Monday, November 2, 2015

Heartbreak

Ninety-nine percent of the time, this is what happens when we follow sports. This is what happens when we spend so much attention on a group of young and middle-aged men playing a funny, somewhat slow-paced game on roughly two and a half acres of quirkily shaped grass and dirt in what are basically pajamas. It doesn't even have to be baseball; it can be any sport. Every season ends sadly for twenty-nine of thirty teams, or thirty-one of thirty-two in football. But to get so close, to blow three leads with four, five, and three outs to go stings just a little bit more.

Whenever people find out that I am a Mets fan, they inevitably ask, "Why the Mets?" And they have a point. I was twenty-three years old before I lived farther east than Boulder, Colorado (excepting three years at a Virginia boarding school, which if anything was a den of Braves fans). I have never lived in the tri-state area (nor do I have any real desire to), and my only nearby relatives, my aunt and uncle and cousin, could hardly be described as baseball fans; they certainly had none of the influence on me that my Chicago-dwelling aunt did during my formative years as a basketball fan. No one else in my family, immediate or extended, is a Mets fan. I grew up during a time when they were frequently bad (six straight losing seasons from 1991-1996) and in a place where they were never on TV (Anchorage, Alaska) unless they were playing the Braves or Cubs on TBS or WGN. Seeing someone else wearing a Mets hat in Anchorage was like seeing a unicorn, to the point that when I did see another one on my elementary school playground during recess, I marched straight over to this kid, who also happened to be the only other kid who took his baseball glove out to recess (he was throwing a ball against the outer gym wall), and we became friends.

So yes, on the surface it seems odd. But the explanation is fairly simple. We were vacationing on the east coast, I believe for my dad's fifteenth college reunion, and on our travels stopped in Westchester to visit one of my dad's closest friends from college, Rob Karin, who being a year younger was not at the Dartmouth reunion festivities. Rob had two daughters roughly my age (I was almost six; Rachel would have been about a year older, Dana a year or so younger), and tickets to what I am pretty sure was this game that had been given to him by another law partner or something. There was another event scheduled for that evening, so we split into two groups, and I went to my first major league game that I can remember with Rachel and Dana and our mothers.* I had been to a Mariners game when we lived in Vancouver, BC, but I would have been a babe-in-arms at that point and thus remember absolutely nothing about that experience.

*Here are the details I remember: we sat in an upper level at Shea Stadium on the third-base side, roughly even with the bag; Dwight Gooden pitched for the Mets; they hit multiple home runs (if I picked the right box score, both were by Howard Johnson in the midst of his second 30-30 season), because I can distinctly recall the big red apple popping up at least twice; they won the game; and I walked out with a kids' jersey of (I believe) Gooden, and one of those souvenir helmets they serve ice cream in.

I was immediately and terminally hooked on baseball, and on the Mets, thanks to Rob Karin (ironically enough, a Yankees fan). From that day forward, I commandeered the sports page first thing in the morning to check box scores and standings (a mostly futile exercise beginning in 1991, when they lost Darryl Strawberry to the Dodgers and replaced him with Vince Coleman - ugh*), and obsessively charted statistics throughout the season. That was when a future sabermetrician was born, since again, I could only watch the Mets when they played Atlanta or Chicago, and the only other baseball available to me was Wednesday Night Baseball or Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN, which of course the sad-sack Mets were hardly ever on. So instead I parsed box scores and memorized whole sections of Total Baseball and The Baseball Encyclopedia. Hey, when you're nine or ten years old, you do what you can.

*Coleman was a sublime base stealer on the Busch Stadium artificial turf - leading the league in steals his first six years in the majors - before signing a four-year, $11.95 million contract with the Mets after the 1990 season, one of many regrettable deals for the team at the time. Not only was he frequently injured, he routinely ignored or fought physically with coaches, hurt Gooden's arm by swinging a golf club at him in the clubhouse, and tossed a live firecracker into a group of autograph-seeking kids in Los Angeles, injuring three of them. What an asshole. In retrospect, maybe signing an African-American baseball player who knew nothing about (and publicly cared to know nothing about) Jackie Robinson was a bad idea.

