NEW YORK — Just after 5 p.m. at Citi Field, New York Mets President Sandy Alderson was pacing around the area in front of home plate, head down, searching for something.
About five hours earlier, his public relations staff marched those two stars out to apologize to reporters for the thumbs-down gestures directed at their own fans.
A half-hour earlier, his lifeless, third-place Mets were trailing the last-place Miami Marlins 5-1, looking like a season’s worth of chaos and a few days’ worth of controversy might have finally led to a decisive implosion.
And after all of that, there was Alderson, doubled over on the infield searching for the earring that slipped out of Báez’s ear when he slid across home plate as the winning run after a five-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, or maybe it fell out when Báez hugged Lindor to celebrate the victory.
Because somehow, after all that, after Báez was booed when he stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter earlier in the afternoon, he was the man running from first base when Marlins left fielder Jorge Alfaro bobbled Michael Conforto’s double.
So he was the one who took the chance and slid spread-eagle into home as the winning run, the one who sent the 8,000 or so fans in attendance at the suspended game holding their thumbs up behind the dugout. And he was the one being celebrated afterward, while the grounds crew and team president hunted for remnants of the improbable comeback.
“I don’t know what one game does, but I can tell you that the guys wanted to win this one about as badly as any other game that we’ve played,” clubhouse stalwart and normally stoic Conforto said. “In short, winning cures everything.”
The Mets are still in third place in the National League East. They are still several games out of the second NL wild-card spot. But winning — and winning like that — may have been the only way to fend off a total collapse and the requisite demolition.
When Tuesday began, the Mets were not only a mediocre team but one that had, as their owner put it in an interview with the New York Post, “touched the third rail.”
The few dozen fans who stood in the stands behind the Mets’ dugout in the uncommonly quiet hour before the game Tuesday afternoon knew exactly what was happening when a member of the Mets’ public relations staff marched Báez, then Lindor, up the stairs, onto the field and into a small semicircle of reporters and cameras.
“We forgive you!” one fan yelled, clearly willing to leave the Mets’ latest brush with chaos — Báez’s stunning Sunday admission that he, Lindor, Kevin Pillar and other teammates were flashing the thumbs-down sign to their own fans in return for boos this weekend — behind her.
“It’s been everywhere. Not surprised, but all the comments from my comments, it’s been crazy,” Báez said. “But I understand the frustration. We’re frustrated, too.”
Though Báez has been a member of the Mets for only a month, his role in the chaos of recent days is in keeping with this entire Mets season. The Mets entered the season buoyed by the spending of new owner Steven Cohen and the once-in-a-generation showings of starter Jacob deGrom, then seemed poised to take the NL East.
Instead, they lost deGrom to nebulous injuries and have been consumed by one controversy after another, from a fight in the tunnel players later said was about rodent identification, to battles with reporters over what they believe is unwarranted negativity for a team that began the year with the third-highest payroll in the majors but began Tuesday well out of a playoff spot with just three more wins than the Colorado Rockies.
Alderson issued that statement Sunday condemning his players for their treatment of fans and promising a team meeting to address the issue — a meeting that happened Tuesday, though no one wanted to supply many details publicly.
Forty-five minutes before their suspended game against the Marlins resumed Tuesday, their manager hadn’t yet spoken and their quarter-of-a-billion-dollar shortstop was being booed by fans behind the dugout before apologizing for offending the fans while repeating that he hadn’t meant to do so.
“It was to the dugout. Thumbs-down for me means the adversity we have gone through this whole time, the negative things, we have overcome it. We did it. We went over,” Lindor said, giving a thumbs-down as if repeating the gesture elucidated the explanation. “However, it was wrong and I apologize to whoever I offended. It was not my intent to offend people. You can’t go against the fans.”
Lindor’s attempt to explain that the gesture was not directed at fans while also acknowledging it was wrong echoed similar sentiment from Báez, who said he may have misspoken about the gesture being intended to boo the fans.
“I really meant like, to boo me now — not to the fans, to our dugout,” said Báez, who grew up speaking Spanish but braves his interviews in English, something many Spanish speakers choose against for fear of being misinterpreted.
“I didn’t say the fans are bad. I love the fans. But I just felt like we were alone,” he added. “The fans obviously wants to win. And they pay our salaries like everybody says, but we want to win, too. The frustration got to us. I didn’t mean to offend anyone. And if I offended anybody, we apologize.”
Both Mets vowed not to do the thumbs-down gesture for the rest of the season. Lindor said he hopes the issue doesn’t cling to him his whole career here. Báez is a short-term rental, and he seems unlikely to sign here long-term after the season. As he finished his public apology and headed back into the dugout, a fan in a Mets jersey and hat yelled out to him.
“Javy, we just want to win, bro,” he said. Báez looked up, smiled and disappeared into the clubhouse.
When he reappeared as a pinch hitter late in the first game, he was greeted by boos. The boos turned to cheers when he was hit by a pitch and took first base. By the time he returned to home plate as the winning run in the ninth, the few thousand fans left were standing and chanting his name, any perceived sins momentarily forgotten because he had a chance to win the game. He beat out an infield single. He hurried home when he saw the Marlins make a mistake. And he flipped thousands of thumbs — and, perhaps, the Mets’ whole narrative — in the process.
“We got to keep winning,” Conforto said. “Winning is all we want. Winning is all the fans want. We’re all pulling the same direction here.”