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The Unwanted Legend of Game Seven

Oliver Perez is taking the ball against Detroit Wednesday, starting in consecutive games or going on 132 days’ rest, depending on how you choose to view this terribly overdue Mets-Tigers matchup. Either way, our boys will be lacing up spikes that are not — no matter how much elbow grease the clubhouse staff has put into it — 100% clean.

Gum chewed more than four months ago is stuck to the bottom of our collective sole. It’s from Game Seven. I don’t think it will be easily scraped off.

Did you think it was gone? Just because the calendar [1] turned from 2006 to 2007? Just because almost everybody said the usual things about moving on and putting it behind us? It doesn’t work that way, not in baseball, not with losing a humongous baseball game.

Now, that doesn’t mean the result from Game Seven is particularly foreboding where near-term success is concerned. In fact, as previously suggested, it could serve as motivation or inspiration [2] for a team rocking the unfinished agenda angle. Or maybe it will be a drag on things. Mostly, I imagine, it won’t matter one way or the other once this season gets underway, not in a tangible 2007 sense.

But it will always be with us on some level [3].

Losses don’t loom any larger than those that delete you from the postseason. We’ve experienced five. Within that universe there is a subset: the winner-take-all/loser-go-home affair. We’ve lost three. Those are the toughest. But then you whittle down within the seventh-game defeats, the most exclusive club in all of sporting disappointments, and you find there is an even more elite group: the seventh game you lose at the very end.

That was the 2006 National League Championship Series, Game Seven. That’s the gum. That’s the legend. The Legend of Game Seven. We don’t want it. But it won’t come clean. We saw that as Spring Training got going and the indelible events of October 19 re-emerged with reflections and recriminations pinging all over the continent like a severely botched rundown.

In a perverse way (a very perverse way), I get a kick out of there being a legend growing from the ninth inning…or should we say The Ninth Inning? I’d prefer the legend be one that involves an additional base hit, but it’s more than just a rally come up short now. It’s baseball lore. Was Willie Randolph really confused? Did Jerry Manuel pull the strings? Is Cliff Floyd [4] remembering things the way he wants, facts be damned?

Last week, Cliff and Willie [5] and Jerry [6] and David Wright [7] all weighed in on what wasn’t even the decisive at-bat of the ninth inning, Cliff’s time up. He was only the first out. Two outs remained, yet three days of reporting was devoted to several sides of its story.

That’s how big Game Seven was.

Carlos Beltran barely puts down his bags [8] at Tradition Field and he is asked by the Met media to relive the out that didn’t require all that much interpretation.

“It was a nasty pitch. I saw it, but I couldn’t do anything with it.”

On the other side of the boxscore, the happier side, Adam Wainwright quite justifiably revels in the memories [9], even the part where Valentin and Chavez reach him for base hits to start the ninth.

“Every fan at Shea Stadium was crushing me. All year I never heard the crowd. But I could hear them this time, and they were letting me have it.”

Then the kid decided he was going to get Beltran, no doubts about it, at least not in hindsight.

“I knew I was going to get the job done. I said to myself, ‘I am going to throw this curveball like it’s the best curveball I ever threw in my life.'”

So he did. And that was that.

No it wasn’t.

It’s not the end of the story. The story never ends. It’s in Limahl [10] territory. Everything surrounding Game Seven will linger, will flare, will recede and then reappear when we’re not looking for it. Don’t be fooled by the enticement of a new season. This old business has been cobbled into our codicil. We’re passing this baby on for generations. And even though it is we who are stuck with it, it’s not just ours either. It’s baseball history, the kind that doesn’t carry an expiration date. It will be brought to our attention on and off for as long as anyone who remembers it first-, second- or third-hand sees something that’s remotely reminiscent of it. It will be an inconvenient truth, shallow shorthand for those who need a quick and dirty precedent on the fly.

