Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sports: Express Train To Mudville

Leave us journey back, if you will, to a simpler, happier time. A time when your humble correspondent was a younger, more virile figure. I’m thinking about a month ago.

The Seattle Mariners are in control of the wild card race and about to host the the Angels Angels of Anaheim (translation from the Spanish) in a crucial series. Take two out of three games and they’re in first place in the AL West. My beloved New York Mets, meanwhile, have a considerable lead on the competition. If they do well in a four-game stand against the second-place Phillies, the NL East will be decided early. I allow myself to fantasize about a Mets/Mariners World Series.

Not that my loyalties would be divided. I follow the Mariners, because I live in Seattle. I root for the Mets, because they are the team of my Queens childhood. In my fantasy World Series they don’t beat the Mariners. They crush them in four perfect games.

The Mariners get swept, never contend for the division again, and blow the wild card. They finish tied for the fifth best record in the AL. Not bad for a team that wasn’t expected to be a factor this year, but still disappointing.

The Mets? Oh, where to begin ...

They’re swept by Philadelphia, which prompts them to play their best baseball of the year. By September 12 they’d rebuilt their seven game lead, just in time for the Phillies to roll into Shea for a rematch.

They were swept again. Thus beginning what sportswriters are calling the most complete regular season collapse in modern baseball history. (Post-season collapse honors still go to the 2004 Yankees.)

The numbers are too ugly to contemplate. Still, let’s look at ‘em. The Mets closed out the year 5-12. They lost six of their last seven games at home to teams under .500.

Yet somehow, this morning their fate was in their hands. Win the final game of the year and at worst they forced a playoff against the Phillies for the division, with a shot at the wild card as well. Win and 2007 could still be the Mets’ Tom Cruise year.

You know how early in Cruise’s career he’d play cocky guys who had never been tested? Then Goose dies and Tom goes into freefall? But through adversity Tom recovers his swagger and proves that he’s every bit as good as he thought he was? Hell, better? That works for me.

The thing is, Maverick never gave up seven runs in the top of the first inning. And the Mets finish out of time, out of chances, and out of the money.

Making it worse, both the Mets and Phillies games were shown in their home markets over the air. Which meant I had to follow both games listening to the Marlins and the Nationals announcers praise their teams’ performances as spoilers. The compliments were deserved; both squads finished the season strong. But it’s not the same as hearing the joy from Philly, or the ruthless anatomization of a year gone wrong from the Mets booth crew, the best three-man team there is.

I should be heartbroken, but the truth is I never embraced this Mets team the way I did last year’s. That bunch, which was a swing of Carlos Beltran’s bat away from the World Series, could never be counted out of any game. This year’s team lacked that fire, and seemed to play with a sense of entitlement. As if they were saying, “Remember what we almost did last season? We’re gonna almost do it this year, too.”

On Thursday I told my friend Mike that I started wanting the Mets to choke because at least we’d get an epic failure out of it, something to make the season memorable. Years from now, when a team falters late, their fans will say, “Yeah, they suck, but it coulda been worse. It’s not like they were the 2007 Mets.”

I know the idea of rooting for a team is irrational. A bunch of millionaires wearing a particular uniform has nothing to do with me, with the place where I grew up, with the memories of my boyhood. But that lure is powerful. The other day I spotted a guy wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap and T-shirt. The Bucs logged their fifteenth consecutive losing season this year, but still he was letting his colors fly. I respect that. Even more, I understand it. I understand it all too well.

The 2007 Mets were overhyped, overconfident, underachieving assholes. But they were my overhyped, overconfident, underachieving assholes. And I’ll let my colors fly.

But not today. Today I don’t need the aggravation.