Fresh Legs of Winter

As you would not ordinarily find me in a San Francisco Giants cap, I feel driven to explain how I came to be wearing one, especially since it’s all about the beauty of baseball and that’s the sort of thing that’s right in my wheelhouse. The sort of thing, you might say, that I turn on like Michael Conforto on an outer-half fastball. It started five years ago, when my family took a trip to San Francisco. For some reason, everywhere we wanted to go was closed, and one day, we found ourselves on the waterfront with nothing to do, and decided to finally act on my long-disdained suggestion to swing by AT&T Park.

It was late March, but before baseball season. There was no baseball game. We were going — at least, I was going — because we had nothing to do, and better to be near a ballpark than not. This was before the 2016 Wild Card game turned me off the Giants in brutal fashion. So I didn’t bear any ill will toward the Giants, even if I wouldn’t have called myself a fan. This was also before I started buying official hats at every stadium I visited, so I left AT&T Park without a hat, but with happy memories of the giant sculpted baseball glove and coke bottle in the outfield, and the viewing areas through the right field fence that harken back to stories I’ve heard about Ebbets Field. I also left with excitement that the 2013 Mets were about to start their season, which was, shall we say, severely misplaced.

Now fast forward five years, and my brother, then six and now eleven, announced that he wanted to go to AT&T Park again. We were back in San Francisco, and again had a wide-open schedule. The thing about San Francisco is that it wears you down. After walking up and down those godforsaken hills for a few days, you can’t do anything but groan — or maybe that’s just the noise of your bones aching, reaching breaking point as you force them up yet another ridiculous incline. But my brother is young and energetic, and even though by now I hate the Giants with a passion, I figured the same logic from five years ago applied: better to be near a ballpark than not. So I endorsed my brother’s plan, and we walked from the ferry building down the water, towards AT&T Park in the distance.

It was warm and sunny as we walked toward the stadium, and I mentioned to my brother that we should have brought our baseball gloves. Cool, breezy and sunny, perfect baseball weather. The waterfront, unlike most of San Francisco, is completely flat, and my legs were working again. The exhaustion that had plagued me for days was gone, but whether it was the easy terrain or the feeling of baseball in the air, couldn’t say. You can see the top of the stadium from a distance as you approach: first the lights, then the brick façade, then more and more of the building. And as we got closer, all of it together…the warm air, baseball on the mind, plaques honoring baseball legends on the wall, with several former Mets in the mix…suddenly I wasn’t hating the Giants so much anymore.

The question I’m asking goes something like this: how can a team that plays in AT&T Park, maybe the most beautiful stadium in the league, be so worth hating? I’m not sure they can, anymore. They used to play in New York, after all, which means they’ve got more local roots than 27 other MLB teams. I was thinking, as we walked around the stadium, looking at the field through the outfield fence and the boats anchored behind center, that maybe the Giants just aren’t a team worth hating.

They’re just baseball players, after all. They’re not empires of evil like the Yankees or the Cardinals, or even a division rival. They play ball in a city that’s always sunny in a park that gleams, and they haven’t done much worth hating besides winning more than any team deserves. And fairly quickly, sitting on a bench behind the outfield at the edge of McCovey Cove, I realized that I wasn’t sure I could hate the Giants anymore.

So I kept up the tradition that I’d sworn I would break. I bought a Giants cap, black and orange, just like they used to wear at the Polo Grounds. I didn’t wear it for long though, because across the street from the stadium there’s a store called Baseballism, which, it turns out, basically exists on the business of people like me. I more or less picked up a new wardrobe: a few t-shirts, a belt, some socks that look like a scorebook, and a fantastic cap that shows the outline of the United States, filled in with the pattern of a baseball.

Isn’t that what it comes down to? We all love baseball, which makes us all Americans in spirit, whether we’re from here or not. Giants fans, Rockies fans, Astros fans…and Mets fans. Divided by team, but united by this wonderful game.

This wonderful game, by the way, that is on its way toward starting anew. As Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing was thoughtful enough to point out, the Baseball Equinox passed yesterday morning. Today, Opening Day of the 2019 season is closer than Closing Day of the previous one. For the Giants, sure — but especially for the Mets. We’ll be back home in a few days, and my Giants cap will go up on the shelf, replaced, obviously, with old, faded, blue and orange that I’ll wear until Opening Day, 87 days from now.

