Wednesday, June 10, 2015

I thought I had turned down a ticket to history this week. I guess not.

Back in the halcyon days of 2008, a horse named Big Brown became the 11th horse since Affirmed won the 1978 Triple Crown to take both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. With the potential for the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years -- Big Brown was an absolutely enormous favorite to win -- my good friend Adam and I decided with history in the offing, we had best make a trip to Belmont Park to see it in person. What followed was a crowded, sweaty, disgusting mess that involved 94,000 people, the vast majority of them drunk, an interminable hours-long bottleneck to get home and a number of young men so drunk and impatient that they didn't bother waiting on bathroom lines and instead chose to urinate down the stairwells of the grandstand.

Oh, and Big Brown became the first horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and finish dead last in the third. Whoops.

I vowed that day never to return to the Belmont, which, given my tortured relationship with horses, didn't seem like a terrible sacrifice. However, I nearly recanted on that promise last week, when my college roommate Abe informed me he would be in town and had an extra ticket to the Belmont, should I so desire to see American Pharoah become the latest thoroughbred to take a stab at glory. Much as I love that horse's name, I was torn by a few factors. Most important among those was that this past Saturday was a sports bonanza rarely seen in modern times. At 9 a.m. the Women's French Open Final would make way for the 2:45 kickoff of the UEFA Champions League Final, which in turn served as a segue to the opening match of the Women's World Cup at 6 p.m., the Belmont Stakes at 6:50 and then Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final at 7:15, with the Mets playing at 10 p.m. just for kicks.

I had already invited friends over for a day of watching and barbecuing, and making the last-minute move to Belmont Park would not only ruin my social plans for the day, but also likely rob me of the seeing the end of the Champions League Final and most of the Stanley Cup Final. Also, Belmont Park is repulsive.

Wary of disappointing my arriving friends and weary from spending too many hot days in drunk crowds in my 20s, I decided to pass up the tickets and spend the day watching sports and slaving over the grill with my friends. After all, 13 other horses had nabbed the first two legs of the Triple Crown over the past 37 years only to come up short, including six over an eight-year span in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The length of the Belmont track, the pressure on the jockeys and the relative exhaustion the horse feels against a field of fresher competition makes the feat a near impossibility. Surely there was no way American Pharoah would actually make me look like a dunce by, say, running away with the race in a wire-to-wire victory.

Oh? What's that you say? Well shit.

I've spent a large part of this week wondering how dumb it was to turn down the chance to see history, and the point seemed to be driven home a little more thoroughly when I went to the Mets game last night only to see American Pharoah's jockey Victor Espinoza throwing out the first pitch. Oh well. It was time to forget about horses and watch Mets stud pitcher of the future Noah Syndergaard face some Giants starter making just his 13th start in a career that mostly consisted of people accidentally calling him Charlton.

I had never heard of Chris Heston before last night and in all likelihood, years down the line, barring something spectacular, I almost certainly would have forgotten his name, even if the game was almost certainly going to be memorable. With me were my friends Stacy and Andrew, soon to be wed later this month, with whom I see a Mets-Giants game each year as Stacy is originally from the bay area. To my left was my new roommate Alyssa and to my right was my other roommate, Anton, and his parents, who were visiting from South Africa and had never been to a Major League Baseball game before and didn't quite pick up on the nostalgia when I informed everyone that it was exactly 15 years to the day since I saw Mike Piazza hit a grand slam off Roger Clemens in the subway series.

As a result of that setup, I knew I was likely going to spend most of the night explaining to Anton's father how the game worked, which was fine with me, because it gave me something to do three innings in when it became abundantly clear Syndergaard didn't exactly have it that night. This was also about the time I noticed Heston had not yet allowed a base runner, and jokingly attempted to rile up Stacy by talking up his in-progress and soon-to-be-jinxed no-hit bid.

Two innings and two hit batsmen later, it became clear that this sort of tomfoolery didn't really work. And after six innings, everyone in the group began to get anxious as the prospect of a no-hitter became real. That is to say, everyone except Anton's family, whom I'm pretty sure didn't understand why people were so antsy when nothing was going on. As I tried to explain to them, what we were seeing was extremely rare and considered, potentially, an enormous achievement even if it is one of almost cruel randomness.

To wit, in more than 50 years of baseball, the New York Mets have thrown exactly one no-hitter, with the drought stretching so long people began to doubt it would ever come to pass. The San Francisco Giants, in the meantime, before last night had thrown four since 2009 with a total of 16 in their franchise history. Prior to last night only 287 had ever been thrown by anyone in more than 209,000 Major League games.

I had seen my fair share of close calls. I saw Johan Santana throw a complete game four-hit shutout against the San Diego Padres in his last start before ending the Mets' no-no drought. I was once in the stands to see John Niese throw a three-hitter against the Phillies in 2013 and R.A. Dickey tossed what might be the most impressive game I've ever seen, his second-consecutive one-hitter, against the Orioles in 2012. In each of those cases, however, the first hit was given up early and the drama was long over. The tenor is far different when the possibility is real, as it was when I saw Matt Clement lose a no-hitter in the seventh inning on a solo home run by Karim Garcia in a Mets-Cubs game in 2004, or when I saw Odalis Perez take a perfect game into the seventh inning before losing it on a borderline full-count ball four to Rey Ordonez in 2002.

