- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Inside the Park Home Run

Outside it’s cold, misty, and it’s raining. We’ve got a FanFest; who right here’s complaining? Not anybody who thinks it’s sexy that the Mets opened Citi Field on the last Saturday in January for as much baseball as they could possibly produce without benefit of a baseball game.

It was the first hopefully annual FanFest in Mets history. Mets history goes back a ways, yet they never before did this. They ran modest caravans and arranged diffuse appearances, half-heartedly and intermittently currying winter goodwill if it wasn’t too much trouble. A full-fledged FanFest, however, was some other sucker’s parade. Cubs Convention. Cardinals Winter Warm-Up. Red Sox Weekend. And whoever heard of those teams? The Mets were content to maintain a low hot stove profile. It’s not like folks wouldn’t turn out on Opening Day.

For much of the 2010s, if you wanted a Mets FanFest, you did it yourself. Queens Baseball Convention, or QBC, was as DIY as it got. We, the fans, did that, though I use “we” broadly. In recent years, these original LGM Meetings were largely the work of two dedicated Mets fans, Keith Blacknick and Dan Twohig, with dozens of volunteers and contributors (I was among the latter) pitching in to put on a show, and hundreds of Mets fans investing in tickets just so we could all be in one place for a few hours between seasons. It was a great time wherever it was held, which was usually in a spot where the seams all but burst out into the frigid streets. QBC was an Off Broadway production, but it had heart.

Thing is, QBC, its miles and miles of heart notwithstanding, shouldn’t have existed. Fans shouldn’t have to put on their own FanFest. Fans want to rally around the flag, even when the flag never got higher than fourth place the previous year and wasn’t projected to fly much higher the next year. We want to revel in our thing. The Mets have been our thing collectively since 1962. We don’t go on hiatus after Game 162. We embrace the Mets 365 days most years, 366 days this year. But ya got meet us halfway one day. We’ll come to you, but ya gotta open the door and let us in. Do that, and the reveling and embracing will flow.

And so it did on Saturday. The first hopefully annual Mets FanFest clicked. At least I think it did. I was there, but I was officially in media mode, kindly credentialed by the club’s communications department, which meant tamping down my natural inclination toward the first-person plural and foregoing the myriad selfie lines that gripped and grinned with most every Met in creation.

That was fine. I didn’t have to queue up and pose with Michael Wacha. It did my heart good that so many others were able to.

The vibe, at least as observed from the distance of a dangling press credential, was warm, sunny and excited inside Citi Field. Some of it, I believe, was the simple thrill that this was actually happening, like when we got our no-hitter. We’d spent our lives imagining what it would be like and couldn’t imagine it as having happened.

FanFest? It has happened.

***

My first stop, at 10 AM, was a room I’d never seen on the third base side of the suite level. I haven’t seen all that much of the suite level, so no surprise that it contains nooks and crannies that have gone underexplored since 2009. They sent the media up there. All the familiar nooks and crannies were otherwise occupied for FanFest.

Our first player availability was with Jacob deGrom [1]. They got him started a few ticks early, meaning by the time I took my place on the fringes of the scrum of microphones and cameras, my main takeaway from whatever he said was that in January in New York, Jake wears a knit hat. Good thinking. We don’t need Jake catching a chill.

Jake was ushered away and Pete Alonso [2] was ushered in. Up close, I can report with confidence that he’s Pete Alonso. I mean totally Pete Alonso. He seemed thrilled to be Pete Alonso in something close to his natural habitat. The questions he fielded had mostly to do with Luis Rojas and Carlos Beltran. Luis as manager [3] was thrilling to him, albeit in a mellow vein. “Dude never loses his cool,” Pete said. “I’m so pumped. I’m so pumped for him.” Good, I thought, let Pete handle the pumping. Let the skipper be the mellow one if that works. I heard variations throughout the day on how super it was that Rojas is low-key. It’s a good reminder that these guys, the Mets, have a long grind ahead of them and don’t believe they need a lot of unnecessary chatter harshing their buzz. They’ve got the clusters of microphones and cameras for that.

[4]

Pete is pumped.

Carlos Beltran [5] was a ghost at these proceedings (as opposed to Mickey Callaway, who seemed to have simply vanished from contemporary dialogue). “The stuff that happened [6] with Carlos was unfortunate,” Pete said somewhat somberly, but mostly he wanted us to know Luis is gonna be awesome and that “I’m so damn excited” to get going, improve and win.

