Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Meet the Sisyphean Mets

Game 162, 2008
Marlins 4
Mets 2

Game 162, 2007
Marlins 8
Mets 1

It came down to the last day of the season.
The Mets lost.
It came down to the last day of the season.
The Mets lost.

I was absolutely deadened by the loss to the Marlins on Sunday afternoon. As lifeless as the expression on Michael Cera's face when he delivers a punch line. I crawled under the heavy made-for-winter comforter on my bed (the one that my girlfriend absolutely hates all summer long) year-round and laid there, in and out of fevered sleep as the closing ceremonies at Shea Stadium took place on SNY. I was exhausted. I was a little sweaty. I was a little drunk. I'd been at Shea the day before. I'd watched Saturday's Cubs/Brewers game in a bar in midtown after emerging from Penn Station. I'd even gotten up at 6:45 a.m. to run a 5K race on Sunday morning for charity. Mostly because I thought the karmic boost might help the Mets. It didn't. The Mets lost. On the last day of the season. To the Marlins. Again.

Much ink has been spilt about the game. About the obviousness of the bullpen imploding. About the ways in which this group is flawed. About the ways in which it should be altered. It's all true. I'll no doubt chime in with my thoughts on how to shake up and/or break up this club. But I'm not entirely ready to talk about baseball moves. About option years. And free agent signings. Not yet. Before we can talk hot stove we need to talk about Greek mythology. First we need to talk about Sisyphus and his boulder.

Sisyphus was the son of Aeolus, the king of Thessaly. He was cunning and ambitious, filled with confidence and an absence of respect for the gods. He was credited as the founder of Corinth, a city-state on the narrow stretch of land connecting the Greek mainland with the Peloponnese. He had it all. His piece of Corinthian real estate pushed many a traveler past his door. Sisyphus famously murdered and took advantage of those on the road or upon the sea. He was deceitful and violent when it came to gaining wealth and protecting it. Among the many crimes committed by Sisyphus was revealing a secret of Zeus. Not surprisingly the secret had to do with some illicit loving.

Zeus, seeking recompense, sent Hades, lord of the Underworld, to take Sisyphus in chains to the kingdom of the dead. Upon arriving at Sisyphus's place, Hades was tricked by his should-be captive into trying on the very chains he brought with him. The clever Sisyphus feigned such interest in the workings of the binding instruments that his would-be captor actually demonstrated how they worked. On himself. With near-Olympic quickness, Sisyphus locked the cuffs and left the god in the coat closet for a time. And, just like in a certain Family Guy episode, the finality of death was stopped while Hades was imprisoned. During this interlude, the ever-plotting Sisyphus told is wife that upon his death she must not bury him. She probably didn't know what he was talking about but probably also hated the guy so she did as he asked. It was surely less hassle for her not to have a funeral. Especially for such a jerk. Eventually, Hades was loosed. Sisyphus died and was brought the Underworld.

Upon arriving in the underworld, our wily protagonist had one final trick up his robe. Remember, there were no sleeves to hide tricks in back then. Anyway, he lamented to Persephone, the wife of Hades and queen of the underworld, how unfortunate it was that his own beloved wife had never performed the traditional funerary rights over his corpse. It was a sob story of the highest caliber. And, like her gullible beau, Persephone fell for it. She permitted Sisyphus to return to the land of the living to see that his wife burried his body properly. Of course, Sisyphus had no interest in being properly sent off to death. He was back on the mortal coil to party it up while he could. And, boy did he ever. Some of the stuff he pulled would have made Zeus blush. And, that guy impregnated people while impersonating livestock. Eventually, though, Sisyphus was dragged back down to Hades. Needless to say, the Greek gods were less than pleased with him. He was sentenced to eternal frustration and hard labor. He was given a mammoth boulder and forced to push it to the zenith of a mountain. The trick was that every time he about to reach the peak the boulder would roll right back down to the bottom. Sisyphus had no option but to start over each time. Forever. Each day, year and season was the same. Sisyphus would push that boulder up the mountainside only to be thwarted at the last moment.

Sort of like the Mets these days. After the second consecutive year of missing out on the playoffs on the campaign's final day, it is clear these are the Sisyphean Mets. The ballclub and its fans have been fated to relive the same painful ending over and over. In each of the past three seasons we've almost rolled the boulder to the top of the mountain. Only to see it roll back down at the penultimate moment. It is the same thing. Over and over. And, these have been potentially the first few years of forever. Forever ever.

