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The (Last) Rites of Winter

Winter does what it can to get us through itself. Every year it pounds signposts into the frozen tundra so we understand what feels like it will last forever doesn’t. We don’t anticipate the baseball rituals that get us through winter because we’re too busy anticipating the baseball spring that lies beyond them — and resenting that we have to wait at all.

The signposts of baseball winter are best observed in the rearview. But they were there all along.

There was the Arizona Fall League.

There were the Caribbean Winter Leagues.

There were the Winter Meetings.

There were the GM meetings.

There was SABR Day if you were so inclined.

There were fanfests put on by teams who believe reaching out to their fans and giving them a fun day is all to the good — and there was good ol’ QBC, put on by Mets fans for Mets fans because the Mets aren’t one of those teams.

There were all those awards the BBWAA announces and that banquet [1] the BBWAA holds to hand out those awards and other accolades besides. They gave a prize to the 1969 Mets, several of whom showed up to remind us that fifty years on, the 1969 Mets are all-time winners.

There were grips and grins as applicable, with jerseys counterintuitively modeled over dress shirts and ties, as if baseballwear isn’t formal enough.

There was the tiresome Hall of Fame speculation and the tedious Hall of Fame debate and the actual Hall of Fame election and the heartening Hall of Fame press conference where you wind up feeling good for whoever made it regardless that you didn’t root for them and probably wouldn’t have voted for them.

There was the MLB Network concocting lists for you to yell at when they don’t rate Jacob deGrom the best pitcher in baseball.

There were coat drives and blood drives and canned food drives, with ticket vouchers and holiday spirit serving as lure.

There was a Met dressing as Santa Claus for the benefit of local schoolkids and the inevitable finger-crossing that the nebulous Curse of Santa Claus doesn’t strike the player in question. (Brandon Nimmo’s still with us, I’m pretty sure.)

There were glances at what the new baseball cards will look like, including the new old Heritage set, which this year will reincarnate the 1970 style from my first full season collecting, which, like the 1969 World Series, is rumored to have taken place almost fifty years ago.

There were sporadic bulletins regarding where old Mets are heading next, one more unlikely than the one before it. Neil Walker and Curtis Granderson in Miami. Jordany Valdespin in Minneapolis. Jennry Mejia in Boston. James Loney in Sugar Land, Tex. [2], where our contingency Wild Card first baseman of yore will attempt to do a little of everything for the Atlantic League Skeeters: hit, field, coach and pitch.

There were the pitches from Mets season ticket reps, which I used to field politely, or at least curiously, but now I just duck.

There was remembering not to forget what’s about to change. Most pressingly this year, our new flagship radio station is WCBS, 880 on your AM dial; delete 710 for your presets at will. Wayne Randazzo is full-time with Howie Rose. Ed Coleman is the pregame host again. Brad Heller is the voice on the periphery. (It is with no slight intended toward the new team to note Josh Lewin and Pete McCarthy will be missed.)

There was the ubiquitous use of the phrase “hot stove” and the reflexive rejoinder when nothing much was going on that “the hot stove has grown cold.” WCBS will host a “Mets Hot Stove” show Thursday, February 21 at 7 PM. SNY continues to air a similarly named program every Thursday night at 10:30.

Swings in New York temperature notwithstanding, we are at about the spot where we can store said stove away until next winter. Oh, the weather outside is still capable of turning frightful, but winter for the baseball fan is all but over. The countdown to Pitchers & Catchers is so ritualized that we’ve not bothered to notice Spring Training has become a soft-launch proposition. Players of all positions trickle in ASAP. They wear t-shirts and shorts instead of the otherwise required uniform, and the workouts appear less regimented, but they arrive under the radar and ahead of the report date. There’s been a “pre-camp [3]” in quiet progress this week. I’ve not heard that expression before. Perhaps it’s no different from a mini-camp. Perhaps a collective of baseball players preparing to play baseball needs a name, lest anarchy reign. Syndergaard, Matz, deGrom are stretching out those golden arms under the St. Lucie sun already. Todd Frazier’s on hand, talking up everything [4] everything between taking grounders everywhere.

So Spring (as opposed to spring) is basically here. It comes earlier every year even if it is universally agreed it can’t come soon enough. The powers that be have cleverly manipulated the winter to ensure that, as Arthur Jensen suggested in Network, all boredom is amused.

• When the Jets won Super Bowl III, on January 12, 1969, the Opening Day that presaged another Flushing-based miracle was 86 days hence.

• XVIII years later, when the Giants won Super Bowl XXI, on January 25, 1987, the beginning of the title defense of the fairly miraculous World Series championship from the October before awaited 72 days in the future.

• There was no New York angle to Super Bowl LIII, but once the Pats and Rams were done Sunday doing as little as offensively possible with their prolate spheroid, we didn’t have to count nearly so high to measure the return to the horsehide portion of our lives. Opening Day, once the clock struck 0:00 on February 3, 2019, was only 53 days away. Official Spring Training sat no more than a Thor toss away.

Winter still drags on forever, but the NFL has successfully elongated January and MLB has cleverly compressed March to make February more tolerable than was ever dreamed. We distract ourselves with some football — better prolate than never — then tackle the specter of another Mets season the second it materializes on the horizon. The Super Bowl was the penultimate signpost. Truck Day [5], a rather recent contrivance in terms of sponsorship and being A Thing, was the last.

The first? That was the day after the Red Sox won the World Series. On October 29, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado filed for free agency. The Red Sox got a parade. Harper N. Machado — I’m beginning to think they’re one person — haven’t gotten substantively closer to not being free agents. They’ve just passed the hundred-day mark of not being affiliated with a particular team, as if that’s a milestone steeped in the grand tradition of Truck Day. The year is now divided into baseball season and wondering where Funny Girl [6] descendant Manny Bryce will play in the next baseball season.

Baseball’s reluctance to shower him…er, them with hundreds of millions has rained on their parade. Those fellas are not my concern. They could have been had somebody around here wanted to engage them in a little hot stove talk. Somebody didn’t. Brodie Van Wagenen didn’t exactly approach the winter as if Second Hand Rose — Cano! Diaz! Ramos! Lowrie! Familia 2.0! Justin Wilson, even [7]! — but BVW and Jeff Wilpon have apparently decided to direct their resources elsewhere. I say “apparently,” because players aren’t unavailable until they’re unavailable. Nevertheless, the trucks that rolled south Monday don’t seem likely to be sent back to fetch either Manny’s or Bryce’s gear.

Maybe just as well when you try to envision Year Eight of any megadeal (or Year Three of Cespedes’s). Maybe not when you consider those perk-imbued fans chosen to say “Play Ball!” on CitiVision and how a plurality of them seem to have been “season ticketholders since” either directly after a World Series run or one of those winters when the Mets made an outsize move to catapult them toward a World Series run. More than three decades since they traded for him and lucratively extended his contract, I still hear “season ticketholder since 1985” and conclude shelling out for Gary Carter continues to pay dividends. “Hi, I’m calling from the New York Mets and we just brought a likely future Hall of Famer on board” is a call a Mets fan is less likely to duck.

I don’t know if Harper N. Machado will go to Cooperstown, let alone hustle there. I don’t know if either of him/them would earn the 2019 Mets a fiftieth-anniversary invitation to the 2069 BBWAA dinner. I don’t know if Justin Wilson will strike out the lefty he’s specifically inserted to retire or, for that matter, if he’d be compelled by law [8] to face more than one batter. But I do know making it through another baseball winter was an accomplishment for all of us.

Let’s not do it again real soon.