The Van Wagenen Express

Author’s note: welcome back! I’ve been on a temporary hiatus, very busy with something you’ll find out more about — although not much — if you find the lede buried near the bottom (it won’t be hard). Hopefully I’ll now be back to writing more regularly — especially if BVW gives me good things to say regularly. Fingers crossed. 


I was missing baseball yesterday. Missing it something awful. Before I fell asleep I listened to “Meet The Mets” twice in a row, that old version from the 1980s that they used to play before Mets Extra on the radio. Hot dogs, green grass, all at Shea…it’s been a while since we heard that song in the proper context, hasn’t it?

One of the reasons I was missing baseball so much, I think, was that it was warm outside, and I’d temporarily abandoned my winter coat for my Mets jacket. I think the last time I wore it was the day after Closing Day, right before it started to get cold. I’m always wearing that jacket, and usually I leave something in the inside pocket, and yesterday, as I was walking back to my apartment, I reached into the inside pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was my ticket to Opening Day 2018, that romping win over the Cardinals. Inside was a folded Mets pocket schedule. I took a second to look at them both, then tucked them back inside my jacket, where I presume they’ll remain until Opening Day 2019, 114 days from now.

This is only the most recent in a long line of Mets jackets, for me. For most of us, I would imagine. I got my first one for Christmas in 2004, replaced it in 2009 or so with the new model; that one disappeared, so I got a different one that was lighter, the black one with blue and orange around the sleeves that you can see Willie Randolph wearing in photos from his time — which now seems brief, when we look back on it — in Queens. Got a varsity-style jacket festooned with all sorts of patches and decorations in 2012, give or take, and a few years ago, a starter jacket, the vintage kind that MLB revived ever-so-briefly, just long enough for me to snag one. My primary Mets jacket at the moment is the field model from a few years ago, blue with orange under the arms and down the sides. When I got home I put that jacket away, ticket and schedule still in the inside pocket, and it’ll probably be a long time — winter, give or take — before it’s warm enough to wear it again.

That’s one reason I was missing baseball. The other was simpler. We were in the middle of trading for a couple of All-Stars, and it was so exciting I felt for a moment like it was 2006 again, and I was fielding grounders with my dad on a cold field in early April. I asked him who was in first that day, and he said the Mets were — of course we were; in 2006 there wasn’t a day of the season we weren’t in first. But it’s early, he said. Doesn’t matter who’s in first in April. I went back to fielding grounders, but I knew he was wrong. We were so dominant in 2006, so unbeatable, that I knew first place in April meant first place in September.

We’re nowhere near that level right now, of course: we haven’t been since Yadier Molina took Aaron Heilman too deep for even Endy to catch. But there’s an offseason excitement, I must say, that I don’t think we’ve felt since 2006. And I can’t help but like it.

However you feel about the trade that brought us Robinson Cano and Edwin Díaz, you must admit that it’s made things mighty exciting. I’m of two minds, personally; there’s nothing wrong with Cano and Díaz on their own, but I can’t help thinking we didn’t need to give up our young friend — as I’ve come to think of him — Jarred Kelenic in order to land them. But either way, the 2019 Mets just got exciting, and word is there’s even more on the way.

Corey Kluber? We’ve inquired. Bryce Harper? Not ruling him out. Noah Syndergaard? On the market — maybe. I can’t even conceive of any deal worth parting ways with Thor, but if trading him is enough to bring us a star center fielder to play between Nimmo and Conforto, or a catcher who can hit (if those even exist anymore; Thor’s worth way more than J.T. Realmuto, and I can’t think of anyone better), then you have my blessing — go for it.

It’s been too long, far too long, since we went all-in on win-now. We did it in 2005 and 2006, then tried to prop up what we’d built with Jeff Francoeurs and Ryan Churches and players of their ilk, and when that all fell apart, we were done. Even in 2015, we weren’t all-in. We won the division and had a run that was nothing short of magical, and I’m not saying for a moment that I would trade 2015 for anything, but we could have been more dominant. We could have spent more, and brought in another star or two, and gone from a division-winner to a juggernaut. Gosh, I miss being a juggernaut.

I’ve been working on a book about the Mets — I know, talk about burying the lede — and in the course of doing so, I’ve remembered just how good the 2006 Mets were, and how quickly and easily I fell in love with the team. Remember that lineup? Reyes, of course, then Lo Duca, then that immortal 3-4-5, that trio of legends. Beltran, Delgado, Wright…I can’t think of lineup with a more fearsome heart, although I’m sure one or two have existed. There’s a reason we won 97 games in 2006 with a pitching staff that was average at best: our offense was otherworldly. Ridiculous. By OPS+, the worst hitter we had who appeared in at least 100 games was Endy Chavez — whose OPS+ was still 101. He batted .306 that year. That was our worst hitter.

Just think of the lineup on a typical night. First it was Reyes, .300/.354/.487 hitter, 19 home runs, 64 steals. Then Lo Duca: .318/.355/.428, from the catcher’s spot, for goodness’ sake. Then Beltran — .275/.388/.594 — and Delgado — .265/.361/.548 — then Wright — .311/.381/.531. Filling out the lineup we had José Valentín — .270/.331/.490 — and Endy — .306/.348/.431 — and one more outfielder, Floyd or Nady or whoever happened to be with the team that night, both of whom could also hit. It was heaven. It was bliss. Each and every night, games began with opposing pitchers terrified.

And here’s the thing: Mets fans need reason to dream again. We need something to believe in, not a wildcard squeaker or the silver lining of an 83-79 finish, but a team that blows us all away. And it seems that GMBVW, as we’ve come to know him, wants the same thing. He’s not one for calm and caution, he seems to be shouting at us. He’s in it to win it — and to win it right now. And maybe it all blows up in our face, and we’re stuck with an albatross contract for a 40-year-old second baseman and a reliever who fell apart after a good year or two. But maybe it doesn’t. And the fact that the possibility is there — that’s almost enough already.

Not quite enough, of course. The most important part of this deal is that it must be — it has to be — the first of many. We’ve not done enough, not yet. And all indications are that BVW knows this. It’s going to be a wild offseason, we keep hearing. Buckle in. Things are going to get exciting.

Now that’s what we need. We had our reassuringly competent team (2014) and our underdog pennant-winners (2015) and our gutsy fighting team (2016), and then we had two teams that are barely worth mentioning. It’s about time we had an exciting team. A team worthy of New York. A team that can bring us back to the promised land, or barring that, a team that strikes just a bit of fear into opposing pitchers. There’s an offseason ahead of us, and all sorts of things that could happen, and somewhere out there is a team of 25 players that can win us a championship — and quickly. Can Brodie Van Wagenen put that team together? Maybe. But the deal he’s just done tells us one thing: successful or not, he’s finally giving it a shot.

Anyway, this was all yesterday, as I said. In bed, I listened to “Meet The Mets” a few more times, and eventually I got to sleep. Woke up this morning, and wouldn’t you know it — it was still warm. So I left my winter coat alone for another day, and put on a Mets sweatshirt. It’s a new one, an orange and blue ordeal I just picked up a few weeks ago. The only Mets team this sweatshirt has ever known is the one with Robinson Cano at second and Edwin Díaz in the bullpen and Brodie Van Wagenen in the office making move after aggressive move. In other words, the only Mets team this sweatshirt has ever known is a Mets team that badly wants to win. It’s not a bad way to get started, as Mets sweatshirts go. And for all those other Mets jackets…well, suddenly, I’m increasingly optimistic that the 2019 Mets will prove a sight for their sore eyes.


