The amazing thing about the start of the baseball season is that no matter how long the offseason and spring training drags out (and this year's felt as long as any I can remember) opening day still somehow totally sneaks up on me every year. I've been reading about the upcoming season for weeks, yet somehow when I woke up this morning it only hit me for the first time: "oh my god, baseball starts in 5 days."
Opening day is a fresh start, a new beginning for every team, the point at which every baseball fan can find a way to talk themselves into the idea that if things break right, this could be their year, no matter how bleak their chances actually are. However, somehow I feel like I haven't anticipated this one as greatly as years past, and as I mentioned, this offseason and spring training seemed unusually long. I think that's because I, as a Mets fan, am approaching this season more anxiously than excitedly, and I think the collective Mets world is experiencing something similar. Most years, we as Mets fans fall into the category I described above: we look up and down our mediocre roster and analyze our pathetic record from the previous year, yet somehow convince ourselves that things will work out. They rarely do. Then in 2005, something weird happened: the Mets got good. The season ended disappointingly, but showed signs of promise, so we were pumped to watch the team grow in 2006. And boy did they ever, coming as close to the World Series as you could without making it there. So we headed into 2007 knowing we were good and just missed and excited to try again. And it was going well for a while, until this happened. But that didn't kill our spirit. It was a fluke, a tsunami of misfortune that we were ready to just forget. But then it happened again (sort of.) And now we enter a new season, nervous that no matter how well we play, no matter how big of a lead we build in the standings, nothing is safe. And that makes us nervous as hell. SI giving us the kiss of death, doesn't help matters. So because of all that, I think a lot of us are entering this season with a more nervous anticipation than the usual excited frenzy of years past. Still, opening day is opening day, so here is a list of the top 5 things I am excited about for the upcoming Mets season:
5. Ends of games- Without a doubt the greatest villain in the Mets' collpases the last two years has been the bullpen. We've seen the stats about how if games ended at the end of 8 innings, the Mets win the division by double digit games last year. This was the most glaring weakness on a team that was otherwise pretty solid and consistent. And at least on paper, they have addressed that weakness. Signing K-Rod and trading for J.J. Putz gives them a 1-2 punch at the back of the bullpen that is as good as anyone, save the alternate reality where the Yankees were smart enough to leave Joba in the pen. But more than that, they have purged themselves of pretty much everyone who was complicit in the debacles of the last 2 years (with the exception of Pedro Feliciano, who was less at fault than others and is a serviceable lefty reliever) and included some young live arms in Brian Stokes and Bobby Parnell. I haven't seen much of Sean Green or Darren O'Day, but at this point just seeing names I don't recognize as part of our bullpen makes me smile. And if we can ever get Wagner back at some point this season, the notion of a Wagner/Putz/K-Rod three-headed monster to close out games will be a terrifying prospect for opposing teams.
4. Jose, Jose, Jose- We have been fortunate enough to have the sheer joy and excitement of watching Jose Reyes play baseball on a daily basis the last few years. However, that entire time has been coupled by a degree of frustration as we were constantly teased by flashes of the player he could be but only getting sporadically. I think that changes this year. I think 2009 will be the year that Jose Reyes makes the leap into superstardom. Why this year? I don't know. But it has to happen eventually and this year is as good as any. David Wright is a tremendous player, but I feel like we know what he is. Reyes, on the other hand, is a player whose ceiling is so high that we can't fathom it. It wouldn't shock me to see him hit 25-30HRs and steal 50-60 bases in the same season one day. Let's make 2009 the year.
3. CitiField- I will miss Shea Stadium. I will miss the excitement I got every time I drove down the Grand Central and caught that first glimpse of Shea poking its head around the corner. I will miss the way the upper deck shook, reflecting the excitement of a sell-out crowd at a big game. Most of all I will miss the memories I forged there at the 100+ games I attended there in my life and cherish the friendships I cultivated with the people with whom I shared those memories. My first baseball game was (fittingly) the day the Mets were eliminated from contention at Shea during the last week of the 1990 season. I was there chanting "F*** You Rocker" along with 55,000 others as he made his 1st appearance at Shea after his infamous SI interview. I was there for Piazza's 2nd game in a Mets' uniform (the 1st was Shabbat), countless Mets-Yankees triumphs, and the unforgettable pennant clincher in 2000. I was there for the double play at the plate against the Dodgers in the 2006 NLDS, for the night John Maine, Jose Reyes, and Paul Lo Duca kept us alive for another day in Game 6 and then to watch Endy Chavez lift our spirits and Carlos Beltran (but really Aaron Heilman) break our hearts the next night in Game 7. And then I was there for the last regular season games the last 2 years as the Mets sealed their fates on stomach-punch collapses. I will remember all the happy recaps and the depressing train rides home, which were far too frequent. I will desperately miss Shea because Shea is all I know. But it's time for a new home and a new place to form new memories with new people (and some of the same.) And from everything I have seen and heard (I will be visiting for the first time this Sunday), CitiField will be a beautiful ballpark and will be a tremendous place to watch a ballgame. So I am truly excited for that experience.
2. A New Murph In town- Not Dan, not Danny. It's Daniel Murphy. And he means business (hattip Harold via friend from school.) I have never been as pumped for a young player at the start of a season as I am for Daniel Murphy. And that's because unlike other up and coming prospects, the emphasis with him isn't on his tools but rather on his approach and the way he plays the game. While the jury is still out on whether this kid can be a top player, I can't foresee a scenario where he isn't a good one. He just plays the game too well (working the count, taking the extra base, just flat out playing smart baseball) to not be good. And even though he has proven to be somewhat of an adventure in the field, he is exactly the type of player that I love, that will fly under the radar for casual fans, and that only those of us that watch this team day in and day out will truly appreciate.
1. Johan Santana- No need for a pun on this one. Johan is the man. Michael Jordan never made it to New York and Wayne Gretzky and Brett Favre weren't the same by the time they played here, making this the only time I have had the privilege of seeing the undisputed best in his sport play for my team in the prime of his career. And I use the word privilege carefully because it truly is a privilege every time I get to see this guy pitch. While he doesn't necessarily bring with him the excitement level of say, Pedro in '05, every single time he takes the mound is a can't miss event. People thought I was crazy when I expressed mild disappointment at what was a very strong showing in the first half. But that was because I knew what he was capable of and he lived up to my very high expectations in the second half, going 8-0 with a 2.17 ERA, highlighted by a heroic 3-hit shutout on 3 days' rest in the season's penultimate game to stave off elimination. The guy is truly a remarkable athlete and I will make it my business and my duty to see every single pitch of as many of his 35 or so starts that I can this season.
And with that, my nervousness has now shifted to eager excitement. 5 days to go...