On Jon Niese’s One-Hitter and the Circumstances in Which I Saw it

I’m still trying to come to terms with all that happened to me yesterday.  I remember waking up and driving myself and my daughter, Sonia, down to Flushing.  I love to drive down to a day game in the morning.  Everything is lazy and waking up.  There’s not the end of a workday feeling of a night game.  There is a sense that watching a ballgame is all the work that’s going to get done by anybody today.

We first went to see where our seats were.  This was a suddenly convened Pitch In For a Good Cause/ GaryKeithandRon event.  Somebody cancelled their event on the Bridge Terrace and Lynn Cohen had all these tickets.  I hadn’t really been conscious of the fact that there was such a thing as the Bridge Terrace.  It’s an area of café seating hanging off of the Shea Bridge.  I’ve walked past it plenty of times, but I somehow never really took in the fact that it was there.  I tell you, it’s going to be years before I know my way completely around Citi Field.  This is both good and bad.  I like the complexity, but part of me wonders why there needs to be anything at a ballpark besides the field, facilities for players and announcers, and a few concentric rings of plain old ordinary seats. 

Anyway, the Bridge Terrace is really nice.  You feel like you’re sitting at a café watching the ball game.  You have a table in front of you for elbows.  You can eat your ribs and elote cheese corn with a little bit more dignity.  You are exactly where left-handed hitters are hoping to hit the ball. 

Anyway, Sonia and I had a very nice afternoon, watching one of these ballgames where the Mets look like they’re only going to get a couple of hits from a fairly early point and then they do in fact only get a couple of hits.   Games like this are more fun for socializing, as we did with blogger Zoe Rice, who took some great pictures of us, and Lynn, and Sharon Chapman, and Howard Megdal, a fine baseball author soon to announce his campaign to become the next general manager of the New York Mets (after Minaya, Howard’s not trying to cause trouble).

Then something extraordinary happened.  Lynn asked me if I wanted two tickets she had just gotten from SNY to sit in the second row behind the Mets dugout for the evening game.  Now I had already asked Sonia if she wanted to stay for the night game of the day/night doubleheader.  She had said to me that she’d love to Daddy but that she’d promised Pete (new boyfriend two hundred miles away in the summer) that she’d Skype with him tonight because they hadn’t been able to Skype last night because he was too tired after he came home from work.  It being a fairly new relationship, the Skyping I guess was kind of important.  Ah, why are things important?  What is important?  Anyway, when Lynn asked me what I was doing tonight, I had to tell her this.  And there was an unreal few minutes as Sonia’s eyes remained so wide open you couldn’t see her eyelids and she also began to look sick.  Anyway, Lynn and Zoe said all the things I couldn’t bring myself to say to Sonia about how if Pete didn’t understand how important it was for us to have these tickets, then he wasn’t worth being with.  In just a couple of minutes we had the tickets.

When the game was over, they kicked everybody out of the stadium (no hiding in the bathrooms!)  I thought of how my parents used to sneak into Ebbets Field and see games for free and wondered if it was even possible for a kid to do that in Citi Field.  Probably not.  And so Sonia and I sat by the Home Run Apple and talked about all kinds of things until they let us back into the stadium and Sonia got a blue Ike Davis t-shirt for being so considerate as to postpone Skyp-ing with Pete until tomorrow night so that we could sit in $300 seats we got for free right behind the Mets dugout.  Parents!  Are you familiar with this kind of absurdity?  Is it any wonder that this generation is so spoiled?  Bah!

Anyway, now it was time for the entering of the clubs.  Our tickets said that we could go anywhere we wanted in the whole goddamn stadium except Jerry Seinfeld and Fred Wilpon’s private bathrooms.  Hell, I think we could have taken a shower in the player’s clubhouse, this was such a premium ticket.  We could have tried on Mr. Met’s head.  I don’t know.  Well, as you may remember from a previous post of mine, the fancy clubs at Citi Field aren’t really all that much.  But getting into them?  There’s nothing like it.  You walk up to the person who’s supposed to keep you out and you show them the ticket (thinking inside your head “yeah I spent $300 for this ticket, yeah I’m the kind of person who spends $300 bucks to go to a baseball game, that’s me all right, do it all the time”) and they are so nice and cuddly and they hold the door open for you and you are on top of the world.  So then you go in, walk around a little, and go and do it with the next place.  Sonia compared the feeling to the scene in Annie where she first gets to go to Daddy Warbuck’s mansion.  That’s it all right.