Baseball was practically all-consuming. I would play one-on-one games with my next-door neighbor (or two-on-two/three-on-three with other kids on our street) on our cul-de-sac, dragging out my parents' wheelbarrow and upending it to serve as a backstop. This was probably the germination of my coaching career, as I essentially taught Ashley (the girl next door) the game. If there was no one to play with, I threw a tennis ball or sponge baseball at our garage door for hours on end from the moment the driveway was clear of snow in mid-March until it became unplayable again in late October, at which point I moved inside and threw at a painter's tape strike zone across thirty feet of living room and laundry room throughout the winter. I kept that routine up even when I stopped playing organized baseball for three solid years as a direct result of playing for one of those stereotypical horrible "Little League dad" coaches. And every spring, when the edges of the lawn peeked out from under the snow piles at the edges of our sloping driveway, I was down there at the base of it, imagining I was Gooden or Bret Saberhagen or David Cone.

Being a Mets fan is often an exercise in self-flagellation, which may be why so many funny people are die-hard Mets fans.* Since I became a fan, they have made the playoffs four times (including this year) against fifteen losing seasons. Expand that to their entire 54-year history, and those numbers double to eight and thirty. The original Mets of 1962 were probably the worst team that has ever set foot on a baseball diamond, going an almost unfathomably bad 42-120 and becoming a punchline for ineptitude that is still relevant today. In those fifty-four years, the Mets have four separate streaks of six losing seasons in a row, the first two of which were seven seasons long: 1962-68, 1977-83, 1991-96, and 2009-14. Only once have they made the playoffs in consecutive seasons, in 1999 and 2000; in the first year, Kenny Rogers walked home the NLCS-winning run against the Braves; in the second, the Mets lost the World Series to the crosstown Yankees in an excruciatingly painful five-game set when no game was decided by more than two runs.

*An incomplete list: Jerry Seinfeld; Jon Stewart; Chris Rock; Jimmy Kimmel; Kevin James; Hank Azaria; Jim Breuer; Michael Price; Sal Iacono; and Bill Maher, who has gone so far as to buy a piece of the team. If that group did an ensemble roast of the Mets franchise, I would pay a significant amount of money to watch.

For all of their struggles, however, the Mets have never been boring. They have the theme song that was written before the team ever played a game. They have had characters: Casey Stengel, Marvelous Marv Throneberry, Tug McGraw, Lenny Dykstra, Benny Agbayani, Turk Wendell, Rickey Henderson, and Pedro Martinez. They have had phenoms (whether or not they panned out is another story): Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Matt Harvey. They have had brilliant stars: Tom Seaver, Strawberry, Mike Piazza, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, and David Wright. And they have had head cases: Vince Coleman, Bobby Bonilla (twice), Jose Offerman, and Lastings Milledge. Chief owner Fred Wilpon lost a zillion dollars with Bernie Madoff and will be paying Bonilla $1.2 MILLION PER YEAR UNTIL 2035,* yet is somehow the chairman of Major League Baseball's Finance Committee. They have baseball's first mascot, Mr. Met, who remains of the few memorable mascots in the game. They have a theme song that was written for the team before they ever played a game. They have the home run apple out in center field that rises up whenever a Met goes yard, the one aspect of old, decrepit Shea Stadium that Mets fans were nearly unanimous in demanding be carried over to Citi Field. There really never is a dull moment in Flushing Meadows.

*At which point Bonilla will be 72 years old, and 34 years removed from his final major league game, 36 years from his final game with the Mets. This is easily the greatest example of "KEEP GETTIN' DEM CHECKS!" in the history of professional sports.

