A game-and-a-half out of the Wild Card in a five-way scramble. A magic number of 15 to clinch the National League East. A two-game lead on Philadelphia. One game up with 25 to play.
That's how we entered September these past four seasons, our first four seasons of Faith and Fear. We were in it; we were way ahead of it; we enjoyed an edge; we hung tough. Only once did anything good come of our position, but we didn't know that on September 1, 2005; September 1, 2006; September 1, 2007; or September 1, 2008. We just knew that for the foreseeable future, everything the Mets would do would be crucial.
Today is September 1, 2009, and it's very different in these parts. The Mets are not any of the following:
• A gritty 69-62
• A dominant 82-50
• A secure 74-60
• A solid 76-61
Those records of the past four Firsts of September are history in more ways than one. They are from another era. They are from that time when the Mets mattered dearly. They still matter, at least to the likes of us, but how much they matter is left to personal taste, and I can't imagine there's a Mets fan who holds dear what they've become to get to this moment:
• 59 wins
• 72 losses
• Fourth place in the N.L. East, 17½ games out of first
• Ninth place for the N.L. Wild Card, 13 games from the lead
• A tragic number of 19 until playoff elimination
This is not the September to which we had recently become accustomed. This is the September to which we had become accustomed before. This is the September of minute consequences, limited attention, sparse attendance and strange names. This is, to my well-honed instinct, 1974 all over again, when the Mets who we thought were all about Seaver and Matlack and Staub and so on were suddenly chock full o' Brock Pemberton and Randy Sterling and Ike Hampton.
Welcome to September 2009. Welcome to Rich Puig redux.
And yet, this is also the time of baseball. The Mets will be playing baseball tonight for the first of 31 more occasions in 2009. There's a school of thought that suggests they can't finish their sad maneuvers soon enough. Yet there's a competing theory that insists it will be a shame when they literally stop trying.
Each concept has merit. This has been a most horrendous season as anybody with eyes, ears or any sense will tell you. Entering June, the Mets were seven games above .500 and a half-game from Philadelphia for the Eastern Division lead. Since then they are twenty below and have fallen so far from sight you'd need to rent one of those Arpielle Equipment mini-excavators if you wanted to dig them up. Even before June, however, if you can think back that far, they weren't playing all that capably — but they were winning more than they were losing. When your team is winning and nobody else in your division is winning much more, you can ignore the Wile E. Coyote way they're playing and how they're standing momentarily on air before they realize there is no solid ground beneath them.
Honestly, it was only a matter of time and injuries before it occurred to them they were in for a precipitous drop. And whoosh!…there they went.
Let's face it. This was coming. This was coming from 2007 and 2008. This is, at its heart or lack thereof, the same entity we grumbled at for playing such uninspired baseball for practically endless stretches across the summer of 2007 and the spring 2008. This is the same franchise that produced not one but two stretch drives straight into a ditch. This is the same organization that prided itself on signing fifth-starter candidates under the impression that at least 20% of its games were less important than the other 80%. This is the same enterprise that is run by people who depended greatly upon young pitchers with limited track records, erratic pitchers who have never proven themselves consistent and pitchers recovering from arm problems. This is the same undertaking that allowed four of eight positions to be filled by ever less capable players over a span of four seasons, yet seemed surprised when the players at the other four positions couldn't sustain a disproportionate share of the load required for continued contention.
They were playing horrible fundamental baseball before the injuries crushed them. This was not a good team in April and May. They faced the Nationals a lot, basically. They had holes all over the lineup, all over the field. One Cy Young candidate, one top-flight closer and four erstwhile 159-game constants were supposed to cover for most of the other nineteen spots on the roster. What kind of madness was that? How on Earth did Sports Illustrated pick this team to win a World Series?
I don't know about the fallout from Bernie Madoff. I don't know if instructional league cancellations/transfers to the Dominican or a lone catcher callup when the rosters expand or anything else that appears chintzy is a sign that the Wilpons are truly strapped for operating capital. I don't know about 2010. I'm in no better a state from 2009 than anyone else is, but I cushion my current pessimism with, if nothing else, the knowledge that no team's future looks bright when its present is so relentlessly dim. There was a time this summer when I thought this would all feel better if the losing were just a little less over-the-top, but then I remembered there's no such thing as a good feeling when the Mets are losing, no matter how best-case innocuous one imagines the defeats. There have been plenty of seasons where victories have outnumbered defeats and our mood was gray anyway.
So yeah, what a lousy season and won't it be nice not to have to deal with it 31 games from now? The only season worse than the 2009 Mets season is the season in which the Mets don't play at all.
And that will be here 31 games from now.
For fans of a team with no playoff prospects, the end of September — give or take a few straggler games in early October — means the end of baseball as our everyday cause. The end of baseball as our everyday cause means pretty much the end of everything worth looking forward to for months to come. You're free to live your lives and derive joy/meaning from non-baseball activities; I might even do the same now and then. But we all know it's not the same. Baseball season is where our arrow points when it's not baseball season. Once we get comfortable in it, no matter how uncomfortable the fit of a year like this one, we don't realize what we've got 'til it's gone.
I'm not calling for an extension of the 2009 Mets' campaign. One-hundred sixty-two contests requiring their distinctive brand of participation will be plenty, thank you. But I'm not wishing away the 31 that remain so fast. True, there's no Wild Card possibility as there was on this date in 2005, no postseason lock as there was on this date in 2006 nor the sense of the vital that pervaded our existence on this date in 2007 and 2008. There's only 59-72 and inevitable mathematical dismissal.
But there is Mets baseball. There is the kid coming up from Binghamton to catch. There is the centerfielder going out to Brooklyn to test his knee. There is the third baseman whose head will be protected as best it can when it gets back into a game sooner than we might have thought or consider ideal (medical degree holders that we are). There is the possibility of another once-in-a-lifetime play unfolding before our disbelieving eyes (no matter how grotesque such an episode can be to witness in person). There will be strikeouts for and against. There will be home runs against and maybe for once in a while. There will be satisfactions vague against a backdrop of disappointments vast. There will be several more trips to the ballpark I still don't love but know I will miss when there are no more trips possible. There will be 7:10 and 1:10 and, tonight, there will be 8:40 from Coors Field in Denver, Pelfrey vs. De La Rosa, the Rockies desperately needing to win and the Mets playing out the string.
The Rockies might beat the Mets, but string, no matter how little you've left and no matter how thin it might feel, surely beats staring at a bare spool.