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

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

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

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Life After the Mets

When Yogi Berra died in 2015, Dave Hillman ascended to the role of Oldest Living Met. Yogi Berra is among the most famous baseball figures of the past 75 years, perhaps ever. People still quote Berra, still invoke Berra, still remember Berra. He’s been gone seven years, but his legacy is likely to live on for generations.

When Darius Dutton “Dave” Hillman succeeded Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra as Oldest Living Met, I had almost no idea who Dave Hillman was, other than “member of the 1962 Mets,” and then mostly from looking at a list of the vital statistics I keep of Every Met Ever: birth date; date of first game as a Met; date of last game as a Met; and, where applicable, death date. Sad to say, I just the other day tabbed to the last column on Dave’s entry and made the necessary revision to his line on the list. Dave died Sunday in Tennessee at age 95, ceding his title of Oldest Living Met to Frank Thomas, 93.

Dave Hillman threw his first pitch for the New York Mets on April 28, 1962, becoming the 29th man to play for them overall. The chronological numbering is modestly significant if you want it to be. The first 28 Mets were the Original Mets who made it out of Spring Training. They won one game with that initial crew — and lost eleven. While cutting down their roster to the mandatory 25, they opted to make some changes besides. Their first in-season moves included bringing in righty Hillman, who washed out in Cincinnati following a robust season of relief in Boston.

In pursuing Dave, a friend also named Dave reminded me, the esteemed Met brain trust of George Weiss and Casey Stengel passed on the opportunity to sign none other than future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, whose right arm at that moment was considered more done than Dave Hillman’s (the almighty Yankees dropped him), yet actually had several decent seasons left ahead of him. Had the Mets taken a chance on a four-time 20-game winner then at liberty, Robin and fellow Phillie expatriate Richie Ashburn might have shared dugout time reflecting on their Whiz Kids exploits; sizing up their Cooperstown prospects; and plotting to elevate the Mets to a record slightly better than 40-120. But that was a road the Mets were adamant about not taking. “I have spoken to Casey Stengel,” Weiss practically harrumphed, “and he is definitely not interested in Roberts.”

Robin posted double-digit win totals in 1963, 1964 and 1965. His final game in the majors came on September 3, 1966. For context, eight days later, Nolan Ryan debuted. Robin Roberts, 35 in April of 1962, lasted quite a while, Weiss’s or Stengel’s interest in him be damned. Like Roberts and Ashburn, Stengel and Weiss are in the Hall of Fame. Alas, even in the grandest of careers, not every pitch is a strike, not every swing is a hit and not every move proves the best choice in hindsight. The Mets needed a pitcher at the end of April 1962 and went with Hillman. Dave’s major league journey began in 1955 with the Cubs. He was, in the most honorable sense of the phrase, a journeyman pitcher. A journey that takes a man to the Polo Grounds and assume the mantle of (almost) Original Met can’t help but be honorable in our eyes.

The date of the first game Dave Hillman ever pitched as a Met stands as absolutely significant. April 28, 1962, marked the first Mets home win ever, over the Phillies. Jay Hook started and was hit hard. Bob L. Miller entered before the first was over and eventually allowed the visitors to extend their advantage. Dave, however, stood to be the winning pitcher after departing his one inning of work, the sixth, and the Mets taking the lead directly thereafter. The official scorer disagreed, taking into account a) the first batter Dave faced in the sixth (Don Demeter) leading off with a home run; and b) Met ace Roger Craig, the club’s Opening Day starter, coming on and throwing three scoreless innings to seal the 8-6 victory. Craig could have been credited with a save, but saves hadn’t gained official statistical traction by 1962, so Roger was awarded the win. Scorer’s discretion, as they say.

Dave Hillman, living his Met life.

At least Dave Hillman was in the big leagues again and at least he took part in a New York Mets win…a historic New York Mets win. So did newly acquired Sammy Taylor and newly acquired catcher Harry Chiti. Chiti, while no Berra at or behind the plate, would become famous in a very Metsian manner a little later in 1962, returned to Cleveland when the Mets decided he wasn’t the receiver for them. The player to be named later turned out to be named the player named Chiti. This transaction went down in Originalist lore as Harry Chiti being traded for himself. Harry batted .195 and was never quoted on the subject of what to do when you come to a fork in the road (“take it” — Y. Berra), but his aftermath read as colorful.

Dave’s Met tenure left fewer footprints in franchise legend and was not much rosier in the way of statistics. He’d contribute to a few more wins and a whole bunch of losses — the song of essentially every 1962 Met — almost exclusively in relief. He notched the sixth save in Mets history. The sixth save in Mets history materialized in the Mets’ 51st game overall, an indicator less that starting pitchers went deep in those days than there weren’t many Met wins to save. Still, it was pretty clutch pitching. Dave came on in the eighth and popped up former teammate Ernie Banks with runners on, then stranded the bases loaded to finish the ninth. That the win Hillman secured improved the Mets’ record to 14-37, or that Hillman’s ERA for the year (including his stint with Cincy) hovered above 8, does not detract from a Mets win being a Mets win nor Hillman making sure it didn’t evolve into something less. In 1962, every win was sacred.

Three appearances later, Dave Hillman sported an ERA under 7, which was progress. It was also the end of the line for an eight-season veteran who’d certainly overcome obstacles to be able to put that many years into big league ball. The Mets wished to send Dave to the minors. Dave wished to move on, specifically back home to Kingsport, Tenn. — you might recognize the town as site of a long-running Mets farm club — with a career in clothes retailing in front of him. The 29th Met ever also became the seventh major leaguer to play his final game as a more or less Original Met. Forty-five players in all were 1962 Mets. Nineteen of them would never play again in the bigs after serving the 40-120 cause (Chiti, who Cleveland sent down to Jacksonville upon reacquiring him, was the sixth of them). In a 2008 interview, Hillman said of his last team, “It was a joke, the ballplayers they had assembled. It was all old players who were over the hill. There were one or two young pitchers that were good, but with the ballclub, they couldn’t get them a run.”

Dave Hillman, enjoying life after the Mets.

Hillman, nearing 35, may have resembled that remark, but he wasn’t inaccurate in his scouting report. And he couldn’t be blamed for considering the path of his baseball journey, which had landed him at being told he wasn’t quite good enough for those tenth-place Mets, and deciding trying to get it together at Syracuse wasn’t his best next step. Selling clothes at a store with his family’s name on the door (Fuller and Hillman, owned by his uncle) had more of a future to it than an excursion to Triple-A. This was 1962. Eight years in the big leagues didn’t set a person up for life. Life had six more decades to it in Hillman’s case. He’d be recognized from time to time for having been a ballplayer and he’d kindly answer inquiries about having been a Met or a Red or a Red Sock or a Cub way back when, but he wasn’t, when one ventured outside the borders of Kingsport or completism, what you’d call famous.

Then the famous Yogi Berra died, and Dave Hillman may or may not have thought much about inheriting the status of Oldest Living Met, a distinction that carried with it a note of renown or at least curiosity. I’d see his name and his birth date and get a little curious. When he died at 95, I poked around a little more. The Mets were a small segment of a life that went on and on, the longest life any Met has ever known. Being a 1962 Met wasn’t necessarily Dave Hillman’s calling card. But it’s how we came to know him or know of him. We thank him for the pleasure.

***
Not all expansion teams are created equal. The National League didn’t develop much practice in building them between 1962 and 1993 — there were only the Padres and Expos in 1969 — but it seems they figured out how to put together squads whose baseline was much closer to meh than Mets. The brand, spanking new Florida Marlins, for example, didn’t get spanked to extremes, going an ordinarily bad 64-98 rather than a still writing books about it 40-120. Those first Fish finished out of last place, for which they could partially thank the 1993 Mets, and they featured a bona fide league leader, for which they could partially thank the Mets of a couple of years earlier.

The 1993 Marlins featured atop their lineup and tearing around their bases Charles Lee Glenn “Chuck” Carr. Chuck was known in some circles as Chuckie. He’d refer to himself that way first-person style, as athletes exuding self-confidence have tended to do. He’d be referred to that way by colleagues, with varying degrees of affection or disdain. I have one overriding memory of the baseball career of Chuck Carr, a gifted outfielder who died at the indisputably too soon age of 55 on November 12, and it comes from 1993, three years after he’d broken into the big leagues as a New York Met, two years after the New York Mets decided they’d seen all they’d needed to see of him before making him a former New York Met.

It was, I’m pretty sure, from a morning in late June of ’93. The Mets were already certifiably dismal. I mean worst team money could buy dismal, and this was with cognizance that there was a book out that spring about the previous year’s Mets and it was called The Worst Team Money Could Buy. This team was worse. Much worse. But, as even the worst Met teams do, it cobbled together its moments, and one it desperately needed came at the expense of those expansion Marlins. On the night of June 29, following an extended stretch of the worst baseball I’ve ever seen the Mets play — they’d lost 48 of their previous 63 games, which translated to a winning percentage of Basically Never — they limped into Joe Robbie Stadium on a Tuesday night. They had been off Monday. On Sunday, at Shea, Anthony Young had lost his record-setting 24th consecutive decision. The Mets, not just Young, hadn’t won since the Monday before that, a victory that itself was the first since the Monday before that, which itself was the first Met win since the Monday before that. Garfield the Cat hated Mondays. The Mets by June of 1993 were the personification of them. No wonder it’s the only day when they won.

Storm clouds followed the 1993 Mets everywhere. No wonder they’d meet them upon their inaugural visit to Joe Robbie, which would become notorious for summertime rain delays over the next eighteen years, which is why they now play in Big Empty Park with a retractable roof downtown. The damp notoriety began in earnest on the next-to-last night of this particular June. It wasn’t so much that precipitation came blowing in hard on the Mets and the Marlins after three innings. It was that the grounds crew of the facility hadn’t been schooled on the proper method for unrolling and spreading out a tarpaulin. Tim McCarver grew quite amused that right field was well-tarped…which was quite an accomplishment…if that was the goal…which it wasn’t.

In assessing the left side of the infield as “absolutely inundated with water,” Tim took a page from Joe Namath most memorable trip to Miami. “I guarantee you,” Tim promised, “that shallow right is dry as a bone!” The men in teal tops and tan shorts missed most of the infield with their efforts, meaning a lot of futile dragging was done in a downpour before the crew rerolled and tried again. The Joe Robbie PA commented on the action like any good movie soundtrack, blaring the theme from Mission: Impossible.

“What,” McCarver asked Ralph Kiner with trademark incredulity, “is going on?” That had been the sentiment surrounding the Mets for nearly three months of a season gone awry. Tim thought about it some more and declared that for the dugout-sheltered players watching another team — “the wet brigade” — struggle, “this is the most fun the Mets have had all year!” By the time the crew, supplemented by additional stadium personnel, hit its mark and covered the entire infield, the rain had come to a full stop. Even Eddie Murray paused from his two-year commitment to taciturnity and broke into a grin.

Fun somehow became the watchword of that Tuesday night, provided the 21-52 Mets hadn’t sucked the good humor out of you and you didn’t mind staying up late. The tarp was eventually taken off the field (no crewmen were lost) and the Mets managed a 10-9 win. “Managed,” as in after the delay of 88 minutes, the Mets broke a 1-1 tie in the fourth; built a 6-1 lead in the top of the seventh; gave it back when the Marlins scored seven runs in the bottom of the seventh; grabbed the lead anew on three runs in the eighth; saw the Marlins even it up in the bottom of the ninth; and finally go ahead for good in the twelfth. Time of game: 4:20. Time when game ended: closing in on 1:30 AM. Saves blown by Mets: two — one by Pete Schourek, another by John Franco. Homers hit by Mets: four — one apiece by Murray, Jeff Kent, Todd Hundley and, before the rains came, Jeromy Burnitz, the rookie’s first as a major leaguer. Not only did the Mets win this game, it kicked off their first winning streak since the middle of April. It was a two-game winning streak in the middle of April and a two-game winning streak at the end of June, but when you’re bracketing a stretch of 15-48, you don’t have to be Crash Davis to know you don’t [bleep] with a winning streak.

In the midst of the madness of June 29, specifically in that seven-run seventh that gave the Marlins an 8-6 lead, Chuck Carr singled home Greg Briley to cut the Mets’ edge to 6-2. Carr had to leave the game after straining a rib cage. That meant by the time Dave Telgheder came out of the Mets bullpen to pitch the tenth, eleventh and twelfth, Carr was not playing. I mention this because either the morning after this game or maybe the morning after the game that followed, Telgheder was a guest on WFAN. I was definitely interested in hearing what he had to say. Dave had been up for a couple of weeks at that point. He’d started one of those Monday Met wins and earned the W. He finished the Tarp Game and rose to 2-0. As far as I was concerned, Dave Telgheder at 2-0 was the 1993 equivalent of Ken MacKenzie.

I remember exactly one thing Dave Telgheder said to whoever was interviewing him. I remember the gist of it, at any rate. The conversation was upbeat, befitting the veritable coming out party for a rookie pitcher who was succeeding when most about him were doing the opposite. I don’t remember who was asking the questions, but I don’t think it was much more of an interrogation than “what did you like best about getting that win in that crazy game?”

According to my memory, Telgheder said something that included his delight at the Mets getting to “shut up little Chuckie Carr.” Dave laughed when he said it, but devilishly. For a more modern reference point, maybe you recall John Buck assuming pie duties from Justin Turner one postgame when Jordany Valdespin was being interviewed about his walkoff heroics in 2013. It wasn’t a gentle “yay, we won!” whipped cream smush in JV1’s face. It was “this is an excellent excuse to hit you who irritate your teammates hard in front of everybody and make it look celebratory.” As I try to reconstruct Telgheder’s tone and words in my head, that’s what it sounds like. Dave, who came up through the Met system, was kidding about Chuck, who came up through the Met system, so maybe it was all good-natured. Or, to borrow a phrase introduced by Al Franken about ten years later, maybe he was “kidding on the square”: kidding…but not kidding.

As I took this all in (which was better than taking in the pennant chances for a team almost 30 games out of first place before the season’s halfway through), I wondered what, exactly, was so bad about Chuck Carr? Was he notably yappy when he was on the Mets? He’d been here for so brief a time, that I can’t swear I’d formed a strong impression. In that way that I was absent from typing class the week we were taught how to type numbers without looking at the keyboard — and therefore I still have to look at the keyboard when I want to type numbers — I wasn’t intently watching the Mets the week Chuck Carr first joined the team. It was the last week of April 1990. I was in the process of moving into my first apartment and flying to Tampa for my fiancée’s college graduation, after which my first apartment would become our first apartment. Big doings in two people’s lives. Three if you count what Chuck Carr was up to.

