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You know I've never been an Opening Day kind of person. It's not in my nature to aggressively court physical discomfort. Opening Day is cold, nasty, often wet--yet draped in ritual and ceremony. That is to say that it's not subject to cancellation. It's on this day (as on any given day in the Sun Belt) that one most fully appreciates the extent to which seasons are an intellectual construct. "Spring" has begun.
Opening Day is a day for masochists and physical stalwarts and for children, who would rather do anything than attend school. You remember we went to Shea on Opening Day in 1970? Forty degrees. We played the Pirates. Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski. Al Oliver. Little bitty Freddie Patek. Place wasn't full to watch the new World Champs, much less an opponent with three Hall of Famers (and you can make a case for Oliver, too) in the starting lineup. I prefer now to think of the thin crowd as having more to do with the unobtrusive marketing style of the day than with lack of interest, though perhaps the two add up to the same thing.
I hate Opening Day. Yet we nursed a pair of Rheingolds. Men wore coats, ties, fedoras. Jane Jarvis played her organ, inherently amiable. These were troubled times, yet I'm having no difficulty making them seem idyllic. Then again, it was the Pirates who introduced the major leagues to double-knit pullover jerseys and Sansabelt slacks that season, an omen.
Jerry Grote hit a triple that day, I just remembered. Imagine that.
Speaking of omens, the night before the opener at Cincinnati I dreamed I was sitting next to Yogi Berra. We were at Shea, in the loge--really good seats just behind the home dugout. I was overjoyed to see him, really I was. For some reason, nobody ever remembers how long and how closely Yogi was intertwined with the Mets. In all the incestuously convoluted dealings between the two teams, the Yankees always seem to emerge as true possessors of a given figure's provenance (except in the case of a Marv Throneberry). I know that you know that I don't wish to grant Steinbrenner a thing, but it seems that the spirit that moves him is one of rehabilitation, while it's a purgative one that moves (so to speak) the Wilpons more often than not. Anyway, I said something like, "Yogi! You're back at Shea! How great!" He looked at me, raised his sweaty Harry M. Stevens cup of beer to his lips, sipped, then spoke: "They got rid of the ugly uniforms."
I woke up instantly and stared at the water-stained ceiling in my bedroom. Ugly uniforms? What did Yogi mean? Something along the lines of the proverbial empty suit? E.g., Art Howe, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar? Steve Phillips, the architect of 2002-04? Jason Phillips's goggles, which no man batting under .200 has any business wearing (or maybe I've got it backward; maybe every man sweating under the Mendoza Line ought to be wearing them)? By ugly did Yogi mean Tom Glavine's run support? John Franco in his dotage? The spectacle of Mike Piazza at first base looking like a man awkwardly sliding pizzas into a brick oven with a paddle? Were these the ugly uniforms Yogi had referenced? Had they been banished forever?
Take one ugly uniform: the emergence of Steve Trachsel as the implacable stopper a couple of seasons ago. Not only is Steve Trachsel the number-three starter on just about any other team--he's the number-three starter on the Mets! So you'll understand when I say that when I viewed a fuzzy montage on MLB.com of Martinez's twelve strikeouts against the Reds in the opener, my heart swelled. Now, you really can't tell shit from such a display, but, watching Pedro mow them down in abbreviated time, it struck me how long it's been since a pitcher about whom I didn't entertain grave doubts took the mound for the Mets. It's been several years of cringing and peeking through fingers. OK, so we lost. Big deal. It serves tradition. Disdain April. April is overrated. So the bullpen blew it. At least we can thank Christ that John Franco didn't have the chance to blow it. I have hopes for Looper this season. The hitters hit. The runners ran. The fielders fielded.
All this anticipation (and accompanying desire) is motivating me to violate the two principal directives embedded in me throughout my childhood by Mrs. Sophie Felt, namely (1) DON'T UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WATCH THAT IDIOT TELEVISION, IT WILL ROT YOUR BRAINS OUT, and (2) SAVE YOUR MONEY, YOU CAN NEVER TELL WHEN THE WOLF WILL BE AT THE DOOR. That is, for the first time in my unmarried life I'm going to call to see about having cable TV installed in here. So hopeful am I that the Mets will win (i.e., come in third--I'm not a complete idiot), that I'm willing to pay to watch car commercials, deodorant commercials, beer commercials, and the occasional inning of New York Mets baseball. I know that the dispute between Cablevision and Time Warner will have to come to an end sooner or later.