We ended up eating in the Caesar’s Club looking out at the old World’s Fair.  With some trepidation, Sonia called Pete, who was perfectly sweet about everything.  Thank you, Pete.  Enjoy Skyp-ing tonight.  And no, Sonia, we don’t have to return the Davis t-shirt.  Eating our supper, we watched it rain and worried that our evening was not going to happen.  Then after the sky had gotten everything completely wet, the sun came out and we were looking down on the old Home Run Apple, glistening with rain water, illuminated by focused sunlight, redder and brighter than just about anything I had ever seen.  The sunlight and water made you see how mottled and uneven the surface of the old Apple is.  I thought of how it must have thousands of layers of paint.  It looked like the surface of the moon, or like the shaven head of a very old guy, smooth but filled with ridges and rivulets, pocked and marked.  You know, wasn’t this the most perfect image of all of our baseball fandom?  What we have in our head and hearts are all these layers and layers of paint, all these different experiences that go way back and of which traces now forever remain.  What we have is old and complicated and uneven and imperfect and yet it is all a brilliant red with our newest coat of paint, our excitement about the miraculously living and fun new 2010 Mets even though through the newest bright red surface you can see the gashes of 2009, and the gouges right at the end of 2008 and 2007 and the hopes of 2006 and 2005 and the horrors of 2002-4, and under that the giddy fun of the period right around the turn of the millennium.  And buried of course under all those layers were layers that went down five decades all the way to the unpainted surface of the apple itself, which had now become all that was painted upon it.

The rain stopped.  Our dinner was over.  We went to our seats.  Second row, behind the dugout.  We could reach out and touch the top of it.  I had never sat this close to a major league baseball game in my life.           

There are several things that are different about being so close to the game.  Some of them are pretty trivial.  One thing I learned is that every half inning, as soon as the players are finished with the ball they throw around to warm up, the ball makes its way to Razor Shines, a whole bunch of kids pour down the aisle to the dugout, and a security guard stands up to block with his belly the eager hands of the kids.  Razor looks over the dugout as if he takes this responsibility very seriously and turns his head slowly from side to side until his gaze alights upon a kid or a young woman.  Then he points to his intended target and underhands the ball to them.  Nobody fights and then the wave recedes.  This happens about twenty times per game.  From high up above, who knew that this went on?  What strange cultures and rituals we find when we travel to new places! 

The first thing I experienced that was really significantly different was the sense of what it was like for the players to take the field.  I have often seen the New York Mets take the field and I know that it is a pleasant but banal event.  From my usual seats in the Promenade, you see these little guys far away in their white uniforms running out onto a green field and you know the game will now begin.  From the second row behind the dugout, you see full-sized, recognizable, and in large measure beloved men running up a narrow stairway and then spreading across a big field on which you have the impression you’re sitting.  You feel as if you are behind a big white sail that is spreading out to catch the wind and move your ship forward into the sea of bright light that comes down to you  from arches high over your head.  It’s an amazing experience. 

Most of what you see in such seats is amazing.  There can be no such thing as boredom when you’re up this close, because you feel as if you are in the presence of the players and you are on their plane.  You are not above them and they are not small, distant, iconic creatures.  Weirdly, the fact that the players look bigger makes them seem smaller.  Distance normally gives you a sense that they are larger than life.  You are used to marveling that these little running figures are actually famous people, great athletes.  When you are two rows behind the dugout, the players look like human beings.  They are no further away than real people on the other side of a room.  Proximity brings them down to earth, to normal dimensions, and you therefore have to keep reminding yourself of the no longer obvious fact that you are watching a major league baseball game that millions of other people are following at this exact moment. 

Although the players become more real by becoming closer, what they do seems even less real.  Can human beings possibly throw a ball with that velocity?  Can they run that fast and swing and pivot and swoop like that?  They are so nimble and so physically gifted, they hardly seen human.  But if what their bodies are doing makes them seem superhuman, what is happening on their faces and in their shoulders makes them seem particularly and almost unexpectedly human.  I saw a lot of interesting things:  Frenchie’s loose and manic exuberance, Jose’s eerie and half unserious good humor, Wright’s unsmiling distracted confidence and confusion, the wary, hungry shyness of Jesus Feliciano and Ruben Tejada.  Yes you can see all this on the television.  But it is different when you are actually there and this close.  You don’t have a sense that you’re seeing something on a stage or a screen, something that an SNY cameraman is choosing to show you.  You are seeing something that only you and a few other people can see at that moment, something that is really happening and is just yours and not selected by someone else and therefore real. 

These interesting, somehow private things can happen at any moment.  From the second row, the dugout takes on the character of a magic box out of which extraordinary things regularly pop. Your attention cannot waver.  You cannot imagine leaving your seat to get food or to go to the bathroom.   

As a triple play happened right in my face, I wondered if I could go back to the Promenade.  I calculated that buying these seats as season tickets would cost $25,000.  Cars cost $25,000.  Maybe I could get a really cheap clunky car and always sit in these seats.  Would I ever get tired of this?  Would I ever get bored?   Having just done it once, I find it hard to imagine.  What could get me here?  Maybe I could get a terminal illness and justify this to myself.   

It would have been a miraculous evening no matter what happened.  But here was the kicker.  I saw one of the most extraordinary games I have ever seen.  I didn’t just see it.  I felt as if I witnessed it, I was so close.  Almost none of the drama had to come from my imagination.  None of the drama came from the dynamics of the crowd.  That was one thing I missed.  When you’re in the second row, you are aware of all the people around you, but you feel part of this little group and not part of this enormous crowd with its own geography and meteorology. 