The 1990 Mets didn’t roar to the sort of start traditionally expected of them. Keith Miller, one of the better utilitymen the franchise has ever employed, emerged out of lockout-shortened Spring Training as the starting center fielder. Notice I didn’t refer to Keith Miller as one of the better starting center fielders the Mets have ever employed. Keith was a stopgap. Then Keith was injured. The Mets weren’t loaded with center field depth. To fortify their ranks, they had to reach down to Double-A Jackson and promote by two levels speedster Chuck Carr. I read New York Mets Inside Pitch and listened to the Farm Report on Mets Extra enough to know Chuck Carr was a speedster. Carr stole 62 bases in 1988 when he was a Mariner minor leaguer, 47 more in 1989 once the Mets got him. If the Mets had a speedster running wild in their system, word rose to New York before the player with the fast feet did. We didn’t have that many speedsters. In the ’80s we’d had Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra. This was the ’90s. They were gone.

Davey Johnson, still managing the Mets in the new decade, shed about as much light as possible on the coming of Carr: “My needs now are somebody who can pinch-run, play some defense. My center fielder [Miller] has a tight hammy, and we needed another outfielder. How much Carr plays or how long he’s here is uncertain at this point.”

Not quite a heralding befitting a prime prospect. Davey was just trying to keep together what turned out to be his last Mets team. Carr played one game for Johnson, a loss on April 28, before returning to Jackson. Center field at Shea would find its groove in short order, with Daryl Boston coming over from the White Sox to platoon with perennial fourth outfielder Mark Carreon, usually a corner man. By the time their skills meshed to create one steady center fielder within a potent lineup, the Davey Johnson era had morphed into Buddy Harrelson’s managerial tenure. Somewhere to the south of New York City, mostly at Jackson and a little at Tidewater, Chuck Carr continued to run. He stole 54 minor league bases to go with one that he nabbed during a swift August jaunt to Queens.

Chuck Carr, living his Met life.

In 1991, the Mets decided a single speedy center fielder was exactly what they needed to start the season. Except it wasn’t Chuck Carr. It was Vince Coleman, signed to a four-year deal that isn’t primarily recalled for how it blocked the path of Chuck Carr, but it did that, too, one supposes. Carr was up and down with the Mets the year they stopped altogether contending. The game in which he was granted his first big league start, August 28, was also the game in which he notched his first career RBI (off T#m Gl@v!ne, no less) and the game in which he injured himself in the field while misjudging a fly ball. There’d be one more appearance about a month later. The Buddy Harrelson era was about to end. So, in Met terms, was the Chuck Carr era, such as it was. The Mets swapped him and the 28 bases he stole between Norfolk and New York in 76 games that summer to St. Louis for a Single-A reliever. Across three seasons, Carr stole 128 bases for Mets affiliates and two for the Mets.

Artificially turfed Busch Stadium had been traditionally friendlier terrain for outfielders whose game was defined by their speed. The brief glimpse the Cardinals gave Carr in September 1992 generated Chuck’s kind of results: 22 games, 10 steals — plus a two-run double off Jeff Innis in one of Carr’s first games back in the majors, his way of invoking Simple Minds. Don’t you forget about Chuckie. The franchise coalescing in Florida took note. The Cardinals exposed Carr in the expansion draft. The Marlins took him with their seventh pick. He was about to be an Original Fish.

Within two weeks of the birth of the Marlins, Chuck Carr established himself as every day center fielder and leadoff hitter. By the time the Mets showed up at Joe Robbie for the Tarp Game, Carr was proving the skills he’d hone in the minors could play in the majors. He had 28 steals, en route to an NL-leading 58. A member of a first-year club leading his league in something was something else. As towering as Frank Thomas’s 34 home runs soar in the annals of the 1962 Mets, they placed him only sixth in the National League.

From the perspective of nearly thirty years on, the NL’s Top Ten Stolen Base Leaders of 1993 grabs a Mets fan’s attention. Gregg Jefferies, who wasn’t known for a bag thievery in New York, placed fourth with 46 sacks swiped. Eric Young, Sr., finished seventh with 42 for Colorado (his namesake son would lead the league in that category as a half-season Rockie/half-season Met two decades later). Brett Butler, two years before the Mets would sign him four years too late, totaled 39 stolen bases for the Dodgers, good for ninth in the circuit. Dykstra, as part of his MVP runner-up portfolio for the pennant-winning Phillies, absconded with 37, tenth among NLers. And that guy the Mets thought would be their speedster supreme, Vince Coleman, stole 38 bases, or ninth-best sum in the league. Vince might have swiped more had his Met career not come to an inglorious end in late July after he staged his very own Fireworks Night in the Dodger Stadium parking lot.

Chuck Carr outstole them all. His 58 bases were as many as any Met had ever stolen to that point, matching Mookie’s total from 1982. Chuck was also the most thrown-out base stealer of 1993, caught 22 times. He didn’t walk much for a leadoff hitter, and his OPS, when measured by contemporary standards, doesn’t amount to numbers associated with a spectacularly effective offensive player. But this was 1993. It wasn’t so far removed from the ’70s and ’80s that a base stealer who played fairly spectacular center field defense couldn’t be appreciated on his own terms. Marlins fans (they existed before they didn’t) appreciated Carr plenty. Far from wishing someone “shut up little Chuckie Carr,” they voted the kid from Southern California their Most Popular Marlin after the club’s first year of existence. He rewarded their support by stealing another 32 bases in strike-truncated 1994 while leading the league in singles and continually flashing his trademark smile. Chuckie may have been derided by some peers for the perceived crimes of excessive chatter and personal aggrandizement, but the folks who gave their hearts to the game (and slid their dollars across the ticket window counter) at a juncture when the game was on the verge of walking out on them noticed when a player gave his heart right back to it and them. Chuck Carr didn’t scowl his way to 90 stolen bases over the course of his two best seasons. The Memories section of Carr’s Ultimate Mets Database page confirms that if a person outside the baseball industry crossed paths with Chuck Carr, they were highly likely to identify as a Chuck Carr fan.

Chuck Carr, enjoying life after the Mets.

Against Dave Telgheder’s recommendation, I maintained a slight fondness for Chuck Carr even as his Met affiliation faded from view. We know how Old Friends can be in their wrath toward the team that gave up on them, and indeed, Chuck Carr drove in more runs against the Mets than he did any opponent in a major league run that lasted through 1997. Then again, driving in runs wasn’t exactly Carr’s specialty, so I don’t think it did any harm to give Chuck a light hand when he’d be announced as part of the Marlin starting lineup at Shea. I’ve always tried to acknowledge the prodigal sons when they’re in for a visit, at least until their post-Met success erodes my lingering goodwill.

After Carr left the Marlins, I stopped keeping up with his doings. I didn’t realize, until I read his obituaries, how much injuries depleted his primary skill set as the ’90s wore on. I didn’t know that he pretty much talked himself out of Milwaukee in 1997, albeit in the stuff of an anecdote Ron Shelton has to wish he’d written. It seems Carr swung on two-and-oh against manager’s orders and popped up. When confronted, Carr reasoned, “That ain’t Chuckie’s game. Chuckie hacks on two-and-oh.” Chuckie also packs for his next stop after such an explanation. The good news for Carr was his next stop was playoff-bound Houston, for whom he would hit his only postseason homer, off John Smoltz in the ’97 NLDS.

Then, while I was too busy focusing on the late ’90s/early ’00s Mets to notice, Chuck Carr was out of Major League Baseball. But not out of baseball. Carr’s smile in games and toward fans was genuine. He loved the sport enough to keep working at it wherever he could. He went to China and played on the Mercuries Tigers with future Met Melvin Mora (thus making them Mercuries Mets). He played in the Atlantic League when independent ball in the Northeast was a fresh concept. One of his two indy seasons was as a Long Island Duck, reuniting with Harrelson as Buddy was getting his quackers off the ground. Chuck then took his talents to Italy and then finished up in the Arizona-Mexico League, a 35-year-old player-coach ten years removed from his stolen base crown. Had Chuck Carr’s career crested later, in this day and age, he might have been hailed on social media for his “swag”. Or his flair/bravado might have rubbed some teammates and opponents the wrong way anyway because big league baseball still has more John Buck than Jordany Valdespin at its stodgy core. Or as someone who could run a lot but not hit nearly as much, he might not have been handed more than a cup of coffee — to go.

But if Chuck Carr was the person he was all along, he probably would have kept on talking and kept on smiling and there’d have been a reason to keep on applauding. It’s never too late for a baseball fan to put two hands together for a baseball player who let you know how much he loved the game.

Once a Met Starter, Only a Met Starter

Those wisps of smoke visible in the autumn sky remind us that this has been a busy birthday week amid the lofty heights of the Mets’ Mount Pitchmore, with Dwight Gooden turning 58 on November 16 and the 78th anniversary of Tom Seaver being born having come around on November 17. Next date to celebrate, commemorate and blow out candles up on that mountaintop: December 23, Jerry Koosman’s 80th birthday.

What each of these three icons of taking the ball; throwing it; and succeeding lavishly have in common, beyond their place atop the topography of Mets hurling, is they started their major league careers as Mets…yet didn’t finish it that way.

You don’t have to be the fourth face on the Mets’ Mount Pitchmore to claim common ground with Seaver, Gooden and Koosman on that count, but more on him in a while. A slightly lesser mountain populated by Met starters who started in the bigs as Mets — pick your pitchers — would say the same thing. Maybe your name is Matlack. Or Swan. Or Darling. Or Jones. Or, of more recent vintage, Harvey or Wheeler or Syndergaard or Matz. Your MLB debut (even if you were first signed professionally elsewhere) came as a New York Met. You would eventually make plenty of pitches as a Met. But you wouldn’t make all of them.

When David Wright stepped aside at the end of a long if not long enough career as nothing but a New York Met, we practically fainted from lack of precedent. With the exceptions of Ed Kranepool and Ron Hodges, nobody who’d lasted double-digit years in the majors did so exclusively as a Met. When we mourned the too-soon passings of Pedro Feliciano and Jeff Innis, we noted they were relievers who provided all the relief they could for the Mets and only the Mets. Feliciano in particular captured our imagination for flitting in and out of other organizations but not wearing their uniform in official action, especially when he took the Steinbrenners’ money for two years and used his time in their employ to rehab rather than pitch for them. True to the orange and blue, indeed.

But starting pitchers, the signature actors on the Met stage, have been a different story. There have been no high- or mid-profile exceptions to the Everybody Leave Home Eventually rule. While we toast the memory of Tom Terrific every November 17 (every day, really), we try to forget that 38.949 percent of Seaver’s starts came as something other than a Met. The percentages we prefer to remember are 98.84, his Hall of Fame vote; .781, his W-L pct. in his first Cy Young season from going 25-7 in 1969; and 61.051, or the inverse of 38.949. Tom made more than six of every ten of his starts as a Met. William DeVaughn advises cleansing the Seaverean section of your mind of Reds and White Sox and Red Sox imagery and just being thankful for what you got. We got a lot of Tom Seaver.

Not all of him, though. Never all of it with our most substantial starting pitchers. Doc Gooden the no-hitter crafter for the Yankees. Jerry Koosman the 20-game winner for the Twinkies. Jon Matlack placed second in league ERA in 1978 as a Texas Ranger. Ron Darling went to the playoffs in 1992 as an Oakland A. We’ve already hit of late on the sore-ish subjects of Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard. But we could go way back, too. Before Seaver was traded to Cincinnati, Jim McAndrew pitched for San Diego, Gary Gentry pitched for Atlanta and Nolan Ryan pitched for California. Some of the moves that led to those reassignments were better than others for the Mets — the trade of Gentry begat Felix Millan; the trade of Ryan begat Jim Fregosi (plus a half-century of Ryan-related regret) — but within the context of a Met starter starting, continuing and finishing a career as a Met, the outcome was essentially the same.

Anybody of note come notably close to being a Met and nothing but a Met? A few. McAndrew, for example, started 110 games as a major leaguer, 105 of them for the Mets. That’s better than 95 percent made for the Mets. Yet those five times he took the hill as a Padre starter spilled an infinitesimal if indelible brown and yellow blot on Jim’s Metsian purity. A little short of a hundred miles up Interstate 5 from San Diego, another Met starting pitcher of considerable tenure drove off the road of his journey to keeping it 100. Craig Swan started 184 games as a Met between 1973 and 1983. In 1984, the onetime National League earned run average champion was languishing in the Met bullpen. The club released him in May. Swan was 33. Two entities decided he still had competitive pitches embedded in his right arm: Swan and the California Angels. Thus, Craig went to Anaheim, gave extending his career a shot with one more start (and one more relief appearance) before finding himself off MLB mounds once and for all.

One-hundred eighty-five career starts in all. One-hundred eighty-four career starts as a Met. That’s 99.459 percent for us. So, so close. Swannie, you coulda been practically the pitching version of Ed Kranepool. Alas, that probably wasn’t your goal as summer approached in ’84.

How about a loophole? Jason Isringhausen came up to the majors with the Mets, made 52 starts between 1995 and 1999 with the Mets in that period and never made a start for anybody else. Eureka? Fool’s gold. Izzy never threw the first pitch of a game for the A’s, Cardinals, Rays or Angels, but he surely threw pitches at other junctures of loads of games for them. Jason appeared in 724 major league games. In 611, he was something other than a Met, usually as one of the leading closers of his day. The most accomplished of the Generation K trio posted 300 saves overall. His first, in ’99, and final seven, in Recidivist 2011, were for the Mets. The rest were for the A’s and Cardinals.

Verdict: not much of a loophole.

Let’s take a deeper look at this phenomenon through the prism of the first 60 years of New York Mets baseball. Here’s every Met pitcher who a) started his major league career as a Met; b) started at least 50 games for the Mets; and c) didn’t pitch for the Mets in their 61st year.

