The strikeouts (both looking) by Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard on back-to-back nights led Mets fans to remember Carlos Beltran's 2006 season-ender. But the losses of the Yankees and Phillies in 2010 also provided a grim reminder of how everything needed to go wrong from a Mets perspective for the past four years to have taken place.
I explained all of this to my six-month-old daughter, who endured almost none of the recent pain experienced by Mets fans (and likely won't remember much of her three games in 2010) as we celebrated the 24th anniversary of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
I told her to consider that had the Mets simply gone 6-11 over their final 17 games in 2007, and the Phillies a mere 12-5, September 2007 would simply have been a near-collapse. With one defeat of the Phillies after June 30, the Mets would have been National League East champs.
Such is baseball. With so many independent events, it is just as easy to consider the tiniest retroactive change to 2008 that gets the Mets into the playoffs.
But what has made this period so gruesome for Mets fans is the many things that needed to go exactly right for the Phillies to win a World Series in 2008 and the Yankees in 2009.
Philadelphia got Raul Ibanez's performance in 2009, rather than Jason Bay's 2010. Brad Lidge rebounded, but Francisco Rodriguez assaulted. While Mets in their 20s like David Wright, Jose Reyes and Johan Santana suffered on-field and injury reversals, the Yankees got peak performance from players in their late 30s like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and most notably, Mariano Rivera.
Bounceback seasons abounded for both teams. Playoff performances, notoriously fickle, bunched properly.
Much of this success from the Yankees and Phillies, along with failure from the Mets, had more to do with design than luck. But no one can reasonably look at those three teams and say the Mets had as much misfortune as could be expected, or that the Yankees and Phillies didn't have better-than-normal luck.
So to see Rodriguez and Howard strike out served as more than what all Mets fans hope will be an omen. In A-Rod's case, the Yankees have seven years and $174 million due to a third baseman who will turn 36 next season and whose last three OPS+ marks are 150, 138, 123.
In the case of Howard, his five-year, $125 million began with the end his 2011 season. He'll be 31 next year, and his OPS+ this season was 128. For reference, Ike Davis, who will earn about $17.5 million less next year, put up a 115 with better defense, and will be just 24.
Questions abound concerning both teams. In the case of Philadelphia, a massive commitment in payroll along with some aging vets mean the team's margin for error is quite small. Roy Halladay will be 34, Roy Oswalt 33, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins 32, and both Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez considerably older. Jayson Werth is likely to be a former Phillie. The fall could be precipitous.
Although the Yankees will have an enormous advantage as long as they spend better than $200 million on players, they'll be wasting some large portion of that on Jeter to either play shortstop poorly or provide a less than useful bat at another position in 2011. Should they sign Cliff Lee, they will be on the hook for roughly 13 to 15 years of mid-to-late 30s Lee, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Unless they revise their recent payroll limits upward, that's roughly enough to bring them back to the pack in terms of payroll should those gambles fail to work out.
And although another team in the NL East could step forward, or another juggernaut emerge in baseball, neither one is likely to be as strong as the Phillies and Yankees recently played. Moreover, neither one would irritate Mets fans quite as much. Even Atlanta, shorn of Bobby Cox and perhaps soon, Chipper Jones, wouldn't feel as oppressive. It's one thing to have to encounter Philadelphians armed with the gift of recent arrogance. It's another to watch the Braves winning and smugly enjoy all the empty seats.
So with the leading candidate to be the new general of the Mets, Sandy Alderson, saying all the right things about building a baseball team and reaching out to the fans, it is hard not to think that the worst is over. Of course, baseball's greatest moments confound the proper building of a baseball team. The 1986 Mets were in position to succeed because they were an astounding collection of everyday players and elite pitchers.
But we remember them for things like Game 6, which happened 24 years ago Monday. There is much to be said for Frank Cashen, but he didn't hold onto Mookie Wilson because he excelled at getting out of the way of wild pitches, nor did he build his offense around soft singles to the outfield and "little rollers up along first."
But Monday morning, watching the 10th inning of Game 6, as I do every year, it felt a bit less oppressive than it did the last few offseasons. This time, I had my daughter, who was seeing it for the first time, on my lap. And if babies make you consider anything, other than the soundness of covering every single thing with a bib, it is the limitless possibility of the future.
So yes, the Phillies and Yankees had great seasons, and the Mets suffered through a lost year in 2010. And the past four years have been heartbreaking in their precise perfection of loss. But it didn't feel like lying to her when I told her that, someday soon, she and I might experience something like that October 1986 night, this time at Citi Field.
A lot has to happen, most of it planned, some of it gloriously spontaneous, before she and I will celebrate such a moment. But for the first time since well before she was born, the paths of both our favorite team and the major in-division and in-town stumbling blocks seemed to make such a climb possible.