They Say There’s a Heaven

It’s well-known, according to Phil Regan, that when Jacob deGrom pitches a 7:10 game at home, he starts his warm-up tosses at exactly 6:45. So when I finished my hot dog and noticed that the stadium clock showed 6:44, I looked across the outfield grass and saw deGrom standing like a statue front of the Mets bullpen, staring at the clock just like I was. A few seconds later, the last four became a five, and when I looked from the clock to deGrom, he had already started throwing.

I was sitting behind home plate in the second deck, a premium seat that you can get for next to nothing on Wednesday nights when the Mets wildcard hopes have all but died. There were five games left in the regular season, and I was living in New York in September for the first time in five years, so it was obvious where I was going to be. I got the 7 express to Citi Field, loitered on the field level for a few minutes staring at the playing field and thinking about winter, then took my seat in the second deck with two hot dogs and a lemonade. Soon after I finished, and watched deGrom take his warm-ups, it was time for the ceremonial first pitch.

The Mets have fallen into a strange habit in recent years: the number of ceremonial first pitches has steadily increased, such that these days, it’s strange to see fewer than three. They try to get around this by labeling one pitch “honorary,” then the next “ceremonial,” and the third something like “very special,” but for an unfocused observer, it seems, not at all wrongly, that they’re simply throwing out one first pitch after another for no apparent reason.

A child came out, maybe 11 or 12, for the first first pitch, representing the police. He was there to honor an officer, Anthony Dwyer, who died 30 years ago when he was pushed off a roof during a struggle with a suspect. I’d seen an entire family wearing “Dwyer” jerseys in an elevator on the way to my seat. A few minutes later, the second first pitch: a man, probably 25 or 30, walked out to the mound. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said the P.A. announcer, “fulfilling his dream of throwing off a big-league mound, Bob Fleegle.” No one knew who “Bob Fleegle” was, and no one was telling. And finally, a few minutes after that, the third first pitch: a woman from the Boys and Girls club, who made her pitch to Wilson Ramos as deGrom waited on the mound behind her. Then, finally, it was time for the fourth first pitch, a 97 mile-per-hour deGrom fastball that John Berti, Met-killer of sudden renown, took for a ball.

Two women, between 40 and 60, were sitting in the row behind me. Their names were — really — Alisa and Alison — I don’t know who was who — and soon after the game started, one asked the other a question. It must have been a poignant one, because the conversation it sparked lasted, as far as I could tell, until about six minutes after the game ended. It was an adventurous one too. Sometimes they returned, briefly, to baseball: Brandon Nimmo would walk, or deGrom would throw a particularly impressive pitch, and they would offer their thoughts. But then they would diverge again.

They really discussed the world, did Alisa and Alison. Let’s pretend I knew who was who. They talked about the previous night’s game; Alisa’s aging cats; Jacob deGrom’s pitch count (“he’s thrown so many pitches! Just be done!”); the newest iPhone (“So I told her, ‘I have to have this! It’s so nice! It’s lovely!’”); Alisa’s husband being nice enough to pick her up at 6:00 one morning; Mets broadcasters; Alison’s dogs (I would later learn, as far as I could tell, that she is a professional dog-walker); Alisa’s mother; Alisa’s mother’s childhood friend; an art opening down in SoHo, for either the mother or the mother’s friend; bad traffic on the Grand Central Parkway; the problems with Pete Alonso’s swing (“He’s trying to hit home runs, that’s what’s wrong with him!”); Facebook; a four-year-old diabetic dog that Alison is taking care of; social anxiety; what exactly the newest iPhone was called (“Tell her you want an 11, because it’s an 11”); social functions; two people named Jeff and Joanne; the ability to read faces and know whether people want to talk; a third person named Ron; the state of contemporary radio; and an article in the New York Times about books being made into movies. As they were discussing this last one, the first inning ended.

