Daruma Sushi And Stuttered Questions

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t too excited about tonight’s game.

In the beginning, I wasn’t even sure I would go: with Bartolo on the mound and Wright, Duda, and d’Arnaud out, it wasn’t lining up to be much of a thriller.

But in the end, I decided to get myself out to Citi Field, for one last time before I leave for the summer and spend eight weeks in complete isolation, Mets-wise.  With the threat of rain looming, seats were going cheap, and I snagged a ticket along the first base line, close enough to notice that Curtis Granderson seemed not to have shaved today.

And for the commitment my decision demonstrated, evidently, the universe decided to send me a sign, early on, that I’d made the right choice.

I was standing in the right field corner, eating a chicken sandwich from Fuku and drinking a sprite, when Howie Rose walked past me.

That’s right; Howie Rose.  And it was about that casual as well.  No crowds, no picture seekers; no one even seemed to recognize him.

My brain was acting up; there was a tape delay of a solid few seconds between reality and thought.  As he walked by, I said whatever I could manage.

“Howie,” I said.  “Wow.”

He looked up; in a nearly empty concourse, I was the only one who’d said anything.

“Hey,” he said.  I recognized his voice immediately.  “How ya doing?”

And as I tried to piece together a coherent response, he walked past me, into the World’s Fare Market.

Being the Howie Rose fan that I am, what else could I do?  I staked out the joint.  I leaned casually against a railing, watching the market door out of the corner of my eye and waiting for the voice of my team to come out.

Come to think of it, would he come out?  Maybe — and this was how fried my brain had become, having to come up with a smart, witty comment to make to Howie Rose — there was some kind of secret media pathway inside the World’s Fare Market, a secret personnel-only thoroughfare that Howie was using to avoid desperate throngs of admirers.

Meanwhile, I planned what I would say when he came out.  I would ask about David Wright, and his unprecedented run of bad luck.  But I would do it entertainingly.  Maybe I would throw in a quote from Howie’s book — “David Wright is the guy you want your daughter to marry.”  Or maybe I’d throw in a casual reference to The Honeymooners — “I’ve seen the entire ‘classic 39,’ but still…”

Howie, it turned out, was not utilizing some secret media passageway, but merely getting a dinner’s worth of sushi.  It looked pretty good, now that I look back.  I’ll have to try it sometime.

My clever references immediately fell out of my head, and I barely managed to put forth my question in the most simplistic terms.

“You ever seen a player go through luck as bad as David Wright?” I asked, as we walked towards the escalator.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” he said.  “But you gotta hope he comes back.”  That took us to the escalator: seconds later, he was off to the radio booth, and I was still in field level.  No one likes a pest.

Needless to say, the game was kind of secondary after that.  That’s nothing on the game itself, because it was a pretty good one; but running into Howie Rose tends to put all other things on the back burner.

But for a last game for a while, what more could you ask?  A cheap seat a few rows off the field.  Big Sexy on the hill, taking a shutout into the eighth.  Granderson, whose routine stop to sign autographs stuffed my section beyond capacity until a few minutes before game time, putting us ahead to stay one batter into the bottom of the first.

How many more great moments can you ask for?  Conforto, diving in the top of the first to make a catch most of the park thought beyond his abilities, and then homering later?  (“Conforto’s going deep tonight,” I tweeted, not that I’m looking for congratulations or anything).  Bartolo himself doubling up the gap, advancing in heart-stopping fashion, and then scoring on a sac fly?  Walker and Conforto, both finally back in the lineup, going back to back?

Things soured, ever so slightly, in the eighth, which hasn’t gone too well for us, but seemed acceptable, seeing as we had a six run lead.  Bartolo came out.  Blevins came in.  And all was well.  We went to the ninth.

Jeurys Familia — oy vey, am I right?  He entered in the ninth, after the normally dependable Reed had been hit hard for a whole two batters in a row, and immediately commenced giving up contact.  Honestly, I don’t remember exactly how it went: I remember a run coming home, the tying run coming to the plate, and the stadium going into what are quickly becoming recognizable as the Familia sweats.

But Eric Kratz was coming up, and pitching to Eric Kratz solves all ills.

“There’s a five per cent chance he gets a hit here,” a fan behind me said, not taking into account the ofer Kratz was already in the process of racking up.  I would have put it lower.

Sure enough, Kratz skied one to right.  Granderson started it.  Granderson ended it.  “Back in the New York Groove” came on, and we were headed home.

The win concluded what was, for me, a relatively dismal first half of the season (3-7).  But the record — who cares?

I’ve been to ten games so far this season — ten games that have become part of an evolving, fluid record of my time as a Mets fan.  They haven’t all been good; I’ve seen more losses than wins.  But there hasn’t been one that hasn’t been fun.

And if you run into Howie Rose — well, that’s just the icing on the cake.

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The National Pastime Goes Local

I’m standing in the dugout, watching, powerless, as our season falls apart.

The kid on the mound is trying his best, but he just can’t get it done.  We had a 6-1 lead at the beginning of the inning; now, it’s 6-4, and two men are on, with only one out in the bottom of the third.

