NEW YORK -- Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud didn't know exactly where his titanic 436-foot homer off Jon Lester in Game 1 of New York's NLCS sweep of the Cubs landed when he hit it. "I just put down my head and ran," he later explained. Nor did d'Arnaud have any idea how the club decided to commemorate the blast until he returned to Citi Field for Game 2 the next day and saw that a comically large white bandage had been slapped on the Home Run Apple where his ball slammed into it beyond the center-field fence.
"Hilarious," d'Arnaud said.
The McIntosh-red mechanical Home Run Apple that rises from its hiding place behind the centerfield fence anytime a Met hits a home run is one of the few holdovers from Shea Stadium, which used to sit next door to Citi Field before it was demolished after the 2008 season amid lukewarm eulogies like this one: "Nobody has ever called Shea Stadium a cathedral," New York Times columnist George Vecsey wrote when the last Mets' game was played there on Septn 28, 2008.
But the apple itself? That's a different story, as viewers may be reminded when the World Series between the Mets and Kansas City Royals moves to Citi Field for Friday's Game 3.
The Home Run Apple, which has a quirky following all its own, dovetails perfectly with the frequently wacky, often kitschy, sporadically glorious history of the Mets.
This is a franchise, remember, that gave us all-time pitching great Tom Seaver and Marvelous Marv Throneberry, who resides only in the Quip Hall of Fame.
Mets third baseman David Wright says today's players consider the apple nothing less than an "icon." Former Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry, a hero of the 1986 title team, said he always liked seeing the apple rise because, "It made me feel like I'd done something good." Stadium staffers, perhaps knowing that, paid Strawberry homage by raising the apple halfway when he returned to Shea with the 1998 Yankees and hit a home run.
"The original slogan on the apple [in 1980] was 'The Magic is Back' -- which was probably premature for the team they had then," said Dave Howard, former Mets executive vice president of business operations, who now runs his own sports consultancy firm.
Originally, there was some backlash. The '80 team won only 67 games. People said, "What Magic?" or, "The Magic is Tragic."
Howard said the apple was the idea of Al Harazin, a longtime Mets executive who succeeded Frank Cashen as the team's general manager after the 1991 season.
"I'll never forget sitting with Frank Cashen and Al one day [at a game] near the end of the 1991 season and having Cashen look at the apple and then say to me: 'See that? That's Harazin's folly.'"
Howard added: "I love the apple now, by the way. My feeling of the apple has really changed over the years. At first, I do remember thinking: 'Well, it does seem a little, you know, cheesy. But the positive change in perception, for me, was when I started to see it through the eyes of my children when I started working for the Mets. And then, over thousands of games there, in the excited reaction of the fans."
Greg Mallgraf, a Mets fan who grew up on Long Island and began attending games at the age of 10, agrees.
"When I was a kid, my parents would go to 10 to 15 games with me a year, and you could care less as a kid about the things going on around you in the game -- but the apple, that was an exciting thing," said Mallgraf, now 39. "I guarantee you, if I took my girls to a game, they would forget the home runs and remember the stupid apple, too."
As true apple aficionados know, there have actually been two Home Run Apples in Mets history. The current one debuted in 2009, the year Citi Field opened, and dwarfs the old one when it comes to size and technology. It measures 16½ feet tall and is 18 feet in diameter. The outer shell of the apple weighs 4,800 pounds, and its hidden cantilevered frame, which is powered by the hydraulic set-up that lifts the apple, weighs 9,000 pounds -- more than Mo Vaughn and Sid Fernandez combined.
The original apple was a 9-foot-tall, 582-pound hunk of fiberboard and wire that was painted red. It, too, had the Mets logo on front and a jaunty green stem poking out its top, and it sat beyond the center-field fence at Shea, nestled in a 10-foot-tall black plywood top hat. When it popped up, some lights on the logo would flash.
Truth be told, the original apple had grown a little misshapen between its 1980 debut and the Mets' last season at Shea 28 years later. It had also become a challenge to maintain, Howard said, because, "It was just totally fabricated out of plaster layered on top of a metal screen with a wood frame inside."
Still, the dimming beauty of the original apple didn't stop a petition drive called savetheapple.com from arguing for its survival, even when it took persevering through setbacks such as when photos surfaced of it being dismantled by a crane.
"We have no idea what to do, we're walking around like chickens with their heads cut off. ... We don't know what to say," wrote Andrew Perlgut and Lonnie Klein, the 20-something New Yorkers who launched the blog. "It is hard to run a campaign to save a giant fiberglass piece of fruit."
Howard says word of savetheapple.com did reach the Mets' front office. But by then, the team already had sent an open-ended survey out to fans asking what to keep from Shea, in part because Mets co-owner and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon wasn't a big fan of bringing many artifacts over from the old stadium. The Mets were astonished when 92 percent of those polled mentioned the Home Run Apple first.
"That [kind of support] just doesn't happen," Howard said. "This was an absolute mandate. We said, 'We have to have the apple. Have to.'"
The original Home Run Apple now sits outside the main entrance to Citi Field. It has been featured in some baseball video games involving the Mets. A quick look around the Internet reveals sites where you can buy Home Run Apple T-shirts, clocks, banks, hats and a Home Run Apple figurine with baseball-like seams.
One fan has posted instructions on how to 3D print your own mini Home Run Apple. There are videos online making fun of the times when the Home Run Apple has either refused to rise on time or -- with a flourish of disturbingly bad karma -- decided to pop up just as Baltimore slugger Chris Davis was at the plate in a 2012 game, causing then-Mets ace R.A. Dickey to turn, look at center field, and then step off the mound as the ump called time.
Three years earlier, the Newark Star-Ledger's Brian Costa reported how the "rotten" Home Run Apple was even heckled by fans during a July 12 game its rookie year -- seriously, read the headline -- after it failed to rise after a seventh-inning home run by the Mets' Fernando Tatis.
"They chanted, "We want apple!" then booed when The Apple stubbornly ignored their pleas. They repeated this for several minutes until, finally, The Apple emerged from its shell at the end of the inning. The crowd erupted in cheers.
Tatis said he was puzzled upon hearing boos after hitting the home run.
"I don't know why the fans were complaining about it," Tatis said. "Somebody said the apple was not coming out. I was like, 'What?' There's nothing I can do about it."
Now, d'Arnaud's blast and the X-shaped bandage marking the spot where it caromed off the apple has become part of the big apple history.
Believe it or not, it was actually Wilpon's idea.
Even Wilpon the Younger has now taken a shine to the apple, same as his, father Fred, part of the ownership team that OK'd the original one.
"Brilliant," Howard laughs.