Mets Fan On The Take

So there I was, sitting in the Upper Deck at Citi Field, holding a sign that said “Hunter Pence is a rotten cornet player,” hoping that the Mets could avoid being no-hit by the Giants, but knowing that they couldn’t.

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. No team was supposed to be this bad. As a fan of a Major League Baseball team of ostensibly competitive quality, I wasn’t supposed to be able to text my friend in the middle of the seventh inning that we were going to be no-hit, fully secure in the knowledge that there was not a batter remaining in our lineup with any realistic chance of hitting so much as a single.

But I was — of course I was. Sometimes, you just know.

So I watched, and hoped that one of our three guys would somehow manage to get a hit, which, if you were in the stadium and could sense the energy of the game, was a little bit like hoping the Falcons could hold on to win Super Bowl LI. The paid attendance that night was 23,155. A small fraction of that number remained. Of the fans still in attendance, a sizable number were Giants’ fans. Regardless of personal preference, every fan in the stands knew exactly what was going to happen next.

So of course, as tends to happen when the thing that everyone knows will happen next will be bad for the Mets, it happened exactly as it was supposed to. The Mets sent up four batters that inning. The first was hit by a pitch; his batting average was .149. The next three Mets struck out; their averages were .100, .232, and a veritable standout .284. None was a pitcher: each player that the Mets sent up to bat, in the ninth inning of a Major League Baseball game, was a player that was on the team because of his offensive ability.

As I left my seat, the Mets having been no-hit by Chris Heston, one of exactly two complete games Heston has thrown in his career to date, I tore my Hunter Pence sign in half. An older fan, sitting a row behind me, chuckled.

“One day,” he said, “you’ll be glad you were here.”

***

I don’t know when I realized that the guy behind me was right — it could have been in the subway on the way home — but now, it seems obvious. Eventually, after my anger at the Mets’ offensive — in more ways than one — incompetence abated, I was glad I’d been there. I was glad for the experience, of course, because not everyone can say they’ve seen a no-hitter, but perhaps even more than that, I was glad I’d learned all the lessons that game had taught me.

Sometimes, you just get no-hit. It can happen to a Mets team that couldn’t hit the side of a barn, just as it could have happened, for all I know, to the Murderer’s Row. The terminology makes it unique to baseball, but the experience can happen to anyone: sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get anything right.

I probably already knew that, especially having watched the Mets for 11 years prior to Heston’s no-hitter, but that game drove it home, especially when the Mets went on to rebound spectacularly, win two playoff series, and come within a few bad bounces of a World Series title. It’s a lesson every inspirational figure I’ve ever heard of has attempted to impart, in some form or another: it’s not how you fall, it’s how you get back up. Watching the Mets get no-hit pounded that principle home in my mind better than any coach’s speech I’d ever seen. And it’s far from the only lesson the Mets have taught me.

When I was six, the Mets taught me to debate. I walked into my first-grade classroom armed with an unassailable piece of knowledge my dad had imparted to me on the walk to school: “Mike Piazza’s batting .300.”

The only other Mets fan in my class scoffed. “That’s not that good,” he said. “You can bat all the way to a thousand.”

He was right, I was wrong, and my debating skills needed some work. But it was a start.

A few years later, the Mets taught me that nothing could last forever. I was in the park, watching a soccer game, when I turned on the radio to hear that Mike Piazza, after being ahead in the count 3-0, had struck out. I was stunned. Piazza left the Mets on good terms a few months later. I was just surprised that Mike Piazza, from what I’d heard, a god among men, could strike out, particularly after being up 3-0.

When I was 14, the Mets taught me to always accept challenges, even those that seem impossible, because you might just succeed. It was September 24th, 2011 at Citi Field, and I was in the stands. The Mets were down 1-0 in the seventh, facing Cole Hamels, in the midst of the best season of his career, when Valentino Pascucci strode to the plate. Pascucci, a 32-year-old journeyman, had not appeared in the major leagues since 2004, and he hit the second pitch he saw into the left-field stands to tie the game. The Mets won two innings later. I’ve seen walk-offs, great pitching performances, and dazzling defensive plays since then, but I don’t know that I’ve seen anything quite as beautiful as Val Pascucci, a 32-year-old with a swing so power-dependent that he couldn’t make it as a major league ballplayer, rounding the bases in temporary, glorious triumph.

