Friday, July 28, 2006

The '51 Dodgers probably felt pretty confident too

Haven't written much about the Mets this season, even though they're having their best year since 1988. Been afraid of jinxing them. Twelve games up on the Braves going into August looks like an insurmountable lead.

But back in 1951 the Giants were 13 and a half back of the Dodgers in mid-August and Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca can tell you how much that mattered by October 3rd. Starting on August 12, the Giants won 16 in a row.

So I'm not predicting anything and I'm placing no bets.

But it's sure been fun so far. And this year's Mets have to be the most likeable Mets team ever.

I liked the '86 club, the whole crew, even Roger McDowell and Kevin Mitchell. But I can see how from another point of view---say that of an Astros fan or a Red Sox fan---Hernandez and Carter and Darryl and Doc and Ray Knight might have been hard to warm up to.

How could you not have liked Howard Johnson though?

Or Dykstra?

You had to love the pre-Phillies, pre-bulked up Nails. I liked Lenny when he was with the Phillies and bulked up too, but when he was with the Mets, watching him play center like he was in a war zone, you expected that any game now he was going to kill himself running through the wall or diving for a blooper to shallow right center so hard he'd have saved the club money on burying him.

I remember a game in mid-season when he had to come way in to catch a ball he had no business even getting close to---in fact, I think it's even in the rule book: Balls hit to that exact spot behind second base are to be considered automatic bloop singles; no player shall waste time or energy or risk injury trying to catch said balls nor shall any manager fine, chew out, bench, or otherwise punish a center fielder who observes such a ball on its way up and down and recognizes its uncatchability and stays back waiting to play it on the hop---but Lenny got to it on the run and, still running towards the infield, dug it out of his glove and fired it home, nailing the runner who was confidently coming in from third. It's a wonder Dykstra's arm didn't come off and fly with it to the plate.

"Just your routine double play," observed a laughing Tim McCarver.

I loved the '69 Mets, but I don't really remember them, except through a nostalgic haze. They were my first true baseball love and that was the first year I really followed a team from spring training through the World Series. Tom Seaver was, and still is, my baseball hero. After Willie Mays, of course.

And I suppose the '62 Amazin's were likeable, the way a nearsighted dog is likeable. You feel sorry for it and can't help admiring its grit as it keeps bumping into the same tree as it chases after the neighbor's cat again and again.

"Can't anybody here play this game?" Casey Stengel asked in dismay. But a couple of his players could, including Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, who was wrapping up his career in New York, managing to keep some of his dignity while the clown show bumbled about the field all around him.

Mets had an infielder at the time, must have been Elio Chacon, who didn't speak English, or who forgot what English he knew during the excitement of a game. As I heard Ashburn tell it, it was routine when a ball was hit to shallow center and both Ashburn and Chacon were going after it for Chacon not to hear or understand Ashburn shouting "I got it! I got it!" and veer off. He'd crash right into Ashburn and the ball would go dribbling away.

So Ashburn decided he needed to learn how to say "I got it" in Spanish, which is "Yo lo tengo!"

Next game, ball's hit their way, Chacon goes out, Asburn comes in, Ashburn shouts, "You lo tengo! Yo lo tengo!"

Chacon pulls up to let Ashburn take it.

And the left fielder runs Ashburn down.

Nobody wonders if the guys on this year's team can play the game.

And they all seem like good guys too. Cliff Floyd's grumpy, but then some part of him is always broken or bruised so you have to excuse him and even like him in his grumpiness.

But one of my favorites is Jose Valentin. It's always fun to see a formerly good player make a comeback after everybody else had decided his career's over. Michael Geffner had an excellent story on Valentin in the Times Herald Record Monday. Begins:

For more than a month at the beginning of the season, Jose Valentin felt so buried near the bottom of the Mets' roster that he considered the most extreme scenario almost daily: walking unannounced into Willie Randolph's office and letting it all out. Telling his manager, eyeball-to-eyeball, man-to-man, that he simply can't take it anymore.

That he can't perform being used so little and feeling during each rare at-bat like he has to do so much. And that he's not ready to drift off into career obscurity yet, as nothing more than a late-inning pinch-hitter.

"The frustration got really bad for awhile," Valentin admitted while sitting by his locker, his head dipped slightly and his moustache a flat line. "I was calling everybody. My father. My agent. My friends. I needed to tell people close to me, so I wouldn't do something crazy.

"I was so unhappy. It hurt so much to put on the uniform every day and not do anything. But, because we were winning, I made sure not to show it to my teammates.

"The thing is, I thought I had signed up to be a regular backup here, not a pinch-hitter getting one at-bat every now and then. I never did that before. And if that was going to be my role, I didn't want to be here."

He paused before adding: "Every day, I was getting angrier and angrier. At myself, the situation, everything."

Read the story. It's a profile of patience, perseverence, and self-control. And there's a happy ending.

I'm telling you. You gotta like these guys.

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