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.

Playing Catch at Night, Learning How to Throw

There’s a satisfaction to playing catch. The steady rhythm of it, the slow windup and release, the sound of a glove snapping shut. The feel of the red laces on your fingers as you grip the ball, the sun setting, the can of beer getting warm as it sits in the grass, waiting for you to return.

The silence. Then the occasional banter, suggestions for improvement–how to throw faster, farther, more accurate. The wild throws and the jog to recover, and the great moment when you zing a fastball for a strike, or flick your wrist the right way and hang a curve.

Throughout the summer, my brother Jason and I played catch on the little league diamond in our neighborhood. The field was fenced in and locked, but we jumped the fence nearly every day. The cops saw us a couple times. They didn’t care. All they saw was a couple of thirty-somethings throwing a ball, poorly, wildly. They’d watch me shag pop flies that my brother would fungo at me from home plate. I’d stand in centerfield, on my toes, ready for the piercing clang of the aluminum bat—then I’d track the arc, sprinting, almost there, almost—and leap to catch it on the run.

The moment where I thought to myself, wow, that might’ve got applause in an actual game, with a team, and spectators. I’d smile, then throw the ball back in and wait quietly for the next hit.

I work a job where I spend at least 2 hours, every day, commuting to and from. Some days, I don’t get home until 7. When it was summer, that was fine. We’d have an hour to throw the ball, work up a good sweat, and then drink some beers. But soon summer slipped away into fall, and the sun would drift beyond the horizon before I’d get home.

Gone were the days of catch and fungo, we thought.

But then I bought a bright light-up ball—a dog toy, technically—about the size and weight of a baseball, made of hard translucent rubber. We couldn’t bat with it, unless we wanted to spill the light-up guts of it all over the diamond, but last night we decided to play catch at night while the Nationals and Dodgers duked it out in D.C. under bright stadium lights.

We were lost in the dark of the little league field. But the LED ball leaves a trail of light as it flies through the air. You can see it perfectly as it changes from blue to green to red. You can throw it hard, fast, just like a baseball. But what you can’t see is your target. All I’d see is the faint outline of a green t-shirt standing in the outfield. I’d set, windup, and throw—and the ball would bounce twenty feet short of Jason. He’d scramble to scoop it up, then fire it back, and it would sail ten feet over my head and bounce off the fence.

This happened with nearly every throw. So, I decided, the hell with it. I’m just gonna hurl this thing as hard as I can in his direction, and make him run for it.

For the first time in my life, out there in the darkness fringed with orange streetlight, I pushed off my back foot and spun my torso, the kinetic energy rising from the ground on up through muscle groups so my arm would whip around fast.

The ball flew far beyond my brother and landed near the fence, rolling bright through the dewy grass.

During the summer, I’d often ice my elbow after playing catch because I was muscling the ball too hard with my arm. The pain would linger for a day or two. But last night, I learned how to do something that all ballplayers have to learn, how to transfer energy from your feet through your body to your fingertips to whip the ball forward. I kept going, adjusting for distance, and the throws flew straighter, less arc, more speed. I could feel my muscles from toes to core to shoulder heating up, loosening, catching up with my already-warm arm.

That first true throw of my life streaked like a falling star.

I never figured out how to do that when I was a kid. But, age 30, I finally learned the trick. Practice, patience, kinetic energy, precision, focus, and having a good time playing catch at night, running around in the dark like fools with your older brother.

When we got back to my apartment, that warm beer never tasted so good. No ice needed.