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The End of Days

Welcome to the final edition of Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log [1], a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I saw there for myself, namely 402 regular-season and 13 postseason games in total. The Log recorded the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.

10/3/04 Su Montreal 13-12 Gl@v!ne 4 157-125 W 8-1

You don’t know who or what you’re never going to see after the last day of a baseball season. You hear things, you understand certain people aren’t long for your uniform, but there can be as much uncertainty as finality.

Take Officer Jimmy, for example. Officer Jimmy was a New York City cop who worked the subway entrance outside Shea. He was the only NYPD officer I ever knew, even remotely. He was a family friend of Laurie’s. She’d stop and schmooze him for a bit after games in the late ’90s and early ’00s. I’m sure it was sincere, but it was also a way to get Jimmy’s attention long enough so he’d open up the gate and let us through, thus saving us a Metrocard swipe apiece. When the Mets lost Game Three of the 2000 NLCS, I didn’t go home unhappy. I’d just saved a buck-fifty.

On the last day I saw Officer Jimmy, it was initially inside, not outside Shea. It was the final day of the 2004 season. Don’t know why he was walking a beat on the Field Level, but he was and he waved. I got a kick out of the fact that I’d been at Shea enough to be recognized by somebody, anybody who worked there. We greeted each other warmly, if without substance, but that’s all right. He said something to me nobody had ever said at a ballpark before:

“Have a good winter.”

In a way, those should have been fighting words. It was Game 162, why are you using the w-word? Let me enjoy my game ’til there are no more games to enjoy. But I liked that I was somehow in, in the fraternity of baseball people just a tiny little bit. People who worked in ballparks, people who made their living in the summer game, this must be the way they say goodbye to each other at the end of a baseball season: Have a good winter.

It was only October 3. The temperature was at least 70. But yeah, winter. It was going to be here. And things would change once it was over. It was inevitable.

You come back from winter and they who were there won’t necessarily be. Officer Jimmy wasn’t there the next spring. Laurie got word that he’d retired from the force. Laurie knew Officer Dave and he’d occasionally give us the favor of the open gate in the next few seasons, but it wasn’t the same. Officer Dave never recognized me without Laurie the way Jimmy did. Eventually Dave moved on. Then they changed the subway setup and there were no more free rides.

The last day of 2004 brimmed with lasts, and you didn’t need to know a cop to get the skinny. It was all around us: me, Laurie, Jason and Jim — I had gotten hold of the corporate seats of a company I was on good terms with and I invited my three go-to friends. I got my hands on some Mets tickets — want to go with me? On the last day of the 2004 season, they all did.

We saw a lot of coming and going. Mostly going, a little coming. There was, too, some stuff over the horizon we couldn’t make out just yet.

Winter would wait on us that Sunday. History wouldn’t. History said goodbye to quite a bit of Metsdom that day.

• Goodbye to Todd Zeile. Zeile had played with more than a third of the teams in baseball, yet it was up to us to adopt him as our own. Zeile was ending a long and reasonably distinguished career in 2004. The Mark of Zeile, as the scoreboard put it, was emblazoned on our fortunes in 2000 when he took over first base (unsatisfyingly) for John Olerud and played a role (significant) in getting us to a World Series. We were fed up with him by ’01 but, down as we were a couple of years later, we were willing to welcome him back as a symbol of past glory in ’04. He didn’t just receive bouquets and bon voyages before the game — they let him receive during the game. He hadn’t been a regular catcher since 1990, his first full season. He was going to catch T#m Gl@v!ne today.

• Goodbye to John Franco. Franco was a Met approximately as long as Zeile was a big leaguer. But they weren’t going to let Franco close for old times’ sake. The Mets didn’t officially acknowledge he was leaving because it was kind of murky. His contract was up, a new GM, Omar Minaya, was coming in…and we knew Franco wasn’t coming back. No mini-farewell tour for Johnny though. Just a decade-and-a-half of saves punctuated with disappointment. Or perhaps fifteen years of disgust whose saving graces were indelible moments like the strikeout of Barry Bonds that preserved the Mets’ chances in the NLDS of 2000. The organization always seemed to love John Franco more than the fans. John hadn’t been used since September 4. We couldn’t love him any less than the organization at this point.