All active ballplayers, I’m convinced, are variations on Don Draper. Their business may exploit our predilection for nostalgia, but all they want to do is look ahead and move forward. Shame about Beltran, but he’s not here. Rojas is. Spring Training almost is. We should all be pumped.

(There I go, slipping into first-person plural.)

Our next Met was Amed Rosario [7], accompanied by Alan Suriel, familiar to anybody who stays tuned for the postgame shows on SNY. Suriel translates questions and answers between the English-language reporters and the Spanish-language players. I’m continually amazed at how well this works, at least for topline communication regarding what went right or wrong out there tonight. All I really gleaned from Rosario’s session was that Amed, too, thought what happened with Beltran was “an unfortunate situation,” and that Spanish as a language is as fast as Amed as a baserunner.

***

There was a bit of a gap between Rosario and the next scheduled availability, so I visited the Foxwoods Club, home of the main stage for the duration. The season-ticket holder session was in progress, featuring Brodie Van Wagenen and Luis Rojas, as moderated by the eternally classy Gary Cohen. Luis indeed seemed relaxed. The day before, after his introduction, Steve Gelbs did a standup with the new manager, and something about the interplay — just the “Hi, Steve” of it — put me in mind of Jerry Ford shortly after assuming the presidency from Richard Nixon, specifically the photographs of Ford toasting his own English muffin. Our long national nightmare was over. We had a regular guy in office.

Brodie said something about Jeurys Familia having lost 30 pounds, presumably most of it ERA.

The manager and the general manager gave way to the award-winning duo of deGrom and Alonso. The season ticket-holders applauded Pete and Jake, Pete more than Jake at first, if only for the novelty, I hunched. We’ve had Jake for six years. In this atmosphere, deGrom was briefly Rod Tidwell at the NFL draft, “five years late for the prom.” The moment belongs to Pete Alonso.

But the age belongs to Jacob deGrom, and Mets fans appreciate him just as much after his second Cy Young. Jake got his applause, too. It might have been for clearing his throat. Everything is an applause line when you’ve got the best pitcher and the best slugger in your midst. Pete, clearly paying attention this past year, announced, “There’s no casual Mets fan.”

More applause.

***

Steven Matz [8] was our next media availability. We learned that he knows Rojas well; that he considers Luis “even-keeled”; that after one interaction, “I’ve already learned a lot” from pitching coach Jeremy Hefner; that “I’ve never put much thought into” whether opposing dugouts are stealing his signs. It was all spoken like a true Mets veteran. Calmly holding a cup of coffee while everybody wanted to know about the chaos that had been floating around the Mets, Steven could have been Dave Foley on Newsradio.

***

At 11:42 AM, we gentlemen and ladies of the press were shepherded into yet another room I’d never seen, somewhere down the first base line on the Plaza level. It’s painted mostly blue with streaks of orange. There’s an outline of New York State on one wall with “Mets” scrawled from Albany to Buffalo, à la the Erie Canal song we learned in fifth grade. Something silly is about to happen, a photo op involving a mostly packed truck full of baseball gear. It’s the truck that will soon be rolling south to St. Lucie. They’ve saved a few bags of equipment so they can be loaded on by two mascots, three players and one alumnus.

I told you it was silly. But if I weren’t there in a semi-professional capacity, I’d be consuming it on my phone or tablet later, probably thinking it was incredibly cool. As we waited on our celebrity baggage-handlers, I listened in on a debate as to whether Luis Rojas is the 22nd or 23rd manager the Mets have ever had. It’s not the first of these I’d overheard. The Mets specified Beltran as the 22nd in November and have stuck to that script, calling Rojas the 23rd. Yet as someone said earlier in the Foxwoods Club, Wally Backman was named Diamondbacks manager one offseason, but never actually managed a game and isn’t listed among Arizona’s skippers.

Beltran, I decided, is our John Hanson. John Hanson’s title was “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” in 1781 and 1782, the Articles of Confederation days. I used to work with a guy who loved to invoke John Hanson, not to any grand philosophical end on how government should be organized, just to let it be known he knew we had a president who wasn’t really a president, but he was kind of the president before we had a president.

