Staub Passes, and a New Mets Live

It’s 2018. A lot of things have changed, obviously. I barely wrote for almost two years. The last real writings I did get down to paper before I got carpal tunnel were posted here. I live in Seattle now. I drove across the country to get here. I’m very far away from my friends, family, and my New York Mets.

But I was back at home to watch Opening Day with my father, and man, these 2018 Mets, at least so far, do not disappoint.

Sure, Syndergaard strikes out 10 in his first outing. We score 9 runs. But none of those runs come from the long ball, which is not how this Mets roster has operated over the last few years. We started playing small ball. Slapping opposite-field hits, stealing bases, drawing walks. That’s a kind of strategy that’s less enthralling but more gutsy and brave, more risky and dangerous and dirty and, honestly, fun to watch.

But we’ve still got a lot of sluggers. We’ve still got a lot of power pitching. But we also have a new, young manager in Mickey Callaway who seems willing to do what’s needed in combining new and old managing strategies into making this team win. And even though David Wright is still on the bench, rehabbing his way into, hopefully, an elder captain’s role of pinch hitting and teaching younger players, we have Todd Frazier, this weird New Jersey dude who’s a bit scrappy and can hit and is old and wise and funny enough to lead these young guys from the far side of the horn.

It’s a new, yet old, New York Mets. Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, those beloved ’86 alums, lead the SNY broadcast team with humor, emotion, and sharp critical eyes alongside the veteran no-nonsense Gary Cohen “put it in the books!” at play-by-play. Rusty Staub died on Opening Day, and Hernandez wept openly to the media. Darling seconded Rusty’s greatness, and now the 2018 Mets wear his signature on their sleeves for the year.

I once saw Rusty deliver the first pitch at a Mets game at Citi Field. He tottered onto the field, balding but still with a shock of red hair. He was overweight, slow, but smiled and waved happily to the crowd. He assumed the stance slowly, but simply underhanded the pitch in. It bounced in front of home plate, and he didn’t care, and neither did the catcher.

They met halfway between home plate and the rubber and hugged before Staub waved to a lot of fans that adored him, many of which were not old enough to have seen him play for the Mets. He was no star. But he was one of us.

There’s still something magical happening in National League baseball in New York City, and that’s been happening for a while now. David Wright was the spark of these post-Shea, post-Piazza Mets, and he might still come back to punch a few over the fence again. 2015, with Terry Collins at the wheel, was a fragile but thrilling journey into a new Mets greatness. There’s no way to tell if the 2018 Mets will tap fully into a real chance at a championship, but after a couple of days of spirited and emotional play at the start of the season, I have a feeling that this one will be worth the ride.

Big Win, Big Momentum

Mets 11, Phillies 1. We destroyed the Phillies. That is all.


 

One Hundred and Sixty-Two Games

 

The Captain tiptoes away from third base,

getting a lead. The pitcher looks once, twice.

Then the curveball, but a quick squeeze bunt!

The batter takes off down the first base line

while the Captain sprints from third,

straight at the catcher’s chest, who fumbles

the ball as the Captain slides around the tag

to score and he stands up, uniform caked with clay

and mirrors the umpire’s call of safe!

with arms outstretched, a smile on his face.

The season is a war, and every game is a battle,

and with that squeeze bunt they win the day,

they take first place in the pennant race,

and the Captain punches the air in victory

because it all came down to that moment—

every game in April fought to draw even with a rival

sometime in late September,

and then a quick small-ball play

to take the lead, like a jab to the nose

in the final round, and in the dugout

the men hug and slap asses and cheer.

Bats Boom

Mets 5, Phillies 2. Quadruple homers! We got a #DudaSmash from Luke (his first of the season), one from Neil Walker, and two from The Captain. Cespedes also pulled off a stand-up triple and scored a run, and Thor was as dominant as ever. The bats are waking up for spring!


 

The Quitter

 

I was eight or nine, taking ground balls

outside my school in the hot sun,

and a bad hop smacked me in the jaw

and knocked me down, so I took a seat

 

on the bench. As soon as my father pulled up

in his truck, I ran and climbed in and he asked

what I was doing, and I said I wanted to quit,

showing him the red splotch that would grow

 

into a bruise, and he shook his head

and said nothing as we drove home.

Three years later, after my big league hero

broke records and my favorite team

 

was in the playoffs, I sat in as catcher

for the junior high team and tried,

for three innings, to snap up fastballs

from a kid who could hurl like a pro,

 

but each hit to the chest or mask,

each dropped ball, each failed throw

to second to get the runner out made me sweat

and shake. Soon, the coach benched me,

 

and after the game I asked how I was doing

and he asked if I wanted him to be nice

or to be honest, and he was honest,

and the other kids ignored me,

 

and I quit again. My father always said

not to be afraid of the ball, but the dull hot pain

of each thump was like a deadening punch

a bully would deliver. And next season,

 

about to go into high school,

I went to tell him that I’d never play again

but he gave me a mask, a chest pad,

and a pair of black, steel-toed cleats.

 

He taught me how to call balls and strikes,

how a curveball can paint the black edge

of the plate, how you listen for the click of the bat

to call a foul-tip, how to use all of your senses.

 

All that summer, we worked

as a two-man team for the little leagues,

and he’d watch from second base

with his chin raised and his hands on his knees

 

when he knew I was calling a fair game.

The Captain

Mets 1, Marlins 2. That brings the losing streak to four games, but our pitchers are just getting warmed up. Hopefully the bats will follow.

Today I wrote about David Wright, the Captain, who has had a bad bout with spinal stenosis, which limits his ability to play regularly. But David is an original Met. The team signed him out of high school, brought him up through the minors, and he’s been our starting third baseman since 2004, so he’s earned some deep loyalty from the team and the fans. He became the Captain in 2013, following after Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, John Franco, and, unofficially, Mike Piazza.

I love David Wright. He’s a gentleman on and off the field, a team leader. He’s one of my favorite all-time Mets, so here’s a poem for him. May he play for many more years.


 

The Captain’s Bad Back

 

The whole stadium started to groan

when they saw the line drive toward third,

where Wright waited, but the crowd hushed

as he leapt ten feet and smack! the ball went

into his glove. Then a volley of applause

for the team captain, David Wright,

who spent months that summer in traction,

his busted back that kept him from scooping

ground balls and swinging hard. But when

he returned, his long throws to first got loopy,

his swing more compact, but when he leapt,

my God, it was grace in action, instant reflex,

speed that’s incalculable. But his stenosis

is a slow narrowing of the spinal column

that’ll never go away, that can flare up

in an instant. It gets worse with age,

and age is not kind to ballplayers.

Every night, after nine hard innings

leading the team, his back stiffens

as he sleeps. Every morning he stretches

to loosen up, and before every game

he shows up five hours early to work out,

just to make sure he can play that day,

ready for what might be one last game.