re not yet winning, but we’re not necessarily worried. These are our first-place Mets. If you can’t find the faith to tolerate a temporary one-run deficit, then you’ve chosen the wrong year to go to Citi Field. Me, I was delighted that we finally have a right year to go to Citi Field. I never went to see a first-place home team at this ballpark this late in any year. It’s the one feature they forgot to install when they were busy padding all those seats.
Ah yes, the seats. Specifically, my nice seat. I’m sitting in mine when I decided I’d like a nice Diet Pepsi, so I ask for one from one of those nice people who come around to ask if you’d like anything brought to your nice seat. (Everything and everybody is nice when you’re in first place.) To effect one of these transactions, you give the person the money, and the person places your order, and — an inning or three later — you get your soda.
OK then, let me just dig my wallet out of my pocket, which I shall do by shifting slightly in my seat and…
The next thing I feel is a slow drop. I don’t mean like Luis Castillo’s agonizingly torpid pursuit of a fly ball a veritable baseball generation ago. I mean more like that sensation you get in a dream where you’re falling and you’re falling and, oh, it’s all right. It’s just a dream.
But this wasn’t a dream. This was my seat, less falling than sinking. I’m not sure how it managed to completely unhinge, but it sunk all the way to the ground.
With me in it.
Fancy seat, yes. Exquisite bolting, not so much.
From six or so inches above ground, I hand the nice person — who is trying very hard to not laugh uncontrollably at the PLOP! her customer has just taken — the money for the soda. I take no offense, for I’m laughing, too. As is Skid. This would be funnier if it happened to someone like Mr. Burns or the man from the Monopoly board, but it’s still funny, even though it happened to me. My rear end was safely guarded from cement and the bag I’d had under my seat withstood the blow (good thing I decided to leave my Ming vase home). Because the attendance was 27,000 and not 42,000, I didn’t have to stand in the stand for long. There was no problem finding a replacement seat right next to the one that had unseated me.
This had never happened to me at Shea Stadium. This had never happened to me at Citi Field, though it had happened to somebody in the row in front of us maybe an inning earlier. Perhaps not the comic thud, but the same idea, making it two high-roller seats too banged up to stay in the game. I’m pretty sure each had to go on the furniture DL. (Keep Ray Ramirez away from the upholstery if you ever want to see them again.)
Meanwhile, Jon Niese pitched seven strong innings, Travis d’Arnaud belted a home run, Curtis Granderson conveniently let himself get hit by a bases-loaded pitch and Daniel Murphy snuck a sharp grounder by Jose Reyes, who I couldn’t help but instinctively applaud most of the evening despite his insistence on wearing a bizarre purple uniform to our pennant race party. A 4-2 lead was placed into the hands of Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia and they handled it with care. If there are openings in the carpenters union, they might want to apply. Nothing fell apart on their watch, allowing Skid and I and everybody else to watch our first-place team maintain its first-place lead.
Have I mentioned the Mets are in first place? It bears repeating until it gets old, which I don’t believe it will as long as it retains the benefit of truth. Citi Field, of which I’ve never exactly been a roaring advocate, sounded like it knew exactly what place it was in when Murphy broke the 2-2 tie in the seventh. If it didn’t vibrate as I’m told it did during the Nationals series that Changed Everything, it surely echoed of the promise from April, when the environs began to feel tangibly engaged in a manner they never had. Then came May, June, most of July…not wholly terrible for wins and losses, but you know that dream where you’re sitting in your seat at a ballgame and the ballgame itself very slowly plummets to the ground and you laugh uncontrollably because you don’t know what else to do?
It’s August and things are different in the best sense of the word. I’ve known it for a fact because I’ve seen it on TV, but sometimes you need to get your Skid on and see it for yourself. Prior to Monday, I’d been to 200 regular-season games at Citi Field between April 16, 2009, and July 30, 2015, but none whose result would keep a diehard up nights on account of ecstasy or misery. Then the Nats stopped by; and the Mets stymied them; and from a distance it was a revelation.
But there was perceptible distance between me and Citi Field when it seemed to matter most. Two-hundred games in that joint, yet I managed to miss the three that altered its equation. I felt like Roger Angell recounting where he wasn’t during the heart of 1969’s seminal eleven-game winning streak:
MAY 30-JUNE 1: Mets sweep Giants 3 games while I waste Memorial Day weekend in country. Bad planning.
Until I communed personally with my first-place ballclub, my giddiness was on an emotional seven-second delay.
Was this actually happening?
Were the Mets truly the team ahead of everybody?
Does Citi Field got lungs and know how to use them?
I now understand it all to be genuine, every bit as genuine as Skid, who is an excellent role model for us all (and should be toasted heartily this Thanksgiving at his ticket rep’s house). Skid never strays far from the Mets of New York town when they’re in the vicinity and look what they’ve done for him. Look what they’ve done for all of us rootin’ in the stand or wherever we happen to be jumpin’ from joy. When they play as they have lately, seats — no matter how lavishly cushioned — are essentially superfluous.
For the second night in a row, the Mets lost a one-run game amid a relapse of Narcoleptic Offense Syndrome. On Saturday night the problem was compounded by Noah Syndergaard having an off-night; on Sunday Bartolo Colon was good enough to win, but the Mets’ attack against hyperactive Chris Archer (who must cover at least two miles a game scurrying around the rubber) consisted of a whole bunch of watching balls and a single swing by Daniel Murphy.
