Archive for May, 2009

Santos and Sheffield

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

There’s always something about guys who get up off the scrap heap, guys who get themselves right into the thick of things when they weren’t even on the periphery when the season began. 

Coming off of the scrap heap gives players an appealing humility.  Look at how it has softened Sheffield, how it has given him a maturity he probably could have used earlier.  Look at how much fun it is to watch Santos emerge.  When they interview him, he gives the impression of someone who never gave up on himself, even though he had every reason to.  He believed and now things are happening as he had hoped and now we get to watch him pump his fist in the air when he wins the game in the eleventh.

Guys like this give flavor to a season.  When a team is weakened by injuries, as the Mets have been, fans can lose hope and interest.  They can feel that they’re not watching their team.  But players like Santos and Sheffield make a team new.  They renew the fan’s interest, and the team’s dynamic.  You always need novelty in baseball.  All of the games greatest pleasures (and pains) come from the unexpected.

We’re enjoying this season, aren’t we?  The nuttiness and the disappointments are going to continue.  But our starting pitching, except for Perez, is falling into the groove of “even better than expected.”  Our relief pitching brings relief.  The lack of home runs is almost funny at this point.  We are winning ballgames.  We are 18-8 in May.  And although we’ve been hit hard by injuries, nothing is collapsing.  Instead we have new guys to root for and new things to enjoy.  As Mets fans in this century, we spend so much time worrying and complaining.  I’m just going to take this moment to kvell.  We’re not out of the woods yet.  These are the Mets, they never get out of the woods.  I’m not even going to be unduly optimistic.  But I am enjoying these games.

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I’ve finally finished putting up my website with samples for my forthcoming book, The Last Days of Shea:  Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan.  Please check out the site.  It has links if you’d like to pre-order the book from the publisher or from Amazon.  The book is scheduled to be published in September, but it is likely that it will be available in August.  I’ll let you know as soon as I know something definite.  Ignore what it says about January on the Amazon site.  That has to do with the date on the catalog it will appear in.  The book will be out this summer.

On the Road

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

 cassady-kerouac-shaku8s by you.

Road trips are a very important part of American culture.  For some reason, our writers and filmmakers are particularly attracted to the idea of an unpredictable journey without a clear destination, in which people who aren’t sure of their identity bang around looking for it.

Every year, in the middle of May, the Mets go on a road trip to the West Coast.  More than any other road trip, West Coast road trips feel like road trips because the games are on so late that you really feel as if the team is “away.”  And if you stay up for the games, you are sleep-deprived for a whole week and that makes you feel as if you’re away too. 

For some reason I have never been able to understand, the West Coast road trip is often weird.  And it often seems weird in a significant way because by the time you’re in the middle of May you feel as if the games should tell you something about what is going to happen with the season. 

So what is significant?  The astonishing play of the San Francisco series or the peculiar combination of surprisingly effective pitching and absolute Throneberry-esque chaos on the field and the basepaths in the Dodgers series?

What is significant?  The fact that the New York Mets right now lead the National League in batting average (have they ever done that before, even for a few days?) or the fact that they are last in home runs (could anyone have ever guessed that of this team)?  The fact that for two weeks they make a habit of coming back from behind?  Or the fact that they can suddenly stop doing it for a while?

What is significant?  The fact that we are only a game out of first place, behind a team that has no discernible pitching staff?  The fact that Beltran and Wright are vying for an MVP?  Or the fact that the team seems so easy to screw up in the head (if there were such a thing as a team balk, the Mets could have one called on them)? 

The Mets are banging around looking for their identity all right.  And like all good American heroes on road trips, they are not really going to find it.  We’re along on this trip and we’ve got to get used to the fact that there’s going to be something we couldn’t have anticipated on every stretch of this highway.  We’re going to have some fun, we’re going to have some adventures.  And at several points we’re going to get sick to our stomachs.  Is there any possibility that we could stop worrying about our team’s identity and just take things as they come?  I don’t think teams have identities in any consistent way.  After years of teaching books about people in search of their identity on road trips, I don’t think the idea of consistent identity is particularly helpful.  The Mets will be what the Mets will be.  I don’t mean to go all Buddhist on your ass, but that’s the whole story. 

I’m looking forward to the Boston series because I have a gut feeling that the road to the World Championship this season will have to lead through Boston.  So I want the Mets to get comfortable there.  There’s no reason why they couldn’t be.  There’s no reason why the team that played that totally five-error, missed-third-base insane game the other night couldn’t win the World Championship this year.  That’s what’s so strange. 

I really need it this year.  I can live with the Mets not being great.  No team in the National League is great.  I just want the Mets to be the flawed National League team that really gets somewhere this year.  I don’t want, you know what I don’t want.  I don’t want another bloody Sunday.  I been there before. 
 

