I can’t speak for Mets fans everywhere and I’m not going to even try. There are far too many opinions and emotions, each to numerous degrees, for me to oversimplify it all. I can only speak for myself and that’s what I’m going to do. Because I need to get over it. The playoffs are starting and I’m a fan of the game first and foremost. My love for the New York Mets is secondary in comparison although I do forget that sometimes. So if I am going to be able to enjoy October – with or without Dane Cook (but hopefully without) – I need to get over most of the negatives that are going through my mind.
I went to three of the last four games at Shea. I was there on Thursday, Saturday, and yes, I was there yesterday. So let me explain everything in chronological order. I’ll write posts for each of the last three games for entertainment, therapy, and reminiscence.
I’ll begin with Thursday night’s game against the Cubs, which turned into my favorite Met game that I ever attended. And I warn you – this is a long one.
My seats were down at the field level. Section 103, box J, seats 3 and 4. It was the first time all year that I sat so close to the field. Before the first pitch, I was sitting alone in my seat (my brother would be coming later), trying to take it all in. The Mets were making their way to the outfield grass on the first base side, just beyond where the green met the infield dirt. First, it was rookie Daniel Murphy. Then journeyman Ramon Martinez, followed by Ryan Church, Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Delgado. I forgot how old I was and giddily watched them conduct their pre-game warm-ups right in front of me.
Then a group came and sat down in the box to my right. Cubs fans. A couple in the box to my left. More Cubs fans. And as I would soon find out, I was seated amidst what was possibly the most apathetic group of “Mets fans” the city had to offer. And those few that did express any emotion whatsoever simply berated the players for underachieving. Then I looked around the stadium as sprinkles of rain became visible in the lights above the upper deck. It wasn’t near full. The Mets were in a tight race for the playoffs. Four games left in the season. Four games left at Shea. And we couldn’t fill the stadium. I was, in all honesty, embarrassed, but for what I couldn’t explain. Were there so few Mets fans in New York? Were they unwilling to sit through some rain to cheer on their guys? Had the team pushed ticket prices so high that devotees couldn’t afford them? For whatever reason, we were at around 70% capacity.
But as these thoughts were passing through, Pedro Martinez took the mound. And while I cheered on as he threw his warm-ups, I knew we were in for a rough night. A lot of Met fans consider the Pedro Martinez signing to be an overall success. They say that Pedro brought a sense of “respectability” to the organization, and that thanks to him, other free agents were more willing to come play for the Mets. I’m not one of those people. Carlos Beltran did not become a Met because of Pedro Martinez. He came to Queens because that’s where the money was. And none of the other key players on the team signed as free agents. They were either drafted or acquired in a trade. What we got instead was one good year of Pedro out of the four-year contract. And it has been painful to watch his total decline.
I was a fan of Pedro Martinez long before he became a Met. He was, without a doubt, the greatest pitcher I had ever seen. He was better than Clemens. Better than Gooden. Better than Maddux. From 1997-2003, he was playing a completely different game. During a time when we were supposedly at the height of the steroid era, it was a 5’10″, 170lb pitcher who appeared to have a totally unfair advantage. It was unreasonable for anyone to expect a guy with his frame to be so dominant for much longer. But I was a Met fan who admired Pedro for a long time and couldn’t help but think in the back of my mind what he could accomplish in a New York uniform.
Yet, I wasn’t ready for what he showed me this year. He ended up with a 5.61 ERA, 6.8 Ks per 9 (a 30% decrease from 2007), an astonishing 3.5 BBs per 9 (a 67% increase), and close to a 24% line drive rate. Following his career, I imagined him to be a man with a ton of pride, and I felt something for him that no athlete should desire – pity. And it was then that it dawned on me that this could potentially be the last start of his Hall-of-Fame career. His Mets contract runs out at the close of the World Series, and I do not see the team rolling the dice with him once more. And Pedro always struck me as a guy who doesn’t need accolades and media attention to make him happy. He wanted to dominate. And if he weren’t doing that, he’d be just as satisfied living out the rest of his days back in the Dominican Republic helping his community. I tried not to be so negative as I truly believed that the team would break through and play October baseball. And I was ready to cheer the team on, and cheer for Pedro, who struck out Felix Pie to start the game.
However, with one swing of his bat, Micah Hoffpauir sowed some serious doubts in my mind. Solo shot to right field. 1-0 Cubs. One walk and two singles later, the Mets were down two after the first inning. And the crowd already began to turn on the team. David Wright’s sac fly in the bottom of the inning made it a one run game, but Hoffpauir struck again in the third, this time with an RBI double. To his credit, Pedro kept fighting, registering strikeouts one after the other, making us believe that he was turning the clock back a few years, racking up a season-high nine Ks. He got us back on his side, and following Ryan Church’s 2-run double the Mets had tied it at three apiece entering the fifth.
Then the seventh inning came around, and Pie singled to right, then stole second. Pedro walked the next batter, Ryan Theriot, and that was it. Manager Jerry Manuel came out of the dugout to remove the great Pedro Martinez. As he walked off the mound, almost assuredly for the last time in a Mets uniform, the crowd did right by granting a standing ovation to the man who did his best, no matter how limited that may have been. In turn, Pedro raised his arms to thank the New York crowd. And he was gone.
