NEW YORK – Each of the men who felt the sting of sparkling wine in his eyes for the first time late Monday has a story to tell, and Paul Lo Duca’s starts on July 30, 2004, the day the team he loved socked him in the jaw.
Lo Duca was an All-Star catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the clubhouse conscience for one of baseball’s venerable franchises, and it more than shocked him when he was traded to the Florida Marlins. Betrayal was the feeling: Lo Duca never had been to a postseason, and the Dodgers were headed to their first since 1988.
So when the New York Mets became the first team to clinch a division title Monday night, shutting out the Marlins to capture the National League East, Mets outfielder Shawn Green ran straight for Lo Duca. They had been teammates for five years with the Dodgers, and while Green embraced Lo Duca, he leaned in to yell over the apoplectic crowd of 46,729 at Shea Stadium.
“You just got traded!” Green screamed.
Lo Duca squeezed him even tighter.
“It was funny,” he said. “Greenie experienced it when I got traded, and he told me that I deserved this more than anyone he’d ever met.”
Every baseball player believes he deserves the playoffs, and that moment of unbridled joy, of unadulterated emotion, of unfettered happiness that accompanies a clinch – that’s why he plays. Certainly it can’t rate with the incomparable feeling of winning a World Series, yet for Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado and Steve Trachsel – 37 big-league seasons among them, zero playoff games – this might as well have been the Fall Classic, for they knew no better.
Lo Duca didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t bother trying to drown out the crowd. He just looked at the sky, at his mom, Luci, who died in 1996 of ovarian cancer, and she knew what he wanted to say.
Delgado didn’t know what to feel. His teams never had won more than 88 games in a season, and here he was, beating the team that unloaded him during its fire sale this offseason.
Just to satisfy his curiosities, Delgado literally took his thumb and index finger and pinched his skin.
“This is real,” he reported. “It’s very real.”
Trachsel didn’t know what to do. When he walked into Shea, a group of construction workers begged him to win the game and end the wait. Lowly Pittsburgh had swept the Mets over the weekend, prolonging the official coronation that was an inevitability by July 1, when the Mets held an 11–-game lead. Just as he wasn’t sure how to react to the construction workers – “Um ... OK!” – he couldn’t fully grasp the enormity of the playoffs, particularly with his history.
Technically, Trachsel made the playoffs once. He pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings for the Chicago Cubs and won the 1998 wild-card tiebreaker, propelling the Cubs to the NL Division Series, where they were swept by Atlanta before Trachsel had a chance to pitch. Two years later, he came to the Mets, and he’s been here since, the team’s longest-tenured player and its longest-suffering, too.
“I’ve been waiting so long for this opportunity,” Trachsel said. “There are a lot of guys who have never been to the postseason. I’m just looking forward to getting in the game.”
Trachsel exited Monday after 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball, and every out the Mets recorded goaded the crowd into a stronger fervor. In the eighth inning, the public-address announcer gave a stern reminder: “Remember, it is dangerous and illegal to enter the playing field.”
On cue, the entire stadium booed.
Because it had been 18 years since the Mets’ last division title. Remember, Atlanta had won the last 11 NL East crowns. Even though the 2000 Mets cruised into the postseason with the wild card and lost to the Yankees in the Subway Series, a division title always means something extra.
Which prompted another alert after Billy Wagner recorded the second out in the top of the ninth inning: “Just remember, it is dangerous and illegal to enter the playing field. Anyone will be arrested.”
The crowd drowned out the announcement. Everyone stood. Spines tingled. Flashes popped. Voices wailed. Toilet paper flew from the upper deck. And when Josh Willingham flied out to Cliff Floyd, the mosh pit formed around second base, fireworks exploded in center field, Mets manager Willie Randolph pointed into the stands and security guards wearing yellow and cops in uniform blue stood along the warning track to prevent any shenanigans.
Most of the chicanery came from the Mets. In the clubhouse, they drenched each other with Freixenet Extra Dry and Bud Light. Heath Bell stole a magnum of champagne from owner Fred Wilpon and tried to find quarter-full bottles of the Freixenet he could siphon into his giant bottle. Lo Duca stole the fire hose used to keep the field wet and sprayed water at the thousand or so fans who stuck around for more than an hour to celebrate.
“It was always about the accomplishment as the team, but mostly about the guys doing it for the first time,” said starter Tom Glavine, who made 11 consecutive postseasons with Atlanta. “So many guys have played this game and never had a chance to do it, so when you see them go through it for the first time, it’s a great thing.”
Mostly, though, it was for the three veterans who simply want their chance. Thirteen games remain in the regular season before the Mets host Game 1. From there, they need 11 victories, three series wins, all for the privilege of wearing one ring.
“We’ve got more to do,” said Jeff Wilpon, Fred’s son and the Mets’ chief operating officer, his left arm perched around Delgado’s shoulder.
“Oh, there’s more coming,” Delgado said. “We’ve got three more.”
He laughed and tugged a thick stream of blue smoke from his cigar. As Delgado exhaled, he pinched himself again, only this time with his own words.
“Only three more.”