MOST GAMES STARTED AS A MET BY PITCHERS
WHOSE MLB CAREER STARTED WITH METS
(% of career starts as a Met; excludes 2022 Mets)
Tom Seaver 395 (61.051%)
Jerry Koosman 346 (65.655%)
Dwight Gooden 303 (73.902%)
Ron Darling 241 (66.209%)
Jon Matlack 199 (62.579%)
Bobby Jones 190 (78.838%)
Craig Swan 184 (99.459%)
Jon Niese 179 (90.863%)
Mike Pelfrey 149 (58.203%)
Zack Wheeler 126 (64.615%)
Gary Gentry 121 (87.681%)
Noah Syndergaard 120 (83.333%)
Dillon Gee 110 (85.938%)
Steven Matz 107 (73.288%)
Jim McAndrew 105 (95.455%)
Matt Harvey 104 (57.777%)
Ed Lynch 98 (82.353%)
Nolan Ryan 74 (9.573%…with 295 wins elsewhere)
Nino Espinosa 67 (53.175%)
Jae Seo 66 (64.706%)
Mike Scott 60 (18.809%)
Rick Aguilera 59 (66.292%…and 311 saves elsewhere)
Masato Yoshii 58 (49.153%)
Walt Terrell 56 (19.048%)
Jason Isringhausen 52 (100%…but 292 saves elsewhere)

In case you’re wondering, Sid Fernandez’s big league career had a John Stearns-style start to it. Stearns made one appearance in a Phillies uniform, on September 22, 1974, before his trade to the Mets the following December. El Sid was an L.A. Dodger for two games at the tail end of 1983 — first as a reliever, next as a starter — prior to Frank Cashen gladly taking Fernandez off Tommy Lasorda’s hands. Sid proceeded to make 250 starts for the Mets between 1984 and 1993, fourth-most by anybody in Mets history. Unlike Stearns, who never played for anybody else beyond his Met years, Fernandez logged innings (including 49 starts to bring him to 300 in all) for three other teams from 1994 to 1997. And in case you’re really wondering, Sid Fernandez and John Stearns shared a Met starting lineup exactly once, on September 26, 1984; John was the first baseman that Wednesday night at Shea, as Sid notched a 7-1 win over Jerry Koosman and the Phillies in the season’s final home game.

If you were wondering any of that, I truly value the cut of your jib.

ANYWAY…that’s 25 pitchers who made at least 50 starts as a Met from the beginning of a major league career and none of them spending an entire major league career as a Met through 2022. That tells us how hard it is to hang on to a starting pitcher and how effective the pitchers who became icons for us were, given that they had to establish their iconography in something less than the span of an entire career.

But what about starting pitchers who began their careers as Mets, made at least 50 starts as Mets, and happened to be Mets in 2022? They’ve been left out of the above accounting because there is a TBD nature to their careers. Also “they” are exactly one Mets starting pitcher. Maybe you’ve caught on to where this is going, beyond the chance to acknowledge the birthdays of Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver.

To be determined, indeed, is the nature of Jacob deGrom’s career, specifically where it will continue in 2023. Free agent Jake is already one-quarter of the Mets’ Mount Pitchmore. If we’d included deGrom’s 209 starts in the list above, he’d rank between Darling and Matlack, but (with no disrespect to Ron and Jon) his peers sit at the top of the chart. Seaver. DeGrom. Gooden. Koosman. Shuffle the second, third and fourth names as you like, but they belong in a row. Jake’s got nine seasons in the books, all of them as a Met. In every one of those seasons, he has never been less than one of the two most significant pitchers in the Met rotation, and usually he hasn’t had even that much company.

In the context of the list above, he not only blew past the likes of Jon Niese and Dillon Gee practically upon arrival, he outlasted contemporaries Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Those four plus deGrom shaped up as the core of a pitching staff that was going to grow into full maturity together. As individuals, each of the other four had his extended Met moment prior to a departure that appears inevitable in retrospect. DeGrom’s Met life, meanwhile, self-renewed without a ton of fuss — only a torrent of success. Except for not remaining unfailingly, unquestionably in what we refer to as one piece, Jacob deGrom has done nothing to make a Mets fan wish he won’t be celebrating his 35th birthday in a Mets uniform on June 19.

Of course Jake hasn’t remained unfailingly, unquestionably in one piece in his eighth and ninth seasons in the bigs and, as more than implied a sentence ago, he will turn 35 this coming June. If you want to pick apart the case for never letting him leave, beyond a need to count Steve Cohen’s money or calculate luxury tax impact on the construction of the rest of the roster, there were a couple of walls he hit in some of his September starts and there were a couple of starts where his core competency of being absolutely untouchable wasn’t in evidence inning after inning. A slightly diluted deGrom was still a sensational bet in Rob Manfred’s gambling-obsessed enterprise. Jake notched the first postseason victory by a Mets starter in seven years, and you wouldn’t wager against him notching the next one fairly soon if given the chance to lead the Mets toward another, hopefully deeper October run.

Mount Pitchmore is so named because its occupants are the pitchers good sense told you should pitch more for the Mets. In a given inning. In a given game. In a given series. In a given career. Seaver, Koosman and Gooden weren’t given the opportunity to keep it 100. Maybe in a given moment it didn’t seem off to have them out of the contemporary picture. Yet you look back and you wish you could see each as only a Met. DeGrom still has 100 in play. Began as a Met. Excelled as a Met. Can still go on as a Met and finish as a Met and nothing else. That would be 100% my preference.

If I have to eventually understand that progress moves the Mets and Jacob in different directions, I will pivot as events dictate. I acknowledge the risk/reward ratio of re-signing deGrom entering 2023 looks different than it did heading into 2019. Nevertheless, my choice is to view at least one quarter of the Mets’ Mount Pitchmore is something other than historical perspective. I’d like to watch Jacob deGrom pitch in a New York Mets uniform for all his baseball years to come. And when he’s done, I’d like to see his name ensconced atop the list of most starts by a pitcher who began his MLB career as a Met and never pitched for another MLB team.

Do you know who’s atop that specific list right now? Well, Jake, obviously, but that’s with the TBD caveat. Not only is deGrom first with 209 starts, David Peterson is second with 43 and Seth Lugo — only sometimes a starter (other than in his heart, perhaps) — is third with 38. Peterson’s been on our scene barely three seasons and Lugo is actively shopping his services around the industry. Tylor Megill, a rookie in 2021, is already sixth on this list with 27 starts. You can see the inherent folly of referring to players just getting going or going through free agency as Lifetime Mets.

If we limit eligibility to Met starting pitchers who we know for certain never pitched and never will pitch for another Major League team, the list sits at the foot of Mount Pitchmore. If we remove 2022 Mets from consideration, we can’t use a baseline of 50 starts as a Met. Or 40 starts as a Met. To get a list with enough names to make the exercise worthwhile, let’s set our minimum as a mere 5 starts. That’s pitchers who started their MLB careers as Mets, made at least FIVE STARTS and never pitched for anyone else in the bigs. You wouldn’t think we’re asking for a lot. All we’re going for is the amount equivalent to the quantity of fingers on one standard-issue human hand.

Let’s count upward this time.

BOB MYRICK (5 starts): A reasonably effective lefty reliever from 1976 to 1978. Got his starts for teams going nowhere. Bob’s starting career went the same place. Two of his starts were second games of doubleheaders, usually a tipoff that the manager simply needed someone to eat a few innings. Myrick also got the in-season starting assignment that in most years was the hallmark of a pitcher the manager didn’t have many other starting plans for: the Mayor’s Trophy Game, in 1977 (it doesn’t count toward Bob’s total). Was traded to Texas in 1979 with somebody to be mentioned several slots ahead on this list. Like his trade companion, Bob never made it back to the majors after being a Met.

BRENT GAFF (5 starts): The Mets had lost four in a row and really could have used a boost from their minor league callup on July 7, 1982. They got one for seven innings from Brent, who kept the Giants off the board…until the eighth. He wound up losing, 3-2, in his debut (and the Mets’ losing streak would reach seven), but a potential starter was born. “He really showed me something pitching out of that bases-loaded situation in the seventh,” George Bamberger said. “I wanted him to win real bad. I was heartbroken when he didn’t.” Bambi’s heart mended enough to give Gaff four more starts in ’82. Brent merged anew as a valuable reliever for Davey Johnson in 1984, prior to injury curtailing his career.

CHRIS SCHWINDEN (6 starts): Less remembered for his half-dozen uninspiring starts early in the Terry Collins era — the final results of which were 6-5 losses three times and 10-1, 18-9 and 8-1 losses the other three times— than for his coming through the waiver process with his right arm somehow intact. After what proved to be his final big league appearance in 2012, Chris was waived by the Mets and picked up by the Blue Jays; waived by the Blue Jays and picked up by the Indians; waived by the Indians and picked up by the Yankees; and waived by the Yankees and picked up by…the Mets…all in a span of less than five weeks. Last pitched professionally for the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League in 2014; started 25 games and won 14 of them.

BOB MOORHEAD (7 starts): The first Met to make his major league debut as a Met, in the very first game the Mets ever played, too. Bob might have been the canary in the 1962 Mets’ coal mine. In April, he made six appearances in relief; the Mets lost them all. From May 6 through June 9, he pitched in nine games, starting and relieving; the Mets went 5-4. Prosperity took a holiday thereafter, with the Mets posting a record of 1-22 when Moorhead took the mound in any capacity. Bob wouldn’t pitch for the Mets again until 1965: nine relief appearance in nine losses. One hopes he didn’t believe the Mets’ lack of success reflected upon him personally. Most every Met was kind of a bad-luck charm in those days.

ALAY SOLER (8 starts): A lifesaver, or at least a holeplugger, for a spell in 2006. The first-place Mets weren’t exactly drowning, yet they never seemed to have enough reliable starting pitching. They turned to Alay, a Cuban defector whose MLB debut came at age 26, and he threw a couple of early-June gems, most notably a two-hit shutout at Arizona in the midst of the 9-1 road trip that all but clinched the division title. Soler’s effectiveness wore off, Willie Randolph found other options, and the righty fell out of the Mets’ plans before the Fourth of July.

BOB APODACA (11 starts): The reliever who wore the fireman’s helmet between the trade of Tug McGraw and the acquisition of Skip Lockwood — leading the 1975 Mets in saves with 13 — Bob was given handfuls of starts in 1974 and 1976. That would happen with relievers back then. His first came in a contingency role when Matlack was ailing. Yogi Berra handed Dack the ball and Dack handed him five innings of two-run ball and a win over Bob Gibson and the Cardinals. Ultimately, Apodaca’s role would be to sit on the DL for a very long time following ligament damage to his right elbow in a Spring Training game in 1978. He never pitched in the majors again, but sure did a lot of coaching there, including for Bobby Valentine’s renaissance Mets of the late ’90s.

SCOTT HOLMAN (14 starts): Every generation has that Triple-A comer a fan is convinced is gonna come up and be the answer, based on nothing but a vague sense generated by staring at his name in the back of the yearbook or The Sporting News’s Tidewater stats. My guy was Scott Holman. Just wait until Scott Holman gets here, I told myself in the early 1980s. Three quality starts after the rosters expanded in 1982 made me look like a visionary. By the summer of ’83, things grew a little blurry, as Scott receded from rotation to relief. His last MLB appearance came on September 29, 1983. Great days awaited the Mets. Holman would spend them in the minors, striving to get back for a taste.

COREY OSWALT (14 starts): Corey Oswalt called and said he doesn’t belong on this list, that after a dozen Met starts in 2018 and one apiece in 2020 and 2021, he’s still very much active, pointing to his presence with three different organizations in 2022 as proof, that for all I know he’s gonna have another start in the majors. I reluctantly responded that his Triple-A stints in Sacramento (the Giants), Lehigh Valley (the Phillies) and Albuquerque (the Rockies) — and the combined 6.57 ERA he posted at those stops — may not be the compelling evidence he believes it to be. Corey is currently a free agent. He’s welcome to pitch for another major league team and hop off this list ASAP. Until then, he’s sticking around next to Scott Holman. Should Oswalt get another chance at the major league level, may he enjoy the run support he received the day he notched his second MLB win, in the first game of the doubleheader of August 16, 2018. Final score at Citizens Bank Park: Mets 24 Phillies 4; it was the most runs the Mets have ever tallied in one game. The record will show Oswalt protected an eleven-run lead in the fifth inning to secure his victory.

JENRRY MEJIA (18 starts): An alternately promising and injured righty whose starts were scattered within four seasons of mostly relieving. Some of his stints were positively mouthwatering. The afternoon half of a day-nighter in Washington in 2013 stands out in memory: seven innings, zero runs, an 11-0 late-July whitewashing that elevated the Mets to 22 wins in their previous 36 games, or the high point of that otherwise godforsaken season. Jenrry found his groove as the Met closer in 2014, nailing down 28 saves for a team finally on the upswing. Then there was something about PEDs and that was basically that for Mejia.

MIKE BRUHERT (22 starts): You’ve been waiting to find out who was traded alongside Bob Myrick to Texas, haven’t you? Wait no more! It was Mike Bruhert, stalwart of the Mets’ ascent to prominence in April of 1978…or have you forgotten Mike’s six innings of one-run ball versus the Cardinals that raised the Mets’ record to 7-5 and his own record to 1-1? Well, I remember those first weeks of a season that eventually disintegrated fondly. I also remember not knowing in advance anything about either Bruhert or reliever Mardie Cornejo, another righty who, I swore once I saw them on the Opening Day Roster, were gonna make 1978 a total upgrade from miserable 1977. Final record in 1977: 64-98. Final record in 1978: 66-96. So there, says this former fleetingly optimistic 15-year-old. Mike is probably more famous — in circles in which Mike is famous — for having been Gil Hodges’s son-in-law, marrying Irene Hodges, the daughter who gave the touching Hall of Fame acceptance speech for her late dad this past July. (The marriage didn’t last.) The trade of future Fordham pitching coach Bruhert and future Mississippi businessman Myrick to the Rangers, not incidentally, was for a fading Dock Ellis. Bruhert hung in as a minor leaguer for four seasons after 1978, a year longer than Myrick did. Former All-Star Ellis pitched to a 6.04 ERA as a Met before the Mets sold his contract back home to championship-bound Pittsburgh. In his spellbinding 2021 memoir Cobra, Dave Parker remembered “we were all aware of Dock’s record that season,” but the prodigal Buc explained it away by detailing “how the Mets overworked his arm in the bullpen, constantly having him warm up and then sit down”. The Pirates welcomed Ellis back enthusiastically, though he wound up pitching in only three games, the last three of his career, all of them Pittsburgh losses. In all, Bob Myrick and Mike Bruhert for Dock Ellis was one of those trades that can fairly be said to have helped absolutely nobody.

RANDY TATE (23 starts): Like Mike Bruhert, Randy Tate’s not quite two-dozen starts in the major leagues, all as a Met, were confined to one season, in Tate’s case 1975. His signature outing was the near no-hitter against the Expos on August 4. The seven hitless innings, much like Gaff’s debut seven years later, blew up in the eighth and turned into a loss. The rest of Tate’s professional career took place in the minors. I’m still amazed that the starter who started the most games behind Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack on those 1975 Mets is someone who never pitched in the majors the year before and would never pitch in the majors again.

