It Is Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fresh Legs of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Familia Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Van Wagenen Express

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Great Teams Don’t Cheer In 7/4

I’m the rare person I know who can sit and watch a baseball game in complete silence. I can never quite bring myself to get involved with the scoreboard-prompted cheers; I prefer to observe, contemplate, predict, and with the team we’ve got, seethe. That’s what I was doing earlier tonight, as, from the upper deck, we faced off against the Yankees. Aside from shouting “yup!” a few times when Yankees struck out looking, and calling out “It’s Lance Johnson…c’maaan” during the Mets Trivia Drive, I watched without talking.

Among other things, this meant that I was attuned to my surroundings in a way you usually aren’t at a baseball game. I heard nine innings worth of conversation from the father-son duo sitting next to me — strangely enough, the son seemed to root for both the Mets and the Yankees, and the father for neither — and more than my share of disjointed ravings from some sort of Yankee fan/conspiracy theorist somewhere in my section. I don’t remember much of what he said: I know that when Brett Gardner made a routine catch, he shouted out “Brett Gardner! Now there’s a player with a purpose!” He also made the claim that Michael Conforto batted .330 last year when he was on steroids, which had so many holes that I didn’t bother to make a correction.

But most of what I heard was the cheering. It was the Subway Series, so the stands were louder than usual, and it seemed that most of the noise was coming from the occupying Yankee fans. You could hear it as early as the first inning, starting from the fringe but then getting picked up by the mainstream: “Let’s go Yankees…let’s go Yankees…” It got louder and louder and for a while the scattered Mets fans in attendance couldn’t even muster a halfhearted boo to counter it.

If I’d been in a more combative mind, I would have mentioned to whoever was directing the cheering — it’s amazing this ability some people have, to just show up and somehow take command of the cheering capacities of an entire section of a ballpark — that they were doing it wrong. Pretty quickly, the competing factions of Mets and Yankees fans turned their animosities into a sort of masochistic call-and-response: “Let’s go Yan-kees…Let’s go Mets!” An ostensible sign of competition that seemed more representative of a strange kind of involuntary cooperation — set, to add insult to injury, in some ungodly time signature, 7/4 or something like that.

I wanted to say to the cheerers: that’s not how you do it. This isn’t a child’s birthday party, it’s the subway series. You chant, “Let’s go Mets!” They chant, “Let’s go Yan-kees…” and they clap. When you put it all together, it sounds like we’re waiting until they finish, then giving our own cheer…but when we actually do that, it sounds a whole lot worse.

I don’t know why I got caught up in the cheering. Maybe it was because of how dominant the Yankees fans were, and how much I can’t stand seeing Yankee fans in our own building. Hell, I once nearly blew my top listening to two Giants fans for eleven innings, until Michael Cuddyer ended it with a walk-off single; Yankee fans, who I hate instinctively and whose team is a whole lot better and more frustrating to play against, are far worse.

It’s hard to fault Mets fans, however many showed up, for not mustering any noise worth mentioning: we were in the middle of an eight-loss skid, after all, in the middle of a season on the decline, in the midst of what may be a long stretch of famine with no end in sight. Throw in the fact that it was raining ever so slightly, and you’ve got a recipe for Mets fans to stay home. Some of them made it out, which made the Yankees fans that much more bearable. But they still got loud.

Todd Frazier’s home run in the fifth quieted the Yankees crowd down for a while, but they were back in full force by the eighth. Aaron Judge was in the on-deck circle representing the tying run, which meant, of course, that every Yankee fan in the building was standing, screaming, pounding their chests…anything to express just how great they were, and how much better Aaron Judge was than anyone else we Queens peasants had ever had the privilege of watching. Judge, of course, owner of a .270 batting average, sent a tailor-made double play ball to Amed, who flipped it to Reyes at second, who promptly suffered a stroke.

Well, not really. But in baseball terms, that’s just about how you’d have to define it. A throw ten feet to Adrian Gonzalez’s left — this was back when Gonzalez was a Met — and then, as we stared around, shaking our heads and wondering why there was still a runner on second, it dawned on us that Reyes hadn’t even stepped on second base, in all his rush to get the ball to the dugout behind Gonzalez. So now there were two men on, the tying runs, only one out.