Sort of like Beltran.

Down in Washington, DC, this Saturday morning, impeachment proceedings were continuing. Now and then I’d scroll Twitter for an update. These are serious times for our democratic republic, and I’m standing here waiting on two figures with enormous baseballs for heads to finish packing a truck. What a country.

Ah, finally, here come Mr. Met and Mrs. Met. And here come the contingent of Mets with more naturally proportioned noggins: Robinson Cano [9], Jeff McNeil [10], Edwin Diaz [11] and, from the past, Turk Wendell [12]. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Diaz and Wendell seem to have an organic simpatico, reliever to reliever. For the occasion, though, everybody’s an assembly line worker, passing those bags up a ramp and onto a truck. I told you it was silly, but the cameras go crazy. These images will whet whistles all over the Metropolitan Area and perhaps throughout the state illustrated on the wall. A small crowd connected with the truck’s sponsor gathers and cheers.

I write down the license plate number of the truck in case the gloves and bats therein meet with foul play.

Once the hubbub simmers down, we get our next wave of availabilities, though it’s still kind of loud, so mostly what I divine from listening to Diaz/Suriel is he’s working on his mechanics. Edwin will be fixed. Jeurys will lose weight. The sun will come out by March 26. I’m sold.

Also, McNeil’s wrist is fine; Cano played for Luis’s father Felipe Alou on the Dominican WBC team; and “the fans mean everything to us,” according to Robbie. I could swear he means it.

***

In the Rotunda a few minutes later, I am introduced to Art Shamsky [13]. This is the fourth time I’ve been introduced to Art Shamsky over the past eight years. I consider Art Shamsky my personal alumnus. We should all have one. Art doesn’t remember me from 2012, 2014 or 2017. To be fair, Art meets a lot of media and fans, and I’m one or the other as Saturday morning has morphed into Saturday afternoon.

First, I’m media and ask him about the last year, which he perhaps more than any Miracle Met devoted to proudly carrying the 1969 banner. There were a bunch of those champion Mets among us in 2019, but rare was the instant when Art wasn’t among them. Makes sense. He’s local, he’s written two books about it and, as Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger put it [14] on the occasion of their fortieth anniversary, Shamsky’s “the unofficial class secretary of the ’69 Mets”.

As such, Art dutifully reads me the minutes of the last meeting, with the caveat that he “can’t put into words” what it all meant, in light of everybody getting on in years and too many of his teammates missing. The reunion in June and all the attendant fuss “brought back a lot of memories” for “a great year”. There were young fans, their parents and their grandparents testifying to how much 1969 meant to them, and that imbued the seasonlong celebration with even greater currency.

I guess I knew that, so I asked him something specific. At the reunion in June, Art accompanied Buddy Harrelson when the carts brought the Miracle Mets onto the field. Given Buddy’s difficulties from Alzheimer’s, I told him I thought that was the most touching moment from an afternoon loaded with them. Shamsky said he didn’t know they’d be riding in together, but once they were on board, he mostly wanted to make sure his teammate didn’t fall.

I was back to being a fan.

“It was a special team,” Art said, and after fifty-plus years, I wasn’t about to question his assertion. I also wasn’t about to turn down his request that I tell our readers to go to artshamsky.com [15] to find out more about his most recent book, After the Miracle (the climax, wherein Shamsky, Harrelson, Ron Swoboda and Jerry Koosman visit Tom Seaver in California, is a love story unto itself), and maybe follow @ArtShamsky on Twitter.

One question to me from Art: Is this really the first FanFest the Mets have held? Yup, I confirmed. “That’s hard to believe,” he said. I agreed, and wished him and his 1969 teammates a happy fifty-first anniversary.

***

I had been told that if I hit the Delta Club at one o’clock, I could catch up with Turk Wendell, who escaped the microphones and cameras in the New York State room once he played his role in loading the truck. The Delta Club was where much of the action was, with games and pictures and general commotion of the delighted variety. Sure enough, I found No. 99 greeting fans and joining them for a few rounds of cornhole, a game tailored for a man expert at slamming rosin bags to the ground. My only agenda in meeting Turk was asking about Diaz. I didn’t know if they’d ever met before gathering up the bags for the truck but I wondered if they had some sort of innate reliever bond.