ERIC HILLMAN (36 starts): Eric was a tall drink of water for a parched rotation in August of 1992, shutting down the Pirates for eight innings in his first start (on Tom Seaver Hall of Fame Night, no less). At 6-foot-10, he didn’t throw as hard as one might have imagined, but he had pretty good control. Not great luck, and not a great team behind him. When the Mets let him go in 1994, his baseball future awaited in Japan, where he racked up a dozen wins for Bobby Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995 and another 14 the next season for the same club, albeit for a different manager. Eric must have picked up some pointers, because he has become a staple of Mets fantasy camps, where attendees have raved for years about the man’s coaching. What they may not realize is the distinction Coach Hillman shares with the current Mets pitching coach.

JEREMY HEFNER (36 starts): You know this guy. He comes out to the mound to confer with the likes of deGrom, Peterson, Lugo and Megill. Hef, as a person named Hefner is inevitably known, has become one of the well-regarded pitching coaches in the major leagues. His pitching career may not have hinted at this particular chapter of his life, as he was, at most, a pretty decent starter for a fairly brief period. The year before deGrom debuted, Jeremy shared a rotation with Harvey, Wheeler, Niese and Gee. Over two seasons, before Tommy John surgery derailed him, he started three-dozen times, occasionally very well. In his first Met/MLB start, he got clobbered by the Padres, but did hit a home run, something no pitcher the Mets call up to Citi Field will ever say again. And if Jacob deGrom does re-sign with the New York Mets and spends the rest of his career with the New York Mets, here’s something we’ll never be able to say again:

Eric Hillman and Jeremy Hefner are the all-time leaders in games started by Mets pitchers who we know never pitched or will never pitch for any other major league team.

Attempt to absorb that again, if you will. Fine gentlemen by all indications, fellas who pitched more than regular folks like you and me ever will for the Mets. The same could be said of everybody namechecked from Myrick and Gaff and up through this particular chart. I’ve learned after taking these kinds of historical dives and understanding the talent and effort required in making the majors for even a single inning (and learning the toll injuries can take on potential) to go light on the scoffing at or dismissing of pitchers whose major league careers don’t jump off the virtual page let alone measure up to those of a Tom Seaver or a Jerry Koosman or a Dwight Gooden or a Jacob deGrom. Sure, some of these guys, if we remember them much, it’s probably for the kind of pitching that signaled they weren’t destined for the most bountiful of big league tenures. That said, they had big league tenures. That’s incredible for any portion of any lifetime.

But c’mon. At the top of a list of MOST STARTS/NEVER LEFT, especially when we’re talking about a franchise defined at its peak by the Franchise and by starting pitching in general, we should be able to have a name that isn’t — and I say this with proper accord for two righthanders who wore No. 53 perfectly honorably — Eric Hillman’s or Jeremy Hefner’s. Not when we have a chance to someday have that name be, on a permanent basis, Jacob deGrom’s.

Two-hundred nine starts and counting. Topping this list isn’t the only to reason to keep Jacob deGrom’s total of major league starts as a Met and NOTHING but a Met increasing. But it’s up there.

A new episode of National League Town is out, celebrating Buck Showalter’s Manager of the Year award; praising HBO’s Willie Mays documentary; remembering the late Met Chuck Carr; and visiting Met Lit novelist Kevin Chapman. Give it a listen here or wherever you find your podcasts.

A Series Closes, A Closer Returns

If Cole Porter were still with us, I can hear him having a field day with the results of the 2022 World Series.

You’re the top
You’re the Houston Astros
You transformed
Phil bats to disasters

Whoever dug deep for the sportsmanship to declare, before the Fall Classic began, “may the best team win,” got their wish. The best team in the World Series prevailed. They were, by far, the best team their league had to offer and they emerged as the best team in the entire sport. The Houston Astros appeared mighty formidable from a distance all year and only more so up close when we glimpsed their prowess first-hand in June. The Mets played a pair of two-game sets against them in consecutive weeks and came away with four dings in their armor. Two of the losses were by blowout, one was at the wrong end of a pitching duel and one ached for that big hit late that never came. Before our own postseason went to Padre hell, I allowed myself maybe five minutes of projecting potential Mets-Somebody World Series matchups. When I got to Mets-Astros, I fortified my confidence with the notion that when we played them months earlier, we didn’t have Scherzer and we didn’t have deGrom and having them could make all the difference. I also thought, man, I do not want to have to play the Houston Astros in the World Series.

Mission accomplished?

You’re the top
You’re the skipper Dusty
We forgot
Your team was not so trusty

If 2017 is too much original sin to overlook, then you’re not interested that the managerial arc of Dusty Baker has been redeemed, on the off chance it needed to be. The man managed four other franchises into October without ultimate success. He inherited a powerhouse in Houston whose morals and ethics were in question, to put it kindly. They shook out their front office. They churned much of their roster. And they brought in the manager you couldn’t boo if you had a heart. The Astros are still a powerhouse, with a mostly different cast from the one that won the World Series with the help of video monitors and trash cans. A core of those ringbearers is still around from ’17, still delivering big hits. “I sure hope Altuve, Bregman and Gurriel win another trophy” probably wasn’t much of a rallying cry outside Southeast Texas, but Baker the baseball lifer of all baseball lifers — winding through the game for most of the past 55 years — grew into a cause that transcended partisanship. Unless you absolutely couldn’t tolerate another Astros championship or you were a Phillies diehard, Dusty wrapped in a mass embrace at the end of Game Six was worth the price of admission. (If I needed a rooting interest in this Series, this story did it for me.)

You were not
Some mere Wild Card entry
May just be
The team of this here centu’ry

It is fashionable every October/November to dismiss any baseball outcome you don’t like as random. Anybody can win a best-of-three, a best-of-five, a best-of-seven. Yet that, give or take a newfangled bye, is the gauntlet that’s laid out for everybody. Losing along the way doesn’t mean you’re suddenly without merit, but winning it all, I truly believe, attests to your quality as a ballclub. World champs are world champs. If the Phillies had scraped together two more wins, there’d be some twisting worthy of a soft pretzel to make their case as more than winners of an extended tournament on a hot streak, though I’d probably try. But it was the 106-win Astros, the Astros who are in the playoffs every single year, the Astros who keep coming back to the World Series. The Astros whose outfield no longer includes George Springer; and whose infield no longer includes Carlos Correa; and whose rotation no longer includes Gerrit Cole; and whose bullpen no longer includes Roberto Osuna; and the beats missed were negligible. Here came Jeremy Peña to take over at shortstop and Kyle Tucker in right and Chas McCormick in center and Framber Valdez to start and a passel of relievers — among them a fella named Rafael Montero — to seal almost every lead. Few outside of Goliath Heights particularly love Goliath, no matter who’s managing Goliath, yet David’s slingshot doesn’t always find its target. If the World Series ideal is to crown the top team in the sport, the 2022 edition achieved its ancient ambition.

It also provided entertainment upon an otherwise baseball-devoid landscape, albeit in spasms. There was a comeback for the ages in Game One, a power onslaught in Game Three, a no-hitter (combined; even still) in Game Four, a genuine nailbiter in Game Five and a second-guesser’s delight that more or less decided Game Six. That this World Series could be fun in spurts if tedious for stretches was likely attributable to the presence of those ever phascinating Philadelphia Phillies, despite their having joined the 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers as the only National League champions to lose both a season series to the Mets and the World Series. The Phillies are rarely boring. It was only when their ability to make contact went dark that you knew it was time turn out the lights on what was left of the baseball year.

There’s something about a Philadelphia rush through a postseason — and it doesn’t have to be baseball’s — that gets your attention, especially when the Philly team in question is fairly fresh on the national stage. We have conditioned ourselves to be averse to their good phortune (and it’s not like they give us any reason to take their side as otherwise neutral observers), but Philadelphia gets behind its teams when its teams give it something to get behind and roars its approval loudly enough to be heard at least to the northbound entrance ramp to the Goethals Bridge. I wasn’t in the mood for any of it from 2007 to 2011, but perhaps because we finished our season series with them on August 21, I could watch their aspirations crash the gates of reality with a pinch of admiration. We’re definitely better off without them as world champions, but it wasn’t gonna absolutely kill me if they’d pulled it off.

The presence of two once-prominent Met pitchers didn’t have as much to do with my lack of animus as you might think. I wanted Zack Wheeler to acquit himself in Game Six, but I wasn’t exactly heartbroken when the Astros jumped him in Game Two. I would have left him in to face Yordan Alvarez with two on rather than call on Jose Alvarado, but it’s not only the Mets who don’t elicit my advice or consent on pitcher moves. I always liked Zack, but I was never what you’d call from a fan perspective in love with him. Noah Syndergaard…ah, Noah. That was love, for a while anyway. It may have faded when his absence didn’t make my heart grow fonder, but we’d always have 2015 and 2016 and even that afternoon at the tail end of 2021 when discovering he was coming back for a couple of innings to test his rehabbed right arm had me practically racing around the house with glee. I actually called my wife at work to give her the big news: “Noah’s pitching tonight!” It felt momentous enough so that a text wouldn’t do.

That was both a little more than a year and a couple of lifetimes ago. Noah wanted that qualifying offer. Noah rejected that qualifying offer. Noah headed to the Angels (where he suddenly needed an extra day of rest when he was on track to face the Mets). Noah was traded to the Phillies (where a similar bout of fatigue suddenly set in). Noah went from our uniform to another uniform to one of the two or three worst uniforms he could wear from a Met perspective. Noah, I’m convinced, wants to make happy whoever he thinks it’s in his best interest to make happy. Maybe we all do, but Thor is Thor. Or was Thor and was ours and is still capable of grabbing our attention. In his Angels guise, he took a mild jab at the Mets’ combined no-hitter when one of his teammates threw an old-fashioned nine-inning no-no. As a Phillie, before pitching Game Five, he couldn’t restrain himself from praising villain from another autumn Chase Utley to the hilt, as if that were really necessary. Thus, when the Astros needed two at-bats to put one run on the board to open Syndergaard’s first World Series start since Game Three against the Royals, I was like yeah!

But when Noah limited the damage to get out of that first inning and proceeded to retire the Astros in order in the second and third, I kind of nodded and said, all right, good job. He indeed went from Syndergaard to Noah if not back to Thor in the span of not too many pitches. I wanted him to implode. I wanted him to succeed. Perhaps I wanted to get back to a relationship that wasn’t so fraught. Earlier this season, I removed SYNDERGAARD 34 from my t-shirt drawers, as monumental a rebuke to an individual as I can issue. The shirt still fit my torso, but not my state of mind.

Syndergaard wound up with a World Series loss. Wheeler wound up with two of them. The Phillies of Harper and Hoskins and Schwarber and Segura and the rest of them came up two wins short of the whole shebang. That they lasted as long as they did says plenty about the system that provided them the opportunity to come so close. That they came so close says something about them as a ballclub, too.

More has been said in this space on behalf of the Astros and Phillies than is normally said here. Apologies to those who cringe at anything that goes beyond THEY CHEAT and THEY SUCK as pertinent commentary. It was the World Series. I valued its company for six nights. I was satisfied it didn’t include the Yankees. Or the Braves. Or the Yankees. Or the Dodgers. Or the Yankees. Or the Cardinals. Or the Yankees. The Mets were so far removed from the postseason they briefly visited that once the final round got underway, I could take it or leave it on its own merits. I’ll almost always take it. It’s the World Series.

I wouldn’t mind a new t-shirt to replace Noah’s. When I watched a couple of Astros cavorting on the field at Minute Maid Park Saturday night, each modeling those WORLD CHAMPIONS shirts that go on sale a nanosecond after the final out, I wondered when I’d get the chance to purchase a version tinged in the proper shade of orange and blue, one that would stay in my rotation probably until the end of time, or my time. My 2006 NL East shirt is still on active duty. The pennant is still rising from 2015 in one drawer and another drawer has been warned that the 2016 Mets have come to reign. (Catch me on the right day, and you’ll learn from the words across my chest that I continue to implore the 2002 New Jersey Nets to BEAT L.A.) Maybe Modell’s would still be in business if they’d had more occasion to sell me more Mets championship gear. I don’t know if the shirt of which I dream will be donned by a Met we already know — can’t you see Pete Alonso putting one on only to tear it right off? — or if it’s going to take another generation of Mets to expand our wardrobes. Plenty of Mets have come and gone since October 27, 1986. None who wasn’t at Shea that night has worn a WORLD CHAMPIONS shirt let alone ring.

I don’t need a ring. I just want the shirt.

Our best-case scenario is Edwin Diaz in a year real soon making like Ryan Pressly this year, notching the World Series-winning save and being handed an officially licensed tee in appreciation. On Sunday, we learned Edwin’s being handed a lucrative new contract that will keep him in Met togs for either three, five or six more years, depending on who opts in or out of what exactly. The contract was well-earned. Edwin Diaz was one of the main reasons I dared to project Mets-Somebody World Series matchups a little more than a month ago. Edwin Diaz was why ninth innings in 2022 felt different from ninth innings in all the seasons that preceded it. Allowing for everything that can and often does go wrong with big deals for big names, there’s no one I’d rather have than Edwin Diaz to bring Mets games to a conclusion. Retaining this closer’s services was a brilliant way to begin this offseason and just what we need in order to imagine how we might conclude next year’s postseason.

Hopefully pawing through the boxes of WORLD CHAMPIONS merchandise that they can’t stock fast enough at Dick’s Sporting Goods or wherever one goes in person nowadays to secure such swag.

When the Mets Toughen Champs

Growing up in the 1970s in New York, where college football showed up in the papers just enough to provide context for gambling lines, I maintained scant awareness of the sport, save for maybe the bowl games played on New Year’s Day. It was therefore a culture shock to me when I arrived at my then non-football college in Tampa and discovered I was living in a state where every Saturday was treated as if it was New Year’s Day (while every Friday night’s high school slate was New Year’s Eve). With limited column inches devoted to baseball in those pre-Sunshine State expansion days, I became hyperaware of college football, whether I intended to or not. You can only read the same wire capsules about last night’s Twins-Royals tilt so many times before your eye wanders to what else is going on.

More or less unconsciously, I chose a team to follow lightly: the University of Miami Hurricanes. This was in the fall of 1981, before they’d won much. They’d been in the Peach Bowl the January prior, I somehow knew. I liked that behind quarterback Jim Kelly they passed the ball by choice rather than out of desperation. They were an “independent,” which seemed less clannish than belonging to a conference. I mostly liked that they weren’t the state’s institutional favorite, the Florida Gators. Gainesville was relatively close to where I was on the West Coast of the peninsula. UF was an overbearing presence in the sports pages, meaning their primary in-state rival the FSU Seminoles also got too much play. Everything was Florida and Florida State, Gators and Noles, pick a side. Miami was tucked away on C-6, 250 or so miles south and east of Tampa on the map, practically off the grid, except in-state and too big to completely ignore. They were covered by the local media but mostly as an afterthought, like the New Jersey Devils are east of the Hudson. Worked for me. I could have a Cane in the fight, so to speak, without getting too caught up in this strange other world where people actually cared to excess about who was going to win on Saturday and what it meant in the almighty polls that determined a national champion.

