Dispatches From Spring Training: Day One

When we got to our hotel last night, we entered an empty lobby to find a Mets-shirted employee behind the front desk. It was then, give or take, that I knew our trip would be a good one. There’s a Matt Harvey Fathead in our hotel lobby. You don’t see that too often. My friend and I both took pictures with it. I’ve got a Matt Harvey Fathead in my room at home, but this is different.

Arriving at First Data Field this morning to see the real Matt Harvey, my first impression was surprising, even to me. It reminded me of Shea. I couldn’t tell why, and I said as much; my friend agreed with me, in that he couldn’t tell why either.

Maybe it’s just an intuition thing. That building’s been around since 1988. Keith and Carter played there, as did Doc and Darryl. People played in that building who played with people who were playing in 1962. It doesn’t seem like much, but since Shea closed, First Data Field — albeit under several different names — is now the oldest home ballpark the Mets have. Could I feel that in the air as we approached? Maybe.

Then we got inside, and I saw exactly what reminded me of Shea. If you’ve been there, it’s obvious. The concourses are narrow; maybe ten feet wide, not at all meant to handle a crowd. The lines at concession stands spill out into the crowds walking by. The seats are too small; they don’t do that thing Citi Field does where they angle towards the infield; you can tell that the place was built before comfort became all the rage.

Did I care? Not much. Actually, I thought it was pretty nice. Some things go beyond comfort, and reminding me of Shea is one of them.

We took our seats, in the back half of the stands behind first base. Around us, on each side and behind, sat a family, composed of a son at his first baseball game, a father making loud noises, several women who may have been from Atlanta, and a grandfather who was very interested in discussing the game with me, if not entirely knowledgeable about how it went. He asked me where Tim Tebow was, and who was that guy on the mound. Wilmer Flores, he told me, would hit if he ever just learned to hit the ball.

The child, meanwhile, was young — really young. How young was he? At one point, he asked, non-ironically, “Why was six afraid of seven?”

“Because seven eight nine,” one of the women responded.

“Get it?” he asked. “Because ‘eight’ starts with ‘ate.’”

The two women, when they weren’t having blatantly counterfactual conversations about the Subway Series (“we went a few years ago, I think it was when they first started it”) or Tim Tebow’s whereabouts (“this is the minors, but I think they sent him under the minors because it’s his first time playing baseball”), talked to the child about fandom. At some points, they almost made me cringe.

“You’ve got roots in New York, so you root for New York,” they said, “and you’ve got family in Atlanta, so you root for the Braves too.” I wanted to correct them. I wanted to say, “nope.” Or, “you can’t.” I didn’t say anything. Nor did I immediately say anything when one of them asked, of the Mets’ first base coach, “is that Doc Goodwin?”

Matt Harvey, meanwhile, was a show all by himself, even as he pitched well but not spectacularly. Any experienced baseball fan will know the feeling of hearing the crowd make a collective noise; a shout after a bad call or a yell after a ball clears the fence. Today, as Harvey pitched, the crowd was making a different kind of collective noise. With each pitch he delivered, through at least the first few innings, you could hear the crowd looking breathlessly at the radar gun in center field, then murmuring about its reading.

When Harvey hit 97 in the first inning, whispers of “ninety-seven!” ran through the stands. That was the only time he threw that hard. But he looked fine nonetheless. His velocity was up and down — but up is the important part, because after it went down, it came back up again. Harvey was still throwing hard in the fourth, and managed to pitch through the sixth. One of his two runs, as a matter a fact, should never have happened; the catalyst, a pop-up, fell between three players that all thought the others would catch it.

We were down 2-1 in the bottom of the fifth when Jose Reyes decided to show flashes of 2006. He drove a liner into the right field corner, just like he did some time back in ’06 or ’07 at Shea, the first time I remember doing the “Jose” chant myself.

“Three!” I was shouting as he rounded first. He knew it. He was in there, and Kevin Plawecki had scored. A few pitches later, Cabrera drove Reyes home to tie the game.

We kept scoring, and pitching, and eventually, I found out that I was intimately familiar with the Mets’ spring training roster. This happened in the seventh, as Kevin Plawecki doubled and left for a pinch runner. I thought it was Patrick Biondi; I swear I did. So when I heard that Dale Burdick had scored, I was almost shocked.

“Well, what happened to Patrick Biondi?” I was thinking, as if by pinch-running a few times when I’ve been watching, he’s earned the title of default Spring Training pinch runner. Something I actually said to myself today, when Biondi himself finally came in a little while later, was “Finally, THERE’S Patrick Biondi.”

There are all these little moments, when you’re watching a game in Port St. Lucie, that remind you you’re not at Citi Field. At the seventh inning stretch, they played “Take me out to the ballgame,” but didn’t display the slightly modified Citi Field lyrics on the scoreboard to go with them. Apparently, chanting “root, root, root for the Me-ets” isn’t something people do if the scoreboard doesn’t prompt them. It was strange to watch, let alone hear; it’s the first time I’ve ever heard that line of the song, not followed by a confused murmur of thousands of fans unsure of what to say.

We kept hitting, and we kept hitting, and we kept hitting — besides catcher Jeff Glenn, who reminded me of Valentino Pascucci in the on-deck circle, and who thus earned a home run call from me, before popping up to the Braves’ catcher — and eventually, Josh Smoker was pitching to close it out. Smoker had two strikes on Adam Walker, when the sun, which had gone in behind a cloud, came out again.

It probably would have meant something, if the sun had shined on the last pitch of the game. The sun was rising just as the game was ending; the clouds over Opening Day were departing, something like that. But it wasn’t. That perfect ending just wasn’t there. Smoker threw a few more pitches; Walker fouled them off. Smoker got the strikeout eventually — but it wasn’t quite the storybook, sunny-last-pitch ending that a writer might have written.

Eh. Ah well. Baseball doesn’t have to be perfect; it rarely ever is. Often, it’s enough for it to simply be there.

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