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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s Always Warm Somewhere

I know this much about Port St. Lucie today: it was cloudy.

I wish I could say that I knew this because I was there and saw the clouds in person. Watching Noah Syndergaard tossing his bullpen, sometimes glancing over at Rafael Montero throwing behind him, and others still further back, I might have noticed that the pitchers’ shadows weren’t as well-defined as they’d been a few minutes before, and I would have looked up, and realized that clouds had hidden the sky.

But I can’t say that, because everything I know about Port St. Lucie today, I learned from a picture I looked at while I waited in line for lunch. This was around 2:00 in the afternoon, and I was still trying to shake myself dry, since it was raining outside, in addition to being far too cold. So I went on Twitter because I’d heard that there was some activity in Port St. Lucie, and sure enough, there were Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero throwing in the bullpen, although I got the feeling that the person who’d taken the photograph had really only been focused on one of them. And it was cloudy there too.

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Tidbits fluttered in over the Spring Training wire all day, and most of them made me wish I was there. Some people mentioned how nice the weather was, which I thought was rude, considering what the northeast was enduring. Then there were pictures of Zack Wheeler with a beard and our big four starters in shorts, news that Wheeler had been injecting himself with some kind of bone growth drug for the last six months, and not a single sign of David Wright, which made the ache I felt when I thought about how I wanted to be there just a little bit better.

There was also an update on a bowling trip, an interview with Rob Gsellman, some arguments about Jay Bruce, and some jokes about the Yankees from Anthony Swarzak, who seems like a swell guy. After each of these, I imagined finally getting back to Citi Field. Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, the rain just refused to let up. Later in the afternoon, all of a sudden, someone mentioned baseball cards, and I found myself thinking of the blown-up cards you find all over Citi Field, hanging here and there, arranged without any sort of order. That made me think of just how badly I wanted baseball to come back, and that made me realize that Spring Training games were only a week and change away.

Here is a fact: there are 45 days until Opening Day. I know this because not long after I learned that I would be in attendance, I downloaded a countdown app and Opening Day was the first date I plugged in. There are 45 days and 11 hours, give or take, left until Thursday, March 29th at 1:00 p.m. This might sound strange until you realize that the clocks will jump ahead that extra hour exactly one month from today, and catapult us closer to baseball season.

But about those 45-days: between this moment and the first pitch of the first game of the first season of the rest of our lives, there is also an eternity. In 45 days, I will laugh when I remember what I called an eternity 45 days ago, but today, that eternity is still ahead. There’s Valentine’s Day and President’s Day and papers and stories and applications to get done, and only after all that will we catch our first glimpse of our guys on their home turf. Unless, that is, you’re going to the Mets Welcome Home Dinner, which I got an email about late last night. I noticed that there was an option to sit at a table with Noah Syndergaard, but then I saw that this option — with an inventory of one, you’d think, unless they’ve got Noah sprinting back and forth — was sold out. The table with Mickey Calloway was still available, but I didn’t think $35,000 was worth it. I scrolled down the list to find the cheapest ticket available, and saw that it was $1500, which was still about 50 times what I was willing to pay.

The price didn’t matter after I checked the date of the dinner, because I already had plans. Billy Joel is in town that night, and I’ve got two tickets and a date. And we’ve got plans the next day too. They start the moment we wake up and end when we leave Citi Field after an Opening Day win. And I thought of these plans as I sat in bed reading Emily Brontë and pining for baseball season, and knew that that the regular season would start like it does every year, and until it did, I would be just fine.

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A Queens Love Affair

As I left the subway station that morning in April, I reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped out into the sun. It was earlier and colder than I was used to; barely past 10:30 in the morning, maybe 60 degrees. But the crowds were gathered anyway, and I joined them in line.

There were lines outside Citi Field, actual, longish lines, the first ones I’d ever seen this early before a game. You could sense the love in the line, and the joy. Two pin enthusiasts were comparing collections behind me, and sharing stories of hard-to-find pins. “So they said, ‘it’s one of those pin guys,’” one told the other, “and they sent me up to the top level, they said they had a few more up there.” He pointed to a pin on his heavily bedecked lanyard. He was also wearing a hat covered in pins, over a hat without any pins at all.

“You think they let me in with this?” the other asked, as he pulled out a plastic bag full of pins. They talked about that for a while, but didn’t settle on an answer.

