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The Unfamiliar Confines

How strange is it that it’s been 13 months since the Mets visited Wrigley? We say this every year, but it’s strange. Fuck interleague. More games against real rivals, harumph, harumph.

That’s from the email exchange Greg and I had discussing who was recapping what in the Cubs series — a conversation I kept thinking about while watching Wrigley Field turn from Unfriendly Confines on the first two nights to Delightful Ones today.

I grew up loving hating the Cubs. As a child, I relived the glory I’d missed by reading and re-reading tales of black cats and heels being clicked and catchers leaping high in indignation and “Goodnight Leo” and fastballs to forearms. I drifted away from baseball a bit between the ’81 strike and my teenage years, but returned when the Mets did, with Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden and Keith Hernandez and Hubie Brooks as heralds of the resurrection. During the dizzy summer of ’84 Mets were pretty amazin’ too, with a Cubs team of their own to take down — except this time the Cubs refused to follow the script. The Mets finished second, but they were back — and I hated Gary Matthews and Keith Moreland and Rick Sutcliffe as avidly as I’d hated Ron Santo and Bill Hands and Leo Durocher retrospectively.

And Harry Caray. My God, how I hated Harry Caray — and still kind of do. Harry Caray has been dead for 14 years, and the mere memory of him sputtering in phlegmy triumph after a big moment for the Cubs is making me clench my jaw so hard that my teeth hurt.

It was the kind of sports hatred that eventually becomes weirdly like love, blotting out everything else and making normal emotions feel washed out. It’s the kind of sports hatred that eventually breeds an odd appreciation. In the Cubs’ case that appreciation wasn’t for opposing players, as sometimes happens with these things. It couldn’t be, because the Cubs were an ever-changing cast of characters, and a team that never seemed to have an organizational philosophy; rather, they’d flail around until they had a lucky season in which they’d lay waste to their division, like baseball locusts, before losing pathetically or tragically and almost instantly becoming bad again.

No, in the Cubs’ case what I came to appreciate was Wrigley Field.

No duh, you’re saying. But it’s not that I was converted by the ivy and the lack of a third deck and the neighborhood pressed around it and the flags showing the standings — I do like all those things, but if you’re sentient and like baseball, of course you like all those things. What I came to appreciate about Wrigley was the sheer variety of different yet inimitably Wrigleyesque games you could get. There were early-season games where the wind was blowing straight in and everybody dressed like they were preparing for Soldier Field, knowing that one frozen-fingered misplay was lurking out there somewhere and would mean defeat. There were late-summer games where the wind was howling out and the starters eyed the mound like they were being sent to Omaha Beach. There were five-hour games played in intermittently horrible weather that were destined to end with crazy bounces off brick, balls or gloves or players getting lost in the ivy, flukey grounders bounding into the bullpen or a long drive landing in the basket while some hapless outfielder looked up and got showered with beer. The Mets have had their share of pinch-me triumphs at Wrigley, as well as some of their most soul-killing losses — and while you can say that about most every park, something about Wrigley and its howling Cub fans and the emotions I brought to those games make them loom larger in the memory.

The sad thing is that now we see Wrigley so rarely. It can be years before you get all the variations on a Wrigley game, and since the Cubs were banished to the NL Central (which still seems like a made-up thing) the juice has gone out of the rivalry. When we play the Cubs at Citi Field they’re just another team, one whose roster and rotation I lose track of. It’s only when we play them at Wrigley that they still feel a little like the Cubs.

Given the Mets’ history, that’s a shame. Harumph, harumph indeed.

Which isn’t to say I can’t enjoy every single minute of an old-fashioned battering of the Cubs at Wrigley. Because that’s the Mets needed very badly and that’s what they delivered today — a 17-1 all-points smackdown [1] that could have gone for a week and I wouldn’t have been tired of it. After playing enragingly listless semi-baseball for two nights, the Mets shook off their lethargy and gave you good signs all around: Ike Davis chinned up above the .200 bar, Daniel Murphy hit not one but home runs, David Wright had a stellar day, Jon Niese paid attention, Ruben Tejada looked good afield, Lucas Duda ran the bases goofily but wasn’t punished for it, and so on. This was the Mets hitting two grand slams in one inning, the Mets dropping a 23-spot on Harry Caray, the Mets scoring 19 runs in ’64 and having an already-fully formed rooter ask if they’d won. And it was even more fun because while the Mets were lofting balls and watching Cub outfielders backpedal glumly as the summer jet stream took them away, Niese was getting Cubs to beat balls into the ground for Met infielders to send where they belonged. 17-8 is fun; 17-1 is a controlled substance.

My goodness was today fun. My goodness did the last two nights hurt. My goodness is it a shame that we’re done with both of them until 2013.