Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 9, 2012

If You Build It, They Will Come

As the longest season winds down to its final three weeks, there are still plenty of ballparks across the land where every game is fraught with meaning. With west coast games still to be played on Sunday, only the Cincinnati Reds have what can fairly be described as a comfortable lead among all six divisions. With two Wild Card berths at stake in each league for the first time ever, that race is also highly competitive, with twelve teams still having a reasonable shot at being one of the contestants in the “win and get in” Wild Card games scheduled for October 5th. Add the six current division leaders to that number and fully sixty percent of major league clubs can legitimately claim to have designs on the post-season, with every squad’s schedule down to fewer than two dozen contests; and those numbers assume that no current contender will take a September nose dive like the Red Sox and Braves did last September, nor that any current outsider will replicate the Cardinals’ amazing 2011 season-ending run.

The rest of the schedule has meaning in plenty of familiar and expected places, like the Bronx and Detroit and Arlington, Texas. But tension is equally high in unlikely outposts. For years the easily accessible site of weekend road trips for thousands of Yankee and Red Sox fans who regularly turned the venue into a second home park for their heroes, this September Camden Yards is a sea of orange and black as the Orioles, against all manner of statistical logic, refuse to fade. Barry Bonds was a 28-year old outfielder with a normal hat size two decades ago, the last time the playoffs included games in Pittsburgh. But that is yesterday compared to the nation’s capital, which last hosted post-season play in 1933. In the 79 year interregnum a pair of franchises left town and a generation grew up without a local team to cheer. Against that history and with the Nationals having never climbed above .500 in their first seven seasons since moving from Montreal, who could have imagined that on this September weekend the caps of the team with the best record in the game would sport a curly-W? Put your hand down Jim Rizzo, you may be the GM but even you didn’t expect it this soon.

But if there are still many stadiums in which every game played is crucial, inevitably there are also those where by this time of year every game is just a game; just one more nine innings for a team and its fans in a season that has been irretrievably lost. While in Gotham for a long weekend I took the 7 train from Manhattan out to Queens on Saturday for the second day in a row. Seventeen stops from Grand Central, the Mets – Willetts Point station sits between two great edifices of sport. A five-minute walk south of the station brings one to the USTA’s national tennis center and Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis-only venue in the world and my destination one day earlier. An even shorter walk north from the subway stop brings one to the ticket windows of Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

Little was expected of Gotham’s National League franchise this year. The team remained financially hamstrung because of its ownership’s involvement with Bernard Madoff. Irving Picard, the liquidator of the assets that remained from Madoff’s Ponzi scheme had sued Fred Wilpon and Sal Katz for $1 billion, claiming that they turned a willful blind eye to Madoff’s activities for their own personal benefit. While Wilpon and Katz adamantly denied the charges, the Mets remained strapped for cash and last off-season didn’t even attempt to retain Jose Reyes, the 2011 NL batting champ and their premier free agent.

The early months of the longest season thus had to be an especially pleasant surprise for Mets fans. The players apparently hadn’t bothered reading the pundits reports that had them going nowhere. They opened the season with a three game sweep of the Braves, and kept right on going through the first half. At the All-Star break they were six games over .500 at 46-40. In this the team’s 50th year, on June 1st Johan Santana became the first Mets pitcher to toss a no-hitter.

But it was as if while attention was focused on the All-Star activities in Kansas City, some hobgoblin stole into Citi Field and flicked a switch on the Mets hopeful season. They lost their first five games after the break; and after posting a single win went on to lose six more. It was late August before New York managed to string together a winning streak of more than two games. The sudden tailspin crushed hopes that of course were unrealistic from the start, and soon enough Mets fans had little to look forward to beyond the every-fifth-day appearance R.A. Dickey, the 37-year old knuckleballer enjoying a remarkable season amidst another forgettable one for his team.

But anyone expecting gloom and doom or jeers instead of cheers at Citi Field on a steamy Saturday afternoon was in for a surprise. The crowd was certainly smaller than at most parks where teams are still in contention, with the announced attendance of more than 25,000 clearly including several thousand season ticket holders who had opted not to brave a stormy weather forecast. But the 20,000 or so fans spread out around the spacious ballpark with its three decks of forest green seats were in uniformly good spirits and cheered lustily as the Mets took the field for the second of three games against the Atlanta Braves.

There was no Dickey on the mound for the home squad. Instead the Mets starter was 26-year old rookie Jeremy Hefner. While the Mets have long liked Hefner, having twice picked him in the amateur draft only to be unable to sign him and then plucking him from the Pirates minor league system when he became available last December, Saturday was not his best day. The Braves are clinging to one of the two NL Wild Card spots and have not given up on catching the Nationals; and they played like a team still in the hunt. Michael Bourn greeted Hefner with a leadoff double, and while the Mets starter escaped that 1st inning problem, the Braves dented him for a run in the 2nd on three straight singles grouped around a Hefner wild pitch. Then in the 3rd Hefner faced seven batters and five reached base, one on a single, one on a walk, and three on doubles that seemed to be flying all over the park. With the score 5-0 manager Terry Collins had seen enough, and made the first of what would be multiple calls to the bullpen.

Yet in the stands the fans remained surprisingly sanguine, mustering cheers for the local nine when they showed some fight and plated solo runs of their own in both the 3rd and 4th innings. There was also respectful applause at each plate appearance by the Braves’ Chipper Jones, the 8-time All Star making his final trip to Citi Field. Jones has been a particular nemesis of the Mets throughout his career, tormenting New York with big hit after big hit. Mets fans always tried to return the favor by chanting his given name of Larry rather than the nickname he prefers. But on this day a fan behind the Mets dugout held up a large sign as Jones came to the plate for the second time. It read “Lar-ry, Lar-ry, always chanted with respect. Good luck on retirement.”

Beginning in the 5th inning dark thunderheads could be seen skidding by the stadium. Traveling from south to north, for a time it looked like they might stay just far enough west, visible above the third base stands but doing no harm. Then in the 6th day was turned to night as the swirling masses of clouds completely covered Citi Field and the lights took hold. Finally as the Mets were warming up in the top of the 7th the skies let loose, and in a matter of moments the initial sprinkle became a torrent. Fans rushed for cover in the sudden gale even as the grounds crew tried to get a tarp that desperately wanted to become a parachute down in place over the infield.

By this time the score was 7-2, and surely not even the most ardent young fan in his Mets garb believed the home team was going to rally. But when the storm quickly abated there was no rush for the exits; and when after a while the public address announcer informed fans that play would resume after what amounted to a 75 minute rain delay, a cheer went up.

From now until the regular season’s final out, there will be games that are meaningful and games that are just games. Fans in every park certainly know the difference, and every fan would certainly rather be attending one of the former than one of the latter. But every true fan also knows that there are many worse things in life than time spent watching the Great Game. Even long-suffering Mets fans, who surely can claim to understand the nobility of disappointment and the nature of defeat, also know that a day at a game, whether in an industrial section of Queens or in an Iowa cornfield, is always a good day.

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