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The Magic is Elusive

And we never failed to fail
It was the easiest thing to do
—Crosby Still & Nash

No doubt there are San Francisco Giants fans this morning (many of whom squealed with irritating delight at Citi Field) who took Tuesday’s night’s extra-inning win over the unformidable New York Mets as a sign of some sort. Their team was experiencing The Hangover, not winning much, hardly scoring at all, falling dangerously off the pace in their division. After 28 games, the 2011 Giants simply weren’t the 2010 Giants, at least not the Giants who finished 2010 as champions of the baseball world (Japan not included).

The Hangover, whatever its merits as a cinematic franchise, brings its own special burdens to fans of a defending titleholder. The first thing you learn is you’re not really defending anything. The game that ends a World Series [1] ends everything about your championship season. Your next official game is about five months later and at that point, you’re tied for first, last and everything.

The Giants of 2011 may be in store for a better, more fortunate fate, but I recognize a certain underlying similarity between their present tires-in-the-mud status and that which afflicted the 1987 Mets through roughly a sixth of their Season After. You watch your team that you remember being so indefatigable, so clutch, so obviously bound for glory, and you just wait for that reality to reset. Thus, when you pull a win out of a mess [2] as the Giants did against the failure-prone Mets, you might be moved to decide your magic is back.

But it doesn’t arrive so easily. It certainly doesn’t stick like glue. That was last year’s magic, and it’s rarely transferable. Sometimes you just win a game because the other team insisted on losing it, the way the Mets did Tuesday night. Yet you look for signs of what you still perceive as normality. We won! Aubrey Huff homered in the tenth and the Beard came on and got the save! Just like last year!

Nothing’s ever like last year. 1987 wasn’t like 1986, no matter how much I wanted it to be. My first Mets game that season was right around this juncture of the schedule and it happened to be a Mets-Giants game of surpassing importance where my personal life was concerned [3] even if it told me little about my baseball team (although the two are usually interchangeable). That game, on May 15, 1987, was my first date [4] with the woman who would eventually marry me. “Neat — my first baseball game!” was Stephanie’s reaction to the Shea tableau, and I didn’t have to hear much more.

As for the Mets that 1987 night, they sure looked like 1986. It was as lovely as my new girlfriend: El Sid holding San Fran hitless for five innings; Strawberry, Dykstra and HoJo homering; the Mets winning easily, 8-3. They’d looked mostly dismal up until that Friday night, losing nine of eleven dating back to May 2 (the day Tim Raines returned to the Expos from Collusion and treated Jesse Orosco like he was Manny Acosta). It was “still early” and all that, but the Mets of 1987 were clearly off their game. It didn’t make sense to me or to any Mets fan who had grown accustomed to a perfect blend of invincibility and destiny. Now the Mets were just another team…just another lousy team. But then they got this big win against the Giants, they looked like their “old” selves, and maybe this was going to be the turning point.

Even if you weren’t around in 1987, you’ve probably noticed it’s not represented on the upper left field wall at Citi Field. The Mets emerged from their mid-May morass eventually, but never again (and I mean never again) reached the heights of 1986. The Giants, for all I know, will pivot from raking R.A. Dickey, befuddling Josh Thole and tattering Taylor Buchholz and make a serious move on the Colorado Rockies, return to the postseason and not stop believin’ [5] clear to the only result that can possibly satisfy their incredibly annoying fans after 2010. My well-documented fondness [6] for the legacy of the New York Giants notwithstanding, I don’t really care what San Francisco does when they’re not playing us (or reportedly investigating trades with us [7]). But I definitely recognize what’s going on with them.

And that they can’t play the Mets every night.


On the subject of magic that resists transfer, there was only one “First Baseball Game in the City of New York After,” and it was the one that took place following the horrifying events of September 11, 2001. Yet I got the distinct impression that Mets management thought hosting the first baseball game in the city of New York after May 1, 2011, would be automatically as momentous and memorable — that it would be an Upper Case affair waiting to happen.

It didn’t work out that way, and not just because the Mets lost to the Giants instead of beating the Braves.

The Mets organization showed genuine appreciation to members of the U.S. Military Tuesday night, they wore this year’s (dubious [8]) model of the MLB-sanctioned red, white and blue caps ahead of schedule, and they even put on sale a sackful of special patriotic pins — Mets logo with American flag; Mets logo with Statue of Liberty — in one of the team stores I visited. But despite the flourishes, it was just another Tuesday night at Citi Field. We weren’t coming together. We weren’t making our stand against fear. We weren’t doing anything more special than watching the Mets play the Giants. That’s special enough.

As much as it feels sometimes like ten years haven’t added up to a decade’s remove [9] in these parts, we are by no means embedded in the same precise municipal mental space as we were on September 21, 2001 — and praise be for that, of course. Nobody wants to wonder if it’s safe to go to a baseball game or if it’s appropriate to go to a baseball game. In 2011, we go to a baseball game or just about anywhere we want. It’s different than it used to be, pre-9/11, but it’s not the same as it was that one singular moment in time.

I was at Shea on September 21, 2001. Even though I honestly didn’t have the same reaction many did to Mike Piazza’s home run (how does a home run “heal a city” so emotionally overwhelmed, never mind physically altered?), I completely appreciated why it meant so much to so many. It meant plenty to me to be in that stadium that night. Opening the ballpark and playing the game…I thought that was the big victory.

What happened at Citizens Bank Park Sunday night in response to word organically spreading that Global Public Enemy No. 1 had been eliminated was beautiful. It made for a serendipitous bookend that the New York Mets were playing on ESPN ten years after the New York Mets kick-started baseball — and maybe our hearts — after the tragedy our military was finally able to avenge this past weekend. But that was Sunday, and it was spontaneous. This was Tuesday, and it seemed of questionable value to try to recreate those emotions, let alone play off whatever lingers from ten years before. Giving active military personnel free tickets [10]? Fantastic. First ball honors [11] for a representative of each branch? Classy. Adding an extra round of “God Bless America” on a weeknight? Fine, I guess.

Suggesting, however subtly (particularly via CitiVision), that the Mets are implicitly linked to a great national victory just because they as opposed to, say, the Texas Rangers happened to be playing baseball in prime time on this particular Sunday night? I don’t know.

But I did learn it’s impossible to instantly conjure an unforgettable evening just because it seemed like a neat thing to try.