On this very afternoon in 1969, Jerry Koosman pitched a solid nine innings, Donn Clendenon, Ken Boswell and Cleon Jones made key contact and Ed Kranepool homered and later delivered the walkoff hit, a fortuitous bloop to left that made Kooz and the Mets 4-3 winners over the Cubs.
In other words, today is the 45th anniversary of the Don Young Game.
Don Young was the least famous member of Chicago’s starting lineup on July 8, 1969, but he is the one for which the most important regular-season game the Mets franchise had played to date is named. The Mets could barely touch Ferguson Jenkins for eight innings, Koosman gave up homers to Ernie Banks and Jim Hickman plus a run-scoring single to Glenn Beckert, but it is Young whose fingerprints remain all over this game…the Don Young Game.
If you were a sentient Mets fan in the summer of 1969 or are a historically minded student of all things Amazin’, you’re way ahead of me on the Don Young Game. If by chance this is all news to you, know that the powerhouse Cubs of ’69 sported All-Star caliber talent at virtually every position. One spot, however, gave them trouble: center field.
Don Young was Leo Durocher’s center fielder by something less than choice. A 23-year-old rookie, Young showed up at Shea batting .227. His presence, however, wasn’t holding back the first-place Cubs, who entered their Tuesday tilt versus the Mets 5½ in front of their surprising pursuers. The Mets had never spent a moment of their lives in the first division. They were not only breathing the heady air of second place for the first time, they had never soared anywhere above .500 this late in the season. They were 45-34, for goodness sake. If nothing else were to happen in 1969, that alone qualified as a miracle.
But more was to come. And it was going to start coming on July 8, 1969, when, in essence, Gil Hodges and the Mets decided second place wasn’t going to be good enough for them. Their fans felt the same way. It wasn’t a promotional item that drew 55,096 to Shea for a midweek day game, unless the throwing off of the shackles of futility could be considered a giveaway. The Mets were loaded for Cub. The Cubs may not have been all that concerned with the team directly behind them in the standings for the first 8½ innings, as they maintained a 3-1 lead, but the bottom of the ninth changed the dynamics of the season and the complexion of the two clubs’ respective narratives forever more.
The linchpin of history was Young: Young who, when Boswell pinch-hit to start the home ninth, lofted a fly to short center that Young couldn’t see on this sunny day. With Young coming in and second baseman Beckert and shortstop Don Kessinger going out, second base was left unoccupied — until Boswell landed on it with a gift double.
The same Young was in the middle of the story again one out later when another pinch-hitter, Clendenon, unleashed a shot to deep left-center. First the ball that fell in shallow bedeviled the center fielder and now it was one headed to the wall about to give him fits. This time Young tracked it down, grasped it in the webbing of his glove…and dropped it when he banged into the fence. Clendenon took second and Boswell, who had to hold up when it appeared a catch was about to be made, was on third.
The rest of the way reads like Mets-In-First Destiny. A line-drive double from Jones ties the game. Durocher orders Art Shamsky walked. Wayne Garrett grounds to second to move both runners up a base. And Krane drives home Cleon.
It’s a 4-3 final that ignites Shea to a state of delirium, that edges the Mets to within 4½ of first, that sets the stage for an epic Cub crumble from which, one might argue, the North Siders have never recovered. It wasn’t just that the next night Tom Seaver shut out Chicago and assured the Mets of taking the three-game series. It wasn’t just that the Mets would grab another two of three at Wrigley Field the following week. It wasn’t just that come early September, a black cat would appear and a divisional lead would all but vanish and the Miracle Mets would soon emerge champions in full.
It was within the minutes after Don Young couldn’t catch two fly balls — difficult plays, but not impossible — that the Cubs began to implode and Young’s problems began to tear them to pieces.
Don’t think one center fielder mishandling two balls on July 8 can have that much of an impact on the course of a campaign? Take it from Ernie Banks that it did. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, Mr. Cub traced all of Chicago’s 1969 shortcomings to the postgame scene in the visitors’ clubhouse at Shea Stadium.
“Before going to New York to play the big series against the Mets, I went to different players on our team and told them, ‘We’re going to New York, and when the game is over, there’s going to be more media than you’ve ever seen in the clubhouse, so watch what you say.’ So we got to New York, and lose the first game. Don Young dropped a fly ball, and that was it. We came into the locker room. I was next to [Ron] Santo, and he just went crazy [blaming Young]. Young was so upset, he ran out. [Coach] Pete [Reiser] had to bring him back. I had never seen something so hurtful.”
It’s not the first time Santo’s (and Durocher’s) treatment of Young has been tagged as the beginning of the end for the mighty Cubs. It won’t be the last, either. It’s just the most recent. Still, to see the episode recalled so ruefully 45 years after the fact by a first-tier Hall of Famer who’s known for always smiling just underlines what an Amazin’ turn of events had occurred and kept on occurring for the next 100 days. This was the second Tuesday in July; on the third Thursday in October, Koosman was again on the mound, the Mets had again fallen behind, and nothing again could stop them. They polished their spikes to a bright shine, beat the Orioles, 5-3, and nailed down perhaps the most legendary professional team sports championship of all time.
