Friday, November 30, 2007

I Hope You're Happy, Joel Sherman

Gee, here I was about to write that Jose Reyes needed to step it up after his vote of confidence from Omar, who refuses to deal him for Johan Santana, when I heard today's big news.

I'm just pleased as punch that the Mets were able to foist the bubonic plague known as Lastings Milledge on the Washington Nationals today for a Right-wing Christian and a .230 hitter. That was, for sure, a move that desperately needed to be made.

It baffles me, quite honestly. I know this all comes back to the Media in New York, which made this poor kid a pariah because he sang a rap song and high-fived some fans because he was excited over hitting a Home Run, and he showboated a little bit, and was a young, exciting ballplayer. God Forbid the Mets should have someone like that on their team. My feelings on the Mets' stance on Milledge have already been well documented, and their stance on other such "boat-rockers" as LoDuca has already reared its head this off-season, and now it's culminated with Lastings finally being driven out of town.

In his stead, the Mets have brought in a catcher, who is good defensively but cannot hit the broad side of a barn, to go along with the other two catchers they already have. I guess this is the opposite of Art Howe's logic, when he claimed that you can't have too much pitching; now you can't have too much catching. So the Mets can now lose games 2-1 instead of 3-1 because Schneider will keep that extra run off the board, but he's still going to go 0 for 4.

Moreover, the Mets have brought in a guy who, despite putting up some decent offensive numbers, really boils down to a younger Shawn Green, except that he hits closer to the 35-year old Green than the 29-year old Green. But then again, Green is a heathen, headed for eternal damnation.

But at least he's not rapping about it.

I sincerely hope that this happened simply because there was no market for Milledge, and that this was Omar's precursor for dealing one or two or some combination of several of these spare parts for something decent. Otherwise, the Mets have just screwed themselves even further by dealing away the guy who was best suited to take over the Right Field job full time in '08. I don't know. Maybe if Milledge's star has fallen that much, this really was the best Omar could get for him. Maybe he's not going to develop and Church's numbers will end up equaling his. But right now, I can't figure this one out. I'm baffled right now.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

20 Days in October, Part IV

...Continued from Part III
Part I and Part II available here in case you missed it.

Saturday, October 9
Game 4

It was probably about 8AM when I woke up. I was too amped up to sleep that night, and I was too amped up to stand around at home before I headed out to Shea. I arrived at around 10:30.

I was meeting my friend, who had the tickets, at around 11:30.

So, stand and wait. It was unseasonably warm for early October. The banners outside the stadium, which all season had read the Mets slogan of "ARE YOU READY..." now triumphantly read "ARE YOU READY...FOR THE POSTSEASON!" Everything seemed a little more electric this late morning.

This was real.

My friend finally arrived, with a handful of extra tickets. How he managed to get so many, I'll never know. He had his ways. But he was intent on going around and selling off as many as he could. I wanted no part of it. I was going into the stadium.

Mezzanine Reserved, Section 12, Row K, Seat 20. That's where I was.

First look. D'Backs BP.

Nothing but a simple NLDS logo on the outfield fence. The bunting was up. I'm a big fan of bunting. John Madden said it best: "That's when you know it's a big game. When they get out the bunting, that means it's gotta be a big game."

The scoreboard tells me everything I need to know. Only 3 games today. This 1:10 start time would coincide with Game 4 of the Braves/Astros series, with the Braves looking to put away Houston in the Astrodome. What a matchup that would be, the Mets and the Braves in the NLCS. The bad blood that had been festering since late September was already beginning to brew.
Still, more important things to take care of before we can worry about Atlanta. The Diamondbacks are tough, and certainly won't go away easily. The crowd knows this, and as game time approaches, the crowds coming out of the Subway, back when you could still easily exit the subway, grew larger and larger.

And inside the stadium, it just got more and more electric. Keith and Mookie throw out the first pitches, and we're ready.
All season long, the Mets had used the intro to Pink Floyd's "Time" as their pregame entrance music. For the Postseason, they switched the song. The outro from The Beatles "A Day In The Life" built to its crescendo as the Mets take the field...

...giving way to Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita," as Al Leiter warmed up. Leiter deservedly was given a hero's welcome, pitching for the first time since his sterling 2-hit shutout in the Wildcard Play-In game last Monday. He would be opposed by Brian Anderson for Arizona, in a somewhat controversial move by D'Backs manager Buck Showalter. The logic dictated that he should hold Randy Johnson back for a potential Game 5 in Arizona, on his normal rest. But trailing 2 games to 1, there's no guarantee that there will be a Game 5. Still, Showalter went with Anderson, a lefty, on this afternoon.

Todd Pratt still starts behind the plate. It's unknown to me, although they mention on ESPN that Mike Piazza's thumb has not improved. It's wrapped so heavily that it's unlikely he's able to even pinch hit should the case present itself. Little do we know the role Todd Pratt will play on this afternoon. What we know is that Tony Womack is stepping in to lead off, and begin what will be a most memorable day at Shea Stadium.

At 2-2 to Womack, the entire crowd, jammed to the rafters, is up and screaming. We're on every 2-strike pitch. Womack hits a screamer into left-center. Darryl Hamilton, in a rare start against the lefty, races back and runs it down.

Hamilton is in there based solely on a hunch Valentine has. He's in for defense behind Leiter, a fly-ball pitcher.

With 1 out, Jay Bell draws the walk. He's running on the 1-1 pitch to Luis Gonzalez, but Pratt's throw is right on the money, and Bell is thrown out. Gonzalez flies to center to end the inning. Off to a good start.

But Anderson will prove to be just as tough in the early going. Only an Olerud single in the first, and through the first 3 innings, that's it for either team in what has clearly started out as a pitchers duel. Leiter continues by setting down the D'Backs 1-2-3 in the top of the 4th.

But Edgardo Alfonzo leads off in the 4th and promptly hits one out, a long, high fly ball out into the left field bleachers. Fans are jumping off the walls as Fonzie rounds the bases, the conquering hero. It's his 3rd HR of the series, and the Mets have the lead, 1-0.

But the lead is short-lived. Still working on a no hitter, Leiter has one out in the 5th when Greg Colbrunn, the righty half of the D'Backs first base platoon, hits a shot even higher than Fonzie's, deep into left field, hooking towards the wall, and the D'Backs bullpen. Rickey gives chase, jumps at the wall, but it's gone. First hit, first run, and a 1-1 tie.

But after a single from Steve Finley, Leiter settles back down and retires the D'Backs. But Anderson continues to mow down the Mets in the 5th. In the 6th, Leiter hits Bell with 2 outs. But nothing comes of it, and the Mets bat in their half of the inning with the top of the order against Anderson.

Rickey leads off the inning by making Anderson completely nuts. After working the count to 2-2, Rickey begins swinging at everything Anderson throws, and Anderson simply refuses to give in to Rickey. Foul after foul after foul. Finally, on the 14th pitch of the at bat, Rickey punches a flare into right field for a hit. After Alfonzo pops out, Olerud follows by ripping a single in between Finley and Gonzalez, moving Rickey all the way to 3rd. Now we're talking.

Agbayani follows it up by smashing a long double off the wall in right center, scoring Rickey, and moving Olerud to 3rd with 1 out. Here's the ice-breaker, the rally we've been looking for all afternoon.

But the Mets can't cash in on the opportunity. Ventura grounds back to Anderson, and Pratt follows by grounding out himself. After all that, it's still just a 2-1 game.

But Leiter continues to be well in control. Through the 7th, nothing, and he appears poised to cruise through the 8th as well. With 2 outs and nobody on, he's cruising. But, uncharacteristically, Leiter walks the pinch hitter Turner Ward on 4 pitches. Womack follows that up by hitting a chopper towards Fonzie. Fonzie seems to have it, but all of a sudden drops it, and that split second's difference is enough to allow Womack to beat it out for an infield hit.

Still, seems no bother. But Leiter is done for the afternoon, and leaves to an ovation larger and louder than the one he received at the outset. Leiter tips his cap to all corners of the stadium as he exits. Benitez is coming in to face Jay Bell.

