By Jason Keidel
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Isn’t this it?
Isn’t this the very electric moment we fantasized about? The one we practiced for in our bedrooms, our bathrooms, in the park, at the playground and on the sandlots?
Before our fat fists could wrap around a real bat, we clutched a broom handle and swung it in slow-mo, just like our favorite player. We practiced the pose we saw so many times on the baseball card and mimicked the stance, the swing and the way he spat. We mimicked the way he grabbed his hat and pinched his privates. Maybe it was Pete Rose’s crouch or Willie Stargell’s twirl. Maybe a millennial mimics the way Derek Jeter pulled and peeled the Velcro straps on his batting gloves.
If we were alone, we’d take that rubber Spalding ball, bounce it before us and whack it with a stickball bat, watching it sail over an imagined wall. We’d trot around the imagined bases before an imagined crowd to deafening cheers and chants. While other team sports have caught or passed baseball in ratings and revenue, there’s only one national pastime, only one sport that predates our parents and their parents. All the stories are passed like batons down the generations, from Ruth to Mays to Mantle to Seaver to Gooden.
Game 5. Mets versus the Dodgers. It still translates, and still resonates. Before our time it was the Bronx versus Brooklyn in the World Series. Or it was the Polo Grounds vs. Ebbets Field. Harlem vs Flatbush.
It’s been years — and years — since I’ve been this stoked about a series, especially considering I don’t care about either team.
There’s an epic bent to this series. The retro feel. The history. The vitriol.
Every time we see Chase Utley smirking in the dugout, and hear his suspension was appealed, we’re appalled. His apologists tell us it was just old-school baseball and not a baseball assault that broke a man’s leg, and we boil with rage.
There’s something about Mets and Dodgers that transcends the teams. It’s NYC vs LA, East Coast vs West Coast, right coast vs. wrong coast. Before we heard of hip-hop there was rap, which was born in the Bronx, borrowed by California and then yanked back by the five boroughs. It’s Jay Z vs Dre, Rakim vs Cube. EPMD vs Eazy-E. Run–D.M.C. vs NWA.
Yes, the late ’80s. How about 1988? The Mets spanked the Dodgers 10 times in 11 games, cruising into the NLCS for the regular-season redux. But they ran into The Terminator. The meek indeed inherited the Earth. It was the flamethrower in the accountant’s frame, the pitching behemoth built like the postman. Orel Hershiser literally, singularly beat the colossal Mets, and then did the same to the Oakland A’s in the World Series. Even after Kirk Gibson’s Roy Hobbs moment in Game 1, there was still a series to be won, and no one meant more to one team than Hershiser meant to the Dodgers in 1988.
Ask WFAN host Joe Benigno about 1988. He still wears the scars and sees stars over the most agonizing moment in Mets history.
It’s NYC vs LA — the Yankees vs. Dodgers, by proxy. The Bombers twice pounded the Dodgers — in 1977 and 1978 — extending the endless string of NY dominance over the Dodgers. And then came 1981. After Graig Nettles put on a personal highlight reel in the first two games, the Dodgers sprinted by us in four games.
The Dodgers are now the Evil Empire. They have the biblical cable deal and the $300 million payroll. They swim in pools of cash, but have yet to build the cachet.
And if that weren’t enough of a bloody backdrop, we have the manager, Mr. Mattingly. Long before he bled Dodger Blue, he was a Yankee — the Yankee. The Hitman. Donnie Baseball. In high school, I bought that 1985 poster of Mattingly swathed in a pinstriped zoot suit, wielding his bat like a tommy gun.
Now he’s a traitor, the treasonous manager of the one team we can’t forgive or forget. If he just worked for any other team, we could forgive his transgressions.
Not that the Mets care about all that. They have enough history with the Dodgers to carry them for years.
And for all the glittering praise of the Dodgers’ pitchers, the Mets have some poisonous pitching of their own. If you had to have one young man take the bump tonight, it would not be Noah Syndergaard. And it surely would not be the burgeoning diva, the Dark Knight, who seems exponentially more worried about his next contract than his next start. Matt Harvey is fretting over his legacy long before he even has one. Gifted? No doubt. Headache? Epic.
But Jacob deGrom, who hypnotized the Dodgers in his first playoff start — he recorded 13 strikeouts in just seven innings — doesn’t have the baggage, the ego or the entourage. He’s just a young, blessed longhair who pitches with the confidence and dominance of a man 10 years his elder. Find another kid with his equanimity or his arsenal. DeGrom doesn’t worry about the moment while he short-circuits the radar gun. He just is what he is — effortless and egoless, the Tao of Jacob, who has his mail forwarded to 100 mph. If his fastball were a Ferrari, he’d have been pulled over after one pitch.
DeGrom needs to be deGreat to beat his counterpart. While Clayton Kershaw gets all the pub and the quid and the hardware, and makes the ladies shriek with adoration, Zack Greinke has been his equal — if not his superior — this season. He surrendered two solo homers in Game 2, a blip from an otherwise flatlined Mets lineup.
This game, this night, hangs on two pitchers who can hang just one pitch and lose this series. Maybe the nod goes to Greinke — who has the more robust bio and plays for the more glamorous team — pitching through the seductive shadows of dusk. But the world will hear about deGrom after Thursday night.
Meet the Mets. Greet the great deGrom.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.