Funny thing happened in the fall of 1983. “My” Miami Hurricanes lost their first game — by a lot, to Florida — then won their second. And their third. And so on. Baseball season ended. The playoffs and World Series came and went. The Giants under first-year head coach Bill Parcells were a disaster. The Jets, favored to finally make it to the Super Bowl, relentlessly disappointed. I could keep up with either of them only so much from a distance, anyway. The Canes, with Bernie Kosar having taken over for the USFL-bound Kelly, kept winning. I actually paid attention to the previews every Saturday and the game stories every Sunday. I monitored the AP and UPI polls of writers and coaches when they emerged early each week. When Miami finished its schedule with a win over Florida State to wind up 10-1, they were ranked No. 5. Because of the way bowl commitments locked certain conference champions into certain matchups, it would be impossible to have No. 1 Nebraska face No. 2 Texas (Cotton Bowl), No. 3 Auburn (Sugar Bowl) or No. 4 Illinois (Rose Bowl). Thus, the Orange Bowl, to which the Big Eight champion Cornhuskers were committed, would have to invite the next-best option: the Hurricanes.

Everything would have to break right for this to amount to anything more than a formality. Not only was Nebraska considered one of those college football teams for the ages, but there was a pecking order to consider. Three teams had a claim on the national championship should the Huskers stumble…not that that was gonna happen. Miami was a double-digit underdog, a sacrificial ibis. At least they wouldn’t have to travel far to their slaughter. The Orange Bowl — current site of whatever Marlins Park is known as now — doubled as their home stadium.

On January 2, 1984 (New Year’s Day was a Sunday and the NCAA ceded Sundays to the NFL), everything that had to break right for the Hurricanes broke right. Illinois was run out of the Rose Bowl by UCLA, 45-9. Georgia edged Texas, 10-9. Auburn beat Michigan but in a dull, unimpressive fashion (9-7) that wasn’t going to wow the judges. There was no playoff. You had to be voted No. 1. No. 3 Auburn didn’t do itself any favors in the swimsuit portion of this beauty pageant.

The field was wide open for Miami if it could pull an upset. The Canes played wide open and it paid off for most of the game. UM led 17-0 after one quarter and 31-17 after three. Yet this was Nebraska, which meant it wouldn’t be easy, even in Miami. Sure enough, those Huskers closed the gap to 31-30 with less than a minute left. They’d been undefeated and could stay that way by simply kicking the extra point. If Nebraska finished the season 12-0-1, there’d be no reasonable taking the No. 1 ranking away from them. But coach Tom Osborne, to his everlasting, sportsmanlike credit, decided in this pre-OT era that a tie was no way to secure the title. He called for a two-point conversion attempt. Miami stopped it. The Hurricanes won, 31-30, and were voted national champions.

All of which I bring up because while the college football-loving nation caught its breath (it’s still one of the greatest games the sport has ever known) and South Florida (where I was ensconced over the holidays) celebrated, a few sourpusses from the University of Florida poked their heads into a watering hole on Miami’s Coral Gables campus and blurted, according to an item I read a couple of days later, “GATOR BAIT! GATOR BAIT!” They remembered Miami had lost to Florida way back in September, before anybody saw any of this coming. As much as college football rankings hinged on “this one beat that one” in pre-BCS calculations, determining a season’s supremacy didn’t stem from a Week One showdown that was otherwise forgotten. Florida finished 9-2-1 and wound up ranked No. 6 when all was said and done. Miami beat No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and ascended to No. 1 itself.

Gator bait, my ass.

But, y’know, the New York Mets took fourteen of nineteen from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2022, and the Phillies are National League champions. Hence…

Nah, hence nothing. It didn’t work that way in a sport that actually sort of factored vibes into its championship reckoning, and it surely doesn’t work that way in baseball with its playoff structure neatly in place. The fact that the Phillies played six series against the Mets and won none of them is not a factor this weekend or next week. The fact that the Mets no-hit the Phillies one night in April or overcame a six-run deficit in a single ninth inning or unleashed Nick Plummer to stun them in another ninth inning or Nate Fisher stymied them or Mark Canha ate them alive doesn’t impact anything where the remaining events on the 2022 baseball calendar are concerned.

Nevertheless, should the Philadelphia Phillies prevail in their upcoming (it still hasn’t started?) World Series versus the Houston Astros, they can send a thank you bouquet to 41 Seaver Way. I’ll even draft an accompanying card for them now in case they plan on being too celebratory to write straight once they obtain victory.

Dear Mets,

We appreciate how you toughened us up by beating the bejeesus out of us all season. Fourteen lumps led to one trophy — thanks!

xoxo

Phils

Since no preceding National League pennant winner who’s gone on to capture the World Series has, to the best of my knowledge, sent its gratitude to Flushing when appropriate, I doubt this courtesy will be followed through on. Nor might it be appreciated. Yet it might be appropriate.

In the 60 seasons of Mets baseball prior to 2022, 59 National League champions have been crowned. One time, amid the ongoing 1994 strike, nobody was crowned anything. Five times the Mets crowned themselves, the most ideal of coronations. One other time, in 2020, when the condensed regular season was played exclusively geographically, the Mets didn’t cross paths with the eventual NL champs, the Los Angeles Dodgers. This leaves us a sample size of 53 non-Mets National League champions to consider in the realm of Mets Versus Champs To Be.

When a team that isn’t the Mets wins the National League pennant, it might figure that the non-Mets team is going to outdo the Mets in head-to-head competition. That other team, after all, is on its way to the pennant, while the Mets, unfortunately, aren’t. This helps explain why in 36 of those 53 seasons when the NL champions weren’t the Mets, those NL champions to be won the season series from the Mets.

Ouch, I know. But it happened. It used to happen without fail. You might be aware that the Mets won a World Series before they ever won on Opening Day. You will learn right here that the 1969 Mets won the last game of their baseball year, and the 1970 Mets won the first game of their baseball year, yet it wasn’t until 1971 that a Mets team took a season series from a National League pennant winner in progress. The 1971 Pirates (8-10 vs. the Mets) didn’t really start a trend. The 1974 Dodgers lost their season series to the Mets (5-7) and the 1976 Reds tied theirs (6-6), but through 1983, one of the most dependable routes to the NL flag was by stomping on the Mets.

The 1962 Giants took the measure of the 1962 Mets 14 of 18 times. The 1963 Dodgers, who fell in a tacked-on playoff to the Giants a year earlier, learned their lesson and took 16 of 18 from the 1963 Mets. On it would go like that for most of the 1960s and 1970s and into the early 1980s. Maybe not so dramatically, but fairly dependably.

Then, in 1984, the Mets got very good and stayed very good for a while. Not good enough to win more than one pennant, but good enough to occasionally ward off or at least match the clubs that would outlast them into October. The Mets tied the season series with the NL champion 1984 Padres (6-6), the 1987 Cardinals (9-9) and 1990 Reds (6-6). There was also a 10-1 slate run up by the 1988 Mets over the 1988 Dodgers, but, um…

When the Mets fell apart for the bulk of the 1990s, their ability to thorn the sides of eventual NL champs went missing, save for 1995, when they took eight of thirteen from the Atlanta Braves, a result clinched by a final-weekend sweep at Shea that sure felt more meaningful to us than to them. Two years later, the Mets debuted as a Wild Card contender, and the 1997 Mets couldn’t blame their shortfall to the Florida Marlins on not sticking it to the eventual NL champs, as the Metsies won eight of twelve in head-to-head competition from the future Orange Bowl site denizens.

The Bobby V Mets’ generally winning ways didn’t necessarily extend to the cream of a given year’s NL crop — though they did tie the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks 3-3 in that season series. Art Howe’s troops’ performance against the ’03 Marlins (7-12) and ’04 Cardinals (1-5) were apparently part of what Philip Seymour Hoffman studied to create his portrayal of the bumbling Oakland manager in Moneyball. Under Willie Randolph, the Mets held their own against 2005 NL champs Houston (5-5 when you could depend on what league the Astros called home) and outdid 2006 NL champs St. Louis (4-2, and don’t ask about how the Cardinals reached the World Series). The 2007 Mets did lose four of six to the 2007 Rockies, but that was months before anybody took the Rockies seriously as pennant timber or anybody would have dreamed the Mets wouldn’t play in October.

It only seems like the 2008 Phillies stampeded their way to the Series on the Mets’ heads, but the Mets took 11 of 18 from those eventual NL champs. Not so in 2009, when the Phillies helped inaugurate Citi Field and the enveloping aura of ennui by winning twelve of eighteen from the Mets home and away. The quasi-dynasty of the 2010-2014 Giants, with its pennant every even year, was boosted to an extent by their handling of the Mets, winning the season series from New York in 2010 and 2014 while splitting it in 2012. The Cardinals roared from the rear to nab the 2011 Wild Card that allowed them to transfer to the World Series express, thanks not so much to their having split six with the Mets during the season. The 2013 NL champ Cardinals, on the other hand, won five of seven from the Mets.

Since the Mets were last in the World Series, two aspiring National League champions put their lackluster Met season sets out of their mind to focus on the task at hand. The 2016 Cubs went 2-5 against the Mets (we swept them at Citi Field) and the 2019 Nats went 7-12 (despite the sense that Kurt Suzuki took Edwin Diaz over the wall every night for a month). The 2017 Dodgers unfortunately echoed their 1963 predecessors, going a perfect 7-0 against the Mets (it felt worse than that), while the 2018 Dodgers weren’t impaired by dropping two of six to the 2018 Mets. One wonders how L.A. made the 2020 World Series without our help.

The last example we have in this realm before this year comes from the 2021 Braves, who took ten of nineteen from the 2021 Mets, same as in 2022, if not at all the same as in 2022.

Here’s the thing, though. Among the nine National League champions, prior to the current Phillies, who lost season series to the Mets, eight went on to win the World Series.

The 1971 Pirates
The 1988 Dodgers
The 1995 Braves
The 1997 Marlins
The 2006 Cardinals
The 2008 Phillies
The 2016 Cubs
The 2019 Nationals

Only the 1974 Dodgers lost both a season series to the Mets and the World Series.

By comparison, among the eight eventual National League champions who split season series with the Mets, five won their World Series.

The 1976 Reds
The 1990 Reds
The 2001 Diamondbacks
The 2011 Cardinals
The 2012 Giants

No such luck for fellow .500ers the 1984 Padres, the 1987 Cardinals and the 2005 Astros.

What about those greedy bastards who won both their season series versus the Mets and the National League pennant? They’ve gotten what they’ve deserved, going 13-23 in terms of winning World Series. Since 1983 — a period that stretches back even further than the time spanning the present and 1986 — only four National League champions have run the gauntlet of beating the Mets and the American League champions: the ’03 Marlins, the Giants of ’10 and ’14 and last year’s Braves.

Otherwise, karma has looked kindly upon National League champions who demonstrated the good graces to not grind their bootheels into the Mets’ necks. Or, perhaps, getting beaten by the Mets stiffened the spines of NL champs-in-waiting once they got to the big stage.

Does losing 14 times to the Mets in the regular season, more than any National League champion has ever lost to the Mets, bode well for the Phillies against the Astros? Whatever happens, it’s not going to help us in this year’s championship rankings, but they’ve got their thank you note written in case they need it.

You’re welcome, Philadelphia.

Of Phillies and Phantoms

I’m assuming the five-day interregnum between the conclusion of the League Championship Series and the commencing of the World Series was built into the postseason by MLB this year to give us time to get used to the nearly unfathomable presence of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2022 Fall Classic.

But here we are, four days since the Phillies won the National League pennant and, nope, I still can’t wrap my head around it. Granted, the Phillies don’t play for my phathoming. Usually they exist so we can have phun with alternate spellings of the f-sound. When the Phillies succeed, we tend to make a pretty definitive f-sound.

My reaction to the Phillies’ elevation to National League champions boiled down to “go phigure.” The same Phillies on whose backs the Mets produced a week’s worth of prospective SNY offseason prime time programming — we reveled in at least five instant Mets Classics at their expense between April and August, by my reckoning — are on to bigger and better things, perhaps the biggest and best thing baseball has to offer, the Rob Manfred Memorial Piece of Metal otherwise known as the Commissioner’s Trophy awarded to the team that wins the World Series.

Which could very well be the Phillies…which I can’t get used to. Not that they’re not a team full of highly capable players, not that they haven’t circled the concept of contention for several seasons, not that they didn’t qualify for the playoffs. They’re just so…the Phillies. Perhaps our vision of them is skewed from those fourteen of nineteen games the Mets won from them in 2022. Perhaps we, like Keith Hernandez, couldn’t take their phundies seriously. For all the talent they’ve brought in, they continued to embody the spirit of Don Buddin, the 1950s shortstop immortalized in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, the sort of team that “would perform admirably, even flawlessly, for seven or eight innings of a ballgame, or until such time as you really needed” them, after which they would fall apart like “a cheap watch or ’54 Chevy”.

Maybe that was the Phillies when the Mets played them. Still, an 87-75 record, while adequate to vault a ballclub into its league’s six-team tournament, doesn’t indicate they were avatars of ability against everybody else. Yet here they are, the six-seed that defeated the three-seed Cardinals, the two-seed Braves and the five-seed Padres, who themselves succumbed to Philadelphia after taking down the one-seed Dodgers on the heels of their upset of the four-seed Mets.

Remember that bunch from this postseason? It’s been a while. The Mets were ousted on October 9. The World Series starts Friday, on October 28. On paper, it’s all of a piece. In my gut, it barely registers. Of course, I remember all too well the pertinent details, but the loss isn’t haunting me the way these sorts of losses usually do. The wound, contrary to Billy Joel’s assessment of a sour relationship in “Stiletto,” isn’t so fresh I can taste the blood. Most postseasons that don’t go according to our wishes throb eternally with some degree of phantom pain. That’s OUR next round. That’s OUR World Series appearance. That’s OUR World Series parade. I can feel it, even if it isn’t there. Check Baseball-Reference again!” Some years when we don’t make it to the playoffs come off that way. At the peak of our anti-Phillies animus, in October of 2008, I ached for Shea to be hosting whatever Citizens Bank had going on. This should be in OUR ballpark, dammit.

