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The Friendlier Ghosts of October 19

Hi, I’m a New York Mets fan, and I count among my favorite players of the past 24 hours Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Matt Cain and a catcher named Molina who came to New York dressed in gray and struck a mighty home run over a left field fence.

Quite obviously baseball for a Mets fan on October 19, 2010, wasn’t the most expansive of buffets — you’ll take what we’re serving up, said the cranky cafeteria lady, dipping her ladle into trays of Giants and Rangers we wouldn’t be tempted to touch during the regular season. Yet it turned out what there was to choose from yesterday was really quite delectable.

Even if some of the ingredients didn’t agree with us historically.

October 19 does not carry with it the cheeriest of connotations. The Mets are 0-3 when they play on yesterday’s date: World Series Game Two in 1986 (dreary then, water under the Buckner bridge ultimately); National League Championship Series Game Six in 1999 (Kenny Rogers blotting out what had been the greatest game I ever felt a part of, and I was just watching on TV); and, most recently and obviously, National League Championship Series Game Seven in 2006.

Yeah, that.

The baseball smorgasbord from Tuesday commenced with a tasty appetizer, the Giants’ blanking of the Phillies [1] (enjoyed over ESPN Radio and some finagled Internet video stream). The afternoon game didn’t elicit any ghosts of October 19 past. I wasn’t thinking about the Mets losing to the Cardinals. That’s an uncheery connotation. I was thinking, instead, of how quickly I was melting on the subject of three otherwise unsavory characters in Giants uniforms…or should I say not in Phillies uniforms.

Pat Burrell: What do Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones have in common? They’re the only major league baseball players to have hit more home runs against the New York Mets than Pat Burrell. The first four of those gentlemen are in the Hall of Fame. Jones probably will be. Pat Burrell has more home runs against the Mets than Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Andre Dawson, Billy Williams…those are the guys just behind Burrell — three more Hall of Famers and one whose statistics still scream Cooperstown even as they whisper PED. Pat Burrell will never be confused with any of those players. Pat Burrell has had a more-than-decent career, but it wouldn’t have been much more than decent if he hadn’t decided every ball pitched by every Met between 2000 and 2008 was as big and juicy as an Indian River grapefruit. Pat Burrell hit 42 home runs against the Mets before splitting for Tampa Bay in 2009. Pat Burrell was the epitome of a Met Killer.

But now he’s a Giant attempting to kill the Phillies, and he’s chipped in on both Phillie defeats in the 2010 NLCS, doubling in a run in Game One, scoring another in Game Three. Pat Burrell is quite suddenly all right by me.

Cody Ross: Baseball Reference says Cody Ross is a lifetime .263 batter against the Mets. That’s impossible. His little sneer alone is batting .450. My perception of him as a Met killer isn’t all imagination. He has driven in more runs against our pitchers than anybody else’s. And no team has yielded more total bases to his nasty little feet than ours. But there’s more than raw data to Cody Ross versus the Mets. There’s the sneer, to start with. When he was a Marlin, he was a dyspeptic David Eckstein. I’ve always hated what Eckstein does to us, but I could never quite despise the kid himself. If I were in a focus group charged with judging baseball players on gut instinct, however, I’d turn the dial to LOATHE at the first sight of Cody Ross. Even the name…he took somebody’s lunch money at the bus stop in first grade, you just know he did. I didn’t have lunch today — Cody Ross asked to look at my dollar and then he didn’t give it back. Also, he doubled in three runs in the top of the first inning on the final day of 2007, pushing the Marlins ahead of the Mets 4-0. I guess I resent him for taking our lunch money.

But now he’s a Giant picking on Phillies morning, noon and night. His two homers shocked Philadelphia in Game One. His fourth-inning single provided all the runs (one) the Giants would need Tuesday. He even threw in a homer in a losing cause in Game Two just for kicks. Cody Ross is also quite suddenly all right by me.

Matt Cain: I don’t hold beaning David Wright [2] against Matt Cain. That 2009 pitch got away. It was highly unfortunate and we’re lucky it wasn’t tragic. Nobody not named David Wright felt worse about that fastball to the batting helmet than Matt Cain. But when the Citi Field fans expressed their legitimate displeasure with Cain, Cain didn’t have to taunt back at them by sarcastically tipping his cap en route to the Giant dugout. It was bad form at the very least, a dick move at the very most. Hard to see Matt Cain and not think of David Wright being loaded into an ambulance. It would be less hard had Cain simply kept walking without reacting. Maybe I shouldn’t hold a stupid reaction in a moment of stress against someone who was all of 24 years old at the time, likely already guilt-wracked, probably overwhelmed by the moment and the instant infamy his errant pitch sparked. But I do — I’m a Mets fan, he hit our best player and his most public act was not one of contrition but provocation.

