Mets-Braves rivalry rediscovering cachet
NEW YORK -- The Braves are here. Has anyone noticed? And among those who are aware of their presence, are there some who are passionate -- one way of the other -- about the "A" team? Does anyone here hate them, fear them, like them, root for or against them? Does anyone here in the Big City or in the big Citi give a wit that the second-place team in the National League East is in town for three nights to engage the first-place New York Mets?
It seemed not on Tuesday evening, when Jon Niese and troubled Trevor Cahill -- his ERA coming in was a robust 15.43 -- were to pitch opposite each other, and when the hottest team in the league put the game's longest active winning streak on the line against the surprisingly buoyant Bravos.
Pregame intros barely prompted a Bronx cheer in Queens. No one offered a sing-song chant of the Braves third baseman's christened name like the one we used to hear when Larry Jones brought his game to Shea. No Braves player offered a census/critique of the 7 train passengers. And the center fielder, now Cameron Maybin, didn't move the foul lines closer to each other with his defensive genius. Indeed, that was left to the current best center fielder in the game -- Juan Lagares of the Mets.
Yes, the Braves are here. And no, it's not apathy they prompt. But in comparison to what they caused when they visited in the late '90s and through the first half of last decade, their presence barely registered on the NYC seismograph. Too bad. It was so much fun while it lasted.
Mets at Braves or Braves at Mets was quite special then. The rivalry didn't have the roots or long legs of Yankees-Red Sox. And Greg Maddux never threw Cookie Rojas to the ground. But the rivalry was as good as anything the NL provided in those years, better than even Cubs-Cardinals or Dodgers-Giants.
From 1997-2006, the year the Mets finally denied the Braves their accustomed spot atop the standings, the rivalry was heated, the baseball was entertaining and passion flowed. We miss that now. Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were as classy as they were dominant. Chipper Jones or Andruw Jones could change the course of a game single-handedly. And oh, how those Braves teams loved to beat the Mets.
Games at Shea or the Ted were not merely scheduled assignments for Bobby Cox's teams, they were opportunities to kick Bobby Valentine's derriere. And other than piling up pennants, those Braves enjoyed nothing so much as beating Bobby V. After the already-clinched Braves eliminated the Mets on the final afternoon of the 1998 season, Chipper's first comment was, "I guess we knocked him off the top step," a reference to the nickname "Top Step" opponents had given Valentine -- a nickname the Mets manager didn't appreciate.
It was earlier in that Mets-deflating series that Jones had inquired about comments attributed to Valentine. His questions answered, Jones said "That's why we want to crush him. The way we feel about him ... it's like we have a 10th man."
The Mets didn't hate the Braves, but they were so frustrated by them. Their frustration merged with time and formed motivation.
"No lie, we want to beat them bad," Lenny Harris said in 1998. "But to us, they're like a straitjacket -- they don't let us do anything."
The '99 Mets, with their brilliant infield defense and their balanced batting order, were a more formidable team than the team that reached the World Series in 2000. But they couldn't handle the Braves, losing nine of 12 games to them, as they had in '98. Mike Piazza said he considered Turner Field a temple of doom.
Now, the stubbed toe seemingly is on the other foot. The Mets have the superior rotation, even without Zack Wheeler. They have the brilliant center fielder. And these Mets have first place -- albeit after merely 14 games. The Braves have played 13 and won eight, two of them against the Mets.
When the Braves were the primary obstacle in the Mets' path, they steamrolled the division in the first 40 games. So we'll have a better idea come May 19 if weather doesn't interfere. By then, the Mets will have played the Yankees, Orioles, Cubs, Nationals again and -- who knows? -- maybe Wally Backman's Marlins.
But for two more nights, it's the Braves without a Mound Rushmore, Chipper and Andruw, Javy, Galarraga, Rocker and all his baggage. Without Craig Kimbrel too. They're not a poor team. But they're not a team with a bye to the NL Championship Series either.
The embers of an intense rivalry with the Mets have been largely extinguished.
Rivalries come and go. The Mets had hot ones with the Cubs and Cardinals before the Braves came to matter to them. The Phillies became obstacles, too, but no more. Each rivalry was intense. But Mets-Braves seemed more intense than the others, more enjoyable and certainly more taut than the Mets 7, Braves 1 presentation staged Tuesday night.
Perhaps some of the Citi folk will jeer on Wednesday when Eric Stults or Freddie Freeman is introduced. Maybe Dillon Gee will push Nick Markakis off the plate, or Daniel Murphy will take exception to a hard slide at second. Perhaps a match will be struck, and we'll witness passion in the dugouts and the stands. Maybe the Mets will continue their roll with a mundane victory similar to what they produced Tuesday.
They would accept that. Drama makes memories. Bland victories can too.