Thursday night, the Mets won a baseball game, which is a result any Mets fan welcomes. And I indeed welcome it. (“Hi win, good to see you. I’d almost forgotten what one of you looks like.”) But I have to admit, in one of those “bad fan” episodes to which Jason occasionally cops, I’m not exactly broken up the Mets lost three of four to the Braves during their extended stay in Atlanta.
Perhaps you’re familiar with some variation on the phrase “put it out of its misery”. That, I believe, is what the first three games at Turner Field accomplished for the 2010 Mets. While it wasn’t a happy task, it needed to be completed, and the Braves (assisted by the Mets, I suppose), got it done.
The Mets were ten games out of first place when the week commenced. There were 32 games remaining in the season. Not a few Mets fans I knew — generally as sane as they are loyal — were spinning comeback scenarios. If we sweep, we’re only six out!
I didn’t want to throw cold water on these sad, sweet dreamers, so I didn’t say anything along the lines of, “You’re nuts. This team has more holes in it than the logic applied to the Citi Field ticket pricing structure. If they were any good at all, they wouldn’t have slipped so far from first place in…the first place.”
I didn’t say it, but I sure as hell thought it.
It was crazy. We’d been watching a Mets team dig its own grave for two solidly depressing months. Why should we, beyond the instinctive act of Believing, actually believe they could — as one urban-myth foreign-language translation of “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!” had it — bring their ancestors back from the grave? Why would the Mets do at the dawn of September what they couldn’t do throughout July and August just because we wanted them to? Just because arithmetic and a handful of isolated precedents said it was remotely possible?
Because I was pretty good at arithmetic as a kid and because I was a pre-adolescent witness to one of the most famous isolated precedents in which a team — our team — arose from the family graveyard, I continued to consider the possibility that something akin to a 1973 could occur in 2010. I considered it plenty but, ultimately, I rejected it. I had to. I had to be Lloyd Bentsen in this regard and set the record straight:
2010, I rooted in 1973.
I knew 1973.
1973 was a friend of mine.
2010, you’re no 1973.
Well, you’re not. If you had shown the slightest sign of being similar once you began ignoring your snooze alarm and sleeping through almost every series from San Juan on (22-33 between June 28 and August 29), then I would have Believed. But it became more and more difficult to take you, 2010, seriously.
Yet you sat out there, winning one and losing one, losing one and winning one, slipping further from where you’d been last time you were in Atlanta, even if you never fully fell away from remote possibility. It was ludicrous to peer into a ten-game deficit and extract from it a potential four-game sweep. It made no sense whatsoever.
But I couldn’t argue with absolute certainty that it couldn’t happen. As lousy as the Mets had been for two months, one month theoretically could change everything. Games that aren’t yet played, after all, are games that aren’t definitively lost.
This conceivably ajar casket annoyed me more than it should have. I knew…I mean I knew the 2010 Mets were going nowhere after they left Atlanta in early August. But I gave them the weekend in Philadelphia to change my mind. They didn’t. Nevertheless, I quietly reserved the “stranger things have happened” exception to which just about every fan is entitled just in case strange things began to occur.
They did not. The Mets grew slighter and shabbier and sloppier and more and more out of it.
Still…ten games out…sweep four…then it’s six…and anything can…
I wanted this to stop. I wanted the tease to come to a halt. It wasn’t even a good tease, but it teased nonetheless. It teased against everything I understood about our current club, which was it was in no way, shape or form capable of turning on a dime and blitzing its statistical betters. I was tired of my last shred of innate optimism being played for a sucker by the largely lackadaisical 2010 Mets.
And, on some level, I think I wanted the desecration — however unintentional — of the blessed memory of 1973 to stop.
You know why 1973 is special? Because it happened only once. The Mets were a lousy team for five months, still wallowing well under .500 and still planted in last place just before August ended. In a division in which nobody was taking control, they pulled themselves together, began winning ballgames in relatively prodigious amounts and passed all five of their competitors in just over three weeks.
It was remarkable. It took guts and talent and luck and everything for the 1973 Mets to become the 1973 Mets. And if it were easy to apply that kind of alchemy to a flailing baseball season, 1973 wouldn’t stand out.
There have been a few comparable late-season comebacks since then, but none quite as at odds with the larger sample that preceded it. The Rockies’ mile-high rise to the 2007 Wild Card, for example, was appropriately dizzying, but they weren’t stubbornly trending in the wrong direction through July and August. The 1995 Mariners refusal to lose was a thrilling demonstration of what the human spirit could achieve, provided it was aided by the exploding talents of Ken Griffey and Randy Johnson and aided by a shaky California Angel club. The team ahead of them wasn’t as good as the 2010 Braves or 2010 Phillies, and they themselves weren’t ten games under .500 on August 30.
