I went to CitiField by myself last Wednesday to watch the Mets play the Cardinals. I made some feint stabs at trying to recruit a friend to take the trip with me, but no one bit. Truth be told, I didn't try too hard to find someone to go with because I think I wanted to go alone and just watch the game. I've gone to the ballpark with my daughter a number of times this year, and while it's always enjoyable to see a game through her eyes--for instance, seeing how Jose Reyes' enthusiasm is infectious even for kids her age--having a four-year-old with you is not conducive to seeing much of the action. (Although all of the games I attended before this one were uniformly horrible, so maybe her antsiness did me a favor.)
For years, I used to bring a Modell's scorebook with me to Shea--the kind Little League coaches use--so I'd have a record of all the games I went to. This was a nerdy habit I picked up as a kid and reacquired when I began going to games again as an adult. 2006 was a banner year for the Mets, but it was also a banner year for my scorekeeping, as I chronicled the insane amount of games I went to, including the division clincher and five playoff contests. It didn't end the way I wanted, as we all know, but I treasure those scorebooks nonetheless. I flip through them every now and then to remind me that every now and then, baseball can be amazing.
The anxiety of 2007/2008 slowly weaned me off this practice, but the habit was really broken by the general crappiness of the years to follow. Going to games grew to be less and less fun, and scoring them even less so. But for my solo adventure, I decided to give scoring another shot. I dug up a scorebook I bought several years ago but barely used. When I cracked it open to fill out the lineups, there was only one record inside it: 4/18/09, Johan Santana's first start at CitiField, a glorious afternoon when the Mets beat the Brewers 1-0 and the game ended on a strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play. I went to at least 15 other games that season, but none of them were documented. Not much else about that season was worth remembering.
Things felt odd about this game right away. Or rather, oddly familiar. Perhaps I was just projecting--I was, after all, there by myself and scoring the game, two things I hadn't done in several years. I didn't fully understand what I was feeling until Carlos Beltran's first at bat of the night was greeted with appreciative applause. I got a chill. He had not been received warmly by Mets fans in quite some time. Even on Opening Day, the crowd showered him with a shameful amount of boos for the unforgivable crime of being Carlos Beltran. Now, stoic, supportive cheers. Everyone knew his time in a Mets uniform was numbered. The memories finally overwhelmed the unearned vitriol.
From that point forward, I got a sense about where this game was going. I often feel premonitions about where a game is headed, based on some cue I sense early on, either the sense that it will be a thrilling win or an agonizing defeat. (How often am I right? Let's just say I'm batting solid triple digits.) Usually, it takes me a few innings to see the ebb and flow of a game before I feel comfortable making a pronouncement, even in my head. But once I heard Beltran's reception, I had this strange feeling of inevitability. This game is going to be great, I told myself, and the Mets are going to win it somehow. It was the polar opposite of the feeling I'd gotten in recent years at games, where I'd wonder how the Mets would manage to lose. Walkoff catcher's interference? Fog-induced error? Rabies outbreak? This night would be different, I was sure of it. Even when the Mets were down 4-0, I told myself it was only a matter of time before they rebounded.
With the score 4-2 in the fifth and a man on first, Beltran worked a full count, then executed a classic Beltran left-handed swing. Beltran whipped his bat through the zone, swung back like golfer's follow-through, and shifted his weight from one foot to other to begin his trot around the bases. It had been so long since I'd seen this in person, I'd forgotten how fluid and beautiful it was. Done so many times it looked effortless, almost like choreography. If Gene Kelly played baseball, he would have swung like Beltran.
The video doesn't quite do the scene justice; at the very least, not the sound of it. A healthy crowd--something else I haven't seen in Flushing in quite some time--went bonkers as Beltran's blast sailed into the Pepsi Porch a few sections to my right, just over the heads of Gary, Keith, and Ron, who picked an excellent night to relocate. I haven't heard CitiField that loud in 2+ seasons, but had anyone given it any reason to be until then? I hadn't been to a Mets game with such ecstatic joy since the last game at Shea, when Beltran belted another two-run homer to tie the score and give the fans a brief hope that there might be some magic left in the doomed ballpark.