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

 Acela by you.

I went to Citi Field yesterday, bearing a ticket that said $180 on the front.  Needless to say, I didn’t pay this.  My sister Stefanie has a friend named Jeff who has a friend who works for a law firm that has these tickets.  So Jeff got these tickets for the night and I went to the game with Jeff, his son William, and Stefanie.  This is how I got to sip Myer’s rum straight from a snifter in the Acela Lounge at, shall we say, the ballpark. 

So what is the Acela Lounge like?  Simply exquisite.  The designers have made bold and interesting decisions, creating a space that is of the ballpark yet transcends it in a striking and inventive way.  This is a contemporary version of the clubby spaces in which New York’s sports aficianados have congregated for over a century (e.g. The Twenty One Club, Toots Shor’s).  As soon as you enter it, you think, this is how to go to a ballgame!  This is how to elevate the experience!

No, seriously.  It looks like an airport lounge. 

We sure as hell weren’t going to eat there for $48, so we took the escalators down to the areas of the stadium where they let everybody go.   Farewell, I thought, oh favored realms to get into which you have to show a ticket with a three-digit number.  Will I ever see you again?  Not often, not so long as I still continue to have a five-digit income. 

Before checking out the lively, festive (not) bar scene at the famed Acela, we did check out an equally exclusive experience down at our seats (which were six rows behind the Mets dugout).  It’s called batting practice and I must tell you that it is so much fun.  You get to stand behind the dugout and see the players up close.  You get to see how they interact.  You see Omar Minaya and Jay Horowitz.  You feel a sense of intimacy and excitement.  You are right in the heart of things, two hours before the game.  Over in right field, we saw a whole mass of people shading their eyes and looking towards us and the players.  I wonder who those people were. 

For dinner, we went down to the food area out beyond right center field.  Here is one of the great paradoxes of Citi Field.  The food court in center is an absolute triumph of democratic values.  Everyone in the stadium is entitled to buy superb food, not just good, not just good for a ballpark, but superb food, for very reasonable prices, not just good prices for a ballpark, but reasonable prices by any standard.  If they had the centerfield food court set up in Manhattan, I would go there when I felt like having a reasonably priced delicious casual lunch.  The food court is itself a destination.  This time I had a soft taco sampler with wonderful sauces for $9.25, and a corn on the cob with a cheese crust flavored with Mexican spices that was so good it brought tears to my eyes.  I couldn’t help but also grab myself some clam and corn chowder later and if this was ancient Rome and if there had been a vomitorium over by the waffle ball court, I would have gone back for a some ribs and pulled pork from Blue Smoke, and tried what I’ve heard are some excellent Italian heros and pizza, and anyway, I can’t figure it out.  I’ve heard from Jeff and from several other sources that the food in the Caesar’s club is very unimpressive.  My biggest problem with Citi Field remains the fact that I find it still a somewhat unpleasant sociological experience.  If this is the problem, how the hell did it happen that all the best food is available to everyone for prices that barely seem to cover costs?

So the game began and the seats were terrific and they offered a perspective on the stadium I had never had before.  In the field level, you can really feel how much smaller Citi Field is than Shea.  You don’t feel, as you did in the field level of Shea, as if you are at the bottom of something immense open at the far end to the sky.  You feel as if you’re down in a not very deep well or walled enclosure.  There is a pleasant intimacy, but there is a loss of the sense of height and the sublime.  This is obviously an intentional trade-off that you can appreciate best in the $180 seats.  The thing is that these seats really are not any better than the equivalent seats at Shea, which I didn’t sit in often, but when I did, I only paid $65.  If I was someone who used to have field level seats at Shea and now had field level seats at Citi Field, I would have an enormous problem with this.  What does it do to your experience of a baseball game to pay 50% more for your ticket than full-price for the best seats at a Broadway play or slightly more than front row center at the Metropolitan Opera?  I was eager to find out.

I don’t think I did.  I think I discovered, as the Mets and the Yankees are discovering, that there are few people either rich enough or profligate enough to spend this much money to see a baseball game.  Right near us was a vast and virtually empty area where the seats were padded and looked like seats in an airplane.  Above it was a balcony of two-thirds empty seats accessible only to one of the clubs. 

