Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Another New York Presumption

Genuine 1964 World Series Tickets (unused)

PSAYINGS.5S.1-8. I know New York Mets fans are grieving over the catastrophic end of their 2007 baseball season. It hurts to have your hopes and expectations dashed like that. But I'm getting irritated with the current iteration of New Yorkers' tendency to make everything about them -- i.e., the way they always have to see themselves as the record setters for bests and worsts. It's not bad enough that half the televised baseball games broadcast by the NY-centric networks feature the Yankees playing the Red Sox. Now that the Mets have collapsed, the New Yorkers on the tube keep repeating the claim that the Mets collapse is the worst in baseball history. The few who are trying to be technically honest qualify the statement by adding "since the advent of divisional baseball."

Why do they do that? Because the Mets collapse is not the worst in baseball history. That designation belongs, ironically, to an ancestor of the team that clawed past the Mets (winning 11 of their final 14 btw) to win the 2007 National League Eastern Division Championship. The Mets had a 7 1/2 game lead with 17 games to play and lost. The 1964 Phillies had a 6 1/2 game lead in the National League pennant race (no divisions, no wildcard consolations, just one World Series berth) with 12 games to play and... well, here's an account from someone so close to my age that he could have been writing my own personal experience of it:

A crushing choke is an especially painful thing for a young sports fan, which is exactly what I was in 1964. That was the first year I started watching baseball, and it was the first year I was able to fully comprehend box scores and standings and batting averages. Little did I know that I was becoming emotionally involved in a team heading for one of the most legendary and painful chokes of all time.

In '61, the Phillies set a major-league mark by losing 23 straight games and finished with a terrifyingly bad record of 47-107. But the Phillies brass saw potential in the core group of young players and wisely kept them together. In '63, the Phils actually had a winning season. Enthusiasm for the team was growing.

By '64, it was cool to be a Phillies’ fan. The team called up slugger Richie Allen to play 3rd and had future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning at the top of the rotation. But their biggest asset was their core of solid veterans: Chris Short, Johnny Callison, Tony Gonzalez, Tony Taylor, Art Mahaffey, Cookie Rojas, and shortstop Bobby Wine (whose ability to throw a runner out at first while falling toward third was a thing of beauty). They may not have had the stars of other teams, but they played sound baseball.

"We executed better than any team in the league," Jim Bunning has said about the team. "Moving base runners, turning the double play. We seemed to do everything perfectly."

Manager Gene Mauch was a genius of situational baseball. He was the father of what is today called "small ball." He'd manufacture runs with bunts, grounders to the right side, and the hit-and-run. He also platooned at six positions, something unheard of in today's game.

The Phils won eight of their first ten games that season and fought for first place through most of the first half of the season with San Francisco, which had prodigious talents like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda.

At the All-Star break, the Phils were in first place. Everything was going right. Allen was headed for the Rookie of the Year award. Bunning pitched a perfect game at Shea Stadium on Father's Day, the first perfect game in the National League since 1880. When outfielder Johnny Callison hit a dramatic three-run home run in the ninth to win the All-Star game, the Fightin's seemed destined to win it all.

The Phils kept winning, and on September 20, they returned home from a West Coast road trip with a 6 1/2-game lead on second-place Cincinnati with only twelve games remaining. The city was buzzed. The World Series tickets and programs were printed. [see photo above] "Go Phillies Go" bumper stickers were everywhere. All they need[ed] was another four or five measly wins to clinch the pennant.

Then the Reds came to town. The first game of the series was scoreless in the 7th inning. With two out, the Reds had managed to get backup infielder Chico Ruiz on third. As pitcher Art Mahaffey went into his windup, Ruiz inexplicably broke for home. It was a crazy stunt, and Ruiz should've been out by 20 feet, but the shocked Mahaffey uncorked a wild pitch. Ruiz scored, and the Phils lost the game 1-0. The Phillies went on to get swept by the Reds. And then Milwaukee. And then St. Louis.

During the losing streak, Mauch panicked. He ignored half of the pitching staff and pitched Bunning and Short every other day. It didn't work. As good as they were, Bunning and Short couldn't do it alone. Their arms were spent. The clutch hitting disappeared. The bullpen failed. They lost late inning leads in several games. The infamous Philly boo-birds turned on the team. The normally red-faced, screaming Mauch became withdrawn and sullen.

The excruciating losing streak stretched to ten games. It was a nightmare that just wouldn't end. The Phils managed to win the last two games of the season, but it was too late. As everyone says about 1964, the season was just twelve games too long for the Phillies.

It is an understatement to say it hurt. I was naive and vulnerable, and I paid the price. Even my grandfather, with whom I watched many of the games, didn't know what to say. We were shell-shocked. And forty years later, it still hurts. I learned a valuable lesson the hard way -- life isn't fair.

That's the crux of the matter. It hurts and life isn't fair. The curse of 1964 hung on throughout my prime fan years; even the World Series Champion 1980 Phillies of Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt needed four tries to get past the divisional playoffs to the series, and the post-season losses in '76, '77, and '78 were so pitiful they evoked memories -- and even local TV exorcisms (attempted, anyway) -- of the Ghosts of '64.

What it took finally to defeat the past was a nearly superhuman performance by Mike Schmidt in 1980, when his bat carried the Phils from far back in the pack to first place in a late-season 22-of-24 win streak and thence to the series after one of the most exciting sudden-death baseball games ever played, against an inspired Houston team led by (shudder)(even now) Terry Puhl. After that, the World Series itself was an anticlimax, despite being the first ever won by a National League Philadelphia team.

(Real baseball historians will know that the AL Philadelphia Athletics of 1929 are still considered superior by many to the more famous 1927 Yankees... but that's a whole different New York-Philadelphia beef best saved for another post.)

If you're a Phillies fan, you never had all that much sympathy with the whiny Red Sox and their all too literary 'Curse of the Bambino.' Or the ostentatiously yuppified suffering of the Chicago Cubs. The anguish of baseball fans in Philadelphia was not a public lamentation that glutted the airwaves of the nation with borrowed bathos. It was a private thing, an ordeal that had to be faced and overcome within the family. As it was. The 1980 triumph banished the ghosts but not all the memories. Such is life.

This year, plenty of Phillies fans were pessimistic about the team's chances. But not because of 1964 or other defeats before and after that vortex of horror. They had good baseball reasons for fearing the worst, principally a cheap and inept team ownership that refused to invest in the pitching talent a murderer's row hitting lineup like the Phillies have deserves. And we're all the more delighted and proud of the 2007 Phillies because they won anyway. In other words, we're grownups now.

That's my advice to New York and to Mets fans in particular. Do NOT make the idiotic and arrogant mistake of transforming the Mets '07 collapse into one of your New York things, believing perhaps that it's some way to best Boston in the "pity me" sweepstakes. You lost. Very dramatically. It happens. But you don't own the record, and there's no point in pitching a narcissistic fit about it (pun intended).

Deal with it. Support your team. And we'll see you again next year.

Go, Phillies, Go.

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