NEW YORK – Let's face it, it's probably best it ended this way, on the final Sunday of the regular season, when a cool, gentle wind swept into Shea Stadium, at once foretelling October baseball and snuffing the last bit of life from the New York Mets.
The Mets were in no condition to play another game – not physically, not emotionally, not organizationally.
They'd already taken a sure thing and played it into nothing. They'd already defended their besieged manager, already braced themselves against the coming Philadelphia Phillies, already pledged that this would not happen, could not happen, no way.
They'd already committed themselves to pitching ahead in the count, keeping their fastballs out of the middle of the plate, to taking better swings in better counts.
They'd put more feet down, looked themselves in more mirrors, come together as a team so many times, all that ritual stuff, so that the quality of their baseball had become secondary to the depth of their character, which, as it turned out, was sufficient for one win in a week.
By the end, it was sad. Mets hitters trudged into and out of the batter's box, absorbing the scolding that blew from foul line to foul line, a personal roll call for the greatest September collapse in baseball history. The pitchers bowed their heads, handed over the baseball, took their abuse from beneath their brims.
Tom Glavine, the 300-game winner and future Hall of Famer. Mocked.
No one was spared.
While it had been coming for weeks, some days in a trickle, other days in buckets, the end remained a jolt. Not like Carlos Beltran taking that curveball on the outside corner 11 months and two weeks ago, not like Yadier Molina banging that home run a half-inning before, but, still, you know, "You Gotta Believe" and all that.
Then Glavine took the ball for the 704th time in his career. And before a single light bulb was aglow beside WSH-PHI game on the right-field scoreboard, the Mets had played themselves out of anything but hope. The Florida Marlins banged five hits against Glavine, who also walked two and, in what could be the final pitch of his Mets career – or his career, period – he hit pitcher Dontrelle Willis with a 1-and-2 changeup with the bases loaded. Mets fans will recall that as Oliver Perez's signature pitch.
The Marlins scored seven first-inning runs, the last coming as the Phillies took the field in Philadelphia, and beat the Mets 8-1. The Phillies did what they should have in a 6-1 win over the spirited but overmatched Washington Nationals, so they danced and sprayed champagne while the Mets explained how a seven-game lead in the National League East could become a one-game deficit in only 17 games.
In that time, they lost three in a row to the Phillies. They lost five of six to the Nationals. They lost three times to the Marlins, who weren't the worst team in the league, but were very close, twice at home on the season's final weekend.
In all, after September 12, the Mets were 5-12. They allowed nearly seven runs per game. They lost big and they lost close, but mostly they just lost, because their pitching staff puddled up and Reyes stopped hitting and Carlos Delgado (who had his hand broken by a Willis fastball on Sunday) never was himself and Carlos Beltran was not dynamic enough and Pedro Martinez couldn't pitch every night and David Wright couldn't carry it all. No one could.
This was the highest-salaried team in the league, the third highest-salaried team in baseball, and it could not make the big pitch, and it could not hit itself out of that, and so arose some serious questions about Willie Randolph's ability to manage them out of that.
General manager Omar Minaya, not above any of this either, would only say that his recommendation to ownership would be to retain Randolph, who, stay or go, is going to wear this for a while.
"I think the body of work Willie has done here in three years has been good work," Minaya said. "I have to sit down with my ownership and tell them what I feel about this thing."
Leaning against a wall inside the Mets clubhouse, hands in his pockets, Minaya added, "Willie has a contract for next year."
Actually, he has a contract for the next two years.
It took Randolph forever to get this gig. He'd interviewed for at least 10 jobs before the Mets hired him, and a year ago had the Mets a hit or two from the World Series. But, the marketing campaign promised to the ticket-buying public, "Your Season Has Come," and nearly 3.9 million people believed it, and the Mets played 2½ weeks short of a season.
It's on the players, who, had they won six games in 17, would have played a tie-breaker Monday in Philadelphia, and had they won seven in 17 would have been sloshing in champagne. And it's on Minaya, who overestimated the parts in his pitching staff, while, for one, Brian Bannister collected Rookie of the Year votes in Kansas City. And it's on Randolph, because that's what managers get.
Beyond the bunt-or-don't-bunt, beyond the pitch-this-guy-or-that-one, beyond the why-don't-you-drop-Delgado-in-the-order, there's the very simple viewpoint: Good players play for good managers.
The Mets had good players, or at least good enough.
Asked who should bear the responsibility of the past 17 games, Randolph said, "I'm the manager of the team. I'm a big boy. I'll take responsibility for that."
He said he's "here to win." He said he believes they'll all get through this, learn a thing or two from it, come back again next season.
Otherwise, he said, somewhere between glum and irritated, "I grew up in this town. I know how things work, how things play."