They opened the doors eventually, and I had two hours to kill before first pitch. I spun the inaugural Mets Prize Wheel, and ate a grilled cheese with steak from a brand new concession stand. Then, long before game time but with nothing else to do, I took my seat, first base side of home plate in the upper deck, and waited. A bearded man across the aisle from me asked if I’d be sitting in these seats all year, and I told him, unfortunately not.

Finally, the teams took the field for introductions, and it was everything I’d dreamed of. The red, white, and blue bunting hanging off the stands; the logo, the same as the one on the pin and commemorative ball I’d bought, spray painted on the grass; Howie Rose at the podium in the middle of the infield. There was Daniel Murphy, the perennial solid hitter. There was Jacob deGrom, coming off his Rookie of the Year award, getting ready to start. And of course, there was the captain, ready to do what he’d always done, and play ball.

It was a textbook 2015 Mets performance; a combined shutout, a Familia save, a few runs eked out on sac flies and singles. After Familia shut the door, I took the subway home. Then I wrote the first home game recap in Shea Bridge Report history.

We all remember what happened next; the thrilling early-season winning streak, the slide into mediocrity, the trading deadline pandemonium that left us without Carlos Gomez but with Yoenis Cespedes, the climb into first place, and the drive to the World Series that braked a few days too soon. But I remember that day, Opening Day of 2015, in particular. It’s not every day, after all, that a passionate love affair begins.

 *           *           *

Things tend to get lonely during the offseason, especially if you don’t have much of a team to look back on. It’s six months without so much as a glimpse of the team we love, getting by on scattered tv appearances, the occasional media announcement, and lots and lots of twitter. Being a Mets fan isn’t quite comparable to a love affair; it’s more like a long distance relationship. Six months on, six months off, being apart for far too long, and sometimes, really hard to manage, but nevertheless, worth it all the while.

I’d loved the Mets before 2015, obviously; I’d loved the Mets since around noon on April 18th, 2004, when my little league bus pulled into the Shea Stadium parking lot and I saw the building in all its royal blue glory for the first time. But things changed in 2015. The love became different. I was thinking differently about the Mets, and I was writing differently too. Suddenly, I was one of those baseball philosophers. Baseball was everything; baseball was love, joy, childhood, America. The whole lot.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Mets were winning, and winning a lot. No matter how it ended, the 2015 season was the best one I can remember, and maybe the best one of my life. I’m nowhere near old enough to remember 1999 or 2000, but I can’t imagine either of them topping 2015 by a substantial margin.

But it wasn’t just the winning that changed things; my life changed too. I played my last season of competitive baseball (“played” is too generous a word; I had three at-bats and played a few innings at first base), and wrote about my first. I went off to school, and started taking writing classes: I read John Updike and Hunter S. Thompson, and outside of class, I read Roger Angell.

Then 2015 turned to 2016, and the Mets weren’t quite as good, but they were still a helluva fun team to follow. That September, I went off to school again; as I was on the treadmill on my first day, I heard Matt Reynolds, allegedly coming off a series of plane rides and only 45 minutes sleep, hit a home run against the Reds to lead us to a crucial win in our pursuit of the wild card. Of course, it was a wildcard we’d go on to lose in excruciating fashion, but nevertheless, it was another easy team to love.

We should have been in the World Series again in 2016. If we’d beaten the Giants, we’d surely have beaten the Cubs and their paltry bullpen, then the Dodgers, who we’ve proven we can beat, then the World Series…but we didn’t. So it was the Cubs who were playing game four of the World Series on Saturday, October 29th, 2016. It was a blowout. The Indians took the lead in the top of the second, and didn’t look back.

But later that night, out for burgers, one more thing happened that changed the way I thought about life and baseball. Across the cafeteria, I saw a girl in a dress that immediately caught my eye.

How I found out who she was is a long story; given how many times I’ve been made to retell it, I’ll save it for later right now. But later that week, we started talking. And naturally, my mind turned to baseball. She wasn’t much of a fan, it turned out. Didn’t know the game too well — but she knew what she knew. She knew about Justin Verlander. She knew that the World Series was going on. She knew that Bartolo Colón was ugly, because I sent her a picture and she laughed out loud.

We met in person for the first time the next weekend, and saw each other every day. Soon enough, we left for Winter break. One night over the long vacation, she sent me a message. And I realized that I’d fallen in love for the second time in my life.

*           *           *

“Cause I’ve been in love before // and I’ve found that love is more // than just holding hands,” go the lyrics by the greatest band of all time. So the question is: what is love?