On ESPN, Ray Knight warns of Bell's power. "Jay Bell loooooooves the fastball, middle in!" he states.

And on the 2-1 pitch, that's exactly what Benitez throws. And Bell hammers it, deep, deep to left. And as the ball flies, the air is sucked out of Shea Stadium. It's off the wall. Melvin Mora, in the game for Rickey, has the ball bounce away from him, and not only does Ward score, but Womack flies in behind him. All of a sudden, the D'Backs, who had looked dead all afternoon, have stormed ahead 3-2.

Shell shock. I feel like crying. Total, out of nowhere sucker punch. Gonzalez is intentionally walked. Matt Williams follows by lining a sharp single through the hole and into left. The Meltdown continues. But this kid Mora charges up on the ball as Bell rounds third, and his throw home is strong, but slightly up the first base line. But Pratt manages to grab the ball and lunge back towards Bell. The tag is barely in time. Bell is out. The rally is stopped. The inning is over.

Funny how it's the guy you least expect making the key play. Mora's throw was huge.

The Twilight Zone is about to begin.

The D'Backs switch their defense around in the bottom of the 8th. For one, Womack moves from Shortstop to Right Field, out in the sunlight. Gregg Olson takes over on the mound, trying to bridge the gap to closer Matt Mantei. Alfonzo leads off, looking to atone for his momentary bobble. Fonzie fouls off a couple of close pitches, but works out the walk. With Olerud up, Showalter immediately summons his lefty, Greg Swindell.

I don't know if Olerud's time at bat was as long as it seemed. Sitting at Shea, it feels like Olerud is at bat for 10 minutes, working the count and fouling off Swindell's pitches. Perhaps Swindell was slow. Perhaps he kept throwing to first to keep Fonzie close. But Olerud keeps himself alive before swatting a long, deep drive out to right. Off the bat, it seems an easy play for Womack. But the ball keeps carrying further and further out to right, and Womack keeps drifting, and drifting after it. And for a split second it might be over his head...But no. Womack appears to settle under it...

...And it bounces out of his glove! He blew it! Finley scampers over in a dead panic, and fires back in, just barely able to hold Fonzie at 3rd and Olerud at 2nd. Just the break the Mets needed in this particular spot.

Cedeno follows, having entered the game as a defensive replacement for Agbayani. And Cedeno hits a long fly ball of his own, towards a similar spot. But this time, Finley will have none of Womack's staggering around. He takes charge from the start, and cuts in front of Womack to make the catch. But it's too deep for him to be able to throw out Alfonzo, Olerud takes 3rd, and once again, the game is tied, 3-3. I can breathe again. Which was good considering that things were only starting to get interesting.

Ventura would be walked intentionally, and following this, Showalter would make his most puzzling move of all. He brings in Mantei, his closer, into a tie game. Not only that, he double switches Mantei into the game, moving Lenny Harris to 3rd, and removing Matt Williams from the game. Williams, his best hitter and best fielder on the infield, had made the last out in the top of the 8th, and you would figure Showalter wouldn't pitch Mantei for more than 2 innings. So why make the switch when you would just as easily have hit for Mantei when his spot came up? Not that I was complaining; better to not have Matt Williams come up in a spot where he could beat us.

Pratt is up, with a chance to get that big hit. But he can't. On a 1-1 pitch, Pratt slaps a grounder right back at Mantei, who charges home and tags Olerud in a rundown. 2 outs.

Darryl Hamilton follows. On 1-1, it appears that Ventura has himself picked off second. But Arizona's catcher, Kelly Stinnett, has no idea where he's going with the ball. He charges out from behind the plate and double pumps twice before finally uncorking a wide throw to second, and Ventura is able to scamper back in safely, averting disaster. Hamilton will work the count full before hitting a slicing line drive down the left field line. It's hooking, but it looks like it might drop in...

...But it hooks just foul. Barely foul. Down the line, the crowd starts cheering as if it were fair, but Charlie Williams, the LF umpire made the foul call.

Cookie Rojas does not agree
. He shouts at Williams, and is immediately ejected. Rojas then flips out completely, charging at Williams before Valentine can come out to restrain him. Williams and Rojas continue shouting vehemently at each other. Valentine holds out his arms to restrain Rojas. But it's not enough. Williams nudges Rojas, and Rojas responds by shoving Williams in the chest. It will take a crowd of Valentine, Ventura and Mookie Wilson before Rojas is finally calmed down enough to return to the clubhouse.

In the booth, Berman and Knight argue over the call. Knight is adamant that the ball was fair, and that Williams had baited Rojas. Replays show that the ball was just barely foul, perhaps by an inch or two. Knight still isn't convinced.

Meanwhile, the Mets are in need of a 3rd base coach. In the chaos, Bobby Valentine takes over at 3rd. He begins by glaring directly at Mantei, as he finally resumes pitching to Hamilton.

"Oh by the way, it's Ball Four." is the call from Berman, as Mantei's pitch is wide.

Ordonez hits next, and Ordonez fouls off a few pitches himself before striking out to end the inning.

After all that, there's still more to be played? Man. I take a few deep breaths just to make sure I'm still alive.

Benitez resumes in the 9th and survives with no drama. 2 strikeouts, and the D'Backs are done. In the bottom of the 9th, Mantei remains in the game. He has to, now. He begins by facing Matt Franco, batting for Benitez. Franco will work out the walk to put the winning run aboard. Melvin Mora is next, and as he would make a habit of doing over these few weeks, he does the little thing. His bunt is perfectly placed between Mantei and Bell, and with no chance to get Franco at second, his sacrifice is successful. And so it's down to Fonzie, and we're all convinced that Fonzie, who has carried the Mets through this recent stretch, come up with every clutch hit and driven in every big run, will deliver the hit here to win the game, and win the series.

But he doesn't. He pops out. And after Olerud is intentionally walked. Cedeno grounds into the fielders choice to send an already crazy game into extra innings.

"Gosh, I love this game!" Knight yells in the booth.

In the 10th, John Franco comes on for the Mets. He strikes out Stinnett. Harris follows by hitting a high chopper between the mound and first base. Alfonzo charges in, but it's Franco leaping off the mound to glove the ball and make the toss to first. Womack grounds out.

Mantei, whose spot still hasn't come up in the batting order, is still on in the 10th. But as a closer who has already thrown 35 pitches, one has to wonder how much he's got left in the tank. Ventura helps him out by swinging at the first pitch and popping out to Womack. Pratt is next, and Mantei's first pitch is a curveball of the 55 foot variety, bouncing into the seats.

* * *

There are certain events where you think back and wonder where you were, and what you were doing at that particular moment. What went through your mind?
As the ball left Todd Pratt's bat, I could see it was hit well. For some reason, I took that moment to reach for my camera. I watched Finley go to the wall and jump. I saw him come down. What happened after that, I'm not quite sure. As the crowd at Shea erupted, I snapped pictures. I remember thinking distinctly to myself "Did I really just see that? Did he really just do that?"

Oh, that's hit well to Center Field! Finley goes back...back...back...(cheers) IT'S OVER! IT'S OVER! TODD PRATT! ONE OF THE MOST UNLIKELY HEROES HAS HIT IT TO DEAD CENTER FIELD! THE METS HAVE WON IT IN 10, 4 TO 3!



Chaos erupts on the field. Mets are jumping all over the place. Rey Ordonez and Luis Lopez run clear across the infield, ready to jump Pratt as he comes around 3rd base. Diamondbacks players are glumly walking off the field. Security personnel are running all over the place. Mounted police line the outfield. Fireworks begin booming beyond the center field wall. And the familiar refrain of L.A. Woman is blasting throughout the stadium.

Mantei's 1-0. And a high fly ball, deep to center field! Back goes Finley, going back! Warning track, at the wall! Jumping! Aaaaaaaaaaaaand...IT'S OUTTA HERE! IT'S OUTTA HERE! PRATT HIT IT OVER THE FENCE! FINLEY JUMPED AND HE MISSED IT! THE METS WIN THE BALLGAME!

