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The Next Time I Fall

Welcome to Flashback Friday [1], a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.

Twenty years, 43 Fridays. This is one of them.

The Mets won again last night [2], something they’ve done more than two-thirds of the time this season. They dispatched an opponent they had every reason to believe they’d best. They maintained a healthy margin between themselves in first place and whoever’s in second place. They’ve made a habit of winning, arriving at a point where it is almost surprising when they aren’t.

But I never again expect to see a headline regarding a Mets victory like the one from twenty years ago that I mentioned in this space last week: Ho-Hum, Another Win.

And if I do, my hands will shake from nerves.

Having taken it upon myself to relive and re-examine That Championship Season every Friday since January and through October, it would be disingenuous of me not to pause and note the striking similarities between 1986 and 2006.

Now I must pause within the pause to see if lightning strikes my keyboard.

No? How about the Mets this weekend in yet another series against the Braves? Have I screwed them royally by even invoking The Greatest Year Ever when there is Coxmanship on the schedule?

Hope not. And what’s more ancient at this particular juncture: 1986 or dwelling on the third-place, seven-games-out Braves as the biggest threat to our well-being?

I did not just say that.

I didn’t know this would become an inevitable subplot of Flashback Friday, swear to gosh (as Gary Carter might have said) I didn’t. I had no inkling that 2006 would be any more relevant to 1986 beyond base ten mathematics than 1996 was. When the Mets did one or two things to acknowledge the tenth anniversary of their previous title (I think they gave out caps), it was a shoutout to a relatively idyllic past. You know, it was long ago and it was far away, it was so much better than it is today, that particular today represented by the disintegration of Dallas Green as a leader of men and Paul Wilson feeling something in his elbow.

I figured we’d be better than that in 2006. Of course we were going to contend. We were pretty good last year and we brought in a bunch of players who were likely to make us better. We would compete and with any luck, we’d have a chance to win. I didn’t think there’d be any real corollary between the year I’d be writing about once a week and the year I’d be focused on the other six days.

Then we went out and started 10-2 and my world was rocked to its core. If you can be spoiled by twelve games, these were the dozen that did it. It’s not 1986, I know it’s not, but I’m coping with a touch of disappointment that it never will be.

And never can be again.

I have a friend who is one of our loyal readers and constant commenters, the first person I really got to know through this medium and, I guess, the first person who got to know me this way. If you know me as a Mets fan, you know me well enough so it counts.

In the wake of the 10-2 start, this fellow read my internal monologue/anxiety attack [3] over whether 2006 could really be as good as it was threatening to be and what, heaven forefend, what happen if it was just a tease, and wrote me:

It must be said that there’s something phenomenal and substantive about witnessing greatness…and it’s why the ’86 Mets reign so supreme in the hearts of many, even foregoing for a moment the fact that they won it all. I think what *you’re* longing for at this point is an incontrovertibly great Mets team, one that, love them or hate them, must be recognized by *all* as great. It’s been 20 years, and it was so damn short-lived and the heroes are in jail or are drunks that can’t hold onto GM jobs or they’ve sold out to The Man and dress in suits and furs or they became Yankees or Braves coaches…and so I think you think it’s time.

Yup, the man nailed it, right down to “Our Team, Our Time,” which I think came out seven seconds after he hit send on the e-mail. The subtext of our conversation was 1999, which he and I have batted around continually for the last year, mutually deciding it was the season in which we were the most alive we’ve ever been as Mets fans. It came up because in the wake of 10-2, I declared I didn’t want another 1999 (as if I have a choice in the matter). I want another 1986.

But like I said, I can’t have it.

Oh, the Mets could do wonderful things this year. They’ve already done more wonderful things in the season’s first sixth than they’ve done in certain six-year stretches of franchise history. As in 1986, I find myself Jonesing for a night game to start around 11:00 AM. Our winning percentage at this very moment exceeds the final count from ’86 by approximately .012. And our magic number is a mere 130.

But it can’t be 1986 all over again. The main reason is we already had one of those and things can never be the same for the same person. Me, I was younger then and, it turns out, the gift of youth is its inherent lack of introspection.

