The prickly advisor to my high school newspaper had a go-to reaction anytime anything got under his skin:
Damn, damn, damn.
I'll avail myself of Albert Lindauer's pet phrase in the wake of something far more annoying than one of the kids leaving the cap off the rubber cement or forgetting to turn off an IBM Selectric. Damn, damn, damn, the Braves beat us again.
Granted, it was a stirring neocomeback, replete with the year's first strategic repositioning of self for maximum impact on outcome. At about 9:30, Stephanie wanted to watch The Office. I was going to go along with that living room choice, too lazy to trudge upstairs to view three predictable outs. But morbid curiosity got the better of me, so I moved to the kitchen and switched on XM Radio, which carries all home-team broadcasts (several seconds after the MSG feed which airs several seconds after the terrestrial radio feed, so if you play your knobs right, you can enjoy the same pitch three times in rapid succession). It was while I leaned over the kitchen sink that the rally got going in earnest. I forgot about The Office and postponed my planned detour to the bathroom (TMI?). Instead, I hovered at the counter popping grapes into my mouth, which is what I had plucked from the fridge somewhere between the TV and the XM. If it was grapes that got us going, I wasn't about to stop.
Grape. Valent doubles. Grape. Reyes doubles. Grape. Piazza singles. Grape. Beltran singles.
Grape, just grape!
Bobby Cox, however, turns the whole thing to sour grapes by doing something almost no other manager would have the “guts” to do in this day and age. He plucks his seedless closer from the mound and replaces him with somebody nobody's ever heard of (apologies to anybody who was previously familiar with the collected works of John Foster). As the change was made and the grapes glided down the gullet, I sized up the situation. Absolute unknown reliever thrown into the pit of darkness versus perhaps the hottest hitter in the game. John Foster against Cliff Floyd. Surely, Floyd has the advantage.
Wait a sec. John Foster's wearing a tomahawk across his chest. And Cliff Floyd is a Met.
I went from grape to gulp. And we went from comeback to all gone.
Damn, damn, damn.
Yes, there were uplifting elements to all of this, but boy am I tired of lunging for moral victories against the Atlanta Braves. They are devils and we are dust. It has been ever thus.
There have been gratifying, dramatic exceptions since they've come to matter to us circa 1997 (count me as another who liked them just fine when they were a Western outpost of scrappy Lemkes, Pendletons and Breams), but hardly enough of them and never at the right time. Tuesday night was, with the exception of Kolb not having the gumption of Looper, a mirror image of Monday night. So we escaped with a close win and they slithered out of a jam, too. We're even, right?
No, we're not even. We're not even close. We owe the Braves big-time after a decade of N.L. East humiliation. We owe them for short-circuiting our first Wild Card bid in September '97 when the Turner Field curse first materialized. We owe them for that Angel Hernandez game, the one with Michael Tucker's “lousy, illegal slide”. We owe them for Cox tossing one starter after another at us in relief on the last weekend of '98, barring our entry into the playoffs just because he could. We owe them for that wretched three-game sweep in September '99 that led to the seven-game losing streak that led to despair that led to redemption that led, ultimately, back to Turner Field for Game 6, the greatest game I ever saw but like so many other contests against that team and in that building, a loss.
I don't have the energy to recount all that's gone wrong at the hands of the Braves in this century, but suffice it to say there's been lots. Our occasional uprisings against them (the 10-run inning, the post-9/11 theatrics, Pedro the First) are always trumped by their doing something more definitive to us. And of course they have a lifetime reservation for the playoffs. The fact that they lose them with stunning precision is lukewarm comfort at best. They draw only 35,000 in October? How many usually come to see us that same month?
Naturally the killer in this game was Smoltz. Of course it was. He was a utility bill: due, if not lights out. I can't believe how long this guy has been around and has been good and has been better than that against us.
Remember the weekend the Mets retired Tom Seaver's number? They did it on a Sunday. That Saturday, Smoltz won his first game. Against us. Think about it. John Smoltz has been beating the Mets since No. 41 was technically up for grabs. Smoltz went eight. Bruce Sutter finished up. Bruce Sutter! The guy who redefined closing in the late '70s and who's been getting ignored on Hall of Fame ballots since the year Bob Murphy was inducted. The Braves' centerfielder that day was Jerry Royster. Jerry Royster! I once opened a pack of Topps and got a Jerry Royster traded card. What am I saying? Of course it was Topps. There were no other baseball card companies. I was in seventh grade. I haven't been in seventh grade for an awful, long time.
But Smoltz, a link to the days of cardboard monopolies and firemen who regularly earned three-inning saves and 37 & 14 standing unaccompanied on the left-field wall and Jerry Freaking Royster, has been beating the Mets since forever. And he did it again Tuesday night.
Both casts have undergone steady to monumental change since us and them became Us and Them. We don't have Baerga and Huskey and Bobby J. Jones to kick around anymore and they aren't harboring some awful Keith Lockhart or Eddie Perez* type deep within their 40-man. But there's always some Brave lurking to do us in. He may not be with the team yet. He may be minding his business in Kansas City or San Diego. He's very likely icing a sore arm right now in Triple-A. But rest assured that at some unspecified date and time, just when it is most inconvenient and absolutely dispiriting for us, that unidentified player or pitcher will don a tomahawk jersey and just like John Smoltz and John Foster, chop us dead in our tracks.
The only thing that makes the Mets-Braves rivalry palatable is that it is a rivalry. I saw it suggested in print that it isn't because one side's won every marble worth winning. But it is. The Braves, as traditionally laconic as they are, get up for us as if they aren't through sticking it to Bobby V. Their fans are more ornery to us than they are to any school of Marlins or flank of Phillies. Why, Mike Piazza is booed at the Ted almost as much as he is at Shea. If that's not a sign of rivalry, I don't know what is.
Maybe it's the NEW YORK across our chests. Maybe it's because they form the one quorum that cares about Tom Glavine's whereabouts. Maybe it's the lack of any real competition that would otherwise distract them. But Chipper didn't name his daughter Shea because he heard about the new hi-def DiamondVision. Leo Mazzone doesn't rock extra hard because our visitors' dugout is that much more uncomfortable (though I'm guessing it is). Rafael Furcal hasn't stayed sober just so he could take hits away from Jimmy Rollins. We know we hate them. It's almost a compliment to know they bother to hate us.
When the National League was split into three divisions, we were robbed of a substantial slice of our heritage. Who were our truest foes from the original East? Why, the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Pirates (geographically, the least eastern teams in the subcircuit). Those are the guys we battled hammer and tong, tooth and nail, Durocher and Herzog and Leyland for our greatest moments and biggest disappointments in the first quarter-century of divisional play. In 1994, they all went to the Central.
That left us with the Phillies, against whom we've never played a mutual must-game; the Expos, who have ceased to exist; and the Marlins, who have, by all indications, only existed for two World Series. The Braves, whether we like it or not — and we don't — are it. Their enmity is the only sustained, practical feud we have in the league. Even when we fell into a hole, they seemed to take an extra scintilla of joy in shoveling an additional dollop of dirt on us. I live for the moment we can return the favor for real.
*In addition, apparently, to the actual Eddie Perez, whose lingering presence on the current Braves escaped me until he turned up in Wednesday's starting lineup. I suppose Rafael Belliard will eventually come off the bench and supply the game-winning triple.