It was never a question of if – only a question of when.
I spent the early years of my youth mired in the equivocal waters of denial. I watched trainwrecks and improbable comebacks unfold before my very eyes, never fully understanding the historical context or gravity of the situation. But as each spring and summer came and went, as each car ride home from my own baseball games came accompanied by the unmistakable voice of Howie Rose on 660AM despite being hundred of miles outside of the tri-state area, I realized I was predestined to this lifestyle.
You see, the New York Mets are my birthright. My entrance to this world came sandwiched between the end of the regular season and beginning of the epic 1986 World Series Championship run. My very initials would serve as an acronym for the team itself (believe it not, “Rudy” is just an alias). While the pedigree of Mets fans failed to outdate other notable clubs due to the Mets short tenure in the MLB, it was up to me to embrace the torch of fandom and pass it down to future generations of my namesake. As the ’90s progressed, I sat through the Todd Pratt homerun, the Grand Slam Single, the Clemens Bat Toss, the growth and development of Wright and Reyes, the failed Art Howe experiment, the Pedro Martinez signing that ushered in a new era of Mets baseball, the Beltran signing, trading for Delgado and Lo Duca, and bringing in division rival Billy Wagner to close out games.
And then, with one Adam Wainwright breaking ball, or as I like to call it “The Curveball That Must Not Be Named”, everything collapsed. Admittedly, I had probably the biggest emotional breakdown of my life. I threw my chair into my wall. I dry-heaved into my toilet (could have been the binge drinking though). I didn’t go to class the next day. I had invested so much into the success of the team. It was my distraction from the chaos of my parent’s divorce and the sudden realization that, in my junior year of college, I finally had to decide what I wanted to do with my own life. Without a World Series run, it was time to face reality.
But the silver lining was that the Mets had made it that far. The core group of players were guaranteed to stick around for, at minimum, another two years. Surely between the next two years, there would be another run at the elusive third title. I put money on the fact that this would happen. But as each season unfolded, it didn’t.
One of the many stop-gap measures the Mets took in the tailspin years following the 2006 loss was trading for an expiring contract of Johan Santana – arguably one of the better trades the team has made in its history. I was so elated at the prospect of Johan joining the team that I even made his ESPN bio picture my Facebook profile picture for a few weeks. Johan, to me, was the savior we desperately needed.
As time wore on, so did Johan’s shoulder and elbow. I was blinded by the glare of his previous two Cy Young Awards to realize that he was damaged goods. Throughout his entire tenure with the team, he’s always put up quality numbers. But it’s been the quantity of those numbers appearing in box scores that’s been most troubling. There have been parts of the last three years where I’ve even forgotten that he’s on the 40-man roster. I forget how lucky the Mets are to have, when healthy, a Hall of Fame caliber ace, who unfortunately will fall short of that illustrious club when he hangs it up.
But never again will I forget.
Since 2006, I cringe every time I see the name “A. Wainwright” printed anywhere. It’s too painful to draft him in our annual Fantasy Baseball draft; the wound is still too fresh almost six years later. Thankfully, I live outside of the St. Louis local broadcast range so I get to miss 98% of Cardinals games a year. But even when they’re nationally televised on a random weeknight or Sunday Night Baseball, I always take a sneak peak before hand at the pitching matchup to make sure Wainwright is at least three times further from home plate than the 60 feet, 6 inches his curveball dropped through the air on that October night.
Add in the fact that Beltran now dons a Cardinals uniform and you’ve got a recipe for conjuring up enough 2006 NLCS memories to ruin any Mets fan’s day. Yesterday, the Cardinals made their first appearance in the Big Apple in the 2012 season. And who better to send to the mound than the aforementioned A. Wainwright. As if the five hour trek up 95 wasn’t enough, crashing the reunion of the Class of the 2006 NLCS was not a tempting reason for navigating up to NYC for the weekend, even if my friend had free tickets.
What would come to unfold next is one of the more shocking, improbably, and gratifying things I have ever experienced as a Mets fan.
Perhaps the most dubious stat the Mets are known for is the lack of a perfect game, or for that matter, a no-hitter. Coming into Friday night, the Mets had played 8,019 games in their team’s 51 year history. Hell, even the Diamondbacks, Marlins, Rays, and Rockies, teams that saw inaugural seasons in the 1990s, each had a pitcher go the distance with a goose egg in the hit column. The Mets radio twitter account @WFAN660 even makes mention whenever a Mets no-hit is broken each night, using the hashtag #NotTonightBoss.
Not tonight. Most certainly not tonight.
In front of an unimpressive crowd of less than 30,000, a pitcher who was limited to a strict pitch count found the ultimate synchronization with a fledgling catcher making his return from the disabled list. A lineup that boasts underperformers, unprovens, unprotecteds, and unknowns (seriously, who the hell is Omar Quintanilla?) would provide more than enough to ensure that their ace, the man entrusted to hold all things pitching together, could go the distance and exorcise one of the greatest ghosts in sports. A lifelong 27-year old Mets fan, who fell ass-backwards into the starting left fielder role would make an unbelievable play (as seems to be customary these days when a no-hitter is on the line), and will be remembered as a hero that night, albeit a completely overshadowed one.
Some may say that third base umpire Adrian Johnson’s blown call handed Johan the no-hitter on a silver platter, in the same way that Mookie Wilson didn’t “win” Game Six for the Mets, so much as Billy Buckner “lost” it for the Red Sox.
Does it matter? If you ask any Mets fan, today, tomorrow, ten years from now, or fifty years from now, the answer will be as stern a “No” as the number of hits in the Cardinals boxscore. The fact remains that Johan is in the history books forever. The fact remains that, despite fielding a team that is barely recognizable to even the most keen Mets fan, the team remains just one game out of the division lead. The fact remains that this game in time may serve to be the catalyst that re-energizes a fan base to rally behind a team of misfits and challenge the juggernauts of the NL East for a place in October.
Maybe this is an isolated incident. Maybe the Mets spiral on a ten-game losing streak and Johan’s no-hitter serves as the lone bright spot of what many believed would be a disastrous season. Or maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of something beautiful.
With Johan’s no-hitter Friday night, the Mets have just one demon left to fight off. The time will come when that Wainwright breaking ball will hold in the air just a second longer, when our star players’ knees won’t buckle, when he’ll connect with the ball and send it sailing into the stands, when the Mets will lift the World Series trophy for the first time in over 25 years. It’s not a question of if – only a question of when.