Close your eyes, and you'll see him, flying up and down, left and right, through the glistening, freshly painted hallways of Citi Field and onto the crisp green grass. He laughs a lot -- not in wicked tones, per se, so much as a sadistic, Jim Carrey-in-The Cable Guy sort of way.
When Shea Stadium was demolished last winter, there was hope -- faith, even -- among Mets fans that the phantom would be crushed along with it; that the blue-and-orange clouds of dust and debris would fill the wicked wretch's pores and chop off its tongue. Yes, the Metropolitans had spent most of their 4 1/2 decades living under his reign -- drafting Steve Chilcott over Reggie Jackson; signing George Foster and signing Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla as high-priced free agents; relinquishing leads and hope with staggering regularity and employing as their mascot an inane big-headed baseball. But the true, all-encompassing hex had only been implemented within the modern era, when the team blew back-to-back gimme playoff births and sent its legion of fans seeking out the nearest bridge. So surely, many believed, the downing of Shea would mean the downing of the torture; that, after all too long, the Mets would be free at last.
To the dismay of New Yorkers, the ghost who supposedly vanished is bigger and badder than ever before. Carlos Delgado's hip? The ghost. Jose Reyes' right hamstring? The ghost. Oliver Perez's body swap with Anthony Young? The ghost. J.J. Putz's emergence as, well, a putz (albeit, an injured one)? The ghost. David Wright's amazing -- and puzzling -- Sean Burroughs impersonation? The ghost. The team's blah 28-24 record? The ghost.
Most alarming, the ghost has found a way to take a clubhouse that has long been -- if nothing else -- lively and transform it into a visit to the Mahopac Public Library. (Writer's note: I grew up going there. Very nice facility -- but extremely subdued.) To be a Met these days is to live in fear of failure; to talk and talk about the renewal of a ballclub, but to be mentally crippled by the knowledge that, come season's end, you will, somehow, blow it.
Nine years ago, the Mets reached the World Series with a significantly less-talented cast than their modern brethren. Their starting outfield -- perhaps the worst in the history of the Fall Classic -- was Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Timo Perez. Their shortstop was Mike Bordick, with Todd Zeile manning first. The final three spots in the rotation were handled by Glendon Rusch, Rick Reed and Bobby Jones. Armando Benitez (egad) closed and John Franco, age 1,658, set him up. In short, on paper the Mets frightened no one.
Yet those Mets played with heart, spunk and tenacity. After every win, someone would inevitably blast Thelma Houston's Don't Leave Me This Way on the clubhouse stereo, turning the room into a loud, bubbly bastion of glee. Veterans like Al Leiter and Robin Ventura set the tone, and Mike Piazza seemed to hit a game-winning home run whenever one was needed. Manager Bobby Valentine, slightly less stable than a one-legged emu, walked and spoke with a swagger that, though often mocked by his players, proved invaluable. The Mets wouldn't lay down -- for anyone.
Ah, memories. Burnt out ends of smoky days. The still cold smell of morning. A street lamp dies, another night is over. Another day is dawning. These Mets lay down -- for everyone. They play with little gusto, and less aggressiveness. They rarely hit in the clutch, and make lackluster opposing pitchers appear to be the second coming of Steve Carlton.
When the Yankees suffer through a conga line of injuries, the organization never offers up the maladies as an excuse. The Mets, on the other hand, all but seek out injuries to cite to the media. If only we had Delgado. If only we had Reyes.
If only ...
The future has been written for the 2009 New York Mets, and it is not good. They are modern day Jobs, all of them. Only in this run, there is no reprieve. A team with baseball's second-highest payroll will win, oh, 85 games and finish 10 games behind Philadelphia. They will add someone -- Aubrey Huff? Nick Johnson? -- to the mix, sing his praises, find a groove, then sink back to reality. They will fire their manager, trade off their prospects, talk about the new Mets, the fresh Mets, the exciting Mets. But they're still the haunted Mets.