“Them” referring, in this case, to the Atlanta Braves. The car we're perpetually yap-yap-yapping at as it accelerates and disappears up our street. The football we're constantly watching get snatched away as we aim our latest kick. The perennial kings of our division. The Atlanta Braves.
Much as it pains me, there are two things I've learned the hard way not to do:
1. Bet against Derek Jeter
2. Announce that this is the year the Braves fall out of first place.
The Braves go out there with astonishing ace pitchers and win. They go out there with reclamation projects and win. They yo-yo guys from closer to starter and win. They plug 58-year-old men into the lineup and win. They move Chipper around the field like Bert Campanaris and win. They field Met castoffs and win. They cast off Hall of Famers to the Mets and win. They throw half the Richmond Braves on the field and win. The Braves could stick tomahawks on the chests of the Pepsi Party Patrol, the guys picked for the dizzy-bat race at Keyspan Park and whoever keeps the escalators running at Shea and win.
All of a sudden they look vulnerable. On paper. Again.
All those years we saw hope crash and burn in Atlanta in September, one thing was a constant: Leo Mazzone was davening his way through ballgames on the Atlanta bench. No more — he's off to Baltimore, of all places. It's unthinkable to imagine the Braves without him. It's even more unthinkable to realize he'll be replaced by Roger McDowell.
How can that be? Roger McDowell, the merry prankster of hotfoots and goofy masks, sitting beside Bobby Cox as he fumes and stumps and mutters? It hurts to even type his name in this context. And it gets worse. Because rooting for the Braves to finally prove mortal because Leo Mazzone was their secret weapon means rooting for Roger McDowell to be a huge letdown. I know we're supposed to root for laundry and generally we find a way to do so, but I had trouble rooting against Roger McDowell even when he was trading punches with a blue-and-orange-clad Gregg Jefferies. What kind of cruel baseball gods would arrange it so that Roger McDowell plots against us with Bobby Cox?
Then there's the matter of second base, and the talented speedster who's indicated through his agent that he wouldn't be against changing positions to play there in Shea Stadium. Could we really root for Rafael Furcal? Never mind, for a moment, his wandering birthdates or his DUI convictions or the fact that we once cackled over the fact that the Braves were out of the playoffs and their early exit meant he was off to jail. (Though that last part was kind of fun, in a small and mean way.) It's his essential Braveness I can't stand, that indefinable something that put him in the Atlanta Pantheon of Loathsomeness along with Glavine, Javy, Chipper, Eddie Perez, Maddux, Rocker, Klesko, Michael Fucker, Sheffield, Galarraga and of course Cox himself. Some guys — Julio Franco, Marcus Giles, last year's various anonymous Braves — beat our brains in repeatedly and I can't manage to detest them more than half-heartedly. Furcal? I can manage it perfectly well.
Of course, I did eventually rechristen The Manchurian Brave as The Eventual Met, and I suppose if I can warm up to the aloof, excuse-making Tom Glavine I could certainly warm up to Rafael Furcal. And hell, Mr. Met would be a slight upgrade over the all-devouring black hole of wretchedness that was second base in 2005, so who am I to give a cannon-armed player who's willing to change positions the lemon face?
But I keep wrinkling my nose nonetheless. I can register my objection statistically — Reyes and Furcal are certainly exciting to watch, but pairing Furcal's 284/348/429 with Reyes' 277/303/395 atop the lineup seems like a recipe for an unexciting shortage of baserunners. (By comparison, in '86 Dykstra and Backman put up 295/377/445 and 320/376/385 lines, though we were young then, America was strong and the sun always shone, blah blah blah.) I can object that since it seems unlikely we'll find a power bat for first base (unless it's Mike Jacobs, which is what I hope happens anyway) and an outfield upgrade is iffy, second base is where we need to add some thump. I can argue that Carlos Beltran would be much better off in the No. 2 hole, even though Willie seems to consider that the equivalent of admitting the planets go around the Sun. Heck, give me enough time and I could probably come up with some dangerous Furcal-related scenario involving LaGuardia flight paths and the possible sinking of Willets Point.
It all comes down to the fact that imagining Rafael Furcal in a Mets uniform makes me vaguely queasy. Which is the same way I feel when I imagine Roger McDowell ambling out to talk to some Brave reliever when we've cut the score to 4-3 and have the tying run on second with two out in the eighth.
We're Us. They're Them. That's the way it's supposed to be. If we finally win because too many Us's and Thems have switched sides, have we really won?
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