IN AUGUST of 1969
the Chicago Cubs were nine games up in the National League East and
seven-year-old Jim Hickey was convinced that he wanted to spend the rest of his
life in baseball. By October the Cubs trailed the New York Mets by nine games,
and Hickey was reconsidering. His father had to sit him down in their home on
the South Side of Chicago and explain that, every so often in baseball, a
powerhouse like the Cubs will crumble and an upstart like the Mets will emerge
and nobody will understand why.
The Mets, of
course, went on to win the World Series, and when rightfielder Ron Swoboda
robbed the Baltimore Orioles' Brooks Robinson of a potential game-winning hit
in the ninth inning of Game 4, Hickey hurt all over again, his ill will toward
the Amazin's not having subsided. Swoboda's act of thievery, snaring a low line
drive just inches off the turf at Shea Stadium, summed up the injustice of it
Hickey would grow
up to pursue a life in baseball, but when he met Swoboda 29 years after the
epic grab, the bad feelings flooded back. "I told him it was a trap,"
Hickey says of the catch. "It was a f------ trap."
awkward introduction the two became friends. Hickey was the pitching coach at
Triple A New Orleans, then an Astros affiliate, and Swoboda the team's TV
analyst, and to pass time on road trips, they talked about '69. When Swoboda
started reminiscing, Hickey would usually respond, "It was a trap. It was a
trap. It was a trap." He could not look at Swoboda without muttering the
word "trap" under his breath, often spiced with an expletive.
Today Hickey is
the pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, and over this year's All-Star break
Swoboda called him to catch up. As they talked about the 2008 Rays, a young
team with plenty of talent but no real tradition, a club that was causing fits
in its division for two of the most storied franchises in baseball history,
they realized that they just as easily could have been talking about the '69
Mets. "It's the same thing," says Swoboda, now 64 and still
broadcasting in New Orleans. "I watch Tampa Bay, and they don't know what
they can't do. They are playing in their own wonderland. The Red Sox and the
Yankees—like the Cubs and the Cardinals in '69—are carrying all the baggage.
The Rays can just relax and let it happen. Let the magic happen."
The major league
schedule, 162 games long, is built to prevent this kind of magic from happening
very often. Over the course of six months, underdogs are exposed and anomalies
regress to the mean. But the Rays' collapse, projected for about five months
now, still has not begun. September is here, and the Rays remain perched atop
the AL East, with the Red Sox nipping at their spikes and the Yankees, well,
not so much. This is a franchise that has never played a meaningful game in
September, never calculated a magic number, never checked the out-of-town
scoreboard and actually cared about the results. But in the next four weeks
they will experience the full breadth of September baseball, unlike any other
month they have experienced before.
difference," says Rays lefty reliever Trever Miller, who previously was on
two division-winning Astros clubs. "When you're out of it, you play in
September for your next contract. When you're in it, you play in September for
your team. Things are going to get more difficult for us. We're going to get
thrown on the skillet. We're going to get boiled up. And we're going to see how
we come out of it."
It only makes
sense that they will melt, undone by the champs and the pressure and their own
inexperience. But at least one contingent, well versed in the rhythms of
September, does not see it going that way. "Everybody is looking for them
to break down and fold up," says Cleon Jones, the leftfielder for the '69
Mets. "It won't happen."
WHEN THE Mets
reported to St. Petersburg for spring training in 1969, they were starting
their eighth season in the major leagues and had never had a winning record; in
'68 they had gone 73--89. But in the first meeting of the spring, manager Gil
Hodges told his team that he expected to win the NL East. Jones tried not to
laugh. "We were all looking at each other like, 'Is he crazy or
something?'" says Jones, now 66 and living in Mobile, Ala. "'He
actually thinks we can win it this year?'"
When the Rays
reported to St. Petersburg for spring training this season, they were starting
their 10th major league season and also had never had a winning record; in 2007
they'd gone 66--96. But in the first meeting of the spring, manager Joe Maddon
told his team that he expected to make the playoffs. He unveiled a slogan—9 =
8—to remind his players that if they gave everything for nine innings, they
could claim one of eight postseason spots. "Sure, you say that,"
designated hitter Cliff Floyd thought to himself. "But do you really see