Our own section was pretty full, but it seemed as if, like us, our neighbors hadn’t paid a high price for their tickets.  They just ended up with them somehow.  It was more than abundantly clear that a few of them did not have a lot of interest in baseball.  A row of teenage girls behind us paid absolutely no attention to the game.  And I’m not saying that a few loudmouths in our particular area are typical of the ones who sit there every night, but there were several independently existing prosperous young men who were outraged (that’s the only word to describe it) when Jose Reyes made an error.  They shouted profane abuse at him when he came back to the dugout, abuse that he and all the little kids in the row behind the dugout could hear.   One of them said, after David Wright struck out, “This is unbelievable!  He can’t get around on an 88 mph fastball!”  I hadn’t thought about hitting and pitching in this way before, but apparently some fans believe that good hitters are hitters who can hit all balls thrown under certain specific speeds. 

I know that there are idiots and uninvolved fans at every level.  But am I wrong to think that people sitting in the most coveted seats in a stadium might be people who are particularly knowledgeable about baseball, who enjoy it deeply, and are more involved in it than an average person?  This is what was weirdest, I think, about sitting in the expensive seats.  You were really close to the players.  You were where everyone would want to be.  And with all the empty seats and with a few clueless fans in the seats that weren’t empty, you didn’t really feel that you were right in the thick of New York Mets baseball.  It’ll be fine with me to have to go back upstairs.  In the meantime, I think they should do something about the empty seats.  I know that they don’t want to lower the prices because the people who bought them first will feel ripped off (they’re not ripped off now?).  So why don’t they give the empty seats to veterans, or to families of New York area police and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty, or to families of people who died on 9/11?  Then no one would have the right to complain, it would make the Mets look good, and the center of the stadium will have some life.  Next year, they can sell all the seats in the stadium at prices that are more appropriate to the new economy.  One of the continuing problems with Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium is that they are already dated, in terms of their price structure and their socioeconomic architecture.  They were planned when there still were hundreds of thousands of people in New York for whom money had no value. 

I enjoyed watching Johan Santana pitching beautifully in spite of not having his velocity or his magical change-up.  He is sublime.  Lowe was fun to watch too.  The baseball game was fascinating through seven innings.  Then it went to hell.  But still, the Mets had won seven in a row going into the game.  There was no reason to despair, just as there is no reason to believe that they are invincible.

I like Citi Field more every time I go to it.  But I still have to get used to it.  And I continue to hope that the economy, and the Mets, will change it so that it will be easier for me to feel at home in it, as I always felt at home in Shea. 

 

Finding the Fire

Friday, May 8th, 2009

“Dana, you are the most optimistically optimistic optimist I’ve ever known with regard to this team.”  Deb McIver of “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly … The Mets” in a comment on my blog, May 1.

On May 1, I posted a blog piece entitled “Calm Down,” in which I argued that Mets fans were losing faith in their team earlier than the team deserved.  In saying this, I was not being optimistic about the team.  I was saying that the degree of pessimism fans were feeling was premature, even if it was psychologically understandable. 

Since May 1, the Mets have won 5 games out of 6, moving above .500 and into second place, one-half game out of first. Would it be right for me to say that I told you so?  No.  It would be wrong, for the same reason it would be wrong, I think, to give up on the Mets because they had a weird April. 

Six games do not provide you with a big enough sample to tell you what is likely to happen over the next 135.  One of the glories of baseball is that, as we know, 145 games is not a big enough sample to give you an idea of what is likely to happen over the next 17.  But even if six games don’t have much predictive value, I think that these particular six games may have a kind of representative value. 

What I mean by this is that although I don’t have any clear sense of whether the Mets are going to win 100 games this season or 80, I do feel that I know that, as in the previous two seasons, there is going to be very little space between success and failure.  The Mets are a talented yet flawed team in a division of talented yet flawed teams.  If they win, they will have come very close to having lost.  If they lose, they will come close to having won. 

All of this is represented in these six games.  With the exception of the first game in Philadelphia, each of these games could easily have gone the other way.  The Mets really should have won the game they lost.  And each of the four games in their current winning streak looked at some point as if it was seriously considering turning into a demoralizing disaster. 

But none of them did.  And they didn’t because Beltran continues to rule, Wright is beginning to bust out, and Delgado is beginning to stir.  Pelfrey, Hernandez, and Maine are settling down, Johan Santana looks as if he may genuinely be as good as any pitcher who has ever worn a Mets uniform, Putz is showing himself to be generally very reliable, and Frankie Rodriguez is terrific.  When you add to this the fact that Atlanta and Florida aren’t scaring anybody and the Phillies, for all of their offense and grit, have a starting staff with an ERA of 6.58, you might reasonably conclude that the season isn’t exactly over for the Mets. 

So did they find the fire in their belly?  I still don’t think that fire is necessarily the secret to baseball success, any more than it is necessarily the secret to any kind of success.  Fire may be the secret to the success of certain teams, but if you remember, people rarely praised the 2006 Mets for their fire and their grit.  They were praised for their sense of fun, their talent, and their balance.  Like many Mets fans, I’m not sure how much fire there is in the Mets.  But unlike a lot of Mets fans, I’m not sure how much fire there needs to be.  I don’t doubt that this team could be successful.  And I am very pleased that they have begun to find their rhythm and they are on their way to finding their fun. 

