When you're eternally the underdog, you dream of taking down the favorite. One very thin strand of me is in that position right now, with my alma mater, the University of South Florida, ranked for the very first time ever in the Top 20 of the AP college football poll. This Friday night, they…oh hell, we, the No. 18 team in the country, play West Virginia, No. 5. West Virginia is one of those football schools you've heard of. Making the AP list is hardly cause for their alumni to feel honest-to-god goosebumps this week. The game's in Tampa, but the Bulls are 7-point underdogs. If they lose, it's expected. If they win, the commuter campus I knew as a hotbed of apathy from 1981 to 1985 will go more nuts than it already has for its still youthful program.
This is the kind of underdog vs. favorite matchup I understand intrinsically. Everything I learned and loved about sports from the time I was old enough to distinguish between sides has been wrapped up in pulling for the underdog. My team has overwhelmingly more often than not been the underdog. I just assumed it always would be.
That's definitely how I figured it would play out if the Mets and Phillies ever threw down over any stakes of significance. It's all about where you came in on the movie, I suppose, but when I first paid any real attention to the baseball team from Philadelphia, they were far more Apollo Creed than Rocky Balboa. They were the champs in our division. Except for technically, we weren't really in their division. We weren't in their weight class. We were the lightweight tomato can whose stuff Mickey had thrown out of our locker and onto skid row.
Phillie history is synonymous with futility, I'm sure you've heard. They sure were futile when I first came upon them in 1969, a horrendous fifth-place team that only the expansion Expos kept out of last. They changed stadiums, changed uniforms, changed personnel, but the only tangible change in their performance all that movement brought them in the early '70s was a change from fifth to sixth. They began, however, to rise noticeably in 1974, the same year the Mets had their first losing season since I'd begun watching them in '69. They finished third. We finished fifth.
It would signal a lifelong pattern: The Mets had been good, the Phillies had been bad; the Phillies were getting good, the Mets were getting worse. They'd flip and flop for the next three decades, barely touching on their respective ways up and down. Oh, sometimes they'd both suck simultaneously, but that's not of much use to anybody.
The Mets and Cubs had a great recurring rivalry that even flared up during a Wild Card race once the two had been separated as Easterners. The Mets and Cardinals competed closely as a matter of course for several seasons. The Mets and Pirates duked it out once or twice. The Mets would go on to do memorable battle with the Braves. As documented monthly in this space, the Mets actually spent a year in genuine pursuit of the Marlins.
But none of those teams played anywhere near the Mets. The Phillies did. Thus, the rub. Wouldn't it be great, I thought as the Phillies rode roughshod over the N.L. East in the late 1970s and the Mets made themselves comfortable in its basement, if these two geographically aligned franchises went at it? I mean really went at it? When I was in high school, everything was Red Sox-Yankees this, Yankees-Red Sox that. I could read a map. I knew Philadelphia was closer to New York than Boston was. I also knew that New York was a National League town on hiatus.
Wouldn't it be great if we had a real Mets-Phillies rivalry?
That was my thinking in the winter of 1978-79 (post-Bucky Dent, not coincidentally). I became mildly obsessed with the idea that someday the Mets would ride the escalator up the National League East, past the Expos and the Cubs and the Cardinals and the Pirates and at last be pounding on the Phillies' door. The Phillies of Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton and Bob Boone and Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox and Greg Luzinski and, somehow, Tug McGraw and, all of a sudden, Pete Rose…they were so smug after finishing first three years in a row, leaving us a combined 76 games from first place. But someday they'd be taken down by my Mets. My Mets of Mazzilli and Youngblood and Swan and Stearns and Flynn and Henderson and Skip Lockwood, a better closer any day than that lousy turncoat McGraw.
I really wanted a Mets-Phillies conflict to explode. And if it did, I truly believed we would prevail.
It didn't happen. It never came close to happening. I imagined it was happening at a crucial juncture of the 1980 season when the surprising Mets, in fourth place and on the fringes of the race that August, braced for a five-game series at Shea versus the big bad Phillies. Philadelphia wasn't in first at the time, but they would be any minute with a mighty assist from us. They stomped all over the Mets, taking five of five (40 to 12) and ending the whole Magic Is Back illusion in one cruel weekend's worth of flippin' cold reality check. Philly would win a World Series, their first, that October. The Mets would have their day a half-dozen years later, but by then the Phillies were a footnote to the proceedings. By 1986, I'd forgotten all about my fantasy feud. Nearby or not, the Phillies had ceased to matter where the Mets were concerned, even in my mind.
Reading George Vecsey the other day brought it all back. Here finally, he wrote, were the two potential pennant race pairings from the Great Northeast together at once: Yankees and Red Sox, as usual, and Mets and Phillies, first time ever. I suddenly remembered I had wanted this when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. I wanted this when I was looking up five spots in the standings to see the Phillies lording it over us. I wanted this when Mike Schmidt filmed a soft drink commercial in which he swatted home runs while a distraught generic catcher with blue and orange piping around his sleeve cuffs looked on in total dumbfoundery (while Schmitty was “Turning 7 Up,” we were finishing 24 out). I wanted this when we were the underdogs and they were the perennial favorites.
It never, ever occurred to me I would get it when we were on top and they would have to come after us. Once we became the kind of team that could be in first place in late September, I was never looking for any kind of rivalry.
Nevertheless, it came looking for us. By losing convincingly to Washington Monday night, we assured ourselves, after 46 seasons of doing no more than nodding and maybe exchanging some misdelivered mail, of our first no-holds-barred, all-the-marbles, down-to-the-wire pennant race with the Philadelphia Phillies. There will be no riding this thing out, no falling on the ball or taking one knee. When the margin is two games with six to play, you can talk all you want about destiny in your own hands and “just win, baby,” but there's no way you're not sweating the out-of-town scoreboard. The way we have pitched of late, we can't afford to be only Mets fans. Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday we are red-hot Braves fans because that's who plays the Phillies. There's a pretty good chance we'll be diehard Nats fans come Friday for the same reason.
The Phillies don't have Mike Schmidt anymore. There are nights when it feels like they have five or six of him and it scares me Schmidtless. On the other hand, we're not exactly a bunch of Mazzes and Hendus over here — though we could probably use Skip Lockwood right about now. We can win this thing. We can lose this thing. They can grab this thing if we're not careful. Even if we are, they might.
Approximately 110 miles from Shea Stadium to Citizens Bank Park. Six days from today to the end of the season. Two wins buffer us from them. We have to hang on to at least one of them.
Nope, definitely not the way I pictured it.