HOW 'BOUT THOSE METS?!?!?!?!?!
NEW YORK -- Inspired by the bold personnel maneuvers of general manager Omar Minaya, the Mets marketers chose to be a tad daring when they developed a slogan for the 2006 season. They wanted something catchy, of course; aspirational and adaptable, too. They also wanted something that afforded the season a sense of definition, even before the first pitch.
And so was born "The team, the time, the [all-purpose fill in the blank]."
"The team, the time, the tickets" and "The team, the time, the T-shirt" struck an alliterative chord. "The team, the time, the train" advocated using mass transit to reach Shea Stadium, where the future was encroaching on the parking lot.
And now the team has provided the best rejoinder possible: "The team, the time, the title."
The Mets are National League East champions.
After 149 games, 91 victories and a summer of dominance, the time has come for them to be the team on top. In the second season of the Minaya-Willie Randolph regime, the Mets have taken the first step toward a possible return to the World Series and maybe even a rematch with the Yankees. The team, the time, the (subway) token.
The clinching happened on Monday when the Mets beat the Marlins, eliminating second-place Philadelphia from contention. The Phillies were the last team standing, albeit well behind the Mets, when magic number calculations produced a zero and made the NL East race the first to finish.
The difference in the standings stood at 14 1/2 games when the Mets achieved division champion status for the fifth time in 45 years. Among the now-five teams in franchise history that qualified to perform on October's stage, only the storied team of 20 years past had a greater margin at the moment of clinching, 19 games. And even the '86 team, eventual World Series champions, needed only four fewer games, 145, to eliminate the competition.
Not since 1988 had the Mets won a division championship, though they did become National League champions six years ago by winning the Wild Card and then two playoff series, and they were the 1999 Wild Card team.
In assuring themselves of postseason participation by a more traditional means this time, they did what they never had done -- placed higher than the Braves. Moreover, they ended the Braves' astonishing run of 14 consecutive division championships and, in doing so, added a "slew the dragon" asterisk to their own resume.
Oddly, perhaps, the Braves held a primary position in the minds of some Mets even though this generation of Mets hardly was as frustrated by the dynasty in the South as were the teams from 1998-2001. Though displacing the Braves has been an inevitability for weeks, when Atlanta was eliminated from winning the division early Wednesday morning, it was something of a clinching, and it made the actual clinching on Saturday even more fulfilling.
How the Mets came to this point and to this standing, permanently atop the 2006 NL East, is detailed here.
The team, the time, the tomahawk: Minaya views his team's success through that very prism. The Braves won 14 consecutive division championships, the last 11 as members of the NL East, exasperating the Mets at almost every turn for four years and again, to a lesser degree, last season when the Mets again became competitive.
"For us to win it, as we have, playing well since Opening Day, is very satisfying," Minaya said. "And to be the team that ends a great dynasty is a thrill. We have such respect for what [general manager] John Schuerholz and [manager] Bobby Cox did in Atlanta, that ending their run is something we're very proud of. If there were a Nobel Prize for baseball, they would be voted a Nobel Prize for the work they've done there over the years."
And Tom Glavine, who pitched for 10 of the 14 Braves champion teams, had the same sense
"To be part of the run and then be a member of the team that ended it gives me a unique perspective," he said. "It's kinda cool.
"When I signed here, this is what I had in mind. It took a little longer than I expected, but now that it's done, it's worth all the effort. ... And I'll guarantee that if a team other than us wins it next year, they won't feel the way we do about unseating the champions."
Even Paul Lo Duca, a Met for less than a year and a man who barely had felt the sting of the Braves' dominance, knew the sense of achievement.
"From the time you were a kid, you always wanted to knock off No. 1," Lo Duca said. "And they've been No. 1 for longer than most of us have been in the big leagues."
"Right now I feel like a proud papa," Randolph said. "But the journey is far from complete. Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for these guys. Some of them never have had a chance to celebrate like I've had. I've done this a lot with the Yankees. I'm excited. But that excitement is controlled because I know there's a long way to go."
The team, the time, the topple: The Mets clearly had a direct effect in the Braves' decline. With three games remaining in Atlanta, Sept. 26-28, they already have clinched the season series against the now-deposed champions, 10-5.
"I think we had a special feeling each time we've played them," Lo Duca said. "We wanted to be the ones."
The Mets' doubleheader sweep at Shea on Sept. 6 snuffed out the last realistic flicker of hope the Braves had of winning the Wild Card. The unseated champions hardly have been the lone team steamrolled by the Mets, though.
The team, the time, the totality of it: The Mets still can lose the season series to the Nationals in after-the-fact games, but they also may finish the regular season with at least a .500 percentage against each National League opponent. To this point, only the Brewers and Giants have played the Mets even and completed their season series. Their Interleague record (6-9) is the Mets' only conspicuous blemish.
But they were bound to hit a speed bump when Interleague Play began in the second half of June after they had dominated the first weeks of the month.
The team, the time, the tear: The Mets more than doubled their lead in the division -- it increased from 4 1/2 games to 9 1/2 games -- from June 5-15, when they won nine of 10 games, all on the road. They won two of three games in Los Angeles, swept four in Phoenix and three in Philadelphia and produced the second 9-1 excursion in franchise history.