That was worrisome, and not just because I’d gotten used to enjoying winning baseball in a state of gentlemanly repose. But you know what? I’d still rather be us than the Nationals.
“I’d rather be us than them” is a mantra I use when things are threatening to get out of hand in the ninth and the closer’s hyperventilating. (For instance, that final game in Miami.) Sure, it’s runners on first and second and none out and the lead’s a lone run, but hey, the lead is still ours. The other guys still have to do something positive to draw even, so exhale, willya? It’s one of those things I tell myself that’s half superstition and half a reminder of how baseball works.
Sometimes it even makes me feel better.
I’m using it in a larger sense now, in sizing up the Mets and their pursuers, Bryce Harper & Co. (Not that the aforementioned gentleman gives a crap about what we’re doing, you understand.)
Why would I rather be us than them?
First, to state the obvious, we’re 1 1/2 games up.
Second, the Mets are going home while the Nats are about to hit the west coast, facing a buzzsaw of good pitchers in L.A. and San Francisco before swinging back through Colorado, which always seems to be a kick-us-when-we’re-down town for East Coast teams whose minds are on home. After that their schedule’s a lot softer, it’s true, but I keep eyeing that makeup game awaiting them in the final days when they’ll really want a breather. Plus they play six with us, which is no longer quite the source of optimism it once seemed to be. You never make assumptions based on opponents and road trips — the 2015 Mets have certainly taught me that — but the Mets’ schedule looks less daunting. (Though that Yankees series smack in the middle of September is an evil scheduling quirk.)
Third, the Mets could soon get some more reinforcements and a spiritual lift. David Wright is going to play a minor-league game tomorrow, and thinks he’ll need 20-odd at-bats to get ready, which is about a week’s worth. Granted, we have no idea if all or any of that go well, or what kind of player Wright will be when he returns. (That’s been a question since 2009, if we’re being honest about it.) But potentially it’s another big bat as well as the return of a clubhouse leader. Throw in the expected returns of Erik Goeddel to help a pen going through some issues and Steven Matz to provide another starting weapon and there’s reason for hope. Hell, even Michael Cuddyer may look a whole lot better once he’s in the complementary role envisioned for him.
Fourth, while this isn’t exactly science, the Nats don’t look right — and it’s not just Jayson Werth‘s usual ate-the-whole-lemon-tree demeanor that makes me say that. They look tight and tentative and demoralized, losing leads they ought to keep and watching comebacks wind up short. They have time to fix that, but every day they don’t is a day less in which to do it.
Fifth and finally, the Mets are playing with house money. They’re not the team everybody picked back in February to be last standing in October, but the one we all wrote off as fatally wounded by injuries/bad luck/financial constraints/being the Mets. Every time the Nats lose, it’s accompanied by muttering and questions about why they aren’t what people thought they would be. Every time the Mets win, it’s a pinch-me, do-you-believe-this moment — even now that the pursuer has become the pursued. The pressure’s on Bryce and his Not-So-Merry Band, not Murph’s Irregulars.
I don’t know how all this will end up — no one does. But I do know I’d rather be us than them.
In the top of the first inning Saturday night at Tropicana Field, Curtis Granderson homered, Daniel Murphy doubled, Yoenis Cespedes singled and Lucas Duda doubled. The Mets led the Rays, 3-0, with nobody out.
This, I said to myself, is in the bag. Not just the game, but the season, the postseason and the dynasty to come. It was time to place every last one of my chips on this sure thing to win the 2015 World Series, maybe the next five if they’d let me. With Juan Uribe coming to bat to drive in Duda and keep the score tilting eternally the Mets’ way, I booked passage to Vegas, packed a bag, got a ride to Kennedy, boarded my flight, flew cross-country, found a cab and was taken to my favorite sports book on the strip.
As I inquired about placing my wager, I was told the first inning was still in progress in St. Pete. Of course it was. The Mets were never going to stop hitting because the Mets were never going to stop winning. The Mets had won seven in a row. As we all know, seven comes before eight, just as eight comes before forever. Forever and ever, amen, when it comes to the Mets’ success.
Oh no, I must’ve misunderstood what I’d just been told, somebody said. The first inning had continued while I made my continental sojourn, but it had nothing to do with the Mets continuing to score. In fact, the Mets had stopped scoring the moment Uribe came to bat. They went down 1-2-3 after that resounding start. Noah Syndergaard then took to the mound, threw a thousand pitches, fell behind, 4-3, and was still trying to get out of the inning.
Did I still want to place that bet?
I shook my head, turned around, reversed my trip and returned home in time to see the Mets lose, 5-4, ending their winning streak at seven and beginning their losing streak at one. A one-game losing streak, as all followers of the Mets have learned through bitter experience, encompasses a 50% chance of becoming a two-game losing streak. These odds suggest the Mets are doomed. Doomed, I tell you. They’re 0-1 in their last one, losers of one of their previous eight.
