The Devil who Went Down To Georgia and wound up laying that golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny's feet made out better in his trips there than we have. But we're not the devils in this. We've been lambs to the slaughter, particularly upon arrival.
We go down to Georgia, we go down in Georgia. Not much of a tourism slogan, but true enough. Ultimate Mets Database confirms my hunch: Of the 26 first games we've played in Turner Field (first of one, two, three or four), we've lost 17 of them. That includes the sweetly bitter 1999 National League Championship Series because why wouldn't you count that?
After last night, we're 21-54 all told at the Dead. Subtract those first games and we're 12-37. So we're not particularly good when we show up (.346) but we're absolutely dreadful (.245) for the rest of our stay.
You may be thinking, as I am, “You mean we've won nine series-openers in Atlanta since that place opened? Wow!” But even that's not terribly impressive. We won our very first game there, part of a three-of-four taking in July '97 that had me at home and Joe Benigno on WFAN insisting that this guaranteed the Mets would be in the playoffs…that year. Didn't happen because it was a tease. The Braves are good at letting us have the occasional opener so we are lulled into believing god-knows-what about ourselves. In '97, it was “we can beat these guys.”
If you can stretch back far enough, you'll recall we were actually a pretty good match for Atlanta when we weren't a pretty good match for anybody. In the otherwise unremarkable Metsian years of 1994, 1995 and 1996, when the Braves were winning two pennants and a World Series, we were 18-17 against them. Then they come to Shea in June 1997 and lose two of three to us. Our first trip to Turner, with the bat slipping repeatedly from Todd Pratt's hands and Butch Huskey sparking and Alex Ochoa completing a dramatic comeback on Sunday Night Baseball, continued our mysterious mastery of our otherwise betters. That ESPN classic brought us to a 3-1/2 year cume of 23-19 against what had been the best and most consistent team in baseball during that period. It was only a matter of time.
But time for what we didn't know. Eliminate that first opener on July 10, 1997 and, because we don't what will follow it, last night's, and we're 7-17 in Turner openers. Seventeen painful losses, yet seven great wins, right?
Um, I don't know about that. The next three times we touched down in the land of the Delta blues (the airline, not the river), we really could have used a win and we didn't get one. Not in the quixotic September of '97, a Wild Card bid still dancing tantalizingly down the third base line (it was picked off when Bobby Jones' right hand was too sweaty or perhaps not sweaty enough to properly control the ball in the first inning on 9/17), not in the pre-All Star heat of '98 (or have you forgotten Glavine outclassing Brian Bohanon on 7/3?) and surely not in the taping of the ever-reviled Jay Payton PSA of 9/25/98 when Major League Baseball fed him those memorable lines, “Kids, always be sure that you're Out At Third.”
I thought it was a New World Coming on June 25, 1999 when the Oleruds overcame the Odalises. We won the lidlifter 10-2, pulling to within two games of first place. We left Atlanta four games out. The less said about the next three times we went down to Georgia (the beginning of the September slide; NLCS Game One; NLCS Game Six), the better for the moment.
We ended the '90s having opened in Atlanta's shiny new jewel box eight times. We went 2-6. The two wins set us up for several falls. What would the new century bring? No wins, no tease. We lost both openers (7/21, 9/18) in 2000 and counted our lucky stars — we can admit that now — that there was no further opportunity for “revenge” in the playoffs.
OK, that made us 2-8 in these situations. Since we've established we're 9-17 overall, you can do the math and figure that we're 7-9 opening series at Turner Field since 2001. Even if we put aside last night's as previously suggested, we're 6-9. Not great, but not quite as awful as we perceive, eh?
Perceive again. MLB decided intradivisional play needed to be increased. That gave us three regular-season series per annum in Atlanta. Instead of waiting around until June or July, we got one out of the box in 2001. And we won on Opening Night (4/3) when Robin Ventura hit two homers, a go-ahead blow off Rocker in the eighth and, after Franco and Wendell would give it back, the winner off Ligtenberg in the tenth. We were 1-0, they were 0-1. I skipped home from work where I refused to leave until it was over (it was a long game and a long skip) and came back the next day convinced that this was going to be 1986 reincarnated. It wasn't. We came back to Atlanta twice in 2001, losing painfully when it didn't seem to matter (6/28) and routinely when it couldn't have mattered more (9/28).
That brought us to 3-10 from 1997 to 2001 in the first games of Turner series. The next three years would be the golden age of those affairs. What? You don't remember 2002, 2003 and 2004 as any kind of golden age?
Exactly. The Braves let us have fun when it was of no use to us and no harm to them. It may not have appeared that way early in 2002 when we were making statements left and right, or so we thought. We slammed them good on April 5 by a 9-3 score, behind the power bat of Jeromy Burnitz and the power arm of Pedro Astacio. Yeah, this was gonna be the year.
