Baseball fans – and particularly Mets fans, I think – are a lot like dogs: if something happens once, it happens all the time, every time. It becomes instant tradition. It seems that’s how the Baseball Gods want it. We Mets fans used to listen to Ralph Kiner on the broadcasts and he would bluntly point out that in baseball circles, once you get “labeled” as a certain kind of hitter/player/personality, it’s incredibly difficult to shed that tag or alter that perception. It’s that way with franchises, too. Sometimes, it takes an entire physical uprooting to shake it. Take the St. Louis Browns, for instance. One of the charter American League teams, they spent 52 seasons defining the word “hapless.” They built a reputation for ineptitude that was impossible to surmount. They mounted a pennant challenge to the Yankees – in 1922, when that team was in the nascent phase of their first dynasty – and won one pennant. That was in 1944, during World War II, when all the “real” players were overseas. They didn’t start to get good until ownership moved the team to Baltimore after the 1953 season, where they became contenders within ten years as the Orioles. Similarly, the Washington Senators spent 60 years as an AL doormat, so famous for losing that a smash Broadway musical was written about how unlikely a Capitol pennant would be, how only supernatural metaphysical forces could bring one about. As it turned out, all it took was a couple of moving vans and a new stadium in Minnesota to turn them into contenders within two seasons.
What does this have to do with the Mets and the situation they find themselves in at the moment, you might well ask? In this age of social media and instant news, everything.
As this is written, the Mets are on the brink of elimination from the playoffs. Max Scherzer was beaten to a pulp, surrendering four home runs in four-plus innings to a San Diego Padres team that hadn’t hit home runs all season. A week and a half ago, this situation would have been unfathomable. The Mets were in control, hurtling towards a 100-plus-win season. An NL East title and a first-round playoff bye were inevitable. The last week of the season would be a coronation, rather than a contest. After all, all they had to do was go win one game in Atlanta to all but sew up the division. Never mind the fact that the Mets don’t exactly have a reputation for that sort of thing: this year is different. Never mind the fact that Atlanta brilliantly made up a 10.5 game deficit from June 1 onward: this year is different. Never mind the fact that since September 2 – Friday of Labor Day weekend – the Mets could only manage a 14-10 record against five non-playoff teams, including a ghastly 2-8 record at home vs. Washington, the Chicago Cubs and Miami: this year is different. Never mind the fact that their offense had been in a funk longer than that, going back to a series at home against the Phillies in mid-August somehow managing to win it, scoring all of eight runs: this year is different. Never mind the fact that neither Scherzer nor Jacob deGrom had looked like their normal world-beating selves in several starts: they were lined up to finally put the Braves in the review mirror. The Baseball Gods would have none of it, though, having the Atlantans steamroll the Mets right into the Truist Park turf.
Or as my Braves’ fan friend said months ago, “Mets gonna Met.” And right there is a problem.
We all know this, but for any novice Mets fans reading this, this is a franchise that has lived under a cloud for a very, very long time. It could be traced back to the beginning, when they were born old: an expansion team that went about it the wrong way right from the beginning. Fans were happy to have NL baseball back in New York after the Dodgers and Giants moved to sunny California – their fortunes not necessitating a move like St. Louis and Washington, but they moved anyway. Some could trace it back to the 1970s when the Mets traded two Hall-of-Fame pitchers in their prime for bags of peanut shells. As recently as three years ago, I heard from a Yankee fan friend, “It’s karma with you guys! You traded Nolan Ryan!” Never minding the fact that Ryan had been retired for 20 years and most of the principals involved in that particular deal are dead. For me, the air of misfortune and doom that envelops this club actually goes back to the time of their greatest glory. They emerged as a fearsome contender in 1984 and were the juggernaut of the NL East for five years, either winning the division or falling just short, with at least 90 wins every season, and if there had been a Wild Card back then… They won 108 and a thrilling World Series in 1986 and notched their third 100-win season in 1988. Facing the Dodgers in the NLCS that year, they had taken two of the first three games and were on the verge of going up 3-1 in the ninth inning of game four when Dwight Gooden couldn’t locate a fastball to Mike Scioscia who hit a home run – he wasn’t supposed to hit home runs, either, by the way. The Dodgers won that game in 12 innings and won the series in seven games. It’s been said that that home run set the Mets’ franchise back 10 years. That may not be too wrong, because it seems like ever since then, the Mets just haven’t been quite… enough. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, but nothing ever seems to work. They tried spending big, rebuilding the team via free agency. You know the old saw about how when even the most mediocre player goes to the Yankees – “puts on the pinstripes” – he immediately becomes a clutch world beater? Well, it seems like the inverse is true for the Mets: they acquired genuine Hall-of-Fame players who, somehow, forgot to play upon donning the orange and blue. They tried the long process of developing their own, homegrown talent. The kids all got hurt or didn’t live up to their minor-league notices – look up “Generation K” on Wikipedia. And then, long down the line from that, when contention and respectability came calling again, they choked it away two years in a row, or need I mention “seven-up-with-seventeen-to-play?”
The problem is that series like the one in Atlanta and games like game one of the 2022 Wild Card round will go a long way to cementing that narrative – “Mets gonna Met” – into the collective consciousness. The narrative becomes hard fact, 101 wins notwithstanding. All that will be remembered is the last week of the season and the early playoff exit. One fan online moaned “It doesn’t matter. It’s the Mets. If Scherzer were on the Padres, he would have shut the Mets down and if Yu Darvish were on the Mets, he’d have been the one getting lit up.” In my despondency after WC game one, I posted on Facebook “The most hollow 101 wins ever.” I was taken to task online, and yes, there is game two tonight, with deGrom on the mound at home, so the odds of a comeback are decent. If there isn’t one, though, it will be a long, cold winter.
And we will never hear the end of it.