Friday, September 11, 2015

Lapsed: Confessions of a Mets Fan

I’m a Mets fan.

Actually, I don’t know if that’s true. Anytime I express my allegiance when baseball is concerned, I’d say that I’m a “lapsed” Mets fan. I used to see the team just about all the time. My family had season tickets for a number of years, covering three seats on Sundays in the loge section at Shea Stadium. These days, it’s a challenge to get one ticket to a game at Citi Field, what with the fees and prices for seats, food, etc.

I would present myself as a “lapsed” fan because I couldn’t imagine supporting any other team, yet I wasn’t fully on the Mets’ side. I’ve grown to hate Yankees fans, a group I imagine to be one-third bandwagon hoppers, coasting on the team’s 27 World Series titles. Personally, I only count the championships won in my lifetime. That way, the Yankees are merely up 7-2 on the Mets, and that’s less daunting than 27-2. Also, the Yankees have been playing since 1903, so they had a healthy headstart on the Mets by six decades.

I also consider myself “lapsed” because I couldn’t pick out most of the Mets out individually. Sure, identifying Bartolo Colon – the team’s husky fortysomething pitcher -- would be a breeze, as would singling out the magnificent hair of Jacob deGrom and Noah “Thor” Syndergaard.  But ask me to point out David Wright, the guy who signed a long-term deal with the club because he wanted to win as a Met? I don’t think I could identify him. Pitching wunderkind Matt Harvey? No dice. In the last decade and a half, I’ve burned more brain cells remembering stuff like names and faces of reality show contestants. As the Mets stopped being a “must see” team, they didn’t become a priority for me. I went to two games at Citi Field when it first opened (one of which I wrote about), then it took me six years to get back.

Like most fans of moribund franchises, I tended to identify more with the Mets’ past. In particular, the time between when I first started following the team (1983, at age 7) and the 1990 squad. From 1984-1990, the Mets had the best record in the majors. I went from seeing a perennial cellar dweller to watching a team that managed to contend deep into the season. Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling, Dwight Gooden (aka “Dr. K”), Gary Carter . . . those were salad days for many Mets fans. The team peaked in 1986, when they ran away with the National League East crown with a 108-54 record, winning two-thirds of their games. They wound up beating the Houston Astros in a fiery six-game National League Championship Series, climaxing with a 16-inning Game 6. After that came the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, where they rallied from a two-game deficit to force the Series back to Shea. With the team down 3-2 in Game 6, and trailing Boston 5-3 in the tenth inning, I couldn’t bear the watch my team lose. What do you want from me? I was ten years old. I wound up missing the Mets tying the game in the bottom of the tenth through three singles (Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, Ray Knight) and a wild pitch. I did get to see Mookie Wilson roll a ground ball that scooted under the glove of Bill Buckner. It was way past my bedtime that Saturday night, but I didn’t care. The Mets wound up winning the World Series two nights later. To say I was thrilled was an understatement.

As I grew older, I figured that 1986 might have been a bit of a fluke. At the time, I didn’t know about “The Curse of the Bambino” that brought nothing but bad luck for the Red Sox and their fans prior to 2004. I figured that the Mets were jinxed . . . not in the way that the Cubs and Indians disappointed their rooters, but cursed just the same. In my head, the Mets’ first title in 1969 came in a year where anything could happen; where man could walk on the moon, a cocky quarterback from an upstart league could win a Super Bowl, and a franchise that couldn’t win more than 73 games in a season could win 100, sweep the inaugural NLCS (which nobody talks about), and beat the Baltimore Orioles (109 wins) in five games. 1986? The Red Sox and their fans hadn’t suffered enough. To me, the Mets were a hard luck franchise that puttered out at the worst moments:

