Goodbye, J.D. Davis

Closing Day, like its older, cooler brother Opening Day, seems to have a habit of presenting perfect backdrops for baseball. My memory is certainly flawed, but I can’t remember a Closing Day that wasn’t bright, sunny, and warm; one last invitation to take in the Summer Game before the calendars and the climate turn. It’s proof, if nothing else, that baseball really is America’s Game, and that on the last day of the season, whoever’s running things up there wants nothing more than one last perfect ballgame.

It certainly seemed that way, anyway, when I got to Citi Field to watch the Mets close out their 2019 season against the Braves. I arrived minutes before the ballpark gates opened, and waiting in line, if anything, the weather was too bright and hot. I covered the back of my neck with my hand and pulled my cap low over my face, and when I finally got into the stadium, my eyes took a long moment to adjust to the darkness of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda.

The Rotunda. Last time in there for a while. Last time at the Mets Team Store for a while, which I suppose justified the four t-shirts I bought. John Franco and Tim Teufel were signing autographs in the Mets Hall of Fame — last time there for a while too — but as I waited in line for signatures, a door in the back of the Rotunda opened, and J.D. Davis walked through it.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected. The Mets’ website had advertised players surprising fans at the gates before the final game of the season, which was why I’d been keeping such a close eye on the door, which I knew led to a tunnel straight to the clubhouse. And I’d even fantasized that one of those players might be J.D. Davis, as close to a mythical figure as I could think of. I’d prepared for it: on my phone, I’d pulled up a picture of my graduation cap from May, the one I’d decorated with a simple phrase that, since then, has  proven true over and over again — and, I’m fairly sure, has infiltrated Mets Twitter. “J.D. Davis is a Professional Hitter.”

I snaked my way out of the Franco/Teufel line — a security guard looked at me disapprovingly, but I persevered — and slowly but surely forged my way through the Rotunda to where Davis was standing by a gate, shaking hands with fans as they entered, surrounded by handlers. They weren’t allowing pictures, but I shook Davis’ hand and showed him my cap. He laughed.

“Love it,” he said.

It was fitting, I suppose. J.D. Davis is the closest thing there is to a symbol of everything the Mets went through this year, and everything that Mets fans went through with them. Davis is an excellent player, on the border of stardom, but certainly not perfect. He has his ups and his downs, but ultimately gets the job done — and then some — while being, as his new unofficial nickname “Sun Bear” might suggest, entirely too lovable to handle.

Davis has also gone from being a player who seemed fine, to someone who I defended from what I thought was unwarranted criticism, to a player I genuinely liked, to a player I list among my favorites. The thing about the 2019 Mets, of course, is that there are six or seven players among my favorites, which was part of the reason I was so unprepared for Closing Day. I loved the 2019 Mets in a way I don’t think I have before, even when the 2015 team was taking our breath away. To see them cease to exist, therefore — as we must every Closing Day, sad as it always is — was going to be an emotional gauntlet.

I needed food, and I knew exactly what I wanted. There are all sorts of fantastic options at Citi Field — I’ve grown partial to the Chicken Parm hero in the outfield on the field level this season, as well as the Arancini stand in the upper deck — but today, for such an emotional occasion, I needed a comfortable classic.

From one of those stands that are everywhere at Citi Field, but seem to close their doors one at a time as seasons go on and attendance drops, I ordered two hot dogs and a lemonade. The classic. Two hot dogs and a lemonade has been what I’ve eaten at Citi Field since going to Citi Field has meant anything. Late in the 2014 season, as I started my senior year of high school, I found that I could spend more or less every free moment I had at Citi Field, and no one would mind. So I did. And hot dogs and souvenir lemonades were my fuel. If I have a soul, it is made of Citi Field hot dogs and souvenir lemonades, and it is sitting in the upper deck at Citi Field watching the 2014 Mets, and realizing that maybe they’re not so bad after all.

***

The story of the 2019 Mets started exactly one year before Closing Day, when David Wright left the field for the last time, leaving the captain’s position, and the role, vacant. The story continued with the hiring of “Mad Men” extra and former agent Brodie Van Wagenen as General Manager, and the first twists appeared when Brodie sent Jarred Kelenic, outfield prospect and (to me, anyway) surefire future Hall-of-Famer, to the Seattle Mariners, in exchange for — don’t laugh — offensive powerhouse Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, the best closer in baseball.

