The last man to touch a baseball in a postseason game at Shea Stadium turns out to have been Adam Wainwright’s catcher, Yadier Molina. That’s really too bad, but really quite appropriate. Molina, you might recall, set the stage one half-inning earlier for everything bad that has happened to these Mets since he caught Called Strike Three on October 19, 2006. In the top of the ninth, he broke a 1-1 tie by driving in the final postseason runs Shea Stadium ever saw with a two-run home run off Aaron Heilman. In the bottom of the ninth, he wrapped his mitt around the final out of Game Seven of the National League Championship Series and ended October for all time at Shea Stadium. The two seasons since have finished, respectively, on September 30 and September 28.
The Mets dug themselves into a hole that Thursday night from which they’ve never climbed out. The conventional wisdom is the Mets blew substantial divisional leads in Septembers ’07 and ’08. I’d contend they were perpetually one game behind from October 19, 2006 on and never made up the ground. The Mets have played their last 324 games in a time warp. It’s always October 19, 2006, or at least it was for the last two years. Carlos Beltran is always at bat, the count is always oh-and-two, Wainwright is still just some rookie who can’t possibly stop the Mets from meeting their destiny. Beltran is one swing away from tying this thing up, maybe winning it. Valentin’s on third, Chavez is on second, Anderson Hernandez, running for Lo Duca, is on first. Surely Carlos will work the count. Surely Carlos will get a pitch he can handle. Surely Carlos will keep the inning going, the game going, the season going. Surely the Mets are going to win this thing.
The names on the backs of the jerseys have been altered some but this organization has spent two years in pursuit of closing that one-game gap. Ownership and general management have proceeded as if this is forever a World Series club in every sense but that of accomplishment. October 19, 2006 is viewed as a cosmic mistake. The Mets were supposed to beat the Cardinals. The Mets were supposed to score more than one run in the seventh game of the NLCS. The Mets were going to send a recovered El Duque to the hill at Comerica Park on Saturday night. They would have it wrapped up by Game Five. The parade would be Friday.
Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran…a cosmic mistake. Yes, that was it. It was just one game, one bad inning from top to bottom. Hell, it was a good game otherwise for the Mets. The fans voted a catch from it the fourth-greatest moment in Shea Stadium history. The result was the only problem; like Wainwright’s final pitch, it was too close to take, too close to accept as indicative of anything but a stutter step across a tear in the time-space continuum. The Cardinals were celebrating at Shea Stadium on the night of the Mets’ pennant. The Cardinals were flying to the Mets’ World Series. What were the Cardinals doing with the Mets World Series trophy?
A mistake, but a fixable one. An easy fix. The Mets wouldn’t have to do too much.
A new leftfielder like Moises Alou will do the trick. Sure he’s old, but no more chronically injured than Cliff Floyd. Nothing else really needs to change. Pedro Martinez was injured, but you know he’ll come back. El Duque? That rascal, he’ll be fine. Gl@v!ne’s kind of long in the tooth, but he’s motivated to reach 300 wins. We’re the Mets. We were in first place all year. We’ll be in first place all next year. We’ll get past Game Seven this time.
And when that didn’t happen, when age proved an irresistible force, when old bones and such didn’t mend, when young studs didn’t run wild, when only some things went right and then everything went wrong, when it came down to a final day and a must-win and another loss…geez, it was just one game.
This is still a championship-caliber club. It needs a little tinkering, sure. But we came this close without a real in-his-prime ace, imagine what we can do if we get one, if we get the best one…we’ll get Johan Santana! Surely he’ll be the difference. We’ll make some other moves — Lo Duca’s getting on our nerves and this Milledge kid is kind of a pain — but substitute Johan Santana for good old Gl@v!ne and we’ll be set. Pedro and Duque will come back and Duaner, too. Moises will be healthy and we’ll have Luis Castillo for the whole season. We’re just one game away from where we’re supposed to be.
It’s October 19, 2006 talking, seductively whispering into the ears of those who make Met decisions. Forget September 30, 2007 (as if you can). Forget, for a moment, Collapse I. The Mets entered their first legendary seventeen-game swoon at 83-62. A year earlier they were 90-55 at the same juncture. They may have been a first-place club after 145 games in 2007, but they weren’t remotely the first-place club they had been after the same number of games in 2006. It wasn’t so much that they choked away a seven-game lead last year. It was that they weren’t all that brilliant en route to the seven-game lead. The Mets were deteriorating continually after October 19, 2006. The Mets were headed downhill. The Mets may have ended ’07 one game away, but it wasn’t the game they were convinced it was. That game was Game Seven. The Met mindset continued even after September 2007 to be stuck in October 2006.
