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LET’S ALL PANIC! (Oh Wait, Let’s Not)

So the Mets lost a tight one [1] to the Atlanta Braves tonight … and you’d assume it’s time for us all to jump off a bridge. Four games out and the Phillies came off the gurney to beat the Reds and Cliff Lee’s a Yankee Ranger and ohgod ohgod ohgod ohgod ohgod.

Except I can’t seem to bring myself to panic.

Part of being a baseball fan is learning to be greedy. After a bad stretch you go into spring training thinking it would be fine to be .500, play the game it should be played, and have hope for the future. Then if that looks like it will work out you want to be five over, because then hope becomes a thing that doesn’t have to be talked about using the future tense. Then if that works out you want to be 10 games over. Then if that works out you want to be in first place — even if it’s just for a day. And then, well, of course you want it all. (Unless you’re a Yankees fan, in which you’re only familiar with the final stage of this process.)

I’m all for baseball greed, but some perspective is in order too. Yes, it’s disappointing to think that we could have gone into the All-Star break tied for first and will instead wind up somewhere between two and six games out. But honestly, back in March I would have signed on eagerly and instantly to that possibility, without bothering to check what was behind Door #2. The Mets still have work to do, lessons to learn, albatrosses to be shed and demons to confront, but I no longer fundamentally distrust them, wait for the anvil to fall on their heads, or weep for the future.

Nor did the various things that went wrong tonight strike me as particularly auguring doom. The amazing R. A. Dickey pitched quite capably for 6 2/3 innings and hit pretty well too, but he threw two knuckleballs that didn’t knuckle, and the unlikely power duo of Melky Cabrera and Omar Infante swatted them a very long way. But that’s part and parcel of throwing the knuckleball; it was bound to happen to Dickey one of these nights. Josh Thole and Ike Davis looked uncharacteristically like rookies on a poorly executed bunt into the teeth of the wheel play, but then they are rookies, and it’s not shocking to discover they did not, in fact, materialize from Buffalo as fully formed major-leaguers. Jason Bay looks like he desperately needs some time to lie in a cool dark room and think about nothing, but he’d certainly agree that sounds like a good idea right now. Jose Reyes looked good some times and awful other times and uncomfortable all the time, leaving me simultaneously glad he was here for a big series and thinking he and we would be better off if he sat the next two out and watched the All-Star Game on TV. But remembering the wreckage of Jose’s 2009, I understand his reluctance to sit out any length of time with anything less than a severed leg. Particularly when first place is on the line.

I almost wrote “when it’s against the Braves,” and of course that’s what it is. But these aren’t really the same Braves. Yes, Chipper is still there (though shelved tonight) and Bobby Cox is still there grousing and grumping, and the Braves are putting together a pretty stirring title run by way of a farewell. With Chipper and Cox possibly and definitely heading for the golf course after the season, respectively, this should be an epic showdown between old gunfighters, or samurai settling a decades-old feud. And perhaps before 2010 comes to a close it will be. But for now, I’m not feeling it. We’re so long from the days of Rocker and Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz and Klesko and all those bogeymen of ages past. The guard has changed more than a few times, and things have gotten pretty jumbled up: Glavine famously became a Met and morphed into Gl@v!ne, Kevin Millwood was on our radar before we hurled him bodily out of his audition in Baltimore, and even Michael Tucker played out the string as a Met — the same Michael Tucker who a long time ago took us into the break in excruciating fashion with the connivance of the loathsome Angel Hernandez. (Though, it should be noted, I hated that little bastard even when he wore our colors.) Billy Wagner’s over there, following the same road trod by Matt Franco and Todd Pratt in their time.

Not to mention that the old Braves never would have suffered the presence of a player as jaw-droppingly stupid and prone to self-sabotage as Yunel Escobar.

The Braves are a good team, and they’re in our way. But they feel like any other good team in our way, with the exception of cameos from Chipper and Bobby. And even that hatred has mellowed with time, somehow. Chipper’s grin once struck me as the embodiment of evil, a toothy V stolen from the Joker; now it just makes me wonder if his face hurts when he does that. Bobby Cox’s crabby trudge out to be ejected by another umpire once filled me with rage; now I just think, “My God, he looks old.” I used to wonder why each Mets-Braves showdown wasn’t represented on the pocket calendar by brilliant red squares, since we all knew there would be blood and thunder and Armageddon; now I’m like, “Oh yeah, these guys again.”

Though should Martin Prado spike Josh Thole at home plate on Sunday and get called safe by some crooked ump, disregard all of the above. Because it will be so fucking on.

Monday, July 12 is AMAZIN’ ALL-STAR MONDAY, with Marty Noble and Howard Megdal. Come out to Two Boots Grand Central [2]at 7 PM. It’s in the Lower Dining Concourse of Grand Central Terminal, 42nd Street and Park Avenue, accessible via Metro-North as well as the 4, 5, 6, Times Square Shuttle and, of course, the 7 train. Phone: 212/557-7992. Full details here [3].