What gives the Don Young Game a little extra oomph in the Metsopotamian retelling is I’m having a hard time thinking of too many other Mets wins we commonly refer to by the name of an opposing player. The next night came the Jimmy Qualls Game — named for Young’s immediate center field replacement — but that one deserves a little asterisk, I think, because while we celebrate a win when we invoke it, we’re also regretting that Qualls’s ninth-inning single represented the sole blemish on Seaver’s one-hit masterpiece. You might have to fast-forward all the way to October 25, 1986, for the Bill Buckner Game, an episode that doesn’t need much more in the way of identification. Now and then I try to refer to it as the Mookie Wilson Game, but let’s be real: E-3…y’know? (And even then, despite competition from others generically branded as such, “Game Six” will probably suffice.)
Beyond Young, Qualls and Buckner, do we name our winning games for the other guys? We have a subgenre of losses we pin on villains: the Terry Pendleton Game; the Mike Scioscia Game; the Luis Sojo Game; maybe the Yadier Molina Game, though that particular Game Seven had several actors playing featured roles. We name some bitter losses for our own: the Kenny Rogers Game; the Luis Castillo Game; the T#m Gl@v!ne Game in case “Collapse” isn’t specific enough for you. There are the historical oddities along the lines of the Jim Bunning Perfect Game and the Eric Bruntlett Unassisted Triple Play Game. More happily, we have the Dave Mlicki Game, the Matt Franco Game, the Melvin Mora Game, the Todd Pratt Game, maybe the Carl Everett Game if you’re so inclined, of course the Steve Henderson Game. For those who had but one moment in the Metsian sun, there’s the Gary Rajsich Game, the Esix Snead Game, the Tim Harkness Game, to name three others would call obscure but I would just call fantastic. (Hell, I write books in which such rare breeds roam free.)
All of the above are fascinating to consider, I suppose, but it doesn’t extend the answer to my original question. Is there anybody else in another uniform we designate as the standard-bearer for one of our biggest victories? Don Young was trying to saddle us with a loss. Instead, he helped provide us with a win. Jones tied it, Kranepool won it and the W was recorded alongside Koosman, yet it’s the Don Young Game that we salute (and Banks mourns) 45 years later.
Terrible uniforms! Good starting pitching! Bad bullpen work! Questionable strategies! An umpiring controversy! And, finally, a walk-off!
That’s quite a lot for one game, even with two extra frames, but it wound up as a victory for the forces of good, with Ruben Tejada whacking a clean single up the middle, then showing his most surprising speed of the year as he mock-fled his towel-waving teammates into short left field.
What should we take from this game?
First of all and most importantly of all, that patience is a virtue. This isn’t a Get Out of Contention Free card for the front office or ownership, who should explain what the plan is to get back to, well, meaningful games in September and the kind of payroll the National League’s New York franchise should have. But it is a reminder that young players need time to develop, and their birthdate is more important than how long you’ve seen them or read about them online. Travis d’Arnaud, decried as a disaster before his tune-up in Las Vegas, is 25 with an injury-shortened CV. Jenrry Mejia‘s just 24 and lost time to Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel sabotaging his development in an effort to save their skins. Tejada feels like he’s been here forever, but he’s only 24. Zack Wheeler? 24. And Noah Syndergaard — somehow letting down the fanbase for failing to dominate Triple-A — is only 21. They’re going to have lousy weeks, make dopey mistakes and look lost at times. Which isn’t to say all these guys will develop into stars; just that it’s too early to say they’re failures. The only way to find out? It’s to let them play and live with their mistakes.
Speaking of mistakes, what happened to Eric Campbell and d’Arnaud in the eighth was interesting, to say the least. Christian Bethancourt dropped a single into short right, Curtis Granderson charged it, unleashed a throw — and Campbell cut it off. It’s impossible to say whether Chris Johnson would have been out at the plate or not — let’s leave it at “it would have been close” — and to me that’s not the critical question anyway. It’s what the communication was on the field and whether Campbell and d’Arnaud knew what they wanted to do as the play developed. If d’Arnaud thought Johnson would be safe and yelled for Campbell to cut it off, that’s fine. Same if Campbell thought that was going to happen and intercepted the throw. If d’Arnaud wasn’t sure what to do and/or Campbell automatically cut the ball off because he saw a Brave between second and third, that’s not good — and would be an example of the learning process that needs to take place.
Meanwhile, we’re all learning about the replay system and the wrinkles of it. The Mets won a questionable challenge in the ninth when the umps decided (after Terry Collins‘s entreaties) to review an apparent neighborhood play at second as Andrelton Simmons tried to turn a Juan Lagares bunt into a double play. Their ruling: Simmons had come off the bag and everybody was safe. (Terry then decided to confound even me by opting not to bunt in pretty much the only situation where it makes strategic sense.) Fredi Gonzalez was not pleased, the booth went into a tizzy, and I’m sure we’ll hear more about this one in the days to come. My instant take: I understand why the neighborhood play is allowed even in an era of endless replays, but that exemption was carved out to protect middle infielders, not so they could grab the few extra inches that might turn a force out into a double play. What Simmons did might have been OK by the current letter of the law (and it was a smart play), but I thought it violated the spirit of the rule, and the umpires decided correctly. That’s a case where an umpire’s judgment (backed up by New York looking at video) can still be part of the equation.
