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

Going…Going…Yet Still Here

Baseball, that thing which I love and you love, still doesn’t feel quite like the baseball you love and I love. Not in 2021, not after 2020. The rule alterations that linger from last year have the sport askew and to no apparent useful purpose. We bought into the pandemic requiring trims around the edges. The pandemic isn’t exactly over, but it no longer provides much of an excuse for innings lopped from nine to seven and runners added to second and all the norm-nipping that has diluted the flow. Maybe the bulk of it will go away next year. Maybe it won’t. I’ve felt a little at sea where baseball is concerned ever since MLB sold Nike the right to slap swooshes on the fronts of jerseys. The logo just stares at me, telling me that if I don’t like it, too bad, it bought its way on. Nothing’s quite felt right since the first swoosh.

I keep waiting for a turning of the emotional tide, for a day or a game when baseball doesn’t feel off. DeGrom strikes out record numbers of batters, Bench Mobsters crowd their way into walkoff heroics, the Mets maintain first place. Yet something’s slightly and uncomfortably awry. I keep coming back to an aside from Richard Ben Cramer’s biography of Joe DiMaggio [1]. The Yankees had won the 1947 World Series. “Now,” Cramer wrote, “the war was really over, all was right with the world.” Ptui! to that particular result as a bellwether of normality, yet I’d welcome something that decisively rips at least the metaphorical swoosh off baseball as it’s become these past couple of years.

Nevertheless, here I am. Dissatisfied? Perhaps. Dissatisfied enough to hand-sanitize myself of the whole thing? Like I said, here I am.

Pete Alonso [2] hit 17 home runs before the regular season paused and 74 home runs before it resumed. The 74 don’t count in the way we count home runs that count, but for his non-counting trouble, Pete won a million bucks by taking the trophy/swag chain for his second consecutive Home Run Derby [3], along with the adulation of a packed Coors Field. TV stressed the presence of Shohei Ohtani most of all among the eight sluggers who competed, but Ohtani, who can do it all, couldn’t do it all in the Derby. Pete could. Pete’s very good at this event. He’s undefeated at winning it and he’s undefeated at loving it. If it wasn’t quite as invigorating as watching him take his first Derby in 2019 [4] (second consecutive anythings rarely are), it was still a swell reminder of what an uncaged Polar Bear can communicate in the way of raw passion for the game.

My favorite part of Pete going deep wasn’t from any of his 74 exceedingly long shots flying over Denver, but rather the bopping around he did between pitches and rounds. Head up, head down, his head into his moment. I felt I’d seen that move before. I had. After the Mets completed their division-titlist schedule in 2015, the players took a goodwill lap around the track at Citi Field [5] to thank the fans for our support. While “ Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae) [6]” percolated over the PA, Daniel Murphy bopped his head in time to the music while cradling his son in his arms. Murphy was a Met All-Star once, as was Alonso. Not a bad connection to make.

That’s baseball when you’ve been at it for more than five decades. You see something, you feel something. You’ve probably felt it before. You don’t mind feeling it again. That’s why the All-Star Game itself was such a resounding disappointment on a couple of counts. First, there were those absolutely awful uniforms. One set was white. The other was dark blue. None was a uniform associated with any of the thirty clubs the players were representing. Pete wore his Mets garb in the Derby. He represented us, like Seaver in the ’70s, like Stearns in the ’70s after Seaver was traded to Cincinnati.

Taijuan Walker [7] didn’t have that privilege when he pitched in the game. He pitched for white vs. dark blue. And not very well, honestly. The National League used to win these games annually. Tom pitched in eight of them. The NL went 8-0. Dude was named to four of them. The NL went 4-0. Tai was part of a losing NL team [8], just as almost every Met chosen in this century has been, leading me to the second resounding disappointment. I connect to the National League regularly topping the American League, but when I do, I connect to ancient times. That will happen when you’ve surpassed fandom’s half-century mark and the NL is losing all but six of the past thirty-two Midsummer Not So Classics. Then again, bemoaning that the All-Star Game isn’t what it used to be [9] has become its own cherished tradition.

Bemoaning the presence of black jerseys was like that for some Mets fans during the denouement of their heyday. Bemoaning their disappearance eventually replaced that complaint for other Mets fans. Now we learn black jerseys are to return to the torsos of Met bodies two weeks from Friday [10]. The big night will be July 30, a date drenched in Metsian overtones. Casey Stengel was born on July 30, 1890. Gil Hodges strode purposefully to remove Cleon Jones from left field on July 30, 1969. Jeurys Familia gave up a rain-soaked, ninth-inning home run to Justin Upton between rain delays to complete a lethal lead blow on July 30, 2015, except it turned out to be not lethal at all. A little over three months later, Jeurys would be among the Mets joining Murph bopping around the Citi Field track to celebrate the NL East flag and gear up for the playoffs.

Familia made his MLB debut in September of 2012, just missing the black jerseys when they were last an official element of Met gear that July. They were all but phased out after 2011, a nod to the Mets reaching their fiftieth birthday [11] and the desire of so many to have the Mets hit the big five-oh in their birthday suit: orange and blue, hold the gimmickry (in 1962, Casey took care of the gimmicks). But black was on our backs for some very good years just before and a little after the turn of the millennium, and this iteration of Mets black is for home Fridays only. Younger fans admire the look — younger fans who are about twenty years older than when the Mets won a pennant in black and fans younger than that, too. I’m generally a shades of gray person when it comes to stuff that turns people goopy or irate, so I’m fine with a night every couple of weeks to turn black the clock.