-Gary Cohen


The scoreboard reads in big, block letters, CONGRATULATIONS NEW YORK METS ON ADVANCING TO THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES!!! And just above that, we see that in Houston, the Braves have wrapped up their series with the Astros. After taking a 7-0 lead, the Braves are able to hold off a fierce late rally and win the game 7-5.
On ESPN, a closeup of Pratt reveals him to be totally awestruck. He can barely describe his feelings in a brief interview, only stating that he was sitting dead red, that he thought Finley had caught the ball, and "We're going to play the Braves!"
Bobby Valentine puts it more succinctly. "Character. It's all about Character (points to Leiter) This here's a character, with character...(tips his cap) Todd Pratt! Todd Pratt! Mike Piazza will be back, but so will Todd Pratt!"

Replays showed that Finley just about had it. But when he jumped for the ball, it appeared that his glove hit the wall, impeding his jump. Had his glove not hit the wall, he might have come down with it. But his glove hit the wall, and the ball just grazed his glove before he landed, looked down, and slumped against the wall; the picture telling the entire story.
For Pratt, it's sweet. Triumph after so many years toiling in the minors, being out of the game, and barely being noticed as little more than Mike Piazza's backup. For John Franco, it's even sweeter. Already having waited so long just to reach the postseason, he picks up his first postseason victory. For the fans, who had stuck by the team and waited so long, it's vindication. Nobody seems to want to leave. PA announcer Roger Luce (who had taken over for Del Demontreux, who had recently been felled by a stroke) announces triumphantly that "The next Mets Home Game will be Game 3 of the National League Championship Series!"

With that, the bile, and the pent up hatred towards the Dixieland Braves begins to pour out. Coming down the ramps, the mock tomahawk chops, and the chants of "LARRY SUCKS!" begin to echo throughout the stadium.

The Braves seem to be biting their tongues. Interviews on ESPN show them to reveal very little. The Mets will hold nothing back. After the indignities they suffered at the end of the regular season, there's no love lost. That's mainly because there was no love to begin with between these two teams.

It's fucking on.

Final Score
Mets - 4
Diamondbacks - 3
(10 Innings)
Mets win series, 3-1

To Be Continued...
Part V - Blood Feud

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I cannot understand...

This recent overwhelming outcry of support for Paul LoDuca.

Now, I should preface this all by saying that I'm not here to rip LoDuca. I love LoDuca. I've always been a fan of his and what he brought to the Mets in his time here cannot be overlooked.

But there are several glaring, obvious facts about Paulie that need to be taken into account.

First and foremost, and it's been well documented, but LoDuca is beginning to show obvious signs of age. While his HR and RBI numbers went up from '06 to '07, his BA, OBA and SLG all fell sharply. While Paul had a good end to the season (despite playing through some nagging injuries), he basically was a no-show for most of the middle of the season, as his splits indicate. Yes, he thrived in the #2 spot in 2006, but there was no guarantee that he was going to duplicate that in 2007. In fact, there was a great deal of support for Carlos Beltran to hit in the #2 spot, and LoDuca get dropped to 7th, which was where he ended up most of the season. Moreover, LoDuca did most of his hitting with nobody on (.282), and with men in scoring position, his numbers fell sharply (.261) and with 2 out and RISP, he was nonexistent (.190).

So, what does that matter?

Well, LoDuca will be 36 next April 12th. As we have seen with players such as Carter and Piazza, that's about when most catchers hit the wall. And once that wall is hit, Catchers tend not to come back.

I also don't understand the consistent need to bash Johnny Estrada for being worse defensively than LoDuca. Last time I checked, the Mets haven't exactly had a history of great defensive Catchers, Charlie O'Brien notwithstanding. I'd consider Estrada to be about on par with LoDuca defensively, and probably better offensively. Don't overlook the fact that Estrada has been an All-Star and won a Silver Slugger. And his offense, although it won't remind anyone of Piazza, has consistently been very respectable for a Catcher, peaking at .302/.328/.444 in 2006, and his splits from '07 better LoDuca's across the board.

Most importantly, Estrada will be 32 on June 17th. He's got a few solid, productive seasons left in him.

But for some reason, he's being written off as a worthless schlub who's barely capable of platooning with Castro. I know the fans loved LoDuca, and rightfully so. But now even the media, which has taken every opportunity to slam Paul, has begun to support him. Talk about a bunch of fair-weather phonies! Wallace Matthews brings up a lot of obvious weaknesses with the Mets in his article, but he's totally off base concerning Estrada.

Let's not be so quick to throw this guy under the bus. He's proven himself to be a fully capable starting catcher, and he'll be a good fit in the lower half of the Mets lineup. Just wait.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

20 Days in October, Part III

...Continued from Part II

Tuesday, October 5

Game 1

The waiting was finally over. And yet in reality, it was just beginning.

The Mets, with their frenetic final weekend, had somehow managed to find themselves on their way to Arizona for the NLDS, their first Postseason series in 11 years.

With the game out in Arizona, the starting time for this Tuesday night game was an asinine 11:09pm on the East Coast.

It would be a late night in Binghamton for me. A late night for every Mets fan who wasn't going to let this ridiculous starting time dampen the euphoria.

I whiled away the hours before 11pm watching another playoff game, the Yankees and the Texas Rangers, facing off in their own game 1. It was a thoroughly unmemorable affair, the Yankees winning handily, the only drama coming when Yoda-like coach Don Zimmer took a foul ball off the metal plate in his head.

Finally, 11pm came around, and I flipped on ESPN. Here we were at last. The Arizona crowd, large, loud and relatively clueless, as their upstart team was in the postseason in only their second year of existence, gave way to the dulcet tones of Chris Berman, who would be calling the game, along with a familiar face from Mets postseason past, Ray Knight. If any Mets fan was running the risk of nodding off, Berman would be certain to wake you up with his screaming and his ridiculous nicknames.

It was, as most experts seemed to feel, a matchup that favored the Diamondbacks, who were loaded with a powerful veteran lineup, featuring Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez, and a strong pitching staff, led by the always frightening and hideous Randy Johnson. It was Randy himself on the mound tonight in the first postseason game in D'Backs history. On the mound for the Mets...Masato Yoshii.

Yes, Masato Yoshii would make the start in this game, mainly because it was just his turn in the rotation, not because his 12-8 record and 4.40 ERA made him the best man to make the Game 1 start.

Screw it. I'm just glad to be here. Watching my team in the Playoffs.

But the Mets are undaunted by these powerful D'Backs, who mauled the Mets in 7 out of 9 meetings during the '99 season, including a sweep at Shea. After Rickey leads off by fouling off some pitches before flying out, it's Edgardo Alfonzo, doing exactly the same thing he did in the previous night's game.

Fonzie takes two called strikes from Johnson, before slamming the third pitch, a 99mph offering, deep to center, and just over the wall, over one of the stupid yellow lines of demarcation for a home run to give the Mets a 1-0 lead.
Randy who?

Olerud and Piazza follow with consecutive singles, and maybe the Mets can jump on Johnson early and get a cushion. But Randy rebounds, to K both Agbayani and Ventura and stifle the rally.

Yoshii usually made Mets fans cringe and pray that he could survive his outings. Now, the catharsis is multiplied by the pressure of the moment. But Yoshii is a wily veteran himself. He is up to the task. Most of these Mets are, at this point. Yoshii allows a 2-out double to Luis Gonzalez before getting Williams to pop out to end the 1st.

Fast forward to the 3rd inning. Rickey Henderson leads off for the Mets with a walk. Alfonzo fouls off several fastballs before striking out. With Olerud at the plate, Rickey is dancing around and distracting Johnson. On a 2-0 pitch, Rickey takes off and steals second easily. On 2-2, Olerud sends Johnson's offering deep and out into the right field seats.

Not only is it the first time Johnson has allowed a HR to a left handed batter in the postseason, it's the first time a left handed batter has hit a HR off of Johnson in over 2 years! Lefties just don't pull Randy Johnson like that! But Olerud did, and it's now 3-0 Mets.

