The Redbirds were glowing with success as they lined up in the narrow runway between their locker room and the ball field. They were serene, confident and rich. They followed their drillmaster, Dr. Walter C. Eberhardt of St. Louis University, to the grass along the first base line. “Con-grat-u-lations on your last season,” Eberhardt sang out in a deep voice between exercises. “But that was last season, men, and this is another year. Now, on your backs, stretch out, stretch out, now bend to the waist, sit-ups, three, four.”
—The defending National League champion St. Louis Cardinals report to spring training, 1969, as recorded by Joe Durso in Amazing: The Miracle of the Mets.
Nice win Sunday. Now go get another one.
No kidding. Beating the Marlins after losing two to them is a fine thing. Picking up ground when the top three in the Wild Card race lost it is beautiful. But don't give it back. Not Monday.
The Mets are lucky. They're pretty good, but they're mostly lucky. They don't deserve to be under any kind of post-season consideration. After 136 games, can you tell me you've seen a team in Mets uniforms that you can picture playing beyond October 2? Unless the October opponent is the Diamondbacks, I don't think you can. I can't.
But they're here, so it's time to make the best of it, albeit in the worst possible place to try.
Atlanta. Turner Field. It's where Mets dreams have been dying for almost a decade. If it doesn't stop this week, we're gonna have to wear commemorative patches next season.
Like every sensible Mets fan, I've been dreading this trip. The relatively easy part is over and that didn't flow all that smooth. Now it's Atlanta, followed hard by St. Louis. At the moment when we can least afford to screw up, we are thrown against the league's two best teams, two teams whose tournament we want to wheedle our way into. The Redbirds are far and away the class of this circuit, but never mind them right now. It's the Braves who stare us in the face. It's the Braves who always stare us in the face. We're two losses out of a playoff spot but it's not hard to imagine us being five behind somebody by Wednesday night. No matter what happens when the other WC wannabes play each other, precedent suggests handling our own affairs will be a chore.
We have to win games in Atlanta. Plural. We shouldn't be in a position for it to matter. We've lost too many times in too numbskullish a fashion to be called contenders, but that's neither here nor there any longer. We are contenders. Our colleagues in four other cities have been thoughtful enough to be almost as mediocre as us, so let's take advantage of their largesse. Let's not do what we did against Philadelphia and Florida. Let's not lose games. Plural.
A New York Mets win should always be something to revel in, but the New York Mets have left us little in the way of that luxury. Nice win Sunday. Now go get another one.
While we must look forward, I can't let Saturday night pass without an attempt to put its stupefyingly defining moment into proper context.
Has anybody in the history of the New York Mets made a worse first impression than Shingo Takatsu? Given what was at stake, I'd have to say no. He is the Anti-Jacobs. To the extreme.
I've tried to think of a Met whose first Mets moment was as horrid and costly as Shingo's. I gravitated to pitchers. A position-player generally doesn't have that kind of negative impact at his fingertips. He might go 0-for-5 or make three errors but it's unlikely that he and he alone will kill the team. Pitchers are different. They've got the whole game in their hands.
Here are some Takatsuan performances that come to mind. Please send the children to their rooms. This isn't pretty.
• Tom Glavine: Before we loved him to death, The Manchurian Brave opened the 2003 season in Arctic conditions at Shea and did nothing to warm anybody's heart. His line on March 31: 8 hits, 4 walks, 5 earned runs 3-2/3 innings. His ERA was 12.27. The Mets lost 15-2. Things remained chilly for the pitcher and the team for a loooong time.
• John Thomson: He was Wild Card insurance or at least a theoretical boost to the rotation down the 2002 stretch. Thomson had the misfortune to make his Mets debut some 40 minutes after the season's most devastating loss, the August 3 first-game choke by Armando Benitez against Craig Counsell and the Diamondbacks at Shea. With the joint having all but cleared out for the nightcap, Thomson took to the hill and surrendered 7 hits and 3 walks for 7 runs (only 3 earned, but nobody was in the mood for technicalities) over 6 innings. The Mets lost and would lose without winning at home for the rest of the month. Thomson is the starting pitcher for the Braves tomorrow.
• Brett Hinchliffe: He turned an emergency start into a catastrophic one. Two innings on April 26, 2001 in Milwaukee yielded 9 hits and 8 earned runs. He left the game, the team and the bigs with a lifetime Met ERA of 36.00 and no parting gifts.
