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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Under the format that’s been in place since 2001, you usually play your division rivals nineteen times a season. As a result, you become intimately familiar with them. When the Mets play somebody from the National League Central or West or American League, it’s almost as if we’re welcoming or visiting special guest stars. You don’t particularly want to go up against Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner if you’re interested in winning, but there’s also a sense of occasion to it. When you see the same team over and over, however, niceties go out the window. It doesn’t matter that you are presented with an up-close-and-personal view of one of the best pitchers in the game. You got that in April and again in June. You don’t need it in September.

The only thing better than besting the best players your rival has to offer is not having to best them at all. Tell us we don’t have to see them. We wish no ill, just preoccupation.

You know these rivals too well. You develop an allergy to their skills. Freddie Freeman should take a longer paternity leave. Ryan Howard should contemplate early retirement. Might Bryce Harper be so kind as to continue slumping for an additional three games? From the Marlins in this decade, among the relatively ordinary players who acquire the powers of superpests simply by donning their uniforms in order to wreak havoc against us, we can identify two characters who we were sure existed to instigate Met gloom. One, the slugger Giancarlo Stanton; the other, the ace Jose Fernandez.

In the first five Met-Marlin series of 2016, we saw Fernandez four times. It was plenty, we thought. Then we heard the Marlin rotation has been shuffled just enough to generously offer us a fifth encounter, scheduled for tonight in Miami. Something about getting him an extra day of rest because of the 111 pitches he threw versus Washington last Tuesday. Yeah, sure. Fernandez was slotted to pitch against Atlanta Sunday, but Atlanta’s in last place and the Mets are in a Wild Card race. Miami’s playoff aspirations are all but mathematically done, but apparently their desire to mess with ours wasn’t. It’s what rivals do to each other if they get the chance.

The fretting began well before we were finished our weekend engagement with Philadelphia. Gotta win on Sunday, we said to ourselves Saturday, because come Monday, we are being presented with an obstacle. Haven’t we had enough obstacles already? We’re trying to win a Wild Card while pitching one emergency starter after another. Now we have to attempt to hit against an ace who is as elite as they come.

Eight times — four in 2013, four in 2016 (much of 2014 and 2015 were given over to Tommy John surgery and rehab) — the Mets faced Jose Fernandez. They won two of his starts once they nicked the Marlin bullpen, but they never actually defeated him. The Mets barely touched him: 47 innings, 7 runs. In the middle of a season, during the immense portion when you rationalize that you’re going to lose ‘x’ number of games anyway, all you can do if you want to maintain 162 games’ worth of sanity is graciously if grudgingly tip your cap to an ace of his stature and results of his doing.

That’s for June and April. This is September. A season is winding down with a chance that it won’t end so soon. All we really care about is that chance. We’re simultaneously trying to will our team to victory and wish competitive ill on their fellow contenders in distant cities. We need the Mets to win, the Giants to lose, the Cardinals to lose. The last thing we think we want to hear is that the blankety-blank Marlins have taken steps to throw at the Mets the pitcher who rarely loses to anyone and never loses to the Mets.

That’s what you think is the last thing you want to hear.

The rearrangement of Miami’s rotation to place Jose Fernandez on the mound Monday night seemed like one of those cruel tricks the universe plays against our team. That’s how we see the universe, especially in a pennant race. Then we found out why the Mets won’t face Jose Fernandez, and we were reminded what cruel really is. Fernandez, we learned Sunday morning, had been killed in a boating accident. A 24-year-old person, along with two other people we’d never heard of because they weren’t famous, was gone.

We knew who he was because he was a baseball player who played against our favorite team on a regular basis, and because he played baseball better than almost everybody else in his profession, and perhaps because he played it exuding more joy than anybody else we saw. He was on our minds because he was going to play against the Mets two games from where we sat. Get by the Phillies, then deal with Fernandez. You could chalk it up as a loss in advance if you were so inclined (even in late September, you have to remind yourself that winning them all is almost never an option), or you could gird for the challenge and tell yourself, well, if the Mets want to play for a championship, they ought to prove they can win against one of the best there is.

They might have been up for the challenge. Or Jose Fernandez might have been too much for them and they would had to have regrouped the next night. In baseball, there’s always supposed to be a tomorrow.

Those truisms we reflexively apply to our sport don’t necessarily translate to the world around them. Everything we thought we needed to know about Jose Fernandez dissipated Sunday morning. Instead of thinking about him in the context of a rival, we paused to contemplate him as a human being — an incredibly formidable one at that. Not many of us ever encountered the obstacles he braced for repeatedly and overcame definitively. Not many of us spread as much happiness by dint of personality as he did. Not many of us touched in such a positive and lasting manner virtually everybody he came across in a life that loomed as boundless. His talent is what we knew because his talent is what we saw. That would be formidable enough for most people.

The Mets won’t face Jose Fernandez tonight in Miami. That’s supposed to read as good news. Instead, it’s the worst news possible. In baseball, we have divisions. In humanity, sometimes we step back and unite.