Really, though, the story got going, as it usually does, in Spring Training. Pete Alonso’s first swing of the year hit a ball about 450 feet to center. Jeff McNeil hit the ball everywhere. Jacob deGrom looked strong. Brandon Nimmo, when he wasn’t deathly ill, couldn’t stop walking. They were more or less the same team that we remembered, except that we would get a full season of McNeil (and, it turned out, Alonso); Wilson Ramos and his steady bat would take over behind the plate; Jed Lowrie would help all around the infield (ha!); and Edwin Diaz would nail down the ninth inning just like he had in Seattle the year before, when the Mariners hadn’t lost a single game that they led in the ninth inning. We had a solid young core, and we’d added strong win-now pieces; things wouldn’t be easy, but our team, we were sure, was at least pretty good.

But as they always do, things didn’t all go as expected. McNeil and Alonso exceeded expectations; Diaz and Jeurys Familia didn’t. J.D. Davis was a breath of fresh air, a ray of light; Jed Lowrie, meanwhile, sat around somewhere in a dark basement getting mildewed and stale. The season was over by July, except suddenly it wasn’t; we won 15 out of 16 and moved into playoff position, only to promptly fall out of it; things came down to the wire, but we fell short with less than a week remaining.

Throughout all the ups and downs and sudden left turns of the season, though, one thing didn’t change. These 2019 Mets never lost their lovability, their wonder. In fact, as the season went on, it only increased. Whether we were 10 games over .500 or ten under, there were players to root for. deGrom pulling himself together after a rocky start to emerge as a front-runner for a second consecutive Cy Young award. Pete breaking free of the Home Run Derby curse to barrel past the all-time rookie home run record in the second half. McNeil hitting for average, then adding power, and all the while eking out hits like a madman. Davis hitting the ball harder than anyone. Nimmo running harder than anyone. Seth Lugo spinning curveballs, pitching multiple innings, and providing a steady presence exactly when Diaz didn’t.

I loved the 2019 Mets more than any other Mets team I’d ever watched, because I loved the players. I had six favorite players on the 2019 team: Pete, Jake, McNeil, J.D., Nimmo, and Conforto, rock solid, always hitting or walking, setting career highs in home runs and RBIs.

2019, of course, didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to. Seasons rarely do, if you watch baseball at Citi Field and orange and blue are your favorite colors. But it had to end eventually, and regardless of how it ended, I knew that I’d rather it didn’t.

***

From my seat in the upper deck, I watched Mickey Callaway bring out his lineup card, and wondered whether it was the last time he would do so. At the time, Mickey’s future with the Mets was unclear: he’d given some strange for missing the organizational meetings the Mets would hold the next week, which hadn’t seemed to augur well for his prospects, but he’d also held meetings the previous week that indicated he might stick around. Or something. Frankly, it barely mattered to me whether he stayed or left. Mickey always seemed about average as a manager, his faults canceling out his strong points, both minimal. His absence will not be the reason the 2020 Mets fail or succeed.

I finished a hot dog and my fries, and as I was storing the second hot dog in its Nathans’ container under my seat for later, Noah Syndergaard took the hill. Noah’s season was fairly average, which for him means it could have been better. There were flashes of brilliance, and too often stretches of mediocrity; clearly, he can go pitch for pitch with anybody in the game, but over multiple innings, he sometimes makes one mistake too many. But know this. Noah will be back in 2020, and he’ll be better — write that down. On 2018’s Closing Day, he pitched a complete-game shutout, and as he took the mound a year later, I was hoping it would prove part of a pattern.

Syndergaard allowed a run in the top of the first, on an RBI single by Adeiny Hechevarria, but limited the damage. The bottom of the inning: Alonso singled with one out, and went to third when Conforto singled off the tip of Ozzie Albies’ glove. Already, it seemed that the bounces were going in the Mets’ favor, which didn’t surprise me. The Mets have a penchant for winning in games that, while symbolically significant — Opening Day, Closing Day, 9/11 — do not matter more in the standings than any other game. Cano, up next, hit a deep fly ball to left, and Alonso trotted home uncontested. In the year of the juiced ball, a clean sac fly felt like an antique.