The 2012 Mets taught me two important lessons. In August, they taught me that false hope is just that — false, and only hope. Things looked bleak — we were losing 5-2 to the Rockies going to the bottom of the ninth.

“We may be losing,” yelled a fan in the stands next to me, “but you have to go back to Colorado, so who’s the real winner?”

Suddenly, a glimmer of excitement: two men on, the tying run at the plate. Ronny Cedeño was the batter, and Ronny Cedeño never hit home runs. He gave this one a ride, and the few thousand fans that were left rose to their feet, but it settled into Carlos Gonzalez’s glove at the warning track. Since that game, I’ve been careful, almost to the point of paranoia, to be certain before proclaiming that a ball is gone.

But the 2012 Mets also taught me a different, more important lesson: that sometimes, baseball can be everything you’ve ever wanted, and then some. On June 1st, 2012, I was watching the game in my parents’ room, Johan Santana pitching against the Cardinals. As my mother urged me to go to bed and my dad skillfully avoided taking a position on the matter, Santana motored through the Cardinals’ lineup without giving up a hit. The ninth came around; two fly balls provided the first two outs. With a full count on David Freese, Santana threw a change-up in the dirt, and Freese swung over it.

I jumped in the air in triumph, hugged my parents, and promptly went back to my room to lie in bed and soak in the moment, listening to Mets talk on the radio for at least an hour. I learned just how wonderful a baseball moment could be that night, but I also learned two other things. The first was the importance of pushing one’s boundaries: Santana had been informally capped at 115 pitches, and had thrown 134 in completing the effort. The second was somewhat different: in my excitement over the Mets game, I had completely abandoned studying for the Biology SAT II the next day. The Mets taught me, that night, that in a world where Johan Santana could throw a no-hitter and fill millions of Mets fans with joy, maybe test scores weren’t quite so important.

***

Life lessons are one part of being a Mets fan, but they’re not the only part. The other — almost certainly, I would concede, the more important — is obvious: the games. The wins and losses. The players with whom we form irrationally familiar bonds. The championship teams, the so-so squads, the dumpster fires. The Mets have had all of them, and true Mets fans love them equally.

As it happened — and being a Mets fan, I should have anticipated this rotten stroke of luck — I left New York just as the Mets were beginning to embark on their quest to retake the city. In the six and a half seasons from 2009 to the middle of 2015, the prime years of my childhood and the period of my life when I had far and away the most time for fandom, the Mets’ winning percentage was .468. In the year and a half since I’ve been largely unable to attend games, it’s .560. After six years of losing teams, in the year and a half I’ve been gone, I’ve missed two playoff clinchers, a wildcard game, two playoff series wins, and a World Series appearance. In the process, I’ve also missed what may in hindsight have seemed inevitable, but certainly didn’t seem likely four years ago: the retaking of the city by Mets fans.

After a poll taken a few years ago showed that the Yankees were the favorite team in every single neighborhood in New York, the Mets overreacted spectacularly, distributing a “loyalty letter” among fans and instantly becoming the subject of unabated mockery. Recently, a new poll came out, with dramatically different findings: within the five boroughs of the city, the Mets had overtaken the Yankees for fan support, 45 percent to 43. It’s a slim margin of victory, fully within the margin of error, and with the inherent inferiority complex that seems to come with being a Mets fan, I can’t help but think that the poll, somehow, got it wrong. But either way, it’s undeniable: among city fans, the Mets are surging.

But could any of these newly-supportive fans have appreciated the 2015 team as much as I did? I don’t think so. They didn’t sit through the years and years of mediocrity, the rotations filled with pitchers with E.R.A.s in the fives, the lineups with .190 hitters batting cleanup, or the inexplicable injuries, one after another, knocking off our players as if they’d been commissioned to do so. They hadn’t been brought to the edge of tears when Luis Castillo had dropped Mark Texeira’s pop-up at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the ninth, turning a surefire win into a walk-off loss: in fact, they’d probably been on the other side of the aisle for that one. They hadn’t learned what it felt like to have been involved with Bernie Madoff, of all people, and see your payroll contract by 50%. And, of course, they hadn’t experienced what it felt like to suffer through six years of losing before finally hitting the big-time.