What a discouraging trend. It must be nipped in the bud ASAP. Here is what must be done to commence nipping pronto:
1) Trade Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud for prospects. See if we can salvage something out of the wreckage of these two once-promising careers by bringing in a couple of fresh faces who aren’t responsible for this monstrosity of a one-game losing streak. The culture must be changed. Noah was ineffective over four innings. Travis went oh-for-four. It is there-four a four-gone conclusion that they are beyond repair. While I was in Las Vegas, I heard about a couple of kids named Black and Herrera; we might want to trade for them. Doesn’t matter who we get. Syndergaard and d’Arnaud are 0-2 as a major league battery. They are ruining each other’s futures just by being on the same field at the same time.
2) Remind Wilmer Flores he’s not so special. A Milwaukee Brewers uniform in his locker would be a wise first step. Then the installation of a Groan-o-meter at Citi Field for every time he steps to the plate. Wilmer was 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter Saturday night. The adulation has gone to his head.
3) Relabel the nickname on Terry Collins’s parking spot. Previous plans to stencil in TONALLY CORRECT, TENACIOUSLY CONFIDENT and TERRIFICALLY COMPETENT were obviously premature. Collins, like his ballclub, is 0-1 in his last one. TOTALLY CLUELESS it is going to have to be.
4) Adjust Cespedes’s contract immediately. The Mets must negotiate a clause that allows them to release the outfielder five days before the World Series and then never re-sign him again. A World Series can go as long as seven games, and in his seventh game as a Met, Cespedes was among fourteen players who could not prevent the club’s first loss in eight games. Clearly, we have learned, he is not a November player.
5) Decline use of designated hitter in Sunday’s game. This isn’t necessarily a season-salvaging move. This is just good taste.
All of the above may seem rash, panicky and unjustified. But the first-place Mets lost while the second-place Nationals won, representing the opposite of what had been going on mostly without pause for the preceding week. During that week, when everything was going beautifully, no reaction of ours was anything but calm, cool and considered.
When the Mets do nothing but win, everything makes sense. When the Mets lose…don’t ask.
It should be said that for the first eight innings that was a dull, lousy game.
Seriously. It was like soccer — no action but solo homers, with the Rays seemingly hellbound to one-up us in the Department of Dingers. Grady Sizemore homered (and later took a cheapie away from Wilmer Flores), Juan Uribe matched him, but then James Loney led off the very next inning with a solo shot off Jacob deGrom. Daniel Murphy erased that deficit with a home run in the eighth, but then in the bottom of the inning Evan Longoria homered right back at him, launching a ball that kissed the top of the wall and skimmed over it, like some antimatter version of the ball off the wall.
It sure looked like the Mets were going to lose by one lousy skinny run, and I was philosophical about it. You can’t win every game, and a six-game winning streak was nothing to be sad about.
But there are nine innings to play. No really. You could look it up.
The top of the ninth came with blinking signs of disaster — but they were for Tampa Bay. Normally reliable Brad Boxberger threw away a ball, leaving Lucas Duda safe at first. Then a ball in the dirt ate up catcher Curt Casali (hey, that’s fun to type!) for a wild pitch that moved Duda to second.
Uribe fouled out, leaving Michael Conforto facing the biggest at-bat of his life. And the kid delivered, slicing a low outside pitch up the left-center alley, a ball that seemed to accelerate in flight. Duda rumbled home with the tying run and Conforto saw Kevin Kiermaier‘s momentum had taken him away from the field, and so alertly grabbed second. The Rays’ Logan Forsythe rescued Tampa by smothering Travis d’Arnaud‘s ball up the middle, a hit that stayed on the infield and so left runners at the corners. Then Kelly Johnson lashed a ball that nearly took off Asdrubel Cabrera’s head at short, but wound up in his glove. Fortunately, it was hit so hard that neither Conforto nor d’Arnaud could be doubled up — they’d barely strayed from their bases.
Two outs, tie game. Would we play until dawn?
Up stepped Flores, supported by baying Mets fans — the Trop felt like an asterisked home game all night, and at that moment it was loud for us. Flores blooped a ball to right, seemingly destined for Brandon Guyer‘s glove … but Guyer was scrambling and the ball was losing altitude quickly, and it touched down just in front of Guyer’s mitt for an RBI single.
I expected the Mets to immediately give back that one-run lead, which wasn’t lack of belief in Jeurys Familia and his still-absent sinker/slider combo but a grim certitude that the game would keep following the night’s script. But no, things were about to get even wackier.
I’ve been watching baseball for a long time. I’ve seen tons of batters hit potential double-play balls to the third baseman, only to have them called foul. I’ve seen the occasional instance where the play progresses only to have all involved realize the umpire is signaling that there’s no purpose to what they’re doing. I’ve seen managers miffed about whether the ball was really foul or not.
But for all those things to happen twice in a row? I don’t believe I’d ever seen that until tonight. Guyer was bound and determined to hit the ball to Uribe, and Uribe was bound and determined to extract two outs from it, and the umpires were bound and determined to tell all involved that they had to do it again. It was like the Tampa Bay player had saved the game before Guyer’s at-bat and kept hitting RESTORE in hopes of a better outcome.
Guyer hit a third grounder to Uribe, of course. This one was fair, and Uribe settled for a fielder’s choice that still sapped the Rays’ rally. Two outs later, Familia had struck out Casali to save it, the Mets had won seven in a row, and the Rockies — bless their little purple hearts, at least until next week — had come back to take the lead against the Nationals. (Bryce Harper struck out to end it, and yes, Bryce, we most certainly do give a crap what the Nationals are doing.)