Anyway, I’m sure that play will spark further conversation, but let’s move on. Given a possible gift, the Mets promptly handed it back to the Braves and seemed ticketed for another infuriating/numbing loss. But they hung in there behind what was left of the arm of Carlos Torres (who was nearly killed by a scary-looking B.J. Upton line drive), long enough for Tejada to come through and send us all home, with lots to talk about. And for a night some of the conversation was even fun.
You get the sense that Daniel Murphy has never been picked first for anything in his life — and that it’s never deterred him a bit.
Murphy is the Mets’ second baseman because he was blocked at third, couldn’t play left and wasn’t suited for first. Also, a plethora of would-be second basemen had to fall away. Ruben Tejada had to scoot to short when retaining Jose Reyes proved beyond the Mets’ means. Justin Turner didn’t hit enough to play daily. Luis Castillo expended every last iota of his goodwill. Brad Emaus faded from the picture faster than Marty McFly’s siblings. Jordany Valdespin was too literal in telling his manager what he really thought of him. And Wilmer Flores…well, who the hell remembers why Wilmer Flores didn’t get a legitimate shot? It wasn’t because Daniel Murphy was considered too sacred a cow to be replaced.
On the contrary, the Mets seem to view Murph as highly disposable meat. They still might dispose of him, or at least sell high. In an industry where one of the best starting pitchers around can be shipped from a non-contender in one league to a contender in the other two days before he is going to be named to an All-Star team, nobody’s status is that sacred. Murphy might yet join David Cone, Bobby Bonilla, Rick Reed, Armando Benitez and Carlos Beltran in the ranks of Mets who were traded away in the same season they were All-Stars. Or he could find himself in another uniform the season after he was a Met All-Star, same as happened to R.A. Dickey, to name the most recent example.
But most importantly, in the here and now, Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets is a National League All-Star. It may be the first Met thing to happen all year that has elicited unabashedly good feelings.
Murph, the Mets’ 13th-round selection in the 2006 amateur draft, wasn’t picked first in this process, either. He wasn’t voted in by the fans ahead of Chase Utley and he wasn’t a players’ choice ahead of Dee Gordon. Had Jon Niese’s luck held up or David Wright maintained enough Face Of MLB juice to outlast Aramis Ramirez, Murphy would probably be enjoying his traditional four-day July vacation. The 39-49 Mets (buoyed to victory Sunday, appropriately enough, by second-line options Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Anthony Recker) haven’t plunged ten below .500 in spite of a fistful of dazzling individual performances. It’s been a team effort to get them to be this bad for this long. They deserved having no more than their one mandatory representative flown to Minneapolis for the ritualistic tipping of their hideously conceived cap.
In 1965, when the schedule didn’t randomly throw American Leaguers against National Leaguers as a matter of course and this stuff was a far bigger deal, Ed Kranepool represented the last-place Mets as their sole All-Star, also in Minnesota. At the break 49 years ago, Krane, 20 and still considered hot future stuff, had almost the exact same numbers Murph packs today: 7 HR, 37 RBI, .287 BA. Eddie was the best of a bad Met lot (en route to a second half that was one long slide down the statistical pole). His presence on the same bench as Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Billy Williams and Ron Santo likely didn’t look any less absurd then than it does now, but for the rest of his days, he was All-Star Ed Kranepool.
By the delightfully inclusive rules of baseball, somebody had to carry the Mets banner in 1965, just as somebody has to carry it in 2014. All-Star For The Rest Of His Days Daniel Murphy deserves the honor more than other Met of the moment. His topline numbers suggest Kranepoolian tokenism was all that merited any Met earning an invite to the All-Star soirée, but when Mike Matheny scanned the possibilities, he saw, embedded in Murph’s reasonably impressive .294 average and relatively modest 7 home runs and 35 runs batted in, a very hefty bag of base hits. Daniel’s 106 are currently tied for second-most in the N.L. Sabermetrically spectacular Murph isn’t, but a whole lot of hits are a whole lot of hits.
That’s his core competency, and it’s a fine one to have (he’s quietly accumulated more hits than all but 15 players in Met history). The rest of Murph’s game? Well, when it comes to fundies, let’s just say that fun dies a little bit with every wrong base thrown to or run toward. He’s not out there for his glove, either, yet he is out there with his glove every blessed day, not exactly giving Bill Mazeroski a run for his money, but not giving away ballgames as long as Tim Teufel shifts him correctly.
Hardly anybody would think to pick our Daniel Murphy first, but he does eventually get himself picked. This time around his pickage came partly out of Metsian circumstances but mostly, I’d like to believe, because Daniel Murphy is the kind of person who makes people predisposed to pass him over give him a second look and then make them pick him.
He showed up unheralded on the Mets in August of 2008 amid the franchise’s last pennant race and he insinuated himself into the club’s plans by hitting .467 in his first 30 major league at-bats and .313 in two months’ worth of action. The Mets realized they had to find him a place.