I walked out of Baseballism into the sun loaded down with baseball gear, legs feeling fresher than Jose Reyes’ after a triple, exhaustion gone. Baseball is on its way back, long as that way may be. I can feel it, as they say, in my bones.

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A Familia Face

Most people don’t remember that Jeurys Familia was never supposed to be our closer. Back in 2015, It was supposed to be Jenrry Mejia, but he was hurt on Opening Day so Buddy Carlyle did the job, and nailed down his first career save at age 36. Then, a few days later, just when Mejia was supposed to come back and get into his mound-stomping rhythm, he got suspended for PEDs, and three going-on-four years later, he still hasn’t kicked the habit. So Familia took over, strictly out of necessity.

The thing is, I’d always thought that Familia was the better pitcher. Familia had a 2.21 ERA in 2014, which was far better than Mejia’s — even limited to only his appearances in relief, Mejia’s ERA was 2.72 — and Familia, I thought, deserved the job. Sure, everyone loved Mejia’s wild stomping motions when he nailed down a save, but far more difficult to stomach were his constant nail-biting saves, the inning where he’d enter up three runs, give up a run and put runners on second and third before retiring the side. And then he’d stomp in triumph, as if he’d always had the whole thing under control.

So Familia took over, and the rest, for the most part, is history: Familia, in 2015, had what has to be the best right-handed relief season in Mets history. 43 saves, 1.85 ERA…he was unhittable. Blew some saves in the postseason, sure, but more than one of those involved grounders sneaking past Daniel Murphy that had no business being hits. Came back with another stellar season in 2016, even though yes, that home run to Connor Gillaspie was a pain to behold, if entirely predictable. They were the Giants, for goodness’ sake; we were never going to beat them.

The crux of this, of course, is that Familia is back, as of 2:20 in the morning, Eastern Standard Time, when Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported that Familia had agreed to a new contract with the Mets. Subsequent reports say that the deal is for three years, somewhere around $30 million; I’m not too fussed about the particulars, if I’m honest. Familia’s back. And I’m satisfied.

Not satisfied that our work is done: no, we have a long way to go, even with Díaz and Familia and Lugo and Gsellman in the bullpen (along with, hopefully, my newest no-name heroes, Drew Smith and Daniel Zamora, but that’s another story). No, my satisfaction is twofold. For one, we’ve continued to make moves. That’s simple enough: we traded for Cano and Díaz, and now we’ve proven that the trade wasn’t a one-off. Hopefully, our two deals so far aren’t a two-off either. We’ve got to do more. The satisfaction comes from the fact that finally, it seems like we actually might.

But also — it’s Familia. A Met. A familiar — pardon the pun — face. The guy pitched for us in the World Series, for goodness’ sake. He’s been around. We’ve seen his face around Citi Field since before Conforto and Nimmo and Amed and McNeil made their appearances. In fact, Familia, I have to think without doing the requisite research to confirm my suspicions — because let’s face it, it’s three in the morning here; these Winter Meeting time differences really make things difficult when news breaks — will assume the mantle of longest non-continuously tenured active Met. Assuming that Reyes is not back and David Wright can’t play anymore, Familia first appeared as a Met in 2012. The next most recent Met was Juan Lagares in 2013. Familia, a prospect not so long ago, will return as an elder. At least he’s not quite old enough to embody the description yet: in baseball, elders are much better when they’re not too old.

In the book I’m working on — I’ve buried the lede again — I remember watching Familia in 2015, when he was as good as things got, the pitcher you came to the ballpark to see:

“I couldn’t get enough of Familia in 2015: sometimes — and I’m not sure I should admit this — if we were way ahead, I would root for our opponents to score a few runs, just to make the game close enough that Familia could come in and I could feel the stadium buzz and roar with excitement as the music blared and Familia warmed up. Alex Anthony, the Mets’ PA announcer at the time, even developed a special way of announcing Familia’s entrance.