Whoda thunk it?

The D'Backs finally strike in their half of the 3rd. With 1 out, Tony Womack triples over Rickey's head in deep left center. Jay Bell follows that up with a sac fly to put the D'Backs on the board.

The Mets get this run back in the 4th with a little small ball. After Ventura leads off with a double, Shawon Dunston, getting a rare start in Center this eve, lays down a beauty of a bunt that can't be picked up. The single moves Ventura to 3rd. With Ordonez up, the squeeze is on. Ordonez chops the bunt down the first base line to score Ventura. 4-1 Mets.

But the D'Backs would begin to flex their offensive muscle as the game wore on. First, it was rookie Erubiel Durazo who would rip a long HR into left-center in the bottom of the 4th. In the bottom of the 6th, after a Jay Bell leadoff single, Luis Gonzalez drills a shot deep to right. And no sooner than Berman screams "GOING, GOING, GONZALEZ!" then the game is tied, 4-4, with Yoshii fading fast and momentum clearly favoring the home team.

But the Mets bullpen would take over for Yoshii, and restore order to the game. First, Dennis Cook comes in and shuts down the D'Backs in the 6th. He allows a 1-0ut double down the RF line to Randy Johnson in the 7th. But when Womack follows with a fly out to left, Johnson runs on contact and is promptly doubled off second for the final out.

Meanwhile, Johnson has settled down and stifled the Mets. Between the 6th and the 8th, all they can muster is a walk and a steal from Rickey in the 7th. Johnson remains in the game as we move to the 9th, still tied, 4-4. But Johnson is beginning to wear down. Ventura leads off with a clean single. Cedeno attempts to bunt him over, but pops back to Johnson. Ordonez follows with a single of his own, and Johnson then walks Melvin Mora to load the bases with 1 out.

It is then, that D'Backs manager decides that 138 pitches is enough. He removes Johnson in favor of Bobby Chouinard, a journeyman righty, to pitch to Rickey and Fonzie.

On a 2-0 pitch, Rickey hits a shot towards third, destined for left field but for the diving stop made by Matt Williams, who quickly hops to his feet and throws out Ventura at home for the 2nd out.

Perhaps the rally has gone by the wayside.

Alfonzo works the count to 3-1 against Chouinard, who seems to be pussyfooting around the plate. He dare not throw a fat pitch. But he must throw a strike. He deals. Alfonzo swings.

Chouinard set. The 3-1 pitch. And a drive in the air to deep left field, down the line! Gone if it stays fair! That ball is...OUTTA HERE! OUTTA HERE! GRAND SLAM HOME RUN! ALFONZO A GRAND SLAM IN THE TOP OF THE 9TH! AND THE METS HAVE TAKEN AN 8 TO 4 LEAD! ALFONZO HIT IT OUT OF SIGHT! DOWN THE LEFT FIELD LINE! JUST INSIDE THE FOUL POLE! HIS SECOND HOME RUN OF THE GAME! ALFONZO WITH A GRAND SLAM WITH 2 OUT IN THE TOP OF THE 9TH! AND THE METS HAVE TAKEN AN 8 TO 4 LEAD!

-Gary Cohen

As the ball leave Fonzie's bat, I can see it's going to be close. I begin to pull a Carlton Fisk act, frantically waving my arms as if to will the ball fair. And as it finally lands fair, I jump out of my seat and run screaming around the common room. "FUCKIN' ALFONZO!" I'm yelling. It's only 1:55am. Neighbors be damned. It's 8-4, and the Mets are about to have walked into Arizona and beaten Randy Johnson and stolen home field advantage for the series.

Armando Benitez comes in and retires the D'Backs in order in the bottom of the inning, and the Mets have pulled yet another victory out of their hat, an 8-4 victory to take Game 1.

I need some sleep.

Final Score
Mets - 8
Diamondbacks - 4
Mets lead Series, 1-0

Wednesday, October 6
Game 2

The late night start on this night doesn't seem so bad. After the 2am reward of the previous night, I'm settling in once again to see the Mets strut their stuff. After all, tonight's starters seem like a study in contrasts. Kenny Rogers for the Mets had had some poor postseason outings in his time with the Yankees, but he'd pitched admirably well since coming over in July. And Todd Stottlemyre? This guy elected not to have surgery on a balky rotator cuff. His shoulder could come flying off at any second!

The Mets mount some credible threats in the first and second, and finally plate a run in the 3rd. It's Rickey again in the thick of things, singling, stealing second, moving to 3rd on an Alfonzo groundout and scoring on an Olerud groundout.

And that would be the lone highlight of the game from the Mets standpoint.

Rogers would melt down in the 3rd, walking home a run before allowing a 2-run single to Steve Finley, which put the Arizona fans in a tizzy. Finley doubled home 2 more in the 5th, and the crowd continued to blow their kazoos.

Meanwhile, the Mets can't get anything going against Stottlemyre. So much for that bad shoulder. Rickey keeps getting on and stealing bases, but nobody behind him can get that key hit to get the Mets back in the game. Pat Mahomes relieves Rogers in the 6th, and Octavio Dotel follows in the 7th. Dotel will walk in a run himself before getting out of a major jam in the 7th. But by this time, it's 7-1 D'Backs and the game is pretty much toast. Stottlemyre departs after 6 2/3 strong innings, and Greg Swindell finishes up. I refuse to shut the game off, however. I stick it out to the bitter end, hoping that the Mets have one big rally in them. Doesn't happen. The Diamondbacks and their silly fans celebrate this evening, their first ever postseason victory.

Can't argue with the split, however. Back to New York we go.

Final Score
Diamondbacks - 7
Mets - 1
Series Tied 1-1

Thursday, October 7
Mike Piazza took a foul ball off his thumb in Game 2 and took a cortizone shot for it. This small bit of news would loom large a bit later. But he and the rest of the Mets seem glad enough to have split the D'Backs in Arizona, coming home knowing they can close out the series with 2 victories.

Controversy is still abound, however, in the form of a Sports Illustrated article about Valentine, in the October 11, 1999 issue. The reporter, S.L. Price, had been with the Mets during the final weeks of the season, during their miserable 7-game skid. In the article, Valentine bashes several players, most notably Bobby Bonilla. "You're not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse," Valentine says. "You're not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part. A lot can swim, but most of them just float along, looking for something to hold on to. That's why, I'm sure, they're having a players-only meeting. Because there's about five guys in there who basically are losers, who are seeing if they can recruit. They actually think there's some accomplishment and some reward in being the BMOC. They don't know that, looking back at it five years from now, that will mean nothing."

Valentine is certainly no stranger to controversy. Nobody has or wants to say too much about it. There's more important things to worry about right now. The following October, Valentine will refute the article, questioning the intentions of Price in the process.

Late that evening, I get a call from a friend. He has an extra ticket to Saturday's Game, Game 4. He is wondering if I am interested in taking it.

Before the words are out of his mouth, I've accepted. I'll head home Friday, and be at Shea Saturday.

Friday, October 8

Game 3

"Dammit, can't you drive faster?"

These are my words to my roommate as we are driving from Binghamton to New York, as he is graciously giving me a ride home so that I can be at Shea on Saturday.

Problem is, with our departure time delayed by classes, we are zipping through Pennsylvania as Game 3 at Shea has commenced, too far out of the range to pick up WFAN on his car radio.

I have no idea what has transpired, or what has happened in the game.

Finally, as we hit the Poconos, down I-380, the crackling static breaks, and Bob and Gary are finally filtering in.

This is when I learn that Piazza's thumb did not react well to the cortizone shot, and blew up to twice its normal size. He can't move it, let alone grip a bat or throw a ball. The biggest name on the Mets will be unable to play in the biggest game at Shea Stadium in 11 years.

Not that that seems to faze the Mets. Todd Pratt steps right in and the Mets haven't missed a beat. It's already 3-0 in the top of the 4th inning, and Rick Reed is cruising right along.

