NEW YORK – Mets history took a cream pie to the face Monday night.
This was supposed to be a night to remember for the New York Mets, and it was, for all the wrong reasons.
Casey Stengel, manager of the original Mets, famously asked "Can't anyone here play this game?'' during the team's wretched inaugural season in 1962, when they lost 120 games and made a cult figure out of the spectacularly inept Marvelous Marv Throneberry.
The same question would have been apt Monday night, when the Mets christened their glittering new showcase, Citi Field, with a 6-5 loss to the San Diego Padres that made Mr. Met blush, if not general manager Omar Minaya.
The night began promisingly enough, with a strike thrown by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver to a Mets great from a later generation, Mike Piazza. But then the game began, and someone slipped a blooper reel into the play-by-play.
The first batter of the night, Jody Gerut, a Padres outfielder of modest power, lined Mike Pelfrey's third pitch just inside the right-field foul pole for a home run. That's the first time, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that any ballpark has been christened in that fashion.
The winning run scored in the sixth inning when Mets right-fielder Ryan Church dropped Luis Rodriguez's fly ball for a three-base error, and Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano, his knee twitching at an inopportune time, was called for a balk, allowing Rodriguez to trot home.
But the signature moment of the game happened in the second inning, when Pelfrey, who stands 6-foot-7 in his stocking feet and looks like he could post up Shaq while standing on the rubber, wound up to throw a pitch to Padres pitcher Walter Silva and fell on his face while never releasing the ball. The Mets, who used to show Three Stooges sketches with regularity in Shea Stadium, had their own Citi Field pratfall worthy of Curly, Moe and Larry.
"I went to land on my front foot and my cleat got caught,'' Pelfrey said. "My weight just kept going, and I just tried to hold onto the baseball, because I knew I couldn't execute a pitch if I kept off-balance.''
His dignity shot, Pelfrey couldn't help but laugh as he clambered to his feet. Manager Jerry Manuel and the trainer came to check on him, anyway.
"They all came out and I asked them, 'Is this game on TV?' '' Pelfrey said. "They told me it was. It was pretty embarrassing.''
Fans with long memories – think 40 years ago – might have had another flashback an inning later, when a cat suddenly appeared on the field behind home plate. This cat, however, was calico, not black, like the one a fan dropped onto the field with Leo Durocher's Cubs in town back in 1969. That cat made a beeline for Cubs star Ron Santo, who was standing in the on-deck circle, then paraded past the Cubs dugout. The Cubs, in first place at the time, subsequently collapsed, clearing the way for the team that became known as the Amazin' Mets to sweep past them on their way to a World Series title.
Seaver was the ace of that team, winning 25 games and the Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher, which is why he looked incredulous, during an in-game interview at the back of the press box, when asked whether it came as a surprise to be asked to throw out the first pitch.
"Do the Mets have another player who is a Hall of Famer?'' Seaver shot back. "Oops, I forgot.''
The answer, of course, is no, though his interrogator suggested that Doc Gooden, who also was introduced before the game, would have been worthy of the first-ball honor.
"Is he a Hall of Famer?'' Seaver barked. "We're working in present-time here, thank you very much.''
Seaver and Piazza formed the same battery that threw out the first pitch at Shea's last game. This time, Seaver said, he made sure to warm up, after bouncing his pitch last September. He also made a visit to the clubhouse before the game.
"This is a great place,'' he said, "but the locker room is too cushy. C'mon, where are the golf clubs? Let's go.''
For Seaver, the day was less about the new ballpark than thinking about all the people he played with in his decade in a Mets uniform (1967-77, plus an encore appearance in 1983). Especially Gil Hodges, the late manager of the '69 Amazins'.
"How in the world did we get to be 64, 65 years old?'' said Seaver, who turned 64 last November. "I think about Gil when I am in my vineyard, when I'm talking to myself and my two Labradors. He was such an important part of my life.''
Mets fans, despite being well-fed (lobster rolls, ribs, sushi, and, Shea devotees will be happy to hear, Mama's of Corona's great Italian sandwiches) and well-entertained (the cast of "West Side Story" sang the anthem, and four Marine F-18 Hornets did the flyover with more than 200 servicemen and women on the field), were at their piquant best for much of the night.
They booed the introductions of the governor, David Paterson, the speaker of the New York state assembly, Sheldon Silver, and baseball commissioner Bud Selig, while mixing in a few cheers with the catcalls for the mayor, Michael Bloomberg. They gave a mock cheer to Mets left fielder Daniel Murphy, whose dropped fly ball had cost the Mets and Johan Santana (13 whiffs) a win the day before, when he made a routine catch, and showed little patience for Pelfrey when he was touched for three more runs in the second and a home run by Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez in the fifth.
The place came to life in the home half of the fifth, when the Mets roared back to tie, three runs scoring on David Wright's home run, the first in the new yard by a Met. But Church's misplay and Feliciano's balk came an inning later, and two former Mets, Duaner Sanchez and Heath Bell, came out of the bullpen to shut down the home team.
"We're still a work in progress,'' Manuel said afterward.
If the sponsor of the new ballpark is any guide, with any luck, a Mets bailout may be around the corner.
- Tom Seaver