That 2000 World Series almost matched this one for sheer agony. I was a senior at Woodberry Forest, living in one of three houses that served as dorms for a small number of students (ours had eighteen, mostly seniors). It was rarely visited by whichever faculty member was on duty that evening to make sure that boys were studying during study hall or going to bed at their appointed hour (midnight for seniors, ten-thirty or eleven for everyone else). The exception to the rule was Mr. Tom Parker, the English teacher who lived on the other side of our dorm (House A), and who happened to be an assistant coach for the baseball team. I stayed in our basement common room for each game with the lights off and the blinds down, so as not to attract suspicion from outside. During the third game of the series, like this one the only game that the Mets won, I was watching intently around midnight (by rights, I was supposed to be in my room at eleven, with lights off at midnight), when Mr. Parker walked in and saw I was watching the game. He stayed for the end of the inning (it was probably about the seventh), and then looked at his watch and told me "I'm doing my last rounds, and probably will be back here shortly after one. Make sure you're in bed by then." Thus he departed, and I was able to watch the Mets rally in the bottom of the eighth and hold on in a terrifying ninth during which mercurial closer Armando Benitez allowed a leadoff single to Chuck Knoblauch before retiring Luis Polonia, Derek Jeter, and David Justice.

I was surprised to learn a couple weeks ago that the Mets, despite their overall reputation and long strings of haplessness, actually lead all expansion teams in World Series appearances with five (the Royals, with their own shameful streak of seventeen losing seasons in eighteen years, are second with four such appearances). How fitting, I suppose, that in the first ever World Series between expansion teams, it was the two most successful such teams that met. And they were both fun teams, the Royals with their relentless lineup and extraordinary defense and indomitable bullpen, and the Mets with their flame-throwing young starters, an offense that looked like an entirely different outfit after the addition of Yoenis Cespedes, and of course, the transcendent performance of Daniel Murphy (of all people) in the NLDS and NLCS. But we're going to focus on the Mets here, since I am a Mets fan and this is a Mets-centric column, I am going to acknowledge and thank some of the key people who got the franchise to this point, where hopefully they can stay for the next few years.

Thank you to Omar Minaya, who was the general manager until 2010. While he may not have been perfect at putting together a dynamic major league roster (although that 2006 team was electric), he was always an outstanding judge of talent and potential, dating back to long before the Wilpons hired him. Minaya's regime drafted and signed the following players from the playoff roster: Jon Niese (2005, 7th round), Juan Lagares (signed 2006), Daniel Murphy (13th round, 2006), Wilmer Flores (signed 2007), Jeurys Familia (signed 2007), Lucas Duda (2007, 7th round), Hansel Robles (signed 2008), Kirk Nieuwenheis (2008, 3rd round), Steven Matz (2009, 2nd round), Matt Harvey (2010, 1st round), and Jacob deGrom (2010, 9th round), plus the injured Ruben Tejada (signed 2006). Almost half of this year's playoff roster dates to the Minaya regime, and the only one who predates him is David Wright. Minaya gets plenty of credit for stocking the farm system of his childhood team with so many contributors, especially later in the draft.

As long as we are talking about executives, thank you to Sandy Alderson, who took over from Minaya and patiently waited to put together a team built on the backs of a quintet of electric young arms: Harvey, deGrom, Matz, Noah Syndergaard, and Zack Wheeler. Those latter two are both shining examples of Alderson's trade acumen. He conned the Giants into forking over Wheeler, their top pitching prospect, for a two-month rental of Carlos Beltran in pursuit of back-to-back World Series rings (the Giants failed to make the playoffs). It's the sort of trade that you won't see again so long as the current collective bargaining structure remains in place, because an impending free agent such as Beltran cannot net the acquiring team a supplemental first-round draft pick if and when they sign somewhere else. As for Thor, he and catcher Travis d'Arnaud were the bounty that Alderson got when he sold high on 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, shipping the knuckleballer off to Toronto after a twenty-win season. Thanks to the development of the first three and the acquisition of Wheeler and Syndergaard, the Mets are poised to have five very talented starters with 95-plus-mph velocity whenever Wheeler rejoins after his Tommy John rehab (probably June or July), and the oldest among them, deGrom, will be 28 in June. Alderson also got the okay to make several significant trades that helped propel the Mets from a middling team with that dominant pitching staff but perhaps the weakest lineup in baseball to a two-way force that ran away with the National League East, acquiring Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard, and Addison Reed to plug the more gaping holes on the roster.

