Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Seaver Curse

Since a ball went miraculously through Bill Buckner's weary legs to give the Mets the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, followed by a win the next night for the championship, being a Met fan has consisted of fleeting joy and exhilaration quickly overtaken by frustration and failure.  For 25 years, if something could go wrong for the Mets it invariably has, which has led me to tackle the nagging question whether this is more than simply bad management and bad luck.  Is there a curse?

1987 started with the great Met pitcher Dwight Gooden in drug rehab and 1988 ended with an excruciating loss to the Dodgers in the playoffs.  After that, the Mets began dismantling the 1986 team, replacing iconic players like Len Dykstra, Darryl Strawberry and Mookie Wilson with spectacular underachievers like Juan Samuel, Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman (see Mets or Bust), who led the team to six losing seasons in a row.  Then there were the injuries, like those in 1996, which felled three promising pitchers dubbed Generation K (Pulsipher, Isringhausen and Wilson) none of whom ever lived up to the hype.

Even after signing Mike Piazza in 1998, the team would consistently cause heartburn and heartbreak.  The Mets lost their last five games in 1998 to miss the playoffs by one game and the next year lost to the Braves in the playoffs with Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run of the deciding game.  The 2000s were not much better, starting with the crushing loss to the Yankees in the World Series (Armando Benitez, anyone?) followed by several mediocre seasons.

An exciting 2006 team reached the playoffs but lost a devastating final seventh game to the Cardinals.  Two searing images from that game form the perfect post-1986 Met microcosm:  Endy Chavez makes one of the most incredible game-saving catches ever in the post season in the 6th inning only to have Carlos Beltran strike out looking with the bases loaded three innings later to end the game.  And since then, historic collapses to miss the playoffs, baffling player moves (e.g., Ollie Perez, Luis Castillo), an unprecedented number of injuries to star and potential star players, and entanglement with Bernie Madoff.  I hate to even imagine what's next.

So have the Mets been cursed since 1986, and if so, by what?

And then I figured it out.  Tom Seaver.

My childhood hero and one of the greatest pitchers in major league history. He was called "The Franchise" because of how central he was to the Mets' identity.  Rookie of the Year, three-time Cy Young Award Winner and 9-time All Star.  On June 15, 1977, after ten remarkable years with the Mets, he was traded in what was aptly called the "Midnight Massacre."  The Mets penurious management refused to renegotiate his contract and shipped him off to the Cincinnati Reds.  Seaver continued his great career (looking quite strange in a Reds uniform), and without him, the Mets played dismally.

But, then came some measure of redemption.  Seaver was traded back to the Mets for the 1983 season.  It was indescribable to see him pitch a shut out on Opening Day.  After that he didn't have a great year -- and neither did the Mets -- but with Seaver wearing his familiar number 41, the Mets seemed like a team on the rise, with promising young pitchers, a Rookie of the Year in Darryl Strawberry, and the acquisition of Keith Hernandez.

But it was not to be.  Incredibly, before the 1984 season began, the Mets left the 40-year old Seaver off the protected list, assuming no other team would want him.  The White Sox quickly scooped him up, leaving Met fans distraught once again.  Seaver won 15 games for the White Sox in 1984 and 16 in 1985, including his 300th.  In 1986, he finished an injury-plagued season with the Red Sox.  (A bad knee prevented him from playing against the Mets in the World Series.)

The Mets tried to atone once more, hoping to bring Seaver back to the Big Apple to finish his storied career where it began.  But after pitching a few exhibition games in June 1987, Seaver realized he had nothing left and announced his retirement.  And so Tom Seaver would not play again in New York.

The Mets traded him once, reacquired him only to let him go a second time, and when they tried to get him back for one last go round, it was too late.  He retired, having played his last game in a Red Sox uniform, and when he hung up his spikes in 1987, the Seaver Curse began.


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