That’s not to say I didn’t think about the Mets long and hard from the time I was seven years old [4]. Of course I did. By 1986, I was into my fourth year of self-serious journal-keeping. Digging out those notebooks now, I’m surprised now at how little the regular season penetrated my otherwise mundane recorded thoughts. I was apparently an unhappy 23-year-old in every respect but one, according to the last paragraph of my July 3 entry:

Best for last because the best are first. By 11-1/2 games. This is where I tend to jinx them, but oh what they hey: WE’RE NUMBER ONE! WE’RE NUMBER ONE! WE’RE NUMBER ONE! WE’RE 52 AND 21, 11-1/2 IN FRONT! And there ain’t no stoppin’ us now.

What I find interesting is that I wasn’t as innocent as I would have assumed. I thought I was more carefree in my proclamations, but even then I was worried about hexing my team. Proclaimed our invincibility anyway, just like I got a good laugh out of that Ho-Hum headline.

I could bask in Mets success then. I could go as far as to expect it. There was a story arc in progress. We sucked for seven years (probably longer), we started getting better in ’84, way better in ’85, so what could be more logical than totally breaking out in ’86?

Nowadays everything changes from year to year. The Mets added a few key pieces between ’85 and ’86: Ojeda the lefthanded starter they needed; Teufel the platoon second baseman to offer a better option than Gardenhire or Chapman; Mitchell with power and crazy versatility off the bench. Everybody else was already there.

This year the most important bat is brand new as is almost the entire bullpen. Even the mainstays only just got here last year or the year before with a couple of exceptions. There is no continuity. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to accept that this team is playing .679 baseball and that it might not all end if I say the wrong thing.

And what about this notion that my thoughts control the action? This probably has its roots circa 1985 when I’m absolutely certain I shifted between television sets — the black & white one in the kitchen and the color model in my parents’ bedroom — and Roger McDowell gave up a run. It may have happened twice. Ever since then, I’ve gotten superstitious, perhaps paranoid. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of this kind of thinking. You’d think two decades of progress would disprove theories relating to black magic and cosmic chicanery and whatnot, but no, I just get worse. I seriously worry that hypothetically considering a sweep of the Braves this weekend will result in a sweep by the Braves…or that by worrying about the Braves, I’ll inflame the Phillies, who are actually closer to us in the standings but nowhere within the sound of my voice.

Too much water under the Whitestone bridge has passed between relatively jaunty excess of youthful arrogance and the baggage of middle-aged caution. I must have envisioned a doubleheader sweep of the Pirates in 1990 or a one-game playoff for the Wild Card in 1998 and been burned. I swore I could see a Subway Series, a real one, in 1999. I knew there could be a ticker-tape parade, a good one, in 2000 and I had a hunch that 2001 would go down as the greatest story ever told. Those years had their moments, but they also had their limits.

Nice goin’, head.

Hence, shame on me for blogharboring such optimism. It never panned out, at least not since ’86. How dare I try to enjoy myself unalloyed of suspicion that something was waiting around the corner to devour us and that something was named disappointment? Better to gear up for it, and if something good happens, then it will be all the more delightful. That’s been the default mode around here since ’86. It wasn’t a template for confidence. I came to view that year as an aberration…and I’m still wondering what I did wrong between April and September to make that October such a close call.

You know what thought I had for maybe twenty minutes in the middle of 1986? I lay awake one Sunday night/Monday morning and wondered why this being in first place was so important. Why couldn’t I enjoy baseball on its own merits? So what if we were in first place? How about fourth place? Would that be so terrible?

Like I said, it lasted twenty minutes. When you sport an em-dash (—) in the GB column, you can afford to be generous with your ridiculous thoughts.

I’m more miserly now despite my instinct to go the other way since we were 10-2. We have a five-game lead? I want a six-game lead. And then I want a ten-game lead. And then I want…oops, I did it again. Carts haven’t gone before the horse since 1986. You only get one ride like that in your life.

I’ll take whatever lies ahead for the rest of 2006. The choice clearly isn’t mine.