The league should have seen it coming. The Mets were rolling almost immediately.
The team, the time, the torrid start: Unlike in 2005, when the Mets' first victory came in their sixth game, the '06 team won seven of its first eight games and 17 of its first 25. They never trailed in the loss column (they were 1-1 when the Braves were 2-1 on April 5) and by the time the Mets lost their second game of the season, falling to 8-2 on April 15, every other team in the NL East had six or more losses.
Their lead, seven games after their second straight victory in Atlanta, on April 29, was the largest ever by an NL East team in April. And their record was 21-9 after winning the second game of their third three-game series against the Braves on May 6.
By the next day, however, the Mets had lost a third starting pitcher to injury and made the fourth of what now stands as 12 assignments to the disabled list of players expected to be important season-long contributors.
The team, the time, the tests: Victor Zambrano was assigned to the DL on May 7, a day after his right elbow essentially exploded. The club already had disabled starting pitcher Brian Bannister, Opening Day second baseman Anderson Hernandez and Bannister's understudy, John Maine. Xavier Nady, the regular right fielder, went down due to an appendectomy before May ended.
"This is just another test for us," Randolph said then. "We just have to go on playing and have somebody step up. That's what good teams do."
Before the clinching, the Mets lost Pedro Martinez for all but 17 days in a 78-day sequence because of two different right leg maladies, fellow starter Glavine for two starts because of a blood-clot scare, left fielder Cliff Floyd for 35 days to ankle and Achilles' tendon problems, setup reliever Duaner Sanchez for 58 games and all of postseason because of a taxi cab accident and a dislocated shoulder, and reserve catcher Ramon Castro to rib cage and knee injuries.
A collective limp was a bit conspicuous at first in May. A nine-game trip to Philadelphia, Milwaukee and St. Louis produced six losses. But they followed that glitch with a handsome homestand against the Yankees and Phillies.
The team, the time, the talk of the town: When David Wright hit a single over the head of center fielder Johnny Damon in the ninth inning on May 19, the Mets defeated the Yankees and Mariano Rivera. They might have swept the Interleague series, but Billy Wagner didn't convert what would have been a four-run non-save in the second game. Nonetheless, the two one-run victories and the one-run loss against the Yankees, and the two one-run victories against the Phillies that followed, brought the Mets a new level of credibility in the market. Could they be better than the Yankees?
The team, the time, the tight games: The Mets made one-run games a specialty, winning 29 of 44. No National League team has won more or lost fewer. Their other specialty has been scoring early. The Mets lead the league in first-inning runs, with 123.
Their early-in-the-game production hardly has come as a surprise because the Mets' first batter in 138 games has been Jose Reyes, the most dynamic leadoff man in the game. He has led off six games with home runs, a Mets single-season record, scored 35 of his 117 runs so far in the first inning and has generally set the tone for games.
"When Jose's on, we're a different team," Glavine says. "When you play us, you see two of the most talented players in the league [Reyes and Carlos Beltran] in the first inning."
The team, the time, the talent: Reyes and Beltran are stunningly gifted players who can dominate a game individually with speed, power and defense. And while neither Wright nor Carlos Delgado has been a special defender, their run production has carried the team at times.
Delgado was a force in the first month, before Wright took over in May and June. Beltran had a killer July before Delgado produced at a torrid pace in August and into September. And Reyes -- speed never slumps -- was a primary force throughout.
The team, the time, the touch: Credit for assembling the talent goes to Minaya, of course. He and the Wilpon treasury have brought in Wagner, Beltran and Martinez and made the presence of Lo Duca, Delgado and Shawn Green possible. And those who preceded Minaya -- Steve Phillips and Jim Duquette -- and developed Reyes, Wright, Bannister and Aaron Heilman -- also must be recognized.
But the less conspicuous maneuvering is what has most distinguished Minaya's work. Since the end of last season, he has acquired Sanchez, Maine, Chad Bradford, Orlando Hernandez, Endy Chavez, Guillermo Mota and Darren Oliver, all of whom have made significant contributions. And none of the acquisitions was necessarily hailed when it was made.
One lower-profile move, more than any other, has paid enormous dividends. The signing of Jose Valentin and his stunning re-emergence has provided depth and reliability on offense and in the field. Valentin's contributions can not be overstated. And they may not have become a factor at all if not for Randolph, the sometimes rigid manager who remodeled the veteran's game and then had the patience to let it blossom.
The team, the time, the taskmaster: Randolph has masterfully elicited performance from almost every one of his players -- some, like Valentin, by allowing them to play, others like Heilman, by demanding more. The manager has been particularly effective with Valentin and Chavez, urging each to change his game to benefit the team, and with Heilman, who has responded so well to the manager's challenge in the wake of the injury to Sanchez.
For the second straight season, Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson have molded a reliable bullpen from ingredients that didn't necessarily appear to mix.
Randolph's loyalty to those who have performed for him seldom wavers and is appreciated in the clubhouse. His no-nonsense approach is embraced. And the discipline that has developed because of his since-relaxed no-music, no-facial hair edict last year is an important component in the Mets' play-the-game properly posture and their success.
Randolph, as much as any manager in the game, is a primary part of his team's first-place standing. Now he takes his approach to the postseason: The team, the time and, as the players say these days, the tournament.