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

Not a Night to Say ‘Rats!’

In the movie Thirteen Days [1], presidential advisor Kenny O’Donnell warns naval Commander William Ecker that when he leads a reconnaissance mission over Cuba to photograph evidence of missile bases on the island, it is imperative that his squad not be shot at. That’s not up to Ecker, of course, but O’Donnell’s message sinks in. President Kennedy can’t have a trigger incident while trying to maintain world peace, a precious commodity very much in the balance in those fretful weeks of October 1962. Thus, when the mission concludes, and it’s clear Ecker and his men have been fired at — the bullet holes in his plane couldn’t be more visible — he simply reports back that what obviously happened didn’t happen.

“Damn sparrows,” he said as his wingman and a member of the ground crew examine the damage. “Must’ve been migrating…probably hit a couple of hundred of them.”

“These 20-millimeter or 40-millimeter sparrows, sir?” Ecker is asked incredulously.

“Those are bird strikes. Sparrows to be precise. That’s the way it is, guys.”

It’s a white lie in service to a greater purpose, namely the avoidance of World War III. The viewer of the 2000 film knowingly nods along with Commander Ecker when he gives the others a quick, stern look to accept his story and move on.

Friday night’s Mets game versus Arizona was not the Cuban Missile Crisis. It didn’t require the cover of national security. Francisco Lindor [2] didn’t need to weave a transparent tale of a rat or raccoon loitering in the tunnel that leads to the Mets dugout to explain why there was a heavily inferred disturbance involving him and Jeff McNeil [3], the second baseman who, prior to the apparent mid-seventh inning dustup, had gotten in Lindor’s way while he tried to field and throw a ground ball, a traffic snarl that allowed a Diamondback to reach first. Anybody watching on SNY knew something was up between double play partners because a) most of the other Mets ran down the tunnel to see what was up; and b) neither Lindor nor McNeil looked immediately afterward like he’d just been engaging in anything resembling spirited rodent-related bonhomie.

Lindor still appeared put off moments later, even after hitting his dramatic inaugural Citi Field home run, which tied a game the Mets seemed to be out of from early on. If a fellow known for smiling can’t grin from that, what gives?

What gave before the Tussle in the Tunnel was David Peterson [4] lacked control (three walks and a hit batter in an inning and two-thirds), and the Mets were in a 4-0 hole after two-and-a-half innings while not doing much to scraggly D-Backs starter Zac Gallen. But a battalion of Met relievers reported for duty and acquitted themselves with valor, particularly newcomer Tommy Hunter [5], who chipped in two scoreless frames.

Hunter’s new to the Mets but hardly new to baseball. He debuted for Texas in 2008, one night before Daniel Murphy broke in as a Met. Hence, he probably understands that in games that seem to be getting away, the longer the run total for the team that’s ahead stays static, the greater the possibility becomes that the team that’s behind is not, in fact, out of it. Sure enough, with the likes of Tommy holding Arizona at bay in the tops of innings; and with a run in the bottom of the third (scored by Lindor); and another in the bottom of the sixth (driven in by Jonathan Villar), the Mets were back in this thing. Even McNeil cutting in front of Lindor to allow Nick Ahmed an infield single didn’t lead to disaster.

The same can be said for whatever went on in the tunnel. Boys will be boys, teammates especially. We can all dig that story. It’s probably not ideal to think your recently inked (for the next ten-plus years) superstar shortstop is not communicating with your squirrelly second baseman, and that maybe the vaunted Cookie Club clubhouse chemistry is being stirred bad, to borrow a classic Reggieism [6], but baseball behind the scenes is month after month in close quarters, requisite adjustment periods for the new guys to mesh with the old guys, biorhythms that don’t necessarily sync — not everybody has to actively love one another every inning of every day.

We, on the other hand, had to love that the heretofore slumping Francisco belted a tall two-run homer toward the left field foul pole in the bottom of the seventh and we suddenly had a tie game. Mr. Smile wasn’t really living up to his nickname after the blast, seeing as how he had to return to a dugout occupied by McNeil, but the scoreboard lit up nonetheless. We at home were curious, and you couldn’t blame those who’d be interviewing Lindor later for wondering what the hell was going on.

When we reached the start of the ninth, Arizona third baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who once upon a time caused his own short-lived ruckus by demanding a trade from the Mets rather than consent to play second base for them, singled convincingly to right off Edwin Diaz. Less convincing was Cabrera’s attempt to stretch it into a double. Michael Conforto [7] unleashed a bullet even Commander Ecker couldn’t deny and Lindor tagged his fellow former Tribesman. Considering Asdrubal’s failure to reach the bag, he must still have something against second base.

