Attempting to put games within the 2009 season into a broader context has been depressing. When particular errors in the field or on the basepaths put victory in peril, the view always panned back into a larger look at recent Mets losses, lost seasons, lost Septembers.
So when I headed to Citi Field on Sunday, I was determined to enjoy a baseball game for the game itself. It was a perfect day, weather-wise, tickets were plentiful on Stubhub.com (if the markdowns from ticket face value in August and September are any indication of 2010 demand, 10-20 percent off next year isn't going to cut it), and the perfect Live for Today pitcher was on the mound: Nelson Figueroa, a pitcher the Mets have made clear at every turn they view as expendable.
It was hard to find that baseball mood as my wife and I drove to the game. She suggested we put on the playlist she'd collected of Mets at-bat and entrance music, but it simply reinforced the lost nature of the season.
"Do you want to hear strained oblique muscle, elbow surgery, or traded to Boston first?" I asked her.
Such difficulties disappeared as Citi Field came into view. That experience the Mets could do something about, and did. Friendly faces greeted us at every turn, and as we took the elevator up to our seats, a family of four behind us included two young children experiencing their first baseball game.
For them, a trip to Citi Field wasn't about Ryan Church's missing third, Luis Castillo's dropped a pop-up, or a series of Mets writhing in pain. Baseball was a blank slate to them. And they were happy.
I was further reminded of this when we sat down next to a couple from Australia, also experiencing their first baseball game on a three-week vacation. (It turns out the last day of the baseball season here really is the first day of baseball in Australia.) They did not have the world-weary look so many Mets fans carried on the way into the stadium.
And it was hard to feel much of a weight from 2009 as I raced through the line at El Verano Taqueria -- four minutes to taco! -- then, because the offseason loomed beyond the final out, did it again. You know, just to make sure the four minutes wasn't a fluke. How I will miss you, flank steak taco with corn on the cob.
The game itself was elegant. Strong individual performances from Angel Pagan and Josh Thole, tremendous defense by Houston's Michael Bourn, and most of all, the finest performance of the season from Nelson Figueroa.
Even the relatively scarce crowd didn't feel like the meaningless games I'd often attended at Shea Stadium. At Shea, an empty crowd felt more acutely odd, since I'd seen the stadium shake, felt what baseball with intensity meant in the structure. Citi Field has yet to host that kind of baseball, so Sunday felt like Spring Training -- a baseball game with the best days ahead.
And I couldn't help myself in thinking about 2010 during the game. I watched Carlos Beltran run the bases to see just how his bone bruise was holding up. Each Angel Pagan hit, and a running catch, led inevitably to an evaluation of just how he'd fit as the everyday left fielder next season. Was Josh Thole ready to be the No. 1 catcher? I asked Jerry Manuel afterwards, but he declined to name him -- I guess he wanted to focus on one day at a time, too.
And I missed the energy. Baseball is a particularly appealing game because the interaction between batter and pitcher, pitcher and inning, fielders and struck ball always carry so many potential outcomes and derivations. Meanwhile, they all feed into a larger story. Absent the larger scope, the game itself is still joyful to experience -- but the overarching narrative is missing. It's beautiful writing, but merely a torn page from a book, instead of a great novel.
When the ninth inning arrived, a feeling familiar to anyone who has been a New York Mets fan for a long time visited once again. The final inning of the season carried with it no playoff implications, just a local boy, all grown up now, living his dream of pitching for the New York Mets.
This is more like it. The Mets concluded a 10-year period from 1999-2008 that included five brutal season endings: Kenny Rogers' bases-loaded walk in 1999, the Yankees celebrating on the Shea Stadium infield in 2000, Carlos Beltran's called strike three in 2006, and the twin losses to the Marlins in 2007 and 2008. That's enough heartache for 100 years.
But most Mets seasons, if you take the franchise on balance, end with the team out of the playoff chase, let alone the playoffs, and that final day is spent reflecting on the year, balancing veterans playing out contracts and September callups. Seldom is the silver lining as perfect as seeing a lifelong Mets fan pitch a complete-game shutout. It was as if they'd picked someone out of the stands to do it.
Determined to get the sense of the moment from Nelson Figueroa after the game, we chatted by his locker. But due to his unfortunate abundance of class, Figueroa focused on the accomplishments of his teammates, of Pagan, of Daniel Murphy, and the coaching staff. It was pretty remarkable, after the greatest individual moment of Figueroa's career. For the well-traveled Figueroa, thoughts had already turned to whether or not he could make New York his home in 2010, and how he'd fit into a new Mets team.
And as we drove home, I started thinking about Figueroa's context. He had talked about all his hard work getting to this point, all the countries he'd pitched in, that he'd gotten another opportunity after his disastrous August start against the Diamondbacks because the Mets really didn't have any other options.
For Figueroa, Sunday wasn't a single game, either. There may not have been any playoffs on the line, but even in a meaningless final game of the season, there is always context in baseball, always infinite storylines both acknowledged and as yet undiscovered.
That couple who saw a single Mets victory, then returned to Australia, are the ones missing out.