Mike Piazza smiles. He's standing in front of his locker, peeling off his black Calvin Klein undershirt and boxer-briefs. The Mets won last night and are preparing for another game against the dreary Montreal Expos. Their date with disaster in Atlanta is still a day away. Piazza and the Mets aren't denying their troubles. But logic and temperament dictate that it isn't time to panic. Especially not for Piazza, the greatest-hitting catcher in the history of major-league baseball. Even though his September batting average stands at an anemic .146, Piazza is simply too good not to bust out of his slump soon.
But when, Mike, when? Reporters keep pelting Piazza with minor variations on this relentless refrain. Are you starting to feel locked in? When are you going to take it to another level? When are you going to step up?
Piazza, alone for a moment, laughs. His large brown eyes, set wide in his face, give him a look of equine poise, even in times of crisis. "I've been trying to invent a new cliché to replace stepping up," he says. "That's the most overused term in sports. I've got to invent a new one. I'll test out a few phrases and see what catches on. How cool would that be, if you could think up a term like step up and see all these guys using it in interviews? I need to start watching more of Don King's interviews. I heard him say one time, 'These are tribulations and infractications! These are hypocrisies and hypotheticals!' He's funny, man -- he's amazing. Maybe I can borrow something from him."
Piazza's own cool is admirable, and it's the perfect emotional counterweight to Bobby Valentine, the manager who is descending into the self-destructive verbal twitches of his annual September fever dream. Spells, shades, and media frenzies haunt the Mets this time of year. Piazza is right to summon a sorcerer. To chase the haints of fall, the Mets could sure use some timely hitting. But a good Don King trickeration wouldn't hurt.
Only in America? Only in flushing, Queens.
"There are a couple of clowns in our market where if I win the World Series," says Valentine, "they're going to say I didn't sweep."
On August 31, a six-week, 30-13 wave crested with the Mets alone in first place for the first time all season, and I set out to write a happy story: how the Mets had built a team loaded with talent and resilience, one capable of surpassing the Braves once and for all, and maybe even the Yankees.
But as a lifelong Mets fan, I should have known better. Even as the transiency of pro sports has reduced fandom to "rooting for laundry," in the words of Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld, the Mets somehow remain true to their franchise DNA. The Mets aren't burdened with the gloppy fatalism that clings to the Red Sox and Cubs. But what's joyful and frustrating about the Mets -- and what makes it hard and worthwhile to be a Mets fan -- is that you can never count on the predictable.
The Mets have had exactly one dominant team in their 39 seasons, and that crew grabbed a World Series by the width of Bill Buckner's legs. The 1986 Mets, with young Gooden and Strawberry and wily Carter and Hernandez, were supposed to be the foundation of a dynasty, but they were rapidly undone by stupid trades, ego, and addictions.
This year's edition looked far more stable. An elite staff of starting pitchers. A closer, Armando Benitez, who has been automatic. Solid offense, led by Piazza and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, baseball's most underappreciated all-star.
And then there was a characteristic that couldn't be captured in a box score, an uncanny resilience, both individual and collective. Center-fielder Jay Payton missed two seasons, his right elbow torn apart and rebuilt by surgeons three times; now he's a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. Todd Zeile, acquired over the winter, had to learn to play first base at the baseball-senior-citizen age of 34. The positively antique 40-year-old John Franco has swallowed his ego and become a setup man for Benitez. Benny Agbayani, product of the baseball nowheresville of Hawaii, outlasted Rickey Henderson to finally win a job. The resilience extends to the front office, where Steve Phillips, the general manager, held on to his job and his family after the public humiliation of an exposed extramarital affair.
The qualities that lifted the Mets through the winning streaks of July and August are still present. But in the middle of the team's third straight September swoon, the Mets' resilience is facing its most severe test. The team made a valiant run into the National League Championship Series last season. This year, there's more at stake. Unfair as it is, Piazza and manager Bobby Valentine have their reputations on the line: Follow this September slide with anything less than a trip to the World Series, and they'll forever be labeled late-season chokers.
Plenty of theories have been advanced to explain what has happened to the Mets this month. But the mystery was actually solved in Montreal.
It's my fault.
Bobby Valentine told me so, over breakfast at the Le Centre Sheraton. This is a fan's classic nightmare: that we're personally responsible for the team's collapse. But Valentine doesn't see me as a Mets fan. He sees me as one of his, and his team's, worst tormentors: the media.
The Mets are coming off three wins in four days, and while they aren't crushing their opponents, the team appears to have snapped out of the funk that descended on September 1 in St. Louis in the first of three painful, last-inning losses. Even the manager seems to be having some fun again. After a game at Shea Stadium, I offer to buy Valentine a meal if he has a few spare minutes when the Mets are in Montreal, not really expecting him to take up the invitation. "Sure," he responds sunnily, with a broad smile. "I'd be happy to do it."
And he still looks happy as he slides into the semicircular banquette opposite the restaurant's Saturday-morning brunch buffet, dressed crisply as always, today in pressed khakis and a handsome black-and-white-checked button-down shirt. Valentine looks very weekend-casual-suburban-dad and sounds it, too, as he chats about sending e-mail to his teenage son, who is visiting the University of North Carolina and applying for early admission.
Then I begin to ask Valentine about the heartbreaking end of the 1999 season in Atlanta, when a thrilling and exhausting playoff run --
"Hey!" Valentine says, cutting me off. "The only thing that matters to me is my job, and my team. This stuff, as wonderful as it seems to be, the coverage that the Mets are going to get -- I don't really give a shit about it. I want to say that right up front. To tell you the truth, reminiscing at this time, or going back or evaluating or appraising, is really something that is against my nature right now. Just so you understand. It's been a long season; we've been through a lot. The one thing that you hear in sports often is that you need focus, especially at this time of year, and I think that that focus is needed by the manager as well as the players. And I'd be willing to bet that our competition doesn't have to worry about this kind of article being written at this time of year. For whatever it's worth, I don't take offense to it, but I definitely don't go along with this whole thing. If I was Joe Torre or Tommy Lasorda, or anybody in any of these other small markets where you can control things through your P.R. department, I would have put a stop to it. It's very detrimental to the psyche of the players. And maybe of me too. I don't know. I doubt it."