Great Teams Don’t Cheer In 7/4

I’m the rare person I know who can sit and watch a baseball game in complete silence. I can never quite bring myself to get involved with the scoreboard-prompted cheers; I prefer to observe, contemplate, predict, and with the team we’ve got, seethe. That’s what I was doing earlier tonight, as, from the upper deck, we faced off against the Yankees. Aside from shouting “yup!” a few times when Yankees struck out looking, and calling out “It’s Lance Johnson…c’maaan” during the Mets Trivia Drive, I watched without talking.

Among other things, this meant that I was attuned to my surroundings in a way you usually aren’t at a baseball game. I heard nine innings worth of conversation from the father-son duo sitting next to me — strangely enough, the son seemed to root for both the Mets and the Yankees, and the father for neither — and more than my share of disjointed ravings from some sort of Yankee fan/conspiracy theorist somewhere in my section. I don’t remember much of what he said: I know that when Brett Gardner made a routine catch, he shouted out “Brett Gardner! Now there’s a player with a purpose!” He also made the claim that Michael Conforto batted .330 last year when he was on steroids, which had so many holes that I didn’t bother to make a correction.

But most of what I heard was the cheering. It was the Subway Series, so the stands were louder than usual, and it seemed that most of the noise was coming from the occupying Yankee fans. You could hear it as early as the first inning, starting from the fringe but then getting picked up by the mainstream: “Let’s go Yankees…let’s go Yankees…” It got louder and louder and for a while the scattered Mets fans in attendance couldn’t even muster a halfhearted boo to counter it.

If I’d been in a more combative mind, I would have mentioned to whoever was directing the cheering — it’s amazing this ability some people have, to just show up and somehow take command of the cheering capacities of an entire section of a ballpark — that they were doing it wrong. Pretty quickly, the competing factions of Mets and Yankees fans turned their animosities into a sort of masochistic call-and-response: “Let’s go Yan-kees…Let’s go Mets!” An ostensible sign of competition that seemed more representative of a strange kind of involuntary cooperation — set, to add insult to injury, in some ungodly time signature, 7/4 or something like that.

I wanted to say to the cheerers: that’s not how you do it. This isn’t a child’s birthday party, it’s the subway series. You chant, “Let’s go Mets!” They chant, “Let’s go Yan-kees…” and they clap. When you put it all together, it sounds like we’re waiting until they finish, then giving our own cheer…but when we actually do that, it sounds a whole lot worse.

I don’t know why I got caught up in the cheering. Maybe it was because of how dominant the Yankees fans were, and how much I can’t stand seeing Yankee fans in our own building. Hell, I once nearly blew my top listening to two Giants fans for eleven innings, until Michael Cuddyer ended it with a walk-off single; Yankee fans, who I hate instinctively and whose team is a whole lot better and more frustrating to play against, are far worse.

It’s hard to fault Mets fans, however many showed up, for not mustering any noise worth mentioning: we were in the middle of an eight-loss skid, after all, in the middle of a season on the decline, in the midst of what may be a long stretch of famine with no end in sight. Throw in the fact that it was raining ever so slightly, and you’ve got a recipe for Mets fans to stay home. Some of them made it out, which made the Yankees fans that much more bearable. But they still got loud.

Todd Frazier’s home run in the fifth quieted the Yankees crowd down for a while, but they were back in full force by the eighth. Aaron Judge was in the on-deck circle representing the tying run, which meant, of course, that every Yankee fan in the building was standing, screaming, pounding their chests…anything to express just how great they were, and how much better Aaron Judge was than anyone else we Queens peasants had ever had the privilege of watching. Judge, of course, owner of a .270 batting average, sent a tailor-made double play ball to Amed, who flipped it to Reyes at second, who promptly suffered a stroke.

Well, not really. But in baseball terms, that’s just about how you’d have to define it. A throw ten feet to Adrian Gonzalez’s left — this was back when Gonzalez was a Met — and then, as we stared around, shaking our heads and wondering why there was still a runner on second, it dawned on us that Reyes hadn’t even stepped on second base, in all his rush to get the ball to the dugout behind Gonzalez. So now there were two men on, the tying runs, only one out.

The game took a brief pause at this point for a replay break, which took about three times as long as it should have, but gave the Yankees fans in the crowd some time to reflect on how incredible their team was. “This is the game right here!” said the fan of indeterminate rooting interest next to me. I think he was rooting for the Yankees at this point, because he was quite clearly wrong, this wasn’t the game right here; the Yankees were still down two runs with a lineup that had barely hit all day. But Yankees fans are remarkably confident in their team, and aren’t shy about sharing that confidence with the rest of us.

And with the Yankee rally growing, it started up again. “Let’s go Yankees…Let’s go Mets!” Except the Mets fans were quieter and the Yankees fans were louder, and I started shivering in my seat even though the night was warm.

Thank Goodness Robert Gsellman got the next two outs, and the Yankees fans in attendance were once again temporarily silenced. We went to the ninth and Anthony Swarzak, the closer-by-default when all your other closers-by-default are hurt or no good at closing. Struck out Stanton — “yup!” from me, and maybe a few claps — then walked Greg Bird, and Yankees fans got loud again. Two balls to Gary Sanchez, more than capable of tying the game, and my face was in my hands. Then, in the blink of an eye: Line drive. Caught. Frazier fires to first.

Back in the New York Groove!

I didn’t leave right away. I just stood up in my seat and couldn’t stop smiling. I looked around at the angry Yankee fans, and the Mets shaking hands on the field, and thought to myself that Mets wins over the Yankees, and observation of the associated frustration taking hold among Yankee fans, should really be classified as medicines, because I sure felt better than I’d felt a few minutes before. Chants of “Let’s Go Mets!” and “Yankees Suck!” broke out on the stairs down to the subway. As I descended, the chants followed me loud and clear, and this time, I couldn’t hear a single Yankee fan disrupting the cheers for the victorious home team.


Detroit On Sunday

In different ways, Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ home ballpark since 2000, is very similar to and very different from its predecessor. Tiger Stadium, which housed the Tigers from 1912 to 1999, was a beloved old park in the mould of Fenway or Wrigley Field. It had cramped seats, only two decks, and pillars that obstructed views in the lower tier to hold up the higher one. Comerica Park kept some of the charm when the Tigers moved in. It is a poster child of the retro-classic stadium movement: its main building blocks are brick, concrete, and green painted steel.

It has all the charm of an old stadium — or at least, as much as any modern imitation can — but it also features the luxury of the turn of the millennium. Every seat in the house is a good one. The concourses are wide and comfortable, and the building is easy to navigate. The no-bag express line at the left field entrance moves quickly. The park is open all the way around: a curious fan can start in center field and walk straight, and eventually find himself back in center field again.

When Emily and I got to the stadium on a sweltering-hot Sunday afternoon in May, we didn’t have time to explore. First pitch was coming up, and we had to find our seats to watch the Tigers take on the White Sox. So we made for our section, or tried to: neither of us knew the park that well. In left field, we walked past six statues of the Tigers Hall of Fame: Al Kaline, Hal Newhouser, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Ty Cobb, and Willie Horton. We were empty-handed: when I’d checked the schedule earlier, I’d seen that the Tigers would distribute Nicholas Castellanos bobbleheads, but they’d run out by the time we’d arrived. Either that or I’d read the promotional schedule wrong. There was another giveaway too — they were giving out growth charts and cheering signs for all children in attendance. But evidently, the ticket-taker had decided that we were too old.