But now, as a Giant, he’s throwing his fastball past Phillies. In Game Three he did it frequently and effectively, giving up two hits, three walks and no runs over seven innings. Assuming David Wright has no lingering headaches, Matt Cain is provisionally all right by me.

I actually came into this series with surprisingly unclear intentions. I mean, yeah, I didn’t want the Phillies to win, but the Giants had Burrell and Ross and Cain. They (and Guillermo Mota, for that matter) have been major turnoffs in my Met life for years. The Mets, however, are idle, and I gotta root for someone. I gotta root, in this round certainly, for Not The Phillies.

The Giants are handling their responsibility quite nicely. I think I’m beginning to root for them as much as I’m rooting against their opponents. I didn’t think that would occur quite this easily, but October makes strange Metfellows.

Which is where the latest Molina comes in.

Oh brother, do I not care for Yadier Molina. Yadier Molina is the exception to my rule about not rooting for injuries, and I’m not talking about some random hip flexor. Yadier Molina can be out of baseball for twenty years and I will root for calamity to befall him. Ideally, Roger Clemens will plunge from the sky and crush him (don’t worry, Clemens dies, too). Yadier Molina brandished the smoking gun in the gangland-style execution of the dream of 2006, of the pennant that was slated to fly over Shea Stadium…or the World Champions flag in which it was destined to be implied.

Yadier Molina was never convicted of that crime. Instead, he was rewarded with a World Series ring. There is no justice.

No brother, I do not care for Yadier Molina and the misdeed he committed against Metsopotamia on October 19, 2006, but I’ve got nothing against his pokey brother Bengie.

October 19, 2010 and October 19, 2006 shared a few similarities beyond the Molina factor. A.J. Burnett was cast in the role of Oliver Perez — not the 2010 what’s he still doing here? Ollie, but the Ollie of four years ago, with the electric left arm and the world of talent and the streaks of good flecking the miserable ERA and, most vitally, the availability. You may recall entering October 19, 2006, Oliver Perez was all we had in the way of a starting pitcher; entering October 15, 2006, NLCS Game Four, he was an almost totally unknown Met quantity.

We had seen a few token starts in August and September, but they provided little guidance as to what we had in Oliver Perez — in one outing he shut down the Braves completely for nine innings; in another, Atlanta pounded him for six runs on seven hits and three walks, and he was gone by the sixth. Those were, however, essentially auditions for the 2007 rotation. Perez wasn’t supposed to be our fourth starter in the ’06 playoffs. But Pedro Martinez went down and Orlando Hernandez went down. Oliver Perez was called to step up.

Which he sort of did.

Ollie was adequacy personified in that fourth game we needed so badly: seven hits and three runs in five fort-holding innings, just good enough and long enough for the cavalry to come to his and our rescue. The Mets scored six in the top of the sixth, gave Ollie an 11-3 lead to nurse and he instantly gave up two solo home runs (one to the Cardinal catcher, Yadier Molina). No harm done, though. We were still up 11-5 when Willie Randolph removed him with two outs in the inning. Ollie’s keeping the Cardinals at bay was crucial as we knotted the series at two.

It wasn’t convincing proof, however, that we should feel comfortable trusting our playoff life to Oliver Perez in Game Seven. But what choice did we have? Steve Trachsel wrote his Game Three start in disappearing ink — he bequeathed an 0-3 deficit and a bases-loaded mess to Darren Oliver in the second inning and promptly turned invisible. With Trachsel missing in plain sight, it was Oll’ or nothing in that seventh game.

Perez went out there and pitched a little better than adequately. Not overpowering for five innings, but clearly competent. Ollie gave up just one run despite putting Cardinals on base in four of those innings. He had his team tied with Jeff Suppan’s going to the sixth.

Burnett? I hear he had a bad season. I understand he hadn’t pitched much lately. I don’t really follow his team, but I got that he wasn’t inspiring confidence among those who would be compelled to root for him Tuesday night.

