I've had the good fortune to be on hand for a remarkable run of classic games at Shea Stadium — I was in green or red seats for the Grand Slam single, for the 10-run inning, for Agbayani's home run, for Bobby Jones's one-hitter, for the NLCS clincher in '00, for the first home game after 9/11, for Pratt hitting one over the fence.
I've also been to some horrible, gut-wrenching nightmares at Shea. I saw Brian Jordan kill our unlikely 2001 pennant drive, saw Glavine beat Leiter by a 1-0 score in the playoffs, and I've seen Yankee fans woofing and displaying the Vertical Swastika more times than I care to count. Heck, just eight days ago I watched Greg Norton take Luis Ayala deep. But considering the circumstances, I may not ever have seen a game more grindingly awful than the opener of this, the last-ever regular-season Shea homestand. (And the jury's out on whether we'll need that second qualifier.)
First of all, every Cub fan in the New York area was apparently in attendance. That's fine. In fact, good for them: Tonight's game was a decent mathematical bet to be their clincher, and while the Cub faithful missed that, they had a chance to cheer on their victorious team and dream about what might come in October. But not blaming them isn't the same as wanting them there. And they were everywhere, on all sides of me and Greg, whooping for each Cub and waving at each other and taking celebratory pictures and yammering about Northwestern and the Illini while we downtrodden Met fans struggled to breathe with September cinderblocks on our chests. It was seriously just a few notches below a Subway Series game in terms of the percentage of enemy fans.
Oh yeah, and then there was the game, with Jon Niese unfortunately unable to locate his pitches and Luis Castillo unfortunately able to locate his bat. Niese's youth gets him a pass, but why does Jerry Manuel continue to let Castillo near a baseball field? He may actually be the worst position player in the major leagues — a player so stupendously useless that he deserves a plaque in some kind of Anti-Hall of Fame, a Bizarro World Cooperstown in which embarrassed baseball officials pay you to numbly view exhibits about how a beautiful sport can be played so lifelessly. Castillo has little speed left and subpar range, but his skills in the field and on the basepaths shine compared to what he can do at the plate. This is a man closing in on 6,000 major-league at-bats and 20 sacrifice flies, and tonight was a showcase for his unique talents: In the third, with a runner on third and one out, he only escaped grounding into a double play because he tapped the ball so feebly. In the sixth, with runners on first and second and none out, he put enough wood behind a grounder to earn his GIDP, short-circuiting a Met rally. And he really shone in the ninth as the Mets' last hope, looking at two strikes from Kerry Wood and then offering the vaguest of waves at strike three, like a hospice patient shooing a fly. I'd already shredded my throat booing Luis, but I managed to croak in agony at Manuel in the ninth, pleading brokenly for him to send anybody else up to the plate. And I do mean anybody: The list of people I'd rather have seen begins with Argenis Reyes (who isn't any better and might actually be worse, but at least creates outs with some enthusiasm), includes all the Met pitchers, then expands to include Greg, myself, and the option of picking a member of the Pepsi Party Patrol at random and sending him or her up to the plate blindfolded with a rolled-up t-shirt for a bat.
Best of all? Luis Castillo is Met property for 1,102 more days. Thank you, Omar Minaya.
For much of the middle innings Greg and I could barely speak — we sat slumped in our chairs, watching terrible things happen on the field and the scoreboard. Wow, Aramis Ramirez almost hit one out. Look, the Braves are lifting their skirts for the Phillies again. Jeez, can't the Red Sox at least eliminate the Yankees? Nope, we couldn't even seek refuge in Schadenfreude. I would occasionally grunt or mutter a curse; now and then Greg would mumble unhappily or emit a low moan of vague torment.
There are six games left at Shea, and the Mets somehow still are in the lead for a playoff spot. But my goodness, it feels like there are 60 to go and the team's so hopelessly out of it that it's already held the fire sale. Despite what the papers tell you, this isn't a collapse, just a desperately flawed team trying to limp across the finish line with a suspect rotation and a truly ghastly bullpen. (After he was taken out, Luis Ayala trudged off the mound not to boos but to the ambient noise of utter indifference.) There's no shame in this September swoon — the Mets redeemed a dreadful year that looked lost with a summer revival. But that was a while ago now. I can imagine them bellyflopping into the playoffs ahead of the equally suspect, just as psychologically shot Brewers. (And then who knows?) But I find it easier — a lot easier — to imagine them coming up short again.
It won't hurt like last year did — with any luck, nothing in Met fandom will hurt quite like that for years and years. But it sure won't be much fun.