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Meaning and Games in September

I can’t take me anywhere. I can, but I can’t depend on me to respond as social norms suggest I should.

I took myself to Citi Field Tuesday night at the invitation of a friend. The ostensible lure was the manifestation of that old Wilponian chestnut, Meaningful Games In September, MGIS for short (mishegas for our readers who have just celebrated the Jewish new year).

MGIS, a phrase infamously uttered by the Met Chairman of the Board in Spring Training 2004, instantly fired up his troops. It fired them up into a state of confusion. These were the reactions captured by Lee Jenkins [1] of the Times when he asked Wilpon’s players of yore what exactly hey thought the owner meant by Meaningful Games In September.

“What does that mean?”
Mike Cameron [2]

“I don’t understand.”
Jose Reyes [3]

“Well, I guess you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Cliff Floyd [4]

The general manager back then, Jim Duquette, spoke his best boardroomspeak to interpret his employer’s thinking. “I don’t think there’s any more of a definition,” the GM said as helpfully as he could. “You can take it whatever way you want.”

OK then…

What did Fred Wilpon mean by meaningful? This three-part elaboration emanated straight from the horse’s mouth:

1) “You’ll know it’s meaningful when it’s there.”

2) “You’ll be able to feel it and taste it.”

3) “We’ll be in a position to attain something.”

The first part implies Fred had no idea whatsoever. The second part confirms the first part. The third part, however, got as close to the crux of the matter as Wilponically possible.

It’s September. The Mets are, in 2015 if not 2004 (when they misplaced their Kazmir and fell on their Zambrano), in a position to attain something. Coming into Tuesday they were riding the pennant race express to runaway proportions. You might say they’d just about overshot their MGIS goal. There was none of the feisty scratching and clawing Wilpon probably envisioned when he tried to change the conversation after last-place 2003. The Mets in the here and now were aiming to extend a winning streak to nine and reduce a magic number from ten. The meaning was pretty clearly implied.

It was there. You could feel it. You could taste it. But for one night it couldn’t be attained.

It’s not like the Mets didn’t try to beat the Miami Marlins on Tuesday and it’s not like we didn’t try to urge them on. The Mets still hustled and we still buzzed. This was not your slightly younger self’s September night at Citi Field [5]. There wasn’t an enormous crowd, but it couldn’t rightly be labeled sparse. There were sustained ripples of enthusiasm even as the score continually tilted in the wrong direction. There was always the sense that this team was never really out of it, ergo we shouldn’t give up. Everybody did what they could, it’s just that none of it worked [6].

What did it mean?

Probably nothing.

I mean, sure, I could be more agitated that Tom Koehler [7] plunked Yoenis Cespedes [8] on his powerful hip. I could be more frustrated that every home run the Mets nearly hit either died at the track or drifted foul. I could be more concerned that Jacob deGrom [9] hasn’t looked terribly deGrominant of late. I could have scowled more as I entered “L 9-3” in my Log when I got home. I could even wallow in Washington picking up an entire game in the standings to now trail by 8½ with — hide your eyes if you’re squeamish — 17 to play.

But after those eight straight wins and everything else, the following areas are where I opted to derive my meaning at the first Meaningful Game In September game my friend and I ever attended at Citi Field.

• A serious discussion of whether the Mets should erect a statue of Marv Throneberry [10]. We agreed they should. It would display an organizational sense of humor true to the franchise’s roots. The two caveats we decided upon were 1) of course you’d have to have a Seaver statue to balance the ridiculous with the sublime; and 2) the ideal Throneberry statue portrays Marvelous Marv looking longingly at the piece of cake his manager swore they wuz going to give him but wuz afraid he’d drop it.

• A hypothetical offer my friend made me: I could have another Mets world championship affixed to their past. That is to say any year I wanted could be added to 1969 and 1986. It could be a year they came close [11], it could be a year they finished last. It would be worked into their backstory and our memory bank. It wouldn’t alter the course of team history otherwise and I wouldn’t have to do anything wacky like go back and live my life from that year forward, but it would come at a cost. In exchange for that third retroactively granted world championship, the Mets could never have had Tom Seaver [12]. They’d still win what they won in 1969 and 1973, but without The Franchise or anybody truly like him. Seaver never would’ve existed as a Met. Forty-one would be just another number. Would I take that deal, he asked. I thought for less than 41 seconds and told him, no, I would not. We have one actual Seaver (if no Seaver statue) after more than fifty years. Except for Cespedes, he’s our one authentic all-time Met great. That’s got to be worth one hypothetical championship.

• A unanimous decision that the Met who looked strangest to us in a non-Met uniform was Cleon Jones [13] as a White Sock. My friend and I are roughly the same vintage of Mets fan. We knew as kids that there were such things as trades, but we didn’t really believe they could happen to “iconic” Mets. Once in a while they did — Swoboda to the Expos, Agee to the Astros — but icons were icons. Icons weren’t simply cast off. Then one summer day in 1975, Cleon was. He resurfaced in 1976 with the Chicago White Sox. He played in only a dozen games for them, but it was long enough to be photographed in one of those blousy Bill Veeck jerseys [14] that are looked back on with revisionist fondness four decades later…but what the hell was Cleon doing in one of them? Yeah, that was the strangest sight these eyes ever did see as Mets in the wrong clothes go. (My friend says he’s seen Cleon in the slightly older White Sox red-pinstriped jersey he never actually played in, but I can’t even process that possibility.) Bud Harrelson [15] as a Texas Ranger is a distant second.

We were finishing up the strange-looking expatriate Met topic as Tuesday’s game ended. We kept talking about it while our section cleared out. The players were in their respective dugouts, the PA had stopped blaring and the ushers were clearing their throats at us. The Mets had just lost, allowing their inevitability to bog down a bit, but I wasn’t fixated on that. I was fixated on a final point my friend was making about Ken Boswell [16] having been the only 1973 Met to have worn the earliest iteration of the Astro rainbow getup. It occurs to me now that Boswell’s manager, Yogi Berra [17], wore a later version as a Houston coach in 1986. For that matter, except for throwbacks, you never saw the rainbows in National League action again after NLCS Game Six. Same deal for our old road grays with the racing stripe down the side and script Mets across the chest. It’s like Game Six was so intense that they had to burn all the uniforms.

Honestly, I could have sat there for another hour and continued to talk about all that stuff that makes baseball baseball with my friend. This was fun. Maybe not the kind of fun the attainment of first place has been, yet fun on its own merit. It wasn’t precisely what we came to Citi Field for this September evening…no, that’s not true. It’s exactly what we came to Citi Field for, pennant race notwithstanding. First place and a seemingly imminent clinching is plenty nice, but where else besides the old ballpark do you find yourself planning statues that will never be built, vetoing acquisitions of imaginary championships and dwelling on what Cleon Jones wore worst? Yes, we could have gone on another two hours if left to our own devices.

Alas, the men in the red and green polo shirts were emitting impatience like Dee Gordon [18] had been recording base hits, so reluctantly we put a lid on our musings, rose and left, having derived all the meaning we required from this one September game.

Someone else I spoke to very recently: Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, regarding the shifting sands of the city’s baseball scene. Read my two cents on the potentially emerging Mets town in our midst here [19].