By the time Heston retired Michael Cuddyer on a fly ball to left field to end the seventh inning, it had finally begun to sink in just how close this was. I had realized that in more than 170 games in my life, I had never seen a no-hitter taken into the eighth inning. As I relayed this to Anton's parents, they still did not quite seem to grasp what was happening, though his father did tell me a number of things I had not been aware of in cricket.

Watching your team get no-hit when that team is supposed to be decent, is very weird. Heading into last night the Mets held an ever-so-tenuous half-game lead on the Nationals for first place in the NL East. Your obvious prerogative is to see them win and possibly extend that lead, but after a while your brain becomes twisted. After all, even a great team loses 62 times every season. What difference does it make if your team loses with no hits or 20 if it's still a loss? Does the opportunity to see something truly rare and historic not take precedence? At the same time, is being no-hit, something that had not happened to the Mets since Darryl Kile twirled a no-no against them in 1993, so demoralizing that it could impact the rest of the season? Then again, the last time the Mets were no-hit at home was in 1969, and that didn't turn out so terribly.

As this internal torment bounced through my head, the Mets came to bat again in the 8th inning and limply went down in order sending the no-hitter to the ninth. At this point I became convinced the Mets' lineup, which was not exactly on par with Murderer's Row, was almost certainly going to fold and give Moses his place in history. Alyssa had no horse in the race, but was nonetheless appreciative of the spectacle. Stacy, for obvious reasons, was more than a little anxious.

Anton and his parents, of course, were breathing calmly and didn't quite see what all the hub-bub was about. Anton, having lived in America for years, had a better idea, but derived far more pleasure from my anxiety over them not getting it than he did from actually seeing a no-hitter.

"Yes," he said. "We're very excited about seeing nothing."

In a conversation later that night, someone told me they prefer games "when stuff happens."
"But," I said, "a no-hitter is stuff."
"A no-hitter is the opposite of stuff happening. Hitting is the stuff. It was a no-stuff game."

I think she had been taking lessons from Anton. So, too, must have the family of four sitting in front of us, all decked out in San Francisco Giants gear, who inexplicably picked up and went home at the start of the ninth inning. The ninth inning of a game that was sparsely attended and posed little threat of egress traffic. A game in which their team was winning. A game in which their team's starting pitcher was three outs away from a no-hitter.

My mind was boggled.

Anthony Recker led off the bottom of the ninth and was promptly plunked by an amped up Heston on the first pitch. It was Heston's third hit batter of the game, a total never before "achieved" in a no-hitter. Given those three hit batters and a double play in the fourth inning that retired one of them, the Mets would end up only recording 26 at bats in their 27 outs. After settling down, Danny Muno approached the plate, at which point I said if he was the man to break up the no-no I'd eat my hat. He struck out looking. Next was Curtis Granderson, the only thing even mildly resembling a threat that was due up in the inning, but Grandy, too watched strike three fly by for his third strikeout of the night.

Up to the plate strode career .256-hitter Ruben Tejada, a man whose presence in the batter's box strikes fear into the heart of absolutely no one. At this point I turned around to Stacy and said, "It's Ruben Tejada. He's got it." Everyone in the crowd instantly broke out their cell phones to capture as many long-distance low-quality photos as they could of the moment. I rose to my feet and did the same. Anton's parents relaxed in their seats and said.... something in Afrikaans.

Five pitches later, after 25 years of attending baseball games, I had officially seen a no-hitter for the first time.

It is very surreal to leave the ball park when something like this happens, most of all because you're not quite sure how to feel when your team loses. There is, however, an undeniable element of history you have to savor, though in a not-so-subtle lack of magnanimity, the Mets did not so much as mention the no-hitter on the scoreboard beyond posting the postgame box score.

Even Anton did his best to explain the significance to his parents, whom he said were charmed to hear that it was roughly equivalent to a bowler breaking all the wickets without giving up a run (or something). He also pointed out to me, when I noted how this was my first no-hitter in more than 170 games that, "They've seen a no-hitter in 100% of the games they've attended," which is, perhaps, the second-most cruelly unfair attendance track record I can think of.

Whether it's your first game or your 100th, though, I find it difficult to complain about seeing something special, and after my miss at the Belmont, I felt good having something special to take home with me. Most people around me felt the same way -- though I suppose that family of four didn't -- and the 18-year-old sitting next to us had long ago sensed  how special it might be and jumped on the no-hitter bandwagon.

This was all well and good until he brought up that he "never thought he would see a Triple Crown-winner and a no-hitter in the same week."

"Oh," I asked him, "were you at the Belmont Stakes?"
"Yeah, it was amazing."
"I actually turned down a ticket to it."
"What?! It was the first Triple Crown in 37 years!"
"Thanks," I told him.

"I had no idea."

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