Perhaps I don’t need to explain myself, at least not to die hard baseball fans and certainly not to other Mets fans. My friends and family certainly couldn’t blame me. Yet, I feel like I must walk through that evening, nearly three weeks and do just that…Explain why I cried after a June baseball game.
These days, I don’t get to watch many Mets games mostly due to the fact that I am out of market and simply don’t want to shell out the extra money for the MLB package that delivers games that they black out normally, despite the fact that I already pay the premium for SNY…It’s a principal thing, I guess, and me being a bit cheap as well. However, I do pay to get the radio broadcast and I have all the apps that deliver live pitch-by-pitch information to my phone, tablet and laptop. I know, true baseball fans shouldn’t watch a game this way, but, alas, that is my reality and I need my reality to be flexible.
Since I was a kid, I did my best to pay attention to every Mets game as closely as I could until, at least, the other team got it’s first hit. After the other team got it’s first hit, I still followed the game, but I was more likely to let it run its course and check back in after it is over. I know, I know, another serious offense, but life is as life is.
The point, however, is this…We Mets fans waited for a long damn time for a no-hitter…for that magical, mid-season moment that turns an ordinary night in June into an extraordinary night that feels like those long lost October 1986 nights. I am sure I am not alone in this, but we approached every game like it was the game that the Mets would be the proud owner of a no-hitter. Whether it was Tom Seaver or Steve Trachsel on the mound, we thought we had a chance at the elusive no-hitter. And when that first hit came, for every game of my Mets fandom, disappointment struck. Sometimes it came on the first pitch. Sometimes it came on the 111th pitch. But no matter what, it came. It always came.
And there I was, that Friday night, turning on my tablet and I think I will forever remember seeing those three zeros lined up and it was the fifth inning. Johan was on the mound. The rain, 100 miles west of Citifield, was pounding the windows of my home. And my heart skipped a beat. Fifth inning complete and the Cardinals were hitless. I started thinking about other games I had watched that started out magical and ended in disappointment. I had been there a couple of times with Doc Gooden and I had been there before with other teams.
The most dominant game I ever saw pitched live, in the ballpark, was May 30, 1997 when Mike Mussina retired the first 25 batters he faced. I was in the Oriole Park press box and as each out was recorded, the reporters became more and more quiet as the level of tension rose. Just before Sandy Alomar broke up the perfection, it felt as if we were all drowning in a thick soup made of hope, anxiety and old hot dogs that had been on the rollers too long, yet we weren’t allowed to talk about it. That was one of the most amazing games I ever saw at a ballpark…Probably one of the most amazing games I ever saw, period.
I started to pray that this game would not end with the same disappointment.
From there on out, I checked my tablet every two minutes and somehow the sixth inning came and went, but the middle zero stayed. I was starting to fidget. I started pulling longer sips of my Irish whiskey. Soon, an uncomfortable, nervous aura must have developed around me that caused my wife to suddenly get up and head to bed, allowing me to turn off the girlie movie and begin a desperate search for the game on TV, all the while contemplating whether or not I was delivering a hex for not maintaining what I had been doing before I learned that it was happening. In fact, I wondered if I should return to the spot on the couch I was before and turn back on the girlie movie my wife had me watching.
What I did doesn’t affect the game, I told myself, I am a Christian man of faith and religion that does not believe in curses, hexes and superstition. ..and certainly the baseball gods would not prefer me to watch a girlie movie over a potential no-hitter. They might end the no-hitter for that reason alone. So I poured myself another whiskey and settled in.
I was forced to endure the bottom of the sixth inning watching a damn Yankees game because somehow, the MLB Network felt that a Yankees game with a whole lot of hits was still more important to broadcast than a Mets game with a six inning no hitter. In the top of the seventh, they went over to the Mets game after each of the three outs. My heart was now pounding, and I could no longer sit still. I started pacing a path around my couch. I went to my car in the pouring rain to get my baseball mitt. I slammed the ball over and over into the glove as I continued to pace. For work, I am participating in a global step competition where you wear a pedometer and track your daily steps. My pedometer went from about 4,000 to 14,000 in the final two innings.
As I do with any major sporting event, I took to Facebook. The baseball gods apparently monitor social networks as well, because there was plenty of dancing around the issue at hand, but no direct mention. People all over the country reminded each other that they should not be doing anything they hadn’t been doing during the rest of the game. I was glad that my Facebook friends didn’t know my dirty little secret.
The eight inning came and MLB decided it was time to abandon the Yankee game and joined the Mets game live. With one out, the rain outside pounded, suddenly overwhelming the satellite dish, my television screen froze…signal lost. I quickly darted to my computer where I had the pitch-by-pitch going and the radio broadcast streaming. They filled in the gaps and suddenly, it was the bottom of the eighth. That middle zero held strong, but my heart didn’t. Satellite came back.
MLB went back to the Yankee game and I was forced to listen to Costas go on about pitch counts and whether or not you possibly lose Johan for the season leaving him in. They debated the cost of a no-hitter vs losing Johan.
It was an insane conversation.
