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Groove Is In The Heart

The Mets spoiled their own chances of contending sometime during the spring. Now, on the cusp of fall, they have finally put a meaningful crimp [1] in somebody else’s plans.

I have no more against the Phillies these days than I do the Braves or the Nationals or the Marlins. Ample froth at the mouth is reserved for all division rivals at all times, but we’re a little short of honest blood feuds at the moment. Of course if it were up to me, none of our co-tenants would win a damn thing, let alone a damn game. If it were further up to me, I’d call for a brokered convention, the kind the political junkie in me has yearned for every four summers in another realm.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (FAF) — In a stunning move, delegates to the National League East have nominated the New York Mets as their nominee for the fall campaign after none of the presumed contenders for the division title could gather requisite support on the first 162 ballots. The Mets emerged as a compromise candidate once it was concluded nobody among the Braves, Phillies or Nationals offered any sort of compelling appeal to the undecided baseball fan. The Met boomlet gathered momentum based on market size, experience (they are the most recent NL East team to go to a World Series, the only NL East team to do so in this decade) and what one observer called “inherent lovability”. Party bosses also couldn’t ignore the Mets’ improved play in the second half. “The Mets have a real chance to bring us victory in October,” opined one observer. “Besides, having deGrom on the ticket has got to be worth 1.68 earned runs on the electoral map.”

Alas, I don’t think it works that way, thus on Sunday we had to settle for making the most of our also-ran status, and the only way a team ensconced in fourth place can do that is to confer also-ran status on a team in a higher place. That’s what the Mets did to the Phillies, at least for now. Anybody who lived through the Year of Our Collapse Two Thousand Seven (a.k.a. the Year of the Stewed Goat [2]) knows it ain’t over, et al, but the Mets injecting some distance into the margin between the second-place Phillies and the first-place Braves is the most satisfying task the fourth-place Mets could have accomplished over the weekend.

There was satisfaction when we were done, to be sure, especially in light of how we did it. We did it deGromless, which wasn’t the idea, but weather inevitably thinks on its own. The Mets looked at the Queens skies and the afternoon forecast, and decided leaving the Jake out in the rain — all that Cy Young icing flowing down — was a bad idea. And it was. Natch, after a twenty-minute delay, it didn’t rain hard enough to stop the game once. Or it did but they didn’t bother. Nobody worries much about leaving Corey Oswalt [3] out in the rain.

So the Mets did. Corey and Drew Gagnon [4], then a few more relievers. It worked beautifully. Oswalt gave up an early home run to Rhys Hoskins (apropos when you realize “Rhys Hoskins” is the Dutch translation of “Rosh Hashanah”), but for a guy who had essentially five minutes’ notice, three innings of two-run ball is admirable. Gagnon, last seen coming and going from Citi Field in July, stood his ground a little firmer this time, shutting out the Phillies in the fourth and fifth. Meanwhile, the young Mets surged as they sometimes have in the second half of this season. In the fifth, a succession of potentially youthful future saviors — Dom Smith, Amed Rosario, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto — batted and produced four runs. Throw in Brandon Nimmo and you can rightly conjure visions of satisfaction of what’s to come.

Conforto had the biggest of hits, a three-run homer that required the usual M&M’s Sweet Seats facade review. McNeil had the most, three, which seems like standard output from the eldest neophyte. Jeff is 26, which is young in real life, borderline ancient for a major league rookie. Where has he been all our lives? More importantly, where will he be for the rest of it? Jeff McNeil [5] has ascended into Mike Vail [6] territory in the minds of the fifty-and-over set among us. You invoke “Mike Vail” usually and it’s with a bit of a sigh for a blazing hot bat from August and September 1975 that failed to light up the rest of that decade. The nutshell is Vail, 23, came up unheralded from Tidewater and took over New York for a spell. He hit in 23 straight games which tied both the team and NL rookie record. À la “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the next thing you know, young Mike’s the starting right fielder for 1976, with Rusty Staub traded to Detroit to clear space for him (also, M. Donald Grant was a venal crumb).

Where’s Mike Vail’s plaque in the Mets Hall of Fame? You could ask the same of many worthy candidates, actually, but Vail’s case never made it past his first big league winter, when a game of basketball led to a broken foot, which led to a longer delay to starting his next season than the Mets faced on Sunday. Mike never again got untracked as a Met and wouldn’t be one anymore by 1978. Though he put together a respectable bench career that extended well into the 1980s, Mike Vail’s role as Met star had had it already by the summer of ’75. No later than its autumn, anyway.

Ah, but at this moment in time in that year, there was no greater praise to heap upon a player than to refer to him as the next Mike Vail. So let’s go with that definition when we begin to think of Jeff McNeil, currently batting .340, in those terms. He is enshrouded in the Vail of Hope for now and we can always hope that what we’ve been seeing in late summer and early fall is a sign of Jeff to come, not what Mike encountered ages ago.

In the end Sunday, the Mets held on to beat the Phillies, 6-4, Drew Smith and Seth Lugo doing most of the rest of the satisfying stifling of visitor hopes. My cheering on a Mets win is chronic, my seeking any sign of forward progress a symptom. On September 9, the Mets rose to twelve games under .500, a plateau they haven’t settled upon since June 23. I’ll have to look up what kind of trophy they give you for that. My having it in for the Phillies was a temporary condition. I’ll happily have it in for the Braves when they visit during the season’s final week, particularly if they have not yet clinched the division. I’m guessing they will have (though I would have guessed the same of us at this juncture of 2007). I watched them beat the Diamondbacks after I watched the Mets beat the Phillies. Atlanta looks a lot stronger, especially with Lucas Duda coming off the bench. The Phillies remind me of us from those years where were the fates just kept us hanging on until September unconditionally released us from any semblance of a pennant race. A year like 1975, when we peaked as the final month began [7]. A year like 1989, when we used up our limited cache of mojo by late August. A year like 2005, when a reality check crashed our Wild Card dreams into the boards. Maybe a year like 1984, when summer’s rise was oh so sweet, but it was the fall that killed us.

The Mets have been in the Phillies’ position before: attempting to fend off the unfendable, feasibility fading by the day. And the Phillies have been in the Mets’ position before, trying to make the most of a miserable season by acting as a carrier, pulling a rival with a better record down to its dyspeptic level. We’ve been the satisfyingly feisty fourth-place spoiler. We’ve been the frustratingly desperate second-place dreamer.

All things considered, I’d rather be in 1986 [8].