St. Lucie and the sticker bush

Disclaimer: This post represents an effort of Trachsellian efficiency. It’s something I considered for weeks then hammered out in a few frustrated hours this morning because I didn’t want to think about it anymore. If it seems a bit disjointed, that’s why. Also, it contains an anecdote from religion because I think it’s thematically relevant, not because this site espouses or endorses any religion.

When I was six or seven, sometime after the Mets won their last World Series but before we lost hope that the same group of mustachioed heroes could do it again, I was playing wiffle ball against my neighbor in my backyard and fouled one into the sticker bushes that separated our properties.

This happened with some frequency, and often we could use the bat to poke the ball out through the other side of the bush. This time, though, our efforts just pushed the ball deeper into the weave of thorns until finally it became stuck between branches, firmly entrenched. We stood there staring at it until my mom spotted us from inside the house. She stepped out, walked over, and without hesitation jammed her arm deep into the bush, grabbed the ball, pulled it out, handed it to me and walked back inside. Some badass mom stuff, and pretty indicative of my family’s approach to pain. More on that in a bit.

Plenty of stories have emerged from Mets camp in Port St. Lucie: Daniel Murphy is playing second base. Terry Collins has a buddy who owned a bear. Nearly every player on the roster has been hurt or nicked up or diagnosed with something at some point. Mike Pelfrey is struggling to retire Grapefruit League hitters. Unheralded Minor League lefty Josh Edgin has become much-heralded Minor League lefty Josh Edgin.

But make no mistake: There should be no bigger takeaway from Port St. Lucie this spring than the apparent health (or procession toward health) of the Mets’ one-time ace, Johan Santana.

I say “one-time ace” because Santana hasn’t pitched in a real game in over a year, because the road back from shoulder surgery is rarely a smooth one, and because calling him the team’s ace outright seems unfair to R.A. Dickey. But in and around Mets camp, everything about Santana screams superstar. His is a massive, charismatic, electric presence. He commands the attention of every eye and camera nearby; his quips light up a weary clubhouse on muggy mornings; his swagger in bullpen sessions draws entertained smiles from the most grizzled of old baseball men. As a credentialed member of the media covering the team I’m trying to remain vaguely professional here, but screw it: Johan Santana is totally awesome and cool.

In terms of on-field production, I am convinced, that means basically nothing. Santana is worth as much to the Mets as he contributes on the field, and what he can contribute on the field in 2012 remains to be seen. But I think his demeanor -– his persistent ace-ness despite not having thrown a big-league pitch since Sept. 2, 2010, and while fighting his way back from a surgery that has ended lesser careers -– speaks to something maybe even more important than the fate of this year’s Mets.

The O.G. St. Lucie — or Lucy or Lucia depending on what language you speak — lived in Sicily around the turn of the fourth century. According to the legend –- and I’m simplifying it — she was arranged to marry a wealthy, powerful man that she did not want to marry. For refusing, she was sentenced to a brothel, then tortured and eventually killed. According to this version of the story, upon her sentencing, she said this:

“You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.”

More disclaiming: I obviously don’t mean to equate what Johan Santana’s going through or any of the other stuff I’m going to get to later in this post with martyrdom. I just like the quote. “Whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.” Badass.

Here’s my deal: I have a pair of incurable but non-terminal auto-immune diseases -– multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease. I’m not seeking pity and I don’t want to bog this post down with personal medical history, but it turns out they can team up to be a real pain in the ass sometimes. I’m lucky in that I’ve avoided the worst of both, but I found out about the M.S. because a side effect of medication I was taking for Crohn’s amplified the symptoms. I went off that medication upon the M.S. diagnosis in 2008 and suffered a Crohn’s flare-up this summer. I went on steroids to calm it, started absorbing food again and gained a bunch of weight*. The weight puts extra stress on my back that’s already aching from the M.S., but working out to try to drop that weight –- as I did this morning –- makes my back hurt more. And painkillers can trigger the Crohn’s disease again.

It’s frustrating sometimes, no doubt, but it’s not something I talk about or even think about that often. That’s part of why I struggled to get this post out, I think. And the last thing I want is to turn this into some sort of inspirational Tony Robbins screed, and for all I know I’ll change my stance on the following if and when I find myself in worse shape down the road. But what I’ve gotten from all of it — not something I’ve learned, but something I think was already ingrained in me that I’ve come to understand through a decade’s worth of medical nonsense — is this: You can’t let what hurts you define you.

It’s pointless. Maybe for some, pain is so overwhelming that it’s impossible not to, and maybe it’s unfair for me as someone still relatively healthy to even say that. But if you can bear it, there’s no sense dwelling on it. You should treat it, certainly, and describe it to your medical professional and even complain about it to your loved ones if you find that therapeutic. Then try to think about something else. My back hurts. In July my stomach hurt. Probably something hurts you too. What can you do but deal with it and carry on?

Which brings me, in an extraordinarily roundabout fashion, to the point of this post. Being a Mets fan is not an auto-immune disease, though it might sometimes feel that way. And being a Mets fan these past few years has been rough, at least relative to being a fan of most other teams or being a Mets fan back in the late 80s. If I listed the reasons why here, this would border on book length.

Maybe the pervasive, persistent negativity that seems to have gripped most of the fanbase is something therapeutic, or provides some sense of community. Maybe people still laugh at the same tired jokes we’ve all been making for three years. I can’t speak for you. But just like I didn’t become a baseball fan to follow high-stakes financial dramas, I definitely didn’t become a baseball fan to have it break my spirit, to start approaching every single inkling of news –- good and bad –- about my team with snark and cynicism and woe-is-me stuff.

Rooting for a team means emotionally investing in something, and that brings with it the risk of some pain –- not lasting physical pain, but pain nonetheless. But when that pain comes like it has the last few years, what’s the sense in wallowing in it?

Especially with baseball. It’s baseball. Baseball. For one thing, you can opt out at any time. If the Mets actually make you miserable, stop following the Mets. If you can’t or won’t, I suggest for the sake of your sanity finding whatever small shred of hope you have for the upcoming season and seizing it, rather than floundering about in so much Met-fan self-pity.

Because right now it kind of feels like we –- and I certainly include myself here -– spend a hell of a lot of time poking at the sticker bush, thinking about it and whining about it and generally making things worse for ourselves, when we could save ourselves a lot of time and anguish by just reaching into the thorns and gripping the baseball inside.

Lastly: Some fellow Mets fans are putting on a concert to benefit the M.S. Association of America on Thursday night. They’re raffling off a bunch of stuff, including a guitar signed by My Chemical Romance, and proceeds will help M.S. patients less fortunate than me. I’ll be there, and if you come I will regale you with stories about how cool Johan Santana is.

*- I also moved to the city, where there are way more delicious food options available within walking distance of my home. That’s clearly part of it. It just didn’t fit with the narrative. Journalism!

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