Losing The Pennant At Coney Island

For Mets fans and others at this time of year, baseball is a waiting game.
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You're right, Marge. Just like the time I could have met Mr. T at the mall. The entire day I kept saying, "I'll go a little later. I'll go a little later." And then when I got there, they told me he'd just left. And when I asked the mall guy if he would ever come back again, he said he didn't know.

Homer Simpson never got to meet Mr. T., and I never got to see Kid Harvey pitch. I'd wanted to as early as April, when he embarrassed Stephen Strasburg's Nationals to giddy chants of "Harvey's better!" from a giddy Citi Field assemblage. But April was a long time ago. Watch highlights from that game and you'll see David Wright, Ruben Tejada and Jordany Valdespin—players who have been felled by injuries, managerial impatience, and savage Seligian wrath.

The Mets of April are long gone, and now Matt Harvey has been sent away with them. I could have seen him beat the Nats in April, the White Sox in May, or the befuddled representatives of the American League in July, but I kept saying, I'll go a little later. I'll go a little later. And now, he's not at the ballpark any more. The Mets themselves, depleted and defeated and desultorily playing out the string in Energy Saver Mode, are barely there in general.

This happens ever summer. The first particularly miserable Citi Field day saps my early season enthusiasm, and then the Mets fall apart around the All Star break, and I decide to steer clear of the stadium until the ridiculous, end-of-season ticket incentives kick in. Suddenly it's September, football is here, and I realize I have only a few more weeks to chug as much baseball as possible, a squirrel gorging on nuts when he reads in the paper that winter is coming.

My plan two weeks ago was for a spectacular doubleheader. After months of waiting, I would go meet Mr. T., who was scheduled to pitch an afternoon game against the Phillies on Thursday, August 29. Afterwards, I would take the 7 to the F and ride it all the way to the end of the line, for sunset, surf and the surging Brooklyn Cyclones. I was just about to buy my tickets when a horrible noise—a straining sound, maybe a tearing sound—resounded through Metslandia. Matt Harvey had (partially) torn his UCL. It was just a little rip, but UCLs are like condoms—any sort of tear is some sort of catastrophe.

***

Sometime around 2009, the Mets stopped being a baseball team, and became a koan. Each spring, management would tell us, "Wait 'til next year!", echoing the sepia-tinted Dodger fans whom the Wilpons so fetishize, and each fall, the timeline would be adjusted backwards. So maybe the year after next. Or until Fernando Martinez is ready. Or until the Perez/Beltran/Bay/Santana salary comes off the books. At any rate, there was waiting involved. Such treatment of a fanbase amounts to emotional abuse, and it has made Met fans callous—unable to open themselves emotionally in the way that is vital to enjoying the game. It has made catharsis impossible, and catharsis is a great part of why we watch.

(That teams and TV networks place so many barriers between us and the game—pump up music, send in the dancing robots, roll out the AT&T trivia questions—shows that they think the point of sports is not catharsis, but frantic diversion. They're wrong about that.)

Met fans have mostly gotten used to being numb. We will go to games when it works and when there's money to spare, and eat our hotdogs (or wait 40 minutes to eat our Shake Shack burgers), try to Score With Keith, and pretend to be interested in finding Cuppy—the ersatz Dunkin' Donuts mascot who, thankfully, has a Twitter presence. It feels good, because it's a baseball game. But it's a Mets game, and so we feel bad for ourselves in some way or other. And we like feeling bad for ourselves, and if that's not as good as catharsis, it's certainly easier.

And then Matt Harvey came in like a drill sergeant, and told us to cut out the thumbsucking. For five months, every five days, he strode across and over the National League like Godzilla, breathing fire and tearing down power lines and shaking subway cars full of Atlanta Braves into his foaming maw. He reminded us that winning can be more fun than losing, and—to mix cinematic metaphors—we made like Indiana Jones stepping out onto the invisible bridge, circling October of 2014 as the month we would let ourselves feel sports-things again. And then a maddeningly common pitching injury proved that Harvey reminded us that we would have to wait until next year, or the year after next year. And we went back to being ourselves, and Citi Field went back to being itself, and there we were.

***

There was the ritual gnashing of teeth after the injury was announced. If Harvey does follow the path of Thomas Edward John, he will spend his first four months eagerly anticipating the day he can fully extend his elbow. For a man whose whole life is devoted to "baseball activities," this will mean nearly a year without them. That is cruel.

But if fans care about players, they can also forget about them. Remember the muted reaction that followed Johan Santana's possible career-ending injury this spring. Santana had given Mets fans one of their all-time highlights when he threw a no-hitter after five decades without one, but we didn't cry when he went down. He was on his way out anyway, and we already had a new toy.

And so though I couldn't bear to truck out to Citi Field two Thursdays ago, baseball continued in mine and Harvey's absence. Carlos Torres pitched in his place, backed up by spring training also-rans Matt den Dekker and Anthony Recker, whose names would suit a vaudeville act. The fallen ace, for whom the Mets rarely bothered scoring runs, chewed a moody cup of sunflower seeds as the Mets won 11-3. It meant nothing. I went to Coney Island.

MCU Park may be the nicest place to watch professional sports in the New York area. It has all the usual minor league goodies—cheap tickets, cheapish concessions, quiet scoreboards, wacky mascots, and a decent view of the field—coupled with something no Major League ballpark can offer: the briny, filthy, roiling sea, fragrant once the sun goes down and rustling not so far beyond the left field fence.

Even better than the invigorating stench of mother nature, Coney Island offers something that Citi Field, straitjacketed by Robert Moses highways, will never have: a reason to go early. First pitch at 7pm? Get there at five. Walk the Boardwalk. Ride a ride. Drink a beer at Coney Island USA's Sandy-ravaged Freak Bar, do shots on the Boardwalk at Ruby's, or sweat through a 1900 calorie Super Cheeseburger combo meal at Nathan's Famous. It's summertime, even as summer ends—giddy, lazy, innocent and profane. Baseball is only half of it.

Of course, the other reason to show up early to MCU Park on Thursdays is for their weekly jersey giveaway—the atrociously-named Jersday Thursday. That week it was an attractive Brooklyn Dodgers throwback, which drew a herd of baby boomers in well-worn Brooklyn caps—adults weaned, like Jeff Wilpon, on stories of the six World Series the Bums had thrown away and the last one they didn't. And outgoing borough president Marty Markowitz was there, of course, to honor the franchise that broke his heart in 1957 and the one that, fifty years later, turned him into a bobblehead.

Brooklyn was in the thick of a miniature pennant race, which they lost a few days later to the hated Aberdeen IronBirds. That night, the Yankees were in town—the Staten Island junior squad, playing the bad guy in Steinbrenner-mandated high black socks. In the bullpen before the game, a groundskeeper threw out an empty pint of Georgi, and Brooklyn's starter Miller Diaz knocked back a Red Bull. It worked—he struck out nine in six innings, each K tolled by a Law & Order dunh-dunh. Brooklyn held out to win 2-1, finishing the Baby Bombers with a twirling double play which looked impossible, but succeeded thanks to the fact that New York-Penn League players don't run that fast.  

As the crowd filed out, they were given bags of TGI Fridays brand fried potato skins to eat on the longish-to-very-long subway ride home. Brooklyn was victorious, and the pennant was in reach. It meant something—not a lot, but something. For a few hours, the ocean was near, and Matt Harvey and the Major Leagues were wonderfully far away. Next year was rushing in like the tide.


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