The game took a brief pause at this point for a replay break, which took about three times as long as it should have, but gave the Yankees fans in the crowd some time to reflect on how incredible their team was. “This is the game right here!” said the fan of indeterminate rooting interest next to me. I think he was rooting for the Yankees at this point, because he was quite clearly wrong, this wasn’t the game right here; the Yankees were still down two runs with a lineup that had barely hit all day. But Yankees fans are remarkably confident in their team, and aren’t shy about sharing that confidence with the rest of us.

And with the Yankee rally growing, it started up again. “Let’s go Yankees…Let’s go Mets!” Except the Mets fans were quieter and the Yankees fans were louder, and I started shivering in my seat even though the night was warm.

Thank Goodness Robert Gsellman got the next two outs, and the Yankees fans in attendance were once again temporarily silenced. We went to the ninth and Anthony Swarzak, the closer-by-default when all your other closers-by-default are hurt or no good at closing. Struck out Stanton — “yup!” from me, and maybe a few claps — then walked Greg Bird, and Yankees fans got loud again. Two balls to Gary Sanchez, more than capable of tying the game, and my face was in my hands. Then, in the blink of an eye: Line drive. Caught. Frazier fires to first.

Back in the New York Groove!

I didn’t leave right away. I just stood up in my seat and couldn’t stop smiling. I looked around at the angry Yankee fans, and the Mets shaking hands on the field, and thought to myself that Mets wins over the Yankees, and observation of the associated frustration taking hold among Yankee fans, should really be classified as medicines, because I sure felt better than I’d felt a few minutes before. Chants of “Let’s Go Mets!” and “Yankees Suck!” broke out on the stairs down to the subway. As I descended, the chants followed me loud and clear, and this time, I couldn’t hear a single Yankee fan disrupting the cheers for the victorious home team.

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Detroit On Sunday

In different ways, Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers’ home ballpark since 2000, is very similar to and very different from its predecessor. Tiger Stadium, which housed the Tigers from 1912 to 1999, was a beloved old park in the mould of Fenway or Wrigley Field. It had cramped seats, only two decks, and pillars that obstructed views in the lower tier to hold up the higher one. Comerica Park kept some of the charm when the Tigers moved in. It is a poster child of the retro-classic stadium movement: its main building blocks are brick, concrete, and green painted steel.

It has all the charm of an old stadium — or at least, as much as any modern imitation can — but it also features the luxury of the turn of the millennium. Every seat in the house is a good one. The concourses are wide and comfortable, and the building is easy to navigate. The no-bag express line at the left field entrance moves quickly. The park is open all the way around: a curious fan can start in center field and walk straight, and eventually find himself back in center field again.

When Emily and I got to the stadium on a sweltering-hot Sunday afternoon in May, we didn’t have time to explore. First pitch was coming up, and we had to find our seats to watch the Tigers take on the White Sox. So we made for our section, or tried to: neither of us knew the park that well. In left field, we walked past six statues of the Tigers Hall of Fame: Al Kaline, Hal Newhouser, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Ty Cobb, and Willie Horton. We were empty-handed: when I’d checked the schedule earlier, I’d seen that the Tigers would distribute Nicholas Castellanos bobbleheads, but they’d run out by the time we’d arrived. Either that or I’d read the promotional schedule wrong. There was another giveaway too — they were giving out growth charts and cheering signs for all children in attendance. But evidently, the ticket-taker had decided that we were too old.

There was a broad view of the playing field from behind the seats in center, but we kept moving. Around first base, past the team store, up several stairways…after we’d secured hot dogs, lemonade, and water, we found our seats. We were behind first base, in the front row of the higher section of the upper deck. The seats weren’t great — you don’t expect great for $14 each. But they were perfectly fine. And for a weekend ballgame in May, you don’t need anything better. We sat down, hid our drinks in the shade beneath our seats, and waited for the game to begin.

***

Since there has been the American League, there have been the Detroit Tigers. Founded in 1901 as an AL charter franchise, the Tigers have played in Detroit ever since without missing a beat. They have played continuously in the same city for 117 seasons and counting, a feat few other teams have accomplished.

Something I’ve learned, watching baseball in different stadiums in different cities, is that’s it’s exceedingly difficult to judge a team’s connection with its city based on its fans. Sure, Boston has great fans and a team that’s almost synonymous with its city, but I suspect that I could find similarly committed fans in Miami, or Milwaukee, or Colorado. Fans will always be love their teams, whether a team has a hold on its city or not.