• Mike Hampton: Don't know if it was the schools, but something about Japan didn't agree with our newly anointed ace. Mike Hampton had the honor of throwing the first pitch in the first Major League game outside this continent on March 29, 2000, and he went with that theme. He threw many pitches outside. Hampton, traded to the Mets after a 22-4 season in Houston, walked 9 in 5 innings, allowing the Cubs 2 runs. Just two? He lured Chicago into four ground-ball double plays before leaving (the Mets lost 5-3). It took several starts for Hampton to settle in as a Met…and one year for him to decide he didn't want to.
• The Rutles: They were the Dirk, Barry, Stig and Nasty of the Mets bullpen. Our very own Prefab Four: Yorkis Perez, Toby Borland, Barry Manuel and Ricardo Jordan composed a group debut on April 1, 1997, coming on in “relief” in San Diego once Pete Harnisch began to lose it in the sixth. What Harnisch started, the lads finished, combining to surrender — and it really was a laying down of arms — 6 hits, 6 walks and 9 earned runs in a 12-5 loss. The Mets got better as 1997 progressed. These blokes had absolutely nothing to do with it.
• Alejandro Peña: The once-reliable Dodger set-up man made his Met debut at Shea on April 9, 1990, Opening Day. He faced Jay Bell. Bell doubled. He faced Andy Van Slyke. Van Slyke doubled. He faced Bobby Bonilla. Bonilla singled. He faced Barry Bonds. Bonds singled. He was removed. That he was ever invited back was astounding.
• John Candelaria: On September 11, 1987, Ron Darling went out for the year with torn ligaments in his thumb. At the tail end of a year when the adage that you can never have enough pitching resonated all too forcefully, the defending world champion Mets fished around for another hurler. On September 15, they dealt two minor leaguers to California for veteran lefty John Candelaria. On September 18, desperately groping at the first-place Cardinals, they started John in his prior place of business, Three Rivers Stadium. The Candy Man immediately went sour, facing 12 Pirates who pillaged him for a leadoff homer (John Cangelosi), a double, two triples…8 hits in all, leading to 5 earned runs in an inning-and-a-third. Candelaria's Met ERA teetered at 33.75. To be fair, there wasn't much good pitching in what turned out to be a 10-9 final in Pittsburgh's favor (hmmm…familiar score and pattern). John made two more starts for the Mets and won both. The Mets finished three behind St. Louis.
• Mac Scarce: The ostensible replacement for Tug McGraw made his first appearance as a Met in Pittsburgh on April 11, 1975. He came on to face Richie Hebner with the score knotted at three and runners on first and second. Hebner singled. The Pirates won. Scarce, swapped four days hence to Cincinnati for Tom “The Blade” Hall, never made another appearance as a Met. His first, last and only impression was one batter, one game-losing hit.
• Roger Craig: The first pitcher to pitch for the New York Mets, in St. Louis on April 11, 1962, was responsible for setting a rather atonal tone for the club's inaugural campaign. In the first inning of his team's existence, Roger Craig gave up 3 hits and a balk, resulting in 2 runs. After tossing a spotless second, Craig was touched up for four singles, a double and a stolen base, yielding 3 more Redbird runs in the third. Craig left after three frames with the lowest ERA in Mets history, 15.00. Of course it was the only ERA in team history.
There. Nine debuts to remember because to forget them would be to repeat them…though I guess we just did Saturday. In the words of Leonard Pinth-Garnell, stunningly bad. Exquisitely awful. Couldn't be worse! Yet no matter how many productions of Bad First Impressions I've looked at, none ranks quite so low as Shingo Takatsu's.
Most of the above came in April, the calendar early enough and the circumstances innocuous enough so as not to be fatal. The ones that didn't, those by Thomson and Candelaria, were at least wrought by experienced arms in situations where the managers in question could feel reasonably confident that terrible things wouldn't happen.
Shingo Takatsu was a reclamation-project callup coming in to take on budding superstar Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded at a perilous juncture in a critical September showdown against a Wild Card rival when there was no track record to indicate that this might be a good idea.
This was worse than Candelaria.
This was worse than Hinchliffe.
This was even worse than the Rutles.
This was, to channel Mr. Pinth-Garnell once more, monumentally ill-advised.
And yet we get to play more meaningful games. Isn't baseball something?