Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 380 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
8/3/02 (1st) Sa Arizona 5-4 Trachsel 8 143-106 L 8-5 (10)
Holy fudge, the season is two-thirds over and August has begun. Summer is going again, isn’t it?
The ancestral impulse is to shudder at this annual development. Summer’s half gone, probably more. It used to span late June to the Tuesday after Labor Day. Then on the Wednesday after that, school. The beginning of August meant the masochistic counting of the days until summer was truly over. Back-to-school commercials inundated the airwaves. TSS and Echo Stationers were lousy with school supplies. My mother went on about my getting new slacks for school. Every bleeping sentence had the word “school” in it.
I haven’t been required back in school the Wednesday after Labor Day since 1980, haven’t had any kind of school year loom in the ever-shortening distance since August 1984, yet I still shudder when July becomes August, when only a third of a baseball season remains. Summer will end. Baseball season will end. I’m hardwired to recoil at the dual thoughts. Summer and baseball season were all I ever looked forward to in the course of a year. Every year they came. For a while they converged, and it was everything I wanted. Then they left, without fail, in rapid succession. Taking their place was nothing. Acres of it, spreading before me as cold and empty and awful.
It’s been nearly a quarter-century since I answered to the job description of student. It’s longer than that since I was a kid. But I’m still that person. My values haven’t changed one iota since I discovered baseball and summer. They’re still what I look forward to when they’re not here. They’re still what are taken away too soon after they embed themselves for what you think is going to be the long haul. Summer and baseball season wind down and disappear.
The cold and the empty and the awful — those you can count on putting down roots.
But both summer and baseball season are still here. They’re here and they’ll dig in for these next 31 days as a matched set. It will change come September because September changes everything. It can’t help itself, it’s what it does. September will yank the summer out of the sky and the warmth from our air (don’t be fooled by residual atmospheric conditions like humidity; summer’s about more than weather). September will then take an axe and murder what’s left of the baseball season. A few lucky participants will escape the carnage and live to see October, but that’s mostly a TV show. It’s fun to watch, it’s even more fun to be in, but it’s not the baseball season. It’s a fab party thrown by the executioner is what it is. And when it’s over…cold and empty and awful.
I can’t say for sure when I first met baseball as a daily, going concern. I don’t have a date I can offer you, and I sure do like to pinpoint things. But I do know it was in summer, the summer I was 6, the summer of 1969, the first summer — based on a year of interacting with my kindergarten class — I dreaded going back to school. Might have been July, might have been August. I know I was hooked by September. Whichever month or week or moment it was, it’s safe to identify the August we have just entered as my fortieth August with baseball.
An article I read in Sport magazine when I was no more than 12 informed me that August represented “the dog days” in baseball, when players dragged from the heat and the accumulation of innings and, if their team was out of it, the sense of futility that enveloped them. That article is where I learned about greenies: amphetamines, the uppers that would sit in bowls on clubhouse tables as if they were M&M’s. It was said that come August, players routinely grabbed for greenies. Except for one team in one August. Ron Swoboda was quoted in that article as saying the Mets of 1969 didn’t need any artificial stimulation. It was so exciting to be a Met that year, that month, that everybody passed on the pills. They, like us, were high on being part of something miraculous.
Those ’69 Mets turned it on in August. Even if I didn’t grasp all the details in real time, theirs was the legend I took with me into the ’70s: 9½ back of the Cubs, dipped to third place on August 15, two weekend doubleheaders with the expansion Padres on tap, school starting in a little less than three weeks. They sweep the Padres twice at Shea, they take care of the Giants and Dodgers and then they go to California and they win three more in San Diego. On August 27, the Mets are in second, 2½ behind Chicago and no wonder nobody’s turning green in the clubhouse.
An August like 1969 makes you look forward to September even as you dread it. An August like 1969 skews your expectations for Augusts to come. It allows you to hold tight in the immediately succeeding Augusts that don’t amount to much and it lets you read with hope dispiriting standings that have the Mets sixth of six on August 30 and it permits your eye to wander to the Games Behind column where you reason, sure you’re in last, but you’re only 6½ out of first and nobody in front of you is more than three over .500 and we don’t have such a bad team, do we?
