Tell me if this sounds familiar: Runner on first, ball hit through the infield to center…runner out at second.
I'm sure it does. But just how familiar is it? We're so used to seeing the 2009 Mets pull boners out of their oversized hats and then learning that such missteps are either virtually unprecedented or thought extinct since the days of Chris Cannizzaro that it's surprising to find a Met doing something embarrassing that another Met did not that long ago.
When Angel Pagan cleverly ran from first to first by way of second on Luis Castillo's otherwise well-executed hit-and-run non-single Tuesday night, of course disbelief boiled over in the SNY booth, just as it did on my couch. Yet while Keith Hernandez muttered over and over (interrupting his steady stream of Laugh-In references) some variation of “I've never seen that before,” I sank back and shook my head.
I don't know about you, Keith, but I'd seen it before. I saw it so recently to have blogged about it when it happened.
We take you back not to some archived Philadelphia A's vs. St. Louis Browns tilt or even Casey Stengel's Amazin' uptown incubator. We take you back only as far as we need to go for a precursor to Angel's descent into hellish baserunning.
We go back a scant four years.
Yes, the Mets' style this September is clearly as retro as any episode of Mad Men, but that doesn't mean final Met months devoid of competitive aspirations and competent baseball went out with the Charleston let alone Art Howe. We had one of those months in September 2005 — at least for a few depressing weeks.
I'll always hold a special place in my heart for the 2005 season because it was Year One for Faith and Fear. With Willie Randolph in the saddle and Omar Minaya calling precious few press conferences, it felt like high summer from April through August, certainly when compared to its immediate predecessors. We would write, the Mets would improve, life was pretty good.
But then, the Mets ceased their improvement program and reverted to the form that had been their signature in the seasons immediately preceding '05. Just as they tumbled into August abysses and September swoons of 3-17 in 2002, 4-19 in 2003 and 2-19 in 2004, the Mets took a swan dive into the deep end of 2005. At their nadir, they posted a stretch of 15 losses in 18 games, knocking them from legitimate Wild Card contention into the lonesome basement chill of last place.
It was as if 2005 had all been one cruel tease, with all the talk about “The New Mets” turning hollow. We got Pedro Martinez. We got Carlos Beltran. We got progress-packed first full years from David Wright and Jose Reyes. We got, finally, a healthy Cliff Floyd and the results were enormous. We even got a mini-surge from Mike Piazza in advance of his exit from our midst. We got all that and we still got last place.
Life was unfair.
There was a showdown series at Shea with the Phillies in which the Phillies showed up far more emphatically than the Mets. There was a Saturday night in Miami during which Randolph decided Shingo Takatsu, just recalled from wherever Shingo Takatsu had been vacationing, should face as his first batter Miguel Cabrera. The Mets had been leading 4-2. One ringing double later, they were trailing 5-4. There was then the customary three-game sweep at Turner Field to seal the Mets' fate for 2005. That road trip ended in St. Louis with the first-place Cardinals pecking out whatever entrails the Mets' corpse still maintained.
We were dead, yet we weren't done dying — not until the Washington Nationals came to Shea Stadium, and the play that epitomized the decline and fall of the nascent Metropolitan empire transpired. Let's lean on the AP account of the action from September 13, 2005 for the details:
New York cost itself a chance to rally with some bad bunting and inexplicable baserunning in the seventh.
Pinch-hitter Jose Offerman drew a leadoff walk, but Jose Reyes failed to bunt him over and struck out on a high pitch. Kaz Matsui sent [Gary] Majewski sprawling to the mound with an apparent single to center, but Offerman thought the pitcher caught the ball and broke back to first.
“You've got a second to think about it. You don't have all day,” Offerman said.
He was easily forced out at second by Wilson, and Carlos Beltran flied out to end the inning.
So yeah, when this happened on September 1, 2009…
Angel Pagan, who led off with a single, was running on the pitch and didn't see Castillo's one-hopper to [Carlos] Gonzalez. He mistakenly thought Gonzalez caught the ball on the fly, and started sprinting back to first.
Gonzalez threw him out, which denied Castillo a single and rendered the play a fielder's choice.
…I knew I had seen it before, in the nightmare death spiral of September 2005.
One of the comments that trickled in here four Septembers ago was this from a reader who noted, “I've been scoring games for Stats, Inc. for a while now, and that was my first ever 8-4 ground ball forceout. We've all seen the 8-4 force on the shallow pop, but never on a solid grounder.” Indeed, it was unusual then. It feels common now that “never” has become twice.
