By Mike Steffanos
The last time the Mets were this close to clinching a National League east title was September of 1988. I was still a month away from my thirtieth birthday, no longer a kid but not yet ready for a mid-life crisis. The Mets were on the verge of clinching the east for the second time in three years, and after the disappointment of 1987, it seemed that the Mets had a real chance of winning a second title and fulfilling their promise.
What made this all more satisfying was looking back on where that team had come from. Run into the ground for a dreary 7-year stretch which featured such "highlights" as trading away the future Hall of Famer who was the face of the franchise and a succession of teams who would have had difficulty in capturing an International League title, the team had climbed to the pinnacle of the baseball world in 1986 by winning it all. The turnaround was all the more enjoyable because we had come from so far down. Now here we were, two years later, and we were looking good to do it all again.
Well, we didn't win the title that year, and I never suspected at the time that I would be a month away from my forty-eighth birthday before the Mets would be on the threshold of taking the division again. The world has changed a lot, and so have I. Some things are eerily similar, however. The Mets have spent more of the intervening years in the trash heap than at the top of the heap. Yankee fans are still as arrogant as they ever were. And, despite everything, it still feels sweet to be this close to an achievement for which we've waited for so long. I may be a lot older and more cynical than I was in 1986 and 1988, but I think I just might find myself getting a little emotional whenever that magic number digit drops from 1 to 0.
I don't know why, but as I was driving yesterday evening about 6, I tuned my car radio to WFAN. I don't think I've listened to Mike and the Mad Dog for a couple hours altogether this past summer, as they just bore me after 15 years of listening to them. I guess I was curious as to what they might say with the Mets so close to clinching. Sure enough, they were riding Bob Heussler about the Mets, trying to pick which team was going to knock them off in the playoffs. I just smiled and put on some music. That's their tired shtick, and it's never going to change. I'm not going to let them yank my chain to boost their ratings.
They're not the only ones that will be doing that. As a Mets fan, you'll never be allowed to savor one accomplishment before being subjected to dire predictions of failure in the next task ahead. At the beginning of the year, everyone told you that the Braves would win the division again. Some of them told you that you're team might win the wild card -- if their pitching didn't fall apart. Then your team started to win, but every time one of their players got hurt or the Braves and/or Phillies went on a winning streak you were told that it was all falling apart.
Your team overcame every obstacle, but now you were told that the National League was really weak, and your team was just taking advantage of that. Whenever the Dodgers or Padres get hot for a few games they are declared a pitching juggernaut who will overwhelm your overrated team in the playoffs. Doom is always laying in wait just around the corner.
I come to you today with no predictions of either glory or defeat. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and there are no guarantees for any team. All I can say to you, my fellow Mets fan, is to tune out all of the garbage coming your way and just take a moment to savor a rare accomplishment. For me, I've been rooting for this team since 1969, and I've seen them win the eastern division 4 times. I think I'll worry about who we're going to face or who starts a game four another day.
My friend and colleague Greg Prince has put it beautifully:
You'll read a lot and hear a lot in the coming days and weeks about who you are and what you think. Those who have no clue what it's like to be a Mets fan will become authorities. Others who have never spent a single moment in your shoes will be sitting in your seats. People who couldn't possibly match your track record for getting caught up in a team that has been bringing you down for much of your lives will be talking at you in what sounds like a foreign language, so unfamiliar will they be with the Met dialect. As this September becomes this October, many things will feel different. A lot of them will be great. Some of them will get in the way of your good time. Now that the magic number in this unbelievably magical season is down to 1, now that what we've waited 17 years and 145 games for is potentially hours away, now that you and your team will forever be the National Eastern Division Champions of 2006, never forget this 1 thing.
This 1's for us.
If you're a Mets fan, whether you're an grizzled veteran like me or a fresh-faced rook who has never seen what an eastern division title looks like, take the time to savor this accomplishment. Ignore those who seek to diminish this terrific experience for you. When some self-important "expert" seeks to rain on your parade, turn away and face the sun.
There will be attempts to diminish what your team accomplished in this magical season, or to fill you with fear and foreboding of potential failures yet to come. I suggest the best way to combat this is with a variation of the "we're number one" gesture. Hold your right hand in the air with your palm facing towards you and the digit to the left of your index finger raised in triumph.
In other words, don't let the bastards get you down. This one really is special.
NY Sports Day: What it was like in '86
Former assistant trainer Bob Sikes recalls clinching the NL east 20 years ago.
I ran across the Mets Fan Book web site thanks to a post in the MetsMerized forum. Dana Brand is writing a book about being a Mets Fan, and the essays that he has up there right now are excellent. This one's really worth a visit. I've added a permanent link to the site in my sidebar.