Screeching Towards Destiny

Although I didn’t want to, I rode a roller coaster last week. I was at Funtown/Spashtown in Maine, where the American Family comes to play, and in my capacity as a camp counselor, I was duty-bound to board an Arthurian coaster car with one camper who wanted to ride. We were dragged up a rickety wooden structure, hurled down the other side, then thrown back and forth like crash test dummies for three minutes. Then, all of a sudden, it was over, and besides being a little happier and a little more nauseated, I was more or less the same as I’d been before.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I was well-prepared for yesterday’s Trading Deadline, and now I am ready for what it looks like the Mets plan to throw at me: glimmers of hope, brief elation, confusion, discomfort, and eventually, probably, nausea. We’re in that place the Mets always seem to bring us, the place we allow ourselves to be led even though no one in their right mind would ever go there. It is August first and the Mets have decided that their best hope is to cobble together half a good team and blindly forge ahead. The roller coaster has left the station.

All we have done, in a literal sense, is swap out Jason Vargas for Marcus Stroman. I’m a fan of the move — Stroman can really pitch, and you always got the sense that Vargas, competent as he suddenly seemed, was a few bad bounces away from an implosion of unprecedented scale — but it’s not a complete game-changer. Our rotation is slightly better now, we hope, and our offense has been competent of late, and somehow the bullpen has too. “When we get Lowrie and Cespedes back,” you can imagine Jeff Wilpon saying gleefully, “it’s like adding two All-Stars to a team that’s already in the hunt for a playoff spot.”

But the team is the team, and but for Stroman and Bradley Wilpon’s old college buddy, it hasn’t changed much. Something has, though. Maybe it’s the mindset that comes with suddenly trading for Marcus Stroman in the midst of what is now a six-game winning streak, or maybe it’s the fact that since we started winning, our playoff odds have gone from near one percent to about 20. I’ll be honest: it feels right now like the Mets are in the early stages of making a run, which means that already, this season is something different.

J.D. Davis, my alt-rock favorite Met, is hitting everything he sees. Amed Rosario has been hitting like a star for a month. Michael Conforto is rock-solid. We’re winning even as Pete and McNeil slump, and when they come around our offense will be even better. Todd Frazier is — dare I say it? — not completely awful; Wilson Ramos is underwhelming but professional.

With Marcus Stroman in the mix, the rotation gives us a chance every game. If the we can cobble together quality stretches from a few relievers at a time, and if Edwin Díaz can show a little bit of that elite ability that he surely still has, the bullpen will hold down a lead every so often. It’s amazing how often I say this, but if things break right, we might really be onto something.

Of course, you don’t ride a roller coaster because it breaks right, literally or figuratively. A roller coaster is tangible, literal affirmation of the principle that the journey is more important than the destination. The journey is different in every amusement park, but the destination — the pavement at the exit, with the path that leads back around to the coaster entrance — is more or less the same. We Mets fans spend October to April on that path every winter, and come Opening Day, we’re back on the coaster, another journey, ready for whichever way it might throw us this time.

Let’s say we all like roller coasters (and honestly, if you’re a Mets fan, you probably do by now). We just added Marcus Stroman, an exhilarating, stomach-churning tight corner. We’ve won six straight, a slow climb towards a wild, unpredictable drop. This afternoon we go for seven, another small step towards the thrill of the ride. Each trade, each game, each at-bat is another twist thrown in, another sudden bump or screaming turn. We’re in the early stages of this ride, and we don’t know where it will take us, or high the peaks will be, or how low the valleys. But at the very least, this has happened: the season has gone, in a few weeks, from nothing at all to the very small start of a roller coaster that, hopefully, will get bigger and more nauseating by the day. So settle in.

I rode the Excalibur coaster in Maine with one camper, who was nauseous for the rest of the day. But he was thrilled that he’d ridden it. Beaten down by the journey, the sudden drops, the twists and turns…but so happy to have been along for the ride, even though the destination was the same as it had always been.

Standard

Technicalities Aside

For just a moment, spare me the technicalities. The Mets just won the Bronx leg of the Subway Series, and it’s a beautiful feeling, even if, in a literal sense, it’s a lie. We all probably experienced the same set of feelings today, anger to despair to hope to celebration, and it’s hard to come away from the six hours of baseball without feeling like you’ve experienced anything but a win.

Around 7:15, right when the Mets were taking their first hacks of the game against James Paxton, I was riding a tandem bike around Central Park (and let’s just pretend that’s a normal thing to do). I felt my phone vibrate twice in my pocket. Once for MLB At-Bat, once for ESPN…a well-known sensation, meaning — since the Mets were away and it was too early to be anything but the top of the first — that the Mets had scored. I had my money on a J.D. Davis home run, not to appear prophetic, but eventually we managed to pull to the side of the road without upending ourselves or fellow bikers, and I saw that in fact, the home run had come from Pete Alonso, the polar bear himself. J.D. Davis didn’t homer until later.

That, really, was enough. I’m sure I’d feel different if we’d lost, but Pete homering in the first, before those loathsome Yankees could even come to bat…it was satisfying in a way that few things are. And satisfaction, in the end, carried the day.