We are the Sliders, of South Riverdale Little League, minors division, ages 8-10.  It’s the semifinal — win this, and we’re in the championship.  Quite something, considering we entered the playoffs as the eight seed, out of eight.

As I watch, the batter takes a mighty swing.  The third baseman is playing off the line, and the ball skips right over the base and into left field.  The crowd comes to life.  The coaches begin jumping up and down, gesticulating wildly and yelling barely coherent instructions.

I just watch hopelessly.  The ball evades our outfielders, and both runners have already scored by the time the shortstop takes the cutoff throw.  The batter is rounding third, heading for home.

“Home!  Home!” our entire dugout shouts.  The shortstop unleashes a throw.  It’s a valiant effort, but it’s too late; three runs score.  A Little League Home Run, they call it.

We’re now down 7-6.  Six have scored in the inning — that’s the mercy rule.

“Run it in, boys,” I call out from the dugout.  I’m cool, calm, controlled — I’m a model coach.  But on the inside, I’m just as angry as the players are.

***

How did we get here?  Well, there’s a question.

It hasn’t been easy.  We entered the playoffs as the eight seed, the last-place team, the easy opponent.

We got the one seed, the league leader, in the first round, the quarterfinal.  They’d beaten us three times during the regular season.  We didn’t like them — especially not since they’d seen one of our pitchers go a few pitches over his limit, and used that to get both the player and one of our coaches suspended a game.

They thought they had an easy win in the first round, and who could blame them?  As an opponent, we don’t exactly inspire intimidation.

We’ve got two pitchers: they’ve kept us going.  We’ve got our fair share and then some of solidly mediocre players.  We’ve got two Russian brothers who had never played baseball before.

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So, during the regular season, we won — to the best of my knowledge — one game.  When I returned from school midseason, I assumed co-coaching duties.  I don’t like to gloat, but upon my arrival, the team seemed to take things up a notch.

We got ourselves going, as the playoffs started.  The night before our first game, we held our best practice of the year.  Going in, we were reasonably confident.

So were our opponents.

“Can I pitch?” I heard one of them asking their coaches, as we prepared for the game that Saturday morning.

“Depends on how many runs we score,” the coach chortled.

We’ve got two pitchers: one starts, the other finishes.  The starter, I’ll call Nolan: he’s got all the velocity he needs, but occasionally finds himself lacking in control.  The reliever, I’ll call Bart: not much velocity to speak of, but great control, and a cunning pitcher’s mind.

Bart, I should mention, is my brother.

Nolan started, and was brilliant from the beginning.  We wanted him available for our next game; thus, he had 65 pitches.

Those 65 took him through three innings, plus an out in the fourth, all scoreless.  Bart entered.  He’s younger than Nolan: he’s only got 50 pitches.

Those 50 took him through the remaining 2.2 innings with ease.  All scoreless, as well.

Meanwhile, we struck in the first inning.  Bart — he also bats leadoff, and plays shortstop when he’s not pitching — walked to start the game.  Adam — our big, hulking, lefty first baseman who doesn’t make much contact, I’m sure you get there reference — sent a grounder down the first base line.  It kept on rolling.  2-0 in our favor, two batters in.

We scored three more in the third.  Meanwhile, our pitchers, first overpowering and then calculating, held our arch-rivals, the Smashers, scoreless.  After six shutout innings, we had a 5-0, league-shaking shutout win.

“We’ve got to practice again,” said one coach to another, still dazed by the win, as we cleaned the field afterwards.

So we moved on to the semifinals, and to the two seed.  The Animals, they’re called, sponsored by the local veterinarian.

This time, our pitching situation would be more complicated.  The championship was scheduled for Saturday — that meant, from Wednesday, two days rest.  Our pitchers could throw 50 pitches each, otherwise they’d be unavailable for the biggest game of the year.  And we would need both of them.

So Nolan started, but immediately, it was clear that he wasn’t at his best.  It was as you’d imagine, with Nolan Ryan: the velocity was there, the control not so much.  He did his job though: 1.2 innings, one run.

With a 2-1 count on his batter, Nolan reached his 50 pitch limit.  In came Bart.  Two strikes later, we were out of the inning.

But in the third, we had to gamble.  We needed Bart to be able to finish the game, under his pitch count.  So, for the third, we went to a different pitcher — a real D.J. Carrasco type.  Well, better effort and less dejected body language, but still, not much of a pitcher.

***

So, six runs later, we’re down 7-6.  We’ve got three at-bats left to score.  In the fourth, we go down scoreless.  To end the frame, Bart strikes out looking.  It’s not a good pitch, but Bart is a small kid.  The ump has decided to expand the strike zone a little bit.  I don’t much agree with it.  I don’t like my brother striking out.

The sudden deficit, combined with the strikeout, has Bart in tears as he takes the mound.  As I warm him up for the bottom of the fourth, he’s barely reaching the plate.

“Your team is counting on you,” I tell him, before the inning starts.