Alderson has been creative due to budget restraints imposed by the Wilpons due to their financial obligations as a result of the Madoff fiasco,* and will probably have to be similarly flexible this winter. Nine Mets are free agents now, and Alderson needs to find another bat, better infield defense, and some more reliable bullpen help while keeping the payroll below the MLB median. He also has to balance the desire to win now (which will be great) with the impending arrival of more cavalry from a top-five farm system that graduated five major contributors (Syndergaard, Matz, Kevin Plawecki, Michael Conforto, and Hansel Robles) to the big league club this summer. I myself would not expect the major free agents (Bartolo Colon, Cespedes, Clippard, Uribe, Johnson, and Murphy) to return, although the Mets might make a play for Colon or Cespedes. Hopefully Alderson has some more tricks up his sleeve for the hot stove season.

*It bears repeating; Fred Wilpon is the chairman of MLB's finance committee! How is that possible?

Thank you to Terry Collins, who provided stability and accountability as the manager for the past six seasons. If you were to draw up a composite manager from scratch, you would probably come up with Collins. He was an undersized, scrappy middle infielder who couldn't hit enough to crack the majors and who found a job managing in the organization that he last played in (the Dodgers). Collins has managed in the minors, in Mexico, in the Dominican Republic (Viva Licey!), in Japan, in independent ball, and two separate stints over the past two decades in the majors, first with the Astros and Angels in the nineties, and now with the Mets. Is he a great manager? No, but he certainly isn't a bad one, either. I won't fault him for changing his mind and sending Harvey back out for the ninth last night; his ace was on cruise control through the first eight innings, and a big part of managing (not just in baseball, but in any business) is having the ability to read your people and be flexible. Starting the inning with Harvey was not a bad idea. Leaving him in to face the tying run after walking Lorenzo Cain to lead off the inning was. I have said it so many times before; you cannot manage by the book (in this case, not removing Harvey because you may as well not have started the inning with him) in the playoffs, and particularly not in the ninth inning of an elimination game. In that situation you go batter to batter with your closer ready to come in the second anyone reaches. Still, Collins has fostered a good clubhouse culture (with the help of some veterans), and he deserves to be commended for that, as does his staff: Dan Warthen, Kevin Long, Tom Goodwin, Tim Teufel, Bob Geren, Ricky Bones, and Pat Roessler.

Thank you to good soldiers Jon Niese and Juan Lagares, who moved into lesser roles as a result of either promotion (Matz to take the place of Niese) or trade (Cespedes for Lagares), but still found ways to contribute during this run, Niese as the primary southpaw relief option and Lagares as a defensive replacement who also went 8-for-23 at the plate and scored seven of the nine times he got on base. Both guys will be back, and hopefully will continue their selfless, team-centered approach if necessary. Niese will probably be the fifth starter until Wheeler returns in June or July; depending on what moves the team makes over the winter, Lagares will either be back in center field on a full-time basis as possibly the best flycatcher in the National League, or an overqualified fourth outfielder.

Thank you to Michael Conforto, whose late-July promotion to the Show was one of the sparks that pushed the Mets to the top of the NL East. Conforto was the top college bat in last year's draft, but he fell to the Mets with the tenth pick because he was viewed as limited to left field, and mediocre there at best. In the space of a year, he has become an above-average left fielder, and he looks like a potential middle-of-the-order force for years to come. Collins wisely stuck with him through an 0-for-20 slump this fall, during which Conforto kept having good at-bats and zipping lots of line drives that found gloves. I was particularly impressed with the coolness he showed last night with his team down to their final strike against the best relief pitcher in baseball, eventually ripping a single. His future is bright.

