They Say There’s a Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Brandon Nimmo was up next.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So they’ve got no shot?”

“Doesn’t look like it, no.”

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

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

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

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


It was the top of the eighth.

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

“Oy vey,” I said.

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

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

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

“I’m not sure I agree,” Alisa said.

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

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

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

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

Haggerty! Haggerty! Haggerty!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


We’ll Remember Sam Haggerty

You probably know that MLB doesn’t let the Mets wear first responder hats on September 11th each year, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I’m an American and a New Yorker, after all, and a fan of the team that did once wear those hats in play, even if once wasn’t nearly enough. So I bought an FDNY hat, dark blue with red lettering, from the Citi Field promenade store, then took the stairs down to my seat just as the pregame ceremony was starting.

Hundreds of police officers and firefighters in uniform were lining the warning track, and just as I got down to my level, the music started. A video, then a moment of silence; the camera panning past one uniform after another, then the national anthem, performed by the Cops & Kids Chorus. Then I blinked a few times and bought a pretzel and made my way back to my seat, and it was time to play baseball.

September 11th, 2001, was my first day of pre-k, but besides the sense that all the adults seemed distracted, I don’t remember anything. My friend heard that there was an emergency, and set up all the model ambulances and fire trucks around a block tower he’d built. It wasn’t until a long while later that I heard about what had happened, at least as far as I can remember. I certainly didn’t remember what happened ten days later, on September 21st, when baseball came back to Shea Stadium. Two and a half years after that, give or take, a new baseball season started and I was finally old enough to focus full-time on the Mets, and I started remembering game results. But that hadn’t happened yet.

For me, it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t have some sort of association with the Mets. But I think most of New York has at least some idea of how much the Mets figured into the days after 9/11. Supplies in the Shea parking lot, players and coaches loading trucks…and then, of course, the Mets returning, Liza Minelli singing, Mike Piazza homering, and everything being okay, if only for a second.

I’d never been to a September 11thgame before, so I don’t have any reference point, but this one was exquisitely done. The pregame ceremony left me grinning and blinking, remembering all that we’d been through and proud of what we’d done. It was the perfect place to be. Baseball in early September, stands full of police officers and firefighters, flag flying over the outfield, a large, cold glass of lemonade. It doesn’t get any more American, in the best way possible, than that. And what’s more, I was sure we were going to win. It was a New York event. It was ours for the taking. Mets baseball in New York on September 11th is little more than a celebration of how much our city overcame, and how far we’ve come since. We weren’t going to lose.

I was even more sure one batter in. Amed led off, and he smacked a ball down the left field line faster than anyone could see. Immediately, I thought of Jose Reyes’ leadoff double in the last game of David Wright’s career. There are moments when when baseball comes to life, when the story takes off on its own and you know it can’t possibly be derailed. That was one of them, and this was another. We weren’t going to lose.

With one out, McNeil was hit by a pitch. Then he and Amed executed the most fundamentally beautiful double-steal I’d ever seen. Now the entire crowd could feel it. This was one of those games. Things were going our way. Ramos hit a grounder to second that would have been an inning-ending double play but for the double steal; instead, it brought in a run. J.D. Davis singled; McNeil scored. Frazier drove a ball over that damned Wall of Flushing. After a mound visit, Nimmo, too, put the first pitch he saw into the bullpen.

Even when things got dicey, the outcome was never really in doubt. Steven Matz walked the first three hitters, he saw in the second, then induced a strikeout and a double play. Of course, I thought to myself. McNeil hit a ball 440 feet into the Coca Cola corner. Obviously. In the third, Frazier hit another one. Why not?

You know how we’re almost always waiting for that one day when things just go right? We’ll be down 5-2 in the eighth, say, and we’ll put two men on, and you’ll think to yourself, all we need is three hits in a row to tie this game right up…but you know those three hits aren’t coming, because it’s just not our day? Today, finally, was our day. We recovered from 9/11, which meant the Arizona Diamondbacks weren’t going to present much of a challenge. Hell, the stands were full of police, and even the Diamondbacks know that the New York City Police and Fire Departments, on September 11th, deserve to see a win.

Diamondback liners found gloves. Ground balls came just when we needed them. Each time he seemed lost, Matz found himself — and then Familia, Sewald, and Bashlor did too. Two home runs each from Frazier and McNeil, two hits each for Nimmo and J.D. Davis, six shutout innings with seven strikeouts for Matz. To the bottom of the eighth, still 9-0. Game in the bag, uncertain as the Mets bullpen may often be. But then something interesting happened.