We don’t, and staying barely afloat through August 1973 skews your expectations some more. You dread September because it will unveil to you the fresh hell of fifth grade, but you embrace it because you will arrive with as good a chance as anybody to be division champion.
You are, as they say on the Television Without Pity boards, completely spoiled now. You know what’s going to happen. Or you think you do. You think every August can work like two of your first five, that you can rise from the dead whenever you feel like it because it’s August and that’s what the Mets do. But the Mets don’t in 1974, when they have no realistic shot at it; and they don’t in 1975, when they absolutely do have a shot; and they don’t in 1976, when they play like they have a shot but they waited far too long and let the Phillies get too far ahead for it to substantively matter.
Augusts take a holiday thereafter. You’re insane to think that any of the next seven Augusts will work to your advantage. You’re willing to believe once or twice, putting your credibility on the line in ’80, which feels a bit like ’73, or ’75 at least, but isn’t anything of the kind. By the end of August 1980, the last August when you have to listen to someone harass you about the need for new slacks, it’s 1979 all over again. And ’81 — they rigged the system in ’81. They’re going to give you a do-over because they ruptured your summer with their heinous strike and you think that with a good start (and you do go 8-5) you can forge a mini-’69. But you don’t. Augusts revert to the dog days for a couple more years and you try not to wonder how many Mets are popping how many pills.
But August gets close to what it’s supposed to be in ’84. All of ’84 is what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be 1969 every year, every August. This is how you came up when you were 6, with the Mets erupting in August and the rest of the National League taking cover. Except the ’84 Mets peak too soon. Their climax was in July: a little premature. Oh, it was still fun…a blast! But the Mets are going the wrong way as August ends, as your summer ends, as you head back to school for the final time in your life, when heading back to school means not waiting for a bus at the corner but packing your car and hauling your ass more than a thousand miles.
You graduate the next April but August is still August the next August. It’s strange to not count the days until school starts. You feel the phantom anxiety anyway. If you’re not going back to school, exactly where are you going? And can you just watch the game in peace? Because this August is the one you’ve been waiting a dozen, maybe sixteen years for. You are blazing through August, the first couple of weeks for sure. You flirt with first place the whole month. Without school to harsh your buzz, you look forward to September. You dream of October. You have no idea what you’ll do with yourself come November, but never mind that now. It’s 1985 and the Mets are in a pennant race!
Your dreams are dashed. Though September was a rush, the first few days of October are the definitive buzzkill. Your baseball season ended. Your summer didn’t last. Your summer never lasts. Your summer never really generates the heat it once did when you could feel it tangibly slipping away, slipping into school, where someone said you had to be the Wednesday after Labor Day. It was always cold and awful and empty once August and baseball season were gone. Now it lacks instructions, too.
What are you going to do with yourself ’til next summer?
Well, you’ll just wait, because that summer is 1986 and that makes everything better. Summer begins early in 1986 and it frolics clear into fall. August of ’86 is a rampage. It started 15½ up; it ended nineteen ahead. It’s so easy. You’re old enough to know better that this August, more than ’69, more than ’73, is the aberration. You know you can never have another one like August of ’86. It’s too easy.
Yet if it’s so easy, how hard could it be to have something maybe not quite as awesome but still pretty good? Why can’t August of ’87 morph into August of ’86? It just can’t, that why. Why can’t August of ’88 springboard into a September and October like ’86? It can, but only to a point. Why can’t August of ’89…it won’t, OK? Get over ’86 before another decade settles in. It’s not gonna happen again. August ’86, like all of ’86, is once in a lifetime. Put another way, your lifetime is primarily the Wednesday after Labor Day until some Friday in late June — 1986 is your one summer in the middle of it.
