I felt a little fear
Upon my back
I said don't look back
Just keep on walking
So this year Fear knocked out Faith in the 162nd round. But I can't just keep on walking. Not just yet.
As was the case for Henry Bemis in The Twilight Zone after the H-Bomb proved it was capable of total destruction and before our bank teller's glasses slip off his nose, we will have time enough at last to look ahead at what needs to be done to repair the New York Mets. Goodness knows, they can use all the help they can get. But indulging my trusty rearview instincts, I'm going to devote the bulk of my blogging this week to trying to trying to make a little sense of 2007. I doubt there is great appetite to relive its final chapters, but there are a few questions about this season that continue to nag at me, so if you don't mind, I'll nag them at you.
First off, was 2007's Met denouement the Worst Collapse in Baseball History?
Does it even matter?
Once you're in the conversation, you're not really gaining anything by avoiding the No. 1 ranking. The 2007 Mets are squarely in the conversation. Whether they made a statistically louder or softer thud than all those other teams you've understood as shorthand for “collapse” all your rooting years is irrelevant. There was a collapse. What was there ain't there no longer. And anything times zero still multiplies to zero…y'know?
If there's any overarching good news on the subject of historic collapses it's that this happens to most everybody sooner or later. While we were in the midst of joining the Legion of Decline & Fall, I saw various lists of Worst Collapses pop up with the regularity of Jose Reyes. Some entries were what card collectors would call commons; some teams you see always see on these lists. Others had grown obscure. But almost every franchise's name gets called.
It's not just us.
Will 2007 Mets really become synonymous with collapse? Will it really replace 1964 Phillies in the lexicon? Will it be mentioned for all time alongside '69 Cubs and '78 Red Sox and '51 Dodgers? Or will it fade into the maw of the memory hole where the 1934 Giants and the 1987 Blue Jays and the 1983 Braves and the 1995 Angels and others who haven't been quite as mythologized reside?
As we are barely one week beyond the expiration date of the 2007 season, I'd say we don't know yet. Because it took place in New York and there is a tendency to withhold benefit of the doubt from the Mets among the brain dead media, I'd guess this will come up the next time the Mets have any kind of lead with any kind of time on the clock. Then again, I would have guessed the five losses in a row that ended our 1998 would have stood eternally as a touchstone of collapses, but that has clearly reverted to family matter.
What might work in our favor (that is, not drip-drip-drip on our heads for the remainder of our lifetimes) is that the 2007 Phillies were eliminated so quickly from the postseason. If they had enjoyed overwhelming October success, the backstory — “you know, Joe, the Phillies deserve the credit for being here, but you can't ignore the fact that the New York Mets held a seven-game lead on the Twelfth of September and…” — would have become cemented as legend. With eight teams in the playoffs and things moving as quickly as they do these days, the 2007 Mets' misfortune may prove more transient on the grand stage than we could possibly imagine right now. Right now, the Cubs, Phillies and Angels look no better than we do.
I would also contend there was no signature moment of collapse in 2007, no single signature move that backfired, no obvious failure of philosophy or strategy, so it will be tough to construct an enduring myth around what happened. Essentially, our starting pitching was almost uniformly inadequate and our bullpen was spectacularly abysmal. You could argue much more could have been accomplished, much more urgency could have been applied, somebody didn't have to slap somebody else such an emphatic high-five (that's “the Mets made the Marlins mad” storyline, which, by the by, I don't buy as an alibi as it lets failure of execution way too easily off the hook), but the air escaping from '07 can't be automatically pegged on something systemic. Willie Randolph's proclamation that the Champagne would taste sweeter once sipped through adversity may have already carved itself on his eventual managerial tombstone, but standing arms folded and motionless in a windbreaker while all about you crumbles isn't quite as sexy as Gene Mauch repeatedly starting Bunning and Short or Charlie Dressen opting to give away home-field advantage after winning the tiebreaker coin flip.
Examining the teams who qualify for the Worst Collapse conversation (as interpreted by Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus) gives me hope on one very fundamental level: This sort of thing does not mark the end of a franchise's life. Just about everybody has one of these skeletons in the closet. There really is a next year, sometimes a very good next year. The Dodgers, shot 'round the world and through the heart as they were, won a pennant in 1952, then '53, then '55 (when they won a World Series), then '56. The '34 Giants eventually became the 1936 and '37 National League champs. The Cubs didn't win in 1970, but they remained competitive.
What do years after bode for the 2008 Mets? Only that there will be 2008 and there figure to be Mets. Hell, even the Phillies showed up for Spring Training in 1965.
Whether the 2007 Mets' collapse was worse than those proffered by other teams of the damned is something I really don't know. But now I'm wondering whether it felt worse than other horrible Met episodes. More specifically, how does 2007 deserve to be remembered? I mean after the immediate shock and disgust have worn off? (My own level of shock has subsided eight days after the fact, but my disgust lingers.)
I tend to grade on a curve. To my generally forgiving mind, there are 90+ loss disasters, then there's 1980 when the Mets flickered with hope for a few months. There are third-place finishes, then there's 1997 whose tenth-anniversary flag I've waved frequently and forcefully on Fridays this year. There are gut-wrenching near misses, there there's 1999, whose final moments Shawon Dunston and I will never forget for all the right reasons. My rule of thumb is if a year gives me something to truly treasure, I'm willing to overlook a lot of bad as water under the Whitestone.
So what was 2007? Solely one of the Worst Collapses in Baseball History? Or a year whose undeniably awful ending didn't completely wipe out what could be kindly considered its saving graces?