Meanwhile, by the end of the second, the Mets had scored seven runs. Brandon Nimmo led off the game with a walk, as he’s done refreshingly often since returning from the IL. Jeff McNeil shot a line drive into the right field corner, and Nimmo scored. After Pete Alonso struck out — too busy trying to hit home runs, Alison or Alisa said — Michael Conforto roped a double to right as well, and McNeil scored. Lewis Brinson bounced the throw in from right and Conforto went to third, and already, it seemed, the Marlins were unraveling. Wilson Ramos drove home Conforto with a sac fly.

It was a productive first inning on any day. For a Jacob deGrom start — in which, despite deGrom’s ERA near 2.00, the Mets are 28-36 since 2018 — it felt unprecedented.

***

The top of the second ended when Amed Rosario dove to his left and flipped to Robinson Cano covering second, who caught it with his bare hand and fired to first for the spectacular double play. In the bottom of the second, two amazing things happened.

The first came with one out. Todd Frazier was on first, and deGrom was batting. He took the first pitch for a ball, showing bunt. As Miami’s pitcher Robert Dugger delivered the second pitch, Frazier took off for second. deGrom swung — and mashed the ball right up the middle. It was a hit-and-run pulled executed perfectly, the kind of play old bearded men complain that you never see anymore. Briefly, it was perfection embodied, a play that reminds you of days when baseball was young and ballparks were made of wood. Leaving aside the leaps — or suspensions — of faith required to hit-and-run with the pitcher batting, maybe Mets manager Mickey Callaway was redeeming himself, or at the very least, giving an audition. Callaway’s job may well be in jeopardy; whether he remains is anybody’s guess, and frankly, seems almost inconsequential to the Mets’ fortunes in 2020. But a hit-and-run like that, if it works, is the kind of play that makes managers friends.

Brandon Nimmo was up next.

“Come on, Mr. Nimmtastic!” shouted Alison or Alisa, with no prompting. Brandon Nimmo, for context, does not have a well-established nickname, and if he did, it certainly wouldn’t be “Mr. Nimmtastic.” Nimmo walked for the second time in two innings, and McNeil drove Frazier home with a sac fly. Up strode Alonso, 50 home runs on the year, two off Aaron Judge’s MLB rookie record. One pitch and 437 feet later, the number was down to one. A three run homer, Alonso’s 51st of the year, and a 7-0 Mets lead.

If there is one thing you can say about this Mets team, it is that regardless of their talent level, they play the game right. For instance: Jacob deGrom tagged from second and went to third on McNeil’s sac fly. There’s no need to tag from second with two outs on a sac fly; in fact, tactically speaking, it’s probably a bad move, carrying more risk than reward. But deGrom did it, apparently out of a simple love of hustle. Alonso, of course, rendered the gesture useless one pitch later, as if to put deGrom in his place for hustling when, as a pitcher, his only role on the base path is to rest. No one will beat out Mr. Nimmtastic for hustle, of course, with his sprints to first base whether he’s walked, grounded to the pitcher, or hit a home run. But the entire team works hard — unless they’re 36-year-old second basemen making $20 million, too fragile to dive or run fast — and it’s a pleasure to watch.

Alisa and Alison’s conversation slowed down after the second, although it didn’t stop completely. Dugger was exhausted and ineffective; in the third, Don Mattingly replaced him with Wei Yin-Chen.

“Whooooaaaaaaa!” said Alison, as if she’d just won the lottery. “Wei Yin-Chen!”

The Mets scored two more runs on RBI doubles by Rosario and Nimmo. “He’s Nimmtastic,” said Alisa to the world. “That’s what I call him.”

It occurred to me, as the middle innings passed, that I hadn’t actually turned backwards and observed what Alison and Alisa looked like. They were characters in my mind, living embodiments of something, but I wasn’t sure what. Looking back at them and seeing them in the flesh, as nothing more than real, ordinary people, might be a disappointment, not unlike learning that Yoenis Cespedes is actually only five foot ten, or that Christie Brinkley has a bad personality.