Johan Santana was a brilliant acquisition. But you knew he would be. He’s Johan Santana. Anybody with the money, some negotiating wherewithal and a few passable prospects could have gotten him. The Mets did. It is to their credit they did. It is to their detriment that he was the only key acquisition the Mets made prior to 2008. Replacing Lo Duca with Schneider and replacing Milledge with Church amounted to barely more than a zero-sum gain. Counting on Pedro Martinez, love him as we do, was folly. Counting on Orlando Hernandez (he was supposed to have the edge on Mike Pelfrey in Spring Training) and Moises Alou, in not even retrospect, was laughable. Counting on Luis Castillo was unfortunate. Counting on Duaner Sanchez was typical. The Mets seem to kid themselves about injuries and rehabilitation. Every one of the aforementioned players except for Alou entered the spring with specific health issues…and, really, isn’t Moises Alou a health issue unto himself? Martinez, Hernandez, Alou, Castillo and Sanchez were 20% of the projected roster. None was a full-time contributor in 2008.
Santana can do more than any starting pitcher in the bigs, but he can’t make up for five guys. With five guys hurt or struggling or absent, that’s five guys you’re trying to compensate for. No Orlando Hernandez might have meant a clear shot for Mike Pelfrey, but no Pedro Martinez for significant stretches at a time meant generous helpings of Nelson Figueroa and Claudio Vargas and Tony Armas and Brandon Knight. Sanchez not being the Sanchez he was before getting in that cab meant a strain on a bullpen that was overworked before the season started. Alou’s annual disappearance into the mists created the world’s largest black hole in left and left the batting order perpetually one gun shy. Castillo’s bizarre presence anywhere on the New York Mets’ depth chart spoke for itself.
How does a club make a season’s worth of plans counting on five very unsure things and consider itself a contender of the first order? Total self-delusion is how. The Mets kept kidding themselves that October 19, 2006 never ended, that Cardinals 3 Mets 1 wasn’t a final score, but a temporary condition. The Mets bought into their own hype. The Mets so wanted their fantasy to become reality. They already had their very own television network. They were building their very own new retro ballpark. They were becoming a brand. They were standing for quality. They had two young stars, a third in his prime, the best starter on the planet and they made it to Game Seven of the 2006 National League Championship Series.
Which they very nearly won.
I swear I believe that’s what it always came back to. The nucleus of Wright, Reyes, Beltran and Santana is very sound. Pelfrey should probably be considered a part of that core group now. Delgado earned some consideration in that regard, though it was one stellar half-season on the heels of a season-and-a-half of disappointment. Maine is hurt and Wagner is done. Church hasn’t been the same since he was concussed. Daniel Murphy is very young as is Nick Evans and neither has proven a darn thing. Free agent Perez has teetered between Big Game Ollie and a box of rocks. The catchers are mediocre. There is no second baseman to speak of. There is, at most, one reliever — Joe Smith — whose very being doesn’t spike Dramamine sales. Endy Chavez is a defensive wonder, but long removed from offensive usefulness. Marlon Anderson’s magic as a pinch-hitter was loaded onto the wrong flight. Fernando Tatis was lightning in a bottle…vintage lightning, but who knows from the expiration date?
So let’s review. We’re talking about a roster with five unquestionable assets for 2009 and a few potentially useful contributors whose upside is heavily dependent on individual development and/or hasty healing. I can’t count on Maine for April through September. I can’t commit to Perez for however much money he wants. I can’t ascertain if Delgado’s MVPesque performance is the norm. I can’t know what Murphy and Evans can do or where they can play. I can’t see Smith branching out beyond specialist territory. And even if every single one of those guys, plus Church, comes through to what we consider his potential, we’re talking about no more than half a roster and virtually no bullpen while leaving two serious holes up the middle. We are still short an authentic power bat. We require a legitimate fifth starter and probably a fourth and maybe a third.
All of this is to say October 19, 2006 isn’t merely two years in the past now. It’s a baseball lifetime ago. It’s time for this organization to stop behaving as if the ninth inning of Game Seven of that National League Championship Series is still in progress, that the bases are still loaded and that we are still one swing away from tying this thing up, maybe winning it.
We are not in that position. For all the glitter attached to our network and our ballpark to be and our brand, we are just some team that hangs on only long enough to lose on the final day of the regular season and eliminate ourselves from playoff participation we have little business getting anywhere near. We are not condemned to be that forever, but until the people who run our ballclub accept that the opportunity that sailed into Yadier Molina’s mitt on October 19, 2006 was never transferable to the future, we are going to remain eternally one game behind.