“Waiting, waiting, waiting; enduring not so much the losses as the long stretches of nonwinning; because you've only really ever finally lost when you've given up the game.”
—Rick Perlstein, Nixonland
I had a dream, as Lionel Richie once put it. I had an awesome dream.
I dreamt of a weekend. A weekend not so long ago. A weekend when all that had been wrong with the world was turned right.
On the first night of that weekend, a heroic figure emerged from the shadows and took up our righteous cause.
On the second afternoon of that weekend, a more mysterious type came to the fore and furthered our cause.
On the third and final afternoon of that weekend, our cause was universal and all contributed to its validation.
In my dream, we were jubilant because it felt as if all we had ever wanted had been secured. Our cause was triumphant, and those who had held it back for years and years were vanquished. They would no longer stand in our way…and surely we would no longer stand in our own way either.
Like I said, it was all a dream.
It hasn't even been two years since the Mets went down to Georgia and accomplished what a generation of Mets fans thought impossible: they swept the Braves at Turner Field.
July 28, 29 & 30, 2006. Oh what a time it was. After countless indignities suffered on rotted soil and venal grass, the table and the tide were forever — yes, forever — turned.
Pedro Martinez came off the disabled list, struggled for one inning and then mastered his opponents and our nemeses for five after that. The Mets won 6-4.
Orlando Hernandez baffled Brave batters for eight innings while Carlos Beltran homered twice and drove in five. The Mets won 10-3.
Beltran launched two more homers the next day, one of them a grand slam. The game ended when Marcus Giles struck out and Willie Aybar was thrown out by Paul Lo Duca trying to steal. The Mets won 10-6.
The Mets swept the Braves at Turner Field.
The Mets scored 26 runs in three games.
The Mets raised their record to 63-41.
The Mets led the National League East by 13-1/2 games.
The Mets led the third-place Braves by 15 games.
Was it all a dream?
You couldn't tell it wasn't from the cold, stark reality of the past three day.
The Braves swept the Mets at Turner Field.
The Mets scored nine runs in four games.
The Mets lowered their record to 22-23.
The Mets trail in the National League East by 4-1/2 games.
The Mets lead the last-place Nationals — and no one else — by 3-1/2 games
The Braves are not a first-place team at the moment. When it comes to winning so far in 2008, what happens in Atlanta stays in Atlanta. They're a lousy road team to this point, but they sure make up for it at home. Even if nobody looks as good as they do when they're winning, if you had to bet, you'd bet they'll get a whole lot better on the road before they completely fall apart at home.
The Mets are very much a fourth-place team all across America. One looks for signs that they are something more. The best indicator one can come up with is they were really good in 2006.
That's not a particularly helpful indicator.
Though I'm not the resident marshal of the FAFIF chapter of the Chowder & Marchman Society, I do think Tim in this morning's Sun summed the precipitous decline and fall of the Mets since those heady days as well as I've seen it summed:
This team isn't even any good at being bad.
While the deathwatch over the managerial tenure of Willie Randolph kicks into third gear, old man Bobby Cox just keeps rolling along. Bobby Cox turned 67 on Wednesday. Bobby Cox was managing the Atlanta Braves shortly after turning 49 in 1990. Bobby Cox was managing the Atlanta Braves just after Bud Harrelson replaced Davey Johnson in New York. Bobby Cox managed the Braves to divisional championships while Harrelson, Cubbage, Torborg, Green, Valentine and Howe were not. Bobby Cox even snuck one in while Willie Randolph was getting his feet wet.
2006 came along and it was all different. The Mets were ascendant. Randolph was the manager with whom to be reckoned. Cox could go get himself ejected. There was a new sheriff in the East.
That lasted, huh?
Like I said, the Braves aren't in first place (the Marlins are — and we get them at Shea next week for the first time since the very end of 2007, oh joy). The Braves may not be nearly the juggernaut they appeared to be Thursday, Wednesday and twice Tuesday, but they're solid enough to have beaten us four straight, six out of six at Turner Field this year and to have re-established permanent residence in our heads, at least for when we visit them next. That won't be 'til September. I shudder to think where the standings will have us by then.
This isn't about the ol' Turner Field curse, 'cause what made the ol' Turner Field curse operable was that it put the whammy on us when we were doing well otherwise. Remove the Turner Field curse from the Bobby V years and you have an extra Wild Card or two, a couple of divisional titles, a pennant probably. Whether the Turner Field curse was buried in July 2006 and exhumed for all time in May 2008 or merely misplaced for a couple of seasons is irrelevant. What I do find telling is that those who turn the knobs and pull the levers in Atlanta…they don't leave easily.
Bobby Cox has been the manager since the middle of 1990.
Leo Mazzone was his pitching coach through 2005.
John Schuerholz was their general manager until last year.
John Smoltz has pitched for them since 1988.
Chipper Jones has hit for them since 1995.
Mazzone left. Schuerholz was kicked upstairs. Ownership morphed from one budget-conscious media conglomerate to another. Two Hall of Fame starters said sayonara (even as one never spiritually left and recently physically returned). They have turnover in personnel as does every Major League team, but they have rock-solid stability at their core in a manner almost unknown in precincts closer to our battered hearts.
Whenever firing the manager seems like the quickest route to what ails us, I find myself thinking back to a Carnac bit from the summer of 1979. Gas prices were soaring (a dollar a gallon!), the Dodgers were losing and something else that escapes me was happening. Thus spake Johnny Carson:
“[Somebody], Jimmy Carter and Tommy Lasorda…name three people who are going to lose their jobs soon.”
