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Definitely Iffy, Definitely Izzy

“It’s just another ballpark to me,” Jason Isringhausen told reporters before he pitched for the first time at Citi Field. “But to put the ‘Mets’ across your chest, it’s pretty special.”

The destruction of the temple [1] kind of took the edge off the symbolism in Izzy’s comma-confirming [2] homecoming Monday night. It would be a lot more fun to say, “Jason Isringhausen pitched for the Mets at Shea Stadium for the first time since…” but that’s out. Still, anybody who can get turned on by “Mets” across his chest is our kind of guy.

Izzy originally came up to a Mets team that had been finding ways to lose winnable games for many a year, so maybe the “feel right at home” aspect was ratcheted up when the current Met relievers did their best Bob MacDonald, Blas Minor and Jerry DiPoto impressions, while Mike Pelfrey channeled every frustrating start filed once upon a time by the likes of Dave Mlicki. Izzy’s remarkable Metsian rebirth notwithstanding, the names inevitably change — except for the one on the front of the uniform and the one at the short end of the line score.

The Mets lost to the Rockies [3] under Terry Collins as they might have under Dallas Green. Their pitchers threw batted balls past Josh Thole as their predecessors might have overshot Todd Hundley if given the opportunity. Worst of all, they were slain by Troy Tulowitzki as they were once put out of their misery by Dante Bichette.

Jason Isringhausen was the living link to a lot of Metsdom Monday night. A lousy loss wasn’t part of the plan, but those happen. Those happen a lot lately, I’m coming to notice. I’ve been to every home game played thus far in 2011, and most of them have been lousy losses. I’ve had uniformly wonderful afternoons and evenings in a place that too often feels like just another ballpark, but that doesn’t make the losses any less lousy (they are, after all, losses).

There is going to be a ton of iffy baseball from these Mets this year. Call me negative if you like, though I’d advise you not to worry about whether Mets fans aren’t positive enough. Just be glad there are Mets fans and that we’re attending every game we can. Though the hustle [4] is still detectable and still appreciated, the baseball remains unquestionably iffy and there’s no reason to suspect it will soon turn certain, let alone certainly superb.

So let’s put aside the iffy and embrace the Izzy. Let’s try to put Jason Isringhausen’s return in some perspective.

He likes wearing “Mets” across his chest? Funny thing is the last time he could have worn “Mets” across his chest, forces conspired to prevent him. I’m not talking about the trade that made him an Oakland Athletic and Billy Taylor a total disaster. As was reported widely [5] Monday, Izzy’s previous Met appearance came on July 31, 1999, at Wrigley Field, which meant “Mets” was not stitched on the front of his uniform. By 1999, Mets road uniforms said “NEW YORK”. What went unmentioned, as far as I noticed, was that the last time Izzy pitched at Shea as a Met (Izzy never pitched against the Mets at Shea — Jason Isringhausen pitched against the Mets; Met opponents aren’t identified by endearing nicknames) was July 27, 1999. If that date rings a bell, then it’s quite likely you are properly obsessed [6] with everybody’s favorite worst uniform ever, the Mercury Mets.

Oh hell, you know the story of the Mercury Mets, and if you’ve somehow forgotten or landed here from another planet, there are galaxies not so far away [7] that can fill you in on the details [8]. The essence was it was supposed to be 2021 in 1999, and every Met in the present/future represented a rock searingly close to the sun rather than the geology of New York. That included Izzy…or IZZY, as it said on the back of his uniform on 7/27/99/21. Izzy got into that Turn Ahead The Clock Game, and it turned out to be the last game he got into as a Met at Shea.

Thus, it didn’t say “Mets” across his chest. It said “Mercury”. That was pretty special from an esoteric point of view, but maybe not in the way Izzy was thinking.

An examination of my Log (the notebook that tells me that I’ve now witnessed 501 official Mets games [9]), cross-checked with the invaluable Baseball Reference [10], reveals that Monday night was the first time I saw Izzy pitch for the Mets at a Flushing- and Earth-based ballpark since May 24, 1996. How long ago was that? Besides an easily calculable 15 years? It was so long ago that Izzy’s opposition was another former phenom of yore: Fernando Valenzuela. The progenitor of Fernandomania — himself 15 years removed from his phenomenon — was a San Diego Padre by then. He was a very effective one when it came to facing the 1996 Mets. Fernando went eight innings, giving up only a late solo home run to Butch Huskey.

Izzy? Not much mania the year after he made a splash as a rookie. He lasted six innings, having given up seven hits, six hits and five earned runs. The Padres blasted the Mets 13-1 (with the bullpen of Bob MacDonald, Blas Minor and Jerry DiPoto getting torched for seven runs in three innings). It was an unusually lopsided loss for the Mets, but typical enough in that it was a loss. The 1996 Mets, for whom there were decent expectations, fell to 19-27. Izzy, for whom there were outsized expectations, dropped to 2-6.