There was a broad view of the playing field from behind the seats in center, but we kept moving. Around first base, past the team store, up several stairways…after we’d secured hot dogs, lemonade, and water, we found our seats. We were behind first base, in the front row of the higher section of the upper deck. The seats weren’t great — you don’t expect great for $14 each. But they were perfectly fine. And for a weekend ballgame in May, you don’t need anything better. We sat down, hid our drinks in the shade beneath our seats, and waited for the game to begin.


Since there has been the American League, there have been the Detroit Tigers. Founded in 1901 as an AL charter franchise, the Tigers have played in Detroit ever since without missing a beat. They have played continuously in the same city for 117 seasons and counting, a feat few other teams have accomplished.

Something I’ve learned, watching baseball in different stadiums in different cities, is that’s it’s exceedingly difficult to judge a team’s connection with its city based on its fans. Sure, Boston has great fans and a team that’s almost synonymous with its city, but I suspect that I could find similarly committed fans in Miami, or Milwaukee, or Colorado. Fans will always be love their teams, whether a team has a hold on its city or not.

Unless, that is, I’m framing the question the wrong way. Maybe the real answer is that fans will always love their teams because of the intimate connections between people, teams, and cities, connections that cannot be logically explained but must exist. And why must they exist? Look no further than Comerica park this very afternoon.

The Tigers, as the game began, were 22-29. All indications are that the team is poised for a second consecutive losing season, and a third one in four years. They have not won a World Series since 1984. And yet, on this uncomfortably hot Sunday afternoon, more than 23,000 fans came out to watch them play. Now what reason could there be for that? There is none, except that the Tigers play baseball in Detroit, and people in Detroit, like people all over America and the World, love baseball. So they love the Tigers — their Tigers, their team. And the city of Detroit shows it. From our seats, besides several old-fashioned skyscrapers and an enormous model of a whale painted on the side of a tower, we could also see what looked like the General Motors building. The stylized orange “D” that the Tigers use as their logo was flashing on a screen near the top of the building, big enough for all of us to see what must have been at least a mile away.

On the hill for the Tigers this afternoon was Blaine Hardy, a journeyman left-hander who just this year converted from relief pitching to starting. This was Hardy’s third start of the season. Hardy is 31 years old, but did not make his major league debut until he was 27. He has not pitched for a major league team besides the Tigers.

Hardy took the hill, and Tim Anderson, the White Sox’ shortstop, led off. Anderson is young, only 25, but he has shown potential: today, less than a third of the way through the season, he already had ten home runs. The traditional shortstop is small but quick, hits line-drive singles and bunts for base hits but cannot hit for much power. Indeed, Jose Iglesias, starting at shortstop for the Tigers, fit this mold well: in seven career seasons, he has hit 18 home runs. Anderson is not this traditional shortstop. He hit 17 home runs last season alone. When Corey Seager, shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, went down with an arm injury, Anderson also became an emergency addition to my fantasy baseball team. But today, fortunately or not — fortunate for me; I was rooting for the Tigers, as I make it a practice to always root for the home team unless I face a more important, contradictory influence — Anderson flied out to center. After a ground ball single to left, the next two White Sox went down in the top of the first.

It was kid’s day at the park, and after the top of the first, we met our first participant. As music from “Frozen” played, a young girl appeared on the scoreboard. She was, a scoreboard host proclaimed, our Princess of the Game, nine years old and going home with four tickets to see Disney on Ice.

“Who’s your tiger?” asked the host.

“Cabrera,” the Princess responded.

She meant, of course, Miguel Cabrera, first baseman, designated hitter, and Tiger superstar. Cabrera, at age 34, suffered through a dismal season in 2017: he hit only 16 home runs, after averaging 33 a year from 2004 to 2016, and batted .249, against a career batting average of .316. Although Cabrera, at the moment, was on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, he seemed to start the 2018 season with a resurgence: in 26 games, he batted .323/.407/.516. For his sleeper potential, Cabrera, like Tim Anderson, was part of my fantasy team.

But choosing Cabrera, I thought, was an intriguing move on the princess’ part. If we assume that the mere 26 games he has played so far this year were not enough to make Cabrera the princess’ Tiger of choice, and further, that his dismal 2017 season could not have done the job either, it seems likely that the princess of the game, all of nine years old, has been following the Tigers at least since 2016, when Cabrera had his last star-level season, and following them closely enough to understand just how good Miguel Cabrera has been, and may be again.

Again: there’s the connection. Can anyone explain why a nine-year old princess of the game would follow a sport played by strangers closely enough to recognize greatness in the sport that hasn’t been seen for two years? Of course not. But she did. Because the Tigers are her team, and we love our teams, whether it makes sense or not.


James Shields was pitching for the White Sox. I remembered Shields mostly for one moment, maybe the greatest moment of all time: a fence-scraping home run into the left field corner in San Diego, off the bat of aged, spherical, Bartolo Colón.

But Shields, besides the one rather embarrassing memory, has put together a strong major league career. At 36, he has a career 139-127 record; his career E.R.A. is 3.99. He had no problems in the bottom of the first: he set the Tigers down in order. In the top of the second, Hardy again retired the White Sox without allowing a run.

The game was a panoply of moments, each interesting in themselves but far more compelling when combined. We saw Tigers rookie catcher Grayson Greiner, still in his first week of MLB action, hit an RBI double, and then during the next at-bat, saw Shields pick John Hicks off third base. I thought Shields balked, but the Tigers’ dugout didn’t make much noise about it, so maybe I was wrong. We saw the White Sox tie the game at one in the top of the third, and then saw Dixon Machado make a brilliant lunging stop on a line-drive to keep the game tied. That inning ended when Jose Rondon struck out with a man on third; the ball got away from Greiner, and it seemed like a dropped third strike, but both teams left the field. The Tigers’ PA announcer later told the crowd that the home plate umpire had called batter interference, thus ending the inning. They showed the replay on the board, and sure enough, Rondon’s bat hit Greiner’s mask on the backswing.

“So you’re not allowed to hit the catcher in the head,” Emily said. I nodded my agreement.

We saw Tigers’ third baseman Jeimer Candelario (I always thought it was “Jaimer,” which explained why the PA announcer pronounced his name differently and more correctly than I did) make a fantastic spinning stop on a ground ball from Yoan Moncada. After he’d recorded the out at first, “The Candy Man Can” blared from the park’s speakers, and I said, “Oh, I get it…Candelario, the candy man.”

We saw one on-field race between people dressed as trucks — Petey the pickup won in a photo finish — and another on the scoreboard between different breakfast items. I was pulling for Biggie Bagel, but Cuppy Coffee went out to an early lead and easily cruised to victory, which you don’t see much in scoreboard races. We also saw a game of scoreboard trivia. The contestant couldn’t possibly have known what she was guessing — you should have heard her pronounce “Magglio Ordoñez” — but regardless, he was the right answer, and she won Sunoco gift cards for her entire row.

We saw several fly balls that the crowd was convinced had home run distance fall easily into the gloves of outfielders. All parks have some fans who can’t tell a home run from a can of corn, but this Tiger Stadium crowd seemed especially clueless about this particular important element of the game. Even the older fans behind me, who based on their talk seemed like grizzled veterans of Tiger fandom, got excited each time Victor Martinez got a ball in the air, even one that would fall into a glove 25 feet shy of the warning track.

We saw another young fan — this was the theme of the day — list as many animated movies as he could in 15 seconds. He listed ten; I thought I could have done better, as we all tend to think when confronted by scoreboard games that are easy when you’re not under pressure. Nicholas Castellanos, whose bobblehead I’d been hoping for, came up on the screen and tried to name more animated movies than the child; he got stuck for several seconds, but then named two just before the buzzer to come out on top, 11-10. The crowd’s reaction was decidedly unclear, a mixture of laughter, cheers, and boos.

