Thursday, October 27, 2011

25 Years Later, The Curse of Kevin Mitchell Lives

Twenty-five years.

*

Twenty-five years, I'm alive here still
Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
for a destination.
I realized quickly when I knew I should
that the world was made up of this brotherhood of man
for whatever that means.

And so I cry sometimes when I'm lying in bed
just to get it all out, what's in my head.
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar.
And so I wake in the morning and I step outside
and I take a deep breath and I get real high
and I scream from the top of my lungs...
What's going on?

And I try -- oh, my God, do I try
I try all the time, in this institution.
And I pray -- oh, my God, do I pray
I pray all sanctity for a revolution!

And I say,
Hey, yeah, yeah, yeah...
Hey, yeah, yeah, yeah..
I say hey...
What's going on?
-- Linda Perry

I wonder if Met fans think Marvin Gaye sang this.

Or if they think it was Willie Mays. "Say hey, hey, hey, hey... "

This is a reprint of a story I've tinkered with a few times over the years, most recently posted in this blog in October 2009.

*

We all know the story.

October 26, 1986: The Red Sox are one strike away. Winning 5-3 against the Mets. Blowing a 2-run lead with one out to go – with one strike to go! – in the bottom of the 10th when the next pitch could win you the World Series? Even the Boston Red Sox couldn’t choke like that.

But Gary Carter singles. Kevin Mitchell singles him over to second. Ray Knight singles Carter home and Mitchell over to 3rd. 5-4 Sox.

Red Sox manager John McNamara pulls Calvin Schiraldi and brings in Bob Stanley, once a really good reliever but now washed up – after all, there’s a reason Stanley wasn’t on the mound to start the inning.

Mookie Wilson up, and Stanley throws the last of 13 pitches that could, theoretically, have been the last out of this Series-clinching game, and... Wild pitch! Mitchell scores! Tie game! Stanley throws again, Mookie swings...

Vin Scully with the immortal call on NBC: “Little roller up along first, behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Scully pauses so that NBC can get the video and audio of the wild cheering at Shea. Then, he resumes: “If one picture is worth a thousand words, then you have seen about a million words! But, more than that, you have seen an absolutely bizarre finish of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series! The Mets are not only alive, they are well, and they will play the Red Sox in Game 7 tomorrow.”

McNamara had replaced the still-strong-hitting but injured Bill Buckner at first base with Dave Stapleton for defensive purposes in every postseason game. Not this time. It is the most famous error in baseball history.

Of course, if you look above, you’ll notice that the lead had already been blown before Buckner’s name is even mentioned.

Mets 6, Red Sox 5. For 11 years, since Carlton Fisk’s homer in the 1975 World Series, you could say the words “Game Six” to a Sox fan, and you would have gotten a big smile. For the 25 years since, say “Game Six” to a Sox fan, and he’ll grimace and say, “Which one?”

Then it rained. NBC showed the baseball-themed film The Natural instead. I still have the tape.

October 27, 1986, 25 years ago today: After a one-day delay, the Red Sox actually seem to be shaking off the historical, hysterical Game 6 loss. They lead the Mets, 3-0 in the bottom of the 6th. Bruce Hurst, with an extra day’s rest, is doing just fine. The Sox have chased Ron Darling. Sid Fernandez has relieved him. The Sox are just 12 outs away from their first World Championship in 68 years after all.

Can they hold it? These are the Boston Red Sox, what do you think? The Mets tie it up in the 6th. The idiot McNamara brings in Schiraldi to pitch the 7th, and Knight leads off with a home run.

Scully: “It is so noisy at Shea, you cannot even hear the airplanes!”

The Mets make it 6-3 by the inning’s end. The Sox make it 6-5 in the top of the 8th, so there’s still hope, but then Al Nipper serves one up to Darryl Strawberry, and NBC runs commercials for Ford, JCPenney, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Exxon, Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, and Senator Al D’Amato’s re-election campaign in the time it takes Darryl to take his leisurely stroll around the bases.

The Mets let reliever Jesse Orosco bat for himself, and he drives in another run, and he gets the last out by striking out Marty Barrett. Mets 8, Red Sox 5. Orosco hurls his glove high into the Flushing air.



Scully says simply, “Got him!” On WHN, the call letters then assigned to 1050 on your AM radio dial, the Voice of the Mets, Bob Murphy, says, “He struck him out! He struck him out! The Mets have won the World Series! And there're crowd—jamming and crowding all over Jesse Orosco! He's somewhere at the bottom of that pile. He struck out Marty Barrett. The dream has come true! The Mets have won the World Series, coming from behind to win the seventh ballgame.”

