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Sometimes It Shows in April

You have to love a team whose prospective greatest-hitting homegrown player ever has just tied an offensive record set by somebody from its toddler stages.

What am I saying? You already do.

Toward the end of a week defined by a streak, if not streakiness, we learned that when Michael Conforto [1] doubled in the second inning at Citi Field on Saturday, his sixth game in a row with a two-base hit, he had matched a Met feat previously accomplished only by Joe Christopher [2], who doubled in both games of a doubleheader on August 14, 1964, and then each of the next four days.

Joe Christopher, who was plucked in the 1961 expansion draft from the Pirates, began as a Met on May 21, 1962, and hasn’t been a Met since October 3, 1965, maintains a share of a line in the Mets record book as of the morning of May 1, 2016. Of course he does. The Mets, no matter the heights to which they rise, will always have those humble beginnings at their core. It’s reassuring to know traces of them continue to show up even in bountiful eras like the one in which we presently gratefully reside.

Joe was the 35th player to play as a Met. With René Rivera [3] making his debut behind the plate Saturday, we’re up to 1,013 overall. We’re 978 players beyond Joe Christopher, yet Joe Christopher still comes up in milestone statistical conversation.

Granted, “most consecutive games, double,” isn’t one of those records MLB Network breaks into regularly scheduled programming to track, but nevertheless, it’s something. It’s something that a Met from more than fifty years ago did something of a positive nature that no Met who followed him had done until this moment in time.

Which we can refer to in all good conscience as Michael Conforto’s time.

Conforto has six games in a row with a double, while the Mets have eight games in a row with a win. It’s probably not coincidental, though it helps to have capable company. When Christopher strung together the first three of his half-dozen contests with a double, the Mets were in the midst of losing their sixth, seventh and eighth out of their previous nine games. Then they got as hot as the 1964 Mets would ever get and won their next three — Christopher tripled twice and homered in addition to doubling on August 18 — and two more besides. Five consecutive wins represented a Met best, tying a mark set in May 1963, and allowing the Mets to pick up a game on the league-leading Phillies.

After winning five in a row, Joe Christopher’s 1964 Mets stood 35½ out. Thirty-six in the loss column.

The Mets completed their third season of existence with their traditional ironclad grip on tenth place entirely intact. Winning those five in a row pushed them to a spirited 42 games below .500 en route to a 53-109 finish, so you can’t put too much stock into what Joementum meant to them. Christopher, though, enjoyed a season that stands out as one of the prettiest fingers among the Mets’ annual fistfuls of sore thumbs. His OPS of .826 was tops among all Met regulars in their pre-1969 history, a period generally dismissed as prehistoric. A person who wasn’t around then is often left with the impression that the only things the Mets produced in those days, besides losses, were anecdotes. But even the 1,732,597 who filled brand new Shea Stadium in 1964 were looking for something beyond 23-inning losses and perfect-game victimization. In Joe Christopher, they got a .300-hitting right fielder on whose encouraging performance they could hang their proverbial hat until better days came along.

Better days are here again. Conforto days. It hasn’t really taken 52 years to upgrade from Christopher to Conforto. There have been some fine times in between. Yet when you think about a hitter coming up through the Met system and sending a charge through a Met crowd by his mere presence, there hasn’t been that much to think about over the past half-century.

It’s a familiar refrain to anybody who’s paid attention. When it comes to developing outstanding young hitters, the Mets sure have developed some outstanding young pitchers. For the first two decades, the answer to “who’s the best homegrown hitter the Mets ever produced and held onto for more than a minute?” was Cleon Jones [4]. Then, for the next two decades, it was decidedly Darryl Strawberry [5]. Ultimately, David Wright [6] pre-empted all comers. You couldn’t not mention Jose Reyes [7] and you wouldn’t want to forget Edgardo Alfonzo [8] and you were entitled to rattle off a few others who suited your personal preferences on the road from Ed Kranepool [9] to Daniel Murphy [10]…but it wasn’t going to take long to make a list, and our list wasn’t likely to interact with larger lists that took into account great homegrown hitters from all organizations.

Before long, our list might begin and end with Conforto, and that version of the list might grow tentacles that reach into the wider-ranging baseball consciousness. Imagine a discussion of homegrown Met hitters who get talked about not just as the best of Mets but the best around. Conforto could conceivably enter the Mets in that kind of conversation, a dialogue where a Met voice has been conspicuously lacking pretty much forever. Journeying home from Saturday’s 6-5 win over the Giants [11] — one the Mets wouldn’t let be pried from their possession any more than I would dream of letting go of my hard-earned Syndergaarden gnome — I caught sight on Twitter of a stat that floored me.

Michael Conforto’s first 77 games in the big leagues have been more productive than either Mike Trout [12]’s or Bryce Harper [13]’s.

Conforto: .298 BA, 13 HR, 44 RBI, 25 doubles

Trout: .285 BA, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 15 doubles

Harper: .268 BA, 9 HR, 29 RBI, 16 doubles

When Joe Christopher broke into the big leagues with the Pirates in 1959, 77 games equaled exactly half-a-season. Today, it’s a little less. So we’re looking through the prism of virtually no time at all. That said, since it was 2012 and not 1959 when Trout and Harper came up, I can remember quite clearly each of them being raised to a pedestal above all young players, a perch where each has stood ever since, both by reputation and achievement.

