It’s been less than a week since spring games began, and injuries are already popping up like so many gophers in the freshly mown fields of Florida and Arizona. Brent Honeywell needs Tommy John; Felix Hernandez got hit by a liner on the upper forearm. Jake Burger had to be carted off the field after a baserunning mishap; Clint Frazier concussed himself trying to make a diving catch. Sprinklers, continuing their reign of terror, claimed yet another victim in Tim Tebow’s ankle. Everywhere you look are more cruel reminders that sports are bad after a whole offseason of being reminded that sports are bad. Where is a baseball fan to find a balm for their troubled soul? To whom can we turn for reprieve?
Noah Syndergaard. That’s the answer. Noah Syndergaard pitched two perfect innings on Monday. Noah Syndergaard made baseball’s best lineup look clueless by heaving a bunch of beautiful triple-digit fastballs. Noah Syndergaard is back, right when we needed him.
That Syndergaard would return in such fine form was hardly a foregone conclusion. His last real start, on the last day of April last year, was a horrific spectacle made all the more horrifying for the fact that it was so predictable. You will recall the concerns, both before the season and as the season began, that Syndergaard was injured. You may also recall his and the Mets’ insistence that he was fine. The bone spur, the blister the torn fingernails, the late scratches due to what Terry Collins called “a tired arm” and what the doctors called “biceps tendinitis.” The time he bafflingly refused to submit to an MRI...you knew the end was near. And it came in the worst way possible. Facing the division rival Nationals, he gave up five runs in an inning and a third, and walked off the field clutching his armpit. The Nationals would win that game 23-5 and stroll to a division title. The Mets, who were supposed to be their competition, sank to 10-14. Syndergaard tore his lat. His season was over. So was his team’s.
This was all the more depressing given what Syndergaard represented for the Mets: a bright future after years of futility, the fulfillment of long-frustrated dreams. Something had, for once, gone extremely right. They had turned R.A. Dickey into this dazzling golden-haired titan, part of a rotation that carried the Mets to within two games of a World Series championship, and promised, it seemed, to carry them even further. In a sport that is often perceived as old, slow and stodgy, Syndergaard was brilliant and exciting and larger-than-life. I remember watching the 2015 postseason and being blown away—in all the hours I spent watching baseball as a kid, I didn’t remember watching anyone who threw that hard, who looked like that. He looked like he didn’t belong on a baseball field. But there he was, real and full-color, throwing 100 mph like a character you’d make in a video game.
So it wasn’t just a loss for the Mets. It was a loss for baseball. And, likewise, his return is not only a joyous occasion for the Mets, but for the entire sport as well. Because you need people like Syndergaard as a sports fan. You need characters on the field who are too good to be true, whose skills seem to make their existence unfair. Yes, baseball is real, and baseball players are real, and they interact with society in complex ways that have real impacts, and all of that is important and worth discussing. But that discussion isn’t why I watch baseball. I don’t think it should be ignored, but it’s not why I keep coming back to the game. I come back because I remember being nine years old, watching Roy Halladay pitch complete games without even appearing to break a sweat, feeling just as awed every time he did it. I come back to see Aaron Judge launch baseballs into space and Kyle Freeland somehow come within an out of a no-hitter, to see Nate Pearson in low-A Vancouver hit 102 on the stadium gun.
Reality can easily wear you into the ground. I read the news every day and I feel afraid. For myself, for the people I care about. The fear creeps into almost everything. That’s why I loved baseball as a kid, and that’s why I returned to it as an adult: I watched these larger-than-life players on the screen, listened to the stories about their exploits, watched them do things that seemed impossible. While I was watching, I didn’t feel afraid.
I watch players like Syndergaard, whose skill is so exceptional, and I allow myself to believe in the possibility of something being, simply, good. I pretend, for a little while, that there is nothing more important than a very large man throwing a ball extraordinarily fast with extraordinary precision. That is why I keep coming back to baseball: for that moment, no matter how short, where you forget that anything else exists, because what you are watching unfold seems beyond reality. Too good to be true.
It is February. Baseball is full of woes, and the world is even more woeful. Your favorite player on your favorite team was the victim of a freak injury. People are talking about nuclear war again. There are still dozens of unsigned free agents.
But hey, look. Here is Noah Syndergaard, stepping onto the mound at the fancifully-named Ballpark of the Palm Beaches after his long and painful absence. He somehow seems even bigger than he was the last time we saw him. He’s glistening for some reason. He’s still got the long golden hair. The sun is shining. And he reaches back, and he throws a fastball right past George Springer, last year’s World Series MVP. A hundred miles an hour.
Springer takes a step back. “Fuck,” he says.
Welcome back, Noah Syndergaard. May you never leave us again.