He shuts them down 1-2-3.  Now it’s the top of the fifth, and we’ve got the heart of the order coming up.

Sure enough, we get right to work.  Adam (Dunn), the two hitter for some reason, singles.  The three hitter strikes out, but the next two reach.  As do the next two.  Two walks, and we lead 8-7.  The crowd, which consists of three or four parents, is going ballistic, but containing itself.

“It’s not over ‘till the fat lady sings,” says one mother.  “No, not me, I’m not the fat lady.  It’s an expression.”

Bart heads back out to the mound for the fifth, considerably happier.  He shuts down the side again.  The Animals are out of pitchers.  In the top of the sixth, with the mercy rule removed for the last inning, we score six runs.

Bart goes back to the mound to seal the win.  He’s got 20 pitches left.  If he goes over, we have no idea what to do.  He’s facing the heart of the order.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” a fellow coach says to me.

Bart strikes out the first hitter on three pitches.

The second batter singles on the first pitch.  Sixteen pitches left.  The next batter hits a hard grounder.  Bart stabs it.

“First,” I call, not displaying even a hint of raised heart rate.  He throws it over.  The first baseman stabs it.  Then, he throws the ball away, and the the other runner comes around.  But it’s no biggie.

“Doesn’t matter, guys,” I call out.  Bart takes the ball.  He can barely conceal his excitement.

He throws one strike, and then another.  And then that looks like a strike.  But the ump’s been squeezing us all day.  2-2.

“Stay calm out there,” I say.  Bart is calm.  He’s ice under pressure.

“Get the music ready!” he calls out.  The spectators behind us erupt into laughter.

Seconds later, Bart delivers.  Strike three called.  Ballgame over.

***

So, we’re headed to the championship, Saturday at noon.  I won’t be there; my work begins shortly before, and it’s too late to change anything.

The coaches tried to gather the team around after the victory field rush, to deliver a message of inspiration, pride, perseverance, whatever it is.

They wouldn’t hear of it.  The players, after the handshake line, returned to tossing the ball, jumping up and down, and tackling each other.  The victory, it was clear enough, was its own reward.

We’re a last-place team that’s knocked off the top two teams in the league, and now, we’ve got one more game to win.  We’ve got two pitchers who have worked pitch to pitch all year.  Now, they’re available, for as far as they can go.  Already, we’ve begun strategizing, creating lineups and debating positioning, thinking about who we’d rather play or in which order our pitchers should go.

But no one was thinking about that, as the players piled onto Bart after the win.  It was all about celebrating the fun of a well-played game and a well-earned win.

How can they say the National Pastime is dying?  Isn’t that just about as American as it gets?

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Deeply Nuanced Awfulness

It sounds like a riddle out of one of those awful children’s books.

“When you play a baseball game without five of your nine starters, what happens?”

Well, I’ll give you three guesses.  And the first two don’t count.

Tonight’s game was nothing short of a festival of awfulness, a display of the nuances of unwatchability, a thriving exhibition of ineptitude and failure.  Now, we’ve seen bad teams.  We’re Mets fans.  But this one was really, really…really…bad.

Whether it was Plawecki making two errors in one inning.

Or Wilmer attempting to catch a foul ball and falling on his back while losing his glove, like some kind of perverse real-world Charlie Brown.

Or Jim Henderson being brought back out for a second inning, which any fan in the stands or any reasonably sentient piece of dirt would advise against, and promptly allowing a two run homer.

Or James Loney and his .240 batting average hitting grounder after grounder straight into the shift.

Or Kelly Johnson forgetting what he’s been taught since little league and letting a ball slide directly under his glove.

Or Alejandro De Aza batting leadoff and failing to anything befitting the position.

Or Curtis Granderson striking out on a pitch that was only thrown by accident.

Or Flores, again, hitting a grounder to short and running like a sloth, the shortstop running around the ball, picking it, taking a look, pumping his fist all before throwing, and still getting Flores, running with a piano on his back, by three steps.

Or Kevin Plawecki, again, hitting three slow ground balls to third, as if attempting to reinforce his image among fans.

My mother, who doesn’t watch much baseball, came into the den at one point, as I was in the midst of one of my multiple complaints about the team.

“But Plawecki’s good,” she said.

I just closed my eyes and shook my head.  Plawecki was far from good, and besides, the Mets were batting, so I knew I wouldn’t miss anything.

I can’t help but draw the contrast, watching the Mets play the Pirates.  The Pirates’ lineup…just look at it.  Oh, there’s a guy batting .311.  Hey, that guy’s batting .331.  Look at him, he’s hitting better than anyone expected.  He may be the backup catcher, but he hits like a starter.

And you can’t help but wonder: where do they find all these guys?  And why can’t we ever have nice things?

Walker, the second baseman of reassuringly solid offensive prowess: injured.  Conforto, the left fielder of exciting potential and sweet swing; injured, also slumping.  Lagares; toothache.  Wright; herniated disk.  Duda; I don’t even remember, four to six weeks.  d’Arnaud; back in a week, maybe.

