The Crypto-History of the Historic Collapse of the New York Mets

nypost_front100107.jpg“The greatest late September collapse in the history of major league baseball is now complete.” That’s what Mets’ announcer Gary Cohen said after Luis Castillo struck out to end the team’s 162nd game, an 8-1 loss in which the Mets trailed 7-0 after the first half inning. Minutes later the Phillies defeated the Washington Nationals to win the Eastern Division, a division the Mets had led for over four months but lost on the final day of the season. Never before had a team with a seven-game lead and only 17 games left to play failed to finish in first place.

All around the city, Mets fans were asking themselves, “How could this have happened?”

I’m afraid I know. And only I know.

In spring training, the Phillie’s shortstop, Jimmy Rollins proclaimed that the Phillies were the team to beat. Mets fans laughed, particularly when the Phillies stumbled out of the gate. Rollins, now a likely frontrunner for the NL MPV award, finished with a rare 20-20-20-20 season (20 stolen bases, 20 homers, 20 triples and 20 doubles). Some people may want to add another 20-20 for vision in predicting that the Phillies would be the team to beat in the East. But that was only true for two days. For almost all of the season, the Mets were the team to beat. The irony is that the team that finally beat them wasn’t the Phillies, but the Mets themselves.

How did it happen? I know, and I wish I didn’t.

How could the Mets let themselves get swept not once but twice by the Phillies in the final five weeks of the season? How could the Mets go 1-6 in the final week of the season at home, playing against the fourth- and fifth-place teams in their division and a St. Louis team that had to fly in to Shea for a one-game make-up series? How could the Mets lose a game that they had led 5-0 on the final Wednesday of the season, and what was a rookie doing starting that game anyway? How could 300-game winner Tom Glavine give up seven runs in a third of an inning of work in the final game of the year after John Maine had pitched a near no-hitter the day before to give the Mets control of their destiny once again?

If you want to know why, read on. If you’re a Mets fan, read it and weep.

What follows is the crypto-history of the New York Mets for the past 21 years. It begins on October 25, 1986.

Here’s the short version: it was all my fault.

The summer of ’86 was a heady time for Met fans. The team played with a swagger that made them heroes to New Yorkers and anathema to everyone else. The Mets’ manager, Davey Johnson, had proclaimed during spring training that the team’s goal was to “dominate” the National League East, and that’s exactly what they did, clinching the division title on September 18 and ultimately winning 108 regular-season games.

Then came the National League Championship series against the Houston Astros. The team stopped hitting, psyched out by Houston’s Mike Scott, who may or may not have been scuffing the ball. (I think he was, but the Mets surely overreacted!) The Mets won the series, but they and their fans had had the bejeesus scared out of them.

And then came the World Series. Lose the first two games at Shea; win the third and fourth at Fenway, but lose the fifth. Back to New York for Game Six, down three games to two.

Game Six: Tied after nine. Dave “Hendu” Henderson hits a two run-shot in the top of the 10th, and the Mets make two quick outs in the bottom half of the inning.

I was watching Game Six at my girlfriend’s apartment in Charles River Park in Boston. And now the Red Sox are one out away from their first championship since 1918. I am one out away from being the butt of countless jokes in the months to come and from something else that might even be worse — the emptiness of loss, of opportunities missed and irretrievably gone. It’s only a game, right? It’s only sports, right.?

Right. But the loss will be real. And I’m not talking about what the Mets will feel. I’m talking about what I will feel. Loss. Real, palpable loss.

The fact that my beloved Mets are actually going to lose sinks in. Before I realize what I’m doing, I bolt out to the terrace, where I can hear cheering coming out of windows throughout the Charles River Park complex.

Suddenly I’m on my knees, and I’m talking out loud, with my hands clasped in front of me. “Listen,” I say, looking up at the night sky, “if you’re up there. I’m not a religious person, but if you’re up there, and you let the Mets get out of this and let them win the World Series, I’ll become a believer. And I’ll do something in return — something hard for me to do. I’ll …” I cast my mind around, trying to come up with a suitable gesture.

“I’ll … give up smoking,” I hear myself say. “I’ll give up smoking.” And then I go back into the apartment to watch the final out. I’ve been out on the terrace for just under one minute.

“What happened?” I ask breathlessly. “Is it over?”