Look at these Yankees, these putridly irksome, undeservedly successful Yankees, the evil juggernaut so good that they’re good even when they’re not. Surely we were expected to lose both games, what with our starters, the not-quite-there Zack Wheeler and Jason Vargas, whose proximity to success, at this point, seems more or less impossible to judge. Even tonight…I will go to my grave, I think, still uncertain whether Jason Vargas’ start tonight was a good one, which is usually a fairly simple question to answer. Coming into today’s doubleheader, surely, we were underdogs in both games.

Let’s just pretend that game one never happened, except to say that it was completely typical. It was the kind of game that bad teams lose to good ones, and the only disappointing thing was that the Mets aren’t supposed to be this bad, nor the Yankees this good. This Yankee group of no-names and over-the-hill veterans…Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, Kendrys Morales…is the kind of squad the Cardinals are supposed to put together, and it’s annoying enough when it’s just another midwestern team with a superiority complex. For this sort of luck, though, to come to a team that can also afford to blow exorbitant sums on Jacoby Ellsbury and C.C. Sabathia and Giancarlo Stanton…how can that possibly be fair?

It’s not, is the answer. Fortunately, game two squared everything away. Early runs; Jason Vargas bending, to utilize a descriptive cliche, but never breaking; a two-run homer from J.D. Davis, my pride and joy…game two was a win if I ever saw one. Who cares that technically, we split the day? These were the Yankees, the model franchise, the big bad wolf, the team that sweeps away everything in its path. We’re the Mets in the Wilpon/Van Wagenen/Callaway era, a laughingstock, losers of players to the disabled list, acquirers of Keon Broxton via trade, possessors of no secondary bullpen worth mentioning. And for us to take a game, let alone in a blowout? You can bet that Yankee fans hated to see that.

So now we move on, to a June that promises a long series of tough series. But Mickey Callaway says we’re going to get to .500 and then take off. It figures. One of these times, we’re finally going to succeed at winning as many games as we’ve lost. The chance comes Thursday, back at home, Jacob deGrom on the mound. And honestly, we’re going to take it. Then we’re going to start winning. Right now, there’s nothing we can’t do.

Why not? After all, we just won the Bronx leg of the Subway Series. Or at least, we feel like we did, which, honestly, is half the battle. 

Standard

How to Write about the Mets

“The first thing to know about Mets fans is that most of us are insane.”

I was sitting near the front of a school bus. We were rattling down a back road through some forest in Maine, and the rest of the bus was full of 11-year-old boys who were chanting, for reasons that don’t matter to this story, about democracy. Meanwhile, I was thinking that I had just written the first line of my book.

It was mid-July, but I was already looking ahead to September. Since February, I’d been working on applying to Brown’s Nonfiction Honors Thesis program; in April, I’d been accepted. It’s a credit to Brown’s openness, I suppose, that I got accepted after submitting a proposal full of lines like “I’m one of those people whose lives are defined by a baseball team, the kind of guy who you’re surprised to see not wearing a Mets jacket” and “How did I learn that you always have a fighting chance, or to never be sure of something before it happens? The Mets taught me, and in my thesis, I will explain exactly how they did.”

My thesis advisor, an eternally enthusiastic English professor who always showed up to meetings late, worn out, and smiling, had been pushing me towards the program for months, and he always used the same line. “It’s the chance to write your magnum opus,” he would say. “It’s the perfect opportunity to have time to write the thing you’ve always wanted to write.”

It was an intriguing concept, and once I thought about it, I had to admit that it sounded pretty much perfect. So I applied, got in, and started planning. Well, not exactly planning. I thought about almost nothing else, but I didn’t put pen to paper. I mentally catalogued my Mets stories, sorted them into groups, and started thinking about how to imbue them with meaning in a way that would go beyond telling stories about watching the Mets enough to earn honors from an Ivy League University.

I could see from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be simple. It was also a busy time: while I was thinking exhaustively about how to organize dozens of thousands of words about being a Mets fan, I was also working at a summer camp in Maine, a job, as the directors liked to say, which meant that I was never not working. I was also preparing for my final year as a baseball columnist at The Brown Daily Herald. I’d already started working on my final column, which I knew had to be perfect. I’d been working on it, more or less, since my first column, and now, with nine months left, I had to start getting my ideas in order.

But on that bus in the forest in Maine, I wasn’t thinking about my last column, or how I would possibly organize all my stories, or even my camp group. I was thinking about how I’d just written the first line of my book, and how it was absolutely perfect.

You can’t write something good without a great first line. In an introductory writing class my freshman year at Brown, we spent one day doing nothing but leafing through Best American Essays 2015, reading each first line, and trying to figure out what made a first line great. Sometimes it’s obvious. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, for instance, begins:

“Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.”

E.B. White’s Death of a Pig, meanwhile, begins:

“I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.”

I thought the line I’d come up with fit my project perfectly. “The first thing to know about Mets fans is that most of us are insane.” It says so much. It lets readers know, right off the bat, that they’re about to read a book about the Mets and Mets fans; a book with a writer whose voice is the kind that would start things off by saying “most of us are insane.” A writer, of course, who has just opened the book by saying that he himself is a Mets fan, and he himself is insane (that’s why I liked “us” so much). And, of course, it lets readers know that most Mets fans, in fact, are completely insane, albeit in different ways, and they’re about to hear a lot more about it.

How else to start a book about the Mets? Insanity — it’s perfect. So I wrote the line down, and took a long break before I started thinking about what to write in the second sentence.

*          *          *

“All I knew was that David was young, cool, and a great hitter. But his first at-bat, I did get a sense that he might not have the greatest luck in the world. Because the line drive he smashed up the middle, the line drive that I was sure would be an RBI single, was snatched out of the air by the shortstop.”