It’s hard to define, probably for a reason, and a good reason at that. It’s different for different people, as it should be. But there are some things it always does, or always should do. It drags itself to the front of your mind despite attempts to think about other things. It transcends rational thought. It becomes everything.

Sound familiar? Sounds an awful lot like being a Mets fan. And it is, I’ve learned. Sometimes, they’re even the same.

I took her to her first Mets game a few weeks into the 2017 season, her first baseball game ever besides the Red Sox game we’d been to the weekend before. They lost. We’d come back twice more in August before she’d get her first win. By then there weren’t too many players left from the 2015 team that I’d fallen in love with on a whole new level. Cespedes was there, and Conforto, and Flores, and Rafael Montero doesn’t count. But besides that? It was all newbies. Rookies and free agents and Hansel Robles. And I loved the team on the field ever bit as much as I had two years before.

Transcends rational thought — check. What else would you call it? We fall in and out of love with individual players we’ve never met, based on who they play for or how they’re doing, which can change from one inning to the next. We stake our health and happiness on the outcome of the game on the field, the game we’re not good enough to play anymore, but we’re happy to watch. Sometimes, it’s frustrating; sometimes, it’s downright painful. But we keep at it. And everyone who’s reading this knows exactly why we do it. We keep at it because keeping at it makes the result worth it, no matter what that result may be. It’s a logical fallacy in its finest form.

But here’s the thing: we’d never in a lifetime stop, even if we could. Who wants to live in a world without anything illogical? For everything completely inexplicable, midnight frenzies for book releases and millions of fans of baseball teams and walking aimlessly in the woods simply because you enjoy the person you’re with, there are millions of stories of people made happy, inexplicable and illogical as it may be. Which brings us back to love and being a Mets fan.

I sent her a Mets cap, and bought her a Conforto t-shirt, her favorite player. It’s important to have a favorite player, I told her early on; David Wright will always be mine, but you gotta pick your own, whether it’s David Wright or someone else. She’d never seen David Wright play; still never has, in fact. Travis d’Arnaud won best-looking, edging out Brandon Nimmo, but overall favorite came down to a different set. And after Walker and Reed left, Conforto officially secured the honor. In turn, she took up the Mets on her own time.

Early on, she’d picked up on my thing for David Wright. The giant David Wright head I displayed on my wall may have clued her in; I never thought to ask. When we’d been texting, early on, she’d briefly thought I was gay — when I talked about David Wright. It goes to show, I guess, that she’s incredibly perceptive. She read Greg Prince’s memoir, one of the great Mets companions of all time. For my birthday, she gave me an enormous Citi Field puzzle that we assembled on the floor under my bed. She also ordered me a Mets t-shirt — but it came in the wrong size. So she kept it for herself, and got me another.

So sometime around then, when I found myself asking what love really was, I had two definitions. First it’s a ballclub that can tear you down and lift you right back up again, a team that brings together old and young in mutual celebration and despair. It’s a team that sometimes wins and sometimes loses but always gives everything it has; a group of players working together to bring a trophy back to Queens, unlikely as it may seem; a collective conscience that tells us to stand with two strikes and two outs, to applaud when a pitcher leaves the game, and to forgive Daniel Murphy for leaving, since it really wasn’t his choice to make. Love is a team in Queens that will always be there for us, even if we’re not there to watch it, and love is why we’ll always come back.

And it’s other things too. Love is someone who appreciates good food like Ralph Kramden, a good baseball story like Roger Angell, a fun game like Seth Lugo, and good fundamentals like Keith Hernandez. It’s someone with a sense of adventure like Harry Potter and a sense of humor like Jerry Seinfeld. Someone as loyal as Noah Syndergaard, as naive and innocent as Calvin and Hobbes, as immature as Roger McDowell, and as happy as David Wright when the Mets win the pennant. And it’s someone who understands every single one of those references.

*           *           *

Everything was perfect. There was just one problem: she was two years ahead of me.

In mid-May, I took my last exam, then went home for a few days. I took in a game while I was home, a 7-5 win over the Angels. Jose Reyes was three for four, Conforto doubled, Reed got the save. She would have loved it, I thought to myself.

Then, a few days later, I was back at school for graduation. A few extra days — but nearly long enough. Soon, it was Monday morning, and the dorms were closing. She drove off early in the morning; I lay in bed for a few hours, immobile and barely thinking, almost bludgeoned by sadness, then took the train back to New York. I watched The Office the entire ride. That helped a little.

