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Baseball Like It Taut’a Be

Some games words filter into your brain. The word of the night Friday was “taut,” as in nice and tight, the way you’d figure someone who intermittently devotes himself to baseball as something of an academic discipline would like it. Give a student of the game a 2-1 affair won by his favorite team and played in 2:38 [1], the student will grade it generously.

This one certainly did. I attended Friday’s game in tow with the Society of American Baseball Research [2]. SABR’s annual convention is in New York this summer. It’s like fleet week, except instead of naval uniforms everywhere you go, you’re surrounded by men in vaguely ironic Ebbets Field Flannels purchases, at least in the vicinity of the Grand Hyatt. Most of the SABR buzz is over on the East Side, but every year they take in a ballgame in their host city, and this year the venue was Citi Field. It was my first national SABR event, a worthwhile expansion of my usual membership activity, which is generally confined to accessing the Sporting News archives as needed and skimming the weekly e-mail newsletter.

Lest you infer SABR has rigorous admission standards, it works like this: you sign up [3], you pay a reasonable amount in annual dues and you’re in. I recommend joining if you are intrigued by any of the facets that constitute baseball — and I’m gonna guess you are, given your choice of reading material at this very moment.

The first part of SABR Day at Citi Field commenced at 3 o’clock. This was the ballpark session, the only one I committed to. It entailed showing up at Citi at an hour when somebody stationed by a glass door usually tells you to get lost until later. My expectations were tempered by experience; first national SABR event, perhaps, but 238th regular-season game at Citi Field. Surprisingly, somebody in Flushing actually told somebody else to let us in. We flashed our lanyards at the Stengel entrance, subjected ourselves to the standard security search (lest someone be smuggling inside his backpack a lethal tract on 19th-century bunting) and were directed ever upward to Excelsior. We seated ourselves in the outer left field sections. Scanning of tickets and distribution of Free Shirt Friday apparel would wait.

The Mets furnished a splendid lineup of speakers, though the first one didn’t show. Terry Collins was going to talk to us, but we were told he couldn’t make it. I fantasized he was too busy unconditionally releasing Neil Ramirez [4], but maybe he was just too tired from the previous night’s late flight from Miami. Pinch-hitting for Terry (we SABR types love to use baseball terms) was Tom Goodwin [5], who you’ll recognize from those commercials with Curtis Granderson [6] and myriad pats on the butt administered to runners at first.

Goodwin was solid. Coaches are good listens since it’s relatively unusual to hear from them. They’ll talk baseball nuts and bolts with passion. Tim Teufel [7] did that at QBC this winter. Goodwin did it at SABR, except without the winks about what it was really like on the ’86 Mets. “Goody,” as he seems to be known internally, also reminded us David Wright [8] a) still exists; b) is working hard; c) is missed. When Tom was moved to recall how well the lineup clicked down the stretch in 2015 with David batting second between Curtis and Yoenis Cespedes [9], I was shocked to realize that all that was less than two years ago.

In general — perhaps for positive reinforcement, perhaps for context, given how many of the attendees were from out of town and not walking around day and night conscious of every move the Mets make, every breath the Mets take — “2015” was mentioned an awful lot. I remember “1969” being mentioned an awful lot deep into the 1970s, as if to say “you know, we won something once, we might win something again.” Two years ago may or may not be a long time. I’ll have to do some baseball research on that.

The next talk was conducted by three Mets broadcasters: Wayne Randazzo (with a mic so faulty that the jets overhead couldn’t hear themselves roar), Steve Gelbs and Josh Lewin. Each of them was terrific. Josh introduced himself and added for those who didn’t already know, “Howie Rose is my spirit animal.” This is why we love Josh Lewin. I like Gelbs and Randazzo quite a bit, too, two young-ish men who have really grown over the last few seasons. (You can tell I’m edging into the prime SABR demographic when I use that kind of senior-discount language.) They all attested to the intense nature of the New York market, where people like us will point out instantly that uh, maybe what you said on the air wasn’t what you meant to say, here’s what you should’ve said. Wayne is from and has worked in Chicago and said there’s no comparison. Steve noted that on the Mets’ recent trip to Phoenix, there were two people at Chip Hale [10]’s press briefing, “and one of them was Chip Hale.” They all embrace our market, though, and I embrace that they’re here.

At four, the announcers hustled downstairs to Collins’s presser — where there were more than two people and Neil Ramirez’s unconditional release was not announced — and Sandy Alderson took center stage. Seven seasons in, Sandy has reached that Terry stage of I can’t imagine anybody else in his role [11]. A little success (did you know the Mets played in the 2015 World Series?) goes a long way, even in hard, unforgiving New York. Alderson always conducts good Q&A. He doesn’t necessarily tell you all you want to know, but he never doesn’t answer a question. Baseball people love the act of talking baseball, Sandy as much as anybody. It’s not state secrets or classified corporate intelligence. It’s putting the best nine guys on the field. Why not talk it up?

Tim Tebow came up. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask, but somebody did. I think Tim Tebow was signed by the Mets so there’s always be something to talk about (perhaps that’s why there are injuries, too). Sandy’s explanation of Tebow was the human embodiment of a shrug emoji. He’s famous, baseball’s entertainment…shrug. There was a delightful nugget thrown in about how if you turn to Tebow’s entry in the 2017 media guide, you’ll see the signing scout listed is James Benesh. James Benesh handles merchandising.