In September, a few months after I’d written the first line and done nothing else, I wrote the first chapter. It was all about 2004 and discovery and childlike innocence and things like that, and when I finished it I realized that I had written 5,000 words about the 2004 New York Mets, to go along with a 3,500-word introduction. I was starting to realize that lack of material would absolutely not be a problem.

I was also starting to realize that the storyline of my thesis was shaping up as I was writing it. David Wright was rehabbing his many injuries, and was hoping to return to the field before the end of the 2018 season. If all went according to plan, my thesis would end with the end of the 2018 season. And David Wright, I was beginning to see, was going to be, besides me, the book’s most important character.

Who else could it be? David Wright had been my favorite player for something like 14 of my 15 years of fandom. My freshman year, in fact, in a class called “Sport in American History,” we’d been assigned to write a paper on our sports heroes — that’s the Ivy League! I wrote about David Wright, of course. Then I took Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, and wrote about David Wright for that too. Then I took Sports Writing, and near the end of that semester, during the “memoir/column” unit, I wrote a piece about the Mets that I didn’t end up submitting.

It started like this:

“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.”

And it ended like this:

“And, of course, I was carrying an enormous picture of David Wright’s face printed on foam, because I wanted something new for my wall.”

I think it’s fair to say, then, that without David Wright and everything he’d done as a Met since 2004, I didn’t have a thesis. And he was working his way back, which meant I had perfect new material to work with, and also, of course, that I was so distracted by David Wright finally working his way back that working on new material was the last thing I wanted to think about. But I managed to do both.

A few days after I wrote the first chapter, Wright held a press conference. The Wilpons were on stage with him, and I was sitting in a class unable to watch, but I learned from the sudden emotional downturn on Twitter that Wright’s plan was fairly straightforward. His body couldn’t take it anymore, but he was going to play one more game anyway. He was going to prove that he could make it back, that for all his injuries and setbacks, he was that same guy we all loved, the same guy who broke his finger and came back two days later to hit a home run. Still the captain. He was going to prove that he was stronger than his body, more powerful than the ravages of injury and age.

We’re jumping ahead here, but I already knew that the thrust of my thesis, once I reached the years from 2009 to 2015, was going to be health, and how it impacted David Wright and me. This, for the most part, is a story I’ve told before, so I won’t go into great detail here, but suffice it to say that I came down — if that’s the right phrase — with Pediatric Epilepsy a few weeks before Matt Cain hit David in the head with a fastball in 2009; we suffered more or less concurrent setbacks as the years went on; then, in August 2015, when David came off the Disabled List in Philadelphia and with his first swing in months hit the ball about seven miles, it more or less marked the end of my fight with rogue brain waves. We’d both triumphed, in other words, and you’d better believe I found some solid writing material in the whole ordeal.

So, what better end to my thesis than David Wright returning one last time, and providing some closure to an entire adolescence centered around Mets fandom? I certainly couldn’t think of one. So as soon as the class ended, I bought my tickets to the game. I bought train tickets later that night. And a few weeks later, I got on the subway in my WRIGHT 5 jersey. Notebook and pens in a bag, along with a pack of tissues (not my idea, but they came in useful).

We probably all remember what happened that night — see my thesis for a detailed accounting — but I’ll say this: if I was a fiction writer, it would have taken me years to come up with an ending as good as the one the Mets provided that night. Maybe it would have been impossible. Wright walking in the first inning, then leaving in the fourth; Brandon Nimmo, my new favorite player, pulling his hamstring in the seventh; the game going to the 13th inning still scoreless; the heroes, ultimately, being Austin Jackson and Jack Reinheimer…it was as if the Mets had read what I’d written so far, and were subtly alluding to it as often as they could.

Maybe I was just seeing things that I would have seen anyway…but come on. Brandon Nimmo, my new favorite player, pulling his hamstring crossing first base, the same game as David Wright, my favorite player of all time — who once pulled his hamstring crossing first base — takes the field for the last time? I had a ballclub that was being systematically torn to shreds by the baseball gods, but I also had a hell of an ending.

The next day, I took the train back to Providence. First, though, I watched Noah Syndergaard throw a complete game shutout to end the season…just like Nelson Figueroa in 2009…and Miguel Batista in 2011…I just sighed, resigned. The Mets may not be the greatest team in the world, but as literary figures, I have to think they’re unmatched.

*          *          *

“But those aren’t the conversations we had that I most remember. I most remember the times we talked about Ike Davis.”

When you’re writing what will eventually become 95,000 words on the Mets, and you go into each season without much of a plan besides a handful of stories you know you want to work in, you’ll end up running into a problem, what Twitter baseball pundits might call “a good problem to have.” The problem, of course, is that you’ve — that is to say, I’ve — been to hundreds of Mets games, and probably have a dozen or more good stories from each season, and you simply cannot include every one. So you have to pick and choose.

That’s why, for instance, I titled my chapter on the 2010 season “A Nice Jewish Boy.” It has two main through-lines: my seventh-grade Bar Mitzvah season, and Ike Davis becoming the talk of New York. So I built the chapter around Judaism, not as some deeply profound force but simply a thing that became important to my life, both because of the Mets and for other reasons. The chapter starts and ends with Bar Mitzvah season; it goes into how exactly Ike Davis became a superstar, or whatever exactly Ike Davis did become (not, to be honest, a superstar). It also talks about Jason Bay and everything that made the 2010 Mets terrible, but it all refers back to Ike and Bar Mitzvah’s and the like. It’s a conscious choice, and it means some things will inevitably be left out or under-discussed.

