The players were confident in mid-September.
• “I can't see how we can lose unless we all drop dead,” declared one of the pitchers.
• “I don't see how we can lose unless everything goes wrong,” the starting catcher predicted.
• “I think we'll win now,” was the future Hall of Famer's verdict.
• “We will walk in,” enthused the veteran outfielder.
• “I can't help thinking we are sure to win,” said one of the rookies.
The manager didn't want to stoke the fires — “I am not making any claims just now. It's going to be a hard fight.” — but he had always fancied himself a winner.
The press was impressed, too. The Times said the locals were “practically certain of winning the pennant, having established an almost impregnable position in the race.” One of the other papers insisted on September 20 that the chances New York's National League powerhouse would be overtaken were as likely as a “snowfall on the Fourth of July”.
But it did snow. There was a blizzard of disappointment. The team that couldn't possibly blow it blew it, succumbing to hubris and a hard-charging rival.
It happened in '07, as we know. But it also happened in '08, a scant 99 years ago, covered and enlivened all over again of late by Cait Murphy in Crazy '08, the incredible true story of what she terms with justification “the greatest year in baseball history”. The quotes above, as you might have suspected, were jury-rigged into our post-Collapse context from Murphy's retelling of the 1908 pennant race among the Giants, the Cubs and the Pirates. New York led the pack, Chicago and Pittsburgh stayed on their tails, Fred Merkle didn't touch second…
Listen, there's so much more to 1908 than just the Merkle Game, and it all receives its due and then some by Murphy's hand. I began reading Crazy '08 in early summer, put it aside as I, like my cat, got distracted by newer, shinier objects, but just recently picked and lapped it up. As fate would have it, I had left off on almost precisely the page where New York (N.L.) begins to believe the flag is in the bag. Thus, learning how confident the Giants were entering their final few weeks of play in the light of the events surrounding their descendants' impersonation of two-dozen folding chairs was eerie to say the least. Actually, it gave me chills to read about the Giants nursing a Met-like lead (4-1/2 up with 21 to play, 7 in the loss column) and acting as if the issue had been settled for good.
Everybody thought so. Everybody was wrong.
“Sportswriters can be excused for saying stupid things; it is part of their job,” Murphy offers on page 180. “What is unpardonable is that the Giants begin to preen.”
Why was this bad behavior? Do you have to ask?
“It is unwise to estimate World Series winnings until the season is over; it is essential not to do so in public. The baseball goods demand humility, and when it is not forthcoming, they extract it.”
Superstitious as players were a century past, they may not have fully understood that in 1908. We sure as hell know it in 2007. Still, even taking into account terrible timing and devastating disappointment, I wouldn't go too nuts drawing sharp parallels between the '08 Giants and the '07 Mets.
First off, the Giants didn't collapse. They were outplayed by sizzling competition from Chicago, with Pittsburgh pushing both of them to the bitter end. The Cubs finished 99-55, the Giants and Pirates 98-56. The Mets failed to win an 89th game.
Second, the Giants had Christy Mathewson, who started 44 times and won 37 games. Met victory leaders Oliver Perez and John Maine together started 61 times and won 30 games.
Third, Matty completed 34 of his starts, lessening the need for a prehistoric Guillermo Mota, Jorge Sosa or Scott Schoeneweis to give back one of his many leads.
Fourth, there was the Merkle matter, an inimitable episode that Murphy posits is the keystone moment in American sport. The New York Giants fan that resides inside my soul says we were robbed on September 23 at the Polo Grounds when Fred Merkle didn't touch second as the winning run scored because it was not custom for trailing baserunners to advance to the next base (especially when the field was being deluged by a swarm of bugs, cranks and “fans” — all of which were the same thing). The logical person in my head understands, however, that a rule is a rule (he was supposed to touch second), regardless of custom…though if custom has prevailed all along, then how do you suddenly decide the Cubs can summon a ball, maybe not even the right ball, and force the kid at second when he's just doing what he's been doing all along? The greatest game of its time and maybe all-time was declared a tie and wound up being replayed at the end of the season, which was when the Cubs made off with the pennant and headed for the World Series, which they would win handily…and never again.
If the 2007 Mets were robbed, it's safe to say it was an inside job.
Cait Murphy's book is brilliant as history, riveting as drama, heartbreaking as baseball. I got to meet the author at a New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society dinner in July and was delighted to discover she is a Mets fan. Knowing that after finally finishing Crazy '08 leaves me to wonder how much of her massive research resonated for her 99 years after the fact when the Mets made our '07 far crazier than it needed to be.
I still have chills.
The players referenced above, Giants all, are pitcher Red Ames, catcher Roger Bresnahan, Hall of Fame hurler Christy Mathewson, outfielder Cy Seymour and rookie Fred Merkle. The manager is John McGraw and the other paper in town was the New York World.