We saw what was turning into a pitcher’s duel continue into the fifth. I finally got around to pointing out to Emily that Trayce Thompson was Klay Thompson’s brother. I didn’t mention that I only knew this because he’d hit a walkoff home run for the Dodgers against the Mets two years prior, because I didn’t want Hansel Robles’ name to sully the fun of the occasion. Thompson grounded out to start the fifth, and the next two batters made outs as well.

Before the bottom of the fifth, the crowd played “Name That Young Tiger.” A baby picture appeared on the screen; we would later learn that it was JaCoby Jones, Tigers’ left fielder. We learned various fun facts about Jones; the one that has stuck with me is that he was the Missouri High School Baseball Player of the Year in 2010, with a batting average north of .500. Jones then led off the bottom of the fifth and singled, breaking a string of seven straight Tigers retired by Shields. Gray Greiner — the nickname seems to suit him — walked, and after Jose Iglesias popped out, Dixon Machado hit an RBI single. There was another pop out, then Castellanos finally cashed in on what might have been his bobblehead day: he lined an RBI single to left.

We had plans later that afternoon; we stayed long enough to see Hardy put up a shutout inning in the top of the sixth, with the Tigers still up 2-1, then stood up and left. By the time we’d made our stops at the bathroom, fought our way through the crowd, and found our way to the field level, it was the top of the seventh. We stopped in center field, the entire ballpark visible from some deep outfielder’s perspective, and watched one last at-bat; Hardy induced Daniel Palka to ground out to first. Then we walked back to the garage and drove home.

I heard later that the Tigers had won 3-2, with Hardy going seven dominant innings. Shane Greene gave up a run for the Tigers in the top of the ninth, and the White Sox put the tying run on base, but Greene was able to close it out, and the Tigers took home the win. I’d been rooting for the Tigers, but I wasn’t so concerned about the result. I’d gotten to sit out in the May sun for a few hours on a Sunday and watch a baseball game. I was just happy thinking that the Princess of the Game had gotten to see her team win, and hoped, for the sake of all of Detroit’s children like her, that Miguel Cabrera would return soon.


So Here’s How It Happened

I GOT OFF the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands … big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

It didn’t take long, the first time I read Hunter S. Thompson, to recognize a new favorite. This was a year and change ago, in January 2017, when I was looking through the syllabus for a class on Sportswriting and trying to find something worth reading. There was some Angell, some Plimpton, a few Bill Simmons columns. But then I came across a title I couldn’t ignore. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Well, you just know that’s going to be something interesting.

It was, sure enough. It wasn’t until later that I learned that this was a landmark piece of sportswriting and all writing, the birth of gonzo journalism and some of the most groundbreaking work of the century. But I loved it from the first time I read it. It was almost perfect. Favorites have a way of presenting themselves. You see them and you just know.

It is with that principle in mind that I write today, not as a reader but as a watcher of baseball and a Mets fan. I cannot say that I have a new favorite player, because until further notice David Wright remains a member of the Mets roster and his slot at the top of my list is guaranteed and without expiration. But I can say this much: the queue has a new member, who will be my favorite active player until the captain returns, and then, hopefully, for a long while after he hangs it up.

Among those who know me, this will come as no surprise. I’ve always been somewhat old-fashioned, in tastes if not in views. When I played baseball, I wore my socks high. The music I listen to is dominated by the years between 1953 and 1989. I have seen the entire Honeymooners Classic 39. And every once in a while, I still get upset that the Dodgers left. How old fashioned am I? Hell, it’s the name of my drink of choice, one that I’ve had only a few times in my life, but still bears an inscrutable attraction. And now I can make one with Jim Beam, Official Bourbon of the New York Mets!

Given Brandon Nimmo’s strict religiosity, combined with my complete ignorance of whatever he happens to believe, I’m not quite sure whether or not he’s allowed to drink at all. If he did, though, I have to think he’d enjoy an Old Fashioned, just as he wears his pants high and — I assume — enjoys old music and TV shows and at least the idea of Ebbets Field. And this is part of why, as you’ve inferred by now, Brandon Nimmo is quickly becoming my favorite Met.

Arizona Diamondbacks  v New York Mets

We all have our own tastes in favorite players. Mine was Mike Piazza, then he left and Reyes and Wright shared the honor for very different reasons. Then Reyes left and Wright took sole possession, and now Wright has been on the sidelines for what will be, on Sunday, two years exactly. So, at least until Wright’s rumored upcoming meeting with his doctor, someone else will fill the role. This is not automatic: for most of the time since David hit the DL two years ago, I have gone without a favorite active player. But recently, I realized that Brandon Nimmo was my favorite Met and had been for a while now, just about since Opening Day 2018. And this is strictly an emotional decision, so trusting my gut was the extent of my decision-making.

How did it happen? I don’t think it’s too hard to say. Brandon Nimmo plays the game the right way — not the obnoxious Chase Utley right way, nor the puerile Bryce Harper right way, but the real right way, the way the game should actually be played. He’s got all the exuberance of Reyes in his prime with the cerebral plate presence of David Wright at his best, and a smile that beats them both. He’ll steal a few bases, hit a few bombs, walk every second at-bat, hustling all the way.

And that smile, that godforsaken smile…it may not be hyperbole to say that Nimmo could have smiled his way into the hearts of Mets fans even if his On-Base Percentage was significantly lower than his current .423 mark. The smile is merely the most outwardly noticeable element of Nimmo’s larger approach to baseball: playing the game like a child. Having fun. Always hustling. Waiting for your pitch. Wearing the uniform right. And so on, and so forth…you name it, and Brandon Nimmo does it the right way.

“I can’t play being mad. I go out there and have fun,” Ken Griffey Jr. once said. “It’s a game, and that’s how I am going to treat it.” It’s nice to have a player to root for who’s not a pitcher, one you follow even more closely than the rest of the team, one whose every at-bat you follow pitch by pitch hoping for a hit, or in Nimmo’s case, a walk. It is even nicer to have one who is 25 years old and works the count to a tune of an OBP north of .400. And it’s nicer still to root every day for a player who plays like Ken Griffey Jr. and never leaves the children’s game behind. Brandon Nimmo is here, and he’s a heckuva ballplayer in every sense of the word. Let my fandom commence.


Adieu to Gotham’s Knight

I wasn’t home the first time Matt Harvey pitched for the Mets. I was away at camp, in a big wooden cabin with the 18 other guys who made up my group that summer. We were the oldest group, the seniors, which meant that our cabin had a TV. But there were 19 of us, which meant that no one could ever agree on what to watch. Which meant that the TV was usually tuned to ESPN, which was usually a fair compromise.

ESPN wasn’t showing the Mets game that night, but through correspondence with the outside world, I knew that Harvey was making his debut. So I sat in a chair in front of the TV, distracted by whatever ESPN was broadcasting that night, and followed the bottom line. Literally: that’s how excited I was. I watched the scores and stats scroll by, and each time the Mets game came by, I called it out to the one other Mets fan in the group. My excitement, it turned out, was completely warranted, and then some.

Two strikeouts through one inning. Four through two. Seven through three. Eight through four. Ten through five. 5.1 innings pitched, no runs, three hits, 11 strikeouts. I was young and ignorant of how baseball worked — or maybe I was more observant than anyone else. Either way, I was convinced: we had a new ace.

That’s what Matt Harvey was, to my generation of Mets fans: an ace. Zack Wheeler, who came along a year later, was the Robin to his Batman. Jacob deGrom, who showed up the year after that, was a model of consistency and reliable excellence. Noah Syndergaard, another year later, was a Norse God, a superstar, an icon. But Harvey was still the ace.