How could any of these fans have loved 2015 or 2016 as much as I did? What could it mean for them to watch the Mets clinch a division if they hadn’t watched it the last time it had happened, nine years before, and hoped for it without fruition ever since? It might mean something — but it couldn’t mean much.

There are two reactions, every time I attend a Mets game, or even listen to one on the radio. First, there’s the immediate reaction: joy, contentedness, sadness, or — in extreme cases like former reviled Met Jon Niese moving over to the Pirates, and, in the midst of a 5.50 E.R.A. season, taking on the Mets and shutting us down over seven scoreless innings — anger. This invariably abates fairly quickly: as everyone knows, the beauty of baseball season is that for six months of the year, there’s always another game tomorrow. Even after the Mets lost the World Series, or their wildcard game, my glumness didn’t last for long.

That’s when the second reaction kicks in, and this one, unlike the first, is almost always the same: for the most part, it’s simple gladness, happiness to have been a part of Mets history and excitement for the parts still to come. Ask me about any game you can think of, the worst memories buried away in the Mets fan’s closet of horror. Chris Heston’s no-hitter. Castillo dropping the pop-up. Niese shutting us down. David Wright getting hurt, any of the many times that he has. Connor Gillaspie shoving a dagger into our hearts in the 2016 Wildcard game, or eternally lovable Bartolo giving the Royals the lead in game five of the 2015 World Series. Of course, I regret that they happened — I wish they could have gone differently, and I’m still unable to watch the highlights from any of them without steeling myself first. But they happened, and I’m glad I was there, in spirit or at the stadium, when they did.

Being a Mets fan is no walk in the park — no one ever said it would be. It’s an emotional journey that only a lifetime of continuous rooting can prepare you for, and the fans now attaching themselves to the Mets’ playoff wagon are in for a rude awakening when the wheels fall off, which is why we’ll almost certainly see far fewer of them in August 2021, when the Mets have a 47-68 record and a pitching staff whose arms are either not strong enough or falling off. But the real fans, the true fans, will still be there. I’ll still be there, rooting on our guys in the stands just like we always do. And we’ll be there for three reasons.

First, we’re Mets fans. This is just what we do. We’ve done it all our lives, and a bad team isn’t going to keep the most steadfast of us away.

Second, it really doesn’t matter all that much what our record is. We love watching a 9-o blowout just as much as a division-clinching win, because it’s a night at Citi Field, outside in the warm Queens air in jerseys we wish we were good enough to wear for a living, eating whatever ballpark food we want and pretending that whatever Summer it is will last forever.

And third, we’ll be there because each game, no matter the result, instantly becomes a part of Mets history, and a part of our collective experience. If we want to be happier than we ever knew we were capable of feeling when the Mets finally win a World Series, we have to understand what it’s like when we’re not winning. If we want that eventual championship trophy to be worth it, we’ve got to know what it feels like to watch Yankees baserunners circle the bases as our infielders fling the ball around in disarray. And what’s more, we’ll be glad that we were there to see it. Does remembering Luis Castillo’s tenure with the Mets make me happy? Of course not — I can barely stand hearing his name. But I’m glad the pop-up that he dropped drove a stake through my heart — because that was one more stake that vanished as Jeurys Familia dropped to his knees five years later, having struck out Dexter Fowler and secured us a trip to the World Series.

***

At this point, having watched the Mets for as long as I have, the Mets are essentially a TV show. You know what they say about TV episodes: there are only so many stories that you can tell so many different ways, so until the writers come up with a groundbreaking new story, you’ve just got to watch the old ones with different spins on them. That’s what the Mets are. And I love TV shows.

There are only so many plots that a Mets game can have. Of course, in general, baseball games can go all sorts of ways, but for games that you just know that only the Mets could play, there are a few really specific plots, storylines that never fail to leave fans either jubilant, barely able to keep themselves from skipping as they descend the Citi Field steps, or dumbstruck, shaking their bowed heads and smiling sadly.