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It isn’t over. And you no doubt know the rest. Through an improbable series of circumstances that begin precisely when I come back inside and culminate in that ball squibbing between Bill Buckner’s legs, the Mets win the sixth game.

Sometime later, my girlfriend remembers to ask me what I was doing out on the balcony. I pick up the package of Camel Lights that has been sitting on her coffee table, crush it, throw it in the wastebasket, and tell her.

The Mets go on to win the seventh game, too, coming from behind. The covenant is sealed.

I thought back to my earliest memories of baseball, being allowed out of class in the second grade to watch the Mets play the Orioles in the 1969 World Series. I remembered my disappointment when the Mets, led by relief pitcher Tug McGraw and his cry of “Ya Gotta Believe!” unexpectedly made it to the World Series, only to be beaten by the powerful Oakland A’s. I knew that this 1986 team was much, much better than its predecessors. Already I found myself thinking dynasty. These Mets had enough young talent to keep winning for years.

I told my friends about my deal with God. It was a good story. And I quit smoking.

For a good long while, I quit smoking.

And then I started again. I no longer remember exactly when I had that first cigarette, but I do remember my friends teasing me about welshing on my deal with God.

And what has happened to the Mets in the twenty years since?

On April Fool’s Day 1987, the Mets’ players were shocked to learn that their teammate Dwight Gooden had tested positive for cocaine use and was placed on the disabled list. Two days earlier reliever Roger McDowell had undergone hernia surgery that would cause him to miss the first six weeks of the season. On April 21, opening day starter Bob Ojeda felt a twinge in his elbow; he would have season ending surgery on May 23. In mid-May, Sid Fernandez felt his knee buckle after pitching five no-hit innings; he missed only one start, but the knee would suspect afterwards and Fernandez would have shoulder problems later in this summer.

By the end of May, two other starters were added to the list of injured: Rick Aguilera, who sprained a ligament in his right elbow, and David Cone, a promising newcomer acquired during spring training, who broke his pinky finger while trying to lay down a bunt.

I took all of this as a sign that powers that be were not happy.

Despite their difficulties, the Mets were in contention for the division title until the second-to-last series of the year. They were due to end the season with three games against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, but the Cardinals rendered those games meaningless by clinching the division on October 2.

There would be no miracle finishes this year. The Mets won 92 games, 16 fewer than the previous year, three games out of first place.

In 1988, the Mets were stronger team: led by 20-game winner David Cone, they clinched the division title on September 23. But even then there were ominous signs: the previous day pitcher Bob Ojeda suffered a freak accident at home, nearly severing off the tip of the middle finger on his pitching hand with a hedge cutter.

Nonetheless, the NLCS was going their way until, on October 9 — my birthday — Mike Scioscia hit a two-run homer against Dwight Gooden in the top of the ninth to tie the game. The Dodgers would win in the twelfth inning.

But the Mets went on to win the sixth game convincingly behind David Cone, and naturally I expected them to win the seventh and deciding game equally handily. But as soon as the game began, it was clear that the Mets’ Ron Darling didn’t have it. The Dodgers scored a run in the first inning and then never looked back, scoring five more in the second off Darling and then Dwight Gooden with the help of sloppy play by the Mets’ infield. In the end, though, it was that first run that proved to be the difference, as Orel Hershisher pitched a complete-game shutout.

Need I go on? Starting in 1991, the Atlanta Braves would begin their amazing run of thirteen consecutive titles, while the Mets fielded brutal teams featuring supposed stars like Vince Coleman, Bobby Bonilla, and Bret Saberhagen — all of whom were busts in New York. The 1992 team was the subject of a book by the sportswriters Bob Klapisch and John Harper. The book’s title was The Worst Team Money Could Buy: The Collapse Of The New York Mets.

The Mets rose from the ashes with the acquisition of Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura and made it to the NLCS in 1999 by winning the wild card, only to lose in the sixth game to the Braves when Kenny Rogers walked the winning run in.

They won the wild card in 2000 as well, and when the Braves were knocked out by the Cardinals in their opening series, the Mets had their chance. Indeed, what resulted was a New Yorker’s dream: a Subway Series pitting the underdog Mets against the heavily favored New York Yankees.