He was the guy who wanted the ball. The guy who would run through a wall to get through another inning. He wasn’t David Wright; it became clear, fairly quickly, that he wasn’t captain material. He was an old-style ballplayer: he seemed to aspire to be pitching’s Ted Williams. He wanted to play — period. He wasn’t quirky or gregarious: he was almost a machine. He would take the mound and pitch well. Beyond that, he would do what he wanted.

The Dark Knight, the nickname that he picked up fairly quickly when it became clear that he was the closest thing we had to a superhero, seemed to fit him well. He certainly wasn’t a lighthearted, wisecracking Avenger: Christian Bale’s brooding, introverted portrayal of Bruce Wayne summed up Harvey on and off the field. He wasn’t a guy you wanted to spend the day with. But like Ted Williams, it was beyond question that you wanted him on your side.


Later in the summer of 2012, after I’d come home from Maine, my dad and I went to see Harvey pitch against the Rockies. We bought tickets from a scalper in the Citi Field parking lot, but didn’t realize until we’d reached our seats that we were dead-center in the outfield, as far from home plate as could be. Immediately, we began making plans to move.

We couldn’t move until almost the middle of the game, though. Harvey struck out five of the first six batters he faced, and took a no-hitter into the fourth, and we certainly weren’t going to risk jinxing things by changing our seats.


One afternoon, early in April 2013, I was listening to WFAN on my transistor radio as I left school after baseball practice. Mike Francesa was on, and as I walked through the parking lot, he took a call from someone who thought Matt Harvey was the best pitcher in New York.

“After one start?” said Francesa, sarcastically. “Yeah, okay, after one start. Okay.” The media, on the whole, never came around to embracing Harvey, even as he pitched himself into legend one start at a time. The media always hated Ted Williams too.

Earlier that week, Harvey had started the second game of the season. He’d gone seven scoreless innings, striking out ten and allowing only one hit. I, of course, agreed with the caller. Francesa was a buffoon (both in that moment and as a matter of course). And soon enough, we’d be proven right. By the end of April, Harvey was 4-0; his ERA was 1.56. He’d just beaten Stephen Strasburg, as chants of “Harvey’s better” had filled the stands. He was the best pitcher in New York — that much was obvious. Debatably, he was the best pitcher in the league.

I didn’t get to see Harvey live again until June of that year. Pitching against the Cardinals, Harvey went seven, and gave up one run. But it was 2013, and we had no offense to speak of. The seven inning, one run performance went down in the books as Harvey’s first loss of the season.

By then, he’d already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was already making himself known in national circles. And he was already a fan favorite. I bought a Matt Harvey t-shirt, and wore it every time he pitched that summer. I went into each Harvey start expecting a perfect game — and Harvey came close often enough that the expectation never really disappeared.

2013 was different than 2018. My phone flipped open, and didn’t have the MLB app. When I got in the car one night after a cross country workout, and my mom told me that Harvey had gotten hurt, I assumed, given that he was the Dark Knight and nothing could possibly be wrong with him, that it was no big deal.

In fact, I’d just been back to Citi Field to see him pitch for the second time. He’d pitched into the seventh against the Tigers, and given up only two runs, but maybe something had been off. Maybe he’d pulled something, or whatever the current in-vogue minor injury was. As I got into the car, I was confident that everything was fine. But the radio quickly disabused me of this notion. Matt Harvey would be on the shelf. For a long, long time.


Matt Harvey’s story is one of two big rises, and two big falls. And on a cold winter afternoon in February of 2015, the second rise began. Harvey was making his 2015 Spring Training debut. And somehow, he looked as if he’d never left.

We all remember the lowest moments — or moment — of Harvey’s 2015. What I don’t think we remember is just how good he was. When you go back to some of Harvey’s 2015 highlights, he doesn’t just look like a good pitcher. He looks dominant. Unhittable. When I took a break in the middle of writing to remember Harvey’s 2015, I was shocked to see just how electric his arm looked as recently as three years ago.

Obviously, Matt Harvey was good. That’s not the point. The point is remembering just how good. Matt Harvey was elite good. Dominant good. For the better part of three seasons, he was Seaver-ian. Gooden-esque. And I’m not exaggerating. At his peak, Matt Harvey was better than any Mets pitcher has been since Doc Gooden in 1985. Even in 2015, a small tic below his 2013 dominance, Harvey turned in what was, among other things, likely the greatest return from Tommy John surgery of all time. He pitched almost 190 innings, not including several postseason starts. Returning from Tommy John surgery, he became a #2 starter on a team with a World Series rotation. That’s not easy to do.

Obviously, we remember the failures. We remember the elation and anxiety when he came out of the dugout to pitch the ninth inning of game 5 of the 2015 World Series, and the anger that almost immediately followed. We remember the nervousness of March 31st, 2016, the date we can retrospectively point to as the beginning of the end of an era, when Harvey, pitching on Opening Day against those loathsome Royals, started the game throwing 94 instead of 98. We remember the bad PR moves and the scandals: the parties, the models, Qualcomm, the anger, the comments. And, of course, we remember the near-6.00 ERA that Harvey has posted since then.

But somehow, I can’t help but think that we’re all remembering Matt Harvey wrong. John Updike wrote of Ted Williams:

It may be that, compared to managers’ dreams such as Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.

When Williams hit a home run in the last at-bat of his career, Updike wrote:

Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Matt Harvey wanted to be Ted Williams. He wanted to be the greatest, and he didn’t seem to care what the fans or the media thought of him. He didn’t want to be a captain or a role model: he just wanted, it seemed, to be the greatest pitcher of all time. For some time, it seemed that he might have the raw talent to accomplish the feat, but then the raw talent left him, even though the mentality didn’t. Matt Harvey has been brought low by the same traits that brought him to the top. His mind and ego, it seems, are unable to cope with the fact that his arm can no longer make him the greatest pitcher who ever was.

But Matt Harvey never got to be Ted Williams, because injuries got in the way and tore his legend down. Harvey has never come off well to fans, even when he was pitching at the top of his game. Today, it’s even worse. He is churlish and rude, dismissive of any suggestion that he has done anything wrong, unwilling to accept that he no longer deserves a spot in a major league rotation. At best, he comes off as overly stubborn; at worst, he is selfish, petty, and deluded. But it’s worth remembering that the personality that today is on full display developed for one reason. Matt Harvey just wanted to pitch. And that’s far from the worst thing in the world.


The Tools of the Trade

2013: A Glove Worthy of a Third Baseman

I turned 16 a few weeks before the 2013 high school baseball season started. It was February, and in my sophomore season, I wanted to be better than the year before. My freshman year, I’d pitched one game, and given up the lead when our third baseman bobbled a ground ball. The game ended in a tie. The weekend after the game, I carried my equipment bag from the hamburger joint where I’d eaten lunch to a practice a mile away, and in doing so, screwed something up in my shoulder. I tried to pitch one more time, but my shoulder couldn’t handle it. I didn’t make another throw until the season was almost over, and it was too late to do anything.

So, my sophomore year, for one, I wanted to move off the mound. Even though I’d barely done anything but pitch the year before, I wasn’t exclusively a pitcher; the contents of my baseball bag would attest to that. I carried three gloves: fielder’s, catcher’s, and first-baseman’s. When people asked what position I played, I would reply “super utility,” and it was true: at one time or another, I’d played every position on the field. Like every fast, skinny kid who couldn’t hit home runs, I wanted to be a shortstop, but I had never been quick enough, so I usually played second or third instead. I picked up first base my freshman year, when I needed a position to play during practice that didn’t require much throwing. If we were ever short a player, my coaches would sometimes stick me in the outfield, and I’d do just fine. I’d even learned to play catcher, years before, just in case. “Learn to catch,” my dad used to tell me. “Every team needs an extra guy who can catch.”