• Goodbye to Art Howe. One was tempted to say good riddance except in the couple of weeks since it became clear Art wouldn’t be invited back — he had been fired without actually being dismissed (oh the operational acumen of those early ’00s Mets) — he had become a sympathetic figure. Nobody wished ill on Art Howe by the final day of his managerial tenure. Nobody wished he’d hang around either.

• Goodbye to the Montreal Expos. Closing Day 2004 was a chance to say goodbye, au revoir, if not a bientôt — I will see you soon — to the Montreal Expos. After years of teasing them with fatality, Major League Baseball finally certified the Expos a dead deal. They’d tried to contract them, they’d practically liquidated them and now, after as much negligence as the law would allow, they were moving them to Washington. Montreal had seen the last of the Expos a few nights earlier. We would see the last of them altogether. By now it was universally remembered the Expos played their first game ever at Shea Stadium on April 8, 1969. Now they were playing their last game ever here. Then they won 11-10 but the season turned out Amazin’ for the Mets. At the end of 2004, literally beating them to death was all we had to look forward to.

A lot going on for the formality of Closing Day, a.k.a. Opening Day’s evil twin. Actually, I take that back, sort of. Opening Day at Shea, as welcome a sight as it was after the good winter was over, had its pains and poseurs, the “ya gotta be there” crowd who got in your way, drank too much and (blessedly) never showed their faces again. No cachet to a mundane Closing Day among the hoi polloi. Unless there’s a pennant or something like it on the line — in 2004 there most decidedly was not — only the hardcore want to go on Closing Day. Nobody aims to be seen on the last day of the season, especially when the combatants are the fourth-place Mets and the fifth-place Expos.

Don’t know why not. It’s kind of perfect. Closing Day seals the deal. Every statistic we will see for the rest of our lives — the win-loss records, the batting averages, the totals — becomes complete on Closing Day. Half-games and magic numbers and all loose ends are generally taken care of. It provides the necessary sealant before we put a year away, before we put it in the books. We’ll take it down from the shelf, peruse it, smile, sneer, remember that year. It is what it is, but it’s not all that until it’s over, which it is on Closing Day.

On the other hand, it is the end of days, the end of days with baseball in them. If that’s not nefarious, I don’t know what is.

Since the tickets came to me late, I had to meet everybody with whom I was going outside Gate E. Laurie found me first. As we rambled on in conversation, we were interrupted briefly by a family with a video camera. Their son Sammy, we were told, was going to be Bar Mitzvahed soon and they were making this little film and would we mind pretending that he’s a big baseball star and could we make a fuss over him? One more layer of intrigue…sure, why not? Laurie treated Sammy as if he were Greg Maddux: “Yeah! You’re the best! You’re awesome!” They got their footage and we went back to rambling.

I noticed a steady drizzle of Expos fans wandering by as we awaited Jason and Jim. I had noticed them Saturday night when I was here, too. You could tell them by their Expos caps, of course, but also by their cigarettes. Expos fans like(d) to smoke. If their team didn’t move, their base may very well have died off prematurely.

Our third and fourth showed up simultaneously and we were soon enough inside. Once the Mets got done telling us that Todd Zeile was the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being we’d ever known in our lives, it was time for the national anthems. Plural. As had been the case for all 25 Mets-Expos games I’d attended at Shea dating back to 1980, we’d start with “O Canada.” Oh my. It occurred to me that this would be the last time I’d hear “O Canada” under these circumstances. The Blue Jays might fly in for Interleague again, but it wouldn’t be the same.

I ostentatiously put on my throwback red, white and blue Expos cap — I’d empathetically bought one the year before when it was apparent they would join the ranks of the New York Giants and the Seattle Pilots — just so I could take it off for the Canadian anthem.

Not being a Canadian, you wouldn’t think any of this would matter to me, but it did, a little. In 1992, the New Jersey Devils had a great Soviet hockey player, last name Fetisov. The USSR had just broken up. A reporter asked him about how wonderful that must feel. No, Fetisov said. I’ll never hear my beautiful national anthem again. I kind of understood what he meant as I clutched my Expos cap to my heart and stood on guard for thee. “O Canada” got a pretty decent singalong and a nice round of applause. It seemed only fair to get revved up for the “Star Spangled Banner,” which I have to say pales as a song vis-à-vis its northern neighbor. But I’d miss it, too, when nobody was asking me to rise for it.