The Mets, I hear, have been helped out by some shoddy D'Back fielding behind their starter, slithery lefthander Omar Daal. Ordonez chips in with an RBI single in the 2nd, Olerud has an RBI single in the 3rd, and Ventura follows up with an RBI groundout.

In the 4th, Williams singles and Durazo walks, but the Diamondbacks cannot get any further against Reed. Both Finley and Andy Fox ground out and Reed is out of the Jam.

In the bottom of the 4th, the Mets mount a rally of their own. Ordonez reaches on an error by Daal, Henderson singles and Alfonzo walks. But Olerud strikes out to end the Mets threat.

Finally, in the 5th, the Diamondbacks are able to break through against Reed. After Kelly Stinnett doubles to lead off, Turner Ward pinch hits for Daal and drives one out into the Mets bullpen, pumping his fists as he drops his bat at home plate. Dammit. It's 3-2 now. But Reed recovers, retiring Womack, Bell and Gonzalez in order.

Darren Holmes replaces Daal in the 5th and sets the Mets down quietly. In the 6th, it's Ordonez making the trademark Ordonez play, sliding deep in the hole to backhand a shot by Williams, then leaping up and firing a strike to get him at first. Reed allows a 2-out walk to Finley before striking out Fox, and as Reed leaves the mound, with the Shea crowd going wild, Reed pumps his fists. His 6 inning effort has been the typical, solid Rick Reed effort we have come to expect from him.

It's about this time that I arrive home, and I'm finally able to put on a TV and see the game.

I've gotten home just in time.

With Holmes still on for the D'Backs, Todd Pratt leads off the 6th with a walk. Ordonez bunts him over to second. Bobby Bonilla pinch hits for Reed and receives a smattering of cheers as he is announced.

In the booth, Bob Costas and Joe Morgan are talking about how Valentine may be working himself into a corner. Already having removed Agbayani and Dunston, who started, and replaced them with Hamilton and Cedeno for defense, Valentine is short on his bench. And now he's dipping into his bullpen in a 1-run game.

Bonilla works the count and draws a walk. Rickey follows with the classic Rickey single; a blooper that falls in front of Womack in right, and as Womack kicks the ball into foul territory, Pratt scores, Bonilla lumbers to 3rd and Rickey is on 2nd. Alfonzo is walked intentionally, and Holmes is gone, replaced by lefty Dan Plesac to pitch to Olerud.

The move doesn't work. Olerud pokes a seeing-eye single into right field, plating Bonilla and Henderson. Cedeno follows with a clean single to left to score Alfonzo. And all of a sudden, this game that was looking like a squeaker has very quietly swung decidedly in the Mets favor at 7-2. Ventura grounds out, but Hamilton follows by nailing yet another single to center, scoring Olerud and Cedeno and pretty much icing the game at 9-2. Shea is rocking.

No Piazza, no problem. The Mets are at it again.

Morgan backs off and gives Bobby his due credit. He's made the moves he needed to make, and now he's got the lead, and his best defense on the field. He let the game play right into his moves. Flawless. Wendell, Franco and Orel Hershiser finish the rest of the game, a crisp 9-2 Mets victory, leaving them one game away from wiping away the D'Backs, and moving on to the NLCS. And I'll be there with a chance to see them clinch.

Far cry from the state of things one week ago.

Final Score
Mets - 9
Diamondbacks - 2
Mets lead Series 2-1

To Be Continued...
Part IV - That Particular Moment

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Omar's Thanksgiving Present


You know it's a big deal when I am interrupting my own vacation to write, so, Live, from the Cleveland bureau of The Ballclub, we are most happy to welcome Johnny Estrada to the New York Mets (Or as Joe Buck would say, "JOHNNY ESTRADA, WELCOME TO NEW YORK!").

And what a turn of events this has been, beginning with the non-signing of Torrealba (Yorvit, we hardly knew ye), followed almost immediately by the rumors surrounding David Eckstein, which was then made moot by the re-signing of Luis Castillo (perhaps for two years too long, but I'd rather have Castillo than Eckstein), and finally culminating with this most glorious of trades. For not only are we bringing in a very solid performer in Johnny Estrada, who has proven himself as a quality offensive and defensive backstop, but doubly good because the Mets were able to rid themselves of Guillermo Mota in the process. So, basically, the Mets have just is killed two birds with one stone! Not only do they now have a catcher who is better and younger than the guy they let go (LoDuca), and far better than the one they tried to bring in (Torrealba), they've also fixed a major hole in their bullpen by trading away their least reliable pitcher. I'm not sure what Doug Melvin was thinking about, but if he likes what he saw in Mota, well, he's more than welcome to him. I wish him the best. Actually, no, I don't. Good Riddance, Guillermo!

As The Artist formerly known as El Guapo said, "It's a Minayacle!"

Mets get catcher Estrada from Brewers for Mota [ESPN.com]

Monday, November 19, 2007

SWEET LORD NO!!!

He is terrible. And I shouldn't have to go into all the sordid details.

-Nick Smith
from the film Metropolitan


My weekend was officially wrecked at around 4:30 Saturday afternoon when I went to Mets.com and saw this little news nugget plastered across the page as the great lead story.

My reaction went something like this:

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! GOOD GOD NO!"

I know that the popular opinion in some other places has been positive towards Eckstein, but let's not fool ourselves. They call him gutty, plucky, scrappy, whatever other stupid adjective, but it all boils down to he's a slap hitter with little power who hits a lot of singles, doesn't steal to many bases and that's about it. I don't need to mane any comment about his height since that has been talked to death.

I'll let the numbers speak for themselves. He's usually mediocre to OK in a normal season. That OBA has not deviated outside of a range of .325 to .363, which is just about on par with the Rey OrdoƱez's of the world. Even more disturbing is his Slugging percentage, which has was not only the same as his OBA in one season, but was actually LOWER THAN HIS OBA in 2004, when the Angels cut him. How on earth do you pull that off? Once every few years he'll play over his head for a little while, but come on, now. This guy was getting MVP votes? That's an absolute joke.

Bottom line: Yeah, scrappy little Eckstein played on a couple of winning teams. But teams are not going to win because of David Eckstein. It's easy to allow yourself to be mollified by the "Scrappy" factor. He's not good. I know available 2Bs are pretty thin, but the Mets can do a hell of a lot better than this, especially when there are guys that can actually hit a little bit like Tadahito Iguchi out there (if we're over the last Japanese import 2B), but signing Eckstein would be at best Monumentally Stupid and at worst, Catastrophically Horrible.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Importance of Being Yorvit Torrealba

I have read many e-mails over the past few days concerning what has now become a reality: The Mets acquisition of the highly sought-after Free Agent, Yorvit Torrealba.

This might be the least-heralded Free Agent signing for the Mets this side of Shane Spencer, but hold on, before we start tearing out our hair, let's dig a little deeper and examine the game plan.

With the LoDuca/Castro tandem, you weren't exactly dealing with the world's greatest skill set. LoDuca's defense was marginal. Castro's was OK. LoDuca also basically had hit his peak in 2006, and was pretty terrible at the plate all told in 2007, despite an increase in power, but considering he was popping HRs in places like Cincinnati, how much stock can be put in that. I'm not going to go and throw LoDuca under the bus, I think he was a good guy to have around, or at the very least an entertaining guy to have around in his two years here, but the press seemed to pick on him at every turn, whether it was the horses, or the penthouse wife, or the MySpace girls, or the English comment, it seemed like he was just a magnet for the ire of the Media. As Metstradamus brings up here, that doesn't seem to jive well with the philosophies of Freddie and the Boy-King, who spend a little too much time reading what's being written rather than examining things for themselves. Plus he's about to hit that age where Catchers hit the wall and don't come back. But I digress.