Costas is no Mets fan. I’m not saying he hates the Mets. I am saying that he has no idea what it’s like to watch this team for his whole life and see the ever elusive no-hitter escape time and time again. He had no idea what it’s like to see Tom Seaver pitch a no-no for another team. He hadn’t a clue of the sheer, unadulterated agony it was to have David Cone pitch a perfect game for the Yankees. He never felt the heartbreak of Doc Gooden. He obviously knew nothing of the latest indignation when a guy we traded to get Johan went out and pitched a perfect game this season. No, Costas was no Mets fan. You don’t talk about pitch counts when there is still a middle zero and a sideways infinity symbol on the scoreboard. And that’s why Costas is no Mets fan…he doesn’t know what it’s like to go forever without a no-hitter. Pitch count be damned.
I found myself in desperate need of oxygen after the Mets last out in the eight and I learned a funny thing about a no-hitter: you root for your own team to get quick outs when you have a lead…you want to get the game over with. There should be no messing around…walk to the plate, swing three times, sit down. I also thought of the unspoken ghost that has loomed over the no-hitterless franchise: Nolan Ryan. I wondered often if he cursed these Mets or if the baseball gods cursed them (although, they might be one in the same). A man that the Mets gave up on went on to pitch seven no-hitters. Seven! Not one like Gooden. Not a perfect game like Cone. Seven no-hitters. Surely this was our curse and I pondered if it would hold over us forever. It made me even more nervous for the ninth.
As Johan went back to work, I thought of the best pitched Mets game I had witnessed in person: Bobby Jones’ one-hit shutout versus the San Francisco Giants to clinch an NLCS berth in 2000. Considering the Barry Bonds lead murderer’s row of a lineup and the magnitude of the game, and I would argue that it was the best game by a New York Mets pitcher in their history. Sure the suspense was gone in the fifth, but the game was absolutely magical. In fact, having lost the perfect game early almost allowed me to enjoy the beauty of a nearly perfectly pitched game without the additional anxiety. Of course others would argue a Seaver game or maybe even a Gooden game, but for me, Bobby Jones. One hit, one walk and a trip to the NLCS.
These are the thoughts that spun through my head as Johan faced the best offense in the league in the ninth. How would this game rank among Mets pitching performances? In a blink of an eye, it could end and would be forgotten about in a weeks time. Then again, it could be remembered for all time, a new image to replace that famous picture of Seaver delivering the ball with the Shea Stadium scoreboard showing an incomplete line of zeros for the Cubs in 1969 and put to rest the haunting of the franchise by Nolan Ryan.
I honestly don’t remember the first two outs of the ninth, but I remember starting to feel physically sick. In February, I watched my second favorite sports team win the Super Bowl which included as tense of a last minute as one might have. It didn’t match that last out. I believe that those few moments in the ninth outweighed the level of tension for me than the entirety of the Giants NFC Championship game and Super Bowl, combined.
When I watched Mike Piazza fly out to end the 2000 World Series, I still had hope for some little known rule to be pulled out by the umpires that would give Piazza another shot, even as the Yankees celebrated. I watched the umps until they left the field. I held out hope that the home plate umpire would suddenly change his mind as Beltran stood there with the bat on his shoulder in the 2006 NLCS. I didn’t turn away until the ump walked away from the plate.
When that low pitch by Johan Santana hit the glove, just under the swing of the bat, I held my breath and looked to the ump. I waited for that mysterious rule that would give the batter another chance. It didn’t come.
I had always wondered what my reaction would be if the Mets ever threw a no-no. I now know. I threw my arms in the air and dropped the baseball for fear I’d throw it through the TV in excitement. I did my best to muffle my yells to not wake my wife (it didn’t work) and kids.
And I cried. Actually, I sobbed a little. I’ve cried just three times in my life as a result of the Mets. When the Dodgers beat them in 1988. When Mike Piazza hit that home run in September 2001. When Gary Carter died this past winter. And now, a fourth time, when Johan Santana lifted his arms in celebration of the Mets first no-hitter.
I am always proud to be a Mets fan. I wear my orange and blue regardless of standings or records. We have been through a lot in the last few years, from historic late season collapses to talk of bankruptcy and scandal. There has been a lot of tears shed in Queens for years, and none of them have been for something good. As they say, it has hurt to be a Mets fan for a very long time.
As a friend of mine who still works for the Mets said to me, it felt like an enormous weight was lifted off the shoulders of this team. That burden was suddenly gone. And so I cried.
However, there is something magical about a no-hitter for all fans of the game and when one is thrown, all true fans of the game stand up and salute. For one night, at least, despite the struggles and the pain and the jokes and the scandals, true baseball fans were standing up for the Mets, maybe even wishing they were Mets fans for that one night. It was nice to already be standing for my team. This is one of the reasons why you suffer through the hard times with your team, so that when a magic moment like this happens, it is made all the more special and you are allowed to still be proud, even as you cry.
Epilogue: Within hours of Johan Santana wrapping up the Mets first no-hitter, I found myself in an ambulance on my way to the hospital because of a kidney stone. The pain was unreal. During the ninth inning, I remember uttering, “Please God, whatever it takes.” As I lay in that ambulance, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the trade off (and the EMT worker was a huge Phillies fan to boot). In the light of the next day (and morphine), I knew I didn’t honestly believe that, but it provided an interesting footnote to the story. A seminal moment in Mets history would be forever marked in my memory with that pain. Yet, I will forever remember that sheer joy of the final strike, even as the memory of that pain fades. (However, yes, the baseball gods have a wicked sense of humor.)