Since my last post here, the Mets have gone through one dreadful week, perfectly captured by Mike's recent wordless post. The five days between last Sunday night's homer that wasn't and Saturday's three-double debut by rookie Nick Evans will forever be remembered by me as the Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. To add insult to ineptitude, the meanest son of a bitch in that valley was named Chipper.
I suffered through this past week doing something different every game, like Cal Ripken changing batting stances. I watched one game all the way through on ESPN. I flipped back and forth during another, catching only an occasional glimpse of suckitude. I watched one on MLB.com. I followed one only through the crawl at the bottom of the screen. Finally, I deliberately stopped tracking Friday night's game with the Mets in the lead, figuring if I wasn't watching them, they might just win. No luck there.
I tried a new approach on Saturday. The Mets won their first game in weeks (okay, five days) while I charted their progress on the scoreboard at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Having another major league game in front of me seemed to work as well as having a Duran Duran concert between me and a Mets telecast last weekend. Like the Invisible Boy in the movie Mystery Men, who only became invisible if you weren't looking at him, the Mets were not winning as long as I kept watching them not winning.
My rationale for making the two-hour southbound hike to see a team I'm not in love with was threefold. First, this Rays-Orioles ticket was free, an unexpected bonus I received on my way out of Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex last month after one of the Rays' three wins over Toronto. Second, despite its lack of fan support and the feeling that I'm watching a game from inside a Home Depot, the Trop is not a bad place to watch a game. Clean, well-lit, with plenty of concession stands, several fan-friendly areas for group seating, and a liberal number of TV's to keep an eye on the action while waiting to pay eight bucks for a beer. Third, their team is very good. After witnessing one of the worst weeks in Mets history, I was there to watch these Rays go nine games over .500 for the first time in their history. Let me tell you - it's really nice on that side of the hill.
I also had the chance to touch base with plenty of former Mets. It was cool to watch Chad Bradford scrape his knuckles against the artificial turf in left field warming up before the game. It was surreal to see Cliff Floyd grounding out against Steve Trachsel. It was uncomfortably familiar to see Trax get rocked for nine runs without getting out of the second inning. Jay Payton smacked an RBI double for the Rays. Steve Henderson and Tim Bogar are both coaches with the Rays, and our old buddy Juan Samuel is a base coach for the O's. There was no Scott Kazmir sighting on Saturday, but I sure knew he was there instead of in a rotation a thousand miles north (or, on this particular day, 1500 miles west).
In many ways, being a Rays fan this season is so much easier than being a Mets fan. They're young, optimistic, and seemingly unaware that they shouldn't be holding their own against teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. They're pitching well, hitting the snot out the ball, and playing good fundamental baseball, something severely lacking most nights at Shea this season. It's the kind of atmosphere Mets fans had in 1984, or 1997, or 2005. Things hadn't quite jelled yet, but we knew something really good was ahead of us.
Their fans hoped for improvement this year; they didn't expect to be sniffing first place on Memorial Day. Mets fans, while not quite presumptuous as fans of the club in the Bronx, expect their team to be performing much better this year than they have to date. Maybe that's too great an expectation; this team is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a copy of yesterday's newspaper, and sealed inside an odor-free Ziploc bag.
I had one unexpected delight at the Rays game. I asked for, and graciously received, the autograph of Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who threw out the first pitch of the game and stuck around to watch most of it as well. I resisted the urge to ask him to smudge a little Vaseline on the ball I handed him to sign. The man's nearly 70, but he still looked as if he could kick my ass if he wanted to.
The challenge for me now is to come up with other ways to watch the Mets without watching the Mets. I could TiVo the game and watch it on a few minutes' delay. I could drive behind someone on I-95 who has the game on in the overhead TV in their SUV, and glance at it every few miles. I could poke pinholes in a box, and watch the game indirectly, like a solar eclipse. These days, a Mets win can be just as rare.
I've noticed that I'm not using the term "this Mets team" as much as I used to. I caught myself recently mentally extracting the four-letter word in the middle out of that phrase, simply describing them as "this team". As if that would separate the franchise I've grown to love my entire life from the 25 folks who currently wear their uniform. I'm an optimist by nature, so I look forward very soon to calling this team "this Mets team" without hesitation. Until then, they'll simply remain mystery men. Just don't stare directly at them.