Davis came up. This season, he has hit the ball harder than just about anybody, and he seemed thirsty to continue proving himself. With the count 3-1, he lined Mike Soroka’s pitch over the left field fence at 106 miles per hour. His 22nd home run of the year, a two-run shot, and the Mets led 3-1.

After the first, the innings began to speed by. Noah let the Braves tie the game in the fourth, when Rafael Ortega, average hovering below .200, launched a monstrous home run onto the Shea Bridge. The Mets’ offense, meanwhile, threatened but could not muster a run. A hit here and there, sometimes a runner in scoring position, but never anything more.

The regulars began to exit, as is Closing Day tradition. First it was Todd Frazier, who singled in the fourth and was replaced by Luis Guillorme. Frazier exited to modest, polite applause. He was dreadful in his first season as a Met and solid in his second, and may well never play for the Mets again. After a “tailgate trivia” game in the middle of the fifth that was far easier than it should have been — I won a few weeks ago, and my questions were way harder — Joe Panik replaced Cano on defense in the sixth. In the bottom of the seventh, Callaway decided that Noah was done, and he sent out Sam Haggerty to pinch-hit.

Haggerty, just up from AAA this month for the first time, did not yet have a hit, although he had scored multiple runs in pinch-running appearances. If my memory is right, I have seen every single one of his at-bats, and each time I have rooted hard. I have never seen a Met’s first hit in person (again, if I’m remembering correctly), and it’s something I’d like to experience. This time, in any event, Haggerty struck out, and one batter later, the game went to the eighth inning, still tied at three.

It was impossible not to think of David Wright’s final game. That one went 13, and all anybody wanted was for it to end, regardless of the outcome. This time, a Mets win was the distinctly preferable result. But extras? Free baseball? It’s hard to say, even in hindsight, whether I wanted to see them or not. It’s more time at Citi Field, but it’s bittersweet, marred by the fact that each extra inning just further drives home the point that this is it for the year. Still, though…extra innings meant more time at Citi Field, if they happened, so I think I wanted to see them. Unless, of course, it meant the Mets had blown a lead. Who wants to see that?

***

Paul Sewald pitched the top of the eighth, and did so scoreless, which, for those of us used to watching Paul Sewald, seemed like a miracle on its own. In the bottom of the eighth, Alonso and Conforto, each taking what might be their last at-bat of the season, made outs. They jogged off the field to warm ovations, Alonso’s louder but both appreciative. With two outs, Joe Panik came up.

The Giants non-tendered Panik in August, and a few days later he was a Met. Immediately after coming over, he hit well for a few games before reverting to his .240 self. But I’m a fan of Panik. He’s not a great hitter, but he’s also not a clueless hitter. He takes competitive at-bats, even if they don’t often end well. If the Mets can’t find a better infield bench option, and Jed Lowrie remains moribund, I hope Panik is back next year.

Am I biased? Maybe by recency. Because Panik hit the second pitch he saw into the second deck in right field. Mets lead 4-3, three outs between us and victory. In 2019, the year of six favorite players, of course the crown belonged to Joe Panik. If there’s one lesson to be learned from watching Mets baseball, it’s that things never go the way they’re supposed to. Like in David Wright’s final game. He comes up in a perfect spot, man on third, one out — almost any contact drives home a run and sends the crowd into a frenzy. So David doesn’t make contact. He walks, probably the worst good outcome in that spot, the opposite of the Hollywood version. Not a Hollywood story, but a Mets story, told to perfection. That’s usually how it goes.

Three outs to get; three outs to send fans home with a happy Closing Day to wash away the sour taste of elimination. So Mickey stuck with Paul Sewald. J.D. Davis was out of the game by now; he’d been replaced by Rajai Davis after singling in the eighth, and departed to an ovation somewhere between Pete’s and Conforto’s. He finished the year with a .307/.369/.527 line on offense, good for an .895 OPS. Adeiny Hechevarria led off the ninth.

Among Mets fans, Hechevarria became known this season for an unfortunate confluence of events. He played for the Mets, until they released him, likely in order to avoid paying the $1 million he was due the next day. He bolted town and signed with the Braves, and seems to have hated the Mets ever since.

Was it wrong to cut Hech in order to save a few dollars? Certainly. Did it come at great cost to the Mets? Not at all: as a Brave, Hechevarria has been supremely unimpressive, not as good as Luis Guillorme, who replaced him in Queens. The entire argument, really, seems uninteresting and overblown. All we know for sure is that Hechevarria hates the Mets with a passion.