Therefore, it’s not crazy to begin to think of Conforto, who was a first-round draft pick (thus pre-empting flash-in-the-pan anxieties), as having a shot at sticking around such rarefied air, no more than it’s ludicrous to see the Mets’ recent fortunes as indicative of how the rest of their campaign is going to play out. To ever so slightly twist a lyric [14] from the late, lamented Prince [15] (who wrote “Manic Monday” for the Bangles under the pseudonym Christopher, don’tcha know), sometimes it shows in April. Just because it’s early doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

It’s early for the Mets, but Messrs. April land inside May as baseball’s scaldingest team and perhaps its most fully realized competitive enterprise. When your most glaring shortfall on a given Saturday is a dependence on a journeyman backup catcher to handle one of your full deck of aces, yet you still fend off a perfectly worthy opponent, the second month of your season looms as promising as the first ended.

Jacob deGrom [16] wasn’t super sharp, but he bore down when he had to and overcame a bit of shaky corner infield defense. Outfield legs were at least as reliable as those from the bullpen, and together they supported deGrom’s six solid enough innings. As for the offense, Neil Walker [17]’s reign of April concluded in fitting fashion when he singled in the first two runs in the first off San Francisco loser Matt Cain [18]; Wilmer Flores [19] made up for his fill-in yip at third with a yippee! of a tack-on homer in the sixth; and Conforto — clearly the people’s choice, as gauged by the reactions of a majority of the Citi Field record 44,666 who were on hand for 15,000 gnomes and 2016 Mets — did everything else.

We seem to be embracing Conforto like we’re loving the comparably mythic Noah Syndergaard [20]. Two hours before first pitch, the lines for Thor’s likeness stretched way the hell up the subway staircase and around every corner in sight. Working on a tip from a trusted source, I took my chances with the McFadden’s queue and was — after a wait that would shock Shake Shack — gnomefully rewarded. I like my gnome a lot. I like far less the grubby mindset that limits the distribution of a prized promotional item because its purveyors know it will lure you to their facility ridiculously early and get you (probably) to buy more stuff than you would otherwise once you’re finally through the gate.

I also wasn’t thrilled to be standing in characteristic minding-my-own-business mode behind a particularly nasty, admittedly inebriated lass who tried, through the haze of her apparently epic schnapps consumption, to pick a hockey fight with me (not an actual hockey fight, just some edgy Rangers-Islanders banter…which she has plenty of time to indulge in, what with her team no longer involved in the playoffs). I didn’t want to get into it with a girl barely eligible to be served by the bro-iest sports bar on 126th Street. I was old enough to be her father. I was old enough to be everybody’s father at McFadden’s. I’m old enough to be Michael Conforto’s father and wonder if I can retroactively adopt him and maybe deposit his checks into our family account.

Michael, who’s like a son to me but I’m delighted to share joint custody alongside all Mets fans, singled as part of the initial Met rally. He doubled to increase the Met margin to 4-0 in the second. And he went deep over the right field fence in the fifth to give deGrom some welcome breathing room. That left him a triple shy of the cycle, which maybe put his 4/30/2016 performance a notch below the 8/18/1964 output of Christopher (who lacked only a single, or the foresight to stop at first on one of his triples, in his quest to cycle), yet it was enough to wind down the first April of the young man’s major league career at .365/.442/.676. Conforto leads the National League in doubles with eleven and is third in OPS at 1.118. He was interviewed by Steve Gelbs on the field, over CitiVision, as SNY’s star of the game. We roared in approval at his video visage and then, suitably stoked, thundered down the stairs from Promenade chanting LET’S GO METS!!! the entire trip to Field Level.

For my money, the star of the game was any fan who paid his or her way into the ballpark, didn’t receive a gnome [21], yet LGM’d with gusto because his or her adoration for the home team trumps trinket allocation’s attendant cynicism every day of the week. Then again, Mets-lovers have always given, regardless of how many games the objects of their affection were taking. “I really enjoyed the fans at Shea Stadium,” Joe Christopher told author Bill Ryczek [22] in the mid-2000s. “The people in the right field section used to cheer me all the time. They gave me presents.”

A memory like that is a pretty good gift, no matter what side of the transaction you’re on. And gnome or gnot, the Mets of today are 15-7, which actually sounds a little light until you recall the 2-5 start which, technically, also happened in April. But we were so much older then. We’re younger than that now. We’re certainly better.

If not for the pesky creakiness that plagued us in Kansas City and most of the first homestand, we’d be in the standings stratosphere rather than a half-game to the rear of the uncooperative Washington Nationals (in a division where, by the way, every team that isn’t Atlanta holds a winning record). Also, we might have broken the Met mark for most wins in April, which is sixteen, compiled twice before. When I read that the 2016 Mets trailed the eventually 97-65 2006 Mets by one April win, I was encouraged for what lies ahead. When I read the other edition to boast a sweet sixteen was the 2002 Mets, a squad fated to crumble to 75-86, I determined that they then — and certainly not us now — were the aberration.

You can project anything you want with five months to go and who knows how many years of Conforto potentially doing what no homegrown Met hitter before him has done. Go ahead, dream. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t.