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All Too Real

In one of the legendary exchanges of 1969, Leo Durocher dismissed the challengers nipping at the heels of his frontrunning club after his team salvaged the final game of what must have been, from the standpoint of the visitors’ clubhouse at Shea Stadium, a very demoralizing series.

“Were those the real Cubs today?” a reporter asked following Chicago’s 6-2 win on July 10.

“No,” Durocher answered with his usual grace. “Those were the real Mets.”

Of course Leo Durocher was completely off the mark. If anything, after blowing a ninth-inning two-run lead two days earlier and succumbing to Tom Seaver’s almost perfect one-hitter the night before, the Lip should have known he was facing the surreal Mets. In that dream of a season, New York losing and slipping 4½ behind Chicago ultimately proved a temporary condition. The real Mets were the Mets of the Don Young Game [1] and the Jimmy Qualls Game [2], not the Durocher postgame snipe.

Fast-forward forty years and we probably didn’t see the real Mets at Wrigley Field Sunday, though you could take that two ways. The real Mets as we thought they’d be in 2009 are long dissolved (UFO-type sightings [3] of their MIA troops notwithstanding). No, the lineups Jerry Manuel conjures to get us through another day, another series, another month and the rest of this season are not the real Mets. But then you get a decent win and a standout performance [4] and you can’t help but wonder if there’s something worth filing way for future reference.

Nelson Figueroa struck out more batters in a major league game than he ever has before. Admittedly the 35-year-old kid from Brooklyn doesn’t have that many efforts to which to compare this outing, but ten Cubs K’d are still ten Cubs K’d. Wouldn’t it be rich (to say nothing of queer) if Nelson Figueroa has gained his timing this late in his career? This late in this sadly clownish [5] Mets season? Can we take what Figueroa and Misch and Redding have done in the past few games and allow ourselves to think, “Well, maybe next year…”?

No, probably not. No offense to the Unwanted Trio, all of whom should keep pitching as well as they can for as long as they can because the rest of us truly never know, but nothing about a team out of contention beating teams who aren’t much more than on the cusp of contention can be taken as real — particularly the journeymen who take the ball at this stage of the year and choose now not to implode. The Mets pounded eleven hits off the formerly formidable Carlos Zambrano in fewer than four innings. Was that real? Is Zambrano now genuinely that hittable? Or is he just trying to get it together for 2010? And is Pagan’s 3-for-5, on the heels of some other fine performances since he became a contingency everyday Met, a real indicator of what he can do or just another mirage one witnesses in the company of teams that are long done?

These have been the real Mets for a while now because there are no other Mets available to fill the field. Even these real Mets are occasionally capable of beating somebody — the real Cubs, for example.

Meanwhile, in news of no real import but I can’t help myself from noticing: Paul Byrd made his 2009 big league debut [6] Sunday, shutting out the Blue Jays for six innings. There’s no reason to take Byrd, 38, any more seriously in the long term than Figueroa, but he’s worth mentioning here because with Jason Isringhausen on the Rays’ 60-day DL since mid-June (with a torn elbow ligament that will keep him out ’til next summer or, possibly, for good), Byrd of the Red Sox becomes the LAMSA: Longest Ago Met Still Active.

Paul made his Met debut on July 28, 1995, eleven days after Izzy. With both of them in limbo much of this summer — Byrd had let it be known his comeback plans wouldn’t kick in ’til the second half, which is when Boston signed him to a minor league deal — there had only been two Mets from the 1990s still playing for the last two months: the Orioles’ Melvin Mora and the White Sox’ Octavio Dotel. Mora (May 30) and Dotel (June 26) made their debuts in direct succession in 1999 the way Isringhausen and Byrd did in ’95. A third ’99er, Glendon Rusch (the last man to become a Met in the ’90s, bowing in blue and orange on September 17, 1999), was waived by the Rockies in May after eleven appearances.

There are a few formerly Amazin’s from back in the day still hanging on [7] to major league hopes by a minor league thread, but otherwise there have been only five Mets from the decade before this one still playing ball at the highest level on the eve of the decade that approaches after this one.

Ten years is a legitimately long time for players to come, go and be gone, so maybe it’s no more than the kind of minutiae that continues to fascinate me (and a few others like me [8]) out of all proportion to their actual significance — but, honestly, that figure borders on real depressing. Then again, maybe that stems from this being the kind of season in which a Mets pitcher strikes out ten Cubs, the Mets win and I can’t find much encouraging from it.

Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets is available from Amazon [9], Barnes & Noble [10] or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook [11].