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.

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Happiness is a Warm Feeling

Baseball season is three days old. The weather is getting warmer. The Mets are two and one, and started the season with a fairly resounding series win over a division rival. Now we’re headed to Miami for a shot at the N.L. East’s punching bag. Jeff McNeil is ripping; Pete Alonso is crushing; Jacob deGrom is scorching.

I’m thrilled. Aren’t you?

Oh sure, there are problems. There are always problems when the Wilpons are your owners and God hates your team. Noah Syndergaard didn’t look completely precise in his first start of the season, and Zack Wheeler didn’t either. At one point, Mickey Callaway somewhat questionably declined to pinch-run for Wilson Ramos, although the decision proved astute. Brandon Nimmo has struck out a few too many times, and he will sit tonight in Miami, hopefully to return tomorrow with a clear head and a smooth swing. And on Saturday, J.D. Davis made an error.

But problems will happen, and as problems go, these ones aren’t bad ones. Wheeler and Syndergaard will straighten themselves out. Nimmo, if you know him, will be just fine. Ramos can really hit. And J.D. Davis is a solid player.

Really: if J.D. Davis is the preeminent problem with our team, isn’t the reality that our team doesn’t have any problems worth mentioning? J.D. Davis, over ten at-bats, has two hits, including a single against the Nationals that went a long way towards getting us a win. He passes the eye test, whatever that means and whatever you count it for. By all accounts, he’s a hard worker and a talented player, and he certainly doesn’t look out of place on a major league field. He seems at least fairly able to hit and field. He is 25 years old, and in the minor leagues, has hit like a star. He’s neither Mike Trout nor Brad Emaus, just another fairly solid player on a team chock-full of them.

So J.D. Davis shouldn’t hit cleanup. Fine. But really, what’s the matter? We’ll be okay. In fact, I’ve got a feeling that we’ll win tonight, wherever J.D. Davis bats and however he plays. Our team has started out strong and looks like a decent bet to stay that way, and it’s something to savor.

In Miami tonight, J.D. Davis will bat cleanup. Robinson Cano will hit in front of him, and Michael Conforto behind. Wilson Ramos sixth, and Pete Alonso second; Amed Rosario in the leadoff spot, and Jeff McNeil seventh. That’s a lineup that can win a team some games, and if I have any qualms with it, they’re not serious enough to be worth mentioning.

The Mets will take the field tonight in Miami, and J.D. Davis will be among them. Maybe he’ll get a few hits, or make a big play or two. Around him will be the rest of the lineup, a lineup that twice — and almost three times — beat the front end of the Nationals’ rotation, and shot Queens full of electricity and raw hope. We’ve got a shot at the division, and a roster that’s going to have a lot of fun competing for it. In Miami, the forecast calls for nothing but warmth, sun, and clear skies. There are at least 159 games left in the 2019 season.

Now, who wouldn’t be happy with that?

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One of Those Swings

Every so often, a swing comes around that stops everything.

Carlos Delgado had one. When Carlos Delgado swung and made contact, the world stopped. All that existed was the bat, tiny and still in Delgado’s hand after finishing its vicious left-handed uppercut, and the ball, hurtling through the air like a golf ball, soaring a mile high and a mile far. It even sounded like a golf ball. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Delgado’s fundamentals, and they probably weren’t perfect. But when you combined all the pieces, his swing came together in a blaze of glory. When Carlos Delgado batted, pitchers cowered, and fans salivated and stared. You couldn’t miss a Delgado at-bat. His swing was too powerful to pass up.

Now, there is Pete Alonso.

Alonso won his spot in the front of our minds, if we’re honest, in his first at-bat of the Spring, when he took his first swing of Spring Training and cleared the billboards above the center field fence. It wasn’t  a Delgado swing; it was level and balanced, not pulling off towards right field but blasting the ball directly forwards. It didn’t sound like Delgado either; this was no golf drive, soaring into space and landing a mile away. This was an old-fashioned crack of the bat. You could hear it echo around the stadium. It was one of those swings. The swings we’ll remember.

He further solidified his reputation as power-hitter of record a few weeks later against the Red Sox. A Red Sox broadcaster was interviewing Xander Bogaerts in the dugout, and in the midst of a riff about mentoring Rafael Devers, Bogaerts paused when Alonso blasted a ball so far beyond the pseudo-Green Monster in left field that the camera couldn’t find it. “Oh my God, it’s gone,” he said. Then he turned back to talking about Devers, but he couldn’t even finish a sentence before he turned back to Alonso again. “Oh yeah,” he said. “That was loud.”

It was loud. It was far. And quickly, I’ve come to expect it every time Alonso bats. Because Pete Alonso has one of those swings.

Fundamentals? Launch angle? Technique? I couldn’t tell you. They’re all important: I just don’t know what he does with them. What I do know, though, is that Pete Alonso’s swing is something to be treasured and revered. It’s one of those swings, and that’s as well as I can describe it. With every pitch he sees, the third deck beckons and Tommie Agee watches nervously. When he swings, the world is at his fingertips. He has the kind of power that comes around once a decade or less, the kind of power that we’ll remember in 50 years. Lots of players have power, but few know how to express it. Delgado did. Alonso does too.

I don’t know where Pete Alonso will start the season. If we’re serious about winning this season, he should be the first baseman on March 28th in Washington: Free agency is years away, and with what we’ve seen so far, even if we send him to the minors for only two weeks and not a day longer, we’ll be missing out on four or five home runs, and four or five monstrous home runs at that.

But regardless of where he starts, sooner or later he’ll step into the batter’s box at Citi Field. Laser-focused, the entire stadium will turn towards home plate. Cell phones will disappear; drinks will land in cup holders; scorebooks will vanish. Camera will flash all around the stadium; ushers will turn away from their concourses towards the field; concession lines will empty as Alonso strides to the plate and digs in. And then he’ll take a swing, and part the night air like a steam engine as his bat explodes towards the ball…and the rest is for the history books.

A first baseman with a swing from God, a swing that turns casual fans into believers, a swing that can stop time and start it again. A swing that sends balls so high and deep that the only question is how far beyond the fence they’ll land. One of those swings.

It’s the kind of swing that changes a team and its fans, the kind of swing we need like nobody’s business. And down in Port St. Lucie, Pete Alonso is announcing loudly and clearly that if we’ll just take him back to Queens with us, the swing will finally arrive.

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The Ballplayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Closer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It Is Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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