• The notoriously undependable pitcher who unearths a gem at the least likely moment? Just like Oliver Perez in Game Seven!
• The otherwise unremarkable hurler who turns unhittable when it counts like crazy? Just like Jeff Suppan in Game Seven!
• The catch and throw that leaves you rubbing your eyes? Just like Endy Chavez in Game Seven!
• The sense of inevitable momentum-shifting following a catch and throw that leaves you rubbing your eyes? Just like the bases loading after Endy Chavez in Game Seven!
• The immediate sense of doom that arises when the sense of inevitable momentum-shifting following a catch and throw that leaves you rubbing your eyes doesn’t pan out? Just like the bases being left loaded after Endy Chavez in Game Seven!
• The .216 regular-season hitter who jerks a two-run homer in the top of the ninth of a tie game that will decide who goes to a World Series? Just like Yadier Fucking Molina in Game Seven!
• The manager’s decision to bunt or not to bunt down two with two on and nobody out and not much bench? Just like Willie Randolph and Cliff Floyd and perhaps Jerry Manuel in Game Seven!
• The nasty pitch that nothing can be done with and/or the best curveball ever thrown in one’s life?

Just like Game Seven in the 2006 National League Championship Series, the one that hinged on any number of moves, actions, successes and failures, but stopped when Adam Wainwright froze Carlos Beltran on oh-and-two.

Quick aside: I was wheeling a shopping cart through my Pathmark’s cereal aisle several weeks ago, and suddenly staring out at me from the General Mills shelf was a Wheaties box. Not just any Wheaties box, but a Wheaties box [11] with Chris Carpenter’s picture on the front. I did what any sensible Mets fan would do. I turned around every box of Wheaties so nobody within the sound of my angst would have to look at a 2006 World Champion St. Louis Cardinal selling cereal on the South Shore of Long Island.

Chris Carpenter didn’t even pitch in Game Seven. But that’s beside the point. Game Seven is everywhere we don’t want it to be. It’s the cupcake topped with a limitless layer of frosting if you’re a Cardinals fan [12]. It’s a bottomless bowl of kale and lima bean stew if you’re us.
Yeech. Just like Game Seven.

It’s a contest with different meanings for different players. Oliver Perez has immediate prospects [13] thanks to his six innings of one-run ball. Endy Chavez will bask in the terminally bittersweet glow [14] of what he grabbed for as long as he can. Aaron Heilman, the reliever who made Molina famous, is either terminally hung up on it [15] or getting over it [16] as we speak. Jose Reyes may or may not be haunted by what he says the Mets suggested [17] the Cardinals could do with their chances directly after Endy gave Willie Mays [18] a run for his immortal money:

“Take your bags and go home.”

Jose’s too swift to be caught by a ghost, but it’s obvious the spirit of Game Seven hangs over Metsopotamia. Maybe not as a going concern — Carlos Beltran will live to swing another day — but it’s in the atmosphere. If may not get in the way of the manager, his coaches and their players as they pursue a second consecutive division title (and it certainly doesn’t have to), but we, the fans, will live with it from here to kingdom come.

How can I be so sure? Can I see the future? Don’t have to. I’ve been around the past.

More than five years ago I sat in a room of New York Giants fans who were commemorating The Shot Heard Round The World and communing with their hero of heroes, Bobby Thomson. They were thrilled, grateful, ecstatic all over again. “Thank you, Bobby,” one of them said, “for allowing us to break those Brooks’ balls 50 years ago.” Almost five years later, I sat in another room, this one dotted by more Dodgers than Giants fans. Guess who spoke louder, representatives of the contented ball-breaking contingent or those who were still trying to restitch the tender horsehide of their swollen memories 55 years after the fact?

When Joshua Prager appeared with Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca last September to discuss The Echoing Green [19], his remarkable history of The Shot and everything after, it was the Dodgers fans who made themselves heard. The Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble had morphed into the Chuck Dressen Complaint Department. These people had waited five-and-a-half decades to register their official protests regarding what went wrong on October 3, 1951 (though I’m fairly certain this wasn’t the first time any of them had mentioned it lately). My Giants friends may still be satisfied, but not nearly as much as their Dodger counterparts are pissed.