Then they grew determined to find somebody else to take his place, yet they never could. The 23-year-old rookie who split Shea’s final weeks in left field with Nick Evans because neither Moises Alou nor Fernando Tatis could stay healthy turned 24 and untenable at that position within eight months of his big league debut. No matter. He went to first when Carlos Delgado became the initial casualty of 2009’s injury barrage and responded by leading the team in home runs. Granted, there were only 12 home runs in that total, but you didn’t see anybody else hitting them out of brand spankin’ new Citi Field.
Still, Murphy wasn’t slated to play first on a permanent basis, so back he went to the minors to learn to play second in 2010…where he was promptly waylaid by a cheap slide and disappeared from our sights. He returned to Spring Training in 2011, playing second fiddle at second base to Rule 5’er Emaus before the Mets cut their losses. Soon, though, Ike Davis fell to the Coors Field grass in May and, voilà, Murph was a first baseman again. Until he was a third baseman in Wright’s absence. Until it was back to second where he absorbed another nasty slide and his year was done.
But Murphy wasn’t. He got a whole season to prove himself in the middle of the infield in 2012 and he didn’t prove he wasn’t a second baseman, so they kept him there in 2013 and he was almost never out of the lineup. Except for the unpardonable crime of jetting home for the birth of his son, he hasn’t missed a moment in 2014, either. He’s been to the White House and now he’s going to the All-Star Game.
Homegrown. Underestimated. Easy enough to overlook. Hard to confidently slot. Yet constant as hell and did we mention he hits too much to ignore? From these imperfect Mets, Daniel Murphy is the perfect choice to carry our banner onto midsummer’s starriest stage.
You can’t be a Mets fan in the present era without dreaming big and accepting small. Take the ninth inning of Saturday night’s game, for example, one of seven innings in which the Mets didn’t score, one of six innings in which the Mets left at least one runner on base. With one out and his team down two runs, Kirk Nieuwenhuis was broken out of cold storage to deliver a pinch-hit double. Due up soon were the two Mets most deserving of a storybook finish to their night.
Wouldn’t it be great, a consensus of thought developed in Section 106, if Curtis Granderson could get on here and then Daniel Murphy would hit the home run to win it? Murph’s almost certainly going to be named the sole Met All-Star, and lifting us to victory would provide the perfect flourish to his impending stellar status.
Granderson popped out, however, so Murphy could no more than tie it. Just getting on base would be plenty, though, because the consensus of thought moved on to David Wright, returned from his shoulder-healing rest period (it was apparently aching from carrying the franchise for half-a-decade). Wright, the Captain, would remind us why he’s our first top-shelf Met For Life, dramatically taking Joakim Soria deep and topping off a comeback that had been struggled toward for hours on end.
Except Soria struck out Murphy and that ended the game, another Mets loss, 5-3. We dreamed big but we accepted small. We accepted the unfortunate result. We accepted that the best we could have realistically hoped for was two runs scratched out in twenty minutes torpor, and even that was pushing the realm of reality. We accepted that a team that wallows double-digits beneath the halfway-decent mark doesn’t conjure rallies on a wish, for if it was that easy for them to compile an adequate amount of runs, why would they always be behind the way they are?
We accepted that they’re the Mets. And once we accepted that, we who attended Citi Field Saturday night could enjoy what we had experienced.
There were fleeting pleasures to be had if you insisted on mining your enjoyment from the New York Mets and their Sisyphean climb against the Texas Rangers. Travis d’Arnaud walloped rather than wallowed. Juan Lagares unleashed a throw so on the money that you know his manager immediately fantasized about sitting him in deference to Pete Gray. Murph made a nice play from the seat of his pants. Wright, not defensively rusty at all despite more than a week spent on the seat of his pants, made another one.
None of it appreciably helped whittle a Texas lead that gushed up from the earth in the top of the first, but Met D kept it close enough so we could indulge in yet another tease party, the kind that allows us to weave scenarios in which walkoff home runs are struck by whichever Met we fancy. Granted, once these kinds of games go final, the only one still delusional enough to decide that something tangible was accomplished is Terry Collins, who tends to distribute gold stars to his team for staying “in it” and almost winning.
The Mets have been teasing us with close calls since March 31. If there was any value in losing by one or two as opposed to a dozen, you’d figure it would be embedded in all the practice they were getting at nearing victory. A team that is “in it” the way Terry regularly describes the Mets’ participation in non-wins might get the hang of the object of the game. But near victory is all they do.
Still, there are those fleeting pleasures. Or, in the case of Bartolo Colon set loose on the basepaths, plodding pleasures.
If there’s one thing that can galvanize a stadium, it is Bartolo Colon on offense. You don’t need Kevin James to goad you to “put down the Shake Shack” when Colon does something with the bat and then, lord help us, his feet. In the third inning, when the Mets were already trailing 5-0, Bartolo somehow found himself on first. Upon Granderson doubling, he efficiently transported himself to third without police escort. Things got dicey from there, however. Murphy singled to left. It wasn’t what you’d refer to as a clean single. Shin-Soo Choo dove and couldn’t come up with it, but once it fell in, you’d expect the lead runner to be poised to dash home. Lead runner Colon, though, stayed at third.