In the second-to-last game of the 2007 the Mets received a dominant (near no-hitter by John Maine) pitching performance and survived to fight on the final day. On the morning of the final game it felt like the momentum had finally turned. It felt like the team would get the boulder to the summit. But they didn't. They lost to the Marlins. And the boulder rolled down as the other team (the Phillies) won. In the second-to-last game of the 2008 season the Mets received a dominant (three-hit complete game by Johan Santana) pitching performance and survived to fight another day. On the morning of the final game it felt like the momentum had finally turned. It felt like the team would get the boulder to the summit. But they didn't. They lost to the Marlins. And the boulder rolled down as the other team (the Brewers) won.

To take this a step further (and at this point, why not?), almost every single game that the Mets play at this point is a Sisyphean challenge: The Mets score in the early innings to move the boulder up the mountain only to see the bullpen surrender the lead late in the game, sending the burden crashing back down the incline. That's a happened a few times.

The real question is not whether or not the club should fire GM Omar Minaya (YES!), rather the most important question to ask is what was the Mets trespass that angered the baseball gods so much? Perhaps it was the hubris engendered by the magazine covers that Minaya and his multicultural clubhouse garnered in the first years of his reign. Perhaps it was Minaya's vanity and his positioning of himself as some sort of bilingual revolutionary. Perhaps it was the team's confidence going into the 2007 season. They carried themselves as if they had already won the World Series from the first day of Spring Training. Whereas all they had really done was lose in the second round of the 2006 playoffs. Perhaps this is punishment for the disgraceful way in which former manager Willie Randolph was fired in the dead of night in Anaheim. Or, could the way in which the Mets brass used their late-night axe in hopes of deceiving the newspapermen back in New York be what has brought this blight upon us? Maybe angering the back-pagesters by trying to circumvent, even if just for 24 hours, their platform is the modern-day equivalent of tricking Hades and chaining him up in the closet.

Whatever the particular demerit that brought this punishment upon the organization, it must be noted that there is some blame to be laid on the shoulders of all us Mets fans for the club's Sisyphean fate. The blame must partly carried on our shoulders because we've failed to notice Sisyphus's boulder all these years. We failed to notice the boulder until it was too late, even though the engine of our punishment was in Flushing long before the 2008 denouement. And long before the 2007 collapse. It was there all along. Since the inception of the franchise it has been lying in wait for its fated work in the final days of Shea Stadium. It's been counting the days until it would roll back upon us. And, we cheered it. And, we loved it. Not seeing this damning boulder for what it was. You could say the boulder was our mascot. Because it was. The Sisyphean boulder has been with us all along. It's been atop the neck of Mr. Met. We are truly doomed.

The Last Win at Shea Stadium

Images from My Last Trip to Shea Stadium & Johan Santana's Saturday "Season-Saving" Gem

The second to last game at Shea Stadium was scheduled for this past Saturday. But everyone there and at home knew it would ultimately be the last one that mattered if things didn't break right for the home team. The sky was overcast. The parking lot was filled with enough nervous energy to put a blind date at ease. And, it was a blind date of sorts. It was the first time that we Mets fans would see the 2008 club in a do-or-die situation. It was the first time that we would really get to see Johan Santana. We had heard he was great. All of our friends had told us so. The greatest, in fact, they said. We had heard about this calm. His cool. His smile. His great sense of humor. We had heard so many great things about this guy. And, Saturday was the time when we would meet him at Shea for a few hours to find out what he was really about.

The tepid-temp'd air was soupy with the mist of 2007 tears, the evidence of a Nor'easter that wasn't quite, and a the perspiration of a 2008 Division-turned-Wild Card race. It was damp but electric at Shea in the minutes before the first pitch, which was delayed slightly due to the weather. There was no place I would rather have been. And, even better, it was far clearer than the day itself that there was no place that Santana would rather have been either.

He was the Alpha dog. He was the Omega dog. He was everything you hope for when you pay an athlete in surplus of a hundred million dollars. Santana had pitched on Tuesday night and thrown a career-high 125 pitches in a complete game victory over the Cubs to make today possible. Yet he came out as fresh and aggressive as if it were Opening Day. He dominated. He pulled the string on anxious Florida Marlins hitters with the sly wink/nod braggadocio of a three-card monte dealer outside of the Hollis subway station. He moved the ball around the strike zone with the precision of a conductor at Carnegie Hall. He was brilliant.

