Late Sunday morning, Will from Queens availed himself of the round-the-clock therapy session known as sports-talk radio. By the time he got through to Mike Francesa, the chief clinician at WFAN, his voice was trembling with emotion.
“I would say it’s dirty,” Will said with difficulty. “It bothers me as a Mets fan. But Harvey better step up tomorrow night.”
Less than a half-day earlier, on the other side of the continent, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Chase Utley had executed a slide at second base in which the base itself seemed incidental. Intent on breaking up a double play that had no chance of completion, Utley took out Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada with such single-minded purpose that he hardly waved at second base as he slid past, a knee-capper in Dodger blue.
Tejada’s leg was broken, Utley was called safe — on legal if not moral grounds — and the Dodgers went on to win the game and tie the best-of-five National League division series at one apiece. Now Will from Queens was all but sobbing as he called upon Matt Harvey, the Mets’ starting pitcher Monday night, to “step up.”
“Put the team on your shoulders, and then you got my faith back in you,” Will said, now crying. “He has to do it tomorrow night. I want to see it done tomorrow night. Thank you.”
What Will meant is perhaps known only to him and his off-the-air therapist. But many of us who were listening could easily interpret his comments to be a plaintive cry for retaliation. Hitting a batter, preferably Utley, with a pitch. Taking out an infielder, preferably Utley, with a hard slide. Something done — preferably to Utley.
The possibility — even the expectation — of payback has added an extra layer of tension to Monday night’s pivotal game. It has also generated a torrent of cost-benefit analyses by fans and sportswriters about whether retaliation, as much a part of the game as ground-rule doubles and crotch tugs, is warranted, and if so, how it will be delivered.
Let’s take a look at some of those theories, shall we?
First, there is history. Utley, 36, is a veteran player with a win-at-all-cost style of play that some admire and others say is another term for misdemeanor assault. In 2010, for example, he delivered a hard slide to Tejada, then a rookie, that seemed — a bit much.
Even before that history, there is other history that obsessive Mets fans have not forgotten. In 2000, Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens hit Mets catcher Mike Piazza in the head; he also twirled a shattered bat toward Piazza during that year’s World Series. That Piazza routinely feasted on Clemens’s pitching may have been a factor.
Two years later — baseball people have long memories, it seems — the Mets had a chance for retaliation when Clemens returned to Shea Stadium. The very first pitch that Mets pitcher Shawn Estes threw to Clemens was a fastball that ended up several inches behind the Yankee’s upper thigh.
Clemens responded with a smirk that lives on.
Now, about Game 3.
Major League Baseball suspended Utley for two games on Sunday night, but that suspension is under appeal, which means that the infielder is eligible to play for now.
But will he play? He was not scheduled to be in the starting lineup.
Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly might decide that Utley’s presence on the field would provide more motivation for the Mets and their fans than for the Dodgers. On the other hand, he might reason that having Utley step into the batter’s box could mess with Harvey’s concentration.
For one thing, Utley has a .333 batting average against Harvey. For another, Harvey has plunked Utley before, and might have a hard time resisting the urge to respond in the name of his teammate Tejada. This would mean awarding Utley a base, at the very least. It could also mean the ejection of the Mets pitcher from the game, especially if the umpires have warned the players against playing a game of payback.
If Utley does play, should Harvey or a reliever engage in one of the lesser traditions of this otherwise graceful game? Should he hit him with a pitch? If so, when? And if so, where? The foot? The fanny? The head?
And if Utley doesn’t play, should Harvey hit one of Utley’s teammates?
This admittedly sounds mercenary, even sick, but retaliation remains a very real part of the game — so much so that the lack of a pregame warning against retaliation by the umpires might be interpreted as a kind of boys-will-be-boys shrug behind chest protection. A signal to have at it.
Harvey may feel the pitcher’s burden of having the backs of his teammates, especially given his failure to attend a mandatory practice session last week. He may choose an appropriate moment at which the Mets could afford to have him ejected from the game — say, with a sizable lead in the sixth inning, when he might be pulled from the game anyway.
Or Harvey and the Mets might adopt a more evolved approach. To let Utley and the Dodgers fear a retaliation that never comes. To make the Dodgers sting not from a pitch to the buttocks, but rather from effective pitching, timely hitting and strong defense.
That certainly seemed to be what Mets Manager Terry Collins was signaling in the hours before the game. “Ruben knows we miss him,” he said. “He knows we’re irate about what happened. But there’s a lot at stake here and we cannot just give a game away to assure Ruben we’re gong to back him up.”
“I’ve had my conversation with Matt,” he added, speaking of Harvey. “We’re not throwing at anybody. You know, we’ll worry about this stuff at another date. But right now, this is a big game for us.”
Even so, there is no question that emotions will be laid bare, as Will from Queens has demonstrated.
After Will spoke his piece Sunday, his therapist, Francesa, responded with: “Will, you crying? You’re not really crying over this, I hope. Geez. You’re getting a little emotional there, Will. Geez.”
On Monday, though, Francesa invited Will from Queens to sit with him behind home plate at Citi Field, to witness the dramas within dramas unfolding within a single baseball game.
An earlier version of this article misstated Chase Utley’s age. He is 36, not 37.