The large video screen in center caught Murphy, anchored on first behind both Granderson and Colon, in what appeared to be philosophical contemplation. “I have singled with a teammate in what is commonly known as scoring position,” Daniel had to be silently reasoning. “I believe I have earned a run batted in through this action. Yet my teammate remains precisely where he stood before I swung and I attained no RBI. Perhaps baseball is not my true calling.”
Wright didn’t bring Colon home, but Bobby Abreu did, presumably setting some sort of boroughwide record for oldest player driving in an even older player (though Julio Franco and Moises Alou were Queens teammates in their respective career twilights, so maybe not). The Mets cut it to 5-2 once Bartolo crossed the plate and the plate didn’t buckle, and they were ideally situated to do even more damage with the bases still loaded and only one out.
They damaged our psyches, mostly, as Lucas Duda struck out and Lagares grounded out, and there went our prime opportunity to catch up, but never mind all that. We witnessed the placing of a “1” under the “R” column next to “Colon P” in the box score and we were all intensely engaged in how such a notation came to be. Every step of Colon’s journey from home to home — including his conversion of third base into an Extended Stay America suite — was heartily commented upon in the right field stands and, I would guess, anywhere else Mets fans observed and assumed they could do better. From grumblings of “he’s useless!” when he couldn’t lay down a bunt; to astonishment that “ohmigod, he’s on base!” when Adrian Beltre threw poorly; to disbelieving confirmations that “he made it to third on the double!”; to sincere wonderings of “has that ever happened before?” when he couldn’t forge a path to the plate on Murphy’s hit; to a sense of shared reward when Abreu finally drove him home, you couldn’t stop watching Bartolo Colon.
The Mets losing is something you can see most days. Bartolo Colon scoring in a home uniform, let alone the the Eastern Time Zone, is something nobody had ever seen before Saturday night. Yet I got to see it.
So I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the warm night air. I enjoyed the absence of humidity. I enjoyed that Stephanie and I stumbled across Citi Field postcards in the team store (we both sort of collect such items). I enjoyed meeting up with two Washington, DC-area readers — Larry from Maryland and James from Virginia — each making maiden voyages to this particular ballpark on a postcard-perfect evening. I enjoyed the New York baseball debut of Justin Shea Arnold, a fine exemplar of the Youth of America and a young man whose middle name is no accident of birth. I enjoyed the giveaway floppy hat, if not quite as much as Branden and Alexa implied I would. I enjoyed, after being rained out of a previous appointment, at last greeting the Rangers, favorite American League team of my preadolescence. I enjoyed Sharon and Kevin Chapman sitting to my left. I enjoyed Mark Simon briefly occupying an unclaimed seat behind me. I enjoyed the pregame Blue Smoke brisket. And I always enjoy going to a game with my wife.
After the loss was filed away, I decided that if the Mets had to lose — and apparently they had to — I enjoyed that their loss was registered in such a low-stakes affair. This kind of defeat in the context of a heated Wild Card lunge would have gnawed on my last nerve. Sadly, the Mets aren’t lunging for anything these days except the disabled list so they can add Jon Niese’s name to it, so what the hell? Their current winning percentage is .437, meaning that if you’re the type of person who sees the glass as 43.7% full rather than 56.3% empty, having a generally wonderful time at a basically terrible ballgame offers a 99.9% probability of satisfaction.
I’m a Mets fan. I dream big. I accept small. For now I do, anyway.
Declare a national holiday! The Mets won a ballgame! Or maybe it took the declaration of a national holiday dedicated to the proposition that all teams are created equally flawed these days for the Mets to prevail for a change rather than succumb per usual. However it happened, we hold this truth to be self-evident: the Mets played and didn’t lose on Friday night.
By returning home and topping Texas, 6-5, the Mets climbed to within 10 games of .500. Factor in overall run differential and you’ll get the exact same result.
The last time they had won a game was the previous Saturday in Pittsburgh. That, if your memory stretches back far enough, occurred when they dressed as the Brooklyn Royal Giants. This, then, marked the first time Mets, as the Mets, emerged victorious since two Tuesdays ago — though with those dopey Fourth of July caps they were wearing, can we be really sure those were the Mets?
• Their star player, who has appeared neither in a box score nor on a Disabled List in more than a week, remained in limbo.
• Their pseudoace got knocked out in the first inning by a line drive to the back that didn’t necessarily appear to detract from his ability to pitch, safety carrying the day over potential sorrow.
• They took a lead on a home run that was initially called a double.
• They gave back the lead on a grounder that ate up the third baseman who’s been subbing for the aforementioned purgatoried star player.
• They regained the lead with the help of that very same subbing third baseman who can’t field much but sure can hit.
• They almost blew the game on a pop fly that traveled ominously through unseasonable wind currents.
• They took more than four hours to win the damn thing in eight-and-a-half innings.
Yup, those were the Mets.
