Jacob DeGrom in full bloom


Jacob DeGrom in full bloom

As the spring and early summer of 2021 rolled in, when the cherry blossoms stepped aside and the crepe myrtles bloomed, my children and I, over the course of April, May, and June afternoons and evenings, watched Jacob DeGrom pitch at a level nobody had ever seen before nor ever seen since.

In the three weeks following Memorial Day, DeGrom would strike out 43 batters, give up seven hits, walk only three, and surrender zero runs. One June night in the New York borough of Queens, DeGrom struck out the lead-off batter before Anthony Rizzo flied out to right on a 100 mph fastball. DeGrom then struck out the next seven batters and drove in a run before leaving, mysteriously, after three innings. It was perfection. Like DeGrom’s career with the New York Mets, it was splendid and incomplete, and it ended far too soon.

Mets fans’ hearts will inevitably ache at DeGrom’s departure from the Mets this off-season, just as our hearts ached when he left that Chicago Cubs game early. We are pierced by the thought of what might have been or at the jealousy that emerges when we now see the words: “Rangers starting pitcher Jacob DeGrom.”

There’s no avoiding the heartache in this world, especially for Mets fans. What sort of ache, though, is our choice. We can ache with regret and sorrow, if we so choose. We can curse that over nine seasons with the most talented pitcher of our time, the Mets never won a World Series. We can curse that our team in 2018 gave him only 10 wins in what was the most dominant year a pitcher has had in a generation.

Alternatively, we can choose a sweeter ache. Ours can ache the way a heart aches when one sees, for a fleeting instant, a flower of untold beauty. A poet once wrote of riding the railroad through the countryside, looking out the window, and spotting a flower he had never seen before and that he had never seen since. The flower was that much more beautiful for being so fleeting.

Baseball is like life in many ways, including this one: Every good and beautiful thing in this world is a fleeting, mortal flower. If we try to hold on forever, to joy, to art, to beauty, we will always be disappointed. We will never be able to love that which we know is passing. We will crush it by holding on too tight. We’re not supposed to be happy when we lose good things. We’re just supposed to know that all the good things we have will leave us. The true sadness is if you weren’t looking out the train window.

Did you miss Jake’s first year? I did. I was tuned out of baseball, busy with a baby and four other children, and I missed his Rookie of the Year season and first All-Star Game appearance. But I plugged back in during 2015 and was watching the night Jacob DeGrom became Jacob DeGrom.

It was Oct. 15, 2015, in Los Angeles. DeGrom got the start in the deciding game of the National League Division Series. He gave up four straight hits in the first inning to turn a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit. It was a dreadful beginning in the biggest start of his life.

Then the second inning began nearly as poorly. The Los Angeles Dodgers again got two on with one out and the heart of the order coming up. Here we go again. DeGrom fell behind LA rookie sensation Corey Seager (who had already singled and scored that night) with two straight balls that didn’t even come close to the strike zone.

This was the low point of DeGrom’s career. He got the start in the biggest Mets game of his career, he was lucky to give up only two runs in the first, and here he was about to load the bases with one out for LA’s three-, four-, and five-hitters. This series had already been contentious with deliberate injuries, bean balls, ejections, and more. Now the Dodger Stadium crowd was raucous, feeling vindication at hand, as DeGrom approached 40 pitches in the second inning.

“All these great pitchers,” said announcer Ron Darling, “Kershaw, Greinke, and the young arms of the Mets — it’s all predicated off the fastball command. So far, DeGrom does not have it.” DeGrom’s 2-0 pitch sailed way outside. TV viewers heard Darling give a pitying “hmm.”

Pitching coach Dan Warthen had coached up DeGrom for this night for two years. In the dugout, he grabbed the phone to the bullpen. Mets starter and fellow “young arm” Noah Syndergaard started warming up in the second inning, ready to make an emergency relief appearance. DeGrom came straight at Seager with three straight fastballs, all fouled off. On a second full-count pitch as LA fans rose to their feet, expecting the knockout blow from their rookie, DeGrom buried a changeup. Strike three. The crowd got quiet for a second, and then DeGrom struck out Adrian Gonzalez on three pitches.

The third inning was just as rough to start. The Dodgers got a double, a steal, and a walk with one out. DeGrom induced a bouncer and then turned a double play. Nobody, besides maybe DeGrom, knew it, but the game had been transformed over the past two innings.

From then on, it was lights out. DeGrom threw five more shutout innings, striking out five while giving up only two more hits. The Mets scored twice. The bullpen wasn’t needed until the eighth. New York won the game and advanced.

DeGrom had hundreds of beautiful moments from 2014 to 2022, such as his domination of the Atlanta Braves and the Dodgers in summer 2022. If we were watching as the train rolled through the years, we got to watch the best hitters in the game fan at his slider — we got to gawk as the radar gun registered 101.

As a Mets fan, the question now that it’s over is how you look back on these moments of beauty. Do you resent that they never became a title, or do you say, “That was awesome. I’m glad I caught that”? And looking forward, do you appreciate every Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander start in 2023, or do you wonder when one or both will go over the hill?

You have to accept the beauty and the glory of the moment as good things in themselves, rather than as building blocks for some future accomplishment. It’s the only way to be happy, especially as a Mets fan.

Timothy P. Carney is the senior political columnist at the Washington Examiner and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, The Big Ripoff, and Obamanomics.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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