I loved my catcher’s mitt, and was satisfied with my first baseman’s mitt, but I was an infielder at heart, and I wanted the best tools available. So for my 16th birthday, I asked for the best infield glove I could imagine. The David Wright game model.

With the departure of Jose Reyes from the Mets two years before, David Wright had already established himself as my baseball hero. But even if he hadn’t, I think I would have liked his glove. It was a stained brown, almost orange, with blue piping; I could wear my Mets fandom right on my hand. It didn’t have a classic shortstop webbing: the small, criss-crossing bands that formed the web were thicker and firmer, not quite as classically attractive but clearly more tough. It was tough and scrappy, like David Wright. This was a glove meant for playing third base two days after breaking your finger, or diving into the stands to make one of the most incredible catches anyone has ever seen. I had only seen pictures of it online, but I knew it was a glove for a player who meant business. A glove the same color as the infield, so when you dove to block a line drive, the dirt would blend right into the leather. A glove that said, unmistakably, I dare you to try and hit the ball past me.

Third base is a tough, dirty position, the blue-collar version of shortstop, and for that reason, and because David Wright was my favorite player of all time, it was one of my favorite positions to play. They don’t call it “the hot corner” for nothing: 90 feet from the batter, if the ball’s hit right at you, you’ve got less than a second, sometimes less than half a second, to react. Third baseman are the bulldogs of the team, the guys who will run through a wall if that’s what it takes. They’ve got the dirtiest uniforms, the muddiest cleats, the most calloused hands. I always played like I wanted to join them, and this glove fit right in.

The glove finally came in the mail the day before baseball season started. I was at school, but I ran home during a free period, and ripped open the box. There it was, just as I’d imagined it. Bright orange and shining blue, the fingers curving gently towards their rounded tips, the pocket sitting there clean and empty, a broad expanse of leather waiting to be shaped around a baseball. The glove barely flexed when I put it on, and I decided immediately that it wasn’t going to flex at all: I would break it in completely naturally. I grabbed a baseball from the front closet, and as I walked back to school, I smacked the ball into the glove the entire way. Throw, smack. Flip back, catch in bare hand, throw, smack, repeat. I hadn’t made any noticeable progress by the time I got back to school; the glove still wasn’t flexing enough to catch the throws I fired into it from a foot away.


After school that day, I went out to the football field with a friend who hadn’t played baseball the year before, but was hoping to come back to it. We threw the ball around for hours, until it got too dark and cold, and then went home to get ready for tryouts starting the next day. By the time we’d finished, my glove had softened up enough to catch throws, even though it still felt like iron when I tried to close my left hand.

Tryouts came and went, and I made the JV team, the same team that I’d played for the year before. One thing became clear very quickly: I wasn’t a pitcher anymore. Maybe my arm hadn’t come all the way back, or maybe my pitching mind, always delicate, had finally broken. Either way, the only time I pitched that season, I walked nine batters. The coach didn’t put me back on the mound after that.

But I was still the leadoff hitter, and now I moved around the field on defense. I was the starting first baseman for a while; I kept us in one close game when I scooped a throw from the third baseman out of the dirt, even though I also ended that game stranded on third base as the tying run. For a few games, I played left field: I alternated between a friend’s outfield glove and the David Wright glove, which was big enough to wear in the outfield, and I once made one my best throws ever, throwing a runner out at the plate after he’d stolen third and the throw had gone into the outfield. That was the kind of play you made, I figured, when you wore a glove like mine. You couldn’t just make the sexy diving stops; you also had to get the fundamentals right. Back up plays that usually didn’t need your help, and every once in a while, you’d have your moment to shine.

I never really became a pure infielder the way I’d hoped. True to form that year, between my two teams, I played all nine positions on the field. But it was a rare game that I didn’t pull on my new favorite glove and play the field with it, at least for a few innings. By the end of the season, that glove was still too stiff. But it was well on the way to being broken in perfectly, closing like a mousetrap on any ball that came near me with the satisfying snap of a baseball colliding with unyielding leather.


2014: A Feather Pillow for a Violent Position

One year later, the situation was very different. As we gathered outside the coach’s office for final cuts on the last day of tryouts junior year, what I’d already suspected slowly became obvious. I wasn’t going to make varsity.

You were supposed to make varsity junior year, if you were like me. The great players made varsity freshman year; they were the ones you already knew were going to play college ball. If you were pretty good, but needed an extra year to get ready before the big time, you made varsity sophomore year. And if you were average but worked hard, you played two years on JV, then made varsity junior year. At least, that was how it was supposed to happen.

But that year, we had a good freshman class, and enough players entrenched on varsity that I knew pretty quickly that I wasn’t making it. There was one player, I figured, that I was contending with for the final spot on varsity. He was a friend of mine, a Mets fan just like me. He was a better hitter than I was, but had no throwing arm. But he could hit a curveball, and I couldn’t. When he came out of the office and announced that he’d made varsity, I knew my chances were shot.

The news was a formality when I went into the office. The coaches gave it to me straight: you’re not ready yet. I agreed, but I wished it was different. The JV coach was there too, and after they told me that I wasn’t making varsity, he pitched me on staying on JV. You’re valuable, he said; you can play everywhere. You’ll be the most useful guy on the roster, and with an extra year you’ve got a spot on varsity next season.

He’d convinced me — but it hadn’t really been a question. Of course I was going to play. How could I not? I was a baseball player. I like to think I still am. Even when you don’t have a team to play for, the ballplayer spirit doesn’t leave. I still get the urge, every time the weather gets warm, to go out to a field somewhere and take ground balls. Every once in a while, I’ll be sitting around doing nothing, and out of the blue I’ll remember a play I made, or didn’t make. I’ll flick my left hand up and away from me and see in my mind’s eye the perfect motion behind a backhand scoop at first base, or just throw my hands out as if I’m explaining something, and remember fielding an easy grounder. As long as I had the chance, I wasn’t going to pass up another season of baseball.

But there was something else to consider: the coach, as I sat there, had effectively offered me any position I wanted, besides a spot in the pitching rotation. I certainly didn’t want that, but I thought I knew where I wanted to play. So I asked him: “Who do you have catching for JV?”

“No one,” he said. “Probably you.” And without much of a fuss, I secured my full-season spot as starting catcher.

I’ve never been a primary catcher, but I’ve always enjoyed playing the position, if only to show that I can. All teams have an emergency catcher, guys you’ve never heard of like Eric Campbell or Chris Woodward or Don Kelly. That was me, except now, I was asking to play catcher without an emergency. It made sense: even though I’d never been a pure catcher, I was the best catcher the team had.

Shortstop and third base were the positions I always wanted to play, but catching had its own allure. Especially when you’ve got a pitcher who can hit his spots, the catcher is the unseen hero, the player who pulls the strings behind the game, and hopefully, pulls out a win. Catchers don’t just catch — they also call the pitches, set the targets, and frame bad pitches into good ones. And they’re rewarded for it: the catcher is the first player to celebrate, the first to tackle the pitcher in jubilation, and often, the first to be commended for their behind-the-scenes role in a win. And that’s not even mentioning the real reward — the position itself. Forget about the danger, the nervousness, the potential on every pitch for something to go wrong. Each time the pitcher winds up, the catcher has a chance to catch a pitch that brushes a corner, or sweeps past the batter at the knees for a strike. And there are few more beautiful sounds in baseball than a perfect strike exploding into the catcher’s glove, the quick pop and the momentary stillness before time unfreezes and the game resumes its normal speed.