I was back at Citi Field the next day for Tyler Pill’s major league debut. In the bottom of the 12th, Jay Bruce drove home T.J. Rivera for the walk-off win. She loved Jay Bruce; ever since I’d predicted that he’d be bad, and then he’d turned out ok, she’d treasured his success all the more. That RBI helped a lot.

I went away to work for the Summer, and she stayed home in Michigan working, but then, later on in the Summer, she came to town again. We went to two more games; she got her first win, an 8-1 blowout, and was introduced to the pitching phenomenon that is Rafael Montero. We drove back to Michigan and spent a week; we even took in a Tigers game, marred slightly by the fact that the Yankees beat them 10-2. But all too soon, I was on a plane back to New York. Then there was a semester apart, but for a brief visit at Thanksgiving, and then Winter Break started. In the middle of all this, the 2018 schedule was released; Opening Day was Thursday, March 29th, the Thursday of my Spring Break. Did she have enough vacation days to make the trip? It appeared so.

As I write this, I’m sitting at her desk in her office in her home state of Michigan, near the end of a ten day trip. We’ve seen two movies, lots of Seinfeld episodes, and a Red Wings game; we’ve escaped a room, eaten a free dinner, gone bowling, set a high score on a local arcade’s football throwing game, and gotten several incredible sandwiches. But all too soon, I’ll be on another plane, headed back home again.

I hope I have a window seat on that plane, but even if I don’t, I’ll make do. And as we fly into Laguardia, I’ll gaze out the window at the ground, where Citi Field might just be visible, and I’ll think of my two loves, and of Opening Day 2018, when I’ll be with both of them again.

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Putting the Bruce in Backbone

Call all the newspapers, shout it to the world, and get David Wright in the room, because the Mets have discovered a miracle spinal solution. No, I’m not speaking literally — but almost. Jay Bruce is back, and with him, a semblance of legitimacy.

The deal came together late last night in a sudden, rapid flood of  information; minutes after learning that Bruce was close to a deal with a mystery team, we learned that the mystery team was us. We reacted like we always do: disjointedly. We were thrilled, quietly appeased, dejected, revolted. Some of us couldn’t quite tell why.

Me, I used to get excited about deals like this, back when they were all we had to look forward to; deals like Bartolo Colón and Michael Cuddyer and Luís Castillo. Not Cespedes deals, not hundreds of millions, but not Anthony Swarzak either, not nobodies. I don’t exactly get excited about deals like these anymore — it’s more of a reassuring feeling of contentment. And I’m not even sure which is better.

You know what they say about championship teams (or at least, what I say about championship teams, that I think they should say too); on offense, all you need is a lineup with no easy outs. You get that done, and you already have the advantage. It’s why players like Steven Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, in one year of slightly above averageness, can bring the Red Sox to the World Series, and why Kelly Johnson and a slightly improved Curtis Granderson can bring us there as well. Sure we had the pitching — but the offense has to do something. And it starts with not giving away a single batter.

Like in 2006, when we didn’t have a second baseman until Jose Valentín started hitting like a starter, and suddenly we did. Or 1986 and Wally Backman. Or 1969 and Ken Boswell. The superstars, the Carlos Beltrans and the Doc Goodens and the Tom Seavers of the world, keep the team gunning furiously for the top spot. But they can’t get there without eight hitters, five starters, seven relievers, and a bench, and that’s where the rest of the team and Jay Bruce come in.

Jay Bruce won’t win us a World Series on his own. He’s a career .249 hitter with some power, some leadership, and some Texas upbringing. But what he can do is contribute. He can drive home Conforto from second with a single, or from third with a sac fly, or even see a few more pitches, so the opposition has to dig into its bullpen a batter early. Or, of course, he could hit the ball over the fence, as he’s done 69 times in the last two years, and 29 times last year before he departed for Cleveland, seemingly oblivious to the home run graveyard that is Citi Field.

All of which is to say: Jay Bruce isn’t great. But he’s competent. And you can’t win until you’re competent, and stocked up with players like Jay Bruce. Put the best pitchers in the world on the mound, and bat Eric Campbell fourth and John Mayberry fifth, and we’ve all seen what happens. But Jay Bruce and another competent bat…well, now we’ve got a chance.