Not so much these last few weeks. Maybe it’s because given how the postseason now grinds on round by round, series by series, there’s time to shake off the shock of no longer being a part of the party if your team inadvertently made an early exit. Once the NL boiled down to Philadelphia and San Diego, the Mets’ technically recent participation in the very same tourney seemed a footnote.

Or a phootnote.

Before I forget, congratulations Phillies (I’m sure they’re standing around practice at Minute Maid Park waiting to read those words). I wouldn’t say I’m rooting for them to carry the National League banner to ultimate victory, but I also don’t know that I’m wholeheartedly rooting against them. It’s not 2008. It’s a little like 1980, a year when I absolutely did not root for the Phillies, but they did have an ex-Met of note pitching for them, Tug McGraw, and they faced in October an Astros club featuring another ex-Met pitcher of note, Nolan Ryan. That, of course, was in the NLCS, the historical consensus pick as the searingest best-of-five championship series contested between East and West winners.

I rooted like hell for those Astros in that series, partly because they were new blood, mostly because I really hated those Phillies, McGraw notwithstanding. In 2022, the Phillies have three former Met pitchers, two of whom earned serious Flushing cachet — Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard — and one of whom is Brad Hand. Hand was a Met for a month. Wheeler and Syndergaard loomed as the future when the future was all we had. It was a big deal to trade for them as minor leaguers, giving up Carlos Beltran in 2011 and R.A. Dickey in 2012, respectively, so we could secure and nurture such promising right arms. Each developed from dream to reality. The results were mostly good. The first half of the 2010s was all about cultivating young pitchers. Zack. Noah. A kid named Rafael Montero, who didn’t quite pan out as a Met, but maybe you’ve glimpsed him in the Houston bullpen being essential to another American League championship.

Those are the phantoms I’ll keep my eyes on, I suppose. Montero missed most of 2015. Wheeler missed all of it. Syndergaard came up and teamed with 2010 first-round draft pick Matt Harvey, 2014 Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom and Burt Moller’s southpaw grandson Steven Matz to form a World Series rotation. For a spell, young Met pitching lived up to expectations, a quartet of starters who topped out in age at 27 and in ceiling at unlimited. They’d already forged their potential into a pennant. Wheeler was making his way back from Tommy John, and if we ever got anything out of Montero, it would be gravy.

Wasn’t all of that just yesterday? I swear it seems more recent than the Mets-Padres series.

A new episode of National League Town toggles between dismay that the Mets didn’t go further and admiration for how far the Phillies have gotten. You’ve been warned.

Rainy Day Parade

The New York weather report Monday? Cloudy, with falling confetti. Technically it rained on and off yesterday, but you couldn’t tell from the sense of sunshine pervading what has become the most reliably joyous event on the Metropolitan Area October calendar, the Elimination Day Parade.

Goodbye gloom, hello Elimination!

This year’s Elimination Day Parade may have been the best one yet, which is high praise, indeed, considering they’ve been held annually 1903 (except for the 27 times it was cancelled by circumstances beyond the organizers’ control). I’m always surprised Elimination Day has never been codified as a federal, state and/or municipal holiday, given the celebration of the human spirit it embodies. Government offices were open, mail was delivered, banks did business, alternate side of the street parking was in effect and sanitation pickups were made. The last part was most understandable in light of the theme of this year’s Elimination Day Parade: A Clean Sweep. I believe they used that in 2012, 1980, 1976 and 1963, too, but if you’ve got a winner, why not run it out there as often as possible?

Kudos to the Sheadenfreude Commission.

I realize some purists quibble with the creeping commercialization of the Elimination Day Parade, harking back to the era when John McGraw stood on the steps of City Hall and scowled haughtily while the masses roared their approval, but I thought enlisting corporate sponsor Primatene MIST, a brand that invites users to Breathe Easy Again, was most appropriate for the occasion. And thanks should go out as well to the broom-producing members of the American Brush Manufacturers Association; the Canyon of Zeroes never looked spiffier. As for how the scene sounded, it goes without saying that the legendary horn section of the visiting Lake Erie Marching Midge Band had everybody buzzing.

Grand Marshal Troy Glaus — so honored in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of his three home runs and 1.264 OPS in the 2002 ALDS — demonstrated fine form leading the procession. Dignitaries Sandy Koufax, Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Josh Beckett beamed with pride from the reviewing stand, knowing the cause they stood for so heroically has strode on without interruption every autumn from 2010 forward. You’ve probably seen the photos taken by Elimination Day Parade Most Valuable Photographer Randy Johnson. So many smiles on so many faces…

It’s hard to say which moment elicited the biggest cheer.

Maybe it was when the Salute to ALCS MVPs Whose Names Begin With J float, upon which Jeremy Peña, Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander and Josh Hamilton each stood and raised his trophy high in the air, rolled by.

Maybe it was when Dusty Baker ascended to the podium and unbuttoned the jersey he wore managing his team to victory in the 2022 ALCS to reveal underneath the jersey he wore while playing in and winning the 1981 World Series.

Maybe it was when an enormous mechanical gavel, festooned with 62 Bronx-cultivated corpse flowers — once designated the official flower of New York’s northernmost borough — flailed atop the Sweet Justice float and absolutely nobody rose.

Maybe it was when a sudden gust of wind seemed to blow closed the retractable roof on the always dependable, ever popular Alibi Express bus, a staple of every Elimination Day Parade. Truly a technological marvel.

Or maybe people were most happy to simply partake of the frothy treats from the Big Papi Papaya Parfait Pop Up Shops placed every couple of blocks along the route. You can’t have an Elimination Day Parade without tasting the influence of David Ortiz.

Ah, Elimination Day. It makes every fall land just a little more softly. Kudos to the Sheadenfreude Commission for once more giving the good citizens of the Metropolitan Area something to revel in. There hasn’t been much otherwise lately.

Day of Healing

The Phillies and the Padres fought the instinct to kick me out of bed this morning, which I appreciate. Strange as it is, they became my bedfellows on Saturday, the day I resumed an ability to watch baseball and not hate everything about it. Postseason will make people otherwise at odds find common cause.

Our cause (mine, certainly) was theirs, if only out of spite for the Braves and the Dodgers. I’m lousy with spite. No, I’m terrific with spite. That Phillies fans wish a pox on our house doesn’t stop me from having wished them the best of luck with heaping a bigger pox on the Braves’ house. I’ll chance a crimson shade of smug oozing into Citi Field next summer. The Phillies may be the Phillies, but the Braves are the Braves.

Correction: the Braves were the Braves. Now they’re as done as we are. Well done. Let’s check the final, FINAL records of the top two finishers from the now defunct, incredibly irrelevant 2022 regular season in the National League East, postseason results included for the sake of spite:

New York Mets 102-63
Atlanta Braves 102-64

What’s that? It doesn’t work that way? It doesn’t work at all, said the maintenance staff at Citi Field regarding the postseason bells and whistles that went ringless and silent. When it comes to These Mets, I’ll take what I can get. What I got was Those Braves going home.

Taken!

As for the Padres, who were rude visitors to Flushing what seems like a month ago, I’ll share the spiritual bed with them a little longer, having climbed in uninvited. Maybe they’re a team of destiny, in which case, who were our presumptuous 101-game winners to have stood in their way? When the Pads were at Dodger Stadium, they wore the same road uniforms in which they did their dastardly deed to the Mets. Too soon. Then they went home, put on their whites and browns and yellows for the adoring home folks who hadn’t had a chance to adore them in person in any October since 2006, and I chose to see them in a different light: lovable underdog with a slingshot in their back pocket. Down goes Goliath! While I know I have every reason to hate the Braves due to divisional warfare, I realize I hate the geographically distant Dodgers solely on merit. I’ve looked at their haughty asses in the postseason every postseason for a solid decade. They and their 111 wins can take a seat for the duration. They can sit a row ahead of us if it makes them feel any more vindicated.

Crazy system, huh? The four National League teams with the most wins (remember the Cardinals?) will join the nine National League teams who didn’t make the playoffs in not playing for the pennant. San Diego of the 89 wins and Philadelphia of the 87 wins now vie for the flag in a triumph of the pretty good who got very hot. If MLB tugs uncomfortably at its collar at the optics, it should rethink inviting 5-seeds and 6-seeds to its medieval fair. The Padres and Phillies didn’t know they were supposed to be jousting fodder. But they optimized their opportunities. I wouldn’t have said it a week ago, but good for them.

Over in the American League, sorry to Seattle, who did everything they could do across three games except keep the Astros off the board at the end of Game One and put themselves on the board for eighteen innings in Game Three (with a standard-issue loss tucked into Game Two). There’s been an epidemic of “the last time the Mariners were in the playoffs, gas was 29 cents a gallon and Rudolph Valentino was cinema’s reigning heartthrob” contextualization, but a dearth of postseason participation for 21 years speaks for itself. Now it doesn’t speak at all. Glad for the M’s fans who experienced their rebirth, no matter how cruelly the candles on their cake were snuffed.

Oh, and go Cleveland!

Take the Moët and Run

The pain of love
I’ll accept it all
As long as you’ll join
Me in that emotion

Carly Simon

A couple of hours prior to the first pitch of the National League Wild Card Series, I thought about my cat Avery. I think about my cat Avery every day, several times a day, since he died last December. I miss him every day, several times a day.

Avery died on a Saturday, the same Saturday Buck Showalter was named Mets manager. I was too consumed by the logistics of dealing with the body of a cat who died on a Saturday night and a vet who wasn’t going to be open until Monday morning to fully absorb his passing. Maybe I still haven’t. Mourning would have to wait a couple of days. Tuesday I mourned hard. I was by myself the whole day, beset by a depth of sadness I’d never before felt, not after losing three previous cats, not after losing each of my parents. An unmovable cloud settled over my head. I let it wash over me or do whatever it is that sadness does. Then, before leaving the house to meet Stephanie’s train, I called our local Chinese takeout place and ordered basically everything I could think of.

“How come you got Chinese?” Stephanie asked, inspecting the contents of two bulging brown bags.

“We’re in mourning,” I said. “When you’re in mourning, somebody should cook for you.”

That’s also how I handled the night following my father’s memorial service. Beef lo mein and mourning. That was in 2016. I think I stopped mourning my father around 2018. No kidding. Not black armband mourning, not bursting into tears mourning, just an acute awareness of his presence in my mind despite his absence from this earth. It ran a couple of years. It hasn’t fully gone away, and that’s quite all right by me. I do the Times crossword like he did, and I wonder at what point contemporary clues — anything that assumed familiarity with acronyms like LOL — had him leaving squares blank. I listen to New Standards with Paul Cavalconte on WNYC Saturday nights and its app Sunday afternoons and laugh a little that for all the Top 40 inclinations of my youth, my dad inadvertently seeded an appreciation of Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan in me while I sat in the backseat of our old Chrysler (I also imagine trying to explain “the WNYC app” to him). I slice a tomato for a sandwich, which wasn’t something I used to routinely do, and remember Dad routinely sliced tomatoes for his sandwiches. Those insurance commercials about not turning into your parents…there are worse things.

I still have brief conversations with my father in my head. I mean really brief. “Did you see the Jets game yesterday?” is about it. That’s about all the conversing we did before he took ill. My conversations with Avery aren’t much deeper, but I probably still have those, too. From that dark Tuesday in December until the middle of September, I was kind of convinced he was simply taking a nap, perhaps cuddled up under the blanket he used to sleep atop in the living room. I knew he wasn’t, but I liked to think he was. I’d close my office door so he wouldn’t unexpectedly trot in and pick a pile of my flotsam to disturb. His stack of canned cat food remained and remains at the ready, along with an unopened bag of litter. If someone came along and revealed he or she had a cat that could really use a supply of Fancy Feast and a refresh on the Jonny Cat, of course I’d hand it off. But for now, we paid for it, it’s Avery’s.

In the middle of September, though, it hit me that Avery was in the past. No great bolt of lightning struck. Stephanie and I were sitting on the couch, TV on, each of us scrolling our tablets or phones and I was thinking, “It’s just the two of us, isn’t it?” Avery wasn’t under a blanky or standing by in the kitchen awaiting dinner or plotting trouble upstairs. He had gone from not here but here to here but not here. The difference is more than subtle.

Yet I remain in several times a day thinking of him mode. Like the late afternoon of last Friday, when most of my attention was directed to the Mets and the Padres, specifically the Mets. I thought the Mets would win their best-of-three series, but I wasn’t sure. There are no certainties in the postseason, I told myself. I told myself and asked myself lots of things. One of those questions plopped onto my lap as Avery would in the course of his sixteen years as my favorite kitty ever:

“I can’t bear to start in with a new cat knowing how new cats inevitably become old cats and what that entails. How will I start over with this team next year if they don’t win the World Series?”

Missing from the picture of Cat Person in Mourning is a successor cat. Stephanie and I were catful from October 31, 1992, to December 18, 2021. Usually we had two: an heir and a spare. Bernie and Casey. Bernie and Hozzie. Hozzie and Avery. After the passing of Avery’s big brother in 2017, we didn’t install a younger sibling. Avery was a solo act at heart, bathing in the spotlight of every ounce of our attention. I honestly believe he mourned Hozzie for 30 seconds and then jumped onto Stephanie’s lap with the gusto of the Heather in Heathers who grabbed the dead Heather’s scrunchie and essentially declared herself queen of the Heathers. Hence, we rode Avery’s singularity for all it was worth, and it was worth plenty.

I sort of imagined that the second Avery left this mortal coil that there’d be a knock at our front door and we’d find two adorable kittens in a basket waiting for us. The knock never came. Nor did we seek to identify the next cat in the Prince Line. It wasn’t that we stopped being cat people. Once a cat person, always a cat person. I can’t count how many Likes I’ve issued to pictures and videos of other people’s cats (especially the goofy ones) these past ten months. But all I can think about when it comes to having a cat is not the sixteen years Avery gave us or how they ended on December 18 of last year, but November 22, the date we took Avery to the vet for his checkup. Our vet looked him over, felt him up and let us know time was suddenly growing short for our cat. Short after sixteen years, yet sudden nonetheless. Signs that Avery wasn’t his spry kitten self 24/7 had been hard to ignore, but I didn’t think he’d be on his way out before Christmas. “Pets,” our vet casually reminded us, “don’t live forever.” Thanks for the tutorial, chief.

I once read that every kitten or puppy given a small child is the beginning of a tragedy. We cared for and loved three cats before Avery. Each of them proved our vet’s truism. We wrote it off as the cost of doing business. Avery lived longest of all of them. Avery burrowed deeper into our hearts than any of them (and those other three were absolute first-ballot feline Hall of Famers). All I can think of when I begin to think of a new kitten is the day — probably many years, countless smiles and much soul-burrowing later — we go to the vet and are told pets don’t live forever.