For instance: did you remember that on Closing Day 2010, the Mets lost in a way that’s so Mets, it’s almost beyond parody? Mike Pelfrey went seven innings and only gave up one run, but we only sored one. The game was tied until the 14th, when Óliver Pérez came in to pitch and had the most Óliver Pérez inning of all time: hit-by-pitch, stolen base, walk, walk, walk. That the 2010 season should end like that feels like it has to mean something — but it wasn’t on the theme of the chapter, and properly exploring it would have taken a whole new chapter of its own, not to mention degrees in Philosophy, Theology, and Counseling. So I confined it to a sentence or two, and continued on my way.

For every great story I wove in, I left out another. I left out the time I won a spot in a baseball clinic at Citi Field, and Daniel Murphy taught me to field a grounder: when another kid made a wild throw, Murph remarked — bear in mind that this was back when he was playing first base — “Don’t worry, I did that last night.” I left out Michael Cuddyer’s walk-off against the Giants in 2015, that finally quieted the two Giants fans who had been chattering away behind me all night. I left out the time I waited at Citi Field through a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay knowing that the game was almost certain to be canceled (ultimately, it was, but now I can say that I saw Aaron Hill hit a home run off Bartolo Colón; a home run that according to the MLB record books does not exist).

I left out much of the story of my early Mets blogging, back when “mlblogs” would give you free Mets themes. I think I devoted only a sentence to Pedro Beato, despite the fact that his scoreless streak to begin the 2011 season was probably one of the four most memorable things about the year. I left out the story about the 2012 Subway Series leg at Yankee Stadium, when the Mets were losing so badly that I started rooting for Elvin Ramirez to keep throwing balls because it was making the Yankee fans mad. And I left out much of the story of the night we clinched the division in 2015, because I realized it would take so long to tell properly that it would only detract from the moment. Only my workshop group knows that one.

If you’re someone with stature, like Ron Darling, you can get away with just throwing your stories together; you can publish, as Ron Darling recently has, a book titled, basically, “All the extra stories I haven’t told yet.” And it can even — as Ron Darling’s did — turn into a fantastic book. But you can’t do that when you’re just getting started, just like your debut album can’t be your greatest hits.

One day, maybe I’ll throw all those extra stories and thoughts together, and you can get my take on the architecture of Citi Field and which Mets uniforms are the best and a whole chapter about Chad Bradford. For now, though, I stuck religiously to themes. If a story didn’t fit a chapter, I didn’t include it, no matter how good a story it was. That’s why you’ll see a lot of space, relatively speaking, devoted to Jack Reinheimer — I seriously considered titling my thesis “Reyes, Wright, and Reinheimer,” but I decided it would be too quirky and dumb even for me — but not a lot dedicated to Chin Lung Hu or Brad Emaus, who are both, if we’re being honest, not so different from Jack Reinheimer.

Thank goodness, I suppose, that the Mets manage to churn out so many stories that fit with the greater project of putting Mets fandom to paper. Sort through the names like Willie Harris and Jason Pridie and you’ll eventually get to Valentino Pascucci. Look at dozens of relievers like Josh Stinson and eventually you’ll get to Dae-Sung Koo. Research forgettable catchers like Henry Blanco and Rod Barajas and Ronny Paulino for a while, and eventually you’ll remember that week in 2009 when the greatest hitter in the world was Omir Santos.

And these are just the players who never amounted to anything! My goodness, the stories this ridiculous team manages to churn out, even in service of thriftiness and perpetual mediocrity. It’s just typical Mets, I suppose, except when it comes to typical Mets, there’s really nothing typical about them.

*          *          *

“January 19th, 2016. Late in the evening, after I’d finished doing whatever I was doing that night. Suddenly, all at once, a post fell into my head, fully formed. I felt like J.K. Rowling during her famous train trip. I knew exactly what to write.”

I realized, sometime after I finished writing about the 2015 World Series and decided I definitely needed to take a few days off from writing about what the Mets did on the field, that I couldn’t write my thesis without writing about writing. I started writing about the Mets in 2011, and started writing well about the Mets in 2015 or so. And once I started, writing about the Mets became the way I interacted most with the Mets, and with Mets fans.

I was looking forward to writing about writing about the Mets, because I love reading about writing. It probably helps to love writing itself before loving reading about writing — and I can see that this will all become confusing very quickly — but I’ve always enjoyed reading writing about writing. Zinsser’s On Writing Well…McPhee’s Draft Number Four…they’re fantastic, not that everyone must agree. It probably helps to be the kind of person who would write a senior nonfiction thesis about the Mets. But regardless, I started writing about writing about the Mets, which now of course means I’m writing about writing about writing about the Mets, but let’s all just pretend we understand.

The thing about writing about the Mets, once you start to do it, is that the Mets make it pretty easy. There are the stories I’ve already told, of course; it’s hard to go wrong telling the story of Dae-Sung Koo, for instance. But there are also all the connections that come to light when you look at the different figures that pop up throughout Mets history, connections that are probably intrinsic to baseball and any sport with free agency, but connections of which F. Scott Fitzgerald would be proud.

