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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Bang Zoom Went the Fireworks

The benefit and curse of having seen ten tons of baseball games and being able to nimbly catalogue among the standouts almost by reflex is that you’re rarely starved for precedent when something seemingly unprecedented occurs. So while it is true that nobody had ever seen anything quite like what happened between Washington and St. Louis in Game Five of the NLDS Friday night, I’d retained in my mind a few games that were something like it.

When the Nationals hit their third homer and were up by 6-0 in the third inning, I blurted out, “Well, the Cardinals are dead,” and immediately thought, “No, they’re probably not,” likely because on September 12, 1985, the Mets — as managed by Davey Johnson — scored four runs in the first and two runs in the second and I assumed the Cardinals were dead. No, they weren’t. Baseball permits the pecking away of leads sometimes, and on what those of us who were around back then will always recall as Baseball Thursday, the Redbirds pecked: three in the third, two in the fourth and a goddamn home run by goddamn Willie McGee off Jesse Orosco in the top of the ninth to tie it at six. Fortunately, the Mets used the bottom of the ninth to their advantage and pulled out the victory, 7-6, taking a one-game lead in the N.L. East in the process. I was young/naïve enough to take this as a sign that everything would work out fine in the ensuing three-and-a-half weeks of the season. The Mets would in fact go on to win 98 games. The Cardinals, however, recovered and won 101 and the division title in the days when not winning the division title meant an automatic trip home. I’m old enough now that I never take anything good at face value.

There were no Nationals in 1985, but they existed by 2007. They fell behind, 5-0, to Carlos Beltran and the Mets in the third inning of the game of September 26. Beltran had just hit his second home run of the evening. Carlos and his teammates seemed to be on their way to a much-needed win. Less than two weeks earlier, the first-place Mets had led the second-place Phillies by seven games. The lead was down to two entering this, the 158th game of the season. A 5-0 lead might have felt secure in a dozen other situations. It felt nothing of the kind on September 26, 2007. Against first-time starter Phil Humber and several of Willie Randolph’s most reliable relievers, the Nationals pecked and then pounded away. They went on to beat the Mets, 9-6. The Phillies won that night. The lead was down to one. You know the rest. I thought of that game while the 2012 Nationals held a 6-0 lead on the 2012 Cardinals because the 2012 Cardinals included Carlos Beltran and I wondered if any of this crossed his mind the way it did mine. It probably didn’t, but I’d like to think it did.

I was at that miserable game in 2007. I was also at a miserable game in 2011 in which the Pirates took a 7-0 lead on Mike Pelfrey and the Mets in the third inning. There was no reason to stay fixed on the action if you weren’t rooting for the Pirates, but I did anyway. When Carlos Beltran — who had just been the subject of a barb or two from Fred Wilpon in the New Yorker — hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the third, the Mets weren’t down seven anymore. They were down four. There was plenty of time for pecking, for pounding, for Pelfrey. Terry Collins left his pitcher in, as if to tell him and us that this thing wasn’t over yet. It wasn’t. Pelf went five. The Mets pushed four across in the sixth to tie (starting with a leadoff double from Beltran) and two more in the eighth to lead (the ninth run plating as Beltran accepted a bases-loaded walk). The Mets wound up 9-8 winners on June 2, 2011. It didn’t send the Mets on a relentless upward trajectory, but it made for a much more pleasant Thursday afternoon at the ol’ ballpark.

So I thought of these three games a little as the Nationals led the Cardinals, 6-0, then 6-1 and 6-3 and 6-4 and 6-5. Carlos and the Cards were so not dead. Davey and the Nats were so not out of the woods. But then Washington cobbled together a so-called insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, and 7-5 looked a lot better than 6-5. True, two Nats runners remained on base as a third out was registered, but the lead had been increased. It was something the Giants hadn’t done after Buster Posey put San Francisco up early on the Reds the day before at 6-0. Cincy closed to within 6-4 and were on the brink of a remarkable comeback in the ninth. They couldn’t quite get there. I thought the Giants escaped with a series win. Here I thought the Nationals were preventing a series loss.