As he led off the ninth, it had started to get colder. There was a chill in the air that hadn’t been there even the night before. It’s funny: sometimes, just as baseball can go off-script and do the opposite of the Hollywood version, it will go the other way, take itself far too seriously and start getting gratuitous with the symbolism. Yes, it’s fall now. But starting the day warm, as if it’s the middle of summer, and then getting progressively colder just to drive the point home? It’s overkill. It’s like that scene in “Interstellar,” where the character meant to represent the idea that man is his own worst enemy is named “Dr. Mann.” Baseball can crush our hearts and send us off into the cold of winter, as it does every year, but please, at least be subtle about it.

Hechevarria lined a ball into the left-field stands for a game-tying home run.

Really, why not? Closing Day is when it all comes together, when the narratives of each season are sealed up and written in stone. Really, it made sense. Perfect sense. If Adeiny Hechevarria wasn’t going to take his revenge, what had this all been about?

Sewald got one more out, then Mickey came out and got him. The crowd was booing as Mickey took the ball: I couldn’t tell who they disapproved of more, the pitcher or the manager who had just sent him packing. Daniel Zamora came in and finished the ninth inning scoreless; in the bottom of the frame, Nido grounded out, and Jed Lowrie and Sam Haggerty, despite the perfect story it would have been, both failed to get their first hits of the season.

The Mets took the field. Tyler Bashlor came in. Extras!

***

At least it was early. This wasn’t like the David Wright game, when my mother started telling me in the ninth or tenth inning that my brother, at the game with me, really had to get to bed. It was just past 6:00 in the afternoon, as dark as 8:30 in July, plenty of night left for baseball. It was, however, getting colder.

Bashlor, intimidating and erratic as ever, got through the tenth unscathed. With one out in the bottom of the inning, Conforto singled, and Panik, suddenly the Mets’ best hitter, singled him to third. Up came Davis, the left fielder, Rajai instead of J.D.

I can’t even count how many times Mickey Callaway has been burned by bringing in his defensive replacements before the offense has finished its’ day’s work. Today was no exception. All we needed was a ball in play. J.D. Davis, I told myself, could have done it. Rajai, 38 years old, .200 hitter, couldn’t. He struck out, and Amed popped up before you could say “sure he’s gotten better but he’s still really gotta improve his approach at the plate,” and now Walker Locket was coming in to pitch the 11th.

You know where this is going. I knew where this was going. “Gotta pitch to Hechevarria with the bases empty,” I muttered to myself.

Billy Hamilton singled leading off the inning, but somehow, a pitchout worked perfectly, the way you almost never see, and Tomas Nido cut down Hamilton at second. Hechevarria, sure enough, would bat with the bases empty.

Good thing, too. I thought I knew where this was going, but even I wasn’t prepared for exactly where it was going: into the second deck, a shot of Alonsic proportions. Hechevarria must really have wanted that $1 million. Up next, Adam Duvall also took Lockett deep. And as the stadium groaned, I just sat in my seat laughing.

It’s always good to be reminded that whatever may happen, these are the Mets, and things are going to get silly. Adeiny Hechevarria is going to hit not one but two soul-crushing home runs. Jon Niese will shut us out as a Pirate. Mike Scott will learn the spitball. Oliver Perez will come back to New York reinvented as a reliever and shut us down every time he pitches. “LOLMets” isn’t just a quirky thing people say: it’s a tortured expression of the truth of the world, which is that if Mets fans cannot laugh they will cry, and there’s no sense crying on Closing Day, at least until the game ends.

6-4 Braves. Chris Mazza induced a double play to stop the bleeding, but the damage was done. Three outs to play with, three outs to salvage not quite a season, but at least a good feeling. Three outs between me and the inescapable, eternal feeling that maybe, if Mickey had stuck with J.D. Davis for another turn through the lineup, everything would have turned out fine. Guillorme, Nido, Haggerty. Go get ’em, boys!

