Last night the joy in Metsville reached euphoric dimensions as the improbable became the unbelievable: The Mets had swept the Cubs in four straight games, winning the National League pennant. Now they’ll play either the Kansas City Royals or the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series starting Tuesday.
This amazing outcome for a team that unarguably sucked this summer had even seasoned observers saying crazy things as they tried to wrap their heads around it.
In the post-game analysis on SNY, Mets former manager Bobby Valentine, whose grin is broader than the one permanently plastered on Mr. Met, said he was so happy that he felt like ripping his clothes off, which provoked such laughter off camera that the studio started to sound like a sports bar in Queens. Remembering how he once showed up in the Mets dugout wearing a fake mustache after he’d been ejected for arguing with an umpire, you wouldn’t put it past him.
But you couldn’t blame him. Valentine was the skipper the last time the Mets reached this far when the Mets played the Yankees in the 2000 Subway Series—and the Yanks predictably triumphed.
In another studio Keith Hernandez, the great Mets first baseman with the dapper mustache, could barely contain himself as he tried to control his emotions, keep his suit buttoned, and describe what he said was an historic night for the franchise—and he’d been part of the 1986 World Series, the last time the Mets won it.
And that victory was never assured since Boston had taken an early 2-0 lead in the series before New York battled back. The Sox were about to clinch Game Six at Shea Stadium before the hometown crowd. The Mets were behind by a run in the bottom of the 10th inning with two outs and two strikes on Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson when his legendary squibbbler up the first base line slipped under the glove of Boston’s Bill Buckner. Following the advice of the immortal Mets sports radio announcer Howie Rose, we “put it in the books.”
Granted, over the years, Mets fans have been through a lot themselves, which makes the victory all that sweeter. We never take anything for granted. The darkness is always lurking off the foul lines.
Even last night, no lead was enough, especially when the Cubs had men on base. That’s the difference in confidence between Mets supporters and other fans.
In the back of our minds we remember 2004, when the Yankees had a 3-0 lead over the Red Sox for the American League pennant. Back then Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry admitted that he’d be hard-pressed to choose between the Red Sox’s finally winning the World Series in what seemed like a gazillion years or his beating the worst president since World War II, George W. Bush.
This time around we knew that baseball whiz Theo Epstein had left Boston to oversee the Chicago Cubs, bringing along Sox slugger Manny Ramirez to give hitting tips. How many times in the last few days have Boston fans evoked 2004, saying they’d like to watch a closer series? Are they kidding me? Let them root for the Blue Jays! We wanted it to end right there and then. But first we had no choice but to hang onto every pitch.
In the fourth inning, the Cubs had the bases loaded with no outs, for crying out loud, and they were only down by four runs. We’d seen what they’d done to the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. They had slammed them to the ground. Then Cubs’ Starlin Castro drilled a shot toward left field. In a nanosecond our captain, David Wright, leaped high in the air like the great ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and snagged it in his glove.
It may have been the defensive play of the game, and it was done by a guy with spinal stenosis, a debilitating, painful condition that had sidelined him for months this season, even casting doubt on whether his career as a Met was over. Now, he’s going to the World Series to represent a team he’s played for since he first came to the Majors.
And what about the guy who cried this season when he thought he’d been traded? Wilmer Flores heard the news from social media as he took his position at short stop, fighting back the tears, as fans at Citi Field applauded him for his service. His unabashed loyalty to a team he’d been associated with since he was 17 years old was cathartic. At the time, the idea that a player actually cared about being a Met when the team was barely above .500 seemed inconceivable. After all, this was a team that had been no-hit by a no-name pitcher from the San Francisco Giants when there were more SF fans than Mets fans in the stands.
Last night in Chicago Flores caught a foul amid the bull-pen crowd gathered near the third-base stands, making a play reminiscent of Yanks’ Derek Jeter. It was a huge out. The metaphorical clouds of doom and gloom that had been gathering suddenly parted, at least temporarily. Soon, the team’s transformation from mediocre to superior was complete with an 8-3 win.