My catcher’s mitt was a big, bulky thing, like most catchers’ mitts are, dark brown and menacing. But beneath the outer layer of toughness was an internal tenderness. Literally: the glove had a soft fur lining that made it a joy to wear, and a leather guard that held the index finger perfectly in place. It wasn’t as menacing as it looked: it was thick and firm, with leather straps hanging off in all directions, but once I caught a few pitches with it, the leather softened up. It was a gentle giant, a big, menacing fellow who was soft on the inside and would never hurt a fly. Fastballs exploded into that mitt like gunshots, but when they hit the pocket in just the right spot, it felt like squeezing a fluffed pillow.

I only played catcher that season, and played almost every game, besides the times the coach wanted to give someone else a shot. Those games, I sat on the bench and and talked baseball with the coach while I spit sunflower seeds, looking like the careless, grizzled veteran that I was quickly becoming. But I still wore my catcher’s mitt on the bench, slamming my fist into the leather or squeezing a ball in the pocket, never stopping until the glove closed around baseballs like a book slamming shut and made every pitch I caught a pleasure to remember.


2015: A Small Glove That’s Boston Tough and a Floppy Piece of Leather

Junior year ended, and to begin my senior season, I bought myself a present. At Paragon Sports, off Union Square in downtown Manhattan, I was in the baseball section when I saw Wilson’s new line of gloves, the all-black A1K. My David Wright game model was an A2K, the highest grade Wilson sold; these weren’t top-line leather like that one, but they were almost as nice, and a real treat to look at.

I bought the Dustin Pedroia model, a small, minimally-padded infielder’s glove with a classic webbing. I’ve always admired Dustin Pedroia: he’s as close as the Red Sox have to their own version of David Wright. He’s not a shortstop, doing backflips and soaring elegantly through the air, defying physics to make a play while somehow looking like a ballet dancer. Rather, he’s a hardworking, hard-playing second baseman, who dives to stop the ball and isn’t afraid to slap a single the other way. His glove mirrors his style of play. When a ball hits the palm of that glove, where most gloves are padded, you feel it. Your hand stings and you pull off the glove and shake your arm out, and it’s as if Dustin Pedroia is saying to you, well, glad you made the play, but catch the ball in the pocket next time.


Quickly, I worked that glove into my rotation. But it didn’t get much time at the start of the season, for a few reasons. I had finally made varsity, and I was working out at catcher. I spent practices catching bullpen sessions, or making throws down to second; sometimes, I worked on blocking balls in the dirt for hours at a time.

But I also wasn’t playing much. I had made varsity, but I was still the same hardworking, marginally talented player who hadn’t made it the year before. When we worked on our defense, I spent most of our practices catching throws in to the plate and tossing them back to the coach while we yammered on about baseball. Often, I was chewing sunflower seeds.

When we went to Florida for our Spring Training trip, I brought all four gloves with me: catcher, first base, Pedroia, Wright. I got to use all four gloves on that trip —  when I was catching for the coach during drills, it didn’t matter which glove I wore, so I chose whichever one I felt like. We played several games on that trip, against other school teams at the same training complex, and I didn’t make an appearance. I sat on the bench watching baseball and conducting the kind of egg-headed analysis that’s always been a big part of my appreciation for the sport. Our coach, who sensed that I was suited for this kind of thing, had given me a job: I timed the opposing catchers. Then I compared their times, combined with their pitchers’ times to the plate, to the speeds of our baserunners. Early in the season, we’d timed everyone on the roster running from first to second. If the pitcher’s time to the plate combined with the catcher’s time to second base was greater than our runners’ times from first to second, we could steal bases with impunity.

I did most of my work from the bench, besides sometimes warming up an outfielder, or catching a pitcher’s warm-ups until the catcher got his gear on. But still, I loved what I was doing. I stood up against the dugout fence most games, shouting baseball lingo and talking analytics with our coach. I even sounded like a ballplayer. “Ayuh, skip, ah, left fielda’s too deep, this guy du’n ha’ any powuh tha’ way.” I watched from the dugout, and one pitch after another, appreciated the last chance I had to spend time on a baseball field.

Twice, I got into games. The first time, I pinch-hit in the bottom of the last inning of a blowout loss. I wasn’t wearing cleats, because the tournament we were at didn’t allow them: when I swung, I almost spun myself into the ground, and I hit a weak grounder back to the pitcher for an out. The second time, we had a safe lead, and in the middle of the game, around the fourth inning, the coach called out to me.

“Schapiro,” he said. “First base.” I pulled on my first baseman’s mitt, jogged out to my position, and started throwing grounders to the infield.

Of all my gloves, my first baseman’s mitt is probably the one I’m least attached to, which is ironic, because I bought it convinced that first baseman’s mitts were the greatest thing ever. I tried one out at camp when I was 10 or 11, and was amazed. It wasn’t firm like the Wright, or bulky like my catcher’t mitt: it closed around throws like a briefcase or a laptop snapping shut, with the ball was nestled in the pocket. In a first baseman’s mitt, it was impossible to drop a ball. Any time a throw came near me, the glove would flash out, and the ball would lodge itself inside, just above my thumb and forefinger, crushed between two parallel leather sides with no chance of escape.

So after I got home that summer, I bought my own. It was a cheap one, which explains why I’m not so attached today: the leather has gotten soft to the point of floppiness, and sometimes, there’s just too much of it. You can’t put a finger out, because there’s nowhere comfortable for it to go, and the webbing is loose enough that occasionally, a perfectly placed throw will come screaming into the pocket and lodge itself between two leather bands, and I’ll be lucky if it’s not completely stuck.

But still, I liked that first-base mitt. There’s nothing like sweeping the dirt to scoop a low-bouncing throw to first: it’s a gesture that’s simultaneously blue-collar and opulent, almost royal. You’re digging in the dirt with a loose piece of leather, trying to scoop up a furiously spinning projectile…but at the same time, it almost feels extravagant. The gesture is a mere flick of the hand, almost the same motion you’d use to casually order an underling to move out of your way. It’s attention-grabbing too: often, first basemen, after they’ve made a particularly tough scoop, can’t resist striking a pose for half a second afterwards, holding the ball triumphantly in their glove and knowing that they’re the center of attention on the field.

But at the same time, it’s an undeniably dirty, everyman motion. Making a scoop at first almost perfectly sums up baseball. Dirt flies everywhere; your pants, your jersey, your face. If the ball is far out, your knee too. You bend to make the play, and the ball smacks into a mitt caked with light brown infield dirt, and throws up a cloud of dust that you’ll find traces of later, inside your shirt or in your hair. And then, after your second of glory, you act like nothing has happened, toss the ball back to the pitcher, and go on with the game.

Not much happened when I came in to play first. We had a lead we weren’t going to give up, and the other team wasn’t hitting the ball. I had one at-bat; I gave the ball a solid ride to the outfield, but a perfectly positioned outfielder caught it. In my last inning in the field, our opponents had men on first and second, nobody out. The batter sent a line drive toward shortstop; out shortstop picked it off near the ground and flipped to second for one out. On it came to me, and I caught it for the double play.

Or so I thought. I wasn’t sure. Because the umpire at second base had signaled “out” as soon as our shortstop had fielded the ball, which could have meant that he’d caught it on the fly, in which case we’d just doubled off two runners and turned a triple play. Even my honed baseball mind slowed down as I mulled it over. Was the batter out because his line drive had been caught, or because he hadn’t reached first base? Were the runners out because they’d failed to get back to their previous bases, or because they’d failed to advance to the next ones? It turned out that it was just a conventional 6-4-3 double play, even though the umpire had signaled otherwise, but we got the last out of the inning, and ran in to the dugout, where our coach was waiting for an explanation.