***

“Some people are ept, and some people are inept,” said Alison. I didn’t know who or what she was talking about. It was the top of the fifth. “And the people who are inept…” She trailed off. deGrom struck out Isan Diaz.

Lewis Brinson, up next, was certainly inept. Brinson’s OPS+ this season is 30, meaning that roughly speaking, he’s been about 70% less effective on offense than a league average hitter. Perhaps more impressively, his WAR, as measured by Baseball Reference, is -1.9. Brinson has appeared in 70 games and taken more than 200 at-bats despite a .477 OPS, which says things, none of them good, about the Marlins, their lineup, their Front Office, their finances, whoever decided to trade Christian Yelich, and, probably most satisfyingly, Derek Jeter. Brinson struck out.

In games like this one, where the Mets dominate in the early innings, there always comes a point where everything stops, and the offense seems to decide that it’s done enough for one day. After the Mets went down without scoring in the fourth and fifth, I suspected that that point had come. But it wouldn’t be a problem. deGrom was cruising. Scoreless through five, then six…the only highlight of the sixth was when Curtis Granderson batted. Granderson played for the Mets for three and a half seasons, and it was exceedingly obvious that he was always the nicest guy on the field. He signed autographs down the first base line before every home game, said during his introductory press conference that “true New Yorkers are Mets fans,” and seemed to always throw himself into several philanthropic projects at once.

When Granderson came up as a pinch-hitter, the entire crowd applauded. He grounded out to first, and the crowd applauded some more; now, much of the field level was standing. Grandy waved halfheartedly, appreciative of the applause, no doubt, but perhaps wishing that he was waving after a home run and not a groundout.

deGrom got through top of the sixth, and in the bottom, with one out, McNeil batted against Josh Smith. With the count 3-1, McNeil took what he thought was ball four and started towards first. Home Plate umpire Jeremie Rehak thought differently, and called McNeil back.

Thus, it seems fair to say that what happened on the next pitch was more or less the umpire’s fault. Smith threw an inside pitch that didn’t break, and it caught McNeil on the hand as he leapt back. McNeil stumbled up the first base line, shaking his hand angrily, then crouched over in pain. Out came Mickey Callaway. When McNeil stood up after a minute, he walked down to first, as if just to show that he could, and then trudged slowly off the field. Juan Lagares replaced him on base.

Injuries are unfortunate, of course, but it seems that the Mets are making something of a tradition out of late-season injuries to key pieces, which, if you’re going to have an injury to a key piece, is the best time to have one. Last season it was Nimmo’s pulled hamstring on the second-to-last day of the season, and now McNeil, after playing about a full season’s worth of games, will have six months to recover. We don’t know exactly when he’ll be back, but he’s got a postseason and then an offseason to rest.

McNeil, according to the latest medical updates, has a Distal Ulnar Fracture. When Alison and Alisa heard the news, they took it about as well as I expected.

“I’m sad about Jeff,” Alison said. Then, out of nowhere, she gave a cry that can’t possibly be spelled, an operatic wail of sadness and loss. Then, even further out of nowhere, she calmly continued, “it’s okay, I’ll see him in the park with the dog.” I just sat there, low in my seat, mystified by the characters in the surreal drama I was watching.

***

deGrom got through the seventh inning, shutout still intact, with 95 pitches. In his last start of the season with a very successful line already in the books, he was almost certainly done. But Alison and Alisa had other ideas.

Alisa read a text out loud. “He says, ‘let him go out, throw his pitches, then pull him,’” she said. “So everyone can cheer for him one more time.” She paused for several seconds. Then she said, “I’m okay with that.”

After Joe Panik led off the bottom of the seventh with a walk, with deGrom’s spot two batters away, Todd Frazier batted.

“He’s a nice guy,” Alison said. “He wants to coach! In his hometown! He wants to coach high school baseball!”

“He should!” Alisa shouted back. “He should do that!”