As happy as I was when Beltran went yard, and as sure as I was that the Mets would win this game, I was also conscious of the fact that I'd probably seen his last home run as a Met. How did that happen? Beltran signed a seven year contract. It couldn't be seven years already, could it? I remember driving home from a family holiday party, straining to listen sports radio through my Oldsmobile's static and hear that the Mets had signed Beltran. How many people are in my life now that weren't then--one who calls me daddy, even. How many people who were in my life then are gone now? Too many. If you were given seven year assignment today, you'd probably lose your mind thinking about how long that was. And yet, it passes in the blink of an eye, faster than it takes for a ball to leap off ash and into the night...
I went back to my scorebook to mark off HR and 2 RBIs. How many times had I documented exactly the same thing in exactly the same way? I realized that maybe I stopped scoring games because the scorebooks were a poor substitute for the experience. A scorebook can't truly capture all times I saw Beltran swing with violent grace, punish a baseball, and bring the Mets back into a game. When you write "8" in a scorebook, it doesn't show you that 8 (no. 16) ran forever to chase down a ball no other fielder would have gotten to, snare it, and fire a throw back into the infield to erase any thoughts of a runner advancing. That catch he made in Houston, when he caught a ball hit 8000 feet from home plate over his shoulder while running uphill--in a scorebook, that's just "8" too.
My scorebooks have only one page dedicated to game seven of the 2006 NLCS, even if that game is on every page of some Mets fans' memories of his career. But I can show you many other pages where he came through, before and after that day. It would probably surprise such people to learn that he came through more often than not. I have the proof in pencil. If there are some who can not forgive him for not swinging at an unhittable pitch, that says more about them than it does about Beltran.
The Mets did win, on a walkoff homer from Angel Pagan. He hit it in the same general direction as Beltran's homer, but not quite as far and not quite as high as the man he supplanted in centerfield. It will be a long time, I fear, before we find a player who can measure up to what he did for the Mets. Whoever can meet this lofty benchmark, I hope they're able to do so without having to endure all the pain and doubt and baseless hatred Beltran did. Few players deserved it less than him. If Beltran hit below the Mendoza line, he still wouldn't have deserved it thanks to all the charity work the man did over the years, most of it well out of the limelight.
On the way out of CitiField, the fans broke out into spontaneous chants of LET'S GO METS! as they descended the narrow, claustrophobic stairwells. I have not heard such jubilant exiting since the days of Shea, when fans would lope carefully down the open-air exit ramps like they were snowbanks. It felt briefly like 2006, when you could feel shamelessly happy about this team and not have a some killjoy whisper words of troubled finances and deadline deals in your ear.
It wasn't 2006, of course. It was 2011, when they Mets have stopped pretending that hovering around .500 warrants a playoff run. For years I desperately wanted a front office that accepted such painful truths, and now I have one, but that also means having a front office that will trade off its most prized asset to build for the future. This is exactly what the Mets should have done and still it kills me, as bad as when Gary Carter left and I was too young to see how much he'd deteriorated. As bad as when Mike Piazza left when I could see his decline but hated to see him go anyway. As bad as when Edgardo Alfonzo left even though he should have stayed a Met forever and ever amen.
Right now, I don't want to think of Beltran's legacy, where he ranks among the greats, what his career says about Omar Minaya or Willie Randolph or Jerry Manuel or the Wilpons, if he's the most underappreciated player in team history. I just know that life is hard and way too short and that sometimes watching people hit baseballs makes me happy. We should appreciate people who minimize grief and maximize joy in our lives, because they are precious. Watching Beltran made me happy more often than not, and if he couldn't quite give me a World Series--which wouldn't have been mine or yours or anyone else's than his, really--at least he gave me one last night to realize what he did give all of us.
Jose Reyes said it best--he's done everything else best this year, hasn't he? When asked how Beltran would fit in with the Giants, he said, "Perfect." And then he added, "He was perfect for us, too."