Like Billy Joel. In 2012, I ordered a book — “Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets” — and in 2016, I met Greg Prince, the author. He told me about a Billy Joel song, Through the Long Night, that he felt perfectly summed up the experience of waiting through a long extra-inning Mets game as inning after inning, the Mets come to bat and fail to score in almost astounding futility. Billy Joel, of course, had already sung the National Anthem during the 1986 World Series and the 2000 World Series and the 2015 World Series, and played the last concert at Shea Stadium, and “Piano Man” played during the eighth inning of every Mets home game.

So is it any surprise that in the game that became the end of my thesis, the Mets and Marlins went to extra innings tied at zero, each team futilely attempting and failing to score? As I sat in the stands, waiting desperately for the game to end, completely uninterested in the result, only wanting to see David Wright one more time, I was thinking to myself: “It’s so late // but I’ll wait // through the long night // with you.” Maybe it takes some sort of writerly instinct to notice and chronicle the connection, but either way, I have to think the Mets made it easy.

And really, connections like this are what writing is all about. The way The Great Gatsby treats books, or the way The Catcher in the Rye treats adult conversations, is pretty much the way the Mets treat baseball. There’s no specific comparison, but it’s all about the fact that when you get beneath the surface and look closely, it’s all about connection, and pretty much everything is connected. Jose Reyes smacks a leadoff double to right in the last game of David Wright’s career, basically a mirror image of a Reyes leadoff triple you saw in 2006 at Shea? It’s perfect. David Wright’s career ends with a walkoff win over the Marlins, the team that has ruined so many years for him with inexplicable wins? Perfect. Jack Reinheimer, the least likely hero anyone can think of, becomes the hero of David Wright’s final game? I mean, come on.

Writing about the Mets, you realize that there’s no established plot to follow. It’s not a Hollywood story; it’s almost an anti-Hollywood story, except it’s not quite that either. The Mets, I think, will do what they’ll do, and the only way to write about what they’re doing is to come up with entirely new ways to describe it. They’re not Springsteen working class heroes or angsty teenagers or handsome superstars or gritty heartlanders. They’re just a bunch of guys in Queens, who tend to encounter some really strange things when they get together to play baseball.

Look at the end of David Wright’s career. Three plate appearances: groundout, walk, foul pop-up. The Hollywood ending, of course, is a home run, and the anti-Hollywood ending is a strikeout. We didn’t get either of these. We got a walk, which I think, in hindsight, was almost perfect. David Wright was never going to get a storybook ending; his story was too dark, too sad. The ending — a long, drawn-out walk — was basically what you get when you aren’t necessarily a superstar or a Hollywood actor, but still grind it out long enough to be successful your own way. You’ll never see a novel with a David Wright-type ending. That’s why with the Mets, nonfiction is the way to go.

So, as I got closer to the end of my thesis, it started to become a sort of subtle meta-project: writing about how I wrote about my subject. How did I write about the Mets? Once I got rolling, it was fairly simple. I told lots of baseball stories. I told stories about myself. And then, if the connections that pervade life and baseball weren’t obvious, I rewrote the stories until they were.

*          *          *

“The Mets will never change. If I’m honest with myself, I think I’ve known that for a long time, and I’m ready for it.”

My project, I realized as I worked on the last chapter, was at heart about one simple thing: the fact that baseball is unavoidably cyclical, and at the same time unavoidably finite. The Mets will always take the field some time in March or April, and they will always have a third baseman: barring some calamity, that’s about as likely as the sun rising in the east. But that third baseman will never again be David Wright. The names change but the cycle continues, and altogether it creates a strange sort of paradox wherein everything changes, but at the same time nothing changes, and it’s hard to tell exactly what is happening. Are the Mets, as they’re currently constituted, the same team that went to the World Series in 2015? Well, yes: they’re still the Mets. Are they the same Mets? Some of them — Lagares, deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz, Cespedes, Conforto, Familia — are. Some of them aren’t. But even if the names are the same, are they the same players? Familia, for one, certainly isn’t, as we’ve learned to everyone’s detriment.

But you see the problem. Too often in baseball, it’s hard to tell when exactly a change happens, when one team becomes another, and if a change happens, whether it’s really a change at all. Replacing Keon Broxton with Aaron Altherr, for instance…did that really change anything, in any meaningful sense, besides the letters involved in writing the names of the bench players who were available?

So, I was looking for an ending that captured the idea that some things never change, but at the same time, things are changing all the time. At first, in fact, that was pretty much how the ending went. It was, “some things never change. But most things have to change eventually.” When I read it out loud at our last thesis group workshop, the professor in charge shook her head and tutted. “That has to be better,” she said.

I had a line in my head, a sentence I wanted to use but couldn’t figure out where. I was thinking about doing a piece on free agency, a reflection on the idea that players come in and out but, if they’ve played for the Mets, remain part of the Mets collective consciousness forever in an important way, but that never got beyond a conceptual stage (which, I suppose, is fitting for a concept like that). But I canned that piece for good when I realized the ending I was grappling with in my head was perfect for my thesis. By now, I’d given it a title. “Only in Queens: Stories from Life as a New York Mets Fan.” I even made up a cover.

thesis cover

After a whole lot of thought and research, I wrote the ending, and everyone liked it a whole lot better. I wrote and rewrote and eventually handed in a giant brick of a project. A few weeks after that, I decorated my graduation cap (“J.D. DAVIS IS A PROFESSIONAL HITTER”), walked through the gates, and got handed a degree with honors in English Nonfiction, all for writing about this ridiculous baseball team.

