Tears

I kind of think it’s unfair to say Wilmer Flores was crying. The 24-year-old Mets middle infielder, after finding out he’d apparently been traded to Milwaukee, clearly had been crying. There’s the red eyes and all, the wiping his face with his sleeve. Between innings, he probably gave himself a minute in the clubhouse for the real sadness. But at this point, he was mostly just tearing up — the kind of thing you’d expect a literal kid to do after finding out the team that brought him to United States from Venezuela as a 16-year-old just to play baseball had decided to ship him off.

Imagine if you had just been fired from the only job you’d ever had (in a foreign country, surrounded by people who speak a hard language you’ve only just learned) … and then had to go right back out there and play shortstop on television.

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This was July 29. Immediately after the game ended, the Mets announced the deal had fallen through and Flores would not be traded after all. Hilarity ensued on Twitter. Hot takes were spewed left and right. A narrative quickly developed: The heartless Mets not only publicly embarrassed a young player but also failed to put him out of his misery. The next day, he’d have to put the uniform back on of the team who, for three hours or so, no longer wanted him.

You probably know the rest of this story. Two nights later, in a crucial game against the first-place Washington Nationals, Flores stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 12th, the game tied 1-1. What happened next literally would have been too far-fetched for a movie script: The same guy who had been crying on SportsCenter 48 hours earlier slugged a game-winning home run. The Mets, after struggling to stay afloat most of the year, went 35-17 over the next two months before clinching a division championship (just their second since 1988) on Sept. 26. It’s been a once-in-a-generation sort of roller coaster season and it has an absurdly obvious turning point.

Wilmer Flores is not a great baseball player. Right now, he’s probably barely a decent baseball player. He’s not even the best-hitting shortstop on his own team. I’ve always loved the poem “Casey At the Bat” and I cite it often when superstars fail to come through in high-leverage situations. It’s kinda my emotional ace in the hole during incessant debates about “clutch” in sports. Casey, of course, strikes out as the winning run (which seems, uh, familiar). The powerful, fearsome, robotic, arrogant Casey fails in the critical moment. In all these senses, Wilmer that night was the anti-Casey.

Fan affection is a tricky thing. Matt Harvey went from hero to villain because his agent said something dumb and Matt didn’t deny it quite as firmly as he maybe should have. Mets fans were indignant in 2007 when Tom Glavine, after giving up seven runs in the first inning of the final, crucial game of the season, said he wasn’t “devastated.”

As a general trend, we fans think players ought to care more than they do. They want to win, of course, but they don’t feel the same kind of loyalty to one team that fans do. Nor should they — players regularly get traded, cut, designated for assignment, and cast aside after they get hurt. It’s a business for the team; so should it be for the players. They’re expected to handle all adversity with the same professionalism we do for our employers. Honestly, it shouldn’t bother us so much when pro athletes put in good, honest labor during the season, collect their paycheck, and move on with their lives. Lord knows I wouldn’t like it if thousands of people reviled my personal character because I had a bad day at my job.

Of course, that doesn’t make our experience any easier. Fandom means perpetual disappointment. If one judges success as winning a championship, even enormously successful organizations like the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Lakers fail a whole lot more often than they succeed. Being a fan of a moribund franchise like the Mets teaches you to handle winning with temperance and reservation at best — at worst, it teaches you abject pessimism and causes you to tweet that your team is “embarrassing” after losing a meaningless game mere days after clinching a division championship for the sixth time ever.

Fans can be silly. We take this whole sports thing way too seriously. We use words like “painful” and “heartbreaking” after a ball doesn’t roll the direction we wanted it to, and we expect a bunch of guys whose actual livelihood depends on their performance and who can get cast aside the moment they’re no longer excellent to care about team loyalty as much as we do.

But then there are Moments. Times that transcend the normal, mundane onward progression that typifies baseball and for once surpass the artificial narratives we readily ascribe. Players who seem to care about our team as much as we do.

There’s Mike Piazza — who had an equally successful career in Los Angeles but now only tweets about the Mets — in the first game in New York after 9/11 swatting a ball so high and so far we still watch it 14 years later because sometimes life sucks so bad that baseball is exactly the right kind of distraction. There’s Johan Santana, throwing pitch after pitch after pitch until his arm maybe literally falls off, just to secure a milestone that has happened 293 times and our rational selves tell us shouldn’t matter THAT much but oh man, does it ever.

And there’s Wilmer Flores. Yeah, he hit an important home run; lots of guys do. The part I watch over and over is how, after rounding third, Flores grabs the part of his jersey that says “METS.”

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He cared.

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