Friday, June 15, 2007

Remember Hating the Mets?

In the 1986 World Series, I actually rooted for the Red Sox to beat the Mets. And I hated Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst, Jim Rice et al. But that shows you how much pure, black, rotten, ulcer-inducing loathing I had in my heart for the '86 Mets.

I was young. Naive. I had no respect or admiration for the brash, young, arrogant nucleus of the Mets. They were the bad guys, plain and simple. They were druggies, wife-beaters and all-around no-accounts, and I wanted them to lose with everything inside me. I seethed with jealousy that they ruled the town while the Yankees struggled to put together a competent pitching staff. I burned with anger as the equally jealous George Steinbrenner picked up every Mets retread he could find, like the immortal Rafael Santana.

Those '80s Mets teams seemed so despicable, with their Goodens and their Strawberrys. The hateful, overzealous celebrations of Jesse Orosco. Keith Hernandez crouching in the hallway to the clubhouse smoking while zany Roger McDowell hotfooted some rookie. Cocky David Cone feigning masturbation in the bullpen wile Sid Fernandez and Howard Johnson just stood around looking ugly. Dynamite throwers, reporter terrorizers and cat killers. They were the enemy.

I argued endlessly with every Mets fan I could find about the merits of Don Mattingly vs. Hernandez, and Dave Righetti vs. Orosco. I cackled with delight as the team began to implode on and off the field after that '86 season, never again capitalizing on all that promise. The back-page headlines turned ugly and venomous. Managers were roasted on spits in Times Square. And most importantly, the Yankees got good again.

The Yankees' mid-90s rennaisance was timed to coincide with one of the Mets' least relevant periods. Their players grew boring, their seasons uneventful, and my passion for despising them waned. When the Yankees played the Mets in the '00 Subway Series, the boys from Queens weren't a particularly hateable bunch, but the World Series atmosphere and the Clemens/Piazza dust-up added some spice.

But now? The Mets aren't the bad guys anymore. They're not even particularly dull. They might be...dare I say...likable. The Red Sox have a firm grasp on the coveted "most hated by Yankees fans" title, and recent mini-rivalries with Seattle, Atlanta, Baltimore and Anaheim have vaulted those teams ahead of the Mets on my personal enmity list.

The Mets have an ex-Yankee at the helm. The always affable Willie Randolph keeps things classy at Shea, and makes sure his team does things the right way. David Wright and Jose Reyes are two exciting, young stars who play the game with respect and energy, and do absolutely nothing to piss me off. I respect the Carloses, Delgado and Beltran. I admire Tom Glavine's stubborn greatness. Even Pedro Martinez has morphed from headhunter to court jester. I'm out of the closet...I like this team.

I went so far as to root for the Mets in their recent NLCS battles with the Braves and Cardinals, the former because I hate the Braves, the latter because I thought the better team deserved to win. When interleague play began, these Yanks/Mets series felt vital and caffeinated, like the soul of the city was on the line with each game.

As the teams prepare for another three-game clash, it doesn't feel like souls or lives are at stake anymore. It just feels like a lot of fun.