Ray Knight is named Series MVP. The Mets have won their 2nd World Championship and, while it was expected, even “inevitable,” unlike their 1st, in 1969, they did, as in 1969, require a few “miracles.” (Some miracle: The break the Mets caught is that they played the choking Red Sox.)

Within days, the Mets have a ticker-tape parade up Broadway to City Hall, and get Keys to the City from the Met-fan Mayor, Ed Koch. I distinctly remember one speech, that of Mookie Wilson, a rather bold declaration that, while ’84 and ’85 were just warm-ups, this was the beginning of a dynasty. Remember?

“1986, the Year of the Mets! 1987, the Year of the Mets! 1988, the Year of the Mets!”

Wild cheering. This was a signal that the Mets were going to be a team as good as any the Yankees ever put up, under the Fat Guy, the Paralyzed Guy, the Mobster’s Pal Who Smacked Marilyn Monroe Around, the Oklahoma Drunk and the Egomaniac. (Which is how Met fans view the Babe, the Iron Horse, the Yankee Clipper, the Mick, and Mr. October.) This was a signal that everything the Yankees had ever done was soon going to pale in comparison, and didn’t it seem soooo long ago anyway? Yankees? What Yankees? There are no more Yankees. There is only the Mets. Then again, the Giants might win the Super Bowl this season...

*

It’s been 25 years. It's been a quarter of a century. An entire generation of Met fans has been born and reached full adulthood -- if not quite "grown up."

The Mets are still looking for that 3rd World Championship. They’ve won just one more Pennant and just one more World Series game. To make matters worse, that one Pennant, they went on to lose to the Yankees in the World Series, one of 5 the Yankees have won since 1986.

What the hell happened?

*

When something goes wrong, people like to look for scapegoats. Someone frustrated with the Red Sox’ inability to win a World Series since 1918 thought he found a reason: They hadn’t won since they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919, and the phrase “The Curse of the Bambino” was born. The phrase was popularized by Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, and became the title of his 1990 book about the history of that franchise.



Kevin Darnell Mitchell was born January 13, 1962 in San Diego, California. He debuted with the Mets as a September call-up in 1984, spent the ’85 season with the Tidewater Tides (now the Norfolk Tides), and was a key reserve for the ’86 Mets, playing every position except pitcher, catcher and second base. Gary Carter noticed his versatility, and nicknamed him “World.”

In 1986, despite only playing in 108 games, he had an OPS+ of 124 – that is to say, his OPS, his combined on-base and slugging percentage, was 24 percent better than the average player’s. He was just 24 years old, and a World Champion. He seemed to have a great career ahead of him, and in the greatest city in the world.

I thought up the phrase “the Curse of Kevin Mitchell,” but I did not come up with the concept. That source would be my grandmother, the old Dodger fan from South Jamaica, Queens (but she swore to the end of her life that her neighborhood was called “South Ozone Park,” even though she lived south of Jamaica and northeast of Ozone Park).

Grandma became a Met fan in middle age and loved the Eighties Mets every bit as much as she loved the Forties and Fifties Dodgers, before that team moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season and the Mets arrived for 1962.

She said that things started to go wrong when the Mets began breaking up the great ’86 team almost immediately. She cited the trades of Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman, the two “pests” at the top of the batting order. She liked guys like that. Backman and "Nails" Dykstra (who would be recast as "Dude" in Philadelphia, because that's what he called everybody) reminded her of old Dodgers like Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser, Eddie Stanky (who later became a Giant that she hated), Carl Furillo, and the greatest such player (though I may be the first person who's ever described him as a “pest”), Jackie Robinson.

She had a case:

* On December 7, 1988, the Mets sent Backman and a minor leaguer to the Minnesota Twins for three guys who never reached the majors. Backman would help the Twins win the 1991 World Series, along with Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris, and that season's American League Rookie of the Year, future Yankee Chuck Knoblauch. Dumb trade.

* On June 18, 1989, the Mets sent Dykstra and reliever Roger McDowell to the Philadelphia Phillies for Juan Samuel; each side threw in a player to be named later who never reached the majors. Dumb trade, especially after 1993, when the Phils won a Pennant with Lenny/Nails/Dude; and Samuel, who looked pretty good through 1988, played only 86 games with the Mets, had a pathetic OPS+ of 76, ended up getting traded to the Dodgers for Mike Marshall and Alejandro Pena, and became an All-Star starter again while Marshall was washed up and the Mets soon sent Pena to the Braves and he helped them win a Pennant! Samuel was voted by Phillies fans the second baseman on the all-time Veterans Stadium team (1971-2003); suffice it to say that nobody else involved with either of his Met trades was voted to the all-time Shea Stadium team (1964-2008).

