Saturday, October 07, 2006

Let's Go Mets!

The year was 1983. In January, President Ronald W. Reagan proclaimed it “The Year of the Bible.” He also signed a bill creating a federal holiday on the third Monday in every January to honor American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Iran invaded Iraq. Tom Brokaw became lead anchor for NBC News.

Whatever. I was ten years old, and had other things on my mind. I was waiting for “Return of the Jedi” to come out, and, even more importantly, I needed to choose a baseball team.

My mom and I had moved to New Jersey from Illinois in 1981. I had been too young to really have a team when we’d lived in Evanston. I’d rooted for the Phillies in 1980, the Dodgers in 1981, and the Cardinals in 1982. I was a front-runner, first and foremost, and still young enough to get away with it. Now, sadly, my age had reached the double-digits and childhood was over. I needed a “real” team to root for. I decided that team was going to be a local one.

In my mind, every other kid in my neighborhood was a Yankees fan. Their uncles, older brothers, and fathers were Yankees fans, too. Even at that age, I had a strong contrary streak. I was attracted to what I already knew of the pinstripes and their tradition, but I didn’t just want to follow the crowd. I’d also watched a few of their games on WPIX, and, frankly, something about Phil Rizutto’s voice disturbed me. Greatly. Still does.

So, at the start of the 1983 baseball season, I decided I was going to root for the New York Mets. From that moment forward, I no longer referred to the Mets in the third person; I referred to the Mets in the first person plural. “They” became “we”.

Shortly thereafter, I decided I’d better learn what a “Met” was and who was on the team.

Armed with this knowledge, a 23-year love affair began.

We finished that first season with a record of 68 wins and 94 losses. George Bamberger started the season as manager, and Frank Howard finished it.

A young slugger named Darryl Strawberry hit 26 home runs and was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year. We’d acquired perennial All-Star and former League MVP Keith Hernandez, who hit .306 on the season and won a gold glove playing first base. Oh, yeah, I also heard some good things about some pitcher named Dwight Gooden.

What a long, strange trip it’s been: the highs, the lows, the laughter, the tears; the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat; scandal, controversy, failure and redemption. But, that’s enough about 1986.

The 20 years in-between have been odd, as well. We somehow found a way not to win in 1987. That team had the best pitching staff in baseball, a solid defense, and two 30-30 players (back when 30 home runs actually meant something). The end result will mystify me to the end of my days.

The 1988 team was a juggernaut. All we had to do was get past the Dodgers (a team we’d owned during the regular season) and we were all set for a showdown with the A’s in the World Series.

We lost in seven games, and I’ve hated the Dodgers ever since. I’m still convinced Orel Hershisher was an alien impersonator and that Mike Scioscia made a deal with the devil. I will admit to a few dark fantasies in which I attempted to prove to Tommy Lasorda that he did not, in fact, bleed Dodger blue.

Still, as upset as I was, I got over it pretty quickly. I’d gotten used to our winning. Surely there’d be other chances, right? Wrong. We suddenly found ourselves unable to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates. For those of you too young to remember, this is the Pirates squad that boasted an outfield of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke.

After the Pirates succumbed to the fate which awaits all successful small-market teams, someone in major league baseball’s front office finally looked at a map and realized that having the Atlanta Braves play in the N.L. West really didn’t make any geographic sense. Yeah, who knew that Georgia didn’t abut California? Sadly for us Mets fans this also coincided with the Braves’ going on a run of unparalleled regular season success.

We missed the playoffs by four games in 1997 and one game in 1998. 1998 was really tough. We went 0-5 against the Braves and the Montreal Expos to end the season.

We didn’t get back to the post-season until 1999, and we didn’t even win the division. I did take pleasure in the fact that we beat out the Cincinnati Reds in a one-game playoff to win the Wildcard.

We ended up advancing to the N.L. Championship Series, and, after spotting the Atlanta Braves 3 games, we roared back to force game 6. In that game, pitcher Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded to force in the winning run. Contrary to what I said at the time, it was not the first walk issued to the free-swinging Jones that season. It sure seemed that way, though.

The next year, after again winning the N.L. Wildcard, we made it to the World Series. We faced off against the hated New York Yankees in the first subway series since 1956. We lost four games to one.

Now, though, we’re back. It’s been 20 years since that 1986 team. I know that china is the traditional 20th anniversary gift, but I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this 20th anniversary than by winning the World Series.

We won our division for the first time since 1988. We’ve also taken a commanding lead in our N.L. Division Series against the Dodgers. This team is not a juggernaut, but we’ve got a good blend of power and speed and a pitching staff that has a bend but don’t break attitude.

So, Let’s Go Mets.

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