Thank you to the two rookies in the rotation, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, neither of whom appeared to be the least bit intimidated by the big stage and bright lights of the playoffs and World Series. Syndergaard, a.k.a. Thor, punched out twenty-six batters in nineteen playoff innings and made a statement pitch to Royals leadoff man Alcides Escobar to start Game Three. Oh, he just turned 23 in August. Matz is a great story by himself, a Long Islander and lifelong Mets fan who missed three years of baseball after he was drafted due to Tommy John surgery and a variety of other injuries. When he finally broke into the majors a couple of months ago, he had a debut for the ages, striking out six in seven and two-thirds while going three-for-three at the plate with a double and four RBI. Both of them should be fixtures in the Mets' rotation going forward.

All of these young pitchers need help from the guys they throw the ball to, and both Travis d'Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki showed this year that they are adept at stealing strikes for their pitchers, pitches which can change the courses of at-bats or even whole games. d'Arnaud in particular impressed in the playoffs with his framing of low strikes, a great skill to have when all four primary starters feature good-to-great breaking balls. It doesn't hurt that both of them can hit; a healthy d'Arnaud is probably a top-five offensive catcher in baseball, and Plawecki, though he struggled in his rookie year, is expected to be an above-average hitter with doubles power. Both are young; d'Arnaud is 26, Plawecki 24. They will be growing up with their young staff, and have already shown a lot so far.

Thank you to Jeurys Familia, who will go down in history as the first person to blow three saves in the World Series, which is unfair since two of those were the result of fielding mistakes behind him. The twenty-six-year-old Familia wasn't even supposed to be the Mets' closer this year, but two Jenrry Mejia steroid suspensions pushed him into the job and he responded authoritatively, slamming the door each and every time he was called upon between late July and Alex Gordon's home run in the ninth inning of Game One. It wasn't his fault that first Murphy and then Duda botched fairly simple plays that enabled Royals comebacks; he had a terrific season and appears set as the Mets' closer.

Thank you to Lucas Duda, who before literally throwing away the game last night had developed over the past few years from a replacement-level corner outfielder and first baseman into a serious power threat who can hit enough to stay in the lineup every day. As recently as last spring there were serious questions about whether he was playable on any team aspiring to contention; the last two seasons have proven that yes, he is. Sure, he will strike out plenty, and his defense at first is nothing to write home about. But he looks like a good bet for sixty or so extra-base hits a year, plenty of walks, and enough presence that opposing managers will think twice about letting him face anyone right-handed in the later innings.

Thank you to Yoenis Cespedes, whose arrival at the trade deadline (after failed deals for Carlos Gomez and Jay Bruce) was the match that lit a fire under an offense that had been dormant all season long. While I believe that the arguments in favor of Cespedes for MVP are impossibly silly, he did hit seventeen home runs in just two months in his audition for a big free agent contract. He scuffled in the World Series, kicking away two balls that should have been outs and striking out twice as often as he got on base, but without Cespedes there is no World Series, and maybe no playoffs.

Speaking of the Cespedes trade, I will forever have a soft spot for Wilmer Flores, who found out that he was going to be included in the botched Gomez trade not from Alderson or Collins, but from fans during the eighth inning of a game, leading to the famous shot of the twenty-three-year-old shortstop, who signed with the Mets as a teenager, crying on the field and in the dugout. Flores had always been a Met and didn't want to leave, and just a couple days later, when he hit an extra-innings walk-off bomb to start off a sweep of Washington that propelled the Mets into first place, his popularity among Mets fans was cemented. You know you have a good team culture when guys are crying on the field because they have found out they are about to get traded. He may not be a great shortstop (the glove is sub-optimal), but he will always be a part of Mets lore.

I have to believe that a major factor in that team culture is the presence of Curtis Granderson, one of the most likable players in the entire sport. The hard-working and eloquent outfielder was the Mets' most consistent performer throughout the postseason, getting on base from the leadoff spot and banging three home runs against the Royals, while also running down just about everything in right field. Granderson will be a Met for two more seasons, and even though aspects of his game are declining as he approaches his thirty-fifth birthday, he was the best everyday player on the team this year.

