IN AUGUST of 1969the Chicago Cubs were nine games up in the National League East andseven-year-old Jim Hickey was convinced that he wanted to spend the rest of hislife in baseball. By October the Cubs trailed the New York Mets by nine games,and Hickey was reconsidering. His father had to sit him down in their home onthe South Side of Chicago and explain that, every so often in baseball, apowerhouse like the Cubs will crumble and an upstart like the Mets will emergeand nobody will understand why.
The Mets, ofcourse, went on to win the World Series, and when rightfielder Ron Swobodarobbed the Baltimore Orioles' Brooks Robinson of a potential game-winning hitin the ninth inning of Game 4, Hickey hurt all over again, his ill will towardthe Amazin's not having subsided. Swoboda's act of thievery, snaring a low linedrive just inches off the turf at Shea Stadium, summed up the injustice of itall.
Hickey would growup to pursue a life in baseball, but when he met Swoboda 29 years after theepic grab, the bad feelings flooded back. "I told him it was a trap,"Hickey says of the catch. "It was a f------ trap."
Despite thatawkward introduction the two became friends. Hickey was the pitching coach atTriple A New Orleans, then an Astros affiliate, and Swoboda the team's TVanalyst, and to pass time on road trips, they talked about '69. When Swobodastarted reminiscing, Hickey would usually respond, "It was a trap. It was atrap. It was a trap." He could not look at Swoboda without muttering theword "trap" under his breath, often spiced with an expletive.
Today Hickey isthe pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, and over this year's All-Star breakSwoboda called him to catch up. As they talked about the 2008 Rays, a youngteam with plenty of talent but no real tradition, a club that was causing fitsin its division for two of the most storied franchises in baseball history,they realized that they just as easily could have been talking about the '69Mets. "It's the same thing," says Swoboda, now 64 and stillbroadcasting in New Orleans. "I watch Tampa Bay, and they don't know whatthey can't do. They are playing in their own wonderland. The Red Sox and theYankees—like the Cubs and the Cardinals in '69—are carrying all the baggage.The Rays can just relax and let it happen. Let the magic happen."
The major leagueschedule, 162 games long, is built to prevent this kind of magic from happeningvery often. Over the course of six months, underdogs are exposed and anomaliesregress to the mean. But the Rays' collapse, projected for about five monthsnow, still has not begun. September is here, and the Rays remain perched atopthe AL East, with the Red Sox nipping at their spikes and the Yankees, well,not so much. This is a franchise that has never played a meaningful game inSeptember, never calculated a magic number, never checked the out-of-townscoreboard and actually cared about the results. But in the next four weeksthey will experience the full breadth of September baseball, unlike any othermonth they have experienced before.
"Here's thedifference," says Rays lefty reliever Trever Miller, who previously was ontwo division-winning Astros clubs. "When you're out of it, you play inSeptember for your next contract. When you're in it, you play in September foryour team. Things are going to get more difficult for us. We're going to getthrown on the skillet. We're going to get boiled up. And we're going to see howwe come out of it."
It only makessense that they will melt, undone by the champs and the pressure and their owninexperience. But at least one contingent, well versed in the rhythms ofSeptember, does not see it going that way. "Everybody is looking for themto break down and fold up," says Cleon Jones, the leftfielder for the '69Mets. "It won't happen."
WHEN THE Metsreported to St. Petersburg for spring training in 1969, they were startingtheir eighth season in the major leagues and had never had a winning record; in'68 they had gone 73--89. But in the first meeting of the spring, manager GilHodges told his team that he expected to win the NL East. Jones tried not tolaugh. "We were all looking at each other like, 'Is he crazy orsomething?'" says Jones, now 66 and living in Mobile, Ala. "'Heactually thinks we can win it this year?'"
