This is the second of a 12-part monthly retrospect of the world championship 2008 season, whose 10th anniversary is marked this year.
Today we look back at February 2008, and the ramping up of the Phillies and Mets rivalry.
Heading into the 2007 season, everybody looked at the Mets and figured a National League East crown was in the bag. They had young cornerstones in David Wright and Jose Reyes, hall-of-fame players in Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, and a slew of high-performing talent surrounding them, like Moises Alou, Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Luis Castillo, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Billy Wagner. They were a win away from the 2006 World Series and looked like the obvious favorite in 2007.
Jimmy Rollins, who was starting his eighth year in the majors and comfortable being a veteran presence, didn’t give a crap.
“I think we are the team to beat in the NL East – finally,” he told reporters on a January afternoon before that season. It irked the Mets, and it looked bad in mid-September, as the Phils sat seven back of their rivals with 17 to play.
We know what happened next: one of baseball’s greatest stories, a team choking precisely as its rival surged, ending in a final day that has gone down in history.
Entering 2008 the Phillies had reason to saunter around with a little swagger. But they didn’t take the first shot in the 2008 version of the Phillies and Mets rivalry.
Back in early February 2008, David Wright told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News that the Phils were, in fact, the best team in the NL East. Like Ric Flair to Mean Gene, he knew damn well that to be the man, you gotta beat the man:
“The team to beat in my eyes is the team that won last year. Philadelphia took care of us last year. They took care of business in the division. Going into this year, we have to take control again of the NL East.”
For their part, the Mets made steps in reclaiming the East that offseason by acquiring one of baseball’s best pitchers, Johan Santana, in a trade with the Twins. As part of the trade the Mets gave Santana an additional six years at $137.5 million. At the time the Mets received universal praise for the deal, as well they should have, as there was no worry at the time about Santana’s future.
Still, I was aghast at the shade being thrown at the Phillies. Dayn Perry (who back in 2008 I couldn’t stand but I’ve definitely warmed on since) wrote about this move in gushing terms. I couldn’t stand it, and I gotta say, this bit I did was impressive:
“And while the Phillies have added Brad Lidge to the fold, they’ve also lost Aaron Rowand and, in signing Pedro Feliz, failed to solve their serious problems at third base.”
Serious problems? The No. 1 offense in the National League didn’t have “serious problems” at third base. They were workable problems. And by signing Feliz, they did solve the problem â€” they now have an everyday third baseman. He doesn’t need to be Chase Utley. The “serious problems” are on the pitching staff, Dayn.
“The upshot is that the Mets now boast the best starting pitcher in the division in Santana …”
I suppose that’s true.
“… the best position player in the division in David Wright (who should’ve been NL MVP last season) …”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where is this fact that says David Wright was the best position player in the division last season? Wait, I’ll look for these facts:
Value Over Replacement Player (VORP):
Hanley Ramirez (FLA) – 89.5
David Wright (NYM) – 81.1
That fact says Ramirez was a better position player. Now, my subjectivity says Chase Utley is the best position player in the NL East, but according to fact, Ramirez was, and I can agree with that.
“… the best closer in the division in Billy Wagner …”
The best closer in the division blew two games for the Mets against the Phillies in 2007.
“… and the best GM in the division in Omar Minaya (Pat Gillick is deliriously overrated, and John Schuerholz is now the Braves president).”
Gillick isn’t “deliriously overrated.” I don’t think anyone screamed for joy when the Phillies took him as GM. Minaya is a good GM.
Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the No. 1 starter, No. 1 offensive player, closer and GM don’t make a team’s success. Well, you know what, maybe Dayn is right. Let’s see …
I mean, I could have Santana (best pitcher in his division), ummm, let’s say Justin Morneau (arguably the best player in his division and an MVP), how about Joe Nathan (arguably best closer in his division) and, oh, let’s go with Terry Ryan (maybe the division’s best GM for years) and we have to be great, right?
Oh, wait, those guys were actually all part of the 2007 Twins, which finished 79-83 and in third place. I guess, Dayn, you’re wrong again. Way to research.
He then goes on to basically hand the Mets the NL East. Good job, Dayn, locking into your pick in early February. Don’t change your mind, now.
I mean, I was using VORP back in 2008! I also was clearly a disciple of Fire Joe Morgan (for those who are new to all of this, if you like “The Good Place,” “Brooklyn Nine Nine,” “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” you’ll probably like FJM.
Anyway, you’d think the Mets – even after signing Santana – would just follow Wright’s words, stay quiet and play hard in 2008. Nope. Carlos Beltran, who should be a hall of famer when he’s eligible in a few years, had to open his mouth:
“Let me tell you this: Without [Johan] Santana, we felt as a team we have a chance to win in our division. With him now, I have no doubt that we’re going to win in our division. I have no doubt in that. We’ve got what it takes. We have good chemistry as a team. He fits great because he’s a great guy. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. Who doesn’t want to have him on any ball club? Without him last year, we did good until the end of the season. So this year, to Jimmy Rollins, we are the team to beat.”
Ooh, he called out Rollins. After that, Jayson Stark wrote that there “will be a brawl” at some point between the Phils and Mets in 2008. In response, David Lennon of Newsday asked players about that one while at Mets spring training. Who else responded but one Billy Wagner! Take it away, Billy:
“If one of their little 25-year-olds wants to come out and whip my ass, they can brag that they whipped a 37-year-old man’s ass. Well, good for them. It’s always good to play that underdog role.
“If they come out there, though, there’s two things that could happen. I’m pretty sure they’re going to whip my ass. But what if I get a shot in? What if? Then you just got your ass whipped on national TV by the littlest guy in baseball, so think of that ‘What if?'”
My response was awesome!
Just a memo to Billy: You must expect Zach Segovia to fight you, because he’s the only 25-year-old on the Phils roster. Also, shut the hell up. You’re a little punk. We’d rather swat homers off you in the ninth than swat the smirk off your face.
I mean, Zach Segovia was a thing!
Of course, Wagner had trouble keeping his temper against college kids, let alone 25-year-olds:
Billy Wagner nearly started a beanball war with the University of Michigan after one overzealous Wolverine tried to bunt on him in the fourth inning. With a runner on second and one out, centerfielder Kevin Cislo pushed his bunt foul.
Wagner, clearly annoyed, shook his head a number of times, and Cislo wisely swung away, grounding out. Wagner said he couldn’t believe that Cislo, a junior, bunted.
“If he got that bunt down, I would have drilled the next guy,” Wagner said. “Play to win against Villanova.”
I really didn’t like Wagner at this period in my life:
Obviously, Wagner has a real problem with young adults. I wonder if he hates Facebook, iPods and the new NBC series “Quarterlife.” Just more bait to throw at the rat when he steps foot in Philadelphia April 18.
By the way, the Wolverines played to win, and the Mets played to tie. Final score: 4-4.
If only Twitter was popular in 2008! By the way, how about “Quarterlife” getting to 200 episodes!
The Phillies and Mets rivalry was obviously beginning to boil over as the calendar turned to March and spring training heated up. Wagner was jockeying to be the lead antagonist for the bad guys, while the good guys were having their own closer problems: Brad Lidge needed arthroscopic knee surgery and was going to miss 3-6 weeks. Suddenly being the “Team to Beat” meant a serious price tag.