Thursday, October 29, 2015

NFL Picks Week Eight: The Mets have the Royals right where they want them

Ok. I'll be honest. Game 2 last night did not exactly go how I wanted it to. Actually, it went the exact opposite way of how I wanted it to. Down 1-0 in the World Series, but with the Mets' top pitcher this season Jacob deGrom and Kansas City's wildly unpredictable Johnny Cueto facing off, I anticipated the Mets would win the game and earn a split in KC. Most importantly, though, the key was getting to Cueto early, not just because it would mean runs on the board, but because the Royals' bullpen had expended itself dramatically in that epic 14-inning win in Game 1. Kick Cueto to the curb early, force an already tired bullpen to throw six innings and you might have the Royals on their heels for the rest of the series.

A complete-game two-hitter that saves a tired bullpen and puts the Mets down 2-0 is not exactly what I was looking for.

But hey, here we are. The 2015 National League Champion New York Mets are headed back home to Citi Field facing a 2-0 deficit in the World Series ahead of Game 3 Friday night. It didn't have to be this way. The Mets have blown three separate leads over the first two games of this series, and almost certainly should have taken Game 1, which Kansas City tied on a solo home run by Alex Gordon with New York two outs away from victory. But ifs and buts, etc. What's done is done and all the Mets can hope to do now is even the score with three games in Queens this weekend.

Surprisingly, I actually like their chances. After all, Noah Syndergaard has basically been dynamite this postseason and Steven Matz, well, everyone says he's really great, so he must be even though I never see him pitch into the sixth inning. What I'm saying is, Mets fans across the boroughs are having a bit of a doomsday freakout right now, which, uh, I guess is understandable. But we could very easily be sitting here in three days with the series all square at 2-2 and Matt Harvey on the mound at home in a pivotal Game 5.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ya Gotta Believe

When the calender turned this past December, I looked toward 2015 with anxious anticipation as well as disbelief that in just a few short months I would somehow be celebrating my 30th birthday. I also looked forward with amazement at how in just a few short hours my nephew Sammy, would be celebrating his first. Since before Sammy was born I have done my best to pepper him with gifts and plant the seeds so that years from now he might watch the same teams I do with the same feelings. Of those gifts, there is no other team for which he has gotten more silly pieces of paraphernalia, than the New York Mets.

Time flies and over the past week I have received the revelation that somehow, someway, it has now been half of my life since the Mets were last in the World Series, and nearly all of it since they had actually won the damn thing. After all, I was a mere one year, three months and 13 days old on this exact date 29 years ago, which, incidentally, happens to be the last time the Mets won a world championship. Sammy's parents don't care very much about baseball, though my brother does claim, ironically, to be a Kansas City Royals fan. But their ambivalence opened the door for me to shower their son with Mets-related clothing, the goal of which, of course, was to warp his mind into being one of those sad folks who invests themselves in this aimless second-fiddle franchise.

I had a plan in place, though. Babies grow. They grow fast. Most clothing you can buy for them is sized in terms of months rather than years because they won't fit very long, and so I made a conscious decision to buy Sammy Mets clothing sized for the ages at which they would be in season. 2014 wasn't supposed to be breakout season for the Mets, though, and so when it came to his first jersey, I opted for the 18-month fit as opposed to six. My argument was the Mets might actually be decent in 2015 and wearing the jersey wouldn't be an embarrassment. Keeping that foresight in mind, along with my nephews impending first birthday on Jan. 1, 2015, and that the Mets' lone championship in my lifetime came when I was all of one year old, I proclaimed for my annual year in review that this would be it, and I titled that post "2015: The Year the Mets Win the World Series."

It was supposed to be a joke.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

NFL Picks Week Seven: This is really happening, isn't it?

There is a certain element of drama that disappears from the game when the outcome is no longer in doubt. The last time the New York Mets won the National League pennant, a five-game romp over the Cardinals in 2000, I remember being on the phone with my father during the final outs as I watched on the couch in the den of my childhood home. As the Mets inched closer and closer to the World Series, leading 7-0 as Mike Hampton was in the midst of a masterful three-hit shutout, there was no angst, no worry, no concern. I just told my dad, "Let's end this thing already."