When the Raysreported to St. Petersburg for spring training this season, they were startingtheir 10th major league season and also had never had a winning record; in 2007they'd gone 66--96. But in the first meeting of the spring, manager Joe Maddontold his team that he expected to make the playoffs. He unveiled a slogan—9 =8—to remind his players that if they gave everything for nine innings, theycould claim one of eight postseason spots. "Sure, you say that,"designated hitter Cliff Floyd thought to himself. "But do you really seeit?"
The Rays went18--8 in spring training, which for most teams would not be worth mentioning,but for this team was significant. In four of those games their batboy was a21-year-old private investigator named Jason Glenn Heath, whose father, David,was a spring training batboy for the '69 Mets. David was shot and killed in aSt. Petersburg alley in 2001, and Jason wanted to honor him by wearing a majorleague uniform, as his father had 39 years before. During his interview inFebruary with Brandon (Tank) Richesin, a Rays assistant clubhouse manager,Jason said, "My dad was the batboy for the Miracle Mets, and I think I canbring the same luck to you."
At the All-Starbreak the Rays were 55--39. At the All-Star break in 1969 the Mets were 53--39.Neither team appeared likely to sustain its success. The Mets were in second,five games behind the Cubs. The Rays, having just lost seven in a row, werealso in second, a half game behind Boston. When the Red Sox swung through TampaBay in early July, Boston slugger David Ortiz said, "I'm not saying thatthey will drop, but if you go by the numbers, that's normally what happens. Theguys with more experience at the end of the year take over." When Millerwas reminded of that statement, he responded, "Well, the Germans had a lotof experience fighting wars, and they still lost."
The day after theAll-Star break Maddon gathered the Rays and for the first time acknowledgedthat their situation was somewhat unique. He wanted his team to realizeeverything that was at stake, so as not to let it slip away. "This is avery special thing that's going on here," Maddon said. "It doesn'thappen on an annual basis. We need to treat it with respect—with a lot ofrespect."
That night theRays trailed the Toronto Blue Jays 1--0 in the seventh inning when a utilitymannamed Ben Zobrist hit a game-winning two-run homer off Blue Jays righthanderA.J. Burnett. The next afternoon Rays owner Stuart Sternberg was down on thefield taking batting practice with MC Hammer, who was giving a postgame concertthat night. In bizarro Tampa Bay everything was back to normal. Thus launched,the Rays started the second half with a major-league-best 29--12 run,overcoming injuries to leftfielder Carl Crawford, third baseman Evan Longoriaand closer Troy Percival, three cornerstones of the team.
THE '69 METSbelieve their season turned in the second game of a doubleheader on July 30,when Houston's Johnny Edwards hit a double down the leftfield line and Jonesjogged casually over to play it. Incensed at the lack of hustle, Hodges himselfwalked all the way out to the outfield to pull Jones from the game. Maddon didnot go onto the field on Aug. 15 in Texas, but he did take an extraordinarystep, removing B.J. Upton from his position in centerfield because he was angrythat Upton had not run out a grounder in the top half of the inning.
Maddon does notget upset easily, but he also became irritated five days later, against the LosAngeles Angels, when outfielder Justin Ruggiano pulled up and played a fly ballon one hop. "I would prefer seeing you impale yourself," Maddon toldRuggiano. One week later, with the Rays leading Toronto 1--0 and two outs inthe ninth inning, Blue Jays catcher Rod Barajas hit a deep drive to leftfield.Taking Maddon's words to heart, Ruggiano crashed into the fence to steal a suredouble from Barajas and save the game. It was not Swoboda robbing Robinson inthe World Series, but for Tampa Bay it was high drama.
"We did itwith pitching and defense," Swoboda says. "That's how they're doing ittoo." In the 12-team National League the '69 Mets ranked second in ERA(2.99) but eighth in batting average (.242). Among the 14 American League clubsthe Rays rank second in ERA (3.70) but 12th in batting average (.261). WithoutCrawford and Longoria, two of their most dangerous hitters are Carlos Pe√±a, whobatted .236 in the first half, and outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who had beenthrough travails worse than a mere slump. The third-place finisher in the 2003Rookie of the Year voting, Baldelli had once been compared with Joe DiMaggio byformer Rays managing partner Vince Naimoli. But he recently had begun sufferingfrom a condition that left him barely able to walk across the field withoutcramping up and complaining of exhaustion.