* Would you let the guy who just won the World Series MVP go via free agency, and not lift a finger to re-sign him? The Mets did, on November 12, 1986, and Knight never played for New York again, signing with the Baltimore Orioles. To be fair, he only lasted 2 more years and was done at age 35, but his 65 RBIs in 1987 sure could have helped the Mets in their National League Eastern Division race, which they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals by 3 games.

* Would you trade away the pitcher who got the last out in the World Series, only one year later, even though he was not a problem as far as discipline or mindset goes? The Mets did: On December 11, 1987, they sent Orosco to the Dodgers in a convoluted 3-team deal. The Bums got Orosco, Alfredo Griffin and Jay Howell, all of whom would help them win the next World Series – beating the Mets in the NLCS and the other team involved in the trade, the Oakland Athletics, in the World Series! The A’s got two cornerstones of their 1988-92 quasi-dynasty, Bob Welch and Matt Young. What did the Mets get for Orosco, the only player they gave up? Kevin Tapani, Wally Whitehurst and Jack Savage.

Okay, to be fair, in ’87 Orosco went 3-9 with a 4.44 ERA, justifying what I, a Yankee Fan, was calling him: “Jesse Erratic.” But he sure bounced back, ended up pitching in 1,252 games, more than any pitcher in history (he was, after all, a lefty reliever), and was still in the major leagues in 2003, at age 46 – almost matching his uniform number 47 – and even pitched 15 games for the Yankees that season. He appeared in the postseason the year after the Mets got rid of him, with the very team that ended up beating them in the NLCS, and he won a second ring!

Savage did nothing for the Mets. Whitehurst was little better. At least Tapani helped his team win a World Series.

* Except that, that team wasn’t the Mets! On July 31, 1989, the Mets traded him, Rick Aguilera and David West to the Twins for Frank Viola! A Long Island native and St. John’s University graduate, Viola did win 20 for the Mets in 1990, but went 13-15 the next year, and they traded him away; Tapani, Aguilera and West (and, as I said, Backman -- and also former Met infielder and coach Ron Gardenhire, then the Twins' 3rd base coach and now their manager) helped the Twins win the ’91 World Series. So the Orosco trade was one dumb Met trade that led to another dumb Met trade.

*

But the trade that seemed to have the most impact came on December 11, 1986, a date which lives in Flushing infamy. The Mets sent Kevin Mitchell, Shawn Abner, Stan Jefferson, Kevin Armstrong and Kevin Brown (no, not that Kevin Brown, though he did later pitch for the Padres) to Mitchell’s hometown, San Diego, for Kevin McReynolds, Gene Walter and Adam Ging. Forget everyone else, if you hadn't already: The keys to this trade were Mitchell and McReynolds.

McReynolds was not a bad baseball player. He was a good hitter, and usually competent in left field. In fact, his career hitting totals are remarkably similar to Mitchell’s. But he was not a member of the glorious ’86 team that went all the way, and when the Mets didn’t go all the way again, he became a scapegoat, and got the hell booed out of him. Fair? Of course not.

But it wouldn’t have mattered so much if Mitchell hadn’t panned out. And, as far as his hometown Padres were concerned, he didn’t: On July 5, 1987, not even at the All-Star Break of his first season with them, he was batting just .245 in 62 games, so they sent him, and pitchers Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts, up the coast to the San Frnacisco Giants, getting back third baseman Chris Brown, reliever Mark Davis (both of whom became All-Stars but never helped the team into the Playoffs) and two guys you don’t need to remember. So Mitchell-for-McReynolds didn’t help the Mets or the Padres.

These two Mitchell trades, however, helped the Giants tremendously. Before the trade, they had been in San Francisco for 29 years and had reached the postseason exactly twice, the last time 16 years earlier. In 1987, the Giants won the NL West, as Mitchell responded to the change of scenery by hitting .306 with 15 homers and 44 RBIs in just 69 games for them.

In 1988, Mitchell tailed off a little, and the Giants tailed off a lot. But in 1989, he hit 47 home runs, had 125 RBIs, put up a sick OPS+ of 192, and made one of the great catches of all time, a running barehanded catch in St. Louis -- off the bat of defensive "Wizard" Ozzie Smith, no less -- that almost sent him barreling into the stands. Not since the salad days of Willie Mays had the Giants seen that kind of outfield defense. He won the NL’s MVP award, and helped the Giants win only their 2nd Pennant in 35 years, while the Mets finished 2nd in the NL East for the 5th of 6 times in a span of 8 years – the others being the ’86 crown and the ’88 Division title.