Fifty-five years. Going on 56.

That very same week, HBO premiered Wait ’til Next Year, a touching documentary [20] charting the downs and further downs of everybody’s favorite futile franchise, the Chicago Cubs. The heart of the story was 1969, a year remembered in these parts as the best of times, reviled in those parts as something far less. HBO dug up fantastic footage we never saw during Channel 9 rain delays, none better from our provincial perspective than the exclamation point — a local lady reporter filing a report from a desolate, rainy Wrigley Field on the second Saturday of that October. We should be in Baltimore playing the Orioles right now, she said. Instead, nothing doing.

“It’s a lousy day in Chicago.”

I laughed my head off of course. Their pain is the foundation of my lifetime obsession not to mention the crux of my happiest childhood experience. I don’t remember many details from August and September of 1969, but watching the Cubs implode and the Mets rush by them, even in grainy film clips, brought back every wonderful new emotion I experienced as a six-year-old. It was a lousy day in Chicago? Who cared? It was a great year to become a Mets fan!

It’s awfully nice to be on the right side of these baseball cataclysms as I consider myself to have been by proxy for 1951 and was for sure, albeit on training wheels, during 1969. Oh, and 1986…Buckner. Beautiful. Always will be. SNY can try to reduce that World Series to wallpaper, but it never, ever, ever gets old to see that ball roll through those legs and trickle onto the outfield grass before nestling forever inside a puffy, cumulus cloud of heaven. Twenty-plus years that image has looped through my mind now and I’d challenge whoever said losing hurts more than winning feels good to a smirkoff. Make all the misguided movies [21] you want about somebody else coming up short in Game Six. I’ll always have a better one flickering in my head.

But now I am on the other side of the fault line, more than I’ve ever been before. I’ve got Game Seven and it’s presented in Sensurround. This isn’t the unfriendly confines of a 1979 or a 1993, horrible in a thousand dreadful ways, but at least they’re private hell. This isn’t some obscure Luis Aguayo moment or even the relative anonymity of a five-game losing streak that prevents you from entering October. The whole world wasn’t watching in 1987 and 1998. It’s not even the one-two punch of Brian Jordan and Brian Jordan again from 2001, the worst I ever felt watching essentially the same two ballgames six wretched days apart. It killed us, but you still have to explain it to an outsider.

This, Game Seven, was the Mets when they were supposed to win. When they had their fate and the bat in their hands. That, I think, is what separates the 2006 version of Game Seven from the other slammed doors in Mets postseason history. We lost in searing fashion in 1999 to the Braves and 2000 to the Yankees, but those didn’t go to seventh games. Felt like they did, but they didn’t.

People still debate Yogi Berra’s decision [22] to bypass George Stone in favor of short-rested Seaver and Matlack with a 3-2 lead over Oakland in 1973 (I actually heard a caller to WFAN bring it up last night). Really, they don’t debate it at all. Nobody except Tom Seaver has ever defended it with any kind of vigor. But those were those A’s and we were all probably kind of shocked to have crashed their dynastic party as deeply as we did. The cumulative effect of losing that World Series may have stung like mad [23], but neither of the final two losses against them, though both were close, was a 2006-style heartbreaker.

We weren’t supposed to beat the A’s in ’73. We were supposed to beat the Dodgers in ’88, but that seventh game got out of hand early. The turning point then was three games earlier, Scioscia versus Gooden. But planting the blame on a pitch or pitching decision from the ninth inning of the fourth game when…

a) the lead should have been more than 4-2 entering the ninth
b) the game went to the twelfth
c) the bases were loaded in our favor in the bottom of that twelfth
d) the series was tied with three games to go even after Hershiser got McReynolds

….smacks of revisionist history. It’s been said the Scioscia home run destroyed the era, that it tumbled a dynasty that never was. I lived through it. I don’t buy it. The Mets would have two years after ’88 of coming close and not winning. I simply remember the home run, in real time, as an unfortunate blow delivered by an opposition batter. Our not scoring earlier that evening or later that morning (and the next afternoon) is what struck me as the killing blows of that NLCS.