April 10, 2005, 9 PM
I hadn't realized how deeply the oh-and-five start had affected--almost wrote afflicted--me, until this afternoon. It was over when Pedro Martinez threw the two-hitter. And what glorious words those are, so I'll type them again: Martinez, two-hitter. I'd been wallowing all week. After Braden Looper blew that ninth inning we seemed in a kind of trance, hell-bent on becoming, I insist, the most talented roster ever to be the last team in the league without a victory a week into the season. I mean, was all the off-season fuss really an absolutely empty balloon going up? Can you and I be wearing such blinders, Ivan? Is that not a formidable lineup, at least until you get to Minkiewicz? Going without a win this week when even the Rockies and the Pirates were able to collect one was, to speak of nighttime dreams (instead of these daylight dreams we fans call hope, which plague me far worse than any nocturnal terror), much like those dreams of early adolescence in which one is walking around the family home or the classroom without any pants on. Everyone will see, I find myself thinking in a panic. Everyone will open up the newspaper and look at the standings and see that the Mets are without a win, and I am without pants. Everyone will judge my pathetic endowment, my sad dwindled Mr. Met.
Of course it had to be Martinez, who on the one hand barely seems a Met yet, is only six days old, and yet on the other hand seems a kind of ur-Met, almost either a Cro-Magnon or post-nuclear-holocaust Met, who seems to have had his uniform tattooed onto his flesh as though by a radiation blast, and to occupy the mound with a fury that indicts those others who've dishonored Metsitude by acting as though it is an optional or provisional identity--the Roberto Alomars and Mo Vaughns, say--rather than the life-or-death struggle he apparently knows it is, so of course it was Martinez who had to carry us there on his sloped shoulders.
Did you know that there's only one pitcher shorter than six feet in the Hall of Fame? I won't play trivia games with you, it's Whitey Ford of whom I speak. Pedro Martinez stands to be the second. (That is unless they take John Franco first, and with his alleged mob connections, who knows?)
And then, of course, it ends, and we're merely one and five. Though, better not to say one and five. We're three games out of first place, that's what we are.
This is the miracle (or had I better not use that word?) and jest of a baseball season, its indomitably petlike component, its resemblance to the springy existence of a young spaniel or dachshund: it swallows trauma like licking poison off the sidewalk and keeps going. A team's season is like a puppy, yes--follow me here, trust me for once, Ivan--in that it cannot know tragedy until it is far too late. You and I and other sufferers, we're the pet owners, who recall the puppies of the past, the ones flattened in July or August on the six-lane highway that was built too close to our street, or the others who showed signs of canine leukemia (don't correct me if there is no such thing) in May or June yet went on flouncing as though healthy, and there's no way to tell a puppy it's got leukemia, so we go on cavorting with those, trying not to notice their weakened condition, until in September they're looking for a cool place on the basement floor to lie so as to soothe feverish, dying tremors, while indicting our more worldly glances with their helpless, foolish, dewy eyes--what happened to me, for god's sake? I was a puppy!
And tomorrow's the home opener, which phrase always makes me think of the can opener. Hope springs eternal. Choke sweeps infernal. Hang me for an infidel.