After ball one to Brad Wilkerson, I put away the Expos cap. They were the enemy now and to the end. The Mets cap went on.

Some 33,500 would be announced as on hand and for once it looked like it. The exiting Expos angle certainly didn’t hurt. Closing Day attracted scads if not oodles of Quebecois plus some local rubberneckers. For once I didn’t mind the non-Metsian among us. Their team wasn’t going to exist in a few hours. They were going from The Big O to The Big No. Good on them for showing up. I hoped their team would lose, but good on them anyway.

There are games without pennant race implications, perhaps, but there is no such thing as a meaningless game. One thing I noticed is for all the practiced cynicism, sardonicism and Met-related derision from our little group, we all wanted a win. No Mets fan wants to spend a day, even a last day, at Shea and leave emptyhanded. We root and we scoreboard-watch. The Mets had already clinched fourth, if you can clinch fourth, and there was barely a game with significance for the playoff picture — positioning between Minnesota and Anaheim was all that was still up for grabs — but we all craned our necks several times per half inning toward the big board in right center. It’s habit. You watch the scoreboard even if there’s nothing worth watching.

Couldn’t help but notice that the last score in the National League column involved GB and NYG. That was the Packers and the Giants of the NFL. It was Sunday and it was fall. Football. Damn football. Whistle it for encroachment on Closing Day and penalize it one month. Come back in November when you can provide me some sporting succor. Until then you’re obtrusive, sweaty and unwanted.

Gl@v!ne gave up a run in the top of the first. The Mets got it back in the bottom of the first: Reyes singled and stole second; Matsui moved him to third; Wright hit a sac fly. That was poetry. That’s what we’re looking for in 2005, what we got hardly at all in 2004. That was the future, certainly Reyes and Wright, ostensibly Matsui but only because he’s signed for two more years.

David Wright put down a marker with a homer, two hits and three RBI. David Wright hit .293 in two-plus months of everyday duty at third. David Wright blasted 14 home runs since his promotion on July 21. David Wright was on the cover of the program in that hideous orange batting practice jersey of yore. I believed then and there that David Wright was our future; teach him well and let him lead the way. He was everybody’s favorite right off the hot bat.

As the season drew toward its close, Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui had switched positions to where they should have been in the first place. Kaz came to America with hair as orange as that BP jersey and an a reputation for defensive shortstop brilliance that was just as unfathomable. Jose Reyes was asked to move to second to make room for him, sort of like assigning da Vinci to picket fence duty because some dude from somewhere else is allegedly handy with a brush. Then they both got hurt. Now they were well. Reyes was a shortstop again, thank goodness. Kaz didn’t look bad at second base. At least not on Closing Day.

Wright’s hitting and Jose’s running had the Mets up 4-1 by the end of the fifth. The Expos’ emotions, like their frequent-flyer mileage, had probably run out. This looked like our day. Sure, we told each other in kind of a mini-Red Sox rant, we could still blow it. But nah, we weren’t gonna do that. We were gonna win. Then we were gonna do something even better.

We were gonna get what we came for.

Todd Zeile had been slobbered over all day. He seemed to own DiamondVision. We clapped for him today as much as we shunned him in 2001. Eric Valent and Victor Diaz started the home sixth with consecutive singles. Zeile came up and walloped a long drive over the left field wall. In this very exclusive, very ad hoc fraternity of fans who had focused on Todd Zeile’s happy ending, this was it. Todd Zeile’s last at-bat in the big leagues was a home run. We all went silly for him. He acknowledged us. It was Ted Williams writ small, but with a dollop of courtesy. Toddy Ballgame? Toddy’s ballgame, anyway.

It got better, in its way, in the visitors’ eighth when with two out, Art Howe sent in John Franco to pitch. This was another goodbye, more tentative, more deserving. Franco had his fifteen years at Shea, was from Brooklyn, grew up in these stands. We’d had our differences, he and us, but we were waiting for him to get into the game. It was a sign of the times that Howe would have to plug him in ahead of the ninth with a six-run lead. John Franco hadn’t been a closer since 1999, hadn’t been much of anything since the Subway Series in early July when he froze Jorge Posada on a called strike three. Unlike Zeile, Franco hadn’t announced his retirement and the Mets hadn’t thrown him a to-do. They did make him a video valentine, but he might have preferred a contract offer for 2005.

