In search of a villain

NEW YORK — A couple of hours before Friday night’s World Series game began, Noah Syndergaard — a big, blond Norse-god-looking dude from Texas — revealed what he was going to do with the first pitch of the game. He had been asked the day before how he would handle the first-pitch-swinging antics of Royals leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar. All playoffs, Escobar had been swinging at first pitches, and he’d been hitting a lot of them. In Game 1, he hit the first pitch for an inside-the-park homer.

Syndergaard said blandly, “I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”

Well, hey, it is the season for tricks, right? What kind of tricks did he have in mind? Knock on the Royals clubhouse door and then run away? Toilet paper Escobar’s locker? Maybe throw an egg for the first pitch instead of the baseball? That would be hilarious.

Syndergaard: “My first words I said to Travis (d’Arnaud) when we walked into the clubhouse today is, ‘How do you feel about high and tight for the first pitch, and then a curveball for the second?”

Well, a high-and-tight 98-mph fastball … that doesn’t seem quite as funny as my egg idea. But, you know, everyone thinks their tricks are the best. Syndergaard’s first pitch was certainly high, head-high. It was high enough that d’Arnaud couldn’t get up in time to catch it, high enough that it went over the wall 25 feet behind home plate and crashed into the net. And while it wasn’t “LOOK OUT!” tight, it was tight enough that Escobar definitely ducked and sort fell to the ground.

Escobar sat there for a moment and kind of nodded as if to say, “Oh it’s like that, huh?”

And Mets fans cheered loudly as if to say, “Yeah, it’s like that.”

And we had ourselves one of those quote-unquote “baseball moments.”

I use the quotation marks here because the pitch had no bearing whatsoever on Friday night’s game. The Royals were obviously undeterred by Syndergaard’s trick. They teed off on him in the first two innings, scoring three runs and almost knocking him out of the game in the second inning. The Royals pounded four hits against Syndergaard in that second inning, and was it not for a breathtakingly close overturned call at third base and a curveball that Ben Zobrist popped up, Syndergaard might have had a very short night.

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As it was, though, he made it through that onslaught and, by making an adjustment to keep his pitches DOWN and AWAY (rather than his tricky high and tight), he began to dominate the Royals’ hitters. Kansas City’s starter, Yordano Ventura, meanwhile, elevated his pitches and allowed two big homers, and later reliever Franklin Morales had a disastrous one-third of an inning that included a “now watch me look to second, now watch me nae nae, now watch look home, now watch me superman, now watch me look to third” dance that will probably haunt him forever. The Mets won the game 9-3, and they regained life in the World Series, and none of it had anything to do with the pitch.

But, like I said, it was a quote-unquote “baseball moment.”

And so, at the end, that’s all anybody wanted to talk about.

“Everybody in this locker room thinks that was on purpose,” Escobar said.

“My intent on that pitch was to make them uncomfortable, and I feel like I did just that,” Syndergaard said in agreement.

“It’s very weak and unprofessional,” the Royals’ Alex Rios said.

“They were trying to do the same thing to (Daniel) Murphy,” the Mets’ Tyler Clippard said.

“I think all 25 guys in the dugout were fired up,” the Royals’ Mike Moustakas said.

“If they have a problem with me throwing inside, then they can meet me 60 feet, 6 inches away,” Syndergaard said.

And so on. The social media chatter was more of the same, only louder. Syndergaard should be suspended. … The Royals are wimps. … Baseball has a double standard because Kelvin Herrera was suspended for throwing inside. … Syndergaard’s pitch didn’t even come close to Escobar’s head. … Etc.

Saturday, the story blew up entirely. Every other question to the managers involved the Syndergaard pitch. New York Mets manager Terry Collins said he understood why the Royals were mad but, hey, whatever. Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said that during the game, Syndergaard had told Salvador Perez that he had NOT intended to throw it up and in, a whole different story.

“Pitching inside is a lost art anymore,” Collins said.

“We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves, let’s go with that,” Yost said.

“I did not have any idea that was his intent,” Collins said. “But certainly I think it set a tone that, hey, look, we’re in this World Series, too, and we’re going to get after it.”

“When that kind of stuff happens, (the Royals) always find a way to get fired up and kind of take care of it themselves on the field,” Yost said, “not by throwing at people, but by swinging the bats and playing good defense.”

In a way, it has been fascinating to watch as the story grew overnight and through the morning — it is like following the vapor trail of hype. In a way, this World Series has lacked the fire that brings the heat to such games. The Royals and Mets are both underdogs in their own way. Neither team has won the World Series since the mid-1980s. They have no history with each other. They seem to have great respect for each other. Friday night, the Mets fans seemed to have a hard time picking a Royals player to boo. In Kansas City in the first two games, the fans latched on to Daniel Murphy but only because he had been so hot.

There were no hard feelings, no petty arguments, no lingering snubs, nothing. Mets fans had no reason to dislike Royals fans and vice versa. In the world of sports, which has always been driven by rivalry and emotion and heroes and villains, there was a vacuum.

And, yes, it was fascinating to watch as that vacuum was filled. Suddenly, the Royals had a villain: Noah Syndergaard with his blond locks and hot fastball and his head-hunting Halloween tricks. Suddenly the Mets had a villain: The whiny Royals, griping about a pitch that was not all that close to anybody’s head. There was something to argue about, something to fight about, something to And tonight, Mets fans know EXACTLY who to boo. If this series goes back to Kansas City, Royals fans will know exactly who to boo also.

Who is right? Who is wrong? Don’t you see: That misses the whole point. The pitch meant NOTHING. It didn’t affect the Royals bats. It didn’t spark the Mets. It didn’t matter one bit in the game. And it won’t matter in tonight’s game or tomorrow’s either.

It’s just something to talk about. But then again, isn’t that what sports are all about?

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