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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 all.
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."
Despite that 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.
"Here's the 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 it?"