Thursday, December 14, 2006

Wicked Game

I was talking to my friend Jimmy Chitwood, and I’ve got something to say. I don't know if it'll make a difference, but I figured it's time for me to start blogging.

I’ll start slowly, clearing out the cobwebs that have invaded my portal to Misery Loves Company and treating my just-scabbed-over wounds from the end of the Mets’ season gingerly.

It’s time. Jerry over at the Wheelhouse just addressed his agony over the Game 7 defeat last weekend, and he summed up a good bit of what I was thinking and feeling about the Mets. The Mets-fan waiter at my pub of choice finally got around to discussing the squad after two months of grumbling “not ready to talk about it yet” as he’d walk by my barstool. My little MLC cohort has been exhorting me on for weeks now. I suppose it’s time to address the season and move on.

Today I’ll simply talk about Game 7. In case you’ve shelved the memories of the game to make room for more current NFL, college football, NHL, NBA, college basketball, and competitive eating thoughts, it was a dandy.

I happened to be sitting in the mezzanine seats in right-field, up there in the night with the excitable beer swillers and frenzied Met lovers. Sure, I’d love to have seats behind home plate for such a contest, but the mayhem of the upper sections turns out to be equally exhilarating, maybe more so, if you’re up for it. (You have to watch yourself up there; the guy behind me took a first-inning finger in the eye from a badly straying high-five attempt. Mine, of course.) Up there the tickets are cheaper, but in most cases the buyer felt the financial sting a little more to see the big game. Worth every penny, and not just because my bro-in-law gave me my ticket as an awesome birthday gift.

He, my cousins and I rode the 7 train out to Shea after a few pregamers at an Irish joint in midtown Manhattan. The ride out was killer, with every rider decked out appropriately, and a palpable buzz coming from both the anticipation of the climactic evening and the tall boys of Murphy’s stout that were passed around communally. It’s really the only way to go to the stadium on a night like that.

Approaching Shea was just as stirring, but it couldn’t compare to the moment of finding your seat and turning to face the spectacle of Game 7 NLCS baseball in Metville. That I did so after dumping half a beer on the guy in front of me’s neck didn’t faze the guy in the least or detract from the awe, it just began a comedic sidelight of me as the spazzy fan that would accompany the drama and offer comic relief at night’s end.

Rob had suggested that moving Dee-Dub down in the order might do the Mets some good. I averred that Willie’s vote of confidence, similar to the effective one he’d given Jose Valentin earlier in the series, would pay off, and in the first inning it did. Wright finally returned to the form that serves him best (someone explained to him that the abuse Mike Piazza took in the press was for a different kind of going the other way), knocking one into right field for a ribbie. “And the crowd goes wild” was the cliché that fit the moment.

Somewhere in the early innings I had an epiphany inspired by the ghost of my old Phillie friend Evan, who was prone to such quirks: it occurred to me that since Budweiser products are brewed, or at least based in St. Louis, there’s no way in hell we Mets fans should be paying for and consuming them on this night. Instead, it was Miller Lite all night – the only alternative, and really, we’ve had little beef with the Brewers through the years. After showing my traveling companions the light, I took to rallying the entire beer-buying population of the right-field Level 3 corridor to do the same. My hoarse voice the next day was surely due in large part to the urging on the boys in blue and orange during the game, but in no small part to my “follow me to freedom” shouting tour of the beer stands in close proximity between frames 2 and 3. At the very least, later the amused beer man would consistently crack open a couple of Lites for me before I even said the words, and even let me walk away with four on one occasion. The little things, I tell you.

So what of the game? It stands as a blur of images in my memory at this point, with Oliver Perez being brilliantly elusive, the hitters being agonizingly unproductive, and the defense holding tight with flashes of . . . well, what can I write about that catch that hasn’t been written??