I’m not fine with those All-Star uniforms, but I didn’t see any shades of gray in them.

Younger fans are said to be immune to baseball’s charms and in ever shorter supply. That’s why we get Nike swooshing up the apparel to the apparel’s detriment and why MLB hits us over the head with the idea that a player flipping a bat will make the game hep as heck to the under-my age set. Nevertheless, the last two games I’ve been to — and pretty much every game I’ve been to these many decades — I see plenty of what you’d call younger fans on hand. Not dragged by their parents or cool older relatives, either. I light out for Citi Field by Long Island Rail Road. I share my train with fans quite clearly in their teens and early twenties. Sometimes I think somebody’s slipped them free tickets, but there’s too much critical mass for their participation to be wholly anecdotal. These are fans who are wearing Mets gear, getting loud for the Mets miles from the Mets’ stadium, drinking many toasts en route to the Mets game. They missed Seaver’s career. They missed Piazza’s, too, probably. They’re not missing Alonso’s. The return trip — on the platform at Woodside and on the next train that comes — emits that vibe as well. Too much so, for my taste. The line about “keggers with kids” from Heathers springs to mind. But on some level, I don’t mind being the senior member of whichever car of the LIRR I board. The Grand Old Game isn’t gonna die off with me and my demographic ilk. The Youth of America hasn’t given up on baseball. Now shut up and let me listen to the highlights.

Speaking of listening, I experienced my first-half highlight less than a week ago. It wasn’t at Citi Field and it wasn’t via SNY. Talk about a connection. I’m the kid who walked around with a transistor radio if the Mets were playing and I couldn’t stay home to watch. I loved walking by any radio outdoors if it was broadcasting the Mets game. I loved just as much being the one to carry the play-by-play as if I were WHN, WNEW or WMCA. I got to enjoy that sensation anew last Saturday on the boardwalk in Long Beach. Stephanie and I had returned to my hometown [12] for a barbecue at my friend Larry’s house. The last time I was there, it was to sit shiva [13] for Larry’s mother. This was happier. This was a coming-out-of-COVID celebration of sorts, with a small-scale high school reunion on the side. My class is marking its 40th anniversary of graduating this summer. I won’t be going to the swanky affair some other classmates have cooked up. I went to two previous iterations and realized it was filled by old people. Five minutes later, most everybody with whom I’d exchanged middle age small talk had reverted to 17 or 18 in my mind’s eye anyway. But Larry’s in that handful of my LBHS compadres with whom I’ve found the years immaterial. Friends then, friends since, friends now. Like my friend Fred, who was up from Baltimore for the barbecue. Like my friend John, who was down from Boston. We had just enough members of our school newspaper staff to procrastinate on putting out our next edition. Why would I need more than that?

Between hot dogs and catching up, somebody suggested a late-afternoon stroll on the boardwalk, a must if you’re in town in summer. Stephanie welcomed it for the ocean breeze. I welcomed it for the opportunity to click on the game. I’d decided I was going to be a somewhat normal adult at the barbecue and not sneak an earbud into my ear or even a glance at my phone. Let the Mets open their truncated doubleheader without my attention for a change. But, you know, I get Met-curious and my phone is equipped with the At Bat app, so without fanfare, I clicked it on from my shirt pocket. No wire, so everybody who wanted to hear it could hear it. The volume was high enough for me to keep track, low enough not to bother anybody.

I was never more home than with the Mets game coming out of my shirt pocket on the boardwalk in Long Beach in 2021. This was me in the summers off from high school and junior high and elementary school. Wayne Randazzo narrating a Jonathan Villar [14] homer meshed with the soft crash of the waves. It sounded like my life. That baseball radio play-by-play was emanating from my person didn’t merit commentary from my wife, who is very used to the sounds my body makes, nor from my old pal Fred, who knows what I’m all about. The first thing I can ever recall Fred and I doing outside of school involved a walk and a Mets game on my transistor radio. I told him I don’t like to miss the Mets when they’re playing, and I never had to tell him again.

Even when the Mets fell behind last Saturday, even with Wayne cautioning us this was a seven-inning game so there wouldn’t be as much time as usual to mount a comeback, it was as if nothing of substance that I would have wanted to change had changed. Long Beach was still there. The Mets were still there. I was still there with what and who I would have wanted nearby had somebody thought to ask. The strides on the boardwalk didn’t match those of Gil Hodges marching to left field for determination, but they had their own purpose. I was going somewhere I needed to be.

Nike might ruin uniforms. Manfred might ruin doubleheaders. The high bar of the National League romping through All-Star competition might be a thing of the very distant past. But I cheer Pete Alonso when goes deep 74 essentially meaningless times. I join the Youth of America in the stands in Flushing and on the train out of Queens. I’m very happy to have the game on, even if it’s low and just for a couple of innings. It’s all still a little off, but not irrevocably.

The Mets play again Friday night in Pittsburgh, presumably in gray. Just like my sideburns.