The Mets, of course, have never had another 1973 since 1973. We’ve had lots of Mets teams flounder well into August, yet only one since 1973 has remotely approached what their ’73 predecessors pulled off. That was the 2001 Mets, a team whose chances I wouldn’t have wasted a plug nickel on after 122 games, when they wallowed in fourth place in the N.L. East at 54-68, 13½ behind the Phillies and Braves following their seventh consecutive loss. Hell, the Mets were 5½ in back of third-place Florida.
The 2001 edition was about as dispiriting a Mets team as I can remember over those 122 games. They came off a pennant but carried no momentum forward. Every slight sign of progress was painted over by a stubborn coat of futility. They were never over .500 after the first week of the season; they fell 8½ games out of first by the middle of May; their longest winning streak was five games, once. Yet one of my friends kept insisting these alleged “defending league champions” were not done. He insisted it so much, it began to piss me off. C’mon, I implored will you look at this team? They’re dead! They have no chance! Stop bringing up 1973 — it’s not fair to 1973.
Through June and July and half of August, I was as right as I was miserable about the Mets. Then, stealthily, the Mets began to win. Nothing so bold as a lengthy winning streak or, at first, a series sweep, but a palpable, steady, undeniable turn in fortunes. A couple in L.A.; a couple at home to Colorado; then a loss. Three more wins, against San Francisco, followed by a frustrating loss to the Giants and an even more maddening defeat at the hands of the Phillies. But then we beat Philadelphia twice, and take two from Florida. A loss to them, but down to Philly and, at last, a three-game sweep. Then the first three of a four-game series in Miami.
The depressing 2001 Mets were, all at once, the uplifting 2001 Mets. With virtually no fanfare, they’d won 17 of 21. They weren’t a force of nature like the ’86 team or pulling rabbits out of every hat as in ’69, but they were methodically winning every series they played. The Phillies had gone into the tank over the previous three weeks, posting a dismal 7-14 (1-5 against the Mets) and were only 3½ ahead of us in second. The Braves, so reliably the default winner in the division, were stuck in neutral: 10-10 between August 17 and September 8. We were in third, seven games behind Atlanta. That should have been daunting given that only 19 games were left on the schedule, but six of them would be us versus them.
Striking distance, in other words.
The next three weeks in September 2001, of course, would be unlike any three weeks New York or the Mets ever experienced. Keeping to the narrow perimeters of our pennant race discussion, however, suffice it to say that amid an environment that first rendered baseball irrelevant and then seemed to imbue it with impossible amounts of meaning, the Mets would continue to make up ground. On the eve of the first of those six games against Atlanta, the Mets had crept to within 5½ games of the Braves. The Mets — at 74-73, a game over .500 for the first time since they were 2-1 — were as alive as alive could be after winning 20 of 25.
In what was almost a footnote to the sense of urgency, solemnity and occasion at Shea Stadium on Friday night, September 21, the Mets picked up another game on the Braves, winning 3-2. The next night, they did it again, topping the division leaders, 7-3. The Mets, who had been 54-68, 13½ games out on August 17 were 76-73, 3½ games out on Saturday, September 22.
There’d be a horrible loss (as perverse as it feels, even nine years later, to use such a phrase to describe a baseball game in the context of those times) on Sunday, September 23. There’d be a tantalizing rebound sweep in Montreal in the week ahead, though, making the final three games between the Mets and the Braves, at Turner Field, immensely consequential…at least where a baseball schedule was concerned. The Mets entered this second series three games out of first place and, with Philadelphia having found its footing again, two games out of second place. The team that was once 54-68 was now 79-74.
A 25-6 August/September spurt, a pickup of 10½ games in the standings and maybe the most welcome diversion a grieving city was ever granted would have to be the Mets’ legacy for 2001. That would have to do as their miracle. They’d lose Friday night, September 28, in Atlanta. They’d lead late Saturday afternoon, September 29, but a second, possibly more horrible loss materialized in the ninth inning. The Mets, who had won ten consecutive series, needed desperately to win an eleventh. It didn’t happen. The 2001 Mets faded one week shy of the season’s end, finished 82-80, in third place, six games behind Atlanta and, save for one incandescent Mike Piazza home run, were quickly forgotten by most of New York. Forgotten by most Mets fans, I’m guessing, too.
When it was over, I got in touch with my optimistic, insistent friend from May and June and apologized for questioning his sanity and for not digging deep and having a fraction of the faith he never gave up. I had been proven wrong, but — to the extent one could be, considering all that was going on around us in New York the fall of 2001 — I was happy. Happy about the Mets.
And yet, it cannot be overstated that despite pulling themselves together and charging against two contenders and overwhelming odds, the 2001 Mets didn’t get where they wanted to go.
They didn’t win their division.