It was gonna be the year, all right, but not the year of anything good. The Braves shook off our statement, went on to win the division by a zillion games and, in the way others store their socks, folded us and stuck us in a drawer the next two times (6/3, 9/10) we dropped by.
By 2003, even the hardest-core Mets fan had to admit the mostly imaginary Mets-Braves rivalry was on hiatus. They were still champing and we were in full collapse. No wonder, then, that it was the first year in the history of Turner Field that we won more series-openers there than we lost. Or have you forgotten the glorious rocket unleashed by Tsuyoshi Shinjo to nail Chipper at home for the final out on May 23? His throw and companion high-five from Timo Perez was surely the high point of Shinjo II, and it set the stage for…absolutely nothing. That we lost a heartbreaker on July 17 didn't impact our last-place destiny any more than when we barely held on come August 26. We were 66-95 in 2003 with or without Atlanta's help.
2004 was an expectation-free season. Still, we couldn't help but get our hopes up when Kaz Matsui began the year by hitting its very first pitch out of Turner Field. Yup, it was another exhilarating Opening Night in Dixie, April 6, the kind of night that proves nothing is proved on April 6. When the Mets returned to The City Too Busy To Lose on July 30, they were hanging on to some faint playoff hopes. They traded for Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano and proceeded to faint. The Mets would turn so lifeless by September that they'd fire Art Howe without actually dismissing him. His going-away present? His last road win on September 28. It was in Atlanta, the last series-opener he'd ever manage away from Shea (I'm assuming forever).
When the Howe Epoch was mercifully truncated, we were looking at the New Mets. It was new era, a new team, there was even a new blog to record all the good news in 2005. Yet for all the Omar, the Willie, the Beltran and the Faith and Fear, it was back to old tricks. The Mets lost their first first game in Atlanta on April 8. They lost their second first game in Atlanta on May 23. And they lost their third first game in Atlanta on September 5. The 2005 Mets, unlike their immediate predecessors, really could have used those games. They didn't get them.
Why do I bring up all this relentless unpleasantness? Is it because happiness doesn't let me sleep on Saturday mornings? Is it because, on the heels of my second television appearance in a month, I plan to audition for the role of Debbie Downer's brother Dennis? Is it because I'm nostalgic for disappointment?
No, that's not why.
It's because as giddy, giggly and goose-pimply as I wish to be with a six-game lead in very late April, I feel I've been here before. I've seen glimpses of this sort of thing. This is the year we have Atlanta on the ropes. This is the year it's gonna be different. This is the year the Mets don't succumb to any Turner Field curse, jinx, hex, disease, malady or whammy.
I sure hope so. I'd sure like to think so. History doesn't have to be precedent, but it sure has been. There is no logical reason to think nine years of dismal failure has to guarantee a full decade of this crap. We've heard that this guy and that guy weren't here when Bobby Jones couldn't grip the ball or Jay Payton didn't stop at second or Kenny Rogers wouldn't throw strikes, right up through “what does Billy Wagner care now that Braden Looper was blowing the same game twice last September?”
I gotta see more before I gotta believe. I've seen happy hints in the past. In 1997 and 1999 and 2001 and 2002 and 2004, I witnessed nights like last night that were going to shift the plates and turn the tides and mute the chants and blunt the chops. The Mets were going to overtake the Braves one of these years, one of those years, one of any number of years.
It hasn't happened yet. Just because we're 15-7 and they're 9-13 doesn't mean it has. It should. It definitely should. Then again, we should have won two of three at home last week. I reluctantly accepted one of three because I didn't think a series win at Shea Stadium was crucial for the psyche of this team and the complexion of this race (and it's not as if I had a choice). A series win at Turner Field is. A series sweep at Turner Field is, too. Too much to ask? Let's get aspirational for once in our lives. In every Mets @ Atlanta series I've cited, the Mets have occasionally won the first game; nine times, to be exact, including last night. Do you know how many times they've won the second game of these series after winning the first game?
TWICE! The Mets have won the first and second games of series at Turner Field twice since the building opened in 1997. They did it on their very first visit and they did it five years later, that odd Saturday when recently converted reliever John Smoltz gave up eight ninth-inning runs (and some journeyman named Aaron Small gave up a ninth). That was probably Super Tease One on the countdown. The Mets took the Braves on a Friday night, then a Saturday night and we were all atwitter. It was April 6. We were 3-2. They were 2-3. The next day they beat us.
And so it went.
I couldn't be sicker of the whole thing. I've tried to find dark humor in all of this, but I'm far from amused where the Mets, the Braves and Turner Field are concerned. I am seriously happy that the Mets beat the Braves 5-2 last night, but the happiness seriously gets put on hold at 7:05 tonight.
Last night was only the first game of the rest of our life. At Turner Field, we've never handled that second part well at all.