Frazier flied out, and as Rosario stepped into the batter’s box, Rajai Davis came out on deck to pinch-hit. Mickey Callaway, it turned out, hadn’t listened to Alison and Alisa’s indirect advice. As Rosario batted, a man in the front row of the section turned to me.

“Excuse me,” he said. He was balding, and wearing blue jeans and a blue windbreaker, and thick black leather work shoes. “Are the Mets in the running for a wildcard spot? Do they have any shot?”

I looked at the scoreboard. “Not if the Brewers win,” I said. “And they’re winning 9-2 in the eighth.”

“So they’ve got no shot?”

“Doesn’t look like it, no.”

It was true. After a long, up-and-down season that Gary Cohen later described as “from ‘come and get us’ to ‘they came and got us,’ to the Summer of Love, to the Autumn of Discontent,” the Mets were on the verge of official elimination from playoff contention. Their fate had been clear for some time — give or take, since they blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals, which was the first time in club history that the Mets had ever blown a six-run lead in the ninth inning — but it was about to become official.

I wasn’t too bummed about it, to be honest. Ten days before, when I’d sat in the stands and watched a 2-1 lead against the Dodgers become a 3-2 loss and end whatever vaguely realistic hopes we had, I’d been crushed, distraught. But now I was absorbed in the beauty and joy of the game. Sure the Mets weren’t going to make the playoffs. Besides a brief, entrancing stretch in July and August, I’d never thought that they were. But the 2019 Mets were a fun team, one that was easy to love and easier to get excited about. We weren’t going to make the playoffs — we could worry about that later. There was a game right in front of us. Our biggest stars were securing their cases for Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. We were hitting and pitching and fielding. Life was good.

Rosario blasted a line drive towards right, but Harold Ramirez caught it. Up came Rajai Davis, and as the crowd received official confirmation that deGrom was done, I heard scattered boos.

“Don’t worry,” Alison reassured Alisa. “He’s not offended. He knows nobody’s really booing him.” Six pitches later, Davis smacked an RBI single up the middle. It was 10-0.

***

It was the top of the eighth.

“Now pitching for the Mets, number 49, Tyler Bashlor,” said the P.A. announcer.

“Oy vey,” I said.

Over the last year or two, I think I’ve more or less figured out what it’s like to watch Tyler Bashlor pitch for your team. Watching Tyler Bashlor pitch is roughly the same as driving around New York until you find a biker gang, selecting the most intimidatingly handsome member, and telling him that he’s a professional baseball player now. Bashlor has tattoos and a prominent chin that is handsome in a violent, cruel way. He lights up the radar gun, and occasionally blows hitters away; in fact, I’ve long been intrigued by his potential. But like a biker pulled off the street and onto a mound, his pitching lacks subtlety and tact. He’s the last person you’d ever want to fight, but one of the first you’d like to bat against. His E.R.A. as he entered the game was 7.65.

He struck out Isan Díaz on a 97 mile-per-hour fastball. He walked Austin Dean, a .222 hitter, on four pitches. He struck out Brinson with a fastball at 96. Martin Prado pinch-hit, and Bashlor’s first pitch was a fastball that split the plate — but fortunately, Prado lined to right.

Alison was looking at her phone. “He’s talking about Mets pitching,” she said to Alisa. “He says, ‘Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, Jacob deGrom.’ That’s it.”

“I’m not sure I agree,” Alisa said.

“Oh! It’s Mount Rushmore!” said Alison. “He’s talking about Mets pitching Mount Rushmore!” She turned backwards, to the rest of the section, and shouted, “It’s Mount Rushmore! He’s talking about Mount Rushmore!”