So we told him. We thought he had the catch at short, we said, and thought we’d just made the third out of the inning at first base. Our coach nodded in understanding, and we went on with the game. That inning on offense, we took a ten run lead, which meant the mercy rule was invoked and the game ended. It also meant that I’d seen the last action of my high school baseball career. But I thought it was fitting. To end my time as a baseball player, I’d made a catch at first base, and then given our coach a complex analysis of the play.


2018: Finally, a Glove for a Defensive Wizard

I still have all four gloves that I used in high school. I don’t play much baseball anymore, so they don’t see much action, but every summer, when I go back to work as a camp counselor, they come out of the bag once again.

My first baseman’s mitt continued its descent into floppiness. I still use it, but I wouldn’t if I was a competitive first baseman. The floppiness allows theatrical plays that would be impossible with other gloves, but it also makes routine plays much harder than they should be. I don’t see myself buying a new first baseman’s mitt any time soon though: a cheap piece of leather will do just fine.

I still bring out my catcher’s mitt from time to time, when I’ve got to warm up a hard-throwing pitcher or I just want to play catcher for a change. That mitt hasn’t changed much at all. I don’t catch many pitchers who throw like the ones I caught in high school, but when I do, it’s the same feeling. The ball explodes into the mitt with that satisfying pop, and yet, behind the plate, all I feel is soft leather, as if I’m squeezing a baseball inside a cloud. Every so often, thanks to that glove, I’ll remember why I loved playing catcher.

The Pedroia and the Wright get more use than the others. Coaching one of my brother’s baseball practices, tossing with a friend, playing our annual summer softball game against counselors from another camp — usually, I’ll use the Wright and give the Pedroia to whoever needs an extra glove, or vice versa, if I feel like giving the Pedroia a shot. The Pedroia is still in perfect condition, the leather still a dark, shiny black with grey accents, the pocket still nicely formed. I get the sense that I’ll have that glove for a while, maybe never as a primary, but always as a dependable option — it really lives up to the Red Sox second baseman who wears it.

The Wright, through high school and long into college, was still my number one. Even as the leather started to crust over and crack; as the dark spot where my index finger rested became uncomfortable and sharp, and then started to sink; the webbing, ever so slowly, got looser, until the fingers started to move when a ball hit them; that glove was still perfect. I could still see the perfectly baseball-sized space in the pocket, and I felt it every time I caught a throw.

But one day at camp last summer, in the midst of some rushed, stressful activity or another, I left the Wright on the baseball field bleachers. I didn’t find out until later, when it had started to rain and we were camped out in the gym until the storm passed. A camper mentioned to me that he’d seen my glove out on the field, and I sprinted out, saw that he’d been right, and ran my glove back to the gym, shielding it under my jacket as I went.

It dried out after a few days, but the soaking seemed to accelerate its decline. I still used it, but I used the Pedroia more. And the uncertainty continued until late into the fall, when I decided: I’m going to buy a new glove.

The Wright has served me well. It gave me six years of perfection, and now, I’ll phase it into a backup slot. Its pocket, after all, is still perfect, and there’s no reason not to bring it out every once in a while.

But while I’m using the Wright, I’ll start phasing in the new one. It’s a real beauty, tan and brown leather with a classic web; I bought it at Paragon last week, and when I got home, I sat around for a while whacking my glove with a mallet, enjoying the feeling of leather ready for shaping. Somehow the leather already looks worn, like a glove out of the 1940s. It’s smaller than the Wright, just by half an inch or so, but even that tiny difference has a feel to it. This one finally feels like a true shortstop’s glove, the kind of glove you’d see on a fielder with the grace of a gazelle and the strength of a mountain lion, who can throw while sliding or jumping or on his knees. It feels like the kind of glove you’d do quick-hands drills with, the kind where by the time you’ve caught the ball it’s already in your bare hand ready to throw, as if the film has skipped a frame. My hands already feel quicker; I feel like Ozzie Smith or Omar Vizquel or any of those guys who you figure have some kind of superhuman abilities, because how else could their hands work together that quickly? And now I’m just itching to get back on a baseball field.

I’ve thrown with the new guy a few times, and mashed a baseball into the pocket more times than I can remember, and still it’s sitting there obstinate, reluctant to take shape. But it’ll come around and form a pocket, and soon it’ll stop being the new one, and I’ll give it a name of its own.


Beni and the Mets

I was going over depth charts earlier tonight, getting ready for my fantasy baseball draft tomorrow night, when I came across Andrew Benintendi’s name midway down the outfielder chart. I moved it up a few spots as soon as I saw it. And in that moment, I almost shivered with excitement for baseball season.

I saw one of Benintendi’s first games, back in April 2017. He didn’t have a hit that day, but already, Boston was excited about their new, lefty-hitting outfielder, maybe because that description sounds pretty familiar. I checked in on him occasionally as the season went on, and when it ended, his numbers were right about where you expected them: .271/.352/.424, 20 homers, 20 steals.


I don’t know how the Red Sox find these guys. Honestly, I don’t. Whether it’s Benintendi or Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis or Jason Varitek or Bill Mueller, they always manage to find players who make you love baseball even more than you already do. Guys who aren’t superstars but are hard workers, who won’t win MVP (usually) but will play the game the right way, and leave it all on the field. Sure they’re clichés, but the facts are unimpeachable.

How can you not love a guy like Andrew Benintendi? Whether or not he grows into a star this year, or merely has a repeat, solid performance, the kid’s already a captain in the making. He doesn’t play David Wright’s position, but he certainly reminds me of the early days of David’s career. He’ll be a solid outfielder for a while yet; that much seems fairly easy to believe. But along the way, he might just become the face of the Red Sox, and when your team has a new face, it’s always worth getting excited about.

Which brings me to the Mets, who’ve found themselves in need of a face recently. Sure, we’ve got five pitchers who might have qualified at one time, or might qualify in the future, but for some reason, I just don’t see any of them as the face of our team right now. They haven’t been around long enough, or might not be around much longer, or just haven’t been all that good. Obviously, there’s David Wright, who’ll be our captain until the day he retires. But he may never play again, and won’t for at least eight weeks. So much as it pains me to say it, he’s not the face of the Mets either. There’s Michael Conforto, but he won’t play until May either, and despite the beauty of his swing, he’s played for a few years now, and hasn’t managed to put together a full, star-level season.

So who’s the young, up-and-coming face of our team? Our Andrew Benintendi? I see two fairly obvious candidates, so obvious, in fact, that I’m giving it to each of them as a co-award: Brandon Nimmo and Amed Rosario. For an eternal optimist like me, at least, it’s hard not to be excited about either one of them. You’ve got Nimmo in the outfield, wearing high socks, always smiling, taking a walk every game and shooting the ball all over the field. You’ve got Amed at short, covering ground like a jackrabbit, hitting line drives from whichever spot in the order he’s been given, and always coming off the field happy.

They’re not Andrew Benintendi. But we’re the Mets; we don’t really get guys like Andrew Benintendi. Each of our guys is flawed; neither has hit for much power so far, Nimmo hasn’t proven himself yet, and Amed doesn’t walk enough. But they’ve got every chance in the world to turn into quality everyday players this year, and a decent shot after that to anchor our lineup for years to come. And even if it all ends up coming to nothing, for now, I’d say that’s something to be excited about.