You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.
Well, we're just more than a month away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, even a TV guy or two, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, why My Team Is Better Than Your Team. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.
Right now, to kick us off: the New York Mets. Your author is Jason Fry.
For Mets fans like me, last year was pinch-me stuff: The team barely broke a sweat while ending the Braves' dominance of the NL East (they even administered the coup de grace with a July sweep in Met graveyard Turner Field), shoved aside the hapless Dodgers in the NLDS, then overcame a rash of pitching injuries to force a NLCS Game 7 against the Cardinals. In that Game 7, with the score knotted at 1-1 in the sixth, Endy Chavez saved the season with a jaw-dropping catch to turn a Scott Rolen homer into a double play. In the bottom half of the inning, the Mets loaded the bases with one out. We'd seen this situation before in 2006 — it was time to put up a couple of runs, maybe a big inning, and head for Detroit. Another pinch-me moment in a dream season.
But then the Mets woke up.
Jose Valentin struck out. Endy lifted a little fly to center. Still tied. In the ninth, Yadier Molina connected for a two-run shot off Aaron Heilman; the Mets countered with a furious rally against Adam Wainwright, getting the first two runners aboard. But Cliff Floyd struck out looking, a drive by Jose Reyes wound up in Jim Edmonds' glove and, with the bases loaded, Carlos Beltran was frozen by an evil 0-2 hook from Wainwright. And with that, it was winter.
The conventional wisdom says 2006 was the dawn of the Mets' golden age. The team has an impressive young offensive core in Reyes, Beltran and David Wright; promising prospects in Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber, Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez; and is assured of gobs of money from SNY and Citi Field, which will replace the surly confines of Shea Stadium in 2009. The naming rights alone from Citi Field will be enough to pay for a Beltran-level contract, every year. The team plays hard for manager Willie Randolph, ownership has stopped meddling and GM Omar Minaya doesn't seem likely to repeat the infamous spasms of numbnutsery that still leave us muttering through sleepless nights — goodbye, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Lenny Dykstra and Scott Kazmir; hello Juan Samuel, Roberto Alomar, Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla. (Bonilla! Twice!)
Naturally I'd like the conventional wisdom to be dead-on. But a not-so-funny thing could happen on the Mets' way to the top.
First, the Mets had a strange offseason. They didn't fill enough Brinks trucks to win the right to fill more Brinks trucks for Scott Boras and Whatshisname the Japanese guy, then could only shrug after the Giants gave Barry Zito an insane $126 million over seven years. They opted to replace Floyd — possibly the coolest player on Earth, but apparently made of porcelain and nitroglycerine — with the talented, right-handed but similarly brittle Moises Alou. And that's been about it. All of those decisions made sense for the Mets' long-term plans, but they didn't exactly leave me confident that I should keep my October calendar clear.
The Mets should score tons of runs, but they might give up even more of them. And that's what scares us. Pedro Martinez will return somewhere between summer and never, both Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez will be 41 on Opening Day, John Maine is a sophomore coming off an up-and-down season, Oliver Perez is a question mark and they need to find a fifth starter from a pool of guys who look too young (Pelfrey and Humber), too old (Aaron Sele) or belong in the Who the Hell Knows file (Jorge Sosa, Alay Soler, Jason Vargas).
And just in case all that hadn't left us sufficiently scared about our team turning into the Texas Rangers, the Mets went out and signed Chan Ho Park. Yipes!
It's quite possible that Glavine and El Duque hold up, Maine and Perez advance and either Pelfrey or Humber is ready. If so, the Mets could cruise to a division crown and welcome Pedro back for the playoffs. But there's another possibility: Glavine and El Duque feel their age, Maine and Perez regress and both Pelfrey and Humber have lessons to learn in New Orleans. In which case the Mets could easily wind up looking up at the Phillies, who have a scary offense of their own and a potentially better starting staff. Or, God forbid, the Braves.
But weirdly, this uncertainty isn't the worst thing for us. Despite all the barroom legends surrounding the '86 team, we don't find hegemon status entirely welcome — that's for the undead who show up each night to demand a Yankees win. Our legends are more about faith, miracles and luck: Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda making circus catches, Tug McGraw howling that ya gotta believe, Mookie Wilson jackknifing away from an inside pitch and aiming a little roller at Buckner, Robin Ventura's grand-slam single in the rain, and Endy Chavez snow-coning a ball back out of the bullpen. If it seems like I'm poor-mouthing a team that won 97 games and has a payroll north of $100 million, take it from me: If you'd seen Tom Seaver wearing a Reds cap and Kenny Rogers throw ball four, you'd be paranoid too.