Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Karma Police

I beg a million pardons for my time away from my home away from home, MLC HQ. I’ve been around the world, or at least to Beantown, Strong Island, and Big D, plus I’ve had an array of afflictions that Rob kindly detailed below. In truth, I was beset by technological woes as well, for which my wife continues to pay dearly. All in all, I’ve been utterly remiss in my blogging duties, but I have been locked in on these here New York Mets. Nothing can keep me from ingesting every last morsel of this refreshingly sweet season.

As the focus in the Township shifts rather abruptly from eyeing the magic number(s) to projecting the playoffs, the Mets should maintain top dog status for the National League. As Jerry pointed out in the first quarter of his post today at the Wheelhouse, he saw the Mets as head-and-shoulders above the rest of the division many moons ago, and called it as such. As it turned out, the talent differential was all that was needed, despite my restrained optimism. There is equivalent reason to believe that the Mets should succeed in the postseason; that said, you’ll have to permit me my standard aversion to heralding the Mets as front-runners. While there are very real question marks that could plague the Mets in a short series, it’s obviously more of a superstition thing with me to avoid anything that could be construed as premature boasting -- or more accurately, it’s a karma thing.

Don’t believe in karma as it pertains to baseball? Then you’re just not paying attention.

Karma, or the modern usage of the term, affects just about every aspect of life in some way, and baseball is far from immune. In many cases, karma isn’t enough to outweigh other forces in nature. Take, for example, the 2006 New York Yankees. They embody the worst elements of negative karma with their obscene payroll, some brazen usage of HGH, their fans’ egregious entitlement, their perennial status as Goliath, and . . . well, just Alex Rodriguez being there. But all of those sinister emanations can’t derail what is by all accounts an All-Star Team, and the Yankees have cruised to the division title with ho-hum aplomb – unless you actually listened to the fabricated, head-in-the-sand melodrama about overcoming odds with a couple of (the two dozen) key players injured. This is how empires are built in the face of karma.

Providence isn’t just where many of the late-season Red Sox belonged, it’s also a true component of the Fall Classic and the weeks that spill into it. In the oft-dreaded short series, there are many moments when brute force and sheer talent cannot overcome the will of the Fates. Take, for example, the 2001-2005 New York Yankees. By all rights, each of these squads held the pink slip for the World Series trophy before the regular season had taken its final bow. It stood to reason that there would be more refuse on the streets of the Big Apple after the ticker-tape parade (cheering on the Yankees, presumably). Reason doesn’t account for karma, however, and I do. Let’s review.

Let’s start back in 1995, the year after the World Series was cancelled by a strike. (Incidentally, this event caused a storm of serious cosmic negativity that baseball hasn’t yet escaped.) The Atlanta Braves, or “America’s Team” as it was known to our less intelligent countrymen, were not exactly karmic darlings, but they weren’t the glowing mound of atmospheric wrong that they’d become after 1995. Meanwhile, Indians fans, much like Cubs fans, have been on the butt end of the world’s gags for an eternity. Advantage, Atlanta.

1996: The beginning of the Bomber “dynasty.” Baseball was quickly sliding into an era of haves/have-nots not seen since the days of Louis XVI, but the Yankees hadn’t yet realized how to exploit the system. The state of the once-great franchise was in serious question, as the Yanks hadn’t won it all in going on two decades. (God bless the Pags years.) The roster was comprised of unsung folks like Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Andy Pettitte, and a young rookie named Derek Jeter – very good, but not the bought talent of future years. Meanwhile, the Braves were already cosmically shopworn. Not even the bad vibes of a playoff game tainted by a 12-year-old brat who was championed rather than ejected could turn the momentum. Yankees win.

1997: The upstart Florida Marlins slipped one by the karmic goalie, playing the “feelgood expansion franchise” card rather than the “Wayne Huizenga rented a team of studs” one. They toppled the by-now cosmically friendless Braves, then faced the Tribe in the Series. When karma enters, Cleveland loses. Marlins take it.

1998: The feelgood Padres had to think that fortune was on their side, and it was. They knocked off the new karmic doormat in Atlanta and stepped in against the Bombers. Trouble was, they could have had Gandhi at short and Albert Schweitzer on the hill, but Los Banditos Yanquis were too damn good. 114-win good. As I said earlier, there are times when the world can’t right the wrong in time. (There may be an example or two in world history.) Yankees win.