David Wright went nowhere near the field despite repeated advisements to the contrary; Jon Niese went down to the clubhouse for Prevention & Recovery in decidely ill humor; Carlos Torres went reasonably long in his stead; Lucas Duda went deep upon something short of further review; Eric Campbell went 3-for-3 at the plate despite proceeding not quite so perfectly with his glove; Travis d’Arnaud went to the opposite field with authority when it mattered in the bottom of the eighth to drive in two; and, to keep Fireworks Night from exploding in their faces, Daniel Murphy went to Ruben Tejada’s position to snag the final ball of the game, the one that appeared ready to Castillo all over them. He used two hands, the Mets beat the Rangers by one run and the blind squirrels of Flushing came up with an acorn.
The Mets won. It’s been known to happen. Just not that often is all.
If you’ve had your fill of Mets angst and drama (and who hasn’t) you might have missed Sandy Alderson’s contention yesterday that the Mets should be better than their putrid record because their run differential (currently at -6) suggests they ought to be nearly a .500 team rather than one staring way, way up at that mediocre number.
Hold that thought.
That was on my mind last night as Greg and I rolled into the MLB Fan Cave, where we’d been kindly invited to check out some art and baseball. As we arrived God was attempting to drown New York (eh, He probably had his reasons) and the monsoon was playing havoc with the DirecTV feeds, so the two of us dripped and squished our way over to a bank of little monitors and found the Mets in the bottom of the first, the Braves with the bases loaded and nobody out, and Jacob deGrom‘s vast multitude of hairs standing on end. We exchanged a wary/weary glance and settled in to cheer the mini-deGrom on.
The Braves were working hard against deGrom, fouling off pitch after pitch and being uncharacteristically selective. I thought to myself unhappily that it had to be 95 degrees in Atlanta. (Close enough; it was 91.)
DeGrom fanned Justin Upton. He coaxed a fly ball to right from Jason Heyward which we thought was deeper than it was; B. J. Upton broke from third and then headed back. Greg and I exchanged shrugs. Perhaps we’d arrived at the perfect time to give the karmic wheel a much-needed spin back to Metsian justice.
With two outs now, deGrom dUg in against Chris Johnson. On his seventh pitch, Johnson hit a shoulder-high liner that intersected with Eric Campbell at third. It was a hot shot, the kind of play you can’t expect your third baseman to make but hope he does. Campbell didn’t; the ball bounded into the left-field corner and three runs scored.
That was all that mattered; despite our attempts to convince each other otherwise, the Mets were beaten. Your bloggers played a bit of skee ball and table tennis, talked baseball with old pals, met very personable and so far not suicidal Mets fan/Fan Caver Daniel Frankel (whom you can follow here), and had about a good a time as can be had when your hapless baseball team is getting swept in Atlanta. When the Fan Cave festivities ended we headed a few blocks west to watch the inevitable end, and wound up playing a very Metsian parlor game: Who is the least-consequential Met in team history? I think it’s Jim Mann; other early picks worthy of consideration are Jack Egbert, Joe Depastino, Brian Buchanan and Fred Lewis.
(If you wanna play, some ground rules: The least-consequential Met has to be the kind of guy you’d forget, not the kind of guy you’d like to forget. He cannot come with a memorable moment, a significant body of work elsewhere, an interesting statistical oddity, a famous/infamous distinction, or any kind of mythic resonance — however pathetic and sad — to his career. This eliminates the admittedly less-than-immortal likes of Esix Snead, Chris Jelic, Dave Liddell, Garrett Olson, Eric Cammack and Joe Hietpas, to name but a few.)
But back to Alderson and run differential. Sandy’s assertion was branded as stubborn, delusional, desperate, pathetic, etc. and all the things you’d expect from a fanbase pushed by frustration to a collective nervous breakdown. I just shrugged. Because Sandy’s correct — run differential generally does track a team’s record pretty well. If the Mets retain the current roster, they may indeed close in on .500 — not because they’re tested/tougher/more resilient/blah blah blah, but because the math on these things tends to be self-correcting. When that happens, I’ll cheer. (And probably praise the Mets for being tested/tougher/more resilient/blah blah blah, even though I should know better.) For now, though, the Mets’ ExWL of 42-43 isn’t exactly making me work on a Ya Gotta Believe banner.
Which brings us full circle to Campbell and that first inning. He was in the right spot. He almost corraled Johnson’s liner to end the inning. DeGrom would have strode off the mound having escaped. The Mets’ fourth-inning run (which Greg and I both missed) might have held up for a 1-0 victory. But Campbell didn’t do that. The ball went down the line, the Mets lost, and this flat frustration of a season creeps along.
I’m not even mad anymore. What’s the use?
A couple of quick factoids:
- The Mets are horrible in one-run games — a hard-to-accomplish 10-20. (Only the Royals are comparably bad at 9-16, which is pretty much the difference between them and the Tigers.) Some of that – quite possibly a lot of that – is probably buzzards’ luck. But it counts, and it’s hard as hell to watch.
- Greg tweeted that tonight was the Mets’ 100th loss at Turner Field if you count the playoffs. From the scar tissue on my heart, I can assure you the playoffs count. I think the people of Atlanta are getting a Loria-level civic screwing here, but it ain’t my tax dollars going down the rathole or my suburban traffic disaster being created, so I’ll just cheer that the Mets are down to 2 1/2 more years of pain in this house of horrors.
