Sure, if you slow down video of somebody sticking his protectively guarded elbow in the general direction of a baseball passing otherwise untouched through the strike zone, it’s gonna look bad.
So don’t do that.
Instead, live in the moment of Michael Conforto ’s right elbow instinctively jerking ever so slightly within the flight path of Anthony Bass’s 83-MPH slider as it zips barely interrupted into the mitt of Chad Wallach. That’s what home plate umpire Ron Kulpa did Thursday afternoon at Citi Field’s Mets Home Opener. Only to inured connoisseurs of radar gun readouts does 83 miles per hour register as “offspeed”. It’s plenty fast in the civilian sphere. Yet Kulpa is trained to distinguish pitches that would get pulled over by most state troopers as balls, strikes or hit batsmen. Sometimes his charge is to sort between a couple of those categories.
Kulpa knew the slider flecked equipment affixed to Conforto’s body ever so slightly. Kulpa also knew the slider was a strike from Bass to Wallach. Kulpa, in the moment, knew the Conforto part maybe a microinstant sooner, or it just took precedent as the data he mentally absorbed flowed through his head en route to his official pronouncement. That type of thing happens in the course of a baseball game in the course of a baseball season — as do bases-loaded, score-tied situations in bottoms of ninths. That this particular thing took place in the first game a team was playing in front of a representative sample of its acolytes in more than eighteen months likely made it seem substantially bigger than just one of those things.
The ump called the one-two pitch a hit-by-pitch even as responsible announcers in the vicinity described it as a called strike three. A called strike precludes a hit-by-pitch. There’s a rule that says so. The ump ultimately gets the call over those who make the call from the broadcast booth, just as his view in the moment takes precedence over the rest of us watching from home. Maybe the camera never blinks, but its jurisdiction, no matter how much replay has been regulated into the game, doesn’t reach the airspace directly atop home plate. A judgment call of this ilk — an HBP in the K zone — can’t be changed by video. Slow it down, play it back, be certain of what you saw and Kulpa didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Conforto was safe at any speed.
Michael, arms conveniently akimbo, took his good fortune and carried it to first while quietly processing his good fortune (“there may have been a little lift to my elbow just out of habit, out of reaction…” was his explanation afterwards). Three Met runners in front of him advanced ninety feet apiece, most notably Luis Guillorme , who traveled from third base to home with the winning run. The bases, remember, were loaded. The score, however, was no longer tied.
Mets win . Marlins lose. I don’t believe what Ron Kulpa just saw, I thought as I applauded through my disbelief. Gary Cohen couldn’t believe it on SNY. Howie Rose couldn’t believe it on WCBS. I can’t speak for the more than 8,000 Metsian pilgrims who’d returned to the Promised Land after being certified as thoroughly vaccinated or COVID-negative. They were spaced out through the stands and, I presume, blissed out as they departed them. They got not only a day at the ballpark but an ending to remember.
Keith Hernandez is fond of reminding us that every bloop and bleeder looks like a line drive in the next day’s paper. The addition to the win column next to “New York” wherever you check your standings has the same effect. Did the Mets come by their W heroically? Or did it drop in their lap because somebody in authority in the heat of the moment forgot to properly interpret a rule about a strike being a strike, even if a fraction of an elbow wanders in its way?
The correct answer is it’s a win, earned in good or at least adequate faith on the field of play, if aided slightly at the tail end by a hiccup of inaccuracy.
Fred Brocklander got suitably flustered when Keith Hernandez shouted “safe!” to seal a critical double play in the 1986 playoffs against Houston. Rick Reed (not the pitcher) didn’t see Paul Lo Duca briefly fumble a tag at home plate in the 2006 opener. Adrian Johnson saw a ball Carlos Beltran slashed to left plop foul one night in 2012. The camera saw it hit the line fair. Beltran was a Cardinal at the time. Johan Santana was a Met bidding for his franchise’s first no-hitter. I don’t remember a rush to give back any of these outs.
“This sort of thing happens” may be the last refuge of a questionable conclusion, but people with the fate of the Mets (and our Mets-related happiness) in their hands make mistakes. It’s the human element. Or the human elephant in the room. Mistakes by umpires occasionally conspire against our ballclub, too. We are free to rail against them as if we are Don Mattingly believing Anthony Bass has just recorded the second out of the ninth inning of a game that remains tied. We are also free to accept that within the rules of the day railing is futile.
Chase Utley still hasn’t touched second. Todd Zeile still hasn’t interfered with Chuck Knoblauch. Ray Fosse still hasn’t laid a mitt on Bud Harrelson. Chris Jones once very clearly pinch-hit a game-tying ninth-inning home run that was called foul. It left us as mad as Mattingly. Fuming we wuz robbed blind! by sight-impaired umpires is a sensation that never totally goes away, no matter that the scales more or less balance over the decades. I understand and respect the ire of the Marlin manager. Let it out, Don. You’re entitled.
But whoop it up, Mets fans. We’re entitled, too. We made it to the Home Opener, chronologically and, for those lucky fillers of the 20% of Citi Field seats made available to genuine fan fannies, literally. I imagine one of the safety precautions implemented was a no-bonfire rule, but in my mind I could see those goddamn corrugated figures that sat in people’s places last year going up in ebullient tailgate flames. The most sublime aspect of this Mets Home Opener wasn’t the final score of Mets 3 Marlins 2, though, yeah, that was great. The most sublime aspect is it looked and sounded very much like a Mets Home Opener.