I’m not ready to set out on that journey again. Maybe someday. Not yet.

Spring Training will come around in mid-February. I guess. I haven’t checked the schedule. A friend mentioned the date of the first exhibition game to me. I couldn’t process it as news I could use. I will eventually look up Opening Day and calculate the Baseball Equinox, because that’s what I always do, but I’m not moved to as much as estimate the midpoint from last season to next season. I’m sure I’ve read a hopeful invocation this week of however many days away Pitchers & Catchers is. It didn’t make me feel any better. Neither has anything A. Bartlett Giamatti ever put forward on the subject of pastimes designed to break your heart.

The fact that Mets baseball will come around again and the 99.999999% probability that I will be there for it doesn’t make me feel any better. It makes me feel like a bit of a chump at the moment. The losing enough through most seasons so it prevents a premature playoff exit may be the most effective inoculation against the disgustappointment that’s pervaded my mood since Sunday night. Of course that kind of losing doesn’t really do anything to brighten an outlook. It just keeps hope in check.

Which isn’t something to relish, just like choosing to go catless isn’t the key to better living simply because the inevitable loss of a hypothetical cat shadows my consciousness every day, several times a day. I didn’t become the Mets fan I became to minimize the disgust or disappointment that arises every season that hope nudges open a door I forgot to shut. I became the Mets fan I became exactly for the kind of season 2022 was from its first pitch until its final 257 (Game Three’s total for both sides). I became a Mets fan in 1969. The Mets in 1969 won 100 games and went to the playoffs. The Mets in 2022 did one better in the former and, if we agree to skim over details, equaled the latter.

I really did have high hopes throughout this season. I checked them here and there, but decided I preferred to maintain an almost relentless upbeat drumbeat on behalf of this team. They never lost more than three in a row, so I believed I could treat every L as an anomaly. That record of 101-61 was not a typo. It and they really were very good.

They weren’t the best they could be. Or they were as good as they could be and it wasn’t enough to get them to be the best there is, which emerged as a reasonable, attainable Met goal in 2022. It wasn’t enough to get them from the round of twelve to the round of eight. I’ve watched my Mets fall short in postseason contexts before. I fumed and fretted and, yes, mourned. Then I moved on, more than willing to give the team that fell short its flowers. I’m not feeling particularly floral about this team despite throwing roses at its feet for six months. Maybe someday. Not yet.

I tell ya what, though. I don’t regret the journey despite my misgivings toward the ending. I wouldn’t trade those sixteen years with Avery, either. I loved believing this team was the one that was going to add to that flagpole that has waved only two banners for too long. 1969. 1986. 2022. I didn’t know it in my bones, but I believed in my head and heart from April to early October that it was altogether possible and highly probable. Head and heart have been known to err.

The bigger mistake would have been to not give them both over to these Mets as I did despite my currently turning my back on them for at least a little longer. Time will heal that wound, even if the wound will fester until the National League Wild Card Series — and its spiritual dress rehearsal in Atlanta the weekend before — cease lingering in the atmosphere. I think I stopped mourning the outcome of the 2006 NLCS in 2008. No kidding. But 2006 as the flag that was going to accompany 1969 and 1986 is something I knew in my bones. Bones make errors, too.

To co-opt a phrase Steve Rushin crafted ages ago, I had more fun than a barrel of Mookies for most of 2022. We were the first-place Mets almost every day, says the master of compartmentalization. Even still. That was a ride. That was something to believe in. And it did get us to the precipice of where we needed to be. Perhaps the new playoff format and whatever new playoff format expands upon this playoff format will dilute the thrill of qualifying to play beyond the 162nd game. I’ve watched enough first-round exits by so-so Nets and Islanders clubs to not blink when my basketball and hockey seasons end quickly. Then again, those aren’t baseball.

When the Mets were on the verge of clinching their division in 2006, I visited our local liquor store, bought a decent-sized bottle of champagne and, the night after the clinch (I was at Shea when the blessed event happened), I toasted the Mets’ good fortune with my wife. It had been six years since our last October appointment, yet it also felt like it had been forever. Maybe because 2006 was an in-my-bones year, I knew we had to celebrate like the Mets celebrated. We wouldn’t pour any bubbly over each other’s heads, but a little buzz seemed appropriate. I didn’t know I was going to start making an earnest toast in the middle of our kitchen, but that’s what came out of my mouth, something about how much it meant to share this wonderful season, how I didn’t think it would be so long between division titles. Stephanie and I met in 1987. They won the East in 1988…and not again until 2006. I’m pretty sure she gave me a look of “oh, you’re really doing this” at my ad hoc stab at eloquence, and then she got in the spirit of the gesture. Hozzie and Avery evinced their usual apathy.

The toast became a clinching tradition, which is to say it didn’t happen again until 2015, a year when the division came into sight in August and was a foregone conclusion by September, so there was ample time to lay in something sparkling and, because the clinch came on a Saturday evening, run out for a nice pizza. A very nice pizza. A very nice toast. For the Mets, 2015 was a very nice year. One of the flagpoles was augmented, albeit the one with 1973 and 2000. You toast what you can get.

In 2016, the Mets rushed to a Wild Card. It was the most fun rush of its kind I’ve experienced since I started taking it upon myself to write about the Mets. I loved that late August-September surge of 2016 in a way I hadn’t loved a late August-September surge since 1973. The prize was less than a division title. The postseason would be only one game. Still, that Saturday was worth a pizza and a toast. That July, when my father died, I impulsively bought my first twelve-pack of beer since college. I’m thinking there were no fewer than nine cans from that pack still in the fridge by October 1, the day the Mets clinched. So we toasted with Blue Point Toasted Lager. (We never drank the rest, but one can remains shoved in the back of the refrigerator for the same reason 40 cans of cat food remain stacked next to the microwave.)

When the Mets clinched their 2022 playoff berth in Milwaukee, it merited a partial celebration by the clinchers themselves. More clinching ahead, so the party was subdued. After twenty raucous champagne showers for postseason participation and every series victory that followed in its wake, this was just a tasteful toast. Splendid job, men. Back at it tomorrow. The real pre-playoff party would come when we won the division. Well, you know how that went. And in our kitchen, it went nowhere from September 19 — too late on a Monday night to pop corks or order pizza — until October 5, when the regular season ended with what landed as a consolation prize.

Play it again, Tim.

But I’d be damned if I let 2022 get away without the acknowledgement it deserved before we might decide it deserved no more than a cold glass of water. I bought the smallest bottle of champagne that our local liquor store sells; it’s 187 milliliters, called a Mini Moët. I called for the usual-size pizza, toppings and all, same as in ’15 and ’16. And on Friday night, October 7, somewhere between wondering how I’d ever conjure enthusiasm for next year if this year wound up going awry and Max Scherzer throwing the first pitch of the game that indicated awry was where this year was going, I proposed my traditional toast. We raised our glasses to the trip the Mets had taken us on this year, to the opportunity to venture a little further in the days and weeks ahead and, implicitly, to being the kind of Mets fans who do something like this when the Mets do something like they’d done. That they wouldn’t do much worth toasting in Game One let alone Game Three didn’t make the toast (or the pie) any less sumptuous or, to me, any less necessary. Wait too long to toast or trumpet those intermittent accomplishments that give you substantial dollops of joy, you’ll be waiting 36 going on 37 years. The Moët’s gonna be mighty flat by then.

This is what we do. We root. We recap. We rationalize. We revel. We regret. We rue. We reconsider. We recover. We mourn a beautiful season’s untimely passing, fully cognizant that it is not life or death. But it is baseball, so we’ll be excused for treating it as both. We do it together every year, right here, whether we can imagine doing it all over again or not, because we can’t imagine not doing it.

Hey, fellow Mets fans: here’s to us.

And here’s a little something to listen to if you’re up for it.

Everything Ends

You’ve probably heard this before, but baseball is designed to break your heart.

Twenty-nine of 30 fanbases are destined to have their teams’ seasons end other than the way they’d wanted — with a victory that doesn’t mean anything or a loss that means everything. If you’re one of the unlucky 29, there comes an afternoon or evening when your fervent hopes, pinch-me dreams and wild imaginings are all snuffed out over three or four fatal hours, replaced with months of winter and silence.

For a long time in 2022, we were among the dreamers — cheering on a team built to win and able to live up to its blueprint, with that intangible more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts something that says, “Psst, you’re gonna want to keep your October calendar free. Because this could be the year.”

Until the night that the verdict was delivered that it wasn’t.

I was there for that night, also known as Game 3 of the Wild Card Series. I was at Citi Field up in 527 with my wife and kid, and at least I can report that it was a beautiful evening, not at all the chilly ordeal I’d braced and dressed for, with a searchlight of a full moon in the sky and Jupiter riding shotgun. Unlike Game 1, we had good neighbors — knowledgeable about the game, passionate about the Mets, and philosophical and mournful instead of vengeful and irrational once things spun out of control. My favorite neighbor was in the row below me, a kid about seven or eight in a pint-sized ALONSO 20 jersey. He was still waving his THESE METS towel and chirping Let’s Go Mets!, enthusiasm not at all diminished, with two out in the ninth and the Mets down by six. Nobody gave him so much as a side eye even as the rest of us huddled in our own misery — his optimism was so simple and unassailable that I think it made more than a few of us wonder when, exactly, we’d set that aside in our own lives.

Ah, the game. Sigh.

Look, I was 500 feet from home plate. I can’t tell you anything about Joe Musgrove‘s stuff or location or the Mets’ obviously futile approach to countering it — all I know is Mets kept coming to the plate and leaving in consternation and/or dejection. What was apparent even from 500 feet away, though, was that the Padres flat-out beat the Mets. They pitched better, they played sterling defense, they took advantage of their offensive chances. That’ll do it.

I also can’t tell you anything about Musgrove’s shiny ears or the rest of that whole contretemps. (I’d gone to the bathroom and was nonplussed to emerge and discover a gaggle of players and umps at the mound.) As the umpires were examining Musgrove’s various body parts, our section started tilting phone screens for neighbors to see and then passing them around, showing charts of spin rates and discussions of Vaseline and Red Hot and pitchers’ baseline sweatiness and opinions from Jerry Blevins and Andrew McCutchen and video clips and freeze frames from the broadcast — an impromptu amateur digital investigation. (I’m just happy that in the end the consensus was that Musgrove was innocent, because an alternate conclusion would have been a huge mess and we’d all just be more unhappy.)

It was interesting being part of a baseball hive mind, but my memory flashed back to a very different game, one from May 1996 and the pre-cellphone era. Emily and I were in the Shea stands for an epic brawl between the Mets and Cubs on the day the Mets were lauding John Franco for his recently achieved 300th career save. Back then the Mets maintained a stuffy wanna-be patrician reserve about fights, refusing to acknowledge they were happening and afterwards not imparting  information such as who’d been ejected. This became important when the Mets took a two-run lead to the ninth but didn’t bring in the closer they’d just honored, sending those of us who had transistor radios or AM/FM Walkmen to WFAN to figure out what on earth had happened. Which enough of us did so that eventually everyone in our precinct of the stands had been informed that yes, John Franco had been ejected on John Franco Day. (The Mets blew the lead but won on a Rico Brogna walkoff homer. Good times.)

Anyway, to return to more recent history, the Mets lost one and then won one and then their opponents played better and so they lost a rubber game. There’s nothing earth-shaking about that — I could have just described several chunks of any season, even a 101-win one. But because this particular rubber game came in October, people will try and tell you it means everything. They’ll turn it into a referendum on the entire season, or say risible stuff about 26 guys wanting it more than 26 other guys, or opine about who was battle-tested or possessed the will to win. And it will all be nonsense. The Mets lost a rubber game in an exhibition series. It’s disappointing and I’m sad about it, but fundamentally that’s all that happened and all this other … stuff encrusting that fact is more than a little ridiculous. The postseason is a series of coin flips that we spin into Just So stories, and the more baseball I watch, the more resistant I am to the whole narrative industrial complex that surrounds the games.

It’s after midnight and I’m tired and sad. I’ll leave the elegies and the lyrical flights of fancy for another day — our calendars are suddenly clear, after all. But I do want to leave you with two thoughts.

First of all, don’t let losing an exhibition series sour you on a 101-win campaign that was marvelous fun for six months. I guarantee you there will be multiple sleepless nights when I’ll realize I’m fuming about Trent Grisham running down Mark Canha‘s line drive, or about having to remember that Trent Grisham existed in the first place. But that won’t stop me from also remembering Brandon Nimmo robbing Justin Turner, or the Mets’ ninth-inning ambush of the Cardinals, or the furious comeback against the Phillies, or Canha saving us twice in Philadelphia the day we discovered Nate Fisher was on the roster, or Francisco Lindor walking off the Giants, or Eduardo Escobar singlehandedly beating the Marlins, or that goofball combined no-hitter, or Nick Plummer‘s first big-league hit, or Brett Baty‘s first swing, or Francisco Alvarez unloading for his first Citi Field homer, or the day Adonis Medina faced down the Dodgers, or the crazy walkoff on Keith Hernandez Day (at least he couldn’t be ejected), or Escobar and J.D. Davis combining for an unlikely game-saving play at Wrigley, or a dozen Luis Guillorme plays that looked like special effects, or Jeff McNeil beaming with a batting title secured. Or so many other wonderful moments from 2022 that you shouldn’t forget. (Here’s a wonderful Twitter thread to bookmark, for starters.)

Second, don’t let disappointment keep you away from these last couple of weeks of baseball. We’ve already seen an astonishing Mariners comeback, a marathon win for the Guardians and the last bow for two generational St. Louis Cardinals, and we’re just three games in. Yes, these series are exhibitions, and it’s unfortunate that they turn regular seasons into footnotes instead of the other way around — but hey, I never said they weren’t fun exhibitions. Before you know it, we’ll be down to two teams and four to seven baseball games and then one team and no games at all. The lights will be off and the talk will be about player options and salaries and budgets and competitive balance taxes, and it will all be boring and it will feel like winter is never, ever going to go away.

It will — I promise — but not for a while. So stockpile all the baseball you can, even if the team we love to distraction and delirium and occasional dismay won’t be a part of what’s left.

Fatalism Takes a Holiday

According to mathematics from whichever grade I learned percentages, three is fifty percent greater than two. According to how I felt waking up this morning to the knowledge the Mets would have a Game Three in the Wild Card Series versus how I felt yesterday morning when Game Two loomed as the conclusion to our 2022 postseason, three is exponentially greater than two. To quote Tom Seaver to Lindsey Nelson following the Mets winning the fifth game of the 1969 World Series, it’s the greatest feeling in the world!