16 comments to Unrivaled

  • BlackCountryMet

    So eloquently put. Although I knew we had to win yesterday and was of course pleased we did, after learning of the news earlier, I struggled to get enthused as we progressed to victory. Sometimes, there are other things more important

  • SP

    The first thing my father said upon hearing the news was, “If he hadn’t been pushed back a day to face the Mets, I wonder if he would have been out on a boat.” It’s the thing that makes baseball so special — every decision having consequences only later recognized in a game, a series — truly brought to life.

  • Bob Kurpiel

    Agreed, well put, Greg. It’s good to realize that athletes and fans are all part of the same team, the Human Being one.

  • Eric

    One of the finer touches I read yesterday about Fernandez was that he was openly exuberant at home for Marlins fans but was more low key on the road out of respect for other teams in their ballparks and their fans.

    In fact, the Marlins’ play-off aspirations are not done.

    They’re hanging on a frayed thread, but their last chance at edging into the play-offs was – and is – sweeping the Mets and beating the Nationals while hoping for a lot of help from the Phillies, Cubs, Reds, Pirates, Rockies, and Dodgers.

    Which is to say, the Marlins would have been justified moving Fernandez’s start even if only to spoil the Mets’ WC chase just for the sake of competitive one-upmanship versus an NLE rival. But given that the Marlins are not yet eliminated from the WC game, not pitching Fernandez against the Mets would have been unethical, competitively speaking.

    Fernandez at home was as sure a thing in baseball as there is, but given the oddity of these Mets in this WC run, it’s not a given they would have lost to him nor that they’ll beat Conley or whoever is taking his start tonight.

    I agree with Collins that Colon is the right man to pitch the game for the Mets’ sake and also for the Marlins and their fans to pay tribute to Fernandez on his mound. Colon is a universally respected, even beloved elder statesman of the game with a distinctive, even spiritual sense of the game like Fernandez had.

    • I changed the wording re the Marlins’ playoff chances in deference to what you bring up. I do believe they’re done, but I’m not going to be responsible for providing them bulletin board fodder.

      • Eric

        I thought of it because of a snippet of the Yankees radio broadcast I heard yesterday.

        The Yankees are in the same boat as the Marlins in the AL WC race. Waldman was quoting Girardi or Gardner about the Yankees’ approach on the verge of elimination, that they’ll manage/play each game in pennant chase mode until they’re “6 games out with 5 games left to play”.

        • Curt

          If the Marlins managed to win out and go 84-78, that means San Francisco would need to finish 2-4, St Louis 3-4 and we’d need to lose 2 of 3 to Philly to have a 4-way tie. Unlikely but the way the Cards and Giants have played lately, and remembering us in ’07 and ’08, not out of the realm of possibility.

          When I read the news my first thought was that if we weren’t in a race for the playoffs the best thing to do tonight would be for Colon to take the mound in the top of the 1st, throw one pitch, declare the game a 0-0 draw and spend the rest of the evening in remembrance/tribute. There will be no joy in winning if we do and a loss will feel meaningless, at least right then.

          • Eric

            I agree with Collins that the best tribute to Fernandez is play the game with passion like his. Honor his mound by playing the game to win and playing it with excellence as he did. Play it like the game is life.

  • eric1973

    The schedule is set up on a tee for us. Going 4-2 against two tomato cans means the other two teams would need to go 6-1 and 5-1 to both tie us. 

    It’s just what we thought.

    I know they each have something to play for, but so do we, so no excuses, folks. 

    Given the events of the weekend, wish we could have faced him tonite. R.I.P.

  • mikeL

    very eloquent greg.
    agreed eric that bartolo is the right man to take the mound tonite.
    i hope the marlins rally around their fallen comrade, and i hope the mets play equally hard to keep their (post)season alive.
    good baseball can help us through painful times, as many of us can attest.
    may tonite’s game be a beauty!
    RIP jose fernandez.

  • Dave

    Well done, Greg, as expected. This was one of those events that falls beyond the sphere of “what is there to say about yesterday’s Mets game?” on which I was particularly eager to read your musings.

    I guess the thing that hit me the most is that Fernandez was only 2 years older than my daughter. Life is devoid of guarantees, sometimes painfully so. I shudder at the thought of what his family must be going through. And I agree with SP’s dad…chances are that if he was pitching the next day as originally scheduled, he’s home in bed at that hour. Too sad.

  • greensleeves

    Thanks for this heartfelt piece offering real perspective

  • Daniel Hall

    I’ve been quite badly distraught since yesterday. He was on that team, sure, and he was positively filthy on the mound, and apparently a blast to be around off the mound. He was a Marlin, but I kinda always liked him quite a bit.

    Saw some of the video footage on today. The contrast between his last start where he pitched a 1-0 shutout through eight and Our Dearest Murph made the final out anybody will ever make against Jose and where Barry Bonds hugged him in the dugout, and the press conference with Bonds and Mattingly and others sitting there and weeping is – …

    Ah. Everything sucks.

  • Art

    My two cousins escorted 2 children to the game Saturday night and sat in the first row behind the Marlins dugout. They told me that several times during the game Jose Fernandez popped his head out of the dugout and waved at the young boy they had taken to the game.
    Class act who will be greatly missed.

  • […] I knew Monday night’s game against the Marlins would be emotionally wrenching. I think we all did. […]