The Phillies and Mets will collide this week; not as two roaring titans of the NL East on an inevitable path toward each other dictated by fate itself, but as bumbling fools, each with a bucket on their head, each hoping the other can get it off for them.
There’s been plenty said about the Phillies and Mets as a pair over the last decade, from the fact that their fans share much of the same of insecurities and habits, to the idea that they’ve so rarely been good at the same time that their match-ups don’t even constitute a rivalry. But this is Philadelphia; we’ll have rivalries with whoever we like, whether they know about them or not. I was once in a rivalry with a possum living the walls of my building. And a separate rivalry with a truck that was always double parked. If I’m being truthful, an objective third party would probably say I lost both.
In any case, it is a shame that the Phillies and Mets have so rarely been competitive at the same time, because when both teams have been good, it gets the toxic gases flowing in a lot of emotional sewers. These days, the Phillies are in the midst of a September collapse that is for some reason happening in June; the Mets will arrive at Citizens Bank Park tonight after a fight in their locker room with a beat writer. Myself, as we near first pitch on a night destined to be defined by soupiness and/or multiple firings, I was reminded of a time, not so long so, when everything sucked and all the manager could do was watch as baseball ate his team alive.
August 28, 2006 wasn’t a particularly close Phillies-Mets game, but it would have been a lot closer without that one inning of tragic nonsense. It wasn’t the first inning, when Jamie Moyer set down the Mets in order. And it wasn’t even the second inning, when he worked around a lead-off double to keep the Mets off the board. The Phillies, it seemed, might actually have a solid pitching start on their hands.
The trouble was, there was a third inning. Chris Coste tried to collect and fire a bunt by Mets starter John Maine down to first base, but it pooped into foul territory and put a runner in scoring position. With a second consecutive bunt—how in god’s name did this work—the Mets loaded the bases for Carlos Delgado, who hit a two-run single, and the Mets scored on the next three plays, putting up a six-spot in the frame and an eventual 8-3 victory that laid the Phillies flat at .500.
The Phillies were still in contention at this point, thanks to a tepid NL Wild Card race, and the Mets celebrated their 80th victory. Both teams could have been potentially meeting in the playoffs after this, their final meet-up of the season. But no one believed that would actually happen, given how late it was in the schedule, and how little was going the Phillies’ way.
Take David Wright’s contribution to that third-inning rally. The Phillies managed to catch Wright on one of the 11 days of the season that he wasn’t hitting over .300, and he still went 1-for-3 with two RBI. That “1” would be his at-bat in the troublesome third, when Wright plunked a grounder up the third base line that hopped so wackily nobody could tell what exactly it did next. It could have grazed the bag, caromed off a rock, simply been “guided by the fickle winds of the Phillies’ fate,” according to Rob Parent of the Inquirer.
Third base umpire Randy Marsh called it a foul ball, and everything was fine. But then Mets manager Jerry Randolph asked the umpires to reconsider the decision. Since it was 2006, the height of official review technology in baseball was a hushed meeting between Randy Marsh, who admitted he’d been “distracted” during the play, and Angel Hernandez, a swarm of bees in an umpire’s uniform that we’ve all for some reason accepted as a human being for decades. Those two got together and imagined the play in their heads real hard, and determined that, you know what, it was a fair ball, something that Hernandez, who had watched the play from 90 feet away, possibly with a mask on, could see definitively in his mind’s eye.
But the umpires weren’t the only one to review it. Charlie Manuel did, too, only he did it the way reviews actually work: He watched the footage again, and again, and again, seemingly through the night, his bloodshot eyes blinking rapidly as the replay flickered forward and back in the darkened video room.
“You can see the space between the ball and the bag,” he assured reporters, presumably gesturing toward a conspiratorial wall of printed out screen captures and notes scrawled in marker. “I kept replaying it and playing it and playing it. We got three or four different angles in there.”
But sometimes baseball just says, “Not today, Charlie.” From 2005-06, it said that a lot. Wright’s ball was fair simply because that’s just what it was; the Phillies lost, and the game and a half they sat behind the Reds for that wild card spot, while small and manageable with a month to play, might as well have been a chasm of opened-up earth before them, fathoms deep and miles across, as they clearly were never going to get a fair shake, let alone a fair ball.
Manuel had argued the call on the field, even before his sleepless night, and gotten himself ejected for it, because if you’re going to make a call like that, you might as well get rid of any witnesses to the contrary.
“But Justin, the headline says ‘sometimes there is no winner,’ but in this game there was a definite winner.” Yes, the Mets won this game, and yes, they went on to win the NL East that year, something they wouldn’t do again until ten years later, with a hot young pitching staff that seemed immune to the fist-clenching clownery for which their franchise is best known (they were not immune to it, it turns out).
And sure, the Phillies would win the World Series only two years later, thanks in large part to a Mets team that had been imploding since the previous September, letting the Phillies wriggle free of the just-shortedness for which their franchise was best known. But on their ways to and from success, these two teams have benefitted from each other’s graceless ineptitude and violent frustration, in arenas where baseball comes to die.
This is far from the only time that it seems like the gods have left the Phillies and Mets to drift outside of reason and physics. And it will hardly be the last. With four match-ups against each other this week, we can only know for certain that these games may be played at Citizens Bank Park, but it is only within the grasp of chaos that these two teams are truly at home.