Thing 1, Mets 0

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

In August of 1951, my father took me to see a doubleheader between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. We didn't stay for the bottom half of that twin bill because the Dodgers won the first game, extending their insurmountable lead (eventually to 13 1/2 games) and ending the season, as far as my father was concerned, right there and then. So we beat the traffic and drove back to Queens, arriving home about the same time of day when, the next month, Bobby Thomson powered a Ralph Branca pitch into the Polo Grounds bleachers, securing the pennant for the Giants and teaching me, at a very young age, everything about life I ever needed to know.

Now it is the New York Mets who have taught some of those same lessons. This hapless heir to the bad-luck Dodgers had a lead of seven games over the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 12. Then the Mets, who had been in first place since May, went into a tailspin, a total collapse . . . a something. Slippery banana peels were strewn all over the playing field and the players lost their keen eye and pitches slowed by a mysterious 10 miles an hour and arrived at the plate as big as beach balls. The Thing had taken over and Philadelphia won the pennant.

As an old Dodgers fan, I was familiar with The Thing. I knew it could not be explained. I knew it was cruel and that it teased the innocent -- the Mets got 13 runs in their penultimate game -- but in the end it could not be managed or beaten or even explained. What was happening to the Mets was called life, and it was good that kids were watching. They could learn from it. Victory teaches nothing. Defeat teaches everything.

I am no longer a fan of any team in any sport. The fan is a fool, a sucker, as much a mark as a drunk who flashes cash in a bar. The fan loves the team, but the team does not love him. The team merely loves the fan's money and when the time comes, it will roll up trucks to the ballpark and take off for another city in the middle of the night. A coldhearted lover will sometimes leave a note. A team never will.

This is what the Dodgers taught me. Do not fall in love with a ball team. It's a corporation. It will not love you back and, even though your wall is plastered with the pictures of players -- Hodges, Reese, Campanella, Snider, Furillo and the great Jackie -- the team will abscond to some faraway place. I vowed I'd never love again.

But the lesson taught my heart was nothing compared with the one taught my head. The collapse of the 1951 Dodgers was a metaphor for all that can happen in life. Had Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the rest been Dodgers fans they never would have counted on things going right in Iraq. They would have known that The Thing could happen. They would have known you could look at the plans, the way Charlie Dressen looked at his roster, and never see defeat staring you in the face. Defeat is like a two-way mirror. You cannot see it but it can see you. "The Giants is dead," Dressen famously, erroneously and ungrammatically had remarked. It was the "mission accomplished" of its time.

The Dodgers taught me about such things -- which is why I sat back with the smug wisdom of age and watched the TV guys try to explain what was happening to the Mets, combing through the stats like prospectors panning for gold. They tried to blame the coach or the players. It was about talent or motivation or some such thing. They needed to blame someone. They needed to make sense out of the nonsensical.

So, children, pay attention. The 1951 Dodgers had four future Hall of Famers and they lost. They were managed by the peerless Dressen and they lost. They had the support of the most rabid fans in all of history and they lost. I sat before the TV, mouth agape, and watched that Thomson home run and then, some years later, watched again as the Dodgers themselves fled Brooklyn, leaving me heartbroken but wiser. Now I know, as sure as I know anything, that the Mets lost not for any reason sportscasters will find in the statistics but because when the Dodgers left for the coast, something fell out of the back of the truck and, in time, made its way over to Queens where the Mets play.

The Thing was back.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company