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Ugly Early

As baseball fans, we have a lot of phrases we repeat to ourselves to keep watching after things have gone to hell. As Mets fans, I’d wager we have even more of them.

Down 8-1 8-0 [sorry, was apparently huffing paint thinner] after the top of the first? You never know how the other starter will come out.

Score just zoomed from 2-1 you to 6-2 them? It’s hard to pitch with a big lead.

Down two runs, no one on base, one out to go? Bloop and a blast, of course.

The vast majority of times, all these phrases do is offer a little comfort while you demonstrate that you’re a sucker. But we say them anyway, because it’s what we do.

Dillon Gee comes out for the bottom of the first and promptly gives up four runs? Maybe he’ll settle down.

This didn’t seem terribly likely. It was freezing at Wrigley, with a 20-mile-an-hour wind whipping in and the radar showing a sheet of red and yellow moving up from the southwest. Gee quite obviously had no feel whatsoever for his curveball and possibly not for anything else, either: Standing on the mound, he was constantly blowing on his hand, mist swirling out of his mouth with each breath. It was a horrible night on which to play baseball, and it was going to get worse.

Now, throw in the other factors, such as the possibility that Fred Wilpon would be quoted saying shitty things about his players and/or setting draconian payroll targets in yet another publication, or that the Mets’ defense would engage in more bag-on-the-head slapstick, or … or God knows what, really. As Greg captured marvelously but depressingly [1] yesterday, right now the definition of a brave Mets fan is one who continues to show up at this screwed-up office to confront whatever unfathomable nonsense will be on the docket this time.

“Overwhelming and absurd” is it exactly. After an off-day turned into Maelstrom Monday, the Mets got to actually have some say in their condition on Tuesday, and the bar was pretty low for getting everybody to calm down. They didn’t need to win. They just needed to play baseball with some modicum of professionalism, letting the game’s normal rhythms and routines quiet the waters. So of course they displayed exquisite timing in playing what might have been their worst game of the year, a relentlessly thorough exhibition of depressing dingbattery that left us all wanting to break stuff.

Anyway, yeah. That was what was going on when Dillon Gee gave up four in the bottom of the first.

But there was a bigger game afoot, and by the middle of the second it had revealed itself. You saw it after Mike Quade sent Casey Coleman home and brought in Justin Berg, who failed to throw a strike on his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th or 12th pitch, a rather convincing demonstration of ineptitude that led to his own departure. When James Russell then arrived and rather matter-of-factly threw strike one to Jason Pridie, he got a near-standing ovation. And veteran Mets fans knew where we stood.

One of Metdom’s reliable pleasures is the early-season donnybrook with the Cubs at Wrigley. Sometimes the Mets win these and sometimes they lose them. Sometimes the wind is howling out and sometimes it’s whipping in. Sometimes both teams are good, sometimes one is and the other manifestly is not, and sometimes they both pretty much suck. Regardless of the details, you tend to see wacky Wrigley affairs coming early, and you buckle up knowing you’ll get somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 runs, at least one lengthy rain delay, a parade of relievers sad bad and accidentally effective, the near-certainty of a managerial ejection, errors and baserunning blunders, lots of emo from the Cub faithful, and an ending you don’t see coming but feels like the logical last piece the next day.

With the Mets somehow up 6-4, I was ready and in fact sort of eager — in these affairs, even Met losses don’t have the sting they do elsewhere, because just crawling out of the wreck more or less intact feels like an accomplishment. Plus Keith Hernandez was clearly unhinged, something I’ve noticed tends to happen without Ron Darling acting as superego. Gary Cohen, sensing the possibilities and unable to help himself, was also starting to bait Keith; I decided that when this game got to the 12th inning and it was 3 a.m. and more rain was coming, I was TiVoing the rest and setting it to KEEP UNTIL I DELETE, which I would never do. It was gonna be that good.

And I maintain it would have happened — except Mother Nature shrunk the whole affair down to snack-sized proportions and Gee refused to live down to his role.

Rather then get pinata’ed and depart for a period of shocked penance on the bench, Gee did what suckers like us are always hoping starters in his predicament will do: He settled down. It didn’t get any warmer or drier or more pleasant, but somehow Gee harnessed his wayward pitches and started knocking Cubs off left and right.

Which led to the drama within the drama: When baseball becomes a race against the weather, less can actually be more. When the Mets opened the top of the fifth with a rally, you could sense Mets fans everywhere caught in a dreadful tug-of-war. More runs are always nice, as is beating up on the Cubs. But once it started raining it wasn’t going to quit, and so those extra runs could actually result in the entire game being washed away and not counting. Those runners out there were quite possibly the opposite of insurance runs — they were runs that somehow might decrease one’s chance of winning.

Which, honestly, would just have been so, so, so Metsian.

It didn’t happen, though. The rain held off long ago for the game to go official and for Carlos Beltran to hammer a triple up the gap, prompting a sudden fury in me and a yell of “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT 65% TO 70% OF, FRED???!!!” (The most annoying thing to me about Wilpon’s New Yorker quotes, besides the shitshow they provoked, was the revelation that Fred is every bit as unfair to Beltran and myopic about his value as those late-night WFAN callers whose putrid, mouth-breathing stupidity makes you wonder how in the world they can operate a phone.) The last sight of the game wasn’t some Met long man trudging off as Cubs hugged each other, but Quade screaming at the umps he knew had signed his team’s death sentence.

So the Mets won [2]. One day later than when we all desperately needed it for a mental clean slate, perhaps, but they won.

And now we’ll all be back at the office tomorrow, wondering what the hell’s in store for us this time.

Addendum #1: I talked the Mets, baseball, New Orleans and hardcore porn with the folks at Bloomberg Baseball [3] yesterday. Despite the porn discussion, I swear it’s perfectly safe for work.

Addendum #2: For a terrific story [4] about how fringe guys such as Gee live while waiting to see if they’ll stick with the Mets or rejoin the Herd, see The Wall Street Journal’s Brian Costa. I always wondered about this particular subject; Costa does a great job turning it into an interesting, very human tale.