What we have here are two catchers now, who will probably split the time, I would guess 60/40, where Castro gets the 60%, until he inevitably gets hurt since his offseason conditioning schedule involves running for another helping at the buffet. What I would expect is some relatively improved defense at the catcher position at the sacrifice of some offense. We know Castro will hit. We don't know (or at least don't think) that Torrealba will hit much; his home/away splits will tell you that he was markedly better at Coors Field than anyplace else. What I would hope happens is that the two split the time, each of them has what is for them a decent season, and neither of them will be totally worn down by the time September comes around, which was always something we had to worry about when Piazza was here, and to a lesser degree, LoDuca. I will say that Torrealba is younger and in markedly better shape than Castro, but we are looking at carrying about 800 lbs worth of Catcher on the roster next season.

Furthermore, I believe the Mets interest in Torrealba is based on his name. Broken down, it comes to Torre and Alba. Now, Torre already being a known and trusted Baseball name in New York should add to his marketability; despite Torre's failures as Mets manager a generation ago, he redeemed himself with a very successful run with the Yankees, and is now revered. Alba is most closely associated with Jessica Alba, the attractive starlet making the rounds in the Hollywood Circuit, and should certainly improve the Mets sex appeal.

All these things considered, it is hereby a wise move from a team marketing standpoint, which took a major hit this past season, to redeem themselves by bringing in Torrealba.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

20 Days in October, Part II

...Continued from Part I

Monday, October 4

"The winner of this game will move on to the Playoffs. The loser will go home, the season was not a success."

That was how Jon Miller opened his broadcast on ESPN on that particular evening. The matchup would be the New York Mets, who were fortunate to be here after their near collapse. Their opponent, the Cincinnati Reds, seemed fortunate to be here, period. Their season was one of triumph against the odds, a low payroll and a young team, led by a couple of veterans in Greg Vaughn and pitcher Denny Neagle, and some young stars, namely Sean Casey, Pokey Reese and Scott Williamson. But overall, they seemed an odd mishmash of players who might have overachieved. Their manager, Jack McKeon, was in a similar position to the Mets' Bobby Valentine; still chasing that elusive Playoff Berth.

It was wet and chilly in Cincinnati that night. It was chilly in Binghamton, too, as I settled in to watch the game. The crowd, 54, 621 jammed to the rafters in the final days of the complete Riverfront Stadium, seemed in a murderous mood. A sea of Red, looking for Met blood.

The pitching matchup seemed fitting for these two teams. For the Mets, it was Al Leiter, taking the hill after a mostly uneven season that saw his best moments come at times when they were needed the most, facing off against Steve Parris, a journeyman who began the season in the minor leagues. Joe Morgan predicted a fast track on the wet Astroturf, and a high-scoring affair in which both bullpens might be worked deep.

I was tense. The game itself was tense. One game for the fate of the entire season, on the road, trying to erase the past, and reverse the collapse.

Rickey Henderson started it off against Parris. He took a ball, and then a strike before hitting a clean single in front of Vaughn in left. Alfonzo was next. Alfonzo took a called strike following a pickoff attempt by Parris. Then a ball.

Little did we know it, but the entire game was decided on the following pitch.

In the air to center. Going back on the ball is Hammonds. Still going back! Back to the wall, IT'S GONE!!! And that one seemed to surprise Hammonds! He went back on the ball thinking he might have a play, but it was gone! And the Mets, after just two batters, lead this game 2-nothing!"

-Jon Miller

Little do we know that Alfonzo's HR over the center field fence would be sufficient enough for Leiter. All I know right now is that Alfonzo might have just picked up the biggest hit for the Mets in 11 years, and I'm going nuts! But still, there's a long way to go, and Leiter's been awfully erratic this season. Can he keep his control enough, can he keep his pitch count down, and keep the Reds off the bases? It was easy to forget that not two years prior, Leiter had taken the ball for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, and pitched well, well enough to keep his team in the game, which they would come back and win. He's been in pressure games before.

Meanwhile, Parris is laboring simply to get through the first. He un-intentionally walks Piazza, although by this point, Piazza is a wreck, nursing varied nagging injuries, most notably a balky thumb. Ventura hits into a DP to end the inning, and so now Leiter takes the hill.

The right handed hitters for the Reds this night can be particularly tricky, especially Pokey Reese and Greg Vaughn, who gave Leiter fits in some regular season games. Dmitri Young is also a tough out, and Barry Larkin, well, he was always tough. And Leiter does the absolute last thing he wanted to do in the bottom of the first: he walks Reese on 6 pitches. Larkin flies out and Casey does too, both out to Henderson. Now it's Vaughn. He of 45 HRs, 16 of which came in the last month of the season.

Damned if Leiter doesn't carve him up and make him look silly. On a 3-2 pitch, Vaughn is sitting dead red, and Leiter just drops a curveball on the outside corner. Vaughn didn't know what hit him.

And Leiter was just getting warmed up.

After the Mets went quietly in the 2nd, Leiter is back to work. A one-out single by Jeffrey Hammonds amounts to nothing; Eddie Taubensee grounds to short and Aaron Boone pops up.

In the 3rd, the Mets rally once again. With 2 outs and nobody on, Parris walks Alfonzo. Already, panic has set in for the Reds. Denny Neagle, their #1 starter, has begun throwing in earnest in the bullpen. Olerud laces a double down the right field line. Parris intentionally walks Piazza, and that's it for him. With Ventura coming up, Neagle is summoned from the bullpen.

Neagle promptly walks Ventura to force in Alfonzo. 3-0 Mets.

The Reds battle a bit in their half of the 3rd, working Leiter into some deep counts, but all they can muster is a 2-out walk by Larkin, promptly followed by a Casey strikeout. Through the 4th, more of the same, a 1-2-3 inning for Leiter.

In the 5th, it's Rickey, leading off the inning against Neagle and hitting the first pitch deep and high and right down the left field line. Rickey stands and yells at the ball, as it tucks itself just fair, a HR for Rickey, a 4-0 Mets lead.

By now, I'm counting outs. It seems fait accompli, but one can never be too sure the way the past 2 weeks have gone. In the bottom of the 5th, Leiter continues to mow the Reds down. By now, they're just flailing helplessly. 9 pitches in the 5th. Alfonzo doubles home Ordonez in the 6th for a 5-0 lead. 14 pitches and Leiter's through the 6th. 9 more outs. The Mets string together a little rally in the 7th that goes nowhere. 7 pitches for Leiter in the 7th. Young and Hammonds look clueless in swinging at the first pitch. Taubensee leads off the 8th with a walk, and Aaron Boone follows by grounding into the DP. And as we moved to the 9th, Leiter is still working on a 1-hitter, 110 pitches thrown. Reese leads off the 9th and nails a ringing double down the LF line. And Benitez begins to loosen up in the bullpen, just in case he's needed. But Leiter is determined to finish this one off. I'm still tense. Larkin grounds to Ordonez. Casey strikes out again, and snaps his bat in two in frustration as he walks back to the dugout. A couple of drunken idiot Reds fans run onto the field, delaying the game. Valentine is incensed, as revealed on a quick shot in the dugout. Leiter pitches carefully to Vaughn...Perhaps too carefully, as he walks him on 5 pitches. So it's down to Dmitri Young. After a foul ball, Leiter reared back for his 135th pitch of the night...

Here's the pitch...Swung, lined hard, CAUGHT! The Game Is Over! The Mets Win It! They're on their way to Arizona! A wicked line drive hit by Dmitri Young, caught by Edgardo Alfonzo, The Game Is Over! The Mets have won the Wildcard in the National League!"

-Bob Murphy

Finally, after 11 years. Back to the Postseason! Finally, ultimate vindication for myself, for Bobby V., for John Franco, who had been the longest tenured player without postseason experience. For Piazza and his $91 million contract. And as the crowd at Riverfront Stadium booed and threw projectiles on the field, the Mets celebrated.

In the clubhouse, Valentine is quick to dismiss the criticisms that had surrounded him during the past two weeks. It's not about him. It's about his guys. "I don't know if he's ever pitched a better game than tonight." Valentine says about Leiter. "He had this look in his eye. When his mind is right, his arm is right. I think like center stage."

On WFAN, Bob Murphy calls this sterling 5-0 victory "The Happiest Recap of All!" And it just might well be, at least at this particular point in time. After watching the game a ball of tension, I finally released as the last out recorded, not with a scream, but by raising my arms in triumph.