This was the only time I had seen the New York Mets win the pennant until last night. The Mets wrapped up their first ever four-game sweep in a best-of-seven postseason series with an 8-3 win in which they had put up a four-spot before the Chicago Cubs ever came to bat and ended a series in which they never trailed once. It is a delirious, euphoric moment, but in no tangible way does it really feel real. There are probably many reasons for that. For one, these things always feel bizarre in the moment, and not as if they're a part of history. For another, I'm not really used to seeing good things happen to the Mets. And lastly, it was just so damn easy. The Cubs were a Vegas and popular favorite heading into this series and the Mets toyed with them as if they were the Murderer's Row Yankees facing a group of high schoolers. The Mets' offense struck early in each game and the pitching locked the Cubs' considerable offensive power down with little trouble in a way that doesn't so much prove New York's championship bonafides as it does defy belief.

And at the heart of it, that's the issue. This, what the New York Mets are doing, defies belief. This doesn't seem real or possible for a team that was tip-toeing around .500 for the first half of the season while putting out lineups where people like John Mayberry Jr. and Eric Campbell took turns batting cleanup. This team is now going to its first World Series since I was a sophomore in high school with a starting rotation that some are calling one of the best young groups ever assembled, a lineup that is mashing when it has to and a second baseman who hit a career high of 14 home runs this season, but now has apparently been anointed by the blood of Jesus.

It all makes no god damn sense.



Monday, October 19, 2015

This is what magic feels like

There is something about witnessing a postseason run for one of your teams that, in the moment, doesn't quite make it seem real. In the particular scenario in which that team is noted for a history of heartbreak when it's good, mediocrity when its not and generally tripping over its own feet, it is doubly surreal. What the New York Mets are doing right now, however, might make surreal seem ordinary. That New York is riding the arms of its long-touted pitching staff is not exactly a surprise. But ripping off two wins to start the NLCS against the favored Chicago Cubs, beating their two ace-caliber pitchers in the process no-less, and doing so with Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy delivering almost all of the offensive punch is something to behold.

And, I can tell you, it's something to see.

I have been to more than 180 Major League Baseball games in my life. According to my Hardball Passport profile, 138 of those have involved the New York Mets, though given that I wasn't quite as dedicated to keeping track of my ticket stubs in the 1990s, that number, in reality, is almost certainly higher. Until Saturday night, I had never seen the Mets play in the postseason in person. I did have tickets to the first round in 2007 and 2008, but we all know what happened there. Three years ago I decided on a whim to see my first postseason game when the Yankees and Orioles played in Game 5 of the ALDS.

I'm not sure why I did that. For years I had said I would avoid the postseason until I saw my Mets playing there myself. Perhaps I just saw a deal too good to pass up on an afternoon I was free, perhaps I got tired of waiting. While that afternoon was fun, it was no different or worse for me than any other baseball game. I had no care or investment. It was just nine innings between two teams with whom I have almost no connection.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

NFL Picks Week Six: Oh, right, so that's what it feels like

I remember this. The tension, the angst, the agita. It's all coming back to me. Nine years is quite a gap to go without being invested in October baseball, and the way it twists your stomach in knots was long forgotten and yet feels all too familiar. I often tell coworkers of a conversation I had in 2011, when the New Jersey Devils endured their first season without a playoff berth since 1996, when I was just shy of my 11th birthday. As I watched the postseason that spring I told my coworker how I experienced the most bizarre phenomenon during that first round.

I enjoyed it.

This is not unusual. Watching your team play a postseason game is a stressful, nerve-wracking affair, and when it comes to baseball, I had nearly forgotten just how stressful it can be. I was reminded of it this past Friday, when after a long day of hiking around Glacier National Park with two good friends and a heart dinner of grilled buffalo ribeyes in Kalispell, Montana, I settled in in my friends Dave and Caitlin's living room to watch the Mets play the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS with them, my friend Frankie and Dave and Caitlin's black lab mix Bergen. Almost instantaneously, stresses rippled through my body in a way I hadn't experienced since October 19, 2006, when the Mets lost Game 7 of the NLCS to St. Louis in what would be their last postseason game for almost a decade.