On his not-so-broad shoulders, the Metropolitans were carried to the final day of the regular season (where they would lose). He went the distance, though, on Saturday. Never wavering. Never coming close to surrendering the ball, even in the ninth when he allowed (and I purposefully say "allowed" rather than "surrendered") the tying runs to reach base in the final frame. The Mets bullpen saw it's first action that afternoon just then, but Santana quickly rendered such action moot when he retired the final batter of the game. It was a complete-game, three-hit shutout. Johan struck out nine. And the Mets lived to fight another day.

Of course, everything that happened the following day stripped this performance of implication. But it didn't take away its meaning. At least not for those of us who were lucky enough to be there. In fact, the impotence of the season's final day only casts such a gem from Santana in harsher relief. It only highlights how crucial his nine-inning effort was. His was the last win at Shea Stadium. It was my last trip to Shea Stadium. My last memories of Shea will be good ones even if these images can't help but take on melancholy undertones given what we happened the next day.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday's Starting Five

1. CC Sabathia. I didn't watch any of it. It being the Brewers/Cubs game that took place yesterday. I was aware of it. Hyper-aware. Like the Predator was of Arnold in the jungles of Guatemala. I didn't want it to matter. But it did. And, it ruined my Sunday. My week. My October. But, there is no taking away from the gargantuan performance that Brewers rent-an-Ace CC Sabathia put together yesterday. Pitching for the second straight outing on three days' rest (which is one less day than Big League pitchers are accustomed to), CC went the distance and carried his team, with some help, into the postseason for the first time since 1982. The Brewers won, thanks to the big guy. The Brewers are the National League Wild Card winners. Done and done.

2. Ryan Braun. He is the Hebrew Hammer. He may very well be the 2008 National League Most Valuable Player. And with everything on the line he came through for his team. Unlike some other gentiles that I know. Especially those named after particular houses of worship not frequented by Mr. Braun. Anyway, the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year stepped to the plate at a packed Miller Park in a 1-1 tie with two outs and one on in the eight inning. Cubs reliever Bob Howry* delivered a pitch to home plate and Braun unleashed a characteristically sweet swing, depositing the ball in the stands for the game-winning home run. Although he was scuffling a bit down the stretch he came through when it mattered most. Happy Roshanah.

3. The Florida Marlins. I can't think of a happier baseball team without a game scheduled for this week than the Florida Marlins. Florida defeated the Mets yesterday to end the season of their NL East rival. The Marlins hate the Mets. In the sort of honest and dynamic way that we want our teams to dislike their rivals. The Marlins hate the Mets like the Knicks and Heat used to hate each other. It is a bilious passion that inspires them to play better than there talent (or at least their regular-season record) warrants. And, for the second consecutive year the Marlins were at Shea Stadium to see the end of a Mets season. Luckily, for the Mets and their fans, the Marlins do not end the 2009 season at Citi Field.

4. Laveranues Coles. The 2008 NFL preseason was not kind to the Jets sort-of-star wide receiver. His best friend, Chad Pennington, was cut from his team. Coles was upset about it. He was mostly mocked for his upsetness. For his loyalty to a franchise stalwart who had been unceremoniously dumped by a newish regime looking to make their own mark on the club and/or save their own skins after a horrorshow 2007 effort. Coles was also held up in the early going by a few knick-knack injuries. The combination of these things all led the wider football watching world to believe that his younger teammate Jericho Cotchery had actually leapfrogged him on the depth chart and was the team's alpha reciever. So, to sum up: Coles was sad, considered a little bit too close to Chad (if you know what I'm saying), oldish, hurt and not really the leader of the team to which he had been named captain the year prior. All in all, it wasn't a great first few weeks to the 2008 campaign. Until yesterday, when Brett Favre and Coles hooked up for three touchdowns in a rollicking rout of the visiting Arizona Cardinals.

5. Johan Santana. (One of)The greatest shame(s) of the New York Metropolitans loss yesterday is that Saturday's should-be legendary game by Johan is now forever lost to history. Only the people who were at the game will ever remember it. Arguably the biggest must-win start in the franchise history will be forgotten. Because within 24 hours it was made meaningless. Johan deserved better than that. And, Mets fans deserved better than that. If the Mets had won yesterday then Johan's complete-game, three hit shutout becomes an all-time great performance that will go down in franchise history with Tom Seaver's near-perfecto in July 1969 and Al Leiter's two-hit, complete-game shutout in the one-game playoff for the 1999 Wild Card. Each of Santana's nine strikeouts would have been stanzas in the epic poem that was this outing. It was the sort of masterful performance encapsulates the sort of excellence Santana has. And, yet it means nothing. Nothing. Even though at the time it meant absolutely everything.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Oakley Would Start Johan On Saturday

Mets Manager Manuel Must Santana On Short Rest

The Mets enter play on Friday night in a flat-footed tie with the Milwaukee Brewers for the National League Wild Card playoff berth (which goes to the best team in the NL that does not win their division) and a game back of the NL East rival Phillies. The Brewers are playing the Chicago Cubs this weekend while, the Phils are fighting the lowly Nats and the Metsies are taking on the ballclub from Florida that witnessed the 2007 death throes.

