Friday, June 28, 2019

The Mets: Amazing Then, Appalling Now

The Mets are really bad at honoring their history.  Given that the franchise is younger than me with only two World Series wins and a handful (or two) of iconic players, it shouldn't be that hard to celebrate our modest amount of glory.  But their stadium, Citi Field, completed in 2009 and patterned after old Ebbetts Field, was more of an homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers -- unless (with all due respect to Jackie Robinson) the big number 42 in the rotunda was meant to honor Butch Huskey or perhaps Ron Hodges.  Only two players' numbers have been retired. There are no statues of their stars as at other stadiums, much less a Monument Park like they have in the Bronx.

But with this being the 50th Anniversary of the magical, miraculous season of 1969, it seems that management has been shamed into doing the right thing.  They finally commissioned a statue for their greatest player, Tom Seaver, and also renamed the stadium's address 41 Seaver Way.  This weekend there are a host of festivities scheduled with commemorative giveaways and tributes, and many former players will be in attendance.  It should be a sweet, sentimental ride.

But painful too.  Painful because of the stark difference between the joyful highs of the 1969 season and the agonizing lows halfway through 2019.

I'm reminded of the 10th Anniversary.  The Mets honored the 1969 team at an Old Timers' Day game on July 14, 1979.  As the Met announcer, the great Bob Murphy, introduced members of the 69 squad, they each came out of the dugout and onto the field in their old uniforms -- a little tighter to be sure, but only ten years out, most of old Mets still looked more or less like ballplayers.  The fans went wild, boisterously cheering their beloved heroes, which included most of the heart of the team: Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Donn Clendenon, Jerry Grote, Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda and several others.  Ed Kranepool, who was still on the Mets, joined his former mates.  They played a couple of innings against a team of aging stars from an earlier era, including several former Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.  Gary Gentry started for the Mets (since the aces, Seaver and Jerry Koosman, were still active and playing elsewhere).  It wasn't too hard -- especially if you were in the upper deck -- to imagine having been transported back in time -- Agee pounded his glove before smoothly catching a fly ball, Cleon Jones crushed a double (albeit against a much older Ralph Branca) and Swoboda, swinging from his heels, smashed a ball against the outfield wall that was just foul.  I was there with my best pal, Michael, and we couldn't have been happier, lapping up the nostalgia.

And then it was time for the real game.  The 1979 version took the field with the likes of Willie Montanez, Richie Hebner and the detritus from the brutally painful Tom Seaver trade two years earlier.  We left before game began.  We simply couldn't bear the contrast with our cherished 1969 team.  (Indeed, the Mets would lose 99 games that year for a last place finish, although I looked it up and they actually won that day, with Tom Hausman outpitching the Giants' Vida Blue for one of his 15 career victories, aided by RBIs from the aforementioned detritus, Doug Flynn and Steve Henderson.)

Which brings us to today.  The Mets have again become unwatchable.  A poorly constructed roster assembled by their new general manager, baffling moves by their deer-in-the-headlights field manager, dysfunction throughout the organization and the bizarre mishandling of injuries, has undermined what looked to be an exciting season and a  promising future.  True, unlike the 79 team, there is some hope thanks to a core of exciting young players who have yet to be beaten down by the team's toxicity -- particularly, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto (and maybe Amed Rosario and the now-injured Brandon Nimmo).  And last year's Cy Young Award winner, Jacob DeGrom, is a true star.  But their starting pitching is wildly inconsistent, their defense is atrocious and their bullpen is a nightmare (more blown saves than saves!)  Every day seems to bring another gut-wrenching loss caused by a late inning defensive miscue and/or a bullpen meltdown.  And there is talk about trading once-promising players at the trading deadline for prospects, in other words, conceding that's its time to rebuild, again.

Every year Met fans hope that somehow everything will fall into place and we will become champions once more.  Such optimism (some would say delusional thinking) is surely due to our formative Met experience in 1969, which has led us to believe that a miracle can happen again.  And then every year, sometime in June or July, it becomes clear that this isn't going to be the year for a miracle.

And that's where we are.  There's nothing to do but enjoy the festivities, revel in the nostalgia for the 1969 team, and then go home.

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