Unless, that is, I’m framing the question the wrong way. Maybe the real answer is that fans will always love their teams because of the intimate connections between people, teams, and cities, connections that cannot be logically explained but must exist. And why must they exist? Look no further than Comerica park this very afternoon.

The Tigers, as the game began, were 22-29. All indications are that the team is poised for a second consecutive losing season, and a third one in four years. They have not won a World Series since 1984. And yet, on this uncomfortably hot Sunday afternoon, more than 23,000 fans came out to watch them play. Now what reason could there be for that? There is none, except that the Tigers play baseball in Detroit, and people in Detroit, like people all over America and the World, love baseball. So they love the Tigers — their Tigers, their team. And the city of Detroit shows it. From our seats, besides several old-fashioned skyscrapers and an enormous model of a whale painted on the side of a tower, we could also see what looked like the General Motors building. The stylized orange “D” that the Tigers use as their logo was flashing on a screen near the top of the building, big enough for all of us to see what must have been at least a mile away.

On the hill for the Tigers this afternoon was Blaine Hardy, a journeyman left-hander who just this year converted from relief pitching to starting. This was Hardy’s third start of the season. Hardy is 31 years old, but did not make his major league debut until he was 27. He has not pitched for a major league team besides the Tigers.

Hardy took the hill, and Tim Anderson, the White Sox’ shortstop, led off. Anderson is young, only 25, but he has shown potential: today, less than a third of the way through the season, he already had ten home runs. The traditional shortstop is small but quick, hits line-drive singles and bunts for base hits but cannot hit for much power. Indeed, Jose Iglesias, starting at shortstop for the Tigers, fit this mold well: in seven career seasons, he has hit 18 home runs. Anderson is not this traditional shortstop. He hit 17 home runs last season alone. When Corey Seager, shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, went down with an arm injury, Anderson also became an emergency addition to my fantasy baseball team. But today, fortunately or not — fortunate for me; I was rooting for the Tigers, as I make it a practice to always root for the home team unless I face a more important, contradictory influence — Anderson flied out to center. After a ground ball single to left, the next two White Sox went down in the top of the first.

It was kid’s day at the park, and after the top of the first, we met our first participant. As music from “Frozen” played, a young girl appeared on the scoreboard. She was, a scoreboard host proclaimed, our Princess of the Game, nine years old and going home with four tickets to see Disney on Ice.

“Who’s your tiger?” asked the host.

“Cabrera,” the Princess responded.

She meant, of course, Miguel Cabrera, first baseman, designated hitter, and Tiger superstar. Cabrera, at age 34, suffered through a dismal season in 2017: he hit only 16 home runs, after averaging 33 a year from 2004 to 2016, and batted .249, against a career batting average of .316. Although Cabrera, at the moment, was on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, he seemed to start the 2018 season with a resurgence: in 26 games, he batted .323/.407/.516. For his sleeper potential, Cabrera, like Tim Anderson, was part of my fantasy team.

But choosing Cabrera, I thought, was an intriguing move on the princess’ part. If we assume that the mere 26 games he has played so far this year were not enough to make Cabrera the princess’ Tiger of choice, and further, that his dismal 2017 season could not have done the job either, it seems likely that the princess of the game, all of nine years old, has been following the Tigers at least since 2016, when Cabrera had his last star-level season, and following them closely enough to understand just how good Miguel Cabrera has been, and may be again.

Again: there’s the connection. Can anyone explain why a nine-year old princess of the game would follow a sport played by strangers closely enough to recognize greatness in the sport that hasn’t been seen for two years? Of course not. But she did. Because the Tigers are her team, and we love our teams, whether it makes sense or not.

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James Shields was pitching for the White Sox. I remembered Shields mostly for one moment, maybe the greatest moment of all time: a fence-scraping home run into the left field corner in San Diego, off the bat of aged, spherical, Bartolo Colón.

But Shields, besides the one rather embarrassing memory, has put together a strong major league career. At 36, he has a career 139-127 record; his career E.R.A. is 3.99. He had no problems in the bottom of the first: he set the Tigers down in order. In the top of the second, Hardy again retired the White Sox without allowing a run.

