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The Less Likely Joys of the Game

The season is all but over, and ending without me. Last weekend we were at a wedding, and then I headed to Florida to help teach a journalism seminar. The Mets will play their final game while I’m on a plane tonight, meaning that the last significant Mets moment I saw in 2012 was Lucas Duda’s blast [1] off Tim Hudson. Barring Game 162 heroics, in retrospect that was about the right time to check out.

2012 had its bright spots — quite a few, in fact. There was David Wright’s assumption of the top spot [2] in numerous all-time statistical categories; R.A. Dickey’s 20 wins and ferocious pitching [3]; the emergence of Matt Harvey, Ruben Tejada and Jon Niese; the returns of Daniel Murphy and Ike Davis (sort of); and of course Johan Santana giving us the night we never imagined would come [4]. Unfortunately, though, this good news must be weighed against the team’s very grim financial picture [5], which seems to get more dire every time a Mets official lets us peek [6] behind the Wilpons’ veil of silence about such things.

I think being a Mets fan will be very rough for the next couple of years at least, and maybe a permanent condition until Bud Selig finds some auguries in measurements of continental drift that convince him it’s time to unplug the Wilpons’ respirator.

So how do we endure? By being baseball fans.

I’m not going to talk about the postseason and picking a bandwagon team — we’ll do plenty of that this month. I mean just luxuriating in the beauty, tension and the occasional daffiness of the sport I consider mankind’s greatest artistic achievement.

Beauty and tension? Last night I was at Tropicana Field, watching the Orioles and Rays battle. The Rays had been eliminated Monday night, but the Orioles were trying to grab a share of first place from the Yankees.

This was my second visit to the Trop; the first one came in 2007 [7], and I was struck then by how much it was actually an OK place to see a game. In retrospect, this is proof of the damage to one’s sense of aesthetics done by a childhood in Shea Stadium. Well, either that or I was drunk and/or concussed. Because the Trop is a disaster. It looks like a kid’s science project gone horribly wrong, a cavernous space that deadens sound, with concrete hallways, a seasickly off-kilter roof that leaks, mangy artificial turf and those ridiculous catwalks spiraling around and threatening to interfere with a surprising number of fly balls. Oh, and their museum contains misspelled stuff.

Rays sign fail [8]

This isn’t one of them.

But look: For all that, the Orioles and the Rays played a hell of a game. James Shields struck out 15, giving up just one hard-hit ball all night, to Chris Davis. Unfortunately for Shields, that one hard-hit ball traveled to the approximate longitude of the Azores — you could hear gasps weirdly echoing around the big terrarium when Davis connected. A parade of Orioles pitchers were even better than Shields, fanning 15 Rays and giving up no hard-hit balls for a 1-0 win [9]. Husband-and-wife Orioles fans were sitting in front of us, and she refused to look at the score of the Red Sox-Yankees game or listen to anyone who tried to tell her. I was enjoying myself and the taut battle below, but she was writhing on every pitch. That’s why I love baseball.

Oh, and when the Rays lost, the entire crowd — Tampa Bay and Baltimore fans alike — immediately began rooting for Boston. That’s also why I love baseball.

For the daffiness, consider this play you may have seen recently: The Nats’ designated Wookiee Michael Morse hit a grand slam at Busch Stadium, a ball the umpires initially ruled had bounced off a wall and was in play, leading to pandemonium on the basepaths. When the umps returned from looking at the video, they correctly ruled that Morse had hit a home run — but the runners had to complete their trips around the bases. And for it to happen legally, the runners had to begin on the bases they’d occupied at the beginning of the play. It took a while to herd four Nats back to their starting points, with Morse winding up at home without a bat in his hands, looking slightly sheepish. At the puckish suggestion of Yadier Molina, he pantomimed a swing of the bat he wasn’t holding, playing home-run charades. I mean, how awesome is that [10]?

I showed Morse’s invisible homer to Joshua (to his delight), and it got me thinking about another play, one I’d read about years ago and that depended on a startling idea: a team recording four legitimate outs on one play.

After a bit of hunting I found the reference [11] — it was to Thomas Boswell’s classic How Life Imitates the World Series, the situation had come up in Cuba, and the play hadn’t actually happened but almost did. Here are the basics: Bases loaded, nobody out, tie game. Batter smokes a ball into the gap, runners from first and second break and are caught off their bases for a triple play. But while they’re being corralled, the runner from third tags up and scores before the third out is recorded. Team in the field appeals that the runner on third left early — which would be a legitimate fourth out. (Boswell says that in the Cuban game, one ump said out and the other said safe, and eventually the run was upheld. My apologies to any Packers fans who just had to read that.) So not a quadruple play, but almost.

Joshua thought that was pretty wonderful, and so did I. And it led me to a play that might actually be stranger, and that at least one source claims really happened in the Pacific Coast League: a triple play in which no defender touches the ball [12]. It works like this: Runners on first and second, nobody out. Batter hits a ball that’s ruled an infield fly, meaning he’s automatically out. Runner on first passes the runner on second, so runner from first is out. Runner from second, perhaps understandably confused, is struck by the ball, so he’s out. Triple play without a defender doing anything other than gawping at the proceedings.

I doubt that ever actually happened — in journalism such yarns are deemed “too good to check” — but there was an unassisted triple play on an infield fly just last year. It happened in an NCAA game, when runners from first and second didn’t realize an infield fly had been called and were tagged out by the shortstop, who also got credit for the putout on the infield fly.

If this ever happens to the Mets, my money would be on poor Daniel Murphy being involved. In the meantime, though, it’s something to appreciate, and one of many reasons to watch despite a Metsian parade of reasons not to.