De Aza; bad.  Flores; bad, and slow.  Plawecki; bad on both sides of the ball.  Loney; dispiritingly bad.  Johnson; not good either.

So, we didn’t have much to look forward to, coming in.  But did we have to lose so spectacularly?

Yes, there’s another game tomorrow.  Yes, Thor is on the mound, which is always something to look forward to.  Yes, the guy who the Pirates are throwing tomorrow looked, upon cursory examination, to have an inordinately high E.R.A.

But this lineup…I mean, really?

But hey, ya gotta believe, and as such, I’ve gotta think that things will take a turn for the better.  We’re seeing some downright rotten luck, even with the lineup we’re putting out there, and any day, things can change in a hurry.

But man, this lineup sucks.  And that I can’t think of a positive to end on should say all you need to know about the state of our offense right now.

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The Ballad of David Wright

I was only seven years old the first time I saw David Wright live and in person.  It was August, 2004, and in the third Mets game of my life — preceded, fittingly for the 2004 Mets, by two losses — I would see, for the first time, this kid that my dad had been raving about.

Wright wasn’t entirely unknown to me: I’d seen his profile in the “In The Wings” section of the 2004 yearbook, also the first Mets yearbook that I owned.  For a player who would go on to do so much, it gave surprisingly simplistic information.

“David is a solid fielding third baseman with a strong and accurate arm,” it read.  “He has a short compact stroke that drives the ball from gap to gap.  Royce shows excellent plate discipline and a strong desire to win.”

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You’re not seeing things — the writer of Wright’s profile had evidently been a little short on sleep, and had mixed our future captain up with the prospect above him, alphabetically if not talent-ranked, Royce Ring.  I guess the intern who hammered out the eighteen profiles of three sentences each was neither paid enough to care, nor copy edited by anyone of note, nor invested in the team enough to realize that a player on the verge of changing the direction of a franchise probably shouldn’t have been confused with Royce Ring.

But from the first and secondhand accounts that I’d heard, David Wright was all the rage, and now, for the first time, I would watch him in person, and make my own assessment.  From our seats in the field level on the first-base side, provisioned with sandwiches procured from a diner under the 1 train at 242nd street — somehow, security failed to confiscate these sandwiches as we entered the park, which I suppose isn’t the biggest oversight in the world, considering how little the 2004 Mets had to offer spectators anyway — we settled in for a ballgame.

Al Leiter was on the hill for the Mets — another name that I’d heard about, but not seen much of.  Leiter, I had some vague notion, had been very good in the past.  Now, he was old, and as I witnessed and repeatedly pointed out with glee, couldn’t even touch 90 on the radar gun.  Not that this was a good thing: I just really liked the radar gun.

After Leiter pitched the top of the first with the help of a double play that 2004 Mets aficionados will fawn over — Leiter to Wilson Delgado to Eric Valent — the Mets came to bat.  The Diamondbacks — 34.5 games out of their division — sent Edgar Gonzalez — 9.96 E.R.A. — to the mound.

That the game was a tough one says all you need to know about the 2004 Mets.  But I digress.

We struck right away: Valent doubled, Super Joe McEwing, in his final year with the team, bunted him to third, and Cliff Floyd singled him home.  Richard Hidalgo, soon to come to fame — at least, in my mind — for his 21 home runs in half the 2004 season, lined to left for the second out, but Mike Cameron singled.  David Wright came to the plate.

Wright, throughout his career, has seen some of the most rotten luck that anyone could realistically imagine, from freak injuries that spontaneously arise to hustle plays that turn into hamstring pulls and back fractures.  With luck on his side throughout his career, he may be a Hall of Famer.  Instead, he’s seen his career derailed again and again, constantly recovering and returning and going down again, never a chance to spend time slugging bombs and shattering records due to all the time he’s spent trying to get back on the field.  David Wright, in short, has had just about the worst luck a ballplayer can have.

So is it any surprise that in his first at-bat that I ever saw, the line drive that Wright drove towards the gap was snagged out of the air by the shortstop?

***

David Wright quickly became my baseball hero.  The same was true for thousands upon thousands of Mets fans of my age, but I made an attempt, more than most, to emulate him in the way I played.  I played third base in little league, and wore number five.  My glove was the David Wright game model, the $20 Wilson knockoff, which I would later give up, after a particularly generous haul of birthday presents, for the game model A2K.  Posters from the pages of Mets Magazine and Sports Illustrated Kids covered the walls of my room, and Wright was represented multiple times.

I don’t live in that room anymore, but David Wright’s presence has by no means vanished.  My David Wright jersey, the first I ever bought, hangs on proud display, at the front of my big-and-getting-bigger collection of Mets jerseys.  In the closet, I’ve got a full-size Wright poster rolled up and sitting on the top shelf, not out of some kind of sudden disillusionment, but simply out of a lack of wall space.  Just outside my current room, I’ve got another full-size Wright poster, knocked around almost every day by the various flying projectiles you find in the apartment of a family with sports-obsessed sons, but still stubbornly hanging in there, looking as good as ever.