We went to extras, which don’t feel like extras in the 2020s given the automatic presence of an unearned runner on second, but if that’s how you want to play it, Manfred, fine. Aaron Loup pitched a scoreless tenth despite not being allowed to commence with a clean slate. Stefan Crichton wasn’t so lucky for the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the inning. Pete Alonso magically appeared on second (last out of the ninth). Dom Smith almost as magically appeared on first (intentional walk). After Kevin Pillar flied out to advance Alonso, Jonathan Villar was passed to first, too. Three baserunners, none of them having done so much as stand in to face Crichton.

The bases were loaded. Loup’s spot was up. The batter was going to be Patrick Mazeika [8], he of the one career at-bat. Luis Rojas is one of those managers who’d rather awkwardly attempt to answer questions about rats and raccoons than deploy his last backup catcher, but he’d double-switched James McCann out and Tomás Nido back when Robert Gsellman took over for Peterson, and the bench was down to Mazeika and pitchers. Were he certifiably healthy, I would’ve opted for pinch-hitter Jacob deGrom. Mazeika had never had a major league hit, but he’d only made one major league out before. You never know if Patrick Mazeika can drive home a decisive run until you let him try.

Luis let him try. Mazeika had himself a fierce AB. A couple of balls. A couple of foul balls. He would not go quietly. On the fifth pitch he saw from Crichton, he did one of the better things he could do. He put it in play and not directly at anybody. It went about, oh, maybe twenty feet, but Crichton’s attempt to field and throw it was about as successful as Lindor’s when McNeil got in Lindor’s way. The pitcher’s scoop to his catcher was off-target and Alonso, who isn’t much of a runner, scampered home. Pete’s a swell scamperer.

For a moment, it was pure shirt-ripping joy at Citi Field. It was Patrick Mazeika, who was promoted twice last season, only to be sent back down without as much as a Hietpas helping of action, bare-chested and jubilant. He was an alternate site All-Star, a taxi squad sitter, an almost chimeric figure in hipsterish glasses and substantial beard. Now he was an walkoff RBI hero, same as Cabrera in 2016 in the heat of the last successful Met playoff push (“OUTTA HERE! OUTTA HERE!”); same as Shane Spencer in 2004 (who beat the Yankees on a similarly slight base hit); same as Esix Snead in 2002 (who also chose a game-ending swing — a homer — to record his first major league run batted in); same as Todd Pratt in the clinching game of the 1999 NLDS (the backup catcher protagonist the last time the Mets beat the Diamondbacks in ten innings at home).

Then Patrick Mazeika and the 5-4 Met victory [9] got a little lost in the shuffle because when Lindor took questions in the postgame Zoom, he gave answers less believable than that business about bird strikes in Thirteen Days and Mazeika’s game-winning hit dipped to subplot. Francisco really tried to sell the tale of the rat and raccoon, which made it only less buyable. His smile was big and broad as he went on about the vigorous debate he and McNeil engaged in, how he was sure it was a big New York rat (he’d never seen one) and McNeil claimed it was a raccoon, and all their teammates rushed down because, gosh, what a sight, right?

Riiiiiight.

The smile was also contrived, which is a bit of a blow to our conception of Lindor as a authentically embraceable figure. He was being as genuine as the rat/raccoon…or possum, which was McNeil’s contribution to the urban myth (Rojas mostly demurred). Listen, we all sometimes put on a happy face when we’re not feeling it, but geez, this was a billboard for Crest while the lie seeped through his undeniably bright teeth.

It became the night’s big story because Lindor made it the night’s big story. Again, world peace did not hang in the balance. Don’t make it into a postgame crisis by doing the one thing reporters can’t abide by: giving amazingly phony answers. It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t clever. If you gotta obfuscate, at least obfuscate better than that. Don’t be Bobby Bo pretending [10] you were calling the press box not to complain about an official scorer’s decision but to check on Jay Horwitz’s cold. (Great, now we’re reminded of Bobby Bo.) Give us some reasonably honest jockspeak. “We got hot for a minute, we’re good now, anybody wanna ask me about my homer?” Something like that. Maybe it played badly because of how postgame media scrums transpire under pandemic restrictions, with only the player sighted on camera and the inquisitors’ voices disembodied, certainly from our angle.

Those people asking the questions, the ones who used to get to know the players in person, have jobs to do. They’re there to ask what we the readers, listeners and viewers are likely curious about. They’re not royal stenographers, Zooming in to blankly take dictation and ludicrous answers as gospel. They don’t wear team jackets, either, not even one as nice as the one from the Coming to America sequel the beaming shortstop modeled during Spring Training [11] when everything was legitimately all smiles.

Francisco Lindor had two hits Friday night. He may be breaking out and settling in. The 14-13 Mets, winners of three in a row, might be getting their act together. The imaginary hitting coach kept them going for two days last weekend before the real hitting coaches got axed. The imaginary animals in the tunnel could become a rallying point. Or simply mostly forgotten. Right now they’re just another sign that these Mets are still having a difficult time coping with reality.