Luis Guillorme is an interesting player. On a far less fortunate Mets club, he might just be my favorite: he plays hard, defends beautifully, and is competent but refreshingly imperfect, or imperfect but refreshingly competent. Now that he’s proven that he’s a not-bad hitter at the big-league level (.246/.324/.361, and he passes the eye test), Guillorme might be a piece of the Mets’ future, especially if Jed Lowrie’s season is any indication of his future capabilities. Guillorme took a tough at-bat, in any case, and singled to left. Nido came up, and I wondered whether Mickey had forgotten to pich-hit Ramos for him. After Nido struck out, sure enough, Ramos pinch-hit for Haggerty and singled, and I wondered whether Mickey had forgotten to pinch-run for him. Rene Rivera pinch-hit for Mazza and struck out, and only then did Mickey pinch-run Juan Lagares for Ramos, leading me to believe that for one batter, he probably had forgotten about pinch-running. Ah, well. These things happen.

In the tenth, after Hamilton’s single, Mickey had made his final applause move of the night: he called on Dom Smith, out of action since July, to replace Alonso. Pete got some of the loudest applause of the night as he took his exit, and Dom, a fan favorite for his exhuberance and hard work, was well-received too. But now he was batting in Pete’s spot — coming up with two men on and two outs in extra innings, representing both the last out of the season and the winning run.

Brian Snitker came out to bring in a lefty. Dom stood in the box, his familiar crouched stance a welcome sight, if not the first thing you’d like to see in that situation. I knew how improbable it was, but I couldn’t help thinking…“those right-field stands are calling your name, Dom, just a little poke right there…be a hero, send us all home happy.”

And unbelievably, almost cinematically, he did.

A line drive, deep to right, towards the fence…outfielders backing up, giving chase, reaching the track…and then, the ball falling out of sight, the stadium exploding into a roar of incredulous satisfaction, Dom rounding the bases, flinging his helmet in the air, landing on home plate as the Mets danced and celebrated around him…and then, all of a sudden, baseball season was over.

Everyone celebrated for a while, and as the park emptied out, the mood became more and more reflective. The players handed their jerseys to season-ticket holders assembled by the Mets’ dugout. They milled around shaking hands and slapping backs. Then, one by one, they made their way into the dugout and up the tunnel to the clubhouse, and thus, the 2019 Mets were written into history, and that was the last we saw of them.

A photo montage started up on the scoreboard, and “The Scientist” came over the P.A. system. I stood at the back of my empty section and watched as slowly, the 2019 Mets, my favorite Mets team yet, disappeared for the last time, as their best moments flashed by on the scoreboard. The end credits to the greatest movie I’d ever seen. The backup first baseman hits the walk-off homer to end the season three games out of a playoff spot. Never a Hollywood story, but a Mets story, told to perfection.

Nobody said it was easy

It’s such a shame for us to part

Nobody said it was easy

No one ever said it would be this hard

Oh take me back to the start…

I waited for the song to end. Then, dark sky beyond the outfield stands, fall breeze getting colder still, I took one last long look down at the field. And I left Citi Field, and the 2019 Mets, for the last time.

***

Out in the parking lot, the long walk to the subway, the last one for a long time. So long until we’ll be back again.

I stopped on the subway steps and walked down again, taking one last look up at the stadium. Brightly lit up against the Queens night, overhead lights still shining…if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was any other game. I knew, of course, that it wasn’t any other game, and in fact, for the longest time, there wouldn’t be any other game.

But I’ll be back, and the offseason, as it always does, will end. There’s the coat drive and the food drive and a few other miscellaneous events that serve as enough of an excuse that they justify getting back to Citi Field for an afternoon and seeing those beautiful bricks again, even if they’re not quite the same without the sun shining and a ballgame on the schedule.

I’ve spent my entire conscious life as a Mets fan, and leaving baseball behind every September has never gotten easier. And with a team I loved as much as the 2019 Mets, this one may have been the most difficult of all. These Mets will never be back, even if the most important pieces return. Something will be different. Something is already different. Life without the 2019 Mets is colder, darker, less joyous and fun. Life with the 2020 Mets, we must hope, will be every bit as enjoyable as these past six months. 172 days from now, when baseball resumes in Queens, we’ll have that light and joy back again. Until then, all we can do is muddle through the cold, dark winter.

As I stood on the first step of the subway stairs, I realized that I’d forgotten something. Talk about symbolic overkill. Leaving Citi Field and the 2019 Mets for the last time, I’d left a hot dog and a souvenir lemonade in my seat for the winter.

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