This is hilarious if you’re at a SABR meeting. Sandy knows his audience. He also mentioned calling the Braves and inquiring about Bartolo Colon [12]. Well, their excess Bartolo Colon bobbleheads. (Also hilarious.) Sandy didn’t counter Goody’s portrait of David Wright as salt of the earth, but didn’t sound the least bit optimistic that he’d be playing baseball for the Mets this year. He couldn’t say whether Colon would be and didn’t go any further on projecting Tebow’s short-term future besides suggesting tickets for St. Lucie Mets games are now on sale.

Hard to follow Sandy Alderson into the spotlight, but there was one more group up for the challenge, consisting of assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler and analytics aces T.J. Barra and Joe Lefkowitz. Did you know the Mets send somebody from their analytics staff on every road trip so as to apply data to action? Or that players will nowadays ask to see data to support their coaches’ assertions on how they should approach an outside pitch? I didn’t until these fellas shared those tidbits.

We got two fine hours of SABR-catering, then our tickets scanned in a sane matter (they did it on Excelsior), then not one but two Free Shirt Friday shirts (Cespedes plus some Reyes overstock that perhaps the Braves would be interested in; Roessler was wearing one), then two hours to mingle. I got to meet if not my spirit animal then my fellow USF Bull Dirk Lammers, keeper of nonohitters.com [13] and author of a book exploring all of Baseball’s No-Hit Wonders [14]. Dirk and I were editors on our college paper in adjacent decades and are lifelong Mets fans. It was like we’ve known each forever. SABR will bring types like us together.

Then, if you registered for their convention in an ad hoc manner as I did, SABR will keep you apart during the taut game to follow. While Dirk, his lovely wife and others I either already knew well or was just getting to know were sitting over in Section 140, I was ensconced in Section 142. It was random, but it was all right. Those sections are the Big Apple seats or the Apple Orchard or perhaps sponsored by a hard cider purveyor. I’ve only recently gotten out of the habit of calling Excelsior the Caesars Club. You usually notice this center field seating area when The 7 Line Army takes over. They wave thunder sticks and make noise that would drown out Wayne Randazzo’s faulty mic. We paged through our 19th-century bunting tracts. Nah, that’s not true, but a national SABR gathering will be non-denominational, or at least catholic with a small ‘c’ in its alignment. Some Mets fans, but also some Phillies fans, a Dodger fan who once read Cespedes bounces around so much “because he’s a clubhouse lawyer,” and folks from all over with allegiances to match. Dirk’s from New Jersey but lives in South Dakota now.

I spent most of the nine innings with Howie and Josh in my ears. They convinced me (along with my eyes from 420 or so feet away) that Jacob deGrom [15] was perhaps crafting something special. They made me believe a new chapter to Dirk’s book was possible Friday night. Curtis Granderson, whom Goodwin really likes and not just in commercials, put an end to that. As horrifying as it was, it was fascinating to watch from just beyond the center field fence the center fielder not catch a catchable ball. I’ve trained myself to watch the fielder, not the ball, but that’s usually from seats in foul territory. Here I was behind Curtis, so when I saw Andrew Knapp [16]’s fifth-inning fly ball soar, I watched Curtis. OK, Curtis has got it…wait, why isn’t Curtis catching it? It was because Curtis didn’t got, er, get it. He misjudged it in a sky where, to be honest, I lost track of it immediately.

Knapp’s harmless fly fell in for a spiteful triple, which became the first hit deGrom gave up. It became a run when Jacob gave up a second hit, to former local sensation Ty Kelly [17]. The only positive, besides not driving myself crazy with superstition for the next four innings (I wouldn’t have eventually grabbed a seat near Dirk & Co. if a zero was still in play under the hit column), was noticing Cespedes come over and give Curtis a consoling Goodwin-type pat on the butt. Not a clubhouse lawyer move, but the mark of a good teammate, I assume.

Otherwise, ouch. But not too bad an ouch, because the Mets took early advantage of Ben Lively [18]’s early lack of tautness to post two runs. Should’ve been more, but they turned out to be enough. In center, I could hear Jose’s fourth-inning triple, both the ball and Odubel Herrera [19] slam off the fence. (I could also hear every reliever thump the ball into his catcher’s mitt. Even Neil Ramirez sounded devastating.) I thought the Mets would take Lively apart, but he lived until the seventh. DeGrom, meanwhile, was barely bothered by the Phillies after the Grandy snafu, striking out twelve and allowing only one other hit. He and Lively dueled as pitchers used to, though not for as long as pitchers used to. Surely there’s some SABR research on that.

Relievers not named Ramirez took over and kept the game nice and tight until it ended 2-1 in 2:38, a metric I harp on because I figured it would allow me to make the 10:19 at Woodside. And it did, even though I walked much more slowly than usual to the 7 Super Express in deference to my new out-of-town pals who hadn’t been informed of how we step lively after we’ve stepped all over Lively, especially when catching a train is at stake.

They’ll learn. SABR teaches you plenty.