John Franco came in with one on and gave up a single to Terrmel Sledge. Typical Franco, it was reflexively groaned. He wouldn’t…? Nah, he wouldn’t. He got the next guy, Ryan Church, to pop up to the catcher. Zeile. More euphoria from the manipulated masses. Franco’s last out was secured by Zeile. Ain’t that perfect?

But wait! As if he hadn’t been showered with enough adoration, Todd Zeile strode to the batter’s box to lead off the bottom of the eighth. Howe, not being totally clueless, called him back. One more round of applause by an incredibly generous crowd. As Zeile turned toward the dugout, he shook the hand of Angel Hernandez, the home plate umpire. They say that no matter how much baseball you watch, you’ll always see something you haven’t seen before. I’d never seen that, shaking the ump’s hand. Only in baseball kids, only in baseball.

We’d wallowed in the distant past. We peeked at the promising future. But even on Closing Day, it’s always about the fleeting present. The Mets had used 51 different players through 161 games and eight innings. Sic transit gloria. Very few of them were as recognizable as Franco or Zeile. We had seen in 2004, among others, Karim Garcia and Danny Garcia. Sic transit Garcia? ¡Muchas Garcias! Now we were about to top out at 52, a full deck of Mets. Move over Moonlight Graham. Here comes Joe Hietpas.

Joe Whotpas?

No, Joe Hietpas. Pronounced only marginally like it’s spelled. The “t” is silent and to this point, so was he. There was a buzz in our box over whether we’d see the Double-A catcher who was brought up in mid-September when Mike Piazza was down and Vance Wilson was out. Zeile got more catching time than Hietpas. In fact, Joe Hietpas managed, as an emergency backup backstop, to pull a muscle of some sort (maybe he overjumped for joy when he saw his big league meal money). Now it was the ninth inning of the last game of the season and the Mets led the Expos 8-1. As if to affirm that in the future, everyone will be Hietpas for fifteen minutes, Art put Joe in. We greeted him with Zeileousness.

With a seven-run margin of victory looking pretty safe in the reasonably capable hands of Bartolome Fortunato, I was gracious beyond my previous capabilities. We were now seeing the final half-inning ever in the history of the Montreal Expos. A petite but determined “LET’S GO EX-POS!” chant arose from behind the third base dugout. It wasn’t booed back by those of us in right. I joined in for a pitch or two then stopped. The preternaturally pesky Expos, who Laurie long ago convinced me were themselves “evil,” could still do a lot of damage.

No, they couldn’t. Even after an error and a walk (what kind of game was Hietpas calling?), Fortunato straightened up and got three outs. The last was made by Endy Chavez, a pest I considered my own private Vladimir for the way he tortured Met pitching.

The relevant final totals:

• The final score on the big scoreboard was MON 1 NYM 8, Gl@v!ne going to 11-14, 20-28 as a Met and 262 wins lifetime, nowhere near the 300th he deluded himself into believing he’d earn here when he accepted a heap of Wilpon wampum (the dope). In CHI, old Greg Maddux won his 305th, of interest only to Laurie who idolized him even more than she lusted for young David Wright. ANA nabbed the AL’s third seed over MIN, who would have to play NYY, who also won, damn it. In the alien corner of the board, NYG apparently beat GB. By the ninth, its slot was replaced by NYJ at MIA.

• Mets finished the season 71-91. For the first time in five years, they won more games than the year before. The record didn’t reflect that they almost touched first place twice in July. And if you delete the blockheaded 16 losses in 17 games that flushed late August and early September, 2004 ran along the lines of Linus’ view of the centerpiece of A Charlie Brown Christmas: It wasn’t a bad little tree — all it needed was a little love. It helped to look at the Mets more like Linus and less like Lucy.

• The all-time series between the Mets and the Expos was settled with this finale. It all came down to the last game of the season, of ever. Mets 299 Expos 298. We win! That was with us spotting the Expos that first one in ’69.