In this particular instance of course, I was lucky. It was a tiny bit of misfortune that the Mets' first postseason series in nine years happened to fall almost entirely throughout the course of a trip to Montana, but luckily they have technology out there now even if my friends there somehow don't have cable. That first game, a dominant strikeout-laden win for Jacob deGrom, though, was relatively stress free. Game 2, which I watched partially at a condo in Big Sky and partially at a nearby bar called The Broken Spoke, was a less pleasant experience and the night that will be singled out in this series if the Mets don't reach the NLCS because of the slide heard 'round the world. I may or may not have made a scene in front of several people I don't know, but on the plus side, the credit card minimum there was only $6 and you still needed to buy two drinks to reach it. Game 3, the most-enjoyable game of the series for obvious reasons, I watched at my friends' Sarah and Jeff's place in Missoula, along with their insanely adorable 18-month-old Marshall, who has a knack for industriousness and may or may not be a good luck charm.



And then there's Game 4.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

NFL Picks Week Five: THE METS ARE PLAYING IN A PLAYOFF GAME

Montana is one of a handful of states in the lower 48 bereft of any major league professional sports teams. That doesn't mean there's no reason to visit, obviously. Montana also happens to maybe be the most beautiful place on Earth. That Montana lacks any major league sports teams isn't a bad thing, but it does make it a curious place for me to spend what might be one of the busiest sports weeks on record.

That week already began on Tuesday when the Astros bored the Yankees to death in the AL Wild Card Game and continued last night when Jake Arietta turned the Pirates into mincemeat as the Cubs took the NL Wild Card Game. Nothing like watching a 98-win season go down the tubes in a winner-take-all frabrication designed for TV. I'm also fortunate in that I was too lazy to blog my MLB postseason bigs on Tuesday like I should have, considering I was going to pick Pittsburgh to win the World Series. The zaniness continues tonight when the American League Division Series kicks off, and the NFL's Week Five schedule gets underway. It was compounded last night when the NHL dropped the puck on the 2015-16 season, during which I will watch the Blackhawks try to defend their Stanley Cup championship and I will cheer the Devils' inexorable march toward the best odds in the Auston Matthews (or whomever) Sweepstakes. No. 13 Northwestern, newly sporting its highest national ranking since 2000, has one its biggest games in years as it visits No. 18 Michigan Saturday afternoon.

Also there are some baseball games this weekend that I'm kind of interested in.

There aren't many things in life that would set my heart aflutter like a deep New York Mets playoff run, and I use the term "aflutter" in the most literal sense as my angst and agita throughout is sure to cause some irregular beats. That said, it is just my luck that the first time the Mets play a real, bonafide postseason game in my adult life happens to fall in the middle of a vacation to the mountain west. Luckily for me, facing the Los Angeles Dodgers means the opening two games of the series will be in later time slots. Game 1's 9:45 pm ET start has not gone over so well back east, but as I am spending all of Friday hiking around Glacier National Park, my mind has been put at ease over not having to balance one of the few chances in my life to truly experience untouched natural splendor with one of the few chances in my life to watch the Mets play an October game that matters.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

NFL Picks Week Four: Is there a Ralph Around Here?

Ladies and gentlemen, much like my beloved New York Mets, I am in the midst of a drought. Much like my beloved Mets, that drought will end this month. Now, I'm not really naive enough to think my drought, which is all of nine months, is as significant as the Mets' which has lasted nine years, but I'm as excited for mine to end this weekend as I am for the Mets' to end on October 9. Ok, that's not entirely true, but it is enough nines to make Herman Cain proud. Except this is marginally more sensible.

Look, here's the point. I started this blog several years ago with the stated intentions of chronicling my irrational goal of seeing every sports team in the four major North American sports leagues play a home game. Unfortunately, there aren't enough teams, enough trips or enough money in my bank account to have a new adventure ready for posting each week, so I have often verged into other topics. Even as I've done that, however, I have still managed to make progress on my goal, typically matching or exceeding my ideal pace of six new teams per year for the next three decades or so.

Then 2015 came.

This year has been slowed by several other commitments, be they vacations, visiting family abroad or still being stuck in that brutal stretch in which everyone you know is getting married. I have capitalized on this to some extent, finally seeing my beloved Saints for the first time when I stayed with my sister in London and experiencing the insanity of Japanese sporting culture as I made a mid-summer trek around the globe. I even managed to combine a wedding in California this past June with trips to see the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's.

The catch here is that none of these teams were both in North America nor teams I had never seen before. In fact, the last time I ventured outside my sports comfort zone within the lower 48 was way back on December 7, 2014 when I watched the Giants pulverize 22 homeless men masquerading as the Tennessee Titans. Since then it's been nothing but watching the same teams I always watch, and if you happened upon a Devils or Knicks game last season you know that can't be a good thing.