I’d criticize myself for embellishing to create unrealistic symbolism, but that’s the unvarnished truth.

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In the room I lived in my freshman year, I had a third full-sized poster, this one procured as a promotional giveaway from, if my memory serves, April 19th, 2014.  Wright was on my wall, along with Billy Joel, Bill Maher, and Quentin Tarantino.

That’s a tough group to keep up with.  But of the four, there was only one that I didn’t think twice about.

All this to say what?  That we don’t leave our heroes behind, or at least, we shouldn’t, just as David Wright, despite multiple opportunities, has never let us down.  And I’m not talking about that one time he struck out with two men on, or that bad throw he made that you just can’t get over, or whatever other bad memories bitter fans like to drudge up for some reason, seemingly with no other purpose than to spoil everyone’s good time.

No, David Wright has never let us down when it’s really mattered, or to put it another way, when it could have actual, concrete, irreversible consequences.  I’m talking off the field, as much as or more than on it.  His two-RBI single to ice game one of the NLDS comes to mind, but so does his taking a massive pay cut to stay in New York.  He’s the all-time franchise leader in RBI, hits, runs, walks, extra-base hits, and doubles, and second in home runs only to Darryl Strawberry — hardly anything you could call a let-down.  But equally important is the way he plays the game, which you can see, from the stands or on TV, is the right way.

Don’t give up on a ball, even if it’s in the stands or behind you to your barehand side.  Get down and ready before every pitch, and field every ball carefully.  Don’t chase pitches out of the strike zone; a walk is just fine.  Run everything out.  Be smart.  Work hard; do whatever it takes to get out on that field.

And again, equally off the field: be nice.  Be respectful.  Set an example.  Be a leader.  Play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.  Keep out of trouble.  Use your influence as a sports star to create positive change.  Don’t shirk responsibility, give credit where credit is due, and don’t be afraid to let your emotions show.

You could assemble a player in a video game, with every positive asset turned up to the max and all character negatives minimized or eliminated.  Or, you could just watch David Wright play.

Or to put it another way, as Howie Rose wrote in his 2012 memoir, “David Wright is the guy you want your daughter to marry.”

***

But for me, what puts David Wright a step ahead of all the other heroes is something else.  Something that not many people tend to consider, because it’s rarely the center of attention, but something that, if it were only given a spotlight, could — should — become more inspiring and respectable than anything else that Wright has done.

After a summer 2009 diagnosis of Pediatric Epilepsy, I needed, somehow, to return to normalcy, to forget about making sure to stay extra hydrated and get enough sleep and whatever else I was being told to do.  And in Queens, David Wright was doing the same.  Beaned by Matt Cain, he was working to come back.

He came back from the beaning, and when obstacles kept piling up, he dispatched them, one after another.  Even as his luck turned sour and never corrected itself, he always came back.

After the beaning, he kept it up.  He came back from a broken finger in 2011 to hit a home run in his first at-bat back, and then, after injuries ruined the rest of the 2011 season, he came back in 2012 with his best season since 2008.  His 2013 season was even better.  When goddamned rotten luck ended that one prematurely, he worked back again.  When injuries ruined 2014 just as they’d ruined 2011, he came back in 2015 to hit .289 with five home runs, despite missing 115 games with Spinal Stenosis, which he also worked back from to hit a home run in his first at-bat in four and a half months.  Working back from spinal stenosis, he A) homered with his first swing since April, into the upper deck in Philadelphia, B) homered to ice the clincher, and drew tears from my eyes as he rounded the bases C) drove in two crucial runs to help win the NLDS opener D) hit the first World Series home run of his career.

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And for a kid dealing with Epilepsy — which meant no driver’s license, no late-night partying, daily doses of medication that started out big and increased every year — that’s what separated David Wright from the rest.  His resilience.

It hasn’t gone completely unnoticed: in fact, you have to think that it’s at least part of the reason that the honor of captaincy was bestowed upon him, for only the fourth time in Mets history.  We’ve had plenty of offensive players, although, by now, none with Wright’s numbers.  But Wright is different.  First, of course, he’s different in that he’s homegrown, and has not played for any team but ours since he was eighteen years old.  That tends to endear a player to a fanbase, and in this case, obviously, hasn’t hurt.  But second, and perhaps more importantly, was the respect he earned from players and coaches alike as he recovered from his various injuries, and did so with the grace and determination of a champion.

Wright was named captain before the 2013 season.  By that time, he’d already recovered from the ’09 beaning, the broken finger of May 2011, and the shoulder and back broken 2011 season as a whole.  That’s already a lot of injuries, but David fought through them to put up a superstar season in 2012, and, after being named captain, an even better one in 2013.  After that, injuries — even more of them — would set in, and his numbers would sink.  But this didn’t detract from his captaincy; rather, his recovery reinforced how much he had deserved it.

Most ballplayers don’t have opportunities to showcase resilience, because the amount of players who have faced injury burdens similar to David Wright’s can be counted on one hand, and maybe on one finger.  Spinal Stenosis, two pulled hamstrings, a beaning, a broken finger, a herniated disk, fractures in the back and shoulder…and that’s only the better-known part of the list.  So, Wright’s injury history is almost unprecedented, especially since Spinal Stenosis by itself has only afflicted a handful of players in baseball history.