If you listened to the crowd last night at Citi Field, you could hear that Mets fans are really ready to enjoy the Mets again.  All that angst in April was our fear that it was all going to happen again.  But it doesn’t have to.  And I’m not convinced that it will. 

The Cover!

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Cover by you.

The book is still a few months away from its release, but I got the cover today!  I love it.

And hey!  That was some game, wasn’t it?  2 Homers by Beltran and a go-ahead homer by Wright.  A win for Maine, effective relief.  The troubles aren’t going to go away.  But no one can tell me that they know that this isn’t going to happen.

Random Thoughts on a Rainy Evening

Monday, May 4th, 2009

I wish the game hadn’t been rained out today.  I’m glad, of course, because of the benefits for the pitching rotation, but the rainout prevented the Phillies series from meaning anything.  Something like this makes you realize why there’s often a lot of emphasis on the rubber game of a series.  Why do they call it a rubber game?

I want Oliver Perez to go to the minors for a while.  I think he needs some time out of the spotlight.  I think a gracious acceptance of this would demonstrate to a lot of people that he’s more mature than he seems.  I’m sure he can get it back.  His talent always comes back.  I have no idea if he’ll ever develop into a consistent pitcher.  It’s certainly possible.  It’s okay if he goes on the DL, though I think it would be better for him to go to the minors.  I don’t want him to go to the pen.  Who wants Oliver Perez coming out of the pen?

All of the teams in the NL East have serious flaws.  Anything could happen, except Washington winning it.  Not only can we tell very little from April, we may not be able to tell anything much from the first three or four or even five months of the season.  But are Mets fans going to relax and just take it as it comes?  Nah. 

I am worried about Carlos Delgado’s hip. 

I think that the bumpy, awkward emergence of Daniel Murphy as an important player on the Mets is going to be one of the most interesting stories of the season.

I think that the other most interesting story of the season is going to be the emergence of the relatively complicated and only apparently uncomplicated David Wright as the team’s leader and guiding force.  I think everybody had better watch out for what happens when Wright emerges.  He’s going to be like Achilles. 

I think Jerry Manuel is doing strange things out of a part-conscious, part-unconscious desire to shake things up a little.

Although I didn’t actually enjoy the first month of the season, nothing has happened yet to make me feel as if I should revise my original prediction that the Mets would win the division, but that significant games would be played in the final week of the season.  When I look at the other teams in the division, I don’t see a team with more talent and I don’t share the belief of most Mets fans that there is something permanently deficient about this particular team’s spirit. 

I think the Mets will get it going.  And I think that the spirit of the team will be good, as it was in the summer of last year (remember?).  I think we would have ended up with a very successful season if Wagner and Maine hadn’t been lost at the end.  There is no spiritual deficiency going back to Adam Wainwright’s curve ball or Duaner Sanchez’s taxi ride.  That’s in our heads.  And to some degree in theirs.  The real challenge of this season will be to drive the phantoms out of their heads.  We’ll also have to build a ring of fire around the team so that the phantoms don’t come back in at the end of the season.  If we do this, their talent will do the job.  It’s mainly up to the Mets, of course, to get those phantoms out.  But we can help them.  Do I think we will help them?  No.  I wish we could.  But I don’t think we will. 

Calm Down

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I don’t agree with anything anybody is saying. 

Well, I agree that the Mets have gotten off to a disappointing start and that we’ve just had two exceptionally unhappy end-of-the-year experiences.  I think that Jerry Manuel has made a number of bizarre managerial decisions this year and I don’t know why he has been making them, since he didn’t seem to make many bizarre decisions last year.

Certain players, most notably Perez and Wright of course, have been having difficulty finding their groove.  Hasn’t anyone ever seen an April before?  The year’s been bad so far, but if you look at every year, twenty-one games is not enough to tell you what is happening.  I’ll tell you this, though.  I am certain that the Mets are not going to finish 9th in the league in ERA, 8th in the league in runs scored, and 15th in the league in home runs.  It’s just not possible.

Glass jaws?  No grit?  Maybe, as Joe Benigno invariably opines, what they need is a good brawl?  I don’t believe in any of that shit.  This team has considerable strengths and some peculiar weaknesses.  They are good, but not that good.  They are better than last year with this bullpen, as long as we don’t freak the new guys out.  A couple of games switched in each of the past two seasons and the Mets could have been on their way to the World Series.  Despair is premature.  We are just spooked.  Big time. 

It should be a very interesting weekend.