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That (Almost) Championship Season
Posted By Greg Prince On March 31, 2011 @ 6:52 pm In 1 | Comments Disabled
Aaron Heilman has been thwarted in his latest attempt to make a starting rotation and will pitch in relief for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Adam Wainwright is officially on the 60-Day Disabled List. Oliver Perez is feeling his way through a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals. Jeff Suppan has been released by the San Francisco Giants. Endy Chavez is a member of the Round Rock Express. Yadier Molina is catching and batting seventh for the St. Louis Cardinals against the San Diego Padres. Carlos Beltran, gingerly entering his thirteenth big league season on two questionable knees, is about to attempt to become a full-time right fielder for the first time in his professional career.
This is what Five Years Later looks like sometimes. This is what happens when a half-decade does its thing and the “army of steamrollers” (per Field of Dreams) flattens time. This is where the primary actors from the last surpassing drama in Mets history have landed.
And here we are, about to start 2011, at significant remove from 2006, no longer in any way, shape or form in the same era, really, as 2006.
That’s too bad, I suppose, but it was also inevitable.
Met eras, as expressed broadly through results and expectations, don’t last as long as they used to.
• 1962–1968: 7 losing years
• 1969–1976: 7 winning years in 8
• 1977–1983: 7 losing years
• 1984–1990: 7 winning years
• 1991–1996: 6 losing years
• 1997–2001: 5 winning years
• 2002–2004: 3 losing years
• 2005–2008: 4 winning years
• 2009–2010: 2 losing years (to date)
If you burrow into the substance of these “eras,” you could easily and accurately quibble with the chronological associations. 1968, and its inkling of better times to come, didn’t have much in common with the hilarious hopelessness (or hopeless hilarity) of 1962 and 1963. Things were surely looking farther up by the end of 1983 than they were in the depths of 1979. Most of 2001 felt like a harbinger of the three years ahead of it rather than the four years that preceded it. And we didn’t enter 2009 aware that the relatively good times we’d just experienced were completely over.
So take these eras as inexact shorthand, if you like, but you have to acknowledge the Mets generally tend to get themselves into either a groove or a rut. By 2006, there was no doubt we were in one of our best grooves ever. It seemed incomprehensible that it wouldn’t be one of our deepest, too. The ’02–’04 sphere dissipated suddenly, but nobody was complaining. We broke out of some very serious doldrums in 2005, took a great leap forward in 2006 and had every reason to believe the good times would still be rolling at least into 2011 if not later.
Yet here we are, clearly out of 2006’s gravitational pull. Three Mets remain from our last postseason — Beltran, Wright and Reyes — plus one (Pelfrey) who checked in briefly during the division-winning year. The Mets haven’t come within seven victories of the 97 they put on the board in 2006. They famously spent most of 2007 in first place as well as a significant interval of 2008 there, but vacated the penthouse at the absolute worst junctures imaginable. Their October aspirations melted twice in late September, and then barely materialized thereafter.
It’s been nothing but clear-cut misery since 2009 began to reveal our myriad organizational shortcomings, and though we have taken some encouraging off-field steps to exit it, we can’t be sure until the next 162 games are played whether we have truly left the most recent hateful era of New York Mets baseball.
Where did our love go?
You’ll hear now and then as the season unfolds that this year is the 25th anniversary of 1986. I suppose that should make me feel old. It doesn’t. It’s just how time works. I’m sorry there’s been an uninterrupted string of non-championships from then to now, but I cherish that 1986 occurred, that it holds up as beautifully in retrospect as it did while it was transpiring and that I remember as much of it as I do.
To me and the milestone prism through which I few anniversary seasons, I’m feeling more like 2011 is the fifth anniversary of 2006 than it’s anything else. I thought it was appropriate that 1986’s twentieth birthday took place when it did because nothing since 1986 felt more like 1986 in my bones than 2006. There were more Mets wins in 1988 and icier Mets chills in 1999 and a longer Mets run in 2000, but 2006…I swear I thought we were going to do it. I swear I thought the twentieth anniversary was going to be the charm. I swear I walked around 2006 like it was almost 1986 all over again.
Almost. Almost haunts the Mets fan whose mind wanders back a half-decade. It was almost as good in 2006. It wasn’t quite neck-and-neck (you only get one 1986 in a lifetime), but it was the best we’d had in what seemed like forever. I’ll testify to that in a court of emotion.
The major similarities between 1986 and 2006 could be found in definitive success and in depth of personality. 1986 became 1986 for keeps by April 30 (13-3) and just got more so as the calendar wore on (20-4 on May 10; 31-11 on May 30; 44-16 on June 16; 60-25 on July 17; and so on). 2006 wasn’t heralded with quite the same ferocity as the anticipation surrounding Davey Johnson’s “we’re gonna dominate” killers, but they manufactured their hypeworthiness as they went: 10-2 (with an unprecedented 5-game divisional lead) on April 17; 31-19 come May 29; 42-23 by June 15; an unreachable 63-41 after sweeping the former nemesis Braves on July 30.
And so on.
It wasn’t just that 2006’s margins — above .500 and in front of the pack — were impressively impenetrable à la 1986. It was the way both versions of first-place Mets went about their business: with color, with style, with passion and with people you couldn’t take your eyes off.
Wright and Reyes; Beltran and Delgado; Wagner and Lo Duca; Martinez and, yeah, Gl@v!ne when he was still Glavine. All those extra characters, too: Cliff Floyd, not what he was in 2005 in terms of health, but still who he was in terms of being Cliff Floyd; Endy Chavez, from the scrap heap to anywhere he needed to be in the outfield; Julio Franco, a million years old and worth every one of them; Lastings Milledge, instant charisma; Jose Valentin, the third and ultimately best option at second base; El Duque, from out of nowhere; Chris Woodward, from off the bench; Ramon Castro, as if from a cartoonists’ inkwell; Chad Bradford and Pedro Feliciano, the right and lefty I tended to confuse because they were so perfectly complementary; even boring old Steve Trachsel seemed interesting in this milieu.