Not that a chance is all we should have, or all we deserve; I don’t mean to say we’ve done enough, and in fact, I mean the very opposite. We should do more: more like this. More hitters who can hit and pitchers who can pitch. If we don’t do more, we may well be sunk; Jay Bruce can’t bring a team back to competence, let alone competition, by himself. But he can contribute, and that’s all any one player in this wonderful game of ours can do.

Baseball’s a team sport — the ultimate team sport. You get on base, and unless you can steal the next three, there’s not much you can do. So you need teammates who can help you out and bring you home, but they can’t all be superstars. Some of them are just going to be Jay Bruce: hitters who know how to hit and work hard at it, doing their best to win and not usually thrilling, but sometimes succeeding.

Sports are known for their players, and among those players, the best ones stand out: it’s unavoidable, and not at all undesirable. But sometimes, it also makes us forget how the game works. Three or four players can do the bulk of the work for a team, but they can’t do it all: they need the rest of the team’s help. And Jay Bruce, and players like him, the guys on deals that aren’t too short but aren’t too long, who can hit and throw well enough to help out, are happy to provide the help. Jay Bruce will do his work, have his occasional moments, and help our team as much as he can, quietly, along with hundreds of other players like him, serving as the backbone of our national pastime.

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Boycott Meets World

In August of 2002, as Major League Baseball appeared headed for a strike, Bill Simmons had a solution: a boycott.

“Fans have to take matters into their own hands. And there’s only one thing to do. Yup. Strike. Turn our backs and walk away,” he wrote. “And couldn’t you? Couldn’t we all? Isn’t there enough happening in our lives where we could collectively say, ‘Screw it, we’re not buying tickets anymore’?”

He wasn’t alone: angry at the prospect of another debilitating strike, only eight years after a labor stoppage had forced Major League Baseball to cancel a postseason for the first time since 1904, thousands of fans had taken up arms to avert a similar result. Heather Holdridge organized a one-day boycott of baseball on July 11th. Don Wadewitz created http://www.mlbfanstrike.com, cited by Simmons in his column, and a similar website, http://www.wethefans.com, was created by an internet personality nicknamed Commando Dave.

And the idea of boycotting to save baseball was nothing new. Rob Godfrey, founder of the National Baseball Fan Association, organized a walkout from Veteran’s Stadium in 1985, just as the prospect of a strike loomed. Eric Yaverbaum, founder of the anti-strike organization Strike Back, organized a letter-writing campaign, urging fans to promise that for every game canceled, they would skip a game once the strike ended. The 1985 strike ended in only two days.

In 1990, as a strike once again loomed and Spring Training was canceled, boycotts once again came to the fore. Robert Johnson, an accountant from Huntington Beach, California, started the “Orange County Fan Revolt.” Yaverbaum’s organization gathered more than 10,000 letters. Godfrey announced his support for any group that boycotted baseball, and collected letters urging the game to resume, which he planned to dump on then-commissioner Fay Vincent’s porch. In 1990, crisis was averted, but just barely: the lockout didn’t end until March 19th, which forced the cancellation of Spring Training and moved Opening Day back by a week.

In all of these cases, of course, there were dissenting voices. Often, the argument was that boycotts simply weren’t effective: in 1990, the Los Angeles Times reported that “fan unrest has had little effect,” and in 2002, ABC News cited Bruce Johnson, an economics professor at Centre College in Kentucky, in reporting that “A July 11 baseball boycott might give angry fans a way to blow off steam, but probably won’t achieve much more.” Even Bill Simmons found the idea far-fetched, at first: in a column announcing his support for a boycott, he asked, rhetorically, “A baseball strike by fans? That would never work. Something like 20 million fans attend baseball games every season … how could you get them all on the same page?”

But there was another, related issue as well: people didn’t want to boycott. Angry as they were, it didn’t seem right to give up on baseball. “One thing stops us from making that fateful leap off the bandwagon, a collective forcefield of memories and affection,” Bill Simmons wrote. “There’s too much history here. You can’t turn your back on baseball. It’s sacrilege.”

But nevertheless, Simmons thought the necessity of the boycott could trump fans’ desire for baseball. For one, he wrote, they could still follow the game through TV, radio, and newspaper reporting, only stopping short of giving money to the teams. And for another, baseball wasn’t such a big part of life anyway. “I only attend eight to 10 Red Sox games per season, partly because it’s impossible to find tickets, partly because of the price ($55 and up for good seats), partly because the allure of Fenway Park has faded for me over the years (when a baseball park doubles as an insufferable, uncomfortable dump, that tends to happen),” he wrote. “So what’s that? Eight nights a year where I have to find something else to do? I could handle that, couldn’t I?”