1999: Yankees, still very good, but also facing the world’s spittoon in the Braves. A sweep, just to put an exclamation point on Atlanta’s plight, and just to ensure that no human with a soul gave a damn who won this Hitler vs. Mussolini showdown.

2000: Your New York Mets jump up and take their turn at ruining the Braves’ year. The Yankees were by now a tired act, and truly the Mets should have won this series. But God, Yahweh, or whoever resides on high believes in two principles: first, the more the dog waits patiently for his day, the tastier the treat; second, Armando Benitez reverses all karmic arrangements inextricably. Yankees win, and a Township mourns.

2001: Finally, at long last, there is enough of a divine backlash to what the Yanks were doing. What had begun in ’96 with those homegrowns and retreads was now a machine of spending and earning. Capitalism at its finest, equality at its weakest. The Arizona Diamondbacks – after smearing another Atlanta campaign – somehow pulled off the win despite a Yankee attack seemingly destined to pull out one last faux-karma black magic trick. This is how empires are smote thanks to karma. Miracles do happen. Diamondbacks win.

2002: Miracles often involve angels, and Anaheim ended a long run of pinstripes in the Classic with a first-round upset. Meanwhile, the first batch of non-Yankee, non-Brave bad karma appeared on the San Francisco Giants. The feelgood tale of a fabled franchise ending a severe drought stood no chance against the gargantuan wall of cold feelings emanating from ol’ number 25. Angels win in an agonizing fashion that chides “shame on you” to the Giants.

2003: Another case of bad vibe one-upsmanship. The Marlins, after what transpired in 1997 – or, I should say what went down in 1998-99 in Florida, deserved a fate much worse. The team should have gone decades without another title, long enough to call it the Blockbuster Curse. The problem was all in whom they faced. Round 1, the Giants. Barry trumps Wayne. Round 2, the Cubs. Back to one of the core principles, that of the inexplicable pain towards Indians and Cubs supporters. Round 3, the Yankees. End of story. Marlins win.

2004: It was time. The Red Sox had been the face and voice, thanks to the Nation, of the dogged quartet that included the Cubs, Indians, White Sox and them. They got their just desserts, too, with as dramatic an NLCS as ever dreamt and a clean sweep in the Series. Worth noting is that Tony LaRussa has spent most of his days on the cosmic firing line, with one title slipped into 25 years of too little, too late. Something about a little too much tough guy bravado and too many beanballs for the higher authorities. But regardless, it was time. Red Sox win.

2005: Same story, different town. The other Sox pulled off an even longer drought-killer, in part because it was time, and in part because the Red Sox fans had been bawling and blathering on in blustery fashion for a year – so the powers that be decided to top 86 years with 88 in a “whatever you can do” statement. It worked, to some degree. Pale Hose win over an Astro franchise that hasn’t seemed to earn one lick of karma – good or bad – in its 45 years of existence. The ‘Stros play, Yahweh yawns.

2006: ??? Who’s on the right side of destiny this year? Who’s tinkering with their fortunes in all the wrong ways? It’s too early to tell for sure, but there are a few clubs that seem sprinkled with just enough good will to make the difference, and a few others that fucked with the wrong Fate.

I had a funny feeling about one guy messing with his own fortune a few months ago: everybody’s favorite target, Ozzie Guillen. Ozzie had become a fan favorite last year by leading his surprising Sox to the title with off-the-beaten-path, occasionally off-color quips. He was funny, he was embraced, and he was successful.

The world outside these two guys at MLC dog-piled Ozzie when he called Gay Mariotti a “fag” earlier this year, but Rob and I tried to take the piss out of the windbags who made an issue of it. Somewhere in the weeks that followed, however, Ozzie lost me. When he publicly blasted the kid reliever in plain view of the sporting world for not plunking a batter, he went against everything we’ve ever been taught about how a team works. Aforementioned unnecessary tough guy bravado aside, if he wanted to tear the kid a new one, go ahead – just do it in the clubhouse away from fans and reporters. You don’t turn on one of your own in public. Behind closed doors, call him every name in the book and ship him off to wherever, if that’s your policy. I was once told that inside the [clubhouse] I didn’t amount to crap as far as the [manager] was concerned, but outside it I was better than everyone else on any other [team]. It rang true, and it fostered the same amount of solidarity that Ozzie surrendered when he screamed bloody murder at a middle reliever in the dugout. Hence, the rather inexplicable late-season tumble for the ChiSox. And the wind . . . whispers . . . Ozzie.

