Wilmer Flores and the Yellow Parakeet

There are two New York sensibilities: Yankee and Met. If the teams’ fans aren’t divided by class—there are plenty of impoverished Yankees fans, if not that many well-heeled Mets fans—they're divided in how they think of their city. The former are the New York of “New York, New York”; the aura of the new Yankee Stadium, with its wide moat between the nice seats and the not-so-nice, is that of Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps—expensive, bloated, and dumb.

On the Mets

Wilmer Flores. Still from video via MLB.com.

There are two New York sensibilities: Yankee and Met. If the teams’ fans aren’t divided by class—there are plenty of impoverished Yankees fans, if not that many well-heeled Mets fans—they’re divided in how they think of their city. The former are the New York of “New York, New York”; the aura of the new Yankee Stadium, with its wide moat between the nice seats and the not-so-nice, is that of Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps—expensive, bloated, and dumb. The latter live in the subtler New York of, say, the late Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, lonely and lost, exiled since birth. The Mets, after all, replaced not one but two departed National League teams, the Giants of Washington Heights and the Dodgers of Flatbush.

I, as you may have guessed, am a Mets fan. I don’t watch much TV and only make it to Citi Field a few times a year; this season I was especially broke and went only twice, paying a total of $5 for my tickets. I’m a radio fan. Baseball is the perfect radio sport. The geography of the field is clear, with the players amply spaced; the pace is stately enough that the announcers can keep up; and the lexicon is well developed. A listener can imagine the game with what feels like completeness.

Mets broadcasts moved from WFAN to WOR in 2014, after The FAN ditched the Mets and purchased the Yankees’ radio rights instead. Which, really, was no problem for me. The brilliant booth of Howie Rose and Josh Lewin moved to the new station, and, as I happily discovered, on my radio dial WOR matches up with Hot 97; to listen to the Funkmaster Flex show between innings, all I have to do is flip a switch. “Meet the Mets,” the team’s charming fight song, still plays at the end of the night.

But for the playoffs, which the Mets miraculously made after a nine-year drought, I’ll be watching on TV. I spent part of Game 1 sitting next to the bouncer at a quiet bar on the Upper West Side. We were deep into the New York night, but it was just after sunset in LA, the weather absurdly balmy. Beach balls bounced onto the field.

The Mets led 1–0 going into the sixth. Jacob DeGrom, the Mets’ ace of aces, was throwing a lot of pitches; things were pretty dicey, but he was outdueling the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. Wedged between the bouncer and a white-bearded man in coke-bottle glasses and a US Postal Service shirt, who spent much of the game worriedly fending off a series of calls on his flip phone, I watched David Wright line a single into center field, scoring two runs. The Mets went up 3–0, and I high-fived the mailman. After Yoenis Cespedes struck out, I went outside for a cigarette, missing out on the bar-wide round of shots purchased by a man in a DeGrom jersey down at the other end of the bar.

When I went back inside, I was thinking about what I’d write. Early as it was, things seemed to be working out better for me as a fan than as a writer. Is winning interesting? On TV, a blimp floating above Dodger Stadium showed the big crowd out in the western heat. “I wanna know what the security team is like there,” said the bouncer. We were both thinking about our jobs. Later, with an emphatic stomp on first base, Mets closer Jeurys Familia got Joc Pederson to ground out to end the game, and I left the bar for what turned out to be a two-hour subway ride home, 1-7-G. 1–0 Mets.

If you’ve heard anything about these Mets, you’ve probably heard about their crew of young pitchers. DeGrom, the 2014 Rookie of the Year, was even better this season; Matt Harvey, from Groton, Connecticut, where they build the Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines, came back from Tommy John surgery in style; and they were joined by two rookies, Noah “Thor” Syndergaard and Long Island southpaw Steven Matz. DeGrom threw thirteen strikeouts in Game 1, tying Tom Seaver’s team playoff record, and Syndergaard lit up the radar gun in Game 2, touching 101 mph. Harvey will pitch tonight, and Matz tomorrow.

Harvey gets the most media attention, partly because he reached the big leagues first, in 2012, and partly for his off-field antics. He grew up rooting for Derek Jeter’s Yankees, and he’s open about his ambition to live up to the Captain’s restless love life; “Matt Harvey dating Polish beauty” is an exemplary headline from Rupert Murdoch’s Post.

Harvey didn’t always get so much press: he and I overlapped for two years at the University of North Carolina, where the Tar Heels’ two biggest stars were Dustin Ackley, now a utility man for the Yankees, and Kyle Seager, the Mariners’ third baseman. Last Tuesday, Harvey overslept and missed a required workout at Citi Field; I thought of Allen Iverson, who played with the word “practice” in a way reminiscent of Gertrude Stein. But Harvey lacks Iverson’s eloquence. “Truly, I just screwed up,” he said.

The crux of the season came in late July and early August. The Washington Nationals had been tabbed to dominate the NL this year. After the Nats shelled out $210 million for five years of ace Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, their cornerstone rightfielder and probably the league’s best player, said, famously, “Where’s my ring?” It wasn’t a bad question.

