The wait is inexorably shrinking: day one of the 2016 season approaches, and soon after that, day one at Citi Field.
Unfortunately, Opening Day at Citi Field is off the table for me this year: there’s simply too much going on. But I’ll be back soon after Friday’s celebration of a new year and the defending National League champions: one day, to be precise.
That’s right – the tickets are booked, the plans made. I’m going back to New York, with two days to take in six hours of Mets baseball and then get out while the getting is good.
The first game of the year at Citi Field and, formerly, Shea Stadium. It’s an annual pilgrimage, almost a rite of passage, and seeing as how, since I started going to Mets games, I haven’t stopped, I have a “first game of the year” every year.
My first game of 2004, my first ever, was an April afternoon matinee against the Pirates. Jae Seo on the mound, the heart of the Art Howe era. And boy, did they play like it. We lost 8-1, on the way to a lost season. It was before David Wright, after the heyday of Piazza, during Reyes’ bad year…there was nothing much to get excited about. And I was over the moon.
How could I not be? It was a Mets game — a real, live Mets game, like I’d been watching on TV. All the stories I’d heard about Mike Piazza were right there behind the plate for me to see. All the talk I’d heard about how cool Shea Stadium was was instantly visible firsthand. An 8-1 loss couldn’t ruin that, especially when, in 2004, that was, resignedly, the norm.
My first game of 2005 wasn’t until the last week of August, and again, Jae Seo was on the mound. This time, he got the job done, as was starting to happen somewhat routinely in 2005. It was a 6-4 win over the Phillies, moving the Mets to 69-62, five games back in the division. Jose Reyes had two hits. Beltran was three for three. Ramon Castro hit a three-run homer in the eighth to give the Mets a lead that Braden Looper would protect (strange, how ridiculous it seems to imagine Braden Looper protecting a lead). The Mets were solid winners.
The Mets hadn’t yet established dominance in the division at the time of my first game of 2006, a 3-2 victory over the then-Florida Marlins. Glavine pitched, back when hearing his name wasn’t something to get immediately angry about. We went down in the sixth, and tied it in the seventh on a David Wright triple. Wright was already, in my nine year old mind, a superhero. It was about the most routine, ho-hum walk-off you can imagine: Beltran singled, Delgado singled him to third, Wright drove him home with a sac fly that we all knew would be deep enough. One run winners. Very soon, I would realize that the Mets were a lot more than one-run winners against the Marlins in an inconsequential game in April: they were on their way to a division championship.
Of course, we all thought the same in 2007, including myself, when I attended my first game of the year. I didn’t know enough about the Mets, at that point, to tell myself that nothing good was ever assured. It was Glavine again, and maybe I should have seen the signs: he was fine, allowing three runs, all earned, in six innings, but then the bullpen took over, and thus the game was lost. A veritable who’s-who of reviled relievers: Ambiorix Burgos, Scott Schoeneweis, Aaron Heilmann. Nine runs, six earned. We scored five in the sixth, gave back three in the seventh, and went down three more in the eighth. Sean Green came to the plate as the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. He grounded out, and my first trip to see the defending N.L. East champions was a loss.
2008 should have been a rebound, but at the beginning, it didn’t look like it. On the mound on that early April day that I journeyed out to Shea for the first time of the season — the last first time at Shea, what a waste — was a young pitcher who we said good things about — I like to think we knew how wrong we were, but I doubt it — named Oliver Perez. You can guess what his line looked like without looking it up: 4.1 innings, three walks, six runs, all earned. Two batters in, we were down 2-0. We took a 6-2 lead; Perez gave it back. Jorge Sosa gave up two in the sixth: Schoeneweis, another in the seventh. 2008, like 2007 but unlike 2006, opened with a loss. Maybe we should have seen what was coming.
My first game of 2009 was a blur of confusion: getting to Citi Field (by subway, for the first time), wondering where the oft-mentioned Shake Shack was, getting to our seats in time to see the Mets score three in the first against Daniel Cabrera. The Mets scored eight runs, only three earned, back when the Nationals were a laughingstock. 2009, before the injury madness of late April and early May, didn’t look half bad. And we found the Shake Shack eventually.
In 2010, my first game, for the first time, was part of a doubleheader, although I didn’t see both games. We saw Johan Santana in game one. It was the first time I’d seen Johan, although by then, although the fans didn’t yet know it, his arm was slowly but surely disintegrating. We scored two in the second, on a home run from Henry Blanco. We had one hit the rest of the game. Santana gave it back, and we sank a game closer to the .500 mark, which, of course, would not be a low point for long but something to strive for.