Tommy Lasorda managed the Dodgers clear into 1996. Between his lousy season in '79 and the health issues that forced him out seventeen years later, Lasorda won two World Series and guided L.A. to the playoffs three other times. I personally couldn't stand Tommy Lasorda any more than Fletch could, but the Dodgers sucked it up when they had to and Lasorda rewarded those who employed him. Same as the Cardinal dynamic has been with Tony La Russa when they've floundered between flags, same as happened in Colorado for five seasons until Clint Hurdle led the Rockies on the hottest streak imaginable. The Braves, too, remained patient when those Cox suckers ran out of steam in 2006 and didn't get it all back in 2007.
Managers don't always get the axe when things go rotten. Managers don't always deserve the axe when things go rotten. Bobby Cox never got the axe even when things in Atlanta went unseasonably tepid, even when October became the shortest month of the year. He's still there. They're doing well again. He looks revoltingly happy. Chipper, too, who told Ed Coleman last night he wants to bring his son Shea to Shea one time to take pictures and arrange to purchase signage (if a Met felt compelled to name his progeny after the stadium in which he hits well in the clutch, there'd be a lot of Nowhere Delgados and No Place Reyeses running around the clubhouse on Player Family Day). And wasn't that John Smoltz testing his arm so as to do what Met pitchers rarely do: come back from an injury?
The Braves have not fired on all cylinders. They are dreadful when they're not Tedful. They've been paying Mike Hampton for nothing but tutoring since 2005. Allegedly, Kelly Johnson isn't Chase Utley plus Dan Uggla against the rest of the world. Yet we don't see it. We see the Braves as they've always been: smart, competent, skilled, making great pickups (Kotsay, Teixeira) and adding them to awesome homegrown talent (McCann, Francoeur) and never letting the foundation of their franchise crack.
I hate the Braves like any right-thinking Mets fan. I hate their manager, I hate their players, I hate their chant, I hate their chop, I hated the Superstation that until dropping their telecasts dubbed them America's Team (now that they're not, I can say that for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country). I generally disdain what their sycophants in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution write on their behalf, but what columnist Mark Bradley posted on ajc.com the other day hit home:
[N]ot for the first or even the hundredth time, we see why the Braves remain the gold standard of communal harmony. They don’t throw 25 players together without consideration for compatibility… The manager never creates problems; he defuses them.
Willie Randolph has dug himself a probably unclimbable hole. He muses about how and why various forces are out to get him; he backtracks like a DVD search function and now he doesn't get his calls returned by ownership. Even if the players are too cocooned in the shell of their own unimpressive heads to be affected by the swirl he conjured all by himself, it's not what a manager is supposed to be doing. In the years when Lasorda and La Russa and Hurdle and Cox did not have their teams at their best, did any of them have a week quite like the one Willie Randolph brought upon himself? La Russa drove drunk, which is menacing to society. Cox was once arrested for domestic violence, which is just as despicable. Lasorda always blustered too much for my taste, though I don't think that's against the law. But only Willie Randolph set himself up for laser-like scrutiny by demonstrating that if he is to be judged by the content of his character, then he is to be judged by the thinness of his skin.
I'm not endorsing the aforementioned managers as human beings — La Russa's work on behalf of pets notwithstanding — and Willie might make better company for 15 minutes in a cab (not that I'm necessarily trying to get him driven out of town). But these other managers did stick around and they did manage to manage well after rough stretches. Could Willie? Could the latter portion of 2007 and the first quarter-plus of 2008 be the aberration? Could the stagnant mess we call our favorite baseball team actually be the fault of others (players, front office) more than Willie and could the manager who improved his team by 12 in his first year and by 14 the year after that be the wrong person to off because his calm and cool, if given the time, would prevail once the humidity of the moment dissipates?
Probably not, but we don't know for sure.
I don't remember any of those other skippers digging exactly the kind of “everybody's against me” gully Randolph dug for himself in his Ian O'Connor chat. If they did, they didn't do it in New York in an atmosphere where everybody's already on edge, where the year before was an unqualified debacle, where the Met metric to which we might pay heed is a won-lost record of 27-35 since last September 13.
Eight games under .500 once the c-word began, not close to winning as often as losing since the heat was turned up.
Too much of this roster seems beyond managing. Advanced in age, unable to get around like they used to, waiting on their check as if enrolled in an entitlement program that glitched out in their favor…they don't need a manager — they need managed care. But they're here and unless somebody's willing to absorb as many losses on the ledger as have been absorbed on the field, they're not going anywhere…except, perhaps, to rehab.
So what do you do then? The obvious answer is Willie, or more specifically the lack of him. The next answer will be Omar, the genius who mailed Luis Castillo a contract sealed with a FOREVER stamp. After that, it's a matter of waiting out the pacts that will expire at the end of 2008 and not picking up their options; if somebody in the executive suites of Queens really needs to see Moises Alou smoke line drives for two healthy weeks a year, stockpile quarters and take him to the batting cages in Astoria.
And then…well, maybe by then, David Wright can devote his clubhouse gaggles to reconstructing wins not issuing alibis on behalf of his less outwardly motivated teammates, Johan Santana won't be left to shrug off an unsupported performance pocked by the most (walks/hits/homers/pitches thrown) of his brilliant career, somebody in a Mets uniform will stand upright and perform capably and make pleasingly substantive statements in deed and in word and, because the line between inertia and stability is currently too fine to detect, somebody else will man the visiting manager's office at Turner Field three times a year, maybe somebody who will have nothing for which to apologize.
Whenever that next dreamlike state is achieved, Bobby Cox will likely still be managing the Braves.