A chunk of the traditional pomp had to be curtailed. No Shea family members at home plate presenting a good luck floral horseshoe to Luis Rojas. No Howie Rose welcoming the National League season to New York. No introductions of coaches, reserves and support staff (no roar of approval for Jacob deGrom). The national anthem was performed from behind center field. The ceremonial first pitch was delivered virtually. The entire presentation leaned a little to the Home Opener Lite side, much as Michael leaned a little toward home plate with the bases loaded, but it was so much better than last year’s empty shell of a lidlifter that it could be taken as a giant step in the march of potential post-pandemic progress. Mets fans cheered at the Mets. There was distance and there were masks, but there was noise that only the likes of us make. There was “LET’S GO METS” live and in living audio.
And there were reasons to make a joyful noise beyond the mere ability to do so. There was starting pitcher Taijuan Walker  unwrapping his significant mound presence and dialing it up close to the 99 on his uniform, flirting with his own Santana for four-and-a-third and going six very solid in his Met debut, allowing only two earned runs. There was Brandon Nimmo , renewing his sublet on the basepaths (it’s his summer home) and staying with a deep fly ball he was losing in the wind in center until he found it as he crashed back-first into the outfield wall. There was Dom Smith  not getting a hit with runners in scoring position but doing the next best thing, belting a would-be double to deepest center with the bases loaded and less than two out. Starling Marte’s spectacular combination of legs and leather prevented Dom’s blast from being a RISP-buster, but a sac fly is sac fly, and it put the Mets on the board in the fifth.
Walker’s more-than-pedestrian effort led eventually to the bullpen, which led to tranquility rather than trauma. Miguel Castro  was perfect in the seventh. Rover T. Yam turned around his first couple of outings and emerged the Trevor May  we’d heard so much about in the eighth. Heretofore heels-cooling closer Edwin Diaz  didn’t have a lead to protect in the ninth but he kept the deficit at 2-1 without incident.
The bottom of the ninth would have incidents enough. It would have incidents galore. It would have Jeff McNeil  and his batting average of absolutely nothing (0-for-10) leading off. The Squirrel, celebrating as best he could his .029th birthday, blew out the BABIP candles good and hard with a sock that didn’t unspool until it reached the foreground of carbonation ridge. No boycott of Coca-Cola Corner for Jeff. It was the ohfer pause that refreshed the score, from Marlins 2 Mets 1 to Marlins 2 Mets 2. Ahhh…
A 408-foot home run that knots everything up in the ninth inning in front of the first fans to watch the home team in person since a pandemic prevented a single person’s attendance since forever should rightly constitute the primary dramatic arc of our program, yet there was so much more to come. After Bass retired James McCann  for the frame’s first out, the Marlins went into a clever shift against pinch-hitter Guillorme. But Luis cleverly grounded a ball toward right that couldn’t quite be converted into a forceout at first regardless of how many cards how many Marlin infielders fished from their back pockets. Miami attempted to pull that shift against Nimmo — a more severe version — but Brandon simply smiled and basically said, shoot, if you’re gonna give me the whole left side, I’m just gonna take it. Our preternaturally giddy on-base machine thus cranked out his second double and third hit of the day, pushing Guillorme to third. The wise Marlin move next was to intentionally pass Francisco Lindor ; “so ordered,” declared Mattingly. Lindor, in turn, wisely urged on Conforto as he jogged to first (what a leader!).
As long as Michael, batting .176, avoided a double play, we weren’t doomed to extra innings; its surfeit of anything-goes automatic runners on second; and the general haunting nature of low-rent dark Marlin magic. Indeed, Pete Alonso  was in the on-deck circle to salvage the rally should the responsibility fall on Polar shoulders, and wouldn’t Pete being Pete be a whale of a way to finish welcoming the National League season to New York? But Michael surely preferred to row this boat ashore himself.
By any means necessary.
During the solemn segment of the pregame ceremonies, public address announcer Marysol Castro dutifully read some thoughtful words in memory of Tom Seaver, who threw the first pitch of the National League season in New York eight times. Talk about significant presence on the Met mound. That’s where Tom belonged on Opening Day. I had seen a wistful sentiment expressed earlier Tuesday that maybe Tom was Up There somewhere far above Promenade watching his Mets. However you choose to ponder the afterlife, I doubt that would have been the case. When Tom stopped pitching, Tom stopped watching. In his later years, when his attention turned mainly to winemaking, Seaver said he got his fill of baseball from picking up the paper in the morning and poring over box scores. That’s all he needed to do to know what was going on in the game he used to dominate nine innings at a time.
When his writer friend and fellow fireballer Pat Jordan  visited him in October of 2013, Tom was up in arms at what he saw in that morning’s paper.
Tom screeches like a girl. “Why’d they take Scherzer out?” I say because he’d reached his 109-pitch count. He screeches again, “Pitch count? Pitch count? Baseball’s not brain surgery. You don’t look for a reason to take him out. You look for a reason to leave him in!”
If Tom were still with us, in Napa Valley, maybe he’d be checking the box score this morning. What he’d see (perhaps after manfully muttering that almost nobody goes more than six anymore) is Michael Conforto was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to drive in the winning run for the New York Mets. He wouldn’t know without delving into any accompanying details that Conforto got his right arm up where a legitimate strike was taking shape. He’d just know it was a win, just one game of 162, which is what we as fans usually say when our team loses but rarely bother to mention when our team wins.
“Obviously, it was not the way that I wanted to win the ballgame,” Michael said later, acknowledging that the sequence of events that netted the Mets the win was less than ideal, maybe not perfectly square. But he expressed no remorse for a portion of his person being in what turned out to be the right place at the right time. Kulpa admitted he blew the call, but that was after the game as well, and as Conforto confirmed, “a win’s a win.”
You don’t look for a reason to be disturbed by a win, especially a Home Opener win. You look for a reason to celebrate it. Mets 3 Marlins 2 — signed off on by the entire umpiring crew amid thousands of living, breathing fans — seems a pretty reasonable reason.