What's all the hubbub about tonight, anyway?
We all know that New Year's is actually a moveable feast. It came on April 3 this year, it will fall on April 1 next time around. Properly, tonight is just another night in the waning of the Year of Our Mets 45. But plenty of deluded folks will spend tonight toasting and wearing funny hats and making resolutions about this thing called 2007 — so many that we ought to take notice, lest we get confused and think everybody's gathered in Times Square to celebrate word that Pedro's rehab is months ahead of schedule, or confirmation that the Marlins just sent the D-Train north for Shawn Green and Anderson Hernandez.
I'm writing these words at a quarter to three on a Sunday afternoon, which means my internal clock keeps nagging at me. Hey! Jace! There's gotta be a ballgame on somewhere. Probably in the fourth or fifth inning by now but plenty of action left. Maybe all this silly football has pushed it up the dial someplace, but it oughta at least be on the radio. No? So we're the Sunday night game, then?
Alas, no. All over but the hot-stovin', I have to remind myself, seeking comfort in the fact that the days are slowly getting longer, that winter's entrance comes with the promise of its exit. It's nice to see Halloween and Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas arrive — and since each key date off the calendar is one fewer between us and what matters, it's also been nice seeing them depart. So, welcome, Rest of the World's New Year's. Once you're behind us, all that's left is the Baseball Equinox, the Super Bowl, and Pitchers and Catchers, after which the days and nights will soon resume their right and proper patterns and rhythms.
Anyway, 2006 won't go down as a shining chapter in the American annals, staggering as it did under the weight of war and terror, division and anger. I won't miss any of that — and 2007 seems likely to deliver plenty more, anyway. But I will miss what happened in our own little orange and blue world. Because 45 MR (Mets Reckoning), it was…well, it was amazin'.
It was the first look around the
friendly surly but still somehow beloved confines of Shea knowing that its days are officially numbered. So much history, glorious and futile, triumphant and farcical. With a bit more to be written before moving over a few hundred feet for another chapter.
It was new faces — of which not one but two of my signature moments were written by Paul Lo Duca. First there was the May afternoon that saw him slam the ball into the grass a la David Cone all those years ago in Atlanta. Then there was the October afternoon in which he slammed the gate on the Dodgers' postseason before it could really begin. It took me a minute or two to grasp that yes, Lo Duca had just tagged out Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew on the same deliriously unlikely play. It took me quite a bit longer to grasp that Lo Duca, utterly unable to hear his teammates on the field, had divined from some tenor to the deafening roar of the crowd that a second runner was inbound, or for me to notice around Replay #1,000 that after tagging Drew, Lo Duca sprang to his feet to see if he could erase Russell Martin as well. The first play was recklessly inattentive, the second astonishingly focused. I loved him for both.
It was old faces, too — none greeted more enthusiastically than Mike Piazza, none regarded more ambivalently than Big Mike after he celebrated his return by smacking not one but two home runs off Pedro Martinez, then came to the plate as the potential go-ahead run in the eighth — and hit an Aaron Heilman offering on the screws. That moment sparked a family feud on this little blog and throughout Metdom — do you want that third drive to come down in Beltran's glove, or disappear over the fence? Like most good arguments, there is no right answer: I cheered in relief when it turned into a loud out, but I also knew that if it had been unreachable, few losses would have been less disappointing. Speaking of old heroes, my first must-see date for 2007 will be the return of one Cornelius Clifford Floyd, the 2006 Met I'll miss most, and the player who just might be the coolest man to ever play the game.
And it was old faces seen in a new light. Carlos Beltran's 2005 (sorry, Year of Our Mets Forty-four) was a disaster: disappointing at the plate and in the field, marred by injuries small, medium and terrifying, and greeted by shameful boos from shameless fans. 2006 didn't start out much better — Beltran went into the first weekend of the year without a hit, and with that old familiar sound in his home ballpark. Then — bang! Home run! A home run followed by an old-fashioned baseball morality play — a moment that was a watershed for 2006, and maybe for Beltran and for this franchise. Beltran refused the request for a curtain call, which was just payback for his shabby treatment by the fans. Until the moment went on too long, and you knew that a) if he didn't come out, nothing he did might stop the boos; and b) there was no longer a dignified way for him to come out. And then Julio Franco found a way out of the trap, all but dragging Beltran to the top step. And with that, 2005 became past and April 6, 2006 became prelude — the precursor to a legitimate MVP season, and a love affair with the fans that not even a despairing look at a knee-buckling curve from Adam Wainwright will derail.
Not every crucial encounter between our center fielder and a Cardinals closer ended like that. In August, Beltran stepped to the plate with Lo Duca on base and the Mets down one in the ninth, setting up Gary Cohen's best call of the year and my personal moment of wildest, wildest joy in a season that offered plenty of them. “HE RIPS IT TO DEEP RIGHT! THAT BALL IS OUTTA HERE! OUTTA HERE! THE METS WIN THE BALLGAME!” If you ever, ever, ever play that call for me and I don't tear up or start beaming, please call an EMT.
That game ended with Beltran leaping into the arms of his teammates — in this marvelous photo you can see Dave Williams and Carlos Delgado and Lo Duca and others competing to be the first to dog-pile him. (Steve Trachsel's golf-clapping at the rear now seems like an icy bit of foreshadowing.) 2006 was about a Mets team that seemed to genuinely like each other, as evidenced by Lo Duca, Delgado, Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright on the cover of SI and Tom Verducci's wonderful article on “the adventures of Captain Red Ass and the intrepid Mets.” Contrast that with that other team in town, whose chief drama (also chronicled by Verducci) was whether or not the shortstop would ever release the third baseman from social purgatory.
That's just scratching the surface of an amazin', amazin', amazin' campaign — 2:45 has turned to 5:00 (it oughta be time for a last word from the booth, or maybe extra innings), and somehow I haven't turned to David Wright willing a ball over Johnny Damon's head, or Jose Reyes' helmet being left behind as he rounds second yet again, or the sheer pleasure in Gary Cohen on TV and Howie Rose on the FAN and Keith Hernandez on Planet Mex, or Delgado's trillion-watt smile, or the giddiest West Coast swing in 20 years, or the long-awaited, finally arrived crumbling of the Atlanta Braves, or what might just be the greatest damn catch in the history of the greatest damn game.
That's OK — there'll be time to think on all those things as New Year's Day 46 draws near, as well as time to wonder and then to witness what 2007 has in store. Can we surpass a season in which the margin between exhausted agony and a date with Detroit was a line drive that didn't tail, a breaking ball that broke perfectly? Will someone in orange and blue finally spring us from the Clubhouse of Curses? If so, will it be an old warhorse like Tom Glavine or El Duque? A young gun like Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber? Or some hurler not even on our radar — the John Maine of 2007, perhaps? Or will that have to wait for Citi Field, rising behind the outfield fence as 2007 goes by?
Before too terribly long we'll be deep in the business of finding out, and 2006 will be part of our long history, a chapter recalled by other wins and losses and players and plays instead of one still to be fussed over. I'll remember it as a year in which a lovable, formidable, indomitable team fought all the way to the final pitch of the final inning of Game 7 of the NLCS, with the outcome undecided until the very last second. As I've said many a time since then, in response to offerings of consolation, you can want more than that, but if you've learned anything from watching baseball, it's that you damn well can't ask for it.
Maybe 2007 will be the fulfillment of 2006's promise. Maybe it'll be a disappointing retreat from it. Either way, it's got a hard act to follow — a campaign I'll always recall with a smile, an eventual sad shake of the head, and a struggle to sum up so many days and nights of amazement and excitement and joy.
Raise a glass.