Problems with his weight and other disciplines led to Mitchell being traded several times. But he did help the Cincinnati Reds into first place when the Strike of ’94 hit, and still had an OPS+ of 138 as late as 1996. But he played his last big-league game in 1998 at age 36, and after bouncing around the independent minors, including stints in New Jersey with the Newark Bears and Atlantic City Surf, he called it a career. Sort of: At 49, he is back in his native San Diego, playing in an “adult baseball league” (no, no porn stars involved – that I know of), and his team won a title in 2009.

Mitchell had an adolescence connected to gangs in San Diego. He has been arrested for assault twice since his last major league game, although on neither occasion did the case go to trial. He was once listed as a tax delinquent to the tune of over $5 million. And then there's the shocking story that Dwight Gooden appears to have made up about an act of animal cruelty.

I don't know Kevin Mitchell. For all I know, these things were all blown out of proportion and he's really a good guy. For all I know, it could all be true, and he's one of those people who should be avoided at all costs.

But it seems silly to suggest that he was angry about being traded by the Mets so soon after winning the Series, certainly not so angry that he would place a “curse” on them. After all, he went to his home town, the team he grew up rooting for. They soon traded him, but that worked out really well for him. Perhaps not in terms of team success, but in terms of fame and fortune, getting away from the Mets was the best thing that could have happened to him.



(Mitchell, in a recent photo.)

Still, the fact remains that the Mets won a World Series, and were expected to win more; then, just 45 days after they won said Series, they traded Mitchell away, and they haven’t won one since.

*

In order for a team to be considered “cursed,” a long time since they won a championship, or even reached the finals of their sport, is not enough. Even having several near-misses is not enough. The Yankees won the Series in 1978. Then came the Canton plane crash. A Playoff loss in ’80. A lost Series in ’81. Near-misses for the Division in ’85, ’86, ’88 and ’93. The Strike of ’94. The wrenching Playoff with the Mariners in ’95. But nobody ever publicly suggested that the Yankees were under the Curse of Thurman Munson.

No, for a team to be considered “cursed,” there also have to be strange occurrences. Even bizarre ones. Shocking defeats. Big leads blown. Guys who should be coming through in big situations flopping. Trades and free-agent signings (or letting-gos) straight out of the What the Hell File.

The Mets have had a few of those.

1987: The Mets finish 2nd in the NL East, 3 games behind the Cardinals. That was certainly a disappointment for Met fans, but there was nothing gut-wrenching or bizarre about it. Unless you count the home opener at Shea, when a bird was hit by a batted ball.

1988: The Mets win the NL East, but get shocked by the Dodgers, a team they’d won 11 of 12 from in the regular season, in the NL Championship Series. They had been up a run in the 9th in Game 4, about to go up 3 games to 1, when Mike Scioscia, an excellent catcher but not a power hitter, hit a home run to send the game into extra innings, and the Dodgers won that game and took the series in 7. So this is a crushing loss, and the idea that the Mets can no longer win the big one begins to take hold.

1989: The Mets finish 2nd in the NL East, 6 games behind the Chicago Cubs. Disappointing, but aside from the fact that the Cubs, for crying out loud, actually finished 1st, nothing out of the ordinary here.

1990: The Mets fnish 2nd in the NL East, 4 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. Disappointing, but, again, nothing bizarre brought this about.

1991: The Mets crash and burn, finishing in 5th place of 6, 20½ games behind the Pirates. In one year, they went from 91-71 to 77-84, a drop of 13½ games.

It’s worth noting that, of the Mets’ 2nd-place finishes from 1984 to 1990, every single team that finished ahead of them would move to the NL Central in 1994: The Cubs in ’84 and ’89, the Cards in ’85 and ’87, and the Pirates in ’90. Under the current setup, barring a better season by an established, non-expansion Florida Marlins, the Mets would have won 7 consecutive NL East titles.

1992: The Mets make some big trades and sign some big free agents, but fall to 72-90 anyway, again in 5th place. After this season, Bob Klapisch, then of the New York Daily News, wrote a book about them, its title paralleling The Best Team Money Could Buy, Newsdaylegend Steve Jacobson’s book about the 1977 World Champion Yankees: Klapisch called his book The Worst Team Money Could Buy: The Collapse of the New York Mets.

1993: The Mets put together the worst season in baseball history. Not record-wise, as they finished with 103 losses, and even that total was held because they won their last 5; nonetheless, for much of the season they were ahead of the pace they set in their debut season of 1962, losing 120, the most losses of any major league team since 1899.

No, this team was “the worst” in manner, style and behavior. Reacting badly to Klapisch’s book, Bobby Bonilla threatened him in the locker room – and it was caught on video. Bret Saberhagen threw bleach on Dave D’Alessandro of the Bergen Record (for which Klapisch writes now, as D’Alessandro has moved on to the Star-Ledger), giving a whole new meaning the to term “Bleacher Bum.” Vince Coleman set off a firecracker in a parking lot on the road at Dodger Stadium, and a 2-year-old girl was hit with debris and burned.