Seven in a row. It won’t last — these things never do — but for now just enjoy the fact that a bizarre, utterly unpredictable season has turned our way again.
The constantly vigilant, uncommonly retentive (not to mention preternaturally anxious) baseball fan’s mind comes fully equipped with hyperlinks. He sees something and it reminds him of something he’s seen before. It may or may not be worth the trouble of clicking on, but he know it’s there.
For example, Wednesday night the Mets were ahead of the Marlins, 7-0. It was as glorious a setup as one could desire. Matt Harvey had been cruising. Juan Uribe had belted a three-run homer in the fifth. Yoenis Cespedes, Lucas Duda and Michael Conforto had combined to plate four in the third. The Nationals were cooperating by falling behind the Diamondbacks in D.C. You couldn’t have asked for a more ideal evening.
Terry Collins removed Harvey after seven. In another era, you wouldn’t take out your ace (or co-ace) after he’d given up two hits and walked nobody, especially after he’d thrown only 88 pitches. In that other era, nobody would know how many pitches had been thrown. But that era doesn’t exist today. Nobody’s concerned about burnishing individual credentials like complete games or shutouts. Everybody wants to limit wear and tear on a valuable surgically repaired right elbow. The Mets hope to need that elbow and the arm it’s attached to beyond the confines of the regular season.
Fine. Harvey’s out with a seven-run lead and two innings to go. It didn’t even feel controversial. Yet one of the hyperlinks in my mind clicked back on a game from ten years ago this month involving a situation at least passingly similar.
On August 20, 2005, at Shea Stadium, the Mets led the Nationals, 8-0. Neither team was in first place, but both were scrambling for a Wild Card. It was the Mets’ night, to be sure. Ramon Castro, Jose Reyes and David Wright had all homered with runners on base, chasing Liván Hernandez. The beneficiary of all this offensive largesse was the usually run-starved Pedro Martinez. He had taken a no-hitter deep into his last start, only to have the Mets score practically nothing for him and saddle him with a 2-1 loss. Even then, the primacy of the won-lost record was being severely questioned, but still, it was going to be satisfying to see Pedro get a win he deserved against the Nats and raise his record to 13-5.
Willie Randolph took Pedro out after six innings and 78 pitches. Martinez was feeling a bit of stiffness in his back, though that supposedly wasn’t the problem. Just a desire to “save some bullets,” according to the manager, who added, “We’re also going to try and be cautious with Pedro when we can. I understand we’re in a pennant race and every game’s important, but I just felt real comfortable at that point.”
Yes, at that point, quite comfortable. At points to come, less so. Danny Graves, Dae-Sung Koo and Aaron Heilman each pitched a third of an inning in the seventh. Willie getting his relievers some work? Not exactly. Among them, they gave up six runs. The Mets’ lead was down to 8-6. Heilman got through the eighth all right, handing the two-run edge to closer Braden Looper in the ninth. Looper recorded two quick outs before future Met Ryan Church singled, former Met Preston Wilson singled and future Met Brian Schneider doubled them both home.
It was 8-8. Or as Pedro termed it in his inimitable way, “It seemed like it was going to be an easy day at the office for the whole team. Seems like it was only easy for me.”
Ten years after the Mets blew that eight-run lead but not the game in which it had been mounted (Roberto Hernandez pitched a scoreless tenth and Chris Woodward drove in Gerald Williams with a walkoff single), another easy day at the office ensued unremarkably. In the top of the ninth at Marlins Park, Duda lifted a sacrifice fly and increased the Mets’ advantage to 8-0. All they needed to do was not give up eight or more runs in the time it took them to compile three outs and a series sweep and sixth consecutive victory would be theirs.
The only other thing that needed to happen was for nobody to assume it was a done deal…which is where I found myself bristling at beloved SNY analyst Ron Darling.
Oh, Darling. You were an All-Star 30 years ago; a World Champion 29 years ago. You know more about how the game is played than I ever will. So how is it you could breach protocol as you did in the bottom of the ninth inning when you said something to the effect of “If the Mets win…” and interrupted yourself to ask Gary Cohen, “Why do we have to say ‘if’?”
That was me screaming superstitiously from my couch. My hyperlinks were all clicking at once to every time I or anybody prematurely declared a win was in the bag when the bag had yet to be sealed. Darling, with 136 more wins than I have in the big leagues, seemed to forget that when you’re sizing up a baseball game that has yet to encompass a final score you can’t…you can’t…you just can’t do that. You can’t do that if you’re some schlub muttering to yourself on a couch somewhere on Long Island and you can’t do that if you’re speaking into a microphone somewhere in Miami.
You just can’t. The baseball gods are always listening, and the baseball gods don’t care for that stuff.
Ronnie seemed to catch himself and tried to walk his presumptuousness back, but it was too late. The win wasn’t in the bag and the cat was out of it. Here came the stupid Marlins. Here came an unexpected flurry of Met relievers. Eric O’Flaherty quickly wore out his welcome by allowing hits to four of five batters to open the ninth. It was only 8-2 when Collins hooked him. No biggie, right? We’d learned our latest LOOGY maybe should be limited to one batter, like he was in the eighth.
Hansel Robles entered, but didn’t get out alive: an out, a walk and a three-run double. That made the proceedings 8-5. It wasn’t an easy day at the office for Hansel Robles.