But if his injury history is unprecedented, so is his recovery — or more accurately, his multiple recoveries, one after another, working to get back on the field even when it seemed that his body had quit on him.  The reason you don’t see many players with injury histories like David Wright is that most of them have retired by the second or third back or shoulder injury.  There aren’t many who make it through four and keep right on going.  And even fewer are those who fight through the injuries, keep on playing, and keep right on smiling through them, maintaining a child’s happiness at playing baseball for a living even as they avoid the bitterness and cynicism that can come with repeated injuries.

With the medical obstacles that he’s faced, David Wright may well be one of the most unlucky ballplayers of all time.  But for watching him fight his way through them time after time, and gaining respect for him not only as a player but as a gritty, determined human being, I can’t help thinking that as fans, we’re among the luckiest.

***

Before he went down with the herniated disk, I saw Wright a handful of times this season.  I saw a diminished player, working harder than I could imagine to bring himself back to the top of his game, but still not quite there.  I saw a player who might have lost a step, or maybe he just needed some playing time to get going, seeing as Spring Training with a chronic back injury can’t have been very effective.

But most of all, I saw the determination that had brought our captain back from the brink of retirement to help us reach the playoffs, then the NLCS, then the World Series.  And for David Wright, I can’t help but think that that same determination, that hasn’t been deterred by more injuries than most people suffer in their lives, will keep him around and keep him productive for a few more years to come.

They say Spinal Stenosis is a career-ender.  Well, it has been, for others.  But they’ve never seen Spinal Stenosis take on David Wright before.  And eventually, it will probably win.  But Wright will give it a hell of a battle, just as he’s done for everything else he’s faced.

Wright is currently rehabbing a herniated disk, yet another back injury, probably a byproduct of playing with a back that’s trying to knock him down.  He’ll be back…when?  Six to eight weeks?  Three months?  No one knows, because no one has been through what David Wright has been through.

But he’ll be back; that much I just know.  He’ll come back to the lineup, and based on what he’s done the last few times he’s made a triumphant return, he’ll drive the first or second pitch he sees over the fence.

David Wright’s body has aged; that much is beyond doubt.  But with his play, and more importantly, his dedication and resilience in being able to play again, he’s done nothing if not illustrate the size of the gap between body and mind.  And when you’ve got a mind with the determination of David Wright’s, the body can do anything it damn well wants.

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David Wright may be an old 33, a shadow of his former self, a once-great hitter reduced to barely a threat.  But inside, he’s different.  David Wright is still my baseball hero, and despite everything his body has been through, on the inside, he’s still the young gun, the energetic, grinning superstar plastered over the walls of the room where I used to live.  A lot has changed for the captain over the years, but at his core, at the most meaningful level, David Wright is still that same 24-year-old phenom, with that same smile on his face, happy to be playing baseball, and looking ahead to whatever the future may bring.

And if you want, then by all means, grouse about diminished production, or whatever it is you people are complaining about these days.  I won’t be listening; you’ve lost me.  While you complain and whine and reduce David Wright’s career to a handful of numbers, I’ll celebrate what the captain has given us.  I’ll celebrate his offensive prowess, his repeated recoveries, and his still-youthful enthusiasm for the game.  I’ll celebrate his quiet dignity, his burning competition, and his happiness at the simple joy of playing baseball.  I’ll celebrate a lifelong Met, a captain on whom the title is not wasted, and the greatest third baseman, and, probably, the greatest position player, in franchise history.

In short, I’ll celebrate the career – or, the career so far, because it ain’t over yet – of David Wright.  Because when you step back and look at his career, the negatives paling in comparison to the enormous contributions he’s made to the franchise, the captain has been nothing short of a joy to watch.

 

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Waiting On Lady Random

Over the last two days, there’s been a lot going on.  I’ve coached a little league team to an upset victory over the number one seed, I’ve reunited with old friends and played some very interesting frisbee in Sheep’s Meadow, I’ve seen “The Nice Guys” for the second time, and I’ve — don’t ask me why — written a 3000 word essay on Taylor Swift.

What I’m saying is, ordinarily, I would have given plenty of my time over to the Mets.  But in two soul-crushing losses, there just wasn’t much to drag me in.

I’m not a complete lunatic, however, so even with all this going on, I did manage to watch both of this weekend’s games in their entirety.  And…well…ugh, we suck.

You’ve got to have some perspective here, which is why I’ll mention that we were missing our starting catcher, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, shortstop, and left fielder, all to injuries ranging from a day to two months.  I should also add that all day long — and, really, all season long — we were absolutely bashing the ball, and it just couldn’t stop landing in the gloves of the Brewers, especially — goddamn this guy — Scooter Fucking Gennett.

