Sickness and the Miracle Mets
I don't think of myself as a sickly person. I've probably not missed three days of work in my entire life, and in some box in a spare room of my parents' home I should have a couple of perfect attendance certificates from school*, and the only nights I ever spent in a hospital were those nights after my two daughters were born.
*This may be more of a reflection of parents who did not believe in sickness.
All that said, I look back and realize that I've gotten sick at great sporting events all over the world. I was sick for the entire 2004 Olympics in Athens, for instance. It was awful -- coughing fits, shakes, aches and pains, rhythmic gymnastics -- symptoms you don't hear about on the Nyquil commercials. I got violently ill in Scotland just before the 2002 British Open; I was so cold, I remember, they brought up extra like seven extra blankets and I was STILL shivering underneath, I felt like one of those old cowboys in the movies who had been shot, and he was a goner, but his buddy was a sayin' "Hold on Tex! Drink this whiskey. You'll be all right, Tex, there's still a lot left for you to do in this world."
And as for shivering, that wasn't even the worst one -- I was once shivering inside Allen Fieldhouse during a Kansas basketball game, which seems impossible because the temperature at Allen Fieldhouse never drops below 148 degrees. Celsius. Allen Fieldhouse is hot enough to kill E coli bacteria. And yet, I was freezing in there, wearing my heavy coat, shaking uncontrollably like I was one of the Solid Gold dancers, and I remember this sportswriting dolt next to me kept asking if the Jayhawks (who were leading by, like, 30 at the time) were playing zone or man-to-man.
And so on. I thought of these things on Tuesday when I woke up in the middle of a funhouse. Well, to be technical I woke up in my bed which is both (A) About 9 inches high and (B) Roughly the density and give of a Black and Decker work bench. No kidding, you could do some woodworking on my bed. I thought that I had slept on a hard bed in Japan, holy cow, that thing was like the Princess and the Pea compared to this slab of marble. My room here has a desk and a bed, and the first one is more comfortable, the second one easier to write on -- this is definitely a different country.
Anyway, I woke up and the room was spinning. It was not entirely unexpected -- the room was also spinning when I went to bed too. Still, it was disconcerting -- I didn't really feel too bad except that when I stood up I was like Trevor Berbick after he get elbowed in the forehead by Mike Tyson, I was staggering from one side of the ring to the other. I kept trying to get across the room, and it was like trying to walk in one of those moonwalk bubbles they have at county fairs and kid-friendly car dealerships during year end sales.
It was the strangeness of the moment that threw me. I've never had that kind of dizzy spell before. To be honest, I've never had any kind of dizzy spell before. The trouble with having a whole new thing hit you in China, at least for me, was that I had no idea what to do (do you take aspirin when you're teetering around the room like the crew of the Starship Enterprise? How about Tums?). I had no idea how long it would last. I had no idea if the next step was an alien emerging from my stomach or my face melting or what.
This was the state I was in when I watched Michael Phelps win his third gold medal, breaking another world record, this time in the 200 meter freestyle. I'm not sure what Phelps' swimming OPS+ is -- it would obviously be affected by the new LAZR suits, which apparently can break Olympic records without the actual swimmer, and the depth of the pool, which apparently makes it the fastest in the world, the Coors Field of swimming pools. But I can tell you that even while I was sitting there watching the world go round and round (I really love to watch it roll), Phelps was still swimming fast.
Then i spent the rest of the day trying to get the everything to stop turning. Things slowly did return to normal, or at least something resembling normal, which was a bit of a relief. And I was able to catch up on some Internet reading. It was while doing an Internet search that I caught the news that the Tampa Bay Rays have set a record for most victories in a season. Already. I love this story. It's still not even August 15th, and they have already set the record. How great is that?
And it got me thinking about the '69 Mets. You know before 1969, the Mets had never won more than 73 games in a season. So the Mets set the team record for most victories that year on August 27, when Jerry Koosman two-hit the Padres. If you're curious or Jerry Koosman himself, well, he gave up both those hits in the first inning -- one of them was a home run to Downtown Ollie Brown*. Koosman also had two hits in the game -- that's got to be a rarity, when a pitcher gives up and gets precisely the same number of hits in a game.
*Has there ever been hard-hitting player in any walk of life named "Brown" who did not have the nickname "Downtown?" There was Downtown Freddie Brown, Downtown Ollie Brown, Downtown Julie Brown (of course), and Downtown Leona Brown, a woman's boxer from Buffalo. There was also Marcel "Downtown" Brown from Simon and Simon. If Three Finger Brown had a full hand, he would have, no doubt, been called Downtown Mordecai Brown.
The Mets lost their next game after that to the Giants -- Juan Marichal shut them out -- and at that point they were four games behind the Chicago Cubs. On September 5th, after losing the second-game of a doubleheader, the Mets were 4 1/2 games behind the Cubs. That was a fascinating Cubs team, of course. They had three Hall of Famers (Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins) and a fourth guy who should be in the Hall (Ron Santo). They had an All-Star Catcher in Randy Hundley, a six-time All-Star at shortstop in Don Kessinger, a four-time All-Star second baseman in Glenn Beckert, and pitching, they had a young Ken Holtzman, the pride of Hackensack Bill "Froggy" Hands (who won 20), closer Phil Regan (who was becoming known as the vulture for stealing 12 victories out of the pen) and very young Joe Niekro and Jim Colborn who did not pitch much yet. You've got to believe that you give that team a 4 1/2 game lead with 27 games left, they should hold on.
And that's when the Mets went one one of the greatest stretch runs in baseball history, and the Cubs went on one of the worst. I've always known that this happened, and yet I don't think I ever fully appreciated the details.
After Sept 5: The New York Mets went 22-5. The Chicago Cubs went 8-16.
When that happens, well, yeah. The Cubs didn't just not hold on. They finished eight games back. Eight. It wasn't even close. The Mets won 10 in a row at the start of their streak, and the Cubs lost nine of 10. That will do it. That means in a week and a half, the Mets went from 4 1/2 down to 3 1/2 up. And it only got worse from there.
That Mets run at the end is especially incredible because, well, they didn't hit. During that stretch, the Mets as a team hit .231/.319/.321 and averaged barely 3.6 runs per game. And they still went 22-5. How is that even possible? Well, it was a different time ...
Tom Seaver went 5-0 with a 0.80 ERA. Jerry Koosman went 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA. Tug McGraw won two games, added two saves and gave up one run in 17 innings. As a staff, the Mets went 22-5 with a 1.92 ERA, the league batted .201 against them, and they threw 10 (10!) shutouts.
The Cubs meanwhile, hit even worse than the Mets. And the pitching was not quite as good.
Fergie Jenkins went 2-4 with a 5.27 ERA and the league hit .318 off him. Ken Holtzman went 1-5 with a 4.56 ERA. Phil Regan went 0-1 with a 7.04 ERA in relief.
I think about that Mets team because although I wasn't especially baseball aware at the time -- being two years old and not having ESPN yet -- I've got to believe the conventional sportswriting wisdom was that there was no way the Mets could win. They couldn't hit, they had all that young pitching, the Cubs had so many established great players and so on.
That's precisely the general vibe I get when it comes to the Rays ... I think most people still expect them to fold. They're young, they're beat up, the Red Sox have so much talent and experience, the Yankees are the Yankees and so on. But, I don't know. The Rays have that talented young pitching (and when do they try to change the whole landscape of this pennant race by bringing David Price into the picture?). I've been on the Rays since the start. I'm still on them. I think they win it.