Need a scapegoat for your favorite fourth-place team in the whole wide world? Blame Dillon Gee for the pounding the Mets absorbed Thursday night in Milwaukee. Blame Matt Garza for maintaining the deep freeze at such a cold temperature where the New Yorkers’ bats were concerned. Blame gravity for pulling the Mets down to earth since the All-Star break ended.
Blame me for getting a little too excited lately.
It happens every summer of recent vintage. Take any season since the current endless era commenced and you’ll know where I’ll be: watching cynically, blogging morbidly, rooting as if the pocket schedule was printed solely for the purpose of tracking a Met-aphorical Bataan Death March. Nevertheless, when I detect the tiniest speck of sustained Met momentum, you can’t find the bulk of me, because my heart, my soul and a chunk of my head have jumped out of my skin.
Where did most of me go? Why, to meet the unrealistic expectations.
Yo! I’m right here, hunched over the standings with a loupe pressed to my eye searching out signs that this latest Met run is fo’ reals!
And when I’ve determined to my satisfaction that it is indeed for real (to say nothing of fo’ reals), I do two things:
1) I get quietly but almost completely carried away.
2) I bring the ayin hora upon the Mets. For you nice ladies and gentlemen out there who didn’t grow up around random scraps of the Yiddish language, that’s more or less “evil eye” in American.
In any tongue, my enthusiasm has been bad luck dating back to 2010 (I had no enthusiasm in 2009).
• Began to take the Mets’ chances as legitimately serious in late June of that modestly promising campaign. They were laughable before July was over.
• They impressed me as on the come in late July 2011. They came and went come early August.
• I held out against pervasive giddiness across the exquisitely pitched June of 2012, yet found myself exploding with hope shortly after the Fourth of July. The twilight’s last gleaming was the next sight I saw.
• A pretty good six weeks between mid-June and late July of 2013 tentatively pulled me back in. The evil eye spit me back out ASAP in one distasteful phlegm globber.
In 2014, I didn’t wander terribly far off the reality-based reservation, but I will cop to having spent last Saturday morning and afternoon in the deepest state of Mets euphoria I had known since the weekend of the no-hitter, even though I knew by lounging there I had pretty much wrecked whatever hope remained for the rest of this year. The way they won last Friday night in San Diego…the way they didn’t lose last Friday night in San Diego…the way they looked as good right after the All-Star break as they had for a week before…the way they’d been getting one good start after another…the way the latest iteration of the youth movement was coalescing…the way the youth movement that came before it was finally maturing…
I could end every thought with a kine ayin hora as a buffer against the jinx of excessive optimism, but it was too late. I was too happy. I knew the Mets couldn’t handle it. And they haven’t. At least not in the short term, going 2-4 since winning that first game at Petco Park, hitting barely a lick in that span and appearing as dreadful, deflated and defeated last night as they have all year.
All you kids out there may not believe me, but there was a time when you could get excited about a Mets team getting its act together and not reflexively expect the show to close. Instead the excitement would lead to more excitement because the show kept getting better and better.
Such a time revealed itself to me in full exactly 30 years ago last night in a ballpark far, far away. It was the Shea Stadium of 1984 — an edifice that had survived an epic of despair so despondent that it made these present mediocre Met days at Citi Field seem like a Brewer cakewalk in Miller Park.
On July 24, 1984, I was at Shea Stadium for the first time since July 8, 1983. In late July of 1983, I was so overcome by disgust that the Mets had failed to materially improve across seven incompetent seasons that I pledged to keep my distance for the rest of that summer. Though the last-place Mets shook off their cobwebs on the last day of that July and finished as strong as they possibly could (albeit still in last), I stayed true to my word. I was due back at college by the last week in August, anyway, which made my resistance of rebuilding’s siren song academic after a few weeks. But I felt I’d made my point.
When the next Opening Day rolled around, I was still away at school and the Mets were still an aggravating enterprise. They were clobbered by the Reds in Cincinnati and it didn’t seem much of anything that had defined the franchise since 1977 had changed. But then they won the second game of the 1984 season. And the third game. And in the fourth game, they took the wraps off a kid named Dwight Gooden and won that one. And after seven games, the New York Mets — whose composite record since their last winning season was 434-641 — were playing .857 ball.
The Mets were 6-1 to start 1984. It would be a bit of an exaggeration to add “…and they never looked back,” because there were spells when the downs outnumbered the ups, and as late as June 1, the Mets were in fourth place, having won no more games than they had lost (22-22). Yet it’s barely any exaggeration to say once they reeled off those six consecutive wins succeeding the Opening Day loss that I never looked back. I took the Mets to be as real as real could be.