They didn’t go to the playoffs.
They were, in the standings, an also-ran.
Don’tcha see? Don’tcha see how mind-bogglingly hard it is to attempt to resurrect a foregone conclusion of a losing season as August closes in on September? The 2001 Mets were striving first as a baseball team and then as a repository for municipal hope. They were wearing NYPD and FDNY and PAPD and all the rest of those caps. They were playing with the wind at their back. And they — Piazza, Alfonzo, Ventura, Zeile, Payton, Leiter, Benitez, Franco, Payton, Valentine — at last, showed why they had been defending champions.
Yet they couldn’t do it. The 2001 Mets came the closest after 1973, and they couldn’t do it.
That’s how hard it is to do what the 1973 Mets did. Again, it takes guts and talent and luck and everything. The Mets had those elements working for them for 31 games in 2001, and it still wasn’t enough.
In 1973, such alchemy over the final 29 games (21-8) was just barely adequate to the task at hand. But this one time, bare adequacy did the trick. The 1969 Mets won 100 games. The 1986 Mets won 108 games. The 1973 Mets won 82 games…barely. Yet all three Mets teams captured the same immediate prize by the end of their respective regular seasons. Each was a division champion.
Guts and talent and luck and everything accomplished what the 1973 Mets had to accomplish and created what the 1973 Mets left us for as long as this franchise shall stand. It created a reason to Believe.
And such powerful Belief should be deployed judiciously.
At the risk of contradicting myself as regards previous assertions of allegiance to particular Met seasons, Met stretches and collections of Met players, the 1973 Mets’ roar from last place at the end of August to first place on the First of October may stand as my signature “moment” as a Mets fan. I’ve romantically linked myself to many Mets teams, and outstanding timing allowed me to privilege of celebrating both Met world championships, but 1973 may have no equal in my personal pantheon. My team was 10 under, 6½ back and behind 5 teams with a month to play and it overcame everything. Your soul never forgets that sort of thing.
This is why suggestions that the Mets of 2010 could do something along the lines of what the Mets of 1973 did struck me as almost sacrilegious let alone spectacularly unrealistic. If you’re going to weave miracle September scenarios, you had better come correct. The Mets of 2010 showed no signs they would ever get anything right prior this series in Atlanta — and that may be why the Mets of 2010 ending August and beginning September with three losses in four games to the first-place Braves was a not an altogether unwelcome development where my psyche was concerned.
The tease was over. The grave was nailed shut. The spirits of the Mets’ ancestors from 37 Septembers previous wouldn’t be coming out to play.
I knew, I knew, I knew they wouldn’t, but now I know they won’t. I guess I knew it after Monday’s loss and Tuesday’s loss and Wednesday’s loss, but I fully appreciated it, at last, after Thursday’s win. I appreciated that nobody I knew would be telling me that it’s a steep hill to climb, but we’re not out of it yet, we could still get hot, the Cubs aren’t any good and neither are the Nationals and we play well at home, and if the Phillies start losing and then we have the Braves come in and…
No. No more of that. No stranger things will be happening. The 2010 Mets are done. It was going to happen eventually, just as well it’s happened with undeniable clarity.
I knew it was good we won Thursday because it’s good for the Mets to win. I knew if we got anything out of Lucas Duda and Joaquin Arias, it wouldn’t a spark, just a glimpse, maybe for 2011, probably just for the hell of it. I knew Johan Santana leaving with a strained pectoral muscle represented a discordant note because it’s never good to have your ace leave a game in discomfort, not because we might not have him for his next big start. There are no more big starts. We didn’t pick up ground on the Braves Thursday night. We won and they lost, but there is no common ground between us anymore.
Oh, that it wasn’t so. Oh, that there be a reason to obsess on the standings. It was wonderful in June to track every move our competition made. Such a sense of purpose is one of the gifts of any successful baseball season. For all the obnoxious taunts Phillies fans aimed in the general direction of my Mets garb when I was in Philadelphia last month, the most hurtful remark I heard any Phan make came a week later, after we lost to them at Citi Field. What was said wasn’t said directly to me, but within a conversation I overheard on the train afterwards.
“The Braves,” one of them reported to the other, “are losing.”
Damn, I thought, they get to worry about the Braves. And the Braves fans, however many or few of them there are, get to worry about the Phillies. They have matrixes and spreadsheets and numbers dancing in their heads. They have Games Ahead and Games Behind and Games Remaining. They have Head-to-Head and Home Field. They have a playoff chase and a pennant race in their immediate future.
We didn’t. I knew it then. I knew I knew it. It was only a matter of time before I knew it for absolute certain.
I do now.
Meanwhile, somebody’s giving away a Mets book written by some “huge dork” with a “terrifying memory”. I don’t necessarily dispute either characterization. Try to win it here.