But with the joy came the immediate realization that there was still more to be done. There was a trip to Phoenix to be made. Roster moves to be decided. And, most importantly, more baseball to be played.

The Mets would be off to Arizona to play the Diamondbacks, led by, Hello, Sir, Randy Johnson, and his surly temprament and 96 MPH fastball and deadly slider. They would be off to the land of the 11pm EDT start time.

But most importantly, off to their first Postseason series in a very, very long time.

Final Score
Mets - 5
Reds - 0

To Be Continued...
Part III - Words & Pain

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

All In The Cards

There's a real fascinating video over at ESPN.com, where the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons (Ballclub-approved reading), as part of their new E:60 program (yet another attempt to try to re-invent the ESPN wheel), takes a trip within the bowels of the Upper Deck company, even going so far as to sit down at the company's computers and design some baseball cards for next year's offering.

As I've admitted, I am an avid collector of baseball cards, and although I have some idea, I've never actually seen a card go through the process of being selected and laid out. I'm a big fan of the photo that Simmons selected for Manny Ramirez's '08 card. Whether or not the folks at UD will trump his decision and put out a different photo remains to be seen.

But it got me to thinking about which photos are used on particular baseball cards. As I've said, I've been collecting for about 20 years, and my collection spans back even further than that. Similar to "The Holy Book,"spoken about last week by Greg at Faith and Fear, I have amassed my own collection of Mets cards. Though not nearly as comprehensive, my collection includes pretty much every regular-issue Topps Mets card (less 4, Seaver's rookie, Ryan's rookie and Ryan's 1970 out of my price range, 1967 Don Cardwell simply too elusive) going back to 1962, kept neatly in albums. The remaining cards, compiled from other, lesser-known Topps issues (Stadium Club, Finest, Gallery for example), and those from other companies (Upper Deck, Donruss, Fleer, et al) are sleeved and boxed in similar order for easy access.

So, where am I going with all this? Well, what I picked up from watching the Simmons clip, plus examining the contents of my own collection, I've come to the conclusion that while Topps is the standard, having built a history and tradition almost 40 years older than Upper Deck, it's become clear that Upper Deck seems to take much greater care in producing an eye-popping product. Let's examine, for example, the 2007 cards featuring Endy Chavez.

Here's Topps' offering for Endy. Topps designers seem to be ripping off the Donruss designs from the late 1980s, where I think they just got a bunch of children together and had them throw some paint at a wall. Donruss always had this feel of being the snob's baseball card, like somehow their fancy design was better than the working man's Topps. Even that name, Donruss, sounded strange. But I digress. It's a nice, charming little design and a good, crisp photo of Endy, in full form, laying down another drag bunt for a base hit. It's nice on many levels, even as an educational device (see kids, here's how you lay down the perfect drag bunt)...

...But it's got nothing on the UD card. When you think of Endy Chavez, this is what you think of. Endy, flying through the air last October, ready to jump out of that card and right into your lap to snowcone the sure HR at the wall. This is the kind of photo that was made for a baseball card. But Topps barely gave this any thought, only chopping it down and slapping it onto half of a card in their 2006 Update series (on top of Ugly Molina no less!).

The only way that card could have been better is if they used the wide-angle shot. But then again, that would likely have been misconstrued as an advertisement for life insurance.

I know Topps has their own photographers, and, unlike Upper Deck, they sign each player to individual contracts, as opposed to simply making an agreement with the Player's Union (this the reason why Topps can claim exclusivity to Barry Bonds), and I don't know how Upper Deck procures their photographs, but it has become glaringly obvious over the past few years that UD has been working from a better pool of photographs for their cards, and photos more representative of a specific moment that you remember the player for, as opposed to a generic action shot or something posed and/or airbrushed (a Topps trademark).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bigmouth Strikes Again



I'll admit that I was as surprised as anyone to hear that David Wright had copped the NL's Gold Glove for 3rd Basemen this past week. I had figured that Ryan Zimmerman was the most likely candidate, although you can't really say there was a clear favorite in the race (I know Rolen has been the perennial winner here, but with his essentially dropping dead this season, the award has opened up again). The Silver Slugger award that Wright took home on Friday was not nearly as much a surprise. I'd like to see a convincing argument anywhere that Wright didn't deserve that one, and when the NL MVP award is announced on November 20th (the effort to extend the Baseball season as far into the Winter as possible), Wright likely won't win, but he'll get strong consideration.

Nobody will confuse Wright's fielding prowess with other Gold Glove Mets such as Robin Ventura or Rey Ordonez. But he handled his chances admirably well, and despite 21 errors, made some key plays when they were needed the most. Of course, Wright is helped by his popularity (which is what most of these awards really boil down to), the fact that he's his team's marquee player, and his ESPN factor (that by which all sports figures seem to be judged in today's society).

But then there's this little paragraph buried deep in the bowels of David O'Brien's Braves Blog in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

"When I found out [Wright won] I was speechless, for quite some time. Certainly the guys with the least amount of errors and best fielding percentage quite obviously didn’t win it."

"I wouldn’t have been disappointed had someone like Feliz or Ramirez won it. I’m a little confused by the final tally — that’s a head-scratcher for me."


-Larry Jones

When will Larry ever learn? I know that it's his new MO, since he's getting up there in years and his team has crumbled around him, to become this new, outspoken voice about the "good ol' days," but it's not as though he deserved the Gold Glove over Wright. Wright's response was, of course, typical classy Wright, as it appears in a rare positive Mets piece in Sunday's Post:
"Chipper Jones plays for the Braves. Honestly I could care less. I respect what Chipper does in this game. I respect Chipper as a player. But what he says to the papers doesn't mean anything to me personally. I don't take anything he says to heart. Obviously I think I can be better defensively. There's no doubt about it. But I have a Gold Glove, and that's the bottom line, and that's something I'm very proud of, and I feel like I'm getting better and better defensively, and obviously managers and coaches have seen that."

-David Wright

Larry, nobody likes you here anyway, and anything you say in regards to the Mets will just draw the ire of the fans even more. Obviously, you and your team have fallen on a bit of hard times over the past couple of seasons, and really, that's a damn shame. Perhaps you have some residual bitterness over the way Wright and the Mets have handled the Braves over the past couple of years (see above). Or perhaps you're upset that the stadium that bears your daughter's name is being torn down after next season. But is there really any good reason for you to attack David Wright like that? I don't think so. What next, you'll complain that you didn't get a Silver Slugger, either? You're old, you're bitter, and you're ugly. Shut up, Larry.

Chipper "Shocked" by Wright Gold Glove
[Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
2 For The Money
[Tabloid Rag]

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

20 Days in October

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.

-Dale Carnegie


The 1999 New York Mets were a team built to bring the Mets out of what had become a decade-long slump. The team that had come close to making the postseason in 1998, before a horrendous final week collapse had been made over. Free Agents Robin Ventura and Rickey Henderson were brought in to bolster the offense. Trades were made, procuring Roger Cedeno, Armando Benitez and Bobby Bonilla. Mike Piazza was re-signed to a long term contract. And although the team got off to an uneven start, they played on as if they were determined to bring the Mets back to respectability, and into the playoffs. Ventura responded with a career year at the plate. Edgardo Alfonzo emerged as an All-Star player with an uncanny knack for coming through in the clutch. Piazza was Piazza. Cedeno set a team record for Stolen Bases. The starting pitchers were solid, if unspectacular, led by Al Leiter, Rick Reed, Orel Hershiser and Masato Yoshii. The bullpen sparkled. Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook set things up for John Franco, and following a midseason injury to Franco, Armando Benitez, the flamethrower, who went through the season mostly unhittable. The defense was impeccable, setting records and making the spectacular seem routine. Alfonzo, Ventura, Rey Ordonez and John Olerud appeared on a SI Cover, headlined as "The Best Infield Ever," and they just might have been.