  • 1973: The Mets managed an 82-79 season, which is still the weakest record of a World Series-bound team. Look below the surface, and you’ll see a team suffering from bad luck and injuries, rallied by relief pitcher Tug McGraw’s war cry of “You Gotta Believe!” The Mets wound up clinching the NL East on the last day of the season, took it to the limit against the Cincinnati Reds, and came within one game of beating the powerhouse Oakland Athletics because succumbing in seven games.
  • 1988: See 1986, minus eight wins. Also, the Mets hit a speed bump in a Los Angeles Dodgers team that wouldn’t go down without a fight in the NLCS. The Mets led two games to one and were within striking distance of going to 3-1. Instead, the Dodgers went to Los Angeles with a 3-2 lead, and they wound up winning the series in seven games, en route to a five-game World Series victory over the A’s.
  • 1999: This was a wild year for the Mets. They forced a tie for the wild card with the Red by beating the Pirates on the last day of the season at Shea. The next day, Al Leiter pitched a two-hit shutout in Cincinnati, clinching the wild card berth. The day after that, they went to Arizona, where Edgardo Alfonzo’s grand slam led to an 8-4 in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.  Three days, three games, three cities, three victories. The Mets took out the Diamondbacks in four games, only to fall behind 3-0 to the Atlanta Braves (one of whom I’ve said my piece about). The Mets hung tough, forcing a Game 6 in Atlanta, thanks to Robin Ventura’s “grand single” in Game 5, but the Braves wound up winning that game and the series because Kenny Friggin’ Rogers (no, the other one) couldn’t find the strike zone, walking in the decisive run.
  • 2000: The Mets got the wild card once again, and they wound up beating the Giants (in four games) and Cardinals (in five) to advance to the World Series. Unfortunately, they had to face the Yankees in the first postseason “Subway Series” since 1956. The Yankees wound up winning their 26th title, 4-1.
  • 2006: I barely remember this year. I don’t recall the Mets having the best record in the National League, nor can I recollect on their sweep of the Dodgers in the NLDS. All I can remember is Game 7 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, where Yadier Molina homered in the top of the ninth inning to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead. He had six during the regular season. In the bottom of the inning, the Mets rallied, loading the bases for Carlos Beltr├ín. He wound up looking at a third strike, which knocked the Mets out of the playoffs.
There are so many other indicators that the Mets are a star-crossed team. Dwight Gooden’s drug use, Daryl Strawberry’s off-field issues, the freak hedge clipper accident that almost ended the career of Bob Ojeda in 1988, the epic collapses in 2007 and 2008 which knocked them out of postseason contention, the latter taking place as the last game at Shea was being played  . . . I could go on. And the team’s legacy pales to that of the Yankees, a franchise with twenty retired uniform numbers. By comparison, the Mets have retired three . .  . and none of them were as euphoric as your typical Yankees’ ceremony. Manager Casey Stengel (37) broke his hip in 1965; Gil Hodges (14) dropped dead of a heart attack in 1972 and had his number retired the following year; and Tom Seaver (41) call it quits in 1987 after a third stint as a Met was aborted following a simulated game.

You might ask: How am I handling the Mets’ sudden success? With trepidation. I still remember the last-day-of-the-season crashes from 2007 and 2008. Even with the Mets up 7 ½ games on the Washington Nationals (as I write this), I don’t feel that things will be cut and dried until the season is over and the Mets going into the playoffs for the first time in nine years. If they advance, they would have to face a Dodgers rotation anchored by Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. Beyond that would be a team from the National League Central that will have a better record than the Mets; either the Cardinals, Cubs or Pirates. And if they make it to the World Series (fingers crossed, knock on wood, etc.), they would have to start things on the road (stupid “All-Star Game Means Something”). They could face Toronto and R.A. Dickey, the Cy Young Award winner they cut loose after 2012. Or maybe they’d face the surprisingly good Astros in a rematch of the 1986 NLCS. Or maybe a second Subway Series with the Yankees. So many possibilities. .  . but I try to keep a level head.

I wound up going to Citi Field before the Mets exploded. The team seemed dead in the water, losing to the lowly Marlins. Since then, they’ve found their stride, and I find myself gawking at their highlights. Like Wilmer Flores hitting a walk-off homer days after almost being traded. And Stephen Matz debuting at Citi Field, drawing awe with his arm and bat. And Bartolo Colon’s various feats on the mound and at the plate. And Yoenis Cespedes, who is one great October away from Mets sainthood. For a team that might be jinxed, everything seems to be going right. I wound up getting a ticket to the team’s final game of the season, because I wanted to see the team at their best (that, and the 3 p.m. start time means I don’t have to get out of bed right away). Maybe I should remove the word “lapsed” from my identity.