The Ballplayer

With one swing yesterday, David Thompson mashed a ball over the left field fence, drove in three runs, and pulled the Mets into a tie with the Astros. The game didn’t count, and it ended in a tie, so you might say that what David Thompson did yesterday really didn’t matter. But you’d be missing the point.

In the grand scheme, sure, you might call it a meaningless game. But there’s negativity associated with thinking that way, as if what David Thompson did yesterday — taking a fastball moving faster than a car, turning it around, and hitting it over a fence 400 feet away — is somehow diminished. It was a Spring Training game, against a pitcher of little note in Kent Emmanuel, but it was a home run in big-league camp on MLB Network. To David Thompson, I’ll bet it meant a lot.

There’s not much public information on David Thompson, besides what we already know. The Mets drafted him in the fourth round of the 2015 Draft — after the Yankees, incidentally, drafted him in 2012, and he decided not to sign — and sent him to Brooklyn, and he’s worked his way through the minors ever since. He was injured for most of 2018, and only appeared in 25 games, most with the Las Vegas 51s. In 2017, at Binghamton, he hit 16 home runs. He broke Alex Rodriguez’s statewide record for home runs in a Florida high school career. He does not, as far as I can tell, have a Twitter account.

David Thompson, it seems, is just another ballplayer, not a star, likely destined for a career as a journeyman or a minor leaguer, playing the children’s game for as long as he can. He might well debut for the Mets this season — especially given the way our infielders are dropping like flies  — but he may never play in a World Series. He may never sign a million-dollar contract. And he may never hit a major league home run.

Or maybe there’s some star power hidden in that minor league career, and maybe Thompson will come up and not go away. Maybe he’ll bash like he did against the Astros yesterday, and 20 years from now, at his number retirement ceremony, we’ll be arguing about which third baseman named David was better. It’s unlikely, but this was all so unlikely already. David Thompson, you have to think, grew up dreaming about the day he’d step to the plate as a professional baseball player in a big league uniform and drive a ball over the fence. Yesterday, against odds too long to comprehend, that day came. A meaningless game for the fans and the broadcasters, no change in the standings. But for the man who took the swing that tied it, the most meaningful game in the world.

I wanted to find out more about David Thompson, so I found his Instagram page. He has 276 followers. 273 of them I don’t know; the other three are Jeff McNeil, the Mets, and me. Since April 25th, 2018, he has posted six times.

First, there’s a video of a practice session in the cage. Then a screenshot of an article: “Mets 3B prospect David Thompson has hairline hand fracture.” His caption reads, “a frustrating part of the game. Working hard to get back!” Then, a few months later, a video of a slow-motion swing, apparently part of recovery, captioned “one day at a time.” Then his nephew turning two last September, standing in the grass and holding a wiffle ball and a bat. After that, on Valentine’s Day, another nephew also turning two, this time sitting in some sort of outdoor pool scowling happily at the camera. And after that, one last post. Two hours ago.

It’s a fuzzy, black-and-white shot of Thompson in the middle of his his home run swing. “Getting back into the swing of things,” he’s captioned it.

A meaningless game, yes. But it fits right in on David Thompson’s shelf, between nephews’ birthdays and recovery from surgery. We don’t know whether he will ever wear a Mets uniform at Citi Field. He’s 25, playing a young man’s game and quickly getting older, doing something he’s almost impossibly good at, but still maybe not good enough. He’s a ballplayer. Yesterday, in the midst of a game that didn’t matter to most of us, he drove a fastball over the fence and trotted around the bases as cameras from MLB Network filmed him. Tomorrow, no one but David Thompson will remember it, except maybe his nephews. Now he’s got a story he can tell them until he’s 100. Meaningless game? No such thing.

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The Closer

SNY tweeted out a video today of Jeurys Familia reuniting with Terry Collins in Port St. Lucie. “Good to see you, how you doing?” asks Familia in the video, and at the same time, Terry says, “good to see you…welcome back, big boy!” Familia says, “Thank you man…you doing good?” and Terry responds, “Always! Always! How are you?”

“I’m great,” says Familia, and when Terry asks, “still sinking?” Familia responds “yeah,” and Terry says, “ok, good.” Terry walks away and the camera turns to Familia laughing to himself. There is some unintelligible chatter in the background and then the 16-second video ends, and that, presumably, is our last sight of Jeurys Familia until tomorrow.

Coincidentally, this very morning, I studied in some detail the camera movement in a few famous scenes in The Maltese Falcon, which takes place in San Francisco in the early 1940s and features newspaper references to the San Francisco Seals, but that’s not what most people remember about it. In one pivotal scene, we see the protagonist, Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, talking to Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, as close to a villain as the story has. They talk, and the camera focuses on their faces for a few seconds at a time, and then we cut back to a wide-angle shot, and the camerawork resumes as normal.

What we don’t realize until much later, however, is that during this unremarkable exchange, all the action of the story has come full circle. The dialogue doesn’t mean much, but the camerawork tells us that in these few seconds, as he looks around the room, Sam Spade has solved the mystery. Just from the way the camera moves, we can see that in seconds, Spade has gone from wondering to thinking to understanding. Which brings us back to Jeurys Familia.

