Seven Days in Shea

Why do the Mets keep torturing us?

Tuesday, October 10: Workout Day

The Mets were, as usual, in good spirits the day before the NLCS, relaxed and either deeply confident or very good at faking it. Carlos Delgado seemed physically unable to stop smiling, Jose Reyes remained Jose Reyes, and Cliff Floyd, though gimpy, was hopeful that he could play. Anderson Hernandez was added to the roster, which was good news: His elaborate handshakes with Reyes are like miniature master- pieces of performance art ("I get nervous just watching them," said a clearly impressed Shawn Green), and seeing him and Endy Chavez pal around should warm even Tony La Russa's suicide-squeezing heart. Chavez—listed as six feet and 165 pounds but obviously neither, unless he was wearing heels and many layers of wet winter clothing on weigh-in day—had a breakout year, which he attributed to finally feeling comfortable: "Because I feel myself, I don't feel that they want me to be another player. . . . I play for Willie, he just asks me to play hard and lets me do my things." Last week a Venezuelan reporter, after interviewing him in Spanish, turned away from his locker grinning and told me, "His head is on the ninth cloud."

The big question everyone was asking the Mets today was, though not in these precise words, "What the fuck are you going to do about Albert Pujols?" And the answer, though again the phrasing varied, seemed to be "Uh . . . not sure." Meanwhile, Pujols in person is, surprisingly, less than eight feet tall and does not appear to pick his teeth with the bones of relief pitchers, as I'd expected. In fact, he's balding. This is not enough to convince me that he's a mere human being, but it's a start.

Wednesday, October 11: Rainout

I first heard about the plane crash on the Upper East Side from a reporter who'd offered me a ride to the stadium but now had to rush to 72nd Street. When I got to Shea I couldn't figure out why everyone was talking about Thurman Munson, until finally I saw Cory Lidle's picture on TV. It's probably for the best that the game was rained out; the players, many of whom knew Lidle, seemed shaken.

Thursday, October 12: Game 1

Mets 2, Cardinals 0

During batting practice, Ron Darling, Darryl Strawberry, and Mookie Wilson stood in the Met dugout and reminisced about the old days. If ever a conversation was worthy of eavesdropping, it's this one, but sadly I could only catch snippets: "We get to Rusty's and [inaudible] . . . ran out in the [inaudible] . . . two or nothing! [raucous laughter]."

Whatever Kenny Rogers has is catching. I'm referring here to pitchers who flopped in New York suddenly morphing into Walter Johnson for other teams in the playoffs. Jeff Weaver is just the latest example; this is someone who has been described as "having potential" for the last seven years but apparently chose this particular month to start pitching well. I'm convinced that a rotation of Rogers, Weaver, Jose Contreras, and Javy Vazquez would absolutely guarantee a World Series ring for any non–East Coast team. Weaver did, however, make one mistake, and after Carlos Beltran's two-run homer, the crowd smelled blood and jumped all over him.

Cliff Floyd's achilles didn't even make it through three innings. You have to feel for him; he went through some bleak seasons at Shea and wants very, very badly to be playing. And how could you help but root for a guy who comes to bat to the theme from Sanford and Son?

The crowd tonight was both incredibly loud and extremely anxious. Hoping for the best but fearing the worst, the fans went to 11 on two-strike counts, but balls were greeted with the appalled silence normally reserved for go-ahead home runs. The "Jose, Jose Jose Jose" chant, an adaptation of the venerable "olé" soccer riff ("I figured that out just about a week ago," said Floyd, who admits to humming it himself now and then), has been a great gift to Shea, though—after a win, it pours through the walls, even in the bowels of the press area.

Friday, October 13: Game 2

Cardinals 9, Mets 6

This was a rough loss—a game the Mets had no right to win on the face of it (Maine versus Carpenter?), but would have pulled off if not for an uncharacteristic slip by their bullpen.

Most relievers enter the game to songs designed to pump them up or energize the crowd—Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner's "Enter Sandman" being the most famous example. Guillermo Mota uses "I Like to Move It," and classic-rock fan Aaron Heilman picked "London Calling" ("I thought it was kind of fitting—calling the bullpen or whatever," he says, a bit sheepishly). So I was thrown when Chad Bradford, a quiet right-hander known for his startling but extremely effective underhand motion, entered to a plaintive emo number by the Fray, featuring the chorus "Everybody knows I'm in over my head, over my head." I can't imagine this is inspiring a ton of fear in opposing batters, but I find it kind of endearing.

Bradford delivered, but Mota and Wagner couldn't this time. Wagner had an excellent year, but his arrival on the mound quickly turned the crowd pale and sweaty, even before the trouble started. Met fans have never known the joy of a Mariano Rivera; years of dysfunctional relationships with the likes of John Franco, Armando Benitez, and Braden Looper have left them shaken and emotionally scarred. No matter how good Wagner is, it will be a long time before the crowd at Shea learns how to trust again.


Saturday, October 14: Game 3

Mets 0, Cardinals 5

To say that Steve Trachsel had nothing tonight is to insult the void. He sucked the life right out of the Mets, and even St. Louis fans, with the possible exception of Jeff Suppan's mother, would have to acknowledge that this was a flat, dull game.

