Citi Field was a lot of things Friday night. It was the site of a major comeback and a revived season. It was raucous and overwhelming. But for the three newest players, it also was home.
The cheers were loud for Joe Panik — his family still lives in New York and he went to college at St. John's. The noise was even louder for Marcus Stroman, who comes from Medford and might have brought the entire town with him for his first Citi Field start. There were no cheers for New Jersey's Brad Brach — he didn't pitch — but that's OK. Instead he recalled when he was doing the cheering, back in 2015, when he was rooting for the Mets in the World Series.
With the three new additions, this Mets roster has taken on a particularly local flavor. But the trio also can be considered an anomaly.
For instance, in 2015 Brach wasn't some kid rooting for the local team.
He was 29 and a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. And he was a Mets fan.
“I’m a baseball fan so, I mean, some guys might think it’s weird or whatever, but I thought it was awesome,” he said Friday, shortly after realizing the ultimate baseball fantasy: joining the team he loved as a kid.
“When I grew up, I kinda wanted to be a Met, not necessarily make the major leagues but be a Met, so to get to do this is pretty awesome. Having friends and family and everyone reaching out to me, it’s been a fun 48 hours.”
And he’s not alone.
For all the talk of Stroman wanting to go to the Yankees, he has a photo of himself as a toddler wearing a Mets jacket. On Friday he walked into the clubhouse wearing the old racing-stripe Darryl Strawberry jersey and seemed to wait until the last possible moment to take it off in favor of his actual Stroman jersey. Panik grew up a Yankees fan in upstate Hopewell Junction and also played college ball at St. John's, a mere six miles from Citi Field. A couple years ago, you could find him at a Mets game, too, he said.
The local angle can get blown up too much, manager Mickey Callaway said. After all, baseball is a business. Players just want to win. And living a childhood dream, while nice, isn’t the priority.
But . . .
“[With] how energetic things are around here, I think this is going to help them,” Callaway said.
Not everyone can survive in a big market like New York, which has chewed up more than its fair share of talented athletes. But for players who grew up in the area and know the landscape, an intimidating city just turns into home.
It might even be the type of second chance Brach and Panik need. Both began with promising careers but both have struggled this season — the reason they were released, cleared waivers, and ended up in Flushing in the first place. But the hope is that they’ll be reinvigorated by coming home (and/or find some answers with the help of hitting coach Chili Davis and pitching coach Phil Regan).
“[Particularly because of] how a couple of their seasons have gone, coming back home, having that [comfort] here, getting to be around their friends, having their friends pulling for them, and getting to play in their home cities, it has to energize them," Callaway said. "[It could] make them feel like, ‘You know what? I’m going to bounce back here. This is my home city. I’m very comfortable, and I’ve performed here before when I was growing up.' "
There was plenty of that hometown advantage on Friday when friends and family packed into Citi Field. Rows of Stroman jerseys occupied Section 114. His mom, Adlin Auffant, at times seemed like the most excited person in a very excited stadium. His father, Earl Stroman, sat still, but tracked every pitch attentively. When Marcus walked off after a strikeout, he pointed at the large horde of friends, family and former coaches, and clapped his thanks.
Panik, too, had his cheering section, one that got loud and boisterous when he was announced and every time he came to the plate. By the time he singled during the ninth-inning rally, almost everyone was cheering.
"It couldn’t have worked out any better,” he said before Saturday's game.
That's because when Panik got released from the Giants and before he had another job, he and his wife packed up their stuff and headed East to New York. Or, as he called it, “home.” It just turned out that now they can stay.
Brach pretty much echoed his new teammate. He had his pick of places — he said about seven teams offered him a contract — but he also chose home.
"I know how it is, especially Mets fans, how excited they get when they are in a race," he said.
When asked who was his favorite player growing up, Brach said it was Robin Ventura. Oh, and Rey Ordoñez. Can’t forget Edgardo Alfonzo, obviously. And John Olerud.
“There’s too many probably to name,” he finally concluded.
“I always follow the team, regardless of what team I’m on,” Brach said. “It’s kind of a dream come true.”