This on top of the merely poorly-performing, such as the underperformances of stars like the aforementioned, and future Hall-of-Famer Eddie Murray, all of whom got better again after leaving Flushing Meadow; and Anthony Young, a pitcher who lost a record 27 straight decisions from May ’92 to July ’93. Manager Jeff Torborg, considered too much of a nice guy, was fired; Dallas Green, a disciplinarian, was brought in, but all he could do was stop the delinquency, not the losing. The Mets did get decidedly better in 1994, reaching 55-58 when the strike hit.

Are the Mets "cursed" yet? No? Read on:

1995: This was the year of Generation K, three young pitchers who would take the NL by storm and make the Mets a dominant team for years to come. It didn’t work out, because they all threw too many innings too soon, and they all got hurt.

* Paul Wilson was considered the most promising of the three, but after throwing 187 innings in the minors in ’95, he was on the Disabled List for most of ’96. While he had a modest comeback with the Cincinnati Reds in 2003-05, he retired after ’06.

* Bill Pulsipher, the only lefty of the three, was 22 and threw for 218 innings, but tore his elbow as a result, and missed nearly all of the next 2 years. He did lead a team to a Pennant... but it was the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League in 2004.

* Jason Isringhausen went 9-2 with a 2.81 ERA for the Mets in the second half of ’95, but had all kinds of injuries in ’96, made only 6 starts in ’97 and missed all of ’98 after elbow surgery. Incredibly, he has since had a fine career. Perhaps not-so-incredibly, it all happened after the Mets traded him to Oakland in 1998: As with Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley, a formerly injured fine starter was converted into a very good reliever, first with the A’s and then with the Cardinals, reaching the Playoffs with both and earning a ring with the ’06 Cards. He has since returned to the Mets.

The Mets ended up with a cartonful of eggs on their faces, and finished 69-95, 21 games behind the Atlanta Braves – but still good enough to tie the Phillies for 2nd place. Perhaps the disaster of Generation K has stuck in the minds of the crosstown Yankees, and led them to come up with the asinine “Joba Rules” for Joba Chamberlain.

1997: After improving to 71-91 in 1996, the rebuilding appeared to be working. In the first-ever Yankees-Mets game that counted for anything, on June 16 (don’t bet me on the date, I was there to see this debacle), Dave Mlicki didn’t need to buy a vowel, as he pitched a shutout, and the Mets lit up Andy Pettitte to win, 6-0. But the Yanks won the next 2 games to take the series. Still, the Mets finished with 88 wins, their best total in 8 years, and finished 3rd, 13 games behind the Braves.

1998: The Mets began to resemble the team that made the Playoffs the following 2 seasons, the big deal getting Mike Piazza in a trade. But this is also the year that truly sets the pattern. The Braves won 106 games, and no one was going to catch them in the East. Still, with 5 games to go, the Mets had 88 wins, the same number as the season before, and needed to win only 1 of their last 5 to get the Wild Card in a vicious 3-way battle between their 1969, ’73, ’84 and ’89 rivals, the Cubs, and their “forebears,” the Giants. No team had ever blown a trip to the postseason by needing to win just 1 of their last 5 games and losing them all. None has since.

This one did. It was the biggest regular-season choke by a New York baseball team since the ’51 Dodgers, except those Dodgers still managed to make it all the way to a full schedule plus 3 games. The ’98 Mets didn’t. As with the year before, the Mets went 88-74, but it didn’t feel like an improvement. Still, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic for the turn of the 20th to the 21st Century.

*

This is where I come in. During the 1999 season, when I was still using America Online’s MLB message boards, using the name “Xsvfan” – “Excessive Fan,” get it? – I wrote a story set in the year 2049, 50 years in the future, telling of how the reason the Yankees are now, finally, playing in a new Yankee Stadium is that there was no more room in Monument Park, and they needed a new one to house the Plaques from the stars of the 1990s and the first half of the 21st Century. I had an 81-year-old Bernie Williams walking out with a cane to throw out the ceremonial first ball, and Number 2s on the Yanks’ sleeves in memory of the late Derek Jeter, who died the year before at age 74. (At the time, I was still thinking Bernie would be seen as “the One Great Yankee” of that generation, and wasn’t fond of the hype given to Jeter instead. I’m not proud of that part of the prediction.) In the game, the Yankees won, although I can’t remember the name of the team I used. I know it was a team in existence today, but since moved. It wasn’t the Charlotte A’s or the Utah Rangers, or anything like that. It might’ve been an Interleague game against a Washington team.