The fun of those Mets was daring to develop expectations. The ’95 Mets Izzy joined at midseason had given us nothing upbeat to expect. But the elements of Isringhausen and Pulsipher — known best by their trade names Izzy and Pulse — were presented to us as genetic material for hope. That was the point of those Mets at mid-decade. Dare to hope. Attempt to expect.

Thanks to unkind injuries and deeply embedded ineptitude, we weren’t able to do either for very long. We hoped and expected for what…a while? A while sounds too long. It was  more like a minute — and not even a New York minute. The heyday of Izzy and Pulse (and Paul Wilson) lasted about a Mercury minute. The hope surrounding them melted in an atmosphere chemically unable to sustain expectation.

Izzy had a second act as a Met, in 1997, though I don’t readily identify him with that Metropolitan edition, which happens to be one of my all-time favorites [11]. He didn’t come back to Flushing until the end of August and never looked comfortable starting down the stretch. Izzy’s third act, in 1999, felt even more anachronistic. That was my absolute favorite Met season [12] and Isringhausen barely fit into it. Izzy was relieving mostly because he couldn’t any longer last as a starter following his missing 1998 and requiring Tommy John surgery. And he was relieving primarily in low-leverage situations, never earning Bobby Valentine’s trust, never insinuating himself into the business end of the Benitez-Wendell-Cook bullpen. Billy Taylor was not a helpful addition when the Mets’ relief corps was depleted by an injury to John Franco, but it wasn’t like Taylor was appreciably worse than 1999 Met Jason Isringhausen, no matter what went right for the erstwhile Izzy immediately thereafter in Oakland.

This fourth act, on a Mets team that doesn’t appear destined to rank among my favorites, feels appropriate. Izzy’s here to give those of us who have made Citi Field a second home (because our first home was torn down [13]) some variation on hope. He’s here to get batters out, I suppose, but for me he’s emblematic mostly. He’s not from 1999 or 1997, even if he technically was a part of those seasons. He’s from 1996 and 1995, years when Jason Isringhausen was supposed to connote promise. First he did. Then he didn’t, but we thought he would again, so we hung in there with him, and waited for him to return from his lengthy absences. When he finally got around to coming back those second and third times, all he represented was too many runs allowed. We had moved on. Our 1997 Mets were Wild Card contenders without him. Our 1999 Mets were fighting for first place without him. What good was an aching Jason Isringhausen? He was from the bad old days. He was from the past.

Past can look mighty good when your present is murky. Past is even better when you can pick and choose your rendition of it. The Jason Isringhausen I stood and applauded when he trotted in wearing the number of Tug McGraw, John Franco and Pedro Martinez in the seventh inning Monday night was not the Jason Isringhausen who lost 13-1 to Fernando Valenzuela in 1996. The Izzy I saw for the first time in 2011 was the best of 1995 personified.

The Izzy I saw was the cause célèbre of the All-Star break when the only Mets talk in town was “when is this Isringhausen kid going to be brought up?”

The Izzy I saw was the focus of a controversy in which his first start — Jason Isringhausen’s first start! — was not scheduled to be televised in New York because an abortion known as the Baseball Network rationed out broadcasts of local teams in local markets…but then it rained somewhere and Izzy’s start magically appeared on Channel 7.

The Izzy I saw was our answer to the Los Angeles sequel to Fernandomania: Nomomania. In August of 1995, Hideo Nomo came to Shea and was supposed to Tornado the Mets into oblivion. Instead he and the Dodgers were swept away by Izzy and the Mets. It was a great statement game for fans of a team who’d had nothing to crow out loud over in ages.

Jason Isringhausen gave us a 9-2 run that coincided almost exactly with the Mets’ 34-18 growth spurt that closed out 1995 and made us believe 1996 was going to be less of the same as we had come to accept it for so long and more of the same vis-à-vis the small sample size that intoxicated any and all of us who were paying rapt attention. Jason Isringhausen made that almost-forgotten fragment of Met history, those last couple of months of 1995, something resembling transcendent. It may not have lasted long, yet here I am, more than 15 years later, and I’m still talking about it.

Soon, because he’s a 38-year-old middle reliever coming off yet another Tommy John surgery, Jason Isringhausen won’t get out the batters he’s supposed to get out, not the way he took care of Chris Ianetta and Todd Helton Monday night. Soon, Jason Isringhausen won’t be any different in practicality from Blaine Boyer, an interchangeable part so undistinguished [14] in his brief Met tenure that he was readily replaced by a 38-year-old middle reliever coming off yet another Tommy John surgery.

But for now, Izzy is a Met again. Izzy from Shea. Izzy from the selectively idealized past. Izzy from when things were about to turn a corner. Izzy, perhaps, from when things will turn a corner again.

“Mets” on the front of his chest. “ISRINGHAUSEN” crammed between his shoulder blades. It’s pretty special.

Join us at McFadden’s Citi Field, Thursday, April 21, at 6 P.M., prior to that night’s Mets-Astros game when Faith and Fear invites you to Buy Tug a Beer. It’s all part of our ongoing efforts to help Sharon Chapman raise funds for the Tug McGraw Foundation’s battle against brain cancer and other insidious diseases. Details here [15].