By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007
NEW YORK, Sept. 30 -- In the first stunned moments following the New York Mets' loss in the 162nd and final game of the Major League Baseball season, the only sounds at Shea Stadium were those of the various vessels taking New Yorkers somewhere else -- cars cranking to life in the parking lot, the No. 7 subway train rumbling toward Manhattan, the roar of jets taking off from nearby LaGuardia International Airport, the shuffle of feet as beleaguered fans trudged toward the exits.
Once, the Mets seemed as if they were headed somewhere special this season. But amazin'ly, they are going nowhere.
Within minutes of each other late Sunday afternoon, the Mets lost to the Florida Marlins, 8-1, in Queens, followed by the Philadelphia Phillies beating the Washington Nationals, 6-1, some two hours down the road at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, simultaneously completing one of the worst collapses and one of the biggest comebacks in baseball history -- with the fourth-place Nationals an unlikely common denominator.
They have been playing big league baseball for well over a century, and never before, according to record-keepers at the Elias Sports Bureau, had a team failed to make the playoffs after holding a lead of at least seven games as late in a season as Sept. 12, as the Mets did.
On Sunday, the collapse could not have seemed more complete. Tied with the Phillies atop the National League East division standings, the Amazin' Mets -- as they are known to their fans -- fell behind 7-0 to the fifth-place Marlins in the first inning, and scarcely mustered a rally the rest of the way. In a deathly silent clubhouse after their loss, the Mets attempted to come to grips with their historic failure.
"It was embarrassing," said Billy Wagner, the Mets' veteran relief pitcher. "We all feel embarrassed."
The scene was vastly different in Philadelphia, where each locker in the home clubhouse was covered in plastic, lest the players' clothes and equipment be sprayed with champagne and beer. Ninety minutes after that game ended, the stands still held a couple thousand fans, with players still celebrating on the field, dousing each other, hugging each other, pouring beer into each other's mouths, kissing their families.
"A lot of people counted us out," said Ryan Howard, the Phillies' Ruthian slugger. "We just stayed with it. We're in Philadelphia, and there's a reason they call us the Fightin' Phillies. . . . The whole town of Philadelphia's going to celebrate!"
The celebration in Philadelphia -- where some fans still recall the collapse of 1964, when the Phillies blew a 6 1/2 -game lead with 12 games to play -- began even before the first pitch. Just as Nationals shortstop Felipe Lopez stepped into the batter's box to face Phillies lefty Jamie Moyer, the score from Queens was posted on the out-of-town scoreboard in right field: Marlins 7, Mets 0, first inning. The stadium erupted, a crowd of 44,865 waving towels and wearing out their lungs. From that point, the division title that was slipping away in New York felt inevitable in Philadelphia.
The Nationals, meantime, might have guessed when they first saw the tentative 2007 season schedule last fall that they would have a say in the outcome of their division's title. Their final week of games saw them playing three games against the Mets in New York, followed by three games in Philadelphia against the Phillies.
Though the Nationals had long since been ensured a losing record for 2007, they played those six games as if their careers depended on them, sweeping all three games over the Mets, but winning only once in Philadelphia.
"That is kind of shocking," Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young said of the Mets' collapse. "To have the lead pretty much the entire year, and lose it. . . . I feel sorry for those guys. Shoot, they're going home -- like we are."
On the morning of Sept. 13, with the Mets leading the Phillies by seven games in the division, the analytical Web site Baseballprospectus.com posted its playoff-odds update, in which the win-loss record, runs scored and runs allowed of all 30 teams in baseball are logged into a computer and put through 1 million simulated "seasons." The Mets made the playoffs in 99.8 percent of those simulations.
"We played the way we wanted to all year, but fell apart in these last few weeks," said David Wright, the Mets' talented 24-year-old third baseman. "We played beyond horrible. We did this to ourselves. . . . It's not like it blindsided us. We just gradually let this thing get away."
There was nothing gradual, however, about Sunday's gruesome loss. Veteran lefty Tom Glavine, one of only three active 300-game winners in baseball, retired only one of the nine batters he faced, departing from the mound with his head hanging to a soundtrack of boos from the crowd of 54,453.
How quickly did it go from hopeful to hopeless? On the "official game thread" at the Mets fan Web site Amazinavenue.com, a post at 1:08 p.m. -- three minutes before first pitch -- by a fan with the handle TheFlushingKings, proclaimed "this is exciting . . . Let's Go Mets!!!"
But at 1:37 p.m., a fan going by "elifriedman" says in a post titled "a complete disgrace," "this is my last post possibly forever. I will not root for this stupid team unless they make wholesale changes."
This being New York, there will be wisecracking back-page headlines in the Post and the Daily News on Monday morning, and columnists and talk-radio callers demanding the heads of Mets Manager Willie Randolph and General Manager Omar Minaya.
That will be followed by something even worse -- nothing. No games, no media coverage, no Mets buzz at all, as the city shifts its full attention to the Bronx, where the American League's Yankees made the playoffs for a 13th consecutive season and will open postseason play Thursday in Cleveland.
There will be baseball again in Queens, but it won't be until next April, and there is a 99.8 percent chance the sting from the Collapse of 2007 will still be felt at Shea Stadium.
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from Philadelphia.