But all right, 8-5 was still a cushioned margin. It was a charmed score, in fact. The Mets won their last World Series by taking an 8-5 decision from the Boston Red Sox. (Ron Darling stuck the Mets in a 3-0 hole in that game, but never mind that right now.) Robles was removed in favor of the closer, Jeurys Familia. Familia has stopped being automatic, but maybe he’s also stopped being perilous. He came through against Washington last weekend, which was a more recent example of his capabilities than that awful Thursday afternoon in the rain against San Diego when he turned a 7-5 lead into an 8-7 loss between tarpings.
Besides, that was in the Before Time. Before Cespedes. Before Citi Field became the beating heart of baseball. Before first place. Jeurys Familia would settle this nonsense ASAP and the slight difficulties in nailing down this win would be forgotten. It would be a win. That would be the important thing.
There was another single, which came attached to another RBI, making it Mets 8 Marlins 6, tying run coming to the plate. Then a little defensive indifference followed by another infield single. This brought the winning run to the plate with two out and two on.
Cue internal monologue:
Holy crap, it’s last week against the Padres again. It’s ten years ago against the Nationals again. It’s…no, no, no! It’s the present day. It’s not a game that will get away. It’s still a lead. It was an eight-run lead for a reason. It was an eight-run lead so in case the Mets somehow gave up as many as seven runs, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t look good, it wouldn’t feel good, it was a bad idea to suggest “when,” rather than “if,” but we’re still up. Jeurys Familia is still Jeurys Familia. I still have faith in him. I still have faith in us.
Infield grounder to Duda.
Lucas steps on the bag.
First-place Mets win again.
Second-place Nationals eventually lose again.
First-place Mets ahead by two.
That’s the important thing.
Nevertheless, consider the ninth an celestial warning issued to the proverbial “both dugouts,” specifically whichever dugout the Mets happen to occupy in a given game
Never give up if you’re losing by a lot.
Never let up if you’re winning by a lot.
And for crissake, Ronnie, if.
Super-exciting spine-tingling headline-grabbing narrative-changing straight-to-the-SportsCenter-open wins are great, of course. But the key to playing in October is racking up the more mundane sort of victories. Which is exactly what the Mets did Tuesday night.
Of course, only by recent pinch-me standards could the Mets’ 5-1 dispatching of the Marlins be considered dull. Jon Niese pitched a terrific game, as has been the rule since Memorial Day, except for one night when his mind was understandably elsewhere. It looked like Niese might get nothing to show for it, however, as the Mets were hitting in buzzards’ luck, smacking balls right at Marlins when it most mattered.
But this is the 2.0 release of the 2015 Mets. In the days of lineups with Danny Muno and Darrell Ceciliani and Eric Campbell, I might have written off Florida’s 1-0 lead as too high a mountain to climb. Last night, though, I simply shrugged and waited. The Mets were getting good pitches and whacking them. The game, one imagined, would come to them.
Which is what happened. In the top of the eighth, with the game tied, Lucas Duda hammered a ball over the head of right-fielder Cole Gillespie, one of many Marlins who looks like he’d have trouble getting a legal drink. It was hit too hard to be a double, but Travis d’Arnaud promptly followed with a parachute over Adeiny Hechavarria‘s head to put runners on first and second with nobody out.
Enter Wilmer Flores, and a Terry Collins call that seemed far too conservative: He had Flores bunt. First and second with nobody out is the one situation where a successful sacrifice does increase the chances of scoring at least one run, but Flores has been cracking balls off and over walls. Curious. Wilmer popped up the bunt to the catcher, followed by a swinging strikeout from Ruben Tejada.
Terry then made another interesting decision, sending Campbell to the plate as the pinch-hitter.
Campbell didn’t hit the ball hard, but he hit it in exactly the right place to drop in, and the Mets had taken the lead. Then, merrily, the game’s luck sought its median, with Juan Lagares and Curtis Granderson rifling extra-base hits for a 5-1 lead that stood up.
If I sounded dismissive of Campbell earlier, it wasn’t in reference to his being on the Mets roster; rather, it referred to the role he was put in, something that wasn’t really his fault. Campbell isn’t an everyday player, at least not in this stage of his career. But there’s no shame in that; he has good baseball instincts and a sense of how to approach an at-bat, which makes him pretty valuable in his current, proper role as a reserve.
Before the Mets finally reloaded their offense, nearly every Met had been pushed into a role that was too much for him, with Quad-A guys asked to hold down starting jobs and poor Lucas Duda told to anchor an offensive attack that consisted of nothing but Lucas Duda. Now it’s different — guys can look up and down the lineup and see capable bats. Lone missed opportunities were frequently enough to kill the Mets earlier this year; now, they’re bumps in the road.
Which brings us to the title of this post. If you were thinking it referred to the pennant chase, well, absolutely. But I was also thinking of the original meaning, the one which puzzles kids and civic-minded adults reading the Declaration of Independence today. Jefferson and his fellow drafters didn’t mean “happiness” in the sense of gamboling about on a picnic, but something that reached back to Locke and Aristotle. Their meaning was more akin to using one’s talents fully in pursuit of excellence. Figuring out where you fit, essentially.
Which is what the Mets are finally doing.
