Monday, November 2, 2015

Creating A New Met Narrative

The sickening feeling that the Mets blew a world championship within their grasp will likely (hopefully) recede.  The visions of Duda's wild throw, Murphy's porous glove, Cespedes' soccer-style fielding, and Familia's ill-advised quick pitch will likely (hopefully) fade.  And then we can appreciate that this team went so much farther than we ever expected.  That, with all their flaws, offensively and defensively, and an incredible but exceedingly young pitching staff, they won the National League pennant and, if not for the aforementioned gaffes, could have won the World Series.  This should not be viewed as another excruciating year of loss, another example of Met misery, another in a long line of underachieving failures in Met history. 

It is time for a new narrative.

As we all know, the Mets went from lovable losers to the beloved Miracle Mets when they won the 1969 World Series -- shocking the baseball world in general and the powerful Baltimore Orioles in particular.  But the miracles were short-lived thanks to untimely injuries and short-sighted trades (Nolan Ryan, Amos Otis, e.g.), and there was little to celebrate over the next few years except for the pitching of Tom Seaver.  Then, in 1973, the Mets almost did it again, with an incredible run the last month of the season (Ya Gotta Believe) and an upset of the Big Red Machine in the playoffs, before losing to the A's in the World Series.

But that was it for a decade.  From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, the Mets were not lovable and not good.  Management was too petty and too cheap to keep Seaver (who they traded to the Reds in 1977), and then overspent on uninspiring underachievers, most notably the lackluster George Foster, who they obtained from the Reds in 1982. 

The Mets won the World Series a second time in 1986, with a powerful, exciting team that seemed poised for a sustained run.  But, again, success proved fleeting.  1987 started with Dwight Gooden, their phenomenal young pitcher in drug rehab and 1988 ended with a gut-wrenching loss to the Dodgers in the playoffs. After that the Mets dismantled the team, replacing iconic players (Darryl Strawberry Len Dykstra, Mookie Wilson) with another string of miserable underachievers (e.g., Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman).

Another decade of poor, uninspiring play followed.  Then, in 1998, the Mets obtained Mike Piazza, a great player who thrived in New York.  But despite Piazza and his star power, the team would consistently disappoint.  They lost their last five games Piazza's first year to miss the playoffs by one game.  1999 was marred by a playoff debacle at the hands of the Braves, with Met pitcher Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run of the deciding game. The first half of the 2000s was not much better, starting with the painful  loss to the Yankees in the World Series, and several mediocre seasons with a new collection of players whose careers took nose-dives as soon as they put on a Met uniform (e.g., Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar).  (For more, see Mets or Bust.)

And then a variation on the now-familiar theme of promise crushed by disappointment when a very strong 2006 team reached the playoffs but lost a devastating final seventh game to the Cardinals in the league championship series.  And since then, historic collapses to miss the playoffs, baffling player moves, an unprecedented number of injuries to star and potential star players, topped off by management's entanglement with Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, causing ownership to shrink payroll and behave like a small-market team. 

This year seemed like another chapter in the dismal history of the Mets.  Towards the end of July, a week before the trading deadline, I wrote a piece entitled:  Not So Amazing:  A Promising Season Fritters Away.  After six straight losing seasons, the Mets opened 2015 in exciting fashion, by going 15-5, including an 11-game winning streak.  By the end of July, thanks to their extraordinary pitching staff, the Mets were still not out of contention.  But with the league's worst offense and management's stubborn refusal to spend money to improve the team, the second half of the season looked dire.

But at the trading deadline, management, incredibly, made a series of deft moves designed to win -- and win now!  They shed players who barely belonged in the minor leagues much less the majors, and replaced them with real live professional baseball players.  They did not trade Wilmer Flores, who cried when he thought he was going to Milwaukee and became a folk hero after he wasn't -- a folk hero who can hit.  Instead they made a deal for Yoenis Cespedes, and his outsized presence changed the feel of the entire lineup.  Everybody started hitting and, to top it off, David Wright, Mr. All-Time Met himself, lost early this season to a serious spinal condition many thought would end his career, came back, punctuating his return with a towering home run in his first at bat.

And, just like that, the Mets cruised into first place and stayed there. They transformed what looked to be another year of mediocrity into one of the most joyful ones in their history, filled with countless unforgettable moments.  Overnight the Mets became a fun, exciting team, energized by fantastic young players, a fascinating, extremely likeable collection of quirky personalities, and star power.

They beat the Dodgers in an intense playoff series, displaying their brilliant, gutty young pitching, resiliency and creative mayhem.  They knocked off a powerful Cub team in a 4-game sweep to capture the pennant. 

These Mets did not rely on miracles to reach the World Series (well, the ultra-religious Daniel Murphy might have) but on great all-around play.  Brilliant pitching, (occasionally) sparkling defense, timely and powerful hitting.  It all fell apart in the World Series, but that should not take away what the team accomplished and what the future holds.

For Met fans, there is always a lingering sense that disappointment is not far off -- that the Mets' penny-wise owners will not do what it takes to keep the team competitive and that something unexpected but nevertheless devastating will undermine the team's seemingly limitless future.  But, things feel different this time.  The Mets have a deep core of great young talent, savvy veterans, and apparently great chemistry.  They surely need to make a few changes and add some key new pieces this off season, but maybe, just maybe, this is the start of a new era.  Maybe it is time for a new narrative.  Not lovable losers or unlovable losers tempered by the occasional miracle, but a truly solid baseball team that doesn't have to rely on magic to win. 


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