Being alive will feel that way when the abyss stares at you from a distance of 27 outs.

Rather than concluding, the Mets continued on Saturday night, hanging inning for inning with the formidable San Diego Padres until putting together an inning that separated the sudden rivals once and for all for an evening and reminded viewers and listeners that not only did the Mets lose 61 games this regular season, they won 101. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Mets leading by an inadequate 3-2, two Padres pitchers threw fifty pitches to nine Mets hitters, the end result being four additional Met runs. It took about 45 minutes, which I might not have been aware of had ESPN not posted a graphic and Howie Rose (seconds ahead of the television, appropriate since the broadcasting acumen of Mets radio is light years ahead of national interlopers) not righteously kvetched about the pace of game slowing to a crawl.

Pace of game, brought to you by PitchCom Molasses. PitchCom Molasses: for when your next pitch absolutely, positively has to be there overnight. Spread it all over a reliever holding his cap close to his head in hopes of someday finding out what his catcher wants him to deliver next.

It was a little messy for the Padres’ Adrian Morejón in the Mets’ seventh, what with PitchCom maybe not functioning as Rob Manfred envisioned and the Citi Field crowd gleefully interjecting aural interference, but a San Diego mess is a New York blessing. Following Friday night’s deprivation of runs, good fortune and anything resembling Mojo, we’d take everything we could get. We’d take a Series-saving 7-3 victory, however it was pieced together, regardless that it required four hours and thirteen minutes. We’d take an on-ramp to Game Three, the new must-win segment of this portion of the playoffs. We just want to get out of Dayton.

Dayton? Dayton’s where the NCAA plays its “First Four,” determining how college basketball whittles its Field of 68 to a more numerically pleasing Field of 64. I’ve had my alma mater go to Dayton and survive. They were a real NCAA participant once in Dayton, but they were really in the Big Dance once they got out of Dayton.

The Mets need to get out of Dayton tonight. They need to book that flight to Los Angeles they anticipated the minute they got coy about who was gonna pitch Game Two, acting as if it would be dependent on what happened in Game One. In Game One, Max Scherzer got shelled. In Game Two, they turned to Jacob deGrom, definitively depriving themselves of the ideal starter for Game One of the Division Series, but granting themselves the best chance they had to make their flight.

Prior to Game One, I dealt with the usual postseason emotions (“usual” a questionable word to use when your team usually absents itself from the postseason altogether) of not being able to deal with the idea that two wrong moves would eliminate the Mets from the playoffs before the playoffs really got going. After Game One, I evolved quickly to philosophical about early rounds of playoffs bouncing out of your hands, something I’ve had drilled into me as a Nets fan, and life going on regardless, perhaps giving in a bit to the most vexing of the Four Horsemen of the Metpocalypse: Fatalism. I’d successfully averted the entreaties of the other three: Skepticism, Pessimism and Cynicism. I was particularly proud of dodging Cynicism. My contribution to the Game One Mets Social Media Discourse — always a pleasant arena for calm, reasoned chat — was pointing out to anybody who would listen that five times the Mets had lost Game One of a postseason series before rebounding to win that series. Some took heart in that historical nugget. Others, donning the dark, menacing mask of Cynicism, couldn’t wait to advise me that none of those situations involved a best two-out-of-three scenario.

“WHAT, YOU DON’T THINK I DON’T KNOW THAT, YOU METSIE COME LATELY CYNICAL FOR A BRAND PUNK? I’VE GIVEN MY LAST 54 SUMMERS TO LOVING AND UNDERSTANDING THIS TEAM AND KNOW MORE ABOUT THEM IN MY LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL IN YOUR ENTIRE BODY EVEN IF YOU LIVE AN ETERNITY AND SOMEONE BEQUEATHES YOU AN ENTIRE BASEBALL LIBRARY OF METS MEDIA GUIDES DATING BACK TO 1962!” is not what I typed to the Reply Guys I didn’t know from a tweet in the wall. Instead, I calmly retorted that in four of the five series I referenced (1969 World Series, 1973 National League Championship Series, 1986 National League Championship Series and 2000 National League Division Series), the Mets who’d fallen behind 0-1 took a 2-1 lead (in the 1986 World Series, we needed to come back from 0-2). Once I’d repeated this about a dozen times, I blocked a few people and muted the entire conversation.

Such is the price of attempting to avert Fatalism.

Despite my if you’ll excuse the expression brave front, I wasn’t certain the Mets would continue on from their Game One debacle to see a Game Three. I just knew that Game Two hadn’t been played yet. You didn’t need a master’s degree in Metropolitan Studies to divine that much. I’m frankly amazed by the Mets fan state of mind as it stands after sixty-one years, particularly the sixty-first. If the Mets are ahead, don’t act as if they’ve won anything (agreed). If the Mets are behind, they’re automatically doomed (get bent, you fatalistic prick). I’m not interested in the defense mechanisms you claim to have erected against potentially impending disappointment or the scars you bear from seven up with seventeen to play or Beltran taking strike three or Scioscia going yard or Yogi not pitching Stone. You think I don’t have them? You think I don’t feel them as deeply as you do? I’m not even saying You Gotta Believe it’s a sure thing the Mets will come back. I’m saying You Gotta Believe that It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over, particularly before it’s barely begun.

Here’s another historical nugget: all teams are 0-0 in games yet to be played. The Mets hadn’t played Game Two. The company with the ads with the guy on the toilet placing bets (which is our new household euphemism for having to excuse ourselves to the water closet) could take those chances to the app and let it ride.

DeGrom let it ride in the first inning Saturday night at Citi Field, throwing with everything he had and smothering the Padres as he smothered most comers between 2018 and his first several starts of 2022. Along the way, he dipped in and out of trouble, giving up a pair of runs, one on a solo homer to Trent Grisham in the third, one when Grisham walked, took second on a bunt and zipped home on Jurickson Profar’s single in the fifth. In both cases, however, Jake’s dabble with mortality proved nothing close to toxic, as the Mets had given Jake a run before he gave up that first run — Francisco Lindor homered with nobody on in the first — and a second before he gave up that second — Brandon Nimmo singling home Eduardo Escobar. The Mets were leaving too many runners on base, but they also kept getting runners on base, which isn’t a note I picked from the Pollyanna Broadcasting System. Unlike the night before, when the Mets put their bats back in their racks after a couple of innings of not quite getting to Yu Darvish, they kept coming after Blake Snell. Snell wasn’t overwhelming them and it didn’t appear he was going to outlast them.

DeGrom himself lasted six. He’d ceased overpowering Padres like he had in the first, relying more on sliders than fastballs as he went along, but he appeared back in full Jake mode as he brought his night’s work home, striking out Manny Machado and Josh Bell to end the fifth and dismissing his final three batters with ease in the sixth. In his first Citi Field postseason start, Jacob departed in position to be the winning pitcher, thanks not only to his 99 pitches of overall effectiveness but to Pete Alonso providing him a third run on a massive leadoff homer to commence the bottom of the fifth.

The Mets never score for deGrom.
The Mets mostly lose deGrom’s starts.
DeGrom isn’t really deGrom anymore.

Be gone, Metpocalyptic horsemen!

DeGrom won’t be available for Game One of the NLDS should there be a Game One of the NLDS. That one I’ll concede. DeGrom will never pitch for the Mets again. That remains to be seen. The opt-out is out there. Jake’s been the greatest pitcher in the world for a long time while wearing No. 48, but this offseason he’ll be looking out for No. 1, and I don’t mean Jeff McNeil. The balance between never wanting to see Jake in any uniform but the Mets variety and figuring out his future value past his current age of 34 (he’s older now than David Wright was in the 2015 postseason, and David Wright in the 2015 postseason seemed positively venerable) is a balance to be struck when there’s no more Mets baseball to be played in 2022. At least a few innings remained when Jake exited after six in Game Two. At least nine more remain as of this moment. Maybe more than nine after tonight.

Edwin Diaz came on in the seventh, a little ahead of schedule. Whatever spectacular playoff flourishes the Citi Field A/V staff planned for Edwin’s entrance in the postseason had to be deferred because the grounds crew was on the field tidyiing up the dirt along the basepaths. That’s the postseason for you. Diaz came on when he needed to come on, with an eye toward protecting a one-run lead with the most dangerous elements of the San Diego order up around the bend. The inning to close this game was not the ninth or the eighth. It was the seventh.

Four batters, two putouts at first around a single off the shortstop’s glove and then a 1-3 assist to retire Juan Soto may not have been as sexy as three straight strikeouts with trumpets blaring and lights flashing, but boy did it get the job done. Edwin Diaz posted his save right there, no matter what you read in the box score.

Then, in the bottom of the seventh, the Met offense went about protecting their lead, saving their game and persevering their postseason a whole lot more. It was an inning you recognized from any given game between April and the better parts of September. It was the Mets working the bleep out of counts. It was Alonso seeing ten pitches before taking a walk with Lindor already on second, it was Mark Canha taking ten pitches before taking a walk to load the bases and, most deliciously, it was batting champion Jeff McNeil doing what batting champions do and doubling in Lindor and Alonso. Maybe Morejón couldn’t hear Austin Nola’s signals in PitchCom, but the Padres could certainly see what was becoming of their series lead.

The Mets were up, 5-2 in Game Two. New reliever Pierce Johnson’s third pitch was turned into a run-scoring single by Escobar. His eighth pitch was converted into a sacrifice fly by Daniel Vogelbach, pinch-hitting for Terrance Gore, who had pinch-run for Darin Ruf, who had been on base twice as the DH via a walk and a hit-by-pitch, but what do you care how Darin Ruf gets on base so long as he’s not making unproductive outs? When the fifty-pitch dust settled over Citi after seven, the Mets were ahead of the Padres, 7-2, and still had Edwin Diaz in the game.

Diaz was well-rested from a September and early October that involved precious few save situations, so why not keep his arm warm and leave him in to face what remained of the heart of the San Diego order? The Mets led by five. On Saturday afternoon, in a game that stretched into Saturday evening and briefly pushed the Mets from ESPN to HGTV (you had to go to your doctor’s waiting room to watch it), the Blue Jays held a seven-run lead on the Mariners. The Mariners are going to the American League Division Series, having erased that seven-run lead of the Blue Jays. No time to take anything for granted. Buck Showalter asked Edwin to take care of Machado, Bell and Jake Cronenworth. He grounded out Machado right back to the mound (run, Manny, run!), surrendered a four-pitch walk to Bell and Narco’d Jake Cronenworth on three consecutive strikes. Edwin Diaz threw 28 pitches. Kenley Jansen pitched every ninth of the series we vaguely recall in Atlanta. Diaz will pitch again if needed.

Now that Trevor Williams has been removed from the NLWC roster for tactical reasons and Joely Rodriguez has been shifted to the IL for shoulder reasons (the Mets wishing Taijuan Walker be available to shoulder a little additional load), Adam Ottavino stands as the lone Met pitcher to be active for every single game of the 2022 season and postseason. Ottavino has been as close to an unsung hero as the Mets have had this year. We’re free to sing the praises of Ottavino at any time, but usually his contribution boils down to “after Adam Ottavino pitched a scoreless eighth, it was Edwin Diaz time” or words to that effect. This would be a wonderful time to sing Ottavino’s praises exclusively and fulsomely.

That would be if his Game Two performance were praiseworthy. After he struck out Old Friend Brandon Drury to end the eighth, the ninth, with the Mets still ahead by five, represented a ploddingly developing minefield for Adam. He struck out He-Seong Kim, but then hit Grisham; walked Nola; flied out Profar deep enough to advance Grisham; walked Soto; and walked Machado (who prefers not to run). Now it was 7-3, the bases were loaded and the song to sing was whatever Seth Lugo would respond to.

It warmed my heart to see Seth Lugo on the mound one out from conclusion, not so much because he’d be my choice for a Met to end a life-or-death playoff game — “Narco” is a truly catchy tune — but because Seth Lugo has been here forever, embodying the kind of continuity a fan cherishes from his ballclub. Like Nimmo. Like McNeil and Alonso all of a sudden. Like deGrom, lest you’ve forgotten 2014. Like Tomás Nido, even, never mind Nido not laying down one of his signature bunts earlier when it would have come in handy, and Nido swinging away with Gore on first when the whole reason for Gore being on first was for Gore to steal (it became a double play). The homegrown guys had waited the longest for a game like this, and we’d waited alongside them. Only Jake had ever pitched in a postseason game for the Mets, and never at home. He was injured for their one-night stand in 2016 after willing the Mets through the treacherous portions of the fifth game of the NLDS in 2015. Nimmo and Lugo were callups in 2016, only watching Noah Syndergaard and Curtis Granderson doing what they could to stave off the Giants. Nido appeared on the Mets in September 2017 in the most depressing series I can remember from the most depressing year I can remember from the previous decade. The Mets were in Chicago for three nights, not even days. They were swept three games. The combined score was Cubs 39 Mets 14. The last of those losses dropped the Mets’ record to 63-83. Welcome to the big leagues, Tomás Nido!

But Nido hung around, backed up every catcher in sight and, eventually, emerged as the No. 1 catcher (maybe 1A; even still) on a playoff team, a team that won 101 regular-season games, a team that with one more out and one more win would be slipping the surly bonds of Dayton and flying toward the Final Four of the National League for real. Making these playoffs as the Wild Card registered, before it started, as being shunted to the kids’ table. Weren’t we a little tall to be sitting with these non-division winners? Check the book again: we had the same record as the Braves, we belong over there, with the grown-ups.

That was a few days ago, when the last of the second-place wounds were licked. No time for that now. Game Two of the Wild Card Series was still Game Two of a postseason series, and here at Citi Field, it featured enough New York Mets from all those seasons without postseasons to make this additional step feel more than worthwhile. Nido was behind the plate waiting for a delivery from Lugo. Lugo was facing Josh Bell with the bases loaded. All romantic notions aside, Lugo had to get Josh Bell out. He most certainly had to not give up a grand slam that would have tied the game at seven. I’m none among skeptical, pessimistic or cynical and I’ve already established I’m not fatalistic. But I do get nervous. I haven’t been a Mets fan as long as I have to rule out any possibility.

I never ruled out that the Mets weren’t done after losing Game One. That got me to Game Two. The Mets themselves did the rest. Lugo induced a grounder to Alonso. Alonso flipped it to Lugo. There would be Game Three. That was an absolute certainty.

The Mets’ survival to Game Three rates its very own episode of National League Town, as does every Mets postseason game, but the one after Game Two is cheerier than the one after Game One.