I was a bit rougher on the 1999-2049 Mets. I wrote that there were very sparse crowds at Tom Seaver Memorial Stadium, which opened 2 years earlier, on the site of Shea Stadium, to replace whatever I called the building that replaced Shea. (I didn’t use the name “Citi Field,” although that park was already planned in 1999.) I wrote that they still hadn’t won a World Series since 1986, and that the Red Sox, the Indians, the Angels, both Chicago teams, and even the Oregon Expos (or something like that, they weren’t in Montreal anymore) and the Washington team that had once been the Marlins had done so since then. And, I included one genuine “Subway Series” loss to the Yankees – in which the Yankees became the first team ever to come from a 3 games to 0 deficit in a postseason baseball series to win 4 games to 3.

That didn’t come true, and the Cubs, Indians and Expos/Nationals still haven’t won. But within 6 years, I was proven right about both shades of Sox and the Angels. Within 5 years, I was proven right about a team coming back from 3-0 to win 4-3 – not that I could have imagined it would be against the Yankees! And, at least through 2011, I was right about the Mets having won just one Pennant since 1986, and losing that World Series to the Yankees, though I placed it in the year 2024. For 2042, I imagined a late-season meltdown that bore a striking resemblance to what actually turned out to happen in 2007. So I’ve gotten about one-third of the predictions right, with the potential for more, and only about one-fifth have been rendered impossible (i.e., the Expos have moved, and Washington does have a team, but that team is the Expos).

I titled the essay “The Curse of Kevin Mitchell,” and imagined myself – maybe not myself, I’ll be 79 if I last until the summer of 2049 – as looking up Mitchell, who would be 87 if he lives that long. (Considering his weight problems and a history of drinking, not likely.) I had him say that he never put a curse on the Mets, and that he thinks that their problems are a result of bad management, and that he was (still-living) proof.

In the real-life 1999, the Mets finished 2nd to the Braves again, but this time, a late surge meant a Playoff for the Playoffs, in Cincinnati, and they won. Then they beat the 2nd-year expansion Arizona Diamondbacks for their first-ever Division Series win, their first postseason series win since... 1986.

They fell behind the Braves 3 games to 0 in the NLCS, but a win in Game 4 and Robin Ventura’s “Grand Slam Single” in the rain in the 15th inning (just like Jim Leyritz’s 2-run shot in ’95, also in a series a New York team ultimately lost) gave them hope. Game 6 went back-and-forth: 7-0 Braves, 8-7 Mets, 9-8 Braves, 10-9 Mets, until Bobby Valentine made the bonehead decision to bring Kenny Rogers in to face Andruw Jones with the bases loaded. The last time the Mets went all the way, they benefited from baseball’s most infamous error; this time, the final nail was driven into their coffin by baseball’s most infamous base on balls, and the Braves went on to get swept in the Series by the Yankees. To make matters worse, the Yankees did what the Mets couldn’t: Smack around, and shut up (if only temporarily), John Rocker.

By now, Met fans were sicker than ever of the Damn Yankees. And they could be forgiven, after ’87, ’88, ’93, Generation K, ’98 and now ’99, for thinking that their team was “cursed.” But no one said so publicly, like I was saying semi-publicly. Instead, the Flushing Heathen deluded themselves, as they always did, thinking that “The Magic Is Back.” No no, really, they mean it this time: 2000 is going to be The Year.

They had a point: The Mets won the Wild Card again, and beat the Giants in the NLDS, and the Cardinals beat the Braves, so the Mets wouldn’t have to face the team that had gotten into their heads. The NLCS win over the Cards was surprisingly easy, and the way things worked out, the Mets won their Pennant the night before the Yankees won theirs, so they did their part to set up the Subway Series before the Yankees did theirs. This was the chance they’d waited 39 years for.

Then came the bizarre element: The near-homers, bad baserunning, Armando Benitez's 9th-inning choke, and the unlikely heroism of ex-Met Jose Vizcaino in Game 1; the Roger Clemens bat-throw near – not at – Piazza, and the furious close-but-no-cigar comeback of Game 2; the Jeter homer to lead off Game 4, and the unlikely heroism of Luis Sojo in Game 5. The Yankees clinched at Shea. The dream wasn’t just dead, it was dissected with the precision of a surgeon, and now the head of the dead animal would be mounted on the wall in George Steinbrenner’s office. Kind of like a trophy.