Fearing that hewould never be able to play again, Baldelli crisscrossed the country lastwinter to see specialists, but nobody could diagnose him. By spring, testsfinally revealed that he was suffering from mitochondrial disorder, aneuromuscular disease. Doctors prescribed 10 supplements to help him keep hisenergy up. On Aug. 10 Baldelli made his season debut, and on Aug. 22 he hit hisfirst major league home run in 15 months. Two days later he smashed another.Last Saturday he hit a game-winning, ninth-inning double against the Orioles,the Rays' 13th walk-off victory of the season. Baldelli still cannot play everyday, and he has to carry a plastic bag full of pills wherever he goes. In themorning, after taking the 10 supplements at once, he often feels sick to hisstomach. But he is willing to put up with a little nausea for a bout of pennantfever. "Coming back here is the most satisfying thing I've ever done,"says Baldelli. "I didn't want this to pass me by."
BY SEPTEMBER of1969 the Mets were drawing more than 50,000 fans for almost every game at SheaStadium. Bench players would ask starters, "You see how many people are outthere? Aren't you nervous?" The Rays, alas, do not have that problem. Onthe last Wednesday in August they drew an appalling 12,678 at Tropicana Field,some 9,000 below their season average, making it hard for an unwittingeyewitness to tell if they were pursuing history or just playing out thestring. Attendance is clearly a source of embarrassment, but when the Rays takethe field and see a stadium that is more than two-thirds empty, it has astrangely calming effect. Players are able to convince themselves that games inSeptember really are no different from games in May.
"Playing herealleviates some pressure, and in our situation that can be a very goodthing," says the 35-year-old Floyd. "I'm going to tell the guys inSeptember, Don't look at whoever is 3 1/2 back, 4 1/2 back, 5 1/2 back. Likeright now, we really don't need to be sitting here worrying that the Red Soxare four games back."
OverhearingFloyd, Upton interjected, "Three and a half now."
The next day allfour televisions in the Rays' clubhouse were tuned to the Red Sox--Yankeesgame. After Jason Giambi singled home the game-winner for the Yankees in thebottom of the ninth, Upton raised his right fist. The lead was back tofour.
The '69 Metshandled this burden by treating it as a reward. From their perspective, by thetime September rolled around (they were 4 1/2 games back when the monthstarted), their season was a success no matter how it ended. So in the finalmonth they were able to relax and by doing so went an astounding 23--7. Sincethe Rays already lead the AL East, they do not need to go 23--7. They just needa few more helpings of meat loaf. That is Maddon's term for taking two out ofthree games, a reference to Meatloaf's 1977 hit single Two Out of Three Ain'tBad.
By keeping thestrategy simple—just take two of three—the Rays are able to ignore the biggerpicture, which can be a bit overwhelming. They are in position to complete oneof the greatest turnarounds in baseball history, pull off one of the greatestupsets in baseball history and strike a blow for small markets everywhere. TheAL East may be the toughest division in all of professional sports, and theRays are threatening to win it with a payroll just over $40 million, with someof their best players still on the disabled list, with friends and family inthe stands and often few others.
It would beamazin'.
"They are playing in their own wonderland,"says Swoboda, a '69 Met. "The Rays can just relax and let it happen. LETTHE MAGIC HAPPEN."
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Photograph by Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
LEAP OF FAITH The success of Ed Charles (5) and the '69 Mets was foretold by their manager; ditto Pe√±a (right) and these Rays.
[See caption above]
HITTING HOME Pe√±a (left) scored the game-winner in another walk-off win last Saturday, sending Longoria leaping and a pie flying in the face of the heroic Baldelli.
STEVE JACOBSON (LONGORIA)
GARY BOGDON (BALDELLI)