Your Augusts, after 1990′s last gasp of ’86ish expectation, decline into dismal routine. Every one of them peters out of relevancy by midmonth. August is very much like every other month, just stickier. Your Mets are, for the most part, exhausted by August. Your baseball season has been long punctured. Summer’s a technicality by now. You still don’t want it to end, but like the baseball season, it’s pretty much as dreary as everything else. For you and the Mets, it’s always the Wednesday after Labor Day, it’s never that Friday in late June.
1997 alters the scheme of things. The scheme of things had to swerve at some point. When you were younger, summer had been about ancillary concerns as much as watching baseball. You did go outside sometimes. You did ride your bike to get somewhere. You played ball almost as much as you watched it. You were a kid, though you were loath to admit it since you were always kind of waiting around to be an adult, even though you had no clue what adulthood had in store, and once you got there you never really knew what to do with it. In 1997, it felt like summer for real. The Mets were alive in August, as alive as they’d been since 1990 when they let you down, but did so late enough in the game that you’d recall it fondly when the present gave you nothing. You’d have given anything through the arid Augusts of 1991 to 1996 to have been let down hard as long as you weren’t let down early.
So it came to pass in ’97 that your Mets hung around. In retrospect, they weren’t as close as you thought — it wasn’t even first place they neared; it was a Wild Card — and, no, they didn’t pull a ’69 or a ’73. But you thought they might. That’s what you needed in August, that’s what you needed to fend off September or at least to face it like a man. You needed a shot. You got your shot in ’97. You didn’t convert it, but you took it and it reminded you of why you so looked forward to summer and to baseball season. You looked forward to them both lasting as long as they could, like in a Country Time commercial. In 1997, your Mets made lemonade.
And that was just the beginning. Every August up the road a piece from there stopped time in its way. Every August after ’97 didn’t exclusively bode the cold and the awful and the empty. Those Augusts made September a potential destination, made October more than an outlandish fantasy. Those Augusts, a couple of them in particular, you could see yourself walking right by the bowl of greenies. Who would need artificial stimulation when you had the 1999 Mets and the 2000 Mets?
Who could stay sober through the Augusts that Augusts became far too soon after? Who could have dreamed that you’d begin August 2002 within 4½ of the Wild Card — a chance — and that you’d end August sixteen games away from it, stranded in last place, staring September in the fist as the laughingstock of your sport? Yet who didn’t know deep down that it would turn out this way when on August 3, your Mets took a 5-4 lead over the defending world champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the bottom of the eighth inning when your favorite Met, Edgardo Alfonzo, whacked a two-run homer, and minutes later, in the top of the ninth, your closer, Armando Benitez, gave the homer right back to the Diamondbacks’ supersub Craig Counsell? Counsell was more sub than super in the power department. It was his second home run of the season. It was hit in August. It beat August’s brains in. It would take a tenth inning and another reliever to ice the Mets in the stats, but you knew right there, in right field, in Mezzanine, that an era had ended. 1997 was over. 1999 was over. 2000 was over. Summer was over.
It was only the first game of a doubleheader. Of course the Mets lost the second game. Of course the Mets lost every game at Shea that August. Of course the Mets’ record for August 2002 would be 6-21. Of course the Mets were done as a competitive entity until 2005. It was that big a blow by Craig Counsell off Armando Benitez. It ended August before it could commence. It ended the five Augusts before it and it ended a couple that followed it.
You grew used to seasons curling up and dying by August again, just as you had in the late ’70s and the early ’80s and the mid ’90s. You got it in your head that August indeed represented the dog days. You waited for an August that wasn’t an embarrassment, a September that wasn’t any more of an abyss than nature and school superintendents nationwide insisted it had to be. August got good, at last, in 2005. Your season shut down around Labor Day, but things were looking up. 2006, all of it, did a nice impression of 1986: not convincing enough to ward off that which is cold and awful and empty — and inevitable — but it was, really, very nice. 2007 was not. Its August was rather iffy. Its September is legendary for its certainty.
Summer and baseball season continue to be all I ever look forward to in the course of a year. This is my fortieth August with baseball. I’m on the right side of it, the beginning of it. The Mets are in second place, one game out. They have a chance, a shot, a genuine one. Are two-thirds of the season gone or is there one-third still to come?