I thought wrong. Here came Carlos Beltran to lead off the top of the ninth with a double against Drew Storen. Beltran had been doing nifty things since this postseason started. He had done so many nifty things in the 2004 postseason that it made him a tycoon. He did quite a few neat things in the 2006 postseason, too. Things got noticeably messy for him only once, really, and that’s the splotch many with a Met allegiance see at the expense of everything else Carlos Beltran has ever done. Amid the collapse of September 2007, Beltran’s slash line was .282/.328/.555; in the deflationary period of September 2008, it measured .344/.440/.645. He drove in Jose Reyes in the bottom of the ninth of the fourth-to-last game in Shea Stadium history, effecting its last walkoff win and keeping the Mets tied with the Brewers for what was then the only Wild Card spot available in the National League. Three days later, he hit the last Met home run at Shea, tying the final game there at two in the sixth inning and maintaining the Mets’ viability for at least a few minutes ahead of the entry of two of Jerry Manuel’s most reliable relievers. The splotch everybody remembers from the end of Game Seven in 2006 was the aberration in Beltran’s career, not the apotheosis.

Maybe the only thing Carlos Beltran did wrong in the ninth inning on October 19 six years ago was bat last instead of first.

Anyway, Beltran doubled, Storen — theoretically Johnson’s most reliable reliever — made it almost irrelevant by grounding out Matt Holliday and striking out Allen Craig, but no baserunner is irrelevant in a Cardinal uniform when the Cardinals are on the brink of elimination. The next two batters were Yadier Molina and David Freese. One of them long ago homered in a ninth inning to put his team ahead in the seventh game of a fiercely contested postseason series. The other not so long before had tripled in a ninth inning to keep his team alive in the sixth game of a fiercely contested postseason series and then homered in its eleventh inning to force a seventh game that his team also won. Here, each of them walked to load the bases. The Nationals still led the Cardinals, 7-5. There were still two out. Storen was still very much capable of ending the game and the series by retiring just one more batter.

For other franchises — the one we root for comes to mind — placing three contemporary October icons on base and not yet having scored would have seemed to presage doom. But the St. Louis Cardinals are not one of those franchises. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s only anecdotal. But the closer for the team with the most wins in baseball holding the fort and standing one out from sending his team to its first LCS (and his team’s city to its first postseason series victory in 88 years) didn’t seem reassuring whatsoever for that team. The Nationals were as likely to be doomed as they were to get out of it.

They were doomed. Daniel Descalso stroked a hot grounder up the middle that flicked off the glove of a diving Ian Desmond and trickled into the outfield. Beltran scored. Molina’s unnecessary pinch-runner scored. Freese was on third. Pete Kozma, whose introduction to baseball at large came from not catching an infield fly one week earlier in Atlanta, was up next, and though his two-RBI liner to right was technically immensely dramatic, it was really closer to utterly predictable. Of course the Nationals went from up 7-5 and one out from advancement to down 9-7 and one inning from elimination. That reads like a hindsight “of course” on Saturday morning, yet really, could anybody but the most starry eyed Washingtonian not have sensed this coming for six innings?

This is not to say it wasn’t horrible to watch unfold. It was way more horrible from a Nationals perspective than it was uplifting from a Cardinals perspective, and I say that as a generally unaligned Mets fan who doesn’t much care for either organization save for the presence of Davey Johnson on one side and Carlos Beltran on the other. The Cardinals just did this against the Rangers to win a World Series. Maybe not exactly this — four runs in the ninth inning of a win-or-done postseason scenario was indeed unprecedented — but close enough. For all the breathtaking comebacks we saw sprout amid the 20 League Division Series games, it’s clearly the Cardinals who own the copyright on this sort of thing. If I loved the Cardinals, I’d be routinely thrilled.

But if I loved the Nationals, I’d be hiding under the bed for the next six weeks.