The 2006 Mets weren’t pillagers but they were personable. They earned that Sports Illustrated cover. They were baseball’s best story for the first several months of the season. They were legitimate heirs, lack of “bad guys” notwithstanding, to Darryl and Doc and Mex and Mookie and Wally and Nails and that whole gang. They had a large enough lead to withstand the cab-it-all-to-hell loss of Duaner Sanchez. They could cover up the trade of rock-solid right fielder Xavier Nady. They could shuttle in and out the Jose Limas, Geremi Gonzalezes and Alay Solers as necessary. They could plug in underwhelming but promising Oliver Perez and underwhelming but experienced Shawn Green and never particularly whelming Dave Williams. They could even fit unsavory anti-Mets like Guillermo Mota and Michael Tucker for Mets uniforms and make it work.
The whole was a revelation. The sum of the whole’s parts was nonstop fun to be around. The 2006 Mets were on the verge of becoming a historical brand name for the ages, synonymous with one of the three best years the Mets ever had.
1969. 1986. 2006. I could feel it.
Then I couldn’t.
The trip from the zenith of early September (35 games over after 139 played) through, the ritual N.L. East crowning (14½ up with 13 to go) through the stampede of the NLDS (a messy but convincing enough sweep of the dangerous Dodgers) to, at last, how it ended — which is what tends to get remembered…I dunno. I wasn’t feeling nearly as certain by Game Seven against the Cardinals as I had been most of 2006. There was a shakiness to the postseason, and not just because the Upper Deck literally quaked. The Cardinals were supposed to be a detail en route to the World Series. They’d been 83-78 and barely hung on in the Central. They were Albert Pujols and whoever as far as most of us were concerned. Walk Pujols and we’ll be fine. The Cardinals were a perennial October element, but this wasn’t supposed to be their year.
And it wasn’t their year. 2006 was our year. But four of the final seven days we played were claimed by St. Louis. Turns out the Redbirds were the ones with the knack for detail.
Game Seven no longer seems relevant in the present. Of course it doesn’t. It isn’t. We’re in a different Mets era. The lead players are mostly out of view anyway.
But not totally. Never totally.
I wish no ill will on Jeff Suppan, but when I noticed on the MLB Network crawl that the starting pitcher who limited the Mets to one run and two hits across seven innings couldn’t make it past the end of Spring Training, I’ll confess to the slightest crease at either end of my lips. When I learned Adam Wainwright and his devastating curve ball will be out for the season, I never did run out to buy a Get Well card. And every moment Yadier Molina continues to draw breath I count as a personal defeat. But that’s neither here nor there.
As for the main guys from our side from that fateful night, Ollie’s reasonably brilliant de facto emergency start (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 very long fly ball) was long ago clouded over by dozens of regularly scheduled horrible outings; Endy’s legend will be endless, even if he hasn’t played in the majors since 2009 and is destined to start 2011 in Triple-A for Texas; Heilman…stopped being my problem after 2008, stopped maintaining my sympathy following the home run pitch to Yadier Molina; and Beltran? The man who did everything magnificently for six months five years ago but is saddled with the image of having not done anything at the last possible instant? I hope he goes out Metwise as on top as he can, though I have my pangs of doubt where right field and bad knees and age 34 are concerned.
Beltran was really something in 2006. Forty-one homers, 116 runs batted in, all the WAR you could want. Jose Reyes was really something, too. Everything we still love about him coalesced that (almost) championship season. And David Wright — he was the one we had expectations for when 2006 got underway and he began delivering on them immediately. Carlos Delgado was the perfect vet to bring into that lineup and, it was reported, that clubhouse. Paul Lo Duca couldn’t have been a better successor to Mike Piazza. Pedro Martinez, before the injuries began to bite him, got that team off to a huge start — he and, as I used to spell it, Tom Glavine. Wagner…he’d drive us crazy but mostly he’d calm us down, certainly relative to his predecessors. It was a grand collection of stars and a fantastic supporting cast. Willie Randolph directed the whole production with élan. You couldn’t have asked for a more savvy producer than Omar Minaya.
And it was only the beginning. 2005 was a nice warmup. 2006 was when it took off for real. We’d win in 2006 and from there, the sky would be the limit. We’d take baseball by storm. We’d take over New York. We’d be unstoppable and we’d stay unstoppable. What an era we were about to take up residence in.
It didn’t work out that way. 2006 had only so much 1986 in it, though I have to tell you any substantial quantity of 1986 is way better than none. That’s why I’m never fully on board when the 1986 documentaries offer the coda of the dynasty that never was. Screw that. 1986 was plenty. I wish there were more of them, but that’s a mathematical impossibility. I wish there had been more of 2006 and more to 2006, too. I wish Beltran could have worked Wainwright. I wish Reyes’s sinking liner had fallen in. I wish Valentin and Chavez could have made hay with the bases loaded after the Endy Catch. I wish we could have gotten to Suppan. I wish there had been a constitutional limit on Molinas.
But I’m glad I had what I had of 2006. In more ways than not, it’s the best we’ve had in the past quarter-century. That it’s only accessible by reaching back through one miserable mini-era and the back half of what morphed into a severely star-crossed era…that’s the way it goes, I guess.
2011 arrives imminently. Let the next great era begin now.
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