The Marlins brought in Hector Noesi to pitch the bottom of the eighth. Noesi is one of those players who seems to have been around for 20 years; while it’s impossible, because he’s only 32, I am sure I have distinct memories of Noesi pitching against the Mets throughout the first decade of the 21st century. You encounter players like that, every so often: Rex Brothers is one, and so is Josh Collmenter, both of whom seem embedded into my Mets consciousness circa 2004, but did not pitch in the major leagues until 2011. As Noesi worked the eighth, I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that the Brewers had beaten the Reds, and clinched the last playoff spot in the National League.

With two outs in the eighth, and Alonso on first, Mickey inserted Sam Haggerty as a pinch-hitter. Haggerty is getting his first major-league experience this month, and has been used as a pinch-runner several times, but does not yet have a hit to show for it. I saw his first at-bat, a late-inning appearance on September 11th when all sorts of emotions were running through the crowd, but he could not manage a hit. Now I was seeing his second as well.

The crowd was thinning out alarmingly quickly. As soon as Alonso had walked, and lost his last chance of the day to hit home run number 52 and tie the rookie record, it seemed that half the stadium stood up and left. But somehow, as Haggerty strode up to the plate, the crowd started chanting.

Haggerty! Haggerty! Haggerty!

Ball one, then strike one…Haggerty! Haggerty! A foul ball, and then a swing and a miss to complete the strikeout…but the crowd kept applauding. One of these days, I am very much hoping, I will see Haggerty’s first hit. Until then, and one would presume after that as well, New York will love him regardless.

Drew Gagnon, E.R.A. above 8.00, came in to pitch the top of the ninth with a ten run lead. He lost the shutout on a Neil Walker RBI single and a monstrous Jorge Alfaro two-run homer, but by now there were two outs, and the situation seemed, if not ideal for the Mets bullpen, at least contained.

After Alfaro’s home run, Gagnon struck out Isan Diaz, and the Mets won. They were 83-75, and were already guaranteed a winning record. With the win, they clinched at least a tie for third place. deGrom finished the season with an 11-8 record, a 2.43 E.R.A., and a favorite’s chance at a second consecutive Cy Young Award. It’s no championship, but it’s third place with a winning record. It’s not the worst place to be, especially with a team that you’d love even with 100 losses.

As Diaz was batting, though, Alison and Alisa looked at the scoreboard and realized that the Mets had been eliminated from playoff contention.

“It was fun while it lasted,” Alisa said. “I’m still coming to the games.”

“It was,” said Alison. “And you know what? Up until there’s four games left in the season, we’re still in it. I mean, given where we were before the All-Star Break, how much money would you have put on that? It’s a miracle…

***

On the way out of the stadium, I saw a Marlins fan in a Jose Fernandez jersey. It was three years, to the day, since Fernandez’s death.

The first game I ever attended on my own — with a friend, but I navigated on the Subway from The Bronx to Queens; the game that made me realize I could make Mets fandom work all on my own if I had to — Jose Fernandez was making his major league debut. He was impressive but not dominant, and the Mets won on a Marlon Byrd walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth. I sat in the field level with my friend, on the first-base side.

I’d been thinking about it all night, but the jersey drove it home. I looked at the red wooden exterior of the Willets Point subway station, weathered and faded so that it would have looked right at home in a 1950s post card. I turned and looked back towards the stadium, shining in the dark, a beautifully created replica of a building that stood in Brooklyn from 1912 to 1957. Timeless. The hit-and-run, the gutsy strikeout, the diving flip to start a double play…the details change, of course, but baseball has been the way that it is about as long as there’s been baseball, since the fans wore hats and rode streetcars to the games and the stadiums creaked and groaned and held memories and ghosts of seasons past.

This is all to say, of course, that there’s always next year. One of these years, we’ll actually make the playoffs, and we’ll have more than silver lining to celebrate. But there is always next season at Citi Field, a beautiful team playing a beautiful game, the game we’ve watched for so long that the years eventually cease to matter. All that matters, it turns out, is that baseball always comes back. The seasons turn and the weather gets warm again, and if there’s one thing to celebrate, it’s that baseball is permanent, and playoff elimination is only temporary.

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