Seemed all right from what I could tell. Three up, three down twice. A little shaky in the third, but escaped with just one Texas run. Fine in the fourth. Fine in the fifth.

Five innings, two runs, a one-run lead…about all anyone could expect from A.J. Burnett. The guy hadn’t pitched in seventeen days. Five innings, get him out of there ahead, don’t press your luck, Girardi — put down the chalupa and pick up the bullpen phone.

But Burnett went out to start the sixth, just as Perez did four years before. Ollie’s sixth, in dry numerical terms, was uneventful: twelve pitches, three batters, no runs. Ho-hum, right?

If A.J. Burnett’s presence at the center of a must win was evocative of Oliver Perez’s on another October 19, mention must be made that on this October 19, last night’s, Nelson Cruz attempted his very best impression of another corner outfielder, one with loads of equity from the date in question. Cruz’s try — a potentially sensational leaping grab of an all-but-certain home run — was thwarted not by fate or by wind, but by some murky combination of busy hands and lax enforcement of video replay.

In the second inning Tuesday night, Robinson Cano hit a ball that would have been a flyout in most right fields without jutting bleachers, and might have been a flyout at Yankee Stadium had Cruz’s glove not been impeded in the act of catching the ball. With Yankees fans making every effort to be in his way and the ball coming down on the top of the fence, it might have been to the benefit of accuracy for the six-man umpiring crew to have asked for a little help. God knows enough cameras covered the game. But right field ump Jim Reynolds, the crew chief no less, covered his eyes, ears and mouth when approached by Ranger manager Ron Washington. Cano’s fly ball did not become the subject of video review, and Cruz did not get to make a catch for the ages.

There was no official video replay four years ago. There was also no brilliant juxtaposition of fans inches from the field of play at Shea Stadium. Thus, when Oliver Perez threw his twelfth pitch of the sixth inning, and Scott Rolen belted it significantly farther than Robinson Cano belted his, there was nothing to serve as an obstacle to Mets left fielder Endy Chavez.

Except for the odds that anybody could bring a ball so obviously gone back into the field of play. When Rolen hit that 88th pitch of Perez’s on October 19, 2006, it was about to be 3-1 Cardinals. I mean there was just no way…


How great does a catch have to be to live on individually, of a context all its own, when it served only as a footnote in the final score? Endy Chavez sproings into action, ascends over the fence, snares Rolen’s home ran  — well it wasn’t a home run — and then, because he was Endy Chavez, fired the damn thing back to the infield where Jim Edmonds could be doubled off first, 7-4-3 (called out by Jim Joyce). It was so great a catch, detail isn’t necessary in describing it on the occasion of its fourth Endyversary.

It was so great a catch, you can watch it in the mind’s eye and almost forget that nothing good happened for the Mets afterwards: not in the next three innings, not in the next four years. Yadier Molina’s home run happened in the top of the ninth…a two-run catch too tall for Endy to make. Adam Wainwright’s curveball happened in the bottom of the ninth. The future followed — and not the one I dared imagine [3].

On October 19, 2010, Burnett goes out to pitch his bottom of the sixth, as Perez did. He digs a bit of a hole, but it’s no mine shaft. A.J. has recorded two outs but finds Cruz, who reached on a fielder’s choice, standing on second (where the bleacherites can’t impede him). A percentage move ensues: not the removal of A.J. Burnett after you’ve gotten all you can ask out of him, but an intentional walk. Burnett’s a righty, David Murphy’s a lefty, Bengie Molina’s a righty. It all makes sense to Joe Girardi.

He also probably thinks that chalupa commercial is hilarious.

Bengie Molina…this is not your brother’s villain. He was a member in good standing of those Angel hit squads that took out the Yankees in 2002 and 2005. He was a Giant for a few years (Matt Cain’s catcher when Wright went down). Omar Minaya lusted after his services twice, but never secured them. Buster Posey squeezed him out of San Francisco, and here he was at Yankee Stadium, in the gray double-knits of the Texas Rangers…a Molina swinging for the fences in the playoffs in New York.

This time, our kind of Molina.

Bengie Molina one-upped his brother: a three-run homer. It came earlier on this October 19, but it was no less decisive. Ten Endys standing on one another’s shoulders could not have caught it. A.J. Burnett knew it was gone — his two hands clutching his head as it flew beyond very deep left was the definitive tell (pretty emotional reaction on the mound…just like the pitcher the Mets once upon a time traded him for [4]). The 2010 Yankee version of Oliver Perez lasted exactly as long as ours had. Nobody complained when Ollie went six innings and gave up one run that, but for the grace of Endy Chavez, could have easily been three. Burnett’s sixth, however, eclipsed the way he hung in through his first five.