I had the briefest of second-team flirtations with the Nationals when they came along, probably out of novelty. I would listen to their games on XM and be charmed when their lead announcer, Charlie Slowes — who grew up a Mets fan — would punctuate their frequent RFK Stadium wins in the first half of 2005 with a Honeymooners-flavored sendoff of “Bang Zoom Go the Fireworks!” I got over the novelty soon enough. The Nationals stopped being fascinating to me and became just another division rival. Then I got to know my buddy Jeff, a displaced Long Islander who considers himself on an extended business trip, which is to say he’s been living just outside Washington for 23 years. He welcomed the Nationals from Montreal because it meant the Mets would be playing in his backyard nine or ten times a year. Jeff has informed me in no uncertain terms that Nationals fans are, for the most part, unconscionable douchebags and they are not worth (let alone Werth) our sympathies even in the most benign of circumstances.

I wanted them to win this series anyway. Mostly for Davey, who gave me a sensational two-thirds of a decade way back when and one unforgettable October in particular. Twenty-seven years after winning 98 games wasn’t good enough to get his 1985 Mets in the playoffs, he finds the same number of victories going for naught just a little later in the calendar. I also wanted new blood for this postseason and relatively fresh storylines for my blogging. I had all sorts of material in reserve for an extended Nationals run: Jeff stuff; Washington stuff; Expos memory hole stuff; Davey stuff certainly. My rooting interest in this NLDS was for the better story to prevail (which is one of those sad things sportswriters always say, but the Mets aren’t playing, thus I don’t feel soulless admitting that). The Nationals were going to be interesting to have around for a while. The Cardinals, despite executing this millennium’s most incredible ninth innings, are old hat by comparison. All four teams left standing are more familiar than the four teams they defeated. Too familiar for my tastes. I wanted the Orioles, the A’s, the Reds and the Nats. I got the Tigers, the Giants, the Cardinals and whoever. It could make for great baseball, but it doesn’t shape up as quite as much fun.

But never mind my dilettante priorities. It’s the actual Nationals fan, the one who doesn’t annoy Jeff on the Metro, who’s under the bed this morning. The Nats have existed as the Nats for eight seasons. It wasn’t too soon for them to have their moment. We had our moment in our eighth season. If this wasn’t going to be their 1969 exactly, it was helluva first time to get this far and go farther. Their future looms as promising (which was the idea behind setting aside their ace pitcher for safe keeping), but by the next time there are players in Nationals jerseys, we will uniformly wish them the worst because they’ll be back to being just another division rival. If their fans get another crack at October, it will have a whole other complexion, maybe one that encompasses redemption for what didn’t happen in 2012. If they don’t, this will hurt forever.

No, actually, it will hurt forever no matter what. Just watching it from a distance was pretty goddamn painful.

18 comments to Bang Zoom Went the Fireworks

  • kjs

    Screw the Cardinals. But it’ll be nice to see all the Gnats frontrunner gear in NYC disappear beginning today.

  • YRK

    I live a mile away from Nats Stadium. I watched part of the game at a bar, and the rest at home. For days the entire city was swathed in red–all ages, races, men and women, rich and poor. I have to say this was one of the most electrifying nights I’ve experienced in my 3 years here, and despite my grudging support of the Nats (I’m a Mets fan–what can I say?), I got caught up in the fever pitch excitement. And whooo, that let down was…I don’t even know how to describe it. Monumentally crushing. Like being ditched at the altar–just as you’re about to say “I do.” I’m not even a Nats fan and I still feel the stinging reverberations…

    • Ljcmets

      I lived in DC in the mid-to-late 80′s, and happened to experience the Super Bowl win of Doug Williams and the Redskins. I watched the game at a cousin’s house in Bethesda, then headed back into town to my apartment in Glover Park, down Wisconsin Ave., about a 20-minute drive. The entire way – all 10-12 miles, EVERY radio station played “Hail to the Redskins” on an endless loop. People were out late on a Sunday night, cheering , singing that song, and OK, drinking….but I remember being amazed that hard, cynical Washington (and yes it was pretty bad even in the go-go economy and relative stability of the 80′s) where just about all human interaction can be read as political, could be so
      gung-ho crazy about a team. I’m thrilled to read that the Nats had that same effect, particularly because the District has a large population of transients, as you would expect, as well as a great many living in poverty – not exactly the conditions for creating a rooting interest in the home team, or any team. I have a grudging respect for the professionalism of the Cardinals franchise (particularly now that LaRussa is gone and they are being led by Mike Metheny, a Michigan Man), but my heart breaks for the Nationals fans, especially poor children who got caught up in baseball fever this summer. It’s going to be a long, cold winter for them.