[16]

“Never mind, Sugar, we can watch video of your release point.”

Not so much, Turk said, but he watched Diaz struggle last season, “and I struggled with him.” Something about his release point was off, according to Turk. Or maybe it was what Edwin told Turk. It was pretty loud in the Delta Club, but he left me feeling modestly more optimistic about the closer for whom Jarred Kelenic was judged fair trade.

***

Back on the suite level, there is an auditorium. It’s a room I was aware of but had never seen until Saturday. All day it was open to anybody who wanted to rest a pair of aching dogs and watch old highlight films. As the clock was pushing toward two, that sounded ideal. I found an outlet, plugged my phone in, grabbed a seat and lost myself in the feature presentation, 1986: A Year to Remember. Lord knows I’d seen it before, but never on a big screen and never in the company of dozens of Mets fans.

We’d all seen it before, but it was still impressive (even with the color being off for more than half the video, or did I forget the Astros wearing blue striped shirts?). When Keith Hernandez fields that bunt in Cincinnati and throws to Gary Carter at third, I heard “wow” and “jeez,” because even if you know what’s coming, you’re still blown away by that team. As swell as the proximity to Mets of today and yesterday was on Saturday, looking up at the 1986 Mets as literal matinee idols felt fitting. This is how I knew this larger-than-life team. They were too big for a mere TV. The narration casually mentions the Mets’ lead building to 18 games in August, 19 games in September, and I’m thinking this must sound like a fairy tale for any Mets fan who wasn’t of age in ’86.

Given that our last world championship is one month from turning a third-of-a-century old, there wasn’t much suspense regarding the outcome, but still, I couldn’t believe some lady two rows behind me obliviously took a phone call during the World Series portion. Well, almost obliviously. “Ray Knight just won the Series,” she told her caller before hanging up.

***

My final mission for the day awaited me in Foxwoods, the 3 PM session billed as the 2000 Roundtable, about as much attention as the Mets have showered upon their fourth of five pennant-winners. As I waited for it to commence, I took in the last minutes of Pictionary with Seth Lugo and Paul Sewald. During the season, I watch them, critique them, rank them [17], yet there they are being accessible and fun and we’re all happy they’re here, never mind that Lugo is generally terrific and Sewald is less so. Today, everybody’s terrific.

And everybody’s accessible. In about a ten-minute span, Tim Teufel materialized over my left shoulder and posed for anybody who wanted evidence they’d been in his presence; Ed Kranepool sat for photos over my right shoulder; and the guy directly behind me in a McDOWELL 42 jersey was, in fact, Roger McDowell, and he would shake your hand as willingly as he’d give Bill Robinson a hotfoot.

The 2000 Mets appeared as scheduled: Turk, Todd Zeile and Al Leiter [18]. Especially Al Leiter. Al Leiter hasn’t been around all that often since leaving as a free agent after the 2004 season. He showed up for Shea Goodbye. He was on hand when Mike Piazza’s number was retired. Otherwise, he was engaged elsewhere. I had no idea how much I missed Al Leiter, who was the Mets pitcher most worth listening to between Tom Seaver and R.A. Dickey. At one point, Leiter mentioned Casey Stengel. Since I was still wearing my media credential, I resisted the impulse to applaud, but I’m pretty sure I pumped a fist or two (just as I had in the dark theater when we beat Boston).

[19]

Al in the middle of things in Flushing like it oughta be.

Al, Turk and Todd spoke to the closeness and chemistry of the 2000 Mets — that and the fans. They sounded like Alonso and Cano in the morning, Shamsky in the afternoon. “There’s a grit between us and the fans,” Al said. Zeile concurred: “Plenty of times I sucked and I heard about it,” but that, he said, only made him get better. Turk reiterated what he told me down by the cornhole, that being traded to New York was the best thing that ever happened to him. I didn’t applaud, but plenty did.

I realized here that the point of a FanFest is as much the Mets festing us as it is us festing the Mets. Luckily, we were all on the same page. I also realized, as the 2000 session broke up and I was passed in quick procession by J.D. Davis, Dom Smith and Kranepool — two walkoff heroes from 2019 and one all-time icon forever — that a Mets fan couldn’t get much more out of a January day. It was still cold, misty and raining when I left the ballpark, but on my way home, I saw a rainbow.

That truck must be in Florida by now.