But on July 29, with the oft-injured Nationals holding a two-game lead over the mediocre Mets, something happened. While the Mets were hosting the Padres, news broke that Mets’ shortstop Wilmer Flores had been included in a trade of Zack Wheeler (the fifth member of the Mets’ young stable of pitchers, currently sidelined by his own Tommy John surgery) for Brewers’ star Carlos Gomez, himself a former Met. Flores was a week shy of his 24th birthday, but his promise had been on the wane since his teenage days as the organization’s top prospect, and most Mets fans wouldn’t have missed him if he’d been pulled and whisked out of sight. Instead, he kept trotting out to short, inning after inning, even as word of his departure spread throughout the crowd. It was eerie. Apparently the Mets’ manager, Terry Collins, hadn’t been informed. Finally, the fans told Flores. When he batted in the seventh inning, the fans stood and clapped. In the eighth, he stood on the field, stunned, crying—an indelible image that circulated for days afterward—as the news sunk in that he’d be leaving the team that signed him out of Venezuela on his 16th birthday. He’d finally become a fan favorite by showing with his tears how much he cared about the Mets.

The Mets lost the game 7–3, and afterward Alderson shocked everyone by declaring dead the Gomez trade. Flores would remain a Met after all, and a newly beloved one. (Later, accusations flew between the Mets, the Brewers, and Gomez’s agent about Gomez’s health and the Mets’ finances, and Gomez was traded to Houston.) Two nights later—the same day the Mets traded for chainsmoking Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes—Flores hit a twelfth-inning walkoff homer to beat the Nationals. The Mets never looked back, going 37–22 the rest of the way and finishing seven games clear of Washington.

I’d finally attended a couple games during the last two months of the season. The first was on August 12; a friend had received two tickets for a game against the Rockies by donating to a blood drive. She didn’t want them, but she knew I would.

As it happened, they stuck the blood donors in the nosebleed seats. You could tell who they were, because most carried their tickets in the manila envelopes in which they’d been mailed. My companion and I, imposters (I’m too afraid of needles to give blood, even for Mets tickets), climbed to the top of Section 536, way out in left, where you can’t even see the outfielder below you. From there we watched, after nearly two weeks of waiting, Cespedes’s first home run as a Met. He was wearing a canary-yellow armband, which in the following weeks would become his signature—fans started sporting them, too—and the camera crew found an escaped parakeet of the same vivid hue flapping around the stadium. The Mets won, 3–0, and gained the blessing of an animal. Cespedes didn’t have any trouble hitting home runs after that.

Out in LA, Game 2 turned into a disaster for the Mets, medically and competitively. But it didn’t start out that way. Cespedes and Conforto each popped a home run off Zack Greinke in the top of the second. After that, Greinke, the best pitcher in baseball this year, settled in; it felt as if the Mets would have to shut down the Dodgers to win the game, and it looked like they might until Syndergaard got into trouble in the seventh.

With runners on first and third and one out, Bartolo Colon, a 42-year-old meatball of a man, trotted in from the bullpen to replace Syndergaard. He got Howie Kendrick to hit a one-hopper to second baseman Daniel Murphy, who flipped the ball to Ruben Tejada to try to turn a double play. (Tejada started over Flores on account of his superior glove and Flores’s recent bout with strep throat.) The runner on first, Chase Utley, barreled into Tejada like a football player making a chop block, breaking up both the double play and Tejada’s right fibula.

There were all kinds of reactions to Utley’s “slide.” On the broadcast, Cal Ripken Jr., a fellow shortstop who holds the record for consecutive games played (lucky he never had to play against Utley), said, “That was normal.” Later he added, “I think that was a hard, clean play.” The other two announcers, including former Met Ron Darling, disagreed. Inevitably, online and off, former players, current players, journalists, and fans weighed in, some siding with Ripken and some against. Chipper Jones, perhaps Utley’s most famous predecessor as chief Met killer, later tweeted, “That was not a slide and that is not how u ‘go in hard’!”

After a replay review, Utley was, bizarrely, deemed safe at second, though he never touched the bag. The “neighborhood” rule, which allows fielders to miss the bag as a means of protecting themselves from precisely that kind of injury, wasn’t invoked; Joe Torre, baseball’s rules man, bizarrely claimed that a double play was in fact impossible given the circumstances. Moments later, the Dodgers were up 5–2, and the stadium was rocking. There were a couple of innings left, but the game was over; the Mets mustered only one measly baserunner after watching Tejada carted off in an air cast.

Some called for a new rule to be written to outlaw a slide like Utley’s. But there are already multiple rules that address those plays at second, including 7.09(e) and 5.09(a)(13); they simply haven’t been enforced. The former seems to me the most applicable: “If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.” In other words, the inning should have been over. But the culture will have to change before the rules are enforced. In the NL wild-card game, the Pirates were missing their star Jung Ho Kang, whose own leg was broken on a similar play in September.

It took Torre, a former manager of both the Mets and Dodgers, twenty-three hours to deem Utley’s slide illegal—too late for the Mets. Utley has been suspended for Games 3 and 4 of the series, though he’s appealed the ruling, and is eligible to play until the appeal is heard. As a reserve on a deep and pricey Dodger team, his two-game suspension shouldn’t matter much. He’s already done what he was meant to do when he was traded for in August: make a difference off the bench.

Of course, the Mets aren’t above this kind of cavalier machismo. Back in April, when Utley still played for the Phillies, Matt Harvey plunked him in retaliation for the Phillies’ starter having hit two Mets. Harvey happens to be pitching tonight, against lefty Brett Anderson, but I hope he doesn’t throw at any Dodgers. As my grandmother always said, two wrongs don’t make a right. The yellow parakeet will be watching, and Flores will be back out at short.

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