Meanwhile, the majority of the Cardinals have started to look very much the same to me: very white and slightly confused. Chris Carpenter, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Tyler Johnson, Adam Wainwright, Josh Kinney, Braden Looper, Jeff Weaver, and Chris Duncan all fit this description, and Scott Spiezio would be on the list but for his staggeringly ill-advised facial hair—a bright-red formation I can only describe as a landing strip, which actually scares my dog when it appears on television.

Sunday, October 15: Game 4

Mets 12, Cardinals 5

This series may not have been pretty, but it certainly had its share of drama. The Met outlook went from bleak to rainbows and puppies in just 24 hours, as Delgado continued to take out 12 years' worth of playoff-less frustration on innocent bystanders, and Oliver Perez pitched better than anyone had any right to expect.

The postseason's small sample size plays hell with statistics, which is always sort of fun—hence Josh Hancock's ERA for this series is, after tonight's game, 162.

Tuesday, October 17: Game 5

Cardinals 4, Mets 2

. . . Aaaaand Mets fans picked up their panicking right where they left off Saturday. Tom Glavine didn't pitch that badly, but lost his 35th career playoff start to whatever machine, alien, or clone has replaced the real Jeff Weaver. I don't claim to know who made the switch, or how, or why—but I am familiar with Jeff Weaver, and that, my friends, is not Jeff Weaver. They'll find him wandering naked in the woods somewhere in November, unharmed but with absolutely no memory of the last six weeks.

Cardinals fans are widely hailed as the "greatest fans in the world," but after careful consideration, I'm not buying it. The stands, at least as captured by Fox cameras, are full of wholesome, smiling, politely cheering folks clad in attractive sweaters; it's like a baseball game as imagined in a J. Crew ad, only less ethnically diverse. "They do a pretty good job of not booing their players and stuff like that," said Cliff Floyd the next day, back at a vibrating Shea Stadium. "This place will make you look in the mirror."

Wednesday, October 18: Game 6

Mets 4, Cardinals 2

image
David Wright and Carlos Delgado work closely together on preparations to miss a routine pop-up in Game 7.
photo: Anthony J. Causi

Another ear-shattering crowd: When the Mets scored, the upper deck literally swayed—somewhat disconcerting when you're sitting in the mezzanine. Remembering the terrors of the ninth inning last year and perhaps determined to teach Cardinal fans a little something about bloodlust, the fans booed ex-Met closer Braden Looper off the mound. But his replacement, Billy Wagner, once again made things interesting in the ninth, giving up two runs before locking down the save. In the clubhouse, after dissecting the inning for a claustrophobia-inducing wall of cameras, Wagner spotted John Franco—back at Shea as a commentator—and exhaled deeply. "Jesus," he said, and the two of them withdrew to a corner to commiserate.

This was the perfect Met win—Reyes leading off with a homer and stealing bases, a clutch hit by Lo Duca, and a truly above-and-beyond performance by rookie John Maine. Wright and Shawn Green argued after the game about which of them had called Reyes's homer. Everything seemed set up perfectly for a happy ending.

Thursday, October 19: Game 7

Cardinals 3, Mets 1

It's a strange twist of the human psyche that the best-played losses are often the hardest to take. The Yankees went down like lead against the Tigers, and as a result, the loss was aggravating and disappointing—but it was never that close and therefore not the kind of game you find yourself replaying endlessly in January. This, however, was one of those games. The Mets were so perfectly set up for one of the greatest postseason comebacks in recent memory—bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, Beltran at the plate . . . I'm not even really a Met fan, but this game broke my heart.


Endy Chavez's catch will be remembered, though not as well as it would be if they'd won, and probably not as well as it deserves. I've never seen anything like it in person; even the beat reporters jumped to their feet. "Under the circumstances, it's one of the best plays I've ever seen," said Glavine. "Thank God it wasn't me," said a hobbling Floyd. It was impossible to witness that catch and not feel that fate was with the Mets.

Still, after the loss, the team took Willie Randolph's advice, and kept their heads up. They were acutely disappointed but still proud of their season, and had anyone raised the possibility that perhaps Randolph might be fired, they would have been laughed out of Flushing. The Cardinal locker room, meanwhile, squishy with champagne and beer, brought back unpleasant memories of seedy frat parties.

Since my first day in the Met clubhouse, I wondered about the team's remarkable geniality and closeness—does that just happen, or had Omar Minaya done this on purpose? How much had he taken personality into account in forming this team? Isn't it hard enough to find a decent pitcher without worrying about whether he can play well with others? Minaya himself has the reputation of being a "good guy," as everyone puts it, both with reporters and, perhaps more tellingly, with the workers at Shea, who almost to a man will nod approvingly when he passes. And although the season was now over, chemistry and charisma be damned, I still wanted to know.

"I'm very careful about who we bring in here," Minaya said. "You know, put a whole bunch of humans together, you don't know how it's going to work out. But it did work out." Almost.

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