Thank goodness for that professor, who told me the ending had to be better. She was right. Now, I think, I love my ending. It sums everything up nicely, without being so general (“some things never change”) as to be meaningless.

It goes like this:

Jack Reinheimer is a Baltimore Oriole now. Kevin Plawecki is a Cleveland Indian. Wilmer Flores is an Arizona Diamondback, and Addison Reed is a Minnesota Twin. Valentino Pascucci is a hitting coach, Paul Lo Duca is a horse-racing commentator, and Mike Piazza briefly owned an Italian soccer team. Carlos Beltrán is retired, Pedro Martinez makes everyone laugh on MLB Network, and Endy Chavez is still hanging on in the Independent League. David Wright works with the Mets’ front-office.

So many Mets, dispersed every which way, gone from baseball with barely a trace. But Mets fans soldier on, and as the players come and go, the Mets remain. And every April, the sun comes up and nine players take the field in Queens, and the world is right again.

 

Standard

1876 is Long Gone

Michael Conforto was angry. You could tell. Strike one had been a foot high, and strike three a foot low. Both taken, correctly. Neither offered at. Both called strikes. He should have been on first with one out. Instead, he was the second out of the inning, an inning the Mets needed to score. After Conforto’s at-bat — after he struck out, you might say, except it’s not exactly accurate to say that he struck out, in any real sense — J.D. Davis singled, and Brandon Nimmo walked. Bases loaded, one out…except there weren’t, because Michael Conforto, against his own wishes and the rules of baseball, was back in the dugout instead of on third.

It’s not easy to call balls and strikes. That’s for sure. A study released last month helps show just how hard it is. “In 2018, MLB umpires, made 34,294 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game or 1.6 per inning,” the authors write. “Many umpires well exceeded this number. Some of these flubbed calls were game changing.”

I may be preaching to the choir at this point, or maybe there’s just no hope either way, but I must say that these numbers are absolutely astounding, and would have been met with shock and calls for change if so many of us weren’t supporters of the ridiculous “human element.” More than 34,000 missed calls…14 per game, and more than one and a half per inning, sometimes far more…and somehow, no one seems to notice or care. This is on top, of course, of all the other bad calls, the ones that are only part of life insofar as sometimes bad calls just happen. All the fair balls called foul, the missed tags called made, the wrist movements called swings. Take all that, and to that pile of unfairness and anger, add 14 times every game where a bad pitch was called a strike, or a good one a ball.

And some of these calls were game-changing — because of course they were. They always will be. Every called strike changes a game in imperceptible ways, of course, but come the ninth inning, a game can be decided on any pitch. Today, it was two pitches: two balls that Michael Conforto properly let pass, that Rob Drake called strikes. And that, apparently, is not far from average. Every inning of every game from March to October, we should expect to see more than one call that goes wrong. The pitcher paints the black with a beautiful curve, a perfect pitch, unhittable and devastatingly located — but the umpire calls it a ball. Or the pitcher misses outside, and the batter lays off — but the umpire’s hand goes up, and the batter finds himself in a hole of someone else’s making, all because he did the right thing to a bad pitch.

The simple truth is that MLB needs to automate the strike zone. This has nothing to do with Michael Conforto sitting in the dugout, robbed of a chance to help his team, although his at-bat probably turned a few more fans toward the cause. This has everything to do with the simple fact that Major League Baseball, the most advanced baseball league in the world, the league that should lead all others in making baseball perfect and correcting the flaws in its design, has not updated the way it judges the most fundamental elements of its game —  balls and strikes — in a century and a half.

Back in the 1870s, when pitchers threw underhand and batters chose where they wanted their pitches, someone realized that games needed people standing behind home plate, making sure the pitches passed the batter at the right height. The pitches got faster. They started spinning. They kept getting faster, and they spun more, and they started moving in ways nobody had ever seen. Cameras developed, and the pictures got better and better, and then radar guns, and then pitch tracking systems. Today, any fan on the MLB At Bat app can tell exactly where a pitch crossed the plate seconds after it’s thrown. But instead, we defer to those people standing behind the plate, the umpires who continue to miss 34,000 calls a year, the holdovers from 1876, when there was nothing better available.

Eventually, a World Series game will be decided by a missed ball/strike call, and 30 million people will finally realize that having men stand behind the plate watching pitches too fast for human brains to judge and missing 34,000 calls every year no longer makes much sense. At least, right now, it looks like that’s where we’re headed. Or MLB could stop that disaster before it happens, and automate the strike zone right now. Until they do, though, Michael Conforto will sit in the dugout, angry and powerless. Conforto and hundreds of other hitters, all robbed of a chance to help their team, all because they did the right thing but the umpire didn’t.

Standard

Mets Fans, Onward

If you root for the Mets, eventually you’ll get the feeling that for whatever reason, it’s not supposed to be easy. The Mets hammer their fans’ emotions like nails into two by fours. Rarely a stop, and even more rarely a payoff. Your young first baseman: bone bruise. Your ace: rotator cuff surgery. Your third baseman: one back issue after another. Your $30 million outfielder: double heel procedure.