But he didn’t pitch too badly…at least not until he did.

The Rangers’ Molina, meanwhile, sucked the life out of that stadium, same as the other one did to Shea in 2006. All in all on our October 19, the Mets gave up three runs and lost by two. The Yankees on theirs scored three runs but lost by seven [5]. We were eliminated. They’re barely hanging on.

October 19, 2006 still looms large in the Mets fan’s consciousness. Until something comes along to challenge or exceed it, it was our last postseason night, the unwanted period at the end of what we thought would be our championship sentence. As a rule, we expect so very little out of our team, but 2006 was an exception. We dared to anticipate a happier ending to Game Seven and then as many as seven games besides. El Duque was going to come back, Ollie could have helped out in long relief, we could have at last had a few words with Kenny Rogers of the American League Champion Tigers. Deprived of that opportunity, we transferred our expectations to 2007, but they were non-transferable. We learned that for good as the Phillies rushed by us and Cody Ross ran interference for them.

What will October 19, 2010 mean to Yankees fans? Probably nothing, no matter what happens today in Game Five. The Yankee mindset seems to be that every season starts with 162 wins, and every loss is the result of some replaceable employee’s careless accounting of inventory. You could almost admire the striving for excellence and the emphasis on accountability if it weren’t so damned myopic.

Listen to Michael Kay emit haught and disgust after a postseason loss when he is called on to analyze one on YES’s postgame show. (Seriously, it’s worth it.) Molina didn’t hit a home run — Burnett dared to give it up. The Rangers didn’t outplay the Yankees — Girardi dared to not anticipate their every move. Cliff Lee’s pitching was unhittable — so why isn’t he a Yankee already? The intonation is always there: the Yankees don’t lose their games; the Yankees are denied their wins.

I had a social studies teacher in high school, a man I haven’t thought of in ages. His name was Mr. Friend, and he was certainly cordial. Mr. Friend was very good at challenging our assumptions. For example, one right-leaning classmate complained of the United States “losing China” in the 1940s. “We didn’t lose China,” Mr. Friend countered “because it wasn’t ours to lose.”

Too bad Mr. Friend didn’t teach baseball.

Now and then I feel a smidgen of dismay over the fuss accorded Endy Chavez’s catch. We voted it one of Shea’s ten greatest moments, and it was one of the few events in Met history to be commemorated upon the opening of otherwise amnesic Citi Field. If you haven’t checked out the Left Field gate, be sure to swing by that way next year. Can’t find it? Just look for the silhouette of the outfielder leaping and reaching with all his might. Why shouldn’t we love that?

Because we lost, I suppose. Endy’s catch was one putout. His throw resulted in another putout. OK, two outs from that catch. Two outs out of 27 in a defeat that meant the pennant. We moan about Molina and we bitch about Beltran yet we never edge away from Endy. The reel of phenomenal World Series catches that unspools every October — Mays in ’54, Amoros in ’55, Agee, Agee and Swoboda in ’69 — developed in light of wins. Those catches became legend because those outfielders contributed to victories in the games in which they went acrobatic, and the games eventually became components of world championships. Carlton Fisk hit a famous home run for a team that lost a World Series, but the home run at least won his team the game.

We, on the other hand, love a catch that did no more than keep a 1-1 game tied after six. In dry numerical terms, that’s all it did.

But we know better. Or at least we’ve decided we do. I suppose I would trade the Endy catch for the 2006 pennant if I could, but I don’t think it works that way. The National League championship seemed so in our grasp, yet maybe we didn’t lose what we didn’t have. Or maybe that’s only applicable when you’re talking about Chiang Kai-shek.

The best I can come up with is Endy Chavez made as great a catch and throw as I’ll ever witness; he made it for the Mets; it never fails to amaze me when I see a clip of it; and I’ll hold the feeling I get from it dear as long as I can remember it. It can’t be traded for Molina not taking Heilman deep in the top of the ninth, or Floyd, Reyes or Beltran delivering the one key hit we so desperately needed in the bottom of the ninth. It’ll just have to remain with us as a remnant of what could have been and a moment that will always be.

In lieu of all other possibilities, I’ll take it.