Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hope Springs Eternal

Cue the Ken Burns music.  Spring training, like spring itself, is a time of renewal and rebirth; a time when even the lowliest team has hope for the season ahead.  Critical trades over the winter have bolstered the team's weaknesses.  Players coming off injury-plagued seasons are returning in the best shape of their careers.  Hitters have corrected the flaws in their swing and pitchers have discovered devastating new pitches.  It may be hackneyed and trite, but I buy it every year.

As a Met fan, for most of the last decade or three, after enduring yet another dismal season filled with heartbreaking losses, underachieving performances, devastating injuries, and mind-boggling player moves or non-moves, I would nevertheless approach Spring Training with a naïve optimism that would endure at least until Opening Day. 

I would then delude myself through much of a hopeless baseball season that my team could pull it together and make a run for the playoffs down the stretch.  I refused to face reality until sometime in August, when forced to accept the inevitability of a losing season, I would be stuck watching a team play uninspiring baseball for the last month or so, with little to root for other than spoiling another team's playoff run and the individual achievements of favorite players.  With a team going nowhere, much of the luster and lyricism of the game was lost -- at least until the spring, when it all began again.

But last year was different.  I experienced how beautiful baseball can be when your team is having a good year, when you get to revel in tension-filled, meaningful games in September, followed by the glorious excitement of the post-season.

After seven straight years with a losing record, preceded by two historic collapses, which were themselves preceded by a heartbreaking playoff loss and countless other frustrating seasons, the New York Mets made it to the World Series, transforming what looked to be another dismal year of mediocrity into a joyful one filled with magical, unforgettable moments.

As I wrote after the season, it could be that we are on the verge of a new Mets' narrative
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.
Indeed, during the off season, Mets' ownership made some remarkably deft moves -- letting Daniel Murphy go and replacing him at second with the very solid Neil Walker; acquiring Asdrubal Cabrera to play short to allow Mets' folk hero Wilmer Flores to play more of a utility role for which he is well suited; and, most important of all, signing last year's star catalyst Yoenis Cespedes to anchor the batting order. 

While it is true that I can't help but get excited for Spring Training every year, there hasn't been a season since the late 1980s when I have been this excited about my team's prospects.  No more cautious optimism -- I'm all in on the new Met narrative.  Sure, with such high expectations comes the risk of even greater disappointment. But, after all, it is still only Spring.  And, as the late, great Joaquin Andujar summed up the beauty of baseball, as he put it, "in one word:  you never know."


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