Let me correct you about this puppy business. You forget that I worked for Dr. Sullivan's Cat & Dog abattoir for two sweaty dollars an hour, trying to prove something to my father before capitulating and allowing myself to be enrolled at NYU. I don't remember exactly what I was trying to prove. Possibly that I could be the most bad-tempered, unfriendly, rude, and somewhat threatening person ever to appear--late, invariably--at his family's dinner table. This was when the problems were happening with my sister. You remember my sister, right? At that time her name was Zeenat. She was living in an engineered community near Death Valley with Raj Mandelbaum, her boyfriend from Purchase. The residents were required to phone home and shake the money tree about twice a week. My mother spent about six months literally on the verge of tears. Slam a door, she cried. Tear an envelope in two, she wept. The teakettle whistled too stridently for her nerves; great heaving sobs were the result. So I'm walking in the door around six o'clock every night, fresh from a day spent shoveling kitty litter and watching animals get their reproductive organs removed by the always spectacularly inebriated Sullivan, spoiling for a fight. Albert would be right behind me, seething over the really quite enormous quantities of cash that were disappearing from Amalgamated's coffers due to "entertainment" and "organizing" expenses. His beloved union was crooked, my sister was making the desert bloom with his hard-earned cash, and I was declining to attend a first-rate second-rate school--with my grades!--to work for a drunken goy vet. In retrospect, my transgression seems least offensive among the three, but I was the only available target, so every night we went at it over the pot roast.
Where was I? The point I was going to make, actually, has little to do with anything I can draw from my vast experience with veterinary medicine. The point has to do with the several subtle differences between men and dogs. A sick dog you can tell nothing to, I agree with you there. But what men and Mets alike have stitched into the fabric of the cerebral cortex is a foreknowledge of doom, both of its absolute certainty and of its imminence. In baseball terms this adds up to fatalism. The Mets are a team strangely inclined to fatalism. The drama has to build; a team has to be composed of, you know, Jerry Bucheks and Craig Swans and Ryan Thompsons, guys humming along and, following Satchel's advice, rarely casting a glance over their shoulders to see what's gaining on them, the guys the team settles upon once the bitterness of defeated expectations has passed and the team has dug in for a long stretch of incompetence the way another franchise might settle for mere mediocrity (the Fosters, the Bonillas, the Colemans, the Vaughns--the substance, in short, of such expectations, are another species of story entirely. And then there's the tragic genre, sui generis, called Pat Zachry). The general idea is: What's the use. And then suddenly a strange apostatic figure turns up. A Seaver. A Hernandez. They gather disciples around them, the Grotes and Backmans. They convert key holdovers. They mold up-and-coming talent. Their skills enable an imaginative manager to take risks. The right conditions, in other words, for intelligent life to appear.
This to me is Pedro. Pedro is a man uninterested in the opulent history of the team's losing ways. He sees nothing funny about it. He will not sit still while you explain to him that the Mets are proudly squatting on some bogus statistic like, say, entering the eighth with a one-run lead they are four times as likely as the Devil Rays to hit the leadoff batter with the first pitch and then give up a home run. And there is an element of reprimand involved: the Red Sox determined that it was not worth paying the freight for two years of steady deterioration in exchange for two years of brilliance. I may be proven wrong, but it seems to me to be penny-wise. Come October--come September--the Red Sox will be wishing they'd coughed up the dough. I wouldn't bet on Schilling over Pedro. Not to mention the fact that Schilling is a man I strongly suspect would secretly harbor John Rocker-like feelings about the 7 train and environs, whereas Pedro is the number 7 line. I love the arrogance--always have loved it--of the justified hot dog. Give me arrogance over fake-o modesty every time. What did he say after his second start? "They needed me, or someone like me." [Emphasis added.] Classic paralepsis, immediately encouraging the listener to conclude: Who could possibly be like Pedro? Nobody.
Now the trick is to see whether Tommy Glavine has stepped up; stopped bitching about the loss of his canasta partners and started pitching. He had all winter to talk about golf. Between him and Pedro, the Mets should be good for thirty-six victories. Stop laughing, Conklin. I can see you snickering up your sleeve; that way you used to blow milk out your nose. Eighteen apiece--that's too much to ask?
Look, I'll pick you up if you like. I still have my Town Car, which, as the lawyers plotted the dissolution of our union, the fourth Mrs. Felt, herself somewhat dissolute, ceded to me, favoring boring old cash and a chunk of my TIAA-CREF retirement fund. We'll go out early and catch BP--visitor's BP, anyway.
P.S. I've seen you without your pants, and in high school. I remember your Mr. Met as being ripe, taut, buoyant.
From the Hardcover edition.