• My all-time mark versus the Expos at Shea (me watching, not playing) rose to 13-12, another winning record under the wire for posterity. Whenever the Washingtons would come to town for my first look at them, they’d start out 0-0.

• For good measure, I got to go home with a .500 mark for the season. This was my 14th appearance of the year. I didn’t make it to my first game until June 4, the day after we closed on our co-op. I was 6-7 coming in, 7-7 going out. No complaints.

• Todd Zeile finished his career in 2004 with 2,004 hits.

• Joe Hietpas, who Jace told me was nothing close to a prospect, may have made his first and last appearance, but it was enough to inscribe him on the wall as the 747th player in Mets history. That meant Jace would have to acquire his presumably minor league card because Jace’s goal was to have a card of some type for all 747 Mets (seven guys, he lamented, never had one). I looked up Joe Hietpas later and discovered he was born on May 1, 1979. That very night, a Tuesday in 10th grade, I tagged along with the juniors and seniors as the eighth ticket on High School Newspaper night from The Tide. The Mets lost to Gaylord Perry — his 270th win — and the Padres 10-5. Frank Taveras struck out five times. Bob Murphy gave us a brief keynote address on the press level beforehand.

On the other big board today, they replayed the tribute to Murph from August after which PA man Roger Luce read a thank you note from Joye Murphy for all the kind thoughts of Mets fans on his passing. Zeile had gotten a video. Franco had gotten a video. The Expos even got a classy DiamondVision sendoff. Every time they showed us a video, we clapped — we might not sign Carl Pavano, but we had our Ivan Pavlov down pat.

No star turn for Art Howe. Not even a Polaroid picture to shake. There wasn’t a single sanctioned mention that this was his last game as Met manager, and nobody was urged to applaud the man who presided over two dreadful finishes. Ultimately, Closing Day can only make so many amends.

On September 15, Art Howe was asked to remove himself from his place of residence, the home manager’s office. That request came from Fred Wilpon. But the owner allowed him a couple of weeks to hang around and pack up; Howe said it was all about honoring his commitment to the team, but I’m fairly certain he wanted the free flight home to Pittsburgh that next weekend’s road trip ensured. Nobody seemed to mind Art Howe was managing his last game. He was not popular, but he was not unpopular anymore. Few wasted breath on booing him. He was a tool of ownership, a screwdriver, maybe, where a wrench was called for. A good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools.

Art, substitute teacher to the end, swore the day was grand. His quotes included “that’s the stuff you read about in fairy tales” and “today was about as good as it gets.” Art Howe must read a lot of Brothers Grimm. Was he referring to the fractured 71-91 season as the fairy tale or the fact that he could immediately look forward to two years of cashing Sterling Equities checks for doing absolutely nothing — not a whole lot different from his abbreviated tenure as skipper — as the peak of existence?

Howe got to go out a winner and that was as swell as anything else swirling around us. Closing Day is a chance to forgive tomfoolery, chicanery, Wilponery and bad impressionistic Art. Dotting i’s, crossing t’s, crossing off Z’s and spelling Hietpas. I wouldn’t get to do all that again for quite a while. Six whole months. Like an amputee feels a phantom limb, I knew the drill. The playoffs would get underway, and it would seem like baseball season, but it wouldn’t be. Whatever the postseason held in store, the Mets wouldn’t be part of it. Once November hit, especially after the election, baseball would be completely gone and its absence would be omnipresent. So this one would have to last, really last, from October 4 to April 4, 2005.

Jason and Jim and Laurie and I left together through the right field food court and out Gate E. Officer Jimmy, back on duty, obliged each of us at the subway and saved us eight bucks total. Once on board, it was six short stops to 74th Street where Jim and Laurie transferred to Queens buses and two more to Woodside, where I shook hands with Jason and detrained. I’d be e-mailing all of them in short order but our facetime would likely wait until spring ’05.

Some years I would go home from Closing Day at Shea Stadium brimming with wist. One year I was so wistful that I engaged in a crying jag the entire ride to East Rockaway. I walked from the station to our apartment, collected myself, opened the front door, entered the living room and I started bawling all over again.

