Shuck and High Five

For the last month or so, I've been shucking littlenecks from the supermarket, splashing them with a little Tabasco and eating dinner in front of the television set. One night before tuning in, I constructed a pastrami on rye the size of a housing project. Trapped in a couch dent, I've been drinking Schaefer beer like a sailor on liberty. Even poured a few teaspoons of it into the cat's bowl for good luck. Half crazed, I tried last week to reproduce my grandmother's veal scallopini. No chance: Given a bulb of garlic and a spatula, that woman was a genius. Meanwhile, my long-distance calls to area codes 212, 914, 718 and 973 -- many of them placed while TV baseball blazed away -- have turned the phone bill at my house into something the General Accounting Office could appreciate.

It isn't the same as being there, but it works just fine as fantasy. I've been eating New York food and thinking New York thoughts and making New York calls because the New York Mets -- my Mets -- have been in the playoff chase. They weathered a self-destructive late-September road trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia (seven straight losses!), then rose from the dead last weekend with three straight wins over Pittsburgh and an extracurricular visit to Cincinnati Monday night, during which they snatched the National League wild-card spot away from the Reds in a one-game playoff.

"You Gotta Bereave!" the wiseguy placards at Shea Stadium read during the Mets' swoon, while the New York tabloids chronicled it in screaming 72-point headlines. After losing to the Braves 4-3 last Thursday night in eleven beautiful and excruciating innings, the Mets' doom was presumably sealed. Next morning, the New York Daily News proclaimed the four-hours-plus defeat "The Long Goodbye."

But the funeral arrangements were premature, and I persisted in my rituals. As the Mets snuck by the Pirates 2-1 Sunday afternoon -- on a wild pitch, no less -- I was serving up course after course of Queens-Italian soul food, the fuel of hope. Half the world detests the Mets' clueless lunatic of a manager, Bobby Valentine, and the other half thinks New York itself is a crude, roach-infested hellhole (these are people who've never heard Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard, seen the Picassos at MOMA or eaten lunch at La Grenouille), but that didn't matter: After eleven years without a whiff of the playoffs, the Mets were sheer heaven again, and it felt good. Even at an impossible distance.

Sound familiar, anyone?

For Denver transplants (which is to say, most of us) who grew up with major-league baseball -- real major-league baseball, featuring living, breathing pitchers -- October can be the cruelest month. Separated by circumstance and big mileage from the heat of pennant races unfolding in our hometowns, we try to stay in touch by way of the boob tube and the telephone. And we assemble our totems and charms. Restaurant manager B.B. Fahey, a native of Cincinnati and a devotee of the Big Red Machine of yore, reports that long before his beloved, underpaid Reds began their miraculous late-summer run at the post-season, he hung his vintage red cap with the big white "C" on the crown on a peg next to the monster TV set in his Englewood den, then started making calls to friends back home to see if the team was for real. "I think they are," he exults. "I go to some Rockies games here, and I root for the locals when they're playing, say, the Dodgers or the Braves. But you never get over your first love, and there's no reason you should."

Precisely. Baseball is a game that engages memory as much as mind and evinces the most powerful kind of loyalty. Fahey has lived in Colorado 22 years, and he's delighted that Denver now has its own big-league team -- mutant though it may be. But he would no sooner forsake his Reds than he would defect to Red China. "I've been through thick and thin with the team, even though I don't live there anymore," he said. "So now what I feel is a special kind of pleasure. Because out here, I'm almost all alone with it. Nobody else gives a damn."

About his hometown comfort food, either. As B.B. Fahey witnessed the unlikely rise of the Reds this summer, he often as not kept a pot of Cincinnati-style three-way chili simmering on the stove. Sense a trend here? What'll you bet that Houstonites displaced to, say, Anchorage were cooking up big messes of Texas barbecue as their Astros cut a swath through the National League? Or that Phoenicians now living in Chicago were preparing whatever Phoenicians like to eat as Randy Johnson, Matt Williams and the astonishing expansion Diamondbacks sank their fangs into assorted Dodgers, Giants and hapless Rockies?

This has been the most scintillating late summer and early autumn in recent baseball history, what with the Reds, Astros, Braves and Mets scratching and clawing for three National League playoff spots while Boston's brilliant Pedro Martinez (now 23-4 and a Cy Young shoo-in) personifies the adage that great pitching still prevails -- even in the era of tiny ballparks, chemically enhanced sluggers and juiced-up baseballs. So thrilling were the National League races that even the game's noisiest spectacle -- the second annual home-run derby conducted by Mark McGwire of the otherwise not-so-hot St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the otherwise perfectly awful Chicago Cubs -- was relegated to the footnotes.

But not my Mets. I'll keep on shucking clams until both hands are bloody, because Valentine's exhausted troops are still standing. On September 21 they trailed Atlanta by one game for the National League East lead and led Cincinnati by four in the wild-card hunt. Nine games (and eight losses) later, they appeared finished, doomed to join such notorious collapsibles as the 1964 Phillies (gave up six-and-a-half-game lead by losing ten straight), the 1969 Cubs (folded to the Mets in September) and the 1978 Red Sox (led theYankees by 14, blew that, then lost a one-game playoff when New York's light-hitting Bucky "Fuckin'" Dent whacked the game-winning homer). Mets fans didn't even want to hear about the '87 Blue Jays, who held a three-and-a-half-game lead over Detroit with seven to play -- and lost all seven. Or the '62 Dodgers, who had the Giants by four with seven to go and finally lost the pennant on a bases-loaded walk in a playoff game.

What's worse, this might have been, as one ex-Mets manager would put it, déjà vu all over again. Last season the Mets needed to win just one game of their last five to earn a playoff spot. They lost all five.

I don't know what the Mets' exemplary shortstop, Rey Ordonez, eats for dinner, but he is the emotional heart of an infield that has made only 27 errors this year. The young Cuban has committed only four miscues in more than 150 games, and last week he was right on the money again when he summed up the Mets' swan dive with a piquant Cuban aphorism: "So much swimming," he said, "only to die on the sand."

Well, get out the sunblock and crack yourself a cold one, Rey. And condolences to you, B.B. Fahey. You Gotta Bereave! has transformed itself back into You Gotta Believe! Even if by long distance, with a pastrami sandwich drying out on the coffee table.

Mike Shanahan's posterior collateral ligament -- the one that connects his brains to his ass -- is in perfectly good shape, thank you. Your two-time Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos are now 0-4, MVP running back Terrell Davis is lost for the season with a knee injury, and "spoiled" fans have started throwing serious debris at the players. But Shanahan's thought processes career merrily on, like Hitler's at the Eastern Front.

No Bubby before his time, or before his time has passed -- that's one brilliant Shanahan insistence. Don't bother stopping the run, because we'll score faster and more often later in the game -- that's another. Not to worry: Griese and company will pick up the pieces in effete, rose-scented Oakland next week. In light of their longstanding friendship with the Broncos, the Raiders will probably play pattycake with the ailing Donks. Failing that, the Green Bay Packers come calling the next Sunday, a bunch of freshly scrubbed altar boys eager to please their hosts.

The Shanahan genius is at last unmasked. In the absence of his alter ego, John Elway, who was also his Luftwaffe, the Mastermind suddenly looks puny and dull-witted, and his ground troops can't get the job done. Good thing Field Marshall Bowlen got that new ballpark financed last year, isn't it?