This was based primarily on staring at box scores and peering a hole through wire service accounts, because not only did my spring semester run to the end of April but I was already committed to a humid summer term in Florida that would keep me away from Shea clear through the All-Star break. Save for stray appearances on the NBC Game of the Week and ABC’s Monday Night Baseball (plus the good graces of the Atlanta Braves radio network), the 1984 Mets’ ascendancy was broadcast mainly in my imagination.
I imagined that their climb up the National League East ladder — no lower than second place by July 1, an extended stay in first place beginning July 7 — was exactly what was supposed to be happening. I didn’t fret overthinking their rise. I didn’t have any sense that confidence could beget karmic cockiness, with pride going before a fall, or anything like that. And it never occurred to me that the Mets playing this well was a temporary condition.
If the Mets were good, they were supposed to be good.
If the Mets were good, they were going to get better.
If the Mets were good, they would eventually be the best.
On Tuesday night, July 24, 1984, you might say I went to the apex of my leap when I finally made it back to Shea. Everything had changed since my last visit. There were people. There was noise. There was hope. There was a first-place team in the home uniforms. I had never seen that. I had never seen a game like this, one in which the Mets and Cardinals slugged it out, exchanging leads like they were wrong-size sweaters from Alexander’s. Mets up, 3-0, in the third. Then the Cardinals ahead, 4-3, in the fourth. Then the Mets scoring three in the bottom of the inning to go up, 7-4. The Cardinals with two in the seventh and two in the eighth to lead, 8-7. Then a Met run that tied in the eighth.
Then the hit I can still see thirty years and a day later, Keith Hernandez lining a tenth-inning pitch from none other than Neil Allen up the middle to plate Mookie Wilson with the winning run. Mets 9 Cardinals 8. Plus the Cubs lost in Philadelphia, so our lead had expanded to 3½. The Mets were 20 over .500 for the first time since the blessed year of 1969, a year I remembered a little, but I was all of six then, so I couldn’t say I remembered all that much. This, at 21, I was soaking up so I would never forget it.
Hernandez theatrically getting the best of the pitcher for whom he was traded thirteen months earlier.
Keith proving himself forever the clutchest of Mets, not only coming through in an RBI opportunity in the tenth, but also in the third, the fourth and the eighth. The Mets scored in four innings and Keith drove in a runner from scoring position in each of them.
The cheers. Ohmigod, the cheers as Keith triumphed over Neil. The paid attendance was listed at 36,749, which seemed light compared to how it sounded and felt in the Upper Deck. Whatever the total in the house, I’m convinced 99% of the crowd had, like me, spent the previous seven years waiting and waiting and waiting for a night like this and was holding back its cheers for just this moment. Boy did we let them out.
And the chants. Ohmigod, the chants as we floated down those ramps. I never heard chanting in any of the previous 29 games I’d attended at Shea dating back to 1973. After 1973, all potential relevant chants would have been unfit for Family Sundays had such animals existed then. In 1984, the resounding ramp chant that exclaimed “STEINBRENNER SUCKS!” probably wouldn’t have passed muster for inclusion in the next day’s papers (not even the Post), but it rang out loud, clear and spiritually appropriate. And there was no disputing accuracy of “WE’RE NUMBER ONE!” whether the allusion was to the standings or the city.
Funny, I don’t remember “LET’S GO METS!” on the ramps. I think it was implied.
One other thing I remember from that night. It happened long after Joel Lugo and I finally escaped the parking lot (more than 36,749 cars there, I’m pretty sure). We were almost back to Long Beach, riding in relative silence, when I couldn’t help myself to pose a riddle of sorts:
“You know who’s in first place in the National League East? The New York Mets are!”
Joel kind of grunted, as if to ask, “Yeah, so what else is new?” I could see where he’d be blasé. He’d been around all summer. The Mets had been a first-place team on and off since the middle of June all around him. Though I hadn’t seen it up close until that Tuesday night, I had known it as fact even if I didn’t completely appreciate its depth until I was embedded in the middle of it.
Nevertheless, I had gotten so used to the Mets leading their division that — except for the “whoa!” moment in the car — I hadn’t really stopped to pinch myself. Historical perspective would be saved for decades later. For now, it was about sweeping the Cardinals the next day (30 years ago today) and Doc taking care of the Cubs when they came to town on Friday night and the 1984 Mets reaching the apex of their leap at 59-37, 4½ ahead.
When their unstoppable momentum inevitably sputtered and the Cubs blew by them, there was no immediate inclination to step back and appreciate all the progress that had transpired. The Mets were good, yet finishing 90-72, 6½ back in second, wasn’t good enough. The season the Mets improved by 22 games and wiped away seven years of stone misery concluded, in real time, as a little bit of a disappointment.
Of course it did. After living through a night like the one I lived through 30 years ago last night, it was impossible to imagine anybody but the Mets in first place.