Endy’s grab was a sports moment that will remain tattooed in my brain for as long as said brain remains functional. From deep right, we had the picture-perfect vantage point. Just after the crack of the bat, a collective “ugh” emanated from our section as we were all sure it was a dinger. Then little Endy got higher than we’d have figured he could and seemed to make a play, and we were hopeful . . . but we really couldn’t tell if he caught the ball or not. We all completely froze, and I’d love to have the audio as much as the video of these few seconds:

a huge groan
a gasp
total silence
a thousand people in our section in unison

and then . . . utter chaos
a burst of gleeful screams followed by a second one after the double play was completed

I’ll echo what ol’ Jerry said – at that moment, we simply knew the Mets were going to win. We in the right-mezz screamed like sixteen year old girls seeing the Beatles in 1964, vainly took the Lord’s name in bellowing admiration, and hurled ourselves into each other void of consideration for the injuries that resulted. It was the kind of little-kid bliss not common to folks in their mid-thirties’ regular routine. It was fucking awesome. The best 10 seconds I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event, bar none.

The superlatives, I am tremendously saddened to say, ended there. The night was on the verge of being the best game I’ve ever attended, but as a personally brutalizing loss, it’ll simply remain in the Top 5. If the Mets had won, it might have approached one of the best nights of my life, since I feel sure the Powerball ticket in my pocket that night would have hit, Springsteen would have shown up in the bar and asked me to join him onstage, and my wife would have arrived at the end of the raucous celebration with a limo full of playmates and a head full of bad ideas.

Well, in case you don’t remember, Yadier Stinkin’ Molina bested Aaron Heilman, and the Mets did not, as it turned out, go on to the World Series. We were the last four people to leave the mezzanine, doing so only after hounded by security. And that subway ride back to Manhattan – it was like a rattly funeral procession, eerily silent and a depressing juxtaposition to the trip out, as well as to the thought of the roof-tearing ride back that could have been. All too many uses of “could have been” have been thrown around in our heads and chatter since, and each has kept me from wanting to focus on the night until now.

A final note on the night that was – well, it actually comes from the next day. We awoke in my cousin’s apartment to a horrible morning. It was bad enough to wake up and wish that I’d dreamt the night before, bad enough to feel a horrible hangover buying real estate in my head and belly. It was bad enough to know that I had a two-hour car ride, then a two-hour train ride, then a three-hour car ride to get home that day, with little to think about besides how the Mets had crushed my spirits the night prior. It was even bad enough to walk the six blocks to the car in a disgustingly rainy New York morning that we knew would lengthen our return trip.

What I did not need, what I really could have done without, was the 12-year-old twerp in the Yankee jacket who spotted Patrick’s and my Mets caps and proceeded to scream for seemingly all of the five boroughs to hear “Mets suck, Mets suck, Mets suck” over and over again for – without exaggeration – a city block. Patrick and I looked at each other, partly in mutual annoyance, partly in amusement at the kid’s persistence. I remarked that my team had fared better than his, to which the youngster replied that he wasn’t a Yankees fan – he was a Tigers fan. (This encapsulates perfectly my impression of the lesser 90% of the Yanks’ following.) Patrick more logically inquired whether the kid shouldn’t be at school, but by then he was back on the “Mets suck” tirade. A block later, with this little bastard’s hollering fading into the distance, we wondered if we should have shoved him in a trash can. Somehow, despite the instinct, we kept our dignity.

Perhaps the reason we didn’t react more to the insult was that in our minds and hearts, we knew that “Mets suck” was a pretty dumb thing to say. The Mets won 97 regular season games (most in the league), many of them in exciting fashion. They breezed through L.A. and came damn close against the eventual World Series champions (American League dominance be damned) – even with their #1 and #3 pitchers on the shelf. This was a great season, and this was a great team. And man, to be able to type that sentence after the frustration beyond belief of the first few years of this blogging endeavor . . . well, that’s a whole lot of reason not to wallow too long in the depression that Game 7 precipitated.

It has to be the journey as much as the destination, maybe more, or there would be 29 dissatisfied fan bases to just one satisfied one, which would make following baseball a mostly fruitless passion. It’s easy to get hung up on the disappointment of such a finish, but now we move on to appreciating the body of work the 2006 New York Mets delivered. In future posts I will get into that. For now, though, I will merely bask in the recollection of one fantastic evening in Queens amid 56,357 of my best friends, ignoring the way the night soured and fixating on the magnificence of the memory.