The obvious takeaway, to me, it is that the baseball Gods, or whoever’s in charge up there, hate us passionately. Either that, or we’re all being tested to hell and back. Either way, the circumstances surrounding Mets baseball for the last long while all point to the inescapable conclusion that the forces behind Mets baseball are deeply invested in dissuading Mets fans from continuing to associate themselves with it.

It’s almost obvious, isn’t it? Ike Davis…Matt Harvey…David Wright…Noah Syndergaard…Yoenis Cespedes…and now — we sincerely hope not — Jacob deGrom. Jake will be back in New York tonight or tomorrow for an MRI on an angry elbow. His elbow is acting up worse than my dog when the Chinese food arrives, and my dog, to my knowledge, has never thrown a slider at 90 miles per hour, let alone 95. The Mets say they’re not concerned, which couldn’t be more concerning. There’s probably an old saying about that: “If the Mets ever tell you they’re not concerned, make sure your life insurance is up to date.”

So, yet again we face a challenge: can the baseball Gods knock us from our team? And the answer, of course, is of course not. The baseball Gods think they’ve got what it takes to dampen the souls of Mets fans, but it’s all too clear that they’re dealing with something greater than they realize. We Mets fans are hearty folk. We’re in it for the long haul. The obstacles come, and we react sadly. Then we take our seats at Citi Field as our team is diminished by injury, and we continue rooting. One setback after another, and we soldier on. How do we do it? Did David Wright teach us? Is it conditioning, perversely brought on by one setback after another for a more or less uninterrupted half-century and change? I can’t say. But we make do.

Jacob deGrom will be fine, or he won’t. The Mets will win the division and the World Series, or they won’t. Anything can happen and many things will, and if I know Mets fans, we’ll stick it out, try as those pesky baseball Gods might to strike us down.

Mets fans, onward. We push ahead to better times, and until then, we savor the team we have and whatever it manages to produce, neither sadness nor euphoria but certainly, emphatically, Mets baseball. Now, if you’ll allow me, the game is starting, and I’d love to watch. I don’t care for Jason Vargas pitching, of course, but these are my Mets, and so long as they’re playing, I couldn’t be happier.

 

Standard

No Losses Here

Pete Alonso jerseys are selling fast, and do you know how I know? They wouldn’t sell one to me.

I wanted a road grey jersey, inscribed with ALONSO 20, size small. A request that seems simple enough at Citi Field, a building designed to sell Mets gear to fans like me. I went to the team store: nothing. I tried the dugout shop on the field level: nothing. Outside the dugout shop is the jersey customization station, which I figured had to be able to help me if no one else could.

I punched in my order: Pete Alonso, number 20, adult small road grey. I took my order ticket and handed it to the cashier.

“Can’t do it,” she said. “We’re out of N’s.”

Yes, really: “We’re out of N’s.” The N’s were going like hotcakes, it seemed, and unless people were splurging on Nimmo or Nido, it seemed like those N’s had all been used up on Alonso jerseys. The man behind me in line asked the same question, and got the same answer: “Can’t do Alonso. We’re out of N’s.”

It wasn’t hard to understand, of course, why Alonso jerseys might be hot right now. Pete is hitting the cover off the ball, knocking the stuffing out of out of grapefruits, mixing metaphors and not caring a whit. He’s dominating the exit velocity leaderboards and the rookie rankings, and is slowly but surely — well, not particularly slowly, but definitely surely — winning the hearts of Mets fans. And meanwhile, he’s driving in runs that are helping us win games, or at least, are turning games that much more fun.

When Pete came up in the sixth, for instance, we found ourselves in something of a rut. Zack Wheeler was done, and hadn’t exactly been honorably discharged; Tim Peterson had given up two runs of his own in the top of the inning. And Max Scherzer was doing what he always does, which is to say mowing down our lineup without so much as a modicum of attention, goddamnit, for how it makes us feel.

So Alonso decided to do something about it. He took Scherzer down the third base line at 112.6 miles per hour, if I remember correctly, and suddenly the Mets offense felt alive. Cano flied out, and after Conforto was hit by a pitch, Ramos lined sharply to right, but Scherzer had been knocked back a notch. You could feel it all over the park.

The next time Alonso came up, we — in the person of Luis Avilan — had given up three more runs, but things had gone from decrepit to promising. A Guillorme single; a Rosario single; a Brandon Nimmo double, thank heavens (sorry, Brandon); a Jeff McNeil single. These Mets, these godforsaken, lovable Mets…they can really hit when they get around to it, but they didn’t get around to it until Pete Alonso got them going. The score was 12-3.

So what did Pete do? He got us going again. Facing a 3-1 count against a Nationals bullpen that, frankly, is quite bad, he did what he does. He crushed. A three run homer, a crowd alive, an 11-run deficit suddenly cut to nine, after Alonso’s double, and now cut to six.

In the end, even Pete couldn’t save us. He did his part; he walked in the ninth inning, and scored on a Conforto line drive home run, but that was all we could muster, and we went down 12-9 to lose our first series of the year. But it barely felt like a loss by the end. And Pete Alonso, thank you for that.

With all the positives that came after Alonso’s sixth-inning double, it couldn’t be a loss. There was a strong inning from Gsellman, and a stronger one from Lugo, both of whom will be essential to this team going forward. There was Brandon Nimmo, who finally seemed to bust out of an eight-game slump when he knocked a double down the right field line in the seventh, and then drove a deep lineout to right-center in the eighth. There was the return of Travis d’Arnaud, who just barely missed a three-run homer in the ninth, one batter before Conforto made up for it. Jeff McNeil was two for three. Conforto had a double and a homer. J.D. Davis had another hit. And Pete Alonso is a superstar.