Following his unparalleled Mets pitching peers—Noah “Thor” Syndegaard, Matt “The Dark Knight” Harvey, and the lanky, long-haired Jacob DeGrom—Long Island native Steve Matz pitched a great game. The 24-year-old rookie lefthander who starred at Ward-Melville High School almost got a hit down the right-field line himself. In his Major League debut back in June, he’d hit a two-run double, and went 3-for 3. When he was 11, Matz had reportedly first come to the attention of professional baseball when he was spotted by a scout at Baseball Heaven in Yaphank, which many frustrated parents of Long Island Little Leaguers probably know as Baseball Purgatory. Now he’s living the dream, pitching his favorite team from childhood into the World Series.
There are many things to savor from last night’s game, which condemned the Cubs to their 107th consecutive season without a championship. To them, we say, wait ‘til next year.
First, hats off to Terry Collins, the oldest manager in baseball, at 66, who pointed out that he clinched the pennant on what would’ve been his parents’ 73rd wedding anniversary. He’d played for a decade in the minors, and became a manager in 1981, even getting fired along the way.
As Collins told reporters in Chicago after the game, he got a note from his mom when he was 12 years old so he could skip school and watch the 1960 World Series between the Pirates and the Yankees. “Then I’m sitting there tonight (thinking), ‘Holy crap, now you’re in it, after all these years!’”
Collins made a lot of great moves over the season to keep the team competitive. To the consternation of fans, he stuck with the slumping first baseman Lucas Duda in the playoffs—he’d been 3-for-24—and last night Collins was rewarded big time. Duda hit a three-run blast off Cubs’ Jason Hammel, who’d had him buried in a 3-2 hole. Up next was catcher Travis D’Arnoud, who also homered. The team had a four-run lead and the first inning wasn’t even over. But I don’t know any long-time Mets fans who dared to relax. It was too early for that.
Weird things also happened last night in Chicago. When D’Arnoud was behind the plate, the Cubs Tommy LaStella fouled a ball off his face mask that plunked the Cubs Miguel Montero’s batting helmet as he stood on deck. Cubs veteran catcher David Ross blanked out that our pitcher, Steven Matz, only had two strikes when he ran off the field thinking his team was out of the inning. Maybe Ross forgot he was in the National League.
And poor, pitiful, portly Kyle Schwarber, a former catcher whom the Cubs stuck in left field. He landed flat on his belly more than once, his white uniform stained green with Wrigley Field grass, his miscues helping the Mets pile on their lead.
This team may have never trailed in the playoffs but that was the farthest thought from my mind when Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets phenomenal center-fielder with the thick bushy eyebrows, was spotted in the dugout, wearing a pennant championship T-shirt as well as his protective goggles for post-game champagne spraying. Cespedes hadn’t been seen since he’d left the game in the second inning with a sore shoulder. Good god, the game wasn’t over yet! Talk about a jinx, about hubris, about tempting fate! Put a duffel bag over that guy and hustle him back inside the locker room!
But there were his teammates leaning over the railing, smiling, laughing, waiting to mob the mound. Bartolo Colon, our 42-year-old veteran pitcher, looked like a bemused Buddha as he contemplated his first trip to the Fall Classic. He’d come on to relieve Matz in the fifth-inning after three Mets players had let a shallow two-out pop-out drop amid them. Colon pitched perfectly, keeping the Cubs at bay.
And then, when we thought there was nothing left for him to prove, Daniel Murphy hit a two-run homer in the top of the eighth-inning. It was Murphy’s sixth consecutive home run in the playoffs, not only a franchise record, but one for the history books! His achievement earned him the MVP trophy for the National League championship series. Afterwards, the Mets right-fielder Curtis Granderson told reporters that “I can tell my kids I played with Babe Ruth!” Some of us would nominate Granderson as the Mets MVP for the inspiring role he’d played all season long in keeping the team in the hunt for October.
Asked for an explanation about his amazing home-run streak, Murphy said, “I can’t explain. Just ride it…” As he put it to another reporter, “Let the blessings flow!”
Who thought he’d stay this hot? Nobody I know. After all, during the regular season, he only hit 14 home runs, his career high, and here he was aiming for the record books. When he came to bat in the eighth inning, who expected him to “go yard”? The Mets had six runs, the Cubs only one. But then lightning struck again—and Murphy hit a two-run homer beyond the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field. You just can’t make this up. No Hollywood producer would buy this script.
But here they are, four games away from a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Who would have believed it?