I couldn’t help but feel that forgiveness was at hand. I hadn’t been a smoker for 12 years. I’d even even spent the 1988-1999 school year with a roommate who smoked, and I was never tempted.

And then, during the opening ceremonies of the first game of the 2000 World Series, I noticed something, an omen: the Mets’ leadoff hitter, a speedy rookie named Timo Perez who had made a splash late in the season and had starred in the first playoff series (against the San Francisco Giants) walked onto the field with the wrong hat, black instead of blue. Manager Bobby Valentine pointed it out to him, and they laughed.

I wasn’t laughing, though, because I knew that it was a joke being made at my expense. Sure enough, the Mets came tantalizingly close to winning the first game until their powerful but mentally frail relief pitcher blew yet another game that mattered. It was downhill from there.

I will confess that with the Mets again down to their final out and facing elimination from a World Series at Shea Stadium, I considered getting down on my knees once again to ask for deliverance.

But I didn’t. I had learned my lesson. They would have to do it on their own.

I watched Mike Piazza take a strike. Then I watched him launch the ball into left center field. I saw it rise high into the night and then crest and fall inexorably into the glove of Bernie Williams, standing on the edge of the warning track, at the stroke of midnight. And then it was Williams who was genuflecting, crossing himself and bowing his head, as Mariano Rivera jumped for joy and the Yankees began to stream onto the field.

Four years later, the Mets were finishing fifth again. Once again they rebuilt themselves, thanks to a visionary general manager named Omar Minaya. The Mets embraced multiculturalism with a particular emphasis on Hispanic players. (How appropriate, I thought at the time, since my own scholarship had begun focusing on *emergent *literary texts.)

Adding Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and later Carlos Delgado to their homegrown stars David Wright and José Reyes, the Mets reached the postseason in 2006 much earlier than anyone had expected. But the year turned out to be a strange mixture of 1987 and 1988. By the end of the season the pitching staff was decimated, with rookies leading the way. Had the Mets won, they would have defied the common wisdom by relying on adequate starters and a dominant bullpen. But it wasn’t to be: just as they had in 1988, they ran into a team that was inferior on paper but charmed on the field: the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Mets managed to reach the seventh game of the NLCS. I had to take a group of students to see an opera at the Metropolitan Opera, ironically enough, Faust. I spent the second act in a bar on Columbus Avenue watching the action. As the game was reaching its end, I tried to keep track on my Treo, even as a friend from San Franscisco was text messaging me. I couldn’t wait to watch the game at home on TiVo. When I got into the subway, the situation seemed to be bottom of the ninth, Mets down by two, bases loaded, Carlos Beltran at the plate.

Was it hubris on my part? The situation seemed much less dire than it had in 1986. Perhaps they could do it without me. I had no more vices left to offer up to the powers that be, and I certainly wasn’t giving them my first-born. Or my second.

At Times Square, the Treo got enough signal to get a one-word text message from my friend: “Bummer.” I later found out that Beltran had struck out looking at a curveball.

But that was nothing. It was all a setup for the abject humiliation this year’s historic collapse. Pride goeth before a fall.

No October baseball for the New York Mets in 2007, despite more than four months in first place. Despite a seven-game lead with 17 to go.

Instead, just this e-mail message from the team to its fans, dated October 1:

Dear Mets Fan:

All of us at the Mets are bitterly disappointed in failing to achieve our collective goal of building upon last year’s success. We did not meet our organization’s expectations — or yours. Everyone at Shea feels the same range of emotions as you — our loyal fans — and we know we have let you down. We wanted to thank you for your record-breaking support of our team this year. Equally important, Ownership will continue its commitment in providing the resources necessary to field a championship team. Omar will be meeting with Ownership shortly to present his plan on addressing our shortcomings so that we can achieve our goal of winning championships in 2008 and beyond.

You deserve better results.

Many thanks again for your record-breaking support.

The Mets.

But, as you now know, I’m the one who should be apologizing for failing to keep my end of a bargain twenty years ago.

What was it that the great Puritan John Winthrop said in his famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”? Oh yes:

We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.

And that sermon was even on my oral exams. Which I took in 1987. Bummer.

 

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The facts contained in the foregoing account are true. I was out there on that balcony on my knees. And I said those things. Really. The interpretation of those facts and those that follow, on the other hand: well, believe it, or not. Up to you.]