The 2000s became a lost decade. Aside from Piazza’s genuinely heroic homer in the first game back after the 9/11 attacks, it was almost a total waste. Then came 2006, and the Mets’ first regular-season 1st-place finish in 18 years. Best of all, the Yankees got knocked out of the Division Series. For the first time since 1988, the Mets would still be playing, and the Yankees wouldn’t be. But late-season injuries to ex-Red Sox star Pedro Martinez and ex-Yankee Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez! No! But... it turned out to be okay, as John Maine and Oliver Perez (yes, he was once a hero) stepped up with talent and courage and filled those spots in the rotation. And when Endy Chavez robbed Scott Rolen to save a tie in Game 7 at Shea, you had to think, maybe they’re gonna win this Pennant after all.

Then came Aaron Heilman’s pitch to Yadier Molina in the 9th, and has Carlos Beltran taken the bat off his shoulder yet?

Yadier Molina. A good fielding catcher, as are his brothers Benjie and Jose. Hitting-wise, though, the third-best brother. I began using the phrase “the Curse of Kevin Mitchell” a lot more, spoken and typed.

Then came 2007. Leading the NL East by 7 with 17 to go. Injuries. Meltdowns. Tom Glavine not “devastated” enough. The awful Game 162 loss to the Marlins. Suddenly, my jokes about the Curse of Kevin Mitchell weren’t so freakin’ funny anymore. A choke like that, nothing was funny anymore. It made the Yankee choke of October 2004 look not so bad: At least the Yanks got into the Playoffs before doing that. (And now we know: The Red Sox cheated.)

Then came 2008, a season of Groundhog Days, right down to going into Game 162 needing only a win, or a Milwaukee Brewers loss, to at least have a Playoff for the Playoffs like in 1999. It didn’t happen. Again, a loss to the Marlins. And the last game at Shea Stadium was a disaster.

And about 10,000 fans walked out before the closing ceremony to honor past Met heroes – shame on those who left early, and, though I hate you people with that hate that only love understands (nod to Queens native Stephen Jay Gould for coming up with that line), I salute those of you who stayed. A curse, truly, upon those who punished the Mets of ’69-’73, ’86-‘88 and ’99-’00 by abandoning them, just because the Mets of ’06-’07-’08 had broken their hearts.

On to 2009 and a new ballpark, Citi Field. Except the Mets became as bad as they seemed to be in 1962, in 1979, in 1993, in 2002. Whether it was Luis Castillo dropping an easy pop-up that turned a win over the Yankees at the new Yankee Stadium into yet another ignominious defeat, or Ollie Perez making a mockery of his one brief shining moment in October 2006, the Mets' 2009, '10 and '11 seasons have been dreadful.

Jose Reyes. David Wright. The Great Johan Santana. Jason Bay. Formerly, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez. How could the Mets not reach their goals with all that talent?

Injuries? The Yankees have had injuries every damn year, to stars and role players alike, and they make the Playoffs. So do the Red Sox. (Well, not the last 2 years.) So do the Phillies.

It ain’t the manager: In the end, Davey Johnson stopped delivering, Jeff Torborg couldn’t deliver, neither could Dallas Green, nor Bobby Valentine, nor Art Howe, nor Willie Randolph, nor Jerry Manuel. As for Terry Collins, he's had just 1 season so far, so he deserves a pass.

It ain’t the general manager: The Mets had bad chokes and bizarre moments before Omar Minaya started building this franchise into his dream team, “Los Mets.” It ain’t even the owners: Fred Wilpon has built a World Champion once.

*

So what is it? It’s been 25 full seasons since they last won the World Series. Are the Mets cursed? Or have they just been hit with a quarter-century-long combination of good competition and their own incompetence -- on the field, in the dugout, and in the boardroom?

Other teams have waited a longer. Some, a lot longer. Examples (adding 1 year for those who've never won), including some now thought of as successful franchises:

NFL Chicago Bears: 26 years, 1985-current.
MLB Kansas City Royals: 26 years, 1985-current.
NBA Houston Rockets: 27 years, 1967-1994.
MLB Detroit Tigers: 27 years, 1984-current.
NFL Oakland Raiders: 28 years, 1983-current.
MLB Baltimore Orioles: 28 years, 1983-current.
NBA Philadelphia 76ers: 28 years, 1983-current.
NHL New York Islanders: 28 years, 1983-current.
NFL Green Bay Packers: 29 years, 1967-1996.
NBA Dallas Mavericks: 31 years, 1980-2011.
NFL New England Patriots: 32 years, 1960-2001.
NBA San Antonio Spurs: 32 years, 1967-1999.
NBA Detroit Pistons: 32 years, 1957-1989.
MLB Pittsburgh Pirates: 32 years, 1979-current.
NBA Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder: 32 years, 1979-current.
NBA Washington Bullets/Wizards: 33 years, 1978-current.
NBA Portland Trail Blazers: 34 years, 1977-current.
MLB Seattle Mariners: 35 years, 1977-current.
NFL San Francisco 49ers: 36 years, 1946-1981.
NFL Seattle Seahawks: 36 years, 1976-current.
NBA Golden State Warriors: 36 years, 1975-current.
NHL Philadelphia Flyers: 36 years, 1975-current.
NBA New Orleans/Utah Jazz: 37 years, 1974-current.
NHL Washington Capitals: 37 years, 1974-current.
NFL Denver Broncos: 38 years, 1960-1997.
NBA New York Knicks: 38 years, 1973-current.
NFL Miami Dolphins: 38 years, 1973-current.
NHL Boston Bruins: 39 years, 1972-2011.
MLB Texas Rangers: 40 years, 1972-current... though 1 win away as I type this.
NBA Milwaukee Bucks: 40 years, 1971-current.
NBA Buffalo Braves/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers: 41 years, 1970-current.
NBA Cleveland Cavaliers: 41 years, 1970-current.
NHL Vancouver Canucks: 41 years, 1970-current.
NHL Buffalo Sabres: 41 years, 1970-current.
MLB Los Angeles/California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels: 42 years, 1962-2010.
NFL Pittsburgh Steelers: 42 years, 1933-1974.
NHL Detroit Red Wings: 42 years, 1955-1997.
NFL Kansas City Chiefs: 42 years, 1969-current.
MLB Milwaukee Brewers: 42 years, 1969-current.
MLB San Diego Padres: 43 years, 1969-current.
MLB Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals: 43 years, 1969-current.
NFL New Orleans Saints: 43 years, 1967-2009.
NFL New York Jets: 43 years, 1968-current.
NFL Cincinnati Bengals: 44 years, 1968-current.
NBA Phoenix Suns: 43 years, 1968-current.
NBA Indiana Pacers: 44 years, 1967-current.
NBA Denver Nuggets: 44 years, 1967-current.
NBA New York/New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets: 44 years, 1967-current.
NHL Los Angeles Kings: 44 years, 1967-current.
NHL St. Louis Blues: 44 years, 1967-current.
NHL Toronto Maple Leafs: 44 years, 1967-current.
NFL Atlanta Falcons: 46 years, 1966-current.
NFL Cleveland Browns: 47 years, 1964-current.
NFL Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams: 48 years, 1951-1999.
NHL Chicago Blackhawks: 49 years, 1961-2010.
MLB Houston Astros: 50 years, 1962-current -- came in with the Mets, 2 fewer titles.
NFL Minnesota Vikings: 51 years, 1961-current.
NFL Philadelphia Eagles: 51 years, 1960-current.
NFL Buffalo Bills: 52 years, 1960-current.
NFL San Diego Chargers: 52 years, 1960-current.
NFL Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans: 52 years, 1960-current.
NBA St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks: 53 years, 1958-current.
NHL New York Rangers: 54 years, 1940-1994.
NFL Detroit Lions: 54 years, 1957-current.
MLB New York/San Francisco Giants: 56 years, 1954-2010.
NBA Rochester/Cincinnati Royals-Kansas City/Sacramento Kings: 60 years, 1951-current.
MLB Cleveland Indians: 63 years, 1948-current.
NFL Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals: 64 years, 1947-present.
MLB Boston Red Sox: 86 years, 1918-2004. *
MLB Chicago White Sox: 88 years, 1917-2005.
MLB Philadelphia Phillies: 98 years, 1883-1980.
MLB Chicago Cubs: 111 years, 1908-current.

You'll notice that 5 of the other 8 New York Tri-State Area teams are on this list: The Islanders, the Knicks, the Jets, the Nets and the Rangers -- and 4 of them, all but the Rangers, are still in championship droughts longer than that of the Mets.

Some of these teams have had bizarre moments and crashes-and-burns that suggest being cursed. Some haven't, and have just... not... gotten it done.

The Mets?

Chokes in ’88, ’98, ’99, ’00, ’06, ’07 and ’08.

Near-misses, aside from those, in ’87, ’89, ’90 and ’01.

Injury-riddled seasons, aside from those, in ’95, ’96, ’97, ‘02, ’09, '10 and '11.

And losses to teams they considered rivals in ’87 and ’06 (Cardinals), ’89 (Cubs), ’98 and ’99 (Braves), ’00 (Yankees), and now ’07 and ’08 (Phillies). That’s... 18 out of 25 seasons with possible “Curse Material.”

The Curse of Kevin Mitchell? Do you believe?

Met fans like to use the old line of 1965-74 relief pitcher Tug McGraw: YA GOTTA BELIEVE!

I’d rather believe in the curse on the Mets than believe in the Mets themselves.

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