So really, we didn’t play that badly, at least on offense.  Defense was another story: we were — to put things extremely nicely — completely horrendous.  Watching Wilmer Flores miss a ball — just completely miss it, as if he was graciously stepping aside to let it pass — that rolled to Alejandro De Aza, who threw about forty feet wide of second, where James Loney was failing to back up, was punishment enough.  Then we watched Kelly Johnson inexplicably miss a Matz throw to first, and another throwing error from Wilmer, who frankly is getting on my nerves more than I had anticipated.

So really, here’s my question: why the hell do we have to be so bad?  What makes it so that our team, which should in theory be composed of serviceable, not-too-bad offensive players, is just so awful?

Alejandro De Aza, for one.  Last year, he batted .262/.333/.422.  For his career, he’s at .265/.328/.402.  Well, now he’s a Met, and he’s batting .181/.234/.264.

Or Kevin Plawecki, former first round pick.  Kevin Plawecki, who batted .305/.390/.448 in 2013 and .309/.365/.460 in the minors in 2014.  Now he’s a Met, and he’s batting .204/.302/.274.

Or Michael Conforto, who just can’t seem to find himself.  2014: .331/.403/.448.  2015 in the minors: .283/.350/.462.  This year: .234/.306/.453 — which isn’t even that bad, but it’s not where he should be.

I would mention James Loney, but he has absolutely mashed the ball.  Every at-bat, or so it seemed, he would hit a hard line drive, or scorch a grounder, and I would sigh resignedly, knowing that it was destined for a fielder’s glove and thinking that it was a damn shame to waste all that hard contact on ours, and seconds later, sure enough, I was proven correct.  Loney, if no one else, will come around.

And meanwhile, we’re just stuck.  I said it at the beginning of the year: the only thing that could stop this team was sudden, inexplicable failure.  Well, Matz has gotten hit around for three straight starts.  Harvey has got it now, but for a long time, he didn’t.  Familia hasn’t been nearly himself.  Wright, Duda, and d’Arnaud have gone down.  Now Walker needs a day off for injury that you gotta goddamn hope doesn’t get any worse.

So why the hell do we pick right now to start getting unlucky?  I’ll tell you why, unsatisfying as it may be: baseball isn’t fair.  It’s a cruel game, and luck isn’t distributed by convenience, but as it should be, by random assignment.

But that’s the thing: it’s all random, and it all goes around and comes right around again.  One of these days, our luck is going to turn — I can just feel it, and those of us who watch Loney or Conforto or Flores hitting line drive after line drive and somehow making outs can feel it too.

We’re not too good right now, and there’s not much we can do about it but wait.  Because eventually, we’ll be on the other side of the luck dispenser.  And at that point, Alejandro De Aza will be the least of our problems.

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(Don’t) Take It Easy

Someone should have told the Mets, as they attempted to take game three of the series from the Brewers, that we didn’t need to take it easy on ‘em.

By every conceivable measure, besides the final outcome, this game should have been ours.  We’re a better team.  Our pitching is better.  Our offense is better, you hope.  Our defense is better.  Our record is better.

Boy, you couldn’t see it on the field today, could you?

Maybe it looked like it at first, when Logan Verrett retired the side in order and Asdrubal Cabrera hit a two-run homer on the bottom of the inning.  But honestly, did we really think this one would hold up?

It’s Logan Verrett, whose story we’ve all seen a million times before.  The Mike Vail story.  He comes up and makes one start, and immediately, the more reactionary part of the fan base declare that he’s got to be in the starting rotation, effective immediately.  The bloggers, who of course are far more reasonable than this, scoff, and say that this is such a small sample size that we can’t possibly make such a judgement.

And then he makes another good start, and the bloggers declare that he can no longer be overlooked, and that he’s certainly showed enough to become a prominent member of the bullpen.  And everyone listens to the bloggers.

And meanwhile, those few of us who aren’t quite sold yet wait for the house of cards to fall apart.

It happened with Hansel Robles, when he was anointed the rock of the bullpen after a few promising outings, then completely imploded.  It’s happening, to an extent, with Conforto, although I have every confidence that he’ll be able to adapt to major league pitching, with time.  And now, it’s exactly what’s happening with Verrett, who, it turns out, is not Cy Young reincarnate.

And meanwhile, it turns out our offense isn’t exactly hot stuff either.  Entering the game against a pitcher with an E.R.A. of something like 17, we hit, but not nearly enough.  Granderson hit; other than Cabrera, no one else did.  No hits from Conforto, Cespedes, Walker, Flores, or Rivera.  A hit in garbage time from Johnson.  Other than that, not much.

When was the last time our offense looked this bad?  Actually, that’s pretty easy to answer: last year, right before we brought in Johnson, Uribe, and Cespedes and turned everything the right way.  Do we have a comparable answer this time?

Honestly, I don’t know.  I don’t know how much there is we can do, or how much can change.  Duda will be back, maybe.  d’Arnaud will be back in ten days, they say.

But how much difference can it possibly make?  We’ve got a lineup full of passable hitters.  Granderson on through to the seven or eight spot, everyone we have can hit, in amounts ranging from a lot to a little.