And are still doing. After the game, the Mets sent away Alex Torres, he of the anti-concussion turban (laudable) and excessive walks (less so), for newly imported Eric O’Flaherty. David Wright (remember him?) plans to work out with the team this week and then start a rehab stint next week if all goes well; Terry is already talking about where he might fit in the batting order. And on the off-day, Terry will be in Port St. Lucie, explaining to Rafael Montero why the Frank Francisco Plan for Injury Management (remember this?) is unacceptable. If Montero emerges from that Come to Jesus moment the way the Mets hope, he could be another power arm to the pen and help keep his fellow young guns away from their dreaded innings limits.
Will all of that work out? Probably not — it’s baseball, after all. But if enough of it does, the Mets could wind up happy indeed — in every sense of the word.
“Essentially, though, these were young men, seizing the opportunity to make the careers all normal ball players yearn for — victory, earning power, fame, respect. They were no different from the dozens of other young clubs that had suddenly found themselves, all through baseball history, in some dramatic season. The comic origins of the name on their shirts did not really relate to them.
“However, what was untrue for the players was true for the hard core of old Met fans. For them […] it really was fulfillment after seven years in the desert. In their memories and emotions, there was an unbroken line back […] — and the glory now within reach was anything but sudden. They, it was true, were the lowly raised high — but only after several agonizing eternities.”
The above could have been written 45 minutes ago, but it dates back 45 years, with the bracketed ellipses inserted today to purposefully conceal the passage’s true vintage. The author was Leonard Koppett, from the book, The New York Mets: The Whole Story, originally published in 1970 to reflect (and cash in on) the touchstone events of 1969, such as the first night the Mets spent in first place.
We still touch its mystical properties more than four-and-a-half decades later when contemporary circumstances so dictate. We still haul out as talisman the single sentence that lit up the Shea Stadium scoreboard on the evening of September 10, 1969, one of the most definitive directives ever issued in the entire history of the star-crossed franchise we call our own.
LOOK WHO’S NO. 1
That’s what it said once the Mets eked past the Cubs by percentage points, having captured the first game of their twinight doubleheader against Montreal. It was just percentage points’ worth of difference and the situation couldn’t have been more provisional, given that Chicago’s contest in Philadelphia remained in progress and the Mets and Expos had a nightcap penciled onto their dance card. But because it was 1969, all the decimals continued to fall into place. The Cubs lost. The Mets won again. The night ended with New York one full game ahead of their rivals, sitting atop the standings of the National League East.
The Mets had never sat atop any standings before. They would stay atop these for the duration of 1969. The would now and then return to that position in the dozens of seasons ahead, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for keeps. The slate is wiped clean every year, so no one maintains it on a permanent basis.
But when you initially arrive there late enough in a given season so that it’s deemed competitively significant after you haven’t been there for a very long and arid stretch, you can’t help but light up like that scoreboard of yore.
Look who’s No. 1 now!
Go ahead, look!
Why, it’s the New York Mets!
The most famous attainment of first place in New York Mets history remains the first attainment of first place in New York Mets history, September 10, 1969. It will always be preeminent in our thoughts on nights like Monday’s in Miami. But nights like Monday’s in Miami should also be kept somewhere where they can be readily accessed and referenced and treasured. Nights like Monday’s in Miami don’t come around nearly enough.
The New York Mets pounded the Miami Marlins in Miami on Monday night, 12-1, while the Arizona Diamondbacks were holding off the Washington Nationals in Washington, 6-4. The combination of results untangled the virtual tie the Nats (winning percentage .52427) and Mets (winning percentage .52381) found themselves knotted in at the close of business Sunday night. Being sort of in first place in early August wasn’t exactly a knotty problem of baseball compared to where the Mets were stuck the previous six Augusts of their lives. From 2009 to 2014, if you wanted to find them around this time of year, you’d start scanning at the bottom and end no higher than in the middle. After being nowhere near the entrance ramp to the last half-dozen pennant race stretch drives, virtual definitely had its virtues — though not so many when you’re mentally good and ready to get back…get back…get back to where you once belonged.
We finished first the first year there was a National League Eastern Division. The Mets’ pursuit of and ascension to No. 1, during the September when I was six, represents my first specific memory of what our team can do and, therefore, my unshakable exemplar of how a pennant race is meant to unfold. Several agonizing eternities notwithstanding, you’ll never convince me first place isn’t our virtual birthright.
Standards and expectations transform in a flash when you find yourself angling for the lead. After this past weekend — the best weekend Citi Field has ever seen — it was difficult to fathom that the team from whom few of us had expected anything beyond recurring frustration dotted by occasional heartbreak wasn’t already the best team in the world, let alone the best team in the East. They raucously and joyously took three of three from the Nats, serving notice to onlookers everywhere that a new broom was poised to keep sweeping its way up the divisional pecking order. All that needed to be tidied up were those nasty little fractions of percentage points.
Consider those whisked away, too.
Fate in the form of Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s pinched nerve rescues Michael Conforto from a demotion to the minors, and the rookie rescues the Mets right back with his first major league home run, good for an almost-immediate 3-0 lead. Yoenis Cespedes reveals what the fuss is all about with three doubles, four ribbies and a medallion nearly as large as his presence in the batting order. Travis d’Arnaud (2-for-5) emerges anew. Curtis Granderson (3-for-5) stays steady. Bartolo Colon goes eight innings for his tenth win. At 10:14 PM, it is official.