On a similar note, Miguel Cabrera’s finger point in his pitcher’s face – and the on-field sniping that precipitated it – supersede 10,000 gallons of Joe Girardi get-go and the amazing story of a $15M payroll maximized, if only when topped with some Jeffrey Loria demon-seed.

To a lesser extent, Rob’s band of scarlet sanitaries might have incurred the activity of karmic backlash when he and his Nation bemoaned the weak state of the team when they were still neck-deep in the pennant race. After the much-mocked “woe is us” cry sounded, it was as if we got a garish display of “You wanna see not-in-the-race? I got your gonna-fall-short right here.” Yikes. Remind me not to jump that gun.

And then there are the Yankees, who, as mentioned, stormed through the turmoil of having to replace a $15M All-Star with a $16M All-Star. Karma be damned, they’ll outbid the Fates all the way to the Series.

On the plus side of the intangible ether, those damnable Philadelphia Phillies could be the best story going. After sending their star and solid arm to the Bronx, they coagulated like Mark Lemongello – even as their spiritual leader was lost to his second gruesome injury of the year. Hear me now and believe me later, we do not want to see this team in the playoffs. What those P-marked duffel bags lack in talent, they fill with feelgood.

The Tigers have plenty of good-story mojo to them, but they may well square off against the Yanks before long, and that’s not likely a happy ending. Same goes for those scrappy A’s and sneaking-in Twins. Just doesn’t measure up.

Out in L.A., the Dodgers would ordinarily be void of the good stuff, but now that they’ve fleshed out their roster with a horde of ex-Sox, it would be a big middle finger to the outside-looking-in Beantowners. It’s a stretch of a storyline, but not beyond the wiles of that crack Fox Sports squad.

So what to make of the Mets’ karma in 2006? Yeah, it’s been a long while coming to get to some actual Mets content here, but like I said, it’s time to size up the other contenders as much as it is to take a look at the Mets. The Mets are long on talent, especially when that lineup is healthy and producing at even a modest clip. The rotation has been the subject of much scrutiny in spaces within this blog and throughout the Township. Unfortunately, it’s that facet of the club where the talent may be mitigated, and other factors may have to take over. You know – managerial shrewdness, defense, and big offensive outbursts (the kind Rob has on the softball field, in more ways than one). Plus, the thing I’ve been babbling on about for some time here. The big k-word.

Outside of Philadelphia (I’m forever thankful I largely remain), the Mets’ mojo matches up fairly well. They did pay through the schnoz for this team, and that always bodes ill in this conversation. If you’re going to spend lavishly, you’d better either spend wisely or spend 200 million bucks to offset the repercussions of a store-bought team. So far, Omar seems to have accomplished the former. Still, you have to fight through that purchased-their-way-here negativity.

On the positive side, the energy, youthful exuberance, and utter watch-ability that Jose Reyes and David Wright bring to the Mets is a huge plus. They seem to be doing it all the right way, they came up from the farm, and they’re locked up long-term. They are the face of the franchise, even in the wake of the big signings that stand out on the roster. There's a ton of good to come from this pair.

Oh, and 20 years since the ’86 team. A nice, round number. Worth a mention.

I’ll just say that this team feels like a winner, feels like a good group without any serious anti-karma dragging it down. Obviously, I am immensely biased, but from here, the high salaries seem to be the only detractor from the good vibes and the enormous talent. I certainly like their sense of destiny better than LaRussa’s gang’s or the rest of the NL’s. And if the Mets could find the fortune to advance, and they square off against the Yankees in the final showdown . . . well, if that contest ever came down to matters beyond the stratosphere, I’ll take those odds any day.

So that’s the lowdown on karma in baseball. I feel sure by now that you’ve been convinced that it plays a very real role in the outcome of October games. For analysis in a more linear sense . . . just go back to the Mets sites you’ve been visiting for the past three weeks in my stead.

See you again soon. I promise.

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