No matter what happens in tonight's game between the Mets and Marlins at Shea, Jerry Manuel must start ace pitcher Johan Santana on short rest in the game on Saturday. He has to. It's a must. This is a dealbreaker for me with Manuel. If he throws out one of the no-name, never-was or not-yet starters that has spot-started for the club this season then he is most definitely not a gangster, as he professes to be. And, I wouldn't want him to be my club's skipper next season.

The Must-Start Johan Scenarios
If the Mets lose and the Brewers both win then you HAVE to throw Santana because if you wait until he is fully rested you might end up with a gem on Sunday that means absolutely nothing. If the Mets wake up trailing the Brewers on Saturday morning then that game IS the season. It is the game that keeps them alive to fight on Sunday. If Brandon Knight or Nelson Figueroa gets bombed in that spot then yours truly could start in the regular-season finale.

If the Mets lose and the Brewers lose then you also HAVE to send Johan to the hill on Saturday because you must make an effort to grab the Wild Card lead going into the season's final day. They can't let the Brewers be the ones to break the tie (with a Saturday win and Mets loss) because that put's Johan in a spot where all he can do is force a playoff game on Monday with a win of his own on Sunday. You need to be aggressive and throw your ace on the day you can win the Wild Card rather than on the day when the best you can do force a tie. If the Mets and Brewers both lose tonight then you can't start a wish-and-prayer guy tomorrow and squander a chance to be in the driver's seat when everyone puts on their Sunday finest for the last regular season game at Shea.

The Mostly-Must-Start Johan Scenario
If the Mets win and the Brewers (and Phillies) lose then you really, really should start Johan to try to take control going into Sunday. You want to put the pressure on the other two clubs. You want to try to lock up the Wild Card on Saturday so that we can all enjoy the festivities scheduled for Sunday.

Jerry Manuel famously announced the press corps and the Metropolitans that he was a "gangster" shortly after taking over the managerial reins from the gracelessly deposed Willie Randolph. Well, if Jerry is really a gangster than now is the time to show it. Gangsters don't wait and hope and pamper and let something they covet come to them. Gangsters go out and take what they want. In other words, gangsters start Johan Santana on Saturday. No matter what. Because gangsters want to be in the playoffs and are smart enough to know that Johan is the only guy who can take the race. Well, him and CC Sabathia.

And, this is why Charles Oakley would start Johan on Saturday.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Monday's Starting Five

1. Ronnie Brown. He did everything yesterday. He ran. He caught. He threw. He even flew. Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown did everything you could ask a football player to do and he did it well as his side throttled the defending AFC champion New England Patriots up in Foxboro, MA. Everyone thought, or at least Vegas tried to make everyone think, that last week was when the Pats would begin their post-Brady descent. However, it seemed that some combination of Jets offensive ineptitude, Pats' us-against-the-world post-Pollian high and the not-enough-time-to-panic offensive transition kept the Belitrain on the tracks for four more quarters of football. Regardless, Brown knocked that train off the tracks yesterday. He took several direct snaps from the single wing formation and ran wild. Oh, and, it should be noted that Dolphins QB Chad Pennington was 17 for 20 for 226 yards.

2. The Buffalo Bills. Ladies and Gentlemen, these are your AFC East leaders after Week 3 of the 2008 NFL season. The best team hailing from New York may be located somewhere that hail wouldn't be too shocking: Buffalo. The only New York football team to actually play in the Empire State came back late against a surprisingly feisty Raiders team for their third win in three tries. They've got an offense stocked with young skill players (Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch, Roscoe Parrish and Lee Evans), a solid if not spectacular defense, dynamic special teams and a great, under-rated home field advantage. As a Jets fans, this is the AFC East foe who would cause me the least angst by taking the division. Which, I guess, is sort of an endorsement. So, it's another case of that ol' saying the team I hate less than my enemy is not my friend but I don't mind then taking a playoff spot. You know. That chestnut from the sea.