‘Your attention please,’ he would say deliberately, ending each word on a downbeat. ‘Now pitching for the Mets. Number 27. Jeurys. Familia!’ In the stands, that sounded like a done deal. No pitcher fearsome enough to be introduced like that could possibly be beaten.”

And now Brodie Van Wagenen, gotta love him, has brought him back. He’s not what he was in 2015, sure — but the memories are still there. And he can still pitch. It’s a yes from me on both counts. Brodie — do your thing. Not too much, of course: don’t trade Noah or Amed for peanuts, and for goodness’ sake, hang on to Brandon Nimmo. But by now, you’ve earned some modicum of trust. Familia is back, and I love it. Now go out there and build us a championship team around him.

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The Van Wagenen Express

Author’s note: welcome back! I’ve been on a temporary hiatus, very busy with something you’ll find out more about — although not much — if you find the lede buried near the bottom (it won’t be hard). Hopefully I’ll now be back to writing more regularly — especially if BVW gives me good things to say regularly. Fingers crossed. 

***

I was missing baseball yesterday. Missing it something awful. Before I fell asleep I listened to “Meet The Mets” twice in a row, that old version from the 1980s that they used to play before Mets Extra on the radio. Hot dogs, green grass, all at Shea…it’s been a while since we heard that song in the proper context, hasn’t it?

One of the reasons I was missing baseball so much, I think, was that it was warm outside, and I’d temporarily abandoned my winter coat for my Mets jacket. I think the last time I wore it was the day after Closing Day, right before it started to get cold. I’m always wearing that jacket, and usually I leave something in the inside pocket, and yesterday, as I was walking back to my apartment, I reached into the inside pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was my ticket to Opening Day 2018, that romping win over the Cardinals. Inside was a folded Mets pocket schedule. I took a second to look at them both, then tucked them back inside my jacket, where I presume they’ll remain until Opening Day 2019, 114 days from now.

This is only the most recent in a long line of Mets jackets, for me. For most of us, I would imagine. I got my first one for Christmas in 2004, replaced it in 2009 or so with the new model; that one disappeared, so I got a different one that was lighter, the black one with blue and orange around the sleeves that you can see Willie Randolph wearing in photos from his time — which now seems brief, when we look back on it — in Queens. Got a varsity-style jacket festooned with all sorts of patches and decorations in 2012, give or take, and a few years ago, a starter jacket, the vintage kind that MLB revived ever-so-briefly, just long enough for me to snag one. My primary Mets jacket at the moment is the field model from a few years ago, blue with orange under the arms and down the sides. When I got home I put that jacket away, ticket and schedule still in the inside pocket, and it’ll probably be a long time — winter, give or take — before it’s warm enough to wear it again.

That’s one reason I was missing baseball. The other was simpler. We were in the middle of trading for a couple of All-Stars, and it was so exciting I felt for a moment like it was 2006 again, and I was fielding grounders with my dad on a cold field in early April. I asked him who was in first that day, and he said the Mets were — of course we were; in 2006 there wasn’t a day of the season we weren’t in first. But it’s early, he said. Doesn’t matter who’s in first in April. I went back to fielding grounders, but I knew he was wrong. We were so dominant in 2006, so unbeatable, that I knew first place in April meant first place in September.

We’re nowhere near that level right now, of course: we haven’t been since Yadier Molina took Aaron Heilman too deep for even Endy to catch. But there’s an offseason excitement, I must say, that I don’t think we’ve felt since 2006. And I can’t help but like it.

However you feel about the trade that brought us Robinson Cano and Edwin Díaz, you must admit that it’s made things mighty exciting. I’m of two minds, personally; there’s nothing wrong with Cano and Díaz on their own, but I can’t help thinking we didn’t need to give up our young friend — as I’ve come to think of him — Jarred Kelenic in order to land them. But either way, the 2019 Mets just got exciting, and word is there’s even more on the way.

Corey Kluber? We’ve inquired. Bryce Harper? Not ruling him out. Noah Syndergaard? On the market — maybe. I can’t even conceive of any deal worth parting ways with Thor, but if trading him is enough to bring us a star center fielder to play between Nimmo and Conforto, or a catcher who can hit (if those even exist anymore; Thor’s worth way more than J.T. Realmuto, and I can’t think of anyone better), then you have my blessing — go for it.

