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.

I am a diehard fan, but I am also a rational, methodical one, and while any observer worth their salt could tell the Mets were starting to build a base of competitive talent, most rational people thought any potential run was at least a season away, particularly with the heavily-favored Washington Nationals in the Division. I admitted as much in my baseball preview, tabbing the Mets to sneak into the Wild Card while the Nationals won it all, writing, "Next spring with a season of close but no cigar in the review mirror and Wheeler's arm back behind Harvey and deGrom in the rotation the Mets might finally look like a championship contender again."

And yet, here we are, with the Mets getting ready to face the Royals in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series tonight. Having some wrong predictions, even some ridiculously wrong predictions (The Mariners winning the pennant? Huh?) is not unusual. Predictions, as Peter Gammons once put it, are just silly. But I have never been so happy to be so wrong before. Most of this season was an unimpressive slog as the Mets showed slight improvement, but made no moves in the standings that convinced you a deep run was in the offing.

Then there was the Wilmer Flores affair, then the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes and then the run began. What has largely been a dream season now includes a World Series berth that my brain has not yet been able to wrap itself around. Perhaps that is because 15 years ago feels so long ago or I was too young as to grasp the achievement. I can only imagine how befuddled I will be one week from now if the Mets actually finish the job. I am reminded of watching Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, when my friend Luisa saw her Red Sox break the Curse of the Bambino and she stood motionless for a few seconds after the final out before saying, "WHAT DO I DO? I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO!"

I may well reenact that scenario if the Mets get there. But I am cognizant of the fact that they still have to get there. This is no fait accompli. Most predictions come in divided on whether the Mets or Royals will win the Series, and indeed the matchup is a perplexing one even after one discounts the fact that any picks I make will come with heavy bias. After all, the Royals bullpen is exceedingly good and the Mets will have to make their offensive damage against Kansas City's relatively average starting staff. That is doable, but it's a challenge when games are shortened. The Mets, of course, bring in what might be the best collection of young starting pitchers in decades, but the Royals' pesky, strikeout-free offense is particularly well-suited to face them. Who wins when a group notorious for putting its bats on the ball faces a rotation of pitchers exceedingly skilled at missing them?

In 55 1/3 innings this postseason the Mets' four starters have a combined for a 2.44 ERA while racking up an obscene 71 strikeouts against just 19 walks. Those Ks might have been goosed by a free-swinging, young Cubs lineup known for accepting strikeouts as the cost of doing business when you live by the home run, but the walks are still remarkably low, and no team drew fewer walks in the American League than the Kansas City Royals. The Royals also struck out less than any other team, but getting on base is pivotal, particularly for a team that thrives on causing havoc on the base paths. The Royals live on contact hitting, and they'll get their base runners, but I can't see how giving up even fewer free passes can be anything but a benefit to New York.

Any prediction I make must be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps several of them. Maybe I'm just feeling lucky because with Northwestern's win against Nebraska, the Giants' win against the Cowboys and the Devils' surprising four-game winning streak, I'm having a pretty great week. But I suspect the Mets' offense will be able to beat up Edinson Volquez just enough for Matt Harvey to steal Game 1 in Kansas City. Even if Daniel Murphy has come back to Earth, Granderson's consistency at the top of the order and overdue breakouts by David Wright and Lucas Duda, who did homer in Game 4 against Chicago, should give the Mets' offense enough runs to put their starters in a comfortable position. If the Mets can oust a Royals starter early in Game 1 or Game 2 and force Kansas City to bleed its bullpen, so much the better. For me, though, it just comes down to the Mets' rotation, which was widely expected to be good, but has been totally dominant over the past three weeks. I just have difficulty seeing these starters lose four times in six games, let alone seven. With a decent offensive output and a split in Kansas City, the Mets should be able to win their first championship in 29 years.

That obviously doesn't mean it will happen, of course. The Royals are damn good, and they have the experience of winning the pennant a year ago these Mets lack. But I'm feeling good. My nephew, in the meantime, probably has no idea what is going on, though I've now got several photos of him wearing his 18-month Mets jersey on my phone. In case you're wondering, it fits like a glove. Whether or not he realizes it, he's part of this now, and he may share the bond with his uncle, as I've joked since he was born, of rooting for a team that won it all when he was too young to know it happened.

I'm hoping I can sit him down and watch a few innings with him at some point during this series, but first pitch of each game is almost certainly going to be past his bedtime. He is only 22 months old after all. If the Mets do win the World Series this year, I will have the final outs recorded so I can sit him down and show him proof that it happened while he was alive. He may not understand it right away, but years from now he will. That first viewing, though, that first time he sees the Mets win a championship -- if they win a championship -- may not stick. Sammy probably won't remember.

I just hope he doesn't have to wait as long as I did to see one he does.

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