WASHINGTON — For Mets fans of a certain generation it was Tom Seaver, and it wasn’t just that he was on your team. Better was seeing him, counting the four days in between starts — and, yes, it was Rube Walker who popularized the five-man rotation in an effort to keep that golden arm firing BBs all year — and planning your weeks around them.
Not every Mets game was televised in those days, so sometimes that required a transistor radio, Bob Murphy describing what lightning looked like in Pittsburgh or St. Louis. Sometimes it required an unplanned trip to Shea Stadium and the walk-up window. You were never without company those days.
Later, it was Dwight Gooden, even in those years after his fastball backed up a few miles per hour, after the drugs frayed his talent and broke down his arm. Even then, if you had other plans, your friends would warn, “Stay away from the L.I.E., Doc’s throwing tonight,” and it was always sound advice.
Now it is deGrom around whom so many summer nights are planned, an anchor to six months of baseball. With deGrom, as with Seaver, as with Gooden, so much is in the sharing: in good times at Citi Field; in great times on the road in Philly or D.C., in harsher times in front of a TV, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling as often describing deGrom viscerally — “ooooh,” “mmmmm,” “whoa …” “WOW!” — as with adjectives and adverbs.
“When a guy is that good,” Darling said a few years ago, “none of the words you’re going to come up with will do justice to what he’s doing. You might as well just say what you feel. And sometimes all you can say is, ‘Wow!’ ”
He is 32 now, approaching an age when most throwers finally learn how to pitch, but he learned that part of the craft long ago. Somehow, inexplicably, he still throws gas too — “Easy gas,” in Hernandez’s words, and this spring that easy gas regularly popped James McCann’s mitt at 100 miles an hour.
Thursday night, Nationals Park, he’ll start another opener. If feels like he’s been doing this as long as Seaver did (11 times) or as long as Gooden (eight), but this will only be his third. He had to leapfrog Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon but as with everything else in his career his slow and steady pace has served him well. Now it’s impossible to envision anyone else ever getting that assignment.
“It’s an honor,” he said. “You want to get off to a good start as a team and your manager is telling you that you’re the best way that can happen. It’s a great feeling.”
The Mets enter this season overflowing with hope, eager to cast aside memories of last year’s 26-34 sinkhole.
They played at times this spring like a team with a chip on its shoulder and that’s as it should be. They have lots to prove. They should have been better than tied for last place in 2020 and they should be good enough to be playing games in October in 2021.
“Now all we have to do,” Pete Alonso said, “is play to our potential.”
Alonso suffered though 2020 and tried to bury it with every swing this spring. The flailing Kingmanesque hacker was replaced in Florida by a 2.0 version of what we saw in 2019 — powerful, with a disciplined eye and a willingness to spray balls that can’t be slugged.
The offense, for a change, ought to be something the starting rotation can be proud of. Whether Francisco Lindor ultimately signs up for 10 or 12 years he is signed up for this one, and his energy will be a boost. Michael Conforto is playing for a contract. Jeff McNeil scuffled in the spring but he can wake up on New Year’s Day and smoke line drives. He’ll be fine.
There are others. There is a rotation that ought to be sound and will get a spark when Syndergaard, already throwing 97, rejoins the band sometime in summer. There’ s a bullpen that should be better but we won’t really know until it holds Mets fans hostage in an eighth and ninth inning — maybe as soon as Thursday.
Luis Rojas was given a mulligan for his rookie year and must prove he is equal to guiding a team across 162, and he’ll no longer be graded on a curve but by an often overexacting daily pulse of a demanding baseball city. It will all be quite a ride.
And there is deGrom every five days, two Cy Youngs on his shelf, who didn’t really surrender the plaque until his final start last year, when he pitched to a 2.38 ERA and a 0.956 WHIP and struck out a career-best 13.8 hitters per nine — and still often looked like he was furious at himself for underperforming.
“I have high standards,” he said.
The Mets ought to have similarly high bar in mind for the 130 games when deGrom is sitting and spectating. If so, the ride will be intoxicating. And not only every fifth day.