The game was a panoply of moments, each interesting in themselves but far more compelling when combined. We saw Tigers rookie catcher Grayson Greiner, still in his first week of MLB action, hit an RBI double, and then during the next at-bat, saw Shields pick John Hicks off third base. I thought Shields balked, but the Tigers’ dugout didn’t make much noise about it, so maybe I was wrong. We saw the White Sox tie the game at one in the top of the third, and then saw Dixon Machado make a brilliant lunging stop on a line-drive to keep the game tied. That inning ended when Jose Rondon struck out with a man on third; the ball got away from Greiner, and it seemed like a dropped third strike, but both teams left the field. The Tigers’ PA announcer later told the crowd that the home plate umpire had called batter interference, thus ending the inning. They showed the replay on the board, and sure enough, Rondon’s bat hit Greiner’s mask on the backswing.

“So you’re not allowed to hit the catcher in the head,” Emily said. I nodded my agreement.

We saw Tigers’ third baseman Jeimer Candelario (I always thought it was “Jaimer,” which explained why the PA announcer pronounced his name differently and more correctly than I did) make a fantastic spinning stop on a ground ball from Yoan Moncada. After he’d recorded the out at first, “The Candy Man Can” blared from the park’s speakers, and I said, “Oh, I get it…Candelario, the candy man.”

We saw one on-field race between people dressed as trucks — Petey the pickup won in a photo finish — and another on the scoreboard between different breakfast items. I was pulling for Biggie Bagel, but Cuppy Coffee went out to an early lead and easily cruised to victory, which you don’t see much in scoreboard races. We also saw a game of scoreboard trivia. The contestant couldn’t possibly have known what she was guessing — you should have heard her pronounce “Magglio Ordoñez” — but regardless, he was the right answer, and she won Sunoco gift cards for her entire row.

We saw several fly balls that the crowd was convinced had home run distance fall easily into the gloves of outfielders. All parks have some fans who can’t tell a home run from a can of corn, but this Tiger Stadium crowd seemed especially clueless about this particular important element of the game. Even the older fans behind me, who based on their talk seemed like grizzled veterans of Tiger fandom, got excited each time Victor Martinez got a ball in the air, even one that would fall into a glove 25 feet shy of the warning track.

We saw another young fan — this was the theme of the day — list as many animated movies as he could in 15 seconds. He listed ten; I thought I could have done better, as we all tend to think when confronted by scoreboard games that are easy when you’re not under pressure. Nicholas Castellanos, whose bobblehead I’d been hoping for, came up on the screen and tried to name more animated movies than the child; he got stuck for several seconds, but then named two just before the buzzer to come out on top, 11-10. The crowd’s reaction was decidedly unclear, a mixture of laughter, cheers, and boos.

We saw what was turning into a pitcher’s duel continue into the fifth. I finally got around to pointing out to Emily that Trayce Thompson was Klay Thompson’s brother. I didn’t mention that I only knew this because he’d hit a walkoff home run for the Dodgers against the Mets two years prior, because I didn’t want Hansel Robles’ name to sully the fun of the occasion. Thompson grounded out to start the fifth, and the next two batters made outs as well.

Before the bottom of the fifth, the crowd played “Name That Young Tiger.” A baby picture appeared on the screen; we would later learn that it was JaCoby Jones, Tigers’ left fielder. We learned various fun facts about Jones; the one that has stuck with me is that he was the Missouri High School Baseball Player of the Year in 2010, with a batting average north of .500. Jones then led off the bottom of the fifth and singled, breaking a string of seven straight Tigers retired by Shields. Gray Greiner — the nickname seems to suit him — walked, and after Jose Iglesias popped out, Dixon Machado hit an RBI single. There was another pop out, then Castellanos finally cashed in on what might have been his bobblehead day: he lined an RBI single to left.

We had plans later that afternoon; we stayed long enough to see Hardy put up a shutout inning in the top of the sixth, with the Tigers still up 2-1, then stood up and left. By the time we’d made our stops at the bathroom, fought our way through the crowd, and found our way to the field level, it was the top of the seventh. We stopped in center field, the entire ballpark visible from some deep outfielder’s perspective, and watched one last at-bat; Hardy induced Daniel Palka to ground out to first. Then we walked back to the garage and drove home.

I heard later that the Tigers had won 3-2, with Hardy going seven dominant innings. Shane Greene gave up a run for the Tigers in the top of the ninth, and the White Sox put the tying run on base, but Greene was able to close it out, and the Tigers took home the win. I’d been rooting for the Tigers, but I wasn’t so concerned about the result. I’d gotten to sit out in the May sun for a few hours on a Sunday and watch a baseball game. I was just happy thinking that the Princess of the Game had gotten to see her team win, and hoped, for the sake of all of Detroit’s children like her, that Miguel Cabrera would return soon.

