NEW YORK – Off in another corner of this city, far from the 102-story landmark dressed in red, white and blue, untouched by the miniature statues of liberty, well off the red carpet parade route, Shea Stadium stood another day.
You know, barely.
Held together by three decades of paint jobs, rattled by jets escaping into headwinds, bowed again by the events of last September, Shea will pass away uncelebrated. It's not even the nicest ballpark in its own parking lot anymore.
But, it's not dead yet. And neither, as it turns out, is the team that resides within it.
Dismissed from – and undoubtedly shamed by – the fawning All-Star week eulogies of grand old Yankee Stadium, Shea might still be the place to be this summer in New York. Fed a couple of NL West teams, baseball's version of the 24-hour urgent care clinic, and aided by a complementary Philadelphia Phillies fade (to which they contributed), the Mets have revived their season.
Be their tipping point the firing of Willie Randolph (they are 18-9 since), life from Mike Pelfrey (five wins in five starts), a thanks-for-coming July from Carlos Delgado (15 RBI – 9 in one afternoon – in 17 games) or the all-in July by the offense (.313 batting average) and pitching staff (3.02 ERA), life feels different in Flushing. The Mets are making plays, getting production from the likes of Damion Easley, Fernando Tatis and Endy Chavez, haven't seen a blown save out of Billy Wagner for days now and, as manager Jerry Manuel said Saturday, "The Beltrans and Wrights will take over at some point."
While the Yankees endure their frailties in a division being run by Tampa Bay and Boston, the Mets are served the weaker division in the weaker league, meaning their past and current issues – Moises Alou's hammy, Ryan Church's head, Luis Castillo's hip, Carlos Beltran's batting average with runners in scoring position – won't be and can't be fatal.
As it is, they've won eight games in a row, the first three of them in Philadelphia. They appear to have shaken the drawn-out and then sudden firing of Randolph and the distractions that came with it. And they seem to like Manuel, a candid guy with a fresh vision of the world whose presence on the top step doesn't remind everyone of the horrors of last fall. They're a half-game behind the Phillies.
"It's a simple thing," David Wright said. "We're executing. We're playing complete games. The bats are starting to come alive."
After all this time? After three months? A year?
"That's the game," he said. "It's just baseball. When you think things can't get worse, they do. And then they get better."
So, here they are. Their clubhouse is a nicer place to be. Their throws around the horn have a little more snap to them. The energy, too, is back, if Jose Reyes' high-stepping, jubilant home-run trot was any indication Saturday afternoon in a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies. They've even won a couple games they probably shouldn't have, gotten a few breaks, began to doubt they were predestined for endless dysfunction and disappointment. Maybe, one of these days, the DL shuttle will start running in the other direction.
In a bit of potentially bad news, Pedro Martinez left the game after 66 pitches and the first word from the club was a tight shoulder. That's the shoulder that was operated on a year-and-a-half ago, the shoulder that was supposed to be fine now, the shoulder that shouldn't have any issues on a warm afternoon in July. Later, it was explained that Martinez had a sore hip, changing his delivery, and, oh, this could get complicated.
Manuel, who believes he has an eye for these kinds of things, said the season might have turned a week ago in Philadelphia, where the Mets held a 10-1 lead, gave back all but one run of it, and finally threw themselves on the grenade to win it.
"At that point," he said, "you could say we were going to go north or south. And we held on."
With that, they'd won three of four in Philadelphia and came home for six against the San Francisco Giants and Rockies. Life was good and stayed good.
"No question," Manuel said, "we needed to have some success. Regardless of what you say and what you do, you have to have some success. … Everybody, regardless of who they are, there is some fragility in them. Baseball has a way of exposing those things."
Shivering for more than a year, the Mets at least played themselves back to relevancy, which is a start. There's still the question of what they're going to do in the corners of the outfield, if the rejuvenated Tatis continues to hit and force fastballs to Beltran, if Chavez isn't closer to the .204 hitter he was in May than the .341 hitter he is in July. Alou is done for the season and maybe forever. Church might not be quite right for some time. And now there's Pedro and his shoulder, threatening instability in the rotation, and with CC Sabathia and Rich Harden already off the trade market.
General manager Omar Minaya has about 2½ weeks to figure it all out. Then he could go big (Matt Holliday, Raul Ibanez) or small at the trading deadline, or stay with the guys who've helped to make something of the Mets again.
"We're playing good baseball," Manuel said, and when was the last time a Mets manager could say that?