By Brad Kallet, CBSNewYork.com Staff
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It’s just depressing, really.
I wrapped up watching another terribly disappointing performance by the New York Mets on Monday in yet another season in which they lost all momentum and hope in the second half. In our latest edition of “How Can The Mets Find A Way To Lose This Time?” New York came back from a late four-run deficit against the Cardinals to cut the lead to 5-4 in the ninth inning. To begin the final frame, Andres Torres lined a base hit to right field and hustled out of the box for a leadoff double.
Or so we thought.
The Cardinals believed that Torres missed first base en route to second, and decided to throw over to first to appeal. Sure enough, first-base umpire Dave Rackley controversially called Torres out. Cardinals closer Jason Motte subsequently retired Ronny Cedeno amd Daniel Murphy to wrap up another soul-crushing defeat for the Mets.
Sure, the Mets had won three consecutive series coming into the opener in St. Louis, but let’s not forget that they have beaten the dregs of the National League in doing so (the Astros, Phillies and Marlins). And despite their solid play over the last week, every sane Mets fan knows that an improbable playoff run is not in the cards this season. Even finishing with a .500 record seems like a bit of a pipe dream.
In light of this brutal loss, I couldn’t help but think back to the good old days — when the organization had a plethora of talent and the sky seemed to be the limit.
It wasn’t 25 years ago, although it feels like it might as well have been.
I’m speaking of 2006, a year in which everything went the Mets’ way up until Carlos Beltran looked at Adam Wainwright’s curveball for strike three in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.
But I don’t want to harp on the unfortunate way in which that season ended. We all know that the Mets should have defeated St. Louis and likely won their first championship since 1986. I instead want to focus on happier times within that calendar year. That April — as a senior at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey — three friends and I decided to play hooky and attend Opening Day at Shea Stadium.
The Mets were coming off an encouraging season in 2005 — following horrific seasons in 2003 and 2004 under manager Art Howe — and though they failed to make the playoffs, the signings of Beltran and Pedro Martinez infused an energy into the team that hadn’t been there in some time.
Couple that with the promise of youngsters Jose Reyes and David Wright – not to mention the offseason acquisitions of Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca — and my buddies and I purchased Opening Day tickets as soon as the team made them available.
My friends and I waited through the winter as general manager Omar Minaya and his front office staff completed one of the great offseasons in Mets history. The talent was there, and for the first time since 1988, the majority of pundits were picking New York to win the National League East.
The wait continued anxiously through Spring Training before finally, on April 2, we were just a day away from heaven — Opening Day baseball at Shea.
That night, prior to skipping school, my three friends stayed at my house and we amped each other up by watching a VHS video yearbook of the 1999 Mets, narrated by one Tim Robbins. It was a glorious sleepover. Oh, to be young and innocent.
We awoke the next morning with the giddiness that children feel upon entering a candy store. We had awaited this day for months and finally, here it was. School was in session, but we were not headed to class. On the contrary, we were jetting across the Palisades Interstate Parkway — past the George Washington Bridge and into Flushing — to see our beloved Mets take on the lowly Washington Nationals (what a pleasure it was when they could be categorized as lowly). We broke down the roster and analyzed the club on the ride to Shea, switching between the pregame show on WFAN and Led Zeppelin III on the stereo.
Several hours before first pitch we finally saw the mecca of Mets fans from the Grand Central Parkway. Shea Stadium — which has brilliantly been characterized by many beat writers and broadcasters as a dump, but “our dump” — was in our sights, looking like a giant blue toy off the highway. We made it, and we were ready to get the grill out and join the legion of excited fans in the parking lot.
The morale in the Shea parking lot was sky-high, reminiscent of the scene prior to Game 3 of the 2000 NLCS, still the only Mets playoff game I’ve ever attended. (The team hasn’t afforded me many opportunities.) The mood of the fans is always positive on Opening Day, but this was different. You could feel a renewed sense of excitement and expectation, and as we began grilling and bonding with fellow fans it finally began to feel real.
Because of our early arrival, we were interviewed by a producer of “Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith” about what we feel the Mets should do with Kaz Matsui, the free-agent bust who was widely considered the only hole on the team heading into the season. (Our responses weren’t aired later that evening, but both the reference to the show and to the player should illustrate how long ago this was).
At noon we packed up the grill and headed into the ballpark to catch batting practice.