There’s the inexplicable, sudden loss, for example: Castillo’s error is an obvious example, but there’s also D.J. Carrasco issuing a walk-off balk, to use a name I wish I didn’t have to remember. Then there’s the storyline where our bats suddenly turn to splinters, and you just know without being told that if the fate of the world depended on it we still wouldn’t score a run today, and you want to somehow slap yourself awake and out of this nightmare, but you can’t, so you content yourself with wanting to slap whatever mediocre pitcher is inexplicably shutting us down. Jon Niese comes to mind here, or Livan Hernandez, bane of Mets fans of a certain age, or any of those pitchers the Phillies grab off the scrap heap with, I’m convinced, the express purpose of being especially infuriating when we fail to hit against them. Ask any Mets fan about this sudden offensive futility: they’ll have their own example, and they’ll probably slap their forehead in exasperation.

But there are positive plot lines too: the kind that on TV, we call too unrealistic. The unlikely hero, for example: Val Pascucci is the embodiment of this story, but there’s also Justin Ruggiano, career minor leaguer, who in 2016 came to bat with the bases loaded against Madison Bumgarner, and, 30 seconds after Twitter began warning other fans, jokingly, to watch out for the Justin Ruggiano grand slam, actually hit a grand slam, then, a few days later, hit the disabled list, and hasn’t played since. Pitchers live out this plotline too: in 2016, when our pitching rotation needed some help in the worst way, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman came out of nowhere to each post E.R.A.s under 3.00, and pave our way to the wildcard. Or there’s Bobby Jones, who in the midst of a 5.06 E.R.A. season in 2000 threw a one-hitter in the NLDS to help us on our way to the World series.

Then, of course, there are the ordinary games: the games you lose 4-2 or win 6-3 where nothing especially noteworthy happens but everyone has a good time and it’s a fun way to spend three hours. If a game is nothing else, positive or negative, it’s at least this, an unequivocal positive itself. There are TV episodes like this too: nothing outlandish, just a good way to relax.

I’ve only ever caught one foul ball at Citi Field. It was 2013 or 2014, and the Mets were playing the Nationals, and our record was so bad that I was almost alone in my section, the second level right behind home plate, in a seat that costs about $70 with a winning team, that I’d paid maybe $25 for. Anthony Rendon fought a pitch off backwards, and it hit me in the hands. I stowed it in my backpack, and when I got home, put it on display on my desk, inside a ziplock bag.

They say that a good TV series is one that lets viewers take something different away from each episode. That time, the taking was literal. But I’ve taken something away from every Mets game I’ve ever been to, from memories of April 2004 and an 8-1 loss to the Pirates to a t-shirt that I caught during the 14th inning of a game in 2014. Some of the taking is mental: a lot more is completely intangible, and can’t be quantified in any significant way. It’s the memories, the experiences, the emotions. I’ve taken enough of those from Shea Stadium and Citi Field to last a lifetime, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it, no matter the score. And I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

The last Mets game I went to was last September, when we were still lagging behind in our pursuit of a wildcard. We gave it our best, but ultimately came up short and lost 6-4.

That game wasn’t particularly spectacular: it was a loss, but not a crushing one. Even so, I took almost more from that game than I could carry. Leaving the stadium, rhetorically asking other fans whether our 2.5 game deficit with 28 games to play was really that bad, I was carrying memories. Memories of Jay Bruce breaking out of a spectacular slump to hit a home run and an RBI single; Asdrubal Cabrera coming in to pinch-hit and homering in the ninth; Jacob deGrom giving it all he had but leaving the game with a mysterious medical ailment; a conversation I’d had with my seatmate, a fellow Mets fanatic, about middle relievers of years past. I was carrying emotions: moderate disappointment at the loss, slightly deeper disappointment that this was the last game of the season that I would see in person, happiness that the Giants, our competitors for a wildcard spot, had lost, and excitement for the wildcard chase that was just beginning, one that I knew would be one for the ages. I was carrying all that as I left Citi Field, from a game that hadn’t even been particularly exciting. And, of course, I was carrying an enormous picture of David Wright’s face printed on foam, because I needed something new to hang on my wall.

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