Old timers insist that if you go to a baseball game, you will always see something you never saw before. On Sunday, August 23, I saw something at Citi Field in Queens that nobody had ever seen before: the first unassisted game-ending triple play in the history of the National League.
In fact, I saw a lot of things I had never seen before: the first time I saw the Philadelphia Phillies, a team I have followed since 1959, score six runs in the first inning; the first time I saw a ball snared beneath the outfield matting turn into an inside-the-park home run; the first time I ever saw a pitcher removed from a game in the middle of a pitch count (3-0) to another pitcher. You can't even get the pitcher out, is what Mets manager Jerry Manuel was telling Oliver Perez in front of 40,000 jeering fans. You don't belong in the majors.
You'd have to attend basketball, hockey, or football games every day for the next 300 years to personally witness this much weirdness in a single contest. This is why baseball is, and always will be, the national pastime. It is mankind's finest achievement.
The triple play was fraught with irony. For starters, the goat--Mets right-fielder Jeff Francoeur--had been a hero the previous inning when he snared a sinking line drive, turning a triple into an out. Initially, the second-base umpire ruled that Francoeur had trapped the ball. But now with the batter, whose three earlier hits had lifted his average from .128 to a gaudy .154, standing on third, the umpire consulted with his colleagues and reversed his own decision.
It was the right call, but a spineless one. An umpire cannot transmogrify a triple into an out just because the fans are booing him, since the other umps could not possibly have seen the play any better than he did.
This cheesy decision was reached right after the public address announcer informed the crowd that all fans sitting in Section 354, who had previously been told they were eligible for free fast food because the Mets had pilfered three bases in one game, had not actually won the prize. The complimentary vittles were going to the fans in an entirely different section. The error was blamed on "a computer glitch."
So now, literally hundreds of long-suffering Mets fans were going to have to tell their starving children--smack-dab in the middle of the worst recession since 1929--that chicken fingers for the entire family were out. And the Mets still wonder why they are not viewed with the same respect as the Yankees. I had never witnessed anything like this at a baseball game before.
The runner who had been stripped of a triple, and of the first four-hit game in his career, was Phillies utility fielder Eric Bruntlett. Bruntlett was so enraged that he at first refused to leave third base. Umps can give ballplayers the old heave-ho for showing them up like this, but not this time. Eventually the sullen Bruntlett vacated the base and headed back to his position. It was Bruntlett who executed the triple play minutes later.
What elevated this event to an even more vertiginous level of mythological anomalousness was that, by butchering the two previous ground balls, Bruntlett had put himself in a position to execute a play that will be talked about for years, if not millennia. Bruntlett was only in the game because the Phils had given the sure-handed Chase Utley the day off. In fact, Bruntlett, a dud both in the field and at the plate this season, was only on the team because he had become a folk hero of sorts by scoring the run that won the World Series for the Phillies last year.
Yes, it was Bruntlett's ineptness, combined with the Mets' inexplicable decision to attempt a double steal while trailing by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, that meant that he was inches away from second base when Francoeur's line drive shot right up the middle and into his glove. Without the double steal, the ball would have ripped into center field, scoring the runner from second and leaving the Mets with men at first and second with nobody out. And Francoeur, now forever linked in baseball lore with Bruntlett, would have been even more of a hero than he already was.
After Bruntlett's play--catching Francoeur's line drive, stepping on second, and tagging the Mets' Daniel Murphy--the crowd reacted in a very subdued fashion. Basically, no one in the entire stadium (Francoeur included) understood what had happened. The Phillies lined up and high-fived one another in a surprisingly casual manner, given that they had just witnessed a game-ending play that had never before occurred in a National League game, and had only occurred one other time in the history of baseball when Johnny Neun of the Detroit Tigers executed a game-ending unassisted triple play back in 1927.
The most amazing thing for me was how close I came to missing the whole thing. I was only at the game because a Mets fan I know could not bear to watch the inept, injury-plagued home team any longer and gave me the tickets. When it started to shower that morning, I almost decided to stay home because I do not like watching Philadelphia teams play in New York stadiums, especially in the rain. Then, as Phils closer Brad Lidge, who is having a truly nightmarish season, was getting ready to pitch to Francoeur, I felt my throat drying up and went off in search of water. Luckily, the upper deck in right field at Citi Field doesn't have any water fountains--even though the fatso manning the Fan Assistance desk did not know this--and even though the Pepsi Porch is a Saharan sun field where one day some fan will actually die of dehydration.
Because there was no water to be found, I returned to the stands--just in time to see the once-in-a-lifetime triple play. After the game, some of my friends said it was horribly unfair for Utley to miss out on this chance at baseball immortality. But as Utley is going to Cooperstown on the first ballot, he already has a loftier brand of immortality locked up. Moreover, had Utley been in the game, there would have been no chance for a triple play because the two previous batters would never have reached base.
Or would they? The next day, on the very first Mets at-bat, Utley dropped a routine pop fly, then threw wildly past second, allowing the batter to round the bases. The Met scoring that inside-the-park-home-run-via-double-error was Angel Pagan, who had hit the bizarre inside-the-park four-bagger that lodged under the center field matting the day before. Utley had never made two errors on the same play in his entire career. And some people still wonder why soccer will never catch on in this country.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.