No such display of emotion evinced itself from the 2004 closer. It was over. It was good. It was winter.

Next time it wasn’t winter, my world was changed. At least my Met world was. October 3, 2004 is remembered here for many details that showed up in the boxscore, but I recall it, too, for one reason beyond all that is spelled out above.

It was the last Mets game I experienced as a non-blogger. Jason and I would found Faith and Fear in Flushing the following February and everything about being a Mets fan would change for me. It would have changed anyway — Willie Randolph, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran would see to that — but doing what I do for FAFIF…the recaps, the ruminations, the Flashbacks, everything…has filled me, per the first “Treehouse of Horror” episode, with emotions a hundred times greater than what you call love and a thousand times greater than what you call fun. Thus, that Closing Day wasn’t just the end for Zeile, for Franco, for Howe, for the Expos and for a season. It was the prelude to the beginning of a wonderful new era for me.

For me, trying to think about the Mets without Faith and Fear in the equation is like trying to think about television without The Simpsons. And that’s unpossible.

It’s also difficult to remember what the Mets were like before this particular era in their history kicked in. It’s been rough the way 2008 and 2007 (and 2006 and, I suppose, 2005) ended, but have you seen a 71-91 around here lately? The bar has been raised and the Mets have failed to clear it of late, but it’s way better to dismember in September than it is to die in July, it really is. Personally I wouldn’t have rushed to extend Omar Minaya’s contract, but compared to the reign of Jim Duquette, it’s been nothing but sunshine and warmth since 2004 ended.

I knew I’d see my friends at Shea again after that Closing Day. We all reconvened the following April for the Nationals’ first visit. Symmetry! As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, the names Laurie, Jim and Jason (obviously) come up lots in the present tense. It was only a little bit of coincidence that they were my respective guests for the final Thursday, Friday and Saturday games ever at Shea Stadium.

I saw Zeile and Franco the final Sunday, taking part in the closing ceremony. May have caught a glimpse of Art Howe during the rain delay in June when Texas came in and their game was postponed. Howe coached for them in 2008. I wasn’t really looking for him.

Endy Chavez and Ryan Church are Expos I’ve seen plenty since the end of 2004, in a more welcome capacity. Joe Hietpas I haven’t seen since that October 3 except during Spring Training telecasts. Last I heard he was trying to make it back to the majors as a pitcher. Would be something if he did. It’s already something how he made it ever so slightly as a catcher.

But this, though, this you’re gonna love. I was in the Diamond Club store before a game in July. As mentioned in my recounting of that night, somebody came up to me, youngish guy, and told me he recognized me as part of Faith and Fear. Told me to keep up the good work. I told him thanks for reading.

I got an e-mail a few days later. It was the guy. Hey, he asked, do you remember the last game against the Expos, some family coming up to you outside Shea that was shooting a video for a Bar Mitzvah?

The guy I ran into in July 2008? It was Sammy from October 2004. Who’d have thought he’d have more staying power at Shea Stadium than Joe Hietpas? Than Shea Stadium?

Ah yes, Shea. The one thing I remember thinking as Laurie, pre-Sammy, chatted me up four years and one week ago today was how great this was, how great it was to come to Shea Stadium, how great it was to meet friends, how great it was to anticipate the Mets, even if the Mets were pretty lousy. When I emerged from hibernation on April 11, 2005 for the Home Opener, I was struck by how much it felt like the previous October 3, how Shea always felt great, how the anticipation for another season and another ballgame got me going. I could always count on Shea.

Since the season ended, since Shea ended, I’ve wondered when the Mets will be back, when I’ll be back. The Mets are on an extended road trip, right? My whole life in September 2008 was homestands and road trips. In the middle of September I was grateful for the Mets going on the road. It gave me a long enough break to not be engulfed by Shea. Well, break’s over. Where the hell are the Mets? Where the hell is Shea? What do I do with myself now?

Oh right. Have a good winter.


If you’re relatively new to the FAFIF community, don’t take this bit of finality as a signoff ’til spring. We’re like the Mets: even when we’re not here, we’re always around. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t make us very much like the Mets in October, but you get our drift. Hell, if you didn’t, you wouldn’t read this far.

Flashback Friday: I Saw the Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999, will debut sometime in 2009.