And with that … well, what do you say? The Mets generally pitch somewhere between OK and pretty well, but they can’t hit. They need to get more bats somewhere. They aren’t going to get them for two years or so from the farm system. They could get them by trading off some of their surplus of starting pitching. I know this. You know this. The Mets know this. Are they going to do something about it? Do they have some other plan?
Would trading for bats work? It might and it might not. Is what the Mets are doing now working? By this point the answer to that seems rather clear.
“Let’s see, this team lost 99 games last year, 96 the year before and 98 the year before that, right? This is a much greater challenge than the one I faced in Baltimore in 1965.”
—Frank Cashen, introduced as New York Mets general manager, 2/21/1980
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It was built in just under seven years, between February 21, 1980, and October 27, 1986. Its civic planner, architect, contractor, foreman and chief stonecutter was Frank Cashen.
Cashen, who died Monday at 88, created the greatest empire our people have ever known. What a joy it was to revel in its glories, to thrive under its protection, to believe it would endure for all eternity.
It has, in its way. It’s 2014, yet we who were there live to tell the tale of 1986 — our collective memory’s seat of government and Frank Cashen’s most astounding structure. True, we are moved to talk about 1986 so often because we haven’t lived through anything very much like it since, but had there been a dozen 1986s constructed in its wake, there is little chance we would ever forget the one that would forever tower over everything else that followed.
Cashen famously modeled a bow tie as he general managed the Mets from outcasts to emperors. It was a sartorial habit he picked up from his days as a newspaperman (neck ties just got in the way of layout). Yet given the stature he attained in his 12 years as GM, he probably should’ve been outfitted in a purple toga and laurel wreath. Well, maybe not, because he likely wouldn’t have cared for the Animal House overtones. It wasn’t what the man wore, anyway. It was what the man did.
He did us solid after solid after solid. You can’t build something that stands so strong in the consciousness without employing the most solid of material. Frank went out and got us the best. He drafted. He traded. He cultivated. He built. That’s what it came down to. He started with almost nothing — a handful of minor leaguers and a dollop of goodwill — and he got to work ASAP. You couldn’t necessarily see the finished product forming unless you peered far into the horizon, but here came the pieces…
Strawberry. Sisk. Mitchell. Dykstra. Darling. Gooden. McDowell. Heep. Hearn. Aguilera. Hernandez. Fernandez. Santana. Added to holdovers Backman, Wilson and Orosco, the Mets entered 1984 on the heels of seven consecutive losing seasons — four of them on Cashen’s watch — but with more than half of the 1986 World Series roster secure in the system. Some were up, some were coming.
As the first kiss of success brushed the Mets fan cheek in the first blush of summer 1984, the procession continued. Elster drafted and signed. Knight acquired for the franchise’s first legitimate stretch run in more than a decade. Within 10 weeks of a 90th win not being aspired to but actually achieved, Johnson from Detroit. Three days after that, Carter from Montreal. Then Niemann. Then 1985 and 98 wins that proved 1984 no fluke and presaged 1986 as no year anybody who loved the Mets could have imagined prior to Cashen.
A little more building remained to be done. Ojeda in December. Teufel in January. Top off with Mazzilli in August.
Celebrate your 108-54 champions in October.
One man, one mind, one skilled dialing finger, one keen judge of talent, one executive unafraid of a little creative tension with his field manager, one old-school soul who gritted his teeth through what he must have considered the coarser developments of contemporary baseball. Frank Cashen did his building without resorting to the tools of big-money free agency. He delved into the financial resources available to him, yet never made much of a show of parting with dollars. His era and that in which he had to do business barely overlapped after a fashion. He remained resolutely tweedy in an age when Members Only jackets were considered high style.
Frank was the right person at the right time — and probably not five minutes longer.
Post-1986, the empire Cashen built couldn’t have appeared sounder, but its foundation didn’t sustain. Maybe nobody’s could have in those days. The playoff format wasn’t the pliable version we know today. Dispatch the wrong character, depend on the wrong personality, cede control to lesser lieutenants, run into some lousy luck, suddenly you’re not tending the empire you thought you were. You deal gingerly with decline, you watch from the sidelines when fall inevitably occurs. Down the road, they’re lamenting your failure to forge something more tangibly dynastic.
You won it all once; when you slipped to winning but not winning enough, there wasn’t much opportunity to appreciate what winning once the way you won meant. Amidst decline and fall, who’s got time for perspective?
That’s what eternity is for. And the Mets fan who was blessed to have lived deep in the heart of the empire Frank Cashen built will always be eternally grateful for the privilege of permanent citizenship there.
What a kick in the ol’ Brian Bohanons that was Monday night in Atlanta. Three pitches in, the Mets lead on a Curtis Granderson home run. Three innings in, the Mets are ahead, 3-0. Zack Wheeler isn’t sharp but he isn’t exactly shaky, either, at least once he gets going. The Mets, per usual, stop hitting, but Zack expertly nurses a 3-1 lead into the seventh. He is succeeded eventually by Josh Edgin, who exterminates a creeping first-and-second terror when he flies out Shea Freeman, a.k.a. Son of Chipper.