3. J.T. Barnum O'Sullivan. The fortunate son at the center of the Frankfurt Galaxy before NFL Europa went the way of Lehman Brothers has gotten the San Francisco 49ers off to a surprising 2-1 start to the 2008 campaign. The 31 points O'Sullivan (with some serious help from RB Frank Gore) hung on the lowly Lions may appear a Barnumesque hoax a few weeks down the road but for the time being I know three people that are totally psyched about it.

4. The Philadelphia Phillies & The Milwaukee Brewers. "You're welcome," says Mets General Manager Omar Minaya as his bullpen continues to put wind into the sails of the wrong ships. The less than amazin' bullpen gave up four runs in Sunday's loss to the Braves, squandering a decent-not-great effort by Mike Pelfrey. The Fightins are so confident they've already been selling 2008 NL East Division Champion shirts. While I'd like to see this end up in El Salvador with those 19-0 shirts I am inclined to agree.

5. The Houston Astros. They may not be doing well in the standings but they are standing (3.5 back in the Wild Card) up for themselves in the press. Which is worth something. Perhaps not a playoff berth. But something. The Astros were hosed by the powers that be -- meaning God for sending Hurricane Ike through their backyard and then MLB Commissioner Bud Selig for sending the team to play a key "home" series against the Cubs in Milwaukee -- and they are letting the world know that they know it. The club was on a tear heading into last weekend, having won 14 of their last 15, when Ike wreaked havoc on their hometown and their schedule. Set to play a key three-game series in Houston with the NL Central rival Cubs, the teams were dispatched to Miller Park in the Brew City for the trio of games. Unfortunately for the 'Stros, Miller Park is much, much closer to Chicago (only 81 miles) than Houston and the contests were de facto home games for the division-leading Cubbies. Houston was swept "at home" by the Cubs in Milwaukee, including being no-hit by Carlos Zambrano. NL MVP candidate Lance Berkman told the Houston Chronicle that "Major League Baseball has always valued the dollar more than they do the individual, the players and their families."

Benched. Any Fantasy Football League Manager Who Left Ronnie Brown on the Bench. Yeah, he is a Dolphin. And he was facing the Patriots. But odds are you drafted him high-ish in your league. According to ESPN.com his average fantasy draft position was 38.1. Which means you probably weren't starting anyone better ahead of him, unless he dropped in your league or you took running backs with your first three picks. Por ejemplo, a fellow in one of my leagues started Jets RB and kick returner Leon Washington over Brown this week. And, yes, he is a Jets fan.

Monday, September 15, 2008

"Memphis is in a very lucky position on the map. Everything just gravitated to Memphis for years."~Steve Cropper

Knicks May Send Zach Randolph to "Lucky" Memphis

From the legendary ribs at The Rendezvous to the signature sounds that were being put out by Sun Records back in the 1950s and 60s the city of Memphis has always had a unique flavor all it's own. And, according to the grapevine and the Daily News, power forward Zach Randolph may be adding some of his own special seasonings to the sultry southern city.

Randolph might be a Memphian in short order because the New York Knickerbockers are talking trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. The reported deal has the Knicks sending Randolph south in exchange for fabled draft bust Darko Milicic and Serb point guard Marko Jaric, who is dating/engaged/married to the very attractive and very-much more famous Adriana Lima.

In a word: Yes. In three words: Do this deal. In seven words: Please ship Zach Randolph out of town. In 29 words: I strongly believe that this club's road to redemption - both on the court and against the salary cap - begins with the deportation of Zach Randolph, Isiah Thomas's costliest blunder.

Not only would this deal with Memphis improve my currently meager chances of meeting Ms. Lima but it would rid the Knicks of their most onerous contract. Randolph is due $14.67 million next season, $16 million in 2009/2010 and $17.33 million in 2010/2011. Jaric and Milicic, meanwhile, are due a combined $13.5 million next season and only slightly more the following campaign. The most embarrassing part of Joe Dumars's resume, then, comes off the books after two seasons while Jaric is still under contract for about ten million less than Randolph. And, most importantly, all this financial relief comes right in time for the long awaited Summer of Lebron.

And, what of Darko and Marko? Ever since parting with the rights to Frederic Weis to acquire Patrick Ewing, Jr. the Knicks have been without a hugely disappointing Euro big man on the roster and I think Milicic fits the bill. Yeah, that'll do nicely. And, I'm all for giving D'Antoni as many point guards as possible to throw against the wall in hopes of finding one that flourishes in his system.