We lost, but it didn’t feel like it. Handed an 11-run lead, the Nationals flailed and careened into dangerous territory. The Nationals, I can’t help but feel, demonstrated today that they can’t hang with us. We walked them 12 times today, for goodness’ sake, and even with all that they were a few lucky bounces away from giving back the game. “Take the L,” the Nationals said, up twelve to one, and we responded, “we’ll see your 11 run lead with your bullpen, and raise you Pete Alonso and the lineup around him.” And it’s not hard to tell who wins that bet.

No, there were no N’s at Citi Field this Sunday afternoon. And despite the loss that was, once Pete Alonso got done with the Nationals pitching staff, there was no L to be taken either.

Standard

Ignore the Birds

The woman sitting behind me at Citi Field this afternoon didn’t like birds, and wasn’t afraid to let the world know. Early in the game, some pigeons flapped past us, and she said, “Ooh, birds…I don’t like birds.” Then each time the pigeons flew past, which happened fairly often, she turned to the person next to her, and said, as if it was breaking news, “birds…I really don’t like birds.” By the seventh inning, when the pigeons flapped past again, I wanted to turn around and say, “so I’ve heard!”

The bird-talk was especially irksome since it was a distraction from the action on the field. The Mets were slugging. It was a game full of cracks of bats and wild cheers, and repeated announcements that the woman behind me was afraid of birds really didn’t fit the tone.

First, there were wild cheers for Steven Matz, who didn’t have his best stuff but fought through it anyway. This wasn’t a Jason Vargas fight through bad stuff either; this was a legitimate grind. Steven walked four and had thrown 100 pitches by the time he got the last out of the fifth, but despite clearly not being on point, he got through five scoreless, and struck out eight.

In the bottom of the fourth, meanwhile, J.D. Davis took Patrick Corbin over the fence on a frozen rope of a line drive that landed between the apple and the bullpen. Complaining about J.D. Davis seems to have become a pastime for Mets fans, which rankles me. Maybe he doesn’t belong in the cleanup spot, but it’s been eight games and Davis has committed no egregious wrong.

Today, in fact, he was emphatically right. Besides the homer in the fourth that was the Mets’ first run of the game, he walked in the first, then in the sixth, after the Nationals had tied it on an RBI groundout, hit a 2-1 pitch from Corbin out of sight. 446 feet, to be exact, a no-doubter in a stadium that makes doubt so difficult to avoid. Then, in the eighth, Davis singled to left. He was three for three on the day with a walk, and might just have shut down the critics for a few days, which, if you know Mets fans, is no easy task.

Two batters after Davis’ home run in the sixth, meanwhile, Michael Conforto did something to a baseball that I’m still struggling to understand. In left, Adam Eaton didn’t move. The ball hung in the air seconds, or minutes, then landed somewhere in Flushing, probably closer to the bay than to home plate. Conforto was on point. So was Davis. So were the Mets.

Well, besides the bullpen, which, unfortunately, is becoming a common refrain. Gsellman gave up his run on a double and an RBI groundout, not ideal but not apocalyptic either. Familia…well, who can say? It’s undeniable that Jeurys Familia is a good pitcher, but he’s been inducing heart attacks in Mets fans for years, and eventually one of them was going to be serious.

The run Familia allowed in the seventh, which came on a two-base passed ball after Wilson Ramos lost track of where exactly Familia’s pitch in the dirt had got to, was bad, but it wasn’t a gut punch. We still had the lead. By the end of the top of the eighth, though, three runs on two home runs later, there was a distinct and not unfair sentiment in the stands that Familia had blown it. As he left the field, Familia got booed. Not quite as loudly as he’d gotten cheered when Danza Kuduro had played for the first time at Citi Field since mid 2018, but yes, he was booed.

Leave it to the big boppers to bring the Mets back. Pete Alonso, who turned a swing that looked like a weak groundout to third into a line drive over the center field fence, and Robinson Cano, who hit a ball that must have gone as far as Conforto’s. Fans on their feet, stadium ready to explode…Wilson Ramos grounded into a double play, which killed the momentum just a bit, but we weren’t done.

A pitching change. Tony Sipp entering for the Nationals, a lefty to face Conforto. No chance. Michael, as I say, was on his game, and the double he mashed down the right field line almost seemed routine. Jeff McNeil pinch-hit, and Sipp hit him. Which meant that with two on and two out, our fate was in the hands of Keon Broxton.

Broxton hit .179 last year, which seems like something someone like him — Alejandro De Aza, cough cough — would usually do after they come to the Mets, and not before. But this year feels different. This team feels stronger. We’re not getting the .179 years. We’re getting the good years at the right times. The years that turn good teams into champions.

I could just feel it. This was a game we were going to win. Keon Broxton was going to win it for us, because this team is a special one.

I wasn’t wrong. Broxton lined a single to right-center. Conforto came home. Three Edwin Diaz outs later, the win was in the books.

I wasn’t the only one who could feel it, either. The entire stadium knew. These Mets are special, and if you watch them, you can tell. Just as Broxton was singling and Conforto was coming home to score the go-ahead run, the pigeons flapped past us again. I tensed, but didn’t hear anything. The exploits of the 2019 Mets had the woman behind me too excited to notice.

Standard