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So Here’s How It Happened

I GOT OFF the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands … big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

It didn’t take long, the first time I read Hunter S. Thompson, to recognize a new favorite. This was a year and change ago, in January 2017, when I was looking through the syllabus for a class on Sportswriting and trying to find something worth reading. There was some Angell, some Plimpton, a few Bill Simmons columns. But then I came across a title I couldn’t ignore. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Well, you just know that’s going to be something interesting.

It was, sure enough. It wasn’t until later that I learned that this was a landmark piece of sportswriting and all writing, the birth of gonzo journalism and some of the most groundbreaking work of the century. But I loved it from the first time I read it. It was almost perfect. Favorites have a way of presenting themselves. You see them and you just know.

It is with that principle in mind that I write today, not as a reader but as a watcher of baseball and a Mets fan. I cannot say that I have a new favorite player, because until further notice David Wright remains a member of the Mets roster and his slot at the top of my list is guaranteed and without expiration. But I can say this much: the queue has a new member, who will be my favorite active player until the captain returns, and then, hopefully, for a long while after he hangs it up.

Among those who know me, this will come as no surprise. I’ve always been somewhat old-fashioned, in tastes if not in views. When I played baseball, I wore my socks high. The music I listen to is dominated by the years between 1953 and 1989. I have seen the entire Honeymooners Classic 39. And every once in a while, I still get upset that the Dodgers left. How old fashioned am I? Hell, it’s the name of my drink of choice, one that I’ve had only a few times in my life, but still bears an inscrutable attraction. And now I can make one with Jim Beam, Official Bourbon of the New York Mets!

Given Brandon Nimmo’s strict religiosity, combined with my complete ignorance of whatever he happens to believe, I’m not quite sure whether or not he’s allowed to drink at all. If he did, though, I have to think he’d enjoy an Old Fashioned, just as he wears his pants high and — I assume — enjoys old music and TV shows and at least the idea of Ebbets Field. And this is part of why, as you’ve inferred by now, Brandon Nimmo is quickly becoming my favorite Met.

Arizona Diamondbacks  v New York Mets

We all have our own tastes in favorite players. Mine was Mike Piazza, then he left and Reyes and Wright shared the honor for very different reasons. Then Reyes left and Wright took sole possession, and now Wright has been on the sidelines for what will be, on Sunday, two years exactly. So, at least until Wright’s rumored upcoming meeting with his doctor, someone else will fill the role. This is not automatic: for most of the time since David hit the DL two years ago, I have gone without a favorite active player. But recently, I realized that Brandon Nimmo was my favorite Met and had been for a while now, just about since Opening Day 2018. And this is strictly an emotional decision, so trusting my gut was the extent of my decision-making.

How did it happen? I don’t think it’s too hard to say. Brandon Nimmo plays the game the right way — not the obnoxious Chase Utley right way, nor the puerile Bryce Harper right way, but the real right way, the way the game should actually be played. He’s got all the exuberance of Reyes in his prime with the cerebral plate presence of David Wright at his best, and a smile that beats them both. He’ll steal a few bases, hit a few bombs, walk every second at-bat, hustling all the way.

And that smile, that godforsaken smile…it may not be hyperbole to say that Nimmo could have smiled his way into the hearts of Mets fans even if his On-Base Percentage was significantly lower than his current .423 mark. The smile is merely the most outwardly noticeable element of Nimmo’s larger approach to baseball: playing the game like a child. Having fun. Always hustling. Waiting for your pitch. Wearing the uniform right. And so on, and so forth…you name it, and Brandon Nimmo does it the right way.

“I can’t play being mad. I go out there and have fun,” Ken Griffey Jr. once said. “It’s a game, and that’s how I am going to treat it.” It’s nice to have a player to root for who’s not a pitcher, one you follow even more closely than the rest of the team, one whose every at-bat you follow pitch by pitch hoping for a hit, or in Nimmo’s case, a walk. It is even nicer to have one who is 25 years old and works the count to a tune of an OBP north of .400. And it’s nicer still to root every day for a player who plays like Ken Griffey Jr. and never leaves the children’s game behind. Brandon Nimmo is here, and he’s a heckuva ballplayer in every sense of the word. Let my fandom commence.

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