Good times.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Can't Buy Me Love

Hot Stove, Cold Beer, Cool Cash Money

My head is spinning a bit, but I can’t tell whether it’s related to the obscene amount of money being tossed at professional baseball players or last weekend’s liver-pickling extravaganza at Whitney’s house. While J.D. Drew was pocketing $70 million dollars over 5 years and Julio Lugo bringing down $36 million for 4 years’ work in Boston, Whit and I conducted a tasting of notable seasonal brews from Harpoon, Anchor Steam, Abita, and Troegs with a little Dogfish Head thrown in for, well, killing a few more brain cells.

Of note, we concluded that it’s far easier to taste beer with an eye towards the critical if you’re not working toward the concurrent goal of getting sloshed. Abita’s 20th Anniversary brew was by far the most appropriate for the latter goal, owing to its smooth palate and clean finish. Unfortunately, we figured that out fairly late in the game, after chewing through most of the other offerings first. Harpoon Winter Warmer has a distinctive nutmeg and cinnamon flavor, and would be perfect for sitting around a fire and sipping. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anchor Steam’s Christmas Ale is a bit darker, nearly a porter in style, with some of the same wintry spice that livens up the Harpoon – again, good for enjoying with a meal, a bit filling if you aim to howl at the moon. The Troegs Mad Elf was simply a strange concoction, lively at 11% ABV, but aggressively unusual from a flavor perspective. If I could remember any details about that flavor, I’d surely share them – I’ve got 6 more in my fridge, so perhaps I’ll get into them this weekend in the interest of enlightening you. The Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA lived up to its reputation as one of America’s best beers, hoppy and fruity with a sit-up-and-take-notice 9% ABV.

As for the Sox offseason exploits, there are certain amongst you who’ll not likely take my fiscal sanity harangues seriously anymore, and I suppose I’ve got that coming. I will say this – after seeing Ted Lilly get $10 million a year and Gil Meche (Gil Freaking Meche!) sign for $55 million guaranteed smackeroos, the Drew and Lugo contracts are market value at worst, and damn near steals. Drew’s a top-25 offensive talent with elite defensive skills. His career OPS is over .900, and he projects to be a plus-power on-base machine at Fenway if he stays healthy. Ahhh, but that’s a big if, no? Drew’s a risk, no question, but if healthy, he combines with Ortiz and Ramirez to create an imposing middle of the order.

Lugo slots immediately into the leadoff spot, dropping Kevin Youkilis into the 2-slot and creating a tantalizing combination of speed and patience in front of the big 3. Lugo’s presence allows Coco Crisp to drop down to the bottom of the order where he can get his stroke back under a lot less pressure than he faced in 2006. Lugo’s not gonna pick it as well as Alex Gonzalez did last year, but he’s also not likely to post a sub-.700 OPS.

The Daisuke Matsuzaka negotiations should be the subject of a Harvard Business School case study in game theory. Though Scott Boras is undeniably evil, he's also a brilliant motherfucker, having manufactured pressure on the Sox in a closed negotiation where it theoretically shouldn’t exist. On the other hand, Theo Epstein, Larry Lucchino, and John Henry weren’t born yesterday, and the Sox still do hold the best cards, so I expect a deal to get done before next week’s deadline.

After Matsusaka joins the fold, the Sox only hole will be at the back of the bullpen, empty because of Keith Foulke’s departure and Jonathan Papelbon’s transition to the rotation. I’ve heard everything from Eric Gagne to Chad Cordero to Derrick Turnbow (um, yeah, not so much), and I can’t say that I’m terribly thrilled by any of the options. Since I’m running short on time (it is 5:00 on a Friday, after all) and on original thought (as if that’s ever stopped us), we’ll leave the closer situation for another day. Lord knows we’re struggling for offseason content. Ahem.

Leaving on a bright note, Jon Lester appears to be cancer free, and even if he doesn’t make it back to Fenway in 2007, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t resume his ostensibly bright career.

And go listen to Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat, and the new Wreckers album if you want to hear some seriously killer chick-rock.