For all that Mets fans enjoyed the 2007 Home Opener, we were still
haunted by the final pitch of the 2006 season. Adam Wainwright, of the St. Louis
Cardinals, had thrown a two-strike curveball to Carlos Beltran. Beltran did not
swing. He saw that the pitch was high and he waited for it to pass. He was
waiting for the next pitch, the historic pitch, the pennant-bearing pitch. The high
curve, already taken, already in the past, approached the plate at the level of
Beltran’s eyes. Then it fell. It dropped, like a bomb from a plane. It fell from
the sky and the 2006 season was over.
In 2006, the Mets won 97 games and their first division title in 19 years.
They swept the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs. They went into the
NLCS as heavy favorites. But then after a couple of bullpen collapses and a
horrific five-run first third of an inning from Steve Trachsel, a veteran pitcher
fighting to save his marriage, the inferior Cardinals had the superior Mets on the
ropes, with two games to play in New York.
I still believed in my team. And after seeing the sixth game at Shea with
my own eyes, having felt the Upper Deck bounce as I stood on it with tens of
thousands of screaming people, I thought that the Mets would pull it out. By the
time we reached the ninth inning of the seventh game, Endy Chavez’s catch,
perhaps the greatest Mets catch ever, had saved us. Ollie Perez had also saved
us, giving up only one run in the seven innings he pitched. I trusted Aaron
Heilman, who came in in the eighth, because I had every reason to. He had a
terrific year in 2006. Then Yadier Molina hit a two-run homer off Heilman in the
top of the ninth. Still, I believed that it was 1986 and not 1988. The Mets loaded
the bases in the ninth with one out, and two fine hitters, Cliff Floyd and Carlos
Beltran, were ready to come to the plate to give us a Bobby Thompson moment.
Hope was alive until the last fraction of a second, when the curveball dropped and
everything suddenly and finally took the form it would always have.
If the 2006 Mets had played a hundred games against the 2006
Cardinals, they would have won sixty or seventy. But they only played seven.
And they had lost four. The 2006 NLCS, so close to having been won, would
always be lost, just like the 1988 NLCS or the 2000 World Series.
Twenty years minus one week before Wainwright’s pitch, the Mets had
won their last World Championship. I felt those twenty years, as a presence in
my living room, when I choked off my remote control on October 19, 2006. I
wondered what I would have felt if I had known, at thirty-two, that the Mets would
not win a World Championship in the next two decades. Would I waste twenty
years hoping for something that wouldn’t happen? Let’s say I could talk to the
thirty-two year old guy who had seen Mookie Wilson’s grounder bounce between
Bill Buckner’s legs only two nights before. What would I say to him? What I’d
want to tell him is that hoping and dreaming justify themselves. They are a
pleasure, even if you never get what you want. To hope and dream, you need the
idea of success. But you don’t need success itself.
He already knew this. I remember that he knew this. He was a Mets
fan and he had been one for twenty-five years.
As I sat in my living room, at the end of the 2006 season, I asked myself
what I ask myself all the time. How could baseball be worth the attention I have
given it for so many years? How could it be worth the emotions I have felt for it?
Many things in life are worthy of my attention. If I felt nothing for my family, if I
didn’t care about my career, my health, and my good fortune, my life would be
much worse. But what difference would it possibly make if I suddenly decided to
Look, life is filled with things you don’t have to do or care about.
Nobody has to listen to music, or look at art, or read a book, or walk in the
woods, or care about someone else’s problem, or taste food. You don’t even have
to love the people you love. You don’t have to work where you work or live
where you live or do what you do for a living. Some things are more important
than other things, but everything is optional. Everything is a ride you don’t have
to go on. If you wanted to, you could sit and watch everything from a bench. You
could listen to the screams from the roller coaster. You could watch the kids get
sick from spinning around. Or you can get on the ride yourself.
Baseball is a ride I get on. It’s like a lot of other things in my life. No
sense of triumph justifies it and no sense of loss discredits it. It lifts me up. It
drops me down. It is something I do, one of the things I live for.
Baseball is also something I share with millions of other people. Friends
of mine who were at Shea for the seventh game of the 2006 NLCS tell me that
they had never seen anything like the love, kindness, and sympathy that Mets
fans shared at the end of that game. Even though I wasn’t at Shea, I did feel
that all of us were together at that moment. I had the feeling I always have at the
great moments of Mets history. I feel as if I’m flying over New York with its
roofs off, past apartment blocks and brownstones and long rows of small houses
and suburbs spreading to the horizon. I feel as if I’m looking into the living rooms
and seeing all the Mets fans in their clusters of family and friends, everyone with
snacks and drinks and Mets regalia, everyone feeling the same thing at the same
moment. Although the season ended with me in my living room, with just my
daughter, my pretzels, and my beer, I felt as if I was with millions of people.
What sense does this make? This wasn’t 9/11. This didn’t qualify as a
unifying triumph or misfortune. Nothing important had been lost, as it is in a war
or an election. This was only the end of a winning baseball season that ended one
out short of the World Series. Why value an experience like this? If something
doesn’t really matter, does the fact that millions of people care about it make it
I don’t know. I love to be with people who have the same memories I
have of the New York Mets, who respond as I do to some names and numbers
and events in the past, who share new things with me, as they happen. People
who share these things with me are not entirely strangers, even if I have never
seen them before, even if I will never meet them. I sit in the crowd at a Mets
game and look around me and think, “I don’t know any of these people!” Yet
they are my paysans, my landsmen, my homies. This big colorful bowl is our
village. And so are all of these screens on our laps and in our living rooms with
their pictures and words. I love this.
This is a good village. It’s better, in lots of ways, than a real village.
There’s just a connection, not a lifelong interdependence. A village this big and
abstract can never be a prison. While it’s a part of your life, it doesn’t consume
or determine it. You don’t really hate your rivals from other villages. You know
it’s all just a game. Your triumphs don’t actually cost anyone anything. Your
losses don’t deprive you of happiness, food, freedom, or life. It’s not a problem
that baseball isn’t real. One of the best things about baseball is that it isn’t real,
but it still lets you feel real love and real hope.
Real love and real hope about something that isn’t real? Sure. Haven’t
you ever enjoyed a movie, a book, a TV show, a Broadway musical, or an opera?
Baseball is part of a web of unreal things that are important to all of us. It’s a
story that engages us. It touches the deep things all stories touch. But no one
tells it, no one controls it, and no one makes it up ahead of time. Like life, it just
happens, but like a story, it is only as real as we allow it to be. It has all the
indeterminacy of reality and all of the splendor of the imagined.
In this way, baseball is wonderful. And it is wonderful even when it is
disappointing. But to be wonderful even when it’s disappointing, baseball has to
promise that someday you may have a season that is not disappointing. It offers
this promise every year. Every year, I find bright shiny new reasons to hope, just
as when I was a kid, I would find a stack of bright brand new pennies on top of my
dresser when my grandparents came to visit. I enjoyed the twenty Mets seasons
after 1986. I enjoyed them because I knew what they might have brought me but
didn’t. I enjoyed trying to have it, even if I didn’t get it. I enjoyed the 2006
season, even though the Mets did not win the pennant. They did not win the 2006
World Series. They did not even play in it. But they almost did.
©Dana Brand 2009