Mickey Callaway was subbing out his regulars for defensive replacements, and Sewald needed a pinch-hitter. Up came Sam Haggerty. 25 years old, just up from Syracuse, somewhat familiar to Mets fans for the video of his call-up even if, in general, he’s a complete unknown. He had already pinch-run, but now he was coming up for his first career at-bat. And in the stands, fans were standing and cheering.

I said that it didn’t get any more American, in the best way possible, than a ballgame with the flag flying. I was wrong. This made it perfect. Cheering for the perfect coming-of-age story, the American Dream’s American Dream…as Sam Haggerty stepped up to the plate to finally achieve the goal he’s been working towards all his life, I don’t know that I’ve ever rooted harder. Sam Haggerty had to get a hit. He had to make the night perfect.

He didn’t. He took two balls, fouled off two tough pitches, then swung through strike three. No perfection for Sam Haggerty — at least, not yet. But then Sam Haggerty walked back to a major league dugout and a major league manager slapped him conciliatorily, a major league batting line now to his name. The chance to watch the moment a player finally takes the ultimate step, and takes a major league at-bat…it’s a special occasion, regardless of the outcome.

Soon after Haggerty struck out, Tyler Bashlor inched his way around some erratic fastballs and closed the deal. We won 9-0, and moved within 2.5 games of the second wildcard. Jeff McNeil and Todd Frazier had 20 home runs each on the season. J.D. Davis was batting .305. Steven Matz got his 10th win.

I just missed my subway train at the platform in Times Square, and stood waiting for the next one. It could have been any day and any game, besides my FDNY cap and the pride that was running through me. Proud American, proud New Yorker, proud Mets fan. We Americans…for all our faults, sometimes we can do beautiful things, and on nights like tonight, baseball is a great example. Dreams come true, stories play out, cities find solace — all on a baseball field. Sure, it will end eventually, but the things that matter will stick with us. All games end and all seasons fall apart, but the memories…well, you might say we’ll never forget.


The Lonely and the Strong

Welcome to Mets fandom.

It’s tempting to say that we just saw the Mets at their absolute lowest. But I wouldn’t be so sure. There’s always another step down, a further descent into hell. Yes, the Mets season is almost certainly — ah, to hell with it, certainly — over. But seasons have ended before. We’ve seen worse, unless we haven’t, in which case we will eventually. There’s only one rule when you follow the Mets, and that is that things can always get worse. See exhibit A: Paul Sewald. But I digress.

The crucial fact that we all should have understood long before tonight is that the 2019 Mets are Mets. Like all Mets teams, they’re cursed to fall prey to something or other. They’re good, but not good enough to defy the inexplicable weight that drags us down every year. This was always going to happen. We’re the Mets. Honestly, I’m surprised I’m surprised.

Sure, they gave us hints every now and again that maybe something was really happening here. Winning fifteen out of sixteen on things like Luis Guillorme pinch-hit home runs will do that. But there were always signs that we would fall back to earth. We lost every game that we seemed absolutely certain to lose, which in Mets parlance means that good as we may have been, we weren’t good enough.

You’re not telling me you didn’t have some doubt. When Mickey pulled Lugo, I doubted. When Sewald entered, and looked like Sewald, I doubted. When Sewald was followed by Avilan, and Avilan was followed by the 2019 version of Edwin Díaz, I doubted. And when Díaz did what Díaz does, I was absolutely certain. When there’s that much doubt, there’s really no doubt at all.

The fact that our hopes and dreams were just crushed by Kurt Suzuki is a damn shame — there’s no getting around it. But none of us, I don’t think, ever expected to get around it. We’re Mets fans. This is what we do. Yes, this one hurts. But at this point, who wasn’t ready for it?

This is what being a Mets fan is like, and if you weren’t ready for this, you will be soon enough. Our manager will make bad decisions. Our biggest acquisitions will founder and fail. Playoff pushes will come up short, or they’ll succeed and then end prematurely. Brandon Nimmo will pull his hamstring then ruin his back. Jeurys Familia will lose whatever he once had.

That’s Mets fandom. No one knows why, exactly — meddling owners? Cruel Gods? Lack of investment in player development? A Nolan Ryan jersey buried under the 7 train? But regardless, it happens, and it’s not going to stop. And it’s why Mets fandom is such a noble endeavor.

We’re the ones who go through this, and the whole world knows it. We don’t call ourselves the best fans in baseball the way Cardinals’ fans do — I live by the principle that one should always do the opposite of what a Cardinals’ fan would do — but it’s starting to seem that way. The rest of the country couldn’t survive what we’ve been through. We Mets fans — those who are left of us — are the superbacteria of American baseball fandom. Everyone else laughs at us. Because they know we’re stronger.