Oh, what a sight it was. Baseball was back! Because we were in the building an hour before first pitch, my friends and I were able to stand right behind the plate and watch BP, despite the fact that our ticket stubs said we were only worthy of upper-deck seats. We watched as our favorite stars headed out from the dugout and onto the field; some headed to the cage while others stretched and tossed the ball around. Reyes was his usual jovial self, waving to fans and smiling from ear to ear in response to chants of “Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose!“
One by one, players took to the field to take part in drills, just yards away from us. It was thrilling, to say the least. As it got closer to 1:00, we noticed that the ushers weren’t checking tickets (Shea Stadium was far less strict than Citi Field in that regard), and though we fully expected to be kicked out of our little own stomping ground in the Queens Transit box before the start of action, it was looking better and better that these seats could be ours come game time.
The clock struck 1:10, and the seats were still ours! Nobody had come to retrieve them! So let me recap the situation, in a nutshell. I had secured a quality prom date just hours earlier, was headed to Syracuse University as an incoming freshman in just a few months, was seconds away from witnessing the start of the most highly-anticipated Mets season in years and was sitting in the second row halfway between the batter’s box and first base in Queens Transit box seats.
Yep, life was good.
As far as the game went, it was a truly special day to be at the ballpark. Tom Glavine was on the hill for the Amazins’ and Livan Hernandez had the ball for the Nationals, and the excitement and energy in the crowd was just electric.
Aside from some booing of Beltran when he popped up to first with a runner on third and one out — Mets fan were still clearly resentful toward his subpar 16-homer season in 2005 — nothing but excessive cheering and raucous applause filled the air. When Wright — just beginning his second full season for the Mets – launched an opposite-field home run in the sixth inning to extend the Mets’ lead, the Shea faithful erupted in support of their youthful superstar.
But the most exciting part of the ballgame came in the ninth inning when, with a one-run lead, Wagner made his maiden appearance as a Met to close out the game. The fireballer came running out of the bullpen to his signature “Enter Sandman” theme song, and I’m pretty confident when I say that goosebumps were running up and down every fans’ arms as the lefty threw his warmup pitches. After years of having to watch maddening displays from such unreliable closers as Armando Benitez and Braden Looper, New York finally had an established finisher to rely on.
Wagner came out of the gate throwing gas for strikes, quickly dispatching the first two batters he faced. With the Nats down to their final out, veteran Jose Vidro lined a base hit into left-center field. Instead of wisely holding at first base and giving Jose Guillen the opportunity to represent the go-ahead run, Vidro turned the corner and tried to stretch his single into a double. As soon as he made the turn, roughly 57,000 Mets fans in attendance knew that with a good throw he would never make it into second base safely. As the crowd began to rise up to see the play develop, Beltran beautifully cut the ball off, set his feet and fired a perfect strike to Anderson Hernandez at second base. He was out! Ballgame over!
The crowd roared as “Takin’ Care of Business” blared over the loudspeaker and manager Willie Randolph came onto the field to congratulate his troops.
As we walked down the steps and through the hallways of Shea to head home, the atmosphere felt like that of a playoff game. Fans banged the walls relentlessly and chanted “Lets Go Mets” until their throats went hoarse. People who had never interacted before exchanged high-fives and conversed about the memorable season that they knew was around the corner.
Upon entering my friend’s car and departing our second home for our real ones, the soundtrack back to Jersey was none other than Mike and the Mad Dog. After Chris “Mad Dog” Russo did a little bashing of SNY for their cutting away from the game at one point due to technical difficulties — “On Opening Day you can’t cut to video of Carlos Beltran walking around Puerto Rico in January!” I recall him hollering — he began to recount that this had been a solid win for the Mets.
“This was a good win for the Mets!” Mad Dog said. “I see no reason that,with this team, they shouldn’t win 90 games and contend for the top spot in the division!”
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Mike Francesa agreed in his authoritative tone.
It was the start of something new and exciting for Mets fans, and just six years later – following back-to-back collapses, unfathomable financial issues and bad organizational decisions — the Amazins’ are in the midst of a black hole.
Will there be days in the future that are similar to the one I had on April 3, 2006? I have no question that there will be, but I certainly don’t see any coming in the forseeable future.
And as the losses mount and I wait for the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s memories like this one that help blur what all diehard Mets fans are currently living through.
Mets fans, do you vividly remember the excitement that came with the start of the 2006 season? Share your memories of that glorious day in the comments section below…
Brad Kallet is a web producer for CBSNewYork.com. He has written for TENNIS.com, MiLB.com and SMASH Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter here.