Was 2007 worse than the abomination of 1977? You can substitute 1993 or 2003 or 1965, if you like. The question boils down to, was losing at the end worse than losing all year? Is it better to have been in the thick of things — to have led the thick of things — even if you know you blew your part of the deal? Or would have you rather not bothered getting your hopes up so high? Would it have been just as well to have wallowed in last place since the one thing the '07 Mets have in common with various of their sad sack ancestors is they didn't see the postseason for themselves?
I'd say I never want to go through a collapse like that we just endured ever again. But I'll take my chances with spending most of the year in first place regardless of the possibility that what happened could have happened, even the certainty that what happened did happen. 2007 can't hold a hellish candle to 1977 and 1993 and the other six last-place finishes I've lived through as a Mets fan. Same for most of the too-plentiful next-to-lasters. Those were veritable 162-game collapses. I'll get my hopes up, thank you very much.
Was 2007 worse than the mediocrity of 1971? Though I don't remember a whole lot of details from 1971 as they occurred, I do remember it being a typical Mets year from my youth: It seemed we might be good, we made a little run (two out at the end of June), we had our collapse in the middle of the season (9-20 in July), someone else (the Pirates) proved much better; the hitting was lame; the pitching was good; we finished with 83 wins.
I'd sure want to have Tom Seaver any year, and '71 I've always considered his best year (20-10, 1.76 ERA, 289 K's), but years like this — and a handful of others from my youth that fit the pattern — were somehow more disappointing to me on the whole than 2007. I like knowing my team has a chance. I'd rather live most of six months with the chance things might work out than merely avoid disaster by not having much of a chance all year.
Was 2007 worse than the runner's stumble of 1987? This is a very pointed challenge. On paper, the '87 Mets contended to almost the bitter end and won more than 90 games. They were also coming off a world championship, so you'd figure there'd be some goodwill in the air. But I hated that year. I wouldn't say I hated the Mets (I rooted for 'em), but I hated the arc. I hated the inability to ever pull into first place or nose ahead of the Cardinals. I hated the bickering. I hated the Terry Pendeton home run and assorted other September calamities. For all the talk of how unlovable the '07 Mets became, I never found them out-and-out unlikable. I really didn't like the Mets as a group in '87 and they grew tough to take as individuals.
We blew 2007 to the Phillies, but at the very (very) least, we didn't give it up to the Braves. The late '80s Cardinals were the Braves cubed. It's a split hair, but losing to Charlie Manuel's Phillies didn't annoy me nearly as much as losing to Whitey Herzog's Cardinals.
Was 2007 worse than the choking precedent of 1998? The Mets had not won in other regular seasons when winning was an option, but never quite like 1998. Before “seven out with 17 to play” became a catchphrase along the lines of “I Like Ike” and “Where's The Beef?” you didn't have to think twice at this juncture in 1998 to understand the meaning of “five straight losses to end the season.” Blowing the Wild Card by effectively not showing up against Montreal and in Atlanta threatened to shadow everything that would ever happen again for the Mets. I'll never forget Jason reintroducing me to someone in September 1999 whom I hadn't seen since September 1998 with “…and you remember Greg from collapses of seasons past.” Of all that is remembered about those eventually heroic 1999 Mets, it is mostly forgotten what a fantastic job they did of diminishing the stigma attached to the '98 Mets. “Five straight losses to end the season” did not become our long-term franchise calling card. But we didn't know that in October 1998. All we knew was failure.
I had a history teacher in high school who pricked holes in the Cold War “Who lost China?” argument by insisting China was not the United States' to lose. It belonged to the Chinese. In that spirit, I would say there wasn't as much to lose in 1998. We didn't have the kind of stranglehold on a playoff spot nine years ago (one up with five to go) that we had less than four weeks ago. We could have, but we didn't. Also, it was a Wild Card. I'm rarely elitist on this, but we weren't clawing for a consolation prize in 2007. We had first place in our grasp. The '98 Mets finished 18 behind the Braves. They seemed plausible, but never probable. They were in thick of it even if they didn't lead it. When you come down to the wire twice and get tangled up in it to the point where you can't breathe twice, it's almost impossible to differentiate between the two fatal events. It's a virtual tie, but I'd have to say 2007 was ever so slightly worse given what there was to blow.
Congratulations 1998 Mets: your losing streak has finally ended.
Was 2007 worse than Called Strike Three in 2006? It was heartbreaking to lose World Series in 1973 and 2000, League Championship Series in 1988 and 1999 and absolutely devastating to not win the pennant last year. But those were postseason losses, implying postseason berths were won. Even the most painful postseason loss — and Beltran frozen by Wainwright's curve still sears the soul — is better than not playing.
2007 was worse than 2006. Definitively. It was worse than the other non-championship playoff years. It was worse than the less painful near misses of '84 and '85 and '90 in my book. It was worse in its way than a few of my esoteric favorites like '80 and '97. Maybe if you were starry-eyed in 1962 and hard-bitten in 2007, losing this lead late was worse than losing 120 to begin with. I don't want the pig to O.D. on lipstick. I don't want to come off as preternaturally Sunshine Sam. Believe me, I've been Gloomy Gus for almost every one of the past 192 hours. There was loads to not like about 2007…loads to hate it for, too, I suppose.
All I'm saying is not only could have this entire Met season been worse, entire Met seasons have been worse. As slogans go, it's not as rousing as “Your Season Has Come,” but it's probably more truthful.