It was a talented team, and a team of great heart and spirit. On May 23rd, they erased a 4-run 9th inning deficit against the Philadelphia Phillies. June 9th, a 3-run comeback against Toronto. July 11th, the famous see-saw battle against the Yankees, won by Matt Franco. August 22nd, a comeback from a 6-1 deficit, highlighted by an Olerud Grand Slam. Wins piled up and coming into the home stretch, the Mets were primed to walk away with the Wildcard, and potentially even catch the Braves for the lead in the NL East.

And just as quickly, it all seemed to fall apart.

On Monday, September 20th, the Mets entered Atlanta for a 3-game series with the Braves, with a record of 92-58, one game behind the Braves.

Three losses later, the Mets departed Atlanta 92-61, 4 games behind the Braves.

Three more losses in Philadelphia, and not only were the Mets now buried in the East, they had fallen behind the Reds in the race for the Wildcard.

Returning home, the Mets still couldn't solve the Braves. Another meltdown on Tuesday, September 28th clinched the East for Atlanta. But Al Leiter and John Olerud were able to stop the bleeding and end the losing streak. Leiter's strong outing and Olerud's grand slam off of Greg Maddux were enough to will the Mets to a 9-2 victory, keeping them a game and a half behind the Reds and Astros for the Wildcard. But a most frustrating, 11-inning, 4-3 defeat in the series finale seemed to be the final nail in another Mets collapse. Adding insult to injury were the jeers from the Atlanta locker room following the series finale.

"Now, all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees' stuff on. You know they're all going to convert. It's amazing how fast you hear Yankee talk around the dugout, yet, they're wearing Mets stuff.

-Larry Jones


"It's not really the Mets I hate, the majority of the guys are good guys and they're a good team, and I'm a little bit confused as to how they're struggling so bad to make the playoffs," Rocker said. "It's the fans that I think are absolutely ridiculous. They just don't know when to shut up. I've asked a lot of people all week, 'How many times you got to beat a team before the fans finally shut up?' And I still don't know. We beat them nine out of 12 times and they're still talking trash."

-John Rocker

As far as the Braves were concerned, the Mets were dead and buried.

Tucked away in Binghamton, I felt inclined to believe the same. I'd seen it all before. I was there through the entirety of the 1990s, one year more forgettable than the next. But things changed when Bobby Valentine took over near the end of the 1996 season. The years that followed were different. The Mets were alive again. And I was there to see it 29 times over the long, hot Summer of 1999. But this year was supposed to be the year they took that next step, and as the calendar turned from September to October, it appeared that that step was not going to be taken. Forget it.

Little did we know that the turn of the calendar brought about a change in the Mets fortunes. What seemed impossible became reality, and the ride that the Mets would embark on over the following 20 days would leave an indelible mark on the franchise and its fans, restoring pride to the organization and setting them up for a run that would lionize the 1999 Mets as one of the best in team history.

Friday, October 1
"Forget it."

These are my thoughts as far as the Mets are concerned. I want nothing to do with it. It's easy to avoid these things when you're off at College, 200 miles away from Shea in upstate New York. But 2 games out of the Wildcard with 3 to play is pretty much impossible. The Mets need to sweep the Pirates, sure. But the Reds or the Astros have to lose, too. 2 of 3 at least. And with the Astros at home against LA, and Cincinnati playing awful Milwaukee, well...you try to figure out the odds.

I really didn't watch much of the game. I saw the first inning or two. The stadium was pretty much empty, and with good reason. Who wanted to be around for the final failure by this team that had once again let us down and was facing an entire decade without even a sniff of postseason baseball? Kenny Rogers and Jason Schmidt square off. Robin Ventura homers in the 4th, and Piazza in the 6th, and it's 2-0 Mets. Ventura and Piazza. They've done it all year long, haven't they? But what does it mean? Especially after Rogers, Wendell and Franco blow the 2-run lead in the 8th. But for an Adrian Brown strikeout by Franco, the game remains tied, headed further on into the night.

Pat Mahomes comes on for the 10th, and gets in and out of a jam. The Mets go quietly in their half against Scott Sauerbeck. But the Mets mount a threat in the last of the 11th. Shawon Dunston, a midseason acquisition, comes through with a key leadoff single. He's sacrificed to second by rookie, Melvin Mora, in the game merely as a defensive replacement. Alfonzo is walked intentionally. Olerud works the count before grounding out to first, moving the runners up and virtually assuring another intentional pass to Piazza. And it's down to Ventura. And Ventura, as he has done all season, comes through when it's needed most, nailing a single to center, scoring Dunston for a 3-2 victory, and as he leaps into Piazza's arms between first and second, Gary Cohen exults on WFAN, "The Mets will live for another day!"

And then, the help arrives. Reds rookie closer Scott Williamson blows a lead in Milwaukee, and the Brewers rally for a 4-3 victory. The Astros lose too, 5-1 to the Dodgers. The Mets have done their part. I come home after a night out and check the scores. I'm dumbfounded. Meaningful baseball still lives at Shea.

Final Score
Mets - 3

Pirates - 2

(11 Innings)

Saturday, October 2
Today, the help has already arrived by the time the game has begun. Reds starter Juan Guzman is torched in Milwaukee. 2 RBIs from Jeff Cirillo, Jeromy Burnitz and Ronnie Belliard pace the Brewers to a 10-6 victory. A Mets victory and the fate of the Wildcard is once again in the Mets hands. This in mind as the Mets, behind Rick Reed, take the field at 7:10. Tonight, I watch. I have to. The signs at Shea say "THANK YOU BREWERS!"

And it is an intense game right from the outset. It's clear that Reed is on top of his game. Although Reed was never one to blow you away, he was damn near unhittable when he had his best stuff. 2 hits over 6 innings is all he's allowed. But he's been matched by Francisco Cordova.

Until the 6th.

That's when Robin takes over once again.

Following a walk to Olerud, Piazza reaches on an error by Aramis Ramirez. Ventura whacks one into the right field corner, scoring Olerud for the game's first run. A second run scores when Ordonez lines out to Kevin Young at first, but his throw to double Piazza off 3rd is wide, and Piazza scores the second run.

Reed is flawless through the 7th and 8th. And in the last of the 8th, the Mets put the game away, capped off by a majestic Piazza HR, his 40th. 7-0 Mets. Reed finishes off his masterpiece by striking out Abraham Nunez for his career-high 12th K, and he pumps his fist. After falling into the abyss, somehow the Mets are back.

Late that night, a roommate and I have a long discussion, debating whether or not to drive down to Shea for Sunday's game. Tickets are being gobbled up with a quickness. Around 2AM, we decide: If there are tickets, we go. If not, we stay.

It's sold out.

Final Score
Mets - 7

Pirates - 0

Sunday, October 3
(Editor's note: Much of the detail of this game has already been brought up here. I had planned this specific piece to coincide with a playoff run. That, obviously, did not happen, and in a moment of panic, I used this game as a Lost Classic. But we all know what happened anyway.)

Consider Hershiser the unsung hero on this particular afternoon. It's his 5.1 solid innings that keep the Mets in the game until they won it on Clontz's wild pitch. In fact, he's just one of several that emerge this afternoon. Mahomes got out of a jam in the 6th. Benitez did so in the 9th. Melvin Mora picked up a huge hit leading off the 9th, and Alfonzo's subsequent single was just as clutch.

Most of all, it was redemption for Bobby Valentine, who was maligned and vilified by most of the New York Media as the team collapsed over the previous week. And yet, his best call of the day came long after the game had ended. As the Mets waited out the torrential rains that delayed the Reds-Brewers game well into the night, Valentine decided: Rather than wait to see who wins, just fly to Cincinnati now. Get that good night's sleep. If the Reds win, we'll be there, and we'll be ready. If not, we fly to Arizona.

The Reds finally began their game at 10pm in the East, following a rain delay of 5 hours and 47 minutes. With their 7-1 victory, Bobby's call proved to be the right one.

It wouldn't be the last good call he'd make in 1999.

Final Score
Mets - 2

Pirates - 1


To Be Continued...
Part II - Red Menace!