Sketch by Henry Gustavson
TOP OF THE EIGHTH: METS 5
(3) – 1 PHILLIES
Coming back from commercial break, the furry green Philly Phanatic is dancing atop the dugout with “Franklin The Dog” of the 76ers, with a baggy gelatinous midsection bouncing down to his ankles and back up to his chest, grabbing it, ruffling it, a man inside a suit handling and shaking the suit’s own ass and blue tail, the fans in front unsure when they’ll be permitted to stop smiling. Its long green snout juts out in front of two plastic eyes, with a Phillies cap on backwards, red tights, green high-top sneakers of about size 35. The number on the back of its jersey is no number at all, but a big red star. It wears a blue unibrow, made of feathers. Spinning its head in frantic circles in front of the camera, a bizarro Sesame Street castoff on display here tonight in Philly.
My evergreen request: less crotch-thrusting from the Philly Phanatic pic.twitter.com/UHh6rAYjSD
— Maggifromtheinternet (@maggim) October 1, 2016
It’s the final series of Ryan Howard’s career. The final weekend of the 2016 season. The last of chances for the New York Mets to stake a playoff claim, in the unlikeliest of comeback seasons.
The CSN broadcast team thanks their camera operators, the annual gesture that’s consolation to all fans of losing baseball teams. One cameraman films another, they each wave in succession up to the booth, smiling at the recognition like the orchestra after an opera.
Michael Mariot’s on the mound for the Phillies, wearing a sort of Mitch Williams / John Kruk mullet, setting up against Alejandro De Aza. The half-filled seats are majority-filled with orange and blue, down on the train from Queens to see their Mets net a playoff spot. Fall in Philly. Coats and hats in the background of every shot.
They’re yelling “Let’s go Mets!!” from all corners of the stands, as De Aza and Reyes hits back-to-back singles to right field. And then Cabrera steps up, hitting the first pitch he sees high into the wind, popped up to Aaron Altherr in right, seconds after misplaying the last one, as Cesar Hernandez rushes out from second to snag it, bobbling the catch in his glove. Is he, Aaron Altherr, … all there?
Altherr has his mind on winter vacation!
— WILD2016 (@mookie4ever86) October 1, 2016
And so it’s men on first and third, one out, as Yoenis Cespedes steps up to the bat. Mets up two runs and looking for insurance. He hacks a big whiff on a sinking changeup, fouls a hanging curve back off the mask of Cameron Rupp.
Mariot shoots a fastball inside, and there’s check-swinging bat-flinging confusion at home, with the TV guys unsure if it hit him, if he swung, if the ball knocked the knob of the bat—with the bat thrown out of his hands and out onto the infield grass.
“The bat went forward,” one of them says, “the whole bat went forward, it’s gotta be a swing!!”
Ball three. Pete Mackanin argues from the top step of the dugout, the first-base umpire tosses him, Larry Bowa looks on in disbelief from behind the dugout netting.
Mackanin grabs his binders and water cup, saunters off to the clubhouse, and Mariot set up again for Cespedes.
Pete Mackanin hadn’t been ejected all season. He finally does it in Game 160.
— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) October 1, 2016
And then, on the next pitch, a pop fly to first. Cespedes tilts his head up at the ball, straight up. The catcher looks up. Mariot looks up, the fans look up. A texter in the front row looks down, a sleeping fan’s head stays down as well. The umpire looks straight ahead at the field of play. Cespedes throws his head back down and flips the bat into the dirt, trotting on to first.
Reyes runs back to the base, Hernandez shifts over from second, Howard edges back toward the grass to catch it. Then a sudden jolt back toward the bag, sprinting as he sees it lost in the wind, like he’s missed the bus, pleading with the driver to pull over for just one second. Reyes pulls his arms in like he’s about to be splashed by water.
And the baseball slams down from the heavens onto the base, like a skydiver onto a trampoline. Bounces off the rubber, dirt specks sprung up into the air. Howard’s head bobbles from up to down to up, with Cespedes hustling in safe and Reyes dashing on to second. Howard snaps awake and flings the ball over to second for the forceout in time. Reyes out, De Aza scores. 4-1 Mets lead, RBI for Cespedes.
“I’ve never seen that,” one of the TV guys says. “Just about the strangest 3-6 putout you’ll see.”
— Adrian Garro (@adriangarro) October 1, 2016
Howard meanders over to the mound for an infield meeting, with the face of a man who’s just been pranked, looking up at the sky and back at the group. Shaking his head with a dog-ate-my-homework innocence. “Dang! You see that wind? That wind! You guys see that wind?”
Jose Reyes walks back to the Mets dugout grinning. Mariot comes out, Joely Rodriguez jogs in from the bullpen—(and for all you linguists out there, that’s Spanish for Jolly Roger).
Reyes and Cespedes talking in dugout about Howard not catching pop-up, Reyes thought it was going to hit him on the head 😂 pic.twitter.com/juKJkByohL
— Jennifer X. Williams (@JenXperience) October 1, 2016
They flip back to commercials, return after a minute, and the camera’s back on the home dugout with the Phanatic gone and a lone security guard on watch, the TV crew still shaking their heads: “It’s been a strange inning, to say the least.”
The Cardinals are up one run in Pittsburgh, the Giants leading out on the west coast. The Mets closing down on the magic number. And they knock home one more, a chopper through the left-side gap from Jay Bruce, Cespedes home to score. A 5-1 lead for the Mets.
The camera cuts to Mariot in the dugout having an apparent panic attack, his hands in his hair, knees quaking, body quivering. ERA rising beyond his control.
And the Philly Phanatic slumps morose in some empty corner of the ballpark concourse, hirsute and obese, wondering whatever happened to those great teams, those great years, that Chase Utley, that Jimmy Rollins. That Ryan Howard, just one game left in his storied career.
“Let’s go Mets!!” they call out in the chilly Philadelphia air, echoing around the Phanatic’s feathered head. “Let’s go Mets!!”—repeating over the windy skies north through New Jersey, a cheerful hum over the distant Big Apple.
The playoffs a few short days away.