It strikes me that Familia hasn’t even been separated — if that’s the right word to use — from Terry Collins for all that long. We sent Familia to the A’s mid-2018 for Bobby Wahl, someone named “Will Toffey,” and prized international slot money. Familia broke camp with the Mets last Spring; really, he and Terry haven’t even missed a Spring Training together.

None of this is to say that Jeurys Familia and Terry Collins aren’t ecstatic to be reunited. I’m certain they are, not least because it’s no longer Terry’s job to to be berated for mismanaging Familia, and it’s no longer Familia’s job to contain the damages wrought by Terry’s bullpen management. But I think there’s more to it than that. You can see it in the chest-slapping hug that Familia and Terry share as they meet for the first time in a long time: there’s so much happiness, so much excitement between the two of them, that it seeps out of the computer screen and has me laughing to myself as I sit on a couch, bundled in a winter jacket with 34-degree Rhode Island winter outside the living room window. Familia, it’s clear, wondered where he would be when Spring 2019 came around…then he thought about it…and now, he understands.

Yes, it is cold here, and there are still 44 days until Opening Day, but pitchers and catchers report tomorrow. Jeurys Familia is hugging Terry Collins in Florida, and that means that baseball is on its way back. You can tell by the calendar, and you can tell because I’m telling you, but you can also tell because hugs like the one Familia gave to Terry this morning aren’t for every day. They come out for the best occasions. Clinchers. Pennants. And Spring Training.

Jeurys Familia is just as excited as we are, and Terry Collins is too. Never mind how excited we are that we’ve got Familia back in the first place: that’s just a bonus. I distinctly remember my excitement as we entered the 2012 season, even armed as I was with the undeniable knowledge that Frank Francisco was our closer. It’s Spring Training: the players are almost immaterial, so long as they’re there (ahem, Ruben Tejada). Winning comes later. It was Jeurys Familia hugging Terry Collins: it could have been Tyler Bashlor or Chris Schwinden or Jeremy Hefner. They’re all Mets. Familia is one too. And now baseball’s winter is over and they — which, given retirements and the like, at this point just means Familia — can resume being Mets in the most important sense: playing baseball. And judging by the smiles and laughter and backslapping in the 16-seconds we’ve seen of Familia in camp so far, he’s just as excited as we are.

Or maybe I’m just projecting. Hell, I never could figure out The Maltese Falcon anyway. I prefer nonfiction, or even journalism. Especially tomorrow, when the pictures from Port St. Lucie start filtering in. That’s baseball at its finest. And look out for Jeurys Familia, smiling even wider on the first day of Spring than he was the day before.

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It Is Time

There is news from the South, and all I can say is thank goodness.

As of 10:00 tonight, give or take, football season ended with one last knee and one more celebration from Tom Brady and the Patriots. I’m supposed to be reflexively against this, as a New Yorker, but I can’t help but not care in the slightest. As you know — at least, as you know if you’re part of the more obsessive reaches of Mets Twitter — the last play of the Super Bowl means it’s Baseball Season. And Baseball Season means…well, it’s Baseball Season. There’s nothing more that needs to be said.

Twitter, of course, was filled with celebrations. Like this one and this one and, not to toot my own horn, this one. Exhultations of the abstract notwithstanding, Mets Pitchers and Catchers report in, by my count, nine days, ten hours, and 44 minutes. By the time you read this, it will be even sooner.

That baseball season begins as football season ends doesn’t even need to be questioned at this point. There’s Pitchers and Catchers, then five days later the first full squad workout, then four days after that the first game of Spring. Once games begin, we’ve got a game every day, more or less, and almost every day that game is on the radio or on TV, and the time starts to fly before suddenly, it’s Opening Day in Washington and the world gets warm again.

The hardest part is over, is what I’m saying. It’s getting warmer; hell, it’s supposed to get near 60 tomorrow. And meanwhile, the mindless waiting is done, replaced with, for now, more active waiting, and then actual, real-world baseball. Who are the first cuts? Who impresses the coaches with their new swing?  Who shows up early to Port St. Lucie? Who shows up late? It’s time to start wondering about that, and that means the worst part of winter is over.

In Brooklyn back when the Dodgers played there and could never win anything, their motto was “wait ‘till next year.” Well, that part is over; we’re there. It is next year and we’re 52 days from nine players in orange and blue taking the field in Queens. Now? Wait ‘till next month. Because next month, the world gets warm again. But this month, Florida gets warm again, and that’s not bad either. Football is over, and now it’s time for Brandon Nimmo and Jeff McNeil and, if he’s still got it, Robinson Cano. Time for triples and double plays and stolen bases. Time for fastballs on the corner and slides into third. Time for sun in the sky, a breeze in the stands, lemonade in the cupholder, peanuts and crackerjacks in hand.

It’s time for baseball. Really, that’s all I need to say.

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