Like any properly focused Mets fan, I’ve followed the American League playoff picture with the same overarching desire with which I’ve followed every American League playoff picture: rooting for the Yankees to be eliminated from it. (Request to anybody who wants to chime in with haughty declarations regarding the insignificance of this outcome to overall Met fortunes: stow it; it’s October.) The first barrier, in which the Yankees simply don’t make the playoffs, crumbled Sunday night when the Angels lost to the Rangers, thereby designating our friends to the north as, at the very least, Wild Card entrants. The new and ridiculous setup in which two Wild Cards play a celebrity death match to determine who lives another day is potentially our next hope, but only if the Orioles can continue to be wonderful and what’s left of Bobby Valentine’s Red Sox can be anything at all over these final three games. The proper calibration of O’s at Rays and Sox at Yanks would give Baltimore a division title, which would in turn consign New York’s other baseball team to said Wild Card round versus (almost certainly) the A’s, who are usually a better story than playoff team, but that’s leaning on precedent and getting ahead of ourselves.
My motivation for invoking the postseason three days before we’re altogether done with the 2012 Mets was the glimpse of a 1999 Met I got yesterday while flipping channels that didn’t carry the Mets game (thanks again, Cablevision). The Rays were finishing up a defeat of the White Sox, and in the home dugout at old New Comiskey Park, the Chicago manager was looking pretty darn glum.
And I wondered if it’s worse now for Robin Ventura than it was 13 years ago at this time.
On a team anchored by Mike Piazza and Edgardo Alfonzo, I thought Robin Ventura was everything to the 1999 Mets. He changed the lineup, he changed the defense, I’d dare say he changed the culture. Robin wasn’t rah-rah, but he was reassuringly present, a mature, accomplished player who took the heat off his teammates all summer long. Piazza could be left to rake. Fonzie could be left to blossom. Ventura did the calm, cool, collected talking as far as could be told through the newspapers and broadcasts.
In the fourth week of September, when there was nothing to be calm, cool and collected about, Robin went into the same slump that devoured everybody else on that club. The Mets lost seven in a row. They entered their final weekend series, on this date in 1999, in almost impossible straits: two down for the Wild Card with three to play. We all became experts in the ways of the 1962 Giants, because we were informed they were the only team that had ever overcome that kind of deficit in that kind of time frame to achieve a postseason berth.
Forging a tie and sending the regular season into overtime (which is how San Francisco won the pennant 37 years earlier) was all the Mets could realistically hope for entering those last three games against the Pirates, and the hope wasn’t all that bright as they let the mediocre Bucs drag them into extra innings. But the Mets got runners on in the bottom of the eleventh Friday night at Shea, the Pirates opted to walk Mike Piazza with two out to load the bases and Ventura stepped up…like he’d stepped up so often in 1999. He served a single into center, the Mets pulled out a 3-2 win, Cincinnati would lose in Milwaukee and the comeback of a generation was on. The Mets would earn their tie by Sunday, beat the Reds for the Wild Card on Monday, start playing an NLDS in Phoenix on Tuesday and continue their adventures for two more unforgettable weeks.
Robin Ventura didn’t bring us a world championship, but he brought us those two weeks, and that fortnight was the best time to be a Mets fan since there was a world championship. So it saddened me to look at Robin looking despondent in that White Sox dugout. His team had been in first place almost every day from late May until late September, and now they were about to lose for the tenth time in twelve tries. When the loss went final, the White Sox found themselves three behind the Tigers with three to play, an exponentially deeper hole than Robin’s first Met club faced. The White Sox weren’t supposed to be much of a factor this season, and for their first-year skipper to get them as far as he did was an accomplishment. Yet to come so close (they’d been three up on Detroit with fifteen to play) and have it slip away…that was what 1999 felt like until Robin’s single — the one that went for one base without any controversy — began to turn it around.
It’s probably too late for Ventura’s White Sox in 2012. I remain eternally grateful he was right on time for us in 1999.