By Mike Steffanos
A couple of months into the 2007 season, I grew increasingly disillusioned with a New York Mets club that seemed to lose the sharpness and fundamental soundness that made the 2006 campaign a success. Even more irritating was a series of comments from players on the team that seemed to suggest that they felt somehow they could just kick it up a notch when they had to.
Of course, there were other contributing factors to the ultimately disastrous collapse that September, but the three months of often indifferently lackluster baseball that preceded it are what makes memories from that year particularly painful for me.
As bad as it was, however, I refuse to join in the drunken conga line of those who insist on viewing everything that came before and after 2007 as related.
I've entered into several friendly arguments with Mets fans recently who refer to the "collapse" in the 2006 NLCS against the Cardinals as a prelude to 2007. I've also seen this in the media on more than one occasion, including this one from FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal:
Oh, the Cubs made six errors against the Dodgers, went 5-for-26 with runners in scoring position, played like chokers rather than champions. But they aren't the Mets, who gagged in the 2006 NLCS, gagged in '07, gagged in '08.
I find the quote interesting on several levels.
One, the Cubs "collapses" have a longer recent history than what Rosenthal ascribes to the Mets. After the infamous 2003 NLCS meltdown against the Marlins, the Cubs blew a seemingly comfortable wild card lead the following season in the final week of the season that included losing 5 of their last 6 games to pathetic Mets and Reds nines. Then they failed to win a single playoff game in two consecutive playoff appearances. Once again, Rosenthal ignores facts to indulge his odd, undeniable bias against the team he claims he grew up rooting for.
By the way, I don't think the Cubs were chokers in the 3-and-out playoff sweeps of last two years. They ran into a couple of teams whose pitchers got at the right time and then started pressing. Sometimes it's just circumstances. Had the Cubs pulled the first game out, it might have been a whole different series. The playoffs are always somewhat of a crap shoot. Of course, that crap shoot aspect was part of what hurt the Mets three Octobers ago.
Beyond that, though, let's examine the Mets "collapse" in that 2006 NLCS. Despite losing Pedro Martinez in September and Orlando Hernandez -- who was clearly their best starter in '06 -- the day before the division series began. Pundits were tripping all over themselves picking LA to win that series. No one gave the Mets much of a chance to make it to within a game of the ultimate goal.
With Tom Glavine as the "ace" and Steve Trachsel proving unreliable when not handed a ton of runs to work with, the Mets increasingly relied on inexperienced John Maine and the volatile Oliver Perez in their undermanned rotation. Despite the fact that losing starting pitching is arguably the toughest blow heading into October, the Mets came close to reaching the World Series. Revisionist history ascribes more meaning to Carlos Beltran looking at an unhittable curve ball for a called third strike than the remarkable grit that brought the club even that far. And say what you want about St. Louis, but they beat two other good teams in what seems looking back on it as a magical October for them where almost everything that could went their way.
Bottom line: as disappointing as the final result was, I think it's asinine to label the 2006 crew as having "gagged" in the 2006 NLCS. Rosenthal is a heck of a baseball writer, but he's had a bug up his a** about the Mets for a while, and I literally don't pay attention to anything he writes about them. Same for ESPN's Buster Olney.
2008 is much more problematic for me, but in the end I believe it had more to do with mistakes by Omar Minaya and less to do with players gagging. There just wasn't the same vile taste in my mouth when it was all over that there was the previous year.
On the other hand, there is also no denying that the playoffs were there for the taking. Great teams take advantage of opportunities despite whatever obstacles might exist, and the Mets undeniably didn't. To me, that only proved what was obvious from opening day -- this was no great team. If it wasn't for what had happened one year earlier I doubt that nearly as much would have been made about it.
Which isn't to say that the Mets don't have a problem here. To steal a line from VP candidate Joe Biden, "Past is prologue." The Mets undeniably have to achieve some success to effectively change the subject that will only be more overhyped in 2009 to the detriment of all of us.
Changing the subject will start this winter as Minaya and company hopefully make better decisions than some of those which were made over the previous two off-seasons. We'll be offering our take on that, of course, but we won't be talking all-collapse all of the time. If that's what you need, we trust that there are many out there only too willing to accommodate you with history both factual and revisionist.
By the way, one other thing you won't hear me talking about this winter is Minaya's choice of not dealing prospects at the deadline for older and/or rental players. To me, that thinking implies that the Mets were only a player or two away from being a legit championship contender, but frankly I never saw them as being that close. The bullpen alone could use at least two or three new faces.
If I can draw one more political parallel with the Mets, it's the simple fact that in our current political reality perception often wins out over the truth. If you hope to make a really intelligent decision in either an election or regarding that team you root for, you have to be willing to look beyond oversimplified perceptions. That's what we hope to do in this space over the next few weeks.