As I told the players the day before the season ended, “I want you to make up your minds we're going to win it next year, that nothing is going to stop us.” — Davey Johnson on the last days of 1985, in Bats.
At 8:05 p.m. on April 1, baseball will return. The 2007 New York Mets will take the field, and a new campaign will begin. We'll begin the second-to-last season at Shea as the defending champions of the National League East.
That last little syllable on the end there makes all the difference, doesn't it? Those four little letters. That final little sound, the hissing one. East. It's a geographical term — a cardinal direction.
Speaking of which, the National League champions, no compass point required, will be standing across us on the field when the introductions are made. The St. Louis Cardinals will be at home, at the center of a cauldron of noise, amidst a sea of red shirts. And why shouldn't their fans be excited? They'll be greeting a team that's not only the National League champs, but the World Champs. They'll watch the Cardinals hoist their 10th World Series banner. They'll watch the Cardinals get their World Series rings. And before they can begin their season, the 2007 Mets will have to watch it, too — the celebration of a title that, had things just broken a little differently, might have been theirs.
And I want them to watch it.
I say that without rancor or vindictiveness or bitterness. I loved the 2006 squad, loved its heart and grit and pluck and all those other great baseball words. I loved watching Wright and Reyes blossom and Beltran win over Shea Stadium and Lo Duca tag Dodgers and howl at umpires and Valentin (“Jo-se, Jo-se Jo-se Jo-se! Other Jose! Other Jose!”) find grace in age and Pelfrey and Humber and Milledge give us flashes of promise in youth. I loved it all, from our April romp to those final two heart-stopping October nights, even if the last game had to wind down to that knee-buckling, heart-breaking, season-ending strike.
By now Lo Duca and Delgado and Glavine don't need any more tempering in the fire of defeat. But for the young guys, this is a crucial part of the maturation process: seeing the pennant and the rings and the hearing the cheers and thinking, Mine, mine, this could have been mine. This should have been ours. It reminds me of the 1-0 Cardinals win at Busch in May, the one where Wright couldn't make contact off Jason Isringhausen with one out and Reyes on third. After that game I had to remind myself that Wright was just 23, and one of the ingredients necessary for turning 23-year-olds who can't relax in big spots into 33-year-olds who can is failure. Failure that eats at you and leaves you determined to do anything to keep from feeling those teeth in you again.
This is the next step. Remember it when you watch Cardinal Nation exultant, when you moan that ESPN's shown the Wainwright coup de grace 40 times and they haven't even announced the lineups, when you grouse to yourself that Opening Night is sure starting out on a sour note. Look at the players and see if you can see Lo Duca's neck turning red, or Wright narrowing his eyes, or Reyes shuttering his million-watt smile. It'll taste terrible, but medicine often does. And then we'll have the whole season in front of us. Right, Davey?
After the meeting, I went back to my office to be alone for a while. I swore to myself: Next year, by God, nothing is going to stop us.