In midsummer 1984 I found myself watching cable television over at a friend’s house along Preston Trail in Garland, Texas, an inner suburb northeast of Dallas. Specifically, Chris and I were attuned to WGN, the upstart superstation in Chicago, and to a 19-year-old pitching phenomenon for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Even at age 11 apparently I knew better than to give my heart to the Chicago Cubs. So then and there, in the presence of almighty television, with Chris and God as my witnesses, I aligned my baseball spirit with that other team from New York – the one without the 27 World Series titles.
Fast forward to 2011 where I found myself, on a very warm but slightly breezy evening in July, holding an $8 spicy Italian sausage and a free “Subway Series” hat courtesy of Chevrolet’s marketing arm, gazing out upon Citi Field from the Field Level concourse off the third base line. In that second the sausage tasted sublime and the air smelled surreal. I was in The Big Apple for the opening game of a three-game interleague series between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets. Like a childhood dream, I had been transported to see my beloved Mets play in the grass and dirt of their home park in the city that never sleeps. Unlike any childhood dream, to park in the lot near the marina cost $19.
Though I’ve never inhabited either incarnation of Yankee Stadium, the new or the old, back in Texas Chris and I once ventured to see the Rangers play the Yankees in Arlington Stadium. On that July night in 1987 the Rangers dismantled the Yankees, 20-3. (For nerds, the box score is here.) Other than the inflated score and a monster home run to right-center field by Rangers outfielder Ruben Sierra, what I most remember about the experience was essentially one terrifically unique moment within the passage of the game.
With the game all but in the books, Yankees manager Lou Piniella brought on the catcher Rick Cerone to pitch. Cerone, a player for whom colorful would serve as a rather mild adjective, unpredictably pitched one inning of mop-up relief and retired all three hitters he faced. Among the hitters was Rangers pitcher Bobby Witt, who was batting for the hell of it, as best as I can understand, in a blowout. In the box score it went down in the annals of non-history as a strikeout – in this case, a catcher pitching and striking out a pitcher who was hitting, for the hell of it, in the American League. But the at-bat was way better than the box score let on: on one pitch, Witt actually smoked a home run, but foul, with the ball landing a few rows from where we were sitting in the left field stands beside the foul pole.
Most every sport has every right to hail its version of the-game-within-its-game, but for me, baseball’s version – like that frozen moment when a Rangers pitcher almost went deep off a Yankees catcher in an almost meaningless inning – is why I keep coming back to the grass and dirt, hungry for more from that same place.
Before arriving at Citi Field for the first time a few weeks ago, I had previously seen the New York Mets in person only once – at Shea Stadium, on an August Sunday afternoon in 1989, against the St. Louis Cardinals. (Again, nerds, here you go.) On a family vacation which included but was not limited to camping adventures outside Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York City, my dad negotiated our big, blue custom van through the streets of Queens to get us to the rain-delayed game in the nick of time.
As was the case with Cerone versus Witt, what resides in the mind is a singularly distinct play merely recorded in the box score as an out. Darryl Strawberry, the lanky, mercurial, slugging right-fielder for the Mets and a baseball god during the heyday of my high school Mets worship, made an outstanding diving catch in right-center field. It was outstanding for the catch alone, but also because at times Strawberry could seem too-cool-for-school in the outfield, operating with an entrenched, effortless smoothness. But I can still see Strawberry’s body hydroplaning – the outfield grass was rain-soaked – for what seemed like 50 feet.
On July 1st, then, at Citi Field, after it was all said and done in New York City, the box score remarked with its appropriately harsh language of finality: Yankees 5, Mets 1. But I know better. And I dare say, anyone who was there knows better. For one magnanimous instant there was a surge of electricity jolting the stadium.
In the bottom of the 7th inning, with the Mets trailing, 3-1, Mets shortstop Jose Reyes lined a sharp single directly over the second base bag into the outfield. You could feel the collective pulse of the Mets fan base quicken; Reyes contains that special kind of exquisite, game-changing speed to go with a seeming joyful abandonment when displaying this speed. This season, in fact, Reyes is turning in a complete wonder year, statistically speaking, and with a contract negotiation to come. In the run-up to the series, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez dubbed Reyes “the world’s greatest player.”
With Reyes on first, Mets third baseman Justin Turner hit a fly ball to deep centerfield where Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson ran it down to make the comfortable catch. Reyes, feeling the need for speed, immediately tagged up at first base and bolted down to second, sliding headfirst (his preferred style) in plenty of time to beat the throw. Granderson’s throw short-hopped the Yankees shortstop Eduardo Nunez, who was filling in for the injured Derek Jeter and cutting off the throw in shallow center. The ball bounced away from Nunez, and in a nanosecond Reyes was on his feet dashing for third like Mr. Incredible’s son.
Having corralled the ball, Nunez threw a perfect bullet to A-Rod, who applied a sweep tag on Reyes, who was called out even though television replays could neither confirm nor deny the umpire’s decision. Instead of Reyes on third, with one out, down by two runs, it was no one on, two outs, and, effectively, a rally killed.
The place went bonkers. Pandemonium ensued. Curses rained down. Neighbors were pointing various fingers at each other. Brothers and sisters were being asked to leave their families. The sight of injustice was giving rise to wild apocalyptic scripts.
The whole play – a broken, improvised thing of sporting beauty – must have taken 10 seconds in total. However, feeling that strange adrenaline inside Citi Field, watching bemusedly as Mets manager Terry Collins got ejected for arguing the call, and being a part – albeit from the fringe, as a Mets fan by way of Texas by way of cable television – of a vociferous debate, and fight, between New Yorkers, had me graciously forgiving outrageous parking fees. I was re-imagining particular moments of my youth through uncontrollable bursts of memory: the audacity of Cerone versus Witt; the majesty of Strawberry’s catch and slide.
It also had me thumbing my BlackBerry, searching the Mets home schedule. Clearly I was desperate to find out when and how I could squeeze more from this same thirsty place.