Maybe he could have, or maybe not. We never got to find out. On August 30th, 2002, a strike was averted, and the game could go on, boycott free. Everyone was happy, fans came back to the seats, and two years later, Bill Simmons’ Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

***

Calls to boycott are nothing new to Mets fans. We’re a team that’s usually bad, with an internet presence that is volatile, reactive, and highly invested, with owners who couldn’t appear more malevolent or downright villainous if they tried. It’s almost the perfect storm.

Looking around google, I found calls for boycott in 2009, 2010, and 2012, and I’m sure I’m missing more than a few. There are certainly others: my memory isn’t fanciful enough to conjure up all the calls for boycott I’m sure I remember in the last few years. Even in 2015, Mike Vaccaro was writing about Mets fans, “so many of them angry at the owners, angry at the GM, angry at the manager, angry at just about everything, so many of them calling for boycotts…” A change.org petition calls on Mets fans to boycott the team next season until the Mets reach the top five in payroll.

On Twitter, the calls for a boycott come daily, or more. They’ve gained steam recently: with Marc Carig’s recent column in Newsday possibly serving as a catalyst, the #MetsBoycott movement, also attached to #MetsFansUnited, has reportedly gained more than 300 members in less than two days.

Maybe you’re waiting for my thesis; in a way, I am too. But here it is, as best I can phrase it, and as best I understand it in its current form: a boycott is a difficult process, and a sincerely honorable one for fans willing to go to great lengths to express their displeasure — their correct displeasure — with the way the Mets are being run. But as important a process as it is, there is simply no way I could ever take part.

I love the Mets more than just about anything. Sitting here, on this cold December night, any thought of baseball, any passing thought of anything like it at all, brings a temporary rush of happiness, and evokes memories of sitting in the upper deck on a warm August evening, the sun setting as the Mets play down on the field. I can’t and won’t give that up, not even if it might make my team better. I love the Mets with all my heart no matter how many games they win, and honestly, that seems like the end of it. I’m too much of a Mets fan to boycott, because I can’t help but think that watching a bad team is better than not watching a team at all. It may seem overly simplistic, but that’s just the truth.

It’s incredibly easy to hate everything the Wilpons have done; they’ve left us broke and barren, unable to afford the players we desperately need, all but the laughingstock of a league we once routinely ruled. But the Mets aren’t the Wilpons. The Wilpons are temporary obstacles, who will be gone eventually, and that day can’t come soon enough. I’m not willing to let them keep me from my team.

I don’t claim to know Bill Simmons particularly well, but I do think I know this: he doesn’t really believe himself when he says that the allure of Fenway Park has faded, or when he writes that it “doubles as an insufferable, uncomfortable dump.” I’m not even a Red Sox fan, and I know that that’s not Fenway. And Citi Field is no Fenway Park — but its allure still hasn’t worn off on me. It’s easy to be angry; as a Mets fan, I’m angry most days, for one reason or another. But it’s not nearly as easy to boycott the team I love.

Boycott with my blessing, not that you need it; the Wilpons should certainly be exposed to the anger Mets fans hold towards them, and a boycott is a fine way to accomplish that. But I can’t join you. I’m a Mets fan, so I go to Mets games, and much as I’d like to express my displeasure with the way things are run, I can’t, and won’t, stop going to games to do so. Putting on the orange and blue, taking the seven to Citi, and eating a hot dog in the stands is as close to perfect as life can be, and that’s what I’ll do, even if the Mets aren’t as good as I’d like.

It’s not a rational decision; nothing about being a Mets fan is. It’s strictly emotional, borne of the simple realization that nothing accomplished by any boycott, whether the sale of the team or a World Series title, would be worth isolating myself from the Mets. Some people may feel differently; I’m not here to call them wrong. But my opinion stands.

Would Bill Simmons have gone through with his threat to boycott the Red Sox, if the players had gone on strike? I don’t know, but I do know this: I have appreciated every Mets game I’ve ever been to, and they all play into the lifelong, constantly-evolving story of what makes me a fan. And I’m not willing to give that up, not even for a necessary boycott. You call it irrational; I call it loving the Mets, the most ineptly-managed wonderful team I know. It doesn’t make much sense to love such a team so much, especially when ownership drives us into a ditch and doesn’t seem intent on moving forward any time soon. But that won’t stop me from giving it my best shot.

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