What could possibly go wrong from there?
Turner Field is what could go wrong. Can you believe the Braves wish to depart this House of Horrors? Did a Mets fan infiltrate their board of directors? Is torturing us such old hat that they decided it wasn’t worth the upkeep on the oversized video screen and cola bottle?
After everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong and the Mets aided and abetted Atlanta in turning that 3-1 edge into a three-error, four-run home eighth en route to a sadly predictable 5-3 loss, the Mets’ all-time record at Turner Field fell to 52-96. That’s regular-season only. If we throw in the delightful road results from the 1999 NLCS, it’s 52-99, which means that after 18 seasons of visiting the pit presumably on or near Peachtree (everything down there is on or near Peachtree), the Mets sit on the cusp of losing 100 games in that one particular ballpark.
You know where Monday’s loss — the one in which Jeurys Familia fired a double-play grounder straight into the dirt in front of second base, Juan Lagares overran a single and a chopper (of all Tomahawk-tinged things) ate up Eric Campbell — ranks among the 99 to date in terms of pain delivery system?
Probably not even in the Top 20…or Bottom 20, depending on how you score these matters. Maybe if this were September 1997, when the hell was fresh; or July 1998, when it was codified; or the stretch drives of 1999 to 2001, when it carried genuine competitive consequences; or some more recent campaign more blatantly stripped of hope and dignity, it would have truly stung. Maybe if this were last June, even, when Freddie Freeman was rebranding himself as Larry Jones for a new century.
But this? The Mets taking the wrong message from the World Cup and showing us what experts they’ve become at flopping? They’ll have to do better than give away a highly winnable game if they want to simultaneously impress and depress us. We’ve lived through nearly a hundred of these Turner Field debacles.
What’s one more?
The National League East is a mess. In every other division, run differential is a pretty fair predictor of W-L record. In the NL East, the run differentials by place in the standings currently look like this: 0, +39, -5, -1, -40. The 0 squad is the Braves, in first place by the thinnest of margins over the Nats, who run differential would predict would have a substantial lead. The Marlins are at -5, about the same as the -1 Mets, but neither team is as far ahead of the crummy Phillies as you’d expect.
Statistics, obviously, aren’t destiny: The Mets aren’t 41-41 but 37-45, just as the Nats aren’t 11 games over .500.
But it’s asking a lot to imagine destinies that fly in the face of the stats.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way to the 2014 Mets. They lost today because a) Bartolo Colon had one of his off-days when his location wasn’t great and his fastball command wasn’t sharp, making him very hittable; and b) because they went limp when looking at a runner on third and less than two out. Daniel Murphy, Juan Lagares, and Ruben Tejada all failed in that spot today; convert those runs, and perhaps the team’s ninth-inning rally results in extra innings instead of lipstick smeared on a pig. (Believe it or not, the Mets are in the middle of the baseball pack when it comes to converting such situations — it only seems like they’re 0 for the last 74,000.)
For all their problems, though, the Mets’ mess of a division makes it difficult to abandon hope of a ’73-style run from worst (or near enough) to first.
But we should. Because trying to thread that needle is a distraction from the real business at hand.
The Mets have solid starting pitching — a surplus of it, in fact. Their bullpen has gone from a horror show to a strength, with Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Josh Edgin and Vic Black all looking solid. (And Bobby Parnell presumably returning next year.) But the offense remains painfully thin: Left field, shortstop, first base and catcher are all question marks if you’re feeling kind and holes if you’re not.
Above all else, the Mets need more potent bats. Help is potentially coming with Kevin Plawecki and Brandon Nimmo and Dilson Herrera, but it’s coming next year at the earliest, and even if those players pan out it will take patience to develop them — witness Lucas Duda and Wilmer Flores and Travis d’Arnaud.
To me, it’s clear that the Mets should deal some of their surplus of starters: Next spring, the Mets can expect to have Matt Harvey, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler, Colon, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero as starting candidates along with Familia and Mejia. I think the last two have shown they should stay in the bullpen, but that’s still eight guys for five spots. You don’t want to deal away all your depth — there will be guys who need more time and injuries — but the Mets can still make a deal.
What kind of deal? That’s up for debate, and potential partners would have something to say about it too of course. But I’d listen if the Mets were asked about Colon, Niese, Montero or Daisuke Matsuzaka — and absent a charge into first place, I wouldn’t look at the standings before having that conversation.
The same goes for Daniel Murphy. I love Murph, invisible ninja fantasies and all. If the Mets signed him to a long-range deal that would be great. But if they think they can get more value by moving him, they should do that. (Sandy Alderson’s free-agent picks have been hit and miss, but his record as a summer trader has been pretty good.) And again, if someone has an offer for Murph, the Mets should consider it without wondering why the Nats keep sputtering or whether luck will naturally bring them up four or five games in the standings.
The starters are here. The relievers have emerged. But the bats are still missing. The Mets’ top priority should be finding them, not daydreaming about what might be if everything breaks right. Because it probably won’t. Fantasies are fun; building good realities is better.