Thank you to the human marvel that is Bartolo Colon, who somehow is still chugging along at forty-two while throwing his ninety-mph fastball eighty-five percent of the time. Even more entertaining than his pitching, however, are his exploits (and occasional foibles) at the plate (he and Madison Bumgarner are the two best arguments against a National League DH, although for entirely different reasons) and in the field, and the way that the five-eleven, two hundred and eighty-five-pound barrel of laughs refuses to take himself too seriously. Many people throughout baseball wrote him off as too fat and washed up eleven years ago, yet here he is, still going strong. The last time Colon was on a team that reached the World Series, he was playing with Orel Hershiser and an almost young (well, 38) Julio Franco; that was on the 1997 Indians.

Thank you to late bloomer Jacob deGrom, who has risen from near obscurity (he was a light-hitting shortstop for the Stetson Hatters in college) to become one of the five or ten best pitchers in the National League. deGrom, all arms and legs and (soon to be shorn) flowing hair, has been terrific ever since he was called up last year, and his emergence is a big reason why the Mets' pitching staff went from good to potentially great. Sure, he's already 27 and unlikely to make another leap, but he's pretty good as is.

Even though he rather predictably came back to earth after his otherworldly NLDS and NLCS, thank you to Daniel Murphy, who put the Mets on his back through two playoff rounds in which he burned brighter than the sun. Murphy is another consummate team player, quick to credit his teammates and willing to play anywhere in the field that the Mets asked him to. He is yet another in a long line of players on this team that no one expected to amount to anything as major leaguers, and he is about to make a substantial amount of money in free agency this winter.

Thank you to Matt Harvey, who hopefully shut up all of the people talking about his innings limit with his fiery demand to go back out for the ninth last night. Up until Cain took ball four, Harvey had been a tour de force for the Mets in an elimination game, especially during the fourth and fifth innings, when he sandwiched six strikeouts around a walk to Gordon. Harvey believes he can be the best pitcher in baseball, and he was certainly presenting an argument two years ago before tearing his UCL and going under the knife. The Dark Knight was terrific this season; hopefully he will be even better next year as his rebuilt elbow continues to get stronger.

Most of all, thank you to the Mets' captain, David Wright, who at this point is rather inarguably the best position player in franchise history. Still just 32, Captain America is the team's all-time leader in every counting stat except games played (second), triples (ninth), and stolen bases (fourth), and three years ago he committed to the franchise for essentially the rest of his career, signing an extension that will keep him in blue and orange through 2020. Wright grew up a Mets fan in the Virginia tidewater region back when the team's AAA affiliate was in Norfolk, then was drafted by them in the first round back in 2001. He debuted in 2005 and was still a fresh-faced young star the last time the Mets made the playoffs, nine years ago. Alderson and the Wilpons got him to believe in their rebuilding process, and it gave me chills to see him hit a home run in his first World Series plate appearance at home in Game Three. Wright has always been a model of class, and last night showed it once again, leading his team back out to the field to salute the remaining fans. Mets fans can't help but love him.

I can only hope that the brutal meltdowns of Games One, Three, and Five serve the same motivational purpose that last year's Game Seven did for the 2015 Royals, that the young pitchers don't suffer any major injuries or hangover from getting extended so far beyond their previous career highs in innings (a cumulative 156-plus for the quartet of Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, and Matz), and that the offense stays strong enough to give the pitching staff a chance. Both the Mets and their NLCS opponents, the Cubs, appear to be set up strong for the next few years with boatloads of young talent; barring a return by Colon, the Mets should only be relying on two players (Wright and Granderson) older than thirty in 2015. These Mets look better positioned than the Mets of the Minaya era (which apart from Wright and Jose Reyes relied heavily on older players) or the Mets from the turn of the century (a team that was propped up largely by the might of Piazza). It's a great time to be a Mets fan right now, if not necessarily a great day, and I hope all my comrades in arms out there feel the same way. Ya gotta believe!