Tuesday, September 23, 2008

40-Year Old Curse Rears Its Head At Shea

In Tuesday's Mets-Cubs game, the Mets trailed 2-0 in the 5th. A loss here and they could have found themselves out of the race in the East and tied for the wild card. David Murphy had just been hit by a pitch and the Mets' pitcher, Johan Santana came up to bat. Santana first showed bunt but wound up swinging away. He hit a slow roller right back to the pitcher, but the bat broke and the head of the bat went bounding back up the middle with the ball.

Needless to say, the pitcher couldn't field the ball and jumped out of the way of the bat and left the grounder for the short stop to field (still in time for a double play). That's where it got weird.

During the course of a season, fans (and likely many players) see so many moments that as they happen, seem to be potential turning points. Some turn up, some down. We often see unusual, bizarre, or big hero/goat plays as the ones that mean something significant. Objectively, you could pretty easily say that very few of them really has the impact that we subjectively imbue them with. In fact, a skeptic would argue that there is no such thing as momentum or turning points or luck or curses. But if the players think there is, then who know what kind of effects they could have?

For instance, look at last year's New York Giants. At this point, the story of the season is pretty well documented but why is it that that team seemingly had so many important turning points on the way to an historic championship? Their defense had been run through like a tissue on a train track for the first two-and-a-half games until suddenly they held on first and goal from their own one-yard line against the Redskins and it all turned around. Then when they sat on the brink of missing the playoffs, a hurricane seemingly hit Buffalo and they pulled off an ugly win on the road in week 16. Then they went against convention and played their starters in a loss to the Pats in week 17. Then improbable play after improbable play happened, capped off by perhaps the most improbable play in NFL history...and suddenly they were the champs.

But why did Destiny choose them? Was it karma punishing Tiki Barber for retiring early and bad-mouthing his former team and quarterback (who would wind up winning the Super Bowl MVP)? Was it that the team didn't fall apart and bicker after that bad start, but rather banded together and played for each other and not for themselves? Was it Jeremy Shockey and Mathias Kiwanuka going down, Plaxico Burress playing hurt and Barber not being there that forced so many others to go above and beyond? Was it a final reward to end Michael Strahan's career? Was it favorable scheduling and good old fashioned dumb luck?

If after about week 10, you had asked fans of all 32 teams if their team might be the team with the magic - the team who had the right turning points, I imagine you would get a yes from no less than 20 of them. No doubt right now there are Dolphin fans envisioning a Super Bowl win this year after last week's demolition of the Pats.

It is the same way with baseball, only the season is so long that any rational fan (yes, I realize that that is a contradiction in terms) would admit that a play like what happened to Johan Santana last night would mean nothing if it happened in June. But on September 23?

In the last month, I have seen about 20 turning points for the Mets. On September 1st, they were red hot and had opened their largest division lead of the season. This would avenge the collapse of last September. Suddenly the wheels fell off the already shaky bullpen and no lead was safe. They lost two in-a-row including the first half of a double header in New York against the Phillies. Their lead was gone. Then they won the night cap and crushed Washington twice. They they lost a series to the lowly Braves and scored 3 runs in two games against those same Nationals that they'd scored 23 runs in two games against the week before. Then Jerry Manuel joked that Johan Santana would throw 170 pitches so we wouldn't have to see the bullpen and everyone was laughing and the team won three in-a-row and everything was ok again. Then they couldn't beat Atlanta again and the Cubs came to town with the best record in the league and beat the Mets in New York with a scrub starter. They were 2.5 out in the East, and just a game up on the re-awakening Brewers for the Wild Card.

Then Johan Santana's bat broke and fended off not one, but two Cubs from picking up the ball. The bat actually danced along with the ball like some bounding black cat, scaring away the pitcher and then actually hitting the ball again and forcing the short stop to abandon hope of getting an out. Was it the ghost of the black cat that ran out onto the same field against these same Cubs that marked the turning point for those Mets 39 years ago?

If there is to be one last fall of Miracles at Shea, that play will be where the magic started. The savior traded for who would erase the memory of last September stepped onto the mound to erase the memory of last weekend. And he hit the ball that miraculously didn't result in a double play. And then he was the one who crossed the plate after David Wright's two-run single to tie the game. And then you just knew he wasn't going to let anyone else score against him that night.

And on a play where Johan Santana got two hits, something truly improbable may have happened. Maybe not. If the Giants are any example, it seems that one amazing, miraculous, lucky, strange play is not really enough to make any difference in the long run. It takes a run of them strung together either by divine intervention or an overwhelming confluence of effort, ability and timing. Maybe last night's play will spark a big run, but then aren't Brewers fans saying the same thing about Prince Fielder's walk-off homer? As they say: Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher, so if Oliver Perez hits for the cycle tonight, maybe we will have a better indication of how things are going to go.

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