NEW YORK -- My four-year-old daughter, Mirabelle, and I arrived at Citi Field Monday afternoon for Opening Day 2014 of the New York Mets, and immediately got to see the defining Met of her initial rooting era: Mr. Met.
I tore off after him, chasing him down and getting her a picture with him. With that task accomplished, it was time to figure out which other Mets she'd get excited about.
There weren't many.
But ultimately, there were plenty of reasons to cheer within a 9-7 loss to the Nationals Monday, along with a reminder of just what a challenge it is to properly indoctrinate a child into a lifetime of Mets fandom right now.
It was a striking contrast with my effort to find something Stomper-related for her when I visited Oakland Athletics spring training last month. As a vendor in their team store pointed out, they were selling kid-sized 2013 American League West Champions t-shirts instead.
My father had it easy. I was born in 1980. By the time I was Mirabelle's age, there was Dwight Gooden, the Matt Harvey of his day, and Darryl Strawberry, with that long, looping swing and parabolas for home runs. There was Keith Hernandez, performing ballet at first base, and the greatest catcher of the era, Gary Carter, and so many others. There were pennant races, postseason appearances, an unforgettable World Series.
And maybe we're heading there, too. The Mets lost on Opening Day in 1984, too.
But it sure doesn't feel that way.
I'm doing my best. We've gone over the team's starting lineup, again and again. She's got her baseball cards, too, so there's both audio and visual recognition of players like Travis d'Arnaud, Juan Lagares, Zack Wheeler.
But the only ones she really even remembers from last year are David Wright, Matt Harvey, Daniel Murphy and Ike Davis. Harvey, of course, isn't around in 2014. Murphy missed Opening Day due to the birth of his son, Noah. And who knows how long Ike Davis will be around? Lord knows the Mets tried to get rid of him all winter.
Realistically, it's hard to imagine this era, dating back to 2009 and lasting until Sandy Alderson's front office can collect enough young talent to overcome ownership's massive financial problems, being defined by anything other than David Wright and Mr. Met.
Betting on any of the young pitchers individually ignores the odds against any particular young pitcher. And it isn't hard to imagine, as some already have, that the outcome for the Mets with even Matt Harvey may not be a positive one, whether due to the health of an elbow that's already blown out once, or by returning to peak form and quickly moving outside the realm of what the post-Madoff Mets seem capable of spending.
Instead, this is one of those generally poor eras in which to raise a Mets fan, which Mike Vaccaro pointed out recently is actually the norm. For now, that is plenty for Mirabelle. We talked about Opening Day, when baseball would finally return, for months. She put on her Wright jersey, of course, and as we left the house, three days of rain gave way to sunshine, finally.
Her rendition of Meet the Mets is flawless. She knows how to answer this clarion call with an enthusiastic: Charge! She loves the home run apple.
And we got to see it. First, Andrew Brown delivered a three-run homer to put the Mets ahead early. Ah, how to explain Andrew Brown to a four-year-old? "He's starting because the Mets signed a reclamation project, Chris Young, who is out with an injury, and they haven't developed a backup outfielder capable of helping them through the farm system."
And then, watching a bullpen that badly needed reinforcements it didn't get this offseason blow a 4-2 lead, only to be helped out by Juan Lagares' power display, it seemed that the Mets would at least provide their customary happy Opening Day. The team is 34-19 now in their first game of a season, and that's including losing the first eight in their history.
But Bobby Parnell, his velocity down the way it has been all spring, blew the save, forcing extra innings. Parnell had neck surgery last year, lost 30 pounds, and any team with the slightest financial ability to mitigate bullpen risk would have done so more effectively than Jose Valverde, though it must be pointed out that Valverde alone was terrific Monday.
My phone made its familiar text message sound.
"Who's that?" Mirabelle asked me.
"It's Pa Ira."
"What did he say?"
"He wants to know what's the matter with Parnell."
But I didn't quite know how to elaborate on the issue the Mets have, forced to rely on hoping Bobby Parnell returns to health, Chris Young returns to his mid-20s form, Curtis Granderson plays like it's 2011, and Ruben Tejada and Ike Davis play like they weren't paying attention to everything the team's front office said about them over the past year.
Who will Mirabelle's Darryl Strawberry, her Dwight Gooden, her Keith Hernandez be? Are they coming? Are they on this team?
There's the constant, Wright. She knows who the third baseman is, cold. And long after most other fans had departed, disgusted by a bullpen performance that sported the Nationals a 9-5 lead in the tenth inning, Mirabelle remained on my lap, excitedly cheering for every Met who came to the plate. Lucas Duda! Omar Quintanilla! Anthony Recker!
Lagares drew a walk, and I pointed out that at least we got one final David Wright at-bat. Then Wright homered, a booming drive over the more appropriately proportioned left field wall, and the fans remaining cheered, and Mirabelle's apple rose one more time. Let me tell you, it was the talk of the car ride home.
The afternoon felt like spring only in comparison to winter, and likewise, the moment felt like the best baseball can offer a fan only in comparison to what had just come before. The Mets had drawn to within two runs in a game they had no business losing, and ultimately did.
The fans booed. Mirabelle clearly didn't understand what everyone was upset about, perhaps in part because I, too, have recalibrated my expectations for the New York Mets. I spent an afternoon watching baseball with my daughter. Short of a strike, I'm going to get to do that for the next six months, anytime I choose. She's four. Her answer is, for now, a permanent yes to such outings. And thus, I'm thrilled, no matter what their record is.
But there will come a day, soon enough, when the Mets will have to be the draw to get Mirabelle back to the park. Will she want to go with her friends? Will she want to go at all?
Take a look at what the crowd is like on Wednesday at Citi Field, or anytime that isn't Opening Day. Will anyone?