And we still could have won back in Los Angeles.

As engraved in after-the-fact consciousness as it became, I don’t recall Mike Scioscia’s dastardly deed being rewound and featured ad nauseum in the winter of 1988-89 or the spring that followed it on whatever media existed in those semi-dark ages. We lost that NLCS in seven games. Game Four was pivotal, but it was the fourth game.

Everything about Game Seven, our Game Seven like we’ve never had one before — the one we won, in ’86, was superswell, but is it the Game you think of immediately when you think of ’86? — is different from everything that preceded it. There’s been no Met loss like it. Whatever you think of Heilman’s Thursday pitch to Molina (Mota and Wagner each had a pretty lousy series against St. Louis, so maybe it was just a matter of time before someone in red got to Aaron), it’s the last licks you remember, the last lick in particular.

This wasn’t Jon Matlack instead of Tom Seaver and Tom Seaver instead of George Stone; or Doc Gooden instead of Randy Myers; or Kenny Rogers instead of Octavio Dotel; or Al Leiter instead of John Franco. This was Carlos Beltran. This was the Mets on offense, our most powerful weapon cocked and loaded, a trigger man left fingering what could have or should have been pulled.

This was the crossroads of dominance (14 wins better [24], home field advantage) and doggedness (we get knocked down, but we get up again, you’re never going to keep us down). This was where our mythical, miraculous mettle would be proven to all. To the Cardinals. To the country. To us.
This — rookie pitcher walks Lo Duca to load the bases for Beltran who already has three homers in the series — was too perfect.

Too perfect.

Whether last October 19 represents the worst loss in Mets history is subjective stuff to begin with, but it’s absolutely unknowable on this February 27. There’s no record you can pin down to make the case, no Rennie Stennett or Sunny Jim Bottomley numerical explosion for your pinpointing pleasure. There is no PECOTA test that will reveal which is our worst episode ever of Lost. You can tell your statistics to shut up. It’s gloom plus gut multiplied by time and future circumstance, a formula impossible to convert to reliable equation at this hour.

If this was our one shot at the big time in this generation, then it’s perhaps as bad as anything between 1962 and forever. We remember Scioscia because after 1988 everything went downhill.

Yet if the Mets played a little more competently in a series at Wrigley in the summer of ’89, maybe they beat out the Cubs for the division and who knows what we do that October? (Not that beating us out in ’89 and ’84 and ’98 has done a damn thing to salve Cubbie fans’ psychic wounds [25] from 38 years ago.) Likewise, a couple of hits here and saves there down the stretch in 1990 might have made 1988 a footnote bracketed by two championships. I doubt Aaron Boone remains quite as horrendous for Red Sox rooters as Dent and Buckner did because it was avenged in a timely manner…if the accomplishments of one season can be said to truly compensate for the shortcomings of another. Those Dodgers fans at the Barnes & Noble in 2006 didn’t seem particularly sated by the four pennants their Bums won in 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956 to say nothing of Brooklyn’s world championship in ’55. Getting beat in 1951 apparently beats all.

Preseason predictions are uniformly useless, but on the eve of our first exhibition, I’ll proffer one anyhow: If we go five wins further in October 2007 than we did in October 2006, we’ll probably still gnash our teeth over Game Seven at a later date, but it won’t sting the same. In fact, it likely becomes character-building fodder for the greater narrative, a new and uplifting chapter in a franchise history that already alternates [26] between life-affirming and clinically depressing with skip-stop service unpredictability. That championship train we’ve been waiting on is bound to show up eventually. One of these nights, the doors will open exactly where we’re standing and we’ll ride it express all the way home. Maybe that night is no more than one month of practice and seven months of achievement away.

And if we don’t exceed the bottom line that was smudged beyond creative accounting by last year’s stunning conclusion? Then the third rail, like that third strike, is something we’ll find ourselves looking at for a little too long.