Anyway, there I was seeing a game that deserves to be eternally famous and cherished, that will be with me no matter how many New York Mets seasons get painted over it.  I saw John Niese pitch a nine-inning game that missed being a perfect game by just one hit, a hit that nobody noticed in the third inning.  I swear that I now know what a perfect game looks like.   I saw, felt, and became as fully convinced of Niese’s absolute mastery as the Padres were.  I have never seen anything like this.  I have seen Koufax, Seaver, Koosman, and Gooden  pitch as well as Niese did last night.  But they were who they were, and they were overpowering.  Niese was an enormous surprise.  But time after time after time he got his ground ball or strike out or fly out.  I could also see his face and see his remarkably humble acceptance of the fact of his mastery.  I watched the kid as he came out of the dugout and went back into it.  He was focused, not exuberant.  He was delighted but there was no swagger.  There was no “this is who I am!”  There was a “who am I, what am I and how do I fit into the developing story of this season?” Jon must have seen what I and everybody else was seeing.  He must have sensed our surprise that an unexpected talent was emerging.  But for fear of waking up, for fear of it going away, he held it in.  I’ll bet he was worried about whether he could every pitch this way again.  I’ll bet that he will.  Even he seemed to be becoming more convinced as the wild cheers of a crowd that was staying rained down on his shoulders when he took the mound in the ninth, as Kevin Burkhardt interviewed him at the end of the game, just a few feet away from me, and Angel Pagan ran out to smash the whipped cream or shaving cream or whatever it was in his face. 

I saw one of those one-hitters that define the Mets franchise.  I am not disappointed that I didn’t see a no-hitter.  The one-hitter is the most characteristic Mets thing.  The fact that we’ve had 34 of them and never had a no-hitter suggests that the alignment of the universe is such that even at their very best, the Mets will never seem perfect.  The Mets will never seem perfect, even if they are sometimes surprisingly good.  They either hold out promise until they lose it just at the end, or if two times in a half century, they achieve the ultimate result, they will still look as if they’re on the point of everything collapsing.  Nobody thought the 1969 Mets were perfect.  They were blessed.  And although the 1986 team was as perfect as all but two or three teams in major league baseball history have been, look how close they came to defeat.  The scoreboard had conceded.  There will always be pits and bumps on the surface of the apple.  There will always be nicks on the bricks.  The Mets may be wonderful but we will never have a no-hitter.  Because not having a no-hitter is the way the Mets are.    

Citi Field is a happy place now, I felt as I walked back into it, from my seats on the edge of what had really happened.  I’ve felt this happiness before, but it was in a different place.  You’re going to yell at me or laugh at me and I don’t care but what the season reminds me of the most is the experience of 1969 before it became the 1969 of iconic memory.  People who don’t remember 1969 often think it was:  the Mets were bad for years, but then miraculously they were great, yayy!  It wasn’t like that at all.  In 1969 they got off to their typical bad start.  After eleven games, they were 4-7.  Then suddenly they were playing better as a whole bunch of guys you didn’t really expect to rely on started playing really well.  It got to the point where, after 59 games, they were 32-27.  Sound familiar?  And people were asking what they were to ask all summer.  It wasn’t “are we going to have a miracle of historic proportions?”  It was more like:  “Hmm.  What is real here?  How good are these guys really? Even if they’re good, they can’t really be good enough to win, could they?”  It was a summer of hope and very big doubt.  It wasn’t a summer of Koosman jumping up onto Grote.  And however much we admired this team full of surprises and unexpected heroes, the doubt was always stronger than the hope, all the way into August.  On August 13, we were ten games out.  It was only after mid-August that we heard celestial music.  Most of the time we were like beggars who have been given a gleaming coin and are biting it and rubbing it to see if it was real.

I don’t know if any of this is real either.  But I know that a LOT of things are happening that I did not expect.  I know that if everybody keeps up their not implausible current level of performance and Bay and Reyes just return to their accessible normal levels, this team makes the playoffs.  The wounded fans, the beggars biting the coins, are elevated.  This could happen.  There are omens.  That is what I will call this miraculous afternoon into evening, with friends, with my daughter, with the Home Run Apple, with seats in which I may never sit again, with Jon Niese’s breakout performance.  It’s an omen.  It is a symbol, I hope and pray, of what this season is becoming.  It is a symbol of the splendor of surprise.

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It’s not too late to take advantage of my Father’s Day Special.  If you’d like to give a dad a very personally inscribed copy of either of my books for Father’s Day, just e-mail me at danaabrand@yahoo.com.  Tell me a few things about the dad’s Mets fandom (that I can use in my inscription) and give me your address.  I will send you my address to which you can send a check for $17.50 per book, which covers everything including postage.  I will get his personal copy in the mail to you as soon as I have your e-mail.  Please note that this offer applies to both Mets Fan and The Last Days of Shea

Also, please check out my reading schedule for June in the post below.  If you come to one of my readings, please be sure to say hello.  It’ll be a pleasure for me to meet you.

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