Dig these two lines from the play-by-play data ESPN posts with its game recaps.
9/13/05 K Matsui grounded into fielder's choice to center, J Offerman out at second.
9/1/09 L Castillo grounded into fielder's choice to center, A Pagan out at second.
I mean, geez. An 8-4 ground ball forceout twice in the span of four years. By the same team. In the same month.
I mean, geez.
Listen, we like Angel Pagan a lot. He's no Jose Offerman, a surly baseball zombie collecting checks here for no discernible reason in 2005 en route to achieving his ultimate infamy in the independent leagues two years hence when, as a Long Island Duck, he attacked the opposing pitcher and catcher with his bat. Strangely, his alibi then — “I lost it for about 10 seconds” — blamed his loss of mind on the vagaries of time, same as he did when misreading Matsui's shoulda-been single to center. “You've got a second to think about it. You don't have all day.”
If he had, would have he brained Majewski, too?
Jerry Manuel didn't excuse as much as explain Pagan's Rocky Mountain blunder, and even then he could only expound on what we all saw:
“He lost sight of the ball, didn't pick up the coaches and I guess his brain locked up on him. We've done that a number of times this season, kind of shoot ourselves in the foot on the bases to some degree.”
Yes, we have, haven't we?
David Wright at least brought Castillo home with a most welcome double and Angel later tripled Cory Sullivan home with a run that didn't matter much in the wake of Mike Pelfrey's own myriad problems. All wasn't lost because Pagan didn't know where he was going between first and second — it was going to be lost anyway.
On that night of shame four years ago, a lot seemed lost. The season had already swirled drainward, but now we were certifiably inept. With ineptitude came mass apathy. I went to Shea the next night and there was practically nobody there. I don't mean they announced 52,000 but it was more like 35,000. I mean they announced 24,000 and it probably wasn't 12,000. The Mets had revived their post-2000 malaise persona. I thought it was behind us. I thought we were The New Mets with our established stars and our emerging talent. Instead we were the same old Mets, the kind of team that can run into an out without really trying. The kind of team that relies on Jose Offerman.
The Mets lost the second game of that dismal National series. Then they lost the third game on a humid afternoon with even fewer people at the park to witness it. It was an outstanding Metaphor for what 2005 had been: We fell behind early, rallied ahead (on a Floyd grand slam), gave back the lead in the ninth as errors by Gerald Williams and Kaz Matsui undermined Braden Looper before Willie Randolph inexplicably let Roberto Hernandez pitch to Vinny Castilla with a runner on third and two out in the tenth, perhaps unaware that .000-hitting Keith Osik was due up next and Frank Robinson had no better option on his bench. The Mets lost 6-5. The Mets had lost 15 of 18. The Mets had sunk four games below .500 after rising eight games above it in August.
I didn't know it, but the 2005 Mets reached bottom that afternoon. They wouldn't get any worse — a lively 12-4 spurt lifted them from the basement and to their first winning record since 2001 — and Shea Stadium was never again the ghost town it so regularly morphed into during those dreadful Septembers of this decade's first half. It was the one time I can recall when they turned themselves around in some meaningful fashion toward a season's end and maybe generated some momentum for better times to come. The Mets raced out to a 10-2 start by mid-April 2006, and looked back neither at the rest of their division nor where they had wallowed in mid-September 2005. The old Mets were dead. The New Mets were en route to becoming champion Mets. The Shea of '06, '07 and '08, no matter the indelible heartbreak it held in store, never again featured anything quite like Jose Offerman running from first to first by way of second, certainly not in the same kind of dreary atmosphere that was pervading the ballpark and the ballclub during that one final bow to utter Met hopelessness.
Shea would fill up and stay filled in its final years. The Mets would move up and stay close to the top if not always at it during those three high-stakes seasons. What we experienced directly beforehand was a dark interlude just ahead of the bright sunburst that we convinced ourselves was going to become an epoch of brilliant success. We fell a little short there somewhere between the dust of 2005 and the dank of 2009, but we did rise there for a while, too. We really did.
Now, however, we endure Offerman moments so often that they have become our literal running gags. We fall down in left, we don't touch third, we line into three outs to end games and, once again, we can't make it from first to second on singles to center.
I've seen it before. Lord, how I don't care to see it again.
Derive the beauty, pain and joy that is our favorite team by reading Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.