Monday, April 9, 2012

The Mets At 50: The Agony And The Misery (And The Occasional Miracle)

There was a great piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by David Kamp several weeks ago about his "tortured relationship with the New York Giants."  I could completely relate, growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Giants were, for the most part, a very bad team.   I went to Giants games at Yankee Stadium with my father in those sad, losing years and watched as quarterback Fran Tarkenton invariably scrambled out of the pocket in a futile effort to buy time to pass the ball down field to Homer Jones, while on defense, Spider Lockhart and his cohorts tried in vain to hold off the opposition.

Personnel changed, as did the venue, but the Giants continued their uninspiring play for years, and rather than go to the Meadowlands, we stayed home and watched on TV.  Like Kamp, "whether it was in the stadium or at home, he and I watched every game in a sustained state of anxiety, forever envisioning worst-case scenarios."

Kamp describes this "miserabilism" as "clearly a hedge against heartbreak," and that even when the Giants started winning, with Super Bowl victories in 1987 and 1991, "we greeted them more with relief than with exultation."

I admit until the playoffs this year, I haven't really followed football  much in many years, but I was riveted by the Giants' march to the Super Bowl while simultaneously expecting the worst.  And when they won, as Kamp so aptly put it, I experienced a "whirl of joy, disbelief and remembrance of [my] absent patriarch."

Which brings us to baseball and my tortured relationship with the New York Mets, who provide enough misery for any sports fan.  It has been pretty unrelenting over the last five or six years, and if I think about it -- which I try not to -- over the 45 years I've been a Met fan, the frustration has far outweighed the brief moments of ecstasy

I was ten years old when the Mets won the World Series in 1969.  I had already been hooked a couple of years earlier (thanks to my father, who adopted the Mets after being abandoned by the Brooklyn Dodgers) and was inured to their lovable losing ways.  But, as David Searles wrote, in a compelling article for NJ.com, "the miracle year of 1969 changed everything."  Indeed. "It was the first year where legitimate excitement surrounded the team, when they "seemed to perform a new miracle every day down the stretch that season."   And after they won, it was never the same -- losing would no longer be lovable.

I will always cherish that 1969 team  -- Tom Seaver, Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, Tug McGraw, Jerry Koosman, Jerry Grote and the rest.  And, only a few years later, with many of the same players, minus a few (like Agee) and some key additions (like John Milner, Jon Matlack, Rusty Staub,  Felix Millan and even Willie Mays), they pulled off another miracle, winning the National League pennant and beating the mighty Reds in the playoffs before losing in seven games to the A's in the World Series.

But that was it for about ten years.  Things got so bad that in 1979, the 10th Anniversary of The Miracle Mets, my friend Michael and I went to Old Timers' Day at Shea Stadium and after watching our beloved 1969 stalwarts play a couple of ceremonial innings we left prior to the start of the "real" game.  We simply couldn't bear the stark contrast with the then-current team, led by the likes of Willie Montanez, Richie Hebner and the detritus from the catastrophic Tom Seaver trade two years earlier.

Finally, in 1983, despite another last place finish, there were some hopeful signs.  Darryl Strawberry, with his great name and incredible talent made his debut, and in mid-season the Mets acquired a star from the Cardinals, Keith Hernandez.  Then in 1984, after seven straight losing seasons, the Mets became a fun team to watch.  With a full year from Keith, and a youth movement led by Strawberry and phenomenal rookie sensation Dwight Gooden, the Mets won 90 games and finished in second place.  Things were finally, finally looking up. And then, before the 1985 season, the Mets acquired the great Gary Carter, who had succeeded Johnny Bench as the dominant National League catcher.

Of course, in 1986, the Mets won the World Series, with the help of Bill Buckner's wobbly legs, after a stunning playoff against Houston.  Miracles abounded once again, and so did expectation.  The Mets had a fabulous team filled with great young talent.  Alas, it was not to be.  1987 started with Dwight Gooden in drug rehab and 1988 ended with an excruciating loss to the Dodgers in the playoffs.  After that, the Mets began dismantling the 1986 team, replacing iconic players like Len Dykstra, Darryl Strawberry and Mookie Wilson with spectacular underachievers like Juan Samuel, Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman (see Mets or Bust), who led the team to six losing seasons in a row.

Even after signing Mike Piazza in 1998, the team would consistently cause heartburn and heartbreak.  The Mets lost their last five games in 1998 to miss the playoffs by one game and the next year lost to the Braves in the playoffs with Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run of the deciding game.  The 2000s were not much better, starting with the crushing loss to the Yankees in the World Series (Armando Benitez, anyone?) followed by several mediocre seasons.

An exciting 2006 team reached the playoffs but lost a devastating final seventh game to the Cardinals.  Two searing images from that game form the perfect Met microcosm:  Endy Chavez makes one of the most incredible game-saving catches ever in the post season in the 6th inning only to have Carlos Beltran strike out looking with the bases loaded three innings later to end the game.  And since then, historic collapses to miss the playoffs, baffling player moves (e.g., Ollie Perez, Luis Castillo), an unprecedented number of injuries to star and potential star players, and entanglement with Bernie Madoff culminating in the failure to re-sign perhaps the most exciting player in baseball, Jose Reyes.

So, to paraphrase their legendary announcer Bob Murphy, here's the (un)happy recap:  The Mets were laughably bad until they won in 1969.  By the mid-1970s they were awful again, and it wasn't so cute.  They peaked again in 1986, but couldn't sustain their greatness, and in the 25 years since, if anything could go wrong it invariably did.

This year, their 50th, promises more frustration and little hope.  But as our Met history tells us, miracles occasionally do happen.  That is what being a Met fan is about:  expect the worst, which will probably happen, although in ways that are unexpected.  And every once in awhile something spectacular, something miraculous will take place that makes it all worth it.  As David Kamp concludes, "miserabilism is a volatile compound. But a part of it is, I suppose, happiness."

1 comments:

lonbud said...

Let's hope this year's happiness isn't exhausted in April.

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