On Friday night, I’ll be back at Citi Field. I’ll wear a Mets jersey and a Mets cap, and I’ll cheer for our boys as if nothing was ever wrong. I’ll watch this great American game and root for this wonderful damnable team and get myself a hot dog and a beer. If I’ve ever been sure of anything, I’m sure that Edwin Díaz won’t ruin the Mets for me. We Mets fans, after all, are way too strong for that.


Panik, Pete, and Well-Timed Hitting

I can’t be alone in thinking that the double Pete Alonso hit in the seventh inning against the Royals today actually went over the fence. I didn’t see the play live, but I saw the replay soon after, and it left me distinctly unsatisfied. The ball falls toward the right field corner, disappears…then, eventually, reappears back onto the field. On the replay that I saw, at least, where it went while no one could see it is anyone’s guess. But Pete was stuck at second, close to going all the way but not quite there.

You have to hope it’s not a symbol of things to come. The Mets, former winners of 15 out of 16, have slowed down a tad: we’re three and four since those magical 16 games, and have fallen out of a wild card spot, albeit not too far. A deep fly ball, arcing towards the seats…the worst case scenario, right now, is that we bounce off the top of the wall and land back on the field, an extra base hit but not a home run, a good team but not quite a contender.

Like Pete’s dubious double, the question is where we land. The answer, of course, is uncertain. What’s clear is that for the Mets to finish the job and make the playoffs, things will have to go more or less as they went today (except, of course, we’ll thank Gary Apple for his service and welcome Gary Cohen back to the booth). Wilson Ramos will have to hit, as will Amed Rosario. J.D. Davis will need to continue raking. Juan Lagares will need to continue his rebirth; Todd Frazier will need to remember that he once knew how to hit; Tomas Nido will need to show more of that minor-league-batting-title-winning form. Joe Panik, meanwhile, can just keep doing his thing.

Pete was the hero today, but Panik might have been more impressive. Three times, innings looked sour — and three times, he turned them around. First inning: Amed singles leading off, then gets caught stealing. On a bad team, that’s that. Momentum disappears, the next two hitters meekly concede. Joe Panik disagrees. Joe Panik seizes that vanishing momentum and turns it into a triple, and a bad start to an inning becomes an intriguing middle, and suddenly, two batters later, Michael Conforto hit a ball that, from what I saw, must have landed in Kansas.

Sixth inning: Panik comes up with one out and singles again. If Panik makes an out, Pete bats with two outs and nobody on. But now there’s a rally in motion, and Pete singles too. It ultimately comes to nothing, but that’s twice already that Joe Panik has turned what look like quiet innings into exciting ones.

Seventh inning: Panik bats with one out, Mets leading 6-4, Amed on first. Pete is on deck, and the Royals can pitch around him if Panik makes an out. So he doesn’t. Another single, another rally sustained, and sure enough, the next three batters all drive in runs.

His numbers aren’t flashy, but how in the world did the Giants let Joe Panik go? He’s 28 years old, and has shown major offensive talent as recently as two years ago (not to mention today). Joe Panik, it seems easy to say, is a major league second baseman. Panik isn’t Brad Emaus…or Vinny Rotino…or Andrew Brown…or Wilfredo Tovar…no, he’s a genuine Major League player, flaws included like everyone else, but a ballplayer all the same.

If Joe Panik can put together a month and a half of competent offense, as he seems abundantly capable of doing, the wildcard race is ours for the taking. Joe Panik hits in front of Pete Alonso, and if Pete has runners on base in front of him, the National League will tremble. Joe Panik, only weeks ago a castaway searching for a home, is perfectly positioned to light a fire under the entire Mets’ offense, just as he did today. A fire that, kindled just right, could burn all the way to the postseason.

Of course, a few hot weeks from Joe Panik don’t guarantee anything. This is only one game, even if it’s an impressive one. Baseball is never that simple. Joe Panik can’t carry a team himself: other heroes will need to step up, and we fans will just have to wait and see whether they ever do. And so, like Pete’s seventh-inning double (home run?), the Mets’ eventual fate remains an open question.

Pete, it seems, doesn’t like that. Leading off the ninth, he sent a Jacob Barnes fastball deep into the stands. It was a home run off the bat: this time, there was never a doubt. Can the same be said of the 2019 Mets? Joe Panik would like a word.


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 Mets 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.


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. 


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.



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.


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.



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.