Washington is first in war, first in peace and second in the National League East.
The romp that vaulted the Mets past the Nats by a full game was a team effort worthy of a first-place team, and it included a single, a run and a pair of particularly professional third base plays (each cutting down the nettlesome Dee Gordon) from Daniel Murphy, who rates a mention here not merely for the sake of issuing gold stars to one and all.
On the night of September 10, 1969, that night of LOOK WHO’S NO. 1 legend, Ed Kranepool took two turns batting in the second game against the Expos after he pinch-hit for Donn Clendenon. Krane didn’t do anything of note, but that was all right. The Mets were already well on their way to the 7-1 win that sealed their standing. In Koppett’s summation, where I edited in those bracketed ellipses, the sentences that were printed actually read like this (italics added):
“For them, as for Kranepool, it really was fulfillment after seven years in the desert. In their memories and emotions, there was an unbroken line back to 1962 — and the glory now within reach was anything but sudden.”
Thirty-nine years later, on Friday night, September 19, 2008, Murphy — in his second month in the big leagues — was inserted by Jerry Manuel to pinch-hit against Julian Taverez at Turner Field in a 5-5 game. Carlos Delgado was on second. Argenis Reyes, safe on an error committed by Brave second baseman Kelly Johnson, was on first. There was one out. Young Murph saw one pitch, a slider, and he lined it into left-center to score both runners. The Mets led, 7-5, and were on their way to winning, 9-5. Combined with a Philadelphia loss to the then-Florida Marlins, the Mets moved into first place.
For the last time relatively late in a season until August 3, 2015.
Kranepool had seen most everything the Mets had to offer from when he joined a relentlessly tenth-place club in September of 1962 to the moment it all began to pay off in September of 1969. Most everything the Mets had to offer was mind-boggling and not until very recently the least bit successful. “If I could have seen ahead in 1962,” Ed admitted seven years he broke in, as the Mets approached their maiden divisional title, “I would have signed with another club.”
Murphy is the current Mr. Longevity on the active roster. If he’s ever felt any regret about remaining a Met through the bad and the worse that followed September 19, 2008, he’s kept it to himself. He, too, has seen it all since the Mets fell out of first place on September 20 seven years ago. At least he probably thought he had until the last week or so of wonders that he, like us, has been experiencing in a state of blue moon gobsmack. In fact, he was just asked if he has previously witnessed an array of events and emotions akin to those that have accompanied the Mets on their merry way to first place.
“No,” he said after Sunday night put the Mets on the precipice of sole possession. “To answer your question in the simplest terms, I have not.”
The team to which Murphy was promoted in 2008 was similar to the one Kranepool was called up to in 1962 in name only. The 1962 Mets were the shakiest of construction projects, to put it kindly. The 2008 Mets were built to contend. They were supposed to play for first place. When they entered it on September 19, they had only last vacated it on September 16. It was less a cause for celebration than relief when they moved back in after a three-day absence. You know: standards and expectations.
One can infer from how soon the Mets were gone from first again and how long it has taken them to get back to where they once belonged that we should appreciate every second of our stay at the top. It may last from here to October 4. It may be over on August 4. There’s every decent chance we and Washington will swap places multiple times between now and the end of the season.
As playoff seedings aren’t awarded or denied based on who beat who on August 3, this isn’t quite the occasion to break into a victory lap. But do feel free to add a spring to your step clear to 7:10 tonight. You’re a fan of a first-place team in August after not having been a fan of a first-place team in August or September for seven years. Per Koppett’s timeless assessment of the Metsian condition, the glory that is now within reach has been anything but sudden. Given the unbroken line we have walked, a little jauntiness is surely in order.
I no longer remember the exact circumstances, but years ago there was a newspaper story featuring a Yankee fan who didn’t understand why any franchise would adopt “Ya Gotta Believe” (or one of its non-spontaneous, corporate-approved descendants) as a rallying cry. Terrible slogan, she snorted dismissively: “Believe? That’s lame. We know.”
That always struck me as a perfect way to describe the two New York fanbases, because strip away the condescension and that long-ago fan got it right.
Yankee fans expect dollars to flow and moves to be made to ensure a full calendar in October and a ticker-tape parade a month later; anything less than that is a failure, for which there will be consequences.
Mets fans? We love ticker tape as much as the next guy and gal, and we’ll take a wire-to-wire regular-season cruise that doesn’t require too much heavy breathing. But dismissing anything less than a World Series trophy as a failure? We don’t get that — it’s entitled hubris that sounds deeply and dreadfully boring.
Knowing? Where’s the fun in that? Give us wild hope and a stubborn belief that refuses to be extinguished, no matter what obstacles the baseball gods throw in our way. (Tug’s call to arms was as much battered defiance as it was optimism.) Those are the things that power our baseball dreams.
Still, there are limits to even a Mets fan’s belief. This season began with the Mets under the same old shadow cast by Madoff and the Wilpons’ serial dishonesty about payrolls and financial flexibility. Then injuries decimated a team that had been expected to at least battle for a wild card.
Which should have meant 2015 was like too many recent years, except the big, bad Nationals — all but anointed National League champs in February — got off to a sputtering start and then proved unable to accelerate away from an unimpressive divisional field. The Nats have had injury problems of their own, but that hasn’t been everything that’s wrong with them — they’ve got a push-button manager and the absence (so far) of a certain undefinable something. You look at them (again, so far) and are struck that as a team they’re less than their component parts.