Slightly rephrasing Moneyball, we’ve got a bunch of good hitters.  We just don’t hit good.

Maybe we’ve been unlucky.  Maybe this will all turn around.  But who can tell?  I honestly, for the life of me, can’t tell whether we’re a good team or not.  Some days, it looks an awful lot like it.  Today, it looked like we certainly weren’t.

Bullpen, bad.  Starter, bad.  Offense, bad.

But you know how these things work out.  Things can all turn around tomorrow, and then we’ll be good again.

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The Woes Of Keith

I spent most of my afternoon attempting to teach a little-league team of 8-to-10 year olds how to chase down a ball in the outfield and hit the cutoff man.  After a few hours, there’d been some improvement, albeit a slim amount — now, nearly every time, we were executing the plays without impromptu, hollered advice from the supervising coaches.

Maybe the Brewers should have attended.  Or the Mets.  Or the umpires.  Or anyone — meaning, most everyone — who completely failed to understand how we came away with a second run that still doesn’t feel completely legitimate.

Here’s how it went, to the best of my understanding, which I will say in all honesty is pretty comprehensive, based almost entirely of my obsessive perusal of books like Baseball Brain Teasers as a kid:

Reynolds lines a ball to Jonathan Villar.  Villar drops it.  Runners are all forced.

Villar tosses to Scooter Gennet; Gennett catches it, comes off the base, steps back on the base.  Kelly Johnson, the runner on first, is forced at second.  He’s out.  No one seems to realize.

Wilmer Flores now has a right to second base, because Gennett stepped on second without tagging Flores first, which if I’m not mistaken would have resulted in a double play, as Flores no longer had a right to the base.  But now he does again, because Gennett stepped on second.  So he can stay on second.  But he doesn’t: he goes on to third.  Again, nobody seems to notice.

Meanwhile, Asdrubal Cabrera comes home, and as far as I saw was relatively uncontested.

The Brewers chase Kelly Johnson, who you will remember is already out, back to first, where he is tagged out for the second time, by a Brewers team that — you may have caught on to a pattern here — does not realize.  Meanwhile, Flores, who is not yet already out, goes to third completely unencumbered, although I should note that Aaron Hill at third was holding his hands up for the ball, as if he had any more sense of what was happening than anyone else did.

Meanwhile, Matt Reynolds has already crossed first — in fact, he crossed first long before most of the confusion started.

So, in the end, here’s what you’ve got: Fielder’s Choice, 6-4-3, one runner retired (twice!), one other runner advances, one run scores.

Or, to save time, you could just sum it up the way Keith Hernandez did: “Send everyone back to school.”

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Perhaps it wouldn’t have been notable — in a game that saw, say, sixteen or twenty runs score.  But this game was different.  Over eleven innings, three runs scored.

So, this absolute miscarriage of sense and sensibility, not to mention fundies, accounted for a third, and ultimately, the most important third, of the game’s total scoring.

It’s almost karmic: earlier in the game, the Brewers had appeared to score, then, after a terrible slide — “That’s a terrible slide!” Keith had said, his righteous anger at the awful baseball being played in front of him quite evident — had, after two reviews, or maybe a review and a half, lasting a combined six minutes, lost the run, and then had the loss of the run confirmed.

People wonder what problems others have with replay: well, today, I hope, demonstrated those problems amply.  Here, as I understand it, is what happened with two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the third:

Aaron Hill is on second.  Jonathan Villar hits a ball that deflects off Matt Harvey, and toward the shortstop hole.  Asdrubal Cabrera attempts to barehand it, but misses.  Hill rounds third and comes home.  Cabrera throws home.  Hill is called safe.

Then, Terry Collins comes out.  He challenges the call.  After a review of the play, culminating in a not-so-spectacular tag by Plawecki and an even more mediocre slide by Hill, the run is erased, and the inning is over on the tag play at the plate.

Now things start to get interesting.

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell comes out looking for a rule clarification.  Specifically, he wants to know whether Plawecki’s block of the plate was challengeable in its legality.

In essense, the Brewers are challenging whether a play can be challenged.

It’s not completely ridiculous: “record keeping” is included under aspects of the game that are challengeable, and record-keeping includes application of the rulebook.  But the Brewers aren’t actually challenging: they’re just asking for a clarification, and apparently, the umpires agree to provide one purely out of the goodness of their hearts.

And the weirdest part is, the clarification takes almost three more minutes to come through the headphones.  Then, it turns out that the play can be challenged, and the Brewers are offered the opportunity to challenge.  And they decline.

Keith summed up these six minutes of inaction aptly: “The managers should know the rules.”

Oh yeah, and mixed in with these seven or so minutes of complete absurdity, there was also another good-almost-great start from Matt Harvey, a towering shot from Cespedes, and three hits from Wilmer.

But honestly, who’s really going to remember those?  These moments of ridiculousness so far off the spectrum of sensibility that they make your jaw drop and your eyes flutter — those are the moments we’ll remember.  And that we take moments like that, like today, so well, is perhaps the most important reason I’m so glad that I’m a Mets fan.

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