In his place, Manuel called upon Ricardo Rincon to face Hoffpauir in a lefty-lefty match up. It didn’t matter. Hoffpauir went deep once more, making it 6-3. By now, the rain was coming down pretty hard, and many simply left. Again, embarrassing. There were no more than 20,000 left in the stadium. I didn’t recall so few standing for the seventh inning stretch as I did that game.
But those who remained were entrenched. They didn’t care, and they weren’t ready to call it a game. They cheered every ball that the Mets batters took. Jumped up and down at every base runner that reached safely. And even I, who never really likes to show much emotion, was no longer able to contain my yells and emphatic fist pumps. This late in the season, with so much on the line, we screamed. Loudly.
Having gotten to within two runs in the bottom of the seventh, the next two innings were the most exciting moments that I had experienced. With two outs, Carlos Beltran managed to beat out a single. Then Ryan Church followed with a hit of his own. So two outs. Down two runs. Runners on first and second. Ramon Martinez, who had been languishing in the minors all year in his eleventh major league season, came up to bat. And when that ground ball off his bat made its way to left, we erupted. Beltran scored. 6-5. And as Robinson Cancel walked to the plate, there must have been more prayers coming out of Willets Point, Queens than there has been in quite some time. Like Ramon Martinez, Cancel too had been in the minors for the majority of the season. In fact, Cancel was one of the most improbable stories of the 2008 Mets season. He made his major league debut in 1999 as a 23 year-old catcher. He got 45 unimpressive at bats that season for the Milwaukee Brewers, and was sent back down. For eight full seasons. When the Mets called him up for an at bat on June 6th this year, he was by then a 32-year old who was finally getting his second chance. And like Ramon Martinez, he too became an unlikely hero on Thursday night, lacing a single into right field.
As if things could not get any more bizarre, Ryan Church, who was on second, was being waved home emphatically by third base coach Luis Aguayo, and probably by the rest of the crowd as well. But Church wasn’t even halfway down the line when the relay throw hit Cubs catcher Koyie Hill’s mitt. Church was a dead duck. In unison, our hands grabbed our heads to witness the impending doom.
But it didn’t happen. Against all odds, it just didn’t happen. Church slammed on the brakes just as Hill was getting ready to make contact. Church quickly turns to his right, avoiding the tag, getting around Hill all together. But by this point, the momentum had forced Church past home plate, which was now in between him and Hill. Church dives backwards. So does Hill. But it was the Mets right fielder whose hand made it there first. It was a tie game. We didn’t believe what we had just witnessed, and we didn’t care. The game was tied and we were just downright ecstatic.
The top of the ninth created heart attacks. The Met bullpen seemed poised to give the Cubs the lead once more, giving up a lead off single to Fontenot then letting him get to second on a wild pitch. But we couldn’t stop cheering. Our adrenaline was running too high to stop. And Joe Smith got Daryle Ward to ground out back to the mound without a run crossing the plate.
Fittingly, it was Jose Reyes who got things started by the Mets half of the ninth, singling to right off of reliever Kevin Hart. Up came Daniel Murphy to sacrifice Reyes into scoring position. But he botched it. Badly. And inexplicably, he still squared to bunt with two strikes. Ball rolls foul once again. One out. Then David Wright struck out – for the second straight night in a crucial ninth inning AB – but not before Reyes was able to somehow steal second although the infield dirt was now reduced to a puddle-y mess. The Cubs then picked their poison by walking Carlos Delgado intentionally to face Carlos Beltran.
I honestly don’t even remember the sequence of pitches. I don’t remember the count. I just remember the crack of the bat, seeing the ball rocket down the first baseline, past the diving Hoffpauir. And hearing myself screaming. I had lost it. Seeing Reyes touch home plate, knowing that they had won, was euphoria. Strangers were high-fiving, hugging, and hollering. The Mets were still alive. And it felt great.
As if all this weren’t enough to make this my favorite Met game I ever attended, there’s also another reason. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last game I would see at Shea with my brother. Not to get too sappy, but I got my love for the game through him and watching him play. We’d spend hours on the street in front of our house on Staten Island practicing pitching and properly fielding ground balls. And in the wintertime, we’d take the game down to our tiny little basement, using a wiffle bat and rubber ball. We broke a lot of windows. And he was the one who turned me into a Met fan, for which I may never be able to forgive him. My brother and I were supposed to attend both games on Saturday and Sunday as well, but he found out on Friday night that he wasn’t going to be able to make it due to work commitments. Worse, he was the one who had paid for the tickets, like he always did. I’ve lost count a long time ago how many games we had seen together at Shea over the years. And how many times we sat and watched the 1986 championship commemorative videos as kids. It really would have been nice to have had him there this past weekend. But I am glad that we were able to have our last game at Shea be such a great one. So thanks. And I look forward to you buying me tickets for Citi Field as well.