There was an opportunity there, but the Mets limped along for months with a makeshift lineup of mismatched Triple-A guys and played extended periods with key players in that curiously Metsian limbo that might be called the pre-DL. The team’s failure to summon reinforcements went from puzzling to maddening, until finally it seemed like the powers that be were pointedly ignoring a chance to depart from their plodding plan back to contention.
We don’t need certainty, but that doesn’t mean we take kindly to mulish inaction.
But then things changed. Sandy Alderson decided to trade off some of his impressive stockpile of young pitching. The Wilpons agreed to let him. Reinforcements started to arrive. First came Michael Conforto from the farm. Then Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe. Then Tyler Clippard, just in time to replace recidivist dunderhead Jenrry Mejia. And, finally,
Carlos Gomez Yoenis Cespedes.
Actual ballplayers! From major-league rosters!
This spasm of activity led to the Nationals arriving for a three-game series, on the field where they’ve kicked us around for the last few years. The Mets commenced hostilities three games back, and you had to forgive us if we were a little amped: These were the first meaningful Mets games since George W. Bush was president and Shea Stadium was still standing.
What would happen? This was the 2015 Mets, so who the hell knew? We’ve seen the Mets look godawful against second-division clubs (at least with bats in their hands) and stand toe-to-toe with playoff contenders.
They won the first game on a ludicrously dramatic bit of soap opera starring new Met cult hero Wilmer Flores.
Then they won the second game behind the heroics of an apparently resurrected Lucas Duda.
By the time the third game arrived, at 8:05 ESPN Hijack Time, every Mets fan on Earth was just a little high-strung. A sweep of the Nats was possible, along with an at least technical share of first place.
So what happened in a Citi Field that’s found out how to be loud?
For openers, Noah Syndergaard happened.
Syndergaard hit a bump with the second batter, as Anthony Rendon swatted a fastball over the center-field fence for a 1-0 Nats lead. But watching Syndergaard, I didn’t think that was any kind of harbinger of trouble. He was hitting his spots — something Jacob deGrom and the relief corps struggled to do — and the fastball had its usual scary velocity and movement. Rendon’s a good hitter who’d gotten a 2-0 pitch and turned on it; it happens.
Syndergaard’s only 22 and still learning his craft, but when he’s on I find myself thinking he might have the best stuff of anyone on this very good staff. He doesn’t have Matt Harvey‘s slider or assassin mentality (yet), but the fastball’s ungodly, the curve dives with authority and the change amplifies both pitches’ effectiveness. In one sequence, Syndergaard shoved Ryan Zimmerman away from the plate with a 97 MPH fastball at the chin, put a 100 MPH fastball on the outside corner at the knees, then picked off that same spot with a vicious breaking ball. Zimmerman just looked morose and trudged away; there was nothing whatsoever he or anyone else could have done.
Syndergaard’s pitches lost their crispness in the middle innings, probably because the adrenaline had stopped firing. But he found a way through it and finished the night with a flourish, daring Bryce Harper with a fastball on the inside corner. Harper is the furthest thing from overrated (so stop chanting that, you fools), but not even he could do much with a fastball thrown at 98 with movement that could have chewed through bedrock.
The other thing that happened was a fast-forward flurry of Mets offense that came almost too quickly to appreciate.
In the third, Jordan Zimmerman walked Kevin Plawecki (who quietly had a very impressive game on a big stage) and Syndergaard sacrificed him to second. The inning seemed destined to fizzle after Ruben Tejada hit a scorching liner right into Zimmerman’s glove, but Curtis Granderson swatted a 2-2 hanging pitch over the Mo Zone for a 2-1 Mets lead. Daniel Murphy then hammered Zimmerman’s next pitch deep into the Pepsi Porch, one of those monstrous shots with which Murph occasionally ambushes pitchers. Cespedes singled (his first Met hit) and then Duda hit a ball on the inner edge of the plate, practically off his hands. Duda peered at it as it arced towards the stands, waiting for it to go foul … but Duda is so strong that the ball wound up clanging off the pole and just like that, in five pitches, a 1-0 Nats lead had become a 5-1 deficit.
“I’m not really sure how it’s physically possible to hit that ball where I put it,” Zimmerman said of Duda’s drive; the only answer I can think of is that right now nothing is impossible for Lucas Duda.
The Nats made a little noise, but Clippard put them down in the ninth and that was that — a three-game sweep that left the Mets technically in second place, but only if you want to be a spoilsport about it.
The Mets played a grueling July schedule and came out of the month 13-12; they now play subpar competition for most of the next month, while the Nats play much tougher teams on the road. The Mets should also add more reinforcements, with Travis d’Arnaud shaking off the rust, Michael Cuddyer starting a rehab assignment, Erik Goeddel working his way back, Jerry Blevins throwing and perhaps even David Wright suiting up on the minor-league side.
I’d be more confident if this team hadn’t spent 2015 succeeding when I expected them to fail and failing when I expected them to succeed. But that’s not to say I’m not hopeful.
I’m hoping. I’m dreaming. We’re all even with two months to go; why not us? I don’t know, but I don’t need to know. Because I’ve got something better: I believe.