The pain of no Opening Day

Some things remain unchanged; all along 126th Street, the chop-shop guys still have their eagle eyes tuned to any dent on the bumpers of passing cars. You have a scratch on the door? Like always, they are eager to help, offering up business cards while properly outfitted in uniforms of the day: surgical gloves, masks, cautious eyes.

Thursday, they would have greeted close to 20,000 cars as they arrived at Citi Field. They are as much a part of the neighborhood as McFadden’s bar, as the elevated subway tracks, the World’s Fair globe a few blocks away. Thursday is also supposed to be sunny all day, not a cloud to be found in the forecast with a high of 58 degrees.

Thursday would have been a perfect day.

Thursday was supposed to be Opening Day.

Thursday, there would have been fans arriving at the parking lots soon after they opened in the morning, mostly so the people could loiter and linger around baseball again, embrace it as it would an old friend (at least in those days when it was still OK to embrace old friends). Thursday was going to be Mets versus Nats, Jacob deGrom versus Stephen Strasburg, 41,313 seats with 41,313 occupants.

Because of the good weather, some would’ve stopped by Lemon Ice King of Corona on 108th Street, a 25-minute walk away from the ballpark, maybe order up the first cherry-vanilla cup of the season. Afterward, there would surely have been turn-away business at the Park Side on Corona Avenue, win or lose, and given the Mets’ remarkable Opening Day aptitude, they almost certainly would’ve been enjoying a happy recap.

Those waiting for a table may have shared a carafe of Chianti at the bar. Better still, they might’ve opted to walk across the street to William F. Moore Park — known to everyone as “Spaghetti Park” — and watched the old men play bocce in the twilight until their tables were ready.

You can see all of this still in your mind’s eye.

You just won’t see it on Thursday. Not with the city all but shut down, not with baseball on hiatus. Park Side is only providing takeout these days. There are no lines snaking outside Lemon Ice King, and the bocce courts at Spaghetti Park are empty.

Earlier in the week, the news arrived that Noah Syndergaard will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery, and while there was an initial rush of panic and sadness among the faithful and a loud burst of “LOL Mets” among the rest of the sport, that felt almost like an involuntary reflex, the kind of phantom pain amputees describe. It was hard to have your heart in it at all.

On the day baseball was supposed to return, it has never felt more far away.

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High atop Citi Field, on the marquee that normally would’ve hawked Thursday’s game and the opening homestand with the Nationals and the Phillies, there was instead a cartoon of Mr. Met and dueling messages from the Mets: “Stay Safe, Stay Home” and #FlattenTheCurve.

There were only a handful of cars in the parking lots. The Mets have offered the lots up to the city and state for use as a temporary mobile site for testing potential COVID-19 victims and while Gov. Cuomo hasn’t yet taken the team up on the offer, that would serve a haunting symmetry to the last time the city was enveloped by crisis. That was in the days after 9/11, where Citi Field itself used to be a parking lot for old Shea Stadium, and where that lot served as a staging area for first-responders and other rescue workers.

Nineteen years ago, it was at Shea where normalcy first returned to New York, 10 days after the towers fell, the Mets and the Braves on a Friday night that felt solemn and sullen right up to the moment Mike Piazza hit the most famous regular-season home run in team history, one of the most meaningful homers in the city’s baseball history, and reminded us it was OK to cheer again, to yell again, to laugh and lose yourself in a ballgame again.

Thursday, normalcy will feel a thousand light-years away. The guys will still try to hustle you when you make the turn from Northern Boulevard onto 126th Street, but there’ll be a catch. Years ago, a veteran Mets writer told me a secret to that corner: there are two lanes you can use to make the turn. Pay attention soon enough, you’ll notice one lane is backed up. Take the other lane, and 95 percent of the time you won’t have to wait.

Thursday, neither lane will be backed up. You can ease right past the folks approaching with the masks and the gloves and the business cards. You can drive right up to the gates at Citi Field. But then, why would you? No game Thursday. No game Friday. No games for as long as the eye can see, in Queens, in The Bronx, and everywhere else.

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