I got back into rhythm in 2011. Jon Niese beat the Diamondbacks 8-4, Wright homered, Jason Pridie deposited a hanger on the Pepsi Porch, and Ike Davis extended his RBI streak. Niese left after seven, and was replaced by D.J. Carrasco, who gave up two hits because that was simply what D.J. Carrasco did. Tim Byrdak got three outs, and Ryota Igarashi sealed it. My 2011 season was off to a sizzling start: in fact, I was 4-0 in attendance, statistically belying the Mets 34-47 record at home.
2012 saw Niese on the mound once again, and, seemingly well on his way to transitioning into the Jon Niese of more contemporary remembrance, he gave up a three run homer to Jay Bruce in the first. Wright, batting .357 at the time — and this was in June, mind you — doubled home Murph in the first, but that was all we’d get. Homer Bailey went eight, and Aroldis Chapman shut down the ninth, starting a 2012 season that would end on the high note of Matt Harvey’s debut with an offensively putrid loss. I would see Harvey in August of 2012: we lost that game too.
My age of Mets independence began in 2013, as I made my way to Citi Field alone for the first time, meeting a friend but braving the seven train myself. It was perhaps my best first game, and one of my most memorable: with the eternally mediocre Aaron Laffey on the mound, the Mets somehow avoided Jose Fernandez, then walked it off in the ninth against Steve Cishek, Marlon Byrd driving in the tying and winning runs. 2013, also, ended on the highest of notes, with Frank Francisco bookending his Mets tenure with one-run saves and Mike Piazza’s induction into the Mets hall of fame — we knew they wouldn’t be a playoff team, but if nothing else, my first game of the season had that positive feeling that continued most of the year.
At the time of my first game of 2014, the Mets were in one of their patented offensive funks, some of which have been known to last entire seasons. This one didn’t quite get that far, but regardless, it wasn’t fun to watch. Lagares singled home Ike Davis in the second: after that, we had nothing. Inning after inning, we trudged up to bat, looked at pitches until we made outs, and jogged despondently back to the dugout. Niese gave up two in the sixth, while we had one hit after the third. Together, we had a 2-1 loss. The goodwill that would end 2014 would come later: for now, we were the same old offensive failures that we’d always been.
And then, in 2015, for the first time, I attended Opening Day.
It wasn’t a simple process: I lobbied my parents, finished school assignments early, and made it clear, on the whole, that this was absolutely essential. I was a second semester senior, and I’d already gotten into Northwestern: my parents relented. On the Monday morning that would open the Mets home season, I got on the subway as soon as I woke up, and, an hour later, descended the steps to the Citi Field parking lot.
It was packed, as I’d known it would be but hoped I could avoid. Stuck in line in front of gates that stubbornly refused to open on time, I enjoyed my time among fellow die-hards. I engaged the two pin collectors on either side of me in good-hearted banter. I snapped a picture of Nelson Figueroa, newly hired SNY analyst, in the midst of his live pregame show. I saw cowbell man and pin man, not to mention multiple sign men.
It was similar when the gates finally opened: with hours to kill, I took advantage of the park. I spun the prize wheel and won a t-shirt. I bought a steak sandwich from a newly added concession stand. I climbed the ramps to the promenade and took in the view over suburban Queens from both outfield corners. And then, finally, I sat down to watch Jacob deGrom pick up where he left off.
Of course he did: he was Jacob deGrom, these were the Phillies. He was legitimate: they were a joke. DeGrom went seven scoreless. Lagares drove in Murphy in the fourth, on a line drive that Aaron Harang couldn’t find. Michael Cuddyer, before we realized that he was done, singled in the eighth, went to third on a misplayed sacrifice bunt, and scored on a d’Arnaud sac fly. DeGrom to Jerry Blevins to Familia: worked like clockwork. We had a 2-0 win, to the delight of the crowd. They’d have been all the more delighted had they known that there were nine more to come.
Opening Day 2015 set the tone for the season, and although we’d all like to forget the period from early May to late July, the good vibes returned in full blast in August, when Wilmer cried, Cespedes crushed, Familia saved, and the captain returned. We didn’t expect, on April 13th, 2015, to find ourselves in the World Series six months later. But after watching deGrom, Familia, and an offense that looked not quite as bad as it had been, we couldn’t help but think that there was hope.
This is the first game legacy that I’m adding to. Jae Seo, Tom Glavine, Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey, Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Aaron Laffey, and Jacob deGrom. A 6-6 record. The highs, the lows, and everything in between. A delightful compilation of Mets good and bad, memorable and unforgettably mediocre, thrilling and absolutely dour.
Game One, 2016, approaches. Nothing much is clear: I don’t know who will start, let alone what the lineup will look like. I can give myself permission to look for a win, since we’re playing the Phillies, but if I’m honest, it hardly matters.
I’ll be back at Citi Field, baseball sounds and sights and smells in the air, sun warming the seats, shaking off months of dreary, inactive offseason.
I’ll be over the moon. How could I not be?