It’s been too long, far too long, since we went all-in on win-now. We did it in 2005 and 2006, then tried to prop up what we’d built with Jeff Francoeurs and Ryan Churches and players of their ilk, and when that all fell apart, we were done. Even in 2015, we weren’t all-in. We won the division and had a run that was nothing short of magical, and I’m not saying for a moment that I would trade 2015 for anything, but we could have been more dominant. We could have spent more, and brought in another star or two, and gone from a division-winner to a juggernaut. Gosh, I miss being a juggernaut.

I’ve been working on a book about the Mets — I know, talk about burying the lede — and in the course of doing so, I’ve remembered just how good the 2006 Mets were, and how quickly and easily I fell in love with the team. Remember that lineup? Reyes, of course, then Lo Duca, then that immortal 3-4-5, that trio of legends. Beltran, Delgado, Wright…I can’t think of lineup with a more fearsome heart, although I’m sure one or two have existed. There’s a reason we won 97 games in 2006 with a pitching staff that was average at best: our offense was otherworldly. Ridiculous. By OPS+, the worst hitter we had who appeared in at least 100 games was Endy Chavez — whose OPS+ was still 101. He batted .306 that year. That was our worst hitter.

Just think of the lineup on a typical night. First it was Reyes, .300/.354/.487 hitter, 19 home runs, 64 steals. Then Lo Duca: .318/.355/.428, from the catcher’s spot, for goodness’ sake. Then Beltran — .275/.388/.594 — and Delgado — .265/.361/.548 — then Wright — .311/.381/.531. Filling out the lineup we had José Valentín — .270/.331/.490 — and Endy — .306/.348/.431 — and one more outfielder, Floyd or Nady or whoever happened to be with the team that night, both of whom could also hit. It was heaven. It was bliss. Each and every night, games began with opposing pitchers terrified.

And here’s the thing: Mets fans need reason to dream again. We need something to believe in, not a wildcard squeaker or the silver lining of an 83-79 finish, but a team that blows us all away. And it seems that GMBVW, as we’ve come to know him, wants the same thing. He’s not one for calm and caution, he seems to be shouting at us. He’s in it to win it — and to win it right now. And maybe it all blows up in our face, and we’re stuck with an albatross contract for a 40-year-old second baseman and a reliever who fell apart after a good year or two. But maybe it doesn’t. And the fact that the possibility is there — that’s almost enough already.

Not quite enough, of course. The most important part of this deal is that it must be — it has to be — the first of many. We’ve not done enough, not yet. And all indications are that BVW knows this. It’s going to be a wild offseason, we keep hearing. Buckle in. Things are going to get exciting.

Now that’s what we need. We had our reassuringly competent team (2014) and our underdog pennant-winners (2015) and our gutsy fighting team (2016), and then we had two teams that are barely worth mentioning. It’s about time we had an exciting team. A team worthy of New York. A team that can bring us back to the promised land, or barring that, a team that strikes just a bit of fear into opposing pitchers. There’s an offseason ahead of us, and all sorts of things that could happen, and somewhere out there is a team of 25 players that can win us a championship — and quickly. Can Brodie Van Wagenen put that team together? Maybe. But the deal he’s just done tells us one thing: successful or not, he’s finally giving it a shot.

Anyway, this was all yesterday, as I said. In bed, I listened to “Meet The Mets” a few more times, and eventually I got to sleep. Woke up this morning, and wouldn’t you know it — it was still warm. So I left my winter coat alone for another day, and put on a Mets sweatshirt. It’s a new one, an orange and blue ordeal I just picked up a few weeks ago. The only Mets team this sweatshirt has ever known is the one with Robinson Cano at second and Edwin Díaz in the bullpen and Brodie Van Wagenen in the office making move after aggressive move. In other words, the only Mets team this sweatshirt has ever known is a Mets team that badly wants to win. It’s not a bad way to get started, as Mets sweatshirts go. And for all those other Mets jackets…well, suddenly, I’m increasingly optimistic that the 2019 Mets will prove a sight for their sore eyes.

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