  • Kevin from Flushing

    My heart goes out to the non-douche Nats fans. And this game, coupled with the Giants/Reds finale, came at the perfect time to prove your point: 6 runs is not a blowout.

    Silver linings in the NLCS: 1, more Beltran kicking ass, obviously. 2, the slight intrigue of the past 2 pennant winners going head-to-head. 3, if the Cards keep winning, it makes the Johan no-no more legendary (Cards must have saved all those hits for last night).

    Rooting against the team that shall not be named is fucking pointless (though I keep trying to convince myself, “Not-the-Yankees wins the World Series 75 pct of the time–85 pct in my lifetime, so calm down! Despite what they’d have you believe, they come up short WAYYYYY more than they win it all.”), so I’m back to what I root for seemingly every October: entertaining baseball. We’ve had good games to talk about for 8 straight days now, let’s keep it up.

    And it goes without saying, there isn’t much that’s more entertaining than watching the Yankees lose.

    • The two previous pennant winners matchup is relatively rare now that you mention it: 1972 NLCS (Pirates vs Reds); 1973 ALCS (A’s vs Orioles); 1998 ALCS (Indians vs Yankees); 2009 NLDS (Rockies vs Phillies).

      In retrospect, less surprising that Johan pitched a no-hitter than it was Cardinals didn’t score nine in the ninth.

  • Metsfaninparadise

    “Mostly for Davey,” (and also for Wright’s buddy at 3B) and because I still haven’t forgiven the Cards for ’06, I was rooting for Washington. I remember spotting, as the cameras panned the crown with 2 out and 2 on, a father holding his maybe-7-year-old son up so he could see clearly, and thinking about how crushed he’d be if his team couldn’t seal the deal. I was moist-eyed with excitement for the Nats fans, trying to enjoy it vicariously. Once the Cards tied it I couldnt’ watch. I still feel bad for that kid. He may be scarred for life.

  • Inside Pitcher

    My experiences with Nationals fans have generally been negative, so I wasn’t unhappy with last night’s results.

    That’ll teach them to trash talk!

  • Tom

    This game has far more heartbreak than triumph.

    Welcome to playoff baseball, Nationals.

    See ya in April.

    • Steve D

      “[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

      ― A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise: Americans And Their Games

  • dak442

    Well, the teams I was pulling for (Nats for Davey, O’s for doing God’s work) were undone by relief pitching. Don’t have it in me to root for the Cards unless they face the Yankees in the WS. Umm, yay Tigers!

    I fear we’ll be seeing another ticker-tape parade on Broadway in three weeks. Ugh.

  • dmg

    the only game i’ve seen live in nats stadium was the july 3 debacle 2 years ago, the one where dickey outpitched strasburg, only to have k-rod blow a 5-3 lead in the ninth for a walkoff nationals win. so, yeah, i’m quite familiar with comebacks in that park. i do feel down for davey, and good for carlos, and am amazed at the cards. but a little part of me feels as though now another team knows what it feels like to have all their hopes and expectations snuffed out in a baseball minute.

  • Dennis

    Was rooting for the Nationals since I can’t stand the Cardinals, but they probably deserved to lose with their inane, arrogant decision to shut down Strasburg…..especially for the post season.

    • Joe D.

      Hi Dennis,

      My thought at the beginning of the series that shutting down Strasburg was going to haunt them. OK, with Gonzalez on the mound and a six run lead one it would appear Stasburg’s non-presence didn’t matter at least through the NLDS. However, Gonzalez was mediocre in both his starts and the Cardinals bombed Washington pitching two straight games.

      Wonder how much the team and the fans might feel cheated because of the decision to take away their ace.

      • Andee

        Considering that both Gio and Zim — both really good pitchers — got lit up by the Cardinals, and considering that Stras wasn’t exactly his dominating self by the time he was shut down, I don’t know how much help he’d have been. These are the Cardinals; they do this to everybody, especially in October. And if he’d gotten pasted, they’d have been second-guessed for that too, especially if he got hurt afterwards.

  • Andee

    Terrible bullpen management by Davey in this series. Storen pitched in four out of the five games and the last three days in a row; it’s no wonder he was gassed. And they had nobody to bring in after him, because Davey went through that bullpen (including Edwin Jackson!) like a bag of potato chips. Yo, Davey, these are the Cardinals! They save up all their energy for the last three months! Also, their hitters get the championship discount from the umpires; Storen was getting squeezed left and right. If you don’t have anyone to back him up, you’re in biiiig trouble. Strasburg wouldn’t have saved them from this calamity.

  • Steve D

    Watching Davey’s postgame conference, couldn’t help but wonder if that’s what it would have been like had Stanley not thrown that wild pitch.

  • nestornajwa

    Living in DC for the past 17 years, I’ve come to respect most DC sports fans. Of course, a lot of people here come from other parts of the country to work for Congress or other agencies, and those folks, like me, continue to root for their hometown teams. But it’s still a real sports town with a lot of true fans. Washington fans are passionate, usually without crossing the line into Philly/Oakland thuggery. This is mostly a football town, and rightly so. The Nats are a recent arrival and until Little Danny Snyder’s meddlesome ownership drove the franchise into a ditch, the Redskins were usually pretty good. I used to get a huge kick out of going to RFK, which was the only stadium that could EVER compare with Shea in terms of crowd noise and intimidation. RFK had the same shaking grandstand, but it’s enclosed (almost claustrophobic) design made it even louder than Shea. Sorry, it’s true. RFK wasn’t much of a baseball park, but it rocked like Shea when the weather turned colder. That can’t happen without great fans. They have a band made up of actual fans! I love that. The current football stadium sucks in every possible way — caste-based seating, miserable parking, inaccessible by Metro, WAY too many seats, none of them good and, worst of all, the Redskins left DC for a Maryland location outside the Beltway.

    But the Redskins old-style fandom hasn’t transferred to baseball. Until this season, the Nationals were a welcome novelty. Transplanted fans of the opposing team seemed to comprise about half of the attendance at most games, certainly those involving the Mets or Phillies. It didn’t help that, for years, the organization was entirely focused on getting out of RFK. The Nationals weren’t completely devoid of talent when they arrived in DC, but the team regressed after a surprisingly good inaugural season and the team was an embarrassment for a long time. Remember the “Natinals”? The turning point came when the team came within hours of failing to sign Strasburg and losing him. Did Boras extract an agreement to limit his innings then, or after his Tommy John in 2010? If so, the seed for last night’s debacle was planted a long time ago, at the very foundation of the current team.

    Unfortunately, Nationals fans adopted an obnoxious schadenfreude flavor of fandom when they took a little too much pleasure in playing spoiler for teams like the Mets and Braves. The organization embraced this nonsense with smarmy televised ad campaigns which highlighted the day they “knocked the Mets out of first” in 2008 and similar marginal accomplishments.

    Was last night karmic retribution? They’re heartbroken today, but they will almost certainly be the favorites to win the division, at least, in 2013. The front office choked on the Strasburg question and the players choked on the field. They gave away home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Nationals look poised to succeed in 2013, but we know how that can turn out, don’t we? I hate the damn Cardinals. I wanted the Rangers to win last year and, obnoxious nouveau-riche fans aside, I wanted the Nats to win in 2012. But I can’t muster too much sympathy right now.

  • Will in Central NJ

    With an LBJ-era kindergarten report card from a Washington, DC school in my box of mementoes, and an inexplicable soft spot in my heart for the Expos, I found myself rooting for Davey Johnson and the Nationals. Tough break for the district. As we Met fans know, adversity only builds character. And boy, do we have a lot of it.

    For an interesting perspective on the 2012 Nationals